Living in Beirut

Steven Pressfield had a fantastic post up the other day on his reflections of an anecdote from journalist Thomas Friedman’s book.


Beirut in the 80s was the Hobbesian Wild West. There was a war going on with Israel; artillery shells were raining down at all hours. At the same time a Lebanese civil war was raging; local militias, criminal gangs, extremist-religious armies and kidnapping rings ran rife. Death came out of nowhere and at all hours. Entire city blocks would be leveled by truck bombs, for which no group even took the trouble to claim credit. At the morgue (when anyone cared enough to transport bodies to the morgue), corpses were not even afforded the dignity of being identified. It was an era of out-and-out anarchy, where death was frequent, random, and meaningless.

And yet people lived their lives. Kids went to school, businesses found ways to stay open, Tom Friedman pursued his journalistic calling.

Tom Friedman writes – “Maybe the most popular Beirut mind game … was learning how to view one’s environment selectively.

I learned to be quite good at this myself. Late one afternoon in the summer of 1982, I was typing a story at the Reuters bureau when the crackle of machine-gun fire erupted in the park across the street. Another American reporter, who had just arrived in Beirut, ran to the window [and] became transfixed at the sight … he rushed over to me and said excitedly, “Did you see that? Did you see that guy? He was holding a gun like this right in his gut and shooting someone. Did you see that?”

I just looked up from my typewriter at this fellow and said, “Was he shooting at you? No. Was he shooting at me? No. So leave me alone, would you?”


Here’s what I find most inspiring – we all live in Beirut in our minds. It is full of distractions with the resistance suggesting this procrastination idea or another. We always have stray thoughts about this worry of the moment or that. It’s easy to be caught up in this or that. What triumphs in the end is an unerring sense of purpose and unwavering commitment to doing the right thing. Or, as Steven Pressfield says, it is about asking 3 important questions…

What is important?

What counts?

Why are we here, and what do we want?

Welcome to Beirut.

3 weapons of the resistance

I’ve been swimming nearly every day in the past few months. The water is beginning to become warmer but this wasn’t the case 2 months back. I’d be jumping into what felt like shards of ice (I’m exaggerating of course – the temperature was probably around 21-22 and cold!) at the end of a long day with no one in the pool but myself. In short, I was prime target for the resistance. It had this big voice in my head telling me to go back every time I stepped near the tool.

So, of course, I did exactly the opposite. I wanted to understand the resistance and decided to spend a few days studying it. I discovered there are 3 weapons the resistance uses consistently.

1. Time. The first thing the resistance says is “You don’t need to do this today. You can do this tomorrow.” It hates deadlines and loves playing for time and procrastinating. To give you an example, in the first few days, I’d manage to get into the water (at waist level) and it would take a full 3-4 minutes before I willed myself to start swimming. These 3-4 minutes were spent in dialog with the resistance. So, after a while, I just started jumping in. No time for negotiation.

2. Disregard of your reputation. The resistance doesn’t care about the past. You could have a reputation as a resistance fighter and it wouldn’t matter. The resistance is all about the here and now. The only thing it hates is confidence. After a while, I started gaining confidence that, no matter how cold the water was, I wouldn’t turn back. Once it knows you know, it finds it hard to fight you.

3. Lack of clarity. This idea is building on the idea of confidence. If you walk in saying – “I’m going to swim 30 minutes and will do it no matter what” – it is hard for the resistance to negotiate. Clarity is the death blow. Use it.

Eventually, that’s how I kept up my swimming habit – I jumped in when I was unsure how cold the water was, I had clear goals and objectives and always repeated to myself “I’ve never regretted a swim yet”, and I built confidence over time that I’d jump in now matter what.

Of course, this is applicable far beyond the pool to every activity that makes us better – getting important things done, studying, exercising, reading, etc. It’s the same 3 weapons.

Once you understand the resistance, it is easier to fight it.

Worry if it comes too easy

I’m listening to Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography and a point Sir Alex raised was his worry if a player’s transfer came too easily. He spoke about 2 instances when he went about signing players who seemed like “no brainers” and faced no resistance to sign them. He worried. And rightly so – they didn’t turn out to be successful at Manchester United.

The same point came up in a discussion with a friend yesterday – he said the best things in life come in somewhat absurd circumstances. There’s that maniacal effort, that surge of effort and emotion as we close in, and that craziness before it happens.

I’ve found that to be repeatedly true as well. Most things worth having have come in crazy circumstances. And, I can think of a couple of instances where everything looked like smooth sailing on major projects before the whole thing fell apart.

