Stars & Clouds Theory

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Who wants to be ordinary? Everyone wants to make their dreams come through, right?

Most people set goals or have dreams that they would like to achieve. However, many people will fall short. An antidote to this scenario of likely disappointment is to accept this probable reality of not realising your dreams. Instead change the trajectory and have bigger, loftier goals.

If you aim for the stars but fail and end up somewhere in the clouds, you will be far better off than had you never left the ground in the first place. The rationale here is that by setting a distant ambitious goal and working hard to pursue it, even if you never achieve it, you will have achieved a lot. In essence, half of a lot is much better than a lot of a little.

Say you want to run a marathon in under five hours, why not train and target running it in under four hours? You can now have an in built margin of safety in your goal. There are many other examples that this technique can be applied to, namely examinations, weightlifting, writing. Effectively, anything which can be quantified is well suited to the use of this technique.

Simply by setting an ambitious, possibly very ambitious goal, your thought process and behaviours will orient towards making it a reality. You will already have made progress because you will have primed your expectations for what success looks like. This aggressive pursuit of your goals allows your thought process to cultivate the steps you need to take to achieve them.

We all have an inherent “negativity bias” hard coded into our DNA stemming from our days as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors were constantly aware of threats to their survival and held back resources and energy in case of an imminent attack:

“To keep our ancestors alive Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities)” – Rick Hanson

To combat this “negativity bias”, we must challenge ourselves. I’ve wrote previously about Peter Thiel and how he thinks here. One of my favourite quotes of his is:

“How can you achieve in six months that which would otherwise take ten years?”

The above quote perfectly captures the mindset that I’m trying to describe in this post. This kind of questioning forces you to come up with a plan of action and means of realising your goal.

In some ways, this technique can be thought of as a reverse Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time. What I am proposing here is to stretch your goal which then effectively compresses the time available to achieve what you might otherwise have done. By expanding your horizon and perception of what you think you can do, you are more likely to get more done and get closer to whatever starry vision you have.

This approach is not suggesting that you will fail to achieve your newly created lofty ambition. But in the case that you do not achieve it, you will have “failed better” and end up ahead of where you might otherwise have got to and in a quicker time frame than you thought possible.

There are some potential negative side effects to this approach. If you use this technique repeatedly and you are continually failing to meet your goals (albeit still “failing better”), morale may diminish and feelings of disappointment may manifest themselves. Feeling like a failure is never pleasant so I suggest using the stars and clouds strategic approach as described above in tandem with a short term tactical approach which I’m going to refer as my “Ground Game” (just to keep my analogy going…:)).

To illustrate the differing strategic and tactical approaches, here’s an example:

  • Star Goal: In the next year, I want to write a book. To do that, I intend on writing a blog post every week to develop my writing style and create content which can be adapted into a book.
  • Ground Game: In the short term, I may get distracted or lose motivation. To counter this possibility, all I’m focused on in a given week is writing my next blog post. If that is proving difficult to accomplish, my focus turns to writing just one paragraph (or even one sentence if it’s a really tough week!).
  • Possible Cloud Outcome: In the instance that I do not write a blog post every week, every post I do write will bring me closer to my lofty goal.

My general reasoning is that you need to have a really big stretch goal in order to focus your worldview and provide a target that your effort is oriented to. On this journey, there needs to be tangible achievements and short term tactics in order to achieve it. Every post I complete and publish acts as a positive feedback loop which then further makes my goal achievable and creates momentum.

Often people will use phrases like “I’d love to…this” or “I really want to do… that”, this phraseology always irritates me. I have no problem with people expressing their wishes and desires but time waits for no one. You need to be getting after it if you want to make things happen. Very few people actually go to the trouble of trying to carve a clearly defined path to making their wishes come true. I sincerely believe that just the act of starting your journey towards your goal separates you from many other people.

Often when faced with a daunting goal, we can succumb to playing a game of “Here’s why it won’t work”. If you find yourself slipping into this train of thought, change the “I can’t do it” into “If I were to do X by a particular time, then what are the actions or tasks I need to do now to make it happen?”

