2 questions for better conversations

We’ve all been in conversations where all we seem to be doing is discussing stuff that doesn’t really matter. Even sharing what happened to us is only fun for a while. These conversations often feel devoid of emotion. Here are 2 questions I’ve found to help with better conversations –

1. What have been among your biggest learnings since we last caught up? (of course I’d say that)
2. What are the decisions you are struggling with/mulling about and how can I help?

2 questionsThanks to source for the image

The second question is a recent learning from a conversation with a much wiser friend. I was amazed at how quickly it cut through the noise into a discussion of what actually mattered.

I’ve noticed a marked difference in conversations that involve discussions with one or both questions. The good news is that we don’t always have to be the person asking the questions – we could just weave this in to the end of our updates when we catch up with our friends to make them deeper and more meaningful.

Better questions -> better conversations.

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Characteristics of great advice

Great advice typically has 3 characteristics –

1. It begins by exploring questions that are deeper than the question asked. If, for example, the question asked is “what advice would you have for me to be successful here?,” the deeper question is “how will you measure success?” The first step, as a result, is to take a step back. If you don’t find a deeper question, that’s okay. The key is just to be willing to dig deeper.

2. Next, the principles/governing assumptions are called out. Continuing the thread on advice to be successful, the principles could be self-awareness (understand yourself), intention (figure out what you want) and a learning mindset (keep focused on the journey and getting better). Getting to principles or governing assumptions requires a bit of thought.

3. Finally, it deals with tactics. For a long time, I scorned tactics as I felt they hurt more than they helped. Most bad advice tends to just be a list of tactics. If the principles are stated, then we ought to be able to figure out the tactics ourselves – or so I thought.
I’ve come to realize that tactics often serve a different purpose – by boiling difficult things down to a set of concrete ideas, they help inspire those listening to take the all important first step. It is an important component of great advice.

That’s my advice on the matter in any case. 🙂

Thanks to source for the image

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Machines take away horrible jobs

Quartz had a feature a few days back about the struggles of young women working in tea gardens in North East India. Tough conditions, bad wages and inhuman treatment are features of horrible jobs. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it is likely machines will replace those women within the decade. That should be celebrated because machines take away horrible jobs.

But, it will likely result in political propaganda with politicians promising to bring those jobs back.

Politicians in countries who promise to bring back jobs to their respective countries omit two truths. First, it is that those jobs are not really coming back. A piece of manufacturing that required 1,000 workers is likely best done now with 20 engineers and a collection of robots. Second, when those jobs were around, workers constantly complained of inhuman conditions.

The jobs our politicians want to bring back are never the ones we wake up wanting to do.

In our desire to avoid conversations that matter, it is easy to blame machines. So much easier to do that than to discuss the real issues on the table and so much easier to postpone the inevitable socio-economic disasters that are in the making if we continue to avoid the flip side of technology innovation.

But, for those of us who are willing to see things as they are – machines are going to take away large portions of what we do. Anything we consider repetitive is going to be done by a machine. Anything that requires functions we’re not very good at (searching vast amounts of information, statistical analysis) will be done by machines. We will be freed to do other, better stuff. In the post industrial world, machines in industries freed us to create job titles like ballerinas, violinists and zumba investors. This time will be no different. In having machines replace large parts of what we do, we will go back to answering that all important question – “What should we do with our time?”

The conversations we should be having are all around the question – how do we bring about changes to an economic system that was built on the foundations of an industrial world?

The machines are here to stay. They will continue to take away horrible jobs and, then, horrible pieces of our jobs. Let’s focus on what we need to do to support the many workers who are and will continue to be displaced by the shift.


Audi car factory in Germany – thanks to the Telegraph for the image

HT: The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

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The energy management question

If you are feeling energetic, you don’t need much time to get what you want done. But, give yourself in a lethargic state large amounts of time and you will likely not get much done. Hence, it follows that energy management is way more important than time management. A key first step in good self energy management is – what activity best recharges your batteries?

For most people, the answer to this question is one of sleep, food, exercise, listening to music, interesting work, social time or a hobby. The answer does change according to context. But, it is very likely every one of us have a stack ranked list. Knowing the list is helpful because you have a clear action when you’re feeling low energy. If you’re feeling low energy in the middle of a work day for example, you just work through your list and rule out what’s not possible. If taking a nap is not possible and if you just finished lunch, perhaps you could take a quick walk or give a friend a call? And, if it is closer to the end of the day and you aren’t feeling the best, maybe the best thing to do is wrap everything up and go to bed.

So, how do you figure out the list? You might have a hypothesis intuitively. But, there’s few better ways to understand this than to test it over a period of time. Observe your energy during the day and get good at understanding what works best when you feel low energy. Try out different solutions during bouts of low energy and make your list over time. A likely side effect of doing this is also understanding what causes bouts of low energy. For example, there might be certain kinds of food that may not be helping. Or, you might find that going two days without exercise has very negative effects on your energy.

Our productivity is a direct function of our energy management. And, understanding how to do that well requires us to keep asking ourselves that question – what activity best recharges our batteries?

energy managementThanks to Lifehacker for the image

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The gratitude loop

Small things go wrong all the time. Things break down, people act in unexpected ways, and minor plans fail. The “ideal” you shoot for hardly ever works out as per plan because of small nits. When these things happen, we tend to have a choice between two paths – the victim loop or the gratitude loop.

The principle involved is similar to the idea that we choose between judger questions or learner questions at any given point of time (HT Marilee Adams for the wonderful choice map that I’ve shared many a time). It just extends the concept a bit.

the gratitude loop

When we’re dealing with small annoyances, the smallest reaction of anger can lead us down the victim loop. It begins with some level of denial, then some irritation, then some more irritation, anger and general unhappiness. This loop involves heavy doses of playing victim and, thus, not taking responsibility for something that happens to us. The obvious flaw in our thinking is that we point to the fact that it is somebody or something else’s doing. But, if it is affecting us, it really is our responsibility. In every case.

The gratitude loop does something different – it treats what is going on as a non-issue and gives thanks for the fact that nothing worse happened. Faced a flat tire? Thankfully it wasn’t the engine. Sprained your angle? A fracture would have been long lot worse. You get the idea.

The beauty about the gratitude loop is that it tends to take us down a path of increasing gratitude. For every small annoyance we face, there are literally a hundred worse things that could have happened. And, since nothing monumentally bad took place, all is really fine. We just have to learn to see it that way.

How we deal with small annoyances is a measure of the strength and size of our character. If we react to every annoyance and make mountains out of mole hill, then we really are small people. To be able to transcend that and focus on bigger and more important things, we have to learn to get over the small stuff.

In the long run, how we deal with the small things are the big things.

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The next game

Reputations are useful till you enter the field to play the next game.

But, they don’t count for much once you begin playing that next game. The moment you choose to play, you choose to do the hard work of continuing to to do the hard work of building your own character and, thus, managing and building that reputation.

When you are in the game, there is no such thing as resting on past laurels. Yes, it helps if you’ve had a great run in the last few – but, only up to a point. You are only as good as your next game.

And, what got you here won’t get you there.

the next gameImage Source

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Um, like and being heard – The 200 words project

2 years ago, I tried cutting out “um”/”you know”/other such filler words from my language. That initiative went nowhere. Recently, however, I’ve been able to make more progress thanks to a post on Seth Godin’s excellent blog.

As Seth explains – “For a million years, people have been judging each other based on voice. Not just on what we say, but on how we say it. I heard a Pulitzer-prize winning author interviewed on a local radio show. The tension of the interview caused an “um” eruption—your words and your approach sell your ideas, and at least on this interview, nothing much got sold.
Or consider the recent college grad who uses thirty or forty “likes” a minute. Hard to see through to the real you when it’s so hard to hear you.”

Acknowledging that you can’t remove this verbal tic by willing it away (as I had tried before), Seth suggests that we don’t try to rid ourselves of the “um” or “like.” Instead, aim to simply replace it with a pause. We don’t need to keep making sounds to keep our place as the speaker. So, we should talk as slowly as needed to until speeding up feels comfortable.

The best part: Our default assumption is that people who choose their words carefully are quite smart. Like you. – Seth Godin


Thanks to – image source

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Anti-intellectualism and racism

Fearing and, thus, hating someone who is different from us is a natural emotional response from a brain wired for life in the forest fighting other warring hunter gatherers. Racism, as a result, is a natural part of our humanity. We are all racist and discriminatory. If it isn’t based on color, we discriminate based on religion, education, sexual orientation, nationality, caste, etc.

The relationship between education and discrimination is a fascinating one as it is one that is underlined with a lot of tension. The reason for this tension is that an educated mind is one that treats every belief as a hypothesis that needs to be tested. Galileo Galilei, one of the fathers of the scientific method, discovered this was an issue in 1610 when he faced the ire of nearly every institution that mattered. The church, arguably the most powerful of those institutions then, took nearly 500 years to declare him innocent.

The essence of discrimination is blind belief. Education, thus, is dangerous as it shakes its foundations of discrimination. As a result, a key part of the oppressors playbook is to control the education its citizens receive. If you can fake education, i.e. pretend to educate while not really teaching the scientific method, people will never find out.

Until they do, of course.

This is why the Brexit was a damning verdict for anyone concerned about the state of the world today. It wasn’t because the Brexit was the absolute wrong result. There is a case to be made that it was a good result for both sides in the long run – that Britain will benefit and that the EU will treat it as a wake-up call to right the many issues inherent in its structure. The issue was the way it happened. It happened without the voters really understanding why they were doing what they were doing. It happened without any debate of the real long term issues. It was a classic anti-intellectual process and it was as good as a bunch of fearful people voting yes for xenophobia.

That is also why the November election in the United States is critical. It is becoming increasingly clear that the beliefs that drive the Republican party in the United States is not that of smaller government, but one of cultural disillusionment. It is also becoming increasingly clear that “make America great again” seems to just be a different version of “make America white again.” There are a lot of direct effects of the Republican nominee becoming President but probably none as powerful as the brand of anti-intellectualism that he espouses.

The key part of the Donald Trump message is simplicity. It is a clear action plan that involves shutting down borders, breaking ally agreements and building walls. These simple steps will put an end to the death, gloom and destruction. Leaving aside facts about violence and the like, this sort of simplicity ignores that one thing that makes debate necessary – nuance. Or, to use a more fitting term, trade-offs. Good decision making requires an understanding of trade-offs. Good decision making requires spirited debate and an understanding of nuance. But, discussing nuance isn’t what won Trump the Republican primary. It isn’t what he is about. He makes decisions based on his gut and data is for losers. Well, life can be relatively simple when you are born into a brash household in the top 1%. It isn’t that simple for everyone else and it is certainly not going to be simple when you govern in an interdependent world.

This is one direct effect, however. The full list is long. The most important indirect effect, in my assessment, is that I think his coming to power will sadly reverse the trend on discrimination and racism. The facts on violence and discrimination tell us one thing for certain – as bad as things seem, they have only been getting better and are better today than ever before. However, the moment we give up our willingness to debate, we indicate that we are open to flexing our discrimination muscles. It is a recipe for bigotry – an intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from us. If we are intolerant toward different opinions, can you begin to imagine what the future holds for people who look different from us?

This indirect effect is beautifully summed up in a line from a comment I shared following the Brexit – “But, can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has led to anything other than bigotry?”

When indeed…

anti-intellectualism and racismThanks to Storify for the image

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There is too much to read

There is too much to read. That is a fact.

But, if that is an excuse for incompetence or for post factual debates, then it is a poor excuse indeed.

When Google released data of Britons searching for what Brexit meant after the event, it was tempting to laugh at their ignorance. Yet, is that different from most parts of the world right now?

The easy, lazy solution is to assign blame. Blame the CEO who gives you false assurance, blame the politician who runs a campaign based on lies and blame whoever else you think is wrong.

Like all easy, lazy solutions, it is useless and accomplishes squat. Better to say “mea culpa” and move on – no one to blame but us. Everyone at your company is educated – there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to get to the truth of what the leadership is saying. Wherever you are, if there are more educated people than not, there is again no reason they shouldn’t be able to get to the truth of what their politicians are saying.

No, the issue is not one of education. It is one of the worst kind of incompetence – one that is embraced by people who could quite easily be competent.

We live in an age where you can get most questions answered by simply typing or saying a few words. If we wanted more, we could also just get a few books on that topic of interest written by people who’ve devoted a lifetime to research on that topic. Is doing this a guarantee that we’ll get to the truth? Probably not. But, is doing this a guarantee that we’ll begin to understand what is going on and be more competent? Absolutely.

The chances are high that you’ll be a better spouse if you took the time to read a marriage book or two. The chances are very high that you’d be a better decision maker if you picked up one of the best decision making books out there. And, reading some of the best distilled wisdom on how to run your start-up is likely only going to aide you in the quest. If reading a book is too hard, no worry – just get a summary of the book somewhere – they’re a dime-a-dozen. Or, ask someone who has read the book to take 15 minutes to give you a summary.

But, if you refuse to do the pre-work or choose to scorn at the wisdom of those who’ve done it before, then you lose the right to expect competence from your leaders and those around you. If you don’t spend time understanding what is going on and where we’re heading, you lose the right to expect your politicians to be better.

If you’re wondering what it takes to flip the switch, it is simple. Spend 30 minutes every week day reading a book that will teach you something.

That habit alone will change all our lives. Not just yours – because you will then spread the goodness of all that reading to us. Thank you for doing that.

The only skill expected from your education is an eagerness to learn for the rest of your life. The rest is gravy.

there is too much to readThanks to Fast Company for the image

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Great customer service email

I love a great customer service email. I always find it surprising when companies mess this up. In today’s day and age, it is so easy to create a beautifully customized email.

We recently purchased ceramic knives from a small vendor on Amazon called Oliver & Kline. Their initial email and follow up notes have been outstanding. So, I thought I’d deconstruct that today.


Hi Rohan, (Use the customer’s name.. duh. “Dear Customer” just shows an incredible lack of thoughtfulness given most of us know mail merge exists.)

Thanks a lot for picking up the Oliver & Kline Ceramic Knife Set!

Your order is being processed by Amazon. Before your product arrives, I wanted to let you know:

Have you ever used a ceramic knife before? If not, you’re in for a treat. These things effortlessly slice through anything in a way that traditional knives do not.

In addition, they hold an edge longer than any other type of knife you may have used previously – we’re looking at you stainless steel! (Always lovely to have a bit of humor. I could rationalize it by saying it makes me feel this is more human. But, that’s just because everything else is great..) Plus ceramic knives never rust and are easier to clean. This knife set looks great, cuts great, comes in a fabulous gift box, and are just plain fun to use!

To help you get the best results using our creamic (I would pick on this typo but the positive energy from the rest of the email makes me ignore it.) knife set, I have attached a short Users Guide (Combining the onboarding with the training manual – nicely done.). You are strongly advised to give it a quick read to prolong the life of your knives!

I predict that the high quality (and easy of use) will blow you away! (Love the positivity, cheer and can sense the pride in the product.)

I’ll email you as soon as it’s been shipped. (They did do this – albeit a bit late as Amazon shipped it ahead of time.)

Thanks again Rohan, we really appreciate your order! (Ah – the use of my name twice. I know it is just a merge field but it feels personal. And, this just isn’t done right usually. Well played.)
Sincerely,
Oliver & Kline
(My only gripe with this email would be that I’d suggest signing off with a human name. Always nice to be interacting with a human being.)

P.S. IMPORTANT, PLEASE READ: We’re 100% committed to providing you with a top-notch customer experience. If there’s anything that didn’t go right with your order, please hit REPLY to this email and let us know immediately before leaving a review on Amazon. I’ll look into it for you personally! (I love the – “I’ll look into it for you personally.” I think it might even be more powerful to just leave a phone number. But, this works pretty well.)

Remember – we’re in this together, and success stories from awesome customers like you is what brings a glowing smile to our face, so thank you for being a part of this movement!


The beauty about this email was that I was rooting for these knives before they even showed up. Sure, there isn’t a thing as a universally great customer service email. But, there are certain small things – personalization, positivity, humor and thoughtfulness – that easily make an average email into a very good one.

And, just to show it wasn’t a flash in the pan, here is their response when I thanked them for it.

Oliver&Kline email

Small things. Big impact. Nice job, Oliver & Kline.

PS: The knives are great.

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