Being smart vs being on the right train

We all know how important it is to be smart. But, what we don’t think about enough is about the importance of working on the right opportunities.

All opportunities are not equal. If we aren’t working on the right opportunities, we’ll rarely get a shot at accomplishing something meaningful. We all hear of the “high visibility” projects in big companies, the start-up that is just exploding and on it’s way to changing the world – do you think the folks in there are much smarter than you? In the conventional sense, heck no! In the “finding the right opportunity” sense, probably.

So, how do you jump on the right train, or “rocket-ship” in Sheryl Sandberg’s words? I can’t say much having never done it myself. But, my guess is that they were fantastic at building relationships and thus heard of great new opportunities, were always open to the next big thing (Sandberg’s willingness to jump from Google to Facebook is commendable), and willing to fail.

And, I think it all starts by internalizing the learning – after a point, it matters less how smart you are and matters a lot more which train you are on.

Time or Money

You generally have one of these in limited supply. While we are students, we have money in short supply but an abundance of time. This reverses once we start working – suddenly time becomes a bigger problem than money.

Constraints never go away. We just need to stop viewing them as constraints and start thinking of them as forces that help us prioritize better. Yes, we’d generally like more time/money travel, hang out, and have fun but these constraints make sure we focus on getting what we need rather than getting what we want.

We do hear of folks who use lack of time as an excuse to not live happy lives. That’s bullshit in my opinion. Giving someone who moans about a lack of time more time will never solve the problem. As the quote goes, if you want something done, give it to a busy person.

Constraints are good. They help us live better lives. We just have to use them well.

Life lessons from a friendly dog

We were on a break a few days ago and visited a hill station. During our 2 nights at the hill station, we stayed in an inn of sorts that had many very handsome dogs. They looked like crosses between a pure bred Alsation and multiple street dogs. This post is about the dog that hung out near where we stayed. He (I think it was a he) became an instant hit. Here’s why –

1. He always wagged his tail. You were never left with doubts about it’s intent. He always wanted you to know that he was friendly.

2. He never came to you if he sensed fear. There were a few in our group who weren’t comfortable with a dog hanging around them. So, he just didn’t go close to them. He was willing to spend time with you if you were willing to spend time with him.

3. He never overdid the affection. No jumping, licking or annoyances. It feels like he’s learnt from experience and was very civil throughout.

4. He always went away to spend time by himself after an extended period hanging around us. The introvert in me appreciated that.

5. He was willing to get out of his comfort zone. This was best demonstrated when we went out on a walk one night. Once we were out of the boundary of the inn, the dog began showing serious hesitation. We figured it was well outside his territory. But, he came with us anyway. 5 minutes later, he stopped again for a good minute seriously considering if he should join us. Eventually, he did. We appreciated his company and it’s always nice to have a guard dog around.

We only spent 2 days with this dog and fell completely in love with him. He was always positive in his intent, understood people and seemed to have learned from previous reactions to his behaviour, was comfortable spending time with himself, and was willing to step outside his comfort zone.

I guess there are a few lessons to learn from that.

Quaker teenagers – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath..

An analysis of teenager decision making showed –
– 30% of teenager decisions were just statements or “yes-and-yes” decisions. E.g. “I am going to go to that party,” “I am not going to smoke.”
– Another 35% were “whether-or-not” decisions. E.g. “Should I go to that party or not?”

In other words, teens are very binary. They don’t consider any options and instead spend a lot of time mulling over one option.

In an analysis of 168 decisions made by companies across industries, researcher Paul Nutt found that only 29% of the decisions made by companies had options => companies were worse than teenagers in making decisions.

In fact, large acquisition decisions were often a result of a “yes and yes” decision. The CEO decided a company was worth acquiring and everyone else worked hard to prove him right. A famous example is Quaker’s failed acquisition of Snapple for $1.7 Billion. Ex-Quaker CEO, William Smithburg, later admitted that the acquisition had no one within the company challenging it. Think about that – the largest acquisition in the company’s history had no one challenging it.

Do we consider options when we make big decisions within our teams?

Source and thanks to:

‘There was so much excitement about bringing in a new brand, a brand with legs. We should have had a couple of people arguing the ‘no’ side of the evaluation.’ | William Smithburg reflecting on the Snapple debacle


“Houston, we have a problem.”


