I found the book extremely easy to read. The book summarises the latest in brain science about what keeps the brain strong. It underscores what science proves to work. More importantly, it breaks many myths about what doesn’t. Medina uses a lot of stories and analogies to simplify the complex field of brain science.
The field of studying the brain is relatively young. It was only in the last few decades that we could easily observe the brain without needing to remove it! As a result, this book still leaves many open answers but is at least honest about it.
Some tips that help keep the brain active and healthy include:
Maintain healthy relationships with a wide variety of people. Avoid emotionally controlling or abusive relationships. Avoid verbally aggressive people. Surround yourself with people who have different opinions and who value different perspectives.
Reflect on what you are grateful or appreciative about. Share your gratitude with others.
Learn about something new constantly. Better yet, teach others to expand your own understanding and stretch your brain.
Stay active (through exercise). Exercise strengths not only your body, but also your brain.
Get enough sleep. Sleep isn’t about resting. It’s about reseting, getting rid of “toxins” and forming connections essential to learning.
I also learned about a few areas that influences how your brain functions. Your diet has a big influence. Nostalgia can also help. I liked the question, “When did you have the most meaningful experiences of your long life?”
The book also underscored limits to the brain. We are rubbish at multi-tasking. Memories are volatile, so repetition is essential. If someone doesn’t feel safe in a particular environment, they will perform worse. The brain is not designed for long-term stress where you feel like you have no control.
I recommend Brain Rules to anyone who has interest in how their lifestyle affects how they think. It’s accessible, practical and hopefully you leave considering changes to your lifestyle!
It was almost a decade ago, I first watched Hans Rosling talk about the ever changing state of the world (see the videos here). He was a poster-child for demonstrating how visuals can bring static data to life. In his last legacy to the world, Rosling published the book, “Factfullness.” Unfortunately he passed away in 2017 due to pancreatic cancer.
Factfullness reflects many of Rosling’s personal stories. It also shares his frustration with a world filled with bias and “fake news.” This book is extremely relevant given the current state of politics both in the UK and the US.
Factfullness challenges us to push past biased social and news media. Instead we should focus on globally available data such as from the United Nations. In the book, Rosling paints a much more positive view of the world than what the media likes to portray. As he often repeats, “It may still be bad, but it’s significantly better.”
Fuelled with data, Rosling shows us how child mortality is drastically decreasing. He demonstrates how fewer people live in critical poverty. He reminds us how women have better rights today. The book highlights how monkeys are more factful than educated humans. Rosling points out we are less factful because of “Instincts.”
The Gap Instinct describes how we quickly classify something into one of two camps. Examples include being poor/rich, sick/healthy, or us/them. Reality is more of a spectrum, with a majority in the middle and that there’s not that much of a gap. Rosling warns us to be careful of extreme comparisons.
The media fuels the Negativity Instinct. Rosling points out, “Negative news sells.” He contrasts this with an observation that incremental improvements are not considered newsworthy. In this chapter, he starts using the phrase he later repeats, “It can be both better and bad.” (The situation can still improve, but the world has improved significantly.)
The Straight Line Instinct describes how we think linearly. In the context of an ever growing population, this instinct fuels the fear of overpopulation. Rosling highlights how childbirth rates reduce as a country becomes more prosperous. He challenges us to use data to better understand the shape of data. He gives examples where curves are more like doubling curves, or act like an S-curve. Straight line functions are the exception rather than the rule.
Rosling shares a personal example where the Fear Instinct causes unclear thinking. This reminds me of the Type I thinking (from Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman). Type I thinking means we react in critical situations with poor results. Fears from physical harm, captivity or contamination drive us to act irrationally. Rosling challenges us to differentiate between frightening and dangerous. Danger is risk multiplied by exposure. When we recognise this instinct, seek calmness before making an important decision.
The Size Instinct focuses our attention on individual numbers out of context. A compelling story or a concrete example leads to us overestimating an impact. Rosling recommends we look at numbers in proportion. We should do relative comparisons, or look at trends rather than numbers alone. Rosling reminds us of the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) or use rates (e.g. number per person).
The Generalisation Instinct describes our habit to automatically category and generalise. Stereotyping through generalising leads us to incorrect conclusions or unjustified judgements. It also leads us to poorer decisions. GapMinder invented Dollar Street to highlight different categories. Rosling challenges us to look for differences and similiaries across categories. Avoid using categories to justify an assumption.
The Destiny Instinct drives us to believe destiny is pre-determined. This reminds me of the Fixed versus Growth Mindsets, made popular by Carol Dweck. To fight the Destiny Instinct, we must recognise small improvements and changes. We should seek knowledge about how cultures and societies do change over time.
The Single Perspective Instinct drives us to seek a simple solution or answer. I recognise this instinct from my studies in Systems Thinking. A counter against this instinct is to collect different Mental Models. Each Mental Model provides a different perspective on a situation. I loved this quote from this chapter. “The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood with numbers alone.”
The Blame Instinct describes our desire to find a scapegoat, or to point the blame at an individual. It blocks our ability to focus on contributing factors. It also means we are unlikely to prevent similiar problems in the future. Rosling provides great advice here. It reminds me of advice for healthy, blameless post-mortems. “Look for causes, not villains and look for systems, not heroes.”
The final instinct Rosling describes is the Urgency Instinct. This instinct draws upon Type I thinking and biases for action now rather than later. Rosling reminds us that urgent decisions are rare. He encourages us to take a breath, insist on data and be wary of taking drastic actions.
I really enjoyed reading this book. Rosling’s personal stories bring vibrancy to the book. He highlights how even “experts” or “highly educated” people fail to act factfully. The book makes us wary of the “Instincts” and provides concrete actions to help us. If you’re interested in learning more about Factfullness, get the book here.
Life has been a bit of a whirlwind trip in the last year. I moved cities (London to Berlin). I started a new role as a CTO. I transitioned from 14 years of consulting into a management role. I joined the hyper-growth startup, N26 – the mobile bank the world loves to use. It’s been exciting to particularly see the company growth. Our customer base has grown from 500K+ users to more than 1 million. Our users transact more than €1B in currency. We’ve expanded our offices from Berlin to New York. We also announced moving to Barcelona and this is only the beginning.
In this blog entry, I will share my personal lessons learned on the rollercoaster ride from this year.
1. Management overlaps with leadership, but is different
Over the almost 14 years of consulting, I spoke all the time about leadership. I still believe that anyone can be a leader. Leading is less about a title, and more about how you act. In my role, I also better appreciate the important role of effective manager. Google even proved that effective management matters.
I still think great managers are also great leaders. We try to test for this at N26 during our interviewing process. We hold our managers accountable for having difficult conversations. We want them to be kind, not only nice. We want managers to nurture an environment of candid feedback. Great managers manage things and lead people. Managers, unlike coaches or consultants are also held accountable for this.
2. Hypergrowth stretches everyone
I’ve definitely grown over this year. Our company has also grown rapidly (both with users and people). Hypergrowth means people have opportunities for new tasks. We are also not the first company to experience this. The community has been very generous with sharing their knowledge. I will contribute more to this in the future too, as I build on lessons learned.
I have found myself repeating, “The company will grow much faster than people.”
With this in mind, I have tried to support, develop and grow as many people as possible. At the same time, I’ve focused on bringing in new skills and experiences that we need. Combining a learning workforce with experienced people is tremendously powerful.
3. Really underscore the Why, not just the What
I believe very much in Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why.” A group of brilliant, collaborative problem solvers will end up with a better idea if they understand why. You can, of course, still give your input. Your role as a leader it to explain the context. Or to clarify the goal or problem. Not just the solution.
I’ve seen too many technical debates fail because they first didn’t agree on the problem. Agree on why, then move on to what.
In a fast moving startup, I found people underrate listening. Listening and asking questions are my most powerful tools as a leader.
4. Investing in people has exponential returns
I always try to be generous with my knowledge and experience. I’ve particularly enjoyed helping people grow. Sometimes it’s required tough, candid conversations. Effective feedback helps people grow. Coaching and training helps people see potential they don’t see. It’s been wonderful to help people discover, test and practice tools that make them more successful.
I’m proud of N26’s technical leaders (both formal and informal). I’m impressed with how people have rapidly grown. I’m also impressed with what they do to pass it on.
5. What got you here, won’t get you there
I read the book, “What got you here, won’t get you there” many years ago. It’s message resonated with me during this year. Startups often go through several phases, “Start Up, Scale up, and Optimise” is how I like to think of it. We are definitely in the Scale Up phase. This phase demands different thinking.
Acting as if we were in the Start Up phase no longer scales. It’s an educational journey for many people. At scale, you can no longer manage every single situation. At scale, you can no longer make all the decisions. At scale, you have to decide on where you will have the greatest impact. At scale (as a manager), you make less, and need to focus on multiplying more.
6. Focus on Capabilities, not just People
In Hypergrowth, it’s too easy to hire lots of people. I am wary of this after reading the Mythical Man Month many many years ago. As a manager, I first focus on understanding what capabilities we need. I also think about how those capabilities are best met. Be clear on what you need before hiring people.
Focusing on what you need helps you find the right people. It also helps those people be clear about how they will be successful.
I have learned many other lessons in this year as a CTO. The six lessons above reflect some of the major themes for this past year that I hope you many learn from.
I’m super proud of the people I work with. I’m super proud of the product we produce. It’s been a great ride so far, and it’s only the beginning of the journey.
If you have worked in IT for some time, you will have come across the name Jerry Weinberg (Gerald M Weinberg). I first came across Jerry when I first read his book, “The Secrets of Consulting.” Jerry impacts great wisdom through his use of stories. He shared his knowledge generously with our industry and set a great example.
He was a prolific writer and I was lucky to inherit many of his books when a contact moved house. I devoured them rapidly, learning much in the process. As a proud Systems Thinker, I enjoyed “An Introduction to General Systems Thinking.” As someone passionate Technical Leadership, I inhaled, “Becoming a Technical Leader.” I refer and recommend many of his books time and time again.
I never had the opportunity to meet Jerry but I met many people who he had personally influenced. I heard amazing things about the “Amplify Your Effective (AYE)” conference. I felt people who frequented the AYE conference came away with more drive to have a greater impact. I regret not taking the one opportunity I had to take part, given the wrong timing and place in my life.
As someone who believes in agile values, I was lucky to meet Norm Kerth. I forgot he co-authored the “Project Retrospectives” book with Jerry Weinberg. Continuous improvement is the basis for better organisations, teams and processes. Call it retrospectives, kaizen or some other name. I count myself lucky for reading this early on in my career.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. Jerry was definitely a giant among giants. In the world of software we often have a negative association with the word, “legacy.” We forget that sometimes that legacy can be a good thing. I am particularly grateful for the legacy Jerry left behind.