Monday, January 11, 2016

The Power of Perspective

Well it's taken me a lot longer than I'd hope to write another entry, but here I am.  Another early morning entry where I wake pre-dawn with some things on my mind and part of what sparked my desire to jump out of bed and get rolling was an email I received from a new Rioter - appreciated receiving your note this morning G :)

So what to write about?  The topic that has gotten the most consistent time of self-reflection recently has really started to cement itself in my head is about the power of perspective and the power of the cultivating a positive mindset. Before I dive in, I want to back up a step to reflect on the personal journey of the last three to five years and reflect on why much of this time has been particularly
challenging for me personally.

As many of those reading this blog will know, I co-lead a game company called Riot Games along with my long time friend and business partner Brandon Beck.  At the beginning of 2010, we were roughly ~60 people and fast forwarding to today we now have over 2,000 Rioters across 17 offices around the world.  We are a company who cares an incredible amount about our audience and believe that in order to serve our players well, we needed to (and continue to need to) cultivate a unique company culture of like-minded individuals who share the same values and work together extremely well towards our shared mission.

Turns out that scaling this strong culture rapidly and institutionalizing company processes and structures that can support this has been incredibly difficult and personally exhausting. It hasn't only been exhausting for me of course, as the many Rioters who are driving various parts of this approach have been on the front lines fighting the many little fights (and some big fights) that matter every day to make this a reality have poured huge amounts of themselves into making this happen while still trying to do awesome stuff for players.  It's not easy for anybody, but at the end of the day, we all love what we do, love our co-workers and love delivering great experiences to players. When things get hard and we take our lumps, it's important for us to pull back and remember this.

Driving these curves up is hard!
I tend to think about this scaling challenge as best expressed via a line graph where you see the top "growth" line (headcount, revenue, "things" needing to be done internally and externally), where the bottom line that lags is the "execution" line that represents the amount of things that be delivered effectively.  The delta between the two lines shows where "problems" happen.  Cultural misalignment internally from hiring the wrong people or from well-intentioned people who haven't learned key lessons yet, "technical debt", missed opportunities for players, poor handling of relationships with partners, poor communication or positioning of things we are doing, etc.

Whereas the bottom line represents things that are done well, on brand, well-aligned, tightly executed initiatives or capabilities that more accurately reflect the intent of what the company is trying to do and often leads to positive responses.

Now driving that "execution curve" up is where a lot of really tough leadership work occurs. Opportunity (or problem) identification are critical, but we believe execution is where the real value is created.  It's one of the reasons that we've often utilized the term "building the plane while flying" because as any fast growing company knows, the reason you are growing is to keep up with demand, and if you inherently care about your audience, then growth becomes an imperative.  It's simply not OK to not deliver to meet their needs and expectations. The challenge is that the more ambitious the desires, or in other words, the larger that top line, the harder it is to drive the execution curve up to "keep up" or meet the needs of the top line.

Extrapolate this same concept to your personal life and therein lies a similar challenge.  Many people want to be great at lots of things (large top line), but oftentimes don't want to endure the pain or pay the cost to achieve those things (lagging bottom line). Read a great blog recently about this topic that really resonated with me.  One framework I was exposed to that I thought was super helpful was the "pie graph of your life".  If you imagine your life as a pie graph from a time allocation standpoint, it would likely look something like this to the right, where we allocate the vast majority of our time to work.

But if you were to step back and abstractly think about the areas of your life that are important, it would likely look something more like this image to the right.  Replace buckets as needed or add some, but the point is that pretty much everyone wants to live a balanced life where we have our health, enjoy meaningful friendships, have a great family, a fulfilling career, financial independence, are able to allocate time to having fun and adventure, etc.  Now I'm not advocating quitting your job and allocating an equal time allocation to all of the aspects of your life that you care about.  That would be folly and economically unfeasible.  So in order to optimize and accomplish meaningful things in each bucket, we need to be thoughtful about our approach in allocating time, but also come up with clever ways to ensure that the time you DO allocate to each area is actually meaningful and moving the needle.

So, back to the core point of this post: my wife and I tend to set pretty high expectations for ourselves and have historically beat ourselves up a lot in any situation where we aren't meeting our own expectations.  This is probably a pretty common human phenomenon that many can relate to, which I think is a very good thing. Expectation setting is incredibly important in managing performance, whether for oneself, an organization, or another person.

But for the past couple years, my wife and I have taken on even more and in some cases really put ourselves in over our heads. We got pregnant twice and had two children, a wonderful boy and girl whom we love incredibly deeply. My wife got her MBA from UCLA Anderson doing a program during nights and weekends while fully employed. She also launched a clothing company called Lunya to fulfill a much needed niche for women. We started building a house. Given how this same period was the period of incredible scaling pressure at Riot (I'd love to tell these stories some day), while we were both trying to figure out how to be good parents, suffice it to say that we added many new demands and created a lot of strain on the pie graphs of our lives and needed to figure out how to get our personal "execution" curves to catch up to our growth curve. The biggest challenge for us though, has been the emotional toll all of this took on us and how this impacted our relationship. The last thing we felt like doing after long days of driving change, managing people, pushing the rock up hill, trying to stay healthy and being fun and energetic for our kids, was being a romantic pair since we didn't leave a lot of juice in the tank for each other. And since it is in both of our nature's to constantly try to do better, this was extremely frustrating for both of us to feel like we were each constantly failing to deliver on something we cared about and knew was critically important.
Relationships that are worthwhile take work!

Just like with all growth and change, this has been a painful experience with some failures and a lot of learning for us both as we go through this journey of being a couple, building our businesses and trying to be good parents and I wanted to share some of the things we are beginning to really appreciate.

A couple key realizations have occurred:
1. The power of perspective
2. The importance of having a growth mindset
3. Virtuous cycles vs. viscous cycles in relationships

The Power of Perspective
The first key lesson is that for any experience that someone has, they ultimately always have a choice about how they will react to that particular situation and how this impacts their happiness. In other words, you can have something terrible happen to you and you can still be happy and feel OK, or you could have something wonderful happy to you and you can still be negative and find all the reasons to be sad. Dan Gilbert has done an interesting Ted Talk on this topic and it's fascinating.

In other words, happiness is a personal challenge and I think I'm really starting to appreciate and learn how to better manage the internal systems that influence happiness. Part of my biggest issue with my own perspective historically is that I've struggled with "being content" when there is "so much to do" and so many "problems to solve". I am someone who is motivated by problems, so when a meaningful problem (or opportunity) resonates with me, it drives me a bit insane that it hasn't yet been "solved" (like education for society, etc). I've found that it is difficult for me to reconcile this with the idea of "contentedness" which I have long associated with happiness in a similar way to how Buddhists do.

Thus, it has been quite powerful for me to start to associate the concept of "choice" of feeling with the deep frustration I feel with meaningful problems in my life or in broader society that need to be solved. I have realized I can still feel the same deep frustration and desire to drive positive change but not let that frustration negatively impact my emotional state. This is incredibly difficult to do I have found and is closely associated with perspective, patience and self-awareness. I recommend reading an HBR article from Daniel Goleman called the Focused Leader on this topic as well.

One of the easiest ways that I have found to help re-adjust my perspective on a situation when I start to feel sad or upset is to start looking at the same thing from another perspective. So if I feel like getting upset that we aren't educating the underprivileged I can just recall how things can always be worse and have improved a lot which helps me feel better while still not undermining my motivation.

Maybe it sounds obvious, but from personal experience, even as someone who is largely considered an optimist by pretty much everyone who knows me, I believe this to be incredibly difficult and that this is just like any muscle; it can be trained, developed and made more functional.

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
Please go read Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck's book called Mindset: the Psychology of Success. This is an incredibly important read that speaks directly to the power of perspective. Her core lesson is that there are two main types of human mindsets, the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset.

Fixed Mindset
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

Growth Mindset
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Recent advances in neuroscience also demonstrate the power of brain plasticity and have demonstrated that thought can re-wire your brain (to a point) and you can grow new brain cells. These revelations should have an incredible impact how society works over time. Gone should be the beliefs that have anchored many entrenched hierarchical structures such as a caste system. Similarly, there is a growing body of evidence supporting the effect of ecosystems like Silicon Valley and the European Renaissance on cultivating "genius", which many have historically argued are simply "born".

There is massive correlation between success and these mindsets, which relates directly to why role models are important, why belief in oneself is important and why setting high expectations is so important and why Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right."

Virtuous Cycles vs. Viscous Cycles
In my experience with all of the most important relationships in my life that have frequent interaction and mutual reliance (spouse, partner, investor, parent, manager, brother, etc), I have noticed that little things matter a great deal. When my wife reaches out to me in some small way, whether through touch, a comment, or a question, how do I react? Do I engage in a positive way or do I shut her down, intentionally or unintentionally? When a business relationship gets angry about something, do I get angry back and hit them with the many things they have done wrong or do I reflect and truly listen?

Every day we are faced with countless minor interactions that I strongly believe can either lead to deeper relationships being built or frayed. Us gamers can easily conceptualize this as some sort of reputation system with various entities, with little +X's or -Y's happening based on the scope and severity of each interaction, but just because we don't have some nice real life UI showing these numbers, doesn't mean this isn't actually happening. It is.

When you are patient, thoughtful, kind, generous, resilient, etc, people will tend to react better towards you, which in turn makes these interactions more pleasant and builds relationships. Similarly, the inverse is true. If you run around as a grumpy face, being rude, impatient, short of temper, loud, etc, people will (eventually) react in kind and you will receive more anger, frustration and angst from others. It is remarkable how clear becomes when when you start to really pay attention here.

To me, all of these lessons reinforce something that my Dad always told me: "The hardest person to manage is yourself."  If you want to change your friends, your community, your significant other, your body, your skills, or the world, if there is one thing that has been continually reinforced for me throughout my life is that it all starts with yourself. Peter Drucker's seminal piece on Managing Onself is another great piece for anyone looking to learn more. We all can choose to do differently and feel differently in the moment.

Which brings us back to why I wrote this piece this morning. I had a great weekend with my wife. But what was most remarkable was that it had pretty much the same content and schedule as our usual weekends. The thing that was exceptional was our perspective and attitude about how to interact with each other and each experience we were having - and it was glorious.

- Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill