Posted on: Saturday, July 04, 2015 by Rajiv Popat
What do you do you do when you find yourself sliding down the slippery slope of living an irregular life style where you have very little control over your own health and life? Or what do you do when you find yourself diagnosed with a disease that has the potential of killing you slowly and steadily if left completely ignored. What would you do if the doctor was to tell you in no-uncertain terms that you'd better change your life style or you will kill yourself in the long term?
Any sensible person with an iota of human intelligence would say - you change your life-style and do what the doctor is asking you to do. And yet, 9 out of 10 people who are given these warnings by their well meaning physicians return to their irregular life-style in less than 3 months and in doing so, choose death over change.
Change is hard; change is complicated and unlike traditional beliefs change doesn't happen by exhaustive use of will-power, which by the way is a limited resource to begin with. Change, is all about pattern recognition. As Nerds and computer programmers that should come naturally to us because pattern recognition is a part of what we do. Every time you write a loop in your code you've analyzed and found a pattern of instructions that can be repeated with variable elements thrown in the mix. Every time you write a base-class that a child class will inherit you've spotted a pattern. Every design pattern you use is in the right situation is a testament to your pattern recognizing brain. Recognizing patterns is what we do for a living.
If we can build systems that are powered by patterns and that run and control mission critical environments why can't we as geeks, see our own bodies as systems and take control of our own bodies and life-styles?
In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Dilbert creator Scott Adams talks about his fight with Focal Dystonia:
My time windows for drawing were always compressed, which put a lot of pressure on my drawing hand. The overuse took its toll, and my pinkie finger started to spasm whenever I touched pen to paper, making it nearly impossible to draw.
I met with the doctor and he diagnosed me in minutes. I had something called a focal dystonia, common to people who do repetitive tasks with their hands, primarily musicians, draftsmen, and that sort of job. It wasn’t carpal tunnel. This was different.
"What’s the cure?" I asked.
"Change jobs," he said. "There’s no known treatment."
I walked out of the doctor’s office with my life demolished. My dream of being a cartoonist for the rest of my life was over unless I found a way to be the first person in the world to beat a focal dystonia.
What were the odds of that?
Scott goes on to describe his fight with the disease one round after another; for months; and how the disease seemed to win every round:
Realistically, what were my odds of being the first person on earth to beat a focal dystonia? One in a million? One in ten million? I didn’t care. That one person was going to be me. Thanks to my odd life experiences, and odder genes, I’m wired to think things will work out well for me no matter how unlikely it might seem.
At a follow-up visit, the doctor asked if I would be willing to try a few experimental treatments, joining some other human guinea pigs he was working with. I agreed. For weeks I tried various hand exercises, went to a physical therapist, tried meditation, galvanic skin-response feedback, self-hypnosis, and anything else that seemed like it made a grain of sense. Nothing worked, not even a little.
Meanwhile I tried to draw Dilbert left-handed, which I could do with a lot of effort. I’m mildly ambidextrous, but drawing is a high level of difficulty for the non-dominant hand. I could tell that drawing lefty wouldn’t be a long-term solution.
My drawings were extra terrible for a few months during that period.
I also tried strapping down my pinkie, but that had the odd effect of making the rest of my hand dysfunctional. And it hurt like crazy. I lost the ability to write simple notes using pen on paper, which was obviously inconvenient at my day job.
While the disease kept winning for months Scott, like any true nerd was trying hard to analyze the patterns of the disease. He tells his story of him trying to recognize patterns:
Oddly, the pinkie spasms happened only during the specific motions involved in writing or drawing. Otherwise my hand was 100 percent normal. Weirder still, when I drew with my left hand, the pinkie on my right hand would spasm, so obviously the wiring in my brain was the problem, not the architecture of my hand. My experience was consistent with the doctor’s research. None of the people who have focal dystonias seem to have anything abnormal in the structure of their hands. It seems to be some sort of short circuit in the brain.
And once Scott had started recognizing the patterns of the disease he set out to fight it by his very own little experiments:
At my day job, as I sat through endless boring meetings, I started practicing my drawing motion by touching my pen to paper and then pulling up before the spasm started. I tapped the page hundreds of times per meeting under the table on the notepad on my lap. My idea was to rewire my brain gradually, to relearn that I can touch pen to paper and not spasm. I was literally trying to hack my brain.
In the book Scott goes on to explain his on-going fight with the disease that was keeping him from being in profession he loved and how he eventually won the fight; not by will-power, not by positive thinking; but by systematically dissecting his own disease and persistently rewiring his own brain to overcome it. He explains:
Over the next several weeks I noticed I could hold my pen to paper for a full second before feeling the onset of a pinkie spasm. Eventually it was two seconds, then five. One day, after I trained myself to hold pen to paper for several seconds without a spasm, my brain suddenly and unexpectedly rewired itself and removed the dystonia altogether. Apparently I broke the spasm cycle and reinforced the non-spasm association.
And so I was the first person in the world to cure a focal dystonia, at least as far as I know. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about that, since I can’t know what everyone else is doing or what worked for them. Still, it was an unlikely result.
I went back to drawing right-handed, paced myself, and didn’t have a problem again for years. My hand doctor said I’m part of the literature on this topic now, although my name is not mentioned.
The book describes another fight that Scott raged with spasmodic dysphonia and how he managed to win that fight too using pretty much the same techniques.
I'm not suggesting that you try to fix your diseases yourself but as nerds, how difficult is it for us to see our body as a system, analyze and listen to the signals it gives us and dissect the underlying patterns? How difficult is it for us to hack our minds and re-wire our brains to cultivate habits of a healthier life-style? As nerds, when we can see our work life as a system with finite rules and we push those rules to their limits every day with our code, why can't we understand the patterns of our own bodies and push our own brains to their limits too? Are you overweight? Underweight? Struggling with obesity? High blood pressure? Diabetes? Cholesterol or... just simple stress? It's time to let the geek in you take charge; do the research and revamp your life-style to keep you fit, moving and above all --- happy. I wish you good luck.
Posted on: Thursday, June 18, 2015 by Rajiv Popat
Most self help gurus seem to give a lot of stress on the idea of setting Goals. The basic premise behind the argument being that if you don't know where you want to get to, how can you get there.
Most real life productivity however, doesn't work on goals. For instance, you don't wake up every morning and get ready to go to office because you want to go on that world tour with your family ten years from today.
You don't push yourself out of the bed because you want to live in billion dollar home twenty years from now. We get up and go to work because we have internalized a system; we know working makes us feel better about our selves, pays us and eventually moves us forward emotionally, psychologically and financially. Your holiday plans 10 years from now is a goal; your getting up every morning and showing up is a system.
While in some short term cases goals might be good; in more cases than not (particularly long term) goals are in-fact counter productive. Try to think of your salary and payouts every time you sit down to write code and I'll be surprised if you can get anything done.
A few years ago, in a small startup a couple of colleagues and I started out with a new client who would remind us before every sprint rollout, that if he slipped out timelines we would not get paid. That's when we realized how counterproductive your goals can become for you; especially if you are thinking about them all the time. To do awesome work you need a system that literally protects your daily work from the stress of your goals.
In his excellent, witty and well written book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams talks about the downsides of setting goals:
To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.
If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure.
In his book Scott draws a very interesting distinction between a goal and a system:
A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.
Language is messy, and I know some of you are thinking that exercising every day sounds like a goal. The common definition of goals would certainly allow that interpretation. For our purposes, let’s agree that goals are a reach-it-and-be-done situation, whereas a system is something you do on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in your life. Systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction.
Needless to say that Scott, is a promoter of systems over goals and has very compelling reasons for promoting the idea of using systems over goals in your life. In his book he argues that virtually every success stories around the globe has a system supporting it; not a goal. Scott explains:
Consider Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. It’s apparent that his system for success involved studying hard, getting extraordinary grades, going to a top college—in his case Harvard—and developing a skill set with technology that virtually guaranteed riches in today’s world. As it turns out, his riches came quickly through the explosive growth of Facebook. But had that not worked out, he would likely be a millionaire through some other start-up or just by being a highly paid technical genius for an existing corporation. Zuckerberg’s system (or what I infer was his system) was almost guaranteed to work, but no one could have imagined at the time how well.
Warren Buffett’s system for investing involves buying undervalued companies and holding them forever, or at least until something major changes. That system (which I have grossly oversimplified) has been a winner for decades. Compare that with individual investors who buy a stock because they expect it to go up 20 percent in the coming year; that’s a goal, not a system. And not surprisingly, individual investors generally experience worse returns than the market average.
According to Scott, For something to be a system it needs to follow three simple criteria:
- You do that thing every day; so much so that it is internalized.
- It is carefully thought so that a reasonable person expects it to work more often than not - e.g. Working out daily is a system; buying a lottery ticket every day isn't.
- The system will generally take you forward and even though the velocity of the move can be drastically affected by luck; you generally keep moving forward while following a system; even without a lot of luck.
I've personally never liked the idea of setting goals; and in world where every business book out there seems to echo the same goal stereotypes, the idea of building systems over goals in nothing less than a breath of fresh air.
So the next time you are setting a goal for yourself try to replace that with a system. Who know, with a little bit of luck thrown in the mix you might go way beyond your goals; and even if you don't, you will be actually much more relaxed and much less stressed out compared to the sword of meeting goals within specific timelines pointed at you all the time.
Posted on: Friday, June 12, 2015 by Rajiv Popat
Most self-help books contain scientifically non-verifiable advice of how to be successful in life dispensed by self-help gurus who became successful in life by dispensing advice that was --- scientifically non verifiable.
Over a period of time the Self-Help industry has created clichés that have often done as much harm as they have done good. I can't even begin to guess just how many entrepreneurs burn their hands trying out the whole 'follow your passion' cliché pushed out by self help books around the globe.
The power of positive thinking is another such cliché. Most self help books out there seem to recommend that readers should push negative thoughts out of their brains and focus on positive thoughts. It's one of those ideas that was articulately written in one self-help book; which sold a million copies because the audience liked the sound of it. Because it sold a million copies other self-help authors echoed the advice and very soon the entire self-help industry was pushing the cliché as an inevitable truth of the universe with very little science or evidence to support the hypothesis.
In his rather scientific book, 59 seconds - Think a little, change a lot, Professor Richard Wiseman talks at-length the kind of negative impact these non-scientific feel-good hypothesis can have. He explains:
The problem is that the advice offered in some self-help books and courses is at odds with the results of scientific research. Take, for example, the power of positive thinking. Does the road to happiness really depend on people’s being able to simply push negative thoughts out of their mind? Actually, research suggests that such thought suppression may be far more likely to increase, rather than decrease, misery. In the mid-1980s Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner chanced upon an obscure but intriguing quote from Dostoyevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Wegner decided to carry out a simple experiment to discover if this was true. Each person from a group of willing volunteers was made to sit alone in a room and told to think about anything, but NOT to imagine Dostoyevsky’s white bear. Everyone was then asked to ring a bell each time the banned bear sprang to mind. Within moments a cacophony of bells indicated that Dostoyevsky was right—attempting to suppress certain thoughts makes people obsess on the very topic that they are trying to avoid.
