Amateur pilots

There was a wonderful anecdote shared on The West Wing by Senator Howard Stackhouse who is just about to pull out of the Presidential race after threatening to stay in it to provoke an honest debate between the two nominees.

I was telling Josh Lyman about a friend who just got his pilot’s license. He told me the most remarkable thing. He said a new pilot will fly into cloud cover. There’ll be no visibility. And they’ll check their gauges, they’ll look at the artificial horizon, it’ll show them level, but they won’t trust it. So, they’ll make an adjustment and then another and another… He said the number of new pilots who fly out of clouds completely upside-down would knock you out. My office will make arrangements for me to endorse you in the morning. You keep your eyes on the horizon, Mr. President.

I took away 2 reflections from that anecdote.

First, it is that amateurs’ compasses often lie outside of their own self. I guess that is natural because you have likely spent so much time listening to a teacher and haven’t yet transferred the compass within. As a result, you aren’t sure of much and tend to over-adjust to what you think is feedback.

Second, we all fly into cloud cover from time to time. Do we choose to react to it? Or, do we keep our eyes on the horizon?

And, perhaps, most importantly, do we even know what our horizon is?

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Negative energy triggers

I think of my journey here as one similar to the “Lean” philosophy of continuous improvement. You keep making small changes every day and, every once a while, these small lessons cluster into a theme that can be synthesized and shared.

One such theme that has emerged over the years is being mindful about stimuli that are negative energy triggers. Negative energy triggers are actions that result in me feeling consistently worse. Now, some of these could just be one-offs. But, when they are regular occurrences, they push me to change behavior. An example of a few negative energy triggers that resulted in changed behavior are –
– Checking my phone first thing in the morning while in bed (keep the phone out of the room)
– Spending time on my Facebook feed (use – and love – Facebook without the feed)
– Reading the news and repeatedly getting exposed to negative headlines (eventually resulted in consuming news with just 2 excellent emails in the morning – Quartz and The Economic Espresso)
– People who made me feel worse about myself (avoid them once I understand what is going on)

Of late, I’ve found two negative energy triggers –
– Going multiple days without “deep work” or buckling down and focusing on a task that matters
– Any online debate or discussion around Donald Trump – except for data driven articles on FiveThirtyEight

The “deep work” trigger is one I am very happy about. It has pushed me to make lifestyle changes I’d love to make. The second has resulted in me being careful about places where there are online discussions around American politics. Part of this is because of the amount of hate that is inherent in these discussions and part of it is just disappointment of sorts at the situation.

A big part of defaulting to happiness is eliminating negative energy triggers. As with all important changes, that process begins with awareness and acceptance. And, with these intentional changes comes growth.

negative energy triggers

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Why science is hard – Part II – The 200 words project

(Continued from Part I)

Why do we see headlines about coffee being good for us one day and bad the next? It is possible that the original study was flawed- career incentives around paper publication have created bogus journals. But, it is gradually becoming harder to fake it on the internet with online forums and comments on all journal websites. Self-correction is a critical part of science and retractions are on the rise.

science is hard

The main issue is in such studies is that isolating how coffee affects health requires lots of studies and lots of evidence, and only over the course of many, many studies does the evidence start to narrow to a conclusion that’s defensible. The variation in findings is not a threat – it just means that scientists are working on a hard problem.

This uncertainty doesn’t mean that we can’t use findings to make important decisions. We should make the best decisions we can with the current evidence but take care not to lose sight of its strength and degree of certainty AND stay open to new data. It’s no accident that every good paper includes the phrase “more study is needed” — there is always more to learn.
(More on how failure is actually moving science forward in the last piece of this series next week..)

