A Different Walk Every Day

My 2-year-old dog, Birdie, needs to walk at least five miles a day to be calm, relaxed and happy.

My wife and I have concluded that the best way to make this work is with lots of walking first thing in the morning. I’ve been taking her 3 miles right when I wake up, and my wife takes her another mile or so when she walks our youngest daughter to school.

I’ve chosen to walk the same route nearly every day. This makes the timing predictable, and it also helps for training purposes (especially if I let her off leash).

A lot of days, the walk/run is great: the air is cool, dew is on the grass, it’s quiet and beautiful, and I feel lucky to be out.

And some days it feels like drudgery. Not only the same walk as yesterday, but the same walk I’ll do tomorrow, and the day after that, until forever. And then I’m bummed and a little overwhelmed.

The good news is that this thought—“am I really going to be doing this same walk every morning for the next decade?”—gets obliterated immediately when I find myself, say, in some high grass with Birdie, and I start watching her: nose twitching like crazy, tail wagging, searching each tuft of grass and thicket of plants for a squirrel, chipmunk, bunny, or turtle—or just to figure out what that great smell is.

We walked through this high grass yesterday, and we will tomorrow, of course.

But this smell, right here and right now, is new and fascinating.

Where I’m getting things totally wrong is my “this walk” construct: an artificial mental shorthand that incorrectly equates today’s walk with yesterday’s and with tomorrow’s.

This is nothing less than lazy thinking by my lazy mind. In my effort to simplify the world, I completely disconnect from the present, and completely miss what is really going on.

This mistake is easy to make, and it’s the reason why we lose momentum and enthusiasm around the work we set out to do.

You can see the conundrum: there is literally no task that we can master without long-term, repeated work.

This means that we need a mindset that will allow us to walk the path of mastery.

This mindset doesn’t begin with commitment or work ethic.

It begins with remembering to stay present and curious.

When we are present, when we are curious, we can see our reality anew. We are constantly in a new moment and always exploring. We are forever on the cusp of discovering what is different about this specific thing at this moment of this day.

Even, and especially, if that different thing is us.

A little bit every day

More often than not, we’re comfortable with “a lot,” and we’re comfortable with “nothing.”

It’s easy to make a big push for something when we’re feeling inspired: a New Year’s resolution; after reading a great article on the benefits (or drawbacks) of coffee; while on vacation.

Often, that big push either overshoots (we overdo it and get tired), or our inspiration wanes.

Which is why “a little bit every day” is tougher, and more valuable, than it appears.

It requires us to find out what “a little bit” for this new thing means to us: the smallest possible dosage that will make a difference.

And it requires us to do this meaningful thing each and every day.

My natural inclination is get inspired, overdo things, fall short/get injured, and then get frustrated. Then I give up.

The biggest changes I’ve made have happen when I’ve made small, consistent, long term commitments to things that really matter: from generosity to running to listening to recovering from injury.

This isn’t a conceptual point or a conceptual blog post. I encourage you to pick something that matters to you, figure out what “a little bit” would be, and commit to doing that for 30 days. You can even use Austin Kleon’s 30-day challenge printout to keep track.

A little bit every day adds up to a lot. And it’s rarer than it appears.

The problem with skipping Tuesday

Hopefully you noticed by now that I publish this blog once a week every Tuesday.

Except for last week: I got back from my first big international trip post-COVID, and returned to such a mountain of work + jetlag that I didn’t put up the post that I’d written. I wanted to give it another turn, and I was shot by the end of the day on Monday.

Of course the week stayed busy, and then it was a holiday in the US yesterday, so again, no post. And, since I schedule all my meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I’ve got very limited quiet time until the end of the week.

From where I’m standing, I can see how easy it would be to let another week go by.

And, in the tradition of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, pretty soon one thing leads to another…

I think people often confused routine and discipline, and the role that they play in long term projects and how we structure our days.

Discipline by itself is awfully hard: doing all the mental work of deciding to do a difficult task, prioritizing that task, fighting through the resistance, and getting the job done.

Phew.

Whereas routine is a lot easier: discipline is involved, but it is simply the discipline of walking a well-worn path.

