Personal Growth

Successful Simplicity Revisited

I am a big fan of Derek Sivers, and have subscribed to his email newsletters since I met him at the Business of Software conference in Boston a decade ago. Last month, a newsletter came from him titled ‘Successful Simplicity’. The crux of the newsletter is explained well in the following video:

Basically, people find complications in things that they don’t want to do, and dismiss those same complications if it is something they want to do.

To bring this concept back to my own world view: This reminded me of several discussions I have seen on music forums I frequent about changing guitar strings. Lots of people seem to find the task of changing strings quite arduous and something to be avoided unless really necessary.

I will admit, I used to think the same way, but I have learned to overcome these ‘complications’ and inconveniences and embrace this particular task lately. And believe me, I had to. With over 20 guitars around the house, and a professional musician for a son that I act as roadie/guitar tech for, there wasn’t much choice.

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It goes back to a book I was reading many years ago about the ancient Samurai warriors of Japan. Because the feudal system of the time meant constant battles against Daimyos and duels between blade masters, their long and short swords (which were considered the ‘soul’ of the warrior) were constantly getting damaged in combat, or by body oils and blood! Contrary to what is shown on the big screen, these swords needed constant care and attention to prevent corrosion and cracking of the blade. Almost every time a Samurai stopped at an inn or a castle, he would have to get out his polishing kit and perform maintenance chores on his swords.

But the way they approached the task was what intrigued me. Because the sword was considered their ‘soul’, they treated the blade with reverence and utmost respect. Any work done on the hardware was treated as a sacred duty. Inspecting the sword for chips or nicks was a loving action that increased the warrior’s familiarity with his blade and gave him a chance to bond with an object that was considered an extension of his own body and consciousness.

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I decided to adopt that same philosophy with the routine task of changing strings on my guitars. Nowadays, I usually set aside about 20 to 30 minutes for the exercise, and I clean up a spot on the table on our deck (where I can experience the breeze and hear the birds in the trees) as my workbench, and inform the family that I am not to be disturbed for a while. I set out all my tools in an orderly fashion, and select the guitar that I will be working on.

Much like a cha-no-ryu tea ceremony, I tend to deliberately emphasise every movement. Almost theatrical. I force my mind to be present to the task at hand, rather than wander away. I bring my full attention to every dent, blemish and scratch on my guitars while working on it or cleaning it - not in an accusatory or critical manner, but simply as an observation and part of the process of becoming intimately familiar with my instrument.

In a lot of way, it is like a meditative practice, that forces me to be ‘in the moment’ and to appreciate every nuance of it.

Just reframing this regular task in this way has turned it from a chore to be put off, to an activity that I actually look forward to nowadays. So much so, that I started applying the same philosophy towards other mundane tasks that I have to do on a regular basis. Still got some troubles applying it to things like doing my taxes, but I will get there eventually.

Have you tried a similar technique to turn onerous tasks into joyous ones? Let me know.

On Friendship

Ned and Jane, high school friends whom I have known for over 30 years now…

Ned and Jane, high school friends whom I have known for over 30 years now…

I was lucky enough to have spent the Australia Day long weekend just gone hanging out and playing music with old friends. Strange to think that aside from 2 people who I only met in 2017 (you know who you are Kendra and Fiona), that most of my closest friends who I would consider in my ‘inner circle’, I have known for more than three decades. Some of them, over four decades!

I guess that is the nature of my personality. I find it hard to actually make friends in the first place, but once I do make friends whom I connect with, I would gladly take a bullet for them and will be friends with them until the end (or they do something to shatter my trust in them). Those in the ‘inner circle’ are as dear to me as family.

I met friends on the weekend that I hadn’t spoken to in over 10 years, but we still took up where we left off as if it was just last week. And that made me think how lapse I have been over the past many years keeping up contact with my old friends. I have just been too caught up with work and other things going on in my life, that the nurturing of old friendships has been left to wallow in the weeds.

