Serena, Cristiano and Roger

In professional sport, athletes that are usually celebrated are in their prime – typically between 27-29. These athletes typically rack up awards and trophies. Today, however, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate three athletes on the other side of 30 who all had great weekends.

First, Serena Williams. My defining Serena Williams moment was in the Australian Open 2003. If my memory serves me right, she was 5-2, 40-0 down in the final set and, against all odds, went on to save three match points and win the match 7-5. She was not just an incredible talent, but an incredible fighter too. Serena had her downs – some upsets, some on-court controversy, some difficult personal circumstances. But, since 2012, she has won 9 out of 15 possible grand slams. That is incredible. I haven’t watched Serena play in years but, my god, even following her exploits on the news is inspiring. She is now tied with Steffi Graf for a record number of grand slam titles in the Open Era (22) and is only 2 behind Margaret Court. On current evidence, there won’t be many who’d bet against her beating that.

Second, if you aren’t a Real Madrid, Manchester United, or Portugal fan, there is a lot not to like about Cristiano Ronaldo. There were many Cristiano moments from his time at Manchester United – his debut as a teenager with colored hair against Bolton 13 years or so ago, a Champions League semi final performance when he destroyed Arsenal Football Club almost single-handed, his blistering counter attacks among others. Cristiano left Manchester United to join Real Madrid for a record transfer fee and massive expectations. He has since gone on to score 364 goals in 348 appearances – that is unprecedented. What makes Cristiano incredibly annoying is that he loves the attention a bit too much and revels in his own greatness in a way that goes against any idea of humility. Even yesterday, despite having to leave the pitch at 25 minutes due to an injury, he was back on the sidelines toward the end egging his team on and irritating football watchers all over the world.

The other side of this story is that Euro 2016 has demonstrated a different side to Cristiano Ronaldo – it has shown a player who has truly stepped up as a leader, an inspirational force and one who has sacrificed his individuality for the team. Time and time again in Portugal’s run to the final, Cristiano was the perfect team player. It showed in what his teammates had to say about his inspiring message to them at half time. It showed in how they all spoke of him after the defeat. It showed in the result – Portugal were massive underdogs. Humility will never be his strength. On the flip side, there is something to be said for his incredible self belief. As a well written Football365 feature put it, “it’s not even so much that he thinks he’s great, rather the thought he might not be doesn’t occur to him.” He expects to perform. And, he inevitably does. That this victory came from the sidelines must have, in some ways, been incredibly sweet.

Finally, there are many who termed Roger Federer’s loss in the semi finals as a failure, as a time when Roger choked. In some ways, he did. The match was his to lose in the 4th set. The issue here is that Serena Williams’ dominance at the age of 35 almost makes Roger Federer look bad. I say almost because the field is entirely different. Depending on how Novak Djokovic’s career unfolds, in terms of statistics, Roger Federer will either be the greatest of all time or the second greatest player of all time. There are, however, some things numbers will never capture. Novak Djokovic is a great athlete. But, Roger Federer on song was a surreal experience. If Sampras could “walk on water,” Roger Federer seemed to be able to walk on water and paint at the same time. Last week, we saw a different Roger Federer – a fighter who had to dig really deep to play his best. This has been the case over the last few years. Pete Sampras and Bjørn Borg had long retired at 35. His one time adversary’s, Rafael Nadal’s, body seems to have given up. But, Roger continues to soldier on.

I once wrote here that, while Roger is the genius, Rafa was the better role model because we could all channel his fighting spirit in our lives. Roger, in his peak, would likely have dismantled Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic in 3 sets and moved on to win Wimbledon. But, age and slowing reflexes requires him to dig deep into those reserves of grit and tenacity that we all know he possesses. We take it for granted that a 35 year old Roger Federer still reaches the final 4 of a grand slam. That is a measure of his genius. He doesn’t reach it like he did in his prime – without losing a single set. Instead, he fights his way back from 1 or 2 sets down in at least one match, if not two. But, he still makes it – somehow.

