What they remember

Over the years, I’ve heard many people recount memorable meetings with people they considered great. For some, it was a famous athlete and, for others, it was a favorite author or leader. And, I always find it interesting to observe what they remember.

They rarely recount the big speech or the fantastic performance during the game. Instead, they remember the smallest of details. They talk about how the warmth they experienced when they shook hands or how their hero treated everyone around them with respect. I’ve heard how Bill Clinton made everyone in the room feel special. Rafael Nadal is always gracious and respectful to the folks on the side who hand him towels during the game. And, Indra Nooyi, known to be incredibly smart and tough, can give memorable compliments.

I’ve experienced this myself as well. With folks I consider my heroes, it is always the small things that I remember. The big things are expected.

While we all seek to have impact on the organizations we work for, most of us strive to have an impact on the people we work with. It is part of being human. We like to be liked and appreciated.

And, my biggest lesson from the “what they remember” stories is that, in the long run, the big meeting or presentation today won’t have the impact we think it will. It will all be about the small things. It will be how we chose to work, treat people and approach the day.

So, today, let’s stay engaged, pay attention, and commit to doing the small things with extraordinary love. Then, let’s do that again tomorrow.

For, it is the small things that are the big things.

The case against innate talent – The 200 words project

(continued from parts 1, 2, 3).
Researcher K Anders Ericsson has researched expert performance for the past 30+ years. In every case, his analysis has revealed one thread – every innate talent/prodigy story can be deconstructed to reveal “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice is practice that is typically guided by a coach that has specific goals, involves continuous stretching of the body and mind and, by nature, is hard. If you’ve felt the challenge when learning a new skill (whether it is a tennis swing or the guitar) from a coach, you’ve tasted deliberate practice. And, behind every great prodigy such as a Mozart or a Tiger Woods, there was typically a coach (in their case, dad) who developed their skills early. These practice techniques have been refined over time to the delight of competitive parents globally. Search for “child prodigy” on YouTube and you’ll notice the increase in the number of child prodigies over the years.

Often, kids with innate talent – be it IQ’s in mental tasks or better physical attributes in physical tasks – may get a head start. But, it doesn’t count for much without deliberate practice.

If innate talent isn’t everything we thought, what are the dangers of the belief?

While there is a huge benefit to starting young, it is only too late if the field doesn’t allow for participation based on age. Today’s octogenarian athletes are fitter than ever before. In 2015, Don Pellman became the first 100 year old to run a 100 meters in less than 27 seconds. – Anders Ericsson paraphrased


Source and thanks to: Peak by Anders Ericsson, The deliberate practice research paper

(The 200 words project involves sharing a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words)

One book

I asked a friend recently to name one book that had the deepest impact on he approached life. I knew he was a voracious reader and was curious to hear what his list might look like. He asked me for mine as well. We decided to name a few before narrowing it down to one.

As we conversed, we shared names of many special books and authors. We spoke briefly about Dan Pink, Dan Ariely and the Heath Brothers. He shared his appreciation for the bible for all behavioral economics research – “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. I explained that I still got goose bumps when I thought of “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. And, we definitely waxed lyrical about “How will you measure your life.”

But, when it came down to the question – if you had to pick one book , what would it be? – it turned out to be a no contest. We both named “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by the late Stephen Covey. Both of us had read the book at a time when we didn’t know any better. We discussed the many books that had just built off Covey’s insights and/or re-purposed his ideas in different forms. We wondered as to how he introduced so many powerful concepts like the “emotional bank account” and meshed them with some unforgettable stories.

And, we both agreed that it was the wisest book we’d ever read studied.

To this day, I think 7 Habits manages more insights per page than many books combined. It lulls into taking life changing insights for granted by making them commonplace. It does this by focusing on principles – immutable laws of nature that govern how the earth works. The “Be Proactive” chapter alone is life changing and the subject of many books. “Begin with the end in mind” and “Put first things first” teach us how to get the right stuff done. “Think win/win” asks us to approach life from a place of confidence and look for abundance instead of scarcity. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” and “Synergize” teach us how to build great relationships in our homes and workplaces. And, finally, “Sharpen the saw” asks us to commit to a life of continuous learning.

This one book alone has enough wisdom for a happy and effective life. I am still amazed at how Steven Covey managed to synthesize all of this into one book.

But, I sure as hell am glad he did. It changed my life. And, I am certain I am not alone in saying that.

Most people

A dear friend recently wrote about an experience that changed how he approached life.  In his words (slightly edited to remove details about the experience) – “By most people’s objective accounts, I was doing the right things, being the right kind of person and living a ‘good life.’ But, let’s be real – most people don’t know sh*t.”

