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Being ready to die, he was more likely to live

28-Jan-10

Last night I attended my first kendo class. As a beginner, I felt clumsy and awkward as I tried to coordinate my footwork, proper holding of the shinai, and basic overhead strikes. And awed as I watched the senior members of the club do some free sparring toward the end of class. I am looking forward to continued training and learning this very cool art.

Kendo – the way of the sword – is a martial art based on kenjutsu, the traditional Japanese swordmanship practiced by the samurai.  As a sport, kendo obviously has taken away the lethal aspects of the art, but the spirit of the art remains. Success in kendo competition requires much the same commitment as that required by the samurai. George Leonard describes this commitment in his book Way of Aikido, The: Life Lessons from an American Sensei:

Long and arduous training contributed to the samurai’s presence and clarity in combat, but there was also another key factor: The samurai had to be totally free of considerations. If, for example, he was to think, “Why didn’t I have my sword sharpened?” or “I should have settled my debt with Takeda-san,” the break in ki would be fatal. The ultimate consideration is one’s own death. For the thought “I might die” to creep into his consciousness would mean sure death. That’s why the samurai was trained from earliest childhood to go into battle with no thought of either life or death. Being ready to die, he was more likely to live.

Having just read Seth Godin’s Linchpin, I can’t help seeing many parallels between the training of the samurai and what Seth is urging us to do in our own lives. For example, to be “free of considerations” is to keep the “lizard brain” at bay. Focusing on doing our work, on sharing our art, without regards to any rewards – though far from “being ready to die” – allows us to perform at out best. As Seth says in Linchpin:

The reason you might choose to embrace the artist within you now is that this is the path to (cue the ironic music) security. When it is time for layoffs, the safest job belongs to the artist, the linchpin, the one who can’t be easily outsourced or replaced.

Are you “ready to die” as you set out to change the world?

Uncertainty is far more challenging

27-Jan-10

In How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom, former world chess champion Gary Kasparov discusses the challenges of solving “puzzles”:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis forming?”

This is the future work. As Harold Jarche mentions in his recent post A Linchpin Culture (in which he discusses Seth Godin‘s latest book):

The work that we will be paid for is the difficult, innovative, one of a kind, creative stuff…. We will be facing more complexity and chaos in our work. There are fewer easy answers, easy jobs with good pay, or simple ways to keep a job for life.

Solving a puzzle that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Figuring out if there is a solution to a problem, or even if there is a problem at all, requires the manipulation of existing knowledge, the gathering of new knowledge / information, and the creation of something new.

In other words, it requires art.

James Gleick’s “Isaac Newton” a great introduction

26-Jan-10

After reading Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle, I became very interested to learn more about some the historical figures around whom the story revolved – Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, John Wilkens, Christopher Wren, …, and Isaac Newton, the founders and early members of the Royal Society. Given my interest in physics, optics, and math, especially Isaac Newton.

Fortunately for me, James Gleick‘s biography of Newton, simply titled Isaac Newton, was published earlier that year (2003). Gleick was not new to me – both Chaos: Making a New Science and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, have a place on my bookshelves – so I had high hopes for his biography of Newton. I was not disappointed.

Chances are you’ve heard of Isaac Newton, if for nothing else than the fact that he came up with the idea of gravity when he saw an apple fall from a tree. (Which, by the way, is a vast oversimplification.) You may have even heard of his 3 laws of motion or that he invented – some might say discovered – the calculus. You may even think that he invented calculus so he could figure out his laws of motion. (As it turns out, he used geometry.)

Newton didn’t actually publish – or care to publish – his work in mathematics, or anything else, until someone else published similar work. Unlike the rest of the fellows of the Royal Society, who were interested in sharing their new found knowledge as much as possible, Newton experimented and discovered and wrote to satisfy his own curiosity, not that of anyone else.  Only in the very recent past have the many documents of Newton come to light, and it is through these many documents that Gleick tells this unique story of arguably the greatest mind ever.

Considering the subject, the book is relatively short with just under 200 pages of main text and about 50 pages of notes. It is a pretty quick read, though I did find that flipping back and forth to the end notes tended to slow me down. And if you are looking for detailed discussion and analysis of the actual content of Newton’s various writings, this is not your book.

If, however, you want to gain an understanding of what drove Newton, of why he wanted to figure things out, and get a glimpse into his incredible mind, this is an excellent book with which to begin.

A tale of two trainers (in which one is a factory worker and the other an artist)

25-Jan-10

The following descriptions are of two personal trainers who provide training to their clients using equipment and methods based on the work of Joseph Pilates.

Trainer 1:

Received training from one school. Her approach to training:

This is the way I learned it, this is the way I’m teaching it to you. Don’t question me, don’t ask for anything. Just sit down, shut up, and do what I tell you. If you don’t get anything out of this training session, it’s not my fault; I’m following the training guide.

