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January 2017

The time I broke my brain

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I’m a big believer in treating life as a series of experiments. It’s a great way to learn about yourself and it stops you from stagnating. But not every experiment is successful. And some of them can leave you with lasting side-effects, as I discovered many years ago.

This is the story of a creative experiment I conducted on myself that wasn’t exactly a blinding success.

The hypothesis

When I was an eager young advertising copywriter back in 2000, I decided to do a little experiment to see if I could make myself more creative. My thinking went like this: to be creative you need to break out of established patterns and do things differently – so if I applied this principle to every area of my life, I’d become more creative in general.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

The method

I duly embarked on my little experiment. I tried to do even the most mundane things differently every time I did them.

When I woke up in the morning, I’d randomly pick what side of the bed I got out of (sometimes slipping out of the bottom of the covers to make it interesting). I’d then decide what order to do my ablutions. And I’d brush my teeth in a different way – sometimes starting by scrubbing my top left molars, other times starting by polishing my incisors. I’d put my clothes on in a different order (but always underpants before trousers) and vary my route to the office.

This would go on all day, trying to make sure that I didn’t slip into any pattern. I would even pay attention to my vocabulary and try not to use linguistic crutches like ‘cool’, ‘no way Hosé’ and ‘that’s the badger!’ Patterns were the route to formulaic thinking, after all, and that didn’t have a place in my life. No sirree.

I did this for months and got better at it as time went on. Every time I saw a pattern emerging, I’d break it. The one habit I got into was pausing before I did anything so that I could do it differently to the way I did it last time.

I must have been an infuriating bugger to everyone around me.

These are not the results you’re looking for

On the plus side, the experiment worked. I did indeed feel more creative. I was coming up with more ideas – although I don’t know if I actually came up with any better ideas – but I felt a bit more sparky and innovative.

But there was one drawback. Quite a big drawback: I was no longer a fully functional human being.

How do you make coffee again?

It all hit me one day as I stood in the kitchen trying to work out how to make myself a coffee. I was at a complete loss. I stood there trying to work out the steps in the process.

What equipment was needed for the task? Where could I find it? In what order did I use it? Everything had become a conscious decision and I was wasting a lot of time and energy doing everyday tasks that I previously didn’t need to think about. And that meant that I had less time and energy left to actually use my mind in a creative way.

I discovered something that I’d learned about during my university psychology courses. The mind automatically bundles actions together into tasks to allow you to operate on autopilot. Most people don’t think about how they make a coffee – they just do it and can hold a conversation while their hands get on with the well-practiced routine. I had destroyed most of these little task bundles during the course of my experiment. And it was making my life harder and harder to live.

Recovery is a slow process

It took me just over six months to cause the damage and at least another year to feel pretty much back to normal again. It was a slow process of rebuilding the tasks I’d broken down. I believe even now my struggle with routine and consistency has its roots in this experiment. Things like putting my keys in a different pocket every time and then having to pat myself down when I get to my front door. And my drive to find different routes rather than fall into a routine journey. You have every right to feel sorry for my poor family.

Wisdom from a wise man

A number of years later, I was having lunch with Rory Sutherland and recounted this story to him. At the end of it, he laughed uproariously and said “Dave, you’re an idiot! Do you not know that a man’s intelligence can be measured by how many things he can do without thinking?” Well, clearly, I hadn’t thought about it that way. And maybe he was right.

But did that stop me from experimenting? No siree!

Last year I did an experiment with my friend, Relja Dereta, to see if we could teach our weaker hands to draw. It was slightly more successful than this one. Maybe I’ll tell you about it soon.

Read Dave’s original post here:

Dave Birss

January 2017 Update

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January update on TEN Talent speakers

Hopefully some of their activities will inspire you personally – and if you ever book speakers for events, or know someone who needs great speaker recommendations, then they would be an inspired choice for any event or conference.

Here’s a snapshot of what they’ve been up to:

** Claire Lomas was awarded an MBE in recognition of the incredible fundraising and charity work that she has accomplished since the riding accident which paralysed her from the waist down several years ago. Watch this BBC interview with her discussing the award and her motivational speaking.

** Ben Ryan our Olympic coaching legend who speaks about culture, collaboration and high performance, has been working with the New York Knicks on their on- and off-court culture and performance improvement. He was also named ‘Pacific Person of the Year’ among many other accolades over the last few months.

** Chris Henry has just been appointed as Lee Westwood’s mental coach in a bid to turn around his golfing performance this season using the unique neural re-wiring methodologies that he also teaches to corporate and business audiences.

** Roz Savage MBE is over in the States teaching a course on Courage at Yale University this semester, and will be speaking at Cambridge University next month as part of the Darwin College Lecture series.

** Jonathan MacDonald has two publishers vying for his latest book, which will address the same topics he covers in his powerful speeches – helping to empower businesses for success in a world of perpetual change. He also closed out last year with not just one but three speaking engagements for Microsoft, helping them and their partners to transform their businesses.

** Dave Birss launched Open for Ideas which is fast becoming a brilliant source of insight and inspiration for all things innovation and creativity, just like his thought-provoking talks.

** Susie Dent’s new book, “Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain” climbed the Amazon charts after its release, and one of the highlights of the launch was a speaking engagement for Google. Watch her speech here.

** Shed Simove saw the Slovenian version of his famous ‘blank book’ launched, and was also named as one of Britain’s Top Entrepreneurs – a worthy accolade for someone who actively practises the creativity, marketing and sales techniques that he shares with audiences around the world.

Their speaking engagements are all starting up again now for 2017 so maybe you’ll have the chance to hear one or more of them live on stage.

Also if you, or any of your colleagues, have any upcoming events, a conference or a programme which needs a boost of inspiration and brilliant expertise, then please do drop me an email to We would absolutely love to work with you to book one of these fabulous speakers – and you can read more about them all here.

The Art of Courageous Living Week 1: What is Courage?

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Yesterday I started teaching a class at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, GLBL252 Courage in Theory and Practice. Over the coming semester, I’ll be sharing a pared-down version of the class with you, my online readers. I wish you could be there in the classroom, as I anticipate lively discussion around these topics, and I’m sure I’ll learn at least as much from my students as they do from me. But failing that, I’ll post a blog each week, and once Producer Vic gets back from his well-earned vacation, we’ll be podcasting too.

If you want to take a look at the reading list/syllabus, you can find it here. GLBL252 Courage Syllabus

And there is an abridged version of the slideshow here.

Okay – on with the blog post…

Why does courage matter?

It’s possible you don’t feel the need for more courage in your life. For the things you do every day, you’re on top of it. You’re operating inside your comfort zone. You know what you like and you like what you know. No courage required, thank you very much.

And that’s all fine…. for now. Not wanting to be the scaremonger, but things change. Relationships change, finances change, jobs change, health issues change, governments change, weather patterns change. It takes courage to handle those changes with resilience and confidence, rather than stress and anxiety.

More than that, the world as a whole is sailing into uncharted waters. Computerization, robotization, a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, religious fundamentalism and intolerance, an unprecedentedly huge human population putting stress on supplies of water, food and housing… you may need to be courageous sooner than you think, and it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

As national leaders challenge our trust in their leadership, we need to look for the leader inside ourselves, and believe that we have the power to make a difference in our corner of the world. As outgoing President Obama said in his final speech to the nation, “I do have one final ask of you as your President… I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours”.

What is courage anyway?

I used to think that courage was something that other people had – adventurers and explorers, soldiers and generals, firemen and first responders, CEOs and politicians. Testosterone seemed to be heavily correlated, too.

But I wasn’t really understanding what courage is. Many of the aforementioned are indeed courageous, but courage is more subtle than that. Courage is not fearlessness. Courage is not over-confidence. Courage is not (always) doing what you have been trained and paid to do. Courage can be something soft yet steely, gentle but determined, slow-burning yet stubborn. It is what used to be called backbone, when that was fashionable.

What I am really interested in is the art of living a courageous life, rather than the impulsive courage of the have-a-go hero. This ongoing courage is, I believe, what the world needs right now. And this is what, as individuals, sets us on a very different trajectory for our lifetime.

Average life vs courageous life

To get technical for a moment, Christopher Rate (2007) tentatively defined courage thusly:

  • A willful, intentional act
  • Executed after mindful deliberation
  • Involving substantial risk to the actor
  • Motivated to bring about a noble or worthy purpose
  • Despite the presence of fear

It’s important to note that the risk need not be physical – it could be loss of social standing, loss of ease, loss of anonymity, or anything else that we care about.

But most important to note is the last line, about the presence of fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, or teenagers doing dumb things would be getting awards for gallantry. Courage is feeling the fear, and doing it anyway. And why would we do that? Because of our motivation to bring about a noble or worthy purpose.

My theory for this is that:

When motivation is greater than fear, you get courage.

So if you want to be more courageous, pump up your motivation.

Can courage be taught?

As I was putting together the syllabus for my class on Courage in Theory and Practice at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, I encountered a certain amount of skepticism from friends about whether courage could be taught. I firmly believe that it can (and not only because I’m being paid to teach it).

I say this as someone who used to be utterly non-courageous, who now regularly gets mistaken for a courageous person, having rowed – solo – across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans in a 23-foot rowboat. (I also occasionally get mistaken for an idiot, which is also understandable.) What motivated this venture, which was outrageously audacious for someone who had never been to sea before, and doesn’t particularly like physical exercise?

It was that “motivation to bring about a noble or worthy purpose”. I’d had an environmental awakening, and wanted to do whatever I could to bring the urgent need for sustainable living to a wider audience. I knew my contribution might be minimal, but I just had to do something. I had no history as an activist, but now this went to the heart of my identity – I didn’t want to see myself as the sort of person who would stand by and watch the Earth go to hell in a handcart.

My motivation was so great that I invested my life’s savings, and got in a tiny rowboat, and rowed 15,000 miles to try and make a difference. It’s hard for you to appreciate just how far outside my comfort zone this was, because you don’t know me, but trust me – it was a leap of faith times ten.

So if I can make the transition from apathy to action, from bystander to badass, from cowardice to courage, then I really believe that anybody can. You just need passion, and purpose, and maybe a fair dollop of naïve optimism that you can make a difference.

And one thing’s for sure – if you don’t give it a go, you’ll never know.

Next week we’ll be looking at the Hero’s Journey, and how it can help make you more courageous.

See you then!

Roz Savage

Read the original blog post from Roz Savage here

Roz Savage