4 questions for living forward

“The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings” – Kakuzo Okakaura

In the last 2 years I’ve increased my thinking and entrepreneurial attitude. More recently I’ve found I’m back to asking myself deep questions in order to build a stronger picture for my near term experience (1-3 years). Luckily I also have my 10 year plan for a remarkable life (now an 8 year plan, as it’s been 2 years since I wrote it). That plan came from the advice Debbie Millman gives her students. A fantastic tool which you can read about on this site.

What I don’t have is a near or shorter term plan. Arguably not needed if I have the longer term 10 year remarkable life one, yet this week I began to ponder if I’m achieving my professional desires, as well as asking myself if I’m  having the type of impact that leaves a legacy.

I asked myself the following questions:

    1. Am I fulfilled in my primary work?
    2. Am I achieving value for others in all the work I do?
    3. Is that value recognised?
    4. Am I rewarded and compensated in line with that value?

Answering these questions has been scary for me as I feared the truth. The truth means I must act. Taking responsibility and acting off the back of answers to these questions is not a small thing.

So I’m on a journey again, the first step has been facing these questions head on, with full honesty and the knowledge that I already knew the answers, I was simply avoiding them as I didn’t want to have to act.

How often do you ask yourself questions like these? Ones that result in facing fears, fears like big change? I wish I’d done this more often over the last 2 years, I certainly will do from now on.

It can be scary, yet as the saying goes, everything you want is on the other side of fear.

Good luck!

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
— Rosa Parks

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How Batman and Clint Eastwood stood in for my dad

Up until my early twenties I had very little time with my dad, so I got creative and used stand-in dads. As crazy as that may sound, it’s true. My parents divorced when I was a toddler and I don’t actually remember a time when my father was living under the same roof.

By the time I was 10 my dad had left the UK to live in America and I’d experienced almost no nurturing male in my life. My mum was strong in many ways and I’m thankful for that, but nurturing was not one of her strengths (she’s didn’t receive it from her family so it didn’t come naturally). I was missing out on this part of childhood completely. It’s widely recognised that one of the key foundations for a successful adulthood is the experience of unconditional love from a primary care giver.

As a young boy I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so unconditional love wasn’t something I longed for, what I did long for was my father. I wanted him around to teach me how to talk to girls (I was useless at that), how to protect myself against bullies, how to defend myself in a violent situation, and answer questions on what was happening to my body. Also just to kick a ball around or watch cartoons together.

So I read comics, comics with strong male leads. Characters like Batman, Spider-man and Swamp Thing became my stand in dads. I watched a lot of films, mainly Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck and Michael J Fox. I couldn’t kick a ball around with any of them and they weren’t nurturing me, yet I was inspired by each of them in different ways. Through movies like For a Few Dollars More and Back to the Future I could see how two very different characters survived in a world of bullying and greed. Through comics like Batman I learned that I could choose my own path and be successful as a loner or part of a team. I was learning as best I could at how to be a male in a male run world (thankfully it’s more equal nowadays, yet there is long journey ahead still).

I got by, I definitely had times when I was sad, during those times I would stay in my bedroom listening to music, immersing myself into books and comics. What I’m grateful for is that the sad times became less frequent as I matured.

As the years went by I kept up with choosing influences to replace my missing dad. Actors like Robert De Nero, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson where key in my understanding of attraction and emotional intelligence, all through the roles they’d chosen to act out in movies. In real life I gained a fantastic group of friends, I was able to have fun without feeling guilty and I began to realise the world wasn’t out to get me, it was full of opportunity, I just needed to know how to feed off it.

I realise I still use the method of stand in influences across all areas of life, from the 5 people I choose each January to help me on my 12 month journey ahead, to the books I read and podcasts I listen to.

You may have all the positive influences in your life already, though have you searched for gaps? Maybe you can use stand in influences, adding or filling a space that would help you grow?

“Rather like Batman, I embody the themes of the movie which are the values of family, courage and compassion and a sense of right and wrong, good and bad and justice.” – Gary Oldman

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If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself

At the age of 15, I found myself having to do course work and exams to leave school and take the next life step (mandatory education stopped at 16 back then, and I was a summer born so one of the youngest in my year).

I didn’t put much effort into revision for exams, I preferred to focus on coursework as it satisfied my love for reading, research and creation. For my computer studies coursework I chose to create a math test to help pupils prep for up coming maths exams. One of the rules we had for coursework projects (that I wasn’t keen on) was we were to do them alone.

BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) was the language of choice for me. I’d been writing on my Commodore for a while (mainly text based adventures) and it was the primary language taught at my school. My challenge was I was still learning so would benefit from guidance and help. With this, rather than do the project alone, handing it in to learn from the results, I decided to seek a partner and learn on the go.

The computer that started it all for me (I still have it)

One of my best friends was more proficient at programming than I was, he also understood the advantages of collaboration. Collaboration such as code reviews, fresh eyes for testing, and pair programming (even though that wasn’t a recognised approach back then). So that’s what we did, we paired up on my project, where he helped me learn more than I could have if I’d gone it alone.

The project wasn’t perfect and the teacher made plenty of comments on our code. My friend didn’t receive any credit for the work he put in (we couldn’t risk it), though he did learn a bunch of things himself and we both benefited from spending more time together playing R-Type.

R-Type on the spectrum, a classic from my childhood

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Years later that same friend let me stay at his house after I’d returned from one of my trips travelling abroad. He was working at Electronic Arts and I’d decided I should stick around in the UK, I needed to start some sort of job path. He saw how I’d kept up to date and relevant in the world of IT and video games. With this confidence, he put me forward for a role supervising a small team. A team testing compatibility and security at EA’s UK headquarters.

I landed the job and that’s when my thirst for collaboration really began to take hold. Myself and the team began to get great results based on partnerships and collaboration, not strict process and authority.

I’ve worked this way ever since, a way that gets results for all, results based on real collaboration for the best solutions, not disingenuous relationships or mandatory process. It hasn’t worked for me all the time, as in actually hurting my career at different stages. In tech and video games it’s been more usual for rewards to focus on the superhero individual, not the team. I remember suffering poor performance reviews at Microsoft under the Steve Balmer era, an era of internal competing, rather than leveraging with and contributing to others.

What I learned early on, at the time I did my BASIC project, was that I didn’t want to change. I was lucky to have made some strong friendships at EA, some of who joined Microsoft too. With them we kept to our values, values of collaboration and giving rather than taking.

Right now I’m at Unity where one of the values is “In it together”. A value that, if truly part of the culture will result in success for employees, customers and the business. It’s a tough one to establish, as more conventional metrics driven teams compete and backstab due to the very nature of individual metrics. I haven’t seen it here yet, especially in the engineering organisation where we strive not to have the super hero model.

How do you approach activities for achieving results? If you’re not leveraging or contributing to others then you’re only getting half of what can be achieved. I find this goes for my marriage and friendships too.

“Synergy is the highest activity of life; it creates new untapped alternatives; it values and exploits the mental, emotional, and psychological differences between people.” – Stephen Covey

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I’ve used up 2 lives already, so by classic video game standards, I only have 1 left. Thankfully I’ve learned from the 2 I lost.

Two lessons from my twenties will stick with me forever:

    1. Don’t buy cheap tyres
    1. Learn how to negotiate

The moments in which I learned these were tipping points. Tipping points that meant death or life threatening injury as a likely outcome.

Back in the early 1990’s I was driving to work early one Saturday morning. It was 5:30am and the sun was just peeking over the horizon. I was driving towards the town of Cirencester in Gloucestershire. As I went under a bridge I had to brake hard. My car rapidly turned onto the drivers side and kept going. As it slid forward, scraping the road at speed, the windscreen shattered, along with the side windows. Petrol then sprayed in, soaking my face and body, the car then flipped onto its roof. As it continued sliding, it started to squash me as the weight of the car pushed down.

I was nearly into my twenties, living in Tetbury in the UK with my mum and brother. That morning I was in my first car, a black Fiat Panda. It wasn’t a reliable car and calling it a piece of junk is quite possibly understating its condition. It was mine however, my very own transport, where I could play my own music and drive myself anywhere I wanted. I had freedom.

Back to that Saturday. I knew the road well, I’d driven from Tetbury to Cirencester as part of my commute for a few months by then. I also knew of its dangers. One of my friends who lived a few houses from me had died in a car crash on that very route. Despite all this, my reaction came as a surprise when I saw a bunch of party goers in the road. They were trying to push their car up hill from under the bridge.

Those party goers had been raving in the countryside a few fields away. Unfortunately for me they’d also been enjoying drugs that had impaired their judgment. This helped them think jump starting a car up hill was a thing.

So as I headed down into the darkness under that bridge, there they were. All I could think of doing in the milliseconds I had to choose a response, was slam on my brakes. So my car turned onto its side.

I remember someone dragging me out of my car through the drivers door, which had popped off. Miraculously I was unharmed, aside from bruising, scratching and shock. The partygoers had fled and the person who helped me was another driver coming the opposite way.

Lesson? Don’t take drugs and bump start a car uphill, it’s not a thing. Also never buy cheap tyres! They’re all there is between you and the road. Since that accident I’ve budgeted a minimum spend of 3% of a cars initial cost on tyres.

Several years later I found myself volunteering in Nigeria. One evening I jumped onto my moped and sped through the jungle to the next village. I’d heard there were other volunteers visiting and I wanted to meet them. Soon after arriving, I was drinking beer and having a good time when there was a knock at the door. Three plain clothed men claiming to be police dragged us outside at gunpoint shouting and screaming. They then lined us up next to a Land Rover, pointing their guns directly at us.

The other volunteers had managed to get some weed earlier in the day, which they’d been smoking that evening. The men calling themselves police (though they were unable to show ID) had heard rumours of this and wanted to make arrests (having drugs in Nigeria was a serious offence at that time).

After what felt like an hour of questioning and threatening, they started to search us. One by one down the line they searched, emptying pockets, shouting and taking anything of value. As they made their way down the line I felt the person next to me kick me on the foot. I looked down and there was a bag of weed in his hands, hidden behind his back. It was being passed down the line without the people searching us noticing. I took the bag and placed it on top of the Land Rover wheel behind me. Luckily the Land Rover in question hadn’t been jacked up and so the wheel arch hid the contraband nicely.

Being the last one to get searched and still no weed to be found, resulted in me getting the full force of their anger. One of them held their gun to my left kneecap saying he’d shoot me if I didn’t tell him where it was, so I was pretty angry at this point. I’d read enough Batman and seen enough Clint Eastwood to know the only way out of this without lots of violence, that didn’t involve me handing the weed over, was to talk and make sure what I said was smart. So I talked (I would have preferred the Batman fighting route but didn’t like my chances).

Looking back I don’t actually remember what I said, though I do remember asking questions and finding out their names, along with being able to convince them that there was no weed. All in the whole incident lasted a couple of hours before they left us. They got bored, became convinced we had no drugs and had already taken anything of value.

The moment I remember most about that whole evening, was the moment where we watched them drive off into the night. I felt a change happen, a change in me as a person, one that I could never come back from. I had negotiated my way out of being shot, after hiding drugs from gunmen. This wasn’t a movie set, it was real life.

Lesson? Be good at negotiating anything and everything. EQ is a superpower, especially if you’re not Batman. Whether it’s at work, your family or with a gunman. Negotiation skills and connecting with people are what separates the many who have and the many who don’t have.

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