Reason, season or lifetime

A few years back, I came across a model for relationships that has stayed with me. It said people come to your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.

Folks who come in for a reason are like guardian angels who swoop in for a short period of time – right when we need them. Folks who are in for a season are with us for a few years – bringing wonderful memories and moments from those times. And, folks who are in for a lifetime find ways to stay with us all the way through.

It gets harder to maintain close relationships as we grow – especially if physical proximity isn’t a given. We change, others change, contexts change, and so on. A lot of the angst in relationships (as in life) comes from an inability to deal with this impermanence.

The beauty of the reason-season-lifetime model is that it reminds us of that impermanence. In retrospect, I can think back to a couple of relationships that didn’t end well – but which clearly existed for a reason or season. And, I can also think of a couple that fizzled out despite an incredible season. Trying to extend these into relationships that last a lifetime was futile.

Understanding and accepting past relationships for what they were enables us to forgive, forget, and simply savor the special moments.

It also enables us to let go of unnecessary baggage and travel lighter. On long journeys, that’s a great way to travel.

Building trust in relationships and teams

The research on great teams has concluded that the key ingredient is psychological safety. That, to me, is just another word for trust. Great relationships and great teams are built on trust. If you’ve ever worked in a team which operated with 100% trust, you know what such experiences are like. They are a thing of beauty and are experiences you’ll cherish forever.

It turns out that there are no shortcuts for trust. Trust is predicated on knowledge and then understanding. We can claim to know someone when we know who they are and what their story is. We begin to understand them when we begin to understand how they make decisions and why they do what they do.

Building diverse teams, as a result, requires this investment. It needs to begin by taking the team out for a day or two and spending time understanding each other’s stories. No devices, no distractions, 100% presence. It is only after such a day that we can begin to understand how and why people operate the way they do. We hear stories we’ve never heard and find ourselves opening up to perspective that we’d never have considered. Only then are we ready to get work done. We have to go slow to go fast.

This sounds like a painfully intentional approach to building diverse teams. It is. Diverse teams are rarely built by accident. When that happens, it happens because the team members are stuck in the trenches – in very difficult situation that requires them to go through the same process under stress. Such situations often creates friends for life. The process of building and operating in a great teams isn’t different.

This process also speaks to why we naturally gravitate to building teams with people who are similar to us. It is easy to understand people who are similar to us. They share similar back stories, similar backgrounds and the process of understanding takes little effort. But, in my limited experience, such teams are the equivalent of getting five guitarists together. You may have a great jam session.

But, you rarely build a great band.

And, you never have a shot at being a part of an orchestra.

Vacuuming and how work becomes meaningful

Vacuuming the home has been an ever present on my list of chores over the past few years. I cared about doing a decent job as I understand why it matters. But, it was never fun.

Until I started strapping our 6 month old baby and vacuuming the home with her.

At first, she mostly watched in silence. Then, she grew to enjoy it. And, twelve months later, it wouldn’t be the same without her. The issue is that she’s reached that point when the carrier isn’t comfortable anymore. I know it isn’t going to last for much longer – but, boy, was it a blast while it lasted.

This experience with vacuuming speaks to how work becomes meaningful. The first step is for folks to understand the “why.” Why does what they do matter? Once they understand that, merging the “why” with “who” they care about makes important work feel both meaningful and playful at once. It is these sorts of environments that make for incredible laboratories to grow, learn, and experiment.

And, in environments where people combine learning, meaning and fun, they do the work (the “how”) with great care.

This is the reason powerful visions need to co-exist with a great culture. It is the culture that ensures that people feel the kind of belonging to continue to find meaning in what they do. A vision is useless without strategy. And, culture is strategy in the long run.

PS: Getting back to vacuuming for a moment – it is another one of those reminders that the days are long but the years are short.

Invest the first ten minutes

You’ve set up a 30 minute introduction meeting to get up to speed on that project. So, you have got 3 options on what to do in the first 10 minutes –

1. Jump straight into business (with some small talk added to taste)
2. Do a quick introduction – “I work for xx team and I am now working on this project” – and get to business.
3. Invest the first ten minutes into getting to know each other

As might be obvious from the title of the post, I believe option 3 is the way to go.

