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Sebastian Trzcinski-Clément
921,884 followers -
Demanding. Passionate.
Demanding. Passionate.

921,884 followers
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Australian Gifts 19 Years Apart

For many years, I was too shy to wear it – the Australian hat that my mum gave me 19 years ago as a gift to celebrate the prize I had received at one of France's academic competitions called Concours Général (https://goo.gl/NZUbHk). It's funny how most people don't really believe me when I admit I'm essentially an introvert. Which means I never asked a single question during my school years – not a good thing. Which also means I have felt those massive adrenaline spikes when hesitating for ever to declare my unabated love for high school sweethearts – and seldom telling anything to them in the end.

Over time, I started caring less about what people thought of me, recognising that I could be Sheldon-like socially awkward at times and that it was okay to be that way. But that's also because I simultaneously developed confidence that I wasn't too dumb, that my hyperactivity at work and passionate involvement into personal projects somewhat compensated any weirdness.

I have to be honest: I don't fully acknowledge my awkwardness. In some cases, I'd rather call it a disrespect for conventions and political correctness, or at the very least a questioning of those, always being a bit suspicious of "groupthink" (https://goo.gl/RkS8J) – anecdotally, that's perhaps why I've always stayed clear of smoking and drinking alcohol. In other cases, I'd call it silliness (which I distinguish from stupidity), the child-like innocent lighthearted goofiness that we, adults, tend to lose. An example of that would be... well no, you'll have to wait for one of those latest, utterly crazy examples and I'll let you judge if it's silly or stupid (it's related to my future career as a rock star).

But nineteen years ago, teenage-me was not comfortable wearing a large, Australian hat which looked out of place in France. Yet just like with any gift I receive, I feel I have to "honour" that gift and use it. So a few years ago, I started wearing the leather hat when travelling for leisure, locals sometimes offering to trade my hat for their wives – I obviously refused, my hat was (emotionally) worth more than a branch of human species who, shall I repeat it once more, have a tendency to break my heart (poor me, right?).

I loved my hat, I always took great care of it. I loved its wide brim protecting me from the sun – and that the brim wasn't turned upwards like American cowboy hats. Perhaps not so paradoxically, the more I wore it, the more it became crumpled... and the more I felt comfortable wearing it because it didn't matter as much that I damaged the hat, crushing it in my backpack as I travelled around Thailand. But then the metal wire of the hat's brim started sticking out. Instead of considering it as a flaw, I imagined using my hat in case of emergency as some kind of deadly ninja weapon, throwing my sharp-edged hat as a frisbee to neutralise my opponent. Yes, I do have some imagination!

Like an overused teddy bear, my damaged brown-leather hat stayed more and more often in my wardrobe, dying its slow death of objects becoming obsolete but still retaining emotional value. My hat had not however taken its last breath yet. Earlier this year, it softly asked me to investigate on my favourite search engine various methods I could use to give it its shape back. Mum suggested I email the Australian manufacturer – why didn't I think of that earlier? After all, I had already emailed an ex-minister, a Nobel prize winner and Elon Musk... and gotten a response from the first two. I'm still waiting for your reply, Elon – but fair enough, I only emailed and sent a handwritten letter to you a few days ago... Oh, you wanted examples of how silly or crazy I can be? Well, here you go!

When I emailed the manufacturer – BC Hats (bchats.com) – asking for tips on how to repair my hat, I was not truly expecting any reply, imagining the "factory" to be just too busy. Yet I had also heard of the legendary Australian friendliness. And indeed, within a few hours Bill Conner himself, the founder of BC Hats, emailed back, providing useful feedback and asking more questions to make sure he would properly address my problems. After realising I wasn't based in Australia (as a result, it wasn't really worth sending my hat in for repair), Bill asked for my postal address – I sensed he would perhaps send me a so-called Stockman hat but then nothing came... until a brand new hat arrived in the post a couple of months after our email exchange!

I thought the best way to thank Bill – and my mum for buying the initial hat and for suggesting to email – was to write this post. I never seize to be happy at little – and bigger – gestures of kindness. This is beyond customer service and when you watch this well-made video (https://goo.gl/Pi7rDW), you won't be surprised either at the good-hearted family spirit that exists at Bill Conner's workshop. Funny story: Bill is actually from Florida and emigrated to Australia almost 50 years ago, unmistakably adopting the Australian English accent in the process. And he apparently still surfs every morning!

I guess the next part of this story would be for me to visit Bill directly at his workshop in Byron Bay, a little south of Brisbane in Australia. I would be wearing my beloved hat, of course. Ta ("thank you" in Australian slang), mate!
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Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss

I did not hear the siren of the ambulance as I was lying down in pain on a bench. Some of the train passengers had kindly stayed by my side – perhaps my repeated profuse apologies for bothering them had softened them. A jovial ambulance man approached me and started asking questions on how I felt. Pain had by then mostly subsided but I was feeling numb from the sweating – and screaming – I had undergone till then.

Let’s rewind to two weeks earlier. Despite my 10 years spent working at Google (https://goo.gl/R19RMz), I had for an instant completely forgotten that Google even existed as I was trying to find the phone number for an ambulance. The pain in my right kidney was excruciating – by then I knew a little bit about different levels of pain (https://goo.gl/n3uJnN). I couldn’t get out of bed for an hour and the best thing I could think of was to respond to a random work email asking a colleague what the phone number was for an ambulance in Switzerland. I didn't see the response that came in half an hour later. In the meantime, I had managed to find the number of the nearest hospital. It was probably better that I hadn't seen the email response from my colleague who apparently didn't believe I could have yet another health issue: “Sebastian, are you for real?”. Well at least I know whom I will not reach out to next time I have a problem! No hard feelings, Nathalie.

Speaking to a doctor on the phone somehow soothed me a little. No, the symptoms didn’t look like appendicitis. Yes, I should head to the hospital if the pain didn’t go away within 20 minutes. The pain didn’t go away, but I didn’t want to go to the hospital. Enough hospitals this year, having had to return to one barely a month earlier which led to the discovery of a lovely internal cyst on the scar from the surgery from three years ago (https://goo.gl/7K93i8), debilitating me a little with occasional chest pain.

Two weeks passed and the pain only resurfaced mildly. I didn’t complain. I still conducted my meetings although my stakeholders and team members were probably too polite to say anything about the grimaces on my face – or maybe they thought it was the way I look naturally. Oh well. But I wouldn’t be left alone with pain – I suppose I hadn’t suffered enough this year (https://goo.gl/BqvsGd).

And thus, just a week ago as I was returning home by train from the airport after a week of business abroad, I started panting and moaning in the train. Passengers looked back at me. I was pleading with my eyes – using the puppy-eye expression I seemingly master so well – but didn’t utter a word, feeling too proud, believing I would be able to sustain the pain until I reached home and that maybe – I still naively thought I wouldn’t have to go – I could then go to the hospital. Except that I never made it home.

I started screaming in the train. Some people say that this kind of pain is worse than childbirth. I wouldn’t know about that, I have never been pregnant! What I have however experienced is the pain from the recovery process from the pneumothorax surgery. And yes, the pain I was feeling was as bad as the worst moments of that recovery (namely going from vertical to horizontal position, sometimes taking up to two hours and sometimes unable to not scream, to the point that mum would ask me to shut up, thanks mum, I’m surely screaming on purpose! But to mum's credit, she helped me with everything, so I'm only gently teasing!). Upon my request, a train passenger called an ambulance (I still didn’t know the number!) and thankfully he didn’t stop the train mid-way (I asked specifically not to do that, as I anticipated it would further delay my getting out of the train and into an ambulance). Tests at the nearest hospital confirmed my suspicion: a lovely and sizeable stone had lodged itself in my kidney, which had already gone through two of the three narrowest passage ways.

Leaving no stone unturned (hahaha), I started looking everywhere for advice on how to get rid of the stone, to avoid having to return to the hospital. Let’s just say that applications are still open for those (women) who want to help me (read the very serious results of this scientific study: https://goo.gl/y1x6B0). My stone does seem to like me very much, however much I try to lure her (it’s a female stone, of course, who else would cause me so much suffering?) out by speaking softly to her, telling her that there’s so much more to see out there in the world. To convince her, I went out for a walk near my house today, taking a path I usually don’t follow so she wouldn’t be able to guess I was actually going towards the hospital – I had been given a week to get her out and the deadline had expired. But you cannot get blood from a stone, can you?!

Dark clouds were looming on the horizon. Based on the weather forecast, I had two hours before I would get caught in the rain. I let my thoughts drift away. I realised I had now resided the most time ever in a given location: almost 9 years in Switzerland, just shy of a year to request the citizenship. I have moved 9 times before settling in Switzerland – but can I really call this “settling” when I still spend most of my time abroad, hence the title of this post?

Sometimes I would interrupt my contemplative state by noticing a scene worthy of a photograph, taking my time to properly frame the scenery. I freaked out when my peripheral vision spotted a pair of shoes and legs… but no torso! You may wonder what the big deal is about the photo with the self-service flowers. It’s something that makes Switzerland endearing to me: the trust that people would still pay for the flowers and that nobody would steal the money from the box. And what about those typical red public benches seen everywhere on the walking trails across the country? Every time I come back to Switzerland after a long business trip, “I am curious to see which of the country or me has changed the most”, quoting Nicolas Bouvier, a francophone Swiss writer in Japanese Chronicle.

Japan, that other country I’m quite fond of, a topic for another time – and Kyoto in particular, a city that doesn’t look like one, where I had even thought of moving to after having been enchanted by some of its 2,000 temples… and of course by the carefully assembled pebbles and stones in the attached Zen gardens. Kyoto, a city so culturally rich and with so many academics that it is known for the following proverb: “throw a stone, you’ll hurt a professor”. Nicolas Bouvier made me laugh when he wrote about Zen philosophy: “I have not been very studious: what I know of Zen today barely allows me to realise how much I need it, and how much not living it is painful. I comfort myself by telling myself that old Chinese Zen tradition instructed to choose, as successor to the master, the gardener who did not know anything over the prior who knew too much. My own chances were left intact”.

Thoughts meandered in my mind, I was no longer trying to control them. The clouds were changing from dark blue to a shade of greys, I appreciated the stark contrast of coloured flags against the gloomy sky. Perhaps I was becoming a little Japanese in coping with pain and behaviours I sometimes struggle understanding, remembering this phrase from a Japanese emperor that became even more relevant after the Hiroshima bombing: "we have to tolerate the intolerable and accept the unacceptable”.

A boat was firmly attached to the pier. I was wondering to what extent Nicolas Bouvier’s final sentence in his book also applied to me: “it is time for me to pack my bag again and go live somewhere else”. Let's see.
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Things Always Come In Threes

Summer sun, summer fun. Back to the (same) hospital – a coincidence of sorts. For the same surgery as three years ago (https://goo.gl/7K93i8) except that this time, it's for the lung on the right side (after two incidents on the left one). And no, I still do not smoke nor drink (not even coffee). There is however one difference with last time: I do try to come up with new, improvised jokes for the nurses and doctors.

For instance, I entered the scanner's area asking the staff if I had indeed correctly entered the travel agency for my (alleged) trip to Ibiza. They did look at me a little embarrassed before realising I actually was sane of mind (true story) and only cracking up a joke, deadpan style. Or when asked how intense was my pain, I hesitated as a second nurse was about to draw my blood:

'I'd say the intensity of my pain is at 1 out of 10 but in a second, a square inch of my arm will feel a spike in pain that I estimate will be at 6 out of 10'.

Got to love data.

And just now, as I'm about to be shaved on the torso and arms (yay...), I confused the other nurse who entered my room a few seconds after the previous one:

'Sir, you don't need to undress, unless it's a strip-tease.'

'If it were a strip-tease, I'd charge you,' I replied.

Seeing them hesitate, I added:

'I'll give you a group discount.'

That sealed the deal. New. Career. Secured.

Other example: I took the excuse of the very warm weather to ask if I could get out of the hospital building and get some fresh air in the small hospital park. I put on my best smile and most innocent (blue) eyes and sure enough the trick worked: permission was granted. But I had forgotten one crucial detail: because of my condition, I was not allowed to do any physical activity, in particular running. So as soon as I went through the hospital doors, I started race-walking (yes, that awkward-looking type of sports: https://goo.gl/3NMPxw), swaying my hips like a maniac to move forward as fast as I could – and escape the hospital and specifically the surgery waiting for me. Let's just say I didn't get really far (I just had time to capture that 'selfie' I have attached below), easily caught by the security personnel who tackled me to the ground. I won't complain, the security guard was female.

I'm not particularly looking forward to the pain that's going to follow the surgery which is due to take place in a few hours – nor to the wasted time (there's always so much to do, see my previous post), feeling too numb to do anything, especially right at the start of the summer (I'll miss "my" Zürich lake). Oh well, things could always be worse – I could feel lost and broken too. Oh wait...

So here am I, stuck in a hospital room, making people aware that I will likely fail in sustaining my email responsiveness rate over the coming days. Thankfully, clone-393 is here to keep me company (https://goo.gl/QradZv), sharing some witty remarks from Confucius with me: “we have two lives, and the second begins when we realise we only have one".
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You Can Be Superhuman Too

I'll tell you a secret: I actually don't have clones. Yes, I know, some of you will be disappointed. But it's the shocking truth.

All these years, people have asked me:

'Sebastian, how do you find the time to do everything you do?'

From my work at Google (https://goo.gl/R19RMz) to a debating podcast with Dirk (http://www.2debate.net) to my articles here on Google+ to coaching others (https://goo.gl/ioHkAt) to smashing baseballs (https://goo.gl/FMQmUx) to travelling around the planet pretty much all the time to designing and launching new apps and businesses, these are just the visible tip of the iceberg – the fraction I can publicly disclose :).

More often that not, I would reply something to the tune of:

'Oh no, I don't do everything myself. I have clones. The latest one is clone-393. The previous ones have been bored out and burnt out, sent to a deserted island for some well-deserved retirement. But rest assured: all clones are in sync with The Original Sebastian, so the experience you get with my clones is pretty much the same as with The Original.'

Obviously, some get a "little" annoyed when they realise they may be talking to a clone and not to a real human being. To which I usually respond (incidentally a great way to coerce encourage women to meet me in person):

'The way to tell if you're talking to a clone? Simply look behind the neck, right below the hairline, if there's a serial number – e.g. 393 – tattooed. Simple.'

Truth be told, I did build a few secret hacks to organise and automate my life, to an extreme degree. Also, in these days of readily-available artificial intelligence and machine learning "blocks of code", I do have one more classified project that, if it works, would be quite amazing. But it's preferable that I don't disclose everything in one straight go; I wouldn't want to be sent to an asylum – or to a research lab to be dissected and analysed. Note to self: I still need to figure out a plan to ensure that if that were to happen, it's not The Original but instead one of my clones who gets caught by some mad(!) scientist or some secret agent.

Yet thanks to my boundless generosity (sarcasm alert – https://goo.gl/ne1737) and with the support of an incredible team, we have put together a one-month program to help you become superhuman too. It's not a joke and it's mainly targeting talent in emerging countries – because talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. I'm passionate about helping others become more efficient, not only at work, but also in whatever personal endeavour they wish to pursue. I want people to see that they can achieve great things, greater things they initially imagined, provided they are adopting a number of key principles, starting with being kind in all circumstances all the way to being organised, focusing on the user, using data and being curious. You think you have those skills already? Check again: how are you really standing out from the crowd? What did you truly accomplish of all those ideas sitting in your brain?

So if you think you could benefit from being not just a little more, but 10 times more efficient, or if you are simply curious, check out what we have launched at http://www.10xMBA.com – and apply, bearing in mind that spots will be limited. What are you waiting for? Becoming superhuman starts today!

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Charles, the Petrol Station Grandpa

“I’m the kindest person you’ll ever meet”. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard that phrase in the mouth of some others. Yet every time I hear it, I don’t only want to believe the person, but I actually do believe them. Because I know I am imperfect myself: however hard I try to be kind and preach kindness in all circumstances, I still fail – and even hurt others (https://goo.gl/jsBk4F). Consequently, I’m always on the unconscious lookout for better people, people who will inspire me, who will show me how to become wiser myself.

But here’s the thing: nobody is perfect, obviously. Sometimes, “I’m the kindest person ever” is wielded as a weak argument to impose one’s opinion onto others, or to justify one’s actions. Case in point: actions speak louder than words. And while there is no universal nor objective judge of those actions, in my books at least, I have to admit I am occasionally – okay, always – eventually disappointed.

Now this post is not one to feel sorry about myself but rather encourage you, my patient readers, to think about little gestures of everyday kindness. I want to talk about Charles, the petrol station grandpa. Encountering him a few nights ago prompted me to draft this post on my sleepless red-eye flight back from California.

It was almost midnight. I was heading back to my hotel from the office. Organised as I was, I thought I’d refuel the rental car so I wouldn’t have to do it the next day when heading to the airport to return the car. The wide multi-lane avenues were empty, unsurprisingly, in this sleepy, boring Silicon Valley town.

The petrol station was all lit up, white neons unmissable in that sea of orange street lights. Of course, it’s only after I had parked next to the pump that I realised the fuel tank was on the other side – a little bit like for USB devices one wants to plug in, one just keeps trying one side or the other, never remembering which is which. I fumbled to find the button to open the tank. Argh, I couldn’t find it! I remembered that one time when, with another car, I had had to look up on YouTube, while at the petrol station, to figure out where the switch was hidden (in the driver’s door). This time around, I couldn’t find it at all!

The petrol station manager, a white-hair slim gentleman in his late sixties or early seventies, just happened to head my way. He was actually asking if I needed anything from the store – I gathered midnight was the store’s closing. I said ‘no, thank you’ and mumbled some more words, requesting his help to find that $*£#$&!# fuel tank button! Armed with a torch, he scoured the car’s dashboard but promptly suggested that we should instead go examine the little door of the fuel tank itself. When he pressed it, it naturally opened – and I felt very stupid!

Ensued a brief conversation with Charles, my saviour, the petrol station grandpa. I talked about my work at Google. My heart softened when I saw him slightly bend over from his tall height, arching his hand over his ear, so he could hear me better. I was making sure I wasn’t speaking too quickly – one of my characteristic flaws. Charles was pondering the fact I had just shared with him, about my ten years of working at Google.

‘How old are you, Sebastian?’, he asked. ‘You must be in your, what, late twenties…?’.

I started laughing so he added: ‘early thirties maybe…?’. I had shaven a few hours earlier – the "weekly shave" – I knew that helped in making my face look younger. I told him my real age, he seemed surprised, I felt briefly flattered. I asked for his name and he explained how his name, Charles Brown, was the same as an old cartoon character, Charlie Brown and Peanuts (https://goo.gl/eswpx; I had the singer of the same name in mind). It was endearing to see this old man’s face light up as he spoke.

When I went in the store to pay for the fuel, Charles asked me: ‘May I ask you a personal question?’

‘Of course, go ahead!’, I replied, tempted – but refraining – to add my usual, precautionary line: ‘but that doesn’t mean I will answer’.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Aha! Why don’t you make a guess?’, I asked in return.

‘Hmm… Australia?’, Charles asked.

‘Haha no, I’m French! But I lived a few years in London when I was younger’.

‘You have an excellent accent, Sebastian’.

‘Well, thank you, but unfortunately I’ve lost the British accent which I’m fond of, because people around me speak different flavours of English’.

We exchanged a few more amicable words. He seemed genuinely pleased to be talking to me. I don’t remember exactly how I was led to eventually jot down my Google+ profile address, after he handed me a piece of paper to write it on – maybe I had suggested that he shouldn’t hesitate to contact me, to which he had replied, ‘if you get an email from Charles, maybe you’ll remember the gas station guy!’.

Prior to writing my address, I did ask him if he was using the Internet. He looked at me as if I were speaking to an alien: ‘who doesn’t use the Internet these days?’, he burst out laughing. I guess I was being over-sensitive, wrongly assuming that this friendly old man working at a gas station may not be using the Internet at all. I laughed and couldn’t resist the debate: ‘well, you know, not everyone on the planet has Internet access, like in India’.

‘But we’re here, in Silicon Valley’, he rightfully replied, as I was interrupting him simultaneously with a statement that people in the American Midwest possibly didn’t all use the Internet. Clearly, I had lost the debate but I had at least made him laugh.

‘You’re a friendly guy, very nice meeting you, Sebastian. Next time you’re in town, do drop by and say hello’, Charles suggested.

‘I sure will!’.

I drove away. Thirty seconds later, as I was stopped at a red light, I suddenly decided to do a U-turn. I was on the wrong lane though. The traffic light allowing the U-turn would stubbornly refuse to go green, probably because I wasn’t in the correct lane and some sensor perhaps didn’t trigger the light to change. I carefully looked around and proceeded to do my U-turn nonetheless. I drove back to the petrol station. I could see an old car about to drive away. I got out of my car. Charles got out of his and asked if I needed any help. I simply asked him if we could take a photo together, so I would more easily remember him. That made him laugh – that’s the picture you see attached to this post.

‘Hang on a second’, Charles said as he reopened the store. ‘Come on in!’.

He took another piece of paper from behind the counter and wrote down his email address, apologising for not using Gmail (how sweet of him to apologise for that!), so I could send him the photo we had taken together.

As we parted a second time, he added again: ‘You’re a friendly guy. Drop by next time, perhaps I’ll buy you some lunch!’.

Off I went. I was slightly cold, wearing shorts and flip flops in this dry 18-degrees-Celsius weather. I desperately wanted to shower after I had played some evening sand volleyball and smashed a few baseballs like a professional (https://goo.gl/FMQmUx). I didn’t particularly feel in the mood to be chatty either (I had such thoughts in my mind instead: https://goo.gl/BqvsGd). But I did that illegal U-turn and I’m glad I did. I bear too many regrets in my mind, for sometimes not doing even the simplest of things.

A smile to a stranger. A friendly handshake to your taxi driver after they dropped you off. A selfie even, with that street food vendor, just to make them laugh. That shop door you keep open for the person behind you. Some encouraging, if brief, words to a heartbroken friend. A handwritten thank-you note to anyone you feel grateful for. Truly, anything goes. Do that illegal U-turn if necessary (but be safe!). Don’t be shy (believe it or not, I am an introvert), it’s so simple. It all sounds cheesy? Perhaps. I don’t really mind. Just tell me afterwards how it makes you feel inside.
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Alternative Realities

Of course the main male character had to be called Sebastian. And of course the film La La Land had to end with Sebastian being alone. It is not that the film ends badly – after all, both main characters Mia and Sebastian achieve what they had wanted to accomplish: her, to be a successful actress; him, to open his own jazz club.

It is however not truly a happy ending either. They had vowed eternal love to one another, whilst knowing their professional paths would increase the distance between them. Did they also then realise that their personal paths would equally diverge? And even if they had realised it, even if they are no longer a couple, even if she is married to someone else, and has a child, is it really incompatible with the fact that they would still love each other?

I like to think they are at least grateful to one another for the love they shared. Letting go was perhaps the biggest gesture of love they could have had for one another, each avoiding to impede on the other’s aspirations. Their time together was brief but they have impacted each other’s lives for ever. I can’t help but imagine that for Sebastian at least, Mia remains the love of his life. A love that he cannot replace, that he would not even try to replace. Nothing, no one, can prevent him from viewing her that way.

No, it wasn’t always rosy between them. They were occasionally rude, hurtful to one another – which couple doesn’t fight? But they shared a special sparkle. They seemed to glide over mundanities, over the rest of the world. They had somewhat of a respectful disdain for the conventional, they were passionate and committed to forge their own paths. They had each other for support – for a while. One can call them dreamers, living in an imaginary “la la land”, but they didn’t care – they shared a dream together, echoing Yoko Ono’s words: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

Mia and Sebastian met randomly – the chance of a lifetime. Many people probably don’t get to meet the love of their lives. And yet, love was not enough. I will always struggle with the notion that love isn't all that there is, that there could be fundamental, non-negotiable dreams that would set two lovers apart.

“Sometimes love was not enough”. It echoes Salman Rushdie’s own words in the memoirs he wrote a few years ago (see a previous post about that book: https://goo.gl/yOgWrw). His mother had been married to a first husband, not “an arranged marriage but a true ‘love match’ and they did not fall apart because they had stopped being in love but because he was unable to father children and motherhood was an imperative. The sadness of exchanging the love of a man for the love of her unborn children was so profound that for many years she did not speak his name”. After the death of her most recent husband many years after, when the “imperative of motherhood was, obviously, no longer an obstruction”, she learned that he “was still alive, had never remarried, still loved her, and wanted to see her again”.

In Love in the Time of Cholera, the novel by Gabriel García Márquez, the two main protagonists had similarly loved each other in their youth and were only reunited at the sunset of their lives. But Salman Rushdie’s mother never saw her first husband again. Mia and Sebastian randomly bump into each other five years later. They don’t exchange a word. He plays “their” tune on the piano. They smile. She’s gone.

They have let each other go, which perhaps doesn’t diminish the irreplaceable intensity of the love they experienced. I can’t help but cry though. I am not even a big fan of musical films – I had not realised the (young!) film director was the same one who had directed Whiplash (see a previous post: https://goo.gl/JadcES) – but the serious lightheartedness of Mia and Sebastian as they dance under the stars deeply touched me.

I could stop here. That could be the end, right? Love is beautiful but is not always enough. So that’s it?

I refuse. I say no. It does not have to be like in the film. Not every similar story has to end the same way. I do not believe our fate is inevitable. I am not certain we can break free from the scars of our past, from their consequences in our present lives. But I do believe we have to try to change the course of things if they are not taking the turn we would like them to have. Fitzgerald’s last line in The Great Gatsby beautifully captures that sentiment: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.

Nothing irks me more than hearing “whatever is meant to happen will happen”. Nothing annoys me more than being told to “let go”. What if new dreams could be built together, uncovering new forms of happiness? And if not new dreams, what if we were malleable enough to modify our aspirations ever so slightly that they become more aligned with the evolving dreams of the loved one? Can one change enough without toning down what defines oneself at core? I want to think it is possible, too bad if I am perceived as a believer of fairy tales. Life is too precious – and short – to be able to bear the sadness of missing out on the magnificence of an existence shared with that other unique individual. It isn’t going to be easy – but it’s worth it. It’s a million times worth it.

Mia, Sebastian is waiting for you.

PS: in case you had not noticed, I photoshopped the poster of the film La La Land (https://goo.gl/GR4GZZ). Couldn't help it. Apologies, Ryan Gosling. I like you but you had to go.

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10 years at Google

Ouch. Ten years. Ten years exactly that I have spent working at Google. It’s difficult for me to measure the breadth of that time span. It’s a bit daunting too. As I have done over the past five years (here is the post I wrote last year: https://goo.gl/hCcskn), I will attempt to draw some observations from my experiences gathered over that tenth year.

Looking back, it has been the most difficult year in my career. Some attempts at changing things were not met with success, however detailed and structured I felt my proposals were. Not managing to convince happens to everyone of course; and I cannot be so negative as to paint it all black, as some suggestions were in fact implemented. Yet overall it feels as if a lot of the energy I put in considering options, shaping strategies, talking to various colleagues ended up to partial waste. I unfortunately cannot go into the details of those concrete plans I had built, alone or with others on my team or with adjacent teams, on a number of fronts, whether they touch upon international strategies or team structures.

I am of course grateful that I even had the opportunity to explore and suggest those alternative approaches. At the same time, I clearly felt the lack of power in my hands, which makes rising the ranks perhaps worthwhile – although getting the required support also means I have to be careful not to make anyone feel threatened with my constant thinking and desire to make things better, as one of my mentors suggested.

The additional reason for a difficult year was the departure of a number of individuals from my team and from my wider organisation. Again, people leaving teams and companies happens all the time. This time round, I had the impression that it was one too many, in particular when it comes to some of the best elements of the team. I suffer undoubtedly from some nostalgia combined with a bittersweet sentiment of having to let go of my “babies”, after having invested myself significantly in supporting their careers, sometimes their personal lives even.

On a brighter note, my work continues to be a fantastic opportunity to discover new people and be involved in exciting projects. I’ll mention three things briefly, in no particular order.

First of all, I fine-tuned a couple of the trainings I had built in my spare time on “email and time management” as well as on “an introduction to automation” (with Google Apps Script) – and let people sign up internally to my sessions. Not only was it satisfying to get better at my inevitable jokes which intersperse my fast-paced presentations but it was also gratifying to read the positive feedback and the good ratings from participants. Personal goal: release an external, enriched version of those presentations.

Secondly, since a notable fraction of my work consists in building internal and external relationships, I was in a position to provide advice, coaching and consulting on a number of international projects. I would love to say more about them but alas, it’s confidential for the most part! Personal goal though : get better at not doing everything pro bono, since some of those initiatives are external and eat up a big chunk of my remaining spare time.

And finally, I am very pleased to have discovered a new friend in a colleague, Dirk, and managed to have launched with him a full-blown project very quickly. That project, which I mentioned in a previous post (https://goo.gl/MIwI9v), is the debate podcast http://www.2debate.net in which Dirk and I debate on current topics along a structured format (not more than 6 minutes each). After 2,000 downloads of our bi-weekly episodes, I can’t wait to get more reviews (glowing only, of course! https://goo.gl/7SaJUB).

Let’s see what the next year holds!

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Never miss a thing: sign up to my private newsletter

In short, if you're interested with what goes through my crazy mind, sign up to get my email updates: http://bit.ly/sebslist.

The longer version is this: my mind keeps buzzing with things I do, see, read, write, and things I plan to do. Yet I don't always take the time to structure those thoughts, let alone figure out which website, blog or social media platform to use when I do take the time to formalise, edit and proof-read them. So I wondered what medium I could use to stick to the "just ship it" mantra, sharing thoughts even if they are half-baked, sharing them even if I would still feel a little embarrassed to express them – all in the spirit of avoiding procrastination and perhaps being inspiring, maybe even starting an interesting discussion with some of you or getting feedback on my ideas.

This is where email comes in. Email is here to stay: no one has to use the same email "app" for email to work; and most people still have an email address (or it's easy to create one). Hence why I'm going the old-fashioned way and creating this mailing list called "Seb's List".

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Is it worth going to Mars? Should election polls be banned? Do successful organisations need managers?

These are among the interesting topics my friend and colleague +Dirk Primbs and I are debating on in a podcast series that we are launching very soon. Head over to http://www.2debate.net to sign up and be notified as soon as we release a new episode. (Update: we're live on iTunes https://goo.gl/7SaJUB).

These topics are not only interesting but directly refer to recent news: Elon Musk’s very real project to colonise Mars with a million inhabitants over the next decades; election polls which seemingly have not predicted and possibly influenced Brexit and Trump’s election; or Zappos, this startup acquired by Amazon, which has implemented “holacracy”, effectively replacing hierarchy with self-management.

