When do you study

There are typically two kinds of classes in school – theory and lab. Theory classes are only useful if we find time after class to synthesize what we learn. And, assuming we do that, we should be in a good spot to put what we learnt in practice in the laboratory. That’s not to say we don’t learn stuff in the laboratory. We do. But, it is really theory that helps us make sense of our experiences in the lab.

Of course, school is designed to be heavy on theory. So, we spend a lot more time on theory than we do in laboratory. And, that, in turn, requires us to spend significant time studying. Again, theory without study is largely useless.

Our life post-school is essentially a collection of labs – broadly, a personal life lab and a professional life lab. There is one obvious challenge – there is no one scheduling time on your calendar for theory. That doesn’t mean there isn’t enough material. On the contrary, there is more material that might help than you’d imagine. But, you have to get to it. Few do that. Then, of course, getting to the material isn’t enough. We also need to synthesize it. Fewer do that.

And, yet, a much larger percentage of professionals say they love learning. Sure, they might love learning in a way a first time tennis player shows up at the court with a friend and runs around attempting to hit the ball, professing to be learning tennis. It is very far from the real thing.

Many things have changed since school. But, one thing remains constant – if you aren’t taking the time to study, the chances are high that you aren’t learning.

Where does growth come from?

I received a YouTube video link via an email forwarded across multiple mailing lists praising its insight. It was Clay Christensen’s talk at Google titled “Where does growth come from?” I’ve read and seen many of Clay’s talks now and feel a certain familiarity with the material. However, I am a fan. In fact, I think it is a normal week on ALearningaDay when at least one post is directly or indirectly inspired by one of Stephen Covey, Clay Christensen, or Seth Godin. 🙂

I thought I’d boil it down to the usual 3 things I took away. But, before doing that, let’s lay the groundwork. First, we must understand that companies invest in 4 kinds of innovations to drive growth –
1. Potential products: We don’t yet know what they are.
2. Sustaining innovations: These make the potential products better.
3. Disruptive innovations: These grow markets.
4. Efficiency innovations: These enable us to do existing things faster or better.

Getting terminology right is helpful in learning how to use them. I found this helpful as I found myself grasping this better despite having seen this a few times.

1. Disruptive innovations originate at the low end and are often business model innovations. For example, Uber disrupted the taxi industry with a business model built on variable costs. The iPhone disrupted the personal computer. And, so on. An interesting point he made was that disruptors often win with customers who were non consumers. Uber converted car owners into Uber users. And, his belief is that Android and Huawei are disrupting the iPhone on the low end. They are, in turn, bringing in non computer and non iPhone users into the smartphone market. Japan’s growth in the 1970s came from a series of disruptive innovations. They enabled non consumers to own cars, listen to music and consume electronics. However, they followed it up by focusing on increasing profits and efficiency/sustaining innovations. And, these only help with growth in the short run.

I thought of Amazon and Jeff Bezos as he insisted on the importance of the low end. Amazon Web Services or AWS struck me as a great example of this – a combination of low end and a fundamentally different business model of charging by usage has resulted in their stunning growth. So, the question that crossed my mind was – how do you ever disrupt an Amazon? Thanks to Jeff Bezos, they are so relentlessly focused on the low end that it is highly unlikely a competitor will ever catch them unawares.

2. The customer is the wrong unit of measurement. Forget the customer. Instead, focus on the job the customer hires you to do. This is such a simple and transformative idea. Yet, I haven’t completely internalized this and, thus, can’t say I have learned this yet. I need to keep working on applying this regularly and make it second nature.

3. Be careful what you measure. A Clay talk wouldn’t be complete without this message. The metrics we use can have many an unintended consequence – both at work and our lives. The metrics that are commonplace – stock prices, valuations, promotions and salaries – all tend to be short term. The most valuable things are the hardest to measure. So, take the time to understand how you will measure your business and your life.

A close friend watched this talk and pointed to Clay’s humility as one of the things that impacted him. Whenever someone asked a question, Clay always said – “Thank you for your question.” And, his presentation reeked of humility and thoughtfulness.

It doesn’t at all surprise me that Clay gets that right. After all, the small things are the big things. And, there are few who “get” that idea the way he does.

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHdS_4GsKmg%5B/embedyt%5D

2 way growth

Disenfranchised parents, leaders, and teachers are often those who walked into the experience expecting 1-way growth. 1-way growth is when your world view revolves around the idea that you have plenty of wisdom to pass on. And, your kids/subordinates are will now be delighted to benefit from your experience. Sure, they may teach you a few tricks. But, how many new tricks can you teach an old dog? Beside, will the old dog really have time to learn given how much old dog wisdom there is to pass down?