That is both funny and wise.

“Most people” do get things right. Crowd prediction markets have shown that the crowds do have wisdom. The crowd can answer certain kinds of questions very well. There are also many traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation for good reason.

However, there are a long list of things that “most people” don’t do well. They don’t read enough, don’t eat healthy enough, don’t push beyond their biases enough and don’t live their lives intentionally enough. They also regularly over estimate how bad things are, regularly report being unhappy and don’t respond to change well.

Common sense, sadly, is just not that common. So, it is worth examining our default settings to understand when we default to what the crowd says or does.

When it comes to building things we consider valuable, including our own lives, I’ve learnt that it is better to err on what we believe instead of defaulting to what others believe.

Customer retention

For most subscription services, customer retention is the holy grail. Retaining a customer is cheaper than acquiring a new one. In addition, retention increases your chances of getting referrals. It is, mostly, a no brainer.

So, how do we actually go about retaining customers? While there are multiple levers, there are two that likely drive most returns. One of them is the obvious one – make sure the product or service is valuable. If there is a lot of value relative to what we are paying, we will stay.

And, the second key lever is customer service. If you have outstanding customer service, you do two things at once. First, through customer service interactions, you constantly surface additional value that we are probably not aware of. Second, you make sure we never leave in a fit of anger or frustration.

Now, the fact here is that value matters more than customer service in most cases. Comcast charged me an extra $10 on my bill for 4 straight months. I called their customer service 5 times in the process and was told, every time, that the problem was solved (until it eventually was). However, they do deliver a solid internet connection. And, besides, given their near monopoly where I’m at, they become more valuable. But, am I a loyal Comcast customer? Absolutely not.

On the other hand, the chances that you will get me to switch from either American Express, Audible or In Motion Hosting is very very low. They check the “deliver value” box comfortably. But, they outdo themselves in their customer service. In Motion Hosting, my hosting provider, is exemplary in this regard. I know they are an email away. I am sure they will be helpful. And, I also know that they’ll do so with cheer. They have made sure I will never leave.

The human analogy for a fantastic customer retention strategy is to think of competence and attitude. It helps a ton to be competent. In many cases, even if you have a bad attitude, if you are only among five other sought after rocket scientists on the planet, you will do just fine. However, layer in a great attitude and you will be indispensable.

Default setting

There’s plenty of great research that shows that our actions are heavily biased by the default option. Given how important defaults are to our decision making, every once a while, it is helpful to ask ourselves – what is our default setting?

For instance, we can choose to:

– Trust or to doubt.

– Take responsibility or make excuses.

– Read a non-fiction book or scroll further down our Facebook feed.

– Ask the hard question or stay silent.

– Acknowledge mistakes and learn from them or pretend they didn’t happen.

– Observe or judge.

– Save or spend.

– Respond with fantastic attitude or be defensive and prickly.

– Love or hate.

– Exercise or watch TV.

– Care or be ambivalent.

Whatever the decision, our actions are likely to follow our default setting.

It is on us to choose wisely.

Fully engaged

What would it take for you to be fully engaged throughout the day? By fully engaged, I mean paying full attention to whatever you are doing. You could be paying attention to two things at once if you are working through a repetitive task. But, that should be the exception and not the rule.

As I ask myself that question, I realize that full engagement entails a collection of ideas that I’ve grouped into hygiene factors (the basic things we need to get right), organization factors and the inspiration factor.

I. Hygiene factors

Sleep. Full engagement is tiring.

Good diet. Replenishing our energy store is important during the day. The better the diet, the better our energy in the long run. And, caffeine isn’t a long term solution. :)

An active lifestyle. Full engagement requires a high level of energy. And, it is hard to maintain high energy without an active lifestyle.

II. Organization factors

A solid week plan. I think a good week is structured like a music performance. It has its ebbs and flows (meeting days and deep work days) so as to allow you to push hard on some days and recover on others.

Clear priorities. Unclear priorities results in a lack of focus. I’ve also come to realize that clarity of priorities requires us to keep committing to re-prioritizing through the day as we get newer information.

A realistic to do list. Being overwhelmed isn’t conducive to full engagement. Keeping a realistic to do list requires us to say no to things we can’t get done in a day. This isn’t an easy practice. But, keeping our work schedule contained is an important practice for long term engagement.

III. The inspiration factor

Clarity of purpose. While the above ensure a certain amount of energy during the week, clarity of purpose is where energy and inspiration and come from.

