Experience

Experience only counts when we consciously understand and internalize the lessons learnt from all the failures and successes along the way.

As “to learn and not to do is not to learn,” a simple test for whether we actually gained experience on a project is to ask ourselves – did that experience change how I operate or make decisions?

The difference between yes and no is the difference between stasis and growth.

And, the conviction in the yes is a good indicator of the steepness of the growth curve.

3 hard learned people lessons

I was mulling 3 hard people lessons that were the equivalent of hard earned (hence “hard learned) at various points this week.

1. Emotional intelligence is ignoring what people say and watching what people do.

2. When you have the privilege and luck of spending time with like-valued and like-minded people, you run into the danger of forgetting that there are a lot of very different kinds of people on the planet – some who choose meanness over kindness by default. And, a small minority who choose hate over every other emotion.

3. Every time we indulge in envying someone’s perceived success or wealth, it is worth reminding ourselves – things are not always what they seem.

Trombone oil

“Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest manufacturer of trombone oil in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year.”

Dan Burke’s famous note to Bob Iger does two things at once – beautifully.

First, it articulates a simple but powerful point that is relevant to anyone looking to build a company or a product- market size/potential matters.

Second, a note that said “Focus on projects with big market potential” or “Make sure the TAM/Total Addressable Market on your investments are large” would have been both boring and un-memorable.

Even if what we’re saying is incredibly valuable, how we say it can make or break its impact.

Going Upstream

Dan Heath, one of my favorite authors at the intersection of psychology and business, shared a parable from his upcoming book.


“You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water—a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore.

Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well.

Then another struggling child drifts into sight. . . and another. . . and another.

The two of you can barely keep up.

Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone.

‘Where are you going?’ you demand.

Your friend answers, ‘I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.’”


It made me wonder – how often am I stuck in a cycle of response vs. being that friend who chooses to swim upstream?

Powerful.

It resonated.

Focus

I’ve started past years by sharing a collection of themes I’m working on for the year. While the goal was to have no more than three themes, I often cheated and shared lists with sub-bullets. :-)

This year’s list is different – it has just one theme and that theme is focus.

As I spent time during reflection season mulling my biggest lessons of 2019, I kept coming back to focus. I had failed miserably at “fewer things done better” for long periods of time during the year and had, in patches, experienced what focus meant. And, I was also fortunate to have seen a few examples of focus done well.

All of this has inspired me to make a significant change in how I think and operate this year. I intend to do that by becoming a student of focus.

Focus means having absolutely clarity on the two things that matter at any given point. It also means being comfortable with the fact that we trade-off progress on everything else. Thanks to the simplicity focus inspires, it brings with it clarity in thought, communication, and action.

I’ve been on the journey of learning to simplify and focus better in every aspect of my work and life over the years. But, reflecting on what I’ve learnt over the last few weeks have brought to light just how much more I could be doing.

So, that’s what this year is going to be about.

Focus.

Here’s to that.

Bikram and bullying

We saw the documentary on Bikram – the founder of “Bikram Yoga” – recently. The documentary brings to light the scandals, rape, and bullying that surrounds the man. And, after the documentary, we had an interesting discussion on the choices some of the protagonists in the documentary had.

The questions we posed – Were they responsible for some of what happened to them because of the choices they made? Could they have made different choices?

When I have these discussions, they tend to draw a clear line between folks who have experienced bullying for sustained periods of time and folks who haven’t. Folks who haven’t tend to (understandably) believe that the bullied have a high amount of agency.

While we certainly have agency in situations with bullies, the smart bully playbook is not one that is easy to fight. Smart bullies – i.e. bullies with above average intelligence and accompanying egomania – do 3 things all at once –

1. They take advantage of a situation where they have real (often) or perceived power over you.
2. Their actions and erratic behavior ensures your self worth is both destroyed and attached to their opinion of you. In that process, their power over you grows.
2. Along the way, they prey on on a combination of naivete and gullibility – a combination that made you eligible for bullying in the first place – by articulately rationalizing why what you are going through is perfectly normal… and why you even are lucky to be chosen.