That’s much, much easier.

Until next Tuesday.

 

The Invisible Fence

We have an invisible fence set up around our yard for our dog. To mark it, we’ve put up little white flags and taught her not to cross them. Since we live on a busy street, it’s doubly important that my dog understands and respects these boundaries.

Of course, she needs to get out of the yard a few times a day for her walks. Any time I walk her, the first thing I do is take off her Invisible Fence collar. This means she could easily cross the line without our help.

But, because she’s a dog and I want to keep things simple for her, I never walk her across the line. Instead, for each and every walk, I carry her across the line.

It’s quite a sight, me or a family member lifting up our long-legged, muscly, 55-pound dog to cross a line that won’t shock her because she’s not wearing her Invisible Fence collar.

The message: it’s only safe to cross the line when in our arms.

Now, my elaborate charade exists because she’s a dog and I can’t explain the whole fence / safety / car situation in another way that she can understand.

But charades exist all around us: elaborate dances designed to reinforce boundaries and to create the mirage that we must rely on certain people to cross them.

I’m confident that my charade is keeping my dog safe. And other charades may be equally well-intentioned.

But, most of the time, these rituals get so grooved that everyone involved forgets where and why they began, and loses sight of whether they’re real or imagined.

Often, the first step to breaking through is seeing clearly: we’re being kept in by story told by others, one that we’ve repeated to ourselves enough times that it’s indistinguishable from reality.

 

 

 

Seeing the Problem Clearly

We waste a lot of time because we misunderstand the problem.

Our poor diagnosis leads to the wrong mental models. We then waste energy focused on addressing things that aren’t really a priority.

Worse, we incorrectly assume that “correct diagnosis” is binary: either we see things the wrong way or the right way.

In reality, we don’t flip from not seeing to seeing.

Rather, we have a first glimpse of true understanding, and we sharpen what we see over time.

If, tomorrow, you finally figure out what the problem is, in your enthusiasm you might rush to turn that eureka moment into a plan for action.

Let me suggest, instead, spending some time sitting with your new understanding.

Keep doing things the way you’ve been doing, while all the while keeping your hypothesis about what needs to change in the back of your mind.

Letting this gap persist—the gap between today’s practice and your (new) view of what things should look like tomorrow—will automatically force your diagnosis to sharpen. As your understanding deepens, you will have:

  1. A more complete understanding of what you need to do differently
  2. Much more conviction behind starting down that new path

The clarity of understanding will itself be hugely valuable.

The strength of your conviction will make it much more likely that you’ll successfully lead those around you to rally around the changes you want to make.

Terror/Freedom, Calm/Structure

I was talking with a colleague about what makes us most productive, and we came up with this fun 2-by-2.

We were discussing whether he was, in fact, most productive in the top-right corner: namely, when he’s got as much Freedom as possible, and has massive, important goals that are so big that they’re Terror-inducing.

We had a chuckle about this—it’s a caricature, to be sure—but it did get me thinking that this simple 2×2 might be a great shortcut for getting to know each others’ work styles.

For example, I’m also at peak productivity (though not sustainably) when I’m somewhere in the middle of the ‘Terror’ quadrant. A bit of fear leads me to crank out a ton of good work, whereas if things are too calm for too long they feel flat to me.

That said, Terror for too long does wear me down. What’s best for me is hanging out somewhere between Calm and Terror, with enough Calm for predictability and self-care and enough Terror to keep me motivated.

Similarly, I’m comfortable with, and like, a strong foundation of structure; and I find too much structure stifling. I need to be in the middle of that axis to thrive: structure as a jumping-off point for the freedom to dream about and create new things.

