Unhelpful soothing behaviors

When we are upset or anxious, our minds automatically seek soothing activities - something that offers immediate pleasure, or distraction, or makes us feel in control.
 
This is a good strategy, except when the soothing behaviors are unhelpful - they provide immediate relief, but eventually amplify the root situation or cause a different unpleasant situation. Then to soothe ourselves again, we do more of the unhelpful behavior, causing vicious cycles or addictions.
 
Alcohol, snacking, smoking, anger, gossip, nail-biting, procrastination, and doom scrolling on social media are examples of such unhelpful behaviors.
 
We are better served if we train ourselves to replace these unhelpful soothing behaviors with more helpful ones like drinking water, pacing, going for a walk, sleeping, exercising, meditation, journaling, or creating a plan to address the stressful situation.

The Theory of Domino Destiny

Everything and everyone is a domino in a web of dominos that have been falling since the start of the universe. 

Your success or failures, good or bad decisions, body, mind - both conscious and sub-conscious, wants, fears, values, personality, intellect, wealth, and power are all results of your genetics, environment, life situations, cultures, formation of the planet, and everything that ever happened until now.   

Wait...what about my hard work, deliberate choices, and free will? 

You definitely experience your life, you change and make changes, and it certainly feels like you are in control of many of your thoughts and actions.     

What I'm saying is that you, your body and mind, your control, your sense of control, and your consciousness originated from everything else. You are a neural network and genetic machinery that is shaped and trained by the universe, maybe with an element of randomness.

If we moved you as a baby to a different set of parents, changed your genes a bit, or changed your natural environment or influences, you could have been a rabbit. This is true for you, Albert Einstein, Gautama Buddha, Jeff Bezos, Mother Theresa, a serial murderer, a corrupt politician, a tree, and a bird. 

You are the result and vessel of the forces of creation (God, Science, or the Big Bang, as you prefer). And so is everything and everyone around you. 

How and why are the dominos falling?

Well, doesn't seem random. We have been able to understand, predict and alter some aspects of how the dominos behave using a scientific approach and knowledge (evolution, physics, chemistry, etc.). We are continuously getting better at this too. 

Why the heck is they falling? Many claims, but no one *reliably* knows...yet. My cheeky response is that if I were the all-powerful universe, I'd have more fun morphing into all these things than just being nothing, which is not dissimilar from why we all do what we do. 

What do I do with this theory?

This theory is another framing for understanding and acting on our reality. It proposes that we and everything else are a product of influences. 

Like everything, I, this blog, and this theory are also dominos that are borne out of other dominos and can influence dominos like you. You are also a domino that is influenced by and can influence other dominos. How this theory is going to influence you just depends, I repeat, on everything that's happened before.  

I don't think you should despair that free will is only perceived. Everything we assume to be "real" in life is only perceived after all. You still live and experience life.

I hope it makes you reflect on the influences that have shaped and are continuing to shape your beliefs and behaviors. Where are they coming from? Are they helping or hurting you? Should you listen more, peel away or rewire those influences or behaviors? This is the foundation of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Internal Family System, and Buddhism's Four Noble Truths, which are both great at increasing equanimity and response-ability. 

I hope it gives you a ton of self-love, acceptance, confidence, and gentleness for your life, who you are now, who you were in the past, and who you will be in the future because you are exactly what the forces of creation intended. We all experience guilt, self-doubt, shame, fear, envy, and anger about certain life characteristics, experiences, or situations -- when you think more about them, you realize all of these were results of dominos that have fallen way before and beyond you.

Hopefully, you also feel a connection, understanding, gentleness, and love for all the other people and dominos around you as well because they are also what the forces of creation intended. Someone wisely observed that we don't usually feel angry at a tree or an animal if they disturb us somehow. But, we feel upset with ourselves and other humans presumably because we think we have more control or intention in our thinking and actions.  

Finally, I also hope that you feel a sense of wonder for our mysterious and intricate domino reality, and you experience and flow freely through your domino life with peace, joy, and love


Notes 

[1] Sam Harris articulates the same theory and is one of the dominoes that fell on me. 

[2] Bill Nye and a bunch of other scientists share their views here

[3] Destiny may imply the future is already pre-written, but I'm not implying that here. I'm just saying the path to the future is determined by the past, but the story may be evolving in real-time. 

[4] I have learned and experienced to some extent that with deep meditation and awareness, you can slowly see and unravel the various domino influences, which is liberating. 

[5] One alternative to this theory is that you, or specifically, your consciousness has sources of origin or properties beyond the physical world (like a brain in a vat theory). Another is that your deepest core of consciousness, if you keep peeling away the layers, is pure awareness, without any influences. 

[6] Just because everything is from the force of creation doesn't mean they are benign to you, so you may still choose to defend or offend to safeguard yourself, after all you are a precious force of creation too. But I think this theory can help you do so without anger or hate.  

Handling conflicts

Recently I have been hearing stories of conflict among friends, family members, and colleagues. The pattern is similar - one person or group behaves in a way that doesn't meet another person's or group's expectations, and they get annoyed, but most don't address it healthily, eventually creating conflicts that harm the relationship. We all have different lives and therefore expectations, perceptions, behaviors, and quirks, so these sorts of mismatches are inevitable. 

You can try to reduce conflicts by lowering your expectations (be more accepting) and spending more time with those who are compatible with your expectations. But those aren't always options or foolproof, and you may miss out on the joy of healthy relationships, so you must also learn to deal with conflicts and "fight well" when they arise. 

So what can you do when there's a conflict?

The first question is whether you care for the relationship. If you or the other party don't care for the relationship (a difficult judgment call), you can try to end it or reduce it. Life is short, after all. But if you care for the relationship, you can either let it pass or discuss it. 

Then you need to decide if you want to address the situation or not. You can consider letting it pass if you think this isn't very consequential and the other party doesn't have harmful intent. But in other cases, letting it pass will cause a slow build-up of resentment that'll cause you suffering and eventually show up in your mind and demeanor, and hurt the relationship. 

And finally, if you have to address it, you must do it tactfully. These "crucial conversations" can be awkward and hard and require tact. You need to create safety for the other person, show kindness, care, and empathy, share with clarity and vulnerability (you did/said ... which made me feel ... or resulted in ...), and also be ready to change your mind or meet halfway.


Freedom


It's the 4th of July! The day where we celebrate American independence with warm summer gatherings, BBQs, beer, and fireworks. 

A foundational principle of USA is freedom. Often referred to by patriots, FREEDOM! Freedom is great - I certainly don't want to live in a society where my life choices, potential, and path are largely dictated and limited by other humans. 

This freedom did not come easy and is still fragile. It needed an inspiring vision for a better future, courage to act on it, and cooperation to unite together. Without its continued defense, the natural order of concentrated power will grow and return. 

This freedom was not and still is not uniformly distributed. Native Americans, millions of slaves, women, LGBTQ, or lower-income populations did not and still do not enjoy the same rights. Subjugation comes in many forms - legal, representation, access, cultural, opportunity, economic, etc. 

