Posts Tagged ‘imagination’

You will not finish reading this post.

Its in the statistics.

You will not make it to the end of this article without being distracted…

The true scarce resource of humanity: Attention

Nicolas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains”, says that it is extremely hard to manage attention.   We will get distracted before the 3 minutes that it will take to read this post.  This problem is growing as distractions multiply exponentially in our always-connected, web 2.0 world.

I look around me now as I travel on the underground train (the “tube”) through London today.  I see the person sitting across from me reading a newspaper, white ipod headphones in her ears and sms-ing on what looks like an Android touch screen phone.  She is receiving stimulus from the world, mainlining stimulus through all senses, maxing out on input.  I look up and around the carriage.  Everybody has a mobile out and sending and receiving electronic updates.  It is so very easy to pass through life in constant reaction to stimulus.

Distractions are Costly

“Distractions are costly: A temporary shift in attention from one task to another – stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call, for instance – increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%, a phenomenon known as “switching time”. It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity.”  Tony Schwartz, Manage your energy, not your time – Harvard Business Review.

The evidence from psychology is clear.  Interruptions have a major detrimental effect on your productivity.  School does not have classes on focus, on cutting out the email, facebook, twitter, mobile phone calls and concentrating for extended periods on something driven by me, something that is not a reaction to a tweet or a status update or a call.  This is a skill that you need to decide to learn for yourself.

There are times for distractions

There are times when letting the distractions in can be fun and necessary.  Total focus is not a state that you will want to spend all of your time in.  Responding to email, being aware of the action around you, twitter, facebook are part of being connected to the world around you.  However, in order to move beyond a permanent zombified state of reaction to incoming stimuli, you must develop the ability to create windows of focus in your life, where you really dedicate your attention for a specific time to one important task.

The ability to focus is something that great leaders and those that make a positive, lasting difference in this world need.

How do I improve my ability to focus?

Here are 10 ways of improving your ability to focus:

  1. Decide it is important – nobody else can do it for you.  Begin with small steps, your ability to focus will grow with practice.
  2. Cut out Obvious Distractions – Close down email, browser; clear your desk; get a glass of water.  Jim Collins talks about creating non-stimulus time.  He does not allow any electronic device in the same room as him before midday.  Start small. Do just 10 minutes today removing sources of distraction and focussing on one important task.
  3. Write things downReflective writing gives 3 powerful benefits:
    • Mindfulness
    • Improves clear thinking and
    • Allows perspective
  4. Set a timer – use the Pomodoro technique.  Set a timer for 10 minutes and do not let yourself stop working on the one task until the timer finishes.  Attention fitness takes time to grow, do less than you think you are capable of and accept that your capacity to focus will grow with time. Meditating Buddhist monks take 30 years before they are able to calm the flow of noise in their head and reach total focus.  Don’t get frustrated early on.  It will take time to grow your capacity to focus.  Like self discipline, focus grows with use.  Train like athletes preparing for a marathon: add 10% per week.
  5. Divide Actionable from non-Actionable itemsScott Belsky of Behance says that an actionable task starts with an action verb: “call A”, “buy a gift for B”, “follow up contract with C”.
  6. Take proper breaks. When you finish with your focus time, get up from your work area and really take a break.  Stretch, take a short walk, go outside and be with nature.  Opening a browser window and reading news or email is not a real break.
  7. Anticipate your physical needs. Go to the bathroom before you start your focus time.  Get a drink of water and put it on the table.  Make sure your chair is comfortable.
  8. Use Music – Listening to music helps me focus and cut out other distractions.
  9. Reward yourself. Celebrate small successes.  Eat some chocolate when you finish an important task.  Have a coffee only when you finish another 10 minutes of total focus.
  10. Do what Nike says – “Just Do It”.  Don’t let your resistance win.  When I start writing, I will not stop until I have written 500 words.  If I have to, I will write “I will keep writing, I will keep writing” until another idea comes to mind…  but I will not let myself stop.  Repeated practice has reduced the little voices in my head that say “why are you doing this?  Who is going to read this?  Who are you to be writing this stuff?”

You made it here?  3 minutes of attention?  That puts you in the small percentage of people who have found strategies to manage their attention in the overwhelming swarm of distractions that make up a typical life in the modern world.

The Origin of Leaders series

This series of posts has now looked at 6 of the powerful keys to unlocking leadership in your life and in the communities which matter to you:

In the next post I will start to look outside to how you affect those around you and scale and magnify the changes you wish to effect in the world

Stop.  Take a look around you.  Take a look at the people you work with, the people you meet at parties, even the people you just casually pass in the street.

How do they spend their days?

Most of them work.  They do some other activities as well. They sleep, eat, cook, hang out with friends, watch TV, play sport and some might play an instrument.  Nothing, however, comes close to the hours that they dedicate to work.

Now, honestly, how well do they do it?  Well enough to keep the job?  Maybe well enough to get a promotion every couple of years?  But are any of them great at what they do?  Truly world class?  Excellent?

Why?  How can they spend so much time at it, going through school, through university, maybe even an MBA, executive seminars, coaching, mentors, high-flyer programs…  but they are not great at what they do.

Why?  Some people have been working for 30, even 40 years.  After all these thousands of hours most people are no more than mediocre at what they do. This is sad.

Only two routes to get more done

There are two routes to double the output.  One is to work double the hours.  Instead of 4 hours, I give 8 hours.  I may get double the output.  It is unlikely.  The marginal utility reduces for each additional hour as tiredness and loss of focus become stronger.  There is also a physical limit to this approach.  I only have a limited number of hours in a day, in a week…  in a life.  So, I might increase today’s output by 20% or even 30% by adding hours, but this is not a healthy route.

Route two is to double the effectiveness of my hours.  How can I begin a process that continually increases the value of output of the hours that I give to a task or a job or a cause?

People who improve their effectiveness daily have two things in common:  they care about the outcome and they remain humble.

Care about the outcome

There is a Spanish saying that there is no good wind for a boat with no rudder.  Alice, when she reaches Wonderland asks White Rabbit “Which path should I take?”  White Rabbit replies “where are you going?”  Alice: “I don’t know.”  White Rabbit: “Then it doesn’t matter which path you take.”  Posts 1 and 2 in this series talked of Imagination and Ambition – about deciding and committing to a course of action, about clarity in what you seek to achieve.  If you don’t care where you are going, then effective learning is not going to happen.

Arrogance stifles growth, Humility enables growth

Learning requires change.  Change requires humility.  Humility does not come easily to successful people.  It did not come easy to me.

I was having drinks with a group of professors at IESE two weeks ago after playing football.  The conversation came around to “which program do you prefer to teach?”.  An MBA student at the table said “The MBA must be the best program to teach on.  Young, ambitious, successful people.  The senior director programs must be the hardest.  They must be so demanding.”

Alex said “No.  Years ago I preferred the MBA, but now I definitely prefer teaching the executive programs.  MBAs are typically 27, have done well in school, got to a top university, got a great job, done well, got into IESE MBA…  and believe they know everything.  The senior directors of 55 have learnt how little they really know.  They come humble.  They are aware of the value of education.  They come prepared and ready to apply the material into their lives.  The senior director programs are the most rewarding to teach.  MBAs are hard work”.

“Tinkering” and The Need for Deliberate Practice

The motto of the ActiveGarage is “Always tinkering”.  This is a great motto for this post on learning.  What is tinkering?  Playing with something.  Testing.  Changing inputs and looking to see what happens.

In school we do “book learning”.  We learn to memorize facts and to store those facts long enough to recall them during exams.

In life we do experiential learning.  We try, we fail, we reflect and we try again.  Tom Peters says that “the only source of good knowledge is bad experience.”  He is right.  The knowledge that a leader needs is not written in the textbooks.  It is not available from professors.  Textbooks, professors and gurus have there place.  They can help me make sense of my experience. Mentors, peers and coaches can play a crucial role in the process of experiential learning.  The can help me understand their experience.  However, there is no substitute for personal experience, for our own practice.

A science has been developing around the field of developing exceptional performance.  What leads to world class performance?  “Deliberate Practice.”

The 5 ingredients of Deliberate Practice and the 3 models of mastery is explored on The Rhetorical Journey blog.

Most problems we face in life are not solvable through thinking alone.  You have to try a few things and see how they work.  In business, you often have to try in a way that is visible to others.  Some of those others cannot wait to see you mess up and laugh at your attempt.  However you need the real world test in order to be able to reflect and refine your approach.  The person making 1% incremental improvements day after day will always beat the person looking to make a 40% improvement in one big step.  The humility of asking for help and sharing experience magnifies the value of the learning.

What do you think? Are you a “tinkerer?” How do you test and attempt incremental changes?

The next post in the series will combine Imagination, Ambition and Learning and look at what can only come from within a person.

On 9th August 2010, Ed Stafford arrived at the sea, having walked the length of the Amazon river.  Over 860 days of walking, 20,000 mosquito bites, 5,000 leeches, poisonous spiders and snakes.  No boss told him to do it.  Nobody paid him for it.  Why did he do it?  How did he keep going for almost 3 years?

Steve Jobs is worth billions.  He founded Apple with his friend Steve Wozniak.  Wozniak left 20 years ago worth millions.  Jobs is still there, still working, still pushing, still innovating new products.  Why?  What keeps him going?

Madonna was a star when I was 13.  She is still a star today.  She continues to tour, create new music, and maintain an exercise regime more intense than many professional athletes.  Why?

Ed, Steve and Madonna have ambition.  Each in a different way, each from their own source – but each have keep their own journeys going for long periods of time.

We began this series with a look at Imagination.  I called imagination the unique human skill.  However, an idea alone is worth nothing.  Execution is everything.  It is ambition that drives a person to keep going on the journey towards what they have imagined.

What is Ambition?

Where imagination guides the rudder, ambition powers the sails.  Knowing what to do but not doing it is the same as not knowing what to do. Dean Simonton, professor at USC-Davis says that: “Ambition is energy and determination. It calls for goals too.  People with goals but no energy are the ones who wind up sitting on the couch saying ‘One day I’m going to build a better mousetrap’. People with energy but no clear goals just dissipate themselves in one desultory project after the next.”

Ambition is the ability to transform purpose into disciplined action.  There are two components to this ability:

  • Visualization of the future – the mental effort to turn an idea into desire (imagination).  The clearer the image, the more powerful the feeling related to the image, the more powerful the energy.
  • Chunking – identifying the next simple step and taking it

A professional climber will look at a mountain and imagine what it will be like to achieve the summit.  He will begin climbing and shift focus to the single next hand movement, the next foot movement, the next breath…  the next meter…  but never more than the next meter during the journey.  Spain Ultraman? “just another 5 minutes… anybody can run another 5 minutes”.

Where does Ambition come from?

There is a genetic component – identical twins show a 30-50% overlap in their level of ambition.  There is an environmental component – FDR’s bout of polio gave him a sense of mission that led him to the presidency, Lance Armstrong survived cancer and won an unprecedented 9 tour de France victories.  Nando Parrado at age 19 was in a high altitude crash in the Andes, watched his friends and his sister and mother die – and when he walked out he took 100% ownership of his life.

Ambition is stronger in those that have a clear purpose in life

Nietzsche “Those with a clear why will overcome whatever how”.  To be good at what you do, you can depend on others…  but to be great, it must come from within.  You must find your source of ambition, the fire in the belly, the drive to give the last 1% that nobody else would notice if you didn’t give.  Only you can know.

Andre Agassi spoke about how he was number 1 in the world, playing great tennis…  and one day woke up and realized that he hated tennis.  It had lost meaning for him.  The goals of being number 1 were no longer important.  Over the next few months he dropped down to number 50 in the world and put on 10 kilos of weight.  After five months of drift he decided that he would open a school in his hometown.  He put effort into creating the foundation, fundraising and marketing the school.  He realized that his most powerful tool to further his aim of creating the school was playing tennis.  It was his most effective way of creating visibility and raising funds.  He returned to the top 10 and won 4 further US open titles.  He re-found a purpose that engaged him and gave him ambition.

One of the greatest books is Victor Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning”, his autobiographical account of surviving the Nazi concentration camp system. 1 in 30 of those that entered the camp system survived.  Frankl saw that it was not random.  Those who survived had a purpose outside of themselves that kept them going, minute by minute, hour by hour as they overcame brutality upon brutality in the camp system.  Frankl identified the 3 sources of meaning and built a whole branch of psychiatry called logotherapy using tools to search for one of these 3 sources in each of our lives.

How to find your purpose?

What do you do that gives you energy?  What activities in your life seem to fly by?  You look forward to them when you know they are coming up.  You feel more energized afterwards.  I would ask that you do two things:

  1. Take a notebook and spend 5 minutes a day for 2 weeks and note down the specific activities  of that day that give you energy, and the specific activities that suck your energy.
  2. Say “no” more.

Identity – Marshall Goldsmith – what do you do because other people expect it of you, or you look to impress them.  What do you do that comes from within?

Mika de Waart says that we are driven by emotions.  “I should do more exercise”, “I should lose weight”, “I should get another job”…  are not driven by my own internal emotional drive – these are “shoulds”.  These are things that I want to do to impress others, to look good, to feel a significant member of my tribe.  Only when I convert a should into a must will it begin to be something that takes place in my life.  A must connects to my emotional inner life, into what is important for me.

How do I convert shoulds to musts?

Realize which are only ever going to be shoulds.  If you have 20 very important goals, you don’t have any.  If you have 1 or 2 then you have important goals.  If you don’t ever say “no” to people, then you are dividing yourself up into such small chunks that you will result in nothing real or lasting.  Let go of the shoulds that will never be more than shoulds.  Write them down on a piece of paper and set fire to the page.  Let them go.

“Carpe Diem. Memento mori.“  This was what was said to triumphant Roman Generals when they paraded through Rome on the day where they celebrated their greatest triumphs in battle.  Seize the day.  Remember you shall die.

Only in realizing the scarcity of our time and the reality that our time is limited will you have the strength to say no to the non essential.  Ambition is an expensive impulse, it requires an enormous investment of emotional capital.  In the words of Seth Godin: “only start what you mean to finish.”  Don’t burn yourself up on the unimportant.

Focus on process, not outcome.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint.  Marathon runners say “I ran a marathon” they don’t much focus on times.  Everyone who has completed a marathon is a winner.

These tips for ambition are not just for the Ed Staffords, Steve Jobs and Madonnas of the world – they are most importantly for you.  You are here for a reason.  We need to you bring your talent to the world.

How can you develop your ambition?

  • Do less, get 3 important things complete each day
  • Say “no” more.  Stop using “busy-ness” as a badge of honour.
  • Meditate on how it will feel when you are old, when you look back on what you have done with your life
  • Don’t run from your fears.  Turn and face them.  Hidden in your fear is a message about your purpose. Demons are never as scary when you look them in the eyes.
  • As a parent, praise your kids for disciplined effort and not for results.  Same if you are a boss.  Same to your friends.

Commitment creates clarity. Do one next small step now.

One of the most sought after answers in our society is perhaps to the question “Where do leaders come from?” We depend greatly on them, but what do we do to ensure that the future has the people with the leadership capability that we will need.  If they are born, there is not much to do. If they can be developed, then we have a responsibility to systematize the process by which great leaders can be created.

Recent research in talent, in leadership, in accomplishment and human development is leaning further and further towards the development through experience path.  Malcolm Gladwell has made famous the concept of “10,000” hours in his book Outliers.  If you practice for 10,000 hours you will become world class.

If you practice for 10,000 hours…

…What should you practice?

This leads to the question: What is at the core of leadership?  What are the habits of successful leaders?  The Origin of Leaders is a journey through these traits and a reflection on how previously successful leaders have been able to develop these skills.

Welcome to the journey.  I look forward to your comments.

Imagination: the nucleus.

Sir Ken Robinson, the creativity expert you may know from TED, gives a great speech about what it is that has brought humanity from living in caves to living in skyscrapers, speaking on mobile phones, reading on kindles, traveling in jets and building rocket ships.

I watched the film “Inception” last week with my family.  What is the most enduring parasite?  “An idea”.

Imagination, also called the faculty of imagining, is the ability of forming mental images, sensations and concepts, in a moment when they are not perceived through sight, hearing or other senses.  It is seeing something that is not yet here.  It is seeing a different future.  It is seeing a combination of existing products that has not yet been tried.

Why is imagination so important?

Imagination defines humanity

Genetically we differ 2% from chimpanzees and 3% from worms. It is not our genes that have us living in penthouses and connecting on facebook.  Our difference is The human cortex, the layer of brain that is most highly developed in humans, is very young in evolutionary terms – but crucial in every other respect.   The cortex is where we begin to live intentionally.  We don’t just respond to the world, but can begin to see a new world and thus plan and act accordingly.

The unique gift of humanity is reason, the ability to solve problems in the mind, to imagine.

2,300 years ago in the Greek city-state of Athens, Aristotle asked himself “what is the purpose of human life?”  Aristotle defined the purpose of an object as being that which it can uniquely do.  A human is alive – but plants are also alive – so that cannot be human purpose.  A human feels – but animals also feel – so that cannot be human purpose. The unique gift of humanity is reason, the ability to solve problems in the mind, to imagine.

Aristotle concludes the Ethics with a discussion of the highest form of happiness: a life of intellectual contemplation.   Reasoned imagination is the highest virtue.

The second reason is driven by the requirements of a leader. A leader must see a future that is not yet here.  The clearer you can see and touch and feel this potential future the more compellingly you can communicate it to others.

How can you develop your imagination? Here are some ways:

  • Spend time bored.  Read fiction.  Write a new ending to a classic book.  Make a hero into a villain, and a hero into a villain. Write yourself into the book.
  • Throw photos on the floor and then explain the connection between them
  • Watch TV in another language and explain to a friend what is happening
  • Visualize a horse with sheep’s coat and a dolphin’s head.  Imagine a rubber car.
  • List 10 small improvements you could make to the seat you are sitting on
  • Tell bedtime stories
  • Develop 2×2 matrix on an area of interest…  and develop scenarios for changing positions
  • Write a new ending for Seinfeld, CSI, M*A*S*H, Desperate Housewives, SITC…  or your favorite show
  • Go to an ethnic restaurant and order something you have never had before
  • Go to a railroad station or airport and take the first train or plane to depart
  • Imagine a world without oil, cars, telephones, internet…  fill in the blank…

Develop the courage to share.  Leadership is emotional labor, when you are doing it right; it puts you on the edge.  In the words of Scott Belsky, author of Making Ideas Happen, you must “break the stigma of self-marketing”.  Learn the difference between the skeptics (good) and the cynics (get away from them).  Please share your results here.

The next post in this series looks at another vital component of leaders.  It is a characteristic that is required to achieve success.  No company has ever achieved market leadership when this characteristic has not been part of its CEO.

Stay tuned!