Science is great, but it’s low-yield. Most experiments fail. That doesn’t mean the challenge isn’t worth it, but we can’t expect every dollar to turn a positive result. Most of the things you try don’t work out — that’s just the nature of the process. Rather than merely avoiding failure, we need to court truth. – FiveThirtyEight

Source and thanks to: The FiveThirtyEight Blog – Science isn’t broken

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The big bang or the drip

Simplifying things is an essential part of being human. There’s only so much complexity we can handle, after all. Like all things, this has positive and negative consequences. On the bright side, we have the ability to stay sane despite the many many things we’re exposed to in any given day. We do this by making all sorts of snap judgments that help us decide what we should focus on. The downside is that it is this ability that often makes us xenophobic, for example, and, often, closed to diversity.

One such consequence of simplification is that we greatly over-estimate the effects of the big bang versus the drip. We love thinking of the big product launch, the epic road trip with friends, the huge award, the incredibly viral post, the prestigious letter of admission and the all-important round of funding. However, as a close friend put it, it isn’t the big decisions that change things. It is the collection of many many small decisions.

Great companies, strong relationships and people of character are built with consistent daily effort.

In the final analysis, the big moments may be worthy of a place on the highlight reel. But, it is the constant drip of effort that will determine how long the highlight reel is.. and, perhaps most importantly, how happy we are when we look back and take stock.

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The personal social media usage manual

Given how much social media there is in our lives, I have found it helpful to have a social media usage manual and engagement philosophy.

The principle that guides this manual, in my case, is that a “free” product isn’t really free. The opportunity cost of time and distraction takes a massive toll on our limited attention and ability to produce. My approach has been as follows –

Multiple times a day

Purpose: Connect and communicate with people I work with, build serendipitous virtual connections and relationships
Engagement notes: I check email multiple times a day and keep inbox zero. It works great for my kind of ADD – so much so that I have to frequently ask myself if I am overdoing it and becoming too obsessed. My email volume is very reasonable so I still love email and love hearing from folks on the internet – especially the readers of this blog.

Once a day – checking and responding to notifications restricted to the morning when I share my blog post for the day with a few rare exceptions:

Purpose: Share blog posts, serendipitous connections with old acquaintances, stay in touch with events at graduate school via groups (this use case will definitely lessen shortly)
Engagement notes: I only check my own profile page and notifications and get a lot of value from Facebook on most days. I haven’t checked my feed in 4 years – I was prone to envy growing up and I think the feed exacerbates that. I’m also easily distracted. So, one less thing that’s very distracting is very helpful.
Connection philosophy: Most people who have mutual friends (if I don’t know them) who want to connect. My Facebook “friends” list became unmanageable a long time ago.

Purpose: Share blog posts, occasionally publish a LinkedIn post, and go through the feed every once a while.
Engagement notes: I go through the top items of my every morning. Most of the notes are professional and I’ve regularly found interesting reads on my feed. I am also very biased as I’ll be going to work at LinkedIn.
Connection philosophy: Having gotten a bit of flak about this in the past, I try VERY hard to keep my LinkedIn connections to people I know. But, this is hard to do.

Purpose: Share blog posts and have serendipitous exchanges with random folks on the interweb.
Engagement notes: I rarely work through anything more than the top tweet (unless it is a very slow day). But, I do enjoy the randomness of Twitter for the 2 minutes I am on it every day.

I’m not sure if WordPress counts as a social network – but I do show up on my blog once a day. I am a rare YouTube user when I’m looking for something. But, this is more or less it.

I find it helpful to have a social media manual and engagement philosophy. It helps me question if the purpose is being met from time to time and ensure I’m using services in a way that is actually valuable.

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Fix the lifestyle you want, then work backwards

Author and blogger Cal Newport recently sent the highlights from an old post of his on career advice. It is a goodie.

Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there. 

The problem with career planning, I argued, is that most people focus on the wrong properties when making professional decisions. They either ask vague questions about the nature of the work — “is this my passion?”; “is this what I want to do with my life?” — or they sidestep this ambiguity by optimizing ego metrics — “what pays the most?”; “what would be most impressive to my aunt in Ohio?”

Neither of these strategies work well.

