Habits and practicing: to succeed, learn discipline

My educational program for this fall includes taking an online class called “The Creative Habit: Cultivating a Daily Writing Practice” – and committing to stick with it. You see, I’ve always liked writing, and I’ve both taken creative writing courses and enormously enjoyed them in the past. But how can I say with a straight face “I like writing” if I hardly ever write? The word “habit” is the hook that attracted me to the course, and the reason why I think it will work. By prompting participants to write for 30-60 minutes every day, it seeks to instil the discipline of writing: to support the birth of a habit, if you will.

51ue4ydsgylA few months ago I had the opportunity to attend a speech by Gretchen Rubin based on her latest book, Better than Before. It’s about habits, or how to “decide not to decide”. It’s easier to go out running every morning if you’ve set out a rule for yourself that says “I will run every day, first thing in the morning.” You don’t have to make a decision to run, to debate with yourself whether to run, to negotiate with yourself how many times you will run this week, to wonder if the weather is good enough for running: you’ve organized your life so that each morning you run, no questions asked. It’s a habit.

Because different people form habits and stick to habits in different ways, the book offers several strategies: Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, Accountability, Abstaining, Convenience, Inconvenience, Safeguards, Distraction, Rewards, Treats, Pairing and so on. The author avoids being prescriptive about which strategy you should adopt – you know best – or even about what habits she recommends. It’s a good toolbox, although it won’t give you the sense of urgency you need to start a new habit tomorrow.

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More recently, thanks to my friend Laura‘s recommendation, I stumbled into Hal Elrod’s The Miracle Morning. While the book’s tone is all optimistic bounciness (you may feel like you’re watching a TV preacher; the cover image doesn’t help), the substance of the practice the author illustrates is very much about making it a habit to do the things you want to do. And if you don’t have time, the answer is easy: get out of bed one hour earlier in the morning. He describes spending that hour practising each of six things for ten minutes: meditation (or gratitude, prayer, silence); affirmations; visualizations; exercise; reading; and writing (journaling). It doesn’t make sense, I thought at first, that doing any one thing for ten minutes would change your life. Yet, open the app store on your phone and look for “seven minute workout”: you will be surprised by the number of results. And who am I to criticise small bursts of activity, when since the beginning of the year I have spent fifteen minutes a day learning French on Duolingo? And surely, if you only have ten minutes a day when you read, that’s better than not reading at all.

81x9tdjfjrlIn yoga, too, we are familiar with the concept of the daily practice, which is called sadhana; Swami Satyananda Saraswati even wrote a book about it. A sadhana is given by the guru to each disciple for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. (But if you don’t know whom to ask, you can even request a Sadhana online from a Satyananda Yoga ashram). It has to be practiced every day until perfected, at which point the disciple should request a new sadhana.

Daily repetition is key: there is no sadhana without habit. Life in any ashram, monastery, or other place of spiritual growth is a routine, a long sequence of habits.

All of a sudden, habits seem trendy. But yogis knew about habits all along.

Technology, women, choice, and nudge: a rant about female ambition

Holmes Theranos

This woman is Elizabeth Holmes, 30 years old, founder of Theranos, a medical technology company valued at over nine billion dollars, in which she owns more than fifty per cent of the shares.

Keep Elizabeth Holmes in mind. Keep her in mind, women entrepreneurs, the next time you pitch me. Because you ought to decide how big your ambitions should be, but I am going to think of Elizabeth and I am not going to be satisfied if your pitch says your startup is going to solve a small problem, serve a handful of customers, employ a few people, distribute through niche channels, raise a little capital, produce some revenues, break even, and not scale. If you’re not aiming to change the world in some significant way, you’re the one putting yourself at a disadvantage towards the other startups, the ones that plan to do exactly that. Investors like to bet their money on people who dream big and want to change the world. They are not going to bet on you if you nurture small, local, provincial ambitions.

Nudge-coverThere is a great concept in behavioral science called “nudge“. A nudge is “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing economic incentives”. Most of you were not nudged, I assume, towards choosing STEM disciplines in school. But today, I believe, the ethical thing to do in our families and in our education systems is to nudge today’s girls and young women towards STEM disciplines.

Because if we don’t, this happens: only four out of 81 “unicorn” companies – private companies valued at over one billion dollars – have a woman CEO. These companies are technology companies and are overwhelmingly founded and led by technologists. Elizabeth Holmes is a technologist. But she is one of just four women CEOs in that list. The rest are all men.

And if we don’t, that’s not the only thing that happens. What also happens – and drives me crazy – is the mansplaining about choice, as in “young women are not interested in tech because they choose not to be”. But how can you be interested in something you know nothing about and have had no exposure to?

Exposure is the primal nudge here. Then we have hands-on learning, networking, coaching, mentoring, sponsoring. Getting the Inspiring Fifty group together – at 10 Downing Street, of all places – and speed-mentoring a number of Girls in Tech was a great moment. Let us commit to creating more and more moments like that. And to offer our girls a nudge, in their own best interest, at every opportunity we get.

FT Innovative Lawyers 2013: Claudia Parzani

Claudia ParzaniOne of the ten winners in this year’s FT Innovative Lawyers survey, among over 600 participants, is Claudia Parzani of Linklaters, chair of corporate association Valore D and co-creator of In the Boardroom, an initiative she developed with GE Capital and Egon Zehnder to provide training and skills to prepare women for boardroom positions. Claudia also created the Breakfast@Linklaters network, featured in this year’s Client Service category.

Kudos to Claudia! I am proud to be participating in her boardroom program and honored to be in her circle.

Update & Correction (Oct. 17, 2013): post corrected to clarify that In The Boardroom was developed through collaboration among Linklaters, GE Capital and Egon Zehnder. The supporting member companies of Valore D can be found on this page.

Morozov, Lanier, and the intelligent reading of books and critiquing of ideas

Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks about two new books, To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov and Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier, taking very different approaches to criticism of our collective behavior on the Internet. Of course, I would like nothing more than to devote serious time to the reading, discussing and perhaps reviewing of serious books. Yet, life being what is it, I only make this happen on summer vacations anymore; and I’m glad a good friend, somewhat quaintly, gave me for my birthday a paper copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, so that the sheer material presence of the object might get me to read it, much like a house plant gets you to water it ora a dog to walk it.

But back to Morozov and Lanier. It was only thanks to a tweet by Esther Dyson that I discovered and read this evening a thoughtful piece about the two books written by Maria Bustillos, and I decided that Lanier’s gets the higher spot on my summer reading list. Then I found that Bustillos also wrote a long and worthwhile article on Udacity and MOOCs, which I recommend you read if you liked my short and techno-optimistic blog post about online education last month. Then I had do do some work, and then I have to get some sleep – you know what I mean. If you don’t have time for the books or the debate, do read the articles.

Lanier’s book has two covers, so he gets two pictures in this post. I do prefer the UK one, with its delicate blossoms.

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Online education gets real. The view from Stanford

When it comes to innovation in learning, particularly MOOCs, it’s probably safe to say that Stanford takes the cake.
– Rip Empson, TechCrunch, Apr. 3, 2013

John MitchellEvery time I get to go back to Stanford, I have something to look forward to. This week, during the STARS Volunteer Leadership Assembly, it’ll be the talk by Engineering professors John Mitchell (pictured), Vice Provost for Online Learning, and Tina Seelig, Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, titled “Hot Topic: Leading the Way in Online Education”. And a hot topic it is indeed. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman gushes over the transformational potential of online education (read articles here and here). Stanford President John L. Hennessy – a big believer in online technology – is discussing the future of education with alumni everywhere on his 18-city global tour, Stanford+Connects (and I look forward to the Paris meeting in September). Online technology makes star teachers massively more accessible for our children, and may well make the promise of lifelong education come true for my generation. Did I ever tell you how proud I am to be a Stanford alumna? Oh yes I did. I really am.

Thoughts on South Africa

I saw a slice of South Africa, the one meant for tourists, and not even all of it. My vacation itinerary started in Cape Town, worked its way through the historic towns, wineries and game reserves of the Western Cape, and ended up at seaside resort Plettenberg Bay. It was beautiful, interesting, relaxing: the sort of vacation I like to have in order to unplug yet maintain the feeling that I’m learning something new about the world. Yet, it took place in a country that is not just wretched, but probably getting worse. From the recent Economist briefing:

South Africa’s Gini coefficient—the best-known measure of inequality, in which 0 is the most equal and 1 the least—was 0.63 in 2009. In 1993 it was 0.59. After 18 years of full democracy, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. […]

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, South Africa ranks 132nd out of 144 countries for its primary education and 143rd for the quality of its science and maths. In the Department of Basic Education’s national literacy and numeracy tests last year, only 15% of 12-year-olds (sixth graders) scored at or above the minimum proficiency on the language test. In maths just 12% did.

Nelson Mandela, the universally revered 94-year-old “Father of the nation”, was released from hospital a few days ago and is reported to be recuperating at home. Yet, after his monumental achievements, how many opportunities has the country missed since then? How much of its potential has been lost to a dysfunctional political system, greedy politicians, and bogus theories about AIDS?

During my trip, I felt safe, as a tourist should be – just a bit unnerved by metal gates at the entrance to every little shop, reminding me that things can get occasionally dangerous. I did not feel I saw the new black ruling class: that has to be, I reckon, a Johannesburg (and Pretoria) phenomenon. Blacks and whites mixed at the popular tourist attractions, such as the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and the Cango Caves in Oudtshoorn; but the wine country was very white, restaurant and hotel patrons were invariably blond and blue-eyed, and they mostly spoke Afrikaans. I do not recall seeing any mixed-race couples – apparently a more common sight in Paris more than in Cape Town. Being a tourist, I did not test people’s education nor witness the country’s incompetence and corruption. I left with mixed feelings: the place is beautiful, but hiding very deep wounds.

In the picture, a Cape Town view from Table Mountain.

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I am honored

Dear Ms. Bonomo,

Congratulations! […] You’ve been elected to membership in the Stanford Associates […] an honorary organization founded in 1935 to recognize exceptional and sustained volunteer service to the University. Fewer than 1% of Stanford Alumni have earned this special distinction […]

XXX and YYY nominated you for this honor because of your accomplished volunteer work and support of the University. […] I’m delighted to help honor your continued effort on behalf of this great institution. […]

Rich Jaroslovsky, ’75

Chair, Board of Governors

This is the letter I received this week, and I was pleased and humbled. It was totally unexpected.

You know I am very fond of Stanford and I admire the University leadership, as demonstrated multiple times in recent years (in the financial crisis, in its thought leadership on the future of university education, and even in having a “geek president”).

As a curiosity, along with two more of my classmates, this year’s intake of new members of Stanford Associates includes venture capitalist Peter A. Thiel, who has both a Stanford undergraduate degree in philosophy and a Stanford law school degree, and who made some waves recently for speaking out against the college education bubble. This will definitely make for interesting debate.