Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Inspiration from Sporting Nation

At the end of Sporting Nation (a documentary on ABC) there were some great, thought provoking insights from some elite athletes. My favourite was from Herb Elliot.

Herb recounted a conversation he had early in his career, I think it was with his soon to be Olympic coach. After some discussion his coach said “so why do you want to do nothing but focus on running around and around in circles for the next 3 years, 7 days a week?” His coach answered for him (I’m paraphrasing here):

“You want to have such an intense narrow focus because it will:

  • allow you to experience things you will never otherwise experience
  • allow you to understand things about yourself that you never would if you didn’t push yourself
  • give you a great sense of self-respect
  • give you a sense of self-reliance

I find it fascinating listening to the experiences of people that have achieved greatness at something. Their experience is, at a psychological and philosophical level, always so applicable elsewhere.

Here were some other take aways:

  • There will always be negative things in your mind, you must learn to beat them with your attitude and not take notice of them.
  • What you do must be about the intrinsic value of the activity itself rather than the extrinsic reward.

Making Big Decisions: My Approach

I’m facing a big decision and I want to make sure I’m making the right decision. I’m usually quite good at making decisions quickly and decisively (I’d be the first to admit they aren’t always right). However one decision has been causing me trouble and chewing up a lot of my brain space. So I decided to spend a morning writing down a framework and approach that I will use to make this decision and future big decisions. The idea being that at the end of this I will have a decision making framework that will help me (1) to avoid making the same mistake twice and (2) evolve it overtime to make better and better big decisions in the face of greater and greater uncertainty.

Overall philosophy: When it comes to any decision with unknowns I believe that your conscious, rational brain cannot find the answer alone. Your conscious, rational brain is useful for processing the information at hand, attempting to remove biases but its ultimate responsibility is gathering and preparing this information for the irrational, emotional part of the brain. It is your subconscious, irrational and emotional brain that is the ultimate (and best) decision maker when faced with many unknowns.

I’m not alone in thinking like this. Many scholars that study big strategic decisions in business think like this, for example, take a read of something from Daniel Kahneman. You can listen to actor and comedian Stephen Fry talking about the feeling behind a decision.

So to come up with a “Making Big Decisions Framework” will require a process that guides the mind through use of the best of the rational brain with the best of the emotional brain.

Phase 1: Process everything.

This phase is about processing all the information at hand in as many ways as possible and processing the information in a way that digs into your subconscious or emotional responses to the decision. To ensure you have done this properly you will probably need to do the following:

  1. List your instincts.
  2. List and describe your alternatives (see Lifehacker for a very analytical way of doing this).
  3. List different ways of looking at the decision.
  4. List the risks
  5. Use Jeff Bezo’s regret minimisation framework (do the thing that will leave you with the least amount of regrets)
  6. Write down what happened last time you were in a similar situation.
  7. Assess each of the above.
  8. Assess your emotions, your emotional responses to the above and your biases
    See HBR blog and see Stephen Fry’s comments on really understanding how you feel about something.

Phase 1.a: Consult others.

[Edit: made this a separate section, in an early draft it was, then it wasn’t, now it is – it’s important – thanks Dave]

Now that your thoughts are straight, start gathering the opinions of others. This is a very important step, if done correctly it can enable you to stand on the shoulders of giants, see through the eyes of someone that has been in a similar situation.

However, if done incorrectly it can lead you a stray. Here are a few things to remember when consulting others:

  • Others have biases and approaches that they prefer – ask yourself “why have they said that? why do they think that way? why have they arrived at that statement?”
  • You may have presented information to them in a way that has made them respond that way.
  • It’s easy to be commentator. It’s a whole other ball game being on the field.
  • Ultimately you need to decide, not someone else.
After going through Phase 1 you might have some idea as to what your decision will be – then again you might not. Regardless, you could go through the above again or you could move onto phase 2.

Phase 2: Take timeout.

There are good reasons for taking timeout. First, if you can’t reach a decision doing so will allow your subconscious brain to mull over everything you did in Phase 1 and maybe produce an answer for you.  John Cleese does a better job of explaining it than I do.

Second, if you are feeling pressured taking timeout will give your brain the space it requires to think freely and taking timeout might make you realise the outcome of your decision probably won’t lead to your end. Again, John Cleese does a great job of explaining this.

After you’ve taken some timeout you might go back to processing more information or you might be ready to make the decision. Either way, it is important to be very clear in your mind about what you want from life – what is the bigger picture within which this decision fits?

Phase 3: Make the decision.

Make the decision, write your decision down and write down why you have chosen to make that decision.

I’ve always found that doing this I will either say “yep that’s the one” or “wait, now that I see it in writing it this isn’t what I want.” If you thought the latter you’ll probably want to go back through Phases 1 and 2.

If you’re still stuck flip a coin. My father-in-law will fondly recount stories of Board meetings where, when the Board couldn’t reach a decision he would flip a coin. They would either agree with the wisdom of the enlightened coin or they would disagree, thereby knowing the right decision is the one not suggested by the coin.

Phase 4: Decision made. Don’t look back.

Once a decision is made you can’t look back. You must give the decision 100% of your focus and effort.

It is important to remember it is impossible to know the right answer and maximise your return on the decision. There are often too many unknowns. Instead, carrying the decision through will quickly reveal whether it is worthwhile. Nothing is set in stone, it is more important that decisions are made quickly and decisively… then corrected quickly if they turn out to be the wrong one (this is the subject of another post).

Don’t let “just this once” get you

My great office buddy Sri pointed me at “The Trap of Marginal Thinking” by Clayton Christensen the other day. I must say it truly struck a cord with me.

Here are my favourite parts:

The marginal cost of doing something “just this once” always seems to be negligible, but the full cost will typically be much higher. Yet unconsciously, we will naturally employ the marginal-cost doctrine in our personal lives. A voice in our head says, “Look, I know that as a general rule, most people shouldn’t do this. But in this particular extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s okay.” And the voice in our head seems to be right; the price of doing something wrong “just this once” usually appears alluringly low. It suckers you in, and you don’t see where that path is ultimately headed or the full cost that the choice entails.

Many of us have convinced ourselves that we are able to break our own personal rules “just this once.” In our minds, we can justify these small choices. None of those things, when they first happen, feels like a life-changing decision. The marginal costs are almost always low. But each of those decisions can roll up into a much bigger picture, turning you into the kind of person you never wanted to be.

It was something running through my head today when I almost compromised on a hiring decision. The guy was so close to being great but then failed dramatically at one of our coding tests. Failing at the coding test or not completing it in an above average way is a deal breaker. I almost bent the rules, I went so far as to invite him back the following day to work on something together in the hope that things would workout.

Then I thought of the words quoted above and asked myself, if I bend the rules just this once, then what happens? I’ve compromised the business. The others that work with us will see this and it will cascade like a snow ball destroying everything in its path (… slight exaggeration but I like exaggeration).


I found this quite refreshing on TechCrunch:

Benchmark partner Bill Gurley wrote an interesting note about the acquisition today, revealing that the firm didn’t even announce Benchmark’s funding of the company, which he says is unprecedented.The Demandforce team always felt that the attention should be focused on the customer rather than the company., he writes.

Demandforce focuses on local professional businesses and has chosen to keep an intentionally low profile – a strategy that has served them well, Gurley explains.

Keeping a low profile (in the business media – not your customers media) is an approach that I like. There is just something about it that appeals to me, it feels like Demandforce is all about substance rather than hype, titles or celebrity. However, in practice I see great value in people knowing who you are – that is keeping a high profile (the more people that know who you are, the greater your exposure to new opportunities).

John Cleese on How to be Creative

I haven’t posted in a while (read: looooooong while) so I should be spanked. Anyway, this will get the ball rolling again.

I watched John Cleese talk about how to be creative on Sunday and it was quite insightful. Encouraging creativity in myself, those that work with me and those that work for me is something I’ve always been very interested in. Cleese does a great job and, if I remember back to Uni correctly, the points he makes are very much in-line with current academic thinking.

You can watch the video here:

The 4 key take aways for me were:

  • You can’t be taught to be as creative as Mozart or Rembrandt but you can foster situations in which you are at your most creative.
  • People can operate in two modes: open and closed. In the open mode people are child-like and playful, this is when they are at their most creative. In a closed mode, people are focused on a task and getting things done. This usually comes with a slight anxiousness.
  • The 5 major things that lead to creativity (or getting you into that open mode) are:
    • Space – Create a space for yourself that is disconnected and a bit different.
    • Time – Set aside a block of time to ponder a problem and guard this with your life. Cleese says set aside no more than 1 hour 30 minutes. I’ve read elsewhere that this is the ideal amount of time to spend on anything and then you need a short break otherwise you won’t be working at an optimal level. Thinking back to a client meeting today, I spent 1 hour 45 minutes with a client today I could feel my brain wavering around the 1h 20m/1h 30m mark. (Theory in practice, amazing!)
    • Time – A bit of a laugh having a second time, but this second time is about time for your subconcious to mull something over. After g
    • Confidence – People need the confidence to believe that what ever they think up is possible. You can foster this by never saying “no” or “wrong” and instead building on what was said.
    • Humour – This is an essential element of that open, playful mode people need to be in.
  • Intermediate impossibles are important: if you can’t come up with something start with completely crazy ideas. For example, I was wondering how I might sell a new product Terem is considering, my mind was blank. So I wrote “donkeys use nachos to promote this service”. Sounds silly but it was amazing how quickly I crossed this out and wrote a creative answer. Edward de Bono calls these crazy ideas “intermediate impossibles.”

I also found his “Serious v Solemn” discussion intriguing, but that is a whole other post on its own.

Busy isn’t always moving forward

A lesson I learnt this year: if you’re busy and you’ve got a lot of tasks and deadlines being set it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re moving in the right direction, even if those tasks are coming from the outside. There are always a lot of different things to do but there are some that are just that much more important than others.

Some quick questions to ask yourself to make sure that you’re doing the right things:

  • Is your task list for the day in alignment with the bigger picture? If not, why?
  • Is this client actually a client you want to keep dealing with?
  • Having complete these tasks will you be any closer to your goal by the end of the week/month?


Using Highrise For Personal Contacts

I just wanted to let everyone in on a new little secret: using Highrise for your personal contacts. Highrise gives you somewhere to keep track of everything you know about everyone (what was her new son’s name?) and keep in touch.

I really enjoy keeping in touch with all the switched on people I meet and I really want to make sure I don’t forget anything they’ve told me.

I’ve got a personal account with Highrise where I enter basic contact details and, more importantly to me, things they mention in conversation. What they like, dislike, their spouses name, kids name, their kids sports team, details on what they’re working on and more.

Now, you might be saying “who is this guy? some kind of stalker?” Well maybe! (=P) But maybe not. I just enjoy knowing about people because it matters to me. I genuinely care about people and one way of showing you care is remembering. For remembering details on lots of people (and be able to quickly access it) Highrise is one of the best solutions.

As I mentioned before, I like staying in touch. When you’re busy it is tough to remember when and with who you wanted to get in touch with. Not with Highrise, you just setup your tasks and reminders and let Highrise manage you and your relationships. I look forward to those emails saying “TASK: Call Joe”.

Scott Middleton
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