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.

Related:

(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.

Related:

[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.

eiffel-3

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. 

eiffel-1

eiffel-2

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.

Recommended:

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:

idiots

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 Alec Baldwin, the show’s host, 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 Vox.com. 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.

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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.

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Creativity Is Not An Accident

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:

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  • 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 WordPress.com 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.

References

amazon-value-feat

Designers, Morality and the AK-47

Recently Mike Monteiro wrote about whether the AK-47 is worthy of study for a design student. I agree and disagree with him at the same time, which led me to write this response. He wrote:

If a thing is designed to kill you, it is, by definition, bad design.

This sounds powerful but it makes little sense because it pretends design and ethics are the same and they’re not. I know he wants them to be the same (and in a way I wish they were too), but he’s mixing design, which is a practice, with ethics, which is a system of beliefs. They overlap but they are different lenses.

For example, a house cat’s front claws are wonderfully designed: sharp, compact, strong, lightweight and retractable. But by Monteiro’s definition if you’re a mouse or a bird, the claws are a bad design, since they are made to kill you. It might be unfortunate, or even evil (from the bird’s perspective), that such a design exists, but for the purpose it was designed for it’s an excellent design. If you’re a starving cat, those claws are designed well enough to save your life, even if through killing. (Also consider assisted suicide devices, things designed to kill you, but by your own hand. Is that bad design?).

This leads to the very idea of violence: when, if ever, is it ok to be violent and to kill a person? An animal? These are good ethical questions, but not design questions as you don’t need to question the ethics of a supermarket or a slaughterhouse to design one well (as defined by the client), even if you should (and I agree with Monteiro that you should). Most people most of the time don’t ask ethical questions about their daily work, or anything at all.

Regarding the AK-47, I don’t like guns. I don’t like most violence on TV or in movies. I wish the AK-47 did not need to exist, but I can’t deny the staggering amount of violence in human history. Much of that violence thousands of years ago was necessary to survive in Darwin’s world, but just 70 years ago the entire world was at war for a second time (because the first world war just wasn’t worldly enough). I hope we grow out of our violence but moral progress is far slower than technological progress.

We forget that civilization itself is an experiment (Freud thought it’s one that makes us crazy) and in a short time we’ve threatened to end our experiment ourselves. Studying something like an AK-47, and the history of conflicts that surround its use, explains a great deal about human nature, which I’d hope any designer would want to understand. It leads to asking about Einstein (a pacifist) and the atomic bomb, and dozens of more complex collisions of ethics, violence and technology.

Design is an ethical trade.

No it isn’t. I wish it were, but it’s not. Who designed all the junk in our landfills? Who designs pop-up ads? Who designed TMZ? Who designed our culture of conspicuous consumption and the advertising that promises salvation if we just buy one more thing (that we don’t need)? Who designed newspapers that lie to us? Government technology that spies on us? It’s designers. Designers were paid to do all of those things. Some designers are ethical, but some are not. Some designers refuse projects because of their ethics, some do not. But both design things and both are designers.

Modern design is dominated by consumerism and while consumerism has been great for the U.S. economy it has also been bad for the planet and for the human psyche.  If design were primarily a noble profession centered on the progress of humanity designers would worship Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller instead of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. But we don’t. Most design students today don’t know either of that first pair, which makes me very sad. Most designers today, especially in the tech world, aren’t making the world any better at all. They are paid very well to make shiny things that attempt to solve largely superficial first world problems of extreme convenience.

And to design is to take purpose into account — as my friend Jared Spool says: design is the rendering of intent. You can’t separate an object’s function from its intent.

I’m friends with Jared too, and Monteiro and I have hung out together with him, but I disagree with both of them. I can use a hammer to build a chair, or a torture device, or to knock you unconscious. What the designer intended is mostly irrelevant once it’s in my hands. And even if the designer showed up and chose to tell me “Hey! You’re not using my object with the designed intent!” I could bash her brains in too.

All tools can be weaponized or used for evil, even a spreadsheet (“track the monthly wilding budget”), even an email application (“fire the missiles now!”) , even a calendar (“reminder: blow up building today”). Of course most tools are not designed to be weapons, and some designs are clever in minimizing their uses for evil, but so what. User intent trumps designer intent (See MacGyver, and then imagine him not as a hero but as a terrorist). Designers are arrogant and often forget they have the most influence only over the most trivial of their user’s decisions.

Monteiro wrote: Your role as a designer is to leave the world in a better state than you found it. You have a responsibility to design work that helps move humanity forward and helps us, as a species, to not only enjoy our time on Earth, but to evolve.

I do love this idea. The problem is almost no one who hires a designer sees this as what they are paying for, and as a result, most designers don’t see it either. It’s likely this ambition requires designers to make sacrifices, to do pro-bono work or to start their own companies that uphold a higher moral standard than their past clients. They have to redesign design which is far scarier than simply designing more things consumer companies hire them to do. If anything studying an AK-47 and its impressive and horrible history connects young designers with a world far larger, bigger and more inspiring towards truly noble works than the latest gadgets can. For designers to change the world for the better they first need to understand how the world works at all.

Related:

Live Notes from World Domination Summit 2015

I spoke last year at The World Domination Summit about Saving Your Creative Soul, and had such an excellent time I decided to return. Like last year I’m posting live summaries of every talk (2014 talk summaries here).

What is WDS? The event was founded and led by legendary man of the world Chris Guillebeau and in his opening comments he explained the goal of the entire enterprise (which is now four years old) is to find answers to this question: How do we live a remarkable life in a conventional world? The event tries to answer the questions in different ways and through different activities, but all have three values in play.

  1. Community – connecting with interesting people
  2. Adventure – taking risks and doing new things
  3. Service – making the world a better place

Many of the 2500 attendees are solo entrepreneurs, small business owners, marketers and people with a passion for three goals above. Over 150 people work on putting the WDS event together. Most are volunteers including the core team. And it’s a non commercial gathering – there are no sponsors and nothing is sold other than ideas, and books from speakers.

1. Jon Acuff

He opened with a story about how children have a different perspective, one that can’t always been reconciled with ours. Children can’t understand what Blockbuster video even is. And children today can make mistakes without the world watching. He shaved lines in his eyebrow as a child to look like Vanilla Ice, but no one would remember that now unless he told them. But he remembers how in 3rd grade his teacher posted his poetry on the wall. and he realized for the first time he had a voice.

But he wondered if the the 3rd grade version of himself saw the 36th year old version, what would he ask: “did we become a poet?” And when the 36 year old version told him about what happened, the 3rd grade version would ask “Why did we trade our voice for money?” Which led him to a series of questions and observations:

  • Regret has a much longer shelf life than fear.
  • Will I face the fear of today or the regret of forever?
  • But actually being brave sucks. It feels like you’re going to throw up and you get no sleep.
  • Bravery is a choice, not a feeling. You’ll never feel brave enough to do the things you want to do.
  • “What’s your daydream?” “To be able to daydream again”
  • How do we misplace our voice? We’re too busy.
  • If you stay in motion you don’t have to face things that make you emotional.
  • Sometimes when you get enough money, you abandon your voice (e.g. bloggers chasing traffic)
  • “Can I pay you not to work on things you don’t care about” – yet many “successful” creators end up doing little of the work they set out to do when they started
  • Trying to make everyone like you is the quickest way to hate yourself

Often people fear not being liked and sacrifice their voice for popularity. Not being able to say no is often a sign you want to be liked too much. He said, “”If you tell someone no and they react in anger, they just confirmed you made the right decision”. We often surround ourselves with people who are good at saying no to us, or who poke at our ambitions, unintentionally, in negative ways. “Are you still trying to start a company / write a book  / live your dream?” The word still has surprising judgmental power.

To help him and his fans get back on track and help focus his energy he created dosummer2015 and wrote the book Do Over. Projects he thinks will help you find and develop your voice.

Jon Acuff / @jonacuff

2. Vani Hari (Foodbabe.com)

(Important: This was a difficult talk to watch because of how much she didn’t say about her reputation. Various scientists and medical experts have criticized her not for her health evangelism, but for her specific claims and advice. She made no mention of these experts who have criticized her works on (perhaps) valid grounds, which seemed unfair given her talk portrayed only the most hateful and uninformed kinds of criticism).

4 years ago she had a miserable cubicle job, and was wishing away her time, hoping for the weekend to start. She had no twitter or Facebook account. She was scared to have them or get fired for something she might post. And now there are millions of people on the internet who follow her, and was named one of the most influential people online. She couldn’t imagine then how much would change in just 4 years.

