This is the stuff I’m struggling with

I had a comment from a friend on yesterday’s post on playing the long game. He said –

“This post pretty much summarises how quite a bit of my time is spent. Obsessing over results and result or resume driven growth is something I find myself guilty of quite often. The frustrations that follow should be expected but feel new every – time. I guess going long on these things is quite difficult given how caught up we get in daily pursuits and expectations :) Nevertheless, will try it out.”

My response was – “Welcome to the struggle my friend. It is a worthy fight!”

My biggest motivation behind writing here every day is that the process of doing so clarifies these ideas in my head and helps me learn and get better. I have worked very hard over the past six and a half years to be worthy of the ideas and ideals that this blog stands for. And, most things I write here are stuff I’m struggling with.

As you can probably tell, the biggest learning focus in my life at the moment is to focus entirely on the process and not worry about results. And, if you’ve been following this blog regularly, you’ve seen many posts that say as much. I can’t explain how hard this has been for me over the years. I used to beat myself up when I made mistakes and ended up losing twice at the end of it. I’ve learnt that that is useless. Every minute spent on outcomes is a minute taken away from the process and the next result. Success is best measured by a great journey. And, great journeys generally take us to great places (and, if they don’t, the journey is where spent our time anyway!). And, I think I am much better at being truly forward looking now than I was a couple of years ago. There is still a long way to go though.

There isn’t any easy way out. The way forward is painful. But, the journey is one that involves growth, learning, and wisdom. So, if these ideas resonate with you and if you feel that feeling of frustration from time to time, all I will say is – welcome to the club.

I understand your frustration and pain. But, if it makes you feel any better, this is how we get made..

Are you playing the long game?

If you ever find yourself disappointed because of a short term result, it is worth asking yourself one question – are you playing the short game or the long game?

In the short game, the result definitely matters. It probably influences other inter-related results and it gives you reason for frustration, disappointment, and, in some cases, anger. You want things to just work out and you hate any unexpected obstacles. In the short game, you want to postpone anything painful and difficult to after the “end.”

But, of course, there is no “end.” (well, philosophically speaking, until there is…)

When you play the long game, you learn very quickly that this stuff isn’t worth your time. Your only focus is around what you are learning from these experiences. That’s how you improve your process, upgrade your skills, and avoid making similar mistakes.

So, if you feel like you are either avoiding inevitable pain, sensing negative stress, disappointment, frustration, and anger in yourself, it is probably worth taking a step back and asking yourself why you are playing the short game. Perhaps it is because your environment thinks in terms of earnings reports, fund raising rounds, semester exams, or month-end targets. It doesn’t have to be how you think.

And, ironically, thinking short-term is a great example of sacrificing effectiveness for the sake of efficiency. Playing the short game inevitably invites negative emotions when things don’t go as per plan (and, let’s face it, the odds that things don’t go as per plan is 100%).  And, negative emotions are a guaranteed waste of time.

So, play the long game. This is one of those situations where there is a better way. And this is it.

The Freaky Friday management technique – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz..

At Opsware, Ben Horowitz’s Sales Engineering department constantly complained that the Customer Support didn’t reply to issues on time. The Customer Support department, on the other hand, said Sales Engineering didn’t qualify bugs and gave every bug top priority making it impossible to prioritize. The two functions hated each other.

Inspired by the movie “Freaky Friday” where a mother and daughter find their minds switched and begin to understand each other’s point of view, Ben Horowitz called up the two department heads and informed them that he was switching their roles.

At first, they reacted in shock and annoyance. But, within a week, they diagnosed the set of core issues and implemented a set of processes that enabled the teams to work well with each other. Until the 1.6 billion dollar sale to HP, Ben observed that the best two divisions that worked with each other were sales engineering and customer support – all thanks to Freaky Friday.

Freaky Friday management techniqueSource and thanks to:

‘Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.’ | Jack Handey :-D

Like they have all the time in the world

When I think about some of the best players across sports, I am struck by how much they seem to control time. Whether it is Lionel Messi or Roger Federer, top players always seem to play like they have all the time in the world.

I am reminded of a quote from an interview with financial author William Berstein. He said –“The less you do, the more creative you are.  Show me a person who works 70 or 80 hours a week and I’ll show you a person who’s never had an original thought in their life because you just don’t have the time to have them.”

It is a great thought.

If you find yourself running through your days with no time to reflect, eat, exercise or sleep, there is a good chance there is something really wrong.

And, as William Henry Davis would say – “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.”

Inspiring great conversation with a question

Great conversation is scarce. There are many impediments to it and, chief among them as the stakes go high, is the fear of failure (“What if I say something stupid?”).

It is easier to talk about the weather because –
1. It is nearly always too hot, too cold, too humid, or too dry. And occasionally, it is just perfect and makes us wonder how long it will last.
2. We can’t be wrong about the weather. It is out there for everyone to see.

I am not a fan of discussions around the weather. And, every once in a while when I feel the group might be open to changing the tone of the conversation, I ask one question – “What is something cool you learned in the past few week(s)?”

And, it works. I typically volunteer to get the ball rolling (thank you, dear blog, for always allowing me to be prepared). And, the conversation that follows is nearly always inspiring. That’s because we all have incredible insights about ourselves, our environments, and our lives sitting inside us. And, when we bring them out in the form of what we learnt, we invite others to build on what we’ve learnt and make the insight even more powerful. The other positive part is that focusing on what we learnt versus what happened to us means we can move the conversation from people and events to ideas. And, given we’re always one great idea from transforming ourselves, it never hurts to raise the bar.

So, if you’re wondering how to inspire great conversation, I hope you think about the “What is something cool you learned..” question.

If you care, say no.

If saying yes means showing up late and disheveled, being physically present but mentally elsewhere, or being anything but your best self, say no.

It is better to disappoint someone by saying you won’t be able to do it justice than to give 50%. Half measures don’t help anyone.

Saying no also means you care – about your effect on people’s energy and happines, about making sure you don’t get in the way of the success of the project you are saying no to, and about everyone else who is actually looking forward to having a great evening.

When you’re in, be in.

PS: Don’t say yes when you want to say no.

Decision making and trade-offs – MBA Learnings

Many of us are in graduate school to learn. There are many interesting things we expected to learn – develop understanding of strategy and marketing, for example, or learn to work better with teams of diverse people. I believe that the most important thing we are being asked to learn is something we might not have expected – decision making and trade offs.

Here’s the context – every student has 6-7 competing priorities. They are
academics (the rigorous study part that makes sure you have 100 pages of readings and an assignment to turn in every week)
career (thinking about long term choices, internships and post school career plans)
extra-curriculars (student clubs and activities that are a great way to folks who have similar interests as well as test your leadership)
social (there’s a dinner, an outing somewhere, or a party pretty much every night)
– “me” / ourselves (eat, sleep, exercise, reflect)
family (for many, this includes partners and kids on campus. Also includes parents)
– “past life” (i.e. all those friends we’ve lost touch with once we got here :-) and old projects that we worked on that we definitely have neglected)

As you can tell on first glance, that’s a lot of priorities. In my mind, the most critical of these priorities is “me/ourselves” – if we don’t take of ourselves, the rest of the priorities fall apart. Additionally, it is tempting to give up food, sleep and exercise in our bid to do them all. But, there’s only so much we can do in a day and not taking care of ourselves can dilute our efforts on the rest.

But, given this context, it is easy to see why this is a lesson in decision making and trade-offs. At any given moment during the day, there are potential ways to spend time on pretty much any of these priorities. There are multiple career/extra-curricular/social events that happen every day in addition to all those papers that need to be read. I think this is great preparation for life in the future. For many of us heading into graduate schools, our 20s have largely been about us. We graduated from university, dived into our work lives and gave it our all. We spent extra time on things we enjoyed. Full stop. But, life post school changes quickly – many of us are contemplating families or are just starting married life. We’re all going to be in careers that, as a general rule, will never ask for less time. We will need to keep learning and growing while also making sure we give back.

In some ways, these competing priorities never go away. The challenges of balancing these never get easier. This is just a fantastic time to fail and, in the process, learn how to do it right. I’d like to share my 3 biggest lessons from the process –

1. Make decisions easy for yourself by being crystal clear about your core priorities. If you aren’t clear about the relative importance of your core priorities, you are going to drain your energy every day just thinking about these decisions. Once you get clear on your own priorities, decisions get much easier.

2. Pre-decide your days and weeks as far as possible. Most of the time, you have enough information to plan in advance. There’s a high return-on-investment on being brutally organized. Pre-decide by blocking off your time for the week based on your priorities. If you don’t prioritize exercise and sleep, other things will get in the way. Be proactive to drive your own agenda. Or someone else will.

3. Make time to reflect. The more busy things are, the more you need time to reflect. Learning-by-doing is incredibly inefficient if you don’t have enough time to take stock. Again, the return-on-investment on a little reflection time is incredibly high.

