High standards and writing great memos

Jeff Bezos, in his latest letter to shareholders, had a great note on what he’s learnt about great memos.

Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a  high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

There are two things I took away from this excerpt and the letter. First, it is fascinating to see the parallels between delivering high standards and approaching learning like a chef. To develop high standards, we must first learn to break things down to first principles, understand what “good” is and develop realistic expectations for what it takes to achieve them. For example, once we approach build new habits from a first principles perspective, we realize that the expectation that we can build a new habit that matters in 21 days automatically sets us up for failure.

The second lesson is about the difficulty of writing well. As Bezos notes, writing well is a product of revisiting and rewriting. In that sense, writing well is a lot like building a new habit – committing to something matters a lot less than constantly re-committing to it.

Sweating versus watching others sweat

Prof Scott Galloway of NYU has an interesting weekly newsletter where he talks about the state of big technology and his thoughts on life. On Friday last week, he had a fascinating edition summing up his approach to life strategy. While I’m sure I’ll share a couple of the nuggets that resonated in coming weeks, my favorite was “Sweating vs. Watching Other Sweat.”

The ratio of time you spend sweating to watching others sweat is a forward-looking indicator of your success. Show me a guy who watches ESPN every night, spends all day Sunday watching football, and doesn’t work out, and I’ll show you a future of anger and failed relationships. Show me someone who sweats every day, and spends as much time at events as watching them on TV, and I’ll show you someone who is good at life.

Very true.

The hunter gatherer within

As hunter gatherers, we spent time in jungles facing enemies, predators and diseases. This setting rewarded safety. You were better off staying away from a bush with a suspected snake than veering close to it.

Most of the world’s population hasn’t lived in such an environment since we transitioned to an agrarian society. But, if we compressed 4 million years of human evolution into 24 hours, agriculture made its appearance at 23 hours 55 minutes.

(H/T Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin for this insight)

This dichotomy is what makes understanding human – why, even our own – behavior hard. We assume rationality and logic to be drivers of action when insecurity and fear turn out to be better predictors of action.

Behaving like hunter gatherers is counter productive in a world where the fundamental assumptions are different. However, we cannot change if we don’t understand how entrenched these behaviors are.

Acceptance follows understanding. And, change comes with acceptance.

Mashpi Reserve

At the end of his book “Things a Little Bird Told Me,” Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone made a profound comment about wealth. He said money amplifies who you are as a person. I think about that from time to time when I see/hear about extraordinary displays of wealth. There are those who use it to buy incredible private jets and boats and then there are others who find different uses for their money that amplify who they are in ways that can be very inspiring. Mashpi Lodge is one such fascinating project.

Roque Sevilla, a successful businessman and the former Mayor of Quito (Ecuador), decided to buy 130 hectares of “cloud forest.” Cloud forests are fast disappearing thanks to deforestation. And, Roque purchased this forest from a logging company for less than $400,000. To put that into perspective, that is half the median price of a home in many major cities.

A picture of the Mashpi Reserve with Mashpi Lodge in the center. Source and thanks: National Geographic

In the 17 years since he purchased it, the resident Biologist has discovered multiple animal species – various amphibians, monkeys and even Puma – that had been lost to the world for decades.

He also demolished the logging mill and replaced it with an incredible 100% sustainable hotel called “Mashpi Lodge.” His goal was to share this special experience with others and, perhaps, inspire them.

I haven’t been there myself but was so glad to stumble upon an episode of Mashpi Lodge on “Amazing Hotels” on Netflix. If you are interested in learning more, there’s a 6 minute video of Roque describing the Mashpi project.

It is a very inspiring story. I’m hopeful many others follow his lead.

Giving strangers the benefit of the doubt

It is fascinating to realize how hypocritical we are when we get upset at strangers who make a mistake on the road or do something that seems inconsiderate in a public place.

I’ve definitely been that that annoying stranger for someone else from time to time. I’ve done inconsiderate things as I was rushing out of the store on a bad day. And, I’ve definitely made mistakes on the road.

Our default state is to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Our life becomes a lot smoother when we habitually give strangers the benefit of the doubt. It turns out that the world becomes a happier place too.

Right in context

Most of the toughest questions life asks of us have no right answers.

There may be an answer that works best within a certain context – given the environment, constraints and personalities involved. But, there are no cookie cutter solutions for the problems that matter. To figure out the best way forward in any situation, we need to honest with ourselves about the real problem we’re attempting to solve and thoughtfully wrestle with ourselves as we figure out our path. Not “the” path, “our” path.

The tragedy, then, is that we spend so much time attempting to be right that we forget that all that matters in the long run is that we be thoughtful instead.

The blind spot check

When you learn to drive a car, you are taught to keep turning to check in on your blind spot. It is an important lesson because your rear view mirror doesn’t show you cars that are very close to you. And, since you spend a lot of your energy focused on the road ahead, you need to switch contexts as you turn and ensure you are covered on the sides as well.

As you get better, however, turning becomes less of an event. It isn’t because the blind spot became less dangerous. Instead, it is because your field of vision has expanded. As you drive, you have a map of the road around you. So, as you turn left, you know that the car behind you is a safe distance away.

The disappearance of the blind spot check event is a sign of progress on the driver learning curve. And, checks are a natural step in our journey to pick up a new skill.

For example, when we start working on a new business, it is vital that we check every number regularly. But, the purpose of studying these numbers is to develop a sense for when things are going well and when things aren’t. Similarly, the purpose of the quantifying how much you read or exercise is to build awareness on how you spend your time. Once you develop that sense, you stop doing them and move on to improving other things. We study numbers to leave numbers. We create checks to grow beyond them.

This, then, brings up two questions we need to ask ourselves from time to time –

  1. What sort of checks do we have in place today? These checks are a proxy for the skills we are trying to build.
  2. And, more importantly, are today’s checks different from the checks we had in place a year ago?