Wrong stakes

One of the marks of an unconscious approach to life or business is to get the stakes all wrong. This approach has two modes – a mission critical mode and an unconscious mode.

The mission critical mode involves words like “crisis” and, well, “mission critical” and could last long periods of time. The unconscious mode serves simply as a lull between two crises. The stakes seem non existent and the activity is uninspired.

In reality, however, both these modes rarely exist.

Most of us are never really in “crisis” mode. That’s just a result of the proliferation of battle terminology in business (which spills over to life). As long as we aren’t shipping life saving drugs, things are generally going to be fine. There’s really no need for the drama. Creating conditions of unnatural pressure for long periods of time isn’t a recipe for long term well being or success. Give people a chance to work toward a true calling or mission (e.g. I want to build an electric car that will actually make it mainstream and reduce our world’s reliance on oil) and they’ll do the work with limited push.

Second, even if the stakes aren’t as high as we sometimes make it sound, there isn’t such a thing as a low stakes life either. The stakes always exist  in the “no drama” zone and the things we do always matter. We touch many people every single day and affect their happiness. The work we do, the art we create likely does the same as well. Sure, we might pine for bigger impact but, if we look carefully, the number of people we get to impact impact in meaningful ways over the course of a normal lifetime adds up to large numbers. Pretending that it doesn’t matter is an abuse of privilege.

It is a privilege to be alive. And, now that we’re here and functioning, what we do and say matters.

We can choose to do it well, to make it meaningful and count. We can choose to commit to doing the small things with extraordinary love.

Needless to say, the unconscious approach is easier and lets us off the hook. The tough part about these choices is that we must find strong intrinsic reasons to do it – regardless of the stakes. It isn’t easy to pay attention in our lives. And, it is very hard to keep applying consistent effort because, for the longest time, it feels like all the effort counts for very little.

Until it does.

Stuff that matters

Sometime during the week, we’ll be pulled into thinking about stuff that doesn’t matter. It may start with that crappy meeting or unhelpful conversation. But, it could lead us to think about the many things that we don’t really care about – status, the thing after the next thing, riches or earning plaudits from someone who is deliberately hard to please.

It is hard to avoid that. But, life is so much better without that noise and pointless rumination.

So, one way around it is to start the week by thinking about all the stuff that actually matters to us: good health, nourishing food for the stomach, mind and soul, the feeling of our heart beating rapidly after a sprint, the touch of a loved one, our love for the team we work with, and progress toward change we believe in.

Today is an opportunity to focus on the stuff that actually matters. And, maybe, just maybe, we’ll remember to start more days this week with the same focus.

But, we’ve got to begin somewhere. And, that’s today. That’s why we call today a gift – the present.

It is an opportunity like no other.

Let’s make it count.

Not selling Basecamp by the seat

Basecamp co-founder, David Heinemeir Hansson, had a thoughtful post about why they chose not to sell Basecamp by the seat.

The problem with per-seat pricing is that it makes your biggest customers your best customers. With money comes influence, power and pressure. By maintaining a per-company pricing (regardless of size), no one customer’s demands would automatically rise to the top. So, they didn’t have to displease many to please a couple of large customers.

Second, they didn’t want to deal with the mechanics of chasing big contracts. They wanted to keep their company small and nimble. And, finally, this enabled them to build Basecamp for businesses like themselves – the “Fortune 5,000,000.”

John Shattock, the CEO of Beam, once said – “Values aren’t values until the cost you money.” Wikipedia is a classic example of this idea. They could easily become one of the biggest ad businesses on the planet. But, they choose not to.

Similarly, by clearly trading off large amounts of money for freedom, the Basecamp co-founders continue to demonstrate the simple, counter intuitive, and provocative approach to running a tech company that they’re famous for.

The problem with per-seat pricing is that it by definition makes your biggest customers your best customers. With money comes influence, if not outright power. And from that flows decisions about what and who to spend time on. There’s no way to be immune from such pressure once the money is flowing. The only fix is to cap the spigot. – DHH

Source and thanks to: Basecamp blog

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

Lessons from buying jeans

A decade or so ago, I bought two pairs of jeans and loved them. I wore those pairs until a year ago when they couldn’t handle my bulging abs (okay, okay, I just put on some weight).

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been wearing jeans more frequently thanks to graduate school and a workplace where wearing jeans is the norm. So, I reflected on my jeans purchase record recently. Since my 100% hit rate a decade ago, I’ve purchased 6 pairs of jeans in the last 3 years and my hit rate is around 50%. I gave away 2 pairs and still use 4 pairs but, really, use only 3.

So, why the low hit rate? Each time I went to buy jeans, I went in attempting to solve a particular frustration. It was either trying to get a more comfortable pair or trying to find a certain color or, more recently, trying to find a more comfortable waist size. So, I always over indexed on that and ended up forgetting other my key priorities.

I abhor waste. My wife and I moved continents two years ago with just 6 suitcases that contained all of our belongings. And, we try hard to keep things simple and make the most of what we buy. So, thinking about this jeans hit rate does annoy me.

However, as writing here as taught me, mis-steps are simply learning opportunities. And, in that spirit, here are 3 simple steps to better buying decisions. One note before we get to the list – this is from a satisficer’s point of view. So, I view over-analyzing small decisions as waste as well. :-)

3 steps to better buying decisions –

  1. Envision success. What does success look like?
  2. Stack rank priorities. Make sure you have a list of 3-4 things that really matter to you.
  3. Keep this list of priorities with you when shopping.