I find this 2×2 diagnostically helpful. For example, when I think about work groups that have trouble, the four that jump out are:

  • (Usually) One high-Structure person and one high-Freedom person. The exception is if this high-structure person is an awesome, self-aware supervisor who knows how to give their freedom-seeking team member tons of white space and motivation, while not constraining her too much. Conversely, a high-freedom person managing a high-structure person seems particularly hard to pull off. The high-structure junior person often ends up confused, stressed out or frustrated.
  • (Always) One strongly Structure/Calm person with another strongly Freedom/Terror person unless both are super-self-aware. These two environments are so different that these pairs struggle to find common ground.
  • Too many high-freedom people working together without someone to create structure. Also known as “chaos.”
  • High-freedom people who have been forced into high-structure roles. This is a tricky one because we naturally associate seniority with more management responsibility. That’s why we give management job to successful high-Freedom folks, and then get confused when they (and their teams) struggle.
  • Finally, I wonder if the High Structure / High Terror profile exists and, if it does, what makes that person thrive.

A parting thought, lest we lose the nuance here: maximum productivity does not equate to maximum well-being.

I expect everyone wilts eventually when they feel too much terror for too long. However, I do believe there are folks who have higher ‘terror’ thresholds and who find low-to-medium levels of terror exhilarating rather than off-putting.

We all surely inhabit parts of the framework in different settings and moments. The useful point for introspection is to explore our emotional reaction to each of the four quadrants, and unpack how that reaction impacts our energy levels, our focus, and our productivity.

Stop / Start / Keep

I was first introduced to the concept of After Action Reviews by Colonel Patrick Tierney, a retired U.S. Army officer who I got to know in my time at Acumen.

An After Action Review (AAR) is a review of a completed operation, typically run by the commanding officer and with all members of the operation present.

In an AAR, your job is to answer four questions:

  • What was expected to happen?
  • What actually occurred?
  • What went well and why?
  • What can be improved and how?

My sense, from talking to Col. Tierney, is that there’s a level of (harsh) objectivity in an AAR that serves two purposes: surfacing the truths about what happened and building a culture of transparent accountability. Col. Tierney would describe going into an AAR as, “you have to strap on your thick skin before heading into that room.” The feeling was that any and all critiques would come out in the AAR, and then, afterwards, you were done and would put the AAR behind you.

While there’s a full AAR process that is itself very powerful, at a practical level I’ve often found our teams boiling AAR’s down to a simple start / stop / keep rubric: What do we need to start doing? What should we stop doing? What should we keep doing?

To operationalize this, create a table in a Google Doc and have all team members spend the first 5-10 minutes of the meeting filling in the document (or, better, do this before the meeting). In addition to writing, anyone can also +1 another team member’s entry to show they agree with it. For example:

Start Stop Keep
Sharing all spec details at the start of the project ++++
More clear pushback to the client when requests are out of scope +++++
Adding requirements late in the process +++++
Parallel conversations ++
Having daily standups ++++
Clear decision-making +
Raising hands to support each other +++

As I head into 2022, I’ve found myself switching gears more slowly than in the past, likely the result of the Groundhog Day that it we’re living through: cancelled trips, postponed back-to-office plans, tons of emails from schools about new protocols and Zoom options, and global uncertainty.

That said, I know the beginning of the year is an invaluable time for reflection, planning and intention-setting, one that we shouldn’t miss.

With that in mind, I’m planning to start my year with both a personal and an organizational start / stop / keep list.

On the personal front, the list will focus on how I manage my time and my energy, the structure of my days, and any adjustments I might make to keep myself more grounded while still getting everything that I need to get done done.

And, for our company, I’ll use this as a conversation-starter across multiple teams and geographies, a chance for everyone to share what we need more of, less of, and the things that went really well in 2021 that we need to keep.

You might want to try it too.

Happy new year, and here’s to a great start to 2022.

I Just Got Here

To you it probably feels, by now, all too familiar.

But to that customer or employee who just arrived today, it is all new: the product, the community, the story.

It’s easy to forget this when we’ve told our story 10 times, 100 times, 1,000 times or more.

Indeed, as the storyteller, salesperson, fundraiser, or CEO, if you don’t feel like you’re repeating yourself, you’re probably not sharing enough.

By all means, find a way to keep things fresh, but don’t stop telling the story.

No skipping steps just because it doesn’t feel new to you.

Too Hot, Too Cold, Just Right?

I, like many of you, have spent the last 18 months working mostly from home.

In that time, I’ve experienced the challenges of more childcare, more meals to prepare, more tugs on my attention. I’ve also relished ditching my commute and the less glamorous parts of business travel, and have treasured having more time with my family.

For all the pushes and pulls, it certainly feels like, on balance, I’ve got more hours in the day to deploy.

The question is, how best to deploy them?

Do we run extra hot, finding even more time to work longer and harder?

Do we discover that we can run cold: in the absence of time wasted in planes, trains, and automobiles, can we get all that we need to get done in fewer total hours, resulting in shorter workdays.

Or is there a “just right” solution in which we spread our work our in discrete chunks across the 16+ hours we are awake?

The “just right” solution can be magical, but it also carries its own risks.

Sometimes, “just right” feels amazing: a few hours here, thirty minutes there, interspersed around a walk or cooking or driving kids around or time with friends and family. You can’t ask for more than that.

However, I’ve also noticed some important pitfalls of “just right.” For me, the whole thing falls apart when my “off” switch is faulty: rather than freedom with my time, I get stuck in a no-man’s-land of “always on a little bit.”

Here are some of my own leading indicators that I’m getting stuck in the wrong kind of “just right:”

  • Picking up my phone during every blank space (and realizing that I don’t know what I’m looking for)
  • Being confused, and a little anxious, when 30 free minutes present themselves
  • Facing the endless chatter of my monkey mind (note: that’s a great little video) during my down time
  • Trying to go to sleep but instead lying there having both sides of unfinished conversations from my day

Freedom and flexibility are beautiful things, but they require us to get really good at fully flipping our “on” and “off” switches: being hyper-focused when we are “on” (that means: no distractions or fake-work behaviors); and fully turning off the switch when it is time to stop.

Awesome Hiring, Awesome Team

I’ve always found First Round Review’s articles to be exceptionally useful. Lately, they are on a roll.

Our company, 60 Decibels, is going to be doing a bunch of hiring in the next six months, so I shared this article with our team:

First Round Review: 20 Underrated Qualities to Look for in Candidates — And 50+ Interview Questions to Suss Them Out

I particularly appreciate both the list of the 20 traits and the practical interview questions for each trait. As interviewers, we often do a poor job of assessing whether a person is right for a job (and whether the company is right for that person). This is because most of us interview infrequently, so we give little thought about how to do it well or we’ve gotten comfortable doing it the way we always have and stick with what’s familiar.

The reality is that there are few things more costly—in terms of money, time and culture—than bad hires, so it’s worth investing the time to try new ways to interview.

But wait…there’s more.

If you squint, you’ll see the other side of the coin: this list is also a helpful guide for what makes a great team member.

Here are the 20 traits of great hires / team members. They:

  1. Embrace change and exhibit adaptability
  2. Can get their team to open up (remotely)
  3. Care about empathy
  4. Tell true tales of failure — not humble brags
  5. Keep DEI top of mind
  6. Sell the team, not themselves
  7. Look for ways to improve processes and reduce administrative burdens
  8. Challenge the defaults
  9. Can iterate and introduce change
  10. Focus on outcomes, not (just) shipping
  11. Will help you avoid bureaucracy
  12. Apply a long-term lens
  13. Are fueled by curiosity
  14. Are clear on the things they don’t want to do.
  15. Exhibit thoughtfulness
  16. Can point to a pattern of taking initiative
  17. Show a need for speed
  18. Are good at spotting superpowers
  19. Demonstrate a knack for finding the 10X — not 10% — improvements
  20. Can tell you what you should be looking for.

As I spent time with these 20 traits, I found myself bucketing them into five categories:

  • Flexible, moves fast, avoids bureaucracy: 1, 11, 17
  • Takes initiative, is curious, is always trying to make things better: 7, 8, 9, 13, 16, 19
  • Empathetic, values diversity, is humble, communicates & connects with others: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
  • Keeps an eye on the big picture: 10, 12, 20
  • Is self-aware: 14, 15, 18

These five categories are an excellent jumping off point for what makes a great team member and, consequently, the building blocks for culture.

(Bonus: here’s a google doc with my cut-and-paste of the 50+ interview questions from the article. I hope you use it.)