Saturday, September 29, 2012

Optimism: Fill your well!

An increasing series of medical studies reveal new ways that optimism has direct links with better health.  It has been shown to result in better postoperative outcomes, recovery from cancer and chemotherapy, shorter hospital stays, and increased longevity. A recent study over a 8 year period on nearly 100,000 women reveals that those who had positive future expectations as well as low levels of cynicism or hostility to others were statistically shown to have lower rates of newly developed heart disease or cancer.  And although there is no direct biological model which has been shown linking positive attitude to these health outcomes, the evidence demonstrates a powerful correlation.

But what does that mean for you and me?

As a long time self-described realist, pessimist, and cynic of humankind, I've gone through most of my life developing a shell and an outlook to anticipate and prepare for the shocks in life.  My paradigm changed completely when I realized that I may have prevented a few minor catastrophes, but I probably ruined countless relationships and interactions.  I was not a very pleasant person to be around, and I didn't enjoy who I was either!

I've learned from someone close to me that rather than staring at the horizon for rain clouds that may not come, it's better to enjoy the day while the sun is still out. Tony Dungy, retired coach of the Indianapolis Colts, recounts a quote, "What's down in your well will come up in the bucket." In other words, even when storms come, developing a positive outlook on life and the future ingrains resilience and allows you to better enjoy the days of your life--in good times and bad.  

Although some people are by nature optimistic, many (like myself) can learn by practice to "fill their well."  Dungy recommends being disciplined in your approach to each day of your life and accomplishing the things of your dreams by first being aware of your thoughts.  There are countless sports analogies which demonstrate why it's important to focus on what you want to happen--and not on what you hope to avoid.  For example, ask any golfer who hits a poor shot into a lake what they were thinking about before their shot.  Most likely, they were thinking of avoiding the lake.

Likewise, focus on the things that you hope will occur.  You won't always rise to the level of expectations you have for yourself or others, but setting low expectations doesn't lead to satisfaction and prevents you from rising above your situation.

1.  Develop an awareness of your thoughts and reactions to good and bad situations this week.  Keep a log.
2.  Avoid overly negative people if possible.  If you can't avoid them, embrace Peter Bregman's approach from the Harvard Business Review.
3.  Regularly develop and ground yourself.  Tony Dungy fills his well by believing in God's promises as demonstrated in Hebrews 11. Find strength and promise in someone or something other than yourself.  Live a beautiful life. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

(Some) Timeless Wisdom from The Richest Man in Babylon

“When youth comes to age for advice he receives the wisdom of years.”

Although a fictional account, The Richest Man in Babylon uses a series of parables set in ancient Babylon to illustrate financial principles that I believe provide a foundation for any person wanting to control their finances and become wealthy. 

His principles for avoiding a lean wallet include:
  • Save 10% of your income
  • Control your expenditures: Enjoy life while you are here. Do not overstrain or try to save too much. If one-tenth of all you earn is as much as you can comfortably keep, be content to keep this portion.  Live otherwise according to your income and don't be stingy and afraid to spend. Life is good and life is rich with things worthwhile and things to enjoy.
  • Make your money earn money
  • Don’t enter an investment where you can lose your principal.  Seek the advice of people experienced in creating wealth.  Better a little caution, than great regret. 
  • Own your own home
  • Provide in advance for the needs of your growing age and the needs of your family
  • Cultivate yourself to become more knowledgable.  Act in a way that you can respect yourself.

A gifted storyteller, George Clason exposits the value of good character within his stories.  For example, he talks about the value of hard work and relates how sincere, hard work creates opportunities out of bleak situations.  I think applying oneself may increase interactions with others and generate ideas for remedying one’s situation however his emphasis on values seems a little outdated specifically in light of the current recession, housing doldroms, European debt crisis, and stubborn unemployment facing our nation.  The shadow of a nation’s or region’s fiscal policy looms over many of the decisions that individuals can make.  Clason claims that a population of fiscally minded individuals can generate incredible wealth for a nation such as Babylon, however I find his optimism too simplistic and unrealistic in accounting for the general lack of discipline or awareness in basic principles such as minimizing consumer debt, saving, and investing for retirement.  In summary, I find the characters in his stories and the parables he uses interesting and valuable but insufficient to inspire confidence in today’s economic condition. 

1.  Analyze your cash flow for the past 60 days.  What are some areas of unexpected spending? 
2.  If you haven’t automated saving into your personal checking or savings account, start this week.  Even if you can only begin at 1%, gradually increase that rate until you become comfortable with living on and being happier with less disposable income. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Improving on "know thyself"

Do you know who you are?
Do you accept who you are?
HBR author Anthony Tjan wrote a great post entitled "How leaders become self-aware."  To be honest, his title lacks pull but his article although short is incredibly practical and relevant.

He expands the well known maxim, "know thyself," to include improve thyself, and complement thyself.  After gaining an understanding (and acceptance) of your key strengths and personality, you should evaluate your past actions and decisions in order to learn from your own mistakes.

Tjan states that famed investor Warren Buffett makes it a habit to write down the reasons for an important and difficult decision.  In a tumultuous field such as the stock market, being able to revisit those decisions 9-12 months later provides feedback in a unique way.

Lastly, just as no two people are alike on this planet, you should strive to find close friends and family members who complement your personality and strengths.  The best teams are made of varied roles and people.  As you journey through life, you also are provided the opportunity to learn from others and expand and grow as an individual (thus circling back to the first step, "know thyself").

