General thoughts

Interview with Oleksandr Albul

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In all the busyness of my life, traveling all over the world, one of the most important things I do is to stop and sit quietly. There are many techniques of doing this but ultimately it’s about the control of your breathing. This is a yogic discipline with origins in ancient India, called Prāṇāyāma.

In Sanskrit this is written as राणायाम and is composed from two Sanskrit words: prāṇa meaning life force (the Chinese call it ‘chi’, the Polynesians ‘mana’, the Native Americans ‘orenda’, and the ancient Germans ‘od’), and either yama (to restrain or control the prāṇa, implying a set of breathing techniques where the breath is intentionally altered in order to produce specific results) or the negative form ayāma, meaning to extend or draw out (as in extension of the life force).

When I’m using my Android phone, I use an app called ‘Prana Breath’ (there are iOS apps with similar titles). Prana Breath was developed by a Ukranian Android Developer called Oleksandr Albul.

Prana Breath

I contacted Oleksandr to see if he would be willing to answer a few questions on behalf of the Thought Expansion Network. I was delighted when he said yes! Here’s what he had to say:

1. What inspired you, or motivated you, to do what you do?

When I was at school, at the University, at the job as an employee, people were always telling me what to do. I felt pretty stressed! Now, as I am self-employed, I feel very motivated to do what I always wanted – to create high-quality programmes. And as I do breathing exercises a few years in a row, I decided to make it easier for myself as well as for other practitioners with the Android app I named Prana Breath. I keep being inspired to improve it because of the feedback I get from users, and because of my own daily practice, so I have a big “to implement list”.

2. Do you feel that mindfulness is needed in modern life?

I think mindfulness is one of the most important things for happiness in modern life. I think nearly every human being has the “inner radio” constantly broadcasting in his head. And this mess of random thoughts does not increase our effectiveness, but take away our energy, and does not let us concentrate on what we do or what we truly feel. That’s why there are so many people, lucky people, who have plenty of tasty food, comfortable shelter and interesting communication, but are resentful and unhappy. We just can’t realize stop their own hurricane of thoughts and look around at the beauty of Nature and acknowledge how gifted we are to live.

When it gets too overwhelming, we usually name it as “stress”, and try to get rid of it in the easiest and the most available for the moment way: smoking, drinking, or taking a bubble bath. Some of those ways are healthy, and some are killing, some are regular for us, and some are unwanted. That’s exactly what I like about breathing gymnastics – it’s easy, healthy, and takes a little time to work. And the greatest thing for me – it stops this molesting “inner radio” and gives that feeling of inner peace.

3. What are your greatest hopes for the future of humanity?

My greatest hope for the future of humanity is the education. Education that will allow everyone to realize oneself as the creator of his/her life since the very childhood, and will make a word “responsibility” sound not pestered and annoying, but admired and inspiring. Education that will develop the personality with the taste to creating but not only consuming, with the perception that everything is connected in the world, and together as the one we can do so many incredible things for fun and for thriving of the life!

4. What are your greatest fears about the future of humanity?

The thing that scares me the most about our future is the high-techs taking over the humanity. That would be so tragic if we give up our thinking potential to the physical comfort if we rely on robots to spend more time searching for new dummy amusements. Especially if the new generation is raised with the attitude that it’s alright. This way humans can become nothing more than operating personnel. As I see it, that’s not an extraordinary fear – there are lots of books and films about that.

5. If we could all learn one thing from your experience, what would that one thing be?

If you have an idea that you consider brilliant, if you have a passion for it so you think about it day and night – just do the first step, then second and third! No matter if there are many familiar things at the market or your friends make fun of you – do what you want to do! If you succeed – you will be proud, if you fail – you’ll be experienced.

Thank you again to Oleksandr for giving the time for this, I’m very grateful not only for your contribution but also for Prana Breath that enables some of the silence in my life.

Let us not fight hate with hate

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It’s all kicking off on my social media channels. One contact of mine has unfriended “dozens of people” and another has posted a vitriolic video full of venom. A school teacher friend of mine tells me of children hurling racist abuse in the playground at other children of any ethnicity, Irish to Italian. The shopping centre seem tense, the queue for the car park seems slightly more stressed than usual, and every conversation is populated with one question: “What did you think of the result?”

This is not a post to discuss what happened in the European Referendum on the 23rd June 2016, instead this is a post to describe a personal observation in the wake of the voting result itself where the UK population said it preferred to leave the EU rather than remain part of it.

Back in 2011 I wrote a a piece entitled “A Sect Cannot Be Destroyed By Cannonballs” which addressed the tendency to attack the alleged sources of violence with a similar style of attack, and the theory that this approach was probably the least effective. The post was pretty popular, in fact Stephen Fry retweeted it which sent hundreds of thousands of people to my site and crashed the page. He has apologised many times since; unwarranted. Unfortunately however, the post mainly landed on deaf ears and the same activity continues to this day, fighting fire with fire and hate with hate.

What I’m noticing now, following the EU Referendum result, is a similar tendency to attack those who voted in a certain way, with a level of contempt that I fear shows a dark undercurrent to our human nature. Whilst I absolutely understand what it is like to feel aggrieved that a decision didn’t go in the way one would have hoped, what I find harder to understand is how this level of contempt is likely to bring about any positive change, if that is indeed what the purveyors of this contempt desire.

And to that point, is it definitely the case that those who show contempt at others who disagree, want positive change? I ask because those who are currently very loud, seemed awfully quiet in advance of the voting. Surely if the passion is so strong after the results, the passion would have been there in advance?

Why did the current armchair experts not share their wisdom with the voting public in advance of the vote, so as to avoid a decision they would dislike?

