Stepping Stones: a meditation on the nature of creativity

Today's post is very short. That's because I want you to spend less time reading and more time reflecting on what you've read. For the reading allow about 60 seconds. A good rule of thumb is to spend ten times that long, ten minutes in this case, reflecting.

Last week I shared some thoughts on the danger of Maslow's Hammer; the tendency for the tools we use to narrow our perspective and leave us blinkered, rigid, and predictable.

This brings us to the single hardest problem for creativity:

  • We use tools to help us express creativity
  • Over time we get better at using the tools
  • The better we get the more we rely on the tools
  • The more we rely on the tools the worse we get at expressing creativity

In my view it's wrong to think of creativity as a set of skills or tools. I see creativity as a relationship, a way of existing in the world. People who have a strong relationship with creativity are somewhat like children, driven by curiosity, open to change; keeping a beginners mind, ready to receive. Tools can help us to achieve this relationship but they aren't a substitute for it.

Where last week I shared the intellectual basis for this argument, this week I want to share with you a meditation that I find helps me both to understand this idea more deeply and to communicate it more clearly; I call it 'Stepping Stones'.

Stepping Stones

If we want to get to the other side of a deep, fast flowing river, it would be very risky to try to swim unaided! Instead we look for stepping stones leading to the other side.

With each stone we come closer to where we're going. The stones feel solid and safe but the river is rushing past and, with each moment, a stone might slip and we might fall in!

It's wise to use the stones but it's foolish to stand on them for too long. Remember our confidence will only grow until the moment we fall.

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Hard Not Complicated Tips – sale away sale away sale away

In this week's Hard Not Complicated blog I wrote about sales from the perspective of creativity and especially two main points. I argued that if you're not a stereotypical salesperson you'll need to do two things:

  1. Reframe what it means to sell
  2. Reinvent sales in a way that makes sense for you

Today I want to offer a couple of quick tips on how to do that.

Reframing

It's easy to think of sales as an attempt to get something.

I want:

  • Customers
  • Contracts
  • Commissions

I like to flip this around. I begin my sales work by asking myself how I can help people. For me, a sales call is about answering one question:

  • How can I make you happy?

I have a set of products and services that can be put to use in a range of ways. If one of these ways solves a problem for the person I'm speaking to then I can make that person happy by doing that.

When you think about times when you've successfully persuaded someone to adopt your product or service, give you a job, assign you a task, have you noticed how they are happy when they do it? How they feel that a problem for them has been solved?

Happiness, in the sense of increased pleasure and reduced pain, is what it's all about. If I can make someone happy by selling them what I have to sell, that makes me happy too.

If you have a team who are reluctant to be salespeople, try out the below approaches.

Make the Meaning Real: maybe your team have forgotten that what they do is meaningful, that it matters to people. Consider running a weekly meeting devoted to talking about customers who you have helped that week. Share feedback and have that team talk about how it makes them feel to have helped people live, work or play more easily, with less pain and more pleasure.

Take No for an Answer: many people feel like sales is a pushy business and they don't want to be pushy people. When I worked as an on-street fundraiser (the guys with the clipboards and tabards who everyone hates) I was told that it was vital that people felt that it was OK to say no. By making this clear to people at the outset I was able to feel good about talking to them, knowing that there would be no hard feelings or awkwardness if they said no.

Not Selling, Searching: you might find it useful to reframe the idea of sales in your context with the knowledge that what you're really doing is less selling and more searching for people who need your help. A sales call then becomes less a battle, a struggle to convince the potential customer that you are the solution, and more a collaborative process; your job as a salesperson is to answer the question "can I help you?" and be sure, at the end, if the answer is yes or no.

Reinvention

Reinvention is just a fancy word for starting over from first principals. It asks you to assume nothing about what you're about to do, let go of all of your preconceptions and ask simply: what is it we want to accomplish?

If you're struggling with sales then it may be that you're trying to sell the way you think you're supposed to sell, rather than selling the way that makes sense for you.

The challenge with reinvention, of course, is to get yourself free from what you already know. These approaches might help.

Don't Put the Answer in the Question: in an interview given to Blue Peter, of all places, world renowned product designer Jonny Ive talked about how, at Apple, they try to avoid using words that would presuppose or bias the output of a design process. The example he gave was that if they were designing a lunchbox they wouldn't call it "The Lunchbox Project" because the word "box" immediately pushes the mind towards a specific shape, assumes things like lids and hinges and handles. In sales you could do the same thing – instead of asking "how do we sell?" try asking "how do we find customers?" or "how do we build relationships?".

