What to do versus who to be

A close friend emailed Hunter Thompson’s letter “On Finding Your Purpose.” I’d read this a while back but I’d forgotten about it. And, it resonated very deeply this time around. The part that resonated was his distinction between what we want to do and who we want to be. I picked out my favorite notes below.

As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors — but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal.

Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know — is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

I feel I’ve been stumbling at the fringes of this idea in my years writing here without ever explaining it with such clarity. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. The conventional approach to life is to focus on what we want to do. We, then, shape who we want to be in accordance. If we end up in a job that requires us to work 90 hours a week, so be it. We’ll give up those dreams of valuing health or family. It assumes no thought or intention.

Instead, decide who we want to be and seek to find a career that conforms. This is hard. Who knows what we want to be?

It turns out we don’t really know what we want to do either. For the most part, we just start with an unconscious hypothesis and keep moving forward. The only difference is that we seem to be following millions of others who are doing the same thing. It is easier.

And, as always, let’s not confuse easier with better.

Purpose and appreciation

Building a culture is hard. This is so because of two reasons. First, there seem to be so many other things that need to get done. And, second, it isn’t clear what you should focus on. There seem to be way too many factors that go into building a culture anyway. While both are true, we all know that there are ways to simplify seemingly complex problems. And, my attempt at simplifying culture building is to simply focus on purpose and appreciation.

Dan Pink’s excellent book, Drive, beautifully synthesized human motivation to 3 ideas – autonomy, mastery and purpose. I’ve begun to believe that it is missing a fourth – appreciation. We care about being appreciated. A lot. There’s a saying that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. And, I’d hazard a guess that the managers who people want to leave are often managers who don’t appreciate what their people do.

So, why leave out autonomy and mastery in culture building? As an organization grows, I think it is hard to emphasize autonomy and mastery. Autonomy can get in the way of process. And, process becomes critical as we grow to ensure a consistent experience to customers. Balancing between autonomy and process isn’t easy and is a constant struggle for mature organizations. So, I think it is something that needs to be solved for by managers and leaders at an individual team level.

As far as mastery goes, I think it makes sense in some contexts and doesn’t in others. For example, companies work hard to allow for internal movement so people don’t feel stuck in certain careers. Certain career paths may be viewed as stepping stones to others. Again, I think of mastery as something we work on a manager and team level. In some teams, mastering the craft should be the key focus. And, in others, it should all be about gaining relevant skills and moving onto do other things.

My gut says that if we can focus on purpose and appreciation in our organizations and homes, we’ll be able to solve for most of the problems that culture helps solve. And, while more organizations are attempting to do better with appreciation, most are a long way away from improving the sense of purpose.

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)

Searching for the good life – MBA Learnings

“Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.” | Clay Christensen

“Productivity is the act of bringing a system closer to its goal.”  | Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt

“The most important thing about the good life is that you get to decide what good is. If you are living someone else’s good life, you’re making a huge mistake.” | Seth Godin

These 3 quotes have given me plenty of food for thought over the past 2 years. They touch on 2 big questions –
1. What is the yardstick with which you will measure your life?
2. Assuming the goal is “the good life,” what is the good life as I define it?

These questions are so incredibly heavy that it feels easier to give up before I even get started. These 2 questions get at more questions – Who am I? What matters most to me and why? Ah. So much easier to just get on our to do lists and do the next thing.

And, yet, is there anything more important than asking these questions? There is no productivity if we’re not working towards the goal, after all..

This afternoon, a close friend and I, at school, are launching the first edition of a 3 part workshop series we’re calling “The Good Life sessions.” The idea is to break the idea of the good life down by asking 3 questions –
1. What do I value?
2. How do I find my personal mission?
3. How do I create an action plan to live a life consistent with this mission?

We’ve been fortunate to receive support from a collection of inspiring professors who’ve walked this path and continue to struggle with these questions. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I have definitely been struggling with these questions for a long while and, after 18 months of wrestling with these questions, have begun to find direction. So, we were really excited to test this idea with the student community and see if we’d find a small group of people who care.

It turned out there was actually a huge group of people who care. We received 70 registrations in the first 120 seconds of our registration opening up and had to close at close to 300 registrations (~25% of the student body) in the first 4 hours. We have a main lecture room and 2 overflow rooms booked today. It helped a lot that the Professors who’re helping us have great follower-ship within the school but (and I am based here) it feels like we’ve hit on a topic that many would like to explore. And, that’s great to see.

I’m not sure this has ever been done before. So, we’re definitely working hard to create structure and tackle these big questions in bite-sized chunks. Of course, this might not work. But, I guess, that’s what makes it really exciting.

More to follow on the good life sessions. For now, I’ll end with a big thank you to Clay Christensen, Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt and the wonderful Seth for those 3 big ideas.the good

The weight of those who are gone

I thought I’d interrupt normal programming today (i.e. the 200 words project) to write about something that is top of mind and personal. I try very hard to abstract from events and focus on the essence of what I’ve learnt. This will not be easy to do in this case but I’ll try.

When I introduce myself to people I work with, one of the ideas I share to help communicate who I am is – I have been shaped a lot by death. Our family lost my uncle to an accident and my father to himself in a space of 3 years. Now, the typical reaction to this for the opposite person to say – I’m sorry. And, if we’re having a really upfront conversation, I generally explain more. You see, the hard part wasn’t that we lost 2 members of our family. The hard part is that my grandmother has, over the 17 years that have gone by, held those who’ve gone dearer to her than those who’re still here. I’m going to leave the details out here and instead just say that very few conversations with my grandmom in 17 years have gone by without us feeling the weight of our absent family members.

I wish this was a unique problem. Given my general comfort with topics that are generally perceived taboo or morbid, I’ve been fortunate to be trusted with information about so many families who have similar dynamics internally. The data I’ve collected over the years has led me to one important conclusion –  we need death education more than we do sex education.

In an average lifetime, we see at least ten births and ten deaths of people who are close to us. And, yet, very few hardly ever get comfortable with the idea of death. That’s a funny situation to be in as death is one among the few certainties of our life on this planet. So, that results in whole families torn apart, relationships broken, and many many unhappy years following a single event. There’s a wonderful Buddhist parable in which a woman goes weeping to the Buddha and asks him to bring her young son back from the dead. He asks her to bring a mustard seed from a house that has never seen death. So, she goes on a long search and comes back empty handed – every house she went to had seen death…

I wanted to write about this today as today was another day when I felt the weight of those who are gone. Today is actually my grandparents 50th anniversary. I’d have loved to interrupt normal programming to wish them a happy anniversary. But, as has been a trend in the past 17 years, there’s always an excuse to mar happy occasions. I’ve made peace with this fact after an “aha” moment 5 years ago. But, my mother hasn’t, for instance. And, that’s tough.

So, I thought I’ll do what I always do and share a few of my biggest learnings from these experiences.

1. Every person is responsible for their own happiness. This has two powerful implications. First, it is that you ought to worry most about your own happiness and not sacrifice that at the expense of others. That’s because, over time, you cannot help anyone else if you can’t help yourself. So, to be useful in the long run, take care of yourself first. Second, you can attempt to help others for a short while. But, after a certain point, it is their life and their responsibility. Don’t try to play god.

2. Really appreciate the people around you. If your mind is always stuck on the past, you’re never going to be able to enjoy the present or the future. All we have in this life is a collection of memories. Yes, there were great memories in the past with great people. But, there are equally great moments waiting in the future. For that, you have to really appreciate and be thankful for those who are with you now. Be great to the people you are with. Collect memories.

3. Express your love and gratitude. Once you learnt to appreciate the people around you, express you love and gratitude. Be generous with hugs, kisses, compliments, affection and love. We sometimes treat our heart as one that has space only for a few. It couldn’t be less true. My experience is that it only expands with time.

4. The world is your family. I’ve come to realize that there is so much family out there in the world. I count myself as a person rich in relationships as I’ve found an abundance of parents and siblings out in the world who’ve taken incredible care of me. I guess you just have to open your eyes to the possibility.

5. Take death education seriously. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about design firm IDEO’s efforts to “design death” and have those difficult conversations. I think we all have a duty to understand this certainty. If you’ve experienced in some form with a relative or family member, then I hope you’ll take the time to reflect, think, and have conversations about it. Death and the fear of it shapes more lives than you and I can even imagine. And, a lack of an understanding of this concept probably destroys more people’s happiness than diseases like cancer.

For my part, I’ll do my best to add more to conversation here. Death, depression and all such taboo topics are only taboo because we don’t spend enough time thinking about them and really understanding them. And, understanding them is strangely liberating.

One thing that does happen when you do think about these things is you realize how fleeting these moments are. The days feel long, but the years are really short. And, while life may be the longest thing we do, it is still really short in the big scheme of things. It is up to us to do something worthwhile with the time we have and spread as much love and joy as we possibly can instead of being caught in vicious cycles of unhappiness.

As I type these words, there are people who’re dying in various places. Many of these folk likely wish they could live a bit longer and tell the people they loved how much they cared about them – that’s the biggest regret of them all. Some others likely wish they’d lived a life with more meaning.

Happiness is not one of those things that comes assured on our birth certificate. Happiness is hard because it requires us to live a life close to our purpose and have real impact on the people on this planet. But, hard doesn’t make it impossible, of course. To make this life meaningful, to make it count – that’s entirely our responsibility.

And, what a great responsibility it is.

Finding your purpose – The Clayton Christensen Process v2.0

Clayton Christensen’s excellent book – How will you measure your life? – ends with an intriguing chapter on finding your purpose (summary here). Here, Clay recommends the following 3 step process –

1) Find your likeness. Ask yourself – what would you like to be like? How would you define your ideal you? Define your likeness when you are 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, etc i.e. define how you would look, what your family be like, how you would be known, and what you would be doing. (Clay, a very religious man, asked himself – what does god want me to be?)
2) Make commitments. Come back from time to time and revisit your likeness. Does it feel right? Is it you?
3) Define metrics. How do you measure ‘success’ in your definition? In his case, since his purpose was kindness, he always measured it by the number of people he helped. He points out that these metrics are rarely “make more money” or “get a promotion.” Define success and ensure your metrics are aligned.

I was intrigued by this chapter as it definitely felt like the most meaningful part of the book. However, unlike the rest of the book, this part seemed a bit cryptic. Now, I’m not sure if Clay intended it to be so but it resulted in a 1.5 year journey in attempting to really understand and apply this. I’d like to share my learnings from this journey with you.


Purpose process v1.0. I tried following Clay’s exact process and made a first draft of a list of commitments and metrics. After 6 months of testing, I realized there was something amiss. The hardest part about questions that have an existential component (e.g. what is your purpose?) is that you know when something is amiss but you don’t know exactly what is amiss. Cue: Time for more thinking.

I gave myself a break to think about it and got back to “designer” mode. It was time for Purpose process v2.0 that combined Clay’s approach and my learnings from attempting to apply his approach.


Purpose process v2.0 – my 7 step process for giving finding and measuring your purpose a shot. 

Step 1: Visit your own funeral. First, we borrow Stephen Covey’s idea to begin with the end in mind. Close your eyes and imagine you are at your own funeral. Who do you see around you? What are they saying about you? What else do you hear?

Step 2: Draw out your likeness. Pick a few arbitrary points – e.g. 30 years, 50 years, 70 years, 90 years and describe your likeness. Who would you want to be at these ages? Describe your future self – how you look, what your personal life looks like, what you do, etc. Don’t restrict this process. For example, I had a funny moment when I realized I kept describing myself as “fit with muscly arms.” Fit alone clearly didn’t do it for me. The thought of muscly arms somehow always brings out a smile. These details matter.

Step 3: Pick a simple framework to think about your life. This is an important step as we go down the path of aggregating the data we’ve collected so far. Pick a framework that captures life as you know it. I have 2 examples –
a) You could break life down in terms of various states – physical, mental, emotional, spirtual
b) I chose to think of it as 4 layers (or 4 concentric circles) – Myself, the people I love, the work I do and the impact I have on the world. This is ordered in terms of priority in my case.

It doesn’t matter which frame you pick. Picking one is important thought.

Step 4: Describe what success would look like for each segment of the frame. Start describing what success looks like for each segment of the frame. Use all the data you built up as you described your likeness. Here is how mine got filled out..

A happy self..  
– Top physical shape – muscly arms 🙂 and regular sports
– Top mental shape – high learn rate
– Top spiritual shape – Meditating

A loving framily..
– Quality time spent with wife and kids
– In meaningful contact with those afar – either engaged in projects together or in touch regularly

A value adding career..
– Doing work that does good and works toward longer term goals
– Consciously maintaining a board of directors
– Built wealth by adding value and living well within our means

And time spent making a positive difference..
– Spending time giving back to those less privileged
– Actively sharing my life lessons and learnings

Step 5: Make specific metrics. The next step involves creating metrics that you can track every week/month to see how you are doing. Here is what my “happy self” and “positive difference” section looked like.

Happy self

 

 

Positive difference

As you can see, I have a mix of weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly commitments. I didn’t do that in v1.0 and found this distinction to be useful.

Step 6: Track and revise. Set up a recurring invite on your calendar as a part of your week review process. I would suggest checking it every week as it keeps the continuity.

Step 7: Make a “why” statement. This purpose exercise is a beautiful way to put together an overarching “strategy” for your life. It fundamentally defines how you approach your life. It helps keeping the big “why” in mind. I have to credit writing applications to business schools for help with crafting my “why” statement. In my case, it is “To build active relationships with close family and friends, to learn, and to make a positive difference in the world.” Having a why statement helps a lot. There’s no easy way to get to it (i’m sorry!). My first shot was a why statement that didn’t work for too long. This has been a result of continuous improvement and involved seeking advice from folks who knew me well.

A few final notes if you decide to give this process a shot –
– There is no easy way to get through this process. You’ll have to set aside 3-4 thinking hours on a couple of days and wrestle with yourself as you go through this. But, it is one of those processes that changes the way you think about life. If done once, it helps draw attention to what matters and what doesn’t. I hope you’ll consider it. The clarity you gain at the end of the process makes the juice well worth the squeeze.
– It never ceases to amaze me that Clay Christensen did this as a 21 year old. I love his thought process and am thankful to him for sharing this in his book.
– Finally, please do not hesitate to let me know if I can be of help in any way. As you can tell, I’ve stumbled a lot over the past 18 months in my attempts to make this work. v2.0 is definitely working much better than v1.0 but I expect more changes and more follow on posts over the coming weeks, months and years. Until then, I am always reachable on rohan@rohanrajiv.com would love to help

I know this post was long. Sorry! I hope it was worth it.

What is the goal

If you are working hard (and I hope you are), we assume a large part of that is devoted to productive work.

Productive work is work that enables us to make progress towards a goal. Hence, many hours of watching YouTube video is considered unproductive when you have a report to be finished. A short video break might aid productivity but it still wouldn’t be productivity.

So, if productivity doesn’t exist without a goal, defining a goal becomes all important. What is the goal you normally work towards when you don’t have fires to fight? Is there even a goal?

It is hard to set goals in every aspect of our lives. We struggle with just exercise goals and expecting more than that is wishful thinking. However, we could easily make a case for the importance of productive work in the case of our personal relationships, a.k.a. quality time, and productive work in case of our hobbies. So, how do we go about doing that?

My suggestion would be to consider defining your personal “why.” My personal why, for example, is ‘to build active relationships with family and friends, learn, and have a positive impact on the world.’ Once I have this defined, it becomes very clear as to which activities move me towards this goal and which don’t. This “why” has been a work-in-progress for 2 years now (so get started now!) and I consider this a near-finished article. It makes for an excellent measuring stick.

Take time to define your why and your goals. Productivity doesn’t exist without goals. And, now that you are here and taking up some space, why not be productive? 🙂

Hat tip to Messrs Eliyahu Goldratt for the insight