Ignaz Semmelweiss and John Leal

When Hungarian scientist Ignaz Semmelweiss noticed that maternity ward doctors were killing more women when they came straight after working with cadavers, he suggested that they should wash their hands, ideally with antiseptics. Sadly, he was endlessly ridiculed for this preposterous idea and died in an insane asylum.

Thanks to research on epidemics like cholera (by John Snow in London), scientists like Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur and better microscopes by the German company Zeiss glass, germ theory finally came to the mainstream. Koch figured out how to measure the amount of bacteria in a sample of water – a huge innovation in public health. Until then, you had to wait to see if less people died after you made a change to the water supply to judge if your experiment was successful.

Then, scientists began experimenting with Chlorine mixed in water – again decried at first. In response, John Leal conducted one of the riskiest experiments in history by adding Chlorine into the New Jersey water supply. He was tried in court as he was initially seen as a madman.

The results, however, proved him right. And, his decision to not patent his innovation makes him among history’s greatest unsung heroes.

“What made John Leal’s actions very noble was the fact that he chose not to patent it. Unencumbered, chlorine adoption spread all over the world. In the US alone, it is estimated to have improved adult mortality by 46% and child mortality by early 70%. One of the givens until then was the high probability of losing a child. The people behind this revolution didn’t get rich or become famous. But, they impacted our lives in incredible ways. ” | Steven Johnson (paraphrased)

Source: How we got to now by Steven Johnson (History of clean water continued from “Raising Chicago by 10 feet“)

Finding great partners

It is hard to find great partners. Here’s a sketch that describes how to think about great partnerships.

1. Make sure you are aligned on the “why” or things that matter most. The first thing to look for is alignment on the “why.” For most people, this is a combination of what you value and what you are motivated to do. It helps to have strong alignment on what you value and an understanding of each others’ motives. This alignment makes or breaks relationships.

2. Common interests help a ton. The biggest challenge with relationships is that we spend a lot of time on “what,” i.e. activities or things we do. This is how most dating is done. Find a common interest and then attempt to find more common interests. While having common interests matters, it only goes so far. The key is to convert that shared understanding of each other through the interest to a really strong understand of the “why.”

That said, there are two reasons why it helps having some common interests. First, common interests are often indicative of stuff that matters. For example, if both of you care a lot about impact to the environment, it is likely that both of you will enjoy the outdoors. Second, common interests are where we generally bond. If you and the co-founder of your start-up enjoy playing tennis, that’s going to be a place you’ll get to know each other a ton.

Note: I’ve focused entirely on the “why” and the “what” and none on the “how.” My sense is that alignment of the “how” doesn’t really matter. In fact, it probably works better if how you both approach things are completely different. Complementary approaches make for strong teams. And, great partners make formidable teams when paired together.

3. It helps a ton if one of you can make the other laugh. Finally, every close relationship experiences ups and downs. And, it helps a lot if both of you keep a sense of humor. And, in these cases, it helps if one of you can make the other laugh.

Then again, humor is just a proxy for perspective. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for perspective in building meaningful relationships over the course of a lifetime.

While this applies just as much to friendship, I’ve focused this on partnerships. We build partnerships with our spouses and a select couple of folks who we build organizations with. These are very special relationships and can be a source of happiness and fulfillment.

So, it helps a ton to learn how to pick partners well. Life, after all, is a team sport.

Influence and learning hard things

A quick search on the blog tells me I first wrote about the “Circle of Influence” in July 2009. I’ve written about it multiple other times since.

I was thinking about a couple of good and not-so-good days recently as I wondered what went wrong. And, the trend was obvious. The less time I spent thinking or talking about stuff I didn’t influence, the higher the probability it was a good day.

That’s not to say we should spend no time talking about things we don’t influence. It is important to think about the future and plan for the long term. In doing that, we automatically think about things we don’t control. However, like salt, it is best to add that to our thought process in pinches.

So, why is it that I am still writing about focusing on the circle of influence despite having first written about it eight years back? That gets to the crux of what I’ve learned when I reflect and write every day. The really hard things are hard to do. And, to learn and not to do is not to learn.

That means repetition and conscious re-commitment to learning the hard things is key to giving ourselves a shot at actually learning them. Focusing consistently on our circle of influence requires time, energy and commitment.

On the bright side, if there’s one thing that’s certain, the difficulty of learning a life skill is directly proportional to its value.

The Founder

I saw “The Founder” – a movie about Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds recently.

All I knew about Kroc was that he was the person who saw the potential of franchising McDonalds. And, I knew little about the relationship between Kroc and the McDonalds brothers. So, watching the movie was an eye opener.

While the movie starts out seeming like a story about the triumph of entrepreneurship and hope, it moves into darker territory and becomes about greed and ruthlessness. Kroc’s success gets to his head and he attempts to write Jim and Mac off from the company’s founding story. He then promises them 1% of the profits of the company through perpetuity via a “handshake” deal and then refuses to honor it. And, finally, he ensured they couldn’t use the name in their founding store and drove them out of business.

It feels like a movie emblematic of a time when there was sayings like “It’s not personal, just business.”

I think that’s less the case today. You can’t choose to write off a person from a company’s founding all that easily. Word gets out thanks to blogs and the internet.

But, that said, there’s still a lot of dirty stuff that happens under the pretext of “business” and “industry.” And, movies like this do make you think about the real cost of a relentless cost of success and wealth.

More than anything, it is a reminder that it is on us to ask that all important question – how will we measure our life? What are we really looking to get out of life? And, at what cost?

PS: The movie is well done. Michael Keaton does a great job in the lead role.

