Amazon-style narratives – The 200 words project

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

A few years into building Amazon, Jeff Bezos wanted meetings to be more productive. So, he decided to ban PowerPoint presentations since he felt they communicate very little real information. Instead, meetings at Amazon were to be structured around memos (with a maximum of 6 pages), called narratives. Bezos believed writing necessitated rigorous preparation from meeting organizers, forced a deeper clarity of thought, and ensured they went beyond the numeric facts to the story.

So, to this day, meetings of Bezos’ team of senior executives begins with participants quietly absorbing the memo. They spend as long as 30 minutes reading and scribbling notes in the margins. Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention.

The Amazon meeting idea is being adopted by many companies. Here’s to giving it a shot.

Amazon style narratives
Source and thanks to:

 Full sentences are harder to write, they have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” | Jeff Bezos

It’s fine to get an MBA but don’t be an MBA

As I’m two days away from getting started on my graduate school education, I thought I’d share a blog post that happens to be one of my all time favorites written by Hunter Walk (thank you for the great post, Hunter!), a venture capitalist and former Google/YouTube product manager. While the post’s title is directed at MBA’s, I think it is just as applicable for anything you consider an accomplishment – getting promoted to Vice President, raising funding for your start-up from an A-list venture capital firm, IPO-ing your firm, working at a blue chip company, etc.

I hope you enjoy the post as much as I did..

The “MBA: good or shitty for entrepreneurs” debate flares up regularly here in Silicon Valley. Having attended business school at Stanford, I certainly have a horse in the race, but I’m also not one to insist it’s (a) the best choice for everyone or (b) required for success. At the same time, let’s dismiss the notion that any legitimate entrepreneur would never go to business school – ie that the act of even thinking an MBA is worthwhile proves you’re not a real hacker or hustler.

Key to all this talk is a more fundamental issue which most people gloss over — the notion of letting an experience define you versus it becoming part of who you are. And thus my take is that it’s fine to get an MBA, but not cool under any circumstances to be an MBA.

Getting an MBA means you’re curious to learn broadly about theories and explore how these techniques can be applied to various businesses. Being an MBA means you think you’re getting taught the one right answer to problems – to a hammer everything is a nail – and that only MBAs know these dark arts.

Getting an MBA means offering your perspectives and experiences to your classmates. Being an MBA means looking at your peers as networking targets.

Getting an MBA means thinking about your degree as just another attribute of who you are – I have brown hair, a wife, work at Google, enjoy citrus fruits and possess a Stanford degree. Being an MBA means you are “Hunter Walk, Stanford MBA,” elevating the matriculation to a level of undeserving primacy.

Getting an MBA means you shoot out of school wanting to prove yourself and see what you can contribute to others. Being an MBA means thinking the world owes you something and that your value 10x’ed just from spending two years on a campus.

At the end of the day, just be who you are, which is a collection of skills, abilities, successes, failures, fears, dreams and hopes. The most important degree you possess is Human University.

By the way, the “get, don’t be” applies not just to business school but any accomplishment that causes one to define their identity vis a vis an entity or action. This just as easily could have been titled “fine to go to MIT, don’t be an MIT” or “fine to work at Facebook, don’t be a Facebook.”

Allowing for serendipity

Louis Pasteur discovered vaccination by accident. The idea that the same bacteria that caused disease would be the key to becoming immune to it was so ahead of its time that it would have been impossible to get there by logical thought. An accident was required.

Louis Pasteur did not get there by accident though. He was one of the most accomplished germ researchers of his time and was experimenting on germs every day. He worked hard to create the circumstances that allowed the accident to take place and, when it did, he was open enough to consider what the accident could mean. There were other doctors and researchers who had observed similar germ behavior before him but they brushed it away. Louis Pasteur’s openness to serendipity combined with his acquired skills is what made vaccination possible.

Serendipity and luck have a funny way of showing up when you are most prepared and still open to a new idea that might change all your assumptions.

We don’t find serendipity. Serendipity finds us. We just have to be open enough to allow it to happen..

The importance of imbalance

It is an idea that is easy to forget when you work hard on happiness. We like both routine and variety and it is, thus, important to let ourselves go and become a bit less obsessed with keeping things exactly as we like them.

