Seeking stillness

For regular readers of the blog, you’ll be no stranger to Ryan Holiday.  One of the most refreshing thinkers of our time and a prodigious author whose books I’ve covered in previous posts.

His latest book, Stillness is the Key is out now, and is a must read for those looking to open the door to a healthier, less anxious and more productive life and career.

I received a signed copy (!) only a few days ago, and having already devoured it, am ready to go back for a second go, but this time with pen and sticky notes in hand.

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But we’ll leave the book for a moment or two.  What I want to talk about is finding that stillness.

There’s no doubt hedonistic 24-hour news cycles, seemingly infinite amount of information and shallow gratification available at the end of a smart phone makes seeking out stillness appear either impossible or not worth the effort.

We could be right.

History says otherwise.

Turns out seeking stillness is not a new concept.  The ancient Buddhists, Muslims, Hebrews, Greeks, Epicureans, and Christians all had specific words for it.

What was it they were all seeking that warranted being given its own phrase?

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Stillness by this definition appears not only achievable, but available with surprisingly little effort.  Driving out to the Blue Mountains on a sunny weekend and taking a bush walk will do it, surely?  Sitting quietly in a room on your own?  But of course?!  Hang on, it will won’t it??

Sure it will help, although it’s not this kind of stillness people have sought out for centuries.

According to Ryan, what they were looking for is “to be steady while the world spins around you.  To act without frenzy.  To hear only what needs to be heard.  To possess quietude – exterior and interior – on command.

If you’ve just rolled your eyes after reading that, then the rest of this post probably isn’t for you, which is absolutely OK.  Thanks for reading this far.

If however, your eyebrows raised slightly, or you took a deeper than usual intake of breath and nodded your head, then this is where you need to be right now.

In the lead up to the formal book launch, Ryan has been tempting subscribers to his regular email, on some ‘how and why’ he seeks stillness (and pointing you in the direction of his book of course).

Why bother seeking stillness?” you might ask.  If you have asked yourself this, then we’ve got lots of work to do, and it starts right now.

There’s 28 tactics Ryan discusses in his latest post, and while not all of them are necessarily for me, many of them definitely are, and I thought I’d share my Top 4 favourite ways to seek stillness.

Side note: I’ve copied and pasted Ryan’s thoughts in italics below, so I can’t and won’t take any credit for them at all, but I’ve given some of my own thoughts in response.  In having his writing side-by-side with mine, it fully exposes my shortcomings as a writer, but I felt it better got the point across coming from Ryan rather than me.

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Take Walks. Nietzsche said that the ideas in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ came to him on a long walk. Nikola Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field, one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, on a walk through a city park in Budapest in 1882. When he lived in Paris, Ernest Hemingway would take long walks along the quais whenever he was stuck in his writing and needed to clarify his thinking. The cantankerous philosopher Søren Kierkegaard walked the streets of Copenhagen nearly every afternoon, as he wrote to his sister-in-law: “Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being.” I take a two-to-three mile walk each morning with my son—ideas for this very post came to me there.

I often recite a quote, “There’s yet to be a problem that couldn’t be solved by a long walk.”  I looked up who said it so I could assign credit, and apart from various different forms of the same theme, came up with nothing.  Perhaps it was me then?

Either way, taking an early morning walk when the rest of the neighbourhood is sound asleep, is invigorating, and I can’t recommend it enough.  Obviously be mindful of your personal safety, but if you have (or can make!) the opportunity, a long walk provides so much space for clarity of thought it should be prescribed as a mandatory antidote for stress.

Stop Watching the News.  The number one thing to filter out if you want more equanimity in your life?  The news!  “If you wish to improve,” Epictetus said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.”  Not only does the news cost us our peace of mind, but it actually prevents us from creating real change, right now.  Being informed in important…watching the news in real time is not how you get there.

