Company

What kind of company would you want to run, if you had to choose? Now, imagine your life as that company.

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Audio

Imagine a large, buzzing company. It has a large, public audience and large customer base. It has many people working for it. It has a big portfolio of assets and liabilities and millions or billions of dollars of investments.

Could you think of yourself like a company?

You may not have millions of customers. However, consider people you interact with regularly. Perhaps colleagues, clients or clients, people in a meeting, even friends, relatives or aquaintances. These people could be thought of as an “audience”, or a number of “audiences” and perhaps as a customer-base.

You may not have many (or even any) employees. However, consider people you pay. Perhaps you run a small business and have a few people on the payroll. Or perhaps there are people you pay for personal goods and services – the hairdresser, the person at the checkout, a legal professional, the barista at the coffee shop. They are all people who you pay for their time and effort. These people could be thought of as “employees”.

You may not be dealing in financial accounts in the millions. However, consider your personal finances. What are some assets that you might have yourself? You might have money in savings, in a bank account, or money available on credit. You might have physical assets, such as a home that you own or rent, a car or bike for transportation, etc. You might have equipment, such as computers, storage facilities, tools. These could be thought of as assets. You likely also have liabilities, perhaps a mortgage on a house.

Finally, most companies have products that they sell and/or services that they provide. Well most likely there are products and/or services that you provide. The service might be the line of work that you do, for those who employ you or for your clients. If you’re a student then perhaps there are people in your network, e.g. other students you help out or internships / apprenticeships you take. And there are services you will provide in the future, when you do get a job.

There are other things you might think of as being “assets” or “property” of a company, such as brand, culture, style. These things can be intangible, but strongly affect a company, giving off a vibe or a feeling to customers and employees about what that company stands for. You could think of yourself as having these kinds of characteristics. A personal brand. A personality. A characteristic or perspective that you bring to a situation, and that people recognise you by. These could be thought of as intangible assets.

A company can have a history and a culture, and so can you. Whether its your accent, your handwriting, a vocabulary, a religious upbringing, you bring with you a whole myriad of historical and cultural influences, coming from your family and/or the environment you grew up in.

Finally, companies have partnerships, and so do you. Whenever you ask a friend for help with something specific, which you know they will be more knowledgeable about, and which you prefer not to focus on, that could be thought of as a partnership. Perhaps you have a very close partnership in the form of a relationship. Or other kinds of partnerships, such as people you trust to get advice from, in certain specific areas. Or people you do business with or in some other way, in which there’s a division of labour.

If you consider all of the above areas of life, and how they are similar to the functioning of a company, that could lead to some interesting questions.

Where do your strengths lie? What are your core and non-core competencies? What kind of role do you want to play, in the ecosystem of people and influences in which you find yourself? What opportunities exist, given the above? And what are the constraints of limiting factors you need to be mindful of?

What kind of company would you want to run if you were a CEO? In a sense, you already are a CEO. You have products/services that you offer. You have an audience and perhaps customers and clients. You have assets – tangible and intangible. You have a kind of brand, style, history, culture, whatever you call it.

By thinking of yourself as the CEO of the company that is “your life”, you can start to make choices that steer your life in the direction you would prefer.

You might think about your audience. The people you interact with. Survey the different groups of people and what they’re looking for. And see if you can tailor your messages to them. Perhaps you can serve them in a different way. One that gives you an opportunity to shine, and do your best work.

You might think about where and how you spend pay for services and products. There may be ways to reduce spending on things that aren’t essential or core to your life. But there may also be ways to increase or channel spending, which make you better and stronger and the core of what you do. Some basic examples may be tools, books, education, courses, events. But there may be other less obvious ways of spending money that give you a boost. All of these could be seen as re-investments back into your own growth.

You might think about your history, culture and personal style. How do these currently work to help you. Might there be aspects of your background that you hadn’t thought about in a while, which you could explore and perhaps bring out more, to reap advantages?

You might think about your partnerships. What are some partnerships that you are currently in, which work well for you? Are there other partnerships you haven’t looked into yet, which you might offer value?

Finally, you no doubt have values. Moral or ethical concepts that come out of your background and/or that you have made a deliberate effort to cultivate. You may or may not be able to practice them in every situation, but the more you steer your life in the direction of those values, through small choices you make on a regular basis, the more you can steer yourself towards a life in which you can practice them in most, if not all, situations.

So what kind of company would you want to run, if you had to choose? And how would you run your life as the CEO of that company?

Downtime

Work and life comes to us in ebbs and flows. The “ebbs”, or “downtime”, can be a great opportunity for “slow thinking”.

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Have you been working on a large, challenging, long-term undertaking? Perhaps a startup, or a large corporate project?

You are probably going to find that there are up-times and down-times. Ebbs and flows.

There will be stretches of time during which you’re fully engaged and “in-flow”, i.e. you’re spending multiple hours of a day, perhaps 6 or even 8, and those times are fully engaging you, and you’re using most of your mental and physical capacities, and you’re engaged in the immediate problem at hand.

But you will also probably notice that there are downtimes. These will vary in length and frequency, according to the nature and kind of work, the industry you’re in, etc. For example, some industries are seasonal. Some corporations have periods where people are away on holiday at certain times of the year. Some consulting relationships go through periods of less direct contact/communication with the client.

These “down” periods could go for months or weeks at a time, or parts of the week (e.g. weekdays vs. weekends), or parts of the day (e.g. morning vs. afternoon).

It can be helpful to notice these downtimes and to spot the patterns in them. This is because, during these downtimes, you can perform activities, mental or otherwise, which are better suited to downtime. Activities which would be more difficult to do during “uptime”.

During uptime, you’re in a more “reactive” move, responding rapidly to events and situations as they occur. Whereas during downtime, you can do more of what I call “slow thinking”.

By “slow thinking” I’m referring to things such as strategic thinking or long-term planning. Taking a step back and thinking about the bigger picture. Asking what you’re trying to do. What are the broad goals? Are my day-to-day actions (when I’m in “uptime”) appropriately focused on, and contributing to, those goals? And, heck, am I enjoying myself? Is this sustainable over the long term? Are there strategic changes or tweaks I could be making? For example, could I be taking my effort in one domain and applying it to a different market, where it’s more sought-after or more valuable, or applying it to an additional market, so that I can increase my customer-base?

Using down-time in this way may not only be beneficial – it may be critical. It may only be in those slower contemplative moments that you identify a major problem or issue or risk to what you’re doing, that otherwise would have gone un-noticed in the hustle and bustle of “getting stuff done”. So it can be important to pull yourself out of up-time, if needed, and deliberately move into down-time, to give yourself a proper chance to have insights you wouldn’t have otherwise had the time and space to have.

The down-time can function as a kind of rehearsal for up-time, because, during down-time, you are preparing ahead-of-time for the decisions you’ll need to make and the actions you’ll need to perform when you’re back in up-time again.

During down-time I recommend putting yourself in spaces and doing things that mentally relax and inspire you. Perhaps visiting a calm and peaceful place such as a park or a camping site. Perhaps walking or exercising. And giving your mind a chance to “tick over” everything. Everyone has a different way and you might have your own way of creating a space. But whichever way you choose, it should give your mind freedom to contemplate, wander, retrospect, revisit and then be strategic about the future and the next steps.

Repurpose

All manner of physical and virtual assets exist around us, and are ripe for being repurposed to serve new ends.

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Many years ago I once read a magazine article about some children living in a very poor village. They didn’t have the luxurious plush-toys or the sophisticated talking birds that we had in the West. What they did have was old metal coat-hangers. So they would bend and mould the coathangers into various new shapes and designs, for example, a toy car.

This got me thinking about how many items in our everyday life can be repurposed – altered a drastically (or just slightly) to serve a different purpose than what they were originally intended for.

You could take a television that you watch passively, attach a processor of some kind (say, an Atari), and attach an input device (say, a joystick) and, all of a sudden, it has become an interactive gaming experience.

Repurposing can also occur in the intangible, “digital” space. You can dig into your email history, find something that was sent by a colleague or coworker or friend or someone else you know, and that message, which was meant for one purpose, could be re-purposed to serve a totally new purpose. There’s nothing stopping you from taking that entire email, perhaps tweaking a few words in the body and changing the subject line, and sending it to someone else, for a totally new purpose.

We have incredibly sophistocated tools now, enabling us to repurpose practically any kind of digital asset. We can use graphics editors to manipulate bitmap images, vector graphics editors to manipulate drawings, video editors to manipulate video, specialised content editing tools to manipulate pieces of text, all the way through to sophistocated algorithmic modelling tools that can manipulate mathematical matrices.

Repurposing is much easier with digital items, and we can think of the assets we own and/or have access to (e.g. email, chat and text histories, social media profiles, documents, audio/video footage, online resources, even physical items such as advertising/marketing you see in the space around you) as fields and fields of space, containing potential gold or diamonds buried underneath.

If you happen to encounter some asset or artifact that serves its purpose very well in one context, consider how you might repurpose it to serve well in a totally different context.

Credits

The ideas presented in this article draw some inspiration from Silicon Valley, such as the history of Slack as recounted by Steward Butterfield.

Spaces

Spaces can be chosen carefully, to better match the kind of activity you’re doing, and make you more effective.

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When you got out of bed this morning, what sort of space did you see around you? What colour was your ceiling and how high? What kind of furniture and furnishings did you see around you? What colour were your bedsheets?

And when you got up and went for a walk, perhaps went to get breakfast from the kitchen or grab a coffee, what kind of surroundings were you in? And then when you went to work or to meet someone, what kind of space was that? Did you go up flights of stairs or catch an elevator? What kind of space was that? What colour were the pieces of furniture around the office – the walls, the dividers, the desks, etc? What sorts of colours and shapes did you see around you?

It’s been common knowledge for some time that spaces can affect how we think and feel. Companies will spend millions of dollars on quality spaces. If they were only trying to cut costs, perhaps we would all work in sheds or warehouses. But no, it’s often considered important to invest in a good, suitable office space for workers. And it’s not only companies that do this, but also government institutions, universities, schools, etc. We are surrounded by various kinds of buildings and outdoor and indoor spaces.

Because these spaces can affect how we think and feel, perhaps there are ways we actively choose and how and when to use them, to our advantage.

If you’re putting in a lot of hard work on some project or other, your efforts may be helped by a space that motivates you. A space that makes you feel empowered or inspired. Perhaps a buzzing cafe, or a vibrant co-working space, or a university campus.

Or if you’re working on something stressful or complicated, perhaps you need a space that’s quiet, calm and plain, to put your mind at ease. Perhaps a park, a library, a museum or your bedroom.

Why not go over the list of spaces you occupy throughout a typical week? You could even grab a pen and paper and write them out as a list.

And then think about those spaces and see if there are some small tweaks you could make, so that certain activities can be done in a more suitable space.

If you’re trying to start your own company on Mondays, and feeling a bit lonely or de-motivated, try moving your work from that quiet living room in your house to that buzzing cafe next door. You might even transfigure the setting, imagining that those other people are also part of your venture and are working with you!

If you’re trying to solve a tricky machine-learning problem on Wednesday, and need as much mental space, concentration and focus as possible, try doing it in the serenity of a park, or the quiet, calm monumentality of a large museum.

Also have a think about what spaces are available to you. There are the usual work areas, such a cafes, libraries, etc. but there are other spaces that don’t always come to mind right away. For example, a local community hall could be leased for a night, cheaply or for free. You could use it to practice public speaking, or to work with a small team on a startup.

Select your spaces wisely and make them work for you.

Integrate

Connecting new information to old can help you to learn, understand, recall and apply your knowledge.

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Have you ever had a hard time learning about some subject? Perhaps it’s a course you’re studying, perhaps it’s someone at work trying to teach you something.

And they’re talking and talking, and you’re hearing mountains of words and language, and you feel like you’re “drinking from a hosepipe” – i.e. receiving lots of information, but not understanding it, or forgetting it, or getting confused about what it means.

The funny thing is, there are so many things in life that we don’t seem to have any difficulty remembering. Think about the route you take to work or school. You probably don’t have too much difficulty remembering that. You can call to mind the way to the front-door of the house where you live, perhaps the street it’s on, the bus stop you go to and the bus that you take. Or take your circle of friends. You probably recall their names, facts about them, even how you met them (if you weren’t too young to remember).

We are able to remember some kinds of knowledge, and yet we seem to struggle immensely with others.

I would like to share one technique I’ve found useful, when a subject seems difficult to learn. I refer to it as “integration”, but there are probably other names for it already.

When I’m hearing some new piece of information and I really want to understand it, I try to connect it to something that I already know. And, especially (if possible) I try to connect it directly to myself, in a way that means something to me.

So, say I’m learning a new fact about how climate works in one particular part of the world, I’ll try to connect that fact to something I already know about climate, or about the world. And I try to discern how that fact is relevant to me, personally.

Often, (at least, initially), I don’t see a connection. It feel like a piece of floating, arbitrary data. And this is where, if possible, I ask questions to try and find that connection. So, if someone’s telling me about a climate phenomenon, I might ask them a question such as: well I thought climate was about ‘X’ or ‘Y’. But this fact you’re telling me about, how does it relate to that? How does the temperature in this place relate to the fact that it’s more humid in the tropics, near the middle of the equator? (A “fact”, or at least, an item of information, that I already grasp.)

By asking such questions, I’m testing the things I’m hearing and discovering connections between the new information and the information I already recall. And if something I already knew turns out to have been a flawed understanding (at least from one perspective) then I’ll correct that, and, in doing so, build a nice “bridge” or “transition” between the old knowledge and the new knowledge.

Another kind of question I’ll ask is why this thing is being taught to me, or why it exists. So, say someone is informing me about a particular design technique. I’ll ask the question: why does this technique exist in the first place? Why not just do something simpler like ‘X’ or ‘Y’? By asking that question, the other person is called upon to explain to me further why that technique exists, what problem it solves, and in the process of doing so, I get a much stronger link between my previous understanding, and the new understanding. Rather than taking it as a given that this new technique happens to exist, I can form an understanding of why it exists and where it fits in to the “network” of other techniques.

One benefit to this “integration” technique is that it become easier to remember things. Just as when you go out your front door, you transition onto the street, and then to the bus stop, then onto the bus, etc., in a sequence or chain of knowledge, I find that I can remember things I’ve learned by following the connections I’ve made. Say I’ve learned a new design technique. If I find myself in a situation, which calls to mind some piece of knowledge I already have about design, and I connected that knowledge to a new technique, then I’ll recall that new technique at the right time, and perhaps apply it to the situation. I’ve got that information encoded mentally in such a way that it comes to me at the right time.

And that leads me to another benefit: recalling material at the right time. When you learn something new, which you worry about storing in your memory, you might also feel concerned about retrieving it at the right time and right context. I find that I’m much more likely to remember something, say a solution to a problem, at the right time, if I’ve integrated or connected it to the knowledge I currently draw upon, to solve that problem.

This technique isn’t guaranteed to work in every situation. I have found that there are times when the information is flowing much too fast. In those cases I’ll often try to quickly write down words and phrases for use later, perhaps to research later. Or I’ll try to get the information in a written format, which I can read at leisure.

I’m also sure that there are kinds of knowledge that can’t be connected to what one already knows. In areas like that, there are probably other techniques to look at using, for learning. Or perhaps there are some things that cannot be learned, at least, not in a conceptual manner.

But, for what it’s worth, I’ve found integrating to be highly useful in a wide range of learning scenarios.

Credits

The ideas presented in this article draw some inspiration from the learning theories and tools (such as concept mapping) of Joseph D. Novak, expressed in books such as Learning How to Learn (1984).

Transfigure

Your job sucks. Or does it? “Transfiguring” your work can make it more fun, comfortable and enjoyable.

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Remember being a child and playing dress-up games with your friends/siblings? You might have pretended to be a fireman, a doctor, a policeman, or play some other kind of role.

What a lot of fun it was! You’d dress the part, you’d talk the part, you’d act the part. And you would imagine yourself in that role.

And then a few years go by, and you find yourself in a different profession, one which you wouldn’t have dreamed about as a child. Perhaps you’re being an executive, or you’re writing code, or you’re designing something, or you’re selling to people.

Not all jobs seem to be fun up-front, and perhaps that’s why we get paid to work. We’re being paid to do activities we probably wouldn’t normally do, by default, without prompting.

But I have observed that that the way you imagine yourself, while doing a job, can affect the way you feel about that job, and perhaps how motivated and productive you are at that job.

So what if you were to re-imagine your job?

Depending on your work environment and what it is that you do, there are various kinds of challenges you may or may not face. But there are also various ways of “imagining” that work, which could make it more enjoyable.

  • You are often called into difficult people situations. You find yourself in meetings where there is a lot of conflict, disagreement, difficulty understanding people or knowing what they want, different people making different demands of you. That can be stressful. In this situation, you might imagine yourself as: “Negotiator for the U.N.”. So those conflicts and tensions that seem to be a bummer can actually feel like a lot of fun, when you imagine yourself as someone working for the U.N., in a challenging but important role, that will have big consequences for the future of nations or countries. Your real job mightn’t be as big or epic as that! But that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine yourself as that, and get into a really fun, comfortable zone that way.
  • You are not really doing much. Work is slow/boring. There’s lots of downtime. You could imagine yourself as a secret agent working for the FBI/CIA/MI9. You have intelligence and multifarious capabilities and have been sought out by the government. They don’t quite know what to put you on right now, but they just need you to be there, ready and waiting, to act and jump when the time comes. To find a critical piece of information, at the right time, and act on it fast. And your action can save the country! If you could imagine yourself as that person in that role, it’s no longer a boring/dead-end job, but rather, something critical, exciting and fun.
  • You have to do lots of reading and research to do. It’s tedious. There’s a large quantity of documentation. Pages, paragraphs, sentences, all have to be read and scoured. Perhaps you could imagine yourself as a judge in court. You’re going through the details of the case, prior to a hearing, and you have to analyse the arguments of all sides, being careful, unbiased, impartial. You have to think critically and come to the most fair, just understanding of the case, and help to deliver the most just outcome for those involved. So your tedious, long-winded job suddenly feels important, crucial, and perhaps even prestigious.
  • You’re in a busy, fast, loud, noisy environment. There’s lots of action, words, movement. People are coming at you from all sides. You are constantly having to react. This might seem stressful. But you could imagine yourself as one of the top traders on wall street! You’re yelling at other traders, getting the latest news and prices. It’s a high-impact, high-energy job. You’re suiting up daily, going onto the trading floor and doing big deals, racking up millions of dollars in profit. It can feel fun, exciting and energising, rather than draining.
  • You’re training and mentoring one or more people. Most of your time is spend troubleshooting other people’s issues or difficulties or teaching them how to resolve these themselves. You could imagine yourself as a doctor or physician of some kind. You have a large body of knowledge and experience, people are coming to you with chronic pains and conditions, and you’re applying that expertise to helping and healing them. Calmly, carefully, methodically, you diagnose the patient’s issue, while comforting them and telling them they’re going to be OK. It’s a job that requires a lot of expertise, and by practicing it, you are giving others crucially needed help and healing. It’s a job of profound importance.
  • You’re giving a lot of counselling and advice to one very important individual, perhaps an executive. You might imagine yourself as a therapist. Your client comes to you with lots of anxiety, stress, difficult emotions, perhaps pressure from lots of others around them. And they’re offering up these problems to you. And as a therapist, you’re someone who’s able to help, but who first needs to understand them, to patiently hear them out and listen to their problems, and then to give them the right kind of influence, to help them help themselves and move forward.

The above are just a handful of job “types” and fantasies that you could apply to them. And imagining is just the start. You could (maybe!) take things even further and physically dress the part! Try wearing a suit, if you find yourself in that “busy, fast, loud” stock-trading-style environment. Or perhaps try using props. Perhaps putting pictures or posters on your desk that put you in the mood of the “imaginary” role you’re playing.

A closing point I’d like to make is that the job you’re actually doing and the job you imagine yourself doing may not be worlds apart. The job where you need to be patient, critical, unbiased, may not be all that different from the job of a judge. The judge’s work can affect the course of people’s live. So might your work too, if you consider the impacts, down the line, of what you’re doing. Think of the lives of the customers you serve, or the others within the organisation. The quality of your work may determine whether the company stays afloat and continues to employ people, or whether it goes down and has to lay people off. Likewise for the other “styles” of work. You may not know how others out there are benefiting from your work.

So try “transfiguring” your work. Wear a different hat, literally or mentally, and see if you can have a bit more fun at what you do!

Ship

Life doesn’t always go to plan. How might we think about plans in a way that keeps us motivated and moving forward?

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Have you ever had one of those “face-palm” moments in life, where it suddenly hit you that you had made a less-than-optimal decision? If you had known more, you might have made a different decision, or no decision at all!

The frustrating thing is, now you do know! Now you can see that X and Y are necessary, in order to achieve Z. But at the time you made the decision, you weren’t aware of this.

The problem is, at the time, you didn’t have the information or awareness to know what the problem with your decision was going to be, whereas now you do know. And I think this reveals something about how work gets done and things get achieved in time, which is: not everything happens in the order that we think it will happen.

We may have a model of the world in our minds, which is sequential and tied to certain dates and times, kind of like a flowchart. For example:

InYourMind

A leads to B leads to C and D, D leads to E and F, and E and F lead to G.

The way things actually work out, often is quite different. For example:

InReality

A leads to B. B seems like it will lead to C, but actually ends up leading all the way to Z. And it’s only when we get to Z that we then see the whole alphabet, and that the process involves all 26 letters, not just the 6 or 7 we started out with!

We can’t really change the fact that reality often doesn’t go to plan. However, we can offer ourselves some mental consolation and self-forgivenness.

We can remember how much we didn’t know at the time. Give that memory space. And give ourselves “permission in retrospect” to have not known everything. “I didn’t know, we didn’t know”. And because that time has already passed, we can’t go back in a time-machine and make it any different (at least, not until Elon Musk gets round to time-travel!)

So, in a sense, there wasn’t necessarily ever a problem. The project did go “according to plan”, but it was just a different plan than we had originally understood! Perhaps a larger plan, perhaps smaller. But it is a plan, and there is a structure to it. We simply need to maintain our awareness of the change, adapt to it and move with it.

As you go through this kind of change many times, over the course of a career, you develop mental processes and tools for working in this way. Rather than our plans becoming like a large structure, say a tower made of stones, which can’t bend or move, our plans become more like a ship, which can be steered in one direction, then steered in another, moored and unmoored, or taken to a warehouse, dis-assembled and re-assembled.

So a change in plan isn’t a catastrophe. It’s valuable information that we can use to steer the “ship” of our work and make new discoveries along the way!