I had dinner with a friend tonight and she told me a profound, true story that I had to share (names changed to protect their privacy).
Her boyfriend Evan was born without one leg from mid-thigh down. As he was born with the condition, his body has compensated incredibly. His remaining leg is about twice the size of a normal leg (in muscle mass) and he has an extremely strong lower back which has kept his back straight. He uses a basic prosthetic limb to get around more easily, but is fully mobile.
The crazy thing is that when he was born, the baby born in the bed next to him had the exact same condition. The doctor told both sets of parents about a potential procedure that would allow their children the chance to walk normally again. The procedure involved a series of operations that would try to make the leg grow out properly. Evan’s parents, I quote, said “don’t worry we’ll just stick a bit of plastic on the end of his leg and he’ll be fine”. Ann’s parents (the parents of the other baby) decided to go for the procedure of leg operations.
This led to a fascinating micro-experiment. The two families stayed in touch for many years after. This meant that they actually saw the ‘clinical’ results of the two different paths, and the effects this had on each child’s life.
Sadly, the procedure of leg operations was unsuccessful for Ann. She has ended up in a wheelchair because she spent so much time in hospital as a small child that her body didn’t learn to compensate for the missing limb. Evan, on the other hand, is a paralympic hope for sailing, works in a top recruitment firm and lives happily with his girlfriend – a very normal/fulfilling life.
Everyone on this planet is born into their own unique set of circumstances. This combination of genetics and environment, nature and nurture, develops us along our own individual journeys into our own particular characters.
In Evan’s case, his parents embraced who he was and allowed him the freedom to develop in his unique way. Ann’s parents tried to change her, tried to change the cards she was dealt by nature, and it failed.
The decisions we make can lead to different chain reactions of events that take us down entirely different journeys. This is not just true for decisions made for/by us when we’re young, but continuously applies to the decisions we make on a daily basis for the entirety of our lives. This is a terrifying fact of nature, but one we must consider and embrace. It can be hard to know what is the right choice to make. Fortunately, we can prepare for these decisions. We must define our values. The values we hold close act as our compass to making these decisions. Define in advance what resonates with you: Do you value empathy or brutal honesty? Humility or bravada? Acceptance or intolerance? Risk or security? These things can help guide us to make even the hardest decisions.
For me, the key takeaway is: Embrace who you are and trust your values.
I had some profound realisations last night. I thought I’d got my head around this whole life thing, but I hadn’t. After some deep intrinsic questioning and rapid cramming of research I can finally say that I’ve got a conclusion I’m 100% satisfied with.
I first started making real progress on the meaning of life when I read Ryan Allis’ “Lessons from my 20s” and decided to find my purpose. I concluded my purpose or ‘meaning for life’ was the following:
To put 100% of myself and my effort into building immense value for humanity
I was very pleased with myself, and felt a moment of total clarity. This made so much sense to me. What’s the point of being alive, if you aren’t using your life to the absolute max to create societal value?
But my purpose met its first altercation when I reached out to a pseudo-mentor of mine, Jan Sramek, and asked him what was the most important thing that he learnt since writing his best-selling book “Racing Towards Excellence“. What stuck with me in his response was:
“People matter — find the ones who get you and work/spend time with them.”
I started to follow this advice, focusing on getting depth, meaning and breadth in my relationships, and quickly made a slight modification to my purpose…
To put 100% of myself and my effort into building immense value for humanity and connections that matter
In hindsight, I can see this was getting a little convoluted now. How can I say putting 100% of myself into two very different things? How do I split the 100%?
Despite this modification, it felt like there was still something missing.
I started my most recent venture, Artifix, on the premise that it’s at the intersection between my passion and my expertise. Artificial intelligence is my passion, problem solving in IT is my expertise. It felt like an epiphany. Now to be aligned with my purpose, I would commit 100% to this and work on it day in, day out. A week or two went by and I had made some progress, but nothing close to what I was capable of. I felt deflated. In my head, I was doing everything right. Living with purpose. Why wasn’t this motivating me to perform like it should? I had my “why“, wasn’t that all that mattered?
Somewhere in finding the meaning of life, I had gone wrong.
I had my first philosophical thoughts about life aged 11 on holiday with my family. I’ve read dozens of books such as Man’s Search for Meaning, On the Shortness of Life and Drive, had hundreds of conversations about it. All in all, I’ve spent thousands of hours deliberating on this profound question. Which is why it’s so ironic and amusing that what made the pin drop for me was watching Jupiter Ascending (a spectacularly average sci-fi movie…).
For some reason, this changed my perspective on things. In Jupiter Ascending, it turns out planet earth is just a giant farm. Human life was grown on earth by a superior life-form who run the Universe, just so that it could be harvested a few million years later. I.E. One day, the entirety of humanity is set to be wiped out and ‘harvested’.
Imagine that were true, and let it sink in for a moment. One day, some being outside our realm of reality will just flick a switch and that will be it. Our solar system is sucked into some kind of black hole and everything about humanity disappears for ever. What’s more, they’re most likely to flick the switch when the Earth is at it’s peak population, which may well happen in our lifetime. Or it could happen tomorrow.
What is the point of leaving a legacy? Before we’ve even made our legacy, earth might be wiped out. The whole of humanity could be destroyed tomorrow for all we know. What’s the point of creating societal value for humanity? What even is the point of creating any value for ourselves? Meaningful relationships?
And then came the epiphany.
The meaning of life, is to give life meaning.
The meaning of life is not something intellectual or answerable. There is no single meaning to life that fits everyone. In fact, I would argue the opposite. The meaning of life for every single person is unique. Just like their fingerprints or their DNA. The meaning of life isn’t to find a calling or purpose that relates to society as a whole. It’s just to give it whatever meaning you want.
The only place people go wrong with the meaning of life, is that they forget how every single day is valuable. Time, is all you have in life. Whatever you feel like doing in that time, go ahead and do it. Whether it’s sitting on the couch watching Netflix all day, or creating something new in the world. Either is fine if you are satisfied with that. There’s no need to work yourself like a dog, unless that’s what you want to be doing.
This epiphany has taken me full circle. From no meaning, to trying to find meaning, to no (set) meaning again. It gives me peace of mind that as long as I am meticulous with how I spend my time, my life is meaningful.
I choose to pursue creating new things in the world because that is what I like to spend my time doing. I choose to read new books every week because that is what I like to spend my time doing. And I choose to go out for dinner with friends who excite me, because that is what I like to spend my time doing.
What do you spend your time doing?
“It’s better to talk to 2 people ([experts]) than to buy 3 books” said Rytis Vitkauskas, Founder and CEO of YPlan in an interview with Brian Rose on Silicon Real. He’s right. A book may take several hours to read, whilst a 10 minute conversation with the author might teach you their entire concept. However, not every expert gets around to writing a book. People in your everyday life can be mini-experts too. As long as the person you’re talking to has greater expertise and experience than you, you should be able to learn from them.
Getting advice from other people is important for businesses. The leading global startup accelerator programme, Techstars, explain “Mentor Madness” is one of their accelerator’s biggest strengths. In Mentor Madness, startup founders are dumped into dozens of back-to-back meetings with mentors who give them advice on their startup. “Something magical happens when startups are exposed to a big surge in input from helpful individuals” says Keith Hopper, one of the mentors. Techstars has the figures to back this up. The companies they’ve funded are now collectively valued at over $4.4bn. It works.
So it’s really important to get advice. But the biggest challenge is knowing whether it’s good advice or bad advice. When should you take advice on board and when should you ignore it?
Asking for someone’s opinion on something almost always leads to bad advice. Mediocre at best. The problem with opinion is it tends to be vague and diluted in order to soften any harm to your ego. The best advice comes in the form of frameworks and thinking processes. An answer or opinion on something by itself is useless. It may or may not be right, but even if it is right, it only gives you a one-off solution. You haven’t improved your own ability to handle problems like that in future, so the benefit is entirely superficial. There’s that good old proverb:
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
The problem is, giving good advice is really hard. The brain is a summation of neural networks that we train over time. When we complete an action, for example, hitting a tennis ball with a racket, we build circuitry in our brain that allows us to repeat the action. The more we practice, the better the circuitry and the better we are at completing that action. But neural networks work like a black-box system. Over time, we build a system for handling input stimulus (tennis ball coming your way) to desired output action (hit the tennis ball back with the racket). The process for getting from input to output exists, but we don’t consciously understand it. It’s physically locked into our neurons. This is why it’s so hard to articulate and explain to someone how to hit a ball, without demonstrating the act itself.
It turns out there’s a nifty trick to getting great advice. An advice request is typically structured by explaining the problem you’re having, what your possible options are and asking the advisor which they think is best. You hope that they’ll recall all the similar situations and problems they’ve encountered in the past and somehow use this to give you the most insightful and helpful answer possible. But this is falling into a trap! You’re asking for an opinion and cornering your advisor.
The solution, rather, is to ask as follows: “How would you think about X?”.
For example, let’s say you’re looking to raise investment for your startup and you’re not sure whether you should be raising from angel investors, VCs, raising a seed round, raising a series A, etc.. Rather than specifically asking “should I raise from angel investors or VCs? Should it be seed or series A?”, instead ask “How would you think about raising investment for this business?”. The difference is subtle, but key. I guarantee the answer you get will be 100x more valuable. It’s all in the way you ask.
In this way, rather than going after a fish, you can get an education on how to fish. Unlocking how your advisor thinks, rather than what, is the key to getting outstanding advice that you can learn from. Instead of just solving your problem today, they’ll give you a framework for solving the 10 other similar problems you might face down the road.
An American businessman took a vacation to a small coastal Mexican village on doctor’s orders. Unable to sleep after an urgent phone call from the office the first morning, he walked out to the pier to clear his head. A small boat with just one fisherman had docked, and inside the boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.
“How long did it take you to catch them?” the American asked.
“Only a little while,” the Mexican replied in surprisingly good English.
“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” the American then asked.
“I have enough to support my family and give a few to friends,” the Mexican said as he unloaded them into a basket.
“But… What do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican looked up and smiled. “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Julia, and stroll into the village each evening, where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, señor.”
The American laughed and stood tall. “Sir, I’m a Harvard M.B.A. and can help you. You should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. In no time, you could buy several boats with the increased haul. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats.” He continued, “Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village, of course, and move to Mexico City, then to Los Angeles, and eventually New York City, where you could run your expanding enterprise with proper management.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, señor, how long will all this take?”
To which the American replied, “15-20 years. 25 tops”.
“But what then, señor?”
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions”.
“Millions, señor? Then what?”
“Then you would retire and move to a small coastal fishing village, where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos…”
I love this parable. It reminds us that money should not be the goal in itself. It is a tool and component in the lifestyle we design for ourselves. The sweet spot lies in focusing on how you spend your time, not money. Life should be about creating value for society without sacrificing improvement to your own physical, mental, emotional and material well-being.
There’s a well-known thought experiment: “How would you live right now if you knew that you had a disease that was going to kill you?”. You’d probably do a lot of things differently. But guess what, this isn’t just a thought experiment. You DO have a disease that’s going to kill you. You’re going to die. We’re all going to die. Our bodies degenerate day-by-day. At the end of life, is death. When you try to avoid this fact, you stop living. You just let yourself pass through life, slowly but surely, until death. Stop and realise this. Face the facts.
Steve Jobs knew this well:
“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
You’re probably thinking “wow, this has really made me think”.
So act on it. Do just what Steve Jobs did. You’re perfectly able to; it’s your life. Change something, today.
