The tension between who you are and who you want to be

One of the fascinating tensions I observe with in myself is the tension between who I am and who I want to be. I spent between 2011-2013 largely pushing to understand myself – this meant reading as much as I could on psychology, the brain, happiness, behavior and understanding personality types via books like Gifts Differing by Isabel Briggs Myers. On the other side of this effort, I feel l understand who I am and what drives me a lot better than I used to. The benefit of this is in my slightly improved ability to understand which self improvement projects are a waste of time.

I have observed that the tension between who we are and who we want to be is one of the most difficult challenges we face in our lifetime. We aren’t fit vs. we want to be fit, we don’t read vs. we want to be the sort of person who reads a lot, we don’t spend time with our family vs. we want to be “family” people, etc. We’re constantly faced with this tension.

There are 3 lessons that have stuck with me (in case you are wondering why I always do 3, it is not because there are 3. There are many more than 3 – I just do my best to boil it down to the 3 most important lessons.) –

1. Your greatest strengths are also your biggest weaknesses. If you are a great thinker, it is likely you think too much. If you are a great doer, it is likely you do too much. You can’t look at weaknesses in isolation. In cases like this, I find it best to think about it as a balancing act. You won’t ever fully conquer that demon but, with enough self awareness, you can keep it at bay. So, as you get started, pick your self improvement projects carefully.

2. Understand why you want to change. Are you changing for yourself or because you want to be liked/popular? Changing for someone else is futile. At the end of the day, this tension is between you and the person who looks back at you in the mirror. If the two of you don’t feel it is worth it, it is not going to happen. That doesn’t mean you can’t change something about yourself to become more likable. You’ve just got to believe in it yourself.

3. Change projects are best taken up one-at-a-time over long periods. The biggest reason self improvement projects fail is because they’re taken up wholesale after an “aha” moment (usually new year’s day). There is NO way you can create sustainable change in one shot. It is a gradual process and you have to keep that perspective and be patient with yourself.

This isn’t a 3 day battle, it is a lifelong war. That said, it is definitely a war worth fighting consistently and well.

Are you failing enough? – MBA Learnings

I thought about this morning’s post a few times. I had a learning in queue that I had been thinking about from our Microeconomics class this week. But, I decided to shelve that this week and write about something that is top of mind – failure. That also leads me to the other related thought – when I’d first thought of the “MBA Learnings” series, it wasn’t just to share learnings from class. It was also to really touch upon life in business school and share my thought process as I approached it.

One of the questions I ask myself from time to time is – am I failing enough? I ask myself this question for a few reasons. First, it is because I think there is a strong connection between failure and learning. I have come to realize that the biggest by-product of success is self confidence. Yes, if you are smart, you will sit down and discuss what went well. And, yes, you will learn a lot from it. But, when you fail, you don’t have anything else to hold onto except learning. That’s powerful. Second, it is because failure helps guard against complacency. There is no mechanism that makes you eat humble pie as much as failure. I think that’s incredibly important because humility is what keeps us in touch with reality. And, it is people who really understand reality that are able to drive change and do something with it.

I received a few texts from a friend last night that I saw as I woke up. He shared that a project he’d been working on had failed. He said – “I couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it.” I could feel his disappointment. But, I also thought that was a great way to think about it. Even if we’re working in a team that has a share in our failures, the best way to think about failure, in my opinion, is to start with the “I.” Sure, you can blame everyone and everything around you. Sure, the circumstances must have been extenuating. But, you played a part. And you have to own it.

I say this because I’ve spent the last two days reflecting on a project I consider very important. And, after a few weeks of intense effort, I feel I’ve made a large enough collection of mistakes to slow down and reflect. We’re in a creative stage of the process and I’ve enjoyed this stage and have experimented heavily. The nature of experimentation is that a few work and most do not. And, every once in a while, the collection of experiments that don’t work threaten to overshadow the ones that do. And, I think I am at one such point – a real learning moment. I woke up at 4 this morning and spent the last hour and a half putting these thoughts together. This isn’t the first such learning moment of course.

It made me remember a moment 5 years ago now when we were in the early stages of putting together a team for what felt like an audacious project as a university student – to put together a new university version of Britain’s Got Talent (inspired by the Susan Boyle moment) and to do so despite not having an assurance that we’d have enough funding to pull it off. We had only secured 30% of the funds required, had no venue, and had just begun putting together a small team. 2 weeks into working with the team, I received an email from one of the team members asking to withdraw. I went back to that this morning and thought I’d share a small part that I still remember –

Also the entire experience of working (together ?) in this student based team has not been completely great either. Yes, you might claim to model this on the real life workplace environment, but once again I fail to see true justifications for certain aspects. While I do understand from our brief interactions, that leadership skills are what are being aimed for by each of you, I have to admit, that I was not really motivated to look up to you as a person who could lead us to work for <> (maybe because I failed to see the part of ‘lead by example’ coming in anywhere).

Following this note, 2 others withdrew.  Oh, it hurt. There’s something to be said for moments when people around you look at you and say (either verbally or not) that you’re not deserving of their trust.

That definitely was a learning moment.

But, I also know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that, the eventual success wouldn’t have occurred without such moments. They’re painful in the short term but meaningful in the long term. And, five years later, I can say with a lot of certainty that I look back at these moments with a smile.

I find myself facing new kinds of challenges today. It has been a challenge finding the time to reflect amidst two packed days. This stuff doesn’t happen when you are sitting idle and looking for things to think about. I guess that’s what is great about waking up early and getting some time to yourself. After two days of thinking about it, I think I’ve finally understood where the problems lie. And, I realize I’m going to approach it as I normally do – own up to my mistakes, be open about my intentions and have a conversation.

That goes back to my original question – Am I failing enough? Before I answer that, I’d just like to say that this is what I’ve loved about the MBA experience. You have a huge number of opportunities to experiment, learn and fail. There’s only so much you can fail at work – there are way too many things at stake (most of all, your own job). But, I’m now in a place where I’m paying a couple of hundred thousand dollars to learn and I intend to make the most of that. The new Kellogg rebranding led to the “inspiring growth” tag-line. That’s easier said than done, of course. Growth can be painful because it requires you to experiment, fail and learn. But, is it worth it? Absolutely.

And, as of this morning, I definitely think I am failing. And, I am fortunate to be in an environment that allows me to fail spectacularly. It is occasionally painful but I’m glad for the opportunity.

The opposite of viral

I know a lot of content creators (bloggers, video creators, etc.) would love for a post to go viral. It is one of those fascinations when you start a blog or video channel and wonder what going viral might be like. It doesn’t help that you see all sorts of random content go viral and think – “Hang on a second, so much of my stuff is better/funnier/nicer/more meaningful, etc.”

After nearly 7 years/3365 posts, my learning has been to not hope for viral. In fact, I’d even say – dread viral; because viral brings fleeting fame and you don’t really want fleeting fame. You’ll find many who’ll show up to read that one post or watch that one video and simply go away. The spike in your analytics will soon be gone as well. Nothing tangible would have been built.

Instead, focus on slow organic growth (the keyword here is slow because it is incredibly slow). Delight one reader or viewer at a time. Over time, if you are lucky and good, you’ll find a small group of influential readers who begin spreading the word about your work. Now, instead of one reader, you’ll have two who show up every day. Then 3, then 4, and soon, it catches on. The nice thing about such growth is that you grow with your reputation. You learn how to build your video channel in a sustainable fashion and don’t resort to gimmicks. That builds trust and trust is how important things are built.

Viral, on the other hand, is devoid of trust and, as a result, a sham. You deserve better. Those whom you delight and serve deserve better too. So, if you are creating content, I wish you the opposite of viral. And, I wish you the strength and courage to keep at it for 10 years. Rome was not built in a day. Enron was.

Do this.. and you are set for life

1. No, you aren’t set for life and never will be. You might attain financial independence but that doesn’t mean life will go easy on you. The demons will just be higher up on Maslow’s pyramid. It is a video game with an infinite number of levels. Enjoying the game is just as important as moving through the levels.

2. “This” assumes things get easy after a certain goal or accomplishment. That’s flawed. It never gets easy. In some ways, that’s the point.

3. If it isn’t apparent as yet, let me re-emphasize – there is no “this.”

Where will I feel most pain?

Often, that’s a great question to identify the projects worth doing.

The pain of starting afresh, the pain of fighting the resistance, the pain of having to prove ourselves again are indicators of the sort of stretching required to learn and grow. It is easiest to stay stagnant. It might also be painless in the short term but pain in the short term has it’s way of paying off in the long term.

Our lizard brain prefers to trigger the flight response at the sight of pain. Perhaps it’s time to rewire it a bit..