Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are

What’s your favourite holiday location? I’m a remote beach lover, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write a postcard. It wouldn’t take much to convince me to give it all up and live in a hut on a desert island with just the shrill cries of the gulls and coconuts hitting the roof. Perfect beaches, perfect water, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

When hearing desert Island, we often picture an idyllic tropical hideaway, sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. And what are palm trees known to be good for? Hanging up a hammock of course! That’s all I’d need, a life of Robinson Crusoe would suit me.

This is what was in the mind late one evening in 1941 of broadcaster Roy Plomley, at home in his pyjamas, when an idea came to him. He sat down and wrote to the BBC’s Head of Popular Record Programmes, Leslie Perowne. The pitch was successful and a broadcasting institution was born.

Desert Island Discs is a biographical radio programme, broadcast on Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942. Each week a guest – a ‘castaway’ – is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item, that they would take if they were stranded on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices.

More than 3,000 episodes have been recorded, each with The Sleepy Lagoon, composed by Eric Coates, as the signature opening and closing theme music. The sound of herring gulls also accompanies the tune to put emphasis on the desert island, but a listener pointed out that herring gulls live in the northern hemisphere – therefore it would not have been a tropical island as intended!

So let’s say I was castaway on my desert island, and that I could swap the music and take books instead. I think I’d take the books that I’ve enjoyed cover-to-cover, and those I’ve read in small portions but have not had the patience or time to read completely. Alone on a deserted island with little to do and few distractions, I’d enjoy them carefully line by line, hanging on every word. A good book has no ending, it opens your mind.

To me, the world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that we build ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilisations grow old and die out, but the world of words and books are volumes that live on. I have been a voracious reader all of my life and the older I get, the more I love to open a book and let it take me where it wants me to go.

I have always seen reading as an activity to stir my curiosity.  When you read a book you conduct a private conversation with the author. E. P. Whipple once wrote, books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time, which I think is a great summary of how I feel.

So, which books to take? I’d focus on books on startups, entrepreneurship and innovation, on the basis that I’d use the time to plan a cracking new business venture. So in no particular order, upon my desert island bookshelf, sheltered from the elements, I would have these lovely books:

1. Zero to One: Peter Thiel. Entrepreneur and investor Thiel shows the most important skill that every entrepreneurial leader must master is learning to think for yourself. Doing what someone else already knows takes the world from 1 to n, but when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1. Zero to One presents an optimistic view of a new way of thinking about innovation: it starts by learning to ask the questions that lead you to find value in unexpected places.

2. The Lean Startup: Eric Ries. This book has been out for some time, but still an invaluable read. Reis’ mantra is Vision-Steer-Accelerate, following a process of build-measure-learn to continuous innovation to create radically successful startups. Reis seeks to change the way companies are built and new products are launched, it’s about learning what your customers really want, testing your vision continuously, adapting and adjusting before going for scale and investment.

3. Disrupted: Ludicrous Misadventures in the Tech Start-up Bubble: Dan Lyons. A lighter read! Lyons was Tech Editor at Newsweek, and made redundant. Hubspot offered him a pile of stock options for the nebulous role of ‘marketing fellow’ and a return to work, what could possibly go wrong?  What follows is a hilarious account of Dan’s time at the start-up, a revealing trenchant analysis into the dysfunctional culture that prevails in the startup world flush with cash and devoid of experience, a de facto conspiracy between those who start and those who fund companies.

4. Thinking Fast & Slow: Daniel Kahneman. A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, Kahneman provided this bestselling explanation of how people think, describing the fast, intuitive and emotional ‘System 1’ and the slower, more deliberative and more logical ‘System 2’. By understanding these systems, you can learn to think things out more slowly, instead of acting on an impulse – a good discipline when excited about your startup.

5. Sprint – Solve big problems & test new ideas in five days: Jake Knapp. Sprint offers a transformative formula for testing ideas. Within five days, you’ll move from idea to prototype to decision. Based on Knapp’s experience at Google Ventures, it helps answer the big question every day: What’s the most important place to focus your effort, and how do you start?  A practical guide to answering critical business questions, for anyone with a big opportunity, problem, or idea who needs to get answers today.

6. Hooked – How to build habit forming products: Nir Eyal. Why do some products capture our attention while others flop? What makes us engage with certain things out of sheer habit? Is there an underlying pattern to how technologies hook us? Eyal answers these questions with the Hook Model – a four-step process that, when embedded into products, subtly encourages customer behaviour. Hooked is written for anyone who seeks to understand how products influence our behaviour.

7. Be More Pirate – How to Take On the World and Win: Sam Allende. This book is part history, business, and a revolution manifesto, a glorious celebration of movement-makers and game-changers. It’s a compelling read that will have you planning your very own mutiny on your rescue from the island from the comfort of your hammock. So whether you want to change the whole world, or just your own, this is the book you need to do it.

8. S.U.M.O. (Shut Up, Move on) the Straight-talking Guide to Succeeding in Life: Paul McGee Paul McGee′s personal development stuff has humour, insight, practical tips and personal anecdotes, a thought provoking read. Now updated to celebrate ten years since first publication, the S.U.M.O. principles will keep sanity and curiosity intact in your isolation:

  • Change Your T–Shirt: take responsibility for your own life, don′t be a victim.
  • Develop Fruity Thinking: change your thinking, change your results.
  • Hippo Time is OK: understand how setbacks affect you and how to recover from them.
  • Remember the Beachball: increase your understanding and awareness of other people′s world.
  • Learn Latin: change comes through action not intention, remove the tendency to put things off.
  • Ditch Doris Day: create your own future rather than leave it to chance. Forget the attitude que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.′

9. Business Model Generation: Alexander Osterwalder.  An old ‘un but a good ‘un. This book allows you to answer What’s your business model? Intelligently and with precision. I’ll be cheeky here and add in Osterwalders follow-on book Value Proposition Design, describing how to get product/market fit right is another must have for your island bookshelf.

10. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Ben Horowitz. Building a business when there are no easy answers, this series of essays about what CEOs face in the ‘build phase’ – the transition from searching for a business model into a company. More than any book I’ve read, this gives an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to lead and scale a startup.

I have hours to read on the island, where my imagination could runaway, really no longer reading what is printed on the paper but swimming in a stream of impulses and inspirations. Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves. Imagine what thinking you could do with these books, the freedom and the isolation on a desert island!

Books save you time, because they give access to a range of ideas, emotions and events that would take us years or decades to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator, a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

They also perform the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s lens, giving us contrast and perspective, descriptions that will trigger our thinking with an honesty and insight quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for, that enables us to have those informed conversations with ourselves.

