Ditch perfection

My biggest learning from 3.5 months of marriage – ditch perfection.

As kids, we are born improvisers. We make friends with any new kid, laugh a lot, and embrace every situation. As we grow, we learn to plan and then get attached to that script in our head. So, we walk into a new situation – a new team, a new job, or a new relationship – with a script for the perfect teammate, the perfect boss, or the perfect spouse. And guess what? it never works out. We’re disappointed and upset.

I am all for aiming for perfection for a few chosen pursuits like an important project at work. For the rest, particularly in close relationships, ditch perfection. Prepare, show up, improvise, care, put in as good a shift as possible, and laugh easily. Happiness does lie in the journey and the journey is what we make of it.

Learning to be under the radar

I am loud. I’ve been told to watch my voice’s volume more times than I can count. I get especially loud when I’m either excited or having a heated discussion. Being loud doesn’t help you stay under the radar. You attract attention to yourself when it is not necessary or helpful. As a result, learning to stay under the radar is an ability that hasn’t come easy to me. I’ve worked really hard at it. While I don’t think I am anywhere close to mastery yet, I am better than I used to be.

The ability to to be under the radar is a very useful skill for anyone getting started in a new job/industry/career/project/client relationship. It is best to be heard only when you have something value to say. In fact, any first impressions that aren’t positive tend to be negative. It’s an easy concept to forget though. It’s tempting to try and stand out as soon as we get into a new situation. In fact, “trying too hard” feels like a nice way to put any insecurities about a new environment to bed but it tends to be counter productive most of the time. I’ve observed even seasoned campaigners make this mistake from time to time in an attempt to dazzle and stand out.

The principle at work here is – fit in before you stand out. If you are getting started in a new environment, stay under the radar, work out how you can fit in, and fit right in. Once you’ve got that covered – dazzle ‘em!

Bestselling Author Daniel H Pink on writing, potential, and how selling is human

We’ve all been touched by Dan Pink’s work in some way. His insights into the changing world of work have either been mentioned in a talk we’ve listened to, a book we’ve read, or been implemented in places where we work. Dan’s interview has been a long time coming and it was great to meet him in person. As in the video, Dan is super sharp and concise. The video is packed with many interesting insights from his books and otherwise. Enjoy!




My favorite sections here –

“In job interviews, the interviewer is basically trying to decide if this person is going to make their life easier or harder.  If you can be the kind of person that others think will make their life easier, that’s advantageous.  I think that can actually trump a lack of experience.”

“Not only did I spend time with some of those great salespeople, but I asked them that very question.  There is a view out there that some people are naturals, that a certain person can sell anything.  It’s really amazing to me.  I asked this particular question to them: “Are some people just born salespeople?”

Almost uniformly, their view was no, especially now.  The reason for that was that whether they’re business buyers or consumer buyers, what matters more on the seller part is expertise.  That’s something I heard over and over again, particularly in B to B.  You have to have expertise.  What they were saying is that you’re not born an expert in computer systems.  You’re not born an expert in luxury sedans.  You acquire that.  You build that and you actually have to have some interest in it in order to do it.

The very best salespeople out there say, “No, I don’t think that there are some people who are naturals.  I think it’s something that people learn how to do.”

The other thing that fits into that is some of the research that I read about from Adam Grant at Penn about introversion and extroversion.  We have this stereotype that the naturals are super extroverted people.  What Grant’s and others’ research have found is that that’s not it.  People who do the best are in the middle, the ambiverts.  Most of us are ambiverts.  Most of us are naturals because it’s what human beings do.”

“Typically the way that I do things for a book is that I’ll write a proposal.  I end up writing pretty long proposals partly because it’s a test for me about whether there’s a there there and whether I’m interested enough to do it. I also think strategically about whether there’s a market for this book, too.  For example, let’s say I was keenly interested in collecting stamps from Estonia and I wanted to write a book about Estonian stamps.  That might be really interesting to me but there’s no market for that, so it becomes a hobby rather than something I really do.  There is a strategic layer on it as well.”

“When I’m writing I’ll start in the morning and commit to a certain amount of words and I won’t do anything else until I hit that amount of words.”

Full transcript, as always, is on RealLeaders.tv

“He is heading to New York but..”

