The Gift to be Simple

The best expression of the key to high performance is – strange to say – in the film Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.  Sam and Donna are in a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea when Donna expresses words that provide the solution to life’s most challenging problems.

We live in a complex world. Much of what we face in our daily lives appears so difficult to understand, so complicated to explain and so hard to achieve. Yet, every day people do amazing things, often incredibly complex things.

mosaic

I was recently in Morocco admiring the beautiful, exquisitely ornate and symmetrical tiles. The craftsmanship to design and then execute such a complicated pattern is impressive. Outside one palace I saw a chap producing a similar series of tableaux, as intricate as any in the finest palace, as you can see from the photo. Despite the complexity of the design, it was clearly something he found relatively easy. And that got me thinking. There must be a simple process behind the bewilderingly complex design. There must be a way to reduce that complexity to a combination of regular patterns which, once you know them, would allow generations of Moroccan tilers to produce them with ease.

So I set out to establish how the ornate pattern worked, and I broke it down into a series of geometric shapes and angles.

Mosaic_CU

The squares that surround the six main patterns were easy to spot. And as you look harder you can see a square whose corners intersect with the midpoint of the original square’s sides. A third square appears a bit smaller and rotated 45 degrees. And you begin to see how the structure of the design works.

But there are strange angles. Eight white areas radiate around the central shape – but they don’t follow the diagonal splitting the corners of the square equally at 45 degrees.

Mosaic_Sketch1

Continue to look hard and suddenly the solution rises from the picture. It’s not the diagonals! It’s the lines between the intersections of the two internal squares – and there you have your strange angle. From there you can gradually build your lines up to create the full pattern.

And this is how the Moroccan tilers must do it.  No need for complicated measuring tools or protractors. You just need some squares and you can draw your guidelines and follow a simple logic to build up the complexity and beauty of the design.

Mosaic_Sketch2

I spend a lot of time doing this in my work: helping companies turn complicated projects into small, simple, achievable steps. That’s what struck me in Morocco: this is a metaphor for how to approach complex problems.

It’s what I did when confronted with the huge project to produce a training and piloting plan for 2,500 journalists moving into the BBC’s new London headquarters. The final plan was an exquisitely complex spreadsheet with over 50,000 cells. First I looked carefully at the shapes, and saw how they intersected. I then identified simple patterns which I could multiply to create the complex mosaic which was the launch plan.

Executive coaches use the same process to help a client bamboozled by a catalogue of confusing challenges.  The technique is called “chunking down”, where you get them to break the challenge down into its constituent parts to identify the real location of the problem. And suddenly it’s much easier to solve. You identify a series of simple small challenges, aggregate them up to create a comprehensive solution: A simple way to maximise performance.

And you can even use the process when confronting one of human life’s most confusing challenges: Love. Which brings us back to Donna and Sam floating in their boat in Mamma Mia 2. Donna is trying to persuade Sam to drop everything to live with her on her Greek island.

“Nothing is that simple,” says Sam.

Everything is that simple,” replies Donna, “when you break it down.”

Sadly for Donna, Sam didn’t break it down and left her on the island.

Happily for ABBA fans, Donna did.

Childish ways to maximise happiness

img_7492The ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that humans were born with perfect knowledge, but somehow forgot it all at birth. So acquiring knowledge later in life is actually recollecting things we already knew.
I remember thinking this was absurd when I first read it (at school where I appeared to be learning all sorts of things that seemed to be totally new). But, as time goes by, I increasingly think that he has a point.
I am currently working with an Indian media company. In the newsroom I saw a notebook with these words on the outside:

The creative adult is the child who survived.

This got me thinking. The amazing thing about the people who work in that newsroom is how incredibly hard they work. They are a business channel covering the ruckus of the Bombay Stock Exchange in a roller coaster of live output with flashing tickers, graphics and logos. Every moment there is a breaking “flash” as another company releases its results, or a stock price “tanks” or “spikes”. But despite working very long hours and under great pressure, they seem happy – childishly happy –  not that they are in any way childish themselves (they are utterly seasoned professionals). They are childishly happy in the way that a child is happy when totally engrossed in his or her play: demonstrating utter concentration and dedication, and a sense of fun and enjoyment. It’s wonderful to see.