I don’t know the answers, but I do believe that a democratic decision typically requires:

A) Our ability to have a say – E.G. a vote

B) Our personal accountability in understanding (as best we can), the contexts within which we have the ability to have a say – E.G. learning as much as possible about what’s going on and what it means

And in addition to these requirements I believe we should add a third point:

C) Our respect for the outcome and the human beings that may have voted in a different way than ourselves

This point isn’t anything other than a basic human right, yet much of the hatred that is being slung around the web at the time of writing is everything other than basic human rights.

Yes, I get that people are angry. Yes, I understand that people are fearful of the future…but I have to make it absolutely clear that there is one sure-fire way of zero progress being made, and that is to attack each other.

If we really want to unite and work together, we really need to start acting like it. I don’t just mean the media channels that throw emotive headlines at us to allegedly trick us into making bad decisions, I include all the people in our social timelines who are mud-slinging.

I mean you, your friends, your families, your colleagues. I mean every single one of us. We all have the opportunity to collaborate and build better, but oftentimes our default reaction is still to pick up the nearest stone and throw it at someone else’s head. So much for progress 🙂

Let us not lower ourselves to a common denominator of playground bullying.

Let us rise up and take whatever challenges we face, together not apart.

Let us remain positive in the face of negativity and seek solutions rather than rally around problems.

Let us not fight hate with hate.

Jonathan MacDonald, Sunday 26th June 2016

The Real Reality

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I’m fascinated by the way our brains actually operate, generating thoughts that generate our framework of what we call reality. I first became interested with the way we think when I studied Social Biology at college many years ago. This fascination never relented.

Interestingly, it takes around half a second for something to happen and our brain then experiencing it. In that time there’s a lot of processing that happens where the brain is essentially constructing a story. This story, not the thing that happened, becomes our reality. Different for everyone and, in fact, meaning that we’re all living in the past by about half a second.

Our brains have far more input on what we experience than our senses provide. For example, when we see something in front of us, there’s actually far less traffic coming inbound to our brain than there is coming outbound from our expectations. These expectations make up what is called our “internal model”.

A clear example of this is what happens when we look at something. Our eyes aren’t remotely stable, they move 4 times a second. What’s actually happening is what you can recreate by filming something with a really shaky hand! But we think we’re seeing things in a really stable way. This is because our internal model is imagining what we’re seeing. The visual cortex sends information to the thalamus and the thalamus compares those to what’s coming in through the eyes. The difference between the two is sent back and updates the internal model – our reality of expectations.

This impacts everything about us, from our identity to our aspirations in life. We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. It is tempting to assume that we get more wise, but what’s happening is that our internal model is getting more established. It isn’t necessarily better, it’s just been modified more. Our memories change as our internal model changes over time. Memory is therefore exceptionally unreliable as it is remarkably changeable. Our continual narrative gets updated and in turn, what we remember and what we think is re-shaped dynamically due to experiences which have their own significant challenges.

This is because our human biology severely limits what we experience. We only pick up one ten trillionth of the spectrum of frequencies that are running through us. In terms of sight, this is the visual spectrum of colour – again, something that doesn’t exist in the world, only in our heads. Other organisms have increased sensitivity on other parts of the spectrum, and this is scientifically down to how everything evolves.

In terms of time, our experience is not remotely linear and differs dependant on experience. Try and think of an experience, perhaps a bad one, that seemed to take ages. Or maybe a good one that went by too fast.

This time distortion actually happens in retrospect. It is a trick our brain plays. The memory of an experience expands the storyline and thus, the memory of something taking much longer, or shorter, appears real when we speak of it after the event. This could be ‘immediately’ (meaning at least half a second afterwards), or at a later date. Either way it’s a retrospective story that has been biologically invented.

Scientifically, we are controlled solely by our thoughts, for better or worse.

Reality is, in fact, whatever our brain tells us it is.

Expansion of Thought to Unlock Success

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Bill Gates once said: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” I’ve learned the hard way that this statement is true. Of the many ventures I’ve founded over the years, three of which worked pretty well and four that were outrageously unsuccessful, the main learning and insight has come from what I did wrong rather than right.

One of the biggest problems I suffered from was past successes that, in my opinion at the time, almost guaranteed future gain. In reality, this delusion was dangerous as it caused a significant reduction of thought, and to paraphrase Lao Tzu, this is a major issue as our thoughts determine our destiny by becoming our words, actions, habits and character.

Over time I’ve realised that the starting point of success is from our ability to expand the way we think. Figuratively, our thoughts can be prison guards, travel agents, defence attorneys or sports coaches. Our thoughts create our hopes and our fears. Our thoughts control our perception of everything that we call reality. Therefore we can expand our chances of success in all walks of life by expanding the way we think.

In contrast, one of the most common issues I sense, in personal and professional contexts, is a lack of awareness of what is happening around us. This lack of consciousness is one of the primary culprits in failure. Humans are exceptionally bad at making rational decisions and even worse at being curious in the first place. It’s not our fault per se, our minds are wired with heuristics and biases that skew reasoning, and our lives are full of information that we try and filter on a constant basis. This has been accelerated by the sheer volume of digital connections that generate news feeds, blog posts, tweets, status updates, likes, pings, alerts, and messages every minute of every day. Our lives are full of noise and it is increasingly hard to work out what our signal is.

So, what tends to happen is that we pre-determine what we view as pertinent and disregard the rest. We limit our curiosity as it takes up valuable time that we could use for comforting ourselves with familiar thinking. Paradoxically we limit our expansion of thought as a way of being efficient, despite the fact that limiting our expansion of thought will directly impact our ability to grow and succeed.

Not everyone falls into this trap. The winners in life and in business have a curiosity and flexibility that I find very alluring. And so, without wishing to argue against Bill Gates, it would seem that success can sometimes be a lousy teacher, but ultimately it is down to whether we personally choose to expand our thinking and unlock potential. Our thinking is our own teacher first and foremost, and from our thoughts onward, our destiny is determined.

Human Versus Machine

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In 1996, World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was undoubtedly the most famous chess player in the world. On February 10th of the same year, in Philadelphia, following many months of reminding the public of his supreme dominance, he sat down to face an opponent called ‘Deep Blue’.

