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More on journeys and destinations

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That used to be an iPhone. And if I’d been alert and I’d followed my father’s advice, it would still be an iPhone. One of his favourite sayings was “Nothing mechanical needs forcing”. Over the years I’ve sort-of expanded it to read “nothing mechanical that has been designed properly should need the use of force to make it work”. He first shared this advice with me when I was about 7, half a century ago. So how could it have saved my iPhone 5?

Simple. I went with my family on a short break to Dubai just before Christmas. We were expecting a houseful of guests to descend on us, and the idea of a brief injection of warmth appealed. I booked the flights and hotels, had everything prepared except for one minor issue. My visa hadn’t come through. This, despite the fact that I’d already been to Dubai a few times that year, obtaining visas each time without even the merest shadow of delay. I’d called a few friends to see if they could find out what the blockage was, but nada. Nothing. The application was stuck somewhere in the system. And nobody could tell me why.

Anyway, I told my wife and children that all would be resolved when we actually got to Dubai, that they were all on UK passports anyway, that it only affected me, and that I was confident I could sort it out upon landing. Which is what actually happened: 45 minutes after disembarking, I had the visa in my hand and we were heading for the hotel.

We had good news as we boarded: we’d been upgraded. It was a daytime flight; I’d had a hectic few months and I was exhausted, both physically as well as mentally. I fell asleep as we took off, woke an hour or so later, slightly disorientated. Realised we were airborne, and set about adjusting my seat into the stretched-out position. And it wouldn’t stretch out: I could hear the motor of the mechanism, but the seat stayed where it was and at its original angle. I persevered, and after a while it juddered into the extended position. I resumed my nap.

Nothing mechanical needs forcing.

I was too tired and too distracted to remember that.

I woke an hour or so later, and after a few minutes patted my pocket for my phone, to see what the time was. No phone. Hmmm. Perhaps I’d put it away before the flight took off? I was sure I hadn’t, but I checked nevertheless.

You’ve worked it out by now. Nothing mechanical needs forcing. There was a good reason why the seat mechanism wasn’t working properly. A very good reason.

My iPhone. Which was duly found, underneath the seat, in the condition shown at the start of this post.

Seat mechanisms, especially those designed in the reign of Methuselah (and the aircraft was at least that old), aren’t particularly good at dealing with iPhones. Especially when they come in the way of what needs to be done. This one had huffed and puffed (as I persevered with trying to force it) until the mangling of the phone was complete.

Nothing mechanical needs forcing. I should have remembered. I would have remembered but I was tired and distracted. And didn’t respond to the signals. My bad.

Every time I pick up something that’s mechanical, I tend to remember what my father said. I spend time trying to understand how and why something works, so that I don’t do what I did while on the plane. Using force with mechanical tools is a bit like speaking loudly and slowly in English to someone who doesn’t understand a word of what you’re saying: it achieves no purpose at all, gives you a misguided belief that progress is being made, and potentially risks something breaking down as a result.

I enjoy food, everything about food. Eating it; cooking it; discovering the new; luxuriating in the old. You probably know that already, especially if you’ve seen this TED Talk.

Over the years, I’ve learnt a lot about food. Most of the time, it’s been by watching people. My mother. My father. The family cook. Chefs at the restaurant. It’s amazing what you learn by observation. If you can combine the ability to observe with the ability to listen, you can learn even more. Most of the cooking at home has been done by my wife, day in, day out. I’ve tended to help out with special meals, occasional weekends and when on vacation. But the brunt of the load has been hers. Which means she has a lot of experience. We’ve been married thirty years this year, and over the years she’s helped me become a decent cook. Simple things to begin with. Work with a recipe; shop to the recipe. Check that you have the vessels in the sizes needed; occasionally this may also need to be shopped for. Sketch out the elapsed time, get your ingredients accessible, make sure the work surfaces are clear. Work backwards from when you want to serve. Taste taste taste. And taste again.

All this wasn’t drilled into me in structured lessons or, heaven forfend, PowerPoint. [More on that later, perhaps in a separate post]. The lessons came to me in conversations that took place in the kitchen as I’d be preparing the meal, as she pottered about doing something else. Gently guiding me somewhere without seeming to interfere. Independent of the meal itself, or the dishes, or the guests, or the time or place. They were “journey” things, not “destination” things; flow things, not stocks things.

