Am versus habitually default to

We generally say – “I am xx” and “I am yy” when we describe ourselves. “I am short tempered.” Or, “I am a relaxed person.” The question, then, is how much of these descriptions is what we are versus what we habitually default to?

A close someone recently said – “I am emotional. I have high highs and low lows.” This resonated with me as I had struggled with that for a long time. A quick search for “highs” on this blog points to that trend.

There’s a 2008 post that says “Highs and lows are not necessary” and I ask myself to “play it cool.” There’s a 2014 post that talks about how the highs aren’t all that high. And, there’s a bunch in between that talk about the evolution. Describing myself as emotional and as someone who had high highs and low lows would have been accurate in 2008. But, it hasn’t been accurate for a while now. It was a case of something I habitually defaulted to. And, after a lot of work, that changed.

While there are portions of our behavior that are very hard to change, there are huge portions that can be changed. We’ll need to first want to do it. Then, we’ll need to reflect and catch ourselves behaving that way after the fact. Then, slowly, we’ll hopefully develop awareness as we do it. And, over time, we’ll understand the triggers well enough to prevent it. Change doesn’t happen overnight. But, it is possible.

The first step is to stop describing things as if they are permanent. There is not as much “I am” as we think. And, there’s a lot more that we “habitually default” to than we think as well.

We are more malleable than we give ourselves credit for.

Grapefruit and Spinach

Grapefruit, spinach, or bitter gourd versus any snack with processed sugar.

Exercise versus lying on the couch.

Reading a non-fiction book versus watching television.

Quality sleep versus browsing the web till late into the night.

People who push back and challenge us versus people who always agree.

On first sampling, the latter options typically win hands down. There is a correlation between things that don’t taste great at first and things that are good for us. But, do more of the former, and they’ll begin to grow on you. After a while, exercise, reading non-fiction, quality sleep, grapefruit (and other healthy food) and interesting conversations become things we can’t live without.

But, we’ve got to look past first impressions, think long term and commit to taking action.

There’s a life lesson in here somewhere.

More and better

I was trying to get more push ups in at the gym the other day. In isolation, that’s not a bad idea. However, there was plenty of room for me to do fewer, much better.

I realized soon enough that this behavior was due to an incentive I had in place. I used to give myself a small check mark at the end of the week if I counted 100 push ups as a proxy for time spent at the gym. However, it wasn’t relevant anymore. So, I took the check mark row off. But it got me thinking about incentives.

First, whenever you see a person or an organization pushing for more/faster instead of better, take a good look at the incentives. People compensated for the short term will push for short term wins instead of longer term value. And, this compensation need not be in terms of pay. It could also just be about more praise in the short term or “culture currency.”

Second, we overestimate the amount of time “more” is useful. This is likely because our emotional system, the amygdala, was trained in thousands of years of scarcity. The last hundred years have created more abundance than our amygdala can ever imagine. So, yes, every once a while, we do need more in our lives.

But, as a general rule, better is always better.

Mentorship and grit – The 200 words project

Venture capitalist and blogger Tom Tunguz nicely summarized Robert Greene’s book “Mastery” by identifying two common paths to mastery – mentorship and grit.

Leonardo da Vinci’s story captures both ideas. Leonardo was born out of wedlock and was prohibited from attending school. His father, a notary, had access to a large supply of paper which was a rare commodity at the time. So, Leonardo would walk through the forests of Vinci and draw. Over time, he built an excellent body of work that led to Andrea Del Verrochio to hire him as an apprentice. Leonardo would go on to learn many different sciences under his mentor and become a master artist.

As he was still scorned because of his birth, Leonardo demonstrated grit as he pursued hundreds of inventions including helicopters, parachutes, and a giant crossbow. This combination of an education from a leading expert and grit led Leonardo da Vinci to greatness.

Tying it into his work with entrepreneurs, Tom observed – “I suspect all great founders and CEOs are supported by a network of great mentors. Most of these mentorship relationships are hidden in the shadows, not often mentioned. But that lack of visibility belies their critical importance.”

A few times in my life, I have been privileged to have amazing mentors and all of those experiences share something in common. Those people helped me learn something about myself that I couldn’t have without them: they pushed me to start a business, they challenged me to carry a quota, they offered me an opportunity in venture capital. – Tom Tunguz

Source and thanks to: Tom Tunguz’s blog, Mastery by Robert Greene

Is everything alright

On the day before he passed away, Albert Einstein’s assistant, seeing him in pain, asked – “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, everything is alright” – he said – “but I am not.”

