The noise an incoming email makes.

Once upon a time when the internet was young, getting an email was a magical experience. It was something someone you knew sent you because spam wasn’t yet a thing. Connecting a noise notification to an email by default made sense. It made people excited about the medium and made sure people didn’t forget about it since those rare emails alerted you of their presence.

Over the last 20 years, email has become commonplace. Most people send multiple emails a day, and likely receive dozens. It’s no longer a rare event, nor something people forget about. Yet, we still have that annoying default noise of an incoming message. If you receive similar email quantities as me and you don’t turn your sound off, or turn off the alert noise, you’ll be hearing it every few minutes throughout the day.

The average person is engaged in a battle for their attention. These notifications are a remnant of a past era. They were integrated into the system for a reason, then the reason was long forgotten. They simply exist as an irritation these days.

If a system is built to make you behave a certain way, it doesn’t mean you have to obey it. You can bend it. Of course, it’s important to bend it in a way that others participating in the system expect. If your coworkers expect responses within a day, it’s not a great idea to check email once per week, but it may be a great idea to check once per day instead of every 5 minutes. Systems get adapted to the current needs, though they were often put in place based on past needs. That’s okay, just make sure expectations about those changes are clear.

Sort by size vs sort by color

Someone I know had a container that had sorted 1000s of different beads and they dropped it on the ground. It was heartbreaking because they became all mixed up, but all of the beads were exactly the same size, only varying in color. Had they been varying only in size, a system of making some wires at different spacing could have easily been made to quickly sort the 1000s of beads back into their original places, but instead, color requires the human eye and a huge amount of effort and time. There is no easy, quick to rig up solution for sorting by color.

The world has more ways to sort things that we can possibly count. In fact, no matter the job you have or the work you do in some way you are sorting information, whether there is a physical good attached or not. If you own a restaurant you may be sorting who you should hire, or what should go on the menu, or which tables need to the gum scraped off the bottom.

The difficult part is that we (and by we, I mean everyone) don’t know how the most important things should be sorted. There is no perfect solution.

If you’re in sales you’re sorting requirements, objections, agreements, and resources in order to package them all together into a presentation and create deal. If you’re in the recycling business you’re sorting things that are plastic vs. glass, but what happens when a cat ends up there? How do we deal with that not fitting our classifications?

If you want to find a way to add value to someone, be in the business of sorting in a way that there isn’t already an elegant system for. The harder it is to design a system to do, the closer to “human” that task is, and the more likely it is to be valued. Many of these items, like the sales example, are “intangible” and there is no efficient way to train someone to do this work. That’s why there is value to it.

A song cutting out

I was sitting in a parking lot while my wife ran into a store to pick a few things up, when an old favorite song of mine came on the radio. I was excited to hear it, and it put me in the right feeling, but then it started cutting out every few seconds. After ten such breaks in the song, it became nearly impossible to continue listening.

Everything has a natural rhythm. A pace that allows operation and harmony. When it’s disrupted it becomes a fight to get through it. It takes a beautiful song and turns it into simply noise. This is happening all over the place in your life. Social media competing with the books you should be reading. Text messages interrupting the conversation you should be having. Calls that chop up your day.

We’re interrupted in every way imaginable. Our lives are not as calm, rhythmic, and organized as they should be as a result of technology literally trying to figure out pattern interrupts so that they can sell you more goods you didn’t care to notice before.

There is a huge tension between how you want your days to be and how they are, and technology both enables and disables them from happening. Figure out your own rhythms. When they work stick with them, when they stop working change them.

A few ideas that have worked for me:

  • Deleting specific apps from my phone
  • Only looking at certain websites on a computer
  • Keeping my phone in another room at specific times or when working on specific tasks
  • Attempting to always have a book that I’m interested in finishing instead of wandering to social media for entertainment
  • Finding a schedule that works, and knowing when I’m most likely to be able to do certain types of work.

Hopefully you’ll think about this for yourself.

Showing up in search

When people think about starting a new business, one of the things that comes up is marketing. How will I stand out, how will someone find me? Will I be able to be found at all?

The answer to all of these is yes provided you do the work. I’ve been working on this blog for about 22 months blogging nearly everyday with a few sporadic periods where I missed some days as life got hectic. I’ve seen traffic grow steadily, but not in consistent ways. It was exponential, then it plateaued a bit for a couple months, then it rose linearly, now it looks like it’s going to be exponential for a little while again.

There is a huge number of factors involved here. The quantity of work being done. People finding your work and sharing it. The algorithms Google is using to rank you in searches.

When I started out, you could search “noneofthisisright.com” and even something that direct wouldn’t come up. It took over 12 months for that search to come up.

This likely applies to just about anything that you do. Showing up daily, doing the work, documenting it, talking about, is how you get your name out there. It will work, but only if you do.

The Average and The Distribution

The average tells you nothing about the distribution.

Imagine two bowlers bowling in 10 tournaments, both average 220, but one averages between 215-225 every event, while another averages 190 in some but 250 in the others. Which one actually made more money? Likely, the less consistent guy because he likely won the events where he averaged 250 and a disproportionate amount of money goes to 1st place.

Depending on the way the rewards are distributed, it may make sense to take a risk rather than to focus on consistency. Sure you may fail at times, but if the upside is skewed heavily compared to the downside, then risk-taking rather than consistency is likely the best bet mathematically.

Taking this to a different context, when it comes to ideology, extremism on both sides leads to the same average as everyone huddled in the center. However, the huddled center distribution has shared vision allowing us all to move forward without too much friction, while the divided extremist division leads to shouting, emotions, violence, and overall bad behavior. It leads to every conversation being either an echo chamber or a fight, no actual discussion. It leads to “I don’t want to understand you. You’re a nut job.” This sounds like politics, but I’ve seen it at companies too, and it’s not a good culture.

Here are some things that are likely distributed differently than you may think:

  • Responsibility
  • Knowledge
  • Relationships
  • Opportunity
  • Courage
  • Athleticism
  • Intelligence

Figuring out where you stand on these may help you realize where you can relate to the masses and where you stand out. Then you can figure out how to maximize that to optimize your success.

A Company of Well-Rounded People.

An entire company of well-rounded people. What a great company that would be, right?

Wrong.

Well-rounded people are needed in every company. People that can be the common linchpin amongst groups. However, too many of these types leads to all breadth and no-depth. It leads to not being so interesting.

A study of personality types such as MBTI or enneagram and you’ll quickly find that personality types to tend flock to themselves and a couple other complementary types. This leads to uniformity. Teams where everyone is mostly the same, not filling in the gaps of each other, but acting as clones. This may be good for specialized teams, who have narrow foci of tasks, but not if the team has to do a broad range of work.

When I looked at the group I was in at work through the perspective of Myers-Briggs and the associated cognitive functions, I found an interesting correlation, we all had the same functions in our stacks, though in different orders, representing three different personality types. Perhaps those are the functions needed for the role. Or perhaps that’s what the people who put us there thought was needed for the role. The combination of empathy, quick thinking, and handling things in the moment. However, while my group was good at their role, none of us would have been good in the administrator roles at the company. There are a number of people in the company that handle that work much better.

A struggle at times when putting a team together is hiring people with the right skills for the role, rather than the people like us.

Working together.

In school there are many team assignments, they teach people how to work together. Of course, there is not standard definition of what “working together” means.

My wife is an interior designer, as a result, we have a number of projects around our house that we want to do, but we don’t make much progress on them. Why does that have to be the case? We’re working together after all.

Part of the reason is because in her normal work, there is a designer/client relationship. One is here to do the work, the other to approve it. It’s clear cut. In my case, I’m sort of a co-collaborator and client at the same time. I’m taking part in the design, but I’m also approving it, but my wife is also the client and the designer herself. Add to it that since we aren’t being hired by someone there is no in-and-out situation. The deadlines drag on forever. Unlimited revisions. It tends to be a combination of no clear authority, no clear worker, no clear timelines equals no progress.

This is something we all internalize easily, but it’s something that we don’t often pay attention to as the reason why improvements don’t get made at companies. Or the reason we have the same conversations 100 times because the dynamic doesn’t change.

Here’s some questions to attempt to overcome this scenario.

  • What is the project?
  • What are the domains of expertise required?
  • Who is responsible is assigned to the different domains?
  • What are the deadlines?
  • Who makes the final decisions (is this domain dependent?)?
  • Who decides the budget?
  • Who has authority to spend the money and how much?
  • Who is responsible if things fall apart, someone leaves or is incapacitated and needs to be replaced mid-project?

If you can’t answer all of these, you probably aren’t ready for your project.

Fire is a non-linear problem.

The initial temperature. The airflow. The humidity. The stacking geometry. These are all variables that affect whether the wood will ignite and how hot it will get.

The thing about non-linear problems is they are often counter-intuitive.

Taking the fire example, you place a small log in the fire place, and some crumpled newspaper below it, you light the newspaper, it chars the wood, and before you know it, the newspaper has burnt up, and the log isn’t burning. The fire is dead.

It seems as if you can’t light a single small log, you wouldn’t be able to light MORE wood. However, if the wood is stacked, a reaction on the surface is happening as the air rises up, as the flame from the newspaper hits the lowest log, more energy is released heating the air more, which makes that air hit the logs stacked higher and ignite them more as well. As they do, they release tiny little embers that fall down the stack, which makes the air at the bottom start out warmer every time, and eventually you have a self-perpetuating combustion cycle.

There are many things that run counter-intuitive in life some, but not all of them may be:

  • Trying to keep a business too small thinking it will be easier.
  • Talking about yourself instead of talking about others.
  • Showing up in the right places, which may run counter to where you believe those places are.

We extrapolate our experiences constantly to areas where we have less expertise, but more often than not the world is non-linear in nature, which means our assumptions, beliefs and expectations are more likely to be wrong than right. That’s why doing the work is so important, it fills in the data and the parts of the curve that are missing so that we can see things more clearly.

Overestimating abilities.

It turns out people are good at identifying what happiness looks like on someone’s face. A big smile, and eyes wide, it looks hopeful. However, that doesn’t translate to whether the person making that face is happy or trying to look happy.

Mismatched emotions and expressions are more common than most people think. That also means that over time, we give ourselves “credit” for being able to read people. However, this is simply not accurate, at least not for people we are unfamiliar with.

When trying to figure out what we think is the correct about people there is no answer key, so it typically ends with people determining that whatever we think is correct.

It’s entirely possible you aren’t correct, and the skill level you think you have in determining that you are isn’t near the level you believe. This is just one example of where people can trick themselves into thinking they are better than reality would show them if it could.

There are plenty of places where we overestimate our abilities, it’s worth giving a thought to where this applies in your life.

Try this one life hack.

If you hate your job, figure out a way to make your job obsolete. Do you think others like doing it? Do you think your company likes paying you to do it?

What if you built (or architected if you don’t have programming skills) software, standardized presentations, built forms, created automated email responses, recorded videos, and did any combination of those items that make your job no longer necessary.

Would it be scalable? Are there other companies that could benefit from the same? Can you use that skillset to build a company of consulting in that domain?

Everyday there is an opportunity to go beyond the spec of your position and do something in a new way. If you’re looking to simply pass the time away in your role, you may not see the opportunity, but it’s no doubt there.

Mortal Kombat…

was a video game that came out when I was a kid. Today, they are still making Mortal Kombat games. Starting from 1992, they released a number of games and just recently there was an announcement that their latest game which was released last year reach 8,000,000 sales at $50 a piece, that’s a lot of revenue. Unbelievable really, and that doesn’t even count licensing, merchandising, books, etc.

There are many fighting games out there, many with similar controls and gameplay to Mortal Kombat, so what made them such an amazing franchise, while others faded to obscurity?

Originality.

Mortal Kombat was gruesome. As the fights happened it showed blood flying which was new for the video game medium. There were debates on TV about whether the game was suitable for children. They introduced “Finish Him!” and the performance of “Fatalities” after beating a character. This was how word of mouth about the franchise spread. Those other fighting games were also good, but they didn’t have that shock factor, and with adults wondering about suitability for the children of the ’90s, word was spreading through both children and adults.

The second thing was also back stories and and world building. Mortal Kombat started creating stories for their characters. Some of them were rivals. Some were police. Some were criminals. The original boss was a sorcerer. As the series went on, an entire world of myths, gods, different worlds and a huge amount of characters and their motivations was introduced. There was more to the game then fighting. The fighting was just the game mechanics, there was actually a story. This part likely didn’t increase the word of mouth as much, but it hooked people in more. It created bigger fans. People who wanted the newer releases to continue the story and learning about the Mortal Kombat world.

These two things different from other fighting games that focused more effort on character design, fighting mechanics, etc. These two things taken together built an empire that has sold billions of dollars. They did it with originality.

The Portfolio of Photography vs. Engineering

I’ve known a few photographers, they almost never get hired without having a portfolio of work that they can show off.

Engineers on the other hand are almost never asked for a portfolio, they are asked about projects, ut having pictures of them isn’t requisite to landing the job.

There’s a couple different reasons for this. A photographer is being paid for their “eye”, how they see lighting, composition, scenery, etc. It’s impossible to know how they “see” without seeing a portfolio.

An engineer is hired to design something that is likely proprietary. Provided you weren’t fired from the last job, we’ll have to assume that your work was adequate because it’s understood your last employer doesn’t want you showing your work off around town risking their proprietary knowledge. There also tends to be other qualifying criteria such as a Bachelor’s Degree that shows you have a certain knowledge level.

In today’s world, a portfolio of work is the easiest it’s ever been to curate. Build a website, start adding projects, photos, thoughts and anything else to it over the years, and edit it from time to time.

While other professions follow engineering in some regards, it never hurts your chances to have a portfolio of work. To be able to say, “Here is what I did, and what I can do, what do you think?” It makes for a much more concrete conversation.

If you’re an engineer and you built a sofa for your house, that’s probably worth documenting. If you’re a baker and you made a full-size cake of Darth Vader, that’s worth documenting. If you’re in the hair styling business and you have ten different people who you made look better through a radical change in hair style, it’s worth documenting.

There are so many places where a portfolio is the piece of marketing you’re missing, that it’s worth thinking about what you can do to document your work.

Who’s working on the complex problems.

After Isaac Newton, there was a few centuries where mathematics and physics solved an enormous amount of problems. They did so by making assumptions that simplified the problems drastically. Deriving these formulas were a boon for engineers and scientists everywhere.

Take Bernoulli’s equation, many engineers use it frequently. When it was derived it made the following assumptions:

  • Laminar and steady
  • Inviscid
  • Incompressible

These assumptions greatly simplified the mathematics of the more general conditions. Now nearly any engineer can apply Bernoulli’s equation to a system that moves water. But what about a system that move supercritical CO2, or melted chocolate. In those cases, the assumptions break down.

We have technology far more advanced than Bernoulli had. We can now make fewer assumptions but in involves doing the hard work of understanding our own assumptions in the problems of our choosing. Doing the hard work in these spaces without the easy answers and simplifying assumptions is the work that’s rewarded.

This doesn’t have to be applied to engineering. We make assumptions about how stories are told, how food is cooked, how presentations are created, and how we handle our lives. Think about the assumptions in your life and apply accordingly.

Ideas for avoiding associators.

Hosting a conference is a good thing, but is a bigger conference more successful than a small one?

I’m not so sure. If it is about profit only, then more tickets is better. If it’s about dissemination of knowledge, then not so much.

A conference is a great place to share knowledge. The more people that attend the bigger each seminar has to be, or the more seminars there has to be. That makes either the information more one directional as it’s harder to have a conversation with a room of 500 people, or it makes the presentations have less shared experiences amongst the attendees as there is more to choose from.

What ends up happening at larger conferences is that there are a number of people who just want to associate instead of contribute. People who want to sit back and listen, put the conference as a feather in their cap, but not ask many questions, interact with the room, nor challenge the presenter.

Here are some ideas to avoid associators:

  • Price appropriately so only the most interested will attend.
  • Questionnaires/Applications required for attendees, the longer it is, the more likely you are to be dealing with someone who will contribute.
  • A location that isn’t particularly desirable on it’s own. People won’t go for the vacation.

A room full of contributors is a powerful thing, if that’s what you’re seeking, these may help.

Revolutions vs. Usurpation.

Of those terms in the title, one is the language of the oppressed and the other is the language of the ones in power. This doesn’t just have to be political, it could also be technology, business, or ideas.

The point is perspective is only found from the spot we are currently standing in. Einstein said it best, “It’s all relative.” That may not be an exact quote, but that was his idea in physics and it’s true today. Everyone is judging the world based on what is happening to them, not what’s happening out in the world in absolute terms.

Trying to meet people in the world as it relates to them is a challenge. It requires empathy. It requires a broad perspective. It requires caring enough to do the hard work of understanding how they reached the worldview they are at today.

A simple example, one person leads a revolution. Another tries to put down an usurpation of his political system. A third persons the “same old, same old” with new names. All three are witnessing the same events. All three are in different advantageous, disadvantageous and neutral positions. Each one has a different story about what is happening. This leads to the most confounding thing about the world, it’s possible that all three stories are correct. Like Einstein said, “It’s all relative.” Observing an astrological motion, three different observers standing on different planets could measure the speed differently and they would all be right.

Perhaps if we spent just a bit more time not assuming that the conclusions of others who disagree with us are wrong, but rather that we simply lack the worldview to measure the world in their way, we will all be better off.

Choosing where to live.

There is no single answer on where to live. Some people choose to follow their careers, moving wherever the jobs take them. Others choose to follow scenery, and go to the most beautiful place that they’ve ever travelled. Some may be looking for towns with opportunities to start a business, like a coffee shop.

While that makes it sound like each of those decisions has a single criteria, it’s likely there are many such as:

  • vicinity to family
  • taxes
  • culture of the area
  • scenery
  • jobs
  • schools
  • friends in the area
  • proximity to airports
  • availability of goods

I’m sure you can think of your own additional criteria to add to that list.

Choosing where to live is a problem that no one can “solve”. It’s simply a pick that we make balancing the constraints that we want to put on it.

This may apply to a company choosing where to put their headquarters as well. There are many problems like this in the world, the ones that we can’t tell someone how to do, or what the optimal solution is. These are the problems that are valuable and irreplaceable by computers.

Putting Boeing out of business.

An idea won’t put Boeing out of business. At least, not an idea alone.

Boeing is a big defense contractor. They have salespeople. They have political connections. They have factories and infrastructure. They have a supply chain.

Boeing isn’t Boeing simply because they have ideas for planes. They are Boeing because they’ve built the processes, put in place the systems, hired the people to do all the work. There is no person, no matter how skilled, who could do all of that alone.

Big things require many minds working on them. Many minds means being a collaborator to accomplish tasks. For anyone who is extremely ambitious, it’s good to internalize this. You can’t do it alone, you need others, start looking for them.

The sum of your work.

I recently just hit 600 posts on this blog.

I’m not happy with many of them.

There are spelling and grammar errors. I don’t always have as clear of an idea as I would like. I don’t always present things with the best possible stories and illustrations. However, there are many pieces here who have helped people. I’ve been told so directly.

The sum of your work isn’t lowered by low quality pieces. It may bring down your average a bit, but no one cares about average. They care about your hits. If doing more work raises the chance of putting out another hit and the only thing you have to risk is that the next attempt might lower your average, it’s a no-brainer, take that swing.

A small little dot as a signal.

When you look at your phone, small little red dots draw your attention to all the things you missed. It’s a signal for your attention. It’s so simple, yet so effective.

When I’m on other webpages, their logos in the tabs sometimes have small little dots next to them that make it seem like there is a notification that I’m missing, but really it’s just them giving off that feel so I spend time on their site.

There is a growing amount of signals out there, but they are mostly noise. As everyone is seeking a shortcut, a way to hack the human attention system, the system itself begins to shift. Perhaps one of the best ways to not need to send so many signals is to show up in the right place, with the right message that makes it seem like you aren’t just more noise.

When making a pizza…

there are many ways to arrange the toppings and bake it to give different effects with the exact same ingredients. This is the power of technique.

To give a recent example, I made pizza yesterday and today at home. The dough batch always makes two small pizzas that we split over two days. The first day I laid it out dough, sauce, cheese then popped it into a 500F oven with a pizza stone and baked until the crust browned. It created your typical pizza, with crispy crust and a software center as the sauce kept the bread in the middle soft.

The second day, I flipped things. I did dough then the cheese, then after being mostly baked, I added dollops of sauce and then put it back in the oven for a few minutes to warm the sauces. I pulled it out and let it cool.

After asking my wife which she liked better, she said she enjoyed the crispier crust of the second day since the sauce didn’t keep the center as soft. However, she liked how the sauce and the cheese melds together when you put the cheese on top of the sauce. The latter pizza leaves the impression of cheese bread with sauce on it more than pizza.

Next time, I could add more complexity, dough and cheese, baked partially, add sauce on top of that with cheese on top of that. Finish baking. Then I should have pizza with crispy crust and a cheesy, saucy mix on top.

There is some much to be done with technique alone. Applying this to your life, it’s easy to think you need resources you don’t have to get the desired effect that you’re looking for, but make sure that it’s not your technique that’s holding you back.

Default to Truth and Debates

“Default to Truth” is something that was crystallized in my mind by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Talking to Strangers.

Something interesting about why debates, especially presidential ones, hold some much anticipation is because of the drama that is present when “Default to Truth” breaks down. If defaulting to think that everyone is telling the truth is most people’s natural state, then someone has to be wrong or lying when debate contests argue opposites on a specific point. This is what creates the tension. People are looking to see that the person they “Default to Truth” with is the one that is actually trustworthy.

A good presentation, or at least a good way to create excitement, is to create tension (which I’ve written about before here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)to Breaking the “Default to Truth” is another way of creating that tension. It doesn’t have to be you calling someone else out. It can be showing two clips of others with opposite thoughts. It could be showing a counter example after showing someone make a claim opposite to your example.

“Default to truth” is a powerful function that almost all humans have. Sometimes to make our case, what someone previously held as the truth has to be broken, and to do that requires at least a bit of tension.