Cheat Codes for Life

Or, 10 things I know to be true.

I’ve been around a bit. 21 years as a consultant of different types, in many industries and across 3 continents. I’ve also made more than my share of mistakes and bad decisions. I think it’s pretty fair to say I have earned my scars from some tough engagements.

Of course, it shouldn’t have been that way. Most of these difficult engagements could have been easier with better skills and more useful approaches. This a big part of the purpose of this site. It’s to allow you and hopefully many other people to learn the same hard-won lessons I did, just more easily and with fewer sleepless nights.

As I build and prepare these, I have a few core rules that I have found to correlate strongly with success. These are the approaches that after 2 decades, I lean on for successful, fulfilling work, a happy home life and a sensible balance between the two. I’m still learning, and so these will change, but for now this is my best advice.

1. The Only Two Things You Control Are What You Think and What You Do

This is the core of Stoicism. I think. You cannot remove unpleasant events or difficulties from your life. They’re always going to happen. Yet, you can choose how you react to them. This is the only choice you do have.

It takes discipline and practice to make the right choices. In the heat of the moment it is easy to let your lizard brain take over and make a choice that you’ll regret. This will always happen. However you can work to do it less and less.

Choose to understand the stresses of life as things outside your control, and focus on the control you do have. Work at making better choices.

2. You’re Not an Island, You’re Part of Many Teams

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This is one I struggle with. Too many times I have not asked for help when I needed it, and my colleagues will tell you that is still sometimes 1Often? the case. Of course, this is foolish. As humans we have evolved to work in teams. Our evolutionary success is due to our ability to work together and support each other.

In our modern world each of us is part of many teams, and as a consultant this is even more the case. You have your core work team – your manager and peers. If you are a manager then your direct reports. You will have one or more client teams, wider teams of colleagues and, as you progress to leadership roles, yet more teams of peers and other leaders.

Outside work we have our close family, siblings and cousins. Friends, members of hobby or social groups. All these exist together in a network of mutual support and obligation. As I will talk about in the point about time, later in this piece, we have to be careful how we divide our time in supporting others in these teams. Despite this, these teams offer many opportunities to get help and support.

3. You Win or You Learn

I’ve heard this attributed to all kinds of people, from Nelson Mandela to John C Maxwell. I first heard it in the context of mixed martial arts and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, attributed to Carlos Gracie Sr, one of the men responsible for the success of that art. Regardless of where it comes from, it’s choice of mindset.

There’s little like Jiu Jitsu for teaching this. The main difference between a black belt and white belt is that the former has tapped out2Submitted, or admitted “you got me” hundreds of thousands more times. In the words of Samuel Beckett

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Failure happens. The first pancake is always a bit rubbish. It takes hundreds of hours of practice to play an instrument, or become competent in a sport. No-one’s ever made the first jump. However, you can choose to treat that failure as the first, next, or two-hundredth step in improving. Do that and you never really lose. You win, or you learn.

4. Learn Purposefully, and Apply Your Knowledge

All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance – Edward Gibbon

To be human is to learn. It’s what we do. In work, life, relationships, everything. We learn. By applying that learning to useful, purposeful ends we can harness that to grow in ways that will benefit us. Purposeful learning can help us grow skills and capabilities that we can use to improve our lives. It could be something as formal as learning how to manage a project , or it could simply be taking the time to learn the most effective way to cut an onion. It all adds to the quality of your experience.

Gamers know that life is all about the side quests. That’s how you get gud enough to beat the big challenges. So it is with life. Invest the time to develop the skills. Sharpen the saw to slightly misquote Covey. We can’t learn everything we want however. I would love to be able to make really good croissants, but I don’t have the time to invest in really learning (yet!). Making perfect, meltingly, buttery croissants from scratch would be amazing, but the actual utility of it is limited. Given my waistline you could probably make a good argument that it would be a net negative. So I focus on other skills. On skills for work, that help my family and friends, that promote the kind of life I want to live.

That’s where the purposefully part comes in. Choose what you want to learn. Invest in it and grow. Then, when you have the opportunity, learn to make croissants.

5. Be Radically Honest With Yourself

I used to describe this as being brutally honest, but a colleague recently challenged me on how that plays into the tendency that some, like me, have for negative self talk. So be radical.

No-one knows all of you. Your best friend, your parents, your siblings only know you through what they’ve experienced and shared with you. The only person who can really understand you is you. Some people get really close, but there is always a level of abstraction between your core and what you present to even your closest confidants.

Being honest with yourself is hard. We lie to ourselves for many reasons. To protect ourselves, to punish ourselves. To make us feel better, stronger or smarter. Or because we’ve been taught to by others. A very common example of this is Imposter Syndrome – the feeling you don’t deserve to be where you are. This is illustrated perfectly by the author Neal Gaiman in an anecdote:

Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things.  And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.

There are lots of other ways we lie to ourselves however. We tell ourselves that it wasn’t our fault when it was, or that we were unlucky when we were actually unprepared. We tell ourselves that we’re stupid when we’re clearly not. Getting past this is a challenge, and one I fail at all the time (but I am getting better!). Radical self-honesty requires time to reflect, to admit mistakes and to celebrate successes. To be humble but not self-deprecating. To believe in yourself without being arrogant. It takes practice, but then nothing good ever came easily.

6. Pay Attention to What Has Your Attention

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Your mind will, generally, keep dragging your attention to the things it thinks you need to be dealing with. They are being forced to the front of your mind because your brain doesn’t think you have appropriately captured, categorised and decided how to manage them.

Sometime this goes a bit wrong and we and up anxiously catastrophizing3Literally mentally imagining every minor issue to be a catastrophe. Jumping from a message from my boss asking me to call him in the morning, straight to “I must be getting fired. I’m going be bankrupt and homeless and have to live alone under a bridge”. When actually he just wanted to tell me about a new customer. Yeah this happened. over things we cannot control, but more usually we need to pay more attention to them. The great thing about this is that we rarely need to pay as much attention as we fear, we just need to do it usefully.

One of the great lessons in David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology is that your brain is for having ideas, not holding on to them. Once you get all the things out of your head an onto paper or a screen you can sensibly begin to engage with them, and do something productive to solve whatever it is you’re worrying about.

7. Focus on Treasure, Not Trash

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We have a tendency to hold on to things of little value. Things we don’t need, or even really want. Junk. Rubbish. Trash.

This isn’t me pushing you towards minimalism. If that’s what you want then more power to you, but I know it’s not for everyone. It’s not for me. I like to be surrounded by my books, papers and notes. I like having things to spark off and engage with. However I try really hard to not hold onto trash, and to focus on the treasure.

Your email inbox is probably prime example of this. To steal from David Allen again, all the stuff that lands in your inbox fits in a small number of categories. It’s something to deal with now, something to save for reference, to record for later action, or it’s something nice you want to hold onto. Anything else is trash. I’ll bet you a cup of coffee that your inbox is more than 80% full of stuff that fits in that last category.

You probably have dozens or hundreds of emails in there that have no value to you. Ads for things you don’t want. Long email chains you were copied into. Requests for things you have already done. Newsletters for things you were interested in ages ago and have never unsubscribed from. Trash, all of it.

You’ll have other similar piles of stuff elsewhere in your life. Quite possibly on the closest flat surface to your front door. Old letters from your insurer, more ads, reminders about bin day, takeway adverts4Does anyone use these anymore? Surely we all order online?. Trash, trash, trash.

If it isn’t something to be actioned now, recorded to be done later, delegated for someone else, something to be stored as reference or useful decoration then get rid of it. Starting with email is easy, but challenge yourself to focus on the treasure, The things you want to see, or which add value to you. The people who you like and not the ones you don’t. As much as possible, get that trash out of there.

8. Be Water, My Friend

As advised by Bruce Lee, with typical intensity. Water can be many things. It can be hard, like a crashing wave, or it can be soft, like a flowing brook. Throw a rock into a pool and it responds appropriately, with big waves. Throw a pebble and it gives back little ripples. Water finds its own level and returns to it as soon as possible.

In life you will get hit by big rocks and little pebbles. If you respond to these inappropriately you’ll lose either energy in overreacting or opportunity by not reacting enough. Regardless, you need to stop reacting when appropriate and return to your level.

Sometimes you will need to take on a different role or approach to deal with a particular situation. Like water, you may need to flow into unfamiliar settings and adapt to them before finding the right level. Water doesn’t care about labels or the shape it is supposed to be. It simply adapts and flows.

From this flows relaxation, and from relaxation grows the ability to fully make use of your talents and capabilities. To quote David Allen again

Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax

9. Time is Our Most Valuable Non-Renewable Resource

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This is an idea most eloquently put forward by the physicist and network scientist Albert-László Barabási. Despite this, I have a vivid memory of an old school teacher shouting at me “Tempus fugit Marwood. Tempus bloody fugit”. I didn’t appreciate it then, but time does indeed fly.

We have a limited amount of time, and there is a lot to do. We have commitments to ourselves, to our families, to work, to society. We need time to relax and play, to build, to learn and to grow. Everything we do depends on time. There’s a reason that every approach to project management includes a fundamental focus on time.

One of the early lessons taught to Freemasons5Yes, I’m a Freemason. No I won’t teach you the funny handshake. Sorry., is to measure and divide your day. In the same way a stonemason will take a rough stone, measure and shape it, we should take our day and shape it appropriately. Part to work, part to rest and part in helping others. However, unlike the stonemason we can’t recut or reshape a wasted hour. We can’t mine another day out of the quarry. So we should be mindful of how we are spending our time.

This doesn’t mean to work, or neglect things which bring us pleasure. It’s about balance and structure. As mentioned above, this won’t work all the time. I regularly fail to make the best use of the time I have available. However, through careful, purposeful improvement I try to get better.

10. Speak Softly, and Carry a Big Stick

I’ve been fortunate in having worked with some amazing people. Once thing that most had in common and which correlated with their impact and effectiveness was their quiet professionalism backed up by their notable competence in multiple disciplines. That’s what I try to both emulate and impart. In this I take inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Stick Ideology . If you have the big stick of expertise and can apply it diligently, you have more impact by speaking softly.

The big stick is the skills and capabilities to make a big impact. To put a ding in the universe. It’s your ability to plan, execute and deliver. To decide what you want to happen and to make it so.

Speaking softly allows you to use this stick to the best effect. Your metaphorical big stick6There’s a joke there, but I’m not going to make it can be just as effective when not used to smash things out of your way, and with fewer negative results.

There you go. 10 things I have found correlate well with success for me, and with people I admire. I’m far from perfect, or even much more than barely competent, with most of them, but that’s the point. If this was easy, anyone could do it.