“Hey, I think we have a problem here. I’m going to try and fix it. I’d love your help too.”

It’s not just about the words. It’s about the mind set. We either walk into organizations, relationships, and groups as either renters or as owners.

And, as always, we choose.

Just like you

Telling a person you know someone else who looks just like them feels like a great conversation starter. But it isn’t. We know there are 6 other people on the planet who look like us but we pride ourselves in being unique. And we’d actually would prefer to hear that there’s no one like us.

So, how does that work when dealing with customers? When it comes to complex issues that need trust (e.g. legal advice, admissions advice), telling them you’ve dealt with “people like you” is a great way to build trust. But, as you go to the higher end of the service spectrum, it comes down to showing you understand the base rate but thrive in the uniqueness.

Yes, when considering a million people at once, we are all largely similar and our behaviour can be predicted pretty accurately. But, marketers have nothing to gain by telling people that. And, if you are in conversation with someone who looks familiar, neither do you. :-)

Price and value

We deliver value when a product becomes an experience. Taking your iPhone out of it’s cover is not about the phone – it’s about the experience. It isn’t just about the packaging, the wait for the phone, or even the phone itself – the experience is more than a sum of the parts. And the best service experiences are frictionless.

To illustrate, Resorts A and B charge about the same amount for a night’s stay. Both resorts are up-scale. When you check into resort A, they take orders for all your meals for the day and you pay for them at checkout. No worrying about signing bills, no calling room service, and no contact required – just go ahead and enjoy the experience.

Contrast this to resort B – every morning at breakfast, you are reminded that while breakfast is free, a cup of coffee is not. The cup of coffee costs $3.50. Instant friction. Would a guest staying mind if $3.50 was pre-included in the bill? Absolutely not. But, somehow, resort B decided it was in its best interest to remind guests about the cost of a cup of coffee. I’m sure they had their reasons and I just hope they were good. At least for me, it was an instant turn off.

Approaching pricing from a cost plus margin lens blinds us to the customer’s need to experience what we offer. It’s not about the money. It’s about the surprise and delight. It’s not about the number. It’s about the feeling. The moment we make our product or service an experience, we deliver value.

The newbie allowance

I was driving around in a rented car today. I’ve done this few times before in different places and the one learning that stays consistent across is that it takes a day’s worth of driving to get used to a place’s road rules and quirks.

So, as was customary on a 1st day, I paused as I was getting into a freeway unsure as to which direction the GPS was pointing to. In that moment when I slowed down, I could see the driver in the car behind me raise her hands up in frustration mentally asking me to get on with it. A similar gesture happened as I was wondering whether I could take a U turn elsewhere and looking for a sign – only this time the driver behind honked loud and hard to ensure I got the message.

In both these cases, I thought – “Jesus guys, give me a break. I’m still trying to figure it out. How about considering that I might be here on my first day? Where’s my newbie allowance?”

That’s when I was reminded of the fact that I have probably not been considerate myself when faced with such situations. Whether it’s a sarcastic thought, comment if action at some frustration at some unknown person, I’m sure I’ve been inconsiderate to someone in their first day or attempt. I guess we all get caught up in our lives so much that we forget these things. And I guess that’s the beauty of such experiences that have you start all over again. You learn what it is to be a well intentioned but probably error prone newbie. You learn to empathize and make promises that you’ll remember to be balanced in your reactions next time.

That’s at least what I’m promising to myself. I’m sure I’ll struggle with this as I’m a fairly impatient person by nature but life is more about the balancing than being balanced. And now that I’ve written about it here, I intend to work hard on the balancing.

Forced to natural

When you first start learning a new skill, a lot of the actual execution is forced. Your coach shows you the recommended way of doing it and you work towards copying it. Over time, however, you learn to develop your own style. You make the switch from forced to natural.

This switch takes time though. If you attempt to find your natural style too quickly, it doesn’t really work – forced execution of the right way to do something is important. That said, having a forced style for too long kills it as well.

This concept came alive in my mind when I thought of my attempts at public speaking. When I started public speaking, I tried very hard to be many things – forceful, funny, inspirational, loud, and impactful. A couple of these attempts worked but most didn’t – yet, this was an important part of the training. Forcing these different personas and styles helped me understand what worked and what didn’t. I’ll never sign up to be the funny guy now – that’s not me. I also know you can’t force inspiration and impact. You just have to stand there, put yourself out there, and just be. If you are inspired yourself, it will show. No need to force it – perfection is overrated while being yourself definitely isn’t.

I was reminded of this shift as I was re-learning swimming. I needed to remind myself to get rid of my not-so-good self-taught “natural” style and force the correct style. I am still going through the process – swimming still feels a bit forced as I seek to make the right way subconscious. But, I’ve learnt to accept this tension between forced and natural – it’s part of a good process… and I’ve learnt to appreciate the importance of a good process more than ever these days.

Prof Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, intrinsic motivation, and happiness

For a person interested in psychology, human behaviour, and happiness, Prof Mihaly’s work on “flow” is the stuff of legend. It was a real honor interviewing him (it was a very memorable experience too). For all those who are reading about Prof Mihaly for the first time, I’d recommend his wonderful TED talk.

About Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

featuredProfessor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has contributed pioneering work to our understanding of happiness, creativity, human fulfillment and the notion of “flow” — a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work. Csikszentmihalyi teaches psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, focusing on human strengths such as optimism, motivation and responsibility. He’s the director of the Quality of Life Research Center there. He has written numerous books and papers about the search for joy and fulfillment.


My favorite bits –

“We published several articles from was the study of internet chess and how people play.  We asked people who played against each other to fill out how much flow they had in the game afterwards.  In a week we collected over 1000 games and it was a good way to study whether our hypothesis was correct.  Our hypothesis was that the greatest enjoyment would come when the two players were exactly matched in terms of their skill level because that means that the challenges and skills were equal for both players.  We found that was almost true, but it was even better if the opponent was about 7% better than you were.”

“Junk flow is when you are actually becoming addicted to a superficial experience that may be flow at the beginning, but after a while becomes something that you become addicted to instead of something that makes you grow.  You find that even in chess, which I love.  I think it’s very difficult to exhaust chess as a source of growth, and yet you find that so many chess masters when they reach the end of their career, even while they’re young in their thirties or forties, can’t go beyond their skill level anymore.”

“The Greek philosopher Plato wrote a thousand years ago that the greatest challenge for teachers and parents is to teach young people to find pleasure in the right things.  He called it pleasure, but actually what he meant was enjoyment.  The problem is that it’s much easier to find pleasure or enjoyment in things that are not growth-producing but are attractive and seductive.  After a while you get trapped by a cycle of short term bursts of excitement, and then it becomes a habit; and now you feel bad if you can’t play, but you don’t feel good when you can play.  That’s a problem that goes beyond flow.  It goes to the philosophy of life.”

“Usually I find that people who become intrinsically motivated in their job, whether they’re surgeons or cooks in a restaurant, are the people who paid enough attention to what they had to do to discover small differences in performance and small differences in the product and became fascinated with the possibility of improving what they were doing.”

“The activity becomes a form of self-expression. This who I am, this is what I can do, etc.  When that happens, the work becomes intrinsically motivating which means that even if you are paid for it, or even if you get other rewards for it, it also very importantly gives you a sense of this is who I am.  This is what I can do well, and this is what I am called to do.”

“Twenty years ago I discovered a little passage in Dante Alighieri’s book The Monarchia which was written in 1317 – 700 years ago.  He says that every being enjoys most of all expressing itself.  We had dogs for a long time, and after I read that I realized that each dog was the happiest when it did what it was bred to do.  The hunting dogs liked to hunt; the guard dogs liked to keep people away from the door.   The sheepdog loves to chase children around until they get together like a flock of sheep.  When they do that they look happy, content, and proud.”

“Happiness is not something that is guaranteed, or that comes with our birth certificates.  It’s a possibility that we have to discover how to be happy.  Happiness is to do things that are harmonious with who we are, with what we can do, with what we like, and with what we think is right. Do it. Don’t figure that somebody else will do it, or that you don’t have a right to do it. “

Thank you Prof Mihaly for that wonderful interview. The full transcript, as always, is on