Category Archives: Book Look

The Answer To Life, The Universe And Everything

Questions about “Who am I’, ‘What is my purpose’, ‘Where or what is God’, ‘Why are bad things happening to me’ have been asked ever since man tasted apple (the fruit, not the company).

Life, the universe and everything

And the answer isn’t 42!

Wonder why we don’t question the awesome moments, relationships and things, however few, that have come our way though #FoodForThought

The Indian rishis and sages however questioned and thought about all this. And they were probably the first to find the answers to these existential questions which they generously recorded in the Vedas and Upanishad for future lost souls to learn from. Alas, if only Deep Thought had access to these philo-scientific gems, then mankind wouldn’t be as lost as the mice.

Mystery of Death by Swami Abhedananda (a first disciple of Sri Ramakrishna) is a collection of lectures delivered to American students  on the central thoughts and philosophy of the Katha Upanishad which distils the essence of the Divine Truth or rather ‘the meaning of life’. Sharing my key take-aways for the curious and crazy.

What are the Upanishads?

Upanishad means “a collection of wisdoms and truths which are eternal, uncontradicted and permanent”

How does this collection of wisdoms and truths help you?

  • It destroys the ignorance and superstition of the individual soul (and teaches men not to remain self-deluded)
  • Guides the soul towards the attainment of the highest wisdom and truth
  • And in the process slackens attachment to your
    • material body,
    • earthly attachment
    • material world

What is the essence of the philosophy?

It teaches that truth is one but is manifested in manifold ways.

What is this “Universal Truth” (The ‘One Truth That Rules All Truths’)?

Your individual spirit (also referred to as ‘individual soul’ or ‘true self’) is a part and parcel of the Universal spirit (also referred to as ‘Creator’ or ‘God’) and your purpose in life is to realize this truth and become one with the Creator by becoming a self-realized soul.

Elaborating this “Universal Truth” a bit…

The universe you live in is a projection of cosmic energy that emanates from the Creator. This cosmic energy forms the body of Creator and through the process of evolution manufactures various objects of nature, including humans, in accordance with the laws of ‘karma’ of previous cycles.

Since you emanate from the same body of the Creator (akin to a single wave emanating from the body of the sea), the same spirit of the Creator lies within you, which is referred to as the soul.

Once you realize that your soul is a part of the Creator’s universal soul, you realize that you yourself are the Creator and you unite and become one with the cosmic energy. Then your journey through your cycle of birth and death ends. Which is why Jesus Christ said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”.

This philosophy on ‘oneness’ is further validated by other self-realized souls like Buddha when he said “He who experiences the unity in life sees his own Self in all beings and all beings in his own Self” and by Swami Vivekananda when he said, “Whoever sees in every being the same Atman (soul), and whoever sees everything in that Atman (soul), he never goes far from that Atman (soul). When all life and the whole universe are seen in this Atman (soul), then alone man has attained the secret. There is no more delusion for him. Where is any more misery for him who sees this Oneness in the universe” just to quote a from a couple of them.

Hence a life without putting in efforts to realize your own divinity, your immortal nature, your true self, is definitely a life missed meeting your maker and might be a life wasted.

How can you realize your true self and become a self-realized soul?

At a conceptual level there are 3 elements that go into self-realization –

  1. An extreme detached longing which makes the seeker after Truth well-qualified to receive instruction and to realize the immortal life. This is very rare to obtain. And an extreme longing yet detached state even harder. Something I tried to put a formula and approach to in an earlier post which you can read here.
    1. This longing must rise spontaneously from the bottom of our souls. How it comes and when it comes nobody can tell. It is the expression of the natural evolution of the soul.
    2. Some people may have that longing from childhood, other may have it in their youth and some others may have it in maturity and old age. It is said, unless all our earthly desires are satisfied, we cannot have that longing.
  2. An open mind which is receptive to the highest truth
    1. Reading various spiritual philosophies with an open mind, refraining from drawing immediate conclusions and seeing similar patterns and truths across various philosophies can warm you up and help you understand
  3. However, you cannot attain the knowledge of immortality by just reading books. Words hint at this Reality, but they do not, cannot, explain it. Truth is a state of being, not a set of words. You have to feel it, and that feeling must be the result of practicing one of the 4 techniques expounded in the Bhagavad Gita which later Swami Vivekananda expands in his lectures in America.
    1. Karma Yoga – through selfless action
    2. Bhakti Yoga – through selfless love
    3. Jnana Yoga – through self-knowledge
    4. Raja Yoga – a combination of:
      1. long practice of concentration (dharana) – to make your intellect or reasoning faculties very sharp and keep to grasp something which is beyond the 5 senses (taste, touch, sight, smell and sound)
      2. meditation (dhyana) – https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-dharana-and-dhyana and
      3. ecstacy (samadhi). Samadhi means God-consciousness

In addition, a right Guru can act as a catalyst (some philosophies say a Guru is an essential catalyst).

You will have to go through different grades of evolution. That evolution will come by itself, if we are animated by spiritual longing, strong desires and determination. They are necessary accompaniments of spiritual and mental evolutions, and those qualities will change your whole nature, transforming you into a quite different being.

There are some temperaments which will find it almost impossible to take up this path to the Truth. The suggestion for such souls is to deliberately spend time with inspired works of art (music, dance, poems which are inspirational rather than violent), lose yourself in Mother Nature’s beauty and serenity and embrace silence. As Paul Brunton (a first disciple of Ramana Maharshi) says, “There is spiritual power in these moments which we remember long after they are gone. Rightly used they can become as Jacob’s ladders leading from earth to heaven.”

Why is self-realization so difficult to achieve?

Your true Self, Atman (soul), is very subtle. It is subtler than the subtlest thing you can imagine. You cannot touch, taste, see, smell or hear it. Since it is beyond the realm of your senses, it is difficult to even grasp or understand let alone pursue.

To make matters worse, the Creator has pierced the opening of the senses and has made them go outward, not inward. Hence, whenever you see any fascinating thing, your ego is attracted by it and you become attached to it. Ego is nothing but the name given to your soul when it is on the earthly plane, attached to worldly desires (and has forgotten its true nature).

So long as you are following the power of your senses and sensations, you forget what is within you and you forget your true self and become fascinated, charmed and attached by the external objects of the world (which is why the universal advice from self-realized souls is “know thyself, look inward”)

Why these limitations have been made by the Creator I do not know (if someone does then feel free to enlighten me and the world).

There isn’t any reason to despair though. In his book, Swami Abhedananda assures us that “The soul will not be contented until it has realized its infinite nature, and that is the goal towards which we are running consciously or unconsciously”

And hence you will keep returning to this earth to fulfil your desires and purify your character and soul through karmic lessons till this goal is attained.

Deliberately practicing one or all of the 4 techniques can however help in your cause of getting the Creator to notice your efforts and maybe give you a helping hand to expedite your cosmic union cos apparently he is biased in helping those who help themselves.

Why should you believe this ‘Universal Truth’ on ‘Oneness’?

You shouldn’t believe it blindly. In fact, doubt everything unless you can prove it by yourself.

There are 2 steps involved in proving a postulate to yourself.

