monuriki

Message In A Bottle

I wrote this post way back in December 2011. It describes a trip I took to an uninhabited island off the coast of Fiji and what I found buried on one of its beaches. This post formed the inspiration for a story-telling contest I entered and won several years ago.

I’ve had this story tucked away, hiding and unread for awhile. I like this piece a lot and thought I’d repost here to share now with my wider audience. ~Sarah

Fiji is one of my favourite places on earth. Get me away from the bustle and poverty that is the main island to search out its real beauty, its magnificent islands. I love Fiji because it’s close to home, the people are friendly, it’s easy to navigate and even easier to island hop. Parts of it, particularly the untouched and remote parts are visually stunning, both above the water and below it. Whatever you picture in your head when you close your eyes and think of an island paradise, Fiji has it.

On a trip several years ago, I was on large catamaran, spending the day island hopping. The final stop was to the island of Monuriki, an uninhabited island a couple of hours boat ride west of anything that resembled civilisation. Monuriki is famous because it is the island where the Tom Hanks movie ‘Castaway’ was filmed. It is a large island and its volcanic past is evident in the high mountain at one end that’s covered in rock and dense scrub. The islands surrounding it gave rise thanks to the volcano’s activities thousands of years ago.

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The main beach landing on Monuriki Island, Fiji

I remember this day because it was unbelievably hot. Every inch of shade on the boat to get to the island was taken up with bodies. No one, not even the locals, wanted to be in the sun that afternoon. Stepping off the dingy and onto the island, my feet weren’t prepared for the assault that was the hot white sand that had been baking under the sun all afternoon. I quickly headed up and over the beach away from the water and straight for the shade of the palms and scrub that dotted the main beach.

It was too hot to do anything. Draping myself over a palm tree that was bent almost to a right angle, I couldn’t help but think about how Hollywood made a movie here. Did they have to sweat through days like today? I thought about the only line from the film that I remembered, the one about the most famous volleyball of all, where Tom’s character unmistakably cries out, ‘Wilson!’

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Despite the heat and oppressive sun, I felt the urge to go exploring. Maybe I might find my own secret cave, just like in the film? I headed away from the main beach and towards the old volcano. Among the scrub under the palm trees, I noticed something out of the ordinary. At first it looked like a broken glass bottle and I was instantly wary, thinking shattered glass could be nearby and that I was barefoot.

On closer inspection, the bottle was intact, not broken. I fished it out of the scrub. It was clearly a wine bottle, with the wine and its paper label long gone and the cork still intact. The bottle was green but clear, probably meant for a white wine, with an imprint in the glass that said ‘Stonehenge’. I found out later that Stonehenge is a boutique winery in the Napa Valley area of Northern California.

The bottle had a piece of paper inside it. A long piece of paper, rolled up tightly into a small cylinder. To keep the paper cylinder in place, it was tied at the middle with what looked like a long length of regular brown cotton. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t open it. The cork was firmly in place, like it had never been opened before.

I had found a message in a bottle, on an uninhabited island in the middle of the South Pacific. I inspected it closely, turned it over, shook it, anything to give me a clue as to its origin or contents. How did it get here? Was is washed ashore from afar? Or more likely, had someone left it here for me to find?

With my new prize in tow, I proudly showed it off to anyone who would listen on the boat ride back. I even showed it to the boat’s captain. ‘Open it!’ was the common response. I couldn’t. I didn’t have a bottle opener. Wine and corkscrews aren’t commonly found on isolated islands in the South Pacific.

I took the bottle and its precious contents back home with me to Australia. I don’t often keep mementos of my travels, but this was no ordinary memento. I remember being fearful that it might break if I stored it in my regular luggage so I took it onto the plane in my backpack as hand luggage.

In my home, my message in a bottle took pride of place on the mantle. I looked at it every day as a reminder of the wonderful location in which I had found it. Over the years I have been seriously tempted to open it and read its contents. But mostly I just imagine what its contents might be.

Is it a convoluted map to a loot of buried treasure? Or is it a desperately sad love letter written to an old flame? Is it a marriage proposal to an improbable love? Is it a suicide note of someone who later jumped into the volcano and to their death? Does it tell me where Wilson ended up after Tom’s character lost him at sea? Does it contain the secret to curing cancer or solving global warming? Probably not.

And so it remains unopened, my message in a bottle. Leaving it unopened keeps alive the mystery of its contents and its original owner. Having said that, what I want to know is this.. did you write on a piece of paper, roll it into a cylinder, tie it with brown cotton, shove it into a wine bottle from Northern California, re-cork it and leave it for me to find on Monuriki Island off the west coast of Fiji? Drop me a line if you did. I have something that belongs to you.

Buy me a beer and let’s uncork that bottle for the final time, together.

Sarah

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The Benefits Of Idle Thinking Time

I maxed out the data on my mobile phone plan last weekend. I couldn’t be bothered figuring out how to pay the extra money to get another gig of data allowance to tide me over until my monthly plan reset again.

And so I spent the week without internet access on my phone. I could only get the internet in my apartment or at work. Maddening at first, I had to get used to a phone that couldn’t do much except be a phone. I couldn’t access the newspapers I wanted or my feedly, LinkedIn, twitter feed or my favourite tunes off soundcloud (that last one was especially difficult to live without.)

Now that I was no longer tethered to an iPhone, I noticed everyone else that was. I stood on the subway platform looking around at all the heads tilted downward, eyes down, looking at the screen in the palm of their hand. As the week went on I started to track how long it took for people to whip out their mobile device. For those who arrived at the subway platform without already looking at their phone, it took an average of four seconds for someone to reach into their pocket or bag and retrieve their mobile device.

It happens that a piece in the New York Times yesterday explores this exact issue. It argues, as does my 4 seconds average on the subway, that we are increasingly wedded to our mobile devices. We use them as a means to stay in a constant state of busyness and ultimately to distract ourselves from what’s inside our own heads. We have swapped idle moments of idle time for distractions on tiny screens and an overwhelming need to out-busy the next person.

All of this is not without a price. Turns out there are advantages in doing nothing and embracing ‘idle mental processing’. Benefits we are potentially forgoing in favour of the crazy busy that’s distracting us. Research cited in the NYT article says that down time as thinking time can make you more empathetic and more innovative. After all, it argues, ‘an idle mind is a crucible of creativity’.

The NYT article describes credible research studies that show the majority of study participants found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for even a short time. By a short time, I mean between 6 and 15 minutes – about as long as it takes to wait for the next subway. What’s even more alarming is one research paper found that 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women would rather administer themselves electronic shocks than sit idle with their own thoughts.

I have a natural tendency towards introspection. That other people don’t, to the point where electric shocks are a superior alternative, doesn’t make sense to me. I have written before about how downtime breeds clarity. My New York life is busy and full but I still cultivate the time just to sit and think. Usually left for the weekends and when I’m outside, it’s a way I can push back against New York and say yes, it’s okay to think idly sometimes and no, I don’t have to maximise every single minute to enjoy this city to its full.

I have to be careful, however. I have a tendency to over-think. Over the years I have learnt to find the line between helpful self-reflection and over-thinking and rumination. Dwelling and worry isn’t helpful. Thinking and processing is. The older I get, the better I get at it.

My week without internet access on my phone made me think about whether I even need internet access on my phone. Self-reflection might come easy to me, but even I get caught up in wanting to fill up the idle minutes in my day to day. I’m thinking about downgrading my mobile phone plan to get rid of the mobile data and to only include texts and calls. I’m hoping that by not reaching for my iPhone, my hands will stay empty but my mind will be more full.

Sarah

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Stacking The StartUp Deck And Other Lessons From LeBron James

It’s bordering on old news now but the second biggest thing in sports last week had nothing to do with the World Cup. LeBron James, the best basketball player and one of the best athletes on the planet made a low-key (by his standards) announcement that he’ll be returning to his hometown of Cleveland to play out his immediate basketball future.

The announcement got widely written up, even when the timing coincided with the end of the World Cup. One article that caught my attention about James’ announcement didn’t come from ESPN or Grantland – rather the Wall Street Journal wrote an interesting article centered around one important point – great teams need great culture, not just talent.

The LeBron years at the Heat are now somewhat overshadowed not by the 2 championships they did win, but by the two they did not. It goes to show that when you load your stage with rockstars, it can still underperform. Seems it took LeBron four seasons at Miami to figure this out. In the most recent NBA final series, Miami Heat were completely outplayed and outclassed by a superior, more cohesive and better drilled San Antonio Spurs.

What happened to the Miami Heat can happen in early stage companies too. Startups want to stack their decks and load up on talent to build and scale a great product. They want the best possible team they can find to fill out their early roster. It looks good to potential investors who want to see evidence of a capable, gritty and well thought out team before they’ll commit to the cause.

Sometimes all that talent comes at a price. Early startups are often solely focused on building and scaling a product and give little thought on how to people manage, what kind of culture they want and dedicating the resources to do so. Founders and startup CEOs are usually good at fund-raising or product building and can be underprepared or underskilled to deal with the business of managing and containing (the often considerable) egos that go with a rockstar team. It’s the missing link that deck stacking ignores – how each of these rockstars is actually going to work together.

Otherwise capable young entrepreneurs frequently expose their lack of people management skills or ignorance towards the importance of building a culture and early. We see the really bad examples play out in the form of harassment and other kinds of claims. Think about the recent revelations surrounding the SnapChat guy or what’s happening in the ranks of Tinder right now.

At the very least, early startups need to consider not only brute talent in their early employees but hiring on personality, diversity and emotional maturity as well. Stacking the deck in your favor is no longer enough. The challenge for lots of growing startups is to not make the same mistake that the best athlete on the planet did – ignoring culture in the face of great talent.

Sarah

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The Importance of Side Projects

Last week the two Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, sat down for a rare interview at the KV CEO Summit.

If you have any kind of interest in Google (and if you’re in tech then you should), it’s critical watching.

Billed as a fireside chat, Larry and Sergey touch on a number of interesting topics including self-driving cars, their interest in machine learning, their co-founder relationship and also, Google’s interest in healthcare (at around the 29 minute mark).

What’s interesting is their comments on why Google hasn’t dived deeper into anything healthcare related. Larry and Sergey recognize the barriers that regulation pose for healthcare entrepreneurs in the US market. Larry singles out HIPAA (the US government regulations on privacy protection of identifiable healthcare information) as the main culprit. He’s right. The balance between protecting patient privacy and allowing access personal info and medical data has not yet been struck.

It then begs the question – if Larry Page describes health tech is ‘a difficult area’ and doesn’t want to touch it, are we brave (or crazy) for wanting to? Larry is one of the most prominent tech minds in the world and current CEO of Google. He has virtually unlimited resources, endless influence and the power to tackle whatever he wants. And yet to him, healthcare disruption is hard. What chance do the rest of us all have?

I say plenty. Aside from a few cool projects, if Google says thanks but no thanks to health, doesn’t mean we all have to. Especially because most health entrepreneurs want to disrupt on a much smaller but impactful scale. And frankly it energizes me to think that if the two Google founders find health tech hard, then good on me for tackling and trying to improve it. It frames the overall challenge of my job and reinforces that anyone trying to disrupt health care right now is tackling something big and meaningful and hard.

There are two more things that strike me about this interview. Firstly, the extent of Larry’s voice disorder (that would be the speech pathologist in me coming out) and secondly, the importance of side projects. Larry refers to Sergey’s driver-less car undertaking as his side project. I’m a big fan of side projects. It doesn’t matter what it is, the whole point is that you have one. More than hobbies, they offer the chance to build something – an avenue for learning, indulging curiosity, discovering passion and finding enrichment outside of your immediate professional role.

What’s your side project? Should be obvious what mine is. It’s no where near as fancy or spectacular as inventing a car that drives itself but it makes sense to me. I get to write about what I love and just last week my side project advanced another notch when I secured a contributing writer role one of the the most popular indie music blogs on the planet. Sergey can have his driver-less cars, I have your indie music experience to influence instead.

Sarah

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Why The Ballerina Project Is So Good For Ballet

It feels like I’m the last person on the planet to discover the Ballerina Project.

For reasons I cannot tell you, I only just discovered this well-known blog a few weeks ago after a non-dance friend happened to mention it.

Ballerina Project is a photography blog about ballerinas. It is the work of photographer Dane Shitagi who started the project 12 years ago when he walked into a dance studio in Manhattan, curious and wanting to photograph some ballerinas. He has over the years refined his approach and has amassed over 1000 images of ballerinas. He has absolutely no dance training and yet he has the most popular dance-inspired blog going around.

What I adore about the Ballerina Project is that it takes ballerinas out of their usual environment and into ones you would never imagine. Rarely are they photographed in the environment you would expect – on the stage. It’s not about tutus, buns or tights. We see ballerinas in modern clothing, hair down and messy, relaxed, no tights and not confined to the barre or the inside of a dance studio.

Instead we see them in lots of urban settings, like streets, subways, draped over poles, on fences.

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A ballerina next to a New York subway

And also in extraordinary scenarios like in fields, in windows sills, on the beach and against waterfalls.

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Inside a window sill

There is always a coordination and symmetry between the stunning backdrop, the ballerina’s pose and her outfit. Often it looks like the ballerina is blending into her environment.

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This image looks downtown towards the Freedom Tower in Manhattan

The blog heavily features ballerinas set against backdrops in New York City. No surprises then that those images are among my favourites.

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Central Park loveliness

I also especially like the images that show off the ballerina’s feet and lower legs. A ballerina’s lower leg muscles are among their most defined and striking. They fully deserve to be shown off. It’s true that a ballerina’s feet needn’t always be mangled and yucky from years of wearing pointe shoes.

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The Ballerina Project has wider implications for ballet and dance in general. Dance is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, especially in New York City. Blogs like the Ballerina Project help to broaden the appeal of the artform and to bring ballet to the attention of a new generation of audiences. This is exactly what ballet needs – an injection of new audience blood and to widen the net beyond the long-standing notion of ballet being always about tutus and Tchaikovsky and stiff tradition.

The big ballet houses are recognising the need to broaden their appeal and are taking up the challenge to reign in the younger and more digitally engaged audience. Justin Peck, a soloist with the New York City Ballet has been given free reign of late pursue what he’s fast emerging to be – a ballet dancer and a ballet choreographer, producing exciting works with a very modern dance aesthetic.

As good as it is, I would like to see the Ballerina Project branch out to include male dancers as well. It wouldn’t technically be a ballerina project then, but mixing it up with male dancers is a logical extension. Another obvious expansion is the addition of the short dancer videos. I have noticed more and more of these popping up on the Ballerina Project’s Instagram account.

If I could change anything about the Ballerina Project, I would keep its equal celebration of two art forms – photography and ballet while taking full advantage of the extent of the photographic collection. This would minimise the use of repeat images I often notice in its Instagram feed.

Sarah

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The Night I Kissed Lana Del Rey

Lana’s new album Ultraviolence is out today and I thought I’d share with you all a blog post that I wrote last year about the time I met her.

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I recently spotted posters for Lana’s new album around Greenwich Village in Manhattan

What’s also interesting about this blog post has nothing to do with kissing or Lana Del Rey. When I read this again, it serves as a sharp reminder at how different my life is now. Two years ago I was unemployed, rudderless and calling turtles on the Great Barrier Reef my friends. Contrast that to right now – I am typing this from the 12th floor roof deck of my apartment building. It’s a warm early summer’s evening and I’m looking out over the West Village in Manhattan. I can’t help but reflect and think to myself –  wow Sarah, you did the whole reinvent your life thing pretty darn spectacularly well.

I haven’t wrapped my ears around her new album yet (I’ve penciled it in as a must do come the weekend) but I note that early reviews are mostly positive.

Good deal. Today’s music scene needs more interesting and unique sounds and right now there’s no one else like her. But enough about singing my own or Lana’s praises and let’s jump right into the fun part – the story about the night I met her..

Yep. It’s true.

I kissed Lana Del Rey.

On the cheek, but we can leave that little detail aside for a moment while I tell you the story of how this played out.

Bit of backstory first.. who could forget that god awful Saturday Night Live performance Lana gave back in January 2012? And all the shlack she rightfully copped for her very ordinary performance that night?

Lana laid low for a few months after that.

Sorted herself out, honed her live act and probably spent time coming to grips with the massive worldwide and overnight success she found herself immersed in at the time.

Lana re-emerged in July that year to resurrect her career and her reputation as a live performer at an unknown one-day music festival for her very first Australian performance.

And I was there, of course.

Spin Off is an annual festival held only in Adelaide, Australia. It is billed as a spin off from the much larger and well-known Australian music festival that happens every July called Splendour In The Grass. I have never been to Splendour. It’s my number one Aussie unfulfilled festival crush.

It’s July 2012 and what was I doing back then? Oh yes. Unemployed and pretty lost with the world, I’d been up in far north Queensland scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef while escaping the winter that blankets in the southern parts of Australia at that time of year. This was a pretty amazing time in my life. I had spent many weeks under the water and slowly feeling better about life in general, while keeping company with giant resident turtles called Brian and schools of butterfly fish.

I was technically living in Adelaide at this time. At least some of my stuff was. But I was really living between 3 cities. I had stuff in my hometown of Melbourne, some in my adopted city of Adelaide and some where I was spending all my time, Cairns. I flew back to Adelaide from Cairns just to attend this event. The next day and I was back on a plane flying north again, desperate to get back to the warmth and the reef.

So here I am. Spinning off in the front row. I’m not really sure how I got there. I started at the back of the audience and as the crowds thinned in between sets, I crept ever closer towards the stage and next thing I knew, I am front row centre stage left for Lana’s set.

Immediately in front of me is an elbow-high barrier that I’m trying not to let the surging crowd push me in to. Beyond the barrier, there’s about a metre gap where press and photographers are standing between me and the stage. I’ve heard that these guys are allowed to stay for the first song only, then they’ve been ordered to clear out. Good riddance.

‘Lana! Lana! Lana!’ screamed the anticipating crowd.

Adelaide generally has a difficult time attracting quality music acts. It’s no where near as large or has the same pull as Sydney or Melbourne. I couldn’t believe that an act of such international notoriety as Lana Del Rey was turning up to perform on a cold winter’s day and under the roof of what the Adelaide showgrounds really is.. a giant tin shed.

‘Lana! Lana!’.

She emerges from the wings and steps onto the stage. In a baby jade lace dress with matching jade ribboned headband. Her frock is belted and cinched at the waist. It’s short. Check out the pics I took.

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She’s standing right in front of me. I can hear her voice when she sings and I don’t need the aid of the microphone. On stage and she’s so close to me, I can even see the hair on her legs.

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In the middle of Video Games, Lana starts making her way off the stage, down these makeshift steps and into the gap where those photographers were standing a few songs ago.

God damn. She’s walking right towards me.

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If the crowd around me wasn’t crushing me before, it certainly is now.

Soon enough I am confronted with the image of Lana Del Rey standing right in front of me.

Eye to eye and I didn’t quite know what to do.

In the rush of this moment, I grabbed her hand that wasn’t holding a microphone and gently pulled her towards me. I reached in and kissed her on her right cheek. I saw her ear and her headband up close. She felt warm and it felt crazy and she didn’t resist me. I pulled away and she was beaming. Rarely does she smile in any image you see of her. I let go of her hand as she sashayed her way back up and onto the stage.

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I have to say, Lana Del Rey is seriously one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Not one to notice this kind of stuff but I can appreciate a very stunning woman when I am looking at one. Those sultry, 1960s housewife-turned-vixen eyes. That oversized and expressive mouth. All that hair. All those curves. She is stunningly and nostalgically beautiful.

Here’s something else I can tell you. Lana can sing.

I thought her performance that night was smashing, and not just because she was 3 feet away from me. It was such an improvement on her SNL debacle.

And that’s probably exactly what Lana wanted. A small and safe live audience that was as far away from anything related to Saturday Night Live as she could possibly get. It’s like she got out a globe, found New York City, spun the world around to find its exact polar opposite and her finger landed on Adelaide.

Did I wash my hand or cheek after she touched it? Yeah, I did. But..

I kissed Lana Del Rey. Have you?

Sarah

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The Case For A Hands On CEO

I’m fascinated with the role of CEO.

Buck stops with them. Leader of the pack. Direction setter. All that stuff. In particular I’m fascinated with the similarities and differences between CEOs of large companies and those in startups. And secretly I often wonder if I have what it takes to be a CEO myself one day.

What I see frequently in the startup scene in New York is a glut of young, educated professionals who reject a corporate life (or it rejects them). Needing something to do with their time and with the promise of maybe building the next Uber or WhatsApp, they come up with an idea, start a company and give themselves to incredulous title of CEO.

And so if it’s relatively easy to give yourself this title, I’m always interested when I see behavior that stands out from the startup pack.

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There’s somewhat of an unwritten law in startups – when you’re a startup, you support other startups. When I make decisions about other businesses I want to engage to help the one I work for, I will always look at startups first.

I started early engagement with another startup over a service they offered that I needed. By early engagement, I mean that I took full advantage of their 2 week trial. Only I ran into problems. Their product wasn’t doing what I wanted it to.

I hit up their support site. Flubbed around for a bit and ended up emailing their customer support team. Thinking I’ll deal with this later in the week when they would get around to getting back to me, I got the shock of my life when an email response came 10 minutes later.

And it wasn’t a canned ‘thanks and we’ll get back to you’ automated response. It was a detailed message from the company’s CEO.

Color me impressed.

What’s a CEO of a small startup (<10 employees) doing dealing with me, one of their (trial) customers? I’m willing to bet this CEO doesn’t deal with customers all the time, but he dedicates a certain chunk of his week to get into the coalface. He gets to understand who his customer’s are, their needs and their pain points. All this can only assist him to build a better product and offering. It’s a very smart strategy.

There’s a lot to be said for early companies who get in the face of their early adopters. As this excellent Wall Street Journal blog post points out, when your product or service is new, you have to engage and deal with each and every individual customer and convince them to sign up. That’s called getting traction. But dealing with customers can be painful. It’s time consuming. You have to really listen! They tell you stuff you don’t want to hear and can make you realize your product or offering isn’t as spectacularly wonderful as you thought it was.

What did I do after this CEO dealt with my enquiry? I thanked him for his promptness in sorting out my issue and promptly signed us up for a full paying account. I then found him on LinkedIn and in my connection request I told him I thought it was cool that he was the CEO and he was dealing directly with customers. And guess what? Less than 10 minutes later, he accepted my LinkedIn connection request.

Sarah

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