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Change Work April 2012

3 lessons life has taught me

One of the many surprising side-effects of advancing age is the apparent compulsion to give some sort of meaning to the life you've lived.  In the absence of globally significant achievements, it's common to try to distill the wisdom you've accumulated and to pass it on to the next generation - whether they want it or not (and usually they don't). I'm alarmed to find myself doing this - but that won't stop me from bequeathing the benefit to you!

I think I've learned more than three lessons, but this selection seems to keep coming up.

1. Don't try to back every horse in the race

I've only been to the races twice.  On my first visit I made the classic novice punter's mistake.  Trying to keep my options open I decided to bet on 2 or 3 horses in each race, mostly "each way".   So a second or third place would have paid me, but only a very small amount.  In most races I still managed to miss the winner and the runner-up, so the best I got was a third place.  Unfortunately the payout was less than my total stake.

Learning the lesson, I decided on a new strategy for my next visit.  I would select one horse and put 5 on it to win - and I would do this in every race.  By the time we got to the fifth race with no result my nerves were strained but I held on.

This time my horse won - at 14 to 1!

Why I chose such an outsider is something of a mystery to me now, but the result was certainly positive.  I ended the day well in profit despite only picking one winner.

The moral here isn't about taking big risks with long odds - although sometimes you might.  Rather it's about making a choice and going with it.  Because if you try to keep all of the options open you eventually increase the cost to the point of destroying the value in succeeding.

Of course you always want to do your best to minimise the risk of loss by making the best possible choice.  But you still have to choose.

2. Never be the secretary of anything

As a student I played rugby and was persuaded to be the secretary of the club.  The duties were mostly to do with arranging fixtures - not very difficult, but time consuming.  Back in those days the only means of communicating with other student club secretaries was by letter or face-to-face, so you had to be thinking ahead!

While I was doing this, I also agreed to stand for election as Secretary of the Junior Common Room.  This was more exciting, being a bit political in nature.  However, when elected, I found it even more onerous than the rugby club job.  Taking minutes of meetings was a real chore and I usually left it very late to write them up for typing and issue.  And of course after a couple of weeks I couldn't understand my notes so I got things wrong and suffered the humiliation of having the minutes queried at the next meeting.

What I learned from this was that the secretary role provided me with no reward whatsoever.  It was simply hard work done out of a sense of duty.

So I resolved never to do it again.  And you know what?  It's been easy to avoid because if anyone asks me these days to take on the secretarial function of, say, a community group I just say, "Sorry.  I have a rule: never be the secretary of anything."  And they usually respond, "Oh - all right.  I'll ask somebody else."  (In contrast, if you say you haven't got time then you get into a negotiation about how little time it takes and before you know it, you've agreed to "just do a couple of hours a week".)

For you, the thing to avoid may not be "secretary".  But there will be some role that you might get drawn into that you're not good at, and gain no satisfaction from at all.  Believe me, it's better to risk offence by saying "no", and leaving it to somebody who can do it well, than to pick up a millstone!

And finally:

3. Never express an opinion about any aspect of a woman's appearance

I'd better not elaborate on this one as it will inevitably come over as sexist.  I just know that whenever I've broken this rule I've lived to regret it!

So there are my three lessons.  Perhaps not the most important, but still worth taking on board if you can.