  1. Intellectual rationalization
    1. I’ve extracted the ‘Universal Truth’s’ thought evolution of the rishis/seers from the book Mystery of Death which outlines the logic behind their findings below.
  2. Experiencing outcomes through practice
    1. However, spiritual pursuit is a serious undertaking. Mere curiosity is not enough in that path. What one requires is deep loyalty to the ideal. Curiosity mongers will never reach the highest goal until their hearts and souls have become earnest. So, it won’t be fair to dispel the conclusion in its entirety if you haven’t made any progress, especially sans practice (in the same way it’s not fair to say Mt. Everest cannot be climbed if you can’t do so)

Thought evolution of the seers –

  • The rishis first sought to find out ways and means for earthly pleasures and celestial happiness
  • They had (somehow?) realized that there were realms of heaven
    • According to them there were many heavens which afford different kind of celestial pleasure.
    • Example, in realm of pitr or souls of departed ancestors, departed souls meet their relatives and enjoy the fruits of their good deeds and good thoughts after death (hence probably how the modern spiritualistic ideal of meeting friends and enjoying with them evolved)
  • Souls go to these heavens/realms to fulfil our desires. Our unfulfilled desires cling to us and take us wherever it can be fulfilled. If the desires are of earthly nature, gross or material or sensuous, it will force the soul to come back to earth to fulfil it. Else if it is of refined character (what is refined character desires?), the soul will have to go to such realms as are mentioned in the Vedas
  • The seers believed that the heavens were meant for people who lived a virtuous and righteous life. They didn’t believe in the concept of an eternal hell but believed in the law of karma (cause and effect). And souls came back to earth, after their visit to the relevant realms of heaven. They were born again and again until they have learnt the law through hard experiences and are ready for higher life and gradual perfection.
  • So karmakanda describes the ritualistic portion of the Vedas, various sacrifices, rites and ceremonies, which lead to heavens
  • However, they figured that the difference in enjoyment in heaven and that on earth is only a difference of degree and not of kind
    • And the duration of pleasure on earth is limited with longer periods of pain whereas in heaven that may be just the opposite
    • They realized that even in heaven there is some kind of suffering. Even if there is no immediate suffering, there is fear of losing pleasure from having to return to earth and/or their place being taken by mortals on earth who are becoming extremely virtuous
  • The seers also realized and concluded that the earthly and celestial pleasures were not eternal (Pleasure would be no pleasure if it continued forever. This is a thing that very few people understand)
    • Based on this principle the jnanakanda or rationalistic portion of the Vedas came into existence)
    • They rationalised that while the celestial pleasures could be enjoyed through good thoughts and good deeds in the earthly lives, good thoughts and deeds are limited by time and space and as such finite in nature.
    • Anything finite must only produce a finite result and an eternal effect (eternal happiness/pleasure) is possible only when the cause is eternal and not otherwise
    • There is no work or thought which is unlimited by time and space, and consequently its results, however great it may be, must be limited by time and space.
    • So the Vedic seers of Truth could no longer believe that the heavenly pleasures as well as the heavens were eternal
  • At this point we should bear in mind that the Vedic seers were monotheistic (believed that there is only one God) in their ideas.
    • At first, they tried to explain the mystery of the universe and its creation by conceiving of a Creator who was omnipotent and omniscient Lord of all. But then they rejected the theory of creating ‘something out of nothing’ and used the word ‘Creator’ in the sense of one who projects the universe out of the cosmic energy (mahashakti), which forms the body of the Lord, and manufactures through the process of evolution the various objects of nature, in accordance with the types of previous cycles.
    • Thus, explanation of the origin of the external world depended upon the conception of God as the projector of evolution.
    • The Vedic seers then enquired into the nature of the individual soul, the internal or subjective world and its relation to the external or objective world. They gradually came to the conclusion that the internal or subjective world is connected with the objective world by the individual soul or ego, which is beyond matter.
    • They also discovered through their experiences in the superconscious state and revelation that the individual soul is eternal. It is beginningless and endless, and its relation to the universal Being or Creator is a spiritual one like absolute oneness on the spiritual plane, or in other words, the Creator manifests Himself in the form of an individual ego.
  • Hence, gradually those ancient seers gave up the idea of going to heaven as the highest aim of life, and discovered happiness which is more permanent and more lasting then the celestial pleasures.

Why can’t science prove the connection between True-Self and Cosmic Energy or the Creator?

  • Science as it deals only with the sense perceptions, cannot explain the mystery of self. It is only within the province of philosophy
    • Science cannot reach it as its domain is within the sense perception and all its observations and experiments depend entirely upon the sense perceptions too. The Atman or soul however is beyond the realm of the 5 senses.
  • At the same time the Atman (soul) forms its background by which we perceive the sense objects
    • The studies of percepts and concepts will not reveal what we may call the witness. The chair is illumined by the light but if you want to study the light the chair will not help you.
    • Similarly the sense perceptions will not help you in studying your own Self cos they have no separate existence from the Self… sense perceptions and Self are one and the same
      • They cannot reveal any truth but truth is revealed by itself
    • Hence, study yourself and find out who you are and what you are, and that study will reveal to you that constant entity.
    • Through practice of deep meditation, when you are able to reach super-conscious state, samadhi, will you be able to find your true self, your soul.

“The soul will not be contented until it has realized its infinite nature, and that is the goal towards which we are running consciously or unconsciously.” – Swami Abhedananda

So why not run consciously?

And btw, if you haven’t guessed, the answer to life’s existential questions is not 42 but ONE!

Is There A Magic Formula To Building A Billion Dollar App?

Billion Dollar App

aabracadabra make me a zebra

Apparently not!

“The formula is not magic, it is simple, and it’s about how religiously you adhere to the tactics and the calibre of people you attract to join you on the journey.” – George Berkowski

But why should you believe “Georgie Porgie who kissed the girls and made them cry”?

For one, he is one of the minds behind the internationally successful taxi hailing app Hailo where he led the product team and launched the app in 13 cities and helped drive the first $150 million in revenue. Hailo was acquired by Daimler in mid 2016.

But a more relevant reason may be because he has put in the effort to research common threads and practices, tying them through his experience and stories of some of the billion dollar club members – wassapp, Instagram, Snapchat, Square, Flipboard, and a few more, to publish “How To Build A Billion Dollar App: Discover The Secrets Of The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Of Our Time”

Sharing extracts from the book of my key take-aways, for those aspiring to build (or are part of building) a billion (or even million) dollar app.

7 tips for building the B-App (pun intended)

  1. Think big by thinking about –
    1. What people love to do
    2. What people need to do (solving a universal problem)
  2. Disrupt and reinvent a service that millions of people around the world use on a daily basis
    1. A disruptive idea is one that
      1. Delivers a step change
      2. Hard for an existing player to copy
    2. Mass appeal is a core component of far-reaching disruption.
  3. Disruptive entrepreneurs need to understand –
    1. The capabilities of technology available to them
    2. The necessity of building a new platform
    3. How to integrate virality into their products
    4. Power of timing (probably most important)
  4. The best disruptions appear simple –
    1. They are best because they are the simplest to communicate and the simplest to understand by the largest number of people.
    2. Despite the veneer, simple ideas are rarely simple to execute
  5. Leading apps trigger and maintain strong emotional relationships (2 strongest sentiments being ‘connected’ and ‘excited’) by focusing exceptional effort on –
    1. Usability
    2. Design
    3. Performance
    4. Tone of voice used in copy
  6. Build a business, not an app. 5 business models that work –
    1. Gaming: Users pay for a virtual service or good
    2. E-commerce/market place: Users pay for a real world good or a service
    3. Advertising:
    4. Software as a Service (SaaS): Users pay for cloud-based software (typically via subscription model)
    5. Enterprise: Companies pat for larger-scale software (again, via a subscription model)
  7. Big ideas are going to take a while to get there (and it’s bloody hard… so you’ll need to want it bloody badly)
    1. Evan Williams, founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium says, “By definition, if it’s big, and no one has done it before, it’s not going to be 1-2-3, ‘We got it!’ There is going to be a dark period in there, because you don’t know what the key to getting there is. You have to be willing to be in some murky territory, and be prepared to invest, if you really want to do something different”
    2. It takes about 7 years on an average to build a company that raises $30 mn and gets acquired for $150 mn
    3. You need to be tenacious and lucky to make it to the top

Bonus tip (from moi) – Focus on building an amazing product that people can’t live without, not chasing the billion dollar dream. After all, that’s also what’s common between Mark Zuckerberg, Sergei Brin, Larry Page, Evan Spiegel, Brian Acton, Jan Koum, Brian Chesky and all other 37 founders in the Billion Dollar club when they first started out.

