Thursday, September 27, 2012


Ale suggested that pessimists might be happier than optimists, as the outcomes they experience exceed their expectations more often than they do for optimists. Nico jumped in to say that optimism can lead to better outcomes, so pessimists might actually experience worst results than optimists. I agreed with this point - particularly for situations that are closely correlated to your own actions, and even more so if there are other people involved - who will be influenced by your attitude. For example, the outcome of a soccer match in which you are playing. On the other hand, the likelihood you will win the lottery won't be influenced by your optimism about it.

But back to Alejandro's original point, we are definitely happier when reality exceeds our expectations, so we need to manage expectations. Ideally have expectations that are realistic and that we can exceed, but that will push us to do our best. I mentioned to the boys how companies must set goals that they can achieve, at least most of the times, so that employees feel good about their accomplishments. But they shouldn't "sandbag", i.e., set goals that are easy to meet and won't require that the team work really hard. And, sometimes, you do want to set some crazy unrealistic goals. That is how amazing things often happen - and how we can grow and learn by stretching ourselves outside our comfort zones.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No Breaks

Paco brought up the need for realistic planning when setting out to do a long task. For example, if you have 6 hours of work ahead, you should plan a few breaks, rather than pretend you can do all the work without stopping - as the later approach will likely result in unscheduled and disruptive breaks. Ale said that for some people, more frequent shorter breaks might work better, and even a less structured schedule. We all agreed different approaches work best for different people. The key thing is to be realistic about your needs. A related example is dieting. Some people set the unrealistic goal of not eating anything all day, only to "break down" before the end of the day to eat whatever is available. Better to know that you at least need a little bit of food and plan accordingly.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Nip in the Bud

This morning Ale started telling me about an issue he had had with Nico earlier. Before Ale could finish Nico jumped in to say he realized that he had been wrong and there was no point in involving me. But of course it was too late... Ale had already told me about it. This got me thinking of the benefit of resolving problems early before they escalate. To "nip them in the bud", as the expression says. Had Nico acknowledged his mistake right away Ale would not have brought it up with me.

We discussed similar situations in which arguments with their classmates escalate to their teachers, sometimes with serious consequences. All because they didn't resolve them early when they could have. Often, it is as simple as a brief apology. Nico asked about situations in which he was not in the wrong. I said even then it was often best to put problems behind when it is "inexpensive" to do so. I gave them the example of a bill I once got for $27. The bill was incorrect so I didn't pay it. A collections agency then called me. Again I explained the problem and refused to pay it. Next thing I know the unpaid bill appeared in my credit report (where it probably stayed for 7 years!). A few years later I got a similar bill (from another vendor). Guess what I did? You bet I just paid it and moved on!

Sometimes you want to take a stand and fight for your beliefs. But you should do so consciously and weighting the pros and cons. Pick your fights - and nip the others in the bud quickly.

Friday, September 21, 2012


Ale told us about an essay he wrote. He described three types of challenges that we face, and used different types of walls we need to get through as an analogy. Some walls you have to power through. Hit them and hit them until you break them down. For example, perfecting a musical piece on an instrument often takes practice and more practice. No short-cuts. Other walls, are too hard to demolish. You must find a path around them. An example would be a rock climbing challenge. Sometimes, the answer is a different move or path, not more "brute force". Finally, there are some walls we should walk away from - as they can't be demolished nor have a path around them. So, when you face a serious challenge, determine what kind of "wall" it is be and what the correct approach to overcome it is.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pacing Yourself

Paco's turn to lead our conversation. He has been reading the Enders Game science fiction series and he picked a topic from it: pacing yourself. When you are faced with a challenge and you want to do your best, you must remember not to try so hard you burn out before you finish.

We spoke about swimming and running. Your strategy for a 100 meter sprint, a 5K and a marathon should be quite different. Ale mentioned how the breathing technique changes in swimming depending on the distance - the kicking technique does as well. So it is not just about the degree of effort but the approach as well.

I told the boys this was a common issues in start-ups, where we often work super hard. Start-ups are rarely, if ever, sprints. So pace is critical. As a leader, be it a manager or a coach, you must help your team members pace themselves. You can't push them too hard or even let them drive themselves too hard. And it is not just about a single race but about an entire season, or in some cases a multi year olympic campaign.

And while in sports we know the distance we are running (or swimming), in other circumstances we don't. Who knows how long it will take a start-up to succeed? We must be conservative and make sure we have plenty of "fuel in the tank", with some in "reserve". If it starts to look like the finish line is close, we can speed up and burn more gas, otherwise, the priority should be to finish the race. After all, and I know I am quoting someone, in order to win, you must first finish the race!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Getting Outside your Comfort Zone

The day before my last kite race (see previous post) I got some feedback from an expert kite racer: lean further back, strengthen my front leg, flatten the board...  I thought I would be able to pay attention to these things during the race and go faster. Problem was, the race was stressful (dozens of kites all around me), challenging (too much wind, too little wind, strong current) and tiring (three races back to back). So my body ignored my brain and got into its usual comfortable position: bent legs, bent back, heeled board. I know this is slow, but my body refused to get outside its comfort zone given the stress and fatigue.

To push yourself beyond your comfort zone and improve it helps to have the right environment. Better wind, flatter water, no competitors around. Once you extend your comfort zone in such conditions you can then move on to a more challenging environment. Hopefully your body will remember what to do and disregard the stress and fatigue. It might feel like a waste of time: why bother practicing on flat water if I will compete in chop, but gradually building skills and confidence is often the fastest approach.

Knowing Who to Beat

A few days ago was the last racing night for the 2012 kiteracing series. So we discussed sailing tactics. Specifically, knowing who your real competition is. In my case, there were only three competitors I had a chance of passing for the final season standings - and nobody who could pass me. So my focus for the final night of racing was to stay ahead of the three people who mattered. How could I do that? If I happened to find myself ahead of one of them during a race, I would "cover" them. That means staying between them and the finish line, even if that meant letting other competitors pass you (maybe because you were heading to the wrong side of the course or because you were sailing past a layline). I've seen olympic races in which the two competitors with a chance of gold finish last and second to last - because all they care about is beating each other (so everyone else passes them as they match race).

Knowing who you are really competing against, who really matters, is obviously also relevant in other contexts, such as business, academics and politics.

So, how did I do? I beat two of the three people who mattered, and moved my final standing from 18 to 16 for the series ;-).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Limited Time, Unlimited Effort

Several members of the family, me included, have been struggling with challenging projects (or activities). After certain amount of frustration we wonder whether we should drop the project and move on, or stick with it a bit longer. This morning we spoke about how to go about making that decision...

I described to the boys an approach that has served me well in the past - although I must confess it is easier said than done. It is simple: decide on an amount of time you believe is appropriate to devote to exploring the project, and, during that period of time give it all you have and don't second guess yourself at all. This approach has several benefits:

- You eliminate the anxiety of second guessing yourself and pondering whether you should be abandoning the project. That analysis is left for the end of the pre-established period.

- By giving it all you have you maximize the chances of succeeding at the activity. If you fail, you will know it was not for lack of trying.

- You avoid a situation of half-hearted effort for an extended period of time, without success and without an understanding of whether you could succeed if only you gave it your best.

- You contain the risk. Suppose you want to try a jazz band but you are not sure it is the right thing for you. Rather than an open ended commitment you could start with a 90 day trial. Worst comes to worst, after 90 days you conclude you don't want to do it anymore, and move on to the next project.

What happens if you can't get yourself to devote all your energy to a project, even for a limited period of time? One conclusion might be that the project is not right for you. The other, more scary one, is that you need to work on your self-discipline... But that will be a conversation for another day.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ignorance is Bliss

Another conversation led by Alejandro. He wrote an essay titled Ignorance is Bliss. Is it? It is when knowing a problem doesn't help you solve it or do anything about it. But of course "someone" needs to solve important problems at some point... Ale described the evolution of people as ignorant (child), aware but passive (adolescent), problem-solver (adult), ignorant again (old age). Interesting...

I suggested there was no point in worrying about any problem. Either you could solve a problem (no need to worry) or you couldn't (no point in worrying). Paco liked this :-).

We spoke a bit about the free-rider problem - people in society who let others solve the problems. And about how ignorance of challenges has sometimes driven people to do the "impossible".

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dogs playing chess

Ale told us about a conversation he had in his history class. Turns out dogs have a good perception of time as something that has a past and a future, not just a present. Dogs primary sense is smell. And smells persist for a long time. A dog can tell that a certain person was at a certain spot hours before. Compare that with humans, who primarily rely on sight and sound. To us, a room in which we don't see or hear anyone is simply empty. Someone might have been there a few minutes before, but unless they left a warm cup of coffee behind, we have no idea.

So it apparently is the case that while humans are primarily focused and "sensing" just the present, dogs simultaneously perceive different moments in time. OK, this is a bit "heavy" so I think I am just going to leave it at that...

PS: Nico made an insightful observation: the above would imply that dogs should be good chess players! has a dog ever learned to play chess?