v30 – Release notes

For this year’s release notes, I thought I’d do a version of 30 hard won lessons from the past 30 years. This post could just as easily been called a list of things I write about most often on this blog or an extensive list of my notes to self.

1. Success has an intrinsic component (success by our terms) and an extrinsic component (success by the world’s terms). Extrinsic success is a function of us giving the world what it wants. Build a product the world wants and you’ll make more money than can be imagined. Build a product for a niche and you’ll be successful. Do things your customers and managers want and you’ll rise up the ladder.

But, extrinsic success is a hygiene factor. Once you have a threshold amount, it begins to matter less. Intrinsic success, the kind where we believe that we have lived a life well lived, on the other hand, is incredibly hard. It might be possible to fool the world, but it turns out to be impossible to fool the person in the mirror.

2. Money and power amplify what already exists in people. We need less than we think and it doesn’t have the power to make us happy. Some of the most extrinsically successful people are also among the unhappiest. Don’t let the media oversell you on their lives.

Related – it is always worth remembering that the greatest pleasures in life come cheap – the rush of adrenaline after play, a hug, a peaceful shit in a clean bathroom, and a night of sleep in a comfortable and quiet bedroom.

3. We can’t ask people to be grateful or to be humble or to keep a sense of humor. All we can do is help them understand reality. When they (or we) do, gratitude, humility, and a sense of humor follows

4. Emotional intelligence is ignoring what people say and watching what they do.

5. Our networks are proportional to our net worth. There are two kinds of net worth – the first is the kind that is dependent on the presence of power and money. The second is based on the character and connection we accumulate over the course of a life time. One of them is deep and the other is shallow – it turns you can’t buy friends. Or love. The most powerful networks combine both.

6. Integrity comes from the word “integer” which means whole. When we make and keep commitments, we become whole. It is hard. It is is also why our schedule is the truest reflection of our priorities.

7. Happiness is a state. Joy is a feeling. It is possible to feel sad and be happy. Our default state simply reduces the amplitude of our ups and downs and enables us to pay attention to the things that matter most in spite of all the noise. That we use the term “pay” to describe our attention is no accident.

8. Our rate of learning is proportional to what we learn from the people we spend time with (“we are the average of the five people we spend time with”), from reflecting on our own experiences, and from reading/listening to synthesized information. It is not true that we learn more from failure or only from doing. The wisest people simply make it a point to learn from all experience with habitual reflection, analysis, and synthesis.

9. Read books that are just in time instead of just in case. Somewhere along the way, we’ll find a book that changes our life. And, while we’re at it, remember that there is no difference between someone who doesn’t read and someone who can’t.

10. Compound interest is an important principle. Wealth compounds. Learning compounds too. And, as you might imagine, understanding both of these early pays dividends later. :-)

11. Productivity is Focus x intensity x time. Focus = do the right things so you can be effective, intensity = pay attention when you are doing it so you can be efficient.

Similar to compound interest, this relationship between effectiveness and efficiency shows up in many part of our life – focus and intensity, leadership and management. Doing the right things >>> doing things right.

12. Macro patience – micro speed is another principles that shows up in different places. Strategic patience – tactical impatience is a variant too. The idea is simple in theory – set directional goals, focus on process, and be patient. Of course, it is bloody hard to execute. People who focus beyond the next 6 months are the exception, not the rule.

13. Since we’re talking about important principles, the scientific method is one that needs a lot more love because of its wide-ranging applicability. The life implication – treat life as a series of experiments that will each help us gain experience and improve our judgement. As the saying goes, success comes from good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

14. Consciousness is the ability to be aware and then to choose. Becoming aware of the actual games being played around us, the real stakes, and the stories we are told go a long way in helping us be effective. To play chess well, we have to have a view of the 64 squares.. Not the 4 around us. It helps to take the time to get  both curious and smarter about what is actually going on. You can choose to not play the game – but, understand what the games are.

15. Our success, on average, is largely a function of privilege. The biggest drivers of whatever success we have is typically a result of where we were born and who we were born to (includes what we inherited as well as the love and care we received). Since we can’t change who we were born to, if we want to improve our standing in the world, moving zip codes is the most reliable way to move up the privilege ladder. And, education is the most reliable driver of such movement.

