The Lowest Of Aspirations

This week, while working at the office,  I overheard two people who were conducting an informal meeting on the nearby sofas discussing a subject that has become a favourite of many people in the UK (and no doubt other countries too).

They were talking about winning the National Lottery. And to show that they were not greedy, avaricious people they made it clear to each other that they would be content with just a few million: “That would do me“. Such modesty!

Apparently somewhere in the region of seventy percent of the UK adult population play the Lottery. From many overheard conversations similar to that described above, I find myself wondering whether the participants have no higher aspiration in life than to acquire a large sum of money without providing anything of value in exchange.

If you were to offer a group of citizens, approached at random on the street, the opportunity of starting a business or simply being given several million pounds free, which proposition do you suppose they would go for? I would choose the former.

You may think me a crackpot for turning my back on the chance to win the jackpot but there is an important principle at work here. Who we are is determined primarily by our thoughts and if you play the Lottery you will – at least to a certain extent – allow your mind to be taken over by the something for nothing mindset.

Let me ask you this: can you play the Lottery without turning your imagination to the various ways in which you will deploy your newly acquired wealth? What is wrong with this, I hear you say – there is no harm in dreaming! Well, in this case there is. First of all, you are occupying your mind with a scenario that has a one-in-several million chance of happening (assuming that you do not buy thousands of tickets each time). Secondly, you are focusing your attention on a field of endeavour in which nothing of any value is created. Except as a by-product of the charity element. But is that why you are taking part?

Entering the draw takes very little time and effort. But between times you will think about the desired outcome often and contemplate your transformed life, experiencing a warm glow. These thought patterns will become a tangible part of your life, helping to shape your character.

Does this sound like a good use of the miraculous power of the human brain? But what if you win – does that not make all of your daydreams worthwhile? Perhaps it does, but think about this. If you did nothing creative prior to winning the Lottery, what chance do you have of doing so after landing the prize? What motivation will you then have for doing anything constructive? Perhaps you see yourself as a kindly benefactor, using your winnings to dispense largesse to the deserving and needy. But will that really happen?

The Knot Garden believes that the National Lottery is a great idea for those souls who crave wealth without feeling the need to give anything in return. Provided, that is, they can live with the ludicrous odds of winning. And if they are willing to pay the subtle psychological price. After all, the mind is like a garden that, if poorly attended, will quickly become overgrown with weeds.

The Meaning Of The Knot

The Knot Garden values integrity above all other qualities. In the garden’s physical manifestation integrity is symbolised by the knot, which forms its principal element. Although the precise geometric design of the garden is yet to be determined, we know that it will include certain definite characteristics that will remind us of the role of integrity in our lives.

In line with the recurring theme of quadrality that lies at the core of The Knot Garden’s view of the world, we will restrict ourselves here to four such properties.  The first, appropriately, is to be found in the knot’s quatrefoil form, which emphasises the importance of the number four in both physical and abstract human realms.

Secondly we may assert that the rope of which the knot is formed, in order to properly represent the concept of integrity, shall be continuous. The absence of both a beginning and an end will suggest timelessness, constancy and perpetuity.

Turning to the garden’s geometry we can envisage shapes that have both rectangular elements, representing solidity, and circular ones, characterising wholeness, fluidity and the cycles that are fundamental to nature.

Finally, with an eye on invoking a sense of balance (and hence apologies to Gary Keller) we can visualise the knot as a representation of both simplicity and complexity, with neither attribute gaining the upper hand. The intricacy of the knot’s design, with its carefully interwoven threads, does not obscure the clarity of purpose that it displays to those with an eye for such things.

This garden’s knot, unlike that of Phrygian legend, will not need the sharp edge of Alexander’s sword to unravel its meaning. Nothing more than simple contemplation will be required to yield its secrets and inspire creativity in the thoughtful observer.

Neither is it necessary for us to examine the nature of integrity here. For those individuals for whom the trait matters, its meaning is clear enough. However, who would not find the idea of constructing a living metaphor for integrity compelling? Perhaps this constitutes the most central thread of The Knot Garden’s purpose – its very raison d’etre.

True to life, The Knot Garden’s uncomplicated symmetrical pattern, imbued with meaning as it is, will obscure the finely tuned machinery and dynamically balanced tensions at work below the surface.

Pareto’s Powerful Principle

Everyone knows about the 80:20 ratio. But how many people exploit it effectively in their own lives? And how many people believe that the ‘Law of the Vital Few’ should be adopted by all of us? I imagine that Pareto’s principle is anathema to socialists because of the high degree of inequality that it represents.

The Knot Garden is not, however, concerned with the murky business of politics but is instead very much interested in productivity. And I was reminded yesterday, on revisiting Gary Keller’s influential book The One Thing, that the Pareto principle, named by quality icon Joseph Duran after the nineteenth century economist who extrapolated an observation of pea pods in his garden to wealth distribution patterns, can be a powerful tool when applied to business efficiency.

One characteristic of the rule is its apparent universality. We see it at work in all fields of human endeavour. But whereas the golden section phi is a precise number with particular arithmetic and geometric properties, the eighty twenty ratio is a rough and ready guide, intended only to give a sense of the level of disproportionality at work.

Rather than being a mathematical phenomenon, the Pareto principle is nothing more that an observation on cause and effect – albeit a profound one. It asserts marked inequality in size between a scenario’s various inputs and their associated outputs. Hence the idea that “20% of the causes are responsible for 80% of the effects”. The implications of this are obvious.

None of the afore-going really matters much unless we can harness the power of the principle to gain some advantage in our lives. In seeking to do so, we should not restrict its application merely to business but should spread our net far wider.

Ultimately the Pareto principle is a time management device. If we can concentrate most of our effort on the things that give a comparatively high return for the investment of time, we can achieve our goals far more quickly. Or, more to the point in today’s hectic world, we can achieve much more with the limited time at our disposal.

How can we apply the principle practically? We can assess the relative cost and value of each task we contemplate before deciding to perform it. This allows us to choose the tasks that are most worthwhile and reduce the amount of time we waste on the others. This process teaches us to value our time more highly and critically examine the uses to which it is put.

The Knot Garden considers Pareto’s principle an important weapon in its productivity armoury. One that, perversely, provides an opportunity to embrace inequality in order to improve our lives. And those of others too. Perhaps a zen practitioner might see this as an enlightened  path to equality but we will take a more pragmatic view.

Beware The Flying Start

Here’s an odd notion.  Weeks that start well end badly. Happily most of my weeks get off to a shaky start. I get up at 4 o’clock on a Monday morning to catch the coach, a truly rude awakening, and things go downhill from there. Perversely, this sort of inauspicious beginning reassures me – as I know that there is almost certainly a happy ending to follow. For the opposite is nearly always true – weeks that start badly usually end well.

This has become a very familiar pattern for me. I keep thinking that if I am not careful it will become self-fulfilling. It makes a mockery of the idea of achieving constancy in one’s life. But how do we explain it?

Here is my theory. Like many theories, it does not explain everything, but is nevertheless a good starting point. I have relaxing weekend, switching off completely from work. The feeling carries over into Monday morning, where it gets translated into complacency. We all know that Mistress Complacency, together with her ugly twin sister Miss Arrogance, are fond of courting Count Calamity, but we sometimes have trouble keeping them out of our lives.

Complacency typically ends with a reality jolt. We realise that we are going down the wrong road and make extra efforts to get back on track. We perhaps even feel a twinge of guilt at our own neglect and are determined to make up for the performance shortfall. We keep this going, a model of resourcefulness and purposeful concentration, into the end of the week. Feeling please with ourselves we start to wind down and the cycle is ready to kick itself off once again.

How about the reverse scenario, which is where we began this post? Why do flying starts peter out into rocky endings? Well, to be honest, they should not. We should be able to maintain our performance for five days at least. But here is what I have found. If I am psyched up for work on a Monday morning – perhaps after having suffered from anxiety over some awkward or over-challenging situation at the office – I perform at a high level for a day or two. But then things go a little flat and my awareness and concentration waver. Little mistakes or bothersome episodes start to creep into the day’s affairs.

Perhaps the problem lies in my inability to maintain a high level of performance for five days at a time. After a few days my energy starts to wane. The Knot Garden sensibly recognises that our lives move in cycles and suggests that, rather than trying to break them, we simply make sure that we are aware of the cycles and adjust our approach accordingly. In this way we can smooth things out a little and prepare ourselves for the dips.

In the coming days I will give more thought to riding life’s cycles and to this remarkably reliable pattern in particular. In the meantime, I look forward to another rough start to the week. I will surely not be disappointed.


Letting Go

Our holiday in France has ended. I am lying on my basic bed in the cabin we booked on the ferry from Caen to Portsmouth, trying to empty my mind of all thoughts. I am not bothered by kenophobia, whether manifested in the concrete world or the mental one, but nevertheless find meditation challenging.

