Self-awareness

I’ve been struggling with something for a long time — how to be honest with myself about my shortcomings and how to overcome them.

For me at least, it’s been incredibly difficult and at times impossible. I’ve come to believe that there is something deeply rooted inside the human psyche that refuses to completely accept that we are imperfect.

Of course this isn’t always unwanted. If we didn’t have a certain amount of pure egotistical madness, how else would we attempt our dreams? The real trick is to figure out what parts you’ll need help with in order to get there instead of blindly believing we can do it all.

This is probably why most investors prefer startups with co-founders as opposed to those with a single founder. You need someone with a very high level of self-awareness to be able to tackle challenges on their own. I suspect that those individuals are fairly rare.

5 before 5

I want to start the new year off by reminding myself of one of the most beautiful teachings in Islam — one that has wider significance for everyone.

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Take benefit of five before five: your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free-time before your preoccupation, and your life before your death.” (Hakim)

Stop giving bullshit advice

I’ve heard plenty of terrible ideas, and I’ve also heard plenty of great ideas that are doomed to failure because it’s obvious that the person presenting the idea is incapable of seeing it through to fruition. In either case, I think it’s my duty — as a friend, a colleague, or in whatever capacity — to be honest without being a dick. It can be a fine line.

People are always going to be seeking validation, and I think you have to accept that as given. Some measure of “Do you approve of what I’m doing?” is always going to be baked into these sorts of conversations. Some folks ask it outright; others merely dance around it or imply it. Either way, politely acknowledge it and then move onto the practical advice.

To that end, I think practical advice can be given. The trick is not giving unverifiable advice on the viability of the concept, but rather, teasing out how well the presenter has thought things through. It’s not about poking holes for the sake of poking holes, but about challenging the person to think about all sides and ramifications of the problem he or she is trying to address.

Some of the best advice I’ve ever received on startups came in the form of what, at the time, I’d considered pushback from would-be investors, friends, or mentors. It took some healthy distance from the ideation/pitch phase in order to receive the wisdom for what it really was. At the time, man oh man, I hated hearing it. But in retrospect, I am glad I did. Some very smart people saved me from some very stupid moves, and I owe them my eternal gratitude.

Being Exceptional

One of the greatest insights I’ve taken out of the last few years is to discard this idea of sacrificing today for tomorrow.

Sure, there’s always a bit of give and take, but my conclusion is that successful ventures come out of successful people. That may seem like a flat statement at first, but what it means is that if you really want your venture to be successful, you also need to take up the daily habits, behaviours, modes of thinking, etc, that will make you a successful person. The success of your venture will then emerge out of that, rather than the other way around.

If you do what you need to make sure that you’re a happy, healthy, pleasant individual, your venture will do better as a result.

To put it in simpler terms, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, etc – were exceptional people before they started their businesses. They didn’t become exceptional because of their businesses – their businesses were exceptional because of them.

P.S. This is my first post written and published from the awesome WordPress iPhone app.

Praising effort over intelligence

Researchers from Columbia University conducted a study to understand the effect of praise on children. The researchers randomly selected students from schools throughout New York and gave them a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles easy enough that all children would do fairly well. Upon finishing the puzzles, each student was given a single line of praise — some praised for their intelligence (“you must be smart at this“) and some praised for their effort (“you must have worked really hard“).

The students were then given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores what makes a person successful and asks the question, “Why do some talented people flame out early while others go on to brilliant careers?

Malcolm’s main premise is, “Success doesn’t have much to do with talent. It’s almost always a product of hard work and the culture of which we live our lives.

But I think Malcolm is really describing the development of genius and how the environment/culture either encourages or discourages people from focusing on a certain areas or ideas. Go the wrong way and you miss developing into your true potential.

From my perspective, genius is not so much measured by IQ, although a high IQ helps, but genius can be measured by how rare and valuable your perspective is and how effectively you see patterns and make associations or connections among disparate ideas.

Developing these rare or unique perspectives usually takes deliberate and devoted focus on something (like when Malcolm talks about the 10,000-hour rule).

Einstein wasn’t a genius because he was most skilled in math. Einstein became a genius because he relentlessly explored a problem, following it out farther than anyone had taken it before. This allowed him to see connections that no one had seen before, and these connections/discoveries were valuable to humanity.

So yes, praise people for their effort — it’s one of the requisite components of genius.

On happiness

The scariest thing about being happy is how much of our everyday lives turn into meaningless pile of deprecated trade-offs.

Things that you thought meant something for you actually don’t. Things that you thought you’d keep for life actually turn out to be nonimportant. People you considered close were just vehicles for you: you gave them that love you didn’t know how to give to yourself. And finally, things that you so cunningly shielded from your gaze for years begin to pop up and become unavoidable challenges.

That is because you can only be happy when you do things for the right reasons. Otherwise you just think you’re happy and yet you spend your time trying to fill in gaps in yourself and your life, gaps that you don’t know how to love. In other words, you’re sitting on the passenger’s seat yourself and letting what you think other people will think of you drive your life.

Go stand in front of a mirror and ask yourself if you’re happy. Are you so happy that you wouldn’t want to change anything in your life? Are you so happy that while you might certainly want to change some things you would still be perfectly content should those things actually never change? Ask yourself if there’s some part of yourself that you don’t love one hundred percent? Ask yourself if you see too much fat, a body too skinny, or a person too unpopular and rejected, or someone who can’t steer away from too many bad habits? Or do you see a person with weaknesses yet completely accept him/her just the way he/she is?

I’m not entirely happy myself but there have been, and there are, occasional moments when I am 100% happy.

It’s those moments when I wouldn’t replace a single bit of myself, whether it’s hemorrhoids, feelings of guilt, or the history of how I’ve lived.

Network thinking

Some while ago I read a book that demonstrated something about how different people think. The book showed that at least 90% of people, when working out a problem, would create a list, with indents and subindents, etc. This was true even if the native language was Arabic or some other non-English alphabet. Same format.

A much smaller group created notesheets that wandered in circles, included pictures and arrows, and generally looked like total disarray. Michaelangelo was among that group.

I see that real network thinking is a process of bringing in information from apparently random sources to re-organize it in a new way to create a new entity — solution, poetry, piece of art, invention, whatever. Not all people think in this way.

But I believe that this thought process can end up looking like genius when it has access to enough dots to connect, so that finally, the connected dots make sense and innovation happens.