The Art of Self
I’ve been enjoying a little reading during the week, reflecting on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Bit melodramatic for the corporate office? Not a bit of it, for I shall bathe in the blood of my enemies in the upcoming tiddlywinks championships! Or if someone writes minutes incorrectly. Or is over thirty seconds late to a meeting.
Widely identified as one of the greatest military tacticians and analysts the world has ever seen, Sun Tzu was a Chinese General in the 5th Century whose teachings became a bible for aspiring warmongers. Although if the battlers were indeed worth their salt, they’d be embracing Master Sun’s first teachings of ‘breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting’, which sounds eerily close to Bruce Lee’s in the kung-fu/jeet-kun-do classic Enter the Dragon. As with a lot of tacticians and leaders, Sun Tzu first concentrates on self before concentrating on the enemy: know thyself.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”.
I have always associated travel with self-analysis and improvement, digging under the layers to find out more about myself as I get time away from the usual stresses and strains of life. But why wait until I travel? I endeavour now more than ever to self-reflect during the stresses and strains of life – you shouldn’t skip your meditation or gym classes during busy times, that’s when they’ll help you most. I shall leave you once again with an excerpt from the irrepressible 7 Habits, from the American religious leader David O. McKay who taught:
Sharpening the Saw
After a bout of sickness a few weeks ago - nothing major, touch of leprosy - I've been struggling to get back on the wagon of getting stuff done. Not even on the wagon, actually. I'd settle for even near the wagon. I'm under the wagon after being run over it, a solitary hand reaching for up to the wheel spokes, a downed boxer reaching up for the ropes. With a bruise on my head the size of an ostrich egg, my cracked and broken voice manages to stumble its way through a poor rendition of 'I'm a little tea pot.' This, ladies and gentlemen, is the consequence of a man cold / leprosy.
When I get sick though I learn about myself: initially I wallow like some kind of forlorn sea-cow, bathing myself in the unctuous glow of television and films, endeavouring to avoid stimulating conversation that relies upon anything more than a grunt. My mind though becomes restless, starts thinking manically about everything in the universe, and some bits outside of the universe, and I begin waking up at half four in the morning, inevitably wandering the flat wearing only a towel. Yes, I know, sorry about that image. I imagine you're donning the same countenance my house mate had when he stumbled home at half five.
So this week has been better: I walked and wrote a great deal; I went bowling and played tennis; helped cook in the kitchen instead of having take-away (in fairness, it's because my housemates became disease-monkey central), went for a swim on Friday, reached for the moon on Saturday at ScienceWorks, and swam again today along with the love I've neglected for so many weeks: educational reading. Oh, I've missed you! I have waxed lyrical until I'm hoarse about 7 Habits of Highly Effective People before, but really it's a masterpiece. Not being a parent, I'm fascinated by Stephen's advice on children, but there are so many stories, quotations and anecdotes, it is tremendous. And $8 on Amazon Kindle. What. A. Bargain! And so to keep it short and sweet, I'll sign off with this excellent anecdote from Stephen which sums up human nature perfectly in my humble opinion.
Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree. “What are you doing?” you ask. “Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.” “You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?” “Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.” “Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.” “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”
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
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