Open Thinkering

Menu

Tag: advice

40 things I’ve learned in 40 years.

Signpost showing the number 40

I turn forty years old today. Some people will be surprised at this, as my hair has been turning grey for the last 15 years!

A decade ago, I wrote a post entitled 30 things I’ve learned in 30 years. While I still agree with most of that, on reflection it just doesn’t seem particularly… deep? So, here, in no particular order are 40 things I’ve learned in 40 years:

  1. There are things you can control and things you cannot. There is no point in worrying about the latter.
  2. Inspire other people to be inspired yourself.
  3. Most people care less than you think about almost everything that you deem important.
  4. Get some therapy, even if you don’t think you need it. Especially if you don’t think you need it.
  5. Keep your options open.
  6. Sometimes it’s OK to burn your bridges and to do so in a way that other people notice.
  7. Resist the urge to suppress randomness.
  8. Nobody knows what goes on inside your head until you say it or write it down.
  9. Happiness is not something that you can find, but rather is something that you discover when you stop looking for it.
  10. Organisations are groups of people that can have a positive or negative effect on the world. Do not work with or for the latter.
  11. Money can only buy choices, not happiness, time, or anything which constitutes human flourishing.
  12. Life is too short to deal with adults who display little in the way of emotional intelligence.
  13. Listen to what people actually say.
  14. Read inspirational things often, especially quotations and proverbs. Dwell upon them.
  15. Education is not the same as learning. Nor are qualifications the same as real-world knowledge, skills, and experience.
  16. Focus on routines and rituals. Nail these and you’re (mostly) sorted.
  17. Practice eloquence. People like listening to those who have a way with words.
  18. At the end of it all, the only person who stops you doing something is yourself. Confidence is a preference.
  19. Stand for something bigger.
  20. Find somewhere that is completely quiet and you can be undisturbed. Visit it often.
  21. Ask. People can only say no.
  22. You are a human, not a machine. You don’t need to sound grown up, or professional, or ‘respectable’.
  23. Money is important only in the way that it flows (both in society, and at family/individual level).
  24. 90% of ‘success’ (as other people define it) is being in the right place at the right time, the other 10% is extremely hard work.
  25. Perfect is the enemy of done.
  26. How you do something is as important as what you say or what you do.
  27. Transparency is the best policy.
  28. Exercise more than you think you need to. When you’re young you think your body will be in peak condition forever. It won’t.
  29. Endeavour to be the least knowledgeable person in the room at any given time.
  30. There is no final authority. Seniority is a mindset.
  31. Try and explain complex things to other people as often as you can. It’s a valuable process for both parties.
  32. Travel, both literally and metaphorically. Go on journeys and adventures by yourself and with others.
  33. Let other people boast and do your PR (but don’t believe everything you see/read/hear)
  34. Writing is a form of thinking
  35. Know what you like, but don’t get stale; mix things up sometimes.
  36. Habits can make or break you, so create positive ones.
  37. Avoidance is rarely the correct option.
  38. Technology can free people or it can enslave them, so work to give as many people as much freedom as possible.
  39. Removing ego from the equation gets things done.
  40. We all will die and don’t know when, so act today in a way whereby people will remember you well.

Much of these come through my daily(ish) reading of Stoic philosophers but also come via therapy sessions, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s rules for living an antifragile life, and Dancing Fox’s Inappropriate Guidelines for Unacceptable Behaviour.


Image CC BY-NC-ND Jeronimo G+E

Some values-based career advice

Earlier this week I got an email from someone I got to know a few months ago. They asked for the kind of advice that a few people have requested from me before, and which I’d usually dispense by email. However, given that it’s advice that could potentially help a wider audience, I’ve decided (with their permission and without identifying them), to reply in the form of a blog post.


The problem

In their email, the problem stated was broadly this: they want a different kind of life, and feel slightly envious of those who seem to be able to pick and choose opportunities that fit with their values. Why can’t they seem to do the same?


Introduction

I’m going to split this post into two halves. The temptation when giving advice is to jump straight to practicalities, but it would be remiss of me not to situate it in a wider context and framework. Where am I coming from and what assumptions am I making? To explain some of that, I’m going to use three quotations to get a bit philosophical and explain my approach to life — or, at least, the approach to which I aspire.

