Embracing Hard Questions

Gapingvoid - hard questions

Happy Birthday Hugh. Of all my failure embracing thought leaders, Hugh’s drawings feature more frequently than Scott Adams legendary Dilbert on this blog, and he is quoted more than anyone save Seth Godin. For a catalogue of his quirkily illustrated insights, I not only recommend his book “Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity”, I give it away a birthday present often.


Gapingvoid - massive inevitable success


Embracing All Days

Gapingvoid - another day

  • “Walt Disney was told to scrap Mickey Mouse (they thought a giant mouse would scare women). Steven Speilberg and Albert Einstein were rejected from the schools they applied to. Charles Darwin’s own dad thought he was lazy and wouldn’t amount to much. The world would miss out on an awful lot, if we let the bad days hold us back.” – Hugh MacLeod

Today is National Lazy Day, but judging by my posting here you could say that I’ve had many lazy days. I’ve gone the longest period in the decade of this blog without posting (27 June was last post). Part of the reason is the distractions of the summer. Part of it is getting going a number of other new sites and blogs – Forclairty, Dog Golf, Adaptive Rowing UK. Things are starting to settle a bit and I thought that today’s “lazy day” would be a great time to get going. As Hugh says, if I fail to get everything done today, there’s always another day.

Turning Adverse Thoughts

Gapingvoid - never give up

  • Hope is fuel, it moves us forward and it amplifies our best work.” – Seth Godin Hope and expectation

World Wish Day today. A time to celebrate your hopes and dreams and aspirations. For the skeptics out there, there is actual evidence that wishing and dreaming can provide real, documentable benefits. Robert Rowland Smith in his article “Does daydreaming serve any purpose?” explores this dynamic with its own tinge of turning adversity to advantage…

  • “Sigmund Freud argued that daydreaming is a form of fantasising, fantasising is a form of imagination, and imagination is the basis of art. Hence creative writers. He did add a proviso, however, to the effect that daydreaming is a sign of unhappiness. If you have to fantasise about something else, it means you’re not content with your life as it is. So artists and writers might produce great art, but are constitutionally miserable. A later psychoanalyst, Hanna Segal, had a more positive take. She suggested that daydreaming and imagination were ways of turning unhappy thoughts into something creative. They are signs of good mental health. They might even alleviate depression. And a third psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas, implies that the distracted or abstracted mood we’re in when daydreaming provides the mental downtime necessary for us to be able to focus again. When the mind wanders, it refreshes itself. Daydreaming is a holiday that restores our ability to think acutely.”

Given my ongoing series on the “Death of Dreams” you might be inclined to think that my marking of this day would be muted. On the contrary, dreams occupy that duality of both upside and downside. And while my failure embracing side advocates the letting go of faltered dreams, it is only so new ones can thrive in their place. Hugh MacLeod said it best when describing his piece shown above…

  • “It’s not that you must never, ever give up on your dreams, sometimes dreams don’t happen. I once dreamt of living in Tokyo, for example. It never happened. It’s OK, I got over it. I found new dreams instead. It’s when we lose the capacity to dream, I think, is when the rot seeps in. When we stop giving ourselves permission to make the world a better place, even on a modest scale. It’s dreams that make life seem actually real to us.”

Embracing Deviance

Gapingvoid - Dont be normal


  • “’Don’t be normal.’ Who wants a ‘normal’ job, anyway? Who wants a ‘normal’ employer, anyway? Who wants a “normal” life, anyway? Exactly.” – Hugh MacLeod

The weirdness appeal is more deeply dissected in Seth Godin’s post Variance or deviance?

  • “If you see things that don’t meet the norm as ‘deviant’, then you are approaching the world with a mindset of mass, of conformity, of obedience. You are assuming that you can be most effective and efficient when the market lines up in a straight line, when one size does fit all, because one size is cheaper to make and stock and distribute. On the other hand, if you accept differences as merely variations, each acceptable, then you realize that there are many markets, many choices, many solutions.”

My friend Dr. Bret Simmons describes “deviance” even more glowingly in his post “Excellence is a form of deviance”. Pfeffer and Sutton (2006) identify the talents of wisdom in four types of folks that help sustain organizational learning…

  • Noisy complainers: Repair problems right away and then let every relevant person know that the system failed
  • Noisy troublemakers: Always point out others’ mistakes, but do so to help them and the system learn, not to point fingers. They are purposeful and not egocentric.
  • Mindful error-makers: Tell managers about their own mistakes, so that others can avoid making them too. When others spot their errors, they communicate learning – not making the best impression – is their goal.
  • Disruptive questioners: Won’t leave well enough alone. They constantly ask why things are done the way they are done. Is there a better way of doing things?

He cites Robert Quinn’s “Deep Change”…

  • Excellence is a form of deviance. If you perform beyond the norms, you will disrupt all the existing control systems. Those systems will then alter and begin to work to routinize your efforts. That is, the systems will adjust and try to make you normal. The way to achieve and maintain excellence is to deviate from the norms. You become excellent because you are doing things normal people do not want to do. You become excellent by choosing a path that is risky and painful, a path that is not appealing to others.”

Sometimes You Lose

Gapingvoid - good fight


  • What can I say? Sometimes you lose, sometimes that’s OK. Sometimes it’s worth it, but only you can decide.”  – Hugh MacLeod

Happy Birthday Hugh.  Keep fighting the good fight.

One Year of Experience 20 Times Over

Gapingvoid - New York dreams


  • “There’s a famous old quip: ‘A lot of people in business say they have twenty years experience, when in fact all the really have is one year’s experience, repeated twenty times.’ It’s not just guys in business who fall into this trap, unfortunately. It happens just as often to people taking a less conventional path.” – Hugh MacLeod

Another year down. But is it another year added?

Hugh expands on this question in his post “How To Be Creative”…

  • “#32. Allow your work to age with you – You get older faster than you think. Be ready for it when it happens. I have a friend. Call him Dan. When I first met Dan, he was a twenty-eight year old aspiring filmmaker, in a one-bedroom apartment down on New York’s Lower East Side, who liked to spend too much time in bars. The last time I saw him, he was a forty-one year old aspiring filmmaker, in a one-bedroom apartment down on New York’s Lower East Side, who likes to spend too much time in bars…It’s sad enough when you see it happen to a friend of yours. When it happens to you, it’s even worse. The good news is, it’s easy enough to avoid. Especially with experience. Suddenly you realize that you’re just not into the same things you once were. You used to be into staying up late all night, going to parties, now you’d rather stay in and read a book. Sure, it sounds boring, but hey, sometimes "boring" can be a lot of fun. Especially if it’s on your own terms. Just go with the flow and don’t worry about it. ESPECIALLY don’t worry about the people who ARE worrying about it. They’ll just slow you down.”

Despite all the things that twentysomethings have yet to learn, I’m still a big fan of hiring junior staff for even demanding, front-line position. They require support and training, but the energy and fresh perspectives that they bring usually more than make up for it. The new breed of Gen Xer’s are renowned for their inflated sense of entitlement, but I’m not sure whether this isn’t just a ‘sign of the times’ thing and not a generational thing. I encounter just as many forty-somethings who feel just as entitled to the big job/paycheck because of their age and experience. While I’m open to the life wisdom that years can add to one’s assets, I’m less impressed with someone’s two decades of domain experience. Partly because in this fast changing world, most specific experience more than 5 years old either repetitive (a la Hugh’s quote above) or simply obsolete. An obsolete experience is worse than no experience. Instead of looking at a problem with extra insight, you look at it with wrong insight (possibly compounded by extra conviction from your experience).

Of course, one key ingredient that turns twenty years of experience into something that add (rather than just repeats or worse yet, subtracts) is the learning factor. Learning from failures. Taking risks especially into the new domains.

May the New Year 2015 bring you many successes from risks well taken, and much growth from failures well learned from.

Embracing the Pain

Triathlon pain


If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.” – Hugh Macleod

Who are these people? Hundreds in the Triathlon World Championships today torturing their bodies for hours on end.

MSNBC looked at triathlete pain in their piece “It’s true! Triathletes are tougher than the rest of us”. The researchers tested pain tolerance in a laboratory and found triathletes (not surprisingly) exhibited a very high tolerance. But correlation is not causation and whether pain tolerance attracted triathlon running or triathlon running enhanced pain tolerance is undetermined. One thing researchers do know is that fear of pain does intensify that pain (think visit to the dentists).

  • “You push through the pain of racing — which is much different than chronic pain, but it’s pain nonetheless. I thought the more I could deal with chronic pain, that the more I could use that as my tool to become a better athlete. When I realized that, it made it so much easier to deal with my (rheumatoid arthritis). Like, this is just mental toughness training. When you’re doing a race, you’re neck and neck – it boils down to, who can endure the most pain. So the more I can deal with the chronic pain of my disease, the better athlete I’m going to become.”

The piece also shared the anecdote of Angela Durazo who suffered debilitating rheumatoid arthritis (“feels like you’re taking a hot knife and scratching against the bone”). Durazo had to learn to distinguish between ‘useful pain’ (which alerts the athlete to a potential injury so getting one to stop), and ‘distracting pain’ (which can be ‘pushed though’). This distinction is something I am always assessing as a (aging

and more fragile) athlete and as a coach. Some training pain eg. sharp pains indicating tears and ruptures) is very useful indicated lamp to get you to stop before serious problems, while other pain is a vestigial artefact of a body not used to such treatment (eg. stomach pain as your digestive system rebels).


  • “All models are wrong, but some of them are useful.” – George E.P. Box

May Day, May Day! Traditionally a day of calling to arms for the struggles of the workers. And if the army of white collar working class needed a revolutionary subversive from the top of the parapets, Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland would fit the bill. His presentation “It’s a Science Just Not This Kind of Science” (thanks Matt) showcases his rabble-rousing style challenging all sorts of authorities from experts to executives. But he has a particularly sharp blade for that very particular patrician class of the business world – the marketeer.

Sutherland exaggerates colourfully to make his points and sometimes his hyperbole stretches a bit too far. While I applaud his core message of avoiding getting seduced by “science”, his lambastes into its shortcomings are a bit OTT in my view. The early part of his talk veers dangerously close to the classic plea for rampant unaccountability in the cult of the marketing witch doctors.

Oglivy bemoans spoiling all our fun with all of its predictability and repeatability. He points out high profile business successes like Branson who have fewer stakeholder burdens and do innovative (and fun) things. He does make some good points about be wary of disciplines masquerading science. Much of the so-called “science” applied to marketing isn’t really “science” at all, but really just a label to make studies like “social science” have more gravitas. He asserts, with reasonable grounds, that science isn’t applicable to the marketeer’s world of behavior change. But such ripostes are not really “anti-science”, just anti-faux –science.

Part of his argument hinges on the distinction between “perception” and “reality”. He articulately argues (as a marketer might) the power of perception over reality. “Mathematics” are more the useful tool for ‘reality’, but they have less reliable application in the area of ‘perception’ (citing a number of the perception biases studies by Kahnemann). In this context, Oglivy echoes many points I make in my “business is not a coin-operated spreadsheet” coining the colourful if ever so indelicate term for over-dependence on such mathematical analyses in business – “measurbation”.

Over the course of the talk he does temper his assertions a bit. He says that it is not so much the “mathematics” that are to blame for “insanity” as the “dependence” on them. One result of his perspective is that it embraces failure very thoroughly. It shuns the “right answer” rigour of science and maths for a more flexible and indefinite failure embracing approach of the arts…

  • Dare to be trivial. Ideas like the ‘choc-ice’ effect are hugely beneficial, but are not valued because they are not seen to be ‘strategic’Dependence on mathematics leads to kind of insanity

Hugh MacLeod riffs on this same topic (and same quote) in his assessment of business plan myopia…

  • “Your plan may look great, but the parts you are certain about may turn out to fail and the parts that you were not at all sure about, may be the most successful. The model for any business is undoubtedly imperfect. But there are certainly elements useful for figuring out next steps to grow and build something bigger and better. This one is a lesson in keeping your eyes open for what you can learn from other businesses – whether they are successes or failures.”

Gapingvoid - Every Model is Wrong

Letting Go

Gapingvoid - She Let Go


“We grow up being told to ‘try harder’, ‘be better’, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes we just need to "let go". – Hugh MacLeod

Letting go works both ways. Not only can people and organisations let go of the outlying disaffected, but the disaffected can let go of the organisations and people.

The things that make me different are the things that make me.” – Winnie the Pooh

Embracing Difficulty

Gapingvoid - Choosing an easy life


The journey is not all smooth riding. And perhaps the bumpiest, hardest, roughest rides are the best.

  • It occurs to me that most of my oldest friends and myself (and a lot of my readers) chose a harder path than we could have gotten away with. It was tough at first, but it seems that it eventually paid off, or for some, likely to do so in the future. Even though we had no guarantees, we knew what we were doing when we made out choice. And so we went with it. And I’m glad we did.” – Hugh MacLeod
  • By doing something really hard for each other, we will demonstrate what is best about humanity. And that will inspire us to be more ambitious about what is possible in all our endeavors.” – Bill Gate’s Dimbleby Lecture
  • The shortcut that’s sure to work, every time: Take the long way. Do the hard work, consistently and with generosity and transparency. And then you won’t waste time doing it over.” – Seth Godin,
  • The Certain Shortcut
  • Today, though, it’s the difficult work that’s worth doing. It’s worth doing because difficult work allows you to stand out, create value and become the one worth choosing. Seek out the difficult, because you can. Because it’s worth it.” – Seth Godin, The Hard Parts