It is a tough job being my own boss, I have to manage myself. I am the type of employee that will try to get out of doing and/or put off tasks I dislike such as administrative and writing. This is a problem as I’m the only full-time employee in my company. My boss self is always asking my employee self to be more efficient, productive, organized, blah, blah, blah. So I’m invariably on the search for tips and techniques to better self manage. Recently, I came across an Art of Manliness podcast with Gregg Krech talking about how to take action, the Japanese psychology way. I was intrigued. I had tried the Western approach––writing to do lists and buying loads of productivity apps; read books such as Getting Things Done; used Pomodoro technique––many times over, so why not try something different? I downloaded Krech’s book The Art of Taking Action: Japanese Psychology.
Before I started the book, I wrote down what questions I hoped the book will answer for me (See why I did this here): What is Japanese psychology?, How is it different from other methods I’ve tried? Can it help me be better at doing?
I hear about innovation a lot because of my job. Plus, it is hard to avoid seeing news or comments about champions of modern innovation––Musk, Bezos, et al.. I asked a friend who works for a start-up in Silicon Valley about innovation and if her and her colleagues talk about it. She was bemused by my question. No, it isn’t something they talk about, they just do their work! I know from having spent time in that part of the world that her reaction is common. Besides, folks in Silicon Valley think everything they do is by default ‘disruptive’ innovation.
I train innovators––scientists, and engineers––on how to develop and convey their work to stakeholders and partners inside and outside their organisations. My clients work mostly in R&D centers of big corporations. The talk in these corporations on innovation is usually about its insufficient level, on how to speed up the process, or the need to create products/services that generate gazillions of dollars. A lot of time is spent attending conferences on innovation and consulting experts on the topic. I wonder why is it that smaller companies and startups don’t talk about innovation, yet are responsible for the most disruptive type, the holy grail that all companies strive for?
So what is value from a market’s point of view, from a societal perspective? It is clear that my interpretation isn’t always aligned with how society defines value. I really wanted to understand what it means from society’s perspective, so when I came across the economist Mariana Mazzucato’s book ‘The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy’, I was hopeful that I would find some answers in it.
Every year I pick a couple of things to learn, it could be something completely new, or a mastery of an exciting skill. I do this because I believe there is always room for improvement. And I train others for a living so I see it as research for my work—to remind myself of what it is like to be a learner so I can be a better teacher.
Having made the decision to update my company website, I decided that I was going to learn to build a website landing page to see if I could build the whole website myself. I felt somewhat confident I could do it, afterall, there is a plethora of DIY tools, and I have an eye for design. I soon discovered that even with these tools choosing which templates, layouts, colors and fonts to choose was challenging. In search for guidance on how to, I stumbled upon a book called The Non-designers’ Design Book by Robin Williams. I hadn’t finished reading chapter one of the book before I realized that I knew NOTHING about design.
I see books as treasure troves of knowledge and paths to a technicolor of worlds. I love them and I read a lot. Ok, I buy plenty more than I read thanks to my blasted Kindle that gives me almost any book I want at a click of a button. Having lots of unread books in your library (in my case digital version) is a good thing according to Nicholas Nassim Taleb. He claims that read books are far less valuable than unread ones, the more unread books you acquire the more you will know.
I hadn’t always picked up books out of desire to know, they were just around me as I grew up with two older sisters who were both English teachers so there was no shortage of books. I first picked up Othello at age 9, out of boredom, I read it from cover to cover without being able to make sense of it. The novels of Mills and Boon, Barbara Cartland, Sweet Valley High and Judy Blume were where I escaped to in my pre-teen to early teen years from a horrible family situation. Mid-teens until I went to university at 18 was all about English classic novels by authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and whatever else Penguin Classics was selling for £1 (a bargain I thought). The classics, many of them set in or mentioned the city I lived in––the city of Bath known for its Roman and Georgian architecture––gave me for the first time, an appreciation of my surroundings, a place so beautiful that it had been written about in historic novels.
When I first came across Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I was surprised to see that it was a nonfiction, and actually about running. I knew him as a novelist as I have read many of his novels. I’m not a spectator of any sports except the odd five minutes of synchronized swimming and diving every four years during the Olympics. So the thought of reading nearly 200 pages about running even if it is written by one of my favourite authors had no appeal. But curiosity got the better of me, I wanted to know why he wrote such a book. I had recently read a book on writing called Stein On Writing by the legendary book editor Sol Stein in which he spoke of how styles of fictional writing when applied to non-fiction writing can enliven it. I wanted to see how Murakami’s style as a novelist would translate to non-fiction. I figured I’d flick through it, read a few pages here and there; Some books aren’t meant to be read in their entirety.
I listen to podcasts when I’m working out in the gym. I judge how good they are if I don’t get bored and change to fast paced pop music when it comes to doing cardio on the rowing machine or stationary bike. My recent stay in San Francisco gave me a new podcast assessment criterion: how much I notice how short of breath I am walking up the streets of Douglass, Eureka, Diamond then 23rd and 24th from the neighborhood of Castro to Twin Peaks in San Francisco. If you are not familiar with San Francisco let me just say doing an hour HIIT(High Intensity interval training) like Les Mills’ Body Attack class followed immediately by an hour of Zumba class is a walk in the park compared to 30 mins walk up the aforementioned streets. In the three weeks I did the walk daily (didn’t do it to torture myself, I did because the public transit in San Francisco sucks.
Of the books I’ve read this year, the one book that has stood out the most is Factfulness by Hans Rosling. The book was released posthumously last year, I feel Rosling left us with a remarkable gift. Actually, this is the second year and time I’ve this book. I first read, more listened to an audio version towards the end of last year. There were so many passages I wanted to underline so I could later refer to, not an easy task I found with audio books. So I bought the Kindle version and decided to re-read it again to remind myself of the pearls of wisdom Rosling shared, for example, the test on page two. The test does a wonderful job of challenging the often outdated and erroneous view of the world most of us (particularly Westerners) have.
Recently, after I finished a call with a client I was jubilant, as I realized how much I had learnt from the call. It got me thinking about how blessed I am to have my job. I train innovators how to develop and convey their work to stakeholders and partners inside and outside their organisations so I get to hear about all sorts of cool things they are doing. I thought about what I like about my role and the clients I’ve worked with over the years. My clients are mostly scientists, engineers, and technical managers. It dawned on me that a high portion of my clients have PhDs and it is from them I’ve learnt the most.
Before I started this job, the only people I knew that had doctoral degrees were my professors at university (which was a fair bit of time ago) and my medical doctors (who I avoided as much as possible). In the decade I’ve been doing this job, it has become so normal for me to be in a room full of PhDs that it is really worth acknowledging what a privilege it is and how I’ve benefited from it.
I recently spent a few months in San Francisco Bay Area attending conferences, meet-ups, workshops etc. to get a feel for the place. Every time I told people what I did for a living they were surprised and intrigued. Didn’t know such a role existed they said. I am an innovators’ nurturer. They’d ask what does the job entail exactly? I would say: “I help companies improve the effectiveness of their innovators by training them to develop and convey ideas”. Or I said: “I train innovators to see and navigate through the diverse groups of stakeholders required to get their ideas to the market.” Sometimes, I would also say: “you know how technical and business folks speak completely different languages, I train to speak the same language.” The latter explanation resonated mostly with folks. This for me is an oversimplification of what I do but I understand that most people think there is a ‘communication’ gap between technologists and the business. But it is just a manifestation of the underlying issue.