Fun Friday: The Bathroom Index

The class of a place is directly linked to the class of the bathroom. You’ll never find a 5 star hotel with pathetic bathrooms.

So, the next time, you are at a nice looking store/house/office with pathetic bathrooms, the “nice looks” are likely to be just a front. It’s just like the fact that your behaviour matters most when the going gets tough.

That’s why McDonald’s systems ensure that bathrooms are cleaned every 15 minutes (I’ve done the cleaning…). Bathrooms matter. A lot.

So, how much attention do you pay to the bathrooms where you live and work?

Building Personal Infrastructure

I am in India as of todays and am catching up with the state of affairs here thanks to the best new source of them all – my mom.

One of the points of discussion was the 10-12 hour daily power shortage in an important city in the state. Yes, that’s 10-12 hours. And yes, that’s every single day. Can you imagine how that must affect productivity? There’s a reason developed nations are more productive – their citizens do not have to fight the most “basic” fights.

The better the infrastructure, the higher the productivity.

Then, it follows that the million dollar question for us would be – have we taken time to build infrastructure in our lives so we don’t waste our bandwidth on “basic” fights? Do we have systems in place that help us deal with the pressures of daily life?

Forget the macro systems and the state of the world. Let’s look within and ask ourselves – is our personal infrastructure as sophisticated as that as a developed nation? Or are we stumbling through life fighting the “basic” fights every day?

Work Hacks Wednesday: Use Daily/Bi-Weekly Update Emails to Communicate during Boss/Client Absences

Absence of critical colleagues (vital team member, boss, client etc) can cause a few problems. Chief among these problems is miscommunication. Thanks to the “cc” feature on emails, they will likely be cc’d to more emails than they can handle on their week back.

So, how do we make it easy for them to catch up? Send them a structure daily update email with the progress made in the day. Depending on the importance of such communications, you can decide whether to run a daily, bi-weekly or weekly update. This solves a number of problems all at once –

Update on progress. At the most basic level, this serves as an update on progress made on current projects/priorities

Effort and process on show. Some projects require a lot of effort with no concrete outcome, at least immediately. This is a way to ensure everyone understands the effort taken, and the process of approaching the task. If there are any issues with the outcome, it’s easy to go back to the process and see what you could have done better.

Managing your client/boss. Update emails are a great way of keeping your client/boss updated. If your client is headed for a 2 week break, it helps to make a commitment that you will send him an email at 5pm every day with the critical updates. That way, even if  he does check his email, his will check it after 5pm and make sure he reads your email and actions any critical items.

Great communication is a vital part of avoiding “surprises”, especially when dealing with clients and bosses. And avoiding “surprises” comes from discipline and predictability. Predictability is an incredible asset. As for discipline – I’ve said this many times – the world belongs to the disciplined.

Ask your credit card company for a fee waiver

I noticed an extra $150 on my credit card bill and called up my company.

“What are these charges for?”

“Annual credit card fees, sir.”

“Why am I being charged these fees this year when I wasn’t charged anything last year?”

“Sir, I cannot answer that. I can only deal with requests for a waiver.”

“That’s exactly what I’m doing – requesting for a waiver.”

“Oh. Sir, I am pleased to inform you that you are eligible for a waiver. I will take these fees off right away.”

This is the kind of money I could so easily have thrown away. I’m sure I have done so before and I’m sure many have. It’s shocking that some policies exist. I’m sure the company justifies it thanks to some fine print on a contract.

For us, the lesson is clear. Check your bills. Call companies. Get unnecessary fees waived.

Nina Mazar, Behavioral economist, Real Leader Interview 32

Nina Mazar was featured in Dan Ariely’s book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone Especially Ourselves and I was compelled to reach out to her to find our more about her research. Her work and the book taught me many things about how we are comfortable with lying/cheating on a regular basis. We talked about all that and much more. Do read on!
About Nina Mazar
Nina  Mažar (Mazar) is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Rotman. With her focus on behavioural economics, she investigates consumer behaviour and how it deviates from standard economic assumptions. In addition, she studies moral decision-making and its implications for policy. Her research topics range from irrational attraction to free products, the paradoxes of green behaviour to temptations to be dishonest. Nina has received various honours and awards, among others the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research. Prior to completing her PhD, Nina was a management consultant working in the UK and Germany.
Rohan: First we would like to ask about your story and about why you ended up doing what you are doing?
Nina: I came to MIT in 2001 to visit Dan, this is when I got to know Dan Ariely. He enrolled me in a bunch of projects whether it’s about handing out things for free and seeing how big the lines get or about dishonest students and finding out how we can make them more honest. It’s mainly through a lot of inspiring conversations with Dan. He is an amazing person full of ideas and creativity.
Around the time of 2003 and 2004, the Enron scandal happened. That’s when we thought that it was time to start focusing on dishonesty and truly understand what makes people cheat. It wasn’t possibly what we were witnessing on the media about those events. Just a few people did not possibly commit the events entirely. There are good people and then there are really bad people. We hope that the group of bad people is rather small.
If you want to explain the kind of dishonesty that we were observing it seems more likely that people like you and me do tend to fall off the wagon and engage in some criminal transgressions. The data was raw and we wanted to understand how we struggle in our daily lives with the goal on one hand to be honest and think about ourselves as honest human beings and witnessing these events as well. What are ways we give in and how can we control that?
Rohan: So did you already study psychology from Germany, I know you are from Germany..
Nina: Ah you want to go further! I studied Business Administration in Germany, completed my Masters in it. I was a consultant for two years. During one of my consulting jobs, I found myself to be a bit bored. I realized I was always more interested in theory, so I decided to try and apply for a PhD.
I applied for a PhD program at the same university where I did my masters. They accepted me and I signed up for the PhD in Business Administration in Consumer Behaviour. I had been working on that for almost a year that time. It was quite cool to study consumer behaviour online and offline. My advisor told me that he would be able to help me very little because it was not his research area. He further told me to reach out to the people whose papers I was reading.
One of those papers I had read was by Dan Ariely. So I e-mailed him introducing myself. I told him that I was a PhD student in Germany and that I needed some advice on my dissertation. I told him that I found his work was relevant. I asked him if I could come by for a week and explain my work to get his thoughts. I was very lucky that Dan accepted me and asked me to come over.
By the way, I had no idea what MIT was and I had never been to the US as well. That was a good thing because if I had known I wouldn’t have had the courage to send out that e-mail. After going there, meeting the people and working with Dan I figured that the place was actually quite good. Once I was there it was so easy to see what people were working on and how smart they were.
I was lucky to be accepted as Research Assistant and PhD student to Dan’s colleague. After that I became a RA of Dan’s. From 2002 to 2007 I was first a visiting PhD student and then I went back to Germany to defend my dissertation and came back to MIT as a post-doc.
Rohan: Now you are a professor at Toronto?
Nina: That’s right, I am an assistant professor at the University of Toronto since 2007 in the Rotman school. I am in marketing doing consumer behaviour, behavioural economics, judgment and decision-making – everything when it comes to human decision-making. I research on how certain factors influence us and how some of these are doing so without our conscious understanding; how we can change the environment to change our decision making for the better of ourselves and the society.
Rohan: Through Dan’s books I am always reminded of how fallible we are. And that we try to find reason/rationale for everything we do. For someone who has studied this, what are some these studies that have given you the best of learnings and maybe changed your life?
Nina: I am not sure if they are changing my life. But I can see these experiments at work. I can see what ways we are fallible. But I am not walking around with a constant reminder of these findings about our weaknesses. I am human like anybody else and even though I have all this knowledge I am making the same mistakes that you or anybody else is making.
