The global caste system

India has had the caste system woven into the social fabric for more than a thousand years now. I grew up exposed to it and I sometimes wondered what the world might look like without it. Maybe other nations had the answer?

I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities to live in multiple places since I left home for university ten odd years ago. And, guess what – every place has a caste system of its own. Sure, they don’t call it the caste system. But, the caste system is not about castes. It is a vehicle for discrimination. As I’ve been reading in Yuval Harari’s incredible book – Sapiens, discrimination is a necessary part of social order. Human beings have used concepts like pollution and purity for thousands of years to preserve this order. Some people just receive much better treatment at any given time than most of the rest.

We don’t think much of this. If you have a passport from a developed nation, you are treated wonderfully well at any airport around the world. However, everyone else isn’t really all that welcome. Add a non-white skin color and you have a recipe for shitty treatment everywhere you go. Global travel, thus, is a classic example of a global caste system. And, folks from developing countries are the untouchables.

We grow up with these social structures and they’re woven into the fabric of our daily lives. So, it is easy as hell not to question it since it seems like the natural order. Ask some men why there are fewer women in executive positions and you might find them give you pseudo scientific answers about why it is natural, pre-ordained even. Substitute men with other “higher castes” in various contexts. And, the results are similar. Every white supremacist will tell you there’s something impure about the darker person’s gene that doesn’t make them worthy of leadership.

I’d like to believe that these things will get solved over time. We’ve certainly made a ton of progress on various issues over the decades. But, in the current climate, it certainly does seem like things are getting worse.

Then again, maybe it gets worse before it gets better?

TV2 in Denmark has a lovely 3 minute video speaking to just this. It is easy to put people in boxes. We all do, all the time. It is part of being human. But, every once a while, it is perhaps skipping what divides us and looking instead at what we all share.

Consciousness and mistakes

I made a couple of small, avoidable mistakes recently. As with such errors in judgment, I felt my ears burn a bit as I felt the minor embarrassment that accompanies them. I try to avoid wasting time beating myself up. So, I didn’t.

But, I asked myself (both times) – was I disengaged / unconscious at that moment?

It wasn’t. I made these errors of judgment despite the engagement.

It occurred to me that I was missing the point of consciousness. The point of consciousness isn’t to avoid mistakes – it isn’t possible to avoid them as long as you’re attempting to do things. If anything, you become more conscious of them – even the small ones that you might have ignored previously.

Instead, consciousness provides us an opportunity to work on a creative, constructive and corrective response. And, what a wonderful opportunity that is.

So, a note to self – the mistakes and bad judgment aren’t going away. It is up to me to learn, make different mistakes tomorrow and develop better judgment.

Good judgment comes from experience. And, experience comes from bad judgment.

5 Resume Principles

The CV or resume has been pronounced dead many times over. Yet, they’re still around and are what many recruiters and hiring managers ask for. So, if you’re working on your resume, here’s what I’ve learnt about the 5 principles that great resumes follow.

1. No typos and obvious grammatical errors. People spend 30 seconds on your resume, 60 seconds if you are lucky. They expect you have spent significant time on your resume as it is a one page representation of you as a professional. Typos really muck with your chances – especially in a day and age when Word will do it automatically for you.

2. Consistency. Everything on the resume needs to be consistent with what came before. Formatting is the obvious candidate here. Fonts and font sizes need to be the same. If titles or locations are italicized or laid out in a certain format (e.g. State, Country), all titles and locations need to follow suit.

Also, I recommend minimizing format experiments – I am biased toward letting the content stand out.