16. The effectiveness of a team is a function of two things – the individuals and the culture. Culture, or the collection of unsaid norms, is strategy in the long run. The best way to set culture is to do so intentionally. And, the best way to do so intentionally is to build the kind of trust that enables honest conversations about it.

Trust, contrary to belief, doesn’t need to take years to develop. It follows knowledge and understanding. Invest in getting to know your team well. That knowledge will lead to understanding why they tick and why they do what they do. Trust follows.

17. The best educators and education do two things – they give us new perspective with which to view the world and inspire us to continue learning for the rest of our life.

18. Adopting a focus on learning/growth mindset is the most important thing we can do – both for our success and happiness. The act of writing about the lessons we learn everyday is the most reliable way I know to cultivate that mindset.

19. Love is the will to extend ourselves for one’s own or another’s growth. Put differently, love means willingly stretching ourselves to grow and enabling those around us to grow. That’s why “be yourself” is bad advice. “Become yourself” is better. Becoming > Being.

20. Take the time to get to know yourself – understand your motives, what you care about, and what your nature is. There is massive benefit to working on things that feel like play to you. You actually give yourself a shot at being the best in the world at it. The best are the best because they’re doing things that feel like play.

21. That said, don’t follow your passion. Just don’t ignore it either. Unless you have a lot of financial runway (see above on privilege), study well in courses that lead you to jobs where you get paid well. Then, keep experimenting toward work that aligns with your nature/passion and purpose. Passion + purpose is a powerful combination.

22. We have two versions of us – our emotional self and our rational self – with the relationship between them being that of an elephant and rider. The rider knows the way but the elephant is way more powerful. So, attempting to persuade ourselves (and others) has to focus on the elephant. Logic drives conclusions, emotions drive action.

23. If we really zoom out, we realize that everything we’ve created is invented. We’ve invented notions like corporations and offices to keep ourselves busy, give ourselves a sense of purpose, find ways to distribute resources, and make it seem fair. These are games we play to get wealth and status. It helps to keep these games in perspective.

24. Our brand is a function of everything we do. The best way to build our brand in the long term is to show up well and do good things that impact others around us in positive ways.

25. Age and wisdom are not correlated. The truly wise have the perspective to rise above the noise of life and continuously focus on what matters. They are the equivalent of life’s athletes as they’ve figured out how to live it well. The best way to spot wisdom is to look at a person’s track record of decisions. And, the best shortcut to wisdom is to simply surround yourself by such folks.

26. From an evolutionary perspective, it is amazing how much of human behavior is driven by our urge to find better mates and have better sex.

27. The list of people who will put their life on hold for extended periods of time when you are in trouble typically begins and ends with our parents, spouse, and, depending on how we do, our kids.

That’s also why marriage, parenting, and the relationship with our parents are three of life’s most challenging learning journeys. They exist for two purposes – to teach us to become better version of ourselves and to remind us that all we have is each other.

28. Airlines tell us to use the oxygen mask for ourselves before doing so for others. For good reason. Take good care of yourself – it is impossible to take care of others otherwise. Consider starting with sleep. Quality sleep makes days look better.

29. Most long term studies on happiness point to one lesson – intrinsic happiness = relationships. We have relationships that stay for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Many incredibly special relationships last only for a reason or a season. A big part of growing up is seeing them for what they are and letting them go when it is time.

30. Much of our day to day happiness is reality over expectations. Work as hard on that denominator as you do on the numerator.

Birthday bonus 1. Worry and regret are both toxic and useless. You can’t do anything about the future. And, you did the best with what you knew and had. Now that you know better, do better.

Birthday bonus 2. Life is not a race. We share paths with people. But, we are mostly in it on our own. The only worthwhile comparison is us now versus us before now.

Birthday bonus 3. It is better to be thoughtful than smart.

