Living in the present – in moderation

At the end of his book on timing – “When,” Dan Pink shared a recommendation on living in the present. He points out that living in the present may not the best strategy at all times – despite the advice of spiritual gurus.

Instead, he suggests that we’re better off integrating the past, the present and the future as we live our lives.

I thought that was a profound insight. And, it is one I am beginning to stumble upon myself as part of my journey to engage with engagement/mindfulness. There is undoubtedly a place for living in the present. But, spending time reflecting on what happened is a source of great learning. And, identifying with our future selves helps us move forward with purpose.

I read once that zen masters believe that the essence of zen is doing one thing at a time. That’s increasingly where I find myself ending up. There’s a place for some reflection, some day dreaming about the future and getting things done in our lives. They co-exist and, in moderation, balance each other out.

The key, I find, is to make peace with the process of balancing and to be fully engaged with it – one thing at a time.

How much of your job is sales?

How much of your job involves –

  1. Persuading executives to fund your projects?
  2. Inspiring cross functional team members (who don’t report to you) to help you achieve your goals?
  3. Evangelizing your projects and teams across the organization?
  4. Attracting external talent to come work on your projects?
  5. Gathering support for key priorities from other teams?

Of course, this list doesn’t even count time spent trying to get actual customers pay for your work.

In workplaces with lesser hierarchy and more network based work, more of us spend more of our time in sales than we realize. (This isn’t the aggressive “always be closing” type of selling we picture. It is a softer, subtler version built on attunement, buoyancy and clarity. More on that another day.)

And, yet, it is likely we don’t spend much time strengthening our selling muscle. Nor do we realize how strong this muscle actually needs to be.

The first step, then, is for us to appreciate the importance of selling to our success.

With this acceptance will come change..

Getting a degree versus getting an education

Too often, we focus conversations about learning plans around getting a degree. There is an implicit assumption in these conversations that getting a degree and getting an education go together.

But, that need not be the case.

You can get a degree without getting an education – there are plenty who do. And, conversely, thanks to books and the internet, you can get an education without getting a degree.

There are good reasons to get a degree. Moving geography, improving career prospects, learning from top Professors and a motivated peer group, taking a break, etc., could all, in combination, be good reasons. But, if the only reason to get a degree is – “I want to learn management” or “I want to learn machine learning” – I would reconsider.

We have more options to pursue learning in subjects we are interested in than ever before. We can buy books, subscribe to online courses, create a peer learning group around these materials, start a blog sharing insights or do all of these together.

We can choose to not get the business of getting a degree interfere with our desire to get an education.

Optimizing for synthesis and reflection over reading and listening

Our lives right now are built around consumption. Media companies have somehow convinced us that there are few things that matter more than staying up to date. So, we get free newsletters with stunning content and, generally, a link to subscribe to get more.

Media personalities (including venture capitalists and star entrepreneurs) all have podcasts and blogs for us to listen to. Many of this stuff is actually interesting.

There are more “summits” about various topics with lists of YouTube videos to watch than ever before.

So, naturally, we have more of us walking around wishing we had time to read, listen and watch all this content. And, aside from the fact that “catching up” is a fool’s errand (it is impossible), we are better served by doing less consumption and more creation. Creation contributes more to learning and happiness than consumption.

How do we that? Pick the best long article, podcast or video and, instead of moving to the next one, substitute that time with time for synthesis. Feel free to take notes during the process. However, these notes are only useful if we take the time to synthesize them afterward. Good synthesis, in turn, requires time to reflect.

And, if it is all too hard to resist the temptation of clicking on the next article or video, shut off the internet and get hold of a book on a topic you like. Then, repeat the above process.

We don’t learn effectively when we consume. We learn when we synthesize and reflect.

In the age of consumption, it is worth reminding ourselves that more is not better. Better is better.

Unbiased is overrated

We often seek unbiased advice or points of view. However, more often than not, unbiased is just a result of a lack of awareness of biases. Folks who are truly unbiased are few and far between.

Unbiased, as a result, is overrated.

I’d take biased and aware any day of the week.


Experiments and mis-steps

Waze suggested this an alternate route to work a few days back to avoid traffic on my usual route. In the spirit of experimentation, I thought I’d give it a try.

The route choice ended up taking doubling the amount of travel time. And, my instinct mid-way through the journey was to wonder what I did wrong.

Soon enough, it hit me that this mis-step was simply the cost of experimentation. If I’d reduced my travel time, I’m sure I would have congratulated myself for the intelligent risk. This result was just the flip side of that. The only logical action after an experiment like this is taking the time to reflect and learn. In this case, never try that route again was a good learning.

Constant experimentation – beginning with a hypothesis and ending with reflection – is a powerful approach to continuous learning. But, it also requires us to make peace with unexpected mis-steps.

Experiments and mis-steps go together. You cannot have one without having the other.

Executive vs. Manager

I had some vague notion about the link between an executive and the velocity of decisions. But, Foundry Group VC Seth Levine shared an interesting perspective on the difference between an executive and a manager.

My synthesis – a manager focuses on solving problems by asking – how can my team do this? – while an executive solves problems by asking – how can our company do this?

I found the framing around the perspective behind decisions useful and accurate.

While there are obvious takeaways for our careers, I thought the takeaways for our personal life are equally, if not more, interesting. When we make decisions to optimize one sub system in our life, e.g. our career or the work crisis of the moment, without paying heed to how the various sub systems (family, health, et al) co-exist, we behave as managers.

And, when we focus on making decisions based on what we’re trying to optimize for the system as a whole, we behave as executives.

As with many powerful distinctions, it all begins with a choice.