Flip it: getting away from what you know can be hard, so why not take what you know and simply flip it 180? My favourite example of this is something called the disloyalty card. This was an idea from a bunch of independent coffee shops who being unable to take advantage of a loyalty card, as they only had a single store each, decided to band together and give people awards for trying out all the different independent coffee shops in the city. They took an idea, flipped it around, and found a new way to do things. This sort of work requires a degree of conceptual flexibility which can be hard to do, but be playful, have fun with it, and you might surprise yourself.

Ask Your Customers: in the end helping your customers benefits you and them. So why not get them involved in helping you to figure out the best way to work with them? And I don't mean a survey, I mean actually involving them in the creative process. Find ways to interact with your customers that work beautifully for them as well as for you. You might find there is a whole new way of selling the would never have occurred to either of the groups separately.

Believe

The solutions you come up with, the way that sales works for you, will be unique to you. The Hard Not Complicated system is built on the belief that the solutions to your problems will always come from you. So above all else, you have to believe.

Learn to believe in yourself, your product, your methods and your ability to rewrite what you thought was possible, and you can find ways to do anything.

If you'd like to find out more about how I help clients the hard, not complicated way, drop me an email at aran@sabretoothpanda.com.

Hard Not Complicated Tips – sale away sale away sale away

In this week’s Hard Not Complicated blog I wrote about sales from the perspective of creativity and especially two main points. I argued that if you’re not a stereotypical salesperson you’ll need to do two things:

  1. Reframe what it means to sell
  2. Reinvent sales in a way that makes sense for you

Today I want to offer a couple of quick tips on how to do that.

Reframing

It’s easy to think of sales as an attempt to get something.

I want:

  • Customers
  • Contracts
  • Commissions

I like to flip this around. I begin my sales work by asking myself how I can help people. For me, a sales call is about answering one question:

  • How can I make you happy?

I have a set of products and services that can be put to use in a range of ways. If one of these ways solves a problem for the person I’m speaking to then I can make that person happy by doing that.

When you think about times when you’ve successfully persuaded someone to adopt your product or service, give you a job, assign you a task, have you noticed how they are happy when they do it? How they feel that a problem for them has been solved?

Happiness, in the sense of increased pleasure and reduced pain, is what it’s all about. If I can make someone happy by selling them what I have to sell, that makes me happy too.

If you have a team who are reluctant to be salespeople, try out the below approaches.

Make the Meaning Real: maybe your team have forgotten that what they do is meaningful, that it matters to people. Consider running a weekly meeting devoted to talking about customers who you have helped that week. Share feedback and have that team talk about how it makes them feel to have helped people live, work or play more easily, with less pain and more pleasure.

Take No for an Answer: many people feel like sales is a pushy business and they don’t want to be pushy people. When I worked as an on-street fundraiser (the guys with the clipboards and tabards who everyone hates) I was told that it was vital that people felt that it was OK to say no. By making this clear to people at the outset I was able to feel good about talking to them, knowing that there would be no hard feelings or awkwardness if they said no.

Not Selling, Searching: you might find it useful to reframe the idea of sales in your context with the knowledge that what you’re really doing is less selling and more searching for people who need your help. A sales call then becomes less a battle, a struggle to convince the potential customer that you are the solution, and more a collaborative process; your job as a salesperson is to answer the question “can I help you?” and be sure, at the end, if the answer is yes or no.

Reinvention

Reinvention is just a fancy word for starting over from first principals. It asks you to assume nothing about what you’re about to do, let go of all of your preconceptions and ask simply: what is it we want to accomplish?

If you’re struggling with sales then it may be that you’re trying to sell the way you think you’re supposed to sell, rather than selling the way that makes sense for you.

The challenge with reinvention, of course, is to get yourself free from what you already know. These approaches might help.

Don’t Put the Answer in the Question: in an interview given to Blue Peter, of all places, world renowned product designer Jonny Ive talked about how, at Apple, they try to avoid using words that would presuppose or bias the output of a design process. The example he gave was that if they were designing a lunchbox they wouldn’t call it “The Lunchbox Project” because the word “box” immediately pushes the mind towards a specific shape, assumes things like lids and hinges and handles. In sales you could do the same thing – instead of asking “how do we sell?” try asking “how do we find customers?” or “how do we build relationships?”.

Flip it: getting away from what you know can be hard, so why not take what you know and simply flip it 180? My favourite example of this is something called the disloyalty card. This was an idea from a bunch of independent coffee shops who being unable to take advantage of a loyalty card, as they only had a single store each, decided to band together and give people awards for trying out all the different independent coffee shops in the city. They took an idea, flipped it around, and found a new way to do things. This sort of work requires a degree of conceptual flexibility which can be hard to do, but be playful, have fun with it, and you might surprise yourself.

Ask Your Customers: in the end helping your customers benefits you and them. So why not get them involved in helping you to figure out the best way to work with them? And I don’t mean a survey, I mean actually involving them in the creative process. Find ways to interact with your customers that work beautifully for them as well as for you. You might find there is a whole new way of selling the would never have occurred to either of the groups separately.

Believe

The solutions you come up with, the way that sales works for you, will be unique to you. The Hard Not Complicated system is built on the belief that the solutions to your problems will always come from you. So above all else, you have to believe.

Learn to believe in yourself, your product, your methods and your ability to rewrite what you thought was possible, and you can find ways to do anything.

If you’d like to find out more about how I help clients the hard, not complicated way, drop me an email at aran@sabretoothpanda.com.

Selling Yourself on Sales

I’d like you to imagine that you’re walking down a road and, from inside a house, you hear sounds of distress. Someone is hurt and they’re calling out in pain. What would you do?

We’ll revisit this idea later. For now, place it at the back of your mind and let it settle in.

On Saturday I had the immense privilege of addressing a group of entrepreneurs and business people from the Latin American community in London at the ExpoOportunidades 2016 where I delivered the Hard Not Complicated Field Guide to Being Different – an exploration and celebration of what it means to be you. I’d like to thank the organisers for involving me as I had a genuinely great time.

At the end of the workshop I was approached by a group of participants from the same company with a question about sales. They told me that their employers had recently asked the senior consultants in their business to take on more of a sales centric role, feeling that the salesforce they had previously used wasn’t serving the best needs of the clients.

From the brief conversation we had it seemed that the consultants were finding this change difficult and were unhappy about this new requirement. While I can’t and wouldn’t share specific details about this case and what my proposed solution might be, I would like to share some generalised thoughts about sales and how to both sell yourself on selling and find out how you sell instead of trying to sell how you feel you are supposed to.

Selling yourself on selling

I used to be a salesperson. I was a good salesperson. In some cases I was the best salesperson in my team or branch. Today I am the head of sales for Sabre Tooth Panda by virtue of being the only person who works here! But I am not and never was a typical salesperson. Or, at least, I wasn’t a stereotypical one.

When you think about salespeople, if you don’t happen to be one yourself, you probably imagine brash, extroverted types who think in simple zero sum ways. They only care about their bonus cheque and probably don’t really understand the products they’re selling. They’re pushy, annoying, try to guilt/con/pressure others into paying money for things they don’t need and you avoid them like the plague.

No wonder you don’t want to be one! To act in this way would bring about feelings of shame and guilt, go against your values and undermine your self image. It would be a denial of who you are.

Like all stereotypes this one begins with a little bit of truth. Their are salespeople like that. Maybe even the majority of them. But that doesn’t mean that this is the only way to be a salesperson.

When I worked in sales I had some roles which pretty much required me to be this person. I did not like these roles. And, it is worth noting, when I was in these roles I was a very mediocre salesperson. Being good with words and confident with people I could force myself to adopt these behaviours for a little while but relatively soon the pain of having to be someone I didn’t like would undermine my performance.

Then there were other roles where I got to sell the way I like to sell and what typified these roles was that I genuinely loved what I was selling.

For instance, when I was a waiter at a steakhouse, a role that is absolutely a sales job, I genuinely believed that we had a great product and that it was my job to make sure that the customers got the best meal that they could have. I wasn’t there to pressure them into buying something that they didn’t want. My job was to guide them to the food and drinks that would make their experience wonderful.

There was another time when I worked in a mobile phone shop. As a geeky guy who loves his gadgets I enthused my way to a sale, my excitement at helping people choose and use a really cool phone was what made people buy from me and I felt great about it because I believed I was helping the customer.

These days I sell what I love because if I don’t love it I don’t do it. And again, I don’t see myself as going out there looking to get something; to get a sale, to get money, to get more for me. I see myself as going out there to find people who I can help; people who have a problem that I can help them to solve.

Yes, this does require me to be a little more forward than might come naturally but I don’t feel guilty, I don’t feel shame or any sense of personal tension because I am not working against my values.

