7 Lessons learned from living in Japan (via The Act of Traveling)

It strikes me that we can all benefit from these seven lessons.

We will not lose friends by being more polite, respectful and punctual – we can only create better relationships.

Opening up to being open minded is like opening the curtains to let in the sunshine or the open the windows so as to let in the fresh air. Whilst the sun may burn and the fresh air may be a little cold we will be richer for the experience.

Organisation is useful. Yet once a certain limit is crossed efficiency becames death, a stagnant pool that smells.

Simplicity and complexity is something that I have yet to master. I suspect that applies to many of us. Yet there is real wisdom here. It reminds me of the middle way in Zen Buddhism.

7 Lessons learned from living in Japan I was honoured to receive an invitation to share my experiences for the Life Lessons series, a project hosted by Abubakar Jamil in collaboration with Farnoosh Brock. This post will combine travel and self improvement, centered around my personal experiences from living in Japan. Here we go. 7 appears to be a universally lucky or holy number. Also in Japan. The Japanese celebrate the seventh day after a baby's birth, and mourn the seventh day and … Read More

via The Act of Traveling

On how I avoided the warm embrace of conflict

This morning I wanted to study and I chose the kitchen as it was the most suitable place.  I would have preferred to do it in the lounge and yet that was taken by daughter who was watching television and my wife who was doing some ironing.

Just to mentally move from my favourite place, the lounge, to the kitchen I had to give something up.  Specifically, I had to give up the idea that as I pay the bills then I should get to call the shots.  That I am entitled to have the lounge irrespective of the wishes of ‘others’.

About twenty minutes into my studying my youngest son came into the kitchen – he had slept in – and joined me at the breakfast bar.  I did not mind this as there is more than enough space.  Then he did, what he always does: he started singing.  I noticed that his singing distracted me and I did not like it.  Yet, I did nothing.  My son continued singing and I started to get emotional.   The thought that entered my head was along the lines of how inconsiderate my son is: does he not get that I am studying?

I tried to put the distractions aside and focus on my studying hoping that my son would soon finish his breakfast and leave.  Well, this son is never in a hurry to get anywhere.  So the point arrived when I had reached my breaking point.  Thankfully I was still in a rational and relatively calm place and saw that I had options.  I could scold my son for being insensitive and disrespectful.  I could just get angry and tell him to leave the kitchen.  I could continue to sit it out in the kitchen.  Or I could simply leave the kitchen – without resentment – and find another room to study in. I chose the last option.

What I took away from this encounter was the following:

  • I had to give up the thinking that said I should get my way because I am the one that pays the mortgage;
  • I had to give the thought that said I am entitled to special treatment in the kitchen because I got here first;
  • I had to give up the thought that I was owed special treatment – silence – by my son;
  • The thought that my son is simply having breakfast where we normally have breakfast came in handy;
  • The thought that my son is simply doing what he loves to do and is often not aware that he is doing – singing;
  • I was attuned to my emotional state and how it was becoming hotter  and took action before it went past the point of no return;
  • I chose to live and let live – to relinquish my ‘claim to the kitchen’ – as that struck me as the most workable solution that would not put a dent in the relationship between myself and my son.

Put differently, the situation itself was not the issue at any time.  The cause of conflict was primarily my thinking about how things should be and how I should be treated by reasonable family members.  When I gave up that thinking and embraced better thinking I solved the issue with no conflict, no damage to anyone or any relationship!

Thank you

Dear family members, friends and fellow human beings

I thank you for taking the time to read this blog.  Your reading encourages me to write and share my point of view with you.

I thank you for writing to me directly to let me know what you think of this blog and what contribution it makes to you.   If any of my writings helps to put a smile on your face, a spring in your footstep or soothes a single tear then it is worth my while writing and sharing this personal stuff with you.

Please know that I am grateful that you exist, that our paths have crossed and that we are in conversation.

I hope you will make this Christmas for yourself, your loved ones, your fellow human beings.  And I wish you the same for 2011.

If I can help you then please do reach out to me.  My philosophy is simple: we can make heaven or hell for each other, I have no interest in hell as it is already crowded, I am totally passionate about co-creating heaven with you!

Be well.  Be great.  “Be the change you wish to see in this world”  Gandhi.


P.S: My role model is Gandhi and all of you who know me will know that I have a long long journey ahead of me to be even a thread of this great human being.  Nonetheless, the journey inspires me.

