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The Ideas Thief


Pep Guardiola’s modesty will only allow him to embrace the label of an ‘ideas thief’. His teams have played some of the most thrilling and dominating football in recent years.

Guardiola is a coach who stood on the shoulders of his heroes and transcended them.

Austin Kleon in his book, Steal like an Artist, said

“Merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.”

Guardiola evolved from an ideas thief to a creative genius by becoming the sum of his influences. He didn’t steal the ideas of his influences but stole the thinking behind their ideas.

The desire was not to become a clone of his heroes but he rather wanted to ‘see’ and ‘think’ like them.

His heroes’ ideas grounded in understanding filtered through his imagination produced his distinctive coaching style. This is a secret of Guardiola’s coaching success.

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Question to Story

There are two key skills I am keen to improve as a user researcher – questioning and listening. I will focus on the latter in a future post.

My job involves asking a lot of questions of internal stakeholders and research participants. Anybody can ask questions. The true skill is the ability to ask the right questions that generate insights.

This is why the quote above resonates with me, especially when interviewing research participants. I don’t always facilitate the transition from question-to-answer to a question-to-story in all my interviews. This is usually because  I am trying to extract as much information from an interview due to time constraints. Most of my interviews with time-poor teachers tend to occur during school hours.

The transition between the two phases {Q-A to Q-S} requires using well-timed follow-ups and the willingness to embrace the pregnant pause. This embrace requires the interviewer to handle the uncomfortableness of silence after the participant’s answer.

The interviewer’s instinct is to rush to the next question after getting an answer. Participants should be given just enough time to fill the silence. They will let you if they have nothing to say.  People speak in paragraphs according to Portigal and they want your permission to go on to the next paragraph. The interviewer’s silence permits them the freedom to do this.

Most people are not skilled storytellers and their stories will usually be unpolished. But there are nuggets in those unpolished stories.  Like Portigal said the richest insights are in stories, not answers.

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Make Stuff You Love

My 2023 goal is to make and share what I love on this site and I hope it resonates with you. I will be publishing more posts this year compared to previous years. Make sure to subscribe below to get post notifications when I publish something new.

The format for most of my 2023 posts is an interesting quote as the inspiration for a commentary. The selected quotes will cover different themes of interest.

I am doing some creative projects this year and will keep you posted as they unfold.

Happy New Year!!!

Thanks for stopping by

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Advice on Finding your Storytelling Voice

Vengeance (2022) movie poster

One of my favourite movies so far this year is Vengence. There is a scene in the movie in which a writer/podcaster {played by B.J. Novak} asks a music producer {played by Ashton Kutcher} for advice on how to find his storytelling voice.

Ashton Kutcher’s character delivers succinct advice that made B.J. Novak’s character gasp in astonishment and made me pause that scene several times to write it down.

Q: If I came here for advice about my voice, writing, and podcast. What would you tell me?

A: I’d probably say that nobody writes anything. All we do is translate. So if you ever get stuck and don’t know what to say – just listen, even to the silences. Listen as hard as you can to the world around you and repeat back what you hear. That translation is your voice.

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The Familiar and the Strange.

One of the topics I am interested in exploring in 2022 is storytelling. I consume a lot of content{ books, films, TV shows and podcasts} in the hopes of figuring out how good storytellers engage their audience’s attention. The use of ‘the familiar and the strange’ is one way good storytellers do this.

I am a big fan of Quentin Tarantino and love this description of him by David L. Robbins. It captures Tarantino’s use of familiarity and strangeness in his storytelling construction.

“Quentin Tarantino has crafted things out of the quotidian never seen before. His appreciation of the cinema status quo has long been that of an inventor surveying a junkyard. Time and again he’s picked the past apart, reassembled traditions and clichés alike into forms we recognize only in pieces. His movies burn in our eyes strange and familiar, all at once. Tarantino backs into the future.”

 If a story is too strange then the audience will find it incomprehensible but if it is too familiar then it will bore them. It needs a delicate balance of the strange clothed in the familiar so the audience can see something old and new in the story.

Toni Morrison advocated for storytellers “to familiarise the strange and mystify the familiar.” Samuel Johnson also echoes this sentiment: “the two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” The audience wants strangeness in their stories but they also want familiarity too. The goal of a great story is to be strangely familiar. 

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Overnight Success: The Long Game

Benjamin Disraeli, former British Prime Minister, once said “the secret of success is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes.” Disraeli’s quote focuses on the prep time spent in the shadows for that moment in the spotlight.  Collins Dictionary defines ‘overnight success’ as something that becomes successful very quickly.  Most of us desire to be an overnight success but sometimes it takes years to become one. 

Bernardine Evaristo in her book, Manifesto, said  “I wasn’t an overnight success, but everything changed overnight.”  She would unpack this further in the book with  “When I won the Booker Prize in 2019 for my novel Girl, Woman, Other, I became an ‘overnight success’ – after forty years working professionally in the arts. My career hadn’t been without its achievements and recognition, but I wasn’t widely known. The novel became a #1 bestseller sold in many foreign languages and received the kind of attention I had long desired for my work.”

Jose Mourinho, a football manager, at the peak of his managerial powers in 2004 said that “after 15 years, I’m an overnight success.” 

To become an overnight success requires stamina and perseverance because there would be certain periods when giving up seems a better option than going on. This requires the willingness to play the long game even if there are no guarantees of becoming an overnight success. 

