Monday, 24 August 2015

Keeping it simple

Today, I was reminded that, just because a problem is complicated, its solution doesn't have to be.

I have a very expensive MacPro, which I use for video editing, animating etc. Some months ago it started behaving strangely. The fan would power up and make so much noise that it sounded as though the computer was actually trying to take off! Shortly after this, the computer would crash and I would lose any unsaved work.

Needless to say, this is very frustrating and it's been costing me money.

I have spent hours since then, reading blogs, scouring forums and tech support pages trying to find out what the problem is and how to fix it. Suggestions have ranged from deleting everything on the system and re-installing (took over a day and achieved nothing) to updating the system software (achieved nothing) to gradually removing memory chips to see if that resolved the problem - it didn't!

In the meantime I am having to use my second system, which is way slower and very frustrating to use while my lovely MacPro sits there looking pretty but about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Finally, this morning, I came across a post on an Indian website in which the author described a very similar problem to mine, which he solved by removing his graphics card, taking off the cover and hoovering the dust out of the fan housing with his mum's vacuum cleaner.

I swallowed my pride and my skepticism and did the same thing - except that I used my own vacuum cleaner; not my mum's, of course.

Five minutes later, my system is running perfectly and I can use it without wearing earplugs again.

It is surprising how often starting simple and gradually getting more complicated works better than the other way round

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Why most New Year's resolutions fail

This year, my daughters and I saw in the New Year,  sitting on a hilltop watching dozens of firework displays light up the horizon.

It was an exhilarating, uplifting experience and I was overwhelmed by joy and excitement.

There is something powerful - mystical even - about staring into the night sky as its canopy of stars is temporarily eclipsed by the streaks and flashes of the pyrotechnic displays.

Add to that the incredible symbolism of the passing of one year and the birth of a new one and it is probably not surprising that I started to think about the future and what it might bring.

Last year was pretty good actually, especially the second half and, for the most part, I really enjoyed it. But, I am still carrying hopes and ambitions that were not fulfilled last year and now I have one less year in which to make them happen.

So, this would be the time to load "Auld Lang Syne" into iTunes, dig out pen and paper, and get writing a New Year's resolution or two, right?

Well, No, actually.

You see, most New Years resolutions never come to pass and the more promises we make to ourselves, and fail to keep, the less confidence we have in ourselves and the more passive we become.

I think it's a great idea to start the new year with some resolutions for the future. The problem is that most of the promises we make to ourselves are too vague, too ambitious and under-resourced.

So, here are my tips for making resolutions that will actually work:

Start Small

Whenever we complete a task, our bodies release serotonin - the feel-good chemical that enables us to maintain a positive mood. Conversely, working for long periods of time without success undermines our mood very quickly.
By setting modest goals, and then achieving them, we end up feeling better and are far more likely to tackle our next goal - and with a more positive mindset.
So, rather than setting out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, or attempting to lose 20% of your body mass, why not lower your sights a little and aim for a half-marathon or 1 Kilo weight loss.
As your confidence grows, you can always set more aggressive targets later.

Make It Measurable

A goal that cannot be measured is really just a pipe-dream.

"Lose weight" is not a goal, "Be happy" is not a goal, "Spend more time with my kids" is not a goal. All of them are just wishful thinking and will probably never happen.

You see, we need to be able to track progress if we are going to maintain our drive and our ambition to make changes.

So, "lose 1 Kilo in the next 4 weeks" is a measurable goal and you will probably achieve it - because you can measure progress. 

The first time you stand on the scales and see that you have lost 250 Grams, you get that little shot of Serotonin and you start to get excited and determined about losing the next 250 Grams. and so on and so on.

Allocate Resources

It is easy to tell what someone's true priorities are. You just need to see their diary and their bank statement. We automatically spend our time and our money on the things that really matter to us.

So, if you are going to set a goal for this year, the first thing you should ask yourself is:

"how much time and how much money am I willing or able to spend on this?"

Of course, these days, time is the most precious commodity and therefore it is the one we may need to think about the most carefully.

So here is my New Years challenge for you:

Set yourself a budget you can easily afford - lets say 15 minutes and £1 per week. Then ask yourself how can I change something that I really care about without exceeding this budget?

Then ask yourself "How will I be able to measure and track progress?"

Make yourself accountable

Telling somebody else about the promises you have made to yourself makes it way more likely that you will keep those promises.

Choose carefully and make sure it is someone who you trust and someone who wants you to succeed.

They can cheer you on when you start to flag and they can help you measure your progress. They may even have to challenge you if you start to lose interest but you will be many, many times more likely to succeed with them than you are without them.

So, give it a go and let me know how you get on, in the comment section below.

Happy New Year

Monday, 26 August 2013

The surprising joy of progress

Years ago, my grandfather introduced my brother, my sister and me to the joyous pastime of stream damming.

The North-West of England, where I grew up is particularly well-endowed with shallow, stony-bedded streams, which are ideal for damming and, over the years, we spent many holiday afternoons building walls of river stones.

This year, in the Lake District, I introduced my two girls to this ancient pastime.

They were instantly hooked and spent the rest of that afternoon trying to dam up the stream you can see in the picture above.

It is a curiously addictive occupation but at the same time, it is almost completely futile - the river always wins! - and yet, as my daughters were discovering, the urge to try is irresistible.

Once I had shown them the basic technique of piling up big stones and then filling in the gaps between them with smaller stones, I left them to it and found a comfortable spot on the stream bank to spectate from.

As I watched them laughing and splashing - up to their knees in cold mountain water - I started to wonder just what it is that makes damming up streams so enjoyable.

A few minutes later I was summoned to the dam to view the progress - "Daddy, look how much deeper the pool is now."

The evidence was clear. The pool behind the dam had risen to the point where trousers were having to be hitched up to keep them out of the water.

This was the measure of success - rising water level.

None of us were bothered that we had not stopped the stream completely. Nor did we care that our dam was unlikely to survive the first heavy rains of the winter. All that mattered was that something had changed because of what we had done and that was enough to keep us there for hours.

Of course, it didn't hurt that we were on holiday and that we were out in the sunshine, surrounded by beautiful scenery but still, it was a great reminder of just how motivating a sense of progress can be.

I thought some more about this on the drive back to our caravan.

I am quite a goal-driven person and I really enjoy making things happen and getting things done. I get a huge sense of satisfaction when I complete a big project or achieve a long-term goal.

However, the downside of constantly focussing on outcomes and achievement is that, on most days, there isn't a completed project or  fulfilled goal to celebrate. Obviously, the desire to get to the point where there is something to celebrate is one of the main components of motivation but there is a delicate balance between drive and frustration .

If I allow myself to become excessively focussed on the final result I am likely to slide towards frustration and de-motivation, especially when the end seems too far away or the outcome is uncertain.

This is the point at which the art of cultivating a sense of progress can make all the difference.

Learning to celebrate small achievements can keep us energised and determined as we plod towards the victories and successes that give us a sense of progress and satisfaction. It really doesn't matter what those small achievements are but, just as my daughters summoned me regularly to measure the depth of the pool they were creating, it is important that we have some measure of progress.

That might be choosing the wall paper for a room we are about to decorate, completing a chapter of the book we are writing, choosing the theme for the presentation we are making, reaching the half-way point in the report we are writing or surviving the first 5 minutes of a Zumba class.

Once we have measured progress we need to recognise and celebrate it.

Telling someone else is probably the most common way to mark an achievement but finding what works for you is the key.

Crossing something off your "to do" list, printing out your newly-written chapter or FaceBooking photos of your partly-painted lounge can all help you tap in to the surprisingly motivating joy of progress.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Feeling small makes me creative

This blog is a riff on the theme of a recent blog by Seth Godin. You can find his post using the link at the end of this post. 

It was a very short comment but, as I read it, I had an instant flashback to a trip I made some years ago to Yosemite National Park in California.

Driving into the valley I saw a sheer rock face rising up almost 900 metres from the bed of a river.

It was a breath-taking sight, which exerted a kind of gravitational pull on me. I just started driving towards it until I was able to park close by and walk to the foot of it.

I have always found mountains inspiring but this one was in a league of its own. 

El Capitan dispenses with the niceties of foothills, slopes, hidden peaks etc. and just stands there; brutal, monolithic and perpendicular.

Looking up this monumental cliff with my head tilted as far back as it would go, I had a sense of being incredibly small, in a way that you can only know when you are standing next to something massive. And you know what – it felt really good.

For me, it was a deeply spiritual experience.

As in any genuine spiritual experience, I was forced off the throne at the centre of my world and made to view myself, and my world, from a completely different perspective.

And then the ideas began to flow. It was almost as though the shift in perspective had unstopped a channel in my brain and a profusion of ideas came cascading into my consciousness.

Original Photo: Mike Murphy
I think there is some kind of a principle in creation that the smaller I feel outside my head, the bigger the ideas that flow inside it.

I wonder if it is this sense of smallness that quietens down my ego and, in doing so, makes all the assumptions and paradigms that are associated with it a bit less dominant. And maybe, this allows the quiet thoughts and partial ideas that are floating around my right brain to surface and be recognised.

For this to work though, I think it is very important that the thing making me feel small does not have an ego of its own.

