An act of translation
I was told to go find out why a particular project failed to ship on time.
One way to do this is to go walk up to people and ask, “Why didn’t things ship on time? Why were you late?” Which is basically how the question was posed to me.
I decided I would not turn around and re-ask the question to other people. That would trigger feelings of defensiveness. I’m also involved in enough confrontational conversations that, if I could help it, I was not interested in initiating another one. (Not that one should never trigger confrontational conversations, but they should be done deliberately with control.)
So instead I performed an act of translation. I re-positioned the question. I said, “I’m trying to understand what it would take to get this project to ship on time. What do you feel is blocking you? What would we need to change?”
Instead of defensiveness, I got this reply, “So you’re asking for a complaint session?”
Ah. I suppose I was. I braced myself. This could be painful.
But this is also part of the product manager’s job - listening to complaints about your product and taking them in a constructive light and being solution-oriented and fighting off every urge to be defensive. On bad draining days, I completely fail to do this. On good days, good things happen.
We got into a very productive conversation. He shared the various parts of the process that were painful, some of which I was aware of, some of which was new. I pushed on points that didn’t really make sense to get at what was the underlying problem. It’s not helpful to just say it’s a lack of resources. That would lead to a growing mountain of incomplete work, not persistent delays, which was the pattern we saw. It’s something else. It’s the psychological effect of one longer, more painful to-do list versus a shorter one. It’s the many unknown points of failure that led the whole process to become longer and also more unpredictable.
At the end of it, he said, “Thank you for asking.”
Well, thank you for sharing.
It is hard to do this act of translation every time, especially if you’re under a lot of pressure and stress. It takes a lot out of you - this act of taking a question of blame and turning it into a question of empathy. But I should remember this conversation and how much I learned and how much we gained. Next time, I should remember to try harder to pause and practice translation.
The origins of “stay hungry, stay foolish”
I love this chain of anecdotes. They make my brain tingle. This is the story I didn’t get around to telling when I wrote about the Stewart Brand profile.
It starts with Steve Jobs’s Stanford commencement address where he talks admiringly of Stewart Brand and quotes that slogan that has since come to be associated with Jobs:
“Stewart and his team put out several issues of the Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: ‘Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.’ It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.”
When asked if he was surprised that Jobs loved that phrase, Stewart Brand says:
“I was, yes, though I’d known it meant something to him as I’d been told that he wanted a copy of the cover of ‘Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish’ signed by me. And I signed one and sent it off to him. That was the first inkling I had that it mattered to him.”
Imagine that. Steve Jobs asking for your autograph. A hero’s hero indeed.
It gets even better.
What does that quote mean, really? Stewart Brand describes the inspiration for that quote and the design of that last page:
“Oh I know, it’s because of my campaign to get photographs of the whole Earth which I did in 1966 and after which the Whole Earth Catalog is named.”
1966. Brand started a campaign to get NASA to release photographs of the earth. He created buttons that said, “Why haven’t we seen an image of the whole earth yet?” Imagine that. 1966. A time of first trips to space. A world that had never seen a photograph of the entire planet.
But back to the story about the quote. Brand goes on:
“We were just starting to get files of photographs of the Earth, and there was a sequence from a satellite of basically a day in the life of Earth from sunrise to sunset, and I wanted that sequence and to make the connection between the view from space of the shadow moving across the Earth, and the experience of being on Earth and seeing dawn. And for some reason the image I had in my mind was of a hitchhiker at dawn on a road somewhere and the sun comes up and there are trains going by. The frame of mind of the young hitchhiker is one of the freest frames of mind there is. You’re always a little bit hungry and you know you are being completely foolish.”
If you are like me, you think, I wish I had a copy of that. I wish I knew what that looked like.
Because the internet is a wonderful place, you can actually look up what that page looks like.
It’s kind of an odd mash up. If you looked at it without context, it doesn’t really make sense. But when you know the story and you connect the dots, then you see it, you understand why it inspired a visionary.
Stay hungry. Stay foolish.
How to choose a job you love
I wanted to reflect on what I have learned from pursuing professional happiness.
Tony Chu has a great post called Life Design, where he is trying to decide what factors are most important as he chooses his first post-grad school job. He listed a few ways to evaluate potential jobs - “growth, do-gooder-ness, money, network, and flexibility”.
Having changed jobs several times since starting my career, and having advised many others on their job changes, this is what I have learned.
This matters to the extent that you must not feel underpaid. More is of course better, but more cannot compensate for other factors beyond a point. Oddly enough, whether or not you feel well paid is only partly correlated with the actual number. You can be paid a lot and still feel underpaid. I had this experience in investment banking where I was paid more than I had ever been paid up to that point in my career. And still I felt resentful about how “little” I was paid, because it was a “bad” year for bonuses, because my expectations were blown out of proportion, because I felt the job had extracted so much work, so much life out of me that I felt grossly underpaid. Money is a factor but just one.
This does not not matter. Prestige is relative. Your perception of prestige will change. Your social circle’s perception of prestige will also change, if you change social circles. Once upon a time, I thought a government scholarship and a civil service career were prestigious. I have since learned that I don’t care for that sort of prestige. I have found that people who don’t have a brand name stamp on their resumes seem to always be slightly envious of those who do. So frankly, I think those people should go get a brand name stamp and get it out of their systems. You will find it opens more doors. I have certainly been given the benefit of the doubt because of the stamps on my resume. But once you have experienced prestige, it will decrease in importance to you. It’s kind of like the Groucho Marx quote, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
This trumps everything else. There is growth of the company, if you’re looking at startups. As Eric Schmidt famously told Sheryl Sandberg, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” Then there is growth in the role. Every 3, 6 months you should feel like you have leveled up. You should be able to do something you couldn’t have done before. Acquired more skills, deepened in the skills you have, do things you couldn’t have done before. Growth doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy your job every day. In fact, it almost guarantees that there will be days when you crumble under the weight of your job and just want to curl up into a ball and cry. On some days, you will do exactly that. On other days, you will be in flow. And on still other days, you will be cruising. The key is that your job must allow you to grow in the ways that are valuable to you. If you value being better at building relationships, your job had better put you in a lot of difficult people situations. If you want to be better at a technical skill, your job should allow you to solve challenging technical problems. It is hard to choose for growth. But I have found that the less defined, less cookie-cutter a job is, the more room there is for growth.
This matters. But it is hard to accurately predict whether you will fit in with a culture ahead of time. Even if everyone you meet in the interview process tells you they love their colleagues, it’s hard to tell whether you will feel the same. It certainly doesn’t hurt if everyone says the best part of the company is the people. In the mean time, all you can do is ask questions like, “What kinds of people are valued in this company? What kind of people succeed here?”
Some people choose to take a job because of a particular person they want to work for. Someone once told me, “All the best job decisions I’ve made were because of someone not something.” But here’s the catch: your boss can change. I have changed managers 3 times in the last 2 years. So it is useful to learn to be boss-agnostic. Learn from whoever is in your reporting line. That said, a bad boss is the #1 reason why people quit their jobs. That’s from some stat I heard in a b-school class, where many people nodded in agreement.
Know what you’re getting into. Accept your limits. If you like having 8 hours of sleep, don’t be a banker. If you don’t want to work with people who think a job is just a way to pay the bills, don’t take up a 9-to-5 corporate cog job.
A difficult one. Having worked in public service at the Singapore central bank and having explored a save-the-world job in impact investing, I think I have pursued meaning and come away with surprising lessons. The most important thing, I find, is that you must feel that you are making a difference on a daily basis. Otherwise, especially if your job promises meaning and you feel none, you will feel dissonance and come to hate your job. Meaning is more important in the sense that you have impact, and less important in the sense that you are saving the world. I personally haven’t been able to find enough fulfillment from jobs that are ostensibly about do-gooder-ness. To me, it is the broader definition of impact that matters. Impact means being able to draw a line from what you do to an outcome you care about. In my startup, I feel that I can draw a direct line from what I do to a certain chunk of the company’s revenue. It baffles the mind to think how much smaller this number is than than the deals I was doing in investment banking, but it feels far more significant because I feel more ownership over it. The other surprising way in which I have found meaning is whether I can make a unique, positive contribution to a situation. If I can make a better judgment call, extract more insightful analysis, make a process go more smoothly, be a listening ear to someone’s bad day, help someone step up and grow, if I can do any of that and feel that I did it better than most would have in my role, then I feel I have done meaningful work.
Finally, having had all these jobs, we get to the question that trumps them all: should you even get a job?
Create your own job
I have come to realize that the people I envy most have jobs that you cannot apply for. Like Jad Abumrad. You cannot apply to be host of Radiolab. You cannot interview for that job. He applied for some radio job along the way, and then he made it his own. He created a job for himself. Heck, he created his own freakin’ aesthetic. That’s how he got the job he has now. Perhaps I have drunk too much of the water in these parts, but I believe that in the long run, whether or not you are a founder, your best bet is to approach your job as an entrepreneur. You have to do what Seth Godin says - pick yourself. The most interesting jobs out there are ones where people have figured out how to do what they are.
Vehicles to spread ideas
I came across a wonderful profile of Stewart Brand.
I first heard of Stewart Brand when I was 15, and I was fascinated by futurists. I read Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control and Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and other work, and if you read enough of this, you come across Stewart Brand.
Stewart Brand is best known as the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. The Catalog, as described by Steve Jobs in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, was “one of the bibles of my generation… It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.” I had never seen a Whole Earth Catalog but was enchanted by the idea of it.
I’ve been thinking about vehicles to spread ideas. To start a list:
- Political revolutions
- Art and media - everything from books to blogs to bumper stickers
What Stewart Brand did with the Whole Earth Catalog falls in the third category, but there is a particular flavor to it.
The Catalog is “deeply consumerist”. Like any other catalog, it is full of stuff you can buy - kayaks, mountain bikes, welding equipment, forestry gear. As someone who spends her day looking at websites full of things you can buy and has mixed feelings about encouraging purchase, this is interesting to me. Buying more stuff is not that interesting to me, but the discovery of things, and the notion that ideas can be embedded in those things, that is interesting.
And so it goes that a magazine of curated things to consume is also a means for discovering ideas to consume.
I’m not about to make the claim that encouraging the buying of things is some noble cause. But this has me thinking about what is the real vehicle here for spreading ideas. The catalog, the media, is a vehicle. But so are the products.
Product can be a vehicle for spreading ideas.
A friend who has spent her career thus far in finance, an entrepreneur in finance if you will, says she would like her next venture to be about making things. Real widgets. So many of the people I know who have switched from consulting to startups have expressed something similar. They want to be part of an enterprise that makes things, even virtual things.
Not everyone who wants to make things wants to spread ideas. But if you want to make something people love, if you take that seriously, then I believe you are after the spread of ideas. You care about your product’s purpose.
Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired magazine, says of his experience reading the Catalog in high school:
“…it changed my life. But then it changed everybody’s life. It inspired me not to go to college but to go and try and live out my own life. It was like being given permission to invent your own life. That was what the Catalog did. It was called ‘access to tools’ and it gave you tools to create your own education, your own business, your own life.”
Tools. Products. It gave access. It gave permission. It made people imagine their lives in a different light.
So if you’re going to make a thing - in your day job, in your side project, in your weekend hobby - what ideas are you spreading?
Stories I have enjoyed lately
All of this I recommend. All of this is good.
This American Life - Trends with Benefits
If you consume nothing else on this list, I recommend this. (Web extras here.) A fine piece of journalism about areas in the US where nearly a quarter of the adult population is on disability. There is a story in there about a woman whose dream job is to work for the Social Security office, because that is the only job she’s seen where workers get to sit down all day. There is a heart-breaking story in there about a mother who didn’t want her teenage son, who was on disability, to get a job, because that would mean the end of the family’s disability check.
