It all begins with a question

Context: A key part of designing products is understanding the competitive landscape. In this context, our work conversations focus on companies, their strategies and how they’re trading off growth versus profitability, research and development versus cashing-in etc.

The aspect of the conversation I find most interesting is the application of clever models to assess and express the growth and success of organizations. This is in sharp contrast to conversations I have about personal development with friends and colleagues. My observation is that more people are like driftwood than motor boats when it comes to taking charge of who they are and where they end up.

At the end of the day, companies are nothing more than collections of individuals with strategies and shared goals. Many of the models we apply to them have relevance to us as individuals. I’ll share some that have worked well for me – these are derivations of BCG’s growth/share matrix and graph theory.

To be or what to be?

At birth, we’re essentially cute, bald, giggly Question Marks. No one including us knows our potential, our preferences, our abilities or our outcomes. The market we will compete in holds infinite possibility and it’s anyone’s guess how much of it we will claim as ours. Our parents’ and community’s general aversion to Question Marks leads to some default answers (much like a pre-filled form) – Religion: X, Cultural identity: Y, Aspirational Career: Engineer/Doctor/Other, Life Goals: Marriage, Two Kids, House, Car etc., Moral Values: 1,2,3. Innate Abilities: 4,5,6.

If we’re lucky, we identify the temporary nature of these answers early on in life and begin our unique journey of defining and achieving success along all dimensions. It’s a hard path and one most people will shy away from in some if not most aspects of their lives. This is not a judgment but an observation.

Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star

Some of us choose to invest Time (the only currency of real value) in turning these Question Marks into Rising Stars. In doing so we turn amorphous possibility into probable outcomes and real potential.

First, and most important, only focus on turning one or two aspects of your life into Rising Stars at any given time. It takes a lot of effort to produce a Rising Star and investing in too many areas can lead to burn out and poor results. In my teen years, I took on Intellect and Cultural Identity as the areas I would invest deeply in. In my twenties, it was Spirituality and Moral Values. Now, in my thirties, I am taking on Career and Relationships (including Relationship-with-Self).

For any of these, the journey begins by shunning the notion of having an answer. You don’t. This is easier said than done since the answer is often something we deeply identify with.

Next, try different things on. This equates to the Research Phase of any project at a company. And just like any research project, expect mainstream community to speculate your motives and express distrust in your mission. Also, as much as I would like to tell you (and myself) that theorizing on your couch will get you to the answer that’s right for you, it won’t. It is only through complete immersion that you will experientially know what works for you. For instance, when I was invested in Intellect, I tried on literature, physics, biology, computer science, psychology, analytical experiments, creative experiments, social experiments to finally figure out what fit me perfectly. I hope you realize that this was the easiest example – now try this thought experiment with an area like Moral Values or Spirituality and everything just got a hundred times harder 🙂 I guarantee sleepless nights and existential angst. However the You that ultimately emerges is 100% your best and truest self.

Once you’ve identified the answer that fits, go all-in. You’re now in the Development Phase of the project. Define what success looks like. Surround yourself with people who have achieved excellence in this area already to help you get clear in your definition of success. Learn through observation (much like competitive analysis for product lines), exercise curiosity, be prepared to fail & bounce back and rinse & repeat until diminishing returns for learning set in. It is important to keep criticism at bay during this phase. Nothing is a failure. I am often pained by team members who make radical shifts in their roles (because they want to invest in a new aspect of their careers or learn new skills) yet not exercise the patience and curiosity required to achieve the very thing they’ve set out to accomplish – learning! I am guilty of the same mistake and there’s no way to avoid it. However it is possible to build awareness and course-correct when you catch yourself.

Through focus, structured hard work, a strong feedback loop and extensive time investment (sorry, no short cuts), you will gain mastery and that’s when your light will become an inviolable truth for others. Skepticism will be replaced with blind faith and trust. You’re now ready to leverage the asset you have built within yourself and milk it for all it’s worth!

Happy Cows come from Stars!

In our story, Stars grow up to become Cows. If you’ve ever tried milking a real cow (another story for another time :)), you’ll know that it’s not an easy task. It requires strategic thinking – placement, timing, rapport are all critical. This is also true for our metaphorical cow. Be purposeful about maximizing return. Choose an environment that will play to your strengths, negotiate hard and don’t settle for less. Fully internalize your worth and play your hand. This requires a surprising level of courage. When I was offered a job at Microsoft and decided to move to the US for it, I milked the Intellect I had built over the previous decade. It seems like an obvious choice yet it was one of the hardest ones of my life. I could have opted for a significantly less successful Cow phase by picking a less meaningful job in my home town. Competing desires and self-doubt blocked the path and it took tremendous discipline to step out of my way and get on the ride I’d been preparing for since childhood. It was only years later that I was able to connect the dots and realize that milking the Intellect Cow set me up to invest in many more Rising Stars within myself.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

And then there are aspects of our lives that just don’t seem as pressing or meaningful. For many of my friends Spirituality is one of them. It has little to no impact on their lives. Sadly though, whenever I bring it up (since it is a Cash Cow for me), it seems to trigger self-reproaching in my friends i.e. “I really should meditate”, “I really should think more about this”. There are very few Shoulds in life. If some aspect of your life seems obviously lacking in luster and you are worse off because of it, make it a Question Mark and start investing in it with the goal of turning it into a Rising Star.  Or divest completely and let this Sleeping Dog lie. It’s when you carry the guilt around and don’t act on it that you’re hemorrhaging energy and mind-share to something you don’t care for to begin with.

Life is a Step-Function

Finally, I’ve found life to be non-linear and non-continuous. There’s no elevator or gentle slope to the next level. It’s stairs all the way!

Try to remember your experience of learning how to ride a bike. I distinctly recall trying as hard as I could and yet always ending up in the same rose bush. Fifty nine times, same result. The sixtieth time, I miraculously rode my bike right by the rose bush and didn’t fall in. I have never fallen into a rose bush since then (at least not on a bike).

Growth in any aspect of life follows a similar pattern (i.e. a step function). It takes a lot of up-front investment (without any outwardly gain) and is followed by a spurt of vertical growth. Be patient and kind with yourself during the period of drudgery and celebrate the spurt when it happens.

So my dears, what are the Question Marks in your life?

2 thoughts on “It all begins with a question

  1. Mona – very well thought through and presented. Kudos; you have flair! I hope you keep it up. I have wanted to write for a while, and this inspires me.

    One thing I couldn’t agree more with is your statement “there are very few shoulds in life”. It takes a while to learn and accept that your life is your a sum of your choices. As Viktor Frankl said – “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response”

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