“You have to draw the lines” and some other thoughts

Jon Reed wrote an excellent article on work life balance http://diginomica.com/2015/08/21/pulling-truth-from-the-viral-absurdity-of-the-amazon-workplace-debate/ and that prompted some thoughts in my mind based on my own work and life over the last two decades.

There are two simple principles in life that keep me sane when I follow them both religiously. And when I don’t follow them , it invariably screws me over 

1. We have to draw lines when it comes to how we want to lead our lives . If we don’t do that, someone else will draw it for us and we won’t always like it – in fact most times we will hate it .

2. There will always be some people smarter and luckier than us . We have to make peace with that quickly and not let it drive us nuts every day

Work life balance is just one example for this . I have a job that needs me to travel most weeks . If I don’t draw a line – I could easily be traveling every day of the week , all year , for my employer’s business . So I do draw reasonable lines and try to be home as much as I can . In the process of drawing these lines , I might lose out on some opportunities and the price to pay for that might be high. What often makes it hard is that we have to draw these lines without perfect data . But if I don’t draw that line – I won’t have a life outside work at all.

In my job, I spend a lot of time negotiating with customers, partners and my own colleagues . One of the  golden rules of negotiations is that “they will keep asking till you say no”. Saying no doesn’t come naturally to me . But if I don’t say no when required , then I can’t fairly complain when I am asked to do things that I don’t like . So I learned to say No and it helps a lot in managing my life on my terms . This is true outside work too.

Then there are the people who think being difficult is a badge of honor . In reality, it’s exactly the opposite . Being easy to work with is much harder than being difficult . If you want to be easy to work with, you need to make principled compromises on the fly . Being difficult is just an easy way to buy more time to make decisions . It slows things down and then no one will want to work with you any way. Being easy to work with comes at a high risk and it could be taken as a sign of weakness by some . But when you can combine being easy to work with AND the ability to draw lines when required , you will get somewhere you like .

I have always worked with a lot of over achievers . It is hard to not compare myself from time to time with them. There are many who are significantly more successful than me in any dimension I choose to compare – money , how fast they progressed in their career, how big is their house – or pretty much anything at all. It’s partly good fodder for motivating me to try harder , but for the most part it just made me miserable . Then I realized that there are two aspects that I am not considering 

1. They might be better at one dimension – like say they made it to executive ranks sooner than I did . But they have also paid a price for that – like sacrificing on quality time with family . Some chose to not marry or not have kids , unlike me . I wanted a family and when I add that to the framework, I no longer felt like an under achiever . 

2. There are always elements of luck, risk taking ability and intelligence that they may have that I have no control over whatsoever  . So why stress over that at all ?

This perspective is not something I have had all my life . I got it while I took a time out between my last job and my current job . It just made me realize that the only way to do a meaningful comparison is to see if I am better today than I was yesterday . Words cannot explain how peaceful I felt when I came to that conclusion . I just needed to get off the hamster wheel before I could get that clarity in my mind .

I will stop this with one last thought . If we don’t keep skills sharp , and keep learning all the time – our ability to say no will decrease at an alarming rate . And at a certain level , it might get to a stage where you cannot make peace with it . So it’s in our own best interests to stay relevant .


Social media and diminishing marginal utility

It was a cold evening in February 2008, and I was out having a beer with my boss in Beaverton, OR that the idea of starting a blog first came up. She and I had both read an article about social media in our intranet and we discussed the idea at length . We left the pub convinced that we should both start a blog and see how it goes . 

The only place I knew of people writing blogs at that time was SAP community network – SCN. The problem was that I had no interest in writing another “how to” blog , even though hundreds of them had helped me fix stuff in my own projects . I was already active reading and commenting on blogs at that time . So I thought maybe if I try to share my experiences on actual projects , maybe it will be interesting to a few people . So I started this in March 2008 http://scn.sap.com/people/vijay.vijayasankar/blog

That was a pleasant experience and pretty soon I joined Twitter , Facebook etc and started a personal blog here at http://andvijaysays.com for random topics . My social media habits have evolved over time – the latest being moving some conversations over to whatsapp – and has reached a stage where I need to evaluate if it’s worth my time to spend time on it . 