Allowing oneself to dream and plot a path to a faraway goal is a very positive experience. It provides the motivation and encouragement to foster the discipline to do the hard work and maintain progress. Doing that initial ideation and creative thought and the development of the why and the purpose behind the goal, it becomes easier to do the grunt work.

So in summary, if you aimed for the stars but only got as far as the clouds, rest assured you are still miles above everyone else. By having higher standards and holding yourself to them, you will have achieved massive self development and much more besides.

In closing, I wouldn’t consider this post a done deal, it’s a concept I enjoy thinking about and I hope to return to this topic and riff on it further in future posts.

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How to Hedge Against Uncertainty

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Trump, Brexit, the rise of the far right, sometimes it feels that there is no end to the current uncertainty. In the current climate, how does one set themselves up to mitigate this uncertainty?

I don’t pretend for a moment to have all of the answers but I will attempt in this post to promote thought on this topic and to identify the requisite characteristics to hedge effectively against uncertainty.

Agility
My use of the word agility here is intended to capture the rate at which you can move into a different career. Let’s say you’re a blocklayer and making a decent wedge. All of a sudden, there’s a property crash and your livelihood is effectively decimated. How quickly can you transition to a new career?

Another way of looking at this is, what transferable skills do you possess which you can use to transition to a new career? The above use of a blocklayer is not intended to limit this analogy to only manual labour. Currently there are many “desk jobs” under threat from automation, artificial intelligence and economic change.

It would be prudent to identify what your transferable skills are and how they might be useful in pursuing a new path. If you find that you don’t have many transferable skills, can you take steps to develop some?

Frugality
Are you leading a debt fuelled lifestyle? Do you really need to splurge on pay day on that needless item? Have you got a rainy day fund? The ability to live off scraps ensures that in the instance of a recession, you will be relatively less worse off then a colleague who is in up to their eyes in debt. When your existing career goes kaput the ability to live off less will ensure that you have:
a. Some savings put aside.
b. More time to live off those savings while you develop an alternative income source.

Here’s a piece I wrote on how to save more: Show Me The Money

Resilience
Faced with a negative event, how quickly can you pick yourself off the floor and get back on your feet? What are your thought processes when confronted with a setback? Do you spend time blaming external events and looking for sympathy or are you already formulating a plan to move forward?

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

Everyone has set backs, it’s those of us who recover quickest generally achieve more.

Have a Back-Up Plan
I’ve currently reading The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.
In it, there is a process called “Plan ABZ”. It’s a simple yet powerful way of having multiple options available to you regardless of what situation you find yourself in. It’s written focusing on career topics but stems from the start up world and can be easily re-used in many other walks of life.

Plan ABZ

  • Plan A: This is what you are doing right now. You make minor adjustments and iterate regularly.
  • Plan B: This is in the same general ballpark as Plan A. It’s what you pivot to when you need to change your goal or your means to achieve it. Pivoting can occur because Plan A is not working or because you’ve just discovered a new opportunity and Plan B is now more promising.
  • Plan Z: This is your fallback, effectively your lifeboat. The certainty of a reliable, stable Plan Z allows you to take on more risk and uncertainty in A and B.

The benefit of this method that no matter what stage of life you are at, you will always be planning and adapting. This method is thus not a time specific event but rather a habitual process.

Another variation on the Plan ABZ theme is the phrase “Two is one and one is none”. This phrase stems from military circles. It means that if you are out on a mission and you bring one of anything, then effectively you have no alternative when that item, tool or weapon breaks or has been mislaid. Having two of everything will ensure that when your knife breaks, you have another ready to go and the mission will not be jeopardised.

Bringing this back to civilian affairs and specifically in a career sense, most people have one source of income. If that disappears or is greatly reduced, they are significantly adversely effected. Writing these words has made me think about this more, I hope it has the same effect on you.

In summary, a combination of agility, frugality, resilience and the presence of a back up plan will ensure that no matter what scenario you find yourself in, you will be able to get your life back on track.

