Dinosaurs in the Classroom

This isn’t the article i intended to write on the blog. That’s still half written, so i’ll save it for another day. Instead, I saw something that got me so hot under the collar that i felt the need to get some stuff off my chest.

First, a bit of background about what’s made me mad.

Over 30 years ago, I was a young man fresh out of college and early in my first career as a private banker. I was excited and thrilled to be out in the professional world at last, ready to build my career. However, I had already had a few months to realise that all was not necessarily well in the world of work and that there were many sharp rocks in the water that could harm a career or harm the idea that all the people working in an organisation are strongest when they all align and pool their best efforts in a common direction. A couple of short stories will illustrate.

Initially, I had to rotate through all the departments of our bank – to understand the work done by each department and begin to build my technical knowledge. I started in the wills, trusts and estates department, full of dusty ledgers and ruled by arcane sets of rules on double entry bookkeeping. Maybe work that entails whole days rifling through the personal possessions of people who’ve just died does something to the inhabitants after a while. After a few weeks I was given a task to collate the records of a large collection of share certificates. Some were for defunct and bankrupt companies, some had been taken over, in some cases the shares had been split many times. It was technical and time consuming work that required great accuracy. I was new, i wanted to learn and i threw myself in to it heart and soul. Extra hours, skipped lunch breaks – I was in the zone. When I’d finished I checked and double checked my work before taking it to the desk of the supervisor.

He opened up the ledger, looked it over for a while and then told me he’d get back to me. Three days later he called me to his desk. He didn’t invite me to sit, pushed his glasses down his nose and peered over the top at me. “Hmm. Interesting.”
My heart lurched. I’d been so careful in the work, had taken such care. Had I made a mistake?
“Wellllll, it’s all correct, as far as it goes ……………. but this isn’t the way we do it here.”
“But is the information accurate, correct and understandable?”
“Yes, Mark. But, you need to understand, this isn’t the way we do it around here.”

All my pride in that piece of work just washed away like someone had pulled out a big plug. I struggled to understand how a piece of work could be right, accurate, clear and yet ……… all wrong because it wasn’t laid out according to some hidden, secret, set of protocols. needless to say, I was made to lay the information out in exactly the way required. my enthusiasm and sense of ownership had gone and somewhere I was cautioned to limit my inclination to use initiative and innovate.


In the following weeks I picked myself up, renewed my energy and decided to be positive and optimistic, putting this experience down more to the individual I was reporting to than the system as a whole. I threw myself back in to my work with new energy.

A few weeks went by. I will never forget a particular Friday when i took some time out to go to lunch with a couple of my colleagues. As i was coming back in to the building I suddenly felt a tug on my elbow. A much older colleague with whom I’d had little dealings asked/ told me to step in to a meeting room. As I entered, I recalled that someone had pointed him out to me as ‘the union rep.

“Mark, I needed to talk to you on a very important matter.” He looked stern. “It’s come to our attention that you’ve been working late, taking work home and doing extra projects for the management. It must stop immediately. You’re setting a bad example, management will start expecting it of everyone and we can’t have that.”

After I picked my jaw up off the floor I figured out how I wanted to respond. I won’t write exactly what i said here, but the gist was that I told him to mind his own business and that I would thank him not to infringe on my rights to choose how i approached my career.

There is a little side note to that story. About 5 years later I bumped into said Union Man at a company event. By that time I’d undergone a few promotions, moved jobs and offices, done a secondment in the Channel Islands and was generally moving forward in my career pretty rapidly. He, on the other hand, still sat in the same office, doing the same job at the same grade and was known to be full of bitterness towards the company that he considered had failed to recognise his talents! My only hope at the time was that he wasn’t getting to pour his poison in the ears of any other young, keen and ambitious employees.

I’ve always chosen to live (and work) according to the spirit of the famous poem ‘Invictus’, by William Ernest Henley;

“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

We are none of us helpless and we hold our fate in our hands. I also find common cause with writers like Cal Newport, Seth Godin, Simon Sinek and Adam Grant;

Cal Newport – So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Stop worrying about what you feel like doing (and what the world owes you) and instead, start creating something meaningful and then give it to the world. Cal really delivers with this one.”
–Seth Godin, author, Linchpin

Adam Grant – Give and Take 

Simon Sinek – Leaders Eat Last

These writers all have in common that they are considered to be Twenty First Century thinkers and writers, espousing the right ideas for those who want to succeed in a rapidly changing and demanding environment.

I well remember after i left banking in the late 1990s that as I worked to change my career I started to evaluate where I wanted to work. Without ties, the world was open to me. In some ways, the decision was made for me when people started talking genuinely and seriously about legislation that would, by law, limit the working week. As though, somehow, in some sort of socialist Lala Land it was going to be mandated that nobody must have ambition, nobody must make effort to rise above anyone else, nobody should gain or benefit from the fruit of their own labour. This was all the motivation I needed to set out on an international venture that has now stretched for close to 19 years.

Young people today are growing up in a very different world to the one that I grew up in. It’s way more global, more connected, faster paced and requires a greater level of continuous learning (and unlearning) . This is exactly the kind of world that Newport, Godin, Sinek and Grant are pointing towards. This makes two things very clear to me;

a) When adults say of lifelong learning things like, “I make a particular point of learning from everyone around me,” you’re listening to someone who’s fudging it. Lifelong learning means real learning, not just the lazy practice of kidding yourself that because you spend time around others you’re absorbing their knowledge and wisdom by osmosis. If that was true, we should give every kid in school and A grade when they pass out – just because they showed up and spent time around others.

