Starting From Success

June 12, 2015

Interesting little story found in a recent post by James Altucher on learning new skills:

Tony Robbins told me about when he was scared to death on his first major teaching job.

He had to teach a bunch of Marines how to improve their sharpshooting. “I had never shot a gun in my life,” he said.

He studied quite a bit from professionals but then he came up with a technique that resulted in the best scores of any sharpshooting class before then.

He brought the target closer.

He put it just five feet from them. They all shot bullseyes. Then he moved it back bit by bit until it was the standard distance.

They were still shooting bullseyes.

Goals And Balanced Conversations

June 10, 2015

I’ve been thinking once again about personal goals and opportunities. In this context I stumbled across this interesting analogy on the blog of Steve Pavlina:

I find goal setting extremely valuable, but even after doing it for about 15 years now, I’m still making new distinctions. When I set the right goal, it works wonders. But when I set the wrong goal, it just gets in my way. My understanding of the “right” goals are that they serve to expand my consciousness and cause me to stretch as opposed to tying me to the past or restricting my opportunities.

There are times in life when we need clear goals and other times when living goal-free is better. For example, when I started this web site, I set a lot of clear goals. Some of those, like setting traffic and income targets, really helped me stay focused. But after reaching the point of sustainable positive cashflow, I consciously decided to relax my goals a bit and spend a few months living goal-free to allow some new ideas to incubate. As I come out of this period, however, I’ll once again be returning to more focused goal-setting.

Proper goal-setting is like having a conversation. You need the right balance of talking and listening. If you talk all the time, you derail the conversation. If you listen all the time, you become a passive observer instead of an active participant. When you realize you’ve been talking too much, it’s time to spend more time listening, which is equivalent to goal-free living. But when you’ve been passive long enough, it’s time to take a more active role and start letting the universe know what you want.

The tricky part comes when both are going on at the same time, which in my case is quite common e.g. working to a goal, say a deadline for a complex project and then, perhaps later in the day, creatively exploring different ways forward (which may easily yield no immediate or obvious results as ideas need time to incubate). Admittedly you could regard this as a goal in itself but I think that is really semantics and, in a way, misses the point.

However, the insight above made me realise that it’s helpful to be simply fully aware of the mode you’re in and to judge results and progress accordingly.

It could also help understand why brainstorming sessions can often be unproductive. If participants have been busy on goal work and are then asked to move to more creative free-form work this could easily lead to conflicts. The best brainstorming sessions often involve a change of location, atmosphere etc to encourage this mode change.


May 1, 2015


I’m always surprised at what you can learn through casual remarks and asides.

I have the habit of taking out far more library books than I ever have the time to read. At the moment I’ve put them in three different piles on the floor of the living room, mainly to goad me to try them out! They’re a mix of fiction and non-fiction.

To reduce the reading list, I recently decided to return two (skimmed through but not read) to the library. After doing this, and then some browsing around, I found myself leaving with four additional books.

They were all fiction: Llosa, Isherwood, Mankell and Camilleri. I used to be a fan of Isherwood so I thought it would be fun to revisit, Llosa – well I’d always wanted to read one of his books (I had a Brazilian girlfriend at one time and she recommended him to me) and so on.

I mean, with so many temptations, how can you resist? So, overall, a net increase in books to read…

Anyway, whilst checking them out, I mentioned my quandary to the assistant and she responded with a single mysterious word “Tsundoku”. I then learnt that there was a Japanese word for this, how amazing!

Now I need to find out if there is a word for “regularly learning something quite surprising from casual asides” 🙂

Picture credit: Reprinted from LOST IN TRANSLATION © 2014 by Ella Frances Sanders. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Top 20 Reasons Startups Fail

March 30, 2015

Top 20 Reasons Startups fail

Based on the analysis mentioned here.

Rising Above The OK Plateau

March 18, 2015

From Brain Pickings:

Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. After about fifty hours of training — whether in skiing or driving — people get to that “good-enough” performance level, where they can go through the motions more or less effortlessly. They no longer feel the need for concentrated practice, but are content to coast on what they’ve learned. No matter how much more they practice in this bottom-up mode, their improvement will be negligible.

The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have yet to perfect, on correcting what’s not working in their game, and on refining their mental models of how to play the game, or focusing on the particulars of feedback from a seasoned coach. Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.

This probably also applies in work situations as well, where skills are rapidly acquired in the early stages of careers but can then easily hit a plateau by encountering the ‘that’s how we do it here’ barrier which naturally stifles further improvement. In fact, in annual appraisals, I can’t ever remember getting the question ‘what have you learnt this year’, it was always ‘what have you achieved this year’.

In a related theme, I came across an interesting article on Ten Simple Rules for Lifelong Learning inspired by the works of the famous mathematician Richard Hamming (my emphasis in bold):

From Rule 6:

As Hamming says, because “there are so many ways of being wrong and so few of being right, studying successes is more efficient, and furthermore, when your turn comes you will know how to succeed rather than how to fail.” In addition, he notes that “vicarious learning from the experiences of others saves making errors yourself”

From Rule 8:

A prerequisite, of course, is native talent. But even for the talented, no amount of utilizing smart methods can substitute for sheer duration of effort. Gladwell has suggested that about 10,000 hours of application are needed to become a true expert in a particular field. While some have quibbled with the universal validity of this suggestion, we think it is a fairly good estimate of what you need to put in. Also, these long hours need to be quality time without distractions. Easy to say, hard to do.

Rule 9 (Have a Vision to Give You a General Direction) states:

A key to learning how to learn is to be economical and to structure your efforts according to the general direction in which you want to move. Hamming writes: “It is well known the drunken sailor who staggers to the left or right with n independent random steps will, on the average, end up about √n steps from the origin. But if there is a pretty girl in one direction, then his steps will tend to go in that direction and he will go a distance proportional to n.”

You too need an attractive vision of where you want to go. As Hamming points out, “having a vision is what tends to separate the leaders from the followers.”

Finally I’d say that a really important skill to develop is the ability to listen to, try to understand deeply and then have the courage and humility to act on advice from people with a much larger vision that yourself. I’ve rarely done this myself and know of few other people that have, but looking back over my career it’s something I certainly could have given more attention to. Here’s a sample story (see the bottom bit). This relates to Rule 9 above of course, but only in an indirect manner.

The Rosie Project

September 2, 2014

I’m a member of a local book club and due to this I come across books I probably wouldn’t read or even hear about otherwise. One such that I liked a lot was The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It’s written in a simple style but contains lots of humour and insights especially on the sometimes perplexing and conflicting roles of logic and emotions.

The author was formerly an IT specialist (data modeling) and founder of a business and IT consultancy, so quite a career change, although he seems a bit of a natural polymath anyway.

From a review in The Guardian:

As first sentences go, “I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem” has possibilities as an instant classic. But is this a dark murder story or a self-help relationship tome? Well, neither: it’s an endearing romantic comedy, and the narrator, professor of genetics Don Tillman (39, tall, intelligent and employed: “Logically I should be attractive to a wide range of women”), is an undiagnosed Asperger’s type who Simsion uses to explore how a grown autistic man might approach a romantic relationship…

Warm-hearted and perfectly pitched, with profound themes that are worn lightly, this very enjoyable read promises to put Don Tillman on the comic literary map somewhere between Mr Pooter and Adrian Mole. Through his battles to understand and empathise with other humans, Don teaches us to see the funny side of our own often incomprehensible behaviour – and to embrace the differently abled.

By coincidence, it’s also one of Bill Gates’ recommended summer reads:

Melinda picked up this novel earlier this year, and she loved it so much that she kept stopping to read passages to me. I started it myself at 11 p.m. one Saturday and stayed up with it until 3 the next morning. Anyone who occasionally gets overly logical will identify with the hero, a genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who goes looking for a wife. (Melinda thought I would appreciate the parts where he’s a little too obsessed with optimizing his schedule. She was right.) It’s a funny and profound book about being comfortable with who you are and what you’re good at. I’m sending copies to several friends and hope to re-read it later this year. It is one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read in a long time.

For completeness, there’s some additional counterviews here, which emphasise that the real world situation is a lot more complicated.

Anyway, well worth a read.

Is Learning From Mistakes Overrated?

October 6, 2011

I’m currently rereading Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (of 37 Signals) which challenges some of the conventional thinking about setting up and running a small business.

It contains the following interesting snippet:

Another common misconception: you need to learn from your mistakes. What do you really learn from mistakes? You might learn what not to do again, but how valuable is that? You still don’t know what you should do next.

Contrast that with learning from your successes. Success gives you real ammunition. When something succeeds, you know what worked – and you can do it again. And the next time, you’ll probably do it even better.


Success is the experience that actually counts.

That shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s exactly how nature works. Evolution doesn’t linger on past failures, it’s always building upon what worked. So should you.

In business there’s often a lot of hand-ringing about not repeating the same mistakes and regarding all projects as ‘learning and growing’ experiences (there’s also an enormous amount written about all this).

In my experience, failures are often overly gloomy and successes overly optimistic (which is perhaps just human nature at work). However successes rarely get the attention they need and deserve – it seems it’s just like the news where positive and uplifting items rarely feature!

Shannon McNally And “She Belongs To Me”

February 14, 2011

I’m a fan of Neal Casal and casually browsing came across an 8-track album “Ran On Pure Lightening” he released in 2002 that also featured Shannon McNally (someone I hadn’t heard of).

Investigating further I came across this impressive cover of Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me“.

The video, by Daniel Morrow, looks and sounds excellent in HD and full screen (click on full screen icon next to vimeo above).  Go here for more info.

More Shannon McNally videos here.

The Secret Of Happiness

October 9, 2010

From William Morris:

“The secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”

Noticed at The Happiness Project.

Houses In Winchester

August 28, 2010

I went to Winchester last weekend to have a look around and came across this series of houses. Quite eye-catching, especially as the others were of the drab grey variety as seen on the right in the photo above.

I was wondering if they all belonged to the same person and they decided on the overall colour scheme or whether neighbours talked amongst themselves and agreed on who was going to have what colour. Or maybe the painters decided themselves?

Anyway, good to have some collective boldness!