Connectedness and complex systems with Dr John L. Collins

Reading time: 25 minutes

Welcome to the fourth instalment in our interview series, where I ask highly creative and innovative people how they manage to achieve more without sacrificing their mental health. Our guest is Dr John L. Collins, a Chartered Mathematician and Chartered Physicist who holds a PhD in Nuclear Physics and Semiconductor theory from Aston University. John basically invented and developed the technology that creates lab grown diamonds—man-made diamonds indistinguishable from natural diamonds using new semiconductor technology.

At InnovateUK John launched and developed the UK government’s emerging technologies and industries programme—a major project to find new disruptive technologies that the government should invest in that they hadn’t already invested in. 

John is also a Fellow at Cambridge Judge business School, teaching the Intellectual Property for Entrepreneurship electives for the CJBS Masters’ programmes. He also runs the world’s oldest technology networking company, the Real Time Club—53 years old this year!

He loves theatre, opera, dance and ballet, dancing, music, film, reading and entertaining and attends and participates in these regularly. (when we’re not in lockdown, obviously)

John has had a very eclectic education and careers path. If you’re a member, I highly recommend reading his full biography. It will give you more context on John’s life and experiences, and the background of this interview where we talk about getting into the flow, connectedness as a productivity tool, thinking in terms of complex systems, being an active listener, data ownership (who owns your brain waves?), multiple digital identity disorder, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery, the repair-it generation, poetry and mental health.

I strongly suggest you take some notes when reading this interview because there is lots of food for thought.

John, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. As you know, this website is all about mindful productivity. You manage to juggle many different projects, so let’s start with your own productivity routine: how do you work? How do you stay creative and motivated? Any tips you can share?

Well, my productivity routine—I’m not sure to call it a productivity routine as I tend to work on lots of things at the same time—peaks focus on one particular thing at a time, keeping other projects ‘spinning at a lower level’ until such time as I want to focus on them. Everything is running at the same time.

I determined some time ago that my purpose is to help others achieve their purpose (in whatever ways I have both the capability to and capacity for). It’s important for me to do a lot for people by being generous and kind, not focusing on money and payment. That way I can have the reward of hyper-focusing on something without clock-watching and around projects or conundrums I’m captivated by and curious about. This curiosity fuels my productivity and engagement with the project in focus.

“Connectedness boosts productivity.” — Dr John L. Collins.

Developing personal productivity over a fair time has been heightened by becoming hyper-observant and super-curious. I read for curiosity—not to amass knowledge to win arguments—and to pass-on the connectivity that this brings. Connectedness boosts productivity.

I believe that anything that drives me emotionally—reading, theatre, opera, art, gallery visits, dancing, singing, hobbies… Boosts and drives my productivity.  

I suggest that anyone who wants to stay creative and motivated as long as they can during every task and to be as productive as possible for as long as possible practices a way of getting into a state of flow, “getting into the zone”, that great feeling where time passes and you don’t know how much time’s passed because you’d been so engrossed in everything you’ve blotted-out sounds and everything around you.

“Most things that are complex are complicated. I can’t think linearly any more, I have to look at second, third, fourth, fifth… orders into the complex system to see the bigger picture behind many of the challenges that I’m looking into.” — Dr John L. Collins.

I think the biggest tip I could ever offer anybody is to not get too caught up in your own productivity mechanisms and processes. Learn to do what you’re good at and do it as well as you possibly can, and it will become your passion which will drive your productivity. It might be any number of things, it doesn’t have to be complex or complicated—you have to remember that most things that are complex are complicated.

I also suggest—if you don’t already do it—to learn how to think in terms of complex systems. I can’t think linearly any more, I have to look at second, third, fourth, fifth… orders into the complex system to see the bigger picture behind many of the challenges that I’m looking into – this too helps productive thinking as well as productive doing.

Dr John L. Collins notebook

I believe that complex systems are in fact complex systems of complex systems that are multiaxial and multidimensional and dynamic. That is they are moving through time. Usually, what we do is take a slice through this dynamic and take a pinpoint view out of it, and miss all the beauty and complexity of what is a very complicated description of what’s going on around us, missing the interstitial information between the systems’ nodes and losing understanding scale (from very small to very large), and its influence on how we view productivity.

Scale—not just the idea of scale is a large thing— is to be able to mentally manipulate an understanding of scale of the task in hand, on the challenge that one faces and actually where you can see the greatest effect of what you’re doing is critical to productivity.

