Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia Cathedral: credit J Salmoral

I watched a TEDx video of Ted Leonsis, internet millionaire and author of the Business of Happiness. He spoke of the research into what leads to people living happy lives.

  1. Quality of relationships: Are you connected? Do you feel connected? Do you feel significant?
  2. Productivity of units of work: Do you get stuff done in a disciplined and habitual fashion? Are you creating a steadily growing Body of Work? (body of work; Noun. the total output of a writer or artist)
  3. Self-actualization: high levels of personal expression. Blog. Tell the world what you think. Be heard (I think the important aspect is feel heard. Do you feel heard? Who cares when you speak? Is that because you speak rubbish or because you haven’t earnt permission to be heard?)
  4. Impact on communities we serve: Get out of “I” and into “We”.
  5. Pursue a higher calling: Make money, but make it to build something important. What would you build if you had unlimited funds? How can you start building it with the limited funds you have now?

Ted offers a couple of actions that can help enrich life:

  1. Embrace reckonings:  Learn from the crap that happens to you. 
  2. Envision via life lists: Dream and make lists. If you don’t ask you don’t get. Same with Santa, same with life.  Law of attraction stuff.
  3. Human file server: Share opportunities with the people you care about. Look for ways to help them succeed.
  4. High levels of personal expression: Blog every day. Be heard. Do art. Sing. 
  5. Empathy: Learn to listen. 
  6. Get out of “I” and into “we”: Stop asking “what is in it for me?” and at least move to “what is in it for us?”…  even better might be “what does [important person in my life] need most from me right now?”
  7. Pursue a higher calling: Make money. Use it to build cathedrals, not bank accounts.
I am lucky to be in Dublin with my family for Christmas this year.  A lot of people have been affected by the severe weather in northern Europe and have not been able to be where they planned to be today.  I hope you enjoy your Christmas wherever you happen to be.  All the best from a well fed, couple of wine glasses and sitting by the fire Conor with my macbook while the kids play games for kids.

As we come to the end of 2010 I did a quick google analytics review.
I generally try and avoid looking at the statistics as I tell myself that I am not writing this blog for anyone other than myself…  but I am a competitive soul and so many years of sport mean that I desire some sort of score 😉

Year to Date: 18,313 Visits, 30,482 Pageviews.  Thanks to you for reading, interacting, commenting, sharing and helping me become a better writer and thinker about these themes.

The top 10 most read posts of 2010 in rank order are:

  1. 17 Habits for a Fulfilling Life
  2. If you think you are beaten, you are; if you think you dare not, you don’t
  3. Persuasive Speaking: The 4 types of audience
  4. Why you should not be an Entrepreneur
  5. 3 things to control when negativity “kidnaps” your brain
  6. 3 keys to powerful body language while speaking
  7. 12 tips for public speaking
  8. How to pitch a brilliant idea
  9. On goal setting. How I do it.
  10. An entrepreneurial business plan is a promise
Have a great day.

Yep. The stuff that seems silly. The stuff that is beneath you. The afterthoughts. The stuff that gets left out when you are in a rush, when you are on a mission to meet a deadline, when your work is more important than other peoples’ work.
St Paul's Cathedral Pinnacle and London Eye. Pináculo de la Catedral de San Pablo y London Eye.
photo credit: J A Alcaide
I was in London staying with a friend this summer (thanks M).  I had several business meetings lined up with people who could help me advance.  I had lunches and dinners arranged with old friends from the time I had lived in London.  It was a week of English sunshine.  All the big things were aligned in the right direction.
On the Tuesday morning, I woke, dressed and had some breakfast.  I took the stairs down to the street and walked towards the Bond St tube station.

On the way I stopped to buy a drink and 2 newspapers (FT and Telegraph) in a little newsagent.  The guy behind the till told me that the cost was 4 pounds and 15 pence.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out 4 pound coins.  I looked at my hand and paused.   I thought “I will have to take out my wallet and pay with a 10 pound note.”

In the moment of pause, a black guy who was standing behind me reached over and put 15 pence in my hand and said “have a good day”.  The shopkeeper took the 4.15 and I walked out of the shop with my papers and drink.

This stranger’s act of generosity, completely unexpected generosity, left me all day thinking “but why? Why did he do it?” and a sense of gratitude.  These 15 pence left me feeling more happy that week than any of the meetings with important people, all the planned social activity.  I am writing about it here months later, and I can’t tell you too many specifics of the rest of my meetings during that week.  (Day out at the Polo was fun; and the Queens club tennis.) 

I used to think that in a long term relationship, it was more important that two people share the same long term goals and less important the little day to day bits and pieces, forms of communication, styles of interaction.  I now think that for happiness it is the opposite.  Joy is in the little things.

This post is inspired by a talk “You and your research” by Richard Hamming.

One life to live

Richard Hamming

“Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, each of you has one life to live. Even if you believe in reincarnation it doesn’t do you any good from one life to the next! Why shouldn’t you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant? I’m not going to define it – you know what I mean.” Richard Hamming speaking to Bellcore, 7 March, 1986.

My summary of Hamming’s lessons for success (as a scientist, but I believe easily applicable to any profession) are:

Hammings 13 Lessons for Success

  • Work hard
  • Accept ambiguity
  • Work on important problems
  • Plant acorns to grow oaks
  • When opportunity appears pursue it fully
  • Keep your door open sometimes, closed sometimes
  • Do your job in such a way that others can build on it
  • Even scientists have to sell (learn to speak well)
  • Educate your bosses
  • How you dress matters
  • Be good to secretaries
  • Let others fight the system (you can do great work or fight the system, not both)
  • Always look for positive not negative
  • Know yourself, your weaknesses, your self-delusions (we all have self-delusions)

All the talent, but don’t deliver

Richard Hamming says about people who have greatness within their grasp but don’t succeed:

  1. they don’t work on important problems (Bad work, good work, great work)
  2. they don’t become emotionally involved,
  3. they don’t try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and
  4. they keep giving themselves alibis why they don’t. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck.

How success and fame can ruin you

“When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you.”

How to keep it going for life

“Somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field. Thus, I shifted from numerical analysis, to hardware, to software, and so on, periodically, because you tend to use up your ideas. When you go to a new field, you have to start over as a baby. You are no longer the big mukity muk and you can start back there and you can start planting those acorns which will become the giant oaks.”

“It is better to solve the right problem the wrong way than to solve the wrong problem the right way.”

Thanks to Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator for sharing this talk on his blog.  The full text of the talk is here.

What do you think?

Are you planting acorns?  Are you fighting the system? or doing great work?  Is it true that you cannot do both?  (sometimes the system is wrong…  what should I do?)  Join the discussion here.

I find myself in front on a huge pile of metal keys. Gold keys, iron keys, silver keys, copper keys; Old keys, new keys; Clean keys, dirty keys, rusty keys. A large imposing door is locked behind the pile. I feel a need to open the door and step into the room beyond. I look at the keys. I think: “Which key opens this door?”.

The Big Yellow Door
photo credit: Ray-they

Many of life’s problems are of a similar nature to this locked door. How can I open the door? There are thousands of keys on the ground. Maybe not a single one works? How can I know? I could ask someone. There is nobody around to ask. I pick up a key. I walk to the door. I try the key in the lock. It doesn’t fit. I throw it into another pile and pick another key. It doesn’t fit. I throw it into another pile and pick another key.

This process goes on for hours. Night comes. I rest. I wake. I continue.

Midway through the following day I feel that this is going nowhere. I have tried hundreds of keys. Maybe none of them work. Why am I wasting my effort? I should give up.

I have lunch. I continue.

As night sets I pick up a heavy iron key. It fits snugly into the lock. The key turns easily. The door slides open. I step through to the other side.

An old man is sitting on a bench. He stands as I step through the door. A look of curiosity comes over his face.

“How did you know which key to use?”

“I didn’t know which key to use. I just started trying keys. One at a time. If it didn’t work, I put it on another pile. Eventually one key worked.”

My biggest concern when taking a decision was “what if I look stupid?” “what if I do this wrong?”.

To open the door, the only way was to try keys. I failed to open the door hundreds of times in order to succeed in opening the door. The cynics would have loved that. They would have sat there watching and cheering as I failed again and again. They would have said “sit with us. Why are you doing this? You will never open the door.”

