Having a Vision + Be the Change

I found this great blog post, that according to Om Malik, is “the most astute of all posts on Microsoft’s past, present and future“, written by John Gruber.

My key take away from the article is that, having a well-defined, specific vision of a changed enhanced, and better world is absolutely critical for an idea to not only succeed (mass adoption + mass benefit & empowerment), but for that idea to take shape as well. My second insight — is this: a maker is  to be never be blinded by her/his own success. Take time to discover fundamental truths about humanity (something that hasn’t changed much for 5000 years) –> and always seek to revolutionize yourself first. Innovation doesn’t stop — seek to reinvent yourself — iterate not just the form — but fundamentally challenge core prevailing idea of the time — especially if the idea is your own. It’s a constant and continuous progress. This thought has to be ingrained in every designer/maker/leader.

In broad strokes, here is my view of Microsoft’s history.

In the beginning, Bill Gates stated the company’s goal: “A computer on every desk and in every home.” That was crazy. The PC revolution was well underway, but the grand total of PCs sold when Gates stated that mantra was, by today’s standards, effectively zero. PCs were for hobbyists. Everyone involved knew they were on to something, but Gates realized, at the outset, that they were on to something huge. The industry was measuring sales in the thousands, but Gates was already thinking about billions. Here’s Gates, in an interview from 2010:

Paul Allen and I had used that phrase even before we wrote the BASIC for Microsoft.

We actually talked about it in an article in — I think 1977 was the first time it appears in print — where we say, “a computer on every desk and in every home…” and actually we said, “…running Microsoft software.” If we were just talking about the vision, we’d leave those last three words out. If we were talking an internal company discussion, we’d put those words in. It’s very hard to recall how crazy and wild that was, you know, “on every desk and in every home.” At the time, you have people who are very smart saying, “Why would somebody need a computer?” Even Ken Olsen, who had run this company Digital Equipment, who made the computer I grew up with, and that we admired both him and his company immensely, was saying that this seemed kind of a silly idea that people would want to have a computer.

He was right. And not only did the first part of the phrase come true, the last three words — “… running Microsoft software” — did too. From the mid-’90s and for the next decade, there was, effectively, a computer on every desk and in every home running Microsoft software. At least 95 percent of them were running the Windows operating system, and among the rest, most were Macs running Internet Explorer and probably Microsoft Office too.

Windows was almost everywhere, and Microsoft was everywhere.

Peak Microsoft was unfathomably pervasive. They won so thoroughly that Steve Jobs conceded that they’d won, telling Wired in February 1996:

The desktop computer industry is dead. Innovation has virtually ceased. Microsoft dominates with very little innovation. That’s over. Apple lost. The desktop market has entered the dark ages, and it’s going to be in the dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of this decade.”

Steve Fucking Jobs said that. He was exactly right. And who knows where we’d be today if Jobs and NeXT had not been reunified with Apple the next year.

“A computer on every desk and in every home” was incredible foresight for 1977. It carried Microsoft for 25 years of growth. But once that goal was achieved, I don’t think they knew where to go. They were like the dog that caught the car. They spent a lot of time and energy on TV. Not just with Xbox, which is alive and well today (albeit not a significant source of income), but with other ideas that did not pan out, like “media center PCs” and the joint ownership of “MSNBC”, which was originally imagined as a sort of cable news network, website, dessert topping, and floor wax rolled into one.

What they missed was the next step from every desk and home: a computer in every pocket. It’s worse than that, though. They saw it coming, and they tried. Pocket PC, Windows CE, Windows Mobile — swings and misses at the next big thing. They weren’t even close, and damningly, Steve Ballmer didn’t even seem to realize it. That’s what’s so damning about that video of him laughing at the original iPhone. Whenever I dredge up that video, a handful of defenders will write and tell me it’s unfair to mock him for his reaction, that he was actually right — that the original iPhone was too expensive. But what should have scared Microsoft wasn’t what the iPhone was in 2007, it was what the iPhone clearly was going to be in 2008, 2009, 2010. Prices come down, chips get faster. Software evolves. Apple had unveiled to the world a personal computer that fit in your pocket. That was amazing. That the original iPhone left much room for improvement is simply the way revolutionary products always get their start.

Microsoft’s institutional lack of taste had finally come to bite them in their ass. While Ballmer laughed at the iPhone and presumably walked around with a Windows Mobile piece of junk in his pocket, Larry Page and Sergei Brin carried iPhones. Google never laughed at the iPhone; it made money from it by providing web search and maps. Google quickly became, and remains to this day, a leading developer of iOS apps. And it was Google that was fast to follow the iPhone with Android, slurping up the commodity-market crumbs that Apple, focused as ever on the quality-minded high end of the market, eschewed. I don’t think it was ever within Microsoft’s DNA to produce the iPhone, but what Android became — the successful fast follower — could have been theirs if they’d recognized the opportunity faster. The Microsoft of 1984, a decade away from industry dominance, wrote software for the original Mac, and learned from it. When Bill Gates first saw a Mac, he didn’t laugh — he wanted to know how it worked, right down to specific details, like the smooth animation of its mouse cursor.

No company today has reach or influence anything like what Microsoft had during the golden era of the PC. Not Apple, not Google, and not Microsoft itself. I don’t think Ballmer ever came to grips with that. Ballmer’s view of the company solidified when it dominated the entire industry, and he never adjusted.

Hence Windows 8. One OS for all PCs, traditional and tablet alike, because that’s the only way for Windows to run almost all of them, and Windows running almost all PCs is the way things ought to be. Rather than accept a world where Windows persisted as merely one of several massively popular personal computing platforms, and focus on making Windows as it was better for people who want to use desktop and notebook PCs, Microsoft forged ahead with a design that displeasedtraditional PC users and did little to gain itself a foothold in the burgeoning tablet market. It was easy to see. Windows 8’s design wasn’t what was best for any particular device, but instead what seemed best for Ballmer’s “Windows everywhere” vision of the industry and Microsoft’s rightful place atop it.

Horace Dediu captures the change in the industry wrought by iOS and Android in this succinct (and, as usual, well-illustrated) piece from a few months ago, writing:

If we include all iOS and Android devices the “computing” market in Q3 2008 was 92 million units of which Windows was 90%, whereas in Q3 2013 it was 269 million units of which Windows was 32%.

That’s a startling change, and Ballmer never seemed to accept it. Windows 8 wasn’t designed to adjust to the new world; it was designed to turn back the clock to the old one.


I think it’s a very good sign that Satya Nadella comes from Microsoft’s server group. As my colleague Brent Simmons wrote today:

Creating services for iOS apps doesn’t sound at all like the Microsoft I used to know. Using Node.js and JavaScript doesn’t sound like that Microsoft. The old Microsoft would create services for their OSes only and you’d have to use Visual Studio.

There’s still a lot of the old Microsoft there, the Windows, Office, Exchange, and Sharepoint (WOES) company. It’s most of the company by far, surely. (I just made up the acronym WOES. It fits.)

But in the Azure group, at least, there’s recognition that Microsoft can’t survive on lock-in, that those days are in the past.

Even if you don’t choose to use Microsoft’s cloud services, I hope you can agree on two things: that competition is good, and that Azure’s support-everything policy is the best direction for the future of the company.

In short, Nadella’s Server division is the one part of Microsoft that seems designed for, and part of, the post-iOS, post-Android state of the industry. A division pushing toward the future, not the past.

Successful companies tend to be true to themselves. The old Microsoft’sWindows and Office everywhere, on every device strategy was insanely ambitious, but also true to their culture. Apple has grown to eclipse Microsoft in financial size, but never set its sights on Microsoft-ian market share. Google is unfocused at the edges, but it’s never tried to act like any company other than Google. Google makes operating systems and office applications, but in a decidedly Google-y way. The last thing Microsoft should do is attempt to be like Apple or Google.

Cloud computing is one potential path forward. The cloud is nascent, like the PC industry of 1980. In 30 years we’ll look back at our networked infrastructure of today and laugh, wondering how we got a damn thing done. The world is in need of high-quality, reliable, developer-friendly, trustworthy, privacy-guarding cloud computing platforms. Apple and Google each have glaring (and glaringly different) holes among that list of adjectives.

Satya Nadella needs to find Microsoft’s new “a computer on every desk and in every home running Microsoft software”. Here’s my stab at it:Microsoft services, sending data to and from every networked device in the world. The next ubiquity isn’t running on every device, it’s talking to every device.

 

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Designers as Founders

Powerful talk.

Transcript below:

Where Are We Now?

Designers have never been more in demand. It’s not entirely uncommon for a 19-year-old designer to get a cold call from a CEO with a six-figure job offer. As the technology stack becomes increasingly more plug-and-play (think Amazon Web Services), innovation is now moving into the experience layer. There are incredible opportunities to create software experiences that can tangibly connect with people on an emotional level. It’s an incredible time to be a designer.

All of this innovation is giving more power to designers, and we’re beginning to see more and more designers become founders and CEOs — a role that was traditionally relegated to technologists or seasoned managers. As a designer, if you’re thinking about making the leap and becoming a founder, there are a few things I’ve picked up over the years that you might find helpful.

Don’t Get Tech? Don’t Start a Technology Company

Design is a force multiplier — while technology is at the foundation, design can still be a force to be reckoned with. However, it’s challenging to leverage design in an impactful way if you can’t read a line of code or understand how your infrastructure fits together. If this describes you well, you may be in the wrong field and are surely setting yourself up for disappointment.

The good news is that you can reconcile the disparity between you and an “ideal design founder,” by doing one of two things: Learning how to code (daunting, but achievable) or partnering with someone who does.

Love Designing? Avoid Founding

If you’re most passionate about the design process, founding a company is not for you.

“Starting a company will ensure you never get to do hands-on designing in the long-run.”

That’s not to say, however, that being a great designer won’t give you insights to problems that you might face while building your business.

If your endeavor is ultimately successful, you simply won’t be designing. And if you continue to design after starting your company, chances are you won’t be successful. Make sure you’ve come to terms with this reality.

Pick the Right Fight

Industry people like to harp on product market fit, but founder market fit is equally important. As cliche as it is, pivoting a product is always a viable option, whereas changing the founder or the market itself is a lot more difficult.

“Pick a market that will benefit from the fact that you’re a designer — that you have the taste to employ great design talent and that you’re going to be able to use design thinking.”

If you have multiple founders, this will be a great indicator with regards to who should be the CEO. The CEO is the person ultimately tasked with making difficult strategic decisions that are relevant to a particular market — and if they are design problems, you should have a design CEO. If you’ve got a tech partner, however, the reverse is true. Put simply, fantastic companies like Stripe and Github could not be founded or run by designers because they’re so engineering oriented.

So, if you want to find a unique opportunity, a truly rare entity as the designer-founder, ask yourself: “What opportunities and what markets could engineers not exploit?”

Think Like a Designer

Design is not just a set of activities that one must do in order to build a product. While it’s easy to claim that design is Photoshop, wire frames, and white boards, these are merely ways to execute design. If you don’t step back from these little activities that make up design in the technology industry and use your unique abilities to foster design thinking, you’re not playing to your strengths.

As a designer, realize that you think in a fundamentally different way than engineers. Engineering is rooted in equations, formulas, procedures and the like, very well-defined is not generally how you run a dynamic business. Running a business is more of like an art —  it’s something that’s intuitive and comes from a creative process.

This intangible sense will help you intimately understand what people want, create it, give it to them, sell (over and over), and keep them as customers. It’s not an engineering problem. It’s not a left brain problem. It’s not a thing that most engineers can do, so this is your advantage.

So if you understand the technology, are okay with the fact that you may not be designing as much, have the right market and always think like a designer, consider being a founder.

“This is Not a Horse.”

“It’s not a horse.” “It doesn’t have a steam engine.” “We’re gonna need to build new smoother roads for them.”

These were the words people used to describe the car when it was first invented. The same is being said about mobile. We talk about the technologies inside these machines and infrastructure. But fundamentally internet + mobile will have profound implications. 

Mobile will completely and fundamentally change how we live as human beings.

“Mobile will do to our society what the car did. The car completely changed how we lived. Suburbia did not exist before the car was invented. It totally changed the dynamics of neighborhoods and how people interacted with each other. It completed changed the economics of buying and selling. Because suddenly people could build big warehouses at the edge of town and pact them with stuff. People could drive there and buy stuff for cheap.”

Sometimes the Ugliest Design is the Best

My design instructor has ingrained in me the idea that Design is a lot more than just making things look pretty. Of course, make things appealing to the eye, to the touch,  in most instances is one of the design requirements. But one must know the difference between style and design.

I recently found this great article:

THE DRIBBBLISATION OF DESIGN

Only one of these weather apps is attempting to solve the real problem.

There are divergent things happening in the product and interaction design community. On one hand, we have some amazing pieces of writing from the likes of Ryan Singer and Julie Zhuo, moving our craft forward. On the other hand, we have a growing number of people posting and discussing their work on Dribbble, the aggregated results of which are moving our craft backwards. This post is not about Dribbble itself, it’s about what the community on Dribbble value. I’ll use the term ‘product design’ throughout, but I’m including UX and interaction design when I do.

“LOOKS AWESOME!” HOW THE DRIBBBLE COMMUNITY REWARDS SUPERFICIAL WORK

In the last year I’ve reviewed a lot of product design work from job applicants, at Facebook and now at Intercom, and I’ve noticed a worrying pattern. Too many designers are designing to impress their peers rather than address real business problems. This has long been a problem in creative advertising (where creative work is often more aligned with winning awards than with primary client business objectives) and its becoming more prominent in product and interaction design.

Much of the product design work from job applicants I’ve seen recently has been superficial, created with one eye towards Dribbble. Things that look great but don’t work well. Perfect pixel executions of flat design, but work that doesn’t address real business goals, solve real problems people have every day, or take a full business ecosystem into consideration. Dribbble itself shapes the conversation to some extent, the medium shaping the message, with highlighting of colour palettes and other superficial details prominent in the UI. People look and people emulate. A huge majority of the product design work on Dribbble looks the same. Whether it’s social software, accounting software, a marketing site, a weather app, the same styles are applied. Blur your eyes and try and tell the difference.

THE MOST IMPORTANT PRODUCT DESIGN WORK IS USUALLY THE UGLIEST

In contrast, the best job applicants I’ve seen sent in their thought process. Sketches. Diagrams. Pros and cons. Real problems. Tradeoffs and solutions. Prototypes that illustrate interaction and animation. Things that move, change and animate. Things that use real data.

The worst applicants sent in flat PNGs. PDFs full of wireframes. No articulation of the problem being solved, nor the business and technical constraints. No context. These pixel perfect, retina ready PNGs might look great on Dribbble, but they will have decreasing value as a primary design tool in a real product building environment.

This is why redesigns of other people’s work is pure folly e.g. the new Yahoo logo, iOS7, changes to Facebook, the New New Twitter, the American Airlines rebrand. People have no context for the decision making process involved in these projects, no knowledge of the requirements, constraints, organisational politics.

If product design is about solving problems for people within the constraints of a specific business, then it simply feels that many people calling themselves product/UX designers are actually practicing digital art. They are Artists. They are Stylists. Executing beautiful looking things, certainly an important skill, but not practising product design.

PRODUCT DESIGN IS ABOUT A MISSION, A VISION, AND AN ARCHITECTURE

From broad ideation to pixel level detail, designers should always be thinking about their company’s mission, vision and product architecture. Everything they do should flow through this funnel.

Design starts at the top of a company with the company mission. Then the company vision. It’s very hard to do great design in an organisation without a clear and actionable mission and vision. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. If your company lacks a clear mission, make it your job to facilitate the creation of one.

After the mission and vision is the product architecture. Not the technical architecture, rather the components of your product and how they relate to one another. The system. On the first morning of the first day of work at Facebook, Chris Cox (VP of Product) gives an incredible introductory talk (you can get a small flavour of it here). With an audience of people from any job function at the company, whilst he could talk about anything, he focuses on explaining the product architecture, and how it relates to the company mission.

For Facebook, that architecture is a directory of people, their friends, and their interests; a directory of businesses, from global brands all the way to small local corner shops. And on top of that directory is a map, showing the relationships between all those things. It’s a crystal clear articulation of the product, directly relatable to the mission. In my experience it’s very hard to do great design in an organisation without a clear, well defined product architecture. And in many cases, just like the mission, it’s the designer’s job to help figure out and evolve this architecture. When describing Facebook to external partners, I often drew diagrams like this one on the whiteboard:

A product architecture is not an information architecture. It is not a set of pages that link to one another, or something that shows modals and describes what buttons do. A prototype will always serve this purpose better. It is a level deeper than that. It is the structure. The building blocks. It shows the objects in the system, and the relationships between them. At Intercom we also think about design in the context of our product architecture:

I can’t ever remember seeing a product architecture described on Dribbble. It’s still too rare to witness a designer talk about how their work maps to a mission, drives a vision forward, or how it is placed within product architecture, with the weight that these things deserve. This should be the norm, not the exception.

Once you have a clear mission, vision and product architecture, you can start to think about the other details. The goals people have, what makes them happy, fulfilled, successful. The jobs your product does for them, where it works well, where it doesn’t.

The rough ugly sketches and scribbles that describe these things are far more important than the png that ends up on Dribbble. In the process from inception to shipped functioning product, photoshop files and PNGs are the least interesting and important aspect to me. Much more important is the discussions where trade offs were made. Where pros and cons were discussed. Where people mapped ideas to the company vision, or evolved things based on the product architecture. All the whiteboard sketches, hand drawings, and back of the napkin problem solving is what designers should be posting on Dribbble. Show me those things. Even a written description of what is being built is more important than the PNG or PDF.

THINK ABOUT FOUR LAYERS OF DESIGN

Design is a multi layered process. In my experience, there is an optimal order to how you move through the layers. The simplest version of this is to think about four layers:

I see designer after designer focus on the fourth layer without really considering the others. Working from the bottom up rather than the top down. The grid, font, colour, and aesthetic style are irrelevant if the other three layers haven’t been resolved first. Many designers say they do this, but don’t walk the walk, because sometimes it’s just more fun to draw nice pictures and bury oneself in pixels than deal with complicated business decisions and people with different opinions. That’s fine, stay in the fourth layer, but that’s art not design. You’re a digital artist, not a designer.

DESIGNING SYSTEMS WILL MATTER MORE AND MORE AS THE WEB PERMEATES EVERYTHING

The invention of the web will lead to the biggest changes to society since the Industrial Revolution. The web is permeating everything. It’s in our homes, in our workplaces, by our bed when we’re asleep, and in our pockets everywhere we go. The web is with us all the time. It’s already moving into our cars, into our clothes, into the things we own, into monitoring our health. By 2020, if not before, all businesses will be web businesses. As Charles Eames once said, “Eventually everything connects“.

Designing static, linked web pages is a dying profession. The incredible rise of mobile technologies, APIs, SDKs, and open partnerships between platforms and products paints a crystal clear picture of a future where we will all design systems. PDFs full of wireframes are a dying deliverable, Photoshop is a dying product design tool. Designers moving our craft forward are moving between sketches, whiteboards and prototyping tools (Quartz Composer, After Effects, Keynote, CSS/HTML).

This is one reason people say designers should code. Whether you agree with that or not, designers certainly need to define the problem and solution not in pixels, but in terms of describing what happens between components in a system. Then build prototypes, start coding, and fine tune the details as real data inevitably shows things that were overlooked and couldn’t have been predicted. Working interactions with real data give you a better sense of how something feels.

WE’RE DESIGNING AROUND JOBS

At Intercom, we’re working with Clay Christensen’s Jobs framework for product design. We frame every design problem in a Job, focusing on the triggering event or situation, the motivation and goal, and the intended outcome:

When _____ , I want to _____ , so I can _____ .

For example: When an important new customer signs up, I want to be notified, so I can start a conversation with them.

This gives us clarity. We can map this Job to the mission and prioritise it appropriately. It ensures that we are constantly thinking about all four layers of design. We can see what components in our system are part of this Job and the necessary relationships and interactions required to facilitate it. We can design from the top down, moving through outcome, system, interactions, before getting to visual design.

As well as using Jobs, we’re building a pattern library to reflect the system oriented nature of our design work. We’ll design more and more by using the library code rather than Photoshop. It’s not a perfect process. We iterate it constantly.

I’d love to hear how all this resonates with how you work. Please comment below!

UPDATE

In response to many comments here, on Twitter etc. I wrote a follow up postHow to hire designers. Check it out!

Some people on Twitter and HN have suggested that I’m conflating visual design with UX design. I disagree. In my opinion you cannot consider visual design of an interactive product without considering the interaction and system design. This is not graphic design. We’re not designing posters, or even road signs.

The Birth of a Music Station

smalltableBlog1

Last year I bought a portable turntable, and for a long time, I didn’t find a good place to put it. There was a corner in the living room which could be the perfect spot for the record player. But there was one problem: there lacked a table/stand that was:

A. Small enough to fit in the corner without blocking the pathway

B. Tall enough so that the turntable user does not have to bend down

C. Has space and shelving below the tabletop, so that records can be stored there

smalltableBlog2Knowing that I had some leftover wood from another project, I measured up the living room corner. Then I came up with these quick and rough drawings to visualize what I had in mind. After that I was off to the races and started to gather up tools and materials.

smalltableBlog3These pieces of wood in the picture are actually leftovers from this turntable project.

I got my pencil, ruler handy and marked down the saw points. This was tricky as imprecise measurements could cause trouble down the road. Then I used my trusty circular saw and cut out the pieces. Next I drilled small holes for the screws and then connected the pieces. (My apologies, I didn’t document the process here.)

After that I sanded down the wood surface to get it smooth and easy to touch . This should have been done prior to assembling the pieces. Sanding is much harder when pieces are assembled.

After the pieces have been assembled and sanded down, I applied a wood filler to the holes and even areas on the surface, then waited for it to dry. After drying, I applied two layers of primer and dark paint, leaving half a day for each layer to dry before the next one.

smalltableBlog4

 

Here’s the finished turntable stand.
It fits quite perfectly in the corner. The curved bottom cutout fits the floor vent opening as well.

 

smalltableBlog5Here’s the music station in action. It:

A. Plays awesome grooves

B. Allows easy access and clear visibility to the collection of records

C. Keeps the “now playing” LP cover and sleeve on the shelf right below the top

D. Stores a nice twelve pack at the bottom

How to be Amazing

and Why Spending $150K On An MBA Is Probably A Dumb Idea

Don’t let the title mislead you. This blog article by Erika Andersen is about much more than ranting against MBAs. It’s about how to become good at what you do – a master of your trade. I would also recommend a little handbook titled Mastery by George Leonard for anyone who wants to master anything in life. Having read has lead to my perspectives changing for the better. The idea, presented in the book, of loving the journey rather the destination is so universally true. Once this principle has been understood, I see it everywhere, most recently in Mihály Csíkszentmihályi‘s notion of flow in positive psychology – the complete, immersed involvement and enjoyment in the process of an activity. We need more of this kind of flow in this world.

I feel conflicted about MBAs.  On one hand, I get that the conceptual and analytical tools that form the bulk of most MBA programs are very useful to someone who wants to operate a business.  On the other hand, I know way too many MBAs who can’t manage or lead their way out of a paper bag – and still think they’re the bomb because…well, because they have an MBA.

I just read an article on MBAs and their merits by a guy named Todd Tauber.  Todd is fan of MBAs, and basically argues that the current vogue for dissing MBAs among young entrepreneurs is misguided.  Interestingly, although he acknowledges  that MBAs may be outdated and less useful for the 21st century than they need to be, he also proposes that they’re being fixed even as we speak, that the B-Schools “get it,” and are in the process of making MBAs relevant.

Uh-huh. I’ve been hearing that for a long time, and I don’t have much confidence that it’s true.

Here’s what I really think about MBAs.

– If you want to make a lot of money working for a big corporation that only hires its management track people from the “best” business schools, and you have $150K to invest in helping assure that will happen, get an MBA.

– If you really love going to school, and you’ve finished your undergrad degree and are interested in business (especially the intellectual and theoretical aspects of business) and you – or your parents – can afford the six-figure price tag, get an MBA.

– If you want to run a business or be a senior executive, but you don’t feel confident in your own ability to learn how to do that on your own without the framework of a curriculum, get an MBA.

Because (sorry Todd) my experience of observing and working with people who have MBAs over the past 40 years leads me to believe that whether or not people have that degree doesn’t seem to have much to do with whether or not they’ll be able to create happy, successful lives for themselves. Having an MBA really just means that you paid your money, and you went to class and studied sufficiently to pass enough of your courses to graduate.  It doesn’t predict whether you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned to the real world, and – most important – it seems to have very little bearing on whether or not you’ll be able to continue to learn, to keep acquiring the skills and knowledge you’ll need along the way.

I’m convinced that being a world-class learner is much  more important to your success in business (and in life) than having any kind of advanced degree. In fact, I become more sure every day that the ability to learn quickly and deeply is the single most important skill for the 21st century. Someone who’s a great learner will take best and fullest advantage of time spent in business school – but he or she will also take best and fullest advantage of all the circumstances and resources available to him or her every day. The key is that ability to learn – it’s like a continuously revving engine of growth.  I actually wish there was another word for it – ‘learning’ has such boring, schoolroom-ish connotations as a word.  How about mastery? Maybe we should call such people masters of mastery.

Here are the qualities I’ve seen over the years in folks who are true masters of mastery – the people who are just plain good at getting good at things.

Aspiration. Great learners are not satisfied with the status quo.  They have a vision of what they could be, know, do, achieve, master – and they’re relentless in figuring out how to get there.

Neutral self-awareness.  In order to learn something new, you have to be clear about your current knowledge or capability, and able to look at it almost as a third party. For example, I met someone a few months ago who thinks he’s a truly great leader, and he’s really committed to that self-assessment – not neutral at all. However, based on the evidence of how he operates every day and how he’s seen by those around him, it seems he’s actually a poor leader.  But his lack of neutral and accurate self-awareness makes it nearly impossible for him to be open to feedback or learning in this area.  I call this kind of deeply inaccurate (and deeply committed) self-assessment The American Idol Syndrome, in honor of all those contestants past, present and future who are convinced they’re going to be the next American Idol – but can’t actually sing. In order to master anything, you have to be a ‘fair witness’ of your own current capability: to be able to stand back from yourself and say “I’m a novice,” if that’s true for you right now.

Endless Curiosity.  True curiosity is a very powerful thing, and it’s built into all of us.  Anyone who’s ever been around a toddler for any length of time can attest to that. The endless “why?” and “how come?” and “what’s that?”  are all outward manifestations of that inward engine of curiosity. Curiosity is the impulse to investigate. As children, that impulse is a powerful, instinctive survival mechanism for each of us: the more we understand about our environment, and the more quickly we understand it, the more likely we are to succeed as human beings. Kids’ insatiable curiosity drives them to learn to speak, eat, walk, understand how to manipulate objects, learn to interact with other human beings.  It leads them to understand what is dangerous and what is safe, what is delicious and what is disgusting, what is useful and what is pointless.

Unfortunately, many of us lose touch with that inborn curiosity as we become adults. We assume we’re largely done growing, and that we understand things well enough, thank you very much.  And our curiosity is often stifled by others, as well.  We’re taught, “don’t meddle in things that don’t concern you,” “don’t read ahead,” and “don’t question your superiors,”  and even “curiosity killed the cat.” All clear societal messages to stop investigating your environment.

In order to make your way through this modern world successfully – to be a true learner – you have to re-connect with your innate curiosity.  The best learners (and most successful people) I know are continually asking curiosity-based questions like, “How does that work?” and “Why is that happening?” and “How can we/I….?” and “What if…?” Endless curiosity is essential to mastery.

Willingness to be not-good.  This may be the toughest aspect of true learning.  The path to being great at anything includes many, many points of being not great.  And that’s frustrating and embarrassing. This is especially difficult for people who are smart and good at things (some things).  When they run into a new skill or capability that requires real time and effort to master, where their initial efforts are clunky or incorrect, their impulse is to give up (and often to blame others or the thing itself for their immediate lack of success).  Being able to keep going, to work through feeling (and being) incompetent and inexpert on the way to competence and expertise, is essential to real learning of any kind.  I wrote a post about this a few weeks ago that seemed to strike a chord with people; I believe we all know intuitively that real learning requires both being OK with our own initial ineptness, and faith in our ability to get through it.

The problem is, as I said before, we generally think of learning as boring.  I bet if I had put the word “learning” in the title of this post, very few people would have read it. Don’t get distracted by our ho-hum associations with the concept: call it what you want, but the ability to discover and master new ideas and skills is your surest path to success.  Get an MBA if you really want , and if you can afford it…

But whatever you do, post-graduate-degree-wise, become a master of mastery.

________________

News No More

News is Bad for You – and Giving Up Reading It Will Make You Happier

Very interesting article by Rolf Dobelli. Looking back, not a single piece of news, ever really, has inspired me to take any kind of action. Most of the news I consumed were forgotten with one or two days. For the past few months, I’ve eliminated all news consumption – from all media outlets.  I was able to spend the extra time focusing on what I enjoy doing. As for keeping in the touch with the world, that’s what friends and family are for, they keep me updated by bring up things that they find worthy of a discussion. I like that, news that have been curated by them are much more relevant and meaningful.

Out of the ­10,000 news stories you may have read in the last 12 months, did even one allow you to make a better decision about a serious matter in your life, asks Rolf Dobelli.

In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.

News misleads. Take the following event (borrowed from Nassim Taleb). A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.

We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability. If you think you can compensate with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are wrong. Bankers and economists – who have powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have shown that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognise what’s new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we’re cut off from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.

News has no explanatory power. News items are bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world. Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect. The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand. If more information leads to higher economic success, we’d expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid. That’s not the case.

News is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.

News increases cognitive errors. News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. In the words of Warren Buffett: “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” News exacerbates this flaw. We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities. It also exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that “make sense” – even if they don’t correspond to reality. Any journalist who writes, “The market moved because of X” or “the company went bankrupt because of Y” is an idiot. I am fed up with this cheap way of “explaining” the world.

News inhibits thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory. There are two types of memory. Long-range memory’s capacity is nearly infinite, but working memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from short-term to long-term memory is a choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens comprehension. Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.

News works like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore. Scientists used to think that the dense connections formed among the 100 billion neurons inside our skulls were largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.

News wastes time. If you read the newspaper for 15 minutes each morning, then check the news for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, then add five minutes here and there when you’re at work, then count distraction and refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week. Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. You are not that irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.

News kills creativity. Finally, things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas. I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t.

Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.

The Slowest One Wins

Why the Slowest One Is the Essence of the Olympic Spirit

Eric Moussambani Malonga is a name you probably have never heard of. He received a standing ovation at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Representing Equatorial Guinea on a wildcard entry, Eric swam his heat of the 100 m freestyle and won by being the slowest and the fastest swimmer in the pool.

He was the only swimmer in the pool.

The wildcard selection for swimming was implemented by the Olympic committee to encourage smaller developing countries that don’t have swimming programs to develop the sport. When his country called upon him, Eric who knew nothing about swimming, learned it within a few months at a 15m by 15m hotel pool.

On the day of the race, all three of these wildcard swimmers would swim in this ceremonial heat. They had no chance of advancing to the next round, but they were there in the Olympics. Sadly though, due to their unfamiliarity with Olympic rules, two competitors representing the two other countries had false starts and were disqualified, and thus rendering Eric to be the only one left standing on the starting line.

Eric struggled to the finished line. It seemed quite funny, as it is not the level of competitiveness we’ve used to seeing in the Olympics. Yet it’s also quite sad and poignant.

Here’s the video of his swim, set to “Chariots of Fire”. I’ve edited it to resemble Visa’s line up of various Olympic themed GO WORLD commercials.

2012, a Year of Reading

In the beginning of last year, I’ve finally settled down enough to allow for some belated text to flow in. Since then, I’ve been reading a lot about human motivation, a lot of biography and books on positive psychology. I’ve done a lot in 2012. I’m glad these books have accompanied me through my journey. The following are the 11 books I read, accompanied by some of the notes I took.

The Happiness Hypothesis

Steve Jobs

Drive

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Happiness Advantage

Start With Why

The Tyranny of Choice

Delivering Happiness

Life of Pi

Freakonomics

SuperFreakonomics

200px-Steve_Jobs_by_Walter_Isaacson

Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson

Some call Steve Jobs a dirty hippie. He can be cruel, cynical and merciless. He’s far from a perfect man, yet no man’s perfect.

There are so many great quotes from this book. I’ve taken the liberty to copy down a few here. The most important thing I learned from this book and thus Steve Jobs, is this single fact: everything in this world, this universe, is malleable and changeable, that the world is in fact a place full of wondrous products of the human effort.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

“If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away. The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, “Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.” And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently. ”

drive_book_page

Drive, the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us

Daniel H. Pink

Quite simply put, this book has reaffirmed my intuitions. Carrots and sticks don’t motivate creative endeavors, in fact they often detriment them. You cannot buy creativity. Manual tasks lacking in creativity, are disappearing in droves. Yet businesses are still moving people using the same old methods used to move cattle. It’s time treat people like real f*cking human beings.

Daniel H. Pink thinks that there are three ways that intrinsic motivation can be achieved for any endeavor, whether it’s a career, job or a project.

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Autonomy

When people get to decide what to do, how and when to do and whom to work with, magic happens.

Mastery

Mastery is a mindset. When people perceive that intellect can be learned, it indeed will be learned. When people don’t believe such, they never progress pass their self-imposed limitations. This goes beyond the notion of confidence and self-belief, but rather, it connects with Steve Jobs’ views about our world, that “everything we see and touch has been created someone no smarter than you.” To some extent, thinking does make it so.

Mastery is pain. No pain, no gain. The most consistent indicator of success, is a trait known as “grit”, defined by Pink as the ‘perseverance and passion for long-term goals.’ This is why ‘gritty’ hockey player are often most adored by die-hard fans. Author of Outlier, Malcolm Gladwell also echoes this point in his 10,000 hour rule, that mastery is in most, if not all cases, a result of 3 hours of dedicated practice every day, for a period of 10 years – an accumulation of 10,000 hours.

Mastery is an asymptote.

Pink put it the best, “You can approach it. You can home in on it. You can get really, really close to it… but you can never touch it.” If you want to become a master, the joy is in the journey of the practice.  The journey is the destination.

Purpose

Purpose is the best when goals are clearly defined, words are used to state reality instead of BS, and policies are set to promote intrinsic motivation.

reluctant fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mosin Hamid

This novel was quite fascinating. It was written in a very unique style, for only one voice is heard throughout; the dramatic happenings are inferred through his voice alone. As noted by Canadian scholar and book reviewer Robert Adams, the novel takes place in real-time, meaning that if you were to read it out loud, it would take the same amount time elapsed in the book.

On the surface, this book is about one individual’s journey to find himself. Only granular details are mentioned about the worldviews of individual characters. No aspects of religion or politics are discussed.  Yet deep down inside, this is a book about the most important and impactful issue of our time – the clash of civilizations, specifically the conflict between the Islamic / Muslim World and the Western World.

I finished this book in a few sittings. It was a fascinating story and quite a thriller right up to the end.

HH-paperback-cover

The Happiness Hypothesis

Jonathan Haidt

This is a real gem. I don’t recall how I heard of this book, but somehow the title was seared into my mind. I carried it with me to places I went, wondering from time to time what happiness hypothesis means.

Two extra things were brought with me to the emergency room at Surrey Memorial Hospital on one summer night in 2012. One was a cellphone charger, the other was this book. As I waited to see the doctor, I began to delve into this book that combined scientific research with great ideas from civilizations of the past.

  1. Our mind is more divided than we think. Haidt uses the metaphor of the rider and the elephant to illustrate this point.
    1. a.       “We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions and then are surprised by our powerlessness to carry them out. We sometimes fail into the view that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id or our animal self, but really we are the whole things. We are the rider and we are the elephant. Both have their strengths and special skills.”
    2. Changing your mind really does change everything.
      1. a.       Life itself is but what deem it, and you can – through meditation, cognitive therapy and Prozac – redeem yourself.”

This point is emphasized by many before us.

  1. Marcus Aurelius – “The whole universe is change and life itself is but what deem it.”
  2. Buddha – “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.”
  3. William Shakespeare, Hamlet – “For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
  4. Reciprocity: “Reciprocity is an all-purpose relationship tonic. Used properly, it strengthens, lengthens and rejuvenates social ties…. Reciprocity, like love, reconnects us with others.”
  5. Life through Rose-Coloured Lenses? “By seeing the log in your own eye you can become less biased, less moralistic, and therefore less inclined toward argument and conflict. You can begin to follow the perfect way, the path to happiness that leads through acceptance.”
  6. The Pursuit of Happiness:
    1. a.       “Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.”
    2. The level of happiness that you actually experience (H) is determined by your biological set point (S) plus the conditions of your life (C) plus the voluntary activities (V) you do: H = S + C + V
    3. No one is an island: “We are an ultra-social species, full of emotions finely tuned for loving, befriending, helping sharing, and otherwise intertwining our lives with others.”
    4. 7.       Adversity: “For adversity to maximally beneficial, it should happen at the right time (young adulthood), to the right people (those with the social and psychological resources to rise to challenges and find benefits), and to the right degree (not so severe as to cause PTSD)… Go ahead and erase some of those early traumas, but think twice or await future research, before erasing he rest.”
    5. 8.       Happiness Comes From Between: “We were shaped by individual selection to be selfish creatures who struggle for resources, pleasure and prestige, and we were shaped by group selection to be hive creatures who long to lose ourselves in something larger. We are social creatures who need love and attachments, and we are industrious creatures with needs for effectance, able to enter a state of vital engagement with our work. We are the rider and we are the elephant, and our mental health depends on the two to work together, each drawing on the other’s strength… the final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something tht you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water and good soil to thrive, people need love, work and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationship between yourself and others, between yourself and your work and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.”

happiness-advantage

The Happiness Advantage

Shawn Anchor

This is a more business oriented take on the “Happiness Hypothesis”. It does offer several actionable tips on how to increase one’s happiness levels. More to come on this later.

 

Start-with-Why

Start With Why

Simon Sinek

The book is essentially an expansion of his TED Talk with more in-depth examples. If you haven’t seen the video or heard of the Golden Triangle, here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4

 

tyranny-choice-renata-salecl-paperback-cover-art

The Tyranny of Choice

Renata Salecl

Are you suffering from chronic disappoint syndrome? If so, this theoretic and social commentary would not solve your problem, but it will allow you more insights into your problems. Perhaps, human satisfaction is more to do with choice. When you have no means to choose, you suffer. When there are too many options, you suffer from thinking of what could’ve been.

 

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Delivering Happiness

Tony Hsieh

This is a very inspirational book about finding the right things to do and doing them right.

lifeofpi_bookcover

Life of Pi

Yann Martel

Initially I found this book to be dull and dense. However, it all served a purpose in the end. What I learned is that as humans, we need stories and metaphors for us to strive for the better. I also loved the the movie adaptation by Ang Lee.  Absolutely stunning. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZEZ35Fhvuc

Freakonomics

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SuperFreakonomics

Steven Levitt

Entertaining read. Though I didn’t quite retain much of the economics behind the hidden relationships discussed. Nevertheless, it was quite a refreshing perspective on  matters.

Bring Your Own Device Challenges

BYOD is an acronym for Bring Your Own Device, a growing phenomenon in the corporate world induced by the consumerization of IT. In the recent decade, employees have adopted popular consumer market technologies at home. As a result, these technologies and devices have found their way into business and government organizations. Many companies are embracing this phenomenon for the reductions in hardware and technology costs, potential boosts to employee morale and productivity.

Requirements & Challenges

There are several major requirements that need to be satisfied to make a BYOD policy a resounding success. Organizations and in particular IT departments need to overcome the challenges presented by these requirements.

1. Clearly Defined BYOD and Acceptable Use Policy

A BYOD policy can provide the integral guidelines for both allowed and prohibited behaviours. An acceptable use policy should clearly define hardware and software standards and user responsibilities. However, it is imperative to ensure that the policy is clearly understood by the users. The BYOD and acceptable use policy should not be a document that everyone agrees to, but no one reads.

2. Support and Manage Platform and Device Diversity

With the existing diversity of OS platforms and device hardware, a robust and comprehensive set of mobile device, content, application, and security management solutions that can seamlessly integrate with, cater to and support these differences, not only enables fast and easy adoption and transition, it enables efficiency and productivity.

3. Comprehensive Scalability and Control

Organizations are fluid and dynamic entities; therefore flexibility is very important. IT administrators need to be given the tools to remotely configure and authenticate access, manage, enable and disable restricted applications, and apply specific user or group policies.

4. Enforcement of Compliance and Security Protocols

A lack of enterprise security is one of the most worrisome requirements associated with BYOD. There is an urgent need for a set of solutions that can enforce and standardize security protocols, monitor IT infrastructure, protect stored and in-transit data, and detect improper and unauthorized usage.