Letting your art be art

Every once a while, we see a lot of buzz about monetizing weekend projects. It comes and goes in cycles. The basic thesis is – start a blog or podcast or newsletter, build an audience, and make some money on the side. What’s the downside?

The downside, in my mind, is that pursuing weekend/side projects with the pressure to monetize (or to meet some lofty engagement goal) converts art to work. You have to find an audience that’s willing to give you their attention and build for them. That is very different from painting for fun.

It also changes the focus of the exercise from you to your audience. Your growth and what interests you matters a lot less than generating content that appeals to your audience. There are two exceptions to this – existing celebrities and the rare creator who manages to engage a large audience based solely on what interests her/him.

If you are planning on a weekend/side project, consider letting your art be your art. Perhaps it could be something you do for fun and be the kind of thing you’d do even if no one paid attention. If you can just celebrate having an audience >=1, these fun projects almost always contribute to our long term learning and growth. And, if we keep at them long enough, they provide many opportunities for us to connect with and perhaps even have a positive impact on others on a similar journey.

Let your art be art.

Understanding and expressing

It is fascinating to listen to kids who’ve just expanded their vocabulary to say “I love you” express love.

It is a fascinating dichotomy. On the one hand, they don’t really understand the meaning of the phrase and what it entails (few do). And, yet, on the other hand, there are few who mean it more wholeheartedly.

The quote – “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel” – is repeated often for good reason. When we spend time with others, we often pay a lot of attention to things that appeal to our head (the logic of their words or actions for instance) when human connection is often a function of the heart.

When we really mean something, the intent tends to shine through.

Notes on Product Management | Day in the Life of

Writing on this blog every day is all about sharing my learning journey. As a result, this has meant sharing lessons learnt on starting (and quitting) a non profit, on life in graduate business school, and, more recently, Saturday posts on parenting. So, I’m excited to commit to writing more regularly – I’m shooting for bi-weekly – about what I do at work as a Product Manager at LinkedIn.

While I expect to delve into topics unique to product management about half the time, I expect the other half to be about lessons learnt on approaching work better – running better meetings, managing managers, and so on. I hope you find it interesting/useful.

Today’s post tackles the “What is a day in the life a Product Manager” question.

“What is a day in the life of <insert role you’d like to learn more about>?” is a common question when you’re looking to learn more about a role in a particular company. It is a surprisingly powerful question as you aren’t expecting the person on the other side to open their calendar and rattle out their schedule for the day.

Instead, the question behind the question often tends to be – “What are the skills required to do what you do?” That turns out to be a difficult question to answer because the skills required to a job well are rarely covered on the job description. And, my journey to understanding the skills required for my job as an IC/individual contributor Product Manager involved drawing extensively on the 3 sources of learning – books/synthesized information, conversations with other product managers, and my own experiences – to map out the product creation machine and the skills required for each phase.

This is the “clean version” of that machine.

I say “clean version” because the reality looks something like this.

All this takes us back to where we began – “What are the skills required to be an IC Product Manager?” While the nature of their application varies depending on the type of product (B2B vs. B2C for instance), I think there are 4 core skills –

1) Problem finding: This is arguably both the most challenging and most important skill. We are educated in systems that teach us to solve problems, not find them. So, it takes time to unlearn our natural instinct to “dive in” and, instead, take a step back and really understand what problem we’re trying to solve and for whom.

2) Problem solving: Iterative problem solving is at the heard of the building process. This is when we aim to balance value with usability and feasibility. We always have fewer resources than we’d like and this skill helps us make the trade-offs necessary to get a product out of the door.

3) Selling: I’ve intentionally chosen to use the word “selling” instead of the more common “influencing” because selling is a massive part of the job. We are always selling the value of our product – internally, externally, upward, downward, and sideways. Realizing this was a game changer for me. The other powerful learning that accompanied this was realizing how much of the selling I did was written.

4) Building effective teams: Great products are built by teams. Great products aren’t always built by great teams. But, great teams are always at the heart of great product building experiences. We don’t always get to build great products (they require luck and timing among other factors) – but we can choose to always create great building experiences.

More on all of this to follow on future posts in the series.

Great book experiences and oh shit moments

The best leading indicator of a great non fiction book experience is not the source of the recommendation or its average rating on Amazon. It is the “oh shit – I really need to learn that” moment that precedes searching for it. The intensity of that desire to learn what the book is about is the best indicator I’ve found.

That is not how we normally look for books – the common approach I’ve observed is to ask externally and then check in internally to narrow the list down. For example, we might 1) ask around to see what folks we know recommend or skim some successful person’s reading list and 2) ask ourselves which of the books recommended sounds most interesting.

But, we get much better results when we flip the order. As is the case with many of life’s best experiences, the journey needs to start with an understanding of what we want to learn.

And, when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

PS: I came across a great articulation of this by Naval Ravikant – “just in time” vs. just in case.”

The Exec Q&A communication Jedi progression

Most folks respond to questions from an executive or folks who’ve got a higher ratio of impactful things to do/time than we do in the course of their work week. Handling Q&A, verbal or written, is a skill and I’ve become mindful of the following progression as I work on my own abilities to do so. Each stage builds on the other.

(1) Padawan learner: We are prompt. We answer questions promptly but tend to bury the answer in a blur of detail in our attempts to be complete.

(2) Jedi Knight: We deliver clarity over completeness. We answer the question first and provide just the amount of extra detail required for clarity.

(3) Jedi Master: We anticipate follow up questions. By putting ourselves in the shoes of the asker, our extra detail minimizes follow up questions and back-and-forth.

(4) Jedi Council: We see and answer the question behind the question. Awareness is the gift of competence and, at this level, we go beyond the question to the interests of the asker and, thus, to the question behind the question.

(5) Grandmaster: We become the one asking the questions. :-)

While this post has been focused on responding to executives/folks busier than us, I’ve come to appreciate the value this skill adds in life. Learning to listen for the interests of the asker, answer the question behind the question, and do so with clarity over completeness are very useful skills – both at work and at home.

Fast risks and slow risks

Albert Wenger, a venture capitalist and all around wonderful person, had a great post about fast risks and slow risks.

“People worry about many risks, but generally about the wrong ones. We tend to be obsessed with personal and societal risk that is “fast.” What will the Fed Reserve announce next? Should I trust Tesla’s auto steering? These are risks where outcomes are realized quickly. That’s why I call them fast risks. As it turns out though some of the biggest risks today are slow. Outcomes will not be realized for decades or longer. The impact of nutrition and exercise on health is an example of a slow risk. The mother of all slow risks is climate change.” 

I hadn’t thought of risks this way and now see this fast risk-slow risk dichotomy everywhere. It is fascinating to think of fast and slow risks from the perspective of our careers. Fast risks are the next big presentation, evaluation, interview or promotion cycle. But, a slow risk on the other hand is any deceleration of our rate of learning.

Albert goes on to observe – “I continue to be amazed by how much fear and anxiety people are experiencing daily based on fast risk. Will I get a good grade on my exam? Will this investment succeed or fail? These risks completely pale compared to the climate change risk of global upheaval of life as we know it, with the potential for tens of millions of human deaths.”

Powerful observation. It begs the question – how can we do a better job putting fast risks in perspective and ensure we’re working toward a better response to that “mother of all slow risks” – climate change?

Ravana and the Khettarama stadium

The Ramayana is an ancient Indian epic poem about a prince called Rama (the hero) who sets out to Lanka/ancient day Sri Lanka to conquer Ravana (the villain portrayed as a “demon king”) and rescue his wife.

We were in the midst of a chapter detailing a small story from the Ramayana in our 6th grade when our Sanskrit teacher stopped for a moment to tell us about the “Khettarama stadium.” Cricket matches between India and Sri Lanka were common fare growing up and these were often played in the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. And, it turns out the founding name of the stadium was “Khettarama” or “Bad Rama.”

He went on to explain that the version of Ramayana we were told was not the only version. In Sri Lanka, Ravana was famous for his wisdom and valour and wasn’t portrayed as a “demon king.” There were versions in which Rama was the bad guy – a fact that blew our minds back then. :-)

It’s been close to two decades since I heard this story and, yet, I think about it time to time as I reflect on the many stories we’re told that are just versions from one point of view. There are often two or more sides to every story and there’s a lot of wisdom in listening to both/all sides before we rush to judgments.

Understanding triggers

A recent challenge I’ve been grappling with is understanding and then responding to our 2 year olds “triggers.” I define a trigger as a condition that results in an emotional outburst/completely irrational behavior.

Hunger is her most sensitive trigger – not rocket science in itself. But, I’ve come to realize that the part I find most challenging is that it goes from zero to one. As a result, I’ve been guilty of reacting to that emotional outburst with my own emotional outburst.

Needless to say, that doesn’t work out well. :-)

Observing myself in my attempts to respond and not react to her triggers has resulted in two takeaways. First, I do better when I’ve gotten sleep. And, second, I need to have better awareness of my own triggers if I intend to help her deal with hers.

Replacing reactions with responses is hard to do consistently. I’m hoping to make the most of these opportunities to get better – both as a parent and as a person.

Remembering Arthur Ashe

There are a few classic ALearningaDay stories that I share every 1-2 years as part of my attempts to internalize them. One of these is from tennis legend Arthur Ashe – the only black man to ever win the Wimbledon, US Open, and Australian Open.

He contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion he received when he was in surgery and once received a letter from a fan asking why, of all people, was he chosen to have AIDS?

To which, he replied – “The world over – 50,000,000 children start playing tennis, 5,000,000 learn to play tennis, 500,000 learn professional tennis, 50,000 come to the circuit, 5,000 reach the grand slams, 50 reach the Wimbledon, 4 make the semi finals and 2 make the finals. When I was the one holding the cup, I never asked god “Why me?”

Arthur Ashe taught us that if we’re not asking “why me” when things are going well, it isn’t fair to ask “why me” when things are not.

One of the most profound reminders I’ve gotten to keep perspective and to keep plugging away..