Intensity or Technique? You choose

boxing

In New York City there are a host of fitness studios offering innovative takes on a workout session.

One of these is a Box & Flow class. Ostensibly it’s for people who like boxing and yoga.

You get plenty of exercise from aerobic exercises, hitting the boxing bag, and yoga flow on the mat.

It’s varied, fast paced, energetic. And you sweat. You sweat a lot.

Of course, there’s a trade off. At that pace there isn’t time to check if your stance is correct, whether your power is coming from your hips as well as your fists, or the warrior two pose is  properly aligned.

So if you like boxing and yoga, the boxing & yoga class may not actually be what you’re looking for.

If you have more than a passing interest in one or both of these activities, you probably have a desire to also improve your technique, your craft, your knowledge.

It’s near-impossible to have it all at the same time, so you have to make a choice: focus on speed and intensity to get one kind of result, or on the technique and craft to get another. That means knowing what kind of trade-off you’re willing to make and the result you want to get.

We have to make these kinds of choices in other areas of our lives too, particularly in our work.

And if we don’t know which kind of result we want, we may end up with no benefit from increased intensity or technique.

The surprising thing is that a lot of the time we make these choices without really knowing why we’re making them.

So what’s it to be? Boxing, yoga, or a bit of both?

3 circles for managing control, influence, concern, and anxiety

A concept I came across earlier this Summer is that of 3 circles.

I first used it in a business growth and change management class I was teaching, but it’s come up several times recently with friends and clients who are feeling overwhelmed with projects to tackle, situations to manage, or decisions to make.

Circles of Control, Influence, Concern

The inner circle is the Circle of Control. In here is all the stuff we can have the power to directly ourselves. We can choose to send an email to someone, take a day off, or publish the blog post.

Second is the Circle of Influence.

And finally is the Circle of Concern. Here orbits everything else that we have an interest in, but we can do nothing about

Often our minds will wander out from our circle of control, into the circle of influence, and likely all the way out into that huge expanse that is the circle of concern.

Here we can do nothing to make our goals and desires happen, and our mind fills with nerves, worry, and existential dread.

When this happens we can just bring ourselves back to our circle of control.

Usually we’ll find there are a few things back here we’ve ignored, swept under the carpet or haven’t noticed before.

A nice side effect of owning our circle of control is items in the circle of influence suddenly draw closer towards and that enormous circle of concern becomes…well, less concerning.

What can you bring into your circle of control?

5 lessons from Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola

The latest in Amazon Prime’s ‘All or Nothing’ sports documentary series goes behind the scenes at the highly successful and somewhat polarizing English Premier League football team Manchester City.

Led by the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola, City swept all before them in the league last season, and the series goes behind the scenes of that 9 month journey.

There’s plenty to criticize; the lack of compelling story arc can leave a viewer cold, and frustratingly there’s not that much in the way of specific tactics and strategies used by Guardiola to motivate his side and outwit competitors, but there are a good few interesting insights to glean – for fans, coaches and business people alike.

Here are a few of them.

Continue reading “5 lessons from Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola”

Forcing Mechanisms

On Saturday my laptop gave up.

One too many times had the power cable been wrenched out unapologetically, dozens of Chrome tabs restored, the screen slapped shut without care. It was time for me to pay for my fast and loose attitude to a partner I probably spend more time with than any human (apologies to my wife).

I got through to Monday without too much trouble. The sun was out and the city was smiling.

On Monday morning I didn’t feel so easy. I took the laptop uptown to the repair store to discover further news of its condition. The initial prognosis was not good – in overnight for further tests, and no health insurance cover.

Setting up in a nearby coffee shop to check email and drink a sorrow-laden flat white (still a rare find in NYC; the sorrow-laden ones even more so I imagine), a number of things dawned on me in quick succession.

Continue reading “Forcing Mechanisms”

Why teachers are the new DJs

Three years ago I made a fairly unorthodox career transition; moving from booking bands and DJs to building learning and education programs (amongst a couple of other things).

Those who know me are probably aware I like to look at seemingly disparate disciplines and explore the connections between them. I like it so much I run a podcast series on it.

But other than the obvious and slightly contrived lines of DJs ‘telling a story’ and ‘taking a crowd on a journey’, I hadn’t really seen any parallels between these two paths – until now.

A couple of weeks ago I had breakfast with the founders of a company running professional development courses with a number of prominent brands and corporations.

As it was our first time meeting they asked me to tell them my story. When I mentioned my background in music, and specifically electronic music, one of them lit up with interest.

He’d lived in Germany for a while and had arrived there with a deep loathing of electronic music. A year or so later and he found himself a huge house and techno fan.

I asked what caused the change.

As he explained we looked at each other and realised we were thinking the same thing. (And no, not drugs).

One of the main things we loved about electronic music was what we loved about facilitating and teaching.

 

Placing and Pacing

One of the albums that shaped me in my teens was the Sasha Global Underground San Francisco compilation. I’d try and copy the mixing style; these gradual transitions from one track to another, perfectly EQ’d and aligned in key. I didn’t make a great job of it.

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I remember reading a comment Sasha made in the liner notes [1] on his move from smaller clubs to playing both longer sets and at bigger venues. The main shift was having to place the big records really carefully and pacing the set based on lots of variables that changed each time and weren’t that predictable.

 

I’ve noticed the same thing when building a course or running a series of activities with a group of people.

The hard stuff isn’t necessarily knowing the material itself. This in itself isn’t easy, but it’s a baseline. [2]

The hard stuff is allowing space.

Being able to pace it right.

Drawing attention to that one specific thing you want people to notice, even if it seems small or inconsequential.

Making smooth transitions from one to another.

Reading an audience, and connecting with one that looks like it couldn’t care less.

Bringing in heavier or more leftfield material at the right time.

Knowing when to freestyle and when to stick to the plan.

Making the choice to cut your losses and move on.

Knowing what to do when you’re running out of time and the flow’s starting to ebb.

Dealing with technical problems when they inevitably happen.

Having a solid backup plan when you get caught out.

Picking up the baton and then handing it off.

 

They said DJs were the new rockstars.

Then they said they were the new celebrities.

I wonder if teachers may be next. And not just school teachers, but anyone out there who’s sharing knowledge and connecting and empowering people to learn and level up.

Does this sound grandiose? Maybe.

But aside from the shared skill sets, it’s worth looking at the second and third order effects of the rising profile of DJs and electronic music.

Just like only the top 0.1% of DJs headline festivals, a whole new generation of passionate and talented people can now build their skills and hone their craft through a creator ecosystem powered by tools like Mixcloud, Splice, Soundcloud and Ableton.

I believe we’ll see the same for teachers, knowledge sharers, facilitators and connectors.

And just as electronic music has evolved, grown and accelerated with a plethora of internet-driven tools, services and communities built to support its ecosystem, a similarly huge opportunity is going to appear for the new generation creating and delivering lifelong learning for passionate people around the world.

It’s really exciting.

Time to get in the mix.

 

 

[1] These were great pieces of work in their own right; really visceral and colourful, and just a touch pretentious of course. Most of them were written by a journalist called Dom Phillips.

[2] Great DJs are able to make average material good, good material great, and great material…blow your socks off. Carl Cox has long been a master at this, taking seemingly average techno tracks and somehow making them sound incredible.

Here’s your perfect brief

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One of the best books I read in my 20s was also one of the shortest.

It was by a man called Paul Arden, an advertising executive at Saatchi & Saatchi in London. He was one of those people who was held in very high regard by his direct peers, but little known outside his sphere.

He probably should have had much more of a following as his ideas were valuable and relevant across a multitude of disciplines. Maybe the fact he passed away in the same year Twitter launched is symbolic – I can imagine him being a big hit there.

Although pretty portable in terms of its application, the book is mainly aimed at advertising creative teams, and I enjoyed pulling what I could into other industries.

One of the best bits is about how creative teams tend to think about briefs.

“We are always waiting for the perfect brief from the perfect client. It almost never happens […] Whatever is on your desk right now, that’s the one. Make it the best you possibly can.” 

I think this very simple advice is even better 10 years later given how our attention spans have dropped, and feelings of entitlement and frustration increased.

I’ve found myself proffering this piece of advice a few times recently to impatient, ambitious or disgruntled peers.

We get fed up with the briefs that cross our desk.

It’s understandable. They’re often dull, or badly written; lacking incisiveness, or too safe.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t send back bad briefs to their author. But that’s another story.

The point is it’s about focusing on what’s in front of you right now, and like a lot of the best writing this simple little nugget from Mr Arden has a lot packed into it:

 

You may surprise yourself (and others) at what you can do with what’s right in front of you;

The odds are that you won’t ever get a shot at your dream brief without doing this one first;

The glamour fixtures nearly always come with a catch so be careful what you wish for;

And you never know who’s watching.

 

Perhaps that brief on your desk right now is perfect. You just don’t know it yet.

 

> Paul Arden

Are you built for the big company? Take a tip from Ripley

I like synchronicity. Every so often I have a day where after meeting a few different people, by sunset several of the topics and ideas we’ve discussed seem to connect and interweave as if by magic.

This could just be coincidence or my biases at work, but I believe it’s something more than that – something closer to the adjacent possible.

I had one of these days a few weeks ago.

After a sneaky late afternoon cocktail with the founder of a new marketing consultancy, I went to a bar around the block to meet a chap who works in a well known media company.

Alongside weddings, craft beer and other typical lines of conversation for men in their 30s, we talked about startup life vs that of a big corporation.

He had worked in bigger companies before and felt he now preferred life at a relatively small organisation. Meanwhile his wife worked at one of the biggest tech companies in the world and absolutely loved it.

He said the reason for this was simple: she was able to handle the big company exoskeleton.

An image from Aliens immediately popped into my mind. You may remember Ripley’s ability with the power loader exoskeleton; first to surprise a couple of sceptical marines, and then to dispose of a Xenomorph through the airlock.

The power loader is an intimidating bit of kit. It looks like it needs its pilot to have serious physical strength and brawn. This may be somewhat useful, but what’s more important is dexterity, patience, and rhythm.

When used effectively, it can handle enormous pressure, apply huge leverage, make big efficiencies and deflect all but the most damaging blows.

Use it carelessly, and it’s a blundering, flailing hulk with no agility and in desperate need of a makeover.

Sound familiar?

Ironically, one of the biggest problems large companies have is actually the dismissive marines. They’re skilled and to be respected, but sometimes they can be egotistical, elitist, focused on the pay check ahead of the mission, and at risk of being seriously caught out in a rapidly changing world.

So if you want to succeed in a big organisation, it may help to think more like Ripley.

And why the synchronicity that day?

My Tuesday cocktail was with the founder of a female-run consultancy called Ripley, named after…well, who else?

Enjoy the silence

A couple of weeks ago I finally went to my first live NBA game.

As the saying goes, it just wasn’t like it was on TV.

What struck me most was the stimulus. The zinging advertising, prime NYC hiphop being cranked up for every play, announcements for every successful shot, breakdancers on the court at every time-out; all this didn’t come through when watching at home.

But every so often the music and announcements stopped and all that could be heard was the bouncing of the ball and the squeaking of players’ shoes on the parquet floor.

For a few seconds the arena was quiet. Despite the only sounds being those most appropriate, those of the game itself, the silence felt strange. It didn’t feel right.

Then the Nets landed a 3 pointer sponsored by Honda and all was well with the world again.

 

The next day I was in a meeting. There were a few people in the room discussing a project.

When one of the attendees was asked for their thoughts, they would take a deep breath and sit silently, looking into the middle distance for seemed an age before responding. The third time this happened I counted how long the silence was. It was a bit unnerving.

10 seconds, more or less.

It seemed like forever. People shuffled in their seats. Was this person ok? Did they need a glass of water?

And this was after 10 seconds of quiet while someone took the time to collect their thoughts.

I’ve experienced this same feeling recording podcasts, and they’re not even broadcast live. As a host I’ve had to learn to enjoy the silence and encourage guests to do the same. Despite the luxuries of editing, we’re still predisposed to fill the silence with something…anything.

 

You’ve probably heard the term ‘uncomfortable silence’.

Today it’s easy for us to feel every silence is uncomfortable. In our always-on world we’re just not used to it.

Of course, at the Brooklyn Nets game the silence probably does tend to lessen the experience – we are there to be entertained, to be drawn into the theatre of the game from start to finish, to be transported somewhere else.

But because popular culture teaches us this, we get afraid of silence in other parts of life.

It’s worth thinking about when silence is valuable.

When it can add something to an experience, help create a better feeling in a room, allow time for your best thinking to manifest, or just give more time for someone else to do the same.

And figuring that out is definitely worth more than 10 seconds of quiet contemplation time, whether or not it makes people shuffle in their seats.

Career Fuel: signal vs ability, illicit activities, and the future of work

This Twitter thread from Josh Wolfe caught my attention earlier this week.

Citing a paper from a few years ago written by an MBA student at NYU Stern, it goes some way to explaining why people become entrepreneurs.

The paper states:

Individuals signal their hidden ability to employers (i.e. via educational qualifications).

However, signals are imperfect and individuals with greater ability than their signals convey to employers become entrepreneurs

Quite simply, if a person feels employers perceive their ability/productivity as being lower than they themselves perceive it, they’re incentivised to start their own ventures.

Josh notes that individuals with ACTUAL ability that EXCEEDS the SIGNAL value of their ability (i.e they know they are better than employers can tell from credentials)…become entrepreneurs.

This isn’t to say they are necessarily exceptionally able, it’s just that their ability exceeds the signal. If you take a few steps back from this it appears for today’s job market, especially on the employer side, there’s a huge issue around signalling.

This signalling often comes from higher education – for example Steve Jobs was rejected by HP because of his lack of degree. Many companies will immediately reject candidates if they don’t have an MBA (and yes the irony of the cited paper being written by an MBA isn’t lost on me…).

With increasing student debt and work skills rapidly changing, a growing number of people are now openly questioning the value of higher education and MBAs, suggesting that the main two reasons for enrolling are the i) alumni network, and ii) a school’s brand reputation (i.e. the most obvious form of signalling).

Additionally;

Overconfident, hubristic individuals gravitate toward be entrepreneurs…AND…tend to have higher ability, greater self-esteem AND more likely to have done “illicit activities” than others.

I’ve long had an ambivalence towards current higher education systems (and frankly authority more broadly).

In more lucid moments I also recognise that in certain situations I have very strong hubris.

I’ve never been quite able to pin down why this is, but this thread and the related paper helped me figure it out.

My level of ability vs signal is and has long been imbalanced for the traditional job market.

 

Taking this a step further, Josh looks at immigrant founders, of which they are many successful ones especially here in the US.

Moving to the US as an immigrant has pushed me go on a voyage of discovery and to ask a lot of questions about myself.

I don’t mind admitting it’s been a hard journey.

My low level of signalling (eclectic background, moderate level of education, and lack of brand name social proof) have meant the ‘regular’ job market doesn’t fit well at all.

I reject the system that rejects me, and now feel almost forced down the path of entrepreneurship, or independent work at least.

Understanding these feelings has been one of the biggest challenges and also breakthroughs of my time here in NYC, especially since finding a tribe of others in the same boat.

I was a little bitter about it to begin with, but now I embrace it.

It’s led me to think more deeply about the world of work and where there are opportunities to make things better for the next generation about to join the workforce. The combination of the current higher education system being eroded, a changing world of work, and more people with an ability vs signal imbalance is going to have a huge effect on employers, talent and economies.

 

Around 50% of Gen Z are identifying as entrepreneurs, millennials are job-hopping like never before, and a growing freelance and independent workforce is appearing all over the place.

These shifts make me wonder how this is going to pan out on a broader scale, particularly as based on the paper’s findings (and lots of other research) not everyone is going to be able to succeed as a entrepreneur.

This then begs the question of what happens to those who don’t make it.

Do they go back to employment?

Or maybe forge a career as a specialised gun for hire?

Perhaps there’s a 3rd option, the evolution of something Tiago Forte calls the ‘full stack freelancer’.

 

What interests me most are the structures to support those who take the third option and also those that can’t/don’t/won’t do any of the above.

What will that look like?

Ventures that enable hyper sampling of multiple careers?

A completely different type of freelance work?

‘Micro accelerators’ that help companies build only to a founder’s ceiling of competence, avoiding the Peter Principle?

Wacky ideas perhaps, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens when the dam eventually breaks and the number of workers wanting to go their own way (the ‘cherries’) outnumber the ‘lemons’.

Or perhaps the signals, the system and the value we place on them need to fundamentally change.

I believe this is going to be one of the most exciting, impactful and maybe controversial areas of the next 5-10 years.

I can’t wait to see how tomorrow’s world of work and entrepreneurship unfolds, and I’m exploring this myself through my Fondo project. If you’re interested in this space I’d love to hear your thoughts – add a comment here or drop me a line

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’.