Controlling the Centre

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Strong squash players dominate the central zone of the court. This helps them in several ways. It helps them handle uncertainty i.e. where the next shot from their opponent will come from. And it helps them with ‘growth’ i.e. shortening the average time to hit the ball and maximising the time they have to set up their own future shots.

So what is the relevance of squash strategy to personal flexibility?

Firstly, imagine a two-dimensional matrix with columns for personal planning (strong or weak). And rows for direction (clear or unclear). There are 4 quadrants in the matrix.

Those whose natural inclination is strong planning and clear direction forward are thought of as strategic and focussed. And unkindly, as ‘control freaks’. For the control freaks, if operating in a turbulent or increasingly uncertain environment, their supporters (employers, sports coaches, parents, teachers or tutors) can help them become more comfortable with uncertainty and more agile under turbulent conditions – become dynamic planners and become tolerant of multiple versions of the truth, perhaps caused by some versions being out of date faster than others. Football goalies are perhaps a sports example of control freaks.

Those whose natural inclination is strong planning but weak direction forward are the long suffering, ‘steady eddies’.  For the steady eddies, their supporters can reassure them on direction and encourage them to rely on more dynamic planning approaches – less detailed and less complex plans, more empowerment and more self-belief. Civil servants serving politicians (especially under UK Brexit) are perhaps a workplace example of steady eddies.

Those whose natural inclination is weak planning and unclear direction, are the go with the flow, ‘fatalists’. People who are fatalistic in their home life probably need supporter encouragement to build some hopes and aspirations. Anything that gets them to experience the taste of success is a good start. Supporters can help them to become better planners, project members or team players. Spectators at a sports game are perhaps an example of fatalists in the sense not of supporting their team, but of being an onlooker.

Finally, those whose natural inclination is weak planning but clear direction forward are ‘opportunists’, making their own luck. For the opportunists, their supporters need to encourage them to create more control for more benefit. With control coming from teamwork, planning and quicker influence. Football strikers are perhaps a sports example of opportunists.

Now imagine a world of constant and accelerating change – not change in everything. But change as a rhythm or backbeat to everyday life. In such conditions, a medium level of both planning and direction is desirable, like the central zone for playing squash. But requires personal flexibility from those in all four quadrants to achieve i.e. travel a similar distance towards the centre zone, but from a unique direction, with a unique rationalisation.

Families, voters, groups of volunteers and groups of friends rarely encounter the structure and rules that simple games prescribe. Therefore, all could benefit from seeking out the ‘central zone’ of the matrix to achieve good progress. It’s not just about tolerance. But appreciation of the merits of opposing outlooks too. Work is needed to seek out commonality and win-wins. But not achieve the extreme of groupthink. All that remains is to forge some cultural pathways towards the central zone for each social group concerned…

Simon

Reflections D-G

Dignity – the quiet dignity of old people should be the quiet dignity of everyone.

Education – education opens a door to awareness. Awareness opens a universe to discovery.

Ego – make ego an acronym for enthusiasm, generosity and originality.

Envy – if we spend excessive time bashing the wealth creators, instead of upskilling, we’ll get the economic wasteland we deserve.

Family legacy – where your children become investors in the parent company.

Fashion – the magical stitching that binds values with expression. Jewellery- the best is elegance without extravagance. Hats – fashion landscapes for the head. Hairstylists – cut away tangled confusion to reveal the style underneath. And like international diamond traders, live for style, cut and colour.

Fitness – sweat the small stuff in the gym. Enjoy the big stuff everywhere else! Fitness feeds the body, the way information feeds the mind and friendship feels the soul.

Friends – are the mirror lens to help us see things afresh. Old friends are like a roaring fire. They warm our bones, radiate light, crackle with life and make short work of dull objects. With friends, you don’t just walk the journey together for a while, you carry new destinations along the way. Reunions with friends help us over-write the mistakes of the past, with the goodwill of the present and some fun plans for the future.

Goodwill – goodwill banks are the best banks of all, allowing a person to put in at least as much as they take out. The less you deposit, the more risk you take.

The price of flexibility

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If someone spends effort (time and money) to journey from a ‘one door’ environment (inflexibility) to arrive at a place of many doors, that effort (and the effort to open the door) is the price of flexibility. The value of flexibility is then realised after they open the new door. A simple example is getting an education.

Maybe as a society, we spend too much time trying to value what’s behind the closed doors. And forget to invest in the first part – the price of moving (back) to the place in front of the doors. It’s worth noting that this part is both easier to measure and clearer to see.

It works in reverse too. As someone specialises (in their career say), they progressively leave the ‘many door’ environment behind. However, as long as the value of specialisation exceeds the value of flexibility (often true in low risk environments), life is good.

Life gets more complicated when there is fog rolling in and you only occasionally catch a glimpse of a set of doors to approach. Or when the environment changes so rapidly, that there are new sets of doors appearing on a frequent basis.