That, in my mind, is a measure of his greatness.

It’s been a very inspiring weekend watching these athletes set an example. I am very grateful to them for choosing to be the best they can be and showing us what is possible when you combine single minded focus, a great work ethic and determination. Thank you Serena, Cristiano and Roger.

The phonograph – The 200 words project

Thomas Edison, working on improving the mechanics of the flow of paper as it moved through the telegraph, was busy recording the various dots and dashes. Work was not going well. The machine gave off a light musical rhythmic sound that resembled human talk heard indistinctly. He wanted to get rid of this sound but he couldn’t. And, over the course of the next few months, the noise continued to haunt him.

A few months later, he had a sudden thought – could that weird sound just have been hearing himself indistinctly? So, he spent the next few months studying sound. That single epiphany led to the discovery of the phonograph – thus laying the foundations for every music and record player produced since.

In studying great inventors, Robert Greene noticed their habit of processing and evaluating every idea that entered their mind. They viewed every idea as a possibility. Most led nowhere. However, some worked and they were often big ideas. Nobody could have discovered the phonograph in Edison’s time by rational thought. It needed a leap provided by chance and, luckily for us, Edison was open to it.

Like seeds flying through space, ideas require the soil of a highly prepared and open mind to take route in and sprout a meaningful idea. – Robert Greene

mastery, phonograph, edisonImage Source

Source and thanks to: Mastery by Robert Greene

PS: This marks edition 125 of the 200 words project and edition 400 of weekly synthesized notes of interesting stories and ideas (the version before the 200 words project was not shared here). Here’s to 400 more..

Reflections from my AirBnB experience – 1 cancellation and 2 declines

A peer of mine from graduate school recently had a bad racist experience on AirBnB. AirBnB did a very good job responding to it – with prompt action from customer service all the way to a tweet from Brian Chesky, the CEO and co-founder. I have complete empathy for AirBnB – the quality of your experience on their platform depends on the civility of your community. And, there is a lot that isn’t civil in the environment in the world today.

I only booked with AirBnB once. So, I felt I didn’t know enough about the platform to write about it then. I had a great first experience. Quick confirmation I could stay, great host experience, etc.

My second one, however, has been everything but that.

Part I – House owner association changes: In anticipation of a trip 2 months away, a group of friends and I had a booking set on AirBnB for a friend’s wedding. However, 4 weeks before the trip, we received a note from the owner that she would have to cancel. The house owner’s association (HOA) had changed the rules around having AirBnB guests. Ouch. So much for our grand plan of saving money by booking early.

Part II – No response from AirBnB. We called AirBnB on Friday and explained the situation. They sympathized and promised prompt action. No news for 4 straight days. So, we called them again on Wednesday. Again, we were assured someone was on the case. On Friday, frustrated, I sent a tweet to AirBnB saying all we had heard is words, no action.


They responded immediately on Twitter and finally followed up with an email. I asked for some sort of monetary compensation for our abrupt cancellation and their lack of response. We had to move from a net spend of $550 for the trip to a place with a net spend of ~$1000. My customer service representative said he’d manage a credit $80. But, he was also going to be off this weekend and he’d be back on Monday to help if we had more questions.

Part III – 2 declines. As we all still wanted to stay together, we decided to suck it up and attempt to secure another booking. There were 2 potential places that looked open to 8 guests. So, we sent one a request. As seems to be common with AirBnB hosts, we got a prompt response – declined.

Now, we were left with the final, most expensive option. Again, prompt response – decline.

We’ve obviously moved to looking for hotels.

As I reflect on this experience, I was left with a few thoughts –

1. At AirBnB, hosts experiencing changing HOA rules are likely not that uncommon. Why not have a blanket policy for sudden cancellations instead of treating it like a bespoke request? E.g. Maybe we given $50 credit per person who was booked on the reservation. That would help prevent this back-and-forth while acknowledging it as a cost of doing business.

