Friday, November 28, 2014

Smaller Circles

We tend to overestimate what we can do in the short term, but underestimate what we can do in the long term by doing a little bit at a time. I tried to attribute that quote but it seems to be one that has just become part of what people say. Gretchen Rubin, author of 'The Happiness Project' gives practical suggestions of how to implement it. Journals are often suggested as a good tool for positive psychology. They are intimidating though. In my own experience I tended to journal when I was struggling so my journals gave a warped impression of what had been going on. I also wrote 'stream of consciousness' so it depended which member of the arguing committee in my head had just had a cup of coffee and which ones were taking a loo break as to what got put down. Gretchen suggests a one sentence journal. It is like sending yourself a tweet or a text. My cousin Jenny sometimes does lists like this and literally tweets them or puts them on facebook - she did 365 days of things she was grateful for and 100 reasons she was proud to be South African. Naturally journals to yourself could be more personal. I like the idea of it being so small that all it really needs is a flash of memory and you can do it quickly. There is no dependence on feeling 'in the mood' or deprioritisation because other things come up that day. It just needs to become a habit.

TED cottoned onto the fact that our concentration spans aren't what we would like them to be. Long lectures are a struggle. Keeping talks less than 20 minutes means we can focus on a wide variety of subjects. In the 'Art of Learning', Josh Waitzkin talks about a related idea he calls 'making smaller circles'. He describes how life often distracts us or doesn't allow us all the time we need to do things. In Martial Arts, you may learn how to deliver a perfect punch but no skilled opponent gives you the time to do that. In business, you may develop a wonderful pre-meeting routine if you normally get stressed and don't get your point across. Then a meeting gets scheduled at the last minute. Making smaller circles involves slowly getting the body used to what it is you want to do, and then shrinking it while maintaining the core purpose. A punch may then be over a very short distance. A pre-meeting relaxation sequence may become just a couple of minutes. TED talks are smaller circles for busy people who want to know more about what others are doing. One sentence journals are smaller circles for people who want to spend more time introspecting and focusing on self development.

A wonderful smaller circle for exercise is the Sun Salutation. This short yoga sequence is usually used as a warm up for other postures, but if you are struggling to get exercise into your day, the effects of a couple of rounds of Sun Salutations will add up over time. At school, I recall an older student talking to us towards the end of rugby season about how to train for the upcoming athletics season. We were moaning about how difficult it was to motivate ourselves to train. His suggestion was 'walk or jog instead'. If you were going somewhere and there was the option of going by car (or if we had had the tube, I guess the same would have applied) then rather walk. If you were going just a short distance, put in a burst of speed.

I am definitely opening myself up to 'practice what you preach' pressure here. I tend to take more of a hot or cold, on or off approach to things. If I don't have time, I don't make smaller circles, I just don't do it. Two of the key things I am trying to learn at the moment are Piano and French. Piano has been going along great. I am doing a pretty mean 'Red Red Wine' and can make my way through the Grade 1 Pieces. I am working my way back to where I was. Still very beginner level. French has been side swiped with other things. I was doing 10 new words a day and figured I would catch up later with a binge day of lots of words. That was about three weeks ago. Binge day is now becoming intimidating and probably stopping me from getting started again. A better approach would probably have been to at least do a little bit.

Using smaller circles for things that are important to you means they don't get put aside. Over time, they may expand into gaps, but even if they don't the effects will accumulate.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Postrel Problem

Leave your ego at the door. We don't want politics. These are two of the most common management lines in attempting to get the work environment to function well. They both make incredible sense in terms of getting teams to gell. We get to see these dynamics play out in the sporting world where as soon as a player becomes bigger (even if just in his head) than the team, things start to fall apart. The problem is we also believe in two types of opposing fairness. Everyone should be treated fairly,  but this means everyone should be treated equally and that they should be fairly compensated for their skill, effort and value add. Outside of the company, this problem is solved with a market. Businesses have to fight for survival and produce something that customers want. In a functioning market, their is no subtlety to the customers power - either they buy or they don't. They don't have to explain themselves. Within companies there is typically no market. Incentives and reviews become almost by definition based on ego and politics. The individual is assessed. The individual is defined by strengths and weaknesses, sorry, development areas, sorry, primary growth focusses. If an ego is a description of the individual, how is it possible to leave an ego at the door when that ego is constantly being reinforced? Line managers are given the power to cut up the pie. With pay such an important focus, how can politics not be involved?

