What Markets Can Tell You About How To Live Better

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Friday, 8.05pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Investing should be more like watching paint dry or watching grass grow. If you want excitement, take $800 and go to Las Vegas. – Paul Samuelson

I was listening to Tim Ferriss interview Howard Marks on his podcast.

It took a few days to get through the whole show because I kept restarting it and now have a napkin with notes in streaky bold purple felt tip.

And the first note has to do with Peter Bernstein who wrote “The capital markets are not accommodating machines”.

In other words they’re not wishing wells.

You can’t just want or need something and expect to have your wish come true.

People who have never done a trade or tried to manage their own portfolio don’t get this.

It’s actually very hard to explain this unless you already know how it feels.

The sick, clammy, gut-wrenching that comes from a trade going wrong.

Not knowing whether you’re wrong, or still right.

Seeing an investment go to zero.

It’s like saying travel broadens the mind.

You need to travel to know what that’s like for real.

Now, a lot of self-help and positive psychology stuff relies on life giving you what you want.

Focus on what you want and your reticular activating system will kick in and the universe will give you what you most want.

What if that’s not true?

What if, like a capital market, life is not an accommodating machine?

What is it then?

From Bernstein we move then to Benjamin Graham who said “In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.”

In other words, what drives stocks now is news and noise and hustle.

In the long term what results in value is what the company earns.

You can achieve notoriety and fame quickly – but can you keep it?

The chances are that most people who have achieved anything did so over time.

Whether they’re public figures or successful in their own fields – they probably did it over time, little by little.

They learned and trained and worked.

And they were ready when opportunity came knocking – they knew how to recognise it and they knew how to let it in.

Lottery winners, on the other hand, have their big moment and then fade away.

It’s a simple lesson really.

Wishing isn’t enough.

Wanting isn’t enough.

Winning the lottery isn’t enough.

What matters is what you do over time.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Should You Do When You Don’t Feel Like Taking Another Step?

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Thursday, 9.11pm

Sheffield, U.K.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. – Annie Dillard

It’s wintry out there tonight.

Some of us have colds and headaches and don’t quite feel up to doing any work.

So what should you do when you feel like that?

Should you rest and recover or should you keep plodding on?

There are a few reasons for asking this – and they have little to do with the temperature.

The first reason has to do with sweatpants.

Writers like to talk about one of the perks of their jobs as being able to work in sweatpants.

No suits or jeans for them – instead it’s a comfy pair of stained sweatpants and they’re off to work.

And the reason they can do that – the reason why no one cares – is that they are judged entirely on what they produce.

Their output is what matters.

If you have a job where output is not the key measure – instead it’s stuff like work ethic or punctuality – then you need to be in the office well-dressed and groomed.

The key, however, is not about output or not.

It’s about power.

When you’re judged on what you make the buyer has the power to like or dislike and buy or not buy.

When you’re not, the person buying your services has to have control in some other way and the best way is to be able to watch you.

We digress…

Back to plodding.

The second reason has to do with practice versus passion.

What results in output?

What drives it?

If you’re in a job, a partnership, a business – what drives you to do something every day rather than slacking off?

It’s different for different people. Some like the competition. Some do it for the buzz.

What it really comes down to, however, is motivation – both intrinsic and extrinsic.

When you’re motivated to do something you’ll keep going.

Where does that motivation come from?

Some say it comes from passion for your work.

Because it’s the thing that you feel like doing the most.

So, you’ve got to manage that passion – manage that creativity and manage your energy.

If you’re tired and unwell, take some time to recover and recharge.

Rest.

Others say it’s about practice.

About showing up and doing what you set out to do.

Every day.

What should you do?

I don’t know.

Sometimes it seems like taking a rest is a good idea.

Sometimes not.

If you have been reading the odd post on this blog you’ll know that I try and write every day.

Yesterday I didn’t. I used an excuse.

Today, I could have used the same excuse.

I chose not to.

What was the right choice? Was one better than the other?

In a world where there are an infinite number of steps in front of you, stopping on one for a day or so is not the end of the world.

