A collection of shorter posts and half-formed ideas. Extracts from my daily writing. Somewhere between diary entry and ‘publishable’ essay.

27 February 2024

17:19 — trying to drop a few kg’s before a half marathon next month. Good advice from Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Body:

Rule #1: Avoid "white" carbohydrates (or anything that can be white). Rule #2: Eat the same few meals over and over again. Rule #3: Don't drink calories. Rule #4: Don't eat fruit. Rule #5: Take one day off per week and go nuts.

11:59 — strong one from Bill Walsh (The Score Takes Care of Itself):

As a former boxer, I’d suggest that if your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing, you’ll get knocked out. Your right hook must be in sync with your left jab. For this to occur, your brain must communicate so your hands can collaborate. The same principle applies in business and in sports.

Fits in with the life lessons wrapped up in business lessons. Or business lessons wrapped up in sports lessons? It all flows into each other.

The job of leadership is to get this alignment between various teams. Some higher purpose pulling everyone together.

08:14 — The next Write of Passage cohort will focus on finding your Core Idea - the one theme or topic you can become known for as a writer.

I’m thinking about writing about life lessons wrapped up in business lessons. I've struggled to niche down previously, but I'm excited to give it a go this cohort.

My last two newsletters have been about the lessons I'm picking up on my consulting projects and I think this topic/theme might have legs.

It also helps to close the circle between the work I do and the things I write about, which have always been completely separate.

08:10 — Cool quote:

I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. — Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

I suppose that’s how it works. We are all products of the conversations we have. The more convincing an argument is, the more likely we are to adopt it in our conversations going forward.

07:50 — on the “smell” of a place.

At last month’s strategic workshop, the host showed us a video by a lecturer at INSEAD - Prof Sumantra Ghoshal.

Prof Ghoshal speaks about the smell of a place and how this can have an impact on how people perform at the workplace.

He argues that increasing performance in the workplace has less to do with changing the people in the business and more to do with changing their context and their environment (the “smell” of a place).

Obviously, he isn’t referring to the actual smell (while that could also have an impact), what he means is the vibe and atmosphere you feel when you walk into an office or meeting room.

He compares his performance when he goes back home to Kolkata, India in the summer to his output when he is lecturing in Fontainebleau. In Kolkata it is hot and humid and he struggles to exercise and work, while in the cool, moderate climate of Fontainebleau, he can go for long runs in the forest and work at peak performance.

13 February 2024

12:23 — I set up referral rewards on Substack today.

Tier 1: refer 1 friend and receive a free copy of my Content Mgmt. System (run your newsletter like a restaurant).

Tier 2: refer 3 friends and receive a free copy of my Annual Review Worksheet - a set of prompts to help you complete your annual review.

Tier 3: refer 10 friends and receive a free copy of Procreate for Writers - my video course explaining the basics of Procreate.

Curious to see how this goes. I like how Substack enables writers to grow through a solid discovery/recommendation engine and built-in features like switching on paid subscriptions and adding a referral program. Helps us (generally shy) writers grow our audience without feeling too in your face.

This also strengthens my resolve to bring out more digital products. Look at my existing experience/skills and try to ‘productize’ them. Extra stream of income and better rewards for true fans who refer my work.

8 February 2024

15:21 — spoke to an interesting guy earlier (ex-MBA, founder, business builder).

He made an interesting observation about elite programmes, whether that’s joining the Navy, doing and MBA or signing for an investment bank/consulting firm.

They all have a similar approach:

  • First they throw you with a lot of work or challenges (like 100-hour weeks or intense physical training). This is meant to make you feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable. You are no longer in control of things. This is called the “unfreezing”

  • Then they teach you their way/approach e.g. how to work, how to fight etc. They first need to disassemble your wiring before re-assembling you according to their mold.

11:47 — life is good, even though it’s a bit frantic at the moment.

Trying to get a grip on my current work:

  • Anchor client 60% (3-day) commitment. Most of my time and energy.

  • Actuarial conference co-host. Planning something for the summer.

  • Writing - personal. Dropped off a bit here. Keen to get the newsletter going again.

  • Writing - professional. Co-author articles for LinkedIn and business magazines.

  • Head of sales team for a writing program. Love the product, which makes the work so much easier.

  • Bus dev for actuarial consulting. Find new clients.

Will focus on these for the next few months.

6 February 2024

07:40 — on running shoe consumerism.

I think I have a problem with buying running shoes - picked up the Altra FWD experiences now - their first 4mm drop shoe. Quite excited about them, but will need to run a LOT more to justify my shoe pool of 4 shoes at the moment. Saucony, Hoka, Adidas and Altra. Send help!

5 February 2024

22:34 — on the importance of speaking the “same language” in a business setting. I guess the same holds true for relationships.

The company I’m consulting to had a strategic workshop two weeks ago. I was lucky to be invited along.

The host/invigilator of the workshop was great. He’s been around the block, knows the industry quite well, and has seen many different products and markets and permutations of things.

What I liked about his presentation was how he created a common language for the staff to use going forward.

He identified topics like what is the magic of the business (i.e. what is core to the business that can’t be outsourced), what is the playing field of the business (i.e. which products/markets they’ll pursue - wrote about this below), what is the vision and purpose of the company, what type of personality does the company have (is it altruistic and relationship based or is it production and numbers based?), etc etc.

What’s fascinating to see now is how the employees use this common language among themselves in the meetings going forward.

They say things like “oh no, I don’t think that product really fits in our playing field” or “yes, this is an opportunity to show our magic”.

