lessons in building better- self, product, businesses, and life
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
I am writing this because it must be written as a note to self at the very least.
These are my breakthroughs and learnings while building a product very closely, understanding what leadership means, and growing.
I don’t have specific advice on becoming a better person with Products. I do have specific advice on becoming a better person.
Something I am practicing every day, no matter how difficult it is. I am always open to learning from you, discuss these further, and to ask questions. Do reach out if you think you’d like to talk.
Chase the emotion: In the best of the times and the worst of the times, I felt an incredible stillness inside me. This has now become the signal of being completely present. I have felt this in full intensity in moments when I am doing the best I physically can at the given task. Chasing this helps me drive fulfillment.
Demand accountability from self and others: If you haven’t delivered on your plans, why haven’t you? What could you have done better? Did you ask for help? Did you seek support? If others haven’t, do the same with them as well.
Seek feedback: Do this regularly. Ask what you can do better. Ask specific questions. What don’t you like about this? What are your expectations for this? So on and so forth. You will learn, depending on the answers you get, whether you are in the hands of the right leadership or not. The more detailed and specific answers you get, the better your leader or team is. Your job is to bring clarity everywhere you go, either by asking questions, or fishing for them.
Develop self-awareness: Start becoming aware of your patterns at work. Are you good at planning? Are you good at working when a deadline is closer? Are you good at thinking fast on your feet or can you achieve great depth in working with a more relaxed timeline? I have learned what works for me is a planned approach. Pre-2019, a lot of my work used to be fuelled by the anxieties of the approaching deadline and the consequences of not doing things right. I wrote a book that way, which turned out pretty well. But the problem is I could never take ownership of my work since I always felt I could have done better. The could-have-should-have territory is very dangerous. I learned that this approach depleted my mental, emotional resources, and aggravated stress and suffering. It is unnecessary.
Build a value system: After practicing awareness, you will realize the areas of improvement in your work and style. Build yourself a value system that helps you put your approach in line, and for specific areas of improvement, seek the help of technology and apps. For example, build a value system that suggests I will never publish code or send a document if it hasn’t passed my internal quality test. If you need more specific help with writing, use Grammarly to improve the quality.
Building a value system takes time: Be patient and kind to yourself. Seek the help of a coach or a leader who is invested in you or therapy, to constantly go deeper into the understanding of yourself, and build a value system that is authentic to you. Remember value systems are different from rules. In my opinion, value systems are more intrinsic to who you are. Rules are more external. Value systems guide your life and work.
Put your head down and do the work: For the longest time, I would say a lot and talk about the potential of the work a lot but wouldn’t actually spend the time doing the work. This led to a great level of disappointment because I would be the one originally setting the expectations and building the picture and I would also be the person who is not delivering. I have learned that it is easier and always better to put your head down and just do the work. Show the outcomes, don’t talk about it.
Find out what creates a safe environment at work for you: I absolutely hate working in a chaotic, unstructured environment. Reason? It clogs my mind and reduces my ability to perform. So now I bring as much structure as I possibly can to a particular problem statement or situation and strike a balance between the environment I need and what I can manage. This also means being very communicative with my team and boss, so they know what I need. They can’t just imagine this. I also don’t like emotionally charged conversations. I don’t think there is a space for anything but an adult conversation at a workplace. And I do my best to consistently reinforce that as an expectation.
Find out how you want to be lead and communicate this to your leader: In my experience, it’s as simple as going to a hair salon. If you don’t know what you want, you will get the style your stylist wants. Figure this out and communicate. True leaders will listen to you and lead you in the way that works the best for you.
Understand what games you want to play: Always play positive-sum games, no matter what. In my experience, the only time you should play a zero-sum game is when you have no option left and you must defend. Till then, just always, Always play positive-sum games. If the team you are in isn’t growing and learning with you, then chances are you are all depleting each-other, that’s the worst place to be in.
Find out what ownership means to you: Especially for a Product Manager, this is the most important thing. I have learned that you are probably being paid for the amount of ownership you show and deliver on. The more things you can take off the plate of the CEO in a startup or your senior, and the better you deliver, the better are the chances for your growth- personal and professional. You are paid for the risk you manage and how well you do this.
Cut the noise, it is simpler: Don’t get lost in the list of tools and techniques available in the market. They are good to have. What you need to build yourself is a system that brings out the best in you. Use that and double down on that.
Quality over quantity: Always. How good is the quality of your work? If you are building a report, how articulate is it? If you are building projections, how informed are they? If you are dealing with other humans at work, how empathetic are you? If you are pitching to an investor, do you understand what they need from you?
Non-stop up-skilling: Consistently look out for adjacent areas of work for the new skills you can pick up. Your role really doesn’t matter. What matters is the work. It is important to develop deep skills in all the adjacent areas. Product for example will need you to develop skills in Design Thinking, design Execution, research, getting your numbers right, reporting, understanding tech, knowing how to prototype with it, designing and running tests quickly and efficiently. If you are a programmer or a designer, find out what are the adjacent skills for you and double down on them. Don’t know what they are? Do some research. Stuck somewhere, reach out to me, I’m always happy to help.
Build the skill of asking specific questions: Your work most often will be guided by how good are the questions you ask. Is every question helping you go closer to analyzing the root cause or away from this? Just this is enough of a signal for me to understand how far someone is going to go in their career. Ask specific questions. Cut down the fat, get closer and closer to the root cause always.
Work on your emotional self and insecurities: I read this in a book. The best thing a person can do to find the best partner in their life is to go to therapy and figure out all the baggage one is carrying. I can’t stress this enough- resolve your issues. Take time out and go to therapy, find a good coach, work on your belief system. There will be many, many times when you will have the realization, as I did, that the upper limit of what you can do and achieve in your career will be directly dependent on your self-awareness levels. The more self-aware you are, the better you can work with yourself in the most difficult times, the better you are at being lead, the better you can lead. And when shit hits the fan and things are crumbling down, show yourself kindness, take a break and get back up to do the work.
Have a mantra: Do the best you can with what you have and with where you are right now. This isn’t my line, but something I practice as often as I can. And as long as you are doing this as a team, you are winning today this is all that you need.
Do the work, title-less first: Don’t worry about the title, do the work. I have been receiving a lot of requests from people over the past few months trying to understand how to become a product manager or what can they learn to get the title and what can one do or don’t. My honest answer is nothing. Just stay where you are, and focus on taking more responsibility and ownership and deliver - left, right and center. If you are able to think of a problem statement holistically, articulate it to all the stakeholders required, and deliver it with the highest quality, you are doing the work. In my personal experience, because of the constant struggle with low self-worth and low self-esteem, I used to seek external validation to feel worthy. Getting the title is just one manifestation of that. Slowly, as I started to detach my self worth from what I did to who I am, the titles stop mattering. I joined Surge Send to figure out the product, took up research, then did marketing, then understood engineering, did some prototyping, launched it, did a lot of other things- things that were necessary for the bottom lines to move forward. Made a lot of mistakes, started as a terrible liability to the team- not delivering, not really understanding what ownership or delivery meant, not knowing what leading meant. But then, a few months into the role I got my act together. Doing the work on self, and removing the restrictions that come from having a title helped me own more- everything I wanted to own and deliver without ever compromising on quality. And when shit hit the fan, holding myself accountable and moving forward with the learnings. When I finally moved on, the team was stronger than ever. Work had become play.
Have another mantra: Be so good they can’t ignore you.
Notice the flags: Take everything flagged to you extremely seriously. I learned that things that blew up in massive proportions were often called out by someone not in authority, much ahead of time, but wasn’t taken seriously. This could have been totally avoided. If you are spending more time fixing avoidable problems than creating new things, you are losing your edge.
Grilling is painful but necessary: Be ready to explain your decisions and your process on-demand. What I have learned is this- accountability will be demanded from you and ownership will not come to you till you have shown your worth and built incredible trust through deliveries. In the initial stages, everything I did was questioned, and rightly so. But slowly, as experiments showed results, as the team saw consistency in delivery, the questions changed. They went from “why are you doing this” to “what else could we do here”. They go from authority to curious questions. It is nothing less than fascinating.
Follow up: Follow up like your life depends on it. Follow up shamelessly, patiently, and kindly. Don’t show frustration when things don’t move, go in with curiosity and find out how you can help. Hold people accountable and show them how to improve.
About rules: Build rules that apply the same way to everyone- from work hours to holidays to payment policies. The only way you can build trust is by showing rules apply the same way to everyone.
Become a voracious reader: The more you can absorb and apply, the faster you will move. There is probably a book out there which has the solutions to the problems you are working on, find the book and read it. Of course, you can hear a podcast or speak with someone too, you have to find out what works the best for you. What I have noticed is that slow rain showers are best for crops because the water seeps deep into the water. Heavy rains don’t since most of the water just runs away or floods the fields. I feel the same way about learning via reading v/s podcast or speeches.
Show your human side: Ask for help when you need it. Infallible is not very interesting. You have to seek help when you genuinely need it. I am learning how this shows your team two things:
That you are as human as they are.
You are humble enough to seek help, hence you are not above them in any way.
On authenticity: Learn how to practice authenticity, all the time. This is difficult. And unless you have spent a lot of time building self-awareness, it will probably be next to impossible. It’s best if you seek help with this and find out what this means for you.
Work till Play: Do the work till it becomes Play. Once it becomes play, there is no work, it is just Play.
Non-sexy is the real deal: Love to learn the non-sexy, boring parts of the job. Use this time to recover your neurons and also be humbled by the reality that these boring, non-sexy parts sometimes are the real tasks that move the bottom line.
About change: Lean into change. When you find resistance in you, go deeper and find out where it’s coming from. A manifestation could be in procrastination, or just throwing a tantrum or not wanting to go to work, or burn out. Find out where it is coming from, and solve for the root cause. Just becoming aware is half the work done. Love yourself like your life depends on it.
People over job: People matter more than anything else. Take care of the people like they are your own, in whatever ways you can. Companies, jobs, titles, they all go away. People and relationships, however, end up defining who you become.
Just know this is a process, and give it the time it takes. Take one step at a time. Start with learning how to take care of yourself. Self-love and self-compassion will help you get through this journey. It's easier than you think, and you are not alone in this journey, you are never alone.
Exercise: Build a routine.
Diet: Don’t eat shit. Trust me, it changes your life. Here is some proof from my own life.
A tribe where you feel like you belong.
A therapist or a coach.
Ask yourself if you are insecure.
Ask yourself if you have a self-worth issue.
Ask yourself if you are good at drawing boundaries.
What are your core motivations for doing the job?
What is Play for you?
What drives you?
What are your personal negotiable and non-negotiable?
What traumas are driving your behavior?
What happens when this trauma fuel runs out?
What does fulfillment mean to you?
Reach out if you'd like to speak. Be 1% kinder to yourself today and keep growing!