I take great inspiration in the things that my kids say, or do. Sometimes amusing, sometimes surprising, always honest; kids can be a goldmine of wisdom if you listen.
This is a post about the time that I tried to teach my children that there is no spoon.
Or, should I say, there is no flip-phone.
A few months ago we were taking a family journey in the car. Parents the world over can empathise what a distressing experience this can be, especially with three children in the back. Punches thrown, elbows jarred, threats issued, alliances formed.
Parents see it all from the safety of the front seat.
In this particular incident my youngest, Jacob, had brought along a plastic flip phone, the likes of which adorn kids magazines the world over. He would use this device to communicate quite animatedly with his grandmother 3 miles away. I am not sure what voices he was hearing in return but sometimes his one-sided dialogues would end with a slamming shut of said inert plastic trinket.
It was comical.
Until the middle child took the phone and also began to speak to an imaginary friend and, as you can imagine, the eldest snatched the wondrous plastic talisman to also speak.
This led to screams and tantrums so I did what any good manager (read: father) would do and pulled the car over to issue 2 more toys and told the kids to pretend the toys were also phones. Now they could all speak.
The kids looked at me dumbfounded.
How could they possibly speak into a toy that was not a phone? Was I mad?
The phone was a phone. This new toy was not a phone. It was just…a toy.
They had not learned that, in life, there is no spoon.
As entrepreneurs we rely on one resource and one resource only.
It is the imagination of the entrepreneur that allows them to envisage a world in which they are not unemployed / working minimum wage / delivering someone else’s dream (delete as necessary) and then bend the world to match that reality.
It is imagination which helps them inspire a team to unify behind a goal. Ideally a bold, audacious goal like kill email; the rallying cry of the Slack team.
My children were crippled because they had not realised that the driver powering the plastic phone was not the phone. It was them.
They were the ones imagining the world and it unfolded before them.
The phone only existed because they wanted it to exist.
It is precisely this challenge that Paul Graham laid down to founders and entrepreneurs in 2012 when he listed the 7 frightening startup ideas and why they are scary. If you want to solve these scary problems then you will have to actually imagine a world in which the problem is solved and then create it.
I have always been a fan of Steve Jobs and he understood that if you want to change the status quo you must apply your imagination multiplied by force of will.
It is my role in life to give my children the tools and the sandbox to push themselves and impose their will on their surroundings. This in turn will help them learn new skills and, as a result, have the confidence to go onto new frontiers.
All this from a flip phone in a car?
In 2015 I decided to leave my well-paid job with a FTSE 100. I had a good salary, pension contributions and a great company car but I could sense it was time to move on. My instincts were tingling and my imagination said I could do something else so I handed in my notice with no safety net and leapt into the unknown.
Don’t underestimate this decision; I am a father of 3 with a mortgage and now I didn’t even have a car. In addition, disaster struck; the company billed me for the full lease of the company vehicle and a host of other charges which wiped out my savings and my last month’s salary. It was a horrible time but I plowed into interviews like I had nothing to lose. My only commodity right then was my knowledge, the scarcity of good Agile personnel and my self-belief.
I imagined the world I wanted.
I wanted maximum value despite the risk of not getting a job.
Options unfolded before me; I could join the No.1 supermarket in the UK as the Scrum Master for their new technology platform (and huge learning opportunities) or I had other firm offers from two insurance companies.
I mulled it over. My fiancée began to panic as our bills were now going unpaid and all of the jobs were over 100 miles away; quite the challenge for a man without a car.
I held out despite the mounting financial pressure and then negotiated a deal with the second company to come in as a contractor under my own limited company and we settled on a start date of three weeks from the date of negotiation. I managed to talk a mechanic into giving me a reliable car under the trust of paying them in full after my first invoice cleared.
Time passed slowly and I reassured my family this was the right thing to do in the long-run. Even as our phones were disconnected due to unpaid bills.
Even as we began to divide up the remaining money into what the kids needed as a priority.
However, we got through it, at year end I had earned a six figure income and more importantly, the mechanic has become a life-long friend and now has a customer for life.
I don’t tell this story to brag; it was a really challenging time, at one point I used a tent as I could not afford accommodation in the client city, but, it is equally important that I show my children that there are no safety nets in life; you have to take risks and you must use your instincts and ingenuity.
Imagination x Force of Will
I learned this trait from my mother and father. In 1987 they left the destitute town of Dundee where we had been homeless for weeks and drove using their last remaining funds to the town of Corby.
In a pre-internet era; old friends had said that the town had burgeoning employment opportunities.
I will never forget we arrived with a car, an empty petrol tank and my parents had enough money for a single sandwich which they gave to me. We drove aimlessly looking for a friend of the family (no sat nav) who had agreed to put us up.
How does a man, a father, with no qualifications and no money earn enough to support his family within the next 48 hours?
Simple. He borrows a ladder, a bucket and a cloth and becomes a window cleaner. As a family we survived and my parents went on to become home-owners.
Those lessons stayed with me; I can always impose my will and my imagination on my environment.
Sometimes it will fail but failure is not fatal.
It just hurts; so you collect yourself and keep trying.
He who endures, succeeds.
The diy.org movement, which inspires children to try things, has over 400,000 children engaged in imagining prototypes, running experiments and sharing feedback.
They asked the valid question “What happens when you invite kids to try?”
Giving children the ability to shape their own universe and learn entrepreneurial habits was also the focus of the outstanding TED talk by Cameron Herold. A video which resonates with me on a personal and parental level.
Allowances teach kids the wrong habits. Allowances, by nature, are teaching kids to think about a job. An entrepreneur doesn’t expect a regular paycheck. Allowance is breeding kids at a young age to expect a regular paycheck. That’s wrong, for me, if you want to raise entrepreneurs. What I do with my kids now — I’ve got two, nine and seven — is I teach them to walk around the house and the yard, looking for stuff that needs to get done. Come to me and tell me what it is. Or I’ll come to them and say, “Here’s what I need done.” And then you know what we do? We negotiate.
It took imagination for Lin, Hsieh and Swinmurn to position Zappos as an independent entity within the Amazon empire and drive through a cultural revolution in customer service; manifested in the oft-quoted Culture Book and more prominently in the Pay-You-To-Leave-The-Company gambit.
If you are not inspiring your children to create and play then start now.
They don’t need a plastic flip phone.
They just need the safety net to imagine it and make it happen.
Give them a push.