Choosing option 1 and 2 is a sign that we believe that the purpose of the meeting is to get onboard quickly. Of course, they are both the more efficient options.

However, the real purpose of the first meeting with someone you are going to work with is to build a relationship of trust. And, trust requires us to first get to know them and, in time, understand them. It is this trust that will enable us to work together in a team. And, it is the bedrock of true long term effectiveness.

Also, here’s another thought – why not start every introduction meeting the same way? Sure, that one might be with someone who you just want a quick short term favor from. But, do you really know that?

What if we approached every relationship as a potential long term relationship?

Ten minutes can go a long way.

Care mismatch

Care mismatch = when one party in a 2 way relationship cares more about it than the other. For example…

…when you realize your friend only calls you if he/she needs something from you.

…when you find that the sales person is only being nice to you to make the sale.

care mismatch
Thanks to source for the image

…when you can’t understand why your manager hides behind policies when you make a request for an exception that you deserve.

Care mismatch causes an enormous amount of unhappiness every day. It feels natural to expect reciprocation when we care deeply about something.

Unfortunately, that rarely happens. The more you give, the more you’ll realize that reciprocation is rare. The lesson, then, is not to stop caring. It is to change why you care and to better direct your efforts – e.g. by setting limits when you don’t sense reciprocation.

Care because you want to, not because you want something back. Care mismatch is a part of a life. Learning to be incredibly caring despite that is how we get made.

A few thoughts on relationships – the final MBA Learning

2 years ago, I began writing weekly posts under a category called “MBA Learnings.” I thought it’d be a great excuse to share what I’m taking away from my experience at graduate school. While some of these started out as lessons from the classroom, the series has evolved into a collection of mammoth posts that attempt to frame the experience (classroom lessons are part of regular posts). The hope with these posts – such as today’s note on relationships – is that they are applicable to life as much as they are to graduate school.

In a meeting with senior administrator at school yesterday, she wondered why many just “get through” the experience when there is so much more you can absorb. My thesis is that it is similar to life – it demands a clarity around priorities that only comes after a certain amount of thought. The following 6 links hope to frame the landscape to make the thinking process easier.

1. I’m in, Now what? – An attempt at helping you structure your transition to school once you are admitted.
2. Advice to an incoming student – A long “expectation setting” post that breaks life at school into a tension between 6 priorities
3. Designing for introversion – An introvert’s guide to thinking about the MBA experience
4. Lessons learnt from internship recruiting – Lessons + a guide to how to think about the summer before school. I have, since, written a more comprehensive guide to a job search.
5. The recruiting journey through self doubt – A few thoughts on dealing with the emotional aspects of the recruiting process.
6. Digging into my 1st year process – A reflection on how I approached my 1st year and what I learnt

This final learning is one that has been many years in the making. The reason I picked relationships for the final post is because it is never an easy topic to write about. To approach this, let’s first ask the question – why is it so much easier to make friends in high school and in college than at work? More folks have “best friends” from their college and high school days than from work. That isn’t to say it isn’t done. It just happens lesser than one might expect.

While youth and malleability are a factor, my sense is that high school and college allow for two important factors that help with forming deep relationships – shared experiences and slack time. Shared experiences are powerful in forming relationships. Hours and hours of slack time help deepen those bonds as you learn about the little things about each other. At work, while working in teams on intense projects often creates those shared experiences, it is less common to find work projects that result in plenty of slack time.

Graduate school lies somewhere in the middle – there are shared experiences if you take similar paths. But, that is a big if – there are very few students who would even have the same academic journey as you. And, slack time is rare if you decide to keep busy. There are many who will admit to never having been as busy at work as they have been at graduate school. But, and this is where things get complicated, you expect to build friendships the same way you did in your college or high school. You also expect to build out a “network” – whatever that means. So, the business school dream ends up becoming about walking out with this amazing portfolio of friends who will refer you to dream jobs and partners on your course to building that great global business. So, you might be tempted to attend every social event, every dinner, every evening at the bar and build that “network.” As you might imagine, all this gets overly strategic and stressful very quickly.

My recommendation would be to call bullshit on everything before you get started. This is hard to do because you have to discipline yourself to cut through the noise to get to what matters. I clearly remember a good few instances when I found that very difficult. The strategic intent involved with “building your network has irked me” from time to time. But, I’ve learnt to get over that. The key with environments that offer a lot of opportunities to find your own approach.

If I had to boil what I’ve learned about friendships in graduate school (and life?) into 3 things, they would be the following –

1. Understand your own priorities and align your actions based on those priorities. This gets down to the question – what really matters to you? Do you care about having a broad network of global friends? Or, do you care about having a solid group of 3-5 friends? Do you care that these friends are international or would you like all of them to have similar backgrounds? There isn’t a right answer here. The key is to be intentional and to be consistent with the kind of person you are.

For example, I care a lot about a few deep relationships and my hope with school was no different. I just cared a lot about having 3-4 friends at the end of the experience that I would have a relationship with. But, I was also interested in getting to know people and hearing their stories – something the school environment uniquely enables. So, I would set up time to go for walks with people. I’ve probably taken walks with 2-3 new people 1-on-1 on average nearly every school week over the past 2 years. Whenever someone suggested we should grab coffee, I’d take them out for a walk. But, when given a choice between depth vs. breadth, I would choose depth.

2. Engage deeply in some communities or maybe even create your own. Going back to the idea of combining shared experiences and slack time, activities or communities help with both. It doesn’t matter if it is the running club, band or entrepreneurship club – it matters that you engage in communities that you care about. These sorts of communities enable you to meet diverse people with whom you can build relationships based on shared values and beliefs.

You can also create your own little communities, of course. A couple of friends created an activity where they spent time with individuals doing an activity the individual loved. Another duo regularly hosted dinners where the conversations were based on meaningful themes. Another brought the same group of foodies together to eat at various restaurants. I was part of a group that showed up every Friday evening at a spot to discuss our lessons for the week.

Communities are especially important if you seek to build relationships with people different from you. Most relationships need to make their way from knowledge -> understanding -> trust. If you and I grew up in the same place, it is easier for us to understand each other and, then, to trust each other. But, if we’re from different continents, we need an excuse to really get to know each other and, slowly, understand each other. The flip side of this long process to understand each other is that the trust that emerges is one that, like all things hard earned, is very special.

3. Learn to let go – expectations are relationship killers. This is a general life lesson but one that is incredibly applicable to relationships. Expectations destroy relationships. All relationships are two way streets – it can only work if both sides are equally keen to make it work. When it works both ways, we aptly call it “chemistry” – because the reaction between the two produces an outcome that is different and better. But, it is hard to know when things work out well. It generally requires a lot of experimentation. Reactions also happen at different speeds – some are instant, some happen over a longer period of time.

My experience here is that you attract people based on who you are. If you are a person of good character, you attract people of good character. In the long run, it all works out. That doesn’t mean it is easy to let go in the short run. Whenever we put in the effort to give to people around us, it is really hard to say – “Hey, I’ve given this everything and did so because I cared. But, I don’t expect any reciprocation from the other end.” But, doing so makes life much happier. Just be patient with yourself – if my experience is anything to go by, this is something you’re always working toward. :-)

One last thing. Relationships are never easy. When we attempt to build them – whether it is a friend or a significant other – we have to give ourselves to people and choose to be willing to extend ourselves. This means coming face-to-face with our own insecurities and our desire to be loved. As is the case with these attempts, we will often meet with failure and breaches of trust. The takeaway from those experiences shouldn’t be to stop trusting altogether. It should be to get better at picking people.

We have many influences in this life – our diet, the information we consume, our environment, etc. – but probably none more so than those we spend time with. Every once a while, we will come across people who not only make us feel loved but also push us to be the best version of ourselves. When that happens, hold on tight and enjoy the ride.

In the end, all we have is each other…

relationships