Question behind the question

Listening to the person on the other side of the table and answering the question they asked is a good first step.

But, it is only a first step.

When we take a moment to listen and understand where they’re coming from, we hear the question behind the question. That’s when we get a real understanding of their thought process, their motives and concerns.

Answering the question behind the question is how we make progress.

Direction, Outcomes, Processes

The most important goal setting tool is direction. We might get goals and processes wrong but we always want to be moving in the right direction. When in doubt, over index on getting direction right. For example, “I want to get fitter” or “We need to acquire more paying customers” or “I want to get smarter about 3D printing” are all directions.

Next, have a rough sense of what a good outcome looks like. Take the time to describe it in some detail. So, “I want to lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks” or “We need 100 paying customers by the end of the month” are outcome goals.

Finally, create a process which you think will help achieve the outcome while staying in the right direction. The process is where you’ll spend your time every day. So, create one that suits your style. Taking the fitness example, you’ll need a fitness regime that is proven to lose weight while also making sure it is something you can do.

As you work through your process, keep checking in on the outcome to tweak your process as necessary. But, be flexible on the outcome while keeping focused on getting direction right. You may realize mid-way that you didn’t set the right outcome goal. For example, maybe 10 pounds in 2 weeks wasn’t a smart target. But, “getting fitter” still is likely the right direction.

And, finally, an overlooked part of a great process – complete acceptance of the outcome. There is no guarantee that the outcome you want will be the outcome you get.

But, in the long run, good processes and good outcomes go together. And, besides, in the really long run, being in the right direction matters more than everything else anyway.

Gym goer motivations and Doug Conant

Professors Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fischback from the University of Chicago tested whether gym goers were more motivated by the workout process or workout results. The found that gym goers depended on extrinsic motivation (or the outcomes of a good work out) when they were planning to go the gym.

However, during the workout, intrinsic portions – i.e. how it felt at the moment, were more motivating.

This is one of the reasons why we are extremely poor at predicting our happiness at a future job. We greatly overestimate the power of extrinsic motivators like salary, bonuses and status when we are searching for a job and don’t look enough at the stuff that will make us happy when we get there. These typically include a great manager/team, learning and an environment with goodwill.

Doug Conant of Campbell Soup wrote 30,000 thank you letters in his time as CEO. They had a wonderful, positive effect on the organization. And, it is likely that employees of felt more rewarded by such gestures than extrinsic motivators.

When designing work environments, it is worth remembering that our deepest motivator is our connection to others. As Viktor Frankl said, our salvation lies with love and through love. – Dan Ariely (paraphrased)


Source: Payoff by Dan Ariely, The Intrinsic Motivation study

Waiting for blockbuster moments

It is human nature to wait for blockbuster moments. The next blockbuster moment is, as a rule, a few weeks or months away.

Life will get significantly better, we tell ourselves, after that next thing.

But, it never does – at least not in the way we imagine. The worries, problems and obstacles of today are simply replaced by those of tomorrow. So, in a way, waiting for such moments is a recipe for unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

The truth, it turns out, is that blockbuster moments are everywhere. They are in the small moments of delirious laughter, of hugging a loved one and of choosing to share our work. They co-exist beautifully with our worries or and problems.

The crux of spotting these moments is realizing that life isn’t an exercise of postponing or avoiding difficulty. It is learning to dance with it.

So, if you find yourself waiting for a blockbuster moment, remind yourself that opportunities to experience such moments are all around us. There’s no need to wait.

Switch off the feedback for a day

Here’s a way to do better work. Switch off the feedback for at least a day after you ship.

That space will enable you to get started on the next thing. By the time you start seeing the feedback, you’ll have put your previous work in perspective as well. And, in time, the practice of not seeking feedback and validation for everything you do will enable you to ship more.

All time spent seeking validation is time wasted. The work is done and you don’t control the rest. So, it is best to use the positive momentum from having finished something to start the next thing in earnest.

We generally have to do more before we can do better. After all, with deliberate effort, more will give us the experience and judgment to ship better.

