The darker the sky

“The darker the sky, the brighter the stars.”

I thought of this idea as I was mulling the importance of contrasts. We need to experience pain to understand joy, downs to appreciate ups, and losses to savor wins.

That, then, is the upside of challenging situations. They help us appreciate the stars around us – literally and metaphorically.

Satya on careers and leadership

Ryan, our CEO at LinkedIn, recently shared the highlights of an interview with Satya Nadella, his boss and CEO at Microsoft. Satya has architected one of the great corporate turnaround stories during his time as Microsoft’s leader.

There were 3 insights from the interview that resonated deeply with me –

On focusing on the job at hand – “There was never a time where I thought the job I was doing, all through my 30 years of Microsoft, that somehow I was doing that as a way to some other job. I felt the job I was doing there was the most important thing. I genuinely felt it.”

On preparing to become CEO without focusing on it as the end goal – “It’s not like the day before I was CEO somebody said, ‘You’re gonna be CEO.’ At some point things happen. You are the CEO and the question is, have you prepared all your life to be there, without having made that the goal?”

On three traits he sees in leaders – Leaders bring clarity to ambiguous situations, create energy, and can work with what’s in front of them to help un-constrain the team. In his words – “Leaders don’t wait for the perfect pitch or the perfect weather to perform, you gotta take the hand you’ve been dealt and with all the constraints.”

The two sentence summary

Stephen Covey, author of my all-time favorite book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” was asked how he’d summarize his book.

To this, he said – “You can summarize the first 3 habits with the expression “Make and keep a promise.” And you can pretty well summarize the next three habits with the expression “involve others in the problem and work out the solution together.”

I was struck less by the wisdom and simplicity of this synthesis. I think the book is far too deep for a simple 2 sentence summary. But I appreciated the availability of the two-sentence summary.

A good reminder to have this ready for all our projects.


New year, new version. :-) One of the fun side-effects of writing here for so long is that I can take occasional trips back in time to learn what I was thinking about on this day over the past decade (past birthday notes – 33, 32313029282726252423).

In 2012, I was spending a lot of time by myself as I was traveling for long stretches for work. I grew up a lot and learnt to accept (and maybe even appreciate) my quirks during that time. I’m grateful for it.

In 2013, I was beginning to appreciate that I control very little and make peace with the idea that the universe is unfolding as it should. That helped me realize that there’s no point getting too high or too low about events. I remember the failures and frustrations that inspired this vividly.

In 2014, I wrote about the challenges of living well everyday – consistency is hard. I also reflected on the importance of working hard to create memorable moments. It is an idea that I think about regularly even today.

In 2015, I experienced a growing sense of self-confidence – the reason I started writing this blog. It took 7 years. :-) I was also appreciating the importance of celebrating teams over individuals and realizing that I was slowly but surely learning to observe better.

2016’s reflection was all around Scott Peck’s wonderful description of love – “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” – and the realization that loving oneself or someone else means committing to our/their growth. They go together.

In 2017, I appreciated how challenging it is to be engaged and intentional while maintaining perspective and faith.

In 2018 and 2019, I reflected on principles and lessons learnt on relationships, decision making, productivity, money, and parenting. Many of these themes continue to play a big role in how I live my life. Happiness = reality over expectations. You never know if a good day is a good day, and so on.

2020’s reflection was about focus. 2021 was about appreciating the privilege I had accumulated. And 2022 took that further with notes on perspective and the responsibility to make it count.

The wonderful thing about looking back at these reflections is that I can draw a straight line through these dots and reflect on how I’ve changed over the past decade. Onto today then.

My wife wisely decided we’d celebrate by planting some seeds this morning. It got me thinking about the seeds I plan to plant in this year based on the lessons I’ve learnt in the past year. And the biggest themes on my mind from the last year are trade-offs, optimism, and doing small things with extraordinary care.

(1) Trade-offs: A few weeks ago, we were in the midst of an interesting conversation with our cross functional team. As I reflected on the feedback they shared for us/their leads, I realized that I wasn’t being explicit about the approach we were taking as a leadership team and the trade-offs associated with that approach.

For instance, we chose to be honest and direct. That came with a trade-off to political correctness.

We chose learning. That came with a trade-off with time spent in the comfort zone.

We chose agility. That came with a trade-off to stability.

I’ve come to believe there are no absolute right or wrong answers here. It is all depends on the context, people, and the stakes involved. We made the decisions that we thought were right for the team – but we didn’t do as good as a job being explicit about the trade-offs.

I think this is true in all our relationships too. We make decisions and expect the people we love to understand. But people are not mind readers and things work better when we’re explicit about the trade-offs.

(2) Relentless optimism: If you’re trying to do new and/or difficult things, you’re going to fail, hear “no,” spend most of your time biking uphill, and find yourself dealing with a consistent stream of obstacles.

I think there’s only one way out – relentless optimism.

The only thing that keeps you going when you’re in a perpetual shit show with the odds seemingly always stacked against you is the belief that it is all going to be worth it.

And that optimism doesn’t come easily. It requires us to have strength of character, a changeless core set of principles that helps us stay on the path we set for ourselves, and the kind of flexibility that only comes from a willingness to consistently choose discomfort.

But when it comes, the fascinating thing is that this optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Things get better because some relentlessly optimistic group of people believe it important to change things. They choose to tune out the noise around them and focus on the change they need to make.

That can be you or me. We can choose to change things. And if we make that choice, relentless optimism is our ally.

(3) Doing small things with extraordinary care: I think leadership is simply caring deeply about the people, processes, and results. Everything follows from that deep care. Caring more than everyone else. Sometimes irrationally so.

Leadership isn’t something that is reserved for “those people.” Every one of us plays a leadership role. The most leadership role we play is as leaders of our own selves. We set the vision for our lives and coach ourselves to get there. The next is as leaders of our families. And then our work and our communities.

And I think we learn to become the leaders that we were born to be when we habitually practice caring deeply. When we consistently “whole ass” things instead of “half-ass-ing” them. When we choose to do fewer things but do them well. When we play for the long term by planting seeds. When we invest in people around us instead of optimizing for some short-term gain. When we focus on learning and getting better so we can serve the people around us better. When we care. Deeply.

It is not an act, it is a habit.

So that’s my note to self this year – be explicit about trade-offs, choose to be relentlessly optimistic, and do small things with extraordinary care.

At the very edge of chaos

Many of life’s most memorable experiences teeter at the very edge of chaos.

It is the uncertainty created by that teetering that nudges – and in some cases forces – us throw out old scripts and write new ones. And the biggest challenges we face in such situations lies within – dealing with everything that we go through in our head.

The more we get in the habit of approaching things with openness, flexibility, and constructiveness, the more likely that we will regularly (but not always) emerge from the chaos with an experience where we transformed the situation while transforming ourselves.

Remembering the styrofoam cup

Trains of thoughts are wonderful things as they link various experiences together and often take us to unexpected places. One such train of thought led me to remember the story of the Styrofoam cup.

I heard a story about a former Under Secretary of Defense who gave a speech at a large conference. He took his place on the stage and began talking, sharing his prepared remarks with the audience. He paused to take a sip of coffee from the Styrofoam cup he’d brought on stage with him. He took another sip, looked down at the cup and smiled.

“You know,” he said, interrupting his own speech, “I spoke here last year. I presented at this same conference on this same stage. But last year, I was still an Under Secretary,” he said.

“I flew here in business class and when I landed, there was someone waiting for me at the airport to take me to my hotel. Upon arriving at my hotel,” he continued, “there was someone else waiting for me. They had already checked me into the hotel, so they handed me my key and escorted me up to my room. The next morning, when I came down, again there was someone waiting for me in the lobby to drive me to this same venue that we are in today. I was taken through a back entrance, shown to the greenroom and handed a cup of coffee in a beautiful ceramic cup.”

“But this year, as I stand here to speak to you, I am no longer the Under Secretary,” he continued. “I flew here coach class and when I arrived at the airport yesterday there was no one there to meet me. I took a taxi to the hotel, and when I got there, I checked myself in and went by myself to my room. This morning, I came down to the lobby and caught another taxi to come here. I came in the front door and found my way backstage. Once there, I asked one of the techs if there was any coffee. He pointed to a coffee machine on a table against the wall. So I walked over and poured myself a cup of coffee into this here Styrofoam cup,” he said as he raised the cup to show the audience.

“It occurs to me,” he continued, “the ceramic cup they gave me last year . . . it was never meant for me at all. It was meant for the position I held. I deserve a Styrofoam cup.”

“This is the most important lesson I can impart to all of you,” he offered.

“All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which eventually you will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you. Because you only ever deserved a Styrofoam cup.”

This story is powerful because it is a beautiful and poignant reminder of the fleeting and illusory nature of status, power, or influence of any kind in this life.

The world doesn’t owe us anything. We only ever deserved a Styrofoam cup, if that.

Everything else is upside.

Paid not to understand

“It is impossible to get someone to understand something they’re paid not to understand.”

I was reminded of the power of incentives in a conversation recently.

And as easy as it is to point to an example that involves someone else, the truth is that I have 2 recent examples where I was guilty of not being open to ideas which were counter to my incentives.

Shape incentives, and you shape behavior.

Planning travel with ChatGPT

I’ve been planning some travel for the summer. This would normally involve a bunch of time spent on search engines attempting to come up with possible first draft itineraries.

This time around, it was replaced entirely by time spent on ChatGPT. 30 or so questions later, I had a good idea of what I wanted to do. This replaced hours of time spent reading various travel blogs.

I don’t yet know if conversational search will replace every existing search use case. But it is clear it is a great research tool – especially in cases like this where you don’t have to worry about its propensity to make up facts.

Someone described ChatGPT as a great replacement for an intern. It is a neat way of thinking about its value prop – thanks to its ability to provide a first cut synthesis of a ton of information.