If it was a person, I know my fighting instincts would kick in and it would quickly descend into a contest of wills. But how can you argue with almost a Kilometre of rock!

It is not trying to make me feel small. It just does, because it is undeniably bigger, more impressive, more splendid than me. To paraphrase Mario Puzo's famous line: "It's nothing personal, just bigness."

To me, that is the golden key to inspired creativity – I need to feel small but not diminished.

Seth's post is here: 

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Childish tales from beyond the corpus callosum

Liberating your right brain through improvised story telling

© 2013 Mark Buchanan

Let me begin by saying that I have no connection whatsoever with Rory's Story Cubes  - the makers of the dice in the photo above - other than the fact that I bought their product.

You can find out more about them at:

Anyway, more about the story cubes later...

I have two beautiful daughters who, for most of their lives, have lived 500 miles away from me in another country. 

Since they were tiny, we have chatted every couple of days, wherever I am in the world. Initially we used to chat on the phone but for the last 5 or 6 years we have been talking on iChat.

Over the years, we have built up our own little rituals and routines and one of our favourites is to tell stories.

At the beginning , this was just an extension of our bedtime routine where I would read them a story from one of their favourite books. But, as they have got older and technology has become more sophisticated, we have started to explore more creative ways of making and telling stories.

Sometimes, we do line-by-line story making. One of us will type a line in to the chat window of iChat finishing the sentence with a branching word like "so" or "but" or "then".

The other person writes a line that picks up from that branching word, moves the story along a little bit and then finishes with another branching word.

We carry on like that until we either get bored or we have scripted ourselves into a literary blind alley. Of course, all stories have to have an ending and so our final lines are often our most creative (not to mention our most bizarre) as we attempt to tie all the loose threads together. One of my particular favourites came not so long ago:

"and so the horse ate the rose, which made him belch, and the force of his breath blew the leaves off the raspberry bush and there was the king's ring lying on the soil."

At other times, we take it in turns to choose a name, an object and a colour (or sometimes a place) and then one of us has to make up a story that incorporates all those things.

In the background we have had a long-running, episodic story going for quite a few years now.

it has a core cast of characters - the beautiful Princess Daisy and her husband - Prince Charming, two stupid villains - Larius and Noodle (actually the central characters of our stories), Princess Daisy's father - an eastern silk merchant called Gerald and a magical sunflower that glows in the dark.

Our Larius and Noodle stories (as we call them) have roamed the planet, moved freely back and forth through time and have often embraced elements from different eras and places at the same time.

We freely borrow, and then modify, themes and ideas from children's literature, current affairs and our own lives and adventures. Often we will find ourselves repeating and refining themes or story lines we have enjoyed in previous sessions.

Sometimes we come up with fantastic stories with a beginning a middle and an end but, most of the time what we produce is,  frankly, bonkers! Definitely not for consumption by others.

Needless to say, none of our stories have ever been published!

And you know what? we don't care. We are not trying to please anyone but ourselves. We don't have to follow any literary conventions and the only judges of quality are my two daughters and me.

I am the one that usually instigates them but, the truth is that my daughters are the creative engine of our storytelling sessions. Their childish lack of inhibition sets their creativity free to fly on the iridescent, gossamer wings of absurdity, adventure and wilful optimism. 

In the face of this gleeful anarchy I find the strength to disobey my "grown-up" inhibitions and fly off with them into their crayon-coloured world of infinite possibilities.

Now, whilst we are busy explaining how a pink-and-green-striped fish joined a turtle with a cracked shell to rescue a young girl's dog from an evil shark, something magical is happening inside our brains...

We are engaging in the story-telling equivalent of improvisational jazz.

We start with something known and conventional (supervised by our left brain) and then we take it off in a direction and style that is uniquely our own (aided and abetted by our right brain).

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have been studying brain activity in Jazz musicians as they improvise and they have discovered two important activity patterns in their brains.

Firstly there is a decrease in activity in a part of the brain know as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (pink). This is the part of the brain associated with planned actions and self-censorship. IE it is the brain centre from which we control our behaviour to fit in with social norms; what we could term our personal brand management HQ.

Whilst this is happening there is a corresponding increase in activity in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex (green), which sits in the centre of the brain’s frontal lobe. This part of the brain is closely associated with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story about yourself.

I am sure that something very similar is going on during my story making sessions with my daugters.

Their sense of need to modify their behaviour to fit in with norms and niceties is far less developed than mine. Their ability to express themselves without fear of ridicule or rejection is, consequently, much more liberated than mine.

Curiously, when I am with them, I am much more self-expressive and liberated than I am in adult company. It is as though they give me permission to abandon "grown-up" rules and join in their game.

I have started to use story telling as a way to help some of my training groups exercise their right-brained creativity. This is where the story cubes I referenced at the beginning of this post have been so useful.