The problem with the first approach is that most knowledge sector jobs are essentially the same. Whether you work in the front office of a major league baseball team, an investment bank, or your own one-person company: you’re going to spend most days in front of a computer, sending emails, and attending meetings. No amount of self-reflection is likely to determine that one such option among many similar options is clearly your true passion.

The problem with only optimizing ego metrics, on the other hand, is that many prestigious jobs pay a lot of money in part because they’re so awful people would otherwise quit. The number of big city lawyers I know could fill a bus. The number of happy big city lawyers I know could fit comfortably in my Honda Fit.

Which brings me back to my advice.

The real goal in career planning is to build a life you enjoy. So instead of focusing on tangential factors that may or may not make your life better, why not cut straight to chase and ask: What do I want my life to be like and what sequence of career steps will best get me there?

If you crave a Musk/Jobs style, big-vision, manic drive to build something big lifestyle, then this should lead to a different set of decisions than if you instead crave a Feynman style  thinking big thoughts in scenic locations lifestyle. If you’re instead attracted to a Frugal Woods style retreat to a homestead in Vermont, then your choices should be even different still.

Notice, however, that issues like “passion” and “job match” don’t play a huge role in this scenario. The specifics of the work are less important than the impact of the work on your daily life.

I don’t agree with every piece (e.g. the similarity of knowledge sector jobs) but, I think this is very good advice because it suggests we just reverse the sequence of questions we normally ask. Instead of starting with – “what career do I want?” and then moving to “Given this career, what is the realistic life style?,” Cal suggests beginning with figuring out what kind of life you’d like to live.

It doesn’t make the task all that much easier, in my opinion, as the lifestyle question is pretty hard to answer.

But, at least we’re focused on a better question..

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Givers and cynics

A friend shared two observations yesterday about graduate school –
1. Givers who go out of their way to help others have a better experience are those who benefit the most from the learning and growth that accompanies it.
2. There is a strong correlation between those who only take from an experience and those who tend to be cynical and complaining.

I became aware of these ideas thanks to a really good book by Adam Grant called “Give and Take.” I’ve seen this everywhere since and I find this to very true for a couple of reasons.

First, if your only objective is to optimize for yourself  and absorb everything you possibly can without contributing, you unwittingly surrender accountability for your own life experience. That is why there’s a strong correlation between being a taker and a cynic. In addition, I think it is a guaranteed route to unhappiness because you spend way too much time asking yourself if you are having a good experience. That brings a lot of pressure and, besides, there’s only so much good that can come from taking your thoughts so seriously.

Second, I don’t believe giving to the community is a selfless act. I think it is a very selfish act because sustainable giving requires you to have a strong reason that benefits you. The absence of a good reason is a recipe for burn out. But, what separates it from “taking” in my mind is that the selfishness is just directed outward. This outward focus is massively helpful as it both helps us get perspective by understanding others and their journeys better while also making sure we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

I have come to believe that most good things in life are a result of counter intuitive actions. It feels intuitive to believe that the more you take, the more you will get. But, I’ve found that to be wrong. The more you give, the more you get. This may not hold if all you’re focusing on is short term gratification.

But, it definitely holds in things that matter.

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Leadership in 1 page

One of my recurring frustrations with books on leadership is that leaders are often made out to be superhuman. You have to be able to do this and that and then that as a leader. I think the issue with most of these books is that they study the best leaders of their age and try to combine all their best traits into one thesis on what makes a good leader.

I think that’s the wrong approach. There is no trait-based path toward leadership. We lead others the way we lead ourselves. And, the best way to lead ourselves is to be authentic – to be 100% ourselves.

So, one of my goals has been to understand what it is it leaders actually do. Over the years, I’ve been piecing this graphic together through books, blog posts, conversations with wiser folk and my own experiences applying what I’ve learnt. So, here goes.

We’ll be building to the full 1 pager step-by-step.