But you’ve got to start moving again to feel alive.

The days don’t wait for you to get your head around how you feel.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What’s The Real Deal Behind The One On Paper?

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Tuesday, 9.24pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine. – Bruce Lee

I’m trying to understand several conflicting ideas about doing good work.

A friend of mine, a fount of aphorisms, said if you want to go fast go alone and if you want to go far go with company.

The difficulty lies in selecting the company you keep.

In an ideal world everyone would be equal and we’d all pitch in and work for the common good.

But the world isn’t ideal for one very simple reason – transaction costs.

If you’re sitting around a table with four or five others and you raise a toast, you can all clink your glasses together.

If you’re at a large gathering, like a wedding, you can only do it with those close to you.

It takes too much time to do it with everyone.

So, there is a natural need to organise into small groups – and those groups need managing – and the form they take is that of an organisation.

So the traditional way of working always creates hierarchies – of founders, employees, managers, investors…

And the traditional way of keeping these groups working is through contracts and salaries and stakes and incentives.

But, what causes one organisation to succeed and another to fail?

The key is not in the written contract but in the unwritten one in your head – the psychological contract.

There’s a whole bunch of fuzzy factors that go into this – the relationships between you and colleagues, between you and someone in a suit – a boss or an investor – and between teams of people.

It’s a cauldron, a bubbling mass of what you believe, what you expect to get, what you think is happening, what you think you should do and how each other person in the organisation thinks of all those things.

There is also the issue of power – who has it and how they use it.

The test to find out if the stuff in the cauldron is good enough to eat or bitter and putrid is that of fairness.

Do you think you are being fairly treated.

If there is fairness then that leads to trust.

A feeling that you are being treated unfairly leads to a breach.

And the breach shows up in the way you respond.

You can leave the company, hope things will sort themselves out, stop doing your job properly, go in fighting to try and get your way or try to compromise.

But… the breach has still happened. Life isn’t going to be the same again.

One strategy is to never expect anything from anybody – that way you’ll never be disappointed.

Another is to create a market.

Just post what needs doing and let people bid for work and let things sort themselves out.

The problem is that won’t work if the transaction costs are too high – which means if it’s too hard to figure out who to select and use and why.

A better way is to work out what fair looks like and try to work that into your working life.

This is increasingly important in a networked world – one where you come together in swarms to get stuff done.

How do you agree who does what and gets what with each other?

One approach is the idea of Sociocracy.

In this you work in small groups because small groups work well.

These are called circles.

The roles in the circle are created as needed and the people decide who should get which role.

How do they decide?

They use the principle of consent – which means that it’s decided when no one objects.

You don’t need to agree – you just need to agree not to object to the decision.

Addressing objections, it’s argued, makes for better decisions.

If you need more people then you create more circles and coordination happens with circles made up of nominated people from other circles.

But I want to go back to objections.

Maybe the place to start if you want to do something and want to work with someone else is to start by asking for 100% of the company.

What is everyone else’s objection to that?

Or, if you want more flexible working, ask to work from home 5 days a week.

What objections will your boss raise to that?

Maybe doing that – trying to be open and collaborative will help shine a light on what the deal really means for people.

And whether they think it’s fair.

Because in the end that’s all that matters.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Make Something Interesting For Your Audience

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Sunday, 9.26pm

Sheffield, U.K.

“Simple. I got very bored and depressed, so I went and plugged myself in to its external computer feed. I talked to the computer at great length and explained my view of the Universe to it,” said Marvin. “And what happened?” pressed Ford. “It committed suicide,” said Marvin and stalked off back to the Heart of Gold.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Why do you find one thing interesting and another completely boring?

I find, increasingly, that I have a low tolerance for boring stuff.

People who know me, on the other hand, would suggest that everything I do is catastrophically boring.

Including spending any time researching what makes something boring.

Anyway…

Paul J. Silva has done much of the hard work for us.

He says that coming across something you already know leaves you cold.

Not really that interested.

Sort of like listening to the safety briefing when you fly.

Cabin pressure. Masks. Yours first. Jacket under seat.

