Getting Married: The Ultimate Exercise of Choice

musing

I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about how to create optionality for myself. In fact, I think for most people in my demographic, we spend our first 25 / 30 years pursuing optionality in our career and so effectively, our lives.

We try to get the right mix of education so that we can signal our potential to current / future employers so that we have options for work. We try to live in cities so that we have options for work and romantic interests and hobbies. We prefer jobs with brand names or in industries that give us optionality in the future. In the modern digitized world where evidence of our past is neatly and visibly indexed onto the first page of a Google search, keeping an up-to-date LinkedIn gives you control over your narrative and empowers you to keep your options open.

In an era and point in my adulthood where general optionality is important and desirable, I willingly made the choice to cut off my options and get married to one person. Why did I do this?

I never thought I needed to get married. I think the construct of marriage reflects a history where families and individuals consolidated their assets for financial and social security. To be blunt about it, that construct is mostly irrelevant to my life. My financial security comes from my career and I’m already earning well. I don’t really need the social security because in my social circles social security doesn’t exactly come from being married, it comes mostly from being interesting and like-able. So I didn’t need to get married, marriage wasn’t a make-or-break requirement for survival.

However, I do believe deeply in the power of partnerships and love.

Although, I was skeptical that I would meet someone to whom I would want to commit my entire life to.

I mean, that’s a really big deal. I can’t reliably forecast my own life so how could I forecast a shared life with someone else? That’s a big unknown to take on. An entire other person. Why enter into a marriage if you’re not going to go in with the attitude of trying to make it work for the long-term? I would have to meet someone with whom I would want to spend my life with so much that I would take the leap. In order for a relationship like a marriage to endure over the long-term, I would need to meet someone with whom my values genuinely aligned and who I actually enjoyed myself with day-to-day. And, AND!! this person would have to reciprocate the feelings. What are the chances of that happening? They seemed low to me. And, given that I wasn’t actively looking for someone, I certainly didn’t expect to be married within two years of graduating from business school.

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And as I was going about my life I met someone who defied the above odds and with patience, helped me believe that I ought to get married.

Even though the realities were making it clear that we ought to get married making the call on when that would happen required an explicit decision. We had to make a choice. Given that we were making a choice that would impact the rest of our lives, or at least most of the rest of our lives, how did I feel ready to make a choice in the face of so much uncertainty? How did I know I was ready to commit? I could have waited longer to make a decision, in the hopes of uncovering more information that would help me make my decision. I considered that route, but decided it was not the right one for me because it wasn’t information that I needed. The hard thing about this decision was not that I didn’t have enough information. The hard thing about making the decision was that it required me to make trade-offs, to forego other possibilities, in the pursuit of this one particular person.

Once I articulated that decision-making criteria to myself, I started seeing the “not having enough information” as a mask over indecision in other areas of my life (and our society). What I needed was for myself to make a commitment to another person that I trusted that we would live our lives according to our values. Did I trust him? Yes! Did we articulate similar values? Yes! Did we want to commit to each other? Yes! So, we did it.

Pursuing optionality is sometimes an end in and of itself but if you know what you want, pursuing optionality might take you in the opposite direction.

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What’s the difference between you & your job?

musing
Are you looking for a job or your self?


A set of lingering thoughts…

 

If you were born a 100 years ago, what would your profession be?

 

If I wanted to create a model to guess what your occupation is, the region in which you live would likely be a significant feature. Said another way, if I wanted to predict what your occupation is, the region in which you live would likely be a significant explanatory variable. the idiosyncrasies of predictive modeling aside, i.e. the fact that most models try to fit their training data set, that can make prediction appear superficial at first glance, the truth is that environmental factors like the region in which you live, actually can determine the course of your future. The zip code in which you’re born, your gender, your last name, etc. hold a causal relationship with your profession. (Check out Table 11 in the Current Population Survey run by the BLS– the make-up of occupation by gender and race is remarkably consistent). We make most of our decisions as influenced by our environments.

 

So when I ask, what would your job have been 100 years ago, I don’t just mean to ask what your probable profession would be. We can probably answer that question with a fair amount of confidence without significant effort, like via a regression model with coefficients for the variables listed above.

 

What I mean to ask is the more interesting question: given the activities that one might carry out in one’s profession, what would you choose to be and why?

 

I was six years old, wearing a pleated skirt and my hair in a plait, when on a foggy morning in Lahore my teacher posed this question to the entire class. “What will you be when you grow up?” My answer was clear to me: a cardiologist! My mother had passed on her unfulfilled dream to me. Twenty-two years later, I am not a cardiologist. Instead, I work as a product manager, on a consumer product, hopping between analysis, engineering, lots and lots of talking with people, lots and lots of listening to people. Boiled down, most of what I do is think (and communicate what I think) and that is what I’m paid for. I worked hard to make a living out of thinking because I really, really enjoy it. What I apply my thinking towards and how I’m treated at work also matter in my job satisfation, but overall, if I’m not in a job where I lead with my mind then I won’t feel like I’m doing my best work. And it’s a delicate balance between day-to-day work, purpose, company culture, that lead to satisfaction and that you as your own best guide have to monitor. When you feel like you’re doing your best work and when your workplace sees the work for what it is, is the point of job satisfaction. And while that’s true, not everyone can create their own job and careers. A few lucky ones can and some of those people do. So, for the most part, we pick from the options available to us.

 

And when you start working a job, a funny thing happens: the job starts to shape you. Paid work takes up such a significant share of a modern person’s time that it can actually mold us to the point where we start making choices based on what our job gave to us. Our jobs contribute to our identities to the extent that we start adopting aspects of that identity outside of the workplace as well. (Ex. I don’t think it’s a coincidence or entirely intrinsic to the people that are software engineers that many of them take up stereotypical hobbies in fantasy or video games or board games.) People who don’t, usually feel refreshing. It’s as if they have claimed their humanity, which is bigger than what is in front of them. All of this makes me wonder:

 

What’s the difference between what you do for a living and who you are?

 

What would the people that are today’s engineers, analysts, product managers, executives, etc. have been before their professions was formalized into what it is today? And given that much of who we are is driven by our context- would they even be the same people?

Big Island, Hawaii or…Feeling Out of Control

musing, travel

When deciding on where to take a vacation, I somewhat spontaneously chose Hawaii. Though, I wouldn’t be surprised if my subconscious was yearning for the ocean breeze and exposure to the sun. Almost all of my prior major travels were motivated by exploring a new urban area or foreign culture. The only exception, and a notable one at that, was my trip to New Zealand & Australia. When I visited Greece, I steeped in ancient history and feta cheese. South Africa was an immersion experience that made clear the virtue of frugality and that social change is much like most tectonic collisions: it’s a grand vibration. Southeast Asia reminded me of the frenetic energy of developing Asia and the impact of colonialism and war.

Big Island was different. To start, Big Island has a small resident population (187K) so the influence of nature is greater than that of its people. Big Island is surrounded from all directions by the Pacific Ocean, so even when you’re driving in-land, you’ll likely see the immensity of the ocean through your dashboard. The reason I picked Big Island rather than Mauai, Kauai, Oahu, or Honolulu, was because it’s the largest island (all of the other islands can fit inside it) and has 10 of the 14 climates that exist on earth, which means that I would get to have a diverse experience on the island by not going driving very far in any one particular direction. So, off I went…

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I saw lava bubbling in the crater of a live volcano in Kilauea

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Sulphur Dioxide steaming up from the rocks in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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Great waves crashing in Kona town

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Kua beach

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Green sand beach

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Beautiful bay of Green sand beach

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Majestic views at Waipeo Valley…you can do a steep hike down to the beach

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Lava remains in Hawaii Volanoes National Park

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Solidified lava and ash by Mauna Loa

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Black sand…lots of it, in Polua Valley

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Lush forests by Akaka falls

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And while all of it was beautiful, it was also terrifying at times. Many times, I felt like I had no control over my physical reality. The fact is that I don’t, really, even in San Francisco or New York. But, in densely populated cities you live among man-made structures and routines which make you feel like you’re in control. The police control your safety, work controls most of your time, routines between the gym, home, doctor’s visits, and restaurant dinners with friends control your well-being. All of these processes occupy your attention and give the impression that you are in control. But in Hawaii, though we had an itinerary to follow with sights to see, places to stay and eat in, my illusion of control was quickly dismantled. When an ocean wave hits your body, as it breaks on the beach, you’re weightless and being carried by the tide. Eventually, this became playful although initially, it felt frustrating. As a non-swimmer, I kept thinking, “why can’t I *just* stand-up??”. However, the point of playing with the ocean is not to replicate the circumstance that we enjoy on land: to walk, to keep your eyes and mouth open, to be *dry*. The point of playing with the ocean is to let it carry you through an alternative experience.

The ultimate test of my awareness of my futility in fighting the natural world and its chaos was administered during my last day on the island. While I was walking into a restaurant for breakfast, I received an alert from the Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency that said:

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It was like one of those moments in movies when the protagonist’s vision is fixed on a focal point with all else blurring and going mute. For the 38 minutes that followed the accidentally sent alert, I was grasping mostly for understanding.

Is this really happening? Am I about to die? What should I do about my family? Can I go somewhere for shelter? Is my consciousness about to end?

Maybe the desire for control is motivated by a lack of understanding about the consequences of a lack of control. Is my entire world held up in its current shape and state because of the effort that I exert? Some of my observable reality is a product of my effort but a significant share of it exists independent of me. This means that even when I am able to change the state of some variables, I have to operate within the bounds of my local environment. That is to say, I have little control, by design.

Evaluating ClassPass’s New Beta Feature

musing

I recently finished my 200th class on my current ClassPass account and I think that milestone calls for some reflection!
ClassPass is one of my favorite consumer products and the platform has evolved a lot over the years. my current ClassPass account is 14 months old (an account is tied to an e-mail address) and I’ve had one before moving to California, which was tied to my school e-mail address. I’m one of the early majority adopters from 2014. ClassPass has gone from providing a brief, transactional experience to exercisers (search class, neighborhood, click “reserve”) to providing more of a consultative experience.

I’ve seen myself experience the same frustration / resistance before every single class but then, I always also experience the same reward after class. Leaning into our resistance instead of avoiding it is key to a fitness regime and ClassPass helped me maintain a habit. ClassPass makes me feel good about myself and helps meets not just my emotional aspirations but also real, measurable goals. There are many reasons why building a health-focused product can be very successful but there are also many reasons for such a product endeavor to fail. Regardless, ClassPass has successfully created an experience for their customers that has evolved over time.

The most recent stage in their evolution is quite interesting: a Beta feature that allots users “funny money” (this term is mine, not ClassPass’s) credits in addition to strict class credits. I believe that pricing is the very first component of a user’s experience with a product and this Beta feature is effectively a pricing innovation that can really impact a user’s experience.

ClassPass currently has 3-class, 5-class, and 10-class / month packages available for purchase. They used to have an Unlimited package but they sunset that almost exactly a year ago because it was an unprofitable customer segment for the company. Given the kinds of studios that ClassPass gives its users access to, the service still feels like its worth the money but there are some rules in place that can make the service feel constrained. That constrained feeling runs counter to what ClassPass promises its customers: flexibility, fun, discovery. This Beta features can address those pain points for users and help studios fill up vacant spots in their less popular classes.

The blurb that ClassPass provides on this Beta feature confirms my theory that they are trying to address the above pain points:

“ClassPass is beta testing credits — a better way of booking classes designed to give you more flexibility. Get the most out of your membership, whether you’re looking to take more classes every month or become more loyal to your favorite studios.” – ClassPass
While I definitely appreciate ingenuity of this Beta feature, as a Product Manager I know to rely on cold hard data (#coldharddata) to check my intuition and track results. So, if I were the PM for the ClassPass platform, I would use the following hypothesis and metrics to gauge success of this Beta:
Hypothesis: Reducing the credit price of a class increases users’ likelihood of taking it and makes users  happier.
Desired Outcome: Happier users and studios
Metric 1: Lift in class ratings provided by Beta customers versus the non-treatment group
Metric 2: Lift in attendance for classes with currently low attendance
And then wait for the data to come in….

Being Terrified of Criticism in the Workplace

musing

I may not be perfect but I am self-aware. Said another way, I know I am not perfect because I am self-aware. That insight is valuable in and of itself.

This self-awareness enables me to strive for higher quality work, deeper friendships, better health – because I know there is room for improvement. I know that there is room for improvement because I am constantly reflecting on events and assessing the state of affairs. When I make progress, I mentally log and remember them. When there are missteps, I mentally log and remember them, too. (Sometimes I log my life in writing in Evernote, which truly is becoming an extension of my brain.) After some time of reflection, you begin to see in your mind’s eye that progress is a trajectory. If progress is a trajectory, then there must be a destination, either in eventuality or one to aspire to. Being aware of this destination in concept is what enables one to see room for improvement.

This self-awareness is the opposite of the flaw of poor leaders (and people in general) described by the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias. This cognitive bias refers to the inflated self-perception that a person of low cognitive ability has because she is not self-aware enough to know that she might not know or understand a thing fully.

A simple, tangible demonstration of the thinking that results from this bias: imagine a first grader that does really well in all of her arithmetic exams. Despite that, the third grader would likely not be able to chart out an academic path for herself to follow all the way to calculus because she is not aware of the higher-level mathematical concepts that follow mechanical arithmetic. If she is able to, then she is meta-cognitively gifted. Regardless, this student would still consider herself good, even excellent, in mathematics, because she is only reacting to the data ini front of her.

In the workplace, the awareness of imperfection is what matters, rather than being perfect, because then you can get yourself and your colleagues moving. In fact, I think this is what leaders are paid to do: architect a vision and move the organization towards the goalpost, and they are (should be) held accountable for progress towards the goal (“the destination”).

But, despite this appreciation for the room for improvement, I have been feeling truly awful anticipating criticism at work. When I detect the criticism coming, my emotions flare up. “What did I do wrong? Oh no, shit, I should have done better.” scrolls behind my eyes.

Why is it so terrifying to receive criticism?

A thing is not bad in and of itself unless it has a bad consequence. Criticism must feel terrifying because I interpret it as consequential, either materially or in the realm of values (i.e. breaching a value or tenet of my identity).  Fundamentally, I have a belief that I will be punished for imperfection or rewarded only for perfection. And, it’s hard to interpret real-world data correctly or in an unbiased way because when trying to interpret my life’s achievements, I am already fitting data to a narrative that I have in my head. I don’t think it’s possible to step out of that narrative to re-shape it in the moment, so that I can see, really see, what the world is and has been like. In the context of the workplace, this is where the work of strong leadership and good management comes in. Organizations that prioritize investment in their people offer their people, certainly their “stars”, that context of real-world data as often as possible.

When the bar to meet, the bar that sets what good looks like, is not clear, as it often isn’t in (poorly managed workplaces), then criticism is terrifying because you don’t know what the consequence of that criticism is. In a world, in an industry, where there are such few women in leadership (what I aspire to), I interpret any criticism to be a potential signal for future failure in the workplace.

I want to end on an inspiring note, a quote from Avni Shah from Google, that I heard at the 2017 Women in Product conference. Avni said, “there is a third fear after imposter syndrome and the fear of failure…and this is the fear of moving backwards…In this case, I optimized for the smallest chance to make an impact in education. That commitment immunized me from doubt later on about my choice.” From Avni, I took away that knowing your values and strategy for living your values prevents you from considering every noise coming at you. You don’t fear that you’re moving back because of a noise you hear in the middle of the night because you can see your destination and know what it takes to get there.

What I learned about Innovative Product Development from MIT

musing

I reflect often, but recently, I’ve been reflecting specifically on how my time at MIT contributed to my character as a Product Manager. Most of the lessons that I learned at the Institute came from a combination of experiences and conversations over time, not a particular course. Although undoubtedly, some experiences were more impactful given my interests, skill-set, and aspirations, than others, like helping design an in-person and digital course, conceiving of and running the MIT Technology Conference, working in Indonesia, and teaching at an accelerator in South Africa. Below are 5 PM principles that I believe in and try to abide by. It’s important to note that I have a specific phase of product development in mind: one that invents new products or manages existing ones during their infancy or has to adapt an existing product to a new market. This what I’m most drawn towards and these principles may not resonate as much with PMs with steady-state products. To make these principles easier to grasp, I’ve included tangible examples from work that I’ve done in the past, wherever possible.

A common tactic throughout each of these principles: measure as much, as often, as you can (and show everyone your numbers). Measure the problem state, progress, and outcomes, with transparency.

1. Consistent innovation happens in an eco-system:

At its core, this lesson assumes that novel solutions cannot be solved for in the abstract, as if a mathematical problem. Novel solutions to practical problems come about by piecing together several observations, often over some period of time, and intellectual effort alone is not enough to bring a product to market. Abstract problem solving might get you a win once. But, consistent innovation needs an eco-system that consists of problem and outcome definers, builders, funders, champions, customers, and a source of knowledge. At the macro-level, this model for spurring innovation explains why Silicon Valley and Cambridge/Boston have been hubs for entrepreneurs and innovative activity for so long. With the combination of strong higher education institutions (ex. 20+ in the Cambridge / Boston area) that produce talented people, entrepreneurs inspired by previous success stories, cultures that rewards problem-solving, funding and resources from venture capitalists and accelerators/incubators alike, these two geographies enable innovative thinking and risk-taking through action. Abstracted out to the micro-level within companies, a PM can only launch innovative products if she has builders (engineers), her own vision for successful outcome, intelligence on her industry / technology / customer, active support from key stakeholder groups, and an organizational culture that does not forbid failure.

2. Cross-functional collaboration is required to solve real world problems:

What’s a real world problem? A problem that involves more than one group of people, without a clear culprit or solution, and possibly without strong leadership. Because real world problems (ex. an unwieldy sales pipeline, proliferation of inconsistent data and analysis throughout an organization, low voter participation rates within a community), are complex and un-contained to one group, they need active participation from several stakeholders to be resolved. This cross-functional collaboration is most important in the problem definition stage. With real-world problems, multiple groups often feel pain, but for different reasons and so their respective ideal solutions probably look different. Let’s illustrate this with the example problem of low voter turn-out in local elections.

Politicians, community groups, small businesses, and private citizens are stakeholders affected by the low voter turn-out problem. Some politicians might be benefiting from a low civic engagement but others might be suffering because they have little clout. Their ideal solution might be that the incumbent gets removed from office or that the impact of his legislation receives sunlight in the public space. Community groups might be suffering because they feel that important issues (housing, education) are being underrepresented. Their ideal solution might be that they petition the imcumbent in office. Private citizens might also notice that the quality of life in their neighborhood is not that great. And there’s no one solution to address the POV of several people. If you’re a PM in a tech company that focuses on civic matters or in a government office, you cannot bring about the outcome of higher voter turnout without considering the incentives and interests of every stakeholder before designing a solution. Otherwise your solution won’t stick.

3. Think in the space of possibilities:

This is not to say that you think of solutions firstly. This is to say that you imagine the outcome(s) that want in great, rich detail, first (ex. anyone, at any time, can know where in the pipeline a deal is and promotion from one segment to the other is based on observable activity, every analyst knows which data set to refer to for a question that they have to answer) unencumbered by assumptions rooted in legacy. For example, if you are trying to make central analytical tool, but immediately start working towards a solution with constraints based on the way your company operates *today*, you are boxing yourself into a sub-standard solution (at best) from the start. If you assume that analysts won’t be able to learn a new tool then you will end up designing one that looks a lot like tools that already exist. If you do that, then there is a non-zero chance that what you have built is duplicative and not adding incremental value. If you’re not adding incremental value, you’re not being innovative. Of course, you have to take into account your immovable constraints, but you should know whether the constraint is immovable instead of assuming that it is. Firstly think in the space of possibilities, and then work backwards.

4. The importance of thinking from first principles:

This is closely related to the previous principle of thinking in the space of possibilities. However, this is a behavior that you can encourage in yourself and your team rather easily by always asking “why” (often several times) to inspect their rationale and to understand their POV. Most people are not prone to thinking from first principles. Their imaginations are limited to what they see before them. For example, how would it strike you if your colleague PM suggested that you solve the problem of low voter participation by sending texts to all local residents to raise awareness instead of knocking on their doors in 2004, before the first Obama win made clear the importance of digital? Community organizations tend to knock on doors but outreach does not *have* to work that way. The purpose of knocking on doors is to raise awareness on an issue on an individual basis. When you view the problem that way, texting becomes equal to knocking on doors. That’s not to say that texting will be effective, but I am using this as an example to view a problem through its parts and think from the first principles of what you’re trying to achieve.

5. Fame is thin, quick to get fat, quick to thin again:

I think this might be one that I cherish the most. Fame is thin: once you develop a reputation it’s easy to keep building on it. You exagerate a few accomplishments to get a new job, and then you do it again, within the company you might rely on others’ perceptions of your work to get noticed and move ahead, etc. While a practicality to some extent, given how difficult it is to communicate one’s value proposition in today’s competitive job markets, too much fat can only hurt you. Over time, only muscle will get you up the hill of your career / industry / time.

Product Managers: What is the Problem You’re Trying to Solve?

musing

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine that works in the education and non-profit sector reached out to me for help for coming up with a marketing strategy. Or so we thought – help with a marketing strategy was the initial premise of our call.

But, as we began talking through her questions, we realized that before she could come up with a marketing strategy she need to zoom out and take stock of her current marketing tactics. Because, how could she improve or optimize her marketing if she was not aware of what she had to work with? Which channels would she optimize with? Towards what end? Which tools and tactics would be at her disposal? What are her strengths and areas for improvement? She needed to define her problem before she started trying to solve it. I began talking to her with my Product Manager hat on.

Being extremely clear on the problem that you are solving, and then being honest with your commitment to solving that problem by brutally prioritizing, is central to being an effective Product Manager.

The title “Product Manager” has become extremely popular over recent years, in tandem with the growth and popularization of the technology sector in the United States. However, “Product Manager” as a title has existed at least as far back as IBM’s founding. My conception of the Product Manager role is similar to what is referred to as a “mini-ceo”. Although, a PM is held accountable to its customers, a subset of the broader “stakeholders group” that CEOs in the U.S. are committed to appeasing. While yes, you need to appease a broad group of stakeholders as a PM, you should always keep your customers at the front of your mind.

( At this point in time, I’m of the opinion that CEOs can be led astray by focusing on generating returns for shareholders which is orthogonal to and not the same as generating value within your market. If that sounds too abstract, consider Marissa Meyer’s tenure at Yahoo. If you measure her effectiveness as a CEO by shareholder returns, she performed well. But as the Yahoo example dramatically illustrates, that is not the same as creating an engine of recurring value. )

McKinsey recently released a description of the PM role that was remarkably tangible and rich with examples. As a lover of application and practice, I find most thought pieces published by management consulting pieces to be too removed from application. In summary, the article segmented PMs along two dimensions: proximity from an external customer (think a PM overseeing the database infrastructure for a company’s internal reporting services versus a B2C PM) and technical savvy (think a PM at Amazon Warehouse Services versus a PM responsible for growth at Yelp). That segmentation is useful, even if high-level, to evaluate your own role through and see whose problem you’re solving.

The hardest thing about being an effective PM is not that you have to influence (though that’s up there), it’s finding out how much you don’t know and whether that matters. With limited resources, as a PM, you have to decide which area of ignorance of yours most urgently needs to be changed.

In the example of my friend, the problem she was trying to solve was not yet that she was trying to improve her organization’s ability to market. She was at an earlier stage: she was trying to figure out what marketing her firm currently did and how effective that marketing has been.

Do you hear me?

musing

After spending a month’s worth of work on a product, an executive I speak to and see multiple times a week asked me a question, over e-mail, that effectively read as “who is your customer”? Knowing my product’s customer is foundational to just about every decision that he and I have made and still need to make, and I was taken aback. How could he be making decisions and giving me push back, if, he does not know my complete list of customers? He is an executive so perhaps he is doing what he is supposed to: making decisions on incomplete information. The next set of words that ran through my mind were the ones that really got to the heart of what I was thinking: do you not listen to the rationale I articulate for my decisions, which almost always references my customers? Even more fundamentally: do you hear me, Mr. Executive?

At first, I was going to title this post “Can you see me, Mr. Executive”. However, there is a subtle but extremely important difference between “can” and “do”.

A “do you” question reduces reality to the binary: a yes or no, grounded in facts, is how one answers a “do you” question.

A “can you” question asks for a nuanced take on whether the right environment exists for an executive to understand you.

A “can you” question brings forward agency: does your workplace have the structures and norms in place that enable you to be heard? For instance, are there recurring meetings in which both you and your executive of interest are present and able to speak to one another? A “can you” question also brings forward the mutual nature of being heard. That is, being heard is one-half of communication- the other half of communication is speaking. A “can you” question implicitly states that you, the actor looking to be heard, is speaking (up).

If mis-used, “can you” questions trick the asker to switch a desired “result” with the potential for that desired result. As in, we should not ask our employer “can” they pay us, we should ask them “will” they pay us, since we are interested in achieving the state of being paid. In fact, asking the “can you” question is just an exploration we take to ask the “do you”. When you have little time to waste and know what you want, cut to the “do you”.

Similarly, being “seen” is adjacent to what one looking to drive actions should be looking for. Being “seen” is necessary but not sufficient for influencing someone into collaboration. For example, sitting in a meeting with your executive might be enough to raise awareness but definitely not enough to drive action. If they see you, they know you are there, but that is not enough for the two of you to go to a new location, together. The common American expression “I hear you” rests on and accepts this truth. Often said after hearing a novel or contrasting point-of-view, the listener reaffirms the speaker efforts by saying that their words have been received.

I suspect that I initially wrote “can you see me” instead of “do you hear me” because I believe that the content of my speech can carry it’s own weight into my audience’s mind. That is not always the case, and certainly not when your audience does not have a positive bias or inclined towards action. And, more naively, I assume that my counterparts in dialogue are active listeners that are receptive and seeking my input. In the workplace, that is almost never the case, and even less so with figures of authority who have been and are rewarded for driving their function’s agenda.

While it might seem tragic at first thought that being seen is not enough to drive action, once we articulate that assumption into sound or onto paper, we see that it is, in fact, reasonable. Our executives’ attention is divided and in scarce supply, to claim a piece you must first recognize that you have to claim it, it will not be given to you. So, you must ask yourself and her/him, “do you hear me?” in the way that is appropriate.

Can Women Truly Befriend Other Women?

musing

Like many of my other reflections, this was inspired by an emotional scratch that was started by friction with a friend. In this case, it’s the sparkiest friction to date with a friend that I care deeply about. By now, we’ve come to a resolution by arguing, taking time away, and then talking once we had more clarity. We fought primarily because she felt that she was overextending herself and I was not making myself available or vulnerable enough. There is much more nuance to our situation, but let’s focus on this “over-” and “under-extending” driver.

After a few e-mails were exchanged right after our argument, we finally got ourselves on a phone call and talked about what we were feeling. We clawed back and forth with statements of self-expression:

“I felt that you…”
“…and, you made it hard for me to…”
“If I don’t behave this way then you…”

The over- and under-extension, perceived by both sides, is a result of our expectations. One of the most illuminating ideas that I have come across is from Martha Nussbaum (who I’ve cited before), a prolific contemporary philosopher who writes about emotions (among many other topics). Martha has written that our feelings are cognitive in nature because they embody our expectations.

friendshipHavingItAll

You cannot over- or under-extend without referencing a line that tells you what is appropriate. What is your rose-y pink line of an appropriate friendship based on?

When we think of what a good friendship means to us, it’s an image informed by what we’ve seen throughout our lifetimes. What were our parents’ friendships like, what was pop culture telling us, how did our very first friendships from childhood develop? Not only are we influenced by the models of friendship that we passively consume, but also by our sense of self. How I am expected to behave and when I get feedback from others is relevant.

Every other that I know of, prefers women to be warm, accommodating, graceful, a good listener. While those are characteristics with positive connotations, the fact that we are preferred to behave like that is what can become insulting. There’s no spectrum for warmth or grace, it’s either you are or aren’t, and so breaking this binary mold is easy. We carry these expectations with us, and use them as a measuring stick for the relationships in our lives.

It’s rather distasteful to admit to our judgmental tendencies. For the sake of clarity, I think what most people mean when they exclaim “I’m not a judgmental person but…” is that they are not going to overweight their perception of a person on just a few data points. But, implicitly, we all acknowledge, that at some point, we will draw a conclusion. We do need to draw a conclusion, so that we can make a decision about whether a thing or person is desirable in our lives. We’re all judgmental: we spend our days in a continuous cycle of assessment, discriminating what we like from what we don’t, but differ on how big we need our sample sizes to be. Now, where this otherwise respectable approach can become distasteful is when we are in a trough or a peak of emotion with someone that we care about. In that moment in time, we need to administer perspective, to afford our loved ones with the tolerance that we believe they deserve, while still exercising our judgment.

female judge

She shouldn’t be the only woman allowed to be judgmental.

Ironically, the burdens that me and my female friends often commiserate about, we can unintentionally place on each other. In my case, my friend and I were punishing each other, however mildly, for the burdens that the nebulous voice of society had put on us. Our friendship was caught in the cross-hairs. Had we not talked clearly and directly, and acknowledged that our feelings had as much to do with our dialogue that we have with ourselves on a daily basis as they did with the conversations we had with each other, then we would have never been able to move on.

Women have to befriend one another for a reason other than mutual enjoyment and care: by engaging in honest friendships, we engage in self-liberation. By asking for what we always need and sometimes want, we literally give ourselves permission to live life on our own terms. We become allies for each other every time we give our friend what she’s asked for. In a world where even the least ideological of countries, least guided by religion and other mystical dogma, emphasizes physical beauty for women, promotes narrow standards of physical beauty, pays women less than our male counterparts, asks us to Lean In but can punish us when we do, living on our own terms is a challenging endeavor. While workplaces and other communities that we’re a part of take more effort to navigate on our own terms, female friendships can be empowering opportunities for self-expression.

spectrumHavingItAll

On a spectrum for relationships, wholeheartedly befriending other women definitely takes effort. But, it is an effort that when done with deliberation, isn’t just well worth it, it’s necessary.

Working With Someone Who Doesn’t Want to Work With You

musing

A few weeks ago I had a textbook frustrating experience at work. I was put on a new project and the primary person that I was supposed to work with did not want to work with me.

This was not the result of some bystander psychoanalysis that I did, but instead an observable fact. It started with brief and incomplete responses to my questions, grew up into no replies to my instant messages (we work in different cities), and most recently, before I left the office to go on vacation, ended with withholding information and trying to publicly embarrass me via an e-mail chain with a long list of names in the “Cc” field. The first day this project began, his behavior really bothered me because I have been the object of someone’s insubordination before and I was hoping that after going to business school, I wouldn’t have to deal with pettiness so soon after graduation. I no longer think that – in fact, I think that I am vulnerable to more pettiness now than pre-business school because I’m perceived as much more of a threat.

I asked myself on a hurried walk to a yoga class, why am I practically on the verge of tears? Why does his cooperation matter so much to me? From that point on, through some cat/cow and warrior poses in class, I realized that my feelings embodied my expectations, and his actions were just a stimulus. I expect others to recognize how motivated and hard working I am, and so if someone antagonizes me, it runs counter to how I envision my life. But, and this is critical, the bad apple is very likely experiencing the situation analogous to me. As ironic as it is, he and I are probably feeling the exact same thing. Where he and I will differ, I tell myself, is how we choose to act on our feelings.

Modern day workplaces are effectively giant experiments in sharing that test your focus, agreeableness, and less often than expected, your competency. The primary challenge in working with someone difficult is figuring out what it is the absolute minimum contribution that you need from that person to deliver your work with integrity, and then be laser focused on that minimum. How you choose to act on your feelings is what distinguishes productive self-reflection from rumination. But, remaining focused on that bare minimum (if you are able to define it) is not easy because:

  • You have plausible reason to worry about this coworker sabotaging you (so you check all information shared 2x, 3x over and this takes up time)
  • You don’t trust what your colleague says (so you write your e-mails and chats as if they will be read in a deposition in court one day, ha)
  • There is palpable negativity around your co-worker and with your project (so you try to contain it by not asking for help from your manager or colleagues)

And so, you get frustrated and lose focus. I felt angry. One of my favorite thinkers, a brilliant contemporary philosopher named Martha Nussbaum, wrote on anger:

“If we think closely about anger, we can begin to see why it is a stupid way to run one’s life…A wronged person who is really angry, seeking to strike back, soon arrives, I claim, at a fork in the road. Three paths lie before her. …Path three: if she is rational, after exploring and rejecting these two roads, she will notice that a third path is open to her, which is the best of all: she can turn to the future and focus on doing whatever would make sense, in the situation, and be really helpful.”

Source: https://aeon.co/essays/there-s-no-emotion-we-ought-to-think-harder-about-than-anger

 

Admittedly, another one of the feelings that came up in this experience was disappointment. I am disappointed with this colleague.

This chance to work together was an opportunity: to build a reputation, to achieve something valuable together, and to learn from each other without any risks (because of the nature of this project). But instead, he had turned this experience into a performance of his emotional struggles, projecting his insecurities onto my involvement. He wanted to run the project, though that was not possible, was not willing to adapt and so decided to make this as difficult as possible to complete so that we, or someone in a position of authority, would recognize and reward his value. Of course, that is not how this story will unfold as this project mattered too much to me and to the other people supporting it, to let it fail.

His behavior leads me to believe one thing: that great leadership is not alchemy. The measure of great leadership is how well you empower those that are willing to be empowered to achieve and make the best of the resources (people, talent, positioning) that one has to take your people to a better place in the future. When you encounter a bad apple, your job as a leader is to consolidate your allies down the third path that Martha describes: the productive path that is helpful.