Then, in the second half of this post, I’ll get a bit more specific with three things I think you need to be ‘successful’ and find a position that’s in line with your values. I’ll give some examples, too.


1. Philosophy

I’m a big believer in quotations to motivate you towards action. In fact, as I look up from my desk, I’ve got two on my wall directly in front of me: “THINK LESS. DO MORE” and Albert Camus’ famous “invincible summer” quote.

I thought carefully about which quotations could sum up the advice I wanted to give in this post. Two of the quotations are taken from books I look at repeatedly as part of my daily reading, while the other one I lean on when procrastinating.. I’ll save that one for last.

1a. Aim for a ‘tranquil flow of life’

One thing I’ve learned in my thirties, and particularly after having children, is that you can try too hard to bend the universe in your direction.

“Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.” (Epictetus)

That’s not to say that you should just give up and float along on the tide of popular opinion. Rather it’s a step towards living an antifragile life and a foot in the door to the world of Stoic philosophy. In that regard, I’d highly recommend purchasing Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic: 366 meditations on wisdom, perseverance, and the art of living.

Hopefully, it’s pretty clear why I’ve included this quotation first. Stoics aren’t constantly raging against the machine, but nor are they bobbing along with the tide. Everything is an opportunity to put your values to the test. As I often say to my children, “your reactions tell people more about your character than your actions.”

1b. Master yourself

Stoicism isn’t something that you just learn in your head and then you’re done. It’s something that you practice. Perhaps the thing that needs practising the most is mastering your emotions.

“There’s no greater mastery than mastery over yourself and your emotions; it amounts to a triumph of free will.” (Baltasar Gracián)

I didn’t realise just how importance emotional stability was until I saw how hiring and promotion works within most organisations. We’ll get into the specifics in the second half of this post, but it’s a huge advantage both to you and those you work with if they can rely on your emotional stability.

For most people and organisations, they’ll favour reliability over brilliance every day of the week. I suppose that’s mainly because they don’t want people who may end up being a liability. When I’m hiring, I’m perhaps a little more tolerant of the ups and downs of emotional and creative life, but nevertheless I want to know that someone on my team isn’t likely to regularly have emotional meltdowns.

Anyone who knows me might well laugh at my giving this advice, as it’s perhaps the thing I struggle with most. I’m getting better, and certainly more emotionally stable than a decade ago, but (like everything!) it’s a constant work in progress.

1c. Make the jump

When all is said and done, the person who holds you back the most in your life and career is… you. That little voice in the back of your head, the thing Steven Pressfield calls The Resistance, is responsible for irrational fear, self-censorship, and missed opportunities.

“Leap, and the net will appear.” (John Burroughs)

I find this six-word quotation to be extremely powerful. It reassures me that things won’t be as bad as I think, and that at the end of the day I’ll be OK. The thing that’s likely to be damaged most if O do need the ‘net’ is my ego. And I can deal with that.

It’s worth saying that I’m all too aware that I’m writing this from a position of white, male, middle-class privilege. I get that. But at the same time, I see a lot of people scared to apply for a job that they feel under-qualified for, move to a different country, or even point to the work they’re most proud of, for fear of the consequences. You’re likely to be pleasantly surprised if you make the leap.

After all, to paraphrase Aristotle, we become brave by acting as if we were brave. Just get on and do it. And I write this as someone who has occasional anxiety issues. So send in the application, put your house up for sale, and send a link to your work to someone you admire.


2. Practical advice

OK, let’s get to some specifics. I’ve been hiring people recently for the work I’m doing on MoodleNet, so the following advice is given with that in mind. It’s also based on my career thus far, and what I’ve seen when coaching others.

I’m going to use the word ‘success’ here as a shorthand for success as defined by you. If you’re currently chasing status, I’d suggest that the first thing you need to do is re-read the previous section, reflect on what you’re trying to achieve in life, and perhaps read the story of the Mexican fisherman.

I reckon that you need (at least) these three things to be ‘successful’ in crafting the life you want to lead:

  • Proof of expertise
  • Character
  • Luck

Let’s break down what I mean by each of these, with some examples.