Your list may be a bit different. Your ordering will likely be different. But, this collection of factors is likely to remain.

Regardless of what the specifics are, I’ve come to realize that asking ourselves the question – “What will it take to be fully engaged?” – is among the most powerful life process questions there is. For, attention and engagement is where love, growth and appreciation reside.

3 phases of the job search process

There are few things that I find as grueling as a job search process. For most of us, I find that it brings out the worst insecurities within us as it continuously seems to tease that one question – “Am I good enough?”

The truth, of course, is that any job search process is a crap shoot. Interviews are rarely great indicators of a candidate’s performance on the job. And, it can all seem and be arbitrary. However, in a world where there are few things you can control, I’ve learnt to focus on the one thing we do control – our process. And, that’s what this post is about – the 3 phases of the job search process. This is a long post but I figured it’d be easier to put this all in one place rather than break it up into multiple posts. Also, while the overall framework applies to all kinds of interviews, this has a lot more information about the business side versus the technical side.

There are 3 phases to finding a job –
I. Figuring out where you want to apply
II. Getting an interview
III. Doing well in the interview.

I. Figuring out where you want to apply

Phase I has 3 broad steps –
1. Get information. First, get as much information as you possibly can about the possible options you’d like to pursue. Speak to people you respect, connect with friends who are knowledgeable and get out of your comfort zone and have a few conversations with friends of friends in companies/industries/roles that interest you.

2. Reflect and decide what your priorities are. Once you gather all the information, it falls on you to decide which paths make sense. If it helps, there are just five career priorities that you normally struggle with. It helps to sit with these, struggle with them and prioritize.

3. Do a quick reality check on the final list. Finally, when you make your shortlist of companies and roles, it is helpful to do a quick aspirations vs. reality check. To take a somewhat outlandish example, NASA may be high on your list of employers. But, have they hired people with your background? The more you find people with your background and experiences, the more realistic it is (LinkedIn should be able to help you with this). Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have NASA on your list – you could definitely break ground. But, it is best to work with risk as a portfolio and mix some very aspirational places with places that you know would be interested in speaking to you.

II. Getting an interview

There tend to be 2 ways to do this –

1. Traditional or resume drop. This means following the standard process. This can work very well if your background is a perfect fit. But, I am not a fan of the odds in this process.

The only exception might be if you are part of a standard university recruiting process. Even then, you have plenty of competition from your classmates and from peers in other schools. In that case, it is worth asking yourself how you could visibly show interest (without being too eager). If available, company visits are generally a good way of doing this.

2. Get an internal referral. Most places have internal referral systems. There’s plenty of evidence to show that this is the best way to get your resume seen. If you can get one of these, you are almost certainly likely to be on the top of the pile. It is important to navigate this well – try to plant trees long before you need the fruit. For students, this means it is best to stay away from desperate calls to alumni when you need a job. It is okay every once a while (assuming you have enough positive karma going around) – just be thoughtful when you do it.. But, it works so much better if you ask people who’ve worked with you for help.

Important thing to remember – this is the phase when things are least in your control.

III. Doing well in the interview

Assuming you’ve got through phases I and II, this is the section where things get most in your control. So, this is a section where we’ll spend plenty of time.

Overall framework: Warmth vs. competence
Doing well in interviews comes down to this fundamental question – do you have the right mix of warmth and competence? I say the right mix because different company cultures prefer different levels of warmth. Hence, the term “fit.”

warmth-vs-competence

So, how do we break this down when it comes to preparation? I think it comes down to 4 key questions –

i. Why industry?

If you are switching within your industry, you can skip this and move on. This becomes more important depending on how radical a switch you are attempting to make. The goal of this section is to dig deeper than the usual “I am very passionate about X” to find if your passion has translated to any real action. For example, do you understand how things really work in your industry? Do you have a point of view on trends? Do you keep up with what is going on?

If I had just 3 days to prepare for an interview, I wouldn’t focus on this. This is typically what differentiates a very good candidate from a stand out candidate. But, assuming you have longer to prepare, I think there are a few tried-and-tested ways to get good. I am going to use technology as the example as I made that switch. And, here are the 4 steps I would suggest –

1. Configure your information diet. Subscribe to technology news, good blogs and analysis. In my case, I subscribe to Venture Beat for news, to Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson’s Stratechery (paid) for analysis, and to a collection of venture capitalist blogs. All of this means I have a good sense of what is going on.

