Manage Your Energy Or Someone Else Will

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Monday, 8.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Energy conservation is the foundation of energy independence. – Tom Allen

I’m a little low on energy today. Maybe it’s a biorhythm thing – the charts that I look at when I think about this sort of thing show everything at a low. Maybe biorhythms don’t mean anything but electric circuits do and I think they have something useful to tell us about living well.

Tom Allen’s quote has to do with energy, power, the stuff that comes out of a generator. But it could be applied just as well to whatever else you do. I’m starting to think that life is a zero sum game, where every unit of energy you give someone else is a unit of energy you don’t have for yourself. And that makes managing your energy really quite an important thing to get your head around.

For example, your creative energy can be used to work on your projects or work on your employer’s projects. If you use them to work on “work” projects you just won’t have enough energy left to do your own stuff. How many graphic designers go home and paint for the fun of it? How many chefs cook? How many writers write? I suspect those who do are careful not to give their all work, saving some energy, conserving it, so that they have some left when they get home and want to do a bit more.

I think that’s what’s happening today. I’ve spent a long time on a particular project and it’s just drained the energy I have left over. So, you might say, that’s ok. Take the day off. No one will notice if you don’t do what you want to do because that’s what you want to do. But that’s a dangerous argument, once you take a day off, it’s easy to take another day and then another one and before you know it a few years have passed and you don’t feel like you can do anything any more.

So, even if you’re tired you need to do the work. You need to get on and put something out that’s what you want to do. And that’s where the way to break out of a zero-sum game lies. It lies in routine and leverage.

First – you can keep going with muscle memory, just momentum from routine and the previous day’s work can keep you going even when you’re running on empty. Sort of like a flywheel that stores just enough to get you over the hump.

The second is to use leverage. Tools that help you do more quickly. Tools are amazing and if you get your toolkit working for you it’s going to help you out most during those times when you have little left to give. The tools will look after you if you look after them.

And then you’ll have another day behind you and time to recharge and start again.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Get Better At Doing The Right Things Fast

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Sunday, 7.55pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The primary factor in a successful attack is speed. – Lord Mountbatten

I have always believed that doing things fast is important. That’s because people are usually willing to give you a small amount of time to try something out but balk at giving you long periods. So, if you’re the kind of person who needs to get it right then you’re best off doing it the way that you know works – following the recipe exactly and honing your ability to get it right every time. I imagine that’s the state of mind a master sword maker has – someone who follows a sacred routine that’s been perfected over generations of practice.

I’m not a good recipe follower. Instructions tend to bore me and I find it very hard to pay attention when I have to do things in order. I like trying new things and if I have to do something – I’ll probably approach it in a way that’s quick and easy and dirty and hacky and see what happens. This has been a useful approach professionally – because I get given tasks that people find hard because I’ll figure out ways to get them done while the people who are good at doing the job do the things that we know how to do. So I end up doing things that are innovative – or at least different.

The flip side of being innovative, however, is that you can end up never doing anything well. That’s ok when it comes to business because the whole point of being part of a company is to work with people who have complementary skills so that you do more as a team than any one of you can do individually. But when it comes to doing your work – the work of your life which is the same as the art of your life then you need to take a different approach. Fortunately, I’m finding out that the way you do that is a refinement of my “speed is best” approach rather than a choice between fast or good.

But first, let me talk about a few people who are on YouTube and who I’ve been learning from over the last few days.

Christopher Hart and Terry Moore are well worth checking out if you want some brilliant tutorials on drawing cartoons. What’s great about watching professionals draw, rather than reading their books, is that you get to see their pencils move and, in particular, the sort of processes they follow. It’s one thing reading a book that says rough out your picture and then fill in details and a completely different thing watching someone who knows what they’re doing work through their process. It’s a funny thing but people who know what they’re doing tend to forget how to do it and make terrible teachers. I remember this vividly when we first had children. You forget what’s its like and advice from mums and dads was pretty useless and even people who were a few months or years ahead seemed to forget the details of how they did what they did.

Anyway, this point, about first roughing something out and then working towards a finished article is the opposite of what I do – back to that speed thing again. I get on, at full speed, get it done and then move on. And it probably shows, in my writing, in my drawing, in the material that’s on this blog.

And when you start doing it the slow way it’s painful. For example, in the image above I started with an idea and then realized I had to draw a particular kind of figure so tried to work it out and then had a go at the piece again. Now, if you know how to draw you’ll find all kinds of mistakes I’ve made. The ones I can see, given my lesser knowledge, include an inability to work out which limb goes where and the fact that you can smudge your work if you try and erase pencil lines without waiting for the ink to dry. Paper is unforgiving in this respect, when compared the to the digital approach I’ve taken for the last four years. Digital is fast but has not made me any better. Paper and pen and sketching have made me more aware of what needs to be done and where my limitations lie and where I need to improve.

So let’s talk about Ivan Brunetti. There are a couple of YouTube interviews with him and they are going to leave you conflicted on whether to admire him or pity him. This is a person who has done covers for the New Yorker, who has a legendary status in the comics arena and knows all the big names in the field. He is also someone that talks about suffering from a clinical level of depression that leaves him unable to pick up a pencil.

His experiences echo what the theory tells you. Should you go for the safe secure job or follow your heart? Is it important to work hard and push yourself or do something every day that accumulates over time? What does getting old do to your ability to produce – do you speed up or slow down?

We all need to work out our own approaches to these things. On the one hand technology can make us so much better at doing things. If you use computers in the right way they will augment you. If you use them in the wrong way nothing changes. Back in 1993 a Microsoft memo talked about how the world “writes with PCs” and how spreadsheets have replaced the columnar pad. But, even in 2021, people write in the same way they’d have written with a typewriter. The way you should write using a computer has been around for forty years but it’s never going to catch on because the tools most people use don’t support it. What most of us read, however, webpages written using html, does.

The thing about starting with a rough structure and then refining it – that fundamental process is actually the fastest way to get to a drawing that works. It’s also the best way to build a business that works or a business plan or anything else. And when I talk about doing things fast it’s pretty much the same thing. If you’re doing something new then you’re not going to get it perfect the first time you have a go. You’re going to have to feel your way to it, with initial exploratory work, finding the boundaries, the outline and then starting to work on the detail.

There are a number of reasons why doing this is hard in business. People don’t like to admit that they don’t know what the right answer is. Or they’re too scared to contradict the boss. There’s lots that happens in organizations and bureaucracies and companies that happens because we’re not willing to work towards a solution, preferring to work instead on what the top person wants. The two may not be the same thing.

After all, you’re going to get somewhere whatever you do. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it when you get there. But the thing you can definitely do is enjoy the journey.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Figure Out What You’re Trying To Do

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Saturday, 7.45pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There is always another way to say the same thing that doesn’t look at all like the way you said it before. I don’t know what the reason for this is. I think it is somehow a representation of the simplicity of nature. – Richard P. Feynman

In my last post I looked at how children approach art and how their relationship with with it changes over time, starting with unselfconscious “making” and then stopping when they start to realize that what they’re making is “not good”. And that’s a feeling that doesn’t ever leave us and, for many of us, we grow into adulthood not being good at the arts – not being able to draw or sing or dance and perhaps never going back to it again.

One reason we don’t go back, perhaps the biggest reason, is that it takes time to get good at something and, as we get older, we have less and less time. By the time we reach the ripe old age of eight the chances are that we know what we’re good at and what we’re not good at and know where we should spend our time. This probably has something to do with the 10,000 hour rule – if you start playing the violin at age 2 and practice three times a week until you’re 8 for 2 hours at a time, you’d have gotten in just under 1,900 hours. If you grew up in a household of musicians you’d have been exposed to music all that time. So, when it’s time to pick extracurriculars you’d probably go for music and when it’s time to get picked to play – that’s probably going to be you and the rest of us are going to stand in the background and hope no one see us.

