The Importance of Training in an Organization

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Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. Consider for a moment the possibility of your putting on a series of four lectures for members of your department. Let’s count on three hours of preparation for each hour of course time–twelve hours of work in total. Say that you have ten students in your class. Next year they will work a total of about twenty thousand hours for your organization. If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in your subordinates’ performance, your company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as the result of the expenditure of your twelve hours.

This assumes, of course, that the training accurately address what students need to know to do their jobs better. This isn’t always so–particularly with respect to the “canned courses” taught by someone from outside. For training to be effective, it has to be closely tied to how things are actually done in your organization.

– Andy S. Grove, High Output Management

Things have been going more smoothly at Barrel than I can ever remember. Sure, we have our occasional fire drills and challenges with clients, employees, and contractors, but overall, there’s a degree of stability, accountability, and consistency that feels… great. The more I think about why we’re enjoying such a period, the more I believe that training has a lot to do with it.

At Barrel, training happens in a number of ways. Each discipline has a lead who owns training for that group and dedicates time each week to ensuring that learning happens. Sei-Wook, Lucas, and Wes have done an amazing job in making sure our Project Management, Design, and Development teams, respectively, are constantly learning new things, reflecting on mistakes/difficulties and turning them into lessons, and building processes to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

In my case, I oversee our Growth Marketing team. We meet for 90 minutes every Thursday. I typically use that time to introduce new topics in areas such as email marketing, analytics, site optimization, or paid media. Many of these sessions include a great deal of drawing on the whiteboard and use of real client data to illustrate examples. Some sessions are devoted to collaborative problem-solving, where we tackle an especially challenging task together as a group while I also play the role of instructor who asks questions and nudges the students to making the right decisions on their own. I’ve seen over time the impact that training has had on our Growth Marketing team: they’ve grown more comfortable and confident in talking about various topics related to our discipline; they’ve become technically more proficient and adept at getting tasks done; and they’ve started to ask better questions that lead to better outcomes. Outside of my discipline, I’ve seen similar impact across the entire company as we’ve kept up our training.

My only regret is that I haven’t been as consistent in devoting my time to planning and giving full attention to these training sessions. There have been periods of intense training and then, in busy times, some lazier last-second planning that haven’t been as fruitful. This is why I thought it would be good to excerpt Andy Grove’s thoughts on training above. It is indeed one of the highest-leverage activities I can engage in, and something I need to be reminded of every now and then.

Other ways that training happens at Barrel include:

  • Peer-to-peer training, where co-workers within a discipline or across different disciplines, help each other learn new skills and processes. As managers, we try to encourage as many opportunities for this to happen as possible, often involving different team members in new employee onboarding or having team members present learning topics to each other.
  • External experts, where we bring in someone from outside the company to share their knowledge and to help us better understand topics that are less familiar to us. These engagements require investment and can get pricey, but for the right topics that are directly relevant to our client work, they can be very helpful. In certain cases, the expert may actually just confirm what we already know and have figured out on our own–instead, they help us validate and feel more confident about our abilities.

I think what’s been different recently than in the past is that training as an activity feels a lot more concerted and constant. Sei-Wook and I reflected on how we’ve come around to investing more of our time in the training of our team, whereas in the past, we may have hoped to hire for certain skills and assumed that merely bringing in someone would solve our issues. When I look back on a post written 3 years ago, I can see that I didn’t quite grasp the importance of training, just mentioning it once in passing. To truly build capacity within an organization, I believe what’s required is a commitment to training and real time and resources spent by the management team to foster a culture of continuous learning and growth. It’s not something that we do when client work is slow and people have time on their hands. Instead, it’s a built-in habit that gets reinforced during the weekly discipline team meetings, check-ins with various account teams, and in one-on-one discussions with team members. Any and all problems that come up having to do with execution, project management, and clients’ expectations have clear channels that flow into action. Our weekly meeting among the Partners serves as a very effective forum where we surface client and employee issues and quickly generate To Do’s that make their way into training sessions and new documentation for our processes. Seeing how we operate, our employees have become a lot more comfortable bringing up their observations and requesting that we address issues that they feel are problematic or could use improvement. Every week, there’s potential for everyone on the team to further their training and to become more effective at what they do. To see this in action has been very rewarding. Of course, the work continues and this week is yet another opportunity.

Level, Listen, and Leave Yourself Out

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“Preparing and delivering a performance assessment is one of the hardest tasks you’ll have to perform as a manager.” – Andy S. Grove, High Output Management

I’ve been re-reading sections of High Output Management by Andy Grove of Intel fame (he was president and then CEO at Intel during its years of incredible growth; Grove passed away in March 2016). There are a lot of valuable nuggets throughout the book. I wanted to highlight a section from his chapter “Performance Appraisal: Manager as Judge and Jury” because I thought it would serve as a great reminder for myself whenever I have to engage in performance reviews of employees at work. Grove introduces what he calls the “three L’s” to keep in mind when delivering performance reviews:

  • Level: be honest and straightforward in giving both praise and criticism to the employee
  • Listen: employ all your senses to make sure that the employee has fully understood what you are trying to communicate; in addition to using words, be sure to watch how the employee receives and reacts to the messages, and keep at it until you’re sure the employee is on the same page
  • Leave yourself out: giving performance reviews is tough and can bring out emotions in not only the employee but you as the reviewer; control your emotions and focus on the fact that the review is all about the employee and his/her performance

The section is called “Deliver the Assessment” and here’s basically the full text:

There are three L’s to keep in mind when delivering a review: Level, listen, and leave yourself out.

You must level with your subordinate–the credibility and integrity of the entire system depend on your being totally frank. And don’t be surprised to find that praising someone in a straightforward fashion can be just as hard as criticizing him without embarrassment.

The word “listen” has special meaning here. The aim of communication is to transmit thoughts from the brain of person A to the brain of person B. Thoughts in the head of A are first converted into words, which are enunciated and via sound waves reach the ear of B; as nerve impulses they travel to his brain, where they are transformed back into thoughts and presumably kept. Should person A use a tape recorder to confirm the words used in the review? The answer is an emphatic no. Words themselves are nothing but a means; getting the right thought communicated is the end. Perhaps B has become so emotional that he can’t understand something that would be perfectly clear to anyone else. Perhaps B has become so preoccupied trying to formulate answers he can’t really listen and get A’s message. Perhaps B has tuned out and as a defense is thinking of going fishing. All of these possibilities can and do occur, and all the more so when A’s message is laden with conflict.

How then can you be sure you are being truly heard? What techniques can you employ? Is it enough to have your subordinate paraphrase your words? I don’t think so. What you must do is employ all of your sensory capabilities. To make sure you’re being heard, you should watch the person you are talking to. Remember, the more complex the issue, the more prone communication is to being lost. Does your subordinate give appropriate responses to what you are saying? Does he allow himself to receive your message? If his responses–verbal and nonverbal–do not completely assure you that what you’ve said has gotten through, it is your responsibility to keep at it until you are satisfied that you have been heard and understood.

This is what I mean by listening: employing your entire arsenal of sensory capabilities to make certain your points are being properly interpreted by your subordinate’s brain. All the intelligence and good faith used to prepare your review will produce nothing unless this occurs. Your tool, to say it again, is total listening.

Every good classroom teacher works in the same way. He knows when what he is saying is being understood by his students. If it isn’t, he takes heed and explains things or explains things in a different way. All of us have had professors who lectured by looking at the blackboard, mumbling to it, and carefully avoiding direct eye contact with the class. The reason: knowing that their presentation was murky and incomprehensible, these teachers looked away from their audience to avoid confirming visually what they already knew. So don’t imitate your worst professors while delivering performance reviews. Listen with all your might to make sure your subordinate is receiving your message, and don’t stop delivering it until you are satisfied that he is.

The third L is “leave yourself out.” It is very important for you to understand that the performance review is about and for your subordinate. So your own insecurities, anxieties, guilt, or whatever should be kept out of it. At issue are the subordinate’s problems, not the supervisor’s, and it is the subordinate’s day in court. Anyone called upon to assess the performance of another person is likely to have strong emotions before and during the review, just as actors have stage fright. You should work to control these emotions so that they don’t affect your task, though they will well up no matter how many reviews you’ve given.

I’ve given over 100 performance reviews during my years at Barrel. We’ve made many tweaks to the format over the years, and yet, I know there’s still room for improvement. Looking back, the best reviews are those that have had proper preparation, solid documentation, and a session in which I was able to follow through on the 3 L’s–I gave frank, straightforward praises and critiques; the “listening” was evident in a productive communication flow; and I was able to avoid making any of part of the discussion about myself, keeping the focus totally on the employee. The challenge for myself and our organization is to raise the quality and consistency of our reviews so that even during very busy times, we are able to provide our team members with helpful and productive performance assessments that not only look back on their past work but help them chart the course for substantial improvements in the following weeks and months.

How (and Why) I Built an E-commerce Store in Under 8 Hours

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AgencyDocs is a collection of documents and templates based on our work at Barrel. It’s an e-commerce store where other agency owners or managers can buy things like our employee onboarding checklist, our project brief template, or our functional spec document.

Back in 2013, I wrote how I would gladly have paid for access to another agency’s documents to see how they did things. Over the years, we’ve seen bits and pieces of various documents through our association with various agency groups and with employees who worked at other companies before coming to ours. But I still felt that a website with a well-organized cache of docs could be a good resource, especially for new, up-and-coming firms who perhaps did not have many processes figured out.

I’ve launched various internal projects at Barrel over the years that were exciting, fun, and ultimately very painful. These projects included: a WordPress theme for viral marketing (over 40,000 downloads); a project-tracking software-as-a-service (SaaS) tool (over 10,000 users); three Shopify themes (installed on over 2,000 e-commerce stores); and a performance management tool for 360-style reviews on projects (never publicly released). While I am proud that these projects served various customers well and were of good quality, I regret the haphazard planning (100% my fault) that put our internal resources in a crunch and also left many of these products half-baked in the long-run due to neglect. It was only earlier this year that we shut down the last of these projects after a prolonged and annoying wind-down process.

With AgencyDocs, I vowed to learn from my lesson. I wanted to launch something that followed these rules:

  1. The project must directly benefit our core business, which is serving our clients.
  2. The project should not require any design or web development resources and should be something that our leadership team can handle without assistance.

To the first point, AgencyDocs has made it necessary for us to examine our own processes and to take account of what’s working well and what isn’t. In order for us to generate documents that may ultimately be useful to many other agencies, we’ve had to streamline some to be more flexible and generic. This process has presented an opportunity for us to improve existing documents and to question decisions we made some time ago. In my book, this is a direct benefit to our core business.

Another reason why AgencyDocs benefits our core business is that it can serve as a sandbox for us to test out various e-commerce tools and digital marketing tactics. I think having our own live e-commerce website with real customers will give us a golden opportunity to experiment with some interesting ideas and fine-tune them before rolling them out to our clients.

To the second point, this is where I promised myself not to start on a project that might eventually become a time suck for the rest of the team. My initial impulse was to get a few hours from a designer to get some branding done and a developer to help with the site theme, but then I told myself that I should try to do it all on my own.

The Store is the Easy Part

We build most of our clients’ e-commerce website on Shopify. It’s a fast-growing platform that’s become more ubiquitous in recent years. I personally like how easy it is to use and appreciate the attention they’ve put into the admin experience.

To get AgencyDocs started, I fired up a dev store using our Barrel Shopify Partner portal. This is not so different from signing up for a 14-day free trial off the Shopify site. I then went in and browsed for an appropriate theme to use. I actually liked the default Debut theme that was already installed, so I left things the way they were.

Shopify Theme customizer

Customizing the theme in Shopify was as easy as filling out a few fields.