No excuse workout

Health and fitness is an area of focus under my broader theme for engagement this year. And, one of my goals here was to get a small workout in every day. This has become very relevant post becoming a parent as I’ve found it much harder to find blocks of time.

So, my “no excuse” work out is a work out that can be done anywhere within 10 minutes. There are 4 exercises, repeated 3 times –
1. 10 x Sit ups
2. 10 x lunges (x 2 legs)
3. 10 x push ups
4. 20 x cross body crunches

The workout is definitely legs heavy. So, over time, I might swap in a couple of other exercises that need no equipment.

But, it has been a game changer as it is. Even on days when I feel exhausted and lethargic, I remind myself that I can do this in 10 minutes and it gives me a 0.5 on my exercise score for the week (I have a target of 6). And, I’m beginning to enjoy it.

It isn’t easy to change behavior. So, it helps to experiment with a combination of alternative structures and incentives to ease the process and create our own “no excuse” habit.

The greatest privilege of them all

Privilege is a special right or advantage granted to some. We tend to think of it as something granted to the rich or powerful.

But, more of us are more privileged than we think.

We certainly exhibit some of the behaviors that accompany it. Anger, unhappiness, and irritation are examples of such behaviors. They are rarely useful and are almost always born out of unfulfilled expectations. And, the presence of expectations and a propensity to act in a nonconstructive manner are the surest signs of the presence of privilege.

But, here’s the best part. We can choose to put those expectations aside and simply commit to doing good work. Starting today.

It is as simple as it sounds. Simply choose to make every moment meaningful by engaging wholly with life. Starting now. No time or patience for frustration or irritation or unhappiness – just a focused commitment to making progress and making our time and energy count.

When we’re blessed with good health and a sufficient amount of security, we get the opportunity to simply plug away on doing work that matters. Today. Then, we can learn, earn, show up and do better work tomorrow. Your work isn’t just what you do at the office of course. Your body of work is everything you do – it is the effort that goes into showing up for yourself, for those who you love and for those who count on you.

To be able to have no expectations and to do good work – that is the greatest privilege of them all.


Maturity is consistently realizing we have the choice to pick our response.

There are 3 things to know about maturity.

First, it isn’t a function of age. While we see it most often in the post-teen years, there isn’t a strong correlation between age and maturity. There are folks who go through life never experiencing what it is like to be mature.

Second, it isn’t just exhibited in adversity. While adversity tells us a lot, it is in day-to-day living that we see mature behavior shine. Small acts of mature behavior instead of petulance go a long way in making our lives better.

Finally, we can teach mature behavior in ourselves and others by focusing on the space between what happens to us and how we respond. It is in that space that the magic happens.

Raising Chicago by 10 feet

Most cities have an incline that leads sewage and rainwater to rivers and seas. However, Chicago was absolutely flat and non porous. So, in the 1850s, the biggest contributors to cleanliness were pigs. Thus, regular epidemics were the norm. But, waste and disease were not connected in the minds of regulators and would not become conventional wisdom until another decade.

Finally, in 1855, the Chicago board of sewerage was created and Ellis Chesbrough was selected to be the chief engineer. After a visit to Europe to study sewers, he came up with a grand plan to raise Chicago by 10 feet. So, Chesbrough and team used jack screws (image below) to raise Chicago’s buildings by 10 feet (!) without interrupting people people’s daily lives. They moved buildings and houses as necessary and created a sewer system below – an incredible feat of engineering. Many cities followed this.

In time, this led to cities having a world underground – including trains and high speed internet.

The biggest victory, temporarily, was drinking water. The waste, however, went into Lake Michigan’s water. Thus, the drinking water supply became contaminated and disease rates went up again. More on what happened next week..

The subscriber would like to announce that he is ready to make contracts for raising building blocks to grade, and all other operations pertaining to the removal or raising of buildings of wood, brick or stone, of any size, to any desired height or distance. – Ad in the Chicago Tribune – Raising Chicago (Wikipedia)

Source: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

20 dollars to 500 dollars

I took a quick glance at options for a simple piece of furniture. And, the range of options was between 20 dollars (Ikea – in case you were wondering) and 500 dollars. I’m sure there’s a hidden 10,000 dollar option made of gold somewhere, too.

That range takes into consideration all kinds of preferences – price, look, feel, ease of maintenance, etc. It is up to you to pick what works for you.

My sense is that happiness works just the same way. Every situation we experience can inspire a range of reactions and responses. These reactions and responses vary depending on our default make up – our character, maturity, expectations and perspective. If we are repeatedly walking away from situations with responses that aren’t ideal, all we need to do is change that default setting.

As always, it is our choice.

Learning something you don’t know yet

Learning something you don’t know yet requires you to be willing to do something you haven’t done yet.

Learning something new means flexing a muscle we have never flexed. If you’ve attempted lifting weights the first few times, you know how painful that process is. The tough second step is building a practice routine and sticking to it. And, if that wasn’t enough, we also need to be reflective through the process and keep adjusting the above processes to get better results.

Finally, there is a direct connection between how valuable the skill is and how difficult the process is.

So, most folk start courses and training regimes and quit. If only it were easier and if only it could be done quicker…

This has 2 implications. First, if you are a coach or someone designing online learning material, create a barrier to entry. The trouble with most online learning is that they attempt to make content easily accessible. Content, contrary to what we might think, isn’t the hardest problem to solve. Motivation and commitment is.

Second, if you looking to learn something new, start with asking yourself a question – am I willing to make a 3 year connection to this learning journey? If the question doesn’t inspire excitement, spare yourself the trouble and quit. Instead, direct your energy to finding something you’d like to learn that will make the answer to that question a resounding yes.