Do You Ever Think About What’s In The Basement Of Your Body?


Wednesday, 9.20pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The cause is hidden; the effect is visible to all. – Ovid

What is it that makes some people or teams deliver a result when it’s most needed while others falter and fail?

What is it about people that makes the difference between performing at your best and falling apart?

These are the questions Dr Alan Watkins talks about in a TEDx talk and it makes for an interesting listen.

He is a neuroscientist and argues that we now know a lot more about what is going on beneath the surface of our conscious minds.

Take sports, for example.

The Ashes are topical right now and the performance of the Australian batsman and former captain Steve Smith let to him being called the immovable Smith, with this write up by the BBC –

“From 17-2 in the first innings and 27-2 in the second, his fidgeting, flamboyant leaves and nudges off the pads for scores of 144 and 142 sucked the life from England – all this while dealing with constant taunting from the Edgbaston crowd in his first Test after being banned for the ball-tampering saga.”

The same game saw others collapse instead.

Watkins argues that what we see on the surface is performance – the results – and behaviour – what we see people do.

Many people think that by changing the way they act they will change their results.

The thing is that focusing on just what you can see is not a great plan.

Take sales, for example.

You could put in more effort, make more calls every day, keep driving yourself.

Sooner or later, however, the effort of putting in the effort will wear you out and almost every sales person starts to lose that drive they brought when they first started the job.

Watkins argues that you need to start with the lower levels of the human body and right at the bottom is physiology.

Physiology is simply the signals coming from sensors all over your body, from your heart rate to the electrical signals resulting from touching something.

Emotion, he says, is simply a collection of signals, a little like waves washing up against a beach.

The best example of this is your heart rate.

As you go through the day your heart rate changes, going up and down, responding to subtle stresses in your environment without you being aware of it.

It’s only when you become aware that you realise you have a feeling.

Feeling is all about awareness, while emotion is the swirling mess of electrical and chemical signals floating around inside you.

And then on top of all that you have your conscious mind – the space where you think and where you think everything happens.

The reality is that your thinking mind is a very small layer over everything else that’s there.

If you want to perform, Watkins says, the secret is understanding what’s going on below the surface – and then working out how to get some control over things.

What you’ve got to do is go from having lots of variance – lots of changes in your physiology – to coherence – keeping them within a manageable range.

The point really is that it’s not enough to want to do better, resolve to try harder or push yourself to work longer.

If you want to perform when it counts most you’ve got to get control over the most basic aspects of your physiology.

That means doing things like coming up with routines, forming habits, and practising self awareness – listening to what your body is trying to tell you about your state of stress or relaxation.

If you want your performance to be stable under pressure you’ve got to start by making sure the foundations are sound first.


Karthik Suresh

What Do People Expect To See When They See You?


Tuesday, 9.27pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. – Margaret Mead

I was listening to an interview on The Creative Penn and the topic of genre came up.

Genre is something I find hard to understand – and I’ve tried a few times to wrap my head around Shawn Coyne’s words on the topic and always come away with a headache instead.

So, let’s try again.

Coyne writes that “A Genre is a label that tells the reader/audience what to expect. Genres simply manage audience expectations. It’s really that simple. Don’t let the French etymology and pronunciation scare you.”

We’d all like to be appreciated for the unique person each of us is but that’s really too much to ask.

Most people don’t have the time or the interest in understanding someone else all that much.

Eleanor Roosevelt said ““You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

In storytelling the point of genre is to help readers quickly select what they really want to read.

When I have some free time, for example, I read thrillers – books with action and very little real thinking.

It’s the opposite of the kind of stuff I read most of the time – and so it’s a welcome distraction.

Genre is everywhere – it’s really just a form of classification and if you want to be a member of a particular profession you need to learn the genre conventions that apply.

Not in a vague, theoretical sense but in a practical, applicable sense.

With stories, for example, Coyne talks about time, reality, content, structure and style.

Music has genres – from folk to jazz and beyond.

The hardest part for someone looking to stand apart from the crowd and be recognised for their individual and singular contribution is realising that they have to start by picking a crowd to join.

In the beginning, life is about which box you fit into.

In order to be accepted into a group you need to be similar to other members of the group.

If you’ve had the misfortune of having boxes full of microplastic beads you’ll know what happens when the colours get mixed up.

Having red pieces mixed in with the blue beads means you have to get the tweezers out and rearrange things.

It’s like that with most things in life.

You’re probably going to notice things that are out of place – and reject them.

Now – does that mean you should change the way you are to fit in?

It really depends on what you’re trying to do.

For example, if you’re starting a business it makes sense to think about whether your business model fits into a particular genre.

Some businesses are about freelancing. Others might be capital intensive or revolve around a brand identify.

The ability of a business model to deliver what you want is constrained by the characteristics of its genre.

A freelance business is unlikely to make you a millionaire while running a large corporation is unlikely to give you the time to spend six months writing a book on insect psychology.

Of course, none of this is new stuff.

I wrote a few years ago about the five ways your business can increase its earnings.

And this concept becomes really simple when you think in terms of biology.

A baby buffalo that is separated from the herd is the one the lioness takes down.

The secret to survival is to stay in the middle of the herd until you’re big and strong enough to face off a lioness.

First fit in.

Then, when you’re secure, stand out.


Karthik Suresh

What Does It Take To Create Something Useful AND Good?


Monday, 9.55pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You must exorcise the evil proprietary operating systems from all your computers, and then install a wholly [holy] free operating system. And then you must install only free software on top of that. If you make this commitment and live by it, then you too will be a saint in the Church of Emacs, and you too may have a halo. – Richard Stallman

Do you work best alone or with others?

Do you have a point of view that is balanced or at one extreme or another?

Are you an activist or someone that just wants to get on with the day to day jobs that need to be done?

I recently found my installation disks for Red Hat GNU/Linux from 1999.

The reason we have the choice of systems and software technology that powers so much of the Internet is because of the work done by a small number of people.

And, along the way, we sometimes forget the lessons of history.

For example, if you use one of the popular Linux distributions out there now you will be interrupted by your computer asking to install updates on a regular basis.

If you use a browser from Europe almost every site will not have a pop up that attempts to comply with GDPR by asking you to click a button accepting unseen terms before you can get to the content.

I don’t know about you but I find interruptions unhelpful.

And I like coercion even less – and pop ups that demand you agree to terms before you get access to content are coercive.

So, what can you do?

The first thing is to figure out where the balance of power lies.

I was so irritated by the constant website pop ups that I turned off javascript on Chrome, the browser I use most of the time.

And something magical happened – most websites stopped hounding me for permission and just displayed content.

But Google didn’t – if you don’t turn on javascript you can’t access things like Gmail which are effectively a gigantic javascript program.

But you can enable javascript for certain sites – so that means you either turn it on because you want to or because the site is big and powerful enough to demand that you agree before it will let you interact with it.

It’s an object lesson in the balance of power.

Sometimes, as the user, you have it and at other times, the website has it all.

One way of getting back power is to retain control – to do everything yourself.

The patron saint of this movement is Richard Stallman, who has a fairly uncompromising approach to the ethics of computing.

His solution has been to use the law to protect rights – by creating software under a license that stops anyone from taking away rights from you or asking you to give them away.

The concept of free software – free as in free speech, not as in free beer – has underpinned the modern networked age.

Another individual that epitomises an individualist approach is Derek Sivers, who has been on the Internet for a while, doesn’t trust the cloud and runs his stuff on his own server.

In ages past people that wanted autonomy and control and freedom from oppression might have found it in monasteries and meditation.

These days you can have those things because other people who want the same things have helped to create tools that can help.

Other people, working in groups and organisations, in more traditional businesses have also created tools to help.

But how can you tell if the tools are good?

The simplest approach is to think in terms of utility – in terms of the benefits you get.

Many distributions of GNU/Linux focus on utility – on being useful and making things easier for you.

Platforms and services – from Facebook to Ebay exist to help people do things they never imagined they would need to do.

Isn’t that a good thing?

It probably depends on who you ask for an opinion.

I suppose you never really understand the value of freedom until you’re in a position where you’re unexpectedly deprived of it.

And that is not good.


Karthik Suresh

How To Become More Effective As A Group


Sunday, 9.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage. – Arie P. de Geus

I’ve just finished We do things differently by Mark Stevenson, a look at where things are going right in the world.

In one chapter called The worst school in the country we’re introduced to Carl Jarvis who turned around the school in question.

Before we look at how he did that, take a minute to consider what normally happens in organisations – the loop marked 1 in the picture above.

Leaders in an organisation start with an ambition – they want to achieve something and do well. That inevitably means coming up with activity targets – turnover and profit for the year, Ofsted results, sales calls per day and so on.

If you have more than one person doing such activities the natural next step is to compare how everyone is doing – carrying out a benchmarking exercise.

You find that some are below average and some are above average.

Oddly, it always seems to be around half on either side…

In any comparison you get winners and losers – people who do well on the metrics and people who do poorly.

Because we want people to do well we try motivational tactics – carrots such as payment of bonuses, for example.

Or we bring out the sticks and punish poor performance.

Firing the bottom 10% of the company every year used to be, and perhaps still is an approach used by some.

Either way, the winners are motivated, the losers tend to be demotivated and the net result is what shows up in the activity statistics.

The thing to notice is that winners push the numbers up by more and losers by less.

If the same people are there over time – this will end up with putting out numbers that vary within a predictable range most of the time.

In other words, you have a stable system in such an organisation – one that stays where it is but that cannot grow.

Surely you just get rid of the losers, you say – and keep the winners?

You could do that – but variation has a nasty way of evening the score – with one year’s losers going on to be next year’s best performers and vice versa.

All this work, however, misses the point.

The point of an organisation is not to create winners and losers but to get people working together well.

That’s the only reason to work with someone else – when together you can do more than either one of you could do individually.

The reality is that in most organisations you could do a lot more by yourself than working with anyone else.

And that’s a problem – because it makes a mockery of all the time we spend at work.

This is the thing that Carl Jarvis saw as he looked at his group of teachers.

Stevenson writes “Carl realised that his teachers. like many in the profession, had become atomised. They didn’t collaborate or feed back on each other’s work. They never saw each other teach. They didn’t discuss the impact they were collectively having on students and how they might work better together to improve it. In short, and with no small dose of irony, they were teachers who had stopped learning. They weren’t acting as an organisation but a set of individuals.”

Now, you can spend a lot of time thinking about what competitive advantage looks like for organisations.

The best one is actually having barriers to entry – having a monopoly on your business.

But the next best one, as in the quote that starts this post, has to do with your ability to learn.

Take the loop marked 2 in the figure, for example.

This is a thinly disguised version of Deming’s Plan, Do, Study, Act model.

Again, leaders can start with an ambition – a plan – but the next thing to do is look at what activity is actually going on.

Then, you study what you’ve found, perhaps alone but it’s better with others because you’re more likely to learn something new as you discuss things together.

Then you try doing something – taking action that might help and see the impact it has on activity and go around the loop again.

Unlike a loop that leads to motivation or demotivation – this loop leads to learning – and a learning loop is a positive one because whether things go well or badly, you have the opportunity to learn something from it.

As group participants and leaders, then, we have to let go of familiar instruments like criticism and contempt and reach for less natural ones like praise.

Stevenson writes about Carl – He spent weeks tirelessly observing and encouraging his teachers. “I told them they were all amazing, all the time. Even if the teaching I saw was terrible, I would pick on some small thing that was OK and praise it. I went over the top, but I had to, because I had to get them to believe in themselves again. I spent the first six months not in my office but in classrooms, watching things get better.”

It’s one thing saying that we need to create learning organisations – but it’s another creating them.

You’ve got to relentlessly, as the song goes, accentuate the positive.


Karthik Suresh