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Focus is the new cool

It must be indisputable by now that the world of work we accepted as normal just a few years ago, has gone forever.

The talk when the world’s economies began to dissolve in 2008 into the thin air of which they were largely made was that we’d ride out the bad times to a recovery. But that return to ‘normal’ is unlikely to ever come now.

The demands on employees and entrepreneurs alike are now much more animal, much scrappier, much more demanding of proof-of-worth.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Having to work hard, to innovate and to create a sense of merit around your output is entirely capitalist.

Here’s the dilemma though: in what has been a fairly rapid transition from a cosseted world where money flowed relatively freely toward those who made an effort, to a world in which distractions really do cost money, the principal sacrifice success demands is that of focus.

And most of us are pretty bad at that.

My output has always been pretty high, but I worked out a few years ago that I was achieving no more than four or five truly constructive hours on any average day, and that included an hour in the gym. Nowadays however I’m concerned if I’m not maximising every one of them. I am frustrated at the very thought of television, borderline angry at hangovers, and downright sulky at the wasted hour when a workout doesn’t go well.

You can call it what you want. But it’s my firm belief that focus is the new cool.

As I see it, four hours of decent output in a 24-hour period might really have been the ticket to the game for a guy like me until recently because I’m generally pretty quick, pretty direct and I’ve been immersed in a vocation that I’m quite good at for a while now. I could really make four hours count.

The way things are now however, I think that level of output would be sufficient only to see me marginalised. The reality is that those who ran rings around me back then — and I have to admit there were many who did — were able to extract substantially more from an active day than I ever chose to.

And their level of output, be it eight hours or 12-hours of solid activity seems to be the basic ticket to the new game.

Now I’m not advocating 12-hour desk-bound work days. I’m advocating 12-hours of focused activity however. Work on your body, work on your network, work on your actual work, and work on developing other projects.

The challenge is being realistic about what is focused activity and what is distraction.

I’ve begun CrossFit training at Dream Body Fitness in Sunninghill (with which I have no affiliation other than as a member) because I can maximise the hell out of an hour of workout and I’m better segmenting my day into two principal business projects so that each gets the focus it warrants without spillage or drift.

I’m creating better social/work connections because actually, downtime is no less enjoyable with people who can help me move forward.

The bottom line is that if I want to lead anything around here — and I am choosing to do so — I’ve got to be more focused than those around me. But I kind of think that just makes me the coolest version of myself yet.

You can’t lead if you don’t know your own mind

I’ve been having a blast lately. Interviews and research for Building a Happy Sandpit are well underway and as I dig deeper into South African business culture, I am discovering more-or-less equal amounts of what I might call over- and under-thinking on the subject.

What is apparent is that nobody is specifically just zen about it. And it’s more than a little bit fun to witness the way the research questioning triggers some deep thinking which many interviewees haven’t deemed to be necessary so far.

An important point to make about this research is that I am not looking to see which companies are doing it ‘right’ and which are doing it ‘wrong’ because I do not believe there is any such thing. But in investigating what organisations are doing at all, I am able to make some interesting observations.

For example, it’s apparent that leaders with a clear vision have the ability to offer deeper leadership. That may sound trite, but actually the difference couldn’t be more stark.

Companies that run more-or-less efficiently often tend to do so by the sheer force of their good product offerings and the general commitment of their people to provide an adequate level of performance. The leaders of those organisations are, in my experience so far, almost oblivious to the marginal level of control they actually have.

That isn’t to say they’re all in any specific danger of losing their businesses, but it’s hard to imagine how they would be able to shift their operations from the average or above-average category – even with exceptional, often market-leading products – into the outstanding category.

The problem appears to be easy to encapsulate: those leaders don’t really know what it is that they want. Not in a deep, emotional sense. They reset their expectations according to current data rather than demanding unremitting high standards. They appear reluctant to acknowledge the rallying importance of risk and adventure in getting people to stretch. They ebb and flow between reaching out and holding back inside and outside the organisation.

On the other hand, there are those who are absolutely clear. They know what they want as a broad outcome which enables them to establish unwavering principles for just about everything. The critical advantage that gives them is that they are much more fully able to determine personalities within the organisation – and those who they are considering bringing on board – who can help drive towards that outcome.

Because those principles do not change, their course of action in the face of all new data – new market environments, new economic circumstances, new customers and new behaviour among existing ones – is much easier to set. Furthermore, they have a greater chance of moving the organisation proactively in anticipation of a change, because the individuals within understand the need to protect the underlying values.

It’s wicked to see. I wasn’t certain when I set out that such matters would be so simple to grasp. But maybe not all business challenges are complicated …

Why networks have the power to kill hierarchies

This is a world where networks defeat hierarchies.

There are any number of people who depend on their position in a hierarchy for status. It’s a natural thing; even wild animals are ordered by their place on the food chain. And for many people, especially in some of the more traditional cultures, social and professional hierarchies are the primary means of order.

But in a modern, western sense, that makes less and less sense. To me it makes almost no sense at all.

I accept that there are hierarchies. I accept that there are people who are able to order me around from time-to-time and that to ignore such people can lead to punishment. Take the police as an example. Time spent fighting them is rarely time well invested.

But if the purpose of hierarchies is for protection; if an elevated position in the chain stands in and of itself as a means of protection against those lower down, that elevation ends in the face of a strong network.

From the popular revolutions that ended Monarchic rule in France and the colonies of America in the eighteenth centuries to the Arab Spring uprisings that have overthrown governments in the past few years, networks have repeatedly demonstrated their power to disrupt hierarchies.

In a less violent, more quietly disruptive sense, networks of people subvert the power of hierarchies through the pioneering and development of better information. In a way, the protective nature of hierarchies can prevent the free flow of information which networks enable by their very nature.

I’m seeing the results of this increasingly over the past few months as I enhance my own network. For a while now I have been fortunate to be able to call upon the brains of many people I greatly admire, but through the refinement of a single purpose, those networks are beginning to deliver what I believe to be an unfair advantage.

From one point of view, there’s little protection in networks. Sharing information is a two-way street so that you get in only what you put out, which inherently means you’re vulnerable. But from another, there’s no more rapid way to develop and refine an idea.

It means that the networked individual can make nonsense of a hierarchy and create an entirely new set of power rules.

The paradox of control

I wish I was more disciplined.

As a control-monger who is singularly poor at long-term focus and therefore at the retention of control, my life is one of constant stops and starts. I seize on a notion like a cat on a mouse, but unlike a cat who will allow its prey to wander off before it pounces again and reasserts ownership, I have a habit of allowing it to wander too far before I realise it belongs to someone else.

And then all I am left with is a bunch of questions which can be grouped under a single heading of ‘wtf?’

I know what the problem is though: it’s a classic modern-day dilution of focus. Cats, when they have their mouse, don’t care about anything else. Not a saucer of milk; not the singing of their name … not even a sudden thunderclap and downpour would prevent them from finishing the task.

I’m not that way. I make the mistake often of assuming that the mouse will stay where it is. But mice, like ideas, like people, and like opportunities, have minds of their own.

Self-improvement is about recognising where you’re going wrong and doing something about it, and this particular dilemma is my primary focus these days. Except that it plays precisely into the central paradox it is intended to resolve; that of remaining deeply enough in control that I am able to master it.

I hate that about it. And yet, I am incessantly amused. Because in order to be better at control, I know that I must first get better at control.

But that requires focus …

Building a Happy Sandpit

This, I believe:

Employees in a business are like children in a sandpit. Put the right children into your sandpit and they’ll play together for hours, building sandcastles. They may build very elaborate ones. One of them will run off to the standpipe and fetch a bucket of water and they’ll build a moat. They’ll have such a good time doing it that they will want to do it again tomorrow.

In the meantime, you can sit at the adults’ table and have a cup of coffee with the other adults. You must supervise the sandpit, but you don’t have to get involved yourself.

But you put one little bugger into that sandpit who won’t share the bucket and spade, or who thinks it is okay to kick sand in someone else’s face, and someone is going to start crying. When someone starts crying, you’re off the adults’ table and you’re back to managing the sandpit.

The most important task therefore for any business is to have a clear understanding of your own particular sandpit so that you can hire people who fit it most appropriately and retain them for the long-term.

Because this so accurately describes my own business journey I am embarking on a new project as I write this, which will explore South African business culture: what it is, how it is applied and what the lessons, the benefits and the downfalls are, across 100 great companies.

The results will come in a number of formats including a book called Building a Happy Sandpit, which I am busily researching, interviewing for, and writing.

You’ll see the full results in 2013, but I will be providing regular insights along the way because I’m truly, truly bad at keeping secrets.

It’s just a matter of people until I make it

In the past month, as I have reconciled myself with a revised game plan which demands that I leave London and return to make Johannesburg my permanent base, I’ve been struck by a recurring observation. We often say that things are just ‘a matter of time’ as if time has anything to do with real outcomes. But we’re wrong. It’s a matter of people.

It’s not a matter of time before my next project reaches critical mass, it’s a matter of people.

It’s not a matter of time before my business idea generates a livable revenue stream, it’s a matter of people.

For that matter, it’s not a matter of time before a broken heart heals or an adventure kicks off or a zesty excitement for life begins to grip you once you (or I) have been kicked down a little. It’s a matter of people, or perhaps a person.

An example of this is the often-told tale of how Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by all 12 publishers to which it was submitted but that ultimately one editor at Bloomsbury decided to take a second look. But for that one person, it may never have made it into the light.

Like so many observations I make on this blog, this is probably pretty obvious to many of you. It is to me too, in broad terms. I write about it here however because the opportunities unfolding before me which I am confident will lead me into a successful 2013 feel like they’re less to do with my ideas, and more to do with the way in which a few key people are helping me to create ripples.

I couldn’t do it alone. And no amount of time would make my project gain momentum. It’s people that are the key ingredient.

Rip it up and start again

As a writer and as a speaker, I have aborted hundreds of storylines, hundreds of attempts at concept development, hundreds and hundreds of paragraphs of half-formed ideas. As a human being, I have invested in relationships which haven’t worked out, and one-tenth tested business ideas that may or may not have been worth pursuing if I had only bothered to investigate them more fully.

And I have lived in guilt. I’ve carried it around with me, ignoring it for the most part but always aware that if I was actually any good at all, I’d do something about all these things.

Recently however, I fixed all that. I did do something about them. I took a torch to the whole damn lot.

Here’s why: I know I’m pretty funny. I know I can be insightful sometimes. I know I think too much about everything, but generally draw fairly accurate conclusions. Not because I’m smart, but because I’m 42 and basically interested in everything under the sun and over a period of a lot of years, I’ve asked a trillion questions.

What it means the way I see it is that I can replicate in spirit every worthwhile bit of work that I have ever created. I can have the same ideas again or even better ones. And perhaps the old ideas that didn’t get my follow through were the failures, not me. Because you can’t do everything.

Now if this just sounds like I’m cutting myself a bunch of slack, I have news for you: I am.

I don’t do enough of that; I don’t think any of us do. I put more energy into beating myself up about the things I start but do not complete than I do into actually completing them because it’s not the projects themselves that matter as much as the way I connect them to my unresolved definition of personal achievement.

In the face of three brand new and I believe, defining projects, I just don’t want to have to deal with the fallout any longer. So I’ve killed them all. Should you do the same?

An incredible awakening I didn’t even realise I needed

I realised recently that my life has been little more than a journey through unreality.

I’ve done a stack of interesting things in 42 years and by many standards, I’ve done pretty well and been pretty lucky. What’s surprised me recently however is the realisation of how few questions I can answer about my reasons for doing almost any of them.

I don’t mean motivations for the big stuff; I get why I moved to Dubai in 1996, Johannesburg in 2001 and London in 2010, and why I got both married and divorced. The big stuff took some thinking about, so I’m pretty clear about the hows and the whys.

Furthermore, I’m not suggesting that I feel the need to account for every single step I take.

But I do realise that even in cutting myself lots of slack, my life nevertheless seems to have been constructed of a hundred thousand decisions that cannot be labelled as badly thought-through because I didn’t actually think about many of them at all.

Now this realisation hasn’t come about through any particular craving for increased control. I do not wish for that. In fact, I don’t think I could internalise the philosophy of laissez faire any more fully than I currently do.

What concerns me rather is that I don’t think until very recently I had a clear sense of the appropriate value of things. And to be absolutely crystal clear, I mean the derisory value of most of the physical possessions I have or the adopted beliefs I hold for which I haven’t fully explored the reasons. We all have some of those, I bet.

As a die-hard existentialist whose standpoint has been irreversibly strengthened by recent events however, I think I suddenly get what’s been going on.

Among the arrows in my quiver of philosophical fallback positions for when I need one are a load of underlined quotes in books by a motley crew of writers which for a guy like me, naturally includes the works of Jean Paul Sartre. As he put it: “we need to experience death consciousness so as to wake up ourselves as to what is really important; the authentic in our lives which is life experience, not knowledge.”

Experience, not knowledge. I’m harping on about that a lot lately, but there’s a reason for it. I realise now that what I have always known counts for nothing compared to what I have experienced.

You may think that realisation has come along late for someone of my age, but truthfully I don’t know what else I could have done to achieve it. The death of a loved one gives you a very substantially deeper feeling of grief than any description you can read about it, but you know, someone has to die before you get to experience that.

Now that I’ve felt it though, it’s opened up a way of interpreting things which is forcing an entirely involuntary resetting and readjustment of the value of every single thing in my life. Some up, some down. I don’t know how to feel about that yet, but I guess I’m going to find out very soon now …

In praise of supportive selfishness

Sometimes you get change thrust upon you; change you never anticipated, didn’t choose and really, truly do not want, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. Just such a moment of change happened in my life one evening this July with the death of one of the people closest to me.

It’s been an opportunity for self-indulgence which I ordinarily work hard to resist but which in this instance I allowed to run its course partly because it overwhelmed me with such speed that I was very deeply submerged before I had the opportunity to take a full breath; partly because it felt wrong this time, to fight it.

There’s been a lesson in the emotional violence of the upheaval of course, which is this: people who say ‘shit happens’ as if it’s something you’re supposed to just shake off, have very possibly never had ‘shit’ ‘happen’ to them.

That’s a good thing. I hope that good fortune continues for a long time to come.

But they’re wrong to be blasé. I also used to wonder whether it could really be possible to simply take everything in stride and glide through all the changes, but I know now that actually it is not. There are things even at my age I have to learn to handle.

I guess in the opposite sense that’s why people who make it big overnight often go so spectacularly off the rails. You can’t make this stuff up. You have to live it, I think.

Above all else however it’s a reminder that clocks stop with complete disregard for what you have achieved. We all know this, but I suspect again that not everyone truly knows it.

What it means to me as I run the gamut of existential uncertainty is a slight readjustment of values. I have long been only vaguely materialistic, assuming without any real supporting evidence that to be otherwise somehow lacks moral deportment. But I can no longer claim to be so certain. If the clock stops, it stops equally for the morally profound as for those who choose to blaze a trail of wanton destruction.

The difference appears to be only whether you have lived the life you desire while you have the chance. And nobody but you can know that.

I’ve speculated about the hidden value of selfishness in this blog before, but allow me to repeat that now. It seems to me, as I clamber through the fallout that the only rider on supportive selfishness is that in chasing it, you choose not to hurt others wherever that is possible. I can’t think why anything else would be taboo.

I am a spiritual Jeff Lebowski. That’s the problem …

I can’t honestly tell you that I love a challenge.

If I’m totally reflective, I’d snooze my life away in a hammock while waves lap gently against the beach just within earshot over the control of a successful business empire every single day of the week.

This understanding of myself is something that I tend not to shout about because few people in the western world admire you for having lesser ambitions than a hobo. But you’ve got to tell yourself the truth, right? I’m a spiritual Jeff Lebowski despite that I recognise his many failings.

This point was proved to me again recently when I listened to a friend’s plans to build a global business over the next 30 years and all I could think of was the word ‘exhausting’, reminding me as if I needed it, that I’m a wannabe slacker.

I wasn’t always this way. One of the advantages of growing older is that I’ve gained the ability to not take myself very seriously any more. I like me quite a lot and don’t feel the need to constantly bait myself like a chained bear to be better at everything I set my hand to. In many instances, I’m perfectly happy not to be very good at all. Not all challenges are created equal.

I’m aware however that in an odd sort of way, my ambition to be a slacker is even harder to achieve than my friend’s ambition to own a very substantial chunk of Wall Street. The simple reason is that his ambition leads him towards constant action whereas mine, by its very nature, does not. And ironically, he’s got a better chance of a life in a hammock bought by his successes in business than I have simply because thinking up ways to fund my hammock seems to defeat the object.

But that right there is one of the greatest paradoxes of the world humans have built. Those who can afford to lie around and snooze rarely want to. Those who want to, can rarely afford to. And all of it is self-inflicted.