October 2014


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Given that there is an abundance of ideas, products, resources, technologies, experts etc. in today’s world, it is not surprising that only the best get noticed. There is a LARGE gap in the premium commanded between the best and others. Seth Godin makes an argument that in order to get noticed in this overcrowded world, nothing short of “best” works. What’s “best” is decided by the micro market you are intending to serve?

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You begin any activity, starting a company, learning a new game, learning music, understanding a mathematical concept, learn a new programming language, etc. there is that initial phase where results keep coming quick and fast as you put in effort. After a point though, there is an inevitable slump, the author calls it “The Dip”. Everybody has a choice in the dip: Either to keep slogging or call it quits. Seth Godin argues that successful people do two things : slog through the dip in the activity they care about OR quit the activity so that they don’t waste their time and resources in the dip that could turn out to be “The Cul-de-Sac” or “The Cliff”. The Cul-de-Sac is boring, the Cliff is exciting for a while but neither gets you through the dip and both lead to failure.

Seems extremely obvious and why would anyone write a book about. it ?  However Seth gives a ton of examples that shows SOME people/companies get it and MANY don’t. The key lies in figuring out a couple of things :

  • Quit early when you think the reward at the end of the dip is not worth your time and effort.
  • Have the perception to discern between “The Dip” and “The Cul-de-Sac”/”The Cliff”. This means knowing yourself well.
  • Don’t defend “Cul-de-Sacs” and cook up stories that make you comfortable that you are not pursuing a dead-end. It will only make you mediocre in the long-term
  • Quitting is not the same as failing. Smart quitting is essential for doing remarkable stuff.
  • Coping is a lousy alternative to quitting

Seth suggests considering three questions while quitting :

  1. Am I panicking? Decisions taken in panic are always crappy. The best quitter always decide in advance when to quit
  2. Whom are you trying to influence? Is it a single individual that you have failed to influence or is it a market place that you have not been able to cut through? Failing in the former means failure in scaling a wall that keeps getting higher and higher. The latter is akin to a hill where success comes only after experimenting with different routes that take you to the top.
  3. What sort of measurable progress that you are making? Firstly this means that you need to have some kind of measurement of your work. Not necessarily based on the money you make/ promotions etc. It could be any metric that you believe is the right one to track your progress. If you do not see any kind of measurable progress, it is a sheer waste of your time to stick to a particular activity.

There is a wonderful quote in the book,

Decide before the race the conditions that will cause you to stop and drop out. You don’t want to be out there saying, “well gee, my leg hurts, I am a little dehydrated, I’m sleepy. I’m tired, and it’s cold and windy”. And talk yourself into quitting. If you making a decision based on how you feel at that moment, you will probably make a wrong decision.

– Dick Collins(Ultra marathoner)

I guess it all boils down to “ Writing it down under what circumstances you will quit. And when. And then stick with it.”

Quit the wrong Stuff.
Stick with the right Stuff.
Have the guts to do one or the other.

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I guess at least a few people do entertain the following thought at some point in their lives :

I want to work like crazy, earn enough money until I am X years old and then take all the hard earned money and retire in a peaceful place for the rest of the life.

The value of X is something that is variable in the above statement. For some it is late 50’s. For some it is late 40’s. Nowadays we see some instances where X happens to be late 30s/early 40s. Whatever X may be, the thought process behind such a statement is that, one would have accumulated enough money to lead a simple life far away from the hustle bustle of maddening city life.

Somerset Maugham’s short story titled, “The Lotus Eater”, is about Thomas Wilson, a person who works until he is 35, takes a 25 year annuity, settles down in Capri, an island in Italy. Wilson makes up his mind that with the 25 year annuity he would peacefully enjoy the life at Capri and in all probability he would die by 60, before the money from the 25 year  annuity stops coming in. What if he lives beyond 60? Wilson makes up his mind well before he settles down in Capri that if such a situation arises, he would have no qualms in ending his life as he would have already lived 25 years of happy and serene life on the Island. A perfect plan. However there was one big flaw in Wilson’s plan.

It had never occurred to him that after twenty-five years of complete happiness, in this quiet backwater, with nothing in the world to disturb his serenity, his character would gradually lose its strength. The will needs obstacles in order to exercise its power; when it is never thwarted, when no effort is needed to achieve one`s desires, because one has placed one`s desires only in the things that can be obtained by stretching out one`s hand, the will grows impotent. If you walk on a level all the time the muscles you need to climb a mountain will atrophy. These observations are trite, but there they are. When Wilson`s annuity expired he had no longer the resolution to make the end which was the price he had agreed to pay for that long period of happy tranquility.

The consequence of 25 years of bliss is that he cannot bring himself to end his life after 60. The last 6 years of his life, after his annuity runs out is a complete tragedy. The same island which gives him total bliss for 25 years shows him the ugly side of it. Strange are the ways of life!

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This is a book of letters. It contains a 20 year correspondence (1949-1969) between Helene Haff, an American freelance writer and Marks & Co., a book store on 84, Charing Cross Road at London. The author’s love for books and especially out-of-print books makes her respond to an ad placed by Marks & Co in a literary magazine. Her first letter requesting a set of books gets a prompt response from the book store and that’s how a 20 year correspondence starts.

These letters also capture the political milieu of the two countries around that time. In London, around 1950’s, the food was rationed out to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month. Helen magnanimously sends a 6 pound ham from her savings and this simple act breaks the ice between the Marks & Co. staff and Helen.

With every letter going back and forth Helen and various staff members start sharing their lives. Helen’s “request for book” letters start morphing in to a more “Here’s what I am feeling now, I need some thing to read” type of letters. Even though most of Helen’s requests are handled by Frank Doel at the book store, the entire staff is fascinated by this unusual customer. Some of them secretly write letters so that they are not restrained by the formalism of an official communication. This short book of ~100 pages captures a gamut of emotions that sweep through anyone’s life. Set in a context of faceless communication, a lot more is left to the imagination of the reader and that makes this book a classic to treasure.