Do our absolute best

Much of our lives lies outside our control. People respond to this fact differently. Some like to believe they control everything while others like to believe it is all predetermined. Maybe one of those is the right view, we’ll never know. My preferred approach is to simply acknowledge that large portions of our lives lie outside our control. Once we acknowledge that, the onus is on us to also acknowledge the flip side – there are portions, occasionally significant, that are in our control. And, for those portions, we can choose to do our absolute best.

The context to which we wake up in the morning may be outside of our control. How we choose to live our day today, however, isn’t. And, by living our day well today, we can improve our context tomorrow. This can go on until our context changes again – for no apparent reason. That’s part of the unpredictability and beauty of this life. It can rain when we least expect it. What matters is that we learn to dance with it.

As I thought about the week that had passed by, I wondered if I could have done a little bit more. But, I also remembered to ask – did I do my absolute best? Did I be my absolute best?

Contentment and drive are false choices. There’s a tension between them (and many other false choices) that makes life beautiful. Asking ourselves if we did our absolute best is an example of a question that embraces both. We did the best we could as we knew it. Now, that we know better, we’ll do better.

I’ve learnt that there’s not much more we can expect from ourselves in every analysis. I’ve also learnt that there are few goals that are more worthy of aspiration. So, as I start this week, I tell myself that, at the end of it, I will reflect and ask myself – did I do my absolute best? Did I try to be the best version of myself?

I will likely have made mistakes and mis-steps this week. But, if the answers to those two questions were yes, it will have been a good week.

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Monsters in the basement – The 200 words project

When Fred Kofman’s son asked him to accompany him to the basement, Fred asked him why he needed company. He said – “Dad, I’m scared of monsters.”

Fred’s initial instinct was to question the emotion of fear his son was feeling. But, he realized that if he believed there were monsters, he would be scared too. So, he asked his son why he didn’t see monsters when he went down. His son responded – “They go away when you grow up.” 🙂

In his work as an executive coach at leading companies all over the world, Fred finds that we generally respond to difficult emotions by telling people to suppress them. Telling someone “don’t be afraid” or “don’t feel bad” isn’t helpful. We’re effectively saying – “Push it away as it makes me uncomfortable.” And, bottling emotions up is akin to coiling a spring – they only come back with stronger force.

Difficult emotions are simply reactions to beliefs. Instead of challenging them, we must allow them to be felt. Then, we can discuss or challenge the beliefs.

To manage emotions, we have to learn to be comfortable with them and then inquire to the source of them. – Fred Kofman

Source and thanks to: Conscious Business by Fred Kofman

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Bigger houses

There will always be people we know with bigger houses.

We might look at the folks with bigger houses now and think we’d feel better when we have that bigger house. But, when that happens, we’ll start hanging out with people with houses our size and spend our time looking at people with even bigger houses.

Of course, this isn’t about houses. This could just as easily be about bigger cars, teams, companies, following, etc., etc. With constant connectivity and exposure to everyone else’s life and career, a friend described this as an arms race. One better social media update needs to be matched with another.

It is ironical that arms races have the word “race” in them. While they contain the speed element of a “race,” arms races rarely have a winner. Most arms races only leave behind losers at every turn.

The only way out of such meaningless arms races is by asking ourselves one question – how will I measure my life? Once you have a hypothesis, you just need to keep plugging away to make your life meaningful – by your standards. In the final analysis, all that will matter is how you did by your own yardstick.

The rest is gravy.

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“Just a little”

It is better to be completely honest or completely dishonest. Being “just a little” dishonest is a problem.

Being just a little honest/kind/environmentally conscious means we are only those things when the situation suits us. The moment the going gets hard, we change our behavior.

The problem here isn’t just the unpredictability of our behavior – though that is definitely a problem. The bigger problem here is that we live a life built on lies to ourselves. We just rationalize away any bad behavior and think of ourselves as honest human beings. We do so by blaming all of our “just a little” behavior on extenuating circumstances. And, by gradually believing this lie, we stop feeling the kind of guilt that focuses us to take action.

The “Just a little” way of life is a massive problem because it is built on bad behavior during extenuating circumstances. Life, it turns out, is just a series of extenuating circumstances.

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Path focus

As we journey through life, we can choose to adopt either a path focus or a people focus. Journeying with a people focus means walking with our eyes on others’ paths. The questions that arise from such a journey are all comparative – is she ahead of me?, doesn’t he seem happier?, is she covering ground faster?, how can I show them I am awesome?.

The questions that arise from a journey with a path focus shuns comparisons. Here, the questions are – am I going in the right direction?, have I made the right decisions thus far?, am I being the best version of myself?.

Author Garth Stein once wrote – “In racing, they say that your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.”

Journeying through life isn’t much different. We will go where we focus our thoughts and eyes.

Better our path than theirs.

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Happy to assist

I’ve regularly been hearing “I will be more than happy to assist you” said multiple times on a call to customer service across multiple companies.

The only problem? In many of these instances, they weren’t actually all that helpful. In a couple of instances, I got wrong information. In another couple, they didn’t tell me upfront that they wouldn’t be able to solve my problems. And, all of this took a lot of time.

Here’s an idea – instead of training everyone to say “I will be more than happy to assist you,” why don’t we just build help centers to focus entirely on solving the problem instead? Saying “happy to assist” three times doesn’t make the problem any better. And, my hypothesis is that needing to remember these lines often makes them forget the real issue.

Perhaps a better way to think about training would be to follow functional steps instead of specific phrases. The steps I’d follow would be a mix of questions and actions-
1. Have I understood the customer’s problem? (Repeat it to them if necessary)
2. Can I fix the problem on this call or will they have to go elsewhere? (If so, let them know now with an apology)
3. How long will it take me to fix it? (Let them know)
4. Fix it.
5. Do 1-4 with a smile no matter how irate or annoying the customer is.
6. Give the person sitting next to me a high five for a job well done.

This isn’t just a problem with corporations. It is tempting to fill our silences with customers with meaningless words and empty promises. So much better that we focus on solving problems and earning a well deserved reputation for getting the job done.

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Who is paying for it

Every time you get a ridiculously cheap deal, it is worth asking – who is paying for it? Here are 3 examples –

1. The “fast fashion” movement pioneered by retailers like Zara is all about designer product fads at low prices. Manufacture it quickly, use it for a short period and dispose it. It feels like a great deal for the customer.

2. Parents of new born babies have the pick of diapers at 15c/diaper. These diapers are a massive upgrade from dealing with cloth diapers that require a tremendous amount of maintenance.

3. Cheap beef. If there are no religious connotations to this, that’s only a good thing right?

Who is paying for it?

In every case, the environment. And, in the case of fast fashion, workers in developing countries who are subject to very difficult conditions. The fast fashion movement is unsustainable because of the tremendous amount of waste it generates. Diapers use hundreds of thousands of trees to manufacture and are one of the top sources of landfill waste. Since most parents do a bad job actually cleaning disposable diapers before dumping them (even if they’re asked to do so on the label), all baby waste on the diapers create a massive bio hazard as they seep out of landfills into the ground water. Cloth diapers are not all that better either – their water usage makes them just as bad. And, beef has among the worst carbon footprints possible.

The Economic term for these is “externalities.” Every one of these has negative externalities. Every one of these seems good for the customer in the short term but has really bad consequences in the long term.

So, what can we do?
1. Look for and support alternative solutions. Counter fast fashion with slow fashion – buy your clothes and actually keep them for a while. When you are done using them, donate to people who need it more than you. Don’t just use biodegradable diapers – pay for a service to compost them. Eat less beef.

All of these will cost us a bit more in the short run. Maybe we’ll find ways to make space for them by cutting other less necessary expenses.

2. Be aware of your own carbon footprint by asking – who is paying for this? It is hard to be perfectly “green.” But, we can all be a lot greener and reduce negative environment externalities in our lives. Small actions, over time, can have big impact.

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Redefine deep work

Cal Newport defines deep work as uninterrupted periods with full concentration on a single task free of distraction. Let me start by saying – I love Cal’s work. I just thought I’d offer a counter point to his notes on productivity while adhering to similar principles. I think the principle of intensity that governs the deep work idea as spot on. However, I’ve long contended that the deep work idea is less applicable in many roles in the modern workplace. My push is that we must all think about and redefine deep work for ourselves.

There are two principles we need to keep in mind as we redefine deep work for ourselves –

1. Our productivity = Focus x Intensity x Time 
The focus referred to here is focus as a verb. It is the continuous prioritization process we use to pick the best thing to do with our time. While deep work does focus on focus (there’s an idea), it is biased to increasing intensity over increasing focus. The idea emphasizes the act of full concentration on one task over picking the task itself.

2. There are two kinds of work – research work and connection work. The difference between the two is the number of coordination required with other human beings.
If you are a researcher in a university, you don’t need to coordinate with more than a few people – your research associates and collaborators. For maybe 3 months in a year, you add students to the list. If you are working in most “matrixed” organizations, however, you are dealing with at least 10 stakeholders on any given day. This may not apply as much if you are a programmer or a brand researcher but certainly applies if you are an Engineering manager or Brand manager. The difference in the nature of the work is that your days have a large number of small tasks – typically proportional to the number of co-workers with whom you need to coordinate. And, a big part of your effectiveness is your ability to focus on the most important small task at that point of time. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a large task for the week. It is just likely that it won’t be as important a component of how your success will be measured. Intense focus on just one task is likely to hurt you more than it’ll help you on most days.

This, then, brings with it a big associated challenge – how do you keep up intensity? The third principle that makes connection work hard is the principle of attention residue. Every time we switch tasks, we reduce our ability to be intense. We are more prone, as a result, to let our minds wander and be distracted by social media. However, going back to basic principles, intensity is still incredibly valuable.

Here are 3 ideas that might help –

1. Start the day and week with your top priority items for your day and week. On most weeks, this will be a fairly long list. Most coordination jobs have 2-3 key components (tracking numbers, coordinating with people, thinking about the longer term, etc.) and it is normal to have a few things to get done across all components on the list. The act of writing it down enables us to keep committing to focusing on them.

2. Be proactive about managing your time – schedule “deep work” days and batch process meetings. If you are part of a couple of recurring larger team meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, batch most of your other meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Keep large swathes of time open for you to dive in to the chunkier tasks. As you take control of your calendar, I’d also suggest committing to a time when you get out of the office. A little bit of pressure brings out the best in us.

3. Redefine deep work based on the nature of your job. My job has a much higher connection component now than it did in most projects as a junior management consultant. My “job” as a graduate student attempting to learn, on the other hand, was largely research work. Each of these required me to redefine deep work. As I see it in my job now, deep work is the ability to work for large swathes of time without interruptions. No interruptions = no social media, no notifications, no checking personal email. The difference is that I don’t penalize myself for switching tasks. If I get 5 important small things done within an hour, then that’s great. If that involves writing 3 thoughtful emails, then that works too. The most important thing is keeping a focus on what is important. Deep work should still push you – it will just push your ability to focus over your ability to be intense a lot of the time.

As I do this, I’ve also learnt to keep an eye out for other variables that effect my ability to both focus and be intense – sleep, food, exercise, work location, etc. The way I design my life directly affects my ability to work deeply.

My belief is that – if there’s one thing that we must all take away from the deep work idea, it is that we must purposefully and intentionally design our lives for maximum productivity. We won’t be able to get there without the necessary mindfulness that the deep work idea requires. However, productivity is the act of moving toward a goal. And, for our goals, we must redefine our deep work as necessary.

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Lessons learnt from the sugar conspiracy – The 200 words project

(continued from parts 1, 2, 3).  I took away a few lessons from the sugar conspiracy –

1. A calorie is not a calorie – thanks Dr Lustig.

2. Avoiding confirmation bias is critical to getting to the truth. A habit of seeking out disconfirming evidence is among the best habits we can develop.

3. A large data set is useless if experiment design and analysis is flawed.

4. If you build it, make sure you do a good job selling it. To bring about change, ideas need to be adopted.

5. Be mindful of the politics surrounding important decisions. As this story demonstrates, strong personalities who refuse to listen to reason can cause decades worth of collateral damage.

6. When you are presented with research based results on topics like nutrition, take the time to understand the principles and run a gut check.

As I write this, I’d like to salute John Yudkin and Robert Adkins for being well ahead of their time. While they didn’t get the recognition they deserved, they serve as role models for us to strip issues down to basic principles and reason our way to understanding how things work.

And, thanks to Ian Leslie for a fantastic article.

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. – Max Planck

Source and thanks to: The Sugar Conspiracy by Ian Leslie in the Guardian

Thanks to Fenny’s world for the image

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Two looming questions

Every time I think about the problems we will have to spend our time solving in the next few decades, I go back to two looming questions –

1. How will we deal with the displacement of 70%+ of our workforce when machines take over most of our jobs?

2. How will we prevent human extinction by figuring out sustainable solutions to co-exist with the environment on this planet?

The onus on the first question lies more with policy makers and governments. The second, on the other hand, is in the hands of researchers and entrepreneurs. As with all complex questions, these two looming questions throw out plenty of symptoms that threaten to occupy our attention. But, attacking symptoms will not help us solve these problems. In fact, they probably get in the way.

For example, the root of political unrest and the hateful sentiments against fellow humans in most “developed” economies right now is due to the displacement. The blue collar factory worker’s job has gone away and will never come back. It is hard to come to terms with that reality. And, the politics around it don’t help. “Vote for me and I’ll get your jobs back” is a simple, if untrue, message. These simple messages win the day in the short term. True progress, unfortunately, is built on tough discussions. And, these tough discussions will not occur until we accept that this is the reality we face.

So, perhaps, the first step should not be to discuss our solutions to the problems we face. Our solutions will be very different depending on our biases.

Maybe the first step is simply to agree on the questions…

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