Safari demos

I’m working my way through an interview of Ken Kocienda by Frank Chen of a16z where Ken shares insights from his book “Creative Selection” – a look at the Apple design process during the Steve Jobs era. One interesting anecdote was from the team’s experience when they were building the first version of Safari into the MacOS.

When Ken shared that Steve used to make it to the engineering demos (equivalent of regular stand-ups/status checks), Frank wonders how the CEO of Apple found time to do so. Ken’s response is “focus” – one of the words that he believes best described Steve Jobs.

Similarly, Ken talks about Steve effectively being the only Product Manager for the 20 odd person team that shipped the first version of iOS. Apple famously did very few things and that meant Steve could stay on top of each of these projects at a granular level.

There’s a famous Steve Jobs quote on focus that I’m sure we’ve all come across – “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

These anecdotes brought that quote to life for me. The next step is to take action.

Much to learn I have…

Channeling Zeigarnik

You know you have a project coming in 6 weeks. You don’t have the time to give it thought now. So, you wait.. until you realize there’s only a week left. At that point, you are stuck burning the midnight oil in a race to the finish line.

There is a better approach.

As soon as you know you have a project coming, open up the “Notes” app or its equivalent on your phone, title it with the project and add the first 2 or 3 thoughts that come to mind. Then, shut it down and move on to other things.

The effect of doing so – called the “Zeigarnik effect” – is that our brains consider the project as “incomplete” and will subconsciously look for ways to add to it/finish it over the next few weeks. Every time we get prodded, we just need to go back to that note and keep adding.

This approach works for a packing list for a future trip, for the slides for that big meeting, and even for that strategy doc you are thinking about. It bypasses the need for the last minute rush to the finish line and enables us to create better quality work.

Start early. Channel Zeigarnik.

PS: The Zeigarnik effect is why songs that we haven’t completed get stuck in our heads.

Extenuating circumstances

Clay Christensen wrote a powerful note on extenuating circumstances in his book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” –

“resisting the temptation whose logic was “In this extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK” has proven to be one of the most important decisions of my life. Why? My life has been one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over in the years that followed.

The lesson I learned from this is that it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.” 

Clay isn’t an exception in finding life to be a series of extenuating circumstances. We all find ourselves dealing with so many of them in our journeys – a new random problem pops up, someone falls sick, we have disruptive travel, and so on.

Every time I’m tempted to make a decision driven purely because of an extenuating circumstance, I think of this lesson and attempt to live by it.

Thank you, Clay.


The Atlantic had a thought provoking article on “Sharenting” – the use of social media to share content on their kids – recently.

A data excerpt – “Almost a quarter of children begin their digital lives when parents upload their prenatal sonogram scans to the internet, according to a study conducted by the internet-security firm AVG. The study also found that 92 percent of toddlers under the age of 2 already have their own unique digital identity.”

The article features stories of kids – some of whom are excited about their existing digital identity and others who are mortified. As more kids grow up to a generation shaped by social media, I expect many more articles on the topic. It is an important one.

For our part, we’ve made the choice to not share any photos of our kids on social media – until they grow up and give us the permission to do so. I write about lessons I learn from experiences with them as they’re a big part of my learning journey. But, that’s as far as the sharing goes.

As is the case with such decisions, it isn’t for everyone and it matters that we’re thoughtful about what would work for us.

Finding ways to differentiate

Many organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on consulting services to find ways to differentiate their offerings.

The irony: if half those dollars was directed toward rewarding a customer focus within the organization (and perhaps shifting the culture), differentiation in the eyes of the customer would happen naturally.

Small margins in tennis – a historical look

Two days back, I’d shared this image of Novak Djokovic’s evolution from a 100+ ranked tennis player to world number 1. The noteworthy relationship in the article is the link between % points won and % matches won.

A tennis point is inherently 50-50 (either the player or the opponent). But, when Djokovic improved his abilities enough to win 52% of the points, he increased his % of matches won to 79%. And, at 55%, we were at an awe inspiring 90%.

A friend followed up with an article that showed these stats for world number 1s in the last ~30 years.

Points: Winning Percentage Year-End No. 1 Total
55% 12
54% 7
53% 4
56% 3

It turns out that increasing your ability to win a point by 5% in your favor almost guarantees you a place on top of the worlds rankings.

This is fascinating not just because of the small margins involved (we covered that). The data is also fascinating as it shows how world champions have gotten better and better – the last time we saw a world number 1 with 53% points winning percentage was 2001.

My biggest reflection from these stats is the compound effect of winning a few extra points consistently. In tennis as in life, small and consistent efforts show up incredible well over the long run.

Decision making speed > accuracy

Most decisions – say 90% – we make in our lives are reversible.

As a general principle for these reversible decisions, I’ve found it helpful to prioritize speed of decision making over accuracy.

This sounds crazy at first – why wouldn’t we try to get decisions right?

It turns out there’s a huge cost in waiting for all the information to appear. So, if we prioritize making the decision quickly instead, we can also go back and change the decision if we see data that tells us otherwise.

Over the long run, two things happen. First, quick experimentation beats deliberation.

And, second, with more repetition, we begin to develop a better gut and nose for the right direction. At that point, decision making speed morphs into decision making velocity (velocity = speed + direction – in this case, a direction that is in the ball park).

Decision making velocity, in turn,  leads us to good judgement.

Novak Djokovic and marginal improvements

Between the years 2004 and 2011, Novak Djokovic went from being ranked outside the top 100 players in the world to #1. During this period, the % of matches he won climbed from 49% to an impressive 90%.

But, here’s where things get interesting – if we have to understand the root cause of his improvement, we need to get down to the level of his in-match decision making. And, the best way to see that manifest itself is in his ability to win individual points – a culmination of 3-4 key micro decisions.

And, during this period from being ranked 100+ to 3 to 1, his % of points won moved “just” from 49% to 52% to 55%.

Small, consistent, marginal wins -> Massive impact.

(H/T Stephen Weiss who shared the first 4 minutes of this TEDx talk by Stephen Duneier in response to yesterday’s post)

The next game is a big one

Of course, so is the one after that. And the one after that too.

Every once in a while, we have the thrilling equivalent of a cup final in our professional lives – a big review, an important presentation, and so on.

But, for most of the rest of the time, we’re playing in a league where we score points by showing up every day with hunger, thoughtfulness and a desire to learn and grow. Just as competitive leagues don’t give us extra points for playing a tough team, life appreciates consistent effort – regardless of the events planned for the day.

The difference between the good teams and the great teams is that the good teams put in their best for a few big games in the season while the great teams show up assuming every game is a big game.

And so it is.