She took on a role as a food activist, having been raised on processed food but wanting to help people to find better ways to be healthy. The surprising popularity of her work surprised her as well as the negative attention she received. She showed a series of slides of hateful Facebook posts, twitter and other social media posts about her, much of it sexist in nature and doxxing. Which is horrible and unjustified for any reason.

The first name for her blog was Eat Healthy and Live Longer blog, which her husband rejected. He came up with foodbabe.com, which she thought was a good name but didn’t match how she felt about herself. She was scared to put her photo on the blog. But slowly she gained an audience. And had success influencing many companies, including Kraft and Subway, to change the ingredients in their products.

On 12/21/2012 at Machu Picchu, far away from her job and world, she got a phone call (or email) that her consulting contract had ended. And instead of being upset she decided to make foodbabe her full time career. Her husband told her “what have you been waiting for?” And that set her on the path to writing a popular book and a successful blog.

She believes that:

  • History will resolve itself (meaning, to me, worry about how future generations will judge you)
  • “If you don’t like me and still watch everything I do, bitch you are a fan” – Madonna
  • “It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it, it matters how many people do” – (which might be an unattributed Tim Ferris quote from an article on dealing with haters)

I was frustrated by this talk. The abuse women receive online is real and horrible. But a central part of her story is about dealing not with pure haters, but with professional expert peers who disagree with you professionally. I thought she dodged important things central to her story, including lessons she might have learned, and growth she might have experienced, from her tumultuous experience. Instead her message centered on persistence, but not introspection.

Vani Hari /  @thefoodbabe

3. Pamela Slim

She spoke at the first WDS and is the author of Escape From Cubicle Nation. She observed that it’s easy as an audience to be inspired, but also to feel jealous of all the success stories they hear. What she wanted to do was to provide tools to take action because “she loves us”. One idea she recommends is a native American tradition called the seven births (or breaths? I couldn’t find a reference to this online):

  1. The top of your head. The essence of your soul.
  2. Your breath. Your awareness in every moment of gratitude for life.
  3. Your language. What you speak and your unique voice.
  4. Your heart. The center of emotion and what pumps energy through your body.
  5. Your home. Your physical home and your creative home (or place).
  6. Your tail. When you sit down on the earth and plug in your tail, you can hear all the prayers of all the animals of the earth. (An idea that appears in the film Avatar).
  7. Your walk. Daily steps that allow you to leave a garden of flowers behind you.

For any idea, think about it the context of each birth. When you ask someone what they’re working or trying to do, touch on each of the seven from the list and how they relate to each other.

4. Kid President

Robby Novak and Brad Montague are the child / adult team that makes Kid President, a popular YouTube channel. Brad wanted to shape the way kids see the world, and the world sees kids. Brad  and his wife started a camp for kids and a non-profit, and the videos they made as a family connected with people who were not in their family. Brad explained “We make videos about things we think kids need to know and we have fun doing it.”

They offered many aphorisms based on their show:

  • It’s everybody’s duty to give everyone a reason to dance. (and they had the audience stand up and do “the whip”).
  • If you want to be awesome, the secret is to treat people awesome.
  • Be cute, be funny, be good. (Robby’s advice to Brad before he walked off stage)
  • Treat everybody like it’s their birthday.
  • There are many reasons to complain and many reasons to dance. Choose to dance.

Things we learned as kids that could help us be better grown ups:

  1. Be Nice
    • Treat everybody like it’s their birthday
    • This is a joyful rebellion. Most rebellions are angry, but not ours. We’re filled with a joyfull vision of how things could be.
    • Haters gonna hate, huggers gonna hug.
    • Nearly 3 billion people are under 30 today (we have a world of kids)
  2. You matter
    1. “You are being uniquely prepared for something magical”
  3. Sharing is good – not just content, but opportunities.
    • They’ve invited fans of their show to send in videos of them dancing, laughing and surprising friends with corn dogs (“Here! I am surprising you with a corn dog because you are my friend.”)
    • A fun way for everyone to help homeless people in October. http://soulpancake.com/socktober/
  4. Take a chance with what you have.
    • They made a video of Kid pretending to talk to Beyonce with chicken nuggets. They sent it to her through her website, asking to interview her. She said Yes. The United Nations asked them how they managed to get in touch with her, surprised that Robby and Brad didn’t use an inside connection,
    • Ordinary things can become extraordinary when they’re used with love.

When asked by the audience what he wanted to do when he was an adult, Robby answered “When I’m an adult, I want to be a kid. like Brad”.

Kid President / @iamkidpresident

 5. Lewis Howes

Lewis Howes hosts the School of Greatness podcast and is a former pro athlete. He grew up into a man thinking of himself as Captain America, a superhero. But years ago he got into a fight, and was surprised by a headbutt from his opponent. It stunned him, and in the emotional state he was in, something unexpected came out. He didn’t know how to take it in his heart, so he responded with strength, and something deep in him came out and beat the other man close to death. After the fight, he stared at himself in the mirror and asked the question: Who Are You? He was ashamed of himself for what he had done.

Universal Myths Men (and perhaps all people) learn:

  • You don’t get rewarded for being compassionated
  • You get rewarded for breaking your arm and playing anyway
  • You don’t get rewarded for saying nice things
  • Taking control, winning the game and doing whatever it takes
  • This is what most men (and sometimes women) where taught

When he was 8 years old his older brother, his hero, was sent to prison for selling drugs when he was 19. Growing up in middle class Ohio Lewis had never known anyone who went to jail. It was a challenge for him in many ways. He remembers visiting his brother in prison, someone who he had looked up to: it was hard for both of them. And he remembers the day when his brother was released and how the family celebrated. But in the photo of that day, he doesn’t look happy. There was a self image of portraying masculinity he felt he needed to project (Universal Myths).

That night he heard his brother crying. Like a wolf who had lost his pack. But it was really a cry of freedom, and he cried with his family too, sharing relief from the burden of him being away. But Lewis didn’t cry, feeling he had to be the man of the house. (They had an exchange student from Japan who, had only been with them for two weeks, who was baffled by what she observed).

Lewis wanted to go away to school, as his parents often fought. They sent him to boarding school, and soon after they got divorced. But their inability to be emotionally stable affected him.

Months after the fight he still wasn’t himself, and he took a workshop on expressing emotions. And there was an exercise when anyone could share something they’d never shared before. And to his own surprise he felt his heart racing. And he stood up and told a story of being raped by a male babysitter when he was 5. He’d never told anyone before and 25 years of emotion came out of him. But he was terrified of his image and how they would judge him. He remembers crying uncontrollably, feeling he’d ruined his life and would never be loved again. And to his surprise he was embraced by many friends who told him they loved him, and thanking him for sharing and for leading the way (1 in 6 men have been sexually abused, but few ever speak of it).

He asked his brother “Is there anything I could ever do that would make you not love me? “And he said “there’s nothing”. And he told him his story of being abused and his brother was incredibly supportive. And he went to each of his family members and had similar experiences. By not guarding himself, but opening up he created, to his surprise, more connection with people that he thought was possible. He kept sharing it to friends, aware that it was controlling him and owning him, rather than the other way around.

A year ago, after great fear about how it would damage his reputation, he told the story on his podcast. That night, after he hit publish, he went out his window and saw the supermoon, a memory he’ll never forget.

He asked the audience to think about what secret they’re afraid to tell others. What is holding you back? In your family? Your relationship? Yourself? We strive to be the King of Diamonds, but the most successful people become the King of Hearts.

  1. Will you take off the mask of masculinity?
  2. Are you ready to join me in becoming superhuman?

Lewis Howes / @lewishowes

5. Megan Divine

[This talk was done so well, so gently and yet so powerfully, it was easily my favorite, and hardest, talk of the day. And to anyone who came to my session on platitudes, I don’t think she used a single one]

Bazu is a child who was 5 years old, and had cancer for 3. The photo Megan showed of him was taken on a rare day when he was allowed outside (rare because his immune system was so weak). She’d known her mother Ellie, seen in the photo, but only online, and Megan had social anxiety about meeting her in person for the first time. She thought at first to just look for Bazu, but then she remembered that Bazu is dead. And had died 6 years ago. Many of the people she knows she only knows because someone has died.

Megan’s partner died a few years ago. She tells a story of her husband, Matt, stopping on a walk by the side of a river to notice whirlpools. They sat down to take a swim and threw the ball for the dog, who ran off, distracting Megan. And from behind her she heard Matt cough, but didn’t turn around. She didn’t turn until he called out her name, and then called out for help. The strong current had carried him out into the water. And he was taken away. She ran in after him, and the dog followed, thinking it was a game. Megan and her dog were carried two miles down the river before being put back to shore. It was 3 hours of rescue divers and search teams until they found Matt’s body a few feet away from where he’d disappeared.

What do you do with someone like me? She asked. Someone like Ellie? We’re all trained to look for happy endings. Our cultural stories are of redemotion and transformation. Things always work out. There is always a happy ending. So what do you do when the possibility for a happy ending explodes into a thousand bits? And pain that never goes away? She didn’t know how to do this. She went looking for stories of people living lost.

She explained that even medically, among doctors, we call grief a disorder. It wasn’t just books and experts that shared this view, but the wider community, and even the therapists. They needed her to be ok because pain like hers is hard to witness. We don’t have stories for how to bear witness. We’re overwhelmed by things that have no easy solution, or no solution at all.

We need new stories. To weave a culture strong enough to not fix was isn’t broken. When you hear the pain in the world it’s not a call to make it go away. It’s a call to love. A call to courage. Pain deserves acknowledgement not repair. The path of bearing witness is the true path of love.

There are things that can’t be fixed and that’s ok. We can love each other in the middle of deep adversity. It’s at the moment when you flinch that’s when you are most called to love. Witnessing is an act of bravery. It’s an act of risk. Hearing someone’s pain and letting them have it is an amazing gift.

Things you can do:

  • Notice the impulse to help.
  • Pause: what response is called for?
  • Don’t fix: Don’t fix anything. Not fixing pain is a radical act.
  • Bear witness. Stay present and make space for things to be as bad as they need to be.

It’s been 6 years since her husband died. She explained that we can’t fix her. And no message she can give us exists that would be fair trade for the loss of his life. The redemptive storyline does not apply to her. She offered that WDS asks how to live a remarkable life in a conventional world, and one way to do that is to practice love in a world where terrible things can happen, to love fiercely and intelligently in a world where children die and loved ones can be swept away. She believes we can.

Megan Divine / @refugeingrief

[I couldn’t stay for Day 2, so the above notes are from Day 1 only]

The many mothers of invention

[This is an excerpt from chapter 3 of the bestseller, The Myths of Innovation]

All the clichés about beginnings are true, at least in part. The history of innovation is large enough that all the sayings, from Plato’s famous “Necessity is the mother of invention” to Emerson’s “Build a better mouse- trap and the world will beat a path to your door” hold some truth. The trap, and the myth, is that evidence supporting one claim doesn’t mean there isn’t equally good evidence supporting another. Invention, and innovation, have many parents: the Taj Mahal was built out of sorrow, the Babylonian Gardens were designed out of love, the Empire State Building was constructed for ego, and the Brooklyn Bridge was motivated by pride. Name an emotion, motivation, or situation, and you’ll find an innovation somewhere that it seeded.

 taj-mahal

However, it’s simplifying and inspiring to categorize how things begin. In reading the stories behind hundreds of innovations, some patterns surface, and they’re captured here in six categories. I concede to the existence of reasonable arguments for seven or five, or different categorizations altogether. I offer this list to seed your thoughts on what paths to innovation are in front of you now.

1. Hard work in a specific direction

The majority of innovations come from dedicated people in a field working hard to solve a well-defined problem. It’s not sexy, and it won’t be in any major motion pictures anytime soon, but it’s the truth. Their starts are ordinary: in the cases of DNA (Watson and Crick), Google (Page and Brin), and the computer mouse (Englebart), the innovators spent time framing the problem, enumerating possible solutions, and then began experimenting. Similar tales can be found in the origins of the developments of television (Farnsworth) and cell phones (Cooper). Often, hard work extends for years. It took Carlson, the inventor of the photo- copier, decades of concentrated effort before Xerox released its first copying machine.

2. Hard work with direction change

Many innovations start in the same way as mentioned previously, but an unexpected opportunity emerges and is pursued midway through the work. In the classic tale of Post-it Notes, Art Fry at 3M unintentionally created weak glue, but he didn’t just throw it away. Instead, he wondered: what might this be good for? For years he kept that glue around, periodically asking friends and col- leagues whether it could be useful. Years later, he found a friend who desired sticky paper for his music notations, giving birth to Post-it Notes. Teflon (a mechanical lubricant), tea bags (first used as packaging for loose tea samples), and microwaves (unexpected discharge from a radar system) all have similar origination stories. What’s ignored is that the supposed “accident” was made possible by hard work and persistence, and it wouldn’t have otherwise happened by waiting around.

3. Curiosity

Many innovations begin with bright minds following their per- sonal interests. The ambition is to pass time, learn something new, or have fun. At some point, the idea of a practical purpose arises, commitments are made, and the rest is history. George de Mestral invented Velcro in response to the burrs he found on his clothes after a hike. He was curious about how the burrs stuck, put them under a microscope, and did some experiments. Like da Vinci, he found inspiration in the natural world, and he designed Velcro based on the interlocking hooks and loops of the burrs and his clothing. Linus Torvalds began Linux as a hobby: a way to learn about software and explore making some of his own.10 Much like the direction-change scenario, at some point, a possible use is found for the product of curiosity, and a choice is made to pursue it or follow curiosity elsewhere.

4. Wealth and money

Many innovations are driven by the quest for cash. Peter Drucker believed Thomas Edison’s primary ambition was to be a captain of industry, not an innovator: “His real ambition…was to be a business builder and to become a tycoon.” Drucker also explains that Edison was a disaster in business matters, but that his profile was so prominent that—despite his entrepreneurial failures—his management methods are emulated today, particularly in Silicon Valley and venture capital firms.

With half an innovation in hand, ideas but no product, it’s nat- ural to try to sell those ideas: let someone else take the risks of complete innovation. Instead of idealistic goals of revolution or changing the world, the focus is on reaping financial rewards without the uncertainties of bringing the ideas all the way to frui- tion. The Internet boom and bust of the 1990s was driven by start-up firms innovating, or pretending to innovate, just enough for established corporations to acquire them. In many cases, the start-ups imploded before acquisition or were acquired only for their ideas to be abandoned by the corporations’ larger and conservative business plans.

The founders of many great companies initially planned to sell their ideas to larger corporations but, unable to sell, reluctantly chose to go it alone. Google tried to sell to Yahoo! and AltaVista, Apple to HP and Atari, and Carlson (photocopier) to nearly every corporation he could find.

5. Necessity

Waves of innovation have come from individuals in need of some- thing they couldn’t find. Craig Newmark, founder of Craiglist.org, needed a way to keep in touch with friends about local events. The simple email list grew too popular to manage and evolved into the web site known today. Similarly, the founders of McDonald’s developed a system for fast food production to sim- plify the management of their local homespun hamburger stand (Ray Crok bought the company later and developed it into a multinational brand). Innovations that change the world often begin with humble aspirations.

6. Combination

Most innovations involve many factors, and it’s daft to isolate one above others. Imagine an innovation that starts with curiosity and leads to hard work, but then the innovator’s quest for wealth forces a direction change. Midway through, this direction change is interrupted by a stroke of good luck (say, winning the lottery), allowing the innovator to return to the initial direction with renewed perspective and motivation. The removal of any of those seeds from the story might end it—or might not. In many of the stories of innovation, we have to wonder: if the first “magical” event didn’t take place, might the innovator have found a dif- ferent seed instead? No matter what seeds are involved, all ideas overcome similar challenges, and studying them reveals as much or more than the beginnings of innovation.

The challenges of innovation

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and Pixar, was asked, “How do you systematize innovation?” (a common question among CEOs and the business community). His answer was, “You don’t.” This was not what readers of Business Week expected to hear, but foolish questions often receive disappointing answers. It’s as absurd a question as asking how to control weather or herd cats, because those approximate the lack of control and number of variables inherent in innovation. Jobs, or any CEO, might have a system for trying to manage innovation, or a strategy for managing the risks of new ideas, but that’s a far cry from systematizing something. I wouldn’t call anything with a 50% failure rate a system, would you? The Boeing 777 has jet engines engineered for guaranteed 99.99% reliability—now that’s a system and a methodology. It’s true that innovation is riskier than engineering, but that doesn’t mean we should use words like system, control, or process so casually.

To read more about the challenges of innovation, and how to overcome them, get a copy of The Myths Of Innovation.