“Life’s a journey, not a destination”
The well known quote, repeated daily across the world… But is it true?
The 20th century birthed a mantra to treat life as a straight line from birth to ‘the end’. You’re born, you go to school, you go to secondary school, college, get a degree from university, get a job, get a promotion, get another promotion, and another, and another, retire, die. This sounds a lot like living for a ‘destination’ rather than a journey. More recently, however, we have evolved to understand that this is ludicrous. It makes no sense to live a life we don’t wish to live just for the hope that at some point when we’re old and rapidly degenerating we will be able to retire and reminisce on the wonderful life we have lived… (not). Life is about the journey. It must be fulfilling and enjoyable throughout, rather than preparing for an (anti-)climactic end. This improved model is generally a step in the right direction.
But there is a problem. What about goals and milestones? This model of a continuous journey removes the final milestone from the equation. Must we no longer celebrate the success of our lives? And without anything to aim for, how do you measure your progress and achievement? It’s like shooting a bow and arrow into a vacuum of space, a never-ending flight, rather than towards the centre of a bullseye target. What’s the point?
Let’s take the ‘micro-journey’ of developing your writing skills through blogging, for example. Ultimately, in order to succeed, you need to enjoy the very action of writing (the journey). However, it’s going to be near impossible to maintain in the long term unless you are somehow measuring your progress. Daniel Pink explains there are 3 ingredients to motivation. In order for you to be truly motivated, you must have autonomy, purpose and mastery. Provided you’ve ticked the boxes of autonomy (you are choosing when you write, how you write, what you write about etc.) and purpose (you have a good reason why you write), you need to tackle mastery.
Humans, by their very nature, crave feedback. It is impossible to know that you are mastering something without feedback. Feedback could be anything; complimentary comments from your readers or just the monthly number of readers your articles get. The latter, is a measureable quantity. Measurable quantities make for perfect goals. It’s hard to measure the success of a qualitative goal like “get a positive response from readers”, but it’s much easier to measure how many people read your article or how many people engaged on social media. If we don’t set milestones and goals, it’s really hard to measure our progress towards mastery.
And let’s be honest, can you imagine writing a blog article every week and not caring when you reached a million monthly readers? No, that feedback matters, and it’s worth celebrating.
Clearly, a balance between these two contrasting mantras is needed. Whilst the journey is where you spend most of your time, setting, hitting and celebrating goals gives you the feedback that pushes you to the next level. Whether it’s writing a blog, running a business or playing golf; immersing yourself in the journey of the activity and celebrating milestones are both equally crucial elements for progress.
In life, you’re repeatedly shooting your bow and arrow. So keep hitting the bullseye, and celebrating every time you do. But remember to enjoy the shooting along the way.
Computers solve problems using algorithms. These algorithms are step-by-step instructions for the computer to sequentially follow. Algorithms are used to process a set of inputs into a set of outputs. These algorithms are typically written line-by-line by computer programmers. But what if we don’t have the fundamental understanding of a problem to be able to write the algorithm to automate it?
For example, consider filtering spam emails from genuine emails. For this problem, we know the input (an email) and the output (identifying it as spam or genuine) but we don’t know how to define what actually classifies it as a spam email – we just use our intuition. This lack of logical understanding often arises when there is some intellectual human involvement in the problem we are trying to solve. In this example, the human involvement is that a human-being wrote the original spam email.
Similarly, humans are involved in handwriting recognition, interpreting words (language) and facial recognition. It is clear that these problems are something that our subconscious is able to handle effortlessly yet we don’t consciously understand the fundamentals of the process. On the other hand, for sequential logical tasks, like sorting a list alphabetically, we consciously understand the fundamental process and therefore can program a solution (algorithm). This isn’t possible for more complex tasks like spam, handwriting recognition and interpreting language.
Machine learning is what gives us the tools to solve these ‘black box’ problems. We know what goes in and what comes out, so we can reverse engineer a ‘black box’ model of how to get there.
