Hacking Together a Standing Desk

There were a few lifestyle changes I promised myself post the Himalaya Trek last month. Very simply stated, they were to walk more, stand more and read more. I decided to improve on the walking by not taking the lift in my apartment for a start (4 floors) and made progress on the reading and wrote about it.

The tougher problem to solve was the ‘how do I stand more’ problem. Work involves a fair amount of sitting during the week and I felt like I was exacerbating thanks to all the additional work I was doing at home! On average, it’s about 25-30 extra hours per week that I could do something about.

Now, this is an issue that Lifehacker has been writing about for a while now and I was always intrigued by the idea of a standing desk. This idea took further shape when I interviewed venture capitalist Bijan, who, of course, took the Skype call from his standing desk. So, I decided that I’d work on this idea last weekend and see where it took me.

So, I went to Ikea and bought myself a shelving cabinet with the idea that this would be ideal height for my laptop screen. What I didn’t realize then is that the keyboard and mouse needed to be significantly lower so as to be comfortable. So, after a bit of DIY with a friend, we ended up converting my Ikea trolley to that platform with 6 bricks and one of the shelves from the rack. I also realized that I’d be better off getting myself a nice monitor (something I’d wanted for a LONG time anyway!) and a keyboard.

So, after many hours of toil.. (well, not exactly – it was very exciting putting this together), VOILA!


I thought I would wait a week before blogging about it so I didn’t recommend it too early but my god, am I in love with this idea!

A few things I’ve learnt and observed over the past week..

– I know we are all different but I can’t help but believe that we are born with a desire to ‘figure things out’, to build, to hack, if necessary. The joy I derived from putting together this solution is hard to express.

– Standing takes getting used to. I stood practically all of last Sunday and I remember really looking forward to sitting at the end of the day! That said, I’m getting used to it real quick..

– You know that good feeling after you exercise? Working at this desk makes me feel physically just as good about myself!

– I find myself to be more alert, more focused and less distracted and that’s a big help in the morning on weekdays when I wake up to blog.

– And I find standing suits my type of ADD! I get to move around, bob around, play with a small ‘stress ball’ by kicking it about/throwing it on the wall and catching it.

In short, I LOVE it. The most amazing part of it was that my mom was so intrigued by the idea that she put together a standing desk herself the very next day and blogged about it!

All in all, a way of working that I’m going to take forward for life.. Thank you to Lifehacker and Bijan, for the inspiration. And thank you to the Himalayas and all the people who made it happen for inspiring such thought..

Spurning The Ones That Love You

Richard Feynman, in his famous autobiography, ‘Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman’, has some very interesting experiences with trying to pick up women in a bar. After many attempts, failures and successes, he concludes that the best way to do that is to be an absolute jackass. Don’t buy the woman a drink, be rude, obnoxious and your chances of success are really high.

Now, I don’t know how true this is. I haven’t experienced it for myself but it does tend to agree with my observations. Playing ‘hard to get’ works, whether in relationships, friendships or even in business.

As service providers or businesses, it is actually very tempting to forego the customers who actually love you in pursuit of ones that are ‘hard to get’. It’s the joy of pursuit – the activity that gets our adrenaline up, the activity that is a key part of what makes romance and courtship seem so exciting. This is why, when as a kid or a teenager, you tell a friend you’re done with them and instead of them ignoring you, they come clinging back trying to be ‘better’ friends than they were.

The problem with this approach, then, is obvious. One step at a time, you alienate those that really love you. These tend to be the nice folk (who are generally used to be taken for granted) and it’s only a matter of time before the word gets around and the nice folk avoid you altogether.

That’s the real problem. Because the magic, as we all realize, is not in the romance but in the companionship. At some point, we run out of the energy for romance..

And yes, this is a round about way of saying – Don’t take the ones who love you, care for you and who are loyal to you for granted. Maybe I should have just said that?

In Tough Situations

While there are a few tough situations that get resolved in a day thanks to a stroke of genius or a bit of luck, they generally take longer to resolve.

And, very often, after making significant progress, we feel very stuck.

During such times, I remind myself to ask a simple question – “Are we better now than we were when we started?”

The answer, almost always, is yes thanks to a bucket load of hard work. The issue, of course, is that we forget that and take the progress for granted. This question reminds me to take it one step at a time.

One step at a time. One chunk at a time. One minute at a time. One day at a time.. that’s how great things are built.

A Tribute to Stephen R Covey

Stephen R Covey passed away yesterday. I didn’t know him but in some funny way, I felt like I did. At least I did know very well what he stood for. Is there anything more important?

I first discovered his legendary 7 Habits book  3 years ago now during a difficult line and in one way or the other, the concepts in the book gave me a way out of the time. The book seemed to point to what was missing in the way I saw things, thought about things and what I needed to do. Thanks to a wiser friend, we didn’t just read the book – we studied it. It was such a deep piece of work that reading it just like I read other books just wasn’t enough.

For the first time in university, I chose to take a 40 day summer vacation that year and this book was my companion. The goal was to read, and then apply. There are so many little tools I use now that have their origins in terms of concept in that book. Covey always encouraged everyone to teach what they really what they learn and I’ve made an effort to pass on the concepts of the book (Sorry, everyone I know) and in the process, digested them myself.

Covey’s book came along at a time when personality development. management and leadership were a rage. He, of course, placed an emphasis on character building and how we could change things by making ourselves more effective. I always find that the difference between good books and great books is that great books give us a framework to view the world. We can choose to test this framework out and see if it makes sense to us, or not.

The 7 Habits does that better than any book I’ve read. And for this approach to studying books as deep as this, I only have a certain wiser friend to thank. If it were just left to me, I would have read a book like this, dismissed it as too preachy and moved on, but the biggest advantage of working and learning from the best is you see what makes them so good. Inspired by this wise friend, I tested out nearly every applicable concept in the 7 Habits book. Some of them didn’t work for me but most of them did.. and I am thankful for that.

Robin Sharma often speaks about a great piece of advice his father gave him. “Never stop reading because someday there will come a book that will change your life..”

In my case, I can say with confidence that the 7 Habits book did change my life. It infused itself into my thinking in a way no other book has, so far. I think actively if I am proactive, if I am beginning with the end in mind, thinking first things first, thinking win-win. seeking to understand and sharpening the saw. It’s amazing – it’s given me a language of sorts to think of my own growth and development.

Stephen Covey passed away surrounded by family and friends, just the way he wanted, knowing he had left behind a legacy as an author and coach that might never be surpassed. I am glad for him.

Thank you Dr Covey, for everything..

Practice makes Bad Habit

I had grown up hearing the ‘Practice is the key to excellence’ line so much that it was one of those concepts I never bothered questioning. You can imagine my surprise when I heard my tennis coach say ‘Practice makes bad habit’ when I learnt some of the basics of the game from him 2 years ago.

His idea was simple – if you practice, make sure you practice the right things. More often than not, we just practice the wrong techniques and make them habitual by repetition.

He was absolutely right. Reading ‘Talent is Overrated’ by Geoff Colvin reinforced this learning – Geoff Colvin’s path to success involves a concept called ‘Deliberate Practice’ and that involves working on a practice routine that is essentially designed by a coach or someone who has an accurate understanding of the kind of training that will stretch you. I plan to go deeper into Colvin’s concepts as a part of the Sunday Book Learning series.

The take aways for me have been very straightforward –

– If you want to get really good, hire a coach. There are hardly any pro athletes who don’t have a coach.

– Practice with a routine/regimen designed by this coach that would ideally stretch you.

– And consciously do more of the things you know you need to do and that are not fun! Eg: While learning guitar, play more new songs during the 20 minute practice session rather than making yourself feel good by playing songs you know for long parts.

‘Practice makes bad habit.’ A great learning. Thanks to Chris Mullins.

Jane Jenkinson, Owner of Hill-Crest B&B: Interview 22 – Real Leader Interviews

I remembering stumbling upon Hill-Crest Bed & Breakfast one Friday afternoon when we were searching for accommodation for our road trip in June. It had a 5 star rating on TripAdvisor and I was quite looking forward to my stay there.

Going into any place with high expectation generally tends to be a bit of a problem but in this case, Hill-Crest didn’t just not disappoint. It exceeded expectations and that was thanks to the incredible spirit and energy of it’s owner, Jane Jenkinson.

I was so inspired by Jane that I ensured I only left the place having interviewed her for 20 minutes!

imageJane Jenkinson runs her very own Bed & Breakfast, Hillcrest at Newby Bridge. An extremely passionate hospitality person, she enjoys running her perfect show!

Hill-Crest has won many awards over the years with the most prestigious award coming on May 24, 2012 when Jane fought off competition across the entire tourism industry to win the ‘Outstanding Customer Services’ award. (An incredible achievement considering the Lake District is the biggest tourist hotspot in England and that Hill-Crest was a 4 room B&B competing against huge hotels.)

Rohan: So what is the Jane story?

Jane: I am a farmer’s daughter, born in  Shropshire. I always wanted to help run the farm or help with cooking. Right from there I was keen on doing such work in any shape or kind or form. I went from junior school to secondary school and later to Catering school.

My passion was cooking! A friend and I decided it would be nice to work abroad and ended up in Switzerland for a year. It was great working in a hotel and learning skills in all different areas there! We came back a year later and my first job in England was here. The lakes and mountains are very similar to Switzerland, on a smaller scale. I started out as a Chef for 2-3 years, I met my husband and we bought this bungalow where Hillcrest is now. And we saw a potential business opportunity!

When the children were here, we used to rent out only two rooms. After they left it’s now 4 rooms. This has always been my passion, running my own place and business. When I started, I put it out just like how I would like it – very high on standard and quality. From taking in my first guest in 1994-95, I have come a long way. I am enjoying what I do! It is amazing to meet new people as well.

Word got out about our place through guidebooks initially and later websites came in. With the Internet, bookings come from all over the world. I have come to meet some people who can’t talk in English in these years. It is pretty entertaining to talk to some kids who couldn’t speak English. Both of us didn’t get what we are saying and we still continued to talk. They were so loving and continued to listen to my voice even when they did not get me! It was a very lovely time.

With my 19th year, passion and dedication for the business is still strong! I love making people feel welcome and helping them. I am someone who has a passion for looking after people. I used to do that before as well like making breakfast for other people before marriage. I think farmer’s daughters are said to be workers. And that’s me! The catering skills came handy because when I first started I actually offered evening meals. I would be happy when I saw them finish their food as it was a sign that they liked it! My guests were pretty upset when they heard I stopped the evening meals. I needed to concentrate on my family as well.

Now its just bed and breakfast and dinners during the winter break. There is a good choice of pubs and restaurants in the area. We recommend places for people to try out as well. They get a lot of variety in food that way.

We have an award for the AA Land Lady of the Year. We came from 3500 people down to 100 and then down to 20. I went to the ceremony but did not make it to the top. It was still an achievement getting to 20 from 3500!

This year I was down at for the Outstanding Customer Services Award. This time I won! It was really the icing on the cake for me. To win something I was really passionate about. I think I came through as that when the judges judged me as well. They could see that customer service was part of my business. Its nice when someone else sees that’s in me. I work hard and hope that people enjoy my hospitality and services. Being awarded in that way was fantastic! I hope to continue going on for many years to come until I really can’t do it anymore!

Rohan: What part of this makes you wake up everyday in the morning?

Jane: Just knowing that I am going to make people happy – for them to enjoy the place. When you are new to an area you do not know where to go and what to do. So it’s good to have a person giving you suggestions about things. I do give information about the place around so my guests enjoy the Lake District,

Rohan: What were some of the toughest moments?

Jane: Getting Hillcrest ready in the first place for business was the challenge itself. Because tradesmen would never come and would always be very slow. I would be frustrated. The following year, I decided we would open on July 16th (my son’s birthday) and we had our first guests booked. The furniture came 2 days before our guests arrived! And it was all hands on deck those two days. – we had my parent’s, my husband Angus’ parents all here. We were all cleaning windows, making guests, tending to the garden and we managed to get the place done one hour before the guests arrived ! That was a real test.

Rohan: What is your take on hospitality and customer service? What is the philosophy that guides you through your journey?

Jane: It is very important for the person to be a morning person. It is important for that person to be alive and ready to serve the visitors – to be sociable and happy. Sometimes people come up to me and ask ‘How do you keep smiling every time you say good morning?’ I love what I am doing and hence I am happy! I enjoy it and I don’t feel like its trouble to wish people and take care of them.

Even when I have a headache my service is undisturbed. A business like this has to be run by somebody that is dedicated in that way. As soon as you feel it’s a chore and as soon as you stop enjoying it, you should stop doing it. I hear of so many stories where people do not stop at the right time and it leads to a very bad service. Getting the money and not taking care of them is a no-no in my world. You have to be 100% into your job. They are paying for your service and it is your duty to give it.

I have many visitors who keep coming back and that is something that reminds me of how much they enjoy being here. There are even some who have come here the whole 19 years I have been at it!

Rohan: At this point, have you thought about buying a couple of places nearby or expanding your business? Have those thoughts come in?

Jane: One time I had this gypsy come to my door and tell me a story. She told me that a big mansion would come up in grounds and that I would be buying it and running it. A place did come up in grounds some time later and I remember telling my husband that, that was the place she was talking about. ‘That’s the place I should be buying right now!’ I said. However, it was not the right time and I did not end up buying it.

The thought of expanding does come across often. You’ve got to be careful while doing these things though. You are at risk of losing the personal touch when the business expands. In a business like mine, that is often what people come back for. Probably because I am busy enough doing what I do and I enjoy it. It’s keeping me good and I feel this size is just right for me to continue on. In the age I am in, I do not want to have too much on my plate!

Rohan: How has the Internet changed how you run the show?

Jane: It has been an amazing help. Most of the bookings come through online booking system and people actually are able to find you from where ever they live – Hong Kong, America, Australia.. everywhere! They book directly or ring you up. It is incredible, it’s a huge benefit to businesses like ours!

Rohan: So what is the normal process for booking?

Jane: They go on TripAdvisor where we have many good reviews (yay!) They also Google the area where they wish to stay. I would come under a localised listing! With so many accommodation options around, you really have to keep your game high to be in business. There are a lot of places where standards are not good. You have to keep the quality up to keep yourself busy.

I once had a businessman who stayed here for 18 months. I still stay in touch with him. There are others who have stayed at different places and now they stay only here. I must be getting something right I guess!

Rohan: Have there been any mentors in terms of your life itself? What are some of the biggest things you have learnt from them?

Jane: I guess I have not really had any mentors or people I have gained inspiration from. I am what I am. I guess I have some sort of a natural skill in what I do.

There was a woman who once said you must have been in customer services before. I said ‘No, I have been a Chef and in Catering but not in customer service’. I just seem to know what people want and I have just grown with the business. In so many businesses, not just service industry, people don’t seem to get customer services right. Even you smiling when someone new walks into your place is a small gesture that goes a long way. It makes people welcome wherever you are. I just have that natural ability and it helps! Now I am training my assistant to learn how to treat people well.

Rohan: Are there things out of work that help you wind down?

Jane: Horse-riding. I grew up in a farm. I had ponies and then horses! I do like to go up to the stables have a ride once in a while. I also try to go with the visitors when they are here and take a ride.

Rohan: What have been some of the biggest learnings?

Jane: The quality of putting together a high standard place and the best customer services are really the qualities for a successful business. That would be always be the top priorities. You need to have the skills and be good at what you are doing. Even if I were changing businesses, I would remember this!

Rohan: We have a lot of youngsters out there who read this – a lot of people who want to make a difference. Even if it’s not at work, you always lead something. What is the message for those people?

Jane: Never forget that you always have to keep friends and family with you. You should keep in touch with your friends and always have some “me-time”. Many focus on some thing and later regret it because they did not pay enough attention to the people  around them. I think it makes for a happy place when you keep in touch with people… and life is good then!

Right before we left (20 minutes or so after the interview), Jane let out a small shriek! “Oops!” She said “I forgot to invite everyone watching the interview to Hill-Crest.”

I promised to add it in when we published the interview.

I’ve always had a fascination for building a small high quality business that does not scale. In many ways, watching Jane run her near flawless show brought those ideas right back.

Thank you, Jane! We, at Real Leader interviews, absolutely enjoyed and loved your passion for what you do.

Dhanya, EB and yours truly..

On Why the Best Violinists were the Best

This week’s book learning is from ‘Talent is Overrated’ by Geoff Colvin.

The famous Music academy of West Berlin (as it was called earlier) was once the subject of one of the most extensive studies on great performance. 3 groups of violinists in their early 20s were studied – the ‘Good’ group (future music teachers), the ‘Better’ group (future performers in great orchestras) and the ‘Best’ group (future soloists).

The findings were fascinating –

– Most of them started learning violin around age 8 and decided to become musicians around age 15

– All 3 groups spent the same total amount of time on music related activities – 51 hours per week

– They all ranked ‘solo practice’ unanimously as hardest and least fun activity of their weaks i.e. harder than child care and less fun than even formal group performance.

– They also unanimously ranked ‘solo practice’ as THE most important activity

So, with all these common factors, what was the difference between the groups?

The top 2 groups practiced ‘solo’ 24 hours per week while the 3rd group averaged 9 hours per week.

The top 2 groups also generally practiced in the late morning or early afternoon when fresh while the ‘good’ group pushed their solo practice to the end of the day.

Another interesting fact was that the top 2 groups slept more on average and took far more afternoon naps – clearly solo practice was very demanding! In essence, the best violinists did more of the only activity that was completely in their control. They did a lot of what no one really enjoyed doing..

All that said, what then was the difference between the top 2 groups? Let’s leave that for next week.. :-)

Here’s to doing more of what’s important vs what we find easy this week!

Racism.. and Related Musings on India

My mom had a very emotional post up yesterday on racism. It’s a take on the situation back home in India. We ended up discussing it today and we found ourselves walking away with more questions than answers.

As an Indian (/brown skinned person) who’s been abroad for 6 years now, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like I was treated ‘different’ in places. But, these occasions have been rare. When it comes to these things, I do believe you find what you look for and maybe that’s also why I only tend to notice when such behaviour is blatant and obvious.

I have had a few discussions with family friends back home who believe Indians are treated very badly abroad. My argument has always been to point out that it isn’t necessarily all that ‘clean’ within our country and amongst our people. I remember being driven nuts when I was applying for colleges post high school thanks to being ‘Forward Caste’ and hence, always ending up with the shortest end of the stick.

And if I have to go down this path, it’s worth pointing out that every college in India has a clear division between north Indians and South Indians (and more specifically, between the Hindi speaking ones and the Tamil speaking ones). I was amazed to find the same sort of division where we were in Singapore. We were barely 300 odd Indians in a university of 30,000 and yet, we had a very strong culture of internal division. The same Indians who complain of being racially discriminated discriminate their own kind based on caste, colour, religion, language, sex and the like.

When I explain India to people I meet in the west, I liken it to Europe. At heart, we are a bunch of very different states who don’t really get along. Of course, this hasn’t resulted in world wars in our case but I attribute that to the fact that we have been more ‘farmers’ in personality than ‘hunter gatherer’. Waging war and conflict isn’t our style. We prefer corruption and a back handed approach to these matters. Hence, my thesis is that there are very few things that are ‘Indian’. Describing food, for example, as Indian is flawed. It’s like saying there’s European food. Of course, there are many common threads but that doesn’t necessarily give us the kind of unity that points to a nation moving in one direction.

So, what of India then? India, in my eyes, is a wonderful example of natural system. And as is the case with natural systems, change happens but happens very very slowly. So, things will get better, slowly – I’m certain of that. There is a strong work ethic that is prevalent across the nation thanks to the fire in all our bellies. We haven’t grown up with the kind of comforts that are the norm in the western world and we’d like to see and experience these things. We are a young population and I daresay, we would have made some sort of foreseeable progress in the coming decades.

We will be many things but I would be very surprised if we live up to the kind of progress that has been predicted over the past decade. The gap between India and China is only likely to further increase with time. While other developing nations run, we will continue to amble at our own pace serving the needs of all the families that actually run things (The Gandhis in National Politics, The Ambani’s, Tata’s and the like in Business etc).

I’ve had someone describe my view of India’s future as cynical. I disagree, of course (what would you expect? ;-)). I just think it’s practical. If we have to really move forward and if we look at societies that have made significant progress in short periods of time, the foundation tends to be a strong social structure – a society built on trust and acceptance injected with ideals, a belief in the concept of equal opportunity and probably most importantly, lead by leaders who lived and breathed this cause. (‘I’m thinking ancient Greece, Rome during the golden period, renaissance Italy and the USA in the 1900s)

And in my eyes, as things stand right now, this foundation looks very shaky.

Fun Friday: Favourite Animated Movie

I love animated movies. I find they always convey a deep, meaningful message, they aren’t obsessed with ‘glitz’ since there are hardly ever any stars and almost always tend to be fun.

I have many favourites but a couple that come straight to mind are ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ and ‘A Bug’s Life’. While Pixar and Dreamworks have pushed the boundaries of animation significantly over the years, my undisputed all time favourite is still an old school Disney movie – The Lion King.

I have lost count of the number of times I have watched this movie. As a kid, I used to own a cassette of ‘The Lion of King’ (and Sound of Music!) and I’ve watched it more times than I can count. I recently even went for the famous musical here in London and found myself walking away feeling it didn’t do justice to the movie, and ended up watching the movie again the next flight I took a couple of weeks later!

There’s just something about this movie that draws me to it. It’s the typical hero’s journey story – everything is good, something bad happens, hero is doubted, he goes away to a distant land, get reawakened, comes back and reclaim his throne. But yet, I find it wonderful to watch.

There are 2 scenes from the movie that make cry and laugh, without fail.

First, 4:50-5:20 on this clip and in particular the part when Simba cries ‘Somebody, Anybody’. Never fails to strike a chord..

And then, one that never fails to make me laugh.. (you can never go wrong with Timon and Pumba, of course!)