Archive for the ‘worklife’ Category
My daughter, a cult guitarist, and how journalists can become semicompetent programmers, pretty much in that order
Warning: this is a much longer post than what usually shows up on this blog, but it’s an attempt to answer an important question I get asked all too regularly.
I was in the living room, listening to Lydia’s computer in the dining room. She was listening to “Hammond Song,” my favorite performance by the Roches, and I was lost in Robert Fripp’s guitar solo. After that, I was hungry to hear some more Fripp (the only other Roches song I felt like listening to was “Losing True,” which moves me but is damn near the same song as “Hammond Song” so I passed). I’ve enjoyed Fripp’s work with other people (Bowie, Blondie, Talking Heads) although I’ve never owned a King Crimson record. I saw Fripp live twice in the early ’80s, once at Irving Plaza leading his sharp, funky League of Gentlemen, once six months later at a WXPN benefit in Penn’s Houston Hall, when he was in Frippertronics mode. And that joint interview he did with Joe Strummer around the same time had an enormous influence on me as a beginning interviewer of rock stars.
I looked up Fripp on Spotify and was greeted not by music, but a recording of a keynote address he gave to a conference of motivational speakers, among them his sister. I found the talk engaging, adventurous, and practical; if you have Spotify, check it out.
Among many other gifts, the talk offered a great contradictory lesson. Several times during it, Fripp talked about how important it is to work with people who are better than you. True, and I try to do that whenever I can, but Fripp delivered insight after insight during the talk; he wasn’t learning from anyone else there, he was helping everyone else there. It’s a lovely, humble talk about mastery.
As I continue to get not younger, I understand more and more the value of surrounding myself, both in my work life and in my life life, with people who are better than me. But every now and then I get the chance to help someone else — I have learned a few things — and this blog gives me a chance to pass on what I’ve learned publicly. Here’s a question I get asked at least weekly, both by fellow veterans and newcomers to my profession: I’m a journalist and I’d like to continue being employed as a journalist. Everywhere I read that an employable journalist is as competent with 0s and 1s as I am with nouns and verbs. Does that mean I need to become a computer programmer?
Back when I helped out at GNN, O’Reilly’s early online service, and Delphi, the first of many online services that Rupert Murdoch’s ownership ruined, I thought there might be a brief opening for an editorial person who “got” the web. (Fortunately, almost two decades later, that window hasn’t closed yet.) One of the ways I’ve been able to make a go of it has been to learn how to program.
The idea is to make computer programming one of the tools in your journalistic kit, something that makes it easier for employers or clients to work with you. I once pitched a project conducting an online survey for a syndicated research firm and one of the reasons I got the gig was that I was able to do the whole project myself, not just designing the survey and interpreting the results, but also getting a working survey onto the web. These were in the pre-SurveyMonkey days when you needed to be able to do some grunt-level coding (in that case, in Perl) to create an online survey. I did plenty more work with that company in the years that followed; most of it was straight editorial, but knowing I could solve a technology problem independently made my client more comfortable keeping me around.
Although there are particular skills a programming journalist needs, what the ability to code offers a writer more than anything else is a way, an approach, even more than specific, problem-solving skills. To be a competent computer programmer, even for relatively simple web-based programs, you have to be able to break down a complex problem into small, manageable pieces. That’s a career skill, a life skill, and it’s something that programming forces you to do if you want to get any good at it. I’ve never been able to code for hours as if under a spell, which professional programmers can do easily. I can get into that zone as a writer, but not as a programmer. As someone who’s more journalist than programmer, that will likely be the case for you, too, so you will not spend hours under headphones, able to keep disparate parts of a large coding matter in your mind at the same time. You’ll break your pseudocode into small, manageable chunks, and then go from pseudocode to real code.
And chances are you’re not just writing code, you’re editing code someone else has written. Whatever problem you’re trying to solve as a programmer/journalist, there’s a very good chance that you are not the first person who’s had to solve this problem. Any popular language you are working with will have repositories all over the web of publicly available code that can solve at least part of your problem with only minimal customization, and, more important to your development, show you how other people approached the same issues. Curious journalist/programmers don’t just paste in code; they read it over — just like a beginning journalist reads John McPhee or Robert Caro — to learn how the pros do it. Then they make their own way.
That’s how you might want to proceed conceptually. Here are some admittedly idiosyncratic recommendations regarding what particular skills a journalist/programmer could use. (And I mean use practically. My favorite language to work in, the Lisp dialect Scheme, as taught in the beloved wizard book, is a learning language only. I’m more likely to get paid as a theremin roadie than as a Scheme programmer.)
The foundation: HTML/CSS/HTML5. Thanks to visual tools, journalists can work in web publishing with minimal exposure to HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). That’s not a good thing; it prevents journalists from knowing even the rudiments of the platform they’re working on. It’s hard to produce a vivid sound recording without knowing how to work a physical or virtual mixing board; similarly, how can you make your story work best on the web, tablets, and mobile devices if you don’t have a basic understanding of what the formats can do? HTML isn’t even full-fledged coding. It’s more page layout. Understanding HTML is not much harder than understanding how to use early DOS word processors like WordStar and XyWrite, programs that made you explicitly underline, etc.
The two steps after HTML are CSS and HTML5. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) gives more precise layout tools and makes it easier to separate content from layout. HTML5, the latest version of the HTML standard, is still under development, but it’s already being used on many websites and in many web applications, particularly those aiming for tablets and mobile devices. There are an avalanche of useful new commands in HTML5 that make it much easier to integrate multimedia (HTML5′s ability to do this is one of the reasons Adobe’s more cumbersome Flash format is going away).
You don’t have to memorize too much HTML(5)/CSS syntax; there are plenty of online and offline resources. And don’t worry about learning explicitly what every last command parameter can do. The key is to know what tools are available and have a general sense of which one will get you out of which types of problems. You don’t have to know everything; you’ll know when you know enough.
You also need to know how to manage a database. In the late ’90s, when I got serious about educating myself as a journalist who could program, I became a great fan of Philip Greenspun, particularly his book Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing. In addition to being a physically beautiful object (Greenspun is an accomplished and very opinionated photographer), the Guide spelled out what anyone who had aspirations of becoming a web programmer had to know. Greenspun’s knowledge and style placed his book high above the “Teach Yourself TK in 21 Days” books that were popular at the time. He was rigorous, he was funny, and his approach made you want to learn. In particular, he showed why being able to manage a database was the key to building and maintaining any real website. That’s still the case: the fancy content management systems journalists use today, from bare-bones blog-building systems like WordPress to the more bloated “enterprise” systems, are customized databases. Many database systems are built around SQL; Greenspun has a guide to SQL, too, but don’t attempt that before you’ve got a good grounding in web technologies.
Finally, learn one language, any language (parenthetical removed; see why in the comments). There are plenty of arguments for learning plenty of different languages, but I think journalists entering the word of programming are best-served by learning Python. The tools you pick up are reasonably transferable to other languages, Python is built into OS X so you don’t have to install it, and how can you dislike a language with metasyntactic variables (spam and eggs) that clearly came from Monty Python?
Best of all, Python is a strong learning language. MIT uses it to teach people how to think like programmers. You can download the course text, How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning With Python, to get a sense of how Python is a useful vehicle for starting programming. Python is also used as the entry language for my alma mater O’Reilly’s useful and entertaining Head First series for new programmers. Python is a powerful scripting language for web apps, but for someone who intends to be a journalist first and a programmer second (or tenth), it’s just a smart way in.
I am far from a professional programmer. Folks hire me because of my editorial and consulting skills, not because I can code kickass regular expressions (I can’t). But learning how to program lets me understand a problem from more sides and makes it more likely that I can help a company figure out how to solve it. Learning how to program has helped me and I hope it helps you too. I also hope this answers the question of how to become a journalist/programmer adequately; I’m going to point people who ask me that here from now on.
Even if you’re a journalist who never wants to write a line of code professionally, you can become a better digital journalist if you understand the technologies without which no one could ever experience your journalism. And the best way to understand is to do. One of the aspects I enjoyed most of the Robert Fripp talk I wrote about at the top of the post is that it captures the joy of learning something, getting better at it, and mastering it. While I was finishing this post, I heard the Roches’ “Hammond Song” coming from another room once again. But my daughter wasn’t listening to the Roches anymore. She had mastered the song and now she was singing it herself.
I’m in technology transition. I had to hand back my MacBook when I left HBR last week and I haven’t gotten around to ordering a new one yet, so after a few days of trying to use the iPad as a comfortable input device (stop laughing) I’m using a circa-2007 IBM ThinkPad that until recently was sitting under several inches of file folders. When I switched to the Mac after more than 20 years as a DOS/Windows user, it was like escaping a long-term abusive relationship. Suddenly everything was easier, more pleasant. So moving back to Windows software and Windows-inspired hardware, even for just a short time, has been unsettling and frustrating. I can’t wait for it to end. (My pal Ania Wieckowski has a tweet this morning on the matter, sort-of.)
It’s taken as self-evident that working on a Mac is superior to working on a PC. We’ve personalized that, in everything ranging from the “I’m a Mac” commercials to the relative merits of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Apple founder Steve Jobs. (Some of the comparisons are absurd.) I’m partway through Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Jobs, in which nearly every quote from Jobs about Gates exudes condescension and envy. Everything from the experience of using Gates’s Microsoft products to the business tactics Microsoft deployed to maintain its monopoly offended Jobs’s inextricable design and moral sensibilities.
But what is Gates’s mission on the planet? For decades, he must have thought it was a computer on every desk, and he made great progress in that endeavor, even if in both his DOS and Windows products he delivered experiences that only software architects who aspire to the complicated, idiosyncratic, and confusing could admire. But I suspect that over the long-term, the value for society created by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will more than compensate for any first-world unhappiness we feel in having to click a “Start” button to make something stop. Bad memory management is no match for working to eradicate malaria.
Jobs was a firm believer in his own immortality; the authorized Isaacson biography and the publication of his sister Mona Simpson’s eulogy for him are merely opening salvos in that campaign. Jobs still competed with Gates even after Gates went on to other endeavors (you could see it in their last joint public appearance, as I reported here). I am willing to bet the value of the MacBook I will soon order that Jobs has some sort of insanely elegant posthumous philanthropic venture that we’ll hear about shortly. It will be beautiful, no doubt. It may even be effective.
I know Jobs was a genius. I know his contributions to technology outstrip Gates’s. We know what Jobs will be remembered for hundreds of years on. I suspect our great-grandchildren will remember Bill Gates as an inspired philanthropist who brought tremendous resources and imagination to a handful of the 21st century’s most apparently intractable problems. How did he make his fortune in the first place? I suspect our great-grandchildren won’t know. That won’t be the thing about him that will be worth remembering.
I just checked my blog server logs for the first time in many months and I discovered that I still get plenty of traffic for posts I wrote years ago wondering when Remember the Milk, my task manager of choice, would ever synchronize with the tasks in Microsoft’s Outlook. Most people know that a solution has existed for months: MilkSync. It runs reasonably smoothly and accurately (as in I haven’t lost any data), although neither Outlook nor RTM are anywhere near perfect services.
What is Coffee for No Reason?
It’s an occasional gathering of people who work in tech, biotech, media, and the wider start-up world. The objective? To drink coffee together for absolutely no reason. Essentially, it’s a chance to take a break from work, meet some interesting people, and hear what they’re up to. (The other devious purpose is that my co-host, Jimmy Guterman, and I use the event as an excuse to give away free copies of all of the business/tech books we’ve accumulated in recent months.)
So here’s how it works: we’ll be in the front room of the Kendall Square Cosi on Wednesday, December 23rd from 9 to 11 AM. You stop by to say hello and drink some coffee (and perhaps grab a book. If you have goodies of your own to give away, that’s great, too.)
Depending on whom you meet and what you discuss, your productivity for the day will either be raised or lowered….we make no guarantees.
The Twitter hash tag for the event is #cfnr. If you’re coming, tweet about it to let others know…
Hope to see you there!
Just a quick public thanks to Scott Kirsner for coming up with the idea for the Coffee for No Reason that we hosted. The attendance was much larger than we expected (thanks to Cosi for being kind about that) and I got the chance to meet a bunch of cool people doing cool things. Some I knew already; plenty I was lucky enough to meet for the first time. I shouldn’t have to be reminded than Silicon Valley isn’t the only place where tech innovation is happening.
However, if you do live near San Francisco and you didn’t fly cross-country for a cup of coffee, you can see Scott at a “Fans, Friends & Followers” workshop at BAVC on December 1. It’ll cost more than a cup of coffee but I’m sure it will be a bargain.
In work and life, we put off things we have to do forever and ever until they are causing us so much stress that we have to DO THEM RIGHT NOW. After we do, we’re surprised how little time, effort, and imagination we needed to draw on to get everything done. I’m having this experience right now. As I wrote in Remember the Milk fails to serve its Outlook users — or does it understand its audience perfectly? and the followup post Remember the Milk forgets me … but is it my fault?, I wrote about how hard it was getting the online task service Remember the Milk to work with Microsoft Outlook and I realized — after promptings from two of my smarter Friends on the Internets — that the problem was my reliance on Outlook. At MIT, I was finally working in a technology-agnostic environment. I wrote, “I’m going to move my work life to the cloud slowly and carefully.” I’d been working in Outlook for many years, ever since a client forced me to leave my beloved Eudora. The plan was to move slowly and calmly, so I didn’t lose any data or screw up my workflow more than it’s usually screwed up.
It took about a day.
I am a bit embarrassed about how easy it was. I won’t bore you with the particulars (fortunately for you, this is not one of those blogs that talks about the intricacies and idiosyncracies of secure POP-to-IMAP transfers), but I can tell you that (a) I’m not the world’s most tech-savvy blogger and (b) after about an hour I didn’t miss Outlook. Sure, there are compromises in getting the new system to work my way, but there were compromises in getting the old one to work my way, too. (One compromise I didn’t have to make: the most essential of my Outlook add-ons, Anagram, is available in a more lightweight version for Gmail and Google Calendar.)
Until the past few weeks, I understood on an abstract level that the computing world was moving inexorably from desktop-based applications to cloud-based ones. When I was editing Release 2.0 I reported from the front lines of the transition. But I didn’t truly grok it until I uninstalled Microsoft Office and looked for myself. Web apps have nearly all the functionality of desktop apps, they’re infinitely lighter and more portable, and they’re a whole lot cheaper. It’s pretty clear up here in the cloud. And, as Brian pointed out, I never have to wait for Outlook to open ever again. Microsoft is going to have to do a lot more than get funnier jokes out of Jerry Seinfeld to beat this.
“You are not authorized to remove yourself from this mailing list.”
On a typical work day, I receive roughly 120 emails addressed to me. I also receive another 90 or so email on lists I subscribe to. And I get, on average, 930 pieces of spam per day. The “real” email is manageable; the spam isn’t. Until today, I’ve made time to go through the spam filters of my sundry inboxes. I’m stopping today for two reasons.
1. It’s too damn disheartening to see that the vast majority of email I receive pertains to such topics as debt refinancing, penis augmentation, and images of Angelina Jolie. But, more important …
2. In my past two weeks of spamsweeping, I found only one false positive among the 11,000 pieces of spam. It’s not worth reading the 10,999 to get the one.
So, keep sending me spam. I won’t be reading any of it from now on.
Like everyone else with something resembling a life, the amount of things I have to do beats the crap out of the amount of time I have to do them. So I’ve used a variety of methodologies, software programs, wireless devices, and enthusiast websites (1, 2) to keep everything organized and moving forward.
Nirvana for personal overclockers, at least on the digital side of personal optimization, is complete synchronization across computers, networks, and devices. Yet the most basic of synchronizations — notes and lists of tasks that work together on a computer and a handheld device, something I took for granted when the original PalmPilot came out in 1995 — is unavailable on the iPhone. The failure is Apple’s, of course. But there is one vendor that could solve the problem and make some money from it, but has decided not to. At first I thought this decision was a big, fat fail, but now I wonder.
Remember the Milk is a sturdy web-based task management service. It’s reliable and flexible, and it comes in a very handy iPhone-optimized version. It doesn’t, however, work with Microsoft Outlook, the “productivity” suite millions of people
are forced to work with. A service that could connect Outlook tasks to the iPhone via a premium web-based service would seem a smart business. And because it already has an excellent web-based service that works well on the iPhone, you’d think Remember the Milk would be uniquely positioned to own that niche.
So do hundreds (at least) of Remember the Milk (RTM) users, both those using the free and “pro” ($25 per year) versions. An active, energetic thread in RTM’s forums (disclosure: I’ve contributed) is full of requests, demands, and begs that the small company develop an Outlook-synching tool, as it has for some other platforms. The folks who write and manage RTM weighed in early in the discussion but have been noticeable by their absence for more than 18 months.
I thought this was nuts. I wanted to grab the RTM team by their lapels and shout, “People, your customers, many of whom don’t give you a dime, are offering to sign up for your paid service if you just do this. Why don’t you?”
I don’t know anyone at RTM and I haven’t heard from any of them about this. (I weighed in a few times in the discussion forum and sent an email, but I never heard back.) These people have developed a good service. Shouldn’t I at least acknowledge that they might know their customers better than I do? They’re certainly talented at getting the service to work in plenty of places: web, iPhone, BlackBerry, plenty of Google services, Twitter, Windows Mobile devices, even when not connected to the Net. If they wanted to provide Outlook synchronization, they could. They’ve chosen not to. There is an API for RTM, so I suppose I could do this myself if I (a) had the inclination and (b) did not stink as a programmer.
There are plenty of good reasons for RTM to punt on Outlook. Maybe the RTM userbase is far more Mac-centric than you’d think. Maybe either Microsoft or Apple are working on this and RTM knows this. Maybe some people at the Googleplex are working on Google Tasks in their 20% time and RTM knows this. Maybe someone outside RTM who (a) has the inclination and (b) does not stink as a programmer is working on this. Maybe no one at RTM has the energy for yet another port.
The problem is: I don’t know. I’m willing to assume that RTM has good reason not to provide Outlook synchronization. But as a paying customer and a fan, I’d rather know for sure.
One of the unexpected side effects of moving this blog to WordPress was easy access to real-time statistics. I could tell, pretty quickly, whether a particular post or type of post was getting picked up or ignored. It’s seductive stuff — as anyone who has followed his or her book- or record-selling stats on Amazon knows so well. The bad part, aside from the time-wasting, is that the easy access to stats makes a blogger think too much about audience before posting. Blogs, I believe, are supposed to be about unvetted expression, capturing a moment, embracing the amateur and enthusiast in you even if you’re a professional writer in your real life. I intended to title one of my previous blogs “Quality over Quantity,” to celebrate that, but as old-timers know, I committed a typo and wound up titling that blog “Quantity over Quantity,” an unintentional joke too amusing to fix.
Now I’m not so sure. It’s 2008 and almost everyone has a blog (or has at least tried):
Is blogging getting old? Over the past two years, Twitter and Facebook status messages have emerged as media for distributing thoughts deemed too evanescent for a blog post. And now there are so many such services that aggregators such as FriendFeed and Ping.fm have emerged. More are coming. Nothing is so mundane that it can’t be shared immediately via many media. As Philip Greenspun’s blog puts it in its tagline: “A posting every day; an interesting idea every three month.”
I am a bit too enamored with my own ideas, as are many of us. As Jane said to me once and probably thought many more times, “Tell it to your blog.” The blogosphere is a wonderful place, but it’s one by definition full of noise. Although I value that noise and revel in it sometimes, I think too many of my posts are mostly noise, little signal.
Sometimes statistics reveal a truth. The two posts here that received, respectively, the most traffic and the most pointers in recent weeks were Barack Obama, Rolling Stone, and the secret of one great magazine cover and Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Twin “Hurricane”s in Rio. They’re two of the more substantive posts here from the past month. Neither post will change the world and both of ‘em featured pointers to more interesting content elsewhere. But they both sought to do a bit more than point to something and say, “Cool.” So, as this blog trudges forward, I’ll stop posting just to post. If I have something interesting to offer, I’ll try to communicate it in a substantial and entertaining way. If I don’t, I’ll try to shut up.
So there we are, both of us sitting on her floor. I am typing on my laptop. She is supervising yet another wedding between Barbie and Ken.
Grace: What are you doing?
[Grace stands up, walks behind me, and sees what's on the laptop screen.]
Grace: That’s email. You do work in email?
I think the reasoning goes something like this:
If it happens to three people, it’s a trend.
If it happens to two people and I know one of them, it’s a trend.
If it happens to me, it’s a trend.
Someone sent me a note about the post earlier today about “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. The subject line of the note was “Prove It.” Well, OK, here it is. (Thanks to Eric Mongeon for digging up the file so quickly.)
In 2005, I was part of a team that launched a fine but short-lived magazine for Forrester. In the first issue, which came out in March 2005, we led one section with an article headlined “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Next month’s cover story in The Atlantic, written by someone who wrote a piece for the Forrester magazine, is entitled, of all things, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid.” Not for the first time (I’m thinking of one barely-permitted-to-be-published article, “How Apple Gets Away With It,” and one outright-killed one, “The Post-Microsoft Era”), I want to congratulate my esteemed once-and-future colleagues Harris Collingwood and Eric Hellweg for being consistently ahead of pretty much any technology or media trend you can imagine. Note to The Atlantic: If you’re interested in what will be important to your readers three years from now, you might want to give Harris or Eric a call.
Yes, I know I published this long post several months ago on my old blog. But, according to the WordPress dashboard, plenty of people are visiting this new blog looking for it. The posts from they old blog are not here yet, because I have yet to figure out how to make the Blogger-to-WordPress tool work. So, to satisfy those who might be interested, here it is. I gave a talk on “Why screwing up is the smartest thing you can do” at the “university” part of TED in late February and delivered a (not as good) stripped-down version of it a week later at ETech. I was asked by several Jewels and Binoculars readers who weren’t at either event to post the presentation as a blog entry. Here it is. I recognize that a flat blog post doesn’t capture the experience of a live presentation, but I want to get the material out here. And, as an added benefit, you don’t have to look at or listen to me present it!
Being here first thing in the morning, I feel like the opening act at the beginning of one of those long package shows of rock bands. I feel like Yngvie Malmsteen, a godawful heavy metal guitarist not often celebrated at TED.
Indeed, “Yngvie,” as we all know, is Swedish for “opening act.”
So here we go…
I edit Release 2.0, an expensive newsletter, so I hear a lot from readers. Sometimes they’re looking for rules, some secrets to guarantee success. I want to justify their investment in the newsletter, of course, so I tell ‘em what I’ve learned.
And what I’ve learned is that they should screw up.
While anyone who’s spent time with any of the members of Guns N Roses might find them to be screwups, the reason you haven’t heard anything new and substantial from them on the radio for 16 years — 16 years! — is that they’ve committed the opposite of screwing up: overplanning. Since the mid-’90s, by which time every original member of the band except singer Axl Rose had left for one reason or another, Guns N Roses has been working on a new album called Chinese Democracy.
Rose and his co-conspirators have been thinking and recording Chinese Democracy for 14 years, gone through at least six producers, 17 band members, and $16 million in recording costs. It’s not out yet. They’ve waited so long, perfecting and planning, planning and perfecting, that the industry Axl Rose once ruled no longer exists. Democracy may arrive in China before Chinese Democracy arrives in record stores.
Oh — wait — there really aren’t record stores any more, either. Too much planning, too much process, means no art, no product, nothing.
For a different approach, let’s consider the TV series Twin Peaks from the early ’90s. To refresh your memory…
This man, Leland Palmer…
…possessed by the spirit of a supernatural character named BOB…
…turned his daughter, Laura Palmer…
But where did BOB, the conceptual lynchpin of the series, come to be? Surely he was there from the beginning.
No. His introduction into the series came as a result of an accident while the cameras were running.
In a scene late in the Twin Peaks pilot, Laura Palmer’s mother experiences a vision while sitting on her living room couch. On the wall behind her, barely in the shot, there is a mirror. In the bottom corner of the mirror, there’s the reflection of Frank Silva, a set dresser on the crew, unaware he’s in the shot. You or I wouldn’t have noticed it unless we were looking for it — but on the set of a television show, there is someone whose job is to look for just such mistakes.
After the take, that person alerted director David Lynch to the accident and began to set up a reshoot. Lynch stopped him. He spoke to Frank Silva, the set dresser in the mirror. “Can you act?” Lynch asked. This was Los Angeles, so you know the answer…
…and the malevolent, mysterious character of BOB, the key to the weird mystery of the series, was born — from an accident.
Many popular products, advances, and countless works of art have emerged from accidents. In the Internet world, we have Blogger and Twitter. And those two are just from one guy: Evan Williams.
Things may go better with Coke, but Coke was originally designed to go better with pain. It was intended to be a pain remedy.
in 1928, Alexander Fleming, researching the flu, noticed that a mold had taken over one of his petri dishes. That mold, he saw, had stopped bacteria in the dish. Voila! Penicillin. Indeed, the very idea of vaccines was discovered by accident, when Edward Jenner noticed that people who worked with cows didn’t get smallpox.
In 1894, John Harvey Kellogg left some cooked wheat to sit while he attended to some pressing matters at his sanitarium. When he returned, the wheat had gone stale. Because he was either cheap or broke — historians disagree — he tried to save the wheat by forcing it through rollers, expecting to get long sheets of dough he could use. Instead, he got … flakes. He toasted them. He served them to his patients. He got very, very rich.
Post-It notes came to be by accident, too, but the story isn’t that interesting, so I’ll just mention it and keep going.
This one’s more interesting. Fred Katz introduced the cello to modern jazz. One night in the late 1950s, during a break between sets while he was playing piano with a jazz band, Katz pulled a chair to the front of the stage and played some solo cello. When the rest of the band returned to the small stage, there was no room for Katz to return to his piano. Not sure what to do — the set was starting, the band was playing — Katz decided to play the piano lines on his cello. Out of his accident, his real, half-century-long, career began.
Next time you enjoy some ferocious rock’n'roll encased in feedback, thank these guys. A spray of amplifier feedback at the beginning of The Beatles’ 1965 recording of “I Feel Fine,” an accident, sounded so unusual — and so great — that they kept it on the record. And, since I’m talking about brands favored by aging boomers…
…Viagra was first thought to be a promising drug for angina. During 1992 clinical trials in a town in Wales, Pfizer researchers discovered that…
…the drug had a different effect altogether.
So mistakes can be great things. What do we do about ‘em? How do we harness ‘em? Well, if you’re the Harvard Business School, the font of management wisdom (and — disclosure — a client), you’re not quite sure. Sometimes they tell us to be afraid of mistakes…
…sometimes they tell us we can manage accidents, thus making them not accidents. We might call this the Pee-Wee Herman “I meant to do that” theory of managing mistakes…
..and, once, squeezed almost as an afterthought — or, maybe, an accident — as the very last entry in an issue of the Harvard Business Review, they celebrate it, thanks to a terrific, brief essay by Danny Hillis. I’m not trying to pick on Harvard. You can find similar advice from the other Ivy schools, even Stanford. But this is the conventional business wisdom. You can’t be built to last or go from good to great or whatever unless you’re careful to avoid mistakes, the thinking goes. Imagine the difference between the reaction if you tell your boss “I’m planning” and the one you get if you say, “I’m making mistakes.”
Established institutions are in the business of supporting the status quo. And mistakes, if nothing else, go against the status quo, the conventional wisdom, the expected. As Esther Dyson used to sign her emails, “Always make new mistakes!” A key part of planning is being open to mistakes.
The unexpected kiss, the unpredictable punch line: they’re so much of what makes life worth living. Shouldn’t we let the unexpected into our business work as well? It’s by screwing up that we learn and discover. We can’t predict accidents. But we can take advantage of them.
You never know where a mistake is going to lead. Maybe nowhere, maybe somewhere. But it’s definitely nowhere if you don’t at least lean forward and peer down the road after you screw up.
You want the secret of success that my newsletter readers want to know? It’s no secret. It’s that, chances are, whatever you’re looking for — that’s not what you’re going to find.
One of the projects I worked on at O’Reilly was a joint report with another company that produced research reports. Among other things, it was a great way to learn how other businesses managed their processes and methodologies. The report came out well, but there’s one thing our prime contact at the other company said that, I hope, will stay with me.
“If we lose our way,” he said, “we always go back to our framework.”
We all want to be agile. But it’s easier to respond to anything if you have a starting point. Having just an adequate framework, I’ve found, might be almost as good as having a great one. Having thought about it for a while, I think simply having a framework is more important than which framework you have. Why look for the perfect system for writing a novel or getting in shape when any of them is probably better than just bumbling in the dark, which is what most of us do most of the time? A framework has to be unusually wrong to hold you back.
That’s new thinking for me. For a long time I didn’t trust explain-it-all systems. Until recently, I made fun of people who adopted GTD with an almost-religious fervor. Yet, after flirting with GTD for more than a year, I’m following it, too, although not with quite the fervor you’d expect of the recently converted. Even if it’s not a perfect system, it is a good system, and I’m starting to believe that’s almost all that matters.
And now, on to my GTD weekly review…
I am, against my better judgment, experimenting with Twitter. Please don’t subscribe. What I’m doing there is boring. Not sure that a format that’s even more evanescent than blogging will work out for me, but all my cool friends are doing it and I suppose the answer is yes, apparently I would jump off a bridge if all my friends asked me to. But you have to worry about a form that, in such a short time, has annoyed people so much that there’s a need for an app like this. On the other hand, many of the “tweets” I “read” are about the service being down, so my testing may be short-lived.
Starting Monday, I’ll be executive editor of MIT Sloan Management Review.
On Facebook, I only accept “friend” requests from people I know. And even then, I don’t accept ‘em all. So why do I have many more friends on Facebook than I do in real life?
I just checked my email and I realized what my favorite email subject line is:
How bad has service gotten in our so-called service economy? So bad that just showing up for an appointment is now considered a business-defining competiting advantage:
Thirteen years ago, when I was working in Cambridge for a doomed online service owned by Rupert Murdoch, I used to get early-morning calls from one of my bosses. He lived in California and he would bark instructions to me via a shaky mobile phone connection while he drove via the Pacific Coast Highway to his pre-dawn surf group. Usually, he would suggest I do whatever he had just thought up in the car. He’d never remember after the call was over, I’d never follow up, the next day he’d have another idea, and the pattern continued for months until my job moved to Manhattan and I didn’t. My colleagues and I would call these ideas “Pacific Coast Highway Ideas,” notions that seemed like genius for a brief moment, then something else would come up.
I had what I think was a Pacific Coast Highway moment today. The past few weeks I’ve been listening a lot to a great obscure soul singer and songwriter whose work I love (and have celebrated in print — and, long ago, on this very blog) and whose work, recorded over more than 40 years for what seems like more than 40 labels, really deserves to be collected in a thoughtful, fun box set. While I was in the car this afternoon, I heard, unexpectedly, a fine profile of that singer on public radio. It was, I determined based on mere coincidence, a sign that I needed to produce that box set right away. Within the hour, I called a few people for advice, connected with a likely record company, and found the guy’s email address. (Yes, obscure soul singers do have email addresses.)
I just told some of this to Jane, who — while being generally supportive — pointed out that producing another box set, while satisfying, would be easy compared to the novel I’m trying to write. The book I’m constructing from scratch; the box set would be made of materials someone else has created over a long, fascinating career. The hard work would have been done already — by someone else. Most of the creativity involved in the project would have been expended long ago. Maybe I’ll do the box set someday, maybe I won’t. But, thanks to Jane’s 10,000th intervention, tonight I won’t let a Pacific Coast Highway Idea get in the way of a riskier but potentially more fulfilling creative endeavor. And now it’s time to stop blogging and start real writing.
“Vampire Tapestry Horse Leg Carrot Sandwich Train”
Turned out to be a stock tout.