Pressing refresh

The power of the new year lies in the shared belief that this change in date is accompanied by us pressing the refresh button.

With the new year, we can reset anything we choose to – old habits, behaviors, relationships and even the few extra pounds we gained over the past months. It still needs us to put in the work – but, there’s something inspiring about starting with a blank slate. Hitting refresh is a powerful idea. As technology geeks know, hitting the refresh button on your browser only changes things that need to change.

Similarly, if you’ve spent a bit of time reflecting over the past few weeks, you know the areas you’d most like to change. My learning has been to focus on one change (with up to three sub changes if you are feeling ambitious) and find ways to check in with yourself through the course of the year.

The interesting thing is that the idea of pressing the refresh button during the start of the new year is just a construct.

If we wanted to, we just need to build in regular reflection into our schedule and allow ourselves the time to press refresh. For example, We could choose to reinvent ourselves every weekend if we choose to. Or, even every day..

What if we did?

PS: I did a podcast with a friend and a long time ALearningaDay reader yesterday. Our 27 minute conversation involved geeking out on favorite books, a touch of philosophy and even some notes on Bitcoin. In case you are interested, you can find that here.

5 books that might change your mind – 2017 edition

Here are 5 books I read this year that might change how you see the world –

1. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. “Born a Crime” was, without question, my book of the year. Trevor Noah has an incredible story growing up in poverty in South Africa. There are few on the planet who’ve known what it is to live in a ghetto and then follow it up with a glitzy career. There are fewer still who manage to keep a ton of perspective in the process. Great stand up comedians are excellent observers and chroniclers of life. His book does just that. It takes a rich experience-filled life and shares the story with many powerful insights, humor and class. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book.

2. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. The one history book to rule them all. It is unusual for a book to have multiple seminal insights. But, Sapiens manages it. Harari is a phenomenal chronicler of history because he manages to weave together multiple powerful threads and create a compelling narrative. His insights on what makes sapiens so powerful (our ability to cooperate with each other), why (our ability to tell each other myths/stories by creating insititutions like corporations, religions and nation states) and how (through unifiers like money and knowledge) are, in danger of over-using the word, seminal. There’s plenty more in the book. I find myself talking about it all the time. If you haven’t read it yet, this is a must read.

3. Mindset by Carol DweckI’d heard of this book a few years back but stayed away from reading it as I’m not a fan of books that just state one idea over and over again. This is especially the case when I write a daily blog post on that one idea – building a growth mindset by focusing on learning. However, “Mindset” is as important a work as it gets simply because it reinforces how critical mindset is in our lives. It is the lens with which we see the world. I’ve been a long time fan of the choice map by Marilee Adams which brings the same idea to light using slightly different labels (learner vs. judger instead of growth vs. fixed). Professor Dweck’s work, however, is much more rigorous and more all encompassing. Very powerful book.

4. Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon ChangI’ve been on a “I’d like to understand how we got to now” trip over the past year – since events such as Brexit and the US election. Part of the motivation was to understand what is going on and part of it was to question my own beliefs. A year ago, I never questioned the rationale behind free trade. Thanks to Bad Samaritans, I understand why it is important to. Ha-Joon Chang makes a powerful case against the “unholy trinity” of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. He shares economic data that clearly points to a simple idea – these organizations, the bad samaritans, act on developed country interests and push developing countries to adopt policies currently adopted in the developed world against their own interests. This is because there’s clear evidence that these policies were not what made the same developed countries rich. He also argues that it is foolish to link culture to economic development as it is economic development that drives the culture it needs (spoiler: the Japenese were once described as lazy). Again, powerful stuff.

5. The Master Switch by Tim WuThis was another in my “how we got to now” trip. The Master Switch chronicles the history of information industries – telephone, movies, radio, television and the internet. I learnt a ton from this book and it is one which should be on the “must read” list of anyone who has a passing interest in technology. It drives home the point that nature of speech (free or not) in a nation follows the structure of its information infrastructure. It also helps frame debates like net neutrality and also points to why crypto currencies are likely to be the future. That aside, however, the book often gave me goosebumps as it chronicles the rise of powerful corporations we take for granted today. Somebody should make a movie about this stuff – it is that good.

More book resources:

Happy reading!

