Category Archives: quotes

Your mountain is waiting…

You’re off the Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

Today I start a new job in West Dunbartonshire Council. I’m taking up the role of Education Service Manager for Education Development, which sees me leave Education Scotland after a period of five years. It feels like I work in five year cycles looking back, as before that I was working for Argyll and Bute for five years, so it’s a good time to be looking at change.

New starts are always a challenge, as you have a mixture of feelings – excitement about what the future may hold, and a fair bit of trepidation to accompany it, as you question your own ability facing the unknown.

Dr. Seuss had a wonderful story to tell people facing decisions in life. In his wonderfully affirming ‘Oh The Places You’ll Go’ he talks about good times and bad times that people face in life. So for anyone else reading this on a Monday and needing a wee boost of confidence, check out the video above from the Burning Man festival.

Kid, you’ll move mountains

Sharing your working

The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge. – Elbert Hubbard


In the book ‘Crowdsourcing‘ by Jeff Howe, he quotes a wonderful example of the community of MATLAB users working to solve a problem:

Contestants were required to solve what is commonly called a “traveling salesman problem,” the classic example of which asks for the shortest possible round trip a salesman can take through a given list of cities. Participants submitted a solution in the form of an algorithm, or computer code that directed the salesman through a number of steps. The contest ended after ten days, at which point the most efficient algorithm would be declared the winner.

But [Ned] Gulley added an extra twist: Participants were allowed to steal each other’s code in order to create a better solution. Every time a new solution was sent in, it was quickly scored, ranked and posted to the Web site. Every other contestant could then see the programming code, in full. They could cut-and-paste the best bits and resubmit it with any improvements, however minor. If the tweaks, as Gulley calls them, created a more efficient algorithm, it vaulted the contestant into first place, even if he or she had only changed a few lines of code.

When I used to speak about development, I would often use this example. What fascinates me is not the open approach to solving the problem – this approach is used the world over. What fascinates me is how successful it was: 

But the extraordinary aspect of MATLAB isn’t the fervor it inspires, but the fact that the ten-day hurly-burly—in which all intellectual property is thrown into the public square to be used and re-used at will—turns out to be an insanely efficient method of problem solving. The contest has been held twice a year since its inception in 1999. On average, Gulley notes, the best algorithm at the end of the contest period exceeds the best algorithm from day one by a magnitude of 1000.

Is this how you approach problem solving? Do you open up your working to others? This is after all, how the world works. As Isaac Newton remarked, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”*. We all make use of the findings of others, but how prepared to share are we? Is the goal the finding of the solution, or the kudos of being the winner? In a time when the majority of information we require is at our fingertips, are we good at sharing? How much do we personally contribute to this melting pot?

If you’ve not read ‘Crowdsourcing’, I’d highly recommend it. You can get your own copy from

Image credit: Evan_Terada.

* – I love the quote from Newton – but I love the circumstance even more. His comment could easily be taken to be a barbed insult to his rival Robert Hooke – widely believed to be the originator of some of Newton’s ideas, and a man of somewhat short stature.

The limit of your ability

Nothing more can I teach you. – Yoda


In the early part of this millenium, I spent a lot of time teaching people to play the guitar. I’m quite knowledgable and fairly technically proficient as a guitarist, so it was with delight that I would help others in their own musically dexterous journey of development. Along the way, this would introduce me to a whole host of different artists and bands, as I was always keen to ensure that my students learned the songs and tunes that they wanted to play, not just what I wanted to teach them, or worse still, what I felt they should learn.

Sometimes this was really easy to prepare for. Often, the songs had already been transcribed and posted online (yep, this was the 2000’s after all!), and if it wasn’t something I had in my own music collection, it was simple enough to find the track online to listen to.

Sometimes it was harder to prepare for. I couldn’t find the track online. A transcription of it hadn’t been shared online, and I would sit patiently beside my cd player, paper in front of me, guitar in lap and pencil between teeth, shuffling between ‘play’, ‘pause’ and ‘rewind’ to get down on paper what I needed to help my student learn the track.

Often, a track the student would suggest was complex – arguably too complex. They may not have reached the required level of dexterity or speed to emulate the exact notes played by the artist. In many cases, we split the learning up, first learning the chord accompaniment, then perhaps some of the patterns or riffs that formed the key features of the track, before building up to a detailed breakdown of the solo. Often this breakdown would be performed in sections, at slow speeds before knitting it all together and cranking up the pace. What drove them on was the desire to learn something that motivated them.

Occasionally, you’d hit a wall. There is a limit to both my dexterity and the speed at which I can pick. I remember working with a student to learn ‘Surfing with the Alien’ by Joe Satriani. Whilst I can play all the phrases and notes Satch plays when broken down into chunks, I can’t play the whole piece at the recorded speed. I vividly remember the feeling of telling my student that although I could teach him how to play it, I couldn’t actually play it myself. I was a moment of pride watching in awe this student surpass my own ability, as he was a more technically proficient guitarist than me.

How do we cope when we realise the limits of our ability? Do we strive to improve and better ourselves? Do we hide it away, and hope that no-one finds where we will fail?

Image credit: Terriko.