So, every once in a while, say yes to more than you can do, take on more than you can normally do, let loose and stay up the whole night and let it mess up your routines.

Often, that’s when magic happens.

Yes, we lose balance. But, life is about the balancing, not just about being balanced. Sometimes.. just sometimes, it is worth giving our lives a slight tremor ourselves to keep us alert, active, and prepared for life’s big (and unusually unexpected) tremors.

2 day shipping

Students have a free 6 month trial of Amazon Prime with 2 day shipping on most items on I’ve already used this a few times and can’t help but wax lyrical about its awesomeness. It is one of those ideas that doesn’t need a marketing team – it just sells itself.

Having read ‘The Everything Store’ by Brad Stone, I know that 2 day shipping was another product of Jeff Bezos’ relentless ambition to create the best possible retail experience for consumers. Thanks Jeff.

It is easy to take all these amazing products and services we have around us for granted. I find it worth remembering that all of this was invented by human beings just like you and me.

Time for us to create awesome experiences as well..

The 2 basic principles of personal finance

1. Maximize your earning potential
2. Save as much as possible

Once you have a sufficient amount saved up, the third principle is to invest wisely.

Yes, tracking budgets help, good investing really matters, and optimizing tax helps too. But, none of these are useful if you don’t get the basics right.

Get down to the basic principles – at work and in life. The rest is gravy.

Confidence is..

Confidence is not knowing that you’ll sail through with no difficulties. It is knowing that when difficulty inevitably arises, you will be able to deal with it.

Confidence, hence, is a state of being. Yes, you can “feel” confident – invincible, even.  But, it is in being confident where happiness lies.

(I am in a place with intermittent connection this week. So, please forgive me if I miss a day. It won’t be for lack of content. :))

But, and, possibility – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from The Art of Possibility by Benjamin and Rosamund Zander..

Rosamund Zander says – “Imagine you are in Florida for summer vacation and find it raining heavily. You hate it because you went to Florida for the sun and many rounds of golf. But, what can you do? You can choose to reject it with a ‘but’ and sulk – “I wanted to have fun but it is raining.”

Or you can choose to accept it with an ‘and’. “I wanted to have fun and it is raining.”

This opens up to the next question – what can you do about it? You have many options – get lots of rest, play board games, watch movies, eat great food, or take a flight to a sunny place.

So, as the Zanders point out, if you are short sighted, don’t complain about not being able to see. Pick up your glasses and explore the possibilities.” Only with acceptance do we have possibility. And, we can get started by replacing the “but” with an “and.”


Source and thanks to:

‘The capacity to be present to everything that is happening, without resistance, creates possibility.’ | Ben and Roz Zander

Magnets, glue, and iron filings – why groups work and when they fail

My model for any group/tribe of people – a family, a team, a community, or a company – involves magnets, glue, and iron filings. The analogy is not perfect but I do find it very helpful in understanding why groups work and when they fail

The magnet is the leader of the group. And, there generally always is a leader. This is the person who attracts people to his/her magnetic field. Magnets typically do this because they have the ability to articulate a vision for the group or tribe. They manage to stay magnets when they repeatedly demonstrate that they care more for the people within the tribe than themselves, and when they deliver on that vision (a happy family, a high performing team, a responsible company, etc.). The magnet is essentially a “giver” function. It is impossible for a magnet to be a “taker” – such magnets don’t last long. Bully leaders can either keep the illusion for a short while or will have to keep shifting groups as their magnetism wears off over time.

The next component are those who join the group for some personal benefit. I call this bunch “iron filings.” No group would exist without them. These are the folk who make the group a group. These are employees in a company who want a good salary, team members who want the group to succeed so they might go to the next more successful group, friends who want to be in a group that is “cool” or has the most fun. The iron filing is a “taker” function. Your focus, as an iron filing, is to get more than you give.