This freedom is not absolute. Where it clearly and unfairly hurts other individuals or the broader society, freedoms can be limited for the greater good. Even in our personal lives, we need to sacrifice (like doing chores and taking care of health) to be free. But too many limits or forced equality can dismantle freedom. 


Reprogramming the mind program

I have recently been spending more time with my baby nephews and niece. Babies are simple. They eat, sleep, poop, explore, and cry or laugh depending on how well the situation supports this survival and comfort [1]. When you observe babies, it's very apparent that we are all just survival programs. Adults just play more complicated, indirect, and longer-term survival games. 

We begin as bootstrapped programs that function as follows: (a) feel pain and act distraught when we experience something threatening to survival, (b) feel pleasure and act happy when we experience something positive for survival, and (c) seek more pleasure and avoid pain, and be curious about the environment, presumably to look out for those sources. 

Then the program learns rapidly over time, through memory and imitation - avoiding the pain, doubling down on the pleasurable, and exploring to discover more. There is a fair bit of randomness in there too. Many of the learnings are then passed on to offspring through their bootstrapped program and as inputs to their learning, continuing and compounding the learning over generations. 

The program is optimized for survival (because only the surviving programs continue to exist), but not for equanimity or happiness. In fact, feeling distraught - worried, fearful, sad, greedy, guilty, or angry - are features of the program that enable survival in their own ways. So if you let the program run its course, you'll likely prolong your survival and propagate, but you will often feel distraught too. 

If "you" (which are just subprograms of "consciousness" and "ego" running within the main program) want to instead optimize for happiness, you will have to reprogram the main program and overcome millions of years of strong programming. 

This reprogramming takes deliberate and consistent effort and is the basis of several practices like mindfulness, Buddhism, journaling, and therapy. They all recommend a similar pattern: 

1. Increase your awareness of your programming, thoughts, and feelings. You can do this through daily journaling, meditation, pausing & reflecting by yourself or with a therapist when you feel distraught. 

2. Understand the core reason, need, or belief on why you think or feel that way. 

3. Change the core reason, need, or belief when it isn't helping your happiness. 


Notes: 

[1] The most common aspects of survival are eating, physical safety, social safety, and reproduction. 

Focus on your mission

These are turbulent times - with inflation, market crashes, fears of a recession, a war in Ukraine, supply chain issues, climate scares, and political division. It's natural to get distracted, dismayed, or fearful of everything that's going on. 

In your personal life, business, or career, you can get around it is by focusing on your mission and what's in your control. 

For this to be possible, (a) your mission needs to be robust - something you really want to do, are capable of doing distinctly well, and something that others need and support, even during hard times, (b) you have partners who are aligned with you on mission and values, and (c) you need to live and operate well below your means and independently. 

Satisfice and simplify non-focus areas

I realized my investment portfolio is complex. I have investments across 6 different accounts and own over 25 individual stocks.  

This may not be that complex for someone who's a finance expert or actively manages their investments. I'm not that. Managing finances is essential but not the area of my life where I want to excel - I'd instead focus on interests and differentiated skills in building products, businesses, or writing. I'd be happy with a B+ than an A+ (satisficer vs. maximizer). 

The complexity prevents me from monitoring and managing effectively. I don't have enough knowledge, skills, or regular focus in this area to deal with the complexity either. 

A more straightforward strategy like - (a) Automated investment and dollar-cost averaging, (b) Investing into a balanced portfolio of cash, stock indices, and a very few individual stocks, bonds, real-estate, and (c) Buy & hold and then, rebalancing twice a year and as needed to adjust for disturbances in balance or both my age/risk/needs, Or paying a fee to outsource this to a financial advisor or to Robo advisor services like Wealthfront or Betterment to all of the above may also serve me better. 

The bottom line is to be a satisficer and simplify most areas of life to focus on, maximize, and enjoy a few areas that you care about. If you try to do everything, you do nothing well and are less happy. 

Credit score

Credit scores are like your gums. You know you need to take care of them now, or it'll be a pain in some distant future. 

I'm trying to buy a home now and realized how consequential they can be. 

Mortgage lenders, I was told, look at the middle of the scores from the 3 main credit bureaus/mafia (Experian, Equifax, and Transunion). If you're applying with a partner, they will pick the lowest one between you. 

You need a middle of at least 680 to qualify for a jumbo loan (over ~$650k in WA state). 

A middle of 680-700 can have an interest rate of ~5.6% vs. the ~4.8% that you get if it's >750. On a $1M loan, that's a significant ~$800 a month! 

A single collections account (usually >$100) can impact your credit report by 100 points and stay on your credit report for up to 7 years. So missing a one-time $150 payment can end up costing you $800/month for many years or even disqualify you from getting a loan and home (If you can, you can pay the creditor - either the original service provider or the collections agency - and request them to take the collections off your report, which takes 2 weeks - 2 months). 

So floss and take care of your credit score. 

Used book pricing

We were clearing up our house of unloved and unnecessary possessions before a move and decided to sell around 40 books that we'd never read or likely never reread.  

We hauled them to a Half Price Book store. The lady at the counter told me that they have a computer program that calculates the offer price for each book. 

That's an interesting programming puzzle. 

There are 3 factors I'd take into consideration: (1) the price at which it will sell, (2) the average time to sell (payback period), (3) risk and profit buffer 

These are related variables that can influence each other, but we can simplify the problem by treating them as independent varibles. For (1), we can assume it's half the average retail price across Amazon and maybe a couple of retailers. (2) is tricky as it involves predicting the future. We can use the past book sale date to do that. I'd use a weighted average of the recent average time to sell for (a) the very same book, (b) for the author, (c) for the category (could be multiple categories like genre, condition, hardcover, etc), and (d) for all books in general. For (3), I'd just use a flat constant overall or by category*.

You can also be fancy and use a black-box machine learning algorithm, but I don't know enough to say how. 

Anyway, I was disappointed when she offered us just $25, or ~50c per book. A good lesson to borrow books from the library than buy to save both money and clutter. 


Note 

* A marketplace, like Amazon, seems like a more efficient business model in some ways as they don't have to worry about paying upfront (cashflow) and inventory risk. 

Elon's goals and answer to the most fundamental question

The most fundamental question to understand, IMO, is the existential one...What the heck is all this?! Why and how are we here? What are we supposed to do?

Elon Musk is an incredibly smart guy - he has a track record of making things happen - both in the physical world (batteries, cars, rockets) and within human society (leading businesses, making money, acquiring a following). He's also a clear, first principles thinker and shares a lot about how he thinks about the world. So I think he can play a part in helping us understand life and the world*. So what is Elon's answer to the foundational question?

Elon has two answers - one explicit and another implicit.  

Elon recalls that at the age of 11 or 12, he had an existential crisis because he didn't understand why or how we are here. He concluded that we may never know but we may be able to find out if we expand the scope and scale of civilization and consciousness, and that's what he wants to do. 

I like Elon's framing of the goal as it builds up from a defensible first principle that we don't know why we are here. It is also a reasonable assumption that our consciousness will expand over time and that will help us discover and learn more, just like it has since the advent of life. So he wants to give humans more time and chance of survival over multiple generations (hence, Tesla and SpaceX to derisk planetary risk) and to some extent, expand the capacity to grow consciousness (hence, science, Neuralink, and his recent bid to buy Twitter)**.  