  1. You have to sell.  Yes, you.  You have to sell. You have to get good at it. (7 steps of the sales process, how to pitch a brilliant idea)
  2. You need lots of help.  More than you can imagine. You need to learn to ask for it. (Ask better questions, 17 habits for a fulfilling life #13)
  3. Incremental Improvements always win. (Deliberate PracticeLean startup philosophy, Eat that frog)
  4. Learn to Motivate yourself.  Self-Discipline first. (The Magnet and The Hammer – tool 3, Who would Warren Buffett bet on?, Writing to Reflect)
  5. Listen. Not just to the words.  To the emotions of the other.  To the real reasons underlying her position.  To the hidden messages in their communication.  To yourself. To how you feel.  To your unconscious.  It is a very very clever beast.  It just doesn’t do directness very well.

Busy-ness (on the Wrong Things) is the new Laziness

“What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?”

Paul Graham

Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

  1. What are the most important problems in your field?
  2. Are you working on one of them?
  3. Why not?

Paul Graham suggests that you can summarize these three questions into “What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?

Seth Godin says that there is a new laziness.

Years ago, laziness was about shirking from physical labour. Avoiding chores.

The New Laziness

Today’s laziness is more insipid. It doesn’t look like physical laziness. In fact, only the individual self can know that they are being lazy. The new laziness is fear based. It is procrastination. It is self-sabotage. It is avoidance of standing out. It is taking the tested path. It is doing what everyone else does and then being frustrated when you get paid the same as everyone else, of how you will be let go when you are 40 and a 20 year old will do the same work, with more energy, and for less money.

“There are different species of laziness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern style is like the one practiced in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so there is no time at all to confront the real issues. This form of laziness lies in our failure to choose worthwhile applications for our energy.” Sogyal Rinpiche

Busy-ness on the wrong things is the new laziness.

This post includes additional detail to support my post at ActiveGarage blog: Origin of Leaders Pt 3: Learning – Growing through the Crucibles in your life.  It is worth reading that post first for the background and context for this post.

How do we achieve mastery?

Gary Kasparov, Grandmaster

An entrepreneur friend recently commented to me an early conversation he had with a mentor:

“Alex, you have great potential”.
“Do you know what great potential means?”
“You ain’t done nothing yet”.

What does it take to turn potential into mastery?

Malcolm Gladwell has made famous the concept that 10,000 hours of practice leads to world class performance in his book Outliers.  I say this is not true.  There are plenty of people who have amassed over 10,000 hours and they are still poor or mediocre at what they do.  The truth is that these 10,000 hours need to be “Deliberate Practice” in order to achieve excellence.

What is deliberate practice?

“For starters, it isn’t what most of us do when we’re practicing” Geoff Colvin. The key piece of scientific literature on this subject is “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” by Anders Ericsson.

There are five things that characterize Deliberate Practice:

  1. It is designed specifically to improve performance
  2. It can be repeated a lot
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available
  4. It is highly demanding mentally
  5. It is not fun

There are three fields of human performance where methods for becoming world class have been developed and honed over hundreds of years.

Musicians, Sportsmen and Chess players have found practice models that lead to world class performance based on the inclusion of the 5 aspects of deliberate practice. We can bring these styles of practice into the world of business and leadership.

The Musician Model

Barry Douglas:
Ireland’s top Pianist

Great musicians become great by repeatedly copying others and comparing their results with the results of previous great musicians. Musicians spend much of their life reading and practicing music that is written on sheets.

How does the Musician Model apply to learning to lead?

  • Get to know inspiring community leaders.  How do they live their lives?
  • Read biographies and personal accounts (and blogs) of leaders you respect.
  • Practice reading speeches out loud and get a feel for how great speakers use words and structure

The Chess Model

Excellent chess players play lots, have deep knowledge on openings and expert play, have studied extensively the decisions taken by grandmasters – “what was he seeing that I don’t see?”. It is important that you not only copy, but also reflect on why the master followed this series of moves, what was the underlying strategy?

How does the Chess Model apply to learning to lead?

  • Review the decisions taken by great leaders.  What were they thinking?  Why did they take this particular decision?  What other options did they consider?
  • Always ask a question when in a conference or formal presentation.
  • Formulate your opinions on everything – news, stocks, impact of the iphone on society, most important values for children, role of the MBA, etc
  • “War games” Practice scenarios, what if? How would I respond to X, Y, Z? Prepare.

The Sports Model

Sports success requires intense physical and mental conditioning – keep your mind and body fit. Sports people repeatedly practice the basic physical skills; but this is not enough.  It is vital that performance on the big day of the competition is as high as during the practice.  Sports people need to work on their mind so that their performance under the glare of lights and pressure of competition does not reduce.

There are 4 ways to handle anxiety – top sports stars need to use the mature 2 methods: tolerate or enjoy – in order that their performance is not impaired by pressure.

How does the Sports model apply to learning to lead?

  • Enjoying anxiety or high pressure situations requires a belief system that sees your life as a continual journey of growth as a human being – whether you succeed or fail each pressure moment is an opportunity for growth.  Do you treat pressure moments and critical decisions as opportunities for reflection and growth?
  • Performance under pressure requires that you have practiced the basic moves to a degree to which you can trust yourself to perform – if reading financial statements and making quick judgements is important to your job – practice making these judgements on a daily basis – don’t just wait for your boss or client to ask your opinion.
  • Keep fit – athletes need to be fit, leaders need all the energy they can get.
  • Eat well – fruit and veg better than pizza and beer.
  • Sleep enough – I need 7 hours. I need to read 20 minutes to calm my mind to sleep.


What will your 10,000 hours be?

I take decisions every day, every hour. The decision to play it safe. The decision to be like all the others. The decision to copy how someone else would do it. The decision to work hard at being the same. These are perfectly fine decisions, but they have consequences. The least safe decision in the long term is to seek comfort now. The world will keep changing. Web 2.0, globalization increase the pace at which change is driving through all of our lives. My grandfather’s competition were the other males living in his town. My competition is every Indian, Chinese, Brazilian, Spaniard in the world. There will always be somebody able and willing to do the simple, commodity tasks for less pay. This is inevitable. There is no escape. A sinking ship will eventually sink. I can bail a little. I can pray. I can put up bigger borders. But I cannot stop that the boat will eventually sink. The effort that I put into delaying the sinking is effort that could have gone into making myself not a commodity, into being valuable for me.

What do you want to be doing 20 years from now?  In what domain are you going to accumulate 10,000 hours of deliberate practice?

My free (as of December 2012) Speaking As a Leader Program can help you begin a disciplined practice around public speaking.

I was asked by Irina Kremin to give her a tip for speakers.  I gave her “The most important question for a speaker”.  Video here and summary on Irina’s blog: Best Conference Tips.


It was a fantastic experience to spend a weekend with Europe’s Toastmasters organisation.  Irina has provided a nice summary of my educational session: Leadership in Turbulent Times.  I met 300 people who all share a passion for excellence in speaking.

Are you a member of Toastmasters?  Were you at the Barcelona conference?  Looking to find a club near you?  Here is the Toastmasters Club Finder.  Have a great week.

Were you at the Barcelona Conference?
BTW if you are a Toastmaster, and you were at the conference, and you were in my session…  I would love feedback…  you guys are kings of this…  what can I do to make my session more engaging, more impactful, more valuable to you?  Thanks.  Stick it in the comments here below.  My friend Florian says that “Feedback is the breakfast of champions”… personally I enjoy being told how wonderful I am, but I suspect there is a limit to my growth via praise alone 😉

Power Girl and Wonder WomanFake it.

Yes, pretend.

There are three benefits that grow from you “acting” confident:

  • Attitude follows Behavior: Over time, you become more like you act—self-assured, confident, and convinced of the truth of what you are saying.
  • Emotional Contagion: Walk down an airport corridor and smile, and watch people smile back; change your facial expression to a frown, and you will be met with frowns. Act confident, people respond with confidence in you.
  • Self-Reinforcing Emotions: if you smile and then others smile, you are more likely to feel happy and smile. You may have to act confident and knowledgeable at first, but as others “catch” that feeling, it will be reflected back, making you more confident.
The research is laid out in detail in “Power: Why Some People Have It—And Others Don’t” by Jeffrey Pfeffer.  Pfeffer says that in order to be Powerful it is vital that you appear Powerful.  In the words of Peter Ueberroth: “Authority is 20 percent given, 80 percent taken.” 

Try acting confident for an hour.  How does it feel?  How do people respond?  Try smiling.  Do people respond with smiles?  How do you feel?  Have a great weekend.