3D Spherical Feedback – Redux


SphereLast month, I wrote a short blog post outlining a new technique for getting personal improvement feedback that I called 3D Spherical Feedback. I directly solicited several hundred of my friends, family, and professional colleagues from across the years to answer four short questions about me. The results have been enlightening, insightful, and yes, quite funny at times. More importantly, the process helped me reconnect with a lot of people that I had lost touch with. In this post, I will analyze both the process itself as well as the results for me personally. If you are more interested in knowing what I learned about myself, skip ahead to the section entitled Personal Results.

Design and Method

I used Google Forms to create a six page survey. On the first page, the respondent was asked for their name (optional), as well as primed to remember the most salient experiences they shared with the subject (me). The next four pages corresponded to the four questions from Want Great Feedback? Ask These 4 Questions, also shown below. The last page asked whether the respondent would like to have a follow-up conversation, as well as whether they had any further questions, comments, concerns. In a handful of cases, the questions were asked in person instead of online.

The Four Questions

  1. What do you think is Chris’s greatest strength?
  2. What do/did you appreciate most in your interactions with Chris?
  3. What do/did you wish Chris did more or less of?
  4. What gift would you like to give Chris?

Respondents were solicited in three ways, in the following order: first via posts to social media sites (LinkedIn, Facebook, G+), then via bulk emails to a list selected by the subject, and finally, via direct emails to a shorter list culled from the bulk list by the subject. As would be expected, response rates improved as solicitations became more personal and directed. All in all, somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 participants were solicited, well over 200 viewed the survey, and 123 responded. Each respondent received a personal note of thanks from me.

The online survey was designed as a step-by-step survey to better mimic an in-person interaction, where a question is asked and answered before the next question is presented. Likewise, the question about identity was front-loaded to mimic an in-person interaction. A small number of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with this design, wanting instead to see all of the questions and being able to make the anonymity decision after answering.

A number of solicited participants also expressed dissatisfaction with either the specific questions used, the impersonal nature of the survey, their lack of sufficient knowledge of the subject to provide an informed opinion, or the implication that they should not remain anonymous. These reasons (and presumably others) account for the drop-off between the number of people viewing the survey and the number who completed it.

Results & Discussion

Nearly all respondents answered all four questions. 15 of the 123 decided to remain anonymous. Only 5 specifically wanted a follow-up conversation, 16 specifically did not want it (this corresponded strongly with anonymity), and the rest left it up to the subject.

Half of the answers were ten words or less, with only 6 of the 492 (=123 x 4) answers exceeding 100 words, and the median answer length was 10 words. This is likely partially a result of the questionnaire, which specifically instructed the respondent to answer quickly, although a large text box was provided for answers of any length (the longest received was over 600 words).

Roughly 40% of the respondents were friends or family of the subject, 48% were colleagues, and 12% were both.

As a rule, the responses were overwhelmingly positive in tone. There are at least four large sources of bias that help explain this. First, the questions themselves are phrased in such a way as to elicit a positive response. Second, there was a selection bias introduced by having the subject choose which participants to poll and follow up with. Third, a self-selection bias was also likely in play, in which only respondents who had something positive to say bothered to respond at all. Finally, because the respondents were a mix of friends, family, and colleagues, yet the questions were more geared towards a work environment, it was not uncommon for friends and family to elect to not give a substantive response. This happened particularly with question #3, “What do/did you wish Chris did more or less of?”, which was often answered “Not sure” or “Don’t know” by personal acquaintances.

Respondents were also coded by relative strength of relationship to the subject: a function of how many years they had spent together, how long it had been since they had been in close contact, and how close their relationship had been. This relationship strength was later used in the textual analysis of the answers (below) to weight how much to count the text of the response.

In terms of design, I see a few opportunities for improvement. Moving the “Name:” question to the end of the survey would likely assuage respondent’s discomfort and may improve response rate. Choosing a different set of questions, more geared towards personal relationships, would also likely improve responses from that segment of respondents. Most importantly, however, a more personalized plea for participation, along with a deadline, would likely go the furthest to improving the quantity and quality of responses.

Personal Results

My goals for this exercise were twofold: one was to experiment with a new technique for gaining feedback. Fundamentally, I was trying to see if short responses from a large number of people from many relationship categories and phases of life could provide a more textured, nuanced picture than the typical low-quantity, detailed feedback from current co-workers only. The second goal was to get feedback so that I could get a more clear picture of who others thought I was, and to use that feedback to help guide my personal development, and even my career path going forward.

I received over 10,000 words of feedback from people who have known me since I was born through people I’ve only first met in the last year. From people whom I’ve worked closely with for years to people who only knew me briefly and in passing. I’m still going through them and will likely be doing so for months or years to come. As mentioned above, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, to the point of making me feel almost narcissistic in having undertaken the exercise. If I were to do it again, I’d definitely change the questions to try to elicit more constructive feedback.

To try to get a gist of the most important points, I’ve run the feedback through some textual analysis and produced some “word clouds” (below, thanks to Word Cloud Generator – Jason Davies). Two of these are summaries of colleagues’ comments, and two are from friends and family. They also come in two flavors: single words or sentence fragments (these are cut off in the middle of words). I was amazed at what some people said, and that some of what I considered my more hidden strengths were the first things to come to mind for some.

Word Cloud - Colleagues
Phrase Cloud - Colleagues
Word Cloud - Friends
Phrase Cloud - Friends

Reading through the responses, there is no doubt in my mind that this exercise has been eye-opening and immensely useful for me. In terms of the methodology, I don’t think this would replace the typical 360 feedback used in corporate settings, as it does not address the particulars that was designed to address. Nevertheless, it is a powerful way to expand the feedback net to gain insights that are more about the whole person, and not just the professional persona we put on at work.

Thanks to all who took the time to respond — I will be forever grateful for both your thoughtful responses and for the “gifts” you gave. I was overwhelmed by by your kindness. By far the most common gifts were some combination of health, happiness, love, peace, and friendship. I also received at least a dozen books, plenty of wine, several job offers, and a bunch of vacations. Not to mention the child(!), 3 puppies, grain of Tibetan sand, Japanese vase, and book of Persian poems. But the gifts that made me pause and think the most were the numerous offers of time, the wishes that I find a suitable challenge, and the hopes that I could find my voice and a become the leader some of you seem to think I am. It is these gifts that I will be focusing on making a reality in the coming days.

