What we want to do vs. who we want to be

Most early career advice revolves around finding what we want to do. While picking that mix of industry and function is important, it matters that we also invest in understanding who we want to be.

We may occasionally find a role that is perfect for us at a given period of time. But, if we don’t do the work to understand our motives, values, and long term life priorities, it gets harder to make the sort of career decisions that help us shape both our careers and our lives.

Work is an important part of our lives – but, for most folks, it isn’t life. So, fitting life decisions based on career choices instead of the opposite is an approach that has it backwards. Anyone who has tried it knows that any success you experience will feel incomplete. And, the most predictable outcome of this approach is burn-out at work and unhappiness at home.

This isn’t an either-or choice. We can’t have who we want to be figured out when we are 21 and then start on a career that is a perfect fit. Instead, it is a constant, iterative, process that we need to invest in parallel. With intentional investment, thought, and time, these paths will begin to converge.

And, when it does, the juice will feel well worth the squeeze.

Good fences

In “Skin in the Game,” Nassim Taleb spends time on the Robert Frost quote – “Good fences make good neighbors.”  He makes the point that it is easier for people to like each other as neighbors than roommates.

Thus, interventionists who keep trying to get people to not act sectarian are sure to fail because being sectarian is in our nature. Instead, we’re better off using these sectarian tendencies to keep groups as they are and, instead, design systems that encourage us to work with each other.


Working in our job vs. working on our job

We spend a majority of our days working in our job. This involves doing what we are, at least on the surface, hired to do. For many of us who have the privilege to work in offices, it is some mix of problem finding and problem solving, bringing people together to solve those problems, and selling – lots of selling.

Working on our jobs, on the other hand, is all about taking the time to get direction right. Are we investing in the right products? Are we developing the right skills to operate in our workplaces, build and sell these products? Are we set up to work on the stuff that matters? Are we building the relationships that help us working “in” our job better? Are we making directional progress in our careers?

Working in our jobs vs. working on our jobs is analogous to efficiency vs. effectiveness and managing vs. leading. Our natural bias tends to favor a focus on activity, busy-ness, and efficiency. That’s why it matters that we force ourselves to carve out time every week to ask ourselves the effectiveness questions.

As Peter Drucker wisely reminded us, there is nothing as useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

Worrying about what we should say or said

It is natural to worry about what we should say or should have said. We have been conditioned to improve our presentation style, be assertive, add value in conversation, etc. So, it is natural to want to over prepare and try to do it right.

Except – it is impossible to do it right all the time. We say a lot during the course of a day and there is no end to worrying about whether we said the right things.

A better approach might be to shift this focus from our words to our actions. Many talk, few do. And, more often than not, our actions speak louder and clearer than the words we speak. The colleague who follows up to your request when she didn’t need to and the manager who didn’t make any changes to your role despite your unhappiness said plenty without saying a single word.

In the long run, we are, on average, better off spending our energies on being better doers than we are better talkers.

PS: The best part about this approach is that the focus on doing makes us much better speakers with relatively minimal effort by simply taking all the pressure of the speaking.

Love the Plateau

The late swimming coach Terry Laughlin had a powerful note on the plateau as he summarized his lessons learnt from George Leonard’s book on Mastery.

“Love the Plateau. All worthwhile progress occurs through brief, thrilling leaps forward followed by long stretches during which you feel you’re going nowhere. Though it seems as if you’re making no progress, learning continues at the cellular level. If you follow good practice principles, you are turning new behaviors into habits.”

Progress is lumpy. We experience short periods of acceleration when we go through an intense experience, crystallize important learning, or, every once a while, experience a good outcome. But, between these periods of acceleration, we go through long periods of time (i.e. the plateau) when we’re just working away in relative silence.

Channeling Terry Laughlin, keep working away purposefully. Love the plateau – love is a verb.

Managing expenses on Google Spreadsheets – follow up

I wrote about managing expenses on Google spreadsheets earlier this week and offered to share a template. I was admittedly blown away at the response. Unlike other posts where I tend to hear from a few folks I’ve come to know well, long time readers sprang out of nowhere asking about the template (read: it was a delight meeting you all). It is no wonder good blogs on personal finance build up large and engaging readerships. Anyway, I digress.

As promised to those of you wrote in, please find the template here. You should just be able to download the Google sheet as an excel file on your computer or copy the Google sheet. Below are a few notes that might help.

First, I’ve added a few notes on the Google sheet to make the flow of sheets intelligible. The main principle at play is consciousness. We consciously enter every expense on the sheet using the “Sheets” app by Google. We also ensure we track all our subscriptions in one place so we’re being intentional about shutting subscriptions we don’t use. The yearly math sheet just ensures we have a macro view of what’s going on.

