I can say this with authority, without even including on the list the time I tried to cook a whole egg in a microwave. Did I mention that I tried three times in succession, cleaning exploded bits of egg from all corners of the inside of the microwave after each attempt?
I’m going to put ‘preparing a talk’ onto my list of ridiculousness. Given that I’m never certain what sound will come out of my mouth before I start speaking, or – indeed – if any sound will emerge, doing a presentation to a group of people might not seem like a sensible first choice.
And yet, the twists and turns that have brought me to this point have left me with learnings and insights that I feel the need to share.
My talk is entitled Magic in Process. Superficially, it’s about cancer and feats of endurance, but it’s really about resilience in the face of adversity, overcoming challenges, and the simple actions that enable us to achieve our objectives.
The talk is constructed in such a way that it’s possible to tailor it to specific audiences. Given some of the subject matter, it might be useful for people looking for ways to resist the call of the couch (i.e. to be more physically active), or perhaps interested in different perspectives on dealing with the difficulties we experience on a daily basis.
I’m looking for speaking opportunities – if you have a ‘platform’, or know of one, I’d appreciate the opportunity to share the fruits of my journey.
When we save money by shopping online or by visiting a big box retailer, do we gain, or do we lose?
Yesterday I needed to visit the pharmacy. Actually, I’d tried the day before, but the queue at the back of my local Clicks was so long that I abandoned. Instead, the following day I adjusted my route slightly to drive past Zetler Pharmacy (Mill Street, Gardens). I could park in the street just beyond the entrance (so, no need to go through the whole parking garage thing), and best of all, there was no queue. Actually, the best part is that the entire experience had authentic human warmth to it. Plus, if what I wanted was not in stock, it would have been delivered to my home later in the day.
As I walked back to my car, I walked past Babu Footwear, which is as old-school a shop as the pharmacy. I’d been meaning to go hunting for shoe trees; on a whim, I walked in. I hadn’t been in the shop for a minute before the gent commented on the brand of shoe I was wearing. Impressive, considering that he’d only had a glimpse from the top (and doubly impressive, because I was somewhat unconscious to the brand side of things). I walked out a few minutes later with the required shoe trees, and my day enriched by yet another unharried human interaction.
The irony is that the shoes I was wearing had been bought at bargain price on a daily deals website. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that I would have bought them by conventional means at full price.
The Google search I’ve just done suggests that Dis-Chem stocks shoe trees at a fraction of the price I paid. This is most likely because their version has been sourced direct from a factory in China. Coincidentally, I could have dealt with the pharmacy requirement at the same time.
In fairness to Dis-Chem (and assuming there was a branch close to me), the interactions with staff wouldn’t have been terrible. They would just have been different in a subtle, but important way.
It’s very easy to default to the obvious shopping destinations. However, if we do too much of it we’ll end up driving good people out of business. It’s complicated …
As a ‘human experience practitioner’ I am perhaps overly sensitive to the human dimension. On the other hand, if corporates were more tuned to these things, there wouldn’t be any market for what I do.
My spontaneous middle of the night brainstorming session that led to Hx: The Human Experience went down a variety of paths. One of the most important, though, was the symbol that would represent the business. In other words, the logo.
Logos are important, primarily as an easy way to uniquely identify the brand. However, really great logos perform a dual role of telling your story.
My nocturnal thinking started at UX (user experience) and ended up at HX (human experience). Along the way, I got thinking about the Rx symbol that is used for medical prescriptions. I liked the old-school apothecary angle to it (Rx actually denotes a recipe that needs to be followed for the formulation), with a hint of alchemy.
That incorporated part of the brief to Nic Jooste, the designer with whom I’ve worked for about 20 years. The one non-negotiable was that the ‘x’ had to be small.
Nic then did a whole bunch of representations of Hx. What I learnt from this exercise is that the letter X is visually dominant. There are also a bunch of other associations that I wasn’t looking for (e.g. XGames, Xbox etc).
The letter H is also a tricky one, in that one runs the risk of looking like a knock-off of either H&M or Hamleys. The one famous ‘H franchise’ we were safe from mimicking was Harry Potter.
H and X are two letters comprising straight lines with hard edges. Some of the explorations tended to the somewhat impersonal and corporate. I also asked him to do some handwritten options, but these (with x adjacent) had many ‘up-strokes’ that tended to the slightly histrionic. Also, the vertical lines on the H didn’t line up at the bottom (I can be a little OCD sometimes).
However, there was an H that I really liked. It stood strong and bold, with a rounded top left corner that gave it a slight quirk and softened it just a bit (interestingly, rounding more of the corners on the H killed the effect). There were various looser representations of X, including one that was in the vein of Japanese brush strokes.
I asked Nic to put them together, which may not exactly qualify me for inclusion in Clients From Hell, but could have caused some irritation.
The end result has a duality that acknowledges the complexity of humanness. The H represents the hard sciences, the left brain, the numbers and spreadsheets that are integral to business. On the other hand, the brush-stroked X speaks for art, contemplation, beauty, and the human touch. Orange has a sense of fun and playfulness.
Some companies or brands – surprisingly few – do a particularly good job of delighting their customers. The rest cover the spectrum from “acceptable”, to outright frustrating or angering them.
My view is that the humanness of customers is one of the most neglected aspects of running any business. In fact, the humanness of employees is more likely to be given priority than that of customers.
While many of our drivers might be basic, our species is complex. No wonder that investment specialist Piet Viljoen (and my Cape Epic partner) refers to the “messiness” of business once one gets into the day-to-day operations. One can understand why some businesses make a point of slimming down their offering to the simplest possible in the hope of limiting the range of ‘people issues’ that they have to deal with.
Thanks to the work of people like Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017, we know that behavioural economics is of greater practical application than classical economic theory.
This is, indeed, fuzzy territory at times, which might partly explain why the human experience of products and services gets praised when done well, but that there doesn’t seem to be an appreciation of this as being a risk factor.
When bad experiences get blasted onto social media, companies can be very reactive. However, this is not the same as proactively seeking out the things that could trip one up in the future.
I should point out that some of these things are often extremely subtle, and wouldn’t necessarily be flagged by market research. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has demonstrated in his book Everybody Lies, people’s responses to surveys need to be taken with a pinch of salt. And, customers don’t outright tell you when you are not changing your offering as the market changes. They just spend their money elsewhere.
So, after a three-month process of working through a bunch of things, I give you
Hx: Human Experience
The primary offering, an Hx Audit, is “an assessment of the risks associated with the experiences that people have with – or in – your business. Barely noticeable, often intangible factors can have a major impact. Find them while you’re still able to take action to fix them.”
Following from this is the development and implementation of solutions to whatever problems have been identified.
Whatever one’s position on this issue, we can all do with more humanness in our daily lives, whether we are customers or employees. And it’s essential for good business.
Website, logo and other marketing collateral for Hx: Human Experience to follow.
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.
– Dr Seuss
During my conversation with Heather Parker (read about it here), she mentioned that in addition to her executive MBA, she had also trained as a life coach. On the basis that I wouldn’t dream of tackling Cape Epic without a coach, I felt that this important process similarly needed a coach.
At the end of the day, the coachee is the person doing the work and making things happen, but it helps to have the structure of a process, as well as an outside pair of eyes to help find perspective.
At Heather’s instigation, one of the first steps was to do an Enneagram test. The results generally fell within the parameters of what I thought I knew about myself, but also opened my eyes to a few things. These were overlaid with the outcomes of the ‘purpose exercise’ she shared with me. This was used to get a rough outline in place.
In the spirit of active recovery, I made contact with a friend who runs an NGO. It turns out that this organisation is about to embark on a radical reinvention process. My friend immediately included me in a bunch of meetings related to their intended changes. It remains to be seen how I can contribute (it’s looking to me as if they are pretty well resourced from a skilled humans perspective), but it’s been exciting to witness the emergence of something as revolutionary as they are planning. It’s certainly been an eye-opener to experience the openness with which I’ve been included.
One of the benefits of this interaction is that it’s giving me the opportunity of trying out the ‘wild card role’ that I’ve often been drawn by, and which seems to be indicated by the Enneagram results.
Regardless of self-indulgent reinvention processes, one needs income. One of the commercial enterprises I identified was pinhooking, essentially the purchase of yearling Thoroughbreds, with the aim of selling them as early two-year-olds on a Ready to Run sale, which is something I’ve done on a small scale before. I’m doing this as part of a partnership, so that I can get something of a portfolio in place to spread the risk. We did most of our buying in April, but during May we also bought a weanling that we’ll sell as a yearling in January. The downside, of course, is that the income is preceded by expenditure, but at least it’s a start.
A major positive is that I don’t need to take on the risk of starting a fully-fledged business. And, it flows naturally from existing skills, knowledge and experience.
Horses also feature in my interim plan, by way of Sergeant Hardy and others. The month started hopefully, with Sergeant Hardy contesting a major race in Johannesburg. Being the top-rated sprinter in the country, and having won a similar race at the end of January, I had high hopes of him finishing in the money. However, altitude seemed to get the better of him, and he ran unplaced.
The one thing I can say for certainty about the ‘business’ of owning horses is that one lives in hope. Over the seven-day period from 26 May, we had six runners. Four of them were favourites (i.e. the top selection in the betting), including Sergeant Hardy. There’s no need to go into the details of what happened in each case, but the end result was two fifths and two fourths. The positive is that each of them must be close to being winning prospects next time out. Well, that’s the hope.
It can be tempting to give in to the embrace of depression. It doesn’t take much more than some sleep deprivation, perhaps combined with a broken exercise pattern and a couple of things that haven’t turned out as expected. Before you know it, your brain has started to assemble confirmatory negative thoughts. While cycling on Sunday morning, I noticed my brain doing this. In response, I made a concerted effort to snap out of it. I don’t mean to trivialise the situation of people for whom depression is an illness. However, I’d be failing this process and accompanying journal if I didn’t report those feelings, however temporary.
One of my coffee sessions during the month was with Vanessa Raphaely, who left her position as Cosmopolitan editor, not to mention the structure/comfort of family business, to find a new direction. Her advice boiled down to two words: “Just do.”
In the course of ‘just doing’, she has written a children’s book and a novel. But perhaps her biggest achievement over the past few years is a Facebook group, The Village, which is a brilliant resource for parents of tweens and teenagers. It must rank as one of the very few parts of the Internet where comments are made in huge quantity without even the slightest bit of trolling, flaming or hate speech. In fact, it may be the online world’s most supportive space, which could explain its growth to nearly 20 000 members, a high percentage of whom engage on a regular basis.
“Just do” also happens to be a perfect antidote to the states of mind that most easily slide into depression’s dark embrace. More importantly, by ‘doing’ we take the first steps into the future.
In theory, this woolly chap is going to develop into a strapping yearling by late January, earning us a profit.
I did, a few months ago, and was a little put out to discover that Uber drivers considered me no better a customer than 4.5 stars (out of 5). A variety of distributions are possible, but this suggests that half the drivers gave me 4, and the other half the maximum possible.
I’m not the most chatty person (in fact, my voice issues often inhibit me from speaking unless it’s absolutely necessary), so I’m not one to initiate a conversation with drivers. However, I’ve never been abusive, nor have I done anything as extreme as vomiting in an Uber. Basically, I’m your standard low-maintenance customer … up until the point when the service provider is falling short. For the most part, Uber drivers do what they are required to, so I’m seldom going to put myself in the cross hairs for a low rating by getting tetchy about bad driving.
My view is that I’m contracting the driver to ferry me across town, I’m pleasant about it, and I pay what I’m required to. In what way have I been so deficient as a customer to earn a less than perfect rating?
When I first aired my ire about this at home, it was pointed out to me that in a country where a matric pass requires just 40% for three subjects and 30% for three others, the driver must think I’m a rock star if he’s rating me 4 (i.e. 80%).
For several months, I’ve been making a special effort to be uber-friendly when getting into the car, and generally bringing a glow of good cheer into the driver’s life. My rating inched up from 4.50 to 4.51 and then 4.52. I got it to 4.54, after which it summarily dropped to 4.52 and then 4.50. WTF?
As a customer, I treat it as something of a binary issue. Either the driver has delivered a service, or he hasn’t. Almost every time, I give drivers a full five stars.
Uber has made taxis cheap, cheaper even than the Hong Kong taxis I used on regular trips between 2003 and 2009. This, we are told, is at the expense of drivers, who are forced to work insanely long hours to make enough money to get by. It’s another version of the sweatshop, although in this case, we are not conceptually removed from the sweatshop, in the same sense as buying clothes in a branded store. In fact, the rank body odour of some drivers – especially ones who have been on shift for an extended time – can turn an Uber ride into a fully-immersive sweatshop experience.
Especially for immigrants (and my guess is that the majority of Cape Town Ubers are driven by people from other African countries), working as an Uber driver is entry-level employment. In this respect, it’s no different to conventional taxis around the world. I’ve been driven by a Ghanaian in Dusseldorf, by a Lebanese in Montreal (click here to read about my shawarma and falafel experience, thanks to him), and by countless other nationalities elsewhere.
Given their marginalised place in the economy, perhaps it’s understandable that they would be less charitable in the giving of star ratings. Certainly, it seems to be apparent that, as a whole, drivers have higher ratings than their passengers.
There’s another side to this, which is that by definition the Uber workplace has no co-workers with whom to communicate during the course of a working day. All that the drivers have for company is an endless succession of transactions – people sitting themselves down in a back seat, barely looking up from their phones, making hardly any contact other than establishing that this is the correct vehicle.
Unless they are particularly grumpy individuals, one assumes that Uber drivers would appreciate a little human warmth, if only for a few minutes at a time.
Companies are always telling us how much they value our custom. However, it’s never occurred to me to establish from their staff how satisfied they were with having me as a customer, on the basis of personal interaction. If I’ve never given any thought to a notional star rating from other commercial interactions, why should I suddenly be bothered by an apparently low level of appreciation from Uber drivers?
If I were the most charming, warm and engaging person to ever use an Uber, perhaps my rating would remain to fall short of the perfect score. Maybe that phenomenon is hard-baked into the system.
However, the world could certainly do with more of us being ‘nice’ to each other, even when it’s not required, nor of immediate benefit to us. Perhaps we set the bar too low when are the customer.
Who would have thought that a technology company that has tried to make the hailing of taxis frictionless by removing/minimising human contact could have made me aware of how much effort I was putting into being nice to strangers?
Common sense from an Uber driver (although if he had been my driver for the majority of my rides, my rating would have been much higher).
Our family has taken the Meatless May pledge, in terms of which we are vegetarian from Monday to Thursday. This is admittedly the entry level option offered, in that we have left foods like eggs and cheese on the menu.
To some extent, it’s not a radical change, because we were doing at least one night a week of veg anyway. Also, chicken and fish have been our predominant forms of animal protein for some time, rather than beef or lamb.
The major difference is that the commitment applies for four lunches as well as four dinners. I think it’s important to have this level of discipline in the way the eating plan is applied in order for the campaign to have any effect.
All of us – and I’m including vegetarians and vegans in this – need to be more conscious of the impact that our food choices have on the environment. Whether it’s the out-of-season vegetables that are flown in from halfway around the world, or the quinoa that is not necessarily grown in a sustainable manner, or the dairy cows expelling methane, they all have an impact.
The main thing I’ve learnt is that it takes a heap of extra effort to get sufficient nutrition if you’re on a training programme. I’ve had a few dark hours over the past couple of weeks, as a result of burning energy on the bike, and meals that haven’t done all they needed to.
But, on balance, it’s been a positive experience. We’ve had to be a lot more creative in menus and recipes, plus the little bit of animal protein we get over the weekends has turned into a major treat. For all my love of chickpeas, great roast chicken is something I look forward to!
The other little surprise of the month has been that I suddenly realised I needed to indicate a dietary requirement when RSVP-ing for functions. Identifying as vegetarian felt significant. While it’s not on the scale of an unexpected declaration of sexual preference, expressing a new kind of identity – in the context of my current ‘Life of Re_’ process – was a little bit of a jolt.
As it turned out, the communication that reached the venue was that I needed diabetic dessert. Given that I hardly ever eat dessert anyway, this was quite funny.
The meat eaters had a choice of delicious looking bobotie, or beef stew, or chicken pie (most guests piled their plates with all three). As no particular provision had been made for me, I made do with Caesar salad, Caprese, potato salad, as well roasted green beans and courgettes. After finishing these, I found some homemade hummus on the table.
Fortunately, the venue was Boschendal, where everything had been grown on-site in their organic vegetable garden. The flavours of everything – even the out-of-season tomatoes – were striking. And, the preparation had been handled by a kitchen team headed by Christiaan Campbell. It could only be delicious. In fact, it would have been a shame to divert attention from the fabulous produce by piling the plate with meat.
At the risk of being accused of contriving to find a message relevant to a period of ‘re-‘, I would highlight two aspects:
the experience of ‘identifying as’ something new
giving pride of place (i.e. undivided attention) to something that would otherwise have been a sideshow
Food is the meeting point of culture, religion, psychology/personal history, economics, creativity, science and more. It’s a pretty good starting point for exploring and evaluating identity with a view to being fully ‘conscious’ about future life choices.
Regardless of life choices, one of my meal choices for the weekend will be roast chicken (free-range, of course).
Carrots being harvested at Boschendal (pic: Boschendal)
While waiting for my coffee shop meeting with Nils Flaatten, I was eavesdropping on a financial adviser running his client through her expected financial position at age 65. It was more than a little sobering to process the numbers. It’s a good thing I don’t have any retirement aspirations!
Nils has intimate knowledge of casting around for new opportunities, having spent two years looking for his next big idea.
His advice to me was simple: “Look at your swim lane.” In other words, what are your fields or skills, and is there a way of finding an overlap between them? This would admittedly be the more conservative way of approaching this kind of situation than an outright fresh start in a completely new direction/lane. People in the tech world would describe this as a ‘pivot’. The rest of us will just say that someone has reinvented themselves.
His observation, also, is that for all its apparent economic vibrancy, the Western Cape is a difficult space in which to launch new ventures.
He went to great lengths to illustrate how shallow one’s ‘network’ can be. If one starts the process expecting little of the network there is less room for resulting disappointment (if not outright depression). Having said this, ‘the network’ is a useful route to “adjacent possibilities” as described in this interesting TED Talk.
Nils asked me some key questions, the first of which related to the kind of financial buffer I might have. In other words, how long before the money runs out? It’s not something one likes to think about, but it’s an important parameter.
His second question was as direct, although it dealt with a different aspect of this process: “What are you going to do at 10.00 on a Monday morning?” In other words, the school run is finished, you’ve possibly had a coffee with someone at 8.00, and now you’re back home.
This partially relates to active recovery, but it’s also about warding off boredom, isolation and depression.
Nils disagreed with me saying that I was hitting the reset button, making the point that this was more a recalibration for the second half of my life. In fact, with us living productive lives for much longer (not to mention the likelihood of our retirement savings not lasting) we have to keep preparing ourselves for the economies of the future.
He asked me if I listen to podcasts, and then proceeded to recommend Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale.
When I mentioned that I’d thought of blogging my experiences during this process, he suggested that I name it Adventures of Re- (with apologies to Ravi Naidoo for appropriating his concept).
The prefix “re-“ is attached to a bunch of neat words that fit in with the concept of making a fresh start. Given the progression of the morning, you might think that “retirement” is a negative slant on things.
However, I invite you to look at the etymology of “retire”, which has French origins: re- (back) tirer (draw/pull)
In French, a corkscrew is un tire-bouchon (in other words, draw/pull the cork, which relates to the Afrikaans kurktrekker).
I like the idea of looking at the years leading up to reTIREment as a pulling of the cork in order to release something beautiful. Perhaps, despite our failing bodies, parts of us can get better with age. Just like wine.
I met Heather Parker the journalist more than 20 years ago. Having fulfilled a variety of roles in publishing, by the age of 47 she reached a point where journalism had become a dead end for her. Not because possible avenues had closed off, but to borrow from HD Thoreau, she felt she had “sucked out all the marrow of” journalism. Or perhaps it was in danger of sucking the marrow out of her.
She then started an executive MBA at an age when her friends were starting to think about taking their feet off the gas. Instead, she entered what could have been the eve of retirement in full generative mode.
If ever there was a ‘pivot’, this was it. I thought that she would be a prime candidate for offering guidance on the process of ‘taking a fresh look’.
Far from launching straight into prescriptions, she opened with a beautiful affirmation. Much of our hour together involved so much of her listening empathetically that it took me a while to pull together the bits of guidance that she dropped into the conversation (and I have no doubt that there are important bits I haven’t held onto).
This was as much about me reconnecting with my positive energy as it was about her sharing wisdom. It was a master class in how to handle someone coming to you for help.
One of her major themes was doing stuff in the final third of our lives that draws together – and honours – the first two-thirds.
Following on from this was the need to put a stake in the ground with respect to how our output is valued. ‘Not settling’ also applies to the new direction we decide to follow.
It is easy to become shrill about matters of being monetarily valued, but she was being assertive in the most gentle way possible.
She spoke about the need to share the lessons we’ve learned; to enrich the lives of those around us.
Heather introduced me to Otto Scharmer’s concept of the “emerging future”. Without having read his book, the next best way of sharing this with you is this paragraph from Patrick McNamara’s review of Leading from the Emerging Future on Kosmosjournal.com:
“At the core is a shift of the interior condition of the leader. That is a shift of perspective—connected to source, sensing the emerging future and letting go of fighting the old system. It’s about shifting the place from where we operate so there is increased awareness, a stronger sense of purpose, and an intuitive notion of what is emerging … Another critical component is the way [the] model includes all stakeholder groups and integrates across multiple sectors—engaging the whole system with an intention to serve the highest good of all.”
Heather spoke about an exercise she likes to do annually to ensure she’s on the right path, and sent me the diagram that forms the basis of it (alongside). This is a difficult process at the best of times (I can attest to that!), so it’s great to have a neat way of corralling one’s thinking on the issue.
After an hour, Heather Parker the coach excused herself for a meeting with an aspirant journalist seeking career guidance. The young woman was radiating eagerness. How interesting, I thought, for Heather to move on to that particular type of glow, having helped dust off the gleam on a patina worn by my 51 years of living.
I’d love to credit whoever’s original work this is, but I’ve been unable to find any such reference on the interwebs (and it seems other people are similarly confounded).
It seemed appropriate to be going to AfrikaBurn in the first month of my ‘fresh look’. People’s experiences and perceptions of the event vary, so I’m going to stick with my perspective (you can read my previous AfrikaBurn posts here and here).
My observation is that it’s a space in which judgement is suspended. While it may be completely divorced from so-called reality, that’s a big part of the appeal.
There are people who fly to Tankwa, but there’s something to the final 120km driven on dreadful gravel roads. I’ve described the drive as akin to a birthing process, in which one is delivered into an alternative reality.
Much of what happens at Tankwa wouldn’t happen in a regular day in the city. It’s space in which to play, to explore, and to reconnect with parts of ourselves that have been inhibited. I think it’s relevant that getting there is difficult.
This was my fifth AfrikaBurn. While there have been differences in my experiences, the one common feature is that I generally find myself experiencing stuff on an emotional level. And it’s not necessarily predictable what those emotions might be.
I had primed my brain to use this time to explore alternative scenarios for myself. I don’t know if there was much action in that regard, but it certainly was four days of decompression.
One of the highlights was dancing on the far edge of the playa as the sun was setting on a beautiful day and an almost-full moon was rising on the opposite side of the desert.
I’ve returned feeling refreshed and relaxed, with a sense of creativity I haven’t had for a long time. The first days back have also been hugely productive, in that I’ve written three different pieces, comprising nearly 4000 words.
As far as ‘Adventures of Re-‘ are concerned, AfrikaBurn would be a double thumbs-up. I’m loving this feeling of being energised.