Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Funny Thought: Letter of Recommendation

My friend, Ke, told me that in China, it is common for graduating students to write their own letters of recommendation in the names of their professors.

If I got to write my own recommendation in the name of my professor, it'd look like this:
Meng is, by far, the best student I have ever had. In fact, he is the smartest person I have ever met. It is hard to imagine someone so stunningly handsome can, at the same time, be so brilliant. I admire him so much even his mere shadow inspires me. It is my professional opinion that anybody who doesn't hire him is an idiot. If you don't hire him, I'll personally beat you up.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Random Thought: Dealing with distress


Over the years, I've developed a 4-step plan to deal with my distress.  I hope this would be helpful to you too.

My 4 steps are:
1. Know when you're not in pain.
2. Do not feel bad about feeling bad.
3. Do not feed the monsters.
4. Start every thought with kindness and humor.

1.Know when you're not in pain.

When you're not in pain, know that you're not in pain.

This is a very powerful practice on multiple levels.  On one level, it increases happiness.  When we're suffering pain, we always tell ourselves, "I'll be so happy if I'm free from this pain", but when we're free from that pain, we forget to enjoy the freedom from pain.  This practice of constantly noticing the lack of distress encourages us to enjoy the sweetness of that freedom, and thereby helps us to be happier.

On another level, I find that even when experiencing pain, the pain is not constant, especially emotional pain.  The pain waxes and wanes and there are times (perhaps short intervals of minutes or seconds) when a space opens up where one is free from pain.  The practice of noticing the lack of distress helps us abide in that space when it opens up.  This space gives us temporary relief and it is the basis from which we launch our recovery and find the strength to face our problems.

2. Do not feel bad about feeling bad.

We have the tendency to feel bad about feeling bad ("meta-distress", I call it).  This is especially true for good people.  We would berate ourselves by saying things like, "Hey, if I'm such a good person, why am I feeling this much anger?".  This is even more true for good people with contemplative practices like meditation.  We would scold ourselves by saying, "Maybe if you're actually a good meditator, you won't feel this way.  Therefore, you must be a lousy meditator, a hypocrite, a useless piece of [insert context-appropriate noun]".

It is important to recognize that distress is a naturally-arising phenomenon, we all experience it from time to time.  Even Thich Nhat Hanh, the very symbol of enlightened peace in the world, once got so angry about someone he almost wanted to stand up and slug him.

Also recognize that feeling bad about feeling bad is an act of ego.  It's a reflection of our ego's image about itself, and the net result is the creation of new distress for no good reason at all.  The antidote is to let the ego go, with good humor where possible.

And remember, meta-distress is really bad economics.

3. Do not feed the monsters.

Let's pretend our distress are monsters that arise from and occupy our minds, wrecking havoc in us.  What can we do to stop them?  They seem so overwhelmingly powerful, we feel so weak at stopping their arising, and we are powerless to make them leave.

Happily, it turns out that our monster need us to feed them.  If we don't feed them, they'll just get hungry and maybe they'll go away.  Therein lies the source of our power.  We cannot stop monsters from arising, or force them to leave, but we have the power to not feed them.

Not feeding monsters is very good economics.

4. Start every thought with kindness and humor.

In every situation, distressing or otherwise, it's useful to begin each thought with kindness and compassion.  Kindness both for oneself and others.  The practices most useful for cultivating this quality of heart are Metta Bhavana (Meditation on Loving Kindness) and Tonglen.

In my experience, the most important quality of kindness is its healing effect.  Imagine taking a rough, spiky brush and repeatedly brushing it hard and quickly on an area of your skin.  Eventually, your skin will become inflamed and painful.  Kindness is the quality of gently stopping that harmful brushing action, and if you do that, eventually, the skin will heal.

