Dealing with type II uncertainty

There are, broadly, 2 kinds of uncertainty. While type I uncertainty is the kind you choose, type II is what you face for reasons beyond your control.

So, choosing to quit your job and start a new business is type I. On the other hand, facing an uphill task trying to get a job because of nationality, religion, race, sexual orientation, or gender is a classic type II uncertainty. Now, some might say that logic is flawed. After all, you choose to apply to that job and face that uphill battle. And, while it is an interesting argument, it tends to fall on the wrong side of history.

The biggest challenge with dealing with type II uncertainty is that it feels unfair. But, dealing with unfairness is a rite of passage if you are a minority, a woman, gay or an immigrant.

It is only once we embrace the inherent unfairness can we get to the two things that help – focusing ruthlessly on things we can influence and being grateful for what you have. This is so much easier said than done. Try telling a Muslim in America that she shouldn’t worry about what the President is doing or saying. Or, try telling the many hard working international students who took on huge amounts of debt that they shouldn’t worry about trying to get a job.

But, it is the only way.

Focus ruthlessly on what you can influence. And, while you are it, develop an attitude that refuses to settle on anything but gratitude. There will always be things to complain about. And, there will be less in your control than you’d like.

But, on the bright side, developing the ability to focus and to maintain a positive attitude despite uncertainty and strife is entirely within our control.

It is how we get made.

The Google approach to self improvement

We got beat because Google runs itself as a series of experiments run by its engineers. They are constantly trying new things at a ferocious rate. A Google chief scientist says they run 3,000 to 5,000 experiments a year. If you use Google in a week, you’re likely to be in three experiments. You don’t know you are, because they are experiments. – A Yahoo engineer

The Google approach to self improvement is inspired by the quote – “If you use Google in a week, you’re likely to be in three experiments.”

My learning from this approach is to go back to the drawing board every weekend. I aim to spend 5 minutes reviewing my goals. In this case, they are my 3 new year sub-themes – health, information and “seek to understand and then to be understood” – along with the overall engagement theme. And, part of this review is reflecting on last week’s experiments and designing new experiments for this week.

So, what is an experiment? A small change in the way I do things. For instance, I’ve been slowly building a more comprehensive work out system. This week, I’d like to add a couple of short sprints to the days when I focus on weights. Another experiment is a change in style in how I make a point in meetings. And, so on.

The goal here is to be similar to Google. If you interact with me in a week, you should be looking at three ongoing experiments. And, hopefully, over time, the small changes that work well will stick.

And, in the long run, these small things become the big things.

Paradigm shifts

All was peaceful one Sunday morning on a subway in New York until a man and his children entered. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. The, however, man simply sat down and closed his eyes. Irritated and after unusual patience and restraint, Stephen Covey finally turned to the man and said – “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze, suddenly conscious, and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’

We can all imagine how Stephen felt that moment – his paradigm shifted. He felt the man’s pain and saw everything differently.

It felt like an appropriate story for the new year – we might be able to make small changes in our life by shifting our attitudes and behaviors. But, if we want to make significant leaps, we need to shift our paradigms or how we see the world.

In the words of Thoreau, ‘For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.’ We can only achieve quantum improvements in our lives as we quit hacking at the leaves of attitude and behavior and get to work on the root, the paradigms from which our attitudes and behaviors flow. – Stephen Covey

Source and thanks to: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

(This story and quote is part of “The 200 words project.” I aim to synthesize a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words consecutive Sundays for around 45 weeks of the year.)

Flashback slam

For tennis fans, this weekend is the weekend of the Flashback grand slam. It certainly feels like we’re watching tennis in the mid 2000s.

Serena Williams took on Venus Williams in the Australian Open final, and won. She has solidified her status as among the top athletes of all time. While the Williams sisters have been rivals, the rivalry has been decidedly one sided. Serena has dominated. She is an awe inspiring sportsperson.

The men’s final, however, has definitely been more of a rivalry. In a few hours, Roger Federer will take on Rafael Nadal. While Rafa dominates the head to head stats, most of those matches were on clay. Outside of Clay, Nadal leads 10-9. He still likely has the mental edge and it helps that he’s 5 years younger to the oldest finalist in a Grand Slam for 30+ years.

But, here’s the thing, as much as I’d love Federer to win, Rafael Nadal is probably the greatest role model in sport. A friend shared a lovely article on Nadal’s recent run to the Semi Finals. Here’s my favorite excerpt –

Sport is ostensibly about lifting yourself, one athlete rising above himself and also above the other man. This ability to lift requires grit and faith, and this is what both men did beautifully yesterday and this is why this match turned into a classic. Zverev rose to every physical challenge Nadal threw and Nadal continues to rise and meet whatever life hurls at him. And in doing so he reminds us of a valuable lesson.

Last week it was constantly mentioned that Nick Kyrgios has immense talent but that he wastes that talent. By “talent,” people tend to mean hand-eye coordination or racket skills, but in truth it’s a limited definition. Nadal’s talent is that he takes every shot seriously, every point, every practice session. His talent is to rally on aching knees. His talent is to pick at his shorts and then to run till he cannot any more. His talent, you see, is to never waste this talent.

And, here’s what Federer had to say after winning his semi final –

I don’t think both of us thought we were going to be here potentially playing in the final because I went to open his academy in Mallorca with him a few months back and I told him ‘I wish we could do a charity match or something’, but I was on one leg and he had the wrist injury and we were playing some mini tennis with some juniors and we were like ‘it’s the best we can do right now’. A few months later, we are maybe going to be in the finals. It’s a very special tournament for us already.

We’re likely never going to see a Federer – Nadal final again. In that sense, this flashback slam is going to be a one-of-a-kind experience for even casual fans of the sport like me.

I am not optimistic about Federer winning. But, I’ve come to realize it doesn’t matter who among the two wins.

The real winners are tennis, grit and sportsmanship.

Myths we believe in

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is a remarkable book. As I work my way through it, I was struck by his chapter on myths. Yuval explains that one of our most powerful capabilities as humans is to imagine myths that enable us to cooperate with each other.

Our hunter gatherer ancestors only needed to cooperate in small groups. However, once plants domesticated us (you read that right), we needed to cooperate with much larger groups. So, we invented myths like tribes, races, rules of law, religions, and, in time, nations. Over time, we added more complexity including a national identity, tiers of law, human rights, and so on.

Our imagination is a powerful thing. I write about the effects of this imagination nearly every day on a personal level. Our ability to focus on what we control (control can be an elusive myth) is one such example.

Yuval notes that various characteristics of these myths and their pervasiveness in our lives. Folk tales and stories ensure they’re part of our belief system when we grow up. Then, they help shape our aspirations. And, finally, they are inter subjective, i.e., they work because millions of us believe in them. The Limited Liability Corporation, for example, is a myth we’ve created to enable better cooperation. A corporation exists in the rule of law – also a myth. And, a law exists in a nation, and so on.

I had to stop listening to the book for a few days after this chapter to reflect.

I shuddered as I thought about how much mass genocide has occurred over these invented myths.

But, focusing on something closer to home, I was left looking at a lot of things happening around me very differently. We all create a lot of drama in our lives around events like raises, promotions, awards and achievements. But, a lot of them are just a result of these inter subjective myths we’ve chosen to believe in. I don’t mean to call them futile. But, I do intend to question the importance we give them. Their purpose is for us to cooperate and love each other. And, if they only lead to us seeing imagined divisions, then we’ve lost the plot.

I’m still thinking about this idea and its implication in my life. But, for now, it’s given me a very different perspective. And, for that, I’m grateful.

Sure thing

In 2005, after his second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James gifted Nike co-founder Phil Knight a Rolex watch. The engraving said – “With thanks for taking a chance on me.” Knight reflected on that moment in his book and said – “It wasn’t much of a chance. He was pretty close to a sure thing.”

That is a powerful example of the nature of risk.

In the popular imagination, risk is this mystical quality that daredevils have. They gamble all of their life’s savings in a bet that would make no sense to others. That is far from the truth.

When you become really good at something, things that seem risky to other people aren’t as risky to you. An expert soccer player wouldn’t describe a complicated trick in a massive game as a big risk. He has probably practiced it a million times. Similarly, Adele may have created music that was very different from the norm at the time. But, when you’ve become as competent as Adele, you know you’ve probably got something that is close to a sure thing.

That, then, brings us to three things we can learn about risk.

First, risk and reward go together. Learning to take risks well can be very rewarding.

Second, our perception of risk changes with expertise. To an expert talent scout like Phil Knight, LeBron was an obvious pick. Similarly, the Pixar founding team would have told you that computer graphics were obviously the future of animated movies. Obvious in retrospect to the rest of us.

Finally, Phil Knight’s wording is important. he said “he was pretty close to a sure thing.” Notice that he doesn’t say “he was a sure thing.” That’s important because there isn’t such an interesting endeavor without risk. Your expertise may minimize the risk in your eyes, but it doesn’t eliminates it.

Today matters

Today matters. It may seem like a simple, unglamorous day. And, yes, it likely doesn’t seem to matter the way we normally think of days that matter. It isn’t a “big day” – there’s no award ceremony or big launch or massive promotion.

