Thursday, April 24, 2014

The newbie allowance

I was driving around in a rented car today. I've done this few times before in different places and the one learning that stays consistent across is that it takes a day's worth of driving to get used to a place's road rules and quirks.

So, as was customary on a 1st day, I paused as I was getting into a freeway unsure as to which direction the GPS was pointing to. In that moment when I slowed down, I could see the driver in the car behind me raise her hands up in frustration mentally asking me to get on with it. A similar gesture happened as I was wondering whether I could take a U turn elsewhere and looking for a sign - only this time the driver behind honked loud and hard to ensure I got the message.

In both these cases, I thought - "Jesus guys, give me a break. I'm still trying to figure it out. How about considering that I might be here on my first day? Where's my newbie allowance?"

That's when I was reminded of the fact that I have probably not been considerate myself when faced with such situations. Whether it's a sarcastic thought, comment if action at some frustration at some unknown person, I'm sure I've been inconsiderate to someone in their first day or attempt. I guess we all get caught up in our lives so much that we forget these things. And I guess that's the beauty of such experiences that have you start all over again. You learn what it is to be a well intentioned but probably error prone newbie. You learn to empathize and make promises that you'll remember to be balanced in your reactions next time.

That's at least what I'm promising to myself. I'm sure I'll struggle with this as I'm a fairly impatient person by nature but life is more about the balancing than being balanced. And now that I've written about it here, I intend to work hard on the balancing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Forced to natural

When you first start learning a new skill, a lot of the actual execution is forced. Your coach shows you the recommended way of doing it and you work towards copying it. Over time, however, you learn to develop your own style. You make the switch from forced to natural.

This switch takes time though. If you attempt to find your natural style too quickly, it doesn’t really work - forced execution of the right way to do something is important. That said, having a forced style for too long kills it as well.

This concept came alive in my mind when I thought of my attempts at public speaking. When I started public speaking, I tried very hard to be many things - forceful, funny, inspirational, loud, and impactful. A couple of these attempts worked but most didn’t - yet, this was an important part of the training. Forcing these different personas and styles helped me understand what worked and what didn’t. I’ll never sign up to be the funny guy now - that’s not me. I also know you can’t force inspiration and impact. You just have to stand there, put yourself out there, and just be. If you are inspired yourself, it will show. No need to force it - perfection is overrated while being yourself definitely isn’t.

I was reminded of this shift as I was re-learning swimming. I needed to remind myself to get rid of my not-so-good self-taught “natural” style and force the correct style. I am still going through the process - swimming still feels a bit forced as I seek to make the right way subconscious. But, I’ve learnt to accept this tension between forced and natural - it’s part of a good process… and I’ve learnt to appreciate the importance of a good process more than ever these days.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Prof Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, intrinsic motivation, and happiness

For a person interested in psychology, human behaviour, and happiness, Prof Mihaly’s work on “flow” is the stuff of legend. It was a real honor interviewing him (it was a very memorable experience too). For all those who are reading about Prof Mihaly for the first time, I’d recommend his wonderful TED talk.

About Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

featuredProfessor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has contributed pioneering work to our understanding of happiness, creativity, human fulfillment and the notion of "flow" — a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work. Csikszentmihalyi teaches psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, focusing on human strengths such as optimism, motivation and responsibility. He's the director of the Quality of Life Research Center there. He has written numerous books and papers about the search for joy and fulfillment.

My favorite bits -

“We published several articles from was the study of internet chess and how people play.  We asked people who played against each other to fill out how much flow they had in the game afterwards.  In a week we collected over 1000 games and it was a good way to study whether our hypothesis was correct.  Our hypothesis was that the greatest enjoyment would come when the two players were exactly matched in terms of their skill level because that means that the challenges and skills were equal for both players.  We found that was almost true, but it was even better if the opponent was about 7% better than you were.”

“Junk flow is when you are actually becoming addicted to a superficial experience that may be flow at the beginning, but after a while becomes something that you become addicted to instead of something that makes you grow.  You find that even in chess, which I love.  I think it’s very difficult to exhaust chess as a source of growth, and yet you find that so many chess masters when they reach the end of their career, even while they’re young in their thirties or forties, can’t go beyond their skill level anymore.”

“The Greek philosopher Plato wrote a thousand years ago that the greatest challenge for teachers and parents is to teach young people to find pleasure in the right things.  He called it pleasure, but actually what he meant was enjoyment.  The problem is that it’s much easier to find pleasure or enjoyment in things that are not growth-producing but are attractive and seductive.  After a while you get trapped by a cycle of short term bursts of excitement, and then it becomes a habit; and now you feel bad if you can’t play, but you don’t feel good when you can play.  That’s a problem that goes beyond flow.  It goes to the philosophy of life.”

“Usually I find that people who become intrinsically motivated in their job, whether they’re surgeons or cooks in a restaurant, are the people who paid enough attention to what they had to do to discover small differences in performance and small differences in the product and became fascinated with the possibility of improving what they were doing.”

“The activity becomes a form of self-expression. This who I am, this is what I can do, etc.  When that happens, the work becomes intrinsically motivating which means that even if you are paid for it, or even if you get other rewards for it, it also very importantly gives you a sense of this is who I am.  This is what I can do well, and this is what I am called to do.”

“Twenty years ago I discovered a little passage in Dante Alighieri’s book The Monarchia which was written in 1317 - 700 years ago.  He says that every being enjoys most of all expressing itself.  We had dogs for a long time, and after I read that I realized that each dog was the happiest when it did what it was bred to do.  The hunting dogs liked to hunt; the guard dogs liked to keep people away from the door.   The sheepdog loves to chase children around until they get together like a flock of sheep.  When they do that they look happy, content, and proud.”

“Happiness is not something that is guaranteed, or that comes with our birth certificates.  It’s a possibility that we have to discover how to be happy.  Happiness is to do things that are harmonious with who we are, with what we can do, with what we like, and with what we think is right. Do it. Don’t figure that somebody else will do it, or that you don’t have a right to do it. “

Thank you Prof Mihaly for that wonderful interview. The full transcript, as always, is on

Sunday, April 20, 2014

William Seward - The 200 words project

Here's this week's 200 word idea from

A man met with a serious accident on a carriage ride - he broke multiple bones and only a large metal splint held his jaw together. Hearing this, Abraham Lincoln rushed to visit his most trusted confidant, Secretary of State William Seward. Lincoln shared that the Civil War was sure to be over in days. They had finally done it.

Nine days later, Lincoln was assassinated. An assassin came for Seward as well and struck him with a knife till he was sure he was dead. But defying all odds, he was not - the large metal splint from his broken jaw had somehow shielded his face.

Seward recovered, re-took his position as Secretary of State, supported President Andrew Johnson's plans of reconciliation with the South, and then went on to make what was considered one of the greatest mistakes of the time - buying a piece of land called Alaska for $7.2 million from Russia.

Many things in life won’t turn out like we planned. Some things will even inexplicably take turns down dark roads. But, as Seward's story shows, we never know what amazing gift lies around the next corner if we are willing to keep going.

Source and thanks to:

'The most miserable moments of our lives have the potential for the greatest redemption.'

Saturday, April 19, 2014

5 year plans and quarterly earnings calls

Thinking long term is hard - so hard that Jeff Bezos, one of the smartest entrepreneurs on the planet, has invested 42 million dollars into a 10,000 year clock that symbolizes the importance of thinking long term. I think long term thinking is something we do very badly in our own lives. Most thinking horizons rarely exceed a couple of years (at most). For the most part, we are focused on the next few weeks.

This is one area where I like the systems corporations follow - make five year plans, make commitments and review them every quarter. One of the ideas I am thinking about is implementing that in my life. I’ve probably done 5 year planning 2 times (!) over the past few years but I’m not sure I’ve followed up adequately. Thinking long term is extremely powerful and it needs to be made a habit.

The reason corporations don’t make it work so well is because the the pressure on the CEO to deliver short term results (thanks to pressure from stakeholders who generally don’t have much of a clue) messes the system up. But, if we were to implement it on ourselves, we’d be able to execute with the long term in mind. Additionally, I think the exercise of determining our 5 year goals - across dimensions like health, relationships, finances - and then preparing a quarterly review would in itself be a terrific learning experience.

Bill Gates says we overestimate what we can accomplish in a year but underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade. Perhaps it’s time we fixed this.

More to follow..

Friday, April 18, 2014

Waiting for an invitation

There is no end to waiting for invitations - from people around you to hand you a drink so you can sing and dance, from the club that won’t have you so you can hang out with people who you think you’d like to be around, or even from the universe to hand you the perfect time to be able to have fun.

I think a new life begins when we stop waiting for invitations - it’s in our hands to sing, to dance, to create our own tribes, and to lighten up and have fun.

There is no right time or age to get started. The best time was yesterday. The next best time is now.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Conveying one idea

Sometimes the hardest thing while attempting to communicate (by writing or speaking) is to just remember to convey one idea we’d really like to get across. It is always tempting to litter our essays, speeches, blog posts, and conversations with multiple examples, tips, and the like.

I’ve learnt that the best conversations and even the best books contain around one great idea (outstanding ones contain three) - some communicate it clearly while others just make a mess of it by attempting to communicate as many ideas possible and hoping the reader takes one away.

Don’t hope. All we need is to gain clarity around that one idea - let’s ask ourselves what it is and communicate it intentionally and clearly. It may not end up being a “great” idea in our reader’s/listener’s mind as they decide what they want to take from a conversation or passage. That’s part of the process. At least we’d have tried and grown through it...