Reflections on 25 years of Fiona Apple profiles
Do Rachel Handler and Fiona Apple exchange texts on New Year’s Eve? Does Fiona send Kristin Iversen cute dog photos? Does Jenn Pelly call Fiona sometimes while she’s making dinner?
Fiona Apple’s music means a great deal to me, especially her latest, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.1
Pitchfork's Album of the Year in 2020 and the rare perfect 10.)
She’s an enormously successful artist who still works without a net, each album somehow more original and honest than the deeply personal one that preceded it.
But five excellent albums over 25 years doesn’t fully explain how oddly connected I feel to Fiona as a person. I haven’t even seen her perform, though my closest miss came under notorious circumstances. I had tickets for a show in Austin on September 20, 2012. The day before, her tour bus was stopped in West Texas and she was arrested for drug possession. The show was canceled.2
(2 She performed in Houston the next night and it seemded the concert would be rescheduled. Instead, refunds were issued and in the nine years since, she’s performed just 42 times—not once in Austin.
The source of my connection is one of music journalism’s highest art forms—the Fiona Apple profile.
Since 1997, I’ve read 65,000 words about Fiona across just 10 articles. They range from the tidy 2,900 words Kristin Iversen wrote in Elle to Emily Nussbaum’s epic 10,000-word profile in The New Yorker. Dan Lee, Jenn Pelly, Rachel Handler, John Weir, Laura Snapes, Alan Light, and Chris Heath penned the rest. Rachel Handler is the overachiever of the group—she's interviewed Fiona for three pieces so far.
The core of the articles is familiar—a profile of a musician ahead of an album’s release, typically recapping a conversation over lunch or a brief outing. If you're lucky, you'll get a peek into the artist’s life and who they are when they're not on stage.
Fiona’s profiles are the equivalent of having your journal, photos, and text messages appear in a major publication. In fact, many of the pieces include personal photos, text messages, and excerpts from her journals.
What stands out in these interviews is how much time she spends with each writer, how quickly they develop a seemingly personal connection, and, of course, how transparent Fiona is about her past and present.
In starts in 1997, when John Weir hangs out with Fiona at her mom's apartment. She shows him her high school yearbooks and dolls her mom made her, tells painful stories from her childhood, and introduces him to her friends and mom.
The next year, Chris Heath joins Fiona on the floor of her hotel room. They make word collages by cutting out headlines from newspapers and magazines. She tells him in-depth stories from 3rd grade, empties her purse and inventories everything in it, explains how she came to use psychiatric medication, and at his request, reads a random excerpt from her journal. She gives him the phone number of her ex-boyfriend and tells of her struggle with an eating disorder. The meetings span multiple cities.
Fiona and Dan Lee spend nearly 30 hours together in 2012 over multiple days and states. They enjoy wine and pot while hanging out at her house, where he meets her brother, hears about her traumatic birth, and goes for a walk with her dog.
After a long break, the profiles return in 2019. Fiona initiates this one, in fact. Rachel Handler begins by referencing the one with Dan Lee that received so much attention.
She hasn’t done a conventional interview in years; when she was profiled back in 2012, by this very magazine, she smoked hash out of a Champagne flute while musing about human compassion.
When Emily Nussbaum's profile appears in The New Yorker, the past profiles are part of the conversation again.
Today, Apple still bridles at old coverage of her. Yet she remains almost helplessly transparent about her struggles—she’s a blurter who knows that it’s a mistake to treat journalists as shrinks, but does so anyway.
The conversation and visits stretch from July to January. Fiona sends video from her day at the beach and asks for help interpreting texts from friends. They watch an episode of The Affair together at Fiona's house and Emily is there when Fiona has a panic attack. Emily meets Fiona's mother as well, perhaps at the same apartment where Dan and Fiona went through her high school yearbooks.
Rachel Handler and Fiona keep in touch and then Rachel publishes another in-depth profile in 2020. It starts with a FaceTime conversation from Fiona's house on the topic of the New Yorker article.
That New Yorker piece (Emily Nussbaum's) is so funny to me — the period of time we were talking was such a horrible group of months, because of all of the withdrawal I ended up being in from getting off of some medications.
Rachel asks, "What is it like acknowledging things about yourself in public?"
I think I’m used to it. I don’t think I know any different. I can recognize it enough to be a little bit creeped out by it — the fact that I do tend to open up way too much. But I’m okay. I feel weird, obviously.
Rachel noted that many of the profiles were by men3
See Kristen Iverson's Men Explain Fiona Apple to Me. The latest profiles have been by women.)
When I was doing research on your press, it struck me that for most of your career, it was men reviewing and interviewing you. I’m wondering what that was like for you — to always be interpreted through the prism of the male perspective.
Well, I’m not as keen to talk to men as I am to women. I don’t mean that overall. But in general, if you’re going to give me a choice to talk to somebody I don’t know, I’d rather it be a woman. Just because our understanding is very different than men’s understanding.