1.  Using 3-5 sentences write down on an index card your core personality, strengths, and interests.
2.  Review that card throughout this week and find other colleagues and friends who bring out the best in you, make you happier, and help you accomplish the most important things in your life.
3.  At your next critical decision, take the extra time to articulate your entire reasons for and against a decision.  9-12 months after, or the next January 1, review the meaty life decisions you've made and reflect on your (mis)understanding of yourself.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Staying grounded

" 'How can you call yourself a free man when your weakness has brought you to this? If a man has in himself the soul of a slave will he not become one no matter what his birth, even as water seeks its level? If a man has within him the soul of a free man, will he not become respected and honoured in has own city in spite of his misfortune?'
…For over a year I was a slave and lived with the slaves, but I could not become as one of them. One day Sira asked me, 'In the even time when the other slaves can mingle and enjoy the society of each other, why dost thou sit in thy tent alone?' "To which I responded, 'I am pondering what you have said to me. I wonder if I have the soul of a slave. I cannot join them, so I must sit apart.' ” -Richest Man in Babylon
Social mimicry and the influence of our peers has been studied in a variety of settings. Dutch scientists revealed earlier this year that when pairs of women ate together, they mimicked each other’s eating behavior. Study participants were more likely to take a bite when their eating companion did rather than eating at their own pace. Other anecdotal evidence of behavioral influence includes interviews with prison inmates who attributed their crimes to the negative influence of certain friends. Ex-marines quickly became out of shape and were more likely to adopt the fitness and eating patterns of their associated peers. High level employees at Enron confessed that the business culture tacitly encouraged immoral business practice. When I read through The Richest Man in Babylon, the excerpt above gently persisted in my subconscious. Am I really who I claim (or want to be)? Or am I what people expect me to be, or am I a combination of the two? 

Mark Zuckerburg's (Facebook) desk
Rhodes Scholar and HBR leading business management mind Clayton Christensen confessed that many of his fellow scholars did not intend to end up in jail or get divorced. How do you keep yourself grounded? I don’t think there is one answer that will work for everyone. Meditation, personal mission statements, corporate vision, prayer, support groups, and quotes all can help us keep sight of the big picture and not get buffeted by the storms of life. Stephen Covey’s quintessential book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People begins with self discovery and crafting of a personal mission statement. I have found this exercise (and his book) to be helpful and I recommend it to others who are looking for a place to start.

1. Develop a tool, practice, or ritual that helps you remember your most important priorities and your most important parts of self.
 2. Commit to regular review of these things.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Off the grid...

Living without power or internet in 100+ degree weather the past four days has been an eye opening experience in a lot ways.  If you've ever traveled or lived in other parts of the world (or VA, MD, DC in more recent times...) you probably agree that there is a great synergy between  discomfort, removing distractions, and living more meaningfully in the present.

These past few days I have experienced a significantly slower pace of life.  With fewer opportunities to get distracted, time has dramatically slowed.  Furthermore, being at the whim of nature and having to encounter uncertainty and discomfort in locating sources of restaurants, gas stations that still worked, a/c, internet, and power to recharge phones helped ground me in the present.  I was acutely aware of how hot, sweaty, uncomfortable I was.  I was acutely aware of how good a Quizno's sub was after unsuccessfully trying to find a place to eat.  And the pure bliss of sitting in an air-conditioned supermarket is something that I can still relish after having regained power.

Peter Schwartz recently posted on HBR an article entitled, "How hard are you willing to push yourself?"  Rather than another article decrying American laziness and the loss of work ethic, Schwartz' own experiences focus the article at the individual level.  He argues that humans have through multiple generations evolved to avoid pain and move towards pleasure--neither of which are suited for delayed gratification.  (As demonstrated by the Stanford experiment involving children and marshmallows, success has been tied to individuals who are able to delay gratification.)  

To solve the challenge of delaying gratification, Schwartz poses three solutions:

1.  Minimize temptation.  Newer research has demonsrated that willpower exhausts just like a muscle.  Losing power and internet was a blessing in disguise because I would have never had the willpower to cut myself off for four days.  However, having gone through such an ascetic diet, I feel that I am more able to walk away from or remove distractions.

2. Push yourself to discomfort for short, specific periods of time.  

3. Build energy rituals. (understand your energy peaks and ebbs).

In order to get better at something and achieve excellence, we will have to be willing to sacrifice instant gratification, and endure discomfort to some degree.  As difficult as it may be to take small or drastic steps to remove distractions, I hope that you can be more engaged in present and be able to prioritize the actions and relationships which will help you become the person you want to be.  

1.  Would you benefit more from adding something new to your living experience, or taking something away?    To help you answer that question, picture who you want to be and think about what is keeping you from getting there.
2.  How will an awareness of (dis)comfort help you accomplish the big goals in your life?  Take an inventory to determine the biggest factor hindering you.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Embrace change and be happier!

Most of us prepared hard for the future we expected, and yet things aren't working out as we had planned…This is not how we were told it was going to be. Growing up we were led to believe that the future was predictable enough, and if we studied hard we could obtain the work we wanted in an environment we understood, and we would live happy and successful lives…It hasn't exactly worked out that way (even for those of us who are happy). Many of us, maybe most, are not making progress on achieving the things we want.”  -“What to do when you don’t know what to do,” Harvard Business Review

Often the people who teach us about the world and inform us of the “rules” cannot or are unwilling to see how things are constantly changing.  No longer can you rely on hard work alone, as evidenced by a growing number of discontents and unemployed.  We can either continue to look backwards at how things used to be, or we can accept that things are not as predictable as they once were.  By doing so, we are more willing and able to adapt and let go of things that cause us unhappiness and anxiety.  

