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June 2011

Acorn to Oak

I was recently invited to address over 100 Sixth Formers about motivation and their careers. It’s a wonderful opportunity and it’s great to not talk to business people sometimes, and have an entirely fresh audience – at 17 years old, very fresh!

As I scanned their ranks I could see the overwhelming problem: just how does an acorn become an oak? The process is so mysterious and impenetrable. At one level we know – or we think we know: it grows. It derives nourishment from the soil and the sun and it expands. But that simple, simplistic explanation – because it ‘explains’ – takes away the wonder, the sheer awe-someness, of what actually happens.

People long in the past, before the advent of science and our world of ‘explanations’, had a much deeper reverence and respect for these natural processes. Consider: the acorn in the palm of your hand, and then view the mighty oak – how one thing becomes another!

And so it is with babies and children: they are small and fragile and inconsequential almost, one day, and then the next – I blinked once – and they are Shakespeare or Michelangelo – or Hitler or Stalin. How does this happen?

One reality, I think, that it is crucial to understand is that the invisible world dominates the visible; in other words, what we do not see is more important than what we do. The ancient Egyptian Book of Heaven and Hell put it this way: “All the world which lies below has been set in order and filled in contents by the things which are placed above; for the things below have not the power to set in order the world above. The weaker mysteries must yield to the stronger; and the system of things on high is stronger than the things below.” This may seem arcane, but it has a profound truth. One aspect of its truth we know from our own experience: namely, what is invisible is more important than what is invisible. What is invisible? Our values, our courage, our truth, our love. Behaviour may – rather weakly (and we can fake behaviour anyway) – reflect these invisible things, but behaviour is not ‘them’.

So to return to my talk – how does the acorn become the oak? – I gave these youngsters three questions to get their heads round.

One, who are you? Stop identifying yourself with your name, your parents, your rank, your possessions, your future role – who are you in yourself? And if you have never thought about this, now is the time to start.

Two, what is your mission? Everybody is here to do something, but what? There is in fact no manual that comes when we are born, which is a problem; we have to figure it out. What were you designed to do? One clue is: it tends to be something you get a special buzz out of doing and always have.

Three, what motivates you? Clearly, mission and motivation need to be aligned. Over and above whatever qualifications you get at school and college, you need to do work that motivates you. Do not die with your music still inside you – that would be a waste.

And isn’t that, then, metaphorically, the answer to how an acorn becomes an oak? It plays its own internal music – and the sound reaches to the heavenly skies.

The nebulous, the subjective and the sub-conscious

I find when I talk about motivation I frequently have to admit three things: that motivation, as a topic, is nebulous, subjective and mostly ‘sub-conscious’. What do I mean by this?

When Dr Johnson, of dictionary fame, was asked, What is poetry? He famously replied that this was like asking, What is light? We all know what light is, but it is difficult to say what it is. So with motivation: we know what it is, the average person thinks they know what it is because Wayne Rooney and other sports persons are motivated, aren’t they? But what is it?

For those who dig deeper, they have been on a course somewhere, some time, and have walked on fire, yelled out they can do it, and generally experienced the pure rah-rah of motivation. But again, what is it?

And here’s the point: until we create a language for a topic we cannot be specific - the opposite of nebulous. All trades, all activities, all knowledge involve their own particular jargon or set of words – a kind of shorthand – which enables practitioners to communicate effectively and swiftly about the topic. Be that topic computers, love, law or gardening, each has its jargon. But motivation? The push and pull, the carrot and stick … we find very quickly that its language is limited.

So, too, it’s subjective: motivation seems touchy-feely, entirely down to what one person thinks it is, and no more substantial than a personal view. The opposite of this of course is objective. And we get really objective when we can not only describe the thing in language, but also measure it. We can add numbers to the descriptive jargon. Wow, when this happens, we are making serious progress in our understanding of motivation.

Finally, what about the ‘sub-conscious’, what’s that about? Basically, most people have no idea consciously of what actually motivates them except perhaps in an immediate tangible sense: I am hungry and motivated to eat. The finer drives are all but invisible.

Here is where I like to say the opposite of sub-conscious is not conscious, but visible. What we want – and what language and measurement make possible – is the rendering of the sub-conscious into visible reality and understanding. At last, we see what motivates us and others. Then, and only then, are we really in a position to be able to ‘manipulate’ motivation – to control motivation – to get a handle on motivation.

Thus I make no apology for going on about our own product, The Motivational Map, which is specific, objective and visible (in its final output, the report or Map); and its effects are correspondingly powerful and transformative. I, and all the Map practitioners around the world, have time and time again witnessed amazing insights and a-ha moments as individuals, team, and whole organisations suddenly get to see what is really going on with the motivations – the energies – at their sub-conscious roots.



Being a pilgrim

For those of you who haven't read it, or seen it, my latest collection of poetry is called To Be a Pilgrim and is available on Amazon. I won't bore you with self-eulogies – I'd like to say it's sensational, but hey: you be judge. What I will say is sensational, however, is my wife's art work on the cover (and for that matter in the interior). Her line drawing of the 'Millennium Man' exactly fits the theme of the collection: a back view, giving the impression of the man staring forward, supported by a large walking staff, a kind of axis pointing to heaven but grounded on the Earth.

Anyway, I think it's a marvellous piece of art work and the point is how these images and words can suddenly and unexpectedly seep into reality. As has often been observed, how life imitates art, or is inspired by art.

My seventeen year old son, Joe, regularly does Shaolin kung fu on a Saturday, and has been practising for years. He walks across the park to The Littledown Sports Centre, does his training there and then walks back home.

The other day he did exactly that, and was walking back, carrying his Shaolin bo-staff. This is a long staff used for weapons training. Suddenly, two ill-advised eight to ten year olds ran across to him. I am sure you know the type: the sort that have nothing to do, and nowhere to go, except to be in a public park seeking entertainment, which isn't always healthy for them.

What's that?” one said.

It's a staff,” my son replied, warily watching their movements.

I want it,” said the other one.

I am sorry,” said my son.

I want it,” he repeated.

I am sorry,” my son said, “but you can't have it.”

Why not?” said the kid.

Because I need it for my pilgrimage,” said my son.

Wow,” said the first kid, visibly impressed. “Are you a pilgrim?”

Aren't we all?” said Joe, and swiftly moved on. They stood there – one scratching his head, the other stunned!

Increasing billable hours


For those in the service industry – accountants, lawyers, consultants, trainers and coaches, yes coaches – one of the most important aspects of their business is selling their service. And after that, the second most important thing, if they want to stay in business, is increasing their billable hours. Now let's be clear here: we are not talking about artificially inflating the number of hours worked for the client without any real delivery of extra value – that would just be unethical and crummy. Instead, we are talking about how we can add more value to the client and so legitimately add more hours' work to our bill because in doing so we are adding real value to their business or even to their personal development.

One well trodden route to increasing billable hours is by extending one's knowledge and skill range. This is good, although it can run into another problem: the me-too problem. In other words becoming a generic 'whatever' (accountant … coach) who can solve all their problems; the problem being that one isn't particularly an expert, or sensationally good, at any of the solutions; but one can get by. It is the opposite, if you will, of being niche in one's expertise.

A potentially better solution than merely extending the range of one's service skills is acquiring complementary products that support, reinforce, and develop the core proposition. This certainly worked for me, and it especially works in the area of repeat sales.

As we know, acquiring a new client is the most expensive part of the sales operation; but once you have a client, then if you can get repeat business from them, then that seriously improves the margins of the business. Further, if that is a product they come to see they need, the repeat sales require little 'servicing', because by definition the product is what it is.

So, to take an imaginary example: you are an accountant who does a client's accounts. You develop some software – the product – that enables them to do some basic tax (or whatever) calculations for themselves; they only need the yearly upgrade, which you charge for. Clearly, this adds value, empowers the client, and one piece of work – the upgrade – can service hundreds if not thousands of clients, all of whom pay.

What I am about to tell you is obviously anecdotal, but true for me nonetheless. I am telling it because I am frequently asked, What is the benefit of using your product, the Motivational Map, James? Consultants and coaches ask me this question.

I could in answer to it go on about the features of the product, or even the performance benefits for the staff; however, I'd rather talk about the business benefits for the licensees who use the product, and the benefit specifically to me in using it with clients. What is that benefit?

I was a trainer and coach for 10 years. During that time I had hundreds of clients. If you asked me, What was the average length of your client engagement, then the answer would be somewhere between three and six months. In other words, a Director of an organisation would contact me and contract me to run, say, a communication skills programme spread over three months, or ask me to mentor three members of staff for one day a month for three months. And I got used to that way of working. When they were pleased with the result, they'd contact me three or five years later and invite me to do it again! But it was always time limited in the first place.

All that changed with the creation and adoption of Motivational Maps. Because the Maps provided real time information on an ongoing basis, and were a simple, cost-effective product, the average tenure within a company became something more like three to four years!! And, even better, the contracts were far bigger: instead of doing work over six months for three to six thousand pounds for a single client, I was working for twenty thousand plus pounds a year. The Maps could even go in when I didn't.

Thus I say to all coaches and consultants who want a more distinctive position in the market place, consider a product to complement your service. And for those who are working in the developing people field/sector, I say – consider Motivational Maps: they'll work for you, if you work for them, and won't disappoint your client.