The enormous benefit of a ‘five ideas a day’ habit…

Around this time last year I took about six weeks off from writing. Work was manic, I had other stuff going on taking up mental capacity and thus there was little time left for blog posts, journalism, journaling or anything else.

After things had calmed down, I decided one evening to write a quick blog about something I had seen that day.

I sat down in front of the laptop as usual, worked out a structure in my head, and then…nothing.

I had crippling writer’s block. I couldn’t even form the first sentence. It felt like when you take Christmas off going to the gym, then go back in mid January and after 10 minutes you’re gasping for air.

The habit had deserted me, I had nothing in the bank of ideas and it took me another week or so to even begin to get myself out of the funk.

For me, writing is muscle memory. It’s a cumulative thing and one post builds upon another. The positive repetitive strain of completing an activity like writing a blog post routinely is incredibly important.

In the book ‘Daily Rituals’, Mason Currey divulges that many of the great artists were addicted to routine. They needed to have that daily discipline of putting something down on paper, good or bad. The way people like Kafka, Agatha Christie, Tolstoy, Joyce and countless other brilliant creatives re-wired their brain to be productive at a certain time every day was almost ‘Pavlovian‘.

Just like getting fit, or eating well, or building up any habit.

And the same process works for having ideas too.

Idea Machine

I first heard the concept of the idea muscle from writer James Altucher – it being something that you needed to flex every day or else it atrophies. Here’s an interesting post that he wrote years ago on the subject. Basically, the thinking is that by having lots and lots of ideas (good, bad or ridiculous) and training your mind to do this every day, you’re getting multiple benefits.

Firstly, you might stumble across something really interesting and actually use one of the ideas, or maybe combine some of the ideas. Faris Yakob refers to this idea of ‘combinational intelligence’ a lot. He also talks about ‘kleptonesia’ or the process of forgetting where you stole ideas from!

But more importantly, whether the ideas bear fruit or not, you’re training the mind to be active in this way of thinking. You’re creating the pathways in your brain when you train it each day.

In Adam Grant’s book about creativity, he takes apart the ‘epiphany myth‘ – the theory that great ideas just come as lightbulb moments to random people, or that people have a couple of ideas and then refine them.

Actually, it’s the opposite. The great thinkers through history just have lots and lots of ideas. Not even great ones. Just ideas.

You have to generate a lot of variety to be original, and volume is the key to unlocking novelty.

It’s a fascinating way of thinking and Grant gives multiple examples of people like Shakespeare, Motzart, Picasso and Maya Angelou in the book. Edison had over 1,000 patents alone, but his one breakthrough came to define his career.


So it seems that in order to maximise your odds of getting to something great, the most likely way is to just come up with a large number of ideas. Quantity is the most predictable path to quality. And the time cost of coming up with thousands of ideas is worthwhile, because in the long run it’s worth it.

It’s something that Ira Glass from This American Life also references in this lovely video.

“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel Sax on Vimeo.

A really good post by David from Mustard.ie brought the concept back to the forefront of my mind this week. Taking a cue from Altucher, David is publicly writing 5 random ideas per day for 2017 on his Medium post.

Maybe nothing will come of them, but again, that’s not the point, it’s about training the mind, just like mindfulness or brain training for example.

And it’s also incredibly generous. One of David’s quotes from the piece is ‘feel free to take any idea and build it.’ That’s a lovely sentiment, and very intellectually generous. Too often we’re biased towards hoarding our ideas, meaning they likely never get to see the light of day. David’s approach is a win-win for both him and readers.

Buffer’s Kevan Lee is another big proponent of this daily practise.

Because idea generation is not just capturing lightning in a bottle, it seemingly can be regimented. Here’s a brilliant quote that sums it up:

“The production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.”

I already unconsciously do this for writing ideas – I have a huge Google doc devoted just to random blog, interview and article thoughts that’s easy to dip into when I become stuck. It’s the ‘magpie’ strategy, you see something interesting, grab it and bring it back to your nest for use later. Author Ryan Holiday calls it ‘using confirmation bias to your advantage’ by sticking together different fragments of thought into one coherent whole.

But I’m also going to start taking 10 minutes at some stage in the evening to just write down five random business ideas, just like James and David, and indeed just like the great artists that Adam Grant and Mason Currey mention in their books.

It certainly can’t hurt.

Ideas breed more ideas and the process of routinely coming up with a random five ideas a day begets innovation and creativity.

I’m not going to write War and Peace, Hamlet or The Magic Flute, but who knows, maybe something will come out of it.

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Further Reading:
Adam Grant – Originals
James Altucher – The Ultimate Idea Machine
David Delahunty – 5 ideas a day for a year…
A  technique for getting ideas

 

 

 

Learning from Schmidt, Musk and Kahneman – the benefit of negative feedback in the creative process…

Tversky & Kahneman

In his book ‘The Undoing Project‘, Michael Lewis chronicles the lives of two of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It’s a fascinating read about two intellectual powerhouses, an odd couple with vastly differing backgrounds, who founded a bound in war ravaged Israel.

One excerpt in particular sums up their relationship, and why they worked so well together.

Lewis describes firstly how the men had one advantage over their academic rivals – the willingness and ability to remain pessimistic about ideas, and the openness to be challenged.

“The speed with which they walked away from their ideas was incredible” Lewis writes.

In a piece of correspondence, during a minor disagreement between the two men, Taversky blurts out his problem. “One of the things I admired about your work was your relentlessness as a critic. I do not see any of this in your attitude to many of our ideas recently. Also, you have become much less interested in objections or criticism, mine or others.”

Kahneman, later the writer of the acclaimed book ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’ is aghast at this, and vows to change his ways.

Because both men realise something big.

The power of negative feedback, the willingness to be wrong, to put in the work to be correct is a critical part of any creative process.

And unfortunately, we’re in danger of losing this.

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Positivity is the new opium of the masses in 2017.

At a recent summit event in Dublin, an audience of high powered business people spent over 400 euro each to listen to six high-profile American motivational speakers teach ’empowerment’.

We’re bombarded via manicured social media posts and bestselling books, from every angle being told that a veneer of positivity is the only acceptable outlook on life. The implication being that successful people aren’t negative. We’re told not only to ignore, but to embrace our mistakes, to ‘fail fast’ and see them as helpful. From Trump to Tony Robbins to Conor McGregor, we’re sold pollyannaish visions of a utopian future, without any sense of the realities of life. Believe and you can achieve.

Any dissenters from will be dismissed as contrarians, luddites, bad influences or naysayers.

Positivity is the easy route to success.

But to focus only on the positives along and ignore everything else is also the wrong approach to take.

As someone who practises mindfulness and spends an inordinate amount on sports psychology books, I’m only too aware of the power of positive thinking. Certainly, in a country where our male suicide rate is disgracefully high, if more people could have an open minded, progressive and positive mindset it would be a big change.

But a balance needs to be struck. In the unfailing, cult like attempt to make everything sugar coated we’re losing something in our society. We’re losing the valuable opportunity to seek out and accept negative feedback.

The power of negative feedback

The smartest people not only don’t try to avoid negative feedback, they actively seek it out, searching for possible weaknesses that they can work on.

Having the emotional intelligence and intellectual strength to not only accept, but to seek out negative feedback is hugely beneficial. If we only receiving positive feedback, then we believe ourselves to be an expert. There’s no self reflection or critique.

Elon Musk, a modern day genius in the same mould as Taversky and Kahneman also subscribes to this theory.

“I think it is very important to actively seek out and listen very carefully to negative feedback. This is something people typically tend to avoid because it’s painful. But I think this is a very common mistake — to not actively seek out and listen to negative feedback.”


Avoiding negative feedback is wrong-headed and dangerous.It gives an alternate viewpoint, and even if it’s not correct it gives you something to think about, to guard against.

Without awareness of the mistakes he or she is making, no one can possibly improve. Staying “positive” will only get you so far. If everything is always positive, that means we aren’t learning, because a real feedback loop doesn’t exist. Sure, people need encouragement, and plenty of it, to improve. Any good coach will tell you that.

But there’s a reason why one of the key elements of Joe Schmidt’s leadership style is remorseless, sharp feedback on in-game errors delivered through Monday morning video sessions that his players both fear, but also value greatly.

There’s a reason why, after every mission, Navy SEALs do a review of what happened to get feedback. Do they all just congratulate each other? No, they spend 90% of their time on the negative: what they can do better next time.

In Adam Grant’s book ‘Originals he describes how the creative process is sticky, non-linear, difficult and thus doesn’t benefit from constant positive feedback. According to him many innovators do so well not in spite of negative thinking, but because of it.

Research shows that when American presidents’ inaugural addresses feature overly positive language and predictions about the future, employment rates and GDP actually tend to decline during the tenure. When presidents are too optimistic, the economy gets worse. Negative thoughts can direct their attention to potential problems. Watch out Donald…

Comfort Zone

Without truthful feedback, you don’t know if you’re improving.  And that doesn’t benefit anyone. The only place where real learning takes place is outside your comfort zone. More often than not, getting there requires a break from the tyranny of relentless positivity.

Sure, taking negative feedback is hard. It’s certainly something that I’ve found difficult over my life, and continue to find tough.

Nobody wants to be wrong or imperfect all the time. But learning new things is always messy. Nobody picks up a new instrument, starts a new job or learns a new sport instantly.

And let’s not always assume that people who are negative towards us are being mean for the sake of it.

Let’s instead flip that, and take presume that they’re doing it for the right reasons. Let’s start from he assumption of ‘the most respectful interpretation’.

Negative feedback is a critical part of getting better.

The benefit of negative feedback in the creative process is that friction improves the outcome. It’s a paradox, but negativity has a positive impact on creative work.

Aristotle once spoke about the ‘golden mean’, later termed the ‘Goldilocks Theory’ – society’s almost biological need to find a desirable middle between two extremes of excess and deficiency.

When it comes to the cult of positivity, we all need some balance in our life. That’s the only way to live your truest self and to improve.

 

 

 

 

How Netflix applied business stoicism to grab the Brazilian streaming market…

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Marcus Aurelius

In 2011, the lure of owning the Brazilian market must’ve been enticing to Netflix. For good or bad, Brazil is the beating heart of South America’s economy. It’s an enormous country that sets the trends for a whole continent. Brazil also has a huge smartphone penetration, along with a love of T.V. dramas – every night, about 42 million people watch a drama from ‘Globo’ a conglomerate of media companies that controls the market.

From the outside, it looks like a market ripe for streaming disruption. So the strategic decision was made – Netflix wanted to grab Brazil before another service could get there.

But often, as the old military saying goes, the map doesn’t match the territory. What appears to be from the outside isn’t always the reality once you start delving a little deeper.

Very quickly, Netflix found itself encountering problems. (This brilliant article does a great job outlining them.)

Skepticism

Local audiences at first met the company with skepticism, bafflement, or indifference. Few people were signing up, and those who did were hardly watching. The problems started unravelling very quickly. Brazil in 2011 had poor quality internet, even in the big cities. Mobile signals were at best 3G and plans throttled customer for streaming over their low data limits. The infrastructure was poor.

At the same time, people didn’t have the hardware in their homes to stream. Modern T.V.s with wireless connectivity were a luxury, and thus most families who did watch Netflix, did so on poor quality laptop screens.

And to compound matters, Brazilian young people, the very cohort who were crying out for the service, tended not to have credit cards to pay for it. Those who did have credit cards were often reluctant to hand over their information to a company they didn’t know.

Brazil had become a strategic quagmire. A black mark on Netflix’s rapid global expansion. Something had to be done.

Barriers

In his brilliant book on stoicism ‘The Obstacle Is The Way’, Ryan Holiday describes the power of seeing barriers and problems as opportunities. Mixing the teachings of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius with modern business, leadership and war stories, Holiday outlines how blessings and burdens are not mutually exclusive, how our perception is often the thing that’s holding us back, and how great men and women see impediments as chances to grow rather than the end of the road.

By focusing exclusively on what’s within our power, seeing things through a different lens and understanding that every scenario is potentially malleable, we start to realise that problems are rarely as bad as we think. Or rather, they’re exactly as bad as we think. 

Many people perceive stoicism to be a rigid, pessimistic outlook on life. Holiday makes the case that it’s actually the opposite. It’s infinitely elastic. It provides us with the opportunity to evolve when something goes wrong.

And that’s what Netflix did.

Practical

They weren’t discouraged that their efforts were being hampered by factors seemingly beyond their control. They didn’t give in and waste the billions of dollars that had already gone into the Brazilian experiment.

They accepted, adapted, ‘controlled the controllables’. They saw what many companies would see as a huge negative as an opportunity.

To improve connectivity, Netflix invested in web servers around the country, and teamed up with telecommunications giants such as Telefónica, which were in the process of introducing high-speed broadband nationwide. Netflix supplied the companies with additional servers at no charge, meaning they got what they wanted, the telcos got an opportunity to offer the service to their customers, and of course Netflix got to piggyback on existing relationships.

To fix the hardware problem, Netflix took another partnership approach, this time with Asian consumer electronics manufacturers, offering them a great opportunity to sell more smart TVs in Brazil. Of course, this too was win-win, as Netflix came bundled on all new T.V.s sold, another ‘growth hack’ for the brand.

To fix the credit card issue, the service began for the first time to accept alternate forms of remittance. They began taking debit cards, payments via Apple’s iTunes, even phone credit as monthly billing.

And to fix the trust issue, the brand started to legitimise itself by buying T.V. advertising airtime. Another first for Netflix, which had previously focused only on digital, P.R. and inbound marketing.

The results have been predictably astounding. Brazil has become Netflix’s largest market outside the English-speaking world. Analysts estimate it has 4 million to 5 million subscribers in the country, trailing only the U.S. and U.K.

By practising a company wide policy of stoicism and being practical and solution focused in the face of huge obstacles Netflix broke new ground for streaming and cornered the Brazilian market.

They retained perspective in the face of adversity.

What stands in the way becomes the way.