How Can Artists Show Us How To Do Better Business?

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Wednesday, 9.33pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Phaedrus read in a scientific way rather than a literary way, testing each sentence as he went along, noting doubts and questions to be resolved later… – Robert Pirsig, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

I picked up Shawn Coyne’s The story grid again today to have another go at wrapping my head around his unique approach to deconstructing a story.

There was a thought I had playing in the back of my mind after listening to an interview with Roald Dahl who said that writing books for children is much harder than writing one for adults.

This is because children, if they like a book, don’t read it just once.

They’ll read it again and again – maybe five times, maybe twenty – until they sometimes know it by heart.

I remember doing this – there was a time when I could simply run through the words of the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy in my mind.

So, when I had to sit down and write about something to do with business I wondered why you would put any less effort into that kind of communication than you would do with a story for children or adults.

In other words, how could you write better for your business?

Now – hopefully that doesn’t seem like an entirely pointless question – a lot of poorly written stuff is put out by businesses.

So, if you want to do better how should you approach the task?

First, do the work

The first thing that Coyne reminds us is that thinking is not the same as doing.

He writes about what he learned at a class called “Practical Aesthetics Workshop” which was all about “de-bullshitting stuff”.

It gave him practical, tangible tools – which came down to this quote.

“If you want to get stronger, you don’t think about the proper way to lift weights. You learn the proper way and then you actually lift weights. Pretty simple.”

This is worth keeping in mind.

All the strategy discussions in the world won’t change a thing if you don’t then do the work.

In fact, you’ll probably make better decisions if you first do the work and then go back and look at what happened and think about what you could do better.

Second, create a structure

The second thing that Coyne points out is that he likes to break things down into their component parts – a practice that comes from his science background.

So, he starts to create a taxonomy – breaking down the big stuff into smaller things and creating a structure that you can go through.

And then he goes on for several pages.

I’ve written previously about why Coyne’s approach is hard for me to follow without wanting to stick pins in my eyes – partly because the whole breaking things into parts is a hard task – and because it’s made worse by having to do it in Excel.

I will have to find a way to do the same thing in text files using something like Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten approach – which is the project that I’m going to give myself over the coming months – probably using some of Terry Pratchett’s books.

But, let me come back to structure.

Structure is something that you have to impose on your work – but also something that can emerge from your work.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to come up with some marketing material.

You could just type stuff straight into the computer – following a structure someone else has given you.

Or you could work through a couple of drafts, trying different things.

Both might work – perhaps differently.

What matters, in the end, is that what you create has a logic to it, a structure that works.

If you get the structure of a message right, then it acts like an internal skeleton, organising information and putting it in front of the reader at the right time so that they “get” it.

The structure is invisible but the impact it has is not – you end up with a satisfied reader.

Third, get rid of the bullshit

The last element is something that really only comes from a way of thinking where it’s important that things work.

In science or technology, for example, something works or doesn’t work – it can be tested.

Balls roll down a plane or a bridge remains standing when put under stress.

But, you also have the same thing when it comes to the arts.

An actor does her lines and the audience likes it or doesn’t – the lines land or don’t.

Yes, it’s a little more subjective and the audience matters – but on the whole you know if something succeeds or fails.

And it usually has something to do with the way the script or the story has been built.

And the way to test this is to check every line – think of it like building a raft.

You don’t want a raft made from a mix of logs and lead – you want the whole thing to float.

And in your business messaging every sentence that doesn’t help you float should be cut.

That includes all the fluff and fancy talk and things that you feel you should say.

Like the quote that starts this post, read each sentence, testing as you go along and note doubts and concerns that need to be resolved.

Then resolve them.

Don’t say that “You’re the best” – explain why, on what basis – go into the detail that justifies why you can say something like that.

And then don’t say it at all – put down all the things that result in the reader saying it for themselves.

It’s the old thing – show, don’t tell.

And it works just as well for business as it does for the arts.

And that’s because, when it comes down to it, business is an art.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Would A Non-Western Theory Of Management Look Like?

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Tuesday, 9.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

American management thinks that they can just copy from Japan. But they don’t know what to copy. – W. Edwards Deming

Today I came across a TED talk called The Indian approach to business by Devdutt Pattanaik, an Indian author who writes on mythology and management, among other things.

