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On my way to work, Ep 12 – Your beliefs have power

Summary:

  • This is almost a boring, clichéed, cheesy idea these days, that your beliefs have power. But it’s a powerful idea.
  • Obviously beliefs don’t drive everything. If you get hit by a bus or run over by a train, no matter how much you may believe in your eventual success, you’re probably not going to make it. Luck drives our lives as well.
  • But beliefs drive actions, not just the actions you take but also the options you see.
  • If you see everything as black, pointless, your actions will reflect that. You’re going to create a world around you that is pointless, has no substance to it, etc.
  • If you believe that people are worthwhile, generous, worth putting energy into, that’ll drive your actions too. The world, people around you, respond to that.
  • If you want to have the greatest impact on the culture of the company (no matter where you are in that company) the highest point of leverage where you can make changes is yourself.
  • Like all good ideas, this is nothing new.
  • The point of this is just to realise that, quite the opposite from feeling powerless about the world around you, you have enormous power to shape the world around you by the beliefs you apply to it.
  • Another converse of that thought is the idea that if you do see the world as drab and featureless and full of blame and things that are trying to hurt you, it’s all inside of you. Maybe the world has done something that you perceived as a trigger, that you thought justified you in feeling a certain way, but in the end the bit you can choose, you have power over, is your reaction. This is mentioned in Seven Habits, via a therapist called Victor Frankl, who survived the death camps and even in that environment, realised that although he could not control the environment, he could control how he reacted to the environment he was in.
  • That’s a very inspiring thought: if you’re feeling bad, you have the power to shape your perception of the world, and that perception then shapes how the world actually is. Your thoughts, which you have enormous control over, change everything. You have the power.
  • Whatever you think, you can make happen. Whatever you want, you can be.
  • I’d also like to take a minute to rant against people who take this “Law of Attraction” to the extreme. Being hit by a bus will seriously impact your ability to “achieve your dreams”.
  • You can’t change everything about the world. No matter how much you believe you’re going to grow back a limb that you’ve lost, it’s not going to grow back. People who discover this Law of Attraction (and unfortunately that includes many writers), like the author of the Secret, or Think and Grow Rich, that they present it as the one idea that solves everything, perhaps as a sales trick.
  • That’s a terribly insulting perspective to have to all the people who are in truly dire situations and do not have the opportunities we have around us. When you use this idea, remember that some people do not have all these opportunities available to them.
  • Another inspiring idea: the world we live in is so full of opportunities that the Law of Attraction largely does work for us most of the time. Spare a moment for those for whom it doesn’t.

On my way to work, Ep 11 – Sleep is when you work with your eyes closed

Summary:

  • There’s a saying which I always find interesting: “Sleep is when you work with your eyes closed”.
  • Doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to work while you sleep. It means that while you sleep, there’s a lot of unconscious stuff that happens, connections that get made in your brain. Those connections that get made are very valuable to any business.
  • So to regard sleep or spending time with your kids as “not work” and the time at your desk as “work”, drawing that distinction, is a bit ridiculous when doing complex knowledge work.
  • But there’s a reverse side to that.
  • If you were to present this idea to executives in most companies, you’re going to get some assholes who will take that idea and try to create a culture of being at work all the time, always responding to emails, always available. Which totally misses the point: which is that you get those ideas when you’re not working, not thinking about work, thinking about other things.
  • Another side to that: if you want your people to be considering business ideas and thinking about them, and being willing to engage into that sort of thinking outside of working hours, that requires the right kind of mindset from people, and people won’t behave like that if you’re always pressuring them to think about work. So the side that many people wouldn’t be willing to accept, if you expect people to be willing to spend time outside of work thinking about work, then you can’t give them a hard time regarding what they’re thinking about while in the office.
  • You can’t have the expectation that your people are creative people who really care about their job and want to make a difference 24/7, and give them a hard time if they take a longer lunch break. The two are incompatible.