Second, we don’t use a budget anymore. The 2012 version had budgets – but, we shelved them a few years back. We realized that we don’t make frivolous spending decisions if we’re conscious about our expenses. So, we didn’t see benefit of the overhead involved with setting and maintaining a budget. That doesn’t mean we haven’t made dumb or and the occasional expense we’ve regretted. But, thanks to this sheet, we discuss it and aim to learn from it. Our biggest lesson from these reflections is to simply pause 24 hours before making a large expense.

Third, while there’s a tab for investments, we don’t use this sheet to manage it. We are fans of the app “Personal Capital” and use the free version to get an overview of how things are going. An important complementary document is a living document called the “Finance Thesis Sheet” that I’ve written about before. I’d co-created a “learnographic” a few years back that synthesizes lessons learnt on personal finance and investing – those principles, for the most part, inform our approach to investments.

Fourth, the paycheck sheet is a very lightweight version of the finance thesis sheet. We’ve tried to maintain conscious boundaries about how we think about our money. The key here is to assume we earn far less than we do, not increase our expenses as our income increases, and to make sure most money goes to longer term investment accounts.

Fifth, as you can tell, this is all (relatively) low tech. We’ve been recommended many fancier apps from time to time. But, the key feature of all these apps is that they do the work for us. And, that’s a problem where we’re concerned. We spend a few mins every week going through our accounts, talk about any anomalies, and look at trends annually to see how we’re doing. Doing the work to understand how we’re spending our money is a feature for us – not a bug.

Hope you find this useful. Look forward to hearing your notes and lessons learnt.

2 kids under 2

The wonderful thing about the internet is that you get to learn from the many who’ve gone through experiences that are very similar to you. As we prepared for having 2 kids under 2 years, we knew what to expect. Or, at least we told ourselves we did. I have three reflections about my experience so far.

First, the best word that describes our reality right now is “cranking.” We are on – from morning to evening to night and from weekday to weekend. It is exhausting but being exhausted isn’t really an option when you have an energetic 21 month old. Our next break is when our parents visit end of the year. And, we dream of going over to our friend’s places on weekends, handing over our kids to them, and going to sleep. :-)

Second, someone I know made an insightful comment about the 2 young kid challenge. He described the effort as “exponentially hard (compared to having 1 kid) until you see economies of scale, i.e., when they start playing with each other.” That feels accurate. We’re roughly a year away from that.

And, finally, there’s a quote about a sense of humor being a major help in dispensing with minor troubles. That is so true. Humor helps keep these first world problems in perspective and reminds us to be grateful for all the blessings – and there are many. We frequently find ourselves reflecting on how challenging this journey would be if we didn’t laugh as much we did.

But, we do. And, I’m grateful for that.

Things that do not scale – in business and life

On balance, growing our business requires us to do things that scale. We need processes, infrastructure, and systems that help us deliver value to hundreds, thousands, or even millions at a time. You may not want to over-think scaling as you find product-market fit – but, beyond that, businesses that succeed do a good job with scaling.

The dichotomy here is that our life and careers work the other way around. The more you obsess about scaling your impact, the less you contribute in the rooms you are actually in. The more you attempt to personalize, the less personal you are.

Deciding to not do things that scale means doing fewer things – but doing them in a way that is authentic to us. It means adding our brand of thoughtfulness to the emails we send. It means demonstrating our brand of extraordinary care to the folks we touch on a daily basis. And, it means writing those thank you notes.

Our contribution, and ensuing impact, on people are often determined by our ability to consistently do things that do not scale.

How to identify bad advice

You’re trying to make an important decision and you find that there’s a lot of advice flying around. Sadly, you soon realize that most of it isn’t good and very little of it is actually useful. How do you make it easier for yourself to identify bad advice?

There’s a lot in my sketch (below). So, here are the 3 key takeaways –

  1. Great advice has 2 characteristics – it is based on principles and it is intended for your benefit. Great advice is incredibly rare because it requires a lot of thought to get to the principles and in-person investment to understand your specific context.
  2. On the flip side, bad advice is what you hear 80%+ of the time. The most telling characteristic of bad advice is that the giver either speaks to himself/herself or to his/her interests. Combine this with a random jumble of thoughts and anecdotes and it is easy to spot. Most bad advice is a result of absence of “skin in the game” (H/T N N Taleb). When someone says something is ‘good for you’ when it is also good for them and when they don’t face the downside of the decision, it is likely not good for you. Think: Peter Thiel telling you to drop out of school.
  3. We are all asked for advice by folks around us. To become someone who gives generally useful advice, we need to combine 2 things – 1) Think in terms of principles – i.e. truths that are applicable across contexts (hard to do) and take the time to structure your advice, and 2) Stop giving advice to yourself (very hard to do). As a bonus – this scales as it doesn’t need to be personalized.

I hope you find this useful.