I am having a lot of fun recording those debates (a dozen episodes thus far) – you can probably tell if you watch the teaser videos (https://goo.gl/JbaCwY and https://goo.gl/nlr47k). Dirk and I focus on current issues pertaining to the world of technology, business and politics. The idea is to challenge assumptions over 12 minutes of a structured Oxford-style debate. In fact, we challenge our very own assumptions, since we assign sides by the flip of a coin and we then defend our positions very seriously and passionately.

There are many more things I could write about this project: how it’s one of many personal projects I have in store, how Dirk is already an active podcaster (he hosts a daily podcast in German), how we decided to work on this together (and Dirk is a great sparring partner), how we are having fun creating memes and teaser videos, how this project is being professionally managed behind the scenes – all this in our spare time. Stay tuned for more details. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is sign up on http://www.2debate.net and join our Google+ community (https://goo.gl/Q6GXCi) – and if you are truly curious and interested to give us feedback, I can give you exclusive access to the first podcast: simply let me know in the comments. Thank you for reading!

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9 Years at Google – And the Beat Goes On

Wow, another year passed again, with a lot of travel and a number of lessons learned or still in the process of being digested. And yes, some lessons arose from the experience of disappointments as I’ll explain more below. This year, I’ll talk again a little bit about hiring before switching to writing about the the skills I’m looking for in program managers – you’d be surprised: I am convinced most people are theoretically capable of having them but... alas. I’ll also share my thoughts on when and how I think it’s possible to be demanding, up, down and across hierarchical levels.

Surprisingly enough, despite a number of reorganisations at various levels, I managed to keep my teams relatively stable. I still lead our developer relations teams interacting with communities of developers and which are based on the ground across Asia, Africa and the Middle East; I also still lead the truly collaborative “Intelligence” team, which defines processes to automate the collection and the tracking of data and metrics to best analyse and improve the efficiency of our programs. Now that doesn’t mean churn was completely avoided, whether for personal or low performance reasons. In fact, the number one challenge I still have is not related to my work in emerging markets or any of the additional difficulties I’ll share below: it’s all about constantly keeping a strong pipeline of potential candidates just in case – because it’s actually never “just in case” even when all positions appear to be fully staffed. It’s mathematical: the larger my team, the higher the absolute number of people leaving – and yes, I still don’t fire fast enough, even though I’ve possibly become more critical when it comes to hiring, a key skill I had mentioned in last year’s post https://goo.gl/DzATl1. By the way, I’m eagerly hoping to get my well-deserved “250+ interviews given” badge some time over the coming year, after having already received the “best interview feedback” award a few months ago – woohoo.

So in the spirit of feeding my pipeline, if you’re a very good project manager with some developer relations experience and willing to both work with me (have I lost you on that one?!) and be based in Dubai, Istanbul, Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Bangalore, Singapore, Jakarta, Seoul or Tokyo, send me an email so I can consider your application, should a position open up (some of those locations already have a position open, check http://google.com/jobs for more details).

You’ll note the emphasis on “very good” project management skills in my previous paragraph. We are several thousand program managers within Google. The least I can say is that I’m not impressed by the skills we have – despite hiring people with elite and diverse backgrounds. It’s a shame because most of those roles don’t require all the codified processes and jargon one would encounter in other companies. Seriously, I don’t care a lot about six sigma, strategic frameworks, agile or scrum techniques and what not if you are not capable of writing proper English and if you are not responsive nor genuinely collaborative. You don’t even need to know how to use any project management software beyond a simple spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets, did I say? Yes, only those – but why are they so ugly when I open the ones created by program managers? It’s so easy and takes no more time to present things nicely (if anything, one would gain time: a clear mind is most certainly more likely to generate a clear output). But let’s talk about the real aspect that bothers me with program managers at Google: why is it so difficult for some to take proper meeting notes, capture action items, methodically follow up on them without missing deadlines or otherwise giving status updates, document things in a clear fashion, and be responsive over email? There’s really not much more to that. And yet I have to raise my hands in despair (imagine the tentacles up in the air of the octopus icon in Google Hangouts https://goo.gl/2DB6wp). I’m not even asking to go the extra mile (although I always appreciate it when people work with passion and don’t consider they have a 9am to 5pm job), simply basic skills that honestly any white-collar employee should have (we ultimately all manage projects). Perhaps add to those skills the ability to know how to use basic functions in Spreadsheets. Yes, I’m talking about sums, counts, ifs,... push it to index/match and you’ll be considered a half-god… Apps Script coding – even just one line – will grant you god-like status, I wish I were joking but I’m not.

There are some remarkable employees out there, including on my team. Yet I feel a lot of my time goes into reminding people across Google of those basic expectations. As always, I don’t give up easily. Even if I have learned a little bit to choose my battles (http://goo.gl/e7a2I9), I still enjoy coaching people (http://goo.gl/5c6sVJ) although I need to more quickly give up on those who stubbornly do not take notes, do not act on the feedback at all or merely didn’t request for help in the first place (well, if you report into me, I won’t give you that option – am I bossy? no, not at all, I’m simply the/your boss. C’mon, it’s just a joke and it’s not even mine). Beyond not giving up, and despite being told “it will never work” or that “executives know the problem exists but don’t want to fix it”, I’m still motivated to take my pilgrim’s staff and develop a training program for my fellow colleagues. I also intend to have a number of tools and processes that my team and I set up over the years reused across the company (automated action item trackers, target setting, metrics and dashboards, document templates, you name it).

