People Watching…

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Last week was about thinking about the underlying reasons for writing, this week was starting off on the journey towards sharpening our powers of observation, the idea being to hone our ability to find stories in the quotidian.  A city-centre eatery late one night was my muse.

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It is a little after 8.30pm when the smell of French fries wafting in through the door draws me in. The first thing that strikes me as I stride through the door is how empty it looks, the bulk of the two-storied structure being cordoned off, with only the small section to the right of the counter open for use. I find the emptiness surprising given it is next to a major bus station and right in the centre of town. As I wait for the chance to order, I find myself behind three people, all decked out in the garb of people dressed to brace the cold, with the brightly coloured logo of a food delivery service gracing the insulated bags they hold.

A few feet away from the space I find for myself and my tray are three men with youthful faces, chattering away in a language which is not English, possible South East Asian if I were to hazard a guess. Their half-eaten burgers suggest they’ve been here a while, given how much of their time is spent in conversation interspersed with raucous laughter. When they are finally done, one of the three gathers up their trays and proceeds to empty them into the bin and then they leave, taking their mirth with them. Clearly close friends, or people connected by a shared lived experience I suspect.

Apart from them, the only other people in the room are a group of much older people – 2 men and 2 women occupying the central tables and someone sitting alone, sipping from a cup looking out onto the streets. Of the four, the woman who looks the oldest is slouched in her seat, hands folded together in her lap, two shopping bags beside her, listening it seems. Across from her a younger man with hair the same ginger colour as hers sits, leaning in, several discarded sachets of milk at his elbows, gesturing wildly. Between the accent and my hunger, I can barely make out what the subject of their conversation is but the name of the suburb to the south of the river comes up several times. Maybe a family squabble then, or given the reputation the small town has for being a difficult place, maybe an appeal to the matriarch of the clan for an intervention. All I can see of the fourth person are feet clad in streaked sneakers, the upper body obscured by a heater.

When I steal a glance at the group on my way out, I find the fourth person is fast asleep. Maybe, I have misread the situation after all.

2020: Delve Deeper

One of the biggest disappointments of 2019 for me was interviewing at a company across town and failing to land a job there. It was a company I had admired for some time, the role itself was to be the team leader for a small group of technical specialists overseeing a North sea portfolio and the pay was better; an added incentive. The interview itself started off well I thought but somewhere around three-quarters of the way through, it delved into territory I wasn’t overly familiar with. Part of it was a failure of preparation; I hadn’t taken the time to get intimately familiar with the company’s portfolio and thus prepare for any potential curveballs. The more I mulled over the disappointment, and let time do its thing, the clearer it became to me that this had ultimately been a failure of depth. I knew enough about my subject, had built a reputation in my locality and knew enough about the company to give the perception of competence and suitability on the surface. It was when the screws were turned and the veneer was stripped back, that a lack of depth – somewhat dodgy foundations if you like – proved my undoing.

In the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, Jesus tells a story of two folks who build houses, one on the sands and the other on rock. When the winds, rains and storms come, the house on the sand – without depth – falls flat whilst the one on the rock survives. The parable’s primary purpose is to exhort listeners to hear and do the words of Christ. There is however a wider principle at play here I believe, everything worth its salt will be tested, the only ones which survive are those which have depth and are inherently resilient. It is an idea not too dissimilar to ones raised by Nassim Taleb in Skin In The Game when it comes to assessing the credibility of others.

All of the above is why my focus for 2020 is Delve Deeper. To delve is to reach inside hidden spaces and search for and extricate something. Implicit in this is the expending of energy, which has opportunity costs. For this to not be an exercise in futility therefore, these hidden spaces have to contain something of value which is the focus of the search. For 2020 the search will be for deep knowledge in the various domains across which my life intersects. The wider objective is not knowledge for knowledge sake, it is using that knowledge to build systems and routines that can stand the tests and ravages of time and life and can deliver lasting value in my various interactions. It is not a focus I expect to be fully developed and understood in 2020 alone but one that might just guide me through the 2020s (coincidentally my forties).

For all its warts, 2019 wasn’t the worst of years, not least because the biggest disappointment of 2019 is mitigated by a work opportunity at the end of Q1 this year to look forward to. That said, being intentional and tracking a host of data points over the course of the year helped identify a number of life domains which are good areas to kick off this process of delving deeper with. 2019 was the year I finally managed to put words to the feeling of spiritual malaise I have wrestled with over the past few years, spiritual homelessness. My finances are another area where I need to build a level of robustness in. Several big projects over the last decade, and a few failed (Nigerian) investments, meant I haven’t derived as much value as I could from my earnings over the past year. That is something that needs to change, particularly given I am now ten years closer to retiring. The third domain I believe needs focus in the near term is my relationships. Most of the past decade was spent insulating myself from people, focusing on myself sometimes to the detriment of real-world relationships and friendships. In continuance of one of my themes from last year, engaging the friends and people in my life better is something that needs focus this year.

How does this translate into real-world action? Three main behaviours to change/implement:

  • Question my answers: My existing outcomes in the domains I have identified for focus are the result of years of learning (both positive and negative) and ingrained habits. Real change can only begin by identifying what those underlying answers are, questioning them and then looking to arrive at better answers, iteratively. I started a Codex Vitae, a book of life, inspired by Buster Benson. This is something I hope to return to again and keep updated over the course of the year.
  • Build Systems: Two of the books which influenced me the most in 2019 (James Clear’s Atomic Habits and Drew Dyck’s Your Future Self Will Thank You) highlighted the criticality of systems (things broken down into repeatable, routine activities) for effecting change. As knowledge from digging deeper comes to the fore, the focus would be to break down any required actions into daily routines to ensure they get properly embedded into my life going forward.
  • Implement a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle: One of the changes implemented in 2019 was to build a dashboard which tracked my performance against a few key metrics in each life domain. Its usefulness became abundantly clearer as I pulled my year-end review together. I plan to implement this fully in 2020, incorporating a weekly review process into the system to ensure learnings and opportunities to tweak things are picked up as early as I can.

To a Year of Delving Deeper then! Happy New Year friends and readers.