The weight of those who are gone

I thought I’d interrupt normal programming today (i.e. the 200 words project) to write about something that is top of mind and personal. I try very hard to abstract from events and focus on the essence of what I’ve learnt. This will not be easy to do in this case but I’ll try.

When I introduce myself to people I work with, one of the ideas I share to help communicate who I am is – I have been shaped a lot by death. Our family lost my uncle to an accident and my father to himself in a space of 3 years. Now, the typical reaction to this for the opposite person to say – I’m sorry. And, if we’re having a really upfront conversation, I generally explain more. You see, the hard part wasn’t that we lost 2 members of our family. The hard part is that my grandmother has, over the 17 years that have gone by, held those who’ve gone dearer to her than those who’re still here. I’m going to leave the details out here and instead just say that very few conversations with my grandmom in 17 years have gone by without us feeling the weight of our absent family members.

I wish this was a unique problem. Given my general comfort with topics that are generally perceived taboo or morbid, I’ve been fortunate to be trusted with information about so many families who have similar dynamics internally. The data I’ve collected over the years has led me to one important conclusion –  we need death education more than we do sex education.

In an average lifetime, we see at least ten births and ten deaths of people who are close to us. And, yet, very few hardly ever get comfortable with the idea of death. That’s a funny situation to be in as death is one among the few certainties of our life on this planet. So, that results in whole families torn apart, relationships broken, and many many unhappy years following a single event. There’s a wonderful Buddhist parable in which a woman goes weeping to the Buddha and asks him to bring her young son back from the dead. He asks her to bring a mustard seed from a house that has never seen death. So, she goes on a long search and comes back empty handed – every house she went to had seen death…

I wanted to write about this today as today was another day when I felt the weight of those who are gone. Today is actually my grandparents 50th anniversary. I’d have loved to interrupt normal programming to wish them a happy anniversary. But, as has been a trend in the past 17 years, there’s always an excuse to mar happy occasions. I’ve made peace with this fact after an “aha” moment 5 years ago. But, my mother hasn’t, for instance. And, that’s tough.

So, I thought I’ll do what I always do and share a few of my biggest learnings from these experiences.

1. Every person is responsible for their own happiness. This has two powerful implications. First, it is that you ought to worry most about your own happiness and not sacrifice that at the expense of others. That’s because, over time, you cannot help anyone else if you can’t help yourself. So, to be useful in the long run, take care of yourself first. Second, you can attempt to help others for a short while. But, after a certain point, it is their life and their responsibility. Don’t try to play god.

2. Really appreciate the people around you. If your mind is always stuck on the past, you’re never going to be able to enjoy the present or the future. All we have in this life is a collection of memories. Yes, there were great memories in the past with great people. But, there are equally great moments waiting in the future. For that, you have to really appreciate and be thankful for those who are with you now. Be great to the people you are with. Collect memories.

3. Express your love and gratitude. Once you learnt to appreciate the people around you, express you love and gratitude. Be generous with hugs, kisses, compliments, affection and love. We sometimes treat our heart as one that has space only for a few. It couldn’t be less true. My experience is that it only expands with time.

4. The world is your family. I’ve come to realize that there is so much family out there in the world. I count myself as a person rich in relationships as I’ve found an abundance of parents and siblings out in the world who’ve taken incredible care of me. I guess you just have to open your eyes to the possibility.

5. Take death education seriously. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about design firm IDEO’s efforts to “design death” and have those difficult conversations. I think we all have a duty to understand this certainty. If you’ve experienced in some form with a relative or family member, then I hope you’ll take the time to reflect, think, and have conversations about it. Death and the fear of it shapes more lives than you and I can even imagine. And, a lack of an understanding of this concept probably destroys more people’s happiness than diseases like cancer.

For my part, I’ll do my best to add more to conversation here. Death, depression and all such taboo topics are only taboo because we don’t spend enough time thinking about them and really understanding them. And, understanding them is strangely liberating.

One thing that does happen when you do think about these things is you realize how fleeting these moments are. The days feel long, but the years are really short. And, while life may be the longest thing we do, it is still really short in the big scheme of things. It is up to us to do something worthwhile with the time we have and spread as much love and joy as we possibly can instead of being caught in vicious cycles of unhappiness.

As I type these words, there are people who’re dying in various places. Many of these folk likely wish they could live a bit longer and tell the people they loved how much they cared about them – that’s the biggest regret of them all. Some others likely wish they’d lived a life with more meaning.

Happiness is not one of those things that comes assured on our birth certificate. Happiness is hard because it requires us to live a life close to our purpose and have real impact on the people on this planet. But, hard doesn’t make it impossible, of course. To make this life meaningful, to make it count – that’s entirely our responsibility.

And, what a great responsibility it is.

Technical debt and management debt – The 200 words project

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

Programmers refer to taking coding shortcuts or “quick fixes” that prove to be very expensive in the long run as “technical debt.” As CEO of Opsware, Ben Horowitz referred to shortcut decisions companies and managers make as “management debt.”

