But, is it unexpected?

We often describe any variation to our original plans “unexpected.”

But, is it?

Obstacles always show up and plans always change. Any journey worth taking comes with bumps you didn’t know about and twists, turns and re-routing that you didn’t imagine.

Perhaps, instead, we should only described a plan working out with absolutely no variation as unexpected.

Imagine what that would do to our mental state, stress levels and perspective.

Engaging on engagement – half year review

I started 2017 with a post on my theme for the new year – engagement.

From that post – I believe engagement is the answer to the debates around managing energy versus managing time. As with most important things, it isn’t an either/or. And, I also believe engagement is a principle that a good life is anchored around. And, as with all life principles, it is very hard to consistently live it. Also, I think of engagement and consciousness (the ability to be aware and to choose) as sister concepts. They share the same core.

Engaging on engagement is easier said than done, of course. So, I broke it down to 3 sub themes – health, information and seeking to understand and then to be understood. And, I committed to a collection of processes at the beginning of the year.

But, change doesn’t happen with commitment alone. Change happens when you follow that commitment with consistent re-commitment. I have daily check points with myself. But, I found a half year review of this to be both fascinating and useful. Here’s what I found –

  1. Health: Some aspects had gone really well. I had made some very good diet changes, was doing a much better job working out my whole body, and was consciously standing more and walking more through the day. But, my exercise volume had dipped post parenthood and a few other projects. So, I needed to do a better job here. Overall, however, I’d say this was positive.
  2. Information: Aspects that had worked well included a much better use of email filters, almost no email reading in bed, cutting a bunch of news feeds that were more noise than signal and starting the “Notes by Ada” project to synthesize my thinking around technology. But, on the flip side, I hadn’t done a good job in “deep reading” (books), was still checking my phone far too often as a default action and was a bit last minute in the creation of “Notes by Ada.” I felt I needed to do a much better job here as it felt like 3 steps forward and 2.9 steps back.
  3. Seek to understand and then to be understood: This was the most nebulous sub theme of the three as it isn’t that easy to judge. However, I ask myself how I’m doing with this (along with the other 2) every day. And, I had begun to perceive progress. I was more aware of when I interrupted folks in conversation and was doing a better job modulating my energy in meetings. I didn’t expect change in six months as this is a longer term construction project. Positive progress with an awareness that there’s a long way to go.

This half year review was a breath of fresh air as it injected much needed energy and purpose. I think we all tend to overweight the negatives. And, before I started this review, I thought I’d gone backward on 2 of my 3 objectives. But, the review revealed a lot more nuance – bunch of things going well, a few improvements required – and also made me realize that I’d made a lot more progress than I thought.

I’ve made a fair few changes since that aim to chip away at the areas I need to do better. But, more than ever, I realize how we frequently overestimate what we can get done in a day and underestimate what we can get done over the long haul – especially when we chip away at things, one small action at a time.


This is the age of the hustle. It is easier than ever to hustle. We always have access to the people we want to reach – via email and social networks. If you want to send someone an email a day to remind them of something that will help you, you can.

To hustle is also glorified. Isn’t that what the gritty entrepreneur and the storied networker does? The pursuit of this kinds of hustle abhors patience and diffuses the tension of waiting by taking action. Do something, anything. Bucket obvious mistakes under learning and “iterate.”

There are three problems with this approach.

First, mistakes we could and should have avoided with some thought are not signs of us learning. They point to stupidity.

Second, the tension of waiting and responding (instead of replying) is the tension that helps us grow. We sacrifice growth and wisdom when we sacrifice that tension.

And, finally, it should be obvious that this is the kind of hustle that only works in the short run.

Don’t glorify action. Action isn’t great. It is just, well, action. We make progress by learning when to act.

And, sometimes, as a result, the best thing to do is to just wait.

Skipping the nuance

If every discussion around success included questions that probed how we measure it and the trade-offs involved, there would be fewer discussions. It is hard to isolate cause and effect in an issue as complex as success – however we define it.

So, in a world where publishers and advertisers make their money off your attention, it makes sense that everyone skips the nuance. So, we see articles within 500 words or less that tell you –

  • 3 things that successful do in the morning
  • 1 trait that all successful entrepreneurs have
  • 1 trait that explains Elon Musk’s success

and so on.

This could also be a playbook for any content you create. Pick an interesting subject, strip away all the nuance, pick a pretty picture, choose a catchy title, share it all over social media – and, voilà, with a bit of luck, you’ve gotten yourself a winner.

But, is that really winning?

Such narratives are generally unhelpful and often plain dangerous. But, that aside, what of us? Why do we write?