I could find excuses but I’d rather admit that I haven’t systematically coped well with the frustration of being slowed down – or seeing others slowed down – because some others are incompetent or simply don’t pay attention. In a fairly unusual way to my habits, I used my long-earned credibility to bang my fist on the table. I didn’t do it literally but the F word did come out of my mouth a few times (a trusted colleague is thankfully keeping count of that number). I’m not a fan of swearing at all, although it can get a point across if used (very) rarely and appropriately (I have sometimes failed in choosing those moments) – that’s probably controversial, especially in an American company, although I’m not suggesting to be insulting but to allow frustration to be expressed when people are being stubbornly uncollaborative. I sometimes make use of that technique in my personal life: since most people view me as serious (you can replace that by weird, awkward, not fun, whatever you like), the minute I do or say something seemingly crazy, the surprise effect is all the more important and guaranteed. Just like if I suddenly start mentioning I’m considering to run for France’s presidential elections: am I joking or am I not? You have to know me a little bit to know the answer – but by default, I’d suggest you take me seriously.

Coming back to my initial topic: I had initially written that I thought I had not experienced as much politics as the last year in my time at Google – but reading the post of last year (https://goo.gl/DzATl1) seems to indicate it remained constant. No, I don’t think the culture has evolved in a negative way over the years, I believe it’s mostly due to specific team dynamics which I’ve observed in my organisation and in other departments in which I’ve been coincidentally involved. It sometimes sadly feels as if we play a game of musical chairs, moving people around instead of out. Bad behaviour needs to be called out – but it’s so difficult for some to do that when some managers turn a blind or naive eye to those issues, or worse, retaliate against the whistleblowers, further entrapping them in the role of scapegoats. For the record, I’ve interacted with about 300 people at various levels in different departments over the past year so I’m not necessarily referring to my current manager (hello, David). My best advice in those situations is to do whatever it takes (ethically, duh) to build a strong relationship with one’s manager to then be able to have enough credibility to highlight problems – that has always worked for me, whether I personally liked or disliked the manager I had.

Now it’s true that I’m (very) demanding – I have high standards. To make them clear, I had written a document which explained what my expectations were (they weren’t anything scary and team members generally appreciated the transparency). But at the same time, I’m caring. I’m available to indirect reports and temporary employees who regularly talk to me in one-on-ones. I care enough to follow up and find solutions to most issues that come up – not always, but most often, I should think without false humility. I think it’s because I’m caring that my team allows me to be demanding because they know that I help them shine as individuals and as a team. As an ex-director at Google wrote, “caring personally makes it much easier to do the next thing you have to do as a good boss, which is being willing to piss people off”. I fight for my team without hopefully making the classic mistake of designating other teams as enemies: I’d rather focus on the positives, on the great work to be highlighted, on the opportunities to be seized, on the workarounds to be creatively found, than on pointing fingers at others or ranting about issues without offering solutions (please: if you come to me with a problem, also come up with one possible solution). It’s a tricky balance for sure, sometimes it is even inevitable to mention the names of those who are acting in toxic ways.

It can get tiring to manage people, to listen to their problems (including their personal issues), or to find the best people who can make my work life easier. I can’t say I dislike it but I do need to sleep more – it was only in the course of last year that a close friend observed that my birthday happens on 24/7… and I’m pretty much active and working 24/7 indeed… The double irony is that I’m typing a first draft of this post on a red-eye flight from the US to Europe when I should be precisely getting some sleep. Every day I am telling myself “I am someone who goes to bed at midnight” – and every day I clock off at two or three in the morning. Why, but why?! I’m so disciplined at work with self-imposed structure… but there are so many more things to learn and discover outside of work too!

On a more positive note, I’ve met new, interesting, passionate and kind people (I can’t stress enough the importance of kindness; I was pleasantly surprised how some had even softened and grown more amiable over time). That’s one welcome aspect of my work: always meeting new people, internally and externally. I’ve forged some strong work relationships with a few people which add to the necessary renewal of my motivation every day – even if my total compensation is going down for the past two years despite obtaining constantly better performance ratings (wink at my manager for fixing that)! External opportunities keep abounding too: it’s always very tempting to get out there and start something new, big and exciting – speaking of which… Let’s see if I’ll make it to ten years at Google though, I’m still our number one fan of our products and I have some(!) remaining work to do here. Oh and thank you for reading but you should now seriously get back to work, the break’s over!

PS: if you want to read more about what I learned in my previous years at Google, head over to the following posts
– 5 years: http://goo.gl/lti06 on passion and opportunities
– 6 years: http://goo.gl/e7a2I9 on learning which battles to fight
– 7 years: http://goo.gl/5c6sVJ on coaching employees
– 8 years: https://goo.gl/DzATl1 on people – the manipulative ones, the takers and (hiring) the great ones

PS2: thanks to Melina, Marcus, Dushyant, Marie, Jessica, Dirk, Laura, Sami, Aída, Antoine and Roy for reading drafts of this post – and engaging in an interesting centithread discussion. Unsurprisingly a common feedback was for me to get some rest. I’ll think about it next time I sleep – next session planned on 1st April from seven forty-five PM to 1st April at a quarter to eight in the evening.

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