I turned 40 last month. I went through a lot of changes in my 30s. Last year someone told me I should write about lessons I’d learned. This seems like a good excuse.
These lessons are personal and specific to me. They are not an exhaustive list. In the future I’ll learn new lessons and disown some of these. Most importantly, these lessons are not a set of instructions for anyone else. Each life has its own lessons.
Truths about myself
#1. I owe more to luck than hard work. Part of me thinks I’m solely responsible for my successes. This isn’t true. Fooled by Randomness showed me that it’s mostly down to luck. I try to keep this in mind.
#2. I am highly privileged. I’m white, male, middle class, straight, tall, able-bodied, and young(ish). I’m WEIRD - western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic. Realising how privileged I am made me deeply uncomfortable until Caroline Jarrett told me that my responsibility was to use my privilege to help others. I try to do this.
#3. I am unfashionably sincere. I’m enthused by all sorts of things. I gush admiration for people and ideas. I’m bad at postmodern cynicism. This sincerity didn’t work well at school and I quickly had it knocked out of me. A long time later I realised I’d been suppressing part of who I am. I don’t suppress that part any more.
#4. I’m not great at being tribal. My life is full of tribes. Spurs and Arsenal. Labour and the Tories. Leavers and remainers. Designers and researchers. House music and rap music. I’m amazed at how sure people are about their tribes. My mum once told me that many left-wingers have big ideas about public good but turn out to be terrible people in private. Ever since I can’t help but see the good and bad in every tribe. I particularly hate that in-group out-group bullshit.
#5. I am creative, but I’m not an artist. My dad is a jazz musician and values creativity above all. I spent a long time trying to be a musician in my 20s. Eventually I realised the artist life wasn’t for me. Freed, I fell in love with design because it unlocked my own creativity. I make new things. I play with ideas. I find ways to rethink problems. I love it.
#6. I am an explainer through and through. When I studied history I was scolded for writing grand narratives. These days I wrap up what I know about user-centred design in neat models. The Beginning of Infinity made me feel better because David Deutsch shows how better explanations transform the world. On the flip side, I know that I veer into mansplaining at times. Pull me up on it if you see it.
#7. I’m not really sure of what I know. Thinking Fast and Slow had a huge impact on me. All those cognitive biases blew my mind. I am haunted by the idea that I don’t quite know what I think about things for real. I’ve found it to be a liberating and exhilarating way to live life.
Truths about the world
#8. It's better to be kind than to be smart. At school I was that obnoxious kid that got good grades and made too much of it. It wasn’t a great way to make friends. I’ve spent my adult life undoing that side of myself. Anne Galloway was given this advice on entering academia. “We're all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind”. I love that.
#9. Black and white thinking is rarely helpful. The truth is nearly always in the grey areas. The problem is it’s easier to communicate when you adopt extreme positions. False binaries are more compelling than ‘it depends’. One way around this is having strong ideas, weakly held. Another is that all models are wrong but some are useful.
#10. The dying tell us important things about life. My girlfriend’s dad died a few years ago and this made a big impact on me. Around then I came across The Top Five Regrets of the Dying which are: not living a life true to yourself, working too hard, failing to express your feelings, losing touch with your friends, and not letting yourself be happy. I’ve been using these things to think about my life ever since.
#11. People solve their own problems. For years I would listen to someone’s problem, tell them how to fix it, and then get annoyed when they didn’t. I still do this. Most of the time it doesn’t work. People don’t act until they’re ready to act. Maybe you’ll be there when they do and you can help. Probably not.
#12. Learning to say no is important. I’ve realised in the last few years that deep down I want to please people. Often I say yes to things that stress me out later on. My counsellor asked me to say no to ten unimportant requests in a week without saying sorry or giving an explanation. Nobody stopped loving me. That was a turning point.
#13. Bad behaviour often comes from hurt and trauma. A friend who works with vulnerable young people told me bad behaviour comes from hurt and trauma. I can’t unlearn this. I see it everywhere. It changed how I deal with humans behaving badly.
#14. It took me a long time to deal with my parents breaking up. It happened when I was 11. I wasn’t aware I hadn’t dealt with this until my girlfriend helped me face it in my 20s. I didn't properly make peace with it until my 30s. It’s the background to my life.
#15. My long-term relationship isn't what I expected. I’ve been with my girlfriend for 17 years. We’ve changed lots since 22. Being in love with someone for a long time is poorly represented in art and culture. Don't expect your love to follow those plotlines.
#16. Showing my vulnerability has been surprisingly OK. I’ve got used to talking about my mistakes and fears. It doesn’t emasculate me or leave me open to attack. It does help me build trusting relationships quicker. These are my favourite kinds of relationships.
#17. Talking things through helps me. Counselling, coaching, discussing things at work, going for a drink with a friend, or just talking to myself. All bring different perspectives to my problems. That perspective shifting is what helps me step past blockers in my life.
#18. Self care isn’t some new age bullshit. Ten years ago I laughed at self-help books. Then someone close to me revealed they had helped him. I read some. They helped me too. I meditate and write morning pages. I work four days a week to balance work with life. Life is a long road and I need all the help I can get.
#19. I cry a lot more these days. Films. Adverts. Books. Podcasts. Songs. Not because I'm sad but because I feel things more. And because I'm less bothered about playing the role of a man. It feels good. It’s addictive.
#20. Bringing new things into the world means living with failure. It’s taken me a long time to realise that I am drawn to designing new things more than improving existing things. The awkward thing is that most new things fail. My ten year design career is full of hard work that has gone nowhere. I’ve had to learn to live with this.
#21. My biggest impact is on the people directly around me. My life has been a journey from trying to impact millions through music, to trying to impact millions through design, to trying to impact the handful of people I work with. This is less ambitious but is meaningful and rewarding in ways I never expected. Maybe my work will impact millions one day. Maybe it won’t. There’s luck involved. I’ll always know I’ve been part of these people’s lives and that matters to me.
#22. Communication is everything. I was lucky to spend three years in a comms team at CABE. It taught me a huge amount about how to be clear. Working as a designer taught me more. But it never ends. Every time I stop paying attention to how I’m communicating I slip back into old bad habits. There are no shortcuts.
#23. There are hidden depths to listening. Some people don’t listen at all. Some listen for you to finish so they can speak. Some listen to your words as an excuse to tell a related story about themselves. A few people listen carefully and ask follow-up questions. Very few people do empathic listening. This is when you listen to someone and, instead of asking questions, rephrase the content and reflect the feeling of what the other person is saying. It avoids putting your own views into the conversation. It is incredible what it opens up. But it’s hard and goes against all our instincts.
#24. Criticising people in public is usually counterproductive. I’ve made this mistake too much at work. Many people I otherwise respect make this mistake too much on Twitter. Mostly it's better to praise in public and criticise in private. It’s not a universal rule though because at times you need to speak truth to power.
#25. Facilitating groups is a great way to get stuff done. Pete Gale showed me this. Gamestorming and Liberating Structures gave me techniques. I know it looks scary but we work in teams and this is a core skill that can be learned. It’s been so much easier to get things done in organisations now I’ve learned to bring people with me.
#26. Competition is harmful to working together. I grew up competitive. Not just grades but board games, quizzes, sports, ideas, conversations, anything. Through working with other people I’ve learned this isn’t helpful. I’m sad that our society encourages so much competition between individuals. Especially when it leaves us comparing ourselves to each other and coming up short.
#27. Money and power nearly trapped me in the wrong career. How To Do What You Love inspired me to walk away from big money with big pharma at a crucial time in my life. Big money doesn’t sound like a trap. But if you use it to get a big house then the big mortgage payments mean it’s difficult to step away from that career later on. You can’t change your life it you don’t leave your options open.
#28. Separating my spending from my salary was a turning point. Early on in my career I lived month to month. Once I got to £45,000 I had enough to live on and since then every payrise has mostly gone into savings. This is a double bonus - I save more towards retirement, and when I get there I’ll need less pension income to live the same life that I do today. Plus I’m not tied to the higher salary if I need to move.
#29. No one else will negotiate my salary for me. Someone told me “you don’t get paid what you’re worth, you get paid what you negotiate”. Sad but true. If you don’t negotiate your salary you’ll get less than other people who do. The good news is that once you’re setting salaries you can make it fair. Especially for women you hire.
#30. No one else will plan for my retirement. The generation above mine had better pensions and didn’t worry about retirement. I don’t have that luxury and had to learn about investments. My approach is easy - open a Vanguard ISA, start a monthly contribution (whatever is affordable), put it into a Vanguard LifeStrategy fund, increase the contribution with every payrise, and don’t touch until retirement.
#31. Change is possible. People say “people don’t change”. Not true. I’ve changed a huge amount in the last ten years. I’ve watched others change too. No, it’s not easy. And, yes, some things about people don’t change. But people do change.
#32. I have two selves and they fight over changes. One is a rational superbeing and wants to eat properly, go swimming, and write important things. The other is a human mess and wants to eat McDonalds on the sofa watching true crime. My first self is active at the start of each day/week. My second self dominates evenings and weekends. They are both me. Any change must deal with both selves.
#33. Commitment devices help with change. A commitment device lets the first self (rational superbeing) set up a commitment that the second self (human mess) can’t easily break. For example, when I want to stop checking Twitter I set up two factor authentication using my girlfriend’s phone so I can’t check without the shame of asking her. I have plenty of other commitment devices. It’s a powerful concept.
#34. Habits help with change. We have a finite amount of willpower. This is one reason change is hard. The most effective way to use our finite willpower is to create new habits. Ingrained habits stop needing willpower to maintain them. Then you can use that willpower on the next thing. This is a strong, workable theory of change.
#35. Focusing on what works helps with change. My natural tendency is to focus on what is broken. Switch showed me that it's usually more useful to look at what’s working well and imagine ways to expand that. This applies to work problems just as much as personal problems. Find the bright spots and amplify them.
#36. Things often get worse before they get better. The change curve shows this vividly. Although originally conceived for coping with death it applies to any situation where you experience a shock. It shows up when you form new teams. It shows up when you start managing people. It means we are most vulnerable just after we start to make a change. Knowing this helps me deal with its effect.
#37. Change is all about getting up and going again. Because things get worse before they get better I often give up quickly. Even when I persevere there is backsliding and falling off the wagon. I’ve learned not to beat myself up for this. Failure is part of change. Learning to get up and go again is a skill you can develop.
#38. Hedonism is problematic. Spinal Tap had a keyboard player called Viv Savage whose motto was “have a good time, all the time”. When I was younger I saw this as heroic. These days I see a sadness in it that wasn’t visible to me then. I’ve watched friends suffer with drink and drugs. It’s taken me a long time - perhaps too long - to accept the dark side of having a good time all the time.
#39. MeToo made me re-evaluate my life. I consider myself a feminist. I’ve even been a bit smug about this. Hearing stories around #MeToo made me question my own actions in a way I’d never done before. It made me think about what it means to be a man in a patriarchy that runs this deep. Deeply uncomfortable. Long overdue.
#40. There are only two types of music. I’m going to end with this because it’s my favourite of all the lessons. My friend Timber is a DJ with strong feelings about music. Very definite about what he likes. So it shocked me to the core when he said this.
There are only two types of music.
And music you don’t understand yet.
I’ve had this in my head ever since. It’s arresting and beautiful in form. Even better, it opens this beautiful understanding that the things you know are only the things you know, that there are other things that other people know, and that it’s better to marvel at our differences and seek to understand them than it is to make fun of them. Let’s face it, we all need more good music in our lives…
Let me know what you think on @myddelton. And tell me if you think there are new lessons I need to learn. There always are, right?