Brevity isn’t all that important

The smartphone obsessed reader would have you believe that brevity is what defines good writing. More than a paragraph? You must really suck as a writer. One scroll is all the attention a reader will give you before they move to the next thing.

Here are five things I’d take over brevity –

1. Useful
2. Inspiring
3. Thoughtful
4. Memorable
5. Clear

Brevity matters, sure. I’d love for what is written to be as short as possible. However, if it means becoming less thoughtful or less useful, I’d prefer the long version – thank you very much.

Inspired by David Heinemeier Hansson’s excellent post – “Simple just isn’t that important.”

Bothered by limitations – 10x thinking – The 200 words project

Continuing last week’s thread on 10x, not 10% – 10x thinkers, Ken Norton observes, don’t surrender to limitations – they get bothered by them. They look for ways around them, or things they can do to blow through them.

Google’s “Project Loon” is an example of 10x thinking. Project Loon is attempting to use weather balloons to bring reliable internet connectivity to underserved populations around the world. Whether Project Loon succeeds or not remains to be seen, but they’re trying.

A wonderful example of blowing through limitations comes from the 1960s when faster cargo ships and containerization revolutionized international shipping. However, when freighters from Hawaii reached San Francisco harbor in days instead of weeks, they were still forced to wait for many days since their documents needed to clear customs after arriving via postal service. Adrian Dalsey, Larry Hillblom and Robert Lynn saw this as an opportunity – while ships were still being loaded in Hawaii, they drove from dock to dock picking paperwork. They, then, put them in their luggage, got on a flight to San Francisco and got the papers ready by the time the ships arrived.

Dalsey, Hillblom, Lynn => DHL.

It’s often easier to make something 10x better than it is to make it 10% better. – Astro Teller, Google[x]


Source and thanks to: Ken Norton’s essay – 10x, not 10%

The 35k lesson

Every time I look back at a painful experience, I attempt to re-frame it by asking myself what lessons I learnt from that experience?

There was one such experience for which I paid what was effectively “tuition” of thirty five thousand dollars – a massive amount. For a long while, I was annoyed at what led to that experience. But, once I passed it through the re-framing filter, I realized that the most important lesson I’d learnt from that experience was one about emotional intelligence.

I was listening to “Mastery” by Robert Greene during that period and I distinctly remember the moment Greene spoke about emotional intelligence as (paraphrased) the ability to ignore what people say and, instead, to listen to what they do. In listening to what they do, he asked us to pay careful attention to their behavior when the chips were down, how they behaved when they thought no one was watching, their choice of partners, etc. It was one of those moments of clarity for me. I finally realized what I was meant to learn from thirty five thousand dollar experience.

A few days ago, I wrote about the idea that “falling is guaranteed.” The flip side of that idea is that, as you take bigger risks, some of those falls become rather painful. You might break a metaphorical bone and pay the tuition for that experience – this can be money, burnt relationships, dents in your confidence or a sense of discomfort when you think about it. As you pay this tuition, it is tempting to want to block this experience off entirely and not think about it. But, my experience has taught me that there is a lot to be gained from wading in within that discomfort and pain and really extracting the value from the tuition paid. My emotional intelligence fall came with scars. I live with them everyday. But, I look at them now not with disgust, but with gratitude for what they taught me.

The saying – “Success comes from good judgement. Good judgment comes experience. Experience comes from bad judgment” – holds absolutely true. The part that is missing is that the experience follows only after careful reflection and analysis of our errors in judgment.

That process is painful and uncomfortable, but worth it.

experience, lesson


I asked myself what the major themes of the past year were as I woke up this morning. And, it was the sort of morning when about ten different theme ideas came to mind. But, I love a synthesis with three ideas instead of ten. There’s something about bringing things down to three ideas. As a friend nicely put it – it isn’t that there are only three things, it is just that there have got to be the three most important things.

After bringing it down to three ideas, I asked myself if I could bring it down to the one idea. And, it turns out that that is possible too. Everything I have learned comes down to one central idea – love is the single uniting life principle. And, to live life well is to live it with extraordinary love.

I have referenced psychologist Scott Peck’s excellent definition of love here a few times over the past months – “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”

To love, then, requires us to use our will to extend ourselves to grow and to enable the growth of others. It begins with learning to love ourselves. To love ourselves, we have to sign up for a journey toward continuous growth of the mind and spirit. In doing so, we expand our capacity to love others. But, to truly love others, we must be able to help them on their own journeys.

All of this brings us back an idea related to the central idea – doing things with extraordinary love is hard work.

It is hard because it requires us to commit to growth. Growth requires this constant cycle of self reflection, self awareness, self evaluation, and self improvement. This can be a tiring prospect because you are always aware of the fact that this is a journey of work that never really ends. One of the pit stops on my journey right now is to be less reactive – I thought I’d become better about this but realized recently that I still react way too quickly, too often. This is something I need to monitor over the coming months. Once I get past that, there will be the next thing, and the next thing.

If that isn’t tiring enough, love, the verb, requires us to pay attention. This means committing to depth and intensity when we spend our time in activities of our choice and it means actively saying no to the many distractions that would happily have us fragment our attention. Depth is hard and I certainly struggle with it every day.

Finally, to be able to mindfully grow and focus deeply, we need to learn to think strategically about our choices and understand the trade offs that enable us to do less, but better.

All of this is hard work. Committing to love means committing to this hard work every day, regardless of the weather or good mood.

This commitment is what I’ve been made aware of in the last year. It is a commitment I have, thus, consciously made – to do the small things in my life with extraordinary love. I fall short of it nearly every single day – I stumble one way or another by either saying something stupid, reacting quickly instead of taking a deep breath and responding or doing something I shouldn’t have done.

But, in doing that, I have also learnt that learning to love means falling regularly and learning from those experiences. It means being intensely focused on choosing the part of learning no matter what the situation entails. It means giving it your best shot and making peace with the fact that you only control processes, not outcomes… and that it matters less what the end result is simply because our lives are lived en route.

And, I’ve realized that if we can bring ourselves to keep perspective along the way and do things that are consistent with our values, we give ourselves that incredible gift – the gift of a life well lived.

(Past birthday notes: 26, 25, 2423)

Updating 180 book reviews

I went down a blog maintenance rabbit hole yesterday and checked and updated all reviews on my book review blog. I had been liberally sending folks over to the blog over the past few years and realized I needed to do a quick check as to whether some of my earlier entries made sense. I had 3 interesting observations from the experience –

1. Themes. It felt like going back in time to different phases of my growth. For example, there was a phase of reading sales books because sales was a part of my role for a start up in undergrad, a phase of reading books on personal finance and investing, a happiness phase, a marriage books mini phase, an MBA book phase, etc.

2. Reviewing and recommending. I changed a few reviews yesterday as I realized my review methodology settled after 80 or so books. It took me a while for me to understand what I appreciated in a book and when things resonated. I think I’ve normalized all reviews now.

The interesting thing about reviews is that they have a lot to do with the specific time in which I read the book. I have come to understand that there is an aspect of reader readiness for many books. If you aren’t ready for an extremely insightful book, you’re not going to make the most of it. So, when I send folks over to the blog when they ask me for recommendations, I always request them to just take the reviews as a guide. Instead, I request them to send me a few books that pique their interest and give me a sense of what they’re looking for. The chances are high that we’ll be able to find something that they’d be ready for. It isn’t so much about what is a great book – it is about what you need to read at that particular point of time.

3. What I remember. As I went through roughly 8 years worth of books, I asked myself what I actually remember from these books? And, I realized that it was often a few ideas combined with a feeling that really resonated for the books I considered “great.” But, I also realized that I wouldn’t have remembered this if I hadn’t taken the time to write down what I remember, synthesize and share.

That brought me to the final learning – the hard part about reading isn’t just reading. That’s where we ought to start. However, if you really want to absorb what you learn from books, it pays to take the time to take notes (~3-4 mins for every 20 mins you read), synthesize and share. That’s when you give yourself time to absorb and assimilate what you read.


Unite or Divide

As a leader, you tend to have two choices – do I unite the people I lead or divide them?

Uniting people when you are leading huge communities or nations is actually not great strategy in most times. Our natural instincts encourage us to seek out divides and this is especially true in times of distress. And, in every century, we’ve seen plenty of leaders take the divide strategy. Adolf Hitler was probably the poster child of the divisive leader in the last hundred years. But, history offers many such examples – as a student of Indian history, I am painfully aware that “divide-and-rule” was colonial Britain’s chosen strategy to colonize India in the 19th century.

You can see why leaders pursue divisive strategies. They work fantastically well in the short term in most times. But, in the long run, however, they crash and burn. Organizations that become overly political stop innovating and performing. Countries that become divisive struggle to make progress. For all the negative aspects of the human condition that dominate during a period of time, one thing is for certain – humanity always triumphs in the long run. But, it is hard to play for the long term – just ask Angela Merkel. Despite showing humanity and leadership, she has only been losing popularity within Germany.

That is why it takes so much character to be a great leader of a nation. That is also why we deservedly sing the praises of Abraham Lincoln years after his passing. He could have done just fine as a leader by not abolishing slavery. But, in doing so and in resisting short term populism, he became great.

As I spend time in the US during this presidential campaign, I hear many surprised voices at the amount of support Donald Trump’s campaign seems to be receiving. The more I think of it, the more I realize that it doesn’t surprise me as much as it did a couple of months ago. We’ve seen this trend all over the world post the recession – every country has pushed for more protectionism. Even Singapore, which is about as pragmatic as a nation can get, became a touch more protectionist to appease popular sentiment. Why should the US be any different?

Brandon Stanton, the founder of “Humans of New York” had a powerful open letter to Donald Trump today, in which he said something insightful – “You are not a ‘victim’ of the very anger that you’ve joyfully enflamed for months. You are a man who has encouraged prejudice and violence in the pursuit of personal power.”

Leaders who choose prejudice and violence do so because it serves them well in the short run. They couldn’t care less about the downstream effects because they will always be insulated from them. The “divide-and-rule” policy eventually led to the separation of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many lives were lost due to these separations and they continue to be lost to this day.

The leaders who caused that have come and gone. But, the people have to live with those choices.

It is up to us to choose wisely.


The tension between relationships and processes

Every leader or manager faces one particular type of tension on most days – the tension between relationships and processes. The balance is hard to strike – lean one way and you  become too nice or lean the other and you become unnecessarily dogmatic.

The keys, in my limited experience, are as follows –

1. Understand what your natural leanings are. Depending on how you like to operate and what drives you, you will have a natural leaning to either being too nice or too strict with rules. Understanding this is critical to figuring out what you need to work on.

2. Communicate your expectations and follow through on consequences. Next, communicate your expectations frequently and clearly. Everyone working with you should have a clear understanding of the norms associated with working with you and what happens when they aren’t followed.

3. Treat different people differently. Finally, keep an eye out for spectacular performance. Every once in a while, you are confronted with spectacular performers who feel that the norms and processes get in the way. The more creative the endeavor, the higher the chances you will meet with rule breakers. Again, there isn’t so much of a right answer as much as there are two questions – how much of the rule bending can you make peace with? and, most importantly, at what point does the rule breaking affect the culture of the team?

As with all good tensions, what matters isn’t the answer. What matters is repeatedly asking the question, looking inward, communicating clearly and doing the best to balance the various forces at play.

It isn’t easy. Mistakes are guaranteed.

But, that’s how we get made.

Tension(Image combined from 1, 2, 3)

Falling is guaranteed

It is impossible to learn how to skate or ski without falling. When you’re skating, you just learn to fall in a manner that doesn’t break any bones. When you’re skiing on the other hand, falling on your face is totally fair game.

Falling is such a critical part of the learning experience. First, you learn how to fall. Next, you learn how to pick yourself up and get back on track. And, over time, you learn how to not fall. Putting all your energy into not falling when you start only impedes your learn curve. Learning wouldn’t be possible without falling.

The challenge is that falling and failing are often viewed together. They seem to be similar and they’re even spelled similar. However, falling is just the falling down. Failing is the staying down.

Falling is a guaranteed part of the learning experience. Failing is not.

"Falling is guaranteed"Image Source

10x, not 10% – The 200 words project

The Eastman Kodak company in its heyday was like the modern day Google. As the chart below shows, its success was thanks to the dominance of film cameras – at one point, Kodak captured 90% of the film and 85% of the camera sales markets in the US. Then, digital cameras entered.

Kodak, 10x, not 10%

Were digital cameras a surprise to Kodak, then? Absolutely not. The digital camera was invented in 1975 by Steve Sasson – a Kodak engineer. However, when Sasson showed his invention to executives, management squashed the idea. While it is easy to criticize Kodak executives given hindsight, they did the rational thing and protected their highly profitable business line. Kodak, like many companies, was more focused on growing at 10% than by 10x.

While this note could be one about companies learning to disrupt themselves, this idea can be applied just as easily to personal productivity as well. Very often, we focus on 10% improvements over changing the way we approach things – simply because the small change feels easier. If we can’t bring about massive changes to our own habits, how can we point fingers at Kodak?

If Kodak executives had asked what it would take for the world to snap one trillion photos a year, a new understanding would have emerged. Clearly, you wouldn’t get there by selling film. – Ken Norton

Source and thanks to: Ken Norton’s essay – 10x, not 10%

Tim Cook on RoI

VentureBeat had a nice article yesterday on Tim Cook becoming the Silicon Valley’s conscience with his stand on various important social issues. There was one anecdote that stood out –

In March 2013, I was in Cupertino for Apple’s annual shareholder meeting. After 18 months leading Apple, Cook had been feeling some heat from investors over the stock’s performance. During the meeting, Justin Danhof, director of the National Center for Public Policy Research’s Free Enterprise Project, had criticized Apple for its connection to industry groups that believe global warming is caused by human activity. At one point, Danhof confronted Cook and asked him to commit to only taking on projects that help the environment or fulfill other social justice aims if they directly benefit Apple’s bottom line.

Cook, clearly trying to remain calm, shot back: “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI [return on investment]. When I think about doing the right thing, I don’t think about an ROI.”

Cook then offered his own bottom line to Danhof, or any other critic, one which perfectly sums up his belief that social and political and moral leadership are not antithetical to running a business. “If that’s a hard line for you,” Cook continued, “then you should get out of the stock.”

In our push to hold people accountable to something measurable, we’ve long attached ourselves to metrics such as returns to the shareholder, RoI, etc.

All that’s good and very important – especially when you are starting out. But, once you are solvent and reasonably successful, it is your responsibility to work on projects that create long term good in the world. If not you, then who? The RoI may not be as good as an existing project that sells something to people who don’t fundamentally need it. But, it doesn’t matter. Just because an RoI is easily measured doesn’t mean it is right to measure it at every excuse.

Some of the most valuable things we do are things that aren’t easily measured and that can’t easily be quantified.

Thank you for showing us the way, Tim.

RoI, Apple, Tim Cook