Friday, August 3, 2012

Difficulty breathing

This has not felt like a very healthy summer. It started with a cold back in June, probably unnoticed amidst the cold wet weather and the airline travel that inevitably exacerbates it.  I took a Coricedin and waited for the symptom to subside.

They didn’t.

I started wheezing at night, short of breath and coughing.  My throat was raw, I had  difficulty completing sentences in meetings  and phone calls. “It’s a bad year for hay fever,” noted colleagues and agencies.  I did have hay fever as a child, so I went to Boots for antihistamine and throat spray.  It barely dented it.

“Whooping cough has become a real problem this summer,” advised my mother.  A quick scan of  media confirmed that this has been a bad summer, so maybe I should take this more seriously (although I seriously doubted I had pertussis).  My Dutch doctor listened and tapped, affirmed that I was suffering from hay fever, and gave me three doses of antibiotic.  No effect

“Benadryl” suggested the pharmacist at Boots.  Coupled with throat lozenges, I was able to sleep through most of the night and hold conversations.  Still, it lingers.

Back in the US for meetings, I called a local provider to see if we could get to the bottom of things.  I ran straight into healthcare cost containment.  “Can a nurse call you to discuss it?" No.  “Can you see a nurse practitioner instead?” No.  They reluctantly made an appointment.  Again, the doctor tapped and listened.

“99% chance this is asthma, we’ll throw a few things at it and see what works.  If nothing in a few weeks, we’ll check that its not your heart.”

Excuse me?

That suggestion seemed predicated on my being short of breath when I exercise, which I ascribe to a constricted trachea.  But, fresh with indignation, I went down to the exercise bike to run my heart rate up to 130 for an hour.  No pain, no dizziness, no problem.

This points up the problems of dealing with diffuse, low-grade symptoms when life is constantly in motion.  The only strategy is to move through presumptive diagnoses, try associated therapies, move on if they don’t work.  At this point, I feel like time is the only solution – this may be the only summer where I’ll cheer the arrival of autumn.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What about the losers?

Hamadou IssakaI think the nagging doubt started while watching Hamadou Issaka.

Olympic athletes are the best in their sport, dedicated, hardworking talented people who have given years of their lives over the ceaseless pursuit of winning.  Hamadou Issaka was different.  A Nigerien rower who took up the sport  months ago, he finished a very slow, distant last.

It’s easy to  say that “Issaka the Otter” was unprepared, but he got me thinking about the dozens of athletes in every event who also finish out of the money (literally, in the case of US athletes).   Winners achieve fame and fortune (media roles, endorsement contracts, brand royalties).  But, as Salon notes, "the winners always beat someone someone who doesn’t meet or exceed expectations — and that is the story of most Olympians”.

Most of the training and sacrifice, then, ends in loss and obscurity.  So are their stories inspirational or cautionary?

My son really enjoyed Little League (organized baseball teams for children) when he was a child.  about the time he turned 10, though, the minority of kids with talent (and their parents with ambition) took over the teams, consigning all of the other kids to occasional participation while they chased distant athletic scholarships and sports contracts.

It seemed wrong on two levels.  Kids who enjoyed playing were told they were not good enough and stopped playing.  Kids who were modestly good were told they could be great when none actually ever would be. It was a lose-lose. 

McKayla Maroney vault landingI can think of three counter-arguments to the question of whether loser’s lives have been wasted in pursuit of something that they are unlikely to attain.

  • It’s their life.  They have talent, they love what they do, and their pursuit of winning the Olympics yield personal benefits in any case.  Many have lived better lives for the nurturing, coaching, and access to resources along the way; many will go on to teach, mentor, and  motivate others long after the Games are over.  Most won’t fall by the wayside, branded as failures.
  • They are locally inspiring.  Everyone comes from somewhere, and has a long presence in their community, their country, that others identify with and  are proud of.  Every athlete who leaves the Olympics a loser will returns home a winner in their community.
  • They create winners.  A highly competitive field produces exceptional performances: because many can do amazing things, one is pushed to do something superlative.

I think that all of this could be said equally of competitors from Jordyn Wieber to Hamadou Issaka.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Heart, smart, guts, and luck

Corp Spin outWhat personal and contextual traits lead to entrepreneurial success?   I’ve had a stream of folks coming through in the past couple of months asking what I thought about their chances in wrapping a business around a product idea that they are passionate about. Difficult economic times and corporate contractions are driving their thinking: these are all smart people with career success in imagining product and running projects. 

Can I do it; will I be successful?

As one of my mentors advised, asking the question gives its own answer.

I think that it come down to a combination of personal traits and professional context.

Personal traits: There are no end to advisors promising to help you know if you’re ready, or to tell you what to do first.  Expat Explorer offers advice, Internations offers networks, governments offer connections. A new book suggests that HSGL is the answer: Heart, smarts, guts, and luck.  They offer a quiz to see which is your North Star (I am Smart, but not by much):


However, the test does identify four of the personal qualities that I advise people that they need in order to succeed in their own businesses: the others would be confidence, persistence, drive, and resilience.

Ultimately, anyone starting their own business needs to have a clear picture of their professional goals (their product or service, the process for building it, and the business model for selling it) and personal aspirations (is success worth the sacrifices, is failure survivable, and what is the reward for success).

Anything less is  hobby or a class project.

Professional Context:  Beyond the necessary personal qualities lie the tasks of organizing and running a stand-alone business.  Most project and divisional leaders have become very good at one function and very connected within a particular domain.  But general management requires broad skills and connections across at least a dozen skills.  Organizing businessOne of the first questions I ask is whether they have a good finance person.  In one business I do; in the other I don’t, and it makes an enormous difference.

A Financial Times columnist recently wrote that the best sort of leadership training would be to run a spinout.  Every company has ideas, acquisitions, and failed projects tucked into corners.  Hand one to an aspiring executive along with some seed capital and give them a year to make the most of it without access to corporate resources.

Lucy Kellaway separately recounted a disastrous story of how Bain’s senior-level leadership went for training in an emerging market, culminating in a VP getting near-fatally gored by a water buffalo. How much better to be out in the markets rather than the jungles?

Personal traits and professional context, together, form the basis of successful entrepreneurship.  People I’ve talked with contemplating spinouts have some of each, but the shortfall is in seeing new business formation through old project management.  It’s not just more intense or risky: it’s very different.

Can I do it; will I be successful?

My mentor told me that I would never build a business as long as I was asking that question.

The right questions are Rumsfeld’s “Unknown unknowns”: What do I need to know; who can help me with it?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Kicking off the Olympics

26The BBC has shifted into high gear, streaming over 20 channels of continuous coverage from the Games over the internet all day.  Not a great thing in Barrington, where connect-speeds approach dial-up velocity when the wind is at our back.  BBC1 is focusing on equestrian, swimming, cycling, and gymnastics in hope of catching the glint of national gold.  So far, though, its been disappointing in the evening wrap-ups.

In the absence of medals, coverage has been focusing on the lack of spectators in the low seats with the best views.  It seems that the sports were reserved for “Olympic family”, sponsors, officials, and allied staff.  The organizers are clamping down and there are tranches of seats released for sale several times each day: it’s worth checking the site for sub-£50 seats for many events.

I’ve been looking for the Sailing events: Ben Ainslie is putting on a good event, cunning on the helm and pumping the sails as he 2009 Sail Melbourne overtakes everyone except the amazing Dane, Jonas Hogh-Christensen.  I especially like the Skiff racing, the 49-ers that skip blindingly fast over the wave crests.  The Dutch  usually do  well in cycling, swimming (their firt gold medal this year) and track, although the women have done well in sailing previously and it will be fun to see how Marit Bouwmeester and others fare this year.

DWFHT 2012

The United States has taken particular note of the Dutch Women’s Field Hockey team, not completely based on performance.  That’s a big underestimation: they won the gold medal in 2008, silver in 2004, bronze in 2000, 1996, and 1988, and gold again in 1984.

QueuesLondon continues to be very quiet: fears were that the transport system would grid-lock with the start of the work week.  Most people I know have taken work home or scheduled a two-week holiday.  This leaves the city to the visitors, who are being deluged with guides on how to behave.

All in all, the games have been fun in themselves and an opportunity for national self-study.  The weather has even cooperated: a few days of uncharacteristic sun ahead of rain and cold returning mid-week.