Trainer 2:

Actively sought training from several schools. The guidance from these different schools are often contradictory, sometimes explicitly contradictory: “That school does x, and we never ever do x.” She ignores these warnings, seeing how x from one school and y from another school can work together to provide something even better. Her approach to training:

What are you trying to achieve with this training? Is there anything you really want to do? Is their anything that you can’t do or don’t want to do? Let me know if something doesn’t feel right or is too easy/hard. How was that workout? Next week we’ll try this and see if it works better for you.

Which trainer would you rather have? Which would you go back to?

The end of my beginning

22-Jan-10

Today is an interesting day for me. It is the first day that I am living beyond the age that my dad was when he died. Although I don’t feel old – and my kids would tell you I don’t act old, or at least not my age – knowing that I have now outlived my dad brings things into a different kind of focus.

I’m happy with my life, my work, my family. I’m not going to go out and make any drastic changes. But I will look at each day just a little bit differently, knowing that each day is a gift for me to enjoy, and make the most of  it.

I hope you’ll do the same.

Dissatisfied? Dan Pink tells you why, Seth Godin tells you what you can do about it

21-Jan-10

In his new book, Drive, author Dan Pink talks about what really motivates us, the “instrinsic drive” that we want to – but don’t always – follow. He describes the three pillars of this instrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. These three, working in concert, provide the foundation for satisfaction, and if any of these are missing, or are somehow externally constrained, chances are you are unhappy to some degree. This applies to the job that you hate, or the relationship you are “stuck in”. (On the flip side, if you are happy in your job – or relationship – chances are you have an adequate amount of all three.)

In his new book, Linchpin, author Seth Godin tells you that your happiness is entirely up to you. You can be a “factory worker” – where you give up your autonomy, opportunity for mastery, and work to achieve someone else’s purpose – or you can be an artist – where you practice autonomy, master what it is you are doing, and work to your own purpose. And while many authors will tell you how to go about this by “planning your career” or finding the “ideal job”.  Godin tells you that you can achieve this without changing jobs. It is your choice: artist or factory worker.

Taken together, these two books can give you a powerful insight into what you are dissatisfied with in your life and your work, why you are dissatisfied, and what you can do about it. All you have to do is figure out what you want to be, a factory worker or an artist.

Me? I choose art.

Seth Godin wants you to become indispensable

20-Jan-10

When I was young, I went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark with my mom. At the conclusion of the opening sequence, as Indy’s escape plane flies away, my mom leaned over and said, “Oh my God. Is the whole movie going to be like this?” I had a very similar feeling when – on page 20 of his new book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?Seth Godin asks the reader for “one last favor before you start…”

“Before I start? Is the rest of the book going to be like this?!?”

Divided into 13 chapters, each chapter is made up of a large number of small sections, very few of which are longer than a page; one section clocked in at just one word (even though the section title is 52 words long). Though related to the chapters that hold them, these little sections seem almost like a stream of consciousness of questions and answers, insights and mandates. To risk another pop-culture metaphor, I felt at times like I was inside a Robin Williams improv routine; as soon as one idea comes out, another is liberated and thrown out into the mix.

I like this book. Or, more accurately, I like the ideas in this book. On my first read through the book I chose to dog-ear pages instead of my usual of writing in the margins. This picture shows the results of my dog-ears.

In just over 200+ pages, Seth Godin asks, explores, and answers many of the ideas questions that have been on my mind lately, especially as it relates to work and the possibility of work as art. I’ve been considering this not just for myself but for my sons, one a junior and the other a senior in high school. This book is a must read for anyone considering their own future, or what to tell their kids about how they can live their own lives.

There are many themes and ideas within this book that different people will lock onto. I have the feeling that I will be exploring the ideas in the book for many weeks to come. For me, though, the two that jumped out were the discussions of “Indoctrination: How we got here” and “The Resistance”.

The former explains how we have all – or nearly all – become “factory workers” and compares this with what we are capable of – art. The latter exposes the “scaredy cat” (my term, not his) inside our brains – our lizard brains. This part of our brain was very effective – and very essential – in our survival and evolution, but now is getting in our way. The key to overcoming any adversary is a knowledge of that adversary, and he gives us an excellent understanding of this particular one.

Earlier I mentioned an especially short section with an unusually long section title. As it turns out, that section – title and all – really sums up the entire book for me:

“Wait! Are You Saying That I Have to Stop Following Instructions and Start Being an Artist? Someone Who Dreams Up New Ideas and Makes Them Real? Someone Who Finds New Ways to Interact, New Pathways to Deliver Emotion, New Ways to Connect? Someone Who Acts Like a Human, Not a Cog? Me?”

Yes.

By the time you finish reading Linchpin, you will believe that you can do all of this. All you have to do, as Seth reminds us again and again, is to make the choice.