With the expertise, insight and guidance offered by these entrepreneur practitioners, the mastery and purpose of an entrepreneur is there to inspire you to get out of the building, and move from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’. In addressing this challenge, I’ve been reflecting that the proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo as an appropriate starting point.

Furthermore, each of the ten books suggests a continuous learning processes includes peer and reflective learning, and that not all learning experiences are positive, dealing with failures or problems are an important source of learning.

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the Internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, a telescope onto the minds of the author, and in the process, know ourselves more deeply with even greater clarity. A book in the hand has far more intimacy than any digital device or screen.

In many ways, books are the original Internet; each a hyperlink into the next rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit, because books create the habit of reading and learning.

I once watched a small hermit crab crawl out of its shell and into a larger one nearby. Maybe we are no different. There were those before us and there will be some after us. All we can do is cultivate what is given to us, and improve ourselves. Maybe our lot in this life is to leave our shells better than when we found them so that the next soul will flourish here. Books, and learning from others, can help you do this.

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are, and on the desert island, I’m staying put for a while. I think I’d enjoy my time reading and thinking about my next venture, and taking the lessons from each of the books to build my own startup success when I’m rescued. Although maybe I should also take a book about ‘How to build a boat…’

Entrepreneurial learning journey: pearls of wisdom from Atticus Finch

Startups, and the entrepreneurs behind the ventures, are in vogue everywhere. Cities across the world are sprouting incubators and accelerator programmes to attract innovative talent, to foster new firm formation.

The fascination with entrepreneurs is not new, literature dating to the C18th explores what drives entrepreneurs and whether their traits matter for the outcomes of their ventures. Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (1921) marked the launch of research on the personalities of entrepreneurs that set them apart.

Research continues to investigate the characteristics that prompt people to become entrepreneurs, and motivations that keep them on their chosen path. Many scholars have tried to understand the homo entreprenaurus (a moniker introduced by Professor Roope Uusitalo, 2001).

For me, it’s unnecessary to compare Steve Jobs or Elon Musk to the average person, because for every Jobs or Musk there are a thousand self-employed entrepreneurs seeking growth-oriented businesses simply for themselves. The collective impact of these individuals on our economy is enormous, even if they don’t start the next Apple.

The top two entrepreneurial personality traits I’ve seen at first hand are perception and intuition – success doesn’t come to those who are smartest, rather to those who see opportunities and take them.

Besides having a range of skills and traits, the majority of successful entrepreneurs are, in my experience, decent people with a strong moral compass, likeable, with integrity and honourable intentions. However, I know others with a big ‘look at me’ ego, cultivating the aura of a pantomime villain. We often focus on the positive traits of entrepreneurs, but there are less attractive, unspoken flaws.

The ‘dark side’ of entrepreneurs I’ve seen includes high levels of narcissism, Machiavellian in their manipulation of people, and over-assurance to the point of being egotistical – letting ego drive decisions is not the same as confidence based on knowledge and trust. I’ve seen paranoia reach delusional proportions, workaholic tendencies becoming unbalanced, and as a result, frequent emotional and temperamental outpourings as they look at the world myopically through their own coloured lenses.

We all know the old adage ‘nice guys finish last’, but you don’t have to be sharp elbowed and arrogant to be a successful entrepreneur, good guys do win – be the person your dog wants you to be when you get home! So who would be your role model be? For me, this is captured by a comment in President Obama’s farewell presidential address: Each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction – Atticus Finch.

Atticus Finch is a character in Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is a lawyer, and the father of Jeremy ‘Jem’ Finch and Jean ‘Scout’ Finch. The character of Finch, as portrayed in an Academy-Award winning performance by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaption, saw him proclaimed as the greatest hero of all American novels and cinema.

To Kill a Mockingbird unfolds against the backdrop of Atticus’s representation of Tom Robinson, a black man, has been accused by Mayella Ewell, a white woman, of rape. While Atticus is assigned to be Robinson’s public defender, he earns the townspeople’s ire in his determination to actually defend him, honorably and fairly, to the best of his abilities, at a time when racism in the Southern US was culturally strong.

The life lessons Atticus teaches us are priceless around humanity, personal conduct and ethics. His are more than just great one-liners, Atticus gives us example after example of how to be a decent human being and a terrific parent, leading by example more than anything, a quality to be admired. He earns respect for himself without demanding it. Here are some of his pearls of wisdom, and how they relate to entrepreneurial behaviours.

Just be yourself

Finch: Before you can live with others, you have to live with yourself.

Know who you are and manage yourself well. When you know who you are others will regard you as trustworthy. To be authentic you must operate without pretences. Be confident and honest, do not compare yourself to others and do not put any effort into being someone you are not. Atticus is authentic, not trying to impress because what he already possesses internally is impressive, workable and successful.

Think for yourself, instead of following the crowd. Throughout the story there are numerous subplots, the most telling being about the mysterious neighbour Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, through which the ultimate lesson that is tactfully weaved is that it’s important to be yourself.

Be interested in others

Finch: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

When you are not self-centered, you will enjoy listening to others share about themselves. Recognise each person, whatever their status, as someone you can learn from. Being interested makes you a great networker, because people will sense you have no hidden agendas. People will appreciate the depth of your interest and experience you to as genuine and likeable, making them feel open and willing to do business with you.

Atticus explains why he respects everyone’s opinion, even those who disagree with him, but that he must make decisions about how to act based on his own moral compass.

Stay Calm

Finch: You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. Try fighting with your head for a change.

Be present at all times when others are communicating, no matter what their tone. Make it your intention to stay absorbed in the information being discussed, focused on the conversation and the other person. Listen to understand, not to respond. When you are not distracted or impatient to share your own perceptions, people will enjoy connecting with you.

When people feel heard and understood they relax and become more drawn to you. When you are attentive trust is developed and opportunities are more generously offered because people will feel confident they are entering into a mutually beneficial relationship.

Be empathetic

Finch: I think there’s one kind of folks: folks.

Show understanding and compassion for the emotional struggles and self-doubts of others. Develop a perspective of compassion needed to imagine another person’s pain, avoid dismissing others as weak or lacking ability. Become a compassionate listener, it enables you to become better at solving problems, making decisions based on the mix of your logic, experience, perception and the person you are dealing with.

If Atticus had one dominating virtue, it is his superhuman empathy. Whenever his children felt angry at the misbehavior or ignorance of the individuals in their town, he would encourage their tolerance and respect by urging them to see the other person’s side of things.

Be open minded

Finch: No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat.

Be open to receiving and letting other people in, especially when they have a different point of view to yours. Being guarded blocks opportunity and learning, it discourages others from trusting you. Demonstrating an open minded attitude works both ways, opening yourself up to new reciprocal relationships and opportunities for moving forward. Do not stunt your growth or someone else’s.

