Sunday 14 July 2024

Simplicity is harder than complexity

Le Taureau, is a series of lithographs by Pablo Picasso

Taking complex subjects and simplifying them into abstract forms is a major aspect of Picasso’s art. This concept is a skill. People who are successful in life have this in common: they are able to break down the complexity and simplify things for themselves and for others. Simplicity is harder than complexity. We often think it’s the other way around.

“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” – Blaise Pascal

Saturday 13 July 2024

Brand purpose is broken

Should brands have a purpose? The answer is yes. Brands are important assets in the modern world, and they should aim to do good. But where it gets tricky is whether they should actively market this purpose. I am not so sure.

When did brands have to become religions? Are brand managers ethic philosophers, and are the users of a brand a congregation?

A simpler way to think about this could be: founders have purpose; brands need to stick to positioning. Purpose is not a differentiating factor. The way it is being talked about, purpose is seen as a higher order, lofty ideal of social good, which means that all brands will tend to address the same gamut of issues plaguing society. While there are enough issues plaguing society, for brand purpose to matter, there will have to be a prioritization of which issue to tackle, starting from the top down – the most difficult problem first. These days, the consensus seems to be sustainability and inequality, and various flavors of these two. When we see it this way, it is not a good idea for many brands to be tackling the same few issues. Remember, brands are vehicles of differentiation. Purpose marketing is reducing that difference and leading us towards commoditization. It's not surprising that we see so many purpose-driven campaigns that all look the same.

Purpose is at best one aspect of positioning, not equal to or above it. It is something that gives a brand momentum. Really successful brands are nothing more than brands that have a sense of momentum and stay ahead of trends. Not all brands need to be challenger brands.

A better way to think about purpose as a facet of positioning is to consider meeting a consumer need. Take sustainability as an example. Consumers are frustrated by their inability to affect issues like sustainability individually. Therefore, at scale, brands can offer consumers a way to feel more capable of contributing to the sustainability cause. This articulation makes sense as it offers a clear role for brand purpose, which is rooted in an actual job to be done for consumers—a genuine tension, not just a stated concern over the environment used for marketing.

Get brand purpose in its right place within brand strategy. Don’t elevate it above strategy.

Friday 12 July 2024

TOFU mentality - Take Ownership and Follow Up

In both work and life, achieving your goals requires taking ownership. Of your life and of your circumstances. Blame and victimhood offer no value; instead, we must rise above them, take ownership, and actively work toward what we want. However, taking ownership alone is not enough.

The second part of the TOFU mentality—following up—is equally crucial. We must follow up with ourselves and others to make progress on our agenda. As a professional I often see employees and managers, taking responsibility but succumbing to "superhero syndrome." They try to handle everything by themselves in the false hope that they can do it all. They don’t work collaboratively or seek help. This undermines the ownership they take, because these behaviours limits what they can achieve.  This is lack of ‘follow up’ - both with themselves and with others.

Those who persistently take ownership and follow up, with courage, kindness and consistency, are the ones who rise above and become true leaders. 

Thursday 11 July 2024

Motivation checklist to overcome work anxiety

If you are anxious at work, overthinking, and unable to make a decision, here are some ideas to help you get over the nervousness, focus, and move forward:

  1. Start: Take one small step on anything, even if it is not critical.
  2. Don’t expect conditions to be perfect: Start before you are ready.
  3. Remember, work usually gets done: It's very unlikely that you will be cross-examined right now. Just start and then try to delegate.
  4. Nobody is thinking about you: In fact, everyone is thinking about themselves.
  5. Stop building “if-then” scenarios in your mind: Don’t make maneuvers or think about doing them. Take action. If you must build 'if-then' scenarios, write them out. When you see them, you'll realize how absurd they are.
  6. Remind yourself that you can handle it: When fear takes over, reassure yourself that you can handle it. You don’t need to know how; just be confident that you will manage.
  7. Think long-term about consequences: If you know what action to take but are worried about the consequences, consider the long-term perspective. Soon, this issue will no longer matter.
  8. Cultivate luck and take risks: Take that risk. What's the worst that can happen?
In summary, get out of your mind and start taking action.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Increase the opportunities you have to succeed

Success is not a trick. It is a technique. It’s a technique because success comes from following a system that predisposes one to take actions set up to help them succeed. Instead of asking how one can succeed, one should be putting effort into learning what increases energy and focus. When deployed systematically, this will increase the exposure to opportunities for success.

Tuesday 9 July 2024

Philosophy of the future

"Fiction that is fast becoming real is philosophy.” – Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval mentions (something like) this during his conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast when discussing the power of words. I cannot seem to find the exact quote in the transcript. They discussed how some books, like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, are more philosophy cleverly disguised as science fiction. The same can be said of shows like Black Mirror, which uniquely holds up a mirror to society today by visualising an imaginary world, which is fast becoming reality, but feels just a bit shocking today.

Scenario planning in the domain of futures thinking aims to achieve a similar effect. By systematically observing the present and past, and making calculated imaginations of the future, futures thinking allows individuals, organizations, and societies to prepare for different alternatives and take action to steer toward a preferred future. 

This kind of fiction is, therefore, a philosophy of the future.

Monday 8 July 2024

Inspiration to live an unrushed life

Follow your compass, not your clock
Andrea Jung


Incentives in life are biased to the fast and the agile. It is a FALSE incentive. It might be good in the short term and in some seasons one does need to prioritize speed. But in the long term and for things that really matter in life, an unrushed approach is the true incentive and is in fact a luxury. The best things in life take their sweet time. 