Of course there were tips and tricks to bring into play, and my wife would help me with them as well. You’d better cover those with water, or they’ll go grey. That dish needs stirring gently, at the bottom, so that it doesn’t catch. You’ll find it easier to cut if you held it like this.

I was lucky. My wife enjoyed cooking, and was willing to share her expertise with me.

The internet, the Web, YouTube, the connected world we live in, all this means that more of us can be lucky. Learn from observing others at a distance, in our own time, at our own pace. Recipes are now easy to find, discovery is simple. Selection is also made easier, given the filters and ratings and reviews available on most decent cooking sites. The how-to bits have also become easier to find, you’ll be amazed by what you find when you look. It’s what Clay Shirky called Cognitive Surplus meeting Lewis Hyde’s Gift. People, all over the world, able and willing to share their expertise with you and me, free gratis and for nothing. Some have patronage models where you can show your appreciation or support, some have products and services you buy because of the relationship and the trust engendered by their willingness to share their expertise, yet others do it for the same reason that Hillary climbed Everest. Because it’s there.

I’ve been privileged to be able to observe chefs “in the flesh”: Richard Corrigan is a personal friend, as is Vineet Bhatia; they’ve both shared some wonderful insights with me over the years, from the simple “how to avoid the sea bass flesh tearing away from the skin as you try and make the skin golden-brown and crispy” to “how to get the tandoori chicken to stay moist yet fully cooked”. Their staff have been as helpful, particularly Chris over at Corrigan’s, who’s even come home to cook for me. [Sent, of course, by Richard]. But most of the time, what they’ve all been able to teach me is the principle, the method, rather than just the simple instantiation of the method. Once I learn that, I can mutate it, fit it into different circumstances, make it “grow” …. and share it.

A lot of what I learned was learned in person, because someone else was willing to share time and experience with me. Rather than feed me, they taught me how to cook. Thank you every one of you, particularly my parents, my wife, Richard Corrigan and Vineet Bhatia. I had to make myself available; I had to observe; I had to listen; and I had to be willing to apply what I’d learnt in front of them, so they could continue to guide.

Some of that is harder to achieve when separated by time and distance, but it’s getting easier every day. That’s why I love what I see of Khan Academy. That’s why I love what Sugata Mitra has been doing. That’s why I’m fascinated by what Howard Rheingold has been doing. That’s why I am convinced about the promise of MOOCs. [I'm not at all worried about reports to do with drop-out rates and completion levels and standards. But that's for a different post, some other day]. I’ve learnt so many tips and tricks from the Web I’ve lost count, from the simple Here’s How You Peel Garlic and Here’s How You Separate Egg White From Yolk to Here’s How To Make Pancakes For Duck Restaurant-Thin. In my own time, at my own pace.

Cooking is a platform. Learning is a platform. Travelling is a platform. Healthcare is a platform.

In each case, you have the opportunity to look at the specific instantiation, the “reference application”, and to stop there.

Or you can look at the platform, the principles that underly the instance.

You can look at the destination. Or you can look at the journey. The stocks. Or the flows.

Sustainable learning is about the flows, not the stocks. Where learning itself becomes both a destination as well as a journey.

They say the Hoover Dam was responsible for the “invention” of cement. The dam is an instance. Cement is the enduring principle.

More to follow. I’m going to look at education and at healthcare in this context before homing in on the workplace in general. Keep your comments coming.

 

Posted in Four pillars .


Of journeys and destinations

 

 

Travelling by train in India used to be a wondrous experience. That is not to say it no longer is one: I have no current information on which to base my opinion one way or another. I lived in Calcutta between 1957 and 1980. During that time, I must have spent a dozen summers or so in Tambaram, on the Madras Christian College campus where my grandfather was professor of Chemistry. My mother would take us every summer for a month or so, and my father sometimes joined us towards the end of the break.

It’s a journey I remember well, particularly since I must have done it maybe thirty times over the time I lived in India. In those days, it used to take us three nights and two days for the fast version, the Mail, and five days/four nights for the slower version. The Coromandel Express hadn’t been conceived as yet, let alone commissioned into service. [Incidentally, the photo above is of a commuter service near Patna at a later date. I rarely travelled on commuter trains, and never on that route]. We travelled to other places in India as well, principally by train.

I can recall going to Bombay in 1962, and being fascinated by a wandering flautist playing Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujh Par. [That may well be the earliest memory I have of anything]. We went back in 1972 for sure; I can remember buying my first single with my own money (Ten Years After, Love Like A Man) and watching Love Story on the big screen, man-tears throughout the last twenty minutes. I can remember going to Bhopal in 1964, which involved changing trains at Nagpur after spending the night in waiting rooms. It was the first and only time I had a Christmas stocking. I can still remember the lights as we approached Bhopal at night, and falling into a pond in Delhi in 1965;  funfairs on the Parade Ground, ivory penknives and monkeys in hotels in Bangalore in 1966; and watching my father drive off the mountain in Darjeeling in 1969 (he was shaken, not stirred: the car jammed into railway lines twenty feet below the road). There were smatterings of Dindigul and Asansol and Durgapur and Salem, a few Kodaikanals, but the staple fare was Calcutta-Madras.

Every May, as we approached the time we would leave for Madras, to stay on campus with my grandfather, I started getting excited. So much to look forward to:

  • Having a staring contest with the cobras and the toads in the outside toilet. [I kid you not. They looked for the shade behind the door, and, like any other seven- or eight-year-old, I was originally torn between the fear of the creatures and the shame of being too scared to pull the door shut. The only licence I have used here is to call it an outside toilet. It was a toilet that was integral to the house but approached only via an external door, a few yards from the front door].
  • Climbing up the guava tree to the right of the front door… they were great to climb but extremely hard in terms of the bark and wood, taking the skin off you if you made the slightest slip.
  • Stealing quietly into the room near the upstairs terrace, where my uncle kept his incredibly delicate balsa wood model planes.
  • Stealing even more quietly into my grandfather’s Locked Room, where he kept the souvenirs of his trips abroad. Ball point pens. Postcards. Books of matches (even though he detested smoking). Tiny bars of soap (of the hotel kind…The entire room smelt gently and fragrantly of soap). Notepaper. Polaroid cameras. Dymo Labelmakers. A garden of delight. What self-respecting child would ever allow a locked door to keep him at bay?
  • Learning to throw scalpels at the tree that dominated the turning circle in front of the house. Real medical scalpels. Real sharp. I must have left little bits of finger there every summer.
  • Going into the chemistry labs with my grandfather, a rare treat. His boring lectures about the periodic table were anything but in hindsight.
  • Dwelling on untrodden ways in the jungle that surrounded the house, having learnt basic snake etiquette.
  • Pretending to be ill, being careful to make up symptoms that would pass muster, in order to be taken into the Holy of Holies: a session involving the opening of a beautiful rectangular wooden box filled with hundreds and hundreds of small white balls all of which tasted the same, yet had very different names. There was a good chance that I could be given a tiny tiny dose of arsenic or belladonna….My grandfather practised homoeopathy.
  • Actually leaving the campus to have a Gold Spot with ice. We were not encouraged to have fizzy drinks.

 

As you can see there were many things I looked forward to doing, every time I went to Madras. But none of them formed the highlight of my journey.

That was reserved for one thing, and one thing only.

The journey itself.

Getting on that train was magical. Three days and two nights of magical. Going to the station: that was a delight in itself. Because each part of the journey had its own peculiar smells. Parking the car in Howrah Station (I think it used to be between platforms 8 and 9) and getting out, that’s when the journey began. Getting used to the “station” smell, slightly damp and dark yet familiar and comforting. Coolies who’d been lazing, smoking beedies and sitting on their haunches, sprang into action like cheetahs. The family used to travel with two suitcases and two holdalls, I can still see them now. The holdall was this strange beast, resembling a suit-bag with pillow-sized pockets at each end, designed to be rolled up and strapped tight. It would hold oodles and oodles of stuff. Never seen one since.

People would come to see us off, my father occasionally amongst them. And they would buy platform tickets for the privilege. Every trip. All the time. Going to the station was a day out.

Finding our coach and compartment was the next bit. And encountering the next set of unique smells, that of “train”. I’d have to wait a bit before I could excuse myself and inspect the toilet, which smelt of “toilet”. Looking down into the commode and seeing the train tracks below. Flushing, just to see what happened. Looking longingly at the alarm cord and knowing it was not to be.