I’m not going to put myself in a position where I’m trusting somebody I have no knowledge about to interpret me for the world. I know you, I trust you, I’ve talked to you before. I know your heart is good. I know you’re a good writer.
Kristen Iversen visits Fiona in June and October of 2020, with many FaceTime calls and texts in-between.
On that bright October day, back when it was possible to go inside someone’s home and hug them hello and hug them goodbye, Fiona Apple walked me back out through her garden, Mercy at our heels, and asked me three more questions that have stayed with me. I try and answer them anew every day. “Who are you trying to impress? Who are you trying to satisfy? Are you going to make yourself happy?”
These profiles primarily focus on Apple's music and craft, of course. She has few peers as a songwriter and singer, and her significance as an artist makes her honesty so compelling. She brings the messiness, pain, and heartbreak of life into the open, and often without immediate resolution. Public figures do share struggles regularly, but usually only after they've been overcome. Fiona's profiles are remarkably of the moment, and those moments are ones most of us hesitate to share with our friends, let alone the press.
Fiona's unflinching honesty has brought criticism, but her bravery has given others strength and comfort, and made public and private conversations about depression, abuse, anxiety, and OCD easier. And there's so much to be celebrated in these stories, too, because the messiness of life also includes growth, overflowing joy, creativity, best friends and new friends, loyal pets, and understanding ourselves in new ways.
I’ve found many insights within those 65,000 words. One, though, stands out. In honor of naming Fetch the Bolt Cutters their Album of the Year, Jenn Pelly wrote a 9,800-word profile for Pitchfork. It's another piece that grows out of nearly 6 months of conversations about writing and recording, meditation, OCD, and more.
In it, Fiona tells the story of Bob Dylan asking her to play piano on his song, Murder Most Foul. She tells her manager that she’s underqualified for the job, but decides to show up the next day for the recording.
I told Bob I was really insecure about it, and he was really encouraging and nice. He was just like, “You’re not here to be perfect, you’re here to be you.” To have Bob Dylan say that before my record came out was a huge deal for me.
You’re not here to be perfect,
you’re here to be you.
That line has been with me throughout this year. What a kind and generous thing to say to another person. It could be said to a child, partner, friend, collaborator, parent, or even coworker. It’s the rare person who wouldn’t benefit from hearing that.
I know, because I’m one of them. And what's so perfect about Bob Dylan saying that to Fiona Apple is that she's been saying it to us for 25 years through her songs and interviews. I’m grateful to her for spending hour after hour with Jenn Pelly, and for not hesitating to tell another story of vulnerability and doubt.
Maybe one day there will be a 6-episode podcast about these profiles. The host will interview each of the writers and then bring them together in the final episode to compare notes.
The host, of course, will also reach out to Fiona to see if she wants to be part of it. She'll beg off, but offer to meet up for a chat. The conversation will span a few months, bouncing between FaceTime, texts, and photos.
The highlight of the podcast will be the transparent, funny, and unflinchingly self-aware voicemails Fiona left for the host.
10 Fiona Apple Profiles
- Girl Trouble by John Weir (1997, 3700 words)
- Fiona: The Caged Bird Sings by Chris Heath (1998, 6900 words)
- Girl on a Wire by Alan Light (2000, 4500 words)
- ‘I Just Want to Feel Everything’: Hiding Out With Fiona Apple, Musical Hermit by Dan P. Lee (2012, 7300 words)
- Fiona Apple Is Still Calling Bullshit by Rachel Handler (2019, 5400 words)
- Fiona Apple’s Art of Radical Sensitivity by Emily Nussbaum (2020, 10000 words)
- Allow Fiona Apple to Reintroduce Herself by Rachel Handler (2020, 8500 words)
- Fiona Apple Is Finally Free by Kristin Iversen (2020, 2900 words)
- Fiona Apple on How She Broke Free and Made the Album of the Year by Jenn Pelly (2020, 9800 words)
- Fiona Apple on the album of the year, Grammys hypocrisy and how #MeToo helped her get sober by Laura Snapes (2020, 4200 words)
It's easy to find yourself with too many meetings in a week. Each one has a purpose, but they accumulate until all gaps in your schedule are full.1
Apparently I think about meetings a lot because I previously wrote The Cost of Meetings, which is similar in spirit.)
When gaps remain, they're too small to get focused work done, so they end up being used for email and Slack triage.
A high number of meetings can be a sign that a team has room to grow in working asynchronously. It's easier to schedule a meeting than capture the problem and potential solutions in writing, get everyone's full attention, and arrive at a decision. Working in that way requires practice and persistence.
I'd love to see calendar tools help teams move to asynchronous work. A great place to start is with meeting limits.
Each person sets a limit on the number of meetings per day or week. They could also be set for specific days of the week, such as not allowing meetings on Tuesday and Thursday. Another option is limiting the number of hours spent in meetings per day or week.
