Identity, learning and becoming

Chatting with a friend the other day about his child’s GCSE choices and predicted grades it occurred to me that the child’s true capabilities were not what would be assessed. Not in the end. In the end what would be assessed is how close they could get to what would be acceptable to the people around them. A predicted grade of D shifting up to a C would mean the world to the people around this child, based purely on the fact that they had also struggled with this on their own brief run around the academic block. Listening to this, and reflecting on the fact that we’re actually talking about a 14 year old child with a brain as potent as it’s likely to get in their own lifetime, I felt a deep sense of wrongness about the whole thing. I could remember being in the same situation as that child, and my grades were a major hurdle in my life back then.

When I set up my current company in December 2010 I did not present it to potential customers as it was right then. Back then we had three staff, a £20,000 start up loan and a pretty good bit of software at the core of the business. Presenting this state of reality to the market place would have invited all kinds of difficulties and doubts. Thankfully it never occurred to me to do anything other than present it as per my aspirations for what it would become. Not what it could or might become. I cannot say that I knew exactly how to make that happen, and thankfully that burden was not solely mine to bear. The learning along the way has been intense, and often uncomfortable, but always immensely rewarding. However, the certainty that ‘A’ grade success was possible has undeniably been an important factor.

When I did my GCSE’s the first time around I achieved two C’s. The rest went downwards towards E’s and an F. I returned the following year to gain a couple more C’s at GCSE. It took me another 20 years before I would actually deliver my true academic potential and achieve a Merit in a Masters Degree. I didn’t have academic high fliers around me growing up, so it’s not surprising that I didn’t identify as one. This meant that I didn’t take on the habits of becoming one. I did have business high fliers around me, and subsequently I did take those habits on board. My confidence to do well academically as a mature adult was undeniably boosted by my achievements in business.

Looking back on my GCSE period at school I aspired to become a journalist. When it came to the work experience lottery they took a look at my predicted grades and my background; I lived in a single parent family in a council house. The upshot was that they placed me as close to journalism as they thought I would get – which was in a print copy shop. I definitely learned valuable skills there that benefited me further down the road. However, nothing about that experience then, short of a miracle, would ever lead me to an experience of how to become a journalist.

My message by now should be pretty clear that if we only ever pin a persons’ potential to where we see them now then it’s likely we will become a part of the reason that they struggle to reach higher. Thankfully I did have people around me even back then who saw more than I or any of my teachers did in my potential, and I am very grateful for that. I am also grateful to that part of me that was switched on enough to seek out other examples of excellence to model on and in some lucky cases become good friends and business colleagues.

The persistence that I learned from surviving in Sales, and then thriving as an entrepreneur pushed me to follow through on my dreams of achieving a degree. That I did it in a subject and on a topic that were both very important to me was a massive bonus; Coaching for development and success. I have ultimately learned that if you surround yourself with passionate learners, that have a vision for the possible, then virtually anything is possible. I have also learned that it is important to give back wherever possible to honor the opportunities that have helped me to get where I am today.

My next personal challenge is to get to grips with GCSE performance and how to help a 14 year old student shoot for the moon. What’s yours?

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The Tao of Not Right Now

There’s always that something we need to get on with around the corner, or under the carpet, possibly tomorrow or maybe a little bit later? Somewhere, to the back of your mind, scribbled on a yellow post-it note is a message to yourself saying something important. There’s a short buzz as a wasp flies by and then maybe we go back to scrolling through Facebook for a bit. Time passes. Maybe we’re a year older. What did we achieve? How did we spend our precious life currency i.e. our time and attention? What have we learned?

If you’re highly motivated, setting goals and ambitiously working to achieve them, then this might not strike you as a familiar experience. For some of us this is disturbingly familiar, potentially evoking a deep sense of helplessness. A great many books today focus on the idea of being in flow. Yet, for the most part they focus on the kind of flow you experience when you are living your purpose at the edge of your abilities. Another kind of flow, written about a great deal less, is the one that comes with the art of procrastination. It actually takes a considerable amount of creativity and unconscious mastery to become a Pro-Crastinator: one who is skilled in the Tao of Not Right Now.

