Past and ego, future and pride

Milwaukee Buck’s star Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked about how he keeps his ego in check despite his many accomplishments at age 26. Here’s an excerpt from his answer:

“When you focus on the past, that’s your ego: ‘I did this. We were able to beat this team 4-0. I did this in the past. I won that in the past.’

When I focus on the future, it’s my pride: ‘Yeah, next game, Game 5, I do this and this and this. I’m going to dominate.’ That’s your pride talking. It doesn’t happen. You’re right here.

I kind of try to focus on the moment, in the present. That’s humility. That’s being humble. That’s not setting no expectation. That’s going out there, enjoying the game, competing at a high level. I think I’ve had people throughout my life that helped me with that. But that is a skill that I’ve tried to, like, kind of — how do you say it, perfect it, master it. And it’s been working so far. So I’m not going to stop.”

A focus on the past is ego, a focus on the future is pride, and a focus on the present is humility.


The Post Office feedback survey

Every few months, I visit the nearby USPS post office to mail something. When I do, I often have a good experience. Each time, the person behind the counter requests me to scan the QR code and leave feedback.

I assume they’re incentivized for this and get the process started.

Each time – I think my recent attempt was the third – I drop off when I see a 6 or 7 step survey.

My behavior fits Einstein’s definition of insanity – trying the same thing again and expecting different results. But, some combination of hope and memory loss (given the time intervals between visits) compels me to try.

The lesson – keep feedback surveys short. They’ll actually get done that way.

Learning to sell as a product manager

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

A quick overview of what we’ve covered on “Notes on Product Management” so far – 

Before starting this series, I spent a bit of time thinking about how I should articulate the core skills required to be a strong IC/individual contributor product manager. I had 3 criteria –

  1. Clear/mutually exclusive: I wanted skills that would stand on their own and, for the sake of this series, wanted to avoid umbrella words that spoke to multiple sub-skills (e.g. empathy)
  2. Memorable: This implied committing to no more than 3 or 4 skills to ensure they’re easy to remember
  3. Actionable: This meant choosing “problem finding” vs. “product sense” because of the action it implies.

Soon, problem findingproblem solvingbuilding effective teams felt right and were locked in. But, I debated whether to call the final skill influencing or selling.

I chose selling because it felt a bit uncomfortable. I wanted to reach into that discomfort and spend time there. In the first post on selling, we framed the persuasion process as a combination of Direct Marketing (content led) and Sales (human touch led) – surrounded by Brand marketing (the friction in the process is inversely proportional to our brand/reputation).

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The next post focused on our biggest direct marketing lever – writing. Many subsequent posts have either focused or touched on writing – e.g. the ones on product specs and product strategy.  

Today’s post will be focused on the other side – sales.

Why does the word “selling” make us uncomfortable?

I think there are many reasons. When we think of sales, many of us visualize pushy sales people who try to get us to buy something we don’t want. For some of us, it may even bring back memories of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross unleashing a torrent of verbal abuse on 4 salesmen while emphasizing the ABC of Sales – “Always Be Closing.”

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No wonder sales feel uncomfortable.

To Sell is Human and the new ABCs of Selling

I felt similarly until I read Dan Pink’s book – “To Sell is Human.” Dan’s book transformed my perspective. He reframed selling by pointing to a simple idea – if you need to influence people as part of your job, you are in sales. 

He also reframed the ABCs of selling. Two decades ago, the internet didn’t exist. This meant there was large information asymmetry between buyers and sellers. And, as online ratings/reviews didn’t exist, selling felt like a series of one-time transactions. Both of those aren’t true today. We walk into a car dealership with as much information as our dealer. And, the dealer cares about that Yelp review we leave. 

That then brings us to the new ABC’s of selling – AttunementBuoyancy, and Clarity. For the rest of the post, I’m going to translate how I think we can use the new ABC’s to reflect on and improve our sales skills in our role as Product Managers. 

If you haven’t read the book, I’d recommend it. Here’s a quick visual summary in case that helps – hat tip – Jenny Trautman.

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(1) Attunement:

Key question: Are we building trust in our relationships by seeking to understand?

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Attunement is all about empathizing with others. Our ability to be attuned to a person follows from our willingness to get to know and understand them. The biggest implication is the importance of taking the time to get to know our partners. My approach to this has been to aim to start every relationship with an introductory 1:1 before jumping into ask/work.

Knowing the story of that cross-functional partner helps us understand them as we begin working with them. That understanding leads to trust in most cases (in other cases, it leads to mistrust – either way, it is important to know where we stand. :-)). That trust, in turn, helps us prioritize uncomfortable conversations and to be comfortable when we disagree. Uncomfortable conversations and disagreements are pre-requisites to progress.

Outside of cross-functional partners, the previous post on building relationships with Product Executives attempts to provide more structure on building empathy with our product leaders.

(2) Buoyancy

Key question: Do people walk away with more positive energy after spending time with us? 

Implications for us: In every interaction, we exude one of 4 behaviors. We are either –

  • Condescending – expressing superiority
  • Critical – showcasing disapproval or criticism
  • Constructive – building off existing ideas to make them better
  • Proactive – moving things forward and making them happen

Each of these impact everyone’s energy differently depending on where they are in the process. In general though, the impact looks like this.

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The ability to show up with positive energy regardless of the way the winds are blowing is critical to our ability to influence the people we work with. So, learning to be consistently constructive or proactive makes a huge difference to our ability to influence others. 

It is important to call out that these are behaviors and not character traits. They become traits only when we consistently show up in one way. So, it is in our interest to choose and reflect periodically on whether we’re showing up as we intend. It won’t always work. Despite our best intentions, our intentions will occasionally be misinterpreted – especially when we meet with people who don’t know us. The goal is to keep increasing our ratio of hits to misses.

 The interesting thing about these emotions is that they’re as applicable to others as they are to us. For example –

  • How do we feel when we spend time with ourselves?
  • Are we critical every time we think of a new idea or are we constructive and solution focused?
  • How does this change when we’re going through a difficult time?

That, then, is the true test of our buoyancy – how we feel after we spend time about ourselves. The more we walk away feeling positive after spending time with ourselves, the more likely others will feel the same. 

(3) Clarity

Key question: Do we transform situations from ambiguity and chaos to clarity?

Attunement is about empathizing with our audience. This audience may be internal (our organization) or external (our users/customers). Buoyancy ensures we show up positively. Clarity, however, is the clincher – the key pre-requisite to closing the sale.

Everyone is dealing with more information and ambiguity than they know what to do with. So, the ability to consistently step into ambiguity and transform it into clarity is a core skill.

Transforming ambiguity to clarity is a 2 step process –

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  1. Frame: A complex set of information needs an organizing structure or framework. The best ways to learn how to frame is to spend time with people who are structured and read books or articles by people who are good at what they do. The ability to simplify complex information is a sign of skill. This post, for example, is an ode to Dan Pink’s ability to reframe sales as attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. The other way to teach ourselves to frame is to constantly ask – if I had to boil this topic down into no more than 3 things, what would I say?
  2. Decide to simplify: Once you structure information, the next step is to decide what matters. The word decide comes from the Latin word “decidere” which means “to cut off.” The purpose of making a decision is to cut off options. So, when we decide what matters, we automatically simplify.

Attunement, buoyancy, and clarity, are each powerful in their own right. Attunement or empathy, for instance, is just as important in our ability to be good problem finders or problem solvers or even team builders as it is in our ability to sell. Buoyancy and clarity matter across the board too. 

But, when we’re able to bring these three together consistently, we step-change our ability to sell. While sales is important to our jobs as individual contributor PMs, it becomes more important as we evolve our role from individual contributors to leading teams of product managers.  

The good news is that selling is a skill. It is a muscle we all can get better at if we work on attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. 

And, the good news – channeling Dan Pink – is that to sell is human.

Lessons learned from feeling stupid

For a period in my life, I spent a lot of time in close proximity with folks who generally left me feeling… stupid.

Maya Angelou once said that people don’t remember what you say or do but remember how you made them feel. As I think back to that time, I do remember many of the things that were said and done. But, I have incredibly vivid memories of how I felt.

The interesting thing about that time is that the more I felt stupid, the more likely I was to make stupid mistakes. And I did make more than a few. It was a self-perpetuating cycle.

I learned three lessons from those times.

First, I learnt to pay close attention to how I felt after I experienced people or things. There are times when some experiences don’t feel right. And, when it doesn’t, I ignore any and all attempts at logical thought and stay away. Feelings – especially those that originate in our gut – matter.

Second, I learnt to value people who appreciate what’s good about me over my flaws. Their feedback consistently focused on helping me improve my strengths while ensuring my flaws didn’t get in the way. It was generally constructive. In my experience, that is the most useful kind of feedback.

That is not to say critical people aren’t helpful or caring. In many cases, they might be one or both of those. That said, every once a while, these relationships just end up perpetuating a bully-victim cycle. In some cases, these critics inspire tremendous wealth/power/fame by virtue of ensuring we operate with a consistent sense of insecurity and a chip on our shoulder that never goes away.

That may be an acceptable trade-off for some. But, it isn’t for me.

Third, as a result of paying attention to feelings and valuing constructive, I have gravitated to environments where people I respect operate intensely to make a positive impact on the world – in the presence of safety and belonging.

That safety and belonging, in turn, inspires the kind of confidence that enables us to operate from a place of wholeness instead of our wounds. And, in places where people operate from wholeness, people leave feeling better about themselves than before more often than not.

They may (and likely will) often be faced with the realization that they have a lot to learn. They may not want to do so and might decide to leave.

But, they’ll never be made to feel consistently stupid.

And, that’s an outcome that matters a lot to me.

Executive communication – meetings, speaking, and writing

In conversations about executive communication, being invited to and then getting air/speaking time in meetings is consistently overrated.

And, on the flip side, writing insightful documents/updates and being responsive + concise over email is consistently underrated.

Talking provides more instant gratification than writing. But, often with significantly lesser long term impact. :-)

I’m not as…

It’s easy to get caught up in self-talk along the lines of – “I’m not as smart/articulate/strategic/insert-your-favorite-aspirational-word as <insert benchmark>.”

This post isn’t about avoiding comparisons however.

If you can, you should definitely do so.

It just isn’t easy.

Another approach to tackling this problem is to just habitually add a line every time we hear ourselves saying so. In this version, we’d say – “I’m not as brilliant as person X. But, I’m me. And I’m enough.”

That turns out to be true 100% of the time.

Stoic notes – part II

In Stoic notes – part I, I shared 3 themes and accompanying reflections from my experience reading stoic philosophy.

I took another pass at synthesizing it recently. My hope was to bring the longer set of notes down to a list of 3-5 notes I could read at the start of every day. Below is that list.

1. Think about 3 amazing things you have that you will sorely miss. Remember the awesome power of luck in your life and don’t underestimate its ability to take what it has given. 

Then, give thanks for the riches you have – the riches that come from having enough.

2. Don’t chase fame or wealth. Both are fickle and move us further away from tranquility. Focus instead on virtues that matter to you and the game you are playing. Success – as you define it – ensues. 

3. Focus on what you control – keep laser focused on direction and process over short-term outcomes. Macro patience, micro speed.

4. Welcome minor discomforts – cold, hunger, and the pain that comes from stretching mentally or physically. Reach for those discomforts everyday by spending time in depth, exercising, reading, listening, and eating right.

5. You never know if a good day is a good day. It’s never as good or bad as it seems. The universe is unfolding as it should and we’re existential specks anyway. So, keep a sense of humor and keep plugging away.

To me, these get to the heart of stoicism – the ability to remove negative responses while enjoying the positive. I’m hopeful the act of recommitting to them every day will help me get better at living them.

In time.

Stoic notes – part I

In the first 3 months of the year, I read 3.5 books on stoic philosophy. After “A Guide to the Good Life” by William Irvine (Stoicism 101), I made my way through Seneca’s “Letter from a Stoic” and Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.” I read about half of Epictetus’ “Enchiridon” before stopping – it didn’t work for me.

As I was reading these books, I wrote down a series of reflections. On some occasions, they were directly from the books. On others, the books reminded me of a note from elsewhere (often from Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits”).

I then synthesized it into 3 themes that represented what stoicism stood for in my mind.

I. Let perspective and joy flow from hyper gratitude
The poor person isn’t the one who has little. It is the one who craves the most.
Spend no time today contemplating what you don’t have. Think instead of the amazing things you do have.. and imagine how bad it might be if those were taken away.

Remember that we’re living a life that our ancestors could only dream of.. and that you dreamt of. There’s magic around us!

Cities and civilizations take years to build and moments to fall. Fortune and nature have their way in the end. Remember the awesome power of luck in your life and don’t underestimate its ability to take what it has given.

“When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tombs of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind.”

Let molehills be molehills. If it isn’t going to matter in 5 years, don’t let it take much of your attention.

What if we died today? How would that change how we did the small things?

Celebrate the life of those who’ve passed. Don’t let that take away focus from those around you.

II. With perspective, replace negative emotions with grace

Blame is pointless.

Keep a sense of humor – especially when you feel you are insulted or offended or provoked.

Keep counsel in silence when you are angry. Don’t fight fire with fire. Remember the fire department only uses water.

To be able to bear a perceived misfortune is good fortune. Our misfortunes aren’t worth dwelling on. The world will move on without us. Time will move on…

Wish for events to unfold as they’re unfolding – and not as you desire it. And you’ll never feel you don’t have enough. :)

What counts is not the fall. It is the bounce back.

III. Focus on the process by playing the infinite game

Focus on what you control – keep laser focused on process over outcomes.

Macro patience, micro speed. Today matters.

Let our velocity show in the conversations we say yes to and the comments we choose to make. Let it not show in our hurry to get a word in.

Be a light, not a judge. Let your actions speak. We are what we do.

Do not fear mistakes. Fear only the absence of a creative, constructive, and corrective response.

Welcome minor discomforts – cold, hunger, and the pain that comes from stretching mentally or physically.

Spend time with people who help you learn and provide you positive energy.

Treat everyone how you’d treat your bosses.

Spend time in depth. Instead of reaching for a feed, reach for a book.

Meditate/reflect about the day at the end of the day. Think about whether you lived as you intended and about what you learnt.

You never know if a good day is a good day. It’s never as good or bad as it seems. The universe is unfolding as it should.

Don’t chase fame or wealth. Both are fickle and move us further away from tranquility. Focus instead on virtues that matter to you and the game you are playing. Success – as you define it – ensues.

For a few weeks, I read all these notes every morning as a daily reminder. But, this list turned out to be too long. So, I sought to synthesize all of this into 3-5 notes that I could could read and commit to everyday.

I will follow up with that list in tomorrow’s post.

Silenzio Bruno

There’s a scene in Pixar’s most recent movie – Luca – where Luca’s best friend attempts to convince him to take a leap of faith.

See the source image

Alberto – the friend – explains to Luca that he’s got a “Bruno” in his head. Bruno is that nagging voice that tells him he can’t do it.

So, he asks Luca to scream “Silenzio Bruno.” (Shut up, Bruno!)

A few Silenzio Bruno’s later, Luca musters enough confidence to take the leap.

It is a fun scene and one that led to a conversation with our kids about taking action despite our fears. We agreed to try Silenzio Bruno the next time we’re faced with a scary slide, for example.

I look forward to trying it out as well and doing a better job of “firing the crow.”