“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”
The day you lose your curiosity, you have lost the best of our human capacities. You have lost the capacity to see things as they could be, to use the incredible power of human imagination.
A child is curious. As we enter adolescence, our ego becomes stronger and stronger. It becomes ever more important to us to be right, to not be easily influenced, to hold strong to beliefs that shape our personal story of who we are. As we become adults, there is a need to let go of the adolescent ego need to be right. To regain our curiosity, we need to become able to accept how great our ignorance truly is.
Knowing the answers will help you in school. Knowing how to question will help you in life.
There is a great phrase that I hear often in Vistage circles “if you are the smartest in the room, you are in the wrong room”. The need to be the smartest, the best, the winning-est is a danger for your curiosity… this is something I know well.
In chess, if I play against a better player… I will probably lose… but I will likely learn more than if I win against a weaker player. What is more important? Winning or learning?
Curiosity is a willing, a proud, and eager confession of ignorance.
This video is about paying attention in the process of learning, and trusting the process.
The Art of Learning: Attention without Judgement.
If I am judging everything, I am judging from today’s level of mastery… and blocking my progress. It is so difficult to remember that I don’t see more than what I am capable of seeing.
Shoshin is a chinese word that means “open mind” – a mind that is open to possibility rather than constantly analysing everything that is presented to me (through the prism of my current level of expertise).
When I run seminars on leadership, I often share the lessons learnt from the work Kouzes and Posner did to create their book “The Leadership Challenge”. They identified the 4 most important characteristics of a leader that gets the greatest discretionary effort out of the people around them.
How do you know if someone is competent? The simple answer: they have books on their desk.
The proxy for Competence is whether you have books on your desk. If you care about being competent, you will be competent. If you don’t take care of your learning, if you don’t have a plan for your own development needs – you might accidentally be competent now, but with the changes in the environment you will rapidly lose that competence.
Here’s a recent interview at UCD Smurfit Executive Development where I talk about the need for leaders to take charge of their personal and professional development.
What are the next development steps you will be taking for your own competence?
The American Customer Satisfaction Index recently announced the results of its annual survey, and for the 8th year in a row customers ranked Amazon #1. The United Kingdom has a similar index, The U.K. Customer Satisfaction Index, put out by the Institute of Customer Service. For the 5th time in a row Amazon U.K. ranked #1 in that survey. Amazon was also just named the #1 business on LinkedIn’s 2018 Top Companies list, which ranks the most sought after places to work for professionals in the United States. And just a few weeks ago, Harris Poll released its annual Reputation Quotient, which surveys over 25,000 consumers on a broad range of topics from workplace environment to social responsibility to products and services, and for the 3rd year in a row Amazon ranked #1.
Congratulations and thank you to the now over 560,000 Amazonians who come to work every day with unrelenting customer obsession, ingenuity, and commitment to operational excellence. And on behalf of Amazonians everywhere, I want to extend a huge thank you to customers. It’s incredibly energizing for us to see your responses to these surveys.
One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature. We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’. I see that cycle of improvement happening at a faster rate than ever before. It may be because customers have such easy access to more information than ever before – in only a few seconds and with a couple taps on their phones, customers can read reviews, compare prices from multiple retailers, see whether something’s in stock, find out how fast it will ship or be available for pick-up, and more. These examples are from retail, but I sense that the same customer empowerment phenomenon is happening broadly across everything we do at Amazon and most other industries as well. You cannot rest on your laurels in this world. Customers won’t have it.
How do you stay ahead of ever-rising customer expectations? There’s no single way to do it – it’s a combination of many things. But high standards (widely deployed and at all levels of detail) are certainly a big part of it. We’ve had some successes over the years in our quest to meet the high expectations of customers. We’ve also had billions of dollars’ worth of failures along the way. With those experiences as backdrop, I’d like to share with you the essentials of what we’ve learned (so far) about high standards inside an organization.
Intrinsic or Teachable?
First, there’s a foundational question: are high standards intrinsic or teachable? If you take me on your basketball team, you can teach me many things, but you can’t teach me to be taller. Do we first and foremost need to select for “high standards” people? If so, this letter would need to be mostly about hiring practices, but I don’t think so. I believe high standards are teachable. In fact, people are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt. The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread. And though exposure works well to teach high standards, I believe you can accelerate that rate of learning by articulating a few core principles of high standards, which I hope to share in this letter.
Universal or Domain Specific?
Another important question is whether high standards are universal or domain specific. In other words, if you have high standards in one area, do you automatically have high standards elsewhere? I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest. When I started Amazon, I had high standards on inventing, on customer care, and (thankfully) on hiring. But I didn’t have high standards on operational process: how to keep fixed problems fixed, how to eliminate defects at the root, how to inspect processes, and much more. I had to learn and develop high standards on all of that (my colleagues were my tutors).
Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or non-existent, and certainly not world class. It’s critical to be open to that likelihood.
Recognition and Scope
What do you need to achieve high standards in a particular domain area? First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain. Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result – the scope.
Let me give you two examples. One is a sort of toy illustration but it makes the point clearly, and another is a real one that comes up at Amazon all the time.
A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well.
We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structuredsix-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.
In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.
Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.
Beyond recognizing the standard and having realistic expectations on scope, how about skill? Surely to write a world class memo, you have to be an extremely skilled writer? Is it another required element? In my view, not so much, at least not for the individual in the context of teams. The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act. But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope. Even in the example of writing a six-page memo, that’s
teamwork. Someone on the team needs to have the skill, but it doesn’t have to be you. (As a side note, by tradition at Amazon, authors’ names never appear on the memos – the memo is from the whole team.)
Benefits of High Standards
Building a culture of high standards is well worth the effort, and there are many benefits. Naturally and most obviously, you’re going to build better products and services for customers – this would be reason enough! Perhaps a little less obvious: people are drawn to high standards – they help with recruiting and retention. More subtle: a culture of high standards is protective of all the “invisible” but crucial work that goes on in every company. I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward – it’s part of what it means to be a professional.
And finally, high standards are fun! Once you’ve tasted high standards, there’s no going back.
So, the four elements of high standards as we see it: they are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope. For us, these work at all levels of detail. Everything from writing memos to whole new, clean-sheet business initiatives. We hope they help you too.
Insist on the Highest Standards
Leaders have relentlessly high standards – many people may think these standards are unreasonably high.
— from the Amazon Leadership Principles
The high standards our leaders strive for have served us well. And while I certainly can’t do a handstand myself, I’m extremely proud to share some of the milestones we hit last year, each of which represents the fruition of many years of collective effort. We take none of them for granted.
Prime – 13 years post-launch, we have exceeded 100 million paid Prime members globally. In 2017 Amazon shipped more than five billion items with Prime worldwide, and more new members joined Prime than in any previous year – both worldwide and in the U.S. Members in the U.S. now receive unlimited free two-day shipping on over 100 million different items. We expanded Prime to Mexico, Singapore, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and introduced Business Prime Shipping in the U.S. and Germany. We keep making Prime shipping faster as well, with Prime Free Same-Day and Prime Free One-Day delivery now in more than 8,000 cities and towns. Prime Now is available in more than 50 cities worldwide across nine countries. Prime Day 2017 was our biggest global shopping event ever (until surpassed by Cyber Monday), with more new Prime members joining Prime than any other day in our history.
AWS – It’s exciting to see Amazon Web Services, a $20 billion revenue run rate business, accelerate its already healthy growth. AWS has also accelerated its pace of innovation – especially in new areas such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and serverless computing. In 2017, AWS announced more than 1,400 significant services and features, including Amazon SageMaker, which radically changes the accessibility and ease of use for everyday developers to build sophisticated machine learning models. Tens of thousands of customers are also using a broad range of AWS machine learning services, with active users increasing more than 250 percent in the last year, spurred by the broad adoption of Amazon SageMaker. And in November, we held our sixth re:Invent conference with more than 40,000 attendees and over 60,000 streaming participants.
Marketplace – In 2017, for the first time in our history, more than half of the units sold on Amazon worldwide were from our third-party sellers, including small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Over 300,000 U.S.-based SMBs started selling on Amazon in 2017, and Fulfillment by Amazon shipped billions of items for SMBs worldwide. Customers ordered more than 40 million items from SMBs worldwide during Prime Day 2017, growing their sales by more than 60 percent over Prime Day 2016. Our Global Selling program (enabling SMBs to sell products across national borders) grew by over 50% in 2017 and cross-border ecommerce by SMBs now represents more than 25% of total third-party sales.
