How to become more intentional

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What does it mean to be intentional?

Google to the rescue. It means to be deliberate, to do on purpose, to be purposeful.

That is a teleolgical concept – an attempt to explain something in terms of its relationship with a goal or final end point.

So, being intentional is, in a sense, being purpose driven, or goal driven.

How does knowing that help us?

There are three things, at least, that we need to think about when trying to be intentional.

The first is that we can’t do everything – we have to choose.

Students are often told when going to University that they have a choice of three things: sport, a social life and their studies.

If they are going to excel and be at the very top, they need to pick two to focus on.

We have to decide which two are most important to us and make those our primary activities.

Even if we aren’t planning to perform at an elite level, we still have to make choices between reading and watching telly, between going out late partying and staying up late working on a business.

The second thing is that we have to develop routines.

Willpower is a hard and tiring way to organise our lives.

Routines are better. If we set and keep appointments with ourselves every day to do the things that are important then, over time, we will see results.

We don’t have to set hard to achieve targets. We just need to do the minimum every day and it will build up over time.

As the saying goes, people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what is possible in ten years.

The third thing is that we have to know how we will respond when we stumble.

And stumble we will. We may want to do something – work on a book, lose weight, make sales calls – and there will be times that we just don’t have what takes to do it.

There’s no point getting upset about that – it’s going to happen so we might as well deal with it.

As W.C Fields said, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point being a damn fool about it.

With some things it’s hard to keep going – especially when our intention is to overcome routines we have created earlier, like overeating or smoking.

The thing about stumbling is to follow the if-then rule. If something doesn’t go the way we wanted, then what are we going to do next?

Do we want to get to an end or get balance?

An intentional approach suggests that there is an end – a place we can get to where everything is all right.

At the same time, we may only realise we have arrived when we don’t feel the need to go elsewhere – the end is where we are right now.

That’s another choice we need to make.

How to be more focused in life and work

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We’d all like to be more focused.

At the same time, there is an industry that specialises in hijacking our brains and hooking us (and our children).

How are we going to win?

It turns out that we can focus on the things that we want to focus on – a so called top down approach – when we want to.

At the same time, our focus can be drawn automatically to distractions – or bottom up signals – like notifications on mobile phones.

So, is there anything we can do to get better at focusing on what we want to rather than being victims of our devices and environments?

According to Edward M. Hallowell, the author of Driven to distraction at work: How to focus and be more productive, there are five things we need to do.

Manage our energy

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, writes that we should manage our creativity, not our time.

People who manage their creativity get happy and rich.

People who manage their time get tired.

Substitute energy for creativity and we get the same message – the more energy we have, the more creative and productive we can be.

Many people make a big fuss about how hard they work. In this day and age, however, is that the smart thing to do?

Manage our emotion

How we feel affects how we work.

A high stress environment or managers that use blame and threats to get work out of people isn’t going to make us feel good.

And feeling good – or even more fundamentally – feeling safe – is crucial for us to be able to do good work.

If we want people to produce, we have to give them room to experiment, to fail and to learn.

No one gets it right the first time. If it looks like they do, the chances are that they are just very good at hiding it when things go wrong.

Be more engaged

We’ll do things more happily when we’re engaged – when we like what we do.

That seems obvious – but the fact is that we’re all good at different things. Some of us like working with people. Others like solving problems.

What’s important is looking out for the tasks that help us get into flow, where we can lose ourselves in the work and we finish with more energy than when we started.

If the work drains us, or the people around us drain us, then it’s time to look at what else we can do.

Be more structured

Routines help.

They help by reducing the amount of thinking we need to do, freeing up time for more creative and important work.

Some people take this to extremes – wearing just black, for example. That cuts down decision making on what colour to wear.

Routines also create habits. If we have a routine where we start or end the day with creative work and do the administration in the middle, then every day we are going to get a little further.

Learn to take back control

This is the hardest one for many of us to learn.

We’re too eager to please – to say yes.

Life is all about goals.

As Brian Tracy says, either we’re working to achieve our goals or we’re working to achieve someone else’s goals.

We really need to focus on reaching our own goals.

Why cities and businesses benefit from clustering

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It’s easy to assume that if we had no competition, business would be great.

It turns out, however, that we are much better off being near competitors than far away – and this is because of the benefits of clustering.

Four benefits in particular stand out.

The first is access to talent More companies in a region means a greater need for people with relevant skills. This may drive up prices for talent and attract people from elsewhere.

Alternatively, a company may spawn a host of related businesses set up by ex-employees.

One of the most famous examples of this happening is the traitorous eight, employees who left Shockley Laboratories to found Fairchild Semiconductor.

Fairchild Semiconductor in turn led to birth of Silicon Valley and the creation of several companies, including Intel, founded by Gordon Moore (of Moore’s law) and Robert Noyce from the original eight.

Proximity leads to productivity When we have competitors operating close by we watch them carefully and try to match what they are doing and keep up or stay ahead in the market.

This sense of competition means that we’re always trying to become better – to become more productive.

In a global economy anything that is seen as a commodity sees margins fall the virtually nothing.

The only way we can make money is by doing more better with the things that go into our business – and that means being more productive.

At the same time, we want our local economies to succeed – we have common interests Businesses don’t start and stop quickly. They take time and effort and investment.

If we work on something for a while we’d like it to be sustainable and endure.

In addition, when the local economy does well, everyone does well. For example the value of the houses we own goes up. There are more jobs, and our children don’t have to move cities or countries to find work.

So, working together to make our local economies grow makes perfect sense.

Although we can work with anyone anywhere, we still like face-to-face Finally, we can hire people from anywhere. But our competitive advantages may lie in what is available closer to home.

We need a local touch to tap into the ecosystem around us – and this is still best done with face-to-face contact and a personal connection with others.

That’s when we realise that there are other people that are in the same position as us, and yet more that have gone through a similar process before and can share their knowledge and insights with us.

To benefit from an ecosystem we must invest the time to become part of the ecosystem.

It’s give and get, not just come and take.

Is there a difference between an expert and a beginner?

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Adam Fisher of Soros Fund Management says in Tim Ferriss’ book Tribe of Mentors that finding an area of expertise is a bad idea. Just learn how to learn and we can figure things out.

That’s an interesting thought – because we become experts by getting to know almost all there is about something.

How do we do that?

We study and we practice.

When we are experts – when we know something, then we’ll come up with adaptations on existing ideas and even our own original ideas.

On this… all too often people say that everything has already been written. There is nothing new under the sun.

But we’re discovering new things all the time. New species, new places, new ways of understanding how our brains work.

So, how do we learn?

We study and we practice.

We take in ideas, think about them, let them take root and grow in our minds.

Perhaps the problem is that we are looking for signs. Looking for validation.

If we appear to be experts – if the world accepts that we are experts – then does that make us expert?

Is it our expertise that shines through? Or are other people just so good as coming across as expert that they fool the rest of us?

What is the point of all this?

The point is that there is a difference between what is and what appears to be.

When we start learning something new – we don’t have to pretend to know it – we can be open and take in ideas and just learn.

When we have many years of practice behind us – we don’t have to pretend that we know – we can be open and share our ideas.

It’s the bit in between that can get us – the part where we have learned enough to be dangerous and think we know, but not where we know how much we still have to learn.

It’s very Zen. Before Zen, mountains are mountains. Then mountains are not mountains. And then, mountains are once again mountains.

It’s just going to take time to get it.

What managers can learn from pilots

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Charlie Munger, the Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, has strong views on picking the best ideas from different disciplines and use them to become better at what we do.

In Poor Charlie’s Almanack, a collection of Munger’s writing and speeches, he talks about broadscale and narrowscale professionals and how the former can learn from the latter.

Broadscale problems are ones that can only be solved by using ideas from more than one discipline.

Take management, for example. Good managers need to understand accounting, psychology, economics, technology, logistics among other skills.

It is possible to be an expert in just one area, like engineering, but if we don’t understand how accountants think we’ll find it hard to explain what we are trying to do to them.

The thing is that focusing on a specialist area – narrowscale thinking – is how we get to be very good at something.

But, one of the criticisms of academia is that the system forces people to know more and more about less and less – and so the insights that emerge can be hard to apply in practice.

Munger suggests that one solution to developing broadscale knowledge is to find the best elements of narrowscale education and then scale them up and suggests looking at pilot training as an example of the best kind of approach.

He talks about how pilots are trained in a strict six-element system.

The starting point is formal training. We need to have a broad knowledge of practically everything that is useful to fly a plane.

How often are managers formally trained in management methods before being put into a management role? That’s an investment more organisations need to make.

Training alone isn’t enough. We need to practice until we are fluent at what we are trying to do.

It’s one thing learning about economics. Being able to model supply and demand to maximise total revenue is a different thing. Hint – we should almost always raise prices…

We also think a lot about what we want to do – goals we want to reach. This focus is good, but we also need to think about what not to do, the things we should avoid.

Then we need to spend more time on the things that are more important. That might seem obvious – but how often are we distracted by things that take a lot of time but have little to no impact.

Pilots are trained to always use checklists. And they are better at it than doctors – leading to the quip that this is because doctors are involved while pilots are committed. Doctors who have pilot experience must have an advantage…

Finally, just because we’ve done a course doesn’t mean we know all there is to know – we need to maintain knowledge over time, with more lessons and more practice.

Pilots are required to spend a certain amount of time flying to maintain their license. All professionals need to spend time on continuous professional development – but do we?

A lecturer of ours once said that when we graduated we would have a Masters in business administration. That did not mean we were masters of business administration.

Not yet anyway.

What the Terminator has to say about success

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Arnold Schwarzenegger, bodybuilder, actor and Governer talks about success in this video, where he sets out five rules to follow.

Schwarzenegger is inseparable from his role as the Terminator, a cybernetic android assassin, which made his career as an actor.

In the video, Schwarzenegger talks about how all the things that would seem to be barriers to success, the characteristics that would appear to be disadvantages, actually turned out to be unique and distinctive features of his performance and character.

For example, growing up in post-war Austria, he had a vision, a dream to be a bodybuilder – and he worked on making that dream a reality every day.

That was a very specific dream, and one that required a precise and focused set of activities to make happen, but the principle can be applied to any endeavour, whether our dream is to be a chef or a computer programmer.

The next rule was to think big. He didn’t want to just be a body builder – he wanted to be the best in the world. He didn’t want to just be an actor, he wanted to go to Hollywood and be a star.

All too often, we compromise – we settle for less because we don’t believe we can get what we want.

And the fact is that for every Schwarzenegger that made it, there are countless bodybuilders who didn’t get there as well.

In today’s economy, however, compromise seems to be a bad strategy. Winners take all in a network economy, and the people and organisations that succeed are the ones that refuse to compromise themselves.

Which leads to the third rule – ignore naysayers.

There will always be people who will delight in pointing out all the ways in which we can fail, perhaps some that will even give us a little push into the abyss.

We need to seek out a network that has similar goals and aspirations, that is supportive of what we are doing and can help us get on, rather than give up.

And we need that drive and support to keep going. The fourth rule is to work like hell.

Many people work during work time, and then stop. The people that go further are the ones that work longer and harder and better.

There is billable time and non-billable time. Often, what makes it possible to have billable time is everything we do during non-billable time – the extra effort to create and meet people and build capability.

The final rule Schwarzenegger has is to give something back.

A responsibility, a duty many successful people have is to give back to the society and world that has helped them succeed.

Many successful people are portrayed as greedy rentiers.

The thing is that it is likely that more people became successful by being good at what they did, giving more value than they took and building long lasting successful partnerships with others than by stealing or swindling their way to the top.

These people give back – because they got what they had in the first place by giving more than they took.

It’s easy to assume that a character like the Terminator has little of value to say to us.

That would be a mistake – because he does keep coming back.

How to tell whether you act like a startup or a big business

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What is the difference between a startup and an established business? Is a startup simply a small company – a small version of a big company or are they fundamentally different?

Steve Blank thinks so.

Steve is the author of Four steps to the epiphany and writes extensively about startups, their characteristics and the strategies they follow.

Among these characteristics are three crucial ones – and successful startups do these very differently from big companies.

The first characteristic has to do with what they do.

Big companies are good at execution.

They create a vision, agree a mission, set goals and targets, allocate resources and set the machine in motion.

All the parts of the company work in a hierarchy, following what they are programmed to do to head towards the targets they have set.

A startup, on the other hand, searches for opportunities.

It has its eyes wide open, scanning the environment for signs that something is missing, someplace where it can add value through innovating, adapting and creating something new and different.

The second characteristic has to do with how companies do what they do.

The purpose of a company, according to Drucker, is to create a customer.

Big companies already have customers or believe they know what a customer wants – either because they know the market or because they have done studies of some kind.

This means that they can sit at their desks and get on with creating product following their usual process, which is some form of plan-do.

A plan-do approach means that we follow a structured approach to developing a product – starting with understanding requirements, gathering information, developing the product and finally shipping it to customers.

Startups recognise that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Instead, they follow a test-learn approach.

This means getting out of the building, going and finding potential customers and talking to them about what they need and testing whether what they say they need matches what our product does.

This matching exercise – sometimes called validation – tells us if we are on the right track or whether we need to change something.

As Gary Halbert wrote, what we need to succeed is a starving crowd – a group of people that are desperate, starving for a particular product or service.

Lastly, the two approach who they recruit differently.

Big companies have lots of roles that they fill with specialists.

A specialist is someone who is good at one thing – sales, marketing, operations.

They do what they do well and competently, but they often don’t have the capacity or ability to do more than they can with their two hands.

Startups need generalists, people comfortable with doing everything and with the ability to do much much more with very little.

Startups eventually want to become big companies, so will recruit specialists, but only later on when the product is more mature and its time to scale up.

In summary, the way to tell whether we act like a startup or an established corporate is to look hard at what we do, how we do it and who we recruit.

Why we need to have a story

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Stories are how we make sense of things.

Whether we are coming up with a personal narrative or working on a company brand, we use stories to show and tell other people what we are all about.

Sequence is key to a story.

We link together human beings, actions, events and experiences to create a narrative that has a beginning, a middle and an end.

This is something we do all the time. To some extent, we don’t remember the past so much as recreate it through the lens of story.

We pick the events, actions and experiences that support and confirm what we want to believe, welding them together and trying out story arcs until we find one that fits.

Herminia Ibarra, in her book Working Identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career, writes about this as putting a frame around experience – looking at what is happening now and what happened in the past and linking the two through story.

But it’s important to recognise that the things happening now and the things in the past are both being interpreted and reinterpreted – history is written by the victors.

I’ve written here about the kinds of stories we tell, and how we can structure success and failure stories.

Why is it important to have a story – whether personal or for a business?

Ibarra writes that it is only through a story that we can really get to know someone.

The story – the narrative – gives unity, purpose and meaning to their lives.

Whether we are trying to understand ourselves, someone else or an organisation, the stories we hear and tell bring things alive and create a sense of connection that it’s impossible to get in any other way.

Stories also help us step back and see the bigger picture.

As we tell and retell them, picking out events and experiences to recite, we start to create a narrative that seems more real and robust over time, until the story we tell is how it happened.

Which is why the reaction to many a fantastical story is often “Is it true?”.

Things happen.

When we’re in the middle of things, we look for a defining moment, a period where everything becomes clear and comes into focus.

All too often, however, we recreate that moment as we look back at the past and realize that it was one – the turning point of the story we are telling – and how it fits into our lives so far.

And so, to explain who and what we are, we need to have a story.

How economics explains success in the modern world

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Steven Landsburg introduced his book “The armchair economist” with the words Most of economics can be summarized in four words: “People respond to incentives.” The rest is commentary.

That is the start of economic analysis. Supply and demand curves. p is for supply, q is for demand and they have a linear relationship.

In standard economics, demand (q) rises as price (p) decreases – and that is one of the first charts we learn in an economics class.

This assumes that people are rational, evaluating the costs and benefits of options in a logical way and taking actions that maximise their profit or utility – the satisfaction we get from a purchase.

But people aren’t rational. In reality, we are driven by emotion and our animal brains and this is where behavioural economics comes in.

For example, under pressure, we go into flight or fight mode and make decisions based on gut instinct – and that is what has kept our species alive.

Another way in which people aren’t rational is how they react to an unfair deal.

Take, for example, a game where people get a sum of money. One person gets to decide the share of the prize – and the other can accept or reject the offer.

In theory, any amount more than zero should be accepted by the rational recipient. In practice, many don’t accept anything less than a share closer to a fair one – a 50/50 split.

Shown as a chart, this might mean that demand is fixed at a range of prices, but over a particular level it increases.

The factors affecting the shift in mentality are more subtle – they are affected by the emotional processing that goes on inside our heads.

Then we have network economics. In this view, what we do depends on what others do – we watch and copy behaviour.

This is most visible in online behaviour. The top three results on Google get virtually all the traffic. There can be huge differences in views for very similar videos.

So, in network economics, price has little effect until we reach a tipping point, after which demand increases rapidly – but the tipping point is determined by the network effect.

The charts in the picture may not describe the situation accurately – real life is more complex than we can show in this way – but the interesting point is the impact it has for the choices we make as producers and consumers.

As producers, we can’t simply make better mousetraps cheaper and expect people to buy them.

Instead, we need to create cheaper products, think about how people will react emotionally to what we are selling and leverage the economics of networks to get our products to scale.

As consumers, we need to be mindful that price is no longer representative of value in many cases – so we need to be wary of using that as a heuristic or rule of thumb.

We also need to realize that producers use increasingly sophisticated techniques to appeal to our emotions, from subtle emotional cues to overt use of celebrity endorsements.

Finally, by copying what everyone else is doing, we may be missing out much that has real value and settling for the fads of the moment.

But, the changing world also offers unparalleled opportunities for those who are positioned where the three economic approaches overlap.

In the middle there, with a little bit of luck, new superstars emerge.

What is a good foundation for career satisfaction?

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John Hagel, an author, Silcon Valley veteran and management consultant with some very well known names, writes about the learning pyramid in an article on his blog.

The idea in his post is that we spend too much time focusing on the skills needed to survive in a world where artificial intelligence (AI) takes on more and more jobs.

Instead, we need to think about how we can learn faster to learn what is needed at the moment – and the learning pyramid model helps with that.

Looking for a source for the learning pyramid model, however, tends to bring up a model of how different activities influence learning – and focuses on the narrow question of how to learn something new.

Looking at Hagel’s learning pyramid through a different lens might help us approach the AI vs human question asking what makes us human – perhaps it should be a humanity pyramid that we use to ask questions about whether the work we do is sufficiently human.

At the top of the pyramid sit Skills. A skill is knowing how to something – wield an axe, write a piece of news copy, manage an unhappy customer over the phone.

We need to hone our skills throughout our career and quite often we do this just by doing what we do. A craftsperson gets better the longer he or she works at a task.

Early in our careers, we need to focus on acquiring skills – reading, writing and arithmetic among others such as drawing, woodwork and martial arts.

But these are the areas where technology and AI will also look at first – text processing, robot news writers, Excel spreadsheets, computer controlled laser cutters and drones will do more of the reading, writing, arithmetic, machining and defence we need.

I’ve written here about the skills that are more likely to stay in demand but in essence they are the more human ones of empathy and social engagement and the practical ones of dexterity and manual manipulation.

Going down the humanity pyramid brings us to knowledge, knowing what to do.

That comes with experience and learning – as we do more, reflect on what we do, learn from the successes and failures of others – we develop models of what might work and when that we can use to make judgements.

Knowledge is a collection of mental models about different situations.

These two, knowledge and skills, will take us a long way in a career.

In the early days, to some extent, which skills we focus on matters less than whether they are going to clothe, feed and house us.

Eventually we’re going to want more about life and work, and that’s when we start questioning whether what we’re doing is aligned with our capabilities – the next level down on the pyramid.

Do we feel good about going to work? Are we working on something that engages us and gets us into flow?

If we are in a fairly secure position, but dislike what we do – then this is the point where we need to question and change things, perhaps get a side hustle or a hobby that gets us to use our natural capabilities more.

Finally, at the base of the pyramid, Hagel puts Passion.

That’s a difficult word – sometimes tortured in general usage – a little like authenticity. Can you really feel passionate about customer service? Some people say they do, and who are we to argue…

In the context of work and life, however, I take this more as feeling fulfilled – experiencing peace of mind, as in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

So, in summary, the learning pyramid or humanity pyramid, is a useful structure through which we can view the work and career choices we have made so far, and question whether we have our skills, knowledge, capabilities and passion aligned.

And if not, what can we do about it?