On my way to work, Ep 10 – Shares and ownership

Somehow I forgot to hit upload yesterday, so this is a day old. And today, after the Badminton yesterday, I had no energy to have any thoughts this morning, other than how much my muscles hurt! So nothing for today.

Summary:

  • Shares are an interesting thing. In the startup scene, it’s tempting to always give out shares to employees. In Silicon Valley, for example, you probably can’t get away with running a startup and not giving shares.
  • It’s important not to just copy this model and apply it outside. In SV, people have a clear understanding and belief that the business could be worth a billion dollars, and they feel motivated to work towards that objective and “get rich”. And there’s a chance they might be right.
  • Outside of SV, the thinking is that you want to make people feel empowered, that they’re owners of the business, etc. If they’re deep in the startup scene that may well work, though if they’re smart and skeptical they will see that the chances that this works are very slim. People will naturally be more skeptical of that “dream”.
  • So the goal of making people feel like they’re owners of the business is not so clearly achieved by giving out shares.
  • I’ve asked people at events, would they feel they’re owners of the business with 0.1% of the business? No one raised their hand. Same for 1%, 5%, 10%… it’s only at 20% that people start to feel they “own” the business. You can’t afford many employees at that rate!
  • Shares are treated as a shortcut to make people think they own the business, but doesn’t really work outside of SV.
  • But there are other methods. You can make people feel that they are in control of the business, that they are able to make decisions, etc, without giving them shares.
  • Instead of using the shares shortcut, focus on learning to build a company where people really do feel that it’s their business, via transparency, responsibility, open cultures, etc, then the shares can be a validation of that.

On my way to work, Ep 9 – Maturity

Summary:

  • Concept of company maturity.
  • Most founders, when they start a company, start it because they see some kind of economical opportunity, a way to make money for themselves, and a business is a sensible way to structure this.
  • As the opportunity grows, business grows, they will bring other people in, and structure the business accordingly – but at that point it’s still about making money for the founders/shareholders.
  • Such a strong idea, that it’s been enshrined in law in some parts of the world.
  • But there is another step to take: to think of the business not just as a money-making operation, but as something that has a life of its own.
  • Laloux mentions that if you really think of the company as a living organisation, the idea of “ownership” starts to feel alien.
  • Ownership is still relevant, but less clear, more ambiguous.
  • This is a transformation we’re going through in GrantTree at the moment.
  • GrantTree hasn’t been about making money for Paulina and I for quite a while now, but it’s starting to be more clear, more explicit, that this company needs to include all the people who work there in determining its direction. This can’t happen without the input of the people who will be driving it there.
  • This has been happening for example in a currently ongoing discussion in the company about what “fair pay” is.
  • In most small businesses, there is this huge tension between the owners/shareholders and the people running/working in the company. The owners are trying to minimise the pay, the people working there are trying to maximise it. This causes a never-ending tug-of-war.
  • If you look at the way more mature companies function, they should not be about a constant conflict between those two sides, but about everyone working together to try and figure out how we can make the most out of this business together.
  • Very difficult idea to get across. I probably still need to spend some time thinking about. I do find it fascinating though, so I thought I’d share it.
  • Do you have any thoughts, anything else you think I should talk about? Please let me know via Twitter, email or otherwise!

Female Founder Stories

Here’s a constructive addition to the “feminism in tech” issue – a sizeable collection of in-depth interviews of female founders, announced here by Jessica Livingston.

Some interesting extracts from the “Was being female either an advantage or disadvantage in working on your startup?” question:

Danielle Morill:

I know that I care a lot of about nurturing people and making them feel how important they are through care and thoughtfulness, and so I have worked very hard on things like HR and diversity early on. I’m hesitant to attribute that to my gender, though my inclination to be more nurturing might start there.

One big benefit of being female is that a lot more women apply to work for us. I’ve been told it is a relief not to be the first woman on a team. We have 6 women other than myself, 2 of them are in engineering and I believe we will hire many more. Women are still less than 10% of the total applicant pool for technical jobs, even with this “advantage”.

