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More on Polymathics
Tuesday
Mar292011

be a swarm worker

Kevin Kelly and other illuminati have written fascinating stuff about the power of the swarm to solve problems- such as cement distribution in Mexico- and there are even sites on the net that offer to solve problems by having lots of people take part as a ‘swarm’. Which is kind of like mass brainstorming.

What I have in mind is a little different: internalising the swarm, using it as a suggestive visual, even tactile, metaphor to generate and deploy hundreds of attempts, approaches and, by using the natural advantages of the swarm, do work better or solve a problem without getting stuck.

There are multiple approaches to work. Either they fall into the organised or disorganised category. Organised means some method is being used to attack a piece of work and disorganised means no method, or, more usually, a series of half-arsed attempts using different methods, is used.

The problem with disorganised work is that you lose confidence quickly. You lose momentum and you lose your way. Watch kids work- they often give up simply because they are disorganised.

Organised attempts at work usually feature some form of sequencing. You buy a wardrobe kit from Ikea. You follow the sequenced instructions in the manual. You sit back with a glass of wine and admire your finished wardrobe. (Or should I say swedished.) Now there are actually hundreds of different ways to build that wardrobe but one of the few good ways is set down as gospel in the manual. Which is all well and good where there is an instruction manual but what if there isn’t?

The problem of sequenced approaches is that they encourage the ‘one gospel’ mindset. You look for an instruction manual that cannot possibly exist. You get all hung up looking for that ‘one solution’. But there seem to be so many options. You usually end up paralysed by choice at some level or another. This plethora of choice, instead of appearing where it should- as hundreds of equally acceptable solutions- appears as hundreds of equally acceptable places to start. But you are scared because you IMAGINE there is only one ‘correct’ route. One ‘correct’ solution. And you are scared of wasting effort so you kind of scout ahead- but sometimes you can’t look that far ahead. So you waste time thinking you can predict the world.

Sequential thinking encourages us to think the world is like one of those maze puzzles. Lots of places to start, lots of false turns possible- only one correct route.

But imagine a maze where almost every route ‘was correct’- as long as you keep going and learn from your mistakes?

What if it isn’t the ‘correctness of the route’ that matters but simply your approach to the maze?

When descending a river you can get all confused thinking ‘there’s only one right way to get down here.’ Nonsense, you’re confused because they are many ways- if you survive then you found one of the many right ways. As the old proverb has it “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Sequential working by definition, corrals us into assuming there is only one solution possible. So we go crazy looking for it. We get mired in the hideous trap of perfectionism. We get screwed up trying to predict what will happen. I love looking at business plans that predict profits in two years time…

Sequential working can also destroy momentum, and in many tasks 'keeping going' is more important than any particular way you work.

Swarm working is a way out.

It’s a way to be organised- ie. you have more up your sleeve than ‘just starting’. Kids have this which is why they are so brilliant at breaking down inhibitions about getting moving. The downside is they have no other tools in the bag. Come snack time and a whole new project beckons.

Swarm working is an organised method of attacking work without the downside of sequential working.

Remember, sequential working works when there is an instruction manual. So use one if there is one. But when you are stuck without one you need something different.

Swarm working utilises the best of ‘just start’ without the downside of giving up. It uses the power of feedback and optimisation- the strengths of the swarm- to generate a solution, to do the work.

It uses the power of organisation by setting parameters rather than asking ‘is this the right way?’ all the time.

And here, which may be the key to the whole thing, swarm working is MORE FUN. When traveling in the desert I watched Bedouin change a burst tyre. Three of them worked on it together. In the West that would have been one guy on his lonesome- the others (if there were any) doing other 'important tasks'. Or, it would have been three guys arguing about the right way to change a tyre ie. an argument about sequence. But the Bedouin just got stuck in and had quite a laugh fixing that tyre.

Swarm working can be more fun because, literally, more people are involved, making the swarm bigger, more like a party. But only if they are not intent on turning it into a sequence. The key thing, whether there is one or many 'swarming it', is you don't bogged down and lose momentum. This way you are more likely to enter a 'flow state' of working. Plodding away like a robot does damage to the natural flair all humans have.

Here’s a simple example. You have mixed black and white pebbles on a tray. You need to pick up all the blacks and put them in one pot and all the whites in another. Sequential working suggests an obvious order: zoom in on a specific colour, pick it out and drop it in the pot. Momentum is broken each time. What's more, it's boring.

Swarm working is more light hearted. You very roughly sort most of the blacks and most of the whites by kind of sweeping them apart. You then pour them off, en masse, into their respective pots. The few that enter the wrong area are tidied up last.