The most common solution is to block time on your calendar, like the morning for focus work. It works fairly well, but requires keeping the schedule current and resisting requests for exceptions.
With meeting limits,2
Calendly and CalendarHero support daily meeting limits. I think of them as primarily for scheduling with people outside of your company, but perhaps they work well internally, too. My ideal solution would be within Google Calendar.)
if someone attempts to schedule a 4th meeting on a day that's limited to 3, or the 16th meeting on a week with 15, they'd see a message that the person’s meeting limit has been reached and to try another day or the next week.
If you’re thinking, "This sounds like Kanban work-in-progress limits", you’re not wrong!)
are great because:
- They're more definitive than blocking time. It’s a bigger ask for someone to exceed their meeting limit for the week than "I know you blocked 9:00-12:00, but can you spare 30 minutes at 11:30?"
- They make it easy to experiment. Try setting 2 days at 0 or the whole week at 10 hours.
- They make it possible to slowly break the meeting habit. If you currently average 20 meetings a week, set the limit at 19 and lower it each month until you find your sweet spot.
If the calendar supports defaults, a company could set limits to encourage the meeting culture that fits the way they work, such as specific days without meetings or the maximum anyone should have in a week.
A side effect of meeting limits is they encourage us to reflect on how much time we spend in meetings and whether it aligns with our priorities. Introducing friction increases the chances that each meeting is valuable, productive, and balanced.
The next time you're struggling to reach agreement at work, pause and consider whether the trade-offs are clear. If they're assumed and unspoken, the conversation lacks a shared foundation.
Imagine that one person advocates for hiring experienced people with signicant accomplishments. They argue they'll accomplish more, faster; raise the level of the team; and require less day-to-day guidance.
Sounds great, but what are the trade-offs? Possibilities include higher salaries, a longer hiring process, and fewer growth opportunities for existing team members.
Another person makes the case for hiring people with limited experience and high potential. They will be easier to find, less expensive, and driven to grow.
Both approaches have merit, but they can't be evaluated only on their presumed benefits. Every decision has a cost.
There may still be disagreement after the trade-offs are on the table, but the conversation is now focused on a more substantive topic—the underlying priorities. One person may place the highest value on hiring quickly and often, another on small teams with fewer managers.
Turning to a product
Engineering examples might include whether to use feature flags, requiring code review on each pull request, and when to use third-party libraries.)
example, imagine a team has a new feature that's nearing completion, but it's unsure about how to release it. Some want to do a round of user testing, then a limited beta. Others want to skip both steps and get it into users' hands quickly.
After discussing the trade-offs of both approaches, it becomes clear that one group prioritizes confidence and quality. They believe that the additional checkpoints will validate and improve the solution, increasing the likelihood that the launch will be smooth and successful.
The other group prioritizes speed and iteration, believing that the best way to learn and improve is to ship early and often.
The conversation has moved from how to ship one feature to what are the goals for feature releases. Once the team is aligned on that, future decisions will be easier.
Clarity about trade-offs also keeps people aligned when the pain points or costs are later encountered. Imagine the team decided to do a round of user testing and a limited beta before releasing the feature. If trade-offs were vague and there wasn't alignment on the underlying priorities, there will soon be grumbling that it isn't live yet and frustration about slow progress.
As the next feature nears release, the same debate starts again, now complicated by disagreement over the last experience. When everyone understands the trade-offs, there are fewer surprises and less second-guessing.
People are usually aware of a decision's trade-offs, they just aren't discussed openly. Sometimes they're left out to make the case seem stronger. Other times people are concerned about being seen as negative or assume they're obvious and don't need be discussed. The reality is the people almost always have different take. Everyone benefits when assumptions are spelled out.
Being open about trade-offs assures that decisions aren't made with incomplete context. It pushes the conversation to the underlying priorities that are driving each person's preferences, which increases alignment. And it strengthens resolve when trade-offs surface later.
The next time you're making a decision, ask:
- What are the unspoken trade-offs of this decision?
- What are we not doing in order to do this?
- What are we optimizing for?
- What priority is driving this decision?
The first post I published online was on my birthday in 2000. Now, I have a new home on the web.
I believe it's important to own your words and publish them under your name and domain. In 2000, blogging had just begun and I started writing on weblogs.com.
Next came Radio Userland, followed by TypePad from Six Apart. This was during my peak blogging (and pre-Twitter) years when my goal was to post every day.
I used Svbtle for a few years and experimented with Tumblr more than once. For some reason, I never gave Wordpress a serious try, and Medium just isn't what I'm looking for. My most recent solution was the GitHub Pages and Jekyll static site combination.
I recently decided it was time for a new online home. And for the first time, I would hire someone to help! The first question was what tool to use.
For bb.place, I chose Ghost. It’s the best blogging platform I’ve used.
I briefly considered the self-hosted, static site option again (likely using Hugo), but I wanted the simplest workflow possible. It’s not particularly hard to keep your local environment current, push commits to GitHub, and host your site on Netlify, but writing is! Additional friction makes it less likely that I’ll do it.