I have, elsewhere in this blog, written about how I have been increasingly disillusioned by goal-driven positivist approaches to life and business.

You know, the kind of thing where you write down a goal – a specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound one – and the universe moves everything to get it for you.

It doesn’t quite match what happens in the real world.

Some people get there but it’s not clear if that’s because they’re lucky or because had goals.

Now, the thing is that management books are mostly written by Europeans and Americans – and they have a particular intellectual and cultural heritage.

Pattanaik argues that the way people think in the West is heavily influenced by their Christian upbringing.

In particular, people are brought up with the idea of a promised land – one overflowing with milk and honey – one that is reached after a long journey following a visionary leader touched by god.

The leader has a vision, a mission and his (it’s usually a he) followers must do what he commands unquestioningly.

If you look for the equivalent intellectual infrastructure in India you have to turn to the stories – the mythology of Hinduism.

And here, Pattanaik found, there are three types of promised lands – not one.

In the first, Swarga, you get everything for nothing.

You can put your feet up and ask for anything and your wish will be fulfilled.

It’s paradise – but it has a problem.

It’s constantly being invaded or waging war or trying to stop someone else – although it has plenty, it’s always afraid that it might lose it all.

Technically, the god that rules it, feels that way…

Then you have Kailash – high atop a mountain.

This is where you go when you no longer want anything, when you have gone beyond desire and can live in total simplicity.

It’s the kind of thing a monk would do.

The third promised land is Vaikuntha – a place of love and harmony and service and peace.

This is where you put others first – serve them without thought of reward.

So, in Indian mythology, you have these three possible outcomes – you get everything you want, you want nothing or you serve others.

What I suppose I hadn’t realised, until Pattanaik articulated it using this model, is that I come from a place programmed with a default mode of thinking based on these stories.

My inherent programming is to head towards Kailash – to the place where you want nothing – live with what you have, within your means, desiring as little as possible.

Others are programmed differently – perhaps aspiring towards wealth and plenty or looking to serve others and live in harmony.

And that leads to some interesting outcomes.

In the West for example, as we go through the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, you see organisations responding in different ways.

Some reach out to their employees, effectively offering love – something that is rooted in Christianity.

Others put themselves first, protecting their owners and shareholders – where does that come from?

It’s easy to argue that it’s a modern, atheistic thing – rooted in biological thinking – a dog eat dog world, survival of the fittest and so on.

Now, I’m not sure this model tells you how to do things.

what it does suggest is that the way you think now is because of the stories you heard when you were growing up.

Which is different to the way modern management theory works.

The stuff you read in textbooks now will either be stuff someone’s come up with that they think is cool, or something they believe is rooted in some form of scientific approach.

Peter Drucker is a good example of this type of thinker – combining field research with thoughts about human relationships.

Robert M. Pirsig, on the other hand, in his book Lila introduces you to the idea that what it means to be “American” is actually based on the ways the Native Americans thought and acted rather than the European ways that the early settlers brought with them.

It’s a slightly longer argument than that…

But it supports Pattanaik’s central argument – myths matter and the stories that people grew up with affect the way in which they act as grown ups.

What this tells us, a little like the Deming quote above, is that it’s not enough to copy what people do – we need to try and understand the thinking behind why they do it.

Maybe it’s time to revisit some of your own childhood reading – and see how it’s made you the person you are now.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Does James Patterson Have To Tell Us About Writing And Business?

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Monday, 9.19pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I’m very conscious that I’m an entertainer. Something like 73 percent of my readers are college graduates, so you can’t condescend to people. You’ve got to tell them a story that they will be willing to pay money to read. – James Patterson

If you read my last post you may have noticed that I got a little carried away on the subject of pencils.

James Patterson writes with a pencil.

That made me like him again – because last summer, as I sat in a field in France reading one of his books, I was a little put out when I found that he doesn’t write most of them himself.

And it turns out there is a reason for that – a very good one.

Patterson, in case you didn’t know, is a prolific and wealthy author.

But, what caught my eye as I read about him was a question in an interview that asked him whether his advertising background made him a better writer.

He said, “The most valuable part of the advertising process was understanding that there’s an audience. I write commercially, commercial fiction, and there’s an audience, and I like the audience. I don’t condescend to them.”