It’s an awful dampener on productivity to realise that actually one solution is nowhere near suitable for the task in hand because it just isn’t practical or practicable for the scale of the problem or job you are looking into. Most challenges are big challenges. I think one should approach big challenges, but if it takes lots of little challenges along the way, you have to think very carefully about whether those little challenges are going to build towards solving the bigger challenge.

Another aspect of productivity—perhaps the most important thing of all to improve productivity and maximise it—is learning to be an active listener, to listen to (and talk to) lots and lots of people and discuss problems and to bounce ideas backwards and forwards; to listen to other people’s solutions to their big challenges, to learn from their thinking such that you can get to rapid deep-thinking around problem solving as if you’re thinking whilst on psychedelics.

Connectedness, flow, understanding complex systems, and becoming an active listener… Even beyond productivity, I feel like these would be helpful to most people in general. What’s one mistake you’ve seen people make when trying to maximise their productivity? 

The mistake I’ve seen people make when trying to maximise their productivity is focusing on their path to productivity rather than the task itself. By that I mean making more of creating mind maps and lists and using all sorts of apps to manipulate their information, to store their information rather than actually building a great big mental picture.

I believe in truly deep thinking, critical thinking about the challenge itself, and to start building that multidimensional picture that you need in your head—a mind palace—and that is going to help generate a way of thinking and developing a pathway that you can be super-productive on.

I think a mistake in developing productivity that I come across a good deal is if you have to keep stopping and deep thinking backwards because you haven’t thought enough in the first place about the challenge. This continual pivoting ruins all your productivity.

This is what many start-ups do—diving in to do something not having done their customer discovery first, not having thought about the challenge they’re to solve but just providing a solution looking for a challenge. Productivity for start-ups comes from looking back at the decision-making processes you made well beforehand and to understand how you’ve got to where you are.

I worked in Ireland off-and-on for nearly a decade; a wonderful place to work and live;  a place of great inspiration to me, though when I would ask people questions such as: “Michael, if I wanted to get to Ennis,  how would I get there?” and Michael would turn and say: “Well Johnno, you know if I were going to Ennis I wouldn’t start from here!” Thinking about the subtlety of this answer is that you have to know where you’re supposed to start from, not just where you are—so that’s the biggest challenge that I see most people facing in becoming as productive as they could be.

Also not worrying too much about being super-productive all the time: some days can’t be productive, everyone has some sort of block, and it’s at those points when I go out and find inspiration from artistic endeavours or hobbies or any number of things or just simply sitting down and talking through something else quite deeply, “shooting the breeze” as the Americans call it, and for a goodly period of time to sort of reboot the whole thinking processes.

To be truly productive: switch off and reboot the system, empty the vacuum bag that is your brain, and get a great night’s sleep!

This is such good advice. We’re not machines, we do need rest and creative fuel in order to be productive. A topic you enjoy exploring is identity in our digital world. You recently invited Dr. Richard Hoptroff to speak about it at an event with the Real Time Club. What does digital identity in our digital world mean to you?

At the Real Time Club—the world’s oldest technology networking club, 53 years old this year—the last event we had before lockdown was from Dr Richard Hoptroff who discussed “Traceable Time as a Service” and its relation to all-things-digital, including defining (part of) our digital identity—change time (even by an instant) and we change our digital identity.

Our identity in the digital world is a really interesting feature of modern times. As much as we’re searching for ourselves within nature, our identity within humanity, we are searching for a digital identity in an increasingly digital world, perhaps so we can feel that we belong to the digital world we have created. Perhaps when we finally “get back to nature and find our natural selves” we will start searching for our digital selves so we can get back to the digital world?

Some of the relevant challenges I see around this are particularly searching: for one thing we don’t really understand what “data” is, what it pertains to and how it can be visualised for sense-making. How is data connected with digital identity?

Many talk about “personal data” but this doesn’t exist in reality—an example: who owns your brainwaves? You wouldn’t know brainwaves exist until someone builds some complicated equipment and apparatus to detect brainwaves and then translate these into something that you could visualise in some way or another and then provide interpretation to ally to other information.

Many talk about “personal data” but this doesn’t exist in reality—an example: who owns your brainwaves? — Dr John L. Collins.

Okay, you were the source of that initial signal but that doesn’t mean you own the data and information that came out of it, that really belongs to the people who are able to mine it from you. So, simplistically, much like buying a steel rod; you buy it—and then own it—from the people who have created the steel rod, but that doesn’t mean that you ever owned the iron, the carbon and all the raw materials and energy that make up the steel rod. You own the product, not the source materials before the rod was made.  

