The Work of a Clean Kitchen

Anyone can splash around and follow a recipe.

Good cooks have the presence of mind to keep mentally ahead, to anticipate and stay calm, and to react quickly and smoothly when things go awry.

If you and your team can move through the chaotic moments with this kind of mastery, you’ll get much more than good immediate results.

You’ll give your people the chance to know what it feels like to remain fluid and present in the heat of the moment, to do great feats and stick the landing all without breaking a sweat.

That builds a confidence for the next round that’s like lightning in a bottle.

Dog Days

I can’t resist: I’m training our 6-month old, exuberant, I-must-sniff-and-greet-everything-and-everyone puppy, Birdie, and can’t help but notice a few things.

Positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement.

Catching her in the act of doing something wrong and correcting works much less well than creating a situation in which undesired behaviors are less likely to happen.

If she’s distracted, she cannot learn.

If she’s afraid or triggered in any way, she cannot learn.

Just because she did it right yesterday doesn’t mean she’ll do it right today.

Every new behavior has to be repeated, repeated, and repeated some more.

The distance between “I understand what this is and how to do this,” and “I will do this all the time” is huge. Getting her from one to the other requires extra-ordinary patience.

Things go wrong when my expectations get ahead of where we are, today.

Context matters tremendously. If I want her to demonstrate a new behavior, I have to ask her to do it in the simplest, safest context first. Only once she’s mastered the behavior in that environment can she succeed in a more challenging context.

When my expectations get ahead of where we are, we are both frustrated.

If she messes up, it’s on me.

Of course, I understand that human beings have frontal lobes, that we can practice meta cognition and that we don’t only learn by getting lots and lots and lots of little rewards for good behavior.

But we could set ourselves up for success with a bunch of lessons from Birdie.

To develop or teach a new skill, start small and in a safe environment, and allow plenty of time for practice before moving on to a more challenging environment.

Just because we got it right yesterday doesn’t mean we know how to do it today.

If we’re frustrated, it’s probably because our expectations got ahead of us.

Be patient with yourself or with the person you’re coaching.

Repeat so much that you’re a little bored, and then repeat some more.

Most of all, keep at it and treat yourself kindly. Remember that daily progress is almost undetectable, but that weekly, monthly and yearly progress (when we keep at it) will be remarkable.

Silver Linings

Birdie is a very good girl when she’s asleep.

Last Thursday and Friday, I learned, over the course of 24 hours, that schools in NY State are officially closed for the rest of the year, and that my three kids’ 7-week sleepaway summer camp (the highlight of their year) is cancelled.

Within the parameters of us being collectively lucky, safe, and relatively unaffected by this pandemic, this was a huge blow. We now have four more months of trying to keep the kids happy, healthy and cared for, while my wife and I manage our two jobs.

I have to admit, this unmoored me.

So I thought I’d make a list of the silver linings we’ve already experienced in these last two months, to remind myself of all the good things that are also going on.

Our team at 60 Decibels has pulled together, and is more connected than ever. And we’ve managed to pivot our business and launch major initiatives in 11 countries to listen to some of the most vulnerable customers, to understand the impacts of COVID-19 and social distancing, and find ways to support these customers.

My wife and I have gotten better at working together in the same house and not driving each other crazy (more specifically, me not driving her crazy).

And I think I understand a bit better all it takes to make the house run, which is allowing me to be more of an equal partner.

Each day, I see my kids when they wake up and when they go to bed.

Our family eats lunch and dinner together almost every night.

We all started playing ping pong again, and are having a blast.

Everyone has found a way to exercise more, walk more, and stay healthy.

My youngest daughter sewed her own teddy bear, named Juniper. She’s also learned how to make scrambled eggs and French toast for breakfast all by herself.

My middle daughter and I have, for the first time, started to go for runs together, something we never would have had time for before. These runs make me profoundly happy.

My two daughters learned to rollerblade. It’s their new favorite pastime, even though my older one is wearing my rollerblades, which are five sizes too big for her.

They’ve also gotten more independent and have had a slew of outdoor adventures.

And, overall, they’ve been amazing friends and companions to each other through a time when they can’t see the rest of their friends.

My teenage son and my wife have started going on long walks together, and having great talks.

Last weekend, he and I put together a shed behind the house, and, somehow, we had a blast.

We adopted a rescue dog. Her name is Birdie. It’s been a little more than a year since our 16-year old dachshunds, Stella and Blanche, passed away. Birdie has been with us for 10 days. She’s endlessly energetic, gentle and loving, needs a ton of exercise and chews and nips much too much. And we love her already.

Writing this list has helped me remind myself of all the good things that have happened in the last two months. It’s helping me remember that, despite everything, the future is bright and we will all—with a little luck and a healthy dollop of good fortune—get through this.

 

Unclenching

It was a yoga teacher who first pointed out to me that, even in a strenuous pose, there was no need to furrow my brow and clench my jaw. This is because, as it turns out, neither my jaw nor my forehead is connected to my thighs, hips, back, or hamstrings.

Of course this applies, like all things, beyond the yoga mat. Take running, which has returned as a major part of my life thanks to social distancing. I’ve logged my two longest runs ever in the last two weeks (just under 9 miles) since…what else is there to do?!

Mostly, I enjoy it, but I’m also having to unlearn the always-struggle, always-push mindset that I employed when I last ran regularly, in my teens and 20s.

I’m trying to remember to relax my face while I run. I’ve noticed that my forehead, the space between my eyebrows and my jaw are perpetually clenched when I run. This helps with absolutely nothing.

Clenching is a natural reaction to stress, but it doesn’t make sense. It provides no protection or safety. It wards off nothing.

Needless to say, stress is everywhere these days. We can trick ourselves into believing that clenching, both physical (in our jaw and forehead) and psychological (in our minds as we scroll through screen after screen of frustrating, worrying news) equates to “doing something.” We can pretend that worrying about what’s going on helps in some way.

The fact is, adding strain and suffering to something that is already strenuous is completely optional. There’s enough that’s hard already, why should we be adding more?

Here’s how to practice unclenching.

Find a spot in your body where you hold tension. For me, this is the left side of my jaw, which I often clench when awake and asleep.

Consciously unclench it. Breathe. Breathe again.

Now pay attention to other things that are clenched.

Let them relax too. Breathe. Breathe again.

Repeat as necessary.

Adjusting Your Value Wheel

Each business has a value wheel – the collection of things you do that create value for your customers.

In each situation, and for each customer, you present these in a different way. One customer cares more about the speed of delivery, another about how flexible you are, a third loves that you have an office in Cairo right next to where their main supplier is.

While your value wheel has a few core elements—the handful of things (values, behaviors, promises you keep) that make you you—each customer’s next-level reasons for hiring you will differ.

Your job, when selling your wares, is to know which of these value wheel elements to present when and to whom, and to be facile enough in representing and rejiggering them to communicate just the right offering to each different (potential) customer.

If this all wasn’t easy to see a month ago, it certainly is now. A month ago, a big chunk of how we used to create value was taken off the table. Our new task is to see if the pieces we are left holding are enough that we can continue to do (a new version of) what we do, even in today’s new, unprecedented context.

For many industries and business models, the short-term answer is a simple ‘no’:

Airlines can’t be airlines if people don’t want to travel.

Most restaurants can’t be restaurants without seated customers

But there is also potential, even with a lot of change:

Schools, it turns out, could probably teach kids effectively without kids coming together (though most are failing to do this well).

Most services businesses, whose lifeblood used to involve face time (not FaceTime) with clients and going to giant conferences, are discovering that a lot of that was expected behavior that was mostly unnecessary.

For those of us lucky enough to still be holding enough pieces to stay afloat, the questions to ask are:

How do we clearly see the collection of pieces we’re left holding?

Might there be a way that THIS collection of pieces is, in fact, enough to do meaningful work?

If we imagined that this new normal were here to stay, what would we do differently? What bigger bets would we make?

(and finally)

What new things have we learned about ourselves, our capabilities and our customers that we want to preserve, even when things get back to “normal?”

To help take this forward, here’s a downloadable value wheel that you can print out and fill out with your team (virtually, of course).

Value Wheel

Far Away from Here

“Have you heard? That new virus is spreading like crazy in Wuhan, China. That seems just awful.”

“Oh gosh, now there are tons of cases in Italy and Iran. I heard it came from a bat. How terrifying. Thank goodness there are only a few cases here.”

“It’s exploded in New Rochelle, just outside New York city, and cases are increasing across Europe. Close the borders.”

“New York is the epicenter of coronavirus in the U.S. Those damn, godless New Yorkers, all pressed up against each other. Good thing we’re safe out here in Texas. Or Wyoming. Or Nevada. Or in Lagos or Delhi or Mexico City for that matter.”

Obviously, we all know the terrifying punchline: “there” became “here” for all of us in a matter of weeks. Just as quickly, our carefully cultivated story of separateness has been debunked.

As we live through this, we have the opportunity to acknowledge a few revealed truths.

Our selfishness

First, unavoidably, we are all selfish in some important ways. Or, at least, I am.

I know that I started paying attention to, and worrying about, this coronavirus early. I vividly remember the daily, sickening terror I was feeling in mid-February, unable to shake recurring thoughts about the risk to my three children from a MERS-like killer. Then one day I tuned into The Daily podcast and learned that children were very likely to be safe from this virus. I exhaled, the worst of my fears momentarily put to rest.

Fast forward two more weeks and it became real again: I began actively worrying about my parents, and then about my friends, my community, and me.

The truth is, most of us only really wake up when something threatens people whose names we know: our family, our friends, our community.

Does this remind you of anything?

Second, the parallels to global warming are so glaring, it feels heavy-handed to point them out.

Something out there is slowly, inexorably putting us all at great risk. The science is clear about these risks and about the steps we could take to mitigate them. Most of us understand the problem but we ignore it. A few powerful people deny it. Those that don’t do the polite, educated thing, giving lip-service to how important this thing is while making virtually no sacrifices to fight it.

The mirror we can all see

What have we learned in the last few months? That most (but not all) societies are geared—politically, economically and socially—to underprepare, underreact, and stay complacent for far too long. Then, when it’s nearly too late, when it becomes real to us, we will panic, overcorrect, and bemoan the missed opportunity of having started sooner.

A few societies, though, learned important lessons from near misses. They retooled and reprioritized, capitalizing on shifts in attitudes to make significant shifts in resources. They made sure that the next time they’d be in a position to act and act quickly.

The questions we must ask ourselves

Will we all take the lessons we are living and apply them to the next gigantic, looming crisis on the horizon? Or will we, in our desperate desire to return to normalcy, rush headfirst into collective amnesia?

I think the answer to these questions will boil down to our willingness to look own selfishness squarely in the face, to study it without flinching.

If we could see how most of us (importantly, not front-line heroes) have responded to this crisis—how, when left unchecked, we fall prey to a massive, collective failures of imagination and empathy, effectively ignoring far-away-seeming hardships and far-off-seeming risks—might we gain the perspective to start acting differently?

Might this experience engrain in us our fundamental connection with each other?

Might it push us to set different priorities, be willing to give up a bit more, and act sooner and with much more urgency the next time around?

We’ve all been warned.

We all are living through this.

What will we do with this knowledge when we come out the other side?

 

Crisis Speed

There was a moment, not long after we incorporated 60 Decibels, when I was sitting in the office with my head of operations. We had to decide which of a number of office spaces we had seen was right for us, and what lease to sign.  We discussed it for about five minutes, agreed what we wanted to do…and then we both just stopped for a beat.

Both of us paused because it felt like we needed to check with someone else, to get an additional approval, to run it up the flagpole.

But in a startup, blessedly, there is no flagpole.

Both of us got a bit giddy as we realized it was just up to us. When the surrounding silence made this abundantly clear, we confirmed our decision and moved on. That was the first of a thousand small decisions we made quickly.

She and I had both spent our careers in bigger organizations. We’d learned about things going slowly. It had been, slowly and surely, pounded in to us.

Of course things change in moments of crisis–like what we’re living through right now. When a crisis hits, we all move faster, because what’s happening externally is so big and so universally understood that no one will punish us for choosing to act.

The question that presents itself is: why only in a crisis?

One of the many things we are all learning is that we can up our game when we have to: we can make important decisions and own the consequences.

The people whose job it is to make sure everything is just right have other things to worry about right now. Or they’ve consciously changed their standard, tilting far in favor of action and away from methodically checking off all the boxes.

This has happened because we all understand the cost of inaction in a crisis.

What we shouldn’t forget, not just today but also in a calmer tomorrow, is that the cost of inaction is always high.

Many of us have learned that we can’t get blamed for doing nothing. But the much more important lesson is that inaction and passing the buck are nearly always the most expensive thing–not just because of the things we don’t get done, but because of the culture we build and the lessons we teach our best people:

That’s it’s not really up to them to decide.

That they’re not really on the hook.

That we don’t, when you boil it all down, trust them to act in our best interest.

What could be more damaging to the cultures we aim to build?

Sundays at Cafe Comercial

I’ve lived in Spain twice, once taking a semester off at the start of my junior year in college, and once four years later. Both times I mostly lived in Madrid.

Madrid seemed familiar to me at first, a big city that reminded me of my hometown of New York. But Spanish culture and the patterns of daily life were very un-American at the time. The siesta still existed, meaning long breaks at 2pm for lunch, and the workday stretched to 8pm. You couldn’t start dinner at a restaurant before 10pm unless you wanted to eat alone.

The thing I noticed most, though, were Sundays.

On Sundays, nearly everything was closed. A whole vibrant, dynamic city shut itself down for the day.

When I first lived in Spain, those Sundays felt endless. I spent a huge amount of energy grumbling about things being closed, noticing all the things I couldn’t do, and, finally and reluctantly, finding ways to fill my time.

I moved back to Spain four years later, and this second time around I more quickly slipped into the culture and rhythm of the place. I began to notice the beauty of the different way things were done: going to lots of little shops one at time to shop on Saturdays (a fruit shop, a cheese shop, a butcher) wasn’t worse than having everything at one supermarket. Yes, it was slower, but I got to know the couple that ran Tomad Mucha Fruta, and they got to know me. I talked each week to the butcher, and to the many abuelas on line with me, about how a stew or a roast had turned out and what I would make the following week. My now-wife and I would have long conversations with the cheese guy (she also had a crush on him…and how can you compete with a guy who is good looking AND sells cheese?) All of this wove us into the fabric of our neighborhood and the local community.

Sundays were the biggest difference. This second time around, ‘nothing to do’ was something I began to understand intuitively. A few months into the year, my wife and I created a lovely routine. We’d print out the NY Times Sunday Crossword (newly possible thanks to the internet) and make our way to one of Madrid’s big old coffee shops, Café Comercial. We’d settle in with a big café con leche, maybe a palmeira or other snack, and pass half the day reading, talking and doing the crossword.

Those Sundays were far and away the most peaceful time I had during that year.

Everything being closed meant we had nowhere to be. Having nowhere to be meant we could embrace moving slowly, letting time be expansive, and truly taking a day of rest.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as ready as you are for “shelter in place” to become a thing of the past. But that’s not happening any time soon.

So, let’s allow ourselves—those of who are not on the front lines, bravely serving others with a fraction of the support they need or deserve—to reframe this moment.

Let’s allow time to pass differently.

Let’s be thankful for what we have, and sometimes, just sometimes, to experience our inability to do all we want to do as a new kind of freedom.

Resources for Remote Surveying

Much of the world has ground to a halt in the last week, and I expect it will continue this way for some time.

Our 60 Decibels team has been looking for ways we can help directly, and we’ve put together some resources I’d like to share.

First, yesterday we shared the 60 Decibels Remote Survey Toolkit. It is a new, free 19-page guide on how to successfully conduct research work remotely. This is a response to the fact that virtually all face-to-face research has stopped in reaction to COVID-19, and many organizations are scrambling to shift some or all of that data-gathering to mobile phones.

Since our 60 Decibels team has been conducting phone-based surveys for the past six years, we thought it would be helpful to compile some of the lessons we’ve learned about how to gather high-quality feedback and social performance data remotely. This Toolkit capture the most important lessons we’ve learned in speaking to more than 120,000 customers in 35 countries.

60 Decibels Remote Survey Toolkit

In addition, we have a network of more than 200 trained enumerators in 30+ countries who speak 40 languages (ready for the list? It’s awesome: Amharic, Arabic, Assamese, Bangla (Bangladesh), Bemba, Bengali (India), Bisayas, Burmese, Chichewa, English, French, Gujarati, Hausa, Hindi, Igbo, Japanese, Kinyariwanda, Kiswahili, Krio, Luganda, K’iche, Kannada, Malagasy, Malay, Malayalam, Mandarin, Marathi, Nepali, Oromo, Oriya/Odia, Pidgeon English, Portuguese, Punjabi, Q’eqchi, Shona, Siswati, Sotho, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil, Tigrinya, Telugu, Twi, Urdu, Wolaiytigna, Wolof, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu.)

While we have, so far, used this network to conduct our own work, we’re having lots of conversations with other research organizations to see if we can help them keep their work on track. If this network might be helpful to you, please let me know.

Finally, we are going to take steps to integrate questions about COVID-19 and its impacts into all our ongoing 60 Decibels surveys. While there are already some great initiatives tracking the impacts of COVID-19 globally, like this one created by Harvard, Cambridge, Warwick, and 7 other universities, they are mostly online-only and won’t capture the voice of the 3.5 billion people who don’t have a smartphone.

While it’s just one small piece of a much, much bigger puzzle, we hope that the work of listening, especially to those most impacted by the many hardships the world has to offer, can continue through these challenging times.

Stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.

The Second Wave

A week ago, I felt ahead of the coronavirus curve. Our town had closed schools as of the prior Sunday night, so our kids were already at home. Our community had started social distancing and I was already staying home from work. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, and most of the rest of the world, was going about business as usual.

What a difference a week makes.

If last week my community was living through a first, early wave, this week everyone everywhere got hit head-on with a mammoth second wave, and it’s knocked us off our feet.

My sister-in-law runs a wonderful commercial bakery in Nashville, and nearly all the restaurants in town are running skeleton operations and will soon be shut down. She and countless others running small businesses have no playbook for “the economy grinds to a halt.” For now, she and the restaurants are doing what they can to keep paying their staff, but that can’t last forever. What happens 3-4 weeks from now?

She, and I, and every small business owner in the country and the world spent the early part of this week running all the numbers: our revenues, our costs, our cash. We’re trying to make plans but have no crystal ball to tell us how big a hit this will be and how long it will last.

Are we stopping everything for a few weeks or for a few months?

Come mid-April, will we have adjusted to a new normal, a pulled-back version of what we know, one in which everything functions, albeit at 60-70% its normal capacity?

Or is it possible that major parts of the economy, our school systems, our houses of worship, our community service organizations, and our social fabric all stay offline for months or longer while our healthcare system gets crushed by demand that is a multiple of its current capacity?

Honestly, it is all too much to get my head around.

And, in truth, while all of this worries me, I quietly fear that in a few months’ time I will look back longingly to a time when I was mostly thinking about changes in regular life instead of worrying about the health and well-being of people I know and love.

I pray every day that what we’re all doing will buy us the time we need and avert the worst-case scenarios.

Instead of trying to make sense of it all, I’m doing what I can to keep focused on the present, to do what I can to take care of my family and myself, to stay connected to the people I work with and the customers we serve, and to find ways, big and small, to support one another.

I notice that our 60 Decibels team is much more active online—new Slack channels are coming to life, and everyone is much more responsive. It’s become OK to spend time on a Zoom call just asking how people are doing, to speak about feelings and experiences. These are all good things.

I’ve also noticed is how differently time is passing. Without a regular schedule, the days have lost their structure, so they are bleeding into one another. A morning or afternoon might fly by, but the days themselves feel slow, sometimes plodding. Every time I count how long it’s been since schools shut down–8 days, as of today–the number feels woefully small compared to what’s to come.

I, along with a number of people around me, have…some sort of illness. It’s some combination of a low fever, a tight chest, aches, listlessness. Normally we’d take a DayQuill and get on with things, but now we realize that we could be the ones spreading this thing if we’re not careful, and of course its scary to think of the worst scenarios. So, we alert everyone we’ve been in contact with over the last 10 days (nearly nobody), while at the same time all deciding that there’s no point in trying to get tested because tests aren’t available.

This means we don’t know, and we won’t know, if we have a cold or the flu or the coronavirus, and I expect most of us never will. Even the relief of catching the virus, getting over it, and having immunity eludes us because of the embarrassing, dangerous lack-of-response to this pandemic that’s our reality in the United States.

At the same time, there have also been many wonderful moments over these last eight days. I’m definitely spending more time, and different time, with my children. We, and they, have gone for many more hikes. They are, by necessity, much more independent, venturing off on walks and through parks without us, the sort of unstructured free play that’s all but vanished in our modern, over-parented and over-scheduled era. I’ve taught my third-grade daughter how to add fractions—I didn’t just help her with her homework, I taught it to her from scratch. We’ve brought the ping-pong table back out and everyone’s eager to play. We are eating all our meals together and cooking even more than we normally do (which is a lot). Mostly, we can get the groceries that we want.

When they ask, we tell our kids this has never happened before, that it’s unprecedented. I think we’re failing to communicate the scale of our un-knowing. We are all children in the face of this new era that’s smacked us in the face, with no experience to guide us, no intuition to inform where we are relative to where we will be.

Stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.