Writing can be many things. It can be a medium with which we drive change. It can feed our soul. With every piece of content we share, we decide whether we want to raise the standard of discussion or lower it. And, we do all of this by putting a piece of ourselves out there.

Some might say that we owe it to ourselves to keep the nuance and discuss those hairy, complex issues.

Others will say you ought to just shoot for the clicks and the temporarily popularity.

As always, our choice.

Keeping a sense of humor

Life is always challenging and often difficult. It doesn’t matter who you are. Affluent people have some aspects of life easier than others. But, as long as you do everything that humans do, you’re going to experience challenges and difficulties.

The big question, then, is – what do we do? Or, more specifically, do we react or respond?

When we take responsibility for our lives, we learn that there’s a space between what happens to us and what we do about it. That space between stimulus and response is where wisdom and maturity lie. Maturity and our ability to respond to situations, not just react to them, go together. Maturity and this ability to respond bring perspective. And, perspective, in turn, changes how we see these challenges and difficulties.

I’ve often wondered if there’s a shortcut to perspective.

There isn’t, of course. Not in the way we think of shortcuts – life doesn’t deal with narrow alleyways.

But, keeping a sense of humor is a trait I’ve found particularly helpful in ensuring perspective. Humor has a magical ability to bring perspective to any situation.

I am not naturally pre-disposed to humor as I grew up taking things very seriously. But, years of perspective and being surrounded by a couple of people who looked for the humor in the situation has slowly changed me. I’ve realized over the years that we all take our thoughts too damn seriously. Nearly everything that happens to us isn’t a matter of life and death.

So, we should relax, find reasons to smile and, in that process, get perspective.

I still don’t naturally find humor in most situation. But, I’ve begun looking for it. That’s been a game changer and I’m hoping I continue to do that.

Delight to use and The Economist Espresso – Thinking Product

My hypothesis is that great products have 3 characteristics.

1. Nail job-to-be-done: They are a great solution to a problem users care about

2. Delight to use: They are well designed

3. Sticky: Makes the customer/user want to come back

Last week, I wrote about nailing the job-to-be-done. Today, we’ll take a quick look at what it means to be well designed. I say “quick look” because it is impossible to do justice to an overview on great design as there’s so much to write about.

When we talk about a well designed product, most folks likely think of the iPhone. Beautiful and easy to use – what’s not to like? My primary focus when I think of great design is going to focus on the latter – usability. Everything else is a bonus.

So, what is usability? The definition from usability guru Steve Krug works well here – a person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to use the thing to accomplish something without it being more trouble than it is worth.

This sounds simple enough. But, it rarely is.

The 2 questions I love to ask with respect to usability are –
1. Does the user know what it takes to “win” in the product?
2. How easy is it for the user to win?

Users come to products to get some job done. Getting that job done is how they “win.” For example, the job you might want to get done is – “I’d like to share my notes from XYZ conference to folks who’d be interested.” You might debate between sending an email (private) or blogging (public). Assume you decide to go the public route, you’ll probably debate between a bunch of sources – let’s say Medium, LinkedIn and WordPress. Now, as a new user to Medium, LinkedIn, or WordPress, do you intuitively know what you need to do to post? And, is it easy?

Of course, you might want to get other jobs done, e.g., I want to get more social media followers or I want to learn and write more about artificial intelligence. If a large enough group of users want to use your product for a particular job, it is important for them to feel like they’re winning in the product.

The Economist Espresso

An app that does a really great job of this, in my opinion, is The Economist Espresso. Here’s are 3 screenshots of the app from today.

The first is the home screen. You can click in to an article (which can generally be read in one glance or with a minor swipe down) and keep swiping. The checks indicate you are done. And, once you get done with all 7 of them, you get a screen that says “That’s it!” with a nice quote.

This is a beautiful illustration of what it takes to make a simple app that gets the job done. The job users want to get done is to stay up-to-date. And, with this app, you can do so in 3 minutes or less. When you reach that last screen, you’ve won!

As an added bonus, the app is elegant as well. The Economist Espresso app’s native ads (they show them once every couple of days) are the best I’ve seen. They show up when you swipe between articles and look gorgeous.

The design isn’t without trade-offs. For example, none of the articles have external links to other Economist articles. They could, but they’d make the app more clunky and complicated. This is a pretty popular app and the team made a brave decision to not fill articles with links. They chose to keep it simple and beautiful and they’ve done a great job with it.

So, if there were 3 takeaways from today’s note, it would be –

  1. When designing products, consider prioritizing usability first.
  2. When thinking about usability, I find it helpful to think about – does the user know what it takes to win? Is it easy for the user to win?
  3. Building for usability is often driven more by leaving things out rather than adding things in.