And, a final birthday bonus. The days are long – but, the years are short. And, post kids, the days somehow get much longer and the years get correspondingly shorter. :-)

(Past birthday notes: 29, 282726252423)

Solution space to Problem space

The common approach to solving problems is to get a team together, brainstorm, and agree on a prioritized approach to get to the solution. Spending time in solution space can be both fun and energizing. This is what we were trained to do as kids in school after all – solve problems.

But, as I look back at the many occasions in which the solution space failed to yield a solution that worked. I realize that it wasn’t because of the intelligence of the team or the effectiveness of time spent in the solution space. It was because of a poorly defined problem.

While good problem solving is undoubtedly important, we get the opportunity to make disproportionate contributions when we hold back these natural impulses to jump to the solution space and, instead, take the time to define the question.

Problem space >>> Solution space.

2 million points and counting

I recently met someone who collects points as a hobby. He mentioned he currently has more than 2 million points – enough for fully funded airfare and hotel stays for more vacations than he has time for.

But, that doesn’t stop him from collecting points. He does it because it feels like play. The process is far more interesting than the outcome.

This exchange reminded me of the power of combining passion and purpose. Passion asks “what has the world got to offer that fits my interests?” while purpose asks “what have I got to offer the world that has value?”

We’ve seen a lot of good rebuttals to the “follow your passion” advice over the past few years. The central theme is that we don’t often know what our passion is. Instead, we’re better off focusing on purposefully getting good at something that has value as passion often follows expertise.

While it is the pragmatic approach and one that at least ensures we’re not waiting around for the universe to reveal our passion, it has its downsides too. For example, if collecting points was a lucrative profession, I could become an expert at it. But, the process will never feel like play.

Ergo the power of combining passion and purpose.

It is magical when we’re able to get good at something we care deeply about. For most of us, that may mean a long and winding road to understand what this is and a lot of trouble to eventually get there – but, the juice tends to be worth the squeeze.

That root cause

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve analyzed people/relationship problems only to realize that the root cause is misaligned or unstated expectations.

It is amazing how many potential problems – in relationships at home, at work, and even that all important one with ourselves – can be nipped in the bud by the act of proactively understanding and then setting expectations.

The new year is a great time for revisiting, resetting, and realigning many of these expectations. Here’s to that.

Behaviors in permanent shortage

In practically every organization around the world, there is a permanent shortage of 3 behaviors – great attitude, constructive dialog, and consistent follow up. We are yet to find a CEO or talent leader who claims to have enough of these.

As we think about how we can level up in the next year, it is worth pondering how we might incorporate these behaviors into our day-to-day. Specifically, the questions we might ask would be –

What would it take for me to show up with a world class attitude every day? It might be some combination of enough sleep, healthy body, good relationships, etc.

What would it take for me to master constructive dialog? It might be mastering “Nonviolent Communication.”

What would it take for me to follow up consistently? It might mean designing a better productivity system or the presence of a daily commitment that gives us confidence in our ability to follow up.

The path to standing out may never be clearer.

Knowing thyself – the foundation of long term career progress (feat. user manuals)

We kicked this series off with a look at the 4 core skills of an individual contributor Product Manager – problem finding, problem solving, selling, and building effective teams. Then, we defined what a product manager doesa product manager brings a team of cross functional stakeholders together to build a product that is valuable, usable, feasible. Today, we’ll dive into that small matter of career progression and explore the foundation of long term career progress – knowing thyself.

Khe Hy, a blogger at “RadReads,” had a useful illustration on a general career arc.

As Khe’s illustration demonstrates, there’s a lot to be gained from exploration early in the career as it helps us figure out what we’d like to be good at. Then, we invest in becoming specialists. And, finally, if we’re interested and able, we get to zoom out again as executives who oversee multiple specialist areas.

While these ideas translate well for product manager careers, my version of the the career arc for product managers would look something like this.

Individual contributor/IC PMs start with a focus on narrow features and small products. Over time, they take on larger products and product areas. Larger product areas are typically led by people managers (“Group”) or senior ICs (“Principal,” “Staff”). And, product executive teams typically oversee entire marketplaces and ecosystems.

Now, if we were to visualize this career trajectory as a building, the foundation would be self awareness. The deeper the foundation, the sturdier the building.