Perhaps a cross-channel ferry is not the ideal environment for such an activity because of the distractions, which mainly take the form of noises – from the boat itself and from passengers belonging to rowdy families. But the sounds reaching my ears as I adopt my supine resting pose are hardly intrusive.

I have discovered that when I instruct my brain to stop formulating conscious thoughts, it comes up with some pretty flimsy excuses. Such as “how will you wake up in time for our arrival in port?” An image appears of me scrabbling to reach the car, which is holding up hundreds of fellow passengers. A ludicrous idea given the number of failsafe devices at hand.

First there is the alarm on my ancient iPhone, which has never let me down. Then there is my wife. After that comes the announcement made over the ferry’s public address system. Finally, if I manage to remain oblivious to all of these alerts, a member of the crew would arouse me by knocking on the door, reminding me to vacate the cabin.

Or perhaps – an even more irrational notion – I would not wake up at all. There exists a fear, however slight and fleeting, that if we manage to stop thinking entirely, we may not be able to start ever again. Preposterous as it seems, the idea lurks in a dark corner of my mind.

As I lay on the thin mattress, eyes closed, I try to focus on the murky gloom that roils before me. I imagine that the seething mass is composed of thoughts, ideas, fears and inspirations that have sprung from the minds of all humans in existence. Messages sent through the ether, perhaps at the behest of the Universal Mind, whatever that may be. By means of this metaphor, or simply through intuition, I hope to acquire knowledge.

I also use a familiar old technique that involves switching my mind to operate fully in listening mode, focusing intently on the words spoken to me by my subconscious. This stops the idle chatter because my mind can only do one thing at a time, leaving the business of multitasking to computers. While it is fully engaged in listening (even to itself) it cannot talk.

Today, my attempts at clearing my mind do not succeed. I try to create an empty space but the thoughts keep popping up and occupying it like uninvited guests.

The Knot Garden understands the importance – and difficulty – of letting go. But, like any other valuable skill, meditation takes practice. The real problem is that I have neglected this particular form of brain exercise for too long. I resolve to rectify the situation.

A Case Of Kenophobia

It is time for our annual trip to Brittany, where we will stay by the sea with our friends for a week. Our target departure time from home is six-thirty in the evening. I have taken the day off work and have nothing to do but pack for our holiday. Having the equivalent of a full working day to get my gear together seems like a luxury but I am not complacent as there is a common principle at work that I must be mindful of.

Aristotle’s theory that a vacuum could not exist in nature, subsequently labelled with the term plenism, has an analogy in human nature. When contemplating a single task, we tend to expand its execution to fill whatever time we have available.

And so it was with my holiday packing. A job that could have been completed in three hours, had I not had such a generous allocation of time, instead took eight. One perspective might be that, in order to start the winding down process, I should take my time and relax. An alternative one would have me subconsciously slowing my work rate and expanding the activity to occupy the entire time slot.

The principle is not merely restricted to time. It can be applied to all of the limited resources we have at our disposal – including money, energy, health, brain power and opportunities. Instead of striving to use these as efficiently as possible, we extravagantly use up our entire supply – or, at least, too much of it. I believe that we do this because we are inherently lazy or because we are easily distracted and cannot maintain the required level of intensity. Perhaps, also, we have an irrational fear of empty spaces – a condition known as Kenophobia. How, in this state, could we enrich our lives through meditation?

I had planned to have a rest in the afternoon and relax before setting off for the ferry port. But it did not happen. My holiday preparation used up all of my time. This did not seem to matter in the end. After all, my packing performance was first class. Better to do one thing really well, you might say, rather than doing several badly. And we got away in good time. Everything went like clockwork.

But this favourable outcome carried a heavy time cost. If you were blunt, you might assert that I squandered some of my precious time. And as you are aware, The Knot Garden abhors waste. But, unlike Nature, it does not abhor a vacuum.



The Red Bus

It’s a familiar scene. I am walking down the road, bags in hand and rucksack on my back. Although I am not in a hurry, I feel the pace picking up involuntarily as I approach the A23. I alternate between gazing intently at the high street ahead, watching for buses, and deliberately looking down at the pavement in an act of avoidance.

I play this silly little mental game every morning on my way to the bus stop. I gave up on the trains some time ago. One of several advantages the buses have – at least on the popular route that I take from Streatham Hill to Brixton – is that timetables are entirely redundant.

Anyway, back to the game. Here’s how it works. The buses try to reach the stop well before I arrive and to depart without me. Their goal is to provoke a reaction from me in the form of frustration, an expletive or – best of all – a desperate race to get on board before the doors close. My objective, on the other hand, is merely to keep my composure. To avoid, through the artful use of mental preparation and discipline, any such aberrant behaviour or the slightest twinge of anxiety. I usually fail, albeit not in a catastrophic way.

In the knowledge that I will never wait more than a minute or two at the bus stop, I program myself to remain completely relaxed as I walk and allow the buses to go on their merry way without me, banishing any thought of undignified pursuit.

As I look up on this particular morning a 333 flashes by, almost empty and just beyond my reach. Uncertainty enters my mind for a split second and I break into a half-hearted trot for a few paces before checking myself, cursing silently at my momentary loss of self-control. I think about how silly I must have looked, running with my bags. I let the bus go but convince myself that the next one will be packed. When will it come and where will I put my luggage?

The game ends the same way as it always does. As I approach the bus stop another bus arrives – this time a 250. Numerically differentiated from the one that I just missed but pretty much as empty, it is just as good in all respects. As usual, I need not have worried.

This may seem to you like a mundane episode, unworthy of recording in a blog. But the subtle psychology at work during such unremarkable journeys to the office somehow seems important to me. Knowing how frequently the buses run (it almost seems that one can summon them using telepathy), I should not react at all when “missing” one – or two or three. I should instead be reassured that the service is operating normally and pleased that the vanguard is clearing out the bothersome crowds of waiting passengers, freeing up space for me.

That is what the red bus represents for me – an exercise in perspective – a metaphor even. And a device for assessing my mental state. How I react to the buses that pass me by tells me much about my mood, preparedness, awareness and even resilience. Do I see them as missed opportunities? If so, I clearly need to make an adjustment.

The Knot Garden likes red double decker buses. In addition to their practicality and their iconic association with London, these Routemaster successors give us the opportunity to gain small insights into our perspective and to make appropriate mind shifts.

Not Just For Knitting

As you will no doubt have gathered by now, The Knot Garden serves both a practical purpose and a symbolic one. Neither function is more important than the other. The Knot Garden’s symbolism is multi-faceted but one aspect stands out. Like all knot gardens, its layout takes the form of a pattern. Rather than examining the allegorical nature of The Knot Garden’s pattern, which will be revealed in the fulness of time, we will here take a wider view of patterns.

Patterns are not just for knitting wooly jumpers and manufacturing pretty coloured fabrics.  They are ubiquitous and infinitely variable in their form and application. I am particularly interested in the concept of pattern languages, as articulated by Christopher Alexander in his twin volumes The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. Through these books we discover the idea that patterns that have evolved over long periods of time through widespread use can be combined in various ways in order to create buildings that “live”.

Patterns such as these emerge gradually over long periods of time from the experience of many practitioners in a particular field. They are both a product of continuous improvement and a method of achieving it. If we look at financial markets, we will find candlestick patterns, a charting system used in the technical analysis of securities. They were developed by rice futures traders in Japan around three centuries ago.

Market participants believe that candlestick chart patterns reflect the sentiment of investors and therefore increase their probability of successfully predicting price movements. These formalised visual patterns represent underlying patterns of human behaviour.

Patterns perpetuate because they work, adding value to our lives. Japanese candlestick patterns, when used in the context of a well integrated system, can help us to recognise inflection points in markets. In contrast to Christopher Alexander’s architectural patterns, whose purpose is to imbue buildings with life, the patterns learned by market professionals are used to interpret price action.

Candlestick charting is merely one single area of application for patterns in financial markets analysis. Many other areas of similar importance can be found in this field, including correlations between different markets,  expansion and contraction cycles, multiple time frame congruence and the volatility trends that occur during a company’s earnings cycles. Hence we can contemplate the use of pattern languages for creating effective trading strategies.

When we consider the areas of activity that are important or interesting to us, it is worth looking for patterns that can help us to achieve specific results. The Knot Garden, beyond advocating the use of patterns, is itself a living pattern – and a metaphor for many things.

The Other Side Of The Coin

When contemplating our busy schedules we tend, with good reason, to think about the activities we will perform – the things we will do. And these are determined by who  we are. Perhaps we should spend more time deciding what we will not do. After all, what we are not defines us as much as what we are. They are two sides of the same coin.

