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Are we more uncertain than ever about what lies ahead?

I know, it’s a big question, but those up to the task usually come straight back with a “Yes” response. Admittedly, the question is a little ambiguous, and begs a degree of qualification. But folks generally know what I’m getting at. When I ask myself the same question, my mind does a mental flip and compares my present day experiences with how I thought things were going to pan out a few years ago. Depending on how far back I go the disparity between now and then becomes more and more unreal.

And those people around me, the ones I get to see regularly, describe their uneasiness about the extent to which their lives have changed. Given the restraint we Brits exhibit, for uneasiness read fear. Deeply missing (mourning) the perceived stability once found in the past, they have become fearful of what an uncertain future holds. In being fearful we have feel lost, perhaps, most importantly, to ourselves.

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Uncertainty and the ‘rare event’.

‘Uncertainty’ is increasingly the term people turn to to convey how they feel about the world we now inhabit.

In a comparatively short space of time all that felt solid and reliable now feels amorphous and fragile. It’s as if the rug of certainty (was it only ever an illusion created by our  mind?) has been pulled from under our once grounded feet. A perfect storm of rare events have seemingly convened at once, resulting in the world we knew, and to a degree thought we’d mastered, being turned upside down. Continue reading

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‘Uncertainty’ – the beginning of a survival guide

Uncertainty is a feeling we are all familiar with. Over the last few years it seems as if uncertainty, and its by-product ‘fear’ has loomed ever larger in our lives, as we become in turn, both beneficiary and victim of a rapidly changing world. It’s as if those things that once appeared solid and certain can no longer be relied upon, and that the improbable has replaced the rational. All has become ‘liquid’. This has led people like me to question what what part randomness, luck and the specter of uncertainty now plays in not only determining success, but in the very way we live our lives.

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T-Shaped Cross Pollinator

For quite a while I’ve been introducing myself as a ‘T-Shaped Cross Pollinator’. Taken from the book ‘The Ten Faces of Innovation’ by Tom Kelley, the description is best understood when broken down into two parts. T-shaped people are deep in at least one field while knowledgeable in many. Whilst, cross-pollinators ‘can create something new and better through the unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts’.

As soon as I came across the concept of the T-shaped cross-pollinator, I instantly identified with it, and I’ve stuck with it ever since as a way of describing whatever it is I do.

To become an Olympic-class TSCP, it helps if you have bags of curiosity, an innate ability to flip ideas from one context to another, as well as harbor a belief that all problems have a solution. It’s a matter of faith to a TSCP that whatever the problem a likely solution already exists, and usually it’s been solved by someone else, operating in a totally different field.

Many of the challenges we currently face requires a high degree of cross-pollination of ideas if we are to find innovative solutions to match the demands of today’s  ‘Liquid modernity’. This requires us to jump between fields, disciplines and skills, in an effort to find new ways of coping with these new kinds of problems. Too often we only innovate within the context of the curve we are on, while what’s really required is to a bit of ‘curve jumping’, as Guy Kawasaki urges us to do, if we are to truly anticipate viable solutions.

My interests are wide and varied, but gain depth by looking at the world through the context of technology and what Kevin Kelly refers to as the ‘Technium’ – a word he coined to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. In true cross pollinator fashion, I have sought to combine the ideas inherent in the Technium with those of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, whose eloquent writings on ‘Liquid Modernity‘, describe the condition or state of some of our most highly developed societies, and that condition is best summed-up in the one word, ‘uncertainty’. By adopting a ‘curve jumping’ way of looking at the world, as befits a TSCP,  I want to develop and share with you this work-in-progress ‘survival guide’ which contains a useful set of skills and insights for combating ‘uncertainty’ in all its forms.

We are being confronted by a series of unprecedented challenges in the way we live our lives, communicate with one another and create value in a world that changes so rapidly that nothing is left alone long enough to reach a solid state. If the individual is increasingly being left alone to fail, I want to create a place where the he or she doesn’t feel abandoned or on their own, but can come together with like-minded souls and equip themselves with a different set of life-coping skills and a better distribution of the odds.

Surviving the Struggle

In his book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” serial investor and author Ben Horowitz devotes a short chapter to The Struggle. It describes the rite of passage that entrepreneurs go through, which will either end in failure or mark the beginning of greatness.

The tell-tale symptoms of The Struggle include wondering why you even started the venture in the first place, and encompasses such energy-sapping and mind-draining characteristics as not being able to sleep, concentrate on holding a proper conversation and believing everyone else is having an easier time than you.

If it’s greatness you’re after, or even just a modicum of success, The Struggle, it seems, can’t be avoided. It takes Herculean strength of mind and character to try and get through it, and, even then, the few that go on to greater success can’t ever quite break free of the whole experience.

Winning the mind game

Having been a long time ‘struggler’ myself I’ve come to the conclusion that the battle is really won or lost in the mind. Contrary to popular advice, of welcoming ‘failure’ as a stepping stone to success, it still takes a lot of hard work and good deal of re-imaging – at least it does for me – to see failure as a positive outcome. I’m getting there, but those steeping stones can still appear as landmines and those failures as self-imposed fiascos.

It’s so much easier to attribute failure to the shortcomings of others. When surveyed, founders often cite external circumstances as the cause of their venture’s demise. Not being able to find a market for their product and running out of cash are the two most popular reasons given

We show Founders how to survive

Yet all start-ups have one thing in common. They are the brainchild of a founder or founders. These are mostly ordinary people like you or me – they are you and me – who want to make a difference. Eight out of ten will fail in this endeavour within the first three years of trading. Everything I’ve ever read or learnt about ‘surviving’ points to the fact you should never underestimate the ability of these same, ordinary people to suddenly demonstrate unimaginable acts of willpower. They defy the odds and somehow – we are never quite sure how they do it – snatch a last minute victory from the gnashing jaws of defeat. When asked how they pulled it off. They often reply “I was lucky”.

When it comes to The Struggle, I ask myself, does the unfamiliar, pressure cooker environment of running a start-up cause most founders to buckle under? Is it because too much of everything is thrown their way, at once? Or do most founders lack the ultimate determination to succeed, against all odds? Or do they have the good sense to know when it’s time to quit? Or could it be the fault of those stupid markets, perennially blind to a good idea. Or does plain old luck ultimately determine the outcome?

What I think I do know, is that there are plenty of support services out there to help you with the business of the business, but very few looking out for the founders themselves, who are mostly left ‘to paddle their own canoe’. And on the basis that they must have ‘something about them’ to start a company in the first place.

Veteran entrepreneurs say The Struggle is an evolutionary process, where only the fittest get to survive – and that’s the way it’s always been. Evidence shows that we learn to ‘adapt’ better over time, with founders on their third or fourth start-up witnessing a lower failure-rate than someone on their first outing. But shouldn’t we be trying to better equip ourselves to survive the rigours of The Struggle first time out?  Wouldn’t that benefit all concerned? Not just the founders, but also employees and investors.

Imagine for a moment, you’re a participant in reality TV show “The Island”, and you’re going to have to survive with what’s at hand, for the next six weeks – under the trained eye of super-survival expert, Bear Grylls. Thrust into this challenging, unfamiliar and slightly contrived environment, you have no choice but to direct your attention towards obtaining the necessities of life – fire, water, food and shelter. Well, that’s most of your day gone, right there. Mentally, these lifesaving activities may require very little from us. Just a lot of energy-sapping, repetitive manual labour. However, it’s our ability to mentally cope with the implications of the situation which will ultimately determine our ability to survive; and test our real yearning, or not, to do so. That requires us to accept the necessity of having to adapt – and pronto – if we want to go on living.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should send aspiring founders to “desert island boot camp” to toughen them up. But the will to win comes from the willingness to train. And we need to find ways to share, learn and ultimately train ourselves to better survive the stark terrain which The Struggle inevitably drags us over.

Remain calm in the middle of all the chaos that is now your life

Having served in the military I can attest to the benefits of continuous training to mentally and physically prepare yourself for real world events. And when your plan falls apart – and to quote Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan ‘till he’s punched in the mouth” – you need to fall back on something other than your butt. You quickly need to discover an improvised, adaptive strategy that works.

I’ve looked at a wide range of these strategies – and even developed one of my own – and it’s perhaps no surprise to find that they all put huge emphasis on character, and a solemn commitment to never, ever, ever, give up. But the most surprising thing I discovered was that the greatest attribute appears to be an ability to remain calm in the middle of all the chaos that is now your life. It is this ability, above all others, that that we must all learn to nurture in ourselves and then pass on the ‘know how’ to those who may need it most.

On what basis can you work?

You don’t need me to tell you about how complex the world has become. Yet, we still try and make things appear much simpler than they are. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of ignoring complexity as we construct a elementary response based on how things once were. Take our over simplistic view of budgets.

Those of us who rely on connecting with budget holders have known for a long time that those budgets are likely to be a lot smaller and under a lot more strain than ever before. Also budget holders have become savvy enough to know that a small budget can get you a lot more for your money these days.

The reality of the situation often appears thus. “I’ve only got this much to spend, but I want all of this done”.  Budget holder and prospective supplier often find themselves at budgetary odds, ending-up miles apart on what a job should cost – with the emphasis firmly on should. However, the should part no longer comes into it. “But this is what I have to spend” now out-trumps all arguments related to market rates and a fair price.

When people are forced to lead frugal lives they learn to get by on a lot less. In fact, frugality has become the new badge of honour, as people boast about how little they have spent on some previously costly item. What happens to the notion of ‘quality’ in all this?. Well, ‘quality’ is deemed to be a constant, whereas cost is definitely the variable. “I want the same standard of job for my lot- less money”, runs the thought.

Like it or not, we are all having to make tough decisions about the basis on which we work. Pretty much everyday I hear of freelance colleagues being asked to work for free to begin with, on the prospect of a budget being there in the future. Many already work on a speculate-to-accumulate basis. Others have opted to work on a mix of fee-and-free, partly out of necessity if they want to keep their options open. It’s a risk. But one that could prove to be even greater if they only said “yes” to paying work? This is the quandary many are in.

Budget holders have to strike the best deals they can with the money they have. This is, in itself, a tough job. But it’s been made easier by the likelihood of finding someone willing to do if for the small amount of money on offer. However, I suspect, that some are now using the ‘no budget’ excuse to get work done on the really cheap, as they feel they can drive a hard bargain without fear of scaring-off good suppliers.

The basis on which work is carried out and paid for is as much under the shadow of uncertainty as is the rest of our future lives. I’m confident enough to think that new ways of creating value and wealth will emerge that requires us to be less dogmatic in how we think about how we earn our daily crust.

For the time being this may be an issue that only sits at the margins of work, and can feel far removed from how most people are rewarded through a regular, monthly salary. But as the world of work continues to change, and with it how people are remunerated, it may well become an issue pertinent to us all.

 

 

“After me, the flood”

In my last few posts I’ve written about the importance of ‘tried and tested’, and how rules of thumb have a timeless quality to them, guaranteeing their survival well into the future. This had me thinking about my own areas of long-term interest, and how most of them extend way back into my childhood.

Marcel Proust famously observed (perhaps modestly in his case) that “We always end up doing the thing we are second best at”. (Only the second, some of you may be thinking). In trying to avoid such a cynical fate, I have cheated a little and have consciously weaved my varied interests together in an effort to create a singular view of the world and my role in it. On this basis, I have tried to promote my skills as a T-Shaped Cross Pollinator, making lots of small bets on my life’s interests, resulting in my what I term a ‘philosophy of optionality’.

One such long-term interest has been film. At one time, in my late twenties, I tried hard to become a film producer, tracing back the seeds of this ambition to childhood visits to the cinema, which, as you will see, had a special significance beyond just being entertained.

This love of cinema really began when I was a full-time boarder at a small, rather unorthodox prep school on the South Coast, which was consciously out of step, and sympathy, with the then social revolution taking place in ‘swinging sixties’ Britain.  The school proved to be a great starting point for my education, if really tough on my young emotions.  Once a month (always on a Saturday) Mum would come down from London by train and take my brother and I out for the day, usually to nearby Hastings. We would inevitably end up at the cinema for a double-bill matinee, followed by high tea in a local hotel. The whole experience, repeated time and again, took on the sanctity of a ritual.

In between these monthly visits, recently seen  films provided material for our childhood imaginations, which saw us re-enacting key scenes over and over again.  Cinema proved to be both an escape and a source of day-dreams and aspirations, as we searched for the hero within ourselves. And the one film, amongst all the ones I happily sat through, and which somehow perfectly summed-up the ethos of those fractured  days, was the enduring classic of man, machine and revolutionary bomb, ‘The Dam Busters’.  (At school, using a few well placed chairs set at different angles, you could easily imagined yourself in a Lancaster)

The presence of the Dam Busters continues to eerily pop-up at significant times in my life. The film was showing on TV the day my wife went into labour with our son, and every time she had a contraction we loudly dah, dah-ed along to the famous Dam Busters March. 10 years later the Dam Buster’s Lancaster was the first model plane my son and I built together. The house we live in is on the flight part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which has the only flying Lancaster in existence (besides one in Canada). In summer, it regularly buzzes low over our garden at 100 feet, the recognisable drone of its four Merlin engines giving away its imminent fly past long before it’s actually seen.

I’ve come to see the story of The Dam Busters, and their scant 10 week build-up to the mission, as a great lesson in how to be resourceful in your thinking and doing when tackling uncertainty – and still manage to have the last word on how to survive it, (even though sadly 53 airmen died on the night of the raid). Their story was one of having to quickly learn to ‘do’ things differently, of adapting to a new set of unknowns (even though it was ‘experience’ of doing the job that got you into the newly formed Squadron in the first place), where even the mission’s objective, and the revolutionary means of its destruction, wasn’t revealed until 4 hours prior to taking off for Germany’s Rhur valley.

Given the levels of stress imposed by the exacting demands of the mission, the crews willed themselves to excel in conditions that were the near opposite of what they were trained for. If you’re used to flying above 10,000 feet then re-learning to do the same at 100 feet was like learning all over again. Each benefited, at least professionally, from the new level of skills they had to master. The reliance on continual tinkering and testing, and testing again, perfected the technologies needed to deliver a 7,500lb bomb that had to unbelievably bounce along the surface of the water.

Having created  a set of exacting disciplines for developing operational rigorousness, and without the luxury of overcompensation in anything they did, the Dam Busters used these self-same limitations to conceal from the enemy their ultimate intentions until the very last moment.

You may think that the world has well-and-truly moved on and such ‘flag-waving’ testimonies to Man’s ingenuity for destruction feels decidedly out of place. But the story of the Dam Busters provides the kind of enduring lessons that we can benefit from today.

We can make easy reference to the ‘agile’ way they went about perfecting their techniques and technologies. Empathise with their short lead in times for ‘delivering the goods’. And still agree that Guy Gibson-style leadership from the front invites greater buy-in. But for me the greatest take-out is this. When confronted by the unknown it seems at least possible to find ‘solace’ in perfecting a set of disciplines that actually benefits from increasing levels of uncertainty.

Men volunteered for a mission that was likely to be even riskier than usual without really knowing what they were signing-up for. Many had miraculously survived a ‘tour of ops’ already and we’re entitled to go on to jobs away from the front-line, but chose instead to sign-on.  To be in with a chance of success,  they had to go out and practise a new set of radical disciplines everyday, in approximate conditions, and with a willingness to tear-up the rule book and start again. That’s a big ask of anyone. And the story of the original airmen of 617 Squadron provides us with an enduring testimony of what’s possible – and unimaginable – in the face of overwhelming odds. The Squadron motto, “After me, the flood” is an apt summing up of their legacy and a useful shorthand description for those crossing into the unknown.

- Jason

I’m indebted to James Holland’s excellent up-to-date retelling of the Dam Busters story: Dam Busters – The Race to Smash the Dams 1943 

 

Why the Egg Test Makes for Good Decisions

Most of us navigate life by adopting rule of thumb principles to everyday decisions. It allows us to apply a convenient standard to our judgements without administering too much thought.

At home, we’ve always kept free-range ducks and chickens, making us not only egg sustainable, but also liable to come across a rogue nest under a bush. Our rule of thumb for checking the freshness of these eggs is to fill a large glass of water and see if the eggs floats or sinks. If it sinks it’s good to eat, but if it remains bobbing just below the surface, then we bin it. As long as you can remember sinks=good and floats=bad there’s no need to waste time on concocting elaborate tests to check freshness. The thing I like about this rule of thumb is that it’s easily learnt and easily applied.

The rule of thumb as a  means of measurement is believed to have its origins in agriculture, being a precise enough depth for a seed to germinate properly. It’s how I measure depth when planting-up vegetables, using my thumb to create either a hole in the soil, or a thumb-depth row.

In the ’90s research psychologists, Gerd GIgerenzer and Daniel Goldstein published a ground-breaking paper on measuring our mental abilities to arrive at logical conclusions. They proved that you could make ‘satisficing’ inferences (satisficing combines the notion of sufficing and satisfying) based on limited time, knowledge and computational ability. They referred to this mental shorthand as a ‘fast and frugal’ method of induction; the conclusion being we can “take the best, and ignore the rest” when it comes to information we think we recognise. Just like rule of thumb, ‘Take the Best’ does the job well enough to be relied upon. When Gigerenzer and Goldstein tested ‘Take the Best’ against more long-winded methods of inference they found that it drew at least as many correct conclusions as more sophisticated methods, and even did better in some cases.

The fact that it’s OK  to often relinquish in-depth comprehension in favour of a limited knowledge strategy like ’Take the Best’  is proving to be of real value in these uncertain times. And being right is not the only factor to consider, as time has become, arguably, our most important commodity. The pressure to be quick, as well as satisficingly correct, is now the name of the game.

My ‘small bets’ strategy for tackling unknown events operates on this same limited knowledge and time basis, relying on a few basic cues to get things up and running. Updating on the fly has itself become standard practice, and as more cues emerge we can create new inferences about what conclusions to reach next.

Rule of thumb and Take the Best succeed because they are long-in-the-tooth examples of ‘bench-tested wisdom’, sufficiently robust to stand the test of time.  Satisficing, it appears,is often good enough, whilst over rationalising can create too much complexity for our minds to handle, hindering our ability to reach correct conclusions.

Evidence clearly shows that these simple, in built psychological mechanisms are worth trusting, and therefore worth hanging on to as a counterbalance to these complex times. Sometimes, all we need is a single, good reason for doing something. And most times that’s all we need to know.

- Jason

 

 

 

 

The Future of the 5,500 Year-Old Car

A century ago the world was teetering on the edge of a precipice. The catastrophic events of  the First World War were just over a year away and many of the technologies that would help define a ‘brave new world’ had already made an appearance. An eclectic bag of then recent breakthroughs included the  aeroplane, radio communication, x-rays (nearly a decade old) experiments in blood banks and  transfusion, the first appearance of the ‘zipper’ on an item of clothing and, in the factious world of physics, Niels Bohr had just unveiled his quantum model of the atom.

These same areas of discovery – transportation, medical science, revolutionary materials and quantum physics – are still making the headlines, as we likewise teeter on the edge of a different type of precipice. And who is to say that the game-changing innovations of a hundred years ago were, on their first appearance, any less radical than the breakthroughs we are experiencing today. In just over a century our daily lives have become as far removed from how life was experienced by the late Victorians, as their lives were from that of Iron Age Man. Or is that not strictly true?

All Ages come to think of themselves as ‘modern’ (or even ‘post-modern’) and with it comes the belief that the ‘old’ is always there to hold  back the ‘new’, until the cutting-edge triumphantly establishes itself as the norm. And as each successive generation imagines the future appropriate to their Age, they feel compelled to embellish the scene with credible looking, mash-ups of existing technologies, as a tribute to Man’s future ingenuity, if not his imagination. As was recently pointed out, the ‘flying car’ has still yet to make it’s appearance, even though it’s long featured in our collective  imagination.

As someone focused on helping people and businesses survive in a world they claim to no longer understand, it proves useful to have a few, well-secured anchors on which to shackle some unshakeable beliefs – whereas the bulk  of what we have come to believe-in has been (or is in danger of being)  shipwrecked on the rocks of other people’s folly.

Furthermore, there’s no need to be tie yourself to an imaginary mast if you’re afraid of falling-for the siren calls of imminent demise. You should instead  look to navigate a zig-zag course that cuts across prevailing winds and prevents you from going round in ever diminishing circles of decline. To do this, you must first see what’s still likely to survive (as shipwrecked survivors are apt to do) before musing about what needs to be added to your life.

Understanding the future is as much about holding on to notions about what is timeless, as it is about analysing what’s time dependent. You can see more easily what’s likely to be lost to progress, and what will endure.

At this point, let’s carry out a simple thought experiment.  Imagine looking at any modern object using a device that could instantly reveal the visual history of its components, with the power to trace them right back to their original first state. Point the device at the car’s doors and you would be taken back to how a door first appeared 5,000 years ago. Glass for the windscreen would appear as 6,000 years old, as would the wheels; with the rubber around them looking comparatively new, being only a couple of hundred years old since being introduced as a commercial product. (It appears that both manufactured glass and the wheel were invented in the same region of Northern Syria and Mesopotamia, no doubt making it at least as geographically important as Silicon Valley is today).

The device, whilst scanning the seats of our family saloon, would reveal a pedigree that goes back to at least Ancient Egypt,and would have been, much like now, covered in leather for status. The various mirrors, rear view and side, would exhibit a history (in its glass-backed, metallic coated form) that can be traced back to 13th Century. When we scan the engine, depending on how sensitive our device is, it could reveal a Roman crankshaft-connecting rods to a sawmill.

The car itself would give way to an image of a carriage, then to the wagon, then the chariot, then back to the earliest known wheeled vehicle, which emerged around 3.500 BC. By my reckoning, the components of our car have been slowly but successfully mutating over the past 5,500 years,. How far back in time would you need to go before people failed to recognise it as some form of vehicle?

That same device of the imagination is available to us all, as the history of any object is often an ancient story waiting to be discovered. And those objects that survive to become part of the ongoing story of mankind are as integral to that story as was the evolution of language and the discovery of fire.

So, when you next think about the future, don’t just speculate about what is likely to be added but instead look around and see what’s going to survive. The ‘car’ in 5,500 years time, will, I’m sure, still owe its existence to the ancient models we drive around in today.

- Jason

 

How Small Bets Lead to Bigger Pay-offs

I’ve been working for a while on what I refer to as my ‘small bets’ strategy. In the past I’ve been  prone to making big, all or nothing bets on my future, in expectation of a big pay-off worthy of this audacious approach. Experience has taught me that for this to have a remote chance of happening you’d have to be so precise about every detail of what you’re doing, so insightful, so certain of the outcome, that, without a shadow of a doubt, this predicted outcome (unfettered from the laws of randomness) is, I repeat, is going to happen.

Our singular view of the world, and our ability to project our presence onto events can make us suffer from an infallible fallacy, so we can’t possibly fail, when, in reality, we are blind to the odds stacked against us. In hindsight, so much of what’s passes as significant in our lives (well, it’s true of mine) seems to have been brought about by a large dose of luck, (both good and bad) providence, serendipity, right place, right time-ism, call it what you will.

As hard as you try to take these unquantifiable agencies out of the equation, or, better still, ignore their very existence, you presume yourself to be thinking, feeling and acting rationally, until, surprise, surprise, something happens to scupper the copper-bottomed guarantee of success. Sounds familiar?

My small bets strategy takes a different and I think more robust approach, as it actually benefits when those unknown events come a-calling.  Based on ‘optionality’,  it doesn’t bother itself too much with the necessity of having to be right – which, as we’ve experienced time and again, is always a big ask at the best of times.

If you are anything like me, I was always too easily convinced, too early on, of the validity of my plans, and mistook the early signs of success as being the signs of success. Now I look for the ‘falsification’ in my ‘bets’, evidence of them not working. It’s harder to achieve but more rigorous and insightful.

Keeping things ‘small’ means I can more easily limit the downside, never investing more time and money than I can afford to lose, and, for good measure,  I notionally write this off at the get-go. On the flip side, I look for options where the gains can be far in excess of anything I can lose. To further mitigate against the odds going against me, I look to make the mechanics of optionality work for me. Like a venture capitalist investing small amounts in ten different start-ups, I work on the basis that only a few of my ‘bets’ are going to really pay-off, but when they do they dwarf the accumulated losses from the other options.

This rather simple approach of limiting the downside in order to gain untold upside is starting to be adopted by my clients, freeing them up from having to  know less than usual about the nature of small bet they are about to make. For as long as they keep making them on the same basis, they can afford to keep going for the one big winner. They gain far more from this launch-and-learn approach, where they are updating their plans as they go along, than weeks or even months of procrastination spent figuring out what you next big bet should be – by which time it’s usually not worth making.

I know you’ve heard this a thousand times, but you need to get rid of your fear of failure, and see optionality as giving you the edge over not having to try and second guess what’s going to work.  Failure, when it happens, is a new piece of useful information you can obtain cheaply, not a crippling event that costs you dearly.

This strategy isn’t just for the boardroom but is one for everyday life. Anywhere you look, there is the potential to discover virtually-free options that can hold the promise of a tremendous upside. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb (who first led me in the direction of small bets) pointed out in this book ‘Antifragile’, the wheel had been around for 6,000 years before someone had the insight to put them on the bottom of a suitcase.

- Jason

 

 

The Grin and Bear Fallacy – Or How I Learnt to Swim

We learn pretty early on to grin-and-bear things, as a way of putting our problems into a manageable holding pattern, whilst putting on a brave face. We neither succumb to the weight of our misfortunes or solve them, but learn to live with a coping mechanism that acts as a flotation aid that never sees us quite sink.

If you do the treading water thing long enough, you acquire a strange talent for increased coping, which invites more problems to be added to the load, on the basis of ‘I can take it’. However, by adopting a grin-and-bear strategy we potentially deaden our creative abilities to deal with those challenges head on. And when we resign ourselves to this catch-all response to our calamities the light within us never burns as brightly as it should.

I’m as guilty as the next man of putting up with things that, in truth could really do with being fixed now – and that once fixed would be the better for it. There are, for instance, jobs around this house – mostly small, low cost one – that, quite frankly, I should have put right years ago, except there’s always more important ones that seem more worthy of my time. But hey, I can be relied upon to grin-and-bear things for a while longer, even though I shouldn’t really need to.

At work, there are similar unfixed tasks that continue to debilitate, processes that don’t integrate, trailing wires that trip you (and the electricity) obsolete bits of kit equipment that infuriate, chairs with only three castors, and phones that never transfer. But grin-and-bear, grin and bear, because we can live with it a while longer. Right?

However, as an innovator, the argument for accepting this grin-and-bear attitude just doesn’t work for me (the things I really like doing always have a better ride) as it acts as a brake, stopping the process of change dead in its tracks. It’s a cousin to procrastination and a half relative to failure. Its properties as a buoyancy aid makes folks hold on even tighter, fearing they could lose the little bit they are still clinging-on to.

The root of the problem lies in seeing the ‘g & b’  attitude as a virtue, a much hyped stoical attribute, that gets you through the hard times. Except the hard times are often the most radical of times, when we witness breakthrough after breakthrough – necessity proving, once again, the mother of invention. Even though we’ve are still having to cope with unhealthy levels of  anxiety and uncertainty, we’re also experiencing unprecedented change in just about every facet of our lives. Whilst for many it continues to be a time to grin-and-bear, for others its been a time to launch-and-learn and winner-takes-all.

I’m in favour of letting go of the one in order to gain more from the other, as you can never know how ‘up’ your upside can be if you are fundamentally wedded to limiting your exposure to the downside. You need to find the confidence to swim away from the comparative safety of your grin-and-bear-it life belt (picture a sinking ship in the background) get beyond that feeling of having survived, and experience more of what life and the rest of the wide, wide Ocean has to offer.

- Jason

 

 

 

Here’s a question born of the moment. Can anyone, with any degree of certainty, predict what they might be doing in 12 months time? The chances are you’re having difficulty figuring out what shape you life will be in by September. In our present overtaxed, over anxious state, the ‘cone of uncertainty’ just seems to get wider and wider the further we project our lives into the future.

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At a certain point on the timeline (usually either 3, 6 or 12 months from now) the screen projecting an imagined future seems to be filled only with oscillating static, as if all our known points of reference had melted into one, flickering, abstract image. Within a short time frame our predictions become wishes, rather than certainties.

Now what if you could point that same cone in the opposite direction and use it as a detection device to listen into the past, who would you tune into for advice about how to tackle the complexity of life and it’s uncertainties?

Every morning I feel compelled to pick up that cone, symbolically turn it one hundred and eighty degrees, and tune my mind into the ”Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius. a 2,000 year old Roman Emperor, soldier and philosopher; who for my money still doles out the best advice on how to deal with life’s inevitable curve balls. If he were asked to stare through the cone into the future. he wouldn’t waste his time on predictions. Instead he’d gently remind us (as was his style) that there’s only two things a person can really control, their opinions and their actions. In other words, what we think (think being the operative word) about an event and what can do about it. The rest, all those external happenings that we let effect us, we have no control over, as they reside in the lap of the Gods.

Roman Stoicism wasn’t for sissys, and whilst it urged you to accept whatever came your way (good or bad) with good grace, it held the individual accountable for intrinsically knowing what the right response should be. Here’s a flavour of Marcus’s advice, from the beginning of Book Two of the Meditations:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good and evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow-creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of these things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two feet, or eyelids, or like the upper and lower rows of teeth.

The next time you have a run in with someone, I dare you to try and take the same stance as Marcus Aurelius – who being an Emperor and head of the Roman Empire, had to go further than most in  convincing folks of his fondness for equality and equanimity.

Here’s another challenge. The Future, your future. Accept that whatever happens next in your life is going to happen, as we have little or no control over external events. In fact most of the major game changers in your life to date where likely to have been the result on an unforeseen event, randomness, luck, divine intervention, whatever. If this was true of the past it’s certainly true of the  future. If I look back to a year ago I don’t think I’d come close to imaging the things I’d be doing today. Thank goodness!.

Now this doesn’t mean you have to see yourself as a victim of circumstance, tossed about by external forces. Again, taking a leaf out of Marcus Aurelius, the one thing you can control is your response to what’s happening. That may sounds like an optimists charter, but to me it makes perfect sense, given we do have the wherewithal  to change our thinking, about anything, in an instance. If like me, loads of things have changed in your life, especially over the last 5 years,the power to think our own thoughts and create our own response and actions has always been there and, comfortingly. always will be.

Going back to thinking about the cone of uncertainty and whatever the future may hold, I’m going to leave the last word to Marcus Aurelius:

Make a habit of regularly observing the universal process of change; be assiduous in your attention to it, and school yourself in this branch of study; there is nothing more elevating to the mind

- Jason

For more insightful quotations on ‘Uncertainty’ please visit the The Random Notebooks section of this website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our past figures big in our future

In this fast evolving world of ours it’s seems right to assume that the rate of technological change makes things redundant, if not obsolete, so much more quickly than was the case for previous generations. I live in house nearing it’s 200th birthday, and as a way of acknowledging its age I did a tour the other day of all its rooms to ascertain what might have been recognisably around (in similar shape  and form) a couple of hundred years ago and what’s really new and by way of progress unimaginable and therefore unrecognisable to the house’s first Georgian residents.

I came to the conclusion that 95 per cent of what’s in my house today, would have been familiar and in fact used everyday, and in the same way, by that Georgian family back in the early 19th Century. The sheer quantity of processions in the house is a lot greater today than way back then, but beds, chest-of-draws, chairs, rugs, tables, glasses, tableware, etc, have not change one iota in many cases – except perhaps in the area of mattress technology, in which my wife holds an honorary degree, being a long time bad back and hip sufferer.

(The house’s modern utilities, water, electricity, central heating are the updated equivalent to the well or spring, the out-house and the candle or oil lamp, which although makes modern living so much more convenient could be found in their basic forms at least as far back as the ancient Roman Villa and our Georgian family had access to water, hear and light).

The stand-out 5 per cent difference (on a purely mass household possession basis) are the technology items – the TV, the radio, the laptop, the broadband hub, the telephone, the fridge – each and everyone of which has, over differing time spans, had an impact on how we live our lives, spend our time, and live communally in our houses. As of course happened with the introduction of mass produced cutlery, cooking utensils and gaslight.

There’s a variant to this exercise in seeing how much, or little, things have really changed, and that’s to start to subtract these technologies one by one according to when they first appeared in the home. Yours may be a contemporary home designed to incorporate the arrival of these ‘newer’ technologies, and the items you furnish it could well be the epitome of ‘now’, but you can’t get away from the fact that many of the items we still consider necessary have a pedigree going back thousands of years.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book ‘Antigragile’ has an illustration of cooking utensils recovered from Pompeii, and believe me you’d be hard pushed to put a date on them, if you were unaware of their antiquity, as their close relatives can be found in your kitchen today, virtually unaltered in design, if not in manufacturing material.

From NNT’s book I also found out about the ‘Lindy effect’, which essentially infers that if an object such as a book that as been in print for the last 40 years should at least be in print for another 40 years – as a statistical probability. The chair has been recognisably as chair for 3,000 years or so, which means that according to the Lindy effect, Mars colonists and their offspring will still be parking their butts on a version of it for generations to come. Perhaps Man and Chair will forever more share a joint destiny.

When I repeated the tour of my house applying the Lindy effect – where longevity so far is a good predictor of future longevity – the only items that had a question mark over them were the latest items of technology. The concept of radio seems to have a future for many decades to come having first appeared in our homes in the 1920s.  The mobile phone has at least another 25 years of viability, the laptop another few decade or so, the tablet, well, it’s good to at least 2016. Paradoxically when we image the future, it is these same items that have survived and come out on top, if in a more radical or outrageous form. If they were to all survive for another decade than expect them to all be around for another decade after that.

Progress, like thinking, can be both slow and fast. However, next time you think of the future rather than add new things to your picture of it, try taking away those old things you think won’t survive. It’s much more enlightening, and perhaps closer to a reality of the future that has never yet shown any intention of replacing food will coloured pills, or exchanging earth bound traffic jams with aerial motorways full of flying cars.

One final point. The Lindy effect only holds sway over non-perishable items. For a perishable human, every year that elapses reduces his life expectancy by a little less than a year! Sorry.

 

 

 

What uncertainty teaches us about the school run.

My son’s day starts with catching the school bus, and luckily for him, and us, it stops right outside our house. Having worked things out backwards from the time he has to leave the house, he has meticulously fashioned a morning routine that gets him out of the house, just-in-time. Within a space of fifteen minutes, he can get-up, get dressed, have breakfast, clean his teeth and go, with only seconds to spare before the bus turns up.

The secret sauce behind this well worked out, assembly-line strategy is the factory-like efficiency that is best described as being ‘path dependent’. And if you know my son you would also say, ‘it’s so him’. Minimum effort for maximum results. But like all well worked strategies that rely on a familiar, well-honed repeating pattern, they have a frailty about them, as ‘the efficient’ often has difficulty with handling the unknown event. The upside of the system gets you on the bus, on time, every time. However, the rare downside occurrence – the unknown event – can take you and your assembly-line tactics down much further than you ever thought possible.

Let’s take a closer look at what happens when you suddenly have an ‘atypical day. And it does happen, believe me. You start the routine as usual, achieving the same results, all fine and dandy, but then, with one minute to go before bus turns up, the unexpected happens.  A shoe has gone missing. Ordinarily no big deal, but time is running out, and the bus is never late (hardly). If the shoe doesn’t turn up within the next 30 seconds you’ve got to decide to spend the day with only one shoe on, or, you enter ‘I can’t go on the bus’ territory.

We are dealing here a thirteen year old boy, so the first option isn’t even an option. So in order to buy more time to shoe hunt you agree to take him to school in the car. Now another challenge kicks in, (the domino effect) seeing as there’s no redundancy in the system, no back-up school shoes, the morning starts to go into free fall. There’s a second child that needs to get to school and she relies on a parent taking her in the car. The two school are in opposite directions. Being fragile there’s little or no robustness within the system that takes into account a missing shoe (or missing anything else) and a journey that going to take you in different directions, and a start time that’s the same for both schools. Putting aside such valid arguments as to why there wasn’t an inspection the night before to ascertain the correct number of shoes, you have to now plan on the fly. The strategy that usually delivers the goods has been taken off’line, having been shot down in flames. A more Bayesian approach to formulating a new, workable strategy is suddenly required.

OK, this is how it pans out. The car school run involving the other sibling will now have to detour to drop off  the unexpected extra passenger first, but hey, that will mean leaving earlier than usual, thereby upsetting the strategy of the other child’s routine. Believe me, families rely on a well worked out routine to prevent anarchy breaking out every morning.  So, whilst the shoe hunt persists a negotiation then ensues as to who sits in the front seat. Does age out trump regular passenger rights in this unusual case?

Anyway, the missing shoe turns up in the dog’s basket, bad tempered negotiations are concluded, seats assigned in the car, much to the disgruntlement of the regular passenger, who has illogically lost the argument over front seat rights, and been demoted to a ride in the back, and 3 unhappy, non-communicative people set off on a different journey than they had envisaged twenty minutes earlier.

Then  a new challenge meets them 5 miles down the road. The timing of the trip means they are subjected to a greater density of rush hour traffic than the earlier bus or the later running car journey. Each child ends up arriving at their respective schools late and any plans the driver had to read those overnight emails, finish his blog, or make that first call, has been frustrated. All because of an efficient-looking , but ultimately fragile game plan that couldn’t survive a small unknown event.

Post event, more robust plans are being considered, such as laying out of all required items of dress the night before, a nominated driver roster and the introduction of an earlier start time for the whole process. It’s now about building-in some redundancy for the potentially unexpected. The new thinking and planning now uses terms such as options, robustness and flexibility. So some good has come of the post-traumatic growth opportunity that is the school run.

There’s also another, stronger light that’s beginning to shine at the end of the tunnel. Come September, both kids will be catching the same bus to the same school. OK, this will entail a fresh look at the morning routine, but it should be better. Shouldn’t it?