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The 3 Commencement Speeches I Keep Going Back To

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Watching Time: 38 minutes

There are times when we all need some motivation and inspiration, one of my favourite ways of replenishing motivational supplies is to watch commencement speeches by various folks. Below are three of my favourites which I’ve watched on countless occasions. I’ve written some thoughts and commentary about what resonates most with me from these speeches at the end. I hope you enjoy these and let me know if you have any recommendations to share.

 
Neil Gaiman @ University of the Arts
Steve Jobs @ Stanford
(Jobs starts speaking at 7:40)

 
Winston Churchill @ Harrow

 
Neil Gaiman @ University of the Arts

This is one of the best motivational speeches I’ve ever listened to. The “You should enjoy it” piece @15:09 is a real hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment.

It’s such an entertaining speech and Gaiman’s use of humour to emphasise his points is excellent. My favourite part of his speech is @13:00 where he explains how he bluffed his way into a job by stating how he had worked for various media outlets. When he was established, he insisted on going back and actually writing an article for each of the magazines. He didn’t lie, he was just chronologically challenged!  This concept of “future truths” is something which you hear various successful people bring up often. It’s an alternative and really instructive way of looking at the world and then finding a path to realise your vision of the future.

@14:00 , the “two out of three will do” concept of doing great work, being easy to get along with and getting the work done on time definitely holds up in the real world!

There are also so many excellent quotes in this speech but here are two which I particularly like:
  • “The things I’ve done the best are the things I was least certain about.” This is a powerful statement. Too often, we come up with reasons why things will fail rather than reasons why they will succeed.
  • “Be wise, because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is and behave like they would.” Similar to the above “future truths” reference, sometimes you need to fake it until you make it.

Steve Jobs @ Stanford

Jobs describes how he dropped out of college, followed his curiosities  by dropping into various classes which he would otherwise not have been exposed to. He goes on to describe various parts of his life and offers many takeaways.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards… Trust in your gut believing that the dots will connect in the future giving you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path. That will make all the difference.”

When describing his departure from Apple, he explains how he turned a negative into a positive and how having something and someone he loved allowed him to get past this difficult event. “Do what you believe is great work. The only way to do that is to do what you love. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. And don’t settle.”

“If you live every day like it’s your last, then someone you’re going to be right”. Jobs explains how he looks in the mirror every morning and asks himself “If today was going to be my last day, would I want to do what I am going to do today?” When the answer is no for too many days in a row, he knows he must change something. “Remembering I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered in life.”

@19:30, he offers some brilliant life advice:
  • “Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life.”
  • “Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking”
  • “Don’t let the noise of other people’s opinions drown out your own inner voice”
  • “Have the courage to follow your heart and inituition , they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Finally he closes with what he considers his personal maxim:
  • “Stay hungary. Stay foolish.”

Winston Churchill @ Harrow

I really love the sound of Churchill’s voice. He could read the phonebook and I’d listen to it. While this is a relatively short audio clip, it clearly captures his mastery as a speaker and his use of various oratorical devices. I like his emphasis on the use of particular words and the meaning they convey. Where the song he refers to uses “dark”, he prefers “stern”. This is a subtle but significant change of emphasis. Dark sounds like there is no way out of it. Stern sounds like “It’s shit but we’ll get through it. This speech was made in 1941 when World War II was not halfway to completion. This alternate choice of word gives an insight into his mindset and is testament to his unerring belief.

@2:02, this clip contains one of his most famous quotes: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never. In nothing, great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” A powerful statement of belief which captures the essence of the man.

The Age of Distraction or Why I Use Aeroplane Mode on Land

Reading Time: 4 minutes

We live in an always on and always available age where the expectation is that you can contact anyone at anytime. This is a positive thing but it has some negative effects.

One of the most significant negative effects I believe, is the disruption caused by notifications popping up on your phone. Lest I sound like a luddite, I’m completely pro-social media, but it has a time and a place.

