Letter to my children

About twenty years ago my mother died of a Cerebral Haemorrhage. No warning, no planning no goodbyes. About ten years ago my father died of lung cancer, this was a long lingering farewell. Though both events were incredibly sad, the hole left by someone dying suddenly is difficult to fill in a way that is impossible to explain and beyond compare.

Shortly after the death of my mother I put pen to paper and wrote a letter to each of my two sons. The letter was my farewell, though I had no intention of going anywhere. It was really difficult to write and I cried several times as I scratched my way over the keyboard in my three finger typing style.

The letters contained messages of love and friendship and my dreams for each of them and a few short stories about them growing up. They included short stories of when they made me particularly proud and some advice for each of them.

My two boys are completely different, both beautiful caring strong sensitive young men with their difference best summed up by saying one of them gets anxious if he doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring and the other is always seeking something different for tomorrow. The letter writing gave me a sense of comfort knowing that if I were to bid a hasty departure from this life, my boys would have some conduit to their father. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next though.

Having taken the time to think about what I most wanted to say to each of them and what I felt was most important not to leave unsaid, (and they are two different things) I then began to act differently. Not hugely differently. Not so the family thought I had met-my-maker-in-a-stroke-or-heart-attack kind of a way. But differently none the less. I was more thoughtful, less reactive and much quieter. I began to be much more chilled out about them and their future. Which was nice for me and I’m sure was much more enjoyable for them too.

After all, as I said in my letter to them, above all else I wanted them to know the luxury of having been unconditionally loved by someone and to feel happiness. Neither of these things will be more likely to happen by me fussing about it.

Little did I know at the time that this correspondence would be the precursor for my business some fifteen years later. The Life Log Project helps people do this in a modern way using high quality audio recording. Of course the log can be used for lots of other things too. I have produced logs for people who wanted their families to know things after they had died, to explain divorces, to explain choices, to shine a light on an event or just to supply a delightful back story for the sake of posterity.

What I have noticed is the effect is has on people after they have committed to recording their inner most thoughts. They start to live them

Michael www.thelifelogproject.com.au

SCRUM

I don’t know about you but I like to watch movies and documentaries that make me think. Sure I like to switch my brain off from time to time and just be entertained too, but lets face it you don’t have to work too hard to find that sort of movie.

Last night I had the great fortune to watch a new short film, Scrum by Poppy Stockell. As an avid sports nut, a movie about rugby had me a little worried, as I have yet to see a film that truly paints the picture of the game. In most cases the action looks contrived and stilted at best.

The film centres around the Sydney Convicts, a gay rugby club competing in the Bingham Cup. The cup was named after a team member that actually tackled one of the terrorists onboard a plane in the 9/11 disaster, who subsequently died anyway.

The film is really about selection, and the emotional complexity of being part of a team. The three central characters in spite of their sexuality could barely be more diverse. I can imagine a lot of people will find the movie quite challenging but the gentle humour sprinkled throughout turns a complex subject matter into compelling viewing.

Without giving anything away, there is a scene between the coach and one of his big burley players that is quite beautiful.

Being part of a team comes with responsibilities that are sometimes difficult to live up to. Rugby is no different to almost every team sport in that regard. However, add to that the complexity of men that have regularly been snubbed and not allowed to join or participate whole heartedly in team sport because of who they are, and the game is changed entirely.

Scrum was a delightful 50 minutes that I feel sure will start a lot of conversations. Poppy Stockell has managed to film rugby without making it look silly which apparently is not easy if history is any guide, and has captured beautifully so many of the issues that make effective team building such a wonderfully complicated art/science.

Gee I hope the people who need to see this short film will get the opportunity or will take the opportunity to watch it.

You could be a dick

Twice a year we award worthy Australians with Medals. I get excited on both Australia Day and the Queens Birthday weekend in anticipation of reading the lists. As someone who has spent so much time recording stories and interviewing people it will not be any shock to you that it is the stories behind the awards that I like the most.