On speaking

As human beings we speak.  Some even argue that language is what sets us apart – makes us uniquely human.  Yet, it is a gift that most of us are born with and simply take it for granted.  Very few of us really think about this gift and how best to use it.  It kind of reminds me of the community that I grew up in – the muslim community.  Almost everyone was born into and embraced the rituals yet almost no-one had any knowledge or understanding of the genesis of Islam nor the social reform and human centred values that were the foundations of Islam.

So we have a gift – this ability to speak with our fellow wo/man and be understood if we speak the same language.  Now the question is what frame can we put around this gift of speech, of communication?  More importantly, what is the most beautiful use of this gift?

When it comes to frames we have many choices. We can simply put no frame around it and continue as we are: spraying our words all over the place, they land where they land, they have the impact that the have.  We describe stuff, we make up explanations, we complain, we criticise, we gossip behind each others backs, we make up lies, we provide directions, we command, we compliment, we give form to our dreams and so forth.   This is the hidden, taken for granted, frame which gives form to our speaking.

I’d like to suggest a very different frame.  What if each of us, even most of us, were to view gift of speech in a radically different way?  What if we reserved speaking for creating affinity, affection and connection with our fellow human beings.  For example:

  • we share our likes and dislikes and what we want and need from our fellow human beings instead of criticising others – what they have or have not done;
  • giving ourselves and our fellow human beings wings to pursue our interests, ambitions and dreams instead of squelching them out of fear, jealousy or spite;
  • creating affinity and connection with our fellow human beings through acceptance, validation and the generally sharing of our humanity as opposed to creating distance and hatred which is all to common when we criticise, condemn and diminish our fellow human beings;
  • inspiring ourselves and our fellow human beings to bring the best of our humanity – benevolence – into fruit more often in a wider range of situations;
  • providing information – without preaching – that our fellow human beings are likely to find useful in living a good life;
  • to bring into being the kind of world that we want to live as illustrated by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen;
  • talking about and resolving our differences in a way that recognises our need to find solutions that work for us all.

I am suggesting a frame in which our speaking is such that we do not attack, invalidate, exclude and criticise our fellow human beings.  What kind of a world can we create if I was to step into this frame?  And if you were to step into this frame?  And we were to step into this frame?

How about starting the practice, right now, for now to the New Year?  Are you willing to give it a wholehearted go? I am and I hope that you will join me. if you think that this is easy for me then you really do not know me that well!  I have been immersed in the language of criticism from the age of 5 and I mastered it a long time ago.


Learning from Michael Jordan: on success and failure

I have been struggling with that which matters most to me in this life:  my family.

  • Do I care for my wife and children? Yes.
  • Do I want to see my wife and children smiling? Yes.
  • Do I want to give hugs and receive hugs – every day – from my wife and children? Yes.
  • Do I want to just sit and chat with my wife and children?  Yes.
  • Do I want to offer acceptance and validation to my wife and children? Yes.

How am I getting on with all of that?  Badly: I fall down flat on my face often, in fact more than I succeed.  And in the process I have been tempted to give in and there have been times I have given up – at least temporarily.

Recently, I had a big setback and was tempted to give up completely: to accept that fine words are fine and reality is something else.  Just when I was at my lowest the world delivered the following into my lap.  Here is a quote from Michael Jordan:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Michael has a point, we cleave failure and success into two.  Yet, it is possible to look at failure and success as being interdependent.  The key to success is to be on the court (of life) rather than on the stands (as a spectator).  And to use our intelligence to adjust what we do in response to the feedback we get from the world.  To use a tennis analogy, if you are at the back of the court and the opponent keeps hitting winners at the net then it makes sense to move into the net.

Finally, it strikes me that we can choose to look at failure as the first sign that we have taken on a bigger game in life.  We have chosen to go beyond our comfort zone – to expand our boundaries.  And in that we can rejoice.

On our need for safety, security and predictability

Whether we are aware of it or not we strive for predictability because it makes as feel safe and secure.  So we take an inherently messy world and mould it into a shape that makes us feel safe.  We go further and take control of the world through the tools that we have built.  And we think of ourselves as God and we treat this world, this universe as our playground.

From time to time we can do with a reminder of place in this world.

The primary myth of the western world – our omnipotence – has temporarily been shattered by nature: snow and cold temperatures have brought the country to a standstill.  Nature shows her awesome power once again and reminds us of our relatively humble position in the scheme of things.  It reminds me of my Grand Canyon experience many years ago:  just sitting on a rock and gazing into the sheer size and wonder of the Grand Canyon I got my relative insignificance in the scheme of things.

We we are simply guests checking in and out of the game of existence on the hotel called Earth.  And in this game there is only one thing that we can count on: one day we will die.  Everything else is uncertain. Yet so many of us fail to live for fear of dying.  And dying is the only thing that is certain!

The anger and criticism that is spilling out is as much about the illusion being shattered as it is about the frustrations that people are experiencing.


The difference between children and adults

It has snowed heavily and brought many parts of the UK to a standstill.  And it has been interesting to watch how different people have reacted differently to the snow.

Clea, 10 years old, got all dressed up in her ski clothes, searched out her friends who live next door and got busy playing in the snow.  I saw her embracing the snow literally: she was rolling around in the snow and scooping it up.  To her snow occurred as an opportunity to be with friends and play: a gift, an adventure!

My wife, Aldine, is an optimist.  So it was no surprise that even when there was a severe weather she got herself and the children in the car on Saturday morning and drove up to get to her friend Analia’s home.  She did not make it there yet she can hold up her head high.  In the end she is the one that chose not to drive at 25mph and thus face a six-hour journey.

I, being a pragmatic fellow, decided that the snow and cold was a great opportunity to do all the stuff that I had put off – like the accounts and the tax returns.  And to pick up and read a book on swarm behaviour – something that I find interesting.  My approach is best described as: why take the risk when I do not have to take the ris.  Has that been the stance that I have taken in life?  Choosing to be safe, to be comfortable?  In some areas, yes.

Looking more broadly, I notice that adult conversation (especially the media) has been around control.  The snow has disrupted the bubble of control that we take for granted and the adults have not liked that one little bit.  So the conversation has been full of complaint – primarily about those that govern us and their inability to control the world, to bend it to our needs.

Interestingly there has been more indignation and complaint around the country coming to a standstill then there has been about the banks bringing the country to its knees.  There is has been more complaint about being stuck, not being able to get out, to go on holiday then there has been about government policy that has resulted in tens of thousands of people being killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It seems that the wonder of children is that they embrace the new, the unknown, and dance with life.  This contrasts sharply with adults who like to stick to the known – a world that runs smoothly, like clockwork, and renders no surprises.  Is it any wonder that so many of us adults are so bored?

On Christmas

When I was young, living with my parents, Christmas was simply not being at school and being able to watch lots of interesting / entertaining stuff on the television.  I particularly enjoyed watching action moves. We did not celebrate Christmas as my parents are Muslims.

When I was at university, Christmas was an opportunity to be with my parents, my brothers and my sister.  I remember taking them out to Pizza restaurants and just eating and laughing together.  Occasionally, it was an opportunity to go to a friend’s house and celebrate Christmas with his family.  The friend that comes to mind is James Harvey.  And I thank him and his family to introducing me to an English Christmas.  I enjoyed meeting James’ mother, father, sisters, nephews etc.

When I started my professional career and was single, Christmas was an opportunity to simply be.  To take time out and reflect on the year that had come to an end.  And to think of the year to come.  It was also a time to read books, watch movies and go spend time with friends and family.  I do not remember ever being focussed on buying stuff or receiving stuff.

When I got married into the French and started family, Christmas became a day spent driving to the centre of France.  And once there is became an opportunity to eat fine food and drink fine wine.  Sit at the table, for what seemed like an eternity, and now and then catch flakes of conversation.  And of course about giving and receiving gifts.  Firstly, this  occurred as strange and then it became normal.  Yet somehow it did not seem that Christmas belonged to me: it no longer occurred as an opportunity to be me, to reflect, to be thankful, to choose – it occurred as a duty.

How does Christmas occur to you?  Is it something that you have simply fallen into?  Like I have?

I have been rethinking Christmas.  How about making Christmas a time where I/we:

  • think about each and every person that has made a contribution to our life and experience that contribution and write to and/or call each of these people and thank them for their contribution – what they did, what difference it made in practical terms and how it made / makes you feel;
  • remember and acknowledge all the people  we have criticised, we have excluded, we have trespassed against and then say sorry – by writing or by picking up the phone – and asking what it will take to put the past in the past, to get forgiveness;
  • get present to all the grudges we hold against specific people and then get off our high horse and forgive the imagined or real trespass ideally by calling the other person sharing the grudge and having chosen to forgive – to put the past in the past;
  • take the time to get present to all the millions of people around the world that are not as fortunate as we are and then taking some action even if that is to be grateful for all that we have, that we take for granted;
  • to make a dent – even a small one – in the life of even one human being that we know is suffering, who can do with being seen through kind eyes, listened to with kind ears, lifted up with kind words of worth and validation, and touched by soothing hands; and
  • where we acknowledge ourselves as human beings who strive to do good, to make a contribution, to create a good world for ourselves and our children (whether born, or unborn) and accept that despite our best intentions we fail from time to time and yet what counts is that we pick ourselves off the floor and continue to make good on our commitment to be good and do good.

