Saying No to say Yes

In The Secrets of Consulting (a book, along with its sequel, about a lot more than consulting), Jerry Weinberg offered the Law of Raspberry Jam:

the wider you spread it, the thinner it gets

I thought about that a lot a few years ago when I attended the AYE conference (an experience I heartily recommend), along with the “Yes/No Medallion” that Jerry borrowed from Virginia Satir. Years onward, I am still struck by the  notion of saying No to say Yes. My inclination and habit is to say Yes to many projects, many features, many business ideas, many of everything. This has obvious benefits but also has a cost – sometimes I am spread too thin to have the impact I intend.

The fewer things I (we, you) focus on, the greater our impact on those top priorities. Of course there is inevitable pushback from associates, customers, and family members about Nos. This pushback is worth facing, because the more Nos, the more powerful the Yesses.

(An aside: in a half hour of online research, I was unable to definitively conclude where the name of the above Law originated.) 

Incompetence -> Progress

From http://www.theodoregray.com/BrainRot/index.html

“The most profound engine of civilization is the inability of a larger and larger fraction of the population to do the basic things needed to survive.  Many people fail to realize this.”

“Technology’s greatest contribution is to permit people to be incompetent at a larger and larger range of things.  Only by embracing such incompetence is the human race able to progress.”

It’s a good read, with important thoughts on civilization and education.  It is part of the introduction to a book about Mathematica, a truly amazing piece of software. (Mathematica, was amazing when I used it in the 1990s, I can scarcely imagine what it does now.)

My name is Kyle, and I’m an Infoholic

I recently read Tim Ferriss’s book The Four Hour Work Week, colloquially called 4HWW. The book is short, dense with ideas, and easily worth the $12 price. I recommend the book in spite of:

  • Questions about the veracity of Ferriss’s claimed accomplishments
  • Criticisms that some of his techniques are not as broadly applicable as he makes them sound
  • The fact that the author apparently fell for a bogus chain-letter email and reprinted it on page 284. Ooops – how embarrassing!
  • I’d guess he’s spending more like 80 hours per week promoting his book over the last few months, with many media appearances, interviews, etc.

Among his main points (outsource more, delegate more, sell products rather than services, travel, etc.), the key idea that stood out for me is the “low-information diet”: read less, watch less, surf the web less. This is nothing new of course (I even touched on it myself in an earlier post), but Ferriss makes a compelling case.

Unfortunately, upon self-examination the truth hurts:

  • I read too many books, even though I’ve gotten rid of many recently
  • I read too many magazines.
  • I read too many web sites.
  • I subscribe to too many RSS/Atom feeds.
  • I check email too often.

In my defense, I also somehow write a lot of software, solve many customer problems, and much of the information I consume is at least tangentially related to those sources of value. I read quickly, and I don’t watch television, so this excessive consumption is not as time consuming as it could be.

Still, I need something closer to Ferriss’s low-information diet. I don’t have the guts to go cold turkey, and part of the service we offer to our customers is fast response to problems, so I won’t go as far as he suggests. I will spend less time consuming input and more time producing output.

Update in 2009: This remains an ongoing struggle, but I do quite often manage entire days of producing most of the day and consuming only in short breaks.

TEDTalks – Ideas Worth Spreading – Video Worth Watching

TED is an annual conference at which a bunch of (hopefully?) remarkable people say remarkable things. I’m using the word in a Seth Godin sort of way: remarkable things are those which inspire people to literally remark about them.

It appears to be “A-list” event, meaning that I’m not likely to make the cut anytime soon.

Fortunately, many TED sessions are available to the rest of us online: TEDTalks. Here are some that I bookmarked to watch again; the download links are for QuickTime videos. Many of these are also on Google Video or elsewhere.

Burt Rutan

Barry Schwartz

Malcom Gladwell

Steven Levitt

Nicholas Negroponte

Hans Rosling (One word summary: Wow.)

Ken Robinson – Do schools today kill creativity?

Dan Gilbert – The (misguided) pursuit of happiness

The Secret of Happiness, according to Dan Gilbert:

  1. Accrue wealth, power, and prestige. Then lose it.
  2. Spend as much of your life in prison as you possibly can.
  3. Make someone else really, really rich.
  4. Never ever join the Beatles.

(watch the video for the story behind this)

Transforming Language

I picked this idea up from Dale Emery, in his excellent “Resistance as a Resource” talk at AYE, which is based on a paper available at his website. He shared a story of an HR manager who spoke with disdain about a group of people at their company as “resistors” to change; in their case to company organizational change. Dale suggested that rather than think about “resistors” who resist all changes, instead think of “people are who resisting this change, now”. Then consider that they are perhaps “responding” to the change, rather than automatically resisting.

Now the point of all this is not to lie to yourself, nor to see others differently from how they truly are. Rather it is to be open to seeing others in more than one way, to learning new information about them and their needs, concerns, goals. Out of that learning, is likely to emerge more useful ways of responding to them and of finding common ground.

It is remarkable how different a situation can seem, based on the words you choose to describe it… so try some variations in the words you use.

You Have More Options Than You Think

A few weeks ago, around the time of the Reddit sale to Conde Nast, I read Aaron’s Swartz’s summary of his life to date, including a description of his brief high school experience: dissatisfied with high school, he quit. He was then officially “home schooled”, but he actually wandered off to teach himself and take some college classes.

This reminded me of my own (less interesting) experience, which I don’t think I’ve ever told online.

Although I had great fun along the way (and like Aaron I was not inclined to punt on education), and met some fantastic peers and a handful of wonderful teachers, overall I was quite dissatisfied with high school and in retrospect it was rather worse than it appeared at the time. The homeschooling ruse didn’t occur to me, but I found another generous loophole in the rules: by signing up for college classes, I was excused from sufficient high school hours to allow time to attend the college classes. The excusal was coarse-grained and ample, omitting as many hours of high school (every day) as needed to attend and travel to/from college classes (that met only 2 or 3 days per week). High school credit was given to make up for the time missed, so it was possible to take far fewer high school classes than usual and still graduate.

I signed up for classes at a local community college – over several semesters I took Calculus 1, 2, and 3, Differential Equations, Engineering Physics 1 and 2. I chose days and times to maximize how much high school I’d need to miss; then attended the college courses haphazardly. My expectations were low, but was I delighted to find the instruction was actually quite good. Moreover, the textbooks, while pricey, were of excellent quality: as a general rule the instructors who write textbooks are the cream of the crop – they explain the material with far more clarity then the median instructor standing in front of me.

This strategy earned me:

  • Excusal from >50% of the high school day in my senior year – many hours of free time every morning.
  • Freedom to arrive and leave the school campus at will.
  • 30+ hours college credit, all “A” grades, in traditionally challenging courses; this was a nice head start in college.
  • Classes worthy of the time spent attending them.

There was a cost, though, due to the unusual grading system at the high school. Many of the high-level classes were “honors” classes in which it was possible to earn an H grade, worth 5 points on the usual scale of A=4 B=3 etc. By taking fewer high school classes, I had fewer H’s , leading to a lower GPA. I ended up graduating 8th in my class of ~325, at least a few ranks lower than otherwise.

In retrospect, it was a great move; it turns out that after arriving at college, no one for the rest of your life will care about high school classes or scores… Of course this seems obvious now, but no one around me appeared to know this at the time.

I wish I had taken this approach much farther; perhaps I’d have been a 20-something dot-com millionaire like Aaron. Still, there is a general principle: you have more options than you think. You don’t need to walk down the same path as everyone else. Find something different and game-changing, and do it.