Thursday, October 29, 2009

Random Thought: Birthday Aspirations

Strong like the mountain.
Deep like the sea.
Vast like the sky.
I aspire to be.


Funny Thought: Birthday Meal

(Sung to the tune of 12 Days of Christmas)

For my lunch on my birthday, my true love gave to me,

A five-course meal.
Four types of sushi,
Three-dollar oysters,
Two scoops of ice-cream,
And a bowl of nabeyaki.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Funny Thought: Chief Humor Officer

I aspire someday to hold the title of Google's Chief Humor Officer. Even if I'm bestowed the honor posthumorously.

Sadly, the Chief Humor Officer will never be appointed a Member of the Bored.

(Fedor's comment: He would also not be able to allocate any FUNds, but will be reimbursed for smilage.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Life Story: Taking my Bodhisattva Vows

The first time I took the first Bodhisattva Vow, it was done with humor, in a very serious way, of course.  Not surprisingly, the person who opened that door for me was Dr Larry Brilliant, a laughing bodhisattva I'm honored to call my friend.

In the Zen tradition (which is the Mahayana tradition I'm most familiar with), the 4 Bodhisattva Vows are:
Countless are sentient beings, I vow to liberate them all.
Endless are afflictions, I vow to discontinue them all.
Measureless are the Dharmas, I vow to learn them all.
Supreme is the Buddha Way, I vow to attain it in full.

For me, the last 3 vows are relatively easy.  I mean, learning all the Dharmas, for example, that sounds like getting 2 or 3 PhDs, that's doable in my lifetime.  But the first vow was very tough.  The first vow implies the aspiration to be the last one out of Samsara.  It means choosing to purposely stay in the realm of endless suffering until the last sentient being is liberated.  It's like is being the first person to know how to get out of a large burning building, but choosing to be the last person to get out so you can help everybody else out first.  For a long time, I didn't feel I was remotely up to the task.

What annoyed me even more was that other Buddhists seem to have no difficulty taking the Bodhisattva Vows at all.  I know of weekly ceremonies at temples where large numbers of people recite the vows once a week without batting an eyelid.  Why is it so easy for them and so hard for me?  I can think of 2 possible explanations.  The first explanation is that I'm a useless coward and lousy Buddhist.  The second explanation is, unlike those who recite them as a ceremonial ritual, I was actually serious about fulfilling those vows, in my lifetime if possible.  My best guess is that both explanations are correct.

The event that helped me get over that hump occurred in May 2006.  My friend, Larry Brilliant, had just recently joined Google as the Executive Director of, Google's philanthropic arm.  One of Larry's first tasks was to figure out the strategic directions for  As part of that effort, he hosted an "offsite meeting" with some leaders of the philanthropic world he knew well, and perhaps because I was so good-looking, Larry invited me to come along too.

That offsite meeting was a fascinating experience for me.  I spent 2 days in the presence of highly inspiring people like Larry Brilliant and Jane Wales, people who gave their adult lives to saving the world, listening to them explain and strategize about solving some of the biggest problems in the world like global poverty and climate change.  Whoa.

That experience was deeply inspiring for me in 2 ways.  First, it was the experiential realization that these people are around us.  That, yes, there are people who dedicate their lives to humanity, people of greatness who are also ordinary at the same time.  They are not just folks you read about occasionally on Time Magazine, they are real people with real lives, and they are here, just doing their best like everybody else, trying to save the world in their own quiet ways.  Second, I realized how happy they are.  Saving the world is a career choice fraught with stress, frustration and failure, but it's also full of meaning, purpose and positive engagement.  It's a life full of love.  It turns out that saving the world is not necessarily miserable, saving the world can be fun (which is the topic of another blog post, stay tuned).

At the end of the 2 days, my mind was in a different state.  My mind was now full of inspiration and possibility.

To end the 2-day meeting, Larry invited all of us to sit in a circle and talk about how we felt.  When it was my turn to speak, I said,

  "Last person out of Samsara, please turn off the lights.  And, let that be me".

