Life is not Hard, it is easy

Life is not hard, it is easy.  That is the problem.

Why do we stop chasing our dreams? Because it is so easy to wake up, do the minimum, eat, sleep and repeat. Meet someone, bring up kids, drift and die…

It is easy to live.

That is the curse.

It is easy to look at a dream as something far off in the future, a thing.

It is also a verb, it has to be chased.  A dream is all the steps.

This is a wake up call.  We are all dying, but if you are not chasing your dream, you are already dead.

I’m dying to…..

Most people didn’t know what to write.  We let people off the hook with small, short term dreams “I’m dying to have a drink”  “I’m dying to have more friends”

If you don’t know the answer, don’t wait until someday to answer this question.  When you do figure it out, you will sleep like a kid again.  You will sleep with a dream and wake up with a dream as well.

Inspired by Steve Mazen’s TEDx talk:

You can follow Steve’s adventures on twitter:


Put somebody on a treadmill and I’ll tell you how good they are at any other thing they do in life.

Will Smith (photo from Esquire)
Reading an interview with Will Smith (he is deep and a keen observer of the human condition), I came across this statement from him:

“Put somebody on a treadmill and I’ll tell you how good they are at any other thing they do in life.” Will Smith



but… is it True?

I think he’s right.  Verne Harnish thinks he’s right – he says “How you do anything is how you do everything

And Will on Resilience…

“Don’t let success go to your head and failure go to your heart”? Daphne Maxwell Reid, Aunt Viv on Fresh Prince.

Will shares his experience of failure:

“After Earth comes out, I get the box-office numbers on Monday and I was devastated for about twenty-four minutes, and then my phone rang and I found out my father had cancer. That put it in perspective—viciously. And I went right downstairs and got on the treadmill. And I was on the treadmill for about ninety minutes. And that Monday started the new phase of my life, a new concept: Only love is going to fill that hole. You can’t win enough, you can’t have enough money, you can’t succeed enough. There is not enough. The only thing that will ever satiate that existential thirst is love. And I just remember that day I made the shift from wanting to be a winner to wanting to have the most powerful, deep, and beautiful relationships I could possibly have.”

Will says that in his house they have this quote up on the wall:

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” Pema Chödrön

Will summarises the meaning of these words for his family:

“We call it leaning into the sharp parts. Something hurts, lean in. You just lean into that point until it loses its power over you. There’s a certain amount of suffering that you have to be willing to sustain if you want to have a good life.”

All life demands struggle.

I often use an exercise called The Lifeline in my teaching.  I found a good summary of the exercise here.  In the exercise people reflect on the important positive and negative experiences of their life.

Something that has struck me after all these years of watching groups work on the exercise – it is the hard times in life and how we dealt with them that most inspires.  We are inspired by the struggle more than the end point.

“Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.” Henry Ford

I guess if an inspirational speaker came and gave a speech that went: “I had this idea to climb a big mountain, so I went there and I climbed it.  It wasn’t too hard and the view from the top was lovely.” – it wouldn’t be too inspirational.  It is what she had to overcome, the unexpected obstacles, the discovery of previously hidden strength – that I want.

This reminds me of rule number 6 from Kurt Vonnegut on rules for telling a story: “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

“All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today.”  Pope Paul VI

A worthy struggle? Photo: Grant MacDonald

The Opposite of Fragile

What is the opposite of fragile?  I hear you saying “robust”, “strong”, “durable”, “flexible” or even “unbreakable”…  but these words are not the opposite, they are the zero point on the line from breaks under pressure to grows under pressure.

A wine glass when dropped on the concrete floor will smash.  It is fragile.  A plastic glass when dropped on the concrete floor will not smash.  It is “flexible and robust”.  However, there are some systems that when dropped, they come back even stronger.

Nasim Taleb coined the term “Antifragile” for things that grow under stress.  Evolution is a process by which species become stronger when stressed.  When I go to the gym, I actually damage my muscles – but they grow stronger as they repair.  A broken bone will heal stronger than the surrounding bone.

“When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.” Peter Marshall

We humans are “antifragile”.  We learn and grow faster in the struggle than in the garden.

Getting the Love you Want…

This is a humorous but impactful video that will help remind you forever that people want to feel understood, not to have their problems solved.

I was at Entrepreneurs’ Organisation Global Leadership Conference last week in Athens.  One of the closing speakers was Hedy Schliefer.  She spoke on the art of deeply connecting with another person.

The 3 Parts of Deep Connection

Her TED talk is a wonderfully passionate description of the 3 pieces of deep connection. I can tell you that the passion and the joy that she shares in the 18 minutes of TED is the same as she lives each day.  When I was waiting behind the stage getting ready for my own speech, she cared more about connecting to me than stressing about her “performance”.  I was more stressed about my own upcoming performance and not giving anyone else any real empathy or attention.



Disrespect for the Respectable [Richard Feynman Video]

Richard Feynman

“If you know the name of a bird in all of the human languages, you will still know absolutely nothing about the bird.  My father taught me the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing about that something.” Richard Feynman

Earlier this week, my father sent me 2 short video interviews of Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman.  Feynman speaks of his intense dislike of “honours”.  He speaks about valuing his work for the intrinsic value of his work: “I enjoyed physics because I used to play with it, I do it for the fun of it”.  He speaks of the need to “disrespect the respectable”.

Disrespect for the Respectable

What’s the difference between the king and the subjects?  The difference is epaulets, uniform, position:  it has nothing to do with something intrinsic of that person.

Science in 1 Minute

Richard Feynman explains science in under 60 seconds:

  • Step 1) Guess…
  • Step 2) Check if your guess can predict nature,
  • Step 3) If not, your guess is wrong.

It doesn’t matter who made the guess, the beauty of the guess, how much you would like the guess to be right, the simplicity of the equations…  it only matters whether it can predict nature.

More like this?

Do you know any other great minds that we can find their interviews on youtube?  I would welcome ideas in the comments below 😉

More from Richard Feynman:

The ability to turn back

A few weeks ago I was in the audience with my friend Manuel listening to Kilian Jornet share his life story.  At the age of 26, Kilian projects the profound wisdom of a Zen sage.  The mountains are a powerful teacher.

Kilian will run up and down Everest in 2015.  Yep, run up it.  He has already set the world records for running up and down 3 of the highest mountains in the world.

Everest is not the most dangerous mountain in the world (that is probably K2 – 1 climber death for every 4 who have reached the summit).  Everest is not the most difficult mountain in the world.  It is the highest.  It is dangerous – if you climb it today there are approximately 200 dead bodies along the route (source).

There is a saying that an alpine climber is not a true alpine climber until he could turn back at 10 meters from a summit because the weather is not right.  I certainly do not have that discipline in my climbing of mountains.  I don’t have that discipline in my other field of endeavour: entrepreneurship.

View of Mount Pedraforca, photo credit: e-nfocs

5 years ago I was with my friend Jordi on Mount Pedraforca.  We reached 300m from the summit when the weather really began to change.  Dark clouds moved in, thunder and lightning surrounded us – many of the lightening flashes visible not above us, but down in the clouds below where we were resting.  We discussed heading back and not achieving the summit, but the call of the summit was too much.  We climbed up.

We made it back down.  However, it was a case of the emotional desire to reach summit being stronger than a completely objective analysis of our options.

What does it take to reach this level of objective detachment in my decision making?  When do you know that the best decision is to walk away and let the business fail?  When do you know that the right decision is to keep waiting for another opportunity?

  • “In nature there are no rewards or punishments, there are consequences.” Mick Halligan (Tweet This)
  • “Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.” Hermann Buhl (Tweet This)
  • “Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.” Reinhold Messner (Tweet This)
  • “It’s a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.” Ed Viesturs (Tweet This)

My Professor of Decision Analysis during my MBA at IESE Business School was Manel Baucells.  He said that you must define the criteria for walking away from a project before you begin and you must commit to walking away when those criteria are met.  I know he is right, but we need to work on the emotional attachment that we will gain because of our nature as human beings.  Microsoft Excel can clearly see “sunk costs”, but human being me is not so good at discounting them from the decision.

I’ll finish with a beautiful quote on how mountains clarify: 

“Climbing is the lazy man’s way to enlightenment. It forces you to pay attention, because if you don’t, you won’t succeed, which is minor — or you may get hurt, which is major. Instead of years of meditation, you have this activity that forces you to relax and monitor your breathing and tread that line between living and dying. When you climb, you always are confronted with the edge. Hey, if it was just like climbing a ladder, we all would have quit a long time ago.” Duncan Ferguson.

What have you done to detach emotionally from decisions?

Quotes taken from

“Miracle”: Doesn’t Mean it Doesn’t Work

Miracle doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, it means we don’t understand how it works.

There are plenty of things I don’t understand, but I know they work.

Plant a seed, grow a tree.  I don’t understand all that happens in the growing of a tree, but I do know that planting an acorn, watering and feeding it: I will get an oak tree.

I help someone out today.  I don’t know exactly how it will come back, but it just always seems to come back to me in some good way.

Goose photo from The Guardian

My friend Florian commented in a seminar recently “persuasion is like a black box: you don’t have to understand why we ask you to put these ingredients in, why they should be in this order: but if you do it, the result is persuasion.”

If you could plant a seed, if you should plant a seed, but: you don’t plant a seed: the miracle process does not start.  I can chant oak tree creation songs, I can toss salt over my right shoulder; but it is the planting of the seed that is the creation of the miracle of the living tree.

The farmer of the goose who laid the golden eggs?  He couldn’t let the miracle “just be”.  He had to break the goose to find how it works, and this broke the miracle.  The impulsive urge to understand everything can break the miracle process.

If you could help someone, should help someone, but don’t: the miracle does not have a chance.

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?



Regional Culture Explained

Can we understand a region’s culture by looking at the main cereal crop of five thousands years ago?  This is a little thought experiment.  This has no basis in science or fact and is merely a little story I am telling today…  I very much welcome reflections and comments.

  • Asia – rice
  • Northern Europe – oats and apples
  • Mediterranean – wheat and olives

What is a culture of rice farming?
In most regions of Asia, the food source of the last thousand years has been rice.  Rice is a plant that requires backbreaking constant work to produce a crop.  If a farmer and his family works 10 hour days, he gets a full crop.  If he works 5 hour days, he gets much less.  If he does not work each day, he gets no crop.

First the farmer and his family must build walls to allow an area to be flooded.  River water must be  channeled into the paddys.  The farmers replant the rice plants multiple times to ensure that each has the space it needs.  All of this work is done with feet underwater and back bent at 90 degrees.

Rice = The harder you work, the better your crop.

What is a culture of oats and apples?
In the north of Europe, the food sources have been orchards, oats and barley.  These require a daily effort, but only in maintaining some order in the fields and orchards.  If you work 2 hours a day, you get a full crop.  If you work more, you don’t get any extra benefit.  If you don’t work, you don’t lose everything, but your crop will suffer.

Oats = It is important to work, but there is nothing to be gained by over -working.

What is a culture of wheat and olives?

In the areas around the mediterranean, the crops are wheat and olives.  A farmer plants wheat and then returns 5 months later to harvest his crop.  There is nothing he can do to improve the yield.  There is no gain to be had by working once the wheat is planted.  If the rains come and the sun shines, you get a crop.

Wheat = There is little a human farmer can do to increase the yield except hope for sun and rain.

Is this an interesting analysis of Culture?
Our cultures of today: habits, style of eating, urban architecture, songs, languages, buildings arise out of cultures that were built around these core activities of food production.

A more serious analysis of Culture… (very much worth a read)
One of the best resources on cultural understanding is the framework of Geert Hofstede.  He identified power distance, individualism vs collectivism, masculinity vs femininity, uncertainty avoidance, time horizon and indulgence vs restraint as components that differ, and are important to understand if you are dealing with people from another culture.

Photo credits: ImageMDRaeA, David Bradbeer

Plant Acorns. Grow Oaks.

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.

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