His second answer to the existential question is more implicit in his behaviors. He shot a Tesla into space, he speaks of going to Mars as a fun adventure, he time and again risked a fortune to pursue his passions, he posts dank memes on Twitter, he did an SNL skit and had an unlikely and wild romance with Grimes. Compared to other billionaires or people of his stature, Elon seems much more free-spirited, playful, goofy, and willing to try many different things. I have also personally concluded as much - have fun and enjoy life! 

Notes

* But with a heavy caveat that every person's commentary and actions are a mix of authenticity, limited perspective, ego, theatrics, and manipulation, and it is truly hard to distinguish between them especially when they are smart enough to deceive or totally clueless about their own intentions.

** A lot of people and organizations also work towards for survival and happiness for now and over generations. Elon's first principles approach and the boldness of his approach set him apart.    

Seek helpful advice

I have come across some research that showed that people with mentors are more successful in life and career, and I totally buy that. The world is a large and complex place. None of us know all the possibilities or how to navigate them well. But we can know a lot more by tapping into the experiences and wisdom of other people. 

1. Seek advice 

If you are doing something new or trying to make a difficult decision, in your personal or professional life, reach out to a few wise people who have walked the path before. It's also helpful to simply chat with wiser people about their lives and your life, without any specific topic in mind. 

There are many good strategies on how to develop these relationships. I'd call out these three - 

  • Be genuine - seek advice on topics or questions that you truly care about and can't figure out elsewhere (say, by just googling online). Don't do it to just "develop your network" or get something else from the other person. 
  • Make it easy - Ask specific questions that they can respond to by email or text, rather than for a "30 min chat to learn". Do and show your homework, to both signal seriousness and to go beyond basics. 
  • Become a person that people want to talk to - Be wise, interesting, fun, and successful in your own way. Be respectful, curious, and kind. Follow up and thank them. 
Most people actually enjoy sharing advice, especially with people who respect and act on it. It makes them feel useful and important, and relive and retell their life experiences. 

The Internet is also your friend and mentor. Books, podcasts, and blogs are abundant and easier to access alternatives. 

2. Advice from the right people and contexts 

Not all advice is good, but all of them have the power to influence you. We were recently figuring out how to buy a house and realized that advice from parents was a bit outdated for the current market situations, compared to advice from friends who had recently purchased houses. As a product manager, you may be getting product ideas from a team that barely understands the users or market. 

So seek advice from the right people - those who have the right expertise on the specific topic, those who you can trust, and those who are willing. Understand the context in which they are giving the advice, as your context may be very different. 

As with most things, there is a point of diminishing returns with advice too. You can't ask too many people either, as you can get stuck in analysis paralysis. 

3. Make your own decision 

At the end of the day, it's your life - you are responsible and you live with the consequences. Unless you are very young or incapacitated, it's usually not a good idea to ask others to make your decisions. You gather all the advice and information that's needed, then weigh and filter them appropriately to develop a predictive mental model of the system, and then, make a decision or act based on that. 

Emotions

I had a recent breakthrough in my pursuit of equanimity and joy

I have been trying the Buddhist / Stoic principle of not fighting with reality for a couple of years now. It's pretty sensible. We get flustered when the reality is different from our expectations and therefore, we'd be more equanimous if we fully accept and appreciate reality because it is what it is and focus on what we can do. 

But despite the intellectual acceptance of this principle, I'd still occasionally get upset with reality and feel like I'm falling short of this principle. When I was discussing this with someone, they pointed out that it isn't healthy or self-compassionate to deny or resent the emotions I feel. 

Then it clicked inside me that emotions are a part of reality too. We feel emotions because of how we are wired. So don't fight with emotions either. Let them happen, feel them, observe them, and focus on what you can do. 

Aha! 

I was assuming reality is only things outside of the "physical me". But if I define "me" as consciousness and anything outside of the consciousness as reality, then reality includes thoughts, emotions, body, and environment.   

Instead of being bothered by emotions, you can observe and understand them. Emotions are useful signals that something or someone is affecting us. They're a core part of our human system that's meant to draw our attention and reaction, and register them in our memories for future situations. Say, when you feel angry at someone, it may indicate that they are treating you unfairly. When you are sad, you may be feeling vulnerable, lonely, or unsafe. 

Bottled emotions can cause unhappiness and also have non-somatic physical and health repercussions like body aches, skin breakouts, organ dysfunction, etc.  

When we observe and dig deeper beyond the base emotions (happy mad, sad, fear, bad, surprise, disgust) to understand the deeper emotions and causes, we understand our internal wiring and our reality better. The feelings wheel is a fantastic tool to help us do that. 



Understanding and skillfully responding to emotions is tricky because of two reasons - 

1. Emotions usually have deeper roots beyond the current situation. Different situations affect different people differently based on how they are wired, which is determined by several factors like past experiences, their upbringing, beliefs, traumas, situations, and needs. Someone who's been cheated on and lost a lot will naturally tend to become less trustful and have more heightened emotions to even slight breaches of trust. 

It is helpful to understand the deeper roots of your feelings. What are the beliefs and needs behind the emotion? How did they originate and develop over your life?  

2. Sometimes, emotions may be inappropriate for the situation.  You may be feeling angry at someone even though they are acting for your good. Your frustration may be stemming from unrealistic or unsaid expectations out of a person or situation. 

I think the Internal Family Systems method of talking to your selves, regular mindfulness, and journalling are effective practices to observe and understand our emotions. 

Observing and understanding emotions help you respond skillfully, rather than react. Skillful responses are those that reflect your values and further your life goals. Reactions, on the other hand, are subconscious and automated, and not necessarily in your best interests. Reactions are quick, but responses are more thoughtful and principled, and therefore, more effective. Where possible, try to create the time and separation to respond, rather than react in the heat of the moment. A long reflective walk, exercise, good night's sleep, journaling, or talking it out with a mentor or friend usually help me. 

Depending on your understanding of your emotions, you can choose to respond internally, externally, or both. Internally, you can soothe yourself and where appropriate, rewire your inner self, beliefs, and maladaptations. Externally, you can do what's in your control to effect the change you want. That could include expressing your feelings to others, influencing, changing, or getting out of a situation. 

When you have to react quickly, my best recommendation is to not do something you'll regret, and for me, that means being kind, transparent, and fair to yourself and others, practical, and de-escalate (if possible). 

As you are training yourself to observe, understand, and respond to emotions skillfully, know that it is a difficult path for everyone and most aren't skillful either. So when you are subject to other people's emotions, understand, empathize and try to soothe their internal wiring, and you will be less affected and more effective.  

Notes

1. There is no "correct level of emotional feeling" for a situation - that is a made-up societal rule that often makes people feel guilty or inadequate.

Basic shit


Daljit (my SO) and I were chatting yesterday about how whenever we feel like we are in a rut, it's almost always because we stopped taking care of "basic shit". 

Basic shit includes - 

  1. Sleeping well 
  2. Time in the morning to relax, meditate, plan, and get ready for the day
  3. Walking outside and/or exercising  
  4. Taking a lunch break and breaks during work
  5. Winding down from work and doing other things we enjoy 
  6. Taking some alone time to think reflect, read, write
  7. Drinking enough water and eating healthy
  8. Doing the chores to keep our homes and lives in order 
  9. Keeping phone, social media, and TV time low 
  10. Relaxing and self-care nighttime rituals like tea, board games, reading, journaling 
  11. Using weekends well to do fun stuff, wind down, and do chores
  12. Connecting regularly with close friends and family
  13. Focusing on what you have, balance, and what's in control. Not overdoing, overcommitting, being obsessed, greedy, jealous, fearful, judgemental, or worried
  14. Having something exciting to look forward to
Just basic shit. Being happy is not rocket science (at least for most of us who have a reasonably comfortable life). I joke that Buddha spent years meditating on how to end suffering, explored and articulated many theories, and the crux of it is to stay in the "middle path" - do the basic shit and don't overdo. So simple, yet true. 

But despite knowing this intellectually, we all tend to slip on this basic shit. For us, it usually happens when there's a disruption like a vacation, COVID/remote work, busy time at work, or some unplanned emergency or issue. Sometimes it's just a slow decline with no particular cause.

I'm trying a few things that help - 
  • Recognizing regularly that basic shit is important 
  • Having a daily checklist of basic shit. Not only is it a good intentional reminder, but checking off things makes us feel good too. 
  • Being conscious of disruptions and being even more intentional about basic shit during those times.  
  • Restarting on basic shit when we are in a rut. Being okay with paying or signing up for special classes, trainers, events, EAs to get over the hump. 
  • Flagging when we see each other slipping.

Product leaders -- understanding customers is still a top priority

It's now somewhat common best practice (inconsistently practiced though) for Product Managers to talk to customers regularly. The reasoning is pretty straightforward - if you aren't really understanding what customers need, then how can you successfully prioritize what to build and build it well?

But product leaders (PM Manager) can feel a push away from talking to customers directly as they take on more team management and strategy tasks (based on my true story). I'd posit that's going to hurt your effectiveness, especially if you are new to the domain or company. How are you going to set or vet the right team strategy, provide feedback, or take bold bets/changes if you aren't familiar with customers? How can you stop falling for availability bias (over-index on a limited set of user insights presented to you to develop an incorrect or incomplete model)? How are you going to stay connected to the ground reality of customer experience vs what's visible to you through your team? How can you maintain enough empathy to drive yourself and your team to make things better?

You can't fully rely on metrics, broad market research, or secondary/tertiary hand downs of user research. Those are all necessary and helpful - you can triangulate from various signals. But I'd say it isn't sufficient -- you still need first-hand customer conversations. 

Some helpful tactics: 

  • Request one of the product managers or user researchers on the team to organize a weekly customer call that you, PMs on your team, UX/Engineers, and other stakeholders can listen in on. 
  • Schedule a weekly time slot to review or participate in customer forums and/or look at reviews and support tickets. I like to join relevant subreddits, for example. 
  • Pay attention to user research from your team and other teams; ask clarifying questions and point out if there are flawed or missing methods or insights. Ask for it if there isn't sufficient research (both broad and feature level) that's being done. 

Paying attention, listening, and caring

I was upset and having a particularly rough day. We were meeting a few of our close friends couples that day. Not wanting to be a downer (and likely to avoid being judged), I covered it up and put on my regular act. But I couldn’t fully hide it towards the end of the day. One of my friends noticed something was off and when we had a moment, he asked me if I was okay and even texted me later that day. I felt loved and supported, and it helped. 

People around you may be silently suffering. If you want to help, you can’t expect them to express an ask…you have to pay attention, listen closely to pick cues, and care and act thoughtfully. And that can make a big difference. 

Wrong goals and targets can be damaging for early-stage products

I was tasked with starting a "big bets" team at a startup I was working on. The goal of the team was loosely defined as to achieve step-level or 10X outcomes -- either in the core job-to-be-done or through a new job-to-be-done. 

I was previously leading growth for the core product and I set this team's key performance indicator (KPI) or key result (KR in OKR) similarly -- X monthly active users. 

And that was a mistake. 

Done right, a KPI is a measure of the most important thing, provides directional guidance, and is a measure of progress. A wrong KPI can be useless, misleading, and demotivating. 

For a new product area, the most important thing is to identify the problem space to play in and to achieve product-market fit. The goal of X monthly active users is a big step removed from that. It didn't provide us directional guidance, didn't provide a measure of progress to either the team or the execs, and it felt pretty demotivating to declare failure against that measure every quarter. Yes, eventually what we build would need engaged users and revenue, but that's pretty unhelpful as a KPI at that early stage. 

KPIs for early-stage products are a bit mushier. I'd prefer a checklist of inputs and KRs around making progress on it, rather than numerical measures. For example: 

  • Have we aligned with the team and execs on the approach, timeline, KPIs, and a way to check in on progress?
  • Have we identified and understood promising problem areas?
  • Have we developed confidence in the problem areas?
  • Have we identified and prototyped solutions?
  • Do prototypes show promise?
  • Are we ready to double down now or should we explore further? 

Rahul Vora, co-founder of Superhuman, has shared one of the most robust frameworks for getting to and measuring product-market fit. You may be able to define KRs and outcomes using that framework (score of X for "how would you feel if you could no longer use the product" for a segment Y, with sufficient TAM)

Some teams and execs feel compelled to use numerical goals and sometimes fall back to measuring inputs like the number of prototype iterations or user interviews, but you have to be very careful with those as that can direct people to do busy, but ineffective work (Goodhart's law - when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be useful). Bad measures, especially with early-stage teams, can be damaging. 

It's also hard to commit to a specific timeline for outcomes as the timeline to product-market fit is unpredictable and can sometimes take years, even with the most capable team. But you can have timelines around inputs, as long as you keep it short-term and flexible.

So if you are an exec or manager, you are largely relying on your PM and team to do their best attempt, without much visibility or measure on progress. So you'll have to give this responsibility to a trusted, capable, and innately motivated team that can communicate well. You'll have to reward them based on the quality of inputs, rather than on business outcome or impact as these are high-risk bets. 

I think this philosophy applies to personal life too. When you are starting on a new routine or hobby, say exercise, people often rush to set a goal to exercise X days of doing Y a week. They often fail at it, feel guilty or defeated, and give up. Instead, your initial goal should be to find a routine<>person fit first by exploring and iterating before you decide to operationalize and scale the routine. 

Talking to your parts and pasts

I may have stumbled onto a life-changing practice on Twitter yesterday. I have only practiced it a couple of times so far and I feel a dramatic effect on happiness and equanimity each time. 

Whenever a life-changing practice works out, it...well, changes your life. So well worth trying out strong recommendations. 

Here's how it starts: 

****

Hm well so all day I’m either talking to my parts or thinking “how can humanity become more alive” and diving into that question. That’s what my head is doing

Body is doing whatever it feels like basically on autopilot

— Nick Cammarata (@nickcammarata) June 11, 2021

****

wait hold up. all day you're talking to your parts? can we get a monologue demonstration?