Next, I went through the online store settings and quickly filled out and updated everything. These are some of the key things I did in about an hour’s worth of time:

  • Customized homepage settings (Online Store >> Themes >> Customize) by changing logo, font, text/link colors, the sections on the page, the images, and the text
    • I created the logo in Adobe Illustrator. Took me about 5 minutes. I used Avenir Next Condensed and picked a shade of blue.
    • I found a stock image for the hero from Unsplash, a site where you can get free images to use on your projects.
    • I also pulled an image from our Barrel team photo collection.
    • I kept the copy brief and wrote what I thought would appeal to an agency owner.
  • Customized the website navigation (Online Store >> Navigation) by simplifying the footer nav and adding a few links to the main top menu
  • Filled out everything under Preferences (Online Store >> Preferences)
    • Title and meta description: I played around with variations of the tagline and came up with a short description that would show up on search engine results.
    • Google Analytics: I created a profile under our Barrel Analytics account and pasted the tracking ID here
    • Facebook Pixel: I created an Ad Account under Facebook Business Manager, generated a pixel, and pasted the ID here
  • Set up payment provider (Settings >> Payments)
    • Selected Shopify Payments, which runs on Stripe, as our payment provider (2.9% + 30¢ per transaction for the $29/month Shopify plan that we’re on; it’s less for higher plans)
  • Customize checkout page (Settings >> Checkout) to add the logo and adjust some colors and to make sure refund, privacy policy, and terms of service text are in place.

I then installed a couple of apps to the store: Digital Downloads, which lets you attach files to products that become available after customers pay and MailChimp for Shopify, which helps connect Shopify with MailChimp, a popular email marketing tool.

AgencyDocs MailChimp and Shopify

Once you connect your Shopify account with MailChimp, you’ll be able to customize a pop-up and various automated emails from the Connected Sites section.

Once MailChimp was in place, I spent an hour customizing various elements. These included:

  • A welcome email that gave customers a free “gift” document, a checklist to use before kicking off a project and before launching a website.
  • A pop-up form encouraging people to sign up for our email list.
  • An abandoned cart email that goes out when people add a product to cart but don’t check out.
  • A product retargeting email that suggests different products to people who visited the site and viewed products.

I didn’t change the design much other than uploading the logo. I spent most of my time tweaking some copy. By setting these automations up, I know that MailChimp will ping customers and guide them to take different actions without me doing anything.

With these fairly straightforward steps, the skeleton of the website was in place. All I would need to do is write some content for the FAQ, upload the product, and get a domain name registered. Of course, one of those things, the product, would be the most important part of this entire project.

The Product

AgencyDocs products

The documents, our core product for AgencyDocs, is the most time-consuming and most valuable part of the e-commerce website.

Before I started on the website, my goal was to get together about 10 or so docs before officially launching. Before that, I set a goal to get 4 docs in place before doing a soft launch where I would get the website live, show it to some friends, and get some feedback. The 4 docs I decided to put up were:

  • Ops Checklist: what we use to track various HR, finance, and office activities that need to happen each day, week, and month (also comes with a Supplies Inventory Checklist)
  • Client Intake Questionnaire: what we use at the start of new client engagements to learn about our clients, their industry, their customers, and their goals
  • Project Brief: the document we use to inform our internal team of a client, the project’s objectives, and various details about what we need to get done prior to kickoff
  • Employee Onboarding Checklist: what we use to ensure that new team members are properly set up and equipped to begin their role at Barrel
AgencyDocs Product Descriptions

I spent a good amount of time writing the product descriptions to help potential customers know how and when these docs were used at Barrel.

Each product required a thorough review of the doc to ensure that they were general enough to be of value to another agency. I edited places where I thought the description or text was too specific to something we did internally and also added some guiding text to provide context. I stripped each doc of our Barrel branding so that they would be generic files that could easily be copied and pasted into another agency’s branded template.

After making sure the doc was in a good place, I spent a good chunk of time writing the product description and creating a thumbnail showing a zoomed out view of the doc to show how many pages and text density the customer could expect. For each description, I tried to be very specific about how and when we used these docs and how they helped our team. I know that not every doc will be useful to every agency, but my hope is that certain descriptions will hit a chord with an agency owner going through a specific pain point that can be mitigated by referencing our doc.

I created the product entries in Shopify, loaded in the text and image, and uploaded the file using the Digital Downloads app. All in, the product part of the e-commerce website probably took up 80% of my time. So if you really break it down, the website component that displays content and takes people through a checkout process probably took no more than 90 minutes and the rest of the 8 hours was spent on product. This, of course, is further distorted by the fact that I’ve not created any products from scratch but merely repurposed existing assets. Our checklists, project brief, and questionnaires took shape through the investment of many hours over the course of many years. Some have been tested on dozens of projects, clients, and employees. We’ve tweaked, refined, and rebuilt these docs countless times. Luckily for me, that work was already done in advance so that I may just make mostly cosmetic adjustments. For many others pursuing an e-commerce business, getting the product right will take 99.5% of the time and just 0.5% to deploy on a website. That is probably a more prudent ratio.

Just Halfway There

Now that the website is live and I’ve gotten very close to getting 10 docs up, the halfway point is near. Now the work of marketing and reaching the right people will become my primary focus, and there’s a great deal to be done. I’ve been compiling a list of influencers and giving away copies of docs to various agency owners for free in the hopes of generating some buzz. I’ll be leveraging my membership in different agency groups to offer special deals to members. I’m also compiling a list of various freelancer and website design and development blogs that I can hit up for a mention or blog post about our offering. This is nuts and bolts marketing work, the stuff that requires patience and discipline. I’ll also have to queue up some retargeting ads to serve on Facebook.

I don’t know what to expect from this project. It may end up selling well or it may not sell much at all. Either way, I’m not too worried because it’s something that I’ve kept very contained in terms of time and money investment. Beyond the Shopify $29/month fee and $11.99 for annual domain renewal, there are no other significant costs. I’ve asked my partners to pitch in a few hours here and there to clean up some existing docs that we can use as products. Other than this, it’s mostly an hour or so a day that I’ll be spending to see if this sticks. I’m in no rush and I’m happy to keep this up for a year or longer. If I come across young, up-and-coming creative entrepreneurs starting their own agencies, I’ll tell them to check the site out and maybe give them a discount code or just shoot all the docs to them for free. What I’m most excited for is to keep on growing the library of documents as we continue to streamline processes internally and have good things to share with others. And as a secondary benefit, I hope to try some innovative and interesting experiments with marketing to see how potential customers react and if anything sticks.

It always satisfying to engage in deep activity that brings an idea to life. With AgencyDocs, an idea that’s been percolating for some years now, I’m looking forward to nurturing its growth.


My Personal Finance Stack

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I’ve been revisiting the way I handle my personal finances in recent months and thought it would be good to list out my “personal finance stack” – the different accounts, tools, and workflows I have in place to handle my finances.

Back in March 2015, I wrote about how I had missed golden opportunities in my twenties to invest earlier (see blog post). It was only when I turned thirty that I seriously considered putting my money to work through various purchases of stocks and index funds. In the 2.5 years since I wrote that post, I’ve continued to put aside the majority of my income into various investments, but the allocation of these funds have changed somewhat.

First, I took all my money out of Betterment, an investing service that promises to manage money in a smart way for very low fees. I did not like the idea of constant tinkering and rebalancing that Betterment did on a weekly basis. I came to feel, whether rightly or wrong we’ll see in time, that placing big bets on a handful of companies that I felt strongly about would be the way to go. In my mind, I thought about what Warren Buffett has said a 20-slot punch card when investing: imagine that with each stock purchase, you punch a hole in the card, and after 20 punches, you can never buy again–how would that change the approach to the way you pick your stocks?

Without going into exact details, I bought a good chunk of shares of a tech company that I felt was still capable of long-term growth, not too different than what Microsoft was before the release of Windows 95. Later on, I would identify for myself another tech company that I felt very bullish about and allocated a good amount of my income to its stocks. My plan, and this is what Buffett was essentially preaching, is to believe in and hold on to these stocks for a very long time–maybe 10, 20, or even 30 years–and not worry about the choppy swings of the short-term.

Automatic Investments

In addition to my one-off purchases of stocks that I believe in for the long-term, I have a few automated investments in place. One of them is called Acorns. It looks at my credit card and bank transactions and looks for opportunities to “round up” and pulls those amounts into an investment account, where the money is used to buy various funds. So for example, my $4.25 purchase at a cafe would mean I have $0.75 in round up money. Once the total number of round-ups hit $5, there is a deposit from my bank account to Acorns. I’ve set transactions that end in $.00 to round up to a whole dollar. I’ve also set up the account to pull $5 from my bank account every single day. It’s been exactly 2 years since I opened an account, and I’ve put in an average of $160/month. I like Acorns because it’s got a fairly low fee structure ($1 per month for all accounts with a balance under $5,000 and .25% of the balance per year on accounts over $5,000) and it’s something I rarely even think about.

The other automatic investment I have in place is Motif Investing, which I recently started up again. It allows you to create a bundle of stocks–your “motif”–that you can then invest in as if it’s your own fund. I had some fun making my own motif consisting of companies that I think are make a lot of headway into AI and integrating AI into their businesses and felt comfortable enough to subscribe to Motif’s Blue program, which costs me $9.95 to automatic invest in my motif each month. This is nice because a single share of some of the companies in my motif are close to the $1,000 range, so Motif allows me to own partial shares while charging me a flat $9.95 fee to get exposure to 8 different companies (whereas buying shares individually would cost me $6.95 per transaction in my brokerage account).

In recent months, I’ve also started making small bets into cryptocurrencies. I have a Coinbase account where I’ve set up two automatic investments–a weekly investment into Bitcoin and a biweekly investment into Ethereum. I understand that things are pretty speculative right now, but I’m not expecting to make a quick buck. I do think, from what I understand, that cryptocurrencies can be a disruptive force in the coming years, so I don’t think it’s the worst use of my money to have a little stake in the upside.

Real Estate

Since 2015, I’ve dipped my toes in some real estate. With a group of friends, we purchased a couple properties in West Philadelphia that have become very good rental income generators. Melanie and I also purchased a co-op in Sunset Park recently where my Mom resides. That means a big chunk of our monthly income will go towards a mortgage, but we’re very bullish on the neighborhood and it’s great to have my Mom nearby. With rising interest rates and the general hassle of buying properties, I don’t know if I’ll be doing many real estate deals in the coming years, but I learned a great deal by going through the property buying process.


I don’t spend much time looking at my personal finances. I’ll occasionally look at stock prices as I might look up sports scores of my favorite teams, but I don’t fret if the market is down or get too excited if the prices jump. I do like looking at the overall picture every 10-12 months to see how things have grown. I’ve linked up all my accounts to Mint and Openfolio to get a high-level view of my net worth (at least where my stock investments are concerned). I haven’t spent any time trying to get real estate values into the mix yet. In writing this post, I was pleasantly surprised that since 2015, my net worth has increased by nearly 60% not counting any real estate holdings. This despite the fact that my earnings have stayed generally flat during that time.

I love the idea of steady, sustained growth in personal wealth. Sure, we might hit lucky breaks or land a big score that can make a huge difference, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be slowly rolling our snowball while we pursue our big payday. The nice thing is that if the big payday never comes, you can still be perfectly happy and comfortable with what you have.

Tools/Services in My Stack

Here are the tools/services mentioned above as well as others I use regularly:

  • Capital One Investing: What I use to buy most of my stocks.
  • Fidelity: I use this for my IRA retirement accounts.
  • Robinhood: Used for speculative stock purchases and also a way to put affiliate income from Buys with Friends to use. We’ve invested in some real estate stocks that pay nice 8-12% dividends each year.
  • Acorns: Automatic micro-investments using round-ups on credit card and bank account transactions.
  • Motif Investing: Ability to create your own fund and invest across various stocks for a flat fee.
  • Coinbase: Service I use to buy Bitcoin and Ethereum.
  • Mint: Popular tool that pulls in data from various accounts and shows trends and reports.
  • Openfolio: Mobile app that shows investment performance across various accounts and also provides performance benchmarks vs. other types of investors.

Tower Defense and Business Management

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Tower defense (TD) is a subgenre of strategy video game where the goal is to defend a player’s territories or possessions by obstructing the enemy attackers, usually achieved by placing defensive structures on or along their path of attack. – Wikipedia

I wanted to put my mind on auto-pilot for a few hours this weekend, so I downloaded a tower defense game on my iPhone. It’s called Pirate Legends and it reminds me very much of the Kingdom Rush tower defense series that I used to play quite a bit a few years ago. The graphics are cartoonish and the screen quickly fills up with dozens of enemy attackers swimming or sailing through the channels of water trying to attack my ship. It took me a few tries before my eyes and mind calibrated to the dizzying movements of the screen and I started to get in the groove of launching turtle-shell cannons and positioning the ship to blast multiple cannonballs at incoming enemy waves.


As I progressed through the different levels, it struck me that the core of TD strategy was not too different than running a business, namely the important task of putting the right people in the right seats (see “The People Component” chapter in Gino Wickman’s Traction for a good explanation of this concept). In a TD game, there are limited spots where you can place different types of “towers”. In the case of Pirate Legends, there are four types of towers: a cannon-based tower, a gun/spear-based tower, a magic tower, and a toxic-sludge tower that slows enemies down. As you play, you can pay to upgrade (think “promote”) these towers to ones that have greater powers and capabilities. The key to winning a level in a TD game is to have the right combination of towers that can most efficiently kill off the enemy.

How do you know how to have the right combination of towers? You have to have a good understanding of the enemy. While it’s an unfortunate word choice for the analogy I’m making, the “enemy” is the customer and the problems/challenges the customer brings to the business. In a TD game, there are many types of enemies. Some can fly, some can disappear underwater, some are immune to magic, and some can even disable your towers momentarily. Understanding the enemy’s characteristics will help inform the decisions you make in the types of towers you build. As I played Pirate Legends, I typically played each level the first time as a scout to see the composition of each enemy wave. Once I understood which enemy types would come in which order, I could devise a winning strategy and reconfigure my towers for a better chance to win.

In between levels, you can choose which skills you want to increase.

In between levels, you can choose which skills you want to increase.

The analogy extends beyond in-level gameplay. After you complete each level, you are awarded certain amounts of gold (or in the case of Pirate Legends, some golden anchors and toes) to build up your skillset or to add weapons to your arsenal. There are parallels to this in business: do you reinvest your profits in expanding operations, in providing additional training for employees, in enhancing marketing and sales, or taking it out of the business? In a TD game, the choices are much simpler and straightforward than in business, but the types of skills you invest in and the timing of that investment could impact your performance with new enemies in the next level.

The last aspect of TD that I’ll compare to business is the second-to-second management of the towers and their development path. When you start a new level, you have a limited amount of gold to build your towers. This means that a big chunk of the building will happen as enemies continue to come in waves. There are moments when the waves start to overwhelm the towers and get increasingly close to breaching your tower (and subsequently taking your lives). The key is to keep your cool and methodically build and upgrade the right towers at the right time while also deploying one-off attacks that supplement the towers. In the case of Pirate Legends, this includes a “hero” character who flies his plane and shoots at the enemy as well as a turtle shell that can shoot cannons for a few seconds before disappearing. When it comes to business, this is not too different from the manager doing his or her best to hire and promote the right people and also jumping into the action to help troubleshoot when necessary. Most of the time, it’ll be hectic with customers (or orders/projects/assignments/tasks) continuing to come in waves. The key is to keep your cool, trust your process, and continue to grind it out. In TD, when that final wave comes and you’re able to destroy everything with your fully upgraded towers, it’s a very satisfying feeling. Likewise, when you’ve built up a competent and well-trained team that can handle the toughest of customer demands, it’s a winning feeling.

Winning in business feels many times better than winning a level in a TD game, but TD is fairly easy and a lot less stressful.

Winning in business feels many times better than winning a level in a TD game, but TD is fairly easy and a lot less stressful.

To summarize, business lessons found in TD are:

  • Put the right people in the right seats (which means understanding the strengths and weaknesses as well as the right combination of people)
  • Understand your customers and their problems (the many types and nuances, and which of your people will be best equipped to handle them)
  • Be thoughtful in the way you reinvest in the business
  • Keep your cool, trust the process, and grind it out (the day-to-day requires rigor and discipline)

Of course, TD is just a video game. Business, as much as I love to bring analogies into talking about it, is not a game. It’s a serious activity that involves people’s lives, real money, and lots of time. It’s also not something you can totally figure out and master like a video game. No matter how good you may be at it today, there’s always a chance that something unexpected will trip you up tomorrow.

Thoughts on “Exactly What to Say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact” by Phil M. Jones

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Exactly What to Say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact by Phil M Jones is a very quick read. As in, you can probably finish it in under 1 hour if not less than 40 minutes. But its value was in making me think about the words I use in my day-to-day conversations and what kinds of adjustments I can make to shape conversations in favorable ways.

I’m not going to give a detailed summary of the book, but I’ll quote a few things and mostly dive into the actual “Magic Words” that Jones presents and how I find some of them useful in my daily conversations.

Magic Words

Magic Words are sets of words that talk straight to the subconscious brain. The subconscious brain is a powerful tool in decision-making because it is preprogrammed through our conditioning to make decisions without overanalyzing them. It works a little like a computer—it has only “yes” and “no” outputs and can never land on a “maybe.” It is strong and decisive and moves quickly. Using words that talk straight to the part of the brain that is free from maybes and responds on reflex gives you a fair advantage in conversation and can result in you getting your own way more often.

Jones begins the book by sharing his observation that successful people have one thing in common: “they know exactly what to say, how to say it, and how to make it count.” Magic Words are his cataloged collection of the words and phrases that successful people use to influence others in conversations.

Here’s the list of the Magic Words. I recommend picking up the book to get more context and more examples (it’s so short that pasting any more would essentially be copying over the whole book):

  • I’m not sure if it’s for you but…
  • Open-minded (e.g. “Would you be open-minded about giving this a chance?”)
  • What do you know?
  • How would you feel if…
  • Just imagine…
  • When would be a good time?
  • I’m guessing you haven’t got around to…
  • Simple swaps (e.g. turning “Do you have any questions?” into “What questions do you have for me?”)
  • You have three options…
  • There are two types of people in this world…
  • I bet you’re a bit like me…
  • If you… then… (e.g. “If you decide to give this a try, then I promise you won’t be disappointed.”)
  • Don’t worry…
  • Most people… (e.g. “Most people in your situation would probably select the middle option.”)
  • The good news… (e.g. “The good news is that we’ve got a robust training program and 24/7 customer support, so we’ll make sure you’re getting the most out of your product from day 1.”)
  • What happens next…
  • What makes you say that?
  • Before you make up your mind…
  • If I can… will you? (e.g. “If I can come down 10% on the price, can you complete the purchase today?”)
  • Enough (e.g. turning “Would you like 1 or 3 bottles?” into “Would 3 bottles be enough for you?”)
  • Just one more thing…
  • Could you do me a small favor?
  • Just out of curiosity…

My Most Frequently Used Magic Words

“Most people…”

I’ll typically use this with clients when guiding them through a decision, whether it’s picking the right content management system platform or the right email marketing software or the amount to spend on a certain paid media campaign. I might say something like “In this type of situation, our other clients do this and that…” or “Our other clients do this…”. If I don’t have specific client examples but can pull from my knowledge of the market, I might say “Most businesses…” or “Other businesses in your space…” and that tends to have the same impact.

“Just out of curiosity…”

Whenever there’s a rejection or some kind of deferred decision from a prospect or a client, I try to ask for the reason. “Just out of curiosity, what made you go with the other firm?” Most of the time, the client will offer useful feedback that I learn from.

“Don’t worry…”

I probably overuse this sometimes, especially when I’m too confident about an outcome. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure a way to get it done even though our team is pretty booked up for the next 2 weeks.” I don’t find these words to be too magical, but rather something to be cautious of, especially when I’m using it myself.

“What happens next…”

I use a variation of this when talking to prospective clients or at the end of a client meeting. It’s something along the lines of “So for next steps…” or “For our next steps…” and then I’ll proceed to paint the picture of what will follow from our end and what we need from our clients to get things moving.

Magic Word I Want to Use More

Could you do me a small favor?

I’ve found that people who know how to ask of others usually end up getting more. And it doesn’t have to be in a slimy and inconsiderate way, but just having the courage to ask for help can be beneficial in many ways. I’ve seen this work out nicely for me in the few instances I’ve used it. I hope it’s something I can use strategically more often.

Just one more thing…

The author talks about how TV detective Columbo would be so good at using this to quiz his suspects at the very last moment. I think it’s a powerful way to save a conversation that may be sputtering or to make a lasting impression. I’ll have to think a bit more on specific use cases, but I’d like to experiment with this one.


I like this one because it requires a degree of confidence and of knowing what’s right for my clients. Rather than giving my clients too many options, I think framing it as “X hours should be enough” or “4 weeks of development should be enough” would make the decision-making process easier for them. There are so many applications of this, so I’m interested to see how I can use it in different situations.

Personal Accountability and the Pursuit of a Boring Culture

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In QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life, author John Miller offers a simple framework for handling ourselves day-to-day, both at work and in our personal lives.

The Question Behind the Question is built on the observation that our first reactions are often negative, bringing to mind Incorrect Questions (IQs). But if in each moment of decision we can instead discipline ourselves to look behind those initial Incorrect Questions and ask ourselves better ones (QBQs), the questions themselves will lead us to better results

The QBQ framework follows these three rules:

1. Begin with “What” or “How” (not “Why,” “When,” or “Who”).
2. Contain an “I” (not “they,” “we,” or “you”).
3. Focus on action.

This is a quick, skinny book that shouldn’t take more than an hour to get through. I think its strength is in its easy-to-remember format. Incorrect Questions (IQs) are bad. QBQs are what we need to ask.

While reading, I found myself thinking about all the IQs that I’ve said myself or heard from various people over the years. Things like:

  • Who screwed up on that assignment?
  • When will we finally hire someone who can do this right?
  • When will so-and-so ever learn how to do it correctly?
  • Why isn’t so-and-so coming up with the right solutions?
  • Why aren’t you setting us up for success?
  • Why is so-and-so so disorganized?
  • Why is the client so demanding?
  • Why don’t our projects have a big enough budget?
  • Why don’t we have enough time to finish our projects?
  • Why do I have to do all the thinking?
  • Why do I have to make all the hard decisions?

In the context of my work and being a manager, I came away with some thoughts for how QBQs can better guide my decisions:

Focus on myself and model the behavior I want to see.

Avoid IQs like the plague and handle all types of situations with a “what can I do” attitude. Teach through actions. By being consistent in my behavior day-in and day-out, I’m helping to establish cultural norms and expectations. It’s also worth noting that in the book, Miller is insistent that we can’t change other people. Years of managing employees has taught me that this is true. People change of their own accord, so rather than waste our energies trying to change someone else, it’s more productive to focus on ourselves.

Maintain a team that asks the right questions.

I feel fortunate to have a team at Barrel right now that subscribes to a high degree of personal responsibility and defaults to the QBQ framework. However, a series of wrong hires can undo the culture in a hurry. It’ll be of paramount importance to hire correctly and, if necessary, fire those who can’t get on board. The latter has to be done swiftly and without hesitation.

Remember that stress is a choice.

A disgruntled employee, an unhappy client, some kind of problem with finances or the office – all kinds of issues can pop up at anytime, but I always have a choice in how I deal with them. I can wallow in self-pity and blame external factors or I can just tell myself that things happen and ask what I can do to productively handle the situation.

The Pursuit of Boring

When I watch TV shows that depict the workplace, whether it’s a startup, a hedge fund, a law firm, a police station, or a warring tribe, it’s striking how often I’ll hear Incorrect Questions bandied about by the characters. Questions like “Who fucked up?” or “Why is this happening to us?” are commonplace. And it’s no wonder – these types of questions make for good drama. It introduces conflict and pits characters against each other. It’s what makes shows entertaining and interesting, the opposite of boring.

This is why I think boring is sexy, especially when it comes to the workplace. Boring means we’re focused on the work. Boring means we’ve got a process that we follow, repeat, and tweak without a fuss. Boring means we deliver for our clients. Boring means we hire good people, pay them well, and keep them productive. There’s no intrigue, there are no politics, and there’s nobody trying to undermine someone else. It’s just a team, showing up for work, putting in a strong effort, and going home.

Staying boring takes work, and I intend to continue my mission of keeping Barrel as boring as possible. I’ll end with a quote from Miller’s book which echoes a similar sentiment:

In seeking to practice personal accountability, we have to avoid the trap of thinking we’ve “arrived.” Personal accountability is not a destination. We don’t wake up one morning and suddenly find ourselves an “accountable person” forever more. Rather, it’s a daily, moment-to-moment practice of avoiding the Incorrect Questions and asking QBQs instead. I’m not a finished product. Are you?

The Fundamentals of Knowledge Workers

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Whenever I think about fundamentals, I’m reminded of an interview that basketball player Andrew Bogut had on the Bill Simmons podcast in which he talked about the Warriors and how they practiced:

I still remember the first training camp we had under coach Kerr. We were doing basic passing drills into the passing net, like left-handed passes, right-hand, overhead, and doing dribbling drills through cones, and a lot of guys were pissed because they were like, “Hey, we’re NBA guys, we don’t need to be doing this stuff.” But coach Kerr was like, “No, we’re going back to basics. You guys turn the ball over way too much. If we can limit our turnovers and just turn it over four or five times less per game, we’re going to win a championship.”

Guys were kind of like, “Ugh, we don’t want to do these petty little drills,” but after a couple of weeks I think guys understood what he was trying to relay onto us. And it was genius in a way, because it’s just instilling the little things, like making the right pass, getting to a jump-stop, hitting your teammate on the chest so that he can get a nice rhythm into his jumper, and it just worked out perfectly.

The takeaway here is that in order to better execute sophisticated plays and run a certain type of system, everyone on the team must have sound fundamentals and avoid making costly mistakes that get in the way of clean, effective execution.

I’ve been thinking about the “fundamentals” of the team at Barrel and if we’ve been giving enough attention to the things that enable us to effectively execute complex projects like platform builds and multi-channel marketing campaigns. In our line of work, it’s easy to get caught up with someone’s smooth in-meeting presence or their effortless use of technical jargon. Such feats of “performance” might be praiseworthy, but they may also mask gaps in the day-in-day-out stuff that makes projects run smoothly.

I’ve tried to come up with a more generalized set of basic skills that apply to all knowledge workers (a Peter Drucker-coined term to describe people whose main capital is knowledge). These are what essentially make up the “day-in-day-out stuff”:

  • Clear and timely communication: the ability, in speech and writing, to articulate questions, actions, and responses that convey information to team members and clients/customers without vagueness or confusion, and to do so consistently within the appropriate timeframe; also, sound communication fundamentals means checking for spelling and grammar errors and making sure vocabulary and technical terms are used correctly (the discipline to proofread).
  • Task and time management: the ability to keep track of assignments and manage one’s own calendar/schedule in order to meet deadlines and effectively plan work blocks throughout the day and week; if you said you were going to do it, you find a way to do it.
  • Resourcefulness: the ability to leverage different sources (e.g. team members, Google, past projects, etc.) and to synthesize findings in order to come up with viable solutions, especially in situations of uncertainty; the findings may not be the end-all-be-all solution, but it’s enough to make progress and to get useful feedback that’ll further move things along.

Imagine trying to “practice” these skills with a team of knowledge workers. I wonder how our team might feel about training sessions on writing good email communications, using a calendar effectively, or doing smart Google searches. Would they initially groan like the Warriors players did at the prospect of doing basic dribbling and passing drills? Would they then appreciate and embrace the training because it tightens their fundamentals and helps them be better at their jobs?

As basic as the “fundamentals” I’ve outlined may sound, I have a feeling that many business owners, if they were to evaluate their teams and rate their employees on each of these areas, may find gaps and deficiencies that are hampering the overall performance of the team.

To bring it back to basketball, think about the talented and athletic forward with the huge wingspan and killer hops who has shown great promise (flashy drives to the basket and very athletic moves in transition) but continues to make silly turnovers with careless passes, is terrible at switching on pick-and-roll defense, and is often mindless about floor spacing and getting into the right position for set plays. A player’s lack of discipline in these fundamentals can really mess up the flow of the team and nullify the strong performances of others. As a coach, you may be tempted to keep the player in because there’s so much “upside” but shaky fundamentals may erode your confidence in that player over time.

Likewise, a knowledge worker who doesn’t communicate well, who doesn’t get assignments done on time, and doesn’t make the necessary attempts to figure out problems on their own will cost the business additional time and resources to manage.

When we hire promising talent with impressive experience and credentials, we rarely question their fundamentals and take them for granted. Of course they’ll be great at communicating or managing their time. Of course they’re natural problem-solvers. Otherwise, how else would they have progressed in their careers? And in most cases, the assumptions will be true. But, as Kerr and Warriors demonstrate, it’s not a bad idea to refresh ourselves on the fundamentals every now and then and make sure we’ve got the proper zip and crispness on our chest passes.

For those who are curious, here’s a list of fundamental skills in basketball that I came across on a site for new players and coaches:

  • Shooting
  • Passing
  • Dribbling
  • Lay ups
  • Jump stops
  • Pivoting and footwork
  • Jab steps
  • Screening
  • Cutting
  • Defense
  • Rebounding

Lessons from The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker: Know Thy Time

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Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and to cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally they consolidate their “discretionary” time into the largest possible continuing units. This three-step process:
– recording time,
– managing time, and
– consolidating time
is the foundation of executive effectiveness.

– The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker

Drucker writes that we are terrible at sensing time and are likely to over-estimate or under-estimate where our time goes. If we take the time to record how we actually spend our time, we would be surprised by the reality of how we spend our time.

Being mindful of time and being strategic about its use begins first with creating a time log and then asking the right questions. Drucker offers three questions that are used to diagnose time:

  1. What would happen if [x activity] were not done at all?
    If the answer is “nothing at all”, then it’s obvious that the activity can be eliminated.
  2. Which of the activities on my time log could be done by somebody else just as well, if not better? 
    Drucker insists that this isn’t an excuse to dump unwanted activities on someone else (“delegation”), but that the executive carefully consider and assign work that would free up time for more important assignments.
  3. What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to effectiveness?
    Executives may unknowingly be wasting other people’s time. Asking for honest feedback and acting on it can save everyone valuable time.

Drucker also offers a taxonomy of time-wasters:

  1. “The recurrent crisis, or the crisis that comes back year after year” that is the result of a “lack of system or foresight.”
    These are the stressful fire drills and last-minute rescue jobs that result from an organization’s laziness and unwillingness to develop sound processes.
  2. Time-wastes that result from overstaffing.
    Drucker believes that a bloated team in which people spend too much time sorting out communication issues and various person-to-person disputes is a big drag on time. Being lean gives people room to move and get stuff done. I’ve seen this with project teams that have too many specialists whose involvement wasn’t absolutely necessary.
  3. “Malorganization” whose symptom is “an excess of meetings”
    I’ve written about this specific lesson before. Too many meetings and poorly structured meetings are all time-wasters. I typically have 2-3 days a week when it’s nonstop meetings from 10AM to 6PM. I have tried to combat such occurrences, but it’s been a challenge. Drucker is right in saying that “too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components.” Something for me to think harder about.
  4. “Malfunction in information”
    This happens when people in the organization aren’t on the same page about what’s going on and people who need to know aren’t informed in a timely matter if at all. I know we’ve had such challenges at Barrel when on-boarding team members to projects that have already started or when we’ve neglected to give contractors/freelancers complete information about certain tasks. These often result in false starts and ineffective outputs that require time to fix.

By going through the time diagnosis and then pruning the time-wasters, the executive will have a clearer idea of the “discretionary time” that’s available for important work. Consolidating discretionary time into large blocks enable the executive to have greater control over his/her schedule. These blocks–perhaps half a day or a few hours–enable the executive to focus on important (often non-urgent) tasks that can have great impact on the organization.

Personal Lessons from Dealing with Time

I have a couple more time-wasters that Drucker doesn’t mention: passive content consumption and messaging.

Passive Content Consumption
I see this behavior everywhere at work and catch myself as well: the casual browse of the LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feeds; the scroll through different news apps; the quick read of a few Medium blog posts; the refresh of the reddit page; the read of some newsletter that’s popped up in the email inbox. For knowledge workers who’re on their computers all day or have their smartphones on hand, I believe many of us are borderline addicts to content that momentarily stimulates and distracts our minds from the tasks that demand greater focus and cognitive energy.

Whether it’s SMS, Snapchat, Slack, or any other messaging app, the demands that messaging has on our time and the switching costs it has on our work is probably as much or perhaps even greater than passive content consumption. Messaging offers a readily available outlet to express or vent certain emotions and get immediate feedback. It, too, is an addictive behavior and one that eats up time with deceptive velocity.

I know that on certain days, my passive content consumption and messaging activity can combine to exceed 5 hours. I would argue that many people average much more. These also seldom come in chunks but in 5-10 minute spurts that add up.

One of the most time-freeing things that I did this year was to delete Instagram and Facebook from my phone (I’ll check FB a couple times a day on my laptop, though). It’s been six months since this happened and I’ve found myself filling the time with activities like writing, exercise, and reading (books and more challenging articles that take 20-30 minutes). Of course, a good deal of my time still goes to being distracted by texts to and from friends, checking on stock market prices, reading tech and sports news, and watching movie trailers on YouTube, but I’ve begun to consolidate hours here and there for both business and personal assignments that give me time to focus and work on things that require greater mental energy.

What’s kept me motivated and honest is the use of a stopwatch (on my phone), which I start and stop for only the moments where my mind is totally focused. When I get distracted or drift off, the stopwatch is paused. At the end of the activity, I can see how much “real time” it took to do something. A few observations:

  • It’s incredible how much you can do in 10, 20, and 30 minutes of hyper-focused time. In 10 minutes, it’s possible to write 2 full pages in a journal. In 30 minutes, you can get pretty engrossed in a book. Think about how tiring it is to do continuous burpees or push-ups for 5 straight minutes. In some ways, timing chunks of time is conditioning the mind to focus on tasks singularly for longer and longer periods of time.
  • Using a stopwatch can also reveal how quickly certain daunting tasks can take. I used to think that it took me 3-4 hours to properly prep for the upcoming work week including organizing my To Do’s, updating progress of new business and accounts, and doing some outbound emails. I would block out my Sunday evenings for this and typically go from 8PM to 11PM. One week, I decided to use a stopwatch and also focus 100% on the key activities without being distracted. I saw that it took me no more than 75 minutes. I repeated this for a few more weeks and it was the same result – 75 minutes max. I realized that I had been going down the rabbit hole of reading LinkedIn posts, watching videos of various influencers in the space, and doing research on things not directly beneficial to the task at hand. It would be better, I believed, to consolidate my workweek planning to a 75-minute chunk and, if necessary, give myself a block of time to randomly consume relevant business content. This way, I would stop conflating the necessary work with the unnecessary act of content consumption, giving me a few extra hours to do something else on a Sunday evening if I so chose.

And looking at my stopwatch now, I can see that this blog post took me 1 hour and 23 minutes to write.

Process is Habits for Business

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I recently re-read “The Process Component” in the book Traction by Gino Wickman. These two paragraphs summarize the chapter nicely:

A typical organization operates through a handful of core processes. How these processes work together is its unique system. To break through the ceiling and build a well-oiled machine, you need to possess the ability to systemize. That is what this chapter is all about: helping you systemize what you’ve built. You’ll discover different ways to improve upon your processes, simplify them, apply technology to them, and, most important of all, make them consistent throughout your organization.

Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth and The E-Myth Revisited, calls this your franchise prototype. To the degree you can clarify your systems and hone them, you will run your business as opposed to having your business run you. The culmination of identifying, documenting, and having everyone follow the core processes of your business is your Way. When you have a clear Way, you immediately increase the value of your business, strengthen your control over it, and give yourself options. From there, you may grow the business, let someone else run it, sell it, or simply take more time off.

Process, when well-designed and executed consistently by the entire team day-in and day-out, can build up and eventually compound the results of the business. I’ve come to see process as the equivalent of habits for business–by mindfully defining, tweaking, and consistently performing them, results become inevitable.

I can pinpoint the two things, from personal experience, that are most challenging about creating and sticking to good processes. The first is that designing processes feels very hard. It’s not that the actual work is tough, but overcoming the mental barrier and investing the time into what feels like non-urgent work requires a bigger cognitive load than, say, troubleshooting a project issue or writing off a rapid-fire response to a client. The discipline to focus and design processes is one that I’ve struggled with quite a bit. One way to overcome this is to work on process-related items first thing in the morning, when my mind is fresh and well-rested. I know that if I try to tackle process-related items in the evening, I’ll find myself resisting through procrastination. I’ve tried in recent weeks to schedule all process-related conversations to earlier in the day.

Sticking to process becomes tough when it feels like the process is always changing. I noticed this and let things go for a while, not bothering to ask what the underlying problem may have been. I’ve come to believe that process design has much to do with whether or not it’ll stick. If a process is too finely defined and overly prescriptive, it’s bound to become too burdensome and quickly irrelevant. Processes that are too loose lose utility because they don’t provide enough guidance. The sweet spot is process that provides just enough guidance and flexibility so that 80% of the elements are repeatable and the last 20% can be the “customized” component that allows for exceptions.

Bringing this back to how process and habits seem to serve the same purpose, I thought about the “core processes” of my life: how I eat (diet), how I exercise (fitness), how I sleep, how I learn, and how I interact with other people. These track very closely to the Foundation of Growth concept that we’ve been working on for Grove Ave and have defined as a “system of good habits.” By proactively designing, tweaking, and consistently following through on these “core processes”, it’s been possible to generate results (e.g. stay fit, feel energetic, avoid getting sick, be in a positive mood, be productive day-to-day, learn new things, enjoy time with friends and loved ones, etc.). Also, I’ve seen that when I veer away from a core process that’s been working well–say, I let things go and eat/drink things that don’t conform with the design–I don’t feel as good and I know something is amiss, which gives me a strong signal to self-correct.

It’s easy to see how things can go wrong if you don’t take processes/habits by the horns and instead let them form in arbitrary and reactive fashion. I’m hoping that as we continue to solidify our organizational habits and form robust processes across the board, we’ll confidently be able to talk about The Barrel Way and its immense value to the business.

Revisiting Good to Great and the Stop Doing List

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I spent an hour or so last night flipping through and re-reading parts of Good to Great by Jim Collins, the popular classic business book about the qualities that make companies successful. I first read the book over 5 years ago. That was a time when I began to pick up books on business with the goal of extracting lessons I could apply to Barrel.

I remember a specific part of the book that I took away at the time as a valuable lesson: Start a “Stop Doing” List

Most of us lead busy but undisciplined lives. We have ever-expanding “to do” lists, trying to build momentum by doing, doing, doing–and doing more. And it rarely works. Those who built the good-to-great companies, however, made as much use of “stop doing” lists as “to do” lists. They displayed a remarkable discipline to unplug all sorts of extraneous junk.

The big lesson here is that when you run a disciplined organization with a clear mission (“the Hedgehog Concept”) and goal (“the BHAG”), it’s possible to spot the activities that take away from what’s important. This is where a Stop Doing List comes in handy– we should question activities that do not seem to contribute directly to the mission and goal and work to stop doing them.

Five years ago, we didn’t have a clear mission or a goal. These were largely undefined, and I know that I personally lacked an understanding when it came to proactively developing an organization. Lacking the fundamentals, a book like Good to Great was bound to lead to cargo cult behavior, that is, I would replicate certain trappings of successful companies without actually understanding what made them successful in the first place.

I recently dug up a Barrel version of the Stop Doing List from early 2012 and reminisced the state of mind I was in back when we put this together. While embarrassing, I think it’s worth sharing an edited version to make the point that taking advice from a book without deeper thinking can lead to poor decision-making.

The Barrel Stop Doing List (Jan. 2012)


  1. …running non-revenue producing media sites (sell or shut them down)
  2. …taking on website projects for under $XX,XXX
  3. …taking on large dev projects and projects with too many unknowns (custom apps)
  4. …offering social media marketing (day-to-day management, reporting, etc.)
  5. …taking on design and development of Shopify sites under $XX,XXX
  6. …working with clients who have undecided branding
  7. …working with clients who are poor at communication & do not pay on time

The first one was actually a good one. We had a number of websites that we had launched for fun but were a drag on our time. One was a gallery for Korean food recipes and another one was a review site of schools in Korea that taught English. We had employees work on these in-between client work rather than investing their time on professional development or streamlining internal processes for future client work. Shutting these down was definitely a timesaver, although that process was dragged out for quite some time.

The last one, #7, is also not too bad. We needed to vet our clients better and make sure they were both serious and had the money to engage with us. This meant having a process in place to qualify them during new business discussions and also making sure they would invest in having a point of contact who would see through projects. But once you have a good qualification process in place as well as a robust way of handling receivables, you don’t need something like this on a Stop Doing list.

When I look at #2 through #6, I can only shake my head. This is the list of someone who doesn’t want to figure out a solution but wants to make problems go away by declaring that we’ll run from them. I’ll dig a little bit deeper into these to show how I totally missed the point of this exercise.

#2 and #5 were the result of horrific project experiences where we went way over budget, the final quality was subpar, and the client was unhappy. The easiest thing to do was blame the small budget for the failure of the project. In retrospect, I think this mentality of “blame the low budget” made us less reflective about our process and the way we managed our clients’ expectations. If a project was doing poorly, it was because “the budget wasn’t high enough”, a cop-out phrase that we used to accept poor project outcomes.

#3 was also a reaction to unfortunate project experiences. We had worked on some ambitious builds that did not turn out well and resulted in cost overruns, client dissatisfaction, and team turnover. “Let’s stop doing big custom app projects” became the mantra. Instead of figuring out new processes and implementing frameworks to better scope, structure, and manage larger scale projects, we simply said no thanks and turned away a good amount of business. Perhaps the turning away was a good thing at the time in that it saved us more grief, but once again, there was little internal change that came about.

#4 and #6 came about because, rather than taking the time to experiment, codify processes, and have productive conversations with clients about how we can add value, it was easier to just say “let’s not do these things” and ignore the ways in which our clients would find value (esp. five years ago, when social and branding offered more competitive advantages!).

I only gladly engage in this self-flagellation knowing that our business has come a long way since. Here are some behaviors that demonstrate our progress:

  • When we talk about new project engagements with clients, we always discuss the goals and the value the project is expected to create for our clients’ business. This allows us to think about pricing not as a unilateral budget but as an investment through which our clients can expect a good return. This line of thinking guides our recommendations and helps to build trust with our clients.
  • We invest quite a bit of time critiquing and evolving our processes so that we can solve underlying issues that led to cost overruns, miscommunication, or any flaws in the final product. We also push ourselves to question existing processes and won’t hesitate to experiment with new deliverables that may get the job done better. What’s important is that we’re constantly in a state of experimentation and learning while understanding that what we deliver has to meet the expectations we set for our clients.
  • Speaking of experimentation, we’ve made a commitment to developing new service offerings that draw on our core skill sets and bring value to our mission of helping our clients attract, convert, and retain customers. We’ve accepted the fact that rolling out new services requires lots of work, patience, and the ability to take setbacks in stride while trying to improve for the next opportunity. In just the past year, we’ve been able to roll out a suite of services that were non-existent and are now essential in our day-to-day discussions with our clients.

When I first read Good to Great, there were many things that were foreign to me. I remember coming upon the concept of the Flywheel and just breezing past it without much thought. This time around, I found myself lingering on it for a long time. In fact, I even watched some YouTube videos of what a physical flywheel was just to make sure I got the analogy right.

The Flywheel diagram is a great summary of Good to Great and a good high-level framework for thinking about business leadership. Looking back, I think the concepts in this book helped to prepare me for other business books later on, especially books that had very prescriptive frameworks with instructions on installing an “operating system” for running the business.

Good to Great Flywheel

The Flywheel from Good to Great by Jim Collins. Five years ago, it was hard to appreciate how the full system worked, but these days, I can map almost every activity at Barrel to the diagram here.



When I think about the day-to-day operations at Barrel and what I hope to achieve as a member of the executive team, the second Flywheel diagram, The Flywheel Effect, comes to mind. The mission-driven actions, both big and small, that accumulate into visible results, and the feeling of momentum that comes from successful project launches, expanded relationships with clients, and growth of the team in both skill and size–all these things create a certain energy which then build up towards what I hope will be a breakthrough. The two Flywheel diagrams are great reminders that at the end of the day, it’s the organization’s discipline (in people, thought, and action) that will allow for the continual build-up of momentum.

Getting back to an earlier point that I had–books are wonderful in that they introduce us to new ideas and concepts and force us to think about things in new ways. And in revisiting Good to Great, it was immediately apparent to me that the person who read this back in 2011/2012 was a very different reader than the one in 2017. I know that as I read more books and also experience new challenges and successes with the business, there will be future interpretations that will make today’s reading seem quaint, if not outright naive.

Avoiding the Effort Heuristic in Client Work

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The effort heuristic is a mental rule of thumb in which the quality or worth of an object is determined from the perceived amount of effort that went into producing that object. In brief, the effort heuristic follows a tendency to judge objects that took a longer time to produce to be of higher value. – Wikipedia

When it comes to managing a team that’s producing work for clients, it’s critical that everyone working on the project understands the goals of the client and is aligned on what the client will ultimately find valuable. This, of course, means being on the same page with the client in the first place and making sure they’ve clearly articulated what’s important. In the absence of well-defined goals and a clear understanding of what constitutes value for the client, it’s very possible that your team members will resort to using the effort heuristic to judge their own work.

Here’s an example scenario:

The team is tasked with designing and building a landing page that’ll be used to collect emails from people interested in learning more about a yet-to-be-released product. The team has been told, in a vague manner, to make the landing page “exciting and dynamic” and “on-brand”.

The designer and web developer assigned to the project spend many hours over the next few days creating a meticulously crafted landing page full of visual details, whimsical animations, and fun copy. The extra effects that they’ve added to delight the client takes the developer over 10 hours of debugging to perfect. The final product is a beautiful and intricate page that took multiple late nights over the course of a week.

When the client reviews the landing page, he’s not impressed. Instead, he asks what took so long. “I was hoping to have it a few days ago. I just quickly needed a page where people could just sign up. A simple image with our logo and some copy would’ve been fine. Can you guys ditch the effects, make the background white, and swap that Photoshopped pic for the one that’s already on our site?”

The designer and the web developer are aghast and fuming. Doesn’t the client know how much effort went into this amazing landing page? It’s so nice that it can probably be featured on a website award site. How dare the client want to “dumb” it down? Doesn’t he know anything about good quality work? 

There’s a disconnect in this scenario. The designer and web developer were not aware of what constituted value for the client. The client valued quick turnaround more than any craft. He would have been perfectly happy with a barebones landing page as long as it worked and got done fast. The designer and web developer, not knowing this, defaulted to creating what they themselves valued–beautifully detailed designs with cool effects–and poured a great deal of effort. When confronted with feedback that questioned the value of their work, they immediately became defensive, feeling that their work, which required so much effort, was objectively something of high value and quality.

When I think about the effort heuristic, I can recall days when some of my employees would huff and puff about clients “just not getting it” or “not understanding design”. I used to dismiss this as “artistic temperament” or “not being a good professional”, but I can see how in many situations, there was little to no facilitation of clearly defining goals and value criteria for our clients. Pointing the finger inward, I can see how I fell short in properly briefing our team and also not fully aligning with our clients on what was valuable to them. What our team should be striving for on every client engagement is to make sure that everyone working on it is 100% clear on the outcomes that would help our clients achieve their goals and make them feel that they’ve captured maximum value by working with us.

Some Side Thoughts

  • Could the client be persuaded to value the work more if we told him that it took great effort to create it? This has worked in some cases, and the nicer clients will appreciate the “hard work” put into it. But at the end of the day, I’ve found that clients often have an internal measure for what they perceive as valuable and if we underdeliver, no amount of effort will make up for the deficit.
  • My example was an extreme case and, thankfully, rarely happens at Barrel in real life. A few tactics we employee to avoid falling into the effort heuristic are: having our team members repeat the objective of the project before any major meeting with clients and to give them an opportunity to agree or clarify (and also serves as a good enforcing mantra for our team); scheduling various workshops and check-ins with the client where we can collaborate throughout the process instead of setting up high-stakes “big reveal” presentations where we show our work after several weeks “locked up in the tower”; diving into analytics, KPIs, and other sources of data to determine success metrics and how our work may deliver a lift versus the status quo.
  • There are “designers” with artistic temperaments who, even when briefed and given all kinds of research and data, will still cling to aesthetics and place disproportionate weight on anything that is visual while dissing clients who may not share the same perspective. Personally, I don’t consider these types designers but artists who’re trying to make a living by masquerading as designers. Thankfully, we don’t hire such people at Barrel, no matter how talented they may be. We require a very high standard of skill and creativity when it comes to bringing a brand to life, telling stories visually, or laying out content in interesting ways, but these must all be in the service of helping our clients achieve their goals.
  • Check out this paper on the effort heuristic. The abstract says: “The research presented here suggests that effort is used as a heuristic for quality. Participants rating a poem (Experiment 1), a painting (Experiment 2), or a suit of armor (Experiment 3) provided higher ratings of quality, value, and liking for the work the more time and effort they thought it took to produce. Experiment 3 showed that the use of the effort heuristic, as with all heuristics, is moderated by ambiguity: Participants were more influenced by effort when the quality of the object being evaluated was difficult to ascertain. Discussion centers on the implications of the effort heuristic for everyday judgment and decision-making.”

11 Years of Barrel, Some Lessons

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Every June 1, we celebrate the incorporation of Barrel. Most years, it’s a simple toast at the end of the day. Last year, on our 10-year anniversary, we had a nice party at one of my favorite restaurants. This year, we had margaritas and ice cream. We also launched a brand new website.

What I most cherish about June 1 is that it gets me thinking about lessons I’ve learned in the past year. Over the past few days, I’ve mulled over the things I wanted to write down, and one thing I told myself is that these lessons may be valid now, but they may not hold true forever. Having said that, I think it’s worthwhile to jot them down so I can go back and read them later.

No Ego, No Drama, No Snark

For a long time, I tended to: let my sense of self-importance (ego) guide my behaviors; get embroiled in unnecessary conflict, escalating what should be a non-issue; and mutter things that add no value and only serve to put down or demean others. I think these behaviors arose from deep-seated insecurity as well as a lack of discipline.

I can’t pinpoint the exact things that got me to pay more attention, but a couple books that have been helpful are Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy and The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam, the biography of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. As I became more aware that I caused unnecessary stress for others (and myself) and engaged in unproductive behaviors, I began to realize that I was failing my team and not modeling behaviors for success. In order to establish a healthy and well-functioning workplace, I needed to stop drawing attention to myself and instead be a positive and encouraging presence. I also began to consciously think about win-win situations and overcame my default desire to have the last word or be “right” about something.

Nowadays, “no ego, no drama, no snark” serves as a personal mantra for me when I interact with team members, clients, friends, and family. I’ll catch myself every now and then falling into bad behaviors, but having the presence of mind to pull back or change course has allowed me to have much more productive interactions. I’d like to think that this shift personally has been reflected in the people we’ve hired, the people we’ve promoted, and the way we interact with each other at work. But I’m not taking credit for this. In fact, what’s more likely is that I’ve been most helpful by getting out of the way where I should be out of the way and letting our team do their thing.

If I had to summarize the takeaways from this lesson, they would be:

  • Don’t draw unnecessary attention to myself
  • Say only what’s necessary and helpful (there is power in staying quiet, something I’ve yet to master)
  • Encourage and support others through positive words and actions
  • There’s little to gain from “winning” an argument; let it go or find common ground

Embrace Doing the Hard Things

I’ve come to believe that truly worthwhile and impactful achievements come about when I take on activities that are painful in some way. If it’s in the realm of fitness or sports, the pain relates closely to the physical and the mental ability to endure or overcome physical discomfort. At work, the pain is focused inside the head and is about overcoming distraction while maintaining concentration. Nothing craves distraction more than the prospect of doing something that requires extra concentration. This is what I mean by “hard things”. Author Cal Newport calls it deep work (and his book of the same title is excellent). It’s the stuff that “makes my head hurt”. But if the head doesn’t hurt, then I’m coasting and doing the bare minimum. Rarely does new value get created when I’m unwilling to do the hard things. And in business, the more I’ve been successful in embracing brain-draining activities, the greater the value of the output. Examples of the hard things include: proactively creating frameworks and systems for new service offerings, designing a new way to visualize sales and marketing data for our clients’ businesses, and taking the time to refine our case studies and the story we tell about how we help our clients.

I think it’ll be more and more of a challenge to make the time and create the conditions for deep work to occur. Those who can do it successfully day in and day out will vastly outperform those who engage mainly in the transactional activities of email correspondence, meetings, and repetitive tasks. This is something that I’ll continue to monitor and improve both for myself and for the talent we nurture and acquire at Barrel.

Acting with Confidence

Modesty is terrible for business. I’ve learned the hard way that you’re not doing yourself any favors by trying to be humble with a prospective client. Talking yourself up isn’t about arrogance or being “too salesy”. It’s about displaying confidence in your own skills, your experience, and your understanding of the prospect’s challenges. Sure, there may be companies who do bigger projects and make more money, but why does that matter? There may be experts who’ve written more on a particular subject or given more talks. But that doesn’t take away from any of the work we’ve done as a company and it certainly shouldn’t make us feel any less qualified. This is where I’ve learned the value of focusing on us and doing the best we can to tell our story of why we’re relevant, why we do great work, and how we help our clients succeed. The work often won’t speak for itself, especially when the work goes far beyond what’s visible in screenshots and video captures. It’s our duty as a business to make sure that our story gets told and in a manner that inspires the prospect to respect our expertise and to imagine a relationship together.


Much of what I’ve been learning is a combination of how to conduct myself on a day-to-day basis and how best to spend my time. I don’t think this is something that’ll ever be completely solved and in fact will probably continue to evolve. However, when I take stock of the lessons I’ve outlined above, I do believe there are some timeless takeaways that I bet will ring true even years from now:

  • Avoid behaviors that may lead you astray from being considerate, positive, and warm with others.
  • Time is precious.
  • Be proactive in telling your own story.

Pointing the Finger Inward

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This brief article in The New York Times on cognitive dissonance and why’s it’s so difficult to admit that we’re wrong got me thinking about an important lesson that Sei-Wook and I learned some years ago–that it’s always better to find fault with what we did or didn’t do rather than trying to blame someone or something else.

Over the years, we’ve gotten better and better at developing a decision tree on how to handle things that don’t go right. Here are some examples of things that have “gone wrong” at Barrel:

  • Client is unhappy with a deliverable.
  • There is a communication mixup with a client (e.g. they expected something to be done/completed but we weren’t all on the same page).
  • We (leadership team) are unhappy with the quality of an employee’s work or the employee’s attitude towards work, our clients, and other team members.
  • A project team misses an important deadline.
  • We learn that an employee is disgruntled about working here.
  • A valuable employee quits and cites specific work-related issues as the cause (or it’s obvious that this was the case).
  • A deliverable is found to have bugs or flaws that shouldn’t be there.
  • Project team members complain about unnecessary struggles they had to endure due to lack of direction or progress.
  • We lose out on what looked like a very promising business opportunity.

Here’s an attempt to articulate the principles for handling these types of situations in 4 steps. I’m writing from the perspective of an employer/supervisor who often has to make decisions and act when faced with these situations.

  1. Do nothing at first. Try to understand what’s really happening and see if you have all the information. If necessary, ask questions and don’t make any snap judgments.
  2. If the situation causes stress or anxiety, don’t express or show it overtly. If you need to blow off steam, do it with someone unrelated to the business or at the same level as you. I usually do my venting with Sei-Wook or the other partners at Barrel or at home with my wife Melanie. I believe it’s important not to express negative emotions about a situation at work, especially if you are in a leadership position. I’ve learned the hard way that this only undermines your ability to lead and establish credibility in making sound decisions.
  3. Reflect. Point the finger inward. What could you have done better? What did you not do? How, to put it bluntly, are you to blame for all of this? Even if you’re not directly involved, you’ll certainly find something. Think about these things and then ask yourself: what can I change or do differently the next time to prevent this? What are systematic and process-related improvements I can help effect in order to avoid this situation in the future?
  4. Don’t be afraid to get personal. If the situation calls for it, take it a step further and ask yourself: how can I change as a person so that I can avoid, prevent, or better face this type of situation in the future?

When you put the examples of things “gone wrong” through the process above, the output can lead to very productive behavior. It quickly filters out the negativity and the need to place blame and instead, directs all energy into some kind of action.

Personally, I think the first two steps are often the hardest. It’s very easy, and often even tempting, to react quickly and want to “fix” things right away. This can lead to unfortunate behavior like directing blame at someone, immediately putting them on the defensive and making it harder to give productive feedback later on. It’s also very easy to express impatience or frustration through body posture or speech, so I have to be extra aware in order to catch myself. If I can get through the first two steps, I find that it’s easier to reflect and ask myself the questions that’ll result in productive outcomes.

The need to be right, feeling completely blameless, and unceasing stubbornness–these are counterproductive behaviors that take cues from our sense of self-importance and our unwillingness to let our ego take punches. I don’t like the limited upside of having a protected and well-fed ego. As much as it hurts and as much as I have to bear the cognitive dissonance (“the stress we experience when we hold two contradictory thoughts, beliefs, opinions or attitudes”) that comes with admitting that I didn’t know better or that I was flat out wrong, I prefer the upside of learning, changing my ways, and doing things differently the next time in hopes of a better outcome.

Basic Decision Patterns

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I’m grossly oversimplifying what author Venkatesh Rao puts forward in his book Tempo: Timing Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-making, but I liked his part on Basic Decision Patterns so much that I decided to create a more graphic representation of his 2×2 quadrant to help me remember it for later.

His quadrant shows “Information Location” across the x-axis going from Internal to External and “Visibility of Mental Models” on the y-axis going from Low to High. He says this of his matrix:

The distinctions among the four classes of basic decision patterns are not arbitrary. They are based on the distribution and visibility of situational information. Information either originates in the decision-maker’s head or in the environment, and we either consciously recognize or are oblivious to the influence it has on our behavior. 

I’ve paraphrased and summarized the four in the graphic and below:


High visibility of mental models, internal information location

Behaviors that arise from our ability to make predictions, inferences, and a priori computation; requires new information not present in the immediate environment.


High visibility of mental models, external information location

Behaviors consciously selected from the situation at hand; focused on managing time, energy, and momentum; think mimicry & imitation.


Low visibility of mental models, internal information location

Unconscious, improvisational behaviors that often combine and rearrange decisions due to recognition of potential for disproportionate rewards.


Low visibility of mental models, external information location

Making highly effective and complex decisions without understanding the logic of his or her own behavior; reliant on set processes & systems.

Throughout the time I was reading Tempo, I found myself trying to relate its various topics and definitions back to my day-to-day work at Barrel. When thinking about the four basic decision patterns, I tried to think of the patterns that I found myself following throughout a typical work week and if there were instances where I could have behaved differently. In many ways, I found myself thinking that by forcing myself into a more Deliberative state, I could better set myself up for success when I defaulted into Reactive and Procedural states. As for Opportunistic patterns, I think these instances are characterized by the happy moments when I feel like I’ve found a clever way to finish an arduous task quickly or to benefit multiple clients through a single newly gained insight.

The beauty of Tempo‘s various models is that they force me to think about how the mind goes about performing its many complex functions in countless situations and how our awareness of time, space, and the various narrative and cognitive frameworks can help decode the factors that shape our decisions.

Examining the State of Distraction

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Distractions–the things that prevent us from giving someone or something our full attention–are present around us all the time. If it’s not coming externally through notifications on our devices, it’s likely to come from within. Maybe you remembered that you have to make an appointment or you’re really curious about the score of a game. Maybe you’re not quite engaged or feeling bored. Either way, we succumb so fast and so easily that we don’t even know that we’ve surrendered our attention.

Here are some common scenarios I observe both with myself and with people at work:

  • When you’re conversing with the other person and trying to work out a problem together, that person is either on his mobile device or on his laptop. In some cases, he may have been in the middle of something when you interrupted him, in which case, you were the distracting force. Either way, you’re sometimes unsure whether or not he heard and understood what you said and have to repeat yourself.
  • You are in a meeting with a group and you notice some people are barely paying attention, busy tapping on their devices or doodling illustrations on their notepads. These people typically don’t ask any questions, or if they do, it’s to ask about something that has already been covered. As with the first scenario, if they are directly asked a question, they may ask you to repeat because they weren’t paying attention.
  • When you’re working on an assignment that requires some deep thinking or a bit of analytical and organizational effort, you find yourself taking text message breaks, peeks into your email inbox, or quick glances at social media or news. When you walk around the office, you notice this is a pretty normal thing and everybody is in some state of distraction.

Why don’t people give something or someone their full attention? When you sit down to talk with someone and notice that this person is checking their phone every 5 minutes, what does it mean? Or, if you meet one-on-one with someone and need to figure something out together and this person continues to respond to emails for an unrelated project or responds to Slack messages with an unrelated group, what is he signaling? I’ve been able to think of a few reasons, but one of them isn’t disrespect. As much as I’ve been peeved to be at the receiving end of such interactions, I’ve also been on the giving end, and I know that there was never any malicious intent. I think these reasons are more likely:

  • The person sincerely believes that he can multitask and is giving it a heroic effort (and failing). At its worst, this behavior looks as if the person has something more important and urgent to take care of than whatever task or interaction is at hand. But when made aware, the person will most likely apologize and give you undivided attention.
  • The person is bored and proactively seeking distraction to fill the boredom. The feeling of being bored may come from the topic not being relevant, not being clear enough, and/or requiring too much thinking to bother.
  • The person, mostly unaware, gravitates towards the behavior that feels the best, and being in a state of distraction–taking the mind from the task/interaction at hand and switching to something else–provides that good feeling.

Once you break it down this way, it’s less about email and social media and more about the ways we let our minds do what feels good. And oftentimes, feeling good means taking the road that requires a lighter cognitive load. This might mean that instead of completely switching from working on a long email to give your colleague your undivided attention, you continue to work on the email while hoping you can half absorb whatever your colleague is talking about, no disrespect intended, of course. Or, if you’re being exposed to a subject that feels foreign and has a steep learning curve, you soothe your mind by checking on the latest sports scores or stock prices. You can see where a behavior like procrastination creeps in. It’s the same reason you don’t want to rush into doing your last set of heavy squats or that 5-miler in the freezing rain–you want to delay the pain as much as possible and cocooning yourself in a state of distraction is a way to protect your mind from doing any deep thinking.

I’ve been consciously thinking about distraction and the ability to focus. Reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work was an inspiration. If reading isn’t your thing, check out this podcast interview with Ezra Klein. I’m also reminded every morning when I meditate how distracted my mind can get and what it takes to focus for a few moments. At work, I’m always amazed by how quickly I fall into a default mode of distraction. To get even a single hour of focused, deep thinking is an achievement. Most of my deep work happens on Sunday nights, when external distractions are at a minimum. The rest of the time, I seem to operate in a sort of reactive, troubleshooting mode.

I think the big challenge for myself personally is building the stamina and patience to see through more complex and non-urgent endeavors. I admire people who can put aside a couple hours a day to write stories or songs or to learn new skills like coding or a foreign language. This is a trait, a habit really, that I’m very eager to develop, but I also understand that it’ll will be harder than any of the other positive habits I’ve been able to gain so far.


One person who’s done a great job of containing distraction (literally, he contains it in a bag that prevents his mobile device from working!) is my buddy Welton Chang. He recently revised and I helped him release an updated e-book called Mastering Productivity: 20 Principles to Help You Achieve More Through Proven Systems & Lasting Habits. It’s full of actionable tips and insights, and it’s free to read online or as a downloadable PDF.


Trying to Get Smarter with Mental Models

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I’ve benefitted a great deal from reading more in the past 2-3 years than I did during my entire twenties. Each month, I felt myself thinking more clearly, rationally, and creatively about various topics and issues. The formula that I told myself was: read more books, get smarter. Sounds simple enough, right?

A couple sources have helped me to reframe my thinking on this. The first is Tempo: Timing Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-making by Venkatesh Rao. The other is the blog Farnam Street by Shane Parrish and especially his post on mental models.

Here’s the big takeaway: better decision-making (which I equate to being smarter or behaving in a smart way) gets a big boost when you have a solid supply of mental models that you can use to assess situations, process information, and ultimately draw conclusions that aid in your ability to take action, tell stories, and interact with other people (all which are types of decisions). Parrish, referencing Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger, labels this as “building a ‘latticework’ of mental models” and notes that it’s a lifelong project that’ll help us understand reality and make good decisions.

I’ve been thinking about all the people in my life that I respect as “wickedly smart” and they all seem to have this in common: a very strong latticework of mental models that help them quickly understand complex situations and to draw helpful insights that ultimately aid them in some way. One artifact of being smart is that these people ask very incisive questions that draw out additional bits of data to feed into their latticework. It makes me want to reword the phrase “there are no such thing as a stupid question” to be: “smart people ask smart questions; dumb people mostly stay silent.”

Knowing what I know now, I don’t think reading a lot of books is a surefire way to be smarter. While it may help and expose you to ideas and frameworks that ultimately make you smarter, it’s also possible that you may not quite connect the dots and deliberately practice with what you’ve learned if you’re not consciously trying to build your own supply/toolbox of mental models. On the flipside, if you’re conscious of adding to the toolbox, then reading becomes a very deliberate activity and you’ll find yourself trying to come away with certain types of insights and takeaways (or quickly discarding the book if it fails to provide such value). And beyond reading, this hunger for adding new mental models can make you rethink conversations with people, the websites you visit, the shows you watch, the podcasts you listen to, and whatever else you consume.

Speaking of deliberate activity, I think the work I do at Barrel provides me with fertile ground for putting mental models to the test. A common activity is communicating with prospective and existing clients and navigating ways to land new engagements. I’ve found myself consciously thinking about people’s motivations (incentives, such as impact on career for working with us), their attachment to sunk costs, their reliance on social proof (“Who else that’s just like us have you done this for?”), as well as the way they’re influenced by authority (e.g. known experts on specific topics) and anchoring (e.g. the first price you tell them). Every few weeks, I find myself having been exposed to a different mental model that I’d want to stick into my repertoire. It’s too early to tell if I’m getting better results by thinking this way, but I’d like to think that I’m asking better questions and making better decisions for the company.

A big part of understanding and appreciating mental models is to constantly scrutinize the way our mind works. This goes nicely hand-in-hand with meditation as well as with a work activity like managing employees. The mind is rife with biases (e.g. confirmation bias, recency bias, consistency bias, etc.) as well as emotionally charged irrational thoughts that have little or no basis in fact (e.g. jealousy, inferiority complex, persecution complex, over-confidence). By consciously observing the way thoughts pop up into my mind, I can become a better driver who avoids the potholes (e.g. emotionally-driven outbursts or stubborn adherence to what I believe “must be the only way”) and emerges onto a smoother road where I can take in the full view and make sounder, more rational decisions.

The mind, in addition to our physical health, is our greatest asset. This concept of building a latticework of mental models is very thrilling, and I’ll continue to share the treasures I pick up along the way.

Breathing to Ten

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I struggle mightily to close my eyes, focus, and breathe to a count of ten.

At around four or five seconds, I can find my mind trying its best to fend off the thoughts knocking violently at its gates. By six or seven, there’s usually a breach. By eight or nine, I’ve already been overrun with a half dozen thoughts.

And this is after more than a year of using Headspace, the meditation app. There may be a few instances when I find that I can get to 10 with a clear mind, but these are a rarity.

I sometimes feel like my mind is a Superfund site, contaminated and polluted with many years of distractions and poor habits. It’ll take years of cleanup before it’s safe for sustained, quiet thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about how reluctant I am to lose myself in my own thoughts. I am always reacting to external stimuli. The smartphone is the ultimate distraction tool. Even without the social networking apps that I’ve deleted as well as the notifications I’ve turned off, I still find myself checking for text messages, headlines on ESPN and NY Times, and email. Sometimes, I’m barely conscious of the fact that I reach over and check these things. If I want a more mindful type of engagement, I’m consuming content, either reading on Kindle or Medium or listening on Audible or Podcasts. These often lead to more productive outcomes, but they still put my mind in a reactive mode. There is no quiet. It’s as if I’m afraid to go on a walk without the sound of a book narrator or a podcast host talking into my ears.

Why do I care about breathing to ten, about having quiet? I’d like to think that giving my mind the space to calm down, get bored, and slowly explore itself internally may help me develop the abilities I feel I lack: the patience and the willpower to think about various things in-depth, to not lose the thread of cohesion, and to synthesize familiar ideas into something new. I’ve experienced such moments in bits and pieces, but I’m hopeful that more than a chunk of my waking days can be spent this way. And even if these moments don’t come easily or don’t come at all, I’d like to steer my senses to absorb more of the world beyond the screens I put in front of my eyes. It’s not that I dislike or want to escape the technology. I’d love to exercise, or feel that I exercise, a small degree of control in how I spend my conscious time. Wish me luck.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now by Gordon Livingston (Quotes & Thoughts)

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Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now by Gordon Livingston is a collection of thirty essays by a seasoned psychiatrist (he passed away in 2016 at age 77) who reflects on various lessons learned from his time with patients and also from the ups and downs of his own life. There’s a poignancy to his writing, especially when he mentions the deaths of his two sons over a 13-month period, one to suicide and the other to leukemia, but his overall outlook on facing challenges and living life left me feeling optimistic and hopeful, although a bit sad.

A few quotes that I highlighted and thought about throughout the book:

We demonstrate courage in the numberless small ways in which we meet our obligations or reach out to try the new things that might improve our lives.

Amen. Because I am a junkie for all things sports, I keep thinking of two maxims: “Do Your Job” (thank you Coach Belichick) and “Just Do It”. As trite as these may sound, I really do believe in the power of consistently doing what you’re supposed to do and being fearless when it comes to trying new things.

In general we get, not what we deserve, but what we expect.

This is a hard-learned lesson for me because at various junctures of my life, I would find myself resigned to thinking that I simply wasn’t good enough to achieve something and that I would fall short. This mindset inevitably became self-fulfilling prophecies. I think there’s a healthy way to confidently and optimistically believe in oneself and to support that with hard work, self-awareness, and discipline. This way, what we expect is not a delusion but just a point on the map we’re making our way to reaching.

The three components of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.

I don’t get tired of reading about the various lenses/frameworks for thinking about happiness, and this simple lens by Livingston is a solid one. The “something to look forward to” is a component I actually hadn’t given much thought to, but is definitely important. I think for me personally, the “something to look forward to” is often something very simple and mundane, like anticipating a nice jog or a tasty breakfast, date night with Mel, or listening to a new episode of a favorite podcast. These small pleasures bring a series of happy moments that impact my overall happiness.

The point is that love is demonstrated behaviorally. Once again we define who we are and who and what we care about, not by what we promise, but by what we do.

This reminded me of a quiz I recently took with Mel, the 5 Love Languages (Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch). I think Livingston would discount the “words of affirmation” and give more weight to the other languages. My quiz results weighted my love language heavily towards Quality Time and Physical Touch and very minimally when it came to Receiving Gifts.

The other thing that true love requires of us is the courage to become totally vulnerable to another.

Made me think about Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, an excellent book on this topic.

Acquiring some understanding of why we do things is often a prerequisite to change. This is especially true when talking about repetitive patterns of behavior that do not serve us well.

If people are reluctant to answer “Why?” questions in their lives, they also tend to have trouble with “Why not?” The latter implies risk. Steeped in habit and fearful of change, most of us are to some degree risk-averse. Particularly in activities that may involve rejection, we tend to act as if our sense of ourselves is fragile and must be protected.

Change is hard. I know this because I’ve often felt like I was constantly learning and changing in a good a way, only to be blind or in denial about habits and behaviors I had a tough time letting go. I still struggle with this in various aspects of my life, and a big part of it is an unwillingness to examine certain aspects of myself more carefully, most likely due to fear.

This is the final and controlling paradox: Only by embracing our mortality can we be happy in the time we have. The intensity of our connections to those we love is a function of our knowledge that everything and everyone is evanescent. Our ability to experience any pleasure requires either a healthy denial or courageous acceptance of the weight of time and the prospect of ultimate defeat.

Sigh. I thought about John Mayer’s Stop This Train when I read this.

The most secure prisons are those we construct for ourselves.

I’ve mentioned a few times about how doing daily meditation has helped me in a number of ways. I think one of the biggest benefits has been the ability to shed and let go of miserable and unproductive thoughts. Feelings of being slighted, jealousy, self-pity, stress, and a host of other negative thoughts are indeed prisons we create for ourselves.

It is a primary task of parents throughout their lives to convey to the young a sense of optimism. Whatever other obligations we have to our children, a conviction that we can achieve happiness amid the losses and uncertainties that life contains is the greatest gift that can pass from one generation to the next.

Whether directly or indirectly, I think my parents have done a good job of instilling a sense of optimism in me. And I hope that when I, too, get the opportunity to become a parent, I can do the same.

One of the common fantasies entertained by those seeking change in their lives is that it can be rapidly achieved.

This is why I love running because it reminds me in a very physical way that change takes work and nothing comes easy. I’ve tried to take this mentality into business and any other endeavor I take on. I expect difficulty, challenges, and a slow slog. It’s the only way that real, meaningful change can happen. When you grow to love the toil, then change will come much more easily.

One of the things that makes us human is the ability to contemplate the future. If we are to bear the awful weight of time with grace or acceptance, we have to come to terms with the losses that life inevitably imposes upon us. Primary among these is the loss of our younger selves.

I know that with enough gray hairs and lines on my face, I’ll start to move into that phase of my life where I can no longer look in the mirror and fancy myself a young man. This would have troubled me in my late twenties, but as I approach my mid-thirties, there are more important and worthwhile things to care about. I’ll miss aspects of my younger self, but I’m optimistic that I’ll like my older self more.

As long as we measure others and ourselves by what we have and how we look, life is inevitably a discouraging experience, characterized by greed, envy, and a desire to be someone else.

I think about Warren Buffett’s Inner Scorecard and how you can live a truer and more fulfilling life by measuring yourself by your own standards. I used to compare the growth and progress of Barrel to other agencies, and it would drive me nuts that we weren’t keeping pace or not doing as well. I’ve gotten a lot better at focusing on an inner scorecard, and this has made work a lot more enjoyable.

Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between two points, life has a way of confounding geometry. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition, and a willingness to be surprised.

This quote reminds me of my sister, who has traveled wide and far across the world, living a nomadic and adventurous existence. She has really embraced a life full of surprises. I used to think that this way of life was irresponsible, but I’ve come to appreciate her experiences and how it’s shaped her into a thoughtful and open-minded person, far beyond what I can imagine. For someone who has worked on the same business the past ten years in the same city, it’s a good reminder for me to open my mind to chance and some surprises.

The process of learning consists not so much in accumulating answers as in figuring out how to formulate the right questions.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of formulating questions and how the ability to ask good questions can create a lot of value. At work, I often find myself evaluating the performance of employees based on the types of questions they’re able to ask. I evaluate my own performance in client meetings and calls based on the types of questions I’m able to ask. Questions reveal a great deal about how much someone understands and grasps certain subjects and concepts and also speaks to the person’s level of curiosity and intellect. Sort of related: the topic of questions also makes me think about a line from an old ESPN commercial with Chris Berman where he says, “There is no such thing as a stupid question. Just stupid people who ask questions.” Kinda mean, but it’s funny.

One of the things that define us is what we worry about. Life is full of uncertainty and random catastrophe. It is easy, therefore, to justify almost any anxiety. The list of fears that people carry with them is long and varied, and a function of the information with which we are bombarded.

I’ll mention meditation again. I worry a lot less about unimportant things by being able to let go quickly. The things I worry about, I try my best to process them into tasks I can work on. Anything outside of my control, I try my best to keep off my worry radar.

To imagine that we are solely, or even primarily, responsible for the successes and failures of our children is a narcissistic myth.

Here, too, I’m reminded of my parents and how hands-off they’ve been in my life. They only wish me happiness and good health and are unconcerned with any specifics of my successes or failures unless I want to share with them. I am eternally grateful, and I, too, will strive to be such a parent.

Nostalgia for an idealized past is common and usually harmless. Memory can, however, distort our attempts to come to terms with the present… What happens as we try to come to terms with our pasts is that we see our lives as a process of continual disenchantment. We long for the security provided by the comforting illusions of our youth. We remember the breathless infatuation of first love; we regret the complications imposed by our mistakes, the compromises of our integrity, the roads not taken. The cumulative burdens of our imperfect lives are harder to bear as we weaken in body and spirit. Our yearning for the past is fueled by a selective memory of our younger selves… Our constant challenge is not to seek perfection in ourselves and others, but to find ways to be happy in an imperfect world. We are impeded in this effort if we cling to an idealized vision of the past that insures dissatisfaction with the present.

One transformation that I’ve felt within myself in recent years is a distancing from the feeling of nostalgia. I was once fond of thinking and talking a lot about “the good old days”, often as an escape from whatever I had to face in the present moment. Part of the transformation has come from becoming more and more comfortable with embracing whatever stands in front of me. In fact, I get excited thinking about what’s next, whether it’s tackling a hairy problem or engaging in a strenuous activity. The other part is about repressing the tendency to wallow in regrets and what could have been. I try hard to block this out of my mind. I accept that I’ve made mistakes, that I’ve learned a great deal, and that what matters most is my next move. A great book that I think about from time to time is Ken Grimwood’s Replay, in which a man dies and wakes up as his 18-year-old self, “replaying” his life over and over again. The big takeaway for me was that the game is available to play every single day. But instead of going back 25 years to a younger self, I’m already in the game playing for my older, future self.

For most of us the process of nursing blame for past injury distracts us from the essential question of what we need to do now to improve our lives.

Breathe, let go, be productive. In living my life, I want to be the person who can consistently overcome “past injury” and work towards a better future. The right thing to do takes courage and discipline. It’s also a lot less taxing and drama-free.



Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown (Quotes & Thoughts)

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I like to highlight sentences and passages when I read a book on the Kindle app. Over time, this builds up a nice collection of quotes that I can reference. Unfortunately, I haven’t been as disciplined about revisiting the highlights. So, in an effort to get myself to revisit books and ideas that I found useful, I decided to pick a few quotes and write a few sentences on why I found the material worth highlighting and how I found them impactful.

The first book is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. It’s a quick read with a simple, yet powerful message: that by being mindful and deliberate (and even protective) of our choices and how we spend our time, we can be more effective, better focused, and happier in living our lives. Here are some quotes and my thoughts:

Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. Knowing that the reality of trade-offs means they can’t possibly pay attention to everything, they listen deliberately for what is not being explicitly stated. They read between the lines… Nonessentialists listen too. But they listen while preparing to say something. They get distracted by extraneous noise. They hyperfocus on inconsequential details. They hear the loudest voice but they get the wrong message. In their eagerness to react they miss the point.

I find this especially relevant when it comes to conversations with clients or employees. Rather than reacting to everything being said, which can often be distractions or misleading signals, taking the time to carefully observe and parse what’s being said and not said can reveal valuable insights. A good example is when we conduct interviews for prospective employees. It’s easy to get caught up on the details of where they worked and what they did, but if you pay closer attention, it’s possible to spot certain patterns or omissions that may reveal untapped strengths or raise big flags. One thing this part of the book made me think about was how a good listener doesn’t just sit back and passively take in information. A good listener continually probes and connects the dots, asking thoughtful questions that provide new data points and help piece together a clearer view of who the other person is or what the other person thinks.

For the last ten years now I have kept a journal, using a counterintuitive yet effective method. It is simply this: I write less than I feel like writing. Typically, when people start to keep a journal they write pages the first day. Then by the second day the prospect of writing so much is daunting, and they procrastinate or abandon the exercise. So apply the principle of “less but better” to your journal. Restrain yourself from writing more until daily journaling has become a habit.

I love this quote. I started keeping a physical journal a couple months ago. I write in it almost every day, but I subscribe to the principle of writing less than I feel like writing. Sometimes, I just write one or two sentences. I might comment on the weather. I might congratulate myself on a nice morning run. Other times, I might write a paragraph about a quote from a book that really struck me. By not “maxing out” on my writing, I’ve never felt journalling to be a taxing activity. It’s just a small thing that I can do everyday without dread or a sense of obligation.

We should serve, and love, and make a difference in the lives of others, of course. But when people make their problem our problem, we aren’t helping them; we’re enabling them. Once we take their problem for them, all we’re doing is taking away their ability to solve it.

I reflected on this a bit because I could distinctly remember times at work when, seeing someone struggle with a certain task or assignment, I would swoop in to “do it for them”. This is terrible behavior and one that erodes the confidence, competency, and trust within an organization. The right way is to pause, take the time to listen to the problem, and, in a non-prescriptive way, offer guidance or resources that can assist in the completion of the task or assignment. A Nonessentialist, constantly reacting and playing defense, would only be focused on “fixing” what doesn’t seem to be going right. An Essentialist would take the long view and address what’s truly important–making sure the other person builds the capacity within themselves to take care of their own problems.

Essentialists accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventuality; the future is simply too unpredictable. Instead, they build in buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.

Another piece of advice that McKeown offers up is to build a lot of buffer to the things you do. For example, projects should have time and budget buffers because there are always uncertainties that will pop up and require additional work. Personally, I’ve taken to the idea of having buffers when it comes to my schedule. When possible, I try not to book too many meetings in a given week. I space them out and say no where appropriate. By giving myself the space, I can have some time to focus on what’s really important–exploring ideas on the future of the business, thinking through an especially complex challenge for a client, or crafting messaging on a way to position our business to prospective clients. Space allows me to be proactive rather than reactively going from meeting to meeting and emails to emails. It also enables me to work on the business rather than exclusively in the business.

An Essentialist understands that clarity is the key to empowerment. He doesn’t allow roles to be general and vague. He ensures that everyone on the team is really clear about what they are expected to contribute and what everyone else is contributing.

I love the idea of clarity, and it’s something that’s taken me a long time to better understand. I used to equate clarity with transparency, but just because you tell everyone about everything doesn’t mean the message is any clearer. Clarity comes from a thoughtful distillation of ideas into simple messages that everyone can understand and embrace. It’s also something that needs to be repeated many times. A one-time email to the team with a “clear message” can quickly be forgotten or misremembered. Repetition and tie-ins with daily discourse are a must. I saw this in action in the past year with the core behaviors that we established at work. We’ve tried our best to bring them up at interviews, new employee on-boarding, one-on-one performance reviews, monthly team meetings, and emails to the team. I still think we can do more, but I’m also very pleased to see that people are using the same words to recognize each other and describe what we do as a company.

Essentialism shows that there’s beauty and many benefits to living a simple life. But creating a simple life takes work and discipline. It’s about saying no, taking care of yourself, and being clear about what’s important. I’ve continued to reflect on ways to simplify my life and identify what’s absolutely essential for me. It’s a worthwhile exercise that’s helped me quickly shed trivial worries and annoyances that ultimately matter very little. Instead, I’ve found many things to be grateful and optimistic about on a daily basis.

Recently, I listened to an interview of legendary Coach John Wooden by self-help guru Tony Robbins. This was a recording from some years ago when Coach Wooden was alive. In it, Coach Wooden shares a 7-point creed for life that his father shared with him when he was a boy. He had kept a sheet with the 7 points in his wallet all his life. Listening to this, I thought that Coach Wooden was definitely an Essentialist of the first order. I hope to check out some of Coach Wooden’s books later this year, so I’m sure I’ll bring this up again, but here are the seven points:

  1. Be true to yourself.
  2. Make each day your masterpiece.
  3. Help others.
  4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
  5. Make friendship a fine art.
  6. Build a shelter against a rainy day.
  7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.