Public Speaking Workshop: open to all this October

For years now I’ve been quietly teaching public speaking workshops in-house at corporations and organizations and doing private speaker coaching. Every year I offer this workshop to anyone who wants to take it and the next offering comes up next month. Here are all the details:

This one day experience will boost your confidence in speaking to groups of all sizes and in many different situations, from speaking at events. to work meetings to pitching ideas to coworkers and friends.

This full-day workshop is:

  • Fast-paced, fun and funny
  • Highly participatory and exercise-centric
  • Safe and supportive / Extremely practical
  • Inspired by the style and attitude of the bestselling book, Confessions Of A Public Speaker

The day consists of:

  • Expert critique from Berkun, with personalized advice for each student
  • Mini-lessons on managing fear, reading a room, storytelling, handling Q&A, preparing a presentation and more
  • A morning and afternoon performance of your talk to a live audience
  • Mid-day speed rounds of practice and feedback
  • Time for Q&A to get your biggest concerns and questions answered

Who should attend?

  • Beginner to intermediate speakers (all speakers can benefit from critique and are welcome at any level, but most attendees typically have low to medium speaking experience/confidence)
  • People who like small workshops (20-25 people)
  • Anyone who is a fan of Scott Berkun and his honest, direct and entertaining style

How do I sign up?

Please share and spread the word – if there’s demand I’ll offer this to the public more often.


UX Lisbon 2018 – Talk Notes

I speak later today at UX Lisbon 2018, Here are my notes from the sessions so far, will update after each talk so hit refresh to get the latest. If you find any typos, broken links or other mistakes leave a comment and I’ll fix. Thanks.

1. Confusion, stupidity and Shame, Richard Banfield

Part One: Fight Club

We think that failure is the end of the lesson, but kids just keep doing stuff. It’s how they learn how to walk and talk, mostly by doing terribly, but it’s never a reason for them to stop trying. He wanted to remind us that’s the best way to learn. Fall seven times, get up eight times (which would make a great tattoo). But as adults we forget to get up.

The first rule of failure is to talk about failure. – Perry Hewitt

Adults primarily are embarrassed by failure, so they prevent learning and encouragement from happening. (The Flight Club reference is about secrets and the danger of keeping your feelings about failure a secret).

Identity / Responsibility

Missing a quote on quote slide, slide right. Your identity is not the design you create. Other people will simply ask “so what is s/he going to do next?” – the dramatic stakes of the result of a project are in our own minds. By owning a failure and saying “I made a mistake” you claim ownership of it and allows you to move on.

Part Two Most of us think we are responsible for our success, Privilege, genetics, timing, parents, friends, education, luck.­ These factors are more likely to explain why we are here than hard work. Go to Bangladesh and watch people work manual labor jobs to see real hard work. Tatoo: you are not special, get back to work

“Failure is yours, and success is your team’s” – Tess Cooper

When looking at a portfolio, he often asks candidates “so how did your team contribute to this?” and they respond with surprise, as the premise is “this is my portfolio”.

Movie: The Bear – “Most people lost in the world, they die of shame” – Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins).

Book recommendation: Deep Survival

When you want to do something new and you talk about your idea, it polarizes people. Even if it’s a good idea. You should be prepared for résistance even if your idea is good. “A genius is a crazy person who turned out to be right” – Tim Minchin Designers have a personal investment in their ideas, they take negative feedback of an idea as personal. There are other models.

What problems:

  • Excite you
  • And are worth solving
  • Are u willing to sacrifice for?
  • And you will work on when it’s hard?
  • And when other people hate your ideas?

Book recommendation: The subtle art of not giving a f*ck


He told a story about having a grand new vision for his team, which he presented in a big presentation, but which didn’t go anywhere. “Hold a funeral for your best ideas. After you grieve, will you miss them?” – Paul Bellow His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and he immediately went into problem-solving mode, which is natural for designers. But in many situations problem solving is not the most useful place to start. Connecting with others and generating a context for help might be more important (which is hard for self-reliant people to prioritize first). Failure isn’t so bad when here’s someone there to catch you. (His wife is doing well now, as is his company).

2. Augmented Reality – Wait, What? (Or, Pokémon Gone),Boon Sheridan

In the time it takes to give this talk augmented reality has changed again. AR? VR? MR? Is similar to UX vs. UI. Endless debate because there are continuums that overlap. Pokemon Go. The old church he lives in was a Pokemon Go gym, which made for some interesting experiences and lots of media coverage. A wave of stories that explored augmented reality in ways it hadn’t been explored before. It was finally not just an academic tool, but a game ordinary people were actively using. 1983, Murder She Wrote (American TV show) had its star detective using a VR headset. The technology has gone through many hype cycles. Hardware has reached a point now that nearly everyone has a software and hardware to create and use AR experiences. It has finally been democratized. “Anything with a chip in it is ‘Smart'” – which lets us do some cool things, but also some silly things, like an app that encourages kids to brush their teeth (which involves the terrible idea of mounting your phone above your sink). Interesting concepts / prototypes:

  • Google maps AR overlay –  to help orientation (as most people wander in one direction until they see the dot move, and then they correct)
  • Airport security – how to figure out which line to get in
  • Lowe’s shopping – to help you find the right aisle for the thing you are looking for
  • Hyundai’s AR car owner’s manual – the experience of using a car manual (“find 14.6.2”) is a frustrating one, especailly for procedural tasks that are easy when someone shows you directly (which AR can simulate well).

How to get started with AR:

  • You don’t need AR Tools to prototype – draft ideas on paper and low fidelity digital.
  • Build for the already mobile friendly – early adopters and natural mobile device users are the easiest place to start
  • Consider how you will measure success
  • Narrow scenarios and embrace constraints – focus on smaller problems with clear wins – AR is an interface within an interface and if you don’t focus you’ll get overwhelmed as a designer (the amount of actual usable space to view the world is getting smaller and smaller)
  • Prepare for lots of post-build testing. “half the time to build it and half the time to test it” – usability studies move to the front of the process.
  • Consider the personal impact.  AR means you are collecting tons of personal data (GPS locations, photos, etc.). And once data is collected it’s very hard to get rid it of, or control how it’s used (unless you have clear and useful poliies in place). Sometimes you have the wrong data, and it will hurt people in ways you can’t imagine.

Original Reddit post with backstory

3. From UX Strategy to Digital Transformation, Jamie Levy

(I found this talk hard to follow so there are gaps in some places).

Her talk followed the story of how she came to write a book. In the 1990s she made software without all the processes and tools we use commonly today. By 2002 IA and interaction design developed methodologies that many design agencies followed, and she found herself with a job as a wireframe monkey.

This was eventually frustrating as she didn’t have much say in what the product would be. But then she worked on a discovery phase for the first time and she enjoyed working with stakeholders and customers directly. In 2010 she started an agency that only did discovery and strategy. She decided to write a book about strategy (which she admits was much harder and a longer process than she expected) and she studied many classic books on management and business strategy.

(She listed some definitions but went too fast to easily capture)

  • Value Innovation:
  • Validated user research: it’s not a product until you can both verify it’s utility and generate profit
  • Killer UX Design: making something that’s absolutely frictionless (e.g. Don’t Make Me Think)

She referenced five techniques:

(I missed the first two as I wasn’t quite sure that this was going to be a core list or that it would have 5 points):

  1. Customer discovery: find people with problems, ask them how much they’d pay for it, to drive definition of value and services.
  2. Creating Solution Prototypes for Experiments
  3. Conducting Guerrilla User Research

Central to some of these techniques, and her overall approach, are detailed spreadsheets, but not much detail about how they are made or how to make them was offered.

She had a client who asked her to do a digital transformation, but she didn’t know much about it so she read more books (this was her favorite of the bunch).

Case study: Netflix vs. Blockbuster

This is a canonical story of the advantages of digital centered businesses vs. non-digital.

Business model differentials Netflix had:

  1. No late fees
  2. Easier access
  3. Wider choices
  4. Recommendations

Other differentials:

  1. Subscription model
  2. e-commerce website
  3. data assets and recommendation engine
  4. Warehouse and mail
  5. no retail costs

Digital transformation needs to be from the top down.

4. Speaking CEO: Business Fluency For Designers, Jess McMullin

He has been in UX since the mid-1990s but these days he does more management consulting. While he was working at Intuit, long ago, he had a chat with the founders of the company. They asked Jess what website he liked best. He said Amazon, which they didn’t like. And Jess tried to explain in design terms why it was good, but he didn’t have the vocabulary and lenses that they would likely understand.

Business Fluency

It’s very different to travel somewhere if you speak the language. Your comfort level is very different.

The CEO Design crit: you bring your design to an executive and they say “I don’t like green”, which signifies they don’t get it. But if I say “they don’t get it” you give away all your potential to possibly solve the problem.

The Design 180: to pivot away from what we know to focus on understanding the business.

Pivot Skills: designers have the ability to look at the world through different lenses, and business fluency should be one of them.

Three tools: Grid, Pyramid and Funnel

The Grid – what keeps senior leaders up at night? (Big 6)

  • Money: how is it made and saved?
  • People: how to hire and retain?
  • Goals: what is our direction and how to track progress?
  • Value: what do we deliver to customers vs. shareholder (which should be a venn-diagram, not either/or)
  • Reputation: Protecting and building
  • Risk: Managing and pro

Money is like oxygen: you need it to survive but it’s not the purpose of your life.

The Pyramid 

The more you have to deal with, the more abstract the view you need to be able to have (from top of pyramid down: lead / manage / execute).

However: “the more important the decision, the less the person making it will know about it.” – Dave Gray

The insight is to talk to people at their level of abstraction, not your own.

  • Triangle: connect people issue to projects and money.
  • Slipstream: follow your idea behind larger but related projects
  • Tether strategy: connect something on the ground to something very abstract

Hypothesis Funnel

There are now many (business) canvas tools (and the funnel is similar).

Funnel structures the translation between business and design.

Opportunity loop:

  • What Customer behaviors are mentioned by the business?
  • What insights do designers have about those behaviors or related needs?
  • What is the desired business outcome and how can we measure?
  • Where is the opportunity and point of leverage?
  • (What are the sources of truth on the business or design side?)

What is our hypotheses for the customer experience?

  • For people in situation X…
  • We hypothesize that changing Y…
  • Will make Z difference in business…
  • Which can be measured or observed quant/qual Q

Advocacy, Inquiry, Empathy: we tend to spend 70% advocating, 20% inquiring and 10% empathizing with CEOs/stakeholders, but this should be inverted to be an effective advocate.

5. The Values are the Experience, Kim Goodwin

“How do I help my org value design more?”

This question is reasonable, but it might not be the right question. A better question is “How do I get my organization to value humans”. A small organization that values people can create great things, but a big team with many designers that don’t value people probably won’t.

Example: United airlines

They’ve been trying to revive their image for the last few years, but it hasn’t gone very well. Platitudes and ambitions are not enough when mistakes big and small are common.

They think “personalization” means changing the background, yet the site keeps pitching their credit card, even if you already have it.

User experience goes end to end. Choices engineers, customer support, baggage handlers, all contribute in their way to what the customer experiences, often in ways the design team can’t easily influence.

Even picking which metrics to use (Net Promoter Score) and how to apply them?

“When your values are clear, making decisions [on a team]become easier” – Roy Disney

When you work at Disney, you are trained to know that you are always on stage. You are part of the cast. It’s not a uniform, it’s a costume. All the employees know these values. And this extends across silos (she shared a story about how a bus driver at Disney heard a complaint about a room, asked what their room number was, and they called it in. Crossing silos in this way to help a customer is rare in most organizations).

Metrics-aware design is essential, but metric centric design is problematic. The disturbing stories about Facebook and Twitter recently reflect the dangers of allowing metrics to have too much power. If you’re human-centered, that means you focus on human needs (re. Maslow’s hierarchy).

No one intends to do harm (e.g. Facebook), but the true values of an organization are revealed in the underlying behavior that is common across an organization.

(She showed a series of examples of recent screenshots and anecdotes from Uber, Apple and Facebook, with commentary)

Kim currently works in the medical community and they have a more established ethical standard compared to the tech world. There are professional review boards whose job is to review behavior.

Nuremberg Code: ethical code for the medical community that are enforced to prevent abuse to people in the name of science.

Imagine if for products we had a code like:

  • Is it of benefit? To people? Or mostly to the organization?
  • Is it the only way?
  • Is the risk proportional?
  • What kinds of harm are possible?
  • How can we minimize harm?

So why don’t we ask these questions? It’s hard, but imagine the impact if we did.

5 things you can do

  1. Don’t just drive the bus – get out of your silo
  2. Leverage existing values – what values do stakeholders refer to most often? How can human-centered design fit into those values? (She shared a story about safety being a core value in an organization: safety -> ergonomics -> UX)
  3. Challenge assumptions and requirements
  4. Agree on (and measures) real values – Desing principles are values in disguise! – “Our value is to put patients first, so why are some of our products hard to use?” – they discovered there are hidden values that aren’t stated but define choices. (e.g. “I value exercise, I just don’t have time to do it” really means you value TV more than going to the gym).
  5.  Work to change values – this is hard and slow. Even with an executive mandate, it will take time (2-3 years). Requires commitment, but it is possible.

If you don’t honor a value when it’s hard, it’s not a value.

Design is the least important word in “human-centered design”.

6. Shaping Behavior, by Design, Chris Risdon

I had to miss this one.

7. UX in Service, Cyd Harrell

She is a UX practitioner because she wants to make things better for humans. Over her career she has moved increasingly towards working for and with government institutions including Code for America and 18F.

In 2011 she drove with her daughter through Golden Gate Park while the lawn sprinkers were on when they weren’t needed. Her daughter said we have to do something. Cyd said sometimes there are some problems you can’t fix, which her daughter rejected. So Cyd found out about how SF city government had a twitter account that allowed people to submit issues. So she did and she got a message back informing her that the message was received and here was her issue #. She’d return later and the sprinkers were off, which was a powerful (user) experience. But she hadn’t thought about government as part of the UX/Design sphere influence?

Earlier in 2009 Cyd worked for a consultancy about tbe H1N1 flu pandemic, and she thought about that experience differently after the sprinker epiphany.

When does the government assist people? How can we make the citizen experience better? What important services does government provide?

  • Public safety
  • Infrastructure
  •  Regulations REcord keeping
  • Dispute Resolution
  • Assistance

The strength of the institutions around you has profound effects on your quality of life.

When Cyd was 19 she needed a rare book and she happened to find it, after much looking, in a university library. She was the first person to check out the book in decades and it made her realize the power of institutions to think long term in ways no other kind of organization can.

American has 50 states, 3144 counties, 19,354 cities and towns, all with different layers of influence and power.

The 2000 election in the U.S. was decided by the (poor) design of a ballot, known as the butterfly ballot.

At a Code for America event, the founder (Jen Pulka) asked a designer why they decided to come. He said:

“I’m here because I believe government can be simple, beautiful and easy to use” – Scott Silverman 

Thanks to Dana Chisnell, Cyd helped work on Election Tools, free resources to help elections be run

Cyd thinks the best institutional design on the web is Gov.UK.

The U.S. has slowly made similar progress, one piece at a time. She showed the original mortgage disclosure form which contributed the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008, and the significantly improved redesign.

She joined Code for America in 2013 and worked on similar projects.

2014: disaster. The U.S. Government brought in USDS and 18F to help.

She expressed the complexity of working for institutions and that there can be overlapping contexts that define her service.

  • I worked for President Trump.
  • I worked in the Trump administration.
  • I worked for the federal government.
  • I worked for the American people.

Principles for civic design

  1. Respect for people’s time, dignity and abilities.
  2. Inviting, not just allowing, full participation.
  3. Government & citizens are on the same side and experience the same quality of ease of use.

Often the work is small and incrememanl, like improving forms ordinary citizens use (and providing the systems knowledge gained so it’s easier for other institutions to replicate this progress – she referenced the boston designer who did a massive project to improve their forms (reference needed))

Institutions need designers who:

  • Work in long timeframes
  • Follow principles over process
  • Open their practice
  • Make all the friends you can

How can you share  your practice with the institutions you care about?

How Creative Friction Can Help Your Team

Creative abrasion is Jerry Hirshberg’s term for the kinds of friction that helps develop better ideas. Hirshberg, a former design manager at Nissan, realized that some kinds of resistance are useful in the creative process and should be deliberately created by the leader of a team. This could be a timely critique, a barrage of difficult questions or even a temporary reworking of team processes and roles.

This works against the romantic fantasy many have for an ideal creative workplace. Somehow we all have a latent desire for a workplace free of annoying meetings and frustrating bureaucratic processes, where we could just show up at the office, pronounce our epiphany, and have the entire organization immediately swirl around us in support. But Hirshberg suggests good ideas, and good people, need to be challenged to develop and grow. A good idea can withstand critique and hold up, or improve in quality, when compared against other good ideas, while weaker ones will be revealed and fade away.

In his book, The Creative Priority, Hirshberg documents various kinds of abrasions, including:

  • Hiring divergent pairs: teaming people who see the world differently to work together on the same project
  • Embracing the Dragon: finding false constraints and challenging them (also see: Idea Killers)
  • Creative questions: thoughtful questions can reframe the problem that needs to be solved
  • Blurring discipline boundaries: our invented taxonomies for knowledge blind us from new ways to think about problems and solutions

He also noticed how his choices as manager would sometime generate dual responses from his team. It both made them uncomfortable and had effects that they appreciated, and this duality signified to him that his abrasions were having the desired effect. For example, when Hirshberg made his team’s  prototyping process much faster:

Jim McJunkin, a meticulous designer from Texas, felt that “God is in the details and the nuances, and these take time to resolve.”… But McJunkin then countered himself with the observation, “I like the imposed haste. I’m a perfectionist, and it’s a nice counterbalance to my workstyle… there’s something provocative in the unfinished-ness of the models,” a statement that implicitly acknowledged the added value of the modelers’ creative instincts in these spontaneous interpretations. (p. 44)

Jim McJunkin noted that “it is the abrasion of tiny air molecules that creates the beauty of a shooting star, without which it would be just another rapidly moving, cold and anonymous piece of rock.”

However, too much friction, or friction of the wrong kind or at the wrong time, can be just as bad, or worse, as not having enough. Hirshberg is clear the goal isn’t to force heated debates or make people upset (although that may happen at times). Instead, it’s the deliberate use of energy to make a kind of forcing function, that pushes people to dig deeper, rethink harder and explore alternatives they would be unlikely to choose to otherwise.

Deciding the right kind of friction to apply is a subtle skill that many managers never master. It depends heavily on understanding the culture of the team, the personality of each individual, and the ability to make friction something interesting and that raises curiosity, rather than feeling like a penalty. It’s also heavily dependent on timing: much like working a campfire, you have to use different kinds of friction and fuel to start it, grow it, or to just keep it going.

The legendary research lab at Xerox Parc, where the GUI, Ethernet and the laser printer were invented, was led by Bob Taylor, and his approach to management might be one of the labs greatest creations. Alan Kay, who worked for him, said about Taylor: “His attitude kept it safe for others to put aside fears and ego and concentrate objectively on the problem at hand.”

Taylor encouraged open criticism and debate, in a weekly meeting in a room filled with beanbag chairs. The goal wasn’t to tear other people down, but to push, inspire, and challenge everyone to explore their ideas deeply. Taylor put the ideas, and ideas about ideas, at the center, and moved politics, posturing, and hierarchy to the perimeter. Taylor was likely an excellent facilitator of discussions, helping make sure there was just the right amount of friction.

All too often managers hear about a concept like creative abrasion and rush to apply it, without fully understanding how it works. Hirshberg shares this story:

After hearing about [creative abrasion] at a meeting at NDI, a group of executives from Salomon, the great French ski equipment manufacturer, attempted to apply it. When they returned to San Diego from France a few months later for a design review of the ski boot concepts we were developing for them, one of the vice presidents said, “Well, we have the abrasion part down pat!”

This reveals that the notion of friction applies to the manager’s own work as well. It’s inevitable that the use of friction as a tool will force questions about how a company or team are organized and the process that managers use. This is healthy and can lead to progress, but for insecure managers who fear change, it’s also terrifying. Creative abrasion can be seen as slowing things down or working inefficiently when it should instead be seen as one of the few ways to provoke better and more original thinking to happen.

But even if all the strategies suggested in this book were invoked and followed religiously, creativity would still sit uneasily within bureaucratic bounds… None of the procedures is designed to make it a comfortable, obeisant, timely, well-oiled cog in traditional or enlightened bureaucratic machinery. Instead, the strategies were conceived to help overcome the knee-jerk resistance that inevitably accompanies the creative process, and to recognize the unease as a sign of its probable health.

Hirshberg’s book is a worthy read, especially for design managers or R&D lab leaders, as many of the stories he uses to illustrate his ideas come directly from his management experience.

FREE Today: The Dance of The Possible on Kindle

Sunday was my birthday and to help celebrate my success at avoiding death in this universe I’m giving my latest book away to all of you fans and readers on Kindle today, Tuesday 4/17.

You don’t have to do anything special. Just go here on over to Amazon, and “buy” the book for $0.00. Do it! It’s fun! And it’s a delightful and practical short read on how to work better with your own ideas.

As of this morning, it was at #300 for all of Kindle – can you share this post to help see how high we can go? Thanks!

Here’s what some folks I respect said about the book:

“You’ll find a lot to steal from this short, inspiring guide to being creative. Made me want to get up and make stuff!”  – Austin Kleon, author of How To Steal Like An Artist

“A fun, funny, no-BS guide to finding new ideas and finishing them. Instantly useful.”– Ramez Naam, author of the Nexus Trilogy

“Concisely debunks all kinds of misconceptions about the creative process in a book that’s no-nonsense, fun, and inspiring.” – Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

“This book will undoubtedly increase your abilities to invent, innovate, inspire, and make things that matter. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s phenomenally effective.”  Jane McGonigal, author of the New York Times bestsellers Reality is Broken and SuperBetter

Get The Dance of The Possible on Kindle now.

Why Designers Hate Politics (And What To Do About It)

People who design things for a living depend on optimism. To do their job well, whether it’s designing websites or automobiles, they must believe they can make things that are better than what currently exists in the world. The problem is that this optimism, when combined with immaturity, creates a shallow view of how organizations work and how decisions get made.

Designers claim, and often with good reason, that they understand human behavior better than others, but their distaste for what they call politics reveals they’re unaware of one of the most natural behaviors people in groups have. Designers who don’t comprehend or wish to avoid all politics betray their own ideas by not recognizing how politics defines the human landscape they must work on.

The confusion stems from the two different meanings of the word:

  1. Politics (n): the things self-serving, manipulative people do.
  2. Politics (n): the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group.

When someone says “I hate working in Stan’s organization, he’s so political” they’re using the first definition, and they specifically mean the abuse of power to serve someone’s self-interest or the creation of a culture of fear and dysfunction. These are bad things, for sure, but often the word politics is used in a lazy way, by someone who simply doesn’t understand why their ideas get shot down, or why they’re not given the power they think they deserve. Rather than examining the culture they’re in (who is thriving here? what are they doing that I am not? Do I need new skills or a new job?), they blame the very concept of politics.

The hard truth is that human nature is political (2nd definition above). The fields of sociology, anthropology and psychology are largely about the complex challenges of people trying to get along with each other (and themselves).

Put simply, when you organize people to do something, whether it’s throwing a party or starting a company, each individual has their own opinions on the right way to do it. And they have preferences for who they like to work with and what tasks they like to work on. This means no matter how talented leaders of an organization are, some people will not get everything they want.

This motivates people to influence those with power or to try and take it for themselves (and if raises, promotions and prestige are at stake the tendency for people to forget their ideals increases). There are of course many ways to express ambition, some much healthier and more transparent than others, but politics are everywhere people are.

  “Every management act is a political act… in some way [it] redistributes or reinforces power.” — Richard Farson

Blaming “politics”, in the abstract, is a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility for solving problems. The same is true for pointing fingers at “management,” “engineering,” or “marketing” and saying how stupid they are (See: The Fallacy of ‘They Don’t Get It’). Of course it’s true you could work in a completely dysfunctional place where even Machiavelli could not succeed, but it’s far more likely there are reasonable forces at work you don’t fully understand.

Pointing fingers doesn’t make those you point at any less stupid or ineffective, and it deflects any personal responsibility for learning how to be more persuasive, collaborative or thoughtful in how you approach working with them. And who knows, it’s possible that with a careful eye, it might just be that what you see as incompetence in another is just a smart person constrained by similarly difficult political factors that you can’t fully see. Of course some workplaces are truly broken, but that mostly raises the goal of finding yourself a new place to work. When a designer, a natural optimist, is pessimistic about who they work for and with, it’s time to move on.

Designers love to talk about their mastery of problem-solving skills, but politics is just another kind of problem-solving: people problems. If you approach organizational problems with the same optimism, discipline and creativity that you approach a design or engineering problem, you can find alternatives to explore and use them to make better decisions. And this is the grand irony of designers complaining about politics: designers should be great at the combination of problem-solving and understanding people, yet so often they can’t escape their frustration that these problems even exist.

The greatest factor in your political experience of an organization is your boss. A good manager will buffer you from organizational drama and set you up to succeed, while a bad one will amplify the worst problems an organization has. For designers, this means the heaviest political burdens land on the most senior designer in their organization. It’s their job to pave the way for all the people who work for them, establishing relationships with other powerful people in the organization.

But sadly design as a profession suffers from the Peter Principle. The problem of overpromotion is universal in the working world, but design is a specialized enough field that often the people who become design directors, or executives, are far better at designing than directing, leading or managing. In the best cases they know their primary job is to be an ambassador of design to the CEO and other executives, to form partnerships, align goals and gain influence that can be transferred down into their own organization. But even as an individual designer without much support from above, there are still many things you can do.

The way forward is that politics, even in the healthiest organization, is based on your reputation. The same organization will feel very different if you have a great reputation for getting good work done vs. having a poor one (or no reputation at all). This means earning trust and cultivating respect from your peers and superiors is the path. This is far more productive than allowing your audible frustrations at “politics” in meetings be the primary way people know you. And much like designers study users, they can also study their coworkers and superiors. By asking simple questions, much can be revealed that makes healthier politics possible:

  • What is my reputation? How does this help or hurt my ability to influence decisions?
  • Who among my peers is thriving here? Why? (If no one is thriving, also ask why)? What can I learn from them?
    What does my boss value? What problems is she trying to solve? How can my talents help solve them?
  • What political skills are my weakest? How can I become a better facilitator? negotiator? persuader? listener?
  • Is my (design) work simply rated by leaders as low priority and what I see as “politics” is really just a prioritization decision?
  • Who frustrates me the most? Are my goals aligned with theirs? Why not? Who sets their goals? Do they have a good relationship with who sets mine? Who is the boss of all of them and why haven’t they fixed this problem yet?
  • Who has more influence than I do, that I trust, who can lend me their ear for advice?
  • Can I ask one of them to mentor me over coffee now and then about how to get things done here?
  • Who has a good reputation that I can partner with to pitch an idea and use their reputation to help grow mine?
  • Is there a manager here that I’d be better suited working for?
  • Or is it just time for me to find a new place to work?



The Three Gaps of Creativity: Effort, Skill and Quality

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

The great surprise for people with good ideas is the gap between how an idea feels in their mind and how it feels when they try to put the idea to work. When a good idea comes together it feels fantastic. Good ideas often come with a wave of euphoria, a dopamine high, and we’re joyously overwhelmed by it. It’s natural in that instant to overlook the dozens of questions that must be answered to bring the idea to life. We easily postpone those questioning thoughts, believing that if we can come up with the big idea surely we can conquer all the little problems too. An epiphany is a powerful experience, but the myth of epiphany is that it alone is all you need.[1]

The Effort Gap

When we do sit down to work on the details of an idea, the euphoria fades away. The act of thinking about how to bring the idea into the world is far less fun than the magical feeling of the idea’s arrival. It might take an hour or a day, but soon the tasks at hand feel surprisingly ordinary. While the 30-second summary of your science fiction screenplay is still fantastic, it doesn’t eliminate the effort required to write three, or more, complete drafts to flesh the idea out into its final form. Even if your idea was for your job, perhaps an inspiring new proposal you have for your boss, the work of drafting the required project plans and obtaining budget approvals just isn’t very interesting. This is the effort gap. No matter how great your idea is, there will be energy you have to spend, often on relatively ordinary work, to deliver it to the world.

The instinctive reaction to the realization that your amazing idea has led to ordinary work is to retreat. We feel we are doing something wrong if delivering on the idea isn’t as stimulating as finding the idea itself. Somehow we believe the feeling of euphoria should remain throughout the entire project, and when it doesn’t, and we have to choose to put effort in, we assume something is amiss. In the movies they often skip from the discovery of the idea to fame and fortune, but in real life we have to close that distance ourselves.[2] Or perhaps more honestly we simply don’t want to work that hard, preferring to return to the thrills of thinking up more ideas rather than doing anything about them. There is nothing wrong with this, as dreaming for dreams’ sake can be fun. The problem is when we torture ourselves by denying the fact that we have less ambition than we wish we had.

Many people suffer from creative cowardice and a fear of commitment. They are afraid of closing the effort gap. They want to be creative but without any risks. They know there is a chance they can put in weeks of work and have the project fail. So they prefer the shallow perfection of keeping the idea locked in their minds, taking it out only to stroke their ego and annoy their friends. When someone else produces something with a similar idea, perhaps a movie or an invention, they’ll claim false possession, exclaiming, “I thought of that years ago!” But the only way to possess an idea is by closing the effort gap and actually putting something out into the world. Coming up with the idea, it turns out, is often the easy part.

The Skill Gap

Sometimes the problem is the recognition that while the idea is excellent, and you’re willing to put the effort in, the skills you have aren’t good enough to deliver on it. The natural assumption is that the capacity to have the idea is the harder part, and if the idea is good it implies you have all the required abilities. Sadly, like many common assumptions of our silly little brains, the reality isn’t as kind. For example, while I can imagine
performing quadruple backflip dives and singing five-octave melodies, that imagination has no bearing on my body’s ability to do those things. This is the skill gap, the distance between the skills your idea requires and the ones you have. Often it’s only through putting effort into a project that we discover our skill gaps.

When we see work from our heroes, it’s easy to forget they once had skill gaps too. We imagine they were born with the abilities we know them for. The problem is our view of other creators is inverted. We know them after they became famous and after they learned their craft. The works we know best are rarely an artist’s early works but rather those considered masterpieces. When we see a Georgia O’Keeffe painting in a museum, or a J.R.R. Tolkien novel in the bookstore, we see the creators at their best and likely in their prime. We don’t see their many experiments, their
uncertain output during the long years they developed the skills they’d become famous for. As Steven Furtick said, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” We have to go out of our way to find their behind-the-scenes work, and often we forget it even exists.

Ira Glass, host of This American Life, explained how these skill gaps work against us[3]:

“Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told this to me… all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.… there’s a gap… for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…. It’s not that great.… It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you…. A lot of people never get past this phase.… they quit.

And the thing I would say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years [of this]…. Everybody goes through that…. And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work… it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”

Many talented people never develop their skills because they hate the feeling of this distance. They’re embarrassed and tortured by it. They expect to improve at a pace born only from wishful thinking, and when they fail to meet it they despair. They lack the commitment required to find out, through practice, exactly how much skill they might be capable of. Instead they want an easy and guaranteed path despite the fact that none of the heroes they compare themselves against ever had one. The tough news that Ira Glass hints at is that it’s easier for our ambitions to grow, as that happens simply by consuming good works, than it is for our skills to improve, something that requires dedicated effort.

One way to stay motivated in closing skill gaps is to study the history of masters you admire. The early works of Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock are drastically different from the styles they became most famous for. Brad Pitt’s first “acting role” was in a chicken costume for a Mexican fast food restaurant.[4] Michael Jordan, the basketball legend, was cut from his junior varsity basketball team. And who knows how many lousy plays young Shakespeare wrote that he burned, or poems Emily Dickinson tore apart and buried in the dust? Honest biographies of nearly every famous musician, writer or entrepreneur will share in painful detail how they worked to close the skill gaps in their careers.

The Quality Gap

Once you’ve developed your skills, how you choose to use them is a matter of style. Style, or quality, gaps are the most subjective of all. Unlike effort and skill gaps, a quality gap is a subjective opinion of the quality of what is made. When J.K. Rowling filled five pages of made-up Q words, it wasn’t because of a lack of skill. There was a specific quality, a feeling, a tone, an effect she wanted that she struggled to obtain. Each word still didn’t feel quite right, so she’d come up with another one (put another way, she solved a quality gap by creating and closing an effort gap).[5] Depending on what idea you have in your mind, even if you work hard and have the right skills, you will still experience quality gaps as you work on projects.

Some legendary creators struggled with their own opinion of their work, even after their public success. No matter how popular they became, they felt their work was flawed, inferior and immature, never reaching the standards set in their own minds. Woody Allen rarely watches his films once they’re finished, and thinks little of Manhattan and Annie Hall, two of his most famous works. Bruce Springsteen once called the Born To Run album “the worst piece of garbage” he’d ever heard, and didn’t want to release it.[6] Nabokov hated many of his novels, and had thrown the manuscript for Lolita into a fire.[7] Franz Kafka and Emily Dickinson both gave instructions to have all their work destroyed when they died. Artists are often victims in a way of their own perceived quality gaps. They struggle to match the ideas in their minds to what they can manifest in the world.

