14 outubro 2011

Lose money, but don’t lose your mind

“Money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver.” ~ Ayn Rand

A few years ago I made my first trip to Spain. That trip was a first in many things: first trip to Spain, first trip alone, first trip backpacking, etc.. It was a trip that spanned three weeks and six cities.

After spending a few days in the first city (Madrid), right when I was about to leave the hostel, I noticed something unsettling: half of the money I had brought with me had disappeared, along with my sunglasses and my towel. At first I got very upset with myself, thinking that I should have been more careful, that I shouldn’t have stayed in a hostel, that it was a lot of money, etc., etc.. You know how it goes when something bad happens and you start to recapitulate in your mind all the things that could have been done to prevent it, assigning blame to yourself and others… At that point I took a deep breath and realized that I had two choices:

  1. Continue to be upset and let this ruin my trip that was just getting started
  2. Accept that there was nothing that could be done and move on with my trip, enjoying every part of it

What allowed me to pick option 2 was to try and think about all the positive aspects of this event, instead of focusing on the very obvious and negative aspects. This is what I came up with:

  • I had lost only half of my money, since I followed the very useful advice from my parents to never put all my eggs into one basket (the rest of the money was safe in another place)
  • I could spend a little bit less during the trip, as my biggest expense was already covered (the train tickets between each city), and I could also try to use my credit card in places that accepted it
  • The towel I had brought with me was too big, so that would give me a chance to buy a new-and-smaller one that wouldn’t make my backpack be so full (ok, I was stretching my positive thinking to the limit, but don’t we tend to do the exact same thing with our negative thinking, exaggerating the impact of everything and our contributions to it?)

With my choice made, I proceeded with my trip without letting this disturb me, travelling to Toledo, then Córdoba, Seville, Granada and Barcelona, having a blast with every part of the trip and meeting so many incredible people along the way.

After Barcelona, I took a night train back to Madrid, where I would spend one night back at the same hostel from the beginning of the trip and then catch my flight back home the following day. Now imagine my surprise when I come back to the hostel and the manager approaches me to ask if I had lost some money in there. It turns out that someone had found my sunglasses’ case, and the money was inside of it. All the money was there!

The person that found the money gave it to the hostel’s manager and he had kept it in there, since he noticed some Brazilian currency in there, realized it could be mine and decided to wait until I returned to the hostel before heading back to Brazil. Can you believe that? All that money, found by a stranger, delivered to another stranger, who kept it until I returned to the place just to check if it was mine or not. Part of me thought that it had to be a trick from the higher powers to test if I could keep my cool in a situation like this.

And why did this event came back to my mind today? Because today I had what you could call a tough day. I was supposed to have a nice and relaxing lunch with my dear wife, when minutes before leaving the house I noticed I couldn’t find the car keys anywhere. And we don’t have a spare key. That was the only one, and it was gone. Also gone was our nice-and-relaxing lunch, since we did not have time to take the T (subway) to the restaurant. All crushed in a few minutes because I had lost the car keys…

Then I couldn’t configure the cool DJ mixer station my parents got for my daughter for Children’s Day. Then I couldn’t get my old iPhone to restore so I could configure it with some games and give it to my daughter (to use it as a iPod Touch, without phone functions)… and the list of things that I couldn’t do went on and on and on…

It was only later in the day that I thought about the “lost” money on the trip to Spain. Ironically, a few hours later, after I had already called a locksmith and he was creating a new key that would cost me a small fortune ($465!!), my wife found our car keys somewhere in the office.

Again I could have chosen to be upset because I had already called the locksmith and now I would have to waste money with something I didn’t need (since we found our key)… or I could simply accept that there was nothing that could be done and focus on the positive things:

  • We found our keys
  • Be very glad that I had the money this month to pay for the spare key
  • Now we would have a spare key if we ever needed it (no more cancelling nice-and-relaxing lunches because of a lost key :))

The best of all is that now I doubt I will ever go through a situation like this and not remember the trip in Spain, which will always remind me of the importance of consciously choosing what to think about. I just need to keep practicing it, as in the end it all rests into how you think and act, instead of reacting, to the situations life throws at you.

“The mind is everything. What you think you become.” ~ Buddha

P.s.: if you got all the way through here and want to read my all-time favorite text about the important on focusing on what you think, check this Commencement Speech from David Foster Wallace at Kenyon University.

03 outubro 2011

I’m not a natural. I work hard.

"I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence." ~ Ayrton Senna

I don’t have any idols. You know that kind of person that makes you worship the floor they walk on? I’ve never had that. Now, looking back to when I was a kid, there is one person I always admired: Senna. Man, how I loved to watch him race, to watch him pass his opponents, to watch him get those unbelievable victories under pouring rain.

When talking about him, lots of people say he was a natural. A natural. What does that even mean? I don’t know, but I would guess people mean to say that he was the best because he was born that way, that the gods somehow blessed him with talent beyond what others (mere humans) could accomplish.

The other day, while talking about kids and parenting, I got a nice compliment: “you are a natural (at parenting)”. I believe the intent was similar to the one I mentioned above, minus the godly parts, to mean that I have a talent, a gift one shall say, in regards to parenting.

I thanked the compliment and replied that no, I’m not a natural. In fact, I wouldn’t even say I’m a great parent. My average day consists of questioning most of the decisions I make in regards to my daughters. Was I too tough? Was I too soft? Is it good that I’m trying to get her to learn this now? Am I crazy to think about these things this early in her life? Am I doing the right thing for her?

I spend a lot of time reading: articles I find through Twitter, magazines, books (including listening to audiobooks, which I love), etc.. The other day I stumbled upon this old article from Malcolm Gladwell about “The Talent Myth”, and one piece caught my attention:

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Columbia University, has found that people generally hold one of two fairly firm beliefs about their intelligence: they consider it either a fixed trait or something that is malleable and can be developed over time. Five years ago, Dweck did a study at the University of Hong Kong, where all classes are conducted in English. She and her colleagues approached a large group of social-sciences students, told them their English-proficiency scores, and asked them if they wanted to take a course to improve their language skills. One would expect all those who scored poorly to sign up for the remedial course. The University of Hong Kong is a demanding institution, and it is hard to do well in the social sciences without strong English skills. Curiously, however, only the ones who believed in malleable intelligence expressed interest in the class. The students who believed that their intelligence was a fixed trait were so concerned about appearing to be deficient that they preferred to stay home. "Students who hold a fixed view of their intelligence care so much about looking smart that they act dumb," Dweck writes, "for what could be dumber than giving up a chance to learn something that is essential for your own success?"

After reading this, I sent an email to my wife with this segment, questioning how much of our own daughter she saw in this passage. Just a few days before reading this article I had had a talk with my daughter about her taking dance classes. Her reply to me: “I already know how to dance”. Uh oh. Yellow alert. Yes, I know she was (and is) still very young, but an alert flashed in my mind and we had a talk about how we can always learn to be better at something, about the importance of practice, about how I spent a huge chunk of my life reading and studying and I still don’t know much, even on subjects I care about.

Reading about Dweck’s research made me think about my daughter regarding what lessons she is learning on life. Coincidence or not, this past week I started to listen to the audiobook of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, only to realize that the author of that book is Carol Dweck herself, and the book is a full treatise on the ideas expressed briefly in Gladwell’s article. In this brilliant book, Dweck tells very interesting stories about many sports legends that have worked really really really hard to get where they got, even though people tend to think of them as natural.

I’m half-way through the book, so I don’t know if she talks about Senna or not, but if she did had done research him, she would find out he was definitely one of those brilliant sportspeople that always believed in hard work. I will never forget the story about how he got to be so good at racing in the rain. When he was still very young, it rained during a race and he lost complete control of his kart. Upset for driving so bad in the rain, from that day on, every single time it started to rain, he would be at the race track practicing, to make sure that next time there was a race under rain, he would be prepared. And prepared he was for every rainy race for the rest of his life.

As Senna did with the rain, so am I with my daughters, constantly practicing, studying, trying new things and adapting. I don’t have all the answers about parenting, but I sure as hell read a lot, pay close attention to them and reflect about the kind of women they will be when they grow up. There is no talent here, just hard work planning cool things to do, following their progress or even simply having some fun time together. Some people work hard at their jobs, and I do too, but I work harder at home, with my family, because they have the prime spot.

That’s why for me, if you want to be good at something, then you have to work for it. There are no shortcuts in life.

And next time someone says you are a natural at something, stop right there and make sure you tell them how much effort you put into it.

16 agosto 2011

Don’t hire yourself

As much as everyone nowadays talks about diversity, it is still all-too-common for managers and leaders at all levels to hire people that act and think like themselves.

The reasoning behind this practice is that by working with people that think like us, it may become easier to collaborate and get to an agreement on tough questions. That may be true, but the real danger of doing this is that we may be just amplifying our weaknesses, instead of strengthening our team.

The importance of this divergent thinking was clear to me when I watched this TED talk from Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice. As someone who has suffered from analysis paralysis while trying to do a simple activity such as buy flour at the supermarket (it is insane the number of different types of flour out there), I could definitely relate to the message that sometimes “more is less”.

Still, as I was watching this talk, I also remembered another TED talk, this one by Malcolm Gladwell, telling the fascinating story about how my favorite type of tomato sauce (chunky) came to exist, and even more importantly, talking about the importance of adding more choices to improve customer’s satisfaction with a product.

Wait a minute! Two great TED talks, from two very intelligent authors, and one apparently contradicting the other? Yep, precisely that.

In fact, the more I thought about this, the more I could come up with additional examples. And this one deserves a story.

A few years ago, before I joined FAST Search (and way before Microsoft acquired FAST), I was working at a large ecommerce site in Brazil. Our biggest reference in the industry was Amazon (obviously), and one day my manager came to me and said I was going to work on this project that aimed to implement a recommendation systems similar to the one at Amazon. And that’s what we did, through many brainstorming sessions and lots of stored procedures and batch jobs, we created from scratch a recommendations system, giving any existing user access to their “own store” in the site, where they could get recommendations tailored for them based on their previous purchases, their product ratings, their wishlist or even their browsing history (very important for new users with no purchase history).

The biggest thing about this project to me, besides the incredible challenge that it was to pull it together, was that I got completely hooked on the idea of recommendations, in the idea of personalization, in the idea of providing a user with a selection based on his/her taste. If you asked me, personalization was the best thing since sliced bread. And in my mind it continued to be, even after I left this ecommerce company to join FAST Search and then ended up here at Microsoft.

My views on personalization remained the same until life presented me with another eye-opening talk (at this point you must have realized I’m addicted to TED talks), this time exposing the dangers of online “filter bubbles”. If you haven’t watched the talk yet, Eli Pariser makes a very compelling case on the risks we face if we start to only get what we like, leaving out everything that is not directly related to what we most like or do. The risk is that our view becomes narrow and we may start to think that all of our ideas are true/brilliant/correct just because everywhere we look and everything we see seems to confirm our views, when in fact it is just the systems we use that have “become nothing more than a simple, dumb mirror”.


Next time you have an open position in your team, remember the importance of truly embracing a diversity of ideas that could bring about the kind of innovation to help your company be a leader in any market... and then make sure you don’t hire yourself.