I am incredibly excited to send the latest version of my newsletter from Substack. Thanks for your continued readership as I look to bring even more value to you by focusing on content.
Perspective creates Truth
Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. The ability to see this in practice, is a superpower. This mental model asks us to be deliberate & slow in judging people and situations.
For instance, when dealing with performance, it is easy to conclude that your colleague Tracey is great or awful, based on first hand experience. However, after slowly taking into account diverse perspectives from others, you will discover that reality might be more nuanced. Perhaps, Tracey is great at design, however she is not good at communicating it.
The truth about Tracey’s performance is not absolute, it is multi-dimensional and depends on your perspective.
The boat made it, and so can you
The Ever Given was stuck in the Suez Canal. Honestly, I have never seen a ship as big as that one. Some lessons
Life is unpredictable, and edge cases sometimes do come true. If 2020, and 2021 has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected.
Tough situations can seem uphill at first, but then sometimes they can be solved with grit and determination, and the results might surprise you. Initially expected to take weeks, the rescue was carried out in a relatively shorter time.
This infographic from Poppy Harding is a gem. It talks about how stresses from our daily lives add-up, and then how we have mechanisms to release it such as exercise, sleep, mindfulness, etc. also how unhealthy habits can make it incredibly unhelpful to release the overall stress levels.
On a cold spring day you’ve just landed at the London Heathrow airport. You head over to the Uber boarding point at short stay car park 5. You summon your ride and wait staring at your screen for the driver to show-up. There are many unsuspecting passengers doing the same thing around you. You keep staring at the animated car icon on Uber and hope that the driver shows up sooner rather than later. It takes about 40 minutes just as the driver calls you and you scramble to locate the car’s number plate. As he complains about the queues at the terminal, you are already frustrated but are glad to get out of the airport. Sounds familiar?
On-demand services aren’t always better
Consider our earlier example, if you had called a private cab company and scheduled the ride ahead of time, you would have found the driver waiting with a placard outside the terminal. While Uber is supposed to be convenient, in this case it ends up being inconvenient.
Another ubiquitous on-demand part of our lives is entertainment. For instance, I have YouTube premium. Ad-free videos and curated music is awesome and value for money. I also need my Netflix for Star Trek, Disney+ for Marvel, and Amazon Prime Video for Star Wars. We now have more choice of programming than any other time in human history. Yet have you noticed that it is quite frustrating to decide what to watch, so we end up watching familiar shows like “Big bang theory”. Don’t even get me started on the graveyard of Netflix originals.
When my generation grew up, entertainment was not on-demand. Yet, we had programming pre-curated, pre-planned and delivered through a device called as TV 😀. It was awesome, even with ads!
On-demand services might be making us miserable
Aren’t food delivery apps brilliant? Last week, I found myself randomly scrolling on the feed of one of India’s popular food delivery apps called Swiggy. I asked myself, what am I doing on Swiggy? Then I realised I was hungry, probably a little bored, too. I subconsciously made a pavlovian association between Hunger, boredom and Swiggy. Thankfully, my conscious afterthought pulled me out of it. I was shocked at how addictive this stuff is!
Swiggy is frictionless. Literally 3 taps and you can get your favourite burger and fries at your door under 20 minutes. Despite all the convenience, selecting the restaurant and the menu is still stressful. In conclusion, on-demand sugar and fat might be convenient, but does not add much value to our mental peace or physical health by creating an addictive association. On the other hand, if you spend time mindfully buying ingredients, and cooking it with or for your loved ones, it is therapeutic. I know that not everyone will agree with me, but it is worth trying, mindful cooking can be an outstanding de-stressor.
When you have too much choice and availability, we tend to become lazy. For instance, in the example above, in a food ordering app, we tend to be frustrated with the choice fatigue, and would often give into the algorithmic recommendations. Algorithms do not necessarily have your best interests at heart. Instead, they optimise for engagement. Prior to Uberisation, you would mindfully think what cuisine you wish to eat, then look up the best restaurants, make a reservation, dress-up and have a good time, regardless of the food. It is more joyful even if not convenient.
The curse is universal
Learning on YouTube is awesome, but there is something different about hand-picking books and making sense of them in a slow and mindful manner. On-demand learning apps are causing a tectonic shift in the way our youth learns. It is super convenient, but are we losing something in the process? You tell me!
Take groceries, remember in the pre-pandemic world when you drove to your favourite supermarket and discovered new products, tried new kinds of cheese, or perhaps made new friends in the aisle? On-demand grocery is super convenient, but why do I miss going to the supermarket with a check-list in my hand and let randomness of the supermarket surprise me?
Spotify is awesome too, but it can never replace the joy of a mixed-tape the love of your life made for you. Salon services, healthcare, home services, much of the same can be said about almost all the on-demand services.
Best of both worlds is possible
On demand services are making a lot of positive difference to the world as well. As a result of changed market dynamics smaller players now have access to a larger marketplace. These services are also market expanding in nature. For instance post introduction of Ola / Uber in India, the taxi market has expanded significantly. This means greater employment for the masses and overall better domestic consumption for the economy.
The key is mindful consumption of on-demand services. Hair Salons are still around, so are restaurants and supermarkets. We still have libraries and bookstores from where you can borrow reference books. You can still make a digital mixed-tape and surprise your loved one on your next anniversary. You could still use Uber when it really is convenient, and you could still use Swiggy when pandemic makes it nothing more than a lifeline.
The challenge is also open for the on-demand service providers to open up experiences that are currently missing. This is happening in e-commerce, where many major brands offer a hybrid shopping experience. Others can follow suit and bring back the very experiences that make us human.
Artificial constraints are irrational conditions that we put on ourselves.
It’s amusing. They start really early. “Daddy…! I was really good this year and look… Santa got me two monster trucks! Santa also ate cookies!!”. My 4 year old cheered with joy. Just so you know, I did not condition him to believe that “being good” was a prerequisite for Santa’s gifts.
Incentives and punishments fuel artificial constraints
American psychologist Alfie Kohn suggests that conditional parenting is one of the worst thing you can do to your children. The method of incentives and punishments for controlling behaviours has long-term adverse effects. Children grow up believing that everything including love is conditional. Their self-worth also becomes conditional. For instance, if they don’t meet their own expectations, they think there is something wrong with them. Think about it, children are sentient, intelligent beings. They understand logic, reasoning and with a little love, they can learn to differentiate good and bad on their own.
I was fortunate to have parents that seldom offered any incentives but there were lots of punishments 😀. People of my generation will relate. For instance, when I was 14, I asked my father for a computer, and he didn’t put an artificial constraint on getting it. He didn’t say, you will get it on your birthday or when you ace your mathematics grade. He got it anyway! I realised later, that it was really hard for him, juggling a middle class income. The unconstrained gadget turned out to be a lifetime of passion and subsequently a vocation!
It is helpful to appreciate that our self-worth is affected by regular conditioning with punishments & incentives. This makes us all vulnerable to artificial constraints.
I have bumped into artificial constraints many times
2017 was a challenging year for me. Late 2016, my son Anik, was born. My wife and I made a conscious decision to move back from the UK to India. A few weeks of preparation and job hunt followed. It was very stressful. First, there were range of opinions about whether it was the right decision. Second, I had many irrational expectations in my mind about what a return should look like. I wanted to be safe and comfortable. Also, I also wanted to compensate for every negative comment I received on my decision to move back. I dreamed of having the perfect job offer, the perfect house and everything else waiting for me.
I was obviously mistaken, I had to go back to India first, and then figure it all out. Expecting stability when I go back was not wrong, but expecting perfection was only holding me back. It was an artificial constraint.
Let serendipity do some work
I recently took an online professional certification exam. At first, I told myself, “I will book my exams once I get a decent practice score and complete every module of training”. You see, I had this artificial constraint in my mind that I must meet these conditions in order to “book an exam”. In reality, booking an exam is not dependent on any of it at all. Result was procrastination worth weeks and months. I had let an artificial constraint manipulate me into inaction. One day, I realised that I was holding myself back. I finally booked the exam. Dedicated preparation followed, and I was able to complete the professional certification in a week!
Artificial constraints are universal
A significant proportion of people regret waiting too long to have kids. They realise (late) that ideal conditions are a myth. It’s important for instance to be able be ready to have children. However, deciding that you need to wait for your next promotion is an artificial constraint. Imagine you want to buy a dream house. It is likely that the house is somewhat beyond your budget and it still does not tick all the boxes. Naive homebuyers delay the process. Often a rushed and more expensive outcome follows if you don’t decide soon enough. Experienced homeowners will tell you to get on that property ladder sooner, rather than later!
It’s important to have the freedom of choice, but chasing the perfect is an artificial constraint.
In the business world, founders of successful startups never feel “ready” to take the plunge. They did it anyway. Heck, we are even used to put artificial constraints on our education. Especially in an Indian family, talented youngsters feel like they are missing a trick if they are not acing GRE or GMAT. We have successfully put an irrational constraint on ourselves that we must get an MBA to be successful.
Many people who want to sell stuff think they must have an amazing website, whereas that is not necessary at all. I have seen sellers in rural India selling literally thousands of dollars worth merchandise on Facebook video alone… so spending months creating your website when you could be selling is an artificial constraint.
Based on my experience, I would say that rather than taking lessons in how to become an entrepreneur, you should jump into the pool and start swimming
At workplaces, artificial constraints manifest everyday. You have an excellent idea, you do not pitch it to your boss because you are afraid of the negative feedback. Perhaps you have had this experience before when you suggested something, and it was ignored. You feel frustrated, and you go back to your shell so that you do not have to go through it again. You come across a job, you know you can do better than many other people. However you tell yourself that before reaching that job level, you must complete at least few years in lower grades. You tell yourself you do not have the qualifications. You think that there many older, wiser people better suited than yourself. All in an attempt to avoid uncomfortable rejection.
To conclude, artificial constraints are omnipresent. If you know about them, you can avoid them and lead a more productive life and realise your true potential.
3 potential solutions
Deploy these methods to counteract any incorrigible instances of artificial constraints.
1. Bias for action
Start just before you think you are ready. When in doubt take a small positive step. Action is an incredible debate killer. Imagine that you are trying to create a product roadmap. You have convinced yourself that you need a super-template before you begin. Now that is an artificial constraint! If you just started listing your roadmap items, you are much more likely to have a materially better result as now you have on your way to complete the core task, and a super-template can be an afterthought.
2. Run an artificial constraint test every time you hold yourself back
Imagine that you love helping people grow. You want to become a professional coach. However, you have been waiting to get your coaching qualification before you get yourself out there. While that would certainly make a difference to your credential, there is nothing in the world that will actually replace you speaking with people and trying to solve their problems. Apply a simple test whether what you are waiting for is actually rational.
3. Surrender to Mindfulness
Repair your sense of self-worth by resorting to mindfulness as a discipline. My blog has a number of resources on this, however, there are a number of books I would recommend too. Mindfulness will not only help you focus on things that matter, but also help you clear your head from things that don’t!
Poor thing. PowerPoint has such a bad reputation. Let’s be fair. It’s deserved by some use cases rather than the tool itself. It’s time to set the record straight.
PowerPoint doesn’t kill meetings. People kill meetings. But using PowerPoint is like having a loaded AK-47 on the table: You can do very bad things with it.”
Peter Norvig, Google Director of Research
Neurology of Powerpoint
Powerpoint is visual. However, when we are reading a slide, many other parts of our brain other than visual cortex get busy. For instance, temporal lobe is recalling our language constructs, the Broca’s area, found in the left frontal lobe is helping us comprehend, the angular and supra-marginal gyrus linking different parts of the brain is combining shapes to make words and so on. Remarkably, when we are actively listening, the same areas of our brain get busy. As a result, we can’t actively listen when we are trying to comprehend a slide!
“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.)
So, why does PowerPoint have such a poor repute?
Many presenters hide behind their slides.
Slides are so easy to create that some people take the easy way out. They cram powerpoint with information. They do not put in the hardwork necessary to practice presenting, or to effectively organise content, flow and visual aid. Instead, they dump the waste bins of raw information on the audience, and ramble through it. Many presenters succeed at this endeavour because we are simply trying to make sense of a bloated presentation and we hardly paid any attention to the speaking part. All in all, it was an experience that was only marginally better than going to the dentist.
I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.
Presenters and audiences get addicted to abstraction of ideas
The ease, ubiquity, corporate acceptance and ability to hide complexity is addictive. For instance, imagine that you need to make a crucial decision on your sales strategy. Armed with minimal preparation but extremely polished slides, a consultant pitches for a change in incentive structure. The slides and the presentation were successful but during the showmanship, the details that should have been taken into account were lost. Before you know it, organisations get used to compressing, over-simplifying and making decisions with slides and meetings as their preferred partner in crime.
Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.
New York Times
Impaired human-to-human connection
Martin Luther King did not use a PowerPoint when he gave the “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln memorial in Washington D. C. He made a personal connection with millions of people, through his message, and his inspiring presence in a historic moment in time.
When you are presenting, non-verbal communication can really change the game. Your body language, timing, eye contact, gestures, pitch, and intonation can take your delivery from good to great. Slides however, create an invisible barrier between that and your audience. You simply don’t have the unwavering attention from them.
Moreover, our brains are predisposed to perceive visual input as reality. While this is simply conjecture on my part, I think using PowerPoint impairs critical reasoning in a group setting. For instance, you can dictate the agenda using PowerPoint. Once you have put it on a slide, everybody enters a virtual contract to follow that agenda. Rarely do people challenge it. Our limbic brains are telling us, if it’s written on a slide, it must be accepted. Imagine the impact it has on the quality of decision making.
“Many, many years ago, we outlawed PowerPoint presentations at Amazon,” Bezos said at the Bush Center’s Forum on Leadership in 2018. “And it’s probably the smartest thing we ever did.”
Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos banned it. Shouldn’t everyone follow suit?
I am not sure. It feels like the case of vilifying the messenger and ignoring the message. A tool can always be misused, including the mighty pen. PowerPoint is no exception. Apple, Amazon are iconic companies and it would be wise to learn a few things from them. I would advocate using “first principles” rather than imitating them.
So, how can we keep it real ?
PowerPoint is a visual aid. Keep it that way.
Imagine that you are giving a keynote about the City of San Francisco. A large projected backdrop of golden gate bridge adorns the stage. The audience, is captivated by your illustration of a homeless man, making his living scouring through trash. You talk about how homelessness is one of the biggest challenges facing the metropolis of paradoxes. A few engaging minutes later, and your presentation was not only captivating, but also it was impactful.
When we rely on PowerPoint to complement our delivery visually, it works wonders. As soon as you have an expectation that your audience will learn from your slides, you have missed a trick.
Long form writing is the anti-thesis of PowerPoint. It takes time, practice, mastery of the topic, richness of ideas, crafting of narratives, and most importantly, ability to identify connections and make inferences. This essay is an example of long-form (hopefully decent). It allows me to express the topic from many different dimensions. The comprehensiveness is uncanny of any other form of articulation.
Amazon replaced PowerPoint with a 6 page memo. ″[It] is harder for the author, but it forces the author to clarify their own thinking,” Jeff Bezos said at the Forum on Leadership. “It totally revolutionizes the way we do meetings at Amazon.”
Use extreme selection
Extreme selection is not a technique, it is a process. I use this term inspired by the theory of natural selection.
In this process, we allow natural variation in the forms of articulation we use. There is a wide selection – group discussions, group chats, silent meetings, dragon’s dens, AMA’s, town-halls, steering committees, forums, keynotes, to name a few!
In my view, we should experiment with these, determine what suits best and then inject these within your organisational processes. In other words, do not accept the PowerPoint as default.
For instance, imagine you want to prepare a charter for your team. You start by listing down all the things that your team is responsible for. You also list down all the things that your team would like to be doing. Try slides, or video interviews, perhaps fun live activities with people expressing their views. See what works best!!
Promote Silent meetings
A common issue during internal meetings is that participants are not prepared. An individual has prepared all the materials and they take everyone through their line of thinking without due regard for what the internal meeting is supposed to solve for. This causes wastage of time in simply bringing people upto speed. As a result, the possibility of a debate is very thin.
There is a solution. Silent meetings. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, starts meetings with silent reading and taking notes from Google docs. This allows for collaborative reading, and review. Any issues can be debated and solutions found. The level of detail is not lost either. Best part – no expectation that audience is prepared.
Most of my meetings are now Google doc-based, starting with 10 minutes of reading and commenting directly in the doc.
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter
Design meetings for interactivity
Cloud based collaboration tools have reached crazy levels of sophistication. I have used Figma, Miro, to name a few, and the ability to articulate ideas while allowing real time, asynchronous feedback loops, live commentary, chat, rich notifications is just incredible.
Even without using tech, using a whiteboard you can make a meeting interactive. Make use of what you’ve got. It will pay handsome dividends.
You messed up big time and you need to give your boss the bad news. Perhaps, a persistent request from your biggest supporter at work is difficult for you to accommodate. Also, someone is consistently undermining your role and you’ve simply had enough!
1. Take a cue when faced with these tradeoffs
These situations are awkward, uncomfortable and they often smell of conflict. They almost always involve challenging tradeoffs. Would you make an excuse with your boss and risk breaking trust or come clean whatever the consequences? Will you resentfully accept the request by your biggest supporter or reject it with honesty and endure discomfort? Would you write a passive aggressive email to a colleague that undermines your role or would you be open to understand what is driving their behaviour?
Whenever you are faced with such tradeoffs you should know that you have a difficult conversation on your hands.
2. There is power in committing to have a difficult conversation
Avoidance is tempting. At great cost, I have learnt that difficult conversations are an instrument of redemption. If you avoid conflict, mistrust grows and relationships deteriorate. Moreover, you need to manage consequences of these strained relationships at the cost of growth. On the other hand, if you did come clean with your boss, you might get reprimanded, but your boss will always remember that you took responsibility for a mistake. If you honestly declined the request from your biggest supporter at work, they might actually appreciate it more. Also, it may turn out that the colleague who has been undermining your role, did it because of something you said at the team meeting. You are able to patch things up, and you don’t have to deal with the thorny issue anymore.
There is power in taking full responsibility for your difficult conversations.
The more positive outcomes you achieve, the less your aversion to difficult conversations.
3. How to prepare for a difficult conversation?
There is a lot of advise out there that says don’t frame it as a difficult conversation. However I have observed that it helps to acknowledge it. Self-affirmation that I have turned many such conversations around with a positive outcome is a great way to muster courage.
You could choose to frame it differently. Some choose to frame it as “getting closure”. That’s fine as long as you are not being vengeful about it.
It’s helpful to understand what are the emotions involved between you and the other person. For instance, a colleague who is undermining your role may be insecure about theirs. If you even acknowledge their insecurity, you have a better chance of dealing with the situation. Others may perceive you as eccentric, overly nosey, perhaps there is fear.
I take cues from facial expressions, keen observation of body language when you are together, public comments in meetings, or simply how responsive someone is can tell a lot about emotional equation between you two.
Considering power differential
The person whom you are going have a difficult conversation with may be equal, less, or more powerful than you. This has implications on how you prepare for the conversation.
When I am dealing with senior executives, I want to be absolutely sure that I am not out of line. Senior executives, no matter how strict also appreciate honesty. Deceptive, sugar coated, and convoluted feedback serves to frustrate anyone, let alone senior executives who have to deal with difficult situations at scale.
While dealing with subordinates or peers I want to ensure I don’t come across as too sure of myself. Showing genuine appreciation for a different point of view is helpful. You cannot fake it.
Avoid gossip like the plague
You don’t like someone at work, it might be tempting to confide with your close colleagues. You might say, Lynsey is always trying to undermine me in every situation. She is so arrogant. You may feel like you have just released some burden, but you have just committed a big disservice to the potential success of your conversation with Lynsey. You have now framed and confirmed a biased perception of Lynsey. This will make it very hard for you to have a genuinely engaged, difficult conversation with her.
It’s harder to fill a cup that is already filled.
Manage the narrative in public very carefully otherwise the narrative will manage the situation.
E-mail, text, and the snowball effect
It’s tempting to respond with a very satisfying “ReplyToAll” and show that you are no less. The thing though, is that e-mail is free for all. The more people on the chain, the more free fall opinions, the more polarisation and the more agony. I call this the “e-mail snowball effect”. This is a sure way to ruin your chances to a productive conversation, and it’s certainly going to be more difficult now than it was before the drama that unfolded via e-mail. Please don’t take the bait. Even if someone else starts it be the first to end it.
Texting is worse. You think you are doing it 1-1, you feel powerful with a fire and forget mechanism. Please do remember that it’s two-way. There is no guarantee that it’s private and often it becomes a venting ground. Face to face or video, or at least a phone call is must.
Time it well
You shouldn’t have a difficult conversation when either of you are emotional, tired, anticipating a critical deadline.
4. Practice the following conversation principles
These work particularly well for difficult conversations but are equally applicable to any conversation.
Invert the pattern of interaction
Notice the pattern. You and the other person typically have patterns of verbal exchange. For instance an aggressive boss might react to a mistake by yelling or making a terrible remark. You might shrug off, back off into a corner or you might react verbally as well.
If you know that there is a pattern then try to invert it. If the boss yells, and you have a tendancy to react try a minutes’ silence. This will throw the other person off balance, and also most likely make them think their reactions as well. This technique is very effective!
Don’t get distracted
When you are discussing the other person might make personal comments. They might say but you never listen or say you always are late to respond to my work requests.
Acknowledge the first part of their personal remark and bring the conversation back to the topic. For instance you might say, “I appreciate that I may come across tardy or impatient, but today I’d like to understand if you are willing to change your publicly made comments as they undermine my role. This has an effect on my productivity and therefore affects everyone including the company”.
Deliberately slow judgment.
Be curious, this will avoid confirmation bias. This will allow right questions, entertain other point of view, and engage in a dialogue. Be eager to “understand” than score +1 points by proving that you are right and the other person is wrong.
Deliberately slowing judgment is a superpower
Articulate what needs to change without complaining. For instance, don’t say, “I find your publicly made comments humiliating and therefore stop making them”. Say, “I’d like you to be sensitive towards how your publicly made comments might affect my ability to perform my role”. That is a lot better, as it steers clear of personal blame and focuses on what can be improved without judgment.
When you are having a challenging conversation, it is natural to expect emotions such as anger, resentment, fear and contempt towards someone. However if you humanize those emotions you would find it a lot easier to control your emotions. For instance, you are extremely angry with someone for sending a publicly humiliating email to you. You can certainly prepare and have “the conversation” with them however it is helpful to think why they may have done such a thing? For instance you can say to yourself, “Martin has gone through a lot. This quarter has been incredibly difficult” or, “Martin has 4 young kids, and the pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone. Everyone is not themselves sometimes”. This will put you in the right frame of mind instantly. It will avoid reactions and set stage for a good conversation, or make the one you are having already a lot better.
Don’t try to control the outcome
During a conversation focus on the relationship between you and the other person. Be genuinely okay with a negative outcome. This is not a negotiation, first you need to iron out an interpersonal issue. Even if you try to negotiate it’s not going to go down well.
5. If nothing works?
This is a completely plausible scenario. Even after sincere efforts and genuine conversation, if the other person remains in their square, and you have a dysfunctional relationship, then you have 3 choices.
Accept it, set a boundary or make a change. Which choice depends on all of the things we have already touched upon.
May the force of difficult conversations be with you!