The last time I actually sat and read a newspaper was sometime back in the 90’s, and I can’t even remember why I did it.  Perhaps it was to look cool and informed when I was at University.

I don’t watch the news on TV, I don’t read online news websites, or subscribe to email alerts.  The only news I get is the on-the-hour update on my local ABC radio station on the drive to work, and often then I turn it off and put on some music.

Why?

Because who cares?  There’s nothing in the news which makes me stronger, smarter, faster, healthier, or better, so why bother?  When people ask “did you hear about X?”, I say no and I ask them about it.  I find it’s a much better way to engage with people and find out what they think about a particular topic.  Besides, most news these days is sad, tragic, sensationalist or benign, so I’d rather read a book or listen to a podcast anyway.

Try it for a week.  I promise you won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything.  Read a book instead.

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@jockowillink – excerpt from Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual

 

Read books. “Turn off your radio,” Dorothy Day, the Catholic nun and social activist, wrote in her diary in 1942, “put away your daily paper…and spend time reading.” She meant books. Big, smart, wonderful books. If you’re stressed, stop whatever you’re doing and sit down with a book. You’ll find yourself calming down. You’ll get absorbed into a different world. William Osler, the founder of Johns Hopkins University, told aspiring medical students that when chemistry or anatomy distressed their soul, to “seek peace in the great pacifier, Shakespeare.” It doesn’t have to be plays—any great literature will do. Books are a way to get stillness on demand.

I’ve written about this before.  I used to read only at Christmas time and occasionally if I dug out a book I’d already read.  Now?  My bedside table strains under the load of books, my credit card gets a workout at Book Depository at least 3-4 times a month, and my locker at work overflows every now and again with books spilling onto the floor.

During lunch at work I’m buried in a book.  Sure I may only get through 5-10 pages before being interrupted, but in those 10 minutes, I’m a million miles away, either in WWI Europe with Biggles, or some recommendation I’ve been given by Ryan, Jocko or Tim.  It’s time well spent and I love it.

Similar to the walking, I can’t recommend this enough.  Lots of people have said to me “I’m not much of a reader“, to which I reply “You just haven’t found the right book yet.”  Just try.  Pick up an old favourite and get back into the habit of reading.  Buy a book, go to the library, get a Kindle, get an online subscription on your iPad, go into a second hand book shop, go to the local fete and buy 10 books for $5.  Just start reading again.  Please!

Be Present.  They call it “the present” for a reason.  Because each moment is a gift.  Just stop.  Breathe this in.  Forget the past.  Ignore the future.  Just be.  We are human beings after all.

Only needs one picture to show the value of this.

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So there they are.  My Top 4 tips for starting on the path the stillness.  I want to stress one last thing before we finish up.  Stillness is different to being idle.  Stillness does not mean sitting in front of the TV and being physically still while your brain atrophies in the face of more reality television.  Stillness means you feel comfortable facing even the most challenging physical, emotional and stressful situations with a level of calm others lack.  Stillness is to act without frenzy.

So why do all this?  Why seek out stillness?

For me, I’ve found apart from it being a pleasant thing to do in its own right, I’ve become much more effective as a human.  Work is less stressful; I can be more engaged with deep thinking – about all sorts of stuff; I’m more easily able to handle the stressors of being a parent of young kids; I’m calmer when uncertainty and chaos strikes, and overall life just seems to be a little easier all round.

Seems worth seeking out a little stillness don’t you think?


Did you enjoy the post?  We’d love you to leave a comment and share your thoughts.  Do you have other ways you like to seek stillness?  Let the world know!

10 months in

Back in February this year, as an antidote to the usual New Year’s resolutions I mostly ignore, I wrote a post about the things I’m looking forward to in 2019 instead.

I thought it timely to reflect on my progress, or lack of progress maybe, and ask myself if it’s impacted my overall feelings on the success of the year so far.

So in the same order as before….

Continue reading 10 months in

Do the work.

Last weekend we had some close friends over for lunch.

Ahead of them arriving, the kids (6 and 3) and I took on a few jobs in the backyard.  Pick the sticks and hard little seed pods up off the grass so we could play barefoot, clear the leaves off the trampoline, sweep the deck, check the BBQ gas bottle, the usual stuff.

Instead of spending 20 minutes raking the yard while the kids watched, we, well I, decided it might be fun to Continue reading Do the work.

Can a chainsaw start a revolution?

Summer has officially ended here in Australia, and for many, it’s been a strange one.

In years past when February 28 has rolled around there’s been obvious evidence of a scorching hot 3 months: Continue reading Can a chainsaw start a revolution?

New Year ‘non’-Resolutions

By my rough calculations, approximately 84% of all blogs that have a leadership bent have in the last month posted about the benefit of making New Years resolutions.

The problem I’ve often found with making a long list of things to achieve is by Easter I’ve ticked off a grand total of zero items, my motivation wanes, and the only time I look at the list thereafter is when I stumble across it years later. Continue reading New Year ‘non’-Resolutions

Brett’s off sick today

I see a fellow digging holes.  An earnest looking chap, he’s beavering away, dirt flying everywhere, his shovel moving at a tremendous pace.

I see a fellow following him, filling the holes in.  Again, earnest chap, shovelling in the dirt his mate flung about, patting it down neatly and moving on to the next hole.

So I ask the two what they’re doing, interested in what’s motivating them to carry on this seemingly meaningless pursuit. Continue reading Brett’s off sick today

“They said what??”

It’s the bearings.  Definitely the bearings.  They didn’t do the maintenance checks on the bearings”

Concrete cancer.  Definitely concrete cancer.  Probably not enough cover to the reo”

“It was the Mafia-supplied concrete.  Had too much sand in it”

I’m talking about the recent partial bridge collapse (well, part of it collapsed entirely) in Genoa, Italy.  I daren’t speculate as to the reason, or reasons, it collapsed, as I’m sure there’s a bunch of people, much smarter than I, who are busy trying to figure that out.

Continue reading “They said what??”

John who?

25 pages in: Haven’t yet unfurled a single sticky tab.

50 pages in: I’m concerned the mighty tome I hold in my hands isn’t going to offer the rich vein of insight and knowledge I had hoped for, and I’m beginning to doubt Ryan Holiday’s recommendation.*

100 pages in: Surely by now there’d be signs of the lessons I’d hoped to uncover?  Perhaps they’re in the next Chapter….?  I shall press on, because this is turning into something more that I had expected.

150 pages in: Can’t put it down.  I’ve abandoned hope of uncovering any specific leadership lessons, but am engrossed by the story of this relatively unknown fighter pilot and his campaign against the US Armed Forces, with whom he served from 1944-1975.

200 pages in: My previous fears are unfounded.  It appears I’ve unknowingly stumbled headlong inside the mind of one of the most influential military theorists since Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitz, and there are lessons galore.

It’s like The Matrix.  There is no escape.  I’m a believer.

I can sense John Boyd is smiling…

Took you a while tiger, but you got here”

* note to self: never doubt Ryan’s book recommendations again.

I first heard of John Boyd while reading Ego is the Enemy.  It contained a small piece about a US Air Force Colonel who is considered by some to be one of history’s most prolific military theorists, but remains firmly in the darkness when it comes to notoriety.  In one of his recommended reading lists, Holiday pointed to a book on Boyd, noting it as “required reading“.

It doesn’t matter if you’re interested in the design and function of fighter jets (which I’m not), or the military or military theory (which I am).  The lessons to be learned in the Robert Coram book Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war go far beyond his influence on aircraft design, and extends into an unwavering campaign of self-belief that spanned 15 years and took on the entire might of the US Air Force.

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It is simply not practical to try and explain the history and detail contained within the book.  Distilling the 504 pages into a short blog post would not do justice to Coram, the book, nor to Boyd himself for that matter – who was a stickler for detail.

So apart from recommending the book, and suggesting you buy it, here are the Top 5 things I learned from Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war:

Manoeuvrability  it isn’t just sheer thrust, or speed, or fire-power that meant success in the air.  It was the ability of a plane, and pilot, to transition between manoeuvres, turning defense into attack, or attack into slaughter, or defense into retreat.  His Energy-Manoeuvrability (E-M) Theory is still the foundational piece in many elite military, business and sporting programs, and suggests that your ability to adapt and re-adapt is crucial to not just survival, but sustained success both in warfare, business, and in life.

‘Are you Being or Doing?’ – Boyd is perhaps most famous within the US military for a speech he gave young pilots who faced a cross-road in their career.  I won’t do it the disservice of paraphrasing it, so have provided an excerpt from the book directly.  In true Boyd fashion, it needs no explanation.

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The OODA Loop – Boyd spent years developing not only ways to better design fighter jets and methods of waging aerial warfare, but ways to understand how decisions are made, and the cycle within which they live.

Search for John Boyd on Google and you’ll inevitably come up with reference to the OODA Loop.  Management theorists see it as his defining piece of work, and many have since written complicated and detailed thesis papers on it.

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Fundamentally it looks to explain the process that a person consciously, or sub-consciously runs when making any decision, big or small.  The above diagram is lifted directly from the book and while there’s an obvious mountain of potential explanation behind it, this distillation of a complex process that takes place within your brain is particularly elegant, and better left to you to digest the detail.

I believe the trick here is not to try and actively interfere with the process, but simply be aware that it exists, and that if it exists for you, then it likely exists for every other human you interact with.  Understanding that everyone makes different observations, and based on those observations orients themselves differently, and then decides and acts in accordance with those differences, makes for a much less stressful work or home environment during conflicts.

Jocko Willink has a similar approach for those who like their leadership strategies in 6 words or less.

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Thinking strategically – Boyd’s ability to out think, out manoeuvre and simply out play entire arms of the United States military, from the outset looks to be the work of The Prince himself.  Again, you don’t have to subscribe to military might, or even agree with the way the US handles waging war to appreciate the way Boyd moved the chess pieces to play out what he thought, no, believed, to be simply more important than anything else.  His vision of the outcome allowed him to position those pieces better than his opponents, and there were many, very powerful opponents.  He understood that in life and business, as in chess, you need to be thinking not just of your next 5-steps, but of your opponents next 5-steps too.

You can’t do it alone – Boyd had his Fighter Mafia, his Reformers, his Acolytes – a core group of people that believed the same as he did, that, in their own differing ways, sacrificed individual glory and fanfare to do what they thought was right, what was necessary, to protect the lives of US fighting forces.  They worked symbiotically, centred around Boyd, sure, but collectively they changed the way the entire US military fights both air and ground war campaigns in a post-WWII era.

So to summarise my summary….

When you’ve found something you believe in, and are dedicated to seeing it through, find a bunch of like-minded people, think ahead, assess the threats, and when faced with uncertainty, don’t be afraid to make a call, act and understand the entire thing is a cycle.

All that from a loud-talking, cigar-smoking fly boy self-proclaimed “Ghetto Colonel” who grew up rough, and was told he’d never amount to anything.

Seems like sound advice to me, and really, isn’t learning from the everyday what it’s all about?


Do you have something you believe in?  Something you sacrifice glory for in order for it to be realised?  Have you read the book?  What did you think?  So many questions, so many opportunities for you to answer them!

Leave a comment below, or find us on the Contact page.

What I learned from some plastic bricks

Today I was humbled by a kids toy.  Well technically speaking, it was designated 14+ which means I was humbled by a toy for teenagers (or precocious 7-year olds).

Last Christmas I was given an 1,158-piece Lego kit.  A charming Ferrari F40 in fact.  It’s currently School Holidays in Australia, and in between bouts of sheer bewilderment as to how parents over the years have survived this terrifying period, I upended the enormous box of perfectly engineered pieces onto the floor and kicked off the build.

It started off reasonably easy, with the chassis and engine bay the first elements coming to life.  It wasn’t until the body started to take shape that I realised simply how far away I am from being an actual Engineer.

Dramatic revelation for a Lego build, I know.

As the perfectly sculpted, 99.9999% consistent pieces fitted together into small chunks, and those small chunks fitted together into bigger chunks, and the bigger chunks evolved into an elegant feat of engineering magnificence, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat inadequate.

The way in which these little pieces came together was just astonishing.  Now I’ve built a lot of Lego in my life.  Like, a lot.  I don’t however, recall having the eye-widening, brow lifting response to the thought, the intricacy, the engineering marvel that is the 1,158-piece F40 kit.  Chunks were coming together to form graceful curved edges, out of straight bricks!  Chunks that didn’t appear to have any rhyme or reason would effortlessly slot into sub-millimetre exactitude, forming delicate wheel arches and passenger foot-wells.

And here I was calling myself an Engineer.

Did I expect that when I left University I’d be neck deep in calculations, clutch pencils and reams of sophisticated looking computer outputs?  No.  I failed Engineering Computations in 1st year, and probably failed it again in the subsequent Summer School (I think I may have been awarded a Pass Conceded out of sympathy?).

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Confusing then, out of reach now.

No, I was never destined (smart enough) to be a design engineer, and I knew early on that my career would likely be in the people side of things; solving problems together, leading teams, delivering outcomes as a group.

Which as it turns out I really enjoy and appear to be OK at.

What it did show me though, is that as Project Managers in civil infrastructure, we underestimate, and I suspect, under-value the expertise, input and often brilliance of the designers in our industry.  How often have you complained that a design drawing is poorly set out, or about how some element would be difficult (and in some cases, impractical) to construct, or any number of other apparent grievances?  Honestly, for me, it must now tally to the hundreds, if not thousands.

How often though, have you marvelled at the fact that someone, somewhere, has coordinated the design of an entire structure, from function, to form, to reinforcement detail, to integration with any number of complex elements, and shown it all in a set of (mainly) easy to read drawings, and then gone to said designer congratulating them with a hearty “Well done!“?  Honestly, for me, it must now tally a total of about 3.  In 18 years of working construction.

Which makes it about 0.00045 times / day.  Which is just not good enough.

Being a Designer must sometimes feel a lot like being in IT.  How often do you ring IT and say “Hey there, all my systems are working fine.  My email is good, my printer drivers are all up to date, I’ve remembered to change my password in the allocated time, and I just wanted to say Thanks!“?

Honestly for me, it must now tally a total of…..

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We only ever ring to complain.

So the next time you see something that’s smart, or innovative, or just a job well done, tell someone.  Tell anyone.  Send them an email.  Do something!  Make an effort to find the person or team that designed it, or built it, or maintained it, or swept it up, or cooked it, or whatever’ed it, and tell them.

Covey wrote about it back in 1989 and nothing has changed.

“Satisfied needs do not motivate… Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival, to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.”

– Stephen Covey

Apart from the obvious, that thanking a person is just a nice, polite thing to do, there are 5 reasons why positive encouragement is important in the workplace:

  1. People want to feel important
  2. Encouragement reinforces the right things
  3. Encouragement inspires people in tough times
  4. Encouragement builds employee loyalty
  5. Encouragement is free, and gives huge returns

All that from some Lego.  Now that’s a lesson in the every day.  And isn’t that what it’s all about?

 

Have you thanked a designer lately?  Have you thanked anyone today?  Grab someone (politely) and tell them you appreciate them!

“Son, you’re on your own this time….”

I realised recently there’s a difference between leadership and true leadership.

In the last few years I’ve gobbled up scores of lessons about leadership, from actively seeking out a range of books, to observations on the fire ground, to random learnings in the every day.  What I observed just last week though, was the purest form of leadership I think I can recall – and it’d been staring me in the face for years.

We were on a family holiday, my wife and I and our two young kids up at Nelson Bay (highly recommended by the way).  Our eldest son, a five and a half year old terrorist, had done something he shouldn’t have, like all five and a half year olds do, and was being told off by my wife.  He responded with  something along the lines of “Well it doesn’t matter what you say because Dad makes all the money and paid for the holiday”.

There comes a time, when despite wanting to protect your child from all of life’s ills, that there’s simply nothing a father can do. Son, you’re on your own this time….

While my wife isn’t exactly prone to bouts of expletive-ridden tirades, this had all the hallmarks of being a reasonable excuse to let one roar.  Instead, she calmly stated;

“I do everything for you.  I’ve given up everything for you.”

The moment of tension quickly passed, and we all got back to enjoying our holiday.  I am certain however, that our eldest (and possibly my wife, until she reads this I guess) was entirely oblivious to the power that statement had on me.

For some background.  My wife is significantly smarter than I am.  First Class Honours in a Science degree I can’t even explain – something about genetics and biodiversity.

Due to, well, life, she went back to Uni later than most, demolished a Science degree, volunteered in Costa Rica doing conservation work, travelled the NSW coast collecting and freezing an invasive species of crabs to monitor their insidious march northward, and got published for her efforts.

What I’m trying to show here, is that she’s no slouch in the brains department, and was primed to kick off a fantastic career in something smart.  Something she was particularly excited about.

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Mess with crabbo – get stabbo.  Photo taken off internet

Then came along marriage and motherhood – both of which I might add, she’s also smashing out of the park.  I have no doubt that without her, our entire mob would be a hot mess of (disorganised) chaos.  I’m not talking about cleaning and cooking here – I’m talking about our entire way of life.  It’s no wonder the kids call her The Captain.

It dawned on me in that brief moment of frustration, that all this time she had been demonstrating the purest form of leadership.  Self-sacrifice.  For the good of the mission.

You can lead a team at work, you can lead a team on the sports field, and I’m sure you can cite examples where you put the welfare of your team above your own – fundamental to the success of any team, and the sign of a good leader.

What you’re probably citing though is when you didn’t take credit for the work your team did anyway, or that you took the accountability you should have regardless, for the team missing a deadline, or when expenditure exceeded budget.  While certainly important – these things don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and I’d suggest they won’t be things you reflect upon on your death bed.

Your most important contribution may not be something you do, but someone you raise

Want to know what matters?  Kids, legacy, growing a family.  Are they the only things that matter in life?  No, obviously, but I’d suggest they’re on almost everyone’s list above missing that deadline.

Want to know what’s admirable?  Putting a promising career on hold that you worked godd@mn hard for, re-calibrating the trajectory of your life to care for and support 2 small kids (and 1 large adult-sized kid).  Providing an environment where these 3 other humans are given every opportunity to achieve their own successes (and failures), in a space that’s structured, organised, has high standards, is clear, supportive and never-failing.

We are defined by what we choose to reject”
– Mark Manson

What I observed was leadership not towards a short-term goal; hitting a sales target, pouring a slab, winning a contract, but true leadership – for a vision, for something that means something, and dedicating everything to achieving it.

It was a German-born theoretical physicist that said it best.

Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”
– 
Albert Einstein

I guess the lesson I learned in that moment was, apart from my wife being a superstar, is don’t just employ leadership techniques you read in a book or a blog, but find something, anything, that inspires you to live true leadership.


As we approach Mother’s Day – take some time to reflect on the sacrifice your Mum made, or is still making, to create an environment where you can achieve the successes you’ve had.  If you can, call your Mum today and tell her she’s awesome.