Atticus’ approach was to be fair to everyone, to sit their side of the argument and see things from their perspective, seeking to understand, not to simply win the argument. This is a great skill set every entrepreneur needs when selling.

Be accepting

Finch: At the end of the day, you know what’s right and wrong. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

Be patient enough to never shut others out with prejudgment. Come to view everything with opportunity and learn to embrace human differentiation. Refrain from criticising the choices others make, even if you would never make those choices for yourself.

By practicing acceptance people will feel they can be true to who they are around you, creating openness and the possibility of opportunity. You will develop more diverse relationships and connections, and thus greatly increase your opportunities for success. As an entrepreneur, you don’t have to ‘win’ every time.

Be a relentless optimistic

Finch: It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.

Live in optimism, when you live through a positive mindset and the ‘art of possible’ you become an infectious person to be around. As you become comfortable in yourself to see possibilities, you will instantly lighten the mood of those around you, giving them self-belief and seeing opportunity for themselves. Always look for the silver lining, the growth opportunity. Be an energiser.

Atticus is an optimist, uses every situation as an opportunity to pass his values on to Scout and Jem. Atticus’ delighted in helping people see a situation in a positive new light, and they listened and respected him because of this. One of my favourite Atticus lines is this one to his kids: Keep your head up. Your dreams are in the sky not the dirt.

Simply, be humble

Finch: I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.

Be satisfied and fulfilled in life by your own volition, work ethic and commitment to your success. Enjoy the serenity that comes when you don’t need to be the star of the show. Always acknowledge that your success has come with the help and support of others, and show appreciation for those who helped you get to where you are. Never hesitate to share the spotlight. When you are humble, people want to partner with you.

Atticus defends his client Tom Robinson from an angry mob with absolutely no violence. He diffuses them with the power of his words and his ability to stand tall and strong while they insulted him. Atticus represents morality and reason in To Kill a Mockingbird. As a character, Atticus is even-handed throughout the story, an attractive virtue for every human, not just entrepreneurs.

Give your time freely

Finch: Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.

Develop an attitude of abundance, be generous with giving your time freely to help others. In giving of yourself and your time you will become more reflective and a richer human being. You will need less from others as you discover the satisfaction of lending a helping hand to people who need it. As others sense this in you, they are confident asking you for guidance or assistance.

Atticus embraces the quiet quality of giving people the time they need, and as a result, people are naturally drawn to him. For an entrepreneur, people will be curious about you. Use your time to gain more knowledge and try new things. Turn down the volume, talk less, listen to others.

Have moral courage

Finch: Push harder than yesterday if you want to win. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

There are different types of courage: physical, intellectual, and moral. While unassuming, Atticus certainly possessed physical courage: when Tom Robinson was in jail, he sat outside all night reading and faced down an angry mob intent on lynching the prisoner.

But moral courage is arguably the most important type of bravery, and this Atticus had in spades, and is a key trait for entrepreneurs. Atticus’s decision to represent Tom Robinson brought a slew of insults and threats to him and his family. But he was willing to bear the onslaught with head held high.

Moral courage involves the strength to stick with your convictions and do the right thing, even when you can see shortcuts – but you know it would be the wrong thing to do, even if it gave you advantage in the short term.

Never seek to be the biggest show-off, simply strive to be the hardest working.

To Kill a Mockingbird has stood the test of time despite the fact that Atticus is almost too eloquent, ethical, honest and forbearing. He represented the rule of sanity over hysteria, principle over passion, and tolerance over fear.

Barack Obama’s reference was deliberate and in the context of appointing a Supreme Court Justice to embody his quality of empathy. It’s not a quality you often see on the list of traits of successful entrepreneurs. Many would say entrepreneurs are at their best when they coldly and mechanically apply their own self-interests to get things done. There is no place for climbing inside anyone else’s skin as an entrepreneur. There is only your ambition and cold desire to win.

However, Atticus Finch’s assertion of trying to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is the definition of empathetic entrepreneurial activism. I have come to think of him as the patron saint of patient, quiet listening, a quality to which all entrepreneurs ought to aspire.

Entrepreneurial learning journey: building your startup team

Lean startup thinking is based around the concept of a MVP as a means of sharing your product vision with your target customers, containing sufficient value to attract early adopters. Asking the right questions of your MVP is key, it’s as much a process as a pilot version of your product, and guides you broadly around your business model assumptions, many based on your hunches.

Testing all aspects of the business model, not just the product features, is vital, and this applies to developing your ‘Minimum Viable Team’ (‘MVT’)?  As Steve Blank states, a startup is a temporary organisation used to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. Having a talented team is an essential ingredient to startup success and scaling, as any aspect of the business model.

Most startup founders work on the basis that they will find the folks they need to scale their business either by word of mouth within the startup community, or within their own network, when they need them.  Alas experience tell us those serendipitous moments don’t always occur. The route of chance isn’t always successful, or even best financially in the longer term.

So what are the key considerations in your startup team building strategy, when seeking to create a key part of your business growth engine? Here are some thoughts.

1. Hiring Philosophy

What is the vision for your MVT in terms of its purpose, values and principles held as underlying attributes that will make a difference?

Rockstars gives leverage You’re looking for rockstar starters who can create 10x more leverage – ‘moonshot thinking’ –  than an average employee. The effectiveness gap between employees can be multiple orders of magnitude. In startup hiring there are few shades of grey, go for those that can add rocket fuel to your momentum.

Culture-contributors are better than culture-fitters A startup culture is part of the business model and customer experience. Just like we want people to contribute new skills and ideas, we want people to contribute new culture. Hiring culture-fitters does not make your culture better. The founding team will soon be outnumbered by new hires. They will decide your future culture, not you.

Hire for potential & learning not experience & experts Potential and experience are not mutually exclusive, but potential is far more valuable. Everyone usually hires for experience, but for a startup my view is to hire those whose potential will explode when they join you, pulling you along with them. Interviewing for experience is easy because you are discovering what someone has done. Interviewing for potential is hard because you are predicting what they will do. How do you do this? They get excited talking about what they could do rather than what they have done.

Static expertise quickly becomes obsolete. To survive and grow we must be a learning organisation. The clearest signal of a learner is curiosity. Curious people, by definition, love to learn, while experts talk about what they know.

Experimentation is a crucial mechanism for driving breakthroughs in any startup. If you want to create a successful, hyper-growth company, you’ve got to focus on empowering your teams to rapidly experiment.

Hire for difference not similarity There is a natural bias to hire people ‘like us’. Fight this bias. Hiring similar means we value repeatability and efficiency over creativity and leverage. Hiring different brings new skills, paradigms, and ideas, which are the sparks and catalyst of leverage. You will naturally want to hire people you connect with. Fight your instincts.. Don’t default to ‘she’s like one of us’.

2. Focus on Personality

Simply, what sort of people did we want in our team alongside us on our startup journey? I’ve developed this simple framework, a combination of attitudes, character and behaviours, to check for ‘togetherness’. They are:

·     Openness: We look for free spirits, open-minded folk who will enjoy the startup adventure and new experiences – the highs and the lows.

·     Conscientiousness: A startup can be a bit chaotic and disruptive, so we look for people who are organised and dependable.

·     Extraversion: We look for energisers, live-wires who tend to be more sociable and keep noise and energy levels up – not office jesters, but people who can keep the lights burning

·     Agreeableness: High scorers for this trait are often trusting, helpful and compassionate. Empathy is an invaluable trait to have when building your startup to balance the searing ambition.

·     Emotional stability: People with high scores for this trait are usually confident and don’t tend to worry often.

We are social creatures, and a deeper understanding of who we (and others) are can provide a valuable tool for working with others. You can build a more effective MVT using personality traits as part of your hiring decision.

In terms of the attitudes and behaviours we sought, these maybe summarised as follows:

They would much rather act than deliberate Generally, startup business plans are less useful than the planning process, as things change so quickly. Before the plan shoots out of the printer, things have already changed and ‘the plan’ is already outdated. Stuff happens.

Very few startups resemble their original plan, and that’s a good thing, because it means they’re pivoted and reshaping their businesses to meet the needs of their customers. Great startup employees are the same way.

They have an appetite to get out of the building Great start up people obsess over the customer, they understand calories are best spent making a real difference for customers. Every business has finite resources. The key is to spend as much of those resources as possible on things that matter to the customers. Fretting over trivial things doesn’t help anyone. It’s just a waste of energy.

They don’t see money as the solution to every problem One of the key lessons founders learn in a startup is resourcefulness. How do you take limited resources and turn them into something remarkable? That’s also true of the best startup employees. They’re remarkably resourceful. They’re constantly looking for creative ways to make the most of the resources they have.

3. The concept of ‘Tour of Duty’

Start-ups succeed in large part because their MVT is highly adaptable, motivated to go the extra mile and create something different. However, entrepreneurial employees can be restless, searching for new, high-learning opportunities, and other startups are always looking to poach them.

However, if you think all your MVT will give you lifetime loyalty, think again. Sooner or later, most employees will pivot into a new opportunity. When Reid Hoffman founded LinkedIn, he set the initial employee engagement as a four-year ‘tour of duty’, with a discussion at two years. If an employee moved the needle on the business, the company would help advance her career. Ideally this would entail another tour of duty at the company, but it could also mean a position elsewhere.

A tour of duty has a defined end, but that doesn’t have to be the end of an employee’s tenure. One successful tour is likely to lead to another. Each strengthens the bonds of trust and mutual benefit. If an employee wants change, an appealing new tour of duty can provide it within your company. This is a more effective retention strategy than appealing to vague notions of loyalty and establishes a real zone of trust.

The tour-of-duty approach for a startup works like this. The business hires an employee who strives to produce tangible achievements and who is an important advocate and resource in the MVT. A tour-of-duty is established, either two or four years. Why two to four years? That time period seems to have universal appeal. In the software business, it syncs with a typical product development cycle, allowing an employee to see a major project through. At the end of this ‘tour’, the business could pivot to a new direction, and thus the MVT needs to pivot too.

Properly implemented, the tour-of-duty approach can boost both recruiting and retention for a startup. The key is that it gives both sides a clear basis for working together. Both sides agree in advance on the purpose of the relationship, the expected benefits for each, and potentially a planned end.

The problem with most employee retention conversations is that they have a fuzzy goal (retain ‘good’ employees) and a fuzzy time frame (indefinitely). The company is asking an employee to commit to it but makes no commitment in return. In contrast, a tour of duty serves as a personalised retention plan that gives a valued employee concrete, compelling reasons to finish her tour and that establishes a clear time frame for discussing the future of the relationship. Personalised tours produce even positive feelings.

Thus when working with MVT employees, establish explicit terms of their tours of duty, developing firm but time-limited mutual commitments with focused goals and clear expectations. Ask, ‘in this relationship, how will both parties benefit and progress in the lifetime of the MVT?’

4. Lessons from Google

A company’s culture and core values are the bedrock of innovation and effective teams, and Google has established a suite of practices for you to use when building your own effective startup team.

Back in 2013, Google conducted a rigorous analysis deemed Project Aristotle to identify what underlying factors led to the most effective Google teams. Over 200 interviews were conducted across +180 active teams over the course of the two-year study. More than 250 attributes were identified that contributed to both success and failure.

Their hypothesis was that they would find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team. Turns out they were dead wrong.

The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. Here are the top five keys to an effective Google team, in order of importance:

Psychological safety Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking a risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering a new idea.

Dependability On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs. the opposite – shirking responsibilities). Perfection is not optional. The enemy of great is good. Always strive for the best possible product, service or experience.

In a decentralised team working remotely, this core value is extremely important. Always trust your teammates are doing their best work with good intentions. Don’t jump to conclusions or judgments.

Structure and clarity An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short- and long-term goals.

Meaning Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary – financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example. The self-directed employee takes responsibility for her own decisions and actions. Having a team that can constantly say “We can figure it out” creates a competitive edge.

Impact The results of one’s work, the subjective judgment that your work is making a difference, is important. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organisation’s goals can help reveal impact. The world’s most precious resource is the passionate and persistent human mind. Get your team to embrace long-term thinking.

Every member of the team needs to embody a growth mindset: the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere.

That media fervour for the unicorn startups and their celebrity founders can suggest that it only takes the one or two entrepreneurs to build exceptional companies on their own, or with a co-founder. I think that’s rarely the case.

Henry Ford once said, Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a mind attached? In a startup, minds dramatically amplify the value of hands and they become even more powerful when they’re able to engage with like-minded, stimulated other folk in the team.

Entrepreneurial Learning Journey: My Moleskine

I started a new Moleskine notebook last week, always a special event. I’ve kept a notebook for nearly a decade now, a habit I picked up from an inspiring entrepreneur I met. It’s a journal for private scribblings and I was delighted to open a new one and start a relationship with a trusted companion.

The Moleskine notebook is the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries, among them van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway, and Matisse. They became famous in the Montmartre district of Paris with the Impressionists, the entrepreneurial flair of the people, the place and the notebooks synonymous with creative thinking.