Alexa – Customer embrace of Alexa continues, with Alexa-enabled devices among the best-selling items across all of Amazon. We’re seeing extremely strong adoption by other companies and developers that want to create their own experiences with Alexa. There are now more than 30,000 skills for Alexa from outside developers, and customers can control more than 4,000 smart home devices from 1,200 unique brands with Alexa. The foundations of Alexa continue to get smarter every day too. We’ve developed and implemented an on-devicefingerprinting technique, which keeps your device from waking up when it hears an Alexa commercial on TV. (This technology ensured that our Alexa Super Bowl commercial didn’t wake up millions of devices.) Far-fieldspeech recognition (already very good) has improved by 15% over the last year; and in the U.S., U.K., and Germany, we’ve improved Alexa’s spoken language understanding by more than 25% over the last 12 months through enhancements in Alexa’s machine learning components and the use of semi-supervised learning techniques. (These semi-supervised learning techniques reduced the amount of labeled data needed to achieve the same accuracy improvement by 40 times!) Finally, we’ve dramatically reduced the amount of time required to teach Alexa new languages by using machine translation and transfer learning techniques, which allows us to serve customers in more countries (like India and Japan).
Amazon devices – 2017 was our best year yet for hardware sales. Customers bought tens of millions of Echo devices, and Echo Dot and Fire TV Stick with Alexa were the best-selling products across all of Amazon – across all categories and all manufacturers. Customers bought twice as many Fire TV Sticks and Kids Edition Fire Tablets this holiday season versus last year. 2017 marked the release of our all-new Echo with an improved design, better sound, and a lower price; Echo Plus with a built-in smart home hub; and Echo Spot, which is compact and beautiful with a circular screen. We released our next generation Fire TV, featuring 4K Ultra HD and HDR; and the Fire HD 10 Tablet, with 1080p Full HD display. And we celebrated the 10th anniversary of Kindle by releasing the all-new Kindle Oasis, our most advanced reader ever. It’s waterproof – take it in the bathtub – with a bigger 7” high-resolution 300 ppi display and has built-in audio so you can also listen to your books with Audible.
Prime Video – Prime Video continues to drive Prime member adoption and retention. In the last year we made Prime Video even better for customers by adding new, award-winning Prime Originals to the service, like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, winner of two Critics’ Choice Awards and two Golden Globes, and the Oscar-nominated movie The Big Sick. We’ve expanded our slate of programming across the globe, launching new seasons of Bosch and Sneaky Pete from the U.S., The Grand Tour from the U.K., and You Are Wanted from Germany, while adding new Sentosha shows from Japan, along with Breathe and the award-winning Inside Edge from India. Also this year, we expanded our Prime Channels offerings, adding CBS All Access in the U.S. and launching Channels in the U.K. and Germany. We debuted NFL Thursday Night Football on Prime Video, with more than 18 million total viewers over 11 games. In 2017, Prime Video Direct secured subscription video rights for more than 3,000 feature films and committed over $18 million in royalties to independent filmmakers and other rights holders. Looking forward, we’re also excited about our upcoming Prime Original series pipeline, which includes Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan starring John Krasinski; King Lear, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson; The Romanoffs, executive produced by Matt Weiner; Carnival Row starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne; Good Omens starring Jon Hamm; and Homecoming, executive produced by Sam Esmail and starring Julia Roberts in her first television series. We acquired the global television rights for a multi-season production of The Lord of the Rings, as well as Cortés, a miniseries based on the epic saga of Hernán Cortés from executive producer Steven Spielberg, starring Javier Bardem, and we look forward to beginning work on those shows this year.
Amazon Music – Amazon Music continues to grow fast and now has tens of millions of paid customers. Amazon Music Unlimited, our on-demand, ad-free offering, expanded to more than 30 new countries in 2017, and membership has more than doubled over the past six months.
Fashion – Amazon has become the destination for tens of millions of customers to shop for fashion. In 2017, we introduced our first fashion-oriented Prime benefit, Prime Wardrobe – a new service that brings the fitting room directly to the homes of Prime members so they can try on the latest styles before they buy. We introduced Nike and UGG on Amazon along with new celebrity collections by Drew Barrymore and Dwyane Wade, as well as dozens of new private brands, like Goodthreads and
Core10. We’re also continuing to enable thousands of designers and artists to offer their exclusive designs and prints on demand through Merch by Amazon. We finished 2017 with the launch of our interactive shopping experience with Calvin Klein, including pop-up shops, on-site product customization, and fitting rooms with Alexa-controlled lighting, music, and more.