Some very successful creators never close the quality gap, at least not on every project, and you likely won’t either. This is fine, perhaps even good. If you want to keep growing it demands that when you finish a project you’ll see it differently than when you started. And in the very things you find lacking or wish you had done differently you find the motivation for the next project, and the one after that. To be perfectly satisfied with something you made likely means you didn’t learn anything along the way, and I’d rather be a little disappointed with projects now and then than experience the alternative of never learning anything at all.

These three gaps, effort, skill and quality, will be constant companions. Have patience in how you deal with them. Consider yourself part of a
challenging trade where it takes time to develop your craft and that development never ends. If you truly believe in your ideas and potential, you should be willing to stay the course and commit to the long, and only realistic, path to fulfilling your ambitions.

If you can, take pleasure in making things for the sake of making them: what a gift to have the time to make at all! If you were born 200 years ago, or to different parents in a different country, you wouldn’t have the time to feel bad about your work, because you wouldn’t have the wealth and time required to try. If you feel love for your craft, honor it by showing up, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. Working when it’s hardest often teaches rare lessons that will earn you easy rides now and then. Take pleasure in small progressions when you see them, and know those hard-won gains are the only way anyone in history has ever achieved anything noteworthy—for themselves or for the world.

[This is an excerpt from the book The Dance of The Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity. If you enjoyed it imagine how much you’ll like the whole thing?]

[1] Scott Berkun, “The Myth of Epiphany”.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ira Glass on Storytelling, part 3, and How To Find Your Voice

[4] Jonny Black, “Brad Pitt Facts,” Moviefone, October 17, 2014.

[5] The divisions between effort, skill and quality gaps break down eventually. In a way, all gaps are effort gaps, as work must be put in to fill gaps of any kind. But at times it can be useful to ask: do you need to put in more effort? Invest in skill development? Or simply have more patience to get to the quality you desire?

[6] Louis P. Masur, “Tramps like Us: The Birth of Born to Run,” Slate, September 22, 2009, l.

[7] George Lowery, “Vladimir and Vera Nabokov had ‘mystifying’ relationship, Schiff Says,” Cornell Chronicle, June 23, 2006.

How and Why To Ask Better Questions

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from J.B.:

How can I learn to ask better questions?

If you’re asking this question you’re already doing well, as you’re asking questions about questions.

There’s the saying “there are no bad questions” which is especially true if  you’re allowed to ask more than one. A question creates a space to be filled and in seeing how someone tries to do it the possibility of another, better question is created. The shape of the space a question creates is what makes it more or less interesting. “How did this happen?” creates one shape, but “Why did this happen?” creates another. Which one is better? It depends on what you are curious to explore. Better questions either satisfy your curiosity, or lead to other questions you are curious about.

This means there’s something about persistence in asking good questions. Whether you do it in your own mind or you do it with another person, it’s best to think of questions as a sequence. You don’t need to ask brilliant questions if you ask and answer many of them.  A question can’t ask itself. You need gumption, or the courage to ask questions. Many people have good questions, but never find the courage to speak up or to explore them on their own.

Part of the fear around questions is the worry that we will expose a truth that someone, perhaps even ourselves, doesn’t want to be brought to light. Or we’ll be told we’re stupid or wrong for asking. We are social creatures who need each other to survive and the instinct of fear about being ostracized, which thousands of years ago would reduce your chances of survival, is powerful. This is part of why meaningful conversations are uncommon.

Most conversations in life are a kind of social grooming, a way to feel safe and included. Since the most powerful questions (What is Good? Why do you believe what you believe? What assumptions about life have you never questioned?) don’t have easy answers, we tend to play it safe and avoid asking them. Questions often lead to new perspectives which often leads to change and many people are afraid of change, even if it’s progress. Finding someone you enjoy exploring “dangerous” questions with is rare and if you find one, cherish them.

The surprise is it shouldn’t be hard to accept that there are many different answers to our biggest questions. There are 6 billion people, in 196 nations, practicing 4200 different religions on planet earth. Most of them can’t possibly agree with each other on many important subjects. Logically, rationally, diversity is everywhere and we shouldn’t be afraid of exploring different ways to be and live. But the problem is our brains are designed for life in small tribes. We’re biased towards behavior that works well in small uniform communities, even if logically we know how much diversity is in the world.

If ignorance means simply being uninformed, then curiosity means you are interested in your own ignorance and to want to do something about it. Even asking 5 whys, which depends on gumption more than brilliance, uses persistent curiosity to force deeper thinking. Once you see questions as tools for exploration, you’re likely to ask more of them of more people, increasing your skill at crafting good ones.

But my favorite way to think about better questions is.. a list of questions! At any moment in life when you want to question something, pull up this list and you’re guaranteed to find inspiration for better thinking. This list is adapted from the work of Richard Paul and the Foundation for Critical Thinking.

The three different kinds of questions:

  • Those with one right answer (factual questions). “What is the boiling point of lead?”
  • Those with better or worse reasoned answers. “How can we best address the most significant problems of the world today?”
  • Those with as many valid answers as there are preferences (mere opinion). What is your favorite thing to do on vacation?

Questions for clarification:

  • What do you mean by____ ?
  • Is your basic point _____ or ______  ?
  • How does_____ relate to_____?
  • Could you put that another way? Or explain it to a smart person who knows nothing about this subject?
  • What do you think is the main issue here?
  • How does this relate to our discussion?

Questions that probe assumptions:

  • How do you know this to be true?
  • Is how you feel about this more powerful than how you think about it?
  • How did your source know this to be true?
  • Were there other equally reputable sources with a different opinion?
  • How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?
  • What would have to change for your position to change?

3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence:

  • What would be an example? a counter-example?
  • What is_____ analogous to?
  • What do you think causes _____ to happen? Why?

4. Questions about perspectives:

  • What is another way to look at this? (whose point of view can we try to take?)
  • How would you answer the complaints and requests they’d likely have?
  • Can/did anyone see this another way?
  • What would a wise person you respect but who disagrees with you say?

5. Questions that probe consequences:

  • What are you implying by that? Where is the end-point of your line of thinking?
  • What effect would that have and for who? Who would it be good for? Bad for?
  • Would that necessarily happen or only probably happen?
  • What is an alternative?

6. Questions about the question:

  • Can we break this question into smaller ones that are easy to work through?
  • What hidden assumptions are in this question?
  • Will it be easier to answer this question if we each go away and do some research and then return?
  • Is this question clearly stated? Do we understand it? Is there a better question to ask?
  • How would (someone we mutually respect for their wisdom) try to answer this question?
  • Do we need more or better facts to answer this?


The Questions To Ask About The News

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from S.P.:

I often feel overwhelmed by the news I read. How can I better manage my responses?

The news is of course defined by what is new, but the implication has always been that somehow we are informed about the world by consuming “the news” and good citizens are informed ones. Yet as news shifted in the 1970s from being a public service to a business, the organizations that provide it had new preferences for what to share, and how to share it. Neil Postman wrote,  “I do not mean to imply that… news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result.”

Of course, we are more upset or fearful than entertained when we hear of another school shooting or violent crime, but the reasons why it is chosen are similar. It’s the power of drawing attention that drives media as a business and it’s easier to gain attention for negative reasons than for happier ones. For example, the top trending story will never be “mostly the world, and your neighborhood, is doing better than, or the same as it was yesterday” despite how often this is true, since it’s not a dramatic story. In a sense, it’s not considered newsworthy even if it’s more important to know than the most recent homicide (or all of the “new” things that happened that week). This alone makes news a distortion of reality that is hard for many to notice. Some news sources are more balanced than others, but the news is never neutral. News has an obsession with the immediate present and your life should not.

More profoundly, when a report of a homicide headlines the news, we tend to assume crime is worse. If the crime were in a nearby neighborhood, we might be less likely to visit wherever the crime occurred, or may even avoid going out into public at all. But in reality, the crime rate in that area might be the same as it has been for years, or even be at an all-time low, but the constant news about it shapes our perception more than the reality. Put another way, the individual incident can’t tell you anything about what the trends are. And it follows that an individual news story can’t likely tell you much about the trends either. We mostly consume microunits of news, headlines and skimmable paragraphs, free of any greater meaning or information to help us put the “news” into a coherent worldview that would actually make us more informed.

The top news event on any given day can mean one of two things:

  1. Something important and profound with lasting consequences may have happened
  2. Something that easily draws attention but has little substance on any trend changing occurred

Reporters often take the stance that they can’t know which one is right for a particular event since it just happened. They would claim that it’s only over time that hindsight lets us understand what really happened and to see which events signified real change. Sometimes that’s true, but that suggests we’d all be better off reading the news once a week, when journalists have made more sense of what happened and have a thoughtful context to offer. But we crave novelty, and media businesses thrive on providing it. Few of us have the self-control to resist the ways media tempts us to consume right now.

But even when reading breaking news, there are simple questions that, if asked, help put the top news of the day into a context that helps us be truly informed. These questions include:

  1. What is the source? Who paid for this to be written?
  2. What assumptions are you confirming are true, but aren’t in this news itself (see confirmation bias)?
  3. Why did this get your attention? What feeling did it generate? Did reading/hearing more than just the headline change that feeling?
  4. Is there another story from an equally reputable source that puts this news in a different context?
  5. How is this event any different from the last time an event like it occurred?
  6. What pattern, if any, does this event form with similar ones over the last week/month/year/decade/century?
  7. Does this event fit, or is an outlier, to the primary accepted theories for what is happening in this field/city/community/profession?
  8. What alternative explanations or meanings can this event signify (including the possibility that the event alone signifies nothing)?
  9. How many other similarly probable events occurred today? Or occur each year?

What other questions should we be asking of the news we read? Leave a comment with suggestions. Thanks.

The proof that we’re all creative: losing your keys

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question is from Crysel [44 votes]:

What is the real motivation for creativity?

For most of history people did not use the word creativity very much. They just invented and discovered things in the course of their lives without applying special labels to them. But something strange happened to in modern times. We developed a romance around the notion of creativity. Most people today think of it as an extra layer of cognitive powers, that only special people have. This is untrue and there’s an easy way to prove it.

Imagine you are getting ready to work. You stop at your door to do your pre-airlock check for your phone, your wallet and your keys. You realize your keys aren’t in your pocket. Oh no! And at this moment an important sequence of cognitive events takes place.

  1. Your brain instinctively tells you to look by the door in the place where you usually put your keys when you come home. So you go and look, perhaps at the basket on the shelf right by the door where they usually go. And they are not there!
  2. Now your brain thinks a bit more. Maybe they fell? So you check on the floor and behind the basket. Not there!
  3. And here is where the magic starts: your brain starts getting increasingly creative. You look under the basket. You look in the hallway outside. You look in clothes you haven’t worn in days, or weeks. Then you check the basket again (perhaps the keys magically reappeared since the last time you looked?).
  4. You consider increasingly unusual explanations for where your keys are. Maybe you left them at the restaurant last night (which is unlikely since you got into your apartment)? Or someone broke into your place and stole them! (which also doesn’t make sense as if they broke in they don’t need your keys). And on and on your brain will go inventing and trying out solutions.

The lesson here is that when suitably motivated your brain will be creative all on its own. During step 3 above you did not have to engage in a brainstorming exercise or put on a magic hat of ideation. Your mind will, when motivated and presented with a hard problem, generate inventive, unusual and unorthodox ideas. This helps explain why our species has survived despite not being very strong or very fast. We are good at solving problems and when we are motivated can persist in trying to solve even very hard ones.