A simple black rectangle with rounded corners, an elastic page-holder, and an internal expandable pocket, the Moleskine was produced for over a century by a small French bookbinder that supplied the stationery shops of Paris, where the artistic and literary avant-gardes lived. A trusted and handy travel companion, the notebook held invaluable sketches, notes, stories, and ideas that would one day become famous paintings or the pages of books.

In the 1980s, the Moleskin became increasingly scarce, and then vanished entirely, the manufacturer, a small family-owned company in the French city of Tours, went out of business. Le vrai moleskine n’est plus, were the lapidary words from the mouth of the owner of the stationery shop in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, where artists usually purchased them.

In 1997, Modo & Modo, a small Milanese publisher, brought the legendary notebook back to life, and resurrected the name with a literary pedigree to revive an extraordinary tradition. Today, Moleskine notebooks have resumed their travels, providing an indispensable counterpart to the new portable technologies that pervade our lives.

Capturing reality in writing from glimpsing and recording details, inscribing the unique nature of experiences on paper that stores ideas and feelings, releasing its energy over time, is far more intimate than digital recording. While Evernote enhances my work productivity and scheduling, my Moleskin enhances my thinking and creativity.

I’m a huge advocate of the Moleskine as a tool for ubiquitous capture of thoughts, jotting down ideas whenever and wherever they occur to me. I also use it as a conversation log, to take notes about all my conversations – or even ones that I overhear – that give me new ideas or insights, stimulating my thinking. It becomes a ‘mind atlas’, a book of mind-maps.

A new, blank notebook is full of promise. It’s an opportunity to reflect, to create, and to express yourself. I’ve kept all my old notebooks for the last decade, so I have a record of my journey, my thinking, my conversations and my inspirations.

My notebooks are of no consequence to anyone other than myself, unlike the collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, probably the most valuable notebooks ever created, which are beautiful works of art in themselves. Leonardo’s notebooks are a fascinating insight into his mind, they encompass all the interests and experiments of this self-taught entrepreneurial thinker, from mathematics to flying machines to art.

Da Vinci’s notebooks span most of his life as an artist, engineer and philosopher. He wrote in them daily, finishing with around 13,000 pages. His notebooks reflected his artistic innovations and natural philosophy based on his careful observation and precise scientific analysis. They are a tumultuous, sprawling feast of words and images, covering the astonishing range of his mind as he moves from problems of mechanics to art.

I’ve found that self-exploratory writing done on a regular basis into a personal journal has contributed to my emotional well-being and created a strong sense of self-knowledge, self-trust, contentment and sense of self. I find it therapeutic, it gives insight and perspective into finding your authentic voice, a practice that consists of listening to your own thinking and slowing down the thought process to the time it takes to write down a reflective and honest exploration of your thoughts.

Think of yourself as an archaeologist on a dig, curiously scrutinising and examining each thought, without judgment. At the end you can read what you wrote out loud to yourself so that you can hear your thoughts again in your own voice. This practice helps to remove the mental clutter or debris that builds up daily and often stands in the way of our creative potential.

Studies conducted by psychologists have traced many benefits to the practice of writing things down on a regular basis, and I’ve tried to copy da Vinci’s habit of always having a notebook with me. I often start with ‘note to self’, recording interesting conversations I overhear, capturing ideas for blog posts, jotting down one-liners I come up with – or just to capture random thoughts and insights.

I’m also a squirrel for capturing writing and thinking of others in newspapers or magazines, weekly and monthly publications. I tear the pages out, I love the physicality of having other peoples’ thinking with me on scraps of paper stuffed into my Moleskine and taken along for reading wherever I may be. I’m a digital magpie too with more bookmarks and printed web articles and blogs than I know what to do with.

I find the experience of keeping a journal much more creative on paper than on a computer. I’ve tried to do it on various digital devices but it has no authenticity and seems to lack purpose. When I write, I’m physically immersed in my own thinking and slow down, whereas on screen, I use my senses in a less engaged way – and I skim more, and I’ve got concrete fingers which don’t help with efficiency and flow of the keyboard.

Something different happens to my brain when I put pen to paper, the pace of writing or drawing diagrams slows you down and gives you more time for thoughts to come in, creating richer pictures. Learning never exhausts the mind, and simplicity of thinking in a journal is the ultimate sophistication, all our knowledge has its origin in perceptions, so let the journaling begin.

So for me, my Moleskin is a constant companion on my entrepreneurial learning journey, here’s a summary of what the habit brings to me, and how I use it.

Don’t fear the blank page You don’t need to create a masterpiece, you just need to write or draw something in the journal every day, you’ll realise how much you see each day. Give yourself permission to experiment, play around with material and make a mess.

Above all, stop caring about the outcome. It doesn’t have to be great, but exists as something that caught your attention that day. The whole point is getting stuff on the page. Once it’s out there, it can become a catalyst for other ideas related to your venturing endeavours.

Brings clarity to your thinking Writing every day logs your experiences and sparks new ideas. Writing is thinking. It forces you to examine your thoughts more critically and provides an opportunity to work through and gain clarity on the ideas, giving them some structure by having second or third thoughts about an original idea, that might otherwise sit as rolling tumbleweed in your head.

By noting those spur-of-the-moment ideas and random insights that you want to remember later, your racing thoughts become recorded and not lost on the hamster wheel of everyday stuff.

You get to know yourself My journal is a record of personal reflection. Taking time to shut out the loudness of the outside world and reconnect with your own thoughts in silence can lead to incredible self-discovery. The process of pouring out your unadulterated conversations in your head onto a blank page is both satisfying and motivating.

Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable. Fine ideas can pop up at the strangest times but they tend not to stay for long in your head, so you need to capture them or they are gone in the wind.

I do my best thinking when in my ‘note to self’ mode jotting down in the rough that would otherwise have been swept out the door with the ordinary dust of the filtered mind. Social psychologist James Pennebaker has proven, writing expressively can uplift both your mind and body.

It improves your memory My memory is like a leaking bucket. Writing expressively improves working memory, like replaying a film from our mental archives. Recording the ins and outs of your thinking gives more permanence to an often fleeting moment, as journaling is not for posterity but for future signposting, a way to keep sight of what happened behind you that has given you a sense of direction and momentum.

The beauty of journaling is that it can be messy, and that’s okay, you don’t have to follow any pattern or rules, you can just write what comes into your head. The more free we allow our thoughts to be, the more effective the process of journaling becomes, and a better record to refer to for stimulating future thoughts.

Unlocks your creativity My Moleskin enables me to capture the often random stream-of-consciousness to get a great idea out into the light, you can nurture what was a small seedling into a sequoia of brilliance. It frees up thinking space to gain clarity on what to do next. By becoming mindful with what you are thinking, you can move yourself from knowing into a doing state.

