Activation Energy

I learned about the term “activation energy” in the Farnham Street newsletter. It’s one of those terms that I recognized instantly when I saw it because I have frequently seen it in the wild — as either a part of a successful planning process or, more likely, something unexpected or for which a group was underprepared. “That’s what it’s called,” I said.

Activation Energy (AE), as I understand it, is the effort and work and time and muscle and hustle — energy! — it takes to set in motion something substantial. It’s drives the launch of an endeavor, project, community, initiative, etcetera.

Ideally, if you handle the AE part of your planning well, you can reduce your energy investment afterwards. Some momentum will live on in the system.

Also if you plan your AE well, you’ll have a chance of recovering after knowingly throwing yourself, your team, and your systems out of balance.

Planning, let’s say, the first few weeks of a school year or the beginning of a specific project that will ask a team to juggle ordinary work and extra-ordinary work is helpful — physically, emotionally, and psychologically. You can prepare mentally for it. You can frame communication around it. You can work it into your leadership storytelling — i.e., AE is tough, but it has a beginning and an end; here’s an example of where I’ve seen this done well; here’s how it may feel. You can explain to your family or friends that you may have to put in a few long days or even a weekend, that you may be less available to them, that you may be tired or even frustrated.

I’m saying all of this because expending AE should be a choice, is something you can manage, and shouldn’t be something that sneaks up on you, or worse, a team for which you’re responsible.

The Offense / Defense Lens

I once asked Reshan if he preferred offense or defense. The question was random, a bit of a joke even, and I half expected him not to answer. But he said, with absolute certainty, “defense.”

While having a conversation with a parent of a player on my son’s soccer team, I was reminded of Reshan’s answer . . . and perhaps the reason for his certainty.

“On defense, you want to close space, shrink the field,” the parent said. “On offense, you want to open up space, open up the field.” He was telling me this as part of an analogy he was making about a team he was leading, or trying to lead, at his job.

And now I’m thinking ahead to the coming week, when I’ll be facilitating — I just counted — 9 hours of planned meetings. Heading into a planned meeting, I always try to think clearly and deliberately about agendas. To build them, I focus on the tasks we need to complete and any group maintenance that needs attention. And this week, I’m going to add an offense / defense lens to my planning. More specifically, I’m going to think about whether or not I need to consolidate space or open it up. Do we need to be really close and really aligned, perhaps to hold a lead, or do we need to spread out and run to space, perhaps to put some points on the board?

In-Person Time

Executive Coach Ed Batista launches his most recent newsletter with a lovely meditation about life on his farm. As is his gift, he spins that experience into fodder for his professional practice, nailing down a key choice point for practitioners in a wide range of fields.

In our own various ways, my clients and I are “re-grounding” ourselves, finding ways to live and work sustainably under new conditions. Sometimes this involves adapting to a radically different environment, as in our case on the farm. More typically it involves distinguishing between A) those pre-pandemic activities that are meaningful and important and should be restored, and B) all the others that were merely by-products of a world in which in-person time was a commodity, and not a precious resource.

For me, things feel busier than ever for October and yet I’m still feeling energized. But that’s in part because I’ve tried to fill my days with as many meaningful, move-the-dial kinds of activities as possible. I’m busier in large part because I’m engaged, interested, and drawn to my work. Or, in Batista’s useful framing, I’m feeling restored because I’ve returned to tasks that “should be restored,” not “merely by-products” of a world of work that was headed in the wrong direction long before the pandemic.

Source: Ed Batista’s October 2021 Newsletter.

The Soup Theory of Idea Generation

Yesterday morning, on the ride in to school, my son asked me why I sometimes send him emails about a certain aspect of machine learning. “All my free time goes to my math homework or soccer,” he said. “Why do you think I have time to work on some random machine learning problem?” He also may have called me weird.

I told him that I had no interest in taking up his free time; instead, I was inviting him to make soup with me.

My daughter, who was tuning the radio at the time, chimed in. “Soup or soup.” (Yes, she has a certain tilt to her voice when she she’s speaking in italics.)

Soup,” I said.

“What’s with all the metaphors?” she asked.

“All the metaphors? That’s a longer conversation. This metaphor is important,” I said, “because it connects to one of the greatest things in the world: the generation of new ideas.”

They were both glad when the ride was over before I could say more . . . and one of them may have even remarked (politely, of course), “why don’t you just write a blog post about it!” I think I will.

Here’s the soup theory of idea generation for anyone who wants to continue the ride:

I believe, based on long practice, that it is helpful to think about a topic or idea as a big pot of soup. (This is assuming you don’t need to move quickly.)

When you’re just setting out to make soup, there’s likely some intense heat involved. In terms of an idea, the “tenor” of our metaphor, we might think about this as the initial trip down the rabbit hole or the emotional experience that puts an idea onto your radar in the first place. In terms of cooking soup, the “vehicle” of our metaphor, it’s more literal: you bring the initial stock to a boil.

Once the soup / idea reaches a boil / flashpoint, you move it onto the back burner / file.

You turn the heat down. You let it bubble and gurgle ever so slightly. You expose it, in other words, to time and the lowest possible amount of warmth to keep it cooking. The slower and lower the better, in fact, and you can always turn off the stove completely and just put a lid on the pot.

And now I hear my son’s voice, if I had been explaining this concept to him: “Why the heck do you have to keep sending me emails if the soup is already cooking?”

You have to think of the emails as new ingredients — things you stumble upon while looking around in the kitchen, while maybe doing something else, while maybe traveling somewhere, all while the soup cooks. Once you understand the base, and know it’s cooking, you enter the world a bit differently. Ingredients you meet along the way remind you of the soup, and that it’s cooking. You wonder what would happen if you added those ingredients to the soup. You bring them home and approach the pot. You give the soup a stir, taste it to determine how much of the new ingredients are worth adding. Or, if you’re in a rush, you just toss in the whole bundle. You leave the soup again — and again — and go back to your life. The bundle unfurls and spreads, mixing into the soup.

More life equals more ideas, means more time is passing, means the soup is getting deeper and richer, means more ingredients to add to the soup, means, ultimately, more and more layers and flavors, more blending.

At some point, when you have the time and energy, or when the soup smell is filling up your house so much that you need to do something, you’ll finish the soup. You’ll taste it again. You’ll add some salt, some pepper. You’ll pour it into bowls, select the perfect loaf of bread to go with it, and share it with close friends or colleagues or neighbors or the world. It’s then that you’ll know what the soup is worth, what it might be good for. Or it will just be a nice meal, which is fine, too. Not all soup needs to change the world.

And the point is, you couldn’t have rushed any of that. Not the making; not the serving; not the valuing. It wouldn’t be the same kind of soup — that is, precisely your soup, a soup made of your one, true life — unless it bubbled and gurgled through time and temperature shifts and surprise ingredients and more time.

“So,” I’d be saying to my son right about now if he were listening, “don’t think of them as emails. Think of them as things you might put in a soup . . . a soup we don’t have to serve anytime soon. In fact, the longer we wait, the better the soup. Have a great day at school.”

What Game are You Playing?

A lot of people I know use MailChimp to manage their mailing lists. It’s easy to use and has good tiered subscription options. So, when I heard that the company had been acquired for 12 billion dollars, I read a few of the stories to understand how a seemingly simple company could be worth so much.

Though I’m still not sure about the economics, or what drove them, my research did yield an interesting portrait of one of the company’s founders, Ben Chestnut. I liked in particular how he seemed to know exactly what game he was playing and trying to win each day.

In an article in the Financial Times, he said: “I kind of feel like I had my head down, tweaking things, improving things, and then I looked up and bam, it’s a $12bn company.” Later, he boils it down even more: “I would look at the previous balance, and then I would look at this month’s balance, and I would want to make sure that this month was greater than last month. That’s all I ever did.”

The article also reveals what he (and his partner) didn’t do. Here’s Chestnut reflecting on early investors, which he (and his partner) seemingly swatted away while not taking their money: “It felt like they were more like alien beings from another era trying to tell me how to run my business.”

What the founder and his partner did, what they didn’t do, and last . . . how they know they won: the article focuses finally on an outside voice (Wade Davis of Zapier). Regarding the deal that finally convinced the MailChimp founders to sell, Davis said he was surprised but “there were probably other reasons they felt this was a good outcome for MailChimp, for the customers, and for everyone.”

Most of us will never sell a company for billions of dollars. But all of us can seek to approach our work in ways that draw useful, healthy boundaries around it. The advice is simple:

Know what game you are playing.

Within that scope, define what you do and what you don’t do.

Repeat the doing and the not doing and protect against intrusions that would throw off the patterns, the discipline.

And then, perhaps most important, know how you know you’ve won and that the game is over.

Source: Financial Times (behind paywall).

Filling Up My Tank (and Yours)

Since school started, I’ve been trying to post something at RW Monday through Friday. I’ve mostly hit this target, and I’d like to continue to hit it. But that’s going to take some counterintuitive planning. In order to mostly succeed over the long term, I’m going to have to commit to not being perfect. And to routinely filling up my tank so that it never goes completely empty. The latter is just bad for the vehicle, right?

So I’m going to take off the last week of every month — even if I’m feeling great and filled with writing ideas. That last part is critical. I think my contribution will last longer, and have more impact over time, if I rest before I’m broken.

As for you, dear reader, I’ll also make a suggestion.

The point of the daily post was to help us both to build a habit. I wanted to connect with you each morning or at least predictably. Many of you have told me that you like starting your day this way. Or reading RW during your first coffee break of the morning. Or wrapping up your day with it, as a way to transition between work and home.

I love all of that, and I don’t want to get in the way of habits that are helpful to you. So during each of my “break” weeks, I suggest you still show up for your RW time. Keep the appointment, because it’s not so much an appointment with me as it is an appointment with yourself. You could scroll through the archive if you want. Better yet, though, you can just leave the 5 or 15 minutes completely open and let your mind go wherever it wants to. You could think about how your actions are lining up with your values and beliefs. You could check-in on progress on those goals that are most important to you. You could take the time to actually figure out what goals are most important to you. You could jot down a quick note of gratitude and send it to the intended recipient. Just don’t try to do too much. Tanks, this week, are for filling.

I’ll see you next Monday.

Steve

Bringing Food to Meetings

A recent rule shift at my school has caused me to think about one of my old habits — bringing food to meetings.

We’re not serving food at meetings for at least the first few months of school. This protocol is in response to whatever wave of COVID we’re currently managing. At first I thought, “great, this will save me some time and a good chunk of my budget.” But then I realized that buying food for meetings is an important part of my leadership behavior.

My days at work, like yours I’d imagine, fly by. No matter how slowly or quickly I work, no matter how attentive or head-in-clouds I am task-to-task, the sand flies through the hourglass of each school day. I look up and the students are already spilling out of the building, kicking soccer balls or tossing footballs, dancing across stages, piling into buses. My trips to the grocery store in advance of meetings, occasional as they were, offered me a guaranteed opportunity to lift my head in the midst of whatever day was rushing past, and to gain some perspective. These trips, which took about a half hour, were mini-leadership meditations focused on people.

When shopping for a meeting, I would always think first about the expected attendees. Would Tom — gluten free — be there? Would Mike — dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate — be there? Any vegetarians? Any foodies who might be intrigued by something unique? Any coffee fanatics?

Thinking about the particular tastes and needs of the people on each team is something I enjoy. Feeding people as a form of service is how I was raised; it’s a love language I learned on Sundays in my grandmother’s kitchen in her duplex in Jersey City. And, helpfully for all kinds of reasons, planning to feed people in meetings may have been the primary time during the week that I really thought about each individual on a team. Sometimes thinking about what someone liked to eat reminded me that their mom was still sick. Sometimes other memories surfaced, things to celebrate or just check on.

The bottom line (of this post) is that I won’t be practicing this particular leadership meditation for a while. And now that I’ve thought about what I’m losing — instead of my first thought about what I was gaining — I need to figure out a way to force an interruption, to throw a spanner into my work day every once in a while, to help me think about the people around me, the ones who so often go into the extra innings (i.e., meetings) that make all the difference for our school.

Three or Four or Five Purposes

I just checked the RW archive for a quotation that has been rattling around in my head for a while now. It came from an interview with Aswath Damodaran, and it turns out, it’s been collecting digital dust in a file called “cutting room floor.” Never published anywhere, it has still been an operating principle for me since I heard it.

Here’s some background. As we (Reshan and I) were winding down our interview, we asked Professor Damodaran a question he probably didn’t love.

We only have time for one more question, so I’ve got to ask you: how you have been so prolific? Eleven books, I lost count of all the articles you’ve had published, a massive online presence, trying to get ideas and valuation techniques democratized, and hundreds of thousands of people reading and watching your teaching. And then on top of it, being a professor and getting all these awards for best professor at NYU… Can you share any tips for people trying to be more productive?

And here’s Professor Damodaran, gracefully and humbly sharing some very practical advice:


I have to tell you, I’m a pretty lazy person, I don’t work more than 40 hours per week. What I’ve discovered helps me is to not compartmentalize – because if I thought of my life as, “there’s teaching, there’s research, there’s writing on my blog, there’s X, Y and Z…” then you very quickly run out of hours in the day. But almost everything I do spills over into almost everything else I do. So I’m constantly looking for ways to take whatever I do and get it to serve three or four or five purposes.

I’ll give you an example: about five years ago I read The Wall Street Journal post on Uber. It was a Thursday afternoon, and I said, “This will be an interesting company to value.” I did a very rudimentary valuation, because I knew very little about ride sharing; it took me about three hours to do the valuation, about three hours to write the blog post. I put it up on Friday afternoon. That blog post took a day and a half of work, but it essentially became part of my classes, it became an entire seminar that I do on valuing young and startup companies, it became a book called Narrative in Numbers.

Plenty of “content creators” (sorry!) start each day or each project by trying to guess what their audiences will react to or at least click. And plenty of publishers encourage this practice by trying to figure out if a proposed book will connect with the clickers and the reactors and the influencers. Damodaran speaks of a different, and I think better, way. Start by making the single best thing you can make. One thing at a time. And give that one thing the effort and attention it requires. Then figure out how it can be of use. Better yet, two uses. If it’s still rattling around in your head in a day or a week or a month, return to it. Add something to it. Make it more useful or differently useful. Share it again, perhaps in a new place or way.

As a teacher and learner, I see this method, too, as simply trying to create in a multimodal way — which is great for helping others to understand something that matters to you or just sticks around and won’t let go.