Don’t Be A Victim Of Circumstances

As an executive coach it’s profoundly interesting to me how the way we express ourselves either provides venues for improvement or constricts us, by blinding us to existing options. Most of us, when faced with aspects outside our control tend to express ourselves by shifting responsibility to these very aspects. Let me give you a familiar example to illustrate this point.

You’re sitting in a meeting and someone arrives late. The person (let’s call him Jack) enters the room and promptly excuses himself: “Sorry for being late. Traffic was terrible.” (or “My previous meeting ran over and I couldn’t leave.”)

Whose fault is it that Jack arrived late? The traffic, of course.

Whose fault is it NOT? Not Jack’s, of course.

Given such conditions, when will Jack stop being late? When there’s no traffic, of course.

What control does Jack have over the traffic? None whatsoever.

So, whenever we use an excuse like this, we position ourselves as innocent victims of circumstances. What usually blindsides us is that our excuses are usually true. There really was heavy traffic, or the previous meeting really ran over. We usually use such arguments because they exonerate us from the consequences of the occurrence. But there’s a steep price that we pay whenever we use such arguments.

The price we pay for using arguments that exonerate us from guilt is our ability to intervene, to change the outcome of the situation. As Fred Kofman says, “the price we pay for innocence is impotence”. We remain impotent in the face of these external circumstances. In fact, there will always be things that we do not control (like the heavy traffic), but it is within our grasp to decide how we shall respond to these circumstances. We can choose our behavior.

How will you choose to respond to such circumstances? Who will you choose to be? Will you be a victim or will you be an active participant in your personal and professional life?

When we arrive late at a meeting, it’s not really because of the traffic (although there might have been traffic). It’s because we made a choice to sleep in those extra minutes, or because we chose to take route A instead of route B, or because we chose that it was worth it to spend those extra minutes with our kids in the morning. That’s ok! But it is a choice. Owning up to those choices is what makes us alive, responsible and valuable.

So, what might be a better way of expressing ourselves in such situations?

Well, in the above example of arriving late to a meeting, here are some possibilities.

“Sorry for being late! I didn’t account for the heavy traffic.” or “My previous meeting was running late and I decided to spend a few extra minutes in there to make sure we closed the issue.”

What’s so different with these expressions? There is a subject in those sentences. We’re owning the responsibility, and we’re also allowing ourselves to be a part of the solution. Here’s how we become part of the solution.

“My previous meeting was running late and I decided to spend a few extra minutes in there to make sure we closed the issue. So If you can stay a few minutes longer, I’ll be happy to address all your questions. If not, I’ll be available to schedule a follow-up meeting at your convenience”. This doesn’t guarantee that our customer or our coworker will agree to it, but we’ll be responsible for our choices, our actions and for whatever comes out of them – both good and bad.

Further reading:


The Science of Motivation

An animation by RSA Animate, illustrating Dan Pink’s talk about his book “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us”.

New Article: Finding Happiness In The Things You Do


“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

– John Lennon

We all want to be happy in life. This means different things to each of us. One thing, however, we all have in common. No one can be truly happy routinely doing things they don’t like doing or they’re not good at.

Most of us are driven by challenging things. When we attain proficiency in something indolence often sets in and we end up doing things we no longer enjoy out of habit or simply because we’re terribly good at doing them. This can be a serious blocker to personal and professional growth. How can we “unblock” ourselves? How can we pursue happiness in the things we do?

Continue to the full article.


Here’s a really useful little tool that just makes your life easy.

The PocketMod is a small book with guides on each page. These guides or templates, combined with a unique folding style, enable a normal piece of paper to become the ultimate note card.

To me it’s also a wonderful example of simplicity in design. Stripping out everything that is non-essential we end up with a product that is simple and that maximizes function. For all productivity buffs and organizational freaks out there, this is something really cool.

Check out the PocketMod site and build your own PocketMod.

Meeting With Self

Just the other day I was talking to a friend and sort of complaining about how I seem to have lost my grip on my calendar… again. This tends to happen from time to time, but this time I was feeling like I couldn’t even find the time to get my ideas in order and have some free, creative thinking time.

Well, my friend just smiled sympathetically.

“Quite common. It happened to me as well.” he said as a matter-of-fact. “What I do is take notes of things that interest me throughout the week. I don’t make any assumptions about the things I note, just try to put them down factually. To go through all those notes, I scheduled a two hour weekly meeting with myself. It’s a recurring appointment and I try to choose a different environment than the office. That way I’m generally not interrupted.”

I didn’t give it much thought then. In fact, two days had gone by before I recalled the conversation and decided to try it.

First thing I did was book a weekly two hour slot in my calendar.

“Let’s see how long I can make this last.” I told myself as I hit the save button.

A few weeks have passed since then and I’ve managed to keep holding my weekly “meeting with self”. I’m also becoming much more proficient in taking (meaningful/useful) notes (mind-maps help a lot) and have already quite a collection of interesting ideas to explore and follow on. Also, some of these ideas have already started to pay off as I’ve been able to incorporate them into some of the projects I’m currently working on.

Designer and creative thinker Stefan Sagmeister also suggests an interesting approach to work-life balance and how to find time for creative thinking. His approach is a bit more radical, but I guess creative types usually are. Stefan’s approach involves taking a year long sabbatical leave to think and try new and different things. During this year, he collects ideas to fuel his work for the next seven years, before taking another leave. You can see Stefan Sagmeister’s talk on The Power Of Time Off in the Videos section.

Having time to think, sort out ideas, throw away those that are not interesting and focus on the ones that are is a precious commodity nowadays. Don’t count on having time “later” to do everything you need to do. Book the time in you calendar. That way everything else just tends to fit together.

Root Cause Analysis – 5 Whys

Why Anyone who has kids or occasionally interacts with five-year olds knows about their uncanny ability to exhaust all your justifications simply by asking “Why”?

Interestingly enough, this characteristic that we often find exasperating in an infant is quite a powerful tool for identifying root causes of problems. As a “tool” it’s quite simple to understand and to use.


  1. Identify the problem under analysis;
  2. Ask “why” and obtain an answer;
  3. Keep asking “why” to each answer until you find the root cause (when the only answer you can come up with is “Just because!”, that’s probably the root cause);

The beauty and applicability of this technique lies in it’s utter simplicity. Granted it’s just useful for root cause analysis, but understanding root causes is often more than halfway home in solving a problem.

This technique is called the “Five Whys” not because you should only ask the question five times, but simply because more often than not five iterations are sufficient to reach a root cause. Here’s a quite quick example of this technique in action:

Problem: My project is behind schedule


  1. Why?
    Because we couldn’t deploy the software on time
  2. Why?
    Because we had integration errors in three components
  3. Why?
    Because they weren’t integration tested
  4. Why?
    Because we don’t have the proper testing environment
  5. Why?
    Because the email ordering the machines wasn’t sent on time

This technique is said to have been invented by Sakichi Toyoda, Japanese inventor, industrialist and founder of Toyota Industries. However, I believe kids throughout the ages might have gotten it even before that.


I clearly remember that one of the things I usually felt throughout my student years (high-school and college mostly) was that somehow the notes I took weren’t quite effective. At times it felt that I almost had to write down everything word for word so I didn’t loose any valuable piece of information – everything seemed important and I had a hard time identifying key concepts and ideas and jotting down just the relevant pieces of information that allowed me, later on, to mentally rebuild the whole idea. I eventually toyed with the idea of learning shorthand, but fortunately I eventually found out about mind-mapping.

I have been using mind-mapping regularly for several years and it immediately felt a very natural and easy way to persist information in a way that I could trace it’s flow from one idea to the next, allowing me to recall information at a much deeper level. At the same time, note taking required much less granular notes.

Today, after some years of practice, I find that mind-mapping not only helps me effectively with note taking, it also helps with creative problem solving. I use it for solo and team brainstorming sessions, whenever I am exploring any new subject.

Creating a mind-map is quite simple:

  1. Get a clean sheet of paper (I usually use plain white paper – no lined or squared paper) and write the topic you’re exploring in the center of the page inside a large circle. This helps clearly identify the subject;
  2. As you explore the subject, write notes on lines that originate from the circle;
  3. As you explore deeper, draw new lines linked to the line with the note that originated the new ideas. This way it’s very easy to persist a line of thinking (and remember it later on);

I have seen mind-maps where there are few notes and each branch is just a heading/subheading organization with the final branches (the ones furthest from the main topic) representing the facts, but I prefer a more free-form where each branch represents an idea. I usually take a lot of notes as I explore the topic further and further.

Having used mind-mapping for a number of years now, I find it an indispensable tool for note taking whether I’m exploring possible solutions to a specific problem or whether I’m just studying any given subject.

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