That’s something most of us don’t get – the fact that if you do something as a business then there’s an audience.

If you haven’t got an audience you haven’t got a business – you have a hobby or a passion, but not a business.

And this comes across in the quote above.

Patterson doesn’t call himself a writer – he thinks of himself as an entertainer.

This is the difference between thinking in terms of what you do and What you do for someone else.

What you do is a feature, what you do for someone else is a benefit.

This is worth keeping in mind whatever it is you do – and trying to articulate clearly.

For example, if you’re a management consultant – that’s what you do.

What do you do for someone else?

What’s the equivalent of “entertainment” in your business – is it “problem solving”, “cost cutting”, “revenue generating”?

And, quite importantly, is that something people get – are they willing to pay money for that thing?

It’s quite possible that what people get from you is different depending on the situation they find themselves in.

But I do think that this simple approach helps us understand whether what we are doing is commercial or not.

Is it something we do because we want to – because it’s interesting to us and we enjoy doing it?

Or do we do it because there is a need – people willing to part with money in exchange for this thing.

Or, happily, is it both?

People buy Patterson’s books because he promises them a particular kind of reading experience.

So what if he hires people to help him get down the words – you still get a Patterson novel – and he handles quality control.

That way you get more to read than he could write himself and everyone’s happy.

Aren’t they?

Now, after the commercial discussion, the rest of Patterson’s suggestions are easier to grasp.

Routine matters – write at the same time in the same place every day.

Do more – write as much as you can, figure out plots and outlines before you go deep into something, try and get better at seeing the big picture and doing the detailed work.

Stay busy – work on multiple projects and make sure there is something you can turn to rather than just finding yourself blocked on the first page or at a particular point in your work.

The interesting thing about these four points is that you can start anywhere.

Pick up a pencil now and start doodling, writing – and you will have started the creative process.

Get up early tomorrow morning, or work late tonight – and start the first day of the routine you will keep for the rest of your life.

Look through your list of things you want to do and set up project folders – create the space and the system to manage your creative output.

Or spend some time studying your audience – the people who buy the thing you are selling – get into their heads and listen to what they’re saying so you can create a product they want to buy.

You can start anywhere – but to build your career or your business, you will need to master all four elements.

And a few others, probably.

But you can start by picking up a pencil and getting to work.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why We Need To Understand What Really Goes Into The Creative Process

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Sunday, 9.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There’s no one way to be creative. Any old way will work. – Ray Bradbury

Is anyone else finding that being at home with the kids all the time makes it hard to work the way you always do?

I think that’s because kids always want to check out what you’re doing and if it’s more interesting than what they’re doing.

If you’re using a screen – a phone, a computer – they want some of that action.

So, because we want them to spend time playing and reading and all that kind of stuff, we turn the screens off.

And that makes it difficult to do things that involve screens – especially if you like drawing or writing and tend to use the computer a lot for that kind of thing.

But, if you use paper and pencil, that’s much less interesting.

They might join you at the table doing something that looks like schoolwork they’ll either start doing the same with you or they’ll get on and play – either way you get them doing something that kids should be doing.

And what I do at times like these is instead of getting on with working I start looking around for how other people do their work.

You will remember, for example, that Roald Dahl wrote all his books with Dixon Ticonderoga pencils on yellow legal pads.

I bought a box of HBs and was quite disappointed with the quality of the modern Ticonderoga.

Japanese alternatives like the Tombow Mono 100 or the Mistubishi Hi-Uni are silky smooth and beautiful to write with.

Pencils are great because you can lie on the sofa and write upside down but they lack the impact of ink.

And that’s just the mark making tools.

What about paper – do you go with the legal pad or standard A4?

If you read Robert M. Pirsig’s Lila, you learn about how he collected information on 4×6 slips of paper, thousands of them, from which structure of his book emerged.

Or you could read about Ryan Holiday’s notecard system which is based on what he learned from Robert Greene.

Then you have John McPhee and his approach which involves first taking notes and coding them, then cutting them up, moving the pieces around, in a highly customised editor – the equivalent of a pair of scissors.

This has echoes of a Zettelkasten – another note taking method that was an early version of hyperlinked pages implemented using index cards.