Day 1

There’s a story about how U2, the Irish Rock band, always described themselves as “arriving.” They believed that the moment they “arrived” as a band would be the moment they became irrelevant. I thought of the “arriving” analogy as I read Jeff Bezos’ letter to shareholders and his insistence that it is always Day 1 at Amazon. Below are a few of my favorite parts.


Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?” That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic. “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.

I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste. You won’t find any of it in a survey.

Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.

Use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

Recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment.


Every one of these are courses in management and leadership.

There are many companies that aspire to acting like its “Day 1.” But, few have our trust. Jeff Bezos has been walking the talk since 1997 (It is why I’m confident Amazon will be the world’s first Trillion dollar company). It illustrates That’s why integrity is at the root of trust. You are trusted when you make commitments and keep them.

I find the idea of Day 1 incredibly relevant to my writing here. It is at the heart of the learning mindset that this blog is about. But, every time I have a lapse and forget that, it is nice to be able to turn to Jeff Bezos and be reminded of why it matters.

Thanks Jeff.

The real problem

The problem they mentioned is not the real problem.

The problems people mention are those that sound acceptable. So, they sound logical and generally “make sense.”

“The price is not right.” Or “I feel this might not be the right time.”

But, if we were to peel the onion to understand the real concerns, they would sound much more emotional and visceral.

“I am worried I will be ashamed of making this decision.” Or, “I fear failure.”

So, when we hear that logical objection, let’s take a moment to parse the emotion behind it. Dealing with the logical objection and reducing the price, for example, will not solve the problem.

Finding a way to help them conquer fear with trust and a willingness to take the leap will.

Reasons to always share credit

There are many reasons to be obsessive about always sharing credit with everyone who helped you.

1. You show you care. That’s the essence of leadership.

2. People appreciate it. So, they will want to work with you and care for you. It feels great and it shows up in performance reviews too.

3. You set guardrails against becoming a world class jerk. People aren’t born jerks, they become jerks. And it is hard to think too highly of yourself when you write that thank you email and realize the list of people to thank is longer than you imagine.

The life sine wave

Equanimity, as a concept, really fascinated me for the longest time. It wasn’t something I managed at any stage in the first 20 odd years of my life. I simply moved up and down with the flow of life. However, writing every day on this blog gave me a sense of balance and perspective that I’d never managed. So, the time felt right to give equanimity a shot. And, the concept that helped me make progress the most was the idea of the life sine wave.

A sinusoidal or sine wave is a curve with periodic oscillations. While a normal sine wave has periodic oscillations, life’s waves aren’t as periodic. But, they’re just as predictable. Some days are “up” days and other days are “down” days. So, if it is an up day, you know there’s a down day coming and vice versa.

The beauty of understanding and accepting this is that you don’t take either kind of day to heart. You understand that this will pass and all you can do is keep plugging away and doing your best.

That acceptance is the first step toward equanimity.

The Ikea effect and Origami cranes

When Dan Ariely built a chest of drawers that he bought from IKEA, he didn’t enjoy the process. But, once he finished, he noticed that he looked at the chest of drawers a lot and felt a sense of pride.

So, Dan, Mike Norton, and Dan Mochon conducted an experiment where participants were asked to make origami cranes. When they built easy cranes, they found that the creators of the cranes were willing to pay 5x more for their creations than neutral buyers. This difference went up for harder-to-build cranes.

P E Duff discovered this idea in the 1950s when the easy-to-make cake recipe didn’t sell all that much. Sales picked up when they made the recipe more complicated and included complicated instructions to decorate cakes with frosting.

Zappos built its reputation as a great place to work by allowing their employees to build their own experiences. They could build their cubicles and their own call scripts. Zappos understands that we’re all toddlers. And, like all toddlers, we love things we build.

We often dream of paying others to do our chores, cook our food, etc. But, given how much we love putting in work and tasting the fruits of our labor, are these dreams contributing to feeling alienated in our lives? In the long run, these minor annoyances may be our sweetest memories. A little sweat equity pays itself back in meaning. And, that is a high return on investment. – Dan Ariely


Source: Payoff by Dan Ariely, The IKEA Effect study