The years are short

I shared a video in 2012 called “The Years are Short” by Gretchen Rubin. She’d published a book called “The Happiness Project” and someone who’d liked her work had shared this video.

While I never got around to reading the book, the video has stayed with me. The idea that “the days are long, but the years are short” is one I’ve thought about and shared many a time.

There’s a moment in the video when Gretchen realizes that the seemingly mundane bus ride with her daughter was “it.” “It” was parenting, “it” was her daughter’s childhood and life itself.

I’m very grateful for that realization as I’ve had the benefit of carrying it with me since I became a parent. It is something I think about nearly every time I find myself doing something that seems mundane with my daughter.

Thank you, Gretchen.

Disagree on principles, not points of view

When we disagree with folks we work with, disagreements generally occur at the level of a point of view. For example, Jill might want to remove a piece of the process and Joe might want to keep it because he believes it works. Soon, emotions and egos enter the discussion and it devolves into an discussion that isn’t constructive.

The best way to make progress on such disagreements is to stop talking about the subject of the disagreement and go straight to the principle.

For instance, in the process example, they may dig one level deeper and realize that Joe operates with the assumption that – “A certain number of processes help the team function better.” And, Jill, in turn, might believe that “no processes are objectively better.”

While it looks like a stalemate, we haven’t yet reached the principle. The principle, in this case, might be – “We will have as many or as few processes as required for the team to be happy and productive.”

Two things happen when we reach the principle –

  1. More often than not, we find common ground on principles. In this case (and often), Jack and Jill likely align on the principle. This means they just differ in their assumed approach to the goal. And, that can be reconciled by testing – ask the team or experiment with a few approaches and find out.
  2. If you find yourself working opposing principles, that’s very good to know as well. Principles are fundamental truths – so, if you are working with diametrically opposite assumptions on what is a fundamental truth, then, it is likely one of you is wrong. While this is harder to resolve as it requires openness to having difficult conversations, you will at least be dealing with the real problem instead of getting emotional about points of view.

PS: For the Lean/Six Sigma fans, this is exactly what the Five Why’s technique is built to do. I’ve just found that, in practice, asking five consecutive why’s can come across as intimidating.

Waiting for Headwinds

Airline pilots often taxi for a few minutes waiting for headwinds before they take off. That is thanks to the Newton’s third law of motion. The headwind generates an equal and opposing force in the plane’s wings that enables the planes to lift off easily.

Life works similarly. It is tempting to wish or hope for regular tailwinds and feel you’re fighting against the current when you feel those headwinds. But, as wonderful as tailwinds are, there’s something to be said to welcoming headwinds just like airline pilots do.

It is headwinds that enable us to rise above the situation and grow. They are how we get made.

Two ways of taming a stallion

In his book, “The Art of Learning,” Josh Waitzkin shares his mom’s thought on the two ways of taming a stallion.

The first is the “shock and awe” method. Tie it up and freak it out by shaking paper bags, rattling cans, and driving it crazy till it submits to any noise. Make it endure humiliation and then get on top, spur it and show it who’s boss.

The second is the way of horse whisperers. Handle the horse gently, pet him, feed him, groom him and let him get used to you and like you. You, then, get on him and there is no fight because there is nothing to fight. When trained, the horse will bring his/her unique character to the table. The gorgeous, vibrant spirit is still flowing in an animal that used to run the plains.

There are some powerful parallels for when we work with people. It is tempting to let our agenda and our conception of what needs to be done to dictate the process. But, when we become too rigid and stop seeking to understand, we stifle others and effectively pull rank.

But, when we find a way to build off the strengths, creative spirit and natural style of everyone we work with, we create an output with verve and spirit.

The difference lies simply in our desire to seek to know, understand and trust.

Bouncing back – stimulus, learning, response

The stimulus is the event or what happens to us.

The learning is what we can choose to take away from the stimulus if we choose to reflect about our role in the stimulus.

The response is what we decide to do.

The science of bouncing back from unexpected or unfortunate events, to me, involves spending time on the stimulus, learning and response – in that order. We need to spend a bit time on the event so we can understand and accept it. That will then open our minds to learning from our role in it.