This wasn’t an ordinary opponent of course, this was a computer created by IBM and considered in those days to be the most advanced computer in the world. The idea was to have 6 chess games in total – the winner of the match having the majority of victories. On the machine side there was a team of chess experts and programmemers manually altering the software between the games. On Kasparov’s side he only had his IQ of 190. In this match Kasparov won 4–2. Following this triumph of human versus machine, Kasparov wasn’t slow in coming forward as to his secret for success. “I knew enough to put the computer in misery”, he claimed to NewsWeek in May that year.

At the same time, the IBM team went back to the drawing board. They felt that their machine was sub-optimal and if they could work hard for many months, using the increasingly powerful computer capability they had, they could potentially win. They installed a Grandmaster player as part of the team, a guy called Joel Benjamin, who was basically there to constantly challenge the new versions of the machine. After several months, Grandmaster Benjamin stated that, “When I play the machine now, I can no longer use an anti-computer strategy to pick apart its weaknesses, that’s why I feel it has a real chance to win.” Kasparov was told about this statement in the NewsWeek interview and had a fairly blunt response. “This is crap.”

The following year a re-match was announced and on the 3rd May 1997 in New York, the human/machine battle was re-surfaced in the same format of 6 games. The first game was won by Kasparov in 45 moves, however it was the 44th move that lingered in Kasparov’s mind. Despite his victory, he couldn’t work out why a computer would have made the move it did. He attributed the counterintuitive play to “superior intelligence” and this concerned him greatly leading into the second game the following day. Many years after, the full truth came out – but we’ll get to that later.

This second game on the 4th May 1997 was to become the most famous chess games in history. The game progressed on a fairly even level until one particular move by Deep Blue which repositioned one of the bishops to the square ‘e4’. At that point, the blatantly obvious moves available were to take several pawns off the table and attack Kasparov’s queen. The actual chosen move however, was a move that no human would have been able to conceive, unless they were able to process 200 million combinations every second, which sadly for Kasparov the new and improved Deep Blue could do easily.

With the 44th move of the previous day playing on his mind constantly, Kasparov gradually broke down and, over the next set of moves, became increasingly upset with himself and the entire process. Eventually he resigned the game and accused IBM of cheating. His on-going mood negatively impacted the remaining 4 games and he eventually lost the entire match. The machine had beaten the human.

Following this, Kasparov was very public about his claims that IBM had cheated in some way. He demanded the log files of every decision, stating that, “A computer wouldn’t have made moves like that”.

During the remainder of the year, in the face of public claims of his demise, Kasparov became more and more interested in the human versus machine subject and he invested heavily into something he termed “Advanced Chess”. This was a new version of chess that allowed human players to use a computer as an assistant.

Over time, Advanced Chess had an offspring called “Freestyle Chess”. This version meant that you could use multiple people and multiple computer programmes against your opponent. The “player” was called a “centaur” and, as it happens, in 2014 the Freestyle Chess champion was a centaur named “Intagrand” made up of a team of British players and numerous software applications.

Throughout many matches, the results clearly showed that centaurs were far more successful than only a human, or only a machine. It turned out that the most optimal combination is both, rather than one or the other.

I am fascinated by this progress and I monitor it closely. Not necessarily because I’m really into chess, but instead because I look at this situation and wonder how it could impact other sports and, in fact, other industries. To this end, I’ve written about my concept of Super Olympics in “28 Thoughts On Digital Revolution”, explaining my theory that athletes could use any augmentation they like. A bionic arm for a discus thrower, or maybe zoom-able contact lenses for the rifle shooters?

But how about if human/machine augmentation could positively impact how surgery is carried out in hospitals? How about the beneficial impact in piloting airlines? The educational impact on school teachers? Or maybe Judges in a court of law? All of these professions could potentially benefit from machine assistance that knows everything that has happened before, everything that is happening now and the probabilities of everything that is yet to come – in addition to the human nuances. If it really is the case that a combination of humans and machinery provides the most beneficial outcomes, surely there is a major opportunity in almost every industry vertical?

On one hand this provides a huge potential set of disruptions, but conversely it shows where the major innovations could happen. In reality though, most would observe this story as one about chess. It requires a step-change in thought expansion to translate it across to other areas. This is what many leading innovators do. They can see the developments in one sector and conceptualise the benefit in others.

But, going back to the 3rd May 1997, the twist in the tale is this: the 44th move that day was actually a randomly generated move. The senior programmemer of Deep Blue, many years later admitted that the machine could not work out the next best move, so it took one at random. This was a bug in the software. A flaw rather than a feature. Of all the things Kasparov had considered when playing a computer, this was not one of them.

The reason that disruptors can fundamentally re-define market places is because they are able to think expansively. The reason Kasparov lost was due to his inability to do so. Kasparov was a victim of limited thought. That’s what lost him the game. He interpreted the stimulus, incorrectly reasoned the logic and inadvertently reached conclusions that cost him his crown. Literally and metaphorically.

I truly believe that there are multitudes of opportunities of success, however we define it, provided that we’re able to expand the way we think about the concepts and the contexts we come in contact with.

Your Days Are Numbered

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ave you ever wished there were more hours in the day to get things done?

Have you ever wondered where you will find the time to read the books that people have suggested to you?

How about the gym membership you bought at the start of the year that is yet to be used?

If any of these ring even slightly true, I’d say you are in a vast majority.

The most common thought around today in relation to this, is that our lives have never been busier. However, it is hard to find any scientific evidence of this. It is certainly true there is a deluge of distraction around us, caused by the capability and affordability of technology, but the busyness we now have could arguably just be the modern version of the busyness of old.

Centuries ago the busyness was far more involved in survival in many ways. From diseases to warfare, the olden days were riddled with a different range of activities that most certainly didn’t promote a high degree of comfort for many people. However, it is sadly not the case that everyone has an easier life today, in fact the level of poverty in the western world is at a surprisingly high level, but then again, so is our increasing life expectancy.