The 7 Step Journey (till Stage 2: Ten Million Dollar App…Series A)

Step 1: Figure out what you want to build

  1. Start with a big problem. Works best if you want to solve a problem for yourself
  2. Find a novel solution
  3. Make sure there’s a market to adopt it. Preferably a huge market if you want to “change the world”

Step 2: Build a great product that users love

  1. Name your app
    1. Don’t settle for an OK name. A great name is 10 times better than a good name. We are subject to the influence of first impressions and the name can have an influence on what people think about your app, before they’ve even tried it out.
    2. Important factors that you need to consider when coming up with a name
      1. Is your name short, catchy and memorable?
      2. Is your name distinctive?
      3. Is your name clever?
      4. Can your name become a verb?
    3. Some online services that can help solve your identity crisis –
      1. www.namestation.com
      2. www.Sedo.com
      3. www.domainnamesoup.com
      4. www.instantdomainsearch. Com
  1. Create a landing page/website
    1. You’ll need to announce to the world that you’re gonna conquer it.. or at least that you’ve arrived
    2. Use this to collect leads of people interested in your app by capturing their email address
  2. Creating the 1st version of the app, version 0.1, typically referred to as an mvp (minimum viable product)
    1. This is a bare bones version of your app. A version that will definitely make you cringe, but like Reid Hoffman says, “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late”. In this version you want to focus on the most basic set of features that will make your app useful and unique.
      1. George shares his example about the first version of Hailo, “Since we had limited time and resources we ignored everything else – there wasn’t a proper way to register an account, you couldn’t add your name, you couldn’t interact with the map, and you could see only the taxi’s number plate. It was bare bones. But it delivered a feature that no one else could offer!”
    2. Create wireframes and user journeys (a detailed blueprint of your app)
      1. This blueprint has two goals:
        1. To illustrate what each screen of your app looks like; and
        2. To explain how your app behaves. Since smartphones are small, intimate and all based on touch, there are lots of ways you can make your app behave.
      2. Tools to help you do this –
        1. https://www.adobe.com/in/products/xd.html
        2. moqups.com
        3. balsamiq.com
        4. marvelapp.com
        5. proto.io
        6. sketch.com (only mac)
        7. PowerPoint – create a slide-by-slide outline (using the shapes elements) for every screen in your app. Immediately, you will see the challenge of translating the idea of the app you have in your head to precisely how it’s going to look on a screen. It’s challenging!
      3. Don’t ignore (great) design
        1. Design matters because competition in the app world is heating up and because people can be fickle. (26% of users will open your app and never use it again). From the very first experience you need to be able to deliver value to the user. You need them to say, ‘Wow, this is really cool!’
        2. “Good Design is as little design as possible – less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.” – Dieter Rams
        3. FUNCTIONAL VERSUS BEAUTIFUL. There is a fine line between beautiful and functional design. The highest praise is reserved for apps that achieve both. But let’s be 100 per cent clear: functionality should be your number-one priority.
          1. WhatsApp is arguably a rather spartan app, and not super-pretty, but it’s damn intuitive, has great performance and always works. Similarly, Snapchat has a simple and uncluttered interface, and, despite requiring you to learn a new behaviour to view a snap (press and hold to view the content while the clock counts down), achieves that goal easily
        4. A great source of inspiration of screenshots is pttrns.com

Step 3: Acquiring your first set of users (early adopters)

  1. The objective at this step is not to focus on getting many many users to download your app at this point, but rather to a) get initial validation on your product and b) create a viable and realistic plan to drive downloads and regular usage by ensuring your users can find your app
  2. A break-down (fig 1) of how users find apps via each channel indicates the channels that you need to create and optimize (You’ll find a ton of resources on Google for ASO (App-Store Optimization) and SEO for website
Mobile App User Acquisition Channels

Fig 1: User Acquisition Channels

Step 4: Measure metrics

  1. Reactions to the early versions of your app are key to your success, and you want to use real user feedback to tune the direction in which you’re heading
  2. Reality of (auto) feedback is you only hear the extremes, the great experiences and the very bad experiences
  3. Analytics is the answer. By including snippets of software in your app code, you can automatically track what every single user is doing on your app – what they are looking at, what they are clicking, how long they spend performing an action and at what point they open and close the app. Analytics tools gives you powerful visualization of all this information and more. How you interpret this information, i.e., what insight you can gleam from it, and what should do as a result – well, is an art.
  4. Some great analytics tools –
    1. mixpanel.com
    2. flurry.com
    3. googleanalytics.com
    4. localanalytics.com
    5. clevertap.com
  5. Metrics to live and die for – There are five types of metrics to remember (AARRR):
    1. ACQUISITION: users downloading your app from a variety of channels;
    2. ACTIVATION: users enjoying their first ‘happy’ experience on your app;
    3. RETENTION: users coming back and using your app multiple times;
    4. REFERRAL: users loving your app so much they refer others to download it;
    5. REVENUE: users completing actions on your app that you’re able to monetise
  6. One thing to remember is that all your metrics should be valuable and actionable, and they shouldn’t just be vanity metrics. Valuable metrics are ones that drive decisions.
  7. It’s also essential to agree on the definition of each of the metrics from and get their buy in from different stakeholders. Examples from Hailo with respect to how they defined their AARRR metrics
    1. Acquisition isn’t just getting a download. It’s about acquiring a user – so you need to set the bar higher. A user should be someone who downloads your app, opens it and clicks at least one button, or has a session length of more than 10 seconds. Counting someone who abandons your app as an acquisition isn’t particularly useful (and nor is the channel that brought them to your app)
    2. This is about a minimum threshold of engagement – someone who has completed an action that might lead to potential revenue. At Hailo we counted a user who created an account as an ‘activation’. Alternatively, you could count someone who has clicked X times within your app, or someone who has a session time of more than 60 seconds
    3. Understanding and driving this metric is critical to success. If you can’t keep users coming back, then your app is doomed. At Hailo we measured this as how many times a user opened up the app per month, and how many times they opened the app and requested a taxi. You can also drill down to the level of measuring how many times per month a user opens or clicks on the emails that you send to them
    4. This can be a tricky metric to track, so it helps to build a product feature to encourage it. From Day One we built in the ability to input into the passenger app on Hailo ‘promotion codes’ that would give passengers £5, £10 or more off their next taxi ride. The system was flexible enough to track every single ‘referral code’ back to a user, a driver or a specific marketing promotion
    5. You should be aiming to make this work from the very beginning. We monitored not only spending per customer, but also any discounts, refunds and the actual gross margin we made per user. We also monitored how much people were tipping their drivers
  8. Avoid these rookie mistakes while measuring your metrics –
    1. Putting in analytics too late
    2. Relying on a single analytical solution
    3. Not attributing marketing or referral sources
    4. Not plugging in revenue metrics