Now, you will realise that I have already gone quite deep into things that probably don’t matter – unless you’re one of those people for whom it matters very much.

The point I’m trying to make is what you see is not what there is.

For any person who takes on the task of creating something – an article, a book, a business – there is lots you don’t see.

But there are three crucial things you have to get right if you are one of those people.

The first is to realise that the product is what comes out at the end of the process.

If you start trying to get your product perfect the very first time, you will probably paralyse yourself into inaction.

Take writing, for example, the chances are that the first thing you write is going to be rubbish.

But, if you don’t get that rubbish down, you’ll never get to the next stage – the rewriting and editing which results in better, tighter, cleaner text.

So, you need a method to create your product – a method that helps you work through the broad idea of what you are trying to create and break it down into smaller, doable parts.

The third essential thing you have to do is create a way to join up the parts you create – you need a kind of glue to keep them together.

All the elements I described above are parts of people’s methods.

Interestingly, when I searched for images of McPhee and Kedit, the editor he uses, the image from one of my articles about writing came up.

I use a method that is a combination of McPhee’s, Pirsig’s, the Zettelkasten, and the tools that make up a Unix based programming environment.

It’s not a method I would recommend that anyone else uses because it’s customised to fit the way I work – and I’m trying to combine analogue and digital tools in a way that helps me create the kind of work I want to do.

I like literate programming, a way of creating stuff that separates out the thinking and doing.

For example, you might have thoughts about what to put in a chapter – ideas, musings and so on.

Then there is the actual stuff you write, the text you want to go into the printed document which is based on the thoughts you had.

I like having both these in the same file and extracting the bits that are going to make their way into the final document.

Angst and output kept together, but able to be separated when needed.

And, of course, with text processing tools, it’s a doddle to glue everything together – I’m not sure there is much use in using index cards for that purpose, unless you really like the analogue approach there.

So, here’s the thing about being creative.

If someone likes what you’ve made at the end of your process – that’s a huge bonus.

But everything that matters is in your process – however that works for you.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Tell A Story So People Will Listen

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Saturday, 9.13pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. – Raymond Chandler

Do you ever get the feeling that some things people write are too flat, too thin to really be of any use?

Like management theories, for example.

You can pick up a textbook and see models, two by two matrices favoured by professors and consultants, that try to capture what is going on in the world out there.

But, in reality, they don’t – but why?

Terry Pratchett, in one of his books, talks about some cultures having a view that taking a picture of people was like stealing a bit of their soul.

And he said that if you looked closely at people who had a lot of “exposure”, who had lots of pictures taken of them, they seemed less substantial, less real.

And I think that’s what happens to ideas as well – as they’re passed on and refined and made more general, they lose their substance – they stop being rooted in something real and become fading memories of something someone once understood.

Which is why fiction matters so much – why writers who look again at the reality out there, even if its a reality they construct in their own minds, are much closer to what’s going on than these lofty theoreticians.

And if you want to get a feel for how this plays out you only have to watch a course on Coursera on writing and then watch this TEDx talk by Ryan Gattis.

Gattis talks about the elements of immersive story – five things you must have to make a story work.

These five things are the kinds of things you will learn in any introduction to writing class – they’re craft skills that you refine through practice and effort.

You have to start with hooks, things that snag your audience’s attention.

You need a few of these and you might to wait till they take hold before you start to reel in the reader.

Your writing cannot be predictable, be boring – you need to take the reader down one path and then change things around – keeping them guessing and therefore interested.

But you also need to have a chain of events – you need cause and effect if you want to avoid simply having a random series of things happening and confusing your reader.

It’s not enough to be a master at describing what you see out there – the facts of the case.

You also need to connect with your reader on an emotional level – and that means sharing and creating feelings.

And throughout your writing you have to have specific, concrete detail – that’s what makes your story believable.

To see how these elements are used by someone who knows what they’re doing watch Gattis’ presentation – it’s hard to turn off and stop halfway through.

And that’s because anyone can have these elements – but the thing that holds them together, Gattis says, is authenticity – how real you are.

And he has an interesting approach to what it means to be authentic – on the lines of it’s when you show others who you really are rather than what you want to show them or what you believe they should see.

Now, this resonates with something else I was watching which was Brandon Sanderson on plot.

He said that people were sometimes surprised that editors very quickly rejected their work, and he argued that was actually completely understandable.

Bring up a piano, he said, and have someone play who has been learning for a year or so – someone who’s worked hard to improve and practised their stuff.

Then bring up a concert pianist, a professional with a score of years experience, and listen to them play.

How long will it take before you can tell the difference between which one is better?

And it works the same way with a novel – you can tell in the first few pages whether the writer is good or not, experienced or not.

And it works the same way in most places – you can tell people who have business experience, who know their stuff from the people who are new or that are full of hot air.

You have to spend the time working on your craft, whatever that craft is.

When you’ve spent that time then you’re in a position where you can use these elements in an effective manner – when you have the skills to do the basics.

Which is when you can take down your defences, when you can start to let the real you out, the one that people can connect with.

Because it’s one thing to know what these elements are – it’s an entirely different thing to have mastered how to use them.

As a lecturer said to us once when we had completed an MBA course – “You now have a Masters in Business Administration – that doesn’t make you a master of business administration.”

That comes later, with time and practice and perseverance.

Which is why I think that you should take the time to go deep into ideas, into situations – because it’s only when you do that that you will get the really interesting stuff.

The stuff that you can use in a story that people will stop and listen to.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You Have To Get Everything Important Right For Things To Work

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Friday, 9.53pm

Sheffield, U.K.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing. – Theodore Roosevelt

A post on social media recently introduced me to the work of Frederic Vester, a German biochemist who did work on networked thinking – combining elements of complexity, systems thinking and cybernetics.

He is not that well known because he published mostly in German and his book The art of interconnected thinking is hard to find.

A summary of the ideas, however, on his website makes for interesting, if not easy, reading.

His basic argument is that we need a new kind of thinking, one that recognises two things.

First, more things are connected to each other than we realise.

Second, the connecting strings between things are more important than the things themselves.

To see how this works look at the puppet in the picture above.

The puppet is made up of things – a head, limbs, a body and so on.

These are connected through links, ball joints and the like.

Now, you can see that the upper arm is connected to the torso, but so is the lower arm – through the first connection.

If you want to make the puppet dance, you attach strings to the things – which gives you the ability to move them.

With this picture it’s clear that the strings are the most important element if you want to make the puppet dance.

The way in which you control and move the strings will govern the kind of result you get from the puppet.

If you pull on just one string – you’ll only get a little movement – no matter how good you are at giving that string the right amount of pull.

You need to pull on all the strings – all the important ones – to get a smooth movement and bring the puppet to life.

Now, that might seem obvious with this example – but we often forget this simple rule when confronted with real life situations – ones that are more complex.

And, as a result, we make mistakes – predictable ones.

Vester draws on the work of Dietrich Dörner who used simulations to come up with common mistakes that experts made in situations.

For example, instead of trying to improve the system as a whole, they tried to solve specific problems as they saw them.

That’s akin to making a leg or arm move better while forgetting about the whole body.

Or they spent too much time collecting lots of data and carrying out endless analysis rather than looking for patterns, for the fundamental character and controls in the situation.

Sometimes they focused on a particular thing and forgot about everything else – they just didn’t notice or became blind to other data or factors.

Because their minds were locked into a particular path they didn’t think about side effects – what other consequences there might be.

If what they tried didn’t work quickly, they tried other, more powerful methods.

But when they realised that the first things they tried took time before they had an effect they stopped things just as fast.

And, when they had the power they used it to force through a particular approach they believed in – but things don’t often happen just because you want them to – however strong your force of will.

These ideas are important and the insights timeless – because we see them happening all the time.

As human beings, we’re designed for short-term, survival based thinking.

That’s what we’re good at – living for another day.

Living better – living in a way that helps our children and grandchildren needs long-term thinking – something that we can do as human beings.

But not something we can do in a hurry or in a panic.

Some of the rest of Vester’s work seems quite complicated – and I don’t know enough to know if it needs to be so complicated.

Maths is of less help in many situations, especially social ones, than you might think.

Understanding people is probably more relevant.

And seeing the strings that pull people perhaps even more so.

But if you can see those strings – then you can get better at pulling them – to improve the situation you’re in.

And that’s when you know that what you’re doing is working.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Does Maslow Have To Tell Us About Businesses Now?

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Thursday, 9.30pm

Sheffield, U.K.

First you find out what you have, Dad would say. Then you figure out how to make it work for what you need, ’cause you don’t get what you want. You get just what you have and no more. – Lilith Saintcrow, Betrayals

I was starting to wonder how to approach the world that’s unfolding in front of us now.

Is it too soon to start to examine what’s happening or should we have started to look at this earlier?

A few social media comments by others have, however, led me to think there is value in doing a little analysis, which is what I might do in the next few posts.

Let’s start with Maslow.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as you know, is a theory of human motivation – looking at the things we need as humans.

We start at the bottom with basic physiological needs – food, water, shelter.

Then we need safety, some kind of security – a fixed abode, a trade.

If these are met, then we start looking around for friendships and relationships – for belonging.

And along the way, we look for acceptance and admiration from people – the things that feed our self esteem.

And at the top is self-actualisation – where we add value to ourselves and others in the best way we can.

Maslow saw these criteria as building on each other – you had to complete one level before you could work on the next.

But clearly, when you’re in a crisis, you might drop a level or five depending on what you’re facing.

If you’ve built up a reputation over the years as a pillar of society – meeting your esteem and self-actualisation needs – and then you do something naughty that gets everyone very cross – then you might drop down the love/belonging level and have to make amends and rebuild your life.

Or – something like a virus could come along – and drop you all the way down to the safety and physiological levels.

For many people they’re now wondering about how to meet their basic needs – where will their food come from and will they be able to pay the rent on their homes.

Depending on where you are in the world your experience will vary – and life is no doubt very tough for many people.

If we as individuals are facing life in those bottom two levels, what might a similar hierarchy be for businesses?

I thought I’d take a stab at building up a hierarchy and see if it made sense.

For a business, at the bottom, cash is what matters.

If you’re not bringing in some money then you don’t have the makings of a business – you need cash to cover your costs.

At the next level you have earnings – you’re bringing in more money than you are spending and you have the operating earnings needed to grow the business.

Now, your business is grown up when you start to think of yourself as being part of an industry – where your contribution is recognised as being something people want.

When people get to the point where what they want is you, then you’ve got yourself a name, a brand – you’re a trusted provider of a product of a service.

And right at the top you have a moat – your business is more than just a provider – but it has value that is more than the net assets it has.

Right now businesses and individuals have crashed down to that safety level – and for both, safety now means having earnings or having reserves to draw on.

If you still have a job, or your business is still trading or you get support from the government or you have the money in the bank to cover you for a while, then you’re safe.

If not, you’re in that space where you don’t know where the next meal is coming from – or you’re running out of cash and will go bankrupt.

Warren Buffett wrote “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

Many people and businesses have spent their time believing they’re in the top two or three levels of their hierarchy of needs.

They’ve run businesses on thin margins, high leverage and paid out healthy dividends.

And now, they don’t have the resources needed to ride out a storm.

But the way our economies work is that letting such businesses fail would cause so much hardship that it’s better to support them for the sake of everyone else.

Human nature isn’t going to change – there might be a short term increase in the number of people who become more conservative over the next decade or so – but the memory of this will fade.

But principles don’t – and some of us will continue to believe that you can’t get to the top three levels unless you have got the bottom two really sorted.

It’s simple really.

When you live through a season of plenty, put away something for the famine that is to come.

That’s a timeless message if there ever was one.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Do People Really Get How Computers Can Be Useful To Them?

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Wednesday, 8.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Most of the time spent wrestling with technologies that don’t quite work yet is just not worth the effort for end users, however much fun it is for nerds like us. – Douglas Adams

I have spent a lot of time playing with computers – mostly because time has just passed without really taking any notice of my opinion on the matter.

Throughout that time the terminal has been my friend – the command line and plain text – have been all I have needed for my own purposes.

To work with others, however, I’ve had to slow down, to use graphical user interfaces and do things more than once – which if you have spent any time programming is not the kind of thing we like to do.

We’d rather spend three hours coding something that will do something you could do in five minutes manually.

My thoughts on this were sparked by a Twitter comment by Paul Graham, the founder of YCombinator, on the lines of tech people don’t really use that much tech – we only use what’s needed for the problem we’re working on.

And I think that’s true – we have more computational power for the jobs we have to do most of the time.

Problems that really need some heavy duty computational hardware are probably not ones being addressed by the average individual or business.

The problem is that most of those individuals or businesses don’t really get the real power of a computer.

A lot of people use applications that help them do the things they would do using paper pretty much the same way using an application.

And I guess that makes sense – I wrote a few days ago about how tech companies build tools to let people do things the way they do them now – and why should that be different for individuals?

Why wouldn’t you design software that helped people take notes the way they would on paper, or let the write in the way they would longhand?

The point I’m reaching for is that technology builders build things that people can see themselves using – and as a result they don’t really get that much more productive.

And, in real life, they don’t get much faster but they’re also restricted by all kinds of security policies and technology shackles that they end up worse off than before.

There are lots of people out there who have spent much of today in critical roles – jobs that involve protecting and saving lives – trying to make their technology work rather than doing their job.

But one problem is that for many people it’s not worth their time trying to get better at understanding and using the technology – and they’re comfortable doing it the long, hard way.

Now, I don’t know what makes someone go one way or the other – I suppose it has something to do with temperament.

Today, for example, a small person wanted to use a computer.

If you give one of them a regular machine, with a browser and everything else – they’re onto some kind of website with games in a second.

So I fired up one and logged into a terminal.

And the small person was fine, pressing keys and making letters scroll around – and along the way he invented a game – hiding a word inside that random bunch of letters.

It took a while but he did it.

So, the next time round, I got him to write a program – one that generated random strings of a certain length for a certain number of lines – and then replaced a set of characters with the words he wanted to hide.

And I watched his eyes.

They didn’t really tell me anything – he went through the task and then wanted to do something else.

Which was fine.

The thing I was wondering, however, was whether he “got it” – whether he could do something in a few minutes that had previously taken ten or fifteen – whether he could do it again and again in seconds – now that he had created a program that did what he was doing manually.

Because that’s the real power of a computer – not in helping you do the things you can do but in doing things that you can’t.

But I’m not sure people really get that yet.

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

What To Do To Jumpstart Being Creative Right Now

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Monday, 6:00 pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use – do the work you want to see done. – Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

If you are in a difficult place right now then it may be time to start being creative.

But how do you go about doing that – surely only some people are creative and the rest aren’t?

That isn’t the case, according to Edward de Bono – as I dug out his book Serious creativity to remind myself how this works.

I’m not always sure what to make of De Bono’s writings – apparently he’s very clever and he seems to think so.

Lots of people copy his ideas, he says, and he came up with lots of stuff before science caught up.

So, I don’t know – but I watched a video of him talking and drawing once – and well – you might as well listen to his stuff and judge for yourself.

He says that you can deliberately be creative – you don’t need to sit around and wait for inspiration.

What you’ve got to do is get your mind out of the grooves it’s currently rolling along – look at things in a new way.

There are three main approaches he suggests: challenge, alternatives and provocation, along with tools that help you with them.

You’ve probably heard of a few of them – six thinking hats, for example.

But right now I want to look at the top level criteria and see where that takes me.

Take challenge, for starters.

This comes down to looking at everything that is the way it is now – and asking why it is so.

Why do you do things a certain way – why is that process followed – why do you create this document?

In many jobs in many organisations you do not have permission to question what is happening – to question the status quo.

If you do you will probably get told off.

That’s the way we do things around here and all that.

But, you have to give yourself permission to question, to be a pain in the proverbial – if you want to do something different anyway.

Then you have the idea of alternatives.

What else could you do? How else could you get there? What other options are there for the thing you want?

At one time you had to rely on yourself for all this thinking.

These days you have the Internet on your side.

For example, I once wanted to get a microphone holder – but was too cheap to pay.

It turns out that if you bend a coat hanger in the right way you get a very effective, zero cost microphone holder.

And finally you have the idea of provocation – starting with the opposite approach or a confrontational option.

Right now a provocation many are using is “I run my business from home”.

Such a provocation will often result in many thoughts about why it’s not possible – and you have to work through them to get to the new ideas that are possible.

Our way of life as we knew it is being put on pause.

It is time to get creative.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh