May 06

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

These fickle, fuddled words confuse me
Like 'Will it rain today?'
Waste the hours with talking, talking
These twisted games we play. 
-"The Space Between" by Dave Matthews Band



Preparation is the second skill discussed in the book and is the vital step that ensures we have our front porch swept, the welcome mat out and we’re expectant hosts when serendipity arrives. It’s the multiplier that allows us to capitalize on those seeds we planted through exercising the skill of Motion and a key aspect of Preparation is “creating space.”

We can look to an analogue in the field of architecture and interior design to anchor this concept. Feng Shui is a theory of spatial design that aims to improve the flow of life energy or qi through the adherence to specific design principles. One of the first mandates when undertaking a Feng Shui makeover is to “clear your clutter.” Companies and wealthy folks pay big bucks to bring in consultants who implement proper Feng Shui in their environments and the first thing a consultant will do is to have the subject “declutter” the space and strip it down to bare essentials. If you’ve ever been in the house of a hoarder then you know intimately the anti-pattern to Feng Shui principles and you’ve likely experienced the discomfort and “frayed nerves” that come from being surrounded by clutter.

Creating space isn’t just about removing distraction though. It sets up a void and a resultant vacuum effect instigating a “flow” which banishes stagnation and invites our house guest serendipity through the front door. Gardeners prune overgrown vegetation not simply because the overgrowth is an eyesore but because functionally it serves to create the space that invites fresh growth. Study any number of phenomena in science (pressure, potential & kinetic energy, osmosis, convection, the Bernoulli principle, evaporation, oxidation, sublimation, transpiration, melting, freezing, magnetism, radiation or capacitors) and you’ll trace the origin of any flow back to a differential caused by an absence of something whether it be electrons, atoms or molecules. Here’s a practical example I experienced first-hand last year playing in an intramural league.

Ultimate frisbee is an incredible sport that meshes athleticism with strategy, grace and flow. It works a bit like football in the sense that the goal is to advance the disc downfield into the end zone to score the equivalent of a touch down. It’s different from football though in that play continues until either a score or an infraction occurs. This unique characteristic makes it a perfect petri dish to examine the commonalities of plays where teams “get in flow.” Progress is made downfield when players beat their defender by making cuts and then stacking successive plays to build a momentum of movement. These cuts only work when there’s space. If everyone on the team is running at random you end up with a congested field, stagnation and no flow. Offensive players will intentionally clear out of areas to create a vacuum that sets up a chain of cuts called the “swing.” Watch this 15sec clip for a great example of this type of flow in action.

So we’ve made the case for space – let’s talk actionable advice for how and where to do it. Where are the areas of “congestion on the field” in our lives that we can begin to clear? Todo lists and inboxes are an obvious starting place. You have people like David Allen and Merlin Mann who have built careers around the idea of creating space with GTD and Inbox Zero (though I would argue hardcore devotees have become so obsessed with the religion of productivity that it’s actually caused more clutter than it cleared). Living and work spaces are an obvious choice. Calendars, RSS feeds and social media channels all seem to fill in unless we consciously protect our space (and yes, I realize I’m a culprit at the moment contributing to RSS pollution, but hopefully in a respectful way and for good intention). Established companies can become addicted to past product lines that hold them back from growing valuable new products and services, the equivalent of overgrowth that if it were trimmed would free up space for fresh growth. Even customers can hold companies back and morph from being a life-sustaining force to a life-limiting one. Overgrowth comes in many forms and it’s up to us to recognize it and prune it when it impedes progress.

Once we’ve cleared space and invited flow, we still need to recognize our house guest when it arrives. Lane and Thor present the concept of using spatial and temporal distance to achieve this. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. For now check out some of these gorgeous work spaces from a recent thread on Quora and change your tune: The Naked and Famous – Punching in a Dream

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May 05

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

If Motion is the skill that generates the raw seeds of serendipity then Preparation is the skill that ensures they fall on fertile ground. In CH 3 the authors step through a series of stories that illustrate various examples of situations in which being mentally prepared allowed the subjects to make quantum leaps of reasoning. They distill the commonalities across various situations involving serendipity and propose that the innovators who were able to make these mental leaps shared three fundamental traits:

  1. Compelled out of sheer curiosity.
  2. Had a knack for identifying and “arresting exceptions.”
  3. Able to slip out of the mental straightjacket of conventional thought and question underlying assumptions that others took for granted.

The story of the floppy-eared rabbits and the subsequent discovery of the root vectors in rheumatoid arthritis was an awesome illustration of all three of these concepts. It shares a near identical trajectory to the discovery of Viagra which you may not know came purely from accident. Pfizer scientists were at the time in search of compounds that would help address the conditions of hypertension and angina. Their experiments failed to yield the results they were seeking however they did yield something interesting: boners. Subject after subject reported having an erection after five days of participation in the study. This finding “stood out” enough for scientists to recognize an unintended side effect of manipulating enzymes that dealt with blood flow. Pfizer executed what we could call today a “pivot” and went on to turn this chance discovery into the drug which most know them by today: Viagra. Had the scientists doing the research chose to discard the findings which had nothing to do with their intended outcome instead of “going off road” and investigating this unintended side effect, they would have missed out on the creation of what is now the $5BN/yr industry of erectile dysfunction drugs.

“Hard logic is the basis for so much of our education and business life, but it does nothing to help us to form the new ideas or hypotheses that help us cope with unpredictable change.”

Ok no “hard logic” jokes – clear your head of the Viagra example and let’s get serious for a sec. Think about the above sentence from the book. This is something I’ve advocated the past few years in terms of a core brokenness with our current educational system. We load kids up with facts via rote memorization but we fail to teach the mechanics of how to “learn to learn.” And what’s worse is we’re not just “crowding out” the useful learning mechanics topics from the curriculum, we’re cementing the wrong ones. Arguably the current approach is dulling the edges and dimming the lights on kids who would otherwise be bright. And bold posts from teachers like this one invite the question whether this is from benign ignorance or malicious design.

There’s a phrase “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” That may have been true thus far but given the accelerating pace of change for knowledge workers I would argue even teaching the act of fishing at this point not adequate. We need to operate at a more core level with students inspiring them, coaxing out their natural talents and instilling these concepts of Preparation at an early age. If you learn that fishing is “threading the line like this, casting just so, jerking the line to set the hook and reeling once you have a strike” then kids end up with a brittle understanding of what it means to extract food from the sea. If instead you inspire them with open ended projects like “how else might you obtain food from the ocean in a world where there are no nets or fishing poles?” you wind up with a far more interesting discussion, lessons which are more firmly encoded and students who become inspired to solve hard problems. Failing to shift how we teach, we’ll end up with a nation of managers who understand how to color within the lines but no leaders to make the coloring books.

The good news is admission of a problem is the first step to recovery and we have promising “green shoots” with projects like the Bright Works school mentioned later in the book. There are people who grasp the concepts of planned serendipity and Preparation who are flipping industries on their head. There are people like Janine Benyus who are taking stodgy Dupont engineers on field trips to the Galapagos islands and giving them epiphanies of insight for solving complex calcification issues in pipes by studying the compounds snails have used for millennia to solve the same problems. There are people like Jennifer Pahlka who are exercising these principles in a “domestic Peace Corps for hackers” to bring hacker mentality to bear on problems in government that can be addressed with a tech, crowd sourcing and thinking differently.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the first aspect of Preparation: creating space. In the meantime check out this 2min video from one of my role models, a Nobel prize-winning scientist and bongo player who maintained a child-like fascination through eighty years of life and produced arguably more original insight than any other physicist:

Change your tune: Whitley – More than Life

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May 04

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

“See and be seen.” If parallax and vantage operate on the “see” side of things, mental real estate is the “be seen” side (or more accurately, “be thought of”). It’s the total square footage of thought you occupy across the collective minds of everyone you’ve ever affected. And if Chip & Dan Heath (authors of “Made to Stick” and contributors of a testimonial for “Get Lucky”) are right, then your ability to persist in the minds of others may trump every other skill. To understand the importance of “mental real estate” we need to look more at a theory Lane and Thor referenced called the “weak tie hypothesis.”

This theory surfaced in mainstream media about six months back in conjunction with some new research purporting that the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” theory was actually way off and it’s closer to 4.74 degrees of separation. Or put into a less abstract form: of the 6.8BN people on this rock if you were to put everyone’s name in a hat and choose just one, odds are a friend of your friend knows a friend of their friend. The “Get Lucky” authors discuss this idea later in the book (CH 7 – we’re jumping the gun a bit) while talking about “needle in haystack” problems making the point that brute force methods to solve haystack problems are becoming ineffective. The haystacks are simply becoming too large and the needles too microscopic for the traditional sorting methods to work – a network-based approach is essential at this scale. Essentially, tell yo friends to get wit my friends and we can be friends.

So doesn’t this have more to do with their theory of connectedness? Why bring this idea up now in the context of motion? Because as humans we’ve evolved to be particularly attuned to movement – we’re hardwired such that we can’t help but notice it. And our wacky movements when made in the pursuit of passions are what stand out and get cemented in the minds of others. If the 4.74 figure of connectedness from this new research is true and the concepts of “Made to Stick” accurate (ie. the transmissibility of a message is subservient to how well it sticks) then improving our ability to stake out mental real estate in the minds of those we touch will have multiplicative effects on increasing the surface area of this imaginary net that’s trolling the cosmos on our behalf.

Think of the concentric spheres of people who occupy your head and heart. It’s likely your spouse or significant other followed by a ring of family, followed by a ring of close friends, internet friends, acquaintances, familiar faces, strangers, etc. With the massive reach represented by each person at every orbit, we are all just a neuronal firing away from being relevant in a random conversation of a stranger. If I know you’re fascinated by the feeding habits of koi fish for some reason, when I happen to stumble on someone who has a similar fascination with koi I’ll think to connect you. Your ability to homestead that tiny plot of mental ground in my head associated with koi fish was the determinant of that connection being made. And taken at scale across a huge population your ability to homestead this ground in others means you’re now trolling through life with a massive net. And we didn’t even have to invoke any fluffy metaphysical concepts from books like “The Secret” to see believable mechanics of how this works.

I don’t claim to have any prescriptive advice on how to homestead mental real estate any better than the next guy but I can tell you one experience in particular that’s paid dividends in serving to foster more of the weak ties in my life. I spoke at Ignite Phoenix #1 and again at Ignite Phoenix #10. On the second talk I tried to distill everything I loved about the sport of paragliding and meld it with more meta lessons I’ve picked up and present it in a way that would fascinate others. My hope was to introduce people to the sport, entertain and yes, homestead the mental real estate associated with paragliding. Aside from the immediate positive exposure that yielded that night, I’ve had countless people email me videos and articles they run across related to paragliding. And you know what? It’s awesome.

Tomorrow we’ll leave the skill of motion and talk about the next skill from the book: Preparation. On a side note, Ignite Phoenix 12 is tonight. I actually have an extra ticket and I know they’re hard to come by. The first person that calls me and sings me 30sec of their favorite song gets the ticket. 480.221.5500. Ready…. go!

Change your tune: Sleeping at Last – Levels of Light

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May 03

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

If parallax is the means by which we discover those opportunities hiding in plain sight, vantage is the sister effect that moves us to a new viewing angle and exposes those opportunities occluded from our current position. Here’s the analogy:

If you’ve ever hiked in a canyon or a valley with surrounding mountains then you know all about vantage. Your ability to navigate is limited by what you can see at any given time. By hiking to a different point in the canyon or to the top of a nearby peak you gain access to a new view that reveals features and destinations you didn’t know were there. BTW it bears mentioning that the above drawing is from a volunteer talk I did for the Kauffman Foundation Fastrac program two years ago; a talk which serendipitously lead me to meeting the co-founder of my second startup. Here I was, doing a favor for a friend speaking at her class about the concepts of motion and vantage for discovery and unbeknownst to me the effect I was talking about was at work behind the scenes pairing me up with my next co-founder!

This isn’t entirely the right analogy though because peaks beg to be climbed; they’re the obvious points of elevation we could scale to gain a better view of the landscape. Vantage in the context of Motion is different. It’s the fortuitous exposure to pivotal situations (what we would call crossroad moments in hindsight) that comes only from playing, pursuing curiosity or volunteering with no intent for gain. Steve Jobs tells a 3min story of how the Mac typeface came to be as a direct result of vantage from his fascination with calligraphy in college, a seemingly worthless pursuit at the time:

Here’s another example from my last company.

JumpBox is a poster child of the concept of vantage. It emerged from an experiment we started called Grid7 that was basically a group of developers and designers who would meet on weekends to collaborate on projects with the intent of making passive-income-generating projects. Long story short, Grid7 disintegrated but from it emerged an unshakeable idea from my co-founder to create what he called “a project box” – a Mac Mini pre-loaded with a set of open source software to simplify the lives of developers. Our lack of cash, the headaches of dealing with hardware and numerous other factors however conspired to create big brick wall for our fledgling endeavor. Fortunately virtualization was beginning to transform the industry. Kimbro had been planning the internal architecture of the project box and was intending to use virtualizaiton to run a mini virtual network within the machine. The unique position we found ourselves in allowed Kimbro to make a genius mental leap to realizing we didn’t need the hardware at all. We could ship a virtual project box- a JumpBox!

So we have so far as the mechanisms of motion:

  1. Chance collisions
  2. Parallax
  3. Vantage

I would argue there’s one more that, in our uber connected world, matches or even trumps each of these in magnitude of effect. We’ll explore that tomorrow. In the meantime what are the crossroads moments in your life that can be traced back to the effect of motion and vantage?
Oh and change your tune: Nick Drake – One of These Things First

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May 02

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

I had intended to explore a sister concept of parallax today that is another byproduct of practicing the skill of motion. But I want to instead divert to another idea. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the concepts Lane and Thor are proposing will slowly gain mainstream acceptance with execs over the next few years and we’ll see a new job description emerging from the companies who are willing to acknowledge and embrace them.

A “serendiplomat:” an ambassador of luck whose sole job it is to help cultivate the Get Lucky skills within an organization. Sound wacky? Consider the unthinkable notion of a paid social media person even just ten years ago. Or what about the idea of a company hiring a full time chef and feeding their entire campus gourmet meals as a perk of working there? Here’s an even better story from a small company right here in AZ.

There’s a little company in Gilbert called Infusionsoft. I have a particular fondness for these guys because I know a bunch of folks there and I’ve had court side seats to watch them go through a dark tunnel and now emerge and be poised to absolutely crush it. We became a customer of theirs recently (their software basically brings Marketo/Eloqua type marketing automation to the SMB only better because it comes with an integrated CRM). But I digress… these guys are hiring like crazy right now and one of the twenty-one (2-1… two one) open positions on their career board is “Dream Manager” (here’s a screenshot since it will no doubt be filled and disappear). This is the stated job description:

As this “too-good-to-be-true” job title implies, the Dream Manager will manage the process of helping our employees articulate and pursue their dreams. The creation of this job is based on the ideas introduced in The Dream Manager, one of Matthew Kelly’s books. By opening this opportunity we’re creating space for our employees to dream. This investment is in direct support of one of our core values…We believe in people and their dreams.

Wow. Here’s a company progressive enough to realize that dreams of their employees (arguably one of the most intangible and unquantifiable thing you could imagine) are important enough to support that they carve out a dedicated position to nurture them. Just, wow.

I hear a business adage repeated frequently: “you can’t improve something until you can measure it.” It’s one of those innocuous sentences that is easy to nod your head in agreement with while the person saying it instantly accrues wisdom points just for repeating it. Guess what. It’s dead wrong. You can improve in absence of measurement, it just may be difficult to attribute causation directly to a specific action in absence of a controlled environment. And the corollary to that statement: our inability to quantify forces makes them no less real. Hey, I’m a fan of metrics. We track every relevant possible stat across our businesses because these indicators give insight to make better decisions. But that doesn’t stop me from doing things the results of which aren’t being tracked. Let’s all agree to dispense with this damaging idea that seems to have emerged in the stampede towards having ubiquitous metrics for everything. I’ll say it again for emphasis: you can improve things that you can’t measure.

Need proof? Go hit tennis balls every night for a month and I guarantee you’ll be a better tennis player a month from now. How much better? I don’t know. Want to get stronger? Walk out in your backyard and curl a boulder a couple times everyday and watch your strength improve. How much? Who cares. The point is we shouldn’t let the mandate to measure everything deter us from strengthening muscles which don’t today lend themselves to being measured. Just like tribes who had a shaman I predict we’ll soon see companies hiring a serendiplomat who has innate skills of serendipity to help usher these skills into their organization. And if you ever see “serendiplomat” on a job board tell ‘em you heard it here first ;-)

Change your tune: The Used – Moving On

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May 01

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

“Get Lucky” proposes a framework of skills that when practiced work in concert to amplify the level of serendipity in one’s life. The eight skills are:

  1. Motion
  2. Preparation
  3. Divergence
  4. Commitment
  5. Activation
  6. Connection
  7. Permeability
  8. Attraction

There’s thirty-one days in the month of May which translates to roughly four days devoted to each skill. Let’s look at Motion first.

Motion in the context of this book refers to the practice of deliberately placing yourself in new situations and unfamiliar environments. It’s not the same as randomly throwing a dart at a map and traveling there, that’s just random movement. Motion is consciously mixing up your routine and the circles of people you associate with. The result of motion is what they call “creative collisions.” The book uses the architecture of the Pixar office as one example of to bake the principle of motion into a company’s fabric. Core services like food, recreation and restrooms were placed centrally in an atrium that by design caused people from disparate departments to have more chance encounters than they would if each wing of the campus was self-contained.

Parallax

A byproduct of motion is parallax, or the apparent shift of objects relative to a backdrop when you change viewing angle. Astronomers use relative motions of planets and stars against the backdrop of far away galaxies to calculate distances. If you’ve ever dropped a small object on an obnoxious carpet, odds are you used the phenomenon of parallax to find it by shifting your viewing angle until the object stood out against the background. The authors don’t explicitly name this effect in their book but I would say from personal experience it’s every bit as relevant as “creative collisions” in terms of value for unearthing unseen opportunities.

There are immediate opportunities hiding in plain sight now that we never see because they get lost against the noisy wallpaper of daily life. Whether through lethargy or the intentional pursuit of a routine we fall into ruts of routine movement that make us become accustomed to the viewing angles and we lose ability to identify these parallax shifts. Deviating from routine restores some of the parallax shift that allows us to notice things that we never even thought to question.

My biggest parallax experience was the six months I lived in Quito, Ecuador back in ’95. At my age then I just assumed that continuous electrical power was something everyone in 1995 had. Not so. During that time they were conducting power rationing across the city such that throughout the week there would be eight hour blocks where the power just shut off. I thought I knew what a family was and understood how it operates only to learn they do it very differently down there (children stay in the house much longer, many times to the age at which they end up taking care of their folks and never leave). Drinking water out of the tap? Yep, learned that one the hard way. I assumed the worst case scenario of government corruption was palm greasing with a shady lobbyist. Not so. The second day I was there the vice president of the country fled with six million dollars. I knew America’s entertainment industry had worldwide fans but never would I have expected how thoroughly star-crazed a 2-million-person city could be over Bon Jovi. I learned that there’s a whole population of people who eat KFC with plastic gloves and do 1000 other little idiosyncratic things differently than us. But most importantly for the first time I vividly saw class distinctions and what it means to be extraordinarily wealthy and unimaginably poor. Before that class distinctions were an academic concepts in school and occasionally images on a TV but now they were the people sitting next to me on the bus.

My point of parallax is that independent of the value motion provides in creating “chance collisions” it has other added benefits that enable people to see the world differently and therefore gain unique invaluable perspective. This leads to another byproduct of motion which is revealing occluded objects. I’ll discuss that one tomorrow. For now change your tune: The Lumineers – Ho Hey

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