“The techniques we use are no big secret…

…it’s just about making an effort and repeating the same thing every day.” | Yoshikazu, Sukiyabashi Jiro from Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Information isn’t wealth any more. Sure, there still are patented techniques that are probably the modern day equivalent to “the secret sauce.” But, if we dig deeper, I think we’d find that the secret sauce, like nostalgia :), isn’t what it used to be.

Google isn’t just the best search engine because of its ground breaking page rank algorithm. It is the best because it didn’t use that innovation and head-start to sit back and relax. Google has been running experiments on how to tweak the algorithm ever since at ground-breaking speed using data from user behavior for 15 straight years, week after week. They make the effort. It shows.

Yes, being the first mover is an advantage. Billy Beane did that with the Oakland A’s focus on using statistics to build teams around groups of players rather than look for star players. However, other baseball franchises caught up with his methods soon enough. So, Billy Beane began focusing on the college players draft as he felt inefficiencies lay there. Soon, the other franchises will catch up there too. If Beane is to continue having the sort of impact he’s had on the game, he will have to continue making the effort to find inefficiencies every day.

Why doesn’t everyone do it? Because it is hard, complicated, and not guaranteed to work. It involves accepting that you simply don’t know enough and that your current way is probably woefully inefficient.

So, if you are still intent on finding a secret sauce, I’d suggest looking hard to Sukiyabashi Jiro, Google, and Billy Beane. The techniques they use are no big secret. But, their genius lies in their consistency of effort.

Show up on time, look for what’s hard, complicated, and not guaranteed to work…. and ship. Then, do it again tomorrow.

7% better – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from our RealLeaders.tv interview with Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi..

Social scientist and author of the now legendary book on happiness – “Flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and team spent a week collecting data from a group of internet chess players who played over 1000 games.

They had the players fill out how much “flow” they felt in the game afterwards. All previous psychological theories spoke about play as a way of boosting self esteem by winning. But, Prof Mihaly and team’s hypothesis was that greatest enjoyment doesn’t come from winning but from playing opponents who are equally matched – so skill levels and challenges are equal (i.e. in “flow” territory).

Source and thanks to: 

Interestingly, the results showed that the optimal challenge was when the opponent was about 7% better. Playing against better players meant the curve of enjoyment went down very slowly while playing against really bad players meant enjoyment went down precipitously. The point is clearly not to just win because, when we play against someone better, we win only 30% of the time but when we do win, we feel much better.

Are we regularly giving ourselves challenges that are 7% harder than our current skill level?

“Happiness is not something that is guaranteed, or that comes with our birth certificates. 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.” | Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

Someone (anonymous) prompted me to answer a question on Quora. I thought I’d share the question and my response below. The tough part about such a question is that no one can answer it. The best (I believe) you can do is provide a frame that will hopefully help. The response has many of elements I write about here on this blog and all of what is recommended has been tried and tested. So, here’s hoping this helps the person who asked the question and anyone else who might be having a difficult time.

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

I changed job about a year ago, and really haven’t been doing well in my new job, definitely not as well as I did in my old. Some things are solvable, or at least I can see how to solve them, e.g. project management. However, my job is very technical and requires a deep understanding of material that is complex. I cannot seem to get my head around it, my learning on it is very slow. For that I just do not know what to do, and feel hopeless. It is strange for me because my technical grasp in my old job was good, I don’t know why I am struggling so much here. I feel so demotivated and I do not know who to talk to, as people who do not work in the industry do not understand. I really want some constructive feedback and something concrete to work on, but my colleagues and management say “understanding technical issues should be a given” which makes me wish I could just quit and do something else, although I can’t actually afford to do that financially.


Dear friend,

Congratulations! This is an opportunity that can make you and really change your life.

What you describe is the essence of the toughest struggle we face as humans – it is part external, part internal and part existential. It is when the resistance seems to just overpower you and suddenly everything that you seem to touch seems to have failure written all over it. There is nothing harder. I have experienced losing both my father and uncle between ages 9 and 11 and then facing many difficulties as a consequence of that. And, yet, when I look back at a time when I went through something like this, I found death and it’s consequences easier to deal with. This sort of experience will teach you to be human and, in many ways, I think it’s those that learn to be human are those that learn how to be happy.

