A good friend and mentor once taught me the proper way to take in an entire art museum:

“Run” he said.   “…as if your life depended on it.”

He reminded me that we were born already knowing how to sift through the morass, how to tune-out and jettison all that is meaningless and mundane.  How to navigate each corridor perfectly and how to continuously distill.  And, when our eye catches a glimpse of our truth, that one piece that calls to us, we intrinsically focus and cause all else to fall into the background.  As with most things worth our attention in this world, “you will know it when you feel it.”

Everything else is just noise.

As I work tirelessly to simplify every aspect of my life and my work I am reminded of how important conscious (and unconscious) distillation is and just how easy it is to lose oneself in the myriad of distractions masquerading as value.  So, I commit to myself:

  1. Run as fast as I can.
  2. Collect the pieces that speak to me.
  3. Let the rest fall away.

Here are just a few pieces that I have collected over the years that I don’t mind sharing:

THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH.  Although it originated in turn-of-the-century saloons as the self-serving practice of promoting free food for bar patrons, to me it will always be the signature catchphrase of my Father.  He taught me, when in doubt, just follow the money and look for the angles; that with proper perspective all is relatively predictable.  One need not understand the intricate machinations of bundled collateralized debt obligations and financial leverage to understand the housing market collapse.  One only need understand that a custodian can’t afford a $750,000 home and that the drinks at the blackjack table are, indeed, not really free.  The difficulty inherent in this perspective is balancing an awareness of motivations with the potential for becoming hardened.

FOLLOW THE CARDBOARD.  After sitting through a lecture recounting various macro-economic fundamentals used to predict where the economy was heading an MBA cohort in the recycling industry leaned in and said, “just follow the cardboard”.  It made perfect sense.  The market for corrugated was an excellent indicator of economic activity, a clear window into the health of the entire system.  However, it took me years to incorporate the gravity of this simple statement into my paradigm.  You see, we tend to become overwhelmed by data, paralyzed by analysis and fog-shrouded by worthless distractions, but when we strip away all of the noise and minutiae there is generally a thread that runs through.  A proxy that leads to the answer you’re seeking.  When making decisions in a system full of ambiguity, find – and follow – the cardboard.

THIS IS WATER. Unapologetically lifted directly from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address, this mantra has unleashed within me nothing short of a mind shift.  The parable goes like this: two young fish are swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?" 

I believe that we are constantly enveloped by implications but we lack the unfettered awareness of ourselves, our surroundings and our situation necessary to transform these oblique vignettes into coherent insights. We mostly remain trapped by our Egos, our paradigm, our preconceptions and our individual and collective lens.  So much so that we fail to see what is all around us.  It seems to me that unique creative perspective is revealed when we are able to focus efforts on rediscovering awareness of those aspects of the human condition that are, as Wallace says, “hidden in plain sight”.

ABOUT:  David Houston is an experienced marketing industry and management consultant who has developed and implemented marketing programs on behalf of numerous Fortune 100 clients.  He is currently Principal and CEO of houston+GROUP, a full-service brand engagement agency and consultancy.