A friend was in a line to speak to an airline official. The person in front of him was obviously in a bad mood and he was screaming obscenities at the lady behind the counter. The screaming was completely uncivilized and disrespectful and everyone in the queue was disgusted at the man’s behavior. For her part, the lady behind the counter remained calm. Eventually, the man in front got what he wanted, gave a parting rude comment, and left.

This friend immediately remarked that he was impressed by the way she handled the situation.

Before I give you her response, I’d just like to point out that I believe anger is counter productive. We think it is within our rights to be angry at a service provider who has screwed up but it almost always only worsens the situation. I’ve seen anger work as an intimidation tactic sometimes but being nice seems to be a pretty safe bet in most cases.

Back to this friend then. The lady behind the counter smiled and said – “Thank you sir. These things happen. It is our duty to be our best selves in front of our customer. Anyway, he is heading to New York but his baggage is heading to San Francisco.”

On the origins of Insurance

This week’s book learning is part 7 of a 12 part series on The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson. (Parts 12345, 6)

Insurance was nothing more than a gamble until mathematical innovations like probability, life expectancy, normal distribution came by. Two priests, Webster and Wallace, devised insurance as a way to compensate widows of priests in Scotland. Their basis was as follows.

– The widow will be allowed to have 3 times the amount the priests paid to the insurance company during the course of his life.
– There were about 930 ministers alive at all times
– 27 died yearly, 18 left widows, 5 left children without widows, 2 left widows and children of a former marriage under age 16
– The maximum number of widows was originally assumed to be 279 assuming a constant mortality rate which they later corrected based on experience

They then created a fund with 4 levels of payments from living priests that would be invested. It was calculated in such a way that the interests alone would pay for all annuities, etc., leaving the principle amount untouched. And you know what’s amazing?


Sketch by EB

Wallace and Webster’s initial calculations (done on a piece of paper) were only off by 1 pound! This was the origin of the famous Scottish Widows insurance fund that was later acquired by the Lloyds group. Insurance companies have gone on to become the world’s biggest investors (called institutional investors). Scottish widows alone has more than 100 billion pounds under management.

Scott Adams on sponging traits off others

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has got a fantastic series of posts on time. I hope you take time to read them as each of them is a gem and worthy of a couple of minutes of your time.

I’d like to pick out a couple of paragraphs from my favorite post – sponge traits off others.

In the past two years, by coincidence, several of my close friends have become fitness maniacs. My co-founder in an Internet startup just finished an Iron Man competition. Another friend looks like a fitness cover model. Another takes one of the most grueling fitness classes at my gym, and then she takes the one after it too. Two of my friends want me to buy a better bike and join them on their 60-mile weekend rides. I find the situation quite humbling.

On the plus side, my association with these extra-fit people seems to be rubbing off. I’m in the best physical shape of my life, by far. My estimate is that at least half of that improvement is because of the peer influence. It didn’t take any extra willpower. I didn’t set any particular fitness goals. It feels as if it just sort of happened…

..My observation over a lifetime is that you can program yourself for different traits by managing your personal associations. If you want to be more fit, spend time with friends who make it look easy. If you want more ambition, find some friends who already have it. If you want to avoid being a pessimistic sink hole, avoid the people who give off that vibe. And if you can’t find the right kind of people locally, consider moving.

We humans have a natural tendency to see ourselves as special. That’s probably a useful instinct up to a point. But consider the possibility that your DNA provides only a platform for your personality whereas the details of your traits are programmed by your associations. Once you understand your body as a trait sponge, you can take control of your own programming. And that’s when the fun starts.

I’ve found this to be very true. Until this year, I had great difficulty keeping up a steady exercise routine. There were times my fitness was pretty good and other times when it wasn’t great. It depended largely on whether I found a regular weekly football group wherever I was and the results were inconsistent.

So, I appointed a friend to be my fitness coach. This guy managed exercise every day of the week with ease and keeps himself very fit. I realized the power of this habit on an intense one week program. I woke up earlier than the rest of the group on a day when we all had had barely 4 hours to sleep and he was up doing his push ups as a part of his daily work out(!).

I’ve been reporting my weekly fitness to him every week, hearing his thoughts on what I could do, and keeping myself inspired. My progress is below. As you might notice, the habit is beginning to kick in pretty regularly off late. Since my wedding, aside from a week when I was ill and a week when I was on holiday, I’ve hit my target every week. This was definitely not the case in the beginning of the year (my wife will deservedly take a big part of the credit for this improvement :)).


Hitting my weekly exercise target was my most important goal for the new year and I’m glad that I’m getting close to where I’d like to be. It’s not an accident – association has played a huge part in this.

Sponge traits off others – great learning.

Aiming for Polish

What shape does the resistance take when we express a desire to give something a shot? Polish.

The first time public speaker is unlikely to have polish. If he manages to manage his stage fright, his first time would be a success. Polish is something he might want to achieve in his 1000th attempt.

The first 3 times I participated in public speaking competitions was as a 10 year old. I was always the youngest in my category.. and I sucked by all counts. I tried to be really good at a time when I didn’t know what really good was. The advice I received from my school’s vice principal then was to practice in front of the mirror and just get comfortable with myself speaking. She told me not to worry if the next one didn’t work – “Maybe speaking is not your thing. We’ll have you try something else.” The next one didn’t. The one after that did, though, and it kept getting better.

3 years later, I was the “speech” guy. I was now described as someone who had ‘the gift of the gab.’ If only they knew..

My learning? Ditch polish and perfection. Go for comfortable and human. When it comes to speaking in public, I’ve learnt that it’s most important to be you. Don’t be funny if you’re not a funny person. Don’t be dramatic if you’re not a dramatic person. Don’t aim for polish. Just be you.

Human and vulnerable beats polish on most days.. in public speaking or otherwise.

Custom fit

I am always interested in learning how successful people become successful. I was initially curious about whether I could find a common pattern. But, my experiences so far (with books, personal contact and interviews via the The Real Leaders Project) tell me otherwise.

There have been many intelligent people who have tried categorizing what successful people do – they do things that other’s consider difficult, they love what they do, they have grit, they have great habits, etc., etc. Skipping a more fundamental question that involves defining what success is in the first place (its definition definitely varies from person to person), all of these make for interesting stories and are always great for perspective. However, I don’t think there are any such common categories or patterns.

I think every story is a custom fit. It seems to make sense when you look backward and connect the dots but that could be true of any story. We are great rationalizers and natural story tellers. The only factor that is probably common is luck and even that varies in degree.

My learning is to look at stories of successful people as a source of perspective. They tend to open our eyes to something we might not have paid attention to or noticed. There’s always something we can learn from the story of someone who’s made a difference and its value lies in that learning and the inspiration that accompanies it.

So, what about us? We’ve just got to keep plugging away, continue making decisions and mistakes, attempting and failing till we get really good at what we do.. and hopefully then, we will be aided by lady luck to be “successful” in our definition. Whatever else our successful story may be, I believe it’s certain to be a custom fit.

What you measure and what you don’t

A few of my friends and family (me included), are using the Fitbit Flex and even have a Whatsapp discussion group around our 7 day step totals. Seeing the data has made our walking come into the spotlight . Every one of us is consciously thinking about how we can walk more in a day.

This isn’t surprising. What gets measured gets done.

If you’ve worked with poor customer service obsessed with “closing tickets,” you know that they’re measured on the number of tickets they closed. The system designer probably thought that tickets wouldn’t be closed if problems weren’t solved. Little did he/she know..

The question then is – what about the stuff we don’t measure? Relationships, love, happiness, kindness, integrity, honesty..

If we did have fitbits to measure these, how would we do? And what would we do about it?

Even better – how can we create systems in our lives to measure these things?

Praise the process, not the person

A friend was recently picked for an important project in his company. He was the youngest person to be chosen and he was told that it was his ability to be extremely open to feedback that got him in. He explained to us that he had first been given this feedback a few years ago. Soon enough, this became a label – he was the guy who was always open to feedback. It stuck.

Years later, he finds himself working extra hard to ensure he stayed true to this ‘label.’

The lesson I’ve taken away is that praise is identical to criticism in terms of process. Praising the process (e.g. a person’s tenacity, ability to work hard when the going gets tough, etc.) serves the person much better than praise to the person (e.g. you are so great, or so smart). That way, when the going gets tough, the person will always remember the process that worked for him/her and re-adopt it.

Inspired by Lifehacker