2. Do a think week and write down your thesis. My single best tactic for getting smart on an industry is to take a few days (i.e. “think week”) where you aim to read a ton of material and synthesize what you are learning. In my case, I queued up a year of posts from Ben Evans and Ben Thompson. I then read, took notes, and read some more. A couple of days in, I had a lot of notes and a point of view on multiple topics would emerge. Then, I put together massive essay. I did this during winter break during both my years in school (2015, 2014). I think I took about 3 days to put this together. It is among the best investments I have made in understanding my industry.

3. Read good books. For those interested in technology for example, 2 books that I’d strongly recommend are The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (a nicely compiled history of technology) and “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly (a preview into the future). They’ll give you a solid ground of what has happened so far and what might happen.

4. Share this learning. In both my years of graduate school, I gave an hour’s presentation about Tech trends that involved compiling all this learning. It was a very useful experience. You can choose to create a learning group with folks who share similar interests. Either way, take the time to synthesize and share.

This is an investment that matters less for the interview but is worth a ton once you get on the job. Also, it is my belief that good interviewers will test this to make sure you have a point of view. But, then again, not everyone does.

ii. Why company?

This is critical. There are 2 things that are typically tested –

1. The “hard stuff” – business model, numbers, competitors, etc:

Must dos to help get on top of this are 
1. Investor filings. Read the latest 10k and 10Q documents and understand the basics about the company – key strategic priorities, revenue and profit numbers. Make sure you understand how the company makes money, what the big revenue and cost drivers are. Investor presentations and analyst call transcripts help a ton too.
2. News. Do a quick Google News search to make sure you know what is going on with the company.
3. Analyst report or internal view. If you have access to an analyst report on the company, reading that is highly recommended as you get a great view on the future growth prospects of the company. If you are unable to do that, it is worth looking for someone on the inside to understand the internal view on growth prospects, key competitors, etc.

Optional – Industry reports. Reports from places like Forrester, Gartner, etc., can be useful. But, they aren’t a “must do” in my book.

2. The “soft stuff” – vision, mission, culture, values:
1. Website and HR presentations. Read the website and any presentations or videos from HR. Understand the vision, mission, values, cultural tenets, etc.
2. Speak to people who either work there or have worked there. There is nothing like the insider’s view on this. You realize that some values or cultural tenets are more important than the others. You learn what the culture is really like. All this is very important information.

So, how do you put all this together? I think there is the heavy version and the light version.
a) The heavy version. I liked putting together a snapshot for the companies I was very serious about. Here is an example snapshot created in preparation for my interviews at LinkedIn from 2 years ago. On the back, I used to have notes about my interviewers and other insights I’d gleaned from speaking with people at LinkedIn.
2. The light version. Just keep a document or One Note file where you are consistently synthesizing what you learn. The most important thing is to feel comfortable about your own preparation.

If there’s ever a principle with prep, it is to not just take notes. Synthesis is key.

iii. Why role?

This is probably the most important of the 4 questions and is typically the area where interviews are won or lost. This assumes you are switching into a new function. If you know exactly what you are getting into, great. You can skip this.

There are 2 kinds of questions you should be prepared for –
a) The executive question – This involves demonstrating an understanding of the big picture in your role or function. These are typically discussion questions that are around the theme of – “What is the Global Head of your team worrying about?”

b) The role question – This involves demonstrating an understanding of what it takes to do the job well. This varies from role-to-role but the typical format is to go through a “case” question or a simulation of sorts. For sales role, this might involve a role play. For engineering roles, this might involve writing some code for a typical problem. And, for most other roles, it would involve working through a business case. For example, a case for a marketing role might be – “What is your favorite product and how would you analyze its marketing?” This type of question is guaranteed – and likely will be asked by multiple interviewers. And, a key step to preparing for these is to really understand what a day in your role at x company really means.

To understand how to tackle these questions, we need to go back to first principles. The 3 requisites to answering any question in an interview is –
1. Content. You should know what you are talking about
2. Structure. You should be able to frame it in a way that is easy to understand
3. Delivery. You will hopefully enjoy the process of solving these problems

The biggest challenge here is structure. So, let’s tackle that. There are 2 steps to developing an ability to structure problems –
i) Understand simple frameworks that help solve problems in your role. For example, most Marketing problems are contained if you understand how marketing plans are built – understand business objective, then marketing objective, then segment-> target -> position and then execute by focusing on product, price, place and promotion. Then, evaluate.

Strategy problems typically fall into 3 categories – decisions (cost/benefit analysis of both quantitative and qualitative criteria), profitability (break down into revenues, costs and their components) and market sizing (typically by triangulating using a “top down” approach, a “bottom up” approach and a quick gut check).

