Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

How do you measure success?

Can success be measured? If yes, what metrics can be deployed? If not, why not?

Last week was an excruciatingly tough one. The onus for which lies at the doors of Kavi Arasu, my friend and colleague at Founding Fuel.

Now, Kavi is a professionally certified coach. He insisted that all of us on the team take three days out for a quarterly review to reflect, align and plan.

The only caveats he had was that no matter what our obligations be, we complete some pre-work he had circulated, our phones be kept away, all prejudices be kept out at the door and we stay engaged with everybody else in the room. As is his wont, what his intent was remained mysterious.

I work in an extremely interesting environment. For lack of a better phrase, allow me to call it a “coalition of the willing". The in-house team is tight and lean. All of us come from different backgrounds. And the various layers to the business are built on the back of collaborations. It rests on one pillar—trust.

On a more pragmatic note, Kavi had one more pressing reason to insist on the retreat. Data suggested we had crossed that chasm every entrepreneur fears: Does your business have the muscle in it to last two years? We did. Without raising funds from venture capital firms, being acquired or shutting down.

He hinted that he wanted to make sure everybody knew how to focus on what is critical, accelerate and scale without losing sight on the longer term.

At least to my ears, it sounds like music—a contemporary business being built for the future.

But if you are the hard-nosed kind, you may just ask me to cut the crap and articulate in one line what it is that I do. Or provide an “elevator pitch", as that sexy Silicon Valley term goes. I admit, I didn’t have one.

And why not?

Do I have no clear idea of what success ought to look like? In theory, if I have no idea of what it looks like, I have no clue of what it is that I am doing. The more I heard that from people, the more I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. Indeed, there had to be some merit in the argument.

This was a concern I had articulated a while ago when Kavi had initiated his first set of meetings. On the basis of that conversation and recommendations from him, I had started work on “What is it that will make me feel comfortable?"

An interesting exercise I encountered in trying to answer his question was to try to sketch out on paper an image of all the various things I want to do, where I am and what my ideal state ought to be like. I thought it ought to be an elevator pitch for my life. What I didn’t realize was how bloody tough it would be.

So, when I started with the exercise, in my head:

• I have founded an entity I feel passionate about. It is as much a part of my personal life as it is professional.

• But there is no taking away from that my little girl needs to whisper her secrets into my ears before she goes to bed. She doesn’t care about deadlines I may have to meet, potential businesses to engage with or the state of the family’s finances.

• My older girl, now closing in on her teens, is struggling to figure what lies ahead of her. She needs to impress her friends, and if I don’t listen to her now, I know I will never get to. It is only a matter of time before she flies out of the coop to live her life.

• My wife thinks I don’t pay her enough attention, snap often and am clinical in my dealings. If I don’t listen to her feedback, we will drift away on different boats until it may be a little too late to merge and build a ship.

• Then, there are my various hobbies I want to cultivate. I start some with much gusto; some taper off; some sputter along like my running schedule. I don’t offer quality time to friends who continue to stand by me when I need them the most.

• Then, there is the world I’m struggling to make sense of as the ground beneath me shifts each day. It intrigues me and I want to comprehend it. I often feel terrible at not having taken time out to understand what is going on when I have access to fine minds.

I can go on and on. But what emerged on paper is what is depicted below. My current state, my desired state, and a personal mission statement. Like Kavi suggested, I didn’t give it much thought. It just emerged. I let go.

Even as I stared at it, it was painfully clear how I am surrounded by ideas; that I’m trying to do too many things; and that I ought to get into a flow. And that if I am to be of any consequence in the larger scheme of things, I must be of some consequence to all the ecosystems I live in at once. The question is: Can I?

It is bloody clear what I need to do. My personal line fell in place too without giving it much thought. But the problem is, I can’t go every place doling out business cards that describe myself as “The Holistic Athlete".

And why not? Because I suspect it isn’t a good enough an elevator pitch.

And there lies a deeper tragedy of our times. This point was driven home on the back of a lovely talk on a kinder, gentler philosophy of success by one of my favourite contemporary philosophers, Alain de Botton. Allow me to excerpt a few passages that struck me as particularly pertinent:

“Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their life span. We’re told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything... we’re now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it’s a beautiful idea. Along with that is a kind of spirit of equality; we’re all basically equal.

“It’s probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you’ve got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage—you, too, could start a major thing.

“Here’s an insight that I’ve had about success: You can’t be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can’t have it all. You can’t. So, any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. And I think any wise life will accept, as I say, that there is going to be an element where we’re not succeeding.

“And we also suck in messages from everything from the television, to advertising, to marketing, etc. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. When we’re told that banking is a very respectable profession, a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion.

“So what I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas, and make sure that we own them; that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out, at the end of the journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along."

It was against this personal backdrop of mine that Kavi had called us in for a review. As we started out, he asked me how did I feel? “Annus horribilis," I barked in a grumpy tone.

Like I said earlier, I didn’t know what it was that we were in for. Turned out, he had a few things in mind.

• Since the last time we had converged, how much thinking had gone in?

• Could progress be measured?

• If progress wasn’t along expected lines, what was holding each one of us back?

• How did our individual progress coalesce into that of the entity we had set out to build?

• How seamlessly does the entity fit into our personal lives?

• Are all of us aligned and on the same page on where we have to go to?

• Are we well-placed enough to listen to and look at each other’s perspectives with empathy?

To begin answering these questions, he handed us sheets of paper with 100 blocks printed on it and scribbled a few questions on a whiteboard along the following lines:

1. Describe a few things you intend to take up in the next year.

2. What will be the outcome of what you intend to take up?

3. How will you go about it?

4. What kind of resources, in terms of assistance from others in the room, will you need to do it?

He then added a constraint: We ought to assign weights to everything we do and the final number ought to tot up to 100. If it is less than 100, it means we are doing too little. If more, it means we are taking on too much.

Having done that, all of us were asked to exchange notes. Now, we could see not just what is it that we had to do, but what the others had to do and what was expected from each of us.

He then added another constraint: How critical is what I am doing versus what the other person is doing? Priorities now had to be realigned and all of us had to go back to the drawing board.

Next, he put the organization’s larger goals as each of us saw it. How did what we want to do fit in with what is critical to the organization’s goals in the short, medium and long term?

Whoa!

That was asking for too much. Suddenly, pet projects had to be given up. But we were aligned in that the all of us are here for a reason. We aren’t mercenaries for hire. We got a life to live as well. And the math was staring us on the face.

Don’t believe me? Allow me to throw some numbers at you. I broke it up after measuring every minute of my time. I like to measure everything—something I am often taken to task for by those closest to me. When I did the math, everything looks straightforward and brutal calls need to be taken.

1. I need eight hours of rest, failing which I don’t work optimally. Not that I need to sleep eight hours; but be distracted by things other than work.

2. Time to myself isn’t time spent on meditating. This is time out at work. It goes in mulling over thoughts, chats with colleagues, brewing that mug of tea, a few moments to gather thoughts, et al.

3. Family time is, well, family time.

4. Exercise often takes a hammering.

Something must give in someplace.

“And must be quantifiable," I wondered.

A short discussion followed. For instance, what is more important? For my little girl, maybe she needs to share more secrets on a given night while I’m staring at unfinished tasks.

The idea of time is alien to her. How am I to tell her, “Time over, baby girl. My calendar says it’s time now to plan for the unplanned." That sounds rather ridiculous, even to me.

The larger point is, the self must submit to the whole. The answers will emerge from that, so long as we know where we intend to go and are cognizant of how to get there. Then, it’s up to you whether you choose to work five days a week or six—or seven, for that matter.

As things are, I’m trying to figure out how best to get to my goals in 2017. It is a journey. The road to which needs to be explored. That was Kavi’s larger point through the three days we spent together. As we reworked our priorities and how we plan to go about it, Lao Tzu started to make sense: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be."

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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