Don’t let solitude send you stir crazy, use your imagination

Most of us have become solopreneurs during lockdown, working home alone. How have you found this? There’s a strangeness about being on your own, the sense that you are an odder person than you realised. Or maybe that’s just me then! I’ve been reading a lot about working in solitude, from Virginia Wolf’s and astronaut’s diaries, to Robinson Crusoe, and how Einstein did his best thinking alone. More of that later.

Working day-to-day in a team involves constant adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift to fit in with someone else. Your edges get smoothed, you mirror each other and become more alike, which makes you feel normal. But on your own, when there’s no one to notice what you’re doing, or eating, or drinking, or watching, and you can make all your own choices, you wonder whether your choices are weird.

This period of working alone at home captured something about human awkwardness for me, reminding me of my youth when you’re all clumsy elbows and emotions, and out of it you create a kind of desolate euphoria – for the first time in a long I had time to have time.

We have long stigmatised solitude, it has been considered something to avoid, a realm of loners, but some aspects have been better than anticipated for me. Much of this self-reconfiguring happens through personal epiphany. When you have these moments, don’t fight it. Accept it for what it is. I’ve certainly found aspects of this enforced solitude restorative and creative. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who spent years alone, held a similar notion: We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom he wrote in Thoughts in Solitude.

The best book I’ve read on solitude during lockdown has been The Lost Island, by Alfred Van Cleef, a book capturing a man’s search for meaning on a remote island, the forbidding Amsterdam Island in the south Indian Ocean. Giving some extreme downtime to ponder life’s strangeness, it’s a striking narrative of a man’s search for and discovery of his life force in the most secluded of places – an isolation like we’ve all experienced recently, although the views were probably more inspiring.

After the death of his father, Van Cleef, the last of a family of Dutch Jews, learns that he is unable to have children. His search for solitude led him to an island lost in the immensity of the Southern Ocean, a place so far-flung that ‘remote’ scarcely does it justice.

Entrenched on this lonely, wind-battered rock – approaching its grey shores was like watching a black-and-white movie on a channel with poor reception – Van Cleef anticipates a total escape from the frenzy of humanity. He shares his time on the island with seas elephants, fur seals and albatrosses and weird scientists – everyday life is spiced with daily scientific discoveries (a new shade of bird vomit, a record gust of wind) and arguments over the management of stocks of chocolate spread.

The island mirrors an emotional desert. It is an untamed wilderness with sheer exposure to the elements, one where life at its most precarious and stark. The island proves to be his kind of place. Van Cleef treasures his geographical, cultural and psychic distance from it all, replacing an emotional black hole with a geographical one. There is wit and humour, yet it is impossible to ignore that this is Van Cleef’s quest for salvation. This points to the paradox at the heart of solitude: life in the quiet carriage can be both good and bad.

William Wordsworth has lessons for people trapped inside by natural forces greater than human will. He wandered lonely as a cloud, taking long walks in remote places, and in this season of cancelled parties, the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth’s birth went unmarked. Celebrations of the English poet, born on April 7, 1770, should have bloomed like his beloved daffodils, but for now the British landscapes he loved are empty of the visitors that his verse attracted from crowded Victorian cities.

In a period of enforced apartness, Wordsworth’s pursuit of joyous solitude seems timelier than ever. For Wordsworth, solitude brings joy above all because it carves out space for memory. More than the treks and climbs around picturesque locations that filled his years, what Wordsworth cherished was memory as solace and strength – A few hermits make their lives in isolation, birds which fly alone.

For me, solitude is about the quest for balance, and modern technology has made it both easier and harder to get the balance right. On the one hand we have ‘networked solitude’ – just as St Jerome squatted in his cave surrounded by his library, so modern hermits can sit in their flats gorging on downloaded books and films or chatting with friends across the world. On the other hand, it has made it more difficult to enjoy the benefits of solitude. Distraction is always one click away.

During this spell of collective standstill, our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration: social distancing has been a tragedy for those living alone, but for others it has proved a mixed blessing – many people have been able to take a break from the treadmill of commuting.  If we can’t let ourselves get frustrated then we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us a definition of success.

Notwithstanding this vestige of a neverland lodged in my psyche, I do enjoy the tranquillity of time spent alone. I need time and space to think and get stuff out of my head, yet a place to look at the horizon and keep me fresh. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

As we all spend more time at home, it’s only natural to get a little stir-crazy. But we’re in the same boat as great thinkers like William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, who were isolated at a time when medical knowledge struggled to combat plagues. And even though conditions were rough then, the time spent isolated led to breakthroughs for both of them – Newton did it over the course of 18 months while isolated to avoid the Plague, revolutionising optics and gravity, and inventing calculus along the way.

One of the reasons Einstein carries such a hefty cultural weight is that he, like Newton, single-handedly invented a fundamentally new view of the universe whilst also in solitude. Einstein’s turn came in his Annus Mirabilus in 1905, when he published four ground-breaking papers and a PhD thesis, touching on optics, and the size and motions of atoms. A few years later, as the Spanish Flu devastated the world from 1918-1920, Einstein was gaining notoriety for his work on the Theory of Relativity, again flourishing in isolation.

Einstein had a thinking strategy of his own. Intuition for sure, but one of the main things was Einstein’s time spent alone with nothing more than his imagination. His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.

Now besides modelling my own lockdown-hairstyle on Einstein’s, I’ve tried to adopt his approach to innovation – we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them – which I know has helped me in isolation. Taking this further, I’ve always adopted the maxim ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as a way of learning, so I’ve developed my own interpretation of How would Einstein approach this situation? to declutter and unpack thinking whilst in solitude, his own words:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. Einstein asked himself what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then created it. I’ve found it a great way to help kick-start my mind-mapping sketches.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference. It’s the same for your startup thinking, shoot for the stars.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Einstein was relentlessly curious, he was fixated on following through until he was satisfied with the outcome. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward. Trusting one’s gut instinct, once you’ve tested the hypothesis, your gut instinct rarely lets you down.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Touch, Fire and the Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention. Keep pushing your boundaries in a similar manner.

Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals X plus Y plus Z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Einstein lived his life by looking at relationships and variables. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success. Do this grounded thinking yourself, as it helps to create the forward path.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein learned to view a problem in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

A couple of final quotes from Einstein to end with, that always make me smile, and were useful to reflect upon during lockdown. Firstly,I never think of the future, it comes soon enough. He held an appetite for tolerance, ambiguity and even delight in contradiction. Despite his brilliance, he was patient too, a quality we’ve all needed these past three-months: insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It’s been good to reflect upon that too.

The outbreak of coronavirus has been hugely distressing. Those that can safely self-quarantine and cope with the solitude are fortunate. We’re all likely to catch a little cabin fever, but don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking, Einstein had good thinking habits – in his own solitude, he focused on the positive aspects, about have the time to reflect, thinking differently, and not just sitting there daydreaming or worrying.

As we come out of lockdown, there are better things ahead than we leave behind. Maybe your solitude has had some hidden silver lining. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, but rather than seeing solitude as a negative, be like Einstein. He pictured the future, working out possibilities of new realities, where what he was doing today was completely different tomorrow. Use your imagination. That’s what Einstein did when he was alone.

Stand on the shoulders of giants, and focus on innovation whilst in isolation

The lockdown has deprived us of the communal spirit in our lives. Many of us feel this loss acutely, especially as the days lengthen and the fine weather tempts us outside, even as we are told to stay safe inside. Luckily, I can walk in nearby open countryside, but otherwise, we are strictly quarantined.

Working from home is business as usual for me, I’ve been doing so for over ten years, but usually I get out, travel for business meetings, go to the pub, to the football, see friends. Normal life. Not anymore.

What to do in between hand-washing? I’ve put a picture of a rainbow in the window, and applaud fervently our wonderful NHS on Thursdays. It restores my faith in human nature and helps. But I can’t just twiddle my thumbs, and I probably read too much as it is. None of this is funny, of course. I am trying to keep a lid on my anxiety thinking about what the future holds for my business activities, but it flutters there below the surface.

Isolating ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic will affect each of us in different ways, and while these are unprecedented measures for our times, there are examples from history which show people had to adapt to medical crises, sometimes with pretty impressive results. For example, one of the greatest playwrights ever set himself on the road to success after being forced to self-isolate.

William Shakespeare was doing alright for himself in the early 1590s. His portfolio included The Taming of the Shrew, and his reputation in London’s theatre scene was on the up. However, the Great Plague thrived in the capital’s grimy conditions and proved highly infectious. As death rates grew, venues where people congregated were shut, and in an outbreak in 1592, theatres closed for what would turn out to be a two-year period.

Shakespeare, who earned his money as an actor and writer, was thus forced to work alone. He was fortunate to have a patron, the Earl of Southampton, who subsidised him to continue writing. It was during this shelter that Shakespeare found time to write Richard III.

