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

How To Become Happier By Using Better Mental Tools

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Sunday, 9.01pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands, and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain. – Bo Dahlbom

Today I came across a talk by Daniel Dennett for the first time, in which he introduced the quote that starts this post.

The quote resonated with me because much of my work over the last couple of years has been around trying to make sense of things – finding some kind of clarity in the messy real world that we live in.

It feels like different people have approached this in different ways over the years.

At one extreme you have approaches that are rooted in meditation and thought – the kind of thing you imagine Zen Buddhists doing.

It’s a long process of study and practice – at the end of which they achieve enlightenment – which I imagine is making a sort of peace with reality.

Although I did read a quote that said something like if anyone thinks they are enlightened, they should spend a weekend with their family.

At another extreme you have people of certain forms of science who believe that if it cannot be observed and measured it does not exist.

For them it’s about research and measurement and electrical flows and visualisations – about the detail of what’s going on in the physical world.

Now, it feels like there are many extremes as you think through the options.

For example, another extreme is the self-help guru, the person who has come up with a method that has worked for them and which they believe will work for you.

You find these everywhere, because surely if someone has achieved something then doing what they’ve done will work for you.

In Dennett’s talk he says you should install a surely alarm.

Whenever you see the word “surely” in a passage what it means is that the author hopes you’ll accept the point without questioning it.

They’re not totally sure about their point – if they were, they’d simply say that.

So, with the “surely”, they’re often trying to get something they believe to be true past you, hoping you won’t notice.

But you should – and perhaps probe more deeply into what’s going on.

Another extreme is Dennett’s own field – philosophy.

Some people believe that philosophy is the way you understand things – a rigorous way to understand what is true and false.

But really, what you need to understand is that philosophy is a form of logic, much like mathematics.

And Godel proved that even with maths, there are things you need to believe – things that can’t be proven using the system of maths you’re using.

Axioms.

What this means is that pretty much everything is rooted in a belief – and the reason you carry on believing is because nothing absurd results from thinking that way.

So, what I’m saying here is that some people believe that you have to just “get” it for yourself, others that you have to break it down scientifically, others that they have a way that’s worked for them and a few others who say this is the logical way to do things.

And then there are probably a few more ways to go.

What I’m taking from this is that reality is complex and complicated.

There are so many threads of thought, things that happen and what we think about those things happening – so many different ways we could approach the world.

What often matters is finding a way that works for us.

It’s what I’ve thought of as “models” for a while – perhaps what Peter Checkland calls a “holon” – and something that might be captured by Dennett’s concept of an “intuition pump”.

This is something that “focuses the reader’s attention on the ‘important features'” – something perhaps like I do in the model above.

Although what I’ve done is draw some circles around a random bunch of squiggles.

Still, perhaps, looking at those sections of squiggles can help us make some sense of what’s going on.

And I think that’s the point.

We’ve got to a stage in human evolution where just thinking about things isn’t enough.

There are tools that can help – and I suppose we are taught quite a few of these in school.

But many of us then forget these, or don’t go on to learn more tools, and end up trying to get through life on our bare brains alone.

What I see is that approach leads to discontent and worry and stress.

I remember, early in my career, as experiences piled up and I found it harder and harder to get what was happening.

And then I went back to university, did a management degree, and was introduced to models and ways of thinking that helped me make sense of the experiences I had had.

All of a sudden the feelings fell away – having words to describe what was going on meant that I could understand it better, and so there was no more need for feelings of doubt or inadequacy or shame.

Making sense of things matters – but there is no grand “sense” that we all share.

Instead, you have to make your own personal sense of things – but having good mental tools will help.

Some of which I have tried to use as I write this blog – the point of which really is to help me make sense of the world around me.

I hope it helps you as well.

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

Do You Know This One Secret That Can Improve Your Marketing?

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Friday, 9.06pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Euclid taught me that without assumptions there is no proof. Therefore, in any argument, examine the assumptions. – E. T. Bell

Today I learned from Steven Pinker about a thing called the curse of knowledge.

It turns out there is an experiment you can do with a three-year old.

Show a child a box of chocolates and ask them what’s in it.

They will probably say, “Chocolate.”

Now, get them to open the box.

Inside, they’ll find pencils instead of chocolate.

Now, ask them what’s inside the box.

They’ll say, “Pencils.”

Now, bring another child into the room and ask the first child what the second child thinks is inside the box.

The answer is, “Pencils.”

What’s happened is that the first child cannot now “unknow” what’s in the box.

But also, the first child now believes that everyone else also knows what it knows.

This is something many people never grow out of.

We believe that because we know something other people must know it as well.

And that causes us to make mistakes in the messaging we create – the things we write and design to explain what we do and how we work.

You probably see this all the time at work.

If you ask someone to pull together a briefing paper or a presentation on a topic, what you will get is a comprehensive statement of what they know.

There are all these things you have to start with, and we did all this stuff, and carried out these complicated calculations and did all this really detailed things about these really specific elements and so on and on and on.

But, what does this mean for someone who doesn’t know what you know – but who is bright and capable?

How do you get a message across to people like that?

For starters, you think about what they need to know.

Are they interested in the mechanics of cocoa production or are they interested in why your chocolate is different?

Take Tony’s Chocolonely, for example.

I like chocolate, probably too much, but I’ve never given it much thought.

My default has been something in the Cadbury’s or Galaxy line.

I was introduced to Tony’s Chocolonely as a “slave free” chocolate – an ethical brand.

I tried it – it was nice, but expensive.

And then we went to Amsterdam – before the world shut down – and visited the shop where it was made, and that left an impression.

And more recently, when I bought a few bars, I read some words on the marketing that said something like “unequally divided, because the world isn’t fair” – or something on those lines.

You don’t get nice clean squares with this chocolate.

There’s a lot of messaging with this brand – and some of it is clearly getting through, for me, at least.

All these things make the chocolate stand out in a way that’s different from brands that talk about being the finest chocolate, or having master chocolateers or focusing on the colour purple.

By this time, you’re probably thinking about chocolate and I’m losing my train of thought wanting some…

To pull things back.

The hardest thing for us to do is see things from the point of view of someone else who doesn’t yet know all the things we know – or actually someone who doesn’t want to know at all.

When you write or ask someone to write a piece of marketing you should see that as a first draft.

What’s probably going to happen is that first draft puts down everything you know about what you do – it’s a list of features.

What you need to do next is remind yourself of the curse of knowledge – remind yourself that you need to know what you know to be able to understand what you’ve written.

Then you need to sit down and rewrite every sentence in your draft so it make sense to someone coming to it with little or no knowledge – but someone bright enough to get what you’re talking about.

You don’t need to talk down to people or be patronising – you just need to be clear about what this means for them.

I remember, years ago, going to a marketing class where we did just this.

We were asked to write down a few words about what we did for customers.

Two of my examples were “risk management” and “carbon offsets”.

Then we were asked to try and write down what this meant for customers – how did they benefit?

And I suppose I wrote something like “Buy what you need as cheaply as possible” and “do business in a green and sustainable way”.

The second attempt, hopefully, make more sense than the more technical words that make sense to me.

The fact is that writing is bloody hard work – you’re not just going to sit down and dash off a masterpiece of marketing copy or a story or anything like that.

The first draft really is just you telling the story to yourself.

The second, third and fourth drafts are where you start telling the story to someone else – and how you eventually get to something that is so easy to read that people just “get” it.

But it’s not easy – if it reads well it’s because someone worked for a long time writing it.

And maybe that’s the lesson.

You worked really hard to learn what you know.

Now you need to work twice as hard to get other people to see it.

And that’s marketing.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Business Lessons From A Literary Agent And Critic

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Thursday, 9.29pm

Sheffield, U.K.

An objection is not a rejection; it is simply a request for more information. – Bo Bennett

At the moment I’m finding a lot of ideas in TEDx talks – the shows that I watch in scattered fragments of time during the day.

The beauty of the TED format is you get a lifetime of experience compressed into fifteen to twenty minutes – and that means the speaker has to create a thought diamond – a flashing stone of inspiration just for you.

One of today’s shows was by Julian Friedmann about storytelling – about what he had learned as an agent working with authors.

The thing that stood out for me was the idea of rejection.

When someone sets out to write something like a novel – a thing that is made for other people to read – there are three elements that are involved.

There is the writer – the person sat in the chair writing day after day.

There are the characters – the people the writer creates and watches and sees doing things day after day.

And then there is the audience, that takes the book and tells themselves the story.

Now, in traditional publishing, to get your book out there you have to get past the gatekeepers.

These are the agents, the editors, the publishers – the ones who can decide whether you as a writer get to make a living or not from doing what you love.

They often have, as Friedmann says, less creativity and talent than you, but they have the power to decide what happens to your work and, by extension, you.

What gives these people the right to do that – how is it that they have that kind of influence over what you do?

Well, increasingly, they don’t – if you want to publish these days, you can.

It might not be any good – but that doesn’t mean you can’t see your name in print.

The point is that if an agent or critic rejects what you’ve produced it’s because they don’t think it will sell – it won’t appeal to the audience out there.

Now, if you look for the analogy of this writing structure in business you get a very similar three part model.

There is an entrepreneur who lavishes time and money in creating a product and then brings it to the attention of a market.

And they come up against the investors and buyers who are the equivalent of critics in the business world – the people with the power to decide what happens to your product and, by extension, you.

Writers fall in love with their creations; entrepreneurs fall in love with their products.

Some fail to realise that their creations and products are just not very good – they’re not what the audience or market is willing to buy.

They react by getting angry, by chasing publishers, by trying hard sell tactics

They believe that eventually the world will realise their brilliance – they just need to push hard enough.

And that may be the case, and they may win.

But in other cases the world is telling them something they should listen to – which is that they need to go back and improve the novel, make a better product.

The feedback might actually be useful – within the rejection you experience may actually be the secret that you need to know for your eventual success.

The next time you pitch your product – the thing you have spent huge amounts of time building with care – just remember that it’s not about you.

It’s about your audience, your market.

It’s about how they take what you’ve created and look at it – what is the story they tell themselves?

How do they see this thing you’ve made from their point of view – how do they use it, why do they need it, what do they do with it?

Their experience of your thing is what matters – that’s the one thing you can’t control.

But you can control yourself and the thing you make – you can change those and then go back and see if you get a different reaction.

Rejection, in this model, is simply the world telling you that you need to do some more work – perhaps slightly smarter, more targeted, better informed work.

That’s all.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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