How To Practically Use The Power Of Thinking In Opposites

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Saturday, 9.10pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there. – Charlie Munger

I did a search on Google for “Mental Models” today, little suspecting that would open up a rabbit hole that would suck in the rest of the day.

The results at first looked predictably predictable – lots of pages on lots of models – a few hundred or so that people have collected and put on display.

And then I came across a blog by Cedric or Eli on the second page – no, the third one that talked about how it was a really bad idea.

I have found that if you want to learn something you are probably better off reading what the critics say first.

I think this is because if the critic puts forward a clear argument as to the problems with the idea you are considering – then you can start reading the actual material ready to test whether the critic’s views are justified or not.

And, on Cedric’s blog I found an idea that resonated with me – the idea that it’s not enough to just put an idea out there.

You also need to know how to apply it – how to make it useful for you.

Without that, it’s just something floating out there – something that someone said.

You could memorise a hundred models and they would be of very little use unless you had some experience of real-world situations where you might find them useful.

When I did an MBA, for example, most students in the class talked about what they were going to learn from the MBA that would help them in the future.

For me, the content was most useful in explaining the experiences I had in the past – the theory helped make sense of what had already happened and let me figure out why.

A particular mental model that is often pulled out is in the quote that starts this post – Munger’s exhortation to “Invert, always invert.”

But what does that actually mean?

Cedric’s written a lot of stuff in his various blogs – and there are a lot of ideas that I think are good ones and worth exploring.

But, then I saw him write that “he disliked consulting as a business type”, which led me to his reasons why.

And this was interesting enough to just think about in some more detail – because it’s an important point if you’re thinking of starting a business.

Consultancy is not an inherently bad business model – Paul Graham of Ycombinator suggests that its a low risk way to start a business, especially if you have a mortgage and family.

Cedric’s argument is that certain types of consultancies have characteristics of commodity businesses and lists some of these.

In simple terms, a consultancy that operates like a commodity will offer services that are just the same as others, just like rice and beans are pretty much the same wherever they come from.

In such a business you can’t really increase value – you’re selling time and your income depends on your day rate and you can’t just triple that overnight.

If you want to make more money you have to sell more time – your time or your employee time.

And consultancy is a discretionary spend – it depends on the economy and whether companies have budgets to spend – so you’ll be the first to be cut when things go bad.

Cedric then ends by applying the inversion mental model – how you can build a consultancy “that isn’t a pain to run” by inverting this list.

I’ve adapted his words to do this formally – using a NOT gate: a logic structure that denotes inversion.

I think the graphic is an interesting artefact – because it helps you take a statement and formally invert it.

Basically, it helps you apply Munger’s mental model practically – you can draw out what someone says, draw a NOT gate and work out the opposite.

So, for each statement – if you are the same as others, what if you were very different?

What would it look like if it was easy to increase value?

What if you could sell more without doing more?

And what would it look like if your sales didn’t depend on the economy?

Now, I have some experience of the consulting business – and I can tell you that building a consulting business like this works.

It’s not easy to do and you have to figure out what makes you unique – but you can do it given enough time and effort.

Let me give you a flavour of what this looks like using this blog as an example for a couple of these factors.

Lots of people can write and do fancy presentations – but very few use hand-drawn models in the way you see here.

It meets the test of being different from what’s out there, especially in the sectors where I work.

In many consultancies time is what matters – you have to spend time creating and fine tuning presentations.

That’s pointless if you have any background in programming.

Why not automate everything that can possibly be automated?

If you can do that you can sell more without doing more – you spend your time focusing on clients and get the busywork automated away.

Now, there are lots of ways you can look at this in larger businesses – but everything is context dependent and skill dependent – so I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s easy to do.

It’s not – and that’s why many consultancy owners work very long hours and are quite stressed.

Too busy to find the time to sit down and see if they can use the “Invert, always invert” mental model.

And that’s the point.

Just telling you something isn’t enough.

You have to be able to use it to make a change that works for you.

But if you can do it you may also find that you change your life for the better.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Who Is It That You Are Doing Your Work For?

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Friday, 9.19pm

Sheffield, U.K.

‘Are you offering to teach me something?’

‘Teach? No,’said Granny. ‘Ain’t got the patience for teaching. But I might let you learn.’ – Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

Who is at the centre of your work – who is it that you do your work for?

