Oct 08

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been reading a ton lately. I’m going to do a brain dump series of posts on various random observations and thoughts from the last twenty books I’ve read.  There will be some random meta digressions but all of it with the intent to share the most useful things I’ve learned lately.  I figure it’s best to do this as a series of posts (otherwise this will devolve into a 10,000 word monster post that nobody will read). So here’s the full list and I’ll start tonight with thoughts on the first one:

    1. A Guide to the Good Life

      A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy was my first exposure to the stoic philosophy and came as a recommendation from my friend Bryan Kirch. It provides a solid overview of this philosophy. Rather than taking an academic/theoretical approach it places an emphasis on actionable, practical advice for putting the concepts into practice in one’s life.  Random thoughts that struck me while reading it:

      • “Negative visualization” is the antithesis of the technique of “positive affirmation” espoused by life coaches and books like “The Secret.” The idea is that you essentially immunize yourself against habituating the positive things in your life and taking them for granted. Internalizing the reality that one day you will lose everything makes you more acutely aware and appreciative of what you have today. “Hedonic adaptation” is the term for never being satisfied as you gain more and more luxuries. Negative visualization is the antidote to Hedonic Adaptation.  Instead of thinking positive you basically imagine the worst possible scenarios happening. I’ve dabbled with this since and while I can’t speak to the effectiveness of the “hedonic immunity,” one byproduct has been that it snaps you into the moment and makes you more mindful.
      • On tranquility as the ultimate goal: I have a fundamental issue with the belief that the ultimate goal is to dampen the high’s and low’s of life. I picture a sine wave of up’s and down’s in life’s roller coaster journey and the author seems to be advocating reducing the amplitude of one’s sine wave as the primary goal.  I just don’t agree with that. I actually believe experiencing the full breadth of human emotion to widest possible extent is arguably a better goal.  “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all…” Maybe I’m misinterpreting things but the author’s advice of seeking tranquility seems to run directly counter to a core value I believe.
      • Not surprisingly I also disagree with the notion of embracing a fatalistic view that life is pre-determined and one lacks the ability to affect the outcome. I suppose if tranquility were the ultimate goal having a fatalistic belief system would help the practitioner abdicate a lot of responsibility and feel more at peace, but given that I feel the fundamental premise upon which the fatalistic recommendation is based is faulty, I don’t agree with the recommendation.
      • I do dig the idea of having a codified life philosophy that serves as a filter through which every decision becomes obvious. In the same way that having business process documentation or automation helps reduce cognitive load and uncertainty around decision making for workers, I get the value of having a well-defined life philosophy like stoicism.  There are some useful components but (at least for me personally) trying to adhere to orthodox stoicism would be as futile as my attempt to strictly adhere to David Allen’s GTD todo philosophy. In the end I’ve pulled bits and pieces of his task management framework and developed my own system that works for me. I believe the same is probably true with stoicism- that the optimal framework will be person-specific and folks will be best served gaining exposure to many different philosophies and then making their own Mr. Potatohead philosophy of the components that best serve them.
      •   The Obstacle is the Way: <- I read this book subsequently as another recommendation from Bryan and while Ryan Holiday is a great author and speaker (he narrated the audio version of his book) I didn’t have nearly the number of epiphanies or insights with his book. It’s probably useful to reinforce the stoic ideas but if you were going to read one or the other, definitely read the Good Life.
    2. Abundance

    3. Turn the Ship Around

    4. The Divergent Trilogy

    5. Seeking Wisdom

    6. On Intelligence

    7. Shantaram

    8. Art of Racing in the Rain

    9. Ghost in the Wires

    10. Patriots & TEOTWAWKI

    11. Power Questions

    12. Snowcrash

    13. Thinking Strategically

    14. Lean Startup

    15. Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman

    16. Diving Bell & The Butterfly

    17. Thinking in Systems

    18. Pitch Anything

    19. The Paradox of Choice

    20. The Power of Now

^ Here’s the book list. I’ll post thoughts on each of these in the coming weeks and use this as an excuse to get in a rhythm of writing again.

On a sidenote: if you read on a kindle device, they now have it so the audiobook typically syncs with the text. This means you can be reading on your laptop, hop in your car with your iPhone and have it continue reading to you from where you left off. Then when you get to the store and are standing in line, you open your phone and the kindle phone reader now picks up where the audio left off. It’s this pervasive reading experience where you’re able to keep plowing through books and not get in a reading rut. They call it WhisperSync for Voice and it’s enabled on many kindle books – super useful.

Up next: a fantastic book I read recently called Abundance with a refreshing positive prognosis for our future amidst all the doom & gloom predictions of climate change, pollution, epidemics, natural resource depletions, species extinctions, etc.

There’s also one more – Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” which I’ll likely finish by the end of this series which so far is very good. I’m doing his online “Why University” in tandem and getting interesting results. This list will likely be 21 books by the time I finish. cheers

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Sep 21

It’s been a 2-year writing hiatus for me. I used to post multiple times per week and had an endless supply of ideas, techniques, observations and insight to share here. And then something happened one day and that inspiration evaporated. If you’ve ever experienced writer’s block you’ll know the heartache of wanting to swim back to that space of creativity and flow but being too tired to do so.

I’ve reflected a ton on this period. For the benefit of anyone else in the same position I’ll try and open up and share what I believe to be the source of my writer’s block and what is slowly chipping it apart and restoring me. I believe it was a confluence of burnout from a company I started eight years ago along with loss of mojo for long-form writing due to overwhelm from tweet-sized social media blurbs. I started this blog end of 2005 and wrote faithfully here for the next seven years. To date it’s seen half a million visitors and served 3/4MM pageviews:
scrollinondubs stats
I’ve made friends because of it, poured hundreds of hours of thought and energy into distilling the stuff I’ve learned and endeavored to make powerful concepts more accessible to others. I’ve shamed a few bullies for nefarious practices, given extra exposure to people and companies I love. And in the end, I’ve enjoyed writing because it clarifies my thinking and gives me perspective. With this blog being such a positive force in my life, why did I stop? Let’s dig into what happened and look at what’s resuscitating my writing…

Straight up: I failed in my duty as CEO of JumpBox to make that company work. After a seven year run my co-founder and CTO left abruptly and the company was in imminent danger of a shutdown. I don’t blame my co-founder for leaving- his was a Sisyphean task to keep that company alive given the surface area of the technology stack and the nature of the challenge making 50 different OSS apps stay updated and working in any computing environment. It remains a difficult challenge in the hands of a good friend who miraculously made a diving catch in the 11th hour and saved the company. And oddly, you’d think I’d be thrilled that the company was rescued but instead his incredible skill at saving it had the unexpected byproduct of creating resentment in me for highlighting my inability to do the same. That created a whole unanticipated negative spiral of emotion. My friend and I have since mended our friendship but the experience zapped my reserves after JumpBox. And yet even the consternation from that isn’t what created the writer’s block…

I do a bunch of stuff. My friends think I have ADD because I run four different user groups, help mentor at three incubators and speak on panels when asked. I launched a volunteer effort called Charity Makeover this past year as well as an “Ocean’s Eleven talent experiment” called Automation Gurus. So I’m all over the map with my attention spread admittedly across too many endeavors. Having come to the place of being moderately respected as an entrepreneur in Phoenix I realized the businesses I had built weren’t all that successful relative to where I want to be. And I began to feel like a charlatan for advising other startups on Lean, CustDev, marketing automation, strategy, etc when my own startup was floundering and on the verge of collapse.

Paralyzed by this hollow feeling of giving advice publicly but not feeling successful in my own ventures I withdrew from writing and speaking and began reading a bunch of books. But books don’t break you out of that funk. Only getting back in the saddle and soldiering on does. Someone told me during this period “you don’t have to be an Olympic gold medalist to be a good swim coach. Get back out there.” So true. The epiphany for me was that I’ve been letting my own insecurity of having not yet hit a homerun company squelch perfectly valuable teaching and writing that I used to do that was helpful other entrepreneurs. No more.

One of the introspective exercises I’ve undertaken during this time has been Simon Sinek’s “Why University.” With the help of a few friends (thanks Courtney, Dave & Bryan) I’ve been excavating myself for my “Why.” The “Why” (capital W) is your anima, your dharma and the essence of your being all wrapped in one. Paulo Coelho would call “your Personal Legend.” You might call it your destiny or core essence. Whatever you call it, it’s the raw uniqueness that you and only you bring as a gift for the world. I’m now questing actively to unearth my Why and all I know is it involves writing again. So I’m writing again.

My buddy Nate Stone is an incredible musician in Flagstaff. I met him a few years ago by coincidence and when I heard his music I got goosebumps. When I first met Nate he was getting over a similar period of writer’s block (or more accurately “performer’s block”). He said, “I felt like music was bullshit and none of it mattered.” I know exactly where he was coming from.

I just a week ago made a move out to Newport Beach, California. I’ve been journaling privately for the past two months and getting the writing wheels turning again in private before coming back here to a resume a public form of journaling. I’m now working in Laguna Beach with a colleague and fellow ex-Infusionsoft certified partner to help artists be able to focus on their own Why’s. Through Artiledge we’re giving artists a way to defer the awkward sales component of their craft so they can focus exclusively on the creative aspects. We think this methodology we’ve developed will bring greater peace of mind to artists, bring art into more homes and unlock latent creativity and passion amongst one of my favorite constituencies: creatives.

The good news is having “kinked the blogging hose” for so long, I now have a TON of material to get out there and share. In the past two years I’ve learned a good amount about Customer Development, marketing automation, WordPress, survival skills, archery, kite surfing, running, game theory, stoicism, persuasion, negotiation and a bunch of other subjects. For my business-oriented writing follow @grid7 or subscribe to the Grid7 blog (do people still use RSS BTW?). I’ll do the personal, non-business stuff here so you can follow @scrollinondubs or this RSS for that. And to watch where we take the Charity Makeover effort and Artiledge follow those sources respectively.

I can’t promise there won’t be dry spells going forward on here. But what I can promise is that I’ve come to realize very deeply the same conclusion with writing that Nate arrived at with music: that it DOES very much matter even when you’re in that dark tunnel thinking it’s all pointless. No matter the ebb and flow of success with the ventures I undertake I’m back for good writing here and squarely focused on my Why. I took this picture at sunset of the jetty that’s a block away from my new place. For the people out there wrestling with mental gridlock and struggle in their endeavors, I hope you find the tranquility and fortitude to power through and get through the valley and on to the next peak. Talk soon

sunset-newport-peninsula

May 30

This post is part of an ongoing series entitled “a post a day every couple days for the month of May.” It’s an unfolding exploration of the concepts from the book “Get Lucky.”

Neo, sooner or later you're going to realize just as I did that 
there's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. 
-Morpheus from Matrix



If the skill of Preparation exists on the “can you?” side of the equation, the skill of Divergence sits squarely on the “will you?” side. The book covers some interesting stories in this chapter (the Cornell anti-creativity uncertainty study, the cautionary Borders Books vs. Barnes & Noble tale and Jeff Bezo’s bet on AWS, a business which would single-handedly trailblaze an entire industry now called cloud computing). The main message with Divergence is that it does us no good to practice the other skills if we confine ourselves familiar territory. It’s only when we break from the well-worn path and explore the side streets that the magic occurs. I want to share two personal stories of Divergence but first I want to talk about a guy who embodies a concept of Divergence: Iceman:

Wait a minute, not that Iceman. This Iceman:

This was by far the coolest Marvel comic character. His super power was his ability to shoot ice crystals out of his hands and manifest an ice platform wherever he went allowing him to skate anywhere he chose. We’re entering borderline foofoo metaphysical territory now but Divergence (from personal experience) seems to endow muggles like ourselves with a bit of this same super power to “pave our own roads as we go.” Here are two personal stories that illustrate what I’m talking about.

The Great SF Roadtrip of ’07

In November of 2007 I embarked on what would prove to be an epic 31-day road trip around Silicon Valley. You can read the series of blog posts from that trip here. This trip was one massive case study in Divergence. It was largely unplanned and with the primary goal being to increase our surface area and compensate for JumpBox’s lack of contacts in the Bay Area.

In the course of that trip one thing led to another and I wound up meeting people who have since become friends and extended family of the Phoenix startup community- people like Jeremy Tanner, Andrew Hyde, Jasmine Antonick and Sarah Blue. I would end up staying on seventeen different couches during the course of that trip. Through an ex-relationship of a sister of a friend I would wind up having beers with one of my startup heroes, Mark Fletcher from the book Founders At Work. And then lunch with author of the book and wife of Paul Graham, Jessica Livingston. And then… you get the point. In the end we found ourselves in talks with seven different top-tier Sand Hill Road venture capitalists (having not one meeting planned in advance of departing).

When I examine what worked on that trip and try to identify the secret sauce I’m left with a dissatisfying answer: chance. But having now read Get Lucky I realize that I inadvertently practiced most of the skills advocated in the book. Each day I scouted for some peripherally-related event that might have a group of likeminded strangers in attendance and purposefully put myself in foreign situations. I accepted invitations to dinner from folks I had just met. I never stayed in one place more than three days and always I was open to changing the plan and going wherever the next encounter led. In short, I decidedly diverged from my element and in so doing paved an ice bridge in realtime that carried me wonderful places.

Here’s another story of some friends who are masters of Divergence.

Life at ten miles per hour

Hunter Weeks and Josh Caldwell weren’t always world class film makers. When I knew them in 2003 they were my roommates in Scottsdale, AZ and co-workers at Initech, ahem I mean Saleslogix. About a week or two after I quit that company they did the same to pursue a life changing road trip of their own. They would drive the length of the United States at 10mph on a segway scooter and film what would later become a film-festival-winning documentary of their journey. Almost a decade later their movie just last month debuted on Netflix’s and held the top slot for viewer’s choice documentaries. Their story was picked up by just about every major news outlet and their trip concluded with them driving their segway onstage to a public speaking event where Segway inventor Dean Kamen greeted them and had them share their story.

Of course at the time they began their journey they had no media connections, no ties with Dean Kamen, no plan other than to head east starting at Pike’s place in Seattle with the hope of getting to the east coast before it got too cold. The uniqueness of their story enabled them to talk with any and everyone they met along the way and manifest an “ice bridge” they would use to ride into film success. They were masters at capitalizing on chance encounter upon chance encounter and building an unstoppable momentum with the press around what they were doing. If you were to ask them today what they attribute the success of that film to, undoubtedly there would be 3 parts hard work but at least one part serendipity. And it all stemmed from a conscious decision to stray the path and do something decidedly out of the norm viewing the world at the uniquely slow pace of ten miles per hour.

The commonality of these two stories is that the act itself of diverging can pave the road in front of you as you go in a way that isn’t possible via planning. Or as my favorite quote of my favorite author says: “When you go after your Personal Legend with all your heart, the whole universe conspires to help you.”

On another note, I was fortunate last week to catch up with Lane and Thor while they were in Phoenix and record this podcast with them talking about their book. Check it out and change your tune: Bassnectar – Lights Remix

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May 13

This post is part of an ongoing series entitled “a post a day every other day for the month of May.” It’s an unfolding exploration of the concepts from the book “Get Lucky.”

We are volcanoes, making new land,
Transcending borders with seeds in our hands.
Natural killers perfectly planned,
But all is entirely out of our hands.
-Sleeping at Last


We’re nearly halfway through May but only 1/4 through the book. In the interest of staying on track I’m declaring posting bankruptcy on this chapter and doing a quick brain dump of my thoughts in this single post. Some random ideas:

  • Diverse vocabulary : rich writing :: diverse experiences : abductive reasoning If you’re trying to become a good writer you’re well served by gaining exposure to the most diverse set of raw materials (unique writing styles and a broad vocabulary). Likewise if you’re seeking to become a serendiplomat and improve the likelihood of making more mental leaps, you are well served to relentlessly seek out diverse experiences.
  • Unearth the meta: I believe an unaddressed aspect of preparedness is developing the instinct to seek the meta in what you’re doing. The authors share a neat story on the genesis of their company Get Satisfaciton and how it emerged from solving support challenges for their Valley Schwag hobby business in a social way. I just posed this question on Quora on this topic and there’s already a few interesting responses.
  • The explained variance of success: if luck truly plays as pivotal a role in successful outcomes as founders credit it, then a framework for courting it more reliably is the modern day philosopher’s stone. It’s a tricky thing to quantify but it would be great to see some studies done that attempt A/B test the impact of implementing the skills suggested in this book.
  • Ideation sans criticism: pondering Thor’s consultant story where he is able to salvage a meeting on a downhill slide and turn it around into a productive session by creating a “Geneva of ideation” – this reminded me something I suggested long ago for why mind mapping works in that a subtle tweak to how we remove friction while expanding on ideas can have such a massive impact on the output.
  • A new accounting system? On this thread of subtle tweaks to systems having dramatic effects, we tend to think of accounting as a fairly well-established practice. But could there be an as-of-yet-undiscovered new form of accounting that satisfies the fundamental financial insight needs while taking into account serendipity costs and value? Almost unquestionably our political system could be revamped with today’s minds and technology to better achieve the original Constitutional values. Could the field of accounting be ripe for such a revamp to emphasize the values proposed in this book?
  • The real value of playtime: the authors point out that the floppy rabbit ear discovery gives us a rare look at the closest thing we have to a controlled study in serendipity. I would say Google and their “20% time” practice gives us a rare opportunity to calculate the ROI of encouraging employees to follow geekish pursuits. Being a public company one could take last year’s financial report, break out profit on the products that can be directly attributed to the 20% time projects (profit of serendipity), divide by 1/5th of the total engineering salary line item (expense of serendipity) and calculate a dollar-for-dollar ROI.
  • No result is a result: the authors’ concept of “arrest the exception” is powerful. This post was in the headlines a few weeks back regarding a project that aims to replicate the results of past published psychology experiments and determine whether they can reliably produce the reported results. The theory is that aspiring scientists are so heavily incentivized to see their work published that they might conduct an experiment nine times with failed results and only publish the tenth iteration because it supports their work, and that this if true, is a very harmful thing for science. What however if scientists were commended for publishing results that disproved their own work and revealed some other truth? One person’s trash is another’s treasure and the absence of my expected finding might be a pearl for you when taken in aggregate with other failed studies.

Sadly, looking at the calendar, my workload and the remaining chapters left to cover in the book I need to limit my writing to exactly one day on each remaining chapter to pull off this project.

With that said, I want to spend the rest of this post exploring one of these frivolous thought experiments that grabbed me awhile back. Very simply my question was this:

Are rain storms good for carwashes?

It seems straightforward. Of course they’re good, without them we’d almost never have a reason to wash our car and car washes go out of business. But as you start playing with the sliders it’s not a black and white question, it’s an optimization problem. If it rained all the time there would be no car washes either. So my geek mind immediately turned it into:

What is the optimal rain storm frequency that generates the most business for a car wash?

I sat down one night with the intent to answer this question and got as far as looking up the NAICS code for car washes (811192), getting the economic census data for this industry nation-wide, downloading the historical precipitation reports from the national weather service and comparing per capita revenue for car washes relative to yearly precipitation by state. Geek. Flag. Unfurled

The result of this effort ultimately was a big dead end. There was no immediately discernible correlation. But I realized some obvious flaws with the experiment methodology:

  • Needs to account for storm frequency as opposed to annual precip amount.
  • Needs to have more granular data at the city level – precision issue by having only state data.
  • Potentially confounded by cultural and SES biases in how much residents of different areas value having a clean car.
  • Prices need to be normalized on cost of living.
  • I ended up dropping the experiment because it mushroomed into challenge that was too complex to justify the effort. But I have no doubt that pursuing it further would be hugely interesting and yield all kinds of unexpected awesomeness which leads me to…

    The Takeaway

    On any given day you can go to Hacker News and find half a dozen geeks publishing posts on their frivolous experiments like this one. These are people motivated out of pure curiosity. Like a detective following a hunch on off-hours, they go out of their way chase down a curiosity. Yet there’s no villain to be caught or bounty to be won. The motive here is just “climbing the mountain because it was there.” And these are the people I would hire.

    Imagine the result if more companies and schools were to follow Google’s lead and embrace this kind of open-ended playtime with their members. Could a microformat emerge that lets these experimenters publish their findings in a more structured way that makes them more immediately discoverable and useful to others? And could that then help recirculate the product of these efforts amongst circles that could then take the torch and carry the experimentation forward in unexpected meaningful ways? What would a Github of frivolous experimentation look like? Kickstarter is doing miracles for microfinancing artistic and creative for-profit endeavors- is there perhaps room for a “Kickstarter for whimsical experimentation” that would encourage and curate this type of side work? Things to ponder…

    Next post we’ll delve into the skill of Divergence.

    Change your tune: Youth Lagoon – Montana

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    May 11

    This post is part of an ongoing series entitled “a post a day every other day for the month of May.” It’s an unfolding exploration of the concepts from the book “Get Lucky.”

    They all assume my kind will drop and die, 
    but I’m gonna wave my freak flag high. 
    -Jimi Hendrix
    


    The authors of Get Lucky devote an entire section of the Preparation skill chapter to what they call “amplifying the weird.” The premise is that the biggest advances in organizations come not from incremental improvements in productivity but rather through these “wormhole” leaps where the game is fundamentally altered through a key insight. And those leaps don’t occur while in pursuit of conformity and efficiency. They bubble to the surface when you make a stew with decidedly diverse people, ideas and disciplines. They use this rationale as the argument for “going off road” and exploring one’s labors of love, the whimsical and seemingly fruitless geekish pursuits to which we gravitate naturally as kids but repress as adults.

    The authors acknowledge the benefit (with which I agree) of having unique insights spawn from the unlikely juxtaposition of disparate fields. I would suggest though that there’s even a more powerful benefit to publicly pursuing one’s geekish fascinations they didn’t explicitly name and it’s this: when you “let your freak flag fly” other freaks emerge from the woodwork and together you build up a “freak inertia” that propels the entire group forward with velocity that’s greater than the sum of it’s individuals. There’s a “signaling” aspect of geekish pursuits that can’t be underestimated. Meetup and Ignite have built massive followings based on this “weak nuclear force” of passionate people who will come out of the woodwork to unite around these odd niche interests. In fact this is a great Ignite talk on this very concept:

    When we “let our freak (or geek) flag fly” we expose a tiny expanse of surface area that serves as a beacon and a synapse that allows others to connect with us. Here’s a quick personal story of how I experienced this first hand. This pic on the right is me a few years back at SXSW in Austin. That bright red shirt I’m wearing says “Pork Chop Sandwiches” which if you don’t know the reference relates to this. I must have gotten at least fifty nods and had conversations with maybe twenty people that day who I would have never met otherwise simply by flying that geek flag.

    It’s almost impossible to quantify the value of this type of thing but for people like myself who aren’t particularly extroverted around strangers, what’s the value of meeting just one extra random stranger this week who shares some esoteric interest with you? Worth a $15 t-shirt? It very well could be priceless depending on the situation.

    So I ask you, what odd passions do you have? What’s the “geek bat signal” you could emanate this weekend to broadcast your weird passion and draw that foreign kindred spirit into a chance conversation?
    Change your tune: A Chorus of Storytellers – Falling from the Sun

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    May 08

    This post is part of an ongoing series entitled “a post a day every other day for the month of May.” It’s an unfolding exploration of the concepts from the book “Get Lucky.”

    Once in awhile you get shown the light
    in the strangest of places if you look at it right.
    -Scarlet Begonias by Grateful Dead
    



    Preparation in the context of Get Lucky is the skill of readying oneself to identify and capitalize on serendipity. The authors discuss a handful of examples of how this works in practice. From Phil Jackson’s zen coaching exercises to the case of the floppy-eared rabbit discovery, moments of grand insight seem to share a common ancestor. The magic occurs when the subject is able to shed his or her “curse of knowledge” and see a situation through fresh eyes. If we want more of these epiphanies in our lives the authors encourage us to play with injecting distance into our problems.

    The proposed mechanism here is a theory the authors reference called Construal Level Theory (CLT) which is basically the psychological underpinning behind the technique of pre framing in sales. Rather than hash through the examples cited in the book I’ll share an example of one of these quantum leap epiphanies that occurred for me that came via chance exposure to certain imagery at the most unsuspecting time.

    It was sometime around 2003 and I was working a brief stint as a software developer for a company called Interactive Sites. We had a custom content management system that allowed us to host the websites for thousands of hotels around the world. The task I had at the time was to write a script that would do the modern day equivalent of “rake” in a Ruby on Rails application: basically a reset button that would let us clone the database and wipe the data so we could work with a fresh copy of the application.

    As simple as this task seems with today’s tools, at the time it was non-trivial. We were using Microsoft SQL database and a programming language called Coldfusion. The way our database had been setup to strictly enforce what’s called “relational integrity,” this programming challenge was the knotted conceptual equivalent of this:

    Deleting data from one table that referenced data in another table would cause this kind of cascading gridlock of integrity check errors such that you had to trace the foreign key dependency out to the “leaf nodes” which had no dependencies and then trial & error work your way backwards sequentially deleting data.

    With upwards of fifty tables in our database each sharing relationships to between one and twelve other tables this proved to be a tricky thing to untangle. I used a tool that analyzed the database and produced something called an Entity Relationship (ER) diagram to help visualize things. It looked something like this (not the actual ER diagram):

    I wrestled with this problem for two full days trying to see an elegant solution. I concluded at the end of the second day that a brute force approach of untangling the dependencies manually one at a time would have to be the solution. I was not looking forward to the next day that I would spend doing the intern-level monkeywork equivalent of licking stamps and hand addressing thousands of envelopes. Little did I realize the answer would strike a few hours later that evening in the most unsuspecting way.

    I was on a Nova, Discovery Channel, History Channel kick at the time sponging any and all documentaries I could find on space travel. That night while decompressing watching one of those PBS specials a 3D graphic animation showing the planets of our solar system in their orbits came on.

    As the camera panned from our planet backward to the outer reaches past Pluto an odd insight hit me: that image had a weird similarity to that ER diagram in how bodies revolved around a central entity. I went back and stared at the ER diagram thinking about the root “Person” table and imagining what it would look like if it were the sun and the surrounding linked tables were planets and moons clustered in “orbits of dependency” around it. What if you could then with the tables grouped like this “peel back” the dependencies starting with tables in the outer-most orbit like layers of an onion until you worked your way to the Sun? Goosebumps.

    It turned out that indeed the tables in the database could be grouped this way into clusters based on how related they were to the root node and that the brute force fifty-step approach I was planning to undertake the next day could instead be distilled into just five steps. By focusing on the “orbits of dependency” instead of the individual tables it gave me an entirely new way to think about the problem. This chance exposure to an abstraction of concentric 3D orbits took my 2D problem of flat tables on a page and let me see the problem in a new light which led to an elegant solution that never would have otherwise materialized.

    Was it pure luck I saw that particular imagery that evening? Sure. But it was the cognitive distance from the problem and the cessation of searching for an answer that prep’d my mind to receive the insight. This is distance. And if Thor and Lane’s ideas have merit then spending less time working and a lot more time playing is something that companies need to embrace. Google and their famous “20% time” is one example of a progressive company that consciously baked distance into its culture and has already seen massive rewards (Adsense and Gmail among others).

    We’ll play around with some other theories from psychology next time investigating something called Transfer Appropriate Processing and my favorite, The Availability Heuristic. In the meantime, what problem are you wrestling with right now and what’s a random unrelated decompression activity you could undertake today to send your mind somewhere decidedly unrelated? Oh and change your tune: Ghostland Observatory – Black Box

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