Richard Newton: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Newton, Richard

In his own words….

I’m an entrepreneur who writes.

I’ve written three books.

The End of Nice: How to be human in a world run by robots: This is a manifesto for human creativity in the age of machines, big data and automation.

I wrote Stop Talking, Start Doing: A Kick in the Pants in Six Parts with my co-author Shaa Wasmund: This was a best-selling business book in the UK and has been published in 15 languages.

And I’ve written The Little Book of Thinking Big: Aim Higher and Go Further Than You Ever Thought Possible, published by Capstone/A Wiley Brand. It hit the Sunday Times #1 spot for business bestsellers.

For almost ten years I wrote about business for The Sunday Telegraph, The Mail on Sunday and others. Then I switched sides to walk the talk and run my own business.

A few years ago I co-founded a company called OP3Nvoice (now called which was described by Giga-Om as the emerging Google of video and audio. We moved the HQ to Austin, Texas, after going through the Techstars program in London.

Before that I co-founded Screendragon, a software company that supplies brand management and project managements systems for many of the world’s largest consumer brands and ad agencies. It was hell and it was exciting. Sometimes simultaneously.

In 2014 I shifted back to writing. I write on technology companies, start up culture, and innovation for The Financial Times, Guardian, British Airways Business Life, and Virgin Entrepreneur blogs, my own blogs and elsewhere.

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Morris: I agree with your suggestion in The Little Book of Big Thinking. that valuable lessons can sometimes be learned from, the most unlikely sources if (HUGE “if”) if we are retain an open mind and are receptive. For example, what can be learned from a sea squirt?

Newton: The life cycle of the sea squirt struck me as an excellent motif for the book. I came across it by complete serendipity, as I usually do when writing, just as I was trying to find a vivid way to illustrate the difference between using your mind to direct your life and using it to drift. I’d been thinking about a phrase a non-executive director at one of my companies often used about “busy fools”. That I think is the life of many of us. But it wasn’t striking.

And then I happened to open a biology book – which isn’t something I often do! – and came across the story of a sea squirt which was a perfect metaphor.

And a sea squirt, for those readers who like me were unaware, is a small tadpole-like creature that swims around the ocean finding things to eat. And one day it attaches itself to a rock or an old piece of coral and it never moves again. And because it will never again move it has no need for a brain. So it consumes it. It eats its own brain. And so, “use it or eat it” became the motif for the introductory chapter of the book.

Morris: Please explain the phrase, “Excellent Sheep.”

Newton: This is a phrase used by a student of William Deresowicz’s and the author then appropriated it as the title of his book. His concern is that students are learning to be excellent at passing every challenge placed before them. And for the best, most excellent students this often means going to the best Ivy League university and then a Wall Street bank or golden circle law firm and continuing on a path that could have been set for them before they were born. Thus they achieve excellence in life – provide you take a narrow view on what it means to live an excellent life. But it’s a life that lacks wholeheartedness or individuality. I fear that as automation, robots, artificial Intelligence and big data come sweeping into our lives these excellent sheep will struggle to live with the “unmooredness” that comes from having to constantly adapt and reinvent which will be the new way of living that our constantly accelerating world will demand of us.

Morris: Richard Feynman once observed, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Do you agree? Please explain.

Newton: Absolutely. Science requires a skeptical posture. The opposite of such skepticism is faith.

Morris: You make brilliant use of symbols. For example, a white horse. What is its significance? Its relevance?

Newton: I’d read something a Buddhist monk had said about life being like a wave that moved from one shore to another. At any point in time the wave is in a state of flux. So the wave at any given instant is always unique; it is constantly changing and yet it is the product of everything that has gone before.

And I was looking to explain how everyone has a unique perspective on life because of their unique experiences. And thus they may have a unique solution or approach to challenges and opportunities. the wave seems like a good way to express this. And the idea itself could be represented by the foamy crest of a wave that sometimes bubbles up and then dissipates.

So the phrase, white horse. Well, I don’t know if you use the same phrase or whether it’s an English thing, or even a Newton family phrase, but when we used to go on holiday to Cornwall in the South West of England or to France we would always judge the state of the sea by looking for what we called “white horses”. These are the foamy crests that tell you it’s a blustery and choppy day on the sea. If the sea is calm then there are no white horses.

So the white horses became the metaphor for your unique idea that comes up for a moment of time and is special to you because your wave has travelled a path that is your life alone.

The trick is to recognise this and believe in and then capture the value of your idea: your contribution to the world.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Little Book of Big Thinking, early on you endorse nine habits that can help almost anyone to “aim higher and go further than they ever thought possible.” Please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away with regard to each habit. First, “Swim Don’t Float [or Sink]”

Newton: Be conscious and deliberate in the way you direct your thoughts and apply your mind. You can achieve more in ten highly focused minutes than ten mindless hours.

Of course it’s become ever harder to do within the super-connected world in which we live so you must make an effort to apply your mind and not be distracted and waylaid into things that you consider a waste of time. So swim – go where you direct yourself. Be your own motive force or the current will be the sole controller of your journey just as it is for dead logs and dead fish.

Morris: Clear Some (Head) Space

Newton: In order to direct your life – to choose not to drift but to swim you must choose a direction which is authentically yours and which you can pursue wholeheartedly. To identify this direction you just clear some headspace from the noise of social media, other people’s opinions and peer pressure.

Morris: Feed Your Mind

Newton: Be informed about the direction you wish to travel. To clear some headspace is not to recommend being ignorant. The more you know the better your decision-making will be.

Morris: Notice Things

Newton: The universe is constantly seeking to show you opportunity. The best start up business ideas, for example, come from people who notice a little crease in their everyday existence which makes them stop and think: “this could be done differently”. But it doesn’t have to be business – it could be that you notice you work better at certain times of day, in certain conditions, or that things that you thought make you happy don’t. or vice versa. Notice things, then use your mind and apply the insight and who knows where it may take you.

Morris: Change Reality (…Don’t Deny It)

Newton: This is a practical book. It’s about how you can make a real difference in life or business. So you must accept the reality of the situation and then seek to change that within the limits of your resources. This isn’t something I say to try and peg back people’s ambitions but to make sure they re applying their efforts and energy in the right direction. After all, the first step towards changing a situation is recognising what it is that needs to be changed.

Morris: Have a Big Ego and a Small Ego

Newton: This is about achieving that fine balancing act between having sufficient self-belief and confidence that you don’t get defeated by hurdles and obstacles while at the same time being sufficiently humble that you recognise valid criticism, good advice when it comes.

Your best ideas will benefit from a fickle attachment to them. If you hold on to them too tightly, attach too much personal value to them then you will be unable to improve upon them when facts change and new threats and opportunities arise.

Morris: Know Your Weapon

Newton: In this situation the point is to know a little bit about how your mind works. It’s helpful to know that idea generation is associated with different types of mental attitude and physical activity than analytical processing. You can use this powerful lump of mental Jell-O in your head far more effectively if you know some basic operating instructions.

Morris: Of all the great thinkers throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Newton: Richard Feynman because in the videos I have watched he seems like a nice guy who would be intellectually forgiving and would throttle down his brain a little so as to work at my pace. Most of the other big thinkers would leave me a bit too nervous to talk.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Little Book of Big Thinking, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Newton: I’ve noticed that the companies and consultants that have been in touch to ask about using this book to inspire their companies or teams, there is a significant bias towards sales. I put this down to ease with which customers can compare products online. The sales function, it seems to me, has come under pressure to be far more creative in the way it gets the attention of customers and tells the story of their product.

So that was a surprise to me. Less surprising are those companies that use the book’s message and metaphors to bring forth greater creativity and initiative from its staff. I dislike the mystification of creativity, the specialness of it. I think it is a natural gift that everyone has to a lesser or greater extent. The individual journey of each person will inform what they bring to their understanding of any challenge or opportunity and this is what generates each person’s unique insight.

I don’t think enough people are clear about this, about their own right (as it were) to claim a valid, unique creative viewpoint. So having established this then there are some tools to help discover and articulate these ideas.

Now that constant innovation and creativity are the key determinants of business success the leadership of any company must get the best out of its people. The Little book of Thinking Big is written not just for the leadership but the people who must personally release their own creative confidence.

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To check out Part 1, please click here.

Rich cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

Wait But Why link

Brain Pickings link

xkcd link

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