The hardest thing about gratitude

The hardest thing about gratitude is remembering to be grateful.

I took our car to the service center yesterday to fix a problem that we thought had already been fixed. I learnt that we needed to replace a part. But, the part was in stock. So, it just took a few hours to complete the job. And, a little bit of inconvenience aside, I was able to drive home at the end of the day.

As I reflected on that this morning, I realized that I almost never thought about it. A whole host of things could have easily gone wrong. The part could have not been in stock. Or, the repair could have taken a few days. And, had that been the case, I would most likely have been thinking about it and perhaps even cursing my luck.

But, since all had worked great, I simply moved on.

Simply moved on. 

How many such things do we simply move on from? And, how many of those things are deserving of our gratitude?

Often, the things we barely notice are the things we need to be paying more attention to.

The content creation consumption balance

I’ve noticed that there’s a fixed upper limit in the amount of content I deal with. This upper limit is split between creation and consumption. It looks something like this –

A practical example – I read about 4 books in January, another couple in February and made progress on a few more. My content consumption level was high. But, once I started the “Notes by Ada” project, I’ve found myself reading very slowly. Writing an in-depth weekly article on technology takes time, energy and requires me to flex a new muscle. So, the amount of bandwidth I have to absorbing new content has gone down significantly. Part of it also ties to the fact that writing requires me to absorb different kinds of content in a deeper way – e.g. a deeper look into technology news than before. But, part of it is just the amount of mental energy I have left.

There are a few interesting lessons from this observation. Here are my top 3 –

  1. It is important to not set goals in isolation. Many of these work together. And, I think there are other such pairs of behaviors or actions that have a fixed upper limit. One such pair is the amount of time you spend on the content of your work versus marketing it. That’s a topic for another day. But, I think there are more.
  2. I learn a ton more when I create content than when I simply consume it – even if I’m taking notes. The difference lies in synthesis.
  3. We learn a lot more when we observe why we do things a certain way rather than simply beat ourselves up for not doing enough.

How we create standards

Every day, we have the opportunity to pick the standard our work will live up to. But, how do we create it?

A friend pointed out that the general misconception here is that it is the standard of the big projects that matter. I can see why that might be the case. It is the end-of-year examinations mindset.

But, standards are created by the smallest actions on our worst days. They are a function of how we treat people when we’re low on energy and hungry, of how much we get done on a slow day and what we do when the stakes are low.

Standards follow character – how we behave when no one is looking. And, we build character by doing the small things with extraordinary love.

In the long run, these small things are the big things.

The stream

We live in a world with a constant stream of data. Thanks to our email, television programming, social media and the news, our feeds and watch list never stop. So, we all learn two truths about it –

First, you can never beat the stream. There’s always more and it always wins. The unread folder doesn’t stay unread for long.

And, second, the stream doesn’t serve you. It just is. And, it is on you to not to serve it.

These truths push us to make a few choices. Three important choices are as follows.

  1. We need to decide which portions of the stream actually contribute to our productivity and, thus, happiness. It is on us to separate the signal from the noise.
  2. We need to build systems to limit or ignore the portions we don’t care about. The wider we spread ourselves, the less value we extract from the portions that matter. Filters matter and should be applied thoughtfully.
  3. Unplugging every once a while helps us get perspectiveDealing with data constantly is exhausting.

Many of us spend huge portions of our life dealing with the stream on our phones, laptops and televisions. Let’s make sure that we’re consciously engaging with it.

Standards we choose

We have a choice this morning – we get to pick the standard that our work will live up to.

We get to decide whether our work is good, average, best-within-the-circumstances or otherwise. Every piece of work either maintains, raises or lowers our standards. And, over a period of time, folks who see us operate just draw a line and extrapolate our usual standard of work.

It is these standards that help build great working relationships and teams. Teams and cultures align around the standard expected of them. They all agree that this is the kind of work they do – whether or not anyone is looking.

In the really long run, our work rarely matters. But, our standards, on the other hand, they are everything.

First, we make them. Then, they make us.

Clean water and the feminist movement

The combination of germ theory and the treatment of water with Chlorine led to a giant leap in public health. Millions upon millions of lives were saved and modern city living was made possible.*

Soon, companies began developing products with Chlorine. However, the rise of the clean industry was due to the wife of a San Francisco entrepreneur who was convinced that a less concentrated Chlorine based bleach could revolutionize home cleaning. She began giving out free samples to her customers and, thus, Clorox was born. Soon, the clean industry became the lynchpin of advertising, thus created the “soap opera.”

The clean revolution had some interesting side effects. Thanks to chlorinated water, we created our first modern swimming pools and the first modern bathing suits followed. Around this time (thanks to this?), basic attitudes toward exposing the female body were reinvented. Of course, many other factors – Hollywood, the feminism movement- contributed. But, very few recognize the role that clean water played in contributing toward this massive societal shift in attitudes toward the freedom of women.

