Personal health

The growth mindset

By | Personal health | One Comment

I’m a big believer that most forms of intelligence can be learnt. We all have an innate level of ability, but our happiness and success in life depend much more on how much we grow than where we started. Practice is a simple and powerful tool that helps us get better at all tasks and for me self-reflection and a willingness to get stuck in are the other main weapons in the armoury (and both of these are learnt skills.) With work we can all get better at most anything – conversation, management, spreadsheets, public speaking, teaching, design – you name it.

I’m writing all this now because I’ve just read a post which brought a lot of clarity to my thinking in this area. In Growth Mindset: Clearing up some common confusions Eduardo Briceno makes the following helpful points:

  • The growth mindset is the belief that qualities can change and that we can develop our intelligence and abilities.
  • The opposite of having a growth mindset is having a fixed mindset, which is the belief that intelligence and abilities cannot be developed.
  • The reason that this definition of growth mindset is important is that research has shown that this specific belief leads people to take on challenges, work harder and more effectively, and persevere in the face of struggle
  • Fostering the growth mindset amongst our family, friends and colleagues should be one of our objectives – it will make them happier and more effective
  • There are two steps to fostering the growth mindset
    1. Praise effort rather than innate ability
    2. Encourage reflection on strategies and methods used

As with much good insight this thinking is counter-intuitive. Like many parents I am strongly drawn to the idea that my children might be talented and am prone to commenting and praising when I see positive signs. Eduardo’s article is a welcome reminder of how to stay focused on what works for them rather than what I want.


How to speak so people will listen

By | Personal health, Startup general interest | 2 Comments

I just watched a great Ted talk by Julian Treasure on how to speak so people will listen. It’s embedded below so you can watch the whole thing (highly recommended) but the takeaways so you can remember easily after watching are seven ‘deadly sins’ to avoid:

  • gossip
  • judging
  • negativity
  • complaining
  • excuses
  • lying
  • dogmatism

and for things to do more of:

  • be honest (clear and straight)
  • be authentic
  • have integrity (be your word)
  • have love for the listener (genuinely wish them well)

Listening to the talk and thinking about them whilst writing out these lists the truth of them is self-evident to me (which is not to say that I could have come up with them myself). I see myself and others tuning out when people commit the deadly sins and responding well to people who are honest, authentic and who have love for the listener. Especially this last point.

Making this personal, as an investor I have to make decisions on investments everyday and that can easily slip into judging. Certainly that happens to me more than it should. It’s a nuanced point, but after listening to Julian it’s clear to me that we should try to make investment decisions without passing judgement, particularly on anything that could be construed as personal. I’m going to work hard to do that.

The other point for me is to have more love for the listener. Since my sojourn to India eighteen months ago I’ve been slowly understanding that beyond being a good thing in and of itself having greater love for the world is a way (possibly the best way) to deliver personal happiness and increased impact. Consciously wishing the best for people I’m talking with is an easy way to get started on that journey. You could even call it a happiness hack.

Enjoy the video.


Contribute to mindfulness research

By | Personal health, Uncategorized | No Comments

I’m a big believer in the power of meditation and mindfulness to bring about a big improvement in people’s lives. It’s made a big difference to mine over the last twelve months and I’m meeting an increasing number of people who have experienced something similar. I think there’s a very good chance that much as fifty years ago nobody much exercised and now most people do in fifty years time most people will be meditating.

For that to happen we need more research into the benefits of mindfulness and meditation and on how to make practice easy and accessible. Professor Mark Williams from Oxford University is one of the leaders in this area. I’m part way through reading his excellent book Mindfulness: Finding peace in a frantic world so when I was emailed about his fundraising campaign on Crowdcube I clicked straight through and watched the video embedded below. He is raising £500,000 to further his research into how mindfulness based cognitive therapy can help the billion people around the world who suffer from depression. I’ve contributed and it would be cool if you did too.

Willpower and making the most of mornings

By | Personal health | 3 Comments

I was reading this morning ab0ut what the most successful people do before breakfast (a post largely based on a book by Laura Vanderkam), and there are two big takeaways:

  • Firstly willpower is a muscle. It becomes fatigued from over-use, but when you exercise it regularly your willpower gets stronger. Better still, if you exercise it regularly enough tasks that used to require a lot of willpower become easier, even habits (this is why behaviour change coaches put so much stress on committing to do something regularly for a short period of time). You can make an analogy with bodybuilders – it takes a big effort to build up muscle mass but then less effort to maintain it.
  • Secondly in the mornings your reserves of willpower are stronger, making before breakfast a great time to do things that are important but not urgent. These things require will power because there’s less immediate payback, and they are often investments in the future. Vanderkam writes that successful people use their mornings to nurture their careers, nurturing relationships with friends and family, and nurturing themselves through exercise and creative/spiritual practices.