— visa is doing final edits (99.2%) ✍πŸΎπŸ“– (@visakanv) June 11, 2021

****

I'm glad that Visa actually caught the casual mention and asks Nick for a demonstration (I'd probably have simply brushed through the tweet, so this is a good lesson in paying attention and being curious). Nick shares a live stream of self-talk as an example - 

****

Oh baby nick what do you feel wow you feel powerful why oh it’s because you’re excited for work why does that feel powerful oh you’re excited to show to me what your skills can do cool! Is everyone excited for the gym we’ll be there in fifteen minutes yeah it’s sad our ankle is 

hurt but it’s because of dancing and we looove dancing it’s so much fun! I really like being here with all of you oh teen nick what do you feel oh you’re wondering if a girl likes you. Ha that’s cute but you should also think through whether you like her it’s totally reasonable

feel can you do it? Flash it in our mind. Wow that’s beautiful that makes so much sense, I love the waves on the side like that ....

Okay that’s like a random 30 second livestream. Except almost none of it is lingual it’s mostly just feelings. Maybe 20% lingual

— Nick Cammarata (@nickcammarata) June 11, 2021

****

You can see that Nick has a few different kinds of talks with his parts and pasts in this example:

  1. Check-in talks: How is every part feeling and doing, is anything disturbed or joyful.
  2. Reflection / looking ahead talks: What do we think about what happened or is going to happen. 
  3. Past self talk: Talk to a past self about something memorable - good or bad, and show compassion and heal from that experience.  
  4. Casual chats: No particular agenda. Just talk about whatever is on your mind. 

The practice seems almost cuckoo! Basically, instead of thinking of yourself as one thing, you think of yourself as multiple different parts and pasts. Each is alive and has its own feelings. You are their attentive, caring, and compassionate leader. And you regularly acknowledge their presence, their feelings, and talk with them. 

****

I think the broad thing is I used to feel like one big piece and now I feel like a system of subprocesses I’m like the leader of. Except I’m very explicitly the slave. I remind the parts all the time that I don’t need anything from them, if they want to hurt me they can

— Nick Cammarata (@nickcammarata) June 11, 2021

If they want to call for attention they can, if they want to take over my whole qualia state they can. Any part has the full ability to get me to stop whatever I’m doing, they just have to send the message. My only goal as a leader is to make them feel comfortable and supported

— Nick Cammarata (@nickcammarata) June 11, 2021

****

Visa gets it and highlights how powerful this is to increase baseline happiness: 

*****

to be directly reassuring here – this was absolutely lovely and I am very, very grateful that you shared this

numbers are silly but: you gave me a direct glimpse of the *path* from "7 average" to "9 average". i've been 9 before but I didn't really have a compelling precise model for *why* I'm not 9 average all the time. seems exceedingly likely that this monologue makes the difference

— visa is doing final edits (99.2%) ✍πŸΎπŸ“– (@visakanv) June 11, 2021

****

After trying it out, I agree that this practice is very powerful for a few reasons.

  1. It gets you to regularly and systematically check in with yourself. Meditation practices like body scans do something similar. This leads to more presence, self-awareness, and resolution of internal conflicts. 
  2. The conversation style and humanization are more engaging. fun, and compassionate, compared to meditation practices.
  3. You show love, compassion, and care to all your parts and your pasts, which helps you heal and feel better. 
  4. I think the attention, love, and compassion to different parts and pasts of you translates to compassion and care towards other people, beings, and things. It takes you towards the high state of "awakening" where ego dissolves and you become everything.
  5. Conscious and deliberate self-talk takes time away from subconscious self-talk, which is usually less uplifting or beneficial. 
  6. Being conscious more often is the same as being present more often, which is effective for clarity and happiness. 

Such a lovely and insightful exchange on the Internet! 


Notes: 

[1] I'm learning that this is similar to a therapy approach - Internal Family Systems or IFS

[2] Naming and humanizing pets and things have a similar effect. Nameless, faceless people or things get less of our attention and compassion. 

I read only one book in a year and it was great

It's the start of a new year - a wonderful and optimistic time where we start off with a clean slate, lots of hope, goals, and resolutions. The general practice is to set lofty goals to read 25 books, pursue 3 hobbies, travel to 5 places, etc. My story below might make you consider an alternate approach of aiming to do less. 


I think I read only one book in 2019. It wasn't even a big book. It was ~100 pages on the Buddhist Eightfold path. 

The book had 8 key chapters and each chapter had 4 activities. I was reading this as a part of the program organized by Insights Meditation center. We read one chapter a month, then met for a group session, and practiced one activity per week, before moving to the next chapter. 

The group sessions were usually 1-2 hours long. The experts leading the program would give an hour talk explaining the summary and nuances of the topic covered in the chapter. We'd break out into small groups a few times to share our opinions and experiences on some pertinent questions. There were a couple of  Q&A segments. 

Every session always revealed a lot more depth than what I gathered from my reading of the chapter, offered real-world examples and practical tips, and resolved any lingering questions or doubts that I had. They made me understand more, think more, and be even more rigorous in exploring the next chapters. 

The weekly homework activities were hard to do consistently. But the half I did, helped me integrate the theory into my daily life and understand them even better. 

It's been 2 years and I still remember, practice, and benefit from many of the topics in the book. I continue to brush up on the chapters and practices every few months (Some people in the class were repeating for the 2nd or 3rd year). I can't say that for most books I have read quickly or express courses that I have completed in a week or month.  

Reading -> Insight -> Practice -> Insight -> Repetition -> Integration

Think of how you studied books and courses when you were in school or college. You had a teacher explain and walk through every chapter, you had multiple class discussions, projects and problem sets to practice the theory, chapter, and final tests as a forcing function to study and practice and to assess yourself and expose gaps. It takes a lot of exploration to understand a topic. 

It takes regular and deliberate practice to apply and integrate them into your life. It takes a lot of repetition for them to stick.  

But suddenly when we graduate from school, we expect that our brains can do magic. We read multiple books, 10-minute books summaries, tweets, watch quick Youtube videos, complete quick courses, pursue multiple different hobbies and goals. We go through life, relationships, activities, books, and jobs very quickly, shallowly, narrowly. Then we expect to master multiple topics and transform ourselves in different ways, very quickly and without as much effort. How we wish! How can that even work! We just end up setting ourselves up to be busy, anxious, guilty, and less effective.

Lex Fridman, a popular scientist and podcaster, lays out this framework for learning any new skill
  • Foundations - 2 hours of daily practice for 1 year
  • Expertise - 1 hour of daily practice for 5 years. Set a minimum time every day. 
  • Second nature - After 5 years, you can take time off and still return to it easily. 
I'd propose that you experience a lot more joy, success, and less stress when you do a few things, slowly, deliberately, and deeply. Things flourish when you invest time, effort, and focus. 

Notes

[1] I do think there is value, serendipity, and joy in exploration and dipping your feet quickly in multiple different things. But they are unlikely to result in deep mastery or a transformation. 

[2] Fiction books are somewhat different from non-fiction. They are entertainment and you can read them more quickly. But even fiction books and movies can be savored more if read and enjoyed slowly. 