As you might imagine, this affliction hits families a lot harder than in the workplace. As parents, it is tempting to think raising a child, who starts off entirely dependent on you, is all about passing on your wisdom. It is hard to imagine that a little human being can have an agenda or path of his/her own.

Khalil Gibran in, “On Children,” puts it beautifully –

They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

It all comes back to the idea that love is the willingness to extend oneself for your own and another’s growth.

Demonstrating true love as a parent, teacher or leader is primarily about caring enough to learn and grow through the experience. True teaching doesn’t occur when we set out to teach. True teaching occurs when the recipient is willing to learn and be influenced.

And, it is only when you are willing to be influenced do you have a shot at influencing others.

Image Source

The tension between who you are and who you want to be

One of the fascinating tensions I observe with in myself is the tension between who I am and who I want to be. I spent between 2011-2013 largely pushing to understand myself – this meant reading as much as I could on psychology, the brain, happiness, behavior and understanding personality types via books like Gifts Differing by Isabel Briggs Myers. On the other side of this effort, I feel l understand who I am and what drives me a lot better than I used to. The benefit of this is in my slightly improved ability to understand which self improvement projects are a waste of time.

I have observed that the tension between who we are and who we want to be is one of the most difficult challenges we face in our lifetime. We aren’t fit vs. we want to be fit, we don’t read vs. we want to be the sort of person who reads a lot, we don’t spend time with our family vs. we want to be “family” people, etc. We’re constantly faced with this tension.

There are 3 lessons that have stuck with me (in case you are wondering why I always do 3, it is not because there are 3. There are many more than 3 – I just do my best to boil it down to the 3 most important lessons.) –

1. Your greatest strengths are also your biggest weaknesses. If you are a great thinker, it is likely you think too much. If you are a great doer, it is likely you do too much. You can’t look at weaknesses in isolation. In cases like this, I find it best to think about it as a balancing act. You won’t ever fully conquer that demon but, with enough self awareness, you can keep it at bay. So, as you get started, pick your self improvement projects carefully.

2. Understand why you want to change. Are you changing for yourself or because you want to be liked/popular? Changing for someone else is futile. At the end of the day, this tension is between you and the person who looks back at you in the mirror. If the two of you don’t feel it is worth it, it is not going to happen. That doesn’t mean you can’t change something about yourself to become more likable. You’ve just got to believe in it yourself.

3. Change projects are best taken up one-at-a-time over long periods. The biggest reason self improvement projects fail is because they’re taken up wholesale after an “aha” moment (usually new year’s day). There is NO way you can create sustainable change in one shot. It is a gradual process and you have to keep that perspective and be patient with yourself.

This isn’t a 3 day battle, it is a lifelong war. That said, it is definitely a war worth fighting consistently and well.

Are you failing enough? – MBA Learnings

I thought about this morning’s post a few times. I had a learning in queue that I had been thinking about from our Microeconomics class this week. But, I decided to shelve that this week and write about something that is top of mind – failure. That also leads me to the other related thought – when I’d first thought of the “MBA Learnings” series, it wasn’t just to share learnings from class. It was also to really touch upon life in business school and share my thought process as I approached it.

One of the questions I ask myself from time to time is – am I failing enough? I ask myself this question for a few reasons. First, it is because I think there is a strong connection between failure and learning. I have come to realize that the biggest by-product of success is self confidence. Yes, if you are smart, you will sit down and discuss what went well. And, yes, you will learn a lot from it. But, when you fail, you don’t have anything else to hold onto except learning. That’s powerful. Second, it is because failure helps guard against complacency. There is no mechanism that makes you eat humble pie as much as failure. I think that’s incredibly important because humility is what keeps us in touch with reality. And, it is people who really understand reality that are able to drive change and do something with it.

I received a few texts from a friend last night that I saw as I woke up. He shared that a project he’d been working on had failed. He said – “I couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it.” I could feel his disappointment. But, I also thought that was a great way to think about it. Even if we’re working in a team that has a share in our failures, the best way to think about failure, in my opinion, is to start with the “I.” Sure, you can blame everyone and everything around you. Sure, the circumstances must have been extenuating. But, you played a part. And you have to own it.

I say this because I’ve spent the last two days reflecting on a project I consider very important. And, after a few weeks of intense effort, I feel I’ve made a large enough collection of mistakes to slow down and reflect. We’re in a creative stage of the process and I’ve enjoyed this stage and have experimented heavily. The nature of experimentation is that a few work and most do not. And, every once in a while, the collection of experiments that don’t work threaten to overshadow the ones that do. And, I think I am at one such point – a real learning moment. I woke up at 4 this morning and spent the last hour and a half putting these thoughts together. This isn’t the first such learning moment of course.

It made me remember a moment 5 years ago now when we were in the early stages of putting together a team for what felt like an audacious project as a university student – to put together a new university version of Britain’s Got Talent (inspired by the Susan Boyle moment) and to do so despite not having an assurance that we’d have enough funding to pull it off. We had only secured 30% of the funds required, had no venue, and had just begun putting together a small team. 2 weeks into working with the team, I received an email from one of the team members asking to withdraw. I went back to that this morning and thought I’d share a small part that I still remember –

Also the entire experience of working (together ?) in this student based team has not been completely great either. Yes, you might claim to model this on the real life workplace environment, but once again I fail to see true justifications for certain aspects. While I do understand from our brief interactions, that leadership skills are what are being aimed for by each of you, I have to admit, that I was not really motivated to look up to you as a person who could lead us to work for <> (maybe because I failed to see the part of ‘lead by example’ coming in anywhere).

Following this note, 2 others withdrew.  Oh, it hurt. There’s something to be said for moments when people around you look at you and say (either verbally or not) that you’re not deserving of their trust.

That definitely was a learning moment.

But, I also know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that, the eventual success wouldn’t have occurred without such moments. They’re painful in the short term but meaningful in the long term. And, five years later, I can say with a lot of certainty that I look back at these moments with a smile.

I find myself facing new kinds of challenges today. It has been a challenge finding the time to reflect amidst two packed days. This stuff doesn’t happen when you are sitting idle and looking for things to think about. I guess that’s what is great about waking up early and getting some time to yourself. After two days of thinking about it, I think I’ve finally understood where the problems lie. And, I realize I’m going to approach it as I normally do – own up to my mistakes, be open about my intentions and have a conversation.

That goes back to my original question – Am I failing enough? Before I answer that, I’d just like to say that this is what I’ve loved about the MBA experience. You have a huge number of opportunities to experiment, learn and fail. There’s only so much you can fail at work – there are way too many things at stake (most of all, your own job). But, I’m now in a place where I’m paying a couple of hundred thousand dollars to learn and I intend to make the most of that. The new Kellogg rebranding led to the “inspiring growth” tag-line. That’s easier said than done, of course. Growth can be painful because it requires you to experiment, fail and learn. But, is it worth it? Absolutely.

And, as of this morning, I definitely think I am failing. And, I am fortunate to be in an environment that allows me to fail spectacularly. It is occasionally painful but I’m glad for the opportunity.

The opposite of viral

I know a lot of content creators (bloggers, video creators, etc.) would love for a post to go viral. It is one of those fascinations when you start a blog or video channel and wonder what going viral might be like. It doesn’t help that you see all sorts of random content go viral and think – “Hang on a second, so much of my stuff is better/funnier/nicer/more meaningful, etc.”

After nearly 7 years/3365 posts, my learning has been to not hope for viral. In fact, I’d even say – dread viral; because viral brings fleeting fame and you don’t really want fleeting fame. You’ll find many who’ll show up to read that one post or watch that one video and simply go away. The spike in your analytics will soon be gone as well. Nothing tangible would have been built.

Instead, focus on slow organic growth (the keyword here is slow because it is incredibly slow). Delight one reader or viewer at a time. Over time, if you are lucky and good, you’ll find a small group of influential readers who begin spreading the word about your work. Now, instead of one reader, you’ll have two who show up every day. Then 3, then 4, and soon, it catches on. The nice thing about such growth is that you grow with your reputation. You learn how to build your video channel in a sustainable fashion and don’t resort to gimmicks. That builds trust and trust is how important things are built.

Viral, on the other hand, is devoid of trust and, as a result, a sham. You deserve better. Those whom you delight and serve deserve better too. So, if you are creating content, I wish you the opposite of viral. And, I wish you the strength and courage to keep at it for 10 years. Rome was not built in a day. Enron was.

Do this.. and you are set for life

1. No, you aren’t set for life and never will be. You might attain financial independence but that doesn’t mean life will go easy on you. The demons will just be higher up on Maslow’s pyramid. It is a video game with an infinite number of levels. Enjoying the game is just as important as moving through the levels.

2. “This” assumes things get easy after a certain goal or accomplishment. That’s flawed. It never gets easy. In some ways, that’s the point.

3. If it isn’t apparent as yet, let me re-emphasize – there is no “this.”