This year we have a cracker. The wonderful Dick Smith was awarded the country’s top honour and his is a lovely story, that should resonate with an entire generation.

Mr Smith is an achiever. The Americans would probably call him a winner. From humble beginnings he toiled to eventual business success and now seems to spend his time giving his money to people who need it more than he does.

The part of his story that should have ears burning everywhere, is his schooling. Marked 45th of 47 students in his year, he went through the apprenticeship route rather than to University. Many a young person is led to believe that if you haven’t made your mark academically by 12 or 13 you are up against it in the success stakes.

Dick Smith would have everyone know that he was not good at school but pretty good at business, leadership, learning and (in my opinion) being a good bloke. Personally I find it interesting that school failed to provide him the opportunity to shine. Though it doesn’t surprise me. The point though is that he didn’t let a thing like academics get in the way of success.

I am not teacher bashing either, some of my favourite people are teachers so this is not about teaching standards or anything like that. It is important for young people to know that the bumps and scuffs that almost inevitably occur during a young persons schooling are not an excuse to give up. In fact they should be providing the motivation to dig a little deeper and work a little harder. Dick Smith’s story shows there is more than one way to skin a cat. We need to be creative in the way we look at success, the way we approach hurdles and the methods we use to shine the light on the big world. Thank you Dick.

People are just so interesting

I grew up in a normal family, in a normal house surrounded by normal stuff. Probably just as you think you did. Though nothing about my upbringing was super sensational, in truth, it was definitely different to yours and about one million miles away from my kids upbringing.

That’s what I find when I interview people. They have all led the most interesting lives. Some of them have been singularly motivated by their lifelong battle with their anxieties. Others that I have met peaked in high school and have spent the rest of their lives trying to readjust. Some met the love of their life in primary school, and others are still searching.

Some people I have met have been moulded by events or in some cases a single cataclysmic event. Some have been cast by a life without event. Some people spend their life struggling while others march through without a glance to the left or right. Some are devout, which I find really interesting and others can’t spell the word.

While some people I have interviewed blame their parents, I have met plenty that realise they were given an unfair advantage by their folks. Obviously some of that is just perception and some of it is real. Some interviews make me feel sad and others are uplifting but they are always amazing because people are amazing.

Internationally renowned behavioural strategist (I think I just made that title up) and best-selling author Tony Robbins said “Life is not about weathering storms it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” The metaphor echoed in my head for days. At the risk of labouring it, it seems to me that some people spend their life planning for the rain, some spend their lives weighing up the cost of that last big wet and some others just want to buy the best all-weather gear.
There is an American sales icon by the name of Charles ‘Tremendous’ Jones that is attributed with one of my all time favourite quotes “wisdom comes from the people you meet and the books you read”. I might be a long way from distilling any wisdom, but I am reading as much and meeting as many people as I can.

The grumpy old man was me

A few years ago now, in the middle of what up to then had been a very ordinary day, my bride tugged at my shirt sleeve and asked me why I was always so negative. It was a complete game changer. In that moment I realised I had become the very thing I most passionately did not want to become. I was a grumpy old man.

It instantly gave me heart palpitations and a general sense of unease that quite quickly turned into anxiety bordering on panic. What have I done? What have I become? It instantly dragged me back to the same feeling I had, when as a fifteen year old I saw the girl of my dreams kissing my friend. Completely gut wrenching. A stock take was needed instantly.

It only took a few minutes to realise that in the last week, just about everything I had said about the outside world was a criticism. I held up everything to my judgement. The news, politicians, journos, drug traffickers, teachers, bosses, world leaders, neighbours, pop stars and pretty much anything that came into my view. While there may not be too much wrong with that per se, I was only seeing the bad, the imperfect, the fault, the weakness or frailty in them all. Worse than that though I was saying it out loud.

It was time I had a good long look at myself.

It took months of self-examination and introspection to realise that it was a defence mechanism. Not a good one mind you. Because of the work I was doing back then, I was constantly required to stand up and take a position on things, say things and write things from within a very small world that was full of negative, grumpy old men. As a result, I copped a fair bit of criticism for everything from my haircut to my politics. My way of dealing with that criticism was to belittle the source. Which quite quickly developed into a hair-trigger response to everything in the world. I had let that mechanism take me over like one of those jungle vines you see that slowly covers and eventually strangles the life out of a once solid tree.

Frankly, being negative is easy. The newspapers have been teaching that for as long as we have been able to read them. Particularly in Australia where the Tall Poppy syndrome is inculcated into our culture. We are taught to be suspicious, look at people with caution if not derision, question the status quo which only supports the negativity of course. I am not blaming anyone else here by the way, least of all journos that are only out there making a living, taking on that behaviour was all my own stupid doing.

Breaking that behaviour pattern is tough. Recovery is a rocky road. The good news is I had not always been like that. In fact many people through my other jobs had highlighted my positive can-do attitude as a signature ethos. So surely with a few hints, a bit of support and a bit of a game plan, I could undo the hair-trigger and get back to being a cheery nice guy.

My bride had already rung the alarm bells. It is simply not nice to be around negativity all the time and particularly not at such close quarters. I was pretty determined to change and pretty motivated to make the change a lasting one.

The first step was to take some action, not just thinking, but some physical action so I determined to go for a walk by myself each morning and fill that walk with good thinking. I discouraged my bride from coming along (as politely as I could) so that I could devote the walk to better, clearer more positive thinking. I promised myself I would not spend the time gritting my teeth with anxiety or letting negative thoughts into my head. It didn’t always work, but over time as I caught myself getting dark, I tried to work my way through the feeling in a bid to pop out the other side.

Walking really helps. I would get home and do a few quick weights as a way of signing off on that part of the day and I find that bit of exercise combined with good thinking makes a huge difference. On the walk I try to remind myself of things I am grateful about. My bride, my home, my friends, my lifestyle, my wonderful children, my music, my writing, all sorts of stuff that I was pretty happy with. Occasionally I would try to find solutions to things that were worrying me, but often I found that to be a gateway into doom and anger. I try to think of things I could build or people I could support rather than things that were not fair or people who had been cruel or rude.

My walks are still a source of therapy that I need to do. I don’t do it every morning but I know I should. Finding just 30 minutes to go for a walk and get my head straight makes such a big difference to the people around me that I should be thinking of it as a gift to myself. As you can see it is still a work in progress, Even at 55 I am still a work in progress and that’s fine by me.

Pump up that puppy

One of my favourite short business sayings comes not from an American business leader or a President or wartime Prime Minister but from a waitress in Denny’s in Hawaii. My bride and I were on holidays there and we had ordered something from the menu out of curiosity and when we tasted it we curled up our noses at the blandness of it. The waitress leaned on the counter next to us and in her wonderfully rich American accent, said ” you’ve got to pump up that puppy” meaning add taste, and pushed a rack of condiments across the counter to us.
That lovely expression has resonated with me for years. How many businesses do you walk into that need to “pump up that puppy”? Recently I was in country NSW at one of the regional hubs and had breakfast at a cafe chosen purely because it was the first one open. It called itself something green and fair and rootsy, perhaps even organic but upon entering, it looked more like an ex ice cream shop. Bad lighting, bad furniture, bad decorating. It had bags of garlic hanging under the front counter that looked more like chewing gum stuck under a desk than it did an homage to rootsy back to earthiness. The quote came instantly to mind. You’ve got to pump up that puppy!
The coffee was great, or at least one of them was, you see, in spite of me being the only person in the place, two different people made my two coffees. Who is the best coffee maker? They should be making the coffee! Pump up that puppy by having clear roles and playing to your strengths.
The paleo pancakes read much like the French toast on the menu so I asked barista No1. which was better. He said he preferred the pancakes so I went with that. Once I had eaten them, that was the perfect time to engage with me by asking if I had enjoyed them. Pump up that puppy by engaging with your clients. Pump up that puppy by seeking feedback.
I understand that there is an inherent risk in asking for feedback, it can be scary. But here is your only customer and he has asked for your personal advice, followed your recommendation and you fail to follow-up? That is just a wasted opportunity.
The breakfast btw was sensational. The plate looked like something from the nineties which was disappointing all swirls and wisps, but I could not fault the texture or taste. Here was a business that really needed to pump up the puppy.

