Unglamorous moments

I was thinking of a whole host of unglamorous moments today.

Listening to the radio while stuck in traffic.
Attempting to calm your hysterical kid in the middle of the night.
Having to make an emergency run to the grocery store because your partner forgot to get something.
Going through an ordinary day of work.
Eating your staple food for dinner.
Recovering from the flu.
Working through a thousand cell spreadsheet one cell at a time.

You’ve been through most or all of this. So, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And, yet, when we think of our lives, the movies tell us that the list of moments should probably look something like the following.

Winning a prestigious award in front of family.
Getting promoted to <insert fancy title> in <insert famous company>
A happy, all smiles, re-union with friends in a beautiful island somewhere.
Watching your kid/partner/family member do something awesome.
Etc.

You may be lucky to have a few of those glamorous moments come by a couple of times in your life. But, for the most part, you are going to live a life full of unglamorous moments. And, here’s the amazing part, if you have the privilege to go through these unglamorous moments without having to worry about your health, safety or shelter, you have everything in place to earn your happiness.

How do you that? By developing a perspective that helps you constantly experience gratitude. And, I mean constantly. If you are stuck in traffic, it means looking around and being thankful for everything in your life that enables you to be stuck in that traffic. Your car, your home, your people, your job, this planet, etc., etc. There’s always plenty to be thankful for. But, it requires perspective and an appreciation for those unglamorous moments.

That matters because of two truths. First, the occasional glamorous moment that gets consigned to the highlight reel is a result of millions of these unglamorous moments well done. And, second, the ratio of unglamorous moments to glamorous moments is probably in the range of a billion to one. So, if you’re wasting these moments in the search for glamour, that’s a real pity.

We earn our happiness, one unglamorous moment at a time.

Roads not taken

Our ability to reflect and see ourselves from an outside point of view is a big part of what makes us human. A side-effect of that ability is to dwell on roads not taken. We could spend days wondering about “what if I had..”

I’ve noticed two patterns whenever I think of roads not taken. First, I only consider the best outcomes from that road I didn’t take. If I’m thinking about an opportunity, I focus on the best case situation if I’d taken the opportunity and ignore any negative scenarios. Second, I neglect all the thought I’d put into making the decision.

Hindsight is always 20:20, of course. There is definitely a lot to be learnt from observing our past behavior. But, we must only move to correct something if we see a distinct pattern. For example, if we find ourselves repeatedly over-weighting risk in our decisions, there’s good reason to be mindful of that the next time we find ourselves making an important decision.

Beyond that, fantasizing about roads not taken is a pointless exercise. We must learn to build a solid decision making process and then trust that process. To do otherwise is just to invite unhappiness. Besides, it is worth remembering that our current state is a result of the best decisions we could have taken given what we knew. So, in theory, we did our best with the cards we were dealt. That’s all we can do.

We just have to keep the faith that we’ll push ourselves to learn from what is happening to us and, over time, to know better. And, when we know better, we will do better.

Redirecting focus

I find myself in a near constant battle with my mind to keep it focused on things I control. Granted, I’m probably more attention deficit than the average person. But, my mind’s desire to seek out and dwell on situations, relationships and possible future scenarios over which I have no control and which always take me down an unhappy path never ceases to amaze me.

I have only found one way to solve this – constantly work to redirect focus to myself.

Self centeredness is a dirty word in our time. I understand that. I’m in search for a new term – maybe “self focus” – to describe my workaround. The idea is simple – the more time I spend on thinking about stuff outside myself, the more helpless, discontent and unhappy I become. I see my role as that of a driver steering my mind towards thinking about what my priorities are, what I need to get done and how I can do them better.

My mind control program simply reads – when in doubt, redirect focus to self and spend time visualizing and thinking about things you control. Our actions, then, follow these thoughts.

And, that’s where the good stuff lies.

Or, at least, that’s been my limited experience.

Goals vs. systems and its implications on management

In his book – How to Fail at Almost Everything And Still Win Big – Dilbert creator Scott Adams asserts that ‘goals are for losers while systems are for winners.‘ In his words –

Losing ten pounds is a goal (that most people can’t maintain), whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.

The difference between the two, in his mind, is that goals are one-and-done things while systems are enduring and don’t focus on the short term.  So, stay away from goals and focus on systems is his advice.

I thought I’d deconstruct this today and analyze the goals and systems idea in further detail.