The final component are the glue. The magnet realizes very quickly that she needs the glue if she wants the group to go somewhere (and the group always has to go somewhere). Iron filings tend to fall off really quickly if they don’t feel taken care of. And, the glue do just that. They are the community builders. They nullify the magnet’s hard decisions, they ensure everyone is taken care of, and they generally make the group a great place to be. Over time, some of them become responsible community managers and ensure the group’s spirit is in good health. They are the ultimate givers and no group can exist without them. A smart magnet knows that it is the glue that makes the group possible. In some ways, the magnet may be the personality (that brings people in) but the glue is the character (that ensures they stay there). There is no limit to the amount of glue around a magnet. Incredible teams or groups of people often just have the magnet and glue.

There are a few implications when you consider this model. I’ll share 3 –
1. Successful operating teams have magnets and glue work really well with each other. The magnet is the CEO or visionary and the glue is the COO or details person. One cannot exist without the other. Successful families have this too – the visionary and the executor make for a wonderful team. In some ways, the strength of a magnet is in attracting and retaining the glue.

2. This also explains why succession planning is very hard in companies. There are very few magnets that are capable of attracting strong magnets to their group. It takes a tremendous amount of security and confidence – in short, extraordinary leaders do that. As a result, top management teams rarely have a good successor in the immediate management team. General Electric famously by-passed their top management team to pick a magnet from the next level. His name was Jack Welch.

3. We play different roles in different situations. We are capable of playing all 3 roles and have probably done so in different groups. However, this is perhaps a nice way to check in about which role we play in which group. If we’re just behaving like iron filings, perhaps we want to consider becoming the glue. And, if we don’t like the idea of being the glue within a specific team or organization, perhaps it is a sign to move to a different group?

A few thoughts on age

1. The concept of age is largely a mental construct. Yes, our body does change over time . However, we often exaggerate changes to suit societal norms.

2. Societies  (especially more hierarchical ones) often attach many expectations to age. There are certain expectations on how to behave and how to live. The reason for this is that age is a great tool for enforcing mindless hierarchy. “I am older than you. So, I know better.”

3. The truth, however, is that respecting someone because they are old is completely arbitrary. It assumes wisdom and that’s a flawed assumption. Wisdom doesn’t come with age. It comes with maturity, openness and self awareness. While the probability that an older person may possess these are higher, I’m not sure it is much higher because openness tends to decrease with age. A friend of mine feels respect is one of the most misused words in the English language – I can see why.

4. For illustration of the above ideas – think of five 80+ year olds you know. I’m sure you can name a couple who act and move about like they’ve reached the end of their lives while there are others who still possess extraordinary youthful exuberance (a certain Warren Buffett comes to mind). Think also about a few more older folk you know – would you consider all of them mature, open, self-aware, and wise?

5. Ageing has a lot to do with mental inactivity. I’ve sadly learnt this from seeing this with my grandfather. Until 10 years ago, my grandfather was known to be a 68 year old man with tremendous energy and youth. However, after his decision to stop working, we’ve watched him age at 3 mental years to the rate of 1 physical year. The difference is profound.

6. Television plays a very negative role in an older person’s ageing process. You can almost always be sure that their mental age is linked to the amount of television they watch as the television encourages a permanently vegetative state. Video games are better – perhaps theirs an opportunity in having older folk play video games?

7. If age is largely a mental construct, should we bother about the right age to do this and that? Only to a point. There are some things that make more sense at some ages – like university degrees while we’re young so we’re not a burden to our parents and becoming parents while being relatively young for biological clock reasons. But, beyond that, there is no right age for anything. It is all about being ready. So, the next time you hear about something making sense because you are at the “right age,” question it.

8. The biggest mistake adults make is they forget what it is to be kids (hat tip to J K Rowling). The toughest part about growing up is making sure we mature enough to not be childish but continue to be childlike. This means retaining an insatiable curiosity and a willingness to be open to any possibility that might present itself to us.

9. Age, wisdom and happiness are a wonderful combination. But, as Prof Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, they don’t come as guarantees on our birth certificate. We need to keep learning, we need to keep working hard, and we need to be persistent in the face of our attempts failing. None of this gets easier with age. In fact, I’d even argue it only gets tougher. So, it is up to us to ensure we stay mentally young while growing wiser through increased reflection and self awareness at the same time. It is hard work. But, hopefully, we’ve learnt by now that embracing hard work is the only way forward.

10. The best part? If we work hard enough on it – we don’t just get older, we get much better. Think of what a small daily improvement will mean 25,000 mornings later..