Sunday 7 July 2024

Rethinking the need for heroes

In German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s classic play Life of Galileo, Andrea, a former pupil of Galileo, visits him after he recants his seminal findings under pressure from the Catholic Church. Galileo gives Andrea his notebooks, asking him to spread the knowledge they contain. Andrea celebrates this, saying, “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” 

Galileo corrects him: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

This concept pushes us to think outside the mainstream. People with a victim mindset are often looking for a hero to save the day and an anti-hero to blame. A better approach is to question why we need heroes, persecutors, or hapless victims in the first place. Instead, we should have the courage to be regular adults dealing with issues in a mature way.

The Drama Triangle is a concept where people engage in certain kinds of drama in their interpersonal interactions. These dramas are typically negative behaviors that do not lead to positive outcomes. The drama perpetuates negativity and does not lead to resolution.

In Victim mode, one feels victimized and unable to enjoy life or effectively deal with life's issues. Victims seek out persecutors or rescuers.

In Rescuer mode, one constantly looks to rescue someone, which is an easy escape from focusing on their own problems. It is avoidance disguised as concern for the victim, keeping the victim dependent on the rescuer and vice versa.

In Persecutor mode, one is blaming, controlling, or angry. Instead of being assertive, the drama forces the person to be aggressive.

The need for heroes is a siren call for engaging in drama. Whenever we see a situation where there is an acknowledged need for heroes to save the day, it is a clear indication of underlying problems that need to be addressed directly. In relationships and organizations, this dynamic suggests a lack of healthy, collaborative problem-solving and an over-reliance on individuals to resolve systemic issues. 

It is also linked to the superhero syndrome, the expectation that one can do everything by themselves without relying on others. This goes against eons of human development, which is based on communal and collaborative living.

Saturday 6 July 2024

Functional value of emotions

We all need to understand the functional value of our emotions. Emotions provide useful information; they are the body and mind jointly telling our consciousness how they perceive certain stimuli and contexts.

People's understanding of emotions and how to manage them has evolved over time, particularly in the modern world. Today, many have learned to underplay their emotions. We tend to feel annoyed instead of angry. We might settle for being mildly amused instead of truly inspired. We often smile at a joke we find funny rather than laughing out loud, to avoid seeming rowdy. We downplay our shock at poor behavior by simply writing it off as mildly surprising. These behaviors stem from social constructs, expectations, and upbringing.

It's important to have a healthy understanding and relationship with our emotions. Underplaying them can lead to repression, which is harmful to both body and mind. Conversely, those who cannot control their reactions to emotions are also at a disadvantage, often finding themselves in a victim mindset.

Anger is an important emotion when you want something to change. I have heard of an interesting cure for writer's block: identify and start writing about what makes you angry, and it will no longer be a blocker. Similarly, surprise can open our minds to new possibilities and break us out of our routines, helping to meet our stimulation needs. Experiencing rejection and despondency builds resilience. Disgust helps protect us from harmful substances and behaviors. Failing to express and feel these emotions, and being politically correct in a ‘cancel culture’ environment, can make us bitter, easily offended, and ultimately fragile.

Sadness arises when we cannot change something that has happened in the past; anger is present; fear pertains to future possibilities and the potential for things to go wrong. Understanding the roles of these emotions and recognizing when we feel them is useful.

The beauty of emotions is that they can be experienced in the past, present, and future. Joy can come from recalling a fond memory, being fully alive and focused in the present moment, or anticipating and imagining a preferred future.

Friday 5 July 2024

Parable about working in silos vs. collaboration

There is a rock blocking a road.

One person comes up to it, sees it, and goes around it. Another person arrives, notices the rock, puts a post-it note on it saying "there is a rock blocking the road," and then takes the path around the rock. A third person comes, shouts back, "Hey, there is a rock on the road, be careful," and also goes around it.

All these actions demonstrate siloed thinking. Each person takes their own way, and even though they think about helping others, they do not address the root cause of the problem.

Then, a fourth person arrives. He stops and starts working on moving the rock out of the way. Others join him, and together they eventually move the rock off the road. After removing the obstacle, they all proceed on the cleared path. This is an example of collaboration.

Questions to consider:

  • What if the goal was to reach the destination as quickly as possible? What roles should people take in this scenario?
  • If all these individuals were on one team, is it acceptable for different team members to take different approaches to explore various outcomes?
  • How do skill sets and abilities factor into this scenario?
  • Finally, what can organizations do to clarify which approach they want their teams to take and in what situations?

Thursday 4 July 2024

Art serves as a valuable metaphor for life when applied wisely

 


Epic Poem of Malaya, 1955, Chua Mia Tee

"The painter assumes the role of scriptwriter, director, and actor to freely shape the subject's image." — Chua Mia Tee

During a visit to the Singapore National Gallery, I came across the work of Chua Mia Tee, a renowned Singaporean painter. In a video montage there, he discusses the differences between painting and photography. He explains that photography captures the scene as it is, whereas painting emphasizes themes chosen by the artist, making it selective in nature. Not all elements present in a scene necessarily appear in the painting. In fact, a good painting often includes special elements to elevate the scene and tell a story.

This process of emphasis distinguishes painting from photography. However, I believe that even in photography, the selection of the scene and what to include in the frame involves a form of emphasis, similar to painting. Ultimately, both are art forms, and art serves as a valuable metaphor for life when applied wisely.

In life, we can choose when to be a photographer, staying true to the scene, and when to be a painter, highlighting the positive elements we want to emphasize. A good life involves doing both.


Wednesday 3 July 2024

Insecurity is worse than incompetence

Employee engagement is challenging. However, it doesn't have to be. Various organizational issues lead to low employee engagement. One particular symptom indicates that things are seriously off track and that significant problems lie ahead for the company. I call this symptom 'insecurity stifles initiative.'