You set basic parameters- such as ‘mainly black stones’ or ‘mainly white stones’ and then tidy up later.

If you set an exact ‘only black stones’ procedure you take far longer, have a dull time, and possibly lose momentum and give up.

OK- take swarm writing. Instead of assuming an article or book has one and one only ‘correct solution’ I just get started. Without parameters this would be disorganised working and I’ve done enough of that.

So I set parameters. Say it’s an article about mountain biking in Russia. I think of an organising parameter such as ‘mountain biking in Russia is the most varied in the world’. Then I swarm it. Have fun.

I go hell for leather, keeping an eye on my parameter when I get stuck, and when it seems like I have finished I tidy up. This isn’t like the ‘editing’ you have to impose on disorganised writing, where you have to pluck some semblance of a skeleton from what looks like the remains of a jellyfish suicide pact, instead it's just a simple trimming down of things that got swept up into the article by accident.

If it’s a book then I’ll set a few parameters. Say, just for the hell of it, that I want to write a novel about mountain biking in Russia. One major parameter will be point of view- from whose angle is the story told. Another will be ‘the main thing’- perhaps a love story involving the mountain biker and a Georgian BMX champion. Finally I might have the parameter of it being funny or serious.

With my parameters I then go all out not worrying too much about what I am setting down. 

I have to say I haven’t always worked like this. I once spent a long summer not getting a boat into the water. It was a wooden boat and I went about repairing it in a highly sequential way. I spent a lot of time working out what order to do things in so I wouldn’t repeat myself. By the end it had a working engine (kind of silly as it was a sail boat) but still leaked so much it wouldn’t float. If I did it again I’d swarm it. First set the parameters: ‘get the boat working by this date’, ‘make sure it floats first and sails second’. Then I’d attack everything that helped floating and sailing without worrying too much about anything except putting the hours in.

Likewise in writing, for years I was over organised and did nothing, paralysed into making intricate plans of action, character studies and lists of things happening. Then I went to the other extreme- disorganised- just starting and hoping for the best and then spending months picking through the jellyfish remains looking for a backbone.

Now I swarm everything I do if it is a new task or one for which there is no ‘instruction manual’ (which is most things bar recipes and model plane kits).

Even fairly trivial things can benefit from swarming. Take packing up my house to move. When I was deeply sequential this seemed a big headache. The more I visualised what needed to be done the more confused I became about what order I should do it in. The amount of work was stupendous. Then, recently, when I had a new chance to move I used swarm working. I set the parameters: ‘everything out by this date’, ‘move the big heavy things first’. Then I just swarmed the task- going day and night until it was done.

Swarm working implies optimizing all the time from feedback. One of the characteristics of the swarm is that it is highly connected and information is freely shared. When something doesn’t work the swarm absorbs that information and tries something different. In swarm working all your different attempts, suggestions, ideas, actions form the swarm. In sequential working you are very attached to any one idea and this attachment causes you to hang onto bad ideas way too long (the only thing you need to hang on to are your parameters). So your activity mimics the swarm by being continuous, not losing momentum, fluid, inventive. If blocked you try something else.

The organized part of swarm working is setting the parameters. These can be as wide or as narrow as you like, but you need to stick to them. Then you are free to try anything that occurs.

Think of that maze- it's not against you- it's on your side- all you need to do is keep up the enthusiasm and the momentum- and swarm your way to victory. It's a lot more fun.

Saturday
Mar262011

money and meaning and being on a mission

Thinker and writer Christopher Ross, author of the brilliant Tunnel Visions, once said to me that if he had to live on social security in the UK he would become intensely involved in something like bridge- a game that provides social contact, excitement, a chance to progress and even make money- all by simply turning up at a bridge club. In other words: meaning. Bridge becomes your mission. And being on a mission loads meaning into your life. Look at the situation- you have to live on a bare subsistence amount of money so if you use it for anything except food and a few necessities you’ll be in trouble. So the meaning for your life must come for free. Hence joining some activity where you can get fully immersed, in a flow state, use most of your intelligence and feel fully tested.

Can you have a mission to make money? I am not so sure. If your mission is to raise money for a certain purpose, then that purpose is your real mission, not the money. And you may find a way of doing it without money. When I was on an expedition to cross Canada by canoe kind people helped me with free labour, saving me thousands of dollars. I found it far easier to get excited about an expedition- and excite others- than about making money for an expedition and paying others. It’s almost always better to cut to the chase, and go for what you want, rather than aiming for the money to get what you want.