And then, it occurred to me, I finally took the first Bodhisattva Vow.  Effortlessly, in light humor, and in full readiness to fulfill it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Funny Thought: My job was to say "Google sucks"

There is a great story on Business Week ( ) about Google's "Evaluation Team" ("Eval"), the team which, among other things, measures the performance of Google's search algorithm.  In case you were wondering what I did when I was in Google Engineering (back when even I was young), I used to run that team.  Of course, that job was much smaller back when I was doing it than Scott's current job (the company itself was also much smaller).  Part of my job, perhaps the most important part, was to know where and when Google's search is broken.

The most fun I had in that job was describing what I did to new Googlers.  When they asked me what I do, I would say, "My job is to tell my bosses 'Google sucks', and they give me a salary".

The other joke I used to crack about "Eval" is, "Only 'I' can make eval evil".  Bad joke, I know, but it made people laugh.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Random Thought: Training Level 5 Leadership

A few months ago, I wrote about the idea of "Egoless Ego".  Main idea: To achieve breakthroughs, you need to have enough ego to know you can change the world, AND at the same time be egoless enough to know that you are mostly irrelevant.  It is like being as big as Mount Fuji and as small as a grain of sand at the same time.

I also mentioned that the state of mind that is conducive to "Egoless Ego" is something I called "Selfless Glory", a mind that seeks glory without the glory, the state of mind of peaceful stillness surrounded by powerful motion.

I have recently come across a less poetic but much clearer description of this state of being.  It is something Jim Collins describes as "Level 5 Leadership" in his book, Good to Great, which I recommend very highly.  (If you read only one business book, read this one).

In Good to Great, Collins defines 5 levels of leadership.  "Level 4" leaders are what he calls "Effective Leaders".  Most successful CEOs (such as Lee Iacocca) are "Level 4" leaders.  "Level 5" leaders are the type of leaders that turn good companies into great ones.  They are the "good to great" leaders.

What is the difference between a "Level 4" and "Level 5" leader?  A "Level 5" leader has all the strengths of a "Level 4" leader, plus 2 important qualities:  strong ambition AND personal humility.  One way Collins describes such leaders (page 22):

Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless. To quickly grasp this concept, think of United States President Abraham Lincoln (one of the few Level 5 presidents in United States history), who never let his ego get in the way of his primary ambition for the larger cause of an enduring great nation. Yet those who mistook Mr. Lincoln’s personal modesty, shy nature, and awkward manner as signs of weakness found themselves terribly mistaken, to the scale of 250,000 Confederate and 360,000 Union lives, including Lincoln’s own

In other words, a Level 5 leader is one who works towards glory and greatness, but in a way that is selfless and humble.  To tie this in with my initial thoughts, I think a Level 5 leader is someone with a mind of "Selfless Glory" expressing "Egoless Ego".  Here's what Collins says about Level 5 leaders and ego (page 21):
Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious - but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.
Hence, it seems that the thoughts I've had about extraordinary personal achievements ("achieving breakthroughs") also apply to leadership, and Collins has the data to prove the effectiveness of such leaders.  That is incredibly encouraging for me.

That leads us to an important question:  How do you cultivate the "Level 5" leadership?

Given that the distinguishing features of Level 5 leaders are ambition and personal humility, whatever you do to create those leaders needs to down-modulate their ego while strengthening their motivation at the same time.  Two obvious ways of achieving that are surviving personal trauma (eg, surviving cancer) and having a significant religious experience.  Obviously, not everybody can or wants to experience trauma or get religion (personally, I prefer neither for myself, thank you very much).  So, outside of trauma and religion, are there ways to train Level 5 leadership?  I think so.

I can think of 2 qualities that are conducive to cultivating Level 5 leadership that can be trained in a secular, workplace setting:

  1. Compassion
  2. Ease of Mind

1. Compassion

Compassion has 3 components, a cognitive component (I understand your suffering), an affective component (I feel for you) and a motivational component (I want to help you).  Compassion is also strongly altruistic in nature.

