Reversing counter factuals

The easiest way to stimulate regret about situations that haven’t worked out as per plan (as yet) is to ask counter factual questions like – “What if I’d done x instead of y?”

As such questions are a guaranteed way to drive us crazy, a simple principle that I’ve found helpful is – for every such counter factual question about a situation that didn’t work out, examine a situation that did.

So, if we want to ask ourselves – “What if I’d been better at keeping my mouth shut at that meeting?” or “What if I’d bought Bitcoin in 2014?” :-) – we also ought to analyze their positive equivalents. When was a time we spoke up and made a really positive contribution? When was a time we made a good investment decision?

Applying this principle does three things at once. First, we get to learn from situations which worked in addition to situations that didn’t work. Second, we begin to appreciate the many times things have worked out well.

And, finally, we come to accept the fact that we did the best we could with what we knew. Now that we’ve learnt from it and know better, we can do better.

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)

Knowing when you need a coach

Most of us know a friend who can pick up skills at will. They say they want to learn the guitar today, watch videos on YouTube for the next 3 months, practice, and emerge as a good guitar player. Or, they actually act on their new years resolution and go to the gym.

We know we can summon up the will necessary to do that for something that’s urgently needed at work. But, we’re generally unable to prioritize stuff that’s longer term/important.

My working theory is that this ability to do self-driven skill building is a function of two things – 1) how driven you are by achievement (vs. other motives) and 2) where you lie on the spectrum between obsessive compulsive and attention deficit. That combination results in a place in the skill building spectrum

For most of us, skill building isn’t easy because we either need a peer group or, in most cases, a coach.

All this gets us to the key takeaway – the solution to accelerating our ability to learn and get better is not to kick ourselves for not being able to finish that course or go to the gym. It is to simply understand our preferences and get help from a professional.

PS: For what its worth, I think this is the greatest challenge for online learning. Only 3-6% of folks finish an online course they start. Imagine what we’d enable if we provided the support that many of the others needed.

The one thing learning loop

In his book, Morten Hansen uses a concept he calls the “learning loop” to apply the principles of deliberate practice at work.

He suggests the following – pick one skill you’d like to get better at, find a coach/create a plan to improve the skill, periodically review progress, and then loop through the process.

The most useful lesson I took away from his approach was to pick one skill – just one. I’ve been guilty of trying to improve three or four things at a time for far too long. The downside of running so many loops is the absence of focus.

This simple idea has changed how I think of improving my ability to “communicate constructively and with clarity” during the workday. I can sense the sharp increase in awareness as I communicate over the course of the day. And, I’m looking forward to experiencing the results of this increase in focus in a few months.

Another timely reminder that more is not better. Better is better.

Why millions of kids can’t read and a better way to teach them

NPR had a fascinating article on the transformation of the early reading curriculum at a kindergarten school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The dominant method for teaching kids to read comes from an influential and incorrect theory that pushes for teaching people using context and visual clues.

The better approach is to help kids/people understand that written text is a code for speech sounds. So, the process of reading is really a process of decoding these sounds.


Harper attended a professional-development day at one of the district’s lowest-performing elementary schools. The teachers were talking about how students should attack words in a story. When a child came to a word she didn’t know, the teacher would tell her to look at the picture and guess.

The most important thing was for the child to understand the meaning of the story, not the exact words on the page. So, if a kid came to the word “horse” and said “house,” the teacher would say, that’s wrong. But, Harper recalls, “if the kid said ‘pony,’ it’d be right because pony and horse mean the same thing.”

Harper was shocked. First of all, pony and horse don’t mean the same thing. And what does a kid do when there aren’t any pictures?

This advice to a beginning reader is based on an influential theory about reading that basically says people use things like context and visual clues to read words. The theory assumes learning to read is a natural process and that with enough exposure to text, kids will figure out how words work.

Yet scientists from around the world have done thousands of studies on how people learn to read and have concluded that theory is wrong.

One big takeaway from all that research is that reading is not natural; we are not wired to read from birth. People become skilled readers by learning that written text is a code for speech sounds. The primary task for a beginning reader is to crack the code. Even skilled readers rely on decoding.

So when a child comes to a word she doesn’t know, her teacher should tell her to look at all the letters in the word and decode it, based on what that child has been taught about how letters and combinations of letters represent speech sounds. There should be no guessing, no “getting the gist of it.”


The results of this approach in the past 3 years have been great.

In 2015, before the new training began, more than half of the kindergartners in the district tested below the benchmark score, meaning most of them were heading into first grade at risk of reading failure. At the end of the 2018 school year, after the science-based training, 84 percent of kindergartners met or exceeded the benchmark score. At three schools, it was 100 percent.

The meta learning here is the importance of educating educators in cognitive science in addition to their respective subject material. To help people learn better, we must understand how people learn first.

This learning applies in our day-to-day as well. We often play the role of educators when we teach our partners, kids, or co-workers about something. Understanding how they learn and process content will help us make a lot more progress in our attempts.

Learning systems

Our ability to be continuous learners is directly proportional to the quality of learning systems we put in place in our lives.

Our learning is proportional to our ability to synthesize i) our own experiences, ii) conversations with people, and iii) information from books and courses. And, good learning systems enable us to do all 3 of these. For example, a learning system to improve on our communication skills might look something like this –

1. Get a great book on communication or sign up for an online course. Then, spend a minimum of 15 minutes every day reading the books / listening to the course – followed by 5 minutes of synthesis.

2. Practice every morning on our drive or walk.

3. Ask to spend time on a regular cadence with the best communicators we know discussing communication.

4. At the end of every work day,  write down a 1-2 line reflection on how we communicated before we shut our laptop. Do it again on the weekend and revisit our learning system for the week.

5. Teach what we are learning every week or every month to anyone who will listen or read. Our dog, baby, roommate, or mom, are all viable candidates for this. :-)

Each of these mini-systems, on their own, will accelerate our learning. But, piece them all together and learning compounds very quickly.

The beauty about taking the effort to set up a learning system is that we can replace communication with graphic design tomorrow. With a few tweaks, a good system will adapt to aiding our efforts to work on skills that involve other people too.

If we care about improving our ability to learn, consider building a system, we must.

The problem with expecting to learn more from failure

“We learn more from failure” is one of those problematic pieces of common knowledge we hear from time to time. It is problematic because it is a self fulfilling prophecy. We expect to learn more failure and, so, we do.

We don’t learn more from failure because failure has some magical teaching quality. We learn because we take the time to reflect on it, understand what happened, and learn lessons that drive change in how we approach our work/life.

If we deconstructed success and obsessed about its causes the same way we do with failure, we could learn just as much from it. But, that doesn’t happen because common knowledge tells us to celebrate success instead of learning from it.

We can change that.