Anyone seeking the true Tao of Not Right Now needs to completely set aside having a purpose in life. Definitely do not make it bright and clear in your mind. At all costs it must never be rooted in anything like your deepest passion or anywhere that causes deep excitement in your body and mind. Never, ever imagine what it would be like one year from now in full cinematic clarity, being where you want to be, as the person you wish to become. If you are successful in avoiding all these things, then you can relax into having your attention scrolled and consumed for another year. And what was on that post-it note anyway? And what have we learned?

What I’ve learned as a coach and a business owner over the last 15 years is that there is huge value to both paths: ‘The Now’ & ‘The Not Right Now’. The way they are both useful is through raising to consciousness and owning what is on our yellow post-it notes by putting them out in front of us. This enables us to have conscious choices as to whether we are about to engage our energies fully in an activity, be it business, sports, parenting or otherwise. Or whether our energies will be channeled inwards, to refresh ourselves and increase the quality of our minds and therefore our presence in the world.

On reflection it appears to me that we have two kinds of Purpose, one that takes us out into the World, and one that takes us inwards. Both support the other and both are served by finding our flow in this life more consciously. In doing so we are much more ready to face the challenges of our inner and outer worlds, and also to enjoy more fully their fruits before they pass us by.

Personal leadership

Personal leadership is a way of leading by first becoming conscious of one’s own values, priorities, goals and furthermore one’s own mental and emotional strengths and challenges. In taking the task on of becoming more conscious of these areas we begin the journey of leading ourselves forward, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. As these areas become more conscious we begin to create a greater capacity for recognising how the lives of others around us can be developed by doing the same. The way we listen to others and what we listen for changes over time, such that we can begin to see pathways ahead of the people we are tasked with providing leadership to. We gain the privilege of being able to walk some of these same pathways with them and the ability to recognise when a fork in the road lies further ahead, and to plan accordingly.

The simplest form of personal leadership however is an embodied one, and yet it often speaks the loudest and carries the deepest and most abiding messages. The starting point of leading in an embodied way is to find as many ways as possible to become comfortable in our own bodies. It is also important to find a way to access a centred place where your emotions are undisturbed, whilst your mind is open to new information. For all the expanded freedoms it has created for the mind, the modern work routine is now largely a disembodied one. We take the escalator or lift rather than the stairs, drive to the shops rather than walk and very rarely, if ever, do anything that tests our body’s sense of balance or flexibility. I have found that engaging in a regular embodied practice helps to bridge the gap in our lives between the unconscious pulse that drives us and our mental world with all its tactics, strategies and goals. I don’t believe it really matters which practice you take up be it Running, Football, Yoga, Pilates, Martial Arts, Feldenkreis, Rolfing or the Alexander Technique are all great in my experience.

Personally, I chose Aikido to stick with for the long term and have found the journey to be immensely helpful in finding my centre, and thereby increasing my degree of comfort in my body, whilst challenging me to expand my comfort zone in numerous ways. Having a lifelong embodiment practice brings all kinds of tacit knowledge that is impossible to learn any other way.

  • Working with your body for any period of time where your heart rate is elevated immediately reveals that your own actions can influence your emotions. This is powerful knowledge for anyone playing the long game in any field of endeavour; taking the rough with the smooth without losing your drive or passion.
  • Working with others in an embodied practice reveals what it’s like to influence a teams’ performance and how to meaningfully change it; real time action and physical dynamics in any team game reveal a wealth of personal and interpersonal information.
  • Constant maintenance of ones’ own body in the pursuit of an embodied practice will grow a deep self-knowledge and sense of well being that lets you know that you are essentially OK, regardless of temporary upsets in your day/week.
  • Increased flexibility in the body sets a pattern that the mind will hungrily adopt in times of stress, making you more adaptive to challenging situations/interactions.
  • Specifically from long term practice in Aikido I have found that learning how to fall safely has helped me to reduce reactivity and defensiveness in pressured or confrontational situations.
  • Above all, the simple and continued act of paying more attention to your own body will leave your mind with greater freedom to handle great complexity (without the persistent multitude of distractions that arise when we are alienated from our bodies).

In summary, if you want to lead effectively start with bringing your self on-board, no other special knowledge is required, and furthermore most people need leadership from centered and grounded people. Being led from ‘how’ a leader is, rather than from ‘what’ they know sets the widest and deepest frame for whatever specific content needs to be shared. Whatever challenges may arise being grounded and centered in the body means that you will have space inside to work on the questions that present themselves in the moment. It also means that the people you are leading will feel good about being influenced by you. And it is a long-acknowledged truth that people remember less about what you said and more about how you made them feel. Therefore, feeling grounded and centered is primary to personal leadership. From there developing the space inside to meet new challenges in a balanced and flexible way will position you extremely well to be an effective leader. The learning never stops, the comfort zone never extends far enough and the space inside could always be a little bit larger. Living at the edge of these aspects of ones’ self is arguably the edge of personal development, and arguably the best place to be leading from.

Mushin Mugamae

Mushin Mugamae can be interpreted as ‘no heart, no posture’. Mu is a negative prefix and shin is heart or kokoro when read on its own. Gamae is kamae when read on its own, meaning posture. To quote Professor Tomiki:

With a still heart one can access the wonders of nature and by suppressing action one can still the gods of change.

This short quote gives a powerful insight into the impact of bringing Mushin Mugamae into our world. With a still heart our attention opens to its fullest, with nothing to fix upon in any direction. From the state of Mushin Mugamae there is no ‘kokoro’ which therefore means that all that remains is what is aware of the Heart and the Mind and the Soul (all are meanings connected with kokoro); pure awareness. From this state there is also no posture, which means that we have not yet stimulated or caused any changes to our environment or to others in any way. The moment we adopt a posture, even if it is simply to the neutral posture of Shizentai, we have committed ourselves to the physical world and its causes and consequences.

From this place we are still very open and aware and not yet committed in any direction. We are empowered to be highly receptive to external actions, such that we are in a position of advantage should an opponent/attacker commit themselves against us. All directions of movement are available to us whilst the attacker has limited themselves to an unfolding strategy that is susceptible to being countered by a flexible, centred and responsive body-mind. The abiding sense of awareness, prior to any intention to act, of Mushin Mugamae is a powerful baseline for Aikido and life in general. From this state of mind we carry less tension in our bodies, which means we can bring more of ourselves into action in a focused way when needed.

shodokanlogo

If we reflect on the Shodokan symbol in the light of what we know of Mushin Mugamae it reveals itself to be a kind of diagram. The Shodokan symbol could therefore be interpreted as the white background being the underlying state of Mushin Mugamae. The red centre (rise) being the energy we receive from the sun (our heart). The blue (fall) part being water (our postures in our environment). The directional points of the symbol can be seen as the directions in which our attention can be directed, and in which our bodies can be moved. Based on this analysis it is therefore possible to see Mushin Mugamae as a place from which all things arise and from where all things are possible. Professor Tomiki stated:

This symbol is composed of red representing fire, blue representing water and white representing infinite space.

We begin our Aikido sessions from Mokuso which can be seen as a way of accessing the state of Mushin Mugamae. At the beginning of all kata or competition our best results can be said to come from carrying a sense of Mushin Mugamae with us even as we move; extensive research has been carried out on the positive influence of Mushin by Manaka Unsui (2017). The effect being a kind of switching off of the smaller (identity) self and an increasing of our fullest potential self (spirit), unrestricted by fears, planning or strategizing. From here there is receptiveness, flexibility, speed and fearless engagement. This quote from Professor Tomiki beautifully sums up Aikido with Mushin Mugamae at its core:

Non-conscious action stemming from a neutral physical posture (in other words, neither aggressive nor submissive – mu gamae), executed without emotion or prejudgment (mu shin).

 

Bibliography

Allbright, Scott., Aikido and Randori: reconciliation of two opposing forces. Crowood Press Ltd (2002).

Deshimaru, Jean Taisen., The Zen way to the Martial Arts. Rider/Century Hutchinson Ltd (1988).

Lee, Dr Ah Loi., Tomiki Aikido Past and Future. Kelmscott Press Ltd (1988).

Nariyama, Tetsuro., Aikido Randori. Shodokan Publications (2010).

Nariyama, Tetsuro., Shodokan Aikido Dojo 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book. Shodokan Publications (2017).

Unsui, Manaka., Kakusei-Mushin: A research study on the ideal mental state in Martial Arts. Robert Gray Publications (2017).

Unframe the moment

Do not leave your song unsung
Poems neglected, threads unspun

Unleash the power of your story
Fan the flame of your heart’s glory

As you define your own self metric
Sing this moment and feel electric

Let the compass of your heart lead
Prick the unconscious, make it bleed

As your questions come up for air
Feel yourself become more aware

Live your life, a duet in answer
Soaked in movement, be a dancer

Paint the music that is yours to give
Unframe the moment, and truly live!

It’s been two years since I opened the doors on two training spaces in West London, where I have been running Aikido classes twice a week. It has been a strangely demanding commitment. Tremendously rewarding, as even with students coming and going over the period, a hardcore group has stuck with it. The progression of my students is humbling and never fails to evolve in me new learnings and insights into my own ongoing development.

I have never understood my own instructor better than I do now. For example: I now know the range of frustrations that come with giving over a portion of your life to others who do not always share the same level of commitment. But this just serves to highlight how special it is when a small collective of dedicated individuals repeatedly deliver on their commitments to their path in Aikido (and in Business, or in anything for that matter).

As I prepare for my second journey to Japan I am reminded of many such experiences from two years ago. I look forward again to losing my smaller self for a while amongst those who train every day; sometimes twice a day or more. In Japan I learned that being a part of something bigger than just yourself was as important as any other aspect of my training.

Otsukaresama desu, or in English “we have trained hard together”. This is something you might say to your fellow Aikidoka on the mat at the end of a training session. In saying it you have acknowledged that none of your personal development on the mat is possible without the dedicated efforts of others.

Another Japanese phrase that has stayed with me is moui ikkai which translates simply as “one more time” or “and again”. It is used to encourage training partners to switch off the judgemental part of their minds and return to the business of learning and, essentially, transforming ourselves into something better than when we stepped onto the mat.

This attitude, plus more practice with less critical judgement of errors, creates an irresistible process of incremental self-improvement. Working always towards greater flexibility in both body and mind, whilst gaining plenty of inspiring memories to stoke the fires for the journeys ahead.

Seven years

It’s 7 years now since launching New Star Networks (NSN) and I have learned many new things from being in the driving seat of what is an increasingly substantial company.

Here are 7 key learnings that have totally changed my outlook in business.

There’s never just one driving seat in a successful business.. and this is a good thing.

The more drivers you have in your business the more likely your business is to enjoy continuous growth. When others in your business truly get to drive it then the quality of information they can learn from is so much greater; as it is deeply personal and meaningful. In a company like NSN where we have two equal majority shareholders leading the business, continued success has come from making space for the other to excel and to gain support where needed. This in turn has influenced the development of other roles within the business over time.

Ignorance will never be blissful again as a business leader.

Whoever steps forward into a position of leadership from Team leader to Department head through to Company director, information will be the fuel they run their engine on. All the information from around the business is vital in being effective in whatever part of the business you’re in; especially if you want to make a real impact. The best way to stay informed is to communicate regularly and meaningfully with the rest of the business at all levels. Increased awareness of other departmental and individual goals within the business increases the quality of the information you work with. It also enables you to fit it all together quicker and more meaningfully. Ask yourself if there are things in your business that you don’t fully know about and then take some time to reflect on how valuable that information might actually be and how it could help you to be better at what you do.

You can’t save people from their past or future mistakes.

In any business you will see people join and leave for varying reasons. In a successful start-up the loss of a colleague can simply be due to the increasing complexity of the business as it scales up. I have found that when I hire someone, I take on not only the person but also their aspirations; this also includes their own limiting beliefs from their past. One of the things that makes me good at what I do is my capacity for empathy, it also means that I have a tendency to try and help people. It can also mean that there is a temptation to try and prevent them from taking paths that might limit their future potential. The fact is that it’s just not always possible to help people to achieve all of their aspirations during the time they are a part of the business. For some their personal journey needs simply to include more essential things like emotional and financial independence (rather than running a company for example). Seeing this has been helpful in that it shifts the context from facilitating every goal, which is frankly knackering for all parties, to enabling them to go further on from wherever they are currently at. I have found that supporting autonomous decision making and assisting in the development of real skills and capabilities is, generally, the most meaningful impact a conscientious business leader can have.

What got you to where you are won’t get you to where you want to go next.

Whatever energies might have driven you at the start are likely to change somewhere along the line. If it was a chip on the shoulder that helped you take a swing at the next challenging day, then there’s a chance that a measure of success will knock it off. If it’s a financial number that drives you then the day will likely come, if you stick at it, that this number comes up and flips a switch inside you from being compelled to being confused. You can make the number larger, and if that works for you that’s great. I have found that investing my energy in people has been a great driver, but also being honest that I need to invest in myself has been quite an eye opener. In any case, having a purpose beyond your role in the company will help you to do that job a great deal better.

Your failings are where your future capabilities lie untapped.

Tap into them, both on your own and with the help from others. Seek out mentors and sounding boards but don’t miss out on vital feedback from the people you have around you on a day to day basis. Becoming more open to learning from everyone around me has been immensely helpful; regardless of the level within the business people are at they will have perspectives and insights that are truly valuable. In my own life I have steered away from heavily technical information whether it related to technology or to the financial mechanisms usually associated with a Finance Director. In the last seven years I have repeatedly challenged myself in both areas and have been rewarded with powerful insights and a healthier sense of what I am truly capable of.

How we talk to ourselves will impact on how we talk to others.

This is a tricky one and I feel privileged to know about it through my work as a coach. It is best understood by putting yourself in a high-pressure situation and then taking a moment to catch what you say to yourself about how you are doing. The words will be yours and they really do have a direct impact on how you think about what you do next. I invite you to think for a bit longer about the style of how you are speaking to yourself, the number of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ (and ffs’s) and the tone used. Phrases like ‘I’ll never understand that’ or ‘it’s just not something I’m good at’ or perhaps ‘I was never one of the smart ones at school’. Maybe this reminds you of someone you knew earlier in life, maybe you unconsciously absorbed it as a way of handling stressful moments. In any event, if you don’t like the way you are talking to yourself there is a strong chance that others will not like the way you talk to them either. Changing the way that I speak to myself, both when under pressure and in everyday life, has helped me to communicate better with others. This is a vital piece of self-work for anyone in a leadership role.

The best form of leadership is to embody the thing you wish to communicate – and then help others gain an experience of embodying it as well.

Even just phrasing this insight is a work in progress. It gives what I do in NSN more meaning to me than just what is delivered in the P&L or in terms of customer products or service experience. It challenges me to become increasingly more conscious about how I do what I do. It continuously asks what it is that I and others around me do well, what can be done better, and who is best positioned in the moment to take the lead. Actions quite literally speak louder than words and everyone is listening more than we might think. This is at times quite daunting, but the rewards are real and the sense that I am learning at a whole new level is enough to keep driving forward.. hopefully for the next seven years.