Friday, September 26, 2014

The week in the Netherlands

DSC08654 (1300x1161)I was back among the Dutch this week, finalizing my accounts and raising funds.  It’s a beautiful autumn along the Maas so far, warm and colorful.  I took a long evening bike ride out towards Eijsden last night beneath a clear sky and among warm winds.  The lights shimmering off the river and the glow of the sunset over the fields were picture perfect – it's always nice to find the charm of the countryside waiting when I return.

WP_20140922_012 (1300x734)Work has been progressing on the apartment during my absence.  The wall has apparently dried and the new plaster is up.  A lot of cleaning is ongoing, fabrics and pillows, carpets and counters.  The radiators are off the pipes and laid out in the hallway being repainted.  Hopefully everything will be operating before the colder weather hits, sealed before the winter rains.  But it is encouraging; I’d thought it would take months.

DSC08643 (1300x974)I closed the 2013 accounts and taxes with my financial folks in Amsterdam.  There were, as always, a lot of details to confirm, a missing invoice here and an unmatched payment there.  But the annuals look complete and we agree on the bottom line numbers.  We should have the Dutch business taxes out next week, which means that the US 2013 personal taxes can begin.  The United States is one of the few countries that insists on filings for income earned outside the country, and it always adds a month of work and a thousand dollars of expense to comply with all of the requirements.

Still, it was a nice day along the ring canals as well.  Strolling the waterways, reflecting on another year in life and business, I wonder if it isn’t time to think about life’s goals more in terms of aspirations than ambitions, meer balans en aspiratie, minder grenzen en ambitie.

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WP_20140922_006 (1300x730)In contrast, the meandering walks through my airports just get worse and worse.  The commute is complicated to both plan and price: Stansted is the jumping-off point for Eindhoven; Southend connects to Maastricht , and Gatwick / Southampton through Amsterdam.  From Cambridge, Stansted is the only option, but the airport’s refurbishment is a real nuisance. 

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Security has been relocated to one end of the terminal and takes twice as long to exit, then the walk to the gates is limited to a twisting hallway through all of the duty-free shops, a circuitous trek worthy of Ikea.

The public waiting areas beyond have few seats, few amenities, and are generally a wreck until the remodel is done.

The repurposing of airports as shopping malls is not making flying any easier.

DSC08639 (975x1300)Setting that aside, though, we had good meetings with the folks at the Limburg Investment Agency (LioF) and with the development groups working at the Medical Center. 

And it was nice to watch the sun rise behind the steeples over coffee, enjoy a bierje by the river in the evening, and to catch up with the local news and a few friends.

One recommendation: A bok bier is especially nice this time of year: here is a guide to a few that might be good selections.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

‘On not writing

DSC08354 (1300x976)I started the Random Walks in October, 2007, two years after I left the US for a midlife renewal at Cambridge, and about ten months after I moved to Arnhem as a corporate expat.  In the 1530+ essays and nearly 10,000 photos that followed over seven years, I explored what it means to be an entrepreneur and an expat, describing the aspirations, doubts, discoveries and reflections that fill my busy days (and sometimes my sleepless nights) in the Netherlands and the UK. 

I never conceived of my blog as lifelogging.  I took this remarkable opportunity to make a fresh start and to create a new business. That is a life that needs to be lived, and documented only to the extent that there are interesting observations, ideas, tips and insights to share. 

The stories and pictures given me direct communication with my extended family and for significant people in my life, scattered across thousands of miles and seen too infrequently.   It also connects me to an everchanging community of expats living in the Netherlands.

The essays have, finally, given me an opportunity to reflect on the experiences. Writing invites comparisons with other people, places and times, connections with reading and conversations, makes me a better observer and listener.  The process of writing creates context and perspective around everyday events.

And so, at the end of July 2014, I decided to stop writing.

As daily life became busier, my essays were becoming more superficial.  Pictures substitutes for words, events for thoughts.

Writing was becoming an obligation instead of a passion.  I worried more about the frequency of my writing than the value of what I wrote.

I was losing my voice.  Call it the Facebook effect, crafting an aspirational image of myself,  rather than a true account of the ups and downs of my daily life.

WP_20140902_001I knew that I would start again, but that I need to make that break in order to improve.  For a month, I did more reading and more traveling, took fewer pictures at events, and kept lighter notes of thoughts.  And I came across some notable NYT essays that helped to frame my thinking:

Writing in the Here and Now.  Specifically directed to writing travel essays, Perry Garfinkel proposes Here and now I am…  as the right place to start.  I find that it gets me out of my own head and focused onto my environment with fresh senses.  Although there is an element of in-the-moment Mindfulness to the exercise, it’s a necessary step.

Introspective or Narcissistic?  David Brooks asks How do you succeed in being introspective without being self absorbed?   He advocates keeping a distance and focusing on narrative.  I especially like his emphasis on trusting feelings more than analysis, and on avoiding rumination as a motivation for feelings.

Doing things right.  Technique matters, so Keep it Short and Punctuation Tips are worth remembering.

Of Myself I Sing.  Self promotion poisons writing: it distorts the truth and bores the reader.  An impulse to be positive and reassuring can easily degenerate to branding and boasting.  Are you writing something people need or want to know…are you honest about your frustrations and able to laugh at yourself?  asks Rebecca Makkai.  She recommends maintaining a balance by writing about others and by mixing types of content.

On Not Writing.  Writing has analogs to fitness training, argues Bill Hayes: your creative fibers need stress, then rest, just like muscle fibers.  He recommends 2 days on, 1 day off, and notes that exhaustion from daily writing may require weeks to properly refresh.  I’ve described 5:2 feast-fast cycles and their more general applicability in organizing life.  It’s intuitively appealing to see it pop up here among Hayes’ Sis Rules of Writing.

CreateEventually, my topic notes and everyday snapshots spoke to me again, and I felt the familiar pull of thing to share.  I’m experimenting a bit, easing in: the first week was challenging.  The ‘lessons remembered’?

7th year breaks are vital for growth and renewal. 

A sabbatical opportunity made the move to Cambridge possible.

7 years among the Europeans was a good time for taking stock of life’s trajectory.

A month out, seven years in, feels well-earned.  And well-used.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Pitching the proposition

i10 London Eye Pitch 16A well—delivered presentation can make a company establishing it’s brand and clarifying its purpose for employees, investors, and media.  This is doubly true for startups, where pitches are the essential connection with investors, and their funding is the lifeblood of pre-revenue companies.

CamStent started in 2006 (three of the founding team pitched in the London Eye late that year).  The company formally started operations in 2009 when we got a grant for experimental work, and has been through several formal rounds since, raising over one million pounds.  CUE%20Speeches%20036We are presently on our third round of pitches, just over half-subscribed.

A couple of weeks ago, I made a 10-minute pitch to prospective investors at Truestone Asset Management in London.  It went well, we were a solid second place in the voting about which companies might be successful and which might return a profit.  The presentation was filmed, and the video is available below.

This was never the sort of thing that I used to be good at.  But the time at Cambridge gave me tools to be able to present my ideas, and coaches and critique sessions have sharpened the message.  I watch how others do it; I learn from videos and from watching other entrepreneurs, and spend a lot of time revising and practicing my slide deck.

With practice, I no longer get nervous about giving a talk, and have learned how to pace through a pitch, changing gears and maintaining a flow.  It’s an essential skill, and one that I am continually trying to improve.