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.

Messaging
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)

Stop…

  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.

good-to-great-flywheel-effect

 

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.

Conclusion

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:

Deliberative

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.

Reactive

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.

Opportunistic

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.

Procedural

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 full 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 nobody is immune to it.

Why people don’t give something or someone their full attention? When, for example, 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 prescribe 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.

2016: Habits that Stuck

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2016-habits

Last year, I wrote about new habits that I picked up in 2015 that impacted my life positively. Fortunately for me, 2016 allowed me to continue in my experimentation with new behaviors. I hope to make my habits recap an annual practice.

2016 New Habits

Weekday Meditation

I began using the Headspace app in early 2016. It was tough to get used to as I kept falling asleep during the 10-minute guided sessions. But after a couple of months, meditating became as automatic as brushing my teeth. During the work week, my immediate action upon waking up is to sit up on my bed and turn on Headspace. It is only after I complete a session that I’ll jump out of bed and start my morning routine. On weekends, since Melanie is around when I wake up (she’s usually gone to work by the time I wake up during the week), I choose not to use the app, which is fine because my weekend morning routine is very different.

Meditating with Headspace has been great in many ways. It’s helped me deal with stress, both work and personal, in a much more effective way than say, drinking or binging on TV shows. By teaching me to breathe and to focus on the body, and to let thoughts come and go, meditating has become a very powerful tool for discarding thoughts and feelings that are ultimately unproductive. What’s kept things interesting for me are the different categories, such as Performance, Relationships, and Sports along with packs of 10 sessions under themes like Focus, Creativity, Balance, and Kindness. While the format of focusing on breathing, your surroundings, and your body is consistent from session to session, the app poses different questions and presents new thought exercises, like imagining a growing spot of sunshine on your chest.

As I worked my way through nearly 40 hours of meditation in 2016, I’ve found myself generally feeling calmer and less anxious. A big part of this is from being more aware of how I’m feeling and why. Rather than getting caught up in the heat of some stressful situation, meditating has helped condition me so that I can take a few deep breaths, take a step back and see the situation for what it really is rather than blowing it out of proportion with the dangerous fuel of my uncontrolled emotions. Being able to catch myself like this has been very helpful in allowing me to make sounder decisions and in keeping me from making unwise, unfiltered remarks to people. Sure, I still fall victim to my emotions from time to time, but the practice of meditation is a daily reminder that I can work with my mind in a calm and productive way.

Tuesday Date Nights

Mel and I established a weekly Date Night on Tuesdays so we can spend quality time during the work week. No matter how busy we are, we’ve been committed to keeping Date Nights on. We both have it as a recurring event on our respective calendars so we can plan around and for it. We typically go to a restaurant in Brooklyn and enjoy a nice meal while sharing what’s going on at work and talking about potential weekend plans or an upcoming vacation.

There have been weeks where we’ve gone out more than once and those have been great, but for the weeks when I have a deadline or she has to put in extra hours at work, Date Night allows us to stick to a minimum number of hours together and keeps our communication bond strong during the week when we hardly have the opportunity to talk. We’ve been very happy with this arrangement because it’s helped us overcome a problem we’ve had for years. Because Mel’s work starts hours before mine, she wakes up much earlier and is gone before I wake up. She also goes to bed much earlier, so if I come home anytime after 9PM, there’s a chance she’s already in bed. This schedule difference often led to weeks where we wouldn’t see each other awake at all until the weekends. The lack of communication was becoming problematic for us, so we decided to give Date Night a try. I’m happy to say that it’s a shared habit that’s stuck for us and I look forward to our weekly evenings in 2017.

Weekly Basketball

I made time to play more basketball this year than I have in over 15 years. As a baseline, I try to play once a week after my Monday workout. This might be a one-on-one game with a friend or a few pick-up games with whoever is on the court. Additionally, I’ve tried my best to get in one more session, usually a couple of hours, of basketball during the week. This usually comes in the form of pickup games either at a friend’s apartment gym in Koreatown, at a community center on the Upper East Side, or at the YMCA near my place. Except for the occasional jammed finger, I’ve luckily been able to avoid injuries. I’ve improved my long distance shooting accuracy and having better cardio fitness from running has allowed me to play tighter, more aggressive defense.

Breakfast

I’ve become addicted to breakfast. In 2016, I started making more time for breakfast, waking up early enough each morning so I can fully enjoy the meal before work. My two go-to meals have been oatmeal (with blueberries, nuts, maple syrup, and flax seed) and whole grain/spelt English muffins (with peanut butter, flax seed, nuts, and honey or vegan mayo with avocado). I’ll supplement these with grapefruit or oranges. It’s felt great going to work feeling energized and fully awake.

What Happened to Habits I Picked Up in 2015?

I thought it would be worthwhile to check up on the habits from the previous year to see if I stuck with them in 2015 or, if not, why I abandoned them.

Reading List

I’m happy to report that I continued my practice of keeping a reading list and read 34 books in 2016 (see full list here). This is still probably the single most important habit in the past 2 years in that it’s been the source of inspiration and ideas for all of my other habits.

Boot Camp at the YMCA

I stopped going to this because it conflicted with days I wanted to play basketball. However, because of my participation in Spartan Races in 2016, my Monday workouts have evolved to incorporate a lot of boot camp elements including a ton of burpees and lots of plyometric exercises.

Running

I upped my running game in 2016, hiring a running coach to help me prep for my first ever half marathon in March. I continued to run weekly during the year although I scaled back my mileage considerably, averaging about 5-6 miles a week. I’ll be upping my training in the coming weeks as I prep for another half marathon in 2017.

Paying Attention to Credit Card Rewards

I redeemed several airline tickets using rewards points in 2016 and got some bonus points for referring friends to Chase Sapphire. I’ll be on the lookout for any outstanding deals from new credit cards, but I’ve been pretty happy with my current setup. I unfortunately didn’t qualify for the Chase Sapphire Reserve card because I opened up too many new credit accounts in the past year, including a few business credit cards for Barrel under my name. Doh.

Embracing a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet

I mostly stuck with my plant-based diet in 2016. I was a bit more lax about consuming fish every few weeks, especially as Mel and I hit up sushi joints for Date Night. But overall, for meals where I was alone and in absolute control, I felt no desire to deviate from a plant-based menu. On vacations with friends and family, I let myself eat some meat and cheeses, which was no big deal. For example, I had a steak at Warren Buffett’s favorite steakhouse when I went to Omaha for the annual Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting. And in Portugal, where Mel and I vacationed this past week and where the concept of vegan dishes doesn’t really seem to exist, I was fine eating cured meats, all types of cheeses, and lots of salted cod. In fact, eating non-plant-based foods occasionally has made me appreciate so much more the healthy, clean feeling I get from sticking to plant-based foods most of the time.

Habits I’m Hoping for in 2017

In addition to looking back, I want to look ahead and share some habits I hope to fully adopt in 2017. These are habits that have started to form at the tail end of 2016 but need more time to solidify.

Journal Writing

I’ve started to take anywhere between 10-30 minutes each morning during breakfast to jot down some thoughts in a journal. First of all, writing thoughts down by hand feels great because it’s something I had gotten away from for a good number of years. Also, writing something daily without any specific aim has been fun. Some days, I’ll just recap what happened the day before. Other times, I’ll write a thought or two about a book I’m reading or a problem I’m having at work. I set no expectations. The only requirement is that I write something. I hope this keeps going.

Daily Mobility Exercises

I’ve written about this in a previous post. I think this will do wonders in helping me prevent injuries and in becoming a better athlete in general.

Putting My Clothes Away Every Night

In the past month, I’ve been very diligent about hanging up, folding away, or throwing into the laundry basket any clothes I’ve worn that day. Previously, the default habit was to throw everything on the ground and batch process them on the weekend. This meant that during the week, our bedroom became a war zone littered with clothes. These days, I can see the floor the entire week, and there’s a feeling of tidiness that’s nice to wake up to each morning. I’m hoping this habit doesn’t go away.

