How Playing a Game Changed My Life

October 22, 2012

In my book, “Goal-Free Living,” I talk about the importance of Seeking Out Adventure.  Trying new things is one avenue for enhancing your creativity.  As Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just having enough dots to connect. Dots being ideas or experiences.”  He claims that people who are more creative have had more experiences.  Well, my sister has decided to be proactive about seeking out adventure.  But for her, it is not just about becoming more creative.  It is about enhancing her life.  It is a form of self discovery.  I asked her to document and share her perspectives in a guest blog entry.  So, with great pleasure, I would like to give you Deborah Shapiro’s new game…

Stepping out of a relationship is challenging, at least for me.  And after the conclusion of my most recent relationship there was a debilitating void.   I began to realize that my life’s activities had revolved around the individuals I had been with. Once alone, I had no idea what to do with myself.  Our friends were the same.   Our activities revolved around what he liked to do and I was happy to accommodate as I cared more about who I was with than with what we were doing.

I was left with an existential crisis on my hands.  Who am I?  What are MY passions?  What are the things that bring ME joy and happiness?  Why do I feel so alone?   I had no idea how to answer these simple questions that someone at the age of 45 should have long discovered.

After much consideration what I saw was  that I needed to take different actions to have the life I so desired; actions that would disrupt a very predictable future reminiscent of my past.

So, I decided to play a game.

The Rules:  Since I didn’t know what I really enjoyed doing nor understood where my passions lie, a fitting game to create was to take on a new activity every day.  The intention was for me to experiment with a whole new set of actions or do those things that I hadn’t done in a while. I would create a running list of items as they surfaced and would tick them off at the appropriate moments.

One of the essential rules created was that I would suspend all judgment of whether I would like the activity or not.  How could I know if I liked something if I hadn’t ever done it?  Additionally, I am at a different point in my life.  If I had tried something previously with limited success, perhaps now would be a more fitting time.

The Results (so far): Although it has only been a month since I started this game, the results have been staggering.  Life altering, to be frank.

Look at all these friends!

Due to the nature of the game, I had to reach beyond my traditional circle of friends so that I could be amongst others who were willing to participate in those activities I had identified.  In doing so, my circle of friends has grown exponentially.  My once quiet phone is now ringing off the hook with amazing individuals.  And surprisingly, those that I had thought were “not my type” have ended up being some of my most cherished friends.

This realization created a new rule:   In addition to not filtering activities based on my preconceived notions, I will no longer limit who I will do them with.

I had always thought that, at my age, people would already be settled into having a set base of friends with little room for newcomers.  But what I have discovered is that there are many others out there as hungry as I to forge new friendships. I was feeling alone.  But, in the wake of this new game, I find it somewhat comical as to how anyone could feel alone amongst a population of close to 7 billion.  I was responsible my loneliness.

Look at all these things to do!

Equally as comical, is the fact that I had ever said, “I have nothing to do.”    Because of this game, I have been trained to listen for any activity that could present itself.   Ideas are literally EVERYWHERE.  You just need to listen for them.

I’ve gotten ideas from Facebook, the news, passing conversations with neighbors.  The best source?  My new friends.  They know of and are excited about my game and want to join in.  There has been a recent onslaught of emails and texts containing ideas from trapeze lessons to swing dancing, hot yoga to paddle boating.

These activities have always been there, the difference is that I am now listening with intent.  But more importantly, I have a structure in place to fulfill on these events.  Without that structure, an idea would be just that…a nice idea.

Every day really IS a new day!

In searching for something new, I started to see what wasn’t.  My life.  I began to recognize that I had a pattern for doing virtually the same thing, the same way, every day.  I wake up.  Brush my teeth.  Make coffee.  Clean the house. Go to work.  Send emails. Make dinner.   Watch TV and then go to bed.    No wonder why people are dissatisfied with their lives.  In my case, I had unwittingly created routines that had me condemned to a life of ordinary.

So I started to look at how I could adjust some of these patterns.  How about tea instead of coffee?  Or taking a different route to work?  Maybe listening to a different genre of music or watching a new show on TV.    How about eating something exotic for dinner? Or writing a handwritten note to a friend instead of sending an email or text?

I have long complained that technology has made life impersonal.  I have just begun to see that I am the one making it impersonal, not technology.  Just because it is easier to send an email or text, doesn’t mean I have to.

By making these small adjustments, I saw that every day is truly my own creation!  My life was stagnant, because I was making it that way.  That is the good news – bad news.  However, seeing this now opens up the opportunity for me to create my days any way I desire.

Playing a game has changed my life

Why has playing a game been so effective for me?

In games, there is no right or wrong.  There is nowhere to get to.  YOU create the rules so you can change them at any time.  You can even stop playing if you want. (But why on earth would I want to?!)

And because I had no preconceived notions of how the game would go, I had no expectations for the results.  If I had established a specified outcome, a defined place to get to, I would have created a pressure for myself to achieve that goal, making the game feel more like a burden than a game.

This has me really wondering:  How much could life differ if we all lived it like a game?

It has only been three weeks. Imagine what I will discover over the next year or 5?  How will the rules change?  What new insights are in store?  Time will only tell.

Oh, you are probably wondering what passions I have discovered.  Only one thus far.  I am passionate about trying new things.  Come play!

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Overcoming Writer’s Block

October 17, 2012

For the past couple of months, I have suffered from writer’s block.  I have not been motivated to write.

That is until this week, when I wrote five articles in three days.  My rut has ended.


The issue stemmed from my inability to find interesting topics. More accurately, it was from my inability to remember interesting topics.

I have so many conversations with fascinating people.  Yet as soon as I think something could be a good article idea, it flies right out of my head.

I am now treating the search for good article topics like a scavenger hunt.  I’m actively looking.

Each morning I “prime” myself for finding good articles.  I ask myself, “What cool topics will I uncover today?”  In the back of my mind now, every conversation I have, every article I read, every thought that pops into my head, is an opportunity for an article.

The second I have a thought that feels interesting, I write it down (typically in my iPhone). I don’t censor. And I don’t wait.  I’ve sometimes interrupted people during a conversation to say, “This is an awesome idea, I want to write it down so I don’t forget it.”  They actually appreciate the fact that I found them so interesting.

The other thing that has helped is having the right workspace.  I cleaned up my desk, removed the clutter, and bought a large monitor.  The writing experience is much more enjoyable.  I am now pulled to write because I want to sit at my desk.

I also realized that since I started traveling with only my iPad, I stopped writing. Although it is more convenient not bringing along my MacBook, I don’t like writing on the iPad, even with an external keyboard. Every article I wrote this week was done on my Mac. In fact, I am in a hotel room now writing this on my Mac.

These are the things that have helped me overcome my writer’s block.  What has worked for you?

P.S. I did not count this blog entry as one of the 5 I wrote this week :)

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What is Your Deep Structure?

October 15, 2012

The other day I was speaking with a CEO who wanted me to help facilitate a conversation around the crafting of the company’s purpose statement.

I asked her, “Why do you want to do this?”

She explained that she wanted everyone on her team to fully understand and be aligned behind the purpose of the organization.

Given this as her objective, I suggested that wordsmithing may not be the best use of their time.

Deep versus Surface Structure

In language, there is the concept of “deep” versus “surface” structure.

The deep structure is the meaning; what you want to convey.

The surface structure is the actual configuration of words, used to express what you want to say.

When you debate the specific words that should be in your mission or vision statement, you are automatically focusing on the surface structure.

But if your goal is alignment and understanding, the words are not as important as the intent – the deep structure.

Access to the deep structure is not intellectual.  It is visceral.

To do this, I suggested that the team visit/interview clients.  Talk to individuals and organizations that have been impacted by their work.  Talk about “why” you are in business.  Have each person on the team share personal stories.  Get emotional.

The specific wording of a purpose, mission or vision statement (the surface structure) is not as important as the meaning behind the words (the deep structure).  This is where you tap into implicit motivations.

The Deep Structure of Your Business

This concept of deep versus surface structure also applies to your business model.

Companies are known for having binders of policies, practices, and processes.

However, these documents typically only describe the surface structure; how the work should be done.

What really needs to be conveyed is the deep structure behind these policies and processes.

Why are they designed this way?  What do we want to achieve?  What is the impact of doing things this way? Why are we in business?

The “why” and the “what” are the deep structure.  You want people to get the deep structure beyond an intellectual level.  You want everyone to understand it at a visceral level.

Unfortunately most businesses document the “how” – the surface structure.  And the little deep structure that is provided is given at an intellectual level.

Doing this limits innovation…and true self-expression.

Classical music is an example of surface structure.  There is very little room for interpretation.  With little variation, different orchestras play a given composition in very similar ways.

Jazz, on the other hand, is often about the deep structure: the chords, rhythm, and time signature.  Armed with this information, a jazz ensemble can improvise and innovate within the confines of this intention, rather than being forced to play a specific set of notes.  The players are free to express what comes to them in the moment, while adhering to the imposed guidelines.  They feel the music in their bones.*

When organizations focus on the deep structure, improvisation begins to emerge.  Innovation becomes a more natural act because everyone is clear on the “why” and “what.”  From there, they can innovate the “how.”  Work becomes a truer expression of each individual.

Stop investing so much energy in defining surface structure.  Make sure everyone understands the deep structure.  This will save time and increase the level of innovation within the organization.

*Note that jazz is not a free-for-all.  Everyone is still “in a box.”  The box ensures risk mitigation and better coordination. The same is true with the deep structure for innovation.  

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Twelve Coaches

October 12, 2012

I am thrilled to announce the launch of a new program that was developed with 11 other experts.  It is called Twelve Coaches.

We have pulled together a dozen of the brightest minds in their respective fields to offer a video coaching program, with the option for one-on-one support.  Each month you will get 60 videos plus access to all past recordings.

The topics/experts include…

  • Chris Pirillo – technology
  • Joe Calloway – competitive advantage
  • Chris Widener – personal development
  • Ron White – mental focus (he’s a world champion memory expert)
  • Colette Carlson – communications
  • Kyle Wilson – marketing
  • plus sales, leadership/teamwork, customer service, networking/relationships, entrepreneurship/income creation
  • and yours truly on innovation and change

We recently had an introductory call with a few of the coaches.  You can listen to it here…

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Or you can download the mp3

You can learn even more, including watching sample videos, at

Please email me personally if you have any questions.

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Beyond the 4-Hour Workweek

October 11, 2012

The 4-Hour Workweek (by Tim Ferris) is the ultimate book title.  Who doesn’t want to work only 4 hours a week?*

I was hooked by the title, but disappointed by the premise.

In a nutshell, the book suggests that if you work 50 hours a week, you should outsource 46 hours, leaving only 4 hours of work for you.  He suggests that you should find people in India or the Philippines who can do your dirty work for very little money.  (I am admittedly oversimplifying, but this is not far off)

To me this is the wrong strategy.

This approach assumes that the 50 hours you are working are all worth doing.  This is rarely the case.  Why would you get someone to do the tasks that you should not be doing in the first place?

Don’t just do what you are doing today better, faster and cheaper.  Instead, question everything.

Find the 4-hours of work that will unleash massive value.  The key is leverage.  Where can you invest your time that will have the greatest impact?

When working on anything in your business, ask yourself how much value is being created.  It will typically fall into 3 categories (I know I discussed this in a previous blog entry, but some things are worth repeating):

  1. Adding no value (or even detracting from what you need to do).
  2. Adds a linear amount of value – one hour of work generates one hour of value
  3. Adds exponential value – one hour of work generates 100 hours of value

Whenever I am doing something, I ask myself, “Is this creating exponential value?”

Interestingly, in most cases, there is little that I can do on my own that will create exponential value.  Leverage (or scale) typically happens through partnerships and relationships.

I have created several partnerships with organizations who have massive distribution, and large development/deliver capabilities.  I invest a significant amount of time and money researching potential partners and exploring those relationships.  By tapping into their reach and resources, I can generate exponential impact on my business.

Here are some simple questions/actions that will help you focus your energies:

  • Who has access to the markets I want to tap into?  Partner with them.
  • Where are the people in my target market gathering? Go to them.
  • What is it that these individuals and organizations want/need most? Deliver this instead of what I have to offer.
  • Who needs something similar  to what I offer?  See if I can modify my product/service to meet this untapped need.

Generate your own questions.  Anything to shift your thinking.

The more leverage I get from a particular activity, the more time (and emotional energy) I want to invest. Because I know that the more I invest in activities with leverage, the less time I will have to invest in the long-run.

How much value does your current 50 hours of workweek generate? 50 hours?  40? 4?  Outsourcing tasks that create linear value is fine.  But what if you partnered with people on tasks that generate exponential value.  And what if the 4 hours you choose to work only focused on activities that creates exponential value?  50 hours of work could generate 5,000 hours of value.

No more linear thinking!

*  I don’t really think that I want to work only 4 hours a week.  I love the intellectual stimulation of work and the contribution I get to make.  So working that little is not really a goal for me.

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TopCoder is Tops

October 4, 2012

TopCoder is one of the best-kept secrets in open innovation.  I had the pleasure of spending time with them.  They are a fun bunch that is passionate about what they do.

After a full-day deep dive in their Connecticut offices, I traveled to Orlando to spend two days at their “TopCoder Open,” a competition they run each year where they invite their top contributors and clients.

I have to say, it’s all quite impressive.

They focus on a specific set of problems: design, coding/testing, and algorithmic challenges.

Their approach to open innovation is distinctive; something I have not seen elsewhere:

  • They “atomize” their challenges to make them so small that they can be solved in two weeks or less.  In some cases, challenges are solved in 24 hours.  Doing this increases the likelihood of success and reduces the impact of failures.
  • Their challenges are not an event; they are an end-to-end process.  Competitions start with strategies, wireframes, user experience design, and go through coding, testing, bug finding and more.  They take a macro challenge and deconstruct it into many smaller challenges that are later integrated back together.
  • They eat their own dog food.  Their own platform was developed by their community.  They have very few internal resources.  Anything they need to create, they use the community.  Imagine an technology company without any technology people and you have TopCoder.
  • Their community is truly a community and not a bunch of individuals.  Yes, they create competitions where contributors earn badges and reputation points.  But unlike similar platforms, the members get to know each other.  While at the TopCoder Open, it was clear that there is camaraderie amongst the community.
  • It is all about the community.  Nearly everything they do is through the community and for the community.  They have 400,000 members in 220 countries. The project managers, called co-pilots, are members of the community.   The crowd is even used to spec out the challenges; a challenge to define the challenge. The community does it all.

The results are astonishing.  Most organizations have found that they can get a better result for 1/6th the cost with much shorter development timeframes.

Because they have a wide range of challenges (design, coding, testing, etc), this allows people to specialize on what they really like.  Studies show that doing this increases effectiveness by 40%.

Open innovation in general is a great model because it allows the organization to pay for results, not hours.  And because there are so many people working simultaneously on a problem, the likelihood of finding a solution is massively increased.  TopCoder has a 90% solve rate.

Open innovation also allows organizations to try out new ideas in a safe and inexpensive way.  TopCoder is a perfect platform for doing this.  With 2 weeks and a few thousand dollars, they can run a challenge that can generate great insights quickly and cheaply.

There are many open innovation platforms.  I have seen many of them. Each has a specific purpose.  One solution does not solve all innovation challenges.

TopCoder specializes on a specific set of problems: design and development.  And they solve those challenges exceptionally well.

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