Leaders do 3 things – they lead, manage, and build culture. In simple words, these mean
1. Lead: “Doing the right thing” or effectiveness
2. Manage: “Doing things right” or efficiency
3. Culture: “This is what we do here”

The size of the boxes gives a rough illustration of the amount of time you spend on each of these 3. I estimate management to be 50% of the time with the rest split between leading and building culture.

To draw on the difference between leadership and management, I’d like to draw on a Stephen Covey story that distinguishes efficiency from effectiveness. Imagine a group of woodcutters getting ready to cut trees in a forest. The managers or efficiency leaders are those who walk behind the woodcutters and say – “Try a 45 degree angle. It’ll cut the tree faster.” Managers optimize.
The leaders are those who climb up the trees and say – “Guys, wrong jungle.” Leaders focus on whether our effort is effective.

Finally, the one central principle that ties leading, managing and building culture is “deep care.” As a leader, all the things you do will be null and void if you don’t care more than anyone else about leading. I’ve added my own interpretation to this idea – “doing small things with extraordinary love.” I have come to realize that leadership isn’t so much about the big things. It is all about the small things. Over time, the small things become the big things.

lead, manage, build culture, leadership

The first piece to dive into would be the lead part. For the “how,” I’ve channeled Jack Welch’s idea – caring more about your people and work. You have to obsess about what the right things are. There are no shortcuts.

But, to bring it to the tactics, I’ve gone with the what Ben Horowitz laid out in “The Hard Thing about Hard Things.” Leaders do 3 things
1. Articulate and share a vision – The Steve Jobs attribute
2. Ambition for the team (versus self) – The Bill Campbell attribute
3. Ability to execute and bring their vision to life – The Andy Grove attribute

Of these 3, the tactic you need to consistently focus on is honing your ability to articulate and share a vision. You would assume that you have risen or been given leadership because of your ability to execute. And, the ambition for the team is one that is the hardest to coach. Ben Horowitz believes that, by the time you reach your twenties and thirties, you either have it or you don’t.

So, as a leader, you obsess about doing the right thing and then communicate the vision and priorities relentlessly.


Next, we move to management. Management is all about efficiency. And, the “how” revolves around setting and managing expectations.

A beautiful framework that helps explains the tactics is the triangle with results, people, and processes. Leaders typically influence or directly control all 3. While they are always held accountable for results, results are a lagging indicator. By the time they appear, it is too late to do anything. So, the way to manage is to take control of people and processes – both of which are leading indicator. The assumption here is that if your people are happy and productive and if your processes are thorough, the chances are high that results will go your way.

The place to start here is with processes. This is because people problems are often process problems. An example I think of is vacation policy. Let’s assume you work in a company where customer support is critical. If you don’t have a simple shared calendar process that enables your team to coordinate vacations, you could end up with a situation where every person wants to take time off at the same time. In the absence of a process, you play “bad cop” asking one of them to cancel their vacation. This, soon, becomes a people problem. Good system design enables the systems to be tough and the people to be nice.

Most team processes involve setting expectation around the norms of the team. A great place to start are the processes around team meetings and communications. Example processes are 100% mindfulness (no cell phones or laptops), 100% transparency in communication around key decisions, candor in meetings – “the worst is discussed at the meeting and not outside” and a decision process where we debate till we decide but lend our 100% support once the decision is made.

One of the biggest challenges about creating team processes is that you will occasionally have a team member who refuses to follow your processes. It is not uncommon for managers to make exceptions when their results are outstanding. But, it is critical we understand the trade-offs and be transparent about why we make the exception.

3Finally, the most nebulous piece – building culture. Culture, to channel Seth Godin, is when we say “this is what we do here.” Culture is built intentionally – one small action, one day at a time. There are 2 parts to building culture – building culture and sharing culture.

You build culture in 3 ways –
1. The leader’s personal culture. The single biggest factor that influences a company is the culture of the leader or founder.
2. Who you hire/fire/promote. One principle here is that you get what you tolerate. So, if you don’t stop behaviors you don’t want, you will get more of it. The other part is that when you hire or promote, you send a strong signal about the kind of behaviors you want to encourage. Promote a jerk and you will get more jerk behavior.
3. How you make decisions. Decisions tell us how teams work. Whether it is by consensus, debate and discussion or simply issuing directives, our decisions go a long way in building culture.