Ghost was the obvious answer. I’ve admired the team and how they run their business for years. Ghost is an independent non-profit and the platform is open-source. They have a sustainable business model and are focused on the long-term. Learn more about the small and mighty team.
The tool itself is phenomenal. Managing a site is simple and intuitive and the editor
The editor supports HTML and Markdown. I write posts in Markdown using iA Writer, which supports publishing to Ghost.)
is a joy to use. It’s clear they view speed as a feature.
Ghost offers a great collection of themes, but is powerful and flexible if you want to build your own, which is why we did.
Ghost's membership and newsletter features are also well done. Having everything in one tool is a plus. I love that they include the option to turn off email tracking and analytics.
In addition, support is quick, personal, and top-notch. They even helped import nearly 150 posts. Thanks Sarah and Paul!
A Custom Site
For the first time, I hired a designer
My fabulous friend Andy. Design is just one of his many talents. Why not give his music a spin?)
to build a few features and a custom design. I’ve never been able to have the exact site I wanted until now and you know, it’s a lot of fun!
Most themes today are designed for content marketing—images for every post, featured posts, read more links. It’s as if we’re all publications with six staff writers and an editorial calendar. I wanted something simpler: a calm, high-quality reading experience focused on the full content of each post with the most recent first.
One of my goals for the site was to celebrate Uncommon in Common, an online community I started in 2012. I wanted to create a mini-site with its own navigation, multiple pages, and even a separate archive of hundreds of posts. I’m really happy with what we came up with.
With Ghost, you can use tags and a little code to customize what appears on the homepage, archive, and RSS feed. That made it easy to support a variety of content.
One of the fanciest things we built is a form of related posts. Inspired by Uncommon, I want to write about my favorite things.
But Uncommon taught me that a few paragraphs about a favorite often isn't enough. For instance, standup comedy is one of my favorite things. I plan to write an essay about that, but I’m sure there will be more. For instance, posts about specific comediens. Using internal tags, I can add favorites on the fly and publish related posts and they're automatically connected. You can see an example with The West Wing.
I wanted sidenotes from the moment I saw them on iA's site and we were able to make it happen. We used Ghost snippets so I have quick access to the necessary HTML to add a sidenote. Of course, sidenotes become footnotes on smaller screens.
I enjoyed trying fonts and slowly becoming opinionated about them. Thankfully, Andy is a great guide. We experimented with Wotfard, Assistant, and an early favorite, Illisarniq. I eventually came across Source Sans Pro and it fits the aesthetic I wanted perfectly.
Logos are so fun and easy when you know exactly who to ask.
I hope bb.place is a delightful experience for you! If you have questions or run into any hiccups, please share them.
I’m a person who checks out books about public libraries from the public library.
The book was called, unsurprisingly, The Public Library. It’s a photographic essay by Robert Dawson about libraries throughout the United States. The range of photos is striking—from mobile libraries started in Hurricane Katrina’s wake to stately buildings from the 1800s.
To my surprise, I’ve become what can only be called a library tourist. On more than one occasion, the first stop on a trip has been the city library. Seattle’s architectural marvel was so amazing I spent the rest of the trip dreaming of living within walking distance. Boston’s library, with history at every turn, was incredible in a completely different way. In Portland, we proved to our son that card catalogs once existed, then lost ourselves in stacks of vintage magazines.
I do like books, obviously, but my love of libraries is rooted in something else. Libraries have long been a place to try on new versions of myself.
Maybe I’m the sort of person who loves science fiction or westerns. Perhaps inside of me is a jazz, poetry, architecture, or wine connoisseur. Maybe I’ll be a financial planner, writer, developer, or therapist. Alternatively, the future might be traveling the world, writing novels in cafes.
Walking into a library and leaving hours later with a stack of books on previously unknown topics opens the door to infinite possibilities. Not only is everything free, but you have to return all of it. Whereas a purchase is a commitment, borrowing books is temporary. You are free from the obligation to figure things out first.
Best of all, there are no repercussions from failed experiments, other than odd looks from a librarian with a keen eye, appreciating your wayward pursuits. You don’t wake up to surprising credit card bills or shelves of embarrassing tangents.
The Internet fills this need in some ways, and libraries continue to evolve in response. But when I look at the job fairs and computer classes, story times and manga meet-ups, writing circles and game nights taking place between the stacks, I realize that they’re still doing what only a library can do—provide a place where people of any age and means can walk in and try on a new version of themselves.
I recently spent a week in Washington D.C., much of it inside the city's phenomenal art museums. Though I feel ill-equipped to fully understand and appreciate what I'm seeing, I'm increasingly drawn to art museums over history and nature museums. Part of that is an introvert's preference for smaller, quieter crowds. But this experience showed me how much I enjoy the inherent focus of an art museum. I love spending time with a single work, even briefly, without distractions. History museums tend to present an overabundance of objects at every turn, each competing for attention. I find myself focusing more on completion than the moment.