Before I elaborate, let me clarify something. As companies grow and reach mid-size, certain typical symptoms emerge: additional layers of management hierarchy, different teams and silos, misaligned objectives between teams, different subcultures, transformation programs, bureaucracy, politics, financial problems, short-termism, and many more. These are common in most organizations of a certain scale and are not deeply rooted problems. There are tried and tested ways to address these issues, and a whole industry of consulting is built around dealing with them.

However, when 'insecurity stifles initiative' appears, it's a clear signal that some parts of the organization, or the whole organization, are circling the drain. What do I mean by this? In any organization with a certain threshold of staff, there is usually a bell curve distribution of people's attitudes. You will have a few highly motivated, high-agency people, and a few apathetic and disruptive individuals. Any properly functioning organization slowly and humanely weeds out the disruptive individuals and reorients the apathetic to situations where they can be engaged again. The problem lies with the majority who are neither apathetic nor highly motivated.

In an organization where 'insecurity stifles initiative,' it becomes increasingly evident that both the majority and the high-agency people are dissatisfied. For the majority, the culture does nothing to encourage initiative. So, people are doing their work, maybe grumbling about it, and are not very productive. For the highly motivated few, the culture actively blocks or creates hurdles for them, despite their predisposition to take initiative.

I have observed that the culture of 'insecurity stifles initiative' is not specific to any one part of an organization or any one level; it is generic and not localized, making it even harder to observe and recognize, let alone tackle. Everyone from the CEO down to the analyst can exhibit the symptoms of this culture.

There are some telltale signs that this kind of culture is taking hold or is already present:

  1. Selective groups share information, excluding some levels not because it makes sense, but because those excluding them feel the need to protect themselves and their power.
  2. The information held close is usually not on the critical path for the business but is what the select groups deem important to protect their power.
  3. Ideas receive feedback and suggestions that may add 5% improvements but will take almost double the effort to achieve, killing the motivation of those doing it.
  4. Measurement for measurement’s sake is the norm.
  5. There are many channels for providing upward feedback, and it is encouraged in corporate communications, but there are never enough intimate forums for it to be provided easily.

Examples of this behavior include:

  1. Leaders visiting a market from across the globe on pricey travel budgets but not making an effort to meet teams to bond and inspire, only meeting specific business objectives. This is usually justified by cost efficiencies, but what is hidden is the insecurity of not being able to connect as a leader.
  2. Leaders always fixing problems and not painting a picture of possibilities in informal ways. Everything is formal. Efficiency is prioritized over efficacy.

The key summary of all this emerging from an 'insecurity stifles initiative' culture is that employees don't know where they are heading in the organization, leading to negative outcomes.

Because this issue is generalized and can be present anywhere in the organization, the change must come from deep within a silo, with a cohort of cohesive and happy team members and a leader who rises above the milieu of insecurity. This is often uncharted waters, and not many mainstream frameworks or advice work. Each leader needs to find their own ways and create a tribe around them. And it is possible, but rare.

Tuesday 2 July 2024

BOOK NOTE - The Bear - Andrew Krivak

 


Ever so often, I come across a book that I am unable to put down. I purchased The Bear by Andrew Krivak on a Saturday morning after reading a recommendation and finished it by Monday evening. All 220 pages. You could say I devoured it.

Krivak is an American author of some repute, having won several prestigious awards. He has written only four books, but all have been critically successful. I suspect he will become one of those standout American literary authors who may not attract a large audience but will find critical acclaim. His work is part novel, part philosophy, offering unique observations about the human condition. Note: there is another Andrew Krivak who comes up in Google searches. This other Krivak was recently acquitted after being incarcerated for 24 years. He was proven innocent of crimes he was wrongly convicted for. They are not the same person.

The Bear is a unique piece of work. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the last of humanity consists of a father and his young daughter. They live in the wilderness, surviving through the ‘fruits’ of nature and the wisdom passed down to them. The father and daughter are survivors, making a successful but hard living because they have no other option. Their existence is rather melancholy as it is just them, their conversations, and their thoughts. Eventually, when the father passes on, the girl, still in her early teens, must learn how to survive the wilderness and the harsh seasons. She does so with the help of a pantheon of animals, including the titular bear, a panther, and an eagle.

Two interesting observations about the human condition emerge from this story. One, no matter how much we progress technologically as a society, every child must learn about the external and internal environments completely afresh. Therefore, the second point is that the more teachers, that are good in helping us navigate our learning in life, the better.

A must-read

Monday 1 July 2024

BOOK NOTE - How to fail at almost everything and still win big - Scott Adams


I have admired Scott Adams’s Dilbert comic strip for a long time. While the drawings are simple, the humor is punchy and, as an office worker, it connects with me immediately. In 2019, I came across Scott’s conversation with Tim Ferriss on his podcast, and I really enjoyed Scott’s clarity of thought and his message about how to be successful. I particularly connected with the idea of using affirmations to condition your mind for success. Since then, I have followed Scott’s work and his conversations with others.

Scott's book is a field manual for people who want systems for success. Written not in any one narrow domain (e.g., success as a cartoonist), it is a great primer for succeeding in life. It provides systems and ideas that can be adapted to various contexts. It aligns well with and reinforces my beliefs and learning about ways to succeed in life.

Here are some key messages:

  1. Choose systems instead of goals, as systems help create the infrastructure for success.
  2. Ensure you are maximizing energy; it's more important than time management. Match your mental state with the activity.
  3. Be open to failure. Accept rejection and learn from it.
  4. When you learn from failure, you gain knowledge that gives you an advantage.
  5. Generous people take care of their needs first, so they can give to others.
  6. The best systems are simple. Simplify your life.
  7. Imagination is the interface to your attitude. Pessimism is a failure of imagination.
  8. Don’t just be optimistic; be super optimistic—what do you have to lose?
  9. Choose things that you can practice easily to get better.
  10. Happiness is being able to control your schedule.

I have used affirmations in my life, and they work. They put you in a positive state of mind, which makes all the difference.

Sunday 30 June 2024

Timeless over the trending

“Focus on what is timeless, not just on what is trending.”

This is good advice. The modern world often caters to our need for stimulation, making us addicted to constant input and creating an insatiable desire for more. As a society, it will be challenging to step back from this. Change must begin with motivated and determined individuals who take a step back and form communities around these values. I foresee this becoming a significant counter-culture movement that is sustainable. But I suspect it will never be mainstream. The mainstream is lost to the allure of modernity.

Saturday 29 June 2024

Knowledge comes from paying attention

Knowledge is available everywhere. It seems to be free, but it is not. To gain knowledge, you have to pay attention.

We often hear the statement that we are what we pay attention to, and it is true. One gains knowledge when they pay attention and are able to focus on a task without distractions. Ironically, in today's data-abundant world, we are actually attention poor. We are increasingly distracted, don’t pay attention, and are more likely to consume things mindlessly.

To break this cycle and gain knowledge, we have to slow down, pay attention, and focus. If we take the time to nurture our attention and notice the details, we will cultivate delight.

The state of our attention is the state of our lives.

Friday 28 June 2024

Prioritize leisure and being bored

Amos Tversky once said, "We waste years by not being able to waste hours." 

The constant drive to be productive is a modern malaise. We should take breaks and wander. 

I once chose to read the poem "Leisure" by W. H. Davies in a team meeting at the office. There is a line in the poem that always makes me stop and ponder whenever I come across it or am reminded of it:

"What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?"

A lot of the modern problems of stress, overwhelm, and anxiety arise because we do not dedicate time to simply wasting it. 

We have become hooked on this unnatural treadmill, always running around trying to be productive. If only we took some time aside to be bored, we would be more productive. 

Next time you feel frantic and overwhelmed, remember that "You are never overworked when you are well rested."

Thursday 27 June 2024

Protect high agency and enthusiasm; even at the cost of incremental improvements

When someone has an idea that is 80% good and has 100% motivation, it is better to let them proceed with it. A leader might be in a position to offer suggestions to improve it by 5%, but depending on the circumstances and the individual's personality, that incremental advice might reduce their motivation to 50%. This is not a great outcome for the leader. It is important to choose battles wisely.

Often, trying to improve something at an early stage can make it too complex and hinder its progress. A greater skill than technical prowess for a leader is knowing when an idea or project is good enough and needs execution experience before making it incrementally better. Gall's Law states that something complex emerges from simple behaviors, so knowing when to intervene is crucial.

When someone is motivated and has agency, they are more likely to deliver results. Protecting that agency and sustaining their motivation is key.

This applies to personal activities as well. As James Clear says, if someone is trying to build a new habit, it should be standardized in their routine before optimizing it. Progress before perfection is the mantra. That is why open goals have a better chance of succeeding than very specific and restrictive goals.


Wednesday 26 June 2024

"I have just found a way that does not work. How lucky am I!"

Everyone is figuring it out as they go along, even those you think are in positions of power or are experts in their field. So don’t give yourself a hard time if you feel like you don’t know things. What’s more important is your attitude. Are you willing to make an effort irrespective of the outcome? Then you are already ahead of most who don’t make an attempt because they feel they don’t know how to do things.

If you have agency and are willing to take just two steps beyond your doubt, you will find the next piece of the puzzle. If not, you will learn something about what has not worked, and that is very valuable.

Reframe your attitude about failure. Welcome it. Open yourself up to it. To do this, use this easy mental trick: when things don’t go as expected, instead of saying to yourself, “I have failed,” try saying,

“I have just found a way that does not work. How lucky am I!”
This way, it’s another thing you have learned. You can take corrective action.

Then take it to the next level and say to yourself,

“I have just found a way that does not work. How lucky am I! If I ask for help, collaborate, or try another action, I might find the solution.”

This little reframe will help you become an active learner.

Tuesday 25 June 2024

Desensitization to dopamine is leading to 'Dopamitis'

NOTE: This is not medical advice. I am not a doctor. This is just me observing patterns.

Type 2 diabetes is a condition where the body has become insulin resistant. Insulin’s function is to help manage blood glucose levels. In a person with Type 2 diabetes, where the body is desensitized to insulin, more of it is needed for the body to function properly. Various factors like genetics, lifestyle, and eating habits can contribute to insulin resistance, affecting many people with this serious illness. For a person with Type 2 diabetes, consuming sugary foods is problematic because, without additional insulin to manage the increased blood sugar, the insulin desensitization can lead to the negative effects of excess blood sugar.

One way to treat this condition is to use treatments that help the body regain its insulin sensitivity.

A similar pattern can be observed with another of the body’s hormones, but in a different context.

When the brain becomes desensitized to dopamine (the pleasure hormone), it needs more stimulus than normally required to perform its natural functions of emotional regulation, focus, and experiencing pleasure and happiness. A person whose brain has become desensitized to dopamine needs additional stimuli for the dopamine to work, leading to an addictive cycle. Individuals in this condition need more and more of the stimulus to experience the same degree of pleasure or focus. This can lead to addiction to social media, drugs, stimulants, sex, and pornography. Initially, a small amount of these activities is enough to trigger feelings of happiness and pleasure. However, with continued use, the mind becomes desensitized, and soon, more and more of it is needed for the same high. This creates a negative downward spiral leading to the depression and anxiety crisis.

This condition can be called dopamine addiction, or if you will indulge me, ‘Dopamitis.’

Similar to the treatment of Type 2 diabetes where the body’s insulin sensitivity is improved, one way to address ‘Dopamitis’ is to help the brain regain its sensitivity to dopamine.

Diabetes is considered a major lifestyle illness around the world today. If society continues its addiction to dopamine, primarily due to its addiction to smartphones, 'Dopamitis' might become as significant a lifestyle ailment like diabetes, affecting our society.

Monday 24 June 2024

Open goals can be better for habit adherence

Systems are better than goals. They encourage habit formation and help over the long term, while goals are short term. If you must set goals because of a certain requirement, try setting ‘Do-your best’ kind of goals. These are called Open goals.

Open goals, I believe can encourage better habit adherence. They incentivise ‘showing up’. Consistency in the long run beats intensity.

Sunday 23 June 2024

Thoughts on networking as a corporate professional

Here are three thoughts on networking to build your connections.

Firstly, networking is about value exchange. Naval Ravikant has an interesting maxim: “Networking is overrated. Become first and foremost a person of value, and the network will be available whenever you need it.”

Secondly, it is important to cultivate what is called 'who luck.' The best way to understand 'who luck' comes from a conversation I heard on The Knowledge Project Podcast between the host, Shane Parrish, and Jim Collins. Collins says, “People think about luck as kind of 'what' luck, but I’ve had great 'who' luck in my life. 'Who' luck is when you come across somebody who changes your trajectory or invests in you, bets on you, and gives you guidance at key points.”

Finally, stay in touch with people even when you don’t need anything from them. That’s how you build lasting connections. Don’t always transact in life. Solutions can be found when those looking for them feel valuable. Connections happen when it’s not always a transaction. Make yourself and others feel valuable and useful, and the solutions to problems will appear before you, making you better for it.

Saturday 22 June 2024

Leadership and management

Leadership and management are both essential for success. While it is beneficial to be a leader who casts a spotlight on others and helps them shine, the skills of management are also crucial in certain situations. One does not need to be bossy or seek the spotlight for oneself; however, the ability to manage tasks and get things done is very important.

Leadership is about managing change, while management is about managing complexity. 

A successful individual can lead through change and, at the same time, manage complexity effectively.

Leadership involves understanding and expanding one's circles of influence by helping others develop similar skills. Management is about knowing how to grow these circles of influence. Both leaders and managers should not focus specifically on circles of concern. Instead, by concentrating on circles of influence, their influence over circles of concern will naturally increase.

Management focuses on creating impact by knowing where to direct efforts. Leadership drives the change needed to achieve that impact.

Friday 21 June 2024

SERIES: Potentially Contrarian Ideas – 2. Some stress can benefit you, with the right mindset

We all know how bad stress is for us. It shortens our lives and makes an already short life less enjoyable. There are different kinds of stress, some better than others, but overall, reducing stress is best. For example, small bursts of acute stressors, like lifting weights during exercise, are beneficial to your muscles. On the other hand, continuous chronic stress on your muscles can lead to them becoming permanently weakened or even permanently damaged. The same is even more true for mental stress; while one might be able to handle bouts of acute stress, chronic mental stress leads to burnout and various other ailments.

Mo Gawdat and Alice Law have an interesting book about how to become “Unstressable”, in which they discuss the three L’s of managing and overcoming stress:

  • Limit exposure to stressors.
  • Listen to what our minds and bodies are saying and take corrective action.
  • Learn how to deal with it.

It is the third point, "Learn how to deal with it," that intrigues me, especially when reframed with David Yeager's work on the right stress mindset. Yeager’s research indicates that how we experience stress depends on our beliefs about its impact on our health. If we believe that stress can only have negative effects, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if we can reframe our belief that the stress we are feeling might lead to better outcomes, we have a better chance of benefiting from it.

For example, when I feel nervous energy before an important meeting or presentation, I can do one of two things. I can let the nervousness affect my confidence, which might cause me to fumble during the meeting. Instead, if I reframe the nervousness by acknowledging that the physiological symptoms are my body sending more blood to my brain to keep me ready, I can make the stress work for me instead of against me. This approach is more likely to help us harness stress and use it to our advantage.

This contrarian reframe is termed a “synergistic mindset intervention,” which targets both the growth mindset (the idea that intelligence can be developed) and the stress-can-be-enhancing mindset (the idea that one's physiological stress response can fuel optimal performance).

I have been experimenting with this for some time now. As a big fan of checklists to support one's life by removing guesswork, I created a checklist that I can easily access before work meetings. When I notice stress or anxiety before a meeting, I quickly scan my checklist and follow the steps.




This has been my way of introducing a synergistic mindset intervention to soften the jitters. Emerging research indicates that it's time to reframe the narrative on stress. Yes, stress is bad, and we need to reduce it. But since it is impossible to escape it, we should actively start reframing it. We need to normalize the acceptance that stress can be enhancing. 

Stress with the right mindset about its ability to enhance our abilities, can make us more anti-fragile.

References

  1. Unstressable: A Practical guide to stress free living
  2. A Synergistic mindsets intervention protects adolescents from stress
  3. How to tame stress - The Happiness Lab

Thursday 20 June 2024

How to assess signals in life?

What is a 'simple yet profound' idea? Something like "Eat healthy and exercise to stay healthy" sounds simple, but is it profound? On the other hand, there are profound quotes that are not simple, like "To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world."

