What I learned about momentum from Will Smith and the wall metaphor

This week I reflected on a powerful metaphor told by actor Will Smith. I found this years ago, and I occasionally come back to it. It helps me avoid losing momentum. For convenience, I’ve transcribed his monologue here.

“You don’t try to build a wall. You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say I’m gonna build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s even been built. You don’t start there. You say ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. There will not be one brick on the face of the earth that’s gonna be laid better than this brick that I’m gonna lay in this next 10 minutes’. And you do that every single day and soon you have a wall.”

During childhood, Smith and his brother built a brick wall. The task was done in after-school hours and took weeks if not months.

The wall metaphor is powerful for a few reasons:

• Breaking down impossible goals into manageable pieces.

• Building habits and creating momentum.

Breaking down impossible goals into manageable pieces

When you set out to achieve something great, the first reaction is ‘stop, that’s impossible’. You want to build a wall but you’ve never touched a brick in your life.

For you, in that moment, it is impossible. There’s no proof you can do it because you’ve never done it before. Breaking down challenges into small pieces helps overcome this. Which brick will you lay today?

The project starts at 0. No forward movement. Through sheer will you push it forward. You get the ball rolling. You lay the first brick.

Building habits and creating momentum

When you first start a new craft or hobby, it sucks. The first few reps go in the trash. You don’t have much to show for the effort. But, you do have something. You have momentum. And if you stop, you do lose something. You lose momentum.

Momentum is subtle. It’s hard to see it when you have it and when you don’t. To see it you have to look into the past and measure your performance. You have to look at your half-finished brick wall and admire the straight lines, the consistency.

I’ve experienced this first hand with writing and with running. I hit a stride and I’m raising the bar week after week. Then some curveball flies and knocks me off course. I stop writing/running.

Weeks go by. I come back and look at what I did just before stopping. I am amazed by what I had done. And I ask myself: why did I stop? Then I start the cycle again, regaining momentum. After taking a long break, the next brick is never laid to the previous standard.

My high school band teacher used to say: “skipping a day of practice is like losing a week of practice.” He understood momentum.

What I learned from mediocrity

How to Stand Out

Do you hope to be outstanding? Do you hope to stand out? Hope is not enough. Hope will not cause a sack of outstanding to land in your lap. Hope is not a strategy.

To stand out you must craft, do work, create. Artists and entrepreneurs. Hackers and painters. Creators reshape their world to match their dreams. The rest of us let the world reshape our dreams.

Lots of people have ideas. Ideas are cheap. Few people execute on ideas. The graveyard is the richest place on earth. It’s filled with unwritten books, unbuilt companies, unsong songs, unshipped products.

Many conversations go like this:

“I had an idea and I worked on an app.”

“Is it on the App Store? Can I use it?”

“No, I never took it that far”

No excuses. Ship it. Publishit. Build a portfolio of work. Take a risk to put your imperfect creation out there. You will experience a fear of criticism. There is a tiny group of fans to cheer you on. To overcome this fear realize almost no one knows who you are and even fewer know about your work.

Become a creator now, and thousands of hours later you will find acclaim. Until then you will crave real feedback. There is no overnight success. People are rewarded in public for what they’ve practiced for years in private.

Creators are stand out. Outstanding creators crave feedback. Document what you’re doing. Ask for comments. Appreciate every bit of feedback. And engage with anyone who generously gives you their attention.

Do deep work. Create work that evokes emotions. If no one feels emotional connection to your work, no one cares that it exists (besides you). Experience the joy of human connection, connect with people through your work. What makes it all worth it? The joy of human connection.

Then you will stand out…

“I do not choose to be a common man.
It is my right to be uncommon … if I can.
I seek opportunity … not security.
I do not wish to be a kept citizen,
Humbled and dulled by having the State look after me.
I want to take the calculated risk,
To dream and to build. To fail and to succeed.
I refuse to barter incentive for a dole;
I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence;
The thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of Utopia.
I will not trade freedom for beneficence
Nor my dignity for a handout
I will never cower before any master
Nor bend to any threat.
It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid;
To think and act for myself,
To enjoy the benefit of my creations
And to face the world boldly and say:
This, I have done.”

Dean Alfange (1952)

How to Waste your Summer Internship without getting Fired

Warning: sarcasm in use

Make no attempt to learn from mentors or experts. Learning is over-rated, and everything you need to know is in a book somewhere, anyway.

Arrive as late as possible every single day, without violating policy. This way you have less face-to-face time with your co-workers.

Go to all meetings you are invited to, arrive late, do not prepare, and avoid participation as much as possible.

Never ask any questions. Admitting you don’t know what a term or acronym means is unacceptable. Try to figure it out on your own or make up your own meaning. If that fails, just give up.

Don’t bother taking any notes at any point of time. Note taking is a sign of weakness.

When you get stuck on something, remain stuck for at least a week before asking for help. Asking for help is also a sign of weakness.

Never attempt to understand “the why” of your project. Just follow instructions verbatim, with as little creativity as possible.

Always have social media, YouTube, or CandyCrush open on your computer’s screen. This will help the time pass faster. If anyone says something about it, just say you are taking a break.

Avoid all social activities. You’ll never see those people again after your internship. Even if you did connect with them later via the Internet, they will never be helpful to you in any way.

Always eat lunch alone. Bonding time with your smartphone is the best way to spend lunch time.

Avoid helping others as much as possible. What did they do to help you, anyway?

Avoid old-fashioned phrases like “good morning”, “please”, “thank you”.

Avoid old-fashioned gestures like holding open doors.

Don’t bother to remember any co-workers names. You’ll never see them after the internship, anyway.

Reply to emails 3 days after receiving them, never sooner. Your own agenda is much, much more important than any request for help.

Better yet, create an inbox rule to auto-delete all incoming messages. If they contained any information that was actually important, someone will tell you in person, anyway.

Don’t bother to brush your teeth 2-3 days per week. You’re avoiding social situations, remember? Similar for showering and doing laundry, these things are a waste of your time.

Stretch your project out as long as possible. Obviously there are no other projects or problems that need solving.

On the last day of your internship just leave the building as usual without saying anything to anyone you have met. See ya!

What I learned about leadership from Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella

Bring Clarity and Energy

When Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, was asked how he hires people, he said he looks for people who bring “clarity and energy.”

Why does this matter?

Our world is accelerating in complexity every day. The ability to bring clarity to complex problems is increasingly valuable.

Energy is infectious. Leaders who bring energy to their work inspire their teams. They get more out of their people. They are multipliers, not diminishers.

What I learned from So Good They Can’t Ignore You

I asked a dozen engineering VP’s and Directors for advice on getting a promotion. The best answer by far was “be so good I have to promote you.”

The advice reminds me of a book which often comes up in my 1 on 1 meetings with engineers. It’s called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. (affiliate link) (non-affiliate link) It’s an excellent book which challenges conventional career advice. If you’d like to borrow my copy, let me know. I thoroughly enjoyed this book along with Newport’s follow up title Deep Work (affiliate link) (non-affiliate link). More on that one in a future post…

Here are 10 of the book’s nuggets that resonated with me:

1. The passion hypothesis is false.

Instead of searching for work you love, start to love your work. Take ownership of your work and change it in subtle ways that make you love it more.

2. The craftsman mindset beats the passion mindset.

Do remarkable work. Take pride in your work. Whistle while you work. This will get you farther than chasing your passions.

3. Build career capital and invest it to gain creativity, impact, control

The path to gain creative freedom, have more impact, and take more control over your agenda requires career capital. You have to build career capital gradually over months and years of delivering great results and building a support network.

4. Record your day in 15 minute increments

Where is your time actually going? Are you spending time on important work that moves you toward your goals? Or low value tasks that have little ROI?

5. Limit email to 90 min/day

Email is not work. (Unless your job is primarily writing emails)

6. Look for career capital already available to you, right in front of you.

You have career resources you may not realize. Your network, alumni groups, community are great examples. Enroll these people in your support network. This is an important part of building career capital.

7. Control is the dream job elixir.

Spend and invest your career capital to gain more control over your work. This is the path to loving your work and producing something remarkable. The path to finding, carving out your dream job.

8. Get paid

Getting paid is a measure of the career capital theory. You are ready to pursue an idea when you find someone to pay you to pursue it. If no one will pay you for the work, you aren’t good enough yet.

9. Do marketable, remarkable work

Do work that stands out. Work that stands out is remarkable and marketable. It gets people’s attention because it stands out and it makes you stand out from the crowd.

10. Working right trumps finding the right work

Stop searching for the perfect project. YOU are the project.

What I learned from asking companies for money

I did something unusual as a 3rd year undergraduate computer science student at UCLA. I went to a crowded career fair on campus, and I didn’t give anyone my resume or apply for a internship. I walked around politely introducing myself and asking for money.

My cause was a good one. I needed a few hundred dollars (pocket change to a corporation) to buy dinner for students at a hack-a-thon. The event focused on building software for people with disabilities. An example project was a smartphone app for identifying currency denominations, for people with impaired vision.

My request was met with a wide range of reactions. One person quickly, but not rudely, told me she only has budget for collecting resumes. If I could promise a stack of resumes, she could give me money. I walked away and I later I figured out she was a “recruiter”.

Another person I met represented a semiconductor company. No students were lined up to talk to her. When I approached and gave my pitch I was surprised by her rude answer, delivered in a nasty, sarcastic tone. “Why would I sponsor your event for computer science students? I’m only interested in Electrical Engineering students.” I wonder why no students wanted to talk to her. I will remember this forever and I will never consider working for her company.

A few companies took me seriously, and I formed a relationship with one. That company, Symantec, sent me ~$200 which went towards Inn-N-Out burgers for 2 dozen hungry engineering students. It helped that I knew Jeff, a guy on the inside, and one of the hack-a-thon mentors, who was able to explain the event and convince the manager to support my cause. My relationship with Symantec turned into an internship, then a full-time software QA engineering position, then a supervisor position, and now a manager position. 7 years of contributions, multiple patent filings (2 approved by USPTO!) That’s a huge return on that $200 investment.

What I learned from all of this is:

* First impressions really matter.
* The way you carry yourself in one context reflects how you will carry yourself in other contexts.
* People can smell it when you don’t care about connecting with them, and they will act accordingly.
* Supporting someone’s cause can forge a very strong relationship.
* Who you know can really make a difference for opening doors.
* Don’t be afraid of rejection! Just move on and ask the next.
* Relationships matter, a LOT.
* Even the most trivial business interaction is an opportunity for relationship building.


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What I learned about Trust

Trust is the Currency of Relationships

You have a very small group of friends you could call at 3am to bail you out of jail. You built trust with these people over years if not decades. You know they would rescue you without second thoughts, because you would do the same for them. If trust could be put in a joint bank account, this account would pay dividends.

You trust your spouse 100% (hopefully), and this allows you to accomplish feats otherwise impossible. Telling your partner ‘I trust you’ is more powerful than saying ‘I love you’. Since you feel safe at home, you focus your energy on threats outside.

Relationships make or break your business, inside and out. According to the Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Study, having a best friend at work is a key factor for employee engagement. The best friend satisfies the need to build trust in the workplace. Since you feel safe at work, you focus your energy on working together to reach your potential.

Currency is Trust

When customers buy your product they trust you will deliver to them value. This trust starts before they buy; it starts with a relationship. Often, the relationship is formed through public speaking and media.

An inspiring idea comes from Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba: If you have 1 billion dollars, that’s not your money, that’s trust society gives you; they believe you can manage the money better than others. The people of the world are putting their trust in you to use resources to bring good into the world.

Trust Cycle

The Trust Cycle illustrates how trust grows between two parties. First, trust is given. Second, trust is received. Then, mutual trust is born and exchanged.

The Trust Cycle

Think of it this way: trust starts with you. You can go around waiting for your family members to repair the relationship, or you can “be the bigger person” now and give them trust.

Flow of Trust

Where does trust start? It starts where anything else starts, with leaders. Giving trust without expectation of return requires courage, a risk taken, a leap of faith.

Flow Of Trust

The leader serves a group of followers. The leader takes the first step by giving trust. The followers return trust to the leader. Trust starts at the top and flows downhill.

360 Degree Trust

Trust flows in all directions. This model helps you analyze your relationships and focus on those with weaker trust. By carefully listening to your peers you may find unexpected hints of mistrust. The mission and the process are abstract. There is no mutual exchange of trust for mission and process; instead, trust comes from understanding.

360 Degree Trust

Observe these many angles:

  • Trust in leaders
  • Trust in the processes
  • Trust in peers
  • Trust in the teams
  • Trust in the mission
  • Trust in partners
  • Trust in partner teams

Thanks for reading!

Framework for Mentee Goal Setting

Below are some areas to focus on when setting smart goals for team members. This can be discussed in a 1 on 1 meeting, for example.

Productivity

How much do you accomplish now? How do you measure your productivity? How can you increase your value output?

Focus

Do you tend to take on too many projects and make small progress on all of them? How can avoid distractions and focus on fewer projects end to end?

Specialization

What are you really good it? What can you teach others better than anyone else? What skills and knowledge make you irreplaceable? In what new skills/knowledge are you excited about investing more time and energy?

Workability

How easy is it for peers to communicate with you? Do you slow down others or speed them up? Are you two steps ahead or one step behind? Do people come to you to ask questions? How can you make yourself easier to interact and communicate with?