When the playhouses re-opened, Shakespeare’s popularity had grown considerably, but as London reeled from the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the following summer, the black death made an unwelcome return. By now Shakespeare was no stranger to the task of plying his trade amid difficult conditions and the widespread debilitating illness was no obstacle to him completing three of his great tragedies – King LearMacbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra in 1606.

The Bard was forced to shutter his venue, the Globe Theatre, but even as he worked in isolation, the plague threatened to ensnare Shakespeare in its invisible grasp. From 1603 to 1613, there were so many outbreaks of plague that many theatres were shut for more than 60% of the time – 78 months. He had to recoup lost income with no touring performances, yet this gave him time as a wordsmith to sit alone with his thoughts and pen. That decade would include classics such as Othello and The Tempest.

Mentions of these contemporary events appear in his plays. King Lear, one of his bleakest tragedies, provided an apt description of the plague’s ghastly symptoms by way of the king’s insult to his daughter Goneril: Thou art a boil, A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, In my corrupted blood – while Macbeth lamented The dead man’s knell, associated with the plague.

Self-isolation didn’t just bring about additions to the world of literature during these plague years. Scientific discoveries were also made. Cambridge University was forced to close in 1665 due to the plague. This meant that Isaac Newton, a mathematics student at Trinity College, had to return to his family home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire.

Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple. By 1666, he had completed his early work on the three Laws of Motion. In the midst of the lockdown, isolation and quarantine, he laid the foundations of what later became the Law of Gravity, changing science forever. It was also during this eighteen-month hiatus and lockdown that he conceived the method of calculus, set foundations for his theory of light and colour, and gained insight into the laws of planetary motion, insights that eventually led to the publication of his epic work Principia in 1687.

Our own experiences in the ‘isolation economy’ may not be as productive, but we are getting increasingly used to working alone, from home. Unfortunately, however, as we work in isolation, we miss out on some of the positive elements of workplace interaction and collaboration that we have taken for granted.

As working from home becomes the new norm, we will need to relearn many of our previous collaborative activities and make them as productive they used to be, while secluded at home. Even though remote work has certain advantages and may also enhance personal fulfilment in many respects, innovation is one thing that becomes harder to do.

Innovation in isolation is hard because human creativity needs idea sharing and interaction to flourish and spark. Breakthroughs rarely come from lone inventors who toil alone. Instead, they thrive when ideas are shared, challenged, and refined. The ability to share ideas is the primary reason innovation is localised – Silicon Valley and Seattle have become the hotbeds for technology innovation.

Innovation happens when knowledge builds on knowledge and ideas build on ideas. When you are isolated, working from home, you have fewer collaborative and spontaneous encounters, save by virtual conferencing. The serendipity of innovation suffers without these face-to-face encounters, that often lead to flashes of creativity.

But innovation is still possible. I am a firm believer in the power of teams fusing together to build something greater than what is possible creating alone, but I sometimes wonder, given the examples earlier, do we have the ability to work on our own?

We all need time alone to collect our thoughts sometimes. I have come to appreciate the opportunity to sit alone and be anonymous at some points. This gives me a break from all of the things that we do in our busy times, catch up on my own thinking, reflect, and clarify. Is the ability to be alone something we all possess?

An emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, so can solitude. After all, if we are to be creative and innovative, we have to be able to individually bring something to the table. The ability to connect with ourselves is important.

A couple of years ago I came across a book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. In it he examines the schedules of painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers. He hypothesised that for these creatives, a solo routine was surprisingly essential to their work. As Currey puts it A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

He noted several common elements in the lives of creatives that allowed them to pursue a productivity-enhancing routine when working alone. Here are the highlights Currey identified in the structure, routine and habits that seem to enable creative and innovative thinking whilst working on their own:

A workspace with minimal distractions Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky door hinge never be oiled, so that she always had a warning when someone was approaching the room where she wrote. Mark Twain’s family knew better than to breach his study door. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office, only his wife knew the address and telephone number. Having your own personal, private workplace, drives your thinking.

A daily walk For many, a regular daily walk was essential to brain functioning. Soren Kierkegaard found his constitutionals so inspiring that he would often rush back to his desk and resume writing, still wearing his hat and carrying his walking stick or umbrella. Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Being on your own, stimulates creativity.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork It amazed me to see the amount of time the isolationists allocated to discipline. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing. Use isolation time to give structure, not boredom.

A habit of stopping when they’re on a roll, not when they’re stuck Hemingway puts it well: You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. Arthur Miller said, I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say. For today, the lesson is stop-start in isolation maybe a rhythm that works.

Limited social lives One of Simone de Beauvoir’s friends put it this way: There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values; it was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work. Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier borrowed the idea of Sunday as an ‘at-home day’ to enable undisrupted painting, and kept themselves to themselves. Whilst we have no social lives at present, hold the thought that successful innovators keep themselves to themselves.

Creative people like to teach themselves rather than be taught by others. Many innovators and creatives dropped out of school – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs were autodidact, they preferred figuring things out independently, rather than being spoon-fed information. Because their thinking is different, they preferred to learn on their own – so grab this time to teach yourself.

Boredom is also an important consideration here, even if your focus is on solving the problem of boredom itself. For example, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to entertain herself during the lockdown in the summer of 1816 due to the Mount Tambora volcano eruption. Also, Michelangelo who, in order to alleviate his boredom, spent two months in a small room painting on the walls with chalk and charcoal after supporting a revolt against the Medici which forced him to isolate.

When the pandemic subsides, the most prepared will thrive. Our current circumstances introduce a person to know thyself. Every adversity in life advances us into the next level. COVID-19 will alter our futures, but you alone will determine how you will emerge from it. There is a movement lockdown, but your brain need not be lockdown. Your aspiration and ambitions must not be lockdown. Your thinking must not be locked down.

Use this time of isolation for innovation. Stand on the shoulders of giants, develop thinking during traumatic times, be creative during chaos. Don’t allow isolation to erode your entrepreneurial mojo. This lockdown can be your finest hour, days and weeks.

Notes to self: reflections from my ‘lockdown journal’​

During the lockdown isolation and resultant ‘wash-rinse-repeat’ routine, I’ve noticed three things about my working style and rhythm that have made everything feel a lot less anxious:

– never working faster than a walking pace mentally

– being able to work in a more relaxed routine around my own natural body clock

– letting my mind’s appetite guide my working focus

I’ve been making these and other notes in my ’lockdown journal’ about the experience, and as Thoreau wrote in his diary, It matters not where or how far you travel… but how much alive you are. I like his mindset.

I’ve done ok with this hibernation and disengagement. Yes, I’ve hidden under the duvet – both actual and spiritual – and examined the oppressiveness of the current circumstances, which I admit has encouraged me to outburst of hysterical flippancy at times. But with my world shrunk to the limits of an all too familiar horizon trapped at home, I’ve discovered the vicarious pleasures of You Tube armchair travel and exotic culinary delights, making notes of far-flung places to visit in the future.

For my diary, I started a new Moleskine notebook last week, always a special event. I’ve kept a journal for over a decade now, handy for private scribblings and I was delighted to open a new one and start a relationship with a trusted companion.

The Moleskine 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. The notebooks became synonymous with creative thinking.

So here is an extract from last Tuesday’s lockdown diary, with some takeaways and personal reflections that I hope you’ll find useful.

6.00am. Woken up by the dog, time for her first walk of the day. Start Me Up! Always think of the great Keith Richards guitar riff.

6.15am. Listen to BBC Radio 4 Today news getting ready to take the dog out. It’s Groundhog Day, horrible numbers on the update for global and UK infections and deaths, heart-breaking personal stories, and tales of pending economic doom.

7.30am. Back. Have conversation with neighbour who stands a careful two yards away. Feed the dog before she eats my leg. My breakfast is tricky decision. Are we closer to running out of milk and cereal, or bread and eggs? Go for boiled eggs and toast.

7.45am. Still with the radio, now it’s Thought for the day, it’s two minutes radio beauty. The Reverend Dr. Sam Wells today, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields and Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at King’s College, London. He talks about touch.

Lockdown lesson 1: Keep in touch But we can’t currently touch, and the less we can touch physically the more we want spiritually. We’ve become disciplined in distancing and isolating. I’m taking inspiration from the work of the NHS folks, they are touching all our lives. But then Dr. Sam mentions death, disease and debt.

I’m going to keep in touch much more post-lockdown, friends and clients alike. Make my connections have depth, meaning and purpose, and share more thinking with startup founders about their well-being, not just business growth.

8.00am. At my desk. Inbox consists of companies advising me how to cope with the pandemic, others offering virtual conferencing tips. Also loads of restaurants that ever took an online booking from me in the last three years offering vouchers.

8.30am. Scan read the subscribed blogs and daily news feeds desperate for a voice not about coronavirus. Pause and reflect on the day ahead, get a positive, optimistic tone of voice into my head.