First, from a self management perspective, I think Scott is spot on. I think of goals vs. systems as a focus on results vs. a focus on process. Focusing on results means spending large portions of time outside our circle of influence as we don’t generally control outcomes. Additionally, it also means walking down the “judger” path. A focus on process is not just better because it is a happier path (it is that, too). It is better because our circle of influence grows in direct proportion to the amount of time we spend within it.

However, the difficulty with extreme points of view is that there are always exceptions (I think Scott took the extreme point of view just to make a point). And, there is an important exception to the systems/process path. Every once in a while, we need to check if our processes are leading to the outcomes/goals we have in mind. The inherent assumptions with systems is that we design systems that work. So, if we take – I will lose 10 pounds (goal) vs. I will lead an active life (system), it is vital that we check in every once a while to make sure our system is leading to the desired outcome of feeling healthier. In that sense, we need both goals and systems. And, consistent with Scott’s point of view, I think it is better we focus on systems.

When we apply the goals vs. systems idea to management, however, the implications are interesting. When it comes to dealing with others, I think that managing via systems is a bad idea. Managers who try to control their employees’ processes become annoying micro-managers. This is because the nature of systems is that they are personal. What works for the manager will likely not work for his colleague. And, that’s okay. As long as she’s getting her work done in a way that is consistent with the values and culture of the firm, the manager shouldn’t meddle.

So, in this case, it is vital that we, as managers and leaders, focus our energies on setting clear goals for those we manage/lead. And, just like in the self-management case, it is worth checking in with their systems/processes from time to time just to ensure they’re not doing something completely wrong. Trust, but verify.

So, if I had to abstract from all this analysis and arrive at the principle, it would be this – don’t think goals OR systems. Think goals AND systems and tailor based on context. When it comes to managing ourselves, it is best to focus on processes/systems instead of goals/results. And, when it comes to managing others, hold them to outcomes instead of processes. In both cases, don’t abandon the other. Check in with your goals from time-to-time to make sure your processes are taking you where you want to go and vice versa.

As a wise friend once told me when I was grappling with a “this or that” question -“Whenever I am faced with such a dilemma, I ask myself [very deeply] what it would take to replace OR with AND.”

3 happiness principles – a synthesis of 50+ books

A wiser friend asked me an intriguing question – based on everything you’ve read, what are some tips you’d suggest for someone to lead a happier life?

I asked him for some time as I wanted to make sure I gave it thought. Any psychology hobbyist understands that you don’t throw around happiness tips lightly. I then asked myself 1 question – if I had to synthesize everything I’ve learnt about happiness from my readings (60+ relevant books) and experiments over these years, what are 3 principles that I would share? I was keen about 3 principles because I don’t think our mind retains more than 3 principles. Additionally, I was keen on principles over tips because tips are akin to specific advice. I prefer frameworks that we can all apply to our individual context.

So, here goes –

1. Optimize your energy over everything else. It is energy we must care about and not time. Spend your time on things and people that give you good energy. The same applies to resources – spend your money either on experiences or in areas where you spend a lot of your time. Great experiences, e.g.  a legendary trek up Kilimanjaro, give us positive energy that last us a long while. Similarly, if you spend a lot of time on your desk, investing in a standing desk might provide a ton of energy on a daily basis.

A key part of this principles is focusing on “your” energy, i.e., taking care of yourself before you attempt to take care of the world. If you’re burning yourself out in your attempts to do good, your energy is not going to last long. Once our own needs are met, most of us naturally begin to focus our energies on giving back.

This principle has far reaching implications – for example, it is impossible to keep good energy if you don’t work in an environment that suits your personality. You can’t hang out with people who just take energy from you and give little back. You can’t work with co-workers who you don’t learn from. All your decisions soon become decisions that either give you better energy or don’t. The only way to do this well in the long run is to treat yourself as a research subject and keep tabs on what it takes for you to have good energy. The better your energy, the happier you’ll be.

There are very few blanket rules that apply to everyone. However, there are a couple of things that generally work – sleeping enough, eating well, exercising regularly and counting your blessings are as close as you get to blanket “good energy” rules. But, to each their own.

2. Use your willpower to build good habits like exercising, reading, keeping a journal/meditating, and building meaningful relationships with people you care about. If you fight yourself every time you try to do something that you think is good for you, it is a losing cause. The best use of willpower is to use it to build habits. Habits are the infrastructure of your life experience. There’s a reason every developing economy focuses heavily on infrastructure. The better the infrastructure, the more good stuff can thrive. If you’re consistently having power outages (e.g. sickness), for example, you can’t do much with your life.

So, the question then becomes, what infrastructure should you build? A more involved, and, in my opinion, better way to build this infrastructure is to really ask yourself that tough question – how will you measure your life? If you are a person who’ll measure yourself by the number of people you’ll mentor, then part of your infrastructure needs to be include creating consistent space for mentorship. If you aren’t sure of where to start, exercise, reading and meditation are a great place to start.

Once you’ve identified this, there are plenty of great resources on how to hack your brain to do this. There are no generic principles, though – if you feel it is helpful, I’m happy to suggest ideas that’ll help make it easier to break the resistance on these habits. But, before anyone dives into brain hacking, I’d suggest getting really clear on why you want to do something. A lack of clarity is a recipe for internal resistance.

Finally, the best resulting outcome of this is the sort of discipline that inspires integrity. Integrity is simply making and keeping commitments. As we use our willpower to build good habits, it brings with it a tremendous level of confidence in our own word. There are few better things in life than the ability to face ourselves in the mirror.

3. Choose learner questions over judger question. At every moment in our life, we ask ourselves questions. Every decision we make is a product of questions we ask ourselves. For example, we probably asked ourselves – what will make me look good today? And, the result of that is the clothes we wear. Over time, many of these questions become subconscious. And, without realizing it, we default to certain kinds of questions that may or may not have a net positive effect on our lives.

There are two kinds of questions – learning questions or judging questions. When you ask learning questions, you spend more time in learning mode and judging questions means time spent in judging mode. There are many psychology terms that illustrate the same idea – fixed vs. growth mindset, “be good” goals vs. “get better” goals. They all say the same thing. The best illustration I’ve seen is a concept called the choice map (thanks to Marilee Adams’ Inquiry Institute).

Choice Map

Here’s why it is incredibly powerful – people who ask learning questions focus on learning (duh) while those who spend time asking judging questions focus on performance. As a result, learning questions force us to focus on process vs. results. And, that, in turn, means we spend most of our time focusing on situations that are in our control. It also means we put in effort without attaching ourselves to the outcomes. Outcomes and results are the judger’s way of life. Interacting with the world with non-attachment is the one of the most tell tale signs of happiness. It enables us to give our heart, mind and soul into the projects we work on without worrying about short term pay offs. It is all about the long game. It is all about the process. In the long run, good results follow good processes.

So, that’s that – energy, habits and learning questions sum up the three principles that I’ve gleaned from all my readings and experiments.

If you’re wondering about common threads among the three (I was), the thread I spotted was that they require us to make our daily decisions based on consistent and constant self awareness. Self awareness drives the production of data that helps us make better decisions (that’s why meditation/journaling are key habits).

So, if there’s a ‘one last thing’ idea here, it is that all this data is useless if we don’t use it to make better decisions. The Latin root of decision translates into ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill’. So, learning to say no, and in the process, deciding what we effectively say ‘yes’ to may be the single most important skill that affects our happiness. The quality of our lives are directly proportional to the quality of our daily decisions.

And, as we live our days, so we live our lives.

Appreciating gravity

There was a moment in my 15 minute meditation routine this morning when Andy reminded me to appreciate gravity. A part of the exercise involves being aware of the weight of the body on the chair and the weight of the legs on the floor. And, of course, that wouldn’t be possible without gravity.

I thought the idea of appreciating gravity was symbolic of many a good thing in life. Gravity, to me, is one of those things that does its job every single day and, yet, is conspicuous by its absence from our attention. We take it for granted.

There are so many things and people in our lives that are exactly like gravity. An example that comes straight to mind is the human body. Every part of this incredible system just does its job. We only realize and appreciate this when we fall sick. How about appreciating it every day while we’re healthy?

It is also incredibly pertinent when it comes to appreciating people. So many companies and teams take their people for granted – especially those silent warriors who plug away at what needs to be done with unerring consistency. Often, true performers function like gravity. While they’re around, we never realize the impact they’re making simply because we take it for granted. If they weren’t around, these things would happen, wouldn’t they?

Let today be gravity appreciation day then. As we move through the day, let’s think about the many forces, things, and people we take for granted.. and appreciate them. This isn’t so much about them. This is just about us building this habit – to observe what is really going on, to notice efforts that might otherwise go unnoticed and to appreciate the good things.

For, when we learn to be appreciative, we learn to be thankful. And, when we learn to be thankful, we learn to be happy.

The Good Life Sessions – MBA Learnings

I wrote about the idea of searching for the good life 3 weeks ago. That was the day we conducted the first of three “Good Life Sessions” in school. It was a fascinating process and experience for a few reasons.

First, I have never seen this topic tackled. Books have come at it from various angles but there was no ready made content or structure we could use. So, both the roots as well as the structure came from personal experiences. That always makes it interesting because personal journeys are rarely similar. That said, there are underlying principles that we can extract.

So, in some ways, we never set out for this to be perfect solution to anyone seeking the good life (that would either be a result of extreme vanity or foolishness – depending on your point of view). Instead, we framed this as a way to get exposed to tools and frameworks that would hopefully get our attendees thinking about these things and help them on their journeys. At the end of the day, designing a life you consider “good” is a personal endeavor. There’s no tool or template that will solve it for you. However, there are principles that you can apply. And, we tried aggregating these principles in these sessions.

We broke the idea of “the good life” down by asking 3 questions. As a special gift to you, we’d like to share the worksheets we worked through during the sessions. Each of the links lead to the worksheets –
1. What do I value?
2. How do I find my personal mission? (Mission statements examples sheet)
3. How do I create an action plan to live a life consistent with this mission?

We worked hard to keep it simple. Hopefully you’ll find it easy to understand and follow as well. If you have any trouble, please just leave a comment or email me on the email address in worksheet III.

As I wrote in that original post, there are many false assumptions around ideas of happiness and purpose. Many assume that you only pursue these once you become wildly successful. That’s missing the point. It is only when we live a life we consider “good” do we feel successful in the first place. This isn’t about getting things “right” or being “balanced.” I keep going back to the ‘life as an ECG’ analogy – good lives work like good ECG readings. There’s a lot of fluctuation around the line. Too much fluctuation is a problem. A flat line is a massive problem.

It works the same way with attempting to lead a good life. First, you define what is good and, in that process, create that anchor line. And, then, you spend every day balancing around that line.It’ll never be perfect. But, it’ll be good. And, most importantly, it’ll be good as you define it. And, I’d argue that there are few things that matter more..

(Hat tip to the Good Life Team for making this happen. And, to the one and only Clayton Christensen, whose fantastic book “How will you measure your life?” has inspired me more than any other)

The view

We spend most of our time climbing ladders – a career ladder, a fitness ladder, a finance ladder, etc. There is no end to these ladders. There is always hard and gritty work to be done for long term good. And, that involves diligent work. There are 3 truths about ladder climbing that I’ve found helpful –

1. There is no happiness ladder. While it is true that postponing short term gratification results in long term joy, viewing life as an exercise in postponing short term gratification is a drag. The challenge with happiness is that we have to live it through the journey.

2. There were likely times when you almost slipped but were held tightly by people who stopped climbing their ladders to help you. These folk are precious. Treasure them and try to climb alongside them for as long as possible. And, even when you aren’t alongside, stay in touch. The art of ladder climbing hasn’t changed much with time and there’s a lot you can learn from experience.

3. Wherever you are, you can always stop, take a few seconds, and enjoy the view. Sure, the view gets better at the top. But, the place you are in now is the place you are at after putting all of your life experience at work. It is likely the highest you’ve ever been and is likely the efforts of you having come a long way. Take the time to enjoy the view and be grateful for having made it so far – you definitely didn’t do it alone.

That takes us right back to point 1. It isn’t happy people who are thankful, but thankful people who are happy.

The simple things

I am listening to “Wonderwall” by Oasis as I’m typing these words out. This was among the first songs I fell in love with and has so many great memories attached to it as it has stayed on every music playlist I’ve had since my early teens.

It is 8:07am on Wednesday – I am looking ahead at a packed day with a new project commencing, a project wrapping up, two assignment meetings and a couple of other notes. It is going to be back-to-back and I’m looking forward to that.

It is at such moments that I realize that it is in these moments that we actually live our lives. Too often, we think of the weekend / the next big break as our only respite. But, this moment is where we live have our day-to-day struggles and challenges. And, it is such moments that add up to a life where we’ve hopefully explored the length and breadth of the road we traveled.

Sure, it isn’t perfect and there are a few things that would be nice if fixed. But, I’m thankful for this moment. It is said that it isn’t happy people who are thankful but it is thankful people who are happy. I believe that. Remembering to give thanks takes work..

But, in the final analysis, I can think of very few other things that will matter as much as being grateful for all we’re blessed with and savoring the simple things that make up the bulk of our experience. Let’s live today.