It Will Come When It Comes

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I had two heavy shopping bags and I needed to get a bus home. It was a short journey that took less than ten minutes. I waited for the pedestrian green light and made my way across the road to the bus stop. Reaching into my pocket I immediately got the CityMapper app out to see when the next bus would come. Fifteen minutes. Goddammit.

With two heavy bags I could do nothing but take a seat and wait. An old woman was sitting on the bench.

“Just the minimum for me today,” she said, referring to her shopping bag. I lamented the fact that I had a talker next to me. I’m always polite and pleasant enough, but making small talk with strangers is never my thing. “No more sherry for me. Had too much in January,” she continued with a cackle.

I smiled and looked out at the passing cars. The grey skies. The variations of people on the opposite sidewalk.

“I don’t even look at the bus times anymore,” she said. “It will come when it comes.”

I nodded my head, deciding not to tell her I’d just looked at my app and knew exactly when the next one would arrive. She went on to talk about the weather, laugh at the shock of blonde hair on a boy who walked past, and even commented on football. I guess she was somewhat entertaining. And she seemed happy – a point which made me thoughtful.

Another elderly woman arrived at the bus stop. I got up to allow her to sit, and was magically relieved of conversation duty, as the two started a conversation off as if they knew each other.

This tendency to talk to make conversation with strangers – it seems to be very much more the realm of older people. I stood on the edge of the road and wondered, not for the first time, whether people get more talkative to strangers as they get older, or were people just more open and talkative back in the day? Is it a case of loneliness forcing old people to talk, or has the society changed? A world turned inward on itself.

Finally the bus came and we all got on. I stood. Finally I could get home and relax with family. As the bus made its way closer to my road and my stop I gazed at her, sitting two rows in front of me. She had some sort of condition that made her head jerk slightly every few seconds. At my stop I got off and made my way home.

There’s a peculiar beauty with old age, I reflected. Even though I never really want to get as old as the woman on the bus, some strange part of me envied her. She’d done her innings. No one relied on her or expected anything of her anymore. She was free to stare death in the face and smile with a sherry.

It will come when it comes.

If you’re going to try

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I watched the movie Factotum a couple of months ago. It’s based on a Charles Bukowski novel. Matt Dillon does a surprisingly good job of playing a young Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, as he goes job to job, trying to make it through life while attempting to build a writing career. The film ends off with the famous Bukowski quote about sticking to your dream through thick and thin.

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

These lines seem to have stuck with me since then. Maybe because I’ve slowly come to understand the power of playing the ‘long game’. Or maybe it made me think of myself. Here I am, stuck in career that no longer really appeals to me. Often I think back on the last ten years, wondering why I hadn’t just started pursuing a different, more enjoyable direction in life sooner. Something like writing, for example. If I did I might have found myself in a much more favourable position right now. Perhaps even on the verge of doing it for a living.

But life doesn’t work in hindsight. It works in the moment. And when you stack multitudes of moments on top of each other, you find life’s moved on and you haven’t. Well, not exactly as much as you wanted to.

While I can’t encourage the lack of eating for three or four days, or sleeping on a park bench, there’s a vital lesson in these words for any young person. Any person at all, for that matter. Or any company.

About ten years ago I became friends with a young guy who had started as a creative intern at the ad agency I worked for. By this time he’d established himself as a rising star in the creative and design department. I liked his sense of humour, and we knew how to have a good time.

But what always stood out about him was his sheer passion for advertising. He lived and breathed it. He spent endless hours on websites that exhibited great advertising. He knew the ins and outs of the industry. He devoured content around advertising awards shows. He loved it all.

By the time I left the ad agency a couple of years later he was at creative director level. I moved cities and we lost touch completely. Through friends, Twitter and LinkedIn I stayed loosely informed of his career path, which seemed to just grow and grow. From humble Port Elizabeth in South Africa, to creative director in large UK agencies. The last I heard about a month ago, he had just started at a world famous agency in New York City as a creative director.

I was happy for him. When I heard the news I couldn’t help but reflect that when he started at the ad agency we met at years before, I was considerably more senior to him. Yet in the space of a decade he’d surpassed me. He’s massively talented, yes. But at the heart of it I knew there was something deeper. He loved what he did. He had a clear picture in his head of what he wanted to achieve. Of this I have no doubt. From day one back in the agency a decade ago, he had a long game.

It’s worth telling another story of a friend of mine back in Johannesburg, South Africa. His wife has a high level executive job, which affords him the chance to work for himself. Here’s the thing . . . he’s good at everything. Well, almost everything. I’m not exaggerating either.

He cooks majestically. He can make a gourmet meal out of nothing. He could probably fix any electrical issue in your house. He’s a master of sound and speaker installations. He’s an excellent sound engineer, and even plays instruments fairly well. He knows carpentry, and could probably put together pretty much anything you wanted. In addition to this he knows how to fish, how to hunt, how to boat. He could skin an animal and cure the meat better than a butcher.

He’s dabbled in business in some of these areas. Yet for all his expertise, nothing has ever taken off. Often something he was heavily into would be forgotten six months later. He drifts from one thing to the next, all of which he is very capable, hoping something sticks. Hoping for a magic moment, when the money starts pouring in.

It never does. His situation hasn’t really changed from when we met him back in 2012. It’s a pity because I like him, and he’s good at so much. But he’s never played the long game.

Then there’s the story of the company I joined when I left the agency I spoke of. They ran a group of colleges around the country. No company is perfect, and neither were they, but I loved working for them. They were decent, down to earth people. They gave me a healthy dose of accountability, and I generally had fun while there. I badly wanted the company to ‘win’ and grow exponentially. But it never happened. We never grew anywhere near as much as I wanted us to, and at times we struggled. After five years I felt I’d outgrown much of the company and left for a bigger name.

Looking back now I sometimes wonder what held us back. Why couldn’t we grow like we wanted to? We had small budgets, yes. But we had a decent footprint and access to a large market. Our product was well developed and very relevant. Our campuses were well equipped and clean.

But we never stuck to anything. And because we never stuck to anything, we weren’t known for anything. Every year we seemed to latch onto a new direction in terms of what we stood for. One year it revolved around technology, then it revolved around delivery model. Then rested on appealing to a corporate market. There was never a defined sense of “This is who we are and this is what we’ll be known for” – that ingrained vision that you stand by, even in the face of one or two flat years while you build. It always seemed to be a moveable feast. No long game.

How many other companies fall into this trap? My guess is many. Company strategy is essentially an incredibly simple thing. Decide on a direction that makes market sense and that is in line with company strengths, and stick to it. Yet this seems incredibly difficult for many companies. Playing the long game doesn’t come naturally to us humans. New managers come in and want to make their mark. They want something visible to justify themselves, so the long game is often the casualty.

The most successful companies generally played the long game . . . and won. 

Anyone who knows Bukowski’s story knows why that quote of his has so much relevance. Essentially Bukowski played the ultimate long game. For decades he suffered through life, trying to make it as a writer. Through hardships, poverty, failed jobs and bad living, he never stopped writing. Finally he got his break in the depths of middle age, and went on to be of the most famous American poets of the 20th century. He truly fought the long fight for his passion. 

I myself sit at 35, regretting that I haven’t played the long game. I too am guilty of starting things and never progressing. Yet here I am. It’s not too late. It never its. But I know now more than ever that for people and companies alike: if you’re going to try . . . go all the way.

Lessons I’ve learned from Jurgen Klopp

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I tend to compare football to real life quite often. Probably because I’m a bit obsessed with football and football tactics. But probably also because football, like life, requires an overcoming of something in order to be successful. With football it’s another team, and a coach has a host of options available to him on how to set a team up tactically to beat the opposition. Life is similar. Job interviews, fitness goals, career aspirations, presentations or marriage success. These are things to overcome, and like football, these things can be approached through various different approaches. Indeed, business strategy and football strategy have a number of similarities.

In 2015 Jurgen Klopp joined Liverpool Football Club. This was met with an immense sense of excitement for Liverpool supporters, myself in particular. I’d followed his rise in Germany, and for lack of a better phrase, I guess I just liked his style. I liked the way he did things, his big personality, and that amazing charm. Football loving readers of this will know that he has certainly delivered on his promise. As I write this at the end of 2019 he is, of course, still the Liverpool manager, and the club finds itself eight points clear at the top of the English Premier League. Needless to say, I’m eternally grateful for him. But I realised the other day that the gratitude isn’t merely due to him propelling the club to the top, winning the European Champions League in the process. There are a couple of valuable life lessons Klopp has taught me along the way. These lessons could be applied to businesses and their strategies as well as being inspiring to individuals. Perhaps I could elaborate on two of these.

  1. Play the long game

Klopp is highly popular with Liverpool supporters, as well as neutrals and probably even supporters of other sides. Such is his nature. But even Klopp has frustrated supporters at times in how he’s approached certain squad and tactical decisions. Like life, football has become infected with an increasing amount of short-termism. Fans demand improvement and success in a short space of time. Club owners and boards seem to be increasingly emphasising short term success over long term strategy. Manchester United between 2014 and 2019 are a prime example of this.

Klopp refused play by this code, and at times it has confused us supporters. In his first main transfer window he declined to sign a left back, much to the astonishment of fans. What was he thinking? It was an area of the squad that desperately needed reinforcement. He stuck midfielder James Milner in the left back position. It was only a year later that he signed Andy Robertson for left back, who has turned into a fine player. The decision to wait has been justified.

The best example of this was Virgil Van Dijk. When transfer negotiations with Van Dijk’s club Southampton went sour in August 2017, fans urged Klopp to sign another centre back. Surely there had to be a centre back out there that we could get? We did, after all, have a major gap to fill in a crucial position. Klopp was having none of it. We never signed anyone. Klopp wanted Van Dijk, nobody else. Klopp must have known something behind the scenes or in his heart, because halfway through the season in the following transfer window in January, Van Dijk, the masterful Dutch centre back, finally made the move to Liverpool. Klopp got his man. Not some lesser alternative. The rest, as they say, is history. Van Dijk is now widely regarded as the best centre back in the world. Once again, of course the wait for him was justified. Any other manager (literally any other manager) would have panic-bought an inferior player less suited to the team’s needs. Klopp played the long game and it paid off.

  1. Believe in yourself, and the process

It was the end of May 2018. We’d somehow made it to the Champions League final. The biggest game in football. This was the end of Klopp’s second full season at the club. For a side still developing, this was a phenomenal achievement in itself. Our opponents were Real Madrid, who had won the previous two Champions League titles in 2016 and 2017. It was Liverpool’s biggest game in years, and of course we were all overcome with excitement at the possibility of success in the competition for the first time in thirteen years.

We lost 3-1. Two errors by Liverpool’s goalkeeper gifted Real Madrid a rather soft win. Football aside, this was a particularly difficult time in my life. The loss just seemed to compound it. Suddenly May 2018 seemed like one of the worst months in my life. If not the worst.

I woke up the next morning with no intention of seeing or reading anything about the previous night’s game. I’d had enough of the disappointment. Another final loss and me slightly hungover and melancholic. I just wanted to move on and get on with life, and preferably end the nightmare month.

But then a video emerged that morning. It showed Klopp dancing with his arms around some supporters at 6am the morning after the game. There he was, looking sweaty and alive, with his cap turned around backwards. He was upbeat, jovial and defiant. At one point in the video he said something to the effect of “We’ll be back”. I often think of that day and seeing that video, and how it showed me the best way to approach any disappointment in life. Pick yourself up, believe in the long term process and keep going. You just keep going. Of course, a year later Liverpool were back, playing in the final again, this time against Tottenham Hotspur. Liverpool won 2-0 and lifted the trophy. Klopp was right on that morning at 6am while dancing.

Another example of Klopp trusting the process and the system is the player Gini Wijnaldum. A player clearly signed to play on one of the outside central midfield positions in Klopp’s 4-3-3 system. He’s a player that many, myself included, have criticised continually. At times he seems to offer little going forward, and often seems to drift out of the limelight of games for long periods. Yet Klopp kept playing him.

Over time I realised that Klopp’s 4-3-3 system was designed to allow the front 3 players to remain as far forward on the pitch as possible. It didn’t disintegrate to a 4-5-1 without the ball, like so many other teams. In order to pull Klopp’s 4-3-3 off, the two wide central midfielders, of which Wijnaldum was one, needed to be workhorses. They needed to be grafting players with an exceptional positional sense who worked up and down the pitch for 90 minutes. They needed to be the unsung heroes of the side. This was more important than creative flair. Klopp kept playing Wijnaldum, and still does, because that’s what the system requires, and Klopp stuck by the system and his principles.

Playing the long game and trusting the process. I sometimes wish I’d done more of this in my life. It took Klopp’s Liverpool to show me what these concepts really mean, and how difficult they are.

Sometimes football is the greatest teacher. Or perhaps that’s just Jurgen Klopp.