Money is meaningless, in itself. Out in the wilderness a ten dollar note is more use to light a fire than anything else. I've even, in dire straits and with no loo paper, wiped my arse on money: literally. Money acquires what meaning it has by its ability to excite us with the things it can buy. The things we can consume. 

The need for money also motivates us to do things. Such activities can often be interesting and meaningful in their own right. Having to earn a living has got me travelling to Arizona to ride with a sheriff's posse and to Haiti in search of zombies. I would never have done such interesting stuff if I hadn't been paid by a magazine to do it.

 

Production not consumption

To try and derive meaning from the way you make money is one thing. To assume, then, that having money will provide meaning is a false step. To assume that money, or enough of it provides enough meaning for living, is a house of sand.

It’s easy to see how you can fall into this trap: I have on many occasions. Money gets you the things you want. You want those things- be they cars, kid’s schooling or foreign trips because you think having them will make you happy. You might even think it is your duty to get these things. These things, you reason, give meaning to your life. Therefore, if money is how you get them, having the money itself will provide meaning.

But not much meaning in life is derived from pure consumption; far more concentrated rations are derived from production- in the broadest possible sense. Why do so many people yearn to be artists, writers and film makers? Partly it is the attention such people get, but partly it is the instinctive desire to be involved in creating things, production, not consumption. More meaning.

Other sources of hi-level meaning: being useful, helping others, and choosing how you react to illness, bad luck, inequity, death.

Meaning is our fuel, consumption is what we do the rest of the time. The more consumption the more meaning you need in your life to balance it.

Being on a mission- whether to help others or play bridge all the time provides a very useful form of meaning. Practically a balanced diet of the stuff. Why? Because you downgrade your consumption needs. You no longer care what others think of you because you have your mission. You no longer need a fancy house and nice clothes because you have work to do.

Of course this way madness lies a few steps nearer. You could become so obsessed you lose the ability to make real contact with other humans. Only so long as the mission serves this ability, rather than usurps it, will you actually benefit. Who hasn’t met a religious nut out to convert everyone he meets? His boring repetitive speech only serving to turn people off, obscuring, even, any real value he might have.

 

Climb your Everest

In 1924 Maurice Wilson gave himself a mission: fly to Tibet, crash land on the upper slopes of Mount Everest and climb to the summit. His reason was to spread the good news about the power of prayer and fasting. One problem: he knew nothing about climbing or flying. By 1933 he had learnt, kind of. He bought a second hand Gypsy Moth plane and after lots of setbacks managed to fly to India. In 1934 he headed off for Everest. He used equipment left behind by other expeditions to get himself up the mountain’s North East side-though he was so ignorant of climbing (his sole training had been to wander around some low British hills for a mere five weeks) he threw away some crampons rather than use them as a climbing aid. Instead he laboriously cut steps and finally exhausted himself. After 18 days rest at a lower altitude he tried again- but died at 22,700 feet. An optimist to the end, his last diary entry was: “Off again, gorgeous day.”

A mission, self-given, raises the octane level of your existence. Instead of pinking along on 80 octane tractor fuel you’re purring along on 99 grade Avgas, head clear as a bell going fast and straight all the way. A man on a mission.

You may well know the type, often religiously inspired, they have a different energy. They do not necessarily have a ‘strong’ or domineering personality. Maybe they are quiet. But you notice them soon enough. They appear to move in a straight line to what they want to do. No sitting around. Get it done. Man (or woman) on a mission.

Now, it is very important to state right here, that there is no requirement to be on a mission. There is nothing written that says every man woman and child must have a mission. But it does help get you through the day. It does give you something to get out of bed for each morning.

You can’t just ‘think up’ a mission for yourself. You try. You lie in bed thinking “my mission is to break the world land speed record on a wind powered skateboard”. Then you roll over and think “what is the point of that?” Nope, missions come from somewhere other than your febrile imagination.

In a sense the mission must be you. You are the mission. When you know who you are you’ll know your mission.

The power of the mission comes from focussing outwards. It means doing things without expectation of a direct reward. It means helping the community just because that is the thing to do. The desire to be of assistance to humanity and not just a parasite starts the mission seeking program.