Because you’re in a direct and unfiltered dialogue with your own thinking when you write in a journal, it can be both a clearing-house and incubator where you tap into your imagination and unleash your creativity and ideas. a jumping ground to transform from the light bulb brain sketch into reality.

Content is yours Find a quote you’ve come across and write it down, hear someone say something – a one liner – that has meaning, learn something new from an online course you are enrolled in and write it down. However you are learning or searching for ways to grow as an individual, being able to write down reinforces the concept.

If you’re anything like me, we often have a hard time juggling so many thoughts throughout our day, and end up forgetting some of the stuff that was important in the moment, overwhelmed or simply unable to process the jumble of inputs, floating thoughts and ideas.

Provides perspective Sometimes our perception of a situation can blindspot us. Journaling helps to provide perspective on a situation, and assists our brains in properly processing it in a way that fosters a healthy outlook. This allows us to function better and get more done.

To write things down, you have to think a little bit to find the words or to figure out what it means.  Right off the bat, the act of trying to write something down shapes your thoughts.   Once it’s down on paper, you can now list things in a way that helps you think.   Whether it’s because you cross things off, or prioritise them, or shuffle them to make you feel good, you are in control.

Build your sense of purpose When you start to write about the things that have caught your eye and are important to your thinking, you gain the ability to start to process them against your own sense of purpose. Not only can a journal be a place where we store ideas, information, quotes or sayings that move us, but it’s also a wonderful tool to help us analyse where we are at and where we want to go.

Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude, how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our inner voice and personal experiences, and fully inhabit our inner lives. It translates the inner to the outer.

At its heart, journaling with my Moleskine is simply taking the experiences, reflections, and ideas that I engage with and are in my head, and writing them down for mindfulness. Few of us can write one thought and think another at the same time. As Jim Rohn said, A life worth living is a life worth recording.

This helps stuff to sink in better by creating more of an experience and at the same time, calms your mind. The Zeigarnik Effect says we tend to hang on to things in our mind, if we don’t finish what we start. If you write things down, you free up your mind from worrying about what you forgot or what you need to remember.

Now you have a bird’s-eye view, you can decide what matters and what doesn’t and you can rehydrate your ideas later on as you need them. For me, it’s a pivotal element in capturing the living moments in my entrepreneurial learning journey.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Moleskine I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt at the moment, and I found this fervour, this enthusiasm produced a vividness. I never travel without my Moleskin. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.

 

 

 

The past, the present, the future: take a lesson from Ebenezer Scrooge this Christmas

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was first published on 19 December 1843. It tells the story of a bitter old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, and his transformation resulting from a supernatural visit by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come.

The story’s message of forgiveness, generosity, hope and redemption resonates to this day, it possesses life and business lessons that are every bit as relevant as they were in Victorian England. It is also responsible for giving us many of our holiday customs, including the name ‘Scrooge’ for a miser, the exclamation ‘Bah, humbug!’ and the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ itself.

The core of the story is how Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable, self-focused businessman is transformed into a generous and joyful human being, thanks to the intervention of the spirit of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s business partner who died seven Christmases ago, a tormented ghost to reveal the fate that awaits a terrified but recalcitrant Scrooge.

He informs Scrooge on Christmas Eve that those who do not walk among their fellow humans and treat them with care are condemned to forever walk the earth as spirits who can only observe the things they would now mend, the people they would like to help.

He also drags a chain with heavy moneyboxes and padlocks on it as he walks in spirit form and tells Scrooge that he forged the very fetters he must wear for all eternity while he was alive and indifferent to the needs of those around him.

Scrooge learns that the chain he has forged is a fearsome thing that dwarfs the one Marley must drag behind him. The ghost offers to help Scrooge and tells him that three spirits will visit him to help in his possible salvation.

What follows are visits by three spirits of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come. Each spirit guides Scrooge through his own experiences and illuminates the experiences of the people whose lives Scrooge has touched. The spirits succeed, and Scrooge is transformed by their visitations.

Business might be the furthest thing from your mind at this time of year, but as we all gather around the Christmas tree and dinner table it is worth reflecting on the values that A Christmas Carol highlights, and the insights it offers to enrich our business thinking:

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows us the value of perspective. While in the company of the Ghost of Christmas past, Scrooge visits Mr. Fezziwig’s warehouse, where he was an apprentice, just in time for their annual Christmas party. What ensues is an evening of joy, laughter, feasting, music and dancing that awakens a long denied aspect of Scrooge’s personality.

As the evening wanes, and Scrooge and his fellow apprentice are pouring out their hearts in praise of Mr. Fezziwig, the spirit provokes Scrooge to reflect briefly and regretfully on the mistreatment suffered by his employee, Bob Cratchit as a result of his own behaviour.

The contrast to Fezziwig’s leadership, in his sincerity and consistency is plain to see. Fezziwig’s leadership is born of high regard for the people he employs, the Christmas party serves as a celebration of relationship that are already rich and rewarding.

Perspective gives us a sense of what really matters. You must be able to recall, in the heat of the moment, what is most important. If perspective is lost then it is easy to get lost in the transactions of the moment, in doing what is easy rather than what is right, or with a longer term view for your business. Perspective enables us to view our business at a more strategic level, and in doing so, offers greater awareness and options.

The Ghost of Christmas Present provides the second insight to Scrooge and that is the importance of knowing current reality, seeing where you stand in the moment of today. The ghost helps him observe the lives and intentions of others, he gets to see how his employees interact with their family and discovers that the youngest is a little boy, Tiny Tim who is crippled and sickly of body but great in spirit.

The wealthy business-owner could not hold a candle to the brilliant light of Tiny Tim’s heroic spirit and loving heart. The child’s example touched the old miser’s heart. Scrooge was inspired to admit his mistakes and open his heart by Tim’s spirit, in spite of living in a crippled and declining body.

Scrooge sees what he is missing in the moment and how his way of thinking and behaving impact not only his life but also the lives of others. As a business leader, you must know where you stand if you are to form any realistic plans and make positive changes.

Although we can’t accurately predict every factor that will affect business even one year into the future, we need to starting to think now about the possible long-term influences that will change our business, and where the gaps are. In order to prepare your business model today for the future, it’s time to start thinking further into the future now – but you do need a firm grip on reality today in order to move forward.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come The third insight is the need to be brave and seek a transformation for the future. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to a forlorn, unkempt grave site, Scrooge sees his own name written there on the gravestone. He begs the spirit to give him another chance. Part of what Scrooge learns is that his deeds have directed his future. His greed caused him to give up the love of his life. He recognises he needs to change.

After the visits by the three spirits, Scrooge sees what his greed has cost him. He sees people who have so much less than he does and yet that they are far happier than he. As a result of this insight, he is motivated to contribute to charity and to speak kindly to everyone he meets.

He even promotes Bob Cratchit to the position of partner. Scrooge had a faithful employee in Bob Cratchit, but he treated him with disrespect. Scrooge rarely gave the man a day off and even begrudged him burning enough coal to keep warm while he worked.

After the three visits however, Scrooge realises it is not too late to radically change his life. When Cratchit arrives at work a bit late on the day after Christmas, apologising by saying he fears he was ‘making rather merry’ the day before, Scrooge tries to reprimand him. However, the former old miser can hardly contain his newfound joy. Not only does he forgive the infrequent tardiness, but he offers Crachit a pay rise.

The business insights and lessons from A Christmas Carol are clear: first, step back and gain perspective in order to know what is most important; second, take an honest look at your current reality in order to know where you stand. Finally, understand that you have to look forward at all times, and identify where you want to be, and make adjustments – no matter how uncomfortable – to ensure the changes you need to make are enacted.

If we look at this a little closer and at the same time stand back, what are the personal lessons we can all take from A Christmas Carol as we head into the Christmas break? We all know that holidays are good for us, giving time to reflect and evaluate the past year, where we currently stand, and what we can see ahead. However, many of us do not take time off to reflect, we are constantly ‘on’, solving problems, in front of us putting out fires, thinking of ways to grow faster, bigger, better, but in truth, running too fast.

A holiday provides a great opportunity for personal growth in an accelerated way. Yes you rest, you catch up on sleep, you read a book or two, you may be even be lucky enough to fill up on vitamin D and get some sun. But above all, you constantly reflect, absorb and learn. So, what are the key lessons?

The greatest reflection of yourself is how you use your time Whatever you say about what really matters to you, the true test is where you place your time. Whatever you say your priorities, that statement will only be true if your calendar reflects it. The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once, but don’t wait, the time will never be right.

To know what you think, write it down I don’t see many people writing stuff down these days. For me, I am constantly scribbling ideas, comments, thoughts, notes, conversations into a notebook, to let it see light, it’s the best way for me to clarify what I actually think about something. ‘Writing is the painting of the voice’ said Voltaire, for me, I realise that writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted.

Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity You can’t artificially generate curiosity, so you have to follow where yours actually leads. Curiosity ends up being the driving force behind learning and the thirst for knowledge. ‘Millions saw the apple fall but Newton asked why’ said Bernard Baruch. Curiosity did not kill the cat, conventionality did. What are you curious about in your business?

Get outside Sometimes you need to step outside, get some air and remind yourself of who you are and who you want to be. Being on holiday gives you freedom from the usual routine, to breathe the air without interference and to just do stuff. What you think of yourself is much more important than what other people think of you. Be yourself, everyone else is taken, so give yourself some space.

Pay close attention to what you do when you’re alone When no-one else is around, or looking, or talking, when the house is empty, when the afternoon is yours alone, what you choose to do says a lot about you. Pay close attention to where your mind wanders in the shower. Your natural wanderings are your compass to what’s truly interesting to you. Equally, it’s bad enough wasting time without killing time.

Self-control is a finite resource I’m good company for me, I like the idea of solitude, being alone and being content with myself, but I fear loneliness, the pain of being alone, and I’ve never been lonely, an exposed position. However, you can only ask so much of yourself each day, you’ll snap or warp or splinter if you ask too much. You have a limited capacity to direct yourself a certain way. I now realise there are boundaries to being independent.

Put yourself in places that make you nervous Nerves are really the only way to know that you’re being stretched. If there hasn’t been a moment of nerves in your life for a month, it might be worthwhile asking if you’re pushing hard enough. Step outside your comfort zone into the learning zone. If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got. Great people did not achieve great things by staying in their comfort zone.

Listen to your own pulse Money can’t buy you happiness, but consciousness can. I read Laura Vanderkam’s book, ‘168 hours: you have more time than you think’ recently. She talks about thinking of your week in terms of 168 hours, instead of seven 24-hour chunks. When you look at your week from that perspective, you have more time than you think. This book is a reality check that tells you I do have time for what is important to me.

Ebenezer Scrooge shared the tendency we all have to become myopic when we focus too long on the same thing and we forget to look beyond our horizons. The lesson from A Christmas Carol is be aware, alert and alive – live for the moments of serendipity and synchronicity. Sleep. Hydrate. Learn. Move. The basics are key. You strive to be conscious in all areas of life, relationships, raising children, your work, but we all need more awareness and clarity.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year, Scrooge vows near end of the story. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!

Having re-read the book, and written this blog, I already feel more relaxed and more deeply connected to myself and refocused, that’s not been the case for a while. So now ready with new things identified to learn and habits to unlearn, I’ve already begun to create and continue a healthier, more authentic life rhythm that’s best for me. And the thing is, in doing that, what I give to those close to me and what I develop for myself will be so much better.

No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused, wrote Dickens in A Christmas Carol. The simple, yet eloquent story continues to teach us much about ourselves, and what it really means to be a successful person.

Freshers’ Week opens up the life-long learning journey

My daughter Katie starts her Freshers’ Week today, ahead of a three-year BA Business Management degree course at Sheffield University. The serendipity is that she’ll be studying in the same Management School building as me (albeit it’s recently been totally rebuilt), and frequent the same pubs (favourite: The Fat Cat http://www.thefatcat.co.uk) as I did 1981-1984, and latterly on sporadic reunions.

Freshers’ Week is jam-packed with socialising, but while partying is certainly a rite of passage, going to University is not just about the parties. You’ll have a fulfilling few days that will set the tone for the next three years, and it has more to offer new students than a week-long hangover.

Once the car’s been unpacked and the tearful relatives waved off you’ll be an official university student, surrounded by unfamiliar buildings and new faces. If you’re still full of trepidation, reflect on how much you’ve achieved so far and how hard you worked to get there.

The next three years promise to be some of the best of your life. University offers bars, kitchens and corridors for passionate debate and discussion and are a chance to learn about every aspect of life, both academic and social, so try to head off optimistically and explore!

I was nervous when I started university at Sheffield back in 1981. A new life, in a new town, which I had only visited once before. This was my first step on the road to an independent life, trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. It was like standing on the edge of a massive ocean, waiting to dive in. But I look back and I know it was one of the best experiences of my life.

I grew up more than I ever thought possible, both intellectually, socially and emotionally. I had a fair idea of what I want to do with my life, even if I didn’t have a five-point plan. I met some of the best friends I’ve ever made, and still in touch some 30 years later, even if they are 3000 miles away. The Haddock Brains, a Clash-inspired band we formed one day in the library, never did get in the way of future lives in accounting, economics and law – more’s the pity!