There isn’t a guaranteed learning every time. There are unfortunate events that are random – that’s important to understand too. Spending time understanding, accepting and reflecting is important in that order. That’s because acceptance can only come after understanding and change can only come after acceptance.

We are then ready to spend the rest of the time figuring out a response. Of course, the less time we spend on the event (or in denial), the more time we get to craft that response.

That, then, is the art of bouncing back – working quickly through acceptance and understanding, committing to the learning and then figuring out a creative, constructive, and corrective response.

Listening to the resistance

I’ve been shipping a version of Notes by Ada, my technology focused newsletter, bi-weekly over the past few months. This isn’t strict bi-weekly but it is regular enough. However, I went on a 4 week stretch without posting. For the most part, it was listening to that inner voice that said it was hard to do a new topic justice.

But, this week, I felt something change. This wasn’t a – “Hey, I think you’re too tired to give a new topic the attention it needs.” Instead, it was – “I don’t think you’ll be able to ship anything good enough in the time you have. Try again next week.”

It is a subtle difference. But, it is one worth paying attention to. I’ve found that the inner voice talks about whether I can give something the effort. The resistance, on the other hand, talks about how the results might not work out. The fear of failure is the domain of the resistance

That’s when I knew it was time to buckle down, write and ship.

When work becomes art

Great art – a powerful movie, a wonderful painting or photograph or stirring music – stays with us because we feel connected to it. Those moments has moving in sync with the art and the artist. And, those fleeting moment can stay a powerful memories.

Work becomes art when it connects with others and inspires thought or change. We see examples of such art from time to time. We have likely experienced a great customer service experience that touched us, a presentation that inspired us and a meeting that left us feeling energized. But, it isn’t as common as it should be.

It turns out that great art requires vision and detail. It requires the artist to imagine something that resonates, articulate it and then sweat the details. Pixar dedicated six engineers and artists for about 3 years to get the protagonist Merida’s curly hair to look real. Of course, they could have chosen to not sweat that detail. But, do that a bunch of times and the movie would lose its magic.

The questions for us, then – how often do we create work that connects with those around us? Can we work to combine vision and detail in that weekly meeting we conduct? What about that next presentation?

Work becomes art when we care enough to make it so.

Seesaws and doing the opposite

Great strengths can also be great weaknesses because most traits work like seesaws. The strength is at one end of the seesaw while the weakness is at the other end. For example –

You listen very well —- You don’t speak up enough

You are very energetic —- You are too impatient

You are great with the details —- You need to get more strategic

Our goal through this journey is to be aware of the balancing required so we won’t tip over. The goal isn’t a perfect 50% balance – it is more likely a 70-30 toward your strength. That’s because it is strengths that give us extraordinary returns in our careers. Weaknesses need to be managed enough so they don’t get in the way of our strengths.

This is why “do the the opposite for a while” is generally great advice. If you are finding yourself at the end of too much feedback about a strength (E.g. you listen very well but we never hear you), spend a week doing the opposite. If needed, give everyone you work with heads up if you must so they aren’t surprised. But, spend a week fighting every instinct to listen.

Once you have experienced what it is like on the other end of the seesaw, it’ll soon become obvious that there are times when doing the opposite is effective.

And, that understanding of the right balance to strike based on the context is how we step change our effectiveness.

Focusing on slope vs intercept

There are two ways to think about progress in our careers – slope and intercept.

Intercept focuses on where you are now – the role, company, or location you are in or the promotions and raises you have gotten.

Slope, on the other hand, is all about trajectory. There isn’t an easy measurement for slope as it measures direction and learn rate – i.e. where you are going and how quickly you are learning to get there.

There may be short periods of time when focusing on intercept is called for. But, when in doubt, I’ve learnt that a focus on slope serves us well. Intercept is static and indexes on easily comparable prestige (or the lack of it). Static measurements generally inspire envy.

Slope, on the other hand, is dynamic and indexes on learning and self. And, dynamic measurements inspire a desire for growth.

A focus on slope isn’t just a happier path (it is that too) – it is also far more important. In the long run, our slope defines our intercepts and not the other way around.