It’s two months since my father passed away, and nearly a year to the day since he went into hospital for scheduled heart surgery. Sadly, although the operation itself appears to have been a success, the ordeal seemed to trigger a whole series of complications and underlying conditions: within 6 months he was admitted to a dementia ward, and by late last year, he was in a nursing home undergoing palliative care. Less than three months later, he passed away, the shadow of his former self.

I was able to spend several weeks back in the UK over Christmas and New Year, visiting him up to three times a day. Most of the time, he was living in his own little world, and I would simply sit with him and listen to some of his favourite music, mainly baroque and opera. But in his lucid moments there were flashbacks to the distant past, and some recollections of more recent memories. On one occasion, even though he had lost most of his capacity for speech, he did manage a sage piece of advice: “Don’t play with fire”.

More recently, I was in the UK again to scatter his ashes and help sort out his study and his workshop. Memories of impromptu DIY lessons came flooding back. There were also several quirks and surprises in his personal archive: photos of him at management conferences in the 1970s and 1980s, a scrapbook of his time in Germany in the late 1950s during National Service (including some chilling images of Belsen), and a spreadsheet showing his annual income and income tax right up to his retirement.

Although he was fortunate in being able to take early retirement in his late 50s, he spent the next 25 years volunteering, building a portfolio of interests and serving on multiple committees for the arts, small business, veteran affairs, U3A and other community projects. My mother likes to joke that he’d rather chair a committee than mow the lawn. He also continued to learn, and I found recent certificates of proficiency for speaking German, and for formatting Word documents (very handy for writing up agendas and minutes).

He was the product of a classic liberal education, not a polymath, but possessing a solid knowledge about lots of different things: the arts, politics, language and history as well as science and technology. All the things you need to solve The Times crossword.

There are probably three key things that my father taught me:

  • Think for yourself
  • Don’t follow the herd
  • And of course, being an engineer, don’t take something apart unless you know how to put it back together again.

The latter is particularly useful when working with clients on their business reviews!

Next week: Music Streaming Comes of Age

“I’m reframing, the situation….”

As a break from my consulting and business development work, I have been taking lessons on picture framing. My significant other is an artist, and she has commissioned me to mount and frame a number of her works for a forthcoming exhibition. Things got off to an interesting start, when I inadvertently framed the first print the “wrong” way round (see the image below). Because there wasn’t an obvious top or bottom, I didn’t realise that I hadn’t placed the image in the way she intended. But, luckily, this “error” created a fresh perspective, and I realised that I was simply doing what I do all with the time with my clients when I reframe the information, problems or situations they present.

"Eclipse" (© Margaret Manchee)

“Eclipse” (© Margaret Manchee)

Some recent examples of where I have helped my various clients to reframe a situation and make a breakthrough when they have become stuck or blocked in their own thinking include:

  • shifting from a “retail” sales model to a “wholesale” strategy that focuses on aggregators and distributors;
  • treating an employer as just one part of a mixed portfolio of clients, rather than thinking that the regular job was a barrier to acquiring more direct clients;
  • refining the sales process to avoid giving away too much proprietary information during the RFP process, but still demonstrating value by delivering the best solution in terms of quality and technical capabilities;
  • repositioning the business to leverage proprietary data and analytics to build long-term revenue streams via commercial relationships and partnerships, rather than competing for increasingly price-sensitive, commoditized and transactional work;
  • adopting a more client-centred approach when designing a new on-line product that hitherto had been viewed internally as simply a technology-driven service extension;
  • using a service-design model for developing and delivering a communication strategy that needs to engage multiple stakeholders who simply want to know “what’s in it for me?”

Another useful insight that my picture framing has given me is the use of complementary and contrasting mount boards and mouldings to emphasise certain colours, to bring out highlights, to add depth and perspective, or to the give the illusion of infinite space and/or possibilities. Again, all things which I bring to the discussions I have with my clients.

Next week: FinTech Melbourne’s latest pitch event

Finding purpose through self-reflection

We hear a lot about “finding your purpose” these days, whether it’s to develop a personal career plan, or to validate a business idea. My colleague Carolyn Tate, founder of the Slow School of Business, spoke on “purpose” at the recent Huddle Design Fest drawing on her TEDx talk for Telstra entitled “Profit on Purpose”. During her presentation, Carolyn referenced the Japanese concept of 生き甲斐 (“ikigai” = “a reason for being”) which is sometimes represented in the following diagram:


“Finding the purpose of your life”. Graphic representation by @emmyzen (Emmy van Deurzen). Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Variations on this theme include, for example, the work of Lianne Bridges and Susan Biali. Earlier, more prosaic, interpretations might be found in the work of Richard N. Bolles (“What Colour is Your Parachute?”) or Spencer Johnson (“Who Moved My Cheese?”).

What it all boils down to is connecting with your values and interests, and finding a balance between what motivates you, what rewards you, what you can contribute, and what people want from you.

For me, a the starting point is developing a personal narrative, to understand how you have arrived at this particular point in your life and/or career, in particular your influences, achievements, challenges, experiences and insights. Through this self-reflection, some common themes should emerge that can form of the basis of defining your own purpose. This should include your core values, the things that are important to you, and your own particular passion.

Where I may differ in my interpretation of “purpose” is that I believe that our purpose can change over time. I don’t see purpose as singular or even linear – it’s multi-dimensional, dynamic, situational and contextual. Our needs and our circumstances don’t stay the same. Likewise, our relationships and the the external environment are constantly changing. So our purpose will likewise be different at different points in our life. For example:

  • Early in our career we may be technically qualified, but without relevant experience we may not be able to command the most senior roles or the highest pay – so our purpose may be to hone our skills and knowledge
  • Later, we may find that our focus on things like marriage, children and a mortgage means we may be willing to get well-paid for work that we don’t actually enjoy – someone I was coaching recently stated that “I’m caught in a job” which was preventing him from pursuing his passion (thankfully, he has since decided to pursue a portfolio of interests, rather than stick with a single job he no longer enjoys)
  • During the “third act” of our career, financial or material rewards may not be so important, but we still need to be engaged in work that we enjoy, that motivates us and which can still sustain us at more than just a basic level of food and shelter
  • Throughout, I think it is essential to keep connected to our true passions (especially creative outlets), in part to provide a counterbalance to work/financial/external imperatives, in part to explore alternative ideas, find linkages between our other interests, and even to connect with new technology – for example, in my own case, my interest in electronic music has led me to recording an album using iOS devices, releasing it via social media sites Soundcloud and Bandcamp, getting it broadcast on the ABC, and beta-testing new music apps

When working with clients to help them re-connect with their business or their career purpose, I like to do an audit of where they are now, and where they could be in 3-5 years time. Through a process of exploring what might be possible, and reframing the present to re-position it for future growth and development, we can discover ways to regain balance by prioritising what’s important, reconfigure or even abandon what isn’t working, and re-establish goals and objectives.

While it is important to strike a balance between the “four pillars” of the ikigai model, my experience is that rarely will all four be in equilibrium – at times they may even be in conflict with one another, or at least in a state of flux. But it’s the resulting points of friction, when we look at them objectively, that can be the source of ideas, context, clarity and resolution. Making time for regular self-reflection enhances our pursuit of purpose, and allows us to take stock of our current situation, without undermining our core values or abandoning our particular interests.

Next week: Challenging Monocultures via Crop Rotation

More In The Moment

In an earlier blog on “being in the moment”, I confessed that I often find the prospect (and practice) of meditation to be daunting and somewhat overwhelming. I forgot to mention that there is a park bench in one of Melbourne’s inner-city gardens which I have found to be a useful starting point. It features a quotation from Dr Ainsley Meares:

“Sit quietly, for it is in quietness we grow”

"clinamen" by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot (2013), purchased by NGV Foundation (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

“clinamen” by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot (2013), purchased by NGV Foundation (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

The significance of this insightful instruction has been driven home by some recent experiences:

  • Through my involvement with the Slow School of Business, I have participated in some Slow Coaching, where I was a Listener. The practice of “deep listening” really does require you to be present in the moment, to focus on what is being said by the Speaker, to observe how it is being expressed, and to give constructive feedback on what you have heard without judging or critiquing. It’s an extension of “active listening”, a technique I learned many years ago as a counsellor helping clients with their consumer debt problems, and I later used it as a manager to provide employee feedback during performance reviews. The key difference is that deep listening is not so concerned with exploring a linear narrative or identifying specific solutions, and is more about giving space to the Speaker to articulate what concerns or issues they are currently facing.
  • At a concert the other week I was struck by the number of people in the audience who were avidly taking photos and videos on their smart phones, or busy talking at the bar rather than appreciating the live performance in front of them. It made me wonder why some people bother going to gigs at all – it often seems like they are not there to watch and listen to the musicians! Apart from being disrespectful to the performers and other members of the audience, the happy snappers and the chatty drinkers can’t really be in the moment because they are too busy trying to capture a transient event for posterity (and who actually watches shaky live concert footage shot on a phone?). Or are they so self-absorbed that they are actually oblivious to what is going on around them?
  • Similarly, last weekend I visited the Twelve Apostles and was dismayed by the ubiquitous selfie-sticks and constant preening and posing at every vantage point. As the sun went down, hardly anyone was actually observing the dusk, let alone being still and listening to the waves below. Instead, everything was being reduced to a diluted digital experience. Again, who goes back and looks at all those photos (and do they do so more than once)? How do these images enhance the experience of simply being there? Did these visitors really appreciate the natural beauty and breathtaking views in front of them? Is a digital camera the only way to interpret the scene for themselves? Is it only “real” when they take a picture? Can it only “exist” as a bunch of pixels?

To underscore quite how significant “being in the moment” can be, I’m reminded of the Above All Human conference in January, where theoretical astrophysicist Dr Katie Mack scared the living day lights out of the audience when she discussed the impact of vacuum decay theory. In (very, very, very) short order, a shift in the current state of the Universe would wipe out life as we know it in a millisecond. It would happen so quickly, that no-one would see it coming. The effect would be catastrophic, but we wouldn’t know it was happening. As Dr Mack so eloquently put it, there would be no point in worrying about FOMO, because:

(a) there would be nothing left to be missing out on;

(b) no trace of your existence would remain; and

(c) in any event, there would be no-one left to miss you….

While I understand the need to validate our existence through “capturing the moment”, if we are too pre-occupied with taking photos, rather than focussing on our actual presence, we risk surrendering our experience to mere digital simulacra.

Next week: Whose IP is it anyway?