Mathematically we’ve never had more time on our hands, so why is it so common for us to feel that we don’t?

Recently I was facilitating a workshop in London to a range of business executives and the final question I was asked was this:

“I manage a group of people who constantly complain that they don’t have enough time in their lives. What can I do about this?”

My answer was pretty much the following and you can perhaps apply it yourself or to your team:

With any question regarding a limited resource, the starting point is to accept that the resource, time in this case, is limited. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to intentionally avoid a school of thought (which I have some allegiance to) that would argue that time is an artificial construct and all that exists is the moment.

The starting point of acceptance is easy to describe yet sometimes tough to properly digest.

On my 42nd birthday I held a party that I called “15330”. This was simply a calculation of 42 years x 365 days. My attitude to life is structured around the days I’ve been alive and the probability of the number of days I have remaining. For the record, I have decided that I now have fewer days left than I’ve been alive – and I don’t mean to sound negative about that and I’d be delighted if it isn’t the case! Whatever the reality becomes, I can’t guess what will happen in the next few minutes, let alone the next day, week, month or year, so I attempt to live each day as if it is very much numbered. This isn’t to justify acting with reckless abandon (well, sometimes!), but it is to create a personal mindset that every day is drawing from a limited resource.

When a contact of mine asks me about a decision they need to make, I often refer to the options available in the amount of days. For example, to answer a question about whether to commit to something for the next 18 months of a remaining 10 year career span, I would point out that approximately 547 days out of the next 3650 isn’t necessarily a massive investment numerically. 2000 would be higher, right? Of course we need to take into account other factors such as whether the decision would potentially improve career opportunities etc, but in general I believe it is healthy to add the numerical perspective to the mix. An alternative view is that 3650 is already relatively small number in relation to a perceived lifespan, so investing 547 is a hefty price and would need to super-charge the remaining 1453 to really make sense.

Now we’ve appreciated that time is a limited resource, the next step is to work out how much time is spent on things.

If you work out how much time you spend on social media, commuting, checking emails, at the gym, watching TV, spending time with loved ones, eating, sleeping and so forth, you can plot this into a simple spreadsheet and ask, “What does 24 hours look like in my life?”

The final step is to then assign a priority to each thing. Personally I use 3 levels:

Priority 1: Need to have – things I absolutely must do otherwise I am unable to live, without which my mental and physical health would be in danger

Priority 2: Nice to have – things that fundamentally fulfil my mind, body and soul, without which it would be harder to achieve real happiness, however my mental and physical health would not be critically at risk without them

Priority 3: Noisy to have – things that I do that don’t necessarily fulfil me in a fundamental way but I feel I should do for one reason or another

You can choose your own priority levels, however I’d advise that one of the levels is linked to what is mission critical (e.g. my Priority 1). Now the analysis of your day is complete and you may be able to see a pattern. If, for example, your day is mostly Priority 3, this may well be having an impact on your happiness and health.

I believe that the time that could be used doing more productive and fulfilling things can be found in the Priority 3 camp. Sure, some of those things are necessary because of various obligations, but are there some things in there that could be reduced?

When the question was asked in the workshop, I asked the gentleman whether his team spent a lot of time on social media? He said “Yes, they are always on Facebook or something similar”. My short answer was that this could be the area where a time saving could be made. I gave an example that shaving 25 minutes a day off noisy activities could find over 12 hours each month for more meaningful ones. However, everyone is different and some may find it absolutely critical to spend time laughing at cats!

I’m not judging what fits into which priority, but I’d highly recommend trying out this approach to see whether you really are short of time, or whether you have a prioritisation issue that you can absolutely rectify if you wish. In my life I have found this to have a major impact in my productivity and happiness. I hope you do too, after all, your days are numbered.

Unlocking Advanced Innovation

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Over the last few decades in business I’ve seen many companies come and go. I’ve been on the frontline of hugely disruptive innovations and also the founder of several innovative startups, most of which were spectacularly, and sometimes painfully, unsuccessful. Throughout all this experience, when it comes to innovation, there is a common trait that separates those who compete normally and those who appear to have an unfair competitive advantage. That trait is the ability to elevate their perspective of the business they are actually in and then innovate like crazy within the broadened view.

From observation I’d say that the primary opportunities for innovation within any market are limited by the business you perceive yourself to be in. For example, Nokia had the slogan “Connecting People”, but perceived that intention as being “via mobile phones”. If they had elevated their perspective I wonder whether they would have actually created Facebook. I doubt that the iPhone would have disrupted them if they had this type of broader view.

Kodak had a fixed view of the business they were in, opening themselves up for eventual disruption by the camera phone industry. Whereas Fujifilm, theoretically in the same industry, elevated their perspective to realise they were actually in the business of manipulating the effect that light has on material. That was their main thing. This opened up a massive field of opportunity and they launched the market leading anti-wrinkle skin care cream brand AstaLift.

What Fujifilm did was unlock advanced innovation. This isn’t “me too” or incremental innovation, which basically competes in the same context as everyone else. This is innovation in areas that competition simply do not see. Why? Because of their limited perspective of the business they are actually in.

Something unique happens when you are able to elevate perspective and that is the wonderful ability to view everything around you as idea fuel, regardless of industry. For example, you could distill what Airbnb are doing into linking surplus to demand through accessibility and ask “how could we enable our main thing by doing that?”. The same with Kickstarter which, once distilled, is purely linking belief to production through investment. Everything becomes idea fuel.

I run a series of retreats all over the world called The Unlock Sessions (http://theunlocksessions.net) for small groups of people who are eager to unlock advanced innovation. Participants arrive with an existing business challenge or opportunity, and leave with a totally unfair competitive advantage. Within these sessions I’ve noticed that even the most elevated perspective is still able to be expanded further. I’ve found that ideas can always be supercharged through a method I call “Even better if…”. It turns out the biggest challenge in place is primarily in terms of mindset, including whether it is even worth investing into unlocking advanced innovation in the first place. One thing is for sure though, it is far more risky to compete on a level playing field, especially when there’s a significant risk that your competitors are not.

