Presence must be like breathing

I’ve been mulling a passage from Josh Waitzkin’s Art of Learning and thought I’d share it in full.

In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is clearly being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill.

While more subtle, this issue is perhaps even more critical in solitary pursuits like writing, painting, scholarly thinking or learning. In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if “going through the motions” is the norm of our lives. On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then, life, art and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential – for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to the purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments where everything is on the line.

The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.

“The secret is that everything is always on the line” resonates deeply.

I thought this passage was both true and profound. Thanks Josh.

High standards and writing great memos

Jeff Bezos, in his latest letter to shareholders, had a great note on what he’s learnt about great memos.

Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a  high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

There are two things I took away from this excerpt and the letter. First, it is fascinating to see the parallels between delivering high standards and approaching learning like a chef. To develop high standards, we must first learn to break things down to first principles, understand what “good” is and develop realistic expectations for what it takes to achieve them. For example, once we approach build new habits from a first principles perspective, we realize that the expectation that we can build a new habit that matters in 21 days automatically sets us up for failure.

The second lesson is about the difficulty of writing well. As Bezos notes, writing well is a product of revisiting and rewriting. In that sense, writing well is a lot like building a new habit – committing to something matters a lot less than constantly re-committing to it.

Synthesis and the learning loop

Synthesis is how we get from knowledge to learning.

We take a big step toward learning when we’re able to extract what is useful from all the knowledge, facts and data that we’re exposed to. And, we do this by developing mental models when we force ourselves to synthesize. These mental models, in turn, help us get to wisdom – understanding how to use the learning after we run facts through our mental model.

That, in turn, spurs action as wisdom brings about clarity. Besides, to learn and not to do is not to learn.

This loop can be self re-inforcing as the action can help us develop better mental models, and so on.

But, the key step is synthesis and that is incredibly hard. Think about how easy it is to just read the news or interesting articles or blogs over the internet without ever thinking about the implications of those ideas in our life.

That is is why synthesis is the entry point to this learning loop. It is a rite of passage of sorts.

We don’t learn until we synthesize.

You and future you

For the longest time, you didn’t have too much of a say in crafting the “future you.”

Even two decades ago, those who worked “above” you in your organization had a big say in what opportunities you got to work on. Want to make that big career switch? Or, want in on that exciting new project? You just had to wait to get picked by the powers that be.

But, that’s changed.

Now, you have access to an incredible set of media tools to shape “future you.” You could demonstrate your penchant for coming up with ground breaking insights about the industry you want to work in on your blog or on LinkedIn. Facebook or Instagram can be incredible platforms to show off your artistic abilities. And, Twitter is a great place to build a following around your comedic wit or knack for pithy dialogue.

Like all good things in life, these tools are entirely what you make of them. You can use them to consume an endless stream of sticky content. Or not. If you decide to do so, these tools can be your customized digital garage to work on projects that would open up opportunities for “future you.”

Here are 3 simple questions to help craft your approach toward social media –
1. What sort of projects would you like to work on in the future?
2. What do you need to learn and ship to get access to those opportunities?
3. Which 1-2 social media tools could you use to build that body of work? If you really love the consumption, pick one other tool to consume (guilty pleasure allowance) and nix the rest.

You could choose to unconsciously engage in social media in ways that simply benefit their parent companies and hurt you.

Or, you can harness the tremendous power these bring and pick yourself to do work that matters.

Things that slow us down

Things that slow us down may be things we need the most.

Every week since the summer of 2008, I’ve sent some version of the 200 words project – where I share a synthesis of an idea from a book I read within 200 words. The previous incarnation (2008-2014) was a team effort with a former colleague who came up with the idea. For the first 2 years, I didn’t participate much in the creation process. Around 2010, however, I took over most of the content creation and that continued in the form of the 200 words project today.

Creating these is a multi-step process. The first step is reading interesting books. Next, I take notes as I read. And, finally, I aim to synthesize relevant notes in a series of ideas that capture what I’ve learnt from the book. It is a slow process. But, it has been rewarding. In addition to blogging about them here, I send them out in a weekly newsletter of sorts to friends, acquaintances, former colleagues and clients. It’s worked as a wonderful way to stay in touch.

But, every once a while, I ask myself if the time has come to kill the project. And, admittedly, this has happened with greater frequency since I became a parent 3 months ago. So, I took a long 6 week break over the holidays to check in on my motivation to continue doing this. It still existed.

I had an epiphany last weekend when I was preparing future drafts – why was I keen to kill the project? It felt like it was slowing me down. In the limited time I had during weekends for working on this stuff, I could do other things or simply read more.

But, would more be better? Would I truly make the most of the books I read if I wasn’t synthesizing them?

It occurred to me that this process is likely valuable because it is slow. Boiling books down to their essence requires a certain depth of focus. It stands in contrast to my general pace of life. And, that difference was certainly challenging for many reasons. But, that investment in depth also reaped wonderful rewards in the long run in the form of learning and wisdom.

So, every once a while, slow might be exactly what we need.

When do you study

There are typically two kinds of classes in school – theory and lab. Theory classes are only useful if we find time after class to synthesize what we learn. And, assuming we do that, we should be in a good spot to put what we learnt in practice in the laboratory. That’s not to say we don’t learn stuff in the laboratory. We do. But, it is really theory that helps us make sense of our experiences in the lab.

Of course, school is designed to be heavy on theory. So, we spend a lot more time on theory than we do in laboratory. And, that, in turn, requires us to spend significant time studying. Again, theory without study is largely useless.

Our life post-school is essentially a collection of labs – broadly, a personal life lab and a professional life lab. There is one obvious challenge – there is no one scheduling time on your calendar for theory. That doesn’t mean there isn’t enough material. On the contrary, there is more material that might help than you’d imagine. But, you have to get to it. Few do that. Then, of course, getting to the material isn’t enough. We also need to synthesize it. Fewer do that.

And, yet, a much larger percentage of professionals say they love learning. Sure, they might love learning in a way a first time tennis player shows up at the court with a friend and runs around attempting to hit the ball, professing to be learning tennis. It is very far from the real thing.

Many things have changed since school. But, one thing remains constant – if you aren’t taking the time to study, the chances are high that you aren’t learning.

Training wheels

Training wheels sound so great in concept. After all, they remove all the risk from learning to ride a bike.

But, they don’t work.

It turns out that removing all the risk of losing balance doesn’t teach us the most important ability required to ride a bike – how to balance. And, that, in turn, also means we don’t actually learn to ride the bike. Worse, it hinders our ability to learn without training wheels.

Risk and reward go together. Falling down is an important part of learning. And, we only make progress when we embrace the possibility of a fall.

Why, then, do we use training wheels? Fear of failure.

And, that’s thanks to a misunderstanding. You see, failure is not the falling down, it is the staying down.

2017 Themes

I had 3 “look back” posts in the past ten days or so that all built up to my annual review. After all that looking back, the time has now come to look forward. I don’t like new years resolutions as I’m not a fan of “goals” based thinking. Instead, I prefer thinking in terms of direction and process. So, I prefer thinking of the new year in terms of themes.

My theme for the new year is engagement. I believe engagement is the answer to the debates around managing energy versus managing time. As with most important things, it isn’t an either/or. And, I also believe engagement is a principle that a good life is anchored around. And, as with all life principles, it is very hard to consistently live it. Also, I think of engagement and consciousness (the ability to be aware and to choose) as sister concepts. They share the same core.

While engagement is the high level theme, my audit and reading pointed to 3 sub themes.

The first theme is – “Seek to understand and then to be understood” – from my holiday re-read of “The 7 Habits.” I am way too impatient and, as a result, interrupt far too much than I’d like. I’d like to do better, a lot better. This isn’t something that’s easy to measure. So, I intend to just check in with myself every day for starters as I build my instincts around this.

The second theme is health. As I grow older, the idea of being very fit grows increasingly more appealing. I haven’t done as bad a job at this so far. But, there’s plenty of room for improvement. I used Mr Money Mustache’s excellent post on “Staying fit with no gym in sight” to reflect on this and piece together my health plan. The first part of this plan is to moderate my diet better – my diet is still pretty carbohydrate heavy (I love rice!). And, having just discovered the benefits of doing a full body work out during the week, I’ll aim to keep that going through this year.

The final theme is information. Again, there are two pieces. First, I’ve been working on streamlining my information diet over the past couple of weeks. I massively cut down on my news consumption and went through a review of every source I regularly consume on Feedly. I also took a good look at my work email flow and consumption habits and have made a few changes. The idea here is to be a lot more conscious about this as I still check my email and feeds far more than I’d like. The second piece of this theme is doubling down on reading books. I have a reading list that I cannot wait to get to. And, I’d like to spend more time on deep book reading over shallower sources.

I expect to see a step change in my level of engagement/consciousness if I work through these sub themes. But, as with all good processes, the journey is sure to be filled with learning. While seeking to understand will help me improve on my interactions with others, I see my approach to health and information as crucial. The better my health and information diets, the more energy I expect to have to be engaged through the day.

Lots of work to do. Onward.

PS: Peter Koehler, a reader, has done a nice job co-creating “The New Years Reader” – to be read aloud and shared with your close friends and family. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. I contributed a thought to it as well. The theme should look familiar to you. :)

“We are a by-product of our questions. Perhaps we stop asking ourselves about how we can be better/best at something this year and, instead, ask ourselves – “How can I be engaged every day? How can I make sure I am being conscious about my decisions?”

All this would take is a commitment to spend 3 minutes to ask yourselves these questions at the start of your day, every day. And, a calendar reminder to re-commit to this habit every weekend.

Wishing you more engaged, more conscious days this new year. As we live our days, so we live our lives…”

I would never behave like that

When we see behavior we don’t like, it is tempting to write it off. “I would never behave like that” or “how could he/she do that?” might feels appropriate.

But, is it?

Would you really “never” behave like that? Given the same upbringing and an identical situation, you probably would, too.

Instead, a better question is – “what would it take for me to behave like that?”

There always are a few situations that might result in behavior you didn’t like. Perhaps if you felt out of luck and stressed? Or, if you felt desperate to find a job? And, what if you were in financial stress? Or, if that behavior was rationalized because of good results in the past?

Asking the “what would it take?” question inspires more empathy than the write off. It is also a lot less hypocritical.

We are only as kind to others as we are to ourselves. One way, then, to be kinder is to learn to be kinder to ourselves. But, the other approach works, too. As we learn to be kinder to others, we learn to be kinder to ourselves.

Also, as a rule, it is good to be careful with “always” and “never.”

Private victories, public victories

Segmentation is one of the basic marketing tenets. If you build a product, target a segment that will love its strengths and ignore its shortcomings. Similarly, if you want to build a blog that becomes massive (assuming you aren’t someone famous already), you are better off focusing on some niche. Examples of such niches are productivity, personal finance, minimalism, health, etc. Going after learning in as broad a sense as this blog does isn’t a winning strategy. For those of you manage to stick on despite this very broad focus, I try every once a while to explain what this blog is about. An idea that will help frame this is – private victories precede public victories.

I am re-reading the 7 Habits very slowly. And, it was nice to be reminded of the logic behind Covey’s structure – focus first on private victories and, only then, will public victories follow. This is the basis of the character ethic that Covey describes. It is about bringing a certain sustainability into life and happiness by being effective. So, what does that even mean?

I’ll go back to my concentric priorities image. If we think of the world as a series of priorities – you, your people, your work and your community – private victories are focused on you, your people/relationships and parts of your work.

The principle is straight forward – you will be able to lead others only once you lead yourself. And, to lead yourself, you have to first understand how to be proactive, to think long term while focusing on what you control and learn to prioritize.

The first time I read Covey’s book, I spent all my time attempting to put the “private victories” portion in action. I had such a long way to go. However, as I read it now, I feel more comfortable with this portion of the book. I am still giving it plenty of thought but I find myself thinking about optimizing existing approaches versus building them from scratch. This process has taken 7 years. And, I’m sure it’ll be a few more years before I spend more of my time attempting to live part II.

How does this relate to this blog? I write about what I most need to learn. And, this blog is and has been shamelessly self focused over the past 8 and a half years. That will likely change with a time. But, for now, it is me teaching myself how to develop a perspective that is both effective and kind. That is why this blog is some parts happiness and other parts productivity, minimalism, some finance, health etc. It isn’t the most effective marketing strategy and is certainly not a case study in segmentation. But, I don’t intend this to be any of that.

This is about growing into character – one learning at a time, over a very long time. It is hard work. But, it is also an awesome process. As is evident in the sheer number of topics I write about, there isn’t any prescribed way to go about this process. Sure, there are a few principles that help. But, for the most part, you are on your own. It is just a journey that requires consciousness and engagement.

And, mostly, it is a journey.

PS: “For those of you manage to stick on despite this very broad focus, I try every once a while to explain what this blog is about.” – if you’ve stuck around for a while, you probably don’t need an explanation. So, you probably guessed this – this is more a reminder of the “why” for me than it is for you. Thank you for your attention. :)