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Category » Baggage, Fears and Excuses « @ richard newton

To think different, change your labels

The world famous creative chefs of El Bulli know that one way to see the world with fresh eyes and find inspiration is to lose your baggage.

One way to do this is to label things differently. Labels are a necessary part of communication and thinking  but they come loaded with biases and narrow thinking. “Reality TV” for example is a useful label for a genre of entertainment but it is preloaded with  your personal prejudices.

A new label helps you look at an existing problem from a different angle and imagine new possibilities.

In their book, Modern Gastronomy A to Z: Scientific and Gastronomic Lexicon,  the chefs of El Bulli describe:

 “A colloidal dispersion of two immiscible liquids”

But you and I would just call this mayonnaise.

Be warned, there is a fine line between using verbosity to inspire creativity and letting it get in the way.

Using  pretentious words and long-winded language to make your point actually makes you seem less intelligent than keeping it simple.

An academic paper by Danny Oppenheimer of Princeton that demonstrates this is called: “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”





Beating up clowns

Hugh Romney was a political activist in the tempestuous, flower-powered, revolutionary1960s. He was frequently arrested at demonstrations. Recovering from one particularly bad beating at a protest he decided to serve as a clown at a local children’s hospital. This he felt would help his recovery from a severe post-surgical depression.

“One day I had to go to a political demonstration at People’s Park and I didn’t have time to change my clothes or take my makeup off.”

And because he “just shot down there” in a rush he discovered that he was wearing a magical cloak of protection. ” I discovered that the police did not want to hit me anymore. Clowns are safe,” he said.

The police it turns out just don’t like beating up clowns. Certainly they don’t like being filmed beating up clowns. After that Romney attended all protests as a clown.

Everyone has biases and prejudices. Most of them are unknown to us. Some prejudices cause certain groups to get beaten up more. But others can be a surprising source of protection.

Romney became known as Wavy Gravy after a pop festival in Texas. Romney was the MC and had collapsed with exhaustion on the stage and asked BB King just to play around him while he lay on the stage. You’re all “wavy gravy” said King.  And like the clown suit  – he decided to stick with it.

Ben & Jerry’s named one of their ice cream flavours after Wavy Gravy.

Ben & Jerry’s have baggage too. It’s unlikely they would ever have called an ice cream flavour, Hugh Romney.