Rohan: One of my biggest conclusions from Dan’s book is that the more you are aware of these patterns the less susceptible you are to make these transgressions.
Nina: Say we define transgressions as immoral transgressions. What we have found is that when people are more aware of their moral norms and standards, it is much harder to give into temptations.
When we did this research on honesty, what we very often found is that. We would give them a general knowledge test and we would pay them for the amount of transgressions they saw correctly. But then we would pay one group for Questions that were designed for cheating. And we wanted to see how honest people were compared to how many Questions they could answer correctly. When you give people money and opportunity for cheating they do it more often than not – which is a bad thing. We also found that many of them cheat only by a small amount and that is good news.  There are also people who realize that you can’t trace back their cheating, so they go all the way and cheat entirely. However this was a small group.
More money was lost to a lot of people cheating by a small amount as opposed to a small number of people cheating all the way. We have magical tricks up our sleeves, which convince us that we haven’t really done anything bad by cheating a little and that is why a lot of people do it.
An example would be, if you had some chewing gum on your desk and you left the room, I would pick it up thinking that it was just one and that you wouldn’t have really missed it. If it becomes two, then its harder to convince myself of a rationality. If it is the entire packet then it gets really hard to convince myself.
Similarly, taking a pen from work is easier than taking one dollar form the petty cash box. Situations are such that sometimes they make it easier for us to convince ourselves about our behaviour. We even forget the moral norms to justify our actions to ourselves.
When there are constant reminders about morality, social norms and values in your environment, it gets harder to suppress these when you want to commit an act.
And yes, I do think a lot about dishonesty and what is right or wrong. From that perspective it might be a little bit harder to suppress the whole ignoring of standards. Yet, I am as susceptible to cheating by a small amount as much as the next person.
Rohan: It is actually really disturbing to read about this right..
Nina: Sorry but it is actually not that disturbing. An economist would say that every person in our experiments should cheat all the way. The test was designed such that we cannot prove who cheated. It is really surprising that despite the fact that they can all get away with completely cheating, the vast majority cheats only by a small amount.
Rohan: I should explain more when I say disturbing. One of the conclusions of Dan’s book is that when cash is directly associated with cheating we do it less. However we are moving as society from cash to cashless transactions. Which means it makes it very easy to cheat in the coming days.
And I think it all comes down to little Cues. I was at a clients place and there were Cues about washing hands and keeping a place clean etc. As a result whether we like it or not, we do keep the place clean. That was my biggest learning. So when you want to build an environment with values, these cues help so much.
Nina: Reminders, Questions like ‘How important is honesty to your family?’ all help. There is some beautiful research showing how a picture of a pair of eyes (it needn’t be real eyes, anything that can be interpreted as eyes will do) makes people more honest.It is as if someone is watching you.
Cues are a good place to start. However, humans are smart and we would find a way (a magic trick) to get across these. Maybe the cues need to change as well with time.
Rohan: It seems as if you accidentally ended up here. What were some of the defining moments that stood out so far?
Nina: I don’t think I had that Ahaa moment. It was just about being surrounded by amazing people especially like Dan. Just seeing how much he loves his job and seeing him ask the right Questions inspires me. I saw that my field of research could actually be impactful on the society when asking the right questions. That is my biggest motivation. The more I saw, the less I could imagine being anything else.
Rohan: I am very far away from research but I can see how exciting your work is! So what are some productivity hacks that make your day better?
Nina: I get distracted from my productivity every time I see the little dot on my e-mail program. It becomes so hard to resist not opening it up. What I am trying to do now is switch of the program when I am focusing on my work. I turn it on for half hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon and evening. That’s the ideal place I want to get to, to improve my productivity.
Rohan: Is there an idea or a thought that you would like to share with the people on this forum?
Nina: There is a great research that’s coming out in a book by my friend – Michael Norton from HBS and his collaborator. Their work is to do with money and happiness. The essence of the research is that happiness comes from buying things for other people with your money and not from buying it for yourself. I really loved that idea. You should read up more and meet one of them maybe to do full justice to their work.
Thank you for that interesting conversation Nina. It was a pleasure having you here!
Dhanya, Eb and yours truly..