It also, though, doesn’t necessarily mean the frenzied pursuit of more and more bits of paper. Certificates that say you attended some programme of learning don’t necessarily represent a good fit with the knowledge you need at the time. The best learning to meet the needs of an ever evolving life is the learning that can be gathered through a self-generated and evolving curriculum based upon personal interest, opportunities and circumstances.

b) And this one is the real bee that got under my bonnet and inspired me to park the other article i was writing – people like Union Man shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Twenty First Century children or their teachers. Their toxic line in mediocrity is so unhealthy that it has no place.

What do i mean – here’s an article published in TES that had me almost frothing at the mouth;

TES – Teachers Shouldn’t be Expected to Work For Free

This article seems to start off on the subject of school/ education funding. However, suddenly it veers off in to a rabid attack on school leaders in a style that would have been worthy of a protege of my Union Man from 30 years ago.

According to the writer, every time a teacher is offered an opportunity to learn, to grow, to expand their skills in to new areas their first response should be, “Not until you tell me what’s in it for me.”

This is how we prepare and motivate teachers to lead a new generation towards fulfilling their potential, grabbing opportunities in the global economy. Do the world’s great creators, artists, designers, idea generators ask, “Can I get away without doing this extra half an hour of effort?” or “Tell me what I’m getting paid before I put in this effort.”

This is the way educators in Britain will condemn another generation of young people to live stunted and denuded lives, wondering why they’re not better off than their parents’ generation, wondering why all the money and jobs seem to be flowing elsewhere, why Asian economies are so buoyant while theirs remains so anemic.

If the writer needs extra time to watch Great British Bake Off, rather than supporting a generation of children to get the best possible education that is his prerogative. But I wish he’d keep it to himself


Understanding Willpower

When any of us stop to contemplate what we are (or are not) achieving by way of success in our lives - a popular pursuit at the end/ start of a calendar year - we are reminded that every one of us is blessed with the same 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Yet, some people are able to achieve great things in multiple areas of life, some others achieve great things in one area whilst living stunted lives in other aspects. And, the vast majority of people, in Thoreau's words are leading "lives of quiet desperation."

Scientific research (as well as common sense) have suggested that the biggest influences are self-control or sometimes referred to as agency - the ability and inclination to resist base urges and to take ownership for the decisions made. My own view is that any person who believes with full conviction that they're accountable for their own actions, exercising control over their own decisions and choices (whether they be good or bad ones, in their own long term interest, or not) will make more good decisions and have a greater sense of control and purpose over their life. They will see themselves more as actor and less as 'acted upon'.

As I've written in some past blog posts, Roy Baumeister and others have developed the concept related to willpower of 'ego depletion' which suggests that within a day we have a finite amount of willpower or decision making power and that, the more decisions we have to make in a day the greater the likelihood that we'll reach a point where it's all used up. This is often used to explain why people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg choose to wear the same clothes every day for work (keeping their mental energies for things they consider more important and value adding). The idea that willpower runs out when drained suggests the reasons why our willpower can crumble under pressure and we find ourselves doing things that are not in our own best interests.

However, this year, we've seen the concept of ego depletion challenged. I wrote about this back in March;

Hold the Chocolate Chip Cookies

Fast Company published an article on the subject recently, suggesting that what the research now appears to be telling us is - if you think your willpower is a depleting asset, it will be. It's all in the mind, apparently. This has implications in many areas as there are a variety of topics on which others have built on to Baumeister's views and ideas. For example, I happen to be reading "Deep Work" by Cal Newport at the current time. This book, published in january 2016 makes frequent reference to Baumeister's research and the implications for doing focused, high quality, meaningful work in a distracted world - especially for knowledge workers.
Fast Company - The Myth About Willpower is Holding Back Your Productivity

One of the questions that this challenge raised in my mind was whether it's all been a bit too convenient to want to believe that Baumeister was right. If I do something (or fail to do something) in a way that exhibits a deficit of willpower it's much more palatable to say that this was because of ego depletion. Without that, I have to acknowledge to at least some extent that this represents a failure of me. I can no longer put it down to something that "wasn't my fault." Such self-scathing critique doesn't sit comfortably with most people. It smacks too much of the self-help movement's "I am responsible" mantra that says that we must own up in the harshest terms to ourselves for every act or omission.

Productivity angst is probably one of the biggest issues of our current decade. The idea that everyone else is being more productive, more efficient, making better decisions and choices about how to extract value from time. the idea that others are capable of being fully wired and inter-connected with a vast online world whilst fully engaging in all the correct opportunities in the real physical world around them, whilst we run from pillar to post leaving vast to-do lists largely undone. FOMO (fear of missing out) keeps people believing that they have a duty to focus a bigger and bigger part of their time on achieving their goals (and you must have plenty of goals) and that 'down time' is for losers.

As a result, debates about the role of willpower, how to control it, have more of it etc. are far more than merely interesting academic debates. Baumeister, as highlighted in the Fast Company article, has questioned the scientific methodology of some of the more recent experiments. He and others continue to defend the concept of 'ego depletion' and I'm sure that in coming months we're going to see this fascinating debate evolve further.

Another Book List

More high quality reading – another great list of business books to enhance personal and professional growth.

Agenda – 30 Business Books Every Professional Should Read Before turning 30

I might be a little past that age right now, but I still think there’s a lot of quality in this list. Personally, I’ve read 13 out of the list so far and have a further 9 of them on my ‘To Read’ list.