Jeff Bezos: the best Gatekeeper for Wally Funk

Chances are you would not have heard of Wally Funk a couple of weeks back. Chances are you are reading this name for the first time here. I learnt about her while curating articles for the weekly edition of The Read Aloud Club last week. Who is Wally Funk? I want to tell you the story of this 82 year old lady who featured on Jeff Bezos’ instagram post last week as his guest to be a part of the inaugural space shuttle, Blue Origin’s crewed flight,  along with Bezos. At 82. 

Wally Funk is 82 years old. At 22, 60 years ago, she had spent 10 hours 35 minutes floating in a water tank in a sensory deprivation room, dark enough to not see anything and soundproof to not hear anything, as a part of the Women Astronaut test. She was pulled out of the dark room water tank not because she didn’t cope with it, but because she had broken the record for staying the longest. In another test at the same time, icy cold water was injected in her ear to test tolerance of vertigo pain induced by it. While she passed all the tests, gates were kept closed for women in space. The program for women in space was called off. 

This week, Jeff Bezos opened the gates to space for Wally Funk as he chose her to be the guest on the Blue Origin space trip. Here is his announcement on his instagram post:

Gender stereotypes are real. Across most cultures and most countries. But this article is not about women and equal rights, this is about you and me and every adult with the ability to make decisions. In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am focussing on our role as the gatekeeper, a role that each one of us plays in personal and professional life. I am bringing your attention to the gatekeeper’s mind. 

The Gatekeeper Mind: 

We make several small and big decisions in our daily life. Some decisions have an impact on others’ life and that impact is like a gatekeeping job. For instance, as a team leader, you may deny a trainee to negotiate a deal. This decision is based on two notions: firstly, trainees are not experienced enough to negotiate a deal and secondly, your judgement of the person as you assess his capability to handle it. The fact that he is a trainee influences your judgement. The two notions are not independent of each other. Typically a trainee would not be assigned the role. But, your judgment surpasses the first notion and you find him smart to take up the job.  As you allow the trainee to negotiate, you open the gate for him. 

But most gatekeeping doesn’t earn much thought- these happen because our society has made them as norms that have been accepted across cultures and generations, at workplaces and at homes. That is what makes gatekeeping a not-so-obvious, passively active, process in our minds. Passive because we don’t give much thought to it, active because we are always doing the job of gatekeeping. 

Wally Funk, the 82 year old shows us the two sides of the gatekeepers mind. One, that closes gates for her and the other that she keeps it open inside, her own mind. 

The Gatekeeper told Wally Funk: You are not a man

In 1962, a congressional hearing considered the question of adding women to its astronaut corps, and John Glenn, the first man to go to space, had gone through capability tests along with Wally, fresh off his historic journey, dismissed the possibility: “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” That fact stuck for more than two decades, until Sally Ride launched into orbit in 1983, the first woman to go to space. 

The Gatekeeper told Wally Funk : You are not an engineer

For the next few years, Wally Funk sought out more tests to prove her capability.She applied to NASA’s astronaut corps four times, but the agency wanted its astronauts to have engineering degrees, and Funk didn’t have one. Today, NASA has different requirements for its astronauts; prospective candidates can have degrees in other science fields, not just engineering.

Wally Funk is the best Gatekeeper of her own mind. Everytime a gatekeeper stopped her, her mind continued marching forward. She may not have gone to space, but she didn’t deter either. She continued working as a flight instructor and later became the first female investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), looking into plane crashes.

How did she feel when it ended? “Well, it’s not going to stop me. It doesn’t matter.” Wasn’t she disappointed? “I don’t have that kind of a life. I’m a positive person. Things were cancelled? So what? Wally’s going on. Why are people so negative? I’m not a quitter.”

An excerpt from an interview in The Guardian

Gatekeeping is a necessity. How to live and let live, how to behave are some of the norms that have been defined as the law. That is why inclusivity, gender diversity are some of the new changes in the law that will change lives. Gatekeeper is an individual mindset that functions in a non existential way. Covered by  societal norms and bound by cultural threads, it works on its own framework of decision making.

Each one of us plays the role of a gatekeeper, mostly sub-consciously, both for oneself and for the circle of influence that one has. Here are some of the reference points to seed the consciousness in you: 

1. Gatekeeper of your own thoughts:

Wally Funk

So when the opportunity for space travel does arise, Funk will be ready. 

And if it doesn’t, she’ll be ready anyway. 

Wally Funk didn’t stop. We are often stopped by our own thoughts. It seems unachievable because no one in and around has been that far. That is gatekeeping of your own ambition. I have gone through internal resistance on a couple of occasions and everytime one has to fight one’s thoughts with logic and clarity, and keep the gate open.  There is always a gatekeeper in one’s own mind. 

2. Gatekeeper of people’s dreams and potentials: 

Parenting taught me the lessons of gatekeeping. It made me conscious to define if I was holding the gate open or close to people at work. Parenting teaches you that your job is to create opportunities for children to find their interest and passion. You open more and more gates. As a leader at the workplace, this is what you have to remind yourself and see if you can open gates to achieve higher potential. 

There will be occasions that you may not agree completely to an idea proposed by the team. It happens in creative pursuits and I like the Jeff Bezos way of working: to disagree and commit. Read more about it here. 

3. Gatekeeper of the right and the wrong:

We are born in a culture built years ago. Similarly, when we walk into a new leadership role, we walk into a culture that has been nurtured by previous leaders. One need not accept every nuance. A gatekeeper of the culture has to keep moral intelligence awake where you make decisions not because all generations have been doing it but because you need to do it. Some offices have the culture where during the meeting, juniors will sit on the side while seniors on the table, even if the junior is an integral part of the discussion or the boss will be called only when all attendees have arrived in the meeting room. If you have worked in Nariman Point offices, the original high rise workplaces in Mumbai, you would have experienced elevators reserved only for Directors. When the offices shifted to Bandra Kurla Complex, this culture was plucked out. 

It might be a PR stunt for him but look at what Jeff Bezos has done – a woman ✓, a woman with a space dream ✓✓, a woman with a space dream and rejected on gender issues ✓✓✓. ‘Taking Funk on this ride may be a great PR stunt, but at its core, it is a real gift, to a real person,’ writes The Atlantic. Jeff Bezos has been the best gatekeeper for Wally Funk. 

We all face gatekeepers. We all are gatekeepers. Gatekeepers of our thoughts, of opportunities for others, of societal norms. Let us remember to keep gates open. 

Naomi Osaka redefines quitting and our thinking

Naomi Osaka withdrew from French Open Tournament 2021 last week. Sports teaches us not to quit. Most parents are advised to make children learn some form of sports so that they become tough to handle a loss.  

In another story of a boy, he was not even ten years old when he attained an international player’s rating in his sport and that too a decent opening rating. Within a year, the more he played tournaments, the more he lost his rating points. At ten, you don’t know how you are supposed to think and here was a little boy who was trained to believe that he cannot afford a loss. The more he thought about his rating points, the more he lost, and the more his confidence came down. He would be an aggressive and his bold self with a higher rated opponent and would get stressed with a lower rated opponent, because you lose more points when you lose against a lower rated player. An intervention of a sports psychology counsellor helped the parents understand how to deal with this little life who was living a big one inside his head. Apart from many small suggestions, the parents were advised to not say that they were proud of the child, because it made him build large expectations in his mind. ‘You make me proud’ was replaced by ‘do you want to use the washroom before you start the match’  or ‘would you like to eat a banana’, no matter how proud the mother felt when the boy played for hours together and lost and then woke up again next morning to face an opponent with a fresh mind, hopefully not to lose again. 

They went again and again to participate in matches not to simply win and get better but to learn not to quit, not to quit when inappropriate. Mental well being is a real issue. Ill mental health doesn’t make any announcement, it just creeps in. During early stages it is a matter of understanding, addressing and dealing with it. Ignoring or discounting makes it grow in a bigger, worse state. 

Sachin Tendulkar, after years of retirement, shared about his anxiety related challenges which he endured during his career. Decorated swimmer Michael Phelps talked about his depression that he suffered, only after being able to successfully come out of it and face another Olympics, successfully again. Naomi Osaka, the woman who is the top tennis player, the highest paid female athlete ever, the young and intelligent whose bout of mental illness started when she won her first grand slam, is talking about mental health not after dealing with it, but while enduring it. 

While sports teaches not to quit, here is Naomi Osaka teaching valuable lessons by actually quitting a tournament. In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to Naomi Osaka’s decision to leave the tournament and how it is a wake up call, loud and clear, for people,brands and companies to understand and learn and act from her decision.  Here are some thinking lessons that we can pick up from her ability to walk away.

Naomi Osaka is walking the talk: 

The player announced her reservation towards speaking to the media well in advance. She would have been acutely aware of her distractions towards performance on the court and she took a step towards staying focused so she decided to stay away from media. More than just fine for blacking out any media, the authorities also used social media to pass a slight remark “They understood the assignment” featuring other players who talked to media. Whatever would have led to Naomi’s decision of leaving the tournament, it was just another step by her to keep her mental well being safeguarded. She only walked her own talk. 