Published in 1988 by Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese is an amazingly clear book that significantly changed my outlook in my work life.  By anticipating and accepting change I have been able to be happier. A word of caution: Don’t be fooled by how short the book and quickly it reads.  If I could, I would have every one of my close friends read this book at least once.

Some of the most powerful points are summarized below.  Treat yourself this week by seeing how this powerful little book helps you find a healthier outlook on your work life.  

1.  Take 45 minutes out of your schedule this week to read this book!  
2.  Look at these principles the next time something unpleasant upends your expectations.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Josh Rucker: What is your greatest fear/handicap?

I have the unique privilege and honor of witnessing people like Josh Rucker on a near daily basis.  Helps me get my mind off my own problems, the excuses out of my own mouth, and my eyes on my own selfish desires.  

Credits: for the original post

1.  What would you do if you could not fail?  Try something during whatever is left of your week.  Now make a promise to yourself and stick to it during the hard times, the lonely moments, and frequent defeats.  How many times do you think Josh Rucker ended up on his face, or worse?  

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 cor 12:9

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Speed Reading: Improve comprehension

If you have your hand closed around an object, you prevent it from being open to hold other things.  Likewise, you may feel that when reading for comprehension, you need to slow down.

However, it is possible to both read fast and retain comprehension.  One simple technique is to actively search out the topic sentence in each paragraph.  Around 90-95% of the topic sentences are located within the first line of each paragraph.  In fact, this is what we're taught in our public schools.

Unfortunately, with it being increasingly easy to communicate via tweets, instant messages, texts, emails, and blogs, many younger writers fail to develop the need to structure their thoughts.  It can be incredibly frustrating to read this type of writing and in fact, the shortened attention span of today's readers, the need for constant stimulation, and the proliferation of poor writing has resulted in the glut of articles spouting "Ten easy tips for..." and other poorly developed or rambling blogposts. 

On this webpage, I've always tried to concisely present my ideas and you'll find that I often bold or underline my main points to help readers follow.  

1.  Make it a goal this coming week to prioritize both speed and comprehension when you read.  Find that topic sentence!
2.  Pick up a good piece of writing.  Any work of man that has persisted over several generations is usually a noteworthy accomplishment.  It doesn't have to be a lot of time.  Even something as short as 5-10 minutes can be incredibly refreshing.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

5 pearls from British entrepreneurs across the pond-Part 2!

[This is a continuation post.  In Part 1, I presented the story of Matt Stevenson and his aquarium fish to present the importance of understanding yourself and your passions. I also used the example of Sharon Hilditch and her informal knowledge of the beauty industry to present the necessity in developing your knowledge base in the field you are interested in.  I hope you enjoy part two! :) ]

3. Seize opportunities-hustle!
Chris Gorman, founder of DX Communications relates, “Good things come to those that wait, but only the things left by those that hustle.”  When he was convinced mobile phones had huge potential, he moved to London and sold to large corporate clients with extreme success.  Later, he left another job to found DX Communications in order to sell mobile phones through retail shops.  His company exploded from grossing $200,000 to $140,000,000.  He then went on to create an internet consultancy called Reality Group in 1999 which he was able to sell just after a year and profit another $28,000,000.  Chris states the secret of success is seizing opportunities while also believing that failure is absolutely essential.  “One of the things I love about America is that people accept failure as a natural part of entrepreneurialism.” 

4. Failure is necessary for success
Along those lines, Chris goes on to say, “Fear of failure stops people from doing great things but learning from failure helps you achieve even greater things.”  Despite losing $1 million to setup a recording studio and label, Chris considered it a great learning experience to feel the pain of failure.  He acknowledges being at the wrong place and wrong time and states it was better to lose $1 million than possibly more later in life. I am impressed by Chris’ ability to acknowledge and truly experience the gut-wrenching disappointment of losing big yet being able to look forward to even greater things.  Also, I note that instead of attributing his failure to his own shortcomings, he credits the circumstances.  Given his uncanny ability to see and exploit market timing, I’m sure few would say that his self-assessment is inaccurate.  It’s no easy task to delicately tread the line between honesty and self-immolation that accompanies failure in our lives

5.  Be optimistic. You will encounter set-backs. Never give up. 
John Mudd was working as marketing manager of a potato chip (also known as British “crisps”) company when he devised a market selling traditional hand-cooked chips in pubs.  When the board rejected the idea, Mudd decided he was going to see the idea through himself despite being in his early 50’s.  When he finally left the company to setup his own, he realized that his experience in marketing did not translate completely to managing a company.  For two years he worked seven days a week, 15 hours a day.  When his company nearly floundered, John was able to sell stake in his company in order to have his chips distributed by popular supermarkets. 

Another younger entrepreneur Mandy Haberman had never intended to be an inventor.  However having a daughter born with a condition which made it difficult for her to suck drove her to invent a solution to her problem.  After nearly 5 years of research and enduring skepticism from her friends, Mandy setup her own company when she was unable to find a company willing to license her product.  Despite having no experience in this realm either, she persevered and found it incredibly rewarding to see her invention used in hospitals throughout the world. 

Any endeavor will be beset by setbacks.  It’s critical to maintain your bearing and keep moving in the right direction however slow that progress may be.  Mandy was driven as a mother who couldn’t control the fact that her child had been born with an impairment.  Being able to help others motivated her to keep trying despite the numerous setbacks she faced.


1. Review the five principles presented in these two articles.  Which do you think is most relevant in this stage of your life?
2.  What do you find easiest to do?  Hardest?  Write down one thing you can do this week that would help you most in realizing your dreams.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

5 pearls from British entrepreneurs across the pond-Part 1

The inspiration for this blog is to help you the reader define and achieve the life that would give you lasting happiness.  Part of the original energy of this website came from reading a little known book called How I Made It by Rachel Bridge.  In reading the short biographies of British entrepreneurs, I attempted to discern a pattern.  Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  If there is a success habit, I wanted to find out how to develop it.  I re-encountered the following five principles in their stories:

1.  Understand yourself, your interests, your talents. 
Matt Stevenson suffered the loss of his first goldfish when he was 10.  His sister had cleaned the stones in his tank with bleach.  Young Matt was confused and forever influenced by how a seemingly well-intentioned action could have such disastrous consequences.  At university, he continued his passion for fish, even renting a house so that he could keep his fish with him.  While studying product design, innovation, and marketing, his mind turned to his hobby: “…I realized that the skills I was learning in engineering and product design were lending themselves to solving some of the problems I had in keeping fish.”  Creative juices stimulated by academic requirements, he concentrated his effort on a circular aquarium that overcame the limitations of a traditional fish bowl. 

Initially, his friends thought he was foolish to be abandoning traditional pathways to well paying jobs in order to chase a quirky hobby.  His company now grosses the equivalent of $11 million annually.  His company mission is in line with that significant experience as a boy with a dead goldfish.  “When people go into a fish shop…most people don’t want to know how to wire a fish tank or what chemicals to add.  They just want to keep fish.”  Matt maintains a keen understanding of his market while combining the ideas he learned in university with his passion. 

2.  Do what you love.  Do what you know. 
Sharon Hilditch grew up in a working class area of Liverpool, struggled in school because of a severe hearing problem in one ear which affected her speech development, and left school at 15 to work in a beauty salon.  She eventually took a job in a cosmetic surgery hospital caring for patients with aging skin.  Sharon enjoyed bringing new ideas to her patients and realized she wanted to stay in the anti-aging market.  Part of her success is directly attributable to her desire to find new products and treatments for her patients.  While visiting an Italian dermatologist she encountered micro-dermabrasion and designed a gentler machine which was the start of her company Crystal Clear.  I find it admirable that despite not having done well in school, having a speech impediment, and no formal engineering or medical training, Sharon was able to learn enough to create a product and company worth millions... 

...Part 2 of this post to follow!  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Don't get carried away by that boxfish!

In the coral reefs of the Pacific and Indian Oceans lives a most peculiar boxfish. In order to deal with the changing currents, this fish has developed a very unique shape. Unlike the long, streamlined shape characteristic of other fish Ostracion cubicus has a small face, and a box like body with relatively small fins and tail. Despite outward appearances, the boxfish astounded researchers by its speed and agility.

Air foil
The fish was noted to have a drag coefficient of 0.2 (which is comparable to an air foil) which astounded researchers given its unusual shape. Furthermore, the dorsal and anal fins which propel the fish are way off the central axis of the body. Puzzled, researchers studied the movement of beads around these fish. They discovered that boxfish have keel fins at the edges of their body which establish and amplify little vortices tightly around the body towards the more powerful posterior fins.

These facts probably would not be well known if they were not adopted by luxury automobile maker Mercedes-Benz. A concept car that they produced had a drag coefficient of 0.19 and when combined with other fuel saving measures, achieves over 70 mpg. Although the car never hit full production (my guess—aesthetics?), I still find it admirable and humbling that once again the world’s best design teams learn something from a humble fish.

It would have been understandable if Mercedes-Benz had modeled a car after the faster animals in the ocean. For example, various automakers have modeled the front of SUV’s to mimic the proportion of dolphin noses. The front of some ships also exhibit these proportions in order to reduce drag.

It’s important to note that the boxfish is adapted to the turbulent flow of coral reefs. It would be foolish to think that such a shape would be as suited in the open ocean or with stronger currents that aren’t damped by coral.  Mercedes-Benz was able to achieve something incredible with a box design.  However, they probably could have done even better had they adopted more established streamlined profiles.  Likewise, the danger is to take a sensational idea and try to apply it too generally—and I am definitely guilty of this. Therefore when you do receive well intentioned advice, it is important to not forget the accompanying conditions and assumptions.

To say it another way, take advice with a grain of salt. The first recorded use of this phrase was in Pompey 77 A.D. Supposedly an antidote to poison was to be taken with a small amount of salt to be effective. Likewise, it is important that you supply the salt and seasoning with which to evaluate the ideas and advice you encounter. Remember, opinions are abundant; talk is cheap.

1. Do you give unsolicited advice to other people? Do you preface by explaining the circumstances of your experiences and opinions?
2. When seeking advice or a solution to a problem you are facing, do you look for people who have been through similar circumstances?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Head + Heart = Moving on from disappointment

Another week has gone by that you will never get back.  If you had to evaluate your work, your interactions with people, and your overall happiness and satisfaction with your life would you say that you are doing well?   As for me, I’ve had somewhat of a disappointing week.  There are times when I feel like I’m failing in every aspect of my life.  It’s incredibly disheartening and frustrating—causing a weird mix of agitation but unwillingness to do anything about the situation. 

When you’re down on your back looking up at the world, it’s easy to react emotionally.  Disappointment is after all, intensely emotional.  However in order to get back on your feet, you really need to effectively incorporate both your thoughts and emotions. 

Those messy things called emotions:
·         The first thing to do when encountering disappointment is acknowledge how you are feeling.  Once you’ve stopped ignoring the problem or denying how you feel, you can begin the painful but necessary process of progressing towards a healthier outlook. 
·         You may be angry at yourself, others, or at the cruel universe.  Realize that in every situation you bear at least partial responsibility for the way things have turned out.  Once you’ve accepted that truth, move on to forgiving yourself and others.  None of this will be easy, but having awareness and attempting to move through these steps is better than doing nothing to address your heart. 
·         Resolve to focus on the things you can influence and letting go of things that are outside your sphere of control.  Remember, the only person you can really change in the world is the one looking back at you from the mirror. 

Those confusing things called thoughts:
·         Look for the potholes, falling rocks, cyclists.  When you’re driving a car on a winding mountain road it would be foolish to ignore all the things that can cause you to lose control.  In life, these obstacles are not often clear.  Using your past experiences, try to recall if there were any events or factors which drove you off your preferred course.  Is there a particular person you can’t stand?  Are you unbearably cranky when tired and hungry?  What can you do to either avoid or minimize the effect of those land mines?  If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail again as you hit those same obstacles. 
·         Likewise, it is important to develop or recognize guard rails in your life.  What are the warning signs you can implement or use to signal when it’s time to modify your trajectory?  Biometric monitoring (heart rate, temperature, etc.) is being used to help those in stressful situations recognize the warning signs of distress.  Your guard rails can be as simple as that feeling you get in your stomach, or the sweat you get on your palms.   The important thing is recognizing your early warning signs and either modifying your environment or your reactions.  We’ve heard countless stories of individuals who reacted extraordinarily in difficult circumstances.  I want to encourage you to be intentional rather than reactional. 
·         Deal with your discouragement.  Everyone likes to think that their situation is unique but there really isn’t anything new under the sun in terms of human experience.  If you think it’s helpful, identify mentors or learn from those who can help you get through your experience.  Talking to someone else can help you see things outside of your perspective
·         Suck it up.  In the end you have to decide whether you are going to do something about your situation or not.  Are you the type of person who gets easily discouraged?  If so, realize that if you can’t find a solution to your problem, you really aren’t desperate enough.  Count the cost.  Decide if you would rather live with the pain of regret or the pain of the process.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Peyton Manning: The way you play the game

As Peyton Manning leaves the Colts, many think on the impact he's had on the team and city.  I enjoyed reading ESPN Rick Reilly's ode to Peyton because of two reasons.  First, it underlines Peyton's discipline and hard work for the game.  Peyton demonstrated integrity and lived to his own standard rather then buying into the hype and developing complacency and ego common in professional athletes.  Secondly, we see that Peyton really is a normal guy who hasn't been changed by his success.  It's all too easy for reality to get distorted but you see that Peyton truly enjoys drinking cheap domestic beer with his friends and singing bad karaoke--all the while demonstrating class and patience to his many fans.

Wherever he goes, I'm sure his work ethic and integrity will allow him to accomplish more things than others in his situation.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ikea Case Study: Look back!

Relative to their size, owls have unusually large eyes which are able to capture more light in dark conditions. Their eyes do come at a cost—they are so large that they are fixed into position. In order to compensate for their acute forward facing vision, owls are able to swivel their heads 270 degrees. (How do you compare? Chances are you are able to rotate your head 60-80 degrees.)

Despite having a broad field of vision, how much do we actually miss by not seeing the critical things that are outside our direct line of sight? In other words, instead of trying to find the mouse in a dark field, are we able to pick out the giant pink elephant sitting behind us?

One example which illustrates how our field of vision influences our behavior is the Ikea floor plan. Regarded as the world’s largest furniture store, this flat-packing, economy-of-scale dominating Swedish manufacturer produces affordable, practical furniture (and lingonberry jam!). No college experience is complete without a trip through this store with a seemingly one-way path through multiple showrooms. The odyssey ends in a warehouse with registers—with a cart full of things you weren’t planning on buying but couldn’t pass up.  (Around 60% of store purchases at Ikea were unintended.)

The reason why Ikea is able to achieve the marketer’s dream is through design innovation. Take a look at the floorplan below which tracks the density and flow of customers through one of Ikea’s floors.
Credit: Farah Kasim 
One thing that you’ll notice is that the rooms are not laid out necessarily in a space efficient manner. Rather than arranging rows of display modules, Ikea has built a veritable maze in order to take advantage of the fact that we have a predisposition to focus on objects within our immediate forward-facing field of view. When we become disoriented in Ikea, it allows the store to take control of our autonomy and direct us. In order to get through this maze, you inevitably examine the products on display. Ultimately, being led around lowers our ability to act with intention.

What consequence does this have in our lives when we’re not in Ikea? Some of my best pictures were taken because I happened to look back at the way that I’ve come. The key is that I didn’t know that a great photo was waiting for me on the other side. Likewise, I’ve come to realize the power of periodic reflection is that it allows us to act with intention in the present in ways that surprise us. Just like losing control of our path in Ikea, life presents a plethora of distractions, obstacles, and competing tasks which easily push us around like flotsam. Reflection allows us to evaluate how we are living our lives and what we can do to improve the way we use the short time we have.

