Learn Life’s Lessons

Write It Down

 

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One of my three notebooks.

 

Fresh ideas are powerful currency. New thinking can lead to renewed energy to tackle gnarly issues. Flashes of insight can spur new actions and new results. When you want to make change happen, your ideas are the starting point.

And, for most of us, life is super-busy. It flies by like your view from a rushing train. Ideas appear, and in the blink of an eye, they can quickly zoom out of view again, lost to us, as we fly ever onwards down the track.

The good thing is that we have this amazing technology available to us to help us capture those ideas as they emerge before they rush past and visit some other passenger further down the line. And that technology is cheap and easy to use. It’s called pen and paper.

If you write an idea down, the more likely you are able to do something with it.

There’s actually a bit of a debate about whether writing stuff down helps or not. Some research asserts that it helps us remember the important stuff. and it contributes strongly to our wellbeing. On the other hand, reaching as far back as Plato’s day, there’s a line of argument saying that note taking makes us lazy. I reckon it’s the wrong debate. Like all good practices, it’s about your intention behind the doing. Let’s look at that a bit more.

To my mind, there are two basic types of ‘writing down’. Taking notes, and creating ideas.

Taking notes (of a conversation, a lecture, or making a shopping list) is good for ‘storage’ purposes. It’s akin to taking a photo of an interesting slide you see at a conference, or grabbing an online article and adding it to Evernote. You’re grabbing the content, but you’re not really thinking too hard about it. You simply do it so you can retrieve it later. It gives your brain a break from having to remember everything and helps you stay organised.

The other purpose of writing down is to serve a creative process. Isaac Asimov said, “writing is simply thinking through my fingers.” The act of picking up a pen with the intention of “thinking through my fingers” forces your brain to work harder. You have to think about what you want to say or create. In that creative process, you bring into being something new.

My blogs are my creative ideas written down. I’ve had to think about what I want to say, and how I want to say it. The process of writing creates both the form and the substance of something new.

Leonardo Da Vinci is generally regarded as the epitome of what it means to be curious, and I suspect that was enhanced by his propensity to ‘write it down’. He carried a notebook with him everywhere and wrote down anything that moved him. For example, here’s one of one of his to-do lists that would put most of us to shame.

Here are a couple of ways I apply these ideas:

Notebooks: I carry three notebooks around with me: one for taking notes of client conversations, one for my daily to-do lists, and one for capturing and developing my own occasional flashes of brilliance and insight. I also have one in my car’s centre console, so when I’m listening to podcasts, I can write down ideas that grab me (when I’m stopped at the lights of course!) I’m always writing in some form or another.

Insights and Actions Log: In my workshops, I have participants use an ‘insights and actions’ log to capture relevant ideas as they arise. It’s simply an A4 piece of paper with a line drawn down the middle. The left-hand column is called ‘Insights’, and that’s for the ideas. The right-hand column is called ‘Actions’ and that’s for writing down what they are going to do with the ideas. Because an idea is more useful if you act on it in some way.

Ideas are everywhere. The trick is to capture them so you can use them.

Sound like a good idea? Great. Write it down.

 

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Ask Four Questions

 

Do you want feedback about you when you’re at your best? Are you wondering how you can make a difference to others in the most authentic way? Then read on.

Getting honest feedback helps you to grow your self-awareness, and better understand what you are all about.

Ask the following four questions to you get a sense of what people see as the best, most authentic ‘you’. Choose people who know you well, and you trust to give you honest, constructive feedback. Try to get feedback from at least five people.

  1. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of me?
  2. When have you seen me at my best?
  3. What do you think are my greatest strengths?
  4. What do you think are my greatest accomplishments?

I ask these questions to trusted colleagues, clients and friends every couple of years. I find the answers I get incredibly useful to calibrate my own self-perception and help me to make the most of my strengths.

You’ll notice that there are no questions about weaknesses or things you should do to improve. That’s not the point of this exercise. This is about identifying the best, most authentic you.

It’s useful to ask people to reply in an email, and then you can cut-and-paste the replies into a table. This may help you easily identify the patterns and themes across the answers.

You can use this template to help you capture and make sense of the answers you get.

Go well!

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Flat Mojo? Do A ‘Hell Yeah’ Audit

Got a flat mojo? Do a ‘Hell Yeah’  audit.

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Derek Sivers talks about getting to the point where you only say ‘Yes’ to stuff if it’s a ‘Hell Yeah!’ Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that some of the stuff I’ve been delivering hasn’t been feeling as much of a Hell Yeah as I’d like. So I decided to do a Hell Yeah audit.

I printed a list of my invoices over the last 6 months and rated each piece of work on a scale of 1-5, 1 being ‘crap’ to 5 being ‘Hell Yeah!’  75% was over 3, 50% was over 4, and 30% was a ‘Hell Yeah!’.

Maybe you don’t do invoices. But you probably have a way of tracking your time. Some sort of calendar perhaps. Or a diary, or a notebook. In whatever way works for you, I recommend checking how you’ve spent your time recently, and what activities are giving you the most energy.

Doing this exercise has helped me to take stock of what sort of work I’m saying ‘Yes’ to that I could maybe change. Now I’ve got a choice: I can stop saying ‘Yes’ to it, or I can reframe to be more of a ‘Hell Yeah’.

Just knowing that makes my mojo rise.

Hell Yeah!

 

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Find Your Rhythm

Are your days ‘lurchy’ or ‘flowy’?

For many of us, it’s more often the former, when we’d love it to be more of the latter.

Let’s get some definitions down:

‘Lurchy’ = you’re moving from one thing to another, feeling fragmented, scattered and often ending feeling unproductive and shattered.

‘Flowy’ = stuff feels effortless, you’re in sync, you can get deep into your work and nail it, it’s fun and energising. You’re not trying too hard.

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For most of my adult life, I’ve struggled with getting more into ‘flowy’ and staying there. More recently, I’ve learned a few tricks about how to do that. It’s all about finding your rhythm.

Finding your rhythm is like when you’re doing exercise, and you get that ‘click’ moment. When you’re walking, running, riding, in the gym, whatever. You hit a certain rhythm, a certain flow, where it feels ‘right’ for you, your performance lifts and it all becomes effortless. You know the feeling.

You can find your rhythm in how you structure your time, too.

Cal Newport wrote a powerful book called Deep Work, which argues that if you want to produce anything of value, you need to carve out uninterrupted time to do it. He builds on the ideas of Paul Graham, who wrote about two types of schedules: The Maker’s Schedule, and the Manager’s Schedule. They are both quite different: the first needs unstructured time to be effective, and the second is all about structuring your time. If you’re trying to do ‘Maker’ work (wrangling new ideas, writing, deep problem solving) you generally need big blocks of unstructured, focused time. And, we all need Manager time as well. That’s when you allocate your time into segments to hammer through your do-list, hold meetings etc.

I’ve learned:

  • I need to allow time for both types of activities if I’m going to be effective.
  • If I don’t deliberately carve out the Maker time, Manager time takes over. And I get into ‘lurchy’. And that’s frustrating.
  • It works for me to allow for Maker time across different time spans: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually.

Here’s how I structure each of those time blocks with my Maker time:

Daily: first thing in the morning for at least an hour, I journal, scribble or listen to an interesting podcast.

Weekly: every Friday is a ‘client free day’ where I write, think, and create (including my blogs).

Monthly: I build in three to four concurrent days for ‘Making’ work every month, which is often when I design a new workshop or programme.

Quarterly: I take a week off from any sort of client work to decompress.

Annually: I take all of January off (holidays, yes, and also it’s also a great time for reflection, deep thinking and writing). And, of course, my annual two-week windsurfing trip in October, which keeps my edges sharp. You can learn more about my annual approach in my post Your Year By Design.

Does it always work perfectly? Rarely. Life gets in the way all the time! However, without a structure like this, I reckon I’d always be in Manager time, and I’d feel like I’d not be doing my best work, or producing anything of value. I stick to my structure about 80% of the time. As a result, I get into plenty of ‘flowy’ experiences, create good work, and feel good about how I’ve spent my time.

We all need to experience more ‘flowy’ times. Especially when we need to create new ways for our teams and organisations to be more agile, more innovative, and more bold. More lurchy meetings aren’t the answer.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you or your people follow my exact schedule. I am suggesting you think about what works for you across each of these time spans, and what’s possible for you given your current situation. And then take the first step, however small, to make it happen.

Go well.

 

Art: Tim Borgman

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The Other…

Where my driveway ends at the footpath, there are two high walls on either side. So, when I drive my car out, I can’t see who might be walking along, or maybe flying past on their skateboard. So I deliberately slow down and gently nudge the front of my car out beyond the walls, so whoever might be coming can have time to adjust.

As I did this today, I realised that it’s a great metaphor for relationships. We can so often be focused on our own stuff that we forget others are dealing with their stuff too. To pay more attention to ‘the other’ as we go about our daily lives is a quality I think we can all develop. Otherwise, we might cause some unintended damage.

What’s your circuit breaker to be more mindful of ‘the other’?

 

Photo: Asphalt Heritage

 

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How To Be Curious

The late novelist David Foster Wallace tells a wonderful story about ‘incuriosity’ in his commencement speech This Is Water:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

We can all be blind, at times, to the world around us. We might think we know how stuff works, what drives our people, that we’ve got the solution to the problems. But do we really?

A team of organisational development (OD) professionals was tasked with helping the senior leaders of their organisation to have better and more frequent ‘talent conversations’ with their people. The OD team, convinced of the value of this activity, spent months developing easy-to-use tools and frameworks to help the leaders. But they struggled to get any traction. It took another few months of trying to adapt the tools to make them even better, until someone asked: “wait a minute, do these leaders even want to have talent conversations?”

The answer was a resounding ‘no’. The OD team had assumed that the leaders were keen, but in fact, they were terrified. Not because they didn’t know how. But because they saw the conversations with these ambitious people as creating a threat to their own job security.

This is a case of not seeing the water you’re swimming in. When you’re so close to your own perceptions of how the world works, you can forget to ask the bigger questions that really matter. Knowledge overwhelms curiosity.

There’s a correlation between the amount of knowledge you think you have and the amount of curiosity you demonstrate. fMRI research suggests it looks like this:

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When there’s a gap between what you think you know, and what you think could be known, you’re curious.

Let’s break it down a little more:

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When you have no knowledge of something, there’s nothing to be curious about. Think of the young fish in the water. That’s ignorance.

When the old fish swims by, you start to get curious. What’s he talking about? That’s wonderance.

When you realise you’ve actually learned something new, when you ‘see the water’, you can apply that knowledge to your world. That’s confidence.

When you think you know everything, you think there’s nothing to be curious about. You know it all, right? That’s arrogance.

In a world that values answers, it’s tempting to rush towards the right-hand end. Ryan Holiday, the author of The Obstacle is the Way, says when your ego gets bigger than your ears, your curiosity starts to die.When people keep calling you superman, soon enough you start to believe you are.

The trick is to stay curious at all times. To stay in that place between wonderance and confidence. Know what you know, and be humble about it. In a world where yesterday’s solutions are less effective at solving today’s problems, those who can stay curious will help us create new ways forward.

Transportation expert Wanis Kabbaj is a good example. He’s been trying to solve the increasingly huge traffic problems that rapid urbanisation presents us with. He asked: “what if traffic flowed through our streets as smoothly and efficiently as blood flows through our veins?” By simply asking that question, and being in ‘wonderance’, he’s taken our thinking in a new direction that just might yield new solutions. Check out his TED talk on that here.

Fortunately, we aren’t fish. If we choose, we can see the water. We’re born with an innate sense of curiosity: that strong desire to know and learn. Unlike other living things, we’re wired to ask “why?”

Curiosity is one of the critical meta-skills for interesting times. When your tried-and-true methods don’t work like they used to, then it’s time to dial up your curiosity. If you want to reinvent how things happen in your world, your starting point is curiosity.

Here are six ways to upgrade your curiosity:

  1. Expand Your Mind: Read and listen outside of your usual bubble. Subscribe to podcasts that cover a wide range of subjects, like NPR’s TED Radio Hour. Go into a new agent and buy magazines that you wouldn’t usually read. Sign up to Blinkist to absorb 15-minute book summaries in written and audio format.
  2. Expand Your Experience: Get yourself out of your comfort zone. Walk a different way to work. Hang out with people who think differently to you. Visit a new country each year. Go test yourself.
  3. Ask Better Questions: Be like Wanis Kabbaj. Make your default questions “why?” and “what if?” Sound like your three-year-old self.
  4. Cultivate ‘Beginner’s Mind’: Learn something completely new. That could be a new language, a new skill, a new sport. I’ve written about that idea before.
  5. Notice others: (Discreetly) observe someone in a coffee shop or a meeting, and imagine what it might be like to be them.
  6. Notice yourself: Reflect daily on your experiences, and what you made of them. Even just five minutes of journaling a day can help hone your self-curiosity.

Curiosity is the driving force behind human development. More than ever, the world needs you to be curious. Where could that be true for you?

 

Photo: Curious Cows

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How To Deal With A Humpback Whale

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Dodgems, taken to a new level…

 

I’ve recently returned from my annual windsurfing trip to Gnaraloo, in the North West of Western Australia. Eventful as always, this year provided something extra special…

I was sailing out to sea at high speed, about 500m from shore, and was looking for the next swell to ride back to the reef. It was a particularly windy day with a pretty big swell running, and my senses were heightened. I had already had some pretty amazing waves in the session so far, and was feeling “in the zone”.

And a good thing too. As I was flying along, right before my eyes, a huge humpback whale emerged from the depths. It was no more than 15 metres directly in front of me, and, travelling at speed, I had no time to think. My instincts kicked in and before I knew it, I had come to a complete stop, had turned my board around, and was sailing away in the other direction. Needless to say, my senses were racked up another few notches! The rest of the sailing session was one of the best I have ever experienced, and I was on a natural high for hours afterwards.

The interesting thing is that, at whale time, I didn’t stop and ponder my options. I just acted in a flash. No time for panic, or “what if?” – I just did what needed to be done.

This experience got me wondering – does too much thinking get in the way of us really living? How often do we act from instinct alone? And how often do we bypass our gut feeling and defer to the slower process of reason? And what are we missing out on by doing so?

Food for thought…

 

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