Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Leave Space

The way we experience the world is, at best, an overlay on reality. A tool to engage with something we don't have the tools to fully understand. The Yogis call this Maya, and the Enlightenment calls this a World View. If we have learnt anything from the unintended consequences of historic Civilising Missions and Revolutions, it is that "Burning things down" normally results in chaos, wars result in us putting basic emotional intelligence aside, and ideology results in spirals and loops of turmoil. If we are hooked on Drama and Rage, we won't see the links between our worlds. We won't be able to communicate. We need to rediscover tolerance. Have fewer opinions that don't leave space for those who disagree. As the speed of change increases, the quality of our breathing needs to improve.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Two Ways

Three important concepts when thinking about living a fulfilling life are Commitment, Openness, and Results. There are two ways of looking at each of these ideas that can seem, or be, in opposition.

Commitment can mean showing up with a level of intensity. Being fully present, and willing to bring everything you can offer, every time. It can mean a level of quality. 

Instead of showing up "this time", it can also mean showing up "every time". Less intense, more long term. "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed." Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway didn't wait for inspiration. He didn't wait for quality. He built habits that created the environment in which quality is born. He did the work.

Openness can mean a willingness to try everything. It can mean letting go of reservations and leaning into experiences and ideas. A level of flexibility.

Instead of always being prepared to change paths, it can also mean listening while staying on a chosen path. The grass is always greener, and real growth takes time, patience, and building. You can recognise the challenges on your path, and work on them. Every path has challenges. Starting again has costs. Openness doesn't require action as proof.

Results are the way we count and identify growth. Growth is our scorecard. We need to identify a place we were, a place we are, and a place we are going to. Something with words and numbers we can articulate to paint a picture of change. Results are the cornerstone of plans and goals.

Not everything that counts can be counted. Some work is internal. Alexander the Great was a brilliant strategist, and military genius. A man of results. As his Empire expanded East towards India, he came across famous meditating Yogis. Alexander's fame was for conquering the world. The Yogi's success was "conquering the desire to conquer the world". My friend Francois calls this the "Paradise Principle" - where even the staunchest non-believers live a postponed life for some imagined future. Tolerating the present for a future pay-off when our lives will commence. Not all results are about change. Some are about acceptance and awareness.

Commitment, Openness, and Results take different forms. Choose those forms consciously.

Are you Empire building?

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Life Goes On

'Run Lola Run' tells the story of Lola trying desperately to rescue her boyfriend. A loop of failure repeats, over and over. The same, but not the same. She goes through the same situations but her choices have different knock-on-effects. For her, and for others. One of my favourite parts is the 'flashbacks' and 'flashforwards' which show quickly, with polaroids, the stories of the people she comes into contact with.

Life goes on. When someone treats us strangely, we seldom have a full picture of the back story. People going through divorces still pitch up at meetings about the new water filter. Work deadlines don't pause for people to reflect on the anniversary of a traumatic experience. People we meet remind us of other people. Situations trigger reactions that have little to do with the current stack of polaroids, but are rather a muscle-memory response to things in our past. Or desires for our future.

Life goes on. Sometimes it can all feel a little bit too much, but we have to get out of bed to do the various things we have committed to. Sometimes those commitments add up to so much that it feels like life is living us, rather than us living life.

I was feeling a bit too overwhelmed at the end of last year. 

I am in the fortunate position of having made a conscious decision to step back from the Big Ticket get out of bed driver. A day job. The five day work week, two day weekend cycle. I took the 'do the hard thing first approach' and was very pragmatic about my career choice. I then saved and invested as much of what I earned as possible. I was in the fortunate position of having few extra financial commitments. I put my money to work, and eventually felt like if I constrained my expenses, I had enough. Enough to step off the job train, and focus on things that didn't cost money. Enough to Stop Donkey Stop.

Despite that, this has still been a wobbly year. I have lots of wonderful relationships and support. I even started seeing a psychologist in the middle of the year. I am okay. Okay. Life still goes on. It is a deep web where we are all having our own personal struggles, communal struggles, national struggles, and global struggles. It is messy and complicated. It goes on.

As the year has gone on, I have started to learn more about "Wu Wei". The idea of "Action through Inaction", or trying not to try. Less fighting, and more curiosity about genuinely seeing things as they are. A deeper sense of what matters, why it matters, and a how we want to respond to the things life throws at us. With calm.

