Shutting the laptop with a bit of force

A simple idea that makes meetings better – shut the laptop down with a bit of force.

No, don’t just half close it or shut it gently. While you’re at it, consider making a statement – you are here and you are going to be 100% engaged. And, being engaged is going to be worth it.

Of course, the statement is both to the attendees around you and to yourself.

And, if most of the meetings you are in aren’t the kind where you feel comfortable making that commitment, it may be time to reassess your calendar.

Diamonds and good work

Like diamonds, good work is a result of a prolonged period of continuous pressure.

The continuous pressure does two important things. First, it propels us to take daily action. And, second, it forces us to make sure we’re constantly learning and growing. This learning and growth, in turn, enables us to make the take better action.

Put together, this combination of daily action and continuous learning and growth make for a powerful self reinforcing combination.

Why, then, do people run away from continuous pressure? Perhaps the answer lies in the word “pressure.” It sounds stressful and negative. It can be all of that, of course. But, it can also be the kind of environment in which we thrive.

The difference, I’ve come to realize, come down to just one question – is the pressure imposed by someone else or is it self imposed?

The former creates negativity while the latter lays the foundation for an exciting, learning filled, life.

It’s all invented

Every once a while, I look around and marvel at how much we’ve invented as human beings. All these things we take for granted – airplanes to travel, computers and corporation to work, the internet and nation states to connect with one other, sanitary systems to live hygienically – didn’t exist for most of human civilization.

And, yet, ingenious human cooperation and thought made this all possible out of a planet that was, at first glance, just a combination of plants, animals, minerals and water – lots of water.

Now, I hope we’ll do a better job taking care of plants, animals and water than our ancestors did. Our record of treating other living creatures isn’t anything to be proud of. But, I’m hopeful that will change as we’ve come to appreciate (well, some homo sapiens at least) how delicate the balance that holds this wonderful planet together is.

There are three powerful benefits of being able to look at everything and realize how much of it has been invented.

First, it is a reminder that the universe, as we know it, is malleable. It was invented by human beings like us and we can, and should, make it better.

Second, all of the stuff we generally worry about – work, status, financial security – are inventions of human ingenuity. That’s not to say they don’t matter. They do – in that they help us sustain ourselves and feel like we contribute. But, we ought to take our attachment to invented systems – sales targets, release schedules, promotion timelines – with a pinch of salt. In the long run, they matter far less than we think they do. In the really long run, it is our connections and impact on fellow humans that ends up mattering more.

Finally, most of what’s around us was invented to help us lead happier and more fulfilling lives. This includes aspects of the physical world but also includes the conversation around mental constructs that are unique to this age – purpose, passion, etc. If we’re not finding happiness and fulfillment, it is worth pausing and saying to ourselves – if it’s all invented, it is probably worth inventing a way to approach life that makes us happy and fulfilled.

Plans and planning

Plans are important because they represent the result of our attempts to visualize our path to an outcome. A well laid plan is an indication of the amount of attention and thought we dedicated to visualization.

Visualization, in turn, matters because everything we build is created twice – first in our minds and then in reality.

But, plans are just an outcome of the visualization process. And, like most outcomes, they don’t matter much. Things rarely work as per plan because it is impossible for us to visualize every obstacle in our path.

And, that’s okay.

We are defined not by the details in our well laid plan but by our ability to thoughtfully respond to change and plan again.

In essence, it is not our ability to plan but our habit of planning that makes the difference in the long run. Or, as Dwight Eisenhower put it beautifully – “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

How to compete with Google and Facebook

This is a really tough time if you are attempting to build a start-up that dreams of competing with Google and Facebook.

I think there 3 reasons for this

  • There’s very little white space to build an app that will get traction. The list of top 10 apps has been virtually unchanged for the past few years.
  • Even if you do — against the odds — Google and Facebook will know (Facebook tracks app activity via Onavo – a security app it owns while Google has Android and search) and either buy you out or copy you.
  • And, even if you manage to survive that, you have to compete against an incredibly sophisticated suite of advertising products.

So, I argue that there are only 2 ways to compete –

  1. Bet on the future (e.g. augmented reality)
  2. Focus on a niche

It is hard to be everything to everybody. So, the best bet is probably focusing on a niche that involves high usage or high  value. That is what most of their successful competitors do.

All in all, I don’t believe this is the time to be building a technology company that seeks to compete with Google and Facebook. As is generally the case with such dominance, it is hard to predict an end to it. It looks certain that we’re going to move toward a world with mixed reality and the existing giants seem to have a strong advantage going in.

But, then again, history reminds us that technology waves don’t play out as we expect. We are currently in an age with an incredibly centralized communications architecture and it is hard to imagine a decentralized world in the near future.

Maybe that’s why the blockchain revolution is one to keep an eye on.

More on my bi-weekly “Notes by Ada project” note on Medium or LinkedIn.

What you know vs. what you do

Seth had a post today today on “what you know vs. what you do” that spoke to me. I’ve been exposed to Bitcoin since 2011 and had plenty of opportunities to invest a small amount. But, I didn’t. I’d been mulling about what I learnt from the situation. Then, of course, Seth did what he usually does and summed it all up with characteristic insight and incisiveness.

In 1995, my book packaging company published one of its last titles, an anachronism called, Presenting Digital Cash. It was the first book on digital cash ever aimed at a mass audience. And it was ahead of its time, selling (fortunately) very few copies. The examples in the book were current, but it was soon outdated. (The foreword was written by Neal Stephenson—someone who is ahead of his time for a living).

Thirteen long years later, Bitcoin was introduced to the world. I didn’t invent it, even though I’d written about digital cash more than a decade before. I’d created an entire book about digital cash, and thought about it deeply for months.