Saying “I don’t know” more often

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. – Desiderius Erasmus


It’s very easy to take on responsibility for something that you’re not able to do – you’re asked to do it, and have time; you’re interested in the topic; you once did something similar; it’s the next ‘logical’ step for your career; (this list could go on!)

With a new challenge could come a phenomenal opportunity for exploration and growth, but it could also bring fear, uncertainty and doubt. To ensure the former and eliminate the latter, there needs to be in place support, encouragement and trust.

That’s all very well, but there also needs to be in place fundamental ability and knowledge. Both of these could be gained, or managed, but without either we’re destined to fail. We need to be confident to admit where we’re not able or admit that we don’t know, and respect other that are able and do know.

I think we need to say “I don’t know…” more often than we do. This could easily be followed by something like “…but I’m itching to find out!” in order to see progress. Equally, “I can’t do that…” could easily be followed by ‘…but I’m going to keep trying!”

Is there a bottom line though? At some point, do we reach the limits of our ability?

Image credit: Jonas B.


The faculty of wonder

…the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder… – Jostein Gaarder


In his phenomenal book ‘Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy‘, Jostein Gaarder gives us a beautiful quote, and I’ve been trying to find out if it comes from him initially or from some other source. I’ve drawn a bit of a blank, hence crediting it to Gaarder here.

What a great line! There is something beautiful about ‘wonder’ – I watch our two children grow, and marvel at their daily discoveries. Each time they find out something new, or take a little step further into an unknown world I find truly breathtaking. This faculty, to be curious; to investigate; to examine; to have a sense of awe; to be amazed – to find out something that you didn’t know before. What a brilliant faculty to have! We ought to cultivate this ourselves, and go out of our way each day to help others cultivate it too.

Many a journey of discovery must have started with such a simple phrase “I wonder…”

What do you wonder today?

Image credit: sektordua.

footnote: I quoted this at an event I was at in August last year. Curiously, those present took ‘faculty’ to mean ‘staff’, and began talking about the ‘faculty of wonder’ being an organised, structural thing. Certainly not how I would have thought about it.


First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me. Dietrich Bonhoeffer


We see injustice all the time – it surrounds us each day, in the lives of those we pass by or those we walk alongside. What do we do when we injustice? Do we speak out? In a society obsessed with the individual and material gain, it’s easy to overlook the plight of others.

image credit: Jeremy Brooks.


Boldness, genius, power and magic…

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it!
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now! – Goethe / John Anster (discuss!)

crossroadsYou are standing at a crossroads in life. Behind you is the experience you have gained in all that you have done so far. To the left and right are both encouragement and caution, tugging at you in equal measure. Ahead? Well, ahead lies whatever you choose it to be.

I always find it amusing that people wait until the 1st of January to make a resolution for change – why then? If you want to make change in your life, then now is the right time.

Be bold.

Image credit: Swamibu.

The verge of success

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. – Thomas A. Edison

In a society that seems to yearn for instant gratification, there is something wholesome in the opinion of Edison in relation to work. When media constantly bombards us with people that have achieved, it does us a great dis-service by overlooking how they got there. Edison was convinced that he learned more by getting things wrong, than by getting things right. I think we need to celebrate failure far more than we do. How do you regard failure? How do those around you regard it? Are you encouraged to fail? Eric Schmidt encourages his staff to ‘fail quickly, so that you can try again’. Is this something you’re encouraged to do?

People can be put under enormous pressure to succeed, but when the pressure is released and they are allowed to fail, chances are they are more likely to succeed.

Image credit: hanz.gerwitz.



The windows to your soul…

The treasure – of – an endless – ocean – of love – lies – in your – soul – behind – the windows – that are – your – eyes. – Steve Vai

Time is precious. We spend much of our time bustling from one task to the next, without much chance to stop and reflect on where we are, or what we are doing. Even when we find ourselves in company with time on our hands, we find ingenious ways to fill it, without actually interracting with people that are in our immediate environment. I used to spend a lot of time on trains, and often found myself embarrassed when I made eye contact with my fellow passengers – a brief moment of connection, insight or even friendship lost due to social norms – it’s almost as if the unwritten rule of the commuter is not to engage with those seated around you.

What a missed opportunity! What diverse life experiences we all have, and could gain so much from simple interraction. What could we have learned from each other? What could we have shared?

Do your interractions with the others you encounter today give an insight into who you are? Have you shared with others today something that is important to you? Do your eyes convey to others your beliefs or values in life?

Image Credit: frech.

If I’d had longer, it would have been shorter

I would not have made this so long except that I do not have the leisure to make it shorter. – Blaise Pascal

The ability to articulate a vision clearly and succinctly is something we easily take for granted. The truth is, simple is often very, very difficult and time consuming. Getting a message across can be an enormous challenge. Tragically, without a clearly stated vision, many people will misunderstand both what you say, and what you are trying to achieve. Think how damaging this could be if you are trying to lead a movement or a group of people!

Consider this – do people know what you are trying to achieve? Have those involved helped shape how it is articulated? Are others buying in to what you are trying to do?

If you want people to understand where you are going, or what you are trying to achieve, take time to make sure it’s clearly stated before getting sucked into detail that you might not actually need. Take time at the beginning of any venture to clearly state where you’re planning to go, and how you are going to get there.

Wherever possible: reduce.

Image credit: matthew poon.