Lockdown lesson 2: Focus on purpose and outcomes Taking time to shut out the noise of the outside world and reconnect with your own thoughts in silence can lead to incredible self-discovery. Write down the thoughts of the moment.

I do my best thinking when in my ‘note to self’ mode jotting down that would otherwise have been lost with the ordinary routine of work tasks compressing the mind. Post lockdown, I’m going to spend more time thinking through purpose and outcomes, not simply process and outputs.

8.50am. Look at my draft blog in the hope it will spark more words. Give up when the abstract turns out to be too, er, abstract. Check Twitter and various news websites on grounds this is ‘research’. Disappear down rabbit hole for 45 minutes.

9.30am. To be safe, wash hands while singing Love Will Tear Us Apart. The first two lines have always resonated just where Ian Curtis’s head was when writing the lyrics – When routine bites hard, And ambitions are low. Those two lines have echoed in my mind during lockdown.

10.00am. First Zoom call of the day, with a fund manager who’s considering an investment in one of our startups. It’s a no.

Lockdown lesson 3: Anything is easy when you don’t have to do it People at startups are inherently curious. They constantly challenge, asking why?, what if?, and why not? But sometimes they don’t have the answers needed from an investor’s perspective, and in this case ‘the numbers don’t work’.

I politely reply ‘but you’ve never run a fish and chip shop, anything is easy when you don’t have to do it’. Decide to only work with investors who’ve previously run their own business post lockdown, they will reflect emotional intelligence and empathy whilst reading spreadsheets.

11.00am. Time to dial into another Zoom meeting. Realise cannot find meeting number or meeting code. Send email to colleague who returns a WhatsApp message with the answer.

11.05am. Finally get through to meeting. Try to contribute. Suggest some really good ideas and then sit back. Realise Zoom is on mute. Discussion has moved on. Mute again to avoid embarrassment. Realise I’m starting to miss regular meetings, a concept previously beyond imagination.

12.00pm. Find myself looking out of the window. I don’t mind my own company, but we’ve all become isolated and I hope, when the time comes, that we don’t see every handshake as a threat, that we can put things in perspective and not remain over-cautious.

Lockdown lesson 4: Zoomgluts and negative oil prices got me thinking – focus on possibilities The oil glut is caused by a lack of demand, the digital glut is caused by overproduction. When lockdown first took effect fitness instructors, chefs, random guys with an idea, all had the same thought: set up a zoom broadcast.

Now we are overwhelmed by choice, facing Zoom fatigue, and a smorgasbord of options, for free. But even at zero cost, we pay with something even more valuable: our time. And, unlike oil, there’s no way to price a Zoom event at negative time. Well, actually, paying people to attend Zoom events does have a name: work.

For me, the lesson is focus on possibilities and don’t follow the crowd. Let your mind’s eye travel to a future state and explore fresh possibilities, don’t waste time simply standing still.

12.30pm: Zoomglut continues. Helping a new startup with investment agreement with a somewhat zealous legal chap. I’m taking a slightly different approach to ‘confrontation’ via Zoom by using silence as my weapon of choice. It’s actually quite effective as the other person knows deep down they are being ridiculous and leaving it hanging there. Well, that’s what I tell myself anyway.

Lockdown lesson 5: Avoid the anchoring trap: over-relying on first thoughts Your starting point can heavily bias your thinking, initial impressions to ‘anchor’ subsequent thoughts. This trap is particularly dangerous when you’re flying solo. You can solve this by clearly defining the problem before going down a particular solution path. Look at the problem from different perspectives to avoid being limited to a single point of view, expose yourself to contrarian opinions and broaden your frame of reference.

1.00pm. Dinner dilemma. Eat perishable fresh food before it goes off or non-perishable food which could be out of stock in the supermarket again? Settle for ice cream on the grounds that we had too much of it in the first place. Start to watch You Tube music videos for a few minutes as deserved mental break. Singing out loud to The Stereophonics disturbs the dog who reminds me it’s time for the second walk of the day.

1.30pm. Head for local supermarket with my canine companion. I like the social distancing in the shop, happy to keep this space in the future. Shelves resembling scenes from zombie apocalypse a few weeks ago now back to normal. Purchase family size packet of donuts on grounds that the virus poses a bigger threat to my health than tooth decay does.

Lockdown lesson 6: Provide your own positive perspective Sometimes our perception of a situation can blindspot us. Scribbling in my Moleskin helps me to provide perspective in a way that fosters a positive outlook. This allows me to function better and get more done – focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do.

The act of trying to write something down shapes your thoughts. Once it’s down on paper, you can list things in a way that helps you think. Whether it’s because you cross things off, or prioritise them, or shuffle them, you are in control.

2.30pm. Back home and sit in the garden. Privileged and protected, my wife and I enjoy exercise and peace in our garden. The snails aren’t self-isolating. Outside of our little oasis our rubbish is being collected, post delivered and yet NHS staff are dying. I’ve signed online petitions for proper PPE and go outside to clap loudly on Thursdays. In the new reality our attitudes towards a more democratic and fairer society must be the imperative.

2.45pm. Check Google calendar and find after cancellations, there are no meetings for the rest of 2020. Perhaps this is how it is going to be.

Lockdown lesson 7: Don’t fear the blank page One of the effects enforced by working from home is that we are left, much more than usual, with ourselves. Who are we when we are no longer reflected in the faces of the people around us and without all the external recognition? No praise or even rejection. No feedback to define us. This can leave us feeling unsettled. Maybe you’re feeling a little of that?

Being curious about ourselves is how we begin to know who we are. That can be scary. But also, possibly, exciting and freeing. The hardest part? Slowing down enough to actually think.

As with a new Moleskin, don’t fear the blank page. You don’t need to create a masterpiece, you just need to realise how much you see each day. Give yourself time to experiment, play around with your thinking and make a mess. Once it’s out there, it can become a catalyst for other ideas related to your venturing endeavours.

3.00pm. Do my online tai-chi, ten-minute workout.

3.30pm. Think about walking into town and working in a coffee shop as a break from the home office or kitchen table. Remember each and every other coffee shop has now closed for business indefinitely.

Lockdown lesson 8: Take your time, for yourself We really don’t own anything in life. When you’re born, and you come out of your mother’s womb, and you’re kicking and screaming, and you go through your years of life, you think that you own stuff and money, and this, that, and the other. But really, you don’t own anything, because it all disappears, it all goes away, and you die, and there’s nothing left.

The only thing that you ever truly own, is your own time. You have so much time to live. Alive time is your own. It means I only have this much time to live, so I’d better make the most of it, I’d better make it alive time, I’d better be urgent, have a bit of an edge, be aware of each moment as it’s passing and not in a fog.

So that’s my Moleskin diary. Not everything will be okay, but some things will. People are dying. Our leaders are weak. Things are not good. But there’s still sunshine and birds singing, so write some positive thinking ‘notes to self’ and use a journal to make sure you come out of this catastrophe on the right side.

The myopic thinking of 110% effort

During a meeting I had last week, a bloke poured water into his glass and it overflowed slightly. Clumsy I said jokingly, to which he replied, Not really, I always give 110%. This is one of my utmost bugbears: You CANNOT give 110% effort, and this chap had used the phrase twice times already – before attempting to fill a glass 110% – trying to convince me he was going to be the next Elon Musk.

I call on the mathematically literate to join forces with me and together defeat the scourge of giving 110%. It’s a numeracy blight on the intelligence and lexicon of our country and it needs to be stopped. For non-pedants wondering why this phrasing that peppers sports vox pops and TV talent shows annoys me so much, maximum effort is 100% – 110% is beyond your capacity.

Even 101% means you are making an effort beyond your actual capacity. Some may argue it’s justified as you’re increasing your effort beyond what you thought was possible for you – you’re going the extra mile – yet that’s irrelevant as the percentage is a measure of maximum output.

You can only pour water into a glass to fill it 100%, and thus you spill 10% if you’ve given it 110%. The expectation to give or receive 110% would also mean it would have to be reasonable to expect many other things that fly in the face of logic and what is impossible according to the laws of physics. A day is 24 hours in duration so how could you expect it to magically become 26.5 hours long? Where is the 110% there? An idiomatic expression for going beyond, that’s all, but it’s meaningless.

I know this is a lot of numbers, but stick with me. I recall walking into the front room one Saturday afternoon and the dog was watching Sky Sports, when one footballer being interviewed promised to give 110% and later another promised 150%. Did this mean one was going to output more effort than the other? No, it means both of them were talking utter poppycock.

Maybe I’m too literal, maybe I’m too curmudgeonly, but you can only give 100%. I know the phrase is meant to embody the notion of doing more than what was thought to be possible, but to me it puts the emphasis on the wrong element. It’s not that you did more than you could, which is impossible, it’s that you had the wrong assumption about what was possible to begin with.