The best part about this process is that it takes all of five minutes. However, the five minutes are well spent as they’ll save money and eliminate any unhappiness from unnecessary or uncomfortable purchases. And, given we spend a significant portion of what we earn buying things, it is worth the investment to do this right.

It is likely you do some version of this for your “big” purchases. However, I think it is worth doing for the small things as well – they add up.

Minimalism and efficiency are a beautiful thing. And, besides, excellence is not an act, but a habit.

The problem with hiring for culture fit

“Culture fit” is likely part of the hiring criteria wherever you work.

However, it is a problematic dimension. If you started with a homogeneous culture – say with five males of Indian origin, then culture fit will most likely involve finding more Indian males. It is hard to diversify.

Many point to the existence of core values and culture documents when they think of culture fit. However, the core values of the five Indian males will be suited to, well, Indian males. Core values and culture documents are rarely sources of truth if they aren’t thoughtfully built by a diverse group.

The only way out of it is to pair culture fit with culture contribution. If the five Indian male team have done a great job with product market fit, you probably don’t want to break that team up. So, hiring a sixth person completely at odds with the team isn’t helpful. The only reason you’d do that is if all five unanimously align on the build a diverse culture – that doesn’t happen often. So, the middle ground is finding someone who will fit in while while adding something new. And, the next hire expands the culture some more, and so on.

In isolation, hiring for culture fit generally does more harm than good. Combined with cultural contribution, however, it can work phenomenally well.

Invest the first ten minutes

You’ve set up a 30 minute introduction meeting to get up to speed on that project. So, you have got 3 options on what to do in the first 10 minutes –

1. Jump straight into business (with some small talk added to taste)
2. Do a quick introduction – “I work for xx team and I am now working on this project” – and get to business.
3. Invest the first ten minutes into getting to know each other

As might be obvious from the title of the post, I believe option 3 is the way to go.

Choosing option 1 and 2 is a sign that we believe that the purpose of the meeting is to get onboard quickly. Of course, they are both the more efficient options.

However, the real purpose of the first meeting with someone you are going to work with is to build a relationship of trust. And, trust requires us to first get to know them and, in time, understand them. It is this trust that will enable us to work together in a team. And, it is the bedrock of true long term effectiveness.

Also, here’s another thought – why not start every introduction meeting the same way? Sure, that one might be with someone who you just want a quick short term favor from. But, do you really know that?

What if we approached every relationship as a potential long term relationship?

Ten minutes can go a long way.

5 strategy questions

Strategy can be a nebulous concept. How do you define a good strategy? Do you know one when you see one?

A wiser friend shared 5 questions from a book by former P&G CEO A G Lafley and Roger Martin – “Playing to Win.”

• What is our winning aspiration?
• Where will we play?
• How will we win?
• What capabilities must we have in place to win?
• What management systems are required to support our choices?

I love frameworks that boil complex things down to simple idea. And, if I were to simplify further, the core questions are “where will we play” and “how will we win.”

For the next time you are thinking about strategy…

Stable self illusion

We tell ourselves a story about the stable self illusion. This illusion involves telling ourselves that our personalities are stable over time. They were formed long before today and won’t change for the rest of our lives. All attempts at change are, thus, useless.

But, that isn’t true. The longest running psychological study (63 years!) just released results that confirm that. Just as our physical traits change over time, our personality becomes virtually unrecognizable.

One study doesn’t a strong conclusion make. So, here’s a different question – how many of your friends behave in exactly the same way they did ten or twenty years ago? What about you?

Everywhere I look, I see change – both conscious and unconscious. Our environments and company constantly shape and mold us. We tend to associate that shaping and molding to kids. But, those of us who enjoy studying human nature know that we don’t really grow up.

Telling ourselves that we can’t change is our way of letting us off the hook. We can, and we do.

The best part of this story is that it isn’t too late to move toward our aspirational self. We can start today.

The audience we deserve

The odds that we’ll start out with the audience we think we deserve is near zero. Very few start out that way. And, those who do are either rich or lucky – both of which are low probability events.

There are, however, two problems with thinking in terms of what we deserve.

First, we deserve very little. As a general rule, we owe a lot more than we deserve. And, second, entitlement isn’t a strategy that leads to happiness.

Instead, we’re better off viewing every opportunity to show up and perform as an opportunity to level up and push ourselves to get better.

In time, we earn the opportunity to serve an audience.

Carrier and mega cities

In 1902, Willis Carrier was hired to remove humidity from a printer. He noticed that his invention not just removed humidity but also cooled the air. Everyone seemed to want to eat near his machine! Thus, Carrier air conditioners was born.

He debuted his air conditioner in a Manhattan theatre during Memorial Day weekend – an oppressive place in the heat. But, as the AC effect began to take over, all the furious hands waving fans dropped and everyone enjoyed the movie. Thanks to Carrier, the concept of a “summer blockbuster” was born.

It took until the 1940s before air conditioner sizes became miniature enough to fit in a window (original machines were larger than that of a truck). This impacted human settlement like no other invention – hot places like Florida now became bearable. Similarly, new mega cities – previously exclusively in temperate climates (New York, London, Paris) – came from tropical climates. Singapore, for example, is new age mega city made possible by the AC.

Artificial cold also led to developments in technology around artificial insemination and eggs storage. Cold, thus, changed human reproduction patterns along with settlement patterns.

Ice seems at first glance like a trivial advance: a luxury item, not a necessity. Yet over the past two centuries its impact has been staggering, when you look at it from the long zoom perspective: from the
transformed landscape of the Great Plains; to the new lives and lifestyles brought into being via frozen embryos; all the way to vast cities blooming in the desert. – Steven Johnson

Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson (This story of “Cold” is continued from parts 1 and 2)

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