All of this makes it particularly hard to get out of a relationship with a bully fast enough. It is possible to go years without fully appreciating how much your life has changed in the time. And, it typically takes an intervention, a tremendous support group, and a lot of character to get out of such relationships.

In the absence of having experienced this, it is easy to believe that there are easy paths out.

But, there aren’t.

Not when you are in it at least.

Aliveness

“Aliveness comes from living a life of personal integrity in which our outer actions match our inner values, beliefs, wishes, and dreams.” | Jerry Colonna, Reboot.

Jerry’s articulation resonated. What is life if not just a pursuit of aliveness?

Preliminary closing of the books

One of the activities that is part of the new year reset is a preliminary closing of the books for our household. While the final closing happens after tax season, we have enough information now to tally our income, expense, tax contribution, and savings.

All of these help me look at two sets of ratios –
1. Expenses %, Taxes %, and Savings % of total income
2. Growth in Expenses, Taxes, and Savings since the previous year

(example in this sheet)

The next step is to take a look at the breakdown of expenses to understand the biggest changes during the year (illustrated in the sheet linked above).

Doing these two steps answers 3 important questions –

1. How well are we doing with saving our money?: I pay more attention to the rate of savings than I do raw savings amount. The latter can go up simply by means of income going up. However, the savings rate doesn’t lie – it tells us how quickly our lifestyle is getting upgraded.

It is important to acknowledge here that it is okay to upgrade our lifestyle. It is just important to do it in a thoughtful way. Doing so in “category 1” expenses often mean we are climbing the hedonic treadmill (better home, better car, etc.  – this has long term consequences). And, doing so in “category 2” expenses means it is easier to cut back since this is in the bucket of guilt free spending. In either case, this is a good time to take stock of these expenses and ask ourselves if they are indeed making a difference to our happiness.

The other benefit of savings rate is understanding how much attention we need to pay to our expenses in the coming year. If the savings rate is between 0%-20%, I’d recommend paying a lot of attention. Budgets may be helpful. If it is between 20%-40%, some amount of regular attention is good. And, if it is in excess of 40%, you are in a decent spot.

Regardless, you’ll want to spend a bit of time looking at which categories grew this year. In my experience, there isn’t much insight to be gleaned here – if you’ve been reasonably plugged in, there should be no surprises here.

Finally, there are two reasons to not worry about temporary dips in your savings rate. The first is a jump in your tax bracket – this is a side effect of a good thing and you’ll be able to readjust next year. And, the second is a temporary expense – e.g. sending two kids below 5 to childcare. The only important caveat here is to beware marking too many expenses as temporary. There are always going to be surprises and unexpected expenditures.

2) How are income, expenses, taxes, and savings growing every year?: This is a very important piece of the puzzle – every one of these numbers tells us something.

Income growth tells us how we are doing in our career/business. It may lead to important questions like – do I need to pivot careers? do I need to re-negotiate my salary? do I need to quit this job and go out on my own or vice versa?

Expense growth, tax growth, and savings growth all have an effect on each other and lead to different insights. For example, it is vital that expense growth stays lower than income growth. If this is not true, there better be good reasons.

And, second, if tax growth has been rapid and is increasingly a big part of your mix, it may be time to hire a tax consultant to make sure you’re not making any mistakes.

3) Are we being thoughtful about investing what we save?: This takes us to the next sheet and is about ensuring we’re getting the basics right. There isn’t a right answer here as it depends on your goals. But, it is an important to check to make sure you’re being thoughtful about what you are holding in cash vs. investing.


The preliminary close of the books is an important part of the yearly financial reset. If all is mostly going well, then that’s great. But, if not, it is important to plan some concerted effort toward improving our processes.

Our finances are a foundation for long term happiness and are a reflection of both the privilege and the career and lifestyle choices we make. As a result, they can help point the way to making better choices to make our financial engine work better.  When this engine is working well, it acts as an enabler and gives us opportunities to increase our day-to-day and year-to-year happiness.

When it isn’t, it messes with our heads and our relationships.

It is worth paying attention to.

Liverpool – humility and greatness

I shared a post – using Liverpool Football Club as an example – about how the benefits of good decisions compound over time a few months ago.

In it, I chronicled the yearly improvement Liverpool FC had made since they hired a long-term thinker with a great attitude to be their manager. The progress they made was as follows –

Season 1: 8th in the league
Season 2 (first full season): 4th
Season 3: 4th, Runner up in European Champion’s League
Season 4: 2nd (broke record for 2nd place points total), Winner of European Champion’s League

At the time of writing, they had just qualified for the final. They went on to win. They went on to narrowly miss being the League champions recording the highest 2nd place points total.

But, this season, they’ve left nothing to chance. In the 20 games played so far, they’ve won 19 and drawn 1. Exceptional.

Recently, after winning the Club world cup and becoming the top club team in the world, the manager of an opponent in England said this – “They won every first ball, every second ball, ran forward and back. They had the humility to do that as world champions.”

To this, a football journalist on Football365 had this to say.


They may be built on an advanced premise and technically impressive players, but they provoke something other than cold admiration. When they click through their gears on the counter-attack and players flare off in every direction, the response isn’t just to purse the lips and note the literal mechanics of the transition. Instead, it’s to marvel at how eager those players are to be at the end of one of those moves. How much distance they’re willing to cover – at top speed – to sustain them.

The real appreciation actually comes from recognising how exhausting it all looks; that’s what allows those who watch Liverpool to feel their work on the pitch.

It also embodies the humility Wilder speaks of. In this instance he was using it to flog his own players, but what he recognises is that even now, with the European Cup won and the Premier League pretty much in the bag, Liverpool have a respect for the game’s absolute basics. Not passing and moving and defensive discipline, but all the primary.


He finished his piece with this note.


Liverpool will presumably win the Premier League towards the middle of April and that will be the proper time for their accolades. But Thursday’s win over Sheffield United allowed them to complete a calendar year unbeaten in the Premier League and that, of course, is worth tribute in itself. Particularly because of the way in which that sequence has been maintained. Think of them, perhaps, as a piano which never goes out of tune, or a tennis racket with perfect string tension. Jurgen Klopp has kept Liverpool’s pitch for a very long time and in spite of some significant obstacles. Not least their own success, which can be a debilitating elixir.

And he’s had to be vigilant because – actually – drained of its energy, his team can be quite mundane. Individually, they have impressive components upon whom they can lean – Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mane, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mohamed Salah and the rest – but their talent alone doesn’t provide an overwhelming advantage. Certainly not over a side like Manchester City and not in a way which would allow them just to scythe through the fixture list.

What creates that, instead, is this humility: the willingness to keep running and to keep playing with the same intensity. That is what causes opponents to crack and creates the weakness in their outer shell. It’s also Klopp’s most alluring achievement – because it’s so scarce. Having ideas about how the game should be played is easy. Every coach with a whistle and a set of training cones has a philosophy and an impressive-sounding list of influences. But bringing that vision to life and then holding it at its apex is a different sort of challenge.

But it’s been cleared. The substance of this success has been to stop the minds from dulling and, somehow, keep the legs from becoming heavy and reluctant. As a piece of man-management, it’s been remarkable.


Remarkable indeed.

What a good decision feels like

A lot of my early learning on decision making came from a Poker lesson from a wise friend and the Heath brothers’ book – Decisive. The key lesson? Focus on having a good decision making process first and don’t confuse good outcomes with a good process.

Getting the decision making process right is akin to getting the science of decision making right – it is guaranteed to improve outcomes.

However, the science is just a first step – it improves outcomes on average for anyone who chooses to apply it. The art of decision making, on the other hand, involves figuring out what works for you. And, much of my learning on decision making in the past few years has come from paying attention to what a good decision feels like.

Paying attention to that feeling at the pit of the stomach when making a decision and observing how the smallest doubts actually manifest themselves in reality are ways to school ourselves in the art.

Considering a big part of what we do in a day is make decisions, there are few things we can learn that provide higher leverage.