“What we lack in knowledge, we make up for in data”.
Let’s go back to the spam example. Our goal is to be able to identify whether a new incoming email is genuine or spam. We can use a data set of millions of emails, some of which are spam, in order to ‘learn’ what defines a spam email. The learning principles are derived from statistical approaches to data analysis. In this way, we do not need to understand the process/understand why it’s spam, but we can construct an accurate and functional model (a ‘black box’) to approximate the process and identify what is spam. Whilst this doesn’t explain the why’s, it can identify some patterns and regularities that allow us to determine whether the email is genuine or spam. Problem solved.
Artificial intelligence was conceived in the mid-20th century but it was not until the 1980s that the more statistical branch, machine learning, began to separate off and become a field in its own right. Machine learning developed a scientific approach to solving problems of prediction and finding patterns in data. This quickly had value in industry which fuelled the academic exploration further. But entering the 21st century we have seen rapid rise in machine learning popularity. This is largely due to the emergence of large data sets and the demand for data mining processes to extract knowledge from them. Machine learning has since established itself as a leading field of computer science with applications ranging from detecting credit card fraud to medical diagnosis.
In this post I’ll reveal the only 2 possible outcomes of being more self-confident and how you can develop it (should you choose to do so…).
I am fortunate to have friends from many different backgrounds. One of the results of this diversity in my relationships is exposure to a vast spectrum of careers, lifestyles and aspirations. This got me thinking. Why do people have such different aspirations and ambitions?
Some argue that whilst many skills and qualities can be developed and nurtured, ambition is something that is more intrinsic and you simply cannot change. But I believe ambition comes down to self-confidence. The more self-confident you are; the more you believe in your own abilities and/or purpose and the more you feel capable of achieving (ambition).
So the question really is: can self-confidence be grown/developed? If so, maybe ambition can too.
Part of what has made me who I am today is my self-confidence. Here’s why. The two possible outcomes of self-confidence are you either actualise your belief (were right to be self-confident) or you fail to actualise your belief (were wrong to be self confident). If you actualise your belief, you succeed in completing some intended result. If you fail to, you learn from the experience and develop increased resilience and increased knowledge of that area. In my view, both these outcomes are beneficial.
So if there’s no downside, how do you get some of this?
I’ve found that self-confidence comes from putting yourself outside of your comfort zone. If you literally prove yourself capable of doing things you were afraid of, i.e. do the hard things, you will inevitably build your confidence in taking on new challenges in future. So whilst there is no cushy shortcut to self-confidence, it is nonetheless attainable.
If you’re looking to get started, I highly recommend Julien Smith’s ‘The Flinch’ (click for free ebook) for inspiration. Think about what you’re afraid of right now. What’s holding you back? Now instead of flinching away, go towards it. It is only when we put ourselves outside our comfort zone that we may grow as individuals.
1. Stop forgetting what you read
Recognition and recall are two different levels of learning. When you are trying to learn something, your goal is obviously to be able to recall it when necessary. However, you may be misfiring by passively learning the material, allowing you to recognise it but not recall it.
The solution is questions. Rather than taking notes on a lecture/book/other source which summarise the content, take notes which just ask questions. e.g. for this section of the article, you could write: Q: What are the different levels of learning? A: Recognition and recall. Try this as you read a book, for example. Then skip back to the questions from previous chapters as you go along, trying to answer them. I guarantee you will forever be able to recall more relevant information from that book than any you’ve ever read before.
2. What matters more, method or motivation?
Obviously motivation… right? If you’re highly motivated to read something, you’re going to learn it better…? Wrong. Scientific studies have compared those who were motivated to learn something to those who were not. One group learnt via process A and one group learnt via process B. There was no difference between those who were motivated and weren’t motivated, but there was significant difference between those who studied with a different (better) process. (Hyde & Jenkins, 1969)
So what is the best process? There are many different processes that encourage a deeper level of learning. Copying out material word for word is NOT one of them. However, effective paraphrasing is. An effective note-taking learning process is reading/observing the material and then rewriting it in your own words completely, from memory.
3. Learn backwards
Take the tests first, then learn the material. You will probably get an awful score, but you will have gauged a point to start on. You may discover that you already know some of the material and can remove that from your learning tasks completely. You also now know the exact level of detail that you need to study and what kind of questions are likely to be asked.
This can be applied broadly to more than just exams/classes. For example, learning a new skill. Put yourself in a usage situation before you’ve studied anything yet. If you’re learning a new programming language, attempt to write a basic program in the code before you start learning the basics of the language. Or if you’re learning a new speaking language, put yourself in a conversation with someone who is fluent with Google Translate as a backup.
4. Learn to focus
Focus is like a muscle. You increase your ability to focus by exercising your focus regularly, just like you exercise your muscles at the gym. Some people may inherently have a better focus (or physique), but by going to the (focus)-gym everyone can get to an athletic level. One way of exercising this is through meditation.
Good focus requires effective scheduling. For effective scheduling, you need to schedule both the times you’ll be working and the times you won’t be working. If you don’t schedule the latter, your brain will do it for you in the form of procrastination and distractions. If you schedule to take the whole of Saturday and Sunday off, you will sure be working hard Mon-Fri. For breaks in between work, it’s important to do something that is LESS interesting/fun than the work itself. For example, getting a drink or taking a walk. If you do something MORE interesting/fun, it will be much harder to get back to work. Structured smart breaks like these actually increase your ability to focus when you’re working.
5. Learn subjects above your level
Trying to learn something above your level can make you feel stupid. You may find it really hard to grasp the content whilst others around you find it easy.
The truth is, a subject is only hard if you are missing some of the pieces. So, the way to make any subject easy is to break it down, find all of the pieces and learn each of them one at a time. Technically you could learn rocket science without knowing basic algebra first, if you break it down into every individual piece. This would take considerable time for such a complex topic, but is simply the necessary process.
Once you’ve established this, no subject is too hard to learn. The challenge may be daunting, but if you a) break down the subject into chunks and b) learn each individual chunk fully with active (recall) learning methods, you can master any subject.
6. Why do some skills/memories deteriorate whilst others last a lifetime
In 10 years time, how much of your last class do you think you’ll remember? That’s pretty scary… Your degree seems to have a practical expiry date.
Studies have shown that even the top students have the exact same rate of knowledge decline as bottom students for university courses (Hall & Bahrick, 1991).
So what determines whether your knowledge will deteriorate or remain? Taking a subject further to greater depths has shown that the more basic concepts are retained for longer. I.E. Overlearn. Overlearning may not produce measurable improvement in a subject (if you’re already at 100%), but it will increase the length of time you retain the information. e.g. If you always want to remember algebra, study calculus. If you always want to remember basic programming, study advanced programming.
This article was based on ideas from Scott Young (see here). Subscribe to this marvellous man’s blog.
Food for thought for ‘big organisation’ interviewers/recruiters
Competency questions are ineffective during job interviews. This results in a) bad use of your time when trying to assess candidates and b) stopping you from selecting the best candidates.
By asking competency questions at interview, you are assessing the following:
- How well can the candidate predict the competency questions I’m going to ask?
- How well has he or she memorised their answers/examples?
- How much time has the candidate put into preparing for the interview?
I believe that none of these are relevant assessments of how effective a candidate will be in an actual role.
Don’t get me wrong, competency questions are a great way to learn about the relevant skills, experiences and behaviours a candidate possesses. That’s why you should ask them on an application form. But keep them there. Don’t carry them over into in-person interviews.
Instead, I propose that you ask more of your competency questions on the written application form to learn about your candidates en-masse. Then, you do not need to interview as many, as you can eliminate more in advance. This in turn allows you to interview successful candidates for longer and get to know them as individuals. If you can get to know a candidate’s individual motivations and values, you are far more likely to select more effectively.