A Scary Lack Of Imagination

February 10, 2014

According to security firm SplashData, here’s the top 10 most-used passwords for 2013:

  1. 123456
  2. password
  3. 12345678
  4. qwerty
  5. abc123
  6. 123456789
  7. 111111
  8. 1234567
  9. iloveyou
  10. adobe123

SplashData’s top 25 list was compiled from files containing millions of stolen passwords posted online during the previous year. The company advises consumers or businesses using any of the passwords on the list to change them immediately.

From the picture below, produced by another company Dashlane, it’s clear that this is not helped by the fact that there’s often little encouragement to actually use much better passwords (full details here).



From this infographic

Starting Projects Through Fiddling

February 6, 2014

I often start projects through fiddling around with bits and pieces of ideas and approaches I’ve previously developed. However some of these activities don’t always lead to anything substantial, just other bits and pieces. This can be fun and enlightening but I often think I’d feel better about the time and effort I put in if I ended up further down the road to ‘completion’. I expect this situation is fairly common.

On this subject, over the weekend I came across a related observation from the Macdrifter blog:

My second least favorite part of me is that I meander more than I’d like. I’m a big proponent of fiddling. All of my favorite things came out of fiddling. But I’d like to fiddle more constructively and actually finish things more often than not. I’m too easily excited and frustrated.

My plan to overcome this cultivated defect:

  • Make a plan before spending more than 10 minutes on an idea
  • Write down the goal before making a plan
  • Work on the plan every day for a week (if it takes that long)
  • Avoid scope creep and stick to the plan
  • Choose the projects wisely and review them often

I quite like the points made as this has the possibility of countering what often happens in practice. You get an idea and then investigate it a bit – the possibilities seem endless and exciting! However, as he says, if you’ve spent over 10 minutes on this, it’s really time to stop and think out a simple plan and goal (especially goal).

I think just doing this one thing would be worth it’s weight in gold, even to the extent of briefly recording alternative plan options for hindsight purposes.

The next part is discipline; actually constraining yourself to focus and deliver and not get distracted. A week is actually quite a long time, enough time to know if there’s something useful there or not.

Finally, reviewing projects often and honestly (and hopefully wisely). This is probably the area I need to improve on most.

In my opinion ‘smart reviewing’ is quite a skill. The ability to openly and honestly assess progress (and to re-evaluate how realistic goals are) – both necessarily rather fuzzy characteristics in the bigger picture – is not that common.

Related to this, see also this post on obliquity (why our goals are best achieved indirectly).

Visual Stories In Five Seconds

February 3, 2014


A film director – any guesses?

The answer, and more examples, can be found on Pinterest. The pictures are taken from a fascinating book, Life in Five Seconds: Over 200 Stories for Those With No Time to Waste.

I’m playing around with using this ultra-compact style for summarising (to myself) some business ideas I’ve recently had. It forces you to cut out everything that is inessential (no words allowed)…

It might be helpful to you too?

Skills For The 21st Century

January 29, 2014

On the 4th February, you can watch or listen live to a summit being held at the RSA on the above topic:

As of September 2014, the UK will make computer programming part of its national K-12 curriculum, making it the first G20 country to put coding at the centre of education reform.

Inspired by this ambitious policy, Codecademy, Index Ventures, Kano, Pearson and the RSA convene a thought-provoking gathering to re-imagine “Skills for the 21st Century.” Together with international policymakers, business leaders and today’s most exciting education entrepreneurs, we will explore how to fix one of the most disturbing challenges faced by this generation: youth unemployment and the shortage of job seekers with relevant skills.

During the day, we will re-imagine a basic school schedule and the new approaches needed to teach each subject, with sessions on Entrepreneurship, Coding, Maths, Arts & Humanities, Science & Engineering and Design.

Hopefully they’ll discuss multidisciplinary aspects – I’ve always thought that breaking subjects down into strict domains was unnecessarily limiting, as showing or encouraging links can often be just as important.

And it’s not all theory, the 11 year-old daughter of a friend of mine is fascinated by Design through discussions and activities at school, as Design & Technology is a taught subject!

Why not contribute your views? Twitter: @SKILLSsummit

How To Start The Day

January 20, 2014


I started planning my new work regime for 2014 in mid-December last year. Unfortunately, probably like a lot of other people, it’s still not started! However I came across an infographic recently (see above) which helpfully reminded me of a few basics plus adding some new viewpoints.

My comments, from left to right:

(Twain) Worst/hardest thing first – I can still clearly remember a Japanese collaborator telling me to always start the day with the task you’re least looking forward to – this is surprising as this was over 30 years ago! I do this sporadically but it’s excellent advice. In the infographic above it’s the hardest thing first, which is a bit different but similar.

(Robbins) Visualising the day – I’ve never actually done this, so something to try. I’ve tried visualising my future (in five years time and so on) but have never found that very compelling. Perhaps a shorter term period, like a day or week, might work?

(Obama) Working out – when I started to work freelance one of the first things I did was to buy myself an exercise bike. I’ve found that using it at the start of the day certainly made a big (positive) impact. However, in hindsight, my exercise expectations were too unrealistic to make it stick, so I’ll aim for more modest aspirations in the next few weeks. Hopefully it’ll become a habit.

(Karp) Real work versus email/feeds/twitter – looking at info is the the first thing I do most days and, one way and another, it seems to take at least an hour and then it’s throughout the day. I’ve attempted to delay looking but have always failed. However I’m now going to try this for a week to see if I can manage it.

(Newmark) Customers first – currently, for me, this is something rather indirect as I’m (in the main) spending my time writing a book. However it’ll be interesting and hopefully motivating to start to think this way – see also here.

(Jobs) Why are you doing any of this anyway? That’s a hard one! I guess, even if it’s a seemingly small step, like finishing a book section, it’s still leading to something worthwhile and fulfilling when browsing emails and news feeds (and procrastinating in general) isn’t.

The overall feel I get from the advice above is that it’s important to dictate the pace of the day rather than having it determined for you and this is best done by taking a step away from it several times during the day. Tools and systems are secondary and can often be a distraction in themselves.

As an aside, you often read that habits take 21 days to establish. Not unsurprisingly giving any date for this is questionable, although a daunting 66 days seems to be the current best estimate – see here:

The bottom line is: stay strong. 21 days is a myth; habit formation typically takes longer than that. The best estimate is 66 days, but it’s unwise to attempt to assign a number to this process. The duration of habit formation is likely to differ depending on who you are and what you are trying to do. As long as you continue doing your new healthy behaviour consistently in a given situation, a habit will form. But you will probably have to persevere beyond January 21st.

Picture credit: here.

Goals And Key Conversations

January 13, 2014


“Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can.” – Unknown

I came across this quote a couple days ago and it got me thinking, especially as I’m doing an annual review of sorts. The quote is helpful as it emphasises that goals and personal development (for want of a better phrase) can be strongly interlinked. Doing one can change the other and vice versa, it’s an evolving system.

There’s a lot of discussion on whether you should even set goals at all of course, whether they are just too confining and mechanical. In practice I guess I go through phases of having a concrete goal and then, almost as a reaction, to being more free-form just to ‘see what happens’. It may not be the most efficient approach but it does allow me to produce as well as to feel like I’m having fun. For instance, I’ve written over 80 posts on this blog this year plus about a quarter more as draft ideas that I decided not to publish plus a load of other book-related material.

For the first time, I’ve also been keeping a personal journal so I can better understand where my time and effort goes. I’ve tried various approaches but the most natural so far seems to be a ‘stream of consciousness’ method where ideas, web links, tasks etc all get captured and noted simply as they occur. I don’t tag or categorise as so far I haven’t found either helpful (I found I spent more time fiddling with my system that actually gaining any benefit from it). That’s probably because the outliner software I’m using (although excellent in it’s own way) doesn’t quite match my work/research flow (see aside below).

Looking through the journal entries for last year, it becomes quickly apparent that I tried to do too many things and conversely, there are an infinite number of interesting thing to try! Thank you internet.

To get good at anything takes time and discipline and to get even better takes even more time and discipline. So you have to make some hard choices on what you’re (mainly) going to focus on. Having some flexibility is important though as it allows for serendipity and the ability to change plans, sometimes in big ways.

However, apart from these generalities, perhaps the biggest insight I got was the importance of key conversations. All the best ideas got going through them, I can even remember each one quite clearly.

A conversation with a friend on something that really interests you, when perhaps you’re feeling a bit fed up or unsure, can be worth it’s weight in gold. A couple of minutes of positive and/or imaginative conversation can easily exceed hours of surfing for inspiration or ideas. You need both but, in hindsight, I spent too much time researching/thinking and not enough conversing! I expect this is fairly common.

Even though I wanted to talk on specialised topics (which I thought would not necessarily be of great interest), I found that:

  • People like to help and to feel that they can help (in their own, special individual way).
  • Some things are so obvious you need someone else to point them out to you (wood for the trees syndrome). Don’t worry when they’re astounded that you hadn’t realised the blindingly obvious as it usually works both ways.
  • Some ideas take ages to incubate, that’s just how it is, so don’t fight it. Friends might be surprised at the apparent lack of progress, but just feel lucky that change is happening at all!

From this, one novel ‘goal’ for 2014 would be to have more conversations with an ever wider group of acquaintances and friends on topics that are important to me.

I’ve never had this as a goal before so it’ll be interesting to see how this turns out. I’ll also write up details of the conversations in my journal, something I don’t usually do.

For a bit more on the role of conversation in business and research, especially the role of knowledge cafes and similar, see here.

Aside on note-taking:

There’s an innovative piece of software that might offer a more natural alignment to my work methods as it is designed to handle emergent structures. It’s mac-only and is called Tinderbox (an exciting new version is just around the corner, Tinderbox 6). One of my goals for 2014 is to get to know this software better.

Independently, the person responsible for Tinderbox, Mark Bernstein, has a really interesting blog – it’s worth a look, he certainly has a wide variety of interests (mainly books, cooking, politics and software)! There’s a good practical overview of the current version of Tinderbox here.

Whisper, Don’t Shout

December 4, 2013

Previously in my career, when I had a research position at IBM, I worked on chaos theory, more specifically, visualising the transition to chaos. It wasn’t straightforward as the system considered was multidimensional so you could only get glimpses of it’s behaviour by using 3D projections.

The approach I adopted, using texture mappings, was fairly original and lead to some useful additional insights (a summary of the joint project got published in the New Scientist Guide to Chaos).

After my research phase, I moved on to technical and finally business management (with other companies). However I’ve always been interested in how ideas taken from one (science) area can be used in another (e.g. business) and have previously written about this eg here.

One major example is the subject of ‘complexity’ where lots of people have tried using it’s ideas in many fascinating ways. A few years ago I thought I’d brush up on this and bought the book ‘Complexity: A Guided Tour’ by Melanie Mitchell as it had a good review in a technical journal.

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and before starting I thought I’d read a few reviews on Amazon. Some of these were quite negative so in the end I decided to put it on hold. This was in 2009!

Recently, spurred on by some interesting tweets about complexity from colleagues, I decided to take another look. I managed to find the book in the ‘chaos’ that is my library/study and wondered a bit more about what had put me off originally. I went back to Amazon and there are now over 60 comments (far fewer on the UK site).

I browsed around and here’s an extract from a rather thoughtful one (my emphasis in bold):

As Dr. Mitchell points out in one of the chapters, there is little agreement on what “complexity” actually entails. In such a field of emergence, it is very helpful to have a broad, rather than narrow, view. Yes, this is not a textbook to be used in a graduate class on complexity, yet that is not its purpose. However, it is my guess that even the most accomplished practitioner of one particular aspect of complexity will learn something from reading this. We are all reductionists at heart, even those who profess to be an “expert” in complexity. We would be well-served to take the recommendations of Warren Weaver who suggested that if we descend from the tower of our own experience into a common basement, we can impart information by whispering and not shouting.

I quite like the last sentence – I’ll bear all this in mind when I next look at reviews!

NB There’s a free online course linked to the book if you’re interested: Complexity Explorer.

Be Clear About Your Destination

November 1, 2013

“Don’t tell me what you invented. Tell me about who you changed.” – Seth Godin

From here.

I’ve just realised – there’s no point in my telling friends “I’m writing a book about X”, I need to say “I’m planning to change people’s views on X”, and believe it too. The book is the vehicle not the destination.

Thinking Through Your Fingers

October 27, 2013

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Isaac Asimov

Quite an interesting quote.

It’s usually easy to talk about new ideas and this is often helpful and sometimes crucial in the early, formative stages but I’ve often found that writing them down really helps to see how solid they are. Any gaps in reasoning (eg arising from the ‘we’ll sort that out later’ type of approach) become immediately and painfully apparent when you put pen to paper. Waffling on the page is so blindingly obvious!

At the same time, I’ve been surprised at how many people are quite reluctant to do this. My guess is that it’s partly because writing clearly and concisely is not a common skill and also because of the fear of the likely situation. Really, it should be viewed the opposite way round, an opportunity to appreciate and face up to problems a long time before they might appear and when they are easier (but still awkward) to handle.

A sort of low-key risk management, but far less formal.

On this general theme, see also here.

Writing Books

October 13, 2013

I’m currently attempting to write a non-fiction book but taking creative ideas used in the writing of fiction to spice things up a bit. I’ve written lots of technical articles for over 30 years and have also written for this blog for five but I’ve never written a self-contained book before. It’s really interesting learning about a whole new area!

With this in mind, yesterday I spent a pleasant hour browsing in a local book store as low-key market research. I ended up skimming through a few books in the ‘advice to aspiring authors’ section and came across loads of great ideas – it was really quite inspiring!

Bringing me back to reality, I also found this amusing remark

If all else fails remind yourself that lots of people want to write a novel but few do, and even fewer are published. As Peter Cook used to say when people told him they were writing a novel: ‘Really? Neither am I.’

Of the books on view, two that caught my attention were:

The Writer’s Little Helper by James Smith (not as basic as it sounds)

365 Ways To Get You Writing by Jane Cooper

Both are 5 stars on Amazon UK, albeit with a small number of reviews.


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