What did he do?

When we hear someone was involved in something with a bad outcome, our default question tends to be – “What did he do?”

Our default assumption is that what someone did caused the bad outcome.

But, more often than not, it is how we do things, not what we do, that causes issues. Bad performance is more often a result of questionable attitude than questionable skill.

When in doubt, look at the “how.”

A 2 minute visual

Just as you are getting out of bed, consider spending an extra 2 minutes doing the following –

  1. What are you seeking to accomplish today – at work and in life? (this generally involves a visual)
  2. What is one learning you’d like to keep in mind as you go through the day?
  3. What are you thankful for?

Most folks love the extra couple of minutes in bed (thank you, snooze button). Hopefully, this adds value to those extra minutes.

We are the questions we ask. And, a quick 2 minute exercise to ask these questions, or others that you find energizing, can go a long way in getting the day started right.

Admitting ignorance

Yuval Harari’s Sapiens is a fascinating book. I’ve been making slow progress over the past 3 months as there is so much to absorb.

One of the more fascinating pieces (in my opinion) is his analysis on science. In Yuval’s words, “the innovation in modern science was to admit ignorance.” It is a simple and, yet, profound idea and speaks to continuous tension between religions and scientific inquiry.

Here’s an interesting excerpt about how the act of admitting ignorance shaped the world we know –

The crucial turning point came in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain, seeking a new route to East Asia. Columbus still believed in the old ‘complete’ world maps (see below). Using them, Columbus calculated that Japan should have been located about 7,000 kilometres west of Spain. In fact, more than 20,000 kilometres and an entire unknown continent separate East Asia from Spain. On 12 October 1492, at about 2:00 a.m., Columbus’ expedition collided with the unknown continent. Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, watching from the mast of the ship Pinta, spotted an island in what we now call the Bahamas, and shouted ‘Land! Land!’

Columbus believed he had reached a small island off the East Asian coast. He called the people he found there ‘Indians’ because he thought he had landed in the Indies – what we now call the East Indies or the Indonesian archipelago. Columbus stuck to this error for the rest of his life. The idea that he had discovered a completely unknown continent was inconceivable for him and for many of his generation. For thousands of years, not only the greatest thinkers and scholars but also the infallible Scriptures had known only Europe, Africa and Asia. Could they all have been wrong? Could the Bible have missed half the world? It would be as if in 1969, on its way to the moon, Apollo 11 had crashed into a hitherto unknown moon circling the earth, which all previous observations had somehow failed to spot. In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a medieval man. He was convinced he knew the whole world, and even his momentous discovery failed to convince him otherwise.

(A European world map from 1459 (Europe is in the top left corner). The map is filled with details, even when depicting areas that were completely unfamiliar to Europeans, such as southern Africa – thanks Erenow.com)

The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several expeditions to America in the years 1499–1504. Between 1502 and 1504, two texts describing these expeditions were published in Europe. They were attributed to Vespucci. These texts argued that the new lands discovered by Columbus were not islands off the East Asian coast, but rather an entire continent unknown to the Scriptures, classical geographers and contemporary Europeans. In 1507, convinced by these arguments, a respected mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller published an updated world map, the first to show the place where Europe’s westward-sailing fleets had landed as a separate continent. Having drawn it, Waldseemüller had to give it a name. Erroneously believing that Amerigo Vespucci had been the person who discovered it, Waldseemüller named the continent in his honour – America. The Waldseemüller map became very popular and was copied by many other cartographers, spreading the name he had given the new land. 

There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ‘We don’t know.’

A fascinating story. How often do we admit ignorance?

Index on what you can’t easily compare

Here are a few things you can easily compare:

  • The status conferred by your role or company or degree
  • The number of products you shipped
  • Your car
  • The amount of press you’ve received
  • The size of your home
  • The number of likes you receive on your social media shares

Here are a few things you can’t easily compare:

  • The strength of your closest relationships
  • Your sense of self worth
  • The amount of undivided attention you’re able to give to the folks who matter to you
  • How much you have learnt about topics that matter to you
  • Your self awareness and thoughtfulness
  • The impact you’ve had – both in terms of breadth and depth
  • The amount of time you are able to dedicate to deep, uninterrupted work

We are wired to compare and compete. We compare and compete because we tell ourselves the story that winning in these things matter.

But, they don’t. The trophies we collect from these are fake and the joy they bring disappears in a few hours – like leprechaun gold.

In the long run, it is the things that we can’t easily compare that bring us meaning and happiness.

When in doubt, index on what you can’t easily compare.