I am really bad at that

When we say “I am really bad at that,” what we are really saying is that it isn’t worth our effort to get better at it.

It is perfectly acceptable to decide it isn’t worth investing in a certain skill or habit. It may not be the best use of our limited time.

But, it isn’t right to pretend we aren’t capable of getting better. That’s just a way to let ourselves off the hook. And, while it might seem perfectly harmless to let ourselves off the hook on something trivial, it spirals quickly into skills and habits that aren’t so.

We can get better at anything we want to get better at. And, the first step to doing so is by fixing language that allows us to let ourselves off the hook.

Presence must be like breathing

I’ve been mulling a passage from Josh Waitzkin’s Art of Learning and thought I’d share it in full.


In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is clearly being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill.

While more subtle, this issue is perhaps even more critical in solitary pursuits like writing, painting, scholarly thinking or learning. In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if “going through the motions” is the norm of our lives. On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then, life, art and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential – for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to the purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments where everything is on the line.

The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.


“The secret is that everything is always on the line” resonates deeply.

I thought this passage was both true and profound. Thanks Josh.

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.

Synthesis and the learning loop

Synthesis is how we get from knowledge to learning.

We take a big step toward learning when we’re able to extract what is useful from all the knowledge, facts and data that we’re exposed to. And, we do this by developing mental models when we force ourselves to synthesize. These mental models, in turn, help us get to wisdom – understanding how to use the learning after we run facts through our mental model.

That, in turn, spurs action as wisdom brings about clarity. Besides, to learn and not to do is not to learn.

This loop can be self re-inforcing as the action can help us develop better mental models, and so on.

But, the key step is synthesis and that is incredibly hard. Think about how easy it is to just read the news or interesting articles or blogs over the internet without ever thinking about the implications of those ideas in our life.

That is is why synthesis is the entry point to this learning loop. It is a rite of passage of sorts.

We don’t learn until we synthesize.

You and future you

For the longest time, you didn’t have too much of a say in crafting the “future you.”

Even two decades ago, those who worked “above” you in your organization had a big say in what opportunities you got to work on. Want to make that big career switch? Or, want in on that exciting new project? You just had to wait to get picked by the powers that be.

But, that’s changed.

Now, you have access to an incredible set of media tools to shape “future you.” You could demonstrate your penchant for coming up with ground breaking insights about the industry you want to work in on your blog or on LinkedIn. Facebook or Instagram can be incredible platforms to show off your artistic abilities. And, Twitter is a great place to build a following around your comedic wit or knack for pithy dialogue.

Like all good things in life, these tools are entirely what you make of them. You can use them to consume an endless stream of sticky content. Or not. If you decide to do so, these tools can be your customized digital garage to work on projects that would open up opportunities for “future you.”

Here are 3 simple questions to help craft your approach toward social media –
1. What sort of projects would you like to work on in the future?
2. What do you need to learn and ship to get access to those opportunities?
3. Which 1-2 social media tools could you use to build that body of work? If you really love the consumption, pick one other tool to consume (guilty pleasure allowance) and nix the rest.

You could choose to unconsciously engage in social media in ways that simply benefit their parent companies and hurt you.

Or, you can harness the tremendous power these bring and pick yourself to do work that matters.

Things that slow us down

Things that slow us down may be things we need the most.

Every week since the summer of 2008, I’ve sent some version of the 200 words project – where I share a synthesis of an idea from a book I read within 200 words. The previous incarnation (2008-2014) was a team effort with a former colleague who came up with the idea. For the first 2 years, I didn’t participate much in the creation process. Around 2010, however, I took over most of the content creation and that continued in the form of the 200 words project today.

Creating these is a multi-step process. The first step is reading interesting books. Next, I take notes as I read. And, finally, I aim to synthesize relevant notes in a series of ideas that capture what I’ve learnt from the book. It is a slow process. But, it has been rewarding. In addition to blogging about them here, I send them out in a weekly newsletter of sorts to friends, acquaintances, former colleagues and clients. It’s worked as a wonderful way to stay in touch.

But, every once a while, I ask myself if the time has come to kill the project. And, admittedly, this has happened with greater frequency since I became a parent 3 months ago. So, I took a long 6 week break over the holidays to check in on my motivation to continue doing this. It still existed.

I had an epiphany last weekend when I was preparing future drafts – why was I keen to kill the project? It felt like it was slowing me down. In the limited time I had during weekends for working on this stuff, I could do other things or simply read more.

But, would more be better? Would I truly make the most of the books I read if I wasn’t synthesizing them?

It occurred to me that this process is likely valuable because it is slow. Boiling books down to their essence requires a certain depth of focus. It stands in contrast to my general pace of life. And, that difference was certainly challenging for many reasons. But, that investment in depth also reaped wonderful rewards in the long run in the form of learning and wisdom.

So, every once a while, slow might be exactly what we need.

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.