What’s your circle of competence?

snow_soccer_goal-597x3002.jpgIt’s a freezing cold Saturday morning in New York’s Greenwich Village and there’s tension in the air.

On the snow-speckled artificial turf of James J Walker park, our team are a goal down with less than a minute on the clock.

Our de facto captain and star player turns to me and says ‘go up front’.

My feet root to the ground.

I don’t do ‘up front’. I don’t do wing, number 10, or even midfield.

It’s outside my circle of competence.

I’ve never been very good at football [1] – I stopped playing at 15 and started again around 27. Somewhere in that intervening period I instinctively found my circle of competence.

How did I know?  Unlike most who play 7-a-side games for competitive fun, I began only playing in one position. At the back, the last line between striker and goalkeeper.

My circle of competence isn’t even really a circle; it’s a zone, the deepest third of the pitch.

I’m still far from the best player on the field, in fact I’m in the lower quartile, but I stay in my circle of competence, just focusing on the basics.

Be aware of the other players.
Anticipate where the ball is going to go.
Win it.
Distribute it.
Avoid conceding.

That’s it.

I could try playing elsewhere, but I much prefer to strengthen those basics and just push at the edge of the competence circle. It may not be glamorous but there’s plenty there to build on, and it’s very satisfying when it goes well. Ask any centre-back.

My experiences on the football pitch have started to help me when it comes to thinking about my career and business.

The marvellous Tren Griffen talks about this here:

The idea behind the Circle of Competence filter is so simple it is embarrassing to say it out loud: when you do not know what you are doing, it is riskier than when you do know what you are doing.

And as Charlie Munger says regarding investing; “We have to deal in things that we are capable of understanding.”

“[When] one of the economists who… shared a Nobel Prize … went into money management himself, he sank like a stone.”

Charlie Munger

The basic premise is to invest where you’re competent – focusing on strengths, not trying to improve weaknesses.

Brian Fetherstonhaugh talks about this when it comes to planning the second big phase of a career in his book The Long View.

So, early on feel free to go and test things out, find out where the circle is.

Once you have it enjoy playing inside it, pushing at the edges and making it stronger.

Where am I investing next?

A goal-saving slide tackle of course.


[1] I’ve been flipping between ‘soccer’ and ‘football’ since living in the US but I feel compelled to stick with ‘football’.

Tickets Podcast: Curation and community with New York Times’ Michelle Grey-Campion


Following stints at leading members club Soho House and Neuehouse, for last 2 years Michelle has been the creative director of the New York Times’ highly respected Times Talk series, featuring a veritable who’s who from across the world of arts and culture.

Michelle’s a highly respected curator and programmer, but has a background you may not expect – with a master’s degree in molecular genetics she’s also been a magazine editor and a TV presenter.

Recorded just as she’s about to set off on the next chapter of her career, we talk about our need to belong, the role of the creative director, why hybrid talent is thriving again, and the ups and downs of have a dissenting view.

And that metallic sound you can hear in the first few minutes? It was Michelle’s necklace… it took us a while to realise.

One other thing; there are a few naughty words in today’s episode so listener discretion is advised.


Episode highlights:

03:00 Psychographics vs Demographics
07:00 Michelle’s story – from molecular genetics to talent curation
15:00 Members’ clubs and our desire to belong
23:30 The resurgence of polymath talent
31:00 Why brands needs for external curators
36:00 What brands get wrong when programming events

Tickets Podcast: The future of the built environment with Ross Guttler, VP at Delos


Sustainability is a topic that’s got a lot of attention over the past few years.

We know it’s important to create sustainable experiences but what’s the next step we can take?

How could we make the built environment better for our health?

And how does wellness really inform the quality of experiences we have?

New York based research firm Delos have been exploring this theme for nearly a decade, working across sectors including air travel, sports and hospitality to help companies create multi-use spaces that have a genuinely positive effect on our wellbeing.

On the Tickets guest list today is Ross Guttler, VP of business development at Delos.


Over the course of this wide-ranging conversation we got into the future of retail and mixed use space, why IT departments will be running buildings, the science behind productivity, and explorations into the London rave scene at the turn of the millennium.

Episode highlights:

04:15: Ross’s journey from ski slopes to real estate
12:30: What goes into making a building better for our health
20:15: The distinction between wellness and sustainability
25:15: The future of the retail experience and the impact autonomous vehicles
32:00: New uses of real estate and hot topics in the industry

Advisor, Mentor, Coach, Counsel: what’s in a name?

If you’ve spent any time around the startup space in the last few years you’ve probably come across a raft of advisors and mentors.

Many of them are highly capable and experienced people who can help founders and their businesses enormously.

There are also some who, whilst very much in it for the right reasons, misunderstand the value they bring and what the person at the other end of the dialogue really needs.

In fact, there are so many people now out there with Advisor or Mentor on their resume that these descriptors are in danger of becoming the new Growth Hacker or Consultant, where their original meaning becomes bastardised and the practice itself risks becoming somewhat devalued, tainted and commoditised.

Meanwhile, as the Counsellor and Consigliere, like the original advisors and mentors from ancient Greece, have been around for centuries, other roles have emerged in recent years.

For example, executive and life coaching has experienced considerable de-stigmatisation and a rapid growth in popularity. Whilst there are a number of accredited programs to becoming qualified there’s nothing really stopping anyone calling themselves a coach. Aside from the debate on how important accreditations are in this area, a risk is present that where many rush in the understanding of what these practices really mean becomes lost.

When you’re looking for professional guidance this opens up the questions of knowing what you need and why you need it.

These 4 roles of Advisor, Mentor, Coach and Counsel are more than just semantics or trendy titles to buff up a LinkedIn profile – there are clear distinctions.

Here’s a brief overview of my understanding of each one to help you think about making the choice that suits you best.


Advisor: the subject matter expert

A lot of companies have advisory boards. Take a look at any good advisory board (note: this is not the same as a board of directors) and it’ll include a raft of subject matter experts. For example, a biotech startup will likely have senior biologists on the advisory board, and an ad tech platform may have a former Google Adwords exec involved as an advisor.

An advisor provides advice – they say what they think about the subject at hand.


Mentor: the footsteps to follow

I’ve written about mentoring a few times before. Contrary to some advice (ahem…), mentors don’t need to come from your industry, they don’t need to be older than you, and you can have more than one.

Whilst dictionary definitions vary, I believe what’s most important is they have trodden a path that follows a similar direction to the one you’re taking, and they’ve encountered some of those same hurdles and challenges first hand.

I like to think of mentors as a sherpa or a guide, shining light on the path or paths that can be traveled, but the person being mentored chooses and decides on the direction they want to take.


Coach: getting the best out of people

When you think of the word ‘coach’ you probably first think of sports. What do the best sports coaches have in common? Simply, they’re excellent at getting the best from the people they’re working with. How they do that can vary hugely but the end result is the same – they enable people to unlock and fulfil their potential and produce their best performances on a consistent basis.

A coach doesn’t need to be a subject matter expert nor have left the footsteps to follow. This may sound counter-intuitive but many of the most successful coaches weren’t great players. Some didn’t even play professionally and so aren’t true subject matter experts in that respect.

Great coaches tend to have the ability to lead, to visualise a positive future, and to strategise how to get their charges to realise that future.


Counsel: helping to work out what you’re thinking

What’s the difference between providing advice and counsel? Advice is saying what you think. Counsel is helping to work out what the other person is thinking. It’s an important distinction.

Counsellors often tend to be either lawyers or mental health practitioners.

Good advisors, mentors and coaches will also be adept at helping to work out what you’re thinking, but be mindful of their credentials if a problem is more deep rooted.

They should be able to admit where they’ve reached the edge of their circle of competence and refer you to a specialised counsellor (whether for legal, mental or another kind of assistance).


Some people are able to confidently straddle more than one of these four functions, but generally it’s best not to automatically expect your advisory board member to be brilliant at getting the best from your team, nor a mentor to be an expert in your field.

Take some time to first understand why you’re looking for help and the outcomes you seek.

From there it should become clear which specialism you require. Then it’s about finding the person who’s right for you. That’s a big topic on its own of course, and one for a future post…



Shout out to Chris Howard at The Rattle for providing the initial catalyst for the article.

Tickets Podcast: Vincent Marini on taking the magic of Broadway across the globe

On the guest list for today’s episode of Tickets is Vincent Marini.

Vincent is chief creative officer at Base Entertainment, a global live entertainment company working across disciplines including theatre, music, circus and magic.

Over his career Vincent has produced and directed high profile shows across the globe. He’s been the artistic director of one of Ameria’s premier state theatres, worked as a special consultant to Cirque du Soleil, and served on the board at a number of cultural trusts and institutions.


In his role at Base, he’s responsible for bringing all the company’s key projects to life – from theatrical plays and musicals, to concerts, magic shows and cutting edge hologram technology experiences.

It’s clear from the start how much knowledge and passion Vincent possesses for both his craft and the industry more broadly.

This episode is a must for producers, directors, creators and impresarios across creative mediums.


Tickets Podcast: Andre Lorenceau on live sports broadcasting in VR

On the guest list for today’s episode of Tickets is Andre Lorenceau.

Andre is co-founder and CEO of LiveLikeVR, a New York-based startup focused on delivering live sports broadcasting in virtual reality.

LiveLike’s best known products are its customised VR apps that it provides to sports broadcasters around the globe. The app experience lets a user select different camera angles, sit in a virtual suite at the stadium, and view either live or pre-produced content.


Recorded just before LiveLike’s new $9.6m Series B fundraising round was announced, in this conversation Andre offers his predictions for the VR industry over the coming years, explains how the company got started, and discusses why they’ve focused in on broadcasters rather than going direct to consumers.


Career Fuel: Portfolio planning for the full stack freelancer

I loved Tiago Forte’s post on the rise of the Full Stack Freelancer.

I’d been skirting around this idea for a while but he brought it all together in a really succinct and and coherent way.

Tiago says:

Full-Stack Freelancers borrow freely — from tech startups, digital nomads, lifestyle designers, independent contractors, the sharing and peer-to-peer economies — but placing them squarely inside any of these categories is not quite right.

That’s because Full-Stack Freelancers manage a portfolio of income streams, not a job based on one set of skills.

These potentially include both products and services, online and offline businesses, digital and physical products, active and passive income sources, in-person and remote interaction, individual contribution and group collaboration, and offerings that are low margin and high margin, mass-produced and customizable, high risk and low risk, monetized directly or indirectly, short-term and long-term, or any combination of the above.

So what are these products and services, and how we can plan, organise and deploy them?

Tiago continues:

Social media shares and free blog posts are your lead capture, bringing people into your audience. They also keep you exposed to the wider world beyond your niche.

Your introductory offerings are your qualification and filtering system, helping you identify not only the people who are most committed to your message, but also the best ideas and formats to help carry that message.

Premium offerings are the cash cows, allowing you to provide the most value with your time, and be compensated accordingly.

Taking inspiration from a few people’s portfolios I put together a quick Google Sheet to map out how my own portfolio was shaping up. It was a very interesting exercise and I could easily see a couple of gaps to look at filling.

Then I thought: perhaps other people would benefit from a tool like this?

I’ve been using Airtable more and more over the last few months and whilst it’s not quite ‘sticky’ enough to be a go-to app for me just yet, it’s undoubtedly very powerful and also has some great social features built in for sharing and collaborating

So here’s a simple Airtable ‘base’ for modern freelancers looking to follow Tiago’s suggestion and go full-stack.

Hopefully it’s a useful resource to you. Any feedback, ideas or suggestions just drop me a line – I’d love to hear from you.

Check it out here:


Tickets Podcast: Debs Armstrong on bespoke experiential

On the guest list for today’s episode of Tickets is Debs Armstrong.

Debs is founder of Strong & Co, an award-winning experiential agency based in London, working with clients including Google, Twitter and the BBC.


Debs’ started out creating installations at squat parties in London during the mid 90s, and was also the co-founder of the legendary Shangri-La area at Glastonbury Festival.

In this episode Debs tells us stories of recreating Blade Runner in the English countryside, where brands and agencies get it wrong with experiential, and how she balances artistry and entrepreneurship.


Career Fuel: How to get paid like a DJ

I don’t charge for DJing, I charge for flying to get there now.

The traveling is the aspect I charge for; the DJing is free.

John Digweed, Magnetic Magazine, 2012

John Digweed is a British DJ.

He’s never had a breakout hit song, never been voted the number 1 DJ in the world, and never been on the cover of Billboard magazine.

But he’s been a constant in the upper echelons of the electronic music world for over two decades. He has a hugely passionate fanbase across the world. He makes an excellent living and has made very few creative compromises in his career.

His fans would wholeheartedly agree he is a master of what he does, and despite championing pretty niche underground music and being closer to 50 than 30, in what we keep being told is a young person’s world he’s as in demand as ever.

And the DJing, the craft, is still free.

He charges for the travel time. Or rather, he charges for everything involved to get him to the DJ gig: the travel, the practice, the developing of the craft, the preparation.

Here are just some of the skills creative professionals have to invest in on an ongoing basis:

  • Professional development
  • Equipment and Tools
  • Planning
  • Editing
  • Filtering
  • Trashing
  • Drafting
  • Rehearsing

These are expensive – either in time, money or effort. They are all things most people don’t want to go through the hardship or cost of. They don’t offer instant gratification. They send us down difficult paths.

That’s why true professionals can charge what they do.

Charging for the travel (or any of these other things) also removes time from the equation. John Digweed doesn’t get paid per hour of travel time, he charges based on the market and his value within it. That value has been built over time by his investment in what he does.

The good news is that a true professional can charge a lot of money – far from the ties of the hourly rate. And over time that can compound.

The bad news is that it’s hard. It takes time, it takes effort and it takes trust. The results don’t appear quickly. In fact they appear slowly, and once you’ve had some good results you can’t expect tomorrow to be better or even the same as today – you have to keep reinvesting.

Which route would you like to take?

The freezer or the morgue: a quick primer on innovation

As part of on-boarding for a new project I was asked to put together a quick 10 minute introductory talk on a business-related topic of my choice.

I chose innovation. It’s no doubt a buzzword right now but do we really understand what innovation means and how, when, and why we should apply it? Like a lot of concepts it can be over-complicated and mystified, often by people who want to look smarter than everyone else (and get you to pay them accordingly to explain).

After I took the group through what I’d prepared (slides included below), there was a brief Q&A. Questions ranged from how corporates could innovate when the pervading culture goes the opposite way, to how ideas can be tested quickly and easily.

The one question that jumped out was around knowing when to kill ideas. Killing your darlings is hard to do. Startup and innovation culture tends to lean towards killing ideas quickly. I believe it’s often important to do so, but my thinking has now moved towards the freezer rather than the morgue.

Putting our ideas in the freezer (perhaps a cryogenic freezer of sorts) means they’re still alive and visible rather than being buried or cremated.

We can choose to bring them back later in their current state, or use parts of them to enhance our future endeavours.

Perhaps having them around also just lets us remember their best features and also their failings – both good fuel as we explore the adjacent possible.

On a number of occasions I’ve thought about parts of old ideas I wanted to reference or repurpose and kicked myself that I’d buried them – they’d decomposed or just completely turned to dust.

So rather than kill your darlings, place them in the freezer – you never know where you may need them next.