But there are many dangers along the way. Off the shelf missions are two a penny. Work for that cause. Do that service job. Volunteer for this. Give your ear to that. Now all this is socially very acceptable and a good way to get out of the house but it ‘aint no mission. The mission is like turning on the supercharger, the afterburner, the final stage of the rocket blasting goodness knows where…

Mission control is the murky lair where all missions are conceived. Mission control is accessible to all, once you’ve found your own way in. The door to mission control is very clever though- you have to recognise your ‘mission self’ from hundreds of other images displayed on the door panel. Naturally you keep pressing the most attractive images first. The ones that make you like a bit like Brad Pitt what with the light and everything. No go. You get frustrated, hitting all those pictures of yourself leaving, of course, the rather ugly and ordinary snapshots till now. But then you try these. Deep down you think- this is me. That horrid lurking pessimist is allowed some air time – yep- that’s you alright. Out of a kind of reversal, a false sense of seeking truth, you hit the ugliest mugs, the worst shots of all. Still no go. Finally only one area has not been tried. The pictures of you that are neither flattering nor shattering, they are simply so close to home you’ve disregarded them until now. Just as you drive a familiar route on autopilot having a conversation, taking turns and indicating without thought, so, too, these familiar images of you are so familiar you do not even really see them. But after trying all the others you’re forced to conclude- well, that might be me, after all.

 

Set yourself on fire

The Mission is the form or format that sets your vague urge ON FIRE. I wanted vaguely to learn martial arts. I had tried a few times and given up. I wasn’t that talented at it but I really wanted to get better. I realised that only by total full time commitment would I improve. Then I heard about this course that involved training with the Tokyo Riot Police. Now I had a mission. Something more that just me endlessly training alone. I was part of something bigger.

Your mission sets you on fire. It’s fuelled by the higher octane fuel you now are running on. But you are also moving a step or two closer to madness.

Was Maurice Wilson a nut? He sacrificed his life and did not even get to the top of Everest. But in 1934- no one had. And no one climbed it solo until 1980- achieved by the very experienced climber Reinhold Messner. So actually Wilson’s attempt, carried out while fasting, is actually very impressive in its own nutty way. But is this the template, the core reality, of all missions? A kind of superhuman strength derived from being slightly unhinged?

During WW2 SOE trained many agents and sabotage teams to be dropped behind enemy lines. At first they selected leaders by seeing ‘who emerged’ in exercises where no leader had been designated. But they realised they were missing a lot of good people. So they built in exercises where someone would be made leader just as a try out. And they found a full 50% of good leaders for this difficult and dangerous work, it transpired, need to be given the mission. They won’t give it to themselves.

Back to mission control. Some people, about half of the fortunate few we may guess, can give themselves missions. Maybe these are the ‘natural entrepeneurs, leaders, creators’. But the other 50%, just as talented, have to be given a mission. So they wait, and wait, and wait. They get bored waiting so they get a job, where they skull along knowing if only they were given a real mission they’d be on fire. Awaken the lion within O brother!

The whole conceit is to give yourself a mission without it feeling like you are giving yourself a mission. The reason is that a sane human being wants to fit in. Only insane people want to push themselves ahead of all others, only the immature want to shout: me,me,me all the time. And nice as attention is, you only need so much.

To give yourself a mission that isn’t a mission you have to find something outside yourself that’s bigger than you, that you respect, that the people you respect respect, that has growth potential, that isn’t futile, but most of all engages ‘the real you’, that is, the ‘you’ that is ‘your best self’, the one with talent working at full stretch. I love boulder climbing, but I’m not that good. More to the point I don’t want to put in the hours to become any better. Now and again is good enough. It would be silly to make a mission revolve around boulder climbing since it’s only a marginal ‘self’.

Take the English writer Tom Hodgkinson- creator of the Idler magazine- he gave himself the mission to spread the good news of doing less and enjoying life more. He’s written books about being free and he’s just started an academy to put the interest back into learning subjects long reviled in ignorant circles such as Latin. Actually he seems to be working darn hard at it…

His mission started with a something he obviously was in tune with- rejecting the conventional work ethic and replacing it with a less robotic approach to life. The mission is him, he’s the mission.

Albert Schweitzer gave himself the mission to start a leprosy hospital deep in the jungle. He wasn’t a good doctor. He wasn’t a doctor at all. He was a world class musician. Which he gave up to learn medicine and head out, aged 40+ to start his mission in the African jungle. So here someone gives up what seems to be ‘them’, to start something late in life to fulfil their mission. Being a musician, however brilliant, isn’t ‘a mission’ unless you are trying to achieve something outside yourself. Lots of missions involve trying to ‘change the world’, hopefully for the better, but in a sort of warrior frame of mind rather than assistant tea boy frame of mind. Being a warrior for some cause or other is the template of the mission.

So, to recap, you need to find these activities that your best self partakes in. You need to then find a warrior style activity that can be welded to your interest or skill. Typically that will involve building some project that does some good or confers some benefit to the world.

How do you tell the difference between taking the easiest possible route through life and actually being aligned with some task, so you are not lazy but simply unwasteful in doing it? I think you can tell if what seems easy to you seems hard to others then you obviously have some kind of talent, even better if you enjoy it, even better if it seems meaningful. It’s all about lining up these ducks to get the right result.

I’ll say it again, though- I am not even sure everyone needs to have a mission. It’s too close to madness for some. Look at poor old Maurice Wilson on Everest- so powered up and yet so ignorant at the same time.

Solo missions are obviously less dangerous than the kind that involve crowds. The kind of crowds that want to invade countries and incinerate the oppostion. But most missions do involve some element of ‘raising consciousness’ , of spreading the word, of gaining converts.

I think you can apply a little test- if you want ‘the whole world’ to follow your plan- then you’re heading in an odd direction. But if your mission is to address an imbalance in the world. That you are there to try and nudge things back on course a bit, then you’re probably OK.

 

Give me the money anyday

Despite all this stirring talk of missions you still need to earn a living. If you work full time at a job you like, to earn enough just to live, then that is tolerable. If you have to work full time at a job you dislike just to live then you are doing something wrong. Explorer John Harrison for years worked six month on six months off- going on expeditions using the money he had saved. In the middle east it is said that a carpet maker should be able to live for three months on the money he makes from a carpet that takes three weeks to weave. In order to achieve that kind of leverage you need to either lower your costs or get involved in something more highly remunerative.

This logic leads people into working for banks and announcing they will retire at 35, and indeed I have an old college buddy who did just that. But most people don’t want to work for even one year yet alone fifteen at a job they consider mercenary and boring. I mean, they rightly reason, I may not even get to thirty five. I might be dead tomorrow. So they look for activities with more meaning. More sense of mission.

The problem is, if you are not fully stretched and involved in something pretty compulsive- such as bridge, martial arts, climbing, competitive fishing or ornithology- then you will feel the censure of society for being without cash, driving a crap car, not having enough money to send the kiddies on school trips. Only if your life is pumped FULL of meaning will you be able to bear the brunt of society thinking and expressing its view that you are a loser.

Entrepreneur Matthew Leeming once told me that “Entrepreneurs drive tiny little cars until they make it huge and then they get a Roller.” In other words, when they are on a mission to make money they couldn’t give a monkeys for what society thinks of them. Then, when they have succeeded, they like to show off a bit. Contrast this with the drug dealer- anxious to have his flash beamer even when he’s living in a council flat. Since the drug dealer isn’t on a mission he CARES what society thinks of him.

Being on a mission is like having concentrated space rations of meaning. Instead of having to get dribs and drabs of meaning from all your daily interactions you get it in a big concentrated wallop from pursuing your mission. That’s one reason I love being on an expedition. You can hug your mission to yourself like a hot water bottle- as you pass through the lives of regular folks, you dressed in rags, they with all their fine things, you feel not a whit diminished. You have your mission. Explorer Bill Tillman used to prefer using a sailing boat to get to remote islands instead of flying because it made the expeditions longer. It extended the delicious sense of being on a mission.

 

Conclusion

Money can’t provide enough meaning for most of us. We need a sense of mission in what we do. Missions have dangers, but handled right they can provide higher energy fuel to what we do. Don’t think in terms of vague urges think in terms of missions- micro-missions and macro-missions. Use the excitement of being on a mission to get you going.

 

Wednesday
Mar232011

lifeshifting interview with CD Baby's Derek Sivers

Derek Sivers is the founder of the hugely successful company CD Baby, but he has also been a musician and studied to be a clown. He very kindly answered some questions I asked him which I think are not only fascinating but also very useful for potential lifeshifters and polymaths.

1.    Can you recall breakthrough moments when you realised something was possible after all? Or maybe a new thing you’d never considered? What brought on that moment?

I have this realization all the time.  It's almost like I never learn it, since I keep realizing it over and over again. My self-identity of what I'm capable of doing keeps growing.

When I was 17, a teacher told me I could graduate college in two years.  He showed me how, and I did it.  He taught me that there is no speed limit.  When the world tells you how something is supposed to work, that just means it's the lowest common denominator.  Anyone with ambition can do much more, much faster. Read the full story at http://sivers.org/kimo

When I was 22, I was working a regular day job and was buying the normal line that this is something we all need to do.  But two things changed my mind:  (1) My girlfriend's hippy parents.  Neither of them had jobs, yet they had a cute house in the country and put their daughter through college doing random work.  (2) The book "Island" by Aldous Huxley.  In the utopia he imagined, nobody is allowed to do something for more than two years.  After two years, it's healthier to switch it up and change jobs to something radically different.  (A physics professor becomes a rock-climbing instructor.  A gardener becomes a judge.)  These two things combined made me quit my job, and vow to make a living by making music.  That was 1992.  I haven't had a job since.