Immediately everyone understands. The words (the named concepts) hold a lot of context. “Magic”, “playing field”, and “purpose” all have a meaning now. There is less confusion and more alignment as a result.

Really cool to see.

22: 25 — The simpler you can make a product the better.

People relate to what the product does for them. Make it more tangible, name it according to what it does. For example:

  • Critical illness → cancer cover.

  • Decreasing term assurance → mortgage protection.

Even if two products work exactly the same under the chassis, naming them two different things according to two different benefits, can drive extra sales, purely because of the connection people can make with the underlying benefit they are buying.

22:20 — Mentors are so important.

I’ve been lucky to have a few good managers in my career.

Over the last year, as a consultant, I haven’t really had anyone to look up to. It’s been a one-man show mostly, trying to find customers and trying to serve customers.

Now I’ve finally identified a mentor again at the company I’m consulting to. He might not know it, but I’ve just been soaking up everything he says. Just a wealth of knowledge. Fortunate to learn from him.

08:01 — book of the week (month, year).

Ben Hur by Lew Wallace.

This is an incredible story. I finished this earlier this year and it had a profound impact on me.

Basically the story of the Christ but told in novel form. Jesus is just a normal guy that does a bunch of miracles and the hero of the story, a Jew named Ben Hur, comes to hear of him and follows his journey. Eventually, Hur is convinced that this is the Son of God.

Hur had a brutal life. He is sent to the gallows (now I know where the saying comes from) at a young age for accidentally injuring the Roman minister of Judea. He eventually frees himself from slavery and exacts revenge on his childhood friend turned enemy, a Roman named Messala, during a chariot race. Hur regains his standing in society and is reunited with his family, all the while staying true to his Jewish faith, despite the temptations of the Roman way of life.

What I found interesting about the book is how it compares and contrasts Judaism and Christianity. Judaism had been around for a long time when Jesus appeared on the scene. It was the first religion that believed in an invisible (therefore indestructible) God. Christianity was a v2.0 of Judaism. An update to the software. Jesus professed a new kind of teaching with two main deviations from the Jewish script. 1. An attitude of forgiveness so you no longer took an eye for an eye. 2. The concept of Heaven or an afterlife. He specifically preached against accumulating wealth — “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.

After following him for a while and seeing all the good Jesus has done, Hur starts believing that Jesus might be the real deal, but is left disappointed when he doesn’t take arms to become the King of the Jews. Jesus speaks about a relatively foreign concept — the kingdom of heaven, something the people on earth have a hard time comprehending.

On the day of the crucifixion, Hur finally gets it. He figures out that Jesus has to die. Firstly, his socialist teachings were antipathy to the capitalist society in Judea at the time. Secondly, by not fighting back, by not using his gifts and his apparent strength (shown many times before during his miracles), he was making the ultimate sacrifice. He would then later show his true miracle — defeating death itself.

The Biblical “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” still rang in my ears as I read the last few pages.

I finished it in a frenzy.

Even for non-religious person, this book can make you religious or at least see the power and appeal of believing in something bigger than yourself.

07:44 — my favourite book resource.

Standard Ebooksfree and liberated books, carefully produced for the true book lover.

This is a phenomenal collection of free books for your Kindle.

So far I have downloaded:

  • What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy

  • Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy

  • Ben Hur by Lew Wallace. Completed this and it had a profound impact on me.

  • Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • Three Sisters by Anton Checkov

  • The Duel by Anton Checkhov

  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernst Hemingway

  • Practical Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill

07:30 — on stability.

For the first time in a long time, I have stability on the income front.

I have a long-term contract with a client who values me, respects me and wants me to help them build their company.

This trust and certainty have done wonders for my headspace. I have a plan, I don’t have to worry about scrambling for clients, I can put my head down and work when it’s time to work. I can also explore my passion projects (startups, teaching, writing, sales) in my free time without stressing about which one will make money. Without having to justify doing them.

It’s important to know yourself.

Throwing myself into the deep end last year and going self-employed was a tough experience. I didn’t cope well with the uncertainty. I felt guilty when I was writing and creating and doing ‘non-monetary’ things because this wasn’t time spent on business development and finding clients. These activities weren’t creating financial stability for me. I couldn’t justify them. I felt like a fraud sinking deeper and deeper into a hole.

I didn’t like the bus dev work so I would rather revert to writing. But the writing didn’t make money so I didn’t enjoy my mental space. A vicious circle.

What I learned from this is my ideal operating environment is (1) some kind of stability from a fixed retainer paying the bills every month. Even if it only covers 50% of my pre-self-employment salary I’d be happy. This is enough to survive and keep the wolves at bay. Plus (2) exposure to some small bets and opportunities that could go big but could also go to zero. These are the long shots. These are the creative projects. I get to learn. I’m not bored. I can satisfy my creative itch.

Very grateful I went through this self-discovery process.

4 February 2024

21:40 - races in 2024.

Plan for the year:

  • Road run. Two Oceans 21km. 15 April. Cape Town.

  • Swim. Starnberger See Schwimmen 4km. 27 July. Starnberg.

  • Trail run. Adidas Infinite Trails 45km. 7 September. Bad Gastein.

  • Cycling. Munich to Lago di Garda 400-450k. Self-organized. Date TBD.

Would love to do a few more, but think this is a good start.

21:30 — book idea.

I would love to write a book one day. I believe I have it in me. At the moment, I don’t have enough material. That’s fine. I might also have an issue finding a core theme.

But… how about this —

I can ask my favourite writers (and peers) to each send me their *best* essay and compile it all together in a book with 20-30 chapters. Lessons on Creativity or something like that.