Now some people hear this and say that looking in strange places for keys isn’t really creative because most of those ideas are failures. But that’s just it. Creative work is very much like looking for keys. You have to do the work to explore many alternatives, many of them unsuccessful, until you arrive at a worthy idea. Even the most brilliant writers and artists write first drafts and draw early sketches that they eventually throw away. They learn much from those “failed” ideas and those lessons help make their second, third and final drafts better than the last. Working with ideas is never an efficient process. It’s messy and uncertain no matter how talented you are.

All this means that when we don’t feel creative often all that’s missing is a strong enough motivator. Sometimes we have demotivators in our own minds, like fear of being judged by others or fear of failure and it’s only by becoming more self-aware that our natural creativity can be free to surface. Other times we’re in cultures or teams that penalize creative thinking. But even in the best situations remember that creativity is a kind of work. You have to burn extra calories. And most of the time we, and our brains, prefer to be efficient and do the least amount of work necessary. But when we are suitably motivated, perhaps out of fear (losing your keys) or passion (solving a problem you care about deeply), our brains have most of the tools we need already built in.


Are engineers more creative than designers?

On Tuesdays, I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from Pavel Pavia [43 votes]:

Are engineers more creative than designers?

Both answers (“Yes they are!” and  “No they are not!”) are naive. It’s foolish to compare massive groups of people against each other especially around a sloppy word like creativity. Assuming you work in the making of products of some kind, we all likely know some engineers who are very creative and some who are not. We also know some designers who are very creative and some who are not. I can’t even imagine trying to average them out into two neat little piles and have the resulting comparison be of much use. But what then? Why can’t we have some fun? ok – FINE. Here we go.

Let’s start by ditching the word creative. It’s a romantic word and the wrong one. When someone hires an engineer or a designer they want a problem to be solved. The creative ability we’re talking about is to develop ideas that solve problems into working solutions. Do good engineers and designers both do this? YES. They might be different kinds of problems, and they may use different tools, but both show up at work with the intent to problem solve, not “problem create’ or “problem multiply” (although such people do seem to exist, unfortunately).

The first argument is usually an anecdote about how “all the designers/engineers I’ve worked with suck” and to that I say you might be right. You’ve probably never worked in a healthy, successful organization that respected both roles and hired talented people to play them. But they’ve always existed – look at the teams that made the best products you admire and I bet there was a team of both excellent engineers and designers working together. Until recently it was only in elite companies that these investments were made, but that’s changing.

The next argument is often someone pointing out that designers are really just planners, since they can’t actually build their plans themselves. They need an engineer to go and built them. But so what? Why is the ability to build something necessarily superior to the ability to conceive the plan? It might be superior, but it might be inferior. I don’t think Beethoven could play the trombone, but he could write the plan for what they (and dozens of other instruments) should do, and that’s why we know his name and not his trombone player.

But I’m not taking sides here. Not really. To succeed at solving problems you need both the plan and the ability to build it.  The hard part is that depending on what the problem is, it can be either conceiving the plan or the ability to build it that is more difficult. And people are bad at recognizing when the most important challenge is in a domain that isn’t theirs (“If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). Engineers are notorious for dismissing designers because of their own ignorance of what the customer’s true situation is (and the related potency of the designer’s plans), and designers are notorious for dismissing engineers because of their own ignorance of what the engineering constraints truly are.

The running sardonic joke in all this is designers and engineers tend to share more personality traits than not. Which include:

  • Passion for aesthetics (debates on visual style mirror debates on code style)
  • Preference for control (engineers love their control over bits similarly to how designers love control over pixels)
  • Reverence/Arrogance for idea purity (that there is a right way to do certain things)
  • A desire to make great things that help people

Which means many of the conflicts between designers and engineers are about bad management, the lack of a leader providing shared goals that unify these traits towards a common cause. Both trades are about problem-solving and when motivated can help each other with their individual tasks. Framed properly, and properly motivated, designers can have insights that help solve engineering problems and vice versa. All that’s required is some respect, shared goals and a curiosity to discover other ways to approach solving problems.

It’s useful to go back to a time when the distinction between designing something and engineering something didn’t exist. For most of the history of invention, people did it all themselves. When Archimedes or Archytas  invented the screw (which is a mind-boggling act of genius), was he designing or engineering? Would anyone at the time have cared in the slightest what label was given? John Roebling, the architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, knew that to make something great required both great engineering and great design. He couldn’t build a beautiful, functional, enduring bridge without them both. He and his team would switch between thinking more like designers and more like engineers whenever necessary, as they were unconstrained by the strict delineations we’ve created for ourselves in modern times, and we should all consider doing the same.


[Note: Pavel’s actual question was “What is the reason for which we believe that the people who dedicate to the arts are more creative than the engineers?” but as I wrote an answer it morphed into a simpler question.]

Has Your Boss Set You Up To Succeed or Fail?

A reader asked recently (see the archive):

I have a new boss who I don’t trust yet. How can I make sure they’re looking out for me?

The term set up to succeed means a person has been given most of what they need to do their job well. A good boss does more than just set goals and give assignments: they see themselves as responsible for ensuring good work happens (See: Lefferts’ Law of Management).

First, they think through the steps that need to happen for someone to do a project and where the challenges are going to be and discuss them with you. Second, they invest their own time, in coordination with you, clearing a path for those tasks to go more easily, or to become possible at all. A good boss builds a runway for you so that you can smoothly take off and checks in while you’re in the air, making adjustments behind the scenes, so you and your projects will land safely too. But taken too far this becomes micromanagement, which is the inverse way to set up someone to fail because the manager is far too involved. A good manager finds the sweet spot for each person and situation.

You know you’re being set up to fail if you’re assigned a project that:

  • No one seems to know about
  • Other people believe is their project or decision
  • Everyone treats as low priority

When there are major hidden obstacles on the runway, people telling you the runway is theirs and you’re not allowed, or there’s no runway at all, your manager is setting you up to fail. You are being managed poorly.

One exception is that they have clearly warned you about these conditions before you agreed to take them on (perhaps you’re a secret agent), or made clear they themselves have little knowledge of the landscape and part of your task is to map it and report back, they are either incompetent, indifferent or see more benefits in your failure than your success.

The checklist for assessing your situation

Here’s a simple list of questions to discuss with your boss (or at least with yourself) to assess if you are being set up to succeed or not. They can be used to structure a conversation with your boss about what you need and why.

  1. Do I have the right skills? If you’re told to pilot a Boeing 747 but you have never even flown a paper airplane, whose fault is it if you fail? What training and mentoring is provided to help close skill gaps? Does your boss understand what you can and can not do and how that stacks up against what the project requires?
  2. Do I have the right allies? Who has the power you need to do your job and are they on your side? Will they prioritize your requests? Invite you in to decisions early enough to be effective? A good boss will talk to other important people in the organization about your goals and create an agreement for how you all will work together. Or at least call out the roadblocks they can’t resolve so at least you know they are there.
  3. Do I have the right resources (power, budget, staff, time)? You may have the right skills and allies, but if you don’t have enough power, time or money to do the work, you’ll likely fail anyway. The goals of the project might need to change if the available resources can’t.
  4. Are there clear goals (and non-goals)? Clarity on desired outcomes is one of the most important things a leader provides. Does everyone understand and agree on how you’ll know when the work is done and that it was done right? Listing non-goals, things easily assumed to be goals, but are really distractions, can be just as important to discuss.
  5. Are senior management’s goals aligned with the ones you have been given? If not your success will depend on you working against the grain of the organization and you are likely to fail. A good boss has made sure the right senior staff know about your projects and that all the goals line up.
  6. What roadblocks are in your way that you do not have the power or skills to resolve? Who has been made aware of them? Who has the power you need to resolve them? Has your boss worked with you on a plan? Have you warned the right people of what may happen if the roadblock is not cleared? Have they at least agreed you are on a high risk mission and even a small amount of success will be an acceptable win?

Incompetent managers often unintentionally set up their employees to fail. They don’t realize they are giving conflicting goals, poorly allocating resources or that they’re asking people to take on work that is politically sensitive and possibly damaging to their reputation. This means you have to advocate for yourself, first by thinking through the challenges you’re going to face and second by involving your boss in helping you clear them out of your way. If you are continually set up to fail and don’t feel you are getting the proper amount of support, you have a bad manager. You should find a new one if you can.

Of course, depending on the job you have, and how senior your role is, you may be expected to identify and solve many hard problems on your own. It may be possible for you to create your own runway through influence, persuasion, relationship building and negotiation. These are valuable skills and are often necessary even if you have a good manager, but become critical if you are working for a bad one.

Some organizations call this “Dealing with Ambiguity” or “Organizational Agility.” While it’s true more senior staff should be able to handle more challenges on their own, there are limits. The expectation of all good managers is that as the boss they have more responsibility and power for making good work happen and if they fail to use it to help everyone on their team they are simply not doing their job.

What else can someone do to help in these situations? Leave a comment.


What makes a book a good read?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from Dennis S.:

What makes a book a good read?

Great question, but there’s no easy answer! Which is true for most great questions.

The simplest answer is “are they engaged enough to want to know what happens next instead of doing one of the 100 other interesting things in their lives they don’t have enough time for?” which sounds nice, but what engages one person can turn off another. Which is why there are so many genres, styles and types of books. For fun, go read the 1 star Amazon reviews for your favorite popular book. Many people hated it and couldn’t finish it! Does this mean the book is actually terrible? Maybe, it depends on your preferences and opinions. Art is highly subjective. 

This fact is both wonderful and horrible. Wonderful because it means if you can find an audience for your particular approach to writing, you can be successful even if the rest of the world doesn’t like it. It’s horrible because success and what is good are entirely subjective which makes it easy to lose confidence, give up, or get distracted by looking for some mythical magic formula for “writing good books” which doesn’t exist. There are certainly good books on writing and story structure which are helpful, especially for new authors, but they’re more rough guides than step-by-step-magical-spells. Since books have no hidden parts, all the words are there on the page, it’s of great value to study books you and others think are good reads and ask “Why does this work the way that it does?”

It’s also useful to think what makes for a bad read. A bad read probably means:

  • The writer is very confused about what is interesting about their subject for the reader
  • The way sentences and paragraphs are constructed is confusing and hard to comprehend without reading them more than once
  • The book is organized poorly and it’s hard to understand why one story or chapter follows another
  • There is no momentum, emotional interest or curiosity created for the reader

Most serious writers have early readers who read drafts, give feedback, and help the writer understand what’s working in their current draft, and what it isn’t. They’re learning from actual readers which parts aren’t as strong as they think. All first drafts are bad. Many second drafts are too. The process of writing is rewriting and shaping material over many drafts into something good. A good read is usually the result of many revisions of a bad one.

Most serious writers also work with editors, particularly developmental editors who can guide and give advice broadly about what is working, or not, about each draft. The challenge is it’s hard to find people who give thorough and useful feedback beyond “I like it” or “I hate it”. You have to invest in finding good feedback givers, not to mention, being receptive to hearing things you don’t want to hear (which are probably true) and also being willing to make significant changes to a draft based on what you learned, rather than being stubborn or egotistical about it. 

My favorite one link to give people about writing seriously is Jane Friedman’s website, filled with resources, references and recommendations.

Which is more dangerous: writing badly or reading poorly?

On Tuesdays I generally write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week I turned the tables, and asked my followers on Twitter a simple question:

Which is more dangerous: people who write badly, or people who read poorly?

Polls like this are mostly just fun for me. Even so, I try to word them carefully and think through how to make the question less leading towards one answer. And then before I post it, I stop to think up a guess at what the results will be.

In this case I predicted it would be nearly even. I thought the poll was clever, but not particularly interesting as binary choices often create false dichotomies. I admit I was quite surprised to see the result (21% write badly, 79% read poorly):

Yes, it’s true that binary polls are often unfair as in any real-life decision there are layers of nuance, clarifications and details that change both how you might define the problem and how you’d try to solve it. But the brutality of the forced choice has a power too, at least as a thought experiment: if you could only solve one of the two problems, which would you solve?

I see now that I agree with the answer. Here’s why:

  1. A bad reader can squander the work of a great writer. If the reader is only skimming headlines or reading primarily for speed rather than comprehension, it’s easy for them to misunderstand or overlook the value of what they read. Reading is always the last step and it takes place entirely in the reader’s mind, not the writer’s. And of course there are far more readers than writers as it only takes one writer to produce something, but hundreds or thousands of readers can read that one work.
  2. Misinformation and fake news are popularized by readers.  Our decision to share something on social media hinges on our (mis)comprehension of its accuracy, meaning or truthfulness, or our disregard for those things. What becomes a trend, goes viral or becomes popular is based entirely on readers opinions no matter how (un)informed they are, or how many great works from great writers they have entirely ignored.
  3. Learning to read better helps you to write better. The most common and worthy advice from writing teachers is to become a better reader and to read better works. It’s by improving the questions you ask as a reader, and developing the patience to pause and think, to reconsider, to glance between the lines, that the capacity to write well begins to grow. If we want better writers, we need better readers first.

Now that you are finished reading what I have written, what comments will you write for me to read? I look forward to reading your thoughts with extreme generosity, thoughtfulness, and patience :)

(I tried to find a picture of dangerous reading, and this was the best rights-free image I could find. I mean, she could trip in the sand, or maybe a big rogue wave could come up a knock her over, right?)



Star Trek and the ideas we must reject to save our future

On Tuesdays, I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came from Ms. Unknown:

What ideas must we reject to save our future?

It’s wonderfully romantic to view the world from the point of view of a checklist of things we can either choose to accept or reject. I don’t mean this in a judgmental way. It really would be nice if we could vote each year as a planet on which ideas to promote or reduce, and then all collectively work hard towards that goal. But the tangible reality of how human society works regarding ideas is a terrible mess. Or at least, more positively speaking, it’s a complex web of interactions of needs, wants, scopes, fears, cultures, timings and coincidences. We’re all fighting our local crusades for more happiness or security and rarely have much reason to think in a unified way about what kinds of ideas are best or worst for all of us.

Ms. Unknown offered four ideas to reject: competition, scarcity, individualism, and the endless pursuit of more. Which in their way, in a simple list, seem lovely. She is describing the utopian world of Star Trek, where all core needs for all people (or at least human earthlings) are met. Star Trek of course conveniently skips over how they got from our primitive world to theirs. Even assuming Ms. Unknown is right, how do we get there? It’s hard to see it happening without a science fiction cliche like a terrible world war or alien invasion, something to force our myopic species to recognize our survival depends on our partnership in sharing spaceship earth and not petty self-interests, but I hope to see neither of those scenarios play out in my lifetime.

I’m prone to dualism, so I see most ideas on this list as having good and bad elements. Competition can be good if it’s done in a healthy way. Many people only do their best work if there is some element of competition, like artists, musicians or athletes who see others doing interesting work that challenges them to keep improving and growing, perhaps collaborating and building on each other’s work. But you can’t have a football league, or a literary society, with only one team or one author. Bad competition is when the combined choices by some competitors work against the greater good (Say, when two businesses collude to fix prices in a market so that no new entrants can even try to compete). This means it depends. The ideas aren’t necessarily good are bad, it’s how they are applied, with what goal and what result.

By scarcity, I assume she meant of fundamental needs like food, shelter and water. It’s hard to argue against the improvement of the standard of living for all. What’s there to lose for the rest of us? Probably not much. But taken to the other end of the spectrum, a question about the Star Trek Utopia is without scarcity of some kind, how are people motivated to strive? The history of America is driven by people from other nations who wanted a better life, who felt a scarcity of opportunity where they were, and where therefore motivated to take risks. Without some kinds of scarcity, or perhaps at least ambition, what drives progress? (Although the Western obsession with progress is an idea worth unpacking on its own).

It’s only the last idea from her list, the endless pursuit of more, that I’m more easily swayed to her position. The endless pursuit of anything makes me think, at first, of mental illness. The endless pursuit of cleanliness. The endless pursuit of stuff hoarded in your apartment. The endless pursuit of pictures of kittens in hats. The endless pursuit of status and conspicuous wealth. The endless pursuit of endless pursuits.

Of course, some pursuits are noble: the endless pursuit of reducing stupidity or the endless pursuit of helping people be better to each other. Yet somehow the world culture I see often rewards certain endless pursuits far more than others. The developing world is chasing the American dream of the 1950s and 60s, without learning from the mistakes (cars, pollution, suburban sprawl) that came with them. Our economies depend on the endless pursuit of growth which depends heavily on the endless pursuit of selling us things we don’t really need.

We are still struggling with the basic notions of maintaining a long-lasting civilization, but have the hubris to spend most of our time and resources in denial of the biggest challenges to our future. Perhaps the idea we need to consider rejecting most strongly is that we’re good at learning from the past or collectively learning anything at all. There is wisdom here on planet earth, it’s just not yet distributed to the places and people who need it most.

What ideas do you think we most need to reject? I’d like to know. Leave a comment.

Contest: Take a photo and win free signed books (+$100)

Do you like to take photos? Do you own at least one of my books? Then this contest is for you.

Take a photo that shows the books of mine you own, share it and you get a chance to win a bundle of all 7 of my books personally signed to you and a $100 Amazon Gift Certificate so you can buy even more books (or other nice things).

To enter to win:

  1. Take a fun photo of your Berkun book inventory (you need at least one book :) Selfies are welcome. Or make it an action photo. Be creative. Make me laugh.
  2. Post it to Twitter, FB (public, otherwise I won’t find it) or Instagram – use #berkuncontest. You can also add it as a comment to this post.
  3. Or if you’re afraid of social media and/or think it has destroyed humanity, just send me a link to the photo.
  4. Contest ends noon PST Friday 2/9/2018

Sharing the photo enters you into the contest and by entering you give me permission to reuse the photo, OK? Winner will be chosen in a semi-random method of my choosing  (but photos that are creative or make me laugh will have extra odds of winning).

To give you some ideas, here are some of the photos so far.


How to master the ways to say NO

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came from Sam K. [via email]:

I lead a team in a very political organization. It’s hard to make things stick. I want to focus my team but I struggle with how to defend priorities as my boss and her peers often change their minds and commit to more things than we can possibly do. Any advice?

If you can’t say no, you can’t truly say yes either. The reason for this is if you’re always saying yes you’re giving away the limited resources you have to tasks that are not the most important things to do. This is like like having a savings account for retirement where you are always making withdrawals to buy what tempting things you happen to see: it’s not really a savings account anymore. And it follows that a project that says yes to fun, but low priority requests, isn’t really a project anymore: it’s just a collection of random bits of work. Without the authority to say no, it’s nearly impossible to do well at any kind of project.

Sadly some people in management positions struggle with this basic notion (and I fear for the state of their retirement accounts). They want to please everyone, and in trying to please everyone they likely end up failing everyone, as the project work that truly needs to be done never gets completed.

Master the many ways to say no

The reason why every project needs clear priorities is it provides a tool for everyone about what to spend resources on. It tells you what kinds of ideas or requests what to say yes and no to. While it can be hard work to get all the leaders to agree to one list of priorities, it’s essential to getting you the leverage needed to say no (and to manage a project well). Once the agreed priorities are in place, that priority list becomes a kind of contract. And you should confirm with the leaders that your job is to defend the priorities, even against requests they might have in the future.

This means when a new idea or request comes in, you simply check the priorities list: if it fits, you can consider it. If it doesn’t you need to say No. There are many different ways to say no and you should master them. You can say it with an explanation, a smile, an argument, a counterproposal, an offering of a glass a wine, or a reminder that you are not just saying no to them, but that you are defending the very priorities that they agreed to previously.

To prepare yourself for this, you need to know all of the different flavors that the word no comes in:

  • No, unless this fits our priorities (which it probably doesn’t). This is the most common flavor of no that wise leaders use. It re-establishes that the priorities drive decisions. Early on in a project this often leads to a rehashing of why the priorities are the priorities, but that’s a healthy discussion. They may suggest a way to refine or clarify how the priorities are written. But the later you are into a healthy project, the firmer you should stand.
  • No, only if we have time. If you keep your priorities lean, as you should, there will always be many very good ideas that didn’t make the cut. Express this as a relative decision: the idea in question might be good, but not good enough relative to the other work and the project priorities. If the item is on the priority 2 list, convey that it’s possible it will be done if there is extra time, but that no one should assume it will happen.
  • No, only if you make <insert impossible thing here> happen. Sometimes, you can redirect a request back on to the person who made it. If your VP asks you to add support for a new feature, tell him you can do it only if he cuts one of his other current priority 1 requests. This shifts the point of contention away from you, and toward a tangible, though probably unattainable, situation. This can also be done for political or approval issues: “If you can convince Sally that this is a good idea, I’ll consider it.” As you may know that Sally is unlikely to say yes, which sends the requester towards a dead end: but it’s a dead end that leads away from you.
  • No. Next release. Assuming you are working on a project with more updates (e.g. a website or software project) or sprints, offer to reconsider the request for the next release. This should probably happen anyway for all priority 2 items. This is often called postponement or punting.
  • No. Never. Ever. Really. Some requests are so fundamentally out of line with the long-term goals that the hammer should come down. Cut the cord now and save yourself the time of answering the same request again later. Sometimes it’s worth the effort to explain why (so that they’ll be more informed next time). Example: “No, Fred. Our mobile app will never support the Esperanto language. Never. Ever. Because no one uses it and never will.”
  • Another approach that Zac Cohn suggests is using customer validation. “Very cool idea. Once you talk to some customers who express a need for that, come back and we can explore the next steps in validating that idea. Once it’s fully validated, we can determine the appropriate place in the roadmap.”

On the day you are assigned a project, you should clarify with your boss that you need their support in saying no to people. It needs to be established across the organization that in most cases they’ll get the same answer from your boss, as they get from you. You can also familiarize your coworkers with this list of ways  you are likely to say no, perhaps even keeping it up on your whiteboard, prepping them for the likely conversations you will have in the future.

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This is based on an excerpt from the bestselling project management book,  Making Things Happen. Other classic chapters include:

Does the attention economy make life harder for creatives?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came from Daniel H. [23 votes]:


Does the attention economy lead to creative burnout? (And make life harder?)

Trying to make a living doing creative work has always been hard for two reasons:

  1. The work is more emotionally challenging than other kinds of work
  2. There is more competition for income for the kinds of work more people want to do

For these reasons alone it’s no surprise that many writers, designers or even programmers experience burnout in their careers. There’s only so long even the most disciplined and tough personality can persist in making things of their own invention without wearing themselves out. And as is the way with burnout, it’s only once you are past your limits that you discover where you limits are (or how long it will take to recover from crossing them).

It’s true that in today’s short attention span information overloaded age there are new challenges for makers. It’s easy to blame these cultural shifts, and to see how software uses our brains against us, as a problem (and for the future of civilization it’s scary indeed). For creators, the news and information cycle is so fast that to earn attention for your work suggests you have to keep up with it all. But the other side of that technological coin is that it’s easier than ever to make things and distribute them. Most people today have in their pocket everything they need to write a novel, or make a film, and at the click of a button, put it online and make it instantly available to the entire planet. They can even use wonderful tools like Kickstarter, as I have several times, to get their friends, family and fans to help make it happen (something artists have often had to do in the past, from Vincent Van Gogh to Richard Linklater).

Of course the entire planet does not care when yet more media is added to the world (4oo hours of video are posted to youtube every minute, so even if the world cared, they’d still have to prioritize). But even 50 years ago, before the internet, there were more films made each year than anyone could possibly see and more books published annually than anyone could read. For a very long time we’ve been living in a world where there is a surplus of creative works, which therefore means they compete for attention (Herbert Simon wrote about the attention economy as early as 1971).  The attention economy has certainly intensified, but it’s part of an old story of how as civilization progresses, the means of creation enter more people’s hands.

One major positive difference that comes along with this change is the number of gatekeepers is lower than ever. Thanks to the web no one can tell me, or you, or anyone, NO, which was true until these last few decades. Before the web there was often no way to get your work distributed unless you had permission.  Given the choice of a) depending on the approval of others to finish projects and share them with the world, but having fewer competitors vs. b) being able to put anything into the world, but I have to compete with everyone else for attention, I definitely choose b. At least I have a chance. At least I can compete, and use my skills at creation as an advantage.

Getting back to the attention economy and burnout, the wise answer is that if creativity is a primary resource in your work, you have to manage your emotional health carefully. This means understanding 4 things.

  1. What is a sustainable pace of work for you (that can last for a long career)? This is more about self-awareness than what’s happening on Facebook (or whatever eventually replaces it). How many blog posts or tweets can you write in a week? Or short films? What if you have to average that over a month or a year? Or a lifetime? How much downtime do you need to sustain that level of production? These are questions anyone serious about being a professional maker of things has to consider. You can’t live on all-nighters (and the recovery time from those bold efforts is often longer than people realize).
  2. What is a sustainable amount of income/attention?  Much of my income comes from speaking at events. Speaking pays very well and is a short commitment, a combination that gives me the time and funding to support writing projects (including this blog, which is free). Most creative people in history realized they needed multiple paths of income, and attention, to make their life work (or do their life’s work). Only when you sit down and do the math can you understand how best to prioritize your limited time and what kinds of attention to seek (See Should I Quit My Job?).
  3. Attention from fans matters more than the rest of the world. The most famous people in any media get most of the attention. But the fallacy is that you need to be in that top 1% or 5% to make a living. That’s not true. You simply need enough fans and attention to earn you enough money to make a living (an approach services like Patreon have validated). By most measures I am not a famous person, nor a particularly famous author. I’ve made it work over these 15 years because enough people have seen my work and liked it sufficiently to pay for it, recommend it to others and come back for more (and I’m very grateful to them). Maybe you only need attention from a handful of the right people (Patrons of the arts, a specific professional group, venture capitalists, who knows) to earn the balance of the income you need. Michelangelo and Da Vinci were likely unknown names more than a few hundred miles from where they lived. Once you start targeting the attention that helps you most, what the rest of the world is obsessing about doesn’t matter anymore.
  4. A creative life is not the safe and secure path. I wish that it was, but I know it isn’t. The more creative the life you choose, the more risk that will come with it. If you want a secure, predictable career, consider an office job where you work for someone else. You will likely get a salary, health benefits and predictable days of working just from 9am to 5pm, all things I do not get as I am self-employed, just like many writers, bloggers, Youtubers, musicians and filmmakers are. It’s a mistake to enter creative life, including starting your own business, while presuming  the outcome is clear. It can be wonderfully rewarding, but as I’ve pointed out in this post, you are choosing to compete to earn a living, and even if you do everything right odds are high you can still fail. I recommend doing it anyway, you will learn more about life and yourself by taking the challenging path, but you should do it with your eyes open.

Did you find this post useful? You can help me write more good works by sharing this post. Thanks.


How Can You Recognize a Wise Person When You Meet One?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from Mike:  How can you tell a wise person when you meet one?

“It is by no means uncommon to find men whose knowledge is wide but whose feelings are narrow. Such men lack what I am calling wisdom.”
– Bertrand Russell

If you can’t judge a book by its cover, how can you judge a person on their first impression? I’ve never liked the cliche about “you never get a second chance…” because it’s rarely true. Sure, if you spill a large coffee on someone’s lap, or set an entire dining room on fire, that would be hard to recover from on a first date, but most first interactions with people are terribly bland, no matter how wise either of you are. There just is no secret wise-person handshake nor a wise-person detection app for your phone.

Instead it takes an actual conversation with someone to learn who they are and how wise they might be. Starting conversations isn’t that hard, but there is a stupor that comes over most of us when we meet new people. Mostly, it goes like this: “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, you?” “I’m fine, thanks” <silence>. There’s not much chance to notice a wise person here. Our questionable social skills with strangers means there are hundreds of wise people we have met at parties, or stood next to at the bus stop, and never knew it.

I understand social anxiety and fear of embarrassment, but yet it’s still mystifying that after 10,000 years of civilized life our species still hasn’t recognized how little there is to lose in talking to strangers (in safe situations). Why not just assume they are wise or interesting? What is there really to lose if you’re wrong? It’s easy to end conversations with strangers and they likely didn’t even expect you to start one. Therefore, why not make an offer to get outside of the boring conventions of daily life we so often complain about? More to my point, it takes a bit of wisdom about wisdom to find wise people.

Wisdom means not only experience, but an understanding of how to apply life experience to the present. This means the most likely way to identify a wise person is to have a conversation about life, which likely means to talk about a shared, or personal, event that has already taken place. It’s in their own observations that their wisdom or insight will be revealed (or not). This could take the shape of lessons learned, of attitudes about relationships or work, or thoughts about regrets and future dreams.

Now it’d be weird to go up to a stranger, introduce yourself, and demand “tell me a personal story that reveals how wise you are.” Don’t do that. But in most social situations there is a fast path towards sharing stories. For example, at a party you can always ask anyone you don’t know: “how do you know <name of host of party>” which almost always has some kind of story as an answer (and you can show your curiosity by asking interesting questions about their story). And then you can reply with your own answer, but add some leading context that hints at a story, or question, of your own. Perhaps “We went to college together a decade ago, but I have to admit I’m not sure I belong here. There’s just too many people I don’t know.” Or even ask for advice about how to meet new people at events like this, a fun meta-trick (as by asking this to a new person you are using the question itself to solve them problem).

Perhaps my party socializing advice seems bound to fail, and you might be right. Maybe it’s easier to start with people we already know, like friends, coworkers and family. But even then there must be some kind of ignition event to wake another person up out of their daily routines and pay attention to the fact you are offering a more interesting kind of conversation. There is no guarantee they’ll be interested, or even understand that this is what you are offering. Yet if you don’t try, you’ll never know if you just overlooked a wise person. Someone has to (kindly) spark the chance for insight. To find wise people, you have to be wise enough, or perhaps just sufficiently bold, to reach out for them.

Part of the challenge in finding wise people is what we perceive as wisdom is filtered by the chemistry created by our personality meeting the personality of another. Someone can be very wise, but also irritating. For example I suspect Socrates, for all his wisdom, wasn’t particularly easy to get along with (yet the meetup group that bares his name can be a great way to meet wise people). Maybe you meet someone wise, but they offer their wisdom in a way that makes you feel belittled. Or they have bad breath, which you despise. Or maybe you don’t like their sense of humor, which diminishes your interest in their sage like thoughts. Just because they are wise doesn’t mean their wisdom will be palatable, or even comprehendible, to you.

If I had to list traits of someone wise, they’d include:

  • Experienced – they’ve had interesting life experiences, both successes and failures, and they’ve asked good questions about them
  • Humble confidence – they have clarity to share, or to challenge my thinking, but without a strong need to convince me of their view
  • Insightful opinions – their thoughts invite consideration or raise my curiosity (even if I don’t agree with their conclusions)
  • (I very much want to list a good sense of humor, but I’m convinced that reflects my own biases)

Which leads to the observation that wisdom isn’t a universal attribute. Some people are very wise about business, but are terribly ignorant about how healthy relationships work. Or they can give fantastic advice about life to others that they fail to practice in their own lives (a notorious failing of gurus, experts and authors too). The singular word wisdom doesn’t stretch to cover the complexities of how it, or it’s absence, plays out in a person’s life, or in the advice they give. People in their later years certainly have more life experience to work from, but that by no means guarantees they possess any more wisdom about life than someone much younger than they are: a person might accumulate ignorance, or bitterness, at the same, or a faster, rate than wisdom.

In the end, mostly what we want are interesting people who are interested in us. Who are friendly, perhaps charming, willing to share what they know and perhaps willing to listen for wisdom they don’t have in new people they meet. Framed this way the titular question of this essay is less daunting. Once you befriend one person with these attributes, it’s easier to find more. And who knows, maybe while we’re trying to find what we need, now and then we can be the “wise person” someone we meet (at a party) is looking to find.

Where have you met the wisest people you know? How did you recognize them? Leave a comment.

The Last Jedi and Suspension of Disbelief

[There’s no askberkun post today – hope you enjoy this timely essay on films and expectations. There are no spoilers about The Last Jedi, but I’ll allow them in the comments.]

“The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.” —Joan Didion

We love or hate films based on what we expect of them. It’s easy to blame a movie’s creators, as we are their customers, but in reality half the work is ours. Do you want realism or an escape? Do you want to be satisfied or challenged? To think or to laugh? What rules from real life must be followed or do you want broken? Too often we leave it until we’re midway through a movie to realize that what we wanted wasn’t what we thought we wanted and we rarely blame ourselves for that mistake.

Two decades and ten films into the world of Star Wars I find my expectations hard to manage. I thought Rogue One, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were good “Star Wars films” but what does that even mean? It’s hard to watch any of these films now, new or old, without thinking at various moments about how it ties together, or cuts against, the history of the series. This is part of the fun, but it’s also a trap. These are now meta-movies. They are, as Lucas intended, serials, like the cliffhanger shorts he was inspired by, but is that what I really want watch? I’m not sure.

It’s hard to experience any event, or character, no matter how well done, in a Star Wars film as if it exists in it’s own time in it’s own ‘real’ universe. The burden of Star Wars (and most film series than span generations like Terminator, Indiana Jones or Spiderman) is any story you are watching is burdened by narrative masters that lurk in the shadows off-screen, in our memories. And franchise reboots only complicate the expectations game, playing on and against our expectations in both interesting and frustrating ways. I want to just watch the film in front of me, free from too much context, but that’s not the world these films put us in anymore.

All movies depends on the audience accepting a departure from their daily lives. We know these are actors on movie sets inventing a false reality. Mostly this departure is what people are paying for: an escape of one kind or another. Even the act of sitting in a full theater itself, sharing an experience with others, is something we don’t do often in life anymore. Consider the ritualistic decent into shared silence as the previews end and the feature film begins: when else in life are we in grand rooms with hundreds of strangers who all agree to respectfully share the silence? It’s evidence that everyone has reverence for the powerful shared escape of film.

Coleridge coined the term suspension of disbelief to describe the desired state of mind a reader, or viewer, needs to have for the work of art to function. But the question is: who should do the greater burden of achieving this state of mind? The creator or the consumer? We assume it is the creator, and they do have the lion’s share, but if the consumer is not in the mood for Shakespeare, or Amy Schumer, is there anything Shakespeare (or the director of the particular play) or Amy Schumer can really do about it? Films, like most commercial art, make promises in their advertising and marketing, but our expectations, when we sit in that chair and the film begins, are still are own.

More to the point about Star Wars, these are not realistic films. Most of the battles, plots and plans even in the original triology don’t hold up well to even the most basic questions (see: we dare you to explain Luke’s plan). It’s the suspension of disbelief that holds most viewers back from ever asking these kinds of questions. Which means the endless arguments about plot lines and holes, boneheaded choices by lead characters, or story arcs that go nowhere reveal the arguers chosen position on the spectrum of disbelief suspension: they only want to disbelieve so much. Which translates into something like “YES, movies with time-travel, or zombies, are fine. And in Star Wars, it’s OK that a long time ago spaceships somehow operated on different principles of physics, a power exists that unifies the universe in such a way that people can use it move objects with their minds, but NO a Starkiller base couldn’t possibly work.” Even when we criticize the inconsistencies of a film, we forget that we’re partly responsible for the rules we’re expecting a fiction to be consistent with.

Part of the value, in fables and fantasy, of bonehead choices and challenges to logic is the gift of superiority it gives to the audience. It’s straight out of the classic soap opera and hero myth narrative playbook to inspire the audience to judge mistakes, to debate flaws, and to be enraged by them. “What! They had an evil twin?” is well known as one of many standard genre tropes for soap operas and films, but even the Iliad expects us to accept the plausibility of a (successful) Trojan horse, the power of Helen’s beauty, and even begs the reader to criticize the hero Achilles (although perhaps not the supernatural nature of his powers).

And each person has their own, often subconscious, list of expectations they never want violated. Some of these rules, like say, the limits to how the force works, or what is allowed to happen to certain characters, feels fair as it’s defined by the legacy of the films themselves. If James Bond could suddenly fly, or Wonder Woman turned out to be an an alien robot from the future, the shock would be understandable (although comic books notoriously introduce shocking plot lines that violate rules). But if a story that has always had the same flaws continues to have them, and there is outrage, who’s problem is it really?

For all the worship of Campbell’s Heroes Journey, a model of storytelling Lucas claims to have used in on his final drafts of the original Star Wars, there’s something shallow about it’s advice. Stories based on universal themes, that are told in a universal way, tend to overly simplify the complexities of good, evil, love and hate. There are rarely “bad guys” and “good guys” in life in the way these stories suggest (and to be blunt, the evil of the bad guys, and good of the good guys, in Star Wars is never explained well, as explaining it is not a strength of this idiom. Luke and Rey could just as well have been “evil” given their rocky starts in life). Is this a problem or an advantage? Well of course it depends. Do you want a soap opera about a far away galaxy today, or a factual memoir by a refuge from a war torn country? A slapstick comedy or a family drama? Do you like the suspension of disbelief mythology and fantasy require, or do you want the down to earth reality of a good documentary about a topic you know well?

One meaning of the word idiom is a mode of expression, or a set of rules for what an audience can expect. Star Wars from the beginning was a fairly tale, a space opera, by design, not caring much about science (e.g. spaceships can’t make bank turns in space, nor make sound), logic or military strategy. Those attributes might be expected in a war movie like Saving Private Ryan, but that’s not the kind of universe Star Wars was created for and thrived in. Arguably a great film transcends idiom: it magically draws you into it’s world regardless of your preconceptions, boosts your suspension of disbelief through filmmaking craft, but that is harder to do in story that’s being told in installments over 40 (or more) years. Which leads to the question: if you saw a random Star Wars film without knowledge of any of the others, what complaints would you have?

Running jokes about how stormtroopers have terrible aim are good because they strike at a truth about the series and the genre. Another is the how heroes regularly pilot spaceships, including freighters, at high speed in impossible turns (that violate physics) through jagged landscapes and spaceships, ones they’ve never seen before, defies any understanding of science or human performance (assuming of course these characters are human at all). Flash Gordon (a major Lucas influence) had similiar problems and so does Indian Jones or The Fast and The Furious or any story with an action hero as the star, as if they die the series ends, but if there is no drama, our disbelief is broken, or we’re bored.

The grand trap might just be that as the age of Star Wars’ first audience matured into adulthood, we backfilled more mature expectations into it. The mythology shifted into religion as the literalness adults crave took control over the generous imagination of youth. For this reason we take seriously story details that were never quite meant to be taken that way. In Greek Mythology, the god Athena was born from the head of Zeus, but to my knowledge there is no reddit forum yet that debates how impractical (or not) this mostly metaphorical plot note might be. We criticize movies that explain too much as having too much exposition, but in fantasy if you start explaining things you chip away at the unreality of the whole thing.

The Star Wars prequels were of course terrible in many ways, but one perhaps noble failure was it’s attempt to make the Star Wars universe sophisticated, nuanced, mature, something more than a fairy tale. Lucas did this of course in direct conflict with the originating idiom the films were born in (most notably the tragic introduction of midi-clorians), but was he wrong to try? I’m not sure.  Had the film’s fundamentals of plot, writing and acting been sound, the (now) adult fan base might have widened their suspension of disbelief to allow for more mature kinds of storytelling, even within the context of a fairy tale. But now we will never know, and the series is burdened by the resulting damage (in a similar way The new Star Trek and Hobbit films have burdened their series too).

I found The Last Jedi to be both frustrating and liberating. As a movie I think Rian Johnson and his team did a fine job. They made a “good Star Wars” film. Given the truly otherworldly baggage they inherited they both took more risks, and yet respected the idiom, enough that I’ll keep watching, and for films of this kind I’m not sure what other opinion there is that matters.

The lesson in all this about suspension of disbelief is that it can be thought of as an exercise of imagination. For every plot flaw, every stupid choice a hero makes, for every consistency violation, we can play the generous game of filling in the gaps ourselves. Let’s assume there is a good reason for this, and if I need it I can create one myself, even if it’s not shown on screen. Our brains do it for us most of the time when we sit in a theater, but I advocate helping it along. This can be far more fun than tearing films apart (which is certainly fun too) as we go to theater hoping to escape, rather than to devise ways to ruin the attempt.

But of course we don’t go to movies to obtain homework. I agree we should expect much from the people who take our money for their movies, books and art. But in the end we choose which tickets to buy. By now we know very well what, at its best, the world of Star Wars can do. And there is far more pleasure to be gained by offering generous suspension of disbelief and by matching our expectations, to the idiom of the movie we’re choosing to go see.

[Last Jedi spoilers are allowed in the comments: so view them at your own risk]


Why Remote Workers Fail

[On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from Regina [330 votes]: What gaps in communication exist in global virtual teams? Which I have simplified for your reading pleasure to why remote workers fail.]

The best argument about the viability of remote work is that it’s about results: any boss should let their good employees work remotely on a trial basis and see how it goes. If they can perform just as well, and their coworkers have no complaints, what’s the problem? You lose nothing and have a happier employee. Sadly many managers are afraid to try new ideas of any kind, which suggests they’re not all that great at being the boss anyway, but that’s a topic for another post.

Even when a remote experiment is done, and it fails, often it’s the remote worker, or the very idea of remote work, that gets scapegoated. This is sad. It’s far wiser to start by blaming the manager instead. Why? Well the Leffert’s Law of Management states that the starting assumption for managers should be that whatever is going wrong is their fault, and this rule applies to remote work too. A good boss realizes it’s their job to create an environment their staff can perform well in and remote work is just another scenario they should be taking responsibility for.

This sets the stage for the five most common reasons why remote workers fail:

  1. No ally in the main office. If there is a primary physical office, it’s hard for remote workers to know what they’re missing. Someone has to look out on their behalf in meetings, hallway discussions or post work happy-hour chats. No one likes having their time wasted, but without an ally decisions are often made that are not communicated to remote workers, even when those decisions directly impact them. It’s not hard to learn the habits of being an ally, but someone has to lead the way. Some workplaces adopt a remote-first culturewhere as many discussions, meetings and processes are done online, and with tools that can be used from anywhere and at anytime (which often benefits “non-remote” workers too, as all conversations are archived and searchable, people can be more productive when traveling, etc.). The boss is the most obvious ally for a remote worker, making sure their perspective and needs are represented.
  2. Cultural bias towards caution. Amazon and other companies talk about bias towards action as a key part of their culture. This means the default posture every employee is expected to have is to be aggressive in making decisions and taking action, rather than waiting to be told what to do or taking endless precautions before acting. Remote workers are more likely to do well in these cultures, as their autonomy becomes an advantage, rather than a source of frustration. Bias towards action also tends to create more resilient employees who are comfortable identifying and solving problems (including perhaps diagnosing co-ordination frustrations involving remote workers). The more overhead and coordination required by a culture, the more pressure that’s put on remote communication tools and the team’s ability to communicate well (see #4).
  3. Poorly defined role. Remote workers benefit from clearly defined roles where they have more freedom to decide on their own how best to use their time and resources. Even if their role requires high collaboration with other people, explicitly stating what’s expected, what powers they have and how their performance will be measured is essential to their success. Of course poorly defined roles are a problem in any organization, but the negative impact is amplified with remote workers. A role likely needs to be reevaluated, and possibly modified, when it’s transitioned to a remote position.
  4. Poor culture of communication. When you work remotely you depend heavily on written communication: email, chat rooms, and more. Organizations that have cultivated excellent communication skills make it much easier for people to work remotely, as it’s built into the culture to ask clarifying questions, to be helpful to coworkers and to document processes and decisions in a way that other people can easily comprehend. One of the great discoveries I made when I worked for (Automattic Inc. is 100% remote) was how thoughtfully everyone wrote and read, and at every level of the organization. It’s taken for granted that most organizations in the world consistently hire people with good communication skills, but in reality good/mature communication skills are uncommon, and the price paid for poor communicators is amplified for remote workers.
  5. The wrong person was hired. Hiring good people is hard enough, but to hire someone for remote work demands extra care. Remote work isn’t for everyone. Some people depend on the energy they get from being physically near their coworkers, or the psychological value of going to a physical place to “do work” and leaving to go home. Remote workers often need above average organization skills and self-awareness of their working habits. Being proactive as a remote worker is a major asset, as even in an organization with allies and a bias towards action, remote workers by definition must take more responsibility for themselves than other employees do. Automattic wisely hires by remote trial, which makes a candidate’s remote working skills part of how they are evaluated.

Despite the suggestion of the image shown below, it’s uncommon for remote workers to fail because they abused their privileges. Many people who choose to work remotely greatly appreciate not having to commute in traffic, value the ability to easily take care of their family (if they work from home) and the superior control they have over their lifestyle when compared to more conventional employment. It’s for these reasons I advocate workplaces give it a try and for people to ask for it. There’s much to gain and little to lose.

Have you seen other reasons why remote workers fail? Have a theory? Leave a comment.