Pico Iyer’s Interview at the Oxford American Summit
I heard this for the first time on a morning run. Pico Iyer is a travel writer of exterior and interior journeys. The first question he is asked is, “Why do you write?” Without missing a beat, Pico Iyer goes, “To make a clearing in the wilderness.” And off we go on a splendid conversation about writing and what it means to travel to discover the world and to discover ourselves.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life
I learned about this book by way of this article in The Atlantic, Relationships Are More Important Than Ambition. I wouldn’t call this a great read, but the book is interesting to me precisely because, unlike the author, I am not drawn to the idea of going home again. But whether you lead a settled life like Ruthie did in Starhill, or you live to go see the world, I think all of us seek a sense of belonging. We want to find our tribe. For me, this book raises interesting questions about what it means to feel connected to a community.
The best story I know by Jeff Elder
A beautiful story about how a family’s bookstore came to be.
Radiolab - The Fact of the Matter
No list would be complete without a shout out to my favorite radio show. This episode contains a segment called Yellow Rain, which sparked a storm of controversy about whether hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich unfairly “ambushed” and angered their interview subjects, who were telling the story of the Hmong people in Laos. Perhaps the hosts crossed the line, but to me, it was also Radiolab at its best, pushing beyond the familiar into the territory of gut churn. Perhaps the bravest act of storytelling I’ve heard in a long time.
On being good at painful situations
Colleague comes over and is very upset that something that is tied to my product is broken on his customer’s site. He tells me that this is unacceptable.
I completely agree. It IS unacceptable.
I also know that while the product overall can perform incredibly well, there are all these things that are broken. We are always living with these flaws. Some of it must be fixed. Some of it must be managed but not necessarily fixed, because the team can’t get to all of it. For every one vocal complaint I get, I know of at least 5 other things that are just as important that also need attention. So I can’t jump up and down and get this thing fixed ASAP, because I’m in the middle of working on a longer term fix for an issue that 6 customers have raised.
But you know what else I know?
I know how much it sucks to get on a call and have a customer yell at you for something that you have very little control over. I used to have that job. That part sucks.
But here I was with this colleague, not yelling at me over the phone, but yelling at me to my face. But I remain sympathetic. I know he is on my side. I know we both want the product to be better.
I tell another colleague, man, this guy’s job is tough!
She replies, “I think it’s awesome you have experience with both. I think it makes you more understanding with these type of fire drill situations.” Which is an awfully kind thing to say.
So I have experience with painful situations. On some days, I have a lot more of it than I would like. Is that really a good thing? What does all this experience add up to really? What is the point of all this?
The point, I think, is that if you want to take any management job seriously, if you want to become good at managing, you have to become good at the painful situations.
Most painful situations involve difficult conversations:
- Listening to complaints about things you may or may not be able to fix
- Handling conflict between people
- Making someone do something that nobody else wants to do
- Intervening to defend people taking the heat
- Speaking up for people not even in the room
- Delivering bad news
You don’t have to like doing these things, but you must want to become good at them.
My favorite description of the Product Manager’s job is not the one where you are CEO of the product, but the one where you are the sh*t umbrella. Far more useful guiding principle than the CEO thing.
As for what keeps me going in these painful situations, I think back to the greatest manager I know. The man once had to fire an employee. Years later, she met him again and she thanked him. Yes, genuinely thanked him. She wasn’t going anywhere in that company, but she became very successful elsewhere.
I hope to never have to fire anyone, but if I get put in that position, I hope to do it well.
That is the point. If you become good at painful situations, you wield the power to make them less painful for everyone. And sounds like a pretty good thing to me.
The fear of indifference is real
Years ago, when I was unhappily bonded to Singapore government, one of my biggest fears was that I would become indifferent. That I would become OK with being mildly unhappy all the time with my job. That I would forget how it feels to want something really badly and go after it, risks be damned. That “what would make you happy?” is a question worth asking.