The Paradox of Life Balance

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ecently I was having lunch in a hotel restaurant, at a table next to a family of four who were only noticeable because they sat in absolute silence. The parents where on their phones, the pre-teenager children were glued to tablets. Their meals arrived just after mine and for around 20 seconds their gaze drifted from the screen onto the cutlery, then to the plates, then back to the screens. The eating motions happened almost automatically, with only a few occasional seconds to navigate the cutlery to the food.

Remembering my manners, I tried hard not to keep looking, but there was no chance whatsoever that they would have noticed if I had. After their food was consumed, they sat for another half an hour in silence, during which point I started to look around the restaurant and was taken aback by the replica behaviour on a dozen more tables. The place was almost silent and almost every diner was on a digital device.

I almost wish I could say I don’t suffer from this type of behaviour but the reality is I may be equally guilty of over-reliance on digital connectivity. This morning I was having a conversation with a friend over breakfast and neither of us had brought our phones to the restaurant. We were trying to explain an exotic location and soon realised that we were sub-consciously reaching for an invisible device to open a Google image search. Later we were working out the cost of something and again, the lack of a calculator meant we were forced to work out the sum in our heads. It was painful!

The thing is, our connected devices are making our lives so much easier and quicker. They enable long distance to be non-existent. They enable instant access to the hardest of questions. It’s really no surprise we are so reliant on digital connectivity – but with what cost?

As I’ve often said before, since the dawn of innovation we’ve been struck with a paradox. Fire on demand was one of the first innovations we managed and immediately we were faced with options ranging from warming our caves, to burning our enemies. Reaching a balance is a process that usually happens after a period of saturation. When we find a new thing to do that we enjoy the benefit of, we tend to do it a lot until we find the way it best fits in our lives. I’m convinced that we’re at the starting point of connectivity and haven’t even scratched the surface yet in terms of how addicted we are to digital activity.

I suspect we are getting used to how instant our gratification is by using these tools. Our expectation for things to appear upon a single tap on a screen, has matured from communications to entertainment, shopping and even relationships. The younger people of today don’t even remember a time when you couldn’t do these things. The digital natives expect instant gratification in all things now – educated by how they view the world through a screen. I often wonder what type of companies they will create? What does industry look like when it is built by people who have a default expectation of instantaneous?

I’d like to make a plea for some analogue to be included in how we raise our children and how we conduct our relationships. Of course we should continue to use the brilliant technologies to solve problems, but with a balance of non-digital reality included. I’d like us all to consider this balance as a priority and pro-actively prioritise non-digital meetings and non-digital solutions. This is a paradox and paradoxes aren’t problems, they don’t have outright solutions. All we have is balance. If, heaven forbid, one of the family members sitting in the restaurant were to pass away later that day, would the remaining family members wish they had conducted a conversation or expressed some emotion at lunch? Do you think they may have re-prioritised things if they knew that non-digital life and relationships are more precious than Facebook?

We have a limited number of days in our lives and I believe that how we balance our activity is of paramount importance.

The Energy Within

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verything is constructed of atoms.

If you looked at the composition of an atom up close, you would see a tiny vortex containing quarks and photons. If you zoom in closer still, you would see a physical void. The reality is that the atom has no structure. Every physical thing around us is actually constructed without anything physical. Atoms are made out of invisible energy rather than tangible matter. In actual fact, the internal structure of an atom is more like a thought. A thought that can be expanded and contracted, depending on the observer. We are held together by an ether that is totally subjective.

This is the territory of Quantum mechanics, the science of the very small. It is something that is extremely bizarre as it puts into question almost everything that we commonly think. As the Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said: “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet. Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.”

When you are looking at an atomic particle, it exists in one particular place. If you look away, it ceases be really be there, unless you look again. This is called “Quantum Superposition” – the name for something that can be in one or more places simultaneously. This puts into question every thing and relies purely on the expansion of our thought rather than the expansion of what we see.

When we look at anything, we are fixing a position of it due to our tendency to want to see something in a place. Ultimately we are choosing to see what we see.

Every second, our brains are deciding that the things around us are there at that time. Considering the evidence today, I would propose that instead of thinking of things as “things” we should think of things as multiple possibilities.

Quantum mechanics has confused many scientists. After all, the discovery that our physical material reality isn’t really physical at all, can be a bit tricky to digest. Unfortunately for devotees of Newtonian physics, the consideration of a material universe has been somewhat outclassed by the discovery that matter is nothing but an illusion. Everything in the universe is made out of energy. Nothing is materially real.

It should come as no surprise that the study of Quantum mechanics has been increasingly popular, partly triggered by Einstein’s paper on relativity, although if you look into the Vedic Sanskrit texts dating back 5000 years, you would see that these discoveries had already happened. In reality, our modern fascination with our combined invisible energy, our unity, was known in the East a very long time ago. However we tend to base discovery and invention on what we commonly understand, individually and collectively. Hardcore scientists have seldom respected the more spiritual thinkers of days gone by.

In the same way as we hail modern scientific understanding as new, we award innovators who create on top of a base line that has been imagined to be real. The people we study at school are announced to be inventors or geniuses, despite invention being purely contextual. Genius is merely relative and uniqueness is dependant upon what we already know.

Throughout history we can observe that every generation has considered itself to have the ultimate knowledge, just as we do today.

Up until 1917 the atom was considered to be the smallest and most fundamental particle that existed. Then Ernest Rutherford came along and experimented with a nuclear reaction and the proton was discovered. As ever, this was considered the ultimate element until 1964 when physicists proposed Quarks, an elementary building block.

Common thought had been expanded. The old finite thinking was upgraded to the new. As it happens, the “top quark” was the most recent to be discovered (there are 5 others currently), in 1995. Most online sources will refer to this as the “last” one – perpetuating the myth that we now have ultimate knowledge.

The expansion of thought is not exclusive to atoms however. For example, between the 4th and 15th Century BC, one of the primary arguments was whether the world was flat. Despite Aristotle accepting the spherical nature of the Earth in 330BC, 1162 years later, Columbus found it really hard to get support for his explorations due to the Catholic church maintaining their view of a flat Earth.

Moving from geographical exploration to commercial business, many companies show traits of the same lack of thought expansion. There is major focus on outsmarting competitors by hiding advantageous information, assuming that the competition has the same level of expanded thought.

This would seem to be a fundamentally unrealistic assumption. Thought is not based on static evidence, it is based on our interpretation of information. The assumption that others may have the same thinking is to say that others have interpreted the exact same range of information in exactly the same way. It is as realistic to say that what we have observed is actually there, when in fact we know that when we look away, it is not.

When seeking competitive advantage, in science, cartography or business, the most robust methodology would surely be through the expansion of thought; rather than the pursuance of what we believe to be innovative based on common understanding. We need to prioritise the observation of the unobserved.

In every area we are just beginning to understand what is around us and we have the opportunity to expand our thinking and further our journeys if we choose to do so.

Jonathan MacDonald
11.59pm 31st December 2014

The Advantage Of Productive Paranoia

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ver the years of speaking to audiences all over the world about what’s changing, what this means and how to maximise opportunities, I’ve witnessed a spectrum of responses that range from inspiration to paranoia. I’m always honoured to discover that what I’ve said has expanded thought, especially when it triggers positive action, yet it’s the paranoia that I find most interesting. I don’t set out to make people paranoid, but it seems that some of the themes I detail are quite contrary to what is commonly understood within a company or an individual’s thinking, and this counter-intuitive state breeds paranoia quite often.

As it happens, I believe that a healthy dose of paranoia can be a saving grace, provided it is used productively. This is what I call ‘Productive Paranoia’.

In this post I will cover:

1. An example of modern commentary that essentially argues against Productive Paranoia.

2. Reasons why Productive Paranoia should be a priority.

3. Advice for everyone on how to apply Productive Paranoia in the most powerful way.

On the 22nd January 2015 an article appeared in TechCrunch relating to the claimed demise of a social network called Ello. Here is the first main paragraph of the article:

“Ello hoped to dethrone Facebook by not having ads. But while hipsters had fun hating on Zuck’s creation for a few days, they all went back to it and promptly ditched Ello. Now it’s left with $5.5 million squeezed out of some gullible investors and no reason to exist.”

The article then continues to challenge the validity of Ello’s battle against Facebook, specifically commenting on whether Facebook is, in fact, able to be competed with at all.

“For Facebook to get beaten at its own game…someone will have to build something much better. And Facebook will probably buy it before it gets even close…Facebook’s probably going to be around awhile.”

And then, in one final analogy: “Beating Facebook at its own game is like punching a wall 1.35 billion bricks thick.”

This triggered a number of online commentators to claim that this could be “the end of disruption”, where any potential competition simply can’t win due to the size of one player. I find this point quite surprising, not least because the entire history of competition shows quite clearly that disruption shows no respect to existing structure or success. I’m not talking about Ello here – I’m interested in the opinion that any particular company is more or less likely to be disrupted.

Whether you refer to Chapter 17 in the first Book of Samuel where Goliath was beaten by David, or consider how Airbnb grew over a few dozen months into being a higher valued company than almost all hotel chains, there is a hefty volume of evidence that suggests that the very last thing you can assume is that a company is unbeatable. In fact, the biggest disruptions happen when a company is so large – and this is because under that circumstance the company (and commentators) are convinced they cannot be harmed. In reality, the thing that will disrupt Facebook is the thing that is currently perceived as a low threat, if it is visible at all. For that disruptor, the “1.35 billion bricks” will be as irrelevant as the majority market share that Nokia once enjoyed, prior to the iPhone and the saturation of smart devices.

From studying centuries of disruptive market shifts, I created something called the ‘DNA of Disruption’ to describe what happens, in order. The DNA has 4 main stages:

1. A fundamental change in production, delivery and/or consumption
2. A low perceived threat rating
3. Growth by network effect
4. Inflection point into mainstream

The biggest danger point is number 2 and it is extraordinarily common. Almost all opinion of whether Facebook is hard to beat, resides on an assumption that they will spot the potential disruptor and either buy them or wipe them out.

That’s not what happens though.

What happens is that the low perceived threat rating enforces comfort and arrogance within the company, only until it’s too late. Then everyone looks at each other and asks “Who could have seen that coming?”

Is the Facebook disruptor out there? I’d imagine so…but so is the Google disruptor and the Amazon disruptor. Do any of us know who the disruptor(s) will be? I’d imagine not. Due to the DNA of Disruption.

You see the challenge?

To stand the best chance of succeeding and lowering risk, I would advise the following action points to all companies, regardless of size and fortune:

1. Investigate what you are discounting as being unthreatening – whether it is because you see something as currently sub-standard, too futuristic, or any other shortfall.

2. Identify what things would disrupt your business – not just in terms of competition but also in terms of changing contexts (for example, the landscape shift from bricks and mortar shops to e-commerce).

3. Integrate the above findings into your strategies moving forward – at the very least in terms of how things are constantly monitored, but ideally in how innovation is directed and developed.

If you successfully achieve a massive advantage in this way, the final thing to consider is that your business is still under threat of disruption, regardless of how rich you become, so therefore the 3 action points remain as a constant consideration.

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” – Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Opening The Chances Of Success

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In 1966, a scientist called Stephenson ran an experiment named “Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys”*. Over time, other tests have been carried out and the methodology has been adjusted. In essence though, the experiment ran like this:

5 monkeys were placed in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, was a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas was a ladder.

