Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist

One step at a time

February 10th, 2015

I was helping an entrepreneur friend with his investor pitch last week, and something was bugging me – the pitch didn’t feel right, even though I think the idea is good. He is passionate about how to run a company, so he was describing his philosophy of management in the pitch. And I realized that the issue I had with the pitch was that he was getting into the details of running the company before he had even gotten the investor on board. He was forgetting that pitching is selling – his job in the pitch is to get the audience interested in investing.

In any sales pitch, it is important to treat the process as a series of incremental steps. If you skip steps, you make it harder to close the deal. In my friend’s case, he was talking about running the company before he had convinced the investor that his idea would make a viable company. It would be like talking about how one would raise kids together on a first date, or telling a recruiter how you would change the job on your first phone screen. It was too soon to get into that.

So let’s talk about the steps of a few processes. I’ve already described how I see job hunting in my post on writing resumes: the resume gets you the phone screen, the phone screen gets you the in-person interview, the interview is what gets you the job. You need to tune each step to get you to the next step – the resume is not to get you the job, but to interest the hiring manager in talking to you on the phone.

Similarly in an investor pitch, the prospectus gets you 10 minutes with an investor, but even that 10 minutes is not really 10 minutes. If you haven’t caught their attention in the first 30 seconds, they’re often already checking out. The first 30 seconds earns you another 2 minutes of attention and those 2 minutes earns you their attention for the full 10 minutes. In other words, get to the point immediately. I tell people that any pitch needs to start off with three components: who the user is, the problem that user is facing, and why they will pay you money to solve it – telling a personalized story is an effective way to do that in that first 30 seconds. I’ve seen too many pitches where the presenter takes 10 minutes to get to their idea, and by that point, the audience has long lost interest. Earn the audience’s attention quickly or you lose them forever.

Speaking of forever, part of what tripped me up about dating for the longest time is that I would treat every first date as beginning a relationship that could lead to marriage and a life together, making every first date tremendously stressful. I cured myself of that in 2013 by going on lots of dates and realizing that the goal of a first date is to determine if there is the potential for a second date. That’s it. By just focusing on the immediate next step, the entire process was less stressful. Admittedly, my single status probably means I shouldn’t be giving dating advice, but whatever.

I think this approach to sales is generally applicable to life; all too often, we have ambitious goals that seem too intimidating to attempt. But the way to achieve them is to break them down into a set of incremental steps and then start doing one step at a time. I talked about this in my post on challenging oneself with regard to biking and working up to signing up for the Death Ride. I couldn’t wake up in July and just go do the Death Ride, the same way my friend can’t expect somebody to invest in his company on first contact. You have to map out the necessary steps to get to the goal, and go through each one, rather than trying to skip to the end.

Admittedly, there is no guarantee of success even if one follows each step. And some people are in the fortunate position to be able to accelerate through or even skip steps due to accumulated advantages. But the process of breaking down larger processes into steps and thinking of the goals for each step was a useful framing for me, so I thought I would share.

Setting the context

January 30th, 2015

Sometimes I wonder about the value of what I do at Google 1. In the search ads organization where I work, there are hundreds of people building new features and products. And then there’s me wandering around, looking at big picture business metrics, and thinking about long-term trends and how they might affect Google. I’m not developing product ideas, I’m not writing difficult code, I’m not doing sophisticated statistical analyses. I don’t produce anything tangible, other than a couple decks with observations on the business.

And then I have a meeting like the one I had yesterday with the metrics team. This is a team of PhD statisticians that does amazing quantitative analyses of our ad systems – I can’t even understand the one-page summaries of their analyses. But their director invited me to their team meeting to share my thoughts on what’s going on with Google’s business as they brainstorm about their planned analyses for 2015. And they were all super engaged and excited to get my big-picture view on Google and how it fits into the business ecosystem – several members of the team stopped me today in the hall and told me they really enjoyed my talk and then asked me more questions.

