Couldn’t and didn’t

Florence Foster Jenkins, the movie, is a fascinating story about a socialite and music lover in 1940s New York. Oblivious to her own lack of musical ability, she (i.e. Meryl Streep) tried performing as an amateur soprano.

Her loved ones kept her shielded from any real feedback for a long time. But, she eventually found out that she was mocked for her performances in the press. While obviously disheartened, in the closing scenes of the movie she said something that stuck with me – “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

She was unequivocally right. Her failure wasn’t for a lack of effort.

How many of us can say that for things that matter to us?

Plans and planning

Planning is an activity that has been proven to help us become effective. Plans are an outcome of planning.

The challenge both people and organizations face with planning is that it is easy to become wedded to the plans that emerge from the planning process. So, they refuse to change course and block progress if it comes down to it.

The reason? A plan is stationary and stationary objects bring a false sense of certainty along with them. That false sense of certainty is all we need to refuse change and the tension that accompanies progress.

The act of planning, on the other hand, serves a different function. It is, very simply, a proxy for thoughtfulness. A well run planning process asks us to be aware of the nature of our environment and to intentionally pick which direction we’d like to move toward. Of course, when the nature of the environment changes, we’ll need to change as well.

Thus, planning shares two characteristics that great processes share – it is dynamic and the process matters far greater than the outcome.

In the long run, our plans don’t matter. The habit of planning, however, makes all the difference.

Manager and underling – gender issues at home

The Guardian has a fantastic comic titled “You Should’ve Asked.” It beautifully shares the frustrations of a working mom at home.

I picked out my 3 favorite pieces pieces from the comic.

These 3 were my favorite because they resonated deeply. I’ve definitely been guilty of the manager-underling behavior. I also constantly marvel at how my wife manages to process so much about stuff at home – evidently without shouldering enough of the mental load. And, I know for a fact that boys aren’t born with an utter disinterest for things lying around because I’ve seen my attitude toward that change completely.

I’ve become more conscious about these inherent differences over the years. Some of the research that’s gone into the amount of unpaid work women do has been eye opening. And, comics like this go a long way in further increasing that awareness.

Awareness is a necessary first step for change.

I hope to do better.

Helping thyself

I’ve read many self help books over the years. Good self help books are books on psychology at their core.

The logic is straightforward – changing ourselves requires us to change how we think. And, it is hard to change how you think if you don’t understand why we think a certain way in the first place.

There’s been a huge influx of really good self help/happiness/psychology books over the years. It isn’t enough to read one of them to inspire change – repetition definitely helps. But, after a point, they do begin to share the same principles packaged in slightly different ways. And, in the past six months, I’ve found myself consciously resisting the newer titles I purchased.

I’ve generally mixed different kinds of books – the odd autobiography, the book on history or technology. But, I’ve always had a self help book in the mix. I think that is no longer going to be the case – at least for a while. I will, of course, always be one of those who strongly believes self help books have an undeserved bad reputation. These books have changed my life and, if you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll give them a shot.

What is interesting is that my takeaway after a decade of reading these books is – just aim to live the 7 Habits. That should be no surprise to folks who’ve been reading these notes over the years. But, it is amazing that I’ve come right back to where I started 8 years or so ago.

As T.S.Elliot might have said – “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” 


Carbon Dating and Clock of the Long Now

Marie Curie discovered that radiation was emitted from the decay of an atom over time. Then, Marie and Pierre Curie found the half life of carbon resulting in “Carbon dating.” Radiometric dating has been key to scientific advances showing that mythical stories about the earth being 6000 years old are just stories – not facts.

Thanks to Carbon dating, we’ve learnt about our past and the movement of Homo sapiens. This is thanks to a story written by the charcoal in our ancestor’s bones that we could only understand once we understood atomic physics.

On the flip side, our many technological advances have shrunk time in a way we’d never have imagined. We live in a time when everything is expected to happen instantly or in “real time.” The same advances have led to a group of entrepreneurs to fund a 10,000 year clock or the “Clock of the Long Now.” The builders of this clock intend this to be a nod to longer term thinking.

Will we take the long term perspective or let the short term triumph? Will we be high frequency traders or good ancestors?

Only time will tell.

“This is the paradox of our age. On the one hand, we have short attention spans and an ability to measure time in minuscule increments. But, on the other, we are able to trace human actions back to thousands of years and also have an appreciation for the fact that this advance was 500 years in the making.” | Steven Johnson

Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

Designed for consumption

The most beautiful pieces of technology we use are generally geared toward consumption. Whether it is your 40 inch flat screen LED TV, that gorgeous iPad or can’t-fit-in-the-pocket phone, these screens have been created to keep us in consumption mode.


Success in consumer technology products is generally measured by usage. Attention is a scarce commodity. So, the more we spend it on our devices, the more valuable they become.

Next, these products provide us many avenues to consume content produced by studios in Hollywood. Most of these studios make money running advertising.

