The plane had just landed on the tiny island of Papeete in Tahiti.
Fingers trembling, I pulled out my Blackberry 6510.
My armpits were damp and my heart was beating violently through my chest.
I hit power on and the LED on the top right corner immediately flashed red.
I stared as the messages started cascading into the pixelated grey screen.
They kept coming. And coming. And coming.
The longest 8 minutes of my life.
When it was all said and done, I assessed the damage.
1,274 unread messages.
You see, I had done the unthinkable.
I hadn’t checked my email for 2 weeks. Not once.
After all, it was my honeymoon.
(But this was in 2012, before y’all millennials came along demanding work-life balance.)
As someone striving to get promoted to Managing Director, I was expected to respond to email 24/7.
It didn’t matter if it was Super Bowl weekend. Or if I was in the maternity ward.
There were serious career ramifications for not checking your email.
So how did I gather the chutzpah to pull such a career limiting move?
One word: Leverage.
I always get asked, “Khe, why are you so obsessed with productivity?”
In my twenties, the answer was simple (and embarrassingly naive). I wanted to make more money.
Anchored by the belief that time equals money, I tried to free up as much time as possible using things like keyboard shortcuts, email filters and task managers. (Remember, this was longggg before the iPhone.)
Yet my youthful naivete quickly revealed itself.
First, I was a salaried employee. Which means that getting your work done 10% faster than your colleague rarely means getting paid 10% more.
And even if that efficiency improved your performance ranking (and got you a bigger bonus) – it was still subject to the law of diminishing returns.
After all, an employee who is 10x more efficient never gets paid 10x as much as their average-ranked peer.
Long before I had coined the $10,000/hr work framework, I recognized the limitations of the left side of the $10K matrix.
Yet there was an unintended benefit to obsessing over productivity systems.
I worried a lot less than my colleagues.
My deadlines rarely fell through the cracks. I was always the fastest to find the key piece of data. And I developed a mantra: I was going to be my boss’ Advil. His fixer; his Wolf.
So I created systems that enabled me to always stay one-step ahead of my boss – anticipating his demands, proactively putting out his fires, and making him look good.
But once again, I found myself deeply entrenched in the land of $10 and $100/hr work.
As I looked around the firm at with rocketship careers, I realized that I’d need to jump to my next lily pad: $1,000/hr work.
The land of unique expertise and high-skilled work.
But here’s where the productivity playbook started to wither. Being obsessed with productivity doesn’t help you acquire unique skills. No app can give you the skills to be indispensable at work.
It turned out that productivity apps, Getting Things Done and Text Expanders were worthless allies in the pursuit of $1,000/hr work.
So what did move the needle?
$1,000/hr work required a shift from efficiency to effectiveness.
A shift from short-termism to playing the long game.
A shift away from drinking from the firehose towards being precise about allocating your precious energy.
But mostly, it was the unsexy, time-intensive process of putting one foot in front of the other. A path with no shortcuts.
Well, not exactly.
Something fortuitous happened along the way.
I would soon get a taste of the deliciousness that would later be come to be known as $10,000/hr work.
It happened in 2010, when I became a manager for a 10 person team. (The type of promotion when you’re managing people who are much older than you.)
I was 31 years old and immediately purchased the then-most recommended book on leadership: Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.
I mean just the name, should’ve been a dead giveaway. Early in the book, Wiseman writes:
“Multipliers invoke each person’s unique intelligence and create an atmosphere of genius—innovation, productive effort, and collective intelligence.”
As I returned to the question – Khe, why are you so obsessed with productivity – I realized, that I had been thinking about way too narrowly.
All those years, the question had been through the lens of Khe. Me. What could I get out of it?
But leveling up productivity actually meant making everyone around you better. (And yes, more productive too.)
It meant staying late to work through a tough situation.
It required a commitment to your one-on-ones to develop trust.
It took investing into your colleagues’ outcomes – whether it was getting them promoted, ensuring psychological safety or helping them with their business school applications.
I once received the timeless advice: Never underestimate the power of someone who genuinely cares.
So back to the 1,274 emails. My team wanted me to go off the grid. We had the systems, workflows and contingency plans in place in case anything went awry.
But most importantly: They had my back. Because they knew I had theirs.
$10,000/hr work is not some strange method of working like a cyborg with automations, hacks and complex systems.
It’s actually the exact opposite.
It’s about deliberate care and love for other humans – whether they’re your colleagues, clients, suppliers, kids, partners, and BFFs.
And therein lies the beauty. It’s actually not about you. It’s about everyone but you.
Supercharge Your Productivity is build on the premise that productivity can only take you so far. The rest comes from your mindset, wisdom – and most importantly, what’s in your heart.
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