August 6th, 2013
I once visited the Nobel museum, where they had a documentary about the conditions that birthed the most Nobel prize insights. Two situations seemed to do it; wartime and being at Oxford. Their hypothesis was that Oxford bias wasn’t because of intelligence (no more so than other places where brilliant minds congregate) but rather because once at Oxford, all other mundane cares are handled (cleaning, cooking, lodging, etc.) which allows a complete focus on the burning questions at hand. Wartime also seems to serve a focusing role. With so much else removed from the field of distraction, the starkness of the situation seems to bring a new sense of urgency to the work. External circumstances that create focus drive better outputs.
Another driver for optimal innovation is the internal climate, or the mind state, of the individual. Insight comes at strange times. When we least expect it. A mind that is primed with information then allowed to defocus, to relax, to switch gears, is blindingly insightful. Meditation, flowing water, time in nature, running, swimming, listening to certain kinds of music, any thing or activity that gets the mind off the problem and in a deeply relaxed state allows the brain to make deeper and indirect connections on topics and problems. Relaxation isn’t a luxury, my workaholic friends, it’s required. Quieting the mind through moving the body, breathing, getting into flow, should be a block on the calendar. Another aspect of this is stepping out of the familiar on a regular basis. The mind needs to be exercised. It needs to see new places and things and have new kinds of dialogues with new people who hold differing perspectives.
A third element that seems to prime insight environments is networked cultures. The interrelated attitudes and supports of the people and ideas we are connected with. The expectations of friend groups, organizations, and even regional cultures and subcultures set a tonal quality that can elicit or quell new ideas. The culture of the San Francisco Bay Area respects, maybe even reveres, personal idiosyncrasies. The air itself here seems curious about ways of thinking differently, the water delightfully asks, “What’s next?” This seems to consistently uplevel new ideas. Who we spend time with and where we spend it matters, and here we spend it on the shoulders of giants, of history and each other.
What You Can Borrow for Yourself and Your Organization
Here are some simple suggestions to create the conditions (internal, external and in between) that will elicit your best insights.
- Eliminate distractions: Get your money, relationships and health on solid footing. When any one of these are not working you are disabled. Impose media and social media discipline. Cut 50% of your activities off your to do list and leave only things that relate to your burning question.
- Create your open mind space: Learn how and then create a trance space for yourself. Shut down the analytical mind on a daily basis as if it were a biological need. Create for yourself playdates, time and space to experiment. Some say psychedelics also fall into this category, but those are illegal in America right now, unless in a controlled experiment.
- Connect with other bright dots: Find or drive a connective exploratory culture and community. Ask different kinds of questions. Ask, “What if…? ” Ask, “Why…?” Ask, “What can I learn?” Talk to people who seem very, very different from you. Have some stock questions that you can ask anyone you meet. Be a different kind of channel: find people to learn from and people that you can teach what you know. They may be the same people.
June 20th, 2012
When I was small, and was lurking or bored, my grandmother would look me in the eye and say ‘make yourself useful’. She didn’t tell me what to do, she told me to look around and see what needs doing. I took this for granted, that that was the way people think, the way they are raised and trained: to look around the room and identify the most important things that need doing that they are capable of and then go do them. This early training in how to see problems is probably a key reason why I became an entrepreneur and business owner, and run a pretty trim household (thanks Oma).
But its not the case. Many many people simply wait to be told what to do. This is confusing to me as a citizen, friend, employer.
If you want to be indispensable, central, important to an organization, this has to change- you have to start thinking like an owner. Some things are obvious- they need to be done and they are in the bailiwick of your current role. Some things may need buy-in.
Assuming you already know what your organization does, what it’s strategy is, and who it serves- when seeking how to add value, take a look around your workplace- no matter where you fit in the structure, ask yourself:
- What needs to be done? Where is there opportunity?
- What hasn’t been considered? What isn’t being done well?
- Where can we be more efficient? Where do we streamline?
- What are the priorities? What creates the most value?
- What do our clients need? What do our customers need?
- What do my colleagues need?How can I be helpful?
I guarantee that if you are asking these questions on a regular basis, you are going to find some pretty big places to add value- and impress people by simply organizing your thoughts and making the case for improvements. Quickly, you become not only useful, but indispensable. You become one of the people who create improvements, positive change.
The threshold version of making yourself useful is simply not making yourself a burden. If someone gives you a monkey, never throw the monkey back to them. That is to say, if a thing is delegated to you to do, figure it out. Ask for clarification and then be resourceful and get it done. Only if you really hit a difficult place or need advice, are absolutely stuck- do you go back for more guidance. It’s not social hour- it’s work. Make good use of everyone’s time- the last think you want is for someone to be thinking, “if I have to explain it this much I might as well do it myself.” Because then you ARE dispensable. And we both know that you are much bigger and better and can play a more impactful role than that.
So get out there, and make yourself useful. It’s your own personal lifetime employment act.
March 16th, 2012
New post…. Some things not to build a business plan on- on the importance of creating a sustainable, segmentable, reachable target market, and doing the groundwork upfront to validate that this market exists. READ MORE.
January 20th, 2012
In a democracy, bounded by place and geography, we vote for constraints on capitalism and corporate activities so that everyone, on balance, can live a better life, a decent life.
We vote for things that enhance the commons and the long term prospects of our culture, like environmental protections, child labor laws, workplace safety, toxin labeling, mandatory education. These constraints increase short term costs and may either increase prices or decrease profits. Citizens in a democracy are willing to accept that tradeoff- because while they like to make money, they ALSO want a country with good infrastructure, vibrant culture, research that will benefit the long term health of the population, a level economic playing field, clean air and water, a way to take care of the people who fall through the cracks in the society, and opportunities to thrive in their life in other ways. Read the rest of this entry »
December 19th, 2011
Visiting San Quentin State Prison, and What I Didn’t See Coming
A few weeks ago I got the chance to visit San Quentin and speak with a community of prisoners who are working on personal transformation. What a surprise.
Unexpected thing #1: At San Quentin state prison, men with life eligible sentences play doubles tennis on the yard. Unexpected thing #2: These men (who have at some point killed another person) and I? We are more alike than I previously ever imagined. Unexpected thing #3: They are engaged in a year long program to become non-violent persons and peacemakers, and have taken a student peacekeeper pledge that many people ‘on the outside’ can partake in. Read the rest of this entry »
December 6th, 2011
I don’t “not hire people” because they lack the right pedigree. I don’t hire them because I almost always give a few test assignments, paid, to see how they will do. I give a lot of people the chance at work, especially people who seem to have a spark, but who don’t have the officially correct background (eg, the screening mechanisms and signifiers such as degrees and credentials and experience) and I, or someone on the team, will explain and teach as needed. It’s a chance to be a self starter and make something happen…if you’re a fast learner and you show up, we have a beautiful thing. If not, no big risk either way.
What I am finding is that there are some basic work skills that people just don’t have, and they aren’t related to education. They are however, related to teachability, and to accountability. These skills speak volumes to how easy it might be to work with you over the long haul.
Does this seem like tough love? Read the rest of this entry »