Maybe another part of the response would be to actively work with the cancelled guest to find another reservation? Either way, I think the first step would be to give the customer a call and work with them to sort this out. Emails wouldn’t cut it – definitely not after having them wait a week for a note from you.

2. If I were Brian Chesky/AirBnB’s senior executive team, I would worry that a customer only got a response when complaining on Twitter. Does it take 7 days to respond to a customer without a reservation? Do we really need to resort to public shaming for that?

3. AirBnB has come under a lot of flak for racism. Friends of friends who are African American have tested this by creating fake white profiles to get around it and prove their point. Maybe this flak would reduce if it at least mandated that hosts give a reason for declining people? Calling the hosts who declined me/us as racist is the easy and lazy answer here. I would like to believe that is not the case and that there are other reasons that I don’t know or understand. A simple message explaining these reasons would go a long way. And, if it is doubts the host has, perhaps it can be a discussion? E.g. an assurance that there won’t be alcohol consumed at home or an extra security deposit for a large group?

I wrote to both hosts after the decline. One of them got back to me saying the listing was a mistake – they didn’t intend to leave it open after July 4th. I understand that. The other hasn’t as yet.

4. Beware compounding problems. The declines may have been less of an issue on another booking. But, overlay the cancellation and the lack of support from AirBnB and you can see how it all compounds.

5. I was reflecting on my intentions with this post. I realize there are 3. First, it is ask “what did I learn” from a disappointing service experience. Second, it is a reminder to myself to be grateful for the sort of first world problem this is. I am grateful to have the sort of options I have today – it isn’t something I’d have had a few years back. And, I am very grateful for that. Finally, it speaks to the power of incentives – since AirBnb only responded to my appeal on Twitter, I figure this might be the best way to be heard (see point 2).

Overall, this experience underlines the importance of that one principle – ownership. All of this could have been solved with a couple of phone calls and I do wish AirBnB had taken more ownership of the problem. It is still a fantastic idea – if I had a choice between a hotel room at the same price as an AirBnB, I would choose an AirBnB because I’d love to stay in a home when away from home. But, there is a lot to worry about when it comes to the execution.

Maybe AirBnB is doing just fine and doesn’t need to pay attention to these small misses with a customer or two.

But, then again, the true test of a business is not how things work when all is well.

How to drive people crazy

In his Conscious Business audio book, Fred Kofman lays out the steps to drive people crazy based on prior research on schizophrenia. The steps are as follows –

1. Start by establishing that the other person is dependent on you. Make it clear that the other person would not be able to fend for themselves without you (this is effectively the first step to the bullying)

2. Phase I of the “double bind” – establish an objective and a consequence. An example objective consequence would be – “I want you to take more risks. You play it too safe. If you don’t do that, I will <insert consequence>.”

3. Phase II of the “double bind” – establish a contrary objective with a consequence.” The example here would be – “I want you to not fail. Your failure costs you and us so much. If I find you failing, I will <insert consequence>.”

4. Phase I of the myth of discussion – make it clear you aren’t willing to discuss any objection to your contrary goals. The moment they bring up the apparent contradiction, refuse to discuss it by becoming angry and blaming it on them. “This is exactly what you always do – you always cause trouble and ruin the peace.”

5. Phase II of the myth of discussion – pretend that everything can be discussed. At the same time, pretend that you are always open to discussing things. “In our family, everything can be talked about in the dinner table.”

I took away a few notes from this –

1. The research on schizophrenia shows that the environment plays a big role in the condition. Typically, it is caused by people around the victim who engage in the pattern of behavior described above.

2. Why do people put up with this clear contradiction? It takes maturity to step up and say – “Hey, what you’ve told me makes no sense as they contradict each other.” It feels obvious from the outside but it isn’t.