An often overlooked part of building culture is sharing culture. Sharing culture involves sharing stories of people who’ve demonstrated key cultural tenets. This is why companies with great cultures (Zappos, Netflix) create handbooks. While it is useful externally, it is much more useful internally to explain to new employees that “this is what we do here.”

One final note – there needs to be alignment between the culture you seek to create and the processes you use to govern the team with. For example, if your decision making process is to hoard information and make decisions yourself, you can’t expect to have transparency in communication. 4

So, how do we use all this? My sense is that this is best used as a reflection sheet. It is, perhaps, one of those things we might look at over the weekend to ask ourselves – how did I do on all these fronts last week? And, what should I aim to do on these fronts next week?

If there’s one insight I’d like to go back to to wrap up, it would be that it all comes down to deep care. At the end of the day, people will likely not remember what you say or do, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Thanks to: every person listed in the bottom for contributing key insights and frameworks for everything on this sheet. In truth, the number of folks who’ve contributed to this synthesis would be much longer than just a page. Thanks to the many authors who’ve written books on management, leadership and related topics and a big thank you to every team I’ve been part of, or lead.

I hope you find it helpful. This’ll undoubtedly evolve and, hopefully, get better. Looking forward to all thoughts/feedback.

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The first step with dealing with your demons

The first step with dealing with your demons is acknowledging that they will always be around.

The Oscar winning biographical movie “A Beautiful Mind” had a lovely way of portraying this. In the movie, Russel Crowe portrays Nobel Prize winning Economist John Nash and his struggles with schizophrenia. All of John’s delusions revolve around three imaginary characters – Charles, Marcee and Parcher. As the story progresses and as Nash comes to terms with his condition, he accepts that all three of them are just figments of his imagination.

However, they never go away. The final scenes depict this beautifully. Right after winning the Nobel prize, John glances at the other end of the hallway to find all three of them standing and watching. But, he’s learnt to walk away. It is a powerful moment.


I was reminded of this as I was reflecting on three moments in the past month where I let my impatience get ahead of me. My immediate reaction after those moments was to be annoyed at myself for letting impatience even show up and, thus, find ways to tap into irritation. However, the flip side of impatience, a bias for action, is a core strength. So, the impatience isn’t going to go anywhere anytime soon. I just need to be more aware of it and be able to catch it before it dictates my actions.

The “A Beautiful Mind” depiction is a good one. The next time I find myself falling prey to impatience, I think I should remember John Nash and say to myself – “You can choose to ignore it.”

Acceptance of the fact that it will always be around is the first step, though.

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Why science is hard – Part I – The 200 words project

A recent project spearheaded by Brian Nosek, a founder of the nonprofit Center for Open Science, invited researchers to analyze the same data around a prompt: Do soccer referees give more red cards to dark-skinned players than light-skinned ones? Twenty-nine teams, 61 expert analysts, and wide variety of methods were used.

The results? 20 teams concluded the answer was yes (with widely varying magnitudes), 9 teams found no significant relationship.

science is hard

The variability in results wasn’t due to fraud or sloppy work. Even the most skilled researchers must make subjective choices that have a huge impact on the result they find.

All is not lost, however. These disparate results don’t mean that studies can’t inch us toward truth. For instance, it is hard to look at the results and say there’s no bias against dark-skinned players.

The important lesson here is that a single analysis is not sufficient to find a definitive answer. Every scientific result is a temporary truth, one that’s subject to change when someone else comes along to build, test and analyze anew.

But, if this is the case, how do we make sense of news clippings that claim A causes B? More on that next week.

Science isn’t broken. It’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for. – Christie Aschwanden

Source and thanks to: The FiveThirtyEight Blog – Science isn’t broken

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