Taking it in turns, we roll the dice and each person selects 3 or 5 of them (depending on group size.) The aim is to link the pictograms on our selected dice into a story. In jazz terms this is the pattern of notes on which we are going to improvise.

We then set our right brains free to come up with whatever story-line connections between the images on the dice they want to. The more outlandish the better!

People are a little embarrassed at first but the more playful we make the atmosphere, the quicker those inhibitions disappear. 

As the game continues, people start to loosen up and think less before they tell their story; gaining confidence that their right brain will come up with something interesting as they relax their inhibitions and let their right brain go where it wants to. 

This makes a great prelude to innovation, brain storming or blue sky sessions.

Injecting our product or service into the game, alongside the random pictograms on our dice, is a brilliant way to come up with story lines or marketing copy.

When the right opportunity arises, I would like to try bringing some kids into those sessions and see what impact they have on the creative outputs.

I suspect it will be substantial.

You can find out more about the Johns Hopkins research into improvisation at the other end of this link: 

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Looking differently at familiar things

© 2012 Mark Buchanan

One of the paradoxes of human behaviour is that, the more familiar we become with things (or people) the less we notice them. We stop exploring and our understanding of them starts to fossilise. 

Deep down, we long for novelty and surprises but, at the same time, we crave the confidence and safety that come with familiarity.

Perhaps there is a way to provoke surprise and delight from the familiar, by finding a new way of looking at it.

We can do this literally, as I have done with the photo at the top of this page. 

It is a view of the centre of my hometown (Chester, in the UK), which has been photographed literally hundreds of thousands of times before.

Tourists love it but, to those of us who live here, it has long since faded into the background. We just don't notice it any more.

I found it fascinating, however, how much interest and conversation it provoked when I photoshopped this picture into a planet panorama.

The "strangeness" of the image made us all examine it in a new way and, as a result, new details caught our attention.

Of course, you don't have to go as extreme as a planet panorama if you don't want to. 

You could swap the picture you carry of your loved one(s) for a picture of just their eyes, or their hands and see how that makes you feel about them.

If you have a favourite photo as your computer (or mobile phone) wallpaper, try rotating it through 90 degrees and see if something new strikes you about it.

There are, also, some less literal ways we could apply this approach.

The next time you are having a product innovation meeting, why not start by asking your team members to list 5 things they hate about your product or service.

Or, list 3 things your competitors do better than you.

On a personal note, what is the one thing you would absolutely not want to have written on your tombstone?

That's an easy one for me - "He was predictable."

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

High Dynamic Range Thinking

This is a view of handbridge in the beautiful, Roman city of Chester in the North-West of England, where I live.

I was staring out of my window yesterday afternoon and I saw the low, winter sunshine start to break through the storm clouds so, I grabbed my camera, dashed out of my office to this spot and started shooting.

I used a special technique  to produce a rich and vivid picture and, as I was clicking away, it occurred to me that the same principle can be applied to our thinking, to generate richer ideas, which will generate more beautiful results.

The technique is called "High Dynamic Range" whereby I set my camera to take 3 shots in quick succession - one under-exposed one "correctly" exposed,  and one over-exposed, which are then combined to produce the finished photograph.

You can see the 3 pictures below:

The middle shot is the one the camera thinks is "correct" and it is certainly a really nice picture. However it lacks the richness and texture of the picture at the top of this blog.

Unlike the human eye - the greatest optical masterpiece on the planet - the camera's sensor cannot expose the rich depths of the shadows AND the sparkling details in the highlights at the same time. 

So, it averages them out - losing detail from both ends of the dynamic range - and the result is, well, average!

If I am honest, a lot of my thinking can be pretty average, especially when I am under pressure. I just don't take the time to explore the full dynamic range of my ideas. 

I get results and they're are often good ones - but they're not great.

And then there is the brain bias issue to deal with.

The right-brainers amongst us will have a natural tendency to over-expose. It's all about bringing out the unseen details in the shadows - at the expense of the more obvious highlights.

The left-brained community will tend to under-expose, carefully preserving all the obvious highlights but losing the shadowy details in the process.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography achieves its rich, textured results by combining the under and over exposed shots with the correctly exposed one. It takes the highlights from the under exposed shot and the shadows from the over exposed shot and blends them into the correctly exposed shot, so increasing the dynamic range.

High Dynamic Range thinking works in a similar way. 

We take our initial thoughts and then deliberately push our thinking. First to the left to capture EVERYTHING we know on this subject, and then to the right to release our creativity and imagination to explore hidden possibilities and trigger new ideas.

Just as in photography, the results will be more beautiful, more textured, richer and more satisfying