11 March 2006

Movin' out.

Dear readers: To give you a better reading experience, I have moved my blog:

TW's NEW Outboard Brain

Please update bookmarks and RSS feeds accordingly.

10 March 2006

The K.I.S.S. Principle of personal organization.

While I'm on a roll from the previous post, let me talk about the simplifed approach to personal organization. This is one that doesn't work for the distracted consumer who's looking for the easy way out; this one works for gung-ho change-o-philiacs like me. Ready?

Step 1: Decide what's most important.
Step 2: Do that first.

This, I hear you saying, hardly seems groundbreaking. But consider: How often do you find yourself "meaning to" do something, but allowing everything else in the world intervene? At times this is the conscious process of procrastination, complete with nagging feelings of guilt. But at other times, it is simply the well-known phenomenon of putting out fires. We all do it, whether in business or housekeeping or family relations.

Let me ask you another question: How often do you find yourself "meaning to" save or invest money, but finding that your nickel-and-dime expenses somehow prevent you? Many financial advisors will tell you that the prime solution for this is to set aside your savings first, and to put them in some repository where they can't be quite so easily tapped as your checking account.

Well, the past is the ultimate repository: once time has slipped by us and into the past, it's locked away forever. By definition. The question is, do you want the past to contain all the "savings" you've accumulated toward your big, life-changing--or even civilizational--BHAGs? Or the nickel-and-diming of errands, tidbits, this-'n'-that?

Pause there for a second: I'm not talking about what you do do, but what you want to do. I'd rather do something major. Yes?

You know the old joke "Life is uncertain--eat dessert first." But how often do we treat ourselves to the accomplishments we really want--and do it first, before we let anything else crowd in on us? Life is uncertain. You might not make it to thirty. You might not make it to forty. Or fifty. You might get just one shot at immortality. So why not take it first?

What applies on the grand scale applies in the daily schedule. Yes, sometimes you must clear the decks, but often our deck-clearing serves as no more than psychological throat-clearing. We're warming up for an aria that may never begin.

So yes, prepare. Take care of your day-to-day obligations. But figure out the big stuff and do it before you get bogged down in the little stuff, or else the little stuff, kudzu-like, will always grow to overwhelm your mental landscape.

Next time I'll talk more about how to decide what's "most important" on your list. For now, I'll leave you with a serendipitous thought: While I was writing this post, my buddy Jim called me up to talk. He said nice things about a couple of the posts here, but repeated a caution he's given me before--namely, not to give attention to this blog that might go into a book manuscript instead. He has a point, not because I don't derive satisfaction from writing the blog, but because I do derive satisfaction from it. It's all too tempting to write more and more here, especially as my audience continues to grow,* and neglect to work on the books that I've always assumed will make my reputation.

So, I'm going to compromise by spending more time here talking about the books I intend to write. One major topic, upon which I'll be posting much more: Decisions--how we make them and what we can do to take charge of them. You can expect me to start posting on that topic first.

~~

* This might be an opportune moment to ask yourself whether you're really giving it that extra effort to make this blog the one most widely read by savvy people like yourself. I'd certainly appreciate it, and don't you think it would make you feel better, too? ;)

The K.I.S.S. Principle and environmental change.

I'm sure Seth Godin isn't writing the great posts on his blog strictly to give me fodder to talk about environmental issues and how they're discussed. But his latest entry, "Bite sized", serves the purpose just as well as his earlier posts about "climate cancer".

Godin:
Actually, our behavior as people is pretty easy to predict. We like things that are simple, not complex. Issues where we can take action without changing very much. [...] The best problems, as far as a consumer is concerned, are those that can be solved quickly and easily, with few side effects.
Me: It would be great if everyone had the same wish that I do to embrace complexity, seek out change, and grow by leaps and bounds from day to day. But does that describe the world you see around you? It doesn't even describe my actual experience, only my wishes, and I'm the most gung-ho wisher for huge, positive change you can imagine.

I'd love it if the most powerful environmentalists got their heads together and agreed that, while maintaining their many varied good programs, they were going to collaborate on the one message, a simple message, that would best best serve the earth's environment. I don't know if it would target hydrocarbons, or habits of consumption, or what, but I do know it would help if every person in the industrialized world internalized some message like "Let's keep it safe for our grandkids: Stop polluting now." Put up billboards with a picture of a cute infant/toddler holding the earth in his or her hands and smiling. Run simple, warm television ads featuring respected, politics-neutral notables saying what they're personally doing to reduce their output of pollution. Hit every branch of the media in every country. Say it over and over.

Above all, give people something simple they can do right now with minimal pain to address the high-leverage problem. I'm busy and I'm weak-willed--make it easy for me, much less the folks who drive Excursions.

Commonplace: Napoleon

"Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide."
—Napoleon Bonaparte

Environmentalism and the poor.

This article is part of a series from Grist on poverty and the environment. Well worth reading, both for its historical perspective and its view of what should be done today.

Caste from the Past
The environmental movement has achieved great things. Without John Muir or David Brower, there would be fewer national parks and wilderness areas. [...] These and other activists deserve the hero label -- but we also need to expand our notion of what constitutes nature and who speaks on its behalf. Unless environmentalists take a full reckoning of their past to find other voices to remember and celebrate, the movement may grow ever more narrow and irrelevant. Maybe, just maybe, it's time to find some new heroes.
In my view, it is essential that environmentalists demonstrate to everyone that environmentalism isn't a fringe avocation, but a way of thinking about the world that benefits everyone. It's going to require better work than we've done so far.

Disposing of Styrofoam.

Thanks to our friends from the bacterial world, there is hope for recycling the squillions of tons of used polystyrene foam (a.k.a. Styrofoam, which is a trademark) that we use.

Solving the Styrofoam Situation

This article is from Seed, which I've been reading more of lately and quite enjoying.

Clutter = procrastination = lies.

The formula above might not be true for everybody. That's fine. I've come to believe it's true for me.

I'm hardly the first to make the connection between clutter and procrastination. "The Feng Shui of Procrastination" makes the point nicely: "Clutter is delayed decisions. It's procrastination. It's stress." All so very true, even though I'm not a big believer in Feng Shui. For me the most important sentence in the article is this: "Procrastination puts you out of integrity with yourself."

"Integral" means that all the parts agree with one another. Clutter keeps you from being that. It means you're lying to yourself about who you are and what you want to be. It means that you have one idea about where you're going or what your life ideally means . . . but they you do something very different. You surround yourself in cruft to give yourself an excuse for not living the bold life you dreamed for yourself.

That's all projection, of course; for "you," read "I" and you'll understand where I'm coming from. I have made so many agreements with myself about how I wanted things to be, but then allowed myself to get caught in the tidal flow of stuff, cruft, junk, and flotsam that life inevitably brings our way. The flow may be inevitable, but (a) we don't have to encourage it by following procrastination-friendly habits, and (b) we don't have to accept that clutter and procrastination themselves are inevitable. They're not.

Mind you, procrastination has complex psychological bases. For more on that, check out this useful article from Psychology Today: "Procrastination: Ten Things To Know". Read the whole thing, but for the moment focus on this:
Procrastinators tell lies to themselves. Such as, "I'll feel more like doing this tomorrow." Or "I work best under pressure." But in fact they do not get the urge the next day or work best under pressure. In addition, they protect their sense of self by saying "this isn't important." Another big lie procrastinators indulge is that time pressure makes them more creative. Unfortunately they do not turn out to be more creative; they only feel that way. They squander their resources.
This is where my simplified formula comes from. Clutter is the physical manifestation of procrastination. Clutter is outright proof of our indulgence in the fantasy that there will be time to work on Thing X later, and that there isn't even time now to put Thing X in the rightful place for things waiting to be worked on. Clutter is an abdication of responsibility.

If you want to have a meaningful life, you have come to an agreement with yourself about what's important and what isn't. If you're treating your own hopes and dreams with integrity, you do the things that are important and leave off the things that aren't--not just for the moment, but forever. You don't form clutter because you don't tell yourself the string of lies that would allow you to.

Let's all agree to stop lying to ourselves, shall we? Address the clutter/procrastination/lies nexus in your own life, honestly dealing with both the old junk you've accumulated and the new nonsense that washes in with each day's tide.

As I was writing this, I stumbled across a quotation from the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. I don't know what book or article it's from, or when I wrote it down, but I think it's useful in this context:
There are many people I know who possess a vision of (personal) evolution yet seem to lack the will for it. They want, and believe it possible, to skip over the discipline, to find an easy shortcut to sainthood. Often they attempt to attain it by simply imitating the superficialities of saints, retiring to the desert or taking up carpentry. Some even believe by such imitation they have really become saints and prophets, and are unable to acknowledge that they are still children and face the painful fact that they must start at the beginning and go through the middle.
Not for a moment do I propose that being honest with yourself is easy. But it's the only way to live.


[Thanks to Lifehacker for pointing out the Feng Shui article. Their accompanying photo is priceless.]

09 March 2006

To-do lists.

I admire Tom Peters for his drive, his enthusiasm, and his resolute devotion to excellence. I think I identify with him as strongly as I do because I have a strong desire to give advice and help anywhere I think it might be helpful. Partly this feeds my own ego, but I do get enough repeat business to make me think that at least some of my words hit home. In any event, I read Peters's blog daily and can recommend it.

A while back I bookmarked this entry in the blog, and I keep coming back to it at intervals:

The Single Most Important Thing

It's about that old stand-by, the To-Do lists. Peters argues that a short and sweet daily To-Do list is of paramount importance for achieving one's goals. He thinks it's so important that he shouts his description of it: "THE ONE TOOL WHICH WILL MAKE OR BREAK YOUR CAREER."

On days when I give myself a very simple set of marching orders without much room for negotiation, I get a lot done. I also have too many days when I don't give myself that simple set of marching orders . . . with predictable results.

"Secrets of Greatness: How I Work"

No, not me, but a dozen of the most accomplished people you'd hope to find, from Wynton Marsalis to Hank Paulson. This FORTUNE magazine spread presents the first-person thoughts of notables from various fields, who describe how they do their daily work. Some spend all day on the phone (Paulson often leaves 200 voicemails in a day, but has never used e-mail), others on the computer (Judge Richard Posner spends little time on the phone, but uses e-mail constantly, plus he blogs). The details differ from one person to another, but all have found ways to achieve great success in their work.

Secrets of Greatness: How I Work

Some highlights follow . . .

Bill Gross, the king of the bond industry: "You have to cut the information flow to a minimum level."

Wynton Marsalis: "To find a groove means practice, practice, and more practice."

Carlos Ghosn, who runs both Nissan and Renault: "I do not bring my work home. I play with my four children and spend time with my family on weekends."

A. G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble: "A key to staying calm is minimizing the information onslaught."

All of it is well worth reading.

"Atmosphere cancer," redux.

Last week I cited Seth Godin on the poor job that's been done to inform the world of the dangers of global warming. Among other smart observations, Godin made the point that the general public would look at the issue differently if we called the phenomenon "atmosphere cancer" rather than "global warming."

This interesting item from the "Framing Science" blog uses graphs of Gallup polling data to show just how low global warming rates in the public mind. The blog itself addresses exactly what Godin was talking about, namely the way that scientific issues are portrayed in the media. It's author, Dr. Matthew Nisbet, teaches communications at Ohio State.

The failure to adequately alarm or motivate the public about global warming raises a timeless organizational issue: who's responsible? We've all had the experience, when working in groups, of deadlines that slipped or tasks that fell by the wayside simply because it wasn't clear exactly who was responsible for which part of the project. The old saying has as much currency now as ever: "If everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible."

For macro issues like "atmosphere cancer," effective responsibility tends to fall to two types of entities: (1) private citizens or groups who take the issue on as a "holy" cause, or (2) governments. In the case of global warming, the former class includes major and minor environmental organizations, professional scientific groups, experts like Prof. Nisbet, and the few concerned citizens who will make this their #1 issue for activism. To start at the head of the list for governments, the Bush administration has been, shall we say, less than zealous in helping the American people to understand the real and pressing threats posed by global warming.

05 March 2006

T-Ball

Yesterday my son played his first T-ball game. He wore his spikes all day yesterday, and all day again today.

The game was mostly a hoot. You've got the kids who need reminding to run after they hit the ball. You've got the kids who take three swings to connect at all with the ball on the tee. You've got the three infielders and two outfielders all racing toward the same ball, then forming a scrum to decide which one of them gets to pick it up and throw it. The whole game was like that. I got to see it up close because I was one of several dads helping the coaches run the game.

The non-hoot parts were the crying kids--crying because they have to bat last, crying because their teammate won't give them a drink from their water bottle, crying because they have to play left field and they know the ball will never be hit to them. And so on. In this league, five-year-olds are never put out on the basepaths. Partly this is to build their confidence, but I suspect it's also because the coaches and league officials are parents, and they know that there will be way too much crying otherwise.

Even though the players are only five years old, you can already spot the players. Some of the clueless kids will clue in eventually, some will have their coordination come to them all in a rush. (It took me forever: I was finishing high school before I could hit a properly timed jump shot.) But some of them have it already--speed, alertness, hustle. These weren't the kids who were crying because they got stuck playing catcher in a T-ball game.

Thinking about some things I've read recently, I wonder how much of those boys' future success in the game will be attributable to that drive? I want to help every kid on the team enjoy baseball, because I love it and I want them to love it, too. But can anybody teach the sort of drive that the little dynamo kids are already showing? I certainly don't know how. If you push too hard, you extinguish desire rather than fanning it; if you don't push at all, the boys don't get better, and, worse, they may not make the connection between trying and getting better. No good comes out of either extreme.

That's all in the future. Somewhere, on my son's ball field or some other, a future Hall of Famer is starting his career in baseball. That kid may be in San Juan or Nashville or Oakland or Pusan or Yokohama. Of course I hope it's my son, if he can somehow avoid my bad eyesight and slow reflexes. So far, he loves being on his team, especially since it's named for his daddy's favorite team--the Red Sox. Partway through the game, he hiked up his pants legs to his knees so everyone could see his long, bright-red socks. He looked great running the bases. How could he not, with that big, fat smile on his face?

Commonplace: Eno

"Honour thy error as a hidden intention."
--Brian Eno

(What hidden intentions do we shun because they present themselves to us as deviations from the set program?)

04 March 2006

Kathy Sierra kicks ass.

Yesterday I caught up on some blog reading, so I was going to link to Kathy's excellent posts on the theme "Dignity is Deadly."

But I didn't get to it yesterday, and by the time I got there today I see this compelling new post on "How to be an expert."

Given that I've linked to her stuff before--repeatedly--and that a couple of my friends and I have had long talks about what she's written, I figured it was time to add her to the sidebar here and give her a particular plug.

Do yourself a favor and make a habit of reading Creating Passionate Users.

Go hug somebody.

A little while ago my son came to talk to me while I was working on my laptop at the kitchen table. I had the good sense to give him my full attention while he showed me how he can count all the way to 100. He's never done that trick before, at least for me. After he was finished, he jumped up on my lap for a big hug.

Maybe you don't have kids, and I'm not trying to be saccharine about my own. But you have somebody, somewhere, who is important to you. Go hug them, or call them, or e-mail them. Tell them you love them. Tell them you're glad you know them.

Do it before it's too late. You don't know how much time you have left; assume that time is short.

The (Substantially Amended) Traffic-Light Theory of Achievement

Morning traffic seems to generate lots of ideas for me. I guess I’ll have to look elsewhere for inspiration in my future dream life--the one in which I get to avoid my fellow citizens on the roadways.

If you do any city driving at all, you’ll know this phenomenon: You’re going right at the speed limit, one stop light turns green right as you come to it, and then you hit a long string of lights all timed to the flow of traffic. When it’s really going well, it goes beyond even what the traffic engineers intended: you hit a string of lights, there’s no traffic to prevent your left turn, and then you hit another string of lights on a second street. A 25-minute drive downtown takes 11 minutes, and you wonder why life can’t always be this way.

You also know the converse case: You’re running just a little late. When you’re about to get in your car to leave for the day, you have to pop back inside because you forgot your briefcase/cellphone/lunch/iguana, and from then on things go haywire. You need to merge onto a busy street . . . but you miss a huge gap in traffic by two seconds, and then you’re waiting four minutes while an improbably huge convoy of morning commuters rushes by. Finally you merge, you drive down to the corner . . . just as the turn signal changes from yellow to red. You wait. You miss the next light after you turn. A little old lady pulls out in front of you at the last second--you have to brake hard--and then you’re stuck behind her, traveling way below the speed limit, for 46 blocks. Finally she sails her Skylark through a stale amber light at 22 m.p.h., and you’re left to wait at still another light. Your 25-minute trip downtown seems to take all afternoon.

Okay, maybe I’ve spent a little too long setting up my metaphor here, but my head is stocked with images like these because I encounter them every day. Bear with me, thought, because there’s something to be learned from these experiences.

What’s the difference between the happy first scenario and the teeth-grinding second scenario? We can observe that the difference started small at the outset, then turned large as time went on--but why? The answer, I think, is chokepoints, represented in the form of stop lights and other intersections. Most of the time when we drive, there’s no reason to speed, because these chokepoints will keep us from getting too far ahead anyway. But when we work within the system, and when we leave a little earlier in the morning . . . things seem to just flow.

Don Aslett talks about this effect in his estimable book How to Have a 48-Hour Day. He offers many examples of the benefits of being early versus the penalties for being late. Latecomers have to park in the boonies and hike in, but when you’re early, you can take your pick of prime spots and back your car in if you want to. Aslett's so convinced of the wisdom of this that he fills a whole page of his book with the words “BE EARLY” in three-inch-tall letters. Being early helps us to circumvent chokepoints. It gives us time to route around them, or sail through them, or wait without stress when they do snare us.

This even helps for tasks that mostly answer to steady, sustained work. Getting in shape, for example, requires not huge, periodic efforts, but steady effort applied regularly over time. Even then, though, there are chokepoints. You should go to the doctor for a checkup before you start a serious workout program, but for as long as you fail to make the appointment and go, that checkup serves as a chokepoint. If you’ve been meaning to shop for a gym but haven’t gotten around to it, that’s a chokepoint. Finding a workout buddy could be a chokepoint. Until you get through these, you might as well be stuck at a red light.

The steadiest producers stay steady because they don’t let little things like this turn into interminable red lights. Prolific book writers bang out the prose at their safe “speed limit” even on the days when they don’t feel like it. As soon as they’re done, they go on to the next proposal, the next outline, the next rough draft. It’s the same for the best salesmen I know: they don’t put in heroic efforts at the end of the month, but call on potential customers at a good tempo day in and day out.

Low achievers--and I speak from experience here, having been one in many areas--do the reverse. They putter along. They slow down in fear that the upcoming green light will turn amber, rather than better estimating the distance, maintaining their speed, and sailing through without even flirting with the red light. They wait for the ideal opening to merge with traffic, instead of taking the first safe opening. They leave late and arrive later.

Life has certain built-in delays and a few unavoidable chokepoints. There is only so fast you can grow a crop, earn a degree, or mature a vintage of wine. That’s fine: prepare for these constraints in advance and you can still come out ahead. But don’t lengthen the waiting by imposing delays of your own. You don’t have to speed, but when you see a makeable opportunity ahead of you, keep up a steady pace; otherwise the opportunity may be gone by the time you get there. Take advantage of this opportunity so you'll be in time to take advantage of the next one.

You know, when I first posted this, the final paragraph read like this:
Think about the next “stop light” in your own life. What is that chokepoint between you and your ambitions? Commit yourself to reaching that light early so that you can also make the next one, and the next. Finish this leg of your trip through life earlier--and with less stress--so you can better enjoy both the trip and the destination.
You know what? This is all projection, my faux-wise way of telling you how to be. Maybe what I've said here will be helpful to you, but regardless, you can live your own life in your own way. Meanwhile I need to take this advice, thinking of my own "stop lights" and how I might work around them.

Here's the story I ducked away from in the first version:

I just wrote a check for $133 to Austin's municipal court to pay a traffic fine. The ticket was for an expired inspection sticker, which I had let lapse because . . . well, there was no special reason. I just didn't pay attention to it--like a driver who doesn't pay attention on the roadway and misses a light he could have made.

I got the ticket at a traffic stop in the neighborhood just west of the UT campus. I was circling the neighborhood looking for a place to park. Ordinarily I wouldn't try to park there, since it's usually quite crowded on a Tuesday afternoon, but on this day my schedule was awry and I hoped I could find something. I trawled through the neighborhood fruitlessly for a few minutes, got stopped and ticketed, and then finally gave in and paid $10 to park in a garage next to campus.

My schedule was so awry because I had interrupted my work to go downtown in the middle of the afternoon to buy a nice bottle of scotch for one of my professors; I took it to him during his office hours that day. I had to interrupt my work to do this because I had neglected, despite repeated reminders to myself, to buy the scotch at a more convenient time in the wine shop in my own neighborhood.

The bottle of scotch was a peace offering to my professor because I had taken many extra months to finish a seminar paper that had been due--technically speaking, you understand--last May. The professor knew I was working on it, I had talked to him about the paper, but mostly I just dragged my ass and didn't get it done. Finally, after hundreds of pages of notes and dozens of pages of typewritten draftwork, I just hauled the thing into some sort or order, lopped off the parts that made the least sense or were the least developed, and stopped work on it. Let me just skip over any long description of the months of background stress this paper brought to my life.

I took a long time on the paper mostly because I wanted to impress the professor. I admire him hugely and want him to think highly of me. He wasn't angry to receive the paper so late, he knew I was trying, but this was hardly the way for me to impress him with my ability to deliver a finished project. Hundreds of hours of research and writing amounted to . . . not that much, when I read over the final draft.

After I got the ticket I went to get the car inspected. Well, a week intervened because . . . because I didn't get my butt in gear. I needed the car to pass inspection so I could make my appearance in municipal court and get off with no more than a $10 appearance fee. But the car didn't pass inspection because of a "Check Engine" light that I had studiously ignored for, oh, a few months. Why? Probably the fear that it would ultimately cost $800 or something to fix the car . . . which it did, after the car failed the inspection and after I was able to spend a day at home while the local shop fixed it and after the get-off-cheap court appearance date had passed.

$40 for scotch.
$10 for garage parking.
$133 for the ticket.
$800 for car repairs.
$28 for the failed inspection.
Months of stress wondering when I would get my seminar paper finished.
Weeks of stress over the ticket, the failed inspection, and the car repair.
Wasted time that can never be regained.

Sure, maybe the car would have needed the $800 repair anyway. But maybe the bill wouldn't have been so bad, or maybe it could have come in two parts to make it easier to swallow.

The solution to this would have been to finish the seminar paper last May when it was due--to keep up the pace and make that first green light. I could have gotten the car checked out when the "Check Engine" light first came on, which was before the inspection expired. Then I could have gotten the car inspected before it was overdue. All of these were green lights waiting for me to make them, but I didn't get my act together. I'm wondering how much I might have accomplished in the interim if I had.

That's the real story. That's why I retract any effort to tell you how to live your life in this vein. All I can say now is: I'm trying not to repeat this experience in my own life; please take this story as an example of how not to lead your own.

The best thing I've ever read on the creative life.

Seriously, friends--I've found an epicenter of insight here.

How to Be Creative (Long Version) by Hugh Macleod

If you have creative urges, fulfilled or unfulfilled, please don't wait to follow this link. Please don't be deterred by the piece's length, and please don't wait until later to read it. Get yourself a cup of coffee, sit down and read, and don't run off when Macleod starts making the observations that sear your conscience. Face up to it.

"Do you want to make this damn thing exist or not?"

03 March 2006

Wish List: Bespoke suits.

Since I live in Austin and don't practice law, I would look strange wearing a suit on most of my weekly rounds. But I do dream of a day when I can afford--and occasionally need--bespoke English suits.

Cary Grant favored suits from Kilgour, French & Stanbury. That's a big vote in my book.

Or perhaps someday I will engage the skills of Thomas Mahon; he seems eminently qualified.

02 March 2006

Buck O'Neil should be in the Hall of Fame.

I don't know how else to put it. I don't even see it as something about which reasonable people can disagree. The Hall selectors did make the right call by inducting Effa Manley. But this . . . honestly, I'm at a loss for words.

Outrage over O'Neil's Hall snub heard in Congress

Here is a column on O'Neil response, from the site of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum--which wouldn't exist without his efforts. The columnist, Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star, puts it well: "The Baseball Hall of Fame needed Buck O'Neil far more than Buck O'Neil needed the Baseball Hall of Fame."

Maybe this is just my signal that I should stop caring about the Hall of Fame. Illusions die hard.

Great read: Simmons and Gladwell.

Bill Simmons is one of the smartest sportswriters working today--and surely the funniest. He's a master of writing long, entertaining columns that bring together sports, books, and popular culture. He's also prolific enough to keep several types of series going at once. One of them, "Curious Guy," features edited e-mail conversations between Simmons and other interesting people. His current "Curious Guy" column is the first installment of his conversation with New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, one of the best writers anywhere.

"Curious Guy: Malcolm Gladwell"

Particularly if you're a sports fan, it's great to sit in on the conversation of two guys who are
so smart, so verbal, and so obviously enjoying riffing off of each other's ideas. (Don't wait too long; older stories on ESPN are for subscribers only.) You get snippets like this one from Gladwell:

". . . it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection."

While I'm at it: Gladwell now has a blog. Man, he's good.

01 March 2006

"Global warming" needs better p.r.

Another typically sensible post from Seth Godin: "The problem with 'global warming'." The short version is that the problem hasn't been presented (or marketed) to the general public in a way that is (1) understandable, and (2) moving. In my view, Godin is absolutely right.

I've heard far too many earnest pleas for urgent action from well-meaning people who do not grasp the nature of human communication. They believe that if they just explain it again, slowly enough and passionately enough, their audiences will come to understand the severity of the problem, change their own ways, and then take up the cause themselves.

But guess what? We in the audience are human. We like what we like. We typically don't like change, especially if it affects things that we enjoy. I don't want to give up my car. I don't want to give up my wanton use of electricity. You're really going to have to convince me -- to sell me -- to do otherwise.

I say all of this not because I'm dubious about global warming -- I used to write an environmental column, for crying out loud -- but because I know that I haven't done a tenth of what I could have to change my own habits for the better in terms of global warming. I'm not trying to be selfish, but my schedule is criminally overbooked and it takes some convincing to get me to eat my spinach in any context. Make it real to me. Convince me. I'm good-hearted but highly conflicted.

This complaint shares the same root with my earlier rant about blocks of prose on PowerPoint slides. Presenters who fill their PowerPoint slides with chunk-o-text bullet points are thinking more about their own needs (making just one slide, easy-importing from their word processor) than about mine (bad eyesight, distraction, a stark lust for pictures).

Don't do that. Please. I'm weak and needy. If you want to convince me, you'll have to do better.

Any ideas on how to market the urgency, the right-now-this-instant urgency, of global warming--ahem, "atmosphere cancer"--to the general public?

Unseen. Unforgotten.

Ann Bartow of Sivacracy points to a trove of pictures from the civil rights movement on the site of The Birmingham News. These photos, which had not been published in the 1960s because they were seen as too inflammatory for the newspaper's readers, were recently rediscovered by the News.

"Unseen. Unforgotten."


I spent seven happy years of my childhood -- in the 1970s -- in Alabama. In my imperfect memory, it seems that the races mixed little even then: I can't remember any black classmates at my private school, or black playmates in my neighborhood. It's worth reflecting on how far we've come, and how far we have yet to go, toward the promise of the day when everyone "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

These photos are well worth your attention.

Presentations: Prose on slides = death.

My mixed business and academic schedule exposes me to lots and lots of presentations, in all formats. Last week I was in the audience for an excellent, passionate, low-tech presentation from Bill Germano. Every week I hear graduate students delivering papers or leading discussions in seminars. Most weeks I sit through at least a couple of larger or smaller meetings at my office.

Let me emphasize "sit through" in that last sentence. Many of these work presentations are not nearly as good as they could be, which is another way of saying that they're much worse than they should be.

Folks, let me convey something very, very clearly for anyone who uses PowerPoint slides to convey anything:

Do not use prose on your PowerPoint slides.

The longest stretch of prose you could safely use on a PowerPoint slide is one sentence--and not a long sentence. You can put in pictures. You can put in easy-to-read diagrams. You can leave in blank slides for effect. You can put one or two words on a slide, or just a symbol, to reinforce your points. But you must not ladle in sentences of prose onto a single slide. Seriously.

Yesterday I sat through a group presentation that was predictably uneven, simply because it was given by a group of presenters. All of them were basically comfortable working with the technology. Some of them had better slides. Some of them had better physical and vocal carriage. That's to be expected.

But some of the slides we saw were simply pointless. The presenters missed easy opportunities to give us poor saps in the audience pictures that would have reinforced their words. Instead, they threw up blocks of text that fought with the words coming out of their mouths. It occurred to me, at some point, that these folks either don't know that blocks of prose on slides is presentation death, or else they think it doesn't apply to them, or else they don't care. If they don't care, shame on them, but I probably can't convince them. If they think the rules don't apply, I can reassure them that they do. But if they don't know--if you, dear reader, don't know--then I can use the media at my disposal to spread the Gospel of PowerPoint, viz., Slides with a lot of text on them undermine the purpose of a presentation, which is communication.

A decent rule of thumb for PowerPoint is "7-by-7": No more than seven lines of text on a slide, with no more than seven words per line.

A much better rule is "5-by-5", since five lines of no more than five words each forces you--in a good way--to boil down your thoughts and to keep any one slide from becoming too busy.

A much better rule is "5": Five words or less on a slide.

So that we don't leave this as an abstraction, how about a hypothetical example? Let's say you're giving a lecture to undergraduates on the final phase of World War 2 in the Pacific. You could put up a slide with this on it:
  • The Allies--led by the Americans, but with forces from Australia, New Zealand, and Britain--"island-hopped" from Australia and Hawaii all the way to Okinawa. From mid-1942 to mid-1945, they fought a series of bloody battles with the Japanese at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Kwajalein, Saipan, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, etc.
  • The Philippines was not necessarily en route to Japanese home islands, but Douglas MacArthur had vowed "I shall return" when his troops had to retreat from the islands early in the war. So the Allies retook the Philippines first, even though some strategists thought an eastern approach to Japan made more sense.
  • Once the Allies put themselves in bombing range of Japan, they started heavy bombing of Tokyo and other locations. Tokyo was firebombed around the clock; perhaps 200,000 died, mostly civilians.
  • Harry Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). This was done for several reasons:
  • --Kept U.S./Allies from making amphibious assault over hundreds of miles of open ocean.
  • --Brought a swift end to the war as a whole.
  • --Showed U.S. power to Soviets, who might have gotten ideas about expanding opportunistically in the region with Japan out of the way.
I say you could do this--if you want to put the class to sleep. Alternately, you could say the things above, with more detail and fuller explanations, while letting the slides hammer your point home visually.

Slide 1A: A map of the Pacific with big blue stars showing the locations of battles. Heading: "Island-hopping".
Slide 1B: An aerial photograph of any island battle in the Pacific. Heading: "Naval and land battles".
Slide 1C: The famous photo of GIs planting the flag on Iwo Jima. Heading: "Iwo Jima".

Slide 2A: Same map of the Pacific, but with arrows showing the eastern and western routes of island-hopping. Heading: "Philippines campaign".
Slide 2B: Famous photo of Douglas MacArthur wading ashore. Heading " 'I shall return.' "

Slide 3: Aerial photo of Tokyo under attack. Heading: "Tokyo firestorm".

Slide 4A: Harry Truman sitting at his desk, looking serious. Heading: "Truman and the Bomb".
Slide 4B: Any photo of scientists at Los Alamos. Heading: "Manhattan Project".
Slide 4C: Photo of a mushroom cloud. Heading: "Hiroshima & Nagasaki".

Click-click-click, you go through the slides as you're making your points. How much easier is it going to be for the sleep-deprived 19-year-olds in your audience to follow you?

This thirtysomething is also sleep-deprived and prone to distraction, so throw me a bone: Speak your prose and use your slides to hammer home your points visually.

Here endeth the lesson.

Notes on job-hunting: Fight cynicism.

Covered in the first installment:
Rule #1. It’s not over until you win.
Rule #2. Get help.

Rule #3. Fight cynicism at every turn. The one thing above all others that will undermine your adherence to Rule #1 is the cynicism that often arises during a job search. If you’ve been in the working world for a while, you know the value you bring through your work. It doesn’t matter if you wait tables or edit books or build bookcases: you have skills that you have employed successfully in the past, you have a will to work, . . . and yet no one returns your calls. After enough repetition of this, you can become convinced that the deck is stacked against you.

This may be tougher the longer you’ve been working. You have more years of evidence that you’re worth something. You have more skills that have been useful in the past. If it’s been a long time since you were on the work market, you may have rusty job-hunting skills. And you may also face the bias--sometimes real, sometimes only perceived--that some employers hold against older workers.

Then again, it’s no picnic if you’re looking for your first job out of school, either. Maybe you haven’t looked for a “real” job before. You might not have built up good connections or an impressive resume yet. It’s easy to wonder at that point what the use was for all that fancy education.

But here’s the fact that you need to keep in mind, with as much clarity as any Stoic philosopher or Zen master: The market isn’t about you. It doesn’t care about you, and it doesn’t need to care about you. It is disembodied and incapable of caring. I’m not saying that this is a good or a bad thing in itself. Maybe in an ideal world, we would get to conduct our careers in a community that already knows us. We wouldn’t face the alienation of applications to previously unknown employers and of interviews with strangers. (This is an excellent reason to build your personal network before you need it, a topic I’ll explore in a later installment.) But that’s not the world we live in.

The good news is that the market can’t go out of its way to frustrate you, either. Maybe that sounds obvious, but exasperated job hunters often end up talking about the job-hunting experience as though the world is out to get them. It’s not out to get you; the process of landing a job can be hard, but the difficulty is not aimed at you personally. That might seem like a trivial observation , but it’s worth keeping in the back of your mind.

Keep this at the front of your mind: for as long as you’re looking for a job, your full-time job is to work like a farmer. Get up early, work all day. Sow and cultivate steadily until the harvest comes in. Your job isn’t over until the harvest comes in--that is, until you land the job you’re looking for.

Farmers often bring in extra hands to help them, especially at key times in the growing cycle. In the prior installment of this series, I said you should seek out those who can help you with the skills necessary to hunt for a job effectively. But you should also reach out to your friends and loved ones for help with the emotional tasks of keeping your spirits up, fighting cynicism, and returning day after day to the work of finding new work. You must be implacable in your efforts, and this will be much easier if you have a squad of cheerleaders rooting you on.

Rule #4. Improve something. This is the greatest antidote to cynicism. Recruiting cheerleaders will help you, as will acknowledging market reality. But you have to live with the doubts and fears inside you. My own experience tells me that when I work hard toward a clear purpose, I feel good inside. When I don’t work hard or toward a clear purpose, I don’t feel good. Success or failure in terms of outcome is not as important to my sense of well-being as the feeling of achievement that comes when I do my level best. Trying hard feels good.

Trying hard feels twice as good when the effort is aimed at bringing beneficial change into your life. When you can, this ought to mean making big changes to big things. I think that during a job hunt is the perfect time to re-tool your habits. Now would be a great time to lose weight, to take up running, or to give up TV and start learning a foreign language. You could learn a new academic subject. It would be the perfect time to shift the way you organize your time and your stuff. But even if you’re not ready, or somehow not able, to make big changes to big things, you can always make small changes to small things. Go over your resume and improve the format. Read a good blog or two about career-building strategies. Go through your e-mail archives and get in touch with two old friends you haven’t talked to in a while. Even better, send two e-mails before lunch and two after lunch. But no matter what, bring some form of beneficial change to some thing in your life.

Whatever you do, don’t sit on your butt waiting for the world to come to you. You’ve got to pick up the phone, fire up the e-mail, or walk out the door to engage the world on its own turf. You’ll feel better about yourself--and not just incidentally, you’ll make yourself much more likely to land a good job sooner.

Next time: Keeping up your energy level.