He gave a few examples of management debt –
– Offering an employee a very good raise because he/ she receives a better offer from a competitor. Very soon, everyone threatens to quit to get a raise
– Rewarding low performers because it ruffles fewer feathers
– Avoiding an important difficult conversation with the team because it is, well, difficult

Ben’s experience taught him that these “quick fix” decisions always needed to be repaid with very high rates of interest.

We face so many such choices in our daily lives too – spending on a luxury vs. saving, watching TV vs. exercising – I guess that’s why day-to-day living is probably the biggest challenge of them all. So, here’s to remembering Ben’s idea of management debt / “life” debt and getting past our next shortcut decision.

Tech debt and management debtSource and thanks to:

‘The chief cause of failure and unhappiness is trading what you want most for what you want right now’ | Zig Ziglar

Internal seasons

Of late, I’ve begun to think of states of mind as analogous to the weather and seasons. For example, this is what I associate the seasons with –

Spring – excitement and endless possibilities. This is time for action.
Summer – all is well and feels great. Won’t last forever so enjoy it while it lasts and save for winter.
Autumn – still pretty but surfaces the first signs of caution as winter is coming
Winter – tough and unforgiving and demands shorter strides

I’ve learnt a couple of things from this analogy –

1. Simple frameworks go a long way in helping us process what’s going on. This season analogy, for instance, helps me process how I’m feeling and then understand what the appropriate next step should be.

2. I wonder how our internal weather correlates with the external weather.

3. I think it helps if you treat your internal weather like how you might treat the weather outside, i.e., don’t take it too seriously (sadly, too few do this). Wear your winter coat but don’t compromise on your energy or spirit.

4. And, finally, I am always amazed as to how quickly the weather can change. When I look back, there have been moments that have dramatically shifted how I feel. One phone call about an incredible opportunity that worked out can change the weather forecast for an entire year.

The conclusion, for me, is one I seem to end up at from so many seemingly different angles – be aware of how you’re feeling, understand why, do something about it and, regardless of how good or bad it feels at the moment, keep plugging away. Good stuff happens..

Things that will not change

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was recently asked about what Amazon might look ten years from now given all the changes sweeping through the world thanks to technology.

His response was that, instead of looking at what would change in the next decade, Amazon preferred to look at what would not change. So, there may be big shifts in the devices customers use to shop, for example, but customers will always favor low prices. A focus on things that will not change helps anchor Amazon to its objectives.

News websites and blogs called described this line as “Jeff Bezos’ advice to entrepreneurs.”

I think of it as advice for life. As we think about our lives in the coming years and decades, it should be clear that a lot of what we think will happen will not actually take place and that there will be more change in the way we do things than you and I can probably imagine. Instead of focusing on that, we’re better off focusing on what won’t change – our values and principles. It is worth thinking intentionally about these values and principles as we adapt to all that happens around us.

Despite its focus to lower prices and deliver a customer-centric experience, Amazon does make the odd misstep. We will, too. Change demands a relentless focus on what really matters.

It won’t be easy… but, boy, will it be worth it.

Despicable behavior and internet ethics

Critic Anita Sarkeesian has been the subject of intense harassment and abuse (a.k.a “trolling”) from the gaming community after sharing her views on how women are portrayed in video games. She shared 1 week of tweets from trolls from on her blog last week. Just as a preview, she has the following content warning before her tweets – Content warning for misogyny, gendered insults, victim blaming, incitement to suicide, sexual violence, rape and death threats.

Now, a question – how many of those who tweeted would have the guts to say that to her in person?

I would be surprised if one out of every hundred had real courage. The most courageous people would look to give Anita a call and discuss her point of view or perhaps disagree with her with a critique on her own. Despicable behavior is a hallmark of gutless cowards. And, unfortunately, such pseudo-macho behavior is a hallmark of cowardly male behavior on the internet.

There are 2 thoughts that come straight to mind –
1. In short term, Twitter needs to take a hard stand against trolling. We need to think of it as bouncers in a club. Users should be given a warning (strike 1), thrown out for a few days for abusive tweeting (strike 2) and then banned from the service altogether if there’s a third strike. I know this would run counter to the typical social media mantra of “we want all the users we can get,” but, Twitter is fairly niche and is really well positioned to take such a stand. (And, it looks like they’re thinking about it)

And, my hypothesis is that a few such actions will stop the rest from such behavior. Cowardice doesn’t do too well with hard action. It is just a question of creating norms – you rarely see such trolls on LinkedIn..

2. In the long term, we need more education and discussion around ethics on the internet. I spent a lot of time as a secondary student learning to write letters as part of the English curriculum. Now, I write letters just once a year but, at least, some of those learnings have been useful in the world of email. Services like Twitter are completely new territory and we need to think intentionally about ethics and norms.

And, the other question for the long term is whether we can figure out ways to reduce emotional distance between two people on services like Twitter. Emotional distance is what makes it easy for a coward to throw insults on Twitter but not in person. It doesn’t feel as “real” and we forget that the people at the other end are real people – a lot like us (see Derek Sivers’ excellent 3 min video if you haven’t as yet). I’m not sure how we’d do that as yet. But, there has to be a way. And, I’m sure we’ll find it.

