Is This The Secret To Making Sense Of Things?

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Tuesday, 7.59pm

Sheffield, U.K

Ardhanarishvara represents the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies of the universe (Purusha and Prakriti) and illustrates how Shakti, the female principle of God, is inseparable from (or the same as, according to some interpretations) Shiva, the male principle of God, and vice versa. – Wikipedia

What comes to mind when I ask you to think of an agreement? Is it something like a contract, words on a piece of paper? A signature? Or do you think of a physical act, a handshake, an oath, a promise before a witness?

The reason I’m interested in this concept of an agreement is that it’s absolutely fundamental to doing anything with anyone else. When you get married you enter into a contract. When you start a business with someone else, you’re entering into a contract. This idea of an agreement underpins so many things that we do and so it makes sense to get better at coming to an agreement with someone else.

But the approach we take to do this seems out of step, strangely dissonant with how things should be. And that’s because there is always the possibility that the agreement has not been sufficiently well written. It’s not enough to trust someone, it turns out, you need the ink on the paper to say the right thing. For example, I recently agreed a contract with the small people in the house that said if we bought them a film they would, in exchange, come for a walk without complaining. Then we asked them to put on their clothes and they said, with glee, “That’s not in the contract!”

The contract. The words. Damn them.

Words, it turns out have a history, In Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance the Judeo-Christian culture holds the Word as sacred. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In these cultures people are willing to die for words – willing to fight each other over differences of interpretation. In other cultures where words are not held in the same kind of esteem you don’t have the same level of conflict over differences of interpretation.

This cultural baggage, this history of words, is all around us today but we don’t see it. Not really. Not until it’s pointed out to us. And that’s what Olga Michael’s paper did for me. In this paper Michael quotes Lorraine Jansen Kooistra writing that, ‘in Western culture, “the image is female, the word is male”’ There is a gender division between image and word and that leads to a stark realization. An image is silent and is only seen. Words have the freedom to speak. There is a sense of oppression here, a sense of powerlessness – which has also been experienced by women and children over the years – as they are instructed to stay quiet and out of sight. Only men have the power and permission to be seen and to speak. In this world the feminine “Image is perceived as the “other” of the text, colonized by the masculine, phallic logos.” In Pirsig’s book, logos wins over everything, logic and truth drive away myth and story – and we are left believing that only words matter, words are the way to get to an agreement. The manly way.

This idea of a gender difference between images and words may explain why we are so used to using tools that rely on words in the world of business. Think of the last meeting you were in – didn’t it end with some kind of request for meeting minutes, for a note of what went on, for a paper for discussion, for a plan on paper? No one said something like, “That was a fantastic meeting. I’d like you to pull the key concepts together using images in a collage and get it to me by Monday.” That’s not the male way of doing things. Collage, images, drawings – all that is women’s work – of little or no value, amateur stuff only fit to be “restricted within the domestic spaces”

I have been interested in visual thinking for a while and find it a useful way to explore a concept or facilitate a discussion. But I always assumed that the end result of such a discussion was to end up with a set of words that captured what needed to be done. The images are transitional objects that help us towards that goal. It bothered me that others spent a lot of time on the visual craft itself, creating beautiful images – but what was the point of that. You ended up with art but how useful is art after all?

What Michael’s paper is showing us is that when we work mainly with words we are using a purely masculine approach to business – and we know that’s not enough. We know we need diversity but we haven’t quite realized that we need diversity not just externally – with diverse people around us – but internally, by using the diversity of our minds. When we get better at using images and words we will be more in touch with the feminine and masculine sides of our selves and will make more balanced, more complete assessments and decisions than relying on just one of those ways of thinking.

This idea of gender imbalances built into the fabric of our culture is eye opening. It also leads you to wonder where else such imbalances are lurking. Take gendered languages, for example. Why did they emerge and does it have anything to do with this distinction between a mute, speechless image and a free, unfettered word? And is the answer a resolution, a joining together of the genders, half-man half-woman in your mind?

Now all this is a little theoretical so here’s what I think this means in practice. I was talking with a group today about branding – the idea of a brand holding some kind of emotional content about what you do. So, let’s say I wanted to ask you what you thought of me as a brand, of this blog – then what I should do is talk to you, ask you questions and get you to describe what you think. In words.

That would the traditional, the masculine approach. The feminine approach, following on from the argument above, is to disallow words. Instead of asking for words I should ask you to select images. Or music. Or pieces of art. The things that are not words – diverse things that usually capture emotion better than words. After all, we’re told to “show, not tell”. Images carry emotion and if brands are about emotion then maybe we should talk about them using the containers that carry meaning best.

It’s more than a little ironic that I’m using words to make sense of this concept – arguing vehemently for a diversity of thinking. But it needs arguing, because it’s not a concept that’s going to be easily accepted. It goes too far against the grain of what people believe unquestioningly. For example, usually when I show my drawings to my children they say it’s good. But when I showed them the one that starts this blog – you could see them getting confused, quizzical. This is not what they expected. And it was strange and they weren’t sure if this was something they could go along with.

Diversity is a bit like that, I think. It’s a good thing and it makes people scared. It’s fascinating or fearful, as Michael puts it.

So maybe when there is a lack of understanding between people there is a little bit of this gender imbalance going on – a clash between image and word, emotion and logic. And maybe that’s something we should look at in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Michael, Olga ORCID: 0000-0003-0523-9929 (2017) “Scrapbooking Caravaggio’s Medusa, Reconfiguring Blake: What It Is, One! Hundred! Demons! and Lynda Barry’s Feminist Intervention in the (Male) Artistic Canon”. ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 9 (3). ISSN 1549-6732

Do You Have The Balance Right In Your Life?

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Monday, 8.57pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. – Albert Einstein

I watched the Matrix trilogy again recently, in the stolen minutes of the day that lie between the tasks we have to do these days, and was surprised at the end to hear something I have heard for as long as I can remember. As the third film finished I was certain I heard a chant that starts “asatho ma sad gamaya” – and when I checked that was the case, it’s a disguised message that most people will not notice, and the lines of the mantra, when translated, are as follows.

“From ignorance, lead me to truth; From darkness, lead me to light; From death, lead me to immortality”

This isn’t what I want to talk about.

There is a trend at the moment on my social media timeline for people to put down the value of an academic degree, to question the value of something like an MBA, a Masters in Business Administration. And I wondered why – what was the point of this kind of attack? Did these people think that there was a better approach? Well, clearly they must do, so what are the options you have as you embark on the unforgiving journey of living the life you’ve been given?

One way is the path of work, of doing a job, a trade – something useful. That’s what most of us experience in one form or the other throughout our lives. You work, and work for something, probably working for money. Something that helps you to make a living. But, of course, we don’t spring fully formed, ready for work. Most of us need some schooling, some training, whether in formal education or through an apprenticeship of some kind.

So we have these two major modes of operation – the way of school and the way of work. Some of us found school difficult and couldn’t wait to get on and do something else. Others found it easy and carried on, doing further studies and perhaps going on to become academics. And, as we went along these paths, we were, perhaps successful, and so decided that the way we had chosen was the better way and we started to wonder why others didn’t take this path as well and felt the need to point out to them that they were on the wrong track. Entrepreneurs look down on academics and academics see the pursuit of wealth instead of knowledge as a pointless waste of time. Or perhaps they don’t – we don’t know what they’re thinking. But it’s interesting how many people are ready to criticise something they have no experience of themselves.

What should be obvious to anyone is that this distinction I’ve drawn – this idea that there are these two different paths – is clearly wrong. You can’t just have one or the other – you need both. You have to have a hunger for learning and a hunger for action – you have to do both in order to do something useful. Our ability to learn and change is what makes it possible for us to act and create.

Now the reason I went down this track of thought is because I was thinking of research and application – the idea of finding knowledge and then trying to apply it to real life problems. That’s a lot of what I try and do with this blog – I explore models and approaches with a view to trying them out and seeing if they can help improve things. In my experience, learning the theory of something first is less useful than first having to grapple with something and then start to learn the theory around it. For example, I remember studying how relays worked at University and narrowly passed exams on the subject despite never having actually seen one. I still don’t really know much about them or what they do. But, after having worked for ten years, going back and doing a business degree showed me the kind of theories that had been created to describe the experiences I was having – and I found that very useful. What’s the point of just working for four decades and never really understanding why some things worked and some things didn’t? Especially when there is a theory, a model, an approach that gives you the knowledge and understanding you need?

So I think this is a false argument. Why learn something? Because it’s useful when you know how to use and apply it. When will you know? By taking action and failing and realizing you need to know more to get it right. It doesn’t matter where you start – maybe just enough theory to get you going, then a lot of work, and then back to the theory, and back again – and eventually you’ll find that having experience and knowledge is better than just having one or the other.

But if you’ve only got these two I think you’ve still only gone from making a one-legged stool to a two-legged one. There’s something missing, something I think I’m going to call practice. If work is what you do for money and theory is what you learn, then practice is what you do for you. This is the thing that helps you to integrate the theory you learn and the work you do to create your own approach to the world, the thing that brings out something that only you can offer. And this is not something I can approach with words or descriptions – it’s a state of mind, a state of being that comes by thinking and acting without wanting.

As I thought of this concept and wondered how to get it across – one approach seemed to rise up – perhaps fuelled by the Matrix. The idea of the trinity, an important, a sacred concept. And this gives us our three-legged stool. Think of it like food, like nourishment. We do work to feed our bodies. We learn theory to feed our minds. And we carry out a practice to feed our spirit. We need all three to survive – it’s not just about Maslow and his pyramid. You won’t go anywhere with a broken or failing body, mind or spirit. All three are essential and you need to take care of them.

And that brings us to the question of how to do that and why. Again, the answer is obvious. It’s to get balance – balancing these three is the secret to balancing your life. Watch anyone, ask anyone. If they are all about only one of these you can be assured that they’re failing at the others. But if they are happy, content – then the chances are that they’ve got a mix of these working for them. Something that brings in the money, something that feeds their mind and something that makes them grateful for the life they’re living.

I’m not really going to go any deeper into this right now, because it’s the kind of thing that takes time. If you don’t know this then I can’t really persuade you until the time is right. Trust me on this – balance is good. And getting the balance right between these three is going to be good for you. Maybe it’s something I’ll come back to later.

But what I want to move on to in the next post is something that I learned about in a paper the other day – something so obvious once it’s pointed out to you but never questioned or thought about if it’s not.

Let’s look at that next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Do You Know When To Reveal The Real You?

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Sunday, 6.58pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Never stop fighting until you arrive at your destined place – that is, the unique you. Have an aim in life, continuously acquire knowledge, work hard, and have perseverance to realise the great life. – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

In my last post I looked at the two options you have – do a set of jobs better than anyone else or do something no one else does. Let’s look at the second option in a little more detail today.

If I was doing this as an exercise I’d go to the whiteboard and pull out the VRIO model – four questions you should ask yourself about whatever it is you do.

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First, is it valuable? Does it do something for your customer that they need. A good check of value is to ask if they are willing to pay for what they are getting. If they are, then it’s valuable. If they aren’t, then you need to ask some more questions.

Then you ask yourself, is it rare? Is the thing you do something that can’t be easily found? It’s rare to find truly rare things these days. Most of the time you’ll find that there are artificial barriers in the way set up by vested interests. For example, you can’t practice the law or be an accountant without spending time, getting a placement and passing exams. Do you need all that really or is it also a way of restricting access to a profession and ensuring that the people involved control how many others they are competing with? There are lots of arguments trotted out about quality and all that, but the most important point is that the best way to protect yourself is to have a monopoly and most trades try and work towards getting themselves one of those, either individually or as a group. It really doesn’t matter, I suppose, how something becomes rare – what matters is that it is. But it’s worth remembering that it often comes down to having control or having a secret.

The fourth one is the simplest – do you have the organization, the resources needed to do what you do? And the third is the really important one – is what you do hard to copy, is it inimitable, difficult to imitate?

The higher your score on each of these attributes the more likely it is that you will: first, have customers; and second, have high margins.

But what if you aren’t there yet, or anywhere? What if you do something that is relatively undifferentiated, something that’s much the same as the things other people do, something that’s a commodity? We have to recognize that’s not a bad thing and there will be a price at which you will find a buyer for what you’re offering. And if there isn’t, you probably need to find something else to offer. You have to do something to nourish the body – whatever needs doing has to be done.

But if you’re okay with the basics, but you’re yearning for something more then how do you go about finding it? Do you follow the latest lifestyle guru, sign up for a training package that will get you to where you need to be, look for a hack or shortcut that will get you there fast?

It might not surprise you, if you’ve read this blog before, that I’m not a big fan of shortcuts. I think things happen when you’re ready for them. They’re probably happening all the time but you only see them when you have eyes that are ready. It’s very hard to tell when someone else is successful whether that’s happened because they were better or because they were lucky – as every investment fund warns you, past performance is no guarantee of future success.

I’ve recently come across the work of Lynda Barry and I’m trying to understand her approach to this question. Let’s say you’re searching for your thing – the thing that is unique to you. Are you going to be able to think your way into it? Should you take some time and just meditate on the question, talk about your problem, research it, run towards what you think is going to work for you?

I think Barry’s argument is that thinking is not going to work. Few people know what they really want. Do you? Can you say right now that you’re doing exactly what you wanted to do and your dreams have come true? Or can you point to a thing, perhaps someone else who is living the life you want and say that you’d be happy if you just got that? How do you know if you’ll be happy until you live that particular life? And in going after that path how do you know that you wouldn’t have been happier if you had gone a different way?

Barry’s argument is one that I think I agree with and it starts by rejecting any attempt to decide whether what you’re doing is good or bad – the part of you that tries to check and measure and work out if you’re heading in the right direction or have the right goals or are doing the right thing. And this is because doing the right thing, the expected thing, the normal thing often results in the normal, expected, everyday, right thing. But what’s unique about that? If you do everything right you’ll end up completely wrong, you’ll live the life your parents want for you, your teachers advise you to follow, take the steps that should be taken and wonder all the while where the years went and what happened when you weren’t looking at the dark corners, the hidden alleyways, the mysterious pathways that you could have taken but chose not to, as you continued on the main street filled with what’s normal and nice and standard.

It’s the paradox of going after the unique, of hunting that creature that no one has ever seen before. You don’t know where it is or what it is or what it looks like. You can’t think your way into resolving that problem – you have to start by acting. By doing. Something. Anything, that works for you. For example, that thing could be dancing, movement, music, science – anything that’s an art and science is also an art even though it thinks it’s not. Science is a special case of an art, an art that works whether it has an audience or not. For me that start was writing, having a go at putting words down one after the other and seeing if I liked doing it. And drawing. Words and images together work for me. The question you have to answer is what works for you. But don’t spend time answering it – just pick up the first art that you want to try and get on with it.

What will happen over time, if you practice, is that you will start to discover what you like and what you don’t like and what you want more of and what you want less of. The act of acting, of doing will reveal you to yourself and you’ll start to see the shapes, the colours, the outlines of the brilliant, complex creature that you could be, that unique creature inside you just waiting to come out and express itself. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks. What matters is what you discover about yourself.

You have to do for a while, years probably. But after you’ve done something for enough time that’s when the thinking becomes useful, when it’s time to reflect and learn and ask what others have done, because they’ve also probably gone on your journey, experienced some of the feelings you’ve gone through. As the saying goes, when the student is ready the teacher will appear.

I think if you want to be happy you are going to have to balance three things – three elements that build on and strengthen each other. Let’s look at those in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Where Is The Real Value Being Added By Your Approach?

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Saturday, 6.40pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Price is what you pay, Value is what you get – Warren Buffett

In the last post of my Community book project I started to explore the idea of tasks, of jobs that needed to be done and how that might operate in a community setting. What does it mean to have a job – a task to do when it comes to being together in groups?

Imagine a large family get-together, a party of some kind. You arrive early and, when you get there, are you immediately given something to do – a job to carry out, a way to help? Or are you left alone, to wander around aimlessly while everyone else rushes to get things done? Don’t you feel out of place, obliged to ask if you can help, happy if you are involved? I think having something to do together has deep biological and sociological roots stabilizing our sense of community and togetherness.

If you doubt that just think of what happens to communities when they have nothing to do. You have the images of a superstore opening, Walmart coming to town, and town shopping centres turning into ghost spaces, where the only ones that can survive are niche stores, betting shops and charity shops. Do you still have a corner store? Do you know the names of anyone that serves you? And, of course, the availability of apps makes it even less necessary to interact with anyone. You place an order and someone brings it to your table. But there’s no need to talk, apart from perhaps to say “Thank you.” But you don’t have to, do you?

One argument is that jobs are always changing, so while some are lost others open up. Of course, it means that some people are lost along the way, but isn’t that the price of progress? In countries where there is a social safety net, isn’t that the whole point of having them? It’s never that easy, unfortunately, as the scars of job losses, when they are the result of a loss of purpose, can sear through generations. So we should really be asking ourselves at least two questions? What is going to come along and take my job away? And what kind of job am I likely to be able to keep?

Let’s start with the first one, because it can be argued that the entire purpose of innovation is to make certain jobs redundant. And if you understand that principle then you might have a better chance of coming up with a useful innovation.

Let’s take a step back – what do you think of when you think of an innovation? The image we have is of something new, something different, something cool. And yes, that’s what we see, but that’s not what innovation really is. I came across a paper called Segmentation & the Jobs-to-be-done theory: A Conceptual Approach to Explaining Product Failure by Klaus Oestreicher, that has a few interesting ideas that I’d like to explore. The link to the paper is in the references below.

Oestreicher’s starting point is to suggest that instead of looking at what we think a customer needs we should look at what they need to get done – something Clayton Christensen called a “jobs-to-be-done” theory. The point is that customers very rarely know what they need. They find it very hard to tell you what kind of product or service innovation will solve their problem, or what precise solution they will be willing to buy. What they can usually tell you, on the other hand, is what they are doing now, what works for them, what they can live with and the problems and frustrations they have. And hidden in this narrative is the information you need to come up with something both innovative and commercially viable.

Let’s take an example – think of what a writer does. A writer is first a reader, a thinker, someone who wants to express herself or himself in writing. The origins of writing, however, are rooted in business, in the need for tabulating and accounting for goods and exchanges and debts. Writing is also perhaps almost as closely linked to telling the stories of great people, ballads and histories and legends to maintain reputations. Money and power have always been linked to the ability to put words on a medium.

The jobs to be done in the early days of writing came down to the selection of instrument, of medium and of surface. Sticks, clay and walls for our stone age ancestors, quills, vellum and ink in medieval Europe, brushes, bones and soot, and paper in China. The jobs were laborious and took time and the results, once down, took time to replicate. If you wanted a copy of a manuscript you had to copy it out by hand.

To really understand what was involved in creating and distributing books you could list out all the tasks, creating something that Vandermerwe called a Customer Activity Cycle (CAC) as described by Oestreicher. What you’ll see is lots of innovation – what the people who did cave drawings did was an act of stupendous innovation. But what is it that results in one innovation replacing the previous innovation? What made the printing press replace the hand-copying of books? Now, printing versus hand-copying seems to have obvious benefits – humans have certain disadvantages when it comes to competing against machines. But as you gained in speed and consistency you lost the ability to do other things as easily – for example mixing words and pictures. The argument here is that printing won because it did the jobs that needed to be done sufficiently better to make it a good idea to switch to the new medium.

In Oestreicher’s paper he uses the example of VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray to demonstrate his argument. DVD was of much better quality than VHS and didn’t degrade with each play and eventually made VHS obsolete. It didn’t really reduce the number of jobs a user had to do to play a movie – you still had to buy the medium, the player and insert the media. Blu-Ray was of higher quality than a DVD but not as much better as a DVD was than a VHS and so the argument is that we didn’t switch from DVD to Blu-Ray because what we had was already good enough. Now, this is not necessarily making the argument that what’s driven innovation is reducing jobs to be done. That innovation perhaps was in replacing live theatre with recordings that you could play back later. The real next innovation is in streaming, which truly reduces the jobs to be done. Now, you select a film from your list, click buy and play. None of that going to the shop and having to buy it sort of stuff is involved and there are truly fewer jobs to be done.

So what this should tell is if your job requires the consumer to go somewhere, then you have to ask yourself whether there is an innovation out there that makes that unnecessary. And 2020 has shown us how that would work because we now have the language of essential and non-essential jobs. Getting a haircut and getting medical treatment are essential. Eating out and going to a classroom to learn are less so. Stocking supermarket shelves with food is essential. A shop selling almost anything else is not.

When I think of jobs to be done I think of a busy kitchen – hence the image at the start of this post. The irony of that is there aren’t that many of those open now. So we need a new picture, perhaps, to think of our work and what we do. Because we need to do work in order to have a community – but those communities will be different. We know our neighbours better now but spend less time at work but perhaps more time communicating. We are getting used to the idea that we can work with anyone and we can get anything, but it takes more time to get the right thing.

I think where this heads to is that we have to become more intentional about what we are going to do – for us and for our future generations. The idea that there are tasks to be done, jobs to be done is not enough with the changes happening around us. If you want to protect yourself what you have to do is create a job that no one else can do. That’s the kind of job you are going to be able to keep, something that you’ve brought into existence that creates unique value that no one else can replicate. That means you have to go from being passive – from being someone who looks for work – to being someone who creates opportunities and demonstrates value.

And that starts with learning how to speak your mind, how to put yourself in the way of opportunity. Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Setting Out A Plan For The Year

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Friday, 10.11pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You can’t hurry a loaf of bread. You have to wait for it to prove and rise. – Mel Giedroyc

I was going to write about something else but then I stopped – there’s no need to hurry this thing and, given it’s the first day of a new year, the first day of a new decade is there a better day to stop and think and just check whether we’re doing the right things?

How has the last decade been for you? For me, I think it might end up being the lost decade. The one where I moved from paper and pen to digital and online and, in the process, have more “stuff” than ever and less understanding of it than ever.

For example, we have pictures in their tens of thousands, sat somewhere in the cloud. But most of our prints are a decade old. We’re running out of email space on the online services we moved to at the start of the decade and have no idea what’s important and what isn’t. But what is important is a twenty-plus year old stash of letters that I’ve carried around with me all that time. Not that I ever look at them, but it’s nice to know they’re there.

We have access to more information but is it helping us make better decisions, live better lives? On the one hand we are torn between complex, equally compelling arguments and need the time to make nuanced decisions but what we also see is raw tribalism, populism and xenophobia driving action. Alongside a tidal wave of sharing and teaching is a sewage flood of criticism and comment.

One of the things we ought to see is that the same thing that gives rise to one is also necessary for the other. The Internet gives us the ability to share and the ability to tear down. It’s a bipolar construct, the same element facilitating both great good and great evil. The Internet and technology are not problems – they just are and what we have to do is figure out our relationship with them and with everything else out there.

I think when one tries to do something fast we lose sight of why we’re doing it. We think things “should” be done in a certain way. When writing, for example, I have assumed things like you should write in single sentences, not paragraphs online, and longer posts are better than short ones. But why would that be the case? Is it because it is something that’s clearer for you as a reader? Or is it because you’re trying to appeal to Google, which is the route to you as a reader? Surely the fewer the words you need to explore something the better? Why use ten words when two will do? Why write in some kind of artificially dynamic style when plain prose is enough?

The thing about the years is that they pass a day at a time whether you like it or not. This year, I think, is one for unplugging, one for noticing and one for slowing down.

A year for clarifying practices, bringing together the paper practices that I used the decade before last with the digital tools of the last one – to create foundations for the next decade.

From 2000 to 2010 I used to say that if it wasn’t in writing it didn’t exist. From 2010 I shifted to the view that if it wasn’t online, it didn’t exist.

In this third decade my view is moving towards realizing the obvious. It exists if it is in the world.

This comes together in a few ideas that I’ll explore again later. One is that the Purpose Of a System Is What It Does (POSIWID). The world is as we find it and the purpose of it is what it does. The second is that the best thing we can hope to do is organize the way in which we approach and learn about the world and, in doing so, leave things better than we found them. And what this blog is doing is trying to capture what I’m learning in a way that’s useful for me and, hopefully, for you.

So that’s the plan then… to begin another decade of learning because the world is endlessly fascinating and what’s more interesting than exploring the art of living well?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh