The ALearningaDay school of blogging

A couple of friends reached out asking for blogging advice in the past couple of weeks. I thought I’d pull together what I’ve learnt after about 7 years of daily posts on this blog. I’m not sure I am expert enough to term this “advice” but here are my 2 cents worth of opinions on this topic. I hope it helps.

Thoughts on the approach
1. Find intrinsic motivation. I tend to believe that the best way to do this is to write for 2 people – yourself and one other person who you know will read your blog (likely your mom). It is important you do this for an intrinsic reason as it is hard to keep commitment otherwise.

2. Expect nothing to happen for 5 years at least. Unless you are a celebrity, it is really hard to gain traction. You might get a viral post or two that give you a few thousand hits if you try hard enough. But, sustained attention is hard earned and takes time.

3. Commit to a regular schedule. Once-in-a-while commitments are generally flimsy and don’t hold. Make it harder to procrastinate by committing to 15 minutes at the start of every day.

4. Write about stuff you care about. It shows. This is assuming you aren’t looking to maximize clicks or make quick money off your blog (I highly doubt there is much to be made in any case). And, it is also assuming you aren’t awesome at faking interest in subjects that you think will appeal to the crowds.

5. Consider using it as an opportunity to think. Writing is thinking. And, the more you do it, the more you’ll be able to think analytically and critically. It is a great opportunity to get better at that. And, growth and learning from writing compounds and snowballs over time.

6. Just ship. Avoid perfect posts. The moment you feel it is good enough, just ship. Your idea of good enough will change over time.

7. Writer’s block is a myth. As Seth Godin says, just write like you talk.. often.

A note on tactics
1. Getting started. Get started on WordPress if you plan on writing a “long form” blog. If you are looking to just do shorter posts and re-blogs, tumblr works well. I hear Medium allows you to create your own blog these days. That is worth checking out – I don’t know enough about it. And, you can always buy your own domain once you are committed.

2. Create a simple marketing approach. I am a horrible blog marketer. So, do take this with a pinch of salt. I just tend to share posts as soon as I post them on my Facebook, Twitter and Google+. I have been told a few times that pro bloggers spend a lot more time promoting content. This approach is driven by the “why” behind this. If page views matter to you, spend time promoting what you write. Or, just write stuff that your existing readers feel compelled to share. Different strokes for different folks.

3. If you are worried about negative feedback, turn comments off. Generally, you’ll have the opposite problem – a complete lack of feedback is the norm. But, if this worries you, comments can always be turned off.

The base rates for blog creation from my experience aren’t great. If I had to think of a 100 friends who’ve started blogs in the past 7 or 8 years, I think there are about 1 or 2 who are still at it. Most blogs die within the first year. So, the commitment doesn’t come easy. But, I tend to think the struggle is worth it. But, hey, I’m clearly biased.

Someone once told me – often we set out to change a situation and then end up finding that it is really the situation that changes us. That sums up how I feel about blogging. This blog has taught me more than I’d ever have imagined..

Seeking dissent

There’s a great short story about how Alfred Sloane, legendary CEO of General Motors, sought dissent.

In a meeting where his entire executive team were in agreement on an important decision, Sloane interrupted everyone and said – “Gentlemen, it appears we are in complete agreement on the decision here.”

When he saw everyone nodding, he said – “So, I suggest we postpone this discussion to our next meeting so we can develop disagreement and understand what this decision is really about.”

Building teams that don’t become echo chambers takes work. It requires a collection of personalities who are willing to speak their mind and challenge each other. An environment of such candor necessitates people who are willing to put themselves out there and expose their edges. But, most importantly, it requires leadership which encourages dissent by actively seeking it.

The Alfred Sloane story is a masterclass in seeking dissent.

(Hat Tip to the Heath Brothers’ excellent book, “Decisive,” for this story)

Viktor Frankl and Crabbing – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to Viktor Frankl’s video on man’s search for meaning (HT to Vikram’s Learning Antenna).

The great holocaust survivor and logotherapist Viktor Frankl spoke of a flying lesson where his instructor taught him a concept pilots called “Crabbing.”

His flying instructor had said – “If you are starting east wishing to land at a point somewhere west and you have a cross-wind, you will drift and land in a different spot. So, you need to “crab” or head in the direction opposite to that of the wind so you land in the spot that you actually want to land at.” (illustration below)

Frankl explained that he felt this held for people, too. If you take a person as he/she really is, the default negative “crosswinds” in our mind make him/her worse. If we overestimate people, however, we promote them to what they really can be.