I also find it very useful to see humor in my own failings.  Everytime I lose my anger or arise a thought of greed or spitefulness that doesn't go away for a while, it's like I've fallen off the wagon again.  I can interpret falling off the wagon as a painful, humiliating, embarrassing experience, of course.  However, I found it much more fun to think of the experience as a scene in an old black-and-white comedy.  Guy fell off wagon in the context of fast, playful music, makes a funny face, dusts himself off, and then climbs back up the wagon in awkward, jerky, quick motion.  It's all very funny.  So everytime I fail, it's a comedy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sometimes, When I'm Alone, I Search Inside Myself (Part II)


(Continued from Part I)

In Part I, we described the 3 principles behind Search Inside Yourself (SIY), Google's homegrown program for developing Emotional Intelligence:
1. Emotional skills are trainable
2. EI training starts with attention training
3. Work with emotions in the body

In this post, we'll describe an overview of the structure and content of SIY.  Note that SIY is still in "beta" (perhaps semi-permanently).  That means that we're never fully satisfied with it and we're constantly trying to make changes to improve it.  So this information is only valid as of today, and we're almost certain to make some important changes every now and then.

SIY is a training program consisting of 3 courses totaling 19 class hours.  The 3 courses are:
1. SIY 101: Introduction to Emotional Intelligence (2 hrs)
2. SIY 102: Day of Mindfulness (7 hrs, pre-requisite: SIY 101)
3. SIY 103: Developing the 5 Domains of Emotional Intelligence (10 hrs, pre-requisite: SIY 101)


1. SIY 101: Introduction to Emotional Intelligence

The objective of this course is to introduce participants to the neuroscience, application and development of Emotional Intelligence.  It includes a theory section and a practical section, so participants walk out of the classroom armed not only with new knowledge on the topic, but also with useful practices they can apply in daily life.

The content covered in this class includes:
  • The neuroscience of emotions (in which we ask participants to watch this video before coming to class).
  • What Emotional Intelligence is and how it relates to work.
  • Our method for developing Emotional Intelligence (see the 3 principles of SIY above) and some of the neuroscience behind it.
  • Introduction to "Mindfulness".
  • Introduction to 3 foundational practices: Attention Workout, Journaling and Mindful Listening, how each relates to Emotional Intelligence and suggestions for developing and applying them in daily life.

The "Attention Workout" practice is the Mindfulness of Breathing practice, intended to help you strengthen your "muscles" of attention.  "Journaling" is the practice of "free writing", where you're given an open-ended prompt (such as, "What I'm feeling now is ...") and then you just "brain-dump" whatever comes to mind onto paper, whether or not it relates to the prompt, and whether or not it makes any sense at the moment.  Mindful Listening is the practice of giving the gift of your full attention to another person when she speaks.  In a way, it's a form of meditation where the object of meditation is the other person.

We hope that by the end of SIY 101, participants will have an introductory understanding of the topic, gain some confidence that we can all become more emotionally skillful with training, and pick up enough tools to start making a difference in their own lives.


2. SIY 102: Day of Mindfulness

SIY 102 is a full day class lasting 7 hours (usually held on a weekend day), where participants gain a deeper understanding of the practices covered in SIY 101, get an opportunity to spend an entire day practicing them, and pick up a few additional useful practices.

The content covered in this class includes:
  • A more indepth understanding of Mindfulness of Breathing (this is actually the same content as the Meditation 101 class I teach in Google, which I plan to put on YouTube "real soon now").
  • A practice called "Looping" (short for "Closing the loop of communication"), which is an extension of Mindful Listening (covered in SIY 101) where participants graduate from merely listening mindfully to conducting a mindful conversation with mutual feedback.
  • Mindful standing, walking, eating and emailing.
  • Experimenting with "open awareness" vs "focused awareness" (mindfulness vs concentration).
  • A practice called the "Game of Self", where one person repeatedly asks the question to another, "Who are you?"
  • More journaling.
We hope that SIY 102 helps participants build a solid foundation for further growth of emotional competencies.


3. SIY 103: Developing the 5 Domains of Emotional Intelligence

SIY 103 is a series of 5 sessions, each lasting 2 hours, conducted over 5 weeks.  Each session explores one domain of Emotional Intelligence in some depth and introduces practices relevant to that domain.  "Homework" is given at the end of each session (eg, 10 minutes of mindful sitting a day).

Session 1: Self-Awareness.

The theme of this session is developing a deeper understanding between body, thoughts and emotions.  Topics covered in this session include:
  • Body scan ("The insula workout").
  • Discovering emotions in the body.
  • The relationship between emotion, aversion and thoughts. 
  • "Looping" (for those who didn't take SIY 102 before this).
Session 2: Self-Regulation

The theme of this session is moving from Compulsion to Choice.  Topics covered in this session include:
  • What Self-Regulation is and isn't.
  • Dealing with emotional triggers.
  • Moving from existential to physiological (from I am angry to I experience anger in my body).
Session 3: Motivation

The theme of this session is discovering your deepest motivations (which you already know, you just have to uncover them).  Topics covered in this session include:
  • Alignment:  Aligning my deepest values with what I do.
  • Envisioning:  Seeing my best future.
  • Optimism:  Maintaining self-confidence by becoming honest and comfortable experiencing both "positive" and "negative" emotions.
Session 4: Empathy

The theme of this session is developing a "social radar".  Topics covered in this session include:
  • Seeing similarities ("Just like me" meditation).
  • Offering kindness (loving-kindness meditation).
  • Listening for feelings (empathic listening).
Session 5: Social Skills

The theme of this session is "Leading with Compassion".  Topics covered in this session include:
  • Development of compassion (Tonglen).
  • Compassion and leaership.
  • Conducting difficult conversations.
  • Exploring who I am as a leader.
One feature of SIY 103 is the "buddy" system.  During the first class, we ask participants to pair up, so each would have a "buddy".  The idea behind this is to provide companionship for practice.  The analogy is starting a training regime at the gym.  Regular practice at the gym is very hard to maintain, especially in the beginning, so what helps many people stay with their training regimes is having a "gym buddy".  The gym buddy is somebody who goes to the gym with you 2 or 3 times a week.  The main benefits of having a gym buddy are that you never have to be alone at the gym, you have someone to encourage you as you work out, and there's someone to bug you if you don't go.  The SIY buddy is designed to do the same thing for your SIY practice.

We ask SIY buddies to converse at least once a week, with at least the first few minutes of the buddy conversation structured to cover these topics:
  • How is your practice?
  • What is one thing that happened this week that is relevant to SIY practice?
  • How was this conversation (we just had)?

We are very encouraged to find that SIY had been very helpful to many people.  We hope to "open source" all the SIY content soon, so that more people can benefit.  This will happen once we find the time to improve the presentation of the content (see, this bearing the Google name, I can't be as sloppy as I usually am).  My idea is to release SIY content under some sort of Creative Commons license that allows anybody to use SIY content in any way (including for profit), as long as they attribute the source.  An additional condition I'd like to impose, if I can, is that if anybody makes any improvements to the content, they are obliged to tell us and allow us to give that improvement away to all for free under the same license if we choose to.  That way, everybody can benefit from improvements made by everybody else.

Once we get our materials in order, I'll post it on this blog.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sometimes, When I'm Alone, I Search Inside Myself (Part I)


(For the story on what motivated us to create Search Inside Yourself, see this post: "Three Easy Steps to World Peace")

Search Inside Yourself (SIY) is Google's homegrown Emotional Intelligence (EI) curriculum.  It was created in Google with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and further refined with help from Stanford University.  Dr Daniel Goleman was our advisor.  We intended for it to be an effective EI curriculum for adults (perhaps the first of its kind in the world) that can be applied in the workplace and that is helpful both to increasing businesses profits and to people achieving more success in their careers.

Given that I had a reputation as a supposedly good engineer, I'd love to tell you that we had a strategic, carefully thought-out curriculum design process that decided on design principles first, followed by proper structure and format, and then content creation, eventually resulting in a flawless curriculum the first time it was released.  But no, it didn't happen that way.  We unconsciously followed Google's "launch and iterate" model, which meant first forming a team with the best and most qualified people you know, hammering together things that are most likely to work, launching it as "beta" to a bunch of innocent bystanders, figuring out retroactively what worked and what didn't work, and then rinse and repeat.  This process is especially effective for doing anything cutting-edge where there is no way for you to know in advance what will certainly work and what won't.

Out of this process, 3 "design principles" of SIY emerged retroactively.  Actually, everybody already had these principles in mind right from the beginning, but they were never stated formally until a few iterations later, and the iterative process itself helped us gain clarity and conviction in the principles.

The 3 principles behind SIY are:
1. Emotional skills are trainable
2. EI training starts with attention training
3. Work with emotions in the body


1. Emotional skills are trainable

When people come to a course that advertises itself as an "Emotional Intelligence course", most people expect it to be a behavioral course.  People expect to come to class to be told how to play nice, share the candy and not bite their co-workers.

We decided on an entirely different approach.  We begin with the assumption that Emotional Intelligence is a collection of emotional skills, and like all skills, emotional skills are trainable.  So we set out to create a course to train emotional abilities, and we feel that if we develop abilities, all behavioral issues go away.  For example, if a person can acquire the ability to overcome anger, then all behavioral issues involving anger go away.

Examples of skills we explore in SIY are:
- Responding to triggers.
- Conducting difficult conversations.
- Maintaining confidence during stress.


2. EI training starts with attention training

We began with the assumption that EI is trainable.  But how do we begin training?  We begin by training attention.  This may seem a little counter-intuitive at first.  I mean, what does attention have to do with emotional skills?

The answer is that a strong, stable and perceptive attention that affords you calmness and clarity is the foundation upon which Emotional Intelligence is built.  This quality of attention gives you a strong base for building Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation, the first 2 of the 5 domains of Emotional Intelligence that leads to all other domains of Emotional Intelligence.

An example of how attention relates to Self-Awareness:  Self-Awareness depends on being able to see ourselves objectively, and that requires the ability to examine our thoughts and emotions from a a third-person perspective.  Not getting swept up in the emotion, not identifying with it, but just seeing it clearly and objectively.  And this requires a stable, non-judging attention.

An example of how attention relates to Self-Regulation:  There is an ability called "response flexibility", which is a fancy name for the ability to pause before you act.  You experience a strong emotional stimulus, but instead of reacting immediately as you normally would (like slapping the CEO, for example), you pause for a split-second, and that pause gives you choice in how you want to react in that emotional situation.  That ability depends again on having a quality of attention that is unwavering and unimpeded at the same time.

How do you train this quality of attention?  The training method we use is something known as "Mindfulness Meditation".  "Mindfulness" is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as, "paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally".  (Thich Nhat Hanh defined Mindfulness very poetically as "keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality", which we really like, but we found Jon's definition easier to explain to the engineers).  Mindfulness is a quality of mind that we all experience and enjoy from time to time, but it is something that can be greatly strengthened with practice, and once it becomes suffuciently strong, it leads directly to the attentional calmness and clarity that forms the basis of EI development.

(There is strong scientific evidence that meditation changes the emotional brain, including the ability to lower activition in the amygdala in response to a negative stimulus.  A topic for a future blog post).


3. Work with emotions in the body

Once we develop strong, stable and perceptive attention, what do we do with it to develop Emotional Intelligence?  Well, use it on the body, of course.  This again seems a little counter-intuitive.  Why do we want to do that?

The first answer is, "Because we can".  Every emotion has a correlate in the body.  For example, some of us experience anger as a contraction of the chest, or a change in the pattern of breathing, or a tightening of the neck and shoulders and so on.  Every emotional experience is also a physiological experience.  More importantly, we can experience emotions more vividly in the body than in the mind.  Therefore, when we are trying to perceive an emotion, you usually get more bang for the buck if you bring your attention to the body rather than to the mind.

The more important reason to bring the attention to the body is that it affords us a high-resolution awareness of emotions.  What does "high-resolution awareness" mean?  In answering that question, let's ponder on an interesting question, "Are you able to detect anger the moment it is arising?".  This is an important question, because we may not be able to prevent anger from arising, and once it's in full bloom, we are usually unable to turn it off, but we can usually turn it off at its moment of arising, when it's small enough to be managable.  That is our window of opportunity.  Doing that, of course, depends on being able to detect that moment of arising.  That's what I mean by "high-resolution awareness", when your awareness is so sensitive across both time and space that you can watch an emotion as it arises or falls.  Can we do that?

Yes, we can.  And the way to do it is to apply powerful attention onto the body.  Using anger as the example again, you may be able to train yourself to observe your mind all the time and then catch anger as it arises in the mind.  However, in our experience, it is far easier and more effective to do it in the body.  For example, if your bodily correlate to anger is tightening of your chest, shallowing of your breath and tightening of your forehead, then when you're in an awkward social situation, the moment your chest tightens, breath shallows and forehead tenses up, you know you're at the moment of arising of anger, and that knowledge gives you the ability to respond in ways of your own choosing (eg, leaving the room before you do something you know you'll regret, or choosing to allow the anger to bloom if that's the right response for the situation).

Another important reason to work with the body is that it may help the development of empathy.  It is already known that the part of the brain known as the insula is related to the ability to experience and recognize bodily sensations.  People with very active insula, for example, are able to become aware of their own heartbeats.  There is also evidence that people with active insula tend to also have high empathy, which seems to make sense since the neural equipment we use to monitor our own feelings can also be used to monitor other people's feelings.  Finally, there is evidence that people who spend a lot of time paying meditative attention to their own bodies also strengthen their insula.  From our experience, we know that doing a lot of Mindfulness meditation on the body strengthens our ability to recognize bodily sensations.  We now have evidence to believe that it can strengthen empathy.

Last but not least, a good and useful reason to develop a high-resolution awareness of the body is to strengthen our intuition.  A lot of our intuition can come from the body, and learning to listen to it can be very fruitful.  Here's an interesting quote from Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink (also available at http://www.gladwell.com/blink/blink_excerpt1.html)
In front of you, are four decks of cards--two red and two blue.  [....] What you don't know at the beginning, however, is that the red decks are a minefield. [....]  You can really only win by taking cards from the blue decks [....]. The question is: how long will it take you to figure this out?

A group of scientists at the University of Iowa did this experiment a few years ago, and what they found is that after we've turned over about fifty cards, most of us start to develop a hunch about what's going on. We don't know why we prefer the blue decks. But we're pretty sure, at that point, that they are a better bet. After turning over about eighty cards, most of us have figured the game out, and can explain exactly why the first two decks are such a bad idea. This much is straightforward. We have some experiences. We think them through. We develop a theory, and then finally we put two and two together. That's the way learning works. But the Iowa scientists did something else, and this is where the strange part of the experiment begins. They hooked each gambler up to a polygraph--a lie detector machine--that measured the activity of the sweat glands that all of us have below the skin in the palms of our hands. Most sweat glands respond to temperature. But those in our palms open up in response to stress--which is why we get clammy hands when we are nervous. What the Iowa scientists found is that gamblers started generating stress responses to red decks by the tenth card, forty cards before they were able to say that they had a hunch about what was wrong with those two decks. More importantly, right around the time their palms started sweating, their behavior began to change as well. They started favoring the good decks, and taking fewer and fewer cards from A and B. In other words, the gamblers figured the game out before they figured the game out: they began making the necessary adjustments long before they were consciously aware of what adjustments they were supposed to be making.


It is important to note that in developing our Emotional Intelligence, we are not suppressing our emotions.  In a class I taught recently, one woman raised a very important question.  She wanted to confirm that when we talk about "turning off anger", for example, we were not actually talking about suppressing anger.  The analogy she used is a fire alarm.  Anger is like a fire alarm, it is unpleasant, but it yields useful data and suppressing it may create unintended consequences.  I think she is right.  Using her analogy, I would say that SIY is not shutting down the fire alarm.  In fact, in SIY, we actually learn to hear the alarm better, AND at the same time, we develop the ability to not be under its control AND we create the choice to turn off unnecessary alarms (eg, false alarms) anytime we want.  Our emotional development begins with more awareness, not less.


In Part II, I will talk about how we actually structure SIY and what we put into it.

(Continued on Part II)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Collection of Personal Growth Talks

Here is a collection of some of the most popular publicly-accessible talks in Google relating to personal growth.  This list is compiled by my very capable associate, Jenny Lykken, who works with me in Google University's School of Personal Growth.

Neuroscience

  • Karl Diesseroth: Cracking the Neural Code: Tools from the Deisseroth laboratory have been used to optically deconstruct Parkinsonian neural circuitry, setting the stage both for cracking the neural codes of normal brain function, and for re-engineering neural circuits in disease. 

  • Daniel Siegel: MindSight: The New Science of Personal Transformation: This interactive talk examines two major questions: "What is the mind?" and "How can we create a healthy mind?" We'll examine the interactions among the mind, the brain, and human relationships and explore ways to create a healthy mind, an integrated brain, and mindful, empathic relationships.

  • Thomas Lewis: The Neuroscience of Empathy: Author Dr. Thomas Lewis discusses "The Neuroscience of Empathy" and how it applies to collaboration and understanding others.

  • Philippe Goldin: Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation:  Philippe examines the effect of mindfulness meditation practice on the brain systems in which psychological functions such as attention, emotional reactivity, emotion regulation, and self-view are instantiated.