2a. Proof of expertise

The original question was about crafting a life that fits with your values. Let’s think about that and work backwards. To be in a position to pick and choose between what you do next, you need to either be well known enough to have people approach you, or have demonstrable skills and experience.

This is usually done through CVs or resumes that list bona fides (see examples here and here) and is what LinkedIn was set up for. It’s no good having the skills if you can’t prove that you’ve got them. That’s why I’ve been so interested and supportive of the Open Badges work over the last few years; it’s a way of demonstrating that you’ve got talent.

The reason eportfolios never really took off were because we still use proxies for expertise, rather than the evidence itself. So, for example, once you’ve got that PhD or have worked for Google, people aren’t asking for ‘three years project management experience’, and the like. We rely on other people’s filters that we trust to do the hard work.

When I worked at Mozilla, we hired a lot of people from the Obama For America (OFA) campaign. The OFA tech team had been lauded in the press for their work, and they (quite rightly) were snapped up by Mozilla and other tech companies as soon as they became available.

The OFA example is illustrative because it’s an example of volunteering for a role that becomes a stepping-stone to bigger and better things. The old advice was ‘dress for the job you want’. Nowadays, I’d say ‘volunteer for the job you want’. When I found out about Open Badges, I started volunteering and showing some leadership in the Mozilla community. A year later, I was flown to San Francisco by the MacArthur Foundation to judge the DML Competition, and was offered a job by Mozilla.

Show up. Put the work in. But also be aware of things that might act as a shortcut that you could use a springboard into your next gig.

2b. Character

To have a position that fulfills you and meshes with your values, you have to know what your values actually are. The reason I include ‘character’ here is not just because of the facet of ‘resilience’ or ‘grit’ (to which it seems to have been reduced recently, but all of the other things that it connotes.

To me, an individual’s character flows from their values, what they stand for. Perhaps I’m becoming middle-aged, but it seems that a lot of the problems with today’s society is that people don’t stand for anything other than individualism and whatever late-stage capitalism can offer them. You don’t have ‘values’ and demonstrate character just because you purchase one brand instead of another.

There’s an episode of Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast cleverly entitled Don’t just do something, stand there. He explains that we’re always concerned with being seen to do something, rather than taking our time to figure out whether something should be done. That ability to stand firm in the face of adversity, criticism, or resistance, is more than just resilience, it’s character.

When it comes to your career, it means deciding on what it is that you’re willing to accept, and what you’re not. It may have a negative effect on how much money you earn.

I remember once meeting a couple of people at a conference somewhere in Europe. They’d both been hired by a pretty shady university that’s routinely accused of predatory practices. Rather naively, they assumed that they would be able to maintain their personal values while working for an employer that was 180-degrees opposed to them. I assume that they’ve either now abandoned those values, or they’re no longer working for the organisation. Something has to give.

So when it comes to choosing who to work for, trust your gut. Of course, there are times when you need money to ensure the base layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are covered, but beyond that, use the Japanese concept of Ikigai to help prioritise your life. Your values don’t have real-world impact unless you’re willing to give something up in order to stick to them.

2c. Luck

As a society, as parents, as colleagues, we don’t talk enough about the role of luck, fortune, or serendipity and how it applies to success. For example, let’s take Tyler Blevins, who my eleven year-old son knows better through his Fortnite gamer handle ‘Ninja’. This is a guy who seems to be an overnight success.

But, digging deeper, you see that not only has he put in the hard yards, he also just happened to be at the right place at the right time. He ‘plays’ (i.e. practises) Fortnite six hours every day, and has been a professional e-sports player since 2009. Of course, even before that as a teenager he would have been practising and practising.

What sets Blevins apart is that he happened to start playing Fortnite at just the right time, just after its release. He couldn’t have known at the time that it would be the biggest free-to-play console game of all time, and a cultural phenomenon. Blevins is now earning a million dollars per month because he was in the right place at the right time with the right skills and character.

So how, I hear you ask, do I ‘get lucky’? Well, I’d suggest that you need to increase what I call your ‘serendipity surface’. If you’re in an occupation that has a strict path to career progression (for example in medicine or the legal profession) then by all means, focus on the narrowly-defined criteria that circumscribes your success.