On Little Bets

This week’s book learning is final part and “bonus” learning from the ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ by Cal Newport series. (Parts 1234, 5)

The thesis from last week was that we find a mission only once we are at the cutting edge of our fields. So, how do we put that mission into action? Here’s a story..

Kirk French was an archaeologist at Penn State with a mission – to help educate people about archaeology and have fun doing so! So, when the archaeological department received a call from a random person who claimed he had unearthed the treasure from the Knights Templar in his backyard, Kirk didn’t laugh along with his other colleagues.

– Instead, Kirk decided to visit the man and actually understand where he was coming from (and had lots of fun helping the man understand the facts..!)

– A couple of similar visits later, he started taking a video camera with him and launched a documentary project called “Armchair Archaeologist” and began doing so in his spare time

– He raised some money from Penn State for his project soon after

– A few months down the line, a production group contacted Penn State for TV show ideas – Voila! Kirk sent some of his footage

– They, in turn, sent his footage to the History channel and they paid up front for 8 episodes!

That’s how the TV show – “American Treasures” was born. Kirk asked his best friend, Jason De Leon to join him as co-host and he was on his way!

While this is just an isolated story, Cal demonstrates how one success after another occurred after tons of little bets!

In summary –

Don’t follow your passion -> Apply deliberate practice, the “craftsman mindset” to what you do

-> Be so good they can’t ignore you -> Build career capital -> Exchange career capital for more control
-> You will find a mission once you are at the cutting edge of your field (think small i.e. in terms of next step)
-> Take lots of little bets to make this mission real..!

I hope you enjoyed the series as much I enjoyed it..

Here’s to taking lots of little bets this week!

Don’t just read books. READ books.

Reading a book implies “finishing” them. It’s akin to the 20 million people who have bought and read the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. That does nothing.

READING a book, on the other hand, involves really understanding what’s in it. How do you do that? Here are a few ideas.

Take notes. See how Derek Sivers does it.

Keep bookmarks as you read, and go back and take note of the learnings. Put the learnings up on a blog or email it to a few friends. If you can think of no one who would like such an email, feel free to email it to me on I LOVE these! (For the long term, it might also be worth finding a few geeky friends.)

Start a book discussion club with 2-3 friends who are geeky enough to love idea. Pick a book for the week and discuss learning. A great way to learn is to teach.

Start a book learning group at work and do one lunch per week where you each share your biggest learning.

Summarize a book in 3 pages and send it across to 10 people.

Some of these are better than others. Besides, once you get started, I’m sure you’ll figure out a better way that actually suits you.

And yes, I am aware there’s no difference between “reading” and “READING”. It’s akin to “listening” and “LISTENING” (i.e. really listening).

We all know it makes all the difference the world.

Most Memorable Rejection

A friend and I got talking about rejections the other day as she spoke of a particularly bad one she had received via email.

I walked down memory lane myself and picked out my most memorable (read: strongest/worst at the time) rejection. I thought I would share. I had just met a Professor in university – we will not mention his real name – and I had written to him with a “learning” email that I mentioned I helped create, and would love to stay in touch with. His response was as follows.

Dear Rohan,

I would appreciate it if you could stop sending me these emails. They are meant for the intellectually disabled, and I doubt if I am.


I still remember looking at my computer screen in dismay then. I laugh about it now but the fact is that rejections like this can be really tough depending on where you are on the confidence curve.

Such rejections are a nice reminder of how difficult it can be to put yourself out there. They are also a lovely reminder to make sure we take absolute care when we say “no” to someone.

Then again, it follows my observation that the more you have failed yourself, the nicer you are to others..

Scream for help

If you are stuck between a rock and a hard place or hanging off a cliff, what would you do? Scream for help or pretend you don’t need it with a dash of bravado?

The answer seems obvious. Our reaction, as well, would be obvious.

Why, then, do we bother with the bravado in our normal lives? We are often between a rock and a hard place at work, in our relationships, with our finances etc. Why, then, do we not scream for help and get help?

Ditch the bravado. Ask for help. Learn. Move on. It’s okay to be in a bad place.

Once again, it’s okay..

Work Hacks Wednesdays: Take walks and run errands with your bosses..

This is a hack that has gone a long way in making my work life better. Here’s a fact – a lot of people who work with you (especially senior) might care for you and want to develop you but may just not have the time. Also, there’s the accompanying fact that you will most likely get more out of time with them than vice versa.

You’ve got to make it easier for them by respecting their time. A simple idea that has helped me is to take lots of walks and run errands with my bosses, clients and pretty much any colleague I work with. This means walking with them to the car park, the bike stand, to a store while they’re looking for something, to get something for a quick bite etc.

I’ve received a lot of great advice about work and life during these times. More importantly, I have gotten much closer to to my co-workers thanks to these walks. In fact, I can think of one really close work relationship that got that way on the back of nearly a month of walking down to the car park every evening. (I used to prepare a list of questions and topics for discussion every day as it was a good 10 minute walk!)

Conversely, if you are unable to find time for someone you’d like to spend time with, you know what to do!

Besides, a touch of fresh air doesn’t hurt..