Saturday, June 30, 2012

The act of kindness - an essential trait of leadership

I generally listen to stories - about random acts of kindness. It lasts only that much longer though. It fails to "stick". Suddenly when someone notable or powerful speaks, your ears perk up and you take to their advice and give full attention. It so happened I was privileged enough to sit in an auditorium brimming with co-workers listening to Colin Powell speak. Now I expected a more military-government-defense sort of serious talk.

Now imagine my surprise when he spoke a lot more about kindness than what would be expected from a personality and leader like him. He came across as the most down to earth, ordinary and an honest, straightforward guy and yet he arrested my attention!

Among several great anecdotes he narrated, one stuck with me till date and will do forever. I started reading his book It Worked For Me : In Life and Leadership today and I was pleased to see the same anecdote in one of the chapters. 

Bottomline being kindness is essential for rock solid leadership.
Read why in this excerpt from the book - 

When I was Secretary of State, I slipped away one day from my beautiful office suite and vigilant security guards and snuck down to the garage. The garage is run by contract employees, most of them immigrants and minorities making only a few dollars above minimum wage.

The garage is too small for all the employees' cars. The challenge every morning is to pack them all. The attendants' system is to stack cars one behind the other, so densely packed that there's no room to maneuver. Since number three can't get out until number one and two have left, the evening rush hour is chaos if the lead cars don't exit the garage on time. Inevitably a lot of impatient people have to stand around waiting their turn.

The attendants had never seen a Secretary wandering around the garage before; they though I was lost. (That may be true by then, but I'd never admit it.) They asked if I needed help getting back "home".

"No", I answered. "I just want to look around and chat with you."

They were surprised, but pleased. I asked about the job, where they were from, were there problems with carbon monoxide, and similar small talk. They assured me everything was fine, and we all relaxed and chatted away.

After a while I asked a question that puzzled me: "When the cars come in every morning, how do you decide who ends up first to get out and who ends up second and third?"

They gave each other knowing looks and little smiles. "Mr. Secretary", one of them said, "it kinda goes like this. When you drive in, if you lower the window, look out, smile and you know our name, or you say 'Good morning, how are you?' or something like that you are number one to get out. But if you look just straight ahead and don't show you even see us or that we are doing something for you, well, you are likely to be one of the last to get out."

I thanked them, smiled, and made my way back to where I had abandoned my now distraught bodyguard. 

At my next staff meeting, I shared this story with my senior leaders. "You can never err by treating everyone in the building with respect, thoughtfulness and a kind word," I told them. "Every one of our employees is an essential employee. Every one of them wants to be viewed that way. And if you treat them that way, they will view you that way. They will not let you down or let you fail. They will accomplish whatever you have put in front of them."

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Best of Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron was one filmmaker whose storytelling was irresistibly whimsical. It influenced me deeply when I was a kid. She, I think, re-defined the concept of rom-coms (romantic comedies). It made you tear up. It made you love life. It made you bundle those moments of joy and curl up with them. It made every thing sound and look beautiful. Even heartache was presented in wit and humor. I was so besotted by her master storytelling that I would read up her movie screenplays - something I have never done of any other filmmaker's, till date. And to date, I reread some of her non-fiction pieces in The New Yorker - her writing is an eclectic blend of humor, old-fashioned charm, optimism and spirit. 


The last movie I saw of hers - Julie & Julia - reminded me of how fond I was of food and cooking, no matter how amateur a cook I am. She took the otherwise mundane scenes and turned them around into remarkable memories. Who would have thought that the scene in When Harry met Sally where Sally drops off Harry at the Washington Square Park arch would be so iconic?

Those are the magic moments of storytelling & cinema - when you look at a scene and it sticks and you wish you lived it!

RIP Nora Ephron.

Here are some of the best articles I have read on Nora Ephron -

(Recommended) All the wonderful pieces Nora wrote for The New Yorker

(Recommended) One of the best comedy scenes in a Nora Ephron movie - The Heartburn - starts at about 0:57 via @MindyKaling

Mindy Kaling walks through her favorite movie - You've Got Mail

(Recommended) Nora Ephron on women, love, happiness, reading, life and death via @brainpicker

And if you are already not overdosed yet, all the #longreads on Nora Ephron :)

And my favorite line of hers:

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

Sunday, June 17, 2012

I am pissed off for greatness

"If you aren't pissed off for greatness, that means you are okay with being mediocre" - Ray Lewis to Stanford basketball men's team.

Ever wondered what makes Stanford, Stanford? What do they do differently that we don't? How do they thrive in competition and perform under pressure? What happens behind the scenes of the seemingly effortless ladder to perfection, expertise and fame? 

This video gave me the chills (with Ray Lewis's motivational speech in the background).  Stanford or not, this goes to anyone who wants to carve a name of their own and leave behind a legacy. Each of us have an incredibly innate potential to peak in our lives.

All it takes is your honest answer to one simple question - How far will you go to make that happen?

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Crisis of Attention

We are a culture of distraction says Joe Kraus in this nicely put together, thoughtful presentation (btw I will take a bow if you can watch the entire video without getting distracted:)

Some subtle points that stand out:

- Attention is like a muscle. And training this muscle needs discipline, just like any other sport.

- Multitasking is the only "skill" in the world that gets worse with practice. Multitasking is nothing but practicing the art of getting distracted.

- Our minds constantly seek stimulation. Because we love the feeling of random payout (you don't know what's out there so you keep checking on stuff, often) - checking tweets, facebook timeline, email inbox, phone messages etc. have the idea of "random payout" baked in. This is similar to the feeling of paying at a slot machine in casinos.

- We fill our "gap time" (time that we get away from work or stuff that needs attention) with distractions. Gap time is important to make those subconscious connections (Remember, connecting the dots?). Such connections give rise to epiphanies. We lose that ability by missing out on these times of solitude -  which is also incidentally the heart of creativity.

- Practicing mindfulness (for eg: listening to your breath while meditating) clears your head and assists you in longform thinking - the ability to think and pay attention for long periods of time.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When in doubt, trust a computer algorithm (aka The Myth of Intuition)

Call it karmic interference. I have been reading this book and a myriad of articles in the last few days that gave examples on debunking the myth of intuition. Yes, intuition is not universally applicable.

Consider this example I read in today's New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer on why smart people are stupid:

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake

Your immediate response is 24 days. Now if you were like me, you would think that was too quick an answer. Then slowly Geometric Series strikes you. And if you were still like me, you would think that writing a formal equation to solve this is simply too complex. There must be an easier way of reasoning this out. 

So you just take a smaller example. Say it takes 2 days to cover the lake, what would your answer be then? 1 day. Similarly for 48 days, it must just be the day before. So the answer is actually 47 days.

Whew. That took some thinking. But wonder why your brain seeks out a shorter route each time?

Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking fast and slow discusses such an innate weakness of the human brain that is wrongly dubbed as "intuition". Slow deliberating thinking is hard work whereas quick impulsive thinking is lazy. In fact, there is sufficient evidence that procedural way of thinking can be superior to human reasoning when it comes to predictions. And so in his book, he says: When in doubt it is better to trust a computer algorithm. Atleast they can't perform worser than intuitive judgements made by humans in such cases.

Also makes me wonder aloud about the power of Geometric Series in general. An amusing story I came across in this book on micro lending is just the perfect example to demonstrate the power of Geometric Series and our lack of misgivings while making a judgement in such cases:

The story goes like this: a prisoner who was condemned to death was brought before the king and was asked to make a last wish. The prisoner pointed to the chessboard which was to the right of the king’s throne, and he said, ‘I wish only for a single grain of rice on one square of the chess-board, and that you double it for each succeeding square.

‘Granted,’ said the king, not realizing the power of geometrical progression. For soon the prisoner had the entire kingdom. 

So if you really get down to solving the geometric series the prisoner gains 2^64 -1 which is 1.8 x 10^19 grains. And this is (to give you a scale of comparison) more than the total number of grains of sand on Earth! (which is 7.5 x 10^18)

That brings me to the lily pads example above as well. After 48 days, you have about 2^48 lily pads (even if each pad is about 10 cm in diameter, so about 75 sq. cm in area) that covers about 75 * 2 ^ 48 sq cm area which is about 2 million sq. km.  That is one big ass lake! (largest lake is about 371 sq km only, the Caspian Sea)

Moral of the story: Obvious is too obvious. Think stupid to break out of the bias :-)

Monday, June 04, 2012

Blast from the Past : How to stop regretting about your past

Firstly, it has been a restless day and I didn't expect that of all the things I have in my head to write about, I pick a self-help topic as this one. Consider this as my way to vent. It also surprises me how I write more often these days when I am in extreme stress as opposed to maybe happier days I have had. This is probably my creative outlet then, ha?

Getting back to the topic, so what triggered this post was a really surprising and unexpected move from me. Last week I was casually chatting with an old friend (whom I haven't been in touch with) and during the conversation I shocked him by revealing something about my past. This was not deliberate. There came a point in the conversation when my body almost repulsed and shouted back - "Stop lying". So I just bluntly stunned him with the truth. 

And tonight I thought over and over again. What really happened? Why did I react that way? Was it silly and stupid for me to do that? Was that a meltdown? Or was that normal? Where did all that tough facade I put up go? 

And then it struck me. All this stuff is because I hold onto too much of my past. Again today, a good friend of mine told me that he is terrified of how much I regret sometimes about my past. I told him - "It isn't easy you know. I have been through tough stuff". Thinking back about it - who hasn't?

So I jot down few mental notes on what it takes to stop regretting and I hope to follow these and bring about a change in my perspective.

1. Stop lying - this doesn't mean you go around the town sharing your deepest secrets. It just means when something about your past comes up, it is always best to be honest. And I really mean - always. People generally don't give a shit about who you were before - because honestly, that shit's old, ok?

2. Embrace your past - easier said that done. You know how when people tell you "Everything happens for a reason" and you nod to it but you are secretly annoyed with that statement? That's right. That happens all the time. The best way to embrace your past is to ask yourself - "Would you have been as awesome as you are today, if not for those things in the past?"

3. Live in the moment - because two things matter the most in life - time and love. Nothing else matters really. And when you don't live in the moment you are either hurting the people you love or wasting your time. None of which can be corrected.

4. Live your own life, not others' - you know how a certain precedent set by your parents gives you an excuse that you didn't do much in your life because they told you so? That's an excuse. If you were up for it, you would have fought for what you wanted. When there is no fight, there no thrill in achieving what you want. Stop blaming and shifting the regret on others. Your life is your own, live it.

5. You have been through shit  - so ask yourself today "What more shit can happen?". You will be surprised how that works like a swiss army knife in every situation. Developing a positive attitude starts with that statement. Most of it is because of circumstances that are beyond your control. Learn to accept it and make peace with it.

6. Practice gratitude - only genuine gratitude. You will be surprised by how positive your nerves feel after a genuine act of kindness or gratitude. Give that seat to some elderly person, smile and greet people at your workplace, appreciate your mom's cooking, help your dad out in fixing something at home, write an email or a letter to someone you love, make a call to your best friend, offer to help your colleague at work, surprise your loved ones. It goes a long way. Now wonder where is the time to regret :)

7. Find a creative outlet - to vent/share/express your feelings.  This can be talking to your loved and trusted ones. Or taking up a piece of art. Or signing up to learn something new. Be on a mission to find that single something that will bring piece to your wretched mind.  Keep looking. Don't settle.

8. Stop wallowing in self-pity - do you identify with the moment when you looked at someone's perfectly happy and seemingly smooth life in pictures on Facebook? Now did you wish that were you? Let me break the bad news to you - their life cannot be yours. Stop comparing yourself with others. Your life is what you make of it. Don't waste on being like others when you can be you. Your experiences with life build your unique personality. Who needs perfect? That's boring.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Quit Early, Quit Often

Who you are and what you do - should not be two different things. The choices you make in life keep these two things in harmony. This is the premise behind one of the sensible, honest graduation speeches I have heard (below) by a Harvard Business School professor. 

He makes an acute observation in this speech - we are unhappy less due to circumstances and more due to the choices we make. One of such choices he speaks about (among other things) is Learning to Quit


Because to take the right decision it is important to ask yourself everyday - "Am I excited about doing this?" And if the answer is no, you need to quit.

The speaker emphasizes - Be a good quitter

Because in the long run, it is time and not money that you will fall short of. So quit and save yourself some time to work on something that you really care about. 

You need to make a choice now - do you have the courage to quit or do you live in the futile hope that things will improve on their own?