When people are trained on influence and persuasion, they generally study a combination of what master influencers do and what interesting social science research points to. The inherent assumption is that the difference between you and the master influencer that you will become is a few skills.

However, when I reflect on my attempts to persuade people, I realize that I’ve actually not been all that persuasive when I set out to be persuasive. Instead, I was most persuasive when I wasn’t trying at all.

So, what happened when I wasn’t trying? I was influence-able. I was more willing to listen, to ask questions and to have a conversation without attempting to make a sale. As I was in tune with what the right decision should be, I was able to really contribute to the conversation and help make the right decision.

It turns out influence isn’t all that different from most other valuable skills. It isn’t about them, it is about us.

Or, put differently, the hard part about influence isn’t learning persuasion. It is learning to be persuadable ourselves.

PS: You might be able to push your view onto someone else for a while. Or, you might even get them to act in a way that isn’t in their interest. It is generally short term. And, that’s not influence anyway, it is manipulation.

Geography and success

Ever since Jared Diamond wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel,” multiple historians have come out with books explaining why attributing historical dominance to such factors isn’t right. A better theory, they explain, is to study the link between geography and success. Peter Zheihan, in his book, “The Accidental Superpower,” crystallizes this view beautifully. The success of a society is inextricably linked to its geography. More specifically, there are 3 factors that typically lead to dominance –

1. Ease of internal navigability – In past centuries, this meant being connected internally by waterways that helped with administration, trade and a sense of unity. This was a big reason for the dominance of the Egyptian civilization.

2. A location that isn’t easily attacked – Great Britain enjoyed this geographical advantage during the rise of their empire. And, the Egyptians enjoyed the security of the desert that surrounded them.

3. A land conducive to agriculture and industrialization – This would ideally involve arable land, a large enough population and convenient location of land to internal navigation systems.

geography and success, superpower, self, competition, luck

Even one of these factors can give rise to a superpower if it is accompanied by mastery of technological power. For instance, one of the crucial technologies that tilted the balance of superpowers was deep water navigation. The Spanish and Portuguese mastered travel by sea. But, once England learnt this, they became a superpower. Germany’s dominance was due to land that was conducive to industrialization. All these powers did multiple things right (and wrong) once they became dominant – for instance, Germany invested heavily in universities and research. But, the cause of their dominance was geography.

America’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it actually has all of these 3 factors in spades – most navigable rivers, an East coast that is practically a river due to sheltered “barrier islands,” a place that is practically impossible to attack, largest amounts of arable land on the planet, a large population and arable land that is, at most, 150 miles away from water for transport. All of these combined to give the US an incredible advantage in the past 200 years.

As you can tell, it is a fascinating book. I could go on explaining what I’m learning and reading but I thought I’d bring this back to ourselves. As I understand the incredible impact of geography on success, I also realize that it is likely to be very similar when considering individual success. There are 3 takeaways here –

1. When studying success, we rarely talk about geography. But, being born in Hollywood and the bay area respective likely played a big role in John Lasseter becoming John Lasseter and Steve Jobs becoming Steve Jobs.

2. Never compare paths. No one was was born with the exact same circumstances as you. In a sense, every person’s geography is different. And, if you’ve moved away from your home land, it is likely to be very different. Comparisons are not productive because you don’t understand the benefits of their geography or they, yours. The only thing that matters about your path is that you did the best you could to achieve the best possible process and outcomes. The rest is gravy.

3. Our own geography is completely arbitrary. Instead of being born into our families, we could have been born into a slum in India or Africa with very few means to make our way up. It is remarkable that you and I were born into circumstances that allow us to read, write and take food, shelter, and the like for granted. It is so important that we maintain perspective, stay humble and be happy.

And, lest we forget, it is also so important that we make our geographical advantage count by being the best we can be.

Behind the curtain

1: A wise friend’s friend and ex-colleague, an accomplished entrepreneur, was once in a room with one of the richest, most successful businessmen of our time (let’s call him Mr.Forbes). They were discussing a potential business initiative and Mr.Forbes seemed to be behaving somewhat difficult through the discussions. He seemed to be putting an undue amount of pressure on himself to make absolutely sure the venture would be a big success. After the meeting, this friend asked one of Mr.Forbes’ close friends and associates about the behavior. “Yes” – the friend acknowledged, “he’s just very hard on himself because he’s worried people think of him as a one trick pony.”

2: David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder of Basecamp, has a fantastic post in 37 Signals blog about “The day I became a millionaire.” In the post, he shares what many of us know deep in our hearts. After a certain point, money doesn’t make you any happier. Of his realization, he says –

If anything, I began to appreciate even more intently that flow and tranquility were the true sources of happiness for me all along. It was like I had pulled back the curtain on that millionaire’s dream and found, to my surprise, that most of the things on the other side were things I already had. Equal parts shock and awe, but ultimately deeply reassuring.

He adds –

I can only speak to the experience I did have. The one I do share with millions of people who have the basics taken care of, but who still yearn for the treasure perceived to be behind the curtain. For those who might contemplate giving up all manners of integrity, dignity, or even humanity to pull it back.

3: In a conversation with a couple of close friends recently, one of them pointed out that my point of view on someone’s behavior is likely because of “negative goggles.” It was a comment that made me pause and ask myself a couple of questions – “Am I aware of an unconscious bias in my judgment of the situation?”, “Am I being judgmental when it isn’t necessary?”, and “Am I giving with expectations?” It didn’t take me long to answer these questions. I cleared myself of the unconscious bias and I believed I was applying judgment only when concerned with the specific discussion. But, I did feel I’d given something in this situation with certain expectations. The nature of the situation was such that I felt myself entangled in it and I hadn’t let go. That wasn’t something I’d intended to do and the conversation helped me take a simple step that helped me resolve it.

These stories and a certain friend’s recent experiences have exposed me two truths –

1. When you don’t have your basics, i.e. shelter, food and security (or the lower ends of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), taken care of, life is a fight for survival and making ends need. This happens to us occasionally during times of adversity. In such cases, our life has little do with our sense of self. If you are the daily wage laborer who has to work 16 hours to make ends meet, you don’t have time for much reflection. Even if it might make your life better, your priorities are different – it is about earning your bread and notching up a win for the day. Similarly, if your kid is very sick, your own well being is put on hold as you care for your kid. Again, during such times, it isn’t about you.

behind the curtain, life, needs, self

2. Once you do have your basics taken care of, life, in many ways, is everything you do with your sense of self. Notice how the upper pyramids have to do with love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. For example, to be loved, you have to be, and feel, lovable. This is what lies “behind the curtain” of most human beings you and I know.

It is this struggle that explains Mr.Forbes’ behavior. It is this struggle that David Hansson refers to. And, it is this struggle that I went through this morning. The quality of our lives has everything to do with how we feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter how much wealth or material success we have. If we don’t feel good, life isn’t going to be good.

So, how do we feel good or love ourselves? Here, I will go back to Scott Peck’s definition of love – “The will to extend ourselves for our own or another’s spiritual growth.” Or, to put it simply, to love, we must grow. And, to grow, we must love. Growth doesn’t come easy, of course. Self-growth is a constant cycle of learning, reflection, control and awareness. It is a cycle of – self-control -> deliberate action -> reflection or self evaluation -> self knowledge -> self awareness. It is easier to not complete the loop. Self evaluation is painful. I have been working over these years to give without expectations. And, yet, when I caught myself doing so this morning, it pained me. But, ignoring it isn’t going to solve the problem. Response is. And, now that I know this happens, I can be more aware and exercise better self control next time. It is an incredible loop. But, it is hard work. You can avoid this loop for a while (for years, in case of some people), but the pain felt as you grow is nothing compared to the pain felt when you don’t.

It is always better to do the work.

As Scott Peck says –

Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

It doesn’t matter who you are. The fact that life is difficult remains unchanged. If you, like me, are blessed to be free of worries around your basics, maybe this ought to be a reminder that our life is ours alone and we make of it what we will. It is best spent when we stop wondering what is behind the curtain of other people’s lives (especially those who’re more wealthy or more successful by some measure or other) and become better at loving ourselves.

So, it all comes down to this – we’ve been dealt a hand of cards. It isn’t easy to play it right. But, choose to grow, and we have the opportunity to make it meaningful, to make it count.

It truly is a wonderful life.

Influence and concern

Great books gift us with frameworks that give us ways to make sense of the world. Stephen Covey’s book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, attained legendary status because he managed to weave in a collection of great frameworks to help us think about productivity and life.

(Source: ExperienceLifeFully)

Great frameworks are beautiful in their simplicity. And, there are few simpler than the idea that we all have a circle of influence and a circle of concern. The circle of influence is simply a collection of everything we influence (e.g. our response to situations) vs. the circle of concern which is a collection of everything we don’t influence. And, the way of those who are proactive is to spend time within their circle of influence.

I’ve found an interesting truth in dealing with the circle of influence idea – the more time you spend within it, the more it expands. And, the more it expands, the more you realize that you can have a go at most problems you care about by just focusing on what you can do about them. You also realize very quickly as to where your effort is best spent depending on how much of the action feels within your control.

This is what the smartest people and companies do. As a growing company, for instance, there are many many things outside your control – competition and regulation are two simple examples. It can get overwhelming thinking about all the things you don’t control. So, focus fully on what you control. It is similar in our personal lives – there’s no point focusing on all the external stimuli that make up our day. It has to start with us – our actions and our responses.

Simple idea. Powerful implications.

Making the world better

Atrocities happen every day of the week on this planet. This was one of those that had me swearing out loud. A man felt it went against his family’s honor for his pregnant daughter to marry someone against his wishes but felt it was perfectly okay to murder her with his son and a few goons.

There is a lot wrong with the world. There is no doubt about that. There is a lot right too that goes unmentioned. It feels, as a result, that we have two principal duties to help make the world better. Focus on the right in our lives and do more of it. This is the only way to keep our spirits up without getting bogged down by everything that is wrong with the world.

At the same time, we must work hard on changing what is wrong. A lot of what is wrong with our attitude towards other races and women can be made much better. It starts within. We have to pledge to be open to differences ourselves and hopefully change the culture of our families and friends to reflect that. Change occurs in ripples. It begins with changing ourselves or, at the very least, teaching ourselves to think. There is a real dearth of people who can do that. Atrocities like the one above are typically committed by men (yes, it is always men) who are unthinkingly following some norm or order.

The world will never be perfect but it can become better, much better. In making ourselves better, we make it a bit better and I think that’s as worthwhile a cause as any.