May 31, 2022

Nick Abrahams on purpose and prioritisation, talking for mutual value, deliberate sharing and engagement, and telling stories for understanding (Ep23)

“It comes down to establishing why is it relevant for you. If it is meaningful, and you can use the information that you get, then you will become more interested in it.

– Nick Abrahams

Tim O'Reilly

About Nick Abrahams

Nick Abrahams is a leading lawyer, futurist, and keynote speaker. He is the Global Co-leader of the Digital Transformation Practice at Norton Rose Fulbright advising major organisations on technology M&A, blockchain and cryptocurrency, and digital transformation. He is also the co-founder of the leading legal tech venture LawPath, and he created the world’s first AI-enabled privacy chatbot, Parker.  He was was a category winner in the Financial Times Asia-Pac Innovator of the Year Awards in 2020.

What you will learn

  • How to keep up with the speed of information change in legislation and technology (01:58)
  • How to prioritise the right items with the right amount of attention (03:09)
  • How to frame an area of expertise that is important to you (06:33)
  • Why you need to make sure you learn from others (09:33)
  • What is the best way to take notes and build a system for it (12:04)
  • How to talk to people to develop expertise through deliberate steps or osmosis (13:37)
  • How whiteboards can be best for understanding and mind mapping  (22:35)
  • How to deliver messages and ideas through stories (21:43)
  • How to avoid getting trapped in a bubble with information that is constantly and rapidly changing (24:20)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Nick, it’s awesome to have you on the show.

Nick Abrahams: Ross, thank you very much. I’m excited.

Ross: You bring together two very fast-moving worlds. One is the law. As a top lawyer, you have to keep across all of the new legislation of which there is plenty and at the same time, you’re a technology lawyer, and that’s a pretty fast-moving place there, and you’re on top of the pace of change in technology, so in a nutshell, how do you do that? How do you keep across this incredibly fast pace of change?

Nick: There are loads of things going on in any one day. The critical issue is around prioritizing my time. There’s time spent doing client work. There’s time spent marketing. I’m on three boards. I have my own separate business that I started, Lawpath. Now I’m a professional speaker as well, so yes, trying to keep up with everything requires every day just shuffling priorities and making sure we hit the right ones first with the right amount of attention.

Ross: I always have this idea of purpose as knowing why. I’m interested, how do you frame your priorities? I mean, if they keep on changing, as you get different insights or perspectives, do you set those for the year or the month or your lifetime? How is it that you get that guidance what your priorities are?

Nick: If we’re zooming out, I definitely set priorities for my lifetime. Years ago, I did something which I think a lot of people do. If you haven’t, then you should definitely do it because it’s great for bringing things into sharp perspective: I wrote my own obituary. What did I want to be remembered for? It was very interesting, when I sat down to do that, I realized that much of what I was actually doing wasn’t relevant to the way that I wanted to be remembered, I guess that was the way that I’ve wanted to live my life. That helped me form a number of key priorities around things that I wanted to do and how I would shape my life.
So yes, very much going from the big picture around what is my life’s purpose? What can I do to help people in this lifetime? And then really dropping down, going from there to a yearly check-in that I do, where I have a list that I go through, last year’s list, and update it so that gives me the very real goal. They will be very specifically set out goals, which are capable of either yes, I’ve done that, or no, I have not done that. They’re not general. In that sense, it’s not like I should be a better person, it’s I’m going to do this much volunteering, or whatever it is. Then I check in on that, that’s a little more ad hoc, during the year, but certainly, at least once every two months, just make sure I’m headed in the right direction. That’s the overarching macro picture of what I’m trying to do. Then obviously, there’s the day-to-day as well.

Ross: I don’t think that many people have the discipline to do that, but the only way you can actually get a real sense of why you’re doing what you’re doing is if you do continue to check in as you do.

Nick: Yes, I think that’s right. I think that’s the critical part. I didn’t make any of this stuff up obviously, this has all come from books I’ve read and people I’ve listened to. I think it depends on the sort of person that you are as well. I know that I’m good if I’ve got some clear goals, then I will continue to strive for them. I have a whole range of different things I want to achieve across a range of different areas of life. I don’t think there’s one size fits all for any of this. There may be people out there who this is like, oh, that sounds horrible, and may well not work, but it just works for me.

Ross: Drilling down to the information part of this; We’re overloaded in many ways; All of the things we would love to be able to do, but can’t do at all. But part of that is the information which is the development of your expertise, it’s the knowledge, it’s the understanding, it’s finding your path; so in terms of prioritizing what it is you need to keep current with or ahead of others on, how do you frame those areas of expertise, or the knowledge, or the understanding that is important to you?

Nick: Critically for me, absent the reading or listening things, the most valuable thing that I do is talking to people. I happen to be a talker, so that’s quite good. I love talking to people. That is something that I’m very focused on. As we know, relationships are critical to success in life whether it’s going to be in your job, family, etc. I prioritize people and talking to people effectively as a number one issue. Then the way that I manage that, because I speak to a lot of people in the course of any one day, that might be specifically work-related, might be related to one of the board, and also a lot of marketing, I’ve got this rule, because I’ve been around the tech world for so long, I get approached by lots of early-stage companies, I have a rule, I’ll always give them half an hour, just to help them out.
I need to be very deliberate in the way that I manage those particular engagements. I’ve tried to limit, if possible, every meeting to 30 minutes, sometimes if we can get it done in 20, that’s terrific, and just trying to really work it so that I’m talking to a lot of people, getting a lot of information from them, and helping them where I can. That’s why things like Teams and Zoom, have just been unbelievable. The productivity that I’ve gotten there, I’m very happy with the remote style of working. I’m not one of those people who feels I need to meet people in-person, that just doesn’t necessarily ring true for me. I know, it does for loads of people, that’s their thing, but I love it. So strict 30 minutes, no more. Obviously, if it’s work-related and we need to go on for an hour or more then have to do that. First and foremost is prioritizing people. Then happy to talk about how I do my keeping up to date, if you want.

Ross: Part of those conversations, people are asking you for your insights since you have such a deep understanding of these domains, do you always try to make sure that you learn from them in those meetings? Are you asking questions back?

Nick: Yes, absolutely. I’m intensely interested in what people do, maybe too much so. Particularly being a lawyer has been fantastic, because I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many great companies and entrepreneurs over the years. When you’re a lawyer, you can ask them whatever you want about their business, and they will tell you. I find that very gratifying and a source of great information. Then as I’m learning from them, equally they’ve called me or they want to speak to me because they are after some information, or often they’re looking for a connection, they’re looking for funding, or they’re looking for a board member to join their board, or they’re looking for a new chief marketing officer, something like that, so always trying to give value in those sessions where I can do it.
I try to make sure with every call that I do, where this is a work-related call of the negotiation about an agreement, or if it’s just a more simple discussion, or getting to know you, I try to always set out an agenda at the beginning so that we’re all crystal clear what the expectation is around the meeting and what part everyone is going to play, what topics we’re going to discuss, and what we will walk away with, so trying to have that degree of clarity, I think just helps everyone know what to expect from the session.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. I had a very good education a long time ago when I was a journalist. I went into a CEO’s office once and did this interview. I said, Okay, great, thank you very much, and he said, Hey, hold on, not so quick, I’ve got to ask you some questions. He got his pound of flesh by asking me about what other people were telling me and things like that. That’s one of the great insights, as you can learn from everyone. You have to not only be the font of wisdom but learn from others as you go on that journey.

Nick: Yes, for sure.

Ross: Do you take notes in your meetings? If your meetings are one of your prime ways of learning and finding out what’s going on, do you take any notes? Do you just let it all soak in? What is the way of structuring what it is you are coming across?

Nick: That’s pretty regimented. I have an iPad, which is a critical device for the way that I work. When I’m talking to people, if there’s a relevant point, I will jot that down, I’ll type it into the iPad, and then I’ll just send it to myself, along with the name of the person who I’m speaking to. Generally speaking, with most meetings, I will have some notes around it and the person’s name and title, so I can come back to that. Then importantly, when there’s an action item, then I will send that email to myself with the action item, and then that gets a red flag, just in my email. Then what I’ve tried to do is if it is relatively simple to do whatever that action item is, and more often than not that action item is me introducing people to someone else, I will try to do that as soon as possible after the meeting, because otherwise, it gets delayed and then starts to cause anxiety for me, because I’m like, I’ve got to get around to that, so I try to get it done; But I do nothing in paper.

Ross: For example, you have been becoming an expert in blockchain, Web3.0, NFTs, and a whole variety of rapidly emerging technologies, is this something where you deliberately sit down and structure your learning? Is it all through osmosis? How is it that you have developed and continue to develop your expertise in what’s happening, particularly since these are so fast-moving?

Nick: Yes, it is incredibly fast-moving, that whole Web3.0 space, the crypto, NFT, Metaverse, and blockchain. I was a chief operating officer of a reasonably large during the back in 1999-2000, I think what we’re seeing with Web3.0 is bigger and faster than anything we saw in .com, the amount of money that’s being transacted; Back then you had to go and raise money in the traditional way to buy shares, now we’re having coin offerings, and it is remarkable, the speed of it.
The way that I keep up to date is, once again, finding people who know about this stuff and talking to them so that’s incredibly helpful. Reading the way that I do my reading, so that is every day I’m devoting between 30 and 60 minutes a day, just to reading about Web3.0. That’s probably not enough, given the speed with which this is going. Particularly with things like crypto, and I know this late, crypto probably only being involved in the space for the last two and a bit years, so I’m not a deep crypto native. But it’s been a steep learning curve, which I’ve come up a little bit, I think.
So devoting myself to looking at relevant websites that compile whatever is the news of the day, something like the coin telegraph. There are also sites that bring all of that news together, so they’re helpful. Then among a number of newsletter, chains around Web3.0. I’ve also got my own, it’s through a solution we’ve got at the office, which basically just summarizes every time certain keywords have been used in major media publications globally. I get that every day and look at that then.
What I try to do is to post on LinkedIn every day about Web3.0 because I think, one, it forces me to actually keep up to date, and two, I find that some of the insights that I derive from my interactions on LinkedIn are just sensational. I’ve met some wonderful people who had some great work coming in through LinkedIn as well. I’m quite happy to test an opinion out there around various things. I’ve been quite deliberate in some of the discussions that I will have because I want to understand more. I see things a particular way and I want to try and test to see is there something that I’m missing? So I find that LinkedIn is a wonderful way of testing my knowledge and finding other like-minded people as well.

Ross: You’re not hedging, you’re just putting some strong opinions forward in the hope that someone will shoot them down or come up with some other perspectives?

Nick: I don’t do that every time, obviously many times it’s just sharing a piece of the relevant piece of information, something like PwC opened an office in the metaverse, I’ll put that out because I think that’s interesting, my little summary of what I think that means. But yet where I think there are contentious issues around things, when there are these things called DAO, decentralized autonomous organizations, I have been quite deliberate around that, because I’m concerned about the structures of those and what that means from a legal point of view, practical point of view, and so forth. I’ve been very happy. I get some grief. So long as it’s likely dimm too. At least people are respectful on LinkedIn. I put some stuff on Twitter. If LinkedIn is a group hug, then Twitter is a fistfight because there’s some very aggressive people on there. I tend to leave my bigger opinions, I leave those on LinkedIn.

Ross: That’s great. I think that this is an extension of your conversation, finding the right people who can add value through engaging with your ideas.
I’ve always believed in structuring or framing your ideas. I know the one way you do that is you run webinars on these things. Of course, you need to structure your thoughts in order to be able to do that. But are there any other ways that you do it? Do you draw mind maps, or visuals, or any other kind of structure to help you unpick your understanding of these spaces?

Nick: Yes, I do find talking on these things as in delivering a webinar or similar sorts of training, I find that that very much helps to solidify my thinking about things and drives me to have a deeper analysis, which, frankly, I wouldn’t do just for the sake of my own personal understanding, I wouldn’t sort of sit there and go, I need to understand why certain NFTs sell for a certain $24 million and other NFTs don’t sell for that. I wouldn’t just do that unless I was putting myself in the position of trying to educate others about that; Then I know I’m going to really research this.
My process is I gather a lot of research material, which I will then read through. I have a very large whiteboard, which I love tremendously. What I will do is once I’ve read through things, I will put things into the iPad, as I’m going through them. Then once I’ve read through most of the material on a particular topic, I will then on the whiteboard put up there, what I feel are the strongest ideas that I’ve been left with as a result of that. It’s multiple colors and so forth. I’m looking at it now. It’s something I did on the weekend, actually about NFTs. I can see that I’ve got Paris Hilton NFT trading cards, the new Wally Lewis written up there, so I think about how can we categorize these things. It’s just different colors, and it does help me. The visual, I can’t. I’ve tried doing it on computers, on the iPad, and it works nowhere near as well as being able to sit back and look at it on a whiteboard.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. I think there’s this physical component to it, but also just the visual and mapping that out. Think about a synthesis as in pulling together of all of these multiple ideas, is there any way in which you get yourself in a frame of mind, or to help to distill, or synthesize, or pull together ideas in a way that brings that higher-level understanding?

Nick: I don’t have a particular framework that I always use. When I’m delivering sessions, I’m trying to think of it from the audience’s point of view. Most importantly, what message am I getting across, that is going to be relevant to these folks? How’s it going to change what they do or impact them? So I’m always trying to think of what he said. For example, the NFT session that I’m working on, and I’ve been speaking to people about this, there are a lot of questions out there, particularly questions around how could these things be worth so much, they’re only digital files, they’re only JPEGs.
Then challenging myself to explain that what is the rationale, and then from that, I think to try to simplify it down; in the case of NFTs, I’ve got six key categories of NFTs, and they all have different attributes. It’s trying to figure out what is the simplest way to explain a difficult concept. That may be either, as I’ve done with the NFT, six different categories, or it might be just trying to look for an analogy in real life. The more that we can get analogies, the better. Then, obviously what really works and resonates with people is stories, telling them stories about what you’ve done, I find that that’s one of the things that works very well, which is just telling stories about matters that I’ve worked on. It’s like revealing confidential information, but really just giving people stories and trying to working as many learnings into each story as possible.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. You learn by teaching, and part of it is because you do need to distill and bring together the metaphors or analogies which bring out the key characteristics.

Nick: Yes.

Ross: If you’re thinking about somebody who is an entrepreneur, or a lawyer, it will be interesting if there is any differences between those, what is the advice which you would give to somebody who is saying, all right, there’s just way too much, I’m trying to keep across the edge of change, and I’m not able to do that? What would your advice be on things which we haven’t covered so far, in terms of how it is that people living on the edge can thrive in that space?

Nick: It’s a challenge because there’s so much out there. One way it’s defined, I guess, people that you trust, who are across it, and then following them or listening to their podcasts. I’m big believer, I devour a lot of podcasts, I listen to them in the car and actually got over the idea that the kids may not be interested in the podcast, and now I don’t really care about that. They’re forced to listen to that or put their earphones in. I guess one of the approaches is finding a couple of people who you think know what’s happening, and then following them, and just seeing what they think is appropriate.
The problem with that is you tend to get caught up in a little bit of a bubble, so you might end up with the wrong idea. At its core, I think maybe the way to look at it… sorry, I’m absolutely just meandering here, but maybe if we pull it back to what is important for you to learn; say, for example, with lawyers, so I do this program for lawyers called The Breakthrough Lawyer, and with that, I try to give people a sense of what is important for you to understand about the future of the law because you don’t necessarily have to understand everything about the future. If you don’t do court work, maybe the future of what’s going to happen in courts is irrelevant to you. I think trying to narrow down, what will be meaningful to me, and what could I meaningfully use to change my life. Then once you do that, hopefully that dictates the priorities.
Harder with an entrepreneur, because when you are an entrepreneur, there are so many different things that you have to be across, obviously your product, but then there’s partnering and effective partnering, there’s raising capital, there’s the regulatory landscape, there is an enormous number of things there. With entrepreneurs, probably the best advice there is actually partnering with another founder, so having co-founder, we certainly see the benefit of co-founders, each of whom brings a different skill set, sometimes quite a different skill set. But I guess it comes down to establishing why is it relevant for me. If it is meaningful, and you can use the information that you get, then you will become more interested in it.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. I think part of that is frame of working out what’s important, and what is going to be meaningful. I think you’ve shared a very people-centric view of how to learn, engage and keep across the edge of change. That’s not everybody’s approach, but I mean, certainly, one, which I’ve personally, and I’ve seen a lot of other people thrive on, because if you want to keep across the edge of change, then there are some people who can guide you on that journey.

Nick: Yes.

Ross: In conclusion, any other final thoughts, or recommendations, or practices around what it is that you do, which were in your very evidence thriving on extreme overload?

Nick: Maybe, it’s just luck. But I am intensely curious about a whole range of different topics. Not everything, there are some things I’m not concerned about, that other people are curious about. But for me, I have some deep curiosity about some specific things. I’ve figured out a way that they’re relevant to my work, particularly, but also potentially, to my life. I think it’s not just curiosity for the sake of curiosity, it’s curiosity to determine how could that improve my life and help me to help others. For me, once I got that bridge, it made it all very easy, so I find it intensely fascinating to be learning about these things, but then also to applying it because it’s not just learning for the sake of learning.

Ross: Absolutely. You do an outstanding job of it.

Nick: Thank you.

Ross: Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Nick. Speaking with you has been fantastic.

Nick: Thank you Ross and you’ve got a new book coming out that I’m looking forward to reading, best wishes with that, and best wishes with the podcast. Thank you.

Ross: Thank you.

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