One of the key areas was something that unsettled me… a lot.
It was this realisation:
For me, at least, it is.
This shift in my thinking came from gaining clarity about who it is that I serve.
This is the part where I think I had lost some focus. The person I aim to serve is the subscriber to my newsletters and emails. I’m a little embarrassed about this because I coach people, among other matters, to sharpen their focus, and my subscribers should have been my focus all along, not an anonymous audience who may or may not read my posts.
I realise now that writing a blog post—which I have done for years, with a break during the pandemic—is distracting vanity. I have enjoyed writing my posts, but they have had their day. So, this blog post will, in effect, be my last.
My subscribers have signed up because they are interested in what I have to say about becoming a positive outlier, someone who lives an extraordinary, unusually effective life. I help them work that out from their spirit.
This is what I intend to offer people from now on. If you subscribe below, I will email you exclusively, my new book in instalments, entitled: Becoming a Positive Outlier, where I will share with you all aspects of a deep, full life:
from engaging the key people around us;
to ordering our personal resources;
to gaining emotional wellness and intellectual clarity;
to connecting with our logos, our meaning, at the deepest levels of our being.
I want to lay out for you how we can all do this in an integrated way, rather than treating these aspects of our life as separate silos or buckets. So, every month, I will send my subscribers a new chapter from this book. Absolutely free.
We begin in the first chapter with a discovery I made over chocolate digestives, jammy dodgers and custard creams (‘cookies’, if you don’t understand those varieties of English ‘biscuits’).
So, goodbye blog, and hello to a much more integrated route to serving you.
A few years ago, I began an entirely counterintuitive practice. Yet, it had a profoundly positive effect on my emotional wellbeing, allowing me to grow in hope. Allow me first to give you some context.
We are all aware that we live in an attention economy. Social media giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon seek to get our attention in all kinds of novel ways and go further in selling our private information and viewing habits as valuable resources. “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product,” as was said in the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma.
Behavioural psychologist Nir Eyal compares the tycoons of social media as equivalent to drug lords, addicting us to their clickbait, getting us obsessed about the number of “likes” we get if we contribute to the debates. Eyal, Cal Newport and others encourage developing positive habits of putting boundaries around these by time-blocking our days so that we align what we attend to with our values. Indeed, some, such as Jordan Peterson, would argue that what we give our attention to is a moral act.
Most of us are now aware of the attention economy, but can we act upon this knowledge? Can we control our impulses to check out our social media feeds constantly? It is a form of the knowing-doing gap.
And whilst awareness of the attention economy in social media might be obvious now to most, from what I have observed, the dangerous drift to follow suit by newspapers, magazines and news channels is something we are less aware of generally.
During the pandemic, we all needed to inform ourselves of the risks of the virus to ourselves, our loved ones and our communities. When it came to the news media, I found it sometimes worse than useless, feeding a spirit of pandemonium during the pandemic without informing us in any meaningful way. Conspiracy theorists had a field day, it seems.
Where is journalism as we used to know it? Where was reporting of the facts? There seemed to be a belief system growing that we, the public, are not mature enough to draw our own conclusions. It is as if we need to be spoon-fed with the implications within whatever political paradigm or narrative that prevails within each particular news organ, whether right or left. It feels like I am living in Orwell’s 1984.
So, where were the facts to be found during the pandemic? In the early weeks and moths, they were hard to find. The website fullfact.org was some help, but I found its analysis a little slow to surface, despite their best efforts. Was this a reflection of my general bias in our culture to be unreasonably impatient? “Tell me now! I need to know NOW!” was my thinking. News, and fast, please!
Newspapers and TV news programmes now seem unable to restrain themselves from bringing their ideological interpretation. I suspect it has become their default atmosphere; they no longer notice it. Even editorial decisions on what to report upon seem to owe more to what will grab readers’/listeners’/viewers’ attention. It is veering towards a socially corrosive Jerry Springer-type culture.
