In between work life taking a toll on my mental well-being for the last few weeks, I’ve been contemplating more photography (amongst playing chess and being thrashed by my iPad!). Photography is a study and art in itself, and I’m constantly mesmerised, in awe, in fact, of pictures taken by friends and the Instagram-nation. There is a great deal of very talented people about . . . the bastards!
But what is clearer to me than ever, is that photography takes practice. It’s as simple as that. It is not enough to find something pretty and take a snap of it, it’s about changing the angle, seeing an everyday object from a different viewpoint, waiting for the gold hours of sunrise and sunset. In the fantastic Learning to See Creatively by Bryan Peterson he walks you through different ways of seeing, multifarious methods of viewing the world. It sounds simple, but it really isn’t. The infamous Scott Kelby illustrated in his Crush the Composition (you now have to register, but worth it!) just how much work is involved in a single photo of a classic car – each great shot seems to have twenty or thirty behind it. Every photograph got him closer and closer to what he wanted to see, what made the shot interesting for him. It just so happens that millions of people tend to agree with him! Then there’s capturing the simply extraordinary, which not only takes practice but timing and luck.
There are some people of course that can simply take a wonderful photo (my girlfriend being one of them) that floor me entirely, and make me want to smash my camera on the ground and pulverise it to dust. And stab people in the eye. And kill everyone around me and and and . . . breathe! It’s not a competition, Richard, it’s not a competition. My girlfriend - knowing very little to almost nothing by the way of shutter speed, focus, rule of thirds, bokeh, tripods, light, breaking the rule of thirds, leading the eye, colour or texture – then will feel the full force of my wrath. “Wow, what a lovely picture, my love!” I say through gritted teeth, tearing the tops off of flowers and pushing passing children from their bicycles. It may not a competition, but I seem to always be behind.
Since I’m feeling poetic and very much my age, I’ll leave you with the Ulysses by Tennyson (as Odysseus sought strength from his endless toils), used so effectively in Bond’s Skyfall and the last episode of Frasier:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I’ve been on a few Agile courses in my life, and in each instance upon completion of the course, the winged angles of death circled the agile project to which I was bound and cancelled it before it even started. Instead of the horse being shot at the first hurdle, it was summarily dismissed and sent to the glue factory whilst still in the stable munching carrots, gazing with optimistic eye at the sunshine. ‘What a wonderful day’ was the horse’s penultimate thought, before thinking ‘oh that’s quite a big gun’.
If you’re unfamiliar with agile vs waterfall the basics are pretty simple. In the traditional ‘waterfall’ method you work through some ideas of what you think you want, and as you go through the project and ‘down the waterfall’, it becomes harder and harder to get back up to change anything, and then at the end of the project the results are produced - the big reveal! With agile you have some ideas of what you want, but you have incremental delivery of the project so you see it developing, are involved more, and are more likely to get the outcome you require. Or drive yourself into a coma. Success or paralysis, effectively.
It was with some trepidation then that I set aside my hobby-horse and recently took on the role of a Product Owner within an Agile Team, a fun and rewarding job. One thing I loved immediately was a Sprint Review – in the traditional waterfall method of projects you conduct a review at the end to find out what you’ve done well and what you can do better next time. In Agile though, you do these after every sprint i.e. after every mini-delivery. It can be a cleansing and therapeutic process, but with some opinioned stakeholders it can be like fending off a 500lb gorilla with a stick made of bananas.
But the key is reflection, and none more so than self-reflection. When in leadership roles, it’s one thing I could have done more, and it only needs to be simple. For example, picking out a few traits at random, personally I most admire leaders that keep a cool head, make time for people, and communicate often and effectively. Now, if I reflected every day on whether I did those things, I would be better placed to determine whether I was reaching the goals I most admire in leadership. Within the Agile framework you have a daily catch-up or scrum (derived from a rugby scrum) and reflect upon three things: what you did yesterday; what you’re doing today; the things that may stop you completing your tasks’. A useful extension to that would be ‘what did I do well and what could I have done better.’ If we reflect and resolve to improve, there’s less chance of us meeting the glue factory, especially if we are armed with cannon.
Image references: https://en.valka.cz/topic/view/111363/75-cm-M-1908-75-mm-horsky-kanon
Well another week flits on by, sprinting for the tinselled flag of Christmas before February even finished. Still, if hot-cross buns appear in supermarkets, then I’m a happy (Easter) bunny! In Australia, these started in January for some reason. I’ve indulged myself recently on a couple of excellent Flashman books when the brain has been a little addled from the working week. Alas, there is limited learning available other than how a nineteenth century handsome coward rogers and ploughs many a buxom wench on his travels. Admittedly not entirely useful.