Since decision making is a core part of this experience, I’ve been working on more specific tactics that help ease the difficulty level. More on those in the coming weeks..

Name your fear

I woke up this morning sensing dread.

I recognized my foe – the resistance.

I had been second guessing myself a bit yesterday afternoon on a few things and needed to deal with them today. I should have known he would be around this morning. The resistance had done what it does best – taken hold of those doubts and converted them to fear. He thrives on ambiguity.

“Stay in bed.” – the fear said.
As I stirred, a second voice asked a valid question – “What is it that you are afraid of?”

As I was listening in on this conversation, I realized I had no idea. Cue – time to get started on the morning routine. The morning routine is a fantastic tool for bringing things into perspective as I have a set bunch of tasks I do no matter what. As I stood brushing my teeth, I wondered how the resistance had managed to get to me this morning. I couldn’t even remember the last such morning encounter – I’ve worked hard to keep him away. That’s when I realized – I’d just gone to bed last night with all the doubts in my head. I hadn’t taken a moment to jot them down and put together a plan to work through them today.

So, I finally got to doing that. Now that I have a plan, I can feel that slipping away along with the resistance.

They had left me with a gift – 3 great learnings –
1. As Master Yoda would say – “Named your fear must be, before banish it you can.” Write down what scares you. And, don’t worry – it is normal to feel fear and dread every once a while. It generally feels worse than it really is.
2. Plan tomorrow’s work today. Sometimes, we underestimate the subconscious work our mind does. Even if you had a peaceful night of sleep, worries can tend to magnify if you file them as worries just before you head to bed.
3. A plan doesn’t solve anything, of course. You still have to work through them. I’ve got Ode to Joy playing as I get ready to take on the day. I wasn’t looking for a solution. I was just looking for a nudge.. and that’s what I’ve gotten.

Here’s to getting things done today!

Feelings and States

“How do you feel” is a question you’ve probably heard of a fair bit. I would be willing to bet that “How are you being,” on the other hand,  is a question you’ve never heard asked.

I think we waste too much time thinking about our feelings. Feelings are transitory. In the grand scheme of things, I’d argue that they hardly matter. Our mental states, however, can make or break this life experience.

Let’s begin by understanding the difference between the two. The mental state sets the overall mood. If we are in a depressive state, we might have the occasional happy feeling when a friend cracks a really funny joke. But, over the course of the week, we’ll spend large amounts of time in the dumps. If we are in a happy state, on the other hand, we might experience sadness during the course of a week but we’ll still not lose perspective. A happy state looks different from that transitory feeling of happiness. The high isn’t that high when you “are” a happy person – it is normal service after all.

To “be” happy requires you to do two things at once – to match your actions to what drives you in a manner consistent with an approach that suits you – i.e., to align your why, how, and what – and to keep perspective while experiencing the inevitable ups and downs. A happy state is like a healthy ECG – the highs are not too high and the lows are not too low. There’s just a lot of small fluctuation around that state.

Barney Stinson touches on states in his now iconic dialog “When I’m sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead.”  He’s probably right – if you focus on “being” happy, you’ll figure a way around negative feelings. If you’re caught up around feelings, it can be a vicious cycle that drags you down. When we “are” (again – are, not feel) happy, we’re simply better versions of ourselves.

A focus on the state matters. I’d go as far as to say – it is probably among the few things that does.

Passwords, cues, and a changed life – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks Mauricio Estrella’s great post on Medium..

A few months after a bad divorce, depressed designer Mauricio found himself frustrated by his Microsoft Exchange server which required him to change his password every 30 days. He then stumbled on a simple idea – he would use these passwords as cues to change his life.

So, his first password became – Forgive@h3r. One month later, it became Quit@smoking4ever. The daily act of typing his password in resulted in him quitting smoking. Next month, it was Save4trip@thailand. 3 months later, he was in Thailand.

A couple of small mis-steps aside, he was soon on a roll – his passwords went from Sleep@before12, Facetime2mom@sunday to Ask@her4date, MovE@togeth3r and Save4@ring. In 2 years, he turned his life around, and happily announced his “Save4@ring” password worked too. She said yes.

Small cues -> Big changes. Thanks for sharing the inspiration, Mauricio.

PS: On a related note, while you are thinking about passwords, please do consider two factor authentication. More here.

She said yes“She said yes” – Mauricio Estrella

‘I still await very anxiously each month so I can change my password into a phrase that motivates me to focus on something that I need to get done.’ | Mauricio Estrella