[3] Multiple and quick iterations within the same topic or activity can be good. They help you go deeper and offer a quicker and more fun feedback loop to help you learn better. You may have heard about the study on how students who were tasked with making as many pots as possible made better pots than students who were tasked with making one perfect pot. 


Inner work

December is the reflective time of the year. In December 2020, I spent 3 days in this beautiful cabin, scribbling down many thoughts - old and new - that eventually became this post on peace and joy. During breaks, I indulged in short walks and drives around the beautiful Olympic National Park, and studied a Buddhist book on the Eightfold path and the Almanac of Naval Ravikant. I have hugely benefited from this "inner work" that's helped me understand my existence and what I want to do with it. That elaborate exercise, weekly check-ins, and the resulting clarity have kept me grounded and led me to make some bold and positive changes over this year. 

Inner work sounds like a suspect Indian guru term, but I think it’s quite apt. It is "work" because it takes systematic effort and the subject of the work is largely your mind. 

Beliefs, habits, needs, environment, triggers -> Thoughts and actions -> Feelings and outcomes. 

We have all developed beliefs, thought and reaction patterns, mostly unconsciously,  throughout our lives. If we want to understand and fix what we do and how we feel, we need to dig deeper to understand the inner layers. Naval Ravikant refers to this as running your brain in a "debug" mode, a software development practice to execute your program line by line and observe the changes.

Inner work takes multiple and regular long blocks of free time and solitude. It takes deliberate practice, curiosity, a clear mind, an understanding of general psychology, and sometimes expert guidance. As with most things, the initial answers are often not right or interesting - they are simply narratives that we have developed. You must keep pressure testing them and peeling the onion to get to the core beliefs and your "true self". Meditation, journaling, blogging, discussing, reading about different perspectives, therapy, and guided psychedelics are some techniques that can help with this work. Inner work is not one and done. Layers of dust always form again, and you must regularly tidy up.  

Once you become familiar with your underlying beliefs, you can try to change them or live them fully. But that is a whole other process that requires ongoing reflection, drive, and regular, small, and progressive steps. 

I highly recommend this life-changing practice. 

Nurturing passions

Passions are activities that bring us joy and can be sustained over a long time. We feel joyful doing these activities because they get us into a "flow state" or "in the zone", where you are fully absorbed, chugging away almost effortlessly. You get there when you achieve a balance between the level of challenge and ability that lets you perform without interruptions and produce desirable results, which in turn motivate you and provide you resources to do more of the activity and improve your ability. 

People who have and pursue passions live more fulfilled, exciting, and joyful lives, which is why it's worthwhile to nurture a few different passions. I say nurture and not just "find" because we don't develop passions by default - we aren't born with them and we don't simply find them. I say nurture a few passions and not just one because it's good to diversify for variety and just in case you lose the ability or interest to pursue some passions. 

There are two main requirements for developing a passion. The first is picking an activity that has the potential to become a passion. And the second is getting over the beginner's hump. 

Picking an activity is important because not all activities have the same potential to become passions. Some activities may have a low flow state as they need a large team, coordination, or a lot of interruptions. Some activities may not have higher states of challenge or rewards. Some activities are more suitable for your physical and mental aptitude, environment, resources, and preferences. Creating (art, music, programming, writing, etc.) and sports seem like the most common domains of flow-full activities.

When you start out on a new activity, you are challenged by the beginner's hump. Your ability is low - your activity is constantly interrupted by needing to look up instructions, get help, tune your tools, make corrections, etc. The substance and quality of your results are also not inspiring enough to keep you going. You may hit similar plateaus and humps at later stages. Deep curiosity or desire, perseverance, good coaches, and peers can help you get over these humps. 

When you find an activity that has passion potential and get over the beginner's hump, congratulations - you have given yourself a wonderful gift of a lifetime of joyful flow states!

Human Body is like a Company

It struck me today that there are many similarities between a human body and a company. Similarities and metaphors are useful because you can extrapolate the understanding of one system, usually a simpler or more understood one, to another. 

The mind (or conscious brain) is like the CEO and executive team. The brain is like middle management. The organs are like various departments. 

The mind, like the CEO, makes infrequent (still multiple times an hour) but consequential judgment decisions, the brain makes more frequent but more habitual calls, and the organs, are like various departments, do routine functions with occasional fire fighting. The vascular and nervous systems help distribute messages and resources. 

The mind, like a CEO, is important but not all-powerful. The mind doesn't have visibility or direct control over the organs (like how much insulin the pancreas is secreting). It largely relies on the brain and organs to function independently and reliably on a day-to-day basis.  Without clarity and regular examinations, the mind may not discover problems until it's too late. The brain, like the middle management, needs coaching and rewards from the mind to establish good routines. The organs rely on the mind and brain to solve larger problems like poor environment, stress, or nutrition, and to keep them coordinated, safe, and well-nourished. Problems in one area usually spill over to problems in other areas, causing a vicious cycle of decline. 

Just like a company needs healthy win-win relationships with an ecosystem of customers, partners, and investors, the body needs a nourishing environment and relationships. 

A healthy body, like a healthy company, is where the mind, brain, and organs are all healthy and working well together and with their environments. 


Start with Why, Then What, Then How

This is one piece of wisdom that's nearly universally relevant for everything we do - personal or professional - but is so often forgotten and worth repeating often. 

Start with Why

What's the goal or problem? Why does it matter? Is it actually important?

This is the foundational step that determines the success of anything we do but is so often missed or glanced over. We get into execution details before understanding why; we get swayed by what others are saying or doing; we continue doing things out of habit, even though they are ineffective or irrelevant. Projects often become chaotic, fail or lose steam during execution because the why isn't clear or important

It's very important to clearly understand, believe in, and align on with stakeholders. One of Amazon's core principles is to "Work Backwards"; i.e. define success and even write up the future press release, and then work backward from that. Clarity on why and where you are going gives you clarity, helps you make decisions through the project, energizes and aligns the team. 

If it's a personal decision, think about what matters to you in life and what kind of life you want. If it's a business decision, think about what's really important to the company and customers now and in the long term. 

Then What

What needs to happen to achieve the outcome? What are the checkboxes and levers to fulfill? What's the 20% that will lead to 80% of outcomes?

This step requires some thoughtful research and prioritization - first deconstruct the problem to deeply understand all the things that matter and then select the ones that matter the most. 

Then How

What's the best way to get to the "whats"? What are the different approaches and pros/cons of each? What is the roadmap, milestones, timelines, owners? How do we keep track and stay in sync?

Oftentimes, alternatives aren't explored, plans aren't detailed enough, or the process isn't well thought out. 

3 crystal balls

Imagine if someone gave you 3 crystal balls and said your life depends on them. If they get dirty or cracked, your life suffers. If they break, your life ends. If they are spotless and well kept, your life will be a joy. 

Now imagine how much you'd care for them. You'd keep them in a safe place, polish and shine them, examine them every day for any damage, and never let anything or anyone harm them. 

It makes life simple, doesn't it? Just take care of 3 crystal balls and all is good! 

I'm now going to give you those 3 crystal balls that determine the quality of your life. 

I can hear some of you groan, "Ah not this mind body spirit hocus pocus again!" or "I already knew that. My grandma told me this." To you all, I say, most of the precious life wisdom is actually simple and know for ages (see Lindy effect). We know them, but we simply don't follow them and chase after the latest trend. Repetition and clarity don't spoil the prayer. So let's dive into why and how we take care of these 3 crystal balls. 

Crystal Ball 1 - Mind

What you call "you" in your mind and what you call life or "reality" is all perceived and created in the mind. Every experience you have is through your mind; therefore the quality of your mind shapes the quality of your life. Think back to when you were sleep-deprived, stressed, or depressed. I'm guessing you didn't have a good life experience during those times. And if you aren't fully present, are you even alive in those moments? 

Crystal Ball 2 - Body

Our mind is inextricably attached to our body. There are nerve signals, hormones, blood, nutrients, and all sort of other things that are constantly exchanged between the mind and the body. Think of the times you were sick, in pain, or exhausted. The health of your body plays a huge role in the quality of your life experience. 

Crystal Ball 3 - Spirit

Spirit is a fluffy term. I define Spirit as what makes life worth living and what makes it worth taking care of the other crystal balls. It's the excitement, love, joy, and purpose that you feel. Think of the times when you felt directionless, demotivated, bored, or stuck. 

These crystals are tightly related and connected!

Your clarity of mind, peace, and joy determines how you take care of your body and fuel your spirits. Your body's health and energy influences your mind and spirit. Your spirit gives you the motivation for a better mind and body. 

Each one improves the other two. But they can also drag each other down in a vicious cycle and you feel like you are in a rut. If that happens, the ball to start is with your body - just start moving every day and the rest will follow. 

Caring for the crystal balls

There's a lot that has been discovered and shared about taking care of these crystal balls. My main advice is to keep it really simple and practicing them regularly. Here are some simple crystal ball care techniques that work well for me: 

  • Attitude: Deep understanding and regular affirmation of the inherent meaninglessness of life and what really matters to you; integrity between what you believe, think, and do; curiosity, optimism, excitement, playfulness; growth mindset. Catching and avoiding stress, judgment, negative talk or thought, or obsession.
  • Routines: Good sleep, exercise, alone thinking time or therapy, time in nature, self-care routines, pleasures and hobbies, vacations, taking care of chores. 
  • Activity: Doing things I enjoy and am excited about, challenging and rewarding pursuits, learning, not overcommitting, being effective in planning and doing stuff. 
  • Community: Company of supportive and joyful well-wishers; caring for others and helping. 
I have written about these in more detail in my other post "Mostly peaceful, often joyful, sometimes upset".

Some insights on team work and decision-making from a game of Codenames

I was playing a few games of Codenames with some colleagues. For those who aren't familiar, Codenames is a game where the "spymaster" can give one clue word that can help their "operatives" guess a bunch of team words (say, blue) while avoiding a bunch of opponent team's words (say, red). It's a wonderful team game that is fun and strategic. 

I was the spymaster in one of the games, meaning I could see all the team words and the opponent team's words and I had to give clues to my team of 5 to make them guess my team's words. It gave me a unique vantage point to observe team discussions, dynamics, and decision-making while knowing the right answer. 

I said "Greece" to hint at "Atlantis" and "State" (not the best clue!). I felt good when a teammate immediately suggested Atlantis and State to the rest of the team. But another teammate more strongly proposed "War" and that Greece is a country and not a state. There was some discussion, then ultimately a vote, War was confidently chosen, and we lost the game. 

1.  Quality of decision-making is separate from the quality of the outcome. You may get an answer right, but only because you lucked out with the wrong process, and vice-versa. Getting it wrong upfront helps as it forces us to examine the quality of decision-making. 

2. Acknowledge that many decisions, by default, are likely to be wrong. Even more true for group decisions as they are subject to group-think and several other biases and flaws. You have to deliberately be rational and rely on logic and data. Think critically and double-check the rationale before pulling the trigger. 

3. Don't get tied to the options you proposed.  The goal is to get to the best option, not your option. Pay attention to what your teammates say, especially the ones who are thoughtful but gentle as their opinions usually get drowned otherwise. 

4. You won't get it right always, but if you optimize for learning and adapting both your decision-making process and knowledge of the domain, you'll get better over time. Codenames is a "kind learning environment", meaning there's an immediate feedback loop that can evaluate the quality of the decisions and the players, and then improve. But most actual business work, by default, is not. Unless you set up experiments or try different hypotheses, you may never learn. 

5. Think several steps ahead, and maybe work backward from the end. As a spymaster, you want to pair the hard to pair words upfront when there are lot more options. You may want to wait on the ambiguous words until the end, as they may become easier when more words are cleared.  

6. Consider all the factors, or as President Bartlet says is West Wing, "Look at the entire board". As a spymaster, you may give a clue that seems right to you, but your teammates may have a different perspective, or there may be an opponent team word that matches the clue better. 

PSA: Social media does NOT represent reality

The majority of us get our news and along with it, our world view, morality, opinions, and daily furies, from scrolling the social feeds across Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, Google, and others. Given the amount of exposure, we think media reflects reality. I'm convinced that is absolutely not true. 

There were a couple of recent stories that made me realize how lopsided and low-quality social media is. 

Recently, Eric Adams got nominated for mayor of New York City. If you are on Twitter, you may have not even heard of him because of his nearly absent social media presence and measly sub-100K following. You'd have assumed that Andrew Yang, who ended up fourth in the election with just a fraction of the votes, is going to be the obvious nominee because of the #yanggang fame with 2M fervent followers. 

Another recent study revealed that just 12 people were responsible for the majority of COVID-19 vaccine-related misinformation!

If you are looking to get a balanced and complete picture of the world, social media is not where you will get it. This happens for several reasons, including: 

1. Not all people's views are expressed on social media. Only a portion of the world is on social media and in most user-generated content platforms, <10% of active users actually post content. Most are passive consumers. Some people are overexpressed as they use armies of bots, skilled agencies, paid promotions, or networks to spread their views. 

2. Not all views are equally amplified on social media. There's usually a steep power-law distribution where the top few % of viewed posts get most of the views and there's a long tail of posts that are hardly seen. Social media companies determine what gets amplified with algorithms that optimize for engagement or time spent, as they contribute most with ad revenue and customer retention. 

People and views that are extreme - enraging, shocking, untruthful, and push our buttons (like "Did we really land on the moon?") get more engagement and therefore get prioritized by the algorithms. 

3. Every single one of us has different social feeds and social media realities. Our feed is personalized to show us the posts that engage us the most - usually the ones that pander to our biases. Someone who's conservative will see a news article about how guns are our rights and someone who's liberal will see an article about why guns are causing deaths. We are put in our own bubbles, with different realities, that appeal most to us. 

So what's a better way to stay informed? 

I'm still figuring it out, but here are a couple of steps that can help. 

  • Don't get riled up and amplify nonsense! Pause, think. 
  • Assume anything is biased or wrong unless proven otherwise. Especially things that feel right to you as you may be falling for confirmation bias. Do your own research on all sides and perspectives. Most things aren't as simple as what the 140 character post of fury makes it seem like.  