Parting Thoughts

The beauty of habits is that when a habit is fully ingrained, performing it feels natural and doesn’t require a heavy lift in terms of the brain’s resources. It’s akin to setting up your finances to automatically pull X amount of dollars for savings each month and invest in a certain allocation of assets so you don’t have to even think about it. Knowing that you can program yourself to automatically perform all kinds of tasks, some that are very beneficial for you and some that are very enjoyable, I think putting in the upfront work to develop desirable habits is one of the most valuable things you can do. Habits compound because they repeat over and over again. Sure, some behaviors that I hoped would become habits have turned out to be too hard to keep or don’t feel worthwhile keeping after a period of time, but that’s only made me want to continually experiment and try new ways to make life healthier, more fun, and more challenging. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the world I live in, and it’s something that I plan on keeping up.

Learning to Run Pain-Free

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I’ve been raving to my friends about Ready to Run, a book by Crossfit San Francisco founder and physiotherapist Kelly Starrett. As I start my training for a half marathon in March, the biggest concern I had was the fear of injury. Last year, when I trained for the Brooklyn Half, I had a couple of weeks where pain in my ankles and toes kept me from being able to run the full program. It was only after ample rest that I could get back into it, but even then, I would have to endure a good deal of discomfort. My assumption was that this was just part of running and that gritting through it was the only way.

In Ready to Run, Starrett contends that the pain and injuries from running are often a result poor mobility in our bodies. And that lack of mobility is more often than not caused by our lifestyle: sitting hunched over at our desks all day, wearing shoes with high heels, not hydrating ourselves enough, and not performing routine maintenance to keep our bodies flexible, strong, and properly aligned. We try to compensate by buying expensive shoes or taking medicine for pain, but these do not solve the underlying issue of poor mechanics and lack of supporting structures in the body to make running a more fluid movement.

The book presents 12 Standards that you can use to assess your readiness to run and supplements each standard with a number of mobility exercises that you can do everyday. I went through all of the Standards and have been performing mobility exercises consistently for 10-15 minutes a day for the past 2 weeks. It’s still early, but I’m feeling great about the gains and will continue with the daily routine. Here are the 12 Standards and how I fared:

  1. Neutral Feet: Are your feet habitually in a neutral position?
    Result: Yes. Starrett provides some really good tips on how to keep a good standing posture, which I had not been doing. I’ve been trying my best to brace my back, keep my chest up, and keep my shoulders from rolling forward too much.
  2. Flat Shoes: Do you wear flat shoes?
    Result: No, but they may be flat enough. Starrett talks about the harmful impact of high-heeled shoes and how shoes with thick heels promote a heel-striking style of running, which can cause all kinds of pain and injuries long term. I have a pair of minimal running shoes that I plan to work into my workouts more regularly in the coming weeks (slowly and carefully) and I hope to be purchasing some cushioned flat (“zero drop”) running shoes in the coming weeks. Starrett also says you should avoid wearing flip-flops. They’re terrible for your feet and promote an unhealthy walking technique.
  3. A Supple Thoracic Spine: Do you have a pliant, properly organized thoracic spine?
    Result: No. Years of hunched-over sitting in front of a computer have done a number to my spine including a default hunched-over standing posture, constantly strained neck, and tight, forward-rolled shoulders. I’ve been extra conscious of my standing posture in recent weeks, and I’ve also tried to limit the consecutive number of minutes I spend sitting down in front of the computer.
  4. An Efficient Squatting Technique: Can you squat correctly?
    Result: Yes. Fortunately, squatting with good technique isn’t problematic for me. I’ve noticed some tightness in my ankles, but I’ve found it relatively easy to execute proper squats as outlined in the book. The thing to note from the squat test is that the depth of the squat should go way beyond the quarter squat that I learned in high school.
  5. Hip Flexion: Can you stand on your left leg and express normal range of hip flexion with your right hip for 30 seconds, then repeat with your right leg and left hip?
    Result: Yes, this is actually pretty easy for me.
  6. Hip Extension: Do you have normal amount of hip extension?
    Result: No, needs work. The Couch Stretch (see below) is the recommended exercise for improving hip extension. The problem for me is that I can’t do a proper Couch Stretch. There’s too much tightness in my quads and hip flexors that I can’t quite do the full stretch without moving away a bit from the wall. Hoping that doing the Couch Stretch every single day will improve the range.