So I’m a founder member of the Quantitative Pedants 2019. Of course, percentages greater than 100 are possible, that’s how startups experience 200% growth in year-over-year revenue, to pick one example. It all depends on what your baseline is – x% of what?

Here’s actually a more serious (and more mathematically precise) way to look at this. Economist Stephen Shmanske produced a paper titled Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort that actually brings some stats and benchmarks to bear to figure this out in the right context.

For Shmanske, it’s all about defining what counts as 100% effort. Let’s say ‘100%’ is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100%, but it’s also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you’re overclocking.

And in fact, based on the numbers, entrepreneurs pull >100% off relatively frequently, putting forth more effort in short bursts than they can keep up over a longer period. But in giving greater than 100%, this can reduce your ability to subsequently and consistently give 100%. You overdraw your account, and don’t have anything left. This seem like a rough-but-reasonable analysis of what athletes and other people mean when they use the ‘110%’ language.

Thus an elastic 100% does exist, but only temporarily, and at the cost of future performance – you borrow from the future in short-spurts of extraordinary effort. As well-renowned basketball coach John Wooden used to say to his players, if you don’t give 100% today you can’t make up for it tomorrow by giving 110%: your maximum effort is 100% of what you are capable of – period.

Every entrepreneur wishes there were more hours in a day to get their work done. These days, with all the new technology, many are convinced that multi-tasking is the answer. Yet there is more and more evidence that jumping tasks on every alert for a new email, text, or Skype call actually decreases overall productivity.

According to Rasmus Hougaard, the founder of the Potential Project, delivering mindfulness programs to Amex, Nike and Accenture, taking time for what matters, there are some basic rules that can help you manage your focus and awareness in work activities. Practicing these will ensure greater productivity, less stress, more job satisfaction, and an improved overall sense of well-being.

With mental health of entrepreneurs being given more attention, to balance the machismo of I work 24/7, this is highly relevant. Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep the mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity.

Mentally be fully present and engaged in the current task Presence is foundational for focus and mindfulness, it means always paying full attention to the people around you, making a conscious decision to intentionally be more present.

Deliver rational responses rather than impulsive reactions This requires patience, and an ability to stay calm in the face of challenging situations. Patience is more concerned with larger goals, rather than temporary quick-fix solutions. Practice by stopping and taking a few breaths to calm down, before reacting.

Choose to always give honest and constructive responses It’s easy to give negative responses and find the downside in a proposal made to you. However, make a conscious decision to always find the positive aspects, even if it’s a proposal that isn’t for you and you can see lots of downsides. Practice positivity in every interaction with people.

Approach every situation with a beginner’s mind Without a beginner’s mind, what you have seen and done in the past, called habitual perception, can be problematic. It means you may not actually see today’s reality. Practice by overtly rejecting any habitual perceptions, and challenging yourself to be more curious in your day-to-day activities.

Refrain from extended fighting with problems you can’t solve Accept and realise that every problem can’t be solved, and frustration won’t resolve the issue. It will just make you less effective and less happy. Practice by choosing to move on, without carrying an inner battle.

Balance your focus between instant gratification and discomfort work Consciously identify the tasks that come easy to you, versus tougher tasks, and also a balance between short-term and long-term, that inevitably have different levels of satisfaction once completed. Practicing awareness of balance will lead to a change in your level of achievement and long-term avoidance.

Proactively seek moments of joy throughout your day Most of us are ‘always on’, always connected and always running, all day. The key here is to anticipate at least some activities you enjoy daily. Many people find this in just sitting still for a few minutes in quiet contemplation, maybe reading or going for a walk. Whatever it is, just switch off and find some personal quiet time.

Consciously let go of heavy thoughts and distractions Letting go is a simple but hard to do mental strategy to clear your mind and refocus on the task at hand. Let go of a problem stuck in your head means putting it to one side, and when you return, create the opportunity to refocus your thoughts.

Without these initiatives to balance your effort and get a clear focus, most people will find their ability to focus declining, yet still live with the rhetoric of 110% effort. We all face overload, increased pressure to move fast, and a highly distracted work reality. Our attention is continuously under siege, with more things and stuff to do causing distractions.

Pragmatic optimism is not fashionable, yet virtually any problem that can be articulated clearly enough can be solved without overthinking and overworking it to 100%+ effort. Being comfortable with uncertainty is perhaps the most important trait we can develop in ourselves as entrepreneurs, and not default to becoming overwhelmed.

Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure, such is startup life. Is every day peachy? Of course not . But do your best so that on balance be calm , by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Make different decisions than the rest, don’t follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let them jump!

Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Keep things simple, leave the poetry in what you make. When something becomes too polished, it loses its soul. It seems robotic.

Equally, chose fulfilment ahead of growth. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself. Build something of purpose, of intent. Growth can be a slow and steady climb. There is no hockey stick graph, simply looking inwards at the success you are achieving, it may be the time to accept no last minute rushes to ‘go the extra mile’ will make a difference long-term.

I am turned off by the super rapid growth companies. It’s not stable. Just look at oak trees. They grow slowly, but they have the kind of solid foundation to withstand storms and other disasters. You need a solid core, which is why I’m such a big fan of consistent and steady growth.

Periods of extraordinary effort borrow from the future. It just doesn’t work. Thomas Edison captured it well, with his words: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Maximum effort is the minimum requirement for sure, but 100% is all there is to give and that’s that.

The problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention. It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

So, let’s reflect again on the words of Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment – and that’s 100% of today, nothing more.

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. These words from American author Annie Dillard have always resonated with me. Of course, it’s an obvious statement, but reflect upon it, it has a deeper meaning than on first reading.

One of the most unchanged elements of our lives today is our working day, and how long we work. Generally, each of us does around eight to ten hours a day, and yet for most of us it is obvious that this has little to do with how efficient or productive that pattern is. At least, that is what I personally find for my own productivity. So what’s the right daily shift?

With stories from successful entrepreneurs working four hours a week (Tim Ferris) to sixteen hours a day (Elon Musk), it’s hard to know if there is an optimum shift. And why do we have eight-hour working days in the first place? The answer is from the Industrial Revolution. In the late C18th, when owners started to maximise the output of their factories, getting to run them 24/7 was key and for workers, ten to sixteen hour days were the norm.

These ridiculously long working days weren’t sustainable and a brave man, Robert Owen, a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropic social reformer and a founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement, started a campaign to have no more than eight working hours per day. His slogan was Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. However, it wasn’t until Henry Ford implemented the eight hour work day, that standards really changed.

In 1914 Ford not only cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled worker’s pay in the process. Surprisingly, productivity off these same workers increased significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter working day as standard.

So the reason we work eight hours a day isn’t scientific or much thought out with regard to the well-being of workers, rather it’s a century old norm for running factories efficiently.

However, let’s not forget that as humans, we are distinctly different from machines. Machines move linearly and humans move cyclically, and today’s business and economic models are fundamentally different. On this basis, research by Tony Schwarz suggests managing our energy rather than time, and identified four different types of energies to manage every day:

  • Your physical energy – how well are you?
  • Your emotional energy – how happy are you?
  • Your mental energy – how well can you focus?
  • Your spiritual energy – why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?

Time, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. There is an unshakable and discomforting sense that in our obsession with time in terms of optimising our routines, and maximising our productivity, we have forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

Equally, beware the startup mantra that a working week of relentless twelve-hour days is needed. Anything else, and well, you may as well not bother. Not true.

The secret of success is to be fully awake to everything about you. You also need to instil a set of good daily habits around your energy and time. Not only do the habits we hold dictate the quality of our lives, but they also reflect our potential for success. Bad habits will always hold us back.

Of course, the worst habit is procrastination, wasting time doing nothing. Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived in the C8th B.C., put it best: Do not put off your work until tomorrow and the day after. For the sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor the one who puts off his work; industry aids work, but the man who puts off work always wrestles with disaster.

As the complexity of our working life grows, we need to renew our commitment to simplicity, paring back and focus, so that we have space to breathe and control our energy, as highlighted by Schwarz. Leo Babauta identifies a number of reflections, which resonate with me:

We create our own struggles The stress, the frustrations and disappointments, all the busyness and rushing – we create most of these ourselves. By letting go, we can relax and live more simply to focus on the things that matter. How much of the tension in your working day is self inflicted?

Become mindful of attachments Recognising that we fill our own heads that leads to clutter and complexity is half the battle, only you can put a stop to the bad habits. What are the things that loom and fill you head, like the box of frogs leaping everywhere in a random manner?  What is important, and what becomes urgent, and why?

Create a prioritisation system Stephen Covey once said: The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. We often tend to miss the essentials that bring value in the long run or focus on a single thing too much and leave everything else in the backlog. Time management strategies like Getting Things Done design a methodology structured around creativity, focus, and efficient planning.  Learn to prioritise both long-term activities that gain momentum later in time, and short-term goals necessary for incremental results.

Distraction and constant switching are mental habits We don’t need any of these habits, but they build up because they comfort us. We can work more simply by letting go of these mental habits. What would life be like without constant switching and distractions? The addiction to smart devices and social media are primary examples of this.

Single-task by putting your work focus in full-screen mode Imagine that everything you do goes into full-screen mode, so that you don’t do or look at anything else. You just inhabit that task fully, and are fully present as you do it. Things get your full attention, and you do them much better. And you can even savour them.

Create space between things We tend to cram as much as possible into our days and this becomes stressful, because we always underestimate how long things will take. We never feel like we have enough time because we try to do too much. But what would it be like if we took a few minutes’ pause and break between tasks, to savour the accomplishment of the last task, to savour the space between things, and time to think?

Get clear about what you want, and say no to more things. We are rarely clear on what we want to complete in a day, and often the course of a day veers off in a direction we didn’t anticipate. When someone invites us to do something cool, we instantly want to say yes, because our minds love saying yes, to all the shiny new things. Saying no to more things at work would simplify our lives, having discipline means giving more focus and more chance to get stuff done.

Practice doing nothing Allocate unstructured time – this is exactly what it looks like, it is a time allocated for nothing. By ‘nothing’, it’s anything aside from a work agenda. Unstructured time is your ‘me time’. Why? The more time you put into your schedule, the busier you get. And the busier you get, the more you push yourself into physical and mental exhaustion. The point is it’s the time when your brain is free to wander which allows you to be more imaginative and refreshed, thus, having more energy, attention, and focus on work.

Create a long-term roadmap While it’s okay to have individual tasks emerging from your interactions during a working week, creating a long-term plan lets you focus better, and decide whether your new tasks are in line with your goals. Set out your key goals, assign milestones, and take it from there.

By defining the key issues that are crucial for your future success, you can determine the expected outcomes and measure them once or twice a week. You will also get a clearer picture of your weekly availability and stop overusing your buffers by putting too much on your plate.

The problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has yet to come.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention.  It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know what it will bring.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

So, let’s reflect again on the words of Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

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: looking backwards to move forwards

I don’t want a holiday in the sun, a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. I echo John Lydon’s philosophy when thinking about my holidays and breaks, avoiding those vanity-fuelled sun-worshipping folks slotted by the swimming pool from 8am to 6pm and do-not-move fills my head.

Where to go for Easter? I fancied Mexico, simply from the colour of their shirts and the players’ names in the coming World Cup – Jose de Jesus Corona, the goalkeeper, why weren’t my parents more imaginative? The town of Oaxaca caught my attention, but it was out of season. Were we in Oaxaca on Christmas Eve, it would be the great Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes celebration. Got to be there.

I like to go somewhere with time to sit and think and, occasionally, just to sit and not think at all. Apart from that, I’m easily pleased. Thailand beckoned from social media pushes, but then I read a piece warning travellers not to take a copy of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The warning was inside the in-flight magazine of Philippine Airlines – a bit late if you’re on the final approach to Bangkok airport.

But I wanted to avoid the sun. For me, pale is interesting. I’m 100% Anglo Saxon, as in Thomas Huxley’s division of humanity, although to be fair, I have a skin tone that could optimistically be called ‘North-of-England olive’ after two weeks away abroad, but would more accurately be described as ‘Lancashire white’ – not to be confused with the potato of the same name.

However, I gave up and defaulted to my favourite bolt-hole, and we were off. To North Wales. The seabirds calling as the wind carries them overhead, the unmistakable scent of salty water in the air as the tide slowly inches its way up onto the shore. North Wales has everything, a place that inspires, a place that appeals to all the senses – a place to see, hear, taste, smell and feel. It is a place to get away from it all.

My favourite spot, Penmon, is a promontory on the south-east tip of Anglesey. It is the site of a monastery and C12th church. Walls near the well next to the church may be part of the oldest remaining Christian building in Wales. Penmon also has a fantastic stony beach and Trwyn Du Lighthouse lies between Black Point, near Penmon and Ynys Seriol, or Puffin Island

We operate in a fast paced life setting, driven by technology. Taking time-off with yourself once in a while will help chalk out your priorities in front of you. It gives you a clearer perspective on how you wish your life and business to pan out, focusing on the right and amending the wrong turns. I’ve always iterated that self-reflection helps you clear out the unnecessary from your mind, encouraging you to focus on the necessary.

We all have a tendency to become myopic when we focus too long on the same thing and we forget to look beyond our horizons. A break brings that back and more. I feel more relaxed and more deeply connected to myself and that’s not been the case for a while. Break time gives you more authentic life rhythm and a focus on things that matter. A friend once described his brain as a washing machine, hurling and tumbling the information that hit him from all directions.

We all face challenges differently. Some internalise stuff and become paralysed, some push on without looking back. Bottom line, there’s a time and place for both an emotional and logical assessment each time you press pause to avoid a stumble. Entrepreneurs should remember that running a business is a marathon, not a sprint.

The time you take away is an investment in being able to do better work when you’re back, and it’s about asking yourself the right questions. For example, Am I preparing for a better tomorrow? Am I sleeping off the right thoughts? How well am I maintaining my own perspective? How well am I mastering my time? Have I developed an honest philosophy with myself?

Good questions always lead to great answers. So having unpacked and decluttered my mind, and having no access to the Internet, here are my ‘thinking outloud’ takeaway reflections from my Easter break, a stream of random consciousness and musings that I hope give you some insight into my thinking on how to help your own entrepreneurial journey.

1. 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. If you say your priorities are your partner or your kids or your health or learning, 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.

2. To know what you think, write it down Not having technology and having to write things down myself in a notebook, to let it see light, was the best way for me to clarify what I was actually thinking about during the break. Writing is the painting of the voice said Voltaire. I realised that getting back to writing was the best way to talk without being interrupted.

3. Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity Having to think for myself, with just radio but no Internet access, made me curious. 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.

4. 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 a break 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, give yourself some space.

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

6. 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 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.

7. Listen to your own pulse Money can’t buy you happiness, but consciousness can. I picked up Laura Vanderkam’s book, 168 hours: you have more time than you think from the local charity shop. 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.

8. You never know where you are on the big wheel You never know what’s coming, you have to have some faith that your moment is coming, but you don’t need to be Speedy Gonzalez all the time. Travel has many joys, luggage is not one of them. Live for the moments of serendipity and synchronicity. Sleep. Hydrate. Move. The basics are key. You strive to be conscious in all areas of life, relationships, raising children, your work, but we need more awareness and clarity.

9. Sitting idle and doing nothing Sitting idle and doing nothing is often viewed as a bad habit, yet researchers have shown that there are several advantages of ‘doing nothing’. Electrical activity in the brain that seems to set certain sorts of memories is more continuous and frequent amid downtime, offering your brain a reprieve from work without completely surrendering cognizance.

10. Walk the dog three times a day on the beach It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. The best listener has fur and four legs. In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train her to be semi-human – the point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.

I could live like Robinson Crusoe. A beach is not only a sweep of sand, but shells of sea creatures, the sea glass, the seaweed, the wood and other incongruous objects washed up by the ocean, all stirred my thinking. For me, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write postcards of notes to self. I do my best thinking in isolation. It isn’t as if you are alone, it’s that you find yourself thinking alone.

Part of the isolation comes from what you are experiencing. You are the one who sees the situations in your head most clearly, and it will often be difficult for others to see things the same way. The sounds of surf breaking on a shore and the cries of sea birds, with little to do and few distractions, it opens your mind. More time to think, quiet time to think a problem through.

Sometimes our perception of a situation can blind-spot us. Walking whilst thinking and having no other voices other than your own in your head 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. When you start to think 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.

Thinking on your own 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. It just goes to prove that the best place for a break, and the cure for anything, is salt water – sweat, tears or the sea – and looking backwards to move forwards.

Networking tips for startup founders

Manchester’s tech startup community is bursting with events, meet-ups, workshops, hackathons and networking talks. Getting out there and connecting with like-minded folks is an essential activity for a startup, and building a great network is key to the success of any entrepreneur. Almost every breakfast, lunch and evening it seems is packed with invitations and opportunities to hang out at popular hubs and co-working spaces.

Don’t get me wrong, depending on your level of introversion, they can be a lot of fun, and you can meet some thought-provoking people and build vital connections. Then again, if you’re not careful, you could also spend most of the week chasing every single gathering of coffee and croissants, beer and pizza, using valuable time that you could and should be spending, you know, actually working on your startup.

Throughout it’s rich historic tapestry of disruption, growth and innovation, Manchester has seen many iconic meetings in the city, and this list is sure to give you inspiration for your next get-together in Manchester:

Charles Rolls & Henry Royce After Royce built a car in his factory in Cook Street, a meeting was set up with Rolls at the Midland Hotel in 1904. Rolls was impressed by the cars that Royce had made and agreed to take them, branding them ‘Rolls-Royce’. The combination of Rolls’ wealth and Royce’s engineering expertise spawned the creation of one of the most iconic car and engineering brands of all time, as Rolls-Royce Limited setup in 1906.

Marx & Engels It was in Manchester in the mid C19th that the Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx met to discuss revolution and the theory of communism. The desk and alcove where Marx and Engels worked and studied at Chetham’s Library in 1845 are still there today and remain unaltered. It truly was a meeting that shaped the world.

Graphene Fridays Professor Sir Andre Geim and Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov, at the University of Manchester, often held ‘Friday night experiments’ where they would try out experimental science. One Friday, the two scientists removed some flakes from a lump of bulk graphite with sticky tape and noticed that some flakes were thinner than others. By separating the graphite fragments they managed to create flakes, which were just one atom thick – and had successfully isolated graphene for the first time.

Women’s Social and Political Union A meeting at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester was the birthplace of the Suffragette movement, at the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union. This historically significant building was the home of Emmeline Pankhurst and her family who led the Suffragette campaign and ‘Votes for Women’.

The Free Trade Hall, June 4, 1976 This was a gig that changed the face of Manchester culture forever, The Sex Pistols show defined music for generations to come. In the audience were future members Joy Divison (Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook), two founders of Factory Records (Martin Hannett and Tony Wilson), Mark E. Smith of The Fall, and one Steven Morrissey, who would form The Smiths.

Whilst we’d all give our right arm to be at meeting that would create such an impact to move our business forward, I can assure you that you simply do not need to attend 99% of the networking events you see cluttering your diary.

In fact, many respected entrepreneurs built their businesses from the ground up without jumping at every networking event they came across in their city. They chose instead to focus on building their businesses and gaining their customers’ trust, before eventually earning the respect of those they want to meet and establish relationships with.

One example is Mark Zuckerberg, who chose to focus on growing his social network independently into something of value, teaming up with just a couple of friends from Harvard to build it up in the early days. For two years he kept his head down, didn’t seek funding; he didn’t flock to every event to talk about and evangelise his idea.

Another example of entrepreneurs who focused first on ensuring their startup had real market value before attempting to build relationships with other entrepreneurs were the Whats App co-founders, Brian Acton and Jan Koum. Steve Jobs also never spent his days attending a bunch of networking events. He and Steve Wozniak spent all their time building and improving their product.

These examples demonstrate that instead of jumping around to every event before you have any traction with your own business, build your startup and let networking organically follow. Yes, get out of the building, but do so to test your ideas and validate your learning.

Our natural tendency is to see successful people as reflections of our own desires and values, and I see many embryonic startup founders beating a trail to every event, almost addicted to going to and being seen at networking occasions. This creates false expectations that will eventually cause a detrimental emotional reaction. It’s often the smaller, quiet moments on your own in startup life that create the biggest impact, which is often overlooked.

So, here are some thoughts to help guide your selection of which networking events you should attend:

Attend industry-specific networking events What business does a computer scientist have in an energy networking event? If it’s to meet prospects that may invest in their tech-related startup, they may have already wasted a lot of time. Anyone there is probably only interested in anything energy related. Attending a networking event outside of your own direct industry should be done if your tech solution could either directly solve a problem in that field, or if you were specifically invited. Otherwise, stay at home and work.

Attend activity based events Activity-based networking events involve you directly in the entrepreneurial process. Carrying out tasks with co-entrepreneurs offers some genuine peer-group learning and reflection. Don’t just go to events and listen to people talking about themselves. How will this take you forward? Participating in an activity, doing something with someone, means a short-lived partnership that means hands-on, in the moment thinking, that can end up laying the groundwork for learning and a pivot in your product.

Attend invitation-based networking events Invite-only events usually have top quality guests present with something meaningful and relevant to say. Knowing that an event is packed only with people invited makes it a lot easier for people to build relationships with others they meet. If a person you’ve identified as someone to meet is attending, then hustling the ticket is a great bet for you. Remember, even though most in the startup world are pretty chummy with each other, this is business. Time is an essential ingredient in all startups, make it count. Rather than appealing to your emotions in a bid to sprout a friendship, appeal instead to your self-interest.

Research who you want to meet Before you attend an event, research the speakers and others entrepreneurs in attendance. Prioritise who you want to get to know, as this will help you craft a plan to make the most of the event. The goal of attending any networking event is to build quality relationships, this involves you approaching and talking to people who would add value to your thinking and your business. Knowing who to engage in a conversation largely requires a preset plan before you arrive.

Even better, people enjoy people via some exchange of value. When you try to impress with nothing to back it up, the relationship you thought you were building will fizzle away. What can you add to their thinking? The people we surround ourselves with at the outset of our venture are too important for us to be hasty or wasteful with our time and energy. They can determine a lot in our future, so be focused on the potential for making connections that could trigger both customer acquisition and growth opportunities.

Network with a purpose Do not go to a networking meeting aimlessly. Have a purpose. Your goal is to meet people that you can help and people who can help you. You do not know who they are yet so you have to mix with a fair number to improve your chances. But you must have an overall goal. It helps other people to help you if they know what you are looking for.

The old saying, ‘It is not what you know; it is who you know’ is true, you can significantly increase your chances of success in almost any field if you know or can get in touch with the right people. This is the power of networking, but it has to be focused. Frankly, I’m fed up of be asked to play in ‘name check entrepreneur bingo’ – do you know Mr X, or Mrs Y? What’s the point?

You must target networking events where you can determine that you’ll have a chance for real conversations. Too many of these events involve quick chats, exchange of details about each other’s’ businesses, and move on. How many have offered real follow-up value?

Prepare your introduction Sounds obvious, but do you have a crafted and elegant introduction, as this is the best way to start the conversation. You don’t just go barging in and start talking about your startup being an investment opportunity, and don’t make it sound like an elevator pitch. Be polite and friendly, let them know who they’re talking to, make it personal, warm and interesting.

After a clam introduction, talk about something they’ve done that has amazed you when you learned or read about it. Doing this will make the person more open to you, knowing one of their products or services has had an impact. Show your curiosity, make yourself someone genuinely worth knowing.

Next, find something in common, that will start to create a deeper connection and build trust. Also, instead of just imposing your ideas and thoughts dominating the conversation, spend more time asking intelligent questions and listening to the replies than talking about yourself.

Understand that it involves more than exchanging business cards. Your challenge is to build a human connection. That means you’re not doing all the talking, but encouraging give and take with good, insightful questions that show you sincerely are interested in how the other person thinks. It also means you pay attention to the answers. There is no value in a pocket of business cards at the end of the event if you haven’t agreed to a follow up.

Circulate and know when to get out A key message for introverts who are uncomfortable with networking, or extraverts who get deep into a conversation quickly and dominate – don’t stay the whole time making comfortable small talk with the first group you meet. After a while make a polite excuse and move around the room spending say ten to fifteen minutes with each new person. You will find that you can leave conversations without being brusque. Networking means circulating and people at the meeting are aware of this.

Your time is better spent, and a much better connection made, when you linger with those where you’ve sparked good give-and-take. Get out gracefully, when you feel you’ve been cornered by someone who isn’t a good match.

Follow Up You’ve invested time in getting to the event, three days after making a new connection, give them a call and re-introduce yourself. If you don’t follow up, where is the return on your investment? This is the chance to meet for a more purposeful one-to-one conversation. It is important to stick to the three-day follow up rule, as any time longer than that may diminish the relationship established at the event.

Some sort of follow-up is important, though this will depend on the quality of the connection – the extent to which you really ‘click’ personally and professionally. What’s important to remember is that the best relationships are mutually beneficial, so the first meeting is just that, you have to nurture the connection: the more you put into it, the more will come back to you.

Attending every networking event ultimately robs you of the time you could have spent building your startup and understanding your customers. You become part of the ‘celebratory startup circuit’ where you have to see and be seen. Whilst you can get inspiration from hearing about the journey of others, it’s actually perspiration – your own – that will ultimately move your business forward.

Realistic expectations are only part of doing networking right. It’s also important to understand that doing it right takes time. Focus on quality and forging genuine friendships, respect, trust and rapport, not ‘contacts’, or being able to say ‘I was there’ at an event.

I’ve met so many who have opened doors for me and remained in my life both personally and professionally. After a while, networking doesn’t feel like ‘networking.’ It’s both serendipitous and unpredictable, and something that just naturally becomes part of your work life and your personal life.

However, don’t keep score, it’s not about the ‘who and how many’, rather connect with people because there is value, and nurture the relationships that will truly help propel you towards accomplishing great things. Ultimately, focus on having in-depth conversations with fewer people about subjects relevant to your growth.

Curiosity, sheep and unknown unknowns

Habits can be a good and bad thing for an entrepreneur, giving a clear sense of focus, a rhythm and guidance to keep heading for the north star to make stuff happen, and yet paradoxically, the wrong habits end up ultimately in addiction to doing the wrong things repeatedly.

We’ve all got an addiction, which stops us from doing more productive things. As a youngster, I remember visiting the various seaside piers in the north-west of England where the capacity of slot machines to keep people transfixed was the engine of the gambling tourist economy. It was only a bit of fun, but feeding those 10p coins into the slots at a pace, well, they were never to be seen again.

But despite this, you went back and fed them time and time again. The slot machines were in an environment designed to keep people playing until they had spent up. Of course, these days we’re all captive to a smartphone screen explicitly designed to exploit our psychology and maximise ‘time-on-device’ every waking moment, everywhere we go.

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, and each compulsive tug on our own private slot machine is not the result of conscious choice or weak willpower, it’s engineered. A Harvard math genius named Jeff Hammerbacher took the job as first research scientist at a startup called Facebook. Hammerbacher states: the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to keep people clicking through.

Digital addiction is quiet subtle because it’s an immersive user experience, but habit forming. When you get to the end of an episode of Blue Planet on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically. It is harder to stop than to carry on, and this tech driven addiction is everywhere. Facebook works on the premise you are vulnerable to social approval, and that ‘likes’ will draw you in repeatedly. The habit of ‘second-screen’ simply feeds and cultivates this dislocated dance.

Similarly, LinkedIn sends you an invitation to connect, which gives you a little rush of dopamine  – somebody wants to know me – even though that person probably clicked unthinkingly on a an auto-menu of suggested contacts – or simply a recruiter trolling you. Unconscious impulses are transformed into social obligations, which compel attention, which is sold for cash.

What concerns me most about this growing trend is it’s turning us all into sheep. I live in the East Lancashire hills surrounded by them. Sometimes I get so angry with the simple life they lead. They just stand there, looking like they’ve never questioned anything, never disagreed. Sometimes I think they must have wool in their ears.

We laugh at sheep because sheep just follow the one in front. We humans have out-sheeped the sheep, because at least the sheep need a sheep dog to keep them in line, whilst humans keep each other in line.

Sheep are not curious, but contrary to what you may have heard or even expressed yourself, sheep are not stupid. They rank just below the pig in intelligence among farm animals. Simply, sheep react to the domestication that has decreased their instinctive behaviour and increased their docile nature, and being ‘one of the herd’ is what they’re all about.

But we need to build an ability to just be ourselves and be thinking and not be doing something banal like smartphone addition – it’s the sheep equivalent of simply standing there for following the herd. That’s what the smartphones are taking away. Underneath in your life there’s that thing, that forever empty, that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone. That’s why I think that people text and drive because they don’t want to be alone for a second and be thinking for themselves.

In this vision we are all trapped in a Mobius loop of technological determinism. Product creators are powerless to do anything but give people what they want, and paradoxically users are helpless to resist coercion into what they’re given and all of us are slaves to whatever technology wants. No one is accountable while everyone loses dignity.

Bottom line, we’re not asking enough questions, working around issues to be more curious, more cognisant of what we don’t know, and more inquisitive about everything, to organise our thinking around what we don’t know. It’s becoming a bad habit to simply spend time on our smartphones browsing without purpose. We need to be less curious about people’s social habits and their photos and more curious about new ideas and learning.

Asking questions can help spark the innovative ideas that many startups bring to market. In my research, I track business breakthroughs, and from the Polaroid instant camera to the Nest thermostat and the recent startups like Netflix, Square and Airbnb you find that some curious soul looked at an existing problem and asked insightful questions about why that problem existed, and how it might be tackled, and came up with a solution.

The Polaroid story is my favourite. The inspiration for the instant camera sprang from a question asked in the mid-1940s by the three-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin Land. She was impatient to see a photo her father had just snapped, and when he tried to explain that the film had to be processed first, she asked: Why do we have to wait for the picture?

When we open ourselves fully to our curious natures, we are able to ponder without limits. Curiosity isn’t about solving problems, it’s about exploration and expansion. Curiosity can start and lead anywhere, and that’s precisely the sort of broader mindset startups need. So how should we go about promoting a culture of curiosity within a startup as part of its business model? It’s essential to be curious about several things:

Be curious about your people Many startups work hard to attract people with inquisitive mindsets and then stick them in an environment in which curiosity is discouraged as they pivot to ‘business as usual’. Hire people with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and aptitudes and then enable those differences to spark off each other as they work to create a cohesive but flexible unit. Building a culture of curiosity starts with seeing the individuals behind the job role.

Be curious about customers Don’t see customers simply as a transaction or an opportunity for a future revenue stream, understand why they buy from you and their business model, and the mechanics of their businesses. You need an external focus beyond nice words, mastering the ‘seeing and feeling’ of the customer, be curious about your customers: ‘what would the customer say to this?’ An enquiring mentality, asking ‘is this the best we can do?’ will bring success.

You work harder on what you’re curious about When was the last time you lost track of time working on something? If you’re curious about something, you’ll worker harder than the next person, who is just trying to maximise some other metric. If you follow your curiosity, you’ll end up somewhere nobody else is. Meanwhile, people who aren’t curious are trying to figure out who they should catch up with. They create a whole universe of the uncurious, parroting something someone else told them.

Be curious about the outside world We all need to take our focus off our immediate surroundings and get curious about people, about trends taking hold, about other cultures and points of view. About anything and everything beyond our too often insular worlds. Ideas know no hierarchy. We need to get better about responding to ‘What if?’ with ‘let’s find out’ rather than ‘let’s wait until someone else tries’.

Curiosity makes your mind active instead of passive Curious people always ask questions and search for answers. Their minds are always active. The mental exercise caused by curiosity makes your mind stronger, and it makes you observant of new ideas. Without curiosity, new ideas may pass right in front of you and yet you miss them because your mind is not prepared to recognise them. Just think, how many great ideas may have lost due to lack of curiosity?

Curiosity will conquer fear and uncertainty even more than bravery will. And that’s the point: A culture of curiosity inspires courage. The courage to challenge all those assumptions and hesitations that for too long have held us back, and those unknowns.

It was this belief in following his curiosity that shaped the philosophy of Andy Warhol. I read that Warhol would just walk around New York City on rainy Sundays. That was one of his favourite things to do, and that gave him ideas and inspiration. He called it From A to B and Back Again.

Of course, curiosity is the key trait for finding out what we don’t know. I’m always minded of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who made semantic history on 12 February 2002 when he gave the profoundly perplexing explanation about ‘known knowns’,’known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ in relation to Iraq.

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Those four sets of simple word pairs, used by Rumsfeld to describe military strategy, also convey powerful conceptual ideas with relevance to developing your startup thinking. Satisfying your curiosity and making entrepreneurial decisions based on knowns – truth, facts, and evidence – are far more likely to succeed than those based on hopes, wishes, and mythology. Let’s take a look at these four sets of word pairs as they relate to curiosity.

Known Knowns In a perfect world, known knowns would be facts based on lean startup experiments, customer development, product testing etc. Known knowns would provide reliable and valid facts and evidence on which decisions could be based. However, most known knowns are not really known knowns, they are a small category of knowledge.

Known Unknowns These are variables we are fully aware of but have no reliable data to accurately describe. This is a large category, especially if we are completely honest with ourselves about what we really know and do not know. Therefore, we are very likely to underestimate the number of unknowns that surround us. Do we truly understand the variables that drive the success of our brands?

Unknown Unknowns These are the blind spots—the problems, issues, and variables of which we have no awareness, information of knowledge. These are often the most dangerous variables and situations we ever face because they can catch us completely by surprise. Strong emotions and rigid opinions can blind us to obvious truths. We need to listen, accept, and learn find that such research can reveal many of the unknown unknowns.

Unknown Knowns There are things we know but don’t know we know. This is a strange category, and one might argue is an impossible category, a contradiction. When someone points it out to us, we say, “Of course. I know that. This relates back to an earlier assertion that people think they know more than they actually know. Once facts are presented, we easily can delude ourselves into thinking we already knew the information.

We can know things but not realise how important they are. We can know things but not understand how the pieces fit together or know what is causing what. We can be blind to the obvious or blind to the implications of the obvious. It’s curiosity that brings us an awareness of how things connect. What this conveys is that ‘knowns’ are fewer and rarer than people believe, and ‘unknowns’ are ubiquitous. They surround us on all sides.

I’ve learned that following my curiosity is the best thing to do. I’ve doubled down on curiosity. I read books I’m curious about. The best example is Steve Jobs, and how he dropped in on that calligraphy class, and how he was captivated by the letterforms. It had no practical application at the time, but he was curious, and then he built in all of that typography into the first Mac. You can’t connect the dots moving forward.

To know whether something is worth doing, or to know whether something was worth having been done, you need a metric for success. Next time you’re deciding what’s worth doing, try this metric. Ask yourself: What am I most curious about? I’m curious that sheep only sleep 3.8 hours in a day, meaning they are active 20.2 hours a day. What do they think about for all that time?

Focus: stop kidding yourself, you can’t give 110%

During a client conversation last week, I poured some water into a glass, and it overflowed slightly. Clumsy he said, to which I replied, Not really, I always give 110%.

But I made the point because its one of my favourite bugbears: You CANNOT give 110% effort, and this chap had used the phrase five times already, trying to convince me he was going to be the next Elon Musk.

I call on the mathematically literate to join forces with me and together defeat the scourge of giving 110%. It’s a numeracy blight on the intelligence and lexicon of our country and it needs to be stopped. For non-pedants wondering why this phrasing that peppers sports vox pops and TV talent shows annoys me so much, maximum effort is 100% – 110% is beyond your capacity.

Even 101% means you are making an effort beyond your actual capacity. Some may argue it’s justified as you’re increasing your effort beyond what you thought was possible for you – you’re going the extra mile – yet that’s irrelevant as the percentage is a measure of maximum output.

You can only pour water into a glass to fill it 100%, and thus you can only spill 100%. The expectation to give or receive 110% would also mean it would have to be reasonable to expect many other things that fly in the face of logic and what is impossible according to the laws of physics. A day is 24 hours in duration so how could you expect it to magically become 26.5 hours long? Where is the 110% there? An idiomatic expression for going beyond, that’s all, but it’s meaningless.

You can still only give 100%. If your effort output has increased, you need to recalibrate, so what you before called 100% effort, should now be seen as 91% effort. If we act generously and find a way to uncap the effort limit by arguing that the percentage given relates to average not maximum effort – then in fact 110% isn’t trying that hard.

I know this is a lot of numbers, but stick with me. I recall walking into the front room one Saturday afternoon before Christmas and the dog was watching Sky Sports, when one footballer being interviewed promised to give 110% and later another promised 150%. Did this mean one was going to output more effort than the other? No, it means both of them were talking utter poppycock.

Maybe I’m too literal, maybe I’m too curmudgeonly, but you can only give 100%. I know the phrase is meant to embody the notion of doing more than what was thought to be possible, but to me it puts the emphasis on the wrong element. It’s not that you did more than you could, which is impossible, it’s that you had the wrong assumption about what was possible to begin with.

So I’m a founder member of the Quantitative Pedants 2017. Of course, percentages greater than 100 are possible, that’s how startups experience 200% growth in year-over-year revenue, to pick one example. It all depends on what your baseline is – x% of what?

Here’s actually a more serious (and more mathematically precise) way to look at this. Economist Stephen Shmanske produced a paper titled Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort that actually brings some stats and benchmarks to bear to figure this out in the right context.

For Shmanske, it’s all about defining what counts as 100% effort. Let’s say ‘100%’ is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100%, but it’s also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you’re overclocking.

And in fact, based on the numbers, entrepreneurs pull >100% off relatively frequently, putting forth more effort in short bursts than they can keep up over a longer period. In giving greater than 100% can reduce your ability to subsequently and consistently give 100%. You overdraw your account, and don’t have anything left. This seem like a rough-but-reasonable analysis of what athletes and other people mean when they use the ‘110%’ language this way?

Why do we set these unrealistic expectations for ourselves? What makes me think that I am the exception that I have any more than 100% of myself to give? We can’t perform two tasks at 100% efficiency, crickey, I can hardly do one thing at 100% efficiency. Thus an elastic 100% does exist, but only temporarily, and at the cost of future performance – you borrow from the future in short-spurts of extraordinary effort.

As well-renowned basketball coach-come-philosopher John Wooden used to say to his players, if you don’t give 100% today you can’t make up for it tomorrow by giving 110%: your maximum effort is 100% of what you are capable of – period.

Every entrepreneur wishes there were more hours in a day to get their work done. These days, with all the new technology, many are convinced that multi-tasking is the answer. Yet there is more and more evidence that jumping tasks on every alert for a new email, text, or Skype call actually decreases overall productivity.

According to Rasmus Hougaard, the founder of the Potential Project, delivering mindfulness programs to Amex, Nike and Accenture, taking time for what matters, there are some basic rules that can help you manage your focus and awareness in work activities. Practicing these will ensure greater productivity, less stress, more job satisfaction, and an improved overall sense of well-being. You can only give the maximum effort (100%) and need a balance in that.

With mental health of entrepreneurs being given more attention now, to balance the machismo of I work 24/7, this is highly relevant. The guidance includes a singular focus for at least a few minutes on your current task, and limiting your distractions very strictly during this period. Don’t ever try to do two significant cognitive tasks at the same time, switching on a millisecond basis, or your attention will become fragmented and both will suffer.

Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies or habits that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep your mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity. I concur, based on my own experience in startup ventures and mentoring entrepreneurs. Examples of companies already coaching their teams on these mental strategies include Google, Starbucks, AOL, and more:

Mentally be fully present and engaged in the current task Presence is foundational for focus and mindfulness, it means always paying full attention to the people around you, making a conscious decision to intentionally be more present.

Deliver rational responses rather than impulsive reactions This requires patience, or the ability to stay calm in the face of challenging situations. Patience is more concerned with larger goals, rather than temporary quick-fix solutions. Practice by stopping and taking a few breaths to calm down, before reacting.

Choose to always give honest and constructive feedback It’s easy to give negative feedback and find the downside in a proposal made to you. However, make a conscious decision to always find the positive aspects, even if it’s a proposal that isn’t for you and you can see lots of downsides. Practice positivity in every interaction with people.

Approach every situation with a beginner’s mind Without a beginner’s mind, what you have seen and done in the past, called habitual perception, can be problematic. It means you may not actually see today’s reality. Practice by overtly rejecting any habitual perceptions, and challenging yourself to be more curious in your day-to-day activities.

Refrain from extended fighting with problems you can’t solve Accept and realise that every problem can’t be solved, and frustration won’t resolve the issue. It will just make you less effective and less happy. Practice by choosing to move on, without carrying an inner battle.

Balance your focus between instant gratification and discomfort work Consciously identify the tasks that come easy to you, versus tougher tasks, and also a balance between short-term and long-term, that inevitably have different levels of satisfaction once completed. Practicing awareness of balance will lead to a change in your level of quick distraction and long-term avoidance.

Proactively seek moments of joy throughout your day Most of us are ‘always on’, always connected and always running, all day. The key here is to anticipate at least some activities you enjoy daily. Many people find this in just sitting still for a few minutes in quiet contemplation, maybe reading or going for a walk. Whatever it is, just switch off and find some personal quiet time.

Consciously let go of heavy thoughts and distractions Letting go is a simple but powerful mental strategy to clear your mind and refocus on the task at hand. Let go of a problem stuck in your head means putting it to one side, focusing on another challenge and when you return, creating the opportunity to refocus your thoughts.

Without these initiatives to balance your effort and get a clear focus, most people will find their ability to focus declining, yet still live with the rhetoric of 110% effort. We all face overload, increased pressure to move fast, and a highly distracted work reality. Our attention is continuously under siege, with more things and stuff to do causing distractions.

So, instead of simply keeping going, trying to squeeze more out, continuing to deny yourself and the great mathematicians in the sky, instead look at Dave Brailsford’s Marginal Gains Strategy. Brailsford’s approach is to take a holistic view on what you do and determine how to achieve 1% improvement in everything. His premise is that the aggregation of small gains across the board adds up.

And he is right. The maths here is compelling, which is nice. If you do something better by 1% a day for a whole year, the aggregated gain is surprisingly significant: 1.01365 =37.78. The compound effect of a daily 1% improvement yields a multiplier of nearly 38 times your original performance output.

So, stop pushing yourself relentlessly and instead ask yourself: Where can I achieve an additional 1%? Look at where you can make a step-up, and create a focus on continuous improvement, not the end result. Brailsford did this with the Omnium team, were the World Record was 4.00 minutes. His challenge was: how do we achieve a performance time of 3.56 minutes? And they did just that.

Gamblers trust to luck, entrepreneurs trust in their own hard work. Maybe now with the focus on mental health and stress, simply looking inwards at the success you are achieving, it may be the time to increase your focus and accept no last minute rushes to ‘go the extra mile’ will make up for the times when you were not giving of your best. It just doesn’t work. Periods of extraordinary effort borrow from the future, until it all catches up on you.

In his fine article regarding nominal and ordinal bivariate statistics, Buchanan (1974) provided several criteria for a good statistic, and concluded: The percentage is the most useful statistic ever invented.

I’m not sure about that, but Thomas Edison captured it well, with his words: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Maximum effort is the minimum requirement for sure, but 100% is all there is to give and that’s that. 100% means the whole thing. Everything. All of it. Your whole self. Nothing left. Nothing more.