What may seem like a trivial distinction is actually quite important. Let’s imagine that we have discovered our One Thing – the enterprise that we have decided to pursue as our primary goal. Inevitably, our cluttered lives get in the way and distract us from the important tasks we need to perform. It’s not just the time we spend doing other stuff – stuff that perhaps we should not be doing at all – it’s the time we spend thinking about it.

We can see this mechanism at work on different levels. Even if we are engaged exclusively in our One Thing, we may still find ourselves trying to do too much. We think we can do everything ourselves – or at least that we should be able to. This is a form of self-reliance that we aspire to. The danger, of course, is that we turn into joatmons.

There are two conflicting forces at work in our lives that determine, in one sense, what sort of people we will become. The first, well known to Adam Smith, is the principle of specialisation, which moves us towards performing fewer activities, and then a single activity, and ultimately narrowing that single activity down to something very small in scope. And then, in direct opposition, we have the principle of independence, which tells us to reduce our reliance on others.

How do we resolve these competing themes and maintain a constructive tension between them? We do this through the important process of collaboration – or what Napoleon Hill referred to as employing a Mastermind Group. If we learn to work effectively with others, whose goals and principles align with our own, we can reduce the scope of our activities and excel at what we do.

That is the basic dilemma we face in any undertaking. Should we aim to be self-sufficient or should we instead invest time in finding the right people to do the stuff we are not so good at and developing effective working relationships with them? Clearly we need to maintain a balance between the two approaches.

I have generally leaned more towards self-sufficiency over the years but am finally learning that this often leads to inefficiency and, hence, waste.

If we truly aspire to stand out in a single field, we need  to regularly ask ourselves the question “What am I not?” And then stop trying to be those things. In doing this The Knot Garden, looking at the reverse of the coin, envisages by way of contrast “The Not Garden”.

An Aversion to Acronyms

I have a thing about acronyms. On the whole, I don’t like them. Perversely, however, I frequently find myself playing around with proverbs, phrases, exhortations and other word structures, turning them into acronyms on the off-chance that a fun word pops out. I am nearly always disappointed. Gafmo is an exception but its expansion is too impolite to spell out here.

One entertaining acronym that I have discovered through my mental games – along, no doubt with many other people – is joatmon. If you are not already familiar with it, you will quickly decode it, especially if I tell you that its opposite is the comparatively mundane dot. Note my odd lower case convention for acronyms, which I use because I treat them as words in their own right rather than as mere abbreviations. Both joatmon and dot, as words, seem to match their meaning well.

I have been reflecting on the underlying cause of my aversion to acronyms. Their purpose, I imagine, is economy of speech. Perhaps, in today’s fast moving world, this is a symptom of the abnormally hectic nature of corporate life. While attending meetings at work, my ears assaulted by a barrage of tiresome TLAs, I often need to interject with “Sorry, but what does XYZ mean?”. In the eyes of many, the ability to spout acromyns, especially in combination with buzzwords and other professional gobbledygook, conveys a sense of authority. If we can leverage the FBS then surely we know what we are talking about?

You don’t find many acronyms in literature. Shakespeare and Milton did not seem to need them and neither did mythical heroes such as Odysseus. Likewise they are not considered an attractive device for modern novelists beyond the occasional use of meaningful acronyms like NATO, which have gained universal acceptance through usage.

Acronyms may be convenient but they are also inherently diminutive. In some subtle way they seem to undermine the importance of the entities they represent. There are exceptions. The names of organisations or the bodies of work they produce are sometimes so awkward, unwieldy or obscure that the acronym is actually preferable to the full version. Imagine, for example, having to utter the overlong and confounding “Information Technology Infrastructure Library” every time you refer to the service management framework known as ITIL. Truly a waste of words.

A useful guideline for assessing acronyms is their length. The longer the better. So-called TLAs rarely stand out and their overuse promotes confusion. My brain rebels against them. Those composed of four letters are usually better, giving a higher degree of differentiation, greater economy and more scope for forming interesting and memorable words. The acronym QA, which I particularly dislike, trivialises quality by reducing it to a nasty little two letter abbreviation and persuading everyone that it means the same thing as testing – a quite distinct, but overlapping activity.

The Knot Garden does not seek to outlaw acronyms. But some discrimination is necessary. Where acronyms abound, we should question the value of the spoken – or written – material being presented. And, perhaps, the credentials of the presenter.