3. Space use and section split. This advice is focused on the 1 page resume. There are a few things to keep in mind with regards to space –

  • First, the resume shouldn’t look empty. Lots of white spaces or really large font gives the impression that you haven’t done much. The best way to write a resume is to put relevant achievements to fill 1.5 pages and then remove the less important ones. A font like Arial or Calibri with a font size of 10 is ideal if you have 3-4 years of work experience. Use margins between moderate and narrow.
  • Next, the typical sections are some form of Work Experience, Education and Additional Info. Very roughly, the split of these sections (and what is in them) should be representative of the time you spend on them. So, if you have done your Masters somewhere and worked for 8 years, you’d imagine that work would be 50% of the resume, education around 20% and additional info around 20% with 10% of white space on the top and bottom. It is odd if you are more additional info over work experience, for example.
  • This applies even within work experience. It is very odd if a job where you spent 1 year has 6 bullets when you’ve only written one for a place where you spent 3 years of your life (I’ve seen many such examples). It is okay to add an extra bullet or two for the most relevant experiences. But, don’t overdo it.
  • Finally, it is okay to have extra-curricular activities listed under work but I wouldn’t go beyond a bullet. Use the space to describe your skills.

4. Skills relevant for the job. There are folks who advise people to create different resumes for different companies. I don’t really like doing that. But, if it works for you, go for it. The implicit principle they point to is to tailor your skills to the job at hand. And, that’s important. There are two steps here.

First, every line should start with an action verb – ends with “ed.” There are many great resources out on the internet that’ll help you pick the right action verb. Second, the action verbs should ideally correlate with the role you are applying for. For example, if you are applying for a role that is heavy on data, I would imagine to see variants of “Analyzed,” “Evaluated,” and “Modeled” in your resume. As a general rule, you should be able to boil most roles and job descriptions for the 3-4 skills you really need. And, you should hopefully be able to highlight your relevant transferable skills.

5. Achievements, not actions. The resume isn’t about what you did, it is about what you achieved. So, every bullet in your resume (ideally) should be achievement focused. And, the best way to do that is to have lots of numbers – numbers stand out. This is the part I struggled with the most and this is the part every person I’ve helped struggled with the most. So, let’s break this down further –

Education achievements Common practice is to state a list of education related achievement – “X scholarship” or “Y club President.” The example achievement lines would be –
– Selected among top x% of students for X scholarship
– Elected President of Y club and led club to record year of fundraising ($20,000)

Work achievements – There are 2 ways to show achievement at work –
$ saved/earned or % improved. The best bullets will end with the direct impact of your work. If you have just a few of these, make sure they’re always on top.
Led cross functional team to solve call center NPS and instituted training program that led to better customer retention, resulting in $3M savings in 2015.
Analyzed a 500,000 customer data-set and identified opportunities to reduce churn by increasing customer touchpoints, resulting in 3% churn improvement.

Value bullet with a number. The next alternative is to at least put some numbers to show the size of the problem. E.g. worked on a project for a client worth $5M dollars or Coordinated with 14 functions and 58 people to solve a hairy problem.

Additional info achievements – Achievement focused bullets apply here too. For example, the last line is typically a line on interests. This line is wasted if you just put in – “Movies, shopping, walking, reading” or some variant of that. Pick one and tell us something cool. An example – “Running enthusiast and recently ran the X marathon.” That serves as a conversation great starter.

A great resume typically goes through 10-15 versions before it is perfected. Of course, it is ideal you don’t drop your resume and hope for a recruiter to read it. The best way in is through referrals (More in the 3 phases of the job search process). But, when it is eventually read, the role of the resume is to make the person reading want to talk to you to learn more.

Getting to that takes work. But, when the work is done, it shows.

Things that slow us down

Things that slow us down may be things we need the most.

Every week since the summer of 2008, I’ve sent some version of the 200 words project – where I share a synthesis of an idea from a book I read within 200 words. The previous incarnation (2008-2014) was a team effort with a former colleague who came up with the idea. For the first 2 years, I didn’t participate much in the creation process. Around 2010, however, I took over most of the content creation and that continued in the form of the 200 words project today.