The toughest part about this sort of situation is that it comes with a seeming lack of options. You seem stuck in an endless spiral and rebuilding your confidence and your sense of self feel like a lot of hard work.

So, given the situation, it is great that you are asking the question. It is sometimes hard to step out of ourselves when we are having tough times. And, this is definitely a good first step. Well done.

Here’s how I would approach it.

Step 1. Examine your options and make a conscious decision.

It seems to me that there are 4 options –
1. Quit now (which you can’t seem to afford financially)
2. Search for a job now
3. Stay and continue status quo
4. Stay and change things

Out of these 4 options, I think searching for a job now could be an escape. However, given your current mental state, it is unlikely that is going to be fruitful. Since option 3 is not one I would recommend, let’s focus on the decision you have in front of you – To fix it or not to  try.

If you decide to fix it, then we proceed to step 2.

Step 2. Rebuild with a 1 month short term plan.

Give yourself a clear short term process goal, e.g., “I’m going to work hard on “being happy” and I’m going to measure my efforts on it.”

This will take 3 steps – 

1. Get the basics – eating, sleeping, exercising, and reading – right. Eat healthy food every 4 hours, kill alcohol and cigarettes for a month, sleep 8 hours every day, exercise 6 days a week (aerobic for 20 minutes) and spend 30 mins every day reading/listening to a book (perhaps start with your commute). When you start,  start with “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl.

Create a simple tracker and measure yourself on these.

2. Journal your daily learnings. You are learning something every day. Reflect on it and write about it. Every challenge is learning and every day, we get better at dealing with them.

3. Recharge emotionally – via good times and volunteering. Spend at least a day a week with loved ones and get over yourself when you do (no moping / complaining). And, make 3 hours to volunteer at a place with underprivileged kids.

– This may not immediately change anything. You’re in a spiral, and as you face the inevitable frustration once you start trying, you’ll probably spiral further down. Allow yourself to hit rock bottom. It’s a liberating place to be when you realize you can’t sink any lower.
– Don’t take it personally – great footballing stars have gone on to become massive failures when they switched clubs. It isn’t just about you – it is also about the environment.
– As you might have gathered, this isn’t about the technical skills. Our first step is to work on your confidence and motivation. • Be willing to iterate and change approaches. This will help you with stage 1 – getting started and building your confidence. You’ll need to keep tailoring your approach as  some things will work and some won’t. That’s okay. It’s a long way up and there is no easy way out of it.

And, this is not going to be easy or quick. You will feel stuck and annoyed many many times as you work your way through the process. If that happens, welcome to the club. This is how we get made.

PS: I’d love to help beyond this Quora thread. If this thought process helps, that’s great. Even if it doesn’t, please feel free to write me on rohan@rohanrajiv.com if I can be of help in thinking through this. Good luck and good skill!

But, where is the impact? – Building Help2Grow.org

A friend asked me an interesting question about Help2Grow.org the other day – “Why are you guys attempting to build this charitable trust at this stage of your life? This is the time to learn. Put it on pause, make a lot of money, and come back to do it at a later stage when your impact could be much bigger.”

I thought about it for en entire evening and put the question to our team the next morning. I love questions like this – they feel painful at the time but, I’ve found that when I really listen for an idea that might change the way I view things and understand the question, it inspires many other interesting questions. In this case, we went down the path of asking ourselves why we are this. This friend did get a couple of the facts right –
1. We don’t have large amounts of money at our disposable
2. We could, theoretically, come back 10 years later and be able to do much more.

Our soul searching resulted in the following answers –

1. If not now, then when? – We all believe charity is a way of life. We recognize our privilege and, thanks to Help2Grow.org, we are reminded of our duty to give back to the community. It is easy to be caught up in our busy lives. Taking action now ensures we don’t let the years pass without action on the stuff that actually matters. And, besides, if not now, then when? We’re not fans of deferred action plans.

2. The process of doing this is changing us. We can’t even begin to list the ways this process is changing us. Aside from ensuring we feel very grateful and humbled when we see our partners at work, we are learning every step of the way. We are learning to work better as a team and really understand and use each other’s strengths for doing good, we are staying in close contact and building stronger relationships among the team by working on difficult things, we are learning to do more and prioritize more, we are learning to take more responsibility and make better decisions with others’ capital  which have real consequences on the quality of lives of kids, and we’re understanding the challenges of driving real change.

