Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lazy Cambridge Saturday

DSC04199 (1300x975)The trees are coming into bud throughout East Anglia.  Flowers emerged a month ago, far too early according to local gardeners, worried about the effects on birds and insects.  At the College, the gardens have been planted and the lawns seeded.  The punts have returned to the Cam as the floodwaters recede, still too cold to take a boat out.  But it was a nice Saturday for walking the city center and the Colleges, then enjoying a conversational dinner at Effes.

The FT published a travel piece this weekend about Oxford, a ramble along the rivers and meadows, the bicyclists against the timbered medieval buildings, the walls and college gardens: ‘spires, towers, gates, and cathedrals, all glowing in pale afternoon light’.  I’ve  never spent time there, but the observations on ambience and history, the learning and poetry, translate without change to Cambridge as well.

And, speaking of bicycles, the Tour de France arrives in Cambridge in early July.

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Over English breakfast in the College dining hall, though, thoughts must elevate from sports towards philosophy.  This Saturday the Shrink and Sage considered the problem of knowing ourselves, perfect for a think over runny eggs and hot coffee.

The psychologist argues that the unitary self is built upon the past, the narrative of people and events that shape our habitual patterns of thinking and acting. 

The philosopher believes that we are a village of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that make up the collective self.

I would tend towards the latter.  Cognition, memory, consciousness are not localized to specific brain centers, but emerge from distributed activity across the whole.  Personality seems similarly collective rather than local.  There are many components to personality, whether Freud’s layers or Jung’s archetypes.  My own self-reflective experience is of a multiplicity of voices and agents, that ‘self’ is both a fluid concept and an enduring entity yielding, as the Sage observes, a mortal, thinking, feeling being with good cause to love life.

Or,perhaps, I’m making it too complicated: self-knowledge is simply a matter of taking quizzes and discussing the answers?

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Although the weather was predicted to change, the sunshine held long enough for countryside scones and coffee in the Orchard at Grantchester.

And, in the setting (if not the spirit) of Brooke and the poets, thoughts turn to gentler topics: the semiotics of strokes vs. squeezes, of smiles vs. laughter, of ‘together’ being physical vs. emotional.

Warm spring, wisteria, and Pimms can’t be far away.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Catching up


I’ve been scarce the past week, a combination of travel, work, and reflection that filled the days.   The photos below illustrate the range of the week’s activity.  ‘And most of the news is good: with strong results in-hand the business is rushing ahead with operations and fundraising.  This put me in Maastricht, Dorset, London, and Nottingham day-by-day, meeting with my clinical, financial, and industrial partners.  

Its great to be moving again, people’s confidence and interest building as we hit modest, then more substantial DSC04164 (1300x974)milestones. 

After cash, confidence is the most important quality for a startup to cultivate.  I used to think that this was simply a matter of articulating a clear goal and a plan for getting there, of looking confident. 

But, if things start to drift sideways unexpectedly, if plans are necessarily revised and timelines extend, people lose faith.  Their perception of the risks increase, they wonder if they are still part of a capable and winning team.  This erosion can’t be stemmed with a shrug and a smile.

The key qualities seem to come down to communication and execution.  It’s important to be clear and concise about what has happened and what is being done about it, managing the perception early. DSC04172 (1300x973) Then it’s vital that milestones be set and hit.  They can be small and close, but doing those things that you say you will are more important than saying things will get better.

And never, ever present good news until it’s a fact, not a belief.  Once trust starts to erode, confidence can never be regained.


I did not make it to TEFAF this year.  Making choices, my priorities lay in serious conversations with friends and in closing important design reviews.  The show was extensively covered in major media (two articles in the Times, alone) and attracted a more glittering patronage than usual, although there was suggestion that the Contemporary Art exhibitions, DSC04184 (1300x975)my favorites, were less substantial.

The travel has left me more time for reading, though, whether ploughing through Cross-Channel seas or rumbling along the north-south rail lines.  ‘Two excellent recommendations:

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal, observes Ben Horowitz in The Hard Thing About Hard ThingsThe hard thing is laying people off if you miss that goal.  It isn’t hard to hire great people…set up an org chart…dream big.  The hard part is confronting unreasonable demands….getting people to communicate….waking in the middle of the night in a cold sweat as the dream hits reality.  DSC04188 (1300x975)Ben argues that entrepreneurship is a struggle, and that endurance and persistence are needed to succeed.  Rooted in personal experiences building companies, his observations and prescriptions ring true with my own.

Work stops being fun when you’re triple booked through your day; stress and fear build when someone else calls the shots for you.  And losing commitment to relationships and meaning in life is to turn away from gaining wisdom and peace.   It sounds New-Age, but the book comes from the Mayo Clinic and summarizes recent research about why our minds wander, why we tend to dwell on the negative, how that affects our life, and what we can do about it.  The psychology resonates with me (especially for the wandering mind associated withDSC04194 (1300x973) long, solitary days on the road) but I haven’t bought into the five prescriptive remedies (managing attention, gratitude, compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness).  I’ll find practical points to adopt, though, and even the pink-cloud sections give me things to think about (in the recommended focused /attentive way).

All of these psychological points seem to circle concepts of mindfulness, extensively covered in the business press as the path to creativity and productivity.  I’ve long been interested in flow states, optimal experience where a focused mind enjoys enhanced creativity and insight.  DSC04205 (1300x904)The ten qualities of  flow  have a complimentary fit with these other books, and I’ve been reflecting on the overlap, looking for the best ideas. 

‘nothing conclusive yet.  But, as the business regains its footing, this seems like the right time to reconsider these topics.

‘if only to avoid the traps that caught me in 2013.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The edge of becoming


St. Patricks Day was quiet in Maastricht.  Despite the sizable Catholic presence who might honor the Saint, the streets were silent, the restaurants empty, and only the occasional green-hatted reveler roamed the cobblestones.  I walked down to St. Amorsplein (named for the pilgrim monk Amor of Aquitaine, depicted in a long robe with hood, a pilgrim's staff, and a travel bag: the quintessential expat) for a late biertje.

Absent the expected singing and toasting of Chicago-style St Patrick’s day, I ordered some bitterballen, sipped my drink, and browsed scribbled dichotomies that I’d transcribed into Evernote.

DSC04145Build vs. Defer the future:  I hold tightly to a dream of what I want my future to become.  I believe there will be a day when the products reach market and the businesses succeed and exit, when temporary residency permits and shared rental housing give way to coastal property in a committed relationship, when travel and leisure come into more favourable balance with striving ambition.

I’m prepared to sacrifice to achieve the dream.  But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that deferring everything until success is certain likely leaves me with shreds of nothing.

I have come to realize the importance of attending to the journey as well as the destination.

Its important to continuously build tangible elements, assets as well as experiences, just like I do with startups and residency.

So, as the business regains the promise it held 18 months ago,  I’m committed to building my future, not postponing one.  This translates into engagement with long-standing questions of passports, where to live,  how to balance personal and professional commitments, strengthening personal and family relationships, and making the most of expat opportunities.

It still begs the question of whether the life that I’ve chosen, the life I love, is one that anybody else would find appealing.  But, in building it to tangible reality, there’s at least the opportunity to find out.

DSC04146Know vs. Believe what is factual:   I was thinking about how well I understand events in my own life, whether I confuse facts with beliefs?   I have certainty about events that I witnessed, where I have physical evidence, or where causal laws of nature hold.  I concede that I am less grounded about events that I’ve only heard about, intuitions about other people, or inferences from observed consequences.

The Dutch distinguish two kinds of knowledge: denken (to know by reflection) and weten (to know by experience).   While weten are, for me, unquestionably true, I am learning that only direct participants can share that certainty.  Similarly, my imagination and intuition, my denken, can also convince me of truths that have no actual basis in fact, certain of propositions that others know are false. 

I’m not sure how to subjectively recognize the difference, except to force myself to examine assumptions reflectively or in conversation.  But that degree of open-mindedness, critical thinking, passionate objectivity, and suppressing fears is really hard to do consistently.

DSC04149Past vs. Future on my mindAmit Sood observes that the mind operates in two modes: a focused, attentive mode immersed in external experience, and an internal wandering mode associating past and future events.  The former attends and accomplishes; the latter imagines what-ifs, floats up purposeless dialogs, and connects unrelated facts, usually with some negative bias.  Research, sadly, suggests that we spend the majority of our thinking time in aimless internal idling.

This isn’t necessarily bad: the mind should be teasing out lessons and anticipating threats. But, as Steven Metcalf recently observed,  obsessive rumination about the past is the basis of depression, while excessive worry about the future forces anxiety.  I think that this is a marvelous distinction, and useful in assessing how I think about significant events, and whether I allow feelings and consequences to colour my everyday life.

I do think a lot about the past.  I embrace my experiences, good and bad, accept my feelings as valid, make peace with myself.  Life’s direct lessons need not rationalized, suppressed, or converted to something that they are not.

But I don’t ruminate over it: I worry most about the future.  What are the right lessons to draw, the necessary changes to make, the feelings that I want to recapture?  I describe these with reference to the past, but my intention and energy is for the future.

The Shrink and Sage argue that discontent and worry are actually a positive, the wellspring of Motivation.  And Motivation drives the definition of goals and confidence in achieving them.  Together, they give direction and purpose in life.

The trick, then, is again balans en grenzen,  boundaries and equilibrium and daily necessity of holding a kind thought for the present moment and my traveling companions.


DSC04156I admit, sipping my biertje, that there is more than a little sophistic naval-gazing in my taking these three propositions out for a little exercise on St. Patrick’s Day.  Yet each is relevant to major questions that I still try to sort as I approach 60:

  • How do I most effectively lead my life, rooted in opportunities and tensions of being a long-term expat, ambitious entrepreneur, and committed partner?
  • How well do I, can I, understand reality, knowing that I am immersed in different cultures, confounded by poor translations, and confronted with incomplete knowledge?
  • How can I improve my work and build my relationships, trusting both my understanding of myself and my intuition about others?

There is no place so awake and alive as the edge of becoming.  -- Sue Kidd