My 9/11 Story

Today is the 15th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.  As I do every year, I spent a little bit of time in quiet reflection, thinking about that day back in 2001 and how the world has changed since.  Today, I also read Politico’s excellent piece, “We’re the Only Plane in the Sky,” which walks through the morning and afternoon of 9/11 from the perspective of the President’s staff and support crew.  It’s long, but very good.

It made me think about my 9/11 story.  I was lucky, my story is not very exciting.

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The (Hypothetical) Case for Donald Trump

So, to start, let me be clear: I do not personally think that Donald Trump should be president.

Actually, I don’t intend for this to be a political commentary at all. It’s more of a thought experiment.

As a New Yorker, I rarely run into people who support Trump.  Most people here dismiss his legitimacy.  He’s crazy, he’s a lunatic, etc… Some of that is probably warranted. However, one of the things I like most in life is understanding the perspective of different people. It can be easy to dismiss people at face value and jump to conclusions, it’s much harder to truly understand the situation. Part of being a product manager is digging deep and really understanding what other people are thinking – even if you don’t share any personal characteristics with them.

So, here we go: the best explanation for why Donald Trump should be president.

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Being a Good Operator

I’ve recently been introduced to the concept of being a good “operator” in business. I’d heard the word before, but never really understood what it meant. I’ve thought a lot about leadership and management in the past, but being an operator is a bit of a unique concept.

When it comes to being a good operator – there are two things that matter most:

  • Keeping a firm view on the high-level business metrics (KPIs) that drive your business.

These are the same metrics that an investor or an analyst would look at to determine the health of your business. For example – revenue, cost of revenue, gross margin, employee turnover %, # of deals in the pipeline, days sales outstanding, revenue per employee, etc.

  • Deeply understanding the industry trends, resources, people, processes and values that drive each of those high-level business metrics.

What levers can you pull, incentives can you change, projects you can start that will actually impact your high-level business metrics. Which of those high-level business metrics are easy to change and which are hard? Which can be impacted quickly and which ones take a very long time to change?

The key to being a good operator is maintaining a firm view of the high-level business metrics that are driving your business, while at the same time deeply understanding the activities, trends and people who are driving each of those numbers.

Further, a good operator understands what the high-level numbers need to look like in order for their business to be successful and they understand what needs to happen in order for those numbers to look the way they want.

Most people can only do one or the other.

There are people who can define the high-level metrics that matter, and there are other people who know how to manipulate the business to change the numbers.

It’s a very rare person, a true operator, who can really do both.

On Preparing for Change

 

Only six weeks away from welcoming our son into this world, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to think about change.

Ever since reading the classics of business literature – the likes of Peter Drucker, Marshall Goldsmith, and Jim Collins – I’ve focused a lot on change and being a change agent. If there is one thing that all business gurus seem to agree on, it’s that change is necessary for growth and success.

However, lately I’ve started to think about change differently, both at home and at work.

I used to see change as an event. I thought it went like this:

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Why I Think Slack is a Terrible Collaboration Tool

First of all – I don’t hate everything about Slack. In fact – in a lot of ways Slack is really excellent.

Slack is the first instant messaging software that actually works the way you’d expect an instant messaging client to work. Having used different instant messaging tools for the last 15 years – Slack takes the cake in a lot of ways.

Here’s what Slack does well:

  • Every message is archived and searchable (and the archive is reliable, a huge problem with other messaging clients)
  • Support across desktop, mobile, tablet, etc. in a seamless, intuitive way
  • Quick and easy file transfers
  • Lots of emoji’s and other fun goodies (like a nifty tool that lets you set reminders)

As an IM tool – Slack is actually very good: far and away the best choice for person-to-person communication.

Now – here’s what I don’t like.

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So Good They Can’t Ignore You

 

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been reading So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport on recommendation from Michael Griffiths.

In general I think the book has a valid message, but I really didn’t like reading it that much.

The bulk of the book is spent debunking a common career myth: “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Cal asserts that this advice, often given to young professionals or recent college graduates, is misguided and leads people to make poor career decisions.

Instead of following your passion, Cal suggests that those new to the workforce should focus on building their “career capital” and assembling skills that companies are willing to pay for. Only after working for a number of years and assembling a large amount of career capital should employees then use that capital to get more control over their work schedule and start to think about what they really love to do.

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Headspace

I first wrote about meditation in July of 2013. The post (linked here) I penned shortly after reading the seminal work Meditation for Dummies.   At the time I was very excited and curious about meditation. I knew that a more focused mind would make me more effective at work, and (although I didn’t exactly know how) I also hoped meditation would help me live a more balanced and complete life.

Looking back over the past three years, I have to admit, I have not practiced meditation nearly as much as I wanted. I just haven’t found the right combination of routine, venue, and motivation to make it all work on a regular basis.

That is, until last month when I discovered Headspace (Well – I didn’t really discover it, my colleague Jenny Cox recommended it to me – but it felt like a discovery).

The concept behind headspace is simple – it’s an app for your smartphone that offers guided meditations. Each guided meditation is between 10 and 20 minutes long and is arranged in a “pack” – a sequential series of guided meditations focusing on a particular topic (e.g. Relationships, Focus, Health, Performance, Anxiety, etc.). Each pack is 30 sessions long and is designed to be completed like a course, the first few meditations introduce basic concepts and as you progress, you practice and master the techniques. Toward the end of each course, there is dramatically less guidance, and the last few meditations can be almost completely quiet except for a few prompts.

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What vs. How

 

For the past couple weeks I’ve been reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (special thanks to Igor Shindel for the great recommendation).

The book is interesting. At the core, Newport examines the differences between “deep” and “shallow” work. He explains that “deep work” involves long stretches of uninterrupted, focused work. Shallow work is the opposite, short bursts of unfocused work speckled with interruptions from email and social media.   Along the way Newport describes many of the world’s greatest thinkers and inventors, crediting their achievements to the disciplined practice of deep work.

One of the thinkers that Newport talks about is Andy Grove of Intel. There was one particular anecdote about Grove really jumped out at me.

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It’s Really Hard to Change Your Brand

Late last year Playboy made headlines by announcing that they would no longer show nudity in their magazine. Down to a circulation of just ~800,000 (from a peak of 7.16M in 1972) the decision was likely spurred by declining readership and the changing media landscape. The move may also have been an attempt to compete with more popular non-pornographic male oriented magazines like Maxim – whose circulation is still relatively strong at 2M.

Taking the Metro North Railroad into Grand Central throughout the month of March, it was hard to miss the redesigned Playboy cover – it lined the exterior of the large Hudson News stand outside track 41, where my train routinely arrives.

As I walked by each morning, I kept thinking to myself: “Is anyone really going to buy that thing?”

The answer to my question came sooner than I thought – by March 24th the Wall Street Journal reported that Playboy (the company) was up for sale. Presumably the magazine did not meet sales expectations and as a result the company was on the auction block.

Today, Playboy magazine is no longer on display on the outside of Hudson News – but rather it’s hidden on the interior of the stand, next to other less popular magazines.

The overall lesson for me: It’s really really hard to change your brand.

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The Death of Magazines (Round 2)

For a long time now, magazines have been in trouble. Everyone knows it.

Below, Pew research shows slow deflation of ad sales over time for many of world’s most popular magazines.

news-magazines-ad-pages-by-publication-through-2013

Back in 2008, when I was still working at an ad agency and I was buying magazine ad pages, I thought about the issue and concluded that the key to keeping magazines in business was the magic element of content curation. Content curation is the process of organizing content in a way that hangs together artfully and, in sum, has a greater impact on the reader than each article would in isolation if experienced separately.

Obviously the internet has meaningfully hurt the magazine industry because people can get access to information much more quickly than ever before (sorry weekly news magazines). However, a downside of the internet is that it is so sprawling and messy. How do you know that you can trust what you read on the internet? How do you keep from spending all day looking for useful information amid the internet trash heap?

That’s where magazine curation comes in. In 2008, I was sure that the future of magazines was well-curated content organized by a professional editor.  Done and done, magazines saved.

Well recently I had an experience that has caused me to take a closer look at the future of magazines. (more…)