You could own the information that comes from data extracted from you or your behaviour (for example, your social media habits or shopping habits), which might be very-nearly the same as someone else’s in the world. It could be unique, but then again, our ability to discriminate between the signal-to-noise of massive data sets is very limited, because as yet we have no metrics—in fact we have no metrology, no measurement science—for all-things-digital. How do we describe anything digitally if we have no metrics for what defines and constitutes “digital”—after all, most data are an expression of a series of ill-defined and inexact voltages to create a ‘1’ or a ‘0’?

A digital entity—our digital identity from our physical being—could be described by, say, the boundary conditions of an extremely complex many-order non-linear differential equation (such as those that describe complex water waves down the banks of a canal, those waves called “solitons” that have a unique shape and seem to keep running along the canal side forever). That’s basically a series of digits describing our identity in terms of a position in space in relation to each other, our physical form described through points in space moving through time.

Another identity is our genetic blueprint—our DNA sequence, unique to each of us. Now we can digitise biology—describe all-things biological that contain DNA—using a very long piece of code which is unique to us and contains 2.9 billion base pairs (each base pair can be considered as a byte—then it would take 2.9 billion bytes (2.9 GB) – to uniquely describe one’s digitised identity. This is another digital identity, describing in phenomenal detail our biological identity.

To my mind there is an interesting point in describing digital identity. What it really means is we have no true digital identity since if we’re going to try and describe ourselves digitally, in order to give uniqueness and true identity, we need to present several digital descriptions that need to be tied-together coherently.

Perhaps when we can tie the data that belongs to our multiple digitised identities together we can create a true digital twin of a person, akin to the Netflix show ‘Altered Carbon’.

What we have at the moment is multiple-identities for multiple industrial uses: a health identity with scant health data (age, illness history, some medical details and so on), a financial identity for banking and insurance (that might one day be tied to our health data), a very few have a massively-reduced genetic data for tracing heritage (mostly), a social media identity and a behaviour identity (travel, shopping preferences, brand loyalty, dating preferences, and so on).

To my mind, the biggest challenges facing us in terms of digital identity are: not having a metrology for all-things-digital; not understanding the impact of our digital identity—our digital impact in terms of ‘Joules per byte’, a true digital bodyprint; and mostly, not having a way of joining these different digitised aspects of our identity into one, coherent and digitally-equivalent format.

We have multiple digital identity disorder!

Talking about fractured identities, you recently experimented with kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery. Can you tell us about your experience? What did it feel? What do you think this art says about the human mind?

I first came across Kintsugi  when I was working in Japan many years ago. A friend of mine described a bowl they had proudly up on the shelf of his apartment in Kyoto. It looked beautiful,  stunning in fact, and had been joined back together with golden glue. It was captivating.

I thought then of one of my early hobbies experimenting with ceramics and pottery. I was quite good at pottery, it turned out, and I really used to enjoy it—my ceramics teacher (Dave Cleverley who was a superb potter and ceramics expert) and I used to work together to produce some really lovely stuff, particularly mixing interesting glazes, trying to emulate the ancient Japanese cracked glazes that are so precious and rarely found. 

I was fascinated by this bowl on Hori-san’s shelf that looked like it had been made already broken and put back together. He very proudly said “yes, that was the bowl my wife threw at me and it smashed; we’d been having a big argument over something minor and then she picked up a bowl that was close by and threw it at me”. Apparently Hori-san’s wife (Yuka) didn’t realise that this plain bowl was actually very precious—it was his mother’s and he was mortally upset, didn’t know what to do and gathered the pieces thinking he’d glue it together one day.

It’s interesting to find that few Japanese actually know about Kintsugi. Hori-san was determined not to just throw the bowl away as he would normally have done because this was a precious bowl to him. It was in six or seven pieces apparently, and he kept it for some time in a bag in a drawer. 

Hori-san’s father came to visit and he asked where the bowl was—it was usually at every meal—and Yuka showed him the bag of bits of bowl. Apparently it was Hori-san’s childhood bowl and Hori-san’s father was quite upset. He took the bag of bits of bowl with him when he left. 

Apparently, Hori-san’s father spent an age to repair the bowl using this wonderful craft of a gold-laden glue painstakingly applied to each cracked piece in turn. It looked fairly rough-and-ready to me but they were very, very proud of the repaired bowl and it took pride of place on the shelf, but I don’t think they used it again, perhaps it was a touch fragile, though I think the joins were probably stronger than the bowl!