The true motivation for creative work shouldn’t be the spotlight but for the production of the creative outputs. You have no control over how the world reacts to your creative outputs. You only have control over the production of your outputs. Hence you keep on creating because you don’t know which piece of work would resonate with a huge audience. Every piece of new work builds on the previous one and this helps you improve your craft and your creative voice. 

I can guarantee that if Bernardine Evaristo’s novel wasn’t a runaway hit; she would still keep writing books and doing the work. Winning the 2019 Booker prize and getting international recognition is a wonderful bonus. There is no guarantee that her next book will get similar accolades but that won’t stop her because she is playing the long game.

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Determining the Right Time

Perfect Moment & Right Time

So often we find we are stuck in that place of waiting for the “perfect moment” even though experience shows us that there really isn’t such a thing.
Yet still, there is also the challenge of striking too early.
I’d be interested to read your thoughts on some pragmatic steps to determine the right time to engage.

A friend of mine posted the above comment in LinkedIN in response to my last blog post.

I find that the concept of the “right time” to be a subset of the “perfect condition or moment.” It is very easy to get paralysed waiting for the “right time” or the “perfect moment”.

My good friend asked me for pragmatic steps. Here are my thoughts:

(1) Know thyself
The philosophical question is what is the definition of the “right time”? The response to this question differs for each individual. My right time is different from your right time despite both of us pursuing similar goals and desiring similar outcomes. The decision when to start a thing is dependent on internal factors, external factors or a mixture of both. There is little benefit pursuing your dreams in competition with other people because there are just too many variables in play. This is also a recipe for an anxious life when your expectations don’t align with reality in comparison to others. Focus on your own race and be happy for others when they succeed in their own.

(2) Risk taking appetite
The right time is also dependent on your appetite for risk taking. Some people are willing to abandon a well paying but unfulfilling job to pursue the dream of becoming an entrepreneur without a safety net. Others want their affairs in order before jumping out in pursuit of their dreams. The right time” threshold for a risk averse person is higher than that of a risk tolerant person.

(3) Strategic payoff
The right time for a project will also hinge on the timing of the payoff. It would be sensible to start a long term project as soon as possible e.g. the best time to plant an oak tree is 30 years ago and the second best time is today. This same principle applies to your financial investments for retirement depending on your age.

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Perfection & Procrastination

“If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.” Ecclesiastes 11:4 {New Living Translation}

I am always waiting for the perfect conditions to pursue my creative projects. I am the great procrastinator. I want my inspiration before perspiration. My inspiration operates on an elephant’s pregnancy time frame birthing procrastination.

There is also the creative block of sharing any work with the public because of an unrealistic desire for perfection.

The first rule of writing is to write. That’s the only thing I have control over; the public’s response or lack of it is outside my control. I have to be happy with my output and let go of the outcome.

It’s time to stop waiting for perfect conditions and instead work within the realms of constraints. Creativity is birthed from the wombs of constraints not from the tombs of perfect conditions

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Knee Pads vs Packing Tables.

This interesting anecdote about Amazon is sourced from the book – The Bezos Letters. Two men experiencing the same pain point but had two different solutions to it. 

The pain point was a result of constant kneeling and the natural instinct was to get rid of this pain. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, went with the straightforward solution – get knee pads. Yes, this would solve his knee pain but it was also a tactical solution rather than a strategic one.

The real user need in this scenario was the ability to pack the boxes in the most comfortable and efficient way. This is what makes the packing table idea a better solution compared to the knee pads option. 

Jeff Bezos quickly realised that packing tables was a better strategic solution for the packers and dropped his own idea in favour of it.

I work as a user researcher and my job is to talk to users to unpack their needs and pain points. I then work with the product team to come up with product solutions to address these user needs and pain points. It is very easy to gravitate towards “knee pad” product solutions which meet the tactical needs of some users. The challenge is to come up with strategic “packing table” product solutions for the majority of users. 

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The Journaling Habit

On 10 July 2013, I got the Day One app for free from Apple. This was a result of the company celebrating the fifth anniversary of its app store. Day One is a daily journaling app which I used rarely until 2015 when I used it a lot that year. I went back to using it rarely until 1 January 2020 when I kickstarted a journaling habit. Since then until today, I haven’t missed a day. My streak is 455 days uninterrupted. I have wondered why the journaling habit clicked in 2020 but not in any of the preceding seven years.

Three things have helped me maintain my daily journaling streak.


(1) I built journaling into my daily routine.

Before the first Covid lockdown in the UK in March 2020; I would journal during my morning commute on the train. Since I started working from home; I have shifted my journaling to the evenings before going to bed. It is a chance to reflect on the highlights of the day and capture my thoughts. A journal is a great place to take the time to converse with yourself.


(2) No word count targets.

I used have a writing word target of 500 words per daily journal entry. I found this to be a strait jacket because it sucked the fun out of journaling. I was trying to hit this target even when I didn’t have much to say that day. Now, I write as much or as little as I like. The goal of journaling is to write something authentic about my daily experience. This could be one word or a million words.


(3) Day One’s “On this day” feature.

I never engaged with this feature until recently and it has been a game changer. There are currently 693 Day One journal entries over the past 8 years. I would like to re-read all these entries for recurring themes but this is an overwhelming task. The “on this day” feature helps me tackle this. Day One gives me the ability to read all the previous entries {if any} I have written each day over the past seven years. This allows my present self to interact with my past self.


I have found journaling to be a great reflective practice and would recommend the habit. Day One is a great app for this if you are looking for a journaling app.