Now, while there’s the whole thing about the 10,000 hours being about world class performance – it just so happens to be the amount of time you’ll spend on stuff you like doing all the way through school and the time you’ll spend on the career skills you learn in those first few jobs and you’ll end up being pretty good at that thing you do. But at the rest, not so much. So you stop.

But, of course, the point is that you don’t have to be world class at everything. You don’t even need to be good. You just have to be able to do stuff that makes you feel good and being able to do things like draw and sing and dance make you feel good but they are so scary to learn when you’re an adult and want to be good and, more importantly, hate to be seen as being bad. According to Josh Kaufman you need around 20 hours to be able to do something to a reasonable standard. And if you follow Tim Ferriss you can be world class if you play the rules rather than playing the game.

But I think the first thing to get clear on is whether you want to make money doing this other thing or not. If you already make money in one way – from a job or a profession or whatever – then you should keep doing that. The definition of work, as I understand it, is doing something that you would rather not do. So, make that thing bring in as much money as possible, preferably taking up as little of your time as possible and spend the rest of your time thinking about your art. And get clear that you’re not doing it for money – that helps. Eventually, if you’re lucky, your art may bring in the money but you need to be clear that it’s not about that. The rule to remember is this – if you do something and you get paid right away then you’re doing it for the money. If you do something and then some money maybe turns up, much much later, then you’re not doing it for the money.

Now, once we’ve got that straight, and this is me talking to me as much as it is to you, we need to look at the thing we want to do – and for me that thing is figuring out this whole drawing and writing thing because there’s something in there that intrigues and interests and excites me. The title and subtitle of this blog weren’t there from the start, they’ve emerged over time as the elements that persist in my work, using handmade artifacts – yes, words and pictures are handmade – to make sense of first the business of business and now the business of living.

And I’ve got to feel my way into a position of balance. And I won’t get there by thinking but by doing and making and the more of that I do the more what’s important will become obvious. Why do I think that? Well, it always has. When you pay attention to something then you start to see more and that seeing seems to make stuff visible. Stuff that was there all along but that you didn’t have eyes to see yet.

There’s something here that has to do with the story you tell yourself. Stories seem very important. After all, your basic biology lets you figure out the really important stuff – whether to stay where you are or run away. But the human part of you, then, is all about the story. The changes are that right now if you had nothing else you had to do you’d sit back and immerse yourself in a story, a book, a film, something that took you over. A business plan is a story. Your own goals, life plans, motivating messages are all stories you tell yourself. Science is a story that you can check out for yourself.

What’s the best way for you to tell the story that matters to you? I started yesterday with a child’s drawing. At the other end is a photo – a picture of reality that is as detailed as you could probably want. You could tell your story just using words or you could use a movie, a hyper-realistic graphic novel – any kind of media that you’re qualified to use. Unfortunately for me I’m not qualified for any of those other than perhaps typing out words. But maybe cartoons will help, cartoons that help me work through ideas rather than just relying on words. Perhaps one like the image that starts this blog – maybe that’s a form of representation that can work with the limited skills I have to get me where I want to be.

So… as I carry on do I look at the technicalities of cartooning and writing or do I try and explore a space by asking questions and seeing if cartoons can help me. There are lots of people who are much more qualified for the former activity – so perhaps I stick to the latter. Or I can try one approach and change later… there are no restrictions, after all. Maybe we just have a chat and see where it takes us.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Can Children Teach Us About Art

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Friday, 10.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

When children draw or do rudimentary painting, the whole human being develops an interest in what is being done. This is why we should allow writing to develop from drawing. – Rudolf Steiner

I have been thinking about art and drawing and images for a few weeks now and realized that I should park my other book project and have a go at a new one – because there is lots to learn and uncover about the world of the unwritten – the not-word.

And the place to start is the beginning, the way children draw. I always learn most when I work with my children and as the latest lockdown has enforced home schooling again, this seems like a good time to watch and learn from them. So, what kinds of things do we see?

I am fascinated by the way kids work with colour and ink and paper. My younger one is at the upper end of the age range where one draws unselfconsciously. On the 27th of December, 2020, he drew a picture and, for the first time, said, “It isn’t very good,” and scratched over it. I rescued the image and put it in my files because that was the point, that is the point, for all of us, when we start to worry about making good art, rather than just making. And when we worry about whether we make good art or bad art then the easiest thing to do is stop making art at all and that is what happens to most of us.

But, on the whole, there is still that childish desire to make marks and when I watch him draw the lines are bold and go over each other and have jagged edges and the bad guys are clear and the point is clear and I wonder what is it that a child has that we adults don’t when it comes to the paper and the marks they make.

And that’s not a new question, but it’s not one that appears to be very well answered. For example, there is a chapter in the book Understanding Children edited by Robert Grieve and Martin Hughes titled “Children’s pictures.” What they say is that children seem to develop about the same way through the ages – there is an age-stage thing happening. You have a range between random mark making, on the one hand, and exact representation on the other. Children start off by trying to represent what they see and they focus on the characteristics that are most prominent – the ones they notice. They are less worried about getting the image right than getting the thing they want on there. For example, in my picture above, things like a sword or a cape or a red face are the elements that are important, not wrinkles or shadows. Recently, cute eyes have been a feature of drawings, though…

They get better at representing as they get older, with perspective entering the picture. But also, along the way, we have the entry of symbols, representations of what we think rather than what we see. So you have the inclusion of stick figures to represent people rather than the main features of a particular person. For example, in early pictures you will see the exact colour of your granny’s jumper but later, it might just be a granny like person.

Eventually, the symbols become a more compact and efficient way to represent meaning. The logical conclusion of using symbols is to end up using written language and much “visual” thinking these days is really a symbolic representation of complex concepts in the world. We’re not really thinking visually but instead taking advantage of a different symbolic language to capture elements that are harder to show in normal language patterns, most significantly relationships between things. For example, you could create a numbered list of things but it’s easier to show interrelationships between the elements on that list with a flow chart.

So what does it mean when an adult tries to draw like a child, like I’ve done with the image that starts this post. Is it doing what Lynda Barry was asked if she did – being faux naive – faking naivety? Is it simply poor representation of a child that hasn’t learned how to either draw something so it more closely approximates reality or replace the image with words? Or is there a child-like way of seeing – something that sees what is there rather than what you expect or hope to be there. A kind of seeing that points out that the Emperor has no clothes?

If children draw in a way that sees what is there – that looks at reality unblinkingly then what can we learn from that as adults? We know the world is not simple, that isn’t all about goodies and baddies and that baddies sometimes win and get away with it and goodies sometimes lose and are forgotten. And in real life who is good and who is bad depends on who you are and what you think and what your point of view and history happens to be.

So, we’ve looked at art as a form of representation and as a form of symbolic language and sort of as a way of seeing what’s actually there but we need to try and not miss the most important point, the one staring us in the face and stamping the floor impatiently, waiting to be noticed.

Art is fun.

It’s fun playing with colour and paint and paper and getting it messy and not worrying – and it makes everything more interesting.

For example, no one wants to do maths or English home study, I don’t and my child doesn’t. The small person had no intention of doing any work – which included writing a story and doing some exercises. So, rather than argue we got the paints out and suggested painting the words for the story and painting the numbers and when you get pot of water and a brush and get some colours and start painting fractions they get a lot more interesting than doing it with a pencil and neatly getting it all down. The homework is a riot of colour and that’s not how it would have been done at school but it’s been done, the child will probably remember it better for a whole host of reasons and I enjoyed it more as well.

So there’s something there – something missed in all the talk about representation and symbols – something about the raw power of making to invigorate us as human beings. I’ve filled three quarters of a composition book in the last week with stuff and flipping through it the image above just feels more alive somehow. And I want to figure out why.

Maybe Ivan Brunetti’s method has a clue somewhere.

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

You Don’t Have To Keep Doing Things The Same Way

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Thursday, 9.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The child in me wanted to try out new things and do something different. – Krystle D’Souza

Children can be brutal.

The small people who live in the house with me tolerate my drawing and writing with some bemusement, sometimes with interest.

A while back the smallest one asked me how many words I’d written, and whether it was more than a thousand. So I said it was a little more than that, in the hundreds of thousands and paged through the words and showed how long it took to get from start to finish.

And the small person was impressed and then asked about the drawings, and said let’s see how much better you are and so I showed one from a few years ago and one from a more recent time and the small person said, “Not much…”

So this year I think I’m going to take it easier on the words and think more about images and stories which will make these posts shorter but probably increase the amount of time I spend working on stuff.

I’m going to use Lynda Barry’s books as a base to work from, with the exercises she has to develop your skills at noticing things and along the way I’ll document what I’m trying and learning and links to those resources.

Hopefully, at the end of the year, when the small person has a look I’ll get a better reaction…

The image above, by the way, is for anyone who has experienced an annual budget process.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Is The Slowest Way Really The Fastest Way?

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Wednesday, 6.41pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There is more to life than increasing its speed. – Mahatma Gandhi

I think this post is going to be an angsty one so I’m not sure how useful it’s going to be. Feel free to stop reading unless you’re intrigued by the idea of working out a conundrum in public. A blog is, I suppose, a form of therapy for the writer and every once in a while it makes sense to take advantage of that opportunity.

I suppose the general question I have, which repeats again and again, is what’s the point of it all. What are we trying to do here.

The first answer that comes to me is a cultural one – the approach taken in the part of the world that I come from can be taken to be essentially nihilistic. The world is an illusion, and everything in it a distraction. But, in such a pointless existence the answer is anything but nihilistic, anything but negative. The ultimate aim is to be free from the illusion and that comes through doing your thing, whatever that thing is. Do your thing and whatever happens you will be fulfilled.

The second answer comes from the culture in which I have spent more of my adult life. One of materialism and innovation and technology and deprivation. A world where you can do anything but where you can also be stuck forever. I’m not entirely sure what the point is here but it has something to do with growth and economics and prosperity and stuff like that.

What makes all this complicated is when you think about why you do anything and when you start to confuse cause and effect and I think that’s happening a bit in various places and I don’t know quite what to make of it all.

For example, I went to listen to a philosopher talk about work and I remember her saying that she had looked through all the definitions of what “work” was and had come to the conclusion that work was something you did that you didn’t want to do. I think that’s what she said anyway – this is from a decade or so ago. The reason this matters, she said, is because you have to figure out whether you work for work’s sake or you work for money. After all, if work something you do that you don’t want to do then you are probably not doing it for the sake of doing the work. If you’re doing it for the money then before you ask what you want out of work you have to ask what you want out of money – what is the money going to get you that is going to make up for the pain of having to do work you don’t want to do?

It’s at this point that I start to wonder what the point of it all is and then I draw a deep well and climb down to the bottom and practice drawing deep black with crayon and realizing just how hard it is to work with crayon. But its rewarding in its own way as a pointless activity that has nothing to do with work or money and everything to do with meaning. Because the well is a symbol of isolation and the kind of place introverts like me who like writing are very comfortable and the world outside is bright and distracting and even if we don’t want to we have to engage with it if only to get more thoughts in than just the ones that spiral around inside our heads.

And then I remember that there is no point – there is only practice. Things like points and purpose and money are emergent properties – they happen if you do something else with dedication and discipline or sporadically and with angst because as long as you “do” something will happen.

So, with my projects, which involve making sense of things through writing and drawing what I need to “do” is get better at that, better at working out what works and doesn’t work and practicing when I don’t know what else to do. And that means that my latest book project, which is at nearly 60,000 words and pretty hopelessly adrift, needs to be put to one side, perhaps abandoned, while I go back and figure out what the heck I should be doing and I don’t know this yet.

I’m going to have to slow down, I think, to make sense of it all – So we’ll see what happens then.

Anyway, if you’re still with me, I did warn you that this was an angsty post. But if you want to take something away here it is. However pointless it may all be, you will always have the practice – the thing you do. And you can get on with doing it.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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