The classic 7 Habits of Effective People by Steve Covey is currently on the reading hit-list. It’s just an excellent all-around book that puts you in the driving seat for your own development. I love his approach for sharing chores round with his children, plotting family goals and their own individual ones. I’d love to know if this actually worked – did this bite the author in the arse or did they persist into academic or entrepreneurial excellence? I’ve never known any family to attempt such a thing as dividing up the chores, and am absolutely fascinated. In doing a little research, Covey had nine children. And fifty-two grandchildren. Maybe he was reading a little Flashy, eh?
I spent yesterday down the coast, taking lots of photos to improve my craft. I bought some ND filters and love the effects. As for my other shorter term and longer-term goals:
When I honestly review the above, the photography and the writing is sending me in the right direction, and I truly believe that writing a photography guide will help me as well as others. However, I’m not doing enough book-writing and not doing enough approaching of publishers. So, while accomplishing small term goals, I need to keep the longer ones in check.
How are your goals going for the year? Are your New Years Resolutions bearing fruit or do you need to readjust? If you’ve achieved them already, what’s next?
To quote the man Burns, the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft agley. No matter how much you prepare, plans often go awry. And that’s when you either make excuses, or make more plans. Often, I think, it’s not the present environment that’s causing problems, but your past.
There are two instances this week that have inspired my curiosity. The first from a friend decrying his current employment situation (lack of strategic objectives and simply talent of his current managers). Was the failure by others though his opportunity to shine? Sometimes yes, but through disappointment, anger and frustration at those less talented pulling ahead of him in the company, he cannot see the light. Re-phrasing, he will not see the light. For him, his chemical make-up, his ‘this is how I am’ and identifying the errors of others is where the blame is. This I cannot countenance. You’re the master of your own ship, no one else. You cannot change the sea or wind, but you’re holding the tiller.
The second example came from a friend’s past ‘fight or flight’ scenario in a relationship that has sown a seed – in this case, emotional euphoria attached to a memory guiding future decision making without even realising it. It may well be a valid conclusion, it may well be nonsensical, but in either case, unless you spend time with yourself, on self-analysis, on the why you do things, you’ll never know. Then whatever the outcome, comes self-healing and some self-love.
For me, in a topsy-turvy week as a product has neared launch, there have been overtures from different parts of the business that potential to plunge the project into madness. As it is, we’re still ploughing away, dodging and weaving, coercing stakeholders at every point whilst not losing sight of our goals. Constantly conjuring ideas has actually been fun rather than taxing, and I owe this in part to James Altucher – for all his ‘higher energy’ twaddle, I have stuck to trying to develop ten ideas a day. This encourages brain nimbleness (maybe) when presented with problems. As a colleague questioned whether our sanity could take another week of change, the response was simple: these are the critical tasks for the week, each can birth a multitude of omnishables (or cacophony of clusterfuc*s, for the alliteration). Be ready. And bring some biscuits, naturally.
Am now in the process of writing my second. Doing this in alignment with a full-time job can be slow going, like a mason chipping away at a delicate sculpture whilst being booted up the arse by a goat every day. Am also working on my similes.
My first opus took a long time. To paraphrase the great Blackadder’s Prince George when celebrating Dr. Johnstone’s completion of the first ever dictionary, which took him ten years, ‘well, I’m a slow reader myself’. For my part I struggled to find my writing style and therefore came up with what seemed to be a pretty damned excellent approach – put my computer away and barely write for the next two years, spending money on fast booze and slow women. The rest of it, I wasted. It’s not exactly a tried and tested method, I grant you.
However, abandoning ship just meant the ideas fermented slowly, and writing pulled me back in the end. It’s a cyclical oddity that you can’t write because you haven’t found your voice, but you can’t find your voice without writing in the first place. Writing short pieces in the interim made things far easier, as too has blogging consistently to establish a rhythm. So, whether it’s writing letters, writing blogs, writing poetry or writing anything, you have to practice.
The notable difference this time (other than not being hungover constantly) is the amount I read. I’ve consumed more books in the last three months than I have in five years. This is simply sharpening the tools of the trade, reviewing the styles and wordsmithery of published and successful authors. I never thought of reading books as study for writing, but it is in the most literal sense (hardy ha ha). If you’re imbibing from the deep wells of knowledge collected over hundreds of years across cultures and countries, how can this not benefit?
I have several friends that have books in them, but they not only lack the discipline, they lack the desire. Although everyone will re-iterate that the former is far more important, defining a routine and a schedule, I would side with the latter. If you have the desire to write, you barely need a routine as you’ll be drawn to it. But whatever your aims, keep writing. Now, whilst the rain belts down, some tea and biscuits await. They obviously help in some way ha ha
I have slowed down my reading for January, not because of any particular want, simply because the tomes I’ve picked up have required more of me. The self-improvement ones always me to do things, which is quite frankly a pain in the ass. Just as a slight addendum, if one was necessary, it doesn’t involve inserting books into anuses in the literal sense . . . that would be, unwelcoming. But the thing about being asked to do things, is that part of me thinks I’m already reading the bloody book, how much more of me do you want of me?! It turns out – and you may want to sit down for this a donut pillow for this - you don’t turn your life around simply by reading about it and not actioning anything. Who knew?!
There are other common themes too. Whether it’s Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week, John and Claudia Altucher’s The Power of No or James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh, the message is the same: it all starts with self-reliance. The inner strengths and core belief in yourself to make things happen, starts with getting off your ass and doing something, dedicating some aspect of your time to organise your life to get things done. It’s all well and good talking, but if you come home, sit in front of the television with a couple of beers and wonder why your life isn’t changing for the better, then I think you have your answer . . . unless of course your actual job is to watch television and drink beer, where you are handsomely rewarded for your opinion on both topics. In that case, hats off to you, and please let me know if there is a vacancy. For the rest of us mere mortals, it takes graft.
There are three variations on a theme: the first is to do things; the second is to do things right; the third is to do the right things. Everyone can be busy, which is why regularly reviewing your direction is necessary. Keep asking ‘what’s the goal? what is the end state?’ To borrow from the excellent 7 Habits of Effective People:
"Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of workers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. Managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs . . .the leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, "Wrong jungle!"
The most useful method heard recently was envisioning your own epitaph. What do you want it to say? Would you be happy with your lot? In any project I've ever worked on, you know the result you want to get out of it, so why not in life as well? Another method is that if a doctor relayed that you only had one year left on this sweet earth, what would you do? . . . as for me, I’d probably ask for a second opinion.
It’s Australia Day, huzzaahhh!!! Australians like nothing better than a paid-day off work, especially if it’s summer, occurs during the Australian Open Tennis on Melbourne’s doorstep and falls favourably to make a long weekend. Since I work a nine-day fortnight anyway, this makes it an extra-long weekend. Double huzzaahhh!!!
Yesterday I spent a glorious sunshine-filled day pottering around wineries with my girlfriend and friends, eating my bodyweight in cheese platters. During the week the mercury skyrocketed to 41C/105F degrees, causing friends in wintery London to jealously wish me a slow and painful death without realising no one leaves the house in that temperature. Then again, they probably don’t either after imbibing 67 units of alcohol a week during the festive season, which launches Dry-January efforts nationwide viewed in the same light as rescuing orphans from minefields. That doesn’t seem fair - what if the orphans were carrying kittens as well? Or had leprosy? Leprosytic kittens! One argument goes that it's so depressing during the winter months, what options are there but to assuage your aching soul than through alcohol? Sweet Jesus! What next, crying because it’s drizzling? Bouts of farting because it’s a bit windy? Alcoholics anonymous are around if you need it.
In the last year I try to dedicate my weekends to relaxing and being more present with the people I love, and mentally it’s been a lifesaver. I never make new year’s resolutions, but instead make plans and review regularly. Making one plan for the entire year seems to lack ambition. So, here’s a 2019 update on my to-do lists I published three months ago:
Well done Osaka! Come on, Nadal!
According to the New York Times, American adults watch five hours and four minutes of television per day. That’s THIRTY-FIVE hours a week, a whole working week purely watching television. I’m not saying you can’t learn anything from television, but holy fudge!! I enjoy the odd film, but staggered just how much people can imbibe. Trivial Pursuit’s Entertainment section is my black hole of Calcutta, a prison of nothingness! The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Peaky Blinders, Seinfeld, Game of Thrones, The Wire, Lost, 24, Law and Order, Dexter, ER, Grey’s Anatomy (jeez we’re going back!), Breaking Bad . . . you name a show over the last twenty years, and I probably didn’t see it!
For those that want a break from the talkies for a while, here’s a link of favourite resources I use to grab free books. Yup, free. Costs you nothing. Rub shoulders with Ernest Hemmingway, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Socrates (not the Brazilian footballer, although he has a costly autoiography), Seneca, Marcus Aurelius . . . the collective knowledge, stories and lessons from the last two thousand years at your finger-tips!
If you can I would heartily endorse your local library, you can even borrow real life books from them - remember those papery things that you hold in your hand and turn pages and everything?! You can even borrow books online from libraries too. Admittedly, “hey kids, let’s check out what’s going on in the library!” isn’t a phrase you hear that often. Perhaps it just needs a bit of marketing.
If you want possession of an e-book for your very self because possession is everything, check out a few of the links below. Happy reading!
BFG Poster - Hopefully Roald Dahl and Disney won't mind me borrowing their image
Oh Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you beguiling bastard. The author, Robert Pirsig, gave warning when treading into the philosophical allegories of this book that it was not going to be comfortable. Bob is indeed a man of his word. It was like picking up dog poop: you know it has to be done, but it just doesn’t feel right. Unless of course I’ve stumbled upon your hobby, then ignore that. And wash your hands. Perhaps your hobby would look less suspicious if you even owned a dog?
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not that content sifting through self-rhetoric, or dog-poop, and also not at ease with researching dialectics and Sophism. I can just about use Microsoft Word. I get the attainment of quality, of self-reliance, of reason and logic, of duty towards self, but a hundred pages trim would have done the volume no harm. Then again, this is a modern classic, selling millions, and Robert achieved worldwide fame for his honesty and intelligence, weaving three separate stories in their own right into an excellent tome . . . so really, what the hell do I know? Thankfully, 121 publishers rejected the volume before Robert found success. So, really, what the hell do we know?
There are a couple of lines though that made me put down the book and gaze out the window, mouthing to no one in particular ‘Yeahhhh!! And another thing. . .’ like some kind of lunatic. To quote "You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun will rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because the dogmas or goals are in doubt."
Essentially, the more fervour someone has and indignant they become, the more they’re trying to protect against any consideration of an alternative which is probably equally valid. Just ask any football team chanting ‘we’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen!’ every weekend.
Whilst there is, I think, an immense amount of Robert himself in the book, and despite being sometimes a long affair, it is an exceptional read. And the afterword is heart wrenching. But I’ll end this week on an up-note with a lovely whimsical quotation from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Remember to be kind to yourself and others.
‘How can happiness be defined? How can goodness be defined? Happiness and good are not objective terms. We cannot deal with them scientifically. And since they’re not objective then they just exist in your mind. So, if you want to be happy, just change your mind’
Music reference now it's in my head!
Am finding Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a moribund affair, I must confess. Interesting, but stagnant. I have never invested hours ruminating on the definition of ‘quality’ before, and indeed will never again. It’s of no surprise the author had a mental breakdown, and is actually relating an autobiography of sorts as he rides across America. It’s the minor nuances that plough on for pages that wear you out. As Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘crikey, he does go on a bit!’
It has though given my mind plenty of time to canter away to more interesting things, one of which was leadership discussed by hard-ass Navy Seal in the Tim Ferris and Jocko Willinck podcast. There were two key leadership skills according to Jocko: detachment and feedback. Incidentally, if you listen to the podcast, there is always an extended delay whenever the colossus Jocko answers a question, which makes Tim extremely uncomfortable – proper schadenfreude stuff!
Detachment comes in the form of stepping outside of yourself to review the situation more dispassionately. I love the idea of this, and it’s perhaps the slow inhale of breath and giving himself more time that Jacko is inherently practicing during the podcast. Take time to gather your thoughts, rid yourself of emotion, think before you speak. In a combat zone I guess this could be best summed up by the excellent Kipling ‘if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs’, potentially saving your own life as well as others. Thankfully corporate offices are a little less exacting. For example, it’s been several weeks since a public execution was required for double-booking a meeting room.
Secondly Jocko thinks leaders constantly seek feedback and are always very ready to receive it, analysing, assessing and implementing. Simply, they listen and act accordingly. Despite the ardent beliefs of my girlfriend (hey darling!), I prefer to listen more than talk. As a leader, you can do one of two things: speak first, resulting in immediately coercing others to drive a general consensus; or speak last, letting others drive that general consensus. I use both, depending on what outcome I’m trying to achieve. An even better balance would be to perhaps split the topic at hand, asking different team members on sperate aspects so as not to pollute opinion. But that’s all very, erm, zen. The debate though would undoubtedly be of the highest quality.
Writing and writing...