Whole Foods – When we closed our acquisition of Whole Foods Market last year, we announced our commitment to making high-quality, natural and organic food available for everyone, then immediately lowered prices on a selection of best-selling grocery staples, including avocados, organic brown eggs, and responsibly-farmed salmon. We followed this with a second round of price reductions in November, and our Prime member exclusive promotion broke Whole Foods’ all-time record for turkeys sold during the Thanksgiving season. In February, we introduced free two-hour delivery on orders over $35 for Prime members in select cities, followed by additional cities in March and April, and plan continued expansion across the U.S. throughout this year. We also expanded the benefits of the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Card, enabling Prime members to get 5% back when shopping at Whole Foods Market. Beyond that, customers can purchase Whole Foods’ private label products like 365 Everyday Value on Amazon, purchase Echo and other Amazon devices in over a hundred Whole Foods stores, and pick-up or return Amazon packages at Amazon Lockers in hundreds of Whole Foods stores. We’ve also begun the technical work needed to recognize Prime members at the point of sale and look forward to offering more Prime benefits to Whole Foods shoppers once that work is completed.
Amazon Go – Amazon Go, a new kind of store with no checkout required, opened to the public in January in Seattle. Since opening, we’ve been thrilled to hear many customers refer to their shopping experience as “magical.” What makes the magic possible is a custom-built combination of computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning, which come together to create Just Walk Out shopping. With JWO, customers are able to grab their favorite breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and grocery essentials more conveniently than ever before. Some of our top-selling items are not surprising – caffeinated beverages and water are popular – but our customers also love the Chicken Banh Mi sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, cut fruit, gummy bears, and our Amazon Meal Kits.
Treasure Truck – Treasure Truck expanded from a single truck in Seattle to a fleet of 35 trucks across 25 U.S. cities and 12 U.K. cities. Our bubble-blowing, music-pumping trucks fulfilled hundreds of thousands of orders, from porterhouse steaks to the latest Nintendo releases. Throughout the year, Treasure Truck also partnered with local communities to lift spirits and help those in need, including donating and delivering hundreds of car seats, thousands of toys, tens of thousands of socks, and many other essentials to community members needing relief, from those displaced by Hurricane Harvey, to the homeless, to kids needing holiday cheer.
India – Amazon.in is the fastest growing marketplace in India, and the most visited site on both desktop and mobile, according to comScore and SimilarWeb. The Amazon.in mobile shopping app was also the most downloaded shopping app in India in 2017, according to App Annie. Prime added more members in India in its first year than any previous geography in Amazon’s history. Prime selection in India now includes more than 40 million local products from third-party sellers, and Prime Video is investing in India original video content in a big way, including two recent premiers and over a dozen new shows in production.
Sustainability – We are committed to minimizing carbon emissions by optimizing our transportation network, improving product packaging, and enhancing energy efficiency in our operations, and we have a long-term goal to power our global infrastructure using 100% renewable energy. We recently launched Amazon Wind Farm Texas, our largest wind farm yet, which generates more than 1,000,000 megawatt hours of clean energy annually from over 100 turbines. We have plans to host solar energy systems at 50 fulfillment centers by 2020, and have launched 24 wind and solar projects across the U.S. with more than 29 additional projects to come. Together, Amazon’s renewable energy projects now produce enough clean energy to power over 330,000 homes annually. In 2017 we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Frustration-Free Packaging, the first of a suite of sustainable packaging initiatives that have eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials over the past 10 years. In addition, in 2017 alone our programs significantly reduced packaging waste, eliminating the
equivalent of 305 million shipping boxes. And across the world, Amazon is contracting with our service providers to launch our first low-pollution last-mile fleet. Already today, a portion of our European delivery fleet is comprised of low-pollution electric and natural gas vans and cars, and we have over 40 electric scooters and e-cargo bikes that complete local urban deliveries.
Empowering Small Business – Millions of small and medium-sized businesses worldwide now sell their products through Amazon to reach new customers around the globe. SMBs selling on Amazon come from every state in the U.S., and from more than 130 different countries around the world. More than 140,000 SMBs surpassed $100,000 in sales on Amazon in 2017, and over a thousand independent authors surpassed $100,000 in royalties in 2017 through Kindle Direct Publishing.
Investment & Job Creation – Since 2011, we have invested over $150 billion worldwide in our fulfillment networks, transportation capabilities, and technology infrastructure, including AWS data centers. Amazon has created over 1.7 million direct and indirect jobs around the world. In 2017 alone, we directly created more than 130,000 new Amazon jobs, not including acquisitions, bringing our global employee base to over 560,000. Our new jobs cover a wide range of professions, from artificial intelligence scientists to packaging specialists to fulfillment center associates. In addition to these direct hires, we estimate that Amazon Marketplace has created 900,000 more jobs worldwide, and that Amazon’s investments have created an additional 260,000 jobs in areas like construction, logistics, and other professional services.
Career Choice – One employee program we’re particularly proud of is Amazon Career Choice. For hourly associates with more than one year of tenure, we pre-pay 95% of tuition, fees, and textbooks (up to $12,000) for certificates and associate degrees in high-demand occupations such as aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine tool technologies, medical lab technologies, and nursing. We fund education in areas that are in high demand and do so regardless of whether those skills are relevant to a career at Amazon. Globally more than 16,000 associates (including more than 12,000 in the U.S.) have joined Career Choice since the program launched in 2012. Career Choice is live in ten countries and expanding to South Africa, Costa Rica, and Slovakia later this year. Commercial truck driving, healthcare, and information technology are the program’s most popular fields of study. We’ve built 39 Career Choice classrooms so far, and we locate them behind glass walls in high traffic areas inside our fulfillment centers so associates can be inspired by seeing their peers pursue new skills.
The credit for these milestones is deserved by many. Amazon is 560,000 employees. It’s also 2 million sellers, hundreds of thousands of authors, millions of AWS developers, and hundreds of millions of divinely discontent customers around the world who push to make us better each and every day.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of our first shareholder letter, and our core values and approach remain unchanged. We continue to aspire to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, and we recognize this to be no small or easy challenge. We know there is much we can do better, and we find tremendous energy in the many challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
A huge thank you to each and every customer for allowing us to serve you, to our shareowners for your support, and to Amazonians everywhere for your ingenuity, your passion, and your high standards.
As always, I attach a copy of our original 1997 letter. It remains Day 1.
I share a tool that I have used to become mindful of my daily activities.
This video is from the IESE EMBA Intensive week and I share an exercise that I have been doing for the last few months – that has shown me that “feeling in a rush” is one of the big detractors of my quality of life.
The path to mastery is steady, small, incremental improvements repeated over and over again. There is no shortcut to mastery. There is a mode of operating that allows mastery. This mode is the 1% improvement mode.
Do you focus on the 1% improvements? What small change will you make today?
Please leave a comment below and tell me what you think…
As I grow ever older, staying fit requires ever greater intention. I sometimes wish to myself that it might be a little easier, but then quickly realise that this is my inner saboteur distracting me.
If you are going uphill then you are going towards success. I so often want writing to become easier. I live with the hope that if I really work at my fitness, at my writing: I will find that they become easier. It does not work this way. Eka told me that the better I get at something, the better my inner saboteur becomes. I am wise enough to see through the excuses of 10 years ago, but now I have new, more sophisticated, more subtle, more dangerous excuses.
John Maxwell shares a story of a tree in a garden. He says “if I take up my axe and swing at the tree, will I chop it down?” Not in one blow, unless it is a very small tree. In 5 blows? maybe? If I go out every day and swing the axe at the tree, will the tree fall? Yes. When? eventually. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… but if I keep on chopping, the tree will fall. It could be a Californian Sequoia, it could be a towering British Oak: if I keep on chopping, the tree will fall. It doesn’t matter the quality of the blows, it doesn’t matter the strength in my arms: if I keep on chopping, the tree will fall.
If you want to be successful: do what you have to do to be successful. Not what you want to do, not what you wish you could do, not what you feel like doing… what you have to do.
What are the 5 things you have to do to be successful? You don’t need a PhD to figure these out.
“If you are not growing, you are dying” Jim Rohn
If I don’t have a plan for growth, the natural is not to stay in good fit shape. If you are not moving forward, it is likely that you are being left behind.
I do have a plan for growth. I have a plan for health, a plan for writing, a plan for teaching. However, in the last few weeks I have grown comfortable. I have stopped doing what is hard and only done what is easy. I have allowed my inner saboteur to move me off the uphill path. I was hoping for some automation, some easing of the uphill journey. My friend Florian says “only dead fish swim with the flow”. To be alive, is to swim against the natural flow.
“The only thing automatic in life is death” John Maxwell
Life is simple. We live for a short moment, and then we die. It is easy to be hopeless in the face of this simple equation. It is easy for me to tell myself that anything I do is meaningless. It is easy for me to excuse myself from the hard work. In the face of the equation of life, there is only one heroic response.
The heroic response to challenge: Defiance.
Defiance in the Face of Difficulty
I cannot control the external forces of my life. I cannot control whether people read my writing or like my writing or learn from my writing. I cannot control when I get ill. I cannot control when those that I love suffer, get ill.
I can always control my reaction. To react is to give up the heroic response. To respond in a way that resonates with the best version of myself, to be defiant in the face of difficulty: this is the heroic response.
If you want to grow, you have to be intentional. What’s your plan for growth? What do you do every day to ensure that you are growing?
Most people live their entire life and never plan to intentionally grow.
There are no secrets to success: You don’t have to do it all day. You do have to do it every day. The 20 mile march, daily progress. I don’t get to brush my teeth 7 times on a Sunday to make up for not brushing Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday…
(PS You may have already guessed: the read audience for this post is myself, to make myself go for a run today)
What are the 3 words that managers find hardest to say?
They are possibly the 3 words that parents find hardest to say to children. They are 3 words that teachers very rarely say to their students.
They are not “You’re the Best”. They are not “I love you”. What might they be?
The 3 hardest words for a manager to say are “I don’t know.”
The need to act under the lack of full information does not give the excuse of not needed to do the work. One must do the work to examine the data that is available, to seek advice from wise counsel, to speak to others who have experience; but the analysis once done, must end. A decision must be taken by the leader.
Orchids are not Fragile
I am reading Nassim Taleb’s latest book “AntiFragile” at the moment. I received 2 gifts of this book for Christmas – I do hope it is not because I am generally seen as “fragile” and in need of some increased strength…
I remember a conversation with my friend Xavi, who runs a gardening business. We were talking about Orchids. He explained “there is a widespread idea that Orchids are difficult plants, they are fragile. This is not true. Any plant that has survived the millions of years of evolution to survive in its form today is in no way fragile. It is not suited to certain environments, but it is not fragile.”
Most complex organic systems not only survive uncertainty, chaos, disorder, time… they thrive. They grow stronger though dealing with their environments. There are forests that need fire – certain trees can only grow past a certain point if they face fire. A human muscle will atrophy if not used, it will grow stronger through being worked, through being damaged.
Modern education equates volatility with risk, equates non-standard with failing. Statisticians hate the outliers.
Nassim’s central idea is that we cannot predict risks, but we can predict a system’s capability to cope with risk. We cannot predict an earthquake, but we do know whether the 400 year old cathedral or the poorly built modern apartment block will fall first. We cannot predict a financial crisis, but we can predict which bank will fail first. We cannot predict loss of employment, but we can see which human will come back strong the fastest.
Leading in the Real World
The real world has surprises. Hemmingway said that the “true” parts of his stories were the most un-believable. Fiction is never as crazy as reality.
There are 3 things a good leader must learn to be able to do:
Act under Uncertainty
Take the Painful Decisions
Own the Decision
Acting Under Uncertainty
I teach a class towards the end of the course on the MBA program where my objective is to create uncertainty. As the students give their answers, I give no expression, neither verbal nor non-verbal as to whether I agree with their answer. This creates tension in the class. The students are used to a class where they say their answer and the professor either writes it up on the board or grimaces. If the professor writes it up, I got the answer right. If the professor grimaces, I change my answer until I get a nod and a note on the board.
I believe education from “The All-Knowing Professor” creates a dangerous tendency for future leaders. In the real decisions of life, there is nobody there to nod their head, nor to say “no” or “incorrect”. There are many people making lots of noise, and the leader needs to commit to their course of action without achieving 100% consensus, or 100% of the information that could prove the course of action. Leaders must be able to do enough work to be fairly sure they have a good course of action, and then commit to that course of action; and get others to commit.
If MBAs are learning always to wait for someone else to give then certainty, then they are not learning to lead. We need to ensure that tomorrows leaders are getting practice in the world of uncertainty. They are getting practice at having to move forward without all the information.
Taking the Painful Decisions
Odysseus must choose between definitely losing a few of his men by passing closer to Scylla, or possibly losing all of his men passing nearer to Charybdis, the whirlpool. There was no “good” alternative. MBA cases, video games, TV series tend to allow the hero to find a “good” outcome. They allow the business to survive with nobody losing their job. They allow the main character to finish the journey and get back to a comfortable life. If you have a good option and a bad option, this is not a decision. It is obvious. A leadership decision is always between 2 bad options.
Many of school’s choices are between a good and a bad outcome. Most of life’s choices are between two bad outcomes.
Own the Decision
When I was young, 12 or 13 years old, I was once caddying for my father. We were at a par 3 and we discussed what club to hit. I suggested a 7 iron. He thought it was not enough, but after a pause, took the 7 iron anyway. He had a look at the green, the flag. He took a few practice swings. He stood up to the ball. He swung the club making good contact with the ball. It soared up and was in line with the pin. It hung in the air for 2, 3 seconds… and then dropped… 15 meters short, landing in the sandy bunker.
He made a pained grunt and as he returned the club to me I said “sorry, I gave you the wrong club”. He said, “No, you are the caddy, but I am the golfer. I chose wrong.” At the time I remember feeling bad. I felt that I wasn’t “respected” by him, that he didn’t treat my advice as serious advice. Now I think that he acted then as he has always acted. He owned the decision. I gave advice, but at no point did it become my “fault”. He owns his decisions, whether in golf, in business or in life.
Learning to take responsibility for the choice, where it is the leader themselves who must choose, is a challenge. It takes psychological maturity to own a decision that cannot necessarily be justified with the data. It takes psychological strength to deal with the slings and blows of others who have not had to take the decision. Leadership is solitary. Any education of leaders must help the leader find the mental strength necessary to be alone.
Being alone and being lonely are different. Alone is a choice. Lonely is the desire to have someone else to take away the burden.
A good leader has mentors, friends, advisors… but when the decision comes, it is they and they alone who are responsible.
Increasing your Question to Answer ratio
In an uncertain world, the art of “Muddling Through” is of greater importance than the art of long-term strategic planning. Dealing with the chaos requires accepting the chaos, and then taking quick steps to understand the map, the compass. In management life, giving answers shrinks our understanding; asking questions increases our understanding, our capacity to adapt.
How many of your statements are answers and how many are questions?
The person asking the questions is in control of the conversation. It is hard to remain open to other’s ideas. It is hard to stop saying what it is that I want to say, and giving the other what it is that they need to hear.
The Best Questions…
The best Leadership Question: “What is the next right thing to do?”
The best Teaching Question: “What do you think? What other options do you see?”
The best Coaching Question: “You have achieved what you set out to accomplish. Imagine yourself there. What does it feel like?”
The best Friendship Question: “How are you?”
The best Parenting Question: “What was the best moment of your day?”
The best Sales Question: “(I understand that price is important.) What other criteria are important in making this decision?” (The implicit question: “What are you comparing this to?”)
I finished my first expedition into the world of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – this week. I have completed a 10 week course on Coursera run by a team led by Dr. Struck of Penn State University. The course was titled Greek and Roman Mythology.
How was the experience?
In four words: Hard work. Enriching. Fulfilling.
Coursera stated up front that the course would require 8-10 hours per week. I assumed that given how smart I am (yes, the arrogance remains strong…), I would be able to do it in half the time… but no. I was wrong. The course consisted of 1-2 hours of video lectures each week, 3-4 hours of readings and a 20 question multiple choice quiz covering the week’s learning. Two short essays were required in week 6 and week 9. I found myself submitting the second essay at 2:34am on a Sunday night.
The course was more work than I had expected. The quizes required a dedication of attention that was far beyond the mere background watching of TED talks or other educational youtube videos. The essays encouraged a deeper reflection on the material.
I learnt more in this 10 week online course than in my own university courses. Firstly because the course is well designed and the structure doesn’t allow me to leave the hard work for the last week of the class. Secondly, because I truly wanted to read these ancient myths and think about what they mean for us as human beings.
The role of the bricks and mortar university is going to change. It is already changing. There is still an important role in bringing people physically together. There is still a role in certifying progress, in providing credentials. However, the process of learning is not well served by 300 people in a lecture hall listening to an academic. Learning online, directly from the best, structured in an optimized digital format is the future of the knowledge and skill learning aspect of education.
“This course will focus on the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, as a way of exploring the nature of myth and the function it plays for individuals, societies, and nations. We will also pay some attention to the way the Greeks and Romans themselves understood their own myths.
Are myths subtle codes that contain some universal truth? Are they a window on the deep recesses of a particular culture? Or are they just entertaining stories that people like to tell over and over?
This course will investigate these questions through a variety of topics, including the creation of the universe, the relationship between gods and mortals, human nature, religion, the family, sex, love, madness, and death.”
We read and analysed the following works during the class:
Homeric Hymns to Apollo and Demeter
Sophocles, Oedipus the King
My Final Essay. What relationship is at the core of Myth?
This is the last essay that I submitted for the course. Finished at 2:34am on Sunday night. Yep, flashbacks to my days of university were frequent 😉
Question: We’ve seen numerous kinds of relationships under scrutiny in the myths we have studied: (1) relationships between humans and the divine; (2) familial relationships, e.g., fathers and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and sons, etc.; (3) relationships between individuals and communities; (4) relationships between the individual and himself/herself. For this essay, you need to decide which ONE of these 4 types of relationships is most important for the myths we have read, and explore why it is so. Of course, a wise person will see that there is at least some importance in all of them, but for this question, you must choose the most important ONE, and then explore why it is.
My Answer: Myth is about the Relationship to One’s own self
The early Romantic German philosopher Novalis said “The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.”  Myth is this meeting between inner and outer world. As heroes meet gods, kings, queens, monsters and challenges, they discover themselves.
Joseph Campbell speaks of the two paths: the left hand path, and the hero’s journey . The left-hand path is finding one’s role in society. The hero’s journey is a journey of self-discovery.
The most important relationship in the myths that we have read is the relationship between the individual and himself. The relationships to the divine, to family, to communities are important but serve as a canvas for the hero to discover himself.
The first inscription above the temple of Delphi is “Know Thyself” . Each hero is seeking to “Know Themselves”.
As discussed in the course lecture week 8, the central question of Oedipus Rex is “Who am I?” Is Oedipus who he is because of land (Cithaeron, Thebes, or Corinth) or genes (birth parents, adopted parents). “Oedipus shows us how our identities can dissolve before our very eyes.” 
In the Odyssey, a person discovering themself with the help of the divine is Telemachus. In Book 1 he is a victim until intervention by Athena allows him to discover his hero, leader aspect. Upon this transition, he commands his mother: “Nay, go to thy chamber, and busy thyself with thine own tasks, the loom and the distaff, and bid thy handmaids ply their tasks; but speech shall be for men, for all, but most of all for me; since mine is the authority in the house.” [7, line 356]
In the Bacchae, the god Dionysis wonders if he is really accepted by the pantheon of gods. He is different, his rites and rituals are different. Gods are not immune from the process of self discovery. Even gods are not blessed with self belief. They too must find their own identity as they face the challenges of life.
Virgil’s hero Aeneas follows a parallel journey to Odysseus, but with a “Pietas” character that the Roman culture valued highly. Virgil is writing at a time of Roman Empire and Stability as opposed to Homer at at time of Greek Exploration and Expansion. [5,8] Pietas, or sense of duty, requires that Aeneas finds his identity in a context of an obligation to society. He is not free to just be himself. He must find the integration of who he really is with what his society needs from him.
The central question of the myths is “Who am I?”. Relationships with others are important – me to Gods, me to family (Oedipus), me to society (Aeneas in Games), me to father/mother (Telemachus), but they serve as a canvas for the central relationship, “knowing myself”.
Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon. David W. Wood, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007.
The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers: Anchor, 1991.
Dr. Peter Struck, Course Notes (Announcements Week 8).
Homer. The Odyssey, A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.
Sophocles. The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1887.
Euripides. The Tragedies of Euripides, translated by T. A. Buckley. Bacchae. London. Henry G. Bohn. 1850.
Virgil, The Aeneid, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. New York: Vintage, 1990
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