  • John Medina: Brain Rules:  How does the brain work?  How do we learn? What exactly do sleep and stress do to our brains? Why is multi-tasking a myth? Why is it so easy to forget--and so important to repeat new information? Is it true that men and women have different brains?  John tells you.

  • Richie Davidson: Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain:  Richie explores recent scientific research on the neuroscience of positive human qualities and how they can be cultivated through contemplative practice.

  • David Rock: Your Brain at Work:  David takes advantage of the latest research in neuroscience to explain what happens to our brains in different work situations and how we can optimize our effectiveness at work by understanding our brains.

Emotional Intelligence
  • Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence: Daniel Goleman discusses the basics and importance of emotional intelligence and his book "Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships."

  • Philippe Goldin: The Neuroscience of Emotions: The ability to recognize and work with different emotions is fundamental to psychological flexibility and well-being. Neuroscience has contributed to the understanding of the neural bases of emotion, emotion regulation, and emotional intelligence, and has begun to elucidate the brain mechanisms involved in emotion processing. Of great interest is the degree to which these mechanisms demonstrate neuroplasticity in both anatomical and functional levels of the brain.


Meditation and Mindfulness
  • Matthieu Ricard: The Inner Conditions for Authentic Happiness: If happiness is an inner state, influenced by external conditions but not dependent on them, how can we achieve it? Ricard examines the inner and outer factors that increase or diminish our sense of well-being, dissect the underlying mechanisms of happiness, and lead us to a way of looking at the mind itself.

  • Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness Meditation: In this session, Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the world's leading experts on the science of mindfulness meditation, leads a discussion on meditation and a meditation practice.

  • Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness, Stress Reduction and Healing:  Jon describes the revolution in medicine that has integrated the mind back into the body and developed a remarkable range of practices for integrating one's experience, reducing stress, healing the body, coping more effectively with emotions such as anxiety, anger, and depression, and cultivating greater well-being and happiness.

  • Robina Courtin: Be Your Own Therapist: We spend our lives being seduced by the outside world, believing without question that happiness and suffering come from "out there." This deeply held misconception is at the root of our dissatisfaction, self-doubt, anger, depression, anxiety, and the rest. By becoming deeply familiar with the workings of our own cognitive processes through introspection and learning to deconstruct them - truly, being our own therapists - we can loosen the grip of these neuroses and grow our marvelous potential for contentment, clarity, and courage.

  • Charlie Halpern: Practicing Wisdom in the Obama Era: In this talk, Charlie draws on the main theme of his book— that the practice of wisdom is necessary to make our work in the world effective and sustainable. He discusses the reasons that wisdom is particularly urgent in dealing with the unprecedented challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. He illustrates his points with personal stories of his career as an institutional innovator and his interactions with Ralph Nader, the Dalai Lama, Barack Obama, and others.

  • Shaila Catherine: Focused and Fearless: A Meditator's Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity: Focused and Fearless speaks to ordinary meditators who wish to attain non-ordinary states with ease. It offers a creative and contemporary slant to this ancient path of happiness and wisdom.

  • Dr. Villy Doctor: Managing Stress and Psychosomatic Disorders Through Meditation: This practical session on meditation teaches the technique of awakening the subtle energy from the position of the nervous system and the energy centers using positive affirmations to attain self-realization. 

Update 9/18/09:  Added talks by Philippe Goldin and John Medina.

Update 12/6/09:  Added talks by Richie Davidson and David Rock.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Funny Thought: Lie your way to physical attractiveness

If you lie about something often enough, it eventually becomes the truth.  The Bush Administration has already demonstrated this to perfection, of course.

Based on this insight, I'm conducting a psychological experiment.  The experiment is I take a generic, plain-looking guy, lie repeatedly that he's very good-looking, and then see when people start thinking of that guy as physically attractive.  The subject I chose for this experiment is me.

Which is why I keep lying about how good-looking I am.  The theory is if I do this often enough, eventually you'll think to yourself, "Wow, Meng suddenly looks very attractive today, I don't know why".