While this holds for careers across industries and roles, it is very pertinent to any role building technology products. Building a technology product takes a village – with team members across functions coming together to ship a finished product. Given the critical nature of teams and people in this process, emotional intelligence is a key asset. And, self-awareness/knowing ourselves is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence.

(Note: There is the alternative approach to building product teams which we can call the Steve Jobs v1.0 approach. This involves “my way is the highway” + some reality distortion + hopefully backed by once-in-a-generation product intuition. This post is for the rest of us.)

What is self-awareness and how can I get more of it?

There are two kinds of self-awareness –

i) Internal: This represents how clearly we see our own motives, values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions, and impact on others.

ii) External: This represents our understanding of how others view us.

My observation is that external self awareness is crucial for career progression while internal self awareness is correlated with career fulfillment and happiness.

The challenge with both kinds of self-awareness is figuring out how to get more of it. Approaching this topic can feel very daunting. Ergo, my favorite tool to make this process easier – a “user manual.”

How do I creating my own User Manual?

Step 1 – Create a first draft user manual: Block out 60 minutes of your calendar next week and take a crack at a 1 pager that has some or all of the following –

1) Getting responses and work done: E.g. share your preferred work hours, preferred communication channels, and best times to schedule meetings.

2) My style: 3-4 must know characteristics about your working style

3) What I don’t have patience for: Focus on specific behaviors that drive you nuts.

4) How to best communicate with me: Share how you prefer to consume information – e.g. some prefer written memos or sketching on a whiteboard while others prefer verbal pow wows.

5) What people misunderstand about me: These typically involve flip sides of your signature strengths.

6) Things I’m trying to get better at: 2-3 improvement areas you are focused on.

7) Random Quirks: Something fun. :)

Step 2 Share with close teammates for feedback: Share with a few folks (/work friends) who know you well and see if this one pager accurately represents you.

Writing the first draft involved drawing on both your internal and external self-awareness. While very few can help you better articulate what you care about, feedback from close colleagues can help give you a measure of your external self-awareness.

Step 3 – Set up 30 mins to review with yourself every month: The power of the first draft of the user manual is that it marks the beginning of the journey. We never “achieve” self-awareness. We just get on the train with our first draft user manual.

As you spend more time with it, you will find yourself tweaking the user manual after every review and crystallizing your random thoughts (at least at first) into themes. For example, I ended up synthesizing the 3 aspects of my personal culture (hungry, thoughtful, learning focused) as I iterated on sharing “my style” as part of this process.

As a bonus step, you might even want to consider reviewing your user manuals jointly as a team. We did this on one of our cross functional teams recently and it turned out to be a very powerful team building exercise.

Conclusion: While short term career progress tends to be a function of good on-the-job skills, long term career (think: decades) progress tends to be correlated to our self awareness. The beauty about self awareness is that it is a skill that is foundational to better relationships – which has implications well beyond our time at the office. And, I’m a fan of using user manuals to aide the development of the skill.

If you find yourself stuck with creating that user manual and would like to see an example, please feel free to check out the Quartz article below for further reading. I’ll also be happy to share mine if that might help – please feel free to send me a note on rohan at rohanrajiv dot com.

Further reading:

i) Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and executive coach, assembled a team to share her findings on both kinds of self-awareness. If you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend reading it here (you can also see my 5 point synthesis here).

ii) This Quartz article on user manuals is a helpful starting point.

iii) If you are curious about more resources to figure out your motives and values – here are a couple of posts (motives, values and mission statement) that might help.

MVR

I love asking folks who’ve done well in their careers for their “standard” career advice. It is always fascinating to hear about the principles they believe matter most in career success. I heard a piece of advice recently I call MVR (similar to MVP) – Most Valuable Report.

This piece of career advice was – “Develop an understanding of what your manager is evaluated on, what she/he most needs help on, and become their most valuable direct report.”

I loved this piece of advice as I thought it was both practical (versus, say, “follow your passion”) and powerful in its implications. Everyone has managers – if you don’t report to anyone, you likely have to deal with a board, shareholders, or powerful customers.

Managing that relationship well is among the highest value things we do