Staying Sane In An Insane World 

How would you explain the events of this year to someone from the year 2050 who time traveled to visit us? Many adjectives come quickly to mind: turmoil, danger, violence, drama, unrest, uncertainty. But if you think deeper about trying to explain what it all means, you’d realize this challenge is impossible. We couldn’t accurately tell someone from the future about the meaning of the present because we can’t understand the present yet: we don’t know what happens next! We don’t have the context to make sense of these events. If we were alive in 1776, 1914, 1968 or 2001 we’d have a similiar problem. We can describe the significance of those years now only because we know what happens after.

It must be said that we are a stubborn and frustrating species. Too often we wait for terrible things to happen before we’re willing to change our minds, or change anything at all. It’s not a rule, as history doesn’t depend on rules, but unrest and disorder are sometimes necessary to wake us up and motivate us to grow. And to remind us we share our fates with each other. In the end, the best we could tell our friend from 2050 is “something is happening!” We truly are living in an interesting time.

Contrary to the title of this essay, I don’t think the world is insane. Instead it’s more that we’re designed to live at the scale of tribes, not cities and nations (See Freud’s Civilization and It’s Discontents, where he suggests we traded sanity away to get more security and stability). It’s not the world’s fault, in a sense, but our own.

When I get past my own emotions and rantings,  I conclude three things about this year so far:

  1. We’re addicted to news and news is shallow. Neil Postman said “information is a form of garbage” meaning that at a certain volume more information does not help you. The speed and quantity of news, which we presume to be an asset, does not help us gain perspective, understanding or meaning, the three things we want most. The news business thrives on fear, more so that fact. Most forms of news are not helpful, but they are plentiful and addictive.
  2. Our brains are poor at calibrating to a national or planetary scale. We’re easily misled by dramatic (but possibly unrepresentative) news. And we’re quick to use one narrow string of events to define our feeling of “how the world is”. Combined with cognitive bias, we’re prone to strong emotions based on irrational assumptions.
  3. Big problems we’ve ignored are now un-ignorable. The violence, racism, classism, anger and fear that have fueled the worst events these past months did not suddenly appear. Instead it’s the consequence of years, or decades, of problems we haven’t solved, or perhaps have largely ignored. Technology may have made these problems far more visible, but they were likely there all along.
  4. The world, on average, is getting better. Many people refer to statistics that show that by many measures the world has been a steadily improving place. This is good and hopeful news: if you need a boost of positiveness, then look at these charts.
  5.  But the trap of that last point is the flaw of averages: simply because the total average, of say violent crime in America, has gone down for a decade, doesn’t mean there aren’t sizable pockets where crime is going up. Averages can be misleading. For example, on average the universe is a very dead and boring place, but that average makes it seem like Paris or Las Vegas don’t exist. But they do! Statistics tend to oversimplify – they’re useful but easily misused and rarely definitive without asking questions and thinking through for less biased answers.

My advice is simple. We are emotional creatures, so find a healthy way to vent the negative energy that you feel. Go to the gym, or for a hike, and let your feelings out through exercise, which we all know we need more of. Scream at the sky and challenge the wind. But don’t target your rage at people, certainly not at strangers: the golden rule is a good guide here.

Another safe place to express yourself is a private journal, where any idea on your mind can be expressed safely and without judgement (Social media isn’t quite the same, because you are expressing yourself with the knowledge that someone is observing you). Or talk to friends who care about how you feel (and if you don’t have friends who care about your feelings, your real problem might be you need to find better friends).

But then, once you’ve expressed those emotions… slow down. Be curious. Seek thoughtful points of view that differ from your own: it’s the only way to provoke your own thinking to improve (instead of just responding and sharpening your preconceptions). Talking to people who agree with you on everything will teach you nothing.

I’ve read so much these last few months seeking answers. I don’t look to the news for meaning, because that’s not what it’s good for: instead I try to read deeper. Here are five essays, with varying views, that helped me to feel I understand what’s going on (or clarifying what I don’t understand). I don’t necessarily endorse their positions but to my point above, they help in the pursuit of understanding:


Quote of the week, from Viggo Mortensen

One of my favorite podcasts is Here’s the Thing, and on a recent episode host Alec Baldwin interviewed Viggo Mortensen about his latest film, Captain Fantastic. Towards the end he mentioned this:

“By taking the risk of trying hard means you are going to make mistakes, and then the most important thing is hopefully realizing that and doing something about it. Being a good dad is not a static thing. Having a good marriage isn’t a static thing. Neither is a democracy. Neither is a friendship. Tomorrow morning you have to start over, continue the process and make adjustments. And if you don’t… it’s a game that moves as you play, and if you don’t move you can’t play”

Viggo Mortensen, on Here’s The Thing

Five Ways To Survive Fathers Day

I always had a tough relationship with my father, and the week of father’s day is a tricky time. While I’m happy to see friends celebrate, and appreciate what they have, the day reminds me of what’s missing from my own life. Many people have similiar stories to mine, or their fathers are no long alive, making the day a complicated one.

I wrote the book The Ghost Of My Father (reviews / free excerpt here) in part to redefine who I am, and how I related (or did not relate at all) to the father of my birth. Along the way I found a different way to feel about Father’s Day and redefined into something positive.

Here are five ways to get through Father’s Day if it’s a difficult time for you:

  1. Make it “men who helped you” day. Make a list of other men (or women if no men qualify for you) who helped you in your life. Give them a gift or write them a note that you’re grateful for what they did. Perhaps a high school teacher or coach? A boss who mentored you? Or even an older friend, or uncle, who has given you fatherly advice now and then. Let them know that they helped you.
  2. Honor good fathers you know in your community. Do you have a friend who is a good father to their children? Father’s day gifts from children can feel obligatory, but a thoughtful note from a friend, someone who has no obligation, can mean a great deal to them (and to you). Tell them what you’ve noticed and why you appreciate the kind of father they are.
  3. Help other children without fathers. Nearly 30% of American children grow up without a father in their home. Whatever your story was, these are innocent children who might need help that you can provide. Donate to Extended Family, The National Fatherhood Initiative or other non-profits focused on helping families without fathers.
  4. Consider fathers from movies and books that have inspired you (Candidates include: To Kill A Mockingbird, Contact, Boyz ‘n The Hood or even Life Is Beautiful. See: Ten Best Movie Dads). A fictional father can still provide guidance or even be a role model. You can choose to think about them on Father’s Day and write in your journal about why those characters have earned a place in your memory.
  5. Think about becoming a mentor. Help a young person get some of the support and guidance you didn’t get (or that you did get and want to pay forward). Big Brothers Big Sisters is a great place to start, and the first edition of Ghost of My Father donated a portion of the proceeds to them. I was a Big Brother myself and highly recommend participating. It can change how you feel about your past, and your future, in profound ways.
  6. (Bonus) Work on your relationship. If your father is still alive, take a chance and reach out. My father died last year, and I’m out of chances to ever try and reconcile again, but perhaps there is hope for you. Instead of a cliche gift, buy a book about fathers and sons and give it as a gift, with a note asking him to have a conversation about it. The Great Santini and Big Fish are challenging places to start (and were made into excellent films). If you’ve done this and have book recommendations, leave a comment (particularly for books on father / daughter relationships, which seem harder to find)

How To Be a Better Speaker – The Short Honest Truth

For any skill, the only way to improve is through practice. Reading about that skill is not practice. Watching other people do something is not practice. Reading and watching can only help you develop a skill if you apply what you learn while you are practicing. Most people do not practice, which is why most people are bad at most things, including public speaking.

The most important thing to practice is thinking. Think about these questions:

  • Why is your audience there? What problem are they trying to solve?
  • What 5 questions do they want you to answer on the topic?
  • What work do you need to do to give great, practical answers?
  • What simple outline best expresses your answers, and gives a sense of progression?

Many speakers don’t spend enough time crafting the central message of their talk. Instead, most get lost in superficials: trying to look good and sound. But the reason people show up to a conference or presentation is rarely for superficials – it’s to get answers and encouragement. The experience is not about the speaker, it’s about the audience.

