The Stoics are known for their control of their emotions and for their pursuit of wisdom, truth and perseverance. After 2,000 years, the philosophy of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus still hold true. This is because Stoicism is practical in nature. While I find the history and inner workings of philosophy interesting, most do not. Stoicism is popular for a number of reasons. It is practical and not just conceptual.
The writings of the ancient philosophers focus on real-world tips and tools to apply Stoicism in your daily life. This is why people, like Tim Ferris, choose to use philosophy as a personal operating system. Technologists should use this 2,000 year old method to identify what matters and focus solely on those things. Here are four things Stoicism can teach us.
1. Your product must serve a real, identifiable problem.
A product must serve a problem that a customer has and is willing to pay for a solution. The problem must be real enough to cause customers to change. Seneca talks about life being similar to a play but the importance is “not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”
The same goes for everything about your product, operations and business. The excellence of delivery is the only thing that matters. And it all starts with one thing - a problem worth solving.
The first step is to have a real problem to solve. But that isn’t the only thing that matters. You must have a clear reason why you are solving this problem. The cliche and often overused words by Seneca apply here: if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.
The “why” not only drives your development process, go-to-market strategy and tactics but it influences team dynamics and hiring decisions. It has been written before, but you must know your why.
2. Focus on your minimally viable segment.
If you ask technology strategists how to launch a product they will come back with a number of buzzwords and phrases. Start lean. Be agile. Build an MVP. Launch a beta. Sure, this is fine advice. But often an important piece is missing.
“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” Seneca wrote this words to help his students uncover the importance of mindfulness and focus. This applies even more so when selecting a first group of customers to tackle. The technologist should think in this way. To try to serve every one is to try to serve no one.
Identify your first core group of users and solve their problem first. They will be your early adopters and referrers and provide early feedback on how to grow your product.
3. Data and customers are your true north.
Marcus Aurelius wrote a daily meditation while running his military campaigns. He journaled frequently on topics of perseverance and wisdom.
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius sought truth, the best technologists can find is data. You cannot ignore data as a technologist. All aspects of data are important but some are more important than others. Usability labs, traffic, customer behavior, feedback forms and digital metrics are just the beginning. When you encounter information on how your customers behave and what they want, you must adapt your strategy and tactics.
4. Anyone on your team can add value to your product.
Every team has a leader and every company a CEO. But, team members at every level could provide value to your product. Data scientists, software engineers, UX architects and product managers all have their relative expertise. Do not discount the potential for an intern or your CFO to provide excellent input and insight on features to build next.
Seneca the Younger in his Letters to a Stoic echoed this sentiment in his writings “I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.” He was referencing ethics, reason, and good and evil, but the concept applies to product management. CFOs and interns can have great UX ideas.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a passion for education. I strive to grow my depth and breadth of knowledge on a daily basis. While there are many paths to pursuing an education, the university system has always been close to my heart. After a number of years of diligent work, I will be realizing a lifelong goal.
Starting this fall, I will be joining the Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas as a Lecturer in the undergraduate finance program. I will be teaching a course on management consulting that I co-designed.
I've spent the last few years as a guest lecturer, contributing writer, mentor and conference speaker at a number of universities and organizations. Choosing to pursue my academic career at UT Dallas in addition to my professional career was surprisingly easy, though.
It is clear to see why.
As I prepare for the fall semester, I hope to embody the sentiment of one of my childhood role models - physicist and bongo player Dr. Richard Feynman - and encourage my students towards a lifestyle of learning.
12 Things I Learned in Ireland (in no particular order)
1. Irish people treat friends like family and family like themselves.
2. Irish hospitality is real. Imagine Southern hospitality but without the compulsion or obligation. It’s just real and amazing.
3. Everything revolves around tea and food. Including time. You can only say no to tea so many times before you cave. My record was 5 or 6.
4. I have created a formula to describe the shades of green in the countryside. sG = n + 1. Where n is the number of shades of green you thought existed. There is always just one more.
5. Electric fences hurt.
6. The roads in the country side are smaller than an American economy-sized car. They also happen to be 2-way roads. Don’t worry, they are lined with stone walls and ditches to make it more dangerous. The speed limits are about 300% too fast on the country roads and most people still go faster.
7. Castles are literally everywhere. No one seems to notice they are walking around thousands of years of history. I was in awe.
8. Bulmers is substantially better than Magners.
9. Hurling is the most exciting sport in the world. Seeing Kilkenny vs Dublin live only confirmed it. Next time, All Ireland Finals in Croke Park.
10. I’m not a country boy. I’m a city man. I don’t want to meet my food before I eat it. Or name it!
11. Even though they speak English, I still only comprehended about 60% on the first listen of everything I heard from many people I met. Tip to my heavy-accented friends, open your mouth and slow the feck down.
12. Ireland is a beautiful country with a rich history and amazing people.
I’ve had that conversation what feels like a hundred times. As a chairman of a young alumni association for a top 40 MBA program and as an alumnus who regularly attends recruitment events, I expect people to ask me for advice on graduate school. I expect it and I love it. I want to help.
I typically respond with the same answer: if you need or want an MBA, get one, if you don’t, then don’t. It’s a canned answer but it’s the best I can do without context. After all, earning my MBA was one of the best professional decisions I have ever made. It was an easy decision for me. After serving in the Air Force, I had plenty of education benefits.
The piece that many people miss is the underlying why. Do you want an MBA for prestige? Knowledge? Money? Connections? Personal satisfaction?
After speaking with dozens of prospective MBA students, I realized there might be a better way to learn and grow in to a better overall person – not just professional.
I read a dozen books and hundreds of articles on education, motivation, lifestyle design and career planning. I was looking for examples and paths of non-traditional education in the business world. What I end up creating is a Self Directed, Non Traditional MBA program.
What is a Self Directed Non Traditional (SDNT) MBA?
First, check out what Investopedia has to say about the current cost of an MBA:
A SDNT MBA is a program of your choosing to learn general business, create an impressive array of skills and experience, create a digital narrative and become a relative expert in your field of choice – all for a fraction of the cost of a traditional MBA in half the time with an exponential output.
The program is split in to 3 core areas. You can do them in any order, at any time. It’s self directed, remember.
There is an optional, extra credit area of Life Enrichment.
You will invest less than $10,000 and can finish as fast as you want. What will you gain? Knowledge. Power. Connections. Fulfillment.
What do you have to lose?
Semester 1 – Read
Investment - $500
In a traditional MBA program, you will read one to two textbooks per class and 5-20 articles and case studies. For a 12 class program that could be 24 books and 600 articles. For a 17 class program like the one I went to, the reading becomes even more intense.
As an avid reader, that does sound interesting but it is likely overkill. Use the minimum effective dose and cut your reading down. After a few best sellers in any give topic, the information becomes redundant.
Instead, pick a book or two in each of the core categories of business. I’ve outlined some options below. If these work for you, go for it. If not, adjust.
Also, read your local business publication or business section of the weekly newspaper. If you don’t plan on staying where you are, read the news from where you want to be. Online, print, mobile. It doesn’t matter.
*If you are interested in meta-learning – learning how to learn – read The Four Hour Chef by Tim Ferris. It is one of the single best resources on rapid skill acquisition. He uses the culinary arts as a medium to teach learning.
Semester 2 – Practice
Investment - $2,250 - $5,250
You can do this before, during or after the first semester. These practice areas are for people to learn as much as the can by doing, not just reading. There is no better way to learn than to try it for yourself.
You will cover marketing, sales, product development, finance, global business, investments, strategy, operations, organizational behavior and public speaking. Basically an entire MBA program. Don’t forget to follow the #1 rule: adjust to your goals.
Semester 3 – Build
Investment - $350 - $850
The third semester could also be titled “concentration”. Some MBA programs allow you to have a concentration in a core area, others do not. With a SDNT MBA, you can do literally anything you want. This is what I recommend.
Semester 4 – Life Enrichment
Investment - $4,029
An MBA is a time of personal and professional growth. You meet new people, learn new concepts and work hard. The late night group projects and back to back classes build character.