One of them asked a great question at the end of the meeting yesterday – he noted that I had given them this 30,000 foot view of the business, and then he has his 10 foot view of the business in his day-to-day work, and he asked how we could do a better job of connecting those. Understanding the big picture doesn’t add value unless it translates into day-to-day work in the form of new products and features. And that’s one of my ongoing challenges with being a generalist – I struggle to translate my viewpoint into action (as I discussed in my understanders vs. fixers post).

But one thing I’ve realized over the past few years is that by talking about the big picture repeatedly, I am helping to set the context for the people doing the work. When they make decisions in their day-to-day work, maybe they make different decisions because they have heard the big-picture story I told. They might prioritize things differently – the engineer might implement a feature differently because they know better how their code fits into the larger system. In the ideal case, different results start to happen because of the stories I tell, even though I myself don’t do any of the work; for instance, the metrics team I talked to will be thinking about how their analyses can answer some of the big questions the business is facing in 2015.

This is the value I feel I bring to a team at work. By helping to set the context, I hope to make everybody on the team more productive. This is also the role that managers and leaders play in an organization – it’s why companies have all hands meetings and the like. Getting everybody onto the same page and focused on the same problems is one of the biggest challenges of an organization, and figuring out more scalable ways of creating that alignment is one of the questions I’m most interested in these days.


  1. To be clear, my manager values the work I do at Google – I just sometimes question myself

2014 Year in Review

December 31st, 2014

After 2013 was the Year of Yes for me, I would characterize 2014 as the Year of More. I didn’t start any new activities in 2014, and instead did a lot more of what I was already doing.

Job: I am still in the same job as last year (Chief of Staff to Product VP of AdWords at Google), and have an ever-growing set of responsibilities, including presenting a comprehensive set of business metrics to the SVP twice a quarter, being the point of contact for regular updates on the search ads business to the rest of Google (including Board of Director updates, investor relations updates, etc), thinking about the 3-5 year strategy for search ads, and doing revenue analyses and business modeling as needed.

Generalisting: As mentioned in my recent Generalist is In post, I’ve been expanding my work with the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, and trying to be a useful sounding board for friends and colleagues with their business and strategy challenges. I also restarted SF Salons as suggested in last year’s post, and had several enjoyable evenings out discussing ideas with friends. I also joined a design/business book club, which has met twice so far.

Singing: I continue to sing with the Collage Vocal Ensemble, with the highlight of the year being my solo in this PDQ Bach piece, which begins at 2:22.

Skiing in BaldfaceSkiing: I went all-in with skiing this year – since there was minimal snow in Tahoe this past winter, my ski house crew did two international skiing trips, one to Niseko in Japan, including my first helicopter ski day, 3 days of touristing in Tokyo and a day in Kyoto, and one to Baldface, a cat skiing lodge in British Columbia (pictured right). This sparked my interest in backcountry skiing, so I bought all the gear this summer, and took an intro to backcountry skiing and an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche course with Richard Bothwell of the Outdoor Adventure Club in Lassen National Park the past two weekends, which was awesome. I’m excited to start doing my own backcountry trips this winter!

Moab ridingBiking: I also went all-in with biking this year – I went on 53 bike rides for 2000 miles and 165,000 vertical feet in 2014 (Strava captures most of it) (up from 22 rides for 622 miles and 26k vertical feet in 2013), and that doesn’t count the 172 times I bike commuted to work (another 850 miles or so). The highlight of the year was doing a mountain bike tour from Durango, CO to Moab, UT, via a hut-to-hut system run by San Juan Huts, about 222 miles and 22k vertical feet of climbing over 7 days of riding (not included in Strava). The scenery was amazing and it was really satisfying to travel on human power alone. Levi's Gran FondoAfter I got back from that, I finished off the year by doing two centuries, the Marin Century and Levi’s Gran Fondo and am aiming for the Death Ride next July. Other biking highlights from 2014 include bike camping on Angel Island, and my first mountain biking experiences in Tahoe (Memorial Day and the Flume Trail and Hole in the Ground trail in September).

Other stuff:

  • I got more into volleyball, playing 58 times in 2014 compared to 35 times in 2013. I have been playing with the same set of guys for a year and a half, so we are pretty evenly matched with each other, but it was gratifying when I played with other people this fall and realized I have gotten a lot better in the past year – my group was just all getting better together.

  • In general, I exercised 161 times in 2014 compared to 125 in 2013 and 80 in 2012, which has definitely gotten me in better shape over the past two years.
  • I went to Dublin for work in October, and popped over to visit the London office as long as I was across the Atlantic, which was useful.
  • I went to Overlap’14 in Almont, CO, which was a great weekend of getting back to the basics with a group of people I really enjoy hanging out with. I’ll write more about Overlap at some point, as I love being part of that community.
  • And lastly, I turned 40 this year. I had a great birthday weekend, with friends flying out for the event. We took over Hog and Rocks on Friday night, had a huge BBQ on Saturday (80+ people including kids – see below), and hung out some more on Sunday. It was delightful. I am thankful to have so many awesome people in my life and look forward to spending more time with them and to making new friends in 2015!

Group Photo 2014

The challenge of humanity

December 22nd, 2014

[This is a response to an email prompt from a design-y list I’m on, where the original poster posited that “Computing is all around us” and “we are a part of the computer”, but after writing the response, I thought it was general purpose enough to post here]

I think it is a mistake to think of computers as separate than human, something that we are integrated into. I believe computing is, in many ways, like any other technology, and it’s one that we choose to incorporate into our lives. This is why I tend not to believe in techno-determinism (e.g. the Singularity), where engineers want to believe that technology will change how we live and interact quickly. It takes time for new technology to be integrated and accepted, and often that timing happens on the scale of human generations (shades of Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions).

So I think you have it flipped when you say “We are part of this machine”. I think the machine is part of us. Computers have no volition (at this point) other than what we give them. When computers do something, it is because they were designed to do it, or because they were poorly designed and behave in ways that surprise their creators. It’s not like we consider people to have become cyborgs when they get pacemakers (which are little computers embedded into people), or artificial limbs, or any of the other medical technology that have been developed.

Computers are different than other technologies in one key way, as I see it. They allow layers of abstraction to build, creating exponential growth in impact (Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law, etc), and through that, that means that a designer’s intent can be massively amplified in terms of its impact on others. The choices Zuckerberg makes, ten years after he was a college student, affect the way hundreds of millions of people interact with each other.

In grad school, I saw a talk by Jaron Lanier, where he talked about this impact, which he called “karma vertigo”. Because the layers of abstraction build on each other, the design choices made in each layer of technology have huge impacts on the future path that technology takes. He felt, back in 1997, that as computing became ubiquitous, that the choices made by those designing the technology would change the direction of humanity, and it was dizzying (hence vertigo) how much control we had on possible futures. His talk was one of the factors that got me to drop out of grad school in physics and start my wandering generalist path to get involved with these more interesting questions than the breaking of CPT symmetry.

responding to one other bit of your email:
“software (and computing) is becoming environmental. This is to say, that our built environment, in as much as it is now shot through with ubiquitous computing and the pervasive computing of our time and space (Internet + sensors), is computing all of the time.”

I don’t think this is new. Stewart Brand’s book “How Buildings Learn” was published 20 years ago, and was not about computing. Our built environment is always learning and adapting to how we live and work, because we change it. The difference with ubiquitous computing is that this learning is accelerating, but it’s not clear to me yet that this accelerated change is qualitatively different. I did have a conversation with an architect friend at one point where he described that one of the current challenges in architecture is to have buildings adapt and learn faster – a building’s lifetime of use used to be described in decades if not centuries – now it may need to be repurposed in less than ten years, and it’s a design challenge to make the building able to adapt more quickly.

I don’t know – maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting older, but I have not yet convinced myself that computing is qualitatively changing humanity. It makes things faster and explosively amplifies our tendencies (both positive and negative). But is it actually different? I argued the other side a few years ago, wondering whether we have yet matured to handle these exponential impacts we can now have – are we ready to wisely use these godlike powers technology grants us?

It depends. It always does. Within every human is contained potential for both good and evil, and computing technology that amplifies our impact is going to reflect that eternal challenge. But to me, that’s the real challenge – it’s not about designing the technology, as all technology can be used for both good and bad purposes – it’s about how to design humanity to be able to handle having this sort of impact, to be the thoughtful wise users of technology that can handle these increased powers. A tough challenge.

The Generalist Is In

December 14th, 2014

The Generalist Is In
I really enjoy giving feedback to people on their ideas and thoughts. In the past week alone, I have:

  • Given feedback to an architect friend on their entry into a memorial design competition

  • Talked through customer segmentation and business plans with a new startup as part of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service
  • Talked through engineer recruiting and culture with a friend who is a COO of a startup

I have also recently given advice to a friend on pitching their startups, and career coaching to friends and colleagues.

I love doing this and helping people to see new angles on their questions, so I’m putting the call out there – if you think my perspective would be useful to you in some way, please reach out and we can talk through your question and see if I can be helpful.

Challenging oneself

December 3rd, 2014

In my last post, I talked about instigating unhappiness as a way to spur change at organizations. I’ve also been thinking about it in a personal context of challenging myself, and when I should be satisfied and happy with where I am vs. stretching myself for the next goal.

One of the reasons for the introspection is that I am thinking of signing up for the Death Ride next year. The Death Ride, for those that don’t know, is a bike ride that is 130 miles, and climbs 15,000 vertical feet through 5 mountain passes in Tahoe. When I first heard about it 13 years ago, I thought it was completely insane – I had a couple coworkers who did it every year, but it was inconceivable to me, as I had never ridden more than 40 flat miles at that point. But here I am, thinking about signing up, and believing I can do it. So what changed?

Well, this year has been a year of leveling up in bicycling. I started the year in April with an Old La Honda ride with some other Googlers (40 miles – one hill: Strava), where I went all out and was still left in the dust, and bonked so hard that I was late to work. But I trained hard for the rest of the spring, and got in shape for my week-long mountain bike tour from Durango to Moab in July. I had already decided to cap the summer off by doing my first century bike ride (100 miles), but my friend said that I would be in such good shape after the tour that I should do the climbing century (8000 feet of climbing) up and over Mt. Tam in August. So I did (Strava) and it was actually pretty easy. So I signed up for Levi’s Gran Fondo in October, and went all out in that (averaging 20 mph for the first 30 flat miles) and still felt good (Strava).

So I figured if I can do 100 miles and 8,000 feet of climbing in 8 hours (including breaks), I should be able to do 130 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing in 12 hours, right? Right? Okay, it’s a stretch, but it seems like a good goal to aim for next July.

And this is where I wonder about myself. There are many who would be impressed and satisfied with where I got this year, from struggling to ride 40 miles, to being able to ride a climbing century. And I’m happy with that progress, but my first thought is “If I can do that, what else can I do?” and immediately move onto the next challenge rather than taking time to savor what I’ve accomplished.

I see this tendency among many of my friends as well – we end up continuing to push the limits of what we can do when we could easily rest satisfied with what we’ve accomplished. In the Steven Kotler book on extreme athletes, he describes communities as social triggers that help push us to try things beyond what we might on our own, so it is perhaps not surprising that my MIT friends tend to share this limit-pushing tendency and that such a community helps normalize such behavior.

What I find interesting about this is that I change which communities I associate myself with as I get better at an activity. The first time I did the SF to Google 40 mile flat ride in 2012 was the longest I had ever ridden to that point in my life, and I was really proud of myself. Now I’ve done that ride on a fixie, and am using people who do double centuries as a comparison point. Or in volleyball, I used to be content just being able to keep the ball in play at doubles, but after playing a bunch this past year, I compare myself to the A-level players, who can consistently put points away and regularly get incredible digs. I keep moving the goalposts on myself so I’m never satisfied.