I believe in what I have to offer. I believe that I can help people. I believe that I am doing good, meaningful work. And if that requires me to be a little bit forward, maybe even a little bit pushy, then so be it.

Recall the question I asked at the start of this piece? The person inside a house, calling out in distress; would you feel guilty about knocking the door down to get to them? Of course not. But you’d hardly do that most of the time! If you believe that someone genuinely needs your help and that you genuinely can help them, then you can and will act in ways that may not come naturally to you.

If you believe that what you’re selling can help someone in a meaningful way, you should be willing to knock down that door, metaphorically speaking.

How do you like to knock down doors?

But there’s another layer to this challenge. Even if you’ve accepted that there’s nothing shameful or wrong in trying to help people by providing them with a product or service you believe they’ll love, perhaps you find that there’s a challenge when it comes to methods.

If sales is not something you feel personally connected to as a profession you probably have some relatively narrow ideas how exactly how one goes about selling things. You’ve been told how it’s done and that’s that.

You have to call people over and over again. You have to “always be closing”. You have to be pushy. You have to be that guy. But do you? And, could you even if you did?

This is where the second part of the challenge comes in. If you’ve now accepted that it’s OK to sell what you have to sell, that selling isn’t the same as conning people but is, in fact, a way of helping them, you then have to begin to look for authentic ways to do that, ways that work for you.

I was a super geek salesman. I sold things I loved by geeking out about them with others. But that was me. That’s not necessarily you. Nobody, certainly not I, can tell you how you sell because we don’t know you. Perhaps it would help, though, to begin by identifying the problems you have to solve. I can make a broad guess to you need to:

  1. Find people to help
  2. Connect with those people
  3. Understand them and help them understand you
  4. Build trust and belief
  5. Reach agreement about exactly how you will help them
  6. Agree how they will compensate you

How would you do these things? How could you do these things?

To put this in my context – this here, these very words, are part of my sales process. I’m connecting with you. I’m helping you to understand me and, by a passive process of filtering, if you respond to these ideas, I am gaining an understanding of you and your needs. When I run my No Wrong Answers Quizzes that is part of my sales process. When I blog and run workshops, provide guidance and advice to people in person or online, these are all ways in which I work on items 1-4.

If I do those things right I find that steps 5 and 6 are very natural, very easy. They are a conversation between people who are, by now, on the same team. We have a shared goal and all that remains is to figure out how best to work together.

This is how I do things because this works for me. You, if you’ve taken ownership of the idea of being a person who sells, must figure out what works for you, what is authentically your way to do sales.

You don’t have to be anyone other than who you are. You don’t have to become a salesperson. You have to figure out how you already are one.

If you want to talk about this some more, get in touch with me at aran@sabretoothpanda.com. I promise, I won’t try the hard sell on you. 😉

Hard Not Complicated Tips

A new thing I'm trying out is to have a weekly theme for my communications and split my Monday, Wednesday and Friday communications to address that theme in different ways.

On Monday I talked about how I'm using visualisation to set and stick to long term goals. Pop back and read it if you haven't yet.

Today I want to offer some quick tips on how to do this better.

One: Make it emotional

Visualisations work by stimulating us emotionally. If we want data to back up logical decision making we don't need a visualisation, we need a spreadsheet and a bunch of charts. A strong visualisation needs to be an emotional kick in the arse.

Pro-emotional tip – emotions exist in the body, not just the brain. Maybe that's why we call them "feelings"? If a visualisation doesn't make you feel something physically then it's not emotional enough. Use embodied emotions meditation techniques to tune your ability to feel emotions in your body and ensure your visualisations are powerful enough to stimulate them.

Two: Keep it simple

A picture paints a thousand words so you don't need anything complicated. A great visualisation needs to be at your fingertips, mentally speaking, and ready to go in a moment. If it takes you hours to survey your scene then you won't use it often enough to be helpful.

If your goal doesn't lend itself to simple visualisation in a literal way, consider metaphor and the use of personas. Imagine yourself as a King or Queen, see yourself standing on the moon. The picture can have meanings that are figurative which allows you to pack even more meaning and emotional punch into something you can bring to mind in moments.

Three: If it isn't working, change it

Sometimes a visualisation seems wonderful at first but if you find it stops working over time it may be that your goals have moved on or your emotional triggers have changed. Maybe the visualisation was more powerful for its novelty than anything else.

Don't be afraid, in these circumstances, to change what you use. Try, first, tweaking one or two elements. See if this makes the visualisation more or less powerful. If you change too many things at once it will be harder to know what is and isn't helping.