In 'The Future and its Enemies', Virginia Postrel articulately discusses how difficult it is to articulate things. She argues for decision making to be pushed down to the front lines because of how incredibly difficult it is to pass nuance up the chain. The bigger an organisation gets, the more time you spend on putting into words the things decision makers would know if they were doing the work as well as making the decisions. A large chunk of your job becomes commentary on your job. This requires the skills of a psychologist, a writer, and yes, a politician. The focus naturally shifts to doing work that is demonstrable. Those who present themselves well and those who have good people skills will tend to have people notice their work more. Apparently the biggest predictor of whether a doctor gets sued is not her success at correctly identifying problems, but her bedside manner. This is probably true in the workplace too.

What is the solution? At a Judge Business School course earlier this year, we looked at a case study of a law firm - Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz. As a firm, they have been incredibly successful, and according to the reports we saw, they seem to have nailed some of the politics/ego problem. Case studies are problematic in that it is hard to take one feature of a firm and replicate it somewhere else. It is likely a 'Postrel Problem' in that it is very difficult to articulate. That said, I think part of why they have managed to get very competitive people to work together lies in solving incentivisation and reviews. They all work on similar issues and have similar training if slightly different specialities. The firm is small. The remuneration issue is taken off the table - the pie is split. There is a single team and so politics becomes unnecessary and they can leave their individual ego at the door.

Not every firm is a Wachtell. Most are bigger and there are a wide variety of skills employed. Bosses are distant from the action and we don't understand well what others are doing. The opposing challenges of wanting individuals to continually improve and wanting to create a high performing egoless teams remain at odds. A very early boss of mine, who also came across as a very happy man, said that the best way to think about these things is to just get on with your job and not stress about money. Any way of stripping attention away from worries helps direct energy more productively.

More questions than answers in this post, but as a society I think we are better at deciding which pies we want than how to slice them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


It is good to chew. In 'Moonwalking with Einstein', Joshua Foer describes his journey as an ordinary journalist covering a memory championship and then over the course of a year becoming the US Memory Champion. It is tempting for us to outsource our memories now that it is so easy to look things up. Facebook will remind us of birthdays. Google will answer your questions for you. Foer makes the case for memory as a tool for awareness. Things are more meaningful to you when you can make a connection. If you have to look something up, those connections are harder to make. He also points out an additional silly reading rule many people have. We don't go back to the books we love often enough if at all. Before the printing press, there were so few copies of books available that when you got to see a book, it would likely be the only time. So you studied and memorised it. You could reread it in your head. Now there are books I know I enjoyed or were meaningful to me and yet if pressed, I can only remember a vague outline of what they were about. Since reading Foers comments, I have tried to always have a book I have read before on the pile. One that I keep coming back to is Josh Waitzkin's 'The Art of Learning'.

Artist Paula Wilkins looking to Google for the answers

Josh's approach to learning is fascinating. At age 11 Waitzkin drew a chess match with Gary Kasparov (Kasparov was playing 59 other people at the same time but don't mess with a good story). At age 16, he became an International Chess Master. Later, after a 1993 'Searching for Bobby Fischer'/'Innocent Moves', brought him fame that distracted him from chess he shifted to T'ai Chi Ch'uan and he won the world championship in the competitive sport of Tai Chi Push Hands in 2004. Waitzkin then went moved on to learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. What he realised he was good at was not chess or martial arts, but the art of learning. His book contains many gems that are worth chewing on. One read is not enough.

One chewable morsel is the need to unlearn. Once a certain level of skill has been reached, often learning is about refining. In order to refine, you need to be able to go back to first principles and often you have to train yourself out of things that you are good at. Good, but not great. In chatting with a buddy recently who loves swimming, a perfect example came up. He has come across a book called 'Total Immersion' which describes a technique to swim better, faster and easier. In order to do this, he has to swim slower first and effectively learn to swim again. He has a target number of lengths he wants to get through this year, which he won't do if he slows down now. In the long run he will be faster if he does what Waitzkin calls 'investing in loss'. So, he is chomping at the bit for the year to end. Short term targets often get in the way of learning. This one is temporary, but often in the business world there are always short term targets. The tyranny of quarterly reporting. Building in periods to slow down and relearn is a prerequisite for the good stuff.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bits to Move

If my theory is right that we are a small hump away from many sources of joy - dance is definitely one of those humps for me. What I lack in actual skill in moving my body in sync with the music, I occasionally make up for in enthusiasm. Where I came from, young girls learned to dance together making up various routines but for the most part boys stood aside. As we got older and boys and girls started to mix, 'dancing' consisted largely of standing in front of a DJ box shaking like epileptic chickens, or in really large circles rocking from side to side.

 Not sure whether it was me who cleared the dance floor

The Afrikaans chaps used to have a few tricks up their sleeves and so if you were cunning like a fox, you tried to learn from the langarm sokkie. A Sokkie is what seems like a blast from the past. You still ask someone to dance rather than just being in the throng of people. You then literally go spinning on the dance floor with various over and under arm twirls. It is a lot of fun. Even then my repertoire is very limited.

Saying that South African men can't dance is very far from the truth. The advantage of having lots of cultures is when you realise that your little bubble just wasn't as much fun as some of the other bubbles. Time to get a bigger bubble. Here is an example of school boys dancing in another Saffa style - Kwaito.

One song that will get a lot of South Africans line dancing together is Mandoza's Nkalakatha, and you should get a few chaps (and certainly this chap) throwing their legs up in a Zulu Warrior dance if Johnny Clegg's Impi starts playing.

Dancing is a great way to release stress and with our sedentary lifestyles, a reminder to the body that we are still alive and need our bits to move. This epileptic chicken is going to make an effort to put in some time so that 'I can't dance' becomes 'I couldn't dance'.

Monday, November 24, 2014

No Homework Project Mo

Almost 20 years ago I was involved in a charity that brought together students from the schools of Durban. There were three representatives from about 40 schools and we formed the Durban Youth Council. A shadow council along with town clerks, secretaries, mayors and sub-committees - allowed kids who were now becoming young adults to get actively involved in community service. While there was some adult support, the adults when I was there were just university students and so were learning the ropes themselves. It was a case of figuring it out.

While we also did non-financial community service like spending time in retirement homes and orphanages, a large part of what we did was fund-raising. We spent a lot of time doing raffles, looking for sponsorship, finding where help was needed and telling people about it. This was pre-internet so it required a lot of hustle, creativity and energy. One strong lesson I learnt was when we got towards the end of our time and thought we had done a pretty good job raising money. I can't remember the exact amount, but it was in the region of R10,000. A few of us met up in Johannesburg with some equivalent youth councillors from around the country to share ideas. It was there that I heard of the Joburg team's 'No Homework Day'. They had co-ordinated with the schools who had agreed to let every child who gave R5 do what the name of the day implies - have fun. This simple project had raised 10X what we in Durban had in a year full of events. Ouch.

Yes, Durban is sleepy relative to Joburg. Yes, Joburg has more money than Durban. The lesson I learnt though was the power of simple, catchy ideas and the power of networks. Joburg seemed more connected. People knew each other and it was easier to get the ideas out. This was a time when we either spoke once a week or had to make use of 'telephone pyramids'. Remember those? Each person calls three people who call three people spreading the broken telephone message. No smsses. No promise the person will be there to hear the phone ring. Joburg seemed better at that.

Fast forward 15 odd years (a very suitable summary), and I decided to get involved in Movember. I had heard of it but hadn't got involved because I was involved in marketing and was client facing. Looking the part is as John Cleese would say, very very very important. Despite his extraordinary level of importantness as a person, Cleese also has a moustache. I figured that since it was going to be a quiet month and the one meeting I had lined up was with a client with a moustache, I would give it a go. Towards the end of the month, a colleague challenged me to agree to dress as Charlie Chaplin to our end-of-year party if I could raise £1,000. I agreed. At the time this £1,000 was roughly equivalent to the R10,000ish I had been involved in raising with the Durban Youth Council. I did it. This freaked me out a little. How did growing some facial hair and being prepared to be a little silly (I am always prepared to be a little silly) allow me to raise more than a big group of us with huge amounts of energy? This was a 'no Homework project'. The guys who came up with Movember, had come up with something that could spread - It was fun, it was easy and it was a great cause. With the internet, you can get full transparency into how well they are spending the money, and what impact they are having. They publish a report card on the 832 projects in 21 countries in which they are involved with a primary focus on cancer and mental health. The focus of the energy can be on doing good work rather than on raising money.

The primary aim of the Durban Youth Council was not simply fundraising. I learnt a lot about working in volunteer organisations. We made some great friends and did a lot of non-financial community work. It is almost 50 years old now and from the snippets of news (and fancy website) they seem to be doing great work. The internet has helped everyone get better at connecting, and if we can stir up some community spirit with fun 'no homework project' ideas, it becomes easier to target our collective guns at the challenges we face.

Exciting times.

If you would like to contribute to my Mo Homework: I thought I would add a little fro to my mo this year.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Like Magic

Derren Brown is a magician who doesn't believe in a magic. At least not it the mystical sense. He frequently denounces those who claim psychic or paranormal abilities and yet performs the same tricks that they do. The thing is that with sufficient mastery, people can develop skills that appear to be magical. I find touch typing a little magical. That my fingers become an extension of what I am thinking after sufficient practise still leaves me in awe when I do think about it. Before the printing press and widespread literacy, even the ability to communicate over long distances must have seemed magical. We used to be able to take technology apart and then put it back together to figure out how it worked. Nowadays you take things apart at your peril. I like the idea of a deity messing with us. We have become so used to someone just saying something works (without divine intervention) that we may accept something that is impossible without even batting an eyelid.

Derren Brown

We also ascribe some learning to an inherent talent, and so if there is a struggle assume that means that we are not good at it or it is not meant to be. This ignores the hump before a skill is learnt and our different approaches to dealing with the hump. For some, they are able to pick up momentum early on. They grasp enough to start to believe they have a natural talent and so push on. For others, they need to fight on despite a feeling of clumsiness and self doubt. Some other sort of love for the subject needs to push them on.

At some stage the magic kicks in with most fields. My first boss used to magically be able to identify the two or three things I felt slightly uncomfortable about in a report with a few minute skim read. Magic but not magic. Chess masters can simultaneously play multiple boards against multiple opponents at the same time. Magic but not magic. I was going to use Federer as my third example, but I think he was put here by the deity I mentioned who was tricking us. I am not fooled.

I wrote about how Derren Brown's 'Mind Tricks' gave me an insight into hypnosis in 'Faking It'. The essence is that all hypnosis is is a deep state of relaxation and openness to suggestibility. This releases all sorts of potential because while useful, our scepticism also restricts us based on what we think is or isn't possible, or what we think are or aren't our talents. I think scepticism is very useful and it is actually more healthy to be aware of your clumsiness and self doubt. The world is complicated and being too confident that you get it, is a recipe for disaster. At the same time, excessive self doubt can stop you making the magical leaps to things that are actually possible but leave you with a sense of awe.

In the same way I argue for a 'Bull Quota' when listening to others to get to the good stuff, I think we need to learn to allow ourselves similar leeway when learning. The way to rationalise this is that these are emotional techniques that help us because we aren't completely rational. If the tricks help and no one gets hurt, then there is no harm done. Amy Cuddy makes a powerful case for using body language in this way. If we know that 'faking it' makes the 'faking' disappear, then perhaps we are being fake by not faking it?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Boundless Energy

Nature is super efficient at shifting limited resources to where they are need it. Our bodies seem to follow a 'use it or lose it' principle. Going to a park is a great visual reminder of this. Especially if you toss a ball around or start being silly on some of the climbing equipment. Kids seem to have boundless energy. Adults, and definitely this adult, seem very bounded. Admittedly the half pints have less to bound, but I don't think that explains it all. I have heard it said that sitting at a desk is the smoking of this generation. Working long office hours stooped in your chair is a pretty clear indication to the body to shift the energy elsewhere. Many who prioritise exercise manage to squeeze in 2 or 3 sessions a week. So it is no surprise that the little guys run circles around us. We know activity is important for kids. They have after school activities and are always being encouraged to play outside. When was the last time you went for a ride on your bike without a destination?

In the last few years I was lucky enough on two occasions to fit in one month yoga courses. It is very unusual to be able to get that big a gap once you enter the real world. One part of what was great about those times was the ability to fit in some maintainance. To tell my body that even though I have more grey hair and some crease marks between my eyes from overthinking things, I still would like to use the rest of my body. As Ken Robinson says, the body is not just a transportion vehicle for the head. It is incredible what happens when you are able to fit in daily exercise, periods of proper relaxation, a bit of nature and you eat well. Even washing the dishes (with the addition of some singing and silliness) becomes a lot of fun. Stress slowly falls off the body and you feel lighter.


What was also great about a month dedicated 'recovery' was that not only did I know I was relaxed now, I knew I would be relaxed in a weeks time. This meant there wasn't that impending doom of the upcoming week. Now I have been lucky enough to enjoy my work, so doom isn't really the right word, but all jobs come with a level of stress.

I am busy listening to Russell Brand's Revolution. I find him very entertaining even though he does require a slightly bigger bull for his bull quota. As a comedian that is his prerogative. He makes no pretence at writing the book for a balanced view or for those who disagree with him. He is writing to stir up those who already think what he thinks. There are trews in the book but I am not a revolutionary. I think the world has done a pretty great job wrenching more and more of itself out of poverty. That said, I think there are big challenges. Admitting that doesn't mean that the challenges are bigger that they have been. If you are not white or are a woman, gay, or in any way disadvantaged... life is improving over the long term. The remaining barriers are frustrating. They do get people angry. They are hard to change. But we are becoming aware of them. I am not going to stand on Hyde Park corner decrying the evils of the office environment and limited holidays as an evil conspiracy. I do think we can do a better job. Many of the things that allow us to be happy are within our grasp, it is just a case of prioritisation. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Cunningly Caring

I have known some incredibly thoughtful gift givers. What has always touched me is the fact that the giver was clearly listening. It is difficult to give a meaningful gift to someone you haven't really engaged with unless you have a cunning plan. Cunning plans are rare and often not so cunning.

I have every now and then come up with something great, but I normally try think of the gift at the last moment and rattling through my brain can't make the connections. While our brains are incredibly powerful, their storage systems aren't exactly neatly filed away. We tend to just throw stuff in there. A couple of fun books which show how to improve your memory such as 'Mind Tricks' and 'Moonwalking with Einstein' talk about the value of learning lists and then making connections just so that you can find your way to the memories that are there. It also helps you form memories quickly because as you observe something, you are able to immediately link it. We are very good at ignoring stuff we don't think is important. When you learn a new word or something comes up in a conversation you were interested in, suddenly you start noticing that word being far more common than you thought it was. A big part of having a good memory is making quick connections as soon as you observe something.

Like many things that make us happy, the need to make quick connections when we observe great gift ideas has to become a habit. I find it far easier to write my blog every day than when I was writing less frequently. This is because I am always thinking about ideas for new posts. In every conversation I have, a little note scribbler is scurrying away in my head. I think the same thing might be true for gifts. If gifts are saved for birthdays and Christmas, then you suddenly have to come up with ideas just as you remember or are reminded.

An obstacle we face with gift giving is that life seems to have become more expensive even as people have become wealthier in general. More choice. More things just out of reach. Often we stop giving birthday gifts to adults and the Christmas tree is dedicated to the kiddies just to stop wallets bleeding. I suspect the more regularly you delve into cunning plans, the less it will cost as you will be able to pick up great deals. As for Christmas being for kids. I have one word for that - 'pffffffft'. Finally, we start worrying about the commercialisation of holidays that are important to us and that takes the shine off. There is no reason we can't invent holidays of our own. I am a big fan of creating annual holidays for any particular reason that floats your boat. Perhaps like giving gifts, identifying things worth celebrating is also a great habit to form. Remembering something important that happened to someone you care about is perhaps the best value gift of all.

Pffffft - We are all just big kids