On this trip, I confirmed how much I enjoy the work of Joan Miró and Wassily Kandinsky, and developed a new appreciation for Robert Delaunay and Wayne Thiebaud. I'm not sure what the common thread is between these artists, but revisiting the photos I took suggests I'm drawn to abstract images with vivid colors. An interesting art museum app would be one that records your reactions to pieces as you go, and then recommends others you should see.
Next to each painting is an informative card that tells you the title, who painted it and when, the artist's lifespan, and often the story behind it. In some cases, it's tidbits about who is in the painting or what was happening in the artist's life when it was painted. Other times, the text puts the painting in context, explaining why it's significant, how it defined or responded to a movement, or what it reveals about that period in history.
It wasn't until the second museum that I realized what I was doing. I would walk to the next painting and read the card, then take in the work itself. I wanted context before I experienced it. Is this painting significant? Is it by someone I know? What's the connection between this one and the one to the left?
That approach was partly driven by a lack of confidence. I didn't trust my first take. It's not a great feeling when you fail to give a masterwork its due.
It was also just easier. The experts put the painting in context for me and guided my experience.
But it was no longer my experience alone. I couldn't say whether a painting spoke to me without hearing the voice that told me why it should have.
It's a familiar feeling. We all have voices that frame and interpret things for us. They tell us why this news matters and a book is worth reading, the best place to stay, signature dish at a restaurant, or the right position on an issue. They tell us why we should be outraged or why we should be outraged that others are outraged.
Trusted organizations and experts, talented curators and editors, are essential. None of us can watch every movie, try every restaurant, or study every issue in-depth.
Sometimes, though, the consensus is nothing more the quick conclusions of people who think like we do.
I want to see, hear, and experience more things unfiltered, and incorporate the wisdom of others after my own thoughts have taken shape.
And appreciate the mysterious beauty in front of me.
Years ago, I was chatting with a coworker about a software bug. Out of it came an unusual, intriguing phrase—before being before.
it's happened before, too (before being before I started working here)
Before Being Before would be a great book title
Those three mundane words together suggest something curious and hard to describe. There's a powerful sense of potential wrapped up inside them, like a recipe of ordinary ingredients that produce a delicious result when combined in just the right way. Before being before is, for me, the space between.
It's the space between an idea and its expression, between learning that you're expecting a child and the day they're born. The space between starting your senior project and presenting it. The space between deciding to change your career and your first day in a new role, sending off your manuscript and receiving replies from publishers.
Sometimes there's a lot of work to be done in the space between, but other times, there's nothing to do but wait. The seed has been planted, but what happens next is out of your hands. Perfecting the art of patience and letting go of the end result is the hardest part.
Between what something is and what it will be lies uncertainty and tension for some, while others revel in the mystery and anticipation. Each of us navigates these transitions in our own way and hopefully gains wisdom for next time.
I remember the months leading up to launching Uncommon, the conversations, excitement, and doubts. It was the before being before.
I make lists for just about everything, from the week ahead at work to the books I want to read next and the concerts I've seen.
Lists are how I remember the small things and prioritize the big things. For over eight years, those lists have been kept in Things from Cultured Code.
I've used Things longer than any other app. The UI is simple and efficient, with thoughtful touches throughout. It's equally great on the Mac and iPhone. I can count the number of bugs I've encountered on one hand. Most importantly, the data syncing and integrity has been flawless. When you're storing years of ideas, notes, and tasks in one place, you have to be able to trust it. I rely on Things throughout every single day.
Flawless isn't easy, though. Cultured Code is notorious for shipping only when it's ready, which mean long breaks between major versions. The long-awaited Things 3 debuts Thursday after being announced in December.
Many people have stopped using Things due to the lack of major updates and they often write about it. But they rarely describe a significant bug that hasn't been fixed or essential feature that's missing. The app has never been stagnant. Improvements are delivered regularly, including support for new OS features and Apple Watch.
Mostly, people are frustrated at waiting so long for something new. We expect a steady stream of change from our apps and devices that we don't from, say, kitchen knife manufacturers. It's fun to tinker with new features and it's easy to equate change with progress. It's hard to imagine that an app could be designed with such care that it doesn't need to be revamped regularly.
I'm eager as anyone for a new version of Things, but while waiting for Things 3, I've never once opened the app and not been able to do what it's designed to do.
I'm going to focus on using Things and trust Cultured Code with building it.
As we walk our neighborhoods and drive our streets, as we listen, talk, read, and watch, we each experience things differently. Much of that is driven by who we are, our past and present. Our experiences and unique perspective shape our observations. They determine both what we see and how we interpret it.
You and a friend might read an article or watch a movie and take very different things from it. At dinner, a companion mentions that the couple at the next table appears to be on the verge of breaking up and you had only noticed what they ordered. Approached by a stranger on the street, one person is friendly and eager to engage, the other reticent based on past encounters.
