This is a newsletter cross–posted from my Substack newsletter.
That’s hope I know he can be beaten. Because he’s a fanatic — and a fanatic is always hiding a secret doubt.
– George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carré
Happy New New Year.
The first three weeks of 2021 were 2020 in disguise. This week it felt like we were changing the game – taking some pieces off the board, deciding on new strategies, considering a new phase.
In an ordinary year, the third week of January week would have included the question: “Do we still say Happy New Year? When does that stop?” After the second lockdown, the emergence of ominous new viral variants and the horrorshow of Trump’s last days – we already had an implicit answer to that unspoken question. A cheery “Happy New Year!” would have sounded sarcastic any time after about the 4th of January.
Things have got brighter this week. A month after the Solstice, each day is longer and lighter. Trump is off social media and out of the White House. Five million people have been vaccinated in the UK. [Corrected – not 10 million. Sorry!]
There were fireworks in Washington to greet the inauguration of the first black, hispanic, woman Vice President and Joe Biden. The pop–culture internet made its own light show with memes based on the endearingly well-wrapped up Senator Bernie Sanders. WIRED thinks the Bernie Sanders inauguration memes are a sign of healing.
Many of the best memes are born this way. Like most good humor, they’re tension breakers. A collective release. The internet has had some good ones over the past four or five years, but often, amidst the political bickering, it’s been hard to know when to interject with a joke. On Wednesday morning, people let ’em rip—and suddenly the thing keeping everyone warm was laughter.
I’ve scattered a few of my favourites at the end of this email and here’s Senator Sanders reacting to a selection of his memes and then going on to address the seriousness of the moment and the challenges the world faces.
Letters to the company
Every morning I write a letter to my company. It started as a practical way of keeping everyone updated when we had to close our office due to a case of Covid–19 a week or so before lockdown began. Soon though, they evolved to be a way of keeping us all connected, a space for reflecting about what was happening. The conversations and feedback and the power of the discipline of daily writing also give me a great deal.
I published a few of them last year, mainly during lockdowns, but hadn’t done so for a while. This week I was nudged into putting another one out there and it has had some lovely reactions and even prompted some reconnections with people I’d not spoken to in a while. We all need to be making sense of the struggle to get through the pandemic, to make sense of it and to keep a sense of connection with one another and hope for the future. Maybe sharing what we’re thinking and what’s working and not is something we all crave.
The letter is on LinkedIn and my blog if you’d like to take a look. And here’s an excerpt from another from this week:
A few years ago, we wrote a short book for a B2B content campaign called Design Your Day*. The conceit was to apply the discipline of design thinking to managing your time and energy every day. The design thinking method, made famous by IDEO, was initially used for product development and emphasised the use of prototypes to explore solutions to a problem. Famously, the IDEO team developed the roller-ball mouse for Apple, inspired by the business end of roll-on deodorant bottles. As soon as they had the idea, someone rushed out to buy some Right Guard to examine it, take it apart and use the ball to make a working prototype mouse.
The idea we liked for Design Your Day was to treat days as a prototype. We think it will work well like this – so we try the day out and notice what worked and what didn’t. The next day we make some tweaks and try it again.
Another insight we had while writing the book was that you can’t just plan the work bit of the day, you have to think about the whole 24 hours. The choices you make about food, exercise, relaxation and sleep are just as important as when you will write a report, do your expenses, or work on creative ideas ahead of a meeting.
After the cold-water shock of diving into the deep end of 2021, I’ve begun to find my rhythm in the days, and it is these two lessons from Design Your Day that have helped me. As mentioned yesterday, incremental improvements to routine build into positive and sustainable ways of living, even in the hardest times. Kindness to others, self–compassion, getting things done well, pausing if fear sets in and getting some perspective, making sure we eat and sleep, talking to family and friends.
Prototyping and improving how you get through the day can be an antidote to monotony. The sameness of the days is an opportunity to make each one a little better than the day before. And if it breaks, – if some part of you breaks, even – that’s OK. It’s a prototype – you take it apart, work out what went wrong and have another try at having a good day tomorrow. Or at least a slightly improved day.
Reading this one back, the sharing of it here is useful to me all over again. Reflecting, and reflecting on reflection isn’t indulgent in these times: it’s a matter of self–preservation, of making sure you can get out of bed and not collapse under the weight of the day. Thanks to others sharing thoughts like this you know you’re not alone. I was deeply encouraged a quote from a CEO of a large company in a Harvard Business Review article about leading during the pandemic:
I’m surprised that the hardest part right now is managing my own mind.