And thanks for the one box of chocolates — of all my vices, this is one I hope to never give up!


3D Spherical Feedback


I recently read: Want Great Feedback? Ask These 4 Questions* by Brian Rumao, Chief of Staff to LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner. It got me thinking about 360 Degree Feedback, and how to take it one step further.

Traditional corporate feedback systems flow downward — managers rate their reports on some regular fixed schedule (e.g., quarterly or annually). 360 Degree Feedback is intended to provide a broader view to the person receiving the feedback, soliciting input from the person’s manager(s), directs, peers, cross-functional partners, and even internal and external clients. You can view it as the collection of people in a person’s “work circle” — thus the name 360 Degrees. Getting 360 Degree Feedback is expensive and time-consuming, and as such, is typically done infrequently — on the order of only a few times during a person’s career, if that — and only for managers or executives.

As helpful as 360 Degree Feedback can be, though, it’s still very “two-dimensional.” It focuses almost exclusively on the interpersonal relationships that play a part in the person’s work life. But so much of our lives are spent outside of work, relating to people we don’t formally work with. And as we move more and more into a Knowledge Economy, and possibly even a Purpose Economy, work and personal lives are constantly being more intimately intertwined. We can, in fact we should, be asking anyone we have a relationship with how we are doing.

Clearly, asking everyone you know for in-depth feedback does not scale. But as I’ve thought about this, I began to realize that we may be able to trade off quality of feedback for quantity, and at the same time, be able to to expand the circle of feedback givers into a sphere by including friends, family, and non-work colleagues. The law of large numbers could help ensure that even though the feedback is low-resolution, it would still accurately reflect the truth. And more importantly, that truth would be truly 3-dimensional and “spherical” — coming from all perspectives.

So here’s the experiment I’m asking you to help me with. If you’re reading this, chances are good that you know me. I’ve taken the 4 Question Framework and put it into an online questionnaire. Before reading Rumao’s article, can you take 2 minutes, right now, to answer the 4 questions about me?

>> Take the Survey Here <<

I’d be more than happy to have a follow-up discussion with you in person, via video chat, or on the phone. And I promise to write a follow-up article describing, on a meta-level, how the experiment worked out.


* Here’s a link to the original article, if you want to read it in depth – I do recommend it!



Cultivating Equanimity


“I found the secret to life. I’m okay when everything is not okay.” – Tori Amos

What if you could have mental calmness, composure, and presence of mind, especially in difficult situations? That’s the definition of equanimity, a state of mind that exemplifies the polar opposite of what many of us experience in our daily lives – anxiety, stress, and distraction. It doesn’t take drugs to achieve this state of mind, just a simple mental exercise for 10 to 20 minutes a day, every day.

Life is constantly throwing new things at you. To deal with them, you could take one of three approaches. You could stand your ground, like a rocky crag in the ocean, resisting and striving to fight against the barrage. However, ultimately, resistance is futile. The ocean of life is stronger than you, and it will break you down if your only response is resistance. Alternatively, you could try floating on the surface, like a cork, just going with the flow. Although this approach seems safe, as a piece of flotsam you risk being dashed against the rocks or thrown upon the shore. The third approach is the middle way, a buoy that is tethered to the ocean flow, allowed to rise and fall with the waves, but not to get thrown around. The buoy exhibits a kind of equanimity, a centered resilience that allows it to survive in any kind of weather.

Or consider the entertainer who spins plates balanced on sticks. Life is like their trusty assistant, who is constantly throwing new plates into the mix. The entertainer also has three options. He could try to catch them all and keep them all spinning, but eventually there will be too many, and he will fail. He could try to dodge the plates, but he would be missing important opportunities, and there would be a lot of broken plates. Or he could develop a way to catch each plate and quickly decide whether to spin it or gently set it aside. Obviously, this way requires practice and focused attention, just as it does in real life. But practicing focused attention is not something most of us do, or even know how to do.

Much like exercising our bodies to keep them functioning optimally, we all need an exercise regimen for our minds. Humans have been wanting equanimity for thousands of years, and a very specific technique has been honed over that time to cultivate the presence of mind that results in calmness and composure: mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is not mystical or religious. Like working out in the gym, it is also not hard to learn, but does take some discipline. And it really works. The scientific evidence demonstrates that mindfulness meditation results in overwhelmingly positive effects. It has been shown to minimize rumination, emotional reactivity, distraction, anxiety and depressive symptoms, while simultaneously improving emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, resiliency, relationship satisfaction, immune function, intuition, and information processing speed.

As humans, we all have shortcuts for handling the onslaught of events and information in our lives. Emotions and habits are two such shortcuts that serve as real, useful strategies, but which, like some drugs, we come to rely on too heavily. The primary shortcoming of both emotions and habits is that they take the conscious mind out of the decision making loop, and it’s not uncommon for the resulting behavior to be completely out of line with our goals. Mindfulness meditation teaches us to insert two important steps between an event and our response to it: noticing and reflecting.

Mindfulness meditation is a mental exercise that repeats a simple 4-step cycle: 1) focusing on your breath (this is the “action” or “response”), 2) inevitably getting distracted by a thought or emotion (this is the “event”), 3) stepping back and noticing that you’ve been distracted, 4) reflecting on the thought or emotion without judgment and letting it pass (this prevents you from perseverating on it), and then 1) returning the attention to the breath. During the course of a given meditation, this cycle is usually repeated dozens or hundreds of times. Each time it’s repeated, it’s kind of like doing “reps” at the gym – you learn to make noticing and reflecting default responses, instead of relying on other habits or emotions.

Mindfulness is so closely linked with equanimity because it directly teaches you to take the middle path – to not resist or cling to things, and to not just let things happen to you willy-nilly. You quite literally train yourself to notice and reflect before responding, and as a result, your behaviors become reasoned, conscious responses.