The thinking: While businesses and companies are talking about WFH related mental well being, they need to learn to walk the talk. Some people in the team need more effort, more rest than the others.  

Naomi Osaka has changed the narrative: 

Out of the many things that pandemic has changed, one is how people take a stand and support empathetically or remain silent. Rohit Brijnath wrote in Mint – “A summer when many of us saw the heroic from the unknown and silence from heroes.

During earlier tournaments, Naomi Osaka wore masks to support Black Lives Matter. I wrote about it here “medium is the message”. This time she is standing for herself. Naomi has changed the narrative.  She has not only spoken for others silently, she is speaking for herself too, silently, by taking a step away from the noise. 

Naomi Osaka Supports Black Lives Matter

Pandemic has changed the narrative for many, not just Naomi. I was stunned and in awe of the courage of a lady, an author, with more than 12,000 followers on her social media, when she shared her pain of first coming out of hospital alone, leaving her husband behind still healing, then shared his deteriorating condition, to his passing away and to her first day without him. A mother of two children, asked for support through prayers, gathered courage through wishes and is battling grief through her virtual connections. 

The Thinking: More and more people come out to share their deep, personal pain and grief. This creates a real ambience of acceptance. The narrative has changed, not only to speak but also to be heard. Brands and companies have to pay attention to the new narrative and create a safe space for acceptance. 

Naomi Osaka demonstrates that the media is democratized:

The furore started with avoidance of the media. When she left the tournament, she left with a message on her social media, reaching not only to her followers but the world’s media. Today, everyone has access to make themself heard, irrespective of the presence of media persons. 

It is time to realise that the media’s role needs redefinition. Media has the power to change the trajectory of the ball. Media’s consciousness will help the world, not only for mental health but for overall well being and growth. Instead of reacting to the blackout, they had the power to question why an athlete is forced to face a press, during the series, and why not only at the end of any tournament? Why can’t they be given a choice? Is player protection more important than the tournament’s publicity? 

The Thinking: Many times, startups and companies do take a position of power when their social following is large, that they do not need any media. Both, the influencer and the media are important and need each other. It is time we change the norms and define new roles. Instead of fighting the presence of social media and platforms that influencers use, we understand that the media’s role to create an availability cascade is not just to change the trajectory, but can help the world. Similarly, influencers that play big on social media, need to remember the value of power of media and not get carried away.

Mental health is a personal challenge, but it is one illness that gets aggravated by other people and their reactions. Naomi Osaka’s depression started in 2018 with her first grand slam victory. Instead of celebrating a precious moment with bright eyes and open arms, she stood on the stage with drooped shoulders and the tear laden face hidden behind her visor. She had been booed more than she could take during her first big victory.

Each one of us plays a role in the mental well being of others, knowingly or unknowingly. Only empathy and thinking before reacting can help others. Naomi Osaka by leaving this tournament has shown us the path of keeping a promise of care, the path of healing and recuperating by acceptance, and the truth that the biggest influence in life is one’s own thought, not the muscle-flexing outside world.

That is what the boy was taught by shutting the noise, to learn to control the thoughts. And the mother is proud, loud and clear.

For Continued Success, Focus On Lead Measures

Not pandemic, but GST implications converted Amar and Bharat, two brothers, working as contract employees in a warehouse and on a toll plaza respectively, into egg-roll sellers in a neighbourhood. Their father worked at my parent’s house in Bihar and both these brothers had left Bihar in pursuit of a respectable naukri. Each of them managed to land a job for a couple of years. One got employed in a warehouse and the other one on a toll plaza. But as the GST roll out became smoother and mandatory, the boys lost their jobs and started making egg-rolls for a living. 

GST eliminated the cascading nature of the pre-existing tax system like inter-state tax, road permits, VAT system etc. The implementation of GST turned the whole country into a single market. This meant the manufacturers did not have to build separate warehouses at different locations. GST rollout not only reduced concentration of warehouses in certain areas to save taxes, it also reduced toll collection in those areas as traffic reduced due to shutting down of some of these warehouses. Not pandemic, the brothers lost their jobs due to GST implications without realising what hit them. 

Just around the same time, before the complete roll out of GST, investment decisions were being considered for infrastructure companies like toll roads. Big decisions, for example making investments in the warehouse company or the toll operator company are long horizon decisions. The decisions are made today for the results to come in during a decade or more. One must realise, when investors make decisions with long horizons, they calculate the risks posed at the time of decision making. Still, some large decisions fail despite being a calculated decision, like due to the impact of GST rollout. But if you look close, the failure is not of the decision but failure is of the ability to measure the progress to reach the goal after the decision was made. 

Decisions, big or small, are made in the present while their impact shows in the future. More and more business heads and decision makers are focussed on the goal measures like revenue, profit numbers, so when the goal is unmet, the blame goes on the decision and not on the progress measures. Amar and Bharat, the two jobless brothers, brought my attention to the importance of right metrics to track progress for all decision makers that should not lead to any closure. 

In this week’s edition for Habits for Thinking, let me introduce you to the concept of Lead Measures, measurements that are meant for keeping an eye on the progress. Lead Measures and Lag measures are defined by the authors of 4 Disciplines of Execution by Sean Covey and Chris McChesney. 

“No matter what you are trying to achieve, your success will be based on two kinds of measures: Lag and Lead. Lag measures track the success of your wildly important goal. Lags are measures you spend time losing sleep over. They are things like revenue, profit, quality, and customer satisfaction. They are called lags because by the time you see them, the performance that drove them is already passed. You can’t do anything to fix them, they are history.” 

Lead Measures vs Lag measures

“Once a team is clear about its lead measures, their view of the goal changes.” 

CHRIS MCCHESNEY, CO-AUTHOR OF THE 4 DISCIPLINES OF EXECUTION

The author continues, “Lead measures track the critical activities that drive, or lead to the lag measure. They predict success of the lag measure and are influenced directly by the team. A common example of a lag measure is weight loss. Which activities or lead measures will lead to weight loss? Diet and exercise! Proper diet and exercise predict the success of weight-loss and they are activities that we can directly influence. Simple enough, but be careful. Even the smartest people fall into the trap of fixating on a lag measure that they can’t directly influence. This is because lags are easier to measure and they represent the result we ultimately want.”

Measurement is a necessity for business and personal goals. But measuring only the end result may end up in a surprise. Lead Measures in simple terms are measures to define and keep an eye on the progress. Lead measures have some characteristics that are outlined below to help you define your own set of lead measures for the goal. 

1. Lead measures are predictive

Lead measures are predictive in nature so it means that if a lead measure will change, you can predict that the lag measure, or the final outcome, will eventually change too. Simply, if you are measuring weight loss and if you have changed a lead measure of how many times in the week you have exercised, it will change the end result too. 

2. Lead measures are influenceable

It can be directly influenced by the team. That is, the team can make a lead measure happen without a significant dependency on another team. A team dedicated on the shop floor can improve customer satisfaction scores independently of the team in the manufacturing department. 

This is easy to measure. But, lead measures can be abstract in nature too. For the toll company to predict the impact of GST in slowing down the revenue is a predictive analysis. But this cannot be a lead measure, because it is external to the company and hence cannot be influenced or controlled. What is influenceable however in this case are measurements like : Working deeply and widely on risk factors like identifying concentration of toll revenues. These  will serve as lead measures. These may seem as abstract in nature, but will have an impact on the lag measures for the business.  

3. Lead measures are smaller goals aligned to the bigger picture

In personal decisions like weight loss, participation in an exam, keeping an eye on lead measures is easier. Your daily diet program, your weekly fitness regime become the lead measures for weight loss.  Preparing for an exam is also directly proportional to the quality and the quantity of work. That becomes the lead measure. But for an athlete, at a top level performance, lead measures are difficult. The narrower the scope of improvement, the harder to measure it. In such cases, the performance gets broken down into smaller goals and gets measured accordingly. So for example, an ace swimmer has to work on a particular angle of diving in the pool to become faster. Small, yet hard to measure goals. Lead measures can be for smaller goals, for smaller teams. 

4. Lead measures can be behavioural in nature

Lead measures stand for “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measure.” like sampling free products in a bakery can serve as a lead measure to increase customer happiness. As you increase the numbers of customers who receive free samples, eventually will improve lag measures like revenue as well. Lead measures turn your attention to improving habits and behaviours you directly control in the near future that will have a positive impact on long term goals. 

Measurement is not to be seen as the yardstick for productivity, it is to be seen as the enabler of right behaviours for the team to achieve the goal. Behavioural shifts take time but create a leverage that has magnificent results leading to continued success. 

Vishakha Singh
Vishakha Singh

She has authored an online course SHIFT _ Simple Habits and Ideas for Forward Thinking. SHIFT is a set of ideas & habits that encourages you to think in an alert, creative style in the fast changing business environment. Vishakha writes a weekly column on Habits for Thinking to enhance a growth mindset at workplaces. Her writing mantra is to keep it simple and bring ideas to action.