Blogcatalog Approved!

Self Improvement & Performance Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory Alltop, all the top stories

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


Real unarmed combat is only for fools or those that have no choice. The idea that martial artists train so they can use their hands and feet as weapons is a stupid myth that needs to be busted. No matter how nasty the brand of Krav Maga you have learned, no matter how quickly you can strike eyes, nerve centers or other sensitive areas with your steeled limbs, no matter how rapidly you can redirect your chi force, fighting without a weapon is a losing proposition.

And I don't mean that you should be one of those people sufficiently scared by the media to get a firearm and waste a lot of energy worrying about imaginary attacks. No - the simple rule is that when facing any potential or actual conflict, the first thing to do is look for a weapon. In the lonely street late at night, find a brick, piece of wood or metal, anything that can be used. In a bar, grab a chair or glass; wherever you are, develop the reflex to arm first, act second. It doesn't matter how highly trained, or how strong and fit, having a tool gives you the best chance of coming out on top. In fact, this advice was given to me by one of the toughest fighters I ever met, a guy who could work his overnight shift and then come straight to a national karate championship and win. His experience wasn't just in the dojo either, it had been tested many times in the street.

What does this mean for us, the normal person, trying to develop and help others on the way? Firstly, it means just what I wrote above. If ever you find yourself in a physical confrontation, find the best weapon available and use it. Secondly, in the battle of everyday, don't fight without weapons. As society and technology advance there are superb tools available, for free or at low cost, that can augment our human abilities. Do not be one of those who says "I'm not a tecky person, I just don't have the time to learn about these new systems" or suchlike. If you have a challenge--and we all do--find the tool that will help you prevail. Technology is one major class of such tools. It can manage the "grunt tasks" that we should not be expending energy on and enhance meaningful work, allowing us to easily connect and create. This idea is not limited to computers and electronica though. As with the street fight, it's about grabbing anything that be useful, finding the right tool for the job. This could be any range of practices and philosophies--meditation, yoga, martial arts, journaling--that add enjoyment and transform our floundering and flailing into true impact.

To energize the New Year, here's Ash's paean to unarmed combat:

Thursday, July 28, 2016

It's a Kind of Magic

Magick — the ability to shape outcomes according to will — is both a science and an art. Variations on the theme of the magical have existed from the earliest times; most ancient cultures had their form of magic and similar practices persisted through the ages. The problem–and the reason for the triumph of “modern” scientific and industrial practices over the magical–was that, although the concept of bending reality to conform with Will was valid, the process by which it was achieved was not. Occult imagery, rituals, and dancing around with supposed spiritual beings is not the way to practice magick. If that’s your thing it may be fun, but the end result will not be satisfying. Some of the consequences of these methods may lead to results: looking systemically, effectively engaging and entertaining people in furthering a cause, stripping away the unnecessary and having a clear strategy can produce magical outcomes. There are simpler, more effective, ways to do this however.

Unfortunately the industrial-age, with its focus on factory production and Cartesian logic has stripped away a lot of the magick from life. Conformity is the new God, and its worship requires that identical raw materials are processed to give consistent product. It teaches that cause leads to effect and effects can be measured. It condenses complexity into binary choices (pass/fail, either/or) to allow box-checkers to do their jobs. Be it in schools, corporations, or any community working to produce a result, very often systems are designed to ensure conformity and linearity, rather than creativity and innovation to provide a service.

The new sister blog to "Got Impact?"--Itsa Kinda Magick--is dedicated to the pursuit of magick without potions, pentagrams and prancing. Cutting to the essence of what puts the magic back in life and allowing destiny to be shaped to the extent possible in ways that are fun and rewarding. It’s not too late! As Jenny Lewis puts it:
“There’s a little bit of magic, everybody has it. There’s a little bit of sand left in the hourglass”

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Older: Old People Should be Shot!

Maybe the title seems a little harsh for a reputable blog like this one. But I will repeat it for good measure: old people should be shot -- it's the only way we are going to evolve and survive as a society. Before my one reader accuses me of blatant oldism, or whichever social-justice rule I have transgressed, let me define "old" more specifically as being people that:
  1. Have a complete absence of curiosity 
  2. Are working and living in largely the same way today as they were 5 years ago
  3. Do not change their mind very often, if at all
  4. Are unwilling to invest in activities that may enrich their lives and open up new avenues
Still not convinced that shooting is the right fate for this demographic? Let me expand. Firstly, to address the macro- and micro-challenges in today's world there are two critical but oft-overlooked design principles to consider:
  1. We can't solve the problems that we are facing today using the same perspective that created them in the first place.
  2. The solutions we bring to problems are often not solutions to the problem that exists by the time we have found this solution. The rate of change is changing and situations evolve faster than our ability to react. 
Old people (as defined by the criteria above):

  • Deal with problems and opportunities using the same systems and mindsets they have always used. 
  • Are largely convinced they are right, and do not change their perspective readily. They believe that their experience trumps the benefits of learning new skills and methodologies.
  • Don't have time to try anything different because they're busy. 
We wouldn't miss them after they're all shot because they can now (or very soon) be replaced by automated systems. Busy-workers will no longer be needed as computers continue to prove that they can surpass human abilities. Even workers who contribute knowledge and experience will be replaced if they're not adding value beyond this, as automated systems can readily store and process more information than the average oldie.

Thanks to old folk each generation traps itself in the mental models of many years prior while the environment evolves at an ever-increasing rate. Like the apocryphal boiling frog they are slowly being stewed and we all pay the consequences. Boiling them is not quick enough. My suggestion -- we should devise a quiz along the lines of:
  • Here's an interesting app or tool that could enrich your life, it costs $3.99, would you buy it?
  • Are you using any new systems, technology and methods compared to those you were using 5 years ago?
  • Do you learn and change your mind on issues more than once a week?
  • Do you think you are correct in your opinions?
  • Do you think others tend to be wrong? 
Participation would be mandatory for all citizens; their photo, name and address would be captured from existing online records automatically on registration. No clue would be given as to the outcome of the quiz, although a substantial "prize" would be hinted at. After collecting all the responses the true nature of the test would be revealed: all who exceed a pre-determined "age-corrected self-importance" score could be legally shot. Their identity and location would be published, and rewards given to those who bag the most of 'em over the year.

A drastic solution I admit, but drastic times call for commensurately radical measures. Unless we rid the world of its burden we will not evolve quickly enough to survive and thrive as a race, and every indicator at the moment is that the old guys are winning!

Never get older!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Never Throw Away a Weapon!

The most famous duel fought by 16th century Japanese master swordsman Miromoto Musashi was held on Ganryu Island against Sasaki Kojiro. I will only focus on one particular aspect of this here, more detailed accounts are available for those who may be interested [1] . The duel was arranged for dawn and Kojiro arrived early on the island ready to fight at the appointed time. Musashi however was patently late, arriving on a small boat to find his opponent attending him on the beach. Kojiro, impatient to teach Musashi a lesson, drew his sword as the boat approached, angrily tossed the scabbard away and stormed forward to attack. At this point Musashi is quoted as saying  “If you have no more use for your sheath, you are already dead."  Evidently, this turns out to be an accurate prediction, and Kojiro is dispatched with two strong blows. The popular interpretation of Musashi’s words is that a man who has no scabbard does not expect to re-sheath his sword, i.e. they will die in the upcoming combat. The wider point though is that you should never throw away any potential weapon; even a scabbard has its combat applications [2] and could have served Kojiro to parry or strike Musashi. It was violating this fundamental principle that sealed Kojiro's fate, a fact that Musashi recognized instantly.

This concept applies on many levels. On an archway in the Chinese Lan Su Garden in Portland there is an inscription that reads “listen to the fragrance”. The intent is to remind the visitor to use all of their senses to experience the garden fully; to feel the texture of the sculpted granite flooring underfoot, to smell the fragrances of the flowers, to see the beautiful vistas framed through the architecture and to listen to the the birdsong mingling with the exterior noise of the city. Our senses are weapons we commonly discard on a daily basis; one secret of flow and impact is to employ all of our them as much of the time as possible, gaining the most from each instant, grounding us in the moment and fueling intuition to sense a hazard or seize an opportunity.

On a more contemporary note, the most commonly seen accoutrement these days is the smartphone. Walk down any city street and you will see us all wired-in to our device, occupied with some i-task, neglecting the lessons of the Lan Su garden. Our phones are powerful allies in life's combat, however we commonly miss the opportunity to deploy the weapons they offer; worse, we implement the features that distract us, adding "noise" and suppressing "signal" [3].  The smartphone is such a wonderful weapon to mitigate the mundane and stimulate the creative, yet we don't explore its potential, often preferring to stay with our habitual patterns of use. I have heard people repeatedly express "oh, I don't use my phone for that", meaning that they prefer to use it for messages, games and selfies. Not that there is anything wrong with entertainment—it's important—but the wealth of other possibilities for communicating, learning, listening and creating begs exploration.

In two of life’s most important areas—decision-making and negotiation—we routinely throw away our available weapons. As Chip and Dan Heath's book “Decisive” illustrates [4], we all-too-often make decisions on the basis of poorly founded predictions or options that are too narrow. Weapons here include our ready access to information via the internet--for example trends in historical data that can be used to more reliably predict the future--or, the simple realization that two-choice, either/or, options should be avoided, there are always other possible solutions to be considered. In the case of negotiation, our BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Outcome [5]) is a routinely overlooked device. Neglecting to recognize and build our BATNA is throwing away the most potent weapon in any negotiation situation, yet it is not intuitive for us to spend time strengthening this.

On the most immediate, physical and brutal level this principle means that in a violent confrontation all weapons should be sought and used. Even the most adept martial arts master should not rely solely on trained limbs but seek every potential weapon to-hand. For example in bar fights, tables, chairs or glasses can all be used; anything on the ground—rocks, sticks, cables, bricks—is also a potential weapon; unarmed combat should only be attempted if there’s no other resort. Remaining on the physical level, the whole body should be used to accelerate and drive any strike. Most people punch using their arms and kick using their legs, however these are just the agents of delivery. The real weapons are the body’s core, the large muscles in the legs and back, and the ligaments that can be stretched to fire a blow. Aligning all these to hit harder is really using all your weapons; ignoring their utility is tantamount to discarding the scabbard.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


It's all about signal-to-noise! One foundational principle in the art of impact is that of constantly boosting signal (the important, the significant; those activities that add value, that are consistent with our aims and principles, that we care about) while relentlessly reducing noise (the trivial, the non-important, distractions and time-wasters). This is an analytical concept at heart; in all sorts of scientific situations we are trying to detect an effect or a thing in the midst of a sea of noise. The pentaquark [1], the icy plains on Pluto [2], or even primordial B-mode polarizations :) [3].  It's the crux of clinical research, demonstrating that medicines show a real effect in the face of massive human variability. This is the reason for the mathematical discipline of statistics, allowing us to give degrees of confidence related to whether our result is real or just an artifact of the background noise.

Thinking in terms of signal-to-noise is a simple and powerful mental model. Questioning whether we are boosting signal or boosting noise in every moment helps keep focus on the important, and develops habits that reduce the amount of energy we expend on tasks that are not adding value to our lives. Every day noise mounts its sensory assault: email, smartphones, apps, junk mail, stray thoughts and worries, radio, TV, the boss, our colleagues and friends; sifting through this morass to find the signal is a redoubtable challenge. To do this we must be clear on what constitutes "signal"; it's anything that matters, anything that contributes to our goals or aligns with our values, provides us material with which we can create and innovate, or gives us and our community pleasure or meaning. This implies that we must be clear on our values and our goals, establishing even fuzzy goals has a huge benefit in separating the worthwhile from the worthless.

For example, for the tech nerds among us, the amplification of signal requires us to think hard about how we organize our smartphone and tablet screen real estate. This layout should make it easy to access those apps and programs that contribute to moving us towards our goals, maybe a note-taking app, the camera, a music or radio service, or Waze to actually guide us to our destination. More importantly it pays to be ruthless in reducing technology-noise, removing all distractions by disabling badges for any apps that do not signal something important, and reducing the number of apps and screen pages to a minimum. This way we are not alarmed by pages of red badges signaling meaningless information, the badges actually represent signal rather than noise. If you think I'm being over-sensitive here, note that even the gurus at the Harvard Business Review concur, as a recent article on the reduction in productivity caused by the simple buzzing of a cellphone attests [4].

A signal-to-noise mindset helps in strategic decisions too. Coming back to the physical, in boxing or martial arts we are always looking for a signal--literally a telegraph--that lets us anticipate the opponent's next move and counter effectively. Conversely we work to dissimilate any signals we are emitting, not giving our adversary any advance notice of what's coming next, or using feints and decoys as noise in which we can hide real intent. In war, the use of smokescreens and chaff [5] amplify noise that impairs visual and radar ability to see the signal, the incoming soldier, plane or missile until their mission is accomplished.

So add this one to your mental model library; make sure you are hitting with impact, generating a strong signal with minimum effort, and not simply contributing to the background noise, impeding impact and wasting energy.

1. Pentaquarks: A New State of Matter: pentaquarks
2. New Horizons team baffled by discovery of Icy Plains on Pluto
3. How the Biggest Scientific Discovery of the Year Was Kept a Secret: primordial B-modes
4. Just Hearing Your Phone Buzz Hurts Your Productivity: Phone buzz productivity
5. Wikipedia, Chaff (countermeasure): chaff

Saturday, May 30, 2015


Here's a joke for you to lighten up the blog. There's two fish in a tank....
[punchline to come]

The point will be that the impact of the punch(line) is always proportional to the quality of the set-up. the process of creating a context which can then be changed rapidly. Maximum shock and surprise--both pleasurable and painful--results from something unanticipated, being hit from an unexpected angle, the sudden appearance of something previously hidden. Set-up relies on our tendency is to see everything within "frames"--mental models, norms formed through previous experience--which we can use to our advantage by:

  • Improving our awareness of frames -- developing situational awareness, heightening sensitivity to others' state of mind and intentions, gaining emotional control to facilitate this and avoiding racing up the ladder of inference (Ladder of Inference) too quickly.
  • Projecting a certain frame which we control; this could be a real frame or an intentionally false frame, concealing true intentions, sending your opponent up that ladder.
  • Developing the ability to accelerate rapidly, holding the tension that comes from setting-up and using this to hit; impact is the realization that something has happened after it has occurred.

As a sporting example, the classic boxing match "The Rumble in the Jungle" saw Mohammed Ali in his sunset years confront the 25-year-old George Foreman, who was 220 pounds of mean muscle in peak form. Ali set the fight up from the start, goading his opponent in the media, then continued in the ring, using an initial strategy that stirred up the hornets nest that was Foreman, taunting him during clinches. Ali then let his enraged opponent completely punch himself out while he lay back on the ropes, letting Foreman do his worst. In the heat of the moment Foreman succumbed to the frame that Ali created, believing Ali was tired and incapable of defending himself. Ali then seized opportunity in the 8th round, rapidly changing frame by exploding out of the ropes, surprising Foreman and hitting him squarely on the jaw with an impact that sent him spiraling to the floor. As Eddie Daniels, an eminent British Shukokai karate fighter, states "open the door, tempt them in and then slam it in their faces....".

This illustrates the power of frames; how we can be oblivious to the fact we have been framed, especially when emotionally engaged, as our mental models--those pre-defined pathways of thought--are narrowed further by our emotions.

One simple means of framing is to push hard initially in a different direction to our intentions. If we want to tell someone what to do, we have to set-up by first listening intently; the more we want to learn, the more we need to teach; in the workplace, the more we want to retain our employees, the more we have to let them know that they have other choices, that they have freedom. Each action has an opposite and equal reaction, allowing those who understand the concept of set-up to take advantage of a situation.  To push a bigger guy out of the door, it is much easier to push him hard in the opposite direction until he resists forcefully, and then switch direction rapidly and let him fly out of the exit using his own momentum.

Getting back to the joke, there's two fish in a tank. One says to the other "you drive, I'll man the guns..."

As a bonus, here's an interesting clip of Alex Harvey performing the title to this blog:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Why Do I Keep F--in' Up?

Neil Young hits the nail on the head here:

Even though I think he intended this to be rhetorical, it's a fundamental question that deserves careful attention. To make an impact it's best to avoid the big errors, the ones that drain our energy in fixing and cleaning up the consequences.

Many would cite poor decisions, bad luck, lack of information, emotions, being mislead, rushing etc. as reasons for our snafus. All are valid, but are there some deeper causes that lead to our propensity to mess up? One answer comes from the discipline of systems thinking which shows that often, no matter how good our intentions, we end up making the wrong long-term choices and creating problems because we fail to see the underlying systems that dictate outcomes. When something appears broken we have a natural inclination to take it apart and fix it, applying solutions that mend the broken item or issue. The systems thinking idiom is that you cannot mend the system by fixing the parts; you must begin with the system in mind, and act to benefit the system goals. A classic example is the climate change conundrum, where current paradigms constrain us to continually contribute to a problem that will eventually make life on the planet untenable. Even when we see the system it is not easy to change the underlying structures.

Being able to visualize dynamic complexity--interrelationships when all variables are constantly in flux--is not trivial and requires considerable computing power. Nevertheless, it is powerful to just shift our mindset and appreciate the extent to which everything is interconnected, understanding that changes in one area lead to results that are separated in time and space. Our lives and their impact on the world represent our principal system of concern. When we begin to discern how choices and actions affect others and subsequently feedback on our own lives, we begin to see different strategies to make the most impact. There are true points of leverage (and I don't mean "leverage" in the corporate jargon sense*). We can construct a means of really learning from our mistakes by using them to understand interrelationships, and the mental models that we used in the situation [Got Impact Models]. Seeing these structures and models ever more clearly is the path to continual learning and impact.

Cause and effect is rarely unilateral and linear; effects may be distant in time and location from their cause. As of writing this post, the current Isis insurgency in Iraq is a good example of a core concept in this systems worldview: "today's problem is yesterday's solution".

Don't be fooled, look at every step in the context of the larger journey, strive to understand your mental models and the structures that govern cause and effect. Learn, integrate and test; understand that sometimes the fuck-ups that occur are the result of the system, and the better you understand the system (and challenge it, redesign it, change it!) the better you will be able to answer Neil Young's question.

*"we can leverage that Jim"

Monday, May 26, 2014

Roll Away the Stone

A Mott the Hoople flavored post on the idea of pushing while making sure we are pushing in the right direction! Firstly, some classic British glam rock for those that enjoy this:

Negotiation is the art of letting them have your own way” 
Daniel Vare (Italian diplomat)

There is a thin line between the idea of going with (while ensuring it’s where we want to go) and manipulating someone to get your own way. However this thin line can be walked in instances that necessitate it. As Robert Green wrote in his book ‘The 48 Laws of Power’:

The best deceptions are the ones that seem to give the other person a choice….give people options that come out in your favour whichever one they choose.”

This is in effect the principle of Hobson’s Choice: “a situation in which you are supposed to make a choice but do not have a real choice because there is only one thing you can have or do”. Hobson’s choice relies on setting up the situation. There’s a card trick in which the audience member is asked to choose between four “stars” laid out on a table (each star containing four cards, placed face down in a cross shape). The spectator first points to two stars, then to one, then to two cards within the four remaining, and finally to one card of two. Each time the other cards are removed from the table, leaving a final card unturned. The denouement is revealing that the last card is in fact the card that the spectator memorized earlier in an exercise where the deck is shuffled into vertical lines of cards. The trick works every time as in fact the player does not have a choice, even though they believe they are choosing freely. The person playing the trick pushes the spectator to pick their card (previously identified through a simple ruse) by either removing the cards pointed to, or the cards that were not pointed to, depending on whether the target card is outside or inside the selection, respectively. Done well, the spectator does not realize that the card removal is based on inconsistent rules, and is amazed to see that they “randomly” selected their chosen card, the identity of which was not previously revealed to anyone.
This same technique can be used in martial arts and life. Get your opponent to want to go in the direction you wish. One way of achieving this is to use the principle of opposites. Remember that the best way to push a big guy out of a door is not to push him out of it. Stand in front of the door and push the guy in the opposite direction; as he resists strongly, reverse and pull, letting his inertia propel him out of the door with little effort on your part. Similarly, sometimes it’s best to push in the opposite direction to secure that which you desire. It plays on our natural tendency to go against, such that pushing in one direction is more likely to get people moving the opposite way. One example might be employee retention. Rather than hide the benefits of other places to work, it is better to emphasize that employees will always be able to move on from their current company with the skills and knowledge that they develop. Encourage them to look for other options; engendering this feeling of freedom and choice results in a deeper loyalty and a propensity to stay, rather than the opposite impression of being trapped with few options, which is more likely to lead to employees quitting. 

So, the Hobson’s choice idea captures many of the nuances of the art of impact--going with, generating options, finding the hidden, setting-up, pushing against--that can all be combined into a strategy leading to that exhilarating feeling of flow and impact.

There's more than one way to roll a stone!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Always Something Hidden

There's a rock garden in Japan where, when standing at any point in the garden, seventeen large stones are visible. An aerial photograph shows that there are, in fact, eighteen rocks in the garden.

A simple story but, for me, memorable and I think of this often (it was told by the karate sensei Shigeru Kimura during one of his training sessions). The message that I take from it is that there is always something hidden--in all circumstances, with everyone we meet, in ourselves--there's always something we cannot see or perceive. It's this hidden aspect that can be a risk, an opportunity, an explanation, a root cause, the key to something positive or negative. Constantly searching for the hidden, being aware that all is not as we see is a critical element in the art of impact. It's the rocks that we are not aware of that obstruct us unexpectedly and it's especially true in all our interactions, where the attitudes and experiences of others guide their judgments and choices.

Our ability to perceive things dissimilated can however be improved.  Think of the Japanese rock garden; its true nature was revealed by studying it from different angles. It's possible that someone with excellent visual perception would have noticed a discrepancy in the patterns of rocks between the different viewpoints and realize that there were more rocks than those immediately visible. The real number of stones was readily apparent from the aerial angle. The same principle applies in life: look at every problem, interaction, relationship, person, process from different angles. Look for patterns and then compare the patterns to see if they are consistent. We're good at pattern recognition and can quickly recognize discrepancies; if we're looking at lots of data, then we have tools to graph them, filter them, represent them in ways that reveal the hidden patterns.

This is a classic interview or interrogation technique: ask the same question to different people involved (or ask the same question repeatedly to the same person) and look for the patterns in their answers. It's auditing and science, looking at data to see if they are consistent with what we would expect from theory or process. Once we perceive the previously concealed, the next step is to assess its significance. Is this really a problem, risk, threat, or opportunity? Does this really explain the pattern we noticed? Seeing the discrepancies and being curious about these, understanding their significance, is to open the door to serendipity, or luck, noticing something good or bad. This is borne out by history where all manner of "serendipitous" discoveries have been due to these principles. Think of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin; he was curious about the patterns of bacterial death in the petri dishes contaminated with mold, and related these to similar patterns he had seen with other agents.

There's always something hidden in our exchanges with others: we never know everything about the person's motivation and reasons for acting in a particular manner. The traditional advice of "walking a mile in their shoes" applies, trying to understand their perspective. In a karate contest the opponents constantly test each other, looking for gaps and hidden abilities. In perceiving the reasons governing decisions that are made by others, one useful principle is that of "positive intent". When we are treated in a way we feel is unfair, it's better to assume that the person responsible acted with positive intent, rather than an intent to harm us. This idea helps avoid being clouded by emotion in such circumstances, by first assuming that the underlying reason for the action was a beneficial one. Using this technique for searching for the hidden elements we can more easily analyze situations and reach a productive resolution.

So, always remember the rocks! Whatever is happening, remember that we do not see everything, and part of our attention should be on what we don't see. Staying vigilant in this way helps to enhance serendipity, avoid misfortune and stay on balance to make an impact.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Throwing Knives at Leaves

Building strategy and skills is a continual process, always refining and improving, preparing for the next challenge during good times or bad. Akiro Kurosawa's classic film Yohimbo gives a powerful illustration of this idea when the principal character Sanjuro finds himself badly injured and in need of time to recover. After managing to get himself to a gazebo where he can rest, Sanjuro waits patiently for his wounds to heal, passing the time by throwing his knife at the leaves which blow errantly into the open structure. Many days pass and Sanjuro slowly recovers, all the time throwing his knife across the gazebo at the blowing leaves. Eventually he is well enough to leave and in the climatic scene of the film Sanjuro, armed only with his sword and knife, faces a gang of gun-toting bandits. The bandit leader raises his gun to fire on the seemingly easy target.......and receives an expertly thrown knife clean through his gun hand.

Sanjuro demonstrates the practical application of a key element of the art of impact - even while injured, he is building the strategy and skills that will be needed to prevail. It's the same for all of us every day, personally, professionally, on both individual and group levels. To make an impact requires continual movement and improvement, increasing our grip--enhancing awareness of the current situation and arising opportunities, threats--and building strategy to meet this emerging landscape. This enables effective engagement with life's challenges, to get results with one clean shot rather than being embroiled in protracted combat.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Attack and Defense

"My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat, situation excellent, I will attack"

Nice quote from the French General Ferdinand Foch, which, even though from a French General, illustrates a core martial arts principle of attack and defense.

When attacking, think about defense. When things are going well, when we are on a roll, when our energies are focused on a situation that is moving in our favor, a piece of mental energy should be devoted to defending. From a martial arts point of view, the mind should be reviewing the possibilities for protection even as the body is moving forward; anticipating the counter-attack, being prepared to defend when we miss, guarding our vulnerabilities. This principle applies universally. Periods when we are having the best of times professionally and personally are those when anticipating problems and having contingencies in place are most important. This doesn't mean being pessimistic and worrying, or ploughing money into gold, stockpiling guns, water and toilet roll. Spending time focused on such negative possibilities is much more damaging than not considering them at all. As always, balance is the key to impact. Anticipation and early detection to treat problems while they are still small, building networks, sharing our good fortune with others, investing in fixing known issues are all worth our attention during the good times. That's how we avoid misfortune to the extent possible and prepare for the inevitable rougher waters, allowing us to keep stable and prevail when the tide turns. This principle is becoming increasingly important in business, as traditional models of innovation are being overturned by so-called "big band disruptions", rapid and devastating changes in markets epitomized by the success of Twitter, Kindle and mobile navigation smartphone apps. Industry leaders now need more than ever  to be vigilant in detecting such radical changes, ready defend their position. Instability and change is becoming the norm in our lives, and recognizing this, preparing while we are in the calm eye of the storm, is the means to retaining our impact when the hoodoo eventually comes.

The converse is equally, if not more, important. When we are being attacked (literally or figuratively) and are forced into a defensive mode, the best way out is to attack. Defense is loss-prevention at best; at worse it is retreat or surrender. Attacking deals with the root cause and creates opportunity. At the lowest ebbs of my professional and personal life I have always made it a point to attack, to lob something out in the hope that it will explode. This tactic has lead me out of the darkest of situations into hope, created opportunity and new possibilities where none seemed possible. There is credible psychological support for this concept. Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement, notes in his book "Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life":
"If depression is a disorder of thinking, pessimism and rumination stoke it. The tendency to analyze feeds right into it; the tendency to act breaks it up"

In other words, when you're at your lowest and feeling hopeless - act! Actively attacking the problem will dispel negativity, generate energy and lead to new horizons. It's always best to maintain control, creating and adapting an offensive strategy to meet the challenge, even when pressed on all fronts like General Foch.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Higher Ground

Stevie Wonder is one of those performers whose musicianship and talent for melody, arrangement and feel is unsurpassed. I think that one of the 10 Commandments of Bar Bands should be "thou shalt not play a Stevie Wonder song", having heard "Superstition" slaughtered on the altar of rock cover band guitarists one too many times. Anyway, I digress, here's some classic SW to start the post:

Nice sentiment, but why should we try and reach the highest ground? What does this mean anyway?

Religions all focus on this topic and a good place to start is looking at their thoughts on the matter. For brevity I'll take the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and his Seven Deadly Sins as representative of the religious stance. These are a distillation of those activities and attitudes that are most likely to condemn us to an eternity somewhere unpleasant:

  • Pride: an excessive belief in one's own abilities
  • Envy: the desire for others' traits, status, abilities, or situation
  • Gluttony: an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires.
  • Lust: a craving for the pleasures of the body.
  • Anger: fury over love; resentment and hate
  • Greed: the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual
  • Sloth: the avoidance of physical or spiritual work

Some of these sound like fun, so why are they so bad? What harm can a little indulgence cause? The answer is, I think, that they are all paths toward lower ground, terrain where a bigger perspective is not possible, where we expend energy on gratifying urges rather than making a positive impact. As Carlos Castaneda put it:

"I warn you: Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself and yourself alone one question: Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same. They lead nowhere. They are paths going through the brush or into the brush or under the brush. Does this path have a heart is the only question. If it does then the path is good…if it doesn’t then it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere, but one has a heart and the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as your follow it will be one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong, the other weakens you"

In Bear Grylls' autobiography "Mud, Sweat and Tears" he describes his error during a critical timed hike as part of an SAS selection test:

"I dropped off the high ground too early, and soon found myself floundering again in the worse of the boggy marsh. Burning up energy and precious time. I could feel my tired legs leaking energy, and the weight of the pack was pushing my sinking legs further and further into the boggy ground with each step. To make matters worse, I could see distant figures on the skyline above steaming past me"

This is a good metaphor for the reasons why we should not opt for the apparent comfort of the lower ground, those vices encapsulated by the Deadly Sins. Balance is lost, the more we indulge, the more we need to satisfy, the more our mental energy is bogged down while the opportunity to make a positive impact passes us by.  This is borne out by the spectacular falls of those in high places--from Tiger Woods to Bernard Madoff--where the root cause is always one of the seven.

In this Battle of Everyday that we are thrown into, winning, making an impact, depends on maintaining a strategic advantage. A major part of this advantage is keeping the higher ground; a position that develops power, enables vision and gives the edge over opponents in lower positions. This is true figuratively as well as in actual combat, where higher ground gives the individual or army a superior position, with more options for attack or defense. Higher ground could mean better fighting technique, better training or stronger spirit, all of which are elements of a higher state. Likewise, outside of combat, not being dragged to a lower position by the numerous temptations of modern life, cultivating discipline and control, develops a tangible power. It's a practical approach, freeing available energy for fun, creativity, beneficial work, altruism and relationship-building. These all improve the impact we make, and is one explanation of the principles of karma--what goes around comes around--as the higher we raise ourselves, the more advantages we obtain from the higher position. If you want to make an impact, gotta heed Stevie's advice:

Gonna keep on trying till I reach the highest ground....

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Born to Run?

Tramps like us, baby we were born to run

Why is it that millions of people identify so strongly with Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Born to Run’? Vicarious tramps, driving fast cars accompanied by their Wendy. I think there’s something worth exploring here, something that touches the core of the American psyche; it’s worth looking under this hood and meddling to see if we can tune up, find balance and adventure.
It seems like most of the fans that love the song are content in the very world that is to be run from; the cloying sterility of the job/dog/computer/Blackberry/TV lifestyle; the routine drudgery of making ends meet; the world of the GPS telling us where to go, and all the other (aptly-named) trappings of the new-millennium lifestyle. But are we really content, or are there suppressed rumblings deep in our engines, the spirit’s plea to recognize its purpose, the unfulfilled quest? I believe that we all have a deep-rooted wanderlust, a need to discover ourselves and our environment, a need to define our contribution to life. The popularity of Born to Run (and the many other songs and films that express the yearning for freedom) supports this belief; music provides an inspection-bay into our deeper workings, among which is a huge desire for freedom. That so many of us can identify with the song’s message is evidence that the human soul knows that its purpose is to ‘run’ and make an impact on the world in the short time available. Modern life stalls our motors though; we may lack curiosity and have no desire to explore externally or internally, no interest in finding out where those two lanes will lead us. We may lack courage; to leave safety and routine sounds good on a record—especially after a couple of drinks in the evening—but in real life it is scary and requires a top-up of bravery (and foolhardiness), levels of which are low in the cold light of the morning. Most often however we run out of gas because of lack of energy, and we fall into the very lifestyle that the songs and films we love rail against. As we progress beyond our twenties, our energy levels naturally decrease, whereas demand rises to cope with the complexities of work and family life. The lure of lifestyle weighs down our trunks with possessions; the hemi-powered drone becomes the coveted luxury car, and the notion that where you drive is more important than the car you’re driving takes a backseat to the quest for comfort and status. We continually reduce our degrees of freedom through acquisition and debt until we become enslaved by the very liberty that we think we have. Oftentimes our chassis is corroded by poor choices and the inability to restrain our compulsions, leaving us off-balance and vulnerable, unable to drive forward, to run and explore while we have the chance.
While Mr. Springsteen’s songs are powerfully evocative of the problems and angst we all encounter en route, they are not an abundant source of solutions, with the possible exception of one of his other paeans to the automobile, Racin’ in the Street. Here, he offers a glimpse of the road outta here:

Some guys they give up livin’, they start dyin’ little-by-little, piece-by-piece; Some guys come home and wash up, and go racin’ in the street

We should take his advice on how to keep a full tank, remain well-balanced, in-tune and able to make an impact. We have to stop searching for comfort, stop trapping ourselves with the vision of a lifestyle that is sold to us, stop planning our retirement and start planning to live. It’s time to wash up, take some risks and head out on the highway, ready for adventure and whatever comes our way.

 "What the hell's wrong with freedom man? That's what it's all about"

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Live dangerously.....

In defining and understanding the universal principles of impact it is useful to study those who have genuinely made an impression on our world. One such person was Winston Churchill, who, despite the estimated 20,000 bottles of champagne he drank in his lifetime, was indisputably a heavy hitter. Paul Johnson's book "Churchill" has an insightful Epilogue which describes five characteristics that the author believes contributed primarily to Churchill's achievements:

  1. Always aim high - improve your weaknesses and capitalize on your strengths, set your sights high. Churchill mastered English history, participated in five wars, became a prolific war correspondent and author, as well as an acclaimed painter, polo player (winning the top award in the world) and, of course, was Prime Minister during the most critical period in 20th century history.
  2. There is no substitute for hard work - do everything to the best of your ability, take the tough decisions, balance "flat-out work" with "creative and restorative leisure".
  3. Never allow mistakes, disaster, accidents, illnesses, unpopularity or criticism to get you down. Churchill suffered abject failure, humiliation and catastrophic loss but these never sapped his energy and courage to continue. This was arguably Churchill's greatest strength and the biggest contributor to his success.
  4. Do not waste any time on the "meannesses of life" - for example attributing blame, seeking revenge, rumor-spreading, grudges or vendettas. Conserve energy for positive ends, understand that hatred and fear are exhausting, energy-intensive and wasteful.
  5. Find time for joy in your life - be happy, laugh, enjoy your interactions with others.

These are five important principles, equating to boldness, discipline, courage, conservation of energy and balance, all key elements of impact. To finish with some further advice from Churchill, consider his counsel after being badly injured in a car accident in New York City in 1931. In an article about his accident he concludes "For the rest, live dangerously, take things as they come. Fear naught, all will be well."

Be bold, go with and don't worry - every little thing gonna be alright!

Sunday, December 9, 2012


It's acceleration that makes the difference. Acceleration surprises, makes an impact, penetrates, and gets us to where we want to be. Without acceleration we move at the same pace; we're predictable, people see us coming, things get boring. The art of impact is the ability to accelerate, to come from seemingly nowhere, to overwhelm and overcome resistance . 

To accelerate we have to build tension prior to launching, applying forbearance, the discipline to wait until the right moment before we embark and pull the trigger. The right moment is when there is an opportunity, a need that we can meet, a gap in our opponent's defense.  This requires building and holding tension--like pulling back the cord on a bow and arrow--developing skills, building concepts, connecting and collaborating to acquire the ideas and energy that will propel us towards the target. Like the archer we must develop the strength to hold this increasing tension, while remaining aware and ready to release at the opportune instant.

In a fight, if someone approaches or throws a punch at a constant speed, even if fast, we can anticipate and avoid. It's better to start slow and then gather speed rapidly, making evasion impossible, hitting before the opponent's mind catches up with the attack. So it is in all areas of life. We must practice building knowledge, skills, concepts, even without a precise goal. The moment will come when direction is clear and the release of stored energy will be accompanied by the thrill of acceleration, assuring an exciting ride and eventual success.  

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

We’re all crazy, one way or another, and this can be a huge strength or a debilitating weakness. The real fun in life comes from identifying and unleashing that craziness; once we find the hidden deposits of crazy we can tap into vast reserves of physical and mental power. Too many of us either suppress and ignore our crazier side, or unleash it in ways that don’t give us pleasure, paths that can spiral down in a negative trajectory. Those that ignore or have never found this side of their nature live it vicariously through television, movies, gambling or computer games. So why not use it to achieve something more satisfying? Use it to become the person you want to be; it’s energy that can be brought to bear to defeat the mediocre and transform the ordinary into something extraordinary.
As we understand ourselves and exert control on elements of our personality, we can balance the darker elements of our nature and our better characteristics in a controlled manner. By exerting increased discipline and finding balance our awareness expands to uncover that crazy diamond within. Once discovered it can be taken out, polished and put somewhere more accessible so that when we need it we can reach down and use its energy to propel us through prior barriers, shining on, no matter what.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Boldness and Serendipity

Like the Seven Deadly Sins, I think there are Seven Deadly Root Causes of ineffectiveness; seven factors which, if not understood and managed, lead to an inability to achieve goals and make an impact. One of these is not being able to start (and its corollary, not being able to finish). If we really want to achieve something, to change, to make an impact, then we must start towards our goal. However, although this seems evident,  taking first steps requires passing through the pain barrier of action--actually doing something--and many of us struggle to break through this barrier. Moreover, it means opening ourselves up to failure, and the endemic fear of failure in our society can make starting a scary proposition. A bold first step is essential, we must accept the possibility of failure and press on regardless. Oftentimes, such first steps can be simple, for example contacting a potential client, emailing an idea or abstract, writing a summary, booking a performance or enrolling in an event. Apart from the negative effects of never taking such steps, there is an interesting positive phenomenon of "enhanced serendipity" which occurs. Making a bold initial move leads to the effect that W.H. Murray (of The Scottish Himalayan Expedition) describes eloquently in his quote below:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreams would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and magic in it.”

We should all have the opportunity to experience this genius and magic, to go with the flow but influence its direction. As Bon Scott put it: take a chance, while you’ve still got the choice!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hamsters on the Wheel of False Urgency

We're all on the wheel of false urgency, especially us so-called knowledge workers, consigned to the wheel via email and Instant Messaging. Got to get to the next one, deal with that question, attach a file, get through the inbox; ah.....finally there. Oh, no - there's another one, let's have a look at it while it's fresh:

Of course, the wheel is 24/7, especially as the 21st-century hamster's favorite food is no longer carrots (or whatever they eat) but Blackberries. Coming back to some basic principles, as Steven Covey pointed out (First Things First), there is a difference between urgent and important, and the trap that many of us fall into is to spend our time dealing with the urgent--the pressing demands, the action, the stuff that we can get done--at the expense of what's really important, those tasks that build toward something bigger, that lead to impact. Email makes this trap more dangerous, it has direct access to us at all times and by its nature it always seems urgent, a false urgency that we react to as we spin the wheel ever faster. The business world is full of six-figure earning leaders, super-qualified with MBAs and expensive executive training programs who are spending the majority of their time rotating. I would argue that the the majority of companies' payroll is spent on the wheel, a concern supported by groups such as the Information Overload Research Group (IORG).

The art of impact is the art of beating traps and finding gaps. In this case, a gap is needed between the falsely urgent and the important, a gap that allows us to beat the trap of the wheel and bring our undivided attention to bear on the important tasks. As Maggie Jackson points out in her book Distracted (Distracted) we are in danger of losing this ability to focus our attention completely. If our leaders are all shuffling emails, who is really thinking about direction, about strategy, who is creating something meaningful?

There are ways to stop spinning, find the gap and increase impact. Cultivating discipline, that key to freedom, is one of them; easy to say but an endless challenge in practice. Finding genuine flow is another path towards focus and concentration. Building skills and confidence and applying these to increasingly challenging tasks facilitates flow, which in turn naturally limits wheel-time and builds the ability to focus attention for sustained periods.

I'll sign off with a quote from Distracted followed by some light relief from one of my favorite songs about the consequences of distraction:

Do we yearn for such voracious virtual connectivity that others become optional and conversation fades into a lost art? For efficiency's sake, do we split focus so finely that we thrust ourselves in a culture of lost threads? Smitten with the virtual, split-split, and nomadic, we are corroding the three pillars of our attention: focus (orienting), judgement (executive function), and awareness (alerting). The costs are steep: we begin to lose trust, depth, and collection in our relations and our thought. Without a flourishing array of attentional skills, our world flattens and thins. And most alarmingly, we begin to lose our ability to collectively face the challenges of our time. Can a society without deep focus preserve and learn from its past? Does a culture of distraction evolve to meet the needs of its future?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Stay in the Pocket

I just spent some exacting but enjoyable days playing guitar for the recording of a new CD from the very talented Dan Zimmerman (Dan Zimmerman), with the equally gifted Daniel Smith (Danielson) at the production helm (powered by the incredible musicianship of Adrian Valosin, Wayne-O Taussig and Matt Zimmerman). Exacting in the sense that we recorded 19 new original songs live in 3 days, requiring a zen-like approach, being sufficiently in the moment without over-trying, yet as close as possible to that state of flow and effortless concentration in order to play a perfect take each time. This of course is a state that you cannot consciously find, it has to happen; all the harder when you're under the scrutiny of musicians of the caliber of those I had the good fortune to be with.

Daniel had some great advice for me, the gist of which was:

  • Stay behind the beat - in the pocket - don't get excited and drive the pace by having the guitar part being ahead
  • Use less notes, "I can't get my head round all those extra notes, they detract from the melody you're trying to convey"
  • Roll off that distortion on the guitar and don't use it too much, get more contrast in the sounds. You get more impact from less overdrive, the cleaner sound is more powerful ("I'd rather have AC/DC than eighties hair metal")

Funny how the the principles of impact are the same, in music, martial arts or life in general. We have always to stay in the pocket by not rushing, being happy in the moment, allowing serendipity to work, while having the clarity of mind to anticipate upcoming changes.

Less is more - economy of movement, of effort, is the cornerstone of graceful impact. In my professional life, I see the effects of overly-complicated processes and people seeking the complex contributing to the inefficiency of the pharmaceutical industry. Being as clear as possible on purpose (fitness and purpose)--of work, the song we're playing, or whatever we're undertaking--and stripping out everything that doesn't contribute is vital.

Impact is contrast; in karate it's the contrast between action and no-action, typified by the sudden switch from a seemingly relaxed state to an overwhelming attack. Contrast is what adds magic to life, between sweet and sour, beauty and sadness, tension and release. Power is not generated by turning up to 11, overdriving or layering on fancy effects. Power is generated by the connection (emotional or physical) between you and those you wish to have an impact upon. This is not necessarily enhanced by increasing intensity or volume, it has to come from staying in the pocket and connecting efficiently and effectively, using contrast and dynamics. Listen to the Meters demonstrate this so perfectly - turn this one up loud and enjoy:

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Fitness and Purpose

Continuing with the theme of integration (see Work/Life Balance? That's so Seventies!), I work in the Quality profession, contributing to the development of medicines by assuring compliance and integrity of clinical studies. Quality is often defined as "fitness for purpose" (see Wikipedia's Quality, first paragraph), the production of something in such a way that it meets its intended need.

The concepts of fitness and purpose are integral to the art of impact. They equate to building skills and then applying these to a challenge (see Requisite Variety ), the core elements for finding flow, impact and happiness.

Many of us spend a lot of time improving fitness, sweating at the gym, building muscles. This is a positive practice, but to realize the full benefits of any training, fitness must be connected to purpose - why are we investing time in fitness? What do we want to achieve? The reasons vary, it may be simply to look and feel better, to compete in a sports event, or to prevent illness or injury. Getting as clear as possible on purpose is the common denominator that allows us to improve the quality of our lives and break down work/life barriers. Purpose in the quality world is what the customer wants, it's the value added by our endeavors; any activity that does not add value should be examined and discontinued. This is also how to get strong impact, by removing all unnecessary motion in order to produce a clean, focused strike, unimpeded by useless motion. Purpose is what we are trying to achieve and how we intend to get there, it's the foundation that allows something meaningful to be built (see Just Like an Arrow). For example, purpose can be described a simple acronym like "SEAL": Service, Adventure, Entertainment, Learning. For me this is easy to remember and is powerful in laying the foundation for decisions and direction, always asking myself - does this provide  a service? Is there an adventure to be had? Will I be able to entertain or be entertained? Will I learn something? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then I will go with it (see Go With!) and follow whatever road opens up. This applies across the board; for example the point of going to gym for me is to get better at karate and to experience the thrill and flow of martial arts, it's always an adventure.

Building fitness and skills while being clear on purpose enables us to feel good, learn, make good decisions and use serendipity to our advantage, being quick in accepting or rejecting opportunities. It also helps make the best of bad times, realizing which parts of the negative experience benefit us, how they are in-line with our purpose, for example in allowing us to provide a service or learn something, albeit the painful way.

Purpose can also be thought of as a story--our storyline, what we are trying to achieve--and fitness is a means of getting there. We should think of lives from time-to-time as being the story in a book. So make it exciting, look back and enjoy the read so far while eagerly anticipating the next chapter.