Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Is Adversity Foe or Friend?

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There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time – Malcolm X

Steven Crandell wrote recently in the Huffington Post about the necessity for entrepreneurs to turn adversity into opportunity, saying a lot rides on how we exercise our free will to create a personal resiliency.

He came up with a quick three question test:
  • Can you commit to what you really care about? How? 
  • Can you maintain that commitment even as outside events batter you, even as you prove yourself to be frail and fallible, even as you have to radically change your strategy and goals? How? 
  • Can you live your everyday life with the durability, flexibility and transcendence of love? How? 
They’re decent questions. Adversity is just life. We can’t win every day at everything. But in my experience, adversity is only a foe if you let it break you. I take the simple Tom Peters’ approach: if you’re going to fail, fail fast, learn fast and fix fast. Failing is just a step on the road to discovering what works. And when you find what works, that’s called winning. They’re not so far apart.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Virtues of the Mind

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Mental virtues are not something most of us think about to any great extent. We tend to look at virtues as being character traits – courage, kindness, loyalty, loving – rather than relating them to the way we think. But the way we think influences everything about us, so it’s worth recapping the list of six cerebral virtues highlighted by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

  1. Love of learning: Being inquisitive is valuable. Some people are more naturally curious than others, but we should all want to learn more. At the very least it keeps our brains active and that in itself helps to keep us sharp well into retirement.
  2. Intellectual courage: Going against the grain is tough and it takes a lot of courage to hold unpopular views. As Brooks notes, the subtler side is knowing how much risk to take in jumping to conclusions - when to be cautious and when to be daring and be willing to contemplate outrageous ideas. 
  3. Firmness: You need to have conviction in your beliefs and not give up at the first hint of opposition. But you also don't want to be so rigid that you can't mould your thinking when new facts emerge. It's about being mentally agile and aware.  
  4. Humility: A tough one for academics, as prestige is not easy to obtain. But only the arrogant believe they have truly mastered a topic. There is always someone to learn from and more ideas to explore. 
  5. Autonomy: In simple terms, thinking for yourself. Questioning what you hear and read, rather than blindly accepting it as gospel. But also knowing when to take guidance and from whom. The best teachers are always the ones that want you to challenge them and ask questions. 
  6. Generosity: There is no point sitting on life lessons and experience. We need to share our knowledge and be gracious in how we do it. That means taking the time to talk with people to champion their growth. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Political Inspiration

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Two recent standout political performances are worthy of notice. Saatchi & Saatchi Deputy Chairman Richard Hytner and author of Consigileri: Leading from the Shadows wrote in The Huffington Post last week about the performance of former UK Prime Minister and longtime Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, and his “stellar performance” in persuading the majority of voters to keep Scotland part of Great Britain.

“At the eleventh hour,” writes Hytner, “Gordon Brown trumped Scotland’s First Minister with authenticity, humility and outstanding oratory…How ironic that those withering in their assessment of Gordon Brown’s performance as Prime Minister were forced to rely heavily on his excellent and impassioned advocacy to see off the SNP. It also supports the idea that a life in leadership transcends title and tenure in a single role. The thought that Gordon Brown’s greatest political triumph may have been won not as Chancellor, nor as Prime Minister, but as an elder statesman without office, should offer lasting hope to leaders throughout all organisations.”

Gordon Brown and the Labour Party was a client of Saatchi London in 2007 and coined the term “Not flash, just Gordon.” Well, that was pretty flash, Gordon.

The other politician turning in a stellar performance is New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who led the National Party to victory with 48% of the popular vote. The election campaign was vicious rather than visionary, with several attempts to tear down the government with “dirty politics” rather than the advancement of progressive policies. Key stood his ground and the electorate delivered a stunning endorsement of his center-right platform. The remarkable thing was that New Zealand has a proportional voting system enabling all voices to have a go at getting representation, and to achieve 48% of the popular vote is unprecedented in world politics. Even more remarkable was that his government increased their voter support after two re-election campaigns. Governments usually go on a slippery slope downwards once in power. Not so John Key. After the result he firmly instructed his party not to indulge in the arrogance of power, to govern in the interests of all citizens, and has embarked on a program of eliminating child poverty in New Zealand.

2 x postscripts: Leading political columnist Jane Clifton has written a long and considered piece on Richard Hytner’s book Consiglieri as it applies to New Zealand politics over the last three decades.

And New Zealand has the best designed government in the world, according to American political commentator Dylan Matthews writing for Vox last week. “The shire has a mighty fine political system,” he jokes. “New Zealand’s parliament is better designed than just about any other developed country government.” Matthews gives 3 reasons for New Zealand having “The world’s best electoral system:” MMP, unicameralism and constitutional monarchy. “MMP (for Mixed Member Proportional representation) discourages the kind of excessive party formation that happens under pure party-list representation, while still ensuring that smaller parties get some say.” Matthews explains that MMP allows democracy to function while the 5% threshold prevents everything getting out of control.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mechanical Music

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Robots can be useful. Absolutely. Creating them to do menial or dangerous tasks is a valuable advancement for our world. But I can’t get excited about robots being developed to create original music.

Computer scientists in Paris and the US are working on this now. They believe they will soon have an algorithm that can create original compositions in the style of legendary figures like Beethoven, or soul singers like Ray Charles. But here’s the kicker, music, great music, hits you in the guts with an emotional punch. Robots can’t replicate that. They can only imitate and extrapolate on what we, as humans, have already produced.

Take this quote from an article in The Atlantic: “I would submit that you can certainly make a computer swing,” says Brooklyn-based musician and technologist Eric Singer. “You can kind of jitter that swing a bit to make it sound more human.”

But I don’t want music to sound human. I love that it is human. Maybe, you could argue that a commercial application for generic mall music, or when you’re on hold to your bank, is valid. But still, I would prefer if we left creativity to people and didn’t homogenise it. Music is one of the most magical and inspirational creative gifts we have. Every song has a story. Robot music has no mystery. No intimacy. No sensuality. You can’t love it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

15 Lessons From The Eames Legacy

Sometimes you come across things that have been around for a while that are still relevant today. Keith Yamashita’s small book Fifteen Things Charles and Ray Teach Us is one of them. Charles and Ray Eames shared a belief that design could improve people's lives, and this remains their greatest legacy. The book was published in 1999 but the suggestions remain simple and brilliant.
  1. Keep good company. Build relationships with influential people. Gain not just their company, but their trust and respect. 
  2. Notice the ordinary. Look around you. The wonderful mysteries of life are in your path throughout the day. 
  3. Preserve the ephemeral. Collect moments that would otherwise slip away. You can do this with photos, letters, or keep items from special occasions. 
  4. Design not for the elite, but for the masses. The most successful companies create things that people use every day. 
  5. Explain it to a child. Simple is best.  
  6. Get lost in the content. This is about passion and curiosity. If you want to know about something, seek to learn everything about it.  
  7. Get to the heart of the matter. Be upfront and honest. There is no prize for beating around the bush. 
  8. Never tolerate "O.K. anything." Aim for quality. Demand it of yourself and expect it from the people who work with you. 
  9. Remember your responsibility as a storyteller. Design is about conveying a story. Don't get so lost in what you are doing and forget about the story.  
  10. Zoom out. Take a moment to reflect on the relative size of things to the scope of the universe. 
  11. Switch. Never get bored. Why limit yourself to one or two things? Expand your horizons. Do more. 
  12. Prototype it. Test your ideas. The easiest way to do this is to speak to a close confident about it. 
  13. Pun. Revolution starts with language. Words are one of the most important tools of communication. Learn to use them for impact, but also make it fun. 
  14. Make design your life (and life, your design). Charles and Ray truly believed that design is a worthy profession that can bring good to people's lives. 
  15. Leaving something behind. Realize that you have a legacy. What will your mark be? 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In The Hot Seat

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As humans, we spend a majority of our time sleeping, standing and sitting, which is argument enough for an investment in a good bed, some terrific shoes and a great chair. Chairs are, unfortunately, often regarded as an afterthought. I find that people are ambivalent towards them mainly because they haven’t had the experience of a great chair. Have a relationship with a wonderful chair and this will become apparent to you.

Through the years I have collected chairs of different characters. I enjoy the thought process behind their creation, and also the personality they exude. In my homes you’ll find How High The Moon by Shiro Kuramata, Eero Aarnio's Bubble chair, and a couple of great examples by the Eames.

There are different chairs for serious conversations and intimate moments. You will even find that particular designs become symbols of a moment in time, as you will see from the BBC’s initiative to recap some of the most iconic chairs of the 20th century.

Paimio Chair: The Paimio is right at home in museums, galleries and the residences of architects and designers, no doubt because it is so stylish and modern. It actually began life in Finland in 1931, designed by Alvar Alto and wife Aino to help the breathing of recuperating TB patients.

Round Chair: Named the most beautiful chair in the world by Interiors magazine in 1950, Hans Wegner’s round chair became famous when it was used by the CBS for the first ever live televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy a decade later. America loved it, and it put Danish design on the map.

Lobby Chair: There is a long story behind the creation of this chair. But in short, Time Life asked designers Charles and Ray Eames to create a chair for their New York lobby. It was a huge hit and the swivel-style is synonymous with the 60s. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and you can find countless replicas today. None anywhere near as good as the original.

Spine Chair: The product of an artist. That much is obvious on sight. Andre Dubreuil turned to crafting metal furniture in his London flat in 1985. A year later, inspired by the French, he came up with the Spine chair. Designers loved it. It’s no longer in production, so if you want an original good luck. They go for a bomb at auction.

Barcelona Chair: It just looks so inviting. Simple, and open. The Barcelona chair, despite its name, is of German descent. It was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the Spanish royals as a sort of contemporary throne in 1929, and displayed at the International Exposition in Barcelona. It was in demand straight away. Still is today.