Richard goes on to explain how these ideas like forced positivity thinking (which are not tested, backed by science or any research what so ever) can actually end up doing more harm than good in the real world:
Other work has shown how this effect operates in real life, with one study, conducted by Jennifer Borton and Elizabeth Casey at Hamilton College in New York State, providing a dramatic demonstration of how it influences people’s moods and self-esteem.8 Borton and Casey asked a group of people to describe their most upsetting thought about themselves. The researchers then had half of the group spend the next eleven days trying to push this thought out of their minds, while the remaining participants were asked to carry on with life as usual. At the end of each day, everyone indicated the degree to which they had dwelled upon their upsetting thought, and rated their mood, anxiety level, and self-esteem. The results were conceptually similar to those obtained by Wegner’s “white bear” experiment. The group attempting to actively suppress their negative thoughts actually thought more about them. Compared to those going about their business as usual, the suppression group also rated themselves as more anxious, more depressed, and having lower self-esteem. More than twenty years of research have demonstrated that this paradoxical phenomenon occurs in many different aspects of everyday life, showing, for example, that asking dieters not to think about chocolate causes them to consume more of it and asking the public not to elect fools to positions in government encourages them to vote for George Bush.
The point here isn't that forced positive thinking can do you more harm than good. The point here also isn't that 95% of all self help books out there are bullshit. The point I'm trying to make is completely different.
As geeks we have an intimate relationship with data. We deal with it in huge quantities; we build tools to visualize it; we manage it, we gather it, we find it and we draw conclusions from it. As professionals we are also fairly scientific. We probably exercise more cause-effect relationship and pattern finding in our lives than any other group of professionals on this planet. Every conversation we have with our compiler through our code is built on this cause effect relationship. Every bug we debug builds on the same foundation.
Like it or not science and data are two best tools that we as geeks have at our disposal - even when it comes to our own personal development; and if you aren't using the best tools at your disposal by questioning every self-help book, tip or advice that you come across; how are you really developing yourself?
If asking questions has been the time-tested way of growing for human species, just why do we let our self help gurus off the hook by accepting and following advice that is neither true nor scientifically verifiable? Why don't we ask for evidence and proof of effectiveness for every idea that we adapt in our lifestyle?
After all, the general appeal, popularity or feel good factor of a typical, safe, well accepted idea has no direct correlation to it's correctness; and if we as geeks and nerds don't question the validity of the ideas thrown at us, who will?
So the next time someone throws an idea that you think of adapting in your life - don't forget to check what the science and data surrounding that idea tells you. As a geek that's not just your responsibility; it's how you live you life.
Posted on: Wednesday, June 10, 2015 by Rajiv Popat
I've talked about how a lot of programmers and artists go through the imposter syndrome - or put simply, feel like phonies.
While it's easy to cringe at words like Phony or Fake which seem to carry inherent negative connotation; it's hard to ask more honest and introspective questions about the realities of being a phony or faking it.
Scientists for example know that the mere act of faking a smile by sticking a pencil between your teeth; makes you rate a cartoon funnier than it is. Social Scientists also know that synthetic fake happiness can be just as real as real happiness.
If Faking it is so beneficial, why don't we embrace it?
Amy Cuddy, talks about the science of faking it till you become it in her popular TED Talk but what is even more interesting than the science is her own story of faking her way to becoming successful in her academic career. She explains:
When I was 19, I was in a really bad car accident. I was thrown out of a car, rolled several times. I was thrown from the car. And I woke up in a head injury rehab ward, and I had been withdrawn from college, and I learned that my I.Q. had dropped by two standard deviations, which was very traumatic. I knew my I.Q. because I had identified with being smart, and I had been called gifted as a child. So I'm taken out of college, I keep trying to go back. They say, "You're not going to finish college. Just, you know, there are other things for you to do, but that's not going to work out for you." So I really struggled with this, and I have to say, having your identity taken from you, your core identity, and for me it was being smart, having that taken from you, there's nothing that leaves you feeling more powerless than that. So I felt entirely powerless. I worked and worked, and I got lucky, and worked, and got lucky, and worked.