You know this stuff.

When you’re already familiar with the material being discussed you’ll simply tune out knowing you aren’t missing much.

Clearly what you know is a subset of the much larger set of things you don’t know.

And this is where things get interesting.

The first part of Silva’s argument is that new stuff is interesting.

So, if you want to make what you’re doing more interesting inject some “newness”.

If you look around a lot of activity is spent in trying to make things new.

Headlines that promise a new insight.

The entire phenomenon of 24-hour news.

A world filled with gossip on social media – fuelled by people wanting to be the first to know.

Some people have become famous mainly because they swear a lot in the stuff they put out and when they started that was new.

But then, new starts to get old.

When everyone’s swearing and copying things that were once new and interesting the magic disappears – it stops working as well.

The winners are the ones who captured the market first.

What’s the point here?

It’s that if you want to be the next Vaynerchuk or Ferris or Jenner you need something new and can’t just copy what they did.

The second part of Silva’s argument is that new is not enough.

It also needs to be understandable.

If you look around you’ll see lots of companies trying to create new ways to do old things.

Take customer relationship management software.

CRMs.

Businesses think they need them.

And others are trying to make new ones all the time – from Salesforce to Zoho.

What makes these interesting to people that want to buy CRMs is that they are understandable.

You get the idea of a web interface, the ability to add accounts and make notes and get reminders and share reports.

It might be new, but it’s understandable.

Now, let’s say I said to you that all you needed was a delimiter separated file and a simple script that let you manage it – the universe of people that will understand that starts to shrink quickly.

It’s new, but probably not understandable to people unfamiliar with the terminology.

Or maybe not – maybe anyone reading this gets it.

It’s hard to tell.

What isn’t hard to get is that if you want to get your message across you need make it new but you also need to deliver it in a way your audience understands.

And that goes back to very simple marketing concepts that most companies get completely wrong.

Like writing things in words your readers know rather than in jargon you do.

It’s not difficult really.

See the world through your audience’s eyes and point them to something new that they’ll understand and enjoy.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Companies Get Increasingly Desperate As They Grow

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Saturday, 10.29pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. – Mark Twain

I discovered PechaKucha yesterday – a presentation format where you have 20 slides that advance every twenty seconds and you have to talk along to the images.

I selected one randomly and listened as Kal Barteski described her career as a polar bear artist.

In case you’re not sure what a polar bear artist is – she’s an artist who draws polar bears.

Over 500 of them so far, I think.

Yes. Really.

Anyway, however you look at this, it’s creative.

And distinctive. And focused. But, above all, creative.

Then, I watched Sir Ken Robinson on TED ask whether schools were places where the creativity was drained from people.

The arts, he said, were at the bottom of any hierarchy of subjects.

You were steered to everything else first because those subjects got you jobs.

I had this experience – I liked reading and writing but studied maths and physics and chemistry.

One could argue that what you study at school really doesn’t matter.

What matters is experience and you need that experience to make good art.

But, we digress.

The point is that at the centre of it all – a vocation, a business – is an act of creation.

You’re doing something different, bringing in something new.

And from then on it’s all downhill and gloom and despair.

Which is captured in the Greiner Curve – five or maybe six stages that companies go through as they grow.

You’ll find examples of the curve everywhere so the picture above is an adaptation that tries to bring out the desperation under the quiet, academic tone of the model.

So, you start with a good idea. Maybe it’s just you or a few others.

You all work on the idea, long hours maybe, trying to get customers and build capability.

The team is small, talking is easy and you all get on.

Then you start getting some customers and suddenly there’s more to do.

You’re not sure who’s doing what and you ask Who’s leading this?

You give yourself roles or hire some staff and get on with the job.

But then it isn’t clear how to do things, training is patchy and customers aren’t happy. You’re asking Why aren’t things working?

The answer is that you need better systems and processes. Document everything, use forms and requests and plans.

Pretty soon, you’re drowning in paperwork and getting frustrated and asking Why does nothing ever get done?

