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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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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