Eventually I graduated from college. It took me four years longer than my peers, and I convinced someone, my angel advisor, Susan Fiske, to take me on, and so I ended up at Princeton, and I was like - "I am not supposed to be here!" - "I am an impostor!" - And the night before my first-year talk (the first-year talk at Princeton is a 20-minute talk to 20 people -That's it) - I was so afraid of being found out the next day that I called her and said, "I'm quitting." - and she was like, "You are not quitting, because I took a gamble on you, and you're staying. You're going to stay, and this is what you're going to do. You are going to fake it. You're going to do every talk that you ever get asked to do. You're just going to do it and do it and do it, even if you're terrified and just paralyzed and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm doing it. Like, I have become this. I am actually doing this.'" So that's what I did.
In her video with an emotional end Amy describes how she not only used the "fake it till you become it" hypothesis for her own advantage but also used it to uplift another student.
It's easy to attach negativity to words like Phony and Fake - but it is when you embrace these words and dissect their true power and potential - that you realize how being a fake or phony can actually be empowering; especially if you keep showing up and continue to fake it till you become it.
Posted on: Monday, June 08, 2015 by Rajiv Popat
Why does every call center have to sound, look and feel like all other call centers? Why does ever support call from practically all companies out there, has to look, feel and sound like the support call from all other companies?
When Tony Hsieh started out with Zappos the idea was to build call centers with no scripts and empowered employees who would go out of their way to help customers even in situations where they really didn't have to help. In his book delivering happiness Tony explains the power of having something as simple as a support team that would really support customers and be nice to them:
A lot of people may think it’s strange that an Internet company is so focused on the telephone, when only about 5 percent of our sales happen through the telephone. In fact, most of our phone calls don’t even result in sales. But what we’ve found is that on average, every customer contacts us at least once sometime during his or her lifetime, and we just need to make sure that we use that opportunity to create a lasting memory.
The majority of phone calls don’t result in an immediate order. Sometimes a customer may be calling because it’s her first time returning an item, and she just wants a little help stepping through the process. Other times, a customer may call because there’s a wedding coming up this weekend and he wants a little fashion advice. And sometimes, we get customers who call simply because they’re a little lonely and want someone to talk to.
In his book, Tony goes on to describe the kind of powerful experiences truly empowered support staff can create in the minds of the customers:
I’m reminded of a time when I was in Santa Monica, California, a few years ago at a Skechers sales conference.
After a long night of bar-hopping, a small group of us headed up to someone’s hotel room to order some food. My friend from Skechers tried to order a pepperoni pizza from the room-service menu, but was disappointed to learn that the hotel we were staying at did not deliver hot food after 11:00 PM. We had missed the deadline by several hours.
In our inebriated state, a few of us cajoled her into calling Zappos to try to order a pizza. She took us up on our dare, turned on the speakerphone, and explained to the (very) patient Zappos rep that she was staying in a Santa Monica hotel and really craving a pepperoni pizza, that room service was no longer delivering hot food, and that she wanted to know if there was anything Zappos could do to help.
The Zappos rep was initially a bit confused by the request, but she quickly recovered and put us on hold. She returned two minutes later, listing the five closest places in the Santa Monica area that were still open and delivering pizzas at that time.
Now, truth be told, I was a little hesitant to include this story because I don’t actually want everyone who reads this book to start calling Zappos and ordering pizza. But I just think it’s a fun story to illustrate the power of not having scripts in your call center and empowering your employees to do what’s right for your brand, no matter how unusual or bizarre the situation.
As for my friend from Skechers? After that phone call, she’s now a customer for life.
You would think that Zappos succeeding with this innovative idea for support would prompt other companies to step up and change their support centers; but in the larger scheme of things, support still remains a cookie cutter solution based industry.
I continue to be absolutely amazed at how really small startups who can support their customers with two cell phones; go out of their way to setup up these elaborate automated voice systems which leads their customers through countless 'Press X to do Y' options.
