Monthly Archive: May 2011

Blast from the past. Why your language sucks

Mia Joubert Botha of Writers Write posted a very interesting piece called The economy of words yesterday which struck a chord with me.

Back when we started SALESGURU in South Africa, I was just a little bit horrified at the sort of language I used to hear every day. I mean stuff that really chilled me to the bone.

What follows is part of my editor’s column in SALESGURU from July 2007. I’m being lazy enough rehashing old copy without subjecting you to the whole thing.


If you got up tomorrow morning and discovered that your mission that day was to develop mechanisms to facilitate the optimisation of core competencies in order to realise effective and measurable outcomes would you:

a) Kill yourself with a hammer
b) Kill yourself by eating poisonous toads or
c) Kill yourself by pushing a toaster into the bath while you’re in it?

Could anything sound more soul-crushing than spending even 30 minutes optimising core competencies? And yet that statement describes pretty much exactly what we do at SALESGURU. It is just a lot more fun the way we say it.

For example, rather than develop mechanisms to facilitate the optimisation of core competencies we might say publish a magazine of sales tips.

And instead of saying in order to realise effective and measurable outcomes, we might say to help you sell stuff. Regularly.

It is a matter of semantics, but it is an important one.

Mia, all I can say is that the problem still doesn’t appear to have gone away and you’re 100% right to rail against it.

After all, the whole purpose of using language is to communicate an idea in a way that it can be easily understood.

Anyone who refers to adding a resource instead of hiring a bright young guy called Steve needs a seriously long vacation.

Of course there is industry jargon which makes perfect sense in context; computer people speak of gigs and marketers speak of nixes (and apparently, CSI people speak of perps and vics) and there is nothing wrong with any of that. My concern is not industry jargon. It is generic jargon; language used to show expertise in nothing other than the total confusion of one’s listeners.

It bores me almost enough to consider alternate uses for my toaster.

Fulfillment is for jerks! Make money your goal!

You can hear the mantra like a battle cry: Find what you love! Find your blue flame! Follow your dreams!

It’s brilliant advice. It’s better than being bored to death in a dead-end job day-in and day-out.

Or is it?

I know a lot of rich people. I don’t know many who would define themselves by the work that they do. They define themselves by the things they do when they’re not working. Perhaps they’re crazy about photographing wildlife or they like to race bikes or they’re determined to be so innovative in the kitchen they make Ferran Adrià look like a short-order cook.

Not many of them talk with passion about their plumbing business or the fact they have a monthly income reprocessing old copper from decommissioned electrical cable. They rarely rave about their insane joy in processing scrap or mass-printing documents for companies.

But get them talking about their hobbies or their families or their travels and bingo! Lights on!

Now, it goes without saying that most people harbour some sort of unquenched thirst for doing something great. Most people have a personal Everest they’d like to climb. I feel obliged to suggest however that ending your days never having climbed it isn’t the end of the world. Not when along the way to not climbing it you went to Aruba and California and Monaco and you ate oysters and weird artisan cheeses and you loved someone incredible and drove cars too fast and had the opportunity to find a favourite movie and a favourite band and to regret the night before, a few times.

If that was your life, I’d care to suggest once again that not having written your sure-to-be-a-best-seller-book or not having rowed across the Atlantic or whatever your dream was … well, how much does it actually matter?

So what does? Well … money. Somerset Maugham said: “Money is like a sixth sense, and you can’t make use of the other five without it.”

It’s sort of unromantic and there’s an entire world of motivational speakers out there who will tell you to follow your passion, not the money. And they’re not wrong. But they’re selling the dream, not the reality.

For most people, life is about doing what you can to get ahead and try to stay ahead despite the dips and troughs and dark moments.

Understanding that, you’re wrong to think that if your nine-to-five time doesn’t change the world that it is lesser-than. It isn’t. Not when it keeps your lights on and your belly full.

Make it your goal that over time your earnings increase and so will the quality of the things you can do. Trust me when I tell you, a night out at the coolest club in your city is easier to pay for with a little cash in your pocket than it is with a ‘sense of fulfillment.’

Last I checked, anyway.

I’m not saying your work doesn’t count. Do something you like. Take it seriously. Do it well. But don’t feel that it has to define you because that will just get in your way.

Why only the whiney whine about making choices

I’ve got to tell you, sometimes I embarrass myself.

I’ve got a series of choices to make this week, and I’ve been working on a whole set of other choices last week as I plot the most alternately daring and sensible, exciting and stable new direction for all my energy over the next six months. It’s tough doing all this because it’s a matter of ‘killing my children’ and though no parent likes their children equally, I’m having to snuff the life out of some of the ones I really like here.

Not real children of course, relax. Put down the phone to the NSPCC. I mean ideas. Fresh ideas that I have developed independently for projects that I think will rock but which I have, reluctantly, to admit I am either totally the wrong person to do or completely bat shit crazy to assume are doable by anyone at all.

And so I’m going through a sort of mental sweeping; a to-do list purging; a spiritual rush at the enemy’s trenches, because enemies they certainly are. Ideas that hold you back are the worst, man. I hate those little bastards more than anything.

But as I have been doing this, I have been reminded of something that I take for granted way too often.

I ended up chatting to a homeless guy on Leicester Square in the wee small hours of Friday morning and I’m not going to say something trite like ‘listening to his story made me feel more gratitude for those around me‘ or that it ‘made me pick up the phone and tell the people around me that I am lucky to have them,’ or any righteous crap like that.

What I did was go home afterwards, get into bed, and snooze later than I should.

But I can tell you without any hesitation that his story kind of scared the hell out of me. And obviously there’s a reason that I bring the guy up here.

In the middle of this complex process of decision making, I am reminded that I am really, really lucky to have pleasant choices to make.

I get to pick what it is I am going to do to make money and advance my career over the next six months. It isn’t easy, but … I get to pick! I do!

I got to pick what time I’d get into my warm bed last night and I get to pick how late I’ll sleep in it this morning. The fact that I am already awake and blogging before the rest of the apartment wakes up is a choice.

I get to pick what I’m going to eat today, and where I am going to buy it from. That I am going to eat is a given. Again.

I get to pick lots and lots of things that I don’t even think about 99.99999% of the time.

Now that’s not to say that the homeless guy doesn’t have choices. Of course he does. We all do. But you’d have to be a numbskull to suggest that the quality of the options he has to choose between is anything like as joyful as mine should be if I didn’t bitch so damn much about my life at times.

So here’s another choice I’m making for this week: no complaining. About anything. ANYTHING.

Thanks homeless guy. Hope it works out for you.

Why personal responsibility is the coolest thing ever invented, ever

I guess I am a semi-pseudo-wannabe-but-not-really-committed libertarian.

I have always had a deep sense of personal responsibility which I don’t always live up to (often, I don’t even get close, to be completely honest) but which makes it increasingly difficult for me to accept excessive rules and regulations designed to prevent me from doing things that I wouldn’t do anyway, or make it necessary for me to do things that I just don’t care to.

Deep breath. Apparently I don’t even have enough respect for the rules of the English language to break that sentence up …

I’ll give you a moment here to throw up your hands in disgust at my arrogance.

A libertarian by the way is someone who believes in the doctrine of free will.

The reason I am only a semi-pseudo-wannabe one is because libertarianism, when applied to any society I have ever lived in, would be a total out-and-out mess which would surely devolve into chaos in a matter of hours. I believe I could live and prosper within, and even contribute positively to a libertarian society, but I feel pretty certain I’d find myself doing it from a burning house out of which all my stuff had been stolen just moments before..

It doesn’t change one little bit however the fact that I choose to accept personal responsibility for my existence and to reject as vigorously as I can, anyone else’s overall responsibility for it.

I know that at age 41, the only thing that keeps me from bloating outwards is that I take responsibility for my eating habits and my work outs. I know that I have to say NO to daily M&Ms (especially the peanut ones … mmmmm!) and YES to regular gym visits and that it’s only down to me to make this happen.

I know that the only thing that keeps the roof over my head is that I find ways to earn money to pay the bills and I know I am not owed that; that instead, I have to personally put in the effort to make this happen, also.

I know that the only thing that keeps me positive and excited about the day ahead is my own attitude towards it, and believe me when I say I spend a LOT of time working on THAT. I have to. You’ll rarely have met anyone so generally delighted with sardonicism.

And I know that I am responsible for my own relationships. Other people play a part in them of course, but nobody has the power like I do to ensure that I and the people I interact with, all know where we stand and to ensure that where we stand is somewhere good and positive and is a fun and constructive place to be..

For that matter, I know that what people think of me, is down to how I act and react and I have a duty to be honest and open but to work constantly at eradicating the areas of my life where I am stupid and ignorant and insensitive. That, right there, is a life-long journey.

I know that if I get this right, the right people will like me and the others will not and there will be balance in my peculiar little corner of the world.

I know that people who are better than me at stuff are people I can learn from, not people to steer clear of for fear that my own areas of intellectual, emotional or spiritual shallowness will be exposed.

And I kind of like all this. I like the fact that I couldn’t have said all this ten years ago because it shows some sort of growth. I like that enough to almost be smug about it.

And most of all, I like people who embrace their own personal responsibility too. I think it’s a cool way to be.

… as long as you’re not setting fire to my house and stealing all my stuff.

Obsessing about time. Tick Tock

Originally published on on April 17.

I’ve been obsessing lately with time. So many projects on the go and I’m so keen on about seven of them that it’s hard to prioritise. I say prioritise because I’ve become a disciple of a concept called My 168 Hours by a lady named Laura Vanderkam.

I probably shouldn’t tout that with too much energy because Ms. Vanderkam has a way better blog than I have, but the concept is so good, it makes me want to grab it by the throat and jump off a cliff with it..

The basic premise is that tomorrow morning, the sun is going to come up and tomorrow evening it’s going to go down again, regardless of whether you spend the time watching TV, sleeping, doing a low-paying job that you hate or working on a project that you love.

The time is going to pass anyway.

It either does so with you having kicked some ass as it whizzes by or it does so with you having achieved precisely squat.

As Laura … screw it, I’m going to call her Laura … as Laura puts it, it is generally untrue that you don’t have time for things. You have 168 Hours in every single week. That’s loads of time. You’re going to have to sleep some of it, but the rest you have a choice over how you spend.

It’s kind of messing with my brain a little bit. But then I was told recently by someone whose opinion I value highly, that I think too much.

And its amazing when you do an audit of your time (I know, I know!) just how much you’re not taking command of. Try it for a week. It’ll depress the crap out of you. But at least you’ll be liberated by the understanding. And then you can do something about it.

The other thing that’s struck me lately is an understanding of how hard you have to work just to get ahead these days. If you’re taking a half-assed swing at the ball, you’re going to end up with an even worse score at the end of your efforts than you expected. If you want brilliant success, you’re going to have to take your time seriously.

Not everyone gets this wrong. I ought to pay special tribute for success in this category to mothers of young children, and especially single mothers (or those whose husbands or boyfriends or whoever, don’t carry a share of the burden). You want to know how to cram activity into 168 Hours, just watch them.

How we’re held back by untested assumptions

Originally published on on April 17.

Have you ever heard of Ramit Sethi? If not, you should look him up. He has a simple idea which I’ve been putting to the test lately with some startling and delightful results, and I really recommend you give it a go.


He advises you to challenge your assumptions. Ramit’s thinking: we all have things we assume to be true without having any factual basis for believing them:

  • There’s no way I can find the time to start my own business.
  • I could never run a marathon.
  • I don’t have the skills it takes to make a career change.
  • If I ask for a raise, my boss will never agree to it.
  • She / he would never go out with me.
  • There will be so many applicants for that job, I don’t really don’t stand much of a chance.

The list goes on.

We often assume things such as these to be true without any factual basis for those beliefs. Because we don’t believe we can run a marathon, we don’t even find out what it takes. Don’t ask any questions. Don’t quiz the runners who are in our offices (these days, there’s a super fit road fiend in every office) and never begin the training that it would take to achieve that goal.

We just let the assumption guide our actions, because for reasons we have never challenged, we decide that assumption to be the absolute truth.

It’s nuts!

And I do it too. So do you. We all have assumptions we should put to the test to check that they’re not just nonsense.

Ramit challenges you to take a 48-hour challenge which you can read about on the link below. I really recommend you do it. It’ll give your system of beliefs a badly-needed shake up.

The way it worked for me was simple enough: Last week, I needed some assistance with contacts for a project I am working on and the best place to get that information was from some pretty heavy hitters in the publishing and media fields that I didn’t know very well (or at all in several cases) and who didn’t really have any obligation to get back to me.

The assumption that needed challenging was that they’d be too busy or I would be too unimportant for them to take time out of their schedules to return my email with the advice that I needed.

It needed challenging, so I called it outside for a fight.

And guess what? The assumption lost.

Ten emails to ten virtual strangers and EVERY SINGLE ONE of them came back to me and eight out of the ten offered some genuinely valuable and thoughtful advice.

Amazing. There wasn’t anything in it for them. This wasn’t a business transaction. No, instead, it’s just a fact that people are generally nicer, more generous and more willing to help out when they get a direct request than we think they are. That was an assumption that was well worth giving an ass-kicking.

Anyway, check out what Ramit says here.

Forget the goal. Focus on the process

Originally published on on April 15.

They say failure is good. That if you try new things all the time, you’ll inevitably fail at some of them and therefore your failure is like a merit badge for your sense of get-up-and-go.

Maybe so.

But I heard something interesting today from a personal trainer at the gym who as so often happens, said something blindingly obvious but heavily-laden with genius sense. Not common sense, because if it was common, I’m guessing even someone like me might have hit upon it. Genius sense.

He said “Forget about the results. Focus on the process.”

By which he meant, don’t make it your goal to lose 5kg or pack on 5kg of muscle. Make it your goal to get to the gym and push some weights four days per week. And when you’re there, make it your goal to push to your limit with perfect form. Inevitably, if you do so, you’ll get results. But you can’t get them faster than you can get them, and since that’s different for everyone, there’s not a lot of point in obsessing about the end result.

Now goals get you focused of course and they give you a clear indication of when you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve.

But no creative writing coach will tell you to aim for an 80 000 word novel in the next 180 days. They’ll tell you to write every single day. The book will come.

No Alcoholic’s Anonymous sponsor will tell you to stay off the bottle forever. They’ll tell you to stay off it today. And then do it again tomorrow. Control over your addiction will also come.

The inevitable result of focusing on a giant goal rather than focusing on the individual steps to getting there is that it’s simple to get disappointed by your progress. Which is why you end up quitting.

Anyway, I thought that was kind of interesting.

On how to use your value system

Originally published on on April 21.

I was in my late-20s before I realised I had a value system.

That isn’t to say I didn’t have one before. It’s just that I had never thought through the reasons why I was delighted or outraged at things. I just, sort of, was.

Not realising your value system may sound like flakiness, but I tend to think of it as a sign of extreme good fortune. For the most part your value system is only of any worth when you have to pick between two lousy choices. It’s only then that you can really know where your own personal line in the sand is.

For the most part, I’ve been spared those. But some time around the onset of undeniable adulthood, the world became more obviously treacherous and I had to be a lot more alert about the reactions I get to the things I say and do. That’s where my value system started to kick in, because I began to use it to determine whether I gave a crap about other people’s reactions.

I guess I’m something of an oddball. And you can’t be serious about being one of those if you’re going to go around seeking acceptance. Of course it is better to get it, but when you do, you know it’s coming from someone who likes the way you are, even if they think you’re a flap-eared fruitbat for thinking they way you do.

Those are the sorts of people you should keep around you. The rest of them have their own social networks that have nothing to do with yours.

But only those determined never to have any friends at all can tell you that they really do not care about how other people react. We all do, and so we should because ultimately, caring what other people think of us is what enables us to be liked.

But you can obsess about it, you know?

You can get too carried away and lose yourself in the process.

That, I think, is what people refer to when they speak about emotional intelligence. It is striking the right balance between anarchic contempt on the one side and people-pleasing neediness on the other. You need to do a little of each but you need to strenuously resist the extremes.

Just a random thought.

You can have it all, but how much do you want it?

Originally published on on April 28.

I’ve always been interested in what makes truly successful people tick.

The category is broad, so there are massive differences between them, considering they are young and old, male and female, from countries and ethnic and cultural backgrounds all over the world and have achieved success in a wide range of fields.

But they share the commonality that they’re all driven by a very well-defined set of priorities.

When you get into it, it’s breathtaking to discover how many hours successful people from movie actors to business leaders to sportsmen and women, put into their work. And how little time they take off.

Generically, we’re inclined to view excessive amounts of time spent on work as workaholism, and we either frown upon that as unhealthy and obsessive, or we laud it as the only really serious way to be if you want to get ahead.

Super achievers on the other hand don’t tend to take much time off because they don’t regard their time on as time ‘on’.

Time is just time when you’re following your priorities in pursuit of a goal you badly want. And you can double that attitude when you enjoy how you spend it and recognise that there really isn’t all that much of it to go around. People at the top, and people on the way up, tend not to waste it.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, suggested that it takes around 10 000 hours to become an expert at something. Logically if you sleep nine hours per day and spend another five in front of the television, you’re going to need twice as long to get to that expert level as someone who practices in their spare time and won’t go to bed until they get it right.

Those are your super achievers, almost without fail.

As far as they’re concerned:

  • Saturday and Sunday are just two of the seven days available in any week. They’re not different otherwise.
  • Evenings are just an extension of the working day.
  • Sleep time is best limited to only that which is absolutely necessary. You can play catch up every couple of weeks if you need to.
  • TV is the worst waste of time ever invented. Or maybe the Internet is.
  • Parties and alcohol damage your ability to work tomorrow.
  • Having a plan for the day, every day will gain you an extra hour.
  • Lunchtime is valuable people time.
  • So is dinner time.

If super achievers are to be role modelled, these seem to be rules for living. That’s what it takes.

But nobody said success was supposed to be easy.

Arresting the hand basket: why we may not all be screwed

Originally published on on April 19.

I spent time recently with some people in their early-20s who are completing some pretty neat university degrees with courses such as ‘entrepreneurial studies’, and in speaking to them I was suddenly struck by something pretty profound.

For the first time we may have a generation coming through the ranks who are determined en masse to leave the world a better place than they found it.

If you want to recklessly divide the world into uneven groups of people, there have always been those bystanders who are convinced the whole place is going to hell in a hand basket and that things just get worse from generation-to-generation. Things weren’t like the generic ‘this’ when they were younger and we didn’t have the same social problems then as we have now.

Perhaps not. But we didn’t have the same sort of opportunities either.

Then there are the people who actively couldn’t care less. They’re out to make a buck or have a good time and all the buzz about warming and pollution and hunger and over-population are best ignored. They’re someone else’s problem or they’re problems that are just too big to comprehend. And anyway, on a daily basis they tend not to affect individuals in the west at least, so what’s the big deal?

But there has always been a third group. There was a time when they were hippies. They were environmental lunatics who got in the way of progress by chaining themselves to trees or attacked whalers on the high seas in rubber ducks. They were suspect and they were weirdos and they were a real buzz kill.

And yet, this third group may be the only ones who have really evolved. And how!

What struck me with these guys, not for the first time, but harder than ever, is the extent to which global awareness, outrage at excess, ignorance and idiocy and an unwillingness to sit by and watch it happen is becoming part of the mainstream. I’m 41. They blamed me and everyone my age and upwards for the state the planet is in today.

Maybe they’re right too.

But these aren’t people who are determined to devote their lives to protest. They’re people who intend to build businesses, pursue careers and live their lives according to a set of rules that says turning a blind eye is for jerks. They’re involved. And they want to be more so.

It’s unsurprising I suppose. We’re already at a point where when they start having children ten years from now they may have to raise a generation who only know of polar bears from picture books. They’re right to be pissed off about that.

But they’re sort of inspirational for the way they’re directing all that youthful energy towards finding solutions to the mess we keep making. They don’t drink much, they sure as hell don’t smoke, they look after their bodies like they expect them to last (the total opposite of how we were when I was their age), and they’re convinced they’re going to make a difference.

If these young adults (it seems rude to refer to them as kids when their opinions are so much more mature and well thought out than mine) truly represent their generation, I think it may be safe to make some bets on the future.