So, his advice for us? “Be an idealist, because, then you will wind up as a realist. As Goethe said, if we take a man as he is, we make him worse. But, if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”

PS: Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl is a wonderful wonderful book.

Viktor FranklSource and thanks to: Wikipedia

‘If you presuppose in a man – whoever it may be – that there must be a spark of a search for meaning, you will elicit it from him and let him become what he is capable of becoming.’ | Viktor E Frankl

Teachers and salesmanship

A great salesperson is always aware of the fact that buyers have one question in mind – “why should I bother?” His expertise in answering this question is what set Steve Jobs apart. Jobs didn’t just answer the question with “what” made Apple’s products special, he explained the “why” behind them and explained why you should care.

The challenges that teachers face aren’t different from those in sales. As teachers, students sitting in front of them ask the same question – “why should I bother?” There are many competing pursuits that a student would rather divert his/her attention towards. And, this is where schools, organizations and teachers slip. When attempting to hire great teachers, they screen for passion and expertise. Yes, passion and expertise are critical. If a car salesman didn’t look like an expert on cars or simply didn’t care, there is no way we’d want to engage. Why should we bother when he clearly doesn’t?

Passion and expertise only make for a good teacher, however. That’s because people with a lot passion and expertise often make the wrong assumption that everyone cares about their subject as much as they do. And, that is exactly what great teachers do differently – they don’t make that assumption simply because they are always aware that the person in front of them doesn’t actually care as much. In fact, they’re making the decision as to whether or not to care as they speak. So, great teachers sell like professionals. They sell the “why,” they sell the dream of a better life, and they sell hope.

We all play the role of teachers at various points in our lives. We teach as parents, as colleagues, as managers, as trainers, and as mentors and coaches. And, to really have an impact on those at the other end, it is critical we remember that transferring knowledge and expertise is just one half of the job. The other half is demonstrating why it matters, selling the importance of commitment, and answering that important question – “why should I bother?”

Lao Tzu and the digestive system

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” | Lao Tzu

The great Lao Tzu was well ahead of his time as he inadvertently described the idea of mental models. An easy way to understand this is to draw a parallel with our digestive system.

First, we ingest. This is the addition part that Lao Tzu alludes to. The focus is just to take in information.

Next, we digest. This is the stage where a teacher helps a great deal. By helping us put frames and structures around information, we are able to aggregate content and make it digestible.

Then, we absorb. The way we absorb new models is to connect them with existing patterns and models. This is why the learning process taxes the brain. It takes a long time for us to map with existing patterns or create new ones. As a result, taking the time to reflect on what we’ve learnt and digested is THE critical step in absorption. And, this is what most action packed seminars, conferences and retreats miss. Without down time, there isn’t understanding.

Finally, we excrete. This is the subtraction part of the process. Once we’ve built on an existing model or created a new one, we’re in a great position to remove unnecessary detail and information. Again, excretion is impossible if we shortcut absorption. So, if you’re going through a busy and intense experience, you should know that return-on-reflection-time is incredibly high. There is no learning without reflection.

The beauty of this process and the development of mental models is that, over time, your ability to process new information goes up dramatically. For example, if you come across a new productivity technique, you can dig into the essentials and decide very quickly as to whether it’ll suit your style or not. Decisions require you to cut and kill what is unnecessary. We do that with mental models. Not all mental models are accurate, of course. So, what makes accurate mental models? A lack of rigidity.

The more rigid the model, the more it is a sure sign of ignorance and stupidity. The smartest people are always testing their assumptions and adapting their mental models. That way, they’re constantly converting learning to understanding to wisdom. And, that’s how they experience the power of compound learning.

Notice how Lao Tzu talks about subtracting “every day.” Wisdom is not a state. It is a daily activity. And, you can’t shortcut daily reflection and thought.

For them or for us

Stakeholder update meetings are necessary in any project. If you’re running an event for a school, the administration would love to understand what you are up to. In companies, it is a mix of senior management, steering committees and clients.

One way to approach these meetings is for teams to take the “for them” approach. The default reasoning here is that these update meetings are for senior management/clients to see what we’re doing, poke holes, demand better results, and perhaps even put more work on our plates.

The “for us” approach deals with the same reality with a different lens. The reason for stakeholder meetings in the “for us” approach is for the team to reflect, take stock and learn. We do this by sharing our progress so far with senior management/clients, discuss roadblocks and look for opportunities to course correct as necessary. We aren’t doing this meeting “for them.” We’re doing it because we care about our work and it is wonderful to have them as we can learn from their experiences. Yes, they can be painful. But, that’s part of the learning process.

The former is normally used. The latter inspires better work.

As always, we choose.

A letter to an incoming student – MBA Learnings

Around this time last year, once the realization that I was going back to school sunk in, the immediate question that followed was – how do I get prepared? I was, after all, going to be spending in excess of $200,000 without accounting for the loss of income in the next 2 years. This had better be worth it.

My plan of action was to do 3 things – read books on the topic, check out the blogosphere, and speak to as many people as possible. So, I did just that. I found 3 resources useful – the “Case Studies and Cocktails” was pretty hands-on, the famous Stanford letter to incoming students was reassuring and the 108 tips on the MBA Excel blog was very useful from a logistical point of view. I did, however, feel a few things were sorely missing. And, on top of that list was a way to “frame” the MBA experience. Great frames help us cut through the noise and understand what matters. And, given we likely have a hundred thousand capable folk jumping into expensive MBA programs all over the world, I found myself wondering if we could do a bit better in preparing them for the journey.

Luckily, I stumbled upon a first version of the “frame” I craved in my first 3 weeks thanks to 2 wonderful people – an insightful professor who taught us business analytics and a dear friend. Their insights made all the difference to my experience in the past 8 months. And, I’d like to share them with you. As with my essay on internship recruiting, I’d like this to be comprehensive. So, I expect this to be long. I hope it’ll be worth it.

Before we begin, a note on bias. As writing is a direct reflection of thought, every piece of writing has inherent biases. While I’ve done my best to use frames over specific advice, this is hard to do. My priorities in life are around people that matter, learning from life’s experiences, and having a positive impact on the world. And, these priorities shape how I see the world and choose to experience it. As a result, my idea of fun revolves around these priorities (I guess writing a daily learning blog is a bit of a giveaway :-)). So, I trust you’ll put these notes in context and take them with healthy pinches of salt.

Framing the MBA journey. The MBA journey is the first step to the next phase of your life journey. The lessons from this post aren’t just about doing well in graduate school. I think the principles apply for life after school. Most people come to the MBA after a few intense years in their 20s where they’ve largely focused on themselves and their growth. Yes, there are those with kids, wives, and spouses – but, most of the folks in these programs have worked really hard to get in and are now looking for that next step. And, these programs exist to prepare them for that next step in a safe and relatively risk-free environment. To understand how they do that, you have to understand the 3 underlying principles that govern this experience. Let’s start with principle #1.

Principle #1 – The MBA is a 2 year course in decision making and trade-offs.
There are 6 priorities you will need to think about during your time in graduate school. I will go through each of these and will also make a case for the idea that juggling these 6 priorities is a warm-up act for life beyond school. The 6 priorities are –

1. Academics. You are paying for the experience. Education is one part of the experience. Unlike in your undergraduate experience, very few people really care about your grades. In fact, many programs don’t even provide employer’s access to your academic performance. So, do grades matter? Well, they matter as much as they matter to you. There will be many at school who won’t care. And, then again, there will be many who will. There is no right or wrong answer here. It depends on whether academics lies in your priority list. I will, however, offer a few thoughts for you to consider –

– Nearly every class I have taken so far has had lessons that have been either been immediately applicable in my own life or have helped greatly in my understanding of the world. This stuff is useful. I think neglecting it isn’t smart.
– That said, I don’t think it is worth spending every spare moment studying. I think what really matters is an overall grasp of the fundamentals. Ten years down the line, you aren’t going to remember ABC reading or DEF assignment, but, you will remember how to think about network externalities or structuring your company’s debt.
– If the MBA provides this broad based education, it is critical you spend time developing mental models that will help you remember the stuff that matters. As your understanding develops, you’ll find that almost everything is connected. The better your understanding, the more the connectivity.
– It helps greatly to show up to class and participate. Every once in a while, you’ll find your attention drifting or find you have no clue what is being said. Stop the Professor and ask questions. Don’t pride yourself of knowing stuff. Pride yourself on being able to get smarter.. quickly. Nobel prize winners do that.
– We don’t learn best when we take notes during class. We learn best when we take a bit of time after class to summarize the key points of the lecture. I’d definitely consider taking that time to reflect and to create those summaries.
– If you follow a thorough learning process, you’ll find that there is no need for last minute cramming. Good results typically follow good processes.

Academics in your life after school. At school, you will get to create a learning path that suits your interest (in most schools at least). You will likely find your interest in some subjects increase in your time at school. It won’t be possible for you to learn everything. One of the best outcomes of this journey would be a renewed commitment to making use of every moment of time available in your life after school to further your learning. This could be by reading great books on your commute, by taking a course every 3 months, or just connecting with a smart peer group interested in similar subjects. Knowledge -> understanding -> wisdom. It is hard to shortcut that process.

2. Recruiting. What you will really learn in business school is how to lead yourself through a job search. I can’t think of a more useful skill. Here’s why – the days of long tenures at a single company are long gone. This means that the chances that you’ll be looking for a job in the next 48 months and then again in 48 months after that are incredibly high. Learn to do it.

I’ve written about lessons I learnt from internship recruiting. So, I’ll aim to leave you with a few high level thoughts –
– Over the summer, really think about what you want to do in the long term. Consider paths that will help lead you to that goal. Either way, it’ll become really tempting to shun those paths and go after prestigious positions and firms. If that happens, let it be for the right reasons.. or, at the very least, reasons that make sense to you.
– Recruiting hits you much quicker than you’d expect. All schools care a lot about recruiting because these stats feed into their rankings. So, expect to be bombarded with messages about information sessions about every company you can think of. You can’t do them all.
– You’ll find very quickly that the difference between those who recruit successfully and those who don’t can’t be accounted for by a different in their IQ. It comes down to a combination of EQ, preparation and focus.
– Recruiting isn’t easy. Don’t expect it to be. Instead, get ahead of the preparation by taking time to really think about how you’d like to approach it over the summer. Be prepared. That’ll help you be focused.
– Make sure you enlist plenty of support through the process. Find a group of friends looking for the same kind of opportunities and prepare with them, engage 2nd years and seek their advice and support, use the career center and professional club resources. You’re going to need it.
– Keep in mind that there is a lot of luck and chance involved. Focus on your process and approach. The results typically work out in the long run..
– Finally, use the recruiting period to build real relationships with people in the industry of your interest. Don’t just find a job. Get to know people.. it’ll pay off in the long run.

(Of course, all this doesn’t apply if you’ve decided to start-up during or after school yourself)

Recruiting in your life after school. You never really stop being a job/project-seeker. My only hope is that you’ll be a great employer, too, since you know what it feels like to be on the other side.

3. Social. I tend to think of friends as education’s greatest gifts to us. And, it is highly likely you want to make a friends through this experience. Relationships are very personal and everyone tends to have different approaches to social life at school. So, while the rest of the post is pretty colored by my biases, this one is very colored.

– Social life can be pretty stressful. There’s often a funny high school meets 20 somethings dynamic at school. This is just something you should know and expect.
– There are a couple of approaches to making friends – making many friends or making a close small group of friends. I am a fan of marrying both approaches. Success, to me, is having a small group of friends at the end of 2 years who I’d trust with my life and a collection of other friends across various social groups.
– I’d consider creating a diversity check on your calendar every 6 months – just ask yourself if your close circle of friends all look exactly like you (e.g. same country/language/profession). If so, it is worth asking yourself if you are learning anything from the diversity around you.
– Attempting universal popularity is a fool’s errand in my point of view. If that’s what you are after, good luck!
– Instead of attempting to get people to like you, I’d consider working hard to earn their respect through your work ethic and track record. I tend to find that going for respect often ends up resulting in you being liked by people who share similar values.
– Attempting to “network” through school is also a fool’s errand. Your network at every stage will be directly proportional to your net worth – both in terms of wealth and character. But, again, if that’s your plan, I hope you find a way to make it work.
– If you are an introvert, don’t worry. There are enough of us out there. The hard part will be saying no to the many low quality social interactions where 40 people will show up at a noisy bar and barely manage to hear each other speak. Hopefully, all this reading will help you make conscious choices. There’s limited time available to hang out and build relationships.. use it well.
–  I am a big believer in the idea that you attract people by virtue of who you are. And, a big part of showcasing who you are is by what you do. That brings us to priority 4.

Social in your life after school. I don’t have to make a case here, do I? :-)

4. Extra curriculars. There are extra-curricular activities of every kind in school via professional clubs, hobby clubs, fun clubs, etc. My view is that extra curriculars are the single best way to get to know your classmates and build real relationships. Here’s how I think about them –

– Leadership roles in most extra curriculars in school can be big time commitments. I find it hard to think of other opportunities during the experience where you get to spend so much time with your classmates working on interesting stuff (hopefully!).
– Do consider using extra-curriculars as an opportunity to hone your own skills – both hard and soft skills. Through them, you can learn how to work with smart peers, how to attract and hire people you want, how to select the right people for the job and team you’re looking to build, how to inspire them to be as committed as you to your cause, etc. Take your pick.
– My final thought would be to consider using these opportunities to learn how to build great teams. History is made my great teams. And, learning how to build great teams could be the most valuable skill you learn. It is an incredible opportunity to do so..
– Make sure you create your own path. This is a no-risk safe environment. If you aren’t trying things, failing and learning, I’d consider that a real shame.

Extra curriculars in your life after school. I am a big fan of side projects – whether it is your own soccer team or your not-for-profit. This stuff helps improve your productivity and also teaches many a valuable lesson. Successful entrepreneurs and executives always find time for these side projects. We should too.

5. Your friends and family from your “past life.” Graduate school sucks you into a bubble of sorts and it can lead to feelings of guilt when past friends and family are mentioned. That’s just because it is really easy to neglect them as you work through your weekends on assignments due on Monday and a whole host of other deadlines across these priorities. A few thoughts –

– Consider carving out 3 hours every week for your past life. I had Saturday mornings always kept free for catch up calls. It helped a lot.
– Call your mom at least once every week. This one is for the men. Women do this much better.
– Make the effort to stay in touch with your friends. Your roots matter.
– Every once in a while, as you experience wonderful moments, send thank you notes to all those who made this experience possible. There is no way you’d be in school if it wasn’t for all those wonderful people who supported you through the application process – your recommenders, bosses, colleagues, family, friends, teachers, etc. Thank them all from time to time.

Your “past life” after school. It is very possible that your graduate school experience will change you as a person. It is also very likely that it’ll change your career trajectory. There’s a lovely story about a boy who was frustrated with his kite’s string as he felt it was holding his kite back. His father suggested he cut the string. When he did, he noticed that the kite went up for a little while and then went on to crash. His father explained that our roots and values work the same way. It is tempting to cut people off as we soar higher. But, it is really those roots and values that provide the support system for our growth.
I guess there’s a lesson in there for all of us.

6. You. If you’re going in with your spouse/partner and/or your kids, this includes them. For this priority, I will err on the side of giving specific advice as I think this is the most important priority of them all. If you can’t keep your personal life together, you will have a miserable experience. So, really, I’d encourage you to make this your number 1 priority. What does that mean?

It means taking great care of yourself and the people who live with you. Prioritize sleep. Prioritize good food. Prioritize exercise. There have been enough studies over the past few years that have shown that this stuff greatly affects your decision making. And, here we go back to principle #1 – this is a course in decision making and trade-offs. The good news? Better decisions = better life. And, that’s what we really want, isn’t it?

Easier said than done, of course. So, how do you do this? Here’s what I suggest –

1. Decide what is important to you. The latin root of the word “decision” translates to “to cut off/to kill.” A big part of decision making is deciding what doesn’t matter (and, in the process, deciding what does). Decide which of the 6 priorities matter most to you and in which order. The order might (and likely will) change every week. That’s okay. Go in with a plan. A general once said – in war, plans fail but the planning is essential. That’s a great idea.

2. Spend 30 minutes at the start of every day reflecting on the day before and getting organized. There is no use moving from one day to the next without really learning anything substantial. 30 minutes every morning will help a LOT. If you want to make this actionable, consider writing in a journal or writing your own blog (I warned you about my biases!).

Also, a little bit of time getting yourself organized will pay off in a big way. The busier you are, the more organization will help you. For example, an hour spent at the beginning of the quarter putting all important deadlines and reminders for them in your calendar will save you a ton of heartache.

3. Color code your calendar based on these 6 priorities. You will use your calendar a lot. There’s no way around it. Start color-coding your appointments around these priorities. If you had a 3 hour block of free time and spent 2 hours studying, put in a 2 hour “academics” block. This will come of use in your weekly reflection hour.

4. Set aside 1 hour every weekend to reflect on where you spent your time. Make no mistake – your priorities are not what you decided. It is what your schedule shows. If you spent all your time on social activities this week, then that was your top priority. The way to do this is to add up the number of hours spent on each priority every week. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Even broad strokes math will help. The important thing is to understand where you spend your time relative to where you want to spend your time.
(I don’t add up the hours on family time + time spent on me. For good or for bad, I felt tracking them would be too troublesome. Instead, I just check in with myself to see if I feel “in sync.” It also helps I have a slightly more comprehensive measurement system in place – see here if this stuff gets piques your interest or just email me – happy to help with more detail.)

Use this weekly reflection hour to think about the week and figure out your priorities for the next week. On some weeks, you’ll prioritize one thing over the other. That’s part of the process – prioritizing is a not a fixed/one-time thing. It’ll happen every week. The point is to own the process.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

5. Try to spend quality time with those who live with you. I say “try” because this’ll be incredibly hard. My experience has taught me that the person who suffers the most from my prioritization missteps is my wife. I’m working hard to do better here. Many relationships suffer during the graduate school experience because it simply isn’t easy on partners and spouses. Some schools integrate partners better than others. But, none of that stuff helps if you do a lousy job of this. And, don’t just talk about prioritizing it. Show me your schedule and I’ll show you your priorities.

Prioritization is incredibly hard. But, it is the single most important life lesson that graduate school can help you learn. The quality of your life will be directly proportional to your ability to prioritize. There will be many mis-steps. But, if you take the time to reflect and learn, you might just really give yourself a shot at that elusive idea that most people seek – the good life.

Principle #2 – The experience is entirely what you make of it. Congratulations on your admission to a great program. If I haven’t made it clear as yet, I’ll say it explicitly – this isn’t a magic bullet. It isn’t guaranteed that you’ll have a great experience. In fact, you’ll find likely find yourself in an environment that is more competitive than any you’d been in before. Suddenly, you’ll be in a pool of talented peers from across various programs vying for the same jobs. You’ll even have to compete for opportunities to volunteer your time for extra curriculars (!).

But, the competition isn’t what this is about. This is about you investing 2 years in your own learning. You can really own this experience and make it exactly as you’d like it to be. In graduate school as in life, the people who do well aren’t those who’re much smarter than you and me. It is people who maintain a laser-like focus on what matters to them.

In the final analysis, just like there is no universal popularity (there are as many Angelina Jolie haters as there are fans), there is no such thing as universal success. The most important thing about the good life is that you get to define what good is.

I hope that, in school as well as in life, you’ll take the time to do that. School just happens to be a wonderful training ground for the real thing.

Principle #3 – Foolishness is believing your value 10x-ed just because you spent 2 years running around a university campus. Depending on the press’ mood, you’ll either find articles telling you that graduate business programs are awesome/are a complete waste of time and money. Regardless of the press’ mood, you’ve typically gone in expecting higher salaries and a better life.

My suggestion here would be to worry about that stuff less. Money matters and you’ll be compensated fine. Sure, your neighbor may get a better sign on bonus but I hope you won’t sweat this stuff. What I would really worry about is whether you’re making the most of the opportunity to get better. Just running to classes for two years in a university campus doesn’t automatically increase your value. Learning something does. And, even if it improves your understanding of the world, we’ve said nothing about your ability to get stuff done and really have an impact. Rather than labor the point, I’ll point, as I have done many a time before, to Hunter Walk’s fantastic post – “It’s fine to get an MBA, don’t be an MBA.”

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.”

Wrapping up. I’m sorry if this post burst the fantasy of a 2 year vacation. I am a big believer in setting expectations right. This experience isn’t designed to be a 2 year joy ride. That’s not to say it can’t be. The easy thing to do is to waltz in and try to find the path of least effort and resistance. Or, you can do the right thing for yourself and for the world by seeking out the difficult stuff and really making the most of the experience.

The choice is yours.  Either way, I wish you well and hope this helps. :-)

And, of course, if I can be of any help at all in helping you get prepared, send me an email on rohan [at] rohanrajiv [dot] com.

PS: I’m sure there are quite a few typos. I am actually on a rare break at home. So, please just let me know of the typos and I’ll fix them as soon as I can. It is also likely I’ll add a few updates as I think about it more.

Noise and prayer

I was at a cultural heritage museum showcasing South Indian culture yesterday that had an interesting sign next to a collection of preserved musical instruments. It explained that it was common for temples in Tamil Nadu to have loud (live) background music during prayer to drown out noises of people talking.

I thought this was fascinating. In most other parts of the world, you’d probably experience a few angry stares or murmurs if you made noise at a place where people need to focus. But, here, someone decided that the better approach was to just drown people’s voices out. As a result, it makes for a unique prayer experience – instead of the customary silence, you have loud music throughout.

Nuances like this make the idea of diversity so fascinating. As I wrote in my essay on diversity and inclusion, getting diversity right in organizations is incredibly hard. Diversity goes beyond the idea of diversity on the surface, e.g. gender and race. When cultural norms differ, it can make understanding the opposite person’s point of view rather difficult. And, if understanding doesn’t come about, trust will be non existent.

The best guideline I’ve come across in dealing with difference and diversity is Stephen Covey’s ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ This isn’t easy. But, it is the only way you can get past the noise to understand why people behave the way they do.

A final note – I’m not of the belief that getting past basic cultural barriers will make everyone a great co-worker. But, that said, if we find compatibility on core beliefs and then learn to build on different perspectives, the research has repeatedly shown that the results are likely to be outstanding.

Lee Kuan Yew

There’s one word that comes to mind when I think of the Singapore government – smart. There aren’t many governments that anyone would describe as smart.

The person who made that possible, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, passed away today. He was the architect of the modern day Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew’s regime was what many termed a benevolent dictatorship. He believed that democracy wasn’t conducive to the growth of a third world nation. So, he took it upon himself to develop a vision for Singapore in the 21st century. His vision was of a nation that became a trading hub, that compensated for its lack of natural resources with human capital, and where people could enjoy a standard of living comparable to the west. Unlike other politicians, he actually made sure all of this was achieved.

Some critics will point to the fact that Singapore’s size alone enabled such impact. Others will say his authoritarian policies rein in free will and free speech. There’s no end to these debates and I definitely don’t plan to add my point of view to the mix.

I was a beneficiary of smart policy making as a recipient of a scholarship from the Singapore government that attracted many ambitious students from across south east Asia. I enjoyed many wonderful years in Singapore and I was one of the many millions touched by Lee Kuan Yew’s extraordinary work. He approached nation building as a savvy CEO would approach building a Fortune 500 company. And, he was wildly successful in the process. He would also be the first to admit that his approach to nation building wouldn’t work for the modern day Singapore. He understood the importance of change and adaptation better than most.

In transforming Singapore – a task which many thought would be impossible when he took over – Lee Kuan Yew demonstrated to the world that great feats are possible with a vision, guts and a will to succeed and make things happen. He also reminded us that everything great we see around us was made possible by people just like us.

And, for that, I am grateful. Thank you PM Lee.

Find your Herbie – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to The Goal by Eliyahu M Goldratt

Alex Rogo was taking a long hike with his son’s boy scout group. He noticed that, while everyone seemed to be moving as fast as they could, they weren’t really making progress as a group. He was reminded of his Operations mentor’s advice – “find the constraint.” Constraints are obstacles that hold the whole system back – e.g, in a manufacturing plant, it is the machine with the biggest queue of materials behind it.

Alex soon realized that one boy, Herbie, was the slowest of them all. So, he moved Herbie in front of the group and forbid the others to pass him. This completely changed the dynamic – the group soon realized that any improvement with Herbie, however small, would improve the group’s pace. So, they divided everything in Herbie’s backpack between the boys and Herbie moved faster. The group made it to the camp in good time and Alex learnt a key lesson in improving productivity – take the time to identify and remove constraints. Every other improvement we make is non-essential.

HerbieSource and thanks to:

‘There is no one Herbie and finding one will create others.  The point is not to find him, but always look for him. So, clear your mind, find your Herbies and make them faster.’ | Sean Low on his blog