When I was 28, I was helping some musician friends sell their CDs online, but it kept growing and growing until it was the largest seller of independent music online.  150,000 musicians, 2 million customers, $100M in sales, 85 employees, and a 30,000 square foot warehouse.  Looking at this big monster of a business I'd created made me re-assess what's possible for me to create.

When I was 38, I sold CD Baby for $22 million.  Among my close friends, it's the subject of jokes.  I find myself looking at two cans of beans on the grocery shelf, and choosing the one that's 50 cents cheaper.  My friend will say, "Yep.  Lifestyles of the rich and famous."  But it makes you look at other people who may be glorified on the cover of a magazine, and realize they're not super-human.  Just had a string of success.

But still, after all that, I find myself looking at something like a tropical resort thinking, "I could never do that!" Then I have to stop and question that.  I still find my self-image is pretty limited to what has come before.  It still takes work to expand it.

2. What is the most powerful motivator for you?

The death-bed regret.  If you were to get hit by a bus today, realized you were going to die in a few minutes, but had a few minutes to stop and ponder the things you never did, what would you regret most?

I'm hugely motivated to do those things ASAP.  It's a very short list, luckily

3.    What gets you up in the morning now- in the past? ?

Getting rid of my deathbed-regrets.  I'm acting as if I'm going to die in a year or two.

4.    Can you tell us any mantras, phrases, wise saws, you repeat to yourself when the going gets tough?

These are my two big ones:

Whatever scares you, go do it.  You can use this in so many ways, from huge plans to small moment-to-moment decisions, like saying hi to someone that intimidates you.

It's either "HELL YEAH!" or no.  If you're not feeling 100% psyched-as-hell to do something, say no.  Leave room in your life for those few things you're psyched about.

5.    Did you have any habits you had to overcome that held you back from achieving what you wanted to achieve?

Procrastination, like anyone.  Doing the timid things like surfing the web or hanging with friends, instead of the daring things like forcing yourself through a creative block or difficult challenge.

But then you find that the greater reward is that priceless feeling of accomplishment when you do the difficult things.

6.    How supportive were friends and family of your lifeshifts from musician, to clown and entrepeneur?

I don't know, and it didn't matter.  When I announced at 14 that I was going to be a musician for life, of course nobody was supportive of that decision.  So I got used to doing what I want despite the disapproval of others.  I still don't care what anyone thinks.  I still make decisions that everybody I know is totally against, but I know it's the best for me, so I don't let it bother me at all.

7.    How did your polymathic background feed into success as an entrepeneur? Anything specific?

Most people have a very pre-set notion of what it means to be an entrepreneur.  They think Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg, or whatever heroes they admire.  But because I never meant to be an entrepreneur, I had no pre-set concept of what my life should look like.  I was just doing what makes me happy, and trying to be as helpful as possible.

What's funny is when you use that simple mission - doing what makes me happy, and trying to be as helpful as possible - to make little decisions like whether to put advertising on your website.  Does it make you happy? No.  Is it helpful to others?  No.  Then don't.

And yeah - my music background probably gave me some different insights into running a business.  It's always healthy to pull in expertise from outside the field you're in.  I'm sure a rancher and seamstress could bring in metaphorical lessons from their backgrounds, too.

8.    What is the main thing you notice in young people you think the current culture is neglecting?

The importance of solitude.  Most creative output, deep thought, and unique insight comes from solitude.  But our current trend is for every aspect of life to be "social".  I'm not social.  I don't want to be on top of things.  I want to get to the bottom of things.

9.    What did you have to sacrifice to do the things you have achieved??

I haven't had a TV since I was 18.  Apparently the world has watched millions of hours of TV, and spends millions more talking about it, but I've missed out on all that.

A lot of people seem to go "hang out", and just drink and shout at eachother in noisy bars.  I've never tried that, so I don't know if I'm missing out, but time spent on that doesn't seem to be contributing to anyone's life-goals (except maybe the nightclub owner.)

In short: nothing.  No sacrifice.  I'm always doing exactly what I want.  I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

There is more on Derek's great blog- http://sivers.org/blog

Monday
Mar212011

the polymathic principle #2

The polymathic principle is all about realising the importance of polymathy in our lives, especially in any area that requires creativity. Being creative is about borrowing or stealing ideas from other arenas. It's about cross-fertilisation of ideas from perhaps wildly differing sources. When Richard Feynman came up with the maths for quantum electro dynamics he was spinning a plate on his finger and just wondering if he could describe its wobbles mathematically. He was cross- fertilising between a physical fun activity and the hyper intellectual activity of maths. Just getting outside your claustrophobic little area is sometimes all you need. The polymathic principle states that the greater the distance between the source areas of an idea the more potent it is likely to be. A polymath should have physical, artistic, intellectual areas of interest- ensuring a well stocked source for new ideas to cross-fertilise.

Saturday
Mar192011

Timeshifting #2

One of the conclusions of both Edgar Allan Poe’s strange mystical essay “Eureka” and Einstein’s musings on the Universe is that both came to believe that Time is Space. The technical side of this insight does not involve us- but the metaphorical truth implied does. In psychological terms time really is space- inner space and outer space.

The feeling that we ‘don’t have enough time’ is bound up with feeling really cramped, restricted, bombarded and most importantly NOT OPEN. We are looking for reasons to say no, clear the desk, get away from it. We are perpetually involved in flight rather than curiosity, which is a necessary precursor to the survival of any kind of animal- it must after all be curious enough to find new food. This lack of openness also connects to the inability to learn. But also, the sense of being cramped and lacking space makes us feel time’s arrow is flying by. But travel out into the wilderness, and the desert is the best place for this, and you discover that all that endless space causes a kind of vacuum in your head. Your problems seem to diminish, get lost in the vastness. And because there is so little to see in the desert, every rock and every dune becomes a focus for your attention. You are suddenly OPEN again, searching out things to look at, greedily almost.

The inner space in your head, that follows the exposure to vast empty outer spaces, experiences a sudden and dramatic drop in the feeling of time moving by very quickly. You arrive at the present. You get to the present- and when you arrive it is as if time is almost standing still- even though you can see the clockhands turn it has no MEANING. You no longer feel anxious.

My dayjob for a while was taking harassed top executives out into the Egyptian Sahara Desert and getting them to experience this vast opening of outer and inner space. I have seen a, formerly ultra serious and, rather worried sales director, dance and sing after a mere 24 hours in this environment, people run up and down sand dunes, others announce it has been a turning point in their life. After seeing the effect such empty spaces can have (doesn't always happen) I feel it is no coincidence that the mono-theistic religions, started in similar places; and that early monasticism began with men and women retreating from the hurley burley of Roman life with its society clubs, circuses and busy life. The Roman Empire is long gone but the desert remains the same.  As a starting place for weakening the merciless hold that time can have on you try to find some empty space in your life.

 

Saturday
Mar192011

Timeshifting #1

I read David Allen’s excellent ‘Getting things done’, and indeed picked up some good tips, such as filing or replying to each email as it comes, thus clearing the dead weight of an inbox, and making filing as fun as possible, but something about the basic premise of the whole idea of time management got me thinking.

The bottomline is that in the modern fast-moving highly stimulating developed countries of the world we all feel we don’t have enough time. It almost feels palpable- this lack of time. Everyone I know seems to be juggling this most precious of resources like a desert sheik managing his scant water resources. In some cases it really seems like time is running out…We have busy families where both parents work hard, dash home to be home with their kids, go out as often as they can, fill up the weekends with sports and driving children around and being charitable. The side effect can be exhaustion (but some of these people are very fit, very competent people and they take it as a challenge); what NO ONE escapes is, though, is the sense that there just isn’t enough time available.

In this sequence of articles called TIMESHIFTING I want to look in detail at how it may be possible to rewire that sense of time scarcity and replace it with a sense of time abundance.

But before we go in detail and attempt to rebuild our sense of time we should re-examine how we think about time in our everyday lives. Here are a few different ways of seeing time:

a)     ‘chess time’- where you rush against the clock to make your move and then have all the time your opponent takes to think about the next move- the ‘up time’ is experienced differently from the ‘downtime’- one is in your control the other isn’t.

b)    Then there is ‘bought time’- for example you buy a taxi ride that takes twenty minutes rather than walk for two hours. What you do with the extra time is up to you.

c)     There is ‘prime time’ when you feel at your most productive and ‘slowtime’ when everything seems to take you twice as long as usual.

d)    Thinking about ‘not wasting time’ rather than ‘investing time’- it’s a switch from a negative worldview to a pro-active positive one.

e)    People almost always undervalue what they can do in five years and over value what they can do in one year. We are bad at imagining the passing of time- hence over runs and being late which gives way to a general vagueness for longer time periods.

Time, as you can see, is the ultimate subjective experience.