In a non-traditional MBA, you may not have those exact same growth opportunities. Here are some alternatives to continue your life enrichment while pursuing your business education.
** These ideas are taken from Chris Guillabeau’s Art of Non Conformity
An MBA should be a vehicle. If you know where you are going, you will know what you need. If your path requires an Ivy League MBA, then you need to get an Ivy League MBA.
Question your motives and your goals. If you realize what you are seeking is knowledge, skills and understanding, a Self Directed Non Traditional MBA may be perfect for you. You can grow and build your career on your own education terms.
Success is in your hands. No one else’s.
Most people think coming up with new product ideas is meant for only a select few. You have to be a visionary, a genius or special in some way. This thinking is counterproductive to most people. In reality, just about anyone can come up with new product ideas.
There is a simple and scalable process for new product ideation called Systematic Product Ideation.
In the most basic way possible, new product ideation fits in to one of two categories: problem solving or growth.
You may be trying to solve a discreet and identifiable problem. An easy example is a seatbelt, helmet or most safety equipment. Or, you may be coming up with a new feature or use that did not exist before. A simple example is a smart phone or 90% of the technology you use on a consistent basis.
There are really only two ways you can come up with new product ideas, too. You either do it on purpose or you do it by accident. Another way to think of this is you come up with ideas either by feeling or by thinking.
You have 4 real categories of ideation:
Your brain has two main modes of thought: focus and diffuse thinking. When you are actively trying to solve a problem, read a book, learn something new, engage with a new person, you are more than likely using the focus mode of thinking. Thoughts are linear and connected. This thought method is perfect for deliberate ideation.
When you start out on an effort to create new product ideas, you can choose to focus deliberately and guide yourself through a number of questions:
In this way, you are using the thought process called focused thinking. This is straight forward and obvious.
But what about the other method, diffuse thinking? Diffuse thinking is where your mind and thought process wanders. Your thoughts are not necessarily connected and often non-linear. This happens frequently when you are engaged in a repetitive, low cognitive load task. Where does your mind go when you are doing the dishes or running? What do you think about on long, silent walks? Your mind can shift in and out of diffuse thinking just before sleep, as well.
You can prime your mind for diffuse thinking. Many great minds have used diffuse thinking to expand their thought process and come up with new ideas.
Salvador Dali was known for using a technique to open his mind to diffuse thinking. He would use focused thinking when looking for new ideas for his art. Then he would become tired and sit in a chair while holding a key. His mind would slowly shift to diffuse thinking and drift to sleep. As he fell asleep the key in his hand would fall to the floor instantly waking him and taking him out of diffuse thinking and back into focused thinking. He used this exact technique to come up with one of his more famous pieces of work — “The Persistence of Memory”.
So, what does this have to do with product ideation?
You can use either thought process to come up with problems to solve or areas of growth for your products and customers. Choose the right process for the situation at hand. Focused, deliberate discussion and thinking has its place in ideation. But do not forget to let your mind — or your team’s mind — wander while focused on other tasks.
Or just grab a key and take a nap. That works just fine, too.
I have an innate desire and passion to create. This desire has driven me to become a professional writer, jazz musician and ever-struggling chef.
I like to take materials, ideas and ingredients and turn them in to something useful. Perhaps this is why I ended up working in technology building products.
Over the years, I've noticed a common mistake when people start to build things. They like to jump ahead to the fun part. Branding. Logos. Color schemes. Product names. URLs. Marketing campaigns.
I can't blame anyone, that part really is a lot of fun. I believe there is a better way to design and build products. Building things is very much a hands on process.
In the digital age, there is still a need for putting a pen to paper. Whiteboards just don’t have the templates product managers need.
That is why I created handreqs – templates for hand-written product requirements.
Anyone can use them. If you are a seasoned product manager you can use these to guide discussions and planning sessions with those outside of technology. If you are a business leader, you can work through these on your own and use them as a framework for discussions with your technology teams.
I would love to see what you create with handreqs.
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