Using Death as a Compass

“But time, is on your side, it’s on your side, now” Cold Play

Sadly Coldplay were lying. It’s never on our side.

When I think about flying, it’s essentially a tin can thousands of meters above the earth travelling at hundreds of kilometres per hour. It’s a humbling reminder of how precious life is.

So every time I get on a plane, to fly through the air in essentially a tin can, I ask myself 2 questions:

“Does everyone I love know I love them?”

I mentally tick through my list of wife, children, family and friends. If they might not be sure, then I have a job to do when I land.

“If this plane goes down, am I content with what I’ve accomplished and the impact I’ve made so far in my life?”

If the answer is no or halfhearted, it’s time to take stock.

 

The Art of Learning: Fractals, Water Polo and Marketing Templates

“We do not learn from experience, but from reflecting on the experience.” – John Dewey

[This post started out as a book review and became a reflection on my own experiences of learning. The idea of fractal learning is one that I would love your feedback on in the comments. Is it useful? Could it be applied in a way that helps us to learn more rapidly or teach more effectively? With more depth or more focus on the passions we have?]

Josh Waitzkin has a fascinating story. He is:

  • 2 x US Junior Chess champion (his father wrote a book about his journey called Searching for Bobby Fischer which was turned into a feature film of the same name),

  • Tai Chi Push Hands World Champion (2004) – the martial arts version of Tai Chi – and has subsequently coached others to that same title,

  • and founder of The Art of Learning Project.

I’ve read his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance and loved it.

The Art of Learning:

The Art of Learning

The book explores Josh’s journey from US Junior chess champion to world champion as a martial artist in Tai Chi Push Hands. As he learned TaiChi, Josh began to see how his deep understanding of chess was influencing his learning process and vice versa. Josh subsequently spent years deconstructing his learning process across the 2 pursuits and shares his universal themes in the The Art of Learning.

Josh’s principles of learning:

  • Cultivating a beginner’s mindset
    A beginner is open to all possibilities, is excited to learn and is not afraid of failing. As a beginner there is no expectation to succeed or produce results.

    As your skill level increases, so too does the expectation (often self-imposed) for you to produce results. We stop learning when those expectations make us too afraid of making mistakes. Cultivating a beginner’s mindset helps us overcome this fear of mistakes so we can continue to learn and improve.

  • Invest in loss
    By training, practicing and competing with people who are better than you, you will be forced into making mistakes (losses). These losses become investments when you take the time to reflect on them to understand what happened and why. Through this reflection you can learn and then refine and improve your skills and performance.

  • The study of numbers to leave numbers
    Another way of wording this principle might be to call it the study of a skill to make that skill automatic. By studying and practicing your skills, you gradually absorb them. They become intuitive, automatic, no thinking required.

    Remember the basics of how to catch a ball? Keep your eye on the ball and watch it into your hands. Do you repeat this to yourself every time you catch a ball? When you’re first learning – sure. However, after practicing for a while, you don’t think about it anymore. In fact, often you forget someone even taught that to you.

    This is one of the key difficulties for masters trying to teach beginners – they have forgotten what they have learnt and how they learnt it.

  • Making smaller circles (condensed technique)
    Over time you work on finer and finer details within a skill, condensing your technique to use less effort to achieve the same result. To progress to smaller and smaller circles you’ll need to follow the above 3 elements every time:

    • adopt your beginner’s mindset,

    • invest in loss to understand and learn the finer level of a skill

    • then reflect, study, and practice the new “smaller circle” of the skill until it is automatic. Then you can progress to even deeper levels.

  • Slowing down time (enhanced perception)
    In a competitive arena, if you are “making smaller circles” by focussing on finer details of a skill than your opponent, you will feel like you have more time. The greater the difference in skill level, the greater the time difference will feel.

Fractal Learning

As I was trying to understand these principles, I started to draw. This is my original drawing and notes:

Fractal Learning.png

 My notes on the side tie it back to Josh’s themes:

  • Level 1 Novice sees 3 skills to master

  • Level 2 Intermediate sees 3 skills to master

  • Level 3 Expert sees 3 skills to master

  • And so on

  • Cultivating a beginner’s mindset is about forever being open to, and then seeing the next 3 skills to master.

  • To move deeper into the pattern and down a level to more condensed technique you must invest in loss.

  • You progress to a deeper level when it is internalised by study, reflection and practice.

This drawing – of smaller and smaller circles within circles – immediately reminded me of fractals.

From Wikipedia: A fractal is a mathematical set that typically displays self-similar patterns. Fractals may be exactly the same at every scale or they may be nearly the same at different scales.

I started to look for a fractal that would help me visualise Josh’s concept of “making smaller circles”. I found the Apollonian Gasket. Here is an animated version:

Apollonian Gasket.gif

As the animation proceeds, it is exactly the same at each level – a bit like the drawing in my initial notes although with much more detail.

On the other hand, The Mandelbrot Set – one of the most famous visualisations of a fractal pattern – varies at each level:

1024px-Mandel_zoom_00_mandelbrot_set.jpg

Here’s an animated zoom of it (you don’t need to watch the whole thing):

You’ll notice that as you zoom into the structure, you don’t get an identical pattern repeating. Unlike the Apollonian Gasket, you get something different at each level. BUT it is still related to the whole.

Fractals really helped me to visualise Josh’s principles. So I wanted to step through 2 examples from water polo and web marketing to make these ideas more concrete.

Water Polo

I created a simplified water polo example:

Level 1 – A beginner, keen to learn, watches a game of water polo and sees 3 circles of skills she will need to learn to be able to play the game:

    • Water Polo:

      • Ball skills

      • Swimming

      • Game play

  • Level 2 – When she arrives at her first training session, the player becomes aware (with the help of her coach) that these 3 skills can be broken down further. For example she learns that in Ball skills there are 3 more circles – Passing, Shooting and Blocking:

    • Water Polo:

      • Ball skills

        • Passing

        • Shooting

        • Blocking

      • Swimming

      • Game play

  • Level 3 – This cycle of awareness of more detail (and capability to progress) then repeats and she then breaks each of these skills down even further.

So a branch of this water polo example might look like this:

  • Water Polo:

    • Ball skills

      • Passing

        • Forehand pass

        • Backhand pass

        • Push pass

      • Shooting

      • Blocking

    • Swimming

    • Game play

Drawn out, the pattern of smaller circles looks like this:

Water polo example

It looks a bit like a very simple Apollonian Gasket. In reality, there a more than 3 circles at each level of water polo, so let’s look at web marketing to provide a more detailed example.

Web Marketing and Templates

We started to create web marketing templates to help us teach our clients how web marketing worked and how all the various pieces of the puzzle fitted together. In hindsight, we were deconstructing the relevant skills as we learnt them.

So let’s consider web marketing as a skill set you might want to master.

The visual side of the Web Strategy Planning Template works as a good representation of the broadest level of web marketing.

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 7.46.52 am.png

Level 1: In the above image there are 5 areas that will need to be understood:

  • Outcomes

  • Website

  • Search

  • Backlinks

  • Social Media/Content Marketing

Level 2: Let’s zoom in on one – Search. There are 2 skills to learn in Search:

  • SEO – Organic searches

  • SEM – Google Adwords

Level 3: Let’s zoom in again – SEO. The Web Strategy Planning Template doesn’t give more detail, so we can use the SEO planning template to explore the smaller circles:

SEO can be broken down into:

  • Keyword Research

  • On-page SEO

  • Off-page SEO

Level 4: Let’s zoom in one final time – On-page SEO. Again, the template helps us to clarify that we need to learn:

  • Target Keyword

  • URL

  • Page Title

  • Header tags

  • Meta description

  • Image alt tags

  • SEO Yoast

  • Web page copy

  • Google Authorship

So one branch of Web Marketing might look like this:

Web Marketing:

  • Outcomes

  • Website

  • Search

    • SEO – Organic searches

      • Keyword Research

      • On-page SEO

        • Target Keyword

        • URL

        • Page Title

        • Header tags

        • Meta description

        • Image alt tags

        • SEO Yoast

        • Web page copy

        • Google Authorship

      • Off-page SEO

    • SEM – Google Adwords

  • Backlinks

  • Social Media/Content Marketing

Imagine if you expanded each of these – it would be complex right? Visually it might start to look more like the Mandelbrot Set with related but not identical patterns at each level.

In order to progress through the levels of either of these skills and “make smaller circles”, we need to look back at Josh’s principles:

  • Cultivate a beginner’s mindset
  • Invest in loss
  • Study numbers to leave numbers

All with the purpose of making smaller circles as we learn to condense our technique in order to enhance our perception.

So thanks to Josh for an incredibly thought provoking book that inspired me to explore and reflect on my own learning journeys. I can’t recommend The Art of Learning highly enough.

Finally I’d be really interested to hear what you think:

  • Could fractals help you to visualise your learning journey? Or to help you to teach others?
  • How might your expertise or specific skill set look laid out as a pattern?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!

Go Slow to Go Fast – a Business Lesson from Water Polo

Club Natacio Sant Andreu - Toby Jenkins

When I was up to my eyeballs in water polo, a part of my training was weekly martial arts sessions with Andy Sutton. Back in early 2002 he introduced me to the principle:

“Go slow to go fast.”

This wasn’t just counter intuitive when I first heard it – it seemed plain mad. We’d been training one on one in a park in West End in Brisbane and it really didn’t make much sense to me. At the time I opted to file it away in my subconscious in the “too hard basket”.

Later that same year I was offered a chance to play professionally in Barcelona, for a club called Sant Andreu. I was pumped.

When I arrived in Spain, I realised they had a different approach to training. The general theme of this approach was to opt for high quality at high intensity rather than the incredible volumes we were doing at home. Each session was focussed on skills, strength, game play or swimming. In comparison to Australia, where it was typical to pile on strength work on before, or skills or match work on after a swim session, a swim set was nearly always just a swim set.

 

Go slow

I don’t remember what triggered me to dredge up Andy’s advice, but I thought it would be a good time to test if going slow could actually help me go faster.

Over the course of dwelling on and trying to practice this concept in the swimming training, I realised that by going slow with every stroke, I was able to focus on each element of the stroke from the pull at the top of the stroke all the way through to the push at the end. I concentrated on keeping my body still in the water and stayed focussed on economy of motion. By going slow, I was able to break down my swimming into discrete elements that I could then practice and improve. I felt good, I felt strong and I started wonder if there might be a kernel of truth in the saying.

It was time to test the “go fast” piece. It was time to test myself against the clock.

 

Go fast

There is one swim set that stands out for me. It was a sprint set that culminated in 3 x 100m max efforts and an opportunity to prove myself to my new team. Having been training slow, I was fascinated to see if I could embody the principle.

At the end of the first 100m, I was surprised. I’d clocked around 59 seconds (a quick training time for me) and still really felt like there was more in the tank than I’d realised. The next 100m I focussed on increasing power, while maintaining my focus on each stroke and stillness in the water to see if I could go faster. 58 seconds. Even after this, I still felt like I could go faster. I kept  saying to myself throughout these 100s: go slow to go fast, go slow to go fast. 3rd 100m – 57 seconds.

These times are by no means quick by elite swimming standards but they were amongst the best I’d ever clocked in training and particularly that I was able to improve through the 3 was completely new for my sprinting. By breaking down the 100m into a series of discrete strokes, focussing on every piece of the execution, I was able to produce these times with an ease that I still clearly remember 11 years later.

 

How is this relevant to work now?

One of the problems we’ve had recently with projects has been rework. Ads and I have sat down to address this and ultimately came to reinforce the mantra of thrash upfront in your project planning to get everything out on the table. While it feels like its slowing you down, focussing on and hammering out the details of what actually needs to be done ultimately saves huge amounts of time in the execution.

I’m also a huge believer in the agile approach to projects in that you can’t plan for everything and in fact to do can be dangerous. Slowing down to make the projects small enough to execute and revisiting these smaller projects at crucial points is also key to adjusting for new learning and delivering fast, quality projects.

 

Related quotes:

Since then I’ve heard a number of other phrases that to me, really relate to this philosophy.

“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
This was taken from the movie Shooter with Mark Wahlberg where his character uses it as a mantra as he fires a rifle. A surprising source of inspiration 🙂

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Bill Gates
I only became aware of this quote recently and I believe it reflects some of those same sentiments – to reduce the amount you try to do in a smaller time frame to accomplish much more in the longer period.

What do you think? Are there areas in your life/business that you’ve gone slow to ultimately go fast? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

Why do we exist as a business?

It’s an existential question I asked myself after reading Ben Horowitz’s blog post: Lead bullets.

Fortunately I was reading Ron Baker’s book Implementing Value Pricing at the time.

Ron proposes a simple, yet extremely demanding, 2 part answer:

  1. The sole reason for a business to exist is to create value for its customer.
  2. Value, both tangible and intangible, is solely in the eye of the customer.

It’s simple because it can be communicated in 2 sentences.

It’s extremely demanding because of all it implies.

If value is solely in the eyes of the customer, then this answer demands that you understand your customer and their needs and wants, that you help them identify value, that you deliver on the value that you promise and that you continue to help them extract value across the lifetime of your product or service.

The beauty of this is that those who can live up to it will reap the rewards by being able to charge a price commensurate to the value delivered.

“We are committed to delivering value at least 3-10x the price we charge.”

This is our new commitment at Bluewire. It changes the discussion with an existing or prospective customer from adversarial sales to genuine partnering and deeper relationships. It sets a standard of excellence for our delivery and ongoing service. It creates accountability to deliver on that value.

2 elements of the book really clarified this new perspective on value for me:

The first was a graph:

Customer Value vs Price vs Cost Graph

Price reflects a portion of the value created for the customer, so if you grow the value, you can grow the price.

The second element was this:

Poor business is: Service > Cost > Price > Value > Customer

Good business is: Customer > Value > Price > Cost > Service

The customer must always come first.

Then you measure the value to them, decide on a price, and work out the cost to deliver the service required.

So it’s a call to arms to grow value, both tangible and intangible for customers. And with it comes a renewed sense of purpose, a reason to exist.

It’s the reason you pick up the phone with a smile.

It’s the reason you say no when you can’t deliver the value to the customer in the first place.

It’s the reason you have a moral obligation to help your customers continue to extract value from your product or service.

It’s the reason you keep checking on customers in an ongoing relationship.

It’s the reason your customer has to work with you to extract this value from your product or service as soon as possible.

It’s the reason you need to explore as many options as possible.

It’s the reason to stay current with events and trends and best practice, because you might be able to help your customer extract further value from your services.

It’s the reason exactly the same advice can have hugely different value to different customers and hence the reason you can charge different prices.

It’s the reason you must keep improving your business, so you can help your customers improve theirs.

It’s the reason your communication is so important – how do you know what is valuable to the customer without talking to them?

It’s the reason that value is not rational – it is not always absolute dollars, but speed, response times, flexibility, comfort, self-esteem, “cool”, a smile, trust, ease of use, great design, simple, fun, taste, great service, friendly atmosphere, lighting, music, attitude all make a difference.

Ultimately, it’s the reason for everything you do as a business.

So, finally, to blend Ron and Ben:

If you don’t deliver value to your customers, why do you need to exist at all?

I think it’s a question worth revisiting everyday.