This is actually not the easiest thing to figure out, because we have a habit of fooling ourselves.

There are three choices that come to mind.

First, you’re doing what you’re doing for a client, like building a new system.

You might be doing something for yourself, such as creating a work of art.

Or you’re doing something for someone in a position of power – your boss or an official.

And depending on who is at the centre of your endeavour, you’ll create different structures and ways of doing things.

A good example is to look at how schools work.

Are they designed to give kids the education they need?

Or are they a way to give teachers a job?

Or are they a way for the government to demonstrate its investment in education?

It could be any of the three to different people in different situations associated with the delivery of teaching to children.

Now what happens is that you create a structure to make the person at the centre happy.

If the person at the centre is the minister for education who needs statistics on how well all the schools are doing – then you’ll find that managers will focus on metrics that can be measured and ask teachers to teach those things.

The kids might not enjoy those things, but they’re not the ones that matter in this system.

Some teachers will still persist in the belief that their real clients are the kids, but they still have to deal with the metrics and stats if they want to keep their jobs.

So they follow a two track system, teaching to the test and also trying to teach their children something useful.

This is not something new.

I remember a teacher of mine telling a story of a teacher of his decades ago.

Apparently this teacher spent the first few weeks of the term getting the children to copy down everything they needed to pass the tests.

And then he said it was time to get an education, and they started doing useful and interesting stuff that they enjoyed learning.

I suppose the thing is that you always have to look at the incentive, look for who benefits and how to see why things work the way they do.

Most people in businesses are focused on keeping their bosses happy, not their customers.

We write marketing material to keep people inside the business happy rather than for prospects who have questions they want the copy to answer.

Now, when you want to try and change the conversation, you talk about a “something” centered approach.

A client centered approach, a child centered approach.

But how much of that is talk and how much is reality?

Some of it comes down to the difference between learning and teaching.

Teaching is something you do to someone else – it’s probably something you get paid for.

Learning is something people do for themselves, and sometimes they seek out a teacher.

How do you become the kind of teacher people seek out?

Probably the same way you create a service that people seek out, or a business that customers seek out.

By putting them at the centre of your work.

And that is a very hard thing to do.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Do You Learn What Is Worth Knowing?

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Tuesday, 9.09pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Exclusively of the abstract sciences, the largest and worthiest portion of our knowledge consists of aphorisms: and the greatest and best of men is but an aphorism. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I’ve been trying to explore a particular topic and started on a beginner’s textbook on the subject.

And, as I read and took notes, my eyelids started to feel heavy.

Because it was so… boring.

Which reminded me of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance once again.

Specifically the bit where he talks about what a section from a beginner’s textbook on a subject often looks like.

“Dull, awkward and ugly.”

“That is the romantic face of the classic mode.”

It’s the thing you see – ideas chopped up into parts and served on skewers, imprisoned in their little sections and herded together with bullet points.

I’ve also been thinking about ways of taking notes.

In the Western world you have the idea of a commonplace book, a collection built up by individuals who copied out passages from books they read and wanted to keep.

Then you have a research tool called the Zettelkasten, used by Niklas Luhmann to organise what he learned.

Luhmann put down snippets of ideas on index cards and then organised them with a coding system that kept related information together and cross referenced – helping him write around 60 books.

Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene use approaches that have the same principles at their core – an idea or concept on an index card and all the index cards put in order over time to create the structure of a book.

Now, this idea of a small bit of information on small bits of paper dredged up an old memory.

Manuscripts made from palm leaves have been a feature of the Indian subcontinent for a long time.

But before there was writing knowledge was passed on from teacher to student in the form of sutras – short verses that had to be memorised and recited.

This was codified knowledge, a concept compressed into a verse that could be remembered exactly.

And, like poetry, the rhythm and sound of these verses probably helped the students memorise them.

A collection of sutras has the idea, at its root, of a thread – and I like to imagine these as a string of pearls.

There are lots of ideas, some good ones, some great ones, some rubbish ones.

Some ideas are related – and you could pick the best ones and pile them up.

And then you could string them together – and you would have something worth remembering.

I think that is what a good book should do for the reader – show you a string of pearls – a ribbon of ideas that are worth learning and remembering.

And that’s because it’s not the ideas on their own – set out individually that is going to help you.

It’s the story you put together from what you learn, the way in which you practise it for yourself in your own life.

That’s what matters to you.

Now, I suppose it’s asking too much of a textbook to give you that kind of experience.

And, of course, the sutra writers of old got it wrong after a while.

Instead of trying to tell you the great ideas, they focused on getting them shorter and packing more and more in until they ended up as cryptic codes that needed to be explained by someone with more knowledge.

But the idea of a book made from sutras, from aphorisms, is still an appealing one.

It requires a lot more work on the part of the writer to make this happen.

It’s probably easier to get a structure and throw in enough words and then move on to the next project.

But then you get bored readers and how is that a good thing?

Readers read to learn, to understand – and why do they do that?

There is a sutra for that.

“Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha” – Yoga is for removing the fluctuations of the mind.

It’s something that’s at the heart of Pirsig’s book too.

We learn for the peace of mind it gives us.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why Should Someone Take A Bet On You?

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Friday, 7.37pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Once people see you pulling off one role, they think you’re a safe bet to do a similar role. – Margot Robbie

You know when you look at the same thing from a different point of view, you see different things?

For example, you are probably very comfortable with the idea of a payback period.

You put your money into a project and you get it back in three years.

That makes sense – and, depending on the project, more money turns up later.

I was listening to Ryan Holiday, the author of Ego is the enemy among other works being interviewed on the economics of the book business.

And he talked about earnouts.

In essence, if a book publisher wants to buy your book they give you an advance.

That’s a payout that you get up front – it lets you live and buy noodles while you write.

Then, you write the book and it goes on the shelves and the sales start trickling in.

The first thing that needs to happen is the book needs to earn out – it needs to pay back for the publisher who took that bet on you.

Same thing, different point of view.

Now, imagine what happens when you go for a job interview – how does the boss of the company look at you?

Well, most bosses I suppose, have a role that needs filling – a job that needs to be done.

That calculation is one where they think, “Well, I could be making £50 an hour so I’ll hire someone else to do that job at £10 an hour.”

But really, what you want to have them think is, “Wow, I could sell the skills this person has and make back the money I pay them in six months, and the rest is all profit.”

So, in the book business, the money that comes in first goes to pay off the investment the publisher has made.

And that first part is the same with jobs – where the sales pay for you to be in work in the first place.

And many places actually need a multiple of salary to come in – they might work on two or three times the salary to get to the profit levels they want.

But here’s the thing.

Once you’ve reached a point where your earnout is complete, why should the company get everything else?

In the book trade you start to get a percentage – a bit of those future sales.

And that’s the money that matters – the trickle over time that gives you an income.

I think this whole area is one where people could really do with looking at themselves from an investor’s point of view.

Some people work in jobs where they are cheap – anyone could do that and no one will worry about replacing you and getting someone else in.

Some get paid a lot but deliver just enough to pay their way or not enough to justify keeping them – and eventually that tends to catch up with them.

They might be lovely people – but they’ll still be let go with reluctance.

Some go for the big payout, asking for as much as possible – and they get it while they’re winning, but get thrown out just as fast if they make a wrong move.

But none of this really matters if you’re looking at the long term.

If you look at earnout, the payout you get actually has to last you all the way until the payback has happened – from now to when.

Then you start to get anything else.

But at that point you have to do nothing more as well, the revenues roll in from the product you’ve created, the asset you’ve built.

That asset could be a book, a product or the service you’ve developed.

So, if you’re in a position when you have to ask for money to develop that asset – well, you should be very conscious of the earnout equation.

Because if someone takes a bet on you, and pays you up front, you need that earnout to work out.

Otherwise you might not get a second bet – almost certainly not with the same person.

But all this talk of payout and payback and earnout is simply a way of looking at what’s going on.

It just describes how the bet will pan out as the future does.

The most important thing that needs to happen for any of this to be relevant is that you have to work on producing that asset.

Production is what matters.

If you want someone to bet on you – make sure you’re the kind of person who produces something of value.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Do You Realise That Where You Start Is Often Where You End?

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Tuesday, 9.09pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Face your life, its pain, its pleasure, leave no path untaken. – Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

I came across at TED talk on the pleasure trap by Douglas Lisle and got hooked instantly.

Lisle is funny and he uses drawings to illustrate complex ideas – so what’s there not to like.

The core concept that you should take away from the talk is that we’re driven by feelings.

That is, when we do things they result in feelings – and those feelings often make us decide what to do next.

They’re like signals that tell us how we’re doing – and they’re often wrong.

They give us bad information – you can’t trust them.

Here’s why.

Let’s say you have a pretty healthy diet right now – the right balance of food groups. and not much salt, sugar or fat.

The kind of thing your parents give you while keeping the treats for themselves, or the kind of food you might eat if you lived somewhere the processed food industry hadn’t found yet.

At that point you eat when you’re hungry, the food is tasty and life is pretty good.

And then you get let out and experience what sugar and fat really taste like.

Your pleasure sensors register levels that go sky high.

I remember this feeling when I first went to a developed country and discovered Coca Cola – this amazing drink that tasted so good.

40 pounds later…

The thing with junk food is that it’s great when you first get it – so much better than fruit or salads.

But after a while you get used to it – the junk food gives you about the same amount of pleasure as the healthy food gave you earlier – you revert to a baseline.

Now, if you go from a diet of takeaways and junk back to a healthy diet – everything tastes dull and boring.

Your pleasure sensors register levels way down low.

Even though you’re moving from a bad situation to a good one, your body is telling you that you hate what’s going on – which makes it very hard to stick it out and not go back to the bad food.

But if you do stick it out, then healthy food starts tasting good again.

And you’re back where you were when you started.

What’s interesting is that when you went from good to bad, the feelings you had were good.

And when you went from bad to good, you registered the opposite – your feelings were bad – of deprivation and loss.

In fact, you would have to overcome your feelings to avoid going for the junk in the first place – and overcome them again if you were trying to get off your addiction.

And this is just food we’re talking about.

When it comes to addictions like smoking and drugs – your feelings are so high and so low that making a change is one of the hardest things you can do.

It would be so much better for you if you never started at all…

Because there is no good news here – it’s going to be hard and painful to get through that trough of whatever is the opposite of pleasure.

You will need help and support and friends and a plan for what you’ll do when you slip back.

When, not if.

Now, if you look at this chart what you’ll see is that normal doesn’t change.

You go back to the baseline – to where you started – whatever you’re doing.

This is the voice of your system.

Willpower is not enough – if you really want to make a change you have to change the system that’s resulting in that graph.

The one thing to remember is that if you’re trying to change something – don’t focus on the people.

People and their willpower abilities are not a good or reliable way to engineer change – they’re swayed by their environment and their feelings far too much.

You have to change the things around them first.

With food, you have to change what you have and how you buy.

You can’t eat junk if it’s not in the house.

With work, you have to change where you are and what’s around you.

If you go to the same place to work every day at the same time – it gets easier to get started.

Change the environment and the physical conditions that you operate in and your feelings will find it harder to drag you back to bad action.

And that way you have a fighting chance to end up somewhere different.

Somewhere you want to be.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Are You Living A Life Worth Living?

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Wednesday, 9.26pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The method of science is logical and rational; the method of the humanities is one of imagination, sympathetic understanding, ‘indwelling. – Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology

When I was young and had to decide what I would be when I grew up, there were only three options open to me.

I could go to university to study to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer – because of the subjects I has studied at school.

If I had been free to choose I think I’d have studied English, perhaps tried my hand at writing.

As it happened, I failed into engineering – and picked up a few skills along the way – the sort of skills that help you make a living by making things work.

What I was told was that doing a degree like engineering gave you options – you could choose to be anything you wanted after that.

But really, what people meant was that certain degrees had market value – you had a better chance of getting a job with one of them.

There are children all over the world who are being pushed towards STEM subjects – the “hard” disciplines as opposed to the soft, fluffy ones you also see dotted around.

And this leads to a few things that may be worth keeping in mind.

First, how do you work out whether you’re living a life worth living?

“Worth” is seen differently from different points of view.

I started browsing thought The art of being human: The humanities as a technique for living by Richard Paul Janaro and Thelma C. Altshuler, where they address this question head on.

The approach most of us are familiar with is the idea of “net worth” – how much do you have in the bank – how much will you leave when you die?

This is an economic concept of worth.

But there is another concept of worth – which has more to do with a “good” life.

A life where you travel, see other cultures, appreciate art and music and the other things that are uniquely human.

But it’s not quite as simple as that.

If you have no money but are deeply sensitive and appreciative of art and music – is that a good life?

Surely it’s better to have a roof and a bed and be able to see a play?

What happens if you take it to extremes – like when very rich people go to very expensive cultural programmes and preen and flatter themselves for their appreciation and sophistication?

Of course, I’ve never been to such events but I imagine there are some out there…

When it comes down to it I don’t think there really is that much of a separation.

It probably has a bit to do with Maslow and his hierarchy.

Learning a trade or a practical subject is going to help you meet your basic needs – and perhaps get you a partner.

But, if you stop there then you’re missing out on quite a bit of what life has to offer.

In particular, the humanities teach you to appreciate other humans and their creations.

Perhaps the right approach to education is a layered one.

Start with a grounding in a practical skill – the trades, the professions.

Work for a while.

Then, go back to school or do a self-study programme and learn the humanities.

And you’ll probably find that you become a better professional and a better human.

And isn’t that worth doing?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Would Happen If You Tried To Answer This One Question Every Day?

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Monday, 8.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE. – Joss Whedon

Have you ever wondered why you do what you do?

Many of us never set out with a grand plan for a career – we might have chosen subjects in school that worked for us – and ended up taking a temporary job but somehow staying there for a couple of decades.

I’m not sure I know that many people who really had a clear idea of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

I’ve seen one – a little boy who writes and draws stories – and who wants to be a writer when he grows up.

The rest of us tend to muddle through somehow – taking whatever route seems like the path of least resistance.

I found a book on that by Robert Fritz called The path of least resistance – which has an interesting little model that’s worth keeping in mind.

He asks why Boston is laid out the way it is – streets going this way and that.

He says it’s because the first paths were trodden by cows as they went about their business.

A cow, seeing a hill, doesn’t see it as a challenge – something it must climb – it simply finds the easiest way to get around it.

And this, Fritz says, should help you get three key insights.

The first is that animals, people, things, follow the path of least resistance.

The second is that the path they follow is determined by the terrain, the structure they’re in.

A river, for example, follows the terrain, the contours of the land as it makes its way from the heights to the sea.

The third insight is that you can change your terrain to something that works for you – something animals and rivers don’t really think too much about.

What all this leads to is an answer.

An answer that says that the reason you are where you are right now is because you took the easiest path given your environment – the structure of your life.

I don’t know what you do – but the chances are that you’re happy doing it, or not happy.

If you’re happy, don’t bother reading any further.

If you’re not, then the question I think that’s worth asking yourself is “What did I make today?”

I think if you really want to get in touch with yourself – you have to figure out what the creative part of you wants.

If you’re not sure what a creative part is – just watch a child.

Children just do this – they play and imagine and make things up.

And sometimes, they make things.

They run to you and show you – they want you to get involved – they want to teach you.

“Look at this thing I did,” they say, “Let me show you how to do it as well.”

Children get bored and crabby when all they do is watch telly.

They light up inside when they make stuff.

And I think we do as well – I know that when I create something I’m a lot more satisfied than when I don’t.

Creativity for me is writing, drawing and programming.

Sometimes it’s designing, repairing, teaching.

Sometimes you’re in a job where you don’t get a chance to make stuff – you’re busy getting other people to do things, moving stuff on, chasing, brokering, selling.

So, perhaps there you need a hobby – as many people do – they create and make in their spare time to make up for what they don’t get at work.

So, here’s the thing.

I have a theory that if you end each day knowing that you’ve made something that didn’t exist when the day started – you’ll be happier.

But first, you need to make it possible to do that.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why The Only Thing That Matters Is To Keep Going

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Saturday, 8.56pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force. – Lao Tzu

A lot of people seem to believe that things need to be difficult – that you need to work hard, push yourself and struggle – because it’s only that kind of effort that produces results.

That doesn’t really work for me.

It seems to me that a lot of time when people say they’re working hard what they mean is that they haven’t got the time to figure how to do it in an easier way.

Now, it’s hard for someone who is in the middle of a particular experience to stand back and see how it can be done better.

And it’s usually infuriating to be told by some smug nobody that you’re doing it wrong when you’re putting all this effort into what you’re doing.

I’ve learned over time that trying to change other people is not time well spent.

But, it makes a lot of sense to try and work on yourself – and when it comes to that I see three kinds of approaches.

The first is one where people focus on why they can’t do things – they see all the obstacles in their way and fold their arms and refuse to move.

Such folk are happy doing their work and living their life in the way they do it – they can’t imagine an alternative but they do seem to spend quite a lot of time complaining about the present.

I’m not really sure how that helps you – but from what I can see it means you get old and see rather a lot of people doing better than you are doing.

Standing still is not a good strategy.

At the other extreme is the person who really pushes themselves – the one who wants to be in a position of responsibility early, be a Managing Director, get that big promotion.

That’s the one you see a lot of in society – the people who’ve been brought up on the idea that competition is everything, you get ahead by beating others and that winning is what matters.

I see people like this as running as fast as they can – pushing themselves to the brink of exhaustion – and still going.

They’re the ones staying late at work, pushing themselves to get the job done on time, working very very hard.

But, is that really a useful way to be?

Haven’t we moved on from a world where brawn and time made a difference?

Once upon a time the size of your muscles mattered if your job was to cut down trees.

Now machines do that.

And if you’re doing knowledge work then surely you don’t need to spend huge amounts of time getting things done – isn’t that what computers are for?

Except, most people don’t realise how to use computers.

For example, most consultants use Powerpoint extensively for their work – and that means they spend hundreds of hours getting every detail right.

But, did you know you can automate Powerpoint – get it to programmatically do a lot of the things that you’re doing manually right now?

The vast majority of people don’t – and are racking up hundreds of thousands of hours manually positioning text boxes.

I don’t know about you – but I think that’s a waste of time.

Now, another approach, one that I think is better, is one designed around you as an individual.

It’s well known that the human body is not designed for continuous running – you can do it for a while but not forever.

What we are designed to do is walk.

You can walk pretty long distances, just keep going – because that’s the mode of travel our bodies have evolved to do most efficiently.

And doing things efficiently is the best way to do them.

What that means is that you should design your work around your life – you should try and make it as easy as possible to get what you need to do done.

If you want to write, for example, but have kids – then write when they’re asleep: early in the morning or late in the evening.

That might mean you write 30 books in your lifetime rather than the 200 put out by people without children – but would you really not have your kids?

If you have a demanding job – then perhaps first figure out how you can make it less demanding – what are the bits that you’re spending time doing that can be automated?

Many things can be – really.

Now, if you head towards excuse territory – then there isn’t much more to say.

But it’s hard to see very many situations where you can’t do things that you’re currently doing in a manual way more effectively – if you only knew how to.

And many people just don’t have the time to think about things like that – they’re too busy.

Which is why to the first and last groups – there is very little to say.

To the first – you’d suggest they get moving or get left behind.

To the last – you might need to wait till they realise for themselves that this is putting a huge strain on themselves.

But if you arrange things so that you can do them at the pace that works for you – well then you can go for a very long time.

And maybe then you’ll do something you’re proud of – without having to sacrifice everything that actually matters.

Because really – life shouldn’t have to be all that hard.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How A Lifeline Can Help You Make Sense Of Where You Are

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Tuesday, 9.12pm

Sheffield, U.K

Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with. – Douglas Adams

I was watching a video on YouTube of a visual facilitator and one of the exercises he started people off on was drawing their career history in a single line – something I’m going to call a lifeline.

It’s an interesting way to look at the ups and downs of what one has gone through.

When I look back at my experience it’s not really that exciting.

If I look back over the years, there are ups and downs.

I was lucky to have a background with lots of books – and I liked reading, which made it easier to learn things.

I didn’t know what I really wanted to do so I did what was expected of me.

Not enough though, because I didn’t get into certain majors but I studied how to study – and got the marks I needed.

That didn’t help all that much because I couldn’t find a job and started a PhD – which was pretty boring.

But I learned some things that were interesting along the way – mostly around driving computers and that was useful when it came to business problems involving data.

But then I had to learn how to manage people and that was much less fun than playing with code – and so I went back to uni and the books and learned some more about organisations.

And these days I write and draw and keep trying to learn – which is where you find me writing these words now.

Like I said – nothing very interesting.

But at the same time, it hasn’t been boring – not to me anyway.

Because there is so much out there now – so much to read and consider and learn – available in forms and ways that make it easy for you and me to follow whatever tendrils of thought happen to interest us.

And there’s an echo of this in Donald Knuth’s book Digital typography where he writes about why it’s important to find something of interest in what you are doing – and how it’s no one else’s responsibility but your own to do that.

Now, I also think there are a couple of interesting things about lifelines.

I suppose it would be nice to build from where you are rather than going downhill.

Some people seem to be able to skip the long plod, rocketing up to something they call success.

And somewhere along the way do you reach a point where you have enough, where you happy?

Or were you happy all the time?

Or were you waiting for things to happen to make you happy.

And, of course, people’s lifelines are ideally more complex – you’ve hopefully had relationships and families and all the things that matter.

And every once in a while it rains.

If you’re in a dip when that’s happening – I suppose it’s all the more reason to feel down.

When I look at this lifeline chart I think it tells you quite a lot about where you are right now.

Imagine it was a chart of a company’s stock price.

If you have a business with a decent product that people want you will probably grow over time, experiencing ups and downs along the way.

If you are a high growth business, fuelled by hope, then you might rise into the air, hoping that gravity doesn’t notice what you’re trying to do.

Or you might be in the wrong industry or get your timing wrong or make some bad decisions – and find your chart dipping down and to the right.

In the first and last case, time will tell what happens next.

In the middle case, however, which is probably the vast majority of us, the thing to remember is that dips are normal – even steep dips.

But if we’ve built what we have over time – then that lifeline should eventually start trending back up.

We just need to keep faith.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why We Have To Learn How To Keep Learning

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Monday, 7.59pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship. – Louisa May Alcott

There is a saying about learning which I think is used quite a lot by surgeons.

I think it goes something like “See one, do one, teach one.”

I think this approach works in lots of cases – where you’re learning what is effectively a craft skill.

A surgeon might not think of what they do in that way, but what they’re doing is training for specific eventualities – complex ones, carried out on a live person – but it has a lot to do with craft, with technique, nonetheless.

A surgeon who knows how to remove an appendix is not then qualified to carry out a knee replacement or brain surgery.

Then there are other situations which are less well defined – things that need to be improved in organisational and social situations, creative work where what is good and what is bad depends on who perceives it and how.

In these cases learning is different – and I was wondering how you might approach your own learning if you do that kind of work.

For example, let’s say you’re a management consultant and help companies improve aspects of their business.

One approach you might take is the one that is in every business textbook.

You start by having the company define its mission and vision and goals, and then you create a strategy, which is followed by detailed plans, which then requires a forecast of resources and time which you take to decision makers, and then a projects gets approved and then you do it as planned and it’s successful and comes in on time and on budget and everyone is happy.

You were probably with me until the point where it goes as planned and is successful.

If you’ve done many real world projects, that’s the point at which your memory of what happens next doesn’t quite match the rhetoric that came before.

You will see variants of this approach with almost every consultant you come across.

There seems to be a need by service providers to codify – to create a method that can be repeated and scaled – that you can put a name to and own.

But I think there is a problem.

Method works well when your task is to take out an appendix.

It works less well when you want to create art or improve the way a business works.

And I wondered how the learning approach I started this post with might cope with bubbles.

If you have kids you must have, at some point, had to get them to blow soap bubbles.

You probably showed them how to hold the wire loop and dip it into the soap solution and blow.

Your bubbles came out perfect and soared with the wind – and you were pleased.

You showed them how to do it.

Then, you let them try and they had a go.

Maybe they struggled and maybe they got it – and they made the bubbles fly.

Now, the thing is that no two bubbles are going to be the same.

This is not something where you come out with the same product – with bubbles that meet a specification for size, quality, reflectivity, translucence.

It’s all about process – about the experience of doing it.

For example, as I stood in the kitchen today making dinner, bubbles started to fill the room.

A small person had decided this was the right time to try out the process.

And I think with the type of uncertain, complex situations I’m talking about process is something that gets recreated and developed by each person that acts in the situation.

You might learn a method from a teacher or from a book – but then as you practice it and learn from the results you start to make the method your own.

There is a limited amount of discretion a surgeon has when working on your appendix.

It would probably not be a good idea to start the incision near your ear – however novel that might be.

With a complex problem, on the other hand, the entry point that was used the last time doesn’t have to be the same one you use this time.

It depends on what you’ve learned and the kind of situation you’re in now and how you apply that learning and how you then learn some more.

I think that if you’re doing creative work or improvement work then you should forget the idea that you’re a master of anything.

Being a master implies that you know all there is to know.

And you have nothing more to learn – you now only teach.

But what you teach is from another time, another place – and the world has a unsettling habit of moving on.

And the only way to keep up is to get good at learning when that happens.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh