Conformism ↔ Independent-mindedness

From an insightful essay by Paul Graham:

There are some kinds of work that you can’t do well without thinking differently from your peers. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be correct. Your ideas have to be both correct and novel. You can’t publish papers saying things other people already know. You need to say things no one else has realized yet.

[…]

There’s room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in practice there’s a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of work where it’s essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds where it’s not.

The essay delineates the distinctions between conformism and independent-mindedness and spells out some things you can do to develop independent thinking. (Mr. Graham is a fine thinker and writer; his essays are well worth your attention.)

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Relief in Philosophy

We are living in a period of VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. There is tremendous suffering in the world as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. People are ill, some terminally. Many of us have been working from home for over two weeks now, with all the stress that implies. Some haven’t been working at all, which is even more stressful. Nobody knows when the situation will change for the better.

I’m fortunate to be healthy and busy at the moment, but that doesn’t relieve my anxiety about the future. Spurred by my conversation with Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, I decided to revisit Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. As I’ve noted before, I give priority to sources that have stood the test of time. Few are as timely in our current crisis as Meditations, which was written almost two thousand years ago. Towards the end of the second book, Marcus Aurelius makes the following observation:

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Design for the Relationship

I’m currently reading Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, a history of Amazon.com. One of the early chapters is about the very early days of the company, which at that point was only selling books. In addition to showing information about products, founder Jeff Bezos wanted the site to include customer reviews of individual books.

Of course, some customer reviews were negative. Mr. Bezos received an angry letter from a book publishing executive, arguing that Amazon was in the business of selling books, not trashing them. But that was not the Amazon way. Per Mr. Bezos,

When I read that letter, I thought, we don’t make money when we sell things. We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions.

These two sentences struck me as a key insight: the particular sale isn’t the ultimate goal of the interaction; building the overall relationship with the customer is.

Long-term thinking is rare in business — especially in a fast-paced environment such as the early web. Nascent Amazon was under a great deal of pressure to prove itself, to grow. Driving more immediate sales would’ve seemed the more prudent approach. And yet, the team chose the long-term relationship. That’s values in action.

In your work, you may sometimes be called to choose between a feature that “drives the needle” in the short term versus one that builds an ongoing relationship. How do you choose? How do you measure the cost either way?

Photo by Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia

John Cale on Victimhood

The Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale is one of the most influential musicians of the last fifty years. In an interview from 2016, he tells stories from his life and career:

Towards the end of the interview, Mr. Cale recounts a childhood marked by a difficult relationship with his father and sexual abuse from a teacher:

My grandmother made some rules that there was no English to be spoken in the house. So it was very quiet, and any communication with my father was limited because I didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak any Welsh. But there’s this overwhelming feeling that you are inadequate. Between that and the incident with the organ teacher and the abuse there, it made me a victim. And really, one way or another I figured out that being a victim really has repercussions all through your life. And you really do not want to be in your own mind, or in anybody’s mind, as a victim.

His mother helped him change how he thought about himself:

She said, look, always find someone good in somebody. Because everybody does have a good side. You’re a complete person, and you’re not a victim. That’s very important.

I’ve been fortunate to not have to deal with anything as traumatic in my life. Still, I’ve occasionally lapsed into a victim mindset. It’s disempowering. Like Mr. Cale, I’ve found it possible to transcend this mindset, with indispensable help from my wife, by reframing how I think about myself.

How to Compromise a Product Vision

Great products start with a vision. Somebody — perhaps a small group of people — has an idea to change how something works in the world. On its way to becoming a real thing, the team tweaks and adjusts the idea; they make small compromises to the laws of physics, market demands, manufacturing constraints, user feedback, and so on. In the process, the idea goes from a “perfect” imagining of the vision to a pretty good embodiment that can be used by people in the real world.

At least that’s the ideal. However, sometimes a product changes so much that its original vision becomes compromised. One of the best examples I’ve seen of this happened to one of the attractions in the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World: Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. This is one of the few Disney attractions that have Walt’s name on them. There’s a good reason for this. The Carousel was the highest expression of his particular genius: using new technologies to convey big ideas to the masses in ways that they could connect to at an emotional level. Some people say it was his favorite attraction.

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Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview

Yesterday on a cross-country flight I had the opportunity to watch STEVE JOBS: THE LOST INTERVIEW, a documentary recorded in 1995 and released to theaters shortly after Jobs’s death in 2011. As its name implies, the film consists of an interview Robert X. Cringely conducted with Jobs for THE TRIUMPH OF THE NERDS, a PBS documentary about the development of the personal computer. Footage from the interview was lost for a while, but resurfaced after Jobs’s death.

The film shows Jobs at an interesting time in his life. This was before his triumphant return to Apple, which was then at its nadir. At this point, the company Jobs founded after leaving Apple (NeXT) had already transitioned from making computers to making software. It’s fascinating to see him frame this development; when talking about NeXT, he doesn’t mention the company’s computers at all. Instead, he talks about object-oriented programming as one of three major advances he witnessed in a visit to Xerox PARC in the late 1970s; the other two being ethernet networking and the graphical user interface. The latter of these, of course, is what led to the development of the Mac. In this way, Jobs ties his past success with his (then) current endeavor. Jobs is very clear on the lineage of these technologies; he doesn’t claim to have invented any of them. (At one point he even cites Picasso’s famous quote, “good artists copy; great artists steal.”)

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A New Notebook

When I was a child, one of my favorite times of the year was the final few weeks of vacation, just before school started. I loved buying school supplies with my mom — especially new pens and notebooks. (I still love buying pens and notebooks!) It was a great feeling: a chance for a clean start.

Well, not completely clean. I’d still be going to the same school. I had an idea of who my classmates and teachers would be. I knew the schedule, and the topics we’d be studying. But! This was the year I’d make it happen. And for now, I had a blank slate. (Or at least, a blank notebook.) Exciting!

A few weeks after school started, my mood would be different. The notebook now had marks in it, and I had a long list of things I needed to do. The excitement was gone; the sense of possibility replaced with a feeling of being overwhelmed. It would take a while for me to feel comfortable with the new routines and challenges. Then, with time, things would settle: neither open-ended excitement nor pressure from being overwhelmed — just a sense of getting things done.

The beginning of every new undertaking has a particular type of energy. An open-ended sense of possibility. This energy allows us to step into an uncertain future. There’s a challenge ahead and we don’t know exactly how things will turn out — but we have wits, some knowledge, some structure, and tools.

The energy-of-beginning is important to getting things rolling, but we can’t linger in it. We need to get to work; to become productive. For me this means establishing near-term goals, work practices to achieve them, and habits that allow the work to become part of my daily routine. The quicker this happens, the easier it is to replace the energy-of-beginning with the energy-of-generating.

This energy-of-generating has a particular character of its own, one I’ve grown to relish. Whatever I’ve achieved has been because I’ve found ways of transitioning from the blank notebook to the (messier, less open-ended) notebook-in-progress. I’ve learned to love it for its own sake. It, too, will pass — but for the time being, it makes good things possible.

140 Characters Are Enough for a Clear Vision

Twitter should be the most valuable social network in the world. In its ten years of existence, the “micro-blogging” service has worked itself into the psyche of millions of people. It’s often the fastest way to learn about breaking news, and one of the only ways to interact directly with movers and shakers. President Trump uses it like FDR used radio: as a means of conveying his thoughts directly to the citizenry of the U.S.

Twitter is a useful service that provides for important needs. It’s almost civic infrastructure in some ways. And yet, it struggles. Its user growth has stalled, and its current market capitalization is lower than Snapchat (a service whose usefulness eludes me.) Given Twitter’s pivotal role in the 2016 U.S. election, and the fact that presidential tweets are considered official statements, the company should be on top of the world. Why isn’t it?

As with many technology startups, Twitter started as an experiment in search of a practical use. Founder Ev Williams described the company’s early period in an interview:

“There are certain businesses that you know what they are when they’re born. You don’t necessarily know how big they are or what’s going to make them successful, but Google, for example, was always a search engine.

With Twitter, it wasn’t clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define, because it didn’t replace anything. There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is.”

It’s ok to wander in search of a raison d’être when you’re young, scrappy, and privately funded, but eventually, ​a company needs to figure out what it does and how it adds value to the world. I suspect Twitter hasn’t, and it’s paying the price for its lack of vision. This is as close as I’ve seen:

Twitter is...

No, it isn’t.

This statement would have to read very differently if it started with the phrase “Twitter is where…” Amazon is where you go shopping. Google is where you search for stuff. Facebook is where you catch up with your friends and family. What sort of place is Twitter? What do you do there?

Yesterday, Twitter announced it’s considering increasing the 140-character limit for tweets — one of the service’s most distinctive (and valuable) features — to 280 characters. Why 280? I assume it’s an arbitrary number: Now with twice as many! This is the latest in a series significant structural changes the company has undertaken towards the goal of… well, that’s not clear. (Engagement? Increased revenue? Tighter control?) To me, they seem just more experiments on the path to figuring out what Twitter is. This, on​ an information environment where — no exaggeration! — dictums are being issued that could affect the fate of the planet.

Move Fast and Brake

“The increasing velocity of knowledge is widely accepted as sure evidence of human mastery and progress. But many, if not most, of the ecological, economic, social, and psychological ailments that beset contemporary society can be attributed directly or indirectly to knowledge acquired and applied before we had time to think it through carefully.”

— David W. Orr

A few years ago I was in a meeting with smart folks working in the tech industry. We were talking about the possibilities for “Internet of Things” technologies in everyday life: “smart” locks, “smart” cars, “smart” dog collars, and so on. The conversation centered on the capabilities of the technologies; ethical considerations were almost entirely absent. What if the tenant fell back on his rent and his bank used his “smart” lock to shut him out of his apartment? Too damned bad. I was dismayed. How could our love for our technical capabilities so blind us from their social implications?

Facebook used to encourage its developers to “move fast and break things,” a statement that captures the essence of a “lean” evolutionary approach that is pervasive in the tech world. You can’t sit still lest your competitors gain an advantage. Teams should constantly be innovating, experimenting, and testing. Good ideas will emerge and evolve. Collateral damage is not a problem: further iterations will take care of it. Fast wins!

While this approach is great at exploring and exploiting the capabilities of new technologies, it doesn’t leave much room to ask what these things are ultimately in service to. Admittedly, many life-improving innovations have emerged from the competitive pressures of the market. But some things are too precious to risk. What if the thing we’re breaking is the very socioeconomic system that fostered the technium in the first place? How can we improve societies whose ability to hold civil discourse has eroded? What would this loss do to our ability to iterate?

Technologies can make us smarter, but they can’t make us wiser. That’s entirely up to us. Wisdom calls for self-reflection and self-control, and our current mechanisms lack either. We have an effective means to produce new technologies, fast. But what if we also had means to consciously choose whether we want to live in the world they will bring about? Isn’t that what design is ultimately for?