To that end, in 2019 I am intending to put a lot more effort into (a) tightening the bonds of friendship with old friends and (b) casting out the line to create some new friendships with like minded people. As an introvert (INFP), I usually find it difficult to reach out and form new friendships, but I am determined to overcome that and end this year with at least one more person in my ‘inner circle’.

This means:

  • Keeping up with our Sunday picnic session on the clifftops at Nightcliff Jetty (as we did all last year)

  • Attending more functions and music festivals with friends

  • Inviting people around to our house for dinner more often

  • Calling friends out of the blue to go out for a coffee or a beer at a pub

I’ll update this post in 12 months to see how I’ve gone with this initiative.

It was so nice to get a handwritten dinner invite last week!

It was so nice to get a handwritten dinner invite last week!

Note that this means less social media. In the past, I have used Facebook etc. as a bit of a crutch and a passive way to keep up with what my friends are doing, but this year, I am actually going to eschew most social media for communication and get back to some old fashioned talking to people and writing letters.

The Disconnectivity of Remote Working

Photo by  trail  on  Unsplash

Photo by trail on Unsplash

Throughout the 30+ years of running my own business, I have explored all aspects of teamwork.  From having my own in house team, to having a totally remote team, to a combined mix of the two.

Which do I prefer? Now THAT is an interesting question.

I would consider myself an introvert, and I do prefer working by myself in my own home office a lot of the time.  However, some of my best working memories have been when I have been in an office situation and working alongside others.

There is something about the human connection of being in the same space as others.  A myriad of non verbal cues and communication that goes on, most at a sub conscious level, which lends itself to a better sense of being part of a community which is pulling in the same direction.

Case in point - my current startup is a fully remote setup.  For the past two years, it was really only myself and another co-founder, who worked in a small town literally on the other side of the world.

Now, my co-founder and I had a great working relationship, and we produced a ton of stuff together.  All communication was mainly via Slack and email, and we used to talk on a daily basis PLUS have a weekly web video catch up.

My co-founder left the startup about 2 months ago.  The first week was really challenging, as I directly missed talking to someone while working away on new ideas.

But by the end of the first month, I started to get used to working by myself again.  After all, I had run the startup by myself for about a year before my co-founder joined me.  So it felt basically the same as it did before.

By the end of the second month, I was actually struggling to recall even working with my former co-founder.  This concerned me, as I always considered myself a sensitive person who liked to reminisce about happy memories.  So why was it suddenly so difficult for me to recall any of those good times we had had?  My co-founder's departure was amicable, so this wasn't as a result of any ill feelings.  Rather it just seemed that those experiences and memories were just floating out of reach, and without anything to anchor them too, they just seemed to waft away whenever I tried to recall them.

Even when I would go back through a Slack conversation to find an old screenshot or idea, I would re-read some of our conversations - but I struggled to actually remember the emotions or personality behind those chats.  Re-reading them seemed somehow cold and impersonal and I couldn't tell if I was tired, or angry, excited or happy while typing those paragraphs.

As a direct contrast to that, I can still clearly recall events that happened in my office over 20 years ago when I worked only feet away from the rest of my team.

Tiny things like a shared look, collapsing on the floor laughing at an 'in house' joke, or the casual punch on the shoulder as someone congratulated you while walking past your desk - all those things just added so much to my working experience that I, even as a self confessed 'lone wolf', missed them terribly.

There is something about being around people who are experiencing the highs and lows of their lives (even outside of work) that is strangely enriching and bonding.

To extend this even further - I was looking through my Facebook feed just this week, and I realised that I have become close friends with a vast majority of people that I have worked with face to face over the decades.  Remote workers much less so.  For some reason when a former remote staff member posts about their family or holiday or other life event, I find myself a lot less engaged with their thoughts and feelings.  There is still an element of them being an unknown 'stranger' so that any such intimate details of their lives instills a sense of guilt that I tend to deliberately avoid seeming too familiar or presumptuous when reading their posts.

While my recently departed co-founder and I had discussed an actual company meetup where we (and potential future staff) could meet face to face, it never happened during our working time together.  And now that my co-founder has moved on, I have accepted that we will probably never, ever meet in real life.

I am in the process of building up a whole new remote team now though, and am looking at strategies to try and counter this feeling of disconnection with those that I will figuratively work alongside for the coming years.

Regular company face to face meetups are definitely on the cards.  But I am also thinking that we might need to put something else in place outside of those times.

But what could take the virtual place of those little moments like tossing a paper plane across the office to see whose desk it would land on, or the understanding look that I would share with a colleague across from me after hanging up from a talking to a difficult client, or the good natured group ribbing that would happen when a co-worker brought a delicious smelling lunch into the office?  I have yet to see a web or mobile app that can replicate this sort of interaction.

Perhaps I have to go and invent it?
 

Getting heard on the internet

Picture courtesy of National Geographic

Picture courtesy of National Geographic

Someone once told me that the ideal size for a human community is something in the order of 500 people.  Apparently that was the average size of a village or community back in the day, and it meant that every person pretty much knew everyone else.  Neighbours would know each other and look out for one another when they were sick or in need.  Anyone who tried to misbehave or act out was generally known, and quickly brought back into line by the collective, because everyone had a stake in the wellbeing and survival of the community.

Yesterday I was introduced to a new 'game' online at paperplanes.world (Tip: Visit it on your mobile browser).  It is a beautifully designed, simple site which lets you make paper planes, stamp them with your location and 'launch' them out into the internet.  You can also 'catch' planes that others have launched, look at where they have been by the stamps on it, then stamp it with your own location and relaunch it back into the virtual skies again.

It is fascinating to see where some planes have been in their travels, and also exciting to see where you planes will end up.

A deceptively simple game, but it was all the more engrossing to me, as it took me back to my childhood loves of building, discovering and connecting with others.

When I first signed on to the game yesterday, there were around 100,000 planes flying around this virtual world.  I launched a few, and caught many.  Most of the ones I caught were filled with stamps, showing the number of people who had caught it in the past.

But today when I went back online, there were around 400,000 planes flying around.  Quadruple what it was yesterday.  I caught a few planes, but noted that nearly all of them had only one stamp - from the originator who built and launched the plane in the first place.

Somewhere along the line, the balance tipped.  When I started, I felt an instant connectedness to the others playing the game, because the planes I launched had a good chance of being caught, and the planes that I caught had been stamped by so many others.

But now, any planes I launched into the ether would likely just buzz endlessly around the world, lonely and ignored in the huge stream of lost and lonely paper planes.  That connectedness that I once experienced is now severely diluted in the increasing noise.

I can only imagine that the players who started in this game when there were only a few hundred planes flying around would have a different argument - that they were catching the same planes over and over again, and had little chance of seeing a plane from the other side of the world.

I feel exactly the same when it comes to social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram or Medium.

The early days of the platform means that what you say is easily visible to other early adopters, and the feedback and conversations you have will be meaningful and rich.  But over time, the increasing crowds initially is exciting, as you perceive your audience and reach growing, but there comes a time when your uniqueness and individuality (and sense of self importance) within that ecosystem is simply diluted away to something generic.

That is why, in my latest startup SaaS app, I am not going for large numbers of users, but rather a quality community.  We recently removed our free plans to further accomplish this goal.  I am proud when asked, to say that my users number in the hundreds, instead of six or seven figure mark.  At this stage I still know virtually all my users by name, and support tickets can still stay personalised and friendly.  My users are not statistics on a spreadsheet.  They are part of my village.

As for the paper planes game, I have changed my thinking there too.  I no longer make and launch planes into the already crowded skies.  Nowadays I am happy to simply capture other people planes, stamp them and send them on.  I now relish catching planes with only a single stamp on them, because I feel that when I stamp them and send them on, in effect I am saying "This lonely plane matters, and I hope it has a great journey".  Somewhere in the world, someone will check their stats on their launched planes, and I hope it gives them a brief spark of connection with a guy in remote Australia.