So, as users, there are a couple of things worth remembering. First, there’s very little incentive for technology product creators to build products that encourage us to smell the roses. And, incentives govern human behavior. So, it is on us to create incentives to limit our time with technology geared for consumption.

Second, a disproportionate portion of our happiness and fulfillment comes from creating things. So, it is on us to stop measuring how many TV shows and movies we’ve watched and counting how many things we’ve built and shipped.

Again, the devices that surround us are not designed to encourage these behaviors. This is on us.

Giving things your best shot

When I was young, I used to hate the – “Did you give it your best shot?” question. As a very competitive kid, I didn’t realize the point of this question. To me, it came down to whether I won or lost. And, if I lost, I clearly didn’t do enough.

I’ve grown to appreciate the wisdom in that question over the years. As you grow, take part in games with higher stakes and become conscious of the environment you are in, you realize just how much you don’t control. There are plenty of variables that can change your outcomes – the state of the market, corporate incentives, political games, chemistry, and, most of all, luck. There’s no point fretting about this stuff. It isn’t worth optimizing for filling our limited bandwidth with information about all of this.

I’ve come to believe that there is just one question that matters – how can I keep plugging away to make the impact I seek?

Plugging away. That’s what it all comes down to. Can we care enough to do it consistently? Can we be resilient to times when we don’t feel like doing it?

Good processes lead to good outcomes in the long run – I’ve definitely seen evidence of that in my life over the years. And, focusing on outcomes makes it hard to plug away as we end up wasting our energy on things we don’t control. I’ve seen evidence of that too.

The best part about paying attention to the process, however, is that there’s an important tipping point that changes everything. At some point during the process, you realize that you’ve done everything you possibly can and really couldn’t do any better. When that happens, I’ve found myself let go and completely accept the outcome.

Maybe that’s the real wisdom behind giving it your best shot.

When you do give the process your absolute best, the outcomes cease to matter. And, that, funnily enough, is an outcome worth working toward.

Folks who play the disapproving voice in your head

Most of us have two voices in our head – one that approves of us and another that doesn’t.

The approving voice is where we draw encouragement and positivity from. The disapproving voice, on the other hand, just seeks to make us feel inadequate. Steven Pressfield, in his fantastic book, “The War of Art” speaks of this voice as a part of a destructive force – the resistance.

This post, however, is not about the voice. Instead, it is about the people in our lives who represent it. Every once a while, we spend a lot of time with a person or people who play the role of the disapproving voice. We find ourselves cowering occasionally in fear, feeling un-worthy, and constantly seeking their approval. They are generally the first to tell us that this is a good thing and that they care about our growth. We need hard feedback to grow into better people after all.

I have learnt that there is only constructive action when you meet such a person – run. Run swift and far. Such care you can do without.

But, what about all the great feedback and growth opportunities? Life will give us all the feedback we need. If you really need to learn to prepare better, for instance, you can be sure that you’ll see plenty of evidence of that need in your life.

Day-to-day living is really hard and gives us plenty of opportunities to learn and grow. In a world where it is easy to fall prey to inaccurate comparisons with others’ lives and airbrushed photos, it isn’t hard to find reasons to be discouraged. Instead, it is much harder to be consistently resilient, reflective and balanced so you can keep plugging away and giving whatever you do your best shot.

Of course, if you can find people close to you who seem to be able to do that consistently, hold on tight.

Existential and irreversible

A wise someone shared how he invests effort into decision making. He plots decisions on a 2×2 graph that effectively asks 2 questions –

  1. Is this decision existential (i.e. is it a decision that kill your business)?
  2. Is this decision irreversible?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then we need to as much energy and resources as required. If the decision is reversible, on the other hand, we can always choose to test it, gather data and change it. Of course, the cost of the test would vary depending on how existential it is.

We add value by making decisions. And, a first step is being able to understand which decisions deserve the attention and which do not.

Blog changes and lessons

1. This blog is now on WordPress managed hosting. I used to run a free version of WordPress on my own host. I’ve been hit my one too many attempted hacks and breaches and realize it isn’t worth dealing with this. I’m relieved that the responsibility for security lies with now.

2. I briefly contemplated switching to Medium. I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with Medium for my “Notes by Ada” project. But, Medium seems to be oriented around the reader. And, while that’s great, I wanted a place that focused on creators. And, of course, WordPress has done a solid job over the past 4 years or so.

3. The latest security issue I had was likely thanks to an old project that I maintained on the same server. I keep archives of old projects out of sentiment. But, a breach is painful (more painful for the good friend who helped me clean it up) and I’ve decided I need to start wiping these files off. Memories on will do. Constant clean up is important – in both our technology lives and real lives.

4. I’ve turned off comments on ALearningaDay for the first time. I didn’t ever think I’d do it as I love hearing from the folks who prefer to send in the occasional comment. But, the WordPress comment experience feels clunky and I chose not to pay a ton more for the ability to customize plugins. In the end, I didn’t want to be managing a sub par experience. So, I hope you’ll just remember to send me a note on rohan at rohanrajiv dot com instead.