Step 5: Find product-market fit

  1. Product-market fit means
    1. First, being in a good market
    2. Second, building a product that can satisfy what people in that market want. Without that you’re not going to experience explosive growth.
  2. How to find product-market fit
    1. By building the best possible product that appeals to the biggest number of users – the sweet spot where truly successful apps focus. This entails the following –
      1. Everyone in the team from the CEO down in your business being product-centric, that is, maniacally focussing on delivering the best user experience. (If, however, the product is not the primary focus of the CEO/Founders – perhaps they are more interested in developing partnerships, or raising money or focusing on profit margins, then you will have a hard time reaching product-market fit).
      2. Creating a data-driven process to build, test, measure and roll out product improvements. If the product improvement doesn’t work, it must be changed or killed.
        1. Testing your ideas: You need to figure out an effective way of communicating with your early users frequently – at least once a week – and getting their qualitative feedback. Try also to form a group of 20 to 30 power users whom you can email or call 24/7. These people should be frank and brutal and give you detailed feedback. Combined with your quantitative feedback – analytics – you should be in a pretty good position. You need to keep improving features, testing them and then releasing the new or improved features to all your users and measuring the results. You can try usertesting.com , a resources to get more users to try your product and give feedback.
      3. Saying ‘No’ to features to enable focus. Given the limited time, money and resources, maintaining focus is the only way to get to product-market fit.
  1. Signs that you have achieved product-market fit –
    1. Users are downloading your app in droves
    2. You can’t spin up servers fast enough to support demand
    3. iTunes and Google are depositing more and more money in your bank account
    4. Find it hard to hire support staff any faster
    5. Tired of talking to reporters
    6. According to Sean Ellis (founder of Growth Hacker), “In my experience, achieving product-market fit requires at least 40% of users saying they would be very disappointed without your product
  2. Signs that you have NOT quite achieved the point of product-market fit –
    1. Your users don’t seem to get the value of your app
    2. There doesn’t seem to be much word of mouth growth
    3. Usage isn’t growing that fast
    4. You’re receiving rather flat publicity
    5. You’re stuck in the limbo world of ‘me-too product’

Step 6: Get your growth engine on (Acquiring users)

  1. Your user-acquisition strategy is going to be focused on experimentation and validation. You need to go out there and
    1. find the most efficient channels to get users downloading your app, and at the same time
    2. you need to test what campaigns – messaging, wording, imagery, propositions – are going to get those channels to perform the actions you want.
  2. Get emotional with campaigns
    1. For users to love your app, you need to be able to actively make them feel something. Your goal is to get users to love – or even hate – your app. Death is when they don’t feel anything strong about you and you become someone stuck in the zone of indifference. Red Bull has achieved that well: it formulated its taste so that 50 per cent of people would more than like it: they would love it. And it actively didn’t care about the rest (the company is worth more than $7 billion).
    2. Start by making a few lists of the following things:
      1. The top five emotions you want your app to elicit
      2. The top fifty words that describe your app
      3. The top fifty words that describe your brand
      4. The top customer needs your app satisfies and benefits it delivers
      5. The top problems your app solves
      6. The top fifty words that describe your competitors’ apps
      7. The top fifty words that describe your competitors’ brands
  1. Basic user acquisition tactics
    1. Ensuring you have a responsive website with a clear call to download your app
    2. Core SEO (search-engine optimisation) elements in place on your website
    3. ASO (app-store optimisation) in place
    4. A basic understanding of PPD (pay-per-download) advertising
    5. Leveraging social features in your app, empowering people to more easily share your app and broadcast it to social-media channels.
    6. Publicity – one of the biggest low-cost channels you can pursue at this point. Reaching out to bloggers, app review sites and similar online channels
  2. Track attribution – sources your users are coming from and optimize your spend on users who are driving value in your app
    1. Mobile App Tracking
    2. Referral Tracking
  3. Mobile advertising
    1. Top 10 mobile advertising platforms – Google’s AdMob, Millennial Media, iAd (from Apple), Flurry, inMobi, Chartboost, MoPub, Amobee, HasOffers and Euclid Analytics

Step 7: Seducing Investors

  1. If you’re building a B-App, then at some point you will need to consider outside investment to help you grow faster. Investment will help you hire more people, spend more on advertising and get more people to use your app.
  2. Depending on the stage of your app, the sources investment will be from friends, families, fools and accelerators in seed stage, angel investors in early stage and VCs from series A onwards.

George Berkowski loosely breaks up the funding/investment and valuation in 5 lifecycle stages.

  1. Stage 1: The Million Dollar App – Building a founding team, validating your product and raising seed fund
  2. Stage 2: The 10 Million Dollar App – Achieving product-market fit and raising Series A funding
  3. Stage 3: The 100 Million Dollar App – Tuning your revenue engine, growing users and raising Series B funding
  4. Stage 4: The Five Hundred Million Dollar App – Scaling your business and raising Series C funding
  5. Stage 5: The Billion Dollar App – The promised land

Here’s a comparison summary for the 1st 2 stages –

Stage 1: The Million Dollar App Stage 2: The 10 Million Dollar App
Objective Through this first part of the journey it’s all about validating your idea, the market, your product, the basics of your business model – and putting together a plan of attack. You’re putting together an end-to-end plan for your business, and supporting it with research, data and innovative thinking.

At the end of this section you’ll have real customer validation and metrics, and be confident that your basic app will become a business

Throughout this stage you’re going to need to be 100 per cent focused. The only thing you care about now is achieving strong product-market fit, ensuring users love your app so much they are willing to pay for it.
App Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that’s functional and ready for real user’s hands.

Your goal is to get it into user’s hands quickly so that you can get as much feedback as possible.

Your prototype app is impressing people and they’re using it. You have the beginnings of the ‘wow’ factor.
Team 3 key roles –

  • Someone must lead the product vision
  • Someone needs to build the technology
  • Someone needs to be focused on getting users and generating money
The founders are in place and the core team members you ear marked can now join full time because you have some funding.

 

You’re still a pretty small team, but all core functions are covered. As the product improves and traction picks up, you need to think about the next big hire you’ll probably be making to drive more users and revenue: the VP of marketing

 

But stay lean and mean, because getting to product-market fit can take a lot longer than expected

Users Apart from your mom, aim to get feedback from hundreds of real users, if not a thousand (if you’re a marketplace model, a couple of 100 will be good going) From a small user base in the hundreds, you’ll start to grow quickly into the thousands of users.

 

You’ll be developing a solid and reliable user-acquisition strategy. You’ll find out what the cost of acquiring a user is (and what needs to be done to make your business profitable)

Business Model Gone are the days of not having a business model on Day One. There are only 5 business models that power all billion-dollar apps – validate which one will power yours What was a basic business model will now evolve quickly. You need to make sure that it works in practice as well as in principle
Valuation Ideas are a penny a dozen. It’s execution that’s worth money. You’ll drive a solid valuation if you get the right team together to deliver a product that users love to use.

 

Do that and you’ll be worth $ 1 million. If you do that very well, you’ll be worth $4-5 million – the average valuation of a funded startup at this early stage.

$10 million valuation (on an average)
Investment You’re investing your own blood, sweat and tears at this point. If you nail your idea, team, prototype and some users, then someone will probably be happy to give you anywhere between $250,000 and $1 million in exchange for owning a percentage of your new app At this point things get serious. You’re going to move into the world of professional venture capital investors. That means long agreements and lots of legal paperwork.

 

But if you really want to ramp up your business, develop your app, build your team and spen on marketing, then this is the quickest and potentially smartest – way to raise around $2-3 million

Coming Soon (post Series A) – Part Deux: Summary of stages 3 to 5. In case you want to know more sooner then here’s – “How To Build A Billion Dollar App: Discover The Secrets Of The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Of Our Time”

10 truths of habit forming products

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits” – Mark Twain #MondayMorningWakeUpCall

truths_about_habit-forming_products

Businesses that create customer habits gain a significant competitive advantage. Habit-forming products change user behavior and create unprompted user engagement. The aim is to influence customers to use your product on their own, again and again, without relying on overt call to action such as ads or promotions. Case to point – Facebook, Instagram, Slack, Google, Amazon and a whole slew of new and emerging high tech companies

Here are 10 truths about habit-forming products mined from Nir Eyal’s Hooked for entrepreneurs building products to reform other people’s habits –

  1. A habit is when not doing an action causes a bit of pain (a kind of itch, a feeling that manifests within the mind and causes discomfort until it is satisfied). The habit-forming products we use are simply there to provide some sort of relief. Using a technology or product to scratch the itch provides faster satisfaction than ignoring it. Once we come to depend on a tool, nothing else will do.
  2. User habits are a competitive advantage. Products that change customer routines are less susceptible to attacks from other companies
  3. Products with higher user engagement also have the potential to grow faster than their rivals
  4. New behaviors have a short half-life, as our minds tend to revert to our old ways of thinking and doing
  5. John Gourville, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, claims that for new entrants to stand a chance, they can’t just be better, they must be nine times better. Why such a high bar? Because old habits die hard and new products or services need to offer dramatic improvements to shake users out of old routines.
  6. For new behaviors to really take hold, they must occur often. Frequent engagement with a product-especially over a short period of time-increases the likelihood of forming new routines
  7. How frequent is frequent enough?
    1. The answer is likely specific to each business and behavior… although higher the frequency, better it is
    2. A 2010 study found that some habits can be formed in a matter of weeks while others can take more than five months. The researchers also found that the complexity of the behavior and how important the habit was to the person greatly affected how quickly the routine was formed.
  8. Sometimes a behavior does not occur as frequently as flossing or Googling, but it still becomes a habit. For an infrequent action to become a habit, the user must perceive a high degree of utility, either from gaining pleasure or avoiding pain, the 2 key motivators in all species
  9. A company can begin to determine its product’s habit-forming potential by plotting two factors: frequency (how often the behavior occurs) and perceived utility (how useful and rewarding the behavior is in the user’s mind over alternative solutions)
    1. If either of these factors fall short and the behavior lies below the threshold, it is less likely that the desired behavior will become a habit
  10. Habit forming products often start as nice-to-haves, but once the habit is formed, they become must-haves

Habits keep users loyal. Gourville writes that products that require a high degree of behavior change are doomed to fail even if the benefits of using the new products are clear and substantial.

But all hope is not lost for entrepreneurs building products that have direct or dotted line relationships with habits!

The Hook Model created by Nir Eyal describes an experience designed to connect to the user’s problem to a solution frequently enough to form a habit. A summary on the model coming soon.

9 ways how hackers, innovators and icons accelerate success

“Once you stop thinking you have to follow the path laid out you can really turn up the speed” – David Heinemeier Hanson

In his book Smartcuts, Shane Snow endeavours to convince you that the fastest route to success is never traditional, and that the conventions we grow up with can be hacked. Crux of his endeavor is to show you that anyone—not just billionaire entrepreneurs and professional mavericks—can speed up progress in business or life.

He does so by taking examples and stories throughout history of overachievers who have applied lateral thinking to success in a variety of fields and endeavors.

By virtue of being on an assignment as a reporter for Fast Company, Shane had the unique opportunity to research, interview, dissect common patterns among rapidly successful entrepreneurs, tech companies and icons.

He’s put together success stories of how Jimmy Fallon reached stardom, DHH (Ruby on Rails) winning the World Endurance Championship (Racing) despite being the least experienced driver in the competition, David Karp’s (Tumblr founder) rapid rise and other fast-growing personalities and companies through research and interviews and dissected common patterns among rapidly successful entrepreneurs, tech companies and icons.

He’s identified nine patterns of lateral thinking, called smartcuts, across these stories, which he believes can be harnessed by anyone who seeks an edge for personal development or professional development.

He defines smartcuts as “shortcuts with integrity”. Where the dictionary definition of shortcuts can be amoral, smartcuts is about working smarter and achieving more—without creating negative externalities.

He categorizes the 9 smartcuts under 3 classes –

  1. Shorten (the path to success)
  2. Leverage (do more with less effort)
  3. Soar

Here’s a summary of the 9 smartcuts for kwick konsumption that can be applied for self or company alike. The more curious can read the stories, research and evidence of the excerpts below can be found in the book.

Shorten (the path to success)

  1. Hack the ladder

Smartcuts_hack_the_ladder

The ability and openness to swiftly switch directions tends to accelerate a company’s growth.

The fastest land animal in the world in the cheetah. According to behavioral biologists, the speed however is not the cheetah’s biggest predatory advantage. It’s their agility – their skill at leaping sideways, changing directions abruptly and slowing down quickly, that gives those antelopes such bad odds.

Business research shows that ladder switching, switching business models or products, while on the upswing, tends to accelerate a company’s growth and are more likely to perform much better than those that stay on a single course.

The 2011 Startup Genome Report of new technology companies backs this up – “Startups that pivot once or twice raise 2.5x more money, have 3.6x better user growth, and are 52% less likely to scale prematurely.”

Stubborness and tradition make for poor performance.

  1. Train with masters

Smartcuts_train_with_masters

A master can help you accelerate things, especially so when a master is not just a teacher but a mentor, someone who’s travelled the road herself.

Mentorship is the secret of many of the highest-profile achievers throughout history.

Business research backs this up, too. Analysis shows that entrepreneurs who have mentors end up raising seven times as much capital for their businesses, and experience 3.5 times faster growth than those without mentors. And in fact, of the companies surveyed, few managed to scale a profitable business model without a mentor’s aid.

However, the trick is to get the mentoring relationship right. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the author of Lean In, dedicates a chapter in her book to this concept, arguing that asking someone to formally mentor you is like asking a celebrity for an autograph; it’s stiff, inorganic, and often doesn’t work out.

According to research, what works is “informal mentoring” where deep personal relationships are developed which transcend just advice on the formal challenges at hand to advice on other aspects of life. Both the teacher and the student must be able to open up about their fears, and that builds trust, which in turn accelerates learning. That trust opens us up to actually heeding the difficult advice we might otherwise ignore. The more vulnerability is shown in the relationship, the more critical details become available for a student to pick up on and assimilate.

  1. Get rapid feedback

Smartcuts_get_rapid_feedback

Tech startups have pioneered and evangelized this concept through their lean startup model where they release an MVP (Minimal Viable Product) and improve it through iterations basis feedback. They live by the mantra “fail fast and fail often”

The tough part about negative feedback is in separating ourselves from the perceived failure and turning our experiences into objective experiments. But when we do that, feedback becomes much more powerful.

The same rule applies when giving feedback, especially personal feedback. Feedback that works is feedback that causes a person to focus on the task rather than on herself. The more you can depersonalize the feedback and lower the stakes and pressure of failing, the more likely is the person to take risks that force them to improve.

Leverage (do more with less effort)

  1. Take advantage of platforms

Smartcuts_take_advantage_of_platforms

Platforms are layers of abstraction in business and life that can allow you to multiply your effort. They are tools and environments on which you can build your ideas allowing you to bypass the initial or foundational hard work that’s already been done.

As an example, Isaac Newton attributed his success as a scientist to “standing on the shoulders of giants”—building off of the work of great thinkers before him.

You can build on top of a lot of things that exist in this world.

  1. Spot and ride waves

Smartcuts_spot_and_ride_waves

Luck is often talked about as “being in the right place at the right time.” But like a surfer, some people—and companies—are adept at placing themselves at the right place at the right time. They seek out opportunity rather than wait for it.

Spotting and riding waves is about developing conscious pattern recognition.

This explains how so many inexperienced companies and entrepreneurs beat the norm and build businesses that disrupt established players. Through deliberate analysis, the little guy can spot waves better than the big company that relies on experience and instinct once it’s at the top. And a wave can take an amateur farther faster than an expert can swim.

In business, fast followers can often benefit from free-rider effects once the first movers take on the burden of educating customers, setting up infrastructure, getting regulatory approvals, and making mistakes—getting feedback and adjusting.

The way to predict the best waves in a proverbial set is established by researchers Fernando F. Suarez and Gianvito Lanzolla, who in Academy of Management Review explain that “when market and technology growth are smooth and steady, the first mover gets the inertia and an advantage. When industry change is choppy, the fast follower—the second mover—gets the benefits of the first mover’s pioneering work and often catches a bigger wave, unencumbered.”

  1. Find superconnectors

Find_superconnectors

Which is easier—making friends with a thousand people one by one or making friends with someone who already has a thousand friends? Which is faster—going door to door with a message or broadcasting the message to a million homes at once?

This is the idea behind what Shane Snow calls superconnecting, the act of making mass connections by tapping into hubs with many spokes.

Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council, who coined the term superconnector however warns that “The number one problem with networking is people are out for themselves. Superconnecting is about learning what people need, then talking about ‘how do we create something of value.’”

Soar 

  1. Create momentum

Smartcuts_create_momentum

Momentum is simply progress. A sense of forward motion regardless of how small. And this is done best with the concept of enabling lots of “tiny wins”.

The forward motion, however small, builds up potential energy, which then helps amplifying the momentum multifold when unexpected opportunities arise.

  1. Simplicity

Smartcuts_simplicity

The best products often demonstrate that simplification often makes the difference between good and amazing. Steve Jobs has probably been the face for this concept. From the Magic Mouse (mouse with zero buttons) doubling Apple’s mouse market share overnight, to Apple’s ipod winning the MP3 war with breakthrough simplicity, both in physical design as well as communication (1000 songs in your pocket), Steve Jobs has reason enough to refer to simplicity as “the ultimate sophistication”

Geniuses and presidents strip meaningless choices from their day, so they can simplify their lives and think. Inventors and entrepreneurs ask, ‘how could we make this product simpler?’ The answer transforms good to incredible.

Caveat: As Einstein has said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”

  1. 10X thinking

Smartcuts_10X_thinking

10X thinking is moon-shot thinking. It’s making something 10 times better rather than 10% better.

According to Steven Teller of Google [x], “the crazy thing is it’s often easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better.”

He explains that “The way of going about trying to make something new or better often tends to polarize into one of two styles. “One is the low-variance, no surprises version of improvement. The production model, if you will. You tend to get ‘10 percent,’ in order of magnitude, kind of improvements. In order to get really big improvements, you usually have to start over in one or more ways. You have to break some of the basic assumptions and, of course, you can’t know ahead of time. It’s by definition counterintuitive.” Incremental progress, he says, depends on working harder. More resources, more effort. 10x progress is built on bravery and creativity instead. Working smarter. In other words, 10x goals force you to come up with smartcuts.

It’s what according to Peter Thiel enables zero to one transformation and why such thinking can reap better rewards.

While this is easier said than done, the good news is that lofty thinking is what makes people surprisingly willing to support big ideals and big swings. Although just because you’re righteous doesn’t mean people will support you. You have to motivate them. You have to tell provocative stories. This explains brands like Red Bull and Whole Foods that manage to convey their values so loudly; they tell good stories. This explains Gaga, Alexander, and other revolutionary types; they tell fantastic stories. This explains why Elon Musk the geek brushed up on speaking skills and started talking big. This-is-the-future-of-mankind big. He did television appearances and magazine interviews. He told the world he was going to die on Mars.

“You need to get a critical mass of people who give a fuck.”

8 most productive ideas linked to improving productivity

“Never mistake motion for action” – Ernest Hemingway #MondayMorningWakeUpCall

‘Productivity’ is often interpreted in different ways by different people. One person might spend an hour exercising in the morning before heading off to work consider the morning productive while another might use that time meditating and a third might consider an extra half hour of sleeping in productive.

Charles Duhigg, in his latest book, Smarter Faster Better, defines productivity, simply as, “the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort.” Smarter_faster_better_book_summary

And in his attempt to deconstruct why some people are more productive than others, his conclusion, through extensive research, is that “productivity is not about working more or sweating harder. And it’s definitely not a product of spending longer hours at your desk or making bigger sacrifices. Rather productivity is about making certain choices in certain ways.”

His book Smarter Faster Better explores eight ideas that seem most important in expanding productivity and is about how to recognize the choices that fuel true productivity through these eight ideas.

Here are the eight ideas, and the choices you can make around them, to help you become smarter, better and faster at everything you do (if you apply them).

  1. Motivation
    1. You are more likely to be motivated if you are given the opportunities to make choices that provide you with a sense of autonomy
    2. If you can link something hard to something that you care about, it makes the task easier. Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge
  2. Teams
    1. Teams need to believe that their work is important
    2. Teams need to believe that their work is personally meaningful
    3. Teams need clear goals and defined roles
    4. Team members need to know that they can depend on one another
    5. Most important, teams need psychological safety. To create psychological safety, team leaders need to model the right behavior
  3. Focus
    1. To be able to stay focused and calm amidst chaotic environments, develop the ability to build mental models, envision what will happen before hand. Get in a pattern of forcing yourself to anticipate what’s next.
      1. Think through what will occur first? What are potential outcomes? How will you preempt them? Telling yourself a story about what you expect to occur makes it easier to decide where your focus should go when your plan encounters real life
    2. “The key is forcing yourself to think. As long as you’re thinking, you’re half way home”
  4. Goal-setting
    1. SMART goals need to be combined with ‘stretch’ goals
    2. SMART goals force people to translate vague aspirations into concrete plans.. it’s the difference between hoping something comes true and figuring how to do it. However, they can cause
      1. Person to have tunnel vision, to focus more on expanding effort to get immediate results
      2. You get on a mindset where crossing things off your to-do list becomes more important than asking yourself if you’re doing the right things
    3. Stretch goals are defined as “If you do know how to get there, it’s not a stretch target”. Numerous studies have shown that forcing people to commit to ambitious, seemingly out-of-reach objectives can spark outsized jumps in innovation and productivity.
      1. Stretch goals serve as jolting events that disrupt complacency and promote new ways of thinking rather than the tunnel vision of SMART goals
      2. Important caveat to stretch goals: If a stretch goal is audacious, it can spark innovation. However, it can cause panic and convince people that success is impossible because the goal is too big. There is a fine line between an ambition that helps people achieve something amazing and one that crushes morale

5. Managing Others

  1. Push decision making to whoever is closest to the problem
  2. Lean and agile management techniques tell us employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision-making authority and when they believe their colleagues are committed to their success
  3. People need to know their suggestions won’t be ignored and that their mistakes won’t be held against them

6. Decision Making

  1. Envision multiple futures (probabilistic thinking) to make better decisions and
  2. Develop your Bayesian instincts (intuition)

7. Innovation

  1. A method to jump-start the creative process – taking proven, conventional ideas from other settings and combining them in new way is remarkably effective. Most original ideas grow out of old concepts and the building blocks of new ideas are often embodied in existing knowledge (previously known ideas mixed together in different ways…in a manner no one had considered before) especially transferring knowledge between different industries or groups
  2. Be sensitive to your own experiences. Pay attention to how things make you think and feel. That’s how we distinguish clichés from true insights. (Steve Jobs – “Best designers are those who have thought more about their experiences than other people”)
  3. Create a little bit of chaos. A little disturbance can jolt us out of the ruts

8. Absorbing Data

  1. You can absorb data better by forcing yourself to do something with the new information you’ve just encountered
    1. Write yourself a note explaining what you just learned
    2. Figure out a small way to test an idea
    3. Graph a series of data points onto a piece of paper
    4. Force yourself to explain an idea to a friend

So move over citius, altius, fortius and make way for smarter, faster, better.

2 tips to making better decisions

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” 
― Peter F. Drucker #MondayMorningWakeUpCall

Decision_making

Better decision making is directly linked to better productivity. Duh!

We don’t need anyone to tell us or even remind us that indecisiveness and consistent poor decisions can not only effect professional growth but also impact personal life undesirably.

However, we could do with a couple of tips, backed by scientific research, on how we can learn to make better decisions.

In his new book Smarter Better Faster, Charles Duhigg just does that (apart from talking about seven other ideas linked to productivity, book summary coming soon). Here are excerpts from his research and conclusions on better decision making.

To make better decisions…wait for it…wait for it…wait for it…

  1. Envision multiple futures (probabilistic thinking):

Probabilistic thinking is thinking of the future not as what’s going to happen, but rather as a series of possibilities that might occur, holding contradictory scenarios in our mind simultaneously. Then add probabilities of each of these future outcomes and take an average. By pushing ourselves to imagine various possibilities, some of which may be contradictory, we’re better equipped to make wise choices

Warning: We’re not accustomed to thinking about multiple futures since we live in only one reality, so it takes a bit of conscious effort (it can also be unsettling for people because it forces us to think about things that may not come true or we don’t want to envisage)

  1. Develop our Bayesian instincts (intuition)

We can develop our Bayesian instincts (intuition) by studying statistics, playing games like poker, thinking through life’s potential pitfalls and successes et al, fundamentally, seeking out different experiences, perspectives, and other people’s ideas. By finding information and then letting ourselves sit with it, options become clearer

Warning: Making good predictions relies on realistic assumptions, and those are based on our experiences.

So how do we get the right assumptions? – By making sure we are exposed to a full spectrum of experiences. Our assumptions are based on what we’ve encountered in life, but our experiences often draw on biased samples. In particular, we are much more likely to remember our successes and forget about our failures (We hardly notice empty restaurants, don’t experience empty cinema halls and more likely to read about the success of a unicorn startup, etc). However, accurate forecasting requires exposing ourselves to as many successes and disappointments as possible. Many successful people spend an enormous amount of time seeking out information on failures. If we pay attention only to good news or only to bad news, we’re handicapping ourselves

The people who make the best choices are the ones who work hardest to envision various futures, to write them down and think them through, and then ask themselves, which ones do I think are more likely and why?

And of course, you’ve got the option of not making a decision. After all, not making a decision is also a decision.

15 tips to achieve excellence in any discipline

“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.” – Josh Waitzkin #MondayMorningWakeUpCall

Art_Of_Learning_Book_Summary

Learning is an art, not fart

Few people can be the best in the world in one discipline. Even fewer can achieve this rare repute in 2 different disciplines. Josh Waitzkin is one such wonder who has become world class in 2 distinctly diverse disciplines, chess and Tai Chi.

Josh won the U.S. Junior Chess championship in 1993 and 1994. He is the only person to have won the National Primary, Elementary, Junior High School, High School, U.S. Cadet, and U.S. Junior Closed chess championships in his career. The movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is based on his early life.

Added to his chess accolades he also holds several US national medals and a 2004 world champion title in the competitive sport of Taiji Push Hands (Taiji Tui Shou).

Josh however believes that what he is best at is not chess or Tai Chi – what he is the best at is The Art of Learning, and his book by the same name is the story of his method.

Here’s my interpretation and summary with excerpts of the key points to his method. Feel free to adopt, adapt and apply to become the best, or better than the rest of your circle of musicians, dancers, designers, actors, athletes, scientists, writers, philosophers and professionals, whichever your chosen discipline.

  1. LAY A FABULOUS FOUNDATION

Josh’s first lesson with Bruce, one of his earliest teachers, was anything but orthodox. They hardly studied chess, it was more about getting to know one another, to establish a genuine camaraderie.

Bruce’s core focus in the first months of study was that he nurtured Josh’s love for chess, and he never let technical material smother his innate feeling for the game.

Despite significant outside pressure, his parents and Bruce decided to keep Josh out of tournaments until he had been playing chess for a year or so, because they wanted his relationship to the game to be about learning and passion first, and a competition a distant second

  1. LOSE TO WIN

Entering the ‘Primary School National Chess Championship’ when Josh was 8, he was the ‘man to beat’. However, he lost in the finals to a little known rival and was devastated at coming so close to winning his first national championship and then letting it go.

His learning was that confidence is critical for a great competitor, but overconfidence is brittle.

He took a break and at a ripe young age of 8 questioned everything and decided to come back strong with a commitment to chess that was about much more than fun and glory. It was about love and pain and passion and pushing himself to overcome… and the following year he went on to become National Champion.

  1. DEVELOP THE CORRECT APPROACH TO LEARNING

The wrong approach: The entity theory of intelligence – Children who are “entity theorists”… that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents and teachers to attribute their success or failure to ingrained and unalterable level of ability, see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve. Example, kids or people who are prone to saying “I am smart or talented at this”.

The right approach: The incremental theory of intelligence (learning theorists) – Children or people who are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder”. A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped and step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the zot (master)

Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of developmental psychology, has shown that when challenged by difficult material, learning theorists are far more likely to rise to the level of the game, while entity theorists are more brittle and prone to quit. Hence the advice to parents and teachers (and even to yourselves) to praise the effort and not the outcome.

The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long term learning process.

  1. LOVE THE GAME

After Josh won his first National Championship, his chess life started gathering momentum. His passion for the game fueled a long ride of unhindered learning and inspired performance. From nine to seventeen, he was the top ranked player for his age in the country.

However, there were plateaus, numerous periods when his results leveled off while he internalized the information necessary for his next growth spurt, but he didn’t mind. Josh’s had a burning love for chess which helped him push through the rocky periods with a can-do attitude.

  1. ATTAIN YOUR SOFT ZONE: “LOSE YOURSELF”

Like all regular mortals, Josh had to deal with distractions in his game. This was compounded by the fact that from a very early age he had to stay focused under intense pressure on a game that could sometimes last as long as six to eight hours. A catchy tune could be enough to haunt him for days and throw him off balance.

In 1993, at sixteen, Josh had travelled to India to participate in the World Junior Chess Championship in Calicut. He was finding the surroundings difficult to acclimatize to and was struggling to find his flow in the first round match. Somewhere during the course of the match, he did find it and immediately after, there was an earthquake. While the earthquake shook everything, including his opponent, Josh experienced a surreal synergy, pure thought and awareness of a thinker. When play resumed he immediately made his move and went on to win the game.

The incident was the launching point of his serious investigation of the nuances of performance psychology. Staying calm amidst an earthquake had helped him reach and discover a higher state of consciousness. By systematically training yourself, you can do this at will.

The soft zone is the initial step along the path of achieving your state of creative flow. The nature of your state of concentration determines the phase of your reaction to the task at hand whether it be a piece of music, a legal brief, a financial document, driving a car, anything.

Through performance training, you first learn to flow with whatever distraction comes. Then you learn to use whatever distraction comes to your advantage. Finally you learn to be completely self-sufficient and create your own earthquakes, so your mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.

With systematic training you can learn to flow (lose yourself) with the distractions and embrace the difficulties that come your way, no longer letting them affect you detrimentally.

  1. BE COGNIZANT OF THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Games, deals and life battles are lost because of a shift in psychological advantage. The crucial trait that needs to be developed is regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error.

This is usually a hard lesson to grasp for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction.

Musicians, actors, athletes, philosophers, scientists, writers understand that brilliant creations are often born of small errors. Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication. Then an error triggers fear, detachment, uncertainty or confusion that muddies the decision-making process.

  1. FIND YOUR NATURAL VOICE

There was a period when Josh was training under a Russian Grandmaster who urged him to become more conservative stylistically. While Josh found this approach interesting, the effects of moving away from his natural voice (a creative, attacking player, who loved the wild side of chess) as a competitor disturbing. His strengths were moving out of reach and chess no longer felt like an extension of his being. This also resulted in his performance being uneven and, at times, self-defeating in competition

Josh believes that one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition.

In his experience the greatest of artists and competitors are masters of navigating their own psychologies, playing on their strengths, controlling the tone of battle so that it fits with their personalities. He has found that in the intricate endeavors of competition, learning, and performance, there is more than one solution to virtually every meaningful problem. We are unique individuals who should put our own flair into everything we do.

  1. HAVE A BEGINNER’S MIND

Josh was at the zenith of his chess career when he left to pursue Tai Chi. The accolades he had earned in the chess arena meant nought in the Tai Chi arena. He was a beginner, a child learning to crawl all over again. Without the openness of a beginner’s mind to learn and an egoless attitude, it would have been impossible for him to scale the zenith in Tai Chi as well.

Even at the pinnacle, mastery is a constant learning experience. When aiming for the top, your path requires an engaged, searching mind. You have to make obstacles spur you to creative new angles in the learning process.

  1. INVEST IN LOSS

Josh transitioned from a world class chess competitor to a novice Tai Chi artist. During his initial days of training he got smashed around particularly by another more experienced training partner, Evan. But soon a curious thing began to happen. First, as he got used to taking shots from Evan, he stopped fearing the impact. His body built up resistance to getting smashed, learned how to absorb blows, and he knew he could take what he had to offer. Then as he became more relaxed under fire, Evan seemed to slow down in his mind. He noticed himself sensing his attack before it began. He learned how to read his intention, and be out of the way before he pulled the trigger. As Josh got better and better at neutralizing Evans’ attacks, Josh began to notice and exploit weaknesses in Evans’ game, and sometimes he found himself peacefully watching Evans’ hands come toward him in slow motion.

Not much different from fighting life’s battles with the universe I guess.

Great professionals are willing to get burned, invest in loss, time and again as they sharpen their swords in the fire… and of course, they don’t give up on the way to becoming The Greatest

  1. EMBRACE ADVERSITY

During the All Kung Fu Championships Finals in 2001 Josh had broken his hand. He didn’t show the injury, instead he fell into the rhythm with his opponent’s attacks and quietly fought with one arm. The National Championship was in 7 weeks. Against all odds of recovery, he trained with one hand during this period while his other hand recuperated before the championship which he went on to win

He says that in the finals, his broken hand made time slow down in his mind and he was able to reach the most heightened state of awareness in his life.

He says, “If I want to be the best, I have to take risks others would avoid, always optimizing the learning potential of the moment and turning adversity to my advantage.” And “let setbacks deepen your resolve.” Throughout his career he sought out opponents who were a little stronger than him which made losing a part of his regular experience and helped maintain a healthy perspective even while he was winning all the championships

He says, “The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.”

  1. MAKE SMALLER CIRCLES: DEPTH BEATS BREADTH

While honing his Tai Chi techniques, Josh focused on small movements, sometimes spending hours moving his hand a few inches, then releasing it back. Practicing in this manner he was able to sharpen his feeling for Tai Chi, he could translate it onto other parts of the form, and suddenly everything would start flowing at a higher level. The key was to recognize that the principles making one simple technique tick were the same fundamentals that fueled the whole expansive system of Tai Chi Chuan

The essence of this learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick

This principle applies to all fields. Players and professionals tend to get attached to fancy techniques and fail to recognize that subtle internalization and refinement is much more important than the quantity of what is learned.

  1. SLOW DOWN TIME

Once Josh’s broken hand healed and the Nationals were over, the question on his mind was: how can I make time slow down without breaking a limb, recreate the control and experience of All Kung Fu Championships Final?

Focus on a select group of techniques and internalize them until the mind perceives them in tremendous detail. After training in this manner, you can see more frames in an equal amount of time, so things feel slowed down and you can control the situation better to your advantage

  1. DICTATE THE TONE OF THE BATTLE

One of the most critical strengths of a superior competitor in any discipline—whether we are speaking about sports, business negotiations, or even presidential debates—is the ability to dictate the tone of the battle.

Cultivating the last 2 principles help to control the intention of the opponent by being able to zoom in on very small details to which the others are completely oblivious

Josh’s experimentation with intentionality began during his early chess years. Even as a seven-year old boy in scholastic tournaments, he sometimes lured his young opponents into blundering by 1) making a move that set a trap and then 2) immediately groaning and slapping his head. This over-the-top display would usually inspire a careless moment of overconfidence from his opponent which Josh would be quick to capitalize on. Over time, Josh gradually honed the art of mastering the ability to read his opponents by reading subtle nuances like breath patterns and blinks of the eye. The more you can understand a series of movements more deeply, in more frames, with more detail, the better you can manipulate your opponent’s intentions without him realizing what happened, thereby dictating the tone of battle.

  1. BE A MASTER TO YOUR EMOTIONS, NOT A SLAVE TO THEM

Anger. Fear. Desperation. Excitement. Happiness. Despair. Hope. Emotions are part of our lives. We would be fools to deny such a rich element of the human experience. But, when our emotions overwhelm us, we can get sloppy. If fear reduces us to tears, we might not act effectively in a genuinely dangerous situation. If we seethe when someone crosses us, we may make decisions we come to regret. If we get giddy when things are looking up, we will probably make some careless mistakes that turn our good situation upside down.

Josh often had to encounter opponents who would cheat, right from chess opponents who would try to distract him by going even as far as kicking him under the table or martial arts opponents who would play dirty. After losing the first few times to them he figured that getting angry was getting him nowhere. The first step was to recognize that the problem was his. That there would always be creeps in the world and he had to learn how to deal with them with a cool head. Getting pissed off would get him nowhere in life.

Once he recognized this he continually nurtured his mental resilience, arguably the most critical trait of a world class performer. He looked for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable, not by denying his emotions, but by learning to use them to his advantage.

Once you are no longer swept away by your emotions and can sit with them even when under pressure, you will probably notice that certain states of mind inspire you more than others. For some it may be happiness, for others it may be fear.

  1. CULTIVATE THE POWER OF PRESENCE

After intense periods of practice and competitions, especially during his chess years, Josh with his family, would often head off to the sea for a break, no matter what was happening in their lives. The boating life was a wonderful training ground for cultivating presence and the release of control. He learned at the sea that virtually all situations could be handled as long as presence of mind is maintained. On the other hand, if you lose your calm, when crisis hits seventy miles from land, or while swimming with big sharks, there is no safety net to catch you.

This also ties back in to mastering the ebb and flow of stress and recovery. The physiologists at LGE had discovered that in virtually every discipline, one of the most telling features of a dominant performer is the routine use of recovery periods. Players who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who end up coming through when the game is on the line. This is why the eminent tennis players of their day, such as Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras, had those strangely predictable routines of serenely picking their rackets between points, whether they won or lost the last exchange, while their rivals fumed at a bad call or pumped a fist in excitement.

The more you can let things go, the sharper you will be in the next drive.

In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire, is much what separates the best from the mediocre.

In the end…

We cannot calculate our important contests, adventures, and great loves to the end. The only thing we can really count on is getting surprised. No matter how much preparation we do, in the real tests of our lives, we’ll be in unfamiliar terrain. Conditions might not be calm or reasonable. It may feel as though the whole world is stacked against us. This is when we have to perform better than we ever conceived of performing. Josh (and many other great minds like mine J) believe the key is to have prepared in a manner that allows for inspiration, to have laid the foundation for us to create under the wildest pressures we ever imagined.

Feel free to adopt, adapt and apply these tips and methods to your own professional and personal life to be better prepared.