Are You an M.O. Snob?

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I write really slowly. Always have. Which became a problem back in law school…

In the first year of law school, your grade for an entire year in many classes is based on a single exam. And, most exams were essay. Old school, handwritten, blue-book style. The exam would offer a 10-page fact-pattern scenario, followed by a single question that read:

Please identify every potential cause of action, the parties involved, the arguments on both sides, the applicable laws, then resolve each one and explain your reasoning.


You’d get about 3-hours. Most people would read the fact patterns, then about 20-minutes in, start furiously filling the pages of blue-books with everything they could think of.

Not me. I couldn’t. I write so slowly that I knew I didn’t have the time to spew a mountain of words onto the page and trust that most hit the mark. While most people around me ended up filling 5-10 blue books, my cap was about one.

For me, every word needed to hit the mark.

So, I got into the habit of reading the scenarios, then just sitting quietly. Often for two of the three allotted hours. Thinking. Ruminating. Formulating, constructing, arguing and resolving in my head, with only the occasional note to recall my process when it was time to write. My M.O.—modus operandi—was almost entirely internal. It had to be, because I knew, once it became external and I began to write, every word had to count.

It got to the point where those around me got freaked out on a fairly regular basis…

They were either concerned that I’d frozen under pressure or confused and annoyed by the relatively small volume of content I would generate, compared to them. And, truth be told, it freaked me out, too, walking to the front of the room to turn in my single blue book, while those around me handed in stacks of the same made me question my own process.

But, that was my personal M.O.—my “modus operandi. My authentic process.

And, I knew from prior experience that when I relented to the pressure to do what everyone was doing simply because that’s what everyone was doing, it always ended in frustration and disaster.

Interestingly enough, this same process has become a large part of the way I operate today on a professional/entrepreneurial level.

I have developed a reputation for “coming out of nowhere…”

To me, that’s kind of laughable. No such occurrence.

Because, while people see me hit the ground running at an unusual clip for a newbie, what they don’t see is the massive amount of quiet research, study and practice that has gone on internally, often behind closed doors for days, weeks, months or years before.

And, I’ve discovered, too, that my M.O. is so different from most people that it can lead to conflict…

Because we all tend to think that everyone operates similarly to the way we operate. And, we also generally believe the way WE do things is the BEST way! It’s gotten us this far in life, so why wouldn’t everyone do everything the way we do it…the best way?

We don’t acknowledge or validate the M.O.s of those around us, because they’re so different from ours.

How often have you found yourself asking someone or silently wondering, “why in the world are you doing it THAT way?” And, the answer is often, because that’s THEIR M.O. It’s the way they operate, their personal problem-solving, lifehacking, moving forward style.

You may not like or agree with it. And, yours may, in fact, BE better in terms of productivity or objective results.

But their process is an integral part of who they are. If you attack it…you attack them.

If you take a moment to step back, acknowledge and try to understand the difference in operational style, you’ll have a much better chance of

  • (a) discovering why someone’s doing what they’re doing,
  • (b) working together more effectively, and
  • (c) maybe even bringing them around to explore whether they can get comfortable trying out your process, if you believe and can demonstrate it truly is “better” and not just different.

So, for example, because my process is hugely internal, I spend a lot of time in what appears, from the outside, to be time “lost in contemplation.” But, in reality, what’s happening on the inside is an intensive analytic process (okay, so maybe I spend a solid chunk of time just zoning out too, hey, I’m only human!).

What most people do on paper goes down largely in my head.

That can leave those around me (read “mindblowingly cool, rockstar wife”) wondering why I seem to be slacking off or stalled for extended periods of time, when in reality, there’s a ton of work and progress going on, but it’s happening in a way that is hard to see or validate from the outside.

Knowing that my wife’s process is almost the exact opposite from mine, then, I try to check in with her and let her know what’s going on in my inner world on a regular basis.

When I can remember to do that, we both end up pretty content.

And, when I don’t…things don’t go nearly as smoothly.

So, I’m curious, what’s YOUR M.O.?

What’s your big picture process?

Does it match well with those closest to you or strongly conflict?

And, how do YOU handle this?

Let’s discuss…

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18 responses

18 responses to “Are You an M.O. Snob?”

  1. It’s not so bad to write slowly. It means you deliberate carefully over each word, which probably leads you to write more concisely than most people. Those who rush to write down everything they can think of are probably writing a lot of nonsense that should have been better left out. Writing slowly, carefully and concisely are the marks of a true writer.

  2. I work exactly the same way you do and I know that it can drive other people crazy. Some even think I’m lazy. But just because I’m chilling in the sun and sipping a drink doesn’t mean I’m not thinking business, right?

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  4. Adam White says:

    My M.O is visual thinking. I didn’t come to full embrace this until after University. I met some people at a conference who use mind maps to organize thoughts. I thought this was great and latched on. It feels very natural to me.

    Visual thinking can drive some people crazy. Some people do not like think visually they prefer more checklist, linear representations. When presenting or chairing a meeting I’ve learned to adjust my style to those in the room.

  5. Knowing your MO is the only way you get to do great work, which is why I love this post.

    You’ve gotta figure out what you head, heart and body needs to do great work – and then you’ve gotta either put those things in place or just let them happen.

    For me, I have to give myself the enough space for the ideas to coalesce. That could happen in an hour or a week, but unless I let it happen I know I will have missed something important.

  6. Ed Gaile says:

    Jonathan – I was reading this and thought you were talking about me. I am very much the same way. I internalize much of my research, study, and planning. Some people see this as procrastination and it drives my “awesome/rockstar” wife crazy (as she is very list oriented, write it all down on paper,super organized). But then all of a sudden – Bam I have something done/figured out/project well under way. I do my best work with a little bit of pressure (similar to your test taking example) or maybe I function better in a state of semi-chaos. But you are right – everyone’s MO is different and if you can identify/embrace what yours is, it can make life a lot less frustrating.

  7. Michelle says:

    Hi Jonathan

    This one resonates. Not because I have a similar M.O. to you – at least not that I’m aware of – but for the reminder that one’s M.O. for moving forward with life is about as individual as the individual it resides in.

    I need to write to think. I do think without writing but I tend to get caught up in elusive fantasies more when that happens and don’t elucidate or articulate my thought patters well if I need to verbalise them in any way.

    When I write as I think however, such as I am doing with this reply, it feels calmer, more coherent, easier to clarify the

  8. Michelle says:

    …darn… hit an errant key! One of the drawbacks of writing and thinking too hard without controlling where the hands are on the keyboard! … to continue..

    …easier to clarify the threads of reason and imagination.

    I might not get the spelling or grammar always right, but the process of writing and editing as I go helps me move forward in my own way. I learn as much as I wish to teach by writing as I think.

    ps.. that would be “pattern” btw in the above post! *sigh* No edit button? 🙂 I’ll be more careful in the future then!

  9. Justin C. says:

    I’m a real night owl and I do my best work from about 10pm to as late as 4am. Now granted if I have to be at a meeting or be at work I go to bed early but that’s how I roll. And thanks to you Jonathan and Gary Vee I realize that I don’t have to be ashamed of that.

  10. It’s so important to think about why other people do what they do AND to think about why we do what we do. Effective communication makes the world such a better place, and understanding others’ and our own MOs, will help people understand one another better.

    I’m very organized and I always have a method for doing things. I also like to do things very quickly and I hate procrastinating, which can be very frustrating to others at times.

  11. Enrique S says:

    My M.O. is to always shake things up and push the envelope. I find that my path to creativity is to stand things on end. I’ll get an idea on the fly, and find myself trying to gather my thoughts rather quickly. I need to see my thoughts on paper or the screen, and I constantly revise my writing until I think it looks right.

  12. Up2Eleven says:

    I’m half and half. I process a great deal in my head and I’ll tear through the internet and books to research information on something. I need to write some things down along the way to keep me on track, as my mind tends to run off on tangents. Once I’ve explored a tangent, I need a reminder to bring me back to the core topic or idea.

    However, these are generally very short notes that look mostly like to-do lists, but are actually to-remember lists.

    Most of the processing happens in my head: coalescing the ideas, feeling them out and discarding the ones that don’t “gel”, and honing everything down to condensed, info-rich packets.

    This process has hurt me too, because if I ever want to write a book, I’m going to have to throw in a lot of what I consider unnecessary info to fill up pages. I tend to do all the mental work and then produce short, quick, “here’s how you get this done” info. Perhaps I need to stick to formats other than full books…

  13. Lisa, Seconf Year Law Student- Former Sonic Yoga Teacher Training Student says:


    I could not agree more. I took Your teacher training class back around 2005. I unfortunately took it while working and didn’t finish but I loved your classes and never would have thought that I’d end up in law school two years later. I cannot agree more with this post. I found that first year I would type absolutely everything I knew about the law in my exam- feeling the clock ticking and the pressure on me. I now do most of the writing I had done before in my head and write slowly and try to develop clear and concise ideas. I now practice yoga in AZ at At One Yoga, another studio that is owned by a former lawyer…hmmm I’m noticing a trend! Although I chose the yoga to law route instead of vice versa I find that yoga keeps me sane and stress free. I have brought so many law students and one lawyer I work for to yoga and I cannot tell you how much it has changed their lives…I look forward to checking out your yoga videos. Thank you again for all of your help…


    Lisa Reilly

  14. […] Are You an M.O. Snob? – Programmers need to effectively communicate with humans, too. This post reminds us that not everyone thinks like we do. Not specific to programming – worth a read for anyone. addthis_url = ‘’; addthis_title = ‘Link+Love’; addthis_pub = ”; […]

  15. I don’t think that I have a particular work style, although I definitely don’t take as much time to think as you. Not that it’s a bad thing, but that’s just how I do things. Getting something down on paper helps me get going, so I like to start writing fast.

  16. Lately, I’ve begun to use notebooks to sketch out my ideas a bit before I begin work on an article. It seems to be working for me.

  17. […] this month, Jonathan Fields posted on his blog about his writing M.O. He said he is a slower writer than most. He gave an anecdote of being in law school and watching […]

  18. Mouli says:

    My approach to my engineering exams were kind-of similar (though our fields are entirely tangential). In the university that I studied my Bachelors degree (University of Madras, India), people used to write pages and pages and pages. (The typical rumour was, you scored as much as how much pages you wrote ; or how much your answer book weighed). My exams usually never crossed the main booklet (10 sides), maybe a rare 1 additional sheet (4 more sides).

    My answers (this is specific to engineering) were usually of the following format:
    – introduction (small paragraph)
    – diagram (mostly a block diagram)
    – the actual theory/workings (slightly longish paragraph)
    – the conclusion – with the rseult underlined/highlighted.

    Each answer rarely ran more than 2 sides.