What is art for?

Sculpture garden at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

In 2001 I spent a weekend in Denmark with 3 friends. We spent Sunday morning in the sunshine visiting the Louisiana modern art museum 40 kms north of Copenhagen. The setting was beautiful, right on the coast with views over the water to Sweden. One of my friends said “this place is beautiful, its a pity most of the art is so crap.”

I understood her point.  We had walked through room after room of “art” that my 6 year old daughter could have produced.  There were a few pieces that were inspirational, but on the whole, the collection was childish scribbles.

The four of us ended up taking 2 different positions.  2 of my friends were of the opinion that art had to be “difficult to produce”.  One should see the piece and marvel at the talent and the hard work of the artist.  Works of Turner, Michelangelo, Caravagglio, Van Gogh are art.  Childish scribbles are not.  Advertising is not.

Myself and the third friend had a different view.  “Art makes you reflect”.  Anything can be art, but it must make you stop and think.

The Collection at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Coomaraswamy says that “art is the making of things well”.  This is independent of category.  The factory worker is capable of art, the technology consultant can create art, the woodworker can create art, the painter can create art.  It is the intent to make things well that makes them art.

James Joyce divided art into two categories: “Proper art” and “Improper art”.  In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce says that “proper art” is static: it holds the observer in a moment of awe and wonder.  Improper art is kinetic: it induces an urge into the observer, either of desire for the object (a sexy body) or what the object represents (status, power), or of fear of the object (Satan) or what it represents (going to hell, losing my health, losing my money).

Proper and Improper Art

All advertising is improper art – it is specifically designed to induce an urge that will lead to the purchase of a product.

An object that I want to have because it is beautiful, because it is rare, because it is highly valued by society – is improper art.

An object that makes me feel ashamed because I do not have the talent of the original creator – is improper art.

An object that depicts a beautiful family and I want to have a family like that – is improper art.

This week my friend John described how, as a child, he would take a battery-powered torch and point it into the night sky.  He would switch it on, then off.  He would stop in awe and wonder as he contemplated the idea that the light he sent out would travel out into space, for ever and ever.  In this moment of contemplation, he would open up to awe of the universe and wonder at its vastness.

When I first listened to Pachelbel’s canon (here is a wonderful orchestral version conducted by Sir Neville Mariner on spotify) it has the effect on me that the torch had on John.  I remember putting my father’s massive headphones on when I was 9 years old and hearing this tune for the first time.  I was entranced by its utter perfection.  I could imagine no improvement or no change that could possibly make it more powerful.  It just held me still (yes, it held a 9 year-old still for 6 minutes) with a sense of gratitude that I had found it.

What is your Proper art?

What stops you in a moment of awe and wonder?  What object, what experience, what person gives you this opening up of perception?



4 Great Posts on Communication and Leadership

How to Give a Killer Presentation

Chris Anderson, Owner of TED
Presentations rise or fall on the quality of the idea, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker. It’s about substance, not speaking style or multimedia pyrotechnics. It’s fairly easy to “coach out” the problems in a talk, but there’s no way to “coach in” the basic story—the presenter has to have the raw material. If you have something to say, you can build a great talk. But if the central theme isn’t there, you’re better off not speaking. Decline the invitation. Go back to work, and wait until you have a compelling idea that’s really worth sharing.  Read More


The Inconvienient Truth about Change Management –

McKinsey & Company
Conventional change management approaches have done little to change the fact that most change  programs fail. The odds can be greatly improved by a number of counterintuitive insights that take into account the irrational but predictable nature of how employees interpret their environment and choose to act.  Read More


11 Simple Concepts to Become a Better Leader

Dave Kerpen
All 11 concepts are simple, and yet, perhaps in the name of revenues or the bottom line, we often lose sight of the simple things – things that not only make us human, but can actually help us become more successful. Read More


5 Models for Leading Change

Tristan Wember
In this article we introduce five models for leading change. No single model isright. However, they all have something valuable on offer and can help us to navigate our way through complex organisational situations or circumstances.  Read More

Deserving Money? 4 Millionaires Earn and Spend.

Photo Credit: RainerSchuetz

The 4 Millionaires

Four millionaires are sitting on a park bench.  Its a sunny Thursday morning.  While many others are working the 9 to 5 routine, George, David, Jonathan and Paul are relaxing in the park.

As you look at George, David, Jonathan and Paul nothing much stands out.  4 standard guys in a park.  They don’t flaunt their money.

However, they took four very different routes to get the money.

Paul bought a lottery ticket on a whim about 7 months ago.  The ticket won.  He became an instant millionaire.

Jonathan had a distant relationship with his parents as a child.  He spent his adolescence in boarding schools.  His family would gather on Christmas, but the relationships were not deep.  5 months ago his parents passed away.  When the will was read, Jonathan discovered that he received a million.  Another instant millionaire.

David set up a company 7 years ago.  He has worked hard.  Over the years the company grew in employees, grew in clients and grew in value.  2 years ago a US company contacted David about working more closely together.  This year that US company made an offer to buy-out David’s company.  Another millionaire.

George joined a bank after graduation.  He suffered through the painful early years giving 120 hour weeks, but he learnt how to work the system.  He has moved steadily up through the ranks and this year finally made it into the upper echelons.  His bonus this year: about a million.

Who Deserves?

What do you think about Paul, Jonathan, David and George?  How do you judge their path to wealth?  Is lottery worse than inheritance?  Is banker worse than entrepreneur?

Who, in your opinion, has the most “Right” to their money?
Take Our Poll

Continue reading “Deserving Money? 4 Millionaires Earn and Spend.”

What’s your Metaphor?

As I listen to the conversations around me, I hear many uses of metaphor:

  • “Dublin is a maze”,
  • “Anna has a flood of new ideas”,
  • “Business is war”,
  • “John is a waste of space”,
  • “An MBA is a passport to a new career”.

Metaphors are supremely powerful communication devices. They allow us to understand something new, framed as a version of something we already understand.

Metaphor allows us to understand something by framing it as something we already know.  They accelerate understanding.  They accelerate our ability to deal with a new situation.

Metaphor is a Two-Edged Sword

However, metaphor is a two-edged sword.

Once we have a metaphor, we will limit our understanding of the new domain to this initial framing.

My daughter just said “This is just like temple run” (I know… simile, not metaphor…  she is referring to a new iPad game a friend has just shown her).  The game is very much like “temple run”, but my daughter has just crashed 3 times because she is trying to directly use a technique from “temple run” in this new game.

If she had not had the “this is temple run” metaphor… she would have crashed once, and then changed her behaviour.  The blessing of metaphor is that she can adapt quickly, the curse is that un-learning takes longer than learning from zero.

Metaphor is everywhere

We use them with others.  We use them to explain.  “Scuba diving is flying underwater.”

We use them with ourselves.  “Life is a test.”  “Life is a box of chocolates.”  “Life is a gift.”

“Life is a rollercoaster.”

Photo yaz36

In the same way that metaphor helps others quickly focus on important aspects of a new situation, our own metaphor focusses our attention on things relevant

Our emotive state is often strongly affected by our choice of metaphor to describe our situation. “I’m stuck” is a metaphor. It is a limiting metaphor. You are not really stuck, you feel like you are trapped in the mud halfway across a field and each step is tremendous effort.

Some metaphors for life, and how they shape or frame our attention

Metaphors: Life is a…

Take Our Poll
  • Battle, a Test or a Game – Everything is a competition or a struggle. We are always either winning or losing.
  • Mission – We believe that we have the truth and we need to convince others that our point-of-view is right.
  • Gift – Each day is a bonus, each challenge is an opportunity to learn, each reward is worth savouring.
  • Journey or an Adventure – We travel from place to place meeting new people and exploring.
  • Building – Starting with a solid foundation, then adding floors and rooms.
  • Roller Coaster – Life consists of ups and downs, and we are along for the ride.
  • Mountain Climb – Life consists of hierarchies. We are always climbing the corporate ladder.
  • Race – always finding the fastest route, “keeping up with the Jonses.”
  • Prison – Feeling like we don’t have choices, like others have all the power.
  • Classroom – There are always new lessons to learn.

What is your metaphor?  How does it shape what you are focussing on?  How does it make you feel about your life?  Is it enhancing your life or is it limiting some aspects of your life?

Personally, I find that my unconscious metaphor is that life is a struggle, a battle, a competition and a test…  and I limit myself into modes of comparing with others, finishing one task and jumping into the next without taking time to savour the moment.

What is yours?

10 Rules to Look Like you are Working Hard

Sometimes I want a lazy day.

Sometimes I don’t feel like producing good work.

I often blog about productivity, about removing purposeless-busy-ness from our lives; but sometimes I don’t car and I want to give the impression that I am really working hard.

Here are 10 golden rules for looking like you are working hard:

George Costanza’s 10 Commandments For ‘Working Hard’

  1. Never walk without a document in your hands. People with documents in their hands look like hardworking employees heading for important meetings. People with nothing in their hands look like they’re heading for the cafeteria. People with a newspaper in their hand look like they’re heading for the toilet. Above all, make sure you carry loads of stuff home with you at night, thus generating the false impression that you work longer hours than you do.
  2. Use computers to look busy.  Any time you use a computer, it looks like “work” to the casual observer. You can send and receive personal e-mail, chat, and generally have a blast without doing anything remotely related to work. These aren’t exactly the societal benefits that the proponents of the computer revolution would like to talk about but they’re not bad either. When you get caught by your boss — and you will get caught — your best defence is to claim you’re teaching yourself to use new software, thus saving valuable training dollars.

    George Costanza, from Seinfeld

  3. Keep a messy desk.  Top management can get away with a clean desk. For the rest of us, it looks like we’re not working hard enough. Build huge piles of documents around your workspace. To the observer, last year’s work looks the same as today’s work; it’s volume that counts. Pile them high and wide. If you know somebody is coming to your cubicle, bury the document you’ll need halfway down in an existing stack and rummage for it when he/she arrives.
  4. Use voice mail.  Never answer your phone if you have voice mail. People don’t call you just because they want to give you something for nothing — they call because they want you to do work for them. That’s no way to live. Screen all your calls through voice mail. If somebody leaves a voice-mail message for you and it sounds like impending work, respond during lunch hour when you know they’re not there — it looks like you’re hardworking and conscientious even though you’re being a devious weasel.
  5. Look impatient & annoyed.  One should also always try to look impatient and annoyed to give your bosses the impression that you are always busy.
  6. Leave the office late.  Always leave the office late, especially when the boss is still around. You could read magazines and storybooks that you always wanted to read but have no time until late before leaving. Make sure you walk past the boss’ room on your way out. Send important e-mail at unearthly hours (e.g. 9:35 p.m., 7:05 a.m., etc.) and during public holidays.
  7. Use sighing for effect.  Sigh loudly when there are many people around, giving the impression that you are under extreme pressure.
  8. Opt for the stacking strategy.  It is not enough to pile lots of documents on the table. Put lots of books on the floor etc. (thick computer manuals are the best).
  9. Build your vocabulary.  Read up on some computer magazines and pick out all the jargon and new products. Use the phrases freely when in conversation with bosses. Remember; they don’t have to understand what you say, but you sure sound impressive.
  10. Don’t get caught.  MOST IMPORTANT: Don’t forward this page’s URL to your boss by mistake!

Source: http://www.jumbojoke.com/george_costanzas_10_commandments_for_working_hard.html

PS This might be a joke, but it is also a good checklist for identifying people around you who may be putting more effort into appearances of productivity than into real productivity (or yourself…)


A Manila taxi driver scam and other doubts about blogging

I don’t know what to write about.

It happens.

I haven’t written anything on the blog for a couple of weeks now and know that if I leave it for much longer this habit of blogging will become harder and harder. So I’ll write this post.

What to write about when I have nothing to write about?

Idea 1: Lists

Where to start. One good idea for blog posts is coming up with lists.

  • 7 ways to make money with a blog
  • 5 types of people you meet at airports
  • 16 things that are supposed to be cool, but are not
  • 11 reasons FC Barcelona lost to Bayern Munich
  • 27 places I would love to visit this year

Idea 2: Anecdote

Another way to start is a short anecdote about something that happened to me, and a reflection on what it means.

This blogger standing in front of a Phillipine “Jeepeny” bus

Two days ago Raul and I caught a taxi at 6:45am from central Manila to the airport. We told the driver specifically to bring us to Terminal 3. We were in a little bit of a rush and were hoping that the terrible Manila traffic would not cause us to be late for our flight.

The driver made good progress. He informed us that it was a holiday, labour day, in Manila. This was our salvation. No traffic.

The driver sped up into the airport. I saw a sign for Terminal 1, another for Terminal 2.

The driver stops the car and says “We are here”. The fee is 180 php. He has no change (I suspect a “strategy”). I only have a 500 php bill, but Raul has 200 php so at least we are only ripped off by 20 php (about €0.40).

We make our way into the building. As we approach security we tell the guard our destination. He says “wrong terminal”.

This is not a great feeling. We had gone from a downer as we caught the taxi, to elation as we reached the airport on time… and now it is the wrong airport.

Another driver mysteriously appears and says “I can take you to Terminal 3”. He grabs our bags and makes headway for his nearby car.

We are too caught up in the rush to catch our flight to negotiate anything. We just want to know how long it will take.

We reach Terminal 3 in about 20 minutes… to find a massive queue, about 400m long, of people just trying to get into the terminal building.

We rush to the front of the queue and ask in our best polite words to be let in at the front. A kind family and an understanding security guard allow us.

We make the flight.

The question that remains… was driver 2 in an organized scam with driver 1? Raul and myself are still debating.

Idea 3: A photo

As we arrived into Manila and stood in line for immigration control we passed this sign.  “Naia is a no ‘Wang-Wang’ zone.  Please fall in line to avoid embarassment.”  Raul and I debated “what is ‘Wang-Wang'”?

Any ideas on Wang-Wang?  Answers in the comments below!


The 4 Paths of our Working Life

My last post was on Meaningful Contribution.  I talked about three questions about the work you are doing: does it serve others? do you do it well? and do you love doing it?

The 4 Paths in our Working Life

Taking two of those questions: does it serve others? and do you love doing it?  I put together today’s 2×2 graphic.

The man in the middle is like a new employee starting first day at a new company.  Which path will he take?

The 4 Paths are:

  1. Quit and Stayed – he will keep showing up for the job, but do the minimum possible effort in order to not lose his job.  He is not satisfied.  He is not contributing.  He is worried about showing up on time, looking busy when the boss is watching, sending emails at 9pm to let everyone see that he is busy – but he is not contributing.  He is a cancer to those around him.  He will suck their satisfaction.  He will work to ensure that others are being regularly interrupted and unproductive so that he can feel comfortable in the company of slackers.
  2. Coasting – he enjoys his job, but has been focussing on the aspects that benefit him.  He is not there to serve the team nor the customer. He doesn’t do a bad job, but is not going to spend more than the minimum to hit minimum quality.
  3. Burn Out – he is good at his job, but has not taken his own growth as a person seriously.  He is running like a sprinter, not a marathon runner.  It is his responsibility to work at a rhythm that allows him to contribute more each day.  If he has too much work he needs to improve his work tools, his work methods.
  4. Engaged – he has found a good balance between enjoying the work, doing it well and improving his work.  His energy serves as a boost to those who are around him.  His contribution is sustainable and growing.  He is on the path to being an “A” Player – Self-Motivated and Experienced.

Bosses, Environment and Culture

The man in the central box could go any way.

Lou Holtz once replied to an Accenture partner’s question: “What do you do with unmotivated players?” with a snort of derision.  “Un-motivated players!?!  This is their dream.”

He returned to the question later and said “I guarantee that day 1, every new employee that walks through the door arrives motivated, with a desire to contribute.  If a year later he is no longer motivated, it is something you guys have done that has removed that motivation.”

Our parents, our school teachers, our past bosses, our current friends all contribute to our current state of contribution and satisfaction.  We can push our kids, our friends, our employees out of the middle circle into any of the 4 paths.

What do you do to make the top right path the most likely?

The 8 Universal Human Laws

Mythology and The Human Experience

As part of the Greek and Roman Mythology course that I have been following for the last 10 weeks, our teacher Dr. Peter Struck has been drawing out a number of “universal human laws” from the myths.

We read of Odysseus, of Aeneas, of gods, of monsters.  We read material from 7,000 years ago up to 2000 years ago, the poet Ovid in 40AD.  What is it that is held in these stories?  What are the authors communicating to us?

As we explored the stories using various “toolboxes”: Psychoanalysis, Myth and Ritual, Functionalism, and Structuralism.  Each of the “toolboxes” is a different way of interpreting the meaning behind a myth.

Functionalism explains human society as a whole in terms of the function of its constituent elements; namely normscustomstraditions, and institutions.  A functionalist reading of myths might extract the universal human laws.

Here is the list of the Universal Human Laws:

The Universal Human Laws

Parthenon, East Frieze, Slab 4 (Gods), credit: profzucker
  1. Nostalgia is the most powerful force in the universe.
  2. If you want to persuade people you should know your audience.
  3. It’s not good to be food.
  4. A leadership decision means choosing between two bad options.
  5. When you tell a lie, you should keep close to the truth.
  6. Secrecy creates intimacy.
  7. A deep connection with the land is a common human expression.
  8. People at the top of the power structure and people at the bottom of the power structure tend to embrace the idea of teleology (destiny, universe is moving towards a natural order of things).

What do you think of these 8 universal laws?  What strikes you about these 8?  What seems to be missing?