3. I say this because I spent some time in an environment that was very similar. And, yet, as obvious as it might be now, I didn’t have the courage to stand up and call it out.

4. When we read notes on extreme behavior like this, we tend to file it away as “not relevant.” However, it is likely that every one of us has worked in a company that has exhibited this behavior. That is why I picked the “Take risks.. but don’t fail” example. It is very common. Fred Kofman calls this “organizational schizophrenia.”

drive people crazy, contradictions(Thank you Dilbert!)

5. The principle behind this is the power of inconsistency of messages to mess with our minds. Something for us to keep in mind as leaders, managers, parents and teachers. Or, as Fred Kofman puts it, now that you know what it takes, don’t do it. :-)

When is it your responsibility

The best proxy to our real age – not the number we get when we subtract our birth year from this year – is to observe when we consider something to be our responsibility.

If we can never find it in us to own up to a problem that affects us, we’re still where we were when we were children. It is anybody’s fault but ours.

If we understand we should take responsibility but don’t want to, we’ve hit our teens but haven’t quite made it past them.

Adulthood begins the moment we accept that anything that affects us is our responsibility. It doesn’t mean that we need to respond to everything that happens and make it our problem. It simply means that we are aware that it is a situation where we have the ability to respond and where we must choose whether or not to do so.

As an added bonus, taking responsibility for what happens to us is a big part of being mindful/conscious because consciousness is simply being aware of our choices at any given point of time. And, of course, the choices arrive the moment we decide to take responsibility for what happens to us…

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Little strokes of luck

I asked myself a question the other day – do I pay attention to little strokes of luck?

I was hoping for a package to arrive by 4:30pm as I needed to collect it from location A. I was planning on collecting some stuff from location A at 4:30pm anyway- so, this would be very convenient. If it didn’t arrive, I’d have to travel to location A again and lug that package.

It turns out the package arrived at the very moment I was about to leave. I was able to request the UPS person (despite his grumbles) to wheel it to the car so I wouldn’t have to push it all the way.

It was a small stroke of luck – but it worked out. And I was very grateful.

We all pay attention to the big strokes of luck in our lives. We clearly remember those times when, against all odds, things worked out. We also tend to vividly remember when luck deserted us.

When it comes to the small things, however, I find that our memory can play tricks with us. We remember those times when our queue took so much longer. But, we regularly forget when the little things work out. Or, at least my mind tends to do that. This incident was a nice reminder to be thankful for those small strokes of luck. As Richard Wiseman’s experiments on luck demonstrated, being open to the possibility of being lucky is a big part of being lucky. And, being grateful when things work out is a nice way of making sure we remain aware of and open to the possibility of getting lucky.

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What is the problem?

I visited a Dermatologist in India a few years back about a skin problem. Once we were taken in, she got straight to business with a question. She asked –  “What is the problem?”

I had some black-ish skin near my forehead. I was trying to understand what the problem.

“Yes,” she said – “But, what is the problem?”

So, I explained what the issue was again – in slightly different language.

“Yes, but what is the problem?”

At this point, I wasn’t really clear if this was a visit to a dermatologist or a psychiatrist. So, I took a crack at explaining what I thought might have  been the cause of the marks. I had played soccer a couple of years back in the afternoon sun and had felt my skin burn. But, I hadn’t done anything and, over time, these marks appeared.

“Yes, but what is the problem?”

A couple of “what is the problem” questions later, we reached a dead end. I was frustrated. So, she wrote down a couple of creams that she thought I should take and let me out. To compound all this, she also had a 3 minute timer she kept resetting. Time was clearly money in her world. So, she was clearly making an effort to keep it top of mind.

The creams turned out to be useless.

A few months later, I visited another Dermatologist. I showed him my black-ish marks. He asked a few questions, explained the likely cause and gave me a couple of creams that actually did make it much better. My mother still imitates the “what is the problem” as it cracks both of us up.

So, what was the real problem?