So this article in Time 4 Ways to Live a Happier Life caught my eye when it popped up on my Twitter feed the same week. The author, Eric Barker, quotes the philosopher Nietzsche, echoing Plato’s theme:

A person’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child at play.

The article advocates smiling, laughing, touching and teasing as its 4 routes to happiness. These should all be easy to do, “child’s play” as the saying goes, because they are all things that kids do naturally. The article concludes, if you want to be happy:

resolve to approach life like a big kid.

When you think about it, it’s obvious: we instinctively know that it is correct …. and yet somehow we stressed-out adults have managed to forget that simple truth. Perhaps Plato was right after all.

How to put a smile on your face

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Photo by Spike on morguefile.com

We know that smiling into a mirror kicks off chemical reactions that make us feel happy. But listening to happy music is more powerful and much more fun. So in honour of #WorldSmileDay, here are my top 5 tunes to make you happy:

 

  1. My post on simple ways to minimise stress recommended Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. So Bob goes straight in at number one.
  2. As Bobby McFerrin wisely says, “In every life, we have some trouble. When you worry, you make it double. Don’t Worry. Be Happy!” Whistle along!
  3. Or actually Sing A Song, particularly one with a base line like this one. “Smile, smile, smile and believe. Sing a song. It’ll make your day.”
  4. OK, While My Guitar Gently Weeps may not sound like the happiest song. But the pure genius of Prince (guitar solo at 3’28) sends shivers up my spine and makes me smile with delight. And the way he chucks his guitar away at the very end is hilariously brilliant. Trust me!
  5. Now we need some dancing too and no happy list would be complete without James Brown’s I Feel Good. If you can match his footwork, you’ll be smiling all day. (With a bonus intro from Ed Sullivan.)

Happy World Smile Day.  [Sorry Pharrell – you’d make the top 10 for sure!]

Magical ways to maximise performance: How Harry Potter can help you conquer your fear

Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban, by JK Rowling
Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban, by JK Rowling

When your goal is to achieve confident leadership, so the saying goes, there’s no magic wand. You cannot suddenly become a great leader and remain one forever. It’s a journey not a destination. And even if you do have a magic wand, it’s still a challenge. There are no super spells that Harry Potter and his friends can cast to solve their confidence issues. (The books would be pretty dull and short if they did!) But JK Rowling provides them with useful ways to confont their deepest fears. And they provide us muggles with powerful images: magical ways we can use to maximise our performance.

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Remus Lupin introduces his defence against the dark arts class to the Boggart. Here is the scene in the excellent film produced by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

A Boggart is a magical creature that works out what your greatest fear is and mimics it.  Professor Lupin sends each student up to face their fear and to learn to conquer it. “The charm that repels a Boggart is simple,” Lupin explains, “yet it requires force of mind.  You see, the thing that really finishes a Boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.”

So the young wizards are trained to use the Riddikulus charm which (no surprise) makes the Boggart ridiculous and causes them to burst into laughter. And once you laugh at a Boggart –  once you laugh in the face of fear – it’s no longer frightening. So the wizards are trained to follow a very simple two-step process:

  1. Know your Boggart. They identify what their greatest fear is. For Neville Longbottam, it’s Professor Snape.  For Ron Weasley, it’s a giant spider.
  2. Make it ridiculous. They think how to make their greatest fear laughable, and, if they concentrate on that, the Riddikulus charm will make it happen. So Neville’s Snape ends up wearing Neville’s granny’s clothes, and looking extremely funny. Ron’s spider has roller skates on each of its legs and skids around hilariously. Once they’ve laughed at it, the Boggart is no longer scary. Their fear is gone.

Most of this is not magic: Laughter is the best medicine because it releases feel-good chemicals which ease our anxiety and stop our fear – that’s how our physiology works.  So try the same process:

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