The Stuff I’m Thankful For

mandmsAlthough we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here in the UK, I like the way many other folks are using it as a chance to express what they’re thankful for. I suspect we don’t do that often enough.

So, in another break from tech posts, here goes…

Passion – I’m lucky enough to have found a career I love, from an early age, and to know 100% that this is still what I want to do. Although my precise job / role may change, I will always, at some level, be a software engineer. Not many folks find their passion this easily, and so I’m really thankful that I have.

Health – At 43, I’m surprisingly well and — although the people telling me this usually do so in dark bars! — I’m told I don’t look my age. <looks in nearest mirror> I still love exercise (not enough, but I’m working on it), walk wherever I can in this amazing city and, touch wood, nothing about my health currently stops me from enjoying that. I’m thankful I decided to ditch the drink 9+ months ago. It wasn’t causing me problems but, via some other inspiring people, I caught a glimpse of what life without it could be like, and ditching it has made me realise how much of an energy / health drain it was. So I’m thankful for that. And my liver is thankful too!

Friends – I firmly believe I’ve been one of the luckiest people ever, in terms of the friends I have. I don’t have as many as some folks, but the ones I have are people I can truly rely upon. Collectively, they know me from all angles, flaws and all. Between them, I have people I can be stupid with, chat seriously with, talk intellectually with, or just have a fun night with. It can sometimes be a lonely old world and so this, more than many other things, I’m thankful for.

Fun – I still appear to know how to have fun and I’m thankful I haven’t forgotten how to do that. Life can be too serious. I’m massively thankful that this is also still true without alcohol, as I know many can’t do it without a drink. I am still the guy who’s up and going at 3am… with a lime & soda.

Confidence – Lastly, I am finally comfortable in my own skin. I think that’s all I need to say about the last one 🙂

Kaizen, Innovation and the Entrepreneurial Life

10251565_830162623679537_14497031_nKaizen is a Japanese word meaning “good change”, but it has also been the basis of an approach to “continual improvement” that has been applied in many industries and as a way to drive personal change.

The idea is that incredibly small changes, made continually and consistently, tend to beat radical plans, proposals and initiatives because they work with, rather than against, human nature. Small changes bypass the brain’s tendency to fear and resist change. They also set us up to actually like the change and to want to accelerate it naturally.

It struck me recently that many of the words applied to startups and entrepreneurial pursuits are the polar opposites of Kaizen: They tend to imply “disruption” and sweeping changes carried through by radical innovations, actions and energy. But does this expectation of brave change on a huge level put our entrepreneurial dreams at odds with human nature? Are we hampering our own efforts by working against, rather than with, our brains?

What if, instead of trying to find one radical way to “disrupt” an industry, we tried to notice small things that are true about that industry, make small changes to improve those things, and to use that momentum to gradually see the bigger possibilities? What if we tried to notice small ways in which we could improve someone’s life with a product or service, and build on that? What if we tried to innovate by making a small but meaningful change to an existing product or technology and see that as the basis for a bigger change?

And when it comes down to ourselves, as entrepreneurs… What if, rather than trying to affect the various changes in character, lifestyle and approach required to become entrepreneurial overnight — as if a butterfly-like metamorphosis in human behaviour is even possible — we tried to make small changes to our thinking, attitudes and behaviour to become more entrepreneurial over time? Kaizen techniques for personal change highlight the benefits of ludicrously small changes at first, to beat resistance. Those changes tend to snowball into genuine change driven by the subtle rewiring of our brains caused by adopting the smaller changes. There is certainly less chance of us reverting to our old behaviours if we affect change gradually, and it tends to be longer-lasting.

Of-course, all this talk of small changes goes against the grain of an entrepreneurial world where we value disruption and innovation. But what if, rather than distracting us, making these small changes increased the chances that we’d actually spot the bigger and more radical possibilities? It’s certainly easier to see what’s possible when you’re moving in the right direction, rather than standing still waiting for inspiration to strike.

In our quest for disruption, bigger and better, maybe we could do with realising that small and continuous change could be the most effective way there, albeit perhaps rather a counterintuitive one.

(Image: (c) 2014, Ian Cackett)

If You Don’t Understand or Like Apple CEO Tim Cook’s Announcement About His Sexuality, Please Read This

I usually write about technology but, probably for this blog post only, I feel compelled to write about something much more personal and relevant to us all, even if that relevance isn’t immediately apparent. It’s also relevant to business and technology and in-fact to every aspect of life, even if that isn’t immediately apparent either.

But first, I need you to come on an imaginary journey with me…

Pick a “group” that you’re in, representing some aspect of yourself that you were born with or that you inherently know to be a fact about you. We are all in many groups, and we don’t get to pick them. They are facts, and are not learned, taught or acquired. Preferably pick a non-visible aspect of yourself that others couldn’t readily spot, such as your sexuality (even if you identify as heterosexual, use that) or another hidden fact about you. But otherwise, any visible one will do (gender, ethnicity, some aspect of your appearance).

Imagine your entire history, from your birth up until this point, has been re-written. Imagine that you grew up knowing no-one else in the group that you’ve picked; you couldn’t spot anyone else for whom the same fact was true. (If you’re heterosexual then yes, this will involve imagining the rest of the world was gay… but imagine that and bear with me!). No-one to align with and compare notes with. No-one to discuss it with. Also imagine that incoming media, news and advertising messages either ignored that group entirely — it simply didn’t exist as a valid and positive example of humanity — or portrayed negative images of it, perhaps in the form of news stories reporting prominent organisations, religions and leaders who believed that people in your chosen group are inherently wrong, bad, evil or just substandard examples of humanity. Try to imagine specific examples, and get a feeling what that might be like.

Imagine all of that for your entire life up until this point, including during your childhood years as you tried to figure out the world from a child’s viewpoint, without the more-rounded adult perspective you have today. If it’s easy to imagine you could cope with it for a day, imagine coping with it day after day, for years, and being unable to tell anyone about it. Imagine dealing with that alone, and the chip, chip, chipping away at your self-esteem, self-image and view of the world that decades of this would affect. Imagine how dented that view of yourself would become, without the ability to compare or talk about it, or that you perhaps wouldn’t even form a self identity and would instead identify with the media / advertising images and just see yourself as “wrong” / “different” from them.

If the above is hard to imagine then it’s likely that, like most people, you grew up in a world where the core aspects of your self… the central groups you identify with and the central facts about you… were reflected and validated for you by incoming media, society and culture. In a sense, you got to bathe daily in messages that what you were was valid, “ok” and in-fact positive. You were, at least in general terms “on-track” and on a map that others understood. And this is how it should  be, particularly during our formative childhood years.

So where does Tim Cook’s announcement come into this? By saying “I’m proud to be gay”, Tim Cook provided that positive, “ok”, “on-track”, “valid” message that is missing for most LGBT folks as we grow up. He publicly acknowledged his identification with a particular sexuality — one that, like all of us, he was born with — so that other LGBT folks have a positive reference point to compare ourselves with. In otherwise largely silent or negative media on this topic… he provided a positive data point. And he actually didn’t need to; he did it for other LGBT people, not for himself.

If you think there are too many news articles where this celebrity or that sportsperson or that CEO comes out and says “I’m gay”, then that’s likely because those messages don’t offer anything to you. But to LGBT people, who have historically had a total lack of such positive feedback that we even exist in the world, are valid, are “ok”, etc… those messages are necessary, life-affirming and positive contradictions to decades of growing up in a heteronormative world: A heteronormative world that may have served you well, but neglected or harmed about 10% of us.

If you think his announcement was unnecessary, then ignore it. Heaven knows, I’ve ignored 43 years of heteronormative news and media, so I’m sure you can learn to do the same. If you think his announcement, or his sexuality, are somehow wrong then I’m afraid this article isn’t for you and I’d suggest looking within yourself, rather than at us or your faith or your community, for the answer.

If you think his announcement was unnecessary in a business/CEO context, then I’d ask whether we expect other people in similar positions to be completely without sexuality, without marriage, without non-business attributes that give us a slightly rounder image of them. Perhaps it only sounds unnecessary precisely for the reasons that he needed to say it; that we generally like LGBT folks to remain hidden and neutral.

Tim Cook just made an effort to level the cultural and media playing field and, make no mistake, it needs some levelling. Positive messages about all of us are needed. Your marriage, my relationship, someone else’s children, your religion, etc, etc. Many of those messages won’t speak directly to you, and might seem to be in inappropriate contexts. But that’s ok, because I’m sure some of the messages that follow them will hit the spot for you. And collectively, they speak to all of us… which is how it should be.

In conclusion, Tim Cook’s message matters… to everyone. And if you think it doesn’t, then that’s precisely why it matters even more 🙂