I wanted to give them feedback but I went to Facebook and couldn’t find them. Surely a new business is going to have a Facebook presence aren’t they? They should! Pump up that puppy by connecting with the local eaters and coffee drinkers, letting everyone know how early they open and what great food they serve.
I wonder if they will be there when I next return? Almost certainly not if they fail to pump up that puppy!

5 Books that changed my life

5 Books that changed my life
Books and I have had a strained relationship for as long as I can remember. My older sister was an avid reader as we were all growing up, and I laid the blame for all her wacky behaviour on books, and the effect they had on her by removing her from the real world. I was quite determined that I was not going to go down the same path, so studiously avoided reading for as long as I possibly could.

In fact it was not until I was married and well into my twenties that I read my first book, cover to cover. I had started many books of course, some of them compulsorily for school, but had lost interest pretty quickly, and almost always long before the section in my right hand was smaller than the bit in my left. I was able to reconcile that by repeating the mantra that “I was about living, not reading how someone else lived.” Which for the most part worked pretty effectively.

That all changed when at 26 I was given a book for Christmas by a family friend and as much to escape the misery of the recent death of my wonderful father in law, as any other good literary reason, opened it up with the intent of getting lost or being devoured.

I am sure Bryce Courtenay could not have imagined how that one book would change the course of a life so profoundly. It did take me an eternity to read it, as my reading skills were just appalling back then. Not quite the finger across the page but not far from it either. ‘The Power of One” screamed at me from every page. it felt like Mr Courtenay was writing just for me. It was quite magical and opened doors and lit pathways, I could never have imagined were possible.

The second book is not a book at all, but rather a short story. Ray Bradbury is a prolific american writer, most famous for “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles” but so much of the brilliant work he produced had nothing to do with Science Fiction at all. “Hail and farewell” is an astonishing short story that got me thinking for the first time in a voice other than the first person. In a few short pages he was able to turn my focus inside out and gave me the chance to see a whole new way of looking at the world.

The Little Prince is one of those classics that I come back to every few years when life gets confusing. It has some wonderful guiding principles that have consistently resonated with me.

The last two powerful books are both non fiction and they resonate with me for different reasons. “Any given Team” is a wonderful treatise on how to make teams work at their best. If you have never been a part of a team, either a work team or a sports team, you have my sympathy. Team environments are extraordinarily dynamic, exciting and powerful. The very nature of working closely with people means that the forces at work are more art than science and more craft than technology and I am perfectly comfortable with that.

For anyone that is confounded by teams and the people in them, Ray McLean has developed a really down to earth, incredibly simple way of making them work better. Like all the best ideas, simple doesn’t mean easy. In fact in this case, simple can be too hard for some people. Which is one of the reasons I love this book so much.

Finally, Bounce by Matthew Syed was one of the books that made sense of a lot of disparate information, trends, observations and statistics. One of my great loves is sport, and this book laid the pathway to my better understanding of the subject. I don’t expect it will change everyone’s life. In fact if I had not been working in the field at the time it may have simply interested me rather than send bells going off all around me for weeks.

I have never been a believer in the “You can do anything you set your mind to” philosophy or view of the world. For instance it was quite clear from my primary school years that I was never going to be an astronaut, or a world champion high jumper, or win Wimbledon. Nor have I subscribed to the “you were born to do this” theory. However, I have always thought that most of us are capable of much more than we think we are capable of. Many of us are limited by our understanding of our horizons. All five books back up that thinking by resolutely showing that extraordinary things are possible if you are prepared to put in the work and engage fully in the process.

These five entries are a good illustration of the importance of timing, when it comes to reading. The right piece at the right time. That is why I would encourage people to read widely.