When playing law enforcer

2 things help a lot when you are playing law/policy/rule enforcer –

  1. Take a moment to understand why the law exists in the first place
  2. Explain the rationale to the person you’re speaking to

Doing this helps avoid two issues that make such interactions tasteless – mindless policy-itis and a lack of empathy. Mindless policy-itis is when we say “It is not possible because that’s not how we do it here.” And, a lack of empathy is when we just shove the rule on someone’s throat without ever taking the time to understand why they might be asking for clarification or an exception.

Norms, rules, policies and laws are very important. But, when they don’t involve life and death situations (and, instead when they deal with – “Can I get a refund?” or “Can I return that product?” or “Can I please come to this event?”), it is worth revisiting why they were created. Every once a while, we might just realize it is worth making an exception or, in some cases, realize it is worth re-writing the rule.

law enforcer

The main thing

It is going to soon be 8 years of daily writing on this blog. During these 8 years, I’ve spent 2 years or so as an undergrad, 4 years as a consultant and about 2 years as a graduate student. During this time, there have been a collection of other projects on the side. But, in every one of these phases, there always was a “main thing.”

Toward the end of my undergraduate years, it was finding a job. As a consultant, it was delivering quality work for clients. And, as part of my graduate student experience, I’d say thinking about career direction, then switching careers and now preparing to give it my best shot is the “main thing.” For simplicity, I’m going to categorize all of these under “Professional” and put everything else I do with my time under the “Personal” category. If I have to now think of the “main thing” personally, it has always come down to one thing – building and maintaining a collection of strong, meaningful personal relationships.

I call these the “main thing” because there is such an incredible amount of noise – more so today than ever before. There are so many avenues for people to hear about what you’re doing and give you feedback – whether or not you want or need it. But, if you’re looking to create value, it is particularly challenging to cut through the noise and focus on what matters. Do the number of likes on your most recent post really matter? What about the number of people who said they’d come to that event you’re hosting?

The “main thing” idea is very helpful because it puts everything you do in perspective. For example, when I go back to the full time work world in 3 months, the main thing professionally is doing great work. Everything else is secondary. If I am able to do that, it is likely it will spill onto everything else I do – e.g., I will likely have richer insights to share here. And, if all goes well, insights from the act of reflection here will spill back onto my work. But, the main value driver in the long run will still be the work. Similarly, I may have 2000 friends on Facebook but it won’t matter if I don’t feel strongly connected to a small group I trust. As Stephen Covey once said, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. This isn’t easy but having clarity on this greatly helps separate the signal from the noise. And, the quality of our lives is directly proportional to the ability to keep the main thing the main thing.

Once you identify the main thing, it is easy to understand what single thing you do drives value. In my case, that single thing is “deep work” time – time I have carved out where I am focused 100% on my work or the important people in my life. No email, no phones and no nothing else.

So, simplifying this whole thing further, the quality of my life is directly proportional to the amount of time I spend in deep work mode. You might object to calling time spent with those close to us as “work.” But, I’d argue being 100% present takes work. Mindfulness, the same concept as “deep work mode” is hard.

It was only a year or so ago when I first realized this. And, it has greatly simplified how I think about my day and my life. Over the past 3 months, I’ve been working hard to be more mindful about scheduling “deep work” time. And, yesterday afternoon, I felt a certain discomfort as I was about to get some food. As I dug a bit deeper, I realized that I was feeling that way simply because I hadn’t spent a chunk of time in a state of depth for 2 days. Something or the other had come up and I had worked on multiple projects and felt my attention was very fragmented. I was itching to sit down, shut off distraction and focus on an afternoon and evening spent in depth. So, that’s what I did. And, it felt great.

Through all of this, I am probably most pleased about that discomfort I experienced. It reminded me to do what drives value in my life. And, long may that continue.

the main thing

Responding to mockers and haters

I shared a post on “To do” Archives yesterday with a picture of my own archives list. While it is possible to author blogs (possibly even daily ones) on specific topics without revealing a whole lot about yourself, I’ve found it nearly impossible to write one based on learning without baring your soul. I say that because so much of what we learn is based on who we are. So, in writing here every day, I definitely end up sharing my quirks.

One of my quirks, for example, is my morning routine – a topic I’ve written about plenty of times. Getting that first hour and a half right is an important part of starting the day and I love building momentum by checking off a few simple tasks. In this case, I shared a screenshot of my lists yesterday and I can still remember the trepidation when I used to share such stuff here a few years ago (even if there was barely anyone who read it). I still find it a bit uncomfortable. That discomfort doesn’t go away with time – I think you just develop a thicker skin.

I woke up this morning to 2 comments from yesterday’s post mocking my lists.


The reaction a couple of years ago would have been that uncomfortable feeling of the muscles in the stomach constricting followed by a need to either say something sarcastic or perhaps vigorously defend why the lists are the way they are.

But, the beauty of doing this for a long time is that you learn, over time, to see the light side and keep a bit of perspective. When you take a few leaps and put yourself out there, it is always possible for you to fall flat on your face. Sometimes, even without falling flat on your face, there are people who stand on the side laughing at your attempt.

But, if you do happen to be one of those leapers, you are generally very empathetic of others who’re out there giving it their best shot. Yes, it doesn’t always work. And, no, it isn’t always perfect. But, in putting themselves out there, they’re attempting to be the best they can be. And that, to me, deserves all the respect in the world.

So, my suggested response to those who mock you is to just walk away. It isn’t worth engaging. I’ve found it much more worthwhile to move onto building the next thing.

(A side note: There exists an age-old philosophical debate among bloggers about whether or not you should turn off comments. Seth Godin is one of the strong proponents of turning them off while many others, e.g. Fred Wilson, are big proponents of leaving them on. I’ve found more positivity than negativity as a result of leaving them on. However, this can change as you move from a small-time blog as in my case to a large blog with a lot of haters and trolls.)

Keeping a To do Archives file

I’ve used Microsoft OneNote as my “to do” list tool for 8 or so years now. Over time, it has become more of a life organization tool and has records of my thoughts on nearly every project I’ve worked on in the past few years. However, I use it most to list and work through key priorities and tasks – so, it is a nearly always open on my laptop.

Two years ago, instead of deleting my list of tasks once I was done for the day, I began transferring it to another OneNote file I call “To do Archives.” This “To do Archives” file has a daily chronological list of all tasks I’ve completed in the past two years.

I think I started doing this because I thought I might find it useful. I’ve probably checked in once a while for specific purposes – more so at the identical OneNote file at work. But, the real benefit of doing this has been something intangible – every time I start the day and transfer a few of the morning routine items to this list, I see this vast repository of tasks and feel a sense of positive momentum. “I’ve gotten so much done all these days. Why should this day be any different?”

And, indeed, why should it?

Momentum is a beautiful thing.

Todoarchives2(Example archives from last week – with names removed)

What do I need to believe for this to be true

Clay Christensen boiled the art of providing recommendations about the future to one very insightful question – “What do I need to believe for this to be true?”

I was working through an interesting problem recently and was trying to understand why I was convinced solution A was the best solution given the context. Bringing it back to this question led me to identify the two key assumptions that I needed to believe for this to be true. We, then, wrote those assumptions down so those who might struggle with the same questions in future years could revisit the assumptions and check if the context still held true.

Listening to your gut/intuition is an important decision making tool as your intuition often sees patterns before your conscious mind can process it. However, if you want to continue learning from the decisions you make, it helps taking a few moments to ask yourself – “What do I need to believe for this to be true?” The moment you put down those assumptions, you create a ready-made decision making process – both for yourself and others.

what do I need to believe, assumptions

Fiber Optics and Selfies – The 200 words project

Thanks to its unique properties and ability to manipulate light, glass (continued from last week) lenses led to cameras and, thus, photography, videography, television and movies.

However, glass’ next biggest impact came from fiber glass. Fiber glass’ properties made it extremely useful for materials ranging from jet engines to computer chips. In time, scientists found ways to send signals via fiber glass and that, in turn, resulted in fiber optic cables which were much more efficient than copper wires. Thus, a string of fiber optic cables transports all information (cue: hundreds of selfies) between North America and Europe. Amazing!

All these advances have led to never ending jokes about the selfie epidemic. However, selfies aren’t a new thing. Drawing self-portrait was an obsession among artists. However, self-portraits didn’t exist till the 14th century – until our band of Murano glass wizards coated the back of glass with an alloy of tin and created the first mirror. Until the fourteenth century, it was impossible for people to see a clear image of themselves.

As with many things in modern life, it begins and ends with glass.

(Note: While glass making changed so much after it became mainstream, the reason the invention of glass took so long was because of the high temperatures required to make it. So, we ought to tip our hats to the inventors of the furnace who made the magic of glass possible. :))

The World Wide Web is woven together out of threads of glass. – Steven Johnson

fiber optics, selfiesImage Source 

Source and thanks to: How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson

Deconstructing critic behavior

Behavior is a function of 2 things – a characteristic of the person interacting with a characteristic of the situation.

This is a simple yet powerful definition as it helps us understand why different people react to the same situation differently. And, most importantly, it explains why the same person might react to the an identical situation differently on different days. It all depends on which characteristics are interacting at which time.

Seth had a fantastic post on “Reading between the lines” the other day when he cautioned against analyzing rejection too much. His conclusion was –

If you really want to know why someone didn’t like your work, you’re going to have to put a lot more effort into it understanding the person who rejected you. Reading the tea leaves in the rejection letters and one-star reviews is pretty worthless.

I was part of a team that ran an event for a diverse group of 600 people last year. And, while we had many positive reviews, a bunch of indifferent reviews, we also had a few one star reviews. In one of these cases, one of the one star reviewers took it out on one of our team members about how she hated us for it. And, as discussed it the next day, we came to the same conclusion – when you get such a strong reaction, this isn’t so much about the situation itself, but the person. It is similar to the idea – “If you are angry or bored, it is really your problem.”

This is not an easy lesson to learn though. This is because there are very few people (~5%) who “build.” Most of the others spend most of their time either maintaining or criticizing. So, the small proportion of builders get a disproportionate share of the negative feedback since the critics tend to react negatively to change. But, Seth’s post is a great reminder that we ought to read into the constructive stuff and ignore the rest.

And, in this case, perhaps revisit this definition of behavior and remember that behavior is caused by an interaction of 2 things – so, it is not all about you.

critic behavior
Image Source

From wholeness and not from wounds

An idea from author Shefali Tsabary that has stuck with me since I first heard it is – “Parent from wholeness, not from your wounds.” In saying this, she refers to parents having a choice – to parent from love or to parent from insecurities. We all either know this first hand or have seen the difference. Parenting from wounds typically demonstrates certain patterns like – parents who push their kids to achievements they wish they had, parents who bully their kids because they got bullied themselves, etc.

I heard of a student suicide yesterday from the same high school I went to. While it is definitely a horrible experience for any parent to go through, I understand that the student’s reason for doing so was that he felt he was a disappointment to his parents. The apparent recurring conversation in the house was that his results weren’t living up to the sacrifices his parents had made and he said so in his note. Unfortunately, such conversations are far too common. I’ve spoken to many who’ve grown up feeling inadequate simply because they felt they’d disappointed some “loved” one (I use love in quotes because that definitely isn’t love). And, in one phase of my life where I chose to be loyal to someone who exhibited similar characteristics, I remember feeling horribly inadequate and occasionally depressed.

I think Shefali Tsabary’s idea can be extended to all of life to say – “Live from wholeness, not from your wounds.” It doesn’t really matter which relationship it is applied to. If we have close relationships, let us be lights, not judges. When it doesn’t work and when we feel ourselves reaching to our wounds, let’s learn to understand those triggers and walk away. And, if we can’t walk away because of the nature of our relationship, maybe it is a sign that we ought to grow out of those wounds.

Life is too short to live in the unhappy throes of pain, fear and insecurity. There’s enough of it going around. A big part of living a good life is developing the courage to recognize that being happy and loving from wholeness is not about conquering our demons, but about realizing that there are things more important than paying attention to them.

Talking out of and acting out of problems

There’s a great story in the late Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits book that I think I write about at least once every year. A man attending his seminar complained to Covey that his wife kept calling him every hour to check on him. He just couldn’t seem to get her to be reasonable. Curious, Covey asked him how they’d met.

The man sheepishly said that he’d met her at another seminar and cheated on his ex-wife.

“You can’t talk yourself out of a problem you’ve acted yourself into” – were Covey’s wise words.

It is an idea I think about every once a while. I led a discussion yesterday when we were discussing reactions to a mistake that was made in the past weeks. Our responses to it were all over the map. After we heard from everyone, however, I didn’t have any intention for us to attempt to explain away the mistake. It happened. It sucked. We learnt from it. Not everything was going to be perfect. But, we’d pick up the pieces and move on. As with these things, I just hope we have a track record of action that far exceeds the one stumble. And, besides, if we were going to right the issue in the future (and part of it was acknowledging we might not be able to), we were going to do so by acting our way out of the problem.

“You can’t talk yourself out of a problem you’ve acted yourself into” is another way of saying “Don’t listen to what people say, watch what they do.” It is my belief that this understanding is a bedrock of emotional intelligence. It is a lesson I’ve learnt the hard way and is one I try to remember as I go about my days.

acting out, talking out of problems, acting out of problemsImage Source

Seriously – what you do and who you are

Experiencing flow requires us to take some things seriously. Taking a craft or a hobby or a job seriously means we care both about developing skills and, then, testing those skills by challenging ourselves.

taking what you do seriously, serious, flow, challenge,(Thanks Wikipedia for the image and Prof Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi for the gift of “Flow”)

Since experiencing flow has been shown to be an essential part of living a fulfilled life, taking nothing seriously is a sure-shot route to unhappiness.

However, once you start taking what you do seriously, you can fall into the trap of taking yourself seriously. As we immerse ourselves in what we do and tend to identify ourselves with what we do, we can often lose sight of the lines that separate what we do and who we are; even if what we do is one of the surest expressions of who we are and what we stand for – so, the relationship is definitely complicated. However, the blurring of these lines is both trouble and a recipe for the sort of insecurity and unhappiness that accompanies a loss of perspective.

So, by all means, take your craft seriously. But, be wary of taking yourself seriously.

(Filed under “note to self” :-))