Whistles and hoots and people scurrying off as the train began its slow departure and gathered speed. Which introduced the next smell. “Coal”. Sitting by the window, trying to look out, pressing into the red protective slightly concave bars. Occasionally getting stung by a live ember. Soot-faced within the first fifteen minutes, happily so.

Looking at bradshaws to work out where the train was going to stop next, which stops it was going to whistle through. Waiting for the vestibule attendant to come and take orders for food. Railway food. Including the mamlette. Incidentally, a close friend made me aware of this: Railways to bring back its forgotten flavours. Looks like I shall be a nostalgic tourist on Indian Railways sometime soon.

As the journey proceeded, there was so much to occupy myself. Looking at the other passengers without being seen to stare, wondering what their stories were. She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy. I said be careful his bowtie is really a camera.

Trying to position myself strategically in the toilet whenever we were about to cross a major river bridge (like the Godavari), so that I could look down a very long way.

And eating. Eating at every stop, as people pushed food at you, delivered to your window, fresh and insanely-good-smelling. Yes, another smell.

At the longer stops (faithfully signalled by the bradshaw), getting out to the bookshop. For the first two-thirds of the journey I think they used to be Newmans, and then as we went further south they all turned into Higginbothams. Who knew what treasures we would find. Heaven was finding an unread Archie or Dennis in the early years, and Mad Magazine in later ones.

Sitting by the window, figuring out the system used to number the telegraph poles, and then trying to predict when the system would change over into a new one. Or when the sequence would break, driven by the terrain. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Looking without seeing, gazing into faraway fields while daydreaming at scale. Occasionally observing something bizarre, something comic, something remarkable. [For example, every now and then I'd notice a few women sitting together, on their haunches, in the space bordering two fields. And as we came closer they'd flip their saris over their heads. It took me a while to realise what they were doing. And why modesty demanded they cover their faces. Even though they were far far away.]

Journeys.

As a child I was very privileged to enjoy and savour the journey for itself and not just the getting somewhere that happened as a result of the journey.

We’d go drop our father off at the club or the golf course, and sing during the journey. Savour every bump in the road, particularly the “dink”, a very large dip near the entrance to the golf club.

We’d volunteer to meet anyone coming in by rail, and go to the station to meet them. Even if it meant there was no space for them in the car, and a second car or taxi had to be arranged.

We rarely flew in those days. And people rarely flew to see us. So trips to the airport were rare. But we would go to the airport. As an outing. Even if no one was coming or going. Just so that we went on a trip.

Yes, we enjoyed journeys. Traffic jams never bothered us. Time was of no consequence. Journeys were there to be savoured. And savour them we did.

This journey-versus-destination construct was part and parcel of our schooling as well. Destinations, especially repeat destinations, were boring. Journeys fascinated us. There was something different about each journey, even if it led to the same place. If someone solved a maths question, the answer was irrelevant. It was all about the journey to the answer. How did you do that? Show me!

As we proceed towards becoming true learning organisations, we’re all going to have to learn how to focus on the journey and not just the destination. Peter Senge signalled intent a couple of decades ago, but the world of work has changed dramatically since then. Collaborative tools are considerably better now that we’re all connected and using cloud-based services; our ability to share, to aggregate our learning using collective intelligence tools, to apply that learning iteratively, all these have improved in leaps and bounds. The need for collaboration has never been greater, as we face new problems; some have to do with speed; some with complexity; some with hyperconnectivity.

People like Howard Rheingold and Tom Malone and John Hagel and John Seely Brown have been working on this for decades, the shift to a networked iterative collaborative organisation, borderless in comparison with the past, adaptive and learning and contextually aware, built around flows rather than stocks, able to operate with collective intelligence, connected with customers, partners, supply and distribution chains.

So expect a few more posts as I dig into the theme of journeys rather than destinations. Journeys are flows. Destinations are stocks.

Posted in Four pillars .


Thrill me to the marrow

People have often asked me if I have a “favourite” album, despite knowing that I am deeply inured in the music of the Sixties and early Seventies. I do. More than one. It all depends on the mood I’m in. The Doors’ LA Woman is definitely up there. As is the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, along with Revolver. The Grateful Dead show up at least twice, with American Beauty and Blues for Allah. John Mayall’s The Turning Point raises the stakes in a different direction, as does Traffic’s The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman fights its corner, and In The Wind from Peter, Paul and Mary is an unlikely contender. The Doobie Brothers won’t be denied with What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits. Dylan shows up a few times with Desire and Freewheelin’ and Blonde On Blonde; Simon and Garfunkel with Bridge Over Troubled Water and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme put in a strong showing. Jim Croce is unforgettable with You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, as is Carole King with Tapestry, James Taylor with Mud Slide Slim and Joni Mitchell with Blue.

 

The Band’s eponymous album has to be there, as does Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Jethro Tull hop their way in, one-legged, with Aqualung if not Thick as A Brick as well. Led Zeppelin won’t be denied with 3. Cream’s Disraeli Gears has to be counted. Leonard Cohen walks in whenever he feels like with Songs From a Room and Songs of Love and Hate. Steely Dan can be chosen multiple times, though I’d probably go for Can’t Buy a Thrill over Aja, just. America’s first is amazing. Stevie Wonder can be counted for many albums but he must be in there with Innervisions. The Allman Brothers have multiple possibilities as well, Brothers and Sisters edging it for me. Van Morrison has to be somewhere in the mix, Moondance probably swings it. Janis Joplin has to be in the mix with Pearl. Hendrix can’t be left out, with Electric Ladyland. ELP and Yes are hard to fit in despite having strong contenders. Supergroup albums like Blind Faith’s eponymous first and Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills with Super Session are impossible to ignore. Live compilations are difficult to deal with, especially when you come across superb examples like Woodstock or The Last Waltz. Outliers like Fotheringay, Fog On The Tyne, and the superbly unusual collection of people on On the Road To Freedom.

But if I really had to try, the battle would be between Neil Young’s Harvest, the Who’s Who’s Next and Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s Four Way Street. And I’ve probably left fifty other great albums out. A hard, hard call. [And I would have given it to Four Way Street except for one thing I've never been able to understand. More of that later].

I wish people would ask me instead if I had a favourite song. That one I can answer, straightaway, unambiguously, with full conviction.

Yes, I have a favourite song.

It’s getting to the point
Where I’m no fun anymore
I am sorry
Sometimes it hurts so badly
I must cry out loud
I am lonely
I am yours, you are mine
You are what you are
And you make it hard.

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Stephen Stills) performed by Crosby, Stills and Nash

It’s not just any song.  I’ve been in love with it ever since I first heard it, for a variety of reasons. The words. The music. The melody. The changes in tempo. What the song is about. The harmony. The harmony. And the harmony. You get my drift.

I’ve had the privilege of hearing it “live” a handful of times now, and hope to extend that sequence as long as possible. It’s an incredible song. Sometime yesterday, I was reminded of it when Judy Collins shared the photograph below, a contemporary one of her with Stephen Stills. He wrote the song about her and about the end of his relationship with her, “Judy Blue Eyes”. You can see why she gets called that.

 

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That got me poring into the web, looking for an early shot of the two of them together. The best I could find was this one, but it doesn’t do her eyes justice:

 

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Maybe this one gives you a better sense of why:

 

 

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It’s a truly amazing song. Three separate songs rolled into one, carrying on where the Beatles’ A Day In The Life left off. It was the first-ever song recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash; they started their set at Woodstock with it. Fifteen years later they were still going strong with it at Live Aid. Sound On Sound has a beautiful article about how the song was recorded, seen through the eyes of the incredibly talented Bill Halverson. Ultimate Classic Rock has it as No 30, with a decent write-up. Rolling Stone covers it in their Song Stories. Time Magazine could not leave it out of their All-Time 100 songs either. Over the years, I’ve read so many reviews of the song, by other songwriters, by other musicians, by sound engineers, by poets and lyricists, it’s always up there.

Which reminds me. The song is conspicuous in its absence on Four Way Street: the snatch at the end alone just doesn’t do it justice. Which is one of the reasons why I couldn’t put that album down as my Number One.

I have no such problem when it comes to choosing a song.

My thanks to Stephen Stills for writing it, and to all who’ve been involved in giving him the reason to write it, play it, share it with us.

It continues to Thrill Me to The Marrow.

 

Posted in Four pillars .


From saving to spending: getting hooked on the new LSD

From 1966 to 1969 I used to take the bus to school. It looked a bit like this, except it was in grey and it still worked. Just about. It would take us an hour to cover three miles or so.