Growing up

Borrowing a framework from Stephen Covey, we move through 3 stages in our lives – Dependence -> Independence -> Interdependence. The Dependence years are marked by childishness, the independence years are marked with rebelliousness and the interdependence years mark adulthood.

There are 2 phrases that best mark the transitions between the stages.

Stage 1 to 2: “I can’t blame other people for where I am. I need to take responsibility for my own life.”

Stage 2 to 3: “I can’t do this alone. I need to work with and give to the people around me to build my family/career/community/life.

If we can’t accept responsibility, we are no better than kids. If we don’t realize that this is all about building things together, we’re no different from adolescents. These stages have little to do with age. Dependence alone is guaranteed with birth. The rest totally depends on emotional maturity that we choose to acquire over the course of our time on this planet.

Age advancement is guaranteed. Growth is not.

Checklists for all small wins

I have a simple checklist item on my to do list in gray (gray = no pressure) that I see every morning. It just says “charge phone.” There is the rare day when my morning reset hour gets disrupted. But, that aside, for the most part, I typically see that checklist item and put my phone on charge.

I am a huge fan of checklists for repeatable tasks. Items like “Blog,” “Read feedly,” “Clear email” are examples of gray checklist items. These items ensure I start the day with a consistent clean slate. I’ve just moved to a new location as of yesterday and I can definitely feel myself still getting into the groove – evidence of that is in the morning list as I only managed to get through half of what I’d like to get through yesterday and today. I’ll get into routine soon enough.

These simple small wins at the start of the day always bring happiness with them. They make for an easy check on the to do list as I ease in. And, they also give me the feeling that I am ready to dive into the day without little worries such as whether my phone is charged. And, most importantly, they reduce variability. Feeling disorganized and unsettled is a real barrier to a clear mind. And, all good things start with a clear and focused mind.

Jony Ive on a focus lesson from Steve Jobs

When every bone in your body wants to do it because it is a great idea, when you even wake up thinking about it – and still say no because you are focused on something else. That’s focus.

We see Steve’s relentless focus again in the next lesson that Ive shares. Steve is so relentlessly focused on the product that he gives up his (and most human beings’) desire to be liked.

The latin root of “decision” is derived from “to cut” or “to kill.” Focus and great decision making go together.

Focus as a verb or noun – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

When Bill Gates first met Warren Buffett, their host at dinner, Gates’ mother, asked everyone around the table to identify what they believed was the single most important factor in their success through life. Gates and Buffett gave the same one-word answer: Focus.

In his book, Greg McKeown dives into the nuance and depth behind the word. He explains that there are two kinds of focus –
Focus as a Noun. When people speak of focus they usually refer to the noun – having a single goal. So, focus is thought of as a static thing that you have.
Focus as a Verb. However, focus is also something you do. This type of focus is an intense, dynamic, ongoing, iterative process that explores what is going on and what the (noun) focus should be.

Professor Henry Mintzberg taught that there are two sources of strategy: deliberate strategy – where leaders develop a clear vision and map this to goals (noun focus), and emergent strategy – where people respond to unanticipated problems and opportunities (verb focus). It is the disciplined pursuit of both of these approaches that best enables us to focus on what is essential.

FocusSource and thanks to: Greg McKeown on LinkedIn

A sign of mastery..

.. is noticing things others miss. The master chef notices the presence of an extra ingredient that makes the dish special, the master footballer understands the power of that extra touch, and the master presenter observes the little things that help make the presentation a hit.

I think the same applies to those who master living well. They notice the little things that make days great, they really appreciate people who make their lives better and, most importantly, they learn how to listen to themselves and interpret the signs their gut, heart and mind sends them.

Mastery begins with learning to observe deeply.

Why a belief in the importance of giving and receiving personal feedback is misplaced

I’d like to begin by differentiating between personal and professional feedback. When a manager or friend teaches you how to make a better PowerPoint slide, I term that as professional feedback. Professional feedback is largely useful. It helps us learn to produce output that will be well received in our particular organization. These include learning how to eat, behave and dress in a way that suits our organization’s context.

Personal feedback is, well, more personal. You know exactly what I’m talking about because you have probably received personal feedback at some point in your career. And, I’ve come to believe that most personal feedback is useless. Here’s why –

1. It is impossible to give great feedback without adequate self-awareness on the part of the giver. It is hard for the receiver to take and use feedback without adequate self-awareness as well.

2. Even assuming you have two self-aware people having a conversation about feedback, there needs to be a level of trust, intimacy and vulnerability in the relationship. This takes time and isn’t easily achieved even in teams that work together for long periods of time.

3. The more self-aware you become, the more you understand 3 truths. First, your biases significantly color your feedback. Second, it is easy to give bad feedback and very hard to say something insightful. Third, it is better to show people the way than to tell them how it should be done.

4. Once you realize this, you realize that your time is best spent role modelling what you term as exemplary behavior – based on your value system since it’s all relative and since your values won’t resonate with everyone else. Over time, you’ll attract people who share similar values. When you attract and work with people with similar values, it is easier to build trusting relationships. And, once you build trusting relationships, feedback becomes a normal conversation. It isn’t a big deal. It is just part of the natural candor and vulnerability that you bring to the table every time you sit down.

Most professional organizations and schools today focus on the importance of giving and receiving feedback. I think that focus is misplaced. The focus needs to be on improving self-awareness. But, therein lies the problem. Self-awareness is incredibly hard to get to. It is a journey you commit to for the long term and it is hard to measure success simply because, the further you are on the path, the more you become aware of how long there is to go. On the other hand, it is easy to measure if you are improving on metrics that track giving and receiving feedback. All you need to do is to set up feedback meetings and enjoy that feeling of progress being made.

But, just because something is easy to measure doesn’t mean it is right. And, just because something is hard to do doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem worth solving.

Statistical fluctuations and dependent events – MBA Learnings

In last week’s MBA learning, we dove into the idea of managing queues by managing our utilization. In that post, we briefly discussed why queues form. Today, I’d like to dig deeper into that question.

So, why do queues / delays occur? They occur due to a combination of statistical fluctuations and dependent events. In simpler terms, statistical fluctuations can be described as variability. If we go back to the analogy of the ice cream stall, it is unlikely that the queue is exactly 5 people through the day. There will be times when the queue will be long and then times when it will be short. These differences are statistical fluctuations.

Life in the world of managing queues becomes harder when you combine statistical fluctuations with dependent events. A beautiful example of this combination at play is demonstrated in this 1 min 46 sec video called “The Subway Delay Story” by the MTA, New York’s subway operator.

In this video, the sick passenger requiring assistance and an emergency stop is an example of variability. And, every train behind the held train is a dependent event.

Another simple example of statistical fluctuations and dependent events at play is in connecting flights. We all have probably experienced delays in one flight that results in a chain reaction of delays in other flights. As a result, most airlines experience a deteriorating performance in their arrival times as the day progresses.

So, what can we do about statistical fluctuations and dependent events? Well, books have been written on the subject, So, instead of attempting a comprehensive answer, I’m going to share my simplified set of 3 ideas you can apply immediately in your life –

1. Be sensitive to the combination of statistical fluctuations and dependent events in your own life. One simple application would be to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings through the day. It is inevitable that one of them will spill. And, this, in turn, will result in a chain reaction through your day.

2. Control for statistical fluctuations / variability by building in safety capacity. This is a continuation of the idea of reducing your “utilization” and building in safety capacity. So, if you are scheduling many meetings during the day, leave little gaps in between so you can catch up on delays caused by fluctuations.

3. Look for creative ways to reduce variability. Disney offers “fastpass” tickets to various rides that allow customers to skip the queue at these rides at certain times. These times are designed such that groups of customers are incentivized to go to these rides at different periods during the day – thus, reducing the likelihood that everyone shows up at the same peak time. The equivalent in our personal life would be to plan ahead and avoid deliverable “peaks.” If you foresee two projects coming due in the same week, finish one up a week earlier and treat yourself (equivalent to the fastpass) so you avoid the peak rush.

And, finally, look out for statistical fluctuations and dependent events in the coming week. It changes the way you think about queues. And, if that isn’t magical, what is?

Paranoid optimism

After his wonderful post on non attachment, venture capitalist Brad Feld had another great post up on his blog on the idea of paranoid optimism. Just like after his post on non attachment, I thought about this over the days that followed and found that it resonated deeply with the way I approach life these days.

Paranoid optimism, as I understand it, combines two ideas that are seemingly at odds with each other – optimism and paranoia. To take the business analogy that Brad wrote about, an optimist would look at the rosy market conditions today and want to believe they will stay this way forever. A cynic, on the other hand, will expect the market to crash tomorrow. A paranoid optimist, however, fully grasps the idea that the market winds may change any day (thanks to the paranoia) and still makes decisions driven by his/her positive outlook. That is a potent combination and can lead to great positive impact.

But, all positive impact aside, I think of paranoid optimism as a healthy way in which to approach the world. For the longest time, I used to call myself a “realist.” I’ve since realized that that term doesn’t do justice to my belief system. I am definitely an optimist overall – if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to live the idea of “every day I get better.”  But, I’ve learnt to incorporate paranoia into my view of the world.

A few years ago, I’d written about this idea of checking in on the next potential “down.” I’d begun to observe a very noticeable pattern of ups and downs as I looked back at my mental states over the period of a couple of years. As a result, I developed this habit of checking in with myself every time I felt I was on a roll and asking the question – what could be the next “down?” For someone who was prone to high highs and low lows, this was a really helpful check in. It immediately grounded me and kept me focused on the present. More importantly, this injection of paranoia ensured that I wasn’t getting complacent. Falling down isn’t as painful as when we feel our pride has taken a beating. And, paranoia ensures pride doesn’t enter the picture.

I’ve written a lot about the idea of focusing on the process, of being mindful and of enjoying the present. These ideas make the journey incredibly fulfilling. And, when the journey is incredibly fulfilling, I find myself worrying less about the bad outcomes that inevitably show up and instead just focus my energy on plugging away.

It is paranoid optimism that makes this state of mind possible.

Interacting with a single stimulus

Every once in a while, you’re going to find yourself in a situation where a single stimulus will upset you. This could be a bad email, an angry exchange over the phone or a meeting that went awry. It could also just be a negative review or a disappointed user reacting to something you shipped.

Here’s an idea that might help – proceed with caution when reacting to a single stimulus. This is because we are wired to process negative responses with more intensity than positive responses. So, a single harsh email criticizing your recent presentation can threaten to cancel out ten positive responses. Of course, that’s if you let it.

There are a couple of ways to solve for this. First, try to get an aggregated pulse of a situation instead of focusing on one strong reaction. So, if you are picking a sushi bar, check out the average rating for the sushi bar on Yelp before diving into a single bad review. That seems natural when picking sushi bars, right? And, yet, when it comes to any kind of personal feedback, we tend to completely ignore this idea and fixate on the negative event. We need to go broad before we go deep.

Second, put extra weight on responses from practitioners or people you respect. Most people have an opinion on most things. Thanks to the proliferation of reviews online, giving feedback has become a sport these days. When you’re in the business of shipping, however, a lot of feedback is useless. This is because most feedback is given in isolation and, very few, as a result, have the level of insight required to be useful. This is where a practitioner’s view can be very useful. If someone has a track record of delivering the kind of presentation you’re seeking feedback on, pay attention. The feedback may still not be useful as we all have different styles. But, the chances of it hitting the mark are much higher.

Overall, it still comes back to the original point – beware interactions with a single stimulus. In fact, I’d even suggesting actively discounting it until you see widespread evidence that tells you otherwise.

There’s a nice quote that does this idea justice – ‘There are 7 billion people on this planet. Why, then, do we let just 1 of them ruin our day so often?’

Why indeed?