Working hard at life

When speaking about their ongoing fight with cancer, a friend said this to me the other day – “We all are afflicted by a terminal disease. We just don’t know the end date.”

I’ve been pondering that comment and the big accompanying question – “how will I measure my life when that happens?”

“Working hard at life” is the response that inevitably comes back to me. I love going to bed knowing I’ve done my best in every aspect of life that I deem important.

There’s a lot of talk about working smart and how some people manage to do it all with minimal effort. I’ve just never seen any evidence of that in my life.

Everything worth having has taken effort. Everything worth having has also involved trade offs. Sure, I’ve gotten better at doing some of these things, making some of these decisions and weighing the trade offs. In some cases, I do work a lot smarter than I used to. But, even that came after putting in the hard work first, reflecting on the process and intentionally getting better. And, all of this while having access to unique privilege – being born out of poverty – and being blessed with adequate mental capacity.

Maybe there are a select few who can manage to work smart and do it all. But, for the rest of us, we have a limited amount of time and a reservoir of energy (that can, thankfully, be replenished with activity, food and rest) to work hard on whatever we choose to work hard at.

We have an opportunity to recognize that we have the power to choose, to choose and to work hard at whatever we choose. This opportunity is a privilege. It is on us to choose. And, in time, learn to choose well.

I choose to work hard at life.

I hope you choose what matters to you too.

Together, I hope we make this privilege count.

Thought-action gap

At some point 2 years or so ago, I wrote about wanting to spend more time writing about technology on this blog. So, I tried finding ways to do it. Initially, it was a weekly post reviewing products combined with the occasional technology musing. Then, it was trying to get a post out once a week on a technology topic. At some point along the way, I gave up.

But, I didn’t stop thinking about writing about technology.

I reflected on this after I shared my first post on thinking about technology products two days ago. I’m beginning to get into a cadence where my Sunday (via the “Notes by Ada” project) and Wednesday posts (“Thinking Product”) are about technology. For the “Notes by Ada” project, I’ve gotten into the cadence of primarily posting them on LinkedIn and Medium as I was keen to experiment on those platforms and post a summary here. I toyed with keeping it completely separate. But, I realized it was too much cognitive load to expect myself to write an extra non-tech post on Sundays for this blog. For the “Thinking Product” series, I intend to start here and cross-post to both those platforms. I’ve come to think of this blog as the hub for all my learning projects and it is thus inevitable that what I write about changes with what I’m learning.

The interesting question here is – why did it take 2 years for me to move from thought to action on writing about technology? Here are 3 lessons I’ve taken away from this –

  1. Ability gap. I’ve learnt that learning comes from the process of synthesis. Synthesis is different from summarizing things in that a summary involves notes about what I’ve read or heard. A synthesis, on the other hand, requires me to add a frame to it and bring in my point-of-view post reflecting on a topic. It has taken me a while to develop that point of view.

    I’ve come to appreciate the importance of the ability gap. Things get done quickly if you are both willing and able. If not, you need to spend time building up your abilities.

  2. Patience. That, in turn, means being patient with yourself. This combination of a lack of ability and a lack of patience is why new year’s resolutions fail. When we commit to a new habit on new year’s day, we forget that we don’t yet have the ability to form that new exercise habit. It takes patience and a requirement that you are kind to yourself along the way.
  3. Structure. Finally, the best way to help the learning process is to create structure around it. In this case, it helps me to think of Sunday as the day I write broadly about what is going in technology and Wednesday, for example, where I write about products. Of course, I don’t do all my thinking and writing on the same day (at least, not always). But, the structure greatly simplifies things and helps create a habit in the long run.

There’s a school of thought which says that you’ll find a way to do anything that you really want to do. I definitely subscribe to that as that desire helps you commit to improving your abilities. But, the caveat I’d add is that it requires a lot of thought about structure and a ton of patience around the way.

Finally, if you’re thinking of adding new habits into your life, account for the thought-action gap. Sometimes, it takes longer than 2 years to get the process working…

When you have that 2 minute break today

You’re likely to have a 2 minute break today when you are waiting for someone or something.

When that happens, consider not pulling out your phone and checking your messages or email.

You probably don’t have a new message since you checked it a few minutes back. And, even if you do, it is likely not important.

We need to allow ourselves the space to get bored, muse and reflect. That’s when we have the space to learn and to be creative.

Technology exists to simplify our lives. It is on us to ensure that it serves us and not the other way around.

Thinking Product | A stake in the ground

I am a sucker for great technology product experiences. I also love writing – there is no other practice that teaches me to synthesize what I learn as effectively.

But, I’ve not spent enough time on the intersection of the two.

I’ve written about great product experiences every once a while here That’s part and parcel of working on side projects for over a decade. But, I’d like to do a lot more. So, my hope is to write about building technology product experiences once a week – my stake in the ground.

I thought I’d call this series “Thinking Product” as so much of building products is about the thought process – both of the user and the builder. As a result, I’m going to also write about both aspects of technology product experience – products (i.e. User focused) and product leadership (i.e. Builder focused).

And, in scientific method style, I’m going to start with a hypothesis for frameworks around both of these. I expect them to evolve as I write and learn.

What makes great products?

My hypothesis is that great products have 3 characteristics –
1. Nail job-to-be-done: They are a great solution to a problem users care about
2. Delight to use: They are well designed
3. Sticky: Makes the customer/user want to come back

These characteristics, in turn, helps them grow. There are many ways to think about this cycle of growth. Acquire -> Activate -> Retain -> Monetize -> Refer is one way to do it, for example. But, I’ll aim to simplify again and just focus on the following cycle of 1) Growth (the act of bringing new users into a product) -> 2) Onboarding (the act of converting new users to power users) -> 3) Usage (the act of retaining power users)

As you can see, there’s a strong connection between the two.

