A great question for the interviewer

This maybe controversial – consider replacing that generic question to your interviewer at the end of the problem solving/case-type interview and ask for feedback on how you did.

There are 3 potential benefits – i) you understand what the interviewer was looking for, ii) you get to discuss and learn from the interviewer, and iii) you might just get a sense of where you stand.

Most interviews end without feedback. This approach, on the other hand, ensures you can close the loop and actually improve your ability to work through problem solving questions for the next interview and, maybe, even in your job.

As long as it comes from a place of curiosity, you might just be surprised as to how often you’ll get candid, constructive feedback. When that happens, it is a real gift.

(If it helps, I think I did this for 15 odd interviews over a 3 year period and was only politely declined once.)

Indian roads and fair performance evaluation

We were attempting to articulate the principle behind driving on Indian roads to someone visiting for the first time recently. The best articulation we stumbled upon was – “Every person for themselves.”

On roads all over the world, people drive to get to where they want to go. In many of these places, you have constraints or rules of the road. On Indian roads, you only have to worry about very “hard” constraints (typically driven by traffic lights) – e.g. there’s a wave of traffic in front you and there’s no way you can squeeze through. You don’t worry about lanes, occasionally pay attention to pedestrians, and definitely don’t care about courtesy.

Why is that? Is there something wrong with the people? Why, then, do the same people follow the rules when they’re in a different place?

If you are on a road in Europe, you follow good protocol for two reasons. First, it is because you know that the overall system is more efficient when there is order. If everyone follows the rules, everyone will get to where they want to faster.

Second and probably more important, it is what everyone does and there are real consequences to not doing so. In Switzerland, for example, you get docked a percentage of your pay. The system of rewards and punishments set the guardrails for a culture that shapes behavior. 

My sense is that there is a universal distrust – for the right reasons – in the “system” (or lack thereof) in India that, in turn, results in a culture that incentivizes selfish behavior.

While this could be a rant about Indian roads, it isn’t. Instead, we can draw some interesting parallels with politics in organizations. When organizations have employees who believe in the internal systems to set the guardrails for acceptable behavior while also creating a culture that reinforces the good, you create the sort of environment where employees optimize for the greater good.

Why wouldn’t they? If they did, the company would do better. And, since the system works, they’ll get rewarded for it.

But, in organizations with poorly managed HR functions or poorly administered compensation schemes, every employee is in it to maximize rewards for themselves. Poorly designed compensation systems inevitably result in poor corporate cultures.

When in doubt, look beyond the people problems to the system problems that cause them.

Mat leave reflection

I recently asked a friend for her top reflections following her maternity leave after the birth of her second child.

She responded with – “Be nice to your parents. You’ll need their help when you have kids.” 

Although she said it half in jest, I couldn’t agree more. We’ve been very fortunate recipients of support from our parents and are grateful for the relationship we share.

I hope you find the time to call or visit your parents this weekend..

Reflection on Principles

My one line reflection from Ray Dalio’s “Principles” was – “Ray Dalio’s success built on investing since he was 12, building the disciple to reflect on every decision, and approaching every decision with a fear of being wrong (or avoiding over confidence).”

While I love how he built a life around obsessive reflection and truth seeking, I thought his emphasis on making the effort to find something that is fun for you was powerful. He repeatedly talks about how he plans to play the markets till he dies. It is an idea I’ve observed from time to time – when you spend your time doing something that you enjoy, you naturally invest in getting better.

No prodding required.

Directed passion is powerful.*

* I believe in the middle path between “love what you do” and “do what you love.”

Creation, consumption, and critique

It takes a lot of time to build a product.

It generally takes a user few secondS to experience it.

And, it takes a second or two to critique it with a one star review.

The lessons, then –

1. Fall in love with the process of creation. In the long run, that’s where we spend most of our time.

2. When you experience products (or foods), try to put yourself in the shoes of the creator.

3. Consider if adding that critique or one star review will accomplish anything constructive.

(Of course, this analogy works just as well as we think about consuming/cooking our next meal as well.)

9 surprises from 2018

Bill and Melinda Gates shared their 2018 annual letter yesterday. I loved the format – 9 surprises and their thoughts on the action they need to take. My 3 favorite bits of insight were –

(1) The 5 areas we need to solve for zero emissions – electricity generation, agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, and buildings. I’ve been searching for a pie chart like this for a while.