Relevant costs and their implications on decision making

Fred Wilson, partner at Union Square Ventures and investor in most networks we know and love (Twitter, Tumblr, Etsy, Kickstarter), has a great post on sunk costs this week. It is a must read. My favorite part is –

‘This is a hard thing to do. It is human nature to want to recover the sunk costs. We face this all the time in our business. When we have invested $500,000 or $5mm into a company, it is really easy to get into the mindset that we need to stick with the investment so we can get our money back. If we stop funding, then we write off the investment almost all of the time. If we keep putting money in, there is a chance the investment will work out and we’ll get our money back or even a return on it.

Even though I was taught about sunk costs in business school twenty-five years ago, I have had to learn this lesson the hard way. Most of the time that we make a follow-on investment defensively, to protect the capital we have already invested, that follow-on investment is marginal or outright bad. I have seen this again and again. And so we try really hard to look at every investment based on the return on the new money and not include the capital we have already invested in the decision.’

This seemingly simple insight is what relevant costs in Microeconomics is all about. When making a decision on new investment, don’t consider past investment. It isn’t relevant. What is relevant is the return you are going to get on your current investment. What about the past investment then? Well, you should have thought that through carefully when you were making that decision. Nothing can be done about it now. As humans, we hate the idea of loss. And, the relevant costs concept attempts to guard us against exactly that.

We don’t have to be venture capitalists to have experienced relevant costs. We have seen relevant costs play in bad relationships that we held onto because of an abundance of memories, we’ve seen ourselves follow on on bad bets in poker, and we’ve probably made many a bad decision in attempting to stick with an existing investment hoping it’ll sort itself out – despite the signs telling us otherwise.

Relevant costs essentially give us a great guideline for decision making – make decisions looking forward based on today’s data. Yesterday’s investments don’t matter.

We all know that we can’t drive using the rear view mirror. Yet, as Fred points, out, we tend to do it more often than not. Microeconomics provides us with tools to think about decisions and guard against being predictably irrational.

As with all good things, it is up to us to put them to good use.

Shorter strides

The skies delivered 19 odd inches of snow in our area this weekend. Yesterday was bright and sunny and the snow had just begun to melt. I normally walk fast with as long a stride as I can muster. As I began doing that today, I felt my snow boot slip just a bit a couple of times. Cue: a change of style – I needed to take shorter strides.

It worked like a charm.

There must have been inspiration in the air as I realized right then that I’d stumbled onto an interesting learning. It begins and ends with the core idea – when in slippery territory, take shorter strides.

I think this idea has many many applications –
When low on budget in your company, design experiments with quicker feedback cycles and undertake fewer expansive projects.
In a poker game that is high stakes and “loose,” keep your money close and play tight. Weigh every move carefully.
When you’re slipping on your life’s “process,” slow down and start taking small steps towards getting back into the zone.
When you’re running out of money in your start-up, focus on your customers and cut out any additional projects (inspiring ex-entrepreneur and VC Ben Horowitz describes this as the difference between peace-time and war-time).
When in a challenging period where every second of your productivity counts, plan out every half an hour in your day carefully. Sweat the small stuff.

Summer will eventually arrive, of course. We will then be able to take longer carefree strides and try out our ambitious and expansive bets. But, not now.

Winter is all about difficult weather and slippery terrain. It is about nailing the basics and ensuring we have enough to make it till summer. For now, we’ll just focus on shorter strides..

Seeking tension – the MLK Jr. way

Martin Luther King Jr., in a famous letter from Birmingham Jail, said –

“There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

He makes a profound point – tension is not a necessary evil, it is a necessity. It needs to not be avoided, but welcomed.

So, we must seek it in every form – the tension that comes from having set a tough target, the tension that comes from the expectation to prepare hard and perform, the tension that comes from holding two conflicting ideas, the tension that comes from making a tough values based decision and the tension from having difficult conversations that matter.

Move towards tension and the struggle it brings and conquer it repeatedly with great processes that you develop as you go.

Growth can’t help but follow..

Partitioned cookies – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Participants volunteered to help with a cookie tasting study (that must have been a tough decision) that was actually a test on how partitions affected decision making. They were to report back once they finished their cookie jar with 24 cookies each. Participants took 6 days on average.
However, in boxes where each cookie was individually wrapped, participants took 24 days to finish the cookies!

Similarly, participants gambled less when their funds were divided into different envelopes. Day wage workers managed their finances better when they split their wages in different envelopes. And, venture capitalists made better overall decisions when they split their investments in different rounds.

Partitions like these make sure we set boundaries so we don’t just escalate our commitment to existing choices. These boundaries ensure we make conscious decisions (do I really want another cookie?). Chip and Dan Heath suggest setting up more partitions in our day for conscious decisions – e.g. a call from the family at 5pm to check in on our productivity and ensure we head home in time for dinner.
Partition Cookies

Source and thanks to:

‘My approach to living with purpose has always been to create the life I want, one conscious decision at a time.’ | Oprah Winfrey