Product problems, similarly, involve analyzing products within the product management process which is some version of – Problem -> User -> Performance -> Prioritization -> Execution.

Depending on your function, there are plenty of great books that will help with the process.

2. Develop your own frameworks. As you work through problems, you will be able to improvize, simplify and develop your own frameworks. That’s a key part of the process. Telling an interviewer – “I am going to use the 4Ps” – is rather lame. :)

IV. Why You?

And, now, the final piece. This is tested by asking you all sorts of behavioral questions that ask you about how you behaved in various situations.

I have a detailed post about preparing for behavioral interviews – so I won’t spend as much time on this. Instead, I’ll focus on the overall strategy.

1. Use the “Tell me about yourself / Walk me through your resume” question to set the tone. This is an important question and one that is typically asked at the start of most behavioral interviews. Once you’ve taken the time to write down all your key stories and answered the “why’ questions, a clear pattern on your main themes should emerge.

I am a big fan of thinking about the one thing you’d want the interviewer to remember about you. Then, think about three things. Structure your “Tell me about yourself” around these 3 things rather than a simple chronological order. This question is important because you can already lead in to the why company/role questions if done well. Really take the time to get this right – the final product needs to be succinct and it definitely needs to reflect YOU. Practice and feedback goes a long way with this question.

A successful tell me about yourself question would tell me –
a) 3 things I must know about you or your themes
b) Why you made the career transitions you made
c)  why you think you’d be a fit for this company and role
d) the stories i should probe you more for..

2. Match your themes with what the role requires. Read the role description, understand what it is really about and ensuring you are highlighting how you fit. A bonus would be to make sure your stories emphasize the key values and cultural tenets of the company in question. The goal is to not necessarily have a story for every value.. but to at least have a few strong matches or things that resonate.

The Day

We all have our preferred “match day” routines. I tried to do 3 things –
1. Have a pre-interview routine. This involved lots of rest, good food and a couple of peppy songs before the interview.
2. Thank the interviewer and recruiter after the interview. 
3. Debrief with yourself. Take notes on what you thought about your performance and what you learnt. This is likely not the last interview you will do.

Whew, this was a #long-read. And, it definitely sounds like (and is) a lot of work.

But, it is fitting. The job search process is hard. There’s a ton of luck involved in the process and you can’t control for that. The only thing you can do is to make sure your process was solid and that you did everything possible to be the best you could be. In the long run, good results follow good processes.

Regardless of how things turn out, the final step would be to say thank you to everyone who helped you along the way.

And, of course, as someone once wisely told me, all it takes is for one to work out.

I hope this helps. And, may the force be with you!

Deliberate practice minus the 10,000 hour rule – The 200 words project

(continued from parts 1, 2).
The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of 10,000 hours required to become an expert . There were, however, two issues with the 10,000 hour rule.

First, there is no magic number for the number of hours required to become an expert. It varies by field. 10,000 hours could be a good approximation but nothing more than that. Second and more important, experience does not result in expertise. Spending thousands of hours “practicing” golf by yourself will not make you an expert. Spending all those hours in “deliberate practice” under an expert coach is what you will need. It isn’t about the time you spend – it is about what you do with it.

This, then, leads us back to innate talent. Ericsson conducted years of research with expert violin players in Germany only to find that there was no visible link between innate talent and the performance of the best violinists. Instead, the two predictors were (you guessed it) – hours and intensity of practice.

If this is the case, perhaps there is a case to be made against the idea of innate talent?

People always said I had a natural swing. They thought I wasn’t a hard worker. But when I was young, I’d play and practice all day, then practice more at night by my car’s headlights. My hands bled. Nobody worked harder at golf than I did. – Sam Snead – once called “the best natural player ever” from Anders’ article on HBR


Source and thanks to: Peak by Anders Ericsson

(The 200 words project involves sharing a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words)

One hour

If you spent one hour this weekend on learning something that will be useful to your career, that’s just an hour, right? Can one hour really accomplish all that much?

But, what if you spent an hour every weekend for the next 4 weeks?

Then again, what if you spent one hour every weekend for the full next year?

Suddenly, you would have amassed 52 hours or 3120 minutes. Not bad at all. If you picked up a book about an important but difficult topic – let’s say Statistics – and spent 3120 minutes on the topic, how much impact would that have on your life? If your work involves consuming large amounts of data, the effect is likely size-able. But, this could just as easily be an hour on artificial intelligence or cognitive psychology or selling.

One hour may not be much. But, string it together over time and the combination could be potent.

Definitely worth a shot.