Reading that I feel pretty good about my morning routine. I wake up before everyone else in the house to nurture my career by reading the news and nurture my body by exercising for half an hour, and then we all sit down for a family breakfast. If I wake up a little early I throw in fifteen minutes of meditation. Interestingly, I’m not really a morning person and when I began exercising first thing I found it very hard. Now I step out of bed and into my running gear without thinking twice.

Five ways to increase your intelligence

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I’m a big believer in continuous self-improvement and hence I read a lot of articles like You can increase your intelligence: 5 ways to maximise your cognitive potential which appeared in Scientific American yesterday. This is a great one. It’s reasonably accessible whilst also containing enough science to be convincing, and I love that scientists are now concluding that intelligence is teachable. Moreover the way to improvement isn’t playing brain training games, but doing many of the things that make life interesting:

1. Seek Novelty

2. Challenge Yourself

3. Think Creatively

4. Do Things The Hard Way

5. Network

If this topic is of interest you should really go read the whole article (warning: it’s quite long), but for those wanting a brief summary, the key to maximising your cognitive potential is to seek out new and challenging situations. To deal with these situations the brain forms new synaptic connections which build on each other leading to an increase in cognitive activity. Moreover, as I keep telling my kids, the brain is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets. Regularly dealing with new situations keeps the brain in a prime state for learning, or more scientifically keeps it in a prime state for forming those new synaptic connections.

If you’re an entrepreneur or an investor these activities are what you should be doing anyway (with the possible exception of doing things the hard way). I know I do. That makes extra intelligence a side effect of the day job! Perfect.

The benefits of eight hours sleep

By | Personal health | 5 Comments

I try hard to get 7.5-8 hours sleep every night. I’ve been doing that for the 2-3 years since I read Kurzweil’s Transcend and various other books and articles which stressed the benefits of getting enough sleep and the dangers of not. I’ve just now finished watching Russell Foster’s Ted talk Why do we sleep? which makes many of the same points. In his summary slide at the end he lists the pros and cons of sleeping well.

Enough sleep leads to increases in

  • Concentration
  • Attention
  • Decision making
  • Creativity (up to 3x)
  • Social skills
  • Health (including mental health)

and reductions in:

  • Mood change
  • Stress
  • Anger
  • Impulsive behaviour
  • Drinking and smoking

There’s probably nothing that surprising in the list, but go back and take another look. These may well all be things that you would like to improve in your life, and getting enough sleep will help with them all in a single stroke.

At the beginning of his talk Russell gives a brief history of sleep. In short we used to respect our need for enough sleep and enjoy our rest, but twenty or thirty years ago our attitudes changed and, in the words of Margret Thatcher, started to think that ‘sleep was for wimps’. Average sleep has fallen from eight hours a night in the 1950s to 6.5 hours today. I don’t think this was a change for the better.

As I said at the start of this post I have been making sure I get enough sleep for a while now, and I feel the benefits (and can also feel it when I go through periods of not getting enough time in bed). When I tell people my story they often acknowledge that they would also benefit from getting enough sleep, but then say there is no way they can make it work with their life style. Entrepreneurs say this to me a lot.

My view is that consistently taking time from sleep to put more time into work or partying may well be a false economy. The benefits of extra time can be outweighed by poor concentration and problems arising from poor decision making and stress (particularly in interactions with other people). From a personal perspective, when I was in my twenties I used to think that I could battle my way through tiredness and still perform at a high level. Looking back now I think I was wrong.

Going from 6.5 hours sleep a night to eight hours is a bit of a pain. The time has to come from somewhere and generally that means ones’ social life. The big change for me was to cut out a lot of TV (I now watch less than two hours per week) but I also take myself home earlier on nights out. Although that’s probably just because I’m getting old 🙂

Like most everything good in life you have to make sacrifices to get it, but for me getting enough sleep was definitely worth it.

The benefits of meditation

By | Personal health | 5 Comments

A study by the Texas Tech University has found that five hours of mediation training over two weeks leads to increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with self control:

The researchers also conducted brain scans of participants before and after the training regiments, finding that at resting state, participants in the meditation group had increased activity in the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex brain areas. These regions are part of the brain network related to self-control capacity.

Powerful stuff. I now meditate for 1-2 hours each week and, amongst other benefits, I would say that my self control has improved, at least as measured by quickness to anger.

Perhaps more remarkably the study also found that smokers who had the meditation training reduced their cigarette consumption by 60%, often without realising it. Desire to give up smoking had no impact on the result.

There was a control group who were given relaxation training for the same amount of time and didn’t experience the same results, so it looks like the study was well put together.


I’ve just seen a post on Lifehacker which provides a fuller list of the benefits of meditation:

  • Better focus
  • Less anxiety
  • More creativity
  • More compassion
  • Better memory
  • Less stress
  • More grey matter
  • Slower ageing (see picture below)

Many of these claims are backed up by studies and/or scientific explanations. Meditation is a very powerful tool for self improvement. I expect its practice to become increasingly widespread.

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 14.39.23

Smart watches and wearable computing

By | Personal health, Startup general interest | 5 Comments

Samsung are rumoured to be announcing their Galaxy Gear smartwatch on September 4th and Apple is widely expected to release an iWatch within the next year.

So smart watches are hot.

But will they fly as mainstream devices?

To my mind that’s an open question.

The Galaxy Gear sounds great. It’s likely to be a second screen for your phone that also has the features you get in a Fitbit or Jawbone Up. That’s quite cool, and reading through the specs in the GigaOm article I liked to above had me thinking ‘I want one of those’. A Fitbit with a proper screen and tighter integration with my phone would be great, and Samsung have added some nice touches to the second screen experience, e.g. if you are reading an email on your watch and take our your phone the same email will come up.

But I’m an early adopter with three Fitbits and a Jawbone Up, and I’m not sure how valuable these features are to the mainstream consumer. As Jack Gold wrote on VentureBeat this morning, there’s a good chance that:

there will be some niche users that want to buy one so they don’t have to take their phones out of their pockets or purses frequently. But for most users, having yet another device — and potentially an expensive one at that — while still carrying a smartphone around will be too much.

Successful technology that is truly helpful and transparent is what most consumers want. But a smartwatch as a remote screen coupled to a smart phone is not in that camp. The additional utility to make users spend their money is just not there.

At the end of the day taking a phone or of your pocket isn’t a big hardship.

For me the more interesting vision for connected devices has the phone as a personal server connecting a bunch of other devices. These devices will have novel functions rather than duplicate those in the phone, the most obvious of which is sensors that inform us about our bodies. I watched a BBC Horizon programme last night which showed some amazing stuff. There was an implantable glucose monitor which sends stats to the phone every minute (I really want one of those, imagine seeing the impact of what you eat in real time) and a suite of tools for athletes that predicts illness and injury before the patient feels anything.

It’s very early days though, largely because the technology is only just getting good enough. It will get there though and in a small number of years we will see wearable computing cruising the chasm. That makes now an interesting time to start companies in this space.


Take care of your brain like you would take care of a muscle

By | Personal health | 7 Comments


This TEDx video from Daniel Amen gives a great explanation of how to take care of your brain. He has taken over 63,000 brain scans over the last 20 years and has found that the brain scans of people with bad habits are all gnarly and horrible. A gnarly scans mean a physically unhealthy brain which means thinking, judgement, personality, interaction with others and ability to innovate will all suffer. The picture above shows a healthy brain on the left and an unhealthy brain on the right.

Daniel says it is ‘very clear to him’ that people with healthy brains are happier, healthier, wealthier, and wiser, whereas people with unhealthy brains are sadder, sicker, poorer, not as smart and less flexible.

Mostly people think of this as ageing, but what Daniel shows is that the way we treat our brains also has a massive effect. Moreover, people who improve their habits can improve the physical health of their brains even at relatively advanced ages. He shows scans from one man whose brain got significantly healthier over ten years from the age of 53 after he began taking care of it.

So what do you need to do to take care of your brain – nothing too surprising really, except maybe meditate!

  • Sleep a min of 7 hours a night (less than 7 hours blood flow to the brain reduces)
  • Avoid drinking (even two glasses of red wine a day aren’t good….)
  • Don’t smoke
  • Avoid obesity (body weight correlates negatively with brain weight)
  • Form new social connections
  • Learn new stuff
  • Be grateful
  • Eat well
  • Exercise
  • Meditate

I think the best way to think about the brain is that it is like a muscle. They teach this to my kids at school saying that like a muscle the more you use it the stronger it gets. Saying the same thing, the work of Kurzweil and many others has shown for a long time that using your brain in a positive way (intellectual challenge, social interaction, ball sports) slows the rate of decline in elderly people. But exercise is only one half of taking care of a muscle – you also need to rest it and feed it right.

Why I decided to have a knee operation

By | Personal health | 6 Comments

UPDATE: Now with title…

I’m sitting at home now recovering from a knee operation I had yesterday. I had my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstructed and a tear in the meniscus repaired with a couple of stitches. The ACL is a ligament that runs from the front to the back of the knee and gives the knee stability. The meniscus is a disc of cartilage that sits on top of the tibia (shin bone).

I first injured my ACL some six or seven years ago skiing. I was transitioning from snowboarding to skiing and had just got good enough with the two planks to feel I could take on the mountain but hadn’t yet understood that it is much easier to hurt yourself on skis than it is on a snowboard. So I skied into an area I shouldn’t have been attempting and twisted my knee in a fall. I had maybe a dozen physio sessions when I got back and the knee was OK, but never great. Then at the beginning of last year it collapsed on me whilst skiing and then whilst playing football. It got a bit better but then went again in the summer when I was dancing in the silent disco at the Rewind Festival. All the coolest people injure themselves dancing in silent discos…

This collapse was worse than the previous ones because I also injured my meniscus. I had a bunch of physio during the autumn, but kept suffering from knee irriation and couldn’t play football without it hurting. So in December I went for an MRI which revealed that my ACL was fused to the posteria cruciate ligament rather than the patella (knee cap), presumably a result of incorrect healling after the ski injury of six or seven years ago.

My consultant gave me the choice of fixing the meniscus tear and reconstructing the ACL so it was fused in the right place or just fixing the meniscus tear. It was a difficult choice because most of the time my knee was fine. I could run and cycle without problems, and skiing was fine most of the time. I even considered not having surgery at at all. In the end I evaluated the options like this:

  • No surgery – benefit – knee works fine under most circumstances and no risk of an imminent step backwards due to complications in surgery, con – couldn’t play football with the kids very much, knee seems to be getting more unstable over time, risk of early arthritis
  • Fix the meniscus tear – benefit – would be able to play football again, relatively minor surgery compared with an ACL reconstruction, con – doesn’t address the stability or arthritis issues
  • Fix the meniscus tear and reconstruct the ACL – benefit – prospect of a fully working knee, con – ACL reconstruction is a majory surgery with accompanying chances of complications, including major loss of knee function (small chance)

The consistent advice I received was to go for the third option if my knee was unstable and I didn’t trust it. As I saw it the answer to this was unclear, making it a marginal decision whether to go for the full reconstruction. I went for it in the end because I’m the sort of person who likes to get the fundamentals right and struggling along with the ACL fused in the wrong place with the accompanying increased risk of further knee collapse and early arthritis just didn’t feel like the best thing to do. The decision was also linked to my desire to stay fit in mind and body and keep exercising for as many years as possible. Not having a full operation would have meant giving up on that a little, something I’m not ready to do.

Happily, one day after the operation it looks like I made the right choice. At six weeks in a leg brace and on crutches the recovery time is much longer than anticipated, but paradoxically my chances of a fully functioning knee are better than we all expected going into the operation. The reason for the paradox is that they were able to repair the tear in the meniscus rather than just tidy the frayed edges. That should lead to a better end result, but for the time being the stitches are fragile and need to be protected.

I’m not yet sure what the longer recovery time means for my ability to get out and meet people. I had planned to work from home this week and be back in the office next week, but it may not be wise to leave here so soon. Certainly I think it will be unwise to travel on the Underground for a little while yet. My phone and email are working though.

I’m going to see how my knee heals this week and make a decision on Thursday or Friday about whether to spend next week working from home as well. After that I will be in touch with any of you who I’m due to meet, either to re-arrange or change the meeting to a Skype call.

As I sat waiting to go into surgery yesterday I wished I’d already posted about my decision to go for the operation. Writing afterwards like this inevitably has an air of post event rationalisation, and it would have been fun to post my reasons first and then see if I got it right afterwards. Still, I wanted to capture my thinking for posterity. I hope it’s been interesting.