Learn To Compete Against Yourself

I recently read this post over at Seth Godin’s blog and I liked its message so much I posted it below. I think years of schooling (almost two decades including college) train people to compete by continuously comparing and judging yourself against your classmates and peers. Even grading schemes are very often, if not always, graded on a curve. Teachers and professors set the goals (the curriculum, the assignments, the tests and exams) and you compete against your classmates to achieve the best results.

As a student you are given orders and are expected to meet them, there is little leeway in terms of setting your own measures of achievement.

In the workplace, and for the rest of life, this mindset doesn’t work. It’s up to you to create your own goals and drive yourself towards these goals. It’s what you do and what you work towards when no one else is watching, and when no one else is expecting anything, that will matter.

Expect More Out Of Everything

The technology industry is driven by innovation. Ceasing to innovate or shirking change leads to decay and death, possibly a very long and slow one (see: RIM). The first step towards innovation is raising expectations. Progress will not be achieved or even started until someone recognizes that a service, product, or company can be, should be, must be better.

Raising expectations is something that needs to be internalized by each individual. It is a way of looking at the world, at everyday services and products — always looking for ways of doing things better. It will not be possible to always act on these ideas, but continuously analyzing the world around you prepares you for the moment a relevant opportunity does arise. You will be the one to recognize a gap in a product or in a market, and you will be the one to capitalize on this opportunity, an opportunity others are blind to but will later claim as obvious.

Raising your own expectations leads you to question the world. Question why the world isn’t the way you think it should be.

The second part to this is of course execution – having the chutzpah, conviction and guts to convert your idea into a product that people will buy. Bloggers/entrepreneurs love talking about this but I leave this aspect for a future post, although I have touched on it here.

Back to raising expectations. Here’s a recent example of the consequences of raising expectations.

A lot of people would say that LinkedIn is an innovative company, offers a solid user experience and provides a great service, one that didn’t exist just a few years ago. LinkedIn continues to grow successfully and has fulfilled the need for a networking site built around careers and recruiting.  LinkedIn is a clear leader in this space, has solved some big problems, and it would be folly to try to take this behemoth on now. Right?

Nope.

There’s Zerply — one of the startups in this summer’s 500Startups batch, with a founding team from Estonia.  They presented this past week at the 500Startups NYC Demo Day hosted by GeneralAssembly. All presenters played to a packed house.

Right off the bat Zerply told us at least 3 things they identified as wrong with LinkedIn:

1) Discovery is broken

2) No social component

3) It’s ugly

“It’s broken”. You will hear that phrase a lot among successful entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs expect more and demand more out of the services they use, services that the typical (“normal”?) person is often seemingly completely satisfied with. Even worse, a typical person often senses or knows they are frustrated with a product but fall into the “it is what it is” group — accepting the status quo. The typical person feels that change is something done by other people, or terrifyingly worse, change is something that happens to them.

The entrepreneur on the other hand questions and takes action. The Zerply team wants to be able to find the right person in an easier way. The current search capabilities on LinkedIn, they argue, are too restrictive. How could discovery be a natural process of the user experience? Zerply is trying to solve this problem. This problem always existed, but it took a couple of guys raising their expectations of what they wanted and needed from a career networking site.

Of course, in order to solve this problem Zerply first needed users. So the team built a beautiful, flowing interface with big beautiful typography and added social dynamics (connect through Twitter, add your Facebook friends, link your Tumblr feed). I still think some of the UI components can be improved, but they have certainly identified weaknesses with LinkedIn, and are on their way with a growing user base.

Zerply is going a step further by challenging some popular thinking. A lot of people are of the mind that employers and recruiters should not be able to view personal social data, such as pictures, blog posts, comments on Facebook, etc. Facebook has improved privacy controls in response to this clamor. Zerply is taking a forward-looking stance here by stating that people are increasingly defined by their digital social lives and that these aspects should be prominently displayed as part of a resume. Hence they allow users the option of linking several social applications to their Zerply account. This is also smart because it opens up a lot of useful user-specific metadata to Zerply.

In summary, expect more from the world and from yourself. That’s how progress begins.

People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are.  I don’t believe in circumstances.  The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.  G.B. Shaw

Change does not happen by itself. It is not something passive that is a natural part of the world that happens to us. It is a force driven at its core by one person who expects more from this world.  It takes an individual capable of leadership convincing other individuals to come together to fight for a vision of the future. Imagine the future and show others this future, and bring to them that which has never existed.

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Why Saying “I’m Going To Change The World” Is Overrated

It’s a popular phrase, “I want to change the world”. Some scoff at the phrase as mere platitude. As a guiding principle, “changing the world” can be an effective mantra. Everybody’s definition of changing the world is different. There are two sides to this though.

The first side of this coin is that you should pursue goals that make you happy, that give you fulfillment. Steve Jobs said “Things don’t have to change the world to be important”. If you are happy doing what you’re doing you have a better shot at being successful and eventually, maybe changing the world.

Changing the world in and of itself can not be an objective or a goal. It is too difficult — no matter that path taken. The bigger the goal, the more treacherous the path. Heck if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. Large goals are also difficult to define precisely, but become more achievable when a set of smaller objectives are defined that lead to the larger goal. Even then success is not guaranteed, the path towards the goal can change due to external and internal circumstances.

The other side of the coin is that any path taken towards a large goal is rife with challenges, obstacles, and technical details, whether the individual is an entrepreneur, a lawyer, a doctor, a monk, a performing artist, a DJ or the President. To those external to the individual or goal, these and other goals seem exciting and even glamorous. However, and this is my main point, in order to change the world or achieve a large goal, a person needs to have the determination and perseverance to forge through the challenging days, of which there will be many, and grind through the long hours and technical minutiae and details that come with almost every job and every goal.

While loving what you do and ambition are helpful in achieving your goals, several healthy doses of hard work, determination, perseverance, and elbow grease will give you a better chance of achieving your goals, no matter how big they are.

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Whether someone “changes the world” is not a binary function. It is continuous. Has Steve Jobs changed the world? I think so. Has he changed the world to the extent of Gandhi or Mandela, or Hitler? Probably not.

People change the world everyday by doing their daily duties. Parents, friends, teachers, they all change parts of our world everyday. These impacts should not be diminished.

Life is too short to chase someone else’s world-changing dreams. Do what you love. If you happen to change the world in some way during the process, all the better.

A View To An Inbox

Gmail has been gradually and subtly rolling out changes to its Gmail, Calendar, and Docs interfaces, and perhaps to other to products as well that I do not use as often. These changes have come as part of a new-found emphasis on design and user experience. The story of  Andy Hertzfeld’s work on Google+ is now well documented.

While most of these edits to the Gmail and Calendar products have been cosmetic, a feature just rolled out to my account is one I love at first sight.

Just below the toolbar of buttons we have become familiar with, a drop down to select email types, Archive, Spam, Delete, Move, Labels, More, Refresh, is another toolbar. One has the option of removing this second toolbar by clicking a X at the far right side of the bar.

The bar itself looks like this:

As evident, Gmail now provides different views into your inbox. The classic view will display all email chronologically ordered. The next two views are my favorite.

The Important first view shows emails from those individuals or groups you communicate with most. I’m not sure how the algorithm is implemented and how it defines “most”. It will be interesting to see how this plays with the current Priority tags.

The Unread first view shows unread emails only. This to me is already a huge time-saver. It allows me to focus instead of find. Although the aforementioned drop down to select email types has existed for years, it fails to select emails across pages of emails — it only applies the filter to the currently viewable page of emails. This drop down is useless to me and forces me to go back through my inbox page by page to track down all my unread email. I sometimes find myself going back months to get my inbox to Zero.

Sure, I could be better at reading email within say 24 hours of reception, and I know people who are pretty good at this, but the reality is I am not that person. Non-urgent emails get pushed to the wayside as more pressing matters of the day, yes even non-email related tasks, impose their presence upon my time.

I also know people who can’t stand seeing even a (1) next to the Inbox button and click on the email just to remove that (1). Whether they actually read and process the email right away as well I am not sure. I do know I’m guilty of just this — clicking on an email or marking it as read without reading it, just to reduce the Unread count. This approach obviously does not solve my problem — I am forced to ignore content that could potentially be useful in order to save time and rid myself of a temporary annoyance.

These new views into my inbox had a positive impact within minutes. I can now view all unread email in a much more leisurely manner. The pressure to mark these as unread or click through them in one sitting, fearing that an unread email may become buried under months and months of content, is gone. I can come back to this specific set of emails with 1 click and focus on these emails without distraction. Brilliant.

It is less clear to me whether the Priority Inbox view will be useful to me. I have not been using the Priority tags as much as I thought I might when the feature first launched. I will give the algorithm a shot however to see what types of emails are presented in this view.

Fresh air is being breathed into these products and it feels good so far. Google is getting smarter about organizing our information using both algorithms and organizational tools presented through compelling and simple interfaces. Both will be required as Google sets its course through social networking and the many modes and channels of communication that “social” is built upon and encourages.

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