I know that those starting university today have to worry about paying £9,000 in tuition fees and fund living out of a totally inadequate maintenance loan. I firmly believe that allowing that level of tuition fees was one of the biggest mistakes of the current government, and a decision that may well be the death knell of Nick Clegg’s political career.

I know that university isn’t for everyone and the government has to invest either in employment or in other means of education and training for young people, but if people want to go to university, they shouldn’t have to risk racking up massive debts in order to do it.

Higher education accessible to all is crucial to the achievement of a fair, free and open society. It helps people gain the skills, knowledge and aspiration to move their life forward, and develops their intellectual capabilities so that they can reach beyond their expectations. It boosts their self-esteem so that they have the confidence to challenge conformity, and ultimately it improves the productivity and innovation of the nation. Above all, it widens people’s horizons and opens up new choices and experiences to them.

Anyway, I’ll step down from my soapbox at the Students Union meeting now! Looking back, what did I learn from my three-years at University? Here are my nuggets of state-funded learning:

Laundry machines aren’t rocket science One of the more daunting aspects of university is the practical side of living alone. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to do laundry. No matter how nice you are to the machines, they are going to growl and they will occasionally swallow your money. There will be several buttons on the dashboard that you never press. Or even understand. Just wash old clothes first and you’ll soon catch on.

Cooking’s a doddle really Similarly, cuisine. It is handy to know how to cook pasta when coming to university, but not essential. In fact, don’t worry if your repertoire doesn’t stretch that far. Mixing odd combinations of food quickly gives you an appreciation of fine food and you find your preferences with ease. Corn beef hash ‘extra’ was my favourite.

Careful with your stuff If you leave your kitchen utensils out on the side, you are saying that these are public property and can be used freely by all in the flat. Whether plates, pots, pans, or the cheese grater, the unwritten code of borrowing states that these can be appropriated by whoever finds the equipment. If you’re slightly OCD about finding your spoons in the same drawer as you left them, or you don’t want to play the ultimate end-of-term treasure hunt to collect said kitchen items from various rooms, you may be best investing in a cupboard lock.

Hair of the dog is not actually a workable solution You will probably be spending an astonishing amount of your time drinking in your first term. That’s fine, as nobody will bat an eyelid, but do remember to take a few nights off. Fun as it can be, not every social activity is improved by alcohol.

Do not leave your work until the absolute last minute This isn’t what you want to hear right now, but amid all the revelry, you do still have a degree to get. As with everything in life, the right work-life balance is up to you, but indulging in too much of either will catch up with you in the end. If you save all your essays up until the last minute, your last two weeks of term are going to be rotten. On the other hand, try not to spend every waking hour in the library fretting about a First until your final year.

You will not have as much sex as you might be hoping for Freshers’ Week, as everyone knows, is a roiling hotbed of constant, regrettable sexual activity. Except, of course, that it’s not. This isn’t San Francisco in 1969 – it’s Sheffield in 2013, and it’s probably raining.

Eat a salad once in a while That sudden switch into a booze-rich lifestyle of intense partying and long lie-ins plays havoc with any previously trim waistline. The freedom of living alone for the first time is also the freedom to devour chips every day. You can limit the damage by eating a salad and getting up off your arse every now and again to walk to a lecture.

Try not to spend your entire loan in the first two weeks You will go out a lot. In fact, you might never party as hard again in your life, but it’s an expensive habit, and costs mount up – even at student union prices. This is probably the first time you’ve ever had thousands of pounds lying around in your bank account, and the temptation to go large will be hard to resist. You owe it to yourself to be sensible. You’ll still have to feed yourself in 10 weeks’ time and you’ve only got bread crusts to toast and that tin of creamed mushrooms left.

But of course, the real reason you’re at University is to continue, if not accelerate, your life long learning journey. Let’s define what learning is. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skill through education and experience. Our ability to learn sets us apart from the animals, which is handy really as according to genetics we share 98.5% of our genes with chimpanzees. Perhaps this is not such a significant matter – but we also share about 60% of our genes with tomatoes!

Every piece of learning you do to reinvent and update your knowledge allows you to grow from where you are today to where you want to go. Learning is beneficial emotionally, financially, physically and socially. You can’t open a book without learning something. I’ve always been minded by the Thomas Huxley quote: try to learn something about everything and everything about something.

Learning is my passion and it’s something that impacts me nearly every day. I am constantly reading about new things, taking cuttings from magazines, spending hours browsing on the Internet or expounding on existing knowledge. I just want to stay ahead of the game. Some of this I am fortunate to do as it pays me for a living, but even when I am not learning, I am applying skills or knowledge, even if it is just playing chess or a Sudoku puzzle, in order to exercise my mind.

Learning is the key to achieving our full potential, recognising that lifelong learning is a journey with no end in sight and that no one can ever have all the answers – although Katie will tell you I sometimes try to bluff that I do. In order for you to create the new results you want in your life, learning is a path you must be willing to take. It provides the opportunities to continually expand your capacity. When you change your thoughts your change your results.

But back to Katie, and Sheffield. My degree was in Accounting & Maths – I was obsessed with numbers, so the degree was a real passion. In Freshers’ week in 1981 I recall eating pizza for the first time, discovering Theakston’s Old Peculiar at the aforementioned Fat Cat, meeting a bloke called Anders from Norway who got homesick and went back home after just a week, joining the university rugby club which had a ladies team, and falling in love with an American Economist called Paul A. Samuelson. I hope Katie has a similar fulfilling experience – and I hope Samuelson’s Economics is still on the curriculum reading list! http://www.economist.com/node/15127616

University can teach you life skills and gives you opportunity, but it can’t teach you sense, nor give you understanding. Sense and understanding are produced within your own reflection and when I get some sense I’ll let you know. University unlocked my appetite for learning, the opportunity it offered was the thrill of great clarity wrestling with the endless problems and delights of standing on the shoulder of giants.

After three-years, I graduated, and at the graduation ceremony wearing a daft hat and gown, unrolled my degree scroll displaying a long declaration in Latin affixed with a red seal proclaiming me a Bachelor of Arts with Honours. Imagine working for three years to obtain a piece of paper I could hardly read.

As I stare down the barrel of my thirtieth anniversary of graduation in 2014, Katie, I’m almost jealous, and the brilliant three years you have ahead of you. Make the most of it. Welcome to Sheffield. Welcome to university. Welcome to learning. You’re going to love it. It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts, and remember, learning never exhausts the mind but dancing in the Students Union until 4am will.