If something important is happening all too easy, maybe it’s time to pause and ask – why am I so lucky?

And, if you are looking at something important happening and find the schedule leading up to it absolutely nuts, good for you. That’s just a sign that all is normal in this world.

Josephine Ng on workplace, women, and leadership

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Dhanya interviewed Josephine Ng after seeing her on TV in a show about women CEOs in Singapore.

Josephine retired from running an ad agency, and now runs a social enterprise that provides development opportunities for women of any age. She and her husband run this business together. It’s a simple idea – they run expert-managed alteration houses in Orchard. The venue looks less like the regular alteration house we would have been to and  more like a classy fashion house.

You can read more about Alteration Initiative and Josephine Ng at http://www.alteration.com.sg/

My favorite bits –

“Business concept wise, we felt there was a huge market gap for high quality alteration. If you look at Singapore, or even Asia – alteration has been very hole in the wall, very messy, they would start looking for your things everywhere. There would be threads all over the place.”

“As for the group of people we wanted to help, we sought to speak to social initiative experts. Single mothers were a group of people who came up. They would like flexible work hours, and ideally work from home even. So we put sewing and single mothers together. If they have the basic skill, we could help them improve/teach them and help them earn a decent living.”

“Currently our beneficiary group includes matured women. More than 50% of our staff includes women above 59 years of age, formerly employed women who for whatever the reason can’t go back to their employment.”

“When they first come in it’s a huge culture shock for them, with or without skill. Even with skill they find that we are very particular about our workmanship. Every little thing matters in our work – the thread colour, inseam finish, outside finish, straightness of line.”

“One of the things I am very proud of doing is this – of creating women who can think about what they are doing, and not do it blindly. They learn to put in the extra effort, to show care.”

“I remember this as our very first experience. When we redecorated our workspaces, we thought a lot about the customer’s view. Coming from an ad agency, that was very important to us, the ambiance. We spent money on doing up the decor and the especially the lights. When they went in, they asked why the lights were so dark, and why were the cabinets all black. To them the setup of the tailor’s work station was important. And we ended up realizing how our thought process went against what was really important.”

“It’s always about this one thing – whether we are doing enough to create value.”

Thanks Josephine for taking the time. Full transcript, as always, on RealLeaders.tv

The Kindle – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from The Everything Store by Brad Stone…

While Apple relied on its inspirational founder to relentlessly disrupt industries and cannibalize its own profits, Jeff Bezos characteristically followed a book. Clayton Christensen’s book – “The Innovator’s Dilemma” – pointed out that companies who successfully disrupted themselves created separate autonomous entities and staffed some of their best people to lead the venture.

After watching Steve Jobs disrupt music, Bezos realized that he had to do the same for books. Just as Jobs, a die-hard music lover, had an understanding of music, Bezos understood books and knew the future would be carrying digital libraries in one hand.

So, in 2004, Bezos pulled out Steve Kessel, who was heading Books (one of Amazon’s most coveted divisions) and placed him as Head of Digital – a new department. Under Kessel’s watch, Amazon started a separate company in the San Francisco Bay Area- Lab 126 – which consisted of a small group of hardware hackers who were tasked to disrupt Amazon. After a few initial proposals and ideas, they began working on an e-reader that would revolutionize the industry. The result was “The Kindle.”

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Source and thanks to: Amazon.com

‘If you’re competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering.’ | Jeff Bezos

Just build it

It is easy to feel stuck with the status quo. “That’s how things work here” and all that. Our natural reaction to that is a powerful emotion – discontent. When you feel that sense of discontent and annoyance at the status quo, don’t just swallow it and walk away.

It is worth remembering that everything that exists today, i.e. the status quo, was created by human beings just like you and me. They weren’t necessarily smarter or better – they just channelled their discontent to build things.

Choosing to build what you care about doesn’t mean success is assured. If anything, the odds of failure are extremely high. But, the odds of becoming wiser are really high too. It might not work. And, if it doesn’t, you’ll extract valuable learnings from it anyway.

A bunch of friends and I were discontented with the options available for charitable giving. We wanted something more long term, more sustainable. So, we’ve created our own. And, boy, are we struggling! I think we might have made every misstep in the book so far – we took too long to decide a name, we took too long to get our act together and get ourselves registered, we didn’t realize our first potential partner didn’t have legal authorization until the last minute, etc., etc. We’re making so many mistakes that I intend to create a series around the challenges of building a charitable organization as soon as our revamped website is up (coming very soon). But, it promises to be a very interesting journey. We wake up knowing we’re in complete control of having the sort of impact we want to have in the lives of those who were born with far less than us. And, it is quite a challenge to build a 100 year project – which is what we aspire to do.

