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Books that scale

I’ve always felt lucky when people like Tim FerrisBill Gates, and Maria Popova share lists of books that peak performers read. Each is a little window into the brains of elite thinkers. While reading these books won’t make you Bruce Springstein or Peter Thiel, making your way through another person’s library can stretch your own thinking. If you can’t pick their brain, at least get their library card and form your own conclusions.

Books influence how we work and live. This is why reading them, especially the good ones, is such a damn good idea. Even if you think you don’t have time.

And they can influence large groups of people too.

In To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink tells the story of Palantir, a software and data analytics company in Palo Alto, CA. Each new hire reads two books. One is on improv (to help them get better at thinking on their feet and being more buoyant while selling) and the other is about 9/11 (to understand their mission as a more secure future). By reading these books, everyone is on the same page about what matters.

I’m sure other companies do this too (or have considered it), but I’m struggling finding examples.

So here’s my ask. If you could assign three books that everyone at your company (or school, or organization, etc.) had to read, what would they be?

Some ground rules:

  1. You have to assume that everyone reads them, and follows 80% of the content in the book in their daily practice. In other words, these books will (for the sake of this exercise) help form the culture of your company.
  2. You can be a manager or a maker. An owner or a worker. Doesn’t matter, for the sake of this question everyone has to read it, because you said so.
  3. They don’t have to be practical, but they can’t be too impracticable that you can’t justify how they would change how people work, interact, or lead richer lives in the office and beyond.
  4. They have to be scalable in the sense that all people at your company can derive some value from reading them (from CEO to intern to custodian).
  5. They better blow people’s mind, since you’re asking them to devote time to something other than their daily work.

Look forward to hearing in the comments.

Learning on the job

I like learning.

But as I’ve grown older, I’ve also found that I’m inclined to help others learn. I’m capable at helping others see their own thoughts more clearly. Or how to remove obstacles from doing excellent work. Or how to make things simpler. Or how to make themselves more productive.

I derive more joy from helping others than anything else I do. In that way, I’m lucky.

My career has ranged from software development to elementary teaching. From project management to foreign language instruction. From IT management to data analysis.

What’s the common thread throughout these jobs? Learning.

I use this blog to distill my own learning about learning. It could be learning how to understand financial accounting or user experience design. Or clear writing. Or startup traction strategy. Or what motivates people.

Either way, I want to document my own learnings publicly so other might learn walk where I’ve walked, not trip where I’ve tripped.

Confident Idiots

Loved this article in the Pacific Standard today on ignorance and expertise. It’s worth reading as an instrument to improve your “bull-shit detector”.

Confident experts have always bothered me. Not because of their confidence per se, but because of the obvious lack of self-consciousness their confidence implies. And when people can’t think about their thinking, they often miss the big parts of the problem they’re trying to solve.

Confident people don’t bother me because I’m an introverted person. Or because I lack confidence and they make me look bad. Or even because I’m jealous (well, maybe a little because I’m jealous).

They bother me because they’re usually wrong in the long-term, but everyone thinks they sound right in the short-term.

And this is dangerous for companies.

It’s the reason why my favorite question is “how do you know that?” (thanks Edward Tufte). While contrary to most people’s belief, I tend to distrust confidence, to a point. The more confident a person seems in their response, or the more expertise or authority they have, the more cautious I am to agree.

Appropriate skepticism is healthy, and if an expert bristles at a dilettante poking holes in even the most well-reasoned argument, there’s something wrong.

So beware of confidence. It can make idiots of the best of us.

Does the internet think I’m a flake? (or, Why do I not blog when I say I will?)

I’ve made a habit of breaking a habit. And it’s disappointing.

How many posts since 2008 (first year I blogged) have said something like: “I’ve been away for a while, but now I’m back!” How many of those posts were then met with days, weeks, or months of silence? I’d love to see a line-graph of posts over that period.

It’d look like an irregular heartbeat.

Have you ever been to a gym in January and thought “holy smokes this place is busy”, only to find by March there’s more empty machines than filled ones?

That’s because It’s easy to commit, but it’s harder to sustain. “I’m going to to X” is different than “I’ve been doing X consistently for a long time now…”

Why does this happen? Why do I decide to write, announce that I’ve started writing again, then stop writing?

I know part of the answer is habit. I haven’t made writing a part of my daily activity stream. Believe me, I try, but it just doesn’t happen. I love writing. It helps me organize my thoughts and communicate directly. Writing also leaves a trail of how my thoughts on issues have evolved over time, which is useful to honing my decision making skills and Baloney Detection Kit.

And I know part of it is not wanting to sound stupid. If I don’t take the time to write about something important, and most importantly write with some degree of sophistication, then people will know for sure that I’m actually a dumbass. Why am I afraid of this?

And I know part of it is because I’m busy. But am I any busier than the people that write the blogs that I read? Heck no.

And I know because I’m impatient. I enjoy writing because of the conversation with myself, but I’d be lying if I didn’t crave more engagement. I know it takes time to add value and build a readership (if it ever happens). But seriously, why so long?

And I know it’s partly because I’m not accountable to anyone. I don’t have a readership to let down.

But I’m sure there’s more. I could say “hey I should do some research then write about it”, but that’s a failure loop I’m not ready to initiate!

Notice how each of the above points is connected to being an entrepreneur. Mindsets I’ve had to get over while starting things in the past. Not wanting to fail. Not fully committing to an idea or giving up on one too soon. Not having the courage to stand by a decision. Or not fully focusing on a process.

All these problems kill new ideas. They kill my writing. And that’s scary.

So if you write, or create, or produce, how do you stick to it? What rhythms and routines keep you writing, creating or producing? How do you avoid putting aside time to make your commitments?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments, but it’d make me a hypocrite to ask you to write : )

The Sunday 3 – #1

I like the number three. Not too much, not too little.

So I bring you “The Sunday 3”, three articles I’ve read this week. One dealing with health, one dealing with business, one dealing with learning.


If You’re Always Working, You’re Never Working Well by Michael Harris

TL;DR: Working more doesn’t mean working better. Multitasking is impossible. We’re always at work, but that means we’re never at work fully.

Favorite Quote: Everyone who thinks they’re good at multitasking is wrong. We’re actually multiswitching [and] giving ourselves extra work.” – Douglas Gentile, professor @ Iowa State

Harris discusses the outrage at the (wildly incorrect) reporting last week that the “lazy” French had passed a law banning people from working hard. Although this was untrue (it was a labor agreement between media companies and journalists aimed at improving health of professionals), it “revealed a set of abiding values subscribed to by the folk who perpetuated it.”

I’m fascinated by debates about how people work, especially the value they ascribe to “working hard”. This goes for how people think of themselves and how their bosses assess their value to the company.

There’s a fundamental bias at work as we believe that outcomes are directly correlated with effort. Researchers paint a much more complex picture. Organizations should be much more sensitive to the “sweet spot” of productivity for workers. While accountability is obviously important, if you hire the right people, you don’t have to stuff them in a regimented box.


You Don’t Need To Be An Engineering Genius To Start A Billion-Dollar Company

TL;DR: In the past, technology costs were expensive. Engineering resources were cheap. Recently, these trends have flipped. In the future, it might be that engineering resources will be unnecessary.

Favorite Quote: In other words, there has never been a better time to be average.

I love history, especially when it comes to speculating on the future. I love it because history is important, but also because speculation is usually wrong. Although there’s a lot of really important elements of startup costs this article ignores, it paints an interesting vision of the future for non-engineering entrepreneurs. I wonder if the VC market will make a similar shift towards undervaluing startups with strong “hacker teams”. My speculation is that it’s the “hacker mentality” that VCs value AND the value they can immediately create (anyone can be a “biz dev resource” not everyone can write objective c.

What I think these trends DO allow for is more “average” people to start companies. People aren’t 10x coders, but understand technology enough to lead excellent products. People who aren’t Wharton MBAs, but want to learn about their market, their customers, and their business.

It’s not just that the cost of engineering resources is coming down for startups, the cost of ALL RESOURCES for startups is coming down. This is encouraging.

It’s always been hard for “jack of all trades” people to find jobs, since the corporate market requires high degrees of specialization. However, for a startup, you don’t have to be really really good at a specialization. In fact, it might do some harm (more on this in a later post).


Chemex Brew Guide – By Sumptown Coffee

I love coffee. I love learning about coffee. I love drinking coffee. I love the way it smells.

Well then why don’t you marry it? – My niece would say

I make espresso and chemex, both labors of attention to detail.

It had been a while since I had made chemex, so I did a quick search for the mass of coffee and water (forgot what the specifics were). I found one of the best descriptions of the chemex I’ve seen: http://stumptowncoffee.com/brew-guides/chemex/.

Sumptown makes great coffee, and I’m glad to see they care enough to teach people how to make it right.


What’s your Sunday Routine?

Hello there Sunday morning warriors!

After mostly disconnecting from work and internet for Saturdays, Sunday is a day for weekly prep. 

As I’ve discussed before, I’m a big fan of habit and routine. The less I have to think about what I’m going to do, the better. 

Monday through Friday I mostly follow the same schedule with little variation. Same “slow carb” food. Same “uniform” clothes. Same exercise regimen. It’s through these habits I’ve been able to lose weight, to become healthier, and to think more robustly.

Then Saturday is “cheat day”. I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want. It’s time to spend with my girlfriend (Ellie) and my dog (Caly). I need this day to recoup and recharge. 

So transitioning from Saturday back to the week can be difficult.

I’m halfway through my 28th year in this world. It’s taken me this long to become mindful of what my body needs: routine. “Hard Workers” and “Smart People” typically ignore basic biological principles in favor of impressing others. Forgo a meal to reach a deadline? Sure! “Aren’t I such a committed worker?” Skip some sleep? Hell yes! “Complaining the next day about being tired is a badge of honor!” Ignore exercise? Yes please! “Don’t have time for pumping iron, too busy pumping out work!”

And while the impression of business comes across as valuable and downright morally pure (thanks protestants!), the actual value created by this busyness is small.

So listen to your body. Tinker with small experiments and judge against some baseline (happiness, energy, words written, weight, etc.). You’ll find that the minimal efforts you expend in service to the larger goal will actually make you more valuable, not just appear that way to your peers and boss.

So here’s my Sunday, feel free to share your Sunday in the comments:

Since my week depends on a Sunday prep day, it mostly revolves around me “taking time to save time”.

My Sunday schedule (not during Buffalo Bills football season) looks like this: 

9am: Wake and drink 48oz of ice-cold water. Take eager dog for walk

9:30am: Chemex coffee and read (usually nonfiction from Flipboard or Twitter feeds). Post “Sunday 3” on blog to share thoughts on what I read.

10:30am: Protein (either egg whites or an isopure flavorless protein shake with cinnamon and espresso)

11:00am: Bike Ride

12:30pm: Lunch of beans and some hearty green (spinach or kale)

1:00pm: Meal planning: On a slow carb diet you have to eat A LOT of food. To resist the temptation of “cheating”, it’s important that there is very little friction. This means that I want all my meals ready. All I have to do is warm them up. This prevents from giving in to convenience eating.

1:30pm shop: Costco for large items and international grocery store for spices

3:30pm cook: Cook for the entire week

5pm: Relax with Ellie (read, watch TV show, play game, talk, etc.)

7pm: Sunday dinner (usually roast chicken, but depends. It’s the only meal we cook for immediate eating each week). Drink some wine.

11pm: (Hopefully) bed. This is the hardest thing for me. I need to sleep more. Want to try to read more fiction at night to help relax and sleep.

The best plans always fail upon first contact with implementation of course. So the most important thing is to compare the intent with the reality. If I’m not sticking to the schedule, there’s a reason for it. It’s not something to worry about. The routine should be natural. It should be comforting. I should look forward to it. Most of all, it should make me feel better. 

So constant pivoting is a necessity. Adapting to the realities of travel, Bills football, project schedules, etc. is where the finesse lies. 

What’s your Sunday?