There are many plus points 

1. It is now my primary source of news . I scan all of them a few times a day to see if anything catches my eye . 

2. It helps me re-establish old friendships from school days . Even managed to find and meet buddies from primary school that I haven’t seen in 25+ years and that is invaluable 

3. It helps my work in many ways – customers know my POV when they google me , I find great candidates for open positions in my team and so on . Also gave me several friends whom I otherwise would not have met otherwise 

But it comes at a steep price in terms of time and noise and lost friendships

1. It’s hard to filter social media to just useful things unless you are on it all the time . Just when I thought I got rid of all the “let me post every famous quote” and “top ten list” people on Twitter feed , I found that I had a huge “I am smart and rest of you are idiots” set of people to deal with. Now I follow less than 200 and even that doesn’t fully help me – so I spend an hour every few weeks tweaking it . I know election season will make it an impossible task for almost a year 🙂

2. The onus is always on the receiver to decide what is of value and what is noise . I just need to look at the mirror to find a perfect example of noise creation on Facebook . I have friends from my professional world , friends from dog shows , family and school mates in my friend list . If I post my thoughts on software world , it is noise to my dog lover friends . If I write something about dogs , my class mates will find it weird . I don’t have the time or inclination to pick and choose who gets to see what – so I add to the problem that I am trying to solve for myself 

3. The best part of social media is people – and they are also the worst . People don’t always behave as adults in social media , especially in groups . I am right in the middle of one such group where 40 year olds act as 4 year olds throwing a tantrum . There is a cycle that repeats – handful of people with common interests come together and form a group , have a great time , pull in others , have a greater time , everyone gets comfortable and want to do greater things and solve world hunger ,  people take sides , smaller groups start, original group disintegrates – and so it goes over and over . Inevitably , the “founders” of the group are the ones who feel the pain the most . Moral : people are people , social media just provides a time lag for their true colors to show up . And when it shows up , social can help amplify the good or bad of it quite significantly 

4. Social media tries to be an equalizing force and it eventually fails . I have now seen this in three groups back to back in a short period of time . There is an assumption when people come together that everyone is an equal in a social media group . This falls apart as soon as the immediate goals are met and the group finds other goals . It sickens me to see people who were once great friends threaten and belittle each other in public for no apparent good reason . This is the biggest reason I sign off from many groups as soon as I smell trouble . I have enough stress as it is – why would I ever want to get more trouble voluntarily 🙂

5. In any population I have seen in social media , 80% of content comes from 20% of people . That doesn’t worry me by itself – it’s normal . What does worry me is that a sense of hero worship for some part of that 20% kicks in too over time and it always seem to end up in a mess . People without the guts or inclination to say something sometimes choose to live vicariously through the “holier than thou” gang  . This mindless support ( also funny that some of this is just sarcastic but gets interpreted as real support )  in turns strokes egos and a sense of invincibility apparently gets into the mind of some contributors . It’s all downhill from that point – apparently for me . There is no solution to this in a free world other than filtering out by people who find it unbearable . 

6. The interface between virtual and real worlds is not anywhere close to seamless . If your boss or your mom is in the same group as you are, you are limited in many cases in expressing what you really think . And the same is true about actually acting on decisions taken in the virtual world . For example – a group of us once decided on FB that we can pool some money and help people affected by a natural disaster in Kerala . A kind soul in the group who lived in Kerala offered to be the guy on the ground disbursing cash to the needy. At the end , he did it on good faith and then got questioned endlessly by others in the group . He quit in disgust and is still upset and I feel terrible that he had to go through it . The ease with which social gets us through decisions gives a false sense of how things work in real world . Thankfully there are many examples of thoughtful people using social media in useful fashion  – but the trouble they take should not be underestimated .

All things considered , I am still a big fan of social media . But I am also firmly convinced that it is less valuable than what I thought it once was . It adds enough value for me to stop using it , but I just need to filter way more aggressively and prioritize other things over social in many cases .