I find it more than sad that the media and political discourse seem less about reporting the facts and even less about engaging in deep, mutually respectful discourse. It seems more about lobbying for a particular narrative, winning arguments, diminishing individuals and all the confirmation bias that goes with that. It is clickbait, where provoking people to fear is seen as the ultimate attention-grabber.
Much of what is broadcast as news is fear-based and concerns matters that offer us, as individuals, no immediate means to resolve them with any practical steps offered. I see what this is doing to my friends and adult children, who are caught up in all this emotional noise. So, I am trying to model them a different way of living.
During World War II, the BBC, for example, was highly regarded for its factual news integrity through its continuing radio broadcasts. I cannot corroborate this as I write, but I believe that the British Government asked the BBC to lie in its broadcasts on only three or four occasions during the war. This was so rare that each time the enemy believed it. I cannot imagine such trust in the BBC today –other any other news source, for that matter. Such are the heights of integrity from which journalism has fallen.
So, how do we manage all this, apart from religiously following some paper or channel that aligns with our own personal politics and prejudices? Well, back to my personal practice. My solution is simple. It is simple but profoundly radical. And I have been practising it for several years now.
Nearly 20 years ago, I attended a leadership conference in Chicago, and one of the speakers was the late Stephen Sample, the then President of the University of Southern California. He spoke about how he abstained from reading, listening to, or watching the news for six months. This was at a time before social media had become so rampant. He found attention to the news media was an unproductive distraction and an anxious one at that. He realised that he could discover almost all of what he needed to know through friends who would add their opinions. Since he knew his friends, he could filter their commentary and work out the facts for himself. He found not only did it free up more of his time, but perhaps more importantly, he was less assaulted emotionally by negative world events whilst still keeping informed.
When I heard this and later read his book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, where he referenced this practice, this did not come over to me as living in denial, but more about our need to create our own emotional and cognitive boundaries. Something resonated in me as I pondered his experience.
So, I have follow this example ever since. I don’t watch or listen to the news. I don’t read newspapers or news magazines.
Here is what an American friend commented recently when I shared some of this with him regarding his distress about the current state of American politics:
I was intrigued by your comments on the news fast and have taken it to heart. I’ve been fasting since your response last month, and I certainly do not feel any worst for the wear as a result. This is an extraordinary revelation, especially as we roll into the election cycle here in the States.
After my son informed me that the new PM had resigned, I found it interesting that it was not difficult at all to stifle the impulse to jump on the internet and dive into every nuance regarding this event. That it was so easy to let it go was very refreshing, indeed.
I commend my friend for this. Awareness and action are two different things. He has bridged the knowing-doing gap. And when he fasted from the news, he was surprised by the positive emotional outcome.
Yet, what is happening worldwide is probably very different and probably much more positive than is being portrayed in the media. For example, during my work as a consultant and facilitator I have had the privilege of connecting with scientist and engineers who work on projects in Antarctica. Individuals I talked with confirmed for me, for example, that the hole in the ozone layer above the South Pole continues to heal over since the 1990s and that large schools of whales now flourish in the Southern Ocean, consuming vast amounts of CO2. And do we hear about this good news in the media? Since I’m not plugged into the media, maybe I have missed this, but when I ask friends, they are surprised. I suspect such good news is not deemed “newsworthy.” It is not clickbait.
The background anxiety among some friends about living in a world that is presented them as doomed is very concerning. The negativity bias of the news media reinforces a mythical view of reality that feeds much mental dis-ease. Surely that is wrong?
A friend in France, for example, tells me that a TV news channel there spends 15 minutes each programme at the end dwelling on the beauty and delights of some part in that wonderful country.
Also, my news fast has made me reflect on some deeper questions about how we as individuals can and should respond to all this. I ask myself, “How much of the world’s problems can one human being reasonably bear? Is it reasonable or even responsible to carry a problem when one cannot act upon it?”
I remember a dialogue in the movie Crocodile Dundee, where Dundee was asked his opinion on some public issue, and his reply was, “It’s none of my business.” When I saw the movie years ago, this response struck me then and continues to amplify for me down through the years. You might object: taking advice from a mythical comic hero! Really? Well, offer me practical solutions that I can act upon. Otherwise, please don’t be offended if I ignore you while I try to work out a positive life to my own agenda.
Turning Into the Skid
So much about what Brené Brown calls Wholehearted Living is counterintuitive. For example, in my book Practical People Engagement, I began with the story of how I turned into a skid to correct the rear-wheel drive vehicle I was steering in fresh snow. I used it to illustrate how managers facing the clamour of senior people about the urgency and costs projects they were managing and take the counterintuitive time-consuming practice of talking with the people affected, and how it often would pay off.
Much of growing to maturity is when we notice how we are inclined to respond and react, so we pause to choose to do the opposite. When the social or news media clamour for my attention, I turn away. Irresponsible? In what way? Could those of us who do this be more responsible in navigating these times?
Allow me to close this with a more trivial example to illustrate: popular celebrity culture. What would happen, say, if noxious celebrities were starved of our attention? (I won’t mention any names to reinforce my point! And frankly, I’m finding it harder to recognise the so-called “celebrities.”) Would these people not just wither away? So, by allowing our attention to fixate on whatever the media are offering as newsworthy, are we not part of the problem, reinforcing this negative culture of news broadcast? Instead, maybe each of us can become part of the solution. Just switch it off. Don’t buy newspapers. What’s the worst that can happen? What’s the best that might happen if enough of us went on a news fast?
Let us be more counterintuitive about what we focus upon. Maybe it is a moral act.
The theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, was once visited in his office by a historian, who wanted to interview him. Casting his eyes around the room, the historian saw Feynman’s notebooks, and expressed his delight at seeing such “wonderful records of Feynman’s thinking.”
“No, no!” Feynman objected. “They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.”
“Well,” the historian replied, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.”
Feynman would not let this matter rest, so important it was to him. “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper, and this is the paper.”
Chances are you are not a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, like Feynman. Neither am I. Yet I believe your brain and mine function
in exactly the same way that Feynman’s brain did.
Thinking It Out
One of the major take-aways that we can glean from Richard Feynman is to write, draw or sketch our thinking out on paper or on screen.
All too few professionals appreciate this simple truth: we work things out by writing them out.
There is something that happens, a sort of feedback loop, that, as we write or notate, the writing actually clarifies what we are thinking about. Whatever our thinking profession is, we will find solutions as we write, draw or sketch them out.
Learning how to learn, how to get better at my work, has always been a passion of mine.
People ask me about my process. In the next few articles on this blog, I want to share some of that process with you. I call it my personal thinking process.
When I took steps to get my thoughts outside of my head, when I externalised them onto the page or screen, they became clearer. Once I did that, a process emerged.
Over the next few blog articles, the process I will share with you can become personal to you too. You might care to follow my process, to begin with, then feel free to adapt it.
This process is also something that will help you improve your thinking, specifically your ability to get clarity, to better connect your thoughts and ideas, as well as create new ones.
Finally, it is a process, because its parts work together in an intentional sequence, producing something that is greater than the sum of the parts; much greater. Like organs in your body, each needs to interact with the other organs in order to function properly. In the same way, if you follow this process as a whole you are likely to experience prolific productivity.
Preserving Valuable Ideas
You need a process to preserve and reference your valuable ideas and insights over time. Without a doubt, some of these ideas will be original to you. This process will help you collect your thoughts in one place. The process also provides you with a means to revise and improve these ideas.
More than that, if you master this process, you will find that your productivity will increase significantly.
I will write more about my personal thinking process in the next few articles.
Out of a chance pattern of coincidences from different sources, I stumbled upon related views on friendship. This was serendipity. Could serendipity be a key to creativity?
I sometimes think that we need to value serendipity. Here is a definition of ‘serendipity’:
Because experiencing serendipity is accidental, it makes us curious. And curiosity leads to curiosity, and maybe to more serendipity. This can become like a virtuous cycle.