Sometimes I wonder if I’d be happier if I let myself be content and happy with what I’ve accomplished, rather than continually striving for more. I do enjoy the continued challenges and the fact that I can do so much more than I thought was possible even last year. And in other areas, I don’t challenge myself as much – I’ve gotten better at being content at work over the years, rather than beating myself up about why I haven’t accomplished more. Chorus is another example where I hit my limits, felt I had done all I could, and accepted that. So maybe it’s just in areas where I feel I still have considerable upside that I keep challenging myself?

Another aspect is that it is only possible to have a couple challenge areas at a time. If I wasn’t secure in my job with a comfortable income, I wouldn’t be able to challenge myself in other areas, as I would be too focused on basic needs. But because I’m in a good situation, I can afford to focus on other challenges such as sports (biking, skiing, volleyball) and socializing (especially in 2013). I’m fortunate to have that freedom to take on those challenges.

As the year winds down, I’ll be thinking ahead to next year and deciding where my next challenges lie – if I do sign up for the Death Ride, biking will definitely be one :).

Instigating unhappiness

December 1st, 2014

Michael Anton Dila, one of the cofounders of Overlap, recently gave a talk at the BIF conference. He starts with his frustration with the question “What do you do?”, as he can never answer it. He then talks about Overlap and the community that has built around it (Overlap is full of people who don’t fit into traditional jobs, including myself). But I like the way he describes what he does at the end: “My job is to make other people unhappy…I want people to stay unhappy, and unsatisfied with the present, so that they can’t help themselves but change it.”

This description meshes well with what I’ve been up to at Google – at a recent strategy offsite, one of the directors said after my presentation, “Eric, why do you always have to start these things by making us unhappy?” But I consider it to be my job to not let people be satisfied with the status quo, but to think ahead to the next challenge.

I took a leadership seminar a few years ago at Google on Adaptive Leadership. The facilitators described two kinds of challenges: technical and adaptive. Technical challenges are those where you know what to do, you just have to continue what you’re doing, and it will eventually pay off (six sigma is built for handling these types of challenges). Adaptive challenges are those where the rules of the game have changed, and doing what worked before will likely lead to failure. Another way to describe it would be incremental vs. disruptive innovation.

One thing they taught us in that seminar was that to get those around you to recognize that they are facing an adaptive challenge rather than a technical challenge is to turn up the heat. People will instinctively cling to what they already know, so to increase their willingness to change and try something new, you have to get them out of their comfort zone. So I think what Michael Dila is describing as making people unhappy is this process of getting people around you to recognize that change is coming, so that they can rally to deal with it, rather than ignore or hide from it.

I don’t know if I like describing what I do as instigating unhappiness, as that seems negative. But I can’t deny that it has been a consistent theme to my career. I’ve never been satisfied with the status quo at the companies I worked at – I always saw ways in which things could be better, and would let people know. Early in my career, I was very blunt about such things (it turns out that telling the CEO of the startup you work at that he’s an idiot at an all hands meeting is not effective at changing his behavior, even if it’s true). I’ve learned more subtle ways to turn up the heat since then, including showing metrics that beg for certain questions to be asked, instead of asking the questions myself. I’ve also learned that these problems are generally too big for one person to fix on their own, so part of making change happen is creating the awareness of the need to change – finding allies and rallying them to change, rather than trying to go it alone.

I still struggle with the balance of challenging the status quo vs. being happy and thankful. This often comes up when I talk to other Googlers – we will complain about how things could be better, but then stop to remind ourselves that we work at one of the poshest companies in the world, which pays us extremely well, lets us work on interesting problems, and caters to our every need. I think I’ve found a reasonable balance at work, but this is something I continue to work on in my personal life, which will be the subject of another follow-up post.

