Discover more from Top Three, by Rowan Simpson
26th December, 2021
Sunset over Te Waha O Rerekohu at Te Araroa, by me.
There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning
— Louis L’Amour
What am I doing publishing a newsletter on Boxing Day?
I’m definitely stubborn!
And determined to finish with a full stop
But, to be honest, a much better explanation is simple misjudgement.
When I started this project, and sub-titled the first post Week 1/52 I just didn’t count forward and think about what that would mean for Week 52/52.
So, here we are...
Writing is a muscle.
This newsletter has been my personal trainer this year.
The self-imposed discipline of a Sunday deadline has pushed me out of my comfort zone most weeks, and even at times forced me to deprioritise things I would have chosen to do otherwise.
It’s easy to adopt a fixed mindset and assume that writing is something that only certain people can do well. It’s true there are a few who appear to be great at it, and even some for whom it seems to come naturally. I’m not one of them. But after this year I’m much more curious if that is how they feel in the moment. I suspect not, I suspect they work bloody hard to make it seem effortless. And, for the rest of us that should be encouraging, because it suggests that we can also improve if we put the effort in.
I’m proud of the effort that I’ve put in.
I'm grateful that I got started in January, even though first few weeks were unremarkable. They say that the hardest part of going for a run is putting on your shoes. It was easier to push through the hard weeks once I had momentum.
I’m also lucky I stumbled into the habit of numbering the weeks. A streak is a powerful motivator that grows with time.
This project has been a textbook example of type-two fun. Now I’m at the end, looking back, I’ll quickly forget those painful bits, and focus on the exhaust - a growing library of essays on RowanSimpson.com. I have 38 published so far and lots more coming as soon as I can complete them.
I’ve noted each week that I was writing for myself. That’s true. It’s forced me to think. The time spent writing was a fixed cost. My hope now is to spread that as thinly as possible by sharing the resulting links with anybody who is interested.
But even so, I have really appreciated all of the people who have followed along and especially those who took time to comment and encourage and share what I’ve written with others. The little moment of anxiety when I pushed “Publish” was a weekly reminder not to take an audience for granted.
Thanks for reading these drafts and helping me to make them better.
I hope you found them interesting and useful. 🙏
“I did this instead of going out” by Sarah Maxey
I’m torn between two very different mindsets at the moment:
On one hand, I’m deeply reluctant to make any plans.
I’ve been burnt too many times in the last 18 months. I don’t want to re-schedule again. I don’t want to cancel more flights. I don’t want to feel disappointed when things I wanted to do don’t happen.
Committing to anything that requires me to physically be somewhere else feels like putting my fingers straight back in that fire.
But, on the other hand, it seems increasingly important to have something to look forward to, something to anticipate and motivate, something to keep us moving.
Do you remember the new normal?
There was a brief moment, in mid 2020, where we allowed ourselves to think differently about the future.1
Some imagined more flexible work arrangements, unconstrained by commuting and all being in the same office at the same time. We accelerated our use of technology. Slack and Zoom became verbs, just like Google.
Others discovered new habits and hobbies. Even if it was just going for a daily walk around the block.2
In lots of ways it was a rare chance to reset.
But it was fleeting, in the end.
We’ve decided instead that what we really want is to “get back” to 2019:
Back to 70,000+ tourists arriving every week. Jumping off our bridges, riding in our jet boats, buying our postcards. And, most importantly of all, reassuring us constantly that they love it here.
Back to international students subsidising our schools and universities.
Back to the Koru Lounge. And meetings in person, with plates of muffins and coffee in takeaways cups.
Back to cheap holidays in Bali. At the same time as everybody else.
Back to thinking that capital is our constraint and that what we really need is more wealthy foreigners to move here at the end of their careers (and insisting on an embarrassingly low capital threshold for the privilege - I imagine most of them can’t believe their luck).3
That’s the paradox of 2021, I suppose.
We seem determined to put in place artificial deadlines and estimates for when this inconvenient pandemic will all be over, based mostly on wishful thinking rather than evidence.
Perhaps one of the reasons we struggle with this is we assume that we are in the present, looking to the future, with the past behind us. Hence “get back to normal”.
But, this whakatauki suggests the opposite, and seems to be more supported by current behaviour:
Ka mua, ka muri
We’re actually facing the other way, looking to the past, stumbling backwards into the future.
This is why it’s so hard to imagine what’s coming - it’s behind us!
This is why it’s so tempting to try and revert - the past feels familiar and certain, because we’re constantly looking that way.
Meanwhile, there seem to be a growing number of exhausted people demanding a “roadmap out” of the pandemic.
I love Simon Wilson’s line, from his excellent summary of where we are at in the lifecycle:
Normal isn’t a place on the map anymore
To steal another line from somebody else: 4
When we talk about making a roadmap, we typically mean documenting roads that already exist, rather than thinking about the route that needs to be blazed in the first place
When I hear so-called business people talk about needing certainty, that makes me think those are probably people who have never had to face real uncertainty in their businesses up until now.5
Uncertainty isn’t something that we can mitigate, like the things that we might normally put in a risk register. We only navigate uncertainty by experimenting. There is a leap of faith. And our initial hypothesis are often wrong. So we have to approach these experiments with humility; with a willingness to adapt and re-plan.
That’s our new normal.
The thing we should be most anxious about is anybody making decisions who is unwilling or unable to adjust their plans, adjust their mindset, and adjust their beliefs, based on results, based on evidence, based on events (to re-use a famous expression).
We must always reserve the right to change our mind.
The way out of this pandemic is behind us, over our shoulder.
It’s uncertain. It’s unclear. It’s not visible.
There are two contradictory ideas and we need to believe both are true:
Things are currently bad and they might get worse and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise; and
This will be the time we look back on and consider our defining moment.
In other words: we need to be grounded but hopeful.
Choosing between two bad options is hard. Especially when the change involved might be permanent. Our brains do anything to avoid it.
It’s possible that 2019 was the last year for lots of things we used to enjoy.
A much more interesting question is: what things are we going to do for the first time in 2022?
Have you noticed... we amplify the criminals who has done their time and reformed, the rehabbed drug users, those who have lost weight and become active, the bankrupts who have rebuilt their fortune, the performers who have discovered authenticity.
But in the process we ignore those people who were never any of those things in the first place.
Is it more remarkable to redeem yourself or to never need to?
On the other hand, we prefix the descriptions of those who are now past their peak with "former". It's a form of sympathy, I suppose, but also a gravitational pull which traps people who have achieved great things in their used-to-be.
Is it better to be a former supermodel or a never supermodel?
How do we rate somebody who is now retired against somebody who was never tired in the first place?
Whenever I am asked "What are you going to do next?" the cheeky answer I'm often tempted, but generally too polite, to give is: "What are you going to do first?"
So, anyway, what am I going to do next...? 🤣 6
Start again, obviously.
I need to be careful here, because most of these examples I’m using are exposing privilege, and actually re-writing my own history. For many people the first lockdown wasn’t a time for anything new. They were busy dealing with the pre-existing issues like our housing, poverty and difficult family circumstances that made life difficult and which were suddenly amplified. And for some others (myself included) the hours were filled to overflowing with trying to ensure that businesses didn’t fall over, rather than push-up challenges or sour dough bread.
The Prime Minister was encouraging people to do this in regular press conferences. And it worked! There was a measurable increase in the amount of physical activity, which quickly reverted once lockdown ended. I think that is something that we’ll look back on in years to come and find remarkable.
As I suggested earlier this year, actually what we desperately need to attract are those who are still hungry to do the heavy lifting of building new businesses. Otherwise we are just like a second-division French rugby club, who continue to believe that the key to their success is signing another soon-to-retire All Black or Springbok.
I’m frustrated that I can’t put my finger on the original source of this. If anybody can help with that I’d be happy to update and provide credit where it’s due.
It’s interesting by comparison to consider the impact of the pandemic so far on those businesses that are more accustomed to uncertainty. For example, it has been a remarkable time for the software and manufacturing companies that I’ve written about so much here this year. There continues to be unprecedented amounts of capital available - both in the early-stages and the high-growth stages. 2021 has been a new high water mark in terms of realised value from these ventures to founders and investors, it’s exciting to think about how that recycles into the next generation of these types of companies. Meanwhile the only real negative is a significant skills shortage. These companies are ready and willing to pay significantly above-average wages to people, but there are just not enough of them to hire.
Long time readers of this newsletter know by now that the best bits are always in the footnotes…
A few people have asked me if Top Three is going to continue beyond 2021.
This was a 52 week project, specifically started to deal with my long-neglected drafts folder. Not quite a sprint. Not quite a long-distance race. Maybe an 800m?
That’s done now, more-or-less. I need to focus for a bit on getting the drafts I’ve published here into their final form. There are a few different opinions about what that should be - I haven’t decided yet.
Beyond that? I don’t know.
I like the idea of infrequent “nuggets”. I actually wrote about this right back in Week 07/52. It’s the format I should have used in the first place.
So, stay tuned, I guess…