Monthly Archive: March 2012

Chinese firework displays and the hidden human lesson

What we think we know about Chinese inventiveness today is often negative. Foxconn, disappointingly the manufacturer of the Apple iPad, has come under intense scrutiny for its alleged sweatshop work ethic, and every company you can think of has had to turn its intellectual property radars up to full-beam as the country’s entrepreneurs crank out knock-off after knock-off.

But while the lessons we can learn from the China of today seem like little more than cautionary tales, one of the most important life lessons I know can be summed up in an analogy of a single ancient Chinese invention: fireworks.

Firework displays of the truly dramatic kind such as the one lighting up the sky over Beijing’s Forbidden City above, or those that herald the arrival of a new year in cities all around the world, are sensational because of their scale. A single firework of the kind you might set off in your back garden to celebrate (bizarrely) Guy Fawkes* is okay; good enough to entertain the kids perhaps, but justifiably fails to gain real attention.

Why? Cos it’s a firework. Who cares?

But 10 000 fireworks? All at once? Enough to turn the night back into day for a few moments? Ah, now that is really dramatic.

And it was that sort of display in Ancient China that caught the attention of western travellers in the first place, and led to their export all over the world. Maybe not 10 000 of them, but a couple of hundred perhaps.

So why do I think this matters? The analogy is simple enough: the most interesting people I know are those that live their lives like firework displays with massive volumes of activity packed into their days. They may appear to be little more than office colleagues, but then you find out they’re the lynchpin in their amateur team sport, record a podcast every weekend on a niche subject that deeply interests them, are learning another language and play a mean flamenco guitar.

To the people who know them best, you’ll be surprised to discover they’re like fireworks who light up a small portion of the sky every time they step into the room.

I know people like this. I know lots of them actually. You often don’t have to dig very deep to find out that people on the whole are a hell of a lot more interesting and quirky than you realise.

It’s not one thing with them. It’s lots of things, all the time. And we all know we could be more like them if we stretch a little.

What’s most impressive about the human fireworks I know is the very high level of specialisation they have in an array of subjects and activities. Compared to generalists who struggle to make an impact and one-track specialists who may make a deep impact in a single area, human fireworks show us we’re capable of living lives that are more full than we ever imagined.

And they smell like cordite. Well, sort of …

*Guy Fawkes by the way, is a day that has lost its meaning. Fawkes was an early terrorist by modern standards, whose plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London was foiled and the man himself punished severely for his crime. The observance of Guy Fawkes Night was traditionally about celebrating his failure and ended with the burning of his effigy in a bonfire. Nowadays around the world, it’s just an excuse to frighten domestic animals and delight children. It’s an odd thing to celebrate …

Why positive people will always win in the end

I’ve found myself in an environment of late where I am surrounded by people that I can believe in. Naturally positive people. It’s a really good place to be for someone like me and I thought I’d share a few specific observations:

1) Positive people don’t only make negativity uncomfortably out of place, they have a tendency to simply banish it from the room before it even enters. They create a natural sense of perspective. They feed off each other and feed into each other in what is closely akin to a form of mass hypnosis, but because they’re generally positive, there is no faking it. Happy people are happy, precisely because they’re happy and neither poverty nor hardship takes their happiness away from them. The same goes for positive people.

2) They live by example and expect you to do the same. How do you win over a group of positive, productive people? You tap into your own good spirits and you make sure you’re a contributor to the group’s success. If you hold yourself to a high standard among people like that, they will help you make that standard a reality. If you don’t, they don’t really know what to do with you, and you lose the benefit. Being surrounded by positive, productive people isn’t a challenge; it’s an opportunity to be lifted.

3) They tell the truth. It doesn’t matter that the truth is that you just screwed up; they tell it anyway, without fear. In a group of positive people, criticism can happen because it is seen not as nitpicking but as a potentially valuable lesson, and they feel the same about receiving it as they do about giving it. It’s a sign of respect that they can speak so openly to one another.

4) They only take serious stuff seriously. And they know how to tell the difference without ever having to think about it. They live the mantra that it is important to take the work seriously without taking yourself too seriously. They separate well and strike a balance they’re comfortable with without feeling pressured to be pretend they’re busier, harder working or more stressed and under-the-gun than they are. To them, busyness is about reality. They don’t mind sitting back for a chat and a joke or to run out and get McFlurry’s for the whole office when they have a gap because they’re not worried about being accused of slacking.

This list could go on. These things have almost been as much fun to write about as they are to witness every day. Maybe I’ll do a Part II later this week …