Who you look at in meetings

When you are presenting in a meeting, who do you look at? I’ve generally observed some combination of 3 approaches –

1. Don’t freak out: Do whatever it takes to keep you calm (look frequently at the material while moving your head around in general).
2. Focus on the boss: Focus on who you think is the most important in the room.
3. Equal opportunity presenter: Make an attempt to make eye contact with most people in the room.

Experienced presenters don’t have to worry about keeping themselves calm. So, really good ones do a combination of 2 and 3. They look at most people but make sure they give the key decision makers the largest portion of time share. That makes sense as a strategy.

However, I’ve been in a few meetings over the years where the presenter is ONLY focused on whoever he/she feels is the most important person in the room. On a few occasions, I have been that person. And, in all others, I have been totally ignored. In both cases, I’ve found it to be a bad experience. When I was the point of focus, I would shift uncomfortably in my seat and find myself looking at other people to give the presenter a hint. And, when I’m ignored, well, I generally lose interest in the material very quickly.

The bigger issue with the “focus on the boss” approach is that you just, unnecessarily, deposit negative credits in the emotional bank accounts of the other folks in the room. And, who knows when you might end up needing their help – especially if you work in the same company.

Who you look at isn’t generally emphasized as an important piece of presentation preparation. I think it should.

Consciously choose your approach. Your material will get forgotten in time. How you made people feel will not.

First world situations

In a conversation with a good friend recently, I stumbled when attempting to describe how things are. I usually use “first world problems” to describe some of the minor niggles. But, it just didn’t feel right. He said – “I think you mean first world situations.”

He finally got to what I had been attempting to describe for months.

There’s lesser strife and war on the planet than ever before. Of course, these stats mean absolutely nothing if you are in Syria right about now. But, in aggregate, things are better, safer and more peaceful. There are more of us who don’t have to worry about basic security and sustenance. And, yet, it is easy to walk around stressed.

I’ve tried various attempts at keeping perspective. One method that has worked well is to gloss over the relatively minor issues and focus on what I’m learning and how I’m processing my experience. Sure, there are problems and sure, there is uncertainty. But, worrying about things outside of my control is a fool’s errand anyway. And, while I might be facing the occasional challenge, it is just a challenge. It isn’t difficult – I don’t have to engage in a daily fight for food, hunger or safety or deal with abuse of any sort. Calling these challenges “problems” give them too much weight. Language matters…

So, I’ve found it better to just describe them as first world situations. Naming the beast often helps with dealing with it. And, dealing with first world situations generally means keeping them in perspective and learning to focus on the many good things going on.

And, there’s more of the good stuff to be thankful for than we regularly realize.

Our instincts suck at first

Our instincts for something generally suck at first. This is nearly always the case. So, the “trust your instincts” advice is generally hogwash. If you just started playing chess or skiing or living life, please don’t follow your instincts. Most expertise is counter intuitive.

How, then, do they get better? By disciplining ourselves to build habits.

So, if you wanted to develop instincts for using your time effectively, you need to commit to training your mind to build habits over time. Or, if you want to develop instincts around your field of work, you need to have a habit to continuously study your field as you would have in school.

Let’s consider the time example. Imagine you want to spend your time trusting your instincts to lead you to the most effective uses of your time. Unless you are naturally disciplined, you might need to begin with a checklist. Create a daily checklist which covers your top priorities. The level of granularity will be directly proportional to your lack of discipline at that point. So, in my case eight years back, I had a very granular checklist for the day.

Over time, you’ll find yourself needing the granularity less. As an example, I used to run through a quick and simple morning checklist until a few months back. It made me feel like I was notching up quick wins. I don’t feel I need it anymore because I’m confident I can hit the ground running. But, I used this for many years.

Similarly, you can then convert daily checklists to weekly checklists. When I made that switch four years or so ago, my weekly checklist was very long. It was still very granular. The next edit made it shorter. Then, shorter again. My current version, as of two days ago, requires me to just spend a minute to go through it – it is just part of a weekly check in with myself. After years of training, I can feel my instincts slowly getting better.

And, if you care for a more specific example, I used to count 30 minutes of reading a non-fiction book as part of my daily checklist eight years ago. Then, I would count the rough aggregate time on a weekly basis. I stopped counting this a while back. I enjoy reading and trust myself to do so. But, I can’t say the same for exercise. In 2011, I began with trying to just exercise 3 times a week. This moved to 4 in 2013 and 5 in 2015. Now, we’re up to 6. I still track this carefully as I still resist it despite enjoying it. I hope the exercise habit will kick in in full swing in a couple of years.

Why do we resist stuff that we know is good for us? We all have a force within us that resists all positive change. Steven Pressfield calls this force “the resistance” – the most toxic force known to humans. So, don’t take it personally. Most of our instincts suck at first. But, they can get better. We just need to work at them over time. I’ve intentionally emphasized how long it took me to develop some rather basic instincts. Then again, I wasn’t disciplined at all and needed to do a lot of work. You probably are a lot more disciplined than I used to be. So, it’ll likely be a much quicker process for you. I hope it is.

