366 Days

My wife reminded me this morning that it has been exactly 366 Days since I started working full time on Sabre Tooth Panda. 366 days, in this case, is a full year because the year I took my leap was also a year that included a Leap Day (29 February 2016).

During that time a lot has changed but one thing remains the same, working for yourself is weird. Very early on I wrote this:

> It’s a lot like being a full time student. You work odd hours, constantly feel like you should be doing more, everyone assumes you’re not working at all and there’s a constant fear of failure punctuated by occasional wins that keep you going. But unlike being a student those wins aren’t predictable like passing an exam or acing an essay. They either come about through insane persistence or pop out of nowhere like gifts!
>
> It’s very odd when you realise that your most successful days might be the days you feel like you’ve done nothing!

It’s rare that I look back on something I’ve written months ago, having had so much more experience in the intervening time, and still agree with every word.

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Like Blogs But Soundier

I’m on a couple of podcasts at the moment. 

This one with the very wonderful Judy Rees (no relation) talking about motivation and irritation in collaborative creativity. 

Collaboration Dynamics
And this one (my one) with the geekiest personal trainer you’ll ever meet, talking about the brain and the body and how they connect. No, it’s not just via the neck. Smartarse. 

Hard, Not Complicated (ear compatible)

What You Tell Yourself Matters

I recently discovered that my friends and fellow Patreonauts, Colin and Shayla Maddox, have a nickname for me. They call me Task because, apparently, they think I’m the kind of guy who gets things done. A Task Master, to misuse a rarely used old phrase. This came as a surprise to me.

I haven’t ever had a nickname before. That’s not to say nobody has ever had a… special word for me, but never a nickname. So I was delighted to know that I now have one. But I honestly didn’t think it would be my go-getterish, JFDIness that would end up being my defining feature.

I try not to go in for too much false modesty. I know that I have some admirable qualities, among other less admirable ones, but I have never thought of myself as much of a doer. I’m a thinker, almost by profession. And I had assumed that this was how others saw me too. A deep thinker who occasionally writes some of it down. But apparently in the Maddox household my name is synonymous with getting stuff done.

Two initial points strike me:

1. Perhaps I’m not as good at knowing what others think of me as I thought I was
2. Perhaps I’m not as good at knowing myself as I thought I was!

This new information came to my attention a few weeks ago and since then I’ve been looking at myself a little differently, noticing my patterns. It’s quite possible that my habits now are different precisely because of this new information and the attention I’m paying but, as it turns out, I’ve noticed that I’m a bit more do-y than I used to believe.

Yes, I like to think, but entirely theoretical stuff bores me after a short while. I have a bias towards action that I’d previously not noticed. So much so that I can tend to leap before I look when I feel the urge.

This new insight into myself has lead to some changes. I’ve become addicted to my daily task list. I now take pride in checking off my actions but, more importantly, I find the job of scheduling and organising my time satisfying in a way I never have before. I’ve been reading Getting Things Done by David Allen (just owning the book and seeing it on the coffee table makes me want to do stuff!) and, in all, I’ve become more productive and more aware of my flow of work.

I’ve even updated my contact information on my phone so that Siri calls me Task. She used to call me Your Highness but it was starting to feel creepy.

For so many years I have told myself a story about who I am and, importantly, who I’m not. Some of this story is good. I tell myself I’m a kind person. I tell myself I’m a generous person, a forgiving person. I tell myself I’m not someone who holds grudges or likes to harm others. These are all fine things to tell ones self and doing so is part of how we reinforce our self identity.

But I’ve also told myself some things which aren’t so good. One of them is that I’m a thinker but not much of a doer. I’m not the kind of person who gets things done. This self limiting belief has been stuck in my head and every time I fail to do something it is reinforced. Suddenly seeing myself through different eyes, realising that the me I say I am is only a story and that it might not even be true…

As a coach this shouldn’t be much of a revelation but, as we say, the first person you coach is always yourself (and you’re the worst client you’ll ever have!). Our own stories, our own beliefs, are the hardest to see past. So it helps to pay attention when you find that the experiences of others don’t tally with what you believe about yourself. For better or worse.

It turns out that I’m not exactly who I thought I was. This limiting belief isn’t true. Imagine how many of your own limiting beliefs are similarly false? What if the stories you tell yourself about you, the ones where you explain to yourself why you can’t or won’t achieve or do whatever it is you wish you could or would, weren’t true?

The story you tell yourself matters. Be open to the idea that you should yours.

The Happy Endings Myth

Much ink has been spilt over the millennia about what it means to live a good life or to have a purpose. For some people purpose has been a calling from God while others see a more Earthly cause, but in almost all cases, in the stories I’ve heard and read, there’s been a shared myth; The Happy Endings Myth.

In literature and in movies we are treated to the comforting idea that life can be understood in simple, linear terms. According to Joseph Campell Author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, this linear story arch often looks like this:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

This is a nice idea. You can see the appeal of this one shot redemption story. And this appeal has lead to many imagining that real life can be understood in these terms. That you can travel on your own hero’s journey and come back transformed forever. The truth of the matter is different, but not entirely in a bad way.

My favourite personal insight, if you’re not already aware, is that some things in life are hard but not complicated. This insight leads to new ways of approaching these simple but formidable challenges. Finding a purpose, finding meaning and reason in life, is hard and not very complicated, but it’s a little more complicated than The Happy Endings Myth allows. Because a happy ending, in real life, is almost never an ending. It’s simply a moment of clarity.

To use my own journey as an example, over the last couple of years I’ve had many moments of clarity and insight, moments of change and transformation. From choosing to start my own business to figuring out who I could help and how I would approach it, discovering and refining my message and the rest. Each one of these moments was a happy one, but none of them was an ending. In fact, each one was a call to action. If anything, life offers us beginnings, not endings.

So that’s what I propose: in place of The Happy Ending Myth, we should create the reality of Happy Beginnings. Whether it’s the start of a new job, a new relationship or something else large in scale, or just the adoption of a new way of working or a new idea. Moments of clarity and change aren’t endings, they’re beginnings.

Happy Endings aren’t really. Happy Beginnings are and they happen all the time. By seeking these out we won’t fall victim to the pernicious belief that a single moment will bring about some kind of steady state of happiness and completion. Life isn’t static. If life were an ocean your job wouldn’t be to find a comfy island to rest on, it would be to learn to ride the waves.

Hobbies

Tiny weekend post for anyone who feels like starting a new hobby and needs an extra excuse to get off the sofa.

Since starting Sabre Tooth Panda I’ve been learning a lot. I realise that this is largely down to the fact that my job is really a collection of hobbies.

I write. I podcast. I design material and invent games. I get to talk to cool people one on one, in small groups and in big audiences. I experiment with different tools to find new ways of doing what I do, faster, better. There’s almost nothing I enjoy that I can’t in some way make a part of what I do. So my job has evolved to be a collection of things that I would do for free if I didn’t need to make money. Hobbies.

But what about the stuff I don’t like? Paperwork, finances, regulations and compliance? Well sure, there’s always some of that. But this is also a place for learning and experimentation. I get to find ways to do less of this or new tools to make doing the dull stuff less dull.

This hobbyist approach to work has taught me something: hobbies teach me things.

I wanted to blog more so I learned about markdown and CSS. I wanted to podcast so I learned about recording equipment and mastering. I wanted to give better presentations so I learned how to make good slides and how to pace my speaking.

Obvious, sure, but when I find a real reason to learn something, backed up by a meaningful objective, and a way to make it fun, I learn and I love learning.

More than this, the learning becomes a habit. After a day of learning I couldn’t help but want to learn more. Learning leads to more learning. The habit I’ve formed in my work has become a habit in my personal life.

So if you’re thinking of starting a hobby, don’t wait. Choose something that is meaningful and fun and have at it. It’s not just a way to pass the time. A pottery class today, a language course tomorrow, and who knows where your hobby driven learning will take you?

