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Thursday, November 20, 2014

What next?

Writing in his autobiography, John Stuart Mill reflects on the fleeting sense of happiness:
I had to ask myself, "Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" And an irrepressible self-conscious distinctly answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.
 In an early scene from The Shawshank Redemption, Brooks Halen is released from prison after being locked up for fifty years. He then hangs himself, unable to cope with life on the outside.

Although these examples are a bit dramatic, I see less dramatic versions of it all the time. There is little motivation when the chase is taken out of the equation, when there is nothing to go after, nothing to challenge you.

Just as important as hitting your goal is identifying what's next.

Delighting the world, one at a time

The first to solve a problem obviously has an advantage over anyone else who solves that problem later. But that doesn't mean it is the end of the road for everyone else trying to solve that problem.

Even the simplest problems are complex in nature. Simply because the ground underneath is constantly moving. When a problem is solved, the next level of problem is unraveled. And this level might consist of different problems for different kinds of people. And each one is a niche to go after.

Facebook solved the problem of connecting with friends irrespective of geo-location. But LinkedIn found a niche of doing the same for professional connections. And today, LinkedIn is the go to place for connecting with colleagues while it is Facebook for friends. Even though the basic problem they solve is that of connecting people.

You may not be the first to do it. But if you can do it in the best possible way for the right audience, you will thrive.

Which is why you don't start by thinking, 'How do I become a global giant?'. If you do, it is very unlikely that you will take off.

Instead, you start by thinking, 'How do I make my product the best solution for the situation that one person that I know is in?'.

By delighting one person at a time, you won't bring your down to the lowest common denominator needed to please a mass.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Scheduling and Eureka! moments

I'm a big fan of scheduling. I find it a lot easier to get done everything that needs getting done when I've allocated some time to it in my week's schedule. It has been a very effective tool.

But it doesn't always work. Several times, I have ended up setting aside time for things and have failed to get them done. Even when I end up spending that time doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

When I looked at why this was happening, there was a pattern. Two kinds of tasks resulting in differing outcomes when put through the scheduler.

While solving a problem (let's face it, we all solve problems for a living), there are two parts to it. The first is only 5% of the work but is notoriously unpredictable and seldom respects the natural expectations of effort-reward ratios. This is the part that ends in a 'Eureka!' moment, the part that involves outlining the approach to the solution. The rest 95% is seeing this approach through by finding corroborating facts, figuring out the best way to present the findings, etc. This part is ideal for being scheduled. This part respects natural expectations of effort-reward ratios.

So, now I fill my schedule with tasks belonging to the 95%.

But, that doesn't leave any time for the 5%, right? Wrong.

The 5% is about being obsessed with the problem. So much that that is all you think about. When you're in the shower, about to sleep, waiting for a bus, driving, running, all the time. And to get to a solution, you can only be obsessed with a handful of problems (less than 5 is my bet) at any given time.

So, now I pick a handful and forget about the rest. The minute I hit the 'Eureka!' moment for even one, the corresponding grunt work can be scheduled for later, and a new problem can take its place.

PS: Boredom is when there are no such problems that require 'Eureka!' moments.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Start with the end

When you're building a product to ship, you have to start by visualizing how the completed product ought to look. Then work backwards to figure out how to make that happen. The clearer the vision, the more passionate you are about wanting to bring that vision to life, And the discipline with which you set out to work will define how efficiently you get there.

But you always start with the end. Otherwise, you might still work with passion and arrive at a product you deem worthy enough to ship, but it will neither in an efficient way nor with the clarity needed to mobilise others you would have liked to join you in building it.

Over the last year and a half, I have learnt (from the master himself) to start every new meeting, every new relationship, every new sales call, every new interview, with the end. The big picture. The ultimate vision that you want to realise. Apart from serving as a hook, it will force the other party to align her proposal to suit your vision.

I recently had to choose three words to describe the people I'd like to work with, and ended up choosing talent (to help bring clarity to the vision), passion (to be itching to bring that vision to life), and drive (to have the discipline to see it through). Someone who is able and willing to do what it takes.

Today, I came across the history of Eric Betzig (in photo), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last month for his work on high resolution microscopy. Turns out, he started with the end. Read his story here.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The right time

A friend of mine gave notice from her job as an associate professor at a small private university. She taught only the classes she wanted, and only in the way she wanted. The administration supported her with academic freedom. She had a good salary and full benefits, with lots of breaks and every summer off to pursue other projects.
Why leave? "Because it was time," she said. Just because it was a good job didn't mean that she had to do it forever. Everything has a season. 
Some of our mutual friends didn't understand why she was closing the door on an opportunity that had served her well. According to her, though, she had to leave to find something new. The right time to leave is when you're ready, not just when someone else makes the decision for you.
- Chris Guillebeau

There are a hundred things that I'd like to be doing but am not for no particular reason other than inertia of being cushioned into a well adjusted routine. 

The right time is when you're ready. 

External stimuli always come in too late.