We don't get to repeat the Loops like Lola. We get one chance. But life is a little loopy. Many of our experiences rhyme. If we pause to look at the pictures, we can use each day as a practice run. Instead of an overwhelming mess, we can focus on the daily practice.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Daily Practice

Chris "Jesus" Ferguson is a World Champion Poker player. He was asked what percentage of poker is luck. He believes any given hand is 99% luck. Any given game is 90% luck. Any given year is 10% luck. Any given hand doesn't matter very much at all. It is how you play that matters. Even if you win a hand, it is a problem if you played the hand badly. I believe the same is true of what we do. What we do any given day doesn't matter very much. What we do every day matters a lot. Growth is cumulative. Growth compounds. Our intuitive, sub-conscious abilities, are the product of daily practice. What we repeat every day becomes who we are. The way we react every day, becomes an automatic behaviour. Autonomy isn't about any given decision. Empowerment isn't control of every outcome. It is about stepping back, breathing, and seeing how you make decisions. Why you make decisions. Then taking control of your Daily Practice. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Across the Pond

I first dipped my toe into life as a Soutie when I was 18. I was waiting for my brothers to finish University before my turn came, and checking out the world seemed like a good plan. I had never left South Africa. I saved up for the plane ticket, and headed across the salty pond.

It was my first taste of really being stretched away from home. I got my first email account (teebee@postmaster.co.uk). I had heard of this thing from our Maths teacher 4 years earlier. She told us you could send letters electronically to America. Somewhere in a memory box at my Mother's place, I still have letters my eldest brother had sent me when he ventured off to University. That was just to Johannesburg, but at that time crossing the Vaal river was like crossing a border. Even if that border was just an accent, and a different dress sense. It was now my turn to send letters, but I could do them electronically. When my turn in the Computer Room came. I printed the letters out as they came. 

I was able to phone home, but it cost around 50p a minute, which meant a two-minute call cost as much as a movie back home on half-price Tuesdays. "International Calls" can break the bank. No cell phones, I was working at a school and would go into the Headmaster's office to call home now and then. Still a man-boy, despite looking after the boarding kids, being in that office was dangerous as I knew where the stash of Tuck chocolates was. 

I had the company of the staff and kids, but there was one 9 week stretch where I decided to "Super Save". It was school holidays, but I stuck around and got a job at a local hotel as a waiter and a night porter. That was the time I felt farthest from home. No Facebook, or WhatsApp, or budget for regular phone calls.  I am more fond of a cuddle than your average bear, and I don't think I touched another human being even to shake their hand for more than two months.

I loved my year and a half as a Gap Student (Schools in the UK often take on teaching assistants who are in between school and university.) I finished it off with a whirlwind Camping tour around Europe. It was intents. I was very ready to come home at the end though. When I did, going to Cape Town for university didn't feel quite as far from Durban (1600km). I had saved up enough while in the UK to buy an electronic keyboard, and my first trip to University was on a train so I could carry the thing. From my time on Mud Island, I was used to trains.

When I eventually came back to the UK to try out working in a Global City (this time in 2008), the experience had changed. Social Media, cell phones, and a bigger South African community meant the world felt dramatically smaller. I still feel stretched from home, but it feels more like the difference between Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town from growing up than the actual kilometers.

"Home" is also more difficult to define. A great childhood friend of mine who lived quite close by recently moved to Texas. My family and friends live all over the place. I no longer have the ability to pick a place, and go there without feeling stretched. Instead, I have to juggle Local and Global. As Taiye Selasi says, '
Don't ask me where I am from, ask where I am a local". I am local to Jozi, Durbs, Slaapstad, London and the Shire.

"One more step," said Sam, "and that's the farthest 
I've ever been from the green meadows of my home"

We live locally. We get our cuddles locally. In a Global World. We can live multi-locally. It requires the time and effort to build up different understandings. Learn different rules. Make local friends. Get better at adjusting, accommodating, managing expectations, reducing judgments, and opening eyes and ears.

Community Building across locations provides challenges. We have new tools to make it easier, but the idea of home is evolving. It stretches us, but we can't let it tear us. As Frodo said,
'Oh Sam! I know... but we must continue now".

Monday, December 03, 2018

Poker Money

I have never been in a proper physical fight. Some facing up, and posturing, but never in a full flung war. So I am not sure how I would respond. The closest I have come to battle is Rugby. 

As a 12-year-old tiny pipsqueak, I was fairly fearless and would take on the famously big Mario from Northwood. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. As a 13-year-old, I had moved from the scrum to the wing (sans speed) and was fairly easy to scare. The "13-year-old" eight-foot-guy from Glenwood with his kids cheering from his car, was welcome to run through me. My confidence returned a bit when my growth spurt kicked in, and I moved back to the side of the scrum. I was happy to get involved again.

Battles normally involved "looking someone in the eye" and a hard tackle, unless it was in a pile-up. Once, my team won a penalty because someone bit my nipple (through my jersey!) in front of the ref. Another time, this time at University, my nose was broken with a punch from the Police (not the cleanest Rugby players).

There is nothing abstract about facing up to someone you know can hurt you. For all the bravado, most Gents learn a fair amount about de-escalation because they know how much it hurts the next day.

Actual war, which I have been very lucky to avoid, used to be a similar face-to-face affair. Gradually, as it becomes a tech battle... guns replaced swords, bombs replace bullets, and people end up getting in their car and driving home for dinner after dropping a drone. Abstract.

This is a problem with the world of money as things get bigger. There is a disconnect between reality and financial decision making. We don't see things getting made. We don't see big parts of the world we are connected to.

"Poker Money" is an idea related to the famous song The Gambler - you never count your money, when you're sitting at the table. When playing Poker, you can't think of the chips as real money. It affects your decision. The best players in the world can be beaten by really rich (semi-competent) people who can raise the stakes to a point where the great player cares too much about an individual hand or game.

Even real money becomes Poker Money is a connected world. "The Law of One Price" is that the same thing should cost the same everywhere. This is a "Law" only in principle because it is not true in reality. Transaction costs and barriers mean we have to pay very much dependent on where we are.

This means that the price of a cup of coffee a day in the UK (say £2.50 for 30 days) would currently translate into about R1,300/month in South Africa. The Upper Bound Poverty Line (UBPL) in South Africa was moved from R992 a month (2015) to R1,138 (in 2017). In 2015, it was estimated 55% of South Africans lived below the UBPL. 

As a Soutie, that is crazy to wrap my head around. I am "sitting at the Poker Table", so I can't think of the Pounds I spend in Rands. The Afrikaans saying for doing that would involve "'n klein bietjie kots in my mond".

The challenge is getting the right balance between living life locally, and being in a global world. We are interdependent, but there are many obstacles, costs, barriers and local challenges that mean we aren't looking each other in the eyes. Our realities are detached from each other.

Poker Money is real money. Drones are real fights. The Global World is a Local World.

Just One Fifty

We have limited capacity. Limited time. Limited attention. Limited energy. The power of this is that we will make different mistakes. Mistakes are the foundation of resilience in an unpredictable world. With perfect knowledge of the future, doing what works again is sensible. With a complex, ambiguous, and uncertain world... small, regular, reversible mistakes are strength. 

Financial Empowerment (Ending Poverty) and Mental Health (Relationship Building) are my areas of focus. In 'Factfulness', Hans Rosling identifies five key threats we are wrestling with. Global Pandemic (the rampant spread of a disease in a connected world), World War (with weapons that could wipe us all out), Financial Meltdown (with the systems that keep us cooperating breaking down), Climate Change (where the resources and environment that sustain us breaks down), and Absolute Poverty (where Billions are excluded from the opportunities our ancestors built). These huge challenges facing 7.5 Billion people seem way to big to wrap our heads and hearts around.

It also means there are 7.5 Billion other heads and hearts facing the same challenges. The resilience, endurance, and creativity can come from everywhere. How do we narrow down and choose our own particular area of focus?

I am attempting to do that by joining others to build a Community of 150 People. 'Dunbar's Number' gives a (relatively arbitrary) number to the limit of our ability to develop stable social relationships. A group of people where you can know everyone, and know how everyone knows everyone. Where you can develop an understanding of the group's values, skills, and knowledge. An understanding of the group's story.

This should allow the ability to put names, faces, and stories to massive problems. Instead of 'X million people' don't have access to electricity, clean water, safety etc., it becomes a person. Mike doesn't have a bank account. Kerishnie doesn't know how to put a C.V. together. Thandiwe is old, and lonely. It also allows relationship building with people to be done in a sensitive, peer-to-peer, way.

We have a horrible history of 'Civilising Missions'. Where people with Saviour Complexes have attempted to spread their truth roughshod over established beliefs and strengths. Helping sensitively is hard. It is a minefield. Not to treating people as problems or projects. Regularly reflecting on the real intentions behind our actions. Unwinding our unknown prejudices.

I believe a group of 150 is sufficiently small for us to stretch ourselves. The 'Six Degrees of Separation' theory, is that all 7.5 Billion of us are connected by just 6 relationships. One knows Two, who knows Three, who knows Four, who knows Five, who knows Six, who knows Seven. That viral spread of knowledge lets what we learn benefit everybody. In a group of 150, we can try get the balance right between Local and Global. Stretching ourselves enough that we don't snap the 'Peer-to-Peer' connection. Enough common ground to see each other, enough different perspective to create a discomfort from which we can learn.

Those big risks we face are daunting. We need to break them down into bites. We need to look after ourselves, and each other. I believe that starts with Community Building. 7.5 Billion people is a lot of people to care for. How would the problem change if you focus on just One Fifty? How would you build that One Fifty?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


The borders of countries are tidal. What divides and rules us depends on the whims of the times, and the songs we happen to be singing. Cities tend to be renamed, swell, and shrink... but they don't move. The people do. Beijing was conquered in 1215 by the Mongol Empire. By 1240, the turn had come for Kievan Rus, and they were readying to destroy Vienna when the Khan died in 1241. They still returned to flatten Baghdad in 1258, at the time the world's centre of learning. Beijing was rebuilt between 1264 and 1293. It was called Bei (Northern) Jing (Capital) in 1403, with the Forbidden City constructed as the Imperial Residence. Beijing has remained the political centre of China for most of the last eight centuries. It now hosts the most Fortune 500 companies, and the world's four largest financial institutions. Very much connected to the rest of the world, as it has been for thousands of years.