When I was 19 I was very keen on rockclimbing. Every opportunity I got I used to either train on boulders or travel to the mountains looking for routes to climb. I also, for an increased thrill factor, from time to time climbed solo without a rope. Climbing on the Scottish mountain of Ben Nevis I fell unroped off a rock face, about 35 feet onto a ledge, luckily, where I fractured two vertebrae. In the approximately 1.4 seconds that I fell I seriously felt time passing slowly- and of course in retrospect I can dwell on that 1.4 second stretch as if it were a month or more. The shock of the experience switched me fully on- and time expanded far beyond the usual experience.

Another climbing experience- doing a long route on the Island of Skye and being convinced I’ve been going for two hours and now it is about twelve O’clock- only  to retrieve my watch from the rucksack and discover I’ve been climbing for not two hours but six and it’s now four O’clock in the afternoon. I can still recall that sense of missing time- where did those four hours go?

An event last year. I went with three friends 4x4 camping in the desert. It was new to them and through their eyes it all seemed new to me. When we returned 24 hours later we all kept saying- it seems like we’ve been away forever.

Because we are conditioned by clocktime- from the flashing time on your computer screen to your mobile phone to your wristwatch and your car dashboard- we are lead to believe that the reality of time is mechanical, that any piece of time is equal to any other- yet even a moment’s reflection reveals the falseness of this position- if you wake up at 3 am and decide to stay awake until everyone else gets up even an hour drags so slowly- but the lunchhour between 1 and 2 in the afternoon just whizzes by.

The subjective experience of time is controlled by context and activity. Change the context or change the activity and you can bend time to suit your will.

Does Time use you?

Do you feel pressured, stressed, under time’s thumb; and yet seem to be getting nowhere in particular? Or relaxed and easy, yet able to pack a huge amount into a short piece of ‘clock time’? Do you use time or does time use you? One way you can use time is to set aside two hours in which to do nothing. Just sit. It's not that easy. But it will give you new insights into how you use time and what an uncluttered headspace feels like.

I was sitting in a bar in Tokyo with writer Tahir Shah waiting for someone to arrive who I had said I would introduce him to. But they didn’t turn up. I apologized for wasting his time. Tahir replied, and I have never forgotten, “wasting time is not a concept I subscribe to”.

Wow. This was the first time I had heard of such a generally accepted idea just rejected, tossed out, shorn of its potent negativity. And when I started to think I saw that it was impossible to waste time just as it is impossible to ‘kill time’. Time passes. What we do with it is our choice- and is always our choice- even if our expectations aren’t met. When we waste time what we are saying is that something we expected would happen didn’t so we were kept in a state of waiting when we weren’t living as fully as we felt was our due. Who’s stopping you? Only your expectations stop you from fully experiencing any moment you care to.

Wasting time assumes that one learnt nothing from an experience- yet we can never accurately tell which experiences were and were not crucial for learning. While studying aikido in Japan I found that I would do the same technique wrong about a hundred times before I suddenly did it right. I noticed that the top teacher Chida Sensei did not correct me straight away. He said, “You have to do something wrong a few times so that you really appreciate it when you do it right- if the teacher tells you too soon they cheat you of feeling the difference and you don’t learn the technique so well. You have to value what you learn.”

So even frustrating times can be validated later on – no one can really say one time is more useful or crucial than another- not without the possession of clairvoyance. What we can say, though, in a broader macro sense you can spend time not learning anything new and you can spend time on a steep learning curve- the choice is yours. If you arrange your life around learning nothing new, of never being surprised, of making each day the same- then don’t be surprised if your life seems to flash by. Maybe the only waste of time is dedicating a life to not learning.

 

Saturday
Mar192011

Introduction to timeshifting

Timeshifting is about slowing the feeling of time rushing by.

It's about feeling you have more time.

It's about getting control of your time.

It's about not feeling busy all the time.

You will end up getting more done- but that isn't the aim. If that's the aim you just end up feeling stressed and battered.

With timeshifting you shift your perception of time. You slow time down. That way you get more done and you feel less stressed.

The key to it all is learning.

When we learn, actively, time slows down. It's as simple as that.

As we get older we tend to occupy and enjoy positions where we don't need to learn anything.

We finished all that when we were in our 20s.

Travel is the only way many older people learn, because when you travel you can't fake it- you really don't know what is going on a lot of the time.

Ever noticed that the years when you travel the time didn't rush by? And in reflection, does it seem that you had more time then?

Because you were learning new things.

This is the essence of Timeshifting which I'll elaborate on and go around in the following articles.