Are we good ancestors? – The Clock of The Long Now

In Texas under the Sierra Diablo mountain range their lives one of the most audacious
engineering achievements ever conceived – the Clock of the Long Now. Designed by
Danny Hillis it will run for 10000 years with little or no maintenance and is hoped to
symbolise long-term thinking on a scale that no one can deny.

Clock of the Long Now Prototype – Currently located at the Science Museum in London

A few things that, due to its ambition, make it extraordinary:
  1. Unable to rely on any power source on earth for that long, the clock harvest energy from the sun.
  2. Despite being made from the highest feasible grade of Titanium they have to factor in wear and tear into the mechanisms and therefore its time keeping.
  3. In order to symbolise progression rather than just repetition, the clocks chime will be different every day for 10000 years (and have been designed by Brain Eno)
  4. They are creating mechanical interfaces into the rooms which will activate at the 1, 100, 1000 and 10,000 year anniversaries.
  5. Contact within the clock is minimised by running as much as possible on ceramic bearings.
 The questions that the makers of the clock hope you will ask are:
  • If we can make a clock that will last for 10 millennia what else can we achieve?
  • Are we being good ancestors what are we bequeathing to any further generations (we
  • can’t claim the pyramids as our own by the way)
  • What is our role in the long goal?
  • These questions are plenty to ponder I think as well as just respecting the marvel that is the clock of the long now.

It has certainly got me thinking: As ancestors – how can we be more?


Don’t Take Advice From Successful People

“You get praised for being rare as a successful woman…but I bet you know a lot of other women with the potential for success” Jessica Wiliams 

Take virtually any of the ‘big’ self-help or leadership books and they are based on studying top companies or leaders. Here I will outline the healthy scepticism we should treat them with. 


When Tom Peters profiled successful companies in the 80’s he was at pains to make the point that 1950’s management had made a grave mistake. They had mistaken the post war boom, when many companies experienced astounding success, to be down to how they did it. In other words it was a bubble, which for many, didn’t burst for decades. The accepted wisdom of of the time as to how to run a company and treat people  (much of which we now know to be false) was seen as being a successful strategy because the companies were successful. 

In a similar vein we have the ‘finding a nieche’ brand of success. This could be as a person or as an organisation. Don’t get me wrong finding that nieche is admirable in itself but there are two main fallacies associated with this. 

Firstly, similar to the above point, that because the nieche was found the way in which it was exploited is the way to do things. When eBay first hit the market it was the only reliable auction site out there and when it started to experience success other sites struggled to catch up for exposure and market saturation. But it didn’t exploit that nieche by design, it started for collectors of Pez dispensers, it just moved into a vacancy in the market. The simple question to ask before you follow the way in which breakthroughs operate is to ask ‘would that have been successful almost irrespective of how it had been excecuted’? 

Secondly, and this one is a bit more subtle, how do we know that anything was done to find that nieche? In the eBay example above you could just about argue that their ability to move quickly into a multi-product platform was smart. If we zoom out for a moment and remember that at any given time there are thousands of people cultivating new ideas. If a nieche is found is it because someone has cleverly done so, or is it because it was inevitable? Inevitable not that a specific individual finds the gap in the market but that someone would find a gap, it just happened to be that person.


How much of anything is luck? I have taught in leadership training how some combination of locus of control and Seligman optimism is desirable. Why? Because it serves you to assume that you have the ability to influence all outcomes at least a little bit (I.e. you have an internal locus of control) but that the bad stuff that happens probably won’t last and probably wasn’t mainly your fault (yes I know that sounds a bit delusional I’ll perhaps write about it another time). 

But the truth is that luck plays a big part. Perhaps you were the lucky one that found the nieche described above. Or it was due to a chance meeting with the person who had an opportunity. Jessica Williams (who I quoted above) is undoubtedly a very talented person but retains the humility that fuels her efforts to help others be ‘queens’. Her first proper job out of college was as a correspondent on the Daily Show: A very big gig. But this was also due to chance meetings and lucky timing. She couldn’t have taken advantage of this if it wasn’t for her immense talent but her talent alone wouldn’t have got her there. 

The topic of success is dealt with fairly comprehensively in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and again ‘right place right time’ comes up. Examples such as statistically significant birth dates/times of the year: successful hockey players being far more likely to be born in winter months is one example. 


In Marshall Goldsmith’s book ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’ he follows the format of ‘interview successful people’ but makes a very good point. They lie. For the same reason that we soak up books that profess to give us the secret of success: We are more comfortable believing it is something we have done/can do than just luck and timing. So if you ask a CEO how, he (because it is probably a ‘he’) is unlikely to say ‘right place, right time’. How precarious does that success look then? How often do you hear “I wanted it more/badly/passionately”? What a smack in the face for all the other schmucks working their proverbials off just to scrape a living.  So Goldsmith takes a different tack. He asks them what behaviour that they see in others, sabotages their chances. Now it isn’t about them, it is about some ‘other’ so out comes the honesty ‘they talk about themselves too much’ for example. OK so they still aren’t likey to say ‘they don’t suck up to me enough’ but I think there are some real gems there. Perhaps for another blog. 

The Ugly Truth

There are a few uncomfortable truths about successful people that we might struggle to reconcile with our preferred view of the world:

These effects are small but as we have already said there are potentially lots of people vying for success and the difference between two equally qualified candidates for a job or a salecould easily come down to one of the above.  

So what does drive success?

I remember attending a weekend of training in the Silva Method. Success and its realisation was highly prominent. At one point a man in the front row seemed to have ‘had enough’. He almost yelled ‘All this talk about ‘success’ … I’m just not interested’ and the trainer responded ‘Then you aren’t defining it right’. It stuck with me because success is often linked with money, or if not money some aspirational pre-requisite to happiness. ‘If only I had more time I’d be happy’. I would suggest that rather than studying successful people it may be a better investment of time to look at what you are hoping success will give you. More freedom? More time with your family? A better retirement? There may be ways in which you can get that now that don’t require ‘success’. And of course that ultimate aim is very individual so you can’t learn that from Bill Gates. More importantly if you pursue what you are most interested in you mind find you are already more successful than you thought. 

Further reading:

“A Passion for Excellence: The Leadership Difference” Peters, Tom and Austin, Nancy (1985)

“Outliers” Gladwell, Malcolm (2008)

2 Dope Queens” Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson (podcast) 

“Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful.” Hamermesh, Daniel (2011)

Images from Slate Magazine and

8 things that the modern world does that are absurd

‘Real historical understanding is not achieved by the subordination of the past to the present, but rather by our making the past our present and attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own.’ Herbert Butterfield, 1931

So perhaps I should qualify. These are things things we do today that will seem absurd or even barbaric, to future generations. 

1. Dentistry. 

Whilst this might feel like an easy target I’m not talking about the whole profession. You just need to take a step back and look at what is involved. There is a lot of drilling, cutting and pulling. The dental tools of old are still recognisable today. 

Advancements in dentistry that can be seen already are more likely to take the form of tooth regeneration and better treatments to harden and restore damaged teeth. With the processes getting so good that teeth and gums will be brought back from the brink of total destruction with chemicals, lasers and cell therapy. Good news for those with a fear of the dentist. As long as they still make sure they go regularly. 

2. Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy. 

Yes I know this is a lifesaver. And I’m not jumping on the bandwagon of those who shun the best cancer treatments on the market to rely on ‘alternatives’. Chemotherapy basically takes you to the brink of death, destroying your immune system to try and kill the cancer at the same time. In many instances is the best we have. But future generations will ponder how long it took us (because hindsight is a wonderful thing) to cure cancer using the already very successful treatment out there: our own immune system. In many senses we are already riddled with cancer. But cancer cells are destroyed by own own immune system. We are ‘diagnosed with cancer’ because this system fails. Future generations are likely to have treatments that enhance our existing arsenal rather than destroy it and to do so in the warped lens of our history will appear misguided and cruel. 

The slight variation on the above is a kind of ‘vaccine’ but instead of injecting a (typically ‘dead’) version of the pathogen in order to prevent cancer it will be cancer fighting viruses that get injected. Cancer isn’t really just one disease which is why we are close to claiming that some cancers are ‘curable’ whilst others are many, many years of research away. 

3. Imprisonment

So let’s just take a moment to consider the entire basis of our justice system. You do something wrong, in the eyes of the establishment, and that same establishment takes away your freedom: A basic human right. When you look at the demographics of those who are imprisoned it is disproportionately ethnic minorities and this is very pronounced in the US. Is this because these people are fundamentally ‘wrong’ themselves. I can’t believe that. Instead I prefer to think that no system is perfect and that our system fails some people with more frequency than it fails others. When someone has failed to uphold the agreed upon values of common decency they are ‘punished’. Whilst not always the reality the punishment is intended to be consensus ate with the crime. ‘An eye for an eye’ is a Babylonian/Old Testament belief that ‘justice’ is about hurting someone as much as they have hurt you. Rehabilitation rates in the UK and the US are poor. This means that once you have transgressed societies norms, we are very poor at teaching you the error of your way, perhaps not surprising if the bulk of the lesson is ‘eye for an eye’. It is my belief that future generations will see the error of their ways and invest heavily in those groups (abused children, marginalised sectors of society, the rich) times ensue that they are far less likely to commit crimes. Assuming this must fail occasionally, take collective responsibility for rehabilitating them to be productive members of society. With imprisonment seen as a distasteful last resort of ‘enforced therapy’ for the good of society which may or may not have an end and would perhaps look more like the Scandinavian model and maybe even appear ‘cushy‘.

