Sunday, February 23, 2020


Today I finished "Lead Yourself First", a book I marked as "want to read" in 2018 but never got to it. 

Cal Newport mentioned it in a podcast and I'm so glad I read it. 

The main idea is, solitude, defined as being "isolated from input from other minds, working through a problem on its own", is essential for leaders to thrive. It generates clarity, analytical clarity, creativity, and help with emotional balance. 

The idea is extremely resonating. Thanks to social media and smartphone, solitude can be easily gotten rid of nowaways. You can put on podcasts for long car rides (which I do every day). Check your Instagram feed while waiting in line for your Starbucks coffee. I sometimes even play news podcast while in shower, although I can't even hear it very well. It's good to have some background noise. I rarely have moment of real solitude - alone with my thoughts.

However, I get my best ideas in solitude. The best example is plane and train ride. I used to fly quite a bit for work at my last job. I love those plane ride where I'm free from Internet and distractions. For my current job, once in a while I take the NJ transit train to New York. It's one hour ride. When I have a clear business problem to solve, this one-hour ride is my most productive time. I took a piece of paper, a pen in hand, and just start writing. What's the situation, the challenge, and what the options are. Maybe it's the rocking motion of the train, I can always make significant progress thinking through the problem. No email, no phone call, no distractions.

The book inspires a few actions to create more solitude, and use them for a more fulfilling work/personal life:

  • Create a list of deep work worthy personal/business problems to think through during solitude: I already started capturing some big challenges at work/in personal time that need more clarity/creative solution. So next time for a long car ride, instead of turning on my podcast, I'll devote that hour to just thinking through the problem. To quote the book, it's an important leadership skill:"Among the most valuable functions a leader can perform is hard thinking about complex problems: identifying the problem precisely, making the premises of his thought explicit, and then examining each link in his logical chain—ideally all done on a notepad." 

  • Create solitude especially for big decisions, or when emotional stake is high: for me, especially the latter one. When something upsetting happens (at work), the emotion I feel seems overwhelming. I tend to imagine the worst case scenario and ruminate. A good step is to step away from the situation, take a walk alone, meditate, and focus your mind on something else. It's better to come back after some quiet time, instead of getting caught up in the emotion. Another good tactic I learned from this book, is to write a letter to the person you're upset with, and never send it - a tactic Abraham Lincoln deployed. 

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