Yes. I think we’re all surprised by how hard that is.
Kindness is strength
I read a lot about kindness this week. Understanding compassion is more about effectiveness than trying to emulate the Dalai Lama, despite what macho business–types will tell you.
In the past I’ve felt intense pressure to be ruthless in making business decisions that would affect people’s lives in awful ways. As the endurance event that is the Great Pandemic rolls on, it’s clear that the long game is always to bet on people and that kindness – to yourself and others – is not humane for its own sake, but humane because we rely on other people to survive and get things done.
In the FT this week, Andrew Hill cut through any nonsense about kindness being weakness:
Tough decisions can be taken in humane and decent ways. “Kindness isn’t softness,” observes Kira Schabram of University of Washington, who has studied the relationship between compassion and burnout. “But for a long time we assumed there was no room for it in the workplace.”
It would be understandable if “compassion fatigue” were also a factor in wearing out empathetic colleagues. Here, though, Prof Schabram and her fellow researcher Yu Tse Heng have good news. Their separate study of social service providers and business students, just published by the Academy of Management Journal, confirms being compassionate to others can be good for you. Above all, performing acts of kindness helps reduce cynicism, one of three linked elements of burnout, the others being exhaustion and “inefficacy”, or dwindling performance. The kindness pool, in other words, is not finite. It can even be replenished.
Providing external resources to alleviate burnout is not good enough on its own, though, says Prof Schabram. “Self-compassion” is the best salve for exhaustion. In her experiment, timed nudges were enough to encourage stressed students to be kind to themselves. Even better would be to ensure that jobs are designed to minimise the risk of burnout in the first place.
Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg’s Harvard Business Review piece, “How to lead when your team is exhausted – and so are you”, which I mentioned earlier, has plenty more to say about using emotional intelligence (a.k.a. empathy and common decency) as a leader.
It feels like the whole world is tired. Even though the vaccine shines a light at the end of the tunnel, the home stretch will be long and perhaps take a greater toll on our professional and personal lives than we expect it to.
Amen to that.
Leaders should focus on three areas: understanding the difference between urgency and importance, and focus on the latter; be compassionate while also driving your employees to action by channeling their feelings of defiance, anger, and frustration. Finally, change things up every single day with a focus on energizing your team.
I also like the insight that we need to be doing things to rest sometimes:
While rest is vital outside the workday, inactivity during it can backfire. In military units, for example, boredom and waiting time are perceived as more stressful than actual combat. In the study “The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind,” researchers found that when people were ordered to sit in a room and do nothing, they chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than pass the time in silence.
- [[Esther Perel]] posted some ideas about how to deal with stress on Instagram.
- The Economist says we could be on the verge of a new “roaring 20s”
Today a dawn of technological optimism is breaking. The speed at which covid-19 vaccines have been produced has made scientists household names. Prominent breakthroughs, a tech investment boom and the adoption of digital technologies during the pandemic are combining to raise hopes of a new era of progress: optimists giddily predict a “roaring Twenties”. Just as the pessimism of the 2010s was overdone—the decade saw many advances, such as in cancer treatment—so predictions of technological Utopia are overblown. But there is a realistic possibility of a new era of innovation that could lift living standards, especially if governments help new technologies to flourish.
- A nice little niblet of wisdom from Naval Ravikant on re-framing things like negotiations as games:
I generally say, though: “Negotiations are won by whoever cares less.” Negotiation is about not wanting it too badly. If you want something too badly, the other person can extract more value from you.
If someone is taking advantage of you in a negotiation, your best option is to turn it from a short-term game into a long-term game. Try to make it a repeat game. Try to bring reputation into the negotiation. Try to include other people who may want to play games with this person in the future.
Ein more thing…
This week, thanks to a virtual beer with a good friend in Munich, I found out about the Bavarian Space Programme. Not a joke one, this is a serious initiative with a few hundred million Euros of investment behind it, an aerospace research facility, and about ten tech/digital business incubators. The Minister-President of Bavaria, Markus Söder, is a gregarious but respected conservative politician with an eye on Merkel’s old job. He also had the chutzpah to put his own face on the mission patch (above) for the programme, which is inscribed “Bavaria One: Mission Zukunft” (Mission: Future). I would like one of those badges.
Naturally, Meme–Bernie is one step ahead of Söder.
And of course, I had to spend a few minutes today using graphics programmes poorly to make this in case Bavaria wants to drop Söder from the mission patch:
I hope you have a lovely week.