Think that could be rad.

Can figure out the logistics later. Maybe pay everyone a profit share. Or pay them $100 upfront. Next step would be to publish via Amazon or some other store.

Got the idea from reading a book about dogs last year (Dog Hearted) where different writers each contributed an essay describing their love for their furry friends. I also saw this in Succeeding In Business by Brian Tracy and Klaus Metzenauer. It’s a collection of lessons from 20+ different business leaders.

So that brings it two ideas so far for 2024:

  • Logging app / integration with Notion. With timestamps and tagging.

  • Book compilation. Lessons on Creativity.

21:23 — on believing in yourself.

I did a ski course in January while we were on holiday with my sister and her husband.

The conditions were tough on the day and I wasn’t ‘getting’ some of the concepts explained by the instructor.

Turns out I was leaning too far back the whole time. After a few attempts, I was getting the hang of leaning my shins forward.

The instructor complimented me and I brushed it off, “yeah, can probably do even better.”

He replied (quoting loosely), “you have to take the compliment. You have to believe in yourself that you’ve improved today. I’ll be gone tomorrow and then your improvement will rely solely on your confidence in your ability.”

It was a good wake-up call. I generally pride myself on being positive and confident. In that moment, I was the opposite.

You have to believe in yourself. It applies to everything in life. Sport, relationships, business. How can you reach your full potential if your own mindset is putting a limit on your achievements?

Theme for the year: dream bigger.

3 February 2024

22:33 — is writing an act of ego?

I believe it is. It’s a part of you that’s crying out for attention. It comes from a place where you seek the recognition you ‘deserve’.

Thinking back, I was very successful at school, university and my career in SA. I had status. I was the cock on the walk. Moving to Germany, my ‘actuary’ title no longer meant people would listen to me in meetings, nobody knew who I was, I didn’t have a Masters so I didn’t have a ticket to the game.

My ego got crushed. I was nobody. Went through countless interviews without success.

Writing offered a way out. I reconstructed my self-image by writing. I built myself back up and shared my thoughts. And people said “this is actually kinda good” and what I heard was “he’s actually kinda smart”. It was good to regain the status I lost.

I read something from Pressfield where he concurs that writing and creating is an act of ego.

But I might actually like this view from Joseph Campbell even more.

He studied the human story more than anyone and believed this was the key question to ask:

“What is it we are questing for? It is fulfillment of that which is potential in each of us. Questing for it is not an ego trip; it is an adventure to bring into fulfillment your gift to the world…”

Bring into fulfillment your gift to the world.

It’s about something bigger than you.

You have a responsibility. To be the best version of you you can be. So you can be of the biggest benefit to the world.

Might mean earning more and paying more taxes.

But I think it’s something deeper, almost God-given (if yiu’re the religious type). You were lucky to be endowed with certain talents. Other people didn’t get them. You have to use them and not waste them. That would be the biggest slap in the face of the universe/God/humanity.

That’s enough to get you out of bed each day.

16:47 — I’m feeling a bigger and bigger pull to figuring out my purpose.

I’ve been a bit directionless on the writing track lately.

I’ve written about a bunch of topics but I would like to narrow it down. Define my “field of play”.

What’s inside the four lines:

  • Stoic lessons e.g. negative visualization, Man’s Search for Meaning, Stutz etc.

  • Lessons on becoming independent / going freelance e.g. Writing through the dip, the day I quietly quit, working hard not to work hard.

  • Lessons I’m learning doing my work e.g. Poor Johnnie’s Almanack.

What’s out of bounds:

  • Writing about writing. This is derivative type of work. E.g. 5 lessons for beginner writers.

  • Writing about creating. Maybe I can do this. But have to be careful. Sounds like there are overlaps with encouraging people to go independent, but can also be a slippery slope to being too “on the nose” or too explanatory “you should do this”.

Could be a cool exercise. Go through all your past essays and create categories: this is in the field of play vs. not.

2 February 2024

10:11 - I’ve given corporates a hard time, but there are benefits to working at one, especially when you are young.

  • It instils discipline. You learn how to pitch up every day. You grind it out for 8 hours. This provides some structure. Sure, I don’t think we are robots that are meant to be zoned in to our work for 8 hours. There should be time for our thoughts to run free, but in general some kind of structure isn’t bad for when you make the shift to solopreneurship.

  • You learn what you like to do vs. don’t. It’s a process of elimination. You see what you’re good at, you see what grinds you the wrong way. Then you do more of the thing you like, you get better at it, you develop specialized skills.

  • You pick up skills that are valuable in the marketplace. It’s much easier to transition to self-employment after you’ve racked up some experience and learned how to do certain things (say presenting or coding or creating business plans). It makes you more marketable. You have a track record and credibility.

10:04 — on disappointing books.

I usually go on about all the books I love reading, but I never mention the ones that were duds.

I recently returned two books to Audible because I just couldn’t continue reading them.

  1. A Heart That Works by Rob Delaney. The book covers Delaney’s son’s heartbreaking battle with and eventual death from cancer. Although it’s sad and it’s real and I fully feel the pain this family went through (as I’m sure countless other families go through who lose a child), the book didn’t grab me. It’s one thing to describe a child’s battle with cancer and mix in some humour (Delaney’s jokes are funny), but if you’re going to write a book about it, I am expecting something more, something lasting, something out of the ordinary that can be tied to a bigger theme for humanity. Sad to say, but halfway in there was still no bigger message. Rating: 2/5. Goodreads rating: 4.62/5 (mad).

  2. Die With Zero by Bill Perkins. This was very disappointing. I picked it up after reading Ali Abdaal’s newsletter recommending it as “a great new book by my friend Bill that changes the way you think about money”. Bit of an oversell. Sure, Perkins makes a good point - don’t save all your money for retirement and then use it when you’re old and you can’t do stuff anymore - but this is hardly anything new or groundbreaking. I hardly know anyone in my generation who only works and values money above life experiences. The book is also flawed in that some people actually like their work and find real purpose in it, which he says can’t be true (experiences are the highest currency to him). And it doesn’t speak enough about leaving something for your kids - this feels like bad advice, selfish even. Lastly (I’m almost done), it’s told from the perspective of a billionaire in his late 40s who is trying to lecture working-class people about how they should spend the $60k they earn each year. Completely out of touch. Sure, maybe you can design a life around experiences if you don’t have to work again, but other people would see that as irresponsible.

Ok, rant over.

Make no mistake - I have respect for people who write and publish books. I would like to join their legion one day. But I also think it’s important to note when a book doesn’t sit well with you. That shows your taste and your sense for sniffing out BS.

I like how Neil Parischa describes quitting a book:

"It’s one thing to quit reading a book and feel bad about it. It’s another to quit a book and feel proud of it. All you have to do is change your mindset. Just say, “Phew! Now I’ve finally ditched this brick to make room for that gem I’m about to read next.”

There are only so many books you can read in your lifetime. Don’t be scared to shelve a book. 

09:54 — on the lightness that comes from not forcing/chasing/pushing things.

It’s Friday. It’s my day off. I have a 3-day contract with my current client so I get 2 days to explore other opportunities, work on personal projects, go outdoors or just chill. I like this arrangement. I can give 100% when I’m “on call” and I can switch off and let my mind wander on the days that I’m not.

Today I came back from the gym and I felt the usual “let’s rush through the shower, get dressed, make coffee, get to my desk” feeling creep up on me. One that has been drilled into me by years of having a 9-5 job.

Then I realized, “wait - I don’t have meetings or people expecting things from me today - I can take it slower - play with our dog, have coffee with my fiancé, read a book…”.

Interesting to observe that natural, goal-driven attitude creep up on you and then try to override it.

1 February 2024

11:34 — thoughts on Write of Passage changing their strategy.

I’m a big fan of Write of Passage. I love the product. I genuinely believe it changed my life for the better. I have been way calmer since I started writing and I’ve had a host of new opportunities open up for me (increased serendipity).

The team have decided to go with a new direction this cohort — instead of focusing on writing consistently and building a writing habit (no matter the topic) the message will centre around finding your “core idea” and writing more about that.

This change makes sense — in a world dominated by LLMs (GPT) and AI-driven writing, consistency is no longer such an important metric. What’s more important is writing something only you can write, something genuine, something from real experience, something a machine can’t write.

But I also have a few concerns/questions about the change:

  • Archaeologist vs. Architect. Some people might need a lot of time writing about random things before they figure out what their “core idea” is. They have to be archaeologists (dig around and explore) before they can be architects (have a clear idea of their topic and audience). I know this is the case for me. I initially thought I would write about insurance and fintech and when I eventually started writing I wasn’t attracted to these topics at all. Through writing and listening to internal and external feedback, I’ve figured out that I actually like writing reflective pieces about my creator journey, the lessons I’ve learned in life and work, and urging people to take on creative projects. I wouldn’t have gotten here if I wasn’t allowed to explore (to be an archaeologist) first.

  • Writing for me vs. writing for others. I fear solving for what your “core idea” is you might look outside at what the market needs, at what people would like to read about instead of what you want to write about. This can create a block. You won’t give yourself the benefit of exploring your interests. You will test your ideas against your “core idea” and discard potentially valuable essays because they don’t fit the mould.

11:30 — coming up against a light version of writer’s block.

I’m happy I still keep logging regularly.

I just don’t know which of these thoughts are valuable enough to share.

So it’s not all doom and gloom — I am still practising the writing muscle, I just haven’t published in a while.

I would like to publish again.

Writing this now, it has become clear that I’m thinking about things from the wrong perspective.

I’m thinking about what other people would find interesting to read about instead of what I’m interested in writing about.

I’m not writing for them, I’m writing for me. Guessing what other people want is impossible, it’s a distraction. No wonder it’s been easier to keep logging and it’s been hard to publish. The logs are purely for me, no one else. They help me take stock of what I find interesting and get my thinking straight.

And, the best part is the readers will pick up my joy when I write about the things I like. They will sense the lightness and enthusiasm.

11:22 — on doing vs. thinking.

When I think “I should perform now” during a meeting or while playing sport, it usually results in the opposite happening - I don’t perform well.

I am not present, I am distracted from doing the thing - sharing my thoughts or making a smooth golf swing. I’m more concerned about impressing others. What will they think of me?

This is a funny phenomenon and it probably ties into meditation.

… quietening the mind, not identifying with thought, these things help to get you out of the thinking loop and into the doing mode.

Whenever I feel this sense of impressing others (forced performance) creeping up on me, I try to relax, take a breath and focus on what actually needs to be done.

10:59 — and just like that the first month of the year is done and dusted.

I’m happy with what I’ve achieved in January:

  • Secured a long-term contract with a client. The uncertainty surrounding recurring income was a stress factor last year. This retainer will add a bit of stability to my life while giving me enough flexibility to explore other projects on the side.

  • Travelled to Johannesburg for work. Learned a lot from the workshop and strengthened my relationship with my client.

