Elliott Ng


Google. China. Entrepreneurship. Hiding brightness, biding time.

My 3 Words for 2012


photo credit: Chris Michel

As 2011 pulls to a close, I’m reflecting on what has been a whirlwind 2011 for me.  While I’m still in processing mode on that, I also want to start thinking forward to 2012 because I know it’s going to be an even faster, even crazier roller-coaster ride.  I thought I’d start by finding “3 Words” to help guide 2012.

Background: What are “3 Words?”

Back on Jan 1, 2010, I read a blog post by social media consultant Chris Brogan titled My 3 Words for 2010 where Chris described a simple exercise: Come up with 3 words that serve as “guiding pillars” for the New Year:

Instead of resolutions, which don’t usually help me very much, I work hard on using these words as a lighthouse for my actions and efforts.

Faced with the prospects of what looks like a daunting year ahead, I’m using this 3 Words exercise to create a flexible guiding set of themes that I hope will become a living, evocative framework for objective-setting and decision-making.

I’m sharing this in the hopes that this might spur your thinking on 2012 and give you another method if “resolutions” don’t work for you.

Hmm…isn’t this just objectives and goals under a new name?  Not really.  I got a bit hung up on this, and if you’re been “corporate” in one life or another, you probably will too.  See Notes at end of this post for an answer to this question.

Another important, liberating principle of Chris’s “3 words” exercise is that it doesn’t matter if anyone else understands what these words mean.   It is about creating “guiding pillars” for yourself…not a tagline for others.  Do my words sound like nonsense to you?  I don’t really care.  These are my words, to help me, not you!

My 3 Words for 2012:  Spiky, Intentional, Bold.


To me, “Spiky” evokes a number of related concepts to me: focus, passion, outliers (in the Gladwellian sense), creative ecosystems (in the Richard Florida sense, see Notes), exceptional, committed to excellence, relentless.

Steve Jobs was Spiky…most of us just aren’t Steve and/or don’t want to be…but how do we want to put a ding in the universe in our own way?  After he died, I pored over the coverage.  I re-read the 2005 commencement speech. I watched the video of the speech.  I watched a version of the Think Different campaign “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” narrated by Steve himself.  I read an exceptional obituary by Steven Levy that aimed to describe and honor, but not mythologize.

Steve’s death caused me to ask a tough question of myself…when was the last time that I created a product that I personally and deeply felt was truly exceptional and without compromise?  When was the last time that I set myself to solve the most important problem to date in my career?

I didn’t like the answers I came up with.

Outliers are Spiky…but what am I putting 10,000 hours into?  Like everyone else in the Silicon Valley tech bubble, I’m into Gladwell’s Outliers (see TIME’s Lev Grossman’s review), which says that success is not just about individual talent, but about lucky timing, a supportive ecosystem, and 10,000 hours of hard work generating “accumulated advantage.”  So what have I done for 20 hours a week for the last 10 years, to be even in the running for becoming an “outlier?”

Wow, I didn’t like the lack of specificity on these answers either.

So for 2012 I want to seek my Spiky-ness.  That means choosing what to be Spiky at and being more intensely focused on it than most other people.  That also means being brutally disciplined about saying no to things that I don’t want to be Spiky at.  It means searching and finding something that I care passionately about and doing it.  It means creating something great.  It means taking complete ownership as a (quasi) “Founder” and not being an “employee.”  It means doing things I want to blog about and speak about.  It also means taking the things that “I have to do” but wasn’t previously passionate about, and becoming passionate about it.  It means holding myself and those around me to a standard of excellence and exceptionality that may not always feel “nice.”


Intentional is evocative of several loosely-related things to me.

Intentional: Get better at Saying No.

One of the tough conclusions I’ve come to about my personality is I don’t like saying no, and I don’t like to be the bad guy.  I’d like to improve in my ability to say No in a productive, collaborative way with people inside and outside of Google. I aim to be more intentional about what to say “yes” to and letting “no” be the default answer.  Selective. Choiceful.

Intentional:  The practice of “deliberate practice” 

Via John Hagel of the Center of the Edge, a Silicon Valley think tank, I came across the StudyHacks blog by academic Cal Newport, who expands on the Gladwell “Outliers” idea in a post about a study on chess players that had the following insight:

…after interviewing two large samples of chess players of varied skill, the paper’s authors found that “serious study“  — the arduous task of reviewing past games of better players, trying to predict each move in advance — was the strongest predictor of chess skill.

In more detail:  ”…chess players at the highest skill level (i.e. grandmasters) expended about 5000 hours on serious study alone during their first decade of serious chess play – nearly five times the average amount reported by intermediate-level players.”

Similar findings have been replicated in a variety of fields. To become exceptional you have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work. A decade of serious chess playing will earn you an intermediate tournament ranking. But a decade of serious study of chess games can make you a grandmaster.

This is such an awesome post, you should go read it now.

Did you read it? Good. Continue.

The question is: what is the “right type of work”?  Newport then later writes about a similar study comparing exceptional violinists to the merely standard ones, with a similar conclusion that “deliberate practice” to accelerate mastery is what made the difference:

We can start by disproving the assumption that the elite players dedicate more hours to music. The time diaries revealed that both groups spent, on average, the same number of hours on music per week (around 50).

The difference was in how they spent this time. The elite players were spending almost three times more hours than the average players on deliberate practice — the uncomfortable, methodical work of stretching your ability.

The question is: for product managers and for tech leads/managers, what is “deliberate practice” and the “right kind of work?” I’ve been thinking hard about what “top performers” are doing that others can do better at, and what “deliberate practice” will help people get there.

Intentional:  the personal dimension.

Intentional also evokes a more thoughtful and sustained focus on my family and my faith.

In 2011, my oldest son turned 10-years old…it was only yesterday that he was 8, and two days ago he was 3!  In 3 years, he will enter 7th grade and be a teenager.  In my over-simplified model of parental influence, I figure I have 3 more years of being highly influential until I become completely irrelevant as my son shifts from being parent-centric to being peer-centric.

Intentional also relates to how my wife and I want to deepen our relationship with each other, and how we can be a more closely coordinated team of partners in parenting.

The move to China also has caused me to think hard about how I want to live my faith in my daily work and family life.   I’m personally interested in how the Christian faith can be most relevant to academically and professionally “successful” people in China.


credit: gapingvoid.com

When I graduated from business school, I turned down a perfectly fine offer to join McKinsey to start an “dot-com” startup with $30,000 of credit card debt and student loans taken out 4 months before graduation.

Damn, I was a lot bolder back then.  Would I do the equivalent thing today?

Bottom line is that I want to work hard to cultivate that boldness.  You can be bold when you have the power of youthful naivety…I just didn’t “know any better.”  Age and experience teaches you the “real” probabilities of success.  And with 3 kids, I’ve got the practical worries of paying school tuition, mortgages, and saving up for college.  For Google in China, I feel it is even harder to cultivate a sense of boldness…there are so many internal constraints and other external factors (e.g. market, government, etc) that hold us back.

And yet, situations of adversity require us to step up and be bold.  I believe that the greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity for the forging of character.  At Google in China, we are hugely blessed with the opportunity to test our own personal character and (to be blunt) to also test that of our founders and company leaders as well.

At Google, both in China and in Mountain View, I see some of the most talented people I’ve worked with in my career worrying over their quarterly performance rating, or their next promotion.  Maybe the fact that sometimes I think that way makes it all the more depressing when I see it in others.

What are your dreams?  What are you passionate about?  If you could set realism aside, what can you be bold enough to think you might be able to do?  Let’s focus on doing that together!  Be a partner with me in being Bold in 2012.  If you’re not interested, please don’t sap my energy with your “realism!”

What are your 3 words for 2012?

One of the 5 people who read this far?  Let me know who you are by sharing with me (via email, Google+, Facebook, Twitter) your 3 words for 2012.  I’m interested!


Some additional thoughts that interrupt the flow of the main post but someone might find useful.

Hmm…isn’t this just objectives and goals under a new name?

Objectives are something specific you aim to achieve, with quantifiable measures to define whether those objectives are achieved.  You’ve probably heard of the term “SMART” – a framework for setting Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Oriented objectives. (Google’s version of it is “OKR” for Objectives and Key Results.)  ”3 Words” doesn’t replace objectives, but are complementary.  ”3 Words” is more about “themes”–ideally evocative of a vision that you have.  Because it’s just 3 words, it can be related to the “what,” the “how,” and the “why” of what you want to do or become.  What I like about this approach is that you can be inconsistent and not get hung up about exactly what the 3 words are.  They can flow in and around your objectives, either defining the “What” at a more meta level, or providing more of the “How” you want to achieve your objectives, or touch on the underlying “Why” that drives your Objectives.

Spiky is a term inspired by Richard Florida’s World is Spiky

By the way, the term Spiky comes from the debate between Tom Friedman–who made the reductionist claim that the World is Flat–and Richard Florida, who rebutted with a similarly reductionist counter-claim (in The Atlantic, 2005) that, no, the World is Spiky (nice summary by John Hagel).  Florida’s continuing thesis (see his writings in The Atlantic)  is that innovation is geographically spiky and will disproportionally come from geographically based ecosystems (e.g. Silicon Valley) that foster innovation by attracting what he calls “The Creative Class”).  Florida’s writings make sense — than “Spiky-ness” is not about the achievement of intellectual lone rangers, but the outcome of a massively networked group of exceptional people.  For me, being Spiky is about being part of a team, a group, an ecosystem.

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  1. [...] I came across a blog post by Elliot Ng which really struck a chord. In it, Elliot describes his “3 words to help guide 2012”. What appealed to me about the concept of the 3 words was that they were guiding pillars vs. [...]