I continue to be amazed how not one support center actually has a well defined way to route your call to the same executive instead of having to repeat your problem / story to a different executive every single time you call up regarding the same incident.
What made Zappos support work was that it wasn't cookie cutter. It was improvised. But improvisation is hard. Improvisation takes serious effort. And improvisation is risky. Cookie cutter support however is easy; cookie cutter is well established; and cookie cutter is safe... which by the way are exactly the qualities that make it, risker than risky.
Posted on: Friday, June 05, 2015 by Rajiv Popat
What can a guy who has failed his entire life teach you about being passionate about your career? A lot; especially when that guy happens to be a guy who failed his way to success and ended up giving this to the world:
Scott Adams is not just the creator of Dilbert but in his own words: a professional simplifier.
I've talked about the perils of the passion hypothesis but Scott's dissection and simplification of the passion hypothesis, in his book: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, is blunt and yet, shockingly real (like most of his comic strips).
In his book, Scott grabs the passion hypothesis by its horns and throws it flat on the ground, using a pinch of humor with some bitter sweet reality. Scott explains how passion is overrated in today's world and how it's nothing more than bullshit:
You often hear advice from successful people that you should “follow your passion.” That sounds perfectly reasonable the first time you hear it. Passion will presumably give you high energy, high resistance to rejection, and high determination. Passionate people are more persuasive, too. Those are all good things, right?
Here’s the counterargument: When I was a commercial loan officer for a large bank in San Francisco, my boss taught us that you should never make a loan to someone who is following his passion. For example, you don’t want to give money to a sports enthusiast who is starting a sports store to pursue his passion for all things sporty. That guy is a bad bet, passion and all. He’s in business for the wrong reason.
My boss, who had been a commercial lender for over thirty years, said the best loan customer is one who has no passion whatsoever, just a desire to work hard at something that looks good on a spreadsheet. Maybe the loan customer wants to start a dry-cleaning store or invest in a fast-food franchise—boring stuff. That’s the person you bet on. You want the grinder, not the guy who loves his job.
The argument Scott makes is that the individual who are driven by their passion often lose their head and take irrational decisions when left to make a choice between realities and their whimsical dreams and so-called passions. The ones who are passionate and are not grinders are even worse.
Scott provides a very compelling argument about why Passion sells in today's world and why so many self-help Guru's and even successful individuals (like Steve Jobs) sell passion. Scott explains:
Passionate people who fail don’t get a chance to offer their advice to the rest of us. But successful passionate people are writing books and answering interview questions about their secrets for success every day.
Naturally those successful people want you to believe that success is a product of their awesomeness, but they also want to retain some humility. You can’t be humble and say, “I succeeded because I am far smarter than the average person.”
But you can say your passion was a key to your success, because everyone can be passionate about something or other. Passion sounds more accessible. If you’re dumb, there’s not much you can do about it, but passion is something we think anyone can generate in the right circumstances. Passion feels very democratic. It is the people’s talent, available to all.
What's really impressive about Scott's writing is his open hearted honest confessions about how most success (including his own) works:
It’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. I’ve been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life, and each one made me excited at the start. You might even call it passion. The ones that didn’t work out—and that would be most of them—slowly drained my passion as they failed. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded.
For example, when I invested in a restaurant with an operating partner, my passion was sky-high. And on day one, when there was a line of customers down the block, I was even more passionate. In later years, as the business got pummeled, my passion evolved into frustration and annoyance. The passion disappeared.
On the other hand, Dilbert started out as just one of many get-rich schemes I was willing to try. When it started to look as if it might be a success, my passion for cartooning increased because I realized it could be my golden ticket. In hindsight, it looks as if the projects I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.
Grab a copy of the book and just like you see a directionless seeker in Steve Jobs in the book Little Bets, you'll see Scott make literally dozens of little bets in his life and nearly failing badly and royally in most of them.
By the time you're done with the book all you can do is wonder how much more inspired we would be to work hard; and just how many stupid startup disasters would the world avoid, if only more successful people started keeping their humility aside, stopped using politically correct democratic clichés like Passion, and talked about the real ingredients of successful life. At-least we would avoid discussions like these in our offices:
If you're thinking of dropping out of your job without a concrete residual income and a solid real life validation of your plan just because you want to follow your passion, don't you think that you've been reading too many self-help books lately?
Why not give a thought to the thought that your passion for your new found business, as Scott Adams puts it in artistically exaggerated style - may really be nothing more than... Bullshit?
Posted on: Wednesday, June 03, 2015 by Rajiv Popat
When I started writing my first book I decided to take a style of writing that was a tad bit confrontational. Career advice, especially one that involves self-introspection is like bitter medicine and when you are trying to convince the world that their problems are their own fault, you have to assume a tone that is (for lack of a better word) authoritative.
When I picked that confrontational style of writing, little did I realize that the cloud of self-introspection and doubt would haunt me quite literally with every chapter that I would add to the book. I mean, who was I to give career advice to anyone?
Maybe my dozen+ promotions in the last 14 years were just a rather strange coming together of luck and timing. Maybe all my hikes were just a result of the fact that I happened to be in the right industry, at the right place with the right teams. I am not the richest person on the planet, nor am I the smartest. I am not the most successful person to have walked this planet either. In my past, I've been part of one colossal failure and have run away from one entire project while it headed towards disaster. And now by assuming a tone of a person who knew what he was talking about, wasn't I being what you would call a... phony?
Scott Hanselman's post on the topic comes as close to it as possible in terms of articulating the kind of thoughts every artist has to confront and conquer. Scott explains:
I've got 30 domains and I've only done something awesome with 3 of them. Sometimes when I log into my DNS manager I just see 27 failures. I think to myself, there's 27 potential businesses, 27 potential cool open source projects just languishing. If you knew anything you'd have made those happen. What a phony.
I hit Zero Email a week ago, now I'm at 122 today in my Inbox and it's stressing me out. And I teach people how to manage their inboxes. What a phony.
When I was 21 I was untouchable. I thought I was a gift to the world and you couldn't tell me anything. The older I get the more I realize that I'm just never going to get it all, and I don't think as fast as I used to. What a phony.
I try to learn a new language each year and be a Polyglot Programmer but I can feel F# leaking out of my head as I type this and I still can't get my head around really poetic idiomatic Ruby. What a phony.
Every creative person worth his salt feels like a phony sometimes. Most creative individuals feel like that with most creative endeavors they undertake. The interesting thing about this weird combination of self-introspection and self-doubt is that it's a two edged sword. It can motivate you and push you forward. Or it can cripple you and cast clouds of anxiety which can forever stop you from drawing your art in bold colors and confident strokes and just push you towards the side of safe.
When it comes to our creative endeavors, each artist goes through his / her own bouts of ups and downs. At times the stars align, everything falls in place, your 10000 hours of hard work results in flow that ascends you to a level that makes you shine and others look up to you like you're a reflection of some form of excellence.
On other occasions your work bombs, the time just isn't right, you seem unconfident and you fall plat on your face embarrassing yourself and others who laid their trust on you. You question your own credentials and capabilities and you feel like a Phony. Elizabeth Gilbert describes this dilemma in her life-changing TED talk:
Because in the end it's like this, OK -- centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. They were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals and they were terrific, right? But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen, and one of these performers would actually become transcendent. And I know you know what I'm talking about, because I know you've all seen, at some point in your life, a performance like this. It was like time would stop, and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal and he wasn't doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before, but everything would align. And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human. He would be lit from within, and lit from below and all lit up on fire with divinity.
And when this happened, back then, people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name. They would put their hands together and they would start to chant, "Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God." That's God, you know. Curious historical footnote: when the Moors invaded southern Spain, they took this custom with them and the pronunciation changed over the centuries from "Allah, Allah, Allah," to "Olé, olé, olé," which you still hear in bullfights and in flamenco dances. In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, "Allah, olé, olé, Allah, magnificent, bravo," incomprehensible, there it is -- a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that.
But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it's Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he's no longer a glimpse of God. He's just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he's never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God's name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.
The problem here isn't just about feeling like a Phony. The problem here is that we often confuse having an opinion or telling a story, or giving an awesome performance once with having authority or being an expert who has to be right and awesome all the time.
When you write a book, build software or ship any creative work, you are expressing an opinion or telling a story. You may express your opinion strongly, or tell your story articulately or you may give an awesome performance once - but that doesn't make you an authority or an expert who will never fail again. The problem is; the world sees you as an expert; when you know deep down inside that you are still an aging mortal with inherent limitations and flaws, walking down the path of life long learning, failing every now and then and learning from those failures. Suddenly the burden of failing seems higher than it has ever felt before. Suddenly the repercussions of sounding like an idiot seem huge.
When you are dancing the fine dance of drawing in bold strokes and also being authentic in your self-introspection, self-doubt is a part of the game; especially when you know that you are going to fail again and again and again and now that you've been awesome once, twice or a few times, your next failure is just going to grab that much more attention.
In the same talk Elizabeth Gilbert talks about a way to deal with this dilemma:
This is how I've started to think, and this is certainly how I've been thinking in the last few months as I've been working on the book that will soon be published, as the dangerously, frighteningly over-anticipated follow up to my freakish success.
And what I have to sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that is don't be afraid. Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance.
If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then "Olé!" And if not, do your dance anyhow. And "Olé!" to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. "Olé!" to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.
And so in a world where most of us fail most of the time and yet we continue to celebrate success and use it as a Metric, everyone is a phony at some level or the other. The question isn't if you are a phony. The question really is, do you keep showing up. In the end my book was completed and published. It also ended up being in the Kindle Best sellers list for sometime and received a few good reviews; but I'm still not certain that I'm not a Phony. What I am happy about though, is that I showed up.
Posted on: Monday, June 01, 2015 by Rajiv Popat
As artists we are inherently programmed to love our craft. We blog, we code, we start weekend projects and we tell ourselves stories like - If you build it they will come.
The 2014 figures published by NetCraft don't seem to support the - if you build it they will come - hypothesis. The numbers are discouraging - demotivating even.
If your site depends on volume of users to be successful, here is how your chances of success have declined over time:
If you go by averages and don't believe in the dream of the outlier your chances of building anything that gets any attention by a considerable number of users were done and dusted by 1998, which is when we went to each site having less than 100 users.
As of 2014 we are at a depressing number of 3 users per website.
But wait, we've not just lost users to other competing sites. We've lost their attention too. This survey for example seems to suggest an average bounce rate of about half for your visitors:
As a rule of thumb, a bounce rate in the range of 26 to 40 percent is excellent. 41 to 55 percent is roughly average. 56 to 70 percent is higher than average, but may not be cause for alarm depending on the website. Anything over 70 percent is disappointing for everything outside of blogs, news, events, etc.
Assuming you have an average of 3 users and half of them drop out within seconds of hitting your website, you're left with 1.5 users. But then of course you can't have half a user so let's round that down and you're left with ---- 1 user.
There are two ways to look at this data. The grumpy pessimist in you can look at the data and get depressed. The dumb optimist in you can continue to blissfully dream that some day you will build your own FaceBook. But the artist in you probably knows that 1 visitor. The only visitor who will really use and benefit first from your product --- You.
And so the next time you pick up a project, either have a bunch of paying customers ready or build something You yourself would love to use for an extended period of time. After all, in most cases, particularly when it comes to innovative products and side projects that you might be working on, You are Your User.