At any event, the one lecture that solves the most problems for the most people will be the best remembered. If you give the audience ways to solve their problems, they’ll overlook many superficial mistakes. This requires hard work. Good public speaking is always based on good private thinking.

Speaking is actually comprised of several skills: writing, storytelling and performing. A good presentation combines them all into one experience. To be a good speaker requires studying and practicing all three.

People worry the most about performing. The best possible way to improve performance is to (surprise!) practice. Take a few minutes of your material, before you make any slides, and do a practice run. Record it on video. Then watch it. Ask friends you know who will give you tough feedback to watch it too. Take notes on places where you get lost, where your points can be clearer and any distracting habits you might have. Then do it again. Revise and rewrite. And practice again. Practice is the only way to improve habits, improve your thoughts and get comfortable with your own material.

When you see a presentation that is smart, polished and looks natural, never forget how much effort was required to make it seem so effortless. There is no magic trick or secret despite what some books promise – there’s only thoughtful effort.


(Note: originally posted on Quora)

The Simple Plan for People Who Want To Solve Big Problems

[This is an excerpt from chapter 12, of the bestseller, The Myths of Innovation]

The Simple Plan

If you want to make progress happen, or be someone who brings good ideas into the world, this is for you. It’s the simplest, easiest, most straightforward way to convert your ambition into action. When I’m asked to give advice about managing creativity or how to make an organization “innovative” this is what I share.

  1. Pick a project and start doing something. It almost does not matter what it is. You will need many experiences in trying to develop ideas into things before you’ll be good at it, especially if you are working with other people. Don’t wait around. Go make a website. Write a draft. Draw a sketch. Make a prototype. Have a small ambition you can manifest quickly so the stakes are low, and the pace is fast. Until you start working on something, you won’t truly start learning. The temptation is to have a grand sounding universal plan, don’t give in to it. That can come later. Think of these early attempts as scouting for ideas. Before you can build a city, you must thoughtfully scout and map the landscape. Having a thing, even a napkin drawing, to look at improves the quality of conversations about the possible ideas. And if you can’t find a way to start a project at work, do it on weekends – history is full of creative heroes who never had approval from anyone to do it. There is always a way to start, just pick something small enough you can do yourself in an afternoon, or with a friend, and get to work.
  2. Forget the word innovation: focus on solving a problem. Most products out in the world are not very good. You rarely need a breakthrough to improve things, to beat the competition, or to help people suffering from a problem. If you carefully study the problem you’re trying to solve, you will discover many clear ways, some forgotten or executed poorly, to make it better. That’s the best place to start. If you solve a problem for a customer than makes them happy and earns you money, do you really think they will care if it’s “innovative” or a “breakthrough”? They just want their problems solved. If you cured cancer conventionally, would the patients refuse, saying “but it’s not innovative.” Of course not. Often it’s the combination of many conventional solutions, the combination obscuring how old some of the ideas were, that is called an innovation afterwards by people ignorant of the history of those ideas. So don’t worry. Sometimes small ideas, applied well, matter more than big ideas. Try to use workmanlike language: problem, prototype, experiment, customer, design, and solution, instead of the jargon of breakthrough, radical, game-changing and innovative. This keeps you low to the ground, and prevents your ego from distracting you away from simply making good things.
  3. If you work with others, you need leadership and trust. There’s no point worrying about which creativity or management method you’re using, or how much budget you’re going to spend, if people don’t trust each other. It’s the leader’s job to create an environment of trust so ideas move freely and can grow. Developing new ideas is scary and demands vulnerability and if people don’t trust each other their talents will never be revealed. It’s also the leader’s role to use their superior power to take risks, and protect the team from the dangers of those risks. This sounds obvious, but look around. It’s rare. Many people do not trust their teams, nor work for leaders who are willing to stake their reputations on the risks of a new idea. It’s uncommon to find someone in power who is willing to take the blame for problems, but also willing to give credit to subordinates as rewards for their efforts. If you’re a leader, the burden is on you. If you’re not, and you don’t work for someone who creates trust and is willing to take risks, good work will not happen where you are. Either move, find the courage to take a bet and force the issue, or accept the status quo.
  4. If you work with others, and things are not going well, make the team smaller. There is a reason great things often happen in small organizations. With fewer people, there are fewer cooks and fewer egos. In many large organizations there are too many people involved for anything interesting to happen. The first advice I give teams when things are not going well is to make the team smaller. If you’re the boss, and the politics are too complex, volunteer yourself to leave. Do whatever is necessary to reduce the number of people involved in developing ideas, and/or making decisions. The dynamic of getting 3 people to agree to take a risk together is much simpler than getting 30 people to do the same. Three people can achieve an intellectual intimacy faster, and be fully invested and passionate about a decision in ways thirty people can’t be. Another solution is to pick one creative leader, and give them more power. A film director is the singular creative leader on a movie. Yet most corporate or academic projects divide up leadership across committees, diffusing authority, which always makes decisions more conservative, the opposite of what you want.
  5. Be happy about interesting ‘mistakes’. If you are doing something new, it can not go well on the first, second, or possibly 50th time. This is OK. Your mindset has to be, ‘This did not go how I expected, but I expected that! What can I learn so the next attempt improves? (or teaches more interesting lessons)” The more interesting the lesson, the better. It’s the mind of an experimenter (see Chapter 3) that you want to cultivate, asking questions about everything you make, and using the answers to those questions to fuel the next attempt and the next. Many people quit on their 2nd or 3rd try at something, for reasons that have nothing to do with the history of innovation. There was not a story in this book where any of the brilliant minds mentioned succeeded on such a small number of tries. Perseverance, as simple a concept as it is, is rare. The more ambitious the problem you’re trying to solve, the more experiments and attempts you will need to get it right.

It’s easy to discount these 5 basic notions as they seem so simple, but that’s the trap.  I’m convinced ones that don’t overlook these have the highest odds of producing good work, in a healthy culture, with results the team and the customers are proud of. The challenge is commitment as it’s natural to dream of an easier way, and hope for a trick or formula or magical method to avoid the work and the risks. You will find many consultants and experts who promise you things that do not exist based on stories not supported by history. But I hope that the true stories you read earlier in this book will anchor your confidence, defend you against the many myths, and help this simple view stay with you.


[This is an excerpt from chapter 12, of The Myths of Innovation]

What We Can Learn From The Eiffel Tower

[In 21 days my latest book, The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity, launches. I’ll be counting down the days until then with the story of an interesting idea, fact or story related to the book – you can see the series here – note added 2/22/17]

We take great works for granted. We forget, but the fate of even our most famous ideas and creations was far from certain at the time they were proposed. A powerful exercise anyone can do is to pick a famous creation and go back in history to the days before it was made. Only then can you see what the makers themselves truly experienced, and learn from the surprising challenges they faced and overcame. Here are some lessons we can all learn from the wonders of Eiffel’s Tower.


1. All Ideas Are Made From Other Ideas

Eiffel was inspired by the Latting Observatory, among other works. This tower, built in 1853, was taller than any other building in NYC, that is, until it burned down in 1856 (wood was still the primary construction material at the time, a fact Eiffel wanted to change). Eiffel also used engineering techniques found in nature to reduce weight and retain strength, essential concepts for constructing the tallest building in the world at the time. If you’re struggling to come up with good ideas, dig deeper into the surprising history of the major ideas in your own field. You’ll learn how they borrowed, reused and found inspiration from existing ideas.

latting tower

The design of the Eiffel tower was a wonderful combination of aesthetics and engineering (similiar in this regard to to the Brooklyn Bridge). But the plan for its style and construction evolved over time with contributions from at least four engineers. Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier had the initial concept and drafted the first design (below), but it was rejected at first by Eiffel. They invited a third engineer, Stephen Sauvestre, who made several improvements, including the detailed latticework the tower would become famous for. Their revised design was finally accepted by Eiffel and proposed for the 1889 worlds fair (Exposition Universelle). Although the project bears his name, as only Eiffel had the reputation and finances to lead the project, the design of the tower had major contributions from others. 



2. Conviction moves ideas forward

There were over 700 competing design submissions for the world’s fair tower (including this one from Bourdais, a major rival). Eiffel was fortunate to win, but the victory led to more challenges.  The government surprised him by only offering $300k, a fraction of the what his proposed budget required. Eiffel chose to put in the remaining $1.3 million (5 million francs) himself. In return he asked for a 20 year lease and control over some of the pavilion area near the tower. This shrewd arrangement gave him the ability to advertise the other works his firm did, assuming of course that the tower itself was successful.

If your idea is turned down, what are you willing to put at stake as collateral (money or reputation) to make the project happen? If the person with the idea won’t stand behind it, why should they expect anyone else to?

Commitment to your own ideas is paramount. But also remember Franz Reichelt, as an example of conviction in an idea gone too far. He jumped from the Eiffel tower in 1912 to prove to the world that his parachute design worked, and fell to his death. You can even watch a film of his fatal attempt.

3. Even the best ideas meet resistance

Before the tower’s construction had begun, the French elite rejected its design. Soon 300 of the most well known artists and poets of Paris joined together as “The Committee of Three Hundred” to write an open letter to Eiffel and the city, demanding the project be stopped:

We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection […] of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower…  imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream… we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.

Even our wisest and best people, by human nature, resist new ideas. We forget that some of the greatest ideas we’ve had as a species faced great doubt on their long road towards acceptance. This means anyone with big ideas needs to understand that the best ideas don’t always win. Merit is not enough. It’s wise to expect resistance, invest in skills of persuasion and try to learn from the feedback you hear before you dismiss it. The reason why Eiffel won are, in part, due to the relationships he built the society of civil engineers, and the investments he made in explaining to them why his design was superior to others.

4. Long term commitments make history

The original agreement for the tower was that it would be torn down in 20 years. Part of the criteria for the design competition was that the tower must be engineered in a fashion that would make it easy to take apart. But Eiffel made careful investments in an attempt to prove the long term value of the tower. He never wanted it simply to be a decorative delight. Instead he imagined it as both a symbolic and practical embodiment of the future of science and technology.

He financed experiments in wireless telegraphy and radio, including the installation of one of the first antennas in France. This antenna proved sufficiently useful that it justified keeping the tower intact instead of destroying it, allowing it to remain the tallest building in the world for nearly 40 years. Eiffel even had a science laboratory installed not long after opening day, where experiments in meteorology, astronomy and even aerodynamics were conducted. His commitment to the long term vision of his idea is a major part of why the building still stands today and is loved by so many people for so many different reasons.


The Real Reasons Why We Vote The Way We Do

political-animalWe all tend to think our own political views are sound, but that it’s “the others” that are crazy, dumb or both. To get some perspective this election season, I recently read Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman.

It’s a good and important book. I’d recommend it for anyone trying to understand what is going on in America and to sharpen their own thinking about who to vote for. Kirkus reviews called it “An amiable tour of the socio-scientific evidence that accounts for our political miscalculations” and that’s a good summary.

The book aims at four observations:

  1. Many of us frequently disengage, becoming apathetic.
  2. We often don’t correctly size up our leaders.
  3. We punish politicians who tell us hard truths.
  4. We often fail to show empathy in circumstances that clearly cry out for it.

And the chapters of the book try to answer four questions:

  1. Why aren’t voters more curious and knowledgeable?
  2. Why do we find reading politicians so difficult?
  3. Why aren’t we more realistic?
  4. Why does our empathy for people in trouble often seem in such short supply?

A central theme of the book is cognitive bias, and how our brains are poorly designed for certain kinds of problem solving (e.g. evaluating candidates). Our brains are designed for life 20,000 years ago, and our natural skills for evaluating leaders don’t work very well at the scale of national governments.

We also have great faith in why we make our own choices, despite the powerful evidence we’re mostly irrational and heavily influenced by superficials. We see this flaw more easily in people who vote differently than we do than in ourselves. Shenkman sites many studies that expose the irrational and biased nature of our psychology as it relates to voting. It’s an eye-opening read in many ways, as it’s shocking to read so many stories from American history of our citizen’s absurd and subconscious motivations.

The weakness of the book is it is mildly repetitive at times. It’s well written and provocative, but some points are made multiple times and a tighter edit would have made it a smoother read. Like many books about culture, his arguments depend heavily on social psychology studies, which are easy to interpret in different ways (to his credit the Notes section is a thorough referencing of every study mentioned). It’d be easy to accuse the book of a liberal bias (Nixon and Reagan are used as negative examples), but that would miss the point. Most of his observations and evidence apply to our species in general, rather than a point of view. Swap out some examples and his points still resonate.

“We possess dozens of instincts— perhaps even thousands depending on your definition— and they involve virtually any human activity you can think of. William James, the father of American psychology, held that instincts guide us from birth. He even included crying and sneezing as instincts. You don’t have to be taught to cry or sneeze, after all.”

“The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American— they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These stone age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others.”

“Bartels and Achen found, adverse weather conditions cost the incumbent party 1.5 percentage points. In close elections, that could spell the difference between a win and a loss. (More than half of presidential elections since 1900 have been won by five points or less.)”

“How can we tell when we should follow our instincts and when we should not?”

“Our evolved mechanisms, as Michael Bang Petersen points out, are designed to help us evaluate people in our midst. They are less good at helping us evaluate people at a distance. Our natural gifts of reading people are largely neutralized when we are reading politicians. The circumstances in which we get to know them are so artificial, it’s impossible most of the time to get a whiff of the real person beneath the fictional character created for public consumption. We think we know our politicians well. But we barely know them at all.”

“Like most elections, 1980 was a referendum on the past. People generally don’t vote on the basis of what they expect will happen in the future. The future is abstract. The past, in contrast, is concrete. As emotional human beings we respond most forcefully to the concrete. People didn’t vote for Reagan so much as vote against Carter.”

“As the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has observed, we don’t want the truth to prevail, we want our version of the truth to prevail.”

“So who paid the most attention? Who, in other words, formed the main audience for the election? This was perhaps the study’s central finding. It was partisans— the people who had already made up their minds. The key audience wasn’t the people who had an open mind. It was the people who had closed minds. They didn’t follow the news to get educated. They followed the news because they found it interesting. The media had virtually no impact on their views. When they heard what they wanted to hear, they cheered.”

Quotes from Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman.

Why Do Idiots Get Ahead?

On Tuesdays I often write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from C. with 101 votes] is Why Do Idiots Get Ahead?

I’m a diligent individual, but find it frustrating to continually clean up after the mess “idiots” create – but yet the “idiots” cannot be stopped. I have clout in my organization, yet individuals below me are supported by peers, while I’m ignored.

Your question is an interesting one, but not just for workplaces. As an experiment, lets turn your question around. Why Do Smart People Get Ahead?

I’m not sure they always do. The greatest single factor for how far ahead we get in life is simple: where and when we are born. If you were born in ancient Rome it was 50/50 you’d live past 10 years old no matter how smart you were. Then again, if your Dad was Louis XIV, King Of France in 1644, and you were the first son, you’d be far ahead before you said a single word. There were thousands of other smarter kids born that same day in France, but none were given the same advantages. Monarchy seems pretty limiting to us now, but even today who our parents were defined hundreds of advantages or disadvantages we didn’t pick, but often take credit for. Of course there are no guarantees: many children of the rich and famous often have a terrible time living up to the burdens of those legacies. But my point is there are many factors that define who succeeds in the universe, some we control but many we don’t. Some seems fair to us and some unfair.

Specific to the question of idiots, smarter people get ahead only when they are able to successfully apply their abilities to the situations and challenges they face. Some challenges in life depend more on social skills, passion, empathy, dedication and ambition than smarts. More so, words like smart, dumb, intelligent and idiot are used very loosely. Howard Gardner defined at least nine types of intelligence, including spatial and inter-personal smarts. Depending on what we’re talking about (life? work? sports?) different kinds of intelligence yield different advantages. Some titans of industry have terrible social lives. Many of our most prolific artists struggle with depression. Life is more complex than the simple scorecard we often use to judge others, and ourselves, with. “Getting ahead” seems a lousy measurement, since it demands the question: ahead of whom?

There are five different ideas hidden inside your question, as it relates to the working world:

  • Meritocracy depends on who defines merit. An idiot could easily get ahead in an organization that decided idiots are awesome. A crazy (or idiotic) CEO could say “we will give a 20% raise and rank promotion to the dumbest people we have.” With an incentive to be stupid, what would merit mean? We tend to think about meritocracy in simple, selfish terms, but it’s highly subjective and local to your culture. Some cultures value politeness, others directness. Banks reward consistency, but startups reward ambition. If you find yourself in a place where your definition of merit, or morality, doesn’t match those around you there are only 4 choices: influence their definition, change yours, accept your fate or move on.
  • When something goes wrong, look up. If ever you wonder why a team or group is a mess, look directly at their collective boss (or parent). It’s their job to make it not that way. If dysfunction and incompetence are common, hold those in charge responsible. Do you have a coworker who is truly incompetent? If yes, then ask: who has the power to fire, or reassign them, but hasn’t yet? (And who hired them in the first place?). Your problem might simply be your boss is terrible at her job (or her superiors are terrible, which constrains her abilities). A primary responsibility for a boss is to create a functional workplace where competence is rewarded. If the boss is failing to do that, not much else matters. They will spoil most attempts to right the ship, since they prefer it sinking (Perhaps because they are insecure and need to always feel smart, which is best achieved by having fools around them in an endless series of crises only the boss can resolve).
  • Intelligence is only one valuable attribute. An ambitious person with less talent can sometimes beat a lazy person with more talent. In workplaces, above a minimum level of intelligence, it’s often skills of listening, communicating, earning trust and being reliable that define a person’s reputation. Some abilities, like creativity, persuasiveness  and work ethic, aren’t directly tied to intelligence. Someone of average intelligence but who excels at these other skills, and knows their own limitations, can succeed faster than a smarter person who is very difficult to work with or to trust. We’re also influenced by our biases: we like some people and don’t like others for superficial reasons. It’s hard for that bias not to slip into the decisions we make, or who we are willing to support (or not). And of course: if you’re smart enough to know your coworkers are idiots, but not smart enough to work around them or find a new job, how smart are you?
  • You might be confusing idiocy with disagreement. It’s possible the idiots see you as an idiot too (judgement reciprocity). We’re wired to divide the world into us vs. them distinctions, which often blinds us to the nuances we need to see to begin to understand a different point of view. To say They Don’t Get It might reflect as much about your own limitations as theirs. How do they see the world? How do they see their role or their contributions? Maybe they’re just as frustrated as you are, and recognizing you share this perspective might lead to other kinds of progress.
  • Cumulative Advantage. Any initial advantage, from luck, skill or inheritance, can tilt future odds of getting ahead into a person’s favor. Many people who don’t seem, in the present, to deserve the status they have, may be benefiting from past earned, or unearned, advantage.
  • People rise to their level of incompetence (The Peter Principle). The reasons people are promoted often have more to do with the work they’ve done than their ability to play the role they’re promoted into. An exceptional soldier might be a terrible manager or leader of other soldiers. It’s a common trap in organizations that the only way to earn more money is to take on a management role. This motivates people who have no real interest in leadership or management to take those positions. Once there, their mediocrity prevents them from further promotion, but their pride prevents them from seeking “demotion” to a role they are better suited for.

Also see:


My Eight Favorite Podcasts

I am a heavy podcast listener. It’s a primary source of news, entertainment and education for me. Between daily workouts at the gym and frequent bus rides, I go through 10 to 20 hours of podcasts every week. I love audio only media as it frees me to listen while I’m cooking, running or doing other activities that don’t require my full concentration. I’ve tried out dozens of different ones, and over time I’ve arrived at a solid lineup. I know all too well how subjective “best of” lists are, but without writing a list for you personally, here are the ones I listen to and recommend most often.

My Eight Favorite Podcasts

  • BackStory – three American historians pick an important topic for each episode and go back through U.S. history with the goal of extracting lessons and comparisons with the present. They often pick timely subjects like: domestic terrorismelections, satire in America, or popular court trials (e.g. Serial/Making of A Murderer). I used to be surprised how each episode made me rethink my opinions, but now its an expectation they’re earned (a rare accomplishment). It’s a fantastic show that challenges your assumptions, and doesn’t bore you by taking itself too seriously.
  • Think – A straightforward interview program. It’s a simple show where authors talk about their new books and ideas. Host Krys Boyd consistently asks good, albeit often safe, questions, has good guests (some I’ve heard of before but many not) and outputs several episodes a week. I find many new books to read from her show. Try Rebuilding Our Roads or The 50th Percentile.
  • This American Life – The wonderful progenitor of so much modern storytelling (and podcast styles). Depending on the topic for each episode I might skip past, but they’re often so brave in the kinds of stories they’re willing to tell and so exceptional in how they tell them, that I’m a dedicated subscriber anyway. Try The SuperThe Giant Pool of Money, or Retraction (on the Mike Daisy truth/storytelling scandal).
  • Here’s the Thing – I was surprised by how good an interviewer host Alec Baldwin is.  Given his fame he gets exception guests and gets them to answer questions, and respond authentically, in ways you’d never hear in a standard interview. Try this excellent episode where he interviews Dustin Hoffman and Edie Falco.
  • In Our Time – A BBC Radio show exploring classical literature, history, philosophy, or science. Host Melvyn Bragg joins with two or three top class academic experts on the week’s subject, and leads them in a discussion about it. It’s an intensely intellectual show – they don’t play down very much to the audience (Bragg does a solid job of reframing and clarifying on behalf of the audience when needed, but sometimes it’s over my head). Start with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Salem Witch Trials, or Marie Curie.
  • The Gist – This news show centers on the talents of Mike Pesca. I love his blend of playful sarcasm with serious questions and commentary about what’s going on in the world. Currently one of my favorite shows. I don’t like all his jokes, but there is a cleverness running through everything on the show that pays off far more often than it doesn’t and I appreciate the effort even when it doesn’t work. Try He Watched Every Superbowl or Exercise Fad B.S. He often closes the show with exceptional insights like this one.
  • The Weeds – A political policy show by The podcast’s name refers to their goal of staying out of the weeds of sensationalized, shallow, political reporting. Instead they focus on policy, and the history of policy creation. I don’t remember how I found it, but I’ve been really happy with the depth of show, and how good a job they do making the creation of public policy interesting. Try Will Taxing The Rich Hurt Growth?, Immigration and the Minimum Wage and How Politics Is Making Us Stupid.
  • The Moth – this podcast is based on the live show of true stories told live, without notes. The podcast takes some of the best stories and compiles them in each episode. It’s wonderfully simple, diverse and provocative. Highly recommended, especially if you have an interest in storytelling of any kind. Try this exceptional story by Colin Quinn, about Robert DeNero’s birthday party.

Notable Podcasts

I don’t listen to these as regularly, but when I see a topic I’m interested in, or run out of other podcasts, I jump into these.

  • WTF – Comedian Marc Maron’s long running show is centered on him interviewing  one or two guests per episode. He is a often a good interviewer, but I find the pleasure I derive from him and the show inconsistent. I’ll listen if I know of the guest or their work. He often has an opening monologue, which some people love, but I nearly always skip (in part because it ends with his sponsor advertisements). Try this episode where he interviews NPR’s Terry Gross or Obama.
  • Radiolab – a brilliant re-interpretation of This American Life, and a leader of the second wave of more inventive kinds of storytelling. The show centers on the conversations between its two hosts (but spirals outwards for much of the show), and has a style that is more energetic and unpredictable than most shows of its kind.
  • Song Exploder – They interview a musician about how a song was written, and then play the song. It’s simple and fantastic. I listen to all their episodes where I know the artist or the song. Try this episode with Bjork (she is wonderfully eloquent here and I recommend it whether you like her music or not).
  • 99%  invisible – This is the show I recommend most to engineers, designers and people interested in how the world is made. But for reasons I don’t fully understand, I don’t listen to the show (part of it is I find Roman Mars’ voice distracting – sorry Roman!).

Based on my list, is there a podcast you think I should try? Leave a comment.

8 Reasons To Take My Public Speaking Workshop (April in Seattle)

I recently announced a new workshop on public speaking, taught here in Seattle. Here’s why you should sign up:

  1. You will have fun. Yes, it’s true. Public Speaking can be fun. The exercises and games we play are designed to make you feel safe, comfortable and have fun while you learn.
  2. Leave with confidence. Since you’ll spend much of the day speaking, or critiquing other speakers, when it’s over you’ll be a much better speaker than ever before. You will learn techniques to manage your fears, and how to prepare to give any presentation with confidence.
  3. It has amazing reviews. Here are results from the last offering: workshop rating 4
  4. You will become a better storyteller. You’ll understand the common mistakes speakers make, how to avoid them, and how to use these skills to help you in your career.
  5. The day is centered on YOU. This is a WORKshop. You will spend as much time as logistically possible practicing and getting constructive critique (there are other students of course, but you’ll be working at times in small groups, practicing and getting feedback).
  6. Leave with helpful resources. You’ll get a signed copy of the bestseller, Confessions of A Public Speaker, the book that’s helped thousands of people become better speakers. Plus you’ll get a feedback and critique guide, useful for practice on your own.
  7. Learn from true expertise. I make much of my living as a professional speaker, and have given hundreds of lectures around the world. I’ve appeared on NPR, CNN, MSNBC and CNBC as an expert on various subjects, including public speaking. Over the last 20 years I’ve made every mistake imaginable, and teach from a place of invitation: I want you to improve and learn from my mistakes.
  8. It’s Inexpensive. This is the final discount/beta offering of the course, at a very thrifty $350 (Early Bird) for a full day of first rate training.

Note: this is an intro to intermediate level workshop.

Next offering: In Seattle – Friday April 22nd, 9am – REGISTER HERE.


iPhone vs. Light Switch: which invention is more impressive?

If you could only pick one, would you rather have power in your home or a working iPhone?

We tend to believe that the latest inventions are the most significant, but often the opposite is true. Running water, electricity, shelter, heat, safe sources of food, and good medical care are far more important for quality of life than nearly anything else. And as far as convenience, a reliable power source in our homes that we can activate with the flick of a switch (something 25% of the planet’s population still does not have) is more impressive than an invention than merely uses that power.

I admit comparing technologies across time is unfair in some ways, as domestic electricity was invented first. But in terms of how much we depend on particular inventions to live, comparisons are useful. The exercise exposes how much we take for granted. Or perhaps more importantly, improves our aim for new inventions that do more than attempt to add convenience, but that truly improve our lives.

I recently conducted a simple poll on twitter asking the question: poll

Of 508 votes, 73% voted for electricity, and 27% for the cellphone (The poll didn’t let me explain, but my intention was the the cellphone could have unlimited power of its own and the internet worked fine on it. But if you chose electricity, you could not have a cellphone). Of course twitter polls have high bias (who are my followers? how do twitter audiences differ from the rest of the population) but it’s interesting nonetheless.

My belief is that for many among the 27%, if they actually experienced this choice for more than 24 hours, their answer would change. They  underestimate how much they depend on electricity to do for them, from keeping their food cold, to heating their apartment, to washing their clothes and keeping the lights on (better go buy some Apple candles).

In a recent post comparing Tesla to Steve Jobs, writer Rajan suggests the light switch is at least as impressive an invention as the iPhone. And I agree. If for no other reason, the invention of domestic electricity had to be done without the benefit of electricity itself. In the 1880s, in the age of horse drawn buggies and hand (or steam) powered tools, they had to not only invent electric power generators, and neighborhood transformers, but also provide the installation of physical power lines across cities, streets and sidewalks. To upgrade a phone is easy, but how would you upgrade the entire power grid of a city? Far more challenging. The rate of technology change is faster today, but mostly with technologies that are far easier to upgrade.

The iPhone and the light switch are both tips of the innovation iceberg. They depend on a massive network of other technologies and inventions to function. With no internet or cell service, a cellphone has limited use, just as a light switch in a house that hasn’t paid its power bills, doesn’t do much at all. As consumers we only see the final interface, the last layer, but what makes an invention impressive or not might be best understood by studying the amazing things required to make that interface work, that in daily use we’d never even notice.

Electricity demanded the introduction of entirely new concepts to ordinary citizens. A transformation the iPhone did not have to force, as its very name reuses concepts well known by the average citizen when it was released in 2007 (its arguably an amazingly powerful wireless telephone). The technological and conceptual leap of in home electricity likely surpasses, in impact on daily (and night) life anything we’ve invented in the last two decades (facts supported by the excellent book, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World).

If you disagree, do this simple exercise: go for 48 hours without using electricity in your home (except the power required for your cellphone and internet access). Then report back and leave a comment.



Creativity Is Not An Accident

[This is an excerpt from The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity]

Many of our popular stories of discovery are portrayed as accidents or matters of luck. We love these stories as they make creativity seem easy and fun, regardless of how misleading they are.

A recent NYTimes opinion titled Cultivating The Art of Serendipity, by Pagan Kennedy, offered:

“A surprising number of the conveniences of modern life were invented when someone stumbled upon a discovery or capitalized on an accident: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging. “

What’s overlooked is that these accidents were earned. Each of these professionals committed themselves to years of work chasing hard problems, and then, when an accident happened, they chose not to ignore it, as most of us would. They chose to study the accident. Who among us studies our accidents? We mostly run and hide from them. Being curious about our own mistakes is a far more interesting attitude for life than someone who merely chases serendipity. Capitalizing on ‘accidents’ is an excellent notion that Kennedy mentions, however briefly, and I wish it were the focus of the article.

A common pattern of the Myth of Epiphany is creativity by accident. The very idea of the Muse, forces that choose to grant ideas to us from above, externalizes creativity, and accidents have similar appeal. Since we’re all often victims of accidents, we’re compelled by stories that redeem accidents into breakthroughs. Newton watching an apple fall, an ordinary event anyone could observe, is perhaps the greatest example of this kind of misleading storytelling (it took him years of work to describe the mathematics of gravity regardless of the apple’s disputed epiphanistic potency).

Kennedy’s opening example continues the myth’s stereotype:

In 2008, an inventor named Steve Hollinger lobbed a digital camera across his studio toward a pile of pillows. “I wasn’t trying to make an invention,” he said. “I was just playing.” As his camera flew, it recorded what most of us would call a bad photo. But when Mr. Hollinger peered at that blurry image, he saw new possibilities. Soon, he was building a throwable videocamera in the shape of a baseball, equipped with gyroscopes and sensors.”

A quick read of Hollinger’s own page about the invention (called a Serveball) reveals important facts that distinguish him from most of us readers. The list includes:

  • He was a professional inventor and artist (successful enough to be profiled by Susan Orlean in The New Yorker in 2008)
  • He had a workshop for inventing things
  • He worked over the course of a year on this project (which Kennedy refers to as ‘soon’)
  • He built elaborate rigs capable of hosting multiple cameras

Hollinger stated “I was just playing” and I agree that play is a fantastic use of time and helpful towards developing skills for invention and creation for everyone. But it’s important to note that Hollinger’s idea of play is likely different from ours. It’s serious play. As the New Yorker described in 2008, this is no ordinary person:

He had spent the previous month mostly locked in his apartment, furiously teaching himself the principles of aerodynamics, the physics of hydrology, and the basics of how to operate a Singer sewing machine, and he was at last testing what he had been working on—a reimagined, reinvented umbrella, with gutters and airfoils and the elegant drift of a bird’s wing.

But Kennedy continues to emphasize accidents and randomness:

A surprising number of the conveniences of modern life were invented when someone stumbled upon a discovery or capitalized on an accident: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging. Many blockbuster drugs of the 20th century emerged because a lab worker picked up on the “wrong” information.

Care to guess about the context these stumbles and accidents arrived in?

  • Microwave oven: In 1945 Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, discovered a candy bar that melted in his pocket near radar equipment. He chose to do a series of experiments to isolate why this happened and discovered microwaves. It would take ~20 years before the technology developed sufficiently to reach consumers.
  • Safety Glass: In 1903 scientist Edouard Benedictus, while in his lab, did drop a flask by accident, and to his surprise it did not break. He discovered the flask held residual cellulose nitrate, creating a protective coating. It would be more than a decade before it was used commercially in gas masks.
  • Artificial Sweeteners: Constantine Fahlberg, a German scientist, discovered Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, in 1879. After working in his lab he didn’t wash his hands, and at dinner discovered an exceptionally sweet taste. He returned to his lab, tasting his various experiments, until rediscovering the right one (literally risking his life in an attempt to understand his accident).
  • Smoke Detector: Walter Jaeger was trying to build a sensor to detect poison gas. It didn’t work, and as the story goes, he lit a cigarette and the sensor went off. It could detect smoke particles, but not gas. It took the work of other inventors to build on his discovery to make commercial smoke detectors.
  • X-Rays: Wilhelm Roentgen was already working on the effects of cathode rays during 1895, before he actually discovered X-rays. was a scientist working on cathode rays. On November 8, 1895, during an experiment, he noticed crystals glowing unexpectedly. On  investigation he isolated a new type of light ray.

And how many accidents among similarly talented and motivated people were dead ends? We are victims of survivorship bias in our popularizing of breakthrough stories, giving attention only to successful outcomes from accidents, while ignoring the vast majority of accidents and mistakes that led absolutely nowhere.

To be more helpful, work is the essential element in all finished creative projects and inventions. No matter how brilliant the idea, or miraculous its discovery, work will be required to develop it to the point of consumption by the rest of the world. And it’s effort, even if in pursuit of pleasure, that  provides the opportunity for serendipity to happen. Every writer, artist and inventor is chasing something, even if it turns out to be the wrong thing, on their way to their moments of insight. There is no way to pursue only the insights themselves, anymore than you could harvest a garden without planting seeds. The unknown can not be predictable, and if creativity is an act of discovery then uncertainty must come with the territory.

Curiosity is a far simpler concept than serendipity and far more useful. People who are curious are more likely to expend effort to answer a question on their mind. To be successful in creative pursuits requires an active curiosity and a desire to do experiments and make mistakes, having the sensibility that a mistake is a kind of insight, however small, waiting to be revealed.

The Myths of Innovation (the actual myths) will always be popular, which means for any inspiring story of a breakthrough, we must ask:

  1. How much work did the creator do before the accident/breakthrough happened?
  2. How much work did they do after the accident/breakthrough to understand it?
  3. What did they sacrifice (time/money/reputation) to convince others of the value of the discovery?

It’s answering these 3 questions about any creativity story in the news, however accidental or deliberate, that reveals habits to emulate if we want to follow in their footsteps.

My Best Posts of 2015

Best of lists are fascinating things. They have their problems, but they’re a fun way to summarize, review and organize simultaneously. My method was simple: I reviewed all of my posts of 2015, sorted them by popularity and comments (I read every one and reply to most), and then edited based on my own subjective sense of which ones will best stand the test of time.

Note: this was a very strange year for me professionally, the least productive I’ve had (See My Creative Burnout). I published far less (42 posts, well below my 120+ average) than any year since this blog began in 2003. I was still pleased to find some good works I put out into the world this year.

If you’ve been reading my work for awhile thanks for sticking around, and if you’re not already on it, join my mailing list – I think of you often and want to reward your loyalty, and that’s the first place I hope to do it in 2016. And if you’ve never heard of me before arriving at this post, I hope these missives below are worthy of you coming back.

Happy new year to you and I wish you the best on making it a great one.

Also see: My best posts of all time (2003 – 2013)

The Problems with ‘Best Of’ Lists

I like “best of lists” as they are fun, convenient and easy to argue about with friends, but beneath their luster lurks notable problems if you seek great works. It’s far too easy to forget the label “best” is an invention granted by the list maker, whose tastes and opinions of quality might not align with yours. Keep this list below in mind whenever you read a top list of anything:

  • Popular is not necessarily good. For a work to make a best of list it has to be popular enough for the listmakers to have discovered it. This means there is a bias towards popular works, which might not necessarily be the best, or even good (What else did the list maker read or see this year that did not make the list? We are rarely told). For example, the  most popular hamburger in America is (probably) made by McDonald’s, and some of the most popular music is made by Justin Bieber. (See Being Popular vs. Being Good). It’s possible for a work to be both popular and great, but it’s not guaranteed.
  • It can take years for works to earn the respect they deserve. Many great works were not popular or respected in the year they were first released. Moby Dick, The Empire Strikes Back (received mixed reviews on release), It’s A Wonderful Life (mixed reviews), The Shining (earned a nomination for Worst Director for Stanley Kubrik), Fight Club, and many more. And of course many amazing works never get the acclaim they deserve.
  • Works benefit from cumulative advantage. Once a work gets a high profile review, it’s more likely to get other ones. This benefit, called cumulative advantage, means that the most well known movies or books aren’t necessarily the best, but they’re the most well known for being the best. Consider this: have you ever been very disappointed by a movie that all the critics loved? Or found a random unheard-of movie and loved it? Cumulative (dis)advantage may be part of the reason for both experiences. And don’t forget, many best of lists can be cheated by people with enough money or influence (raising how grey the line between ethical and unethical marketing can be).
  • Best for whom? Your personal favorites might not be the works you think are actually the best. We all have different preferences for the kind of art we like. A best of list presumes we all share common sensibilities, which may or may not be true for you. It can be far better to get recommendations from people who know what you like, or who you follow specifically because of their sensibilities and preferences. 
  • The most popular can be the least interesting. A book with a 4 star average might be far less interesting to read than a book with a 3 star average. Averages hide the variance of opinions. For example a 3 star average could mean half the readers gave it 5 stars and half gave it 1 star, which would mean the work was highly polarizing (and possibly very interesting for that reason). A book that exclusively earned 4 stars, with little variance, could be a simpler kind of story that was satisfying but far less challenging or memorable.

I do hope you enjoy this year’s round of best of lists. And I hope my own list above you use them more thoughtfully.

Holiday Music That Won’t Kill You: A List

One consistent annoyance of the holiday season is the terrible music that comes along with it. It seems stores and coffee shops resort to the blandest, most cloying choices in some desperate effort to make sure we are 100% certain what time of year it is. Even the good versions of excellent songs have been pummeled into our ears so persistently that they are rendered unlistenable.

Years ago I asked for suggestions for good music with a connection, even if thin, to the winter season. Below is that list with some new additions, and there are even more in the comments.

Disclaimer: what makes for good music is supremely subjective. I can’t promise you’ll like these. But I can say they passed the test for me of being preferable to the overplayed, the junk and the saccharine tunes you often hear this time of the year.

  • The Kinks, Father Christmas – I love the subversive sentiment and straightforward rock energy that’s so rarely a part of holiday music.
  • John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things – Jazz isn’t for everyone, but Coltrane is in great lyrical form here, and it’s easy listening in the best sense of the phrase. The song is the star of the album, but the rest of it is solid (even if not on theme, as there is a song called Summertime).
  • Christmas Around The World, Various – This Putumayo collection is hit and miss, but the winners are gems. The Zydeco version of St. Nicholas, the Cuban brass version of Deck The Halls, and the Latin Paz en la Tierra (Peace on Earth) are the kind of lively antidotes retail stores need to discover (It’s more Western hemisphere than “world”, but I’m not picky).
  • Sufjan Stevens, Christmas boxed set – I’m a Sufjan fan, but I confess I own but haven’t listened to much of this. Most of his albums make for good listening year round, and the soft, spiritual themes in his music definitely resonate come holiday time.
  • Jimmy Smith, Christmas Cookin’ – this is the only soul/Christmas music I’ve heard that I didn’t mind. Mostly classics reinterpreted in modern, soul/R&B arrangements.
  • Bruce Springsteen, Santa Claus is Coming to Down. (bias alert: I’m a Springsteeen fan). There’s something genuine in the loving humor offered in his voice, rising over a live big band sound.
  • Mashup DJ BC’s Santastic (high energy) – this will test your attention deficit disorder tendencies. Either you’ll love it or hate it.
  • Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – Classical music seems an obvious solid choice for alternative holiday music
  • The New Possibility, John Fahey (guitar instrumental)
  • Soma.Fm – Christmas lounge music

I do love classics, but wish I knew a wider range of them for holiday music. If you know of collections of standards done with interesting spins, unusual arrangements, or exceptional performances that should be in the standard canon but currently isn’t, let me know.

If you have recommendations of any kind please do leave a comment. What else should I try?

Thanks to Tiff, John, marrije, and Bryan Zug for their suggestions from the original post.

5 Things I Learned From My Amtrak Writer’s Residency

Last month I took a long train ride from Atlanta to Seattle over six days for my Amtrak Writer’s Residency. Each of the 24 writers chosen in 2014 from nearly 16,000 applicants, took solo trips of their choosing across the USA. We were granted a private sleeper car and free room and board. I was one of the last to take their trip and it was an honor and a great experience in every way. I wasn’t required to write anything, but based on your votes I chose to work mostly on documenting the trip itself and I hope to publish a short book or long essay about it next year.

Here are some highlights from the experience.

  1. Slow is good for the mind. Traveling by train is surprisingly more civilized than traveling by car or airplane. There’s more room, there’s less security theater and the pace on the rails is more human (I didn’t see anyone suffering from the Cult of Busy). The landscape goes by at a pace that makes sense, not too fast but not too slow. You can bring your own food and alcohol (and people often share in the observation car). And the folks who choose long train rides aren’t in a rush in the way other travelers are, they’re friendlier and more relaxed. I found it easy to get comfortable no matter where I was on the train, and I spent most waking hours in the observation car, watching, thinking, talking and writing. It felt almost like being at a nice public lounge, on wheels, floating through one beautiful landscape after another.
  2. Progress often comes with regress.  We believe every new technology improves on the old in every way, but that’s not true. There are often good things we leave behind when we upgrade (e.g. you can’t slam a cell phone to hang it up). My long train ride was a reminder of what we’ve lost as travelers. The existence of a dining car and observation car, where I as a passenger could look out of floor to ceiling windows and enjoy an actual cooked to order meal was a pleasure – one that’s impossible to experience when in cars or airplanes. Trains have a charm few American’s experience unless they travel abroad to places where in the 1950s complete faith wasn’t placed in the belief that gasoline powered cars for every single person was the answer for everything.
  3. America is beautiful to see. With huge windows in every car, I felt drawn in (or more precisely, drawn out) to the landscape. The train routes follow the hills and waterways, curving in and out as the landscape demands. I had countless moments where I lost myself in thought as my eyes took in the beautiful countryside. I saw long rolling hills, high mountains, endless forests and powerful rivers. At times I forgot where I was and when I came back to my senses I’d wonder what (physical) state I was in, and what town I was passing by. Children in small towns often come to the station just to wave as the train comes in and heads out. Even in cities where train lines run through the rough backside of graffiti laden urban infrastructure, it gave me a better sense of how cities actually work. The USA is a wonderfully diverse and beautiful landscape, perhaps best seen as far away from our highways as possible.
  4. Constraints drive creativity. The small sleeper room I had contained many clever design choices to make good use of such a small space. It felt like being in a space ship or on a small boat, with little compartments and clever thinking at every turn. On one train my little sleeper had its own sink and bathroom (which stunned me as I only discovered this when asking the porter where the bathroom was on the train, and he pointed just to the right of where I was sitting in my sleeper room). The bunkbed where I slept from Atlanta to D.C. even had it’s own full width window, allowing me to watch my country speed past as the train gently rocked me to sleep.
  5. Art is Magical.  Even when I’m not writing for anyone else there’s something pleasing to my own mind to see thoughts that were once just in my head transformed into the permanence of written language. I haven’t published much this year, but the residency was a chance to work at my own pace, or not work at all, and I found it pleasurable in every way. If there’s hope for a better future for all of us it will come from the arts at least as much as it comes from our sciences. It’s our emotions that drive much of our best and worst qualities and only art gives us new ways to discover who we really are and who we most want to become.

I’m proud that Amtrak has invested in supporting writers and creators and I’m grateful to have been a part of it – I hope they do it again next year (which has already been announced and you can apply here).

Thanks to Julia Quinn at Amtrak for making my trip possible, all of you fans for cheering me on, and the generous folks in the Amtrak Facebook group who gave me countless tips for long haul train travel. You can read more about other residents experiences on twitter or at the Amtrak Blog (many bios have links).

[This essay was reposted on Amtrak’s Blog]

Help me plan my Amtrak Writers Residency

I’m honored to be one of the winners of the Amtrak Writer’s Residency. All 24 winners were announced last year, but I finally managed to work it into my schedule this fall. Here’s the route I’ll be taking over 6 days, later this month:


  • Day 0: Flight to Atlanta (not on a train, but I’m counting this as the start of my residency)
  • Day 1: Atlanta to Washington DC
  • Day 2: DC to Chicago
  • Day 3-5: Chicago to Seattle

Decisions I have to make (input welcome – leave a comment):

  • What do I work on (vote below)? I can work on anything I like, and if you’re been following me for years you may know I have three unfinished book projects: A) Finish the philosophical techno thriller novel I’ve worked on (and off) for 20 years B) the book about the London Underground (untouched in years) C) Return to my book about religion (stalled in April 2015 due to burnout) D) Start something new E) Write about the residency trip itself.
  • What should I pack? I’ve never been in a sleeper car on a train before, or done a long haul train trip. I’m excellent at traveling light, but wonder if there’s anything special I should bring.
  • How do I get exercise? I’m a fitness junkie and I’m worried I’ll go insane stuck in a box for so many hours in a row (I imagine myself driving passengers crazy by running up and down the aisles all day). I’m even thinking of using the two layovers I have in DC (4 hours)  and Chicago (5 hours) to taxi to a gym, get a workout in, and then get back on the train.
  • Should I tweet and blog, or go dark? It can be annoying to follow someone on a trip like this as many people don’t want to hear micro updates. But the journey itself will be fun to document in real time and if I knew there was an audience for it I’d give it a try.
  • Dinner before I go? Anyone want to join me for a kickoff dinner in Atlanta on 10/23 or 10/24?

The Advice Paradox

“The ultimate question of any advice, rules, or traditions is, What do you ignore and why? No one can ever follow all the good advice they hear. This is the advice paradox: no matter how much advice you have, you must still decide intuitively what to use and what to avoid.”

From The Year Without Pants

Books and experts often promise step by step ways to achieve a goal. The goal might be weight loss, becoming wealthy or living a happier life. But a promise is one thing: achieving the result is another. Looking at how most people who read these books and don’t achieve the results they desire reveals a problem. We often have more faith in advice from strangers than we do in ourselves.

Advice that sells the best makes the grandest promises, even if they’re false. We know, rationally, that there aren’t just 7 steps to true success and that even if there were, it would take more than 21 Days to Master it. We know growing rich requires more than following 13 steps.

Book titles never say what would be more honest: “This might work for you sometimes”, “You’ll have to take some risks to even try to get what you want” or “You’ll get just a handful of useful tips even if you read the whole book.” Honesty like this doesn’t benefit whoever is giving the advice, so the most popular advice givers rarely say these things.

Even if they did, our brains love the fantasy that there’s just a few easy tricks to learn to solve our biggest problems. We love it so much that when advice we pay for fails to deliver the impossible, we blame the advice, not the fantasy that magical advice exists elsewhere. Soon we’re on the hunt again for killer secrets and magic recipes.

The lure of advice is it’s a narrative: it feels good while you get it. But once the advice is over we return to the uncertainty of our lives, which feels, by comparison, confusing and scary. Advice is knowledge that we choose to use, or not. No one can make that choice for us, and it’s this that creates the paradox.

  • Simple advice can be hard to follow.
  • We can’t follow all the good advice we get.
  • Advice that feels good to hear can be bad advice.
  • Advice that feels painful to hear can be good advice.
  • It’s possible to follow good advice diligently and still fail.
  • Giving and receiving advice is far easier than making real life choices.
  • You’re in the paradox now – even this post is a kind of advice.
  • What now? I can’t advise you. But I wish you well.

Questions For The Next Design Revolution

(I gave the opening comments at a keynote panel on The Next Industrial Design Revolution for IDSA’s Future of the Future event. Here’s an edited version of my brief talk).

The first industrial revolution may have been the most dramatic we will ever have. This is an unpopular notion as we suffer from what Tom Standage called chronocentrism – which is the belief that the present is the most amazing time ever in history and our inventions will transform the world like nothing before. I don’t believe that. I don’t think you will either if you thought about it for a minute.

Consider life 100 years ago, and the the shift from hauling water on your back, walking up from the river every morning to having indoor plumbing or “instant water” as a modern marketer might have called it. Or the shift from horse power to electricity, and lighting dozens of candles with your hands to indoor light at the push of a button. Electricity had far more profound impacts on society than many of our hyped inventions of today.

As a simple test: if you could only have one of A) your mobile phone with internet, or B) running water, electricity for your home and modern medicine, which would you choose? We’d all eventually choose B. We take for granted the most profound technological advancements central to our lives.

We also forget that the  first industrial revolution centered on steam power and the mass manufacturing of textiles, the central industry of the industrial revolution. It wasn’t consumer technology, it was factory machines. And it’s overlooked that this revolution was predicated on slavery. Central to the revolution was a cheap mass labor force. It created the economic advantages these new inventions accelerated. And the lesson for us today is that in every revolution, at least in every industrial revolution, ethics and morality of some kind are likely overlooked. Here are three questions to help us.

Question #1: How Is Your Work Moral For The Future?

If we believe that “design is an extension of our identity”, as the conference program defines it, how do we explain consumerism? How do we explain advertising? The enormous consumer debt in the U.S. is predicated on the desire to upgrade to the latest versions of products we make. We are paid to manipulate people into buying and upgrading. How then do we reconcile our salaries with the moral challenges of American capitalism? How do we explain the environmental crisis and it’s connection to product and technological manufacturing? To the invasion of privacy that many of the most popular technologies today inflict on their own customers? Just as slavery was the unspoken crime of the first industrial revolution, what is the silent immorality of the one we are in now?

The next generation is more aware of moral issues than perhaps any generation before. They were born into a world with major economic, environmental and social problems, a troubling legacy that we are leaving for them. Is what you are working on today  designed for 5 years? 10? 50? If not, you are designing more for our generation than the next. This is not generational design, so much as indulgent and selfish creation. Our chronocentricsm blinds us from what we claim design does: improve the world.

Question #2: Will you respect “unprofessional” creativity?

When a new technology lowers barriers to entry, progress and regress happen simultaneously. For example, HTML was a huge step backwards for design, in that it took away the layout and typography control the technology of print had developed for centuries. But it was a huge step forward in inviting an entire new generation of young people without preconceptions to create and publish.

This is a fine line we have to balance: we have to be capable of respecting creative but untrained outsiders, and finding constructive ways to engage and elevate what their work. Rather than taking the natural stance that “people without our background are not designers”, we should be generous and curious. If we want to influence the future we have to make our knowledge accessible to the next generation. If we don’t they will simply pass us by.  They are not waiting for a torch to be handed to them, as that’s a metaphor so old it  predates all of us in this room.

Question #3: Is the value of your expertise more than pretense?

We are here at a glamorous professional event that presumes design degrees and professional events are valuable. But we are biased: all the people who question the value of these things are not in the room to disagree.

We must admit that as tools continue to improve, and the affordability of creation increases (kickstarter, 3D printing, etc.), the assumption that our profession and our professional society is necessary will be continually challenged. Great designs are being made by people without our pedigree and we are likely to dismiss them for this reason alone, presuming we have the power to dismiss.

But generational change is unforgiving. They are not waiting for our approval. The tools this generation has allows them to go directly to making, and to finding an audience, and for many of us this is terrifying. We can assume they will fail, or find their way to the path we’ve been on, but the history of revolutions suggests otherwise. Only if we are lucky will we even be asked, by younger and faster creators, how our past experience is relevant. It’s up to us to reach out to them, with open minds, to apply our wisdom to their work on their terms, not ours. Our terms are dying while theirs are just being born.

The Mistakes Of Writing About Company Culture

Recently the New York Times published an article called Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace. It describes Amazon as a tough place to work. Many Amazon employees have rejected the article and written responses critiquing its claims (including an open letter by CEO Jeff Bezos).

Having never worked there I can’t comment on where the truth lies in this story (Amazon has a reputation in Seattle for being hard on employees, but many tech companies do). But as a writer of several books (See The Year Without Pants) and many essays about culture (See A Critique of Don’t Fuck Up The Culture), I’ve learned the common mistakes writers make when writing about culture and some are at work in the discussion the article generated.

  1. Culture is not uniform. There’s a cognitive bias we have of oversimplifying other groups of people. “Americans are X” or “People who work at Ford are Y”. Any large group of people will have sub-cultures, and they’ll often vary significantly. This is inconvenient when writing about a company, a city, or a nation. The same company can have a great division to work in and a horrible one (for example, the plight of Amazon’s low wage workers is likely more problematic than that of it’s white collar staff). It’s convenient for writers to work with the broadest of brushes which often leave wider, sloppier strokes than they realize. There is pressure from editors and readers to have a convenient and simplified singular story about what an entire culture of thousands of different people is like, as if it were possible at all.
  2. We confuse strong opinions with accurate facts. Oversimplifications are fun generate responses. They draw attention. People who hated working at Amazon can point to an article like this one say “See! I was right!” And they might have been, at least about their own experience. But what’s far harder to measure is how their individual experiences compared with everyone else’s experience. Those most interested in contributing to an article about a company, and possibly even to write the article itself, are people with strong opinions. The stories they tell will land harder than milder, and perhaps more accurate, reports. Corporations generally don’t want their unfiltered truths shared, as that’s why they pay their PR and marketing teams. Amazon has earned a reputation for being unfriendly to the media and I suspect that’s an influence on the NYTimes article. But relying solely on facts and studies is problematic too, as in their quest for clinical rigor and sample sizes writers miss the stories needed to explain a culture to outsiders.
  3. Culture is local to each boss. Every boss creates their own subculture. They have the power to ignore some rules and invent their own. Good bosses are defined in part by their ability to protect employees from roadblocks above and around them, creating a pocket of trust, healthy feedback and productive teamwork. This means it’s hard to capture a culture without studying two different teams in different parts of a company. By studying comparative culture it’s likely revealed that teams contradict each other in important values, but share others. It’s counterintuitive, but you make better sweeping observations as a writer by getting intimate with the small scale, at least for a time. It’s often impossible for journalists to do this (which was why I took three years to do participatory journalism, working at to write The Year Without Pants about the company culture).
  4. People have different cultural preferences. There is no perfect company to work for. Many 24 year old graduates of high powered competitive universities seek demanding workplaces. I did when I was that age. I did not want work/life balance. And I did not want to work with people who didn’t share my full commitment to trying to make great things. At the time I liked the fact that Microsoft had a reputation similar to Amazon’s (see this 1989 article about Microsoft titled “Velvet Sweatshop or High Tech Heaven“, which is entertaining in how little some things haven’t changed). This doesn’t justify cruel behavior or bad management (of which both Microsoft and Amazon have a history of). Nor am I trying to defend what I wanted from work then as being right for everyone. Instead my point is there are dozens of factors, from salary, to pride, to working hours, to commute time, to benefits, to quality coworkers, that make a workplace desirable or not and many are highly subjective. Some of the misery in the working world is caused by a mismatch of person and culture, or person and their boss, rather than a flaw in the company itself.