Even a startup founded by a single female founder has trouble hiring women. No surprise that others also struggle.

Adora Cheung:

It may be 2014 but people still make decisions with all sorts of biases, including gender and race.

There’s been a lot of speculation on how this affects fundraising. I’ve had both easy and tough times with this. It’s really hard to tease out if being female was part of it. I do think as your business gets really hot, if it did matter, it starts to matter much less.

Being female, I think I’m more cognizant of creating a work environment that’s inviting to all sorts of people. Homejoy certainly abides by the no-asshole policy and we’ve avoided the whole arrogant, bro-ish culture that Silicon Valley unfortunately has gotten to be known for. Part of new employee orientation is to clean at least one home, and so that probably self-filters out these types of people.

Ultimately, you shouldn’t have to deal with sexism or racism. While there’s movement to weed out these bad, mostly low tier players, it’ll be a while before all players get over their own subtle biases. However, it’s not something you, as a female entrepreneur building a company right this moment, can control and you certainly shouldn’t use this as a crutch or excuse for failure. If you have a great idea and work really, really hard, you will find good investors and good partners to work with. Together we can build a quorum, smash all biases once and for all, and prove that female founders can build and run great companies.

Katelyn Gleason:

I have a tendency to see everything through an optimistic lens, so I like to believe that being a young driven woman may have actually helped me in the YC interview process. It certainly helped me stand out. It continues to help me stand out when hiring, closing deals, and fundraising.

I’d like to add this TEDx talk from my wife and cofounder, Paulina Sygulska, to the discussion:

On my way to work, Ep 8 – Excuses

A very short episode, today, but the topic is not unimportant.

Summary:

  • When it comes to culture, it’s always possible to make excuses.
  • Like dieting, you can always find reasons to do or not to do something, research going both ways.
  • Much of it is driven by beliefs, but even the data can go both ways (see Douglas McGregor Theory X and Theory Y1).
  • So the most important factor in driving your culture is who you are and how much you grow personally.
  • Examples of excuses: transparency. There are many companies operating with total salary transparency. And yet despite that you will find very well meaning, experienced, connected, respectable people to tell you that it can’t possibly work, you’ll have trouble with it, etc.
  • The only way to get past all these people telling you what you’re doing is wrong, is to actually believe in the things you want to do, and give them a try anyway.
  • If you don’t believe in open culture, transparency, etc, you will find an endless series of excuses for why it can’t be implemented.
  • It takes a fairly large amount of self-belief to ignore these excuses and power on. For that to work, you have to actually believe in what you’re preaching.

  1. The key insight of which is not a comparison of Theory X and Theory Y, but the striking realisation that whatever set of assumptions you start with, will drive the kind of data you find – i.e. you will find data to support your assumptions when it comes to how people work, so choosing your assumptions is more important than gathering data to confirm/deny those assumptions!

On my way to work, Ep 7 – Why and how

On my way to work, Ep 6 – Sources of advice

In which I examine the different places where you can get advice about culture, and how they compare. Note to self: be more upbeat/energetic. May involve additional coffee, or perhaps transcranial Direct Current Stimulation.

Work and life, balance and imbalance

What does work/life balance mean to you? Most likely, it means something different to what it means to me.

There are many ways to define work and life, and the balance between the two, but I’m going to focus on two, that I’ll label, ungenerously to one of them, the “old way” and the “new way”1.

The old way

In the old way, work and life are clearly distinct, as night and day. Work is a curse (sometimes biblical), the time you spend toiling and sweating and bleeding to earn a living, and life is a blessing, the thing you work for, which must be distinct from work and much better than work, to justify all the toiling and sweating and bleeding.

You work (an activity that by definition you do not enjoy most of the time) to earn money, that you then spend on things that you do enjoy, during your “life” time. The work is an unfortunate necessity, something that you would avoid if you could. The ideal life is the infinite holiday. If you had millions of dollars instead of thousands, in this mental framework, you would probably go on an extended holiday, until you’re either ruined by unfortunate circumstances or you die.

This is still the dominant paradigm, and one that drives most of our discussions of work/life balance. In fact, the very term “work/life balance” implies belief in this old way of defining work and life. Whenever you say “work/life balance”, you imply to your subconscious that you believe in these two concepts of work and life and their contrast and the need to balance them.

How to balance them? Well, with the definition of work as something unpleasant and life as something pleasant, obviously work should be minimised and life maximised. So we have fixed working hours, 40 hours a week, then 35, then 30. We scrupulously “leave our work behind” when we go home. We take holidays where we make sure to disconnect. We look at people who work longer hours, take their work home and work on holiday as workaholics – a clearly, obviously pejorative term. Something to be avoided.

The new way

The new way of talking about work and life is from the point of view of passionate people doing work they care about deeply. The traditional view here is that only artists and vocational people like charity workers, priests or doctors can do that, but today’s reality is that many people engaged in a wide range of jobs can and do feel passionate about their work, and find personal accomplishment and fulfilment in them.

One obvious case of the passionate worker is the entrepreneur, but they are rare so let’s leave them aside. Another is people who work in open cultures, or at least in jobs that somehow have some mysterious characteristics like a sense of purpose and challenge and autonomy.

People in these kinds of jobs can frequently feel they are in an awkward place, because they feel that they enjoy working hard, but then the “old way” of thinking tells them that they’re working too hard. Adopting the language of the old way, they might end up “realising” that they’re workaholics and try to cut back, or go on holiday and deliberately disconnect from everything to try and recover some “work/life balance”.

The sad thing about this is that it is wrong and actually makes the passionate person’s life worse, not better. Being passionate about your work is not a curse, it’s a blessing. We can argue all year long about what the meaning of life is, and each person can and needs to come up with their own answer, but there is no argument that achieving a state of flow is a desirable thing. Being passionate about your work leads to being in a state of flow more often.

How tragic, then, when definitions imagined by people who worked in a state of pain rise up out of your subconscious to say, effectively, “hey, you shouldn’t spend that much time in a state of flow, you’re a workaholic with no work/life balance!” An exaggerated view of that is akin to interrupting Leonardo in the middle of painting the Mona Lisa to tell him he’s done his eight hours and needs to go home now.2

This conflict between working according to the new way but letting your thinking err along the old way is not helpful, and in my opinion should be avoided. I propose a new way of thinking about work/life balance, in terms of stages of work, with a clear, opinionated scale from worse to better. Each stage has different ways of thinking about work/life balance.

The new ladder of work

Level 1: Slavery

Level 1 - Slavery

Level 1 – Slavery

On the bottom of the ladder, I would like to put slavery – by which I do not mean wage slavery, but actual, real slavery. There is still an awful lot of this in the world. Some countries still have institutionalised slavery, and some high-profile international organisations do not bat an eyelid at using slavery to serve their goals, and most of humanity through most of history has operated at this level, sadly. As a slave with no control over your life, we can perhaps miraculously lift ourselves up to a higher level (like Joseph in the Biblical story), but most, by far, will not. The concept of work/life balance is irrelevant here: we have no life as a slave, our life belongs to our master.

Level 2: Survival

Level 2 - Survival

Level 2 – Survival

One level above, I would put the type of work that one does to ensure survival (of oneself or of one’s family). Throughout the industrial revolution, and still in many countries in Asia in industries such as textiles or manufacturing, much of the work is at this level. This is barely above slavery, the only difference being that we have a notional choice of working under equally bad conditions somewhere else. Work/life balance as a concept becomes theoretically important but is mostly out of our reach. We work (serve the curse) as much as we humanly can, and the rest of the time is a temporary interval between stretches of work. Much of the social progress of the industrial revolution was aimed at allowing people working at this level to live humane lives, and lifted much of the western world’s population to at least level 3.

