Compare purchases to put them in context

We think of money differently depending on the context. For example, we may fight for a three hundred dollar discount when buying a new car. But, the same discount when buying a house would feel ridiculous. It is still the same three hundred dollars, isn’t it?

The downside of this approach is that we may be biased toward making certain kinds of investments over others. And, one tool I’ve begun to find helpful is to compare purchases to put them in context.

Let’s imagine you want to spend $100 on a hobby. It is tempting to think you’re rationally evaluating the cost/benefit of the $100. But, we’re not rationally evaluating anything – instead, we have a certain dollar amount threshold tagged to hobbies. So, I begin asking myself – what are other areas where I’m spending $100 or more? Let’s say I’ve got a vacation coming that’s got a budget of $1000. How would I think about adding $100 to the vacation with a new, cool add on? How much does that compare with the added benefit from the hobby?

Or, what about that gadget you’re considering buying?

After two or three such comparisons, it becomes obvious as to how much you value the expense you’re considering. In my case, for example, I found myself biased against making a couple of expenses that had some short term hassle and longer term benefit. I also realized I had a bias against annual subscriptions over one time payments.

My goal with expenses is to do so consciously. And, comparing purchases helps with that.

I hope it helps you too.

3 principles of asking for favors

Asking matters. We all do it. We could argue that we all need to do more of it. Here are 3 principles that might help –

i) Optimizing for quality works better than quantity in the long run. It is always tempting to send that mass email or send bulk LinkedIn invites with that generic message. There’s a reason they need to be sent in bulk – they rarely work in the short term. And, sadly, they backfire in the long term. Instead, over-invest in demonstrating your research and thoughtfulness. As Seth  wisely put it – “Don’t personalize, be personal.” While choosing volume may seem less risky, letting quality dip in any interaction is the riskiest thing we do in the long run.

ii) Avoid planting trees the day you need your fruits. “Hi, I don’t know you. Nice to meet you though. And, can you please do me a big favor?” If relationships are like trees, most folks ask seeds for fruits before they touch the ground.

One way to proceed is to think ahead and build the kinds of relationships that you think you might need (some do this artfully). My bias would be to just let curiosity, great intentions and care be your guide. Meet or e-meet folks whose work and voice inspires you. Over time, a few of these will turn into relationships. And, when it comes time to ask for fruits, you’ll have plenty of options.

iii) Get into the habit of granting favors yourself. For every favor you ask, help at least 5 people who seek favors from you. Do it so often that you don’t even think about doing them. Karma. It matters.

As a bonus, you’ll also learn to appreciate great asks and get better at asking yourself. And, that’ll take you right back to principle 1. :-)

Vacuuming and how work becomes meaningful

Vacuuming the home has been an ever present on my list of chores over the past few years. I cared about doing a decent job as I understand why it matters. But, it was never fun.

Until I started strapping our 6 month old baby and vacuuming the home with her.

At first, she mostly watched in silence. Then, she grew to enjoy it. And, twelve months later, it wouldn’t be the same without her. The issue is that she’s reached that point when the carrier isn’t comfortable anymore. I know it isn’t going to last for much longer – but, boy, was it a blast while it lasted.

This experience with vacuuming speaks to how work becomes meaningful. The first step is for folks to understand the “why.” Why does what they do matter? Once they understand that, merging the “why” with “who” they care about makes important work feel both meaningful and playful at once. It is these sorts of environments that make for incredible laboratories to grow, learn, and experiment.

And, in environments where people combine learning, meaning and fun, they do the work (the “how”) with great care.

This is the reason powerful visions need to co-exist with a great culture. It is the culture that ensures that people feel the kind of belonging to continue to find meaning in what they do. A vision is useless without strategy. And, culture is strategy in the long run.

PS: Getting back to vacuuming for a moment – it is another one of those reminders that the days are long but the years are short.

High standards and writing great memos

Jeff Bezos, in his latest letter to shareholders, had a great note on what he’s learnt about great memos.

Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a  high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

There are two things I took away from this excerpt and the letter. First, it is fascinating to see the parallels between delivering high standards and approaching learning like a chef. To develop high standards, we must first learn to break things down to first principles, understand what “good” is and develop realistic expectations for what it takes to achieve them. For example, once we approach build new habits from a first principles perspective, we realize that the expectation that we can build a new habit that matters in 21 days automatically sets us up for failure.

The second lesson is about the difficulty of writing well. As Bezos notes, writing well is a product of revisiting and rewriting. In that sense, writing well is a lot like building a new habit – committing to something matters a lot less than constantly re-committing to it.

Sweating versus watching others sweat

Prof Scott Galloway of NYU has an interesting weekly newsletter where he talks about the state of big technology and his thoughts on life. On Friday last week, he had a fascinating edition summing up his approach to life strategy. While I’m sure I’ll share a couple of the nuggets that resonated in coming weeks, my favorite was “Sweating vs. Watching Other Sweat.”

The ratio of time you spend sweating to watching others sweat is a forward-looking indicator of your success. Show me a guy who watches ESPN every night, spends all day Sunday watching football, and doesn’t work out, and I’ll show you a future of anger and failed relationships. Show me someone who sweats every day, and spends as much time at events as watching them on TV, and I’ll show you someone who is good at life.

Very true.

The hunter gatherer within

As hunter gatherers, we spent time in jungles facing enemies, predators and diseases. This setting rewarded safety. You were better off staying away from a bush with a suspected snake than veering close to it.

Most of the world’s population hasn’t lived in such an environment since we transitioned to an agrarian society. But, if we compressed 4 million years of human evolution into 24 hours, agriculture made its appearance at 23 hours 55 minutes.

(H/T Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin for this insight)

This dichotomy is what makes understanding human – why, even our own – behavior hard. We assume rationality and logic to be drivers of action when insecurity and fear turn out to be better predictors of action.

Behaving like hunter gatherers is counter productive in a world where the fundamental assumptions are different. However, we cannot change if we don’t understand how entrenched these behaviors are.

Acceptance follows understanding. And, change comes with acceptance.

Mashpi Reserve

At the end of his book “Things a Little Bird Told Me,” Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone made a profound comment about wealth. He said money amplifies who you are as a person. I think about that from time to time when I see/hear about extraordinary displays of wealth. There are those who use it to buy incredible private jets and boats and then there are others who find different uses for their money that amplify who they are in ways that can be very inspiring. Mashpi Lodge is one such fascinating project.

Roque Sevilla, a successful businessman and the former Mayor of Quito (Ecuador), decided to buy 130 hectares of “cloud forest.” Cloud forests are fast disappearing thanks to deforestation. And, Roque purchased this forest from a logging company for less than $400,000. To put that into perspective, that is half the median price of a home in many major cities.

A picture of the Mashpi Reserve with Mashpi Lodge in the center. Source and thanks: National Geographic

In the 17 years since he purchased it, the resident Biologist has discovered multiple animal species – various amphibians, monkeys and even Puma – that had been lost to the world for decades.

He also demolished the logging mill and replaced it with an incredible 100% sustainable hotel called “Mashpi Lodge.” His goal was to share this special experience with others and, perhaps, inspire them.

I haven’t been there myself but was so glad to stumble upon an episode of Mashpi Lodge on “Amazing Hotels” on Netflix. If you are interested in learning more, there’s a 6 minute video of Roque describing the Mashpi project.

It is a very inspiring story. I’m hopeful many others follow his lead.