The West Wing is a one of my favorites. I suspect many are watching (or rewatching) it now as a small anecdote to the tumult and antagonism of this moment. The show’s optimism, purity, and idealism is comforting.
In one episode, the First Lady is engulfed in a silly controversy after an innocuous remark. When Sam reads the quote that caused so much trouble, he says, “I don’t see it”.
C.J., the Press Secretary, replies, “Well, you got to want it.”
After a pause, “Oh, I see it.”
The scene speaks to our penchant for finding seeds of outrage in trivial things, but that's not what's been on my mind recently. It's that simple line, “Well, you got to want it.”
To find joy and beauty in our day-to-day, we have to want to see it. If we don’t look intently, if we don’t slow down and seek it out, the good will be lost in the clamor. There's always something ready to distract us. The path of least resistance is often downhill.
I told a friend recently that they are “delightfully observant.” With eyes wide open and unending curiosity, they see things I wish I saw.
There's good all around us. When I don’t see it for awhile, I remind myself, “Well, you got to want it.”
Does this article sound familiar?
It begins with a tale of a distracted parent ignoring their child who is staring into the abyss of their phone screen. Then, we hear from a musician frustrated at the sea of screens that greet them onstage. A few thought leaders and TED speakers are quoted about the downsides of multi-tasking, the inadequacy of modern communication, and how technology has become too good at capturing and holding our attention.
Next comes anecdotes about efforts to swim against the tide: technology detox camps for adults; the return of vinyl records and other tangible, inefficient medium that force us to slow down; and dinners where you must relinquish your phone and the first to retrieve it pays.
It concludes with the author’s furtive attempts to live in the moment by leaving their phone behind to attend a concert or dinner with friends, then turning off their devices for the weekend. They enjoyed it and found themselves less distracted and stressed. They read a book! The next day, though, things were back to normal. Nevertheless, they hope they’ll be able to enjoy moments a little more in the future.
New versions of this article appear as a sort of penance each week in publications that, it must be conceded, encourage the opposite the other six days.
After much reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all a bit silly.
First, I don’t find the detox weekends, rules, and individual attempts at changing behavior effective. I believe change is possible in community with people who desire the same thing. Apps and social networks are more skilled at capturing and holding our attention than casinos are at attracting gamblers, and yet we’re told there’s no need to leave the casino. A dash of boundaries and dollop of self-control and we can walk freely amongst the slot machines.
Second, "Put down your phone and just enjoy the moment" is often another way of saying, "I think what you do on your phone is a waste of time." We all do lots of things on our devices, but we tend to reserve our judgement for what others do on theirs.
I don’t think we can or should define what it means to be in the moment for someone else. Is taking a photo on a special night out for a friend who had to miss out not being in the moment? How about teasing your partner with a text from the concert that they’re playing the song with the lyrics they hilariously misunderstood? What about checking IMDB during a movie?
I spend a lot of time in coffee shops and always note the warm, glowing smiles on people’s faces as they read something on their phones, surrounded by pastries, a laptop, and yes, now and then, other friends. It’s still a moment, and they’re definitely in it.
A few months ago, I was waiting for lunch outside next to some picnic tables and watched the most beautiful thing. A person was eating facing their iPhone propped up against the umbrella pole. They were sharing lunch with a friend over FaceTime, the entire conversation in sign language.
Moments take many forms and people experience them in vastly different ways. They needn’t be ranked or quantified, with points deducted for the presence of a screen.
Let’s just enjoy them and the people we share them with, wherever they are.
Gift season has arrived. Every gift is a generous, kind act, but now and then, there are gifts that take our breath away. Sometimes it’s the grand scale or overwhelming surprise, but more often it's simply the realization that someone knows you so well that they found the perfect thing, something you didn’t even know existed until you unwrapped it.
Of course, getting someone what they ask for (or strongly hint at for months) is great fun, too. But it’s thrilling to introduce them to something unexpected.
The best presents are introductions, and the best introductions are gifts.
I recently stumbled upon two one-of-a-kind projects—a crowdfunded roleplaying game about language and a musical time machine that plays songs by country and decade. In each case, I thought of friends who were perfectly suited for such things. So much so that I hesitated to tell them in case I was embarrassingly late to the party. I led with caution—“I’m sure you’ve seen this, but just in case…”
But they hadn’t! They were thrilled and grateful for the discoveries. I hadn’t spent money or wrapped a thing, and yet it felt as good as giving a gift.
I still remember the professor that introduced me to the philosopher I’ve been reading ever since, the friend who pointed me to these amazing pens, and the album review that made me listen to Leonard Cohen for the first time.
Even better are those unforgettable introductions to new friends, coworkers, and love interests. How many of our treasured relationships wouldn’t exist without a well-timed nudge from someone who saw a possible match that no one else did?
May you enjoy the thrill of introducing others to undiscovered gems, favorite spots, and friends who will become part of their unfolding story.
And may others do the same for you.
If our lives we’re plays, they would share a lot in common: a cast of interesting characters, dialogue both riveting and banal, and three acts. One thing that would vary widely, though, is the number of places where the play takes place.
Some have lived in different countries, while others remain in the town where they were born. I fall somewhere in-between.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live where I grew up.
I was born in a small town in Michigan and lived there until I left for college. We spent a year in Chicago after graduation, then left the Midwest in pursuit of warmth and new adventures.
There’s nothing I would change about our path and the friends, careers, and subplots that came of it. There’s something about starting fresh in a place where no one knows you that’s uniquely rewarding.
Now and then, though, I hear from people who teach in the very school they once attended or live down the street from the house where they grew up. They return to the family cabin each year for vacation and send their kids to the same summer camp. Get togethers with extended family are packed affairs with so many living nearby.
And it sounds sort of wonderful.
I lived on Church Street, which appropriately had a church on the corner. We commandeered the next door neighbor’s expansive backyard and turned it into a baseball field. The forest behind our house was always available for exploration. In my first job as a paper boy, I walked the neighborhood on silent winter mornings, porches covered in snow. Many other firsts followed, from date to car accident.
I was ready to leave when the time came and eager to live in a city. What's hard to see in those moments, though, is the exponential value that comes from sustained living in one location. It’s like compound interest. You can’t compare one place to another without taking into account the memories and relationships they hold, and how they become even more valuable as time passes and new stories and experiences supplant the old.
I’m slowly realizing that in Austin. There's a reason it's called putting down roots. Each additional year in a place adds another ring to the tree. And with each ring, the tree become more sturdy and supportive.
Despite the usual traffic, you are on the fastest route possible
On a recent road trip, Google Maps became erratic. The directions made little sense. Simple, direct routes were dropped for overly complicated ones that found us turning on more and more obscure roads. We were still on the fastest route as far as Google Maps was concerned. Our arrival wasn’t delayed, but the app sacrificed common sense in an effort to save just a few minutes. It was overly optimized for speed.
In many ways, our lives are, too.
Everything around us is optimized for right now: the apps and devices we use, the way we get where we’re going, how we watch shows and acquire things, sharing and commenting online, the way news is made and reported, and, of course, how we work. If it was a competition, fast won. Slow is now out of the ordinary, uncommon. To make room for slow is to swim against the tide.
This isn’t an argument about why slow is better than fast or an anti-technology manifesto. There’s nothing inherently better about slow or wrong with fast. The slow food movement has much to teach us about the craft of making and enjoying a meal, but there’s still great value in a dinner that can be made in the brief time between a job and an evening class at the community college.
But there's much to gain from making room in our lives for being slow, to find the pace and rhythm that sustains and enriches us. How that expresses itself is unique to each of us - it might change how we approach meals or how we use technology. It might mean finding more opportunities to walk instead of drive or welcoming meandering conversation whenever the opportunity exists. It may be as simple as making each moment about just one thing.
The magic is found when we embrace slow together. When we swim alongside one another in the same direction, our capacity is multiplied and we can withstand the current.
The power isn’t in replacing fast with slow, it’s in the moments of contrast. Slow helps us see things differently, remember what we’ve forgotten, and prioritize what truly matters to us.
Where is momentum taking you? As essential as momentum is to so many aspects of our lives, it doesn’t presume a direction. Momentum is movement, nothing more or less. Like a car, we can find ourselves moving forwards or backwards, toward a set destination or potentially lost.
We instinctually equate momentum with progress. That’s not always the case, though. Our momentum is sometimes the result of being pushed in a direction we don’t want to go or one determined by the expectations of others.
There are times when our momentum pulls us backwards as unhelpful thoughts and habits snowball.
And once in awhile, we’re moving, but aimless, unsure of where we’re heading.
For momentum to take us where we want to go, we must regularly pause and make sure we’re heading in the right direction. On a long road trip, you can’t keep making progress without stopping to rest and refuel.
Make time to stop and relax now and then. It’s a chance to reassess your route and destination. You might decide to change course or even turn around. You might find yourself even more thrilled about what lies ahead.
Either way, your destination will be your own, and you’ll have the momentum you need to get there.
Sparked by love or friendship, a new relationship tumbles forward under the momentum of curiosity and discovery. Each conversation takes our intrepid explorers into uncharted territory. The twists and turns, even detours, are thrilling. Momentum brings people closer and moves the relationship forward.
Most relationships don’t keep progressing, though. After the initial rush, momentum slows and the connection falters.
When I was a teenager, I visited a family in Florida for a week. I felt like I gained three siblings. We did everything together and each day was filled with new experiences. I left with promises to write every month and return the next summer. A few months passed after my second letter and the memories faded soon after.
Which is absolutely fine, of course. Not all relationships are meant to continue indefinitely (and how complicated our lives would be if they did — or is that what a social network is?) In fact, brief, intense friendships and romances are one of life’s great gifts.
But why do some relationships evolve and thrive year after year?
Relationships are like stories. There are short stories that last just a few pages and ones that fill a book. For a relationship to continue to mature and strengthen, new chapters must be written.
We’ve all had friendships that took shape in a specific setting or around a particular event. Think of that as Chapter One. Sometimes the relationship continues to revolve around how and when it began as if preserved in a time capsule. A new chapter is never written. The friendship has nowhere to go, so it grows stagnate and, more often than not, ends.
When new stories are continually added, though, the plot keeps moving forward. These chapters can be just about anything. Sure, it’s great if they include late night adventures, movie-worthy road trips, unforgettable meals, and trips to exotic lands. But they can also take shape through unflinching honesty over coffee, a late night phone call sharing surprising news, or an unexpected gift that no one else would understand.
In all cases, though, the essential ingredients are time and effort — showing up and saying yes. Momentum is fueled by inviting, dialing, helping, writing, laughing, cheering, asking, consoling, replying, listening, and every so often, singing.
There are endless chapters waiting to be written.
Working on a project with a lot of momentum is exhilarating. Each step forward is easier than the one before and it feels like progress is inevitable. The work moves forward almost without resistance, as if you've passed the peak and started downhill.
There are two things I've found that make this sort of momentum possible: getting others involved and expanding what progress means.
Momentum is absolutely part of solo work, but there are many benefits to bringing others into the effort. In a large project, there will be closed doors and periodic disappointments. More importantly, there will be times when you have more doubt than confidence or the project needs a level of focus that you can't give it.
Whenever I've involved others with Uncommon, at work, a family project, even a book, it has made a huge difference. Each person brings ideas and perspective that I don’t have. They also push things forward when I might otherwise lose momentum. If you’ve ever tried to free a car from snow or mud, you know what a difference each additional person makes.
It’s not always easy to ask for help, share credit, and let others shape something you’re intimately wrapped up with. But what matters most is that something that didn’t exist before exists now. That doesn’t happen without the momentum of multiple people pushing in the same direction.
The other secret I’ve learned is to be creative when you’re searching for signs of progress. Too often, we define progress narrowly, so that there’s only one way forward. Instead, look for progress wherever you can find it.
For example, if you’re writing a book, your goal is to finish chapters. If that’s your only measure of progress, though, you'll quickly become discouraged when you're struggling to string a handful of sentences together.
Instead, find other ways to make progress: be brave and share the first few chapters with a friend, edit an earlier chapter, make a rough outline of the next few chapters, interview someone to provide additional details and context for a key character, or sketch your ideal book cover.
Every bit of progress, no matter how small, fuels momentum and makes the next step that much easier. No matter what, keep moving forward.
I discovered the phrase “The Big Mo” in a book on presidential campaigns. It seems candidate George Bush used it in 1980 after an early primary victory, claiming that momentum (“The Big Mo”) was on his side. He lost the nomination soon after.
Whenever I think about how to create and maintain momentum (you’d be surprised), The Big Mo is on my mind. Plus, you pretty much have to smile when you say it.
Momentum is a superpower. It’s a timely burst of forward motion that makes unrealistic undertakings possible. That same forward motion is also a sign of life. Absent momentum, companies, projects, talents, passions, and even relationships stagnate. What can thrive without it?
My romanticized perspective sees all movement as progress. That’s not the case, though, as Pete Townshend made clear long ago:
You were under the impression
That when you were walking forward
You'd end up further onward
But things ain't quite that simple.
When a company is struggling and people begin to leave, there is a sort of momentum, just not the type that leads to glowing press coverage. In the same way that a car gathers momentum downhill, negative momentum is often the path of least resistance.
What part does momentum play in projects, relationships, and our own lives? How can we build and sustain forward momentum? How do we keep from being pulled backwards? And when does it make sense to just stand still?
One word has been on my mind a lot recently: turbulence. Shocking violence has established its own disturbing rhythm. Visits to news sites with multi-column headlines and up-to-the-minute counts of lost lives no longer surprise us. A pervasive sense of hatred and injustice, chaos and fear, choke the air.
When the tragedy is in another city or country, though, the day after is remarkably similar to the day before. We wake up and do what needs to be done. Meetings aren’t cancelled and errands are still run and we still watch that show everyone is talking about. There’s something quite resilient in that.
I’ve also been thinking about one of my favorite scenes from Seinfeld. Kramer tells an epic tale in which he rescues a lost appendage and hops a bus to the hospital. On the bus, he confronts a man with a gun, then takes over for the driver who has passed out. He kicks the assailant off the bus at the next step.
An incredulous Jerry asks, “You kept making all the stops?”
Kramer replies, “Well, people kept ringing the bell!”
That’s what I think of the day after the pain and images and unanswered questions, when we strive for normalcy and do our best to