Wednesday, August 25, 2010

HBR: Measuring One's Life

It is difficult to resist an article that is titled "How will you measure your Life?" Especially if the writer is a Harvard Business School professor. In addressing the class of 2010, Prof. Christensen lays down three important questions and proceeds to logically tackle them one by one.

[...] To find cogent answers to three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?
I especially liked his "allocation of resources" section, where he suggests that we think about using our limited resources (personal time and energy) to shape our life strategy. This is where I repeatedly slip up – by spending way too much time on things of little import.

Because of the author's faith, the article has undertones of religion. But for those of us who consider ourselves secular, the message is still the same. Overall, well worth reading and passing on to others.

Related Posts:

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Movie: A Map for Saturday

My wife was already standing in the checkout line at the public library and I still hadn't picked up any movies. I ran over to the Travel section, where the DVD cover of A Map for Saturday caught my eye. The blurb said something about a guy who takes off for a year around the world. I grabbed that and a couple of other travel movies. (It is almost tempting to believe that books and movie choose me, just as much as I seek them out.)

So the next morning, after my wife left (she's taken up a short-term contract assignment) and I was alone in the hotel, I popped the movie into the DVD player.

Even before the initial montage ended, I was completely hooked. And in five minutes, I was feeling really guilty. I knew my wife would really enjoy the movie too, so I stopped it. (I watched a movie about the Silk Road instead.)

That same evening, after dinner, we both watched A Map for Saturday. The title is based on the idea that 'on a trip around the world, every day feels like Saturday.'

Brook is a 25 year old who decides to give up his job in NYC and a successful future as a TV producer to hit the road. And he takes his camera along. He stays in hostels from Sydney to Bangkok to Europe to Rio. And he is really good at interviewing people, making them open up. The result makes for a compelling and at times mesmerizing documentary.

When I mention this movie about taking a year off to others, their first reaction is "Oh, I could never do anything like that." Which is precisely why they should watch this movie. To expand our horizons, and to learn how others think.

The movie reminds us of the dreams that we all squelched in order to fit in. It tells us that we owe it to ourselves to give at least one honest shot at pursuing our dreams.

The finished product is great and professionally edited. But since I have the time these days, I also watched all the deleted scenes. And the interviews and the DVD extras. Those are a little more raw, but people are less guarded and therefore extremely candid, which makes them very insightful for us viewers.

Brook captures the loneliness of the long-time traveler wonderfully well. If you love travel, have dreamed of taking time off, want to know what the joys and sorrows and longings of slow travel are, go and get this movie. (It should be mandatory viewing for all backpacker-wannabes.)

Get it from your local library, or through Netflix, but be sure to view it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Delayed or Instant?

"Instant gratification" might have been given a bad rap a little unfairly.

The question of when to take time out for enjoying life seems a very important one, and yet I don’t think that a whole lot has been written about it. (Or at least, I haven't come across that.)

My middle class roots dictate the collective script I must follow. Be a diligent employee, work hard, save scrupulously and retire at around 65. And you will be assured of a very comfortable life thereafter.

Which is exactly what my father did. He worked all his life to attain financial freedom. And just a few years after that, he has lost much of his physical freedom. I see how enfeebled he is these days.

And I have inherited his genes. I have a dozen good years, maybe two dozen if I am very lucky, until my physique too, gives out.

Which is why the question seems so important to me for each one of us to ponder seriously: Do you cash-in whatever chips you have, or do you sit at the table a little longer?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Checklists for productivity

What can one learn about simple checklists? Especially someone like me who routinely uses checklists, various other lists and even lists of lists (to keep track of new lists).

I had plenty to learn, as it turned out. I read Atul Gawande's book "The Checklist Manifesto" recently and had a number of takeaways. As might befit a surgeon his writing is logical and lucid. He is a good story-teller who takes us into the world of operating theaters, skyscraper construction and aviation history to show us how modern checklists have evolved. Perhaps with the confidence that comes from being a world-class surgeon, he isn't afraid to share his own doubts and misgivings, and that makes the whole book a great read.

Takeaways: For me, the biggest revelation was the importance of the communication checklist. These are used in large construction projects about who will talk to whom. In addition to the familiar checklist for tasks, they have another checklist to ensure that communication steps haven't been missed. This could be invaluable in any setting where groups of people work together as team.

And on a personal level, every chapter in the book reminded me of the need for personal discipline in getting things done. Those who go to work daily have a structure imposed on them. The rest of us have to figure it out ourselves. There are days when I am very productive, and days that I feel I wasted. And the difference is discipline. And in that, I believe, checklists can be a big help.

Monday, August 16, 2010

All or Nothing players

Perhaps I have grown cynical over time.

In our increasingly complex world, the prudent thing to do is to play it safe, to become part of big teams, and to not place too much faith in one-person attempts where the main ingredient they bring to the table is passion.

Which is also perhaps why stories like Santhosh Ostwal's resonate. They make us recalibrate our jaded world views.

It is heart-warming to read about someone like Santosh, who bet his whole life and everything else on solving one problem, and who does in fact end up solving the problem and deservedly getting the kudos.

Here is one guy, who managed to tweak and adapt cellphones to trigger irrigation pumps remotely. His home-brewed solution actually works and is making a difference to 1000s of people.

Read the full article here in the Economist magazine.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lessons from conducting a free chess camp

After years of dreaming about offering free chess or juggling camps for little kids, I finally acted on it a couple of days ago. I offered a free chess camp for kids aged 5 to 10, and quite a few showed up.

Like everything in life, it was a fortuitous confluence of factors that made it happen. We had come down to Richmond Va. to visit my brother-in-law. He has a vast circle of friends, my nephew (age 6) was interested in chess, it was summer and my brother-in-law took my offhand suggestion seriously and actually ran with it.

He composed and sent out an email to his friends (who forwarded it to their friends). On Tuesday, we had decided to hold a chess camp on Wednesday. By that evening a few kids had signed up. We eventually had 12 children attending our 4-hour afternoon "chess camp."

Here are my observations/lessons about camps, chess or otherwise.

Chess related lessons that I learned 1. For most little kids, four hours is way too much time to focus on chess. (I will shorten it the next time.)
2. Children have very little patience for chess theory or ideas. They just want to start playing as soon as they learn the moves.
3. They just love to attack the opponent's king and take enormous pride in shouting check. I wasn’t able to convince them to stop giving checks and doing something else to improve their game.
4. The age group was probably not right, but they had no interest in learning endgame or checkmating patterns. They only wanted to play full games, preferably with kids they could beat easily.

General Lessons regarding holding 'Camps"
1. There is a lot of joy in offering free camps/workshops. (I am pretty sure that if we had charged even a nominal fee, only a fraction of the kids would have showed up.)
2. I had underestimated the amount of work involved in keeping 12 kids occupied, productive and well-behaved. (A nod to kindergarten teachers and parents (esp. moms) here. If I didn't have 2 other adults helping me, it would have been chaos. It is so much easier managing grown children, I now feel. But what do I know?)
3. Kids love to shout out answers to really simple questions. (I will modify my material to throw in a lot more spot quizzes, to give them the joy of being right often.)
4. There is an unbelievably large amount of material and videos available on the web for any topic. With just a few hours of research on the web, lots and lots of material for "camps" can be created.
5. In order to teach kids under (say) age 10, you don’t have to be an expert at anything. In fact, I think knowing a lot of theory might actually hinder being a good teacher/coach.
6. Each and every person reading this can offer at least half a dozen free camps that little kids can benefit from. The trick is in finding the time and making the logistics work. I am so glad I started, because it feels easier once you have taken a small step. (I will be glad to offer camps in any city I visit, as long as there are takers and a couple of parents help out with the logistics.)