“The other big contribution of the clean movement is the clean rooms that produce today’s microprocessors. They are cleaned by pure H2O that is undrinkable as it is too clean. Irony abounds. :)” | Steven Johnson (paraphrased)

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

*Note: Organizations like The Gates Foundation is doing some incredible work in making sure the gains from clean are spread evenly. Half the population still doesn’t have access to clean drinking water. We’ve made a lot of progress since the 1860s but still have a long way to go… :)

Fuel on the run

Great products and brands have one thing in common – they understand the job their customer hires them to do. In technology firms, these jobs are called use cases. While a product might have multiple use cases, it is critical to have one or two killer use cases. One such example of a killer use case “Fuel on the run.”

In our core Marketing course at graduate schools, we studied the 3 killer use cases of McDonalds. One of them was around kids, one was around affordable food and the last one was what we described as “fuel on the run.”

To understand this better, imagine you are at the airport and have 30 minutes to go before your flight. You are hungry and want to grab something quick. It doesn’t have to be something tasty. You just need “fuel.” McDonald’s thrives on people who need a quick pit stop on the go.

It is a use case I relate to a lot because I look for hotcakes and a hashbrown when I’m on a road trip or at an airport. It is the only time I think of McDonald’s and they never fail to deliver.

There’s a lot not to like about McDonald’s. But, there’s also a lot to admire about the way they’ve nailed a simple use case.

The problem with facts

Tim Harford, an economist and writer, wrote a posted called “The Problem with Facts” recently. In it, he explained that fake news isn’t a new idea. The most powerful exponents of fake news were the tobacco industry. If you have a few minutes to spare, the article comes highly recommended.

For years, the tobacco industry sowed doubt about research linking tobacco and lung cancer in the minds of smokers. And, for the most part, succeeded. This has a lot to do with the mindset people are in when they’re reading these facts. If people seek the truth, facts help. If they’re just looking for selective reasoning, facts are useless. In some cases, they can even reinforce the myth.

That brings us to a possible solution. So, here’s the conclusion to the article that shares that.

We know that scientific literacy can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science. But a new research paper from Dan Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft and Kathleen Hall Jamieson explores the role not of scientific literacy but of scientific curiosity.

The researchers measured scientific curiosity by asking their experimental subjects a variety of questions about their hobbies and interests. The subjects were offered a choice of websites to read for a comprehension test. Some went for ESPN, some for Yahoo Finance, but those who chose Science were demonstrating scientific curiosity. Scientifically curious people were also happier to watch science documentaries than celebrity gossip TV shows. As one might expect, there’s a correlation between scientific knowledge and scientific curiosity, but the two measures are distinct.

What Kahan and his colleagues found, to their surprise, was that while politically motivated reasoning trumps scientific knowledge, “politically motivated reasoning . . . appears to be negated by science curiosity”. Scientifically literate people, remember, were more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not. Curiosity brought people together in a way that mere facts did not. The researchers muse that curious people have an extra reason to seek out the facts: “To experience the pleasure of contemplating surprising insights into how the world works.”

So how can we encourage curiosity? It’s hard to make banking reform or the reversibility of Article 50 more engaging than football, Game of Thrones or baking cakes. But it does seem to be what’s called for. “We need to bring people into the story, into the human narratives of science, to show people how science works,” says Christensen.

We journalists and policy wonks can’t force anyone to pay attention to the facts. We have to find a way to make people want to seek them out. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.

What we need is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science — somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination not just at the structure of the solar system or struggles of life in a tropical rainforest, but at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy.

One candidate would have been Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling, who died in February. He reached an astonishingly wide audience with what were, at their heart, simply presentations of official data from the likes of the World Bank.

He characterised his task as telling people the facts — “to describe the world”. But the facts need a champion. Facts rarely stand up for themselves — they need someone to make us care about them, to make us curious. That’s what Rosling did. And faced with the apocalyptic possibility of a world where the facts don’t matter, that is the example we must follow.

What can we do in our lives to have better narratives around facts and enable more scientific curiosity?

Thanks Tim, for an excellent article.

Happiness of pursuit

The pursuit of happiness, while a powerful idea, isn’t phrased right.

One of my favorite all time lessons is a story from when I interviewed venture capitalist Albert Wenger ages ago.

“In my first startup, an internet healthcare startup, we brought in a very experienced management team. I thought that was a great day. Subsequently, it turned out that team, which was very experienced, made some decisions that ultimately led to the demise of the whole thing. It turned out not to be a good day. Conversely, when the deal to buy a software company fell apart, I thought I had a terrible day. I had worked intensely on something for 2 years and it fell apart. That, though, turned out to be one of the best things – I wouldn’t be here doing this with you if the deal had happened. I would be in Cleveland working with that company.

One of the things I have come to learn is that you shouldn’t get too depressed on the downside, or too excited on the upside – just keep plugging away. Eventually, good things happen.”

I’ve shared it a couple of times since to make sure every new group of ALearningaDay readers see this story at least once. It is a classic.

I have thought the story many a time in the past few years as it continues to remind me of something very important – don’t hinge your happiness on outcomes. First, you don’t control outcomes. And, second, you don’t really know if what you wish for is what you need.

So, it isn’t a good idea to pursue happiness because happiness is simply a side effect. It comes when we don’t care about it. Or, as Viktor Frankl eloquently put it, it cannot be pursued. It must ensue.

Engage with life and the people in it. Be the best version of yourself. And, pursue doing good work and making an impact on something that matters.

Happiness ensues from the pursuit.