Compassion helps develop Level 5 leaders in 3 ways:

1. Being altruistic in nature, compassion is a great antidote for excessive self-obsession.  Hence, the compassionate leader becomes strong in the humility needed for Level 5 leadership.

2. Compassion's motivational component keeps the compassionate leader highly motivated and ambitious towards greater good.  Hence, he is unafraid to do big things despite his personal humility.

3. A compassionate leader inspires people (because "his heart is in the right place") and understands and work well with people (because he understands and feels for them).  Hence,  he usually has the bottom-up support needed to be successful.

In fact, compassion is so conducive to Level 5 leadership I believe that compassion is the foundation of Level 5 leadership.  I even believe all Level 5 leaders are compassionate leaders, but I don't have any data at this time (if you do, let me know).

2. Ease of Mind

I like easy.  Easy is good.

I think the best way to do big things is with a mind that is at ease.  This is the mind where you have nothing to gain and nothing to lose, you are doing what you are doing only because it is the right thing to do, and it is fun. With this mind, the sense of ease doesn't go away even when you have to put in real effort, and even when you get frustrated.

The best analogy for this mind I can think of is playing serious golf for charity.  Sure, it takes work, the double bogeys are frustrating, and you have nothing to gain for the entire afternoon of effort, but hey, it's fun, you have nothing to lose, and you're doing it as an act of kindness towards others with a bunch of your best friends.  The mind is at ease the entire afternoon.

Why is this ease of mind important?  I can think of 3 reasons.

First, it frees you.  If you have nothing to gain or lose, then you cannot be demotivated.  There is nothing to hold you back.  You are free to play at your best, and you're free to take risks that help you become even better.

Second, it opens you up.  When you're at ease, people find it much easier to work with you.  And if you happen to be the leader, you can better take full advantage of other people's talents, partly because people enjoy working for you (so they don't hold themselves back), and partly because you don't suffer from petty jealously that unconsciously makes you fear their success (so you don't hold them back, consciously or otherwise).

Third, it motivates you.  If your mind is at ease, most likely it's because what you're doing is fun to you in some major way, and most likely that ease of mind makes it even more fun, thus forming a virtuous cycle.  Fun is important.  I often say that saving the world can be fun, and has to be fun, because if it's not fun, nobody will save the world.  So, please, be at ease, have fun.

It is important to note that "ease of mind" does not exclude experiencing strong emotions.  Indeed, great leadership often includes strong positive emotions such as joy, excitement, exuberance sometimes, passion, hope,  deep satisfaction and the like.  It also surely involves stress- some good, some very bad.  "Ease of mind" includes the ability to contain all strong emotions.  The analogy is a deep ocean.  The water on the surface is choppy, but the water in the depths is calm despite the movement on the surface.  Similarly, one whose mind is at ease experiences strong emotions from time to time, but in the depths of his mind, his ease is largely undisturbed.  Which is why he is capable of experiencing strong emotions without being derailed.

How, then, is this ease of mind cultivated?

I can think of 3 conditions for that mind to emerge.  The first is to having a stable inner happiness that exists fairly independently of one's life conditions.  That stable inner happiness eventually helps you become comfortable with who you are, what you have, and how the world sees you.  The second is developing mastery over one's own emotions, developing a mind that is capable of experiencing and transforming emotions (for example, channeling anger into energy to fight for change).  The third is finding alignment with what you like to do, what is important to you, and your work.  That alignment helps you find motivation at work in a way that is fun for you.

This powerful combination of Compassion and Ease of Mind is what makes Level 5 leaders, in my opinion.

The good news is that all these qualities are covered in the Search Inside Yourself (SIY) curriculum we developed (admittedly, not in enough detail, but enough to get you started).  So it is possible that SIY is the foundation of a training program for Level 5 leadership.  This thought is gloriously exciting to me, in a selfless sort of way, of course.


Update 10/4/09:  Added clarification on strong emotions in "ease of mind", also added "emotional mastery" as a  condition for that mind to emerge, after discussion with Annie McKee.  Some of the wording are Annie's own.