But it does not end there. We need to think of other combinations. What would it look like if we created a 2x2 matrix of four quadrants? The axes would be Simple vs. Complex on one axis and Profound vs. Shallow on the other.


This leads us to a simple and profound realization - 

"When assessing signals in life, stick to the insights, enjoy the slogans, ponder the nuances, and reduce the noise."

Wednesday 19 June 2024

Agonizing about a decision is often worse than the outcome of that decision

If you find yourself second-guessing and constantly overthinking, consider that the time you spend agonizing is due to the impossibility of predicting the future. Since we cannot predict the future, the best way to progress is to act now, then reflect and adjust, rather than trying to pre-decide everything. Courage beats confidence.

Instead of waiting to make a perfect decision before acting, take a small step forward, learn, and course-correct as you go. This approach is an antidote to overthinking and becoming stuck worrying about possible future outcomes.

However, this should not be confused with imagination or visualization, which are powerful tools for channeling optimism, boosting motivation, and achieving flow states.

Secondly, if a decision takes too long to make, it might be easier to conclude that it’s not right for you. Adopt the mindset of “it’s a hell yes or a no.” However, be sure to make the criteria for saying YES broad enough. Beyond that boundary, automatically say NO. Make the decision simple and automatic. Make it clear so you don't have to spend precious energy deliberating.

For less critical decisions, I would even recommend you consider using a simple coin flip to decide which way to go. Of course, do not do this for life-or-death decisions.

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Navigating the murky waters of work malaise

Many career professionals are experiencing a sense of gloom at work despite being hardworking, empowered, and eager to make progress. This issue appears to be bigger than any individual’s situation or circumstances. The following thoughts explore trends that might be contributing to this phenomenon. While solutions are unlikely to be one-size-fits-all, understanding the underlying causes can help in better preparing for and addressing these challenges.

  • The shallow workplace:

Individuals are not to blame for this feeling, nor are they alone in experiencing it. The work landscape has become particularly shallow, especially for those in middle management roles. This generation briefly experienced work as a genuine second space in life, where there was a journey, progress, and a sense of merit. Now, they see it transforming into a transactional workplace filled with constant micro-stresses and a lack of psychological safety. This trend began after the Great Recession of 2008 and accelerated with COVID-19. There is a pervasive sense of 'What is it all for?' When other compelling reasons arise (e.g., not wanting to stay away from kids, family health issues), work today simply loses its appeal. This trend could be termed as a 'worth-life crisis.' Although this is anecdotal evidence, it seems more prevalent at a certain life stage and among those who have seen significant success in their careers. Unless faced with a do-or-die situation, work can feel like a drag. Even in such situations, there is often a reluctance to fully engage in work.

  • The burden of shoulds and coulds:

Another theme is the 'burden-of-shoulds' (what is expected of us and what we tell ourselves we must do) versus the 'burden-of-coulds' (what we can do and what seems possible, with trade-offs). The problem is not one or the other; both are burdens and impose a mental tax. We struggle to choose a path and maintain mental sanity by knowing which tax we are willing to pay. This constant switching leads to depression and weariness, which could be referred to as a 'burden switching tax.' Some people have chosen the burden they will bear, and it makes them better for it.

  • Modernity induced fatigue:

The third theme is the problem with modernity itself. The paradox of choices in our hyper-abundant world conditions us to expect solutions to our problems. We want everything to be solved and believe that the solution will be personalized to our unique quirks. Life, however, is often messy and doesn’t comply with easy solvability. We are constantly going around corners, seeking an elusive, perfect solution. This constant search leads to what could be called 'solution seeking fatigue.'

Combined, these trends, along with the erosion of meaningful engagement and the pervasive sense of disconnection, contribute to the pervasive personal gloom many professionals are experiencing.

Solutions are not straightforward, as different people have different circumstances and not all will resonate with the same ideas. Here are some experiments that might help with this:

  • Creation over consumption:

We are overstimulated in our modern lives and must cut back on constant dopamine dosing. Prioritize creating something, either at work or outside, to replace consumption, even if that consumption includes activities generally considered healthy, like endlessly scrolling through educational content or obsessively following fitness trends.

  • Slowing down:

Slow down and become unrushed in our actions, decisions, and needs. Prioritize being unrushed in every action, even if it means missing out on opportunities or experiences that seem within our reach, to foster a sense of calm and deliberate purpose.

Both strategies present challenges. One requires us to create more, while the other might reduce our activities by slowing down the pace and letting go. If we get this balance right, it might eventually permeate other parts of our lives.


Monday 17 June 2024

Futures is more about sparking imagination than being correct

When it comes to thinking about the future, it is far more important to be imaginative than to be right. 

— Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, 1968

In 2005, as a bright-eyed ad-sales executive at The Times of India, I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a Scenario Planning workshop about the future of media. Strategy consultants from The Henley Centre introduced us to the concept of preparing for multiple plausible futures. Although it was intended for senior staff, on the last day, there was a presentation of scenarios to the wider team. I remember feeling inspired by the structured approach to imagining the future.

After completing my MBA, I had the privilege of working with incredible futurists at Kantar, where we envisioned the futures of countries, categories, brands, and more.

Foresight allows me to indulge my interests in history, gaming, fiction, and reading, while leveraging my strength in collecting trivia in a way nothing else does. Recently, I felt the urge to rekindle my passion for futures, foresight, and storytelling about what lies ahead. Professor Jane McGonigal's IFTF course on Futures Thinking was a spark of joy that kept me intellectually stimulated and provided a way to channel some 'Urgent Optimism.'

Urgent Optimism is an impressive mission statement that captures the essence of Futures thinking. It brings together two great truths: an urgent bias for action, to start doing something. And a pervasive optimism that things will only get better with effort. Pessimism is nothing but a failure of imagination, after all.

For those interested in becoming a futurist, I encourage you to document your imagination. 

Beyond that here is a mind map of six essential intentions and processes that a futurist mindset entails: 



Sunday 16 June 2024

Travel opens up the future

The mind rejoices when the body is able to experience the new and travel adds magic

Saturday 15 June 2024

Keeping the inner critic's voice in check

To keep the inner critic's voice in check, it's essential to recognize when it's operating on high power. Here are five signs that your inner critic might be overactive:

  1. Encourages Catastrophic Thinking: The inner critic often makes you envision the worst possible outcomes.
  2. Induces Guilt: It points out past decisions where you failed, making you feel guilty.
  3. Uses Extreme Generalizations: It makes broad, sweeping statements that are rarely true.
  4. Draws a Hard Line Between Success and Failure: It sees everything in black and white, with no middle ground.
  5. Predicts the Future with Finality: It insists that the future is set in stone, often with a negative outlook.

To manage your inner critic, acknowledge these signs and counter them with more balanced and compassionate self-talk. When you feel that the inner critic is operating in high power, remember not to trust everything your mind says. Talk to yourself instead

Friday 14 June 2024

Inner joy helps elevate life's peaks

The happiness you experience when you reach the mountain top is the happiness you bring with you. 

This perspective highlights an important truth: if your mind is calm, the world around you will seem calm as well. Achievements and experiences can bring happiness, but this external joy is deeply dependent on the internal happiness we cultivate. What we feel during significant moments is a reflection of our inner state.

If you are unhappy internally, no achievement will bring you lasting happiness or even the high you were expecting in that moment.

Thursday 13 June 2024

SERIES: Potentially Contrarian Ideas – 1. Create Products and Create Markets

Most business students learn the timeless advice from Theodore Levitt about “Sell the hole, not the drill.” In his article in the Harvard Business Review in the 1960s, he urged businesses to move away from a narrow focus on their products and services and to broaden their understanding of market needs. Customers are not looking for a drill, but rather for the hole they want to create using the drill.

This concept was further elevated into an innovation management philosophy by Clayton Christensen in the famous 'Jobs-to-be-done' framework. The fundamental premise here is that customers hire products or services to help them accomplish a job. In the previous example, we hire a drill to fulfill the job of making a hole in the wall for a nail, where we want to display a picture.

This makes sense and is sound management advice. I would summarize this as "Creating Products for Markets."

But the wonderful world of ideas and technology we live in has also shown that products can create markets, generating a need that did not previously exist. This usually happens when significant technological advancements push us out of the status quo. For example, with advancements in smaller speakers and more efficient battery technology came the Sony Walkman, which created a market for portable music. There is debate over whether it met a latent demand for portable music, but we can all agree that, as recently as 50 years before the Walkman, the technology for recording and replaying audio, let alone for portable use, did not exist. So, it is fair to assume that there was very little latent demand.

Side note: I have a hypothesis, based on anecdotal evidence, that such technology-push market creation usually begins in entertainment fields where the needs are not clearly manifested.

In a recent conversation with Stanford Graduate School, Jensen Huang, the trailblazing CEO of Nvidia, made some fascinating observations that lead me to believe we are truly in an era of products creating markets. Jensen talked about how Nvidia’s early success depended on partnering with Electronic Arts, also a fledgling company at the time, to create a graphics computer that spurred demand for the computer games industry, which was very nascent. The key phrase that caught my attention is that Nvidia and Electronic Arts created a product and a market. That was their clear strategy.

Following that initial success, Nvidia’s strategy, Jensen says, has become one of creating products AND the markets for those products. I strongly believe that this slightly contrarian approach is one of the reasons for their recent wild success. While others have been following the norm of creating products for existing markets, Nvidia is creating markets AND products.

References

  1. Timeless Wisdom from Theodore Levitt: Selling Value Over Features
  2. What Does It Take to Create a Market?
  3. Jensen Huang on Creating Products and Markets
  4. Know Your Customers’ “Jobs to Be Done”

 

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Cultivate burstiness

One of the traits of people pleasers is to ask incessantly for advice and try to delegate decisions. They believe that asking and following advice will absolve them of some of the blame if the decision turns out to be wrong. It is a way to protect themselves. Why is this a people-pleasing behavior? Because those who do it believe that they can keep the peace with others by doing so. It is a survival mechanism, borne out of a lack of self-confidence and putting other people’s needs ahead of their own.

One way to start breaking out of this is to cultivate ‘burstiness’.

As children, most of us naturally have this characteristic. We are curious about what could happen, and we learn through experimenting. Children don’t seek permission; they act and then learn what works and what does not.

As we grow older, we are taught to become more circumspect, which is necessary for being a functioning adult. But the systematic curbing of our ‘burstiness’ can leave some of us always wanting validation.

To reconnect with our ‘burstiness,’ we must practice making decisions by ourselves and start getting comfortable with how that feels. This way, we start taking back ownership and stop micromanaging how others view or experience us.


Tuesday 11 June 2024

Problems can be opportunities in disguise. Choose an abundance mindset

Choosing an abundance mindset over a scarcity mindset allows us to be more resilient. Pessimism is nothing but a failure of imagination. A scarcity mindset is a manifestation of pessimism that makes us closed to opportunities because we view them as problems.

Some manifestations of a scarcity mindset and how it affects our lives are as follows:

  • When we believe there is not enough for everyone, including ourselves.
  • When we think we must “be right” in any given situation.
  • When we think asking for help is a sign of weakness.
  • When we feel victimized by the actions of others, sometimes even by inanimate things.
  • When we feel that nothing can help improve a situation, and it’s better to give up.

To break from a scarcity mindset and adopt an abundant mindset, we must reprogram two key aspects:

  • Our attention – what we choose to focus on
  • Our intention – what we want to feel in the moment

We must redirect our attention to celebrate what is working well, instead of obsessing over what is not. Similarly, we must reorient our intention to learn, instead of being right. All this must be done and experienced, instead of just being thought about. Abundance can be visualized as something that is flowing, instead of being stagnant. Action or movement is an inherent characteristic of abundance. 

Scarcity, on the other hand, is like an addiction. It prefers the status quo and cannot be overcome purely by thinking our way out of it.

So, how do we take small actions to help us beat the addiction to scarcity? Let us see the actions a person who wants to reprogram their attention and intention will take when confronted with situations of a scarcity mindset:

Scarcity trigger

Reprogramming Action

Abundance mindset

There is not enough for me, let alone others

Give something of value without expecting anything in return

I have more than enough, and I can share

I must be ‘right’

Ask a question with the phrase “What do I not know that can be better?”

I must learn. Being ‘right’ is limiting

I cannot ask for help because I will become weak

Offer help to someone who needs it on a related or unrelated topic.

I have something to offer others and others have something to offer me

I am being victimized by the actions or existence of…

Write down five things you are grateful for in your day. Even include a reason you are grateful to the person or actions that are victimizing you

Reaffirm the belief that there is some force in the world that is on my side

Nothing can help improve this situation. I should give up…

Do the very next task, however inconsequential it is. Then ask for help from someone, even if they think it’s a problem too.

 

Take an unimportant decision and flip a coin to decide which way to do it. Follow the coin toss, irrespective of your inclinations.

Motivation comes from action. Solutions are found when we see progress, however incremental.

Finally, a non-obvious way to reinforce abundance mindset is to celebrate one’s quirks and uniqueness. Play is critical to help elevate our energy levels, which can in turn put us in an optimistic and more open mindset. Play with those who have abundant mindsets, and you will be on a path to cure your addiction to scarcity.


Monday 10 June 2024

Energy and enthusiasm are often better than expertise alone

Show up with the right attitude to increase your chances of succeeding in any situation. Many aspects of life, such as the rules we follow in society, lie beyond our control. Some rules are straightforward, like traffic signals, while others are complex, such as tax regulations. However, you need not become a prisoner to these uncontrollable factors. You can control the attitude you bring to most situations.

If you show up with a high-energy attitude, optimism, and agency, you set yourself up for success. Although the degree of success may vary, it will likely lead to more positive outcomes.

Nietzsche referred to this idea when he said, 

"If you have a strong why, you can bear almost any how."

A strong why need not be an esoteric purpose; it can also be action oriented.

  • It can be the clear, rational optimism you hold.
  • It can be the unrushed and focused energy you bring, and
  • It can be the consistent, yet not inflexible schedule you adapt.

Your attitude is like a horse that either needs to be reined in or needs to be prodded.

It is better to have the former.



Sunday 9 June 2024

Don't try to solve every problem

Don't try to solve every problem. Make a deal with yourself to live with the challenges that arise from small issues. Accept them and be okay with it. The Stoics have a saying: "Pay the taxes of life willingly and accept them" (Ryan Holiday). This mindset is similar.

Instead of trying to eliminate all challenges, whether big or small, it might be better for our overall happiness to live with the minor challenges that small issues present. Attempting to remove every small issue can actually lead to continuous discontent.

Dan Harris, in his podcast "20% Happier," discusses the idea of not trying to solve every problem, suggesting that we can find greater peace by accepting small challenges rather than constantly fighting against them.

If we accept and live with these small challenges, rather than constantly trying to solve them, we might find ourselves happier. They cease to be problems. 

And, when only big problems remain, it's easier to focus on and address them, rather than treating everything, big or small, as a problem. This prevents our attention and capacity from being overwhelmed.

Choose which problems are worth your attention and simply accept the rest. 

Saturday 8 June 2024

Stop chasing grand designs or perfect clarity in life

Expecting grand designs or perfect clarity in life is futile. This mindset leads to problems. The root of this kind of thinking comes from misplaced expectations. The more we understand that there are no grand designs, only incremental steps, the more we free ourselves from the trap of chasing after something that is never reachable. Expecting everything to make perfect sense and fall into place is a sure way to feel miserable because life is often messy. The only time life might fall into place in some grand scheme is probably when there isn't much of it left.

Friday 7 June 2024

Being present is the antidote to burnout

"If you don’t declare a finish line, then your body will declare it for you." – Carey Nieuwhof

There are many reasons why one might experience burnout, but the biggest one, in my opinion, is living a rushed, frantic life. We often justify our stressed lives with various reasons like:

  • "This is just a busy season, and I have to get a lot done."
  • "This busyness and stress are the price I have to pay for success."
  • "If I had more time, I could get everything done."
  • "I'll borrow time from tomorrow, even if it means I don’t get to rest today."
  • "I can multitask to accomplish more in less time."

This mindset traps us in what is known as the stress spiral. It begins with overcommitting to things we don't want to do, leading to overwork, and ultimately overwhelming us when everything becomes too much to handle.

The antidote to this isn't time management. It's energy and attention management. We need to learn to be present in what we are doing. We need to recognize that being frantic and constantly switching tasks will not lead to lasting success. It may provide short-term benefits like a dopamine fix, but it is unsustainable in the long run. Soon, one will be addicted to those dopamine hits, leading to burnout.

The true antidote is the ability to be fully present in whatever you are doing.