So then it’s time to reorganise, maybe set up groups that do their own thing – lean teams that head off to conquer the world.

Except they don’t. Some things work, some things don’t.

So now it’s clear that you can’t fix it internally so you look around and ask Can anyone out there help us?

Sure… for a price.

But we can’t guarantee any results.

Is this too cynical?

I don’t think so – because it’s what happens a lot of the time.

Things generally degenerate – it’s the law of entropy.

Things, when left alone, will gradually decline into disorder.

It takes effort to stop that happening – effort and energy.

What’s clear to me from the Greiner Curve is that the only happy place is at the centre.

That centre where creative stuff happens.

After that, it’s all hassle and headaches.

When you’re working on something creative – that you’re passionate about and enjoy doing – the days go by quickly and you’re having fun.

You’ve got some fight in you.

Kal Barteski says polar bears have no natural predators – they’ve no reason to be scared of anything.

Some companies are so big that maybe that applies to them.

But for many the changes are they’re afraid a lot of the time.

If I were making that choice now about what to do in school I’d pick doing maths and writing and art. And random stuff.

Because the more skills and experience you have the more creative you can be.

Cheers.

Karthik Suresh

How Can You Find The Real Reason You Do Something?

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Friday, 9.48pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few engage in it. – Henry Ford

Many of us will face a situation where we have to come up with a one-sentence version of what we’re trying to say.

Our USP, mission statement or core value.

Something like that.

If you’ve tried doing this you know it’s not easy to do.

And that’s because we’re not always sure when we’ve reached where we should be.

For example, let’s say you want to strike out on your own as a consultant.

You’ve spent a number of years in different jobs and roles, you’ve managed people and are technically savvy and creative.

So, you’re in a position where you have some skills and some hunger and want to make your own way in life.

So, what do you say when people ask you “What do you do?”

If your answer is too broad they’ll look at you and ask more questions.

If your answer is too narrow they’ll squint at you and edge away nervously.

For example, if you say “I’m a management consultant”, they’ll ask what type of consultant you are.

Do you do process changes, analysis, restructuring?

They’ll try and come up with what they’ve seen consultants do and try to see if you do any of those things.

In other words, you’ve not answered the question so they’re trying to figure out the answer for themselves.

In a different situation you may say you’re an expert in Scandinavian lumber markets – perhaps something of vital consequence for everyone’s living room – but no one really gets why.

The thing is that you’re often going to be in situations where you need to try and explain something.

And the words you grasp for first rarely do the job.

What you realise is that you haven’t dug deeply enough yet.

So, you’re a management consultant.

Why do you do that?

Well, you solve business problems.

Why do you solve business problems?

Ideally, a business would have everything running perfectly – its operations would seamlessly work together – but that doesn’t happen in practice and so problems happen.

Why don’t business operations work seamlessly?

Operations are built over time, people come and go, knowledge is not evenly distributed. So often, someone creates something that works, and over time it is added to and modified and changed and stops working as well.

Why do things stop working over time?

Ways of doing things are just like material things – they get old and tired. Sometimes you can keep them going with maintenance and changes and sometimes you need to bring in a piece of kit.

Why do things change?

They just do – that’s one of the unchanging things about life.

So… if you stop digging at this point then you find that you’ve gone through several layers of rock.

You started by asking why you’re a management consultant and ended by knocking on the door of one of the ancient questions of life.

But perhaps you’re no closer to answering your question.

So, maybe you need to start again, go back up the chain of questions and try a different route.

No one said that the first place you dug would have all the answers.

All they said was you need to dig.

And maybe one day, if you’re lucky, you will.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why It Makes Sense To Reset Things To An Optimum Point

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Wednesday, 9.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

People in Bali understand: in order to be happy you must always know where you are. Every moment. Right here is perfect balance. Right at meeting of Heaven and Earth. Not too much God, not too much selfish, otherwise, life too crazy. – Ketut in Eat Pray Love

I watched Eat, Pray, Love today – because I had some time – and sat up at the point where Ketut, a medicine man, drew a picture of a cross with a circle in the middle and said the words quoted above.

The camera moved on quickly.

Was there more to the picture?

The Internet doesn’t say, so I’ve added bits to the picture and perhaps they’ll make sense.

This idea of balance is interesting.

There isn’t a perfect place you reach, where all is good.

Instead, you’re constantly balancing everything.

You’re balancing your need to find meaning and purpose with your need to eat and house your family.

How many stories have you heard of people achieving staggering wealth and losing their families on the way?

After all, if you walk along looking down at your feet or up at the skies you’re far more likely to get run over than if you’re looking straight ahead.

So, we have heaven and earth on one axis. What about the other?

Perhaps it has to do with what’s inside and what’s outside.

Some people take good care of what’s on the outside – their looks, their bodies, their environment but have doubts and uncertainty inside.

Others are the opposite – they spend so much time thinking about what’s inside that they miss what is all around them.

So, the aim is to navigate back to the centre, to that place where we’re in balance.

And that’s easier said than done.

You can, however, approach the issue from the side – creep up on it without being noticed.

Take good habits in the kitchen, for example.

The French idea of mise-en-place is about having the right things so you can use them in the right order.

The Japanese have Kichiri – the art of having things exactly, perfectly straight – with everything set out either parallel or at right angles to everything else.

Or take your computer desktop – when you’ve got everything closed except what you’re working on aren’t you much calmer than when there are tens of windows trying to get your attention?

Stress, anxiety, worry – in many cases your body must be telling you that you’re out of balance.

You need to do more of something and less of something else.

There is an argument that you get to balance by taking the average of extremes.

Today you break your back pushing your body to extremes.

Tomorrow you take the day off and don’t bother getting out of bed.

And maybe that’s true – it’s simply two points on the chart rather than a circle in the middle.

I heard someone say “The devil’s in the defaults”, which appears in The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World by Laurence Scott.

So I guess where one should start is by working out where your defaults are set right now.

Do you spend all your time focused on what to do next and what your boss wants?

Or do you think about what you want to do?

Are you so lost in ideas and possibilities that you want to do that you forget to take action?

Or are you enraptured by a movement or ideology to the point of zealotry?

It’s only when you know where you are and how far away you are from the centre that you can start to think about shifting your position.

And that takes awareness – awareness of yourself and what’s around you.

Something many of us are too busy to spend time on.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why Opting For Safety Can Be The Riskiest Strategy Of All

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The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary. – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Many years ago, when I was around ten, we had an art class where we were introduced to Japanese painting.

We used a brush to make swift, sure strokes with dark, black ink on delicate, gossamer-thin rice paper.

Well – that was the idea, anyway.

My clumsy attempts to draw bamboo stalks would have won few prizes back then judging from my performance today in the picture above but it still serves to illustrate a point.

Would you rather have one leaf or many if you were a plant?

Do you ever wonder sometimes how you ended up where you are?

What choices led you to the precise place you now find yourself?

Perhaps you’re fortunate – you have all the things that society prizes.

Or perhaps you’re trapped, with all you want and nothing you need.

We often make decisions not to make the most of opportunities but to avoid risk.

And that makes sense because we’re hard-wired to dislike losing more than we like winning.

I remember reading somewhere that there’s no right way to look at this.

For example, the quote from Taleb derides an addiction to a monthly income.

That’s a bad thing – clearly.

Then again, recently I heard a wife talk about how her husband brought home a wage for forty years – and the stability and life that gave them.

You have stability – and the uncertainty that comes with it.

If you lose the one wage you lose a lot.

If you have lots of little streams of income coming in then you’re less reliant on any given one and if it stops flowing you still carry on.

The flip side to this is that if you don’t have enough then you’re always uncertain about where the next penny is going to come from.

It’s only an issue when you’re comparing bamboo, I suppose.

After all, there are things like cacti that seem to do very well with one very large equivalent of a leaf.

Is there a point to all this?

I suppose what it comes down to is that whether you have one leaf or several it’s nice to be in a position to make a choice about which one works for you.

And that choice is easier if you don’t depend on the leaves in the first place.

So, for example, if you have 12 months of living expenses stashed away you have more freedom than someone who needs next month’s pay packet to pay the bills.

Maybe it’s less to do with choosing safety or risk but being in a position where neither has an impact you can’t come back from.

Which I suppose starts with answering the question “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is The One True Way To Do Something?

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Monday, 10.40pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Wealth is not about having a lot of money; it’s about having a lot of options. – Chris Rock

I’ve only been fishing once in my life.

It didn’t go well.

The good thing was that I didn’t catch anything – if I had I’m not entirely sure what I would have done as I don’t really like fish.

I also got stuck.

I was by myself, at the edge of a small pond. I cast my line and it hooked onto the bushes on the other side of the pond.

So there I was, with a borrowed rod in my hands, deep water in front of me and a stuck line.

I resigned myself to having to wait for a few hours till someone who know what they were doing came and rescued me.

Then, after a while, I figured out that I could just put my rod down, walk around the pond and get my line free.

So then I was back to the casting and the failing to catch anything.

So, I am not a reliable source of fishing knowledge.

But, the idea of fishing is interesting when it comes to what you do with your life.

And it boils down to having options.

If you’re sat at the edge of the water with a single line then you’ll catch the occasional fish.

If, on the other hand, you’re like the French anglers we come across on vacation – the ones who park their caravan at the edge of the canal and set out a dozen rods – you’re going to catch more than your fair share.

One of them came across to us once and gave us a dozen fish – he just had too many for his family to have.

And that’s a good model – to have many lines in the water.

If you’re marketing your business you need to use all the channels you can – from cold calling, direct mail, referrals, advertising – everything that you can economically and competently do.

If you’re trying to get promoted you need to try your hand at different tasks, multiple areas of need – because doing more than just the one thing you’re paid to do is what results in a lucky break.

The point is that there is never really one true way to do something.

There are a multitude of possibilities and the more you can explore the better your chances of finding the one that works for you.

You can also put up with a lot more when you have options – it makes it much easier to deal with demanding situations and bosses when you know there is something else you’re also working on.

It’s a simple picture really – having one line versus having several.

We’ve just got to make sure we get on with getting them set up.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is It You Really Want To Be To A Client?

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Sunday, 8.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

To profit from good advice requires more wisdom than to give it. – Wilson Mizner

The term “Trusted Advisor” has a thin, displeasingly metallic sound.

There’s nothing wrong with the term as such – it’s loved by professional services firms – and popularised by authors such as David H. Maister.

But you’d feel a little too self-promotional if you called yourelf one.

The idea behind it, however, is a good one and it does help you think about your business and how you want to come across to a client.

And Maister et.al have a model, adapted in the figure above, that is useful for this.

Think of the thing you’re good at – whether it’s boiler repair or software programming – you have built up expertise and can get a job done.

At that point, you’re available for hire.

You’re a consultant now. Even if you’re hired by a company full-time you’re still really a consultant to them.

But for any other firm you’re an expert that can come in and do a specific task for them.

From that point, the client needs to think not just about whether you can do the job but what else you’re bringing with you.

Do you work well with them? Can you collaborate? Do you get what they’re trying to do and how what you do fits in?

When you do, they’ll want to work with you on a regular basis.

You become a supplier – not just a consultant called in for one-off jobs.

Then what?

Do you put their interests ahead of your own?

Do you help them get what they need rather than what they say they want?

Do they see you as part of their team – on their side?

As the way you work with them moves from offering expertise to providing insight and as you go from getting a task done to collaborating with them you move from an expert for hire to an advisor they trust.

This model is nice because it shows you a pathway – what happens over time as you go from having your head down getting things done to looking up and doing the right things.

Then, I think, you may find yourself in a situation where you are trusted.

But I don’t think you should try and get trust – to try and force it or manipulate things so you appear trusted.

That’s false – and nothing ensures that trust is lost forever than a falsehood.

It may come down to this…

Start by doing things right.

Follow up by showing the client the right things to do.

Always do the right thing.

And trust, one day, will simply be there.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh