Friday, May 13, 2022

Wafer Thin

When I “stopped working” in 2014, I had ideas for projects I wanted to work on. What I meant by not working, was not working *for money*. 

I was just frustrated with what felt like a toxic environment. With answering the question “what do you do?” with what I do for work. With my default laid out, bar 20 odd days of leave a year. 

I still wanted to work on interesting problems, but with a different filter. Not all good ideas are good business ideas. There are a lot of things I wanted to do that I couldn’t justify. 

Another frustration was the amount of time I spent communicating what I was working on! Explaining myself. Communicating what needs to be done to people who aren’t doing it. When you get the sense that you are Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill just to roll it up again. When you aren’t convinced of the incremental change. What the late David Graeber called “Bullsh1t Jobs”. Or fake deadlines where someone tells you to get something to them by the time your head hits the pillow... then they don’t look at it for two weeks. 

Much of my anxiety came from a sense of killing time. Time is the thing that is most valuable. That was what I wanted. Time free from price. I am also aware of path dependence. I did what I did because of the cumulative decisions that were presented to me, and that I made. Changing paths is hard when the path is relentlessly repeating. 

There can be wafer thin boundaries between what we do, and what we could be doing... but we simply don’t have the time to breathe and notice.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Chipping Away

The thing I work hardest on is accepting noise. Accepting wildness and randomness. Finding comfort in ambiguity and discomfort. Returning to an internal source of joy which I can build on. Coming to peace terms with constraints. 

Not building up hope that something is going to happen, and then it doesn’t happen. But also not expecting the world to be horrible, painful, and cruel. 

It comes down to the practical reality of what each day looks like. How am I going to wake up? The longer periods build on each other. The idea around 10,000 hours of purposeful practice. Hours that are meaningful and consciously lived. 

What is it I am learning? What am I building? What is my (evolving) path? Not as a tool for separating myself from others and creating a hierarchy where I am better, or good enough. 

Just a practice for grappling with stuff I find fascinating. Doing something that grabs my attention and develops my skills and knowledge. 

Reflecting on why I react in the way I do. Noticing when I am in situations that scream of the past, or where the past screams. 

Competitive Advantages are often not what you are good at. They are the container in which you are operating. One of the most effective containers is difficulty. If hard doesn’t scare you. An easy path is easy for everybody... it has no container. 

If you want to find creative problems that are really going to engage you, the challenge lies in chipping away at things that are hard.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

It's Okay

Much of the anxiety I have experienced comes from expectations. Stated and unstated. Known and unknown. Managing both the conversations in my head, and the clash of projections when I am bumping into other complicated conversations in other heads and hearts. 

I don’t completely buy the Stoic approach of having periods of nothing and realising you are completely okay. If *nothing* is acceptable, then you know you can handle *anything*, because having nothing, can't destroy you. I like building. I am worried about unintended consequences, and loss from pressing the reset button. 

For me, the idea of constantly being negative, so that when horrible things happen you were expecting them, is dangerous. For the simple reason that being constantly negative is unpleasant. 

Managing expectations has to be a tool, rather than a purpose. I do think you need to be aware of what your default setting is. My preference is to be optimistic. I think if you can get through the noise, the confidence you need isn’t knowing what will happen, but feeling like you can handle what life throws at you. 

I want to find joy in life. I want to enjoy the process. Manage expectations, but not be constantly bitter and twisted. 

In Wu Wei philosophy, they talk about De (εΎ·) (like 'Duh' in American) which is something like charisma and confidence... but deeper soaked and with less to prove. 

Less that waves of anxiety are not there, but exuding the sense that, fundamentally you are alright. Fundamentally, you will be okay.

Monday, May 09, 2022

Found Wanting

When you are thinking “I don’t deserve to be at this table”, “I don’t know enough to apply for this job”, or “I am really confused and feel incompetent”... you don’t know how the other people are (also) beating themselves up constantly. 

Even if people do open up, we only get the words they choose, and only in the way we interpret them. We are only exposed to projections. We are only exposed to how those projections land on our internal projections. 

Working on these interpretations is not something that is obvious. Good business ideas are things you can count, and deep work is often not countable. You may need to pragmatically focus on good business ideas to build the internal capacity for work that doesn’t have (obvious) payback. 

I avoided reading “How to win friends and influence people” because the title made me cringe. It seems manipulative. The books surprised me with the well-articulated truth that we are interested in people that are interested in us. 

Truth sits in a feedback loop, as an invited and trusted evolving conversation. 

Feedback is best received when we don’t feel like it is a tool of destruction. When it isn’t a disguise for being “weighed, measured, and found wanting.” When there is a long-term commitment to each other’s well-being. Where there is a foundation of respect and kindness. 

Then feeling incompetent and not enough is the only starting point in every new endeavour, rather than a fearful admission of permanent inadequacy.

Friday, May 06, 2022

Own Silence

A danger with the idea that meritocracy works at an individual level, rather than a hand wavy “life is unfair, but you can progress from where you are” way... is that we can take the decisions people make about *us* too seriously. Whether you get a job. Whether you get a promotion. How big your bonus is. Whether someone recognises and understands the work you are doing. 

The strong temptation is to self-reinforce. To lean into the conspicuous. Separating our identity and the problems we are working on is a hard practice. 

We all want to do well. Which make measures of success feel like they are measuring who we are. Which can be a spiralling, relative, search for recognition. Imposter syndrome means most people are constantly self-judging. 

Aging does help you realise there are no real adults in the room, and everyone is just doing the best they can. Michelle Obama was asked how she managed the stress at being at a table with people that were very impressive. Chief Executives and Presidents are all just people with their own insecuritities. “They are not that smart”, she realised... as a different way of realising that “you are smart enough”. 

Some people get jobs due to connections... marriage, inlaw’s friends, birth, friend of a friend. Some people fake the right skill well to the right person at the right time. 

Even the people who are amazing at their jobs, are also useless at other things. Normal people who sleep, eat, and get confused. We don’t have access to what is going on in other people’s heads. 

Silence can appear like confidence. Our own silence is more raw.

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Weigh and Measure

Wealth is made in containers. We often share those containers with very real human voices. Not just the voices in our heads, but also other people. We have our own vulnerabilities. 

We like each other. We dislike each other. We get on each other's nerves. We can talk about ourselves all the time. We can be difficult to manage, difficult to work with, and difficult to understand. We bring our whole selves to the work we do. 

I have had lots of people that I loved working with, and a (fortunately small) handful where... it was probably just best we worked with others. 

There is something deep inside me that gets rattled when I feel misunderstood. When I feel like they have drawn their conclusion... unfavourably, and unfairly. The emotions that come up when someone effectively believes you are not good enough. 

One response is to want to self-promote, “I am actually quite a big deal”. Another response is to tear the other person down, like one of those rap battles. “YOU think I am not good enough. That is rich. Well... XYZ” in a way that leaves them sobbing in a foetal position. The skill/desire of treating people with kindness and respect can get lost. 

Often to see people’s strengths requires understanding their stories. Engineers might hire engineers. Architects architects. Stock pickers may believe they can do anything, because they pass judgement on businesses... but don’t believe anyone can be a stock picker. 

People hire people because they admire the things they like about themselves. Self-reinforcing what they view as strengths. 

Letting go of the idea of work as a tool to weigh and measure your soul is essential.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Hero Job

Being well-rewarded for your skills and knowledge doesn’t make you irreplaceable. Typically, commercial projects are not pushing the boundaries of human thought. Money is very pragmatic. Breakthroughs are normally collective. 

We like the idea of heroes, and we provide massive rewards to be those heroes (when the monetary stars align). When planning your own career, you need to have a view of the broader context... beyond a specific "hero job". 

If the job is in a publicly listed company, you can look at the investor relations pages to see the company report (for example, Google’s Alphabet is at You can see what the company is doing beyond your role. Beyond that, look at the industry structure. What are the competitors doing? The wider you look, the more resilient you are going to be if you start getting an idea of the generic skills and knowledge needed. 

The less you make it about you, and defining “who you are”, the more you can listen and respond to the needs of the broader container. Gradually you can be less attached to the specific grade, role, boss, or performance review cycle that you have or are in, but that can’t last. 

When you talk to people about work anxiety, whether you are in academia, a business owner, an employee, or a consultant... the stress often boils down to people dynamics. How do you get along with the hierarchy you are a part of, and the relationships you have? 

Even though good business ideas are very much about containers and counting, they include a human element that can’t be separated. Vulnerable voices in our heads grappling with a sense of self-worth, and fair treatment.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Happy 28th Birthday South Africa

I was supported through university by Old Mutual. It was part of why I chose the career I did. Pragmatically sitting on a bench in London during two gap years between school and university, I took the decision that life would be harder if I didn't do something that made money. There are certain choices that are easier to get support for. I found a course and a company that would put me on a path to financial security. It wasn't romantic. I worked for 1.5 years for each year I was supported... then aged 28, got itchy feet. Old Mutual were supportive. I looked at jobs internally, but also got support and positive recommendations to look externally. I then headed overseas again, and back to the UK (via Bermuda). I did feel loyalty to the company... but in reality, that meant to the people. Those who had backed me. But that didn't mean my choices couldn't look beyond the container. As it turned out, I came back to work at Old Mutual 12 years later when I returned to South Africa. How you treat the people who leave says a lot about who you are. The containers we use to build each other up are there to build rather than constrain. Today those who stay, go, or arrive, celebrate the fall of the Apartheid that separated us... and pretended that it was our containers that defined us.

Happy Birthday South Africa - 27 - 26 - 25 - 24 - 23 - 22 - 21