In the Singapore Scholarship Guide, I wrote:
When I came back to Singapore and started serving my bond, my biggest fear was that I would conform and “be like everybody else”… I was most afraid that if I stayed in an environment that I found stifling for six years, I would be so drained, so cynical, so beaten down by the end of it that I wouldn’t have the energy to get out and start over on something I really wanted to do. I suppose I feared my own weakness.
For a long time, I assumed that my younger self had simply blown that fear out of proportion, because I was too immature and too insecure of who I was and what I could do. Even when I wrote the Scholarship Guide, I was thinking, come on, look at where you are now, how can you possibly think that you’d ever settle into a job to which you are merely indifferent and be OK with that. You are not wired for indifference.
Over a couple of recent conversations, I realized the fear is real. It was entirely warranted. I had conversations with friends from completely different backgrounds about their peers back in Singapore, who were not exactly unhappy but carried a kind of unacknowledged unhappiness. This is not limited to bonded scholars. We know people from all kinds of backgrounds who suffer from this. (And of course, this is not limited to Singaporeans.)
We know of people whose dream in life is to buy a nice car. Not to find a job they enjoy or to have a real impact or do any kind of worthwhile work, but merely to buy a car.
We also know of peers who now have family obligations and just want work-life balance, which is fine, except that they were never that happy with their jobs. Now they no longer think about whether or not their job makes them happy. It’s a non-question.
We know of people who hated their jobs while they were bonded, but eventually exited into the private sector but basically stayed in the same industry, similar function, and just continued complaining.
So if you’re reading this and you’re unhappy with your bond or with your job, and you’ve been feeling that way for awhile now, and you’re wondering if you will change and eventually think this is all OK, even though it is not really what you want, the answer is:
YES, your fear is real.
It is incredibly hard work to figure out what it is you want. It is hard for almost everyone.
But you need to start by asking, what is it that makes me happy? And you need to take that question seriously. And you need to do something about it. And when you are done with that something, you need to ask yourself again, ok, what makes me really happy? Then you keep refining. It may take years, decades, many different job choices and life choices.
But take it from me. Just as your fear is real, the joy of professional fulfillment is real. Very very real.
A practice of gratitude
I like giving through Kiva. Well, since it’s microfinance, it’s really lending and not giving, but I treat it like giving.
My favorite part is not the borrower profiles, or the interesting stats the site gives you, or how cool it is to help a stranger in need somewhere far away.
My favorite part is that it reminds me to keep giving. A couple of years ago, a friend explained his giving habit to me. When the universe is kind to him, he likes to give goodwill back into the world through a donation. He gives through Kiva. It is a practice of gratitude.
I liked it so much, I adopted it for myself. When good things happen to me, every few months or however often, I log into Kiva and make a loan to someone somewhere in the world, sometimes in a country that I’m not even sure I could pinpoint on a map. It can be triggered by anything from great professional news to happy personal news to just feeling super glad that I have great people in my life. As the loans get repaid and money comes back into my Kiva account, I get email reminders to make new loans. And so I do. When good things happen, I re-loan and put more in. I’m up to 16 loans now. A gift that keeps on giving.
Recently, I gave a friend a Kiva gift card as a birthday gift, so that she too could make loans.
Here is the cool part. Because I had a successful invite on Kiva, I got a bonus $25 to lend for free.
And here’s the really cool part. When you click on a tiny bonus summary link, you see:
Thanks, Reid! What an awesome way for him to give.
If you want to play too, here’s an invite: we both get $25 to loan for free.
Hacking my schedule - a product manager’s notes
I’m having a lull in my schedule. By “lull” I mean I am currently not being completely crushed by my workload. All is relative. I thought I would take the opportunity to analyze where my
time attention really goes in a work day. Last week, I documented every issue that I dealt with each day. I decided to not track how much time was spent. I was more interested in the variety of issues I have to deal with, because I wanted to get a sense of what this job is all about.
I had 2 key questions in mind. Well, actually I had a ton of questions - everything from how to optimize my time to what is the goal of me doing my job. I am most interested in whether I do enough real product thinking (more on that later). That’s expressed in these 2 questions:
- Do I spend too much time on per customer work, and not enough time on general product work that affects product direction and therefore all customers?
- Do I spend too much managing process and not enough time thinking about product?
It turns out that it is fairly challenging to tag one’s schedule. Too many ways to slice and dice and define things. How do you even begin to describe what it is you really do at work. So the tagging I did is rough, but it a good start that has led to several insights.
I did the tagging along 2 dimensions:
Does this activity affect:
- one customer
- product overall
This is really hard to define. What are the skills that one is really applying for a given activity anyway. I found it hard to distinguish activity from skill. You sit down and write a product requirements doc. What is that - documentation? communication? writing? product planning? thinking?? I settled on the list below. I’m not entirely happy with it, because I can’t quite articulate my criteria for choosing these skills. But for now, they are simply the kinds of intellectual activities that I feel I am engaging in.
- Product thinking
- Analysis / debugging
- Decision making / prioritization
- Process management
- Communication (not how you communicate, but rather managing information flow)
I do spend a lot of attention on individual customers, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
I spent a lot but still less than half my attention on individual customers. My tagging shows I spend more attention on the product overall than per customer work, so that’s good.
The nature of enterprise software is such that you must spend a fair amount of attention on individual customers, at least with our current concentration of customers. You think about customers as a set, but really, you think a lot about specific customers’ needs. As I think about scaling, I am trying to lean hard towards doing less per customer work and more overall product work, because the latter benefits all customers and drives the product forward.
However, I don’t think the goal should be to spend zero time on per customer work. Some of the per customer work informs the general product work. My tagging shows some overlap between per customer work and overall product work. Sometimes I’m dealing with a single customer’s request, but because it becomes a feature request that links to what another customer asked for. This becomes overall product work. So the line is not clear. This is not good or bad. It is simply the nature of how product feedback arises in our setup.
So the real question is: am I doing the right kind of per customer work?
I need to retain the work that is tied to understanding customer needs, which translate into feature requests or product requirements.
I need to continue to dig in into per customer analyses to have a thorough grasp on what’s going on, because it affects my understanding of the product. I need to maintain that depth.
But I need to automate or document or train people to do the rest - the process management pieces. Which leads me to the next point…
I spend a fair amount of attention on process management, but I need to be selective about what I try to automate or delegate.
If I look at where the per customer work is coming from, most of it is tied to process management around new customer launches. I dealt with 9 customers in the new launch or early pilot phase last week. We have a lot of high profile customer launches that need more attention lately. Part of this is also driven by process design, because the current launch process makes me responsible for certain steps.
Again, the goal can’t be to get to zero process management. But it’s a bit of a challenge to figure out what I can automate or delegate vs. what I need to hold onto. As the product manager, you are ultimately always responsible for the success of the product. Bugs are your problem, so are botched launches, so is poor quality in a corner case, so are delays, etc. So there is a fair amount of process management that I’m not sure how to reduce. How do you transfer responsibility so that it reduces your follow up burden? I’m not sure here.
I spend about the same amount of attention on decision making, which sounds like prioritization, which sounds integral to the product manager’s job, but there is actually room to automate here.
If you get to the point where you’re managing anything, a lot of the day is spent on meetings, formal and informal and over email, where people come to you with their issues and you make decisions on how to proceed, when to proceed, if we should proceed.
Within that, there are different kinds of decision making. There are many that I cannot automate or delegate. But there is a certain category of lightweight decisions that I can partly automate. These usually involve someone saying that customer X wants this, have we ever done it, can we do it? Or someone saying, you’re running this process and I need my customer to be high priority for xyz reasons, where can you slot it in?
For the lightweight decisions, some of this can be more “automated” with:
- Documentation - so that people can help themselves to the information
- Heuristics and guidelines - so that more of the prioritization is done implicitly instead of me having to make an explicit decision every time
I spend more time on product thinking than I had expected.
My job is to think about the product. Obviously. But one of the big challenges, at least in this role and I suspect for many product managers in general, is getting away enough from all the other process and debugging and attending meetings to focus on thinking about the product and driving the product forward. (What counts as “forward”? Well, you’d need to spend enough time thinking about product to know.)
But what is product thinking? There’s a bit of a myth that it’s about sitting down and plotting out a product roadmap, whatever that means. In reality, product thinking can encompass these items from last week:
- Dealing with an individual customer’s issues in detail because it leads to feature requests and new feature ideas
- Having long discussions with no near term output but allowing the ideas to percolate and shape the team’s fundamental understanding of the product
- Documentation because how you communicate the product to an audience affects both the audience’s understanding of the product, as well as your understanding
- Running the numbers to analyze what we should do about a class of customers where the product should be performing better
- More classically, working with engineers to think through the implementation of features
At some point, I should write a whole other entry on what is product thinking. For now, from studying my tagging, I learned this:
Product thinking usually happens in tandem with some other skill, like decision making or debugging. Product thinking needs to happen both in focused isolation and also in many informal feedback and thought gathering sessions. What feels like a frustrating session of dealing with a customer’s complaint, where you feel like you really can’t come up with a satisfactory solution, can in fact be a springboard for product thinking.
Finally, what should I be doing more of that I am not doing enough or at all?
Ah, that is the question.
2013: Make space for joy
For the last week, I’ve been doing an annual review, in the tradition of what Chris Guillebeau does over at The Art of Non-Conformity. I went over 2012, looked through entries from the offline journal. I put together lists of things that went well, things that did not go well, words that were important to me, people and ideas that influenced my thinking.
Then I moved on to 2013 and wrote down goals for the year ahead. When I was done, I looked over the list and thought, gosh, I feel tired looking at this, this is too much! I wasn’t interested in setting a long list of reach goals. Fewer and better is better. So I dropped the ones that are habits anyway. I dropped the ones that aren’t important enough for me to excel in. I kept the ones that will require focus.
A couple of days later, it occurred to me that something is still missing from the list. The list is accomplishment-oriented, partly by design. You want to specify and quantify things you want to achieve in the year.
But what of just having a really great year? If I accomplished everything on the list, would I have a great year?
What of joy?
Then I thought about 2012. Something unusual happened in 2012. I didn’t move, didn’t change jobs or anything like that. But by the fourth quarter, I had the life that two or three years ago I would have felt… oh, what I would have given to have this. All this. Was I happy? I suppose I was, in many ways I was. But I was also overwhelmed so much of the time. I was just trying so hard to keep everything going smoothly (and sometimes was very happy, sometimes failed miserably). And, well, I would not give up any of it, but it all felt too much like the word “challenge” and not enough like the word “joy”.
Frank Chimero has this great passage about moving targets:
“The best design recalibrates what we think and how we feel about what surrounds us. The two shine on one another: culture changes what it expects from design after design changes culture, meaning that when our work hits the target, that target moves out from underneath it.”
He is talking about culture vs. design, but I’d like to extend the analogy to the way we make goals. You write goals at a time when you are a particular person. You are writing goals for that present person. By the time you become the future person, you may have achieved those goals, but in achieving those goals, you have also changed. The shifting can’t be helped, and you should still set the best goals you can. But what I’m arguing for is a writing of goals with the allowance for your person to change.
So. What of joy, indeed.
In some years, I’d come up with a theme, a phrase to set the tone for the year. For instance, during business school, after a semester where I felt over-committed and stretched too thin, I came up with “do less, better”. This guided the way I spent my time and the way I agreed to or declined commitments.
The point is not to add another to-do, but simply to have a phrase to represent, “If nothing else, remember this.”
For 2013, my phrase is:
“Make space for joy”
- Taking time to have an extended conversation with someone just because I like talking to them, even if my to-do list is piling up as we speak
- Getting rid of negative attitudes about something or someone, because negative attitudes make it harder to receive joy
- Invest more time and energy in things that will bring sustained joy
- Celebrate good news and good things
My warmest wishes for your new year. Happy 2013.