I didn’t recall this until we broke not just one but two of our precious, hand-made bowls that came from a small island in Greece (Sifnos, in the Cyclades) that is my spiritual home. I was mortified. I couldn’t bear to throw the bowls away. They’re a beautiful sea-blue glaze. So next time I was in Tokyo I went searching around for a Kintsugi kit.

I couldn’t find one in Japan, but I did find one in an art shop specialising in Japanese artists, art, and Japanese homewares over towards Shoreditch not far from Old Street. I bought it straight away and then left it for ages (months) before I finally sat down and painstakingly mixed the epoxy 2-part glue with gold powder and repaired a bowl. I was very proud of my simple achievement. It looks not-quite-awful!

More than proud, it reminded me of the generations I grew-up through, the generations of my grandparents and parents for whom nothing was irreparable, everything was repaired, refurbished, reused, recycled, repurposed. Nothing was ever thrown away, we had minimal waste of any kind, and what was waste was someone else’s potential income (my great-grandfather was a rag-and-bone man in the east end of London).

My act of Kintsugi was quite an emotional journey in many ways. I recalled growing up and my father—still alive and fixing stuff—would fix everything and teach me how to fix stuff as the opportunity arose. And then I remembered my generation, and subsequent generations, my children’s generation and our approach, our mindset.

It was the repair-it generation (up until 1980’s or thereabouts). An example was fixing the twin-tub washing machine, which had been fixed and repaired until it’s fixed-beyond-repair, had been bought second-hand and was nearly 15 years old. It was 1973, my father had painstakingly searched for spare parts, made new components where he could in our garage workshop, until he could no longer repair the machine and it was finally dead and unusable. We didn’t throw it away—it was stored in the garage because one day, parts of it might be useful. We had a garage of spare parts, broken machines, car engines and car parts, tools… We moved to a new house and took most of this with us. This was the repair-it, re-use it, recycle it, repurpose it, generation. Nothing went to waste, everything had value.

My generation was (is) somewhat different. I repaired our automatic washing machine off-and-on over 4-5 years (replacing motor brushes, replacing the drive belt, that sort of thing, simple stuff) until I decided enough was enough and we needed a brand new washing machine. I calculated that over the 64 months we’d had the machine, it had performed around 2100 washes, which meant that each wash had a machine-only cost of approximately 17p per wash—bargain! It’s £2.50 for a small service wash at the launderette, our machine had done us proud. It was eco-friendly and I paid good money to have it sent for materials recycling. We bought a new washing machine; we had this for 4 years 3 months.

A couple of years ago my young (30-something) neighbour called around because their washing machine had broken. It was “really old though, and they didn’t think it worth repairing”—it was less than 3 years old and still in extended warranty. They called on me because I fix stuff, I cut my own hedges, cook my own food, rod my drains, that sort of thing, you know? Do stuff for myself and other people, not just buy stuff from other people because the battery doesn’t take a full charge in 30 minutes. I repaired the machine—it had a hairpin or three stuck in the pump. They bought a new machine anyway, the trauma of potentially being without for a few days and not knowing how to do a service wash at a launderette was too much.

The point of all this? Kintsugi showed me that with effort, care, a bit of love and desire, something precious could be fixed as long as one takes the mind to do so. It might not be perfect, but it would be purposeful, full of good things and wasn’t yet another wasted part of the Cosmos; a bit like thinking through a problem—it might not be perfect but can be creative and purposeful, full of good things and is never wasted effort.

“With effort, care, a bit of love and desire, something precious could be fixed as long as one takes the mind to do so.” — Dr John L. Collins.

It reminds me of relationships. If only there was a special Kintsugi glue for relationships—where we could heal relationships, albeit with wide and shining scars, but these scars are stronger bonds than the materials between them. Like relationships through the ages—just like the washing machines—so my grandparents and parents generations would be married for 40, 50, 60 even 70 years, through thick and thin with no need for special Kintsugi relationship glue. They had a mind to keep dancing through time together. My generation, maybe 20 years—I’m very unusual being married (to the same person) for 32 years. Several of my neighbours are remarried after 5-7 years, some with children from a first marriage. It seemed easy-enough for them to exchange for a different model because they didn’t like the apps on the first one, so to speak.

“If only there was a special Kintsugi glue for relationships.” — Dr John L. Collins.

I am and will be forever grateful for the story of the bowl that Hori-san told me because at the time it moved me and I’ve never forgotten it. I think it’s a useful skill to understand that things are repairable whether they be bowls, pathways, blocked drains, washing machines or relationships, that there is often a “special glue” that you can use to bring those things back to be unified and loved, and though they might not be ever the same, with understanding, effort, care, love and desire, things precious can be fixed.

Ultimately, it’s what using Kintsugi brought back to me: something my great-grandmother (my “gran-gran”) said to me as a child; “be minded that if you’re going to do something, do it with a good heart”. I added: “And if you can’t do it with a good heart, think very carefully about why you’re doing it at all.”

It also brought back fond memories of times with Hori-san in Kyoto and Tokyo. Hori-san passed from this Earth from pancreatic cancer when he was 41, in 2003. I’ll never forget the look of horror on his face when colleagues told him that they’d given me two portions of “Children of the Clouds” (editor note: kumo no ko, a poetic way to refer to fish sperm sacs) at a famous Edo sushi restaurant on my very first visit to Tokyo.

This is such a touching story and I’m so glad people reading this conversation will get to learn some of the amazing wisdom your great-grandmother and Hori-san shared with you. Talking about openness, happiness, and vulnerability, what are some of the most exciting innovations in the mental well-being space?

In complex systems a key component is feedback—of course there’s a good deal more to talk about in complex systems theory, but feedback in systems is key.

The same is true for people and mental well-being. It’s all about feedback, ideally positive feedback or the sort of feedback that promotes mental-better—the sort of feedback generated by some of the more recent innovations in medical-grade headsets for brain stimulation, such as Flow Neurosciences headset that sends out gentle electric pulses through a patient’s skull, targeting the part of the brain affected by depression.

There’s the US company Kernel’s “Neuroscience as a Service” brain-recording device and the UK’s Comind who have created “non-invasive brain computer interfaces centred around augmenting human cognition and vision”, NeuroCreate’s AI-driven creative flow enhancement tool, FlowCreate. These are all examples of brain-computer interfaces, I believe the most exciting and important mental-wellbeing space developments are happening here.

Not a new idea, and certainly not as advanced as we’d need to start doing great things, though it’s an exciting field and one that could help solve some of the difficult to treat mental well-being problems without the need for chemicals, though of course certain chemicals could be combined with these hardware to great effect.

The innovation I’d most like to see in this area is the machine in Wim Wenders’ 1991 film Until the End of the World described as: “While trying to find a cure for his wife’s blindness, Dr. Farber has created a device that allows the user to send images directly to the brain, enabling the blind to see. The creation and operation of such a machine is in stark contrast to a deteriorating global situation, where the continued existence of mankind is under threat from a nuclear-powered satellite that is falling toward earth.” I’m not so sure we’re that far off this.

There is definitely some great progress in that space, I hope some of these companies live up to the hype! A friend of mine, Gemma Milne, actually wrote about this in her recent book and found that some products are overhyped (note to readers: Gemma will be a guest very soon). On the topic of books… You are an enthusiastic reader. Any good books about mental well-being or productivity you have recently read?

I do read a lot! I’ve read all-sorts on mental health, particularly around autism and ADHD and mental well-being in particular. To be frank, I don’t find them much help to me, because they’re not about me or wholly relevant to my state of being. They’re a mish-mash of all-sorts of people where I have some of their characteristics, perhaps. I don’t put much store in them as useful to me understanding or improving my mental well-being. Much akin to self-help and management or leadership guides, there’s a sort-of generic to them and I don’t want to model myself around any of those aspects described of other people—I’m not looking for an overlay to my mental health.

That said, I have particularly enjoyed The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health by Emeran Mayer, recommended to me by a school friend who has convinced me that, as the old saying goes “you are what you eat”, though I also believe “you are what eats what you eat”—one’s microbiome has a lot to answer for.

My best recommendation for mental health: read poetry. A particular favourite is the 20th century poet Kathleen Raine. And the 13th century poet Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, of course! Whatever takes you away from your mind and settles you into nature, into your soul.

“What I prefer is to do what I’m good at, earn money from it, really enjoy doing it, and let that become my dream.” — Dr John L. Collins.

I have read stacks of books on productivity and come to the conclusion that what works for everyone else doesn’t work for me, because I’m not them! Obvious, I suppose—I work off the principle never to listen to anybody who says “follow your dreams” since they’ve invariably got enough money to be able to follow theirs. It’s impossible to follow one’s dreams effectively without money. Actually, what I prefer—and I think this is what a lot of people do without realising it—is to do what I’m good at, earn money from it, really enjoy doing it, and let that become my dream.

Thank you so much, John! This was probably one of my favourite interviews. I learned so much. To the readers: you can follow John on Twitter to learn more about his work and get more of his amazing wisdom.

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