Personally, since adopting a daily mindfulness meditation practice of about 20-30 minutes per day, I’ve noticed a myriad of positive, equanimous effects. My relationships with my closest loved ones have improved significantly. I’ve relearned the importance of listening and noticing, and am experiencing a rebirth of my child-like sense of wonder and amazement. My resilience, persistence, and willpower have improved, making it easier for me to get things done. I feel centered, grounded, and able to weather any storm. My tolerance for “disagreeable” things has increased, and I’ve started to feel the beginnings of a true sense of compassion for others.

Convinced that you’d like to try to cultivate equanimity through mindful meditation? Try taking a class – they are becoming common as parts of well-being programs in corporations and through healthcare providers. Look for classes that teach MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction). You can also try using one of the many meditation apps – Headspace is a particularly good one for beginners. To make it stick, try joining a meditation group. Making it regular and consistent will have you on the middle-path to equanimity in no time.

This article was adapted from a talk entitled “Cultivating Equanimity” given at Convox 2014. Click through to see a video and slides.


Putting Yourself “On Notice” – A Fun Mindfulness Game


As a child, I used to notice all kinds of things. I was often fascinated by the patterns of rugs or tiled floors. I noticed when the screws in a piece of furniture were different styles — meaning someone had repaired it at some point. I remember focusing in on a tiny detail of the illustration on my mother’s cookie tin sewing kit, letting my imagination run wild about just why that little child whose face appeared so forlornly in the window of the stagecoach was being whisked away, alone.

Like most of us, as I grew up, I learned that these kinds of details didn’t “matter,” and so I learned to ignore them. They did not help me directly achieve whatever it is that modern society values, nor what (I thought) I wanted to achieve. It was better, I thought, to focus on my studies and my work, squeezing every ounce of “productivity” out of every day, hour, and minute. This approach helped me achieve some degree of “success,” but in the process, I lost most of my sense of wonder and amazement, and with it, some of my creativity and passion for life.

As I’ve started rediscovering my inner child, I’ve been looking for ways to focus on the here and now, to remain accepting of where I’m at, in the present moment, and notice what’s actually going on around me. In other words, ways to be mindful. Meditation is certainly one practice that helps immensely with this, but it’s not the only one. I’ve written before about tracking as a means to build awareness, about the importance of snatching spare moments to practice mindfulness instead of busying the mind with checking your phone, and even about using your left hand instead of your right to force you into the now. Here’s another practice I’ve recently started, inspired by remembering my inner child and what it was like to care about all those little details. The technique is in some ways similar to the childhood game of “I Spy,” in which each player in turn finds something they can see but others may not, and announces, “I spy, with my little eye, something that starts with the letter…”

My version of “I Spy” is a solo game that I simply call “On Notice,” and it works like this:

  • The game is played by simply trying to notice and count details of your environment that you haven’t noticed before. The color of paint, a chip in the wall, the pattern of roots around a tree, the number of hinges on a door — anything counts, so it’s “easy” to get a high score, especially when you first start playing. It becomes especially gratifying when you are in environments where you spend a lot of time — like walking down a familiar hallway at work, or in your bedroom. You’ll be amazed at your ability to still be able to find new details, even in these well known places.
  • If you want to drop in to the present moment habitually, it’s best to link playing “On Notice” with a trigger action that you do frequently during the day. I use walking as a trigger — any time I’m walking someplace alone, I remember to play the game. I walk a lot during the course of the day, so using it as a trigger works well for me. If you don’t do much walking, you can try other triggers, like the act of sitting down or standing up, stretching, going to the restroom, or anything else you do frequently.
  • Use all of your senses, not just sight. Hearing, smelling, feeling (temperature, pressure, wind, humidity) — they all contribute to the makeup of where you are right now.

Playing “On Notice” puts you back into a childlike mindset, increases your wonder, and gives you a renewed passion for life. It opens up your mind to discovering new things, and creates a space for creativity to play a role in whatever you are doing. It brings you into the here and now, and forces you to experience where you are at, instead of losing yourself in your thoughts.

More importantly, “On Notice” is lots of fun and often brings a smile to your face. Just this morning, I was approaching a snail attempting to cross the sidewalk, and as my shadow crossed over it, it recoiled back into its shell. For some reason, I got a good laugh out of that — maybe it was the way it looked liked a person when it recoiled, a lot like when someone touches a hot surface unknowingly. I also heard a bird calling that I’d never heard before (wish I could have pinpointed it visually), and smelled some spring flowers I most likely would have ignored if I wasn’t in noticing mode. My little game of “On Notice” during my morning walk set a positive tone, and I’ve carried a smile on my face for nearly the whole day.

Are you ready to put your inner child “On Notice”?



The Left Hand of Mindfulness


Tonight I ate my dinner with chopsticks, using only my left hand. As a right-hander, this was no small feat, and involved some laborious maneuvering (especially when trying to pick up tiny softened garlic slices!). It wasn’t the result of a dare or bet, but rather a playful technique I use to practice mindfulness in a fun way. Instead of whipping out my phone to entertain myself as I ate alone, I brought myself into the present moment, quite forcefully, by making it impossible to trundle down the well beaten path of shoveling in the food mindlessly.

This is a general technique I try to employ often to trick my brain into being “in the now” – using my non-dominant hand to perform everyday tasks. Brushing teeth, using a computer mouse, or even just putting the keys in the opposite pocket. By doing an end-run around the habitual motor pathways, you make your brain focus on what it’s actually doing, instead of wandering off on some unnecessary tangent.

Aside from noticing that broccoli that has had a chance to sit in the stir fry juices for several days gets quite soft and quite scrumptious, I also learned that all of the advice I give to beginner chopstickers is generally good advice, but I expect them to pick it up way too fast. This is a common bias that I see all too often in other settings – experts expecting novices to pick up subtle nuances of expertise faster than they themselves did. It also reminded me of the importance of distinguishing knowledge from skill via that age-old bit of wisdom: practice, practice, practice.

I also had that wonderful child-like experience of discovering something for the first time again, of turning a meal into a little game, and a gentle grounding of myself back in my body as I tried to ward off the hand cramps. All of which I think is infinitely more important than the latest tweet from some venture capitalist I’ve never met and likely never will. Besides, the tweet can wait, but the broccoli won’t.

Mindfulness isn’t just about sitting still and watching your breath*. It’s about being here, now. Experiencing life in the real world, and not in your head. What can you do with your “other” hand?

* For a laugh, watch Eckhart Tolle’s imitation of formal meditation, 34 seconds into this video:


Do You Want to Know A Secret? Listen…


What would you reply if someone asked you, “What’s the secret to a happy life? What’s the single most important life skill that I should develop?” Would you say it was discipline, persistence, conscientiousness? How about compassion, gratitude, or humility? Would you suggest they develop their empathy or instead focus on being as efficient as possible? I’m increasingly of the opinion that listening is the most critical core life skill. Listening acts as an enabler and foundational component for most of the other useful life skills.

Listening showed up at the top of the list of “best advice” when I analyzed CNN Money’s articles on the topic in Thrice Filtered Leadership Wisdom. Listening is also typically mentioned or lauded by anyone teaching leadership or communication skills. For example, in How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie encourages the reader to be a good listener, let the other person do a great deal of the talking, and try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. Likewise, one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” Of course, how can you possibly understand someone else if you haven’t listened to them?

Few would argue the importance of listening, but what makes it critical and foundational? What is the power of listening? Aside from the many obvious benefits, like exposing you to a broad range of ideas, building trust and rapport, and establishing a common narrative, listening also sets you up to build and develop the other life skills that in turn make you happier, healthier, and more productive. Here’s how…

Awareness and Agility

On the surface, listening is just “paying attention to sound,” but of course there is much more to it than that. Auditory listening is just one manifestation of a more general type of listening, namely being aware, being conscious, and paying attention. As I mentioned in Living the SWEET Life, Daily, awareness lets you short-circuit your habitual thought processes. This in turn leads to agility: the ability to rapidly adjust based on the current state of affairs, with little effort. Thus, listening, and paying attention in general, lets you be dynamic, limber, and agile. Awareness fundamentally allows you to be in the moment, consider all options, and actively self-correct.

To understand its power, it’s helpful to think about what listening is not. If you are not listening, then what are you doing? Usually, you are absorbed in your own thoughts. You are distracted, your attention is elsewhere, and not on the person who is trying to communicate with you. If you are not aware of what’s going on and being said, and you only check in haphazardly or reactively, the input to your decision making apparatus (i.e., your brain) is limited and biased, making it more difficult to react in a timely and appropriate manner. Why would you starve your brain of potentially useful information at the outset, without even considering it? Are your own thoughts really that important and productive?

Other Ways of Listening

If listening leads to agility in communication, imagine what it could do for you when you apply it to more than just conversations. What does that mean? Communicating with others is just one possible modality of gathering information about your world, and other people are just one source of information. You can get so much more from using all of your senses, and focusing not just on others, but yourself and your environment. For example, what if you decided to “listen” to what your nose and tongue were telling you, as you ate or even just as you walked down the street or met with another person? What if you could really absorb and be aware of everything in your visual field of view, including the facial expressions and body language of people you were talking to, as well as knowing exactly what’s around you physically, how it’s moving, and what it’s likely to do next? What if you decided to listen to your somatic sensations, really listen to your body? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could sense the smallest twinge of pain or really be able to notice when some part of your body was inflamed, or be aware when your body has dumped cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream? Most importantly, what if you listened, really listened, to your own thoughts and emotions? You might be surprised, or even enlightened, by what you hear. This kind of awareness is not the stuff of superheroes and science fiction. It is achievable and, remarkably, not that difficult to learn, although it takes lots and lots of practice.

Becoming an Active Listener

We spend most of our lives learning to habitualize and ritualize our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. But this approach of laying down default behaviors and then strengthening them with repetition over time is exactly the opposite of what makes us most effective at dealing with the dynamic, changing world we live in. Listening, paying attention, and being aware of our inner and outer world, in every way possible, is what fundamentally enables us to be good communicators, effective leaders, and agile, facile contributors to ourselves and others. It places the conscious mind back into the loop. Listening is one of the few habits we would all do well to ingrain deep in our psyche.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to lose the habit of being a great listener. How do you learn to listen? It turns out to be disarmingly simple – learn to listen by practicing listening! For example, here’s a simple exercise you can do to practice auditory listening: whenever you are conversing 1-to-1 with someone, and you are about to inject your opinion, experience, amusing anecdote or advice, simply stop and hold it back. Let the other person continue until they’ve completely spoken their piece. Then (and only then) return the favor, but before expounding on your own personal thoughts, try to let the other person know you’ve heard them by simply summarizing what they’ve just said (this is sometimes called active listening), and let them respond. You may end up never getting to make your point, and that, in itself, is the point.

Inward Listening

It’s been said that the greatest gift you can give someone is your undivided attention. Imagine, then, the enormity of the gift of learning to listen to yourself. If you could hear and understand all of the activity going on in both your body and mind, you could be agile about adjusting to it, developing it, and improving it. This is what I meant earlier when I alluded to listening helping to make you happier, healthier, and more productive. True listening also involves developing the ability to attend to all sources of information (one’s self, others, one’s environment) from all modalities (senses, emotions, thoughts). Again, to learn to do this, you must practice. Luckily, this is already something that’s been well understood for thousands of years, and the techniques for practice are meditation and yoga. Or, if those sound too intimidating, just simply practicing mindfulness (it really is quite easy).

Discipline, persistence, conscientiousness, compassion, gratitude, humility, empathy and efficiency – all of these are laudable traits. And all of them are amplified by the agility imparted by listening and awareness. When will you start your listening practice? It’s easy, and only takes a few seconds or minutes each day. Here’s a recent article to help you get started. And here’s a Beatles song to inspire you…


So Now You’re a Wise Guy, eh?


The Wisdom 2.0 conference just wrapped up. If you haven’t heard of it, the goal of the conference is to address the question: “How can we live with wisdom, awareness, and compassion in the digital age?” This is probably the premier event for the mindfulness community in America. The speakers (and, for that matter, the attendees) are an eclectic mix of monks, neuroscientists, media moguls, psychologists, yogis, teachers, corporate leaders, and even an NFL trainer and a U.S. Congressman. The full schedule can be found here.

The premise of the conference is pretty simple: there are certain practices like meditation, yoga, and mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), that we have borrowed or adapted from ancient traditions (that’s the “wisdom”) and are now able to scientifically prove their effectiveness on physical, mental, and emotional health. That’s a really good thing, because our health is getting worse and worse as we adopt more and more technology (smartphones, monoculture food, etc.), and the pharmaceutical path to health is fraught with innumerable pitfalls and traps. The hard part is getting the word out about these new, old techniques. The gathering was focused on strengthening the mindfulness community and encouraging people to take the actions to spread the good news.

As a data scientist, attending the conference was a bit of a departure for me, but I heeded my own oft-used advice: when in doubt, take the action that you would regret not taking later. My self-proclaimed goals for attending the conference were to: Listen, Learn, Connect, and Act. I did pretty well on the first two, and not so well on the second two. I’d love to be able to report that the conference was amazing and life-changing, and maybe eventually as some of it sinks in more deeply and I take actions based on what I follow up on, it will have been. But in the near term, I can only say that it was interesting, and worth my time.

There were a few talks that really shined for me, and made the conference especially worthwhile. Luckily, they were all videoed and made public on the conference website. Here are my quick-picks:

Here are the handful of quotes I chose to tweet, that also summarize the conference:

  • “You check your watch, and my God, it’s ‘now’ again!” Jon Kabat-Zin
  • “A team’s inability to focus often stems from ego.” Irene Au
  • “What are we giving our eulogizers to work with?” Arianna Huffington
  • “It’s much more fun to be curious than judgmental.” Jonathan Rosenfeld
  • “With all … that we are doing, wrap the ‘doing’ in ‘being’…and it will bring us back to being fully human.” Jon Kabat-Zin
  • “Onward, upward, and inward!” Arianna Huffington

Finally, my tweetable summary of the message I took away from the conference:

  • “We spend too much time living in rewind and fast-forward. Just hit play. And listen.” Chris LuVogt

I hope to expand on the importance of listening in a follow-up post soon. In the meantime, may you find peace and happiness. And yes, I do feel a little more wise after having attended, but “don’t call me Curly!” 😉



Thrice Filtered Leadership Wisdom


As I prepare to attend the Wisdom 2.0 conference next month, I’ve been thinking a little bit about how to go about extracting the sum total of all humankind’s wisdom from this vast collection of information we’ve created called the World Wide Web. It seems like it should be do-able, although likely not easy. After all, wisdom is just a final endpoint along the classic data, information, knowledge, wisdom progression, and we’re already well along the way to encoding all of human knowledge via artifacts like Wikipedia and Google’s Knowledge Graph. One logical starting place would be to crowdsource the collection of wisdom. In my experience, however, typical crowdsourcing solutions (think: Yelp or Netflix) suffer from a lack of appropriate weighting of votes. I’m much more satisfied with systems that rely on aggregating the knowledge of subject matter experts (e.g., Michelin or Rotten Tomatoes), rather than systems that try to discern a quality signal by collecting the wisdom of the crowds. You can think of these opinions as “twice filtered” – first by the SME’s, and then by the algorithm.

When CNN Money published The Best Advice I Ever Got and The Best of Our Best Advice, in which they polled seasoned and successful business leaders to offer up their most useful nuggets of wisdom, I took note – here was some already twice-filtered wisdom (first by the adviser and then the advisee). And while the anecdotes and backstories provided in those articles are interesting and make the wisdom more tangible, I wanted to see if there were any common themes across the 41 interviewees. I talked briefly about one technique I used to summarize all of this wisdom in A Simple Semi-Automatic Text Summarizer, but that analysis only scratched the surface and missed a few key themes. So I’ve dug into the articles more deeply, categorized and prioritized the largest themes, and present them below in order of importance – a third layer of filtering. It’s gratifying to see that many of the most important themes like listening, mastery, passion, strengths and limitations, and persistence are all topics I’ve touched on in other leadership articles in this blog. I hope to follow up and expand on many of these themes as well, but in the meantime, I just present the filtered and grouped key observations. (Note: I paraphrase many of the quotes, and I attribute the advice to the original adviser when I can, and not the advisee.)

1. Listening

  • Listen to your employees, be completely engaged when you do so. – Herb Kelleher, CEO Southwest Airlines
  • Almost everyone knows something or has some insight – listen before you speak. – father of David Boies, “Superlawyer”
  • Be open to listening to people. – mother of Herb Kelleher
  • It’s good to solicit your people’s opinions before you give them yours. – boss of Lloyd Blankfein, CEO Goldman Sachs
  • No one is interested in talking all night long about your business. Quit being a business bore and listen. – sister of Julian Robertson, Founder, Tiger Management
  • The best advice is often the most painful advice, and you have to trust the person who’s giving it to you. – Beth Comstock, SVP General Electric
  • Have a coach. They watch you and get you to be your best. A business coach is somebody who looks at something with another set of eyes, describes it to you in [his] words, and discusses how to approach the problem. – John Doerr, Venture Capitalist

2. Mastery

  • If you’re going to be significant at something, you’ve got to learn it from the ground up. – father of Ron Johnson, CEO JC Penney
  • Invest yourself in what you’re building in order for it to grow.  Talk about what was wrong, what was right, what was working, and what wasn’t. – father of Ellen Kullman, CEO DuPont
  • If you don’t perform, you’d better look for another job. – boss of Peter Drucker
  • Do your best today, think about tomorrow, and maybe dream a bit about the future. But doing your best in the present has to be the rule. – Colin Powell, Secretary of State
  • Don’t just accept or reject the null hypothesis, use the data to enhance your description of the world. – Prof. Harry Roberts, Univ. of Chicago
  • Your people will be very influenced by how you carry yourself under stress. – boss of Lloyd Blankfein, CEO Goldman Sachs

3. Respect

  • Show your co-workers and employer respect – at the very least, show up on time. – “Bigfoot”, friend of Anthony Bourdain, Chef
  • Practice the golden rule. – Vice Admiral Robert Kihune
  • People should be respected and trusted as people, not because of their position or title. Frequently, position or title do not reflect the true merits of a person. – mother of Herb Kelleher
  • Everything in business is about relationships (especially with customers), and you should never take them lightly. – David Jackson, Co-Founder Altos Computer

4. Passion

  • You should do what you’re good at, and do what you love. – Danny Meenan, Reporter
  • Don’t give up, and continue to follow your passion. – friend of Mika Brzezinski, co-host Morning Joe
  • Connect your passions to your career. – Scott Griffith, CEO Zipcar
  • Follow your own instincts, rather than the views of naysayers or others who see the world in a different way. – Ace Greenberg, Bear Stearns

5. Challenge yourself and your assumptions

  • Failing simply just leads you to the next great thing. – father of Sara Blakely, Founder Spanx
  • Successful people do not let lack of experience get in the way of taking on a new opportunity. – Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook
  • Break new barriers all the time. – Simen Agdestein, Chess Coach
  • When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’. – Prof. Alois Xavier Schmidt, City College of New York

6. Leveraging Strengths

  • Don’t let your ego or desire to succeed blind you to what you’re really good at. – Warren Bennis, Scholar
  • Take your employee’s strengths and find a place you could emphasize them, so it won’t seem as if your team is competing directly with one another. – Keith Reemtsma, Columbia University
  • Don’t try to change ordinary people into extraordinary ones – hire extraordinary people in the first place. – Phil Knight, Nike co-founder

7. Understanding Limitations

  • Develop your ability to leave your own ego at the door and to recognize the skills and traits you don’t possess and that you need to build a world-class organization. – Warren Bennis, Scholar
  • It is better to be alive [and a] little weak than [to] be dead in good health. (98% perfect and on time, rather than 100% too late). – Gérard Pélisson, CEO Accor Hotels
  • Fix the things you can change and don’t worry about the things you can’t. – Alain Chuard, Co-Founder Wildfire
  • None of us are smarter than the markets. – Jack Bogle, Vanguard Founder

8. Persistence

  • You can’t always control what happens to you in a game or in life, but you can control how you respond — you should never quit. – mother of John Hickenlooper, Gov. of Colorado
  • Don’t give up, and continue to follow your passion. When you fail or things turn for the worse, there will be a day when you realize this was the best thing that could happen to you. – friend of Mika Brzezinski, co-host Morning Joe

9. Position for Growth

  • Invest ahead of the growth curve. Think beyond the status quo in terms of the skill base, the experience, and the quality of the people around you. – Warren Bennis, Scholar
  • Invest your time in growth businesses, not non-growth. – Arthur Levitt, Chairman American Stock Exchange

10. And more…

  • First, get the cow out of the ditch. Second, find out how the cow got into the ditch. Third, make sure you do whatever it takes so the cow doesn’t go into the ditch again. – Albert C. Black Jr., CEO On-Target Supplies & Logistics
  • Money, pedigree, and valuable relationships create leverage, but so do ideas. So you need to write – put what’s in your mind on paper.  – Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman, MCA
  • Incorporate volunteerism in your company, for the benefit of your employees. – Alan Hassenfeld, CEO Hasbro



10 Techniques for a Successful Career


Last year, I had the great honor and privilege of leading a small team of newly hired engineers at Google. Towards the end of the year, as the team began to break up and shift onto other projects, I wanted to summarize my “best advice” for them as they headed off on their own, so I wrote a 10 step guide for career success at Google. As I read over the advice, however, it became apparent that most of it was generally applicable to all sorts of jobs, so I’ve decided to adapt it slightly and publish it here.

  1. Track your accomplishments daily, weekly, and quarterly. A simple daily log, weekly summary, and quarterly progress report are all you need. Keep them as short as possible without missing any important work you have done. Whenever possible, include direct references or hyperlinks to any supporting detailed documentation you produced. You will be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished when you look back. You will also be amazed how easy it will be to make the case for promotion or update your resume and prepare for a change in jobs. You may be tempted to use a tool to automate this tracking – don’t, that defeats the whole purpose. Keep it manual.

  2. Become the go-to person for something, and then obsolete yourself. Repeat. And when it’s time to move on, as the stock market saying goes: buy (into new projects or companies) low, and sell (yourself to the next one) high. In other words, move on when you’ve accomplished the bulk of what you can contribute on a project and have automated yourself out of a job, and a new project has a lot of low hanging fruit for you to pick. Build a niche, but don’t let yourself get pigeonholed, and don’t hold on to something because you are familiar with it. Remember: eventually, all work is thrown away. Learn to let go.

  3. Focus on the customer, and all else (including your career) will follow. To loosely paraphrase the Buddha, grasping (e.g., for promotion or other recognition) invariably leads to suffering and the opposite of the intended effect. Learn to let go of your ego and focus on the greater good. You will naturally excel and achieve without even thinking about it.

  4. Identify your strengths and leverage them extensively. The book Now, Discover Your Strengths can help you do this. Likewise, identify your weaknesses, and either a) shore them up, or b) learn workarounds. Get to know yourself well enough to know which of these two approaches you should take for any given weakness. Above all, be honest with yourself.

  5. Read, read, read, and never stop learning. Read whatever interests you, but choose your reading material wisely, with a focus on quality. Don’t read crap, and don’t read too narrowly. If someone you respect recommends a book or article, try to read it with an open mind. If you like something you’ve read, re-read it. To help get you started:

    1. Read and internalize the book: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

    2. Read and internalize the book: How to Win Friends and Influence People.

  6. Listen. Listen to your customers, your manager, your executives, your teammates, and anyone else you work with. Try to understand where they are coming from, ask questions, and always assume the best intentions. Let them finish talking before you chime in. You will be amazed at what you learn, and how it will help shape and expand your view.

  7. Consciously choose your manager. If your manager is not great, let them know (also let them know if they are great!). If they don’t change for the better, let their manager know, and start looking for something new. Your career is too short to spend years under someone who can’t help you grow.

  8. Continually assess your situation. Ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing a) leveraging my strengths, b) something I enjoy, and c) something I am passionate about?” If the answer is no, start taking steps towards correcting the deficiencies. Be open to reinventing yourself in the process.

  9. Realistically measure your stress level, and learn how to manage it. You’re probably subject to a lot more stress than you think. Just living in the modern world is probably more stress than the human body was designed to handle. Add to that life in the modern workplace, and you’ll understand why there are so many people suffering directly and indirectly from the effects of stress. Try out many techniques and see what works for you (exercise, yoga, massage, meditation, etc.).

  10. Don’t forget your family and friends. It’s easy to let work become your life, but your health and happiness depend critically on your close personal relationships. Have a life outside of work. Actively manage your relationships, and constantly renew the ones you value most. If you have a reasonably active social life, you’ll be much happier and productive at work.

(Oh, this list goes up to 11….)

11. Take a course on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. For example, there is one offered by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Attend all sessions and do your homework, mindfully and diligently. Don’t let it end there – internalize what the class teaches, and practice practice practice. The awareness, mindfulness and emotional intelligence you develop will be the keys to dramatically improving your productivity and happiness.

Happy New Year, and best of luck in your career of choice!




Living the SWEET Life, Daily


As the year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting and renewing my resolve to improve myself. In this post, I’d like to share a simple yet unbelievably powerful technique I use that helps me stay on track, focused on the right things, and always improving. The key is simple: manually track your daily activities to help build them into healthy habits.

Habits and Awareness

What you think and believe defines who you are to the rest of society, as your thoughts manifest themselves in actions through the process of motivation. But as Gandhi’s quote above alludes, that’s only half of the story. Your beliefs, thoughts, words, and actions also define who you are to yourself through the solidifying process of habituation. In Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions, I was inspired by Gandhi and talked about how by taking conscious effort, you can use the natural progression of motivation to encourage the kinds of positive action you might otherwise find difficult. In this article, I’ll talk about the rest of the story: how by taking a conscious effort during the process of habituation, you can ultimately affect your values and your destiny.

When people talk about habits, they typically speak mostly of small actions like “leaving the cap off the toothpaste” or “shuffling my feet when I walk.” While these can be habits, this view downplays the importance and strength of habits in our daily lives. A habit is any action, speech, thought, or belief which represents a default, one which you will naturally exhibit given the right situation or stimulus. As such, habits cover a wide range of human activity. Showering every evening before going to bed can be a habit. Always using the phrase, “Let’s get the show on the road!” when trying to motivate your children to head out the door could be another habit. But habits can be more subtle, like automatically thinking “that [insert gender/ethnicity/religion/age] person is probably up to no good,” or feeling a sense of resentment when your boss gives you something extra to do, or believing that someone is selfish when they cut you off in line at the grocery store.

Some habits are naturally healthy, others are mostly harmless, and some are naturally unhealthy, but all habits are learned. This is great news because it means that you can actively learn good habits and likewise actively unlearn bad ones. But how does one go about systematically making or breaking a habit? And which habits should we learn?

Because habitual behavior happens by default, the first step in taking control of your habits is awareness. How can you possibly decide to take an action or not take an action, unless you are aware of what you are doing? Awareness lets you short-circuit the default path. Once you do that, you can make your decisions consciously and in line with your specific goals. In other words, you can exercise willpower.

One way to learn awareness is through meditation. When you meditate, you train yourself to focus on your object of meditation (usually, your breath), and return to it if you should stray. This is made possible by an awareness of the self, and a development of meta-attention – the ability to pay attention to what you are paying attention to. Learning to meditate will absolutely help you build or break habits, but meditation takes time to learn, and ideally should itself be a habit.

Daily Tracking

Another way to build awareness is through daily tracking. The idea is quite simple: pick the actions you want to reinforce, and every evening, write down whether you were successful in taking the right path for each action for that day. That’s it. If this sounds familiar from my recent post on sleep, you’re right – it’s exactly the same idea, only now we apply it to many different activities. Here’s some advice I offered a friend who recently asked me about how to start tracking:

  • Start small – just a few things (like 3) to track. (See below for some ideas of what to track, like eating well, sleeping well, exercising.)

  • Start easy – with things you are currently failing at but are just this close to doing. Tracking things you already do well has little immediate benefit, and tracking things you really suck at can be demoralizing at first. You can add these things later, after you’ve made tracking itself a habit.

  • Start uncomplicated – give yourself a pass/fail. As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Mentally define what a pass is for each activity, and stick to that definition. After a few months, you can change the definition if you need to (ideally making it more strict).

  • Important: do not rely on software/hardware to do the tracking for you, or if you do (e.g., pedometer or Fitbit), make sure you transcribe the numbers into your tracking sheet manually. If you just let the computer track for you, you are no longer mindful of that activity. The whole point of tracking is to give yourself daily reminders and build awareness.

  • Just as in meditation, rest assured that you will fail, and when you do, gently bring your focus back towards achieving your daily goal, without judgment. This is the hardest thing for many people to do, but it is the most important part. (By the way, meditation helps you develop this skill.)

When I first started tracking, my tracking sheet was just a sticky note – and that’s all you really need. Here’s one from a few years back, where I was tracking eating, exercising and connecting (socially).

Of course, it may be easier for you to use an electronic medium, and for that I recommend starting with a simple spreadsheet: one row for each day, and one column for each thing you want to track. Every day/night, simply enter a 1 or 0. As time goes on, you can make it more complicated. For example, I added graphs, I track 7-day moving averages, and I define complicated functions that automatically translate things like “number of steps” into a score between 0 and 1. But those are just bells and whistles. The above is the core.

Daily tracking is such a simple idea, and is really easy to do. Its power comes from the fact that it encourages you to review your day, and hold yourself accountable for your actions. After a short time tracking, you’ll soon find yourself thinking ahead to your “sticky note time” when making decisions throughout the day (like whether to drink that soda, or whether to step out for a 30 minute walk). Likewise, as time progresses, you’ll use your “sticky note time” to encourage yourself to take actions (like, setting up that lunch date with an old friend). So you can see why I stress the manual part of tracking – if your phone or Fitbit is automatically keeping track of your steps taken and calories burned, there’s no reason for you to do it, and you’ll lose the awareness you need to be able to break out of your defaults.

When you first start, you may find that it helps to reward yourself for your successes (say, by linking your monthly point total to something you enjoy). If you take this route, make sure your reward is not something that would otherwise cause you to “lose a point.” It’s also not uncommon, at least initially, to criticize yourself when you fail. Don’t make that mistake. You are measuring yourself, not judging yourself. Cultivate a dispassionate attitude towards your failures – you will probably fail more often than you succeed, at least at first.

What to Track – The 5 Pillars of the SWEET Life

Although you can use tracking to be conscious about any kind of habit, I believe it becomes most powerful when you apply it to your health. After all, as the saying goes, without your health you have nothing, or to put it more positively, “The first wealth is health” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). By health, I don’t just mean physical health, although that is a large and critical component of your overall health. To quote my high school health teacher, Jim Spoerl, “Health is optimal physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional fitness for full, fruitful, creative, and spiritual living.” Having a healthy mind, body, and soul provides the foundation for happiness and a meaningful life, so making health a habit can have profound implications for all areas of your life.

My wife and I have been fine-tuning a tracking system over the last several years that works for us. We call it “The SWEET Life.” SWEET is an acronym for the five key elements of health: Sleep, Work, Exercise, Eating well, and connecTing with your Tribe. Sleep, Exercise, and Eating well are the three pillars of physical health. Work and connecTing are the pillars for mental and emotional health. I’ve also recently added meditation as a form of mental exercise.

Tracking the three physical pillars provides an easy and obvious starting point if you’re just beginning to track. Confucius once said, “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” To which I would humbly add, “To put our hearts (and minds) right, we must first put our body in good order.” The mind-body connection is so important, yet all too often self-improvement advice skips over the physical and jumps right into the mental. If your body is not healthy, keeping your mind healthy can become too challenging. Also, the techniques and skills you develop when getting your body healthy will naturally carry over to your mental and emotional efforts.

Before you begin, you have to define for each pillar what it means to succeed on a daily basis. This definition of success is necessarily very personal and relative, but it’s critical that you spend a few minutes to get this straight in your head or on paper in the most objective way you can. Here are some guidelines:

  • Sleep: Establish your sleep baseline and make this your goal. See: Building a Solid Foundation for Sleep.

  • Eat: Get clear in your head what healthy food is and what unhealthy food is. If you eat any unhealthy food on a given day, you don’t get to count that day as a success. Stay tuned here, I’ll be writing a blog post about how to eat healthy.

  • Exercise: Spend 20-30 minutes doing something that makes you sweat a little. (Hint: to make this easier, choose things that you enjoy doing. I like walks, so I park my car 20 minutes walking distance from my office, and I don’t even have to think about whether I’ll get my daily exercise.) Need inspiration? Check out this fun video: 23.5 Hours

If you’re a geek like me, you may want to jump straight into using a spreadsheet to do your tracking, and that’s okay because you’re still manually tracking. Here’s a good starting point spreadsheet – feel free to copy it: Tracking Template – Beginner.

I strongly encourage beginning with the 3 physical pillars, and then adding the other two later once you’ve gotten the hang of tracking and have made some progress on improving your physical health. When it is time to add work and connecting (and meditation, which you can think of as mental exercise), here are my guidelines:

  • Work: Personally, good “work” is any activity which gets me into a state of flow (see: A Simple Recipe for Flow), so I set a goal for number of minutes in flow.

  • Connecting: Spending time with people, in person, is important. I set a minimum goal around this in terms of minutes. I don’t count spending time with people that I always see on a daily basis.

  • Meditation: Right now, I’m still establishing this as a habit, so my goal is purely one of whether I meditated for at least 15 minutes or not.

For the truly geeky, here’s my full SWEET Life template for 2014: Tracking Template – Advanced. Yes, it is complicated and ridiculously customizable (and I make liberal use of logistic functions), but don’t let that scare you – I’ve evolved this over many years. Be satisfied with just a sticky note for now, but know that you can always “up your game” if you like, and if you find things like this graph useful as tools:

Habits, Values, and Your Destiny

So, tracking provides a way for you to consciously build healthy habits. The key facility that tracking provides is awareness – you develop the ability to intervene and change your actions in the moment, if they are not aligned with your daily goals. When this awareness itself becomes a habit, you begin to internalize the goals, to automatically think in terms of them, and to unconsciously consider them whenever you face decisions. In other words, as Gandhi noted, you incorporate these goals as key personal values. This won’t happen overnight, or even over the course of a year. And tracking alone won’t necessarily bring it about, but tracking can start you down this path of awareness of yourself and of your world, and lead you to consciously lead “the examined life.”

If all of this all sounds sterile, stoic, controlled and scientific, and well, just too much work, I invite you to step back and think about it for a moment. It may help to think of tracking as simply a quantifiable and much simpler form of that time-honored daily logging technique – the diary. In just one minute a day, you’ll be able to make a huge difference in your health and happiness. The potential return on investment is ridiculously positive and there is absolutely no downside risk.

As you become more facile in your ability to be aware, through tracking or other techniques like meditation, you’ll start to develop the ability to apply the habit-making and breaking skills to more and more situations. As an example, one of the habits we learn as children is to equate grasping with pleasure, and pleasure with happiness. That association serves us well when we are very young, but it does us a great disservice as we mature, especially since we tend to generalize literal grasping to metaphorical grasping. (Generalizing thought-based habits like this, without much thought, can be one of the most dangerous things people do with habits.) Unfortunately, most people never unlearn this grasping habit, because they don’t realize they have it, or if they do, they don’t have the skills to do anything about it. Imagine the power you will have to greatly reduce your own suffering, then, when you are able recognize your own grasping nature and gently guide yourself away from it. At that point, your awareness will have reached the level of enlightenment, and you will truly be living the SWEET Life. I sincerely hope you can reach that point, and that the techniques discussed here can help you do so.