  • Be deliberate about choosing the quality of your information. Seek diversity of opinions. Rely on people and media that are less reliant on daily engagement and churn, more tested, and more thoughtful. Ruthlessly unfollow purveyors of outrage. 

The Center of Humane Technology has plenty of other helpful tips

3 types of product improvements

The main role of a product manager to identify and prioritize product investments within your area that'd have the most impact on the overall business goals (aka roadmap). 

Usually, you don't make just one investment. You make a portfolio of bets. You can place bets across multiple core pillars or themes as I have suggested in a previous post on product strategy

It's also helpful to assess your portfolio mix across the type of product improvements: 

1. Ah, finally improvements (bugs, annoyances) 

These are fixes for obvious annoyances or broken parts of the experience. Users know it and product teams usually know it. These experiences can cause casual users to churn immediately and fans to churn eventually. 

Regularly identifying and fixing these before they snowball is a good defense and good for building trust, pride, and quality (reduce broken windows!). 

2. Yeah, that's better improvements (iterative improvements)

Products aren't perfect out of the gate (and if it's perfect, you probably launched too late :)). You need to iterate and keep improving them over time. Initially, these iterations will produce a lot of big wins. But eventually, the yields decline and that's a sign to invest elsewhere. 

3. Oh Wow! improvements (big bets) 


These are step-level changes - completely new products or experiences like when Apple launched the iPhone, or significant improvements to an existing experience like when Google launched instant autocomplete search suggestions

As you can imagine, these are the trickiest kind of investments. They are high-risk and high investment bets. But they are also essential (nothing ventured, nothing gained). As Jeff Bezos puts it, "If the size of your failures isn't growing, you're not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle." 

Depending on the size of your team, you should have one or more big bets brewing at any point in time. But be careful not to spread yourself too thin or rushing in before thoughtful strategizing and validation. 

10 part Mad lib to get crisp on a product or feature idea

Often times products and features are doomed to fail even before you start working on them because the customer, problem, their evaluation criteria, usefulness and usability of the solution, go-to-market and customer acquisition mechanisms, and business model are not understood or well defined. 

This mad lib forces you to research, articulate and iterate on all of those questions before you start implementation. 
  1. People like [specific segments, demographics] 
  2. Who are faced with [specific problems]  
  3. and care about [key criteria]
  4. Will use [solution] 
  5. To do [steps to use solution] 
  6. and it would help them [impact on problem and satisfaction]. 
  7. They'd discover this solution through [acquisition channels] 
  8. And they'd use it whenever [need]
  9. Which happens once every [need frequency] 
  10. And they'd pay [price, payment or revenue model]
As the old adage goes, if you had 1 hour to solve a problem, then spend 40 mins thinking about the problem and 20 mins iterating on various solutions. 

Lessons from death

I recently had to face some unexpected illnesses and deaths in my family. 

Sickness and death are powerful reminders of the impermanence, fragility, and mystery of life - about how little time we all have, how little control we have, how we are a small transient part of a grand timeless machinery, and how little we know. 

They are also powerful reminders of the colorfulness and meaning in every individual life, regardless of how transient or small it is in the grand scheme. 

We fondly remember the departed's endearing and unique traits. We recall and cherish their remarkable or amusing stories. We feel grateful for their kindness, love, and joy. We celebrate their path and accomplishments. We learn from their wisdom and missteps. We mourn missed interactions, their unfulfilled dreams, the void of their absence, and for those who are close to them. 

Death teaches us what we value, gives us the urgency to prioritize meaningful pursuits and interactions, and to live free in our short lives. 

Vacations

I'm currently on a staycation at home, with no plans. I used to take vacations only for certain specific or special purposes like traveling to new places or social events, and there was a certain pressure to make the most of them, so this is a change. 

Thanks to COVID travel restrictions, aging into my 30s, my philosophy on LYWE and peace & joy, I have revisited and expanded my definition of vacations to the following: 

  1. Spending time on self-care and peace-promoting activities. 
  2. Spending time on any joyful activity or hobby.
This expanded definition lets me plan and take time off for a lot more things than to just travel - to write on my blog, think, read, just relax and do nothing, sleep in, catch up on chores, enjoy leisurely coffee, walks, hikes, and hangouts, etc. When I travel, my agenda is more relaxed rather than packed and I even take a day off after travel to do the above. 

Taking time for yourself and doing less or nothing are vastly underrated. It's great for inner peace, reflections, and knowing and doing what you want. Vacations for peace and joy are a step in the right direction. 

Customer retention = Frequency of Need X Mind Share X Fulfillment

High customer retention is the holy grail of most businesses. If customers keep coming back to your business, it increases lifetime revenue per customer (LTV) and you earn more per cost and effort of acquisition (CAC). 

Customer retention may be hard to execute, but really simple to understand. There are three main factors that impact retention: 

Customer retention = Frequency of Need X Mind share X Fulfillment


Frequency of Need 

Users use products to satisfy their needs. Some needs recur on a daily basis, like the need to eat, sleep, talk to people, hear the news, commute, or shopping. Some needs recur on a monthly or yearly basis, like doctor visits, car maintenance, or vacations. Some needs are episodic and happen a few times per lifetime, like dating, wedding planning, home or car purchase, teeth alignment, or funeral services. 

If you are serving a need that's recurring frequently, you have more potential for retaining customers. If it's less frequent, it's likely that customers will only come back infrequently or just try a different solution next time the need arises. If the need is episodic, then it's likely that the customers never come back  (more on this here).

It's possible, but very hard to manufacture a need or increase the frequency of a need. So if you are gunning for high retention, serve a frequent need. If you are serving a low-frequency need, then you should charge higher or have a large addressable market. You can try to improve retention by serving more adjacent needs. For e.g. Linkedin's B2C product was serving the need to find jobs, which happens every few years. But they expanded to an adjacent need to learn about the industry and network updates, which is much more frequent. Linkedin also expanded to Sales and Recruiters who have a much more recurring need. Amazon expanded from selling just books to selling everything. 

Mind share

Your customers need to know and remember that you exist when the need arises again. Dominos advertises new flavors of pizzas not because those flavors sell well, but just to remind customers about pizza and Dominos. Subscriptions, social media, email newsletters, advertising, notifications, cool launches, partnerships, seasonal promotions, etc. are all ways of retaining and increasing mindshare. 

One powerful way to create mind share is through the product experience itself. The really high retention products - like Tiktok or Instagram - are so fulfilling that they plant a dopamine worm of sorts within the user's brains that's constantly nagging (even screaming at) them to use the product. 

Fulfillment 

Last but not the least, your business needs to fulfill the need. If your business fulfills a customer's need, then they are more likely to come back when the need arises again. There are three dimensions of fulfillment: 

  • Speed: Customers have to experience the fulfillment or "aha" moment as quickly as possible. 
  • Quality: Better the experience compared to their current or any alternative, the more likely customers are to come back. Broken experiences, especially early on, will break trust and retention. 
  • Consistency: The need has to be consistently fulfilled every single time. Even better if there's more fulfillment (or lower effort) over time, because customers' expectations only increase over time as they get used to a certain quality of service. 

Retention is one important aspect of growing your user base and you can read about other aspects of growing your userbase in my previous post