1. Look back once during your day tomorrow just to see if the change in view influences your thoughts/actions.
2. What time during your week would it be easiest for you to evaluate how the last few days have gone? (Think efficiency: stuck in a meeting? Perfect!)
3. What other ways can you think of in your own life to change your daily habits to enrich your perspective?

P.S.-The shortcut through Ikea can often be found by literally looking back or directly to your side as you navigate through the store. (Just another reinforcement to look back this week!)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

stay hungry, stay fierce, stay faithful

some may consider this man poor
i think he's rich beyond belief

stay hungry, stay fierce, stay faithful

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Visualization + Determination = Success

 Arnold Schwarzenegger has achieved the unthinkable.  Moreso than being the seven time winner of Mr. Olympia, star in multiple Hollywood movies, or elected governor of the 8th largest economy in the world, Arnold has become so famous that his last name is in the Microsoft Word dictionary.  This is particularly symbolic because when he was an aspiring actor, critics told him his name was too long for people to remember let alone spell.  Arnold has faced opposition in every one of his endeavors and there is something simple yet powerful about his life which has been responsible for his success.

First find your dream, despite the environment
From an early age, Arnold had to fight to hold onto his dreams.  He grew up in a strict, Roman Catholic household.  His family was never well off, and he still remembers the day his family was able to buy a refrigerator.  He lived in a time when he felt suffocated by his parents’ expectations, financial austerity, and the aftermath of WWII/socialism.  Despite feeling caged, Arnold was able to visit the local movie theater where he was inspired by films of bodybuilding legends like Reg Park, Steeve Reeves, and Johnny Weissmuller.  Arnold reflected, “As a teenager, I grew up with Steve Reeves. His remarkable accomplishments allowed me a sense of what was possible, when others around me didn't always understand my dreams.”  The films he watched inspired Arnold to become a bodybuilder and eventually an actor so that he could emulate Clint Eastwood and John Wayne who were also his idols. 

Combine your dream with lots of hard work
Arnold is truly among the 1% of people because he was not only able to dream impossibly big dreams, but also dedicate himself to those dreams relentlessly.  One of Arnold’s early girlfriends commented on his determination, “He's as much a self-made man as it's possible to be—he never got encouragement from his parents, his family, his brother. He just had this huge determination to prove himself…” Whether that determination manifested itself in working out 5-6 hours a day while working a side job, to thinking outside the box and taking ballet lessons to help him gain an edge over the bodybuilding competition, Arnold’s approach could best be described as Machiavellian.  Arnold knew he had to answer to the most important critic in his life—himself. 

 “It would make me sick to miss a workout ... I knew I couldn't look at myself in the mirror the next morning if I didn't do it."

 Application:  (Difficulty: Hard)
1.  “What would you try if you could not fail?”  Silence all the critical voices in your head and list all your dreams as quickly as possible.  Once you are done, take the one which resonates with you the most and flesh it out with as many details as possible.  Visualize yourself achieving your dream.  What do you see? What can you hear, smell?  How do you feel? 
2.  Break your dream down into actionable short and long term goals.  Review your dream and track your progress weekly.  

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Do More by Doing Less: How to improve your FOCUS

In the past few years research has been steadily accumulating in favor of doing LESS multi-tasking in order to be more efficient.  It's fairly common sense that it goes without saying: you are less effective when your mind has to juggle several different tasks.

Imagine if all of your attention was a giant pie.  If you were to cut it into thirds you might consider doing three tasks at 1/3 your normal efficiency.  However, in reality dividing your attention between tasks actually decreases it incrementally.  Furthermore, some tasks can actually become distractors when they don't get our full attention.

Research from the National Academy of Sciences corroborates the fact that being unfocused can have both short and long term consequences.  They found that mass media consumption resulted in poorer performance on a standardized attention study even in the absence of previous distractors.  In other words it is likely that you will remain distracted long after you turn off the TV, log off facebook, get off the phone, or turn off your computer.  

The good news is that the brain can learn to ignore distractions and improve focus:
  • Guard your heart.  Barbara Fredrickson, psychology researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, believes that a 3:1 balance of positive to negative emotions results in better team dynamics (calculated using mathematical modeling by collaborator Marcial Losada).  
  • Remove distractions.  Examples include setting a set time during the day to check email, facebook, or surf the internet.  
  • Segregate your work/rest/play cycles.
  • When faced with unexpected distractions, pause and consider your options.  Choose to focus your attention rather than react automatically.  Over time it will become easier to resist distractions.
  • Take scheduled breaks during work.  Also, set stop times for tasks that will take a considerable amount of time and energy.  I find that I work better knowing that I have an end point.
  • Shift attention to other projects when you feel yourself fading.
Try to do one thing this week to help you be more focused!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Speed Reading: Stop talking to yourself

All of us were taught to read by listening to the sound of words and copying them.  If you watch beginning readers in elementary school, you can see them mouthing words to themselves.  You are unaware of this but you are probably still sub-vocalizing while you read.

Until you break this habit you will always be limited in how fast you can read.  One way to practice this to read faster than you can form the sounds of words in your head.  As you practice, you will be able to take in and process information more quickly than before.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Are bad habits becoming your IDENTITY?

"Because the more we continue to make the same mistakes, the more we ingrain the ineffective behaviors into our lives. Our failures become our rituals, our rituals become our habits, and our habits become our identity. We no longer experience an unproductive day; we become unproductive people." -Peter Bregman, "Are you training yourself to fail?" (Harvard Business Review Blog)
Is your reflection this nice?
When I read that paragraph, a chill went down my spine. When I've had a rewarding, productive day I like to think that I'm building upon a chain of consistent behavior.  What is more unsettling is that I've often turned a blind eye to all the times just this week where I've let momentary laziness and distraction keep me from doing the things that truly give me joy.

Emotions play a strong role in why I get side-railed.

I've played out this pattern so many times:
...Wake up in the morning, having hit the snooze button one too many times.  No time to eat, no time to start the day by doing the most important thing first (eg., spending time to read, pray and calm my heart and mind).  No time to prepare for the day ahead

...A long day at work.  Not eating properly makes it harder not to be grumpy, sluggish, impatient.  As the day goes by, I feel more physically, emotionally drained.

...I get home, feeling tired and unmotivated.  It becomes harder to not get distracted on the internet. After a few clicks, I look at the clock and wonder where the time went.  Tired, I regret not having any more time left to do things that I wish I could be doing.  I go to bed not looking forward to starting another day.

This doesn't happen every day, but it does happen often enough that I fear that this is becoming a part of my identity.  As uncomfortable as it may be, I encourage you to analyse your own "bad days."  Keep a record if you need to and try to identify patterns ...and possible interventions.

The following things have helped me.  I hope that they can help you as well:
  • Start the day right (whatever you need to do to keep the right perspective and stay grounded in your principles).
  • Take care of yourself.  Carry energy dense, portable food like nuts/berries. Drink plenty of water. 
  • Set an hourly chime on your watch to stretch, take deep breaths, refocus on the big picture, and your life purpose.  Benedictine monks used to use the sound of hourly bells as reminders to pray throughout the day.
  • Take advantage of momentum.  Chain little steps to keep moving towards the life you want to live.  
  • Celebrate your victories and reflect at the end of the day.  
  • Don't stay up too late at night.  Tomorrow starts the night before. Go to sleep in peace.  

1.  Keep a record of all your worst days this coming week.  Is there a pattern?  Does one decision snowball into several others?
2.  Using your log, what interventions can you implement to avoid your common traps?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Speed Reading: Never look Back! (literally)

Being able to digest vast amounts of information quickly is a skill that will rapidly set you apart from others.  US President Theodore Roosevelt used to read a book a day--before breakfast.  John F. Kennedy was reported being able to read 1200 words per minute. Current and past Presidents have been able to scan a policy paper and face a panel of reporters with intelligent, informed responses.  It's incredibly humbling to consider that the most harried and stressed individuals in the country are able to read recreationally as well as professionally.

The average reader reads less than 240 words per minute, stopping to go back and re-look at words 10-11 times for every 100 words read.  These are known as regressions.  A CONSCIOUS regression is the result of not understanding something particularly well and wanting to reread it.  An UNCONSCIOUS regression is the result of conscious regressions becoming habitual.
Simply eliminating regressions will improve your reading rate by at least 10%

One method is to use a pacer.  Many speed reading coaches advocate using a pencil or fingertip to keep your eyes moving fast enough so that they cannot perform unconscious regressions.  Conscious regressions are also reduced because using a finger will focus your attention and improve comprehension.

The challenge is to pick a pace that is fast enough to keep your mind from getting distracted while not so fast that you cannot understand what you are reading.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A zebra's stripes: Learning to stand out by who you are

As a child, I loved to read animal and nature books.  Every weird trait, interesting factoid, strange pattern of living fascinated me.  The more I looked, the more I loved the uniqueness of every plant and animal.

At the same time, I was also being steeped in the subtle message that as people we need to conform and fit in as "nicely" as possible.  School was and continues to be focused on remediation: You are deficient in this way (Fix it).  Rather than focusing on how my peers and I had different personalities and strengths, we were measured by a common ruler that incentivized convergent thought and behavior.  

A zebra's stripes no longer evoked powerful emotive responses (daring contrast, unashamedness...).  Over time I could no longer see the stripes but only the herd--what was once a completely right brained experience became conditioned to become an exercise in categorization, and value for the whole and not the individual.  

Likewise, many of us have been conditioned over time to lose or suppress some of our greatest strengths as individuals.  Over time, we pick and choose when to express certain traits or quirks when we think they are appropriate for the environment, rather than finding an environment where we can be more of our true selves.  

Warren Buffett, is a paradigm of someone who has persevered in his values and unique identity.  He is notoriously patient, practical, and trusting--not necessarily what you would expect from one of the richest and greatest investors of the world.  Being patient and practical, Buffett invested in only companies he could forecast the business future for the next 20 years.  Buffett carefully vetted the senior managers of companies he invested in and trusted them to run their own businesses.  His careful, long term approach (coined "value investing") was the outwards manifestation of his unique and enduring traits.  

More than the billions of dollars he has generated, Buffett's greatest satisfaction comes from being able to enjoy his work.  At the University of Nebraska, he told the audience of college students, "I am really no different from any of you...if there is a difference between you and me, it may simply be that I get up every day and have a chance to do what I love to do every day.  If you want to learn anything from me, this is the best advice I can give you."  

1.  Are you aware of how you are different than other people?
2.  What ways can you apply those strengths to your CURRENT work/school environment?  Remember, Buffett was able to make a significant impact on the world by carving a niche in a seemingly incompatible environment.
3.  Close your eyes, visualize waking up and being excited to start your day.  What would your perfect work/school day be like?  How can you use those details to CHANGE your current work/school environment?

[Note: Buffett is also an example of someone who hasn't been corrupted by ludicrous amounts of money.  He is among a group of wealthy philantropists (Giving Pledge) who have pledged to donate more than half of their net worth in order to make the world a better place.  Despite his wealth, Buffett also continues to drive a used pick-up truck to work, living with the same Omaha, Nebraska values that helped him become successful in such a turbulent profession.  His son, a corn and soybean farmer, was recently named to replace Buffett and will act as the guardian of the company's values.]

Sunday, January 8, 2012

John Wooden: True to values = true success

John Wooden was an accomplished American basketball player and coach. He won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period.  At one point his teams had won a record 88 consecutive games. He was named national coach of the year six times.  However his greatest accomplishments live not in the pages of record books but in the lives of the players he coached and the people he touched.

If you have ten minutes, I would strongly recommend reading ESPN's tribute to John Wooden to get a glimpse into this man's life and impact.

Wooden defines success as:
"peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort do the best of which you're capable...And I don't think others can judge that.  I think it's like character and reputation.  Your reputation is what you are perceived to be; your character is what you really are."  
Principles didn't just guide John Wooden through life and coaching, they made up his character, and all his players knew that he had internalized the values he thought were most important to life.

Wooden's father gave him a "Seven Point Creed" upon graduating from grammar school.  Wooden carried it with him since.  He later went on to develop his pyramid of success which was the result of his own experiences, trials, successes, and failures.

What's important is not taking and applying Wooden's principles but taking the time this year to establish what success means to you.  From the time we start school to the workplace to our private lives, we often find ourselves conforming to what people expect or demand from us.  Yet ultimately, if we are to live a life without regret we need to determine what is most important to us and act in a way that reveals our priorities.

If you want an excellent article on this concept, head over and read Clayton Christensen's "How will you measure your life?"  Since when it was posted in July for the Harvard Business School class of 2011, this post remains consistently in the top five read articles week after week.

As another year approaches, let's not forget too quickly about the year that passed--and how we can use our own life lessons to make 2012 more personally meaningful and rewarding.

1.  Do you agree or disagree that there is a universal definition for success?
2.  How would you define success with a few short sentences?
3.  Are your current priorities (including the use of your free time) helping you achieve that definition of success?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dan Pink: "Drive-The surprising truth about what motivates us"

I want to pose one question and present two ideas inspired from Dan Pink's presentation on what motivates us. 

Question: What structure exists in today's workplace to motivate job performance? 

If you're like me, much of what comes to mind are monetary incentives to do more, be more efficient, cut waste, etc.  Other rewards include personal identity--either with the work or with coworkers, a feeling of personal satisfaction from the nature of work, or a sense that one is contributing to society as a whole.

Most of us agree that such incentives either are too scarce or do not work very well.

1.  Pink reveals research showing that increasing monetary rewards resulted in better performance at mechanical tasks but WORSE performance when subjects were asked to perform even rudimentary cognitive tasks.  This test was repeated and the counter-intuitive results were reproduced in industrialized countries as well as developing nations like India suggesting basic tenets of workplace motivation transcend socioeconomic and cultural lines. 

2.  Instead he posits that we are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  As examples, he points to the widespread impact of organizations like Linux, Wikipedia, and Apache--organizations which are for the most part generated by people who contribute their time, talents, and energy without monetary reimbursement.  The rise of Mozilla, creators of popular web browser Firefox, is yet another example of highly skilled people with other jobs who decide to use their limited free time to serve a bigger purpose.

Whether that purpose is to challenge the existing status quo, or to be " the cause of making the world a better place," (Skype) or to "put a ding in the universe," (Steve Jobs), we find that we are all in search of something that makes us happy and feel like we are fulfilling some purpose. 

1.  What would you say that your purpose is in your current workplace?  Do you know what the organization's mission is?
2.  Regarding autonomy, mastery, and purpose, what is the easiest change you can implement at your workplace to be happier?
3.  What purpose do you think would motivate and give you energy this next year?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Henry Cho: Finding a niche with "Clean Comedy"

What's impressive about Henry Cho's comedy is that it is so different than the rest of his competition.  He summarizes, "Do you know why I make money?  Because there's a market for it." Cho is in the unique position where he is paid not despite but because his personal ideals are in line with his business practice.  

1.  Looking ahead, what values do you want to define and direct your work life?
2.  Are there any ways that you feel your work stifles or stamps out these core values?  What ways can you hold onto those values while still performing your job?  
3.  Try brainstorming for 1 minute as quickly as possible on a blank sheet of paper for ways you can bring more of who you are to the work you do. 

Steve Jobs: Looking inside to look ahead to 2012

In his biography, Jobs recalls two disconcerting discoveries as a young child:
1.  Being smarter than his parents (knowing that he was special)
2.  Being adopted (knowing that he had once been abandoned)

These themes formed Jobs' early personality and persisted through the rest of his adult life

Lance Armstrong, in his own autobiography, talks about how the most competitive athletes not only had but required personal demons to motivate them to the highest level of performance.  (Armstrong grew up in a single parent household with limited income.) 

Taking the time to understand where we come from helps us understand why we are the way we are--and what we can do to be better. 

1.  Take five minutes to list some of the most powerful memories, experiences in your life.
2.  How can you connect or thread those events together to the present day?
3.  Are there areas that you wish you could forget or never experience?  What can you do this year to forgive yourself/others and live in a way that is healthy and productive in 2012?
4.  How can understanding the powerful themes in your life help make difficult decisions this year?