One of the places where this is most disruptive is during the work day. I enjoy being productive and I am always on the lookout for new ways or tools I can utilise to get more stuff done. This also includes removing unnecessary distractions and disruptions. My rationale for using Aeroplane Mode “on land” is quite simple. I simply want to take ownership of my time. I don’t want my attention to be stolen by the latest message/notification I have got.

An intermediate step is turning off/muting all your notifications. However this requires effort and being selective. While one can argue that you can turn off annoying notifications (and I do), there are always some that you may want to leave on, however getting them at the time of someone else’s choosing can be very disruptive. Thus I use a blanket approach. I simply turn on Aeroplane Mode when I don’t want to be disrupted. It’s easy and convenient.

One of the cornerstones of any productive time management technique is identifying what’s important & urgent and then executing that task, then moving onto the next task and so forth. If you get notifications intermittently throughout the day then this gives multiple opportunities to be distracted.

You then need to exercise discipline to not react to each disruption. This requires effort. Effort that can be better utilised focusing on productive activity.

Concentration is a form of currency and you can increase/decrease it. Levels of concentration are being eroded by the “always-on” culture we live in and I believe it is necessary to adopt a deliberate approach to combat this. If you are not managing your concentration levels and removing opportunities for distraction, then when you do need all of your focus, you simply won’t have that much left to draw down.

If it’s easy for you to check your phone, you probably will. Checking your phone is a form of mental snacking where you are get a regular hit of dopamine from your newsfeed on Facebook, latest pics on Instagram, WhatsApps, Snaps etc. While you might see a Whatsapp from a friend that you might want to respond to straight away, you could easily end up “just checking something” and 20 mins later, you are wondering where the time went.

Various sources state that the time taken to refocus on a particular task is somewhere between 15-25 minutes. It varies for each person and there is no general rule to apply other then to state that it’s non-trivial.

While I am on the topic of distractions, two of my other pet peeves are:

  • The ubiquitious pop up notification of a new email in MS Outlook. Turn. It. Off. You are wasting your time. Email should not require an instantaneous response. If someone sends an email and expects a near instantaneous response, they are using the wrong channel. I’m aware of various workplaces where this is the norm so there may be no avoiding it, but I still stand by this as a general statement.
  • Positioning your phone directly beside your monitor/laptop. You might as well stick it in the middle of your screen. Why not put somewhere where it is not dominating your attention? This practice coupled with notifications on is a recipe for almost no productivity.

In closing, I will acknowledge that this approach is not always suitable and there could be time critical situations where it is not suitable or instances which might lead to you feeling like you are missing out. However in my experience, this has not been an issue.

Go on, give it a try. Throw on Aeroplane Mode and notice the difference.

The Green Book System

As I reflect on some successful punting at the 2012 US Masters, I feel it necessary to briefly explain the kernel of my profit.

The green book is  essentially two bets (one back, one lay) on the same event e.g. Bubba Watson to win the Masters. The reason it’s called a green book is due to the fact that whatever result (win/lose) happens, the punter will make a profit on their trading. This green book phenomenon is due solely to the existence of betting exchanges (I use Betfair but there others such as Betdaq etc. available). On a betting exchange, the option exists for the user to back a bet (as one can do with any traditional bookmaker) or lay a bet. Laying a bet means that the person becomes a bookmaker. They make money if “Player A” loses and lose money if “Player A” wins.

Because of this laying facility, you can create a green book by backing “Player A” to win at a high price and then later laying them off at a lower price. As with all successful trading, there is still a strong element of skill involved, as incorrectly calling the market will prevent you from laying at a lower price.

While the greenbook system is not perfect, it is a robust and reliable method of generating revenue in-play when there is uncertainty about the end result. I welcome any comment about your experiences with the greenbook system or any other systems which may be similar to this.

Copycats

Copycats are a group of people who look at others and imitate what they see but not what they actually do. Essentially people are too fixated with the consequence and not focused enough on the process. This generally results in failure, and disappointment.

The process is where the hard work is and where the real rewards come from. Imitation is temporary, natural is real. The choice is yours.