In his essay "How to Get Startup Ideas" Paul Graham writes:
The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not "think up" but "notice." Since what you need to do here is loosen up your own mind, it may be best not to make too much of a direct frontal attack on the problem—i.e. to sit down and try to think of ideas. The best plan may be just to keep a background process running, looking for things that seem to be missing.
Awareness, the ability to notice is a fundamental life skill that can release you to pursue greater things. For Paul Graham it's a strategy to unlock startup ideas. For those that practice mindfulness it's the foundation of the practice.
Thich Nhat Hanh in his seminal book on meditation "The Miracle of Mindfulness" introduces the reader to meditation through awareness. Having a process running where you are constantly aware of what you are doing presently. Even when putting a book back on the shelf:
While placing a book on the shelf, look at the book, be aware of what book it is, know that you are in the process of placing it on the shelf, intending to put it in that specific place.
What is awareness? How do you channel it? Tara Brach in "Radical Acceptance" writes:
When thoughts arise, where do they come from, where do they go to? As you explore looking into the space between thoughts, through the holes in the net, you are looking into awareness itself. You might sit quietly and simply listen for a few moments. Notice how sounds arise and dissolve back into formless awareness. Can you notice the beginnings of sounds, the ends of sounds? The spaces between? It is all happening in awareness, known by awareness.
As you begin practicing awareness you'll notice a transformation in your outlook to the world. Signs you may have missed previously become clearer. Feelings you've suppressed may become nurtured. Your relationships with others, with food, with experiences may become more significant.
Starting small and finding awareness in moments everyday can lead to more awareness throughout your experiences. It's a habit that can easily be dismissed or neglected. And yet finding ways to remind yourself, to continue to notice, can establish a habit that can have a profound impact on how you live life.
On the topic of life skills Michele Borba's book "UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World" is one of my favorites. It presents a case for why empathy is a critical skill and how it can be fostered in children.
Professionally as a Product Manager empathy is something I'm continually honing and practicing. My responsibility is to determine the stakeholder's (e.g. user's, team member's) need. Out of all the things we can build given a constrained set of time and resources, which ones will have the greatest value? I must put myself into the position of the stakeholder in order to understand their need. I must empathize.
Unknowing I began to foster my ability to empathize at a young age. One of my favorite games was setting up and acting out movie like scenes with my G. I. Joe action figures. I'd imagine elaborate worlds and scenes where my hero would fall under duress and battle his way through to redemption. I imagined what he was feeling, what his allies were feeling, what the villains were feeling. I'd act out the scenes, conversations, and of course the action. I'd stretch out the scenes imagining my hero experiencing a range of emotions. It was exciting to create these scenes in my mind. And as I let my imagination flow I was honing my ability to empathize.
Imagination is a pre-requisite for empathy. You cannot empathize with someone if you can't imagine what they feel or need. I believe if we want a child to develop empathy, we must encourage them to use their imagination. The how they do it is not important. It could be playing a video game where they have a connection to emotional state of the characters in the game. It could be watching a film, reading a book, or creating a fictitious world with G.I. Joes. Put them in a situation where the mind starts imagining and they'll begin to empathize with their environment.
The guitar is a diverse instrument. When I meet a guitar player my first question is what kind of style do they play? Singer songwriter? Jazz? Rock? Classical? Flamenco? Even within rock you can specialize in various sub-genres: shred, 80s, classic rock, surf rock, punk, speed metal, etc. Each style demands a unique musical approach and technical proficiencies on the instrument.
The use of a guitar pick is one example of a technical difference in playing certain styles. In classical and flamenco guitar a guitar pick is not used. For the 80s rock style of electric guitar that I play a guitar pick is mandatory.
Guitar picks come in all shapes and sizes. The primary difference among them is the thickness, measured in millimeters. A very thick "heavy" guitar pick is 3.0 mm. A flimsy "light" guitar pick is 0.7 mm. You can find a pick any size in between: 2.0, 1.7, 1.0, etc. The weight of the pick impacts not only the tone produced by the guitar, but also its playability.
For tone, you have to consider the type of music you are playing. Staying with the 80s electric guitar theme, if you're playing the rhythm guitar part of "Crazy Train", a light pick will produce brighter tones which are desired when playing the chords in the song. A heavy pick will produce duller tones that will make the chords sound bland. A light pick will glide across the strings with less precision which is exactly what you want when playing rhythm guitar. A heavy pick will be more abrasive when strumming chords, and hence will result in duller tones.
Things are flipped when you reach the guitar solo in "Crazy Train". The flimsiness of a light pick will no longer be advantageous as the lack of precision becomes a negative. Playing a lot of notes fast will become a challenge because the light pick lacks the precision the heavy pick has. Making a change between a 0.7 mm pick to a 2.0 mm pick could make a tremendous difference in not just guitar tone, but the playability of the solo. With a 0.7 mm pick I would likely miss notes and the solo would sound messy. Yet the precision of the 2. 0 mm pick would lower the risk of missing notes and likely make the notes in the solo cleaner and brighter.
A difference in millimeters can make a huge difference on the tone and playability of your guitar.
We dedicate a lot of time at work. Whether it's working for a company or ourselves, we'll spend a large chunk of our lives at a workspace. In this post I'd like to document the various workspaces I've been a part of and some of the lesson I learned while there.
Way Basics (2008 - 2011)
What: Startup company selling eco-friendly storage furniture. I was the first employee.
Responsibility: Operations Manager & Business Development
Workspace: Although I don't have a photo of my workspace, the photo above is from a tradeshow (pseudo workspace) the team attended in Florida. The photo includes (left to right) the CEO, Marketing Manager, and me.
Lessons: This role was my professional MBA. Fresh out of undergrad I was thrust into a fast-paced startup environment where I negotiated contracts, facilitated fulfillment of thousands of orders, and established many of the logistical and operational processes at the company. I shared an office with the founder/CEO who was a great mentor to me. We had many late night product and business discussions that honed my product development and management skills.
What: Quest builds software for IT professionals. It was acquired by Dell in 2012.
Responsibility: Learning Management System Product Owner
Workspace: My workspace evolved over time, but eventually I settled on the two monitor and medicine ball setup. I would swap the ball for a chair every couple hours. I was in the corner of the building so had great natural light throughout the day.
Lessons: My first corporate job. Coming from a startup with less than 10 people to a company with over 1000 employees was a drastic change in work culture. I had my first experience collaborating with engineers in a SCRUM environment here. I collected requirements from stakeholders and wrote my first user stories. During this period I started teaching myself how to code, and was able to apply what I was learning by building some internal web apps for the team. It was here that I also learned that Product Management was a career path I wanted to pursue.
What: Amplify creates software for the K-12 education market. I was part of the literacy assessment team.
Role: Product Owner
Workspace:That was my desk and view during my last two months at Amplify. Can't beat the view of the Manhattan bridge from Dumbo.
Lessons: My first job after relocating from California to New York. This was also my first role that was 100% focused on Product Management through the role of a Product Owner. The team implemented the SCRUM framework and released to production every two weeks. In this role I learned the ins and outs of SCRUM, how to run sprints and manage a backlog. It was a tremendous learning experience that taught me the difference between being Agile and agile.
LightSail Education (2015 - 2017)
What: LightSail is a mobile and web-based application targeted at K-12 students and teachers. It's a digital library where students can discover and read fiction and non-fiction books.
Role: Product Manager
Workspace: My first standing desk workspace. Typically I would stand half the day and sit for the remainder. I used an Ori Stand (unfortunately they closed as of December 15, 2017).
Lessons: This was a challenging yet very rewarding role. I learned a ton and am quite proud of the product that was shipped by the team. The engineering team was all remote which presented communication challenges, but we were able to implement processes that minimized the barrier. I worked on all aspects of building the product. From collecting requirements from users, to creating mockups and writing user stories, to testing the features and writing blog posts about the latest releases. LightSail was well received by our users and an independent study found that students using LightSail experienced 2.5x growth compared to peers not using the product.
Bonus: Current home setup
My current home setup. The minimalist and budget friendly standing desk: Ikea coffee table on top of an Ikea kitchen table. I also use this cushion when I'm standing. The setup is flexible enough where I can easily take the coffee table off and transition to a seated position.
A traditional school curriculum is comprised primarily of topics that teach cognitive skills. Topics like reading comprehension, vocabulary, algebra and biology. These topics are comprised of "blocks" of knowledge such as: "2 + 2", "what is a nucleus", "what caused the US great depression", "what is a verb".
These knowledge blocks can be stacked into a 9 month curriculum with the same standardized answer being taught to all students. Knowledge of each block can be categorized as "pass" or "fail". Students can be ranked by the amount of pass knowledge blocks they've obtained. Obtain enough, move on to the next grade.
A teacher can teach such curriculum with minimum creativity and improvisation. Teach the block, assess knowledge of it, move on to the next. It's a system that allows thousands of teachers to teach millions of students across 50 states. An assembly line model that scales and "works".
A growing movement is to determine how to make noncognitive skills (aka soft/life/character skills) more prevalent in school curriculums. Technological trends and research indicate that a developed set of noncognitive skills will better equip students for 21st century jobs. For it's likely that the jobs that exist in 10 years do not exist today (e.g. the job "podcast booking agent" did not exist 10 years ago). Technology innovation will continue to disrupt industries and shift the landscape of jobs. Likely at an even faster pace than today. Students need to be ready to adapt.
Skills such as grit, empathy and gratitude can have a profound impact on a student entering the job market. I believe a student that displays grit and gratitude can figure out how to succeed in the job market, even in a role that may not be directly aligned to the cognitive skills they learned in school.
As an example, I graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Finance in 2009. One of the worst majors to have after the great financial collapse in 2008. My first job was as Operations Director for a startup online retailer. I was responsible for managing the warehouse and all aspects of logistics. I had no experience in logistics. I did not study it in school. And yet the noncognitive skills I developed throughout school (grit, empathy, confidence) empowered me to obtain and succeed in this role. I knew how to learn, and I had confidence that I could figure it out.
Today few curriculum allocate time for students to acquire knowledge blocks of noncognitive skills. How does a teacher teach topics such as "leadership", "grit" and "curiosity". What is the "2+2" equivalent knowledge block within grit? Often these topics are viewed as byproducts of a traditional curriculum or the responsibility of parents. A student that takes AP Calculus will develop grit as a byproduct of working hard and passing the AP exam. A parent will or should instill gratitude in their child.
And yet unlike all students learning "2+2" in school, not all students will have the opportunity to foster skills like grit and gratitude. A big challenge is establishing a baseline. What does it mean to pass or fail the topic of grit? What is the baseline? How much do we standardize what about grit is taught, versus giving teachers the flexibility to improvise? Is it a problem if what about grit is taught at one school is vastly different from another? Or is the biggest value just to make students aware that these are innate skills they can channel and develop? Just exposing them to these skills may spark their own interest in developing them?
Currently we leave it to chance that students will develop noncognitive skills while at school. Luck is the driving factor that places one student in a classroom with a passionate teacher focused on teaching these skills, versus a classroom where they are never mentioned. In order for all students to be able to develop noncognitive skills we must standardize a set of skills that all students should develop, establish a baseline for measuring them, and make them part of all school curriculums.