What do you think about being an instigator of unhappiness? Is this a role you see yourself in? Why or why not? I’m curious what my friends and readers think.

There are no shortcuts

October 25th, 2014

I was having an email thread recently with a friend where she pointed me at this article on the middle class getting ripped off. I don’t agree with most of the article, but this quote stuck out to me:

For my entire life (and I don’t think this will ever change) I’ve watched friends and family engage in one Fred Flintstone-esque, get-rich-quick scheme after another. I’ve also been caught up in more of these than I’m comfortable admitting, and they always fail, without exception.

I don’t agree with his conclusion that therefore the way to get rich is to screw people over, though.

To me, the prescription to improving your financial security is simple.

  1. Spend less than you earn.

  2. Put your savings into long-term investments with low/no fees.
  3. Be patient.

This is what I’ve been doing throughout my life, and it has done well for me. I am admittedly fortunate to work in the high-paying technology industry, but I was still saving money on a grad school stipend, and I have been maxing out my 401k each year basically for as long as I have had a full-time job

Get-rich-quick schemes are a distraction. They offer the potential to make money fast, but more often lose all your entire investment. They prey on people who don’t understand probability, and focus on the upside of the 1% that it pays off, but don’t consider the downside of the 99% of the time it doesn’t (the same goes for lotteries). What I outline above is guaranteed to work, but takes a long time (to benefit from compounding interest), and requires the willpower to not buy what you can’t afford.

Another analogy is to dieting. There are tons of kooky diets out there. You know what works?

  1. Eat less.
  2. Exercise more.

If you do that, you’ll lose weight. But it requires effort and discipline, so people try diet shortcuts, hoping this will be the one that lets them get the result they want without the effort. And, yes, I know there are various biochemical reasons for certain diets in how our body processes food, but I think the long-term method for success is what I outlined.

One last example that came up in discussion last night was following your passion. What most people mean when they say they want to be a rock star, or an artist, or a designer, or an entrepreneur, is that they want the benefits of being in those positions. But to become any of those requires a lot of hard work to hone one’s craft. People don’t see the months the rock star spent living out of the back of a van while doing bar gigs. They don’t see the entrepreneur who slept only 4 hours a night for years and was stressed out all of the time about making payroll and whether she was leading the company in the right direction (while fighting this nonsense for funding). They don’t see the artist painstakingly practicing their craft over and over and over again to get just a little bit better. They just want the results…and that’s why they’ll never get them. There are no shortcuts. You have to do the work.

It’s not a glamorous recommendation. It’s not easy. But I think it pays off over time more reliably than shortcuts. I am very fortunate to have my health, to have financial security, and to be in what is basically my dream job right now. And I know I have had many advantages on my way here, but I don’t think it’s all luck and privilege even though I am playing life on the lowest difficulty setting there is.

I’m interested to hear what others think – am I oversimplifying? Are there shortcuts that have worked for you?

The Rise of Superman, by Steven Kotler

October 9th, 2014

Amazon link
Book website

This book examines the extreme limits of human performance, delving into the world of action-adventure athletes who are redefining what is possible. It tells of big wave surfing, extreme free skiing, skateboarding, free solo rock climbing, base jumping, kayaking impossible rivers, etc. Kotler also examines the neuroscience behind the state of flow, which he claims is what enables these superhuman feats.

Kotler’s thesis is that the state of flow enables athletes to react faster and tap into normally unreachable wells of intuition. As Kotler puts it

In all other activities, flow is the hallmark of high performance, but in situations where the slightest error could be fatal, then perfection is the only choice – and flow is the only guarantee of perfection. Thus, flow is the only way to survive in the fluid, life-threatening conditions of big waves, big rivers, and big mountains…as [skateboarder] Danny Way explains: “It’s either find the zone or suffer the consequences – there’s no other choice available.”

Kotler tells many awesome stories of people performing insane athletic feats (e.g. free-soloing (climbing alone without ropes) Yosemite’s Half Dome in 3 hours, or surfing 50 foot waves), which are fun just to stretch the mind of what is possible.

He then describes the science behind the flow state, what it does to our brain, and the triggers necessary to get into it, and asks us to take what these extreme athletes have learned and apply it to our everyday lives. One of the hallmarks of the flow state is to essentially turn off our prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of our brain) and instead becoming more in the moment: “It’s an efficiency exchange. We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.” This makes a lot of sense to me – we’ve all had those moments in sport where we unexpectedly biff some easy action and when asked what happened, we say “I started thinking about it”, which means we had fallen out of flow.

The triggers that Kotler describes are useful to remember as well. He lists 4 types:

  • External triggers: Risk (triggering the fight-or-flight response and all the crazy neurochemicals one gets as a result), rich environment (“novelty, unpredictability, and complexity”), and deep embodiment (full-body awareness, paying attention to all of our sensory inputs to overwhelm the brain with sensory processing so it doesn’t have time to think).

  • Internal triggers: Clear goals that define immediate success (laser focus on what is next), immediate feedback (so we can course correct in real-time, and so that we can absorb the right technique into our unconscious), and consistently pushing your limits (aiming for challenges that are 4% greater than your skills)
  • Social triggers: being part of a community pushes us further than we would go alone. We learn new techniques from watching others. We also stretch our sense of what is possible – once we see one of our friends pull a crazy stunt, we believe we can do it, and belief turns into reality. The best example of this is Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile – for decades, running a mile in less than four minutes was considered impossible, but once Bannister did it, several others did it within a year.
  • Creative triggers: “Creativity triggers flow; then flow enhances creativity.” This ties into the social trigger with “creative one-upsmanship”

I really enjoyed this book as an exploration of what is possible, and of understanding better the keys to accessing the flow state. We’ll see if I can figure out how to apply those triggers more consistently to improve my own performance, both at work and in sports.

It’s not about you

October 1st, 2014

Last year, I was at my sister’s house one morning and playing with my toddler niece. I did something, and my niece burst into tears. I started apologizing and frantically saying “What did I do? What did I do?” My sister looked over and said “She’s just hungry – give her a banana.” I gave my niece a banana and she was happy again.

I tell this story a lot, as it’s a great reminder that we are too egocentric and think it is always about us – I thought I had caused my niece’s distress, but my niece was going to stay cranky until her hunger was satisfied. And that is true in most interactions – the other person has their own needs to be met, and until those are satisfied, it almost doesn’t matter what we do.

Having that lens creates empathy – when somebody massively over-reacts to something I did, I realize something else is probably going on that I’m not aware of. I try to understand what’s going on in their life, and what needs of theirs aren’t being met, because until those are dealt with, it’s going to be hard to make progress on what I want. And admittedly that’s not always possible. But realizing that I am not personally responsible for the moods of everybody I interact with was a helpful correction for me.

This principle is also helpful in dealing with work situations – it’s generally easy to trace back people being obstinate at work to them feeling like they are losing control. Presenting a plan that seems eminently reasonable may trigger an emotional reaction, in part because it wasn’t the team’s idea and it was externally imposed on them, which can feel like an attack, creating a fight-or-flight response. If I can diagnose that, I won’t dig in to fight about the merits of the plan itself, and instead will look for ways to let the team know that the plan will help them with their problems.

This is also a good reminder for dealing with ourselves. I was on a long bike ride last weekend, and took a wrong turn that meant I added another 20 miles and 2000 feet of climbing to my planned ride. And I was in despair, thinking I would never be able to do it. But, thinking of my niece, I realized I was probably just hungry. I saw a McDonald’s, ate 1000 calories, felt much better, and cranked up the climb and back home. When feeling despair or overwhelmed, it’s important to take care of our own needs, because everything else will seem harder until we do.

When dealing with people, it’s important to remember that it’s not about you. Thinking about what the people you are interacting with need, and how you can satisfy those needs, will lead to you being more effective in getting what you want out of the interaction.

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