In 1916, Albert Einstein predicted that gravitational waves transport energy as gravitational energy. In February 2016, scientists in California confirmed this prediction a fully hundred years later. I remember saying “Wow” as I read this piece of news. How do you develop such a deep understanding of first principles and make a prediction that turns out to be spot on a century later? So, I ordered Walter Isaacson’s biography on Einstein.

While I only started reading a few months later, I made slow progress and even considered stopping at some point in the middle. I’m glad I didn’t, however. As I made more progress, the book just kept getting better. And, by the end, it was clear that Walter Isaacson had done a great job with character development.

So, it follows that one of my biggest takeaways from the book didn’t have much to do with Einstein’s smarts. Instead, it was his attitude toward life that resonated deeply.

Walter Isaacson characterized Einstein’s approach as one of a “wry detachment” (I think of it similar to non-attachment). Einstein himself called out the fact that he didn’t take his life or work too seriously. That, in turn, helped him deal with challenges with a good measure of equanimity and a sense of humor. This becomes apparent as Isaacson shares many interesting stories from an eventful life. His charm and wit made him very quotable. And, I was fascinated by the regularity with which Einstein and his work appeared in the front page of “The New York Times.”

Can you imagine that happening with a modern day scientist? Einstein’s fame meant he was like a modern day rockstar.

And, yet, he maintained perspective. “Wry detachment” describes his attitude toward life well. He seemed to have mastered that human ability to be able to look at oneself as an outsider. And, he managed to do so by not taking his life or contributions seriously.

That’s why I thought his response to the “Is everything alright” question was among the more powerful lines in the book (and there is no lack of competition). Most of us might interpret the question as being about us. But, not Einstein. Despite his out-sized contributions to life on this planet, he understood his place in it better than most of us ever will.

I’d love to be able to emulate a bit of that wisdom in my life.

Healthy means and healthy ends

I heard a refrain the other day about someone who passed away before their time – “He/she used to exercise and lead a healthy life. Sometimes you wonder, did all of that help?”

I’ve heard similar refrains in the past.

There are many quotes around smoking from the years it was in vogue. An example is – “Smoking kills but we were born to die anyway.” These quotes have been re-purposed for other unhealthy habits left, right, and center.

The strain of logic assumed in both examples is that healthy living would help us prolong our lives.

But, should it?

The question we must ask is – is doing something good a means to an end? Or, is it simply worth doing because it is good?

I would posit that it is almost always the latter. It is worth living healthy because we live every day feeling in our elements – feeling alive. Similarly, you don’t read because you are going to die the most knowledgeable human being you know. You read because you will be able to use what you learn to live a wiser, happier life.

Let’s not confuse quality and quantity. After all, it isn’t the years in our life that count. It is the life in those years.

When companies become corporations

When do organizations and companies become big corporations? I think there are a few tell tale signs –

  1. You stop feeling treated as a customer and begin to feel yourself treated as a number. For example, you need to pass the annoying robot voice or 4 numbers test before you speak to a person. That’s when you know they have “scaled.”

2. Customer services loses the power to say or do something that isn’t in the manual.

3. You get a 30 page legal document for your terms and conditions.

4. You get corporate speak instead of a real apology.

5. You don’t feel you can trust them to help you or care. This tends to be the surest sign.

Of course, the big corporation is just something we feel. Nothing may have really changed in the company’s exterior messaging.

But, as customers, we know when it happens.

Who you look at in meetings

When you are presenting in a meeting, who do you look at? I’ve generally observed some combination of 3 approaches –

1. Don’t freak out: Do whatever it takes to keep you calm (look frequently at the material while moving your head around in general).
2. Focus on the boss: Focus on who you think is the most important in the room.
3. Equal opportunity presenter: Make an attempt to make eye contact with most people in the room.

Experienced presenters don’t have to worry about keeping themselves calm. So, really good ones do a combination of 2 and 3. They look at most people but make sure they give the key decision makers the largest portion of time share. That makes sense as a strategy.

However, I’ve been in a few meetings over the years where the presenter is ONLY focused on whoever he/she feels is the most important person in the room. On a few occasions, I have been that person. And, in all others, I have been totally ignored. In both cases, I’ve found it to be a bad experience. When I was the point of focus, I would shift uncomfortably in my seat and find myself looking at other people to give the presenter a hint. And, when I’m ignored, well, I generally lose interest in the material very quickly.

