My 2016 highlight

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Let’s face it, 2016 dashed many of our aspirations. We experienced swathes of celebrity deaths, the decision to Brexit and a new leader elected to run the “free world”. But I will always remember that 2016 was the year I saw world-renowned economist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus take to the stage.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, according to Newton’s third law of physics. Can the same be said of thought patterns? Could thinking opposite solve some of the planet’s greatest challenges?

Engaging an opposite mindset is at the heart of Yunus’ business, the Grameen Bank (GB), and his pioneering work in the field of microcredit. The economist won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for proving that lending money to the poor to run their own micro-businesses can transform lives.

Yunus’ own awakening came in 1974 when, as a Bangladeshi economist at Chittagong University, he took his students on a field trip to a remote village. When he met a bamboo-stool seller who was forced to pay back lenders at an interest rate as high as 10% each week, leaving her with pitiful profits, he realised that the kind of economics he taught was fundamentally wrong. Against the advice of banks and government, Yunus arranged microloans at market interest rates and in 1983 formed the GB – “village bank” – founded on principles of trust instead of so-called collateral.

Yunus’ first battle was with other banks. “Bankers told me that lending to the poor was absurd. They said, ‘Banking is a process in which you lend money to people who need it’. But I replied, ‘You lend money to people who already have lots of money but you don’t lend money to people who have nothing’.”

Yunus learnt how conventional banks went about their business – and then he did the opposite. “I created a bank that was almost the mirror image of the traditional bank. They go to the rich, we go to the poor. They choose cities, we choose remote villages. They focus on men, we focus on women.”

And it worked. By 2015 in Bangladesh, GB had 2,568 branches with 21,751 staff serving 8.81 million borrowers in 81,392 villages. Of the borrowers today, 97% are women. The loans are paid back at a higher recovery rate (97%) than any other banking system.

Yunus is often referred to as the “world’s banker to the poor”, but has anyone ever stopped to call a private wealth manager the “world’s banker to the rich”? The value in thinking opposite and what happens when you do is the gauntlet that Yunus has thrown down – something I plan to remember in 2017.

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Stop sleepwalking through life

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What isn’t possible after a good night’s sleep?

Sleep is dedicated time for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself. If you sleep for less than six hours a night, there’s a body of research to show that you will live a shorter life.

I recently explored why the theme of sleep is so popular today.

We’re busier than ever. As technology distracts us and makes information more accessible, the things stimulating our minds all fight against each other for our precious attention. Ask yourself this: would you take yourself off to bed one hour earlier simply to sleep? Or, more likely, would you use that hour updating your social media channels, browsing for your next purchase, or writing your start-up business plan? More often than not, the latter wins, meaning your window of sleep is getting smaller.

The science of attention, and how we can improve it, is discussed in this TEDx talk. It turns out that to improve your attention span, practice really does make perfect. The more you put time aside to concentration on something, the better your brain gets at the process of focussing your attention.

Here are three reasons why you really should stop, think and sleep. Here’s an excerpt from a recent piece with Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS).

Why don’t we do the things we know we should be doing? It’s a question that Jolly asks executives daily.

1. Stop

You’re busy. Are you prepared to put on the brakes?

In January 2016, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum said that people and technology had reached a crossroads. “We should not stay human; we should become better humans,” he said. He meant that artificial intelligence is beginning to occupy the work that can be programmed – forcing people to be more creative, self-aware and empathetic, in essence, more human. What makes people human comes from their brain chemistry, so people have to stop for the sake of their most important attribute in a digital world.

And what are brains for? Thinking.

2. Think

The act of thinking is a lifestyle choice, and one that improves brain health.

When people are thinking, they often take their hands to their temples. It’s the place that generates people’s thoughts, feelings and movements. It’s also the home of ideas.

“Humans don’t like uncertainty. As the world gets more complex, the ability to generate new ideas and adapt rapidly, are vital skills. That’s why we need time to think about the critical things. As we get caught up in the short term, focusing on the long term gets harder, particularly with the distraction of technology.”

Thinking time helps us survive, adapt and prosper. But no one can think without sleep.

 3. Sleep

What’s good for the body is good for the brain, too.

But how much sleep is enough to make you sharp? And how much is too much to make you slow and groggy? “It takes time to test,” he says.

Ariana Huffington is a prime example of someone who underslept and overworked,” he says. “But today, she’s an authority on sleep.”

If sleep increases productivity and happiness, and supports smarter decisions, why are people still bragging about their terrible sleep habits? Because bad sleep supports the outdated idea that if you’re busy, you’re important.

Size matters: small things make us happy

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It really is the small things that make us happy.

This is what’s made me happy this week.

1.    Treating myself to a coffee on the way to work, and it wasn’t even Friday

2.    Buying My Lovely Husband (MLH) a caramel donut, to make him happy

3.    Having the first draft of a feature signed off with an accompanying email that says, “I like it. I have no changes. Consider this signed off.” Bliss!

These are small, trivial acts. The don’t cost very much, if anything. I haven’t booked a safari trek to South Africa and I haven’t bought a new car. In fact, if I did, I’d only worry about what I’d spent to get them.

So, if it’s the small things that make us most happy, why don’t we do them more?

1.    The treat

Remember the vanilla latte I bought on the way to work? This is exactly what I’m talking about. But what constitutes a ‘treat’? you ask. Well, let’s look at the evidence. Elizabeth Dunn (UBC), Daniel Gilbert (Harvard) and Timothy Wilson (Virginia) wrote ‘If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right’ in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, which summaries research into eight recommendations. One is to buy lots of small-ticket items – my coffee, or a trinket necklace, a new scarf or a car magazine – instead of fewer large items – the TV you don’t need, the reverse cameras for your car (sorry, that’s a private dig at MLH, I digress), the uber-expensive leather jacket.

Studies prove you’ll be happier by the frequency of the purchase, rather than its greatness.

2.    The good deed

If you walk into a shop and buy something meant for someone else, the chances are you’ll feel pleased with yourself. I certainly felt pretty smug with MLH’s caramel donut.

Why though? Again, let’s look at the evidence. In the Journal of Social Psychology’s ‘Acts of Kindness and Acts of Novelty Affect Life Satisfaction’, 86 participants took a survey measuring life satisfaction. Then they were split into three groups. One group performed daily acts of kindness for 10 days. The second simply did something new each day. The third group did what the hell they wanted. The results showed that the groups that practiced kindness and engaged in novel acts were both significantly happier. The third group didn’t get any happier. 

So to come back to the question, why are we happier when we’re nicer? Human nature. The small deeds that make others happy, in turn, dials up our happiness barometer. In addition, the more we feed off others’ happiness, the more likely we are to do more good again and again and again. Oh dear, my husband could get very fat from all the caramel donuts…

3.    The positive feedback

Forget constructive feedback. Sometimes we just need a pat on the back and nice words. Let’s see why. Findings from a study by Harvard Business School showed that when people were reminded of their best work, they work more creative and less stressed. It’s a little gift of confidence. And it’s the difference between a good and a bad day. So why don’t people praise us more, and why don’t we tell the people we admire that we admire them? Because we’re a society that hates braggers. And we all resist the urge to seek praise. It might be fashionable to think that praise is bad, but when it comes on an unexpected day, from an unexpected place, it can be a powerful thing indeed.

What makes you happy? Are you treating yourself to the right things? Partaking in random acts of kindness? And are you giving praise to people around you? Remember, it’s the small things, after all.

Follow me on Twitter, if you fancy it! @akmanvell

Could digital help bring back spontaneity?

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Water cooler chats in the office this week led to the question: what’s your favourite celebrity quote? While some colleagues liked “I’m kind of a big deal” and “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me”, my favourite quote remains the same as when I first set up my Facebook profile back in 2008 – John Lennon’s “Life’s what happens while you’re busy making plans”. It resonates because it’s true. Days packed with tasks – like researching breaks away – feel wasted, and they fill me with dread.

At the moment, My Lovely Husband (MLH) is poring over our iPad in search of the perfect birthday weekend for me. It’s very sweet. But, as I’ve just told him: “It’s very annoying.” I’m demanding, I know. But if you take heed of my favourite John Lennon quote – why should we be busy making plans? Let’s just bloody do it!

Last year I wrote a blog about going on a digital diet – which, by the way, I totally failed doing. One blog follower got in touch to say it inspired them to go on a digital diet, too. I’ve since been in touch with her and she failed, too.

Since we’re not in the dark ages, and we can’t go back to the days of our parents’ spontaneity – for their honeymoon, my mum and dad toured Wales in a white van with a mattress in the back, so they could stop where and when they liked. Today, they would be pulled over by the police and asked to “move along” from their suspicious roadside camp – times have changed, so I’m moving on from a digital diet, and proposing the opposite. Can digital bring back spontaneity? I’ve scoured the digital universe to found some apps to help procrastinators procrastinate no more. Choose a place, choose a date, turn up and use these:

  1. Fill your time in more than 37 cities with Utrip – in minutes, you have a comprehensive day-by-day itinerary, complete with maps.
  2. Make last minute dinner reservations in London with Uncover.
  3. Discover the best experiences and activities with Peek – it uses geolocation technology and allows users to select by category.
  4. Find attractions with Eventseeker – it brings you a culture fix by pinpointing specific exhibitions, concerts, food festivals, and shows that are worth your while.
  5. If you’re forgetful, and you’re going to somewhere without, god forbid, the internet, save your activity suggestions to Pocket and search offline.

MLH is still searching for my birthday weekend retreat, meanwhile, I’ve packed our bags and I’m waiting by the door.

Valentine’s Day: Why you make my eyes roll

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You make my eyes roll when. . .

You floss your teeth using a cotton thread from your sock

You polish the kitchen floor and make me skid across the lino

You hoover, just as my favourite TV show starts

You elbow me by mistake because I’m “small” and got “under your feet”

You say I “hoard” when I claim to “collect”

You turn down my dinner for spam, from a tin

You ask me to sing in a lower key

You open my post, which I find in a draw a year later

You use my shampoo as bubble bath

You ask: “Have you brushed your hair today?” Just before I go out

And when you wipe snot on your sleeve. . .

It’s lucky though because I like to roll my eyes. . .

And I love you anyway because you kiss my forehead when you think I’m asleep.

Picture citation: Tatyana A, I love strawberry, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

10 things I hate about small talk

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Is there anything worse than someone asking you about the weather? Especially when you’re itching to tell someone about your uber cool project or the next big idea you’ve had after drawing inspiration from a bearded man on a train.

I can’t stand it.

Yes, it’s raining outside, but I happen to spend my days inside writing at a desk, and when I’m not, I’m standing, indoors, at an event – the rain is inconsequential and so is your conversation.

Shouldn’t we try and wring out moments to give us droplets of insight? I think so. Anything but inane how are yous when the questioner doesn’t really care and the respondent doesn’t really want to share.

Let’s ask questions we want the answers to. Or, hold the front page; engage in meaningful conversation at the water cooler.

Don’t ask me:

  1. About the weather – you may feel that we have covered this off. But in fact, there’s more to say on the topic. I like clouds, leaves on the floor, wind (of the easterly kind), heat and fog. You won’t get a good answer out of me, whatever your weather question.
  2. “How are you?” Unless you really want to know the answer. I’m afraid I enjoy sharing my latest woe. At the moment, it’s a fractured finger.
Finger

The fractured finger in question

I’m clumsy by nature, so there’s always something to share. Your bewildered face after my (long) monologue answer to “how are you?” which includes A&E trips, splints and index finger bilateral nerve pain – is caused by only one thing, your choice of question, not my answer.

  1. “What do you do?” Are we defined by our jobs? It depends. If you are a writer, then, a little, yes. If you’re a data analyst, with passions for adventure and you’re climbing Mount Everest next week, then no. In fact, read this post by Knowledge at Wharton for more on this alone.
  2. “Do you have children?” It’s none of your business at this stage, is it?
  3. “How old are you?” As above.
  4. “What did you do before the job you’ve got now?” See point three.
  5. “Where do you live?” Are you a stalker? Are you trying to figure out how much I earn? I certainly don’t have a spare bedroom.
  6. “Do you have a big family?” If the answer is no, and in fact quite the opposite, we’ve got off to a bad start haven’t we. So I’ll let you rethink the question.
  7. “What’s your political stance?” Private, until further notice.
  8. “How’s your health?” As mentioned, typically there is something to share about my health. So unless you want the gory details on the stitch accidently left in my foot after an NHS nursing error, in which the skin grew over and then had to be dug out by a nice orthopaedic surgeon chap, just don’t ask.

Instead, ask me:

  1. “What are you interested in at the moment?” Ah. An open-ended question with meaning. It will allow me to talk for two to three minutes about a topic of my choice. Absolute bliss!
  2. “What are your plans for the summer?” Whatever the month at the time of asking, the answer is loaded with adventure, fun, hopes and dreams. Plus, you can tell a lot about a person from the summer they have planned.
  3. “What’s your industry like at the moment?” We’ve just met. You don’t know what industry I work in. Clever. You are covering off, “What do you do?” “How’s business?” and “What are the economic challenges facing your business?” “Is work stable?” as well as “Are you likely to get laid off?” “Is there any freelance work there?” All without the intrusion of asking these things.

What do you like to be asked? Tell me and I’m happy to oblige. Just make sure it’s not about the weather, please.