Lessons from “The Avengers”

A form of mental torture not appreciated enough is kids forcing moms and dads to watch their favorite shows over and over again. Barbie, Dora, Diego, Tom & Jerry, Ben 10, Cinderella, Superman, Spiderman – you name it. In my case, its my 6 year old and The Avengers. I have even lost the view count. And I don’t even really like it.

But repetition is effective. Redundancy works. Forced slavery leaves its marks. It lets you view things differently and abstractly. Once I resigned myself to my misery, I tried to eek something out of it.

ImageAvengers is a team of superheros brought together to save the world from evil and annihilation. Each had some extraordinary skill – good enough to have a brand of their own. Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow. Avengers, name of their team, battle against the evil of Thor’s brother Loki to save the world. Here are my three lessons from my incarceration:

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The ‘Boring’ Sampras

Nothing is perfect. That is why pencils have erasers, software has Undo and Tennis now has the Player Challenge System.

ImageHowever, there are many things which are near-perfect. For example Pete Sampras as a tennis player. Sampras was considered a winning machine, stayed world number one for six consecutive years, won 14 grand slams and achieved everything that a tennis player can dream of. Heck, he even beat Roger Federer, the then world number one, in an exhibition match 5 years after he retired. He had every shot in the book, excelled on all surfaces and practically won every tournament worth winning.

But Sampras was also considered by some as ‘boring’ and ‘mechanical’. For most of his career, he played so well that his wins seemed even effortless at times. He won tournaments without much fanfare or “heart in the mouth” moments. His general expressionless demeanor while slaying his opponents with textbook shots made him look mechanistic at times. There was no fuss about his game.  The flamboyant Andre Agassi called him “more robotic than a parrot” and went on to say “I envy Pete’s dullness. I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need for inspiration”. Even Sampras’s autobiography read mechanistic (compared to that of Agassi which actually contained these comments).

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The Creative Stretch

If you are driving to the grocery store couple of miles away from your home, your planning for the trip will be minimal compared to planning a cross-country road trip. For grocery store, a cursory look at the fuel gauge may suffice. For the road trip, if you have enough resources, you need extensive planning. Money, maintenance, weather and time all become considerations. The very notion of a destination far away forces you to think and plan differently – encouraging and even forcing to be creative.

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Our road trip 2003

Think of a startup. It is typically cash-strapped. One way forward is to grow organically. You depend on the revenues you generate. You build slowly while keeping the lights on. All investments are conservative and cautious. As you keep the liabilities to a minimum, you also limit the flexibility and freedom of action. You first ensure cash flow to sustain the monthly expenses before you think of hiring or availing that training opportunity.

The alternate path is to get external financing – say from a venture capitalist. You give up some of your equity in the company and have more stakeholders to answer to. But you also get this doze of welcome cash that lets you not worry about the next payroll or rent payment. Money is not a variable anymore at-least in the short term.  You have more space to be creative and think and plan big. With enough resources, you can plan a road trip rather than just be confined to visit to your local grocery store. You are encouraged – even forced – to be creative and think big. You can actually accomplish much bigger things.

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Real Life Mavens – Evernote Ambassadors

Remember mavens as people who are experts in a particular subject and are willing and eager to help others without any expectations of return.

Well, I being an avid user of Evernote (specifically to manage my GTD way of life) I found this fascinating example of real world mavens – Evernote Ambassadors. These are passionate users of Evernote application who have volunteered to help other users to adopt or get better at using Evernote as a tool to capture, organize and archive information.

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All of them must be loving helping others and Evernote has done a very smart move to leverage their mavens!

Behaviors of Charisma

Thanks to the many top-notch universities opening up their learning resources online, we have access to some great stuff. One of these is Stanford’s eCorner – their entrepreneurship resource center.

ImageThere is a great talk by Olivia Fox on “Building Your Personal Charisma”. What is fascinating is that she describes charisma as a set of behaviors that can be learned and executed. It’s not intrinsic, genetic or inborn as we tend to believe. This is a pivotal lesson about management and knowledge work in general – it’s a set of behaviors that can be learned and executed. Peter Drucker’s basic premise in “The Effective Executive” – probably the best management book ever – is that an executive’s job is to be effective and effectiveness can be learned.

Olivia says that we tend to believe that charisma – and similar attributes like leadership – are innate because they are shaped by circumstances very early in our lives. But they are just learnt – or not learnt – early. They are not innate. They can be learnt at any stage and adopted. Anyone can be charismatic – at least to some extent.

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Note better

Remember the university days with long lectures in even longer afternoons? Somehow a metric of being attentive was taking notes – lots and lots of notes. You looked busy and felt smarter. The more your scribbled the better you felt. You used to take notes with a propensity that could make a journalist who forgot his recorder at home envy you.

taking_notesAs the semester progressed, your notebook grew fatter and you happier. You felt confident that this mountain of text just needs a cursory glance at any time and the entire lecture would replay in your mind. After all you wrote it and there is so much of it. Heck, you can even give the notebook back to the professor as a souvenir. So you wade through the semester and slept in comfort with the knowledge that you have your savior.

The only problem was that when you actually reviewed your notes later they did not make much sense. You can recognize your handwriting – after all who can write that awfully bad. But you cannot understand it. You seem to be gazing at this mass of text that is coming out of the page and simply caressing those areas of your brain that deal with solving cryptographic puzzles.

Apart from many other things that can be contributing to this unsavory situation, a major one is the lack of structure in your notes. Your focus was on recording the words spoken – and that too as much as possible. More the better. While it started neatly left to right, top to bottom but soon you were patching white spaces – as if any white space left would mean something missed. You did not realize that your scribble speed was far less than the professor’s delivery, so there may be pieces of the lecture that you may have completely missed in your enthusiasm to fill the notebook. You are neither here nor there.

Ouch!

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Leverage the mavens

A very dear friend of mine – let’s call him Jake – is a fanatic when it comes to cars. He is an expert on cars. His knowledge and insight is brilliant. He loves cars. He gets seduced by them. He reads about them. He researches them. He gets passionate when they come up for discussion. He probably dreams about them too. He has all episodes of Top Gear recorded twice – just in case he loses one of them. Associate a car with any activity and he will be game for it, no matter how disinterested he is with the activity itself.

Someone asked me if he also loves dogs too. Somehow, the guys who love cars tend to love dogs too. Well, I think he probably does – provided its a dog with a car.

But there is something else about Jake that differentiates him from other car fanatics. And it is certainly not dogs. Jake is not just an expert on cars. He wants to share his expertise too. He loves to help others with their car hunt. He is always ready to go on a car inspection. He will take your car to the workshop too. He can actually hold a half-hour conversation about cars with someone whom he hates otherwise. He expects nothing – absolutely nothing – in return for sharing his car expertise.

ImageJake is a car maven. Not a consultant. Not an advisor. Not the middle man for car sales. A car maven. A maven is an expert on a subject who has an extreme intrinsic desire to help others related to it. Jake just does not know about cars. He loves to help others about them as well. That is what differentiates him from other car experts.

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