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  • Published: Jan 20th, 2018
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Do less, obsess…

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Riffing on New Year’s resolutions, the FT’s Andrew Hill explores how doing less, rather than more, could well be the thing. But as he points out, doing less is only half the story…

“Academic Morten Hansen … cites his compatriot Roald Amundsen, who won the race to be the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911. … Prof Hansen believes Amundsen’s success came down to his obsessive focus on using only dogs and sleds to transport his team. Scott was better resourced …but the complexity of the Scott approach proved fatal. … Amundsen, who had concentrated on getting the best dogs, the best handlers and the best training, was far quicker. “By the time Amundsen reached the pole, he was more than 300 miles ahead,” writes Prof Hansen. “Amundsen had chosen one method and mastered it. He had done less, then obsessed. … You have to obsess because if you don’t you don’t have an advantage over the people who are doing more things.”

Prof Hansen studied the performance of 5,000 people and discovered that those who pursued a strategy of ‘do less, then obsess’ ranked 25 percentage points higher than those who did not embrace the practice. … The best performers in the study … matched passion with a purpose.”

How does this play out for writers? Sylvia Plath melodies the essence: “I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life.”

From crafting poetry to reaching the South Pole – there’s a lot going for obsessively focusing on one thing to excel at it. Especially when you bring brilliant specialists together in teams to combine and amplify their excellence.

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  • Published: Mar 25th, 2016
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For me it started with sunshine fingers…

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A beautiful poem by Gilda Hanson, a very promising young poet deservedly commended in the Agincourt 600 competition. I’m very proud to say she is also my daughter.

Outcast
by Gilda Hanson

Thank you
I have been waiting for this moment
For 600 years
Alone

For me it started
With sunshine fingers
And soldiers getting ready
Like children
On their first day at school
Morning minds aching with worry
About the day ahead

The French army stood
Like bulls ready to charge
Blocking our way

We were silent
Full of fatigue and fear

I heard my heart
Cast out of steel
Thumping

An unsteady hand
Grabbed my body
Placed me in the arms
Of a long yew bow
Drew me back
And let me go

And I SOARED!
As high as the heavens

Beside me
My brothers and sisters
Bodkins, swallowheads
An army of arrows in flight

Below me
Swords danced
A chaos of screams
Shouts, yells
Of mud, blood and guts

And down my fellow arrows arched
A waterfall of death

But I flew on
And on
Until I fell
To pierce the heart
Of a destitute ditch

And there I lay
An outcast arrow
Alone
Save for time
Marching on
Like soldiers to battle

So thank you
For finding me
For taking me home
For listening to my story
And for giving me hope

 

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  • Published: Apr 29th, 2014
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This tale begins in Nebraska…

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Praise for the Sage of Omaha in today’s FT, not so much for his legendary skill as an investor as for his use of clear, simple language:

“Mr Buffett’s plain speaking shows confidence,”says Sam Leith… “Two things in particular make the plain style sing for him. He tells stories and he uses metaphors… As far as storytelling goes, his letter to shareholders this year…opened with an account of a small investment he made years ago that did little to change his net worth. “This tale begins in Nebraska,” he wrote, before describing his 1986 purchase of a farm. He went on to explain how the story illustrated “certain fundamentals of investing”. “As for metaphors, Mr Buffett can barely get through a sentence without one… “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

His use of storytelling and metaphor means that even when Mr Buffett is talking about something as complex, impersonal and abstract as finance, [he can] make it sound simple, human and concrete.”

Outstanding investment success and clearly characterful language – now that’s a connection to conjure with.

 

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  • Published: Feb 11th, 2014
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Dear Andy…

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How do you brief creative folk? Mick Jagger’s letter to Andy Warhol is a great example:

“Dear Andy,

I’m really pleased you can do the art-work for our new hits album. Here are 2 boxes of material you can use, and the record. In my short sweet experience, the more complicated the format of the album, e.g. more complex than just pages or fold-out, the more fxxxxx up the reproduction and agonising the delays. But, having said that, I leave it in your capable hands to do whatever you want………..and please write back saying how much money you would like.

Doubtless a Mr Al Steckler will contact you in New York, with any further information. He will probably look nervous and say “Hurry up” but take little notice.

Love, Mick Jagger.”

I’m really pleased you can do the work… Here is some background material… I trust you… Do whatever you think best – the perfect brief.

So did Andy do a good job? Well, according to a Rolling Stone readers poll it’s one of the best album covers of all time.

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  • Published: Mar 5th, 2013
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The best story wins…

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Cold hard facts or clear compelling stories? When it comes to really understanding our world, it’s the latter that matter.

Writing in the FT, John Kay picks up on the age-old power of stories to help us make sense of things: “Probabilistic reasoning has become the dominant method of structured thinking about problems involving risk and uncertainty – to such an extent that people who do not think this way are derided as incompetent and irrational. Yet this probabilistic approach, a recent intellectual development, was heavily implicated in the 2008 financial crisis. Legal systems have evolved over hundreds if not thousands of years…to establish the degree of confidence in a narrative, not to measure a probability in a model. Such narrative reasoning is the most effective means humans have developed of handling complex and ill-defined problems… We cope with these situations by telling stories, and we base decisions on their persuasiveness.”

So stories rather than stats are the great sensemakers. And as John Kay implies and Life of Pi highlights, the best story wins.

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  • Published: Feb 13th, 2013
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Fearless friend…

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Happy birthday to the Financial Times, 125 years young today. The FT launched on Monday February 13th, 1888, proudly running its motto “Without Fear and Without Favour.” beneath its title and listing either side on the masthead its friends (the honest financier among other good business folk) and enemies (the unprincipled promoter, the company wrecker et al). As they said in the leader on the front page of that first edition, “Our attitude, our principles and our programme are summed up in the motto we have quoted.” It’s a motto the FT has continued to display and hold true to in every edition since. 

In 1888 the FT cost the princely sum of one penny. Today it costs rather more – 250 times more in my local newsagent. Even accounting for inflation, that’s quite some increase, but its fearlessly independent and intelligent commentary is priceless. 

The FT is a study in the great effect and good fortune that can come from having a strong character, getting it across in a few simple, powerful words and sticking to it. So, many happy returns to the pinkun’ – here’s to the next 125 years.

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  • Published: Sep 23rd, 2011
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Zest, grit and other great character traits…

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In an article in the FT, champion of all things entrepreneurial Luke Johnson hones in on the essential ingredient for success in school and in business: character.

He points to Paul Tough’s New York Times essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure”, which identifies the seven character traits that matter most for a child to do well at school: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. These, he says, are also the defining criteria for entrepreneurs.

They’re certainly a fine selection – who among us wouldn’t like to have zest and grit, optimism and curiosity coursing through our veins.

Whether or not they’re the secret seven for budding pupils and business starters alike, or a rather more universally advantageous septet, one thing’s for sure – as JP Morgan famously put it and L Johnson reminds us, in pretty much all aspects of life  “…the first thing is character.”

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