Default reactions

The Hogan personality assessment (one of the better ones out there) has eleven traits grouped into three defaults reaction to conflict –

  1. Moving away: Avoid true connection with others; pulling away; seems indifferent; described by others as independent, aloof, and / or detached.
  2. Moving against: Deals with self-doubt by behaving in dominant, intimidating ways; try to build self up and make themselves feel better than others; described by others as overly assertive, argumentative, stubborn, and willing to challenge others; always seem to have “boxing gloves on”; motto seems to be “strike before being struck”.
  3. Moving toward:  Tend to respond to stress by seeking acceptance of others; intense desire to feel well-liked, accepted, involved, and appreciated.

The Hogan thesis is that every one of us tends to have a dominant default reaction amongst the three. Each of these default reactions is thanks to our greatest strengths as well as their corresponding weakness. And, it is in our interest to understand, build awareness and take action so we don’t fall prey to the dark side of these forces. For the psychology geeks out there, the three reactions map nicely with the fight, flight and freeze responses.

My default reaction is moving against. This natural reaction means I’m good in tough situations since it calls for energetic responses. However, it also comes with a propensity to over react to the smallest of stimuli. Not everything is a crisis after all.

One of the ideas I’m meditating on (/thinking about) is – how can I do better with my default reactions?

The best antidote I’ve identified to this default reaction is to keep a sense of humor. This is not something I naturally bring to the table. But, it is one I have endeavored to keep more of over the past two years. There is hope yet.

The steps to make this sort of a change are the same as in any other. I first need to clearly see the problem. Then, I need to commit to solving it. This is followed by  testing various solutions. The process of testing brings increased awareness and points to the one solution that will actually work. And, then, finally, I can change. These changes projects tend to be multi year construction projects.

And, as I move into 2018, I’m hoping to make significant progress on this one.

Story arcs

The purpose of a story arc is to move a character or a situation from one state to another; in other words, to effect change (thanks Wikipedia). The most popular type of story arc is the hero’s journey.

We all know this arc well. The Hero/heroine either wants to or is forced into action. But, she fails. She has to struggle and learn – ideally with a mysterious, yet powerful, teacher. Then, against all odds, she rises to victory.

Most epic movies, or trilogies, are based on the hero’s journey story arcs. We know exactly how these stories will end. And, yet, we’re drawn to the power of these arcs. Viral social media updates or videos are also a great example of these arcs. They inevitably involve someone going through the hero’s journey.

There are 3 key elements to getting the hero’s journey story arc right – a low point, a struggle followed by growth (typically with surprise sprinkled in) and a resolution of all prior conflicts. Get these right and you’ve gotten yourself an epic story.

So, why does it matter that we understand these arcs?

First, we’ll hopefully be less drawn to yet another hero’s journey click-attracting most on our favorite social media website. :-)

And, second, whenever we find ourselves crafting a story – in presentations, pitches and sales meetings – we’ll do well to remember the magnetic effect of a story arc.

Visiting schools

I studied in eight schools in my 14 years of education. The first few were due to career moves my late dad made while the last 3 involved a gradual self initiated progression to nerdier schools within the same city.

Every time I’m back home to visit the family (the frequency of which has decreased for various reasons), I try and spend half a day visiting the schools I studied at. Over time, the list of 3 has whittled down to 2 as one of them became unwelcoming to alumni.

I kept this tradition alive over this break. It’s been 13 and 16 years since I studied at these schools. But, a small group of teachers I know still remain. It was lovely catching up about old times and hearing their take on what it is like to teach the current generation (general prognosis is that cell phones and pampering parents have made it really hard).

I was reflecting on why I keep this tradition alive.

I’ve realized it is a lovely way to stay grounded. There’s something incredibly powerful about going back to the places that enabled you to become who you are. I thought about my dreams from those years and found myself marveling at their simplicity. These dreams became more elaborate as I grew up and see more of the world. But, at that time, the dreams were about having enough freedom and earning enough money to have a nice time with the people I cared bout. And * gasp * maybe even have a girlfriend. :-)

There is no end to wanting more. But, it is easy to forget that a lot of what we take for granted today was the stuff of our dreams a few years ago.

And, places and experiences that help us feel grounded are a great reminder of that fact.

Pegging your self worth

At different points in our life, we can find ourselves pegging our self worth to arbitrary measures without realizing it. Our self worth is a composite index  – a weighted average of how we feel about various things.

At different points of time, we may overweight indicators such as the approval of a tough boss, the desire to get a fancier title, the costly car or bag, the sought after job or home or even the average number of likes on your social media updates.

I’ve come to realize that any lingering dissatisfaction I have is simply a result of unconsciously pegging it on the absolute wrong indicator.

David Foster Wallace, in his incredible speech, “This is Water” said it beautifully.

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship-be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles-is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already-it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race”-the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

These paragraphs beautifully lead to three lessons I’ve learned about self worth.

First, consciously examine what you peg your self worth to. Second, do your best to peg your self worth on powerful principles/truths. And, third, expect to check in with yourself from time to time as you will slip. Let those slips strengthen your resolve to live a principled life.

Self Review 2017 – Ten questions for yourself

One of my favorite activities in the last week of the year is to fill out my 10 question annual review form. I’ve shared my questions below.

If you decide to use these questions (or make your own), I hope you’ll consider keeping a record. I’ve been doing this since 2010 and it’s a real treat to look back at some of my predictions for myself versus how they actually turned out and to look at my top learnings from the past few years.

10 Questions – Annual Review

Part I – Look back

1. One word/line descriptions:
The Theme or peak moment
a) 2017 was the year of
b) 2018 will be the year of

Runners Up Theme or peak moment
a) 2017 was also the year of
b) 2018 will also be the year of

2. What were my 3 greatest successes/memories from 2017?

3. What were my 3 biggest learnings from 2017?

4. How did 2017 fit in to the big picture/contribute to the big dreams in my life? (i.e. did any dots connect?)

Part II – Look forward

5. What are the themes I am thinking about for 2018? Are there any “process goals” I want to commit to?

6. What skills I want to develop in 20178(professional and personal)? What action am I going to take to develop them?

7. Who/what were my biggest sources of inspiration this year? Are they high on my priority list to engage with (if they are people) or to do (if they were actions) for 2018?

8. If I am the CEO of “Me Inc”, who were my board of directors/advisors/sponsors this year? How do I plan to engage with them in 2018?

9. What are other thoughts for 2018? (miscellaneous – dreams, thoughts, planned breaks I am looking forward to, etc.)

10. What are my 3 most important core beliefs or principles? And, are my goals aligned with these core beliefs?

Happy reflecting!

Under the ground

Thanks to a lot of writing, and thus thinking, about energy and climate, I am paying a lot more attention to the waste we create. This new found interest has led to some interesting questions. A question I pondered recently was – what happens when you flush waste down a toilet?

It goes under the ground of course.

But, where? To underground sewage systems.

Modern cities are made possible by these sewage systems. Until the mid 1800s, it made no sense to stay in cities because they weren’t designed to handle so many humans in close proximity. That was until the city of Chicago figured out that they could create sewers underground by raising the entire city by 10 feet. Other cities around the world followed suit.

Today, cities are supported by underground cities – subway systems that connect the city, sewer systems, electricity and internet cables, water, foundations of skyscrapers, etc.

And, it turns out that the quality of life in a city, i.e. above the ground, is directly proportional to the quality of its underground or invisible infrastructure.

This principle is applicable in multiple places. Great farmland is made possible by the water table underground. And, tall trees need roots.

This is just as applicable to our lives as well. Our invisible infrastructure constitute our motives, values, mindsets and processes. We, too, are only as good as our invisible infrastructure.

That, then, leads us to a question to ponder – when was the last time you took stock of this invisible infrastructure?

3 reminders for the holiday week

For those of us who are fortunate to get time off in the coming week –

  1. You can’t be fully engaged with others if you don’t take care of yourself. Optimize for yourself first – and you’ll naturally find the energy and enthusiasm to optimize for others.
  2. There is no “right way” to do the holiday week. The best we can do is be intentional and engaged with ourselves and stay tuned to our needs.
  3. In the long run, all we’ll remember from this week are a few moments. You don’t have to wait for them to happen – you can also create them. A dash of surprise, a bit of time doing the unexpected or a lovely expression of your love and gratitude help create these moments.

Happy holiday week!

Servers and the served

Lately, every time I find myself in a position where I’m served by another human being – typically in restaurants or hotels – I find myself wondering – what was the main driver of my being in this place of privilege?

Nearly every time, the answer that follows is “Dumb luck.”

Most of us in places of relative privilege won the birth lottery.

With great privilege should come great humility and responsibility. So, the question that follows is always – what am I doing to make it count?