  • Ran my personal best for the 5km - 18:54.

  • Hosted my sister and her husband in Munich and went skiing together. Add this to the lifetime memories/experiences bucket.

  • Hosted a workshop for the Small Bets community. Got useful feedback on where to improve and I grew my audience. Hoping to do more presentations this year.

I haven’t completed my annual review for 2023 yet. Time to get that done.

“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” ― Seneca

31 January 2024

12:07 — ran my 5km PB last night. 5.01km in 00:18:54.


Some notes from the time trial:

  • I was nervous beforehand. I believe this is a good thing to get the adrenaline up.

  • I calmed myself by pointing out the important facts. 1. I am not a pro athlete - this is not my job - my livelihood will not be impacted by a poor result. 2. I am doing this for me - whether I perform well or not has nothing to do with anyone else.

  • I set a strategy. I was going to stick to one of my friends (who’s slightly faster than me) for the first 1km and see how long I can hold on. He eventually dropped me when he accelerated but I was able to maintain my pace throughout.

  • Took in a lot of fluids (water and gels) during the day. Think this is more important for longer races.

  • I wasn’t in top shape. I had a cold over the weekend so my body was still dealing with that. Good sign that I can potentially go lower next time.

  • Note from speaking to our running club coach: I should eat before I run in the mornings, it’s a bad idea to run on an empty belly. I’ve always done it, but this is counterproductive for performance.

12:05 — had a good year creating digital products in 2023:


Time to think of a few new ideas.

12:03 — the illusion of free will, told as a Western:

“I had no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous.

The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.” — Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

28 January 2024

08:35 — as an outsider to the startup game, who recently joined the startup area, I’m positively surprised that there is no magic sauce / something elusive to building a company.

I’m helping a team of engineers launch a blockchain life insurance product.

In corporate, I always thought that it required luck or the right connections or a trust fund or serious creativity to launch a startup. I sat on the sidelines and read about these hyped-up companies that become unicorns or went bust because of lack of funding.

Getting involved in building a company from scratch, I’ve realized there’s nothing ‘special’ about it. You just follow the steps:

  • find an idea that answers a problem people have e.g. transparent pricing for life insurance

  • build a financial model showing the business case and the value proposition to the clients and investors

  • translate this financial model into a white paper describing your idea and all the intricacies around the architecture and total addressable market

  • pull the highlights into a pitch deck

  • pitch the idea to investors

  • speak to investors until you get funding

  • start building the thing

  • (hopefully) sell the thing to customers

I realize I’ve simplified things here. Getting funding and finding customers will be difficult. But the point is there’s no secret formula to building a business.

That’s been my biggest takeaway from stepping into the arena myself.

23 January 2024

08:30 — on defining your playing field.

I attended a strategy workshop with a client this week. The workshop host took us through a no-go zones exercise.

You can’t play outside the four lines on football field. There are certain rules to the game - you can’t pass to a player that is in front of all the opposition players, you can’t handle the ball with your hands etc.

In the same way, a company should define its playing field and the principles it will follow.

It makes no sense to jump on every opportunity that comes its way. That leads to distraction and misalignment among employees. By defining the playing field, the company can say yes to opportunities that fit their purpose and no to opportunities that are outside their area of focus/expertise.

This can also be extended to your personal life.

It brings to mind Warren Buffett’s famous 5/25 rule. His pilot asked him how to be successful. He told the pilot to go away and write down the 25 things that were most important in his life. When the pilot came back, Buffett told him to cross off 20 items from the list. The remaining 5 items were to be his core goals. The other 20 were “very dangerous” - they look important but they are highly distracting.

This is very difficult for me.

I am so used to being a jack of all trades that I always jump on new opportunities and projects. I wonder if the “playing field” or 5/25 lens can benefit me in the long run. What are my focus areas? What are my no-go zones?

08:26 — good quote:

“It reminded me of what Tolstoy, in his book What is Art?, concludes: “Art... is when one man... hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”” — Samuel Shem, The House of God

22 January 2024

06:35 — why do you become your ‘old self’ when you bump into people who you knew when you were younger?

For example, I saw old friends/acquaintances of mine last week when I went skiing. I hadn’t seen them in 5 or more years. They wanted to talk about my venture into writing (or ‘blogging’ as they called it). I immediately said yes, I’m enjoying it, before changing the subject.

Too scared to talk about it, because what, I’m scared of what they will think of me?

Strange to observe this behaviour in myself.

It also happens when I speak German to people I first met when my German wasn’t good. Despite improving my language skills significantly subsequently and writing more exams, I default back to the shitty German I spoke when I first met them.

Wonder why this happens?

Am I too scared to show other people that I’ve grown? So in a way, I’m being self-deprecating so they feel better? But that doesn’t really help. You won’t make other people feel big by making yourself small.

Interesting one.

06:30 — BHAG = big, hairy, ambitious goals.

What are my BHAGs?

Why am I scared of writing these down? Do I want to stay comfortable? Do I want to avoid the pain/disappointment of chasing something ambitious and falling short?

Good point for my Annual Review.

21 January 2024

23:01 — what is the point of a strategy meeting?

Important to do the work and keep moving, but sometimes you need to look up and see the bigger trends. See where you are heading, see where you want to be heading.

There’s a great video on YouTube of a Springbok (antelope) running through the African Savannah. He sprints away from danger but forgets to look at and runs straight into a tree. Obviously this won’t happen in real life, the antelope would look up. But it illustrates the point of just working/committing without reflecting.

Similar to the piece I wrote last year.

22:58 — interesting stat.

2024 will be a year of change in the world.

70% of the global population is voting this year.

22:52 — writing gives you double the purchase / double the pleasure.

You first get to experience the event or moment or learning opportunity (the real-life thing).

And afterwards, you get to capture the experience or lesson in writing. It’s almost like reliving that moment, you get to bed down the impact and preserve it for future reference.

22:48 — on the importance of no-go zones.

I am attending a strategic workshop with the execs from a company I’m consulting to.

One of the interesting items they raised for the agenda is ‘no-go zones’ — products and markets they will not build and will not sell to.

This is quite smart because the business needs to decide what it’s good at and do a lot of that. Instead of trying to serve everyone, become a specialist in a niche and make a killing in that product/market.

This could also be applied in a personal context.

I am running in all directions because I am trying to do too much - trying to be a consultant and writer and creator etc. I wonder if I can ever set up no-go zones? I can see the benefits of choosing and sticking to a lane. I just default to old habits of being a jack of all trades. Something embedded in me during school. Maybe I can raise my kids differently?

Same as the analogy from Matt McConaughey on getting 3 As instead of 5 Bs.

And 5/25 rule from Warren Buffett.

22:45 — I haven’t completed my annual review for last year. Not sure why I am putting it off. Avoiding the page. We are already 3 weeks into this year. I feel like I am doing good work but I am also running around like a headless chicken.

A review and strategy for the year can help me find some direction.

22:44 — a lot is going on this week. Nothing better than turning to writing to calm my mind.

19 January 2024

16:27 — how having a dog is preparing me for parenthood.

I often go running with Lily - our brown, bubbly, Labrador-Ridgeback-Pointer-Spanish Island dog mix.

She loves these outings as much as I do.

During the current winter months, the sun only rises around 8am. So most mornings, we would be running for an hour in complete darkness. Lily is a curious dog and, dare I say, a little bit hard of hearing on commands like ‘come back’. She often disappears into the bushes and undergrowth and reappears a few minutes having sniffed a trail that was simply irresistible (I blame the Pointer genes).

Yesterday, I took her running with my running group. 30 people, 7am start, a bunch of headlamps and good conversation.

About 2 kilometres in we reached the woods and I took Lily off her leash. No danger of her running in front of cars.

In no time, she did one of her customary forays into the bushes. I could see her green, neon collar zipping and zooming between the trees and getting dimmer and dimmer.

One of the girls asked me if I ever got concerned that she might get lost or run away?

I said no, she always returns.

That positive, certain response made me think. I would like to raise my kids in the same way. Give them the freedom to explore new places, new ideas etc. without curtailing them and holding them back because of my fears that they won’t return. If I raise them with love, they will return. The opposite, being too protective, would be a worse outcome. That would feel like stealing their joy and putting shackles on them. Only for them to really cut contact one day.

Lily and her neon collar popped up a minute later, seemingly out of nowhere. And she fell into step right next to me. Searching me out in the crowd of runners.

16:24 — writing is the foundation for everything.

In the clearest sense, good writing translates into exact emails and strong essays.

But it doesn’t stop there. Before someone records a video for YouTube or creates a play for the stage, they need to write a script.

There’s no way of getting around the universal power of being a strong writer.

10:35 — one of the better descriptions I’ve seen about the value of being present:

“In worrying about the future, I despoil the present; in my escape, I leave a true freedom behind.” — Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

18 January 2024

08:32 — back from dropping our car off at the mechanic (again) and noticed something I don’t encounter a lot nowadays.

The guy who runs the shop (a friendly Greek man) always has time for a chat.

In my day-to-day, I don’t always have conversations with people I bump into, whether that’s the barista serving me coffee or the cashier scanning my groceries. Not sure if it’s my fault, but it seems like these encounters are always quite efficient and speedy. “Hey hello - are you paying cash or card - have a nice day” type of thing.

My Greek mechanic always has time to talk and share a story. Either about his childhood playing soccer or how his wife’s son (I’m guessing he remarried) is doing at school.

What’s interesting is observing a little flinch in my inner being, like “Oh boy - I hope this won’t take long - I have a bunch of meetings and work to attend to”. But then I relax and realize I probably have 5 minutes for a conversation. Nothing is so important that I can’t listen to this guy.

He ended up not making me pay for the quick check they had to perform. Not sure if it’s related, but I think he values having a customer who’s willing to stop and listen once in a while.

16 January 2024

08:18 — exciting news. I’ve successfully migrated my website/domain from Ghost to Substack.

I joined Substack in March last year and used it purely as a distribution channel for my newsletter while keeping my essays and other content (visuals and products) on Ghost.

In the months following that move, I started giving my domain on Ghost less attention and shifted my focus to my Substack page.

Realizing this and seeing the clean look & feel of Substack, it eventually became clear that it would be better and easier to have everything under one roof with a personalized domain on Substack.

This cost me $50 once-off (instead of the Ghost pricing of ~$100 per year) and took 2-3 hours to set up (because I had quite a few posts over on Ghost).

Some notes for others who want to do this (might share in my newsletter, let’s see):

  1. Read this article: How do I move from Ghost to Substack? This helped me with:

    1. Exporting my existing email list to Substack

    2. Exporting my content (existing posts) from Ghost to Substack

  2. There is currently a snag with the Ghost to Substack content export. You can’t drag and drop your .json file in the Substack import tool. You can only insert your current Ghost domain name and Substack then scrapes your last 15 posts exposed by the RSS feed. I had over 100 posts on Ghost so This is how I got around it (bit manual, but best solution for now):

    1. I first deleted my Ghost posts that I didn’t want to move over

    2. Then I pasted my website link in the Substack import tool, which imported the latest 15 posts. The import used the same URL just with an added /p/ in the link to indicate ‘post’. So e.g. johnnicholas.org/writing-luck became johnnicholas.org/p/writing-luck. Once I changed my domain over from Ghost to Substack the old links excluding the /p/ were automatically redirected to the new links so there were no 404 errors. This was a relief.

    3. After this, I deleted those 15 posts from my Ghost site that were just exported successfully to Substack. During the manual deletion of each individual post, I saved the captions for pictures in a separate Google Doc. This overcomes a snag in the Substack import process where captions for pictures aren’t carried over.

    4. Repeated steps b and c until all 100 posts were moved from Ghost to Substack.

  3. Read this article: How do I set up my custom domain? This helped me:

    1. Find the place to pay the $50 once-off fee.

    2. Change the CNAME attribute on my domain name provider (Namecheap) to the Substack configuration.

  4. Within 1 hour my new website was live on Substack. They state a window period of 36 hours, but mine was way quicker.

08:13 — Radiohead’s All I Need is all I need.

15 January 2024

16:46 — parallel between seeing your physical growth (as a child) and your growth as a writer.

When you were young, you grew a lot. Yet, you and your immediate family didn’t notice the changes. Since you saw yourself every day, the small changes from day to day didn’t seem significant. If, say, a distant relative or friend from out of town came by they immediately saw the cumulative growth from the last 6 months or year.

I wonder if the same can be said for writing? I don’t see my improvement from week to week, but maybe someone who hasn’t read my writing in a while could notice if there has been growth (fingers crossed).

I’m busy migrating my website from Ghost to Substack and copying over old posts. In a way, I am that distant relative. I haven’t seen those old posts in one or two years. Now that I look at them, I am both impressed by the fact that I started (and continued) writing and a little (but not overly) embarrassed by the mistakes I made and scattergun approach I employed. Good to see some growth and improvement in my more recent newsletters. Centered around a central theme, better headers, good length. I know there is still a lot to work on, but good to savour the small wins along the way.

14 January 2024

18:08 — the inner conflict/dichotomy of working on Sundays:

  • Against. One part of me is firmly against it. I have done it in the past and it has always come back to bite me during the week. Thoughts that come to mind - weekends are sacred. Life is more important than work. I don’t want to become the workaholic absent father.

  • For. I want to improve myself and get a headstart on my work for the week. I want to make a good impression. I am ambitious. There is no way to get ahead without making a few sacrifices. Hustle a bit now and reap the rewards later.

I’ve gone for the latter today. Might be the right season in my life for it. Last year was tough (mentally and financially). I do not want to repeat that.

12 January 2024

13:52 — on managing people.

Rather than explaining what the person should do, ask them to try it themselves first then come back to you when they are truly stuck.

They will often be surprised by the breakthroughs they can make on their own without having the safety net/easy out of asking for your assistance. Builds confidence and problem solving instincts.

11 January 2024

17:11 — I wonder if there’s a link between being a good consultant and a good coach.

Let’s break it down:

  • In both instances, you have to be a good listener. The company/client is explaining their dilemma or problem and trying to figure out a solution. Whether that’s a personal block (advancing their career) or some business motive (growing market share, revamping products etc). They are seeking some improvement or transformation and you have to act like a conversation partner / sparring partner that listens well.

  • You can’t implement the solutions yourself. The client needs to do that. You can only lead the horse to the water. You can only ask the right questions. You are not giving advice, but asking questions/ fishing around/ trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. The ultimate decision and power lies with them. This also reduces the pressure on the consultant/coach — your role is only to ask the right questions, not to implement the solution. This has helped me because I’ve often fallen into the trap that I feel obliged to solve all the client’s problems, but this isn’t only unhelpful, it’s also impossible.

  • They often know deep down what the solution is, but they haven’t had a chance to express themselves and listen to themselves. Through conversation, they can get the issues out in the open and find a place to start.

08:30 — cleaning up an essay on business lessons for publication later today.

I never thought I would write anything business-y, but here we are. 

I don’t read business books, I usually skip the business section in the newspaper and go straight to sports.

It's about a few lessons I've picked up being back in the consulting / formal employment game. I hope to continue writing no matter what type of work I do so I'm trying to approach 'normal' work with a writing/observational lens.

This serves three purposes:

  1. The writing offers a bridge between what I do for work (work) and what I’m passionate about (writing). Good to find alignment.

  2. There are many life lessons hidden in business lessons.

  3. I’m no longer writing about writing, which becomes very meta and self-reflective. I’m writing about a thing. Out of the vortex.

08:18 — enjoyed this line from The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco:

What does it mean, to imagine a reader able to overcome the penitential obstacle of the first hundred pages? It means, precisely, writing one hundred pages for the purpose of constructing a reader suitable for what comes afterward.

Reminds me of the importance of writing for yourself. You won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you write for everyone, you write for no one. Express your ideas, talk in your natural voice. Just like there are people that don’t get along with you in life, there will be people that don’t jibe with your writing. And that’s fine.

But the rest, the people who get through the first paragraph or first 100 pages — they are the true fans. They are aligned.

4 January 2024

11:21 — leveraging the power of community and accountability.

I’ve experienced the benefits of having accountability partners and belonging to communities with shared goals and ambitions.

Can I leverage this even more? Can I formalize these relationships and meetups to be more regular?

  • Personal writing: I have a great accountability and feedback partner here. Weekly check-ins for over a year now.

  • Business writing: I don’t currently have anyone in this department. Can I leverage existing relationships or should I find someone new who focuses specifically on LinkedIn?

  • Co-working partner: I have a writing buddy in Munich who I meet up with semi-regularly. Can we make this a weekly habit? Does that have benefits? E.g. dedicated time for creative projects and brainstorming ideas over coffee.

  • Running: I belong to two strong running crews meeting multiple times per week. Pushes me forward. Sorted in this department.

  • Gym: I belong to HIIT/Hyrox gym. Attend twice a week. Good setup that fits my schedule.

  • Business and big ideas: difficult to formalize this. Might have overlaps with personal and business writing. Or should this be someone different?

11:05 — big plans to take my running and training up a level this year.

Finished 2023 on a high. Ran the 10km New Year’s race in 40:09. Just missed the official race sub-40. I firmly believe I can get there with a bit more training.

Another goal would be to hit a sub-90 in the 21km.

Might focus on the shorter distances this year to give the body a break from the marathons and ultras. Additional training to support the running:

  • HIIT / Weights: UN1T workouts plus weights at home.

  • Yoga: injury prevention. Couple of studios in my neighbourhood.

  • Swimming: low impact cardio.

09:50 — got a few projects lined up this year. Might be worth capturing them here. Can I complete all of them? Interesting mix of formal vs. creator roles.

  1. Actuarial consulting: my anchor client has contracted me for 3 days per week for the next few months. This will be my main income and priority for now.

  2. Bus Dev: continue to foster relationships and pitch new clients. Keep the pipeline full.

  3. Masters or MBA: this might be something to consider if I can do it part-time and get funding. Thinking here: a Masters degree signals credibility. Especially in Europe where most people are highly-/over-qualified. This can help in the short-term to get additional clients and in the long-term to land speaking gigs and book deals.

  4. Business writing: splitting my personal and business writing. Will focus on actuarial consulting writing for our company’s website and LinkedIn page. This will help the Bus Dev flywheel and create less confusion for my LinkedIn followers.

  5. Personal writing: continue writing and publishing on Substack. Keen to move my whole site over to the network. Should be a fun project. I like the look & feel and it’s easier to manage one site instead of having some posts on Ghost and some over here. Goal this year: one newsletter every two weeks. Harvested directly from my Logs.

  6. Visuals: I’m hosting a Small Bets class on Creating Visuals later this month. Paid gig. Time to brush off the digital paintbrush. Option to cross-sell my Procreate product. Is there another product I can create and pitch to the attendees? Also interested in hosting a warm-up event.

  7. Teaching: opportunity to design a Communications course for actuarial students. This is one of the subjects in the actuarial curriculum that the often technically-minded aspiring actuaries struggle with. Bit unclear what the course will look like for now, but might be a good ‘small bet’ if I can work hard initially and generate passive repeat sales afterwards. ‘Build once, sell twice’ mentality.

  8. Sales: opportunity to do a gig with a writing school to manage a team of alums doing info calls with prospective students. Excited about this because I believe in the transformative power of the course. Also like managing and working with people.

  9. Writing community: two friends and I ran a mini writing course towards the end of last year called Writers’ Off-Season. The experiment was a reasonable success. We had 60 students who signed up and 20-30 regular attendees over the 4 weeks. We also got to practice facilitating some ideas and I created a new digital product - my Annual Review worksheet. I would love to find a way to continue this community and potentially merge this with my Creating Visuals for Writing (CV4W) community. One option would be to partner with an existing creative community that doesn’t have an existing space for sparring and idea generation.

I think that’s a wrap. There might be a few things that I haven’t captured here. And I’m sure there will be more opportunities that arise over the coming months.

Can I do all of this? Let’s see. I believe all of these opportunities have their merits - some fulfill a monetary need, others scratch my creative itch. Some are short-term, secure deals, while others are longer shots with future payoffs.

Am I over-leveraging? Probably. I like to say things like ‘choose 3 As over 5 Bs’. I also know that there is a cost to context switching. At the moment it is unclear which horse is the winner here. There might be a time

09:42 — reflections on logging. Building an app?

I started this habit towards the end of last year and it has reinvigorated my writing practice.

The best thing? There's less pressure to write something 'good'. You can just write freely and check afterwards if any segments stand out.

To this end, I think it could be cool to either:

  1. Copy over the better segments to some essay database on Notion/Google Docs/Apple Notes.

  2. Or (even better) build some logging tool that integrates with Substack. Can I do this? Might be a fun experiment and an option to pick up some coding / no-code skills.


  • Plus sign to create a new entry. Automatically generates a dated and time-stamped space to record a log.

  • Tagging: this is the main feature I’m missing at the moment. It’s difficult for me to search my existing logs based on themes… business, sport, meditation, creating. This will help my newsletter writing. E.g. want to write about your rules for business? Search on the business tag and weave together 5 tags.

  • Integration: Publishes/integrates to your website or Substack? Can I build this?

  • Different views: can view by date or by tag e.g. business, personal, meditation.

  • Batching: do the notes collapse per day? Are the notes all wrapped together into a monthly log by the end of each month with a link to expand?

  • Integrates with Readwise so you can push your own notes to yourself.

09:38 — first post of the New Year.

Sitting in my favourite coffee shop. Flat white in hand. Just back from a 13-kilometre outing with my running crew. Mood is at an A+.

Good to be back. Got a bunch of ideas for the year. Will keep building. Working. Grinding away. I believe good things are lying ahead.

Pic from morning miles:

Log history


Q4 2023