Focusing on trends in feedback

If you are like most people in most places, useful feedback is rarely given and generally shows up only when you ask for it. And, asking for it can be a deeply uncomfortable experience.

Getting started on the journey requires us to embrace the obvious – there is always going to be room for improvement and we might as well know what it is. But, “exercise well” and “eat healthy” are obvious too. And, yet, it takes time and effort to embrace them. The obvious things are often very hard to do and recognizing that helps make the process easier.

But, what do we do when we are actually in a room with folks sharing things they wish we’d done better? Consider ignoring individual pieces of feedback and focus on trends. There are two reasons to do so.

First, while individual pieces of feedback may be useful from time to time, they are generally noisy in isolation. Aggregating feedback into trends instead enables us to focus on lines, not dots. When we see the same idea show up from multiple folks, we can be sure that working on it will be valuable.

Second, focusing on trends takes away the personal aspect of feedback. When we look for trends, we elevate our focus from individuals to our audience. And, if most of our audience believes we need to speak faster, then speak faster we must.

A focus on trends has made it easier for me to get comfortable asking for feedback. The side benefit of this comfort is that asking for and receiving feedback becomes less of an event the more you do it.

A fail safe method to guarantee misery today

There’s a fail safe method to guarantee misery today – compare yourself to others.

If all we do is stop ourselves every time we are tempted to compare ourselves to others and redirect that energy to getting better, we’ll make a measurable long term difference to our productivity and happiness.

It isn’t a race. It is a journey. The only thing that matters is the progress we’ve made today relative to where we were at yesterday. The key, then, is to find ways to remind ourselves of this truth as often as we need to.

Maasai warriors and culture

The Maasai tribe have roamed Tanzania for centuries. And, given the challenges of living amidst the world’s largest lion population, the rite of passage for Maasai boys to become “warriors” was to kill a lion.

Over time, this decimated the lion population in Tanzania. The Tanzanian government responded by banned this practice – to no avail.

Conservationists, on the other hand, tried a different approach. They enlisted help from the Maasai warriors to protect lions. The new symbol of courage for the warriors is saving lions while safeguarding their communities instead of killing them. And, this program has made more progress over the past years than other attempts over the past decades.

This anecdote speaks to the power of culture to drive meaningful change – in ourselves and others. When we transform the “this” in “people like us do things like this,” we transform ourselves, our worlds, and, in time, the world.

(H/T: This is Marketing by Seth Godin)

Breaking up with the first draft

I spent some time over the summer re-learning how to write better documents at work. As I look back at the lessons I learnt by observing what I actually changed in how I approached writing, the biggest one was willingly breaking up with the first draft.

Barbara Minto in “The Pyramid Principle” made a strong impression when she said the biggest writing problem most people have is learning to separate the thinking from the writing. She poked fun at how the first draft takes on an “incredible beauty” in the author’s eyes that we don’t like to disturb.

I found her observation to be spot on. We write the first draft for ourselves – to clarify our own thinking. And, if we embrace the process of rewriting, we write subsequent drafts for our intended audience.

There’s a meta learning in this too – we have a tendency to get comfortable after an initial learning period in any new skill. It takes a lot of effort to fight inertia and break out of version 1.0 into the next. And, then again to the next. To get better, we need to embrace “what got you here won’t get you there,” push for feedback and learning, and embrace reinvention.

It is how getting better works – in life as in writing.

A principle for deciding on social engagements

The single most useful principle I’ve found for deciding on social engagements is the Derek Sivers decision making principle of “If it isn’t a HELL YEAH, it is a no.”

The principle isn’t universal as there are many decisions that need to be made with less than 100% certainty. But, I’ve found it to be spot on with social engagements – especially if you are introverted.

As introverts, we face a lot more downside from a crappy social engagement. So, it pays to be selective. :-) This principle helps us do just that.

But, perhaps the meta principle here is to find and use a principle that works for you to make decisions in areas like social engagements. Decision making is work. And, principles help make the process much easier while delivering consistently better outcomes.

Opening windows

I spent three months on a project in Shanghai in 2013. The Air Quality Index in Shanghai during that period was always “hazardous.” So, we spent a lot of time indoors and never opened the windows.

In hindsight, that time was a gift as it helped me appreciate fresh air in a way I hadn’t till then. Ever since, I’ve always been a proponent of keeping windows open wherever I am and generally choose fresh air over air conditioning when I get a chance.

For a few days last week, I was reminded of those months as we experienced poor air quality due to a bad forest fire near where we are. The air cleared up on Wednesday just as we headed into thanksgiving weekend and, in doing so, gave us another thing to be thankful for.

While the fire gave us plenty to think about from the standpoint of climate change, I’m going to leave that discussion for another day. For now, I’m going to give thanks for the ability to open windows and take in fresh air.

It is one of the many gifts we have that we tend to appreciate most when it is absent.

Letting small things remain small things

The things that mess with most relationships are rarely the “big” things / the fundamental disagreements. They’re an accumulation of the many small things that have been blown out of proportion.

It follows that one of the defining characteristics of relationships that both endure and thrive (high % of positive interactions/total interactions) is the often conscious commitment on both sides to let the small things remain the small things.

Happy thanksgiving

I fell in love with the idea of thanksgiving well before we moved the US. I loved the idea of a holiday that existed just for us to say “thank you.”

To me, this day marks the start of the end-of-year reflection season. I typically wind down any ongoing weekend projects (there used to be more of these pre-kids :-)), take a few weeks off from work in December, and take the time to read, think, reflect, and be present with family. And, I am really excited to do all of that this year.

I am the recipient of many blessings and privileges. As I reflect on them today, I find myself very grateful for the folks who’ve chosen to love me, for those who took a chance on me and gave me a break when I needed one, and for those who’ve been generous in sharing ideas and insights that have changed my life.

Finally, I remain very grateful to the many of you who take a few seconds (minutes?) of your limited attention to read these notes, share them with your friends and family, and even write back from time to time. Writing here has changed my life and it is your presence and encouragement that reminds me of the privilege of getting to share these notes with you while simultaneously pushing me to do this privilege justice.

Thank you. I remain very grateful.

And, I wish you a very happy thanksgiving.

The new kilogram and how scientists showed us the way

Scientists from 60 nations approved a new definition of the kilogram on Friday. For over a hundred years, the weight of a kilogram was based on a hunk of metal (Platinium Iridium to be precise) in France.

For industries and research that depend on pinpoint measurement accuracy, basing our measurement on a hunk of metal resulted in minor discrepancies over time. However, with Friday’s vote, the scientists agreed to base it on the “Planck’s constant” – a value that will stay constant over time.

Jon Pratt, one of the leading scientists, grinned with pride as he acknowledged a symbolic moment. As the Washington Post put it beautifully – “It is an acknowledgment of an immutable truth — that nature has laws to which all of us are subject. And it’s one more step toward a lofty dream — that, in understanding nature’s laws, scientists can help build a better world.”

To summarize, we had a certain approach to measuring something important. Scientists realized that there was a better way. So, they figured out a path to the better way and had peers from all over the world sign off on the change.

At this time of contention and discord, that is such a big deal.

I am grateful to the scientific community for showing us how change for the better gets done.