But, today still presents an opportunity. An opportunity to build a better self, to improve how we operate, to be more conscious, to invest in others and to be a better citizen of this planet.  And, if we were busy fighting for essentials, we wouldn’t have that opportunity. It is a blessing.

It is hard to predict if these small daily opportunities will lead to big opportunities in time. And, if so, in exactly how much time.

However, there are two things we know for sure.  First, diamonds, like nearly all valuable things, are built thanks to consistent pressure over thousands of years. It takes time to build great people and things. And, yes, we build ourselves – one good act at a time.

Second, a good thing is worth doing for its own sake.

Today matters – just in a different way than we might think.

Unhappiness is a privilege

Unhappiness is our dissatisfaction at a particular situation. On the other hand, an advantage granted to a few is what we call privilege. And, unhappiness is an incredible privilege even if it isn’t obvious to us at first.

If we spend time being unhappy, it can feel as if we have no choice. But, of course, that would only happen if we did have a choice.

Being conscious of this privilege is important because small bouts of dissatisfaction are necessary for progress. It is dissatisfied human beings who’ve made progress possible. But, that assumes this dissatisfaction is temporary and directed at things we control. The moment it isn’t, we inevitably spiral into unhappiness territory. And, that’s largely useless.

So, there are two things to remember the next time you find yourself unhappy. First, it is an opportunity to make things better – to improve the situation or to improve yourself.

Second, it is a privilege. So, it calls for gratitude, not unhappiness.

Deeper information consumption

Engagement is my theme for 2017. And, one of my sub themes is being conscious about how I engage with information. My goal has been to move from shallow consumption to deeper information consumption. And, I’ve learnt a few lessons over the past 3 weeks.

  • Checking less. I’ve begun keeping tabs at the number of times I check my phone. I’ve been averaging around 10 times during the day and 6 times during my work day. My zero notifications initiative from a couple of years ago helps a ton. But, I suspect this is because I’m aware I’m counting. So, looking forward to the results of this experiment over the next couple of weeks. I try not to overdo my Seth post recommendations (you do read his blog, right?) – but, this one on Pavlov in your pocket resonated deeply.
  • Batch process, batch process, batch process. Checking less enables us to batch process. And, batch processing helps us avoid regular task switching and the accompanying attention residue. This applies to both feeds and emails.
  • Remove the stress from reading stuff you’ve subscribed to. I did a major pruning of my Feedly list in December – prime among that was removing a couple of sources like “FiveThirtyEight” and Venture Beat. Both of these used to have a constant stream of articles that used to add stress. Additionally, I needed a break from politics (hence FiveThirtyEight). My learning from this is that feeds that don’t make you happy shouldn’t be on your list. The results have been great – my feeds are largely a collection of blogs – and I love engaging with long form blog posts.
  • More books. I’ve been thinking about ways to spend more of my time reading books. And, part of this is being flexible about formats. With a baby at home, it is important to be able to read books on a phone. :) And, yet, different books are suited to different formats. So, I’ve just tried surrounding myself with books across formats this new year. I have notes from 8 books currently on my devices (5 of them in active reading across Audible, Kindle app, and paperback) and I’ve enjoyed weaving through these. With less checking, I expect more time on these. Long may that continue.

Bad information processing can add to a lot more tiredness in our day. And, I’m enjoying the process of cutting out the noise and spending time on deeper content. The only exception I make is to football/soccer news. That is my not-guilty pleasure.

Of course, this is hardly the first post you’ll find on checking less, batch processing or reading more.

However, to learn and not to do is not to learn. And, I certainly expect to keep writing about this stuff until I really learn.

Skipping the coffee queue

A close someone had set up a meeting with someone she’d never met to discuss potential career opportunities. These kinds of meetings tend to be uncomfortable for most people. So, she got to their meeting point well ahead of time. As she was waiting, she decided to ask the person she was meeting what kind of coffee they’d like. A few minutes before their meeting time, she got on the queue and bought coffee for both of them.

Now, by the time the person came, the coffee was hot and ready. They skipped the awkward small talk while standing in the queue and ended up having a really nice discussion.

Would they have had a good discussion even if they spent those 5 odd minutes in the queue? Probably. But, did doing this help? Absolutely.

Sometimes, small amounts of thoughtfulness can make a big difference in changing the environment and showing that you care. And, these opportunities to be thoughtful are rife in every day interactions. Consider how many times you have met people for coffee. I certainly found myself reflecting at the many missed opportunities in the past where I could have done something like this.

In the long run, we don’t always have the opportunity to do big things for people. But, we almost certainly have the opportunity to do small things with extraordinary care.