This has been challenging.  And, as a result, we’re becoming better people for it. We can’t make the world better if we aren’t learning and getting better ourselves. Change begins with us.

3. We believe in the starfish parable. Here’s a story adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley that you have almost definitely heard of. It is so lovely that I’d love to share it again.. 

An old man was walking down a beach littered with thousands of starfish. The tide had washed them in and they would all die if they weren’t in the water soon. He saw a young boy bending down, picking starfish and throwing them in and asked him what he was doing. “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

So, yes, we understand that we don’t have the resources to make the sort of difference a Gates Foundation is making. That said, if we can make a small difference every week to one kid at our partners, we’ll take that. We’re in it for the long run and we are hopeful that a combination of little bits of difference over time will make the world a bit better. That’s why we exist as an organization anyway..


This blog post has also been posted on the Help2Grow.org blog.

“Who do I know?”

This was the pre-connection economy question when we needed help.

The new world question is – “Who do I need to know?”

Once you understand who you need to know, reach out to them. There are many ways of reaching people you want to know – Twitter, their own website, email, Facebook, etc., etc.. They are around and, if you play nice and persistent, pretty open to being of help. One of the truths that’s emerged thanks to the internet is that you can reach out to whoever you want. So, use it. Kill the “who do I know” question and stop using it to build your network. It is obsolete.

An added note – when you do take their help, find a nice, creative way to express your gratitude. A handwritten thank you note, for example.

Listening to and listening for

When people choose to listen, there are two types of listening that take place – “listening to” and “listening for.”

“Listening for” is the most common form of listening and means listening is being done for a purpose. Common purposes are affirmation, adulation, communicating politeness and, sometimes, the desire to make a good impression.

“Listening to” is the sort of listening when someone really listens to understand. It involves being willing to having your point of view changed by the views of the other person. This sort of openness necessitates a positive self image, however.

It is impossible to “listen to” someone when you feel insecure (Notice, I say “feel,” not “are” – for the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to deal with the feeling of insecurity). And this has 3 important implications for us as communicators.

First, it is in our interest to make people feel comfortable and secure. This is another way of saying that it is in our interest to be genuinely nice. To really “be” nice, we have to care and have to be prepared to listen ourselves. We have to also learn how to ensure people feel completely secure and at ease about where they stand in our eyes. This means ensuring we don’t take nice things from people around us for granted, this means ensuring we communicate happiness and this means not being an insensitive jerk.

Second, we have to learn to communicate any issues that are blocking us from being truly open. Sometimes, a feeling of doubt or unease about our equation with the person we’re speaking to can act as a communication barrier. Talk about it. Else, it will show.

Third, we have to make it a habit to have the difficult conversation. As leaders, it is important to make the process of giving feedback habitual. No one on your team should feel like it is a big deal if you say something needs improvement. Similarly, in our lives, it is in our best interest to have the difficult conversations and break the peace for a little while. If we want to be able to listen without judgment and communicate without judgment, we need to be open. And, effective communication is all about habitually building environments where openness is welcomed.

Final 2 notes –
1. Notice how any conversation about other people listening to you begins with you being open yourself. Having others listen to you is one of the purest forms of leadership. And leadership requires you to take charge of creating an ideal environment – in this case, that would be an environment of openness.
2. Communication only occurs when people really listen to you. In order for them to listen to you and not just listen for affirmation, you need to ensure you do whatever it takes to create that environment of openness. This will not always work. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, communications will break down. That’s okay – we only control the process, not the results. Let’s nail the process.

If mistakes are inevitable (and they are)..

.. and the thing that is most remembered about them over time is a creative, constructive and corrective response, then why the hell are we so scared to make them?

Johnson & Johnson’s response to Tylenol won them worldwide trust while British Petroleum were brought under intense scrutiny. Both these mistakes are about as large as they get. And, yet, they’re inevitable. Machines fail, humans make mistakes, and circumstances sometimes go against you.

Ignore the impulse to avoid them. You can’t. Ignore the impulse that says “Oh shucks, I am screwed and should cover that up.” That’s both useless and harmful in the long run. And, focus entirely on the response. In fact, take it a step forward and make it a point to use every response as a part of your mistake recovery practice regime.

And, once you’ve done that, share it with the world so other’s can learn to do that. If you don’t know how about doing that, write to me. We’ll anonymize it, share it, and have a good laugh. No embarrassment required. By reflecting on it and ensuring an appropriate response, we will have done as much possible to avoid making them again. That’s the best we can do.

Mistakes are how we get better. Mistakes are how we get made.

When you share..

.. you learn more, you learn to be less wrapped up in yourself and be” happy a lot more. So, why don’t people share more?

My belief is that it is because of questions like – “will people accept what I want to share?,” “will people question my intentions?” – and other similar questions that the fear of failure conjures up.

All of this misses the basic point about sharing – it is not about them. It is all about you. You learn more. You learn to be less wrapped up in yourself. You be happy more.

The generosity that arises from sharing a thing, a worthwhile project, or a learning elevates the community and makes this world better because of the example it creates. When Bill and Melinda Gates decided to share their wealth and, in the process, inspired many other billionaires to do so, they instantly made the world richer. You do the same when you share what you can share.

Don’t worry about whether it is worthwhile. Share. You’ll learn to make it worthwhile in time. You will become a better person in the process, though. And the world will be better for it.

What if we stopped going outside? – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to ASAP Science’s video on what if we stopped going outside and the excellent Lifehacker.com.

We are told to spend more time outdoors so we get Vitamin D. But, what does that really mean?

Well, some of the cholestrol we consume is altered and stored in our skin. When sunlight hits our skin, it modifies this cholestrol into Vitamin D3 which eventually gets activated into vitamin D. This activated Vitamin D absorbs calcium from our food ultimately leading to bone growth and strength. A lack of Vitamin D, aside from weakening bones, results in a decrease in immunity. There’s also evidence to suggest that indicates vitamin D prevents cancer, heart disease and depression. This may explain why people in much colder climates often experience “the winter blues.”

Additionally, brain imaging has shown that brains in nature show more activity in regions associated with stability, empathy and love while those in man-made environments (like high rise buildings) showed more fear and stress.

Finally, sitting (our primary indoor posture) results in more type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A study of more than 200,000 people showed a link between mortality and increased sitting time.

Time for us to switch off our laptops and head out when we take breaks at work this week..

What if we stopped going outside

Source and thanks to: www.EBSketchin.com

‘When you wander into untamed landscapes it calms your nerves and restores your brain power. Just three days in nature lead to a 50% increase in performances on creativity tests.’ | A study by University of Kansas researchers

Celebrating Luca Manfe

I caught the final 5 episodes of season 4 of MasterChef US. By this stage, we were down the final 5 chefs – all incredibly talented chefs. What followed was the eventual elimination of the final 4 competitors by the finest of margins. I was very pleased about the eventual winner – Luca Manfe.

Each of the 5 chefs were excellent and had their own evident strengths and weaknesses. In every case, their elimination was due to one costly decision or a bit of bad luck. For instance, Jessie Lysiak, the 3rd place contestant and my other favorite, decided not to include a salad side in her final dish despite having kept it ready. The moment the judges tasted the dish she left out, they declared it the highlight of the night. One bad decision. Out.

So, why the delight around Luca Manfe? Well, he was the undisputed nice guy. He was clearly popular amongst all his competitors – most of them predicted he would win. But, more importantly, he always made the “kind” choice when the going got tough. When they were down to the top 5 and when eventual second place winner, Natasha, forgot an ingredient, Luca lent it to her.

The best moment, however, came when they were down to the top 3. Jessie Lysiak forgot to bring in butter from the pantry. So, she went to Natasha (the same contestant who was helped by Luca earlier) and asked her if she might borrow butter. Natasha had 3 large slabs of butter but refused. And, before Jessie could ask Luca, he threw a large slab over. When the camera man asked him why he did this, he said – “If she wins because of that, good for her. At least tomorrow I’ll still be able to look at my face in the mirror. I’m a nice guy, forget about it!”

Great guy. Great example to everyone watching. He didn’t win despite his nice-ness. He won because of it – it’s folks like him who can pour their heart into what they do. Congratulations Luca..!