To put is simply, in the rich western world.  Most people need acceptance and validation – just as they are and are not – then they need presents.   Most people need good honest conversations where they can speak freely without judgement then they do presents. Most people need a heartfelt hug more than they need presents.  And yes, some need a helping heart who will give some of the necessities of life.  If you are looking for inspiration then I recommend watching The Blind Side (the movie starring Sandra Bullock).


Forgiveness is a gift that you give yourself

Until recently I had not thought that much about forgiveness.  Firstly because I have been fortunate in that very few of my human beings have hurt me that much.  Secondly, I have been a master at distancing myself from those – a few that – have caused me pain. Thirdly, I have always thought that forgiveness lets the bad guys off and so gives them an incentive to go and do that again – to me or to others.

For a week or so this month anger, frustration, despair and confusion gripped me tightly.  The working day was not so bad as I was absorbed in tasks that consumed me mentally.  Yet, these feelings, these states of mind would grasp me in the evenings.  And all because I had created a story called Betrayal: I played the part of the wronged person and some of the people who are closest to me were the betrayers.

Being versed in existential philosophy I recognised I had a choice.  Continue with the Betrayal story and thus keep creating anger, frustration, confusion and despair.  Or to create a new story.  And whilst I was in this search I happened to read Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh.  The book is subtitled “Buddhist Wisdom for cooling the flames”. The book gave me access to stories that inspired me to step into the ‘shoes of the other’ and to get that if I was feeling hurt, they were feeling hurt.  If I was wrapped up in a story of Betrayal then they were wrapped up in their own story.

So the question arose: who goes first?  Who says I am folding up my story and putting it on the fire?

So I chose forgiveness: I forgave everyone including myself.   Did that make the lives of the people I was angry with easier?  Yes.  Were they the  only people to benefit?  No.  Were they the main beneficiaries?  No.

What I found is that the main beneficiary of this act of forgiveness is me. Yes, me.  Anger, frustration, confusion and despair have flown leaving only peace of mind.  I am at peace with the world and the world is at peace with me: no need to ready the sword to cut others nor the shield to defend myself from others.

So I can honestly say that forgiveness is a gift that I gave myself.

As I human like you I can confidently state that forgiveness is a gift that you give yourself. Even when you choose to break from someone – you can do it in a way that bears no grudges of the past.  In a way that leaves you overflowing with a peaceful mind.

The beauty of business (for me) is the opportunity to connect with & contribute to fellow human beings

I started off in business back in 1986, some 24 years ago.  During that time I have had the opportunity to do work in a number of countries: the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Canada and the USA.  And I have done so many different types of work in many different industries.  Yet, today, when I think of my life in business all I care to remember is the personal: the times, the conversations, the encounters with my fellow human beings.

I remember the staff working in the Dixon motor dealership in Morecambe back in the early 90s.  The Dixon Motor Group had gone into receivership so one morning I turned up unannounced and told them something to the effect “as from now you work for the receiver and that means me”.  I had never done this before and was feeling nervous, yet, the people were gracious, warm and worked with me to run their dealership.  When the time came to go on to my next assignment I felt that I was leaving my family behind.  I cannot remember their names, I do remember their faces and their personalities.

I remember the variety of people who I worked with at the London Arena when it went into receivership.  I remember the security guards, the sports centre staff, the cleaners, the admin folks and the sales and marketing professionals.  As I sit here I think of the time when I persuaded some of them to join me and my friends to go paragliding.  It was a fantastic day spent laughing and playing together.  I remember the team spirit – when we all pitched in to stage events such as Smash Hits.

Then there was the Fine English Hotels.  On a cold, snowy day I made my way over to Kent to take over the day-to-day management of this chain of hotels as they had fallen into receivership.  What a bunch of characters I found there – both from the PW team (my colleagues) and from Fine English Hotels.  It was whilst the three of us from PW were working very hard that we got a visit from one of the senior partners.  I remember him today because instead of waiting for us to serve him, he actually served us.  Noticing that the three of us were totally occupied with matters that had to be dealt with there and then – as we had a business to run – he made tea and coffee and served us.  He was leadership in action – rather than talk!