Creating these is a multi-step process. The first step is reading interesting books. Next, I take notes as I read. And, finally, I aim to synthesize relevant notes in a series of ideas that capture what I’ve learnt from the book. It is a slow process. But, it has been rewarding. In addition to blogging about them here, I send them out in a weekly newsletter of sorts to friends, acquaintances, former colleagues and clients. It’s worked as a wonderful way to stay in touch.

But, every once a while, I ask myself if the time has come to kill the project. And, admittedly, this has happened with greater frequency since I became a parent 3 months ago. So, I took a long 6 week break over the holidays to check in on my motivation to continue doing this. It still existed.

I had an epiphany last weekend when I was preparing future drafts – why was I keen to kill the project? It felt like it was slowing me down. In the limited time I had during weekends for working on this stuff, I could do other things or simply read more.

But, would more be better? Would I truly make the most of the books I read if I wasn’t synthesizing them?

It occurred to me that this process is likely valuable because it is slow. Boiling books down to their essence requires a certain depth of focus. It stands in contrast to my general pace of life. And, that difference was certainly challenging for many reasons. But, that investment in depth also reaped wonderful rewards in the long run in the form of learning and wisdom.

So, every once a while, slow might be exactly what we need.

Disproportionate energy

There are sure to be small things in your day that infuse you with a disproportionate amount of energy.

It could be a cup of coffee after lunch, a walk by yourself, a piece of delicious chocolate cake, or an extra hour of sleep.

If you know what there are, then it might be time to allow yourself that boost. Often, denying them just means thinking about them for the rest of the day or spending willpower attempting to resist.

If a small investment can give you a disproportionate energy boost the rest of the day, it is likely worth it. Engagement takes energy and we generally need all the boosts we can get.

We don’t make an impact by the number of hours we put into life. Instead, we make an impact by the number of hours we engage with life.

Policies and principles

As we learn to manage ourselves, we often start by setting policies. Policies are iron clad rules that help us achieve certain objectives. Examples of policies are –

1. I will always go to the gym first thing in the morning
2. I will never check email on Saturdays
3. I only eat sweets on Sundays

Of course, these policies are just ways to live by certain principles. For example, the principles behind these 3 rules might be –

1. I care a lot about exercise and would like to make sure I get it done
2. I need to feel relaxed during the weekend
3. I care about the sugar levels in my blood and would like to make sure I keep them low

Now, these principles provide us degrees of freedom. For example, you might be okay checking your email on a Saturday as long as you are feeling relaxed. And, those degrees of freedom enable us to be more effective by applying these principles based on the context.

Managing by policy is an amateur’s game. This is just as applicable whether we’re managing ourselves or an organization.

This, in turn, is exactly why culture matters – both in organizations and individuals. Google’s employees are not held back from discussing confidential information from their company’s weekly all hands because of a policy. Rather, it is their commitment to the culture. Great cultures are important because they enable leaders to focus on principles rather than policy.

For short term wins, policies can work great. However, if you are in it for the long term, principles are the way to go.

Frederic Tudor and Ice

Frederic Tudor, a young man from a rich family in Boston, once visited the Carribean (estd year – 1800). He was then seized by an idea – how about shipping New England ice to the Carribean?

After many attempts of shipping ice over and gradually overcoming challenges of transportation and storage (blocks of ice melt slowly so it was possible to move them even without too many innovations), he slowly began to stir up some demand. People in the Caribbean began developing an appetite for iced drinks. While Tudor nearly went bankrupt through the process, his fortunes changed by the end and he ended up a multi-millionaire.

But, this started a unique shift as all previous global trade had been about moving materials from warm places (abundant solar energy) to colder ones – spices, food, etc. The ice trade became very successful and the ice barons of New England became rich.

It is this ice that led to the growth of Chicago. While Chicago became a transportation hub thanks to some excellent engineering and building of railroads, it became the hub of the meat industry due to refrigerated meat. How that happened is coming up next week…

A man who has drank his drinks cold at the same expense for one week can never be presented with them warm again. – Frederick Tudor 🙂

Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

(This story and quote is part of “The 200 words project.” I aim to synthesize a story from a book (and, occasionally a blog or article) I’ve read within 200 words consecutive Sundays for around 45 weeks of the year.)