My diagnosis is that you cannot be an effective problem solver if you ask those you interview what the problem is. This applies if you are a doctor, a sales person, a user experience researcher or a management consultant. The reason you exist is because people don’t know what the problem is. Finding the problem is where post of the hard work lies. The solution is an after thought. That’s not because the solution doesn’t matter. But, if you know what the problem is with certainty, then you know that it is only a matter of time before you find an answer that works. You just have to test and persist. But, if you aren’t sure what the problem is, you are shooting in the dark.

As a result, asking someone “what is the problem” when you are in a problem solving role is possibly the worst question you can ask. Instead, you are better off taking some time to understand the facts before coming to an informed conclusion on what the problem is.

The key – in problem solving roles, we need to view ourselves as problem finders more than solution finders.

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Consciousness and creativity

Let’s say you own a store. Let’s now use Fred Kofman’s definition of consciousness – it is the ability to be aware and to choose.

As you are conscious within your store, you become acutely aware of the process you use to check customers out. It could be faster, much faster. But, you’re not able to think of a better solution now.

However, you’ve planted the seeds for subconscious processing. As you take a walk a few days later, you suddenly remember the checkout at process at a tourist spot the other day that you thought was incredibly efficient. What was the principle at place? Ah – they had a single queue instead of multiple queues. It just worked a lot better and seemed to eliminate customer frustration. You had some space constraints in your store. So, a single queue isn’t probably all that practical.But, wait – you could do 2 queues instead.

You try it out. It works much better already. But, you soon realize that you’ve now found the next bottleneck. The process thus continues.

The ability to make those disparate links is creativity. However, creativity wouldn’t be possible if you weren’t acutely conscious in the first place. To know what to change, you must know what is. And, to allow yourself to make those connections, you must allow for your subconscious to kick in. That can only come after consciousness.

A Buddhist monk once described the essence of zen to be the ability to focus on one thing at a time. That is the principle of consciousness at play.

With consciousness comes creativity…

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Foundations of culture – The 200 words project

When he visited Jeff Bezos’ investment office, venture capitalist Bryce Roberts noticed a piece of furniture that seemed out of place – a table with a wooden door atop some legs jerry rigged together. The “door desk,” he was told, was a symbol of the early frugality Amazon embraced early on which, in turn, was a key part of Amazon’s culture.

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On reading the story behind the compliance crisis HR services company Zenefits faced a few months back, Bryce shared an anecdote that caught his attention. Zenefits founder Conrad Parker made a small decision early on – he created a macro to bypass the systems created to certify that someone had completed the required training to sell insurance in the state of California. He believed that 52 hours was too long to spend in training.

This act resulted in serious compliance issues that threatened to wreck the company. Each article about the Zenefits crisis showed glimpses of the tone the macro set within the company. Ever since, a lot of work has gone in to tear out the old foundation in hopes of saving the company.

Like cement, the cultural foundation for new projects/companies/teams sets early. Mindful, we must be…

These small, seemingly insignificant, early decisions to save money by building ramshackled desks or building tools to cheat the system set the foundation for company culture that everything after gets built upon. – Bryce Roberts

Source and thanks to: Bryce’s blog post – “When Culture Sets

Invite the rub

We like to imagine relationships that are friction-less and, hence, have zero rub.

The rub is annoying – it is uncomfortable because it signals differing perspectives and, in some cases, differing values.

But, here’s the problem – relationships without differing perspectives and a few differing values teach us absolutely nothing. We don’t get pushed. We don’t need to reflect. We don’t grow.

You might ask – why do relationships need growth? Don’t we just need happiness?

That’s a good question. But, the deal works this way – speaking of love and growth or happiness and growth are effectively speaking of the same thing. Without growth, there is no love or happiness.

So, when you experience the rub in a relationship, welcome it. Too much, of course, is generally best avoided. However, too little is too.

After all, nothing would move if it wasn’t friction.