And when that happens, let me know, so I can collect the data.  I'm very scientifically-minded, even thought I'm obviously very good-looking.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Random Thought: When I become CEO, you get to slap me for $100

When I become the founding CEO of a company (which will soon grow into a large and very successful enterprise, of course), there are 3 principles I want to institute:

 1. Compassion as the Prime Directive
 2. Make it impossible for the CEO to ignore employee sentiment
 3. When the company wins big, everybody wins big

1. Compassion as the Prime Directive

Google's Prime Directive is "Don't be Evil" and Google has shown that it is possible to be non-evil while still making a crapload of money.  I want to push that envelope.  I want to go beyond not being evil, to show that a company can be compassionate and still make a crapload of money.

Truth be told, I don't really know what it means for a company to be compassionate.  I suspect this is something that takes a lot of trial and error to figure out.  But I don't think figuring out the exact answer is so important.  What I think is more important is that stating such a principle encourages people to think about it and measure themselves against it in every action and decision.  Even more importantly, perhaps, it gives them permission to question decision-makers and hold them to a high ethical and altruistic standard (like, "Hey, I don't think this is a compassionate decision, boss").

2. Make it impossible for the CEO to ignore employee sentiment ("Slap the CEO")

It's important to find a way to make it impossible for the CEO to ignore what everybody else is feeling. The best idea I can come up with so far is to create a system to allow any employee to anonymously slap a fine on the CEO.  Here's how it works:

  • Any employee can use the internal system to "slap the CEO" anonymously.
  • Everytime an employee does that, the CEO automatically gets $1000 deducted from his paycheck.
  • To "slap the CEO", the employee has to state what the CEO is doing wrong, what he/she should have done instead, how he/she should correct it, and why it's important for the company.
  • This is not for free.  Doing this will cost the employee $100, which is automatically deducted from his/her paycheck.
The idea is that doing this costs the employee real money, so it's not done frivolously.  Which also means that whatever the issue is must have really angered or bothered the employee, so it's important for the CEO to know.  And if the CEO gets a lot of "slaps" in a short period of time, it's something he/she cannot ignore because it's costing him/her real money (50 slaps in a week is $50,000, which is real money even for a CEO).

3. When the company wins big, everybody wins big

Back in the old days when my current employer was a small company, I observed that there was no politics amongst the engineers.  Whenever there was important crap that needed to be done, somebody just went ahead and did it.  Nobody needed to be ordered by managers, and nobody gave a second thought about receiving credit or looking good to the boss.

There were a number of reasons why that happened (eg, people liked and respected each other).  I think the most important reason was that, like in most start-ups, we each had a meaningful amount of stock options.  Because of that, everybody was keenly aware that if the company were to become very successful, we would each become very successful too.  Hence, it didn't really matter that the boss didn't pat your back for what you did, or if working for the common good interfered with your promotion (because doing the more important stuff for everybody's benefit took time away from your "real job"), all that mattered was making the company wildly successful, because that common good clearly led to handsome rewards for oneself.

Given this insight, I want to create a system where great success for the company leads necessarily and unambiguously to great rewards for everyone.  The best idea I can think of is to share a significant portion (10%?) of annual profits equally with every employee.  The sole variable is the number of days you worked in the year.  So 2 people who worked the entire year will get exactly the same profit-share, and one person who worked half the year will get exactly half the profit-share of the person who worked a full year.  It's as simple as that.  Everybody from CEO to receptionist gets the same amount.  This is in addition to your fair-market salary, of course.

Ten percent can end up being a lot of money.  If the profit per employee per year is $250,000, for example, 10% is $25,000 for each person, which is a meaningful amount of money for most people.  And if the company hits jackpot and makes a million dollars per employee, everybody hits a $100,000 jackpot.

The most important feature of this system is that there is no committee of managers hiding in a room somewhere deciding how much pork to allocate to each person based on perceived relative contributions.  The link between profit per employee and one's own reward is unambiguous and not subject to petty office politics.  When the company wins big, everybody wins big.  That's it.  And that feeling can be a powerful motivator towards common good.

Yes, this system has obvious downsides (eg, the free-loader problem, which needs to be solved) and would probably take us a few iterations to get it right.  However, the idea of a system that unambiguously links great company success to great personal reward immune to office politics is just too compelling to dismiss.  I, for one, would be willing to try it out with the future multiple millions in annual profits of my very successful multi-billion-dollar-company-to-be.


Caveat Emptor

I am obviously not (yet) a successful CEO.  So if I were you, I'd just ignore everything I say, as usual.