The bigger issue with the “focus on the boss” approach is that you just, unnecessarily, deposit negative credits in the emotional bank accounts of the other folks in the room. And, who knows when you might end up needing their help – especially if you work in the same company.

Who you look at isn’t generally emphasized as an important piece of presentation preparation. I think it should.

Consciously choose your approach. Your material will get forgotten in time. How you made people feel will not.

First world situations

In a conversation with a good friend recently, I stumbled when attempting to describe how things are. I usually use “first world problems” to describe some of the minor niggles. But, it just didn’t feel right. He said – “I think you mean first world situations.”

He finally got to what I had been attempting to describe for months.

There’s lesser strife and war on the planet than ever before. Of course, these stats mean absolutely nothing if you are in Syria right about now. But, in aggregate, things are better, safer and more peaceful. There are more of us who don’t have to worry about basic security and sustenance. And, yet, it is easy to walk around stressed.

I’ve tried various attempts at keeping perspective. One method that has worked well is to gloss over the relatively minor issues and focus on what I’m learning and how I’m processing my experience. Sure, there are problems and sure, there is uncertainty. But, worrying about things outside of my control is a fool’s errand anyway. And, while I might be facing the occasional challenge, it is just a challenge. It isn’t difficult – I don’t have to engage in a daily fight for food, hunger or safety or deal with abuse of any sort. Calling these challenges “problems” give them too much weight. Language matters…

So, I’ve found it better to just describe them as first world situations. Naming the beast often helps with dealing with it. And, dealing with first world situations generally means keeping them in perspective and learning to focus on the many good things going on.

And, there’s more of the good stuff to be thankful for than we regularly realize.

Our instincts suck at first

Our instincts for something generally suck at first. This is nearly always the case. So, the “trust your instincts” advice is generally hogwash. If you just started playing chess or skiing or living life, please don’t follow your instincts. Most expertise is counter intuitive.

How, then, do they get better? By disciplining ourselves to build habits.

So, if you wanted to develop instincts for using your time effectively, you need to commit to training your mind to build habits over time. Or, if you want to develop instincts around your field of work, you need to have a habit to continuously study your field as you would have in school.

Let’s consider the time example. Imagine you want to spend your time trusting your instincts to lead you to the most effective uses of your time. Unless you are naturally disciplined, you might need to begin with a checklist. Create a daily checklist which covers your top priorities. The level of granularity will be directly proportional to your lack of discipline at that point. So, in my case eight years back, I had a very granular checklist for the day.

Over time, you’ll find yourself needing the granularity less. As an example, I used to run through a quick and simple morning checklist until a few months back. It made me feel like I was notching up quick wins. I don’t feel I need it anymore because I’m confident I can hit the ground running. But, I used this for many years.

Similarly, you can then convert daily checklists to weekly checklists. When I made that switch four years or so ago, my weekly checklist was very long. It was still very granular. The next edit made it shorter. Then, shorter again. My current version, as of two days ago, requires me to just spend a minute to go through it – it is just part of a weekly check in with myself. After years of training, I can feel my instincts slowly getting better.

And, if you care for a more specific example, I used to count 30 minutes of reading a non-fiction book as part of my daily checklist eight years ago. Then, I would count the rough aggregate time on a weekly basis. I stopped counting this a while back. I enjoy reading and trust myself to do so. But, I can’t say the same for exercise. In 2011, I began with trying to just exercise 3 times a week. This moved to 4 in 2013 and 5 in 2015. Now, we’re up to 6. I still track this carefully as I still resist it despite enjoying it. I hope the exercise habit will kick in in full swing in a couple of years.

Why do we resist stuff that we know is good for us? We all have a force within us that resists all positive change. Steven Pressfield calls this force “the resistance” – the most toxic force known to humans. So, don’t take it personally. Most of our instincts suck at first. But, they can get better. We just need to work at them over time. I’ve intentionally emphasized how long it took me to develop some rather basic instincts. Then again, I wasn’t disciplined at all and needed to do a lot of work. You probably are a lot more disciplined than I used to be. So, it’ll likely be a much quicker process for you. I hope it is.

But, if it isn’t, take heart. It’ll still likely be faster than my 8+ years.

It still isn’t easy. But, let’s, as a rule, not confuse easier and better.