Enduring awesomeness

I was up at 3am last weekend watching Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open final. Far better writers have written plenty about that game. So, I don’t think I’d be able to add much. However, sometime during the fifth set, I was thinking about the idea of enduring awesomeness.

Even as a kid, I was a casual tennis watcher. Like everyone else, I used to tune in to watch Sampras v Agassi at the turn of the century. But, watching Roger Federer was always something else. I remember watching his progression at Wimbledon 2003 as a pony tailed youngster and his first grand slam win against Mark Phillippousis. That was the start of something really special.

And, 14 years later, here we are. He’s older now and has had to adapt his game to suit his age. So, there are more high risk shots as he tries to keep rallies short. His backhand “weakness” (it’s all relative) has become a weapon. Against all odds, he’s still out there winning grand slams and showing us how its done.

There’s something incredibly inspiring about enduring awesomeness – the key word being “enduring.” We can pull off great work every once a while. But, to do it day in and day out over a long period of time – that’s something else.

My new year theme is engagement. I aspire to be engaged and conscious every waking minute – paying attention as I try things, conscious as I stumble and make mistakes, and engaged in creative, constructive and corrective responses to them. I’ve come to realize that it is this depth of engagement that characterizes fulfilling lives.

A friend, who was also watching the Federer Nadal final, suggested that Federer might retire after this. I disagreed. I felt he was enjoying himself too much to retire. Yes, the unforced errors were piling up. And, yes, his legs didn’t cooperate the way they used to. But, he just seemed 100% engaged, focused and determined to continue to learn, adapt and push himself. His head didn’t drop when he started the final set on the back foot. He had decided to fight. And, what a fight it was.

Deep engagement in one’s craft is a sight to behold. And, in his case, it is his consistent engagement over the past three decades in his craft that contributes to his enduring awesomeness.

I find that very inspiring.

That old dream

We adjust our expectations from life at record speed. That old dream, once achieved, becomes commonplace in our eyes. So, we move on to the next dream.

In high school, I dreamed of going to college abroad – ideally in Singapore for a variety of reasons. When that worked out, it became “no big deal” in no time because most of the folks I spent time with shared that reality. This happened at the next step and the one after that. Similarly, 9 years ago, just writing a long form blog post every day was a nod to my aspirational self. When that began to happen, I wanted to write better. And, when I felt I was writing better, my mind started wandering toward other things.

This is, of course, an endless cycle. Assuming you chose to work at it, unless you had a specific, incredibly low probability dream, you’ve probably done a decent job at getting to what you want to do and being who you want to be. Until that old dream became commonplace and you just began focusing on the next one.

It is important to to invest in tomorrow. But, life isn’t all about tomorrow either. As you think about how you’re doing today, spend time on that old dream. You are probably doing things and being someone that were once just aspirations. And, that’s a big deal.

Dreams do come true. It’s just a shame if we end up not appreciating that fact as much as we should.

So, every once a while, take the time to remember the days when you prayed for what you have now.

Dissatisfaction space

Dissatisfaction is a useful emotion every once a while because it pushes us to reconsider how we are doing things.

The first thing to do when we’re facing dissatisfaction is to not over react. It is a natural, normal thing. We wouldn’t change if we didn’t experience dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Next, create a bit of space – an hour early in the morning or late at night – to think. What is causing it? Are there simple things you can tweak to make things better? Commit to a change or two while you are at it.

And, finally, allow yourself to dive into something and make progress. The best way to harness the energy from commitments is to dive straight into making progress on something that matters to you.

Dissatisfaction is a powerful change agent. It is wasted if we just use it to beat ourselves up or if we try to ignore it (we can’t). Instead, we must view it as a signal to change how we do things.

It is a natural reminder that what got us here won’t get us there..