The seemingly urgent

The seemingly urgent has a knack of getting in the way of the important.

It is hard to escape this because the “seemingly urgent” is a powerful force.

The approach I’ve found effective to counter its power is to ensure I always have clarity on what’s important.

That clarity comes from writing it down, revisiting it often, and recommitting to it every time I fail to act on it.

In effect, that means recommitting to it multiple times a day/week/month. :-)

Should I be negotiating?

We were in a panel discussion the other day when someone asked the question – “Should I be negotiating my salary as I head to my first job after graduate school?”

We shared two notes.

(1) It depends on the context. But, as a rule, is a good idea to bias toward asking – no ask, no get after all.

(2) The challenge, however, isn’t in asking for something. It is in answering the more important question – do I know what I want?

Operating with clarity about what we need makes it both easier to ask and paves the way for a more productive conversation.

Subtracting emails

Until a few months ago, I never deleted emails in my Gmail account. I changed this behavior last year as I realized I was approaching 80% of my 15 GB limit.

But, even if I started deleting email, I didn’t want the minor stress of looking at that ~80% full storage indicator everyday. So, I began deleting old email.

I started with searches for certain kinds of emails and deleted emails carefully. I realized the futility of this soon enough and began deleting entire categories.

As I clicked the option to permanently delete the first time, I wondered – “Am I going to regret getting rid of some of this email?”

When I asked myself the question, I ignored the fact that I hadn’t looked at some of these categories.. ever. The finality of deletion still loomed large.

I reflected on that moment today as I looked at my Inbox. It is lovely to see the indicator at ~30%. And, months after deleting all that old crap (it really was crap), I’ve not looked back.

We’re wired to hold onto things we have – clearly even when they’re as random as an email from Amazon in 2011.

It’s liberating to make subtraction a habit and learn to let go.

Lumpy rugs

Jay: No, see this is exactly why we sweep things under the rug. So, people don’t get hurt.

Phil: Well, yeah, until you sweep too much under the rug. Then you have a lumpy rug… creates a tripping hazard…and open yourself up to lawsuits.

I think of this exchange from time to time – many years after watching this exchange on “Modern Family.” This visual of things swept under the rug causing a lumpy rug and tripping hazard is genius.

It has served as a great reminder over the years to not disagreements and discontent fester.

Lumpy rugs can mess with relationships. They’re best avoided.

Sh*t hill

Ben, a friend, shared a story about his experience climbing a hill on his mountain bike. The slope was steep – so, he shifted to the easiest gear and kept climbing. He soon caught up with two bikers who were pushing their bikes up the hill, said “Hi,” and kept going.

The climb kept getting harder. So, he was relieved when he got to the top and glad he didn’t give up. When he looked back, he saw that one of the bikers he passed was just behind him.

Isaac, the biker, yelled “That was my first time pedaling up that hill man!”. He shared that he had grown up close by and had been to this trail many times.

“Do you know what they call this hill?” – he asked. “Sh*t hill! I saw you were riding and thought I should give it a go too. Thanks for the motivation!”

Issac had always been able to climb the “sh*t hill”. He just never tried because none of his bike buddies did.

Ben shared that this incident reminded him of the Henry Ford quote – “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”


Fallibility, facts, and puzzles

In response to my note on human fallibility day before yesterday, I received this question – “So you’re saying you think people who are hesitant to take a vaccine are stupid?”

I’ll start by sharing my note back.

I think a big part of what makes us human is our propensity to gravitate toward stories that we want to believe in… and then to keep finding avenues to confirm these stories.

Our response to COVID-19 around the planet – starting from masks to vaccine hesitancy being just a new example – has been a constant reminder of our fallibility.

Fwiw – I’m no model of rationality. Very few humans are. I’ve made my own irrational mistakes through this process and exhibited my stupidity.

I’m just frequently amazed at the extent of the fallibility. Especially when I hear some of what’s going on in India re: the vaccines.

As I thought about this some more, I was reminded of two excellent recent resources.

The first was reading this article by researcher Zeynep Tufecki titled – “Facts are Pieces of the Puzzle, not the Puzzle itself.” If you haven’t heard of Zeynep Tufecki yet, her articles about the importance of wearing masks early into the COVID lockdown influenced eventual CDC guidelines and probably saved tens of thousands of lives.

In her article, she deconstructs reporting on vaccines and thoughtfully works through the actual implications of the data. She ends by making a powerful point – Going forward, it’s going to be important to examine such vaccine breakthroughs—failures and edge cases can be greatly illuminating. They should, of course, be reported on. People want to understand the details. But facts don’t just float around by themselves, they are pieces of a puzzle. The better we are at understanding that puzzle, and putting the pieces in their correct location, the closer we can be to seeing the broader picture of that puzzle.

The second is an excellent 5 minute video that Juan recommended. It is titled – “What wrapping a rope around the world reveals about the limits of human intuition.” It is a great watch – especially for anyone interested in psychology/behavioral economics.

Both of these illustrate how some of our cognitive biases get in the way of us understanding what is actually going on.

And, if you’ve spent enough time studying human behavior, you realize that there isn’t a solution. These biases make us fallible and, in many ways, stupid. That stupidity is how inbuilt – and helps us do other irrational stuff (like falling in love) that makes us human.

That doesn’t mean we can’t do better. But, it starts by accepting and embracing our fallibility.

Product problems and business goals

The most common derailer I’ve observed in product management interviews is when candidates start discussing a product problem by dissecting business goals. This derails the conversation 80% of the time.

Business goals matter – but only after we have conviction that there is a real user problem to be solved. Starting with business goals distracts from the process of problem finding.

This is just as relevant on the job.

Good specs start with problem statements. And, good problem statements start with user needs and validation that the need is real – typically either user frustration or creative hacks/workarounds – before they get to business value projections/guesses.

We’re better served when we think of the “P” in PM as “problem” vs. “product.”

Einstein on what is infinite

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” | Albert Einstein

There is no quote I’ve thought of more often in the past year in relation to our collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pithy and wise. Einstein, as always, was well ahead of his time.

To be human is to be fallible.

Perhaps becoming better at being human starts by accepting that.

(For the record, today’s reminders were an exchange about vaccine hesitancy in India as well as John Oliver’s segment on vaccines)

Levels of confidentiality

A good friend is explicit about the level of confidentiality of information that he shares. The three levels he uses are:

(1) Okay to share with close friends
(2) Okay to share with your wife
(3) Forget it as soon as you hear it :-)

While levels (2) and (3) typically elicit a smile, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom in this approach. It is far better than the generic “please don’t share” because we hear it deployed far too often with varying standards.

It helps to be specific about the confidentiality we expect.

And, when in doubt, it is good practice to ask.

Taste and hunger

We had a meal much later than we originally planned recently.

As I began gushing about how tasty the food was, my wife reminded me that the fare on the table was ordinary.

I was immediately reminded of an incident from a decade ago. We were in the midst of a trek in the Himalayas and had walked ~10 kilometers through steep terrain that day. As our group was slower than usual, lunch was delayed.

We eventually settled to eat in a small hut at the edge of a small army base. And, we were served… wait for it … boiled potatoes. There was some salt on a plate in case we wanted it. But, that’s about it.

It is hard to explain how tasty that meal was. Even after all these years, I vividly remember the happiness we all got from those boiled potatoes.

I’ve had many such meals since. That is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed intermittent fasting over the past year as well.

The hungrier we are, the tastier the food on the table.

In food and in life.