    Couch Stretch

  7. Ankle Range of Motion: Do you have normal range of motion in your ankles?
    Result: No. I can’t execute the pistol position (see below) without lifting my heel. My ankle is definitely a problem area for me, so I’ll be paying extra attention to mobility exercises in the lower leg and ankle regions.

    Pistol Position

  8. Warming up and cooling down: Do you routinely perform pre-run warm-ups and post-run cool-downs?
    Result: Yes. I started doing this as soon as I read about it. I won’t run until I’ve had a good 10-15 minutes of warm-ups in, mainly a combination of air squats, jumps, and 3-4 mobilizations.
  9. Compression: Are you wearing compression socks?
    Result: Sort of. I’ve been wearing leggings when I go running, which achieves the same effect. I’m going to order a few pairs of compression socks as well. Starrett recommends wearing compression socks after work outs and when traveling by airplane as a way to boost blood circulation in the legs.
  10. No Hotspots: Are you free of hotspots of pain?
    Result: Yes. Luckily, I don’t have any hotspots of pain right now. This might change as I begin to up my weekly mileage in preparation for my half marathon race.
  11. Hydration: Are you hydrated?
    Result: No. Starrett recommends 2-3 liters of fluids a day and talks about how important it is hydrate properly before putting in the running workout. I find it tough to drink anything other than tea or coffee in the mornings, so this will be a challenging habit to adopt. I’ve purchased some Nuun hydration tablets to see if flavored water with electrolytes will be helpful.
  12. Jumping and Landing: Can you jump and land with good mechanics?
    Result: Yes. I’m happy to report that my jumping mechanics are very good. Starrett points out that running is pretty much a continuous series of jumps, so if your jumping mechanics are off (e.g. collapsed knees or feet pointed outwards on landing) then you’re likely going to have trouble maintaining proper running form.

With more than two-thirds of the standards covered, I’m feeling pretty good. The four areas I need to work on are pretty clear, and I know that by sticking to a daily mobility exercise routine, I can continue to build up a buffer of strength and range of motion that can help protect me as I run.

Memorable Fiction: Books I Haven’t Forgotten

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fiction books

I’ve been trying to work more fiction into my reading mix recently. I only finished 1 fiction book in 2015 and I’m on pace to read about 8 or 9 fiction titles this year, still less than one a month. I remember a time when fiction made up 90-100% of my reading. But I’m not so sure I’ve retained much from many of the books I’ve read. I think part of it is that I’m not a very close and critical reader. When Melanie and I compare thoughts on the same books we’ve read, I often feel like I’ve missed important chunks or failed to pick up on certain, illuminating points. A big part of it may be due to an intellectually lazy mind–I am a sucker for plot and physical descriptions of characters and things but easily miss out on nuances of dialogue and underlying themes. I feel like I have much to improve when it comes to knowing how to read.

In the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking back to fiction titles that have stuck with me. For all the fiction I consumed in my twenties, I realized that many were forgettable and that I could hardly recall the plot or main characters much less any themes or symbolism. I started jotting down the names of books that I haven’t easily forgotten. These are books that pop up in my mind from time to time, sometimes randomly and sometimes because a passage vaguely reminds me of a similar real-life situation. I pulled these titles off of my bookshelf and took another look. They’re all very excellent books, so I highly recommend them.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I’ve enjoyed many Ian McEwan books over the years (Sweet Tooth and The Children Act are also very good), but Saturday stands out for me. Aside from the intensity of its 24-hour timeframe, the precise and technical descriptions (a McEwan hallmark), and the movie-like build-up of the plot, I think the very relatable bourgeois life of main character Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon with a loving family, and the preoccupations and ruminations running through his mind as he encounters normal and extraordinary circumstances on an eventful day, were most memorable for me.

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

A renowned pianist has come to a Central European city for an important performance, but it’s as if he’s trapped in a maze as he struggles with a hazy memory and has very frustrating encounters with numerous characters. There was something really difficult about this book, but when I finished it, I thought it was brilliant. I read this about ten years ago, and I still think about it every now and then, especially when I have maddeningly illogical dreams where I feel stuck, either unable to remember why I’m there or frustrated that the people I meet are only confusing me.

The Adventures of Auggie March by Saul Bellow

A classic, and the sweeping nature of this bildungsroman is hard to forget.

Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can’t use he often can’t see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn’t correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn’t try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know it so little, may be very surprising. If a happy state of things, surprising; if miserable or tragic, no worse than what we invent.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

It took me several tries to finish this book, but the effort was well worth it. The structure is unconventional–over the span of decades, a narrator meets a handful of times with architectural historian Jacque Austerlitz, who recounts his efforts to discover his lost personal history. The sad and melancholy feel of Austerlitz’s lost past, the haunting black and white imagery scattered throughout the book that recall the ghostly aftermath of the Holocaust, and the free-flowing dreamlike cadence of the prose and dialogue gives the book a very distinct feeling that I can recall whenever I see its spine on our bookshelf.

Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul

I love this collection of vignettes from life in Trinidad and Tobago. The stories are sad, comical, and endearing. The characters–Bogart, Hat, Bhakcu, Popo, Big Foot, etc.–are unforgettable. After all these years, the writing style in here is still my favorite. A small sampling:

Big Foot was really big and really black, and everybody in Miguel Street was afraid of him. It wasn’t his bigness or his blackness that people feared, for there were blacker and bigger people about. People were afraid of him because he was so silent and sulky; he looked dangerous, like those terrible dogs that never bark but just look at you from the corner of their eyes.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

This passage from Robert Penn Warren’s epic novel on American politics always comes back to me:

There’s nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren’t any other people there wouldn’t be any you because what you do, which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren’t you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under your foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal gut like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn’t really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place.

You ought to invite those two you’s to the same party, some time. Or you might have a family reunion for all the you’s with barbecue under the trees. It would be amusing to know what they would say to each other.

But meanwhile, there isn’t either one of them, and I am in the car in the rain at night.

Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee

I still think of John Kwang, the Korean-American councilman from Queens with mayoral aspirations. His charisma, his flaws, and his Koreanness and Americanness–Lee does a great job in crafting a memorable character. This is a story with many parallels to All the King’s Men in characters, structure, and themes, but for me, Native Speaker has an intimately familiar feel that reminds me of my own immigrant and Korean upbringing as well as the uncertain feeling I’ve always had about my identity and place in America.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

I remember distinctly thinking to myself when I read this book: I wish it never ends. My favorite part is the thick middle volume The Savage Detectives (1976-1996) which is a sprawling collection of interviews with forty or so characters that recall the two main characters of the book, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. The different perspectives that come together to paint a picture of these two poets is quite rich and done in a way that was completely new and fresh to me.

Replay by Ken Grimwood

I’ve thought about this book at least once a week since I read it earlier this year. It’s about a 43-year-old man with a dead-end job and a failing marriage who suddenly “dies” and wakes up as his 18-year-old self back in time. This is ultimately a story about taking control of your life, being deliberate with your decisions, and living in a way that leaves no room for regrets.

Update: I asked Melanie about her selection of memorable books. Here were six that she mentioned: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Home, and Lila (counting as one although they are three related books); Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri; A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee as well; Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck; The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.

Am I Getting Enough Protein Without Meat?

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Breakfast featuring grapefruit, blueberries, and dates with green tea.

After switching my diet to a mostly plant-based one, the question I continue to get asked the most is: “How do you get enough protein?”

My standard answer would be: “Oh, I eat a good amount of tofu, beans, and nuts.”

But the thing was, I actually didn’t know how much protein I consumed and if it was indeed “enough”. I assumed that with my weight and muscle mass in a pretty stable place, I was getting as much protein as I needed to. However, it’s one thing to assume and another to actually measure, so I decided to analyze some typical meals to see how much protein I eat on a daily basis.

How Much Protein Do I Really Need?

I’ve read up on protein requirements on a few different websites and the number seems to vary. The government’s Dietary Reference Intake suggests 0.36 grams per pound of protein per day. At 153 lbs, that means I should be getting at least 55 grams of protein every day. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that for active males, the protein intake should be in the 0.64 to 0.82 grams of protein per pound each day. Let’s say I’m on the lower spectrum of active (I exercise 3-4 times a week) and need 0.64 grams of protein per pound or 97.92 grams total per day. Do I get enough?

Breakfast
My go to meal, especially when it’s chilly out, is a bowl of oatmeal. My oatmeal consists of the following (protein amount in parentheses):

  •  1/2 cup of oats (7g)
  • 1/4 cup of blueberries (.25g)
  • 1 tbsp of flaxseed (2g)
  • 1/4 cup of walnuts (4g)

Total: 13.25g of protein

Lunch
During the week, I’ll make myself a quick stir fry at work or order something from Maple. Here’s a breakdown for a stir fry (protein amount in parentheses):

  • 1 cup of white rice (4g) — I really should be eating brown rice!
  • 1/4 cup of red peppers (.1g)
  • 1/2 cup of zucchini (1.4g)
  • 1/2 cup of mushrooms (1.1g)
  • 1 cup of broccoli (2.5g)
  • 2 cups of spinach (2g)
  • 1 avocado (4g)

Total: 15.1g of protein

Snack
Throughout the day, I’ll eat some fruit or take fistfuls of cereal.

  • 2 Medjool dates (0.8g)
  • 1 orange (1.2g)
  • 3/4 cup of cereal (2g)
  • 1/2 of cashew-nut based vegan ice cream (4g)

Total: 8g of protein

Dinner
It takes me about 10 minutes to cook this dish. I absolutely love it and never get tired of it. I really overdo it on the soba, though.

  • 2 cups soba noodles (12g)
  • 2 cups of spinach (2g)
  • 1 avocado (4g)
  • 1/2 block of tofu (18g)
  • 1 serving of kimchi (2g)

Total: 38g of protein

The Grand Total

From this exercise, my total ends up being 74.35 grams of protein per day. It’s lower than the 97.92 grams but higher than the 55 grams suggested by the Dietary Reference Intake. I’m not too concerned about the amount. There are times during the week when I’ll have more beans, tofu, and quinoa and the typical meals above and some days when I’m not as hungry and probably come in lower. Overall, I’ve felt great about my diet, and I know that I’m eating more greens and getting more fiber and antioxidants on a regular basis than I did throughout my twenties.

Takeaway

To paraphrase Peter Drucker, what gets measured gets improved. I think this has been a pretty enlightening exercise in showing me that without tofu, soba noodles, and oats, my protein intake can take a big hit. I’ve been trying to find ways to incorporate more beans into the diet, and I also want to get back to eating more quinoa and chia seeds, two rich sources of protein. I’ll have to revisit this measurement exercise in a few months to see how I’ve made progress. For now, I’m going to hit the sack and think about the warm oatmeal I’ll have in the morning.

Organizing Clothes

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I’ve been reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing on and off for the past few months. I recently bought some new clothes taking advantage of a Black Friday sale on Bonobos and also a sample sale by our client Gitman Bros. I thought it’d be a good opportunity to reassess my wardrobe and get rid of some things.

One thing that was immediately apparent to me was that I just have too many t-shirts. Over the years, I’ve amassed a number of t-shirts from work, various startup events, athletic competitions, and online shopping. I decided to do a purge and really went at it. I know MariKon method was to ask if each piece of clothing brought me joy, but I went about it in a bit more pragmatic way. Any negative answer to the following meant the shirt would get tossed. Here was my decision tree:

  • Does it still fit well?
  • Are the collars frayed?
  • Are the colors faded?
  • Do I still like the design on the shirt (if it has a graphic)?

I was able to toss out about a dozen shirts this way, and with the shirts that are left, it’s definitely easier to say “this piece of clothing brings me joy.” Afterwards, I took to the MariKon way of folding clothes and reorganized my dresser to have all of my shirts standing up so I can see them all at once. I’m not sure how sustainable this is, but right now, things look really neat.

I repeated the process for the sweaters and my dress shirts. I also introduced some taxonomy into the way my dress shirts are organized so that solids, plaids, and tailored shirts are grouped together. I never paid much attention to the organization of my clothing in the past, but it was refreshing to take stock of everything I own and to know what combinations are possible. I also like that I’ve been able to dismiss pieces of clothing that only made me feel so-so.

Besides middle school and parts of high school, when it was possible to get made fun of for wearing something off, I never paid much attention to clothing. I did have a phase when I collected a lot of neckties, but I grew to despise wearing them and got rid of my fifty-plus necktie collection some years ago. Recently, I’ve been paying more attention to clothing than usual. It’s not that I wish to be fashionable all of a sudden, but I’ve been trying to find a reliable brand that delivers fit and an appropriate style. I thought Everlane was the brand for me, but after a couple of years, I realized that their clothes fit me poorly (their smalls run a bit loose) and the construction of their clothing is terrible–they seem to fall apart after a half a dozen washes. These days, I’ve been buying mostly Bonobos. The fit is much better and I like the selection of their styles. Hopefully, their sweaters and dress shirts will get a good amount of use. Hoping one day there is a brand that makes a range of clothes that truly fit my body type–broad shoulders, short arms, and short torso.

I’ll admit that, with a slimmer physique owing to a better diet and more exercise, I’ve wanted to wear clothes that accentuate the “fit”-ness. It’s a nice confidence booster. And by making sure my closet is well organized and stocked with only the clothes I want to wear, I’m taking the extra step to automate the process and reduce the cognitive load that dressing up has on me each day. I’m not yet at the stage where I’ll lay out my clothes the night before, but I’m pleased that there’s been much progress in what I wear and how I get dressed.

Toughness

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I’m working my way through Toughness by Jay Bilas. It was recommended to me by one of our designers at Barrel. It’s an excellent read so far, and I decided to look up the article that inspired the book. Jay Bilas is an ESPN basketball analyst, and he wrote about toughness back in 2009 that became a very popular piece. The article is hidden behind the paywall, but you can check out a saved PDF here.

Having grown up playing and watching sports, especially football and basketball, I’m a huge fan of any life lessons that can be drawn from the struggles and challenges faced by coaches, athletes, and teams. Bilas’s 31 examples of toughness observed in basketball serve as great lessons in selflessness, responsibility, hustling, being proactive, self-awareness, and resilience.

I want to quote the last four especially as they made me reflect on my day-to-day:

Move on to the next play: Tough players don’t waste time celebrating a good play or lamenting a bad one. They understand that basketball is too fast a game to waste time and opportunities with celebratory gestures or angry reactions. Tough players move on to the next play. They know that the most important play in any game is the next one.

I find this to be so true during the work week. On a given day, there are all kinds of highs and lows. The lows–losing out on a potential new business deal, dissatisfaction with an employee’s performance, problems with delivering a solution to a client, etc.–can cause anxiety, anger, or even disengagement if I let them overtake my mind and fester for too long. The highs are dangerous as well–placing too much importance on a new business win or a successful project launch can lead to complacency and a less motivated effort. Being disciplined about moving on to what’s next is important. The celebrating and relaxing and can happen on the weekend.

Be hard to play against, and easy to play with: Tough players make their teammates’ jobs easier, and their opponents’ jobs tougher.

I’m reminded of another book, Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. It doesn’t pay to make a big fuss to make sure others pay attention to you and feel your presence, especially if it means being stubborn about having your way or being loud about your contributions. Setting aside your ego and focusing on being a great teammate while tackling challenges together is a much more rewarding way to work and live. I’ve had my own personal battles with ego and continue to come across it every now and then. This lesson is a great reminder that others are impacted negatively when I don’t embrace the role of being a great teammate.

Make every game important: Tough players don’t categorize opponents and games. They know that if they are playing, it is important. Tough players understand that if they want to play in championship games, they must treat every game as a championship game.

My toughness is tested on this front every day. With numerous clients as well as internal projects and various management responsibilities, it’s tempting to take shortcuts and mail it in where possible. I know that in order to be effective and to achieve my vision of success, I’ll need to bring focus and sincere efforts to all of my responsibilities.

Make getting better every day your goal: Tough players come to work every day to get better, and keep their horizons short. They meet victory and defeat the same way: They get up the next day and go to work to be better than they were the day before. Tough players hate losing but are not shaken or deterred by a loss. Tough players enjoy winning but are never satisfied. For tough players, a championship or a trophy is not a goal; it is a destination. The goal is to get better every day.

Yes. This is why I look forward to each new day. What I fail to accomplish or achieve today, I know I can work towards doing better and making progress tomorrow as long as I show up, ready to put in the work.

The Foundation of Growth Concept

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For our Grove Ave venture, Welton and I have been working through a concept that we’re calling “Foundation of Growth”. As we begin to build up the Grove Ave brand and philosophy, we’ve been looking for ways to articulate the company’s mission. I wanted to jot down some of our thoughts here and explain how the Foundation of Growth tie into the Grove Ave mission.

Over the past couple of years, Welton and I have talked at great lengths about adopting good habits. We believe it’s fundamental to living a productive and fulfilling life. As we talked more and more about good habits, we started to identify categories that these habits could fall into. The categories, taken together, started to feel like a support structure for further growth. We worked through the categories, combining some and editing out others, until we arrived at five of them. We called these five the Foundation of Growth. The five categories, which have become “elements”, are as follows: Diet, Fitness, Sleep, Mind, and Relationships.

The Foundation of Growth is about establishing a baseline through a system of good habits. By being mindful and embracing a standard for what you eat, how much you exercise, how well you sleep, how you expand your knowledge, and how you get along with others, we believe that it becomes easier to set new goals for growth and achieve them. The Foundation of Growth is about deliberately making choices in critical areas that will protect your health, make you smarter, and also make you happier. With these in place, you can set your sights higher and challenge yourself to take on ambitious endeavors with confidence.

I want to share a few thoughts on why we chose these five elements:

1 – Diet

Eating is an everyday activity that plays a crucial role in our health and well-being. If you eat 3 meals a day, snack at least once a day, and go out for pre-dinner drinks a few times a week, that’s more than 30 times you’re making choices on what goes into your body. Over the course of a few weeks, a few months, and a few years, these choices add up. We see a great deal of possibilities in the types of habits you can develop when it comes to diet.

2 – Fitness

Our bodies were built to move, and yet, we often struggle to get an adequate amount of exercise. We want to explore habits, motivations, and incentives that can get people to embrace an active lifestyle. We’re also fascinated by the discipline, endurance, and personal challenges that exercise and sports present.

3 – Sleep

We know that a deep, rejuvenating sleep can jumpstart your day and greatly improve performance in many areas of your life. Whether it’s getting enough sleep or the quality of your sleep, we think sleeping is an activity worth much consideration.

4 – Mind

We debated on whether to call this Intellect or Mind. We went back and forth on it a few times. In the end, we decided on Mind because we like its more expansive definition and thought that Intellect could be a subset of Mind. I think the topics we explore with this building block may evolve over time, but our initial focus will be on the mind’s ability to learn and process new knowledge and the way the mind perceives and reacts to external forces.

5 – Relationships

So much of our happiness is tied to how we feel about our relationships with other people. These may be family members, significant others, co-workers, friends, classmates, and neighbors. We’re interested in how habits can strengthen and provide greater meaning to these relationships, whether it’s through outward behaviors or through internal reflections.

Focus on Growth

Growth can come in many forms. It can be the acquisition of a new skill through endless hours of practice and learning. It can be progress on a monumental project that takes years to pull off. It can be designing a life that allows you to maximize time with family while making a comfortable living. The Foundation of Growth, we believe, provides a firm support layer that equips the individual with the stamina, energy, motivation, and positive attitude to really focus on growth.

We see a great deal of opportunity in mining these five elements for content and products that can help our audience become more mindful about their habits and everyday choices. We’re currently collaborating on an e-book that will expand upon the Foundations of Growth concept and introduce what we’re calling Microhabits. If you’d like to receive an update when the book is ready, sign up to receive updates at www.groveave.co.