The monkeys immediately spotted the bananas and one started to climb the ladder. As he did, he was sprayed with cold water by the scientist. Then, all the other monkeys were sprayed also.

The monkey on the ladder scrambled off and all 5 sat for a time on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered.

Soon, though, the temptation of the bananas was too great, and another monkey began to climb the ladder. Again, the scientist sprayed the ambitious monkey with cold water and all the other monkeys as well. When a third monkey tried to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pulled him off the ladder and beat him up.

Then, one monkey was removed from the cage and a new monkey was brought in. Spotting the bananas, he naively began to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pulled him down and beat him up.

What happened next is where it got pretty interesting.

The experimenter removed a second one of the original monkeys and replaced him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey began to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pulled him down and beat him up – including the monkey who had never been sprayed.

One by one the original monkeys were exchanged with new monkeys so by the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas.

The ladder, and the bananas therefore, remained untouched.

If we consider how many businesses operate, there are several parallels that can be drawn here.

I’ve frequently observed management promoting innovative testing, only to then spray cold water on people and their ideas whenever someone tries something new. What follows, quite often, is business poison spreading throughout the organisation, with employees resisting the urge to take chances – even if they haven’t experienced the consequences of trying.

The learned helplessness is a significant cultural issue that, ironically, is often misinterpreted as being a ‘stable working environment’. The leaders who try to protect their positions of authority, intentionally keep the more creative thinkers at bay, by rewarding only those who operate without risk. This control mechanism is remarkably common and is, in my opinion, one of the best ways of enabling a company to be sub-standard. These are companies where one often hears statements like “That isn’t the way things are done around here” – mostly when nobody can actually articulate why that seems to be the case. Just as in the experiment, the original members have been switched out, but the existing ones still carry the behaviour forward – blindly driving the company into the ground through fear.

The real question is whether anything can be done about it.

Evidently this type of cultural issue originates from leadership. The willingness of leaders has to stretch beyond headlines and punchlines in the press. It has to stretch beyond motivational talks at away-days. It must stretch further than a few slides on a corporate deck, positioned to make others feel like innovation is “at the heart of the organisation”.

The opposite approach would be to award pro-active testing of new theories. I often ask leaders how they view risk, control and reward – not just in their mind, but in tangible ways. Ultimately, an ambitious person needs to find an organisation that encourages and rewards those that want to reach the top.

So, to our story about monkeys, it is worth noting that a later experiment involved a similar methodology but included electric shocks as opposed to water. In that experiment, even after the shocks were disabled and the monkeys were entirely free to access the bananas (but actually fought amongst themselves), one rogue monkey decided to break the routine and climb the ladder anyway.

That monkey took all the bananas for himself, and enjoyed them whilst looking down at the other 4 who had never considered that it was possible to make the climb.

I conclude it is unarguable that it is only by attempting to climb, that we open the chances of success.

* http://www.scribd.com/doc/73492989/Stephenson-1966-Cultural-Acquisition-of-a-Specific-Learned-Response-Among-Rhesus-Monkeys

6 Signs You’re Missing Out On Your Full Potential

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Have you ever met someone who seems really content with his or her life? Not just relatively happy but annoyingly happy? Happy to a point where you start wishing you could live with such a level of contentment in achieving your full potential – before reality forces you back down to the ground and your boss calls to arrange the next tedious meeting.

If this resonates with you, fear not, you’re not alone. Actually, it is extremely common to feel as if you may be missing out on being all you could be. People at any stage of life can feel held back by circumstance, commitments or fears. Here are 6 signs that you may be missing out on your full potential, and some straightforward techniques you can put in place to make a difference that, hopefully, will enable you to move toward achieving more in life.

1. You feel as if you’re missing out on something but you don’t know what it is

The journey towards reaching full potential is a bit like having a satellite navigation system within us. Just as you would map with any other navigation, the starting point on the path to reaching our full potential is to plot in the coordinates of where we’d like to go. However, because we may not know precisely what our ultimate point is, the coordinates are unlikely to be the final destination but more of a general direction of travel. This is a fairly comfortable situation, yet it is far more common for us not to even know the general direction of travel, and instead set our systems to auto-pilot and put up with what we’ve got. This can be comfortable too, unless you feel as if you’re missing out on something that isn’t definable. This state is a middle-ground where we feel as if we’re living ‘in limbo’.

There are numerous techniques to address this, most of which fall under the category of ‘finding inner purpose’, but the one I’ve found most useful involves drawing three circles. In the first circle, write down the things you are really passionate about doing – activities in your life that make you feel alive and very happy. In the second circle, write down the things you are really good at doing – competencies that you have a natural ability to excel at. In the third circle, write down the things you do that would, or could, provide extreme value to others – offerings that other people would greatly benefit from. The final task is to find what elements in the three circles overlap in the centre. I have found that in the two contexts of business and personal life, adding extreme value is the key to financial and emotional upside.

2. You feel uncomfortable that things are changing

Change is rarely easy to handle. It shakes what we know and puts into question our accepted view of things. Also, change is the enemy of the competent. If we’re good at something we’re unlikely to want things to change in ways that may mean we’re not so good at things after all. However, there is one over-arching reality that we can’t avoid: Change happens. Actually, change doesn’t just happen, it gets faster as time goes on. Even if we feel more things changed last year, the year ahead will hold more changes and the year after will hold even more still. Our lack of comfort with change is therefore a significantly limiting factor in our ability to realise our full potential, because we spend more time battling the change than using the change as a fuel to make things happen.

One technique that I have found very effective in becoming more comfortable with change, is to change the way we see change itself. For example, the next time you find out that something has changed, instead of feeling concern, confusion or contempt, try and replace the first feeling with that of acceptance. This technique is practised by the most fulfilled people on earth for very good reason. Your personal fulfilment can become more real and achievable, provided that your initial mindset is one where the changes that you are experiencing are acceptable, and seen as the most powerful fuel for reaching your full potential.

3. You constantly rely on the same sources of information

As creatures of habit we tend to return to the things we’ve found valuable. Places, brands and food are obvious examples, but our reliance on where we receive information from is something that is rarely addressed. It may be that we read content from the same authors regularly, watch the same news services, or listen to the same experts. These sources are potentially more important than we give them credit for because they shape our opinion and decisions. Our decisions instruct our actions, therefore, our success is directly linked to our sources of information. It can be strange to think that the few sources of information are so powerful, especially considering the vast amount of information available that could direct our future in a totally different way.

To keep reliance in check, I’ve found a constant questioning is effective. For example, the next time you read the same author of a piece of content, add on a totally new author’s piece to balance the mix. The next time you’re watching your favourite news service, try out a competitor just to see whether your scope of information is broadened. The next expert you listen to, enjoy the moment but then seek an alternative expert to see whether you are further inspired. This technique is unlikely to produce more of the same thinking, but instead enable a wider view of information to influence your decisions and therefore, your actions and success in reaching your full potential.

4. You base future decisions on what has worked in the past

Humans are actually not that good at making decisions. This is because our instinct, or gut feeling, is auditioned by our rational mind that acts as a defence attorney to whatever enters the courtroom of our minds. Our defence attorney will stop at nothing to adjust our instinct into a palatable opinion. This is also why market research is riddled with incorrect steers from panellists who made a choice based on logical reason rather than feeling… and the primary culprit of this? Past choice. We’re hardwired to base future decisions on what has worked before. Our past choices are the single greatest evidence our courtroom could ever hear. After all, who could argue with absolute fact. The problem is, that fact isn’t linked to the future contexts necessarily. If anything, the past choices produced where we are today, and only today, rather than our future potential.

Despite being hardwired to fall into this trap, a technique I’ve applied to break the pattern is to constantly rate my choices in terms of how they’re made. For example, if I’m planning on buying a car, I’m conscious of the fact that my in-built preference may be the make I already use, so I must log that bias and check my decisions against it, just to make sure I’m not steering my choice unfairly. The next time you’re making a career choice or a relationship choice, try to remain conscious of the biases you may have in place. Even if you end up making the same decision as you did in the past, at least you will have auditioned the options with equal weighting. This technique is a manual override of your natural biases and reduces the limitations that stand in the way of reaching your full potential.

5. You feel you are being held back by something you cannot change

From personal experience, I relate to those who feel trapped within a holding pattern that is seemingly impossible to break. This could be in a relationship or in business, but the feeling is one where your potential is unreachable due to circumstances outside of your control. It may be that you’re able to see what good could look like, or what happiness should include, but it is the other side of a pane of glass that you are not able to move. Sometimes we are not conscious of this, so the outcome is that we only achieve what we already have, happily without the frustration of feeling unable to explore. Other times we are conscious of this, so the outcome is frustration at feeling that what we have, is all we’ll ever have. In reality there are two design flaws that need to be addressed: 1. Our belief in what it is that is holding us back 2. Our belief in what it is that we can change.

I have found that it is in challenging these two beliefs that provides a really effective technique in addressing this issue. The first thing to do is to quantify precisely what it is that we think is holding us back. What is the detail? Who is involved? What is the timeframe? I’ve found that when we analyse what it is that we think is holding us back, it is actually the first time we’ve properly worked out what it really is. The second thing to do is to qualify precisely what it is that we cannot change. We need to test our assumptions, as I’ve found that very often we are able to address things in different and imaginative ways. One surprisingly effective way is to try thinking about doing the absolute opposite of what you’ve tried before. Another way is to look at what parts of our life could be even slightly altered to move in a more desirable direction. Things don’t happen overnight, and sometimes a slight shift can have a larger impact over time. This technique is to adjust your present reality to allow you to travel the path to reaching your full potential.

6. You justify failure as quickly as possible

Many of us are raised in cultures where there are winners and losers. From the games we play in the playground to the ‘talent’ shows on television, we are surrounded by success and failure – one of which is great and the other is not. This binary view forces us to rebel against failure as best we can, especially if we actually fail. In fact, failing to cover up our failings is super failure. The challenge is that success almost always comes from trying very hard, and trying very hard almost always includes failing very hard first. You didn’t sit at a piano and suddenly play like a virtuoso. You didn’t pick up a pen and write a letter. No, the first time you did both were painfully inadequate but because of the effort to try again, you gradually improved to a point where you reach a level of success. In this common context, failure is actually just a result – a reading of the circumstance that can be built upon. If we managed to accept failure as a learning rather than a negative outcome, we would assert even more effort into reaching our full potential.

As someone who has failed many times, I’ve had to adjust my view as to whether these things are all for nothing, or instead the reason I can now enjoy success. My primary technique of doing this is to itemise results in an agnostic way, rather than just think about how badly I did. For example, the next time you’re trying to learn something new, write down what you tried, what happened and what you learned. This last part is the key. Most of us stop at what happened rather than to conclude what was learned. The learning is the main thing with effort, not whether the outcome was positive or negative. If we assume that positives come from many negatives, you can be safe in the knowledge you’re going to have more negatives first. Now you’ve established that, the learning should be the focus. This technique is the secret behind many successful people and companies, and increases the ability to reach your full potential.

In closing I’d like to refer to a conversation I had with an audience member, after delivering a keynote to a group of senior executives. I was asked the question, “Can courage be learned, or do you have to be born with it?” My answer was, “I think the challenge is less about learning courage and more about addressing the fears that create obstacles to what we desire to achieve.” The point I was making is directly linked to the 6 signs you have just read. These signs are addressing our mindset, examining what we fear and what we believe. It is because so much of our destiny is based upon these constructs that I felt compelled to compile these signs in one place, and if one person can propel forward along their path towards greater success, it will have been worth it.