For example, I listened to two different podcasts last week. Both of these podcasts explored friendship from different angles. This made me reflect on an online meeting I had the night before. I had argued with the host, a good friend, about which of us benefited more from our friendship. It was clearly me, but my host argued otherwise. This was an honouring disagreement.
Jim Collins & Bill Lazier
Then, the next day of these podcasts featured an interview with Jim Collins. He commented on his old mentor and friend Bill Lazier, from Collins’ Stanford University days. Lazier was an older and wiser man and a mentor to Collins at the time. Lazier believed that great friendships are where both parties believe they benefit more from the relationship than the other person.
“Could this possibly be true?” Collins had asked. Lazier assured Collins that he, Lazier, believed he benefitted more from their relationship. Whilst Collins, of course, believed the opposite. It seems that this solution to a good relationship is illogical, but it was evidently true in this case.
Is Serendipity Training to Tell Us Something?
So, in 24 hours, one online meeting and two podcasts had gripped my attention, each reinforcing the other. These events grabbed my attention, making me think more deeply about what it means to be a friend.
Now this is just one example of serendipity. How many ovether do we have in our lives that we ignore? Perhaps we just shrug our shoulders and move on. Is someone trying to tell us something?
The Serendipity Engine
This serendipity experience is helpful for the current book I’m writing. Its subject is the writer’s process, and a central part of it is what I have come to call the Serendipity Engine. This ‘engine’ is a system of notes I make that link together and begin to generate emergent ideas. (If you want to know more and maybe have an early peek at a manuscript, just email me at email@example.com. If you do email, please also let me know why this interests you.)
Sometimes we need to lift our heads and figure out where we are going.
I was leading a project team meeting the other day, on a project that’s fairly early on in its lifecycle. We focused on how we could work better as a team. We were supposed to return to the strategic intent of our project, but we ran out of time. We agreed to return to that at our next meeting in the New Year.
I used the analogy of learning to run a three-legged race. If you have ever done this, it was probably at school when you were very young. It is where you are tied leg-to-leg with another person, and then you have to run against other pairs to win. The winning couple is likely to be the pair that learns quickly to run in step. What we were doing at this early stage of that project was to learn to run together.
However, there comes a moment when we need to lift our heads and look where we are running. We didn’t get that far in the meeting. And, for that particular project, that’s fine. We will turn to it next.
But, what about you and me as individuals? When do we lift our heads? When is there an adjustment about the direction of our lives, of our work?
Traditionally, the approaching New Year is a time we attempt to do this, over the year ahead and the year just gone. Some of us make New Year resolutions. Some of us don’t.
Is there a better way to look up, to think longer-term about our work and our lives generally? Is there a way of planning appropriately, twelve months ahead?
What’s the point?
Let’s be clear: we live in a volatile world. For example, I live in Kent, in the south-eastern corner of England, and we do not know what will happen in March 2019 when the current deadline for Brexit arrives. There is so much uncertainty, what is the point of planning? Do I just throw my hands up and say, “What’s the point? I’ll just take life as it comes!”
Well, there is a powerful approach to shaping and executing a purpose in such times. It is an approach that borrows from Appreciative Inquiry and Agile management. It is the one I’m using now as we head towards the end of this calendar year.
Last week, I met with our Outlier Group, a small group of clients who meet together with me once a month. And the topic was Planning My 2019. I set out an adaptive but intentional approach to shaping our lives over the year. And I put it to the Group that now is an excellent time to be purposeful about the year ahead.
A free course that takes you through the workflows of how I use bullet journaling for my Daily Heads Up, Gratitude List, Weekly and Monthly reviews.
“They are stepping over the dead bodies,” I told him.
My friend and I met at a business conference last week, and he was giving me his reflections on the new organisation he had been hired into recently as a senior strategist. He spoke about patterns his colleagues no longer seemed to notice.
“You still have fresh eyes, ” I said. “You can see things that others who have worked there for some time no longer notice. It’s like they are stepping over the dead bodies.”
My friend seemed to find this helpful, because he had been confused as to why these otherwise-intelligent people didn’t seem to notice, and just tolerated arrangement that didn’t work very well.
Our brains are designed to notice the new and the unusual. If we see something day after day, pretty soon we filter it out. It becomes part of the wallpaper of our lives. It is a way we focus in a noisy environment. Neuroscientists claim that we are aware of as little as 40% of the external stimuli coming our way at any given moment.
This seeing with fresh eyes has the valuable benefit of noticing things. It is often the value visiting consultants bring. They see obvious problems and opportunities, not because of any smarter than their clients; they have fresh eyes. It is why a good coach will ask a very pertinent, unblocking question; not because they know more than their client. It’s just that the coach doesn’t have their client’s mental luggage.
Whenever I took a new hire, I would ask them to tell me if they saw anything amiss; anything puzzling or unnecessary, because they came with fresh eyes.
Are you stepping over the dead bodies? How would you know?
A dangerously underweight fifteen-year-old girl looks into the mirror and sees herself as disgustingly fat.
Such extreme conditions as anorexia nervosa are shocking in their effects upon people. However, could we all have milder distorting self-beliefs about ourselves, perhaps?
How about this: We walk into a room and believe everyone is looking at us critically? Or, we believe that we are not creative. The reality may be otherwise. The mirror doesn’t lie, but our perceptions might be.
As we grow in self-awareness, we become aware of our internal mental narratives. These are mental scripts or thought habits. Now, some of these scripts serve us very well; they are empowering. Some scripts, though, undermine us. Some of our scripts are about who we indeed are, and some are lies that we have come to believe about ourselves. Such internal lies limit us; they prevent us from being the best we can be.
Truths about ourselves
So, how do we know the truth about who we truly are? There can be many sources:
What we believe about ourselves in the context of our spiritual faith
An objective record of our achievements, as perhaps we might summarise in our CV or resumé
The people we serve and how they express their value in us (for example, returning to “buy” from us)
The evidence we have in how people speak about us and act towards us.
Of course, we have to sift the truth from the lies carefully. For example, what people may say to us may be pure flattery, which is self-serving deceit. Some can be a criticism of us from ignorance or prejudice. Healthy close relationships can speak truth into us, that we come to believe. Equally, abusive, manipulative relationships close to us can have a very distorting self-image.
Healthy close relationships can speak truth into us.
So we need to have a care how we receive the evidence, and what we genuinely buy into as truth about ourselves.
Writing down our scripts
One route to sifting the truth from the lies in this sensitive and complicated area is to write them down. When we write something down, it objectifies that script. It enables us to assess these statements with greater clarity and distance. Ultimately, we can resolve these statements into two lists:
Positive, affirming truths about us, that are constructive, if sometimes challenging
Negative beliefs that could remove any hope of our ever learning and improving
These two lists can grow as we grow. We discover more about ourselves as we step into new situations of challenge and develop our skills.
Speak it out loud
So what we can do with the positive truths is to declare them over ourselves. For example, we can say – out loud – something like: I am very competent in leading one-to-one appraisals. So, if we encounter a new, difficult relationship with a new team member, we can back up our positive declaration to ourselves from past evidence.
Speaking these truths out loud privately is very powerful. Purely mental assent does not seem to go as deep into our self-belief as if we speak it out loud. There is some evidence that as the mind hears us speaking, it begins to adjust its frames, its mindsets, to align with what we have spoken.
Asserting positive truths about ourselves – out loud – can be very powerful.
So, I invite you to declare positive statements about yourself over yourself in a private place. Then notice the effect it has on your confidence, the you that you bring to your different work situations.
The negative scripts we have about ourselves
For most people in challenging leadership roles, this list can be quite long. List everything out anyway. We find that some things happen as we do this:
A negative statement or lie about us begins to atrophy as we write it down. It starts to look ridiculous. Good! It should do. Most of us harbour nonsensical negative beliefs about ourselves. Often, as these lies are allowed to persist, they then limit our performance. They are embarrassing. They are faint lies that unspoken in the back of our heads. So the best deterrent for these is to expose them to plain view. They shrivel with full-on scrutiny.
We discover more lies as we write them down. This experience can dismay us at first. There seems to be a multitude of them. Persevere. Let them come. Write these little devils down. Expose each one for the fraud it is. We can say something like, “Bring it on.” We can let these lies lay themselves out on our list. Exhaust them. We can then say, “Is that all you’ve got?”
We may well discover some rather more painful, deep-rooted negatives. These can seem too painful even to write down at first. We know where they come from. We refuse to be ashamed. We may need professional counselling to help us articulate these. There is no shame in seeking this kind of help either. Making such an appointment is courageous, and we are hunting down these most potent harmful scripts. We remember that these negatives survive by living in the dark, in our liminal consciousness. A good counsellor or therapist can help us learn to destroy them. They help us find healing and freedom from these distortions by walking that journey into the spotlight with us.
Laughing atthe lies
So, what do we do with this grim list of negatives?
We weaken distorted lies about ourselves by laughing at them.
Laugh at them. The lies are not us. We can laugh at them. Often they grip us because we have taken them so seriously. If we can find the opposite truth on our other list, we can laugh knowing the truth about us is otherwise. Again, do this out loud in a safe place.
Some common objections
Who’s to say which are lies and which are true? Well, we need to go back to those external sources we trust: what people have written about us, the trust others have placed in us, the belief system to which we adhere. In this relativist age, we have been sold short. We have been told that whatever is true for us is the truth. There comes a point where we need to take account of external sources; this is faith.
Is this such a big deal? Do we really need to do all this writing and speaking and laughing out loud stuff? Let me ask you this: Who is the you that you bring to places where there is danger or threat? As a leader, you need to bring your best you, your best identity, to those situations. Others that you lead deserve that from you. We all deserve you to bring your best self to the world.
As always, let me know in the comments below if you do this. Let me know if you try this for the first time, and what your experience was.
I had an experience this summer from which I didn’t emerge very well. Or did I? You be the judge.
I was shopping for summer shoes. So I found a pair I liked in an M&S outlet. So I took these shoes to a stool to try them on. The right shoe did fit me quite well. “This looks promising,” I thought.
Then I tried to put on the left shoe. I struggled. I struggled some more. Putting this shoe on was proving to be harder than I had expected.
The sort of narrative that was running through my head went something like this: “Maybe this pair isn’t for me. Maybe my left foot is slightly larger than the other; it happens. But why haven’t I been aware of it before? Maybe I should abandon buying this style of shoe.”
Then it occurred to me to check the soles for the shoe sizes.
Yep! Sure enough, I’d picked up a size smaller for the left shoe.
I could have berated myself for being stupid, or a useless shopper. Instead, I decided to do something slightly different:I checked my heuristic.
A heuristic, from the Greek to find or discover, is an approach to problem-solving. The problem I was trying to solve was whether a new pair of shoes would fit my feet. However, it wasn’t getting me anywhere until I first checked I had a pair of the same size. My shoe-shopping heuristic missed a step – pardon the pun!
This incident illustrates how we can learn from instances where our current heuristic fails. We reflect, and we change or augment our learning process. However, we often don’t.
Check Your Heuristic
Project management is an attempt to systematise, to make repeatable, steps in a project. The problem comes when a project manager moves to a different context; their heuristic often seems to fail them. So when it comes to developing new skills to a higher level, failure is an asset. A skilled project manager becomes so because they experience a widely different set of contexts and levels of complexity. Book learning can fail them, but that is not necessarily the book’s fault.
What if having to create something without reference to what has gone before is illusory. This would mean that being purely original is nonsense.
Even God, in the Genesis account, made the man out of the dust of the earth. Was that pure creativity? No. But it was extraordinary, with amazing generative creativity in the seed of that one creation.