The sugar cube factor


The whole human race – if reduced to the nucleus and electrons that make all the atoms inside us – would be the size of a sugar cube.   This explains something. We (or in any event, I) find ourselves cursed to a lessor or greater extent with a truly rubbish talent. The talent is this: However long we have to do a task we will use up all that time. Why is it so hard to stop behaving like this? I’ve been wondering about this because I have found myself hopelessly busy for a month which is why I haven’t got around to writing this blog which is something I really enjoy. Clearly this mystery is deep in our DNA. Certainly in mine. But actually it’s rooted deeper than that. It’s in our sub-atomic makeup. Now then, brace yourself, because to make sense of this will take 30 seconds of thinking about some dodgy science. Like this: The human body is made of molecules and molecules are made of atoms and atoms are made of electrons that orbit around a nucleus. But mostly there’s nothing there. The atom is 99.9999% space. The playwright, Tom Stoppard visualised the nucleus of an atom as something the size of your fist in the middle of St- Paul’s Cathedral. The orbiting electrons are like moths fluttering around it visiting the dome, the altar and then the entrance. If you squeezed out all the space inside an atom there wouldn’t be much there. And – and this is the ta-dah! moment – if you did that to all the atoms inside the entire human race, the matter you would be left with would be the size of a sugar cube. Which means we are all, each of us, just a tiny amount of matter huffing and puffing to fill a void in a human shape. And in just the same way our “tasks” are sometimes little more than ideas in our heads (or that of our boss/ partner/  colleague) that huff and puff and expand to fill the time we have available. Each task flutters around like a moth in St Pauls Cathedral and tends to occupy more valuable energy and time than it really warrants. Together all these tasks and to do lists seem endless and expand to fill exactly the amount of time we have available. The trick is to reduce the tasks to the things that matter. So for my benefit and possibly yours here are 5 tips to tackle the sugar cube factor :   Chunk it down Don’t set yourself on playing Honeysuckle Rose like Fatswaller if you haven’t read the score. Make your first target to locate the sheet music. Or get a piano. I speak from experience. Similarly you might find that sketching a site map is a more effective way to plan your time than vaguely pronouncing that you will build a website   Set out your day If I define the objectives for my day before I charge into it I suddenly find myself a man of discipline and blistering productivity. And yet other days, far too many of them,  I switch on my laptop/phone/iPad/ or other Distraction Device and get sucked in by emails that drag me and my plans around like a crazy person. My agenda is no longer my own and my energy is used up acting on the agenda of a at least a dozen other folk. There’s a lesson in there somewhere and one day I’ll learn it for good.   Do one thing at a time Switching from task to task makes us feel busy but it doesn’t make us productive. Actually, it makes us busy fools. Applying yourself to a single task and ignoring the temptations of facebook, email and twitter for say a whole hour at a time will achieve far more than hurling your concentration from social nano-event to social nano-event.   Have breaks I remember this one from studying for my School exams. It was good to have frequent breaks. Like everyone else my breaks which were so frequent they merged into one. Now that I have bills to pay life is different. But breaks – actually stopping what I’m doing to walk around, practice on Honeysuckle Rose (she doesn’t mind)  and then returning to the grindstone does work. It’s better mentally and health-wise. It also helps you get perspective on these tasks which threaten to suck you in like black holes. In fact there ‘s a well known experiment which demonstrates the benefits of physically taking a step back to get a better perspective on an issue. It works. And taking a break is similar.   Stop Remember the sugar cube factor: We will extend our tasks and slow our productivity rate to spend as long as possible to do whatever it is that needs doing. So set deadlines for your tasks. Otherwise you’ll get nothing done. You may even need to set some artificial imperative as well: Like plan to start something else at a given time or maybe just tell someone that you respect that you will get a job done by a certain time. This helps makes the commitment real. I told a friend I would write my first blog post for five weeks before the weekend… Job done. Now for Fatswaller.  


Shrink the monster


“The Monster In Your Head” is the label given by Jerry Colonna (a highly successful venture capitalist and business coach) to the imaginary fears that stop people doing The Thing;

By this I mean the thing you really want todo; The Scratching of the Itch (to quit work, start a business, learn a new sport, move to a new country, etc.)

The Monster In Your Head is a smart and humorous label for the way we each block our own path by allowing our vivid-imaginations to conjure up worst case scenarios. It almost becomes a mind game – thinking of all the worst case, what-if, possibilities; like being a script writer for your personal disaster movie.

But, like imaginary conversations, it’s no good for you.

Instead of this, what you should be doing is taking a pad of paper and asking the question: “what’s really the worst that can happen?”

Rationally and calmly analysing the worst that can happen means actually writing down the things that can go wrong. The simple act of writing down and articulating these fears immediately makes them more smaller , realistic and more manageable.

You are then left with a totally different and manageable situation to the noise of un-examined fears that otherwise swirl and scream around your head.  And that allows you to plan how to mitigate the risk.

Examining the “worst that can happen” is to look the Monster in the Eye. And at that point you may realise the monster is not as scary as you thought.

Grab a pen. Shrink the monster.



Make it public

public commitment
One of the most powerful StopTalkingStartDoing things you can do is to make your commitment public.

Of course, we’re tempted to keep our real ambitions secret so we can handle our fear of failure in private. But this is a mistake. Making it public gives you strength.

  • It makes real your determination to achieve something
  • It makes you accountable
  • It is a foundation for building a personal and supportive team
  • And the benefits kick in the moment you declare  it

On the  stoptalkingstartdoing facebook wall people are making their commitment to Start Doing something.

Here’s why it will help them:

1. Willpower: It makes real your determination to achieve something
The moment in time when we make a public commitment is the one when we’re feeling strong and determined and, maybe, exasperated with the same old pattern.
Harder days will be ahead – whether you’re giving up smoking or trying to raise cash for your business. And the temptation to give up is ever present.
But because we make the promise when we’re strong we hold ourselves to the standards of our strong positive self; our better self.
That’s the beauty of it:
It’s a kick in the pants to our weaker self.
The public declaration of your ambition states where you want to be in the future
It pulls you forward.

2. It makes you accountable. 
There are two sides to this coin: If you reap the glory of announcing your mission then you also have to tell the world if you back out and don’t give it your best shot.
This has a surprisingly material affect, listen up:
A line was drawn on a piece of paper. Researchers asked people to guess its length. Some declared their estimates publicly, others not.  When told their estimates were wrong those who kept their answers secret were tended to pretend they had never made the wrong estimate in the first place. In other words – even in this trivial example –  a public commitment helps you stay true to yourself and your promise.
Stating your commitment creates the pressure behind you not to turn back.

3. Emotional Support: It is a foundation for building a personal and supportive team
If your friends and family know about your commitment to StopTalkingStartDoing they’ll urge you on.
When you’re flagging or doubting they’ll be there to help.
They become your team.

One study showed that people facing a mountain judged it to be 15% less steep if they were standing with friends than when they were on their own. Things seem easier when your friends are with you.
Knowing what your goal is helps your team support you.
4. And it starts now.

Which is why making it public is a good way to begin.

Turning your weakness into a strength; Why the best bank robbers are ugly.


Watch any cheesy film where the hero has to fight insuperable odds and sure enough the turning point arrives when a sage advises the hero to turn their weakness into their strength.

Outside the magic world of the cinema your instinct is probably to scoff at the cliche.

But the thing about cliches is they become cliches for a reason. And the reason this cliche sticks around is because many of us are the Bruce Lee’s of finding our own weaknesses and converting them into an excuse to put a lid on our ambition.

Most of these excuses are familiar and we deal with them in the book: Stop Talking, Start Doing. You know the sort of thing: Not enough money, wrong education, not enough time in the day etc.

…and then I came across a new excuse in a report on the life benefits of your “looks”. Research by Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin showed that being good-looking helps you earn more money, find a higher-earning spouse, and get better deals on mortgages among other things.

One study shows that if you are in the bottom 15% in looks  – and yes, academics believe it is possible to classify people by something as subjective as appearance – then you will earn on average 10%-15% more than someone with an equivalent job but who is in the top 33% of looks.

Men suffer more than women from look-ist discrimination. Hamermesh’s research shows that above average looking men earn 17% more than below-average men, whereas above average women earn 12% more than below average women. This is based on a study of just under 3,000 people.

Hamermesh calls it the science of pulchronomics and says it applies across all industries: lawyers, economists, professors, sportsmen and yes – radio presenters.

So what chance have you got if you’re not born pretty? How do you follow the advice of the wise old sage and turn your weakness into a strength?

Well – it turns out there is a career according to Hamermesh where being ugly helps: Bank-robbing. He told the Sunday Times: “If you’re robbing someone, your goal is to get away fast and not have to engage in violence. If someone good-looking comes up to you, you’re not going to believe they’re robbing you. If an ugly guy comes up, you’re scared to death and give him what he wants.”

Thing is, there’s only room for so many bank-robbers in the world. And happily not everyone wants to go into this line of business. But if you think you might be suffering from a look-ist world and don’t want to rob banks then don’t think for an instant you have a bona-fide excuse to quit.

As Hamermesh said: “My advice? Suck it up, live with it, and take advantage of your good characteristics.”

And those are the ones that matter.


Thanks to Jon Marsh for the doodle 



When there’s no crowd to follow, make your own map.

“Generation Limbo” are out of luck. They have to make it on their own.

The twenty-somethings who invested in their university education to springboard themselves into a good career have found there are no jobs. They’re on their own.

As Luke Johnson recently wrote: “People don’t have any way of getting a job. They either opt out and become a bum or they become an entrepreneur.”

These aren’t the only routes but they sum it up: You can create your own job from thin air; You can quit the rat race before you start and, say, become a volunteer… or you can quit the West. Go East. Or south to Brazil. It’s a big decision.

And it’s down to you, the individual.

And as the Western economies fart and groan in their mire of debt and as each member of generation limbo seeks to make the right decision. Where do they turn for guidance?

Not the press, not the church, not the politicians and not mammon. All the players have let them down.

They turn to themselves.