The Hard Part of Hard, Not Complicated

When I settled on the phrase “Hard, Not Complicated” as the central message of my work a lot of things became clear to me. I realised then that my role was not necessarily to be the most well informed, most impressive person in the room. My role was to help my clients remain disciplined and deliberate in their journey towards creative fitness. 

Because, that is in fact the hard part of “Hard, Not Complicated”. The journey. 

Being creative, in the moment, isn’t always hard. Don’t get me wrong, it can be. I’ve bashed my head against the wall of a creative roadblock for days in the past. But when we perform at our very best, when we enter a flow state and connect absolutely with the object of our focus, creativity feels effortless. That, however, can only happen if we have done the hard part first. 

Sure, running a marathon is hard. But it’s not nearly as hard as the months of early morning training sessions and strict diet control that lead to it. Putting on a play or performing in a band can be nerve wracking and physically exhausting but it’s nothing compared to the days and days of rehearsal. When an extreme sportsperson pulls of a death defying trick it takes nerves of steel and superhuman reflexes but that moment is just a moment. You don’t see the years of hard falls and broken bones, of sweat, blood and tears that made that moment possible. The hard part exists mostly in the journey, not the destination. 

If you desire to be more creative then you need to be willing to do the hard part. And that’s what my job is about. Helping you to do the hard part that makes the expression of creative genius possible.  

The question then is, should this be something you desire? If the journey is so hard, why leave the house?

Perhaps a more potent question is: do you want a say in your future? 

Everyone Falls, But Some People Roll into it

Failure is not a word I particularly like. For a while I used it and attempted to rehabilitate it, turn it into a word that meant something that one could learn from. I would talk about smart failures vs dumb failures but even then I felt that somehow I was missing something. After all, can we always know if a so called failure is going to be dumb or smart? And is a dumb failure really always obviously worthless before the fact?

The idea of dumb/smart failures was enticing. A smart failure happens when you set something up such that if you fail you will know why. This becomes a learning opportunity and you can avoid the same mistakes in the future. This is a valuable concept. But it’s not perfect. Unless you can control for all confounding factors you cannot be absolutely certain about what you have and haven’t learned from any outcome. Only through repeated smart failures can you achieve anything close to certainty. And that’s not something anyone in business tends to want to do.

Dumb failure, on the other hand, are supposed to be failures wherein you don’t control the scenario and thus cannot learn from what has happened or, alternatively, scenarios where you should have foreseen the problem beforehand. A dumb failure, the theory goes, teaches us nothing. But is that really true? Surely at the least a dumb failure provides an opportunity to consider why we didn’t see it coming!

So, while in theory dumb and smart failures are easy to tell apart, in practice things aren’t so simple. Again we find ourselves facing a complex system of u intended consequences. We can try to work smart and avoid obvious errors but we will, in the end, all face failures of varying smartness and dumbness. The blacks and white has become a foggy grey.

In such a universe, as imperfect beings filled with some measure of error and weakness alongside the virtue and strength, I find the very idea of failure on a personal level less than useful. In the end, a failure is just information. And information needs no pejorative term.

The Hard Part

Which is where I come to the hard part. Falling down is part of life. But, as the old saying goes, it’s not the fall, it’s the landing that hurts. And while some people seem to fall and land in a crumpled heap, unable to rise, others seem to have found a way to roll into it and spring back up, almost as if nothing had happened at all. Learning to do this is hard. But it can be done. Here I offer some exercises that can help.

Exercise: the give/get of kindness

They say we are our own harshest critic, which is true for everyone other than Donald Trump, but usually we’re similarly judgemental about others even if in a less overt way.

Falling and rolling into it is, in part, about what you believe you deserve. If you believe that failures should be seen as shameful you’re likely to fall in a crumpled heap because, dammit, that’s what you get for being so useless! Being hard on yourself is a mental pattern, a habit you’ve picked up. It can be unlearned.

But it’s hard to be nice to yourself, so how can we work up to it? We begin by being kind to others.

Step 1

This exercise begins in our minds. First bring to mind a mistake or error made by someone easy to forgive. Maybe a child. Remember that moment and the error that was made. The failure. Now picture that person and, in your mind, tell them that it’s OK. Tell them that mistakes happen. Mean it.

Remember to hold love in your mind as you do this. Not a romantic love or a passionate love, simply the love that wishes for the best for others. Tell this person that it’s OK. Tell them that life goes on. That nobody is perfect.

Notice how that feels. Is it freeing? Do you feel uplifted by this? Or is it uncomfortable and stressful? Whatever the case, don’t judge it. Accept it and move on.

You can repeat this step as often as you like. But each time try to move up a rung in the difficulty ladder. It is easy to forgive someone who is young, who maybe didn’t hurt you directly. What about someone who “should know better”? Notice that should word? Yeah. It’s always sneaking around. What about someone hurt you recently? The driver who hit your car or the friend who forgot your birthday.

Bring them to mind. Feel it, picture it. Then forgive them and mean it. The more you do this the easier you will find it. You’ll begin to notice yourself doing it almost without trying to. Acceptance and forgiveness will seem as if they are hard wired into your brain. Here’s the cool part: they are.

Step 2

Reframing is a powerful tool. At first it can feel almost like cheating but as soon as you accept that we do not live in an objective reality, that most of what we consider truth is actually opinion, then you can see how reframing is simply replacing one subjective idea with another.

Consider the same people who you visualised in Step 1 or use different examples. Now, we again begin by visualising. But this time instead of forgiving we reframe. Did someone fail their driving test? Perhaps this can be reframed as a good thing! After all, the important thing is to be safe on the roads and this test is about making sure you will be. Now, when you do qualify, you’ll know you’re really ready.

Reframing is in the hard, not complicated club. The hard part here is developing the mental flexibility to reframe things well and authentically. This isn’t about lying to yourself and others, it’s about realising that, as The Bard himself opined, others is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

You will be surprised how quickly you begin to reframe effortlessly. Like acceptance and forgiveness, your reframing muscles are now fully pumped and ready to go, your mental circuits that deal with emotional flexibility are primed.

Now it’s time to go outside.

Step 3

Now we move on to the world outside your head. We learned in Step 1 that we can find a way to accept and forgive the failures of almost anyone if we try hard enough. In Step 2 we discovered that once reframing is a habit it becomes almost effortless. Now it’s time to road test these newly refined skills.

Firstly, be aware of and open to times when people are being self critical. Notice phrases like “I always do this!” or “This is so like me, I’m such an idiot”. As well as more subtle examples such as people apologising too much over something small or overcompensating for minor errors.

Now apply the same acceptance, love and forgiveness to them as you did in your visualisations. Tell them it’s OK to make mistakes and that they can’t expect to be perfect. If the mistake directly harmed you, make sure they know that you forgive them and believe in them. That you hold no grudge. Mean it.

Further, if someone complains to your directly about their own failures, apply the same reframing techniques. But here it is important to always ask for permission to reframe. This might seem strange at first but simply by saying “do you mind if I help you look at this a little differently?” or a similar phrase, you can ensure you’re not blundering into a pity party that you’re not really invited to. Sometimes people need to let off steam and a little bit of self pity can be cathartic. The problem arises when it goes on too long.

Here’s a take home coaching tip! Never try to change something that someone doesn’t want to change. As basic as that sounds, it’s amazing how often people forget to apply this. Always get permission to coach.

Keep doing this alongside the first two steps. Notice how you feel when doing it. Notice how others respond. You’re likely to find that it starts to feel natural. Well done. You’ve successfully built up your kindness muscles.

So… What About Me?!

Right now you might be wondering how all this being kind to others is going to help you to fall and roll into it. The beautiful part of all of this is that there’s no special change needed to apply this same kindness to yourself. Those kindness muscles will work just as well for your own falls as for those of others.

Keep practicing the visualisations, the acceptance and the reframing for others and when the moment comes that you fall, you’ll be amazed by how differently you feel about it and how much more rapidly you get back up.