On Friday I'll be sending out my weekly newsletter which will link back to this and Monday's blog as well as offering extra tidbits, news about what Sabre Tooth Panda is up to and more. If you'd like to find out more about being creative the Hard Not Complicated way, go to http://www.sabretoothpanda.com/contactus to sign up for our newsletter and get a free thirty minute consultation.

Life’s Snapshot

I’m working on a rather longer piece at the moment, inspired by my favourite villains, both of tv and film, and from literature old and new. I’m writing about the lessons in success we can learn from them and why the hero might not be the best role model if you want to live a proactive life. But as I write this I wanted to share an insight that I’ve already put to use. I call it The Littlefinger Rule.

This bit may contain spoilers. Little ones.

Last week millions of people watched the finale of Game of Thrones Season Six. And while most probably spent the following days wondering about the implications of Jon Snow’s true parentage or anticipating the epic battles that are surely on their way now that The Queen of Dragons is crossing the Iron Sea, I spent them rethinking my life.

That’s because of this one short speech delivered by Lord Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish in conversation with Sansa Stark.

Every time I’m faced with a decision I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action I asked myself – will this action help to make this picture a reality, pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. A picture of me on the Iron Throne, and you by side.

My immediate thought was that this is some strong long term planning technique; of each thing ask if it really contributes to your long term goal. But then, on further reflection, I realised the true genius of one of GoT’s most mysterious villains – the simplicity of the image.

When you ask people about what they want in life, and this is certainly the case for me, they will usually give you a list of things. A nice house, a happy family, a good job, a new car, fancy holidays, close friends, etc. Unlike Littlefinger most people aren’t as single minded in their aims. But, of course, this nuance comes with a cost.

While Littlefinger can summon, in seconds, a rich, emotionally powerful image that unambiguously sums up his principal motivation, I realised that I could not. For me it took a good couple of minutes to think through my life goals and even longer to work them into strong images to which I had a powerful emotional response. What I realised was this:

  • If you can’t see it in a snapshot, it’s too complicated for your monkey brain.

This leads us to a tricky problem: how do you sum up in a single snapshot a complicated set of goals. While sitting on the Iron Throne and ruling the Seven Kingdoms comes with an obvious image right from the start, I realised that for me and my goals, what I needed were metaphors.

So over the weekend I sat down with my wife and we talked about what I want out of my life. We talked about my goals and aims, the things that worry me or upset me and the things I wish to overcome. In the end we managed to narrow it all down to four areas:

  1. Health – my physical, emotional and mental wellbeing
  2. Adventure – living a full and exciting life with learning and new experiences
  3. Love – being a good friend and loved one to those around me
  4. Work – providing for myself and my family with meaningful employment

For each of these areas I wrote down a short, 100 words or so, description based on what this state would look and feel like. But even these were too complicated to translate to simple snapshots that could be called upon in a moment. Too detailed to be emotionally punchy.

As a final step I decided to create personas – metaphorical states that could represent the wider meaning of each life goal. I’d like to share those with you now.

  1. Aran the Beach Bod – I’ve never been entirely comfortable with my body. When I imagine myself as the picture of health and fitness the image of me, on a beach, untroubled by being in public semi naked(!) is about as powerful an emotional driver I can come up with. In this image I see sports equipment and maybe even a surfboard. This is an Aran who is healthy and confident.
  2. Aran the Warrior Monk – Bold, outward facing action mixed with a deep inner life. In this snapshot I imagine myself dressed in some Asian inspired robes, carrying a staff. Again I’m outside, with others but not tethered to anything or anyone. In this image I see freedom and adventure, learning and self expression. This is an Aran who lives a full life.
  3. Aran the Zen Dad – I’m not a father yet but I know that, when I am, this will be the biggest personal challenge of my life. So when I think about being a good friend and loved one it’s in the role of a dad that this idea is most profound. In this snapshot, a simple image compared to the first two, I’m a little older, a little calmer, I see a man who is ready and able to be there for those around him. I’m in my home which is a welcoming and loving place and there’s my child who represents something joyful, not pressure and not fear. This is an Aran who can be there for others because he’s centred in himself.
  4. Aran the Guru Coach – this one is simple. When I think about my work, when I imagine any scene in which I am delivering services to anyone, what I see in this snapshot is a coach and since I find Eastern spiritualism so rich in interesting images, I use the word Guru to bring to mind a calm wisdom. In this scene I am in a room with a group of people, sitting in a circle. There are ideas flashing here and there, suprising and exciting thoughts and insights, and I quietly help the thinking, gently nudge, reflect and challenge. When I see this snapshot I feel good. I feel right. And I know this is the Aran I need to be in my work.

Littlefinger only has one image in his mind when he thinks about his future. But he’s a villain in a TV show which makes his life a little simpler. Now I have four images to work with so my rather less eloquent speech would go something like this:

Every time I’m faced with a decision I close my eyes and see the same four pictures. Whenever I consider an action I asked myself – will this action help to make these pictures a reality, pull them out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. Pictures of me as a Beach Bod, a Warrior Monk, a Zen Dad and a Guru Coach.

OK, it’s not quite must see TV, but it works for me.

What about you?

  • Can you sum up your major goals in simple, powerful, emotionally meaningful snapshots?
  • Can you connect with these snapshots strongly enough that they can deeply move you now, changing what you choose to do?
  • How rich is your image of the future, metaphor, persona or literal?

I’d love to hear from you and happy to answer any questions you have about motivation, creativity, coaching and change.

Pity Isn’t Kindness

Last week I had an epiphany somewhere between Kings Cross and Russell Square. This moment was deeply emotional. I felt great relief, as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of my shoulders. You see, I had realised, for the first time in my life, that I didn't need to solve all the problems in the world.

I should back up a little.

I don't know when it started. It may have been when I was a child and I realised that I got a lot of approval for being clever. Perhaps it was during my parents' divorce when it seemed to me that the world of grownups had let me down and only I, eleven year old me, could sort it all out. Because I was clever, you see.

Perhaps it came later. Perhaps it was a range of things. But I do recall feeling, for as long as I can remember, that somehow the world was a mess and that if only I was clever enough I should be able to fix it.

Writing this down it immediately seems absurd. No one person can fix the world. Absurd or not, this has been a feeling that has nagged at me. A pressure that I've put on myself – to always be the one with the answers.

This pressure has not been good for me. In fact, I realise now that it has been behind a lot of the fears that have dogged me. You see, the chain of wonky logic goes like this.

  • The world needs me to fix it
  • Therefore the world is filled with suffering people who are helpless
  • But I am not strong enough to fix the world
  • So maybe I'm just like them – helpless
  • I could end up like them… suffering and unable to fix it!
  • The world is scary and sad

I said the logic was wonky but it is logic, given the view of the world that I held in my head. This belief that all that stood between me and helpless suffering was blind luck kept me afraid, seeking to ignore the darkness in the world for fear that I was looking at my future.

But, you might be thinking, you're a coach! How can you be a coach and believe the world is hopeless? Isn't that antithetical? Well, yes. In fact, I'm pretty sure that this is what has attracted me to the coaching concept. I think, deep down, the idea that this is a discipline that believes utterly in the ability of each person to fix his or her own problems, called to me because it's what I wanted to believe.

Perhaps it's because I've spent so long now actively working to build this new way of thinking that my epiphany came about. This is what happened.

I saw an advert. The advert was seeking low paid workers, filling unskilled jobs. And I felt a pang of sadness. I thought about people who were only able to get work like that. I thought about times in my life when I've had to take on work that was boring and poorly paid. And I felt pity for the people who still had to work these sorts of jobs, and with it a little twinge of fear; there but for the grace of god go I.

And then I remembered a comedy sketch, of all things, in which David Mitchell played a middle class man wracked with guilt every time he came into contact with someone he felt was in a demeaning or low prestige position. Robert Webb played said persons and the entire thing highlighted how unfair it was to think that way. To look at people with pity. I saw myself in that comedy sketch and I was ashamed.

Instead of just feeling ashamed, however, I asked myself what I could do about it. I decided to force myself to look at the people around me and instead of seeing all the potential pain, look at all the potential joy. So I looked and I tried to imagine everyone on the tube, everyone in the stations, everyone on the street, being OK.

I realised, when I let pity become my overarching emotions, that I was counting only the negative elements and that's why I felt so dark. But someone in a shitty job situation isn't just someone with a shitty job. That person has family and friends, interests and hobbies, can dance and play and hug and listen to music and read books. I realised that I was looking at the darkness and ignoring the light. What's more, someone who can hug and play and dance and love, that person can also think and hope and strive. Someone who is a full, rounded human, not just an object of pity, is empowered. That person doesn't need me to solve his or her problems. They just need me to believe in them.

And then something switched in my head. A moment of clarity and relief. Finally I had let go of my need to always be the hero. I'd stopped putting myself under that pressure and chosen, instead, to believe in people. That was my moment of epiphany. That was my breakthrough.

They say, when you learn to be a coach, that your first and most challenging client is always yourself. The more I continue on this journey the more I see that this is the case. I believe I'm a little different to the person I was last week. I believe this difference will help me to be a better coach, a better friend and a happier person. And every day I try to take a moment to remember this difference. Reminding myself of the moment, how it felt and what it meant.

Because, even though it looks quick from the outside, instant change always happens gradually and, despite the desire for clever tricks, making it stick is hard, but it isn't complicated.

Your One Track Mind

If someone tells you that you have a one track mind, it’s usually an insult. Which is very strange because it’s almost literally true that humans do indeed have one track minds.

Multitasking doesn’t exist. In fact, a good metaphor for what is really happening when we appear to be doing more than one thing at a time, is juggling.

By juggling we are able to keep more objects off of the ground for longer than we could if we simply tried to hold them all in our hands. But, crucially, we are only actually dealing with one object at a time (yes, I know that there are special juggles that involve simultaneously tossing multiple objects in the air – this is a metaphor). What we are doing isn’t multitasking, it’s quick task switching.

And it’s exhausting.

To illustrate, I’ll share some of my experiences from the recent weeks, during which I’ve been implementing the well known Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system. In GTD there are five steps for productivity.

  1. Capture – whatever has your attention with minimal thought
  2. Clarify – whatever you have captured to understand what it means
  3. Organise – what you have clarified in accordance with that meaning
  4. Reflect – on everything in the system and consider what it requires of you
  5. Engage – with what requires your attention next

This system is simplicity itself. But, as with all Hard Not Complicated things, the challenge isn’t in understanding the concept, it’s in applying that concept in the real world.

In my case, I found that despite capturing things pretty solidly, my Next Actions list was becoming a time suck instead of a focusing tool. It was only yesterday that I realised why. I wasn’t separating steps four and five.

Reflect and Engage are separate steps for a reason. They require very different mental states.

Reflection asks us to think broadly, be open to the unexpected and ask hard questions. It works best in a cool state, removed from time pressure and the need for real world results. If I were to design the perfect scenario for reflecting, it would include someone else being present, my wife for instance, so I could ask her for input, probably take place in the evening when I tend to be more relaxed and prone to deeper thinking, be very unstructured with nothing else in my schedule in the immediate future. I might have a glass of wine on the go or be listening to some music in the background.

My mindset would be typified by an unhurried, unstructured, low-pressure, playful openness and my environment would adhere to that.

When I’m Engaging, I need quiet. I can’t write with noise going on, for instance. I usually don’t want anyone else around or, if they are around, they are there to provide specific assistance to me because in this state I don’t want advice and input, I have made up my mind and I now wish to do. This would usually be during the day, often in the morning. I would want structure, clarity and well defined goals with time limits.

My mindset, in this instance, would be narrowly focused, relatively closed to the unexpected and interested not in opening up but in closing down.

The Next Actions list is what you look at when you’re ready to Engage but because I had spent so little time Reflecting my actions weren’t properly developed. I found that each required me to stop Engaging and start Reflecting again. Back and forth, switching mental states. Keeping me endlessly in a suboptimal mindset.

It was exhausting.

Switching mental states is a mental cost. The more often you do it the higher the cost. This is true when it comes to applying GTD and when it comes to Creative Problem Solving.

Edward de Bono is famous for his Six Thinking Hats concept, sometimes referred to as Parallel Thinking. In this method groups more effectively collaborate by ensuring that they are thinking in the same way. If you’re doing open, possibilities thinking, that’s all you do until you switch to a new “hat”. No back and forth between possibilities and risks, data and opinion, etc.

This idea neatly demonstrates what happens in groups when you switch mental states but what many fail to realise is that the exact same thing takes place inside your head when you think. Sometimes we characterise this as an internal struggle or dealing with the various “voices” in our heads. In many ways we can see that this is just like working on a group and if all members of that group are not wearing the same hat, this will cause us to have to switch tasks repeatedly, each time paying the price.

Whether you’re trying to GTD, working on Creative Problem Solving in a group or solo, or just making the most of the time you have alone or with friends, being aware of the one track mind and both willing and able to stay on the same track is the single most powerful thing you can do to get more from every moment.

So now you know. Which is basically where this sort of thing normally stops. But if you know the Hard Not Complicated method you also know that knowing is nothing without doing. So what can you do?

  1. Be a single tasking absolutist – do one thing at a time, be absolutely aware of what it is and what it isn’t, and have a zero tolerance policy for anything else invading your headspace.
  2. Say no – if you’re clear on what you’re doing, you also have to be clear on what you’re not doing. So being a single tasker requires a lot of saying no. Even to things you might want to do. I find it helps to have a “someday maybe” list of things that I don’t want to say no to but I can’t say yes to.
  3. Manage your mind – when you find that your mind is working like a team you aren’t all wearing the same hat, it’s easy to try and pull rank, to try to control the mind. Let go of the urge. Instead, understand what is causing the different parts of your mind to want what they clearly want, and manage those needs.
  4. Meditate – i’ll keep banging this drum because I know that learning to still the mind, be aware of the present moment, and feel embodied emotions, is a powerful way to prevent distraction and conflict.

Begin by taking pride in doing one thing at a time. Realise that you can only be the best to you, when you’re being one single you at any single time.

The Dirty Old Mirror

Over the next week or so I’ll begin sharing a range of Field Guides that I’ve written, designed for use by individuals and, hopefully, consumable without the need of any additional support, that will guide you through the process of using the Hard Not Complicated approach to creativity in your personal and professional life.

During the process of writing these Field Guides I noticed a tension building in me. There was something I was trying to achieve that I didn’t feel I was reaching. Something unspoken. While meditating yesterday I had a realisation, suddenly I could see what was at the heart of my concerns. I had allowed an assumption to creep in. A belief of sorts. And the statement was this:

“These writings should constitute a complete, one pass solution, from start to finish.”

I had never consciously chosen this goal nor examined this belief. It crept up on me. This goal, this belief, was unachievable. Certainly for me! I concede that there may be a writer out there able to produce a work of such subtle complexity that simply by reading it from start to finish the consumer would come to a complete, life changing and irreversible realisation of absolute truth. Alas I am not that writer.

And besides, my entire approach to change is built on the antithesis of this idea. Change isn’t a one pass activity. Real change happens when we choose, repeatedly, to focus on and work on something.

Armed with this insight I was able to let go of this overwhelming and unreasonable pressure. I felt a lightness and clarity which, on further contemplation, I developed into a visualisation that I’d like to share with you.

Imagine that you’ve just take up residence in a beautiful old country house with wide, open grounds around it, left to you by some wealthy distant relative. On your second day you decide to pause the unpacking and explore some of your new home. In an old outhouse you find some bits and pieces, some old chairs, some pieces of art. And under a pile of dusty, dirty rags, a beautiful old mirror in a brass frame.

You bring the mirror indoors and set it on the kitchen table. It’s covered in layers of grime and dust, you’re probably the first to see it in years. You grab a jiffy cloth and a glass cleaning spray and begin to clean.

At first all the happens is you smear the dirt this way and that. But you don’t give up. Gently you wipe the glass. Time after time, wiping away the layers of dirt. Sometimes you come across a particularly stubborn patch, giving it some extra attention until the crud breaks down and wipes away.

Again, and again you wipe the surface and gradually the shinning mirror finish begins to show through. You see your nose, distorted at first through a smudge, and then clear. Then your eyes and your eyebrows. A few more wipes and you can see your mouth, then your chin. Finally your entire image is clear, beaming back at you from the pristine surface.

This process, cleaning a dirty old mirror, is very much like the process of real change. If you’d taken a chisel to the mirror and tried to crack through the layers of dirt, all the way through to the glass in one go, well that wouldn’t end well.

Real change happens when we focus on a gradual process of learning. Sometimes it won’t feel as if anything is changing. Sometimes parts of the process will happen more slowly than others. Some parts will require more focused attention while other parts will come easily. But all you need to do is keep working away, steadily and with purpose.

When you come to work through the Daily Practice Field Guide for the first time it might be tempting to try to take a chisel and get to the very bottom of it in one go. The pervasive ideal of one shot redemption, the grand, world changing realisation or life altering moment of clarity, makes us yearn for those moments. I don’t know if they exist, and if they do they’re rare and unreliable. Far better to place your faith not in miracles but in your own strength and perseverance.

Begin by finding one authentic insight and follow it with curiosity and and open mind. Then, when you’re ready, come back and repeat the process. As time goes by, with each pass, you’ll see more of yourself, reveal more and understand more. Change is a process. Like cleaning a dirty mirror, every pass, however gentle, brings you closer to seeing the complete picture.