A recent US study* found that the “moral unit” is no longer the group but the individual. This means that even when it comes to making decisions about the basic things: what is good and what is bad, the individual is on their own. In other words, when asked to decide whether they approve or disapprove of something the individual has to make their own mind up; the answer hasn’t been provided by society.

Asked to comment about moral dilemmas the young people interviewed typically responded with non-judgemental views. “It’s personal,” was a standard response. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

This is new. Instead of inheriting values (which is the usual path) now there’s no moral anchor but the self and how you “feel about things”. If you hadn’t learned a moral code during your school years then you would previously have learned behaviour, virtues and rules from the people you work with. But what if the twenty-something cohort can’t get work? What if this forces them to retreat further into individualism? If that’s the case – and it is – then the pressure is back on the individual.

This generational shift from finding strength in the group to locating it in the individual was evident in the political show This Week. The 25 year old  recording artist Tinchy Stryder  was asked whether he had been ambitious when he was a kid:

“Yeah I was ambitious.”

where did it come from?

“From my heart. My family helped but it came from me.”

The 57-year old politician Michael Portillo was asked the same question.

“I think for me it came externally. Because of the school I came from.”

Of course there are bucketloads of difference in background and circumstance between Portillo and Tinchy (and indeed you, me and everyone else) but the difference is still striking.

Whether it’s making up your mind how to get work, what to do for a living or a way of life, what’s right and what’s wrong, you are on your own. To a large degree this has always been the case but, previously, you could always go with the flow and follow the answers and rules provided by everyone else.

Now there’s no flow. Now you don’t have a choice. Every act is decision time.


*Lost in Transition by Christian Smith, Notre Dame University


Don’t let exam results put your plans on death row

Exams produce a number. Don’t let that number become an excuse for inaction.

One of the things the education process accidentally teaches is a really good excuse to limit your own potential.

The biggest challenge for many people on the verge of starting up a new business, pursuing a new creative direction, trying to force through change in their organisation (or their life) is recognising and overcoming their own fears and excuses.

One of these fears-and-excuses is thinking that you just aren’t up to the mark, that you don’t make the grade.

This is where education lets us down and limits our potential. By education I mean the standardised tests, the narrow measurement of intelligence which spit out a number  that tells you how smart you are. Or are not. And which thereby furnishes you with an excuse, a free opt-out card, never to start your business.

Standardised exams and tests measure specific forms of intelligence: mainly, verbal reasoning and numeracy. The forms of intelligence which are rarely measured include : linguistic, musical, mathematical, spatial, inter-personal, intra-personal, emotional, analytical, social and more. But the standardised tests focus on a small subset and reduce the “announced” intelligence of large cohorts to a number or a letter: say, B, for example.

In fact, one of the creators of the definitive test of intelligence, the IQ test, Alfred Binet rejected the idea that his test could be used as a scale of intelligence. He had designed the test to enable the identification of people who might need special schooling.

A person’s IQ score as he intended it was an indicator of how they were getting on with their development. The IQ could be measured and changed by appopriate schooling and training. He was appalled by the “brutal pessimism” of the possibility that someone would be tested once and foreverafter labelled unintelligent. And yet that is how the IQ test has been used.

In his book The Element, the creative evangelist, Ken Robinson writes of a case where an inmate on death row schools himself by passing the time in his cell reading books. He had a lot of time on his hands. After all, he was not to be executed because his IQ was below 70 when he was sentenced. Below 70 the state considers you lack the intelligence to be executed for a capital offense.

The inmate increased his IQ by reading all these books, and accidentally demonstrated the principal of the double-edged sword. That is to say that he proved one’s IQ level is not irredeemably fixed. His IQ rose above 70. And then he was executed.

The SAT exam runs a similar (but different) risk in that it says human intelligence can be summed up in a number. And again cohorts twist and tear themselves up to pass a single test which will determine their education, their life chances and perhaps their own view of themselves.

And it’s true that the number will  for most people determine their schooling and their schooling will affect their life chances. But the number is just one factor. While it serves as a useful  shorthand for your academic performance it is you and not the number that will persuade  you that your potential is forever limited and pre-ordained.

In the end it’s just a number. It’s only counts for more than that it you let it.

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