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.

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.”

A family lives in the outskirts of a remote village on a small plot of land.  The family own one cow.  Each day they live from the milk of the cow.  If there is little milk, they eat little.  It there is lots of milk, they eat well.  The lives of the mother, the father, the children depend on the cow.

One autumn day, a lone traveller stops in the village.  He is hungry.  The family share their milk.  The traveller is grateful.
The traveller wishes to return the favour and help the family.  He doesn’t know how to help the family.  He hears that there is a wise man in the village.  He walks over to the home of the wise man.
Two Cows
photo credit: Martin Gommel
“I was hungry and the family fed me.  I would like to help them.  How can I help this family?”
The wise man said “Kill the cow.”
“Kill it?  How can that help them?  They depend for their lives on that cow.”
The wise man repeated “Kill the cow.”
The traveller was nervous about following such strange advice,  but the reputation of the wise man was such that he went ahead and killed the cow.
A year later the traveller happened to pass again through the village.  He noticed new shops and a thriving market.  He saw a new hotel that provided beds and food to the travellers who came for the market.  
The traveller entered the hotel.  Behind the bar he found the eldest son of the family of the cow.  The man was standing tall, smiling and happy.  The traveller greeted him and asked “What happened?”.
“We lost our cow.  There was no milk.  We had to go out and do something to eat.  We set up a small market, it grew.  We set up this hotel, it is growing.  Without the milk from our cow, we had to try new things.”
Silently to himself, the traveller reflected on the power of the wise man’s words.  “Kill the cow.”

“Any nation that thinks more of its ease and comfort than its freedom will soon lose its freedom; and the ironical thing about it is that it will lose its ease and comfort too.” W. Somerset Maugham

What is your cow?

Thanks to my entrepreneurial friend Elena H for the wonderful story 😉

I watched the world’s top golfers play in the prestigious PGA tournament over the last 4 days. This is one of the top 4 prizes in world golf and a massive achievement for the overall winner.  Winning a “major” is a vital brick in the career of the world’s top golfers.

I want golf and not football as a values system for life.

Dustin Johnson was leading coming into the last of 72 holes and needed only a four shot par to win.  His first shot ended out in the area where a large crowd was gathered.  His second shot was from a rough scrub area in a sandy patch.  He touched the ground with his club before making his swing and striking the ball.  He ended the hole with 5 shots.  This left him in a tie for first place with two other golfers.  He still had a chance to win one of golf’s great prizes (and a lot of money).  As he waited, a rules official approached him and told him that the second shot that he hit from the sandy patch had infringed upon the rules.  After reviewing the situation, Dustin Johnson took out his eraser, rubbed out the 5 he had scored on hole 18 and wrote in the number 7 – in one self-regulated moment taking away his dream of victory.

I was struck by a massive disconnect between the attitude of the players in golf’s “world cup” and the recent FIFA football world cup in South Africa.

The world’s children grow up looking for role models that drive their developing value systems and aspirations and ideas of what a good life looks like.  I believe that sports stars attitudes translate directly into children’s beliefs about what is appropriate behaviour in life.

The French football team were a particularly pathetic example of poor attitude, cheating being ok, laziness and lack of respect for everyone else: countrymen, coaches and the referees.  The team should not have been there in the first place having beaten the Irish in a game where Thierry Henry handled the ball into the Irish goal net in plain view of all the world’s video cameras – but not the game’s referee.  When the referee gave the goal there was uproar from the Irish team.  Thierry and his mates in the post-match interviews did not deny that their victory was a victory of blatant cheating.  Every Irish and French boy watched this.  Every Irish and French boy saw what the football authorities think is ok – if the cheating is undetected by the referee then it is ok.

The world’s most talented football players spend a lot of time falling over without being touched and arguing with the referee over each and every decision.

Once at the world cup, the french team truly delivered a performance that embarassed every french person that I know.  Nicolas Anelka, the captain had a poor attitude in training and was sanctioned by the coach.  He publicly insulted the coach.  He was taken out of the team and sent home.  The rest of the team went on strike and didn’t show up to practice.  The coach refused to shake hands with coaches from other teams believing that they had insulted him.  All in all, a ten out of ten score for pathetic performance. (French team world cup summary on BBC)   The French president was so insulted by this group of fools representing their country that he called them in for a meeting to explain themselves.  Two were sanctioned for sex with an underage girl about a week later.

We are currently in a global financial crisis brought upon by banks doing what they could get away with (like the French football team) rather than what they knew to be right (like the golfers).  I often hear the claim that we need more regulation.  Football won’t change by putting 2 referees on the field.  It will only change when the culture of football rejects cheating and ostracizes those that regularly cheat.

The financial services answer is not more regulation – it is about making sure that the 10, 11 and 12 year old children growing up today see more sports stars with the attitude of Dustin Johnson than Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka and when bankers celebrate great client service (that was the point of them wasn’t it) rather than publish lists of how much money each dealmaker has scraped together.  Goldman Sachs looks more like french football than US golf.  I hope that the generation of 10 year olds of today forget about Thierry Henry and remember Dustin Johnson – and 20 to 30 years from now, when they are running Goldman Sachs – they will live with some basic values (not asking for charity; just not lying, not cheating and not stealing) – rather than defining “not illegal” as their operating boundary.

A young man was walking along the shore of the sea. The beach was of pebbles. A wisened old man approached him. “I’ll give you one million dollars if you bring me a touchstone”. The young man paused. “What is a touchstone?” “It looks like any other stone, but when you hold it in the palm of your hand it feels extremely hot”.

The young man wanders down towards the shore and starts picking up pebbles. Initially he takes a moment to feel each stone, but as he gets into the process he becomes so busy picking up stones and throwing them into the sea that he doesn’t really have time to feel each individual stone.

The young man returns to the beach day after day, week after week. The seasons change and the years go by. Daily he picks up stones and throws them into the sea.

One day, a day where the young man is no longer young, about mid-morning he picks up a touchstone – but he is so busy in his process of picking and throwing, picking and throwing that he hardly notices the extreme heat of the touchstone.

He continues to the end of his life, but never again picks up a touchstone.


Have you picked up a touchstone recently?  Would you know it if you saw it?

Ira Glass, presenter of This American Life, tells us that there are three basic building blocks of the story – the anecdote, “bait” and moments of reflection (video here).  We improve a story by building up the central conflict, ensuring that the listeners can relate to one of the central characters and by adding surprise.


5 Step Story Structure

Here goes my 5 step process for telling good stories (I have been practicing it with my 3 year old daughter for her bedtime stories… and getting to the point that she wants one of my stories instead of one from the book).

  1. Begin stating the moment in time:
    1. “A week ago” or
    2. “Twenty years ago today”, or
    3. “Once upon a time”.
  2. Introduce the situation and key characters: 
    1. “I was sitting with my grandfather. My grandfather was a tall man, always impeccably dressed in a suit. He had been a country bank manager all of his working life. I was 13 years old.  As we did every Sunday, we were sat watching the horse racing on television on Sunday afternoon.” or
    2. “A girl lived in a small cabin by the lake. She lived with two friends – her dog Ruff and her horse See-Saw. Each morning she set off around the lake to collect mushrooms for food and wood for a fire.  Each day she would set off on the walk with Ruff leading ahead and See-Saw walking behind. Some days it rained, some days it was warm and sunny.”
  3. Something out of the ordinary occurs
    1. “but on this particular Sunday he turned to me and said ‘would you like to see something?’. Before waiting for an answer he got up from his chair and left the room”
    2. “Now on this particular day, the girl began her walk… but Ruff stopped in his tracks and would not move.  There was a noise in the forest and a cold wind blew across the surface of the lake”
  4. Allow the tension to build – pause, add detail to the complication
    1. “I sat there for a moment not knowing whether to follow him or to stay where I was.  I was surprised and I wondered what it was that my grandfather was going to show me.”
    2. “The girl asked herself ‘what can it be? what might be making that noise?’  A few moments later she heard the sound clearly again.  There was something in the forest”.
  5. Resolve the complication
    1. “It was ten minutes before he returned to the room.  He came in with a large bundle under his arms.  I could see colours, fabrics…  clothes or robes of some sort.  He carefully laid the bundle down and started to separate the pieces.  ‘These are my freemason robes.  I have been a free mason for 50 years.  I am the head of the Leinster region.  These robes mean a lot to me.  These badges mean a lot to me.'”
    2. …at this point my daughter demands that the noise be a fairy or Barbie or a Princess or a flying horse called Dina…  and takes control of the story.

Here is an example from Japanese folklore of a fable that shows the story steps put together into a longer flow:

The Stonecutter

The Stonecutter on Wikipedia.

Many years ago, a poor stonecutter spent day after day in the quarry. He chipped away at the rockface with his simple tools.  Hour after hour, day after day, the clink, clank noise of

his chisel and hammer rang through the quarry.  One day the man shouted out loud his frustration “why can I not be powerful like the rich man?”  A fairy heard his wish and appeared at his side and said “I will grant your wish.”

As a rich man, the stonecutter felt powerful.  He gave his servants orders.  One day the rich man was outside and the sun shone hotly upon him.  He said “The sun is more powerful than I.  I wish I were the sun”.  The fairy granted his wish.

Now he was the sun.  He shone down powerfully upon the earth.  One day a cloud passed in front of him.  “That cloud is more powerful than I.  I wish I were that cloud”.  The fairy granted his wish.

As the cloud he blocked the sun day after day, causing darkness and cold.  But one day a wind blew up and pushed away the cloud.  “I wish I were the wind”.  The fairy granted his wish.

As the wind he blew dust storms and hurricanes.  Nothing could stand in his way.  One day he came to the mountain and couldn’t move it.  “The mountain resists me.  I wish I were the mountain”.  The fairy granted his wish.

As the mountain he was immovable.  Nothing could budge him.  But one day he felt something chipping away at him.  It was a poor stonecutter.  “The stonecutter is mightiest of all.  I wish I was the stonecutter”.  One last time, the fairy granted his wish.

What is the meaning of this story?  What does it represent?  What does it make you think about?

U2, The Joshua Tree

A friend of mine, Roger, asked me “Why do you call the blog The Rhetorical Journey?”.

I am a fan of U2.  I have been since I was 10 years old. On the album “Rattle and Hum” there is a recording of an interview between a journalist and Bono and The Edge of U2.  The journalist asks them “what are you doing?” and The Edge replies, with laughter, “We are on a Rhetorical Journey”.

A Rhetorical Journey

I didn’t know what Rhetorical meant, but it sounded like a cool thing.  To me a Rhetorical Journey is a journey searching for meaning and purpose; a desire to travel, to experience to see and feel and experience all that life has to offer.  I have always thought that U2 is one of the few musical groups who completely reinvent themselves every 5-6 years.  They travel, they seek new inspiration, they seek new answers.  No album is ever a simple repeat of what worked in the previous album.

I was in hospital the last two days for an operation.  I don’t like needles.  I spent the time waiting for the operation working to keep my brain full of other thoughts and not allow room for thoughts about needles, knives or operations to enter my head.  I spent about 40 minutes in a clean ward with 6 others getting wired up before we were wheeled off to our respective operating rooms.  At a certain moment I looked up at the ceiling and thought “hospital ceilings are horrible. Green paint and florescent lights. How many people have this as their last view of life.”

This blog is a journey away from anonymity for me.  These are ideas that I think about and have often written about in my own private notebooks.  It is sometimes painful to press “publish” and put my half-formed ideas out for all the world to see and comment on.  I am generally surprised by the positive feedback that I receive and has been a big motivator to keep the habit of blogging (It might be a bit sad, but I do pay attention to which posts get comments, RTs on Twitter, Shares on facebook…).

I had felt for a long time that I had no base to talk about life – I can’t point to massive success or some other external “validator” that my ideas might be useful.  I was greatly helped by an insight from a friend, Tony Anagor, who has decided to take a step back from his successful business and build a role as a “life coach” (check out his website Keep The Bounce) – helping others understand and take steps to achieve their dreams (in work, family, personal lives).Tony told me that he had gone to one of the first Anthony Robbins conferences in Europe.  This was about 18 years ago in London.  Anthony Robbins was only at the beginning of his journey towards the famous motivational guru that he has become today.  Tony went to another Anthony Robbins conference a couple of years ago where Anthony was now successful, confidante to Presidents, a millionaire author with his own resort in Fiji (here is his TED talk).

Tony Robbins

My friend told me that the first conference was the most powerful of the two.  Robbins was on his own journey of discovery and the conference was about Robbins sharing his pains, fears, steps of his personal journey.  The second conference was powerful, but less authentic for being so professional.  Robbins had lost any of his own doubts about his own path and is clear on his purpose today.  It was harder to connect to the guru Robbins than to the “on a journey” Robbins.

I saw then that I do not need to point to my successes (few), but only remain humble (I fail often), open to ideas, stories, people and provide my mundane, simple commentary on these experiences that appear in my life.

This then is my Rhetorical Journey.

This question is really a game. Here is how it works:

  1. Relate a story of a time when you’ve made a mistake.
  2. Retell the story while only relating the actual mistake (without justification).

The question is, “Why might it be difficult to do just Step 2?”

I read Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace from the Arbinger Institute over a year ago thanks to a recommendation from a good friend.  Both books focus on one specific action that is an automatic response of our minds.

Imagine you arrive at your office early as you have some meetings and you want to be well prepared.  You made a special effort today to get in early.  You enter the office building and enter an elevator.  As the doors begin to close, you see somebody enter the main doors and take a couple of steps towards your elevator.  You have an instinct to reach out and push the “hold doors open” button…

…But, you don’t push it.

In the milisecond between my instinct to do right for an other (hold the elevator), and the action of actually pushing the button a fierce debate rages in my head.

“but I came in specially early and need to get to my desk”, “nobody would have held the elevator for me”, “that person should have come in quicker if they really wanted to get the elevator”…

The Arbinger Institute identify the Self Deception process as

  1. Instinct to do right
  2. Not acting on the instinct to do right (Self betrayal)
  3. Making it someone elses fault that you didn’t act (Self Deception)

This is an automatic protection process of our minds.  This is not a process only existant in “bad” people, it is part of the infrastructure of our minds. 

I ask the question at the beginning because I see that for me it is painfully dificult not to justify my mistakes. Have you described your story?

Heather Burton of The Arbinger Institute, who first asked me the question gave the following example of an answer:

This past week, I attended a special Conflict Transformation training. Those of us who flew in for the event shared space in a rented condominium. We bought groceries, together and separately, to make breakfasts and a few dinners, as well as snacks. I bought a big back of lovely seedless black grapes.

On the Tuesday, I noticed someone had kindly rinsed the grapes and put them in a bowl for everyone to enjoy. I offered them around the group as we had our breakfast together, and particularly to Cossie, my colleague from Down Under. He’s a dear friend I don’t see often, and I wanted to share. I think he had a few. They were so sweet and delicious that I ate a lot of them myself.

On about Thursday, after our training session was over and we were back at the condo, I was rummaging in the fridge for “a little something.” That’s when I noticed that there was a bag of grapes still sitting in the bottom of the fridge, unopened. All of a sudden, I realized that the reason the grapes had been washed and put in a bowl on Tuesday was that they were Cossie’s grapes. He had avoided embarrassing me by letting me not only share his grapes, but pretty much eat the whole bag single-handedly.

So, that’s the long story. The mistake, without embellishments and details? I ate Cossie’s grapes.

Now, when I related this story to our group, I added even more colour commentary. When asked to just name the mistake, it was almost physically impossible to just say, “I ate Cossie’s grapes.” Something in me wanted to keep saying things like, “Not realizing there were two bags, I ate Cossie’s grapes” or “The grapes were so delicious that I offered them around, not realizing they were Cossie’s.”

JK Rowling gave the Harvard commencement speech in 2008. I love the way she wins over the audience by speaking about her own life. She speaks powerfully about the greatest lessons that she has learnt – always from her failures.

What would JK tell her 21 year old self? “Life is not a checklist; a CV is not life. Life is difficult and complicated and beyond anyone’s control.”

“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”

“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one”.

“You might never fail on the scale that I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all in which case you fail by default.”

According to the author of the Harry Potter books and the current twelfth richest woman in Britain, failure gave her something that you cannot learn in any school, through any course, but only through facing the abyss of seeing everything you thought was important taken away from you:

  • security in her ability to survive
  • strength because she saw her ability to survive really tough times
  • discipline to focus on the important
  • friends who really care, who have come through adversity

I put the video here (you will need to click through if viewing via RSS).  The full text of her speech is available at the Harvard Magazine.

She finishes with ancient words of wisdom from Seneca “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”