The Big Rocks

We always have 3 types of tasks – big rocks, small rocks, and minutiae.

The minutiae are the easiest to get done. We get checks on our checklist for sending our email, following up on something, and cleaning something else. We face the resistance when we do minutiae but only at about 20% of it’s strength. The resistance doesn’t mind the minutiae much.

The small rocks are those tasks that need a bit of thought and effort. They’re more or less in our comfort zone. We need to get these done and we face the resistance at about 50% of it’s strength.

The big rocks are where we face the resistance at full strength. The resistance conjures up excuses the moment we think about them. At our end, we KNOW it is these tasks we must tackle. But, the resistance convinces us that it is better to direct our energies into the small rocks and minutiae because we know we’ll get those done. There are no guarantees we’ll get the big rocks done. The resistance paints these frightening prospects – most of them involve us unable to deal with the debilitating failure.

You know what the big rocks are. You have the big rocks in order for your day, your week, your month, and perhaps even for your year. There aren’t resistance or procrastination hacks that can help us get through to our big rocks. We just have to make the decision to not tolerate the resistance and procrastination. We only get what we tolerate.

Our efforts at plugging away on our big rocks may not work. We just need to suck it up and get on with it.

Cannibalize your own business – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from The Everything Store by Brad Stone and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

When Barnes & Noble decided it was time to wake up to the threat of in 1997, they created their own website, secured investment and spun it off as a private company. However, Barnes & Noble did not put their best employees in the new company as they didn’t want it to cannibalize their existing 2 Billion dollar business. We know who won that battle…

Amazon, on the other hand, cannibalized themselves many times over – a notable example was when they added “Mom & Pop” sellers selling 2nd hand books to their book catalogue, thus placing them in direct competition with the big distributors selling new books. This upset many people, internally and externally, since new books made more money. But, it was completely aligned with their principle of helping customers make better purchases.

Apple, too, under Steve jobs actively cannibalized their own business. When Apple insiders pointed out that the iPhone would eat into the sales of the iPod, Jobs was vocal in that it is better for Apple to cannibalize its sales than a competitor.

So, how do you go about cannibalizing your own business? Coming up next week..

clip_image001Source and thanks to:

‘If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.’ | Steve Jobs

Staying safe

John Nicholson, a football writer, had a very good post on the (legendary?) manager of Arsenal football club, Arsene Wenger.

Arsene Wenger had a few good years at the start of his tenure at Arsenal when he was seen as the “innovator” with a different approach to management and football. Over time, however, the other managers caught on and Wenger lost that edge. He delivered 7 trophies in his first 500 games and exactly 0 in his next 500 and Arsenal have consistently been also-rans – almost there but not really. John Nicholson points to conservatism for that run. Arsenal have been afraid of taking that gamble and have thus stagnated.

While John Nicholson largely sees people as conservatives and risk-takers, I tend to thing we have both within us. Of course, we lean towards one side or the other for most decisions but we do have it in us to be both prevention-focused and promotion-focused. There are times when it is fully advisable to be prevention focused – if you are unsure about the safety of that bungee jump vendor, don’t do that bungee jump. Yet, for the most part, I think we’re better off being promotion focused. (Unless you are a lawyer and maybe, even then, you’re better off being cautious at work and throwing the caution to the wind at home).

I think it makes for a more interesting and maybe even a happier life. Yes, regular risk-takers see a fair bit of pain but they also see learning and wisdom. There’s almost nothing more dangerous than the status quo and nothing more debilitating than stagnation. It’s good to ask the questions, push our boundaries, look for new possibilities, try different things, fail, gain some perspective and then try again. The journey will have more failures than wins but wins feel much better when they are few and far between.

And, as John Nic says, “if you never fall in love you’ll never have your heart broken but what kind of life is it to live which pulls back on the big stuff for fear of both the heartache and the glory it can bring.”

There are few things as dangerous as staying safe.

How privilege is built into the system

A kid born into a family that is well off has 2 massive advantages –
1. Parents that are well educated (largely the case)
2. Parents who can afford good education

For the purposes of this, let’s take well educated parents as a proxy for good parents. We can argue about this for days but I think it is safe to say that well educated parents are much more likely to be good parents in that they can ensure their kids build on their skills, learning, and network.

Second, these kids have parents who can invest in their education – good schools, good books, great technology, etc.

Both these advantages typically kick-start a chain of events that looks something like this – good school -> good university -> good first job -> good graduate school -> better job and career prospects.

Yes, some parts of this chain are debatable – if/when you do graduate school, etc., but this chain is significant. Even if we agree that a good university is a proxy for a reasonably successful career, that’s still a huge advantage. For detractors who like to point to successful companies being built by university drop outs, let’s take a moment to remember that Microsoft and Facebook had their beginnings in Harvard dorms and several others in other illustrious universities like Stanford.

I’m spit-balling a bit with the numbers here but let’s assume the average top 500 university has an undergraduate student population of 3000 students per year. That’s only 1.5 million people. And, say we assume a world population of 7 Billion and assume identical distribution across ages between 1-70, we’re looking at around 100 million people sharing the same age.

Essentially, that’s about 1.5% of the population. I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual number would 1% or less.

How easy is it for a kid born in a low income family to be part of this privileged 1%? I’d say very very hard. This analysis would probably get even more interesting if you then dug into numbers within top graduate school programs across disciplines. I’d be willing to bet that that those seats are largely a smaller percentage of this privilege 1%. And, once we include a new variable – the location of birth – I think you will see that the chances of a kid born into a low income family in a less affluent country has practically a 0 percent chance of ever seeing the kind of life many of us take for granted. And, this doesn’t even consider the odds for a kid whose parents abandoned him/her at birth..

And, of course, all of this is decided by something you have no control over – birth.

This post is not some clarion call to stop complaining, keep perspective, and be happy every single moment. It could be. But, I recognize we are human. That doesn’t mean we can’t work on being happier, complaining less, and giving thanks more often.

This post is about doing 2 things –

1. Take a moment right now to recognize your privilege. If you are in the top 1% of privilege, then recognize it and give thanks. You and I were born lucky. Let’s be humble about it.

2. Do something to help a few kids who were born in tough situations. Even a little goes a long way. I’m sure have expenses but you can easily pledge 1 or 2% from your salary to give to kids who haven’t had your luck. It’s a big problem. It’s a tough problem. We’ve just begin getting our heads around it at Help2Grow. That doesn’t mean we are going to make headway in solving it. It’s a tough problem.. but there are few worthier problems to try solving.

Our mind’s ability to get used to anything

An idea that never ceases to amaze me is the ability our minds have to get used to anything. We all like to think we have control over the future. Many of us like to have plans and get very attached to these plans. And, when we discuss the possibility of our elaborate plans not working out, we sometimes wonder if we can even handle it. “Unimaginable” sometimes pops to mind.

It turns out, however, that we are actually really bad at predicting how we feel. And, that’s because we largely feel okay. We like to believe life is some sort of fairy tale. Big ups, big downs, etc. Well, it is not – in most cases at least.

Our mind has a great defence mechanism thanks largely to it’s ability to tell stories and find meaning around these stories. These stories ensure we never feel debilitated by disappointments – that’s how we’ve managed to even survive inhuman concentration camps.

It’s a great thing to keep in mind the next time you feel you are attached to a particular outcome. If it works out, that’s great. And, if it doesn’t, don’t worry – you’ll find a new outcome to get yourself attached to in no time. Your mind is the ultimate “don’t-take-it-personally-instead-move-on-and-get-shit-done” machine.

The Highs Aren’t as High

“One of the things the professional artist gives up is the thrill of the manic high. I used to be manic, about twenty years ago, when there was a sliver of something working. Things were really brutal at work, with rejections and near-business-death experiences coming daily, and I grabbed hold of any positive feedback really tightly.

Now, I’m delighted to say. not so much. Which means the highs aren’t as high. The successes are about the privilege of doing more work, not about winning. When my Kickstarter project for this book met its funding goal in less than three hours. I didn’t do the line-kicking dance reserved for TV celebrations. Instead. I took out my laptop and got to work. That is the greatest privilege I can imagine.” | Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

I thought about this paragraph today. It is tempting to think of life as a quest to keep notching up wins.

In truth, life is just an infinite game. The greatest gift is to just play, follow a great process, and remind ourselves that happiness doesn’t lie in the destination but the journey.

The highs then cease to be as high and the lows stop being as low. After all, it’s just about plugging away and doing our bit to make this world better. This is easier on some days and harder on others. It’s a gift to just be able to play. Let’s do it well and have fun while we are at it.

You can’t hide behind language

Growing up in the Indian school system, we were typically taught hacks to do better at composition. Some of these were –

– Use connecters like “however,” “moreover,” “furthermore,” etc., at the start of a paragraph
– Write neatly.
– Use at least 3 paragraphs.
– Use good language and throw in a rare word every once in a while

That’s about all I remember right now but I’m sure you get the drift. We were never taught that writing is all about ideas. We never really appreciated great writing. Our goals were limited and our learning followed the same limitations. If you had a good vocabulary, you learnt, over time, to hide behind it.

But, when you begin to share your writing with the world, you realize very quickly that flamboyant language doesn’t do much if you don’t have a point to convey. That’s probably the best thing about writing – no amount of language can save you if you haven’t developed the ability to frame and structure what you want to say. You eventually get found out.

Most things are like writing. In the long run, hiding doesn’t help. The more elaborate the plot, the quicker it unravels. Don’t waste energy hiding. Use it to get good instead.

Morgan Housel on money, psychology, and investing

We interviewed Morgan Housel, columnist at “The Motley Fool,” after reading his excellent post – 140 things to know about investing. As many of you who read this blog know, I have a lot of energy for increasing financial literacy and I really appreciate folks like Morgan who’re focused on doing just that.


About Morgan Housel

Morgan Housel is a columnist at the Motley Fool. He is a two-time winner of the Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers and was selected by the Columbia Journalism Review for the Best Business Writing 2012 anthology. In 2013 he was a finalist for the Gerald Loeb Award and Scripps Howard Award. He holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of Southern California.


My favorite bits –

“What’s really interesting about finance –  and I think this is true for a lot of fields whether you’re in physics, math, chemistry, history, or whatever it is – the more you learn the you more you realize how little you know.

“If you really just started in investing, what’s really important is not necessarily when you’re young the investment decisions that you make.  It’s saving as much money as possible rather than getting caught up in the details about the different kinds of investments that you’re making.”

I think if you’re the kind of investor who really has no interest in business, finance, or the stock market, just investing in a low cost index fund, dollar cost averaging so you’re putting in the same amount of money every month over time is really a smart approach for most investors that don’t want to spend a lot of time doing this or are really not interested in it. “

“I really think that people who are interested in business, commerce, and economics, but not necessarily interested in trading or the stock market, are the people that I think can really do well for themselves over the long run – over the course of 20, or 30, or 40 years – by investing in really good high quality companies that they feel confident about.  They can do well by investing in a good diverse mix of companies that they plan on holding for a long period of time.

“I think a home makes a good place to live in, and that provides value for you of course.  You’ve got a great place to live in, spend the holidays with your family, have a barbeque with your friends, and that’s great.  The idea of the home as an investment, there’s really not much evidence backing that up.

Almost invariably the best investors are the people who have control over their emotions. Why do some people survive and other people perish?  The common denominator in survivors in these extreme situations is that the survivors did not panic when everyone else did.”

“In today’s 24 hour news cycle, where we have so much information online – Yahoo Finance, CNBC, and whatnot – it’s tempting to look at your portfolio all day long, minute by minute.  I think that’s very dangerous for a lot of people.  Most people should be looking at their portfolio once a quarter, four times a year.”

“The most important thing to know when you look at long term financial history is that volatility in the stock market is perfectly normal.  It’s the equivalent of having summers every year. If you look historically, the stock market falls 10% basically once every year.  If you go back through more than 100 years of data, it happens almost every year.  You get a 30% crash basically once a decade.  You get a 50% crash 2-3 times per century.”

The single most important variable for how you’ll do as an investor is how long you can stay invested. I’m always astounded when I think about compound interest and the power that it has for investing.  Time is massively powerful.  That’s my secret to investing.  That is the most powerful concept in investing.  It’s very importantly the single most over-looked aspect of investing as well.”

The full transcript, as always, is on

Exist to solve problems – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from Anything You Want by Derek Sivers.

At a conference in the pre-iTunes era, somebody asked Derek Sivers, founder of – “What if every musician just set up their own store on their website?” was then the primary place for independent musicians to sell their music.

“Well, if musicians don’t need CD Baby any more, CD Baby would shut up shop and I would just get back to making music.” – Derek replied to general astonishment.

Derek’s view was simple – a business is started to solve a problem. If the problem is solved, the business is no longer needed. Businesses are often guilty of keeping the problem around so they can continue solving it. But, these businesses die eventually – think businesses like Kodak and Blockbuster which refused to accept the onset of digital photography and the internet.

The best businesses, in fact, are adept at cannibalizing themselves. More on that in next week’s idea.

Source and thanks to:

‘Any business that is in business to sell you a cure is motivated not to focus on prevention.’ | Derek Sivers

Implicit choices

Imagine you’ve just started a leather trading business. As it is normal practice to offer discounts to customers, you decide to offer a flat 10% discount to all customers. This is against the norm of more complicated seasonal discount schemes that your competitors offer. You decide to get rid of the complexity, figure out their final discount amount, and just offer this flat rate. Feels fair, right?

Well, it will feel until a customer placing a one million dollar order watches you provide a 10% discount to somebody who buys a thousand dollars worth of leather. Why should the thousand dollar guy receive the same % discount?

This illustrates the power of implicit choices to wreck the intent of original choices. By choosing to give a flat 10% discount, you implicitly backed your smaller customers and alienated your big customers. A “fairer” way to support your big customers would be to offer the million dollar guy 10% discount and the smaller guy a 5% discount. I’m guessing you’ve spotted it now but, here again, you have implicitly told the smaller guy that you like bigger customers more.

There are 2 interesting learnings here –

1. Life’s bad decisions are most of all a result of implicit choices. You haven’t explicitly decided to become unfit when you picked up your daily evening soap opera habit. But, well, it happens.

2. You can’t please everybody. Your choices will upset groups of people – it is better to clearly evaluate who your choices are meant to please (it could just be yourself). What seems fair will have a bunch of implicit repercussions – might as well be intentional about them.