Level 3: Balance

Level 3 - Balance

Level 3 – Balance

This is the level where the concept of work/life balance really has full meaning, and where most people are operating. In this perspective, work is undesirable but not oppressive. We have choice, so long as the economy is doing alright and our skills are in demand. We can choose to work reasonable working hours. We have control over the line between work and life. This is the old way done right. In this context, the concept of work/life balance is a good thing and it is important to balance the two, to stay in control of where that line shifts.

Level 4: Acceleration

Level 4 - Acceleration

Level 4 – Acceleration

Some fortunate people operating at level 3 may find that some aspects of their jobs are more engaging than others, and get caught up in those aspects from time to time. Another way to put it is that we may have work that is largely undesirable, that would not be worth doing if we weren’t paid for it, but there are some aspects of that work that put us in a state of flow, where we lose track of time and find ourselves working till silly hours or thinking about work on holiday, etc. This is where the level 3 way of thinking holds us back, by suggesting that this is a symptom of an out of control work/life balance. At this stage, the concept of work/life balance still makes sense overall, but it starts to lose its usefulness, and I think this is the stage where we must be careful not to let it hold us back from progressing to level 5.

Because at level 4, we start to get a glimpse of what life could be at level 5, since we begin to find out which activities are both productive (i.e. things society rewards with money) and put us in a state of flow (i.e. things we deeply enjoy doing for their own sake).

Level 5: Flow

Level 5 - Flow

Level 5 – Flow

Once we discover which activities we can do, which put us in a state of flow but are rewarded by society (i.e. are paid well enough), we have the option to start rebuilding our work (or finding another job or career) where we can spend most of our time doing the things we love and are passionate about. Of course, there are always going to be some unpleasant bits to any job, but because we see the bigger picture of what we’re doing (flow is impossible without a sense of purpose), we handle them without much effort, to get back to the bits we enjoy.

At this level, work/life balance makes no sense whatsoever. You wouldn’t put a time limit on flow any more than you’d put a time limit on any other enjoyable activity. Keep doing it as long as it’s fun! When it’s no longer fun, switch to another fun and productive thing. And so on, endlessly.

I don’t think it is possible to reach this level without letting go of the concept of work opposed to life, prevalent in level 3 thinking. A career/life where you spend most of your time in a state of flow is highly desirable, but it is not one we can reach while we meter out our efforts and keep thinking of work as something to be avoided.

A symptom of this state, in my opinion, is that we are constantly working: at home, during hobbies, on holiday, even while asleep! But much of that work is subconscious, thinking about how to do things even better or which things to do, rather than sitting down in front of a computer and “working”. The work is then just the natural outlet of the thinking, much like an artist’s work.

Whilst the shift from level 3 to 4 can happen accidentally without intention, the shift to level 5 only occurs if we really seek out this new way of working, which is why it’s important to embrace it rather than fight it.

Some final notes

There are a million objections to the ideas above. Some obvious ones are “what about if I have children?” or “what if my job sucks? no one could possibly enjoy my job!”. I believe that a careful reading of the article combined with some thinking will present answers to those objections though. Have a think before you disagree.

In conclusion

Life and work need not and should not be in opposition. When they are in harmony, both get better. But if you let the oppositional thinking of work vs life drive your thinking, it will impair your ability to progress from level 3 to level 5.

Don’t let old assumptions determine how you live your life today. Think for yourself about what makes sense for you.


  1. Obviously, this is an artificial dichotomy and there is a whole continuum of definitions between the two, and there are of course other dimensions to the definition that I’m not exploring here! But for the sake of argument…

  2. Another historical distortion is the concept that to matter in this way, work must be of great cultural or societal import. Actually, to put you in that same state of flow, work must simply matter greatly to you personally.

On my way to work, Ep 5 – Distortions and intrinsic motivation

The book mentioned in this episode is:

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