Russian hackers and online security

This blog has been the target of Russian hackers of late and they managed to take the site down today. We’ve finally gotten it back (thanks to support from my hosting provider and a close friend).

My friend had sage advice for me – if someone really wanted to hack into your website, they could. So, take steps to make it as hard as possible. I’ve already asked him for more advice on how to do that and intend to get on it tomorrow.

This experience has brought three learnings with it –
1. You are never fully secure online. That doesn’t mean you keep your doors open and allow all interested folk in. So, take measures to keep your websites safe. Start with strong passwords.
2. If you haven’t enabled two-factor authentication yet, I hope you consider it. I have this on my list for tomorrow.
3. The flip side of the situation – if Russian hackers feel you are worthy of an attack, there is a chance you are doing something right. :-) So, thank you for your support. I am very grateful.

That said, I’m off to enjoy what remains of my Saturday evening. Wishing you a great weekend!

3 rules for helping anybody who wants help with a decision

1. The decision doesn’t matter. The process does. It is all about the process.

2. Your biggest value add would be to walk them through a process. My suggestion would be the Decisive process – I carry a small card summarizing this process in my pocket.

3. Offer your point of view ONLY if asked. (I always need help with this)

If you find yourself talking more than them, take a timeout. This isn’t about you, it is about them.

PS: The wording in the title is key – they need to want the help.

Actions and Outcomes

Our actions drive outcomes. In most cases, we don’t control outcomes. Our outcomes are generally controlled either by other people (boss, teacher, customer, peers) or by environmental factors (markets, context). At best, all we control is the process that leads to our actions.

And, yet, we are capable of spending a large proportion of our time on outcome-related activities (worrying about outcomes, then worrying about the results, then feeling upset or elated by the results). And, outcome-related activities have got to rank among the worst ways to spend our time because –
1. Spending time on outcomes is useless as they don’t generally change the outcome
2. They take away time from today’s processes and actions that will determine future outcomes

So, if you are caught up about something today, I’d recommend asking just one question – “Is this within my control?”
If the answer is yes, then it is in the action zone. Then, if it is aligned with your priorities, agonize over the process, front-load work, and give it your best shot.
If the answer is no, think about all the actions you could be spending your time on that would make tomorrow better. There generally are a few. If you can’t find any, call your mom. Or stare at the ceiling if you will.

Anything you choose to do will be better than worrying about an outcome you do not control.

How do you measure a day

Do you measure how a day went?

If yes, how do you measure it? There are multiple options –
1. A feeling of satisfaction / happiness
2. Time spent on productive work
3. Time spent on top 3 priorities
4. Top priorities accomplished
5. Number of to do list items accomplished
6. Time spent having fun

The goals we set drive the outcomes we achieve. The absence of goals drives outcomes too – they just may or may not be what we want.

How we measure our days drives how we live our days. How we live our days drives how we live our life.

10 years ago – at this time

What were you doing 10 years ago – at this time?

Bill Gates rightly said we overestimate what we can accomplish in a year but underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade. I don’t know about you but I know I didn’t even think all that much about an interesting future. I was just a 11th grader who was growing increasingly worried about my grades and getting into a good undergraduate program after long stretches of time spent away from school for extra curricular competitions.

People often refer to periods like school/university/graduate school as the best periods in their lives. I couldn’t disagree more with this thought. Yes, these times are special. But, I find thinking of them as the “best” periods feels so limiting since they go by in the first quarter of our lives. The beauty of life, as with any other thing, increases as we learn more about it. So, if we’re learning on this journey, it is almost certain that the best days are up ahead. The difficulties get more challenging and interesting, the good times get more fulfilling and our ability to appreciate it only goes up.

So, let’s take this moment to reflect on what we’ve accomplished in the last 10 years. If, like me, you’ve performed way above your own expectations, good for you. I’m sure it was a combination of luck and skill. If it didn’t, well, now is the best moment to change things so things look better when we ask this question 10 years later.

Here’s to more… or less (depending on what you like).

But, most importantly, here’s to better.

The anatomy of a mistake

Last weekend, I decided to add 75 new friends I’d gotten to know over a week to the 200 words project with an option to opt-out.

In hindsight, that was a mistake. I judge it as one because it has given me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach ever since. What I should have done is made it an opt-in. That it seems so obvious now makes it even more exasperating.

Rather than kick myself for the result of the decision, it makes for an interesting case for analysis. What led to the mistake? I can think of 2 reasons –

1. Sleep deprivation and illness. Low sleep, not feeling great => limited willpower. Beware of decisions you make when you are low on willpower.
2. No clear decision process. Generally, behind every bad decision is the gap left by the absence of a process. In this case, I have always added folk to the 200 words project via a mix of opt-ins and opt-outs depending on how well I know the person. It is my way of staying in touch with people and it turns out to be very nice to be in touch with folk from 6 years ago thanks to a consistent weekly email. Additionally, there is a lot of effort that goes into making it useful – so I don’t see it as a spammy share (talk about bias…). And, therein lies the problem with an undefined decision making process that, in reality, is very intricate. I’m better off simplifying it by just saying opt-in only. And that’s what I’ll do from here on in.

A few other learnings I have taken away –
1. Behind every mistake is a bad decision. Don’t kick yourself for the mistake, fix the decision. Every mistake, thus, is just a learning opportunity. And yes, this is hard to implement. I seem to get there thanks to this blog but it only happens after kicking myself a few times.
2. You amplify the bad reactions and forget the good.  This is hard to correct as it is human nature to focus on a negative reaction. It is a good reminder, however.
3. No one cares about you and your mistakes as much as you do. Again, a reminder.
4. Bad feelings in the stomach are a sign that some insecurity has been pricked. This one is an insecurity of feeling unfairly judged.
5. Keep flexing your “rejected” muscle. Try, fail and get rejected, try again. Trying again matters a lot. Your “rejected” muscles need to be working well so you don’t get too upset with yourself after you make a mistake.

A friend wondered aloud yesterday as to how I managed to think of a learning every day. I pointed to the more-than-average number of mistakes I seem to make. I hope he’s reading this one. :-)

Finally, to add a dash of perspective, I did remind myself that these aren’t mistakes my grandchildren will ever even know of. That’s a good reminder, too (since we are in reminder zone).

We live and we learn.

 Appeal to purpose – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from Give and Take by Adam Grant.

3 different messages/appeals were displayed in various hospital bathrooms to encourage people to use soap and hand sanitizers –
1. Hand hygiene saves you (appeal to self-interest)
2. Hand hygiene is good for the patient (appeal to purpose)
3. Gel in, wash out (catchy messaging)

The research team then weighed the amount of sanitizer used and found that the purpose message worked the best by far.

A similar study with university office workers, who worked on collecting alumni donations, showed that a 5 minute session every morning that shared stories about students who benefited from alumni donation scholarship doubled the number of weekly pledges they collected.

So, if we’re looking to appeal to people to change behavior, perhaps we could consider an appeal to purpose of the change.

Appeal to Purpose
Source and thanks to:

‘Great minds have purpose, others have wishes. Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortunes; but great minds rise above them.’ | Washington Irving

Small problems and big problems

Life throws small problems at us every day. They’re more than enough to keep us busy. However, it isn’t optimal to spend all our time solving small problems. When Toyota’s legendary thinker Taiichi Ono came to the same conclusion, he decided he would train the organization to look for the big problems using the five why approach.

Taiichi Ono isn’t alone in his approach to problem solving. Great thinkers over time have approached the world with a determination to understand the principles that govern it. That’s how Taiichi Ono and Henry Ford changed manufacturing. They dug deep into the hundreds of small problems in a manufacturing plant, understood the key principles, and developed frameworks that they then applied rigorously and tweaked with more feedback.

This is hard to do – no surprise there. So, how do you go about doing it? Albert Einstein’s approach was to just stay with problems longer. And he probably knows a thing or two about difficult problems.

The good news is that this approach can then be applied to every aspect of life. You can understand people better by understanding the principles that govern them. You can understand financial markets by understanding the principles that govern them. Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates have made billions of dollars by doing this with unerring consistency.

Like any approach, this one has its downsides. When you begin applying this approach to understand people or when you help people through their problems, you can come across as very intimidating. That’s because digging deep requires you to ask tough questions and tough questions never fail to intimidate people. Additionally, a commitment to attempting to get to the big problems requires you to be open to consistently revisit your assumptions and approach to life. Most find that too overwhelming.

The final and most important pitfall is to do with ourselves. A commitment to constantly finding the underlying principles requires an assumption that most small problems are symptoms of a bigger problem. While that is largely true, it completely negates coincidences and outliers. In our desire to find patterns, we can end up falling prey to all sorts of false assumptions to explain a pattern that doesn’t exist. And, if we don’t guard against insularity and over-confidence, we might lose the ability to distinguish between reality and our perception of it. We will fail miserably without self awareness.

That said, the beauty of a principle-based approach is that when we put in the effort, we begin to understand and appreciate the inter-connectedness of this world and thus, begin to appreciate the beauty of this life. It is only when you learn the principles behind tennis do you really appreciate Roger Federer’s genius.

I’ve said this before and will say again – habitually ignoring the small problems and finding the big problems is very hard. Try the five why approach if you will and you will realize very quickly that the questions only get tougher as you make your way along the process.

And therein lies the tough part about digging deep and attempting to understand the principles – it doesn’t feel like a very rewarding process.

Until it does.

Case-by-case analysis and why strategy matters

Imagine someone came to you with a proposal regarding local industry garment workers facing increased competition from foreign competitors. $1 billion from the country or $4 from you (assuming a population of 250 million) would save their jobs. $4 per year to save a few jobs – that doesn’t sound too bad, right?

Now, imagine the steel industry comes to you with a similar request.  Then, the auto industry, then the television manufacturers and so on. All of a sudden, you are paying $250 per year to bail all these industries out. There is no way you would have agreed to this if you had known this would be the end outcome. But, consider the situation case by case and you will find that it is possible to say yes to each individual request.

That is why a case-by-case analysis without a big picture overview is dangerous. And that is exactly why strategy matters.

For example, the biggest criticism leveled at self-help books is that many of the ideas don’t work for those who read them. Of course they don’t work. If you go in with a willingness to test every new idea, many will fail. The strategy here would be to really understand yourself – your values, your drive and your approach – and then pick ideas that align with who you are.

Similarly, a smart football manager’s strategy is to pick a formation that suits her team. There is no point attempting a counter attacking strategy if her team is not suited for quick counter attacks.

If you approach a new environment without an overarching strategy, anything and everything can seem like a good idea. Your strategy is the filter that helps you make sense of the world. It is the way we think about and approach the world and it is fundamental. Here are 2 examples of a strategy for the first month at –

a) Your new job: Key priorities  i) Understand what the deliverables are and what success looks like ii) Spend time getting to know my co-workers iii) Focus hard on the core task and don’t worry about additional opportunities (revisit as necessary)
b) Your graduate school studies:  Key priorities i) Recruiting – because it is a great process to learn for life and because the results matter ii) Academics – because I am here to learn iii) Extra curriculars – because it is a great way to get to know people iv) Social – because I must prioritize time to get to know people from different social circles

So, what if we get it wrong? Good news – like life, it is iterative. If it didn’t go so well today, don’t fret. Learn. We will do better tomorrow.

(Hat tip to Avinash K Dixit’s book – The Art of Thinking Strategically)

Network and net worth

Many exclusive clubs and business schools use the idea of tapping into their network to attract members. I am skeptical about this. While I think these clubs and schools do bring together interesting people and probably increase the probability that you will find like-minded (perhaps even like-valued – if you are lucky) friends, I am still not sure access to their networks accomplishes all that much.

What I would agree with is that a network is incredibly powerful. Who you know is generally more important than what you know as it opens more doors to possibilities. So, the question still remains – how do you build a network?

I agree with an acquaintance who pointed out bluntly that “your network is proportional to your net worth.” While his focus was on financial net worth, I’ve expanded on his definition and arrived at the following thesis. Your build your network by building your net worth on 3 dimensions –

1. Build financial net worth. This is true – the more financially wealthy you are, the more easily doors open for you.

2. Build power net worth. Find me a powerful person who doesn’t have a network to call upon. This is related to financial net worth but slightly different in nature. A network born out of power is probably the most fickle of the lot. Ask any discredited politician. Perhaps it is no surprise that many of them work hard to increase their financial net worth while in power.

3. Build character net worth. This is the final dimension and is one that is often ignored. Building character is the longest and most sustainable method of building a network. The hard work lies in building a worthy character and proceeding to do great work. A reputation follows, slowly and surely. And, once such a reputation is built, it is the hardest of the three to bring down. You and I probably know of nice people who have built enormous networks, often by frequently connecting one person to another. It helps that it is fairly easy to tell a person’s character by looking at their track record around work and relationships over the long term. People of character will not always be liked, but, the chances are high that they are held in high regard for their character and work ethic – especially by those who’ve been in close contact with them over the long term.

This thesis has a couple of interesting implications. First, the more important part of building a network is not having access to individuals with high net worth. It is having a high net worth yourself. A beginner politician might be denied entry into a network of the most powerful politicians in the country. But, if the person doesn’t know how to build power net worth, he/she will not survive.

Second, each of these can combine with the others to make a formidable combination. While financial net worth and character net worth often go together, I find that power net worth and character net worth don’t do so nearly as often.

Finally, it is possible for anyone to have an excellent network. While one might not succeed as spectacularly on the finance dimension, we can all aspire to succeed over the long term on the character dimension.

Yes, it isn’t easy and yes, it isn’t guaranteed to work. But, find me a solution that is both on an issue as important as this… and I’ll show you a solution that is wrong.