Except I didn’t buy 1,000 dollars worth of Bitcoin in 2008. If I had, I’d have more than $40,000,000 today.

It’s not that I didn’t know.

It’s that I didn’t act.

Two different things.

I knew, but I didn’t know for sure. Not enough to act.

All the good stuff happens when we act even if we don’t know for sure.

A long time A Learning a Day reader sent me a note a few weeks ago talking about how he signed up for Seth’s blog after I’d recommended it (for the nth time in these years). He then apologetically explained that he was beginning to like his blog better.

That note made me smile.  I wrote back explaining to him that Seth’s daily notes set the bar that I, every once in a rare while, try to match. :-)

Unexpected twists

Unexpected twists can be painful. They mess with our wonderful plans and push us to consider alternatives and approach things differently.

The funny thing about this change is that the process becomes easy, enjoyable even, once we accept the fact that changing our approach is the only alternative. It is accepting the unexpected twist that causes most of the pain.

What if, instead of simply accepting unexpected twists, we expected them?

What if we called projects with no unexpected twists unexpected?

A simple flip could get rid of a lot of unnecessary angst.

Start small and mushroom

There was a term I heard a few years back about how good client-consultant relationships work. The way I heard a consultant describe it was – “As a consultant, you start small and mushroom.”

The idea here is that you rarely want to go into a client relationship with a big bang – a large team, a big scope, etc. That involves a lot of pressure and works, depending on the context, every once a rare while. Instead, you want to start with a small and interesting problem, do a fantastic job, earn trust and keep building from there. The verb “mushroom” fittingly means “increase, spread, or develop rapidly.” When you build trust with a smaller, interesting problem, you are given the opportunity to work on larger, more interesting problems with bigger teams.

This is a concept I think about from time to time. It is always tempting to seek that big break or big jump in responsibility. And, every once in a rare while, it might even happen. But, we don’t control that. And, seeking stuff we don’t control is a recipe for unhappiness.

We do, however, control our ability to start small, earn trust and mushroom – regardless of the context. This means being willing to embrace change, start afresh with a learner’s mindset and earn the responsibility to tackle bigger and most interesting challenges. And, of course, being willing to do that all over again. And again.

It is how most of us get to do work that matters.

Most importantly, it is how great teams, organizations and careers are built.

The dark side of engagement | Thinking Product

Today’s post, on retention, was supposed to be the final one in the “building blocks” series where we bring together the various aspects of great technology products and the questions that can guide our thinking through this process.

But, before I spent time on retention, I thought I’d take a detour and share a few notes on the dark side of engagement from the author of a book on the subject, Nir Eyal. Nir Eyal had a thought provoking post on this in which he called out the dark side of aiming for engagement – unfortunately, making things more engaging also makes them more potentially addictive. 

We’ve all experienced this with some of our favorite technology products. They are engaging to the point where we can’t really access them without experiencing that daily hit. His suggestion is to build in safeguards within our products. Here are a few examples –

For example, instead of auto-starting the next episode on Netflix or Amazon Video, the binge-inducing video streaming services could ask users if they’d like to limit the number of hours they watch in a given weekend.

Online games could offer players who cancel their accounts the option of blacklisting their credit cards to prevent future relapses.

Facebook could let users turn off their newsfeeds during certain times of the day.

And rather than making it so fiendishly difficult to figure out how to turn off notifications from particularly addictive apps, Apple and Android could proactively ask certain users if they’d like to turn off or limit these triggers.

We saw real life examples of these issues recently when a 13 year old in China jumped off a building after being denied access to the very addictive “Honor of Kings” game by Tencent. Then, a 17 year old nearly died of cerebral infraction after 40 hours of continuous playing. So, Tencent responded with time limits for anyone upto 18 years of age. Of course, one would hope that companies won’t wait for a tragedy before creating such safeguards.

These examples aside, there have been studies on the negative effects of social networks on teenagers’ self worth and body image. And, we’ve all likely experienced meals where we wished there was a sign like this.

Nir Eyal concludes his post with this –

Of course, tech companies won’t be able to “cure” addictions, nor should they attempt to do so. Nor should they act paternalistically, turning off access after arbitrarily determining that a user has had enough. Rather, tech companies owe it to their users simply to reach out and ask if they can be helpful, just as a concerned friend might do. If the user indicates they need assistance cutting back, the company should offer a helping hand.

With the data these companies collect, identifying and reaching out to potential addicts is a relatively easy step. A harder one, it seems, is caring enough to do the right thing.

For anyone part of a team or company that’s involved in building technology products, this responsibility to care is on us.

Being a leader vs. acting like a leader

Being a leader involves exhibiting deep care about people, processes and results. This care manifests itself in many small ways –

  • Following up on commitments
  • Ensuring the customer’s needs are represented in the room
  • Respecting people’s time by showing up on time and, in connection oriented jobs, responding to them in time
  • Showing up prepared
  • Running great meetings
  • Never hesitating on asking the tough questions – but always doing so in a constructive manner
  • Documenting thought process and rationale thoroughly
  • Bringing a positive attitude
  • Seeking to understand and then to be understood
  • Demonstrating great care for team members by enabling them to learn and grow

There are occasions and roles when you have to act like a leader more often than not- e.g., lead from the front and be the decisive voice in the room. But, these are fewer and increasingly not the norm.

Instead, most jobs are a lot more about being a leader versus acting like one. Exhibiting deep care doesn’t require you to lead from the front. Instead, it works best when you lead from behind – that is the kind of leadership required in most roles anyway.

Finally, what is often forgotten is that you have to first be a leader to earn the right to act like one.

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.