What makes great product leaders?

There’s a distinction to be made here between product management and product leadership. So, working through this takes us through the first principles of how products are built. Product management, for instance, requires product builders to sit at the intersection of engineering, design and business needs. And, product leadership, on the other hand, requires thought leadership (an in-depth understanding of what customers need and what the market is ready for) and people leadership.

I’ve intentionally separated the two as great product leaders don’t always have to great product managers. That’s a longer discussion for a later time.

All of this means there’s plenty to write about. I expect to spend time on products that nail one or more of these characteristics and aspects of great product management and leadership. I will always try to bring things back into 3 key aspects – e.g. 3 aspects of building great products or 3 parts of the growth cycle – as I rarely remember more than 3 things. And, additionally, a list of the 3 most important aspects gets us 90% of the way there.

I look forward to the learning and the discussion that follows. This should be fun.

Life happens with us

I read this passage yesterday in Shefali Tsabary’s excellent book – The Conscious Parent.

“To understand that life is a wise teacher, willing to show us our higher self, revolutionizes how we live and how we parent. We approach everything with an attitude that our circumstances are here to help us come from our higher self. We see life as trustworthy, here to usher us into a deeper self-connection. We also know it’s inherently good, a mirror of our own internal state of goodness. This approach recognizes that we are fundamentally interconnected to all that happens in our life, so that we are co-creators of the reality in which we live. Life doesn’t happen to us, but happens with us.”

This idea resonated deeply as it gets at the core of what it means to embrace learning from life’s experiences. Completely embracing learning in our lives requires us to believe in life’s ability to surface the right things to learn as we move with it.

In essence, the train of logic on how to think about this is both simple and beautiful. The first step is to take responsibility for what happens in our life – Stephen Covey would describe this as being proactive. Taking responsibility enables us to respond, and not to react, to life. Once we begin responding to life, we widen the gap between stimulus and response to be more conscious and intentional about our choices. That, in turn, means we become the co-creators of the reality we constantly shape.

I love the analogy of steering a boat in the sea. The sea’s currents are powerful and override steering from time to time. But, in the long run, there’s a huge difference between floating at sea and consciously steering.

Life doesn’t happen to us, but happens with us.

Indeed.

Your information diet

What is your information diet?

How much of it is spent –
– On email?
– On social media?
– On television?
– On reading the news online?
– On books or podcasts?
– On blogs or newsletters you subscribe to?
– On conversations with folks you learn from?

Take a guess.

Then, validate that guess during the day (or, even better, the week).

When do you spend your time on each of these activities? And, most importantly, how much of what you do makes you feel better for the long run after you do it?

Reviewing this typically leads to 3 kinds of changes –
1. A few of these activities are best minimized or, in many cases, removed.
2. Some activities are best done in chunks and planned toward the latter part of the day. They’re essential but are a waste of fresh mental bandwidth.
3. Finally, you need a lot more thought to do more of the activities that add a lot of long term value.

As a general rule, the easier an activity is to do, the less long term value it is likely to add.

In today’s age, your information diet is just as important as your food diet. We spend a large portion of our day exposed to information of different kinds. Just like our food diets, it is worth taking stock every once a while and asking ourselves – what can we do better?

We are what we do. And, what we think, say and do is a by product of what we read and who we listen to.

Why you should care about Net Neutrality

The internet is a thing of beauty. And, the regulation that the FCC has planned to roll back Net Neutrality threatens to destroy the foundations of the internet.

This image does a good job illustrating what the net neutrality discussion is all about (thanks to Software Engineering daily).

I have a longer note up on the “Notes by Ada” project on Medium and LinkedIn.

If you only have 3 minutes, here is the summary

  • Freedom of expression isn’t a function of the values of a place but the structure of the information infrastructure. Oppressive regimes led by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin understood this and used the power of centralized/consolidated information systems to spread propaganda.
  • The 1960s were famous for the rejection of these centralized systems (in this case, the Bell/AT&T monopoly). And, the internet was explicitly designed to be network neutral as a way to fight consolidation. Side note: the internet’s design is a work of art.
  • This network neutrality or net neutrality means that every service on the internet competes on a level playing field and it is users (i.e. us) that choose which internet service wins. This system brings its own set of issues with it but it is better than the alternative.
  • Net neutrality principles are closely aligned with the principles behind the freedom of expression. So, the real question underlying the net neutrality discussion is — how much do you care about freedom of expression?

If you are a user of the internet, you benefit from the many innovations that led to the creation of this incredible connection engine. Like all great human tools, the internet has got its downsides. But, when you put it in perspective, it is hard not to appreciate how miraculous it is.

So, if you care about the internet or the freedom of expression or both, net neutrality should be important to you. If you are wondering what you can do, here are 2 ways you can help –

  • Join the protest starting Wednesday, July 12. Many of the leading websites that you use will share ways for you to lend your voice. Do participate!
  • If you don’t want to wait, no worry — John Oliver has you covered. Just go to “www.gofccyourself.com” and click on “Express” to share your support for Net Neutrality. Even better, check out his excellent episode on Net Neutrality

A final note — thanks to an FCC chairman who is determined to roll this back combined with an all Republican Senate and House, the odds are stacked against us. But, we’ve been here before with SOPA. So, here’s hoping we can reverse this one as well.