The need for (career path) reinvention comes with environmental change (also true of parenthood, by the way). By continuing to invest in flexibility while you specialise (transferable skills, wider skills), the reinvention process is lubricated.

Reinvention requires more than just agility (reaction time & expertise in jumping paths). You also need to find or create a new door environment in advance. And it’s worth bearing in mind that making your own new door (self employment) can be more powerful and more liberating than standing in a vast queue outside the new door you choose, but don’t construct yourself.

What do you think?

If you find these blogs useful, please share with others too.

Simon

Perception, Imagination and Focus

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History may be continuous, but continuous doesn’t always imply progress. Arguing or complaining needs something else for it to become constructive. Sometimes the slow progress of one approach is overtaken by someone else’s faster approach, using a different design entirely. Economic growth and human migration come in cycles. And not necessarily regular ones either. Human relationships (trust and power levels) can change for better or worse. Meanwhile, some things, ranging from art & fashion to political movements & street-slang turn out to just be passing fads.

In this blogger’s view, staying resilient and strong in the presence of such changes requires movement flexibility and mental flexibility. Or put another way, the state of our physical and mental health depends on personal flexibility.

To take one example, curing depression may be problematic. But coping with it needs help from perception, imagination and focus – focus being where we choose to focus our attention. After physical injury, physiotherapy helps our bodies recover something approaching useable function. Perception, imagination and focus become our ‘internal support group’ for this too.

So if we need to prepare for future times where there won’t be positive progress in our external environment and if we can expect some toll on our mental & physical health as a result, then maybe now is the time to become more agile at altering the combination of; how we perceive things, what we hope for and what we concentrate on.

Maybe we can learn to apply triage to situations – the way emergency service workers assess an accident scene that has suddenly come into view. Maybe we can become more adept at playing for time or buying time, in order to develop a richer assessment of the issues (perception shifting and daring to dream).

Problem solving in the face of apparent impasse might need to take a step back, in order to make a leap forward. I once saw a great example of this in a river valley in Peru. Basically, the local people were tasked with constructing stone fortifications on one mountainside, using stone that was quarried from the flanks of the mountain opposite. In the valley between both mountains ran a large, deep river. The question became, how to we move a lot of stone across the river fairly quickly. Their solution was to stack up loads of stone blocks on one river bank, then go upstream and dig a channel (take a step back) to change the course of the river, so the blocks were now already across. Genius.

Simon

A Daily Experience

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We all have stressful experiences and moments of uncertainty. Just this week, I accidently left my briefcase (satchel) on the overhead rack on a train.  No doubt, for the passengers who stayed on the train after I departed, it must have been stressful for them too, seeing an unattended bag with no obvious owner.

When we experience stress, having ‘coping reserves’ of patience & energy, as well as listening to our inner voice that is encouraging us to persevere and not panic, can help. Those are all intangible forms of coping reserves.

What about more tangible reserves to help us cope? If we choose to develop various reserves of personal flexibility, ones we can see, such as a duplicate wallet, a large bank balance, a credit card, a house key hidden in the garden (in case we lock ourselves out side by mistake), a car that we can drive to work should the train system fail, a few valuables we can sell if we have to, a trusted set of friends, they can all be an important way to cope too.

Personal flexibility (PFL) isn’t generally a product you can buy at the local store. Instead, it’s a form of strength you hold. Some people pay good money to do weight training at the gym. They are essentially buying an exercise programme that leads to strength and fitness. With that strength helping them weather uncertainty, look good and feel better about themselves. Other people pay for professional therapy to improve their emotional strength. Political lobbyists essentially win or buy influence from politicians.  Some people upskill and pay for advanced education, to improve their chances of future employment, professional success and promotion. In summary, PFL is valuable as a means to an end.

Can personal flexibility help us in other ways too? We can be happy on the surface, if we never challenge ourselves, or take a risk. To be happy beneath the surface likely involves moving out of our comfort zone.  Taking some calculated risks. Accepting that we may stumble. And that we may have to do the equivalent of kissing a few frogs to find a prince. What goes with that more colourful life journey, is success defined in our own terms. In other words, to become happy beneath the surface, we may have to redefine what happiness is, including;

  • being happy about simple things,
  • being happy about small, incremental victories,
  • being happy for other people,
  • the journey making us happy, not just the destination making us happy.

If other people’s inflexibility makes us annoyed or unhappy, can we counter that with our own flexibility instead? One way is having enough PFL to avoid their inflexibility. Another is to use our PFL to moderate their inflexibility. A simple example is where various companies use crowd management techniques– making us wait in lines or queues for something. Corralling us is their inflexibility to cope, translating into inflexibility for us on our speed and direction. We can moderate this by using our waiting time constructively – using our smartphone to research or learn something while we wait.

A final thought. What would our lives be like if, each day we tried to actively manage our reserves of personal flexibility? It would likely involve monitoring which bits we are losing (or cashing in) and actively finding replacement forms of PFL, for those PFL things lost.

With growing PFL, we may feel happier and more confident. Better able to cope with uncertainty. And more able to grow as people. What do you think?

Simon

Personal Biases and Personal Flexibility

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Once bitten twice shy. Do our various biases hold us back from trying again? Is more personal flexibility (PFL) the best medicine for our biases?

Our mental architecture (the neural pathways in our brains) might favour strengthening various well-worn pathways, as a coping mechanism for the daily onslaught of sensory information we face.

• We sample what is convenient & comfortable to sample (selection bias).
• We notice the things that confirm the views we already hold (confirmation bias).
• We like to associate with those like ourselves (group or ‘me too’ bias).
• We over-estimate how soon improvements happen, but under-estimate their impact (judgement bias).
• We leap into action at the first opportunity, telling ourselves we should be more spontaneous and that it makes us look more powerful, by being decisive (action bias).

Then there are a load of other biases that (biased?) psychologists tell us we suffer from.
There are so many biases swirling around, it’s a wonder we achieve anything useful, ever! That said, can personal flexibility (PFL) help us counter, or at least moderate our biases? And if so, what form might that PFL usefully take?

1. Holding two opposing views at the same time is one form of PFL. Less a case of madness. More a case of seeing the merits of both sides of an argument. More strange still, our opposing views can happen implicitly – the risk aversion bias many of us have (to trying new things in case they don’t work out), works against a risk-minimising strategy of diversification (not putting all your eggs in one basket).

2. Forcing ourselves to take a second, more considered look is another PFL technique. For example, looking at a radical painting in an art gallery to think more about the artist’s message to the viewer. Or in the animal kingdom, a shark circling its potential prey, is partly waiting for more information.

Simon

Fake News and Personal Flexibility

‘There is no sickness worse for me than words that to be kind must lie.’ Aeschylus

‘People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.’ Otto von Bismarck

‘People can choose between the sweet lie or the bitter truth. I say the bitter truth, but many people don’t want to hear it.’ Avigdor Lieberman

‘Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.’ Eric Hoffer

‘For every good reason there is to lie, there is a better reason to tell the truth.’ Bo Bennett

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So-called fake news is an age-old problem. And an annoying fixture in our personal and business lives.

So-called fake news can include:

  • accidental distortion– a version-control problem, information-relay error, false logic, false assumption, static, a reference error or typo. Or something misheard – perhaps generating a colourful rumour on the office grapevine.

A famous example of accidental distortion is about the WW1 message conveyed from the front-line trenches, shouted from trench to trench, back to the high command. It started off as the request ‘send reinforcements, we’re going to advance’. And ended up arriving as ‘send three and four pence, we’re going to a dance’.

  • deliberate distortion – an exaggeration, something taken out of original context. Maybe an outright lie, generated for commercial or personal gain.

Sometimes politicians rather than lie, simply evade the question, answering a different question, or changing the subject instead. At other times, their truth may be more damaging than fake news – a politician might promise one thing, but once elected, change their party’s policy entirely. Here the ‘news’ is real.  It’s the direction that has changed.

The method of collecting information to inform decision making, introduces opportunity for error at multiple points in the process. This blogger once served as a court juror and was surprised when a seemingly impartial police witness made a ‘rookie error’ on the time an event was alleged to have happened.

Court jurors weight the evidence testimony. Each juror has to do a mental-sorting exercise of the information presented – what is probably true and what is probably false. Incidentally, this mental-sorting exercise can be a form of personal flexibility – emotion fighting against rationality (heart and head). In this situation, it’s worth the jurors reassuring themselves that it is entirely natural to have an internal conflict. And that sometimes the internal ‘battle’ needs to rage, to make the resulting view more just. But that for something approaching justice to be done, a jury decision must be given, so a personal view on innocence/guilt must ultimately be taken by each juror.

‘It is well known that in war, the first casualty is truth – that during any war truth is forsaken for propaganda.’ Harry Browne

The method of information collection can introduce delay too. Or introduce selection bias in the data collected. The story about the drunk person searching for their lost car keys at night under the street light, because it was easier to look for them under the street light, is perhaps one example. For a court juror, it there’s been a ‘trial by media’ for the accused person before the court case even started, they may have to fight their own preconceived views from the start.

How can personal flexibility (PFL) counter so-called fake news?

  • be open to engaging other inputs, from trusted sources.
  • sample quick then sample slow.
  • investigate and fix errors. Ask yourself, is the motive of the fake news to cover up something? Or take attention away from something more concerning?
  • rely on independent verification.
  • lower the stakes regarding a wrong decision made.
  • consider publicly discrediting fake news sources, when you find them (whistleblowing).

The combination of the above 6 approaches demonstrates PFL at work.  And how it can be used to counter fake news.

Simon