2) The modern flush toilet was patented in 1775 (!). Bill Gates has been writing about innovations in this space and I love the idea of having a toilet that requires no zero infrastructure and that converts feces and urine into useful byproducts.

Even more fascinating was the impact this might have on the lives of women. Rather than risk defecating in a dangerous urinal, women in some nations have developed kidney trouble because of holding on to their urine all night.

3) And, I loved their note optimism

We get asked a lot these days whether we’re still optimistic about the future. We say: Absolutely. One reason is that we believe in the power of innovation. But an even bigger reason is that we’ve seen firsthand that for every challenge we’ve written about in this letter, there are people devoting their ideas, their resources, and even their lives to solving them.

When we’re feeling overwhelmed by negative headlines, we remind ourselves that none of us has the right to sit back and expect that the world is going to keep getting better. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to push it in that direction.

In that way, we’ve found that optimism can be a powerful call to action. And it has a multiplier effect: The more optimists there are working for a better future, the more reasons there are to be optimistic.

PS: As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I’m traveling in India over the next few weeks. Unlike in the past, I’m trying to keep normal email schedule – however, that occasionally means two posts arriving on the same day. Apologies!

Pens and circumstances

I walked into a store near our place to buy pens yesterday. As I entered, I realized the shop was rather dimly lit. But, I intended to buy a couple of pens and went about trying to do so. However, the lady at the shop was so unwelcoming that I abandoned the idea just as I was about to pay for them.

As I walked out, I wondered why we ended up in that situation. The obvious initial focus was the unhelpful storekeeper. However, the situation she was in wasn’t great either. The shop dimly lit and didn’t have air conditioning turned on (not ideal in our home city in India). Would a good attitude last in such circumstances?

Then again, why would someone with a desire to do well choose such a circumstance in the first place?

I ended up realizing that the relationship between our circumstances and our mindset are that of a two way loop that reinforce each other. Once we accept our circumstances, we get to shape them.

Then, they shape us.

Repetition – the smart version

My mom recently was asked to narrate a story to our two year old daughter ten times in a row. This wasn’t a particularly entertaining story – it was the back story of how a fixture at home got there. But, nevertheless, she wanted to hear the story ten times and was an enthusiastic listener every time.

Such repetition isn’t out of place in a two year old’s life. As they take in new sights, sounds, and language, familiar stories help them find a balance of “explore-exploit” that they’re comfortable with.

The incident did get me thinking about repetition however.

Are there many other ingredients that are more important to a life well lived than repetition? And, if the repetition is smart – i.e. if it incorporated learning from the previous round – so much the better.

The act of loving those we care about contains a lot of repetition – giving many hugs and kisses, appreciating them for the little things they do, and consistently doing the little things that matter to them ourselves.

Building expertise in any skill involves a lot of smart repetition – deliberate practice, consistent routine, and a daily willingness to progress beyond physical and mental pain.

Love, wealth, happiness, and everything else that makes this life worth living is borne out of smart repetition.Take action -> learn from it -> do it better. Rinse. Repeat. Watch your efforts compound over time.

Every student of this journey comes to that point when he/she realizes that this life isn’t about doing big things. Instead, it is about doing those small things with extraordinary care – with plenty of smart repetition.

Your fiction recommendations

Nick wrote in wondering if I could publish the fiction recommendations I collected during the holiday season thanks to recommendations from those of you who wrote in. Thank you so much for sharing again… and here goes –

Armada by Ernest Cline

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Avogadro Corp by William Hertling

Mr. Pennubra’s 24-hour bookstore by Robin Sloan

The Books of Babel by Josiah Bancroft

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chamber

The Rosie Project by Don Tillman

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Cixin Liu’s trilogy starting with the Three-Body Problem

The Punch Escrow by Tal M Klein

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Druss the Legend by David Gemmell

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Lamb by Christopher Moore

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

The library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Sundiver trilogy by David Brin

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Extinction Point series by Paul Anthony Jones

Blasphemy and Tyrannosaur Canyon by Douglas Preston.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Replay by Ken Grimwood