But, if it isn’t, take heart. It’ll still likely be faster than my 8+ years.

It still isn’t easy. But, let’s, as a rule, not confuse easier and better.

Laundry Love – The 200 words project

Ventura is a beautiful beach city just north of Los Angeles and home to Greg Russinger.  Greg was very passionate about engaging people in his city to bring relief to those in need. One day while walking with T-Bone, one of his many friends from the street, Greg asked him, “Is there anything I can do to help you with your daily needs?” The response was instant, “clean clothes”.

Clean clothes would remove barriers to human interaction and increase self-esteem, he explained. So, Greg approached a local Laundromat and requested permission to allow him and a group of friends to come in and sponsor washes for those living under the poverty line. Thus, Laundry Love was born.

Laundry love soon gained momentum in Ventura and has now touched over 450,000 people. All of this happened because Greg asked T-Bone what would help instead of assuming what might be useful. There is something powerful about spending time in the environment of the people you hope to reach with your product or service and listening to the ones you hope to serve.

If I had clean clothes I think people would treat me like a human being. – T-Bone

Source and thanks to: Good Idea, Now What? By Charles Lee

(The 200 words project involves sharing a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words)

Where does growth come from?

I received a YouTube video link via an email forwarded across multiple mailing lists praising its insight. It was Clay Christensen’s talk at Google titled “Where does growth come from?” I’ve read and seen many of Clay’s talks now and feel a certain familiarity with the material. However, I am a fan. In fact, I think it is a normal week on ALearningaDay when at least one post is directly or indirectly inspired by one of Stephen Covey, Clay Christensen, or Seth Godin. :-)

I thought I’d boil it down to the usual 3 things I took away. But, before doing that, let’s lay the groundwork. First, we must understand that companies invest in 4 kinds of innovations to drive growth –
1. Potential products: We don’t yet know what they are.
2. Sustaining innovations: These make the potential products better.
3. Disruptive innovations: These grow markets.
4. Efficiency innovations: These enable us to do existing things faster or better.

Getting terminology right is helpful in learning how to use them. I found this helpful as I found myself grasping this better despite having seen this a few times.

1. Disruptive innovations originate at the low end and are often business model innovations. For example, Uber disrupted the taxi industry with a business model built on variable costs. The iPhone disrupted the personal computer. And, so on. An interesting point he made was that disruptors often win with customers who were non consumers. Uber converted car owners into Uber users. And, his belief is that Android and Huawei are disrupting the iPhone on the low end. They are, in turn, bringing in non computer and non iPhone users into the smartphone market. Japan’s growth in the 1970s came from a series of disruptive innovations. They enabled non consumers to own cars, listen to music and consume electronics. However, they followed it up by focusing on increasing profits and efficiency/sustaining innovations. And, these only help with growth in the short run.

I thought of Amazon and Jeff Bezos as he insisted on the importance of the low end. Amazon Web Services or AWS struck me as a great example of this – a combination of low end and a fundamentally different business model of charging by usage has resulted in their stunning growth. So, the question that crossed my mind was – how do you ever disrupt an Amazon? Thanks to Jeff Bezos, they are so relentlessly focused on the low end that it is highly unlikely a competitor will ever catch them unawares.

2. The customer is the wrong unit of measurement. Forget the customer. Instead, focus on the job the customer hires you to do. This is such a simple and transformative idea. Yet, I haven’t completely internalized this and, thus, can’t say I have learned this yet. I need to keep working on applying this regularly and make it second nature.

3. Be careful what you measure. A Clay talk wouldn’t be complete without this message. The metrics we use can have many an unintended consequence – both at work and our lives. The metrics that are commonplace – stock prices, valuations, promotions and salaries – all tend to be short term. The most valuable things are the hardest to measure. So, take the time to understand how you will measure your business and your life.

A close friend watched this talk and pointed to Clay’s humility as one of the things that impacted him. Whenever someone asked a question, Clay always said – “Thank you for your question.” And, his presentation reeked of humility and thoughtfulness.

It doesn’t at all surprise me that Clay gets that right. After all, the small things are the big things. And, there are few who “get” that idea the way he does.

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHdS_4GsKmg%5B/embedyt%5D


Stephen Covey’s kids shared a story about a time when they were all criticizing the (then) candidate for US President. He sat silent through the criticism. Finally, one of the kids asked him why he wasn’t participating. He said – “I might have a chance to influence him one day. And if I do, then I don’t want to be a hypocrite.”

Recently, The New York Times reported that Facebook was developing a tool designed to suppress updates from certain parts of China. I found hypocrisy all around that piece of news. There was implied American moral superiority in the press at the idea of suppressing citizen views. Yet, as Edward Snowden and the recent elections have demonstrated, America has little reason to claim higher ground. Then, I saw posts from other technology entrepreneurs criticizing Mark Zuckerberg. But, would they have behaved any different if they were in Zuckerberg’s shoes? And, finally, Zuckerberg himself seemed to claim that this was Facebook acting for the greater good. I guess we all have to tell ourselves stories…

I thought I’d call this out not just because it was amusing looking at this situation from the sidelines. But, also because it made me think about the many occasions in which I was the hypocrite.

It is hard to see it when you are in it.

There is no easy way around this. The only way to avoid this is to have incredibly high standards for integrity – where we take the initiative to make commitments and keep them, every single time.

I just hope I’ll be able to build the sort of character to be able to do what Covey did, consistently. Integrity is a habit.

Cosco ball

A long-time close friend and I were playing tennis this morning when we opened up a new pack of 3 tennis balls. Now, a new tennis ball with its shine and smoothness is a thing of beauty. As we grinned at each other, I asked him if he remembered a time when we used to be so excited about a 25 rupee Cosco ball. He did.

We used to play cricket in the streets of Chennai city growing up. And, new tennis balls were a treasure. Every few weeks, one of us would get permission from our parents to buy a new Cosco ball. Each ball cost 25 rupees. And, we would play till these balls broke. By that stage, the ball would have lost its entire exterior “fur” and all that would remain would be a dark green core. So, every new ball was a treat.

We are still stingy with opening up new tennis balls when we play tennis today. However, we are at a stage in our life when affording a new tennis ball is a non issue. Somewhere along the way, thanks to a combination of a tremendous amount of luck, some hard work and intention, things have changed. It sounds like a small thing. But, I recognize it is a really big deal.

We’re at an interesting point in our history as human beings. I am of the belief that we have two big challenges that lie ahead. First, we need to figure out how we can live on this planet in a more sustainable manner. Second, we need to figure out what we will all do as machines take away more and more of our jobs. The second issue is staring all of us in our faces as discontent around this has fueled the rise of populism in many places around the world. These are important questions and the answers to them are unclear.

One the one hand, I hope it’ll become clearer to me as to how I can play a role in helping solve these big problems. It isn’t, as yet. On the other, I take these thoughts about the big problems we face in combination with my realization about those Cosco tennis balls as a good reminder to banish any kind of complaining in my life. I may face challenges on a day to day basis. But, these aren’t really problems.

So, this thanksgiving, I am very thankful for being able to afford those tennis balls. It is a real privilege to be able to take a day off without too many worries and to play. I recognize there is a lot of good work to be done to make things better for all of humanity. But, the first step is to recognize and appreciate this privilege. And, the second step is to accept that with great privilege comes great responsibility.


Happy thanksgiving.

Cause or alchemy

We can regularly default to believing things happen because of some cause or because of a result of some alchemy. There’s merit to both approaches.

When we explain every little thing as the result of a cause, we’re able to understand how to influence the world around us. “Why are you feeling good today? Because I took good care of myself over the past month and slept well last night.” “Why is the business doing well? Because we hired a great team and trained them to do their jobs well.” And so on. The flip side of these explanations is that they’re regularly too simplistic and often boring.

On the other hand, explaining everything as an alchemy makes it all feel like magic. “I don’t quite know how it all works that way. Of course, we brought together a great team and trained them well. But, the way they work together and make our business run is magic.” While a fascinating way to approach life (since it calls out every day miracles), it has its issues when overdone. We can easily bring ourselves to focus on everything we don’t control.

As with most such choices, there’s tremendous wisdom in the middle ground. Make sure we understand the causes while also appreciating the alchemy. There’s definitely plenty we influence. But, once we do our bit, there’s also plenty of magic in our daily lives.

We just have to learn to look for both.

Does it help

As you walk into that meeting today, there’s a narrative inside your head. This narrative is about the meeting and the people in it. It is worth asking – “Does it help?”

There probably was a narrative as you woke up this morning as well. That narrative covered your family, your day and your default frame of mind.

And, there will also be a narrative as you walk into your desk at work today. This one will talk about your perceived role in your organization and your capacity to do things that matter. Did it help you walk in energized?

Narratives are critical. They drive a collection of default behaviors executed in a certain pattern every week. Since it is hard to be conscious 100% of the time, life would be difficult if it weren’t for our these default behaviors. So, we make it easy for ourselves with simplifying narratives.

But, and the but matters, these simplifying narratives aren’t representative of reality. In fact, it is hard for us to identify that reality given our various biases. Besides, we’re capable of manufacturing both intense happiness and sadness inside our heads.

So, a nice way forward is to simply treat the narrative as a tool by asking – “Does it help?”

If it helps us stay inspired and happy, great. On the other hand, if it only brings out the worst in us, change it.

We can.