So, if you’re feeling stuck and discontented, channel that emotion. Build what matters to you. You’ll scream a bit, learn a lot, grow, and have fun in the process. And, most importantly, you’ll realize that everything we see around us is all invented by people just like us..  about time we got to some inventing as well.

Mix strong opinions with big ears

Venture capitalist Brad Feld had a fantastic post up yesterday – “Mix strong opinions with big ears.” Go read it.

“I know a lot of people who have strong opinions. I know a lot of other people who are excellent listeners. The venn diagram of the intersection of the two is uncomfortably small.”

I love this. I have strong opinions myself. My ears could be bigger. In Brad’s words –

“Big open ears doesn’t mean that you just listen. It means you are a good listener. An active listener. One who incorporates what he is hearing into the conversation in real time. You are comfortable responding with a modification to an opinion or perspective as a result of new information. You are comfortable challenging, and being challenged, in the goal of getting to a good collaborate answer, rather than just absorbing information but then coming back later as though there was never any information shared.”

One of my favorite wiser friends does this really well. You always feel listened to even if he completely disagrees. And, after you finish, he’ll explain why he feels you’ve missed the point. In contrast, I often let my impatience comes through.

This isn’t easy. It is no wonder Aristotle said “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

That’s why “mix strong opinions with big ears” is a great line. It is both a guide of an ideal state as well as a guide for what to look for in advisors and sparring partners. I’ll remember this in my next passionate debate. Thanks Brad.

Why talk about failure?

I talk a lot about failure in this blog – about the emotions involved, about picking ourselves up, about focusing on the process, and about ensuring we learn from them. I thought I’d write about why I do this.

I find that there aren’t enough blog posts about normal life on the internet. You have tons of blog posts around how to sell better, market better, build a better company, and so on. You have many praising successful people/reflecting on why people were successes. And the ones that have real life applicability are those that talk about the “7 ways to be happy” or the “30 things you need to do stay productive.” I read/skim through all these sorts of posts but I don’t think they do the topic of failure justice.

When we play an opponent who is 7% better than us, experiments have concluded that we only win 30% of the time. However, we feel great about winning since winning has that challenge. If we seek learning and growth in our times, the circumstances (our main opponent) is regularly 7-10% better than we are. This means a failure rate of 70-80%. That’s normal life – you fail a lot and win sometimes. The win feels great and, more often than not, the previous failures don’t matter as much because it only takes one good thing to work out. That one break can change everything.

So, we spend 70-80% of our lives facing challenges and failures. And, yet, we don’t talk about it. Instead, we find our resolve to fight further dampened when we compare the highlight reels of our friends on Facebook to our dirty “behind-the-scenes” video.

That’s why I talk a lot about failure. In a way, it tells me everything is normal in the world. I hope it tells you that too because we all have our troubles and challenges. We all are defined by the choices we make. And, if you are going through a tough time now, life has repeatedly demonstrated to me that a good process, a good heart, and hard work make it through in the end.

We do. We fail. We learn. We love. We laugh. We live. I guess that’s really what this blog is about.

The joy of hitting rock bottom

Whenever I go through a tough phase, I always look forward to that moment when I hit rock bottom. That’s the moment when things can’t feel any worse and when anything that follows will be an improvement.

How do you know you’ve hit rock bottom? From past experience, you just know!

Rock bottom is a great place to be as the only way is up.

If you’re going through a tough phase, don’t push rock bottom away. Welcome it with open arms. Failure is not in hitting rock bottom. Failure is not working hard to make it back again. Falling is inevitable. Failure is not.

A life well lived enjoys more failures than successes. Rock bottom is just part of living and thriving. It teaches us humility and makes life interesting. Pick yourself up. Get on with it.

The Curve Ball Will Come

Out of every 100 plans we make, 95 of them will have a curve ball.

There are 2 issues with curve balls –
1. They are hard to plan for (there’s a reason they’re called “curve balls”).
2. They surprise us. And we hate surprises.

We can attempt to mitigate the planning issue by working out various possible scenarios – from best case to worst case. But, that’s no guarantee we’ll be able to mitigate it. Preparation is good, however.

What we can do is ensure we eliminate the emotion of surprise. Just expect a curve ball every time you make a plan. I’d even say – be surprised if a curve ball doesn’t come. It generally will. Don’t be surprised. Curve balls are about as certain as summers every year.

And, it’s the curve balls that make the journey interesting and learning filled anyway…