The science is there but not all societies are ready to let go of institutionalised revenge. 

4. The death penalty

Requiring special mention but probably not special explanation, this is eye for an eye justice taken to the extreme. We have to look to the US as the only example of a developed democracy that still executes people. I say ‘people’ but I may as well say ‘black men’ as it is practically a statistical truth. Why a special mention, because over and above inprisonment it signals loud and clear ‘we have failed’. 

5. Boxing 

So here is the first contact sport. Don’t get me wrong I actually enjoy watching boxing. But I see it as a guilty pleasure. I realise that there is something innate in my that appreciates the physical one-on-one contest. I have always dabbled in martial arts so this may seem hypocritical but I have always shied away from full on contact sport (not full on contact) partly because I know I wouldn’t be very good, but also because it doesn’t seem like a very enjoyable way to spend my time, where as sparring to score points and occasionally get smacked by mistake is quite fun. 

There are always those calling for boxing to be banned. And I tentatively distance myself from them. I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that it will evolve or we will slowly move away from it as a society. Firstly because it carries risks, albeit not as many as other sports, but the risks are innate because the intention is to hurt, and I think this will be less palatable in the future. Also because it is still form of violence and that is not something we will want to condone in future. I think we will accept that some violence is occasionally a symptom of a healthy in-repressed society, but that doesn’t mean it should be in sport. 

People say that the sport is designed to be as safe as possible and has no no moral dissonance. Exibit A: Back in the day people fought bare-knuckle and there is a suggestion that the legitimising and professionalising of the sport has made it simultaneously safer and more dangerous. Rules around lengths and suspension after KO are making things safer but massively padded hands stop the hands from breaking (which could end careers quickly) but allow boxers to punch with full force. So it is currently a sport, that whilst doing things to reduce some risks has, to extend careers and dare unsay it increase purses, promotion money and sponsorship, made it easier to damage the brains of participants. 

The advocates will probably point to disadvantaged people saved by the sport. But why this sport? Persuit of risks? Yes. Familiarity with fighting? Possibly. Accessibility? Definitely. So surely, since almost all sports have a sense of risk it is about making them more accessible, and generally strengthening society, not pinning all our hopes on the boxing ring to save people from crime and poverty. Besides in my utopian postpostpostmodern future there is no crime and poverty. 🙂 

6. American rules football

Talking of damaging brains due to increased padding. Far less concussion in rugby. 

7. Shaving

I’m mainly talking from a male face-shaving perspective. There are all sorts of skin problems associated with shaving. Alright so perhaps barbaric is a little far but let’s just test a conversation with an alien on the subject:

Alien: What are you doing?

You: Shaving.

Alien: Huh?

You: hmmm. We scrape blades across our face to take the hairs off.

Alien: Why?

You: To feel clean, I guess. We think it looks better, maybe.

Alien: But it clearly hurts….You just cut yourself….Not everyone shaves….Surely just washing will make you clean….

You: Can’t you just invade or something? 

So we await a pain free, cut free and preferably less than daily way of removing hair for men. There are creams, lasers etc. but somehow they haven’t quite made it into the male regimen. Either because of convenience, cost or ease. Perhaps the solution is a combination of the machine and the chemical. I for one await the day that I have a viable alternative to the methods depicted in cave painting without risking looking like  Ken doll (without the six-pack).

8. Drive

More specifically use internal combustion engines and human effort to get from A to B. This will be an indulgent antiquated activity like riding a steam train. 

I already have to face the fact that my children (who admittedly are quite young) might only have a theory test to get an ‘autonomous car’ licence: Know what do do in case of a breakdown, basics of charging a car etc. It would be a restricted license (like ‘automatics only) but a lot cheaper to learn and insure. My kids become driving age in 2028-ish and these commercial vehicles will likely beat that by a long way.

Electric cars are getting more affordable by the minute (almost literally it seems) with battery innovation and charging technology as well as the car efficiency itself improving it can’t be long before it is viable, and desirable alternative for all but the remotest locations in Northern Europe and US. Besides the more countries ban new petrol cars the faster the change will happen. 

“Hey grandpa tell us about when you used to drive your car and all this grey smoke would come out the back.” *sniggers* “Yeah, tell us about the time it rolled down hill because you forgot the finger break”. 

I hate my grandkids already. 

What didn’t make this list and should have? I’m sure I’ve missed something. 

If all of the above is seen be future generations as ridiculous or cruel. Doesn’t that question how we judge times gone by? 

Decluttering – Evil and Pickles

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” – William Morris, The Beauty of Life, 1880
Decluttering is a genuinely terrific process. Getting rid of what is needed and ordering what’s left, clears space and frees the mind. 

But for me decluttering has both physical and mental aspects. Physically it is about ensuring that what you use frequently is most accessible and nothing is truly ‘hidden’. We don’t work well with ‘hidden’ even if we think of it and ‘stored away safely’. That’s why there is a pasta maker in your kitchen cupboard you’ve never used. An object can be ‘buried’ or ‘filed’ and the difference is a system. The former is just about finding a place for something, the latter is about creating a connection; perhaps logical, perhaps utilitarian, to day-to-day existence. This is true in any aspect of your life. 

Mentally, many people think of meditation as the primary way of decluttering. Clearing the mind of thoughts, albeit for a short time, is for many people an essential part of their mental housekeeping. This is something I can admire greatly and adhere to infrequently. I only notice the deterioration in my mental state after weeks of neglect. But I certainly appreciate the value and science backs this up in a big way. 

I want to briefly talk about a sort of decluttering that fits in the middle of ‘stuff’ and ‘mind’.  This is a decluttering of how you interact with the world. This is something that must be carefully balanced. To over-simplify the world, in the belief that is how it really is, will result in disappointment and confusion. This is racism, pointless (rose-tinted) nostalgia, this is inability to change or learn. Instead my brand of simplification doesn’t deny the complexity of the world. It just doesn’t try to deal with it. John Kegan in his seminal work ‘In Over Our Heads‘ confirms what we all feel, but often fail to acknowledge: it’s all a bit much. It is my view that we are all in a modern technology-driven, human ego- originated, emperor’s news clothes phase. Everyone is trying very hard to appear confident and competent and believes, even though they often don’t feel it, everyone else is doing just a bit better than they are. If we all acknowledged that it isn’t the case, and that we need to deal with a simpler version of reality, I think we’d be a lot happier. 

If we look to the world of business, many of the successful organisations are great at creating simple rules. They define how customers and in many cases employees can interact with them as an entity and the culture they are trying to create. Whether it is Google’s ‘Don’t be Evil’ or Bob Ferrel’s ‘Give ’em the Pickle’ it is about taking a large portion of the reality, which is impossible to hold in your head all the time, and creat a rule. The truth is that both of the above examples are open to interpretation. They have to be. We know the world isn’t that simple. But by creating the right rule, we can reduce trillions of choices down to millions. 

Now think about life. Its chaotic complexity. Relationships, career, house, car, everything really. Religion gave us rules. But most of them haven’t moved with the times and too many religious leaders are hung up on the dogma not the message. So here is the challenge. What happens if you sit, meditate for a while, and ask yourself/universe/divity for a few simple rules. What are they?

I guarantee you might just see ‘decluttering’ as more like ‘reinvention’. And if you are leader, you may have just found a way to start a revolution.

The Dark Side of Leadership

“With great power comes great responsibility” – Uncle Ben, Spider-Man (and maybe Voltaire at some point)

There is a lot of crap said about leadership. Don’t get me wrong organisations need leaders. But they also need a lot of other competencies as much if not more, after all how many leaders do we need? But very few ‘roles’ encourage as much unending boring self-aggranylsis that the concept of leadership.  So in an attempt to return some balance to a subject I love. Here are a list of the things that even good leaders will do at some point.

You will use your power over others to suppress them

Yep. You are Darth Vader. OK perhaps that is an exaggeration. But at some point someone will be too enthusiastic, too traditional, too innovative, too structured or too ‘something’, to get the job done. And the chances are you won’t leave it up to them to decide when and how they should use this potentially useful and positive attribute. You will tell them to stop. And if you didn’t have the power of your status, relative to theirs, you probably wouldn’t dare. Congratulations, for all, the right reasons you chose power over logic.  

You will impose your values on others 

It gets worse. If you have a vision, it is yours. You can share it, you can engage others but it is yours. Even if you have listened to your team/business you will have done so selectively. Why? Because you can’t please all the people all of the time.  

This means that the things that you hold dear will be in your strategy and approach. You are ‘customer centric’ really why? Do you personally believe that the customer is the life-blood of your business and get riled at poor service wherever you see it? Thought so. You believe in running a lean and mean business? I bet you aren’t a total spend-monkey at home. In other words your approach will be coloured by your values and they can never be entirely representative of those who have to execute your approach. And here’s the kicker, no matter what they believe (‘they’ being the ones you lead) you will get them to follow your values. 

They might be devoted, but how many would continue your crusade if they weren’t being paid? So actually you haven’t just imposed your values, you might be bribing your followers too.

You will measure dedication by hours

Good work means hard work! This isn’t true in every circumstances and it isn’t a guarantee. But you know that dedication is hard to measure. Hours in the office much less so, and a worker who isn’t dedicated probably won’t put the hours in therefore the ones needing to wave their hand about to keep the motion sensor lights on must be the most dedicated right? Work life balance and equal opportunities be damned!

You will be wrong with no one to blame 

Less of a bad thing to do and just the shit end of the stick. If you are in a leadership position sooner or later you will get it very wrong and have no one to blame. It’s lonely at the top.

You will blame someone unfairly

On the flip side if there is an ‘escape goat’ (sic – for fans of Community there) you will use it. Either you are frustrated at something not going right and shaking your fists at the heavens isn’t enough or the finger is slightly unfairly pointed straight at you and you need to shift it. The truth is you may not always know 100% whose fault it is. You will also have a sense that you can’t really pin it on someone. But in a moment of weakness you will give it your best go. Instant gratification. Probably lingering guilt.

You will feel like a fake

Here’s the thing: Everyone is faking. That’s right everyone. We all keep thoughts to ourselves (even that person who seems to have no filter between brain and mouth). Some of the things we don’t say are our real thoughts. So that means everyone is faking. I don’t always believe that people get ‘promoted to their level of incompetence’, but I do think that people typically get promoted beyond their comfort zone. At that point your brain will be shouting ‘we can’t do this’ and if you are also shouting it out loud you won’t last very long! If you’re not, you are faking it, and that’s probably OK.

The dark side of leadership is the things you do that are regrettable and the things you have to suffer because you are a leader. The former isn’t solved by pursuit of an ever-unrealistic goal of ‘super leader’ but instead by a simple and sincere apology to those you have hurt or affected. The latter is probably just a case of ‘suck it up’ but don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t ‘strong enough’ not o feel the pain.  

Have I missed any? Come on ‘fess up.

The Holon – a different way to think about organisational measurement

“The definition of the individual was: a multitude of one million divided by one million.” –

Fractal Created by cowicide

Fractal Created by cowicide

Arther Koestler

Is your organisation lost in its measurements – flitting between very granular to very grey or nothing. I think most organisations suffer from this. Ever since businesses moved away from being family owned, to corporations, measurement has (quite rightly) taken a front seat. And if you aren’t sure what you should be measuring and you have shareholders breathing down your neck you start with the money. Unfortunately most organisations start and stop there. So here is some questions that might be difficult to answer:

How do you make more money?

How do you know that you are making all the money you can?

How do you know the money wont suddenly stop (or at least have a big dent in it)?

This is just a sample of questions that can’t be answered just by having good financial management and basic strategy. This is where you have to think about properly measuring your organisation and why not? I was pondering how you know what to measure (and how much) when I thought of a Holon. A Holon (originally coined by Koestler) is something that is a ‘complete part’, a ‘partial whole’ it is both a constituent and (representative) of the entirety. Don’t mistake this for homogeneity, this is more like the big Russian doll filled will lots of little Russian dolls. Anyway, I thought that if business is really about people (which I believe, in the most, it is) then can we find all we need to know about measuring the health of an organisation by looking at how we measure the health of its constituent parts – people.

Don’t get me wrong, this is hardly a 100% true interpretation of Koestlers ideas or of the genius that inspired him – Herbert A. Simon. However, it did throw up some interesting options, it gave me a list of measures that I might not have come up with otherwise and by adding a ‘non-invasive’ condition it also created a standard of both efficiency and granularity, both of which are often misjudged (or perceived poorly) in organisational strategies.

So below is my slightly fun descriptions of what you can measure to predict the health of a human and the organisational equivalent.

Health Measurement

Organisational Measurement


Education Organisational Knowledge Knowledge  possessed to overcome challenges
Intelligence Talent Core ability
Positivity Quality of the Strategy Resilience to overcome obstacles and keep forward focussed
Nutrition Investment Strategy Are the ‘inputs’ to build the organisation stronger going in the right places
Clothes Fit Business Model Fit Monitoring the shape of the organisation to see if it has outgrown the market or its customers
Activity Production Is enough of the right stuff being done
Metabolism Efficiency Are the investments being used wisely
Rest Heart Rate Engagement How well is the ‘lifeblood’ ticking over so that it can also achieve peak performance.
Digestion Financial Planning Is the method of distributing finance, and identifying where it needs to go, effective.
Waist/Height Ratio Demographics Do you have enough of what you need and, in particular, are you top-heavy.
Exercise Talent Pipeline Are you preparing now for future exertions?
Symmetry Culture Does the culture match the business model OR is what you have inherited good enough.
Disease Dis-ease The absence or presence of isolated, damaging entities
Blood Pressure Wellness Are you under too much pressure?
Stool Attrition What is the quality of what passes through

OK so some of those are a little tongue in cheek and the ‘stool’ one a little on the nose (how many more body metaphors can I get in?). But what is interesting here is that try as much as I like I can’t think of anything else that is worth measuring, whilst we stay at the 50,000 feet level. Clearly once you dip in you can see lots of options. For instance, when you look at attrition you can look at rate, but you can also look at quality, experience (exit interviews) and probably many more aspects. Also, in the same way, if you were going for a full physical you still might not have all of the above measured, you might decide that as an organisation you don’t need that either.

So, all of these measures are ‘non-intrusive’ (read: fairly low cost and low effort), they take a holistic view of health (read: they don’t just stop at the money) and they are all definitive in their meaning (read: there is broadly a consensus as to what is good and what is bad). These remain the features you should be looking for when you add more measures i.e. it might be ‘interesting’ to look at the Senior Managers MBTI preferences but if you a) aren’t already collecting it and b) can’t get consensus as to what ‘good’ is (symmetry?) – don’t bother.

Can you think of anything I have missed?


The Application of Mindfulness

This is a very popular topic at the moment however there is also a lot of confusion for three reasons:

  • Most people know there is some sort of ‘spiritual‘ link
  • But much of the recent attention is from scientific circles
  • Common usage of the word just means pay attention/don’t forget

So I thought I would help to summarise its usefulness and application without getting too caught up in the spiritual/scientific debate.

What is it?

Essentially mindfulness is the awareness of what you are doing or what is going on, either in thought or action. So far, so simple right? Well let me give you a few examples of mindlessness (the polar opposite of mindfulness) and let’s see how many you are guilty of:

  • Driving somewhere familiar and forgetting how you got there
  • Going into a room and forgetting why you are there
  • Re-reading the same sentence (or chapter!) in a book over and over
  • Losing track of your train of thought
  • Missing what someone has said to you because you ‘zoned out’

Why do these constitute mindlessness? Because you have lost track of the process as you are performing it. Being fully mindful means being simultaneously aware of the process and its context – holding both in a delicate balance. As you read this consider how much of your day you are either on autopilot or caught up in the detail – you will start to realise what an immense achievement staying mindful is, even for a moment.

Zen (Chan in Chinese traditions) Buddhism uses the idea of Koans – stories/poems that enable someone to become enlightened by pondering them. One such story told of a meditation student too ‘stupid’ (sic) to understand the instructions and aims of meditation. So his master gave him a very simple instruction – to sweep the yard.  As he swept he was to pay attention to what he was doing. To hold a ‘gentle concentration’ of every part of the act of the sweeping, the sound the feel, the interaction of the brush and the ground the movement of his body … you get the picture. Holding all of this in his attention, without wavering but without become over-focussed, the student, as the story goes, achieved enlightenment this way.

The Applications

Creating Habits: Leo Babauta (amongst others) of Zen Habits  talks about the transformational nature of habit creation (as opposed to willpower, for instance). How is this best done? By noticing which mindless acts lead to actions you would rather not take. Think about how many times you grab the high sugar/fat/carb snack either because you haven’t thought to prepare or you somehow always get stuck somewhere with out food or maybe just because its there (why is it there?). Another example would be expenditures – advertisers know that we tend to be easily convinced by clever sounding advertisements (“inspired by the science of genes” – so is spiderman but I won’t go to marvel comics for haircare advice) or by needs we are told we have got (anyone own a pair of expensive running shoes – go here) but not if we are aware of what we are doing whilst we hand over the peice of plastic that actually represents many hours of hard work to earn the money.

Continuous Improvement: Much like Leo’s approach above but on an organisational scale. There are a number of instances of big mistakes in organisation because small ones were made along the way. The Deepwater Horizon, has a lot to teach us there, both in noticing issues and doing something as a result. But even more insidious is the spiralling costs that companies experience as they grow, in certain aspects of their production (dis-economies of scale). These tend to be things like error rates, quality issues and lack of individual ownership. Imagine a workforce of mindful employees whose every tooling or keystroke was exactly the right level of quality (because they balanced the quality of the task with the need for efficiency). Far fetched? Difficult certainly. What about a work-forced that never made an unnoticed mistake. I will paraphrase an issue I have heard many times before:
‘I was looking for the letter X in some numbers because I was told it might happen and that this was bad.’
‘So why didn’t you say something when the number stopped?’
‘Because I didn’t see an ‘x”
Perhaps, in carrying out their tasks employees could simultaneously consider the action they were performing and the purpose it served. This would hand problem solving back to the people who carry it out and probably banish ‘motivational’ initiatives for ever (mindful problems solvers don’t have a chance to get bored).

Teamwork: This is an interesting one. Presumably teamwork can be done in both a mindless and mindful way although it is hard to imagine the former (blindly offering to help when more subtle signal indicate it is not required?). But I can offer two potential benefits of the purposefully mindful approach: Firstly when you interact socially you have few pre-programmes responses (‘How are you?’, ‘Fine’) which serve to grease the social wheels but don’t really achieve anything and certainly don’t develop relationships. Noticing when these need a slight revision requires a greater sense of awareness. Secondly, based on a study with an orchestra, it seems that even when an outcome or achievement requires working together paying attention to what you are doing helps it achieve a greater whole. In this case case making subtle conscious changes to how each person played the piece of music led to a better overall experience for those involved and those listening.

Learning: Author Ellen Langer has written extensively on the topic of mindfulness and more specifically difference between mindful and mindless learning. It isn’t too far a stretch looking at the above examples to understand how paying attention to what you are doing helps you do learn it better. Langer has some additional points to make and my favourite is that in the west we tend to place an emphasis on ‘getting it’ i.e. getting to the point of knowing all you need to know or mastering a skill. Both for my own learning and as a learning professional I have often found this a major obstacle. How many times have you given a book or new subject a few chapters or minutes and declared ‘I’m not getting this’. Ask yourself this: is anything worthy of learning going to be that easy to grasp? If you need to ‘get it’ before you value it doesn’t that condemn you to learn from experiences and ideas that are only just a few steps ahead of what you already know. I ask my learners to try to be content with ‘grasping’ an ‘in-road’ only. I try to convince them to be safe in the the knowledge that if they continue down that road they will learn more than getting to the first junction and deciding that is there destination.

Practising Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not just something that you can decide to do and it happens completely (see Learning above). Unfortunately I would argue that much of life asks you to be mindless and so in most of us it is an underdeveloped muscle. This means that if you want to be a ‘mindful leader‘ you will probably need to start training you brain in more general mindfulness first. Below are three methods, of increasing difficulty, which are aimed at beginners but might be useful ‘bolt on’ practices to those who are already quite accomplished.

Mindful tasks: This is the absolute basics and not mindfulness in the truest sense but in terms of process or activity improvement is a good start. Simply start, on any activity, by imagining that you are explaining the process to yourself or a third party. It will force you to ask questions of yourself. For example, ‘I am starting the letter like that because…’, or ‘I am taking this approach because…’. If ever you can’t finish a similar statement in reference to what you are doing, then ask yourself why. I find this works very well for DIY and stops me make some stupid painful errors.

Mindful development: I often ask those who are trying to make a significant change in how they work to keep a journal. This journal has a focus (although the content isn’t exclusive to that focus – that wouldn’t be mindful). Whilst keeping this journal they are to notice anything that happens that is ‘interesting’ and relates vaguely to what they are trying to achieve. Once they have noted it then, or later, they can reflect on its significance. Those with a penchant for problem solving see this subsequent rumination as the source of learning, in fact it is the dedication to ‘noticing the interesting’ that improves their practice the most.

Mindful mind: To avoid writing an entire treatise on the performance/business/personal benefits of meditation I will keep this quite simple. Pick something and pay attention it. I may have got this from another Zen Koan, but I think of the mental practice like this: Hold a small object like a coin in your fist with palm face down. Now open your hand. Unless your palm is very sticky the coin will fall. So, unless you apply pressure or concentration you will lose the coin. This might already sound like a metaphor for mindfulness but this is actually ‘concentration’. Now take the coin and hold it out in front of you with palm face up. Opening will not make the object fall, your hand ‘gently holds’ the coin so long as it remains palm up. This is mindfulness. Your focus can be anything you like but the simpler the better. Most people begin training their brain by paying attention to their breath. Those same ‘most people’ will find their mind wanders quite easily, the trick here is not to get too caught up in the wandering or beat yourself up over it, but just gently come back to the focus of your attention. And repeat.

Further reading:

Mindfulness or Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer

Mindfulness and Mastery in the Workplace by Saki F Santorelli

Mindful Experiential Learning by Bauback Yeganeh

Mindfulness In Plain English by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana

What is wrong with self-help books?

What is wrong with self-help books?

OK. Let me get this out the way I do not hate all self-help books, in fact I like several that I have read and I’m quite sure my critics could easily dismiss this blog as being of the self-help genre. The fact that I like a few self-help books for the millions that exist is hardly a ringing endorsement of the industry (accepting that I might not have read every single one). And I fully support the concept of self-help books. The idea of someone writing something that helps other people to do something better or overcome an obstacle in their lives is highly laudable.

So what is wrong with them?

Over-promise. I suspect in most cases the authors are very well meaning and want to share their insight (we’ll get to that later) so that others can realise the remarkable transformations that can be achieved with ‘positive thinking’ or whatever. Somewhere along the way however it became a business (the moment they walked into a publishers?) and then in come the ‘sellers’. They want and need to market the book so that it sells as many copies as possible. They will get hundreds of books in their inboxes and very few have genuine potential. So like the American Idol or X-factor business model they do whatever they can to shift stock as quickly as possible (ongoing book promotion costs money) and nothing to sustain sales or build the skill or reputation of the author. If people buy something for the wrong reasons they have still bought it and somebody somewhere still makes money.

Recommendation: Treat every new idea with optimistic cynicism look for the evidence on both sides with an open mind and assume that there are lots of things you don’t know about life and the universe – then give it a damn hard stare.


Lack of perspective. I almost wrote ‘unscientific’ for this point but actually it is fine to be unscientific, western science has its flaws and if we were all being scientific all the time there would be no stories. Stories are good. The real issue is people presenting their experience as fact. The classic example is the numerous books about having the right mindset and curing your otherwise incurable disease. Now the truth is that optimism does seem to enhance your health and increase your longevity. But once you have cancer (or other equally horrible condition) you have every right to be pissed off and not feel guilty about it. The simple fact is that lots of people who are extremely miserable about their disease survive because modern (western) medicine is very, very clever. I do believe people should ‘stay positive’ but they should also be allowed a full range of emotions and actually be equipped with the tools to achieve sustainable positivity despite the inevitable ups and downs (thanks to my sister who has worked in palliative care for that insight). Just because blindly failing to acknowledge how serious something is and having relatives around you that refuse to discuss death worked for one person, doesn’t mean that it will help someone else (although it is book-worthy).

Recommendation: Take most self-help books as representations of a personal experience and look to yourself for your truth. I have heard people say “well, they can’t all be true” except that they can, but just not all for the same person.

Focussing on money. Money is not inherently evil. It is currency and a means to trade skills and expertise for the life you want. In my view too many books seek to define success for others as being of monetary value. I was once on workshop when someone got very annoyed that he was being taught methods of increasing ‘success’. He got frustrated because he was looking for emotional contentment and a life of freedom and not for financial security. The facilitator did well to reassure him that success could be whatever he wanted. I suspect I would have fallen into the moral high-ground trap of pointing out that the only person in the room who had explicitly linked success and money was the protester himself. In reality who could blame him, how often in the west to do we hear the word ‘success’ and it doesn’t mean ‘money’?

Recommendation: Make your own definition of success. In fact just doing that delivers success for many people (or they realise they already have it.

A book isn’t a person. So perhaps I am now stating the obvious. Even more obvious when you consider I am a corporate coach/trainer. But I am a great believer that the agility of our self-talk, our internal dialogue, can only really be matched by another human being. I have come across lots of books that have made me think but I assimilated their concepts in to my pre-existing view of the world. It was rare for a book to directly challenge that. People on the other hand (the ones that are good at it) can keep up with whatever self-deluding beliefs you have (particularly if they don’t share them)  and ‘thrust and parry’ to the point that you are left with the concepts that help and support what you want to achieve in life but have reconciled the one that don’t to the bin of ‘how things used to be’.

Recommendation: To make the most of self-help books, allow others’ experiences (this works for biographies too by the way) to question assumptions you have about the way the world is, or should be.