Two events stand out whilst I was at IDV.  The first is stopping and saying hello to the folks that had been recruited to fill the posts that I had helped to create. And in the process making a friend and then two friends.  This friend is Christoph (a German) and through him I made friends with his girlfriend at the time, Peggy.  What led to this friendship was the simple recognition that it cannot be that easy to move from your country to another country.  And so I invited Christoph to have a meal with me and my girlfriend.  Many years later when I was looking for work as an independent consultant, Christoph, who at that time had an influential role in HR, helped me win an important piece of work for the next two years.  He has gone back to Germany and yet I remember him as it was yesterday.

The second event that stands out, is one that lifts me up every time I think of it.  I had the good fortune of having an influential role at IDV and being able to use it to do good.  During the course of my work I came across a 40+ year old man (Peter) who had come in as a contractor to do some treasury work in the finance function.  I struck up a conversation with him and learned that he had family – wife and several young children – and had experienced a difficult six months as a result of having is role made redundant at a former employer.  So when I recognised the time was right I told my boss the Finance Director that it would be a smart decision to employ Peter full-time as he knew his stuff.  And as Peter did know his stuff, he got the job.  To this day, this is one of the acts that makes me proud of myself: I remember the look of gratitude in his face – not to have the worry of asking yourself “how am I going to take care of my family?”.  Wherever, you are Peter I wish you and your family the very best.

I remember fondly my time consulting with Remy Cointreau when I worked for some 18 months with an international team.  I remember Gaeton, the Marketing Director; I remember Stuart the Dutch Finance Director;  I remember Jean-Claude the European Supply Chain Director; I remember Linda, Nicola and so forth.  What a great time we had holed up in Hammersmith designing and then implementing a European shared services centre.  It was an engagement where the business and the personal blended into one.  I remember having a meal at the flat of one of the Italian team members.  Most of us were there and we all cooked and ate together.  Wherever you are friends, I wish you the very best.  I thank you for special memories.

Then there are the folks that I worked with at Sage Publications and Virgin.  I value each of them and consider it my good fortune that some of them are now my friends – at least I am their friend!

I could go on and on – so many people, so many conversations, so many fond memories of the human encounter.  The joy of conversation.  The joy of laughter.  The joy of eating a meal with work colleagues who no longer occurred simply as work colleagues.

So why I am writing about this today.  Well in the late 1990’s when I was co-building the Siebel Consulting practice in the UK, I interviewed many people and had the privilege of offering some of them employment.   As we were struggling to recruit skilled IT consultants within the timeframes and the salaries that were acceptable I came up with and got agreement to recruit suitably skilled graduates – straight from university.  One of the people who I interviewed and then recruited is wonderful chap by who goes by the name of David.  Last week, some 11 years after I recruited him and gave him the “toughest interview of his life” (his words) I had the joy and honour of helping him and his wife to celebrate the arrival of their daughter into this world.  What a privilege to meet Dave and Sarah’s family and friends – to get to know some of them.  I thoroughly enjoyed my day today: thank you Dave and Sarah for a wonderful day.

I have never agreed with the thought that business is business it is not personal.  For me all of life is personal.  What I value most in business is the opportunity to create relationships – even friendships – with my colleagues, with my clients, with partners in the game of business.

Sartre was not on the ball when he said “Hell is other people”.  Yes that can be.  And it is also true that “Heaven is also my fellow human beings”.

On exercising the best of our humanity: hospitality toward strangers

I am a ‘softy’ and I am proud to be a ‘softy’ nowadays – this was not always the case!  I cry (sometimes buckets) when I watch a movie (e.g. Gandhi, Schindlers List) that shows the best of our humanity in action.  I cry when I read a story where someone has put their humanity into action (e.g. Three Cups of Tea).  I cry when I listen to someone who shares an inspiring story with passion.

Just now I found my humanity touched.  I found myself inspired and I found myself with tears of joy running down my face.  What brought that on?  I invite you to experience it for yourself.  Watch this TED talk by William Ury: The walk from Yes to No

I believe that most of us are good people – loving and caring human beings.  Most of us really do not want to create conflict or be immersed in conflict.  Yet it happens we find ourselves in the midst of conflict before we know it.  This talk provides a simple but not simplistic path  that we can all follow.  It may even inspire many of us to be hospitable to strangers and not just our close friends and family.

I love the bit about walking together – side by side.  How true it is that when I walk with a fellow human being I do not feel threatened, I even look forward to the experience.