If, however, you’re like the rest of us and deal in with a world that is more malleable and ambiguous, then a different approach can pay dividends. There’s a reason I travel so much. It’s to meet new people, be exposed to ideas that might not always be shared online, and to experience places that open my mind. These days, we gain a competitive advantage by connecting the dots in new and novel ways. That depends, of course, on knowing where the dots are.

In order to ‘get lucky’, then, means increasing the likelihood of being in the right place at the right time with the right skills. You’re unlikely to be able to do that by experiencing the same 9-5 grind, day in, day out.

Conclusion

We live in a world of huge opportunity. I’m reminded of one comedian’s comment that we have access to much of the entire store of human knowledge available in our pockets, yet we use smartphones to send cat pictures to our friends.

Plenty of people will give you advice on how you can get a leg up in your industry. That counsel, of course, is always looking in the rearview mirror. It’s about what’s worked before, not about what’s likely to work next. You don’t have to follow tried-and-tested paths if you don’t want to. Find topics and people you find interesting, and find out more about them. You don’t have to be a cog in someone else’s machine.

This is turning into an epistle, and there’s still a lot more I could say. So, if you’re interested, I’m happy to do some one-to-one coaching through my consultancy business. Otherwise, please do feel free to comment (anonymously, if you wish) and I’ll do my best to expand on anything I’ve written so far.

3 things I’ve learned from 200 weeks of sending out an email newsletter

Doug Belshaw's Thought Shrapnel

Every week, nearly 1,000 people receive my newsletter in their inboxes. Entitled Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel it’s an irreverent look at the intersection of education, technology, and productivity. People seem to like it, which is why this Sunday I’ll be sending out issue 200!

Here’s some things I’ve learned along the way. I hope it’s of use to those thinking of starting up their own newsletter in 2016. 🙂

1. You are the most important audience

Even if you’re productive and have great workflows, it still takes time to curate and craft a newsletter. You need to motivate yourself to do it every week, as consistency is key to developing an audience.

I’ve developed a few ways to ensure I send out a newsletter on a regular basis:

  • I only share links I find interesting. My single criterion is “would I like to see this in someone else’s newsletter?”
  • I take breaks. Every year I have one, sometimes two, months where I’m off personal email and social media. I’ve extended that to my newsletter. Having downtime makes your uptime more productive.
  • I’ve started allowing sponsorships. When there’s money involved, then there’s expectation and a contract. This pays for my time, but also means I’ve got another reason to get this week’s newsletter out of the door.

2. People like commentary

Every week I get people replying to my newsletters. Those replies go direct to me, and I respond to each one. What I’ve found is that people really enjoy it when I comment on the links that I’m sharing.

We’re often exhorted to ‘add value’ in life. I think this is one example where I can do so in a pretty simple way. For example, I might point out how X is similar to Y, or how an article is based on a false premise, or juxtapose it with something else to raise a smile.

True curation is about doing more than giving people a bunch of links. It’s about presenting them with information in a way that’s going to inform or entertain to the best of my ability.

3. A little bit of personality goes a long way

I’m a fan of long-form content on the web. I have a weekly podcast with Dai Barnes called Today In Digital Education (TIDE) that often runs to an hour and a half. We discuss lots of things during that time, but even so we could go on longer. The important thing is that we attend to what’s important.

Similarly, with my newsletter, I could literally list the hundreds of links I bookmark and come across each week. But that would be of little value to my subscribers. Instead, I sift through these for the ones that either resonate with, or challenge, my worldview. That means that my newsletter isn’t a bland read: it’s opinionated and biased. But that’s OK.

Conclusion

I greatly enjoy the discipline of curating and crafting a weekly newsletter to send out every Sunday morning (UK time). If you’re reading this and don’t yet subscribe, then I hope you’ll consider doing so at thoughtshrapnel.com.

I’m also looking for sponsors for 2016. I’ve already been fortunate to have some great sponsors last year, including Makers Academy, C-Learning, and Think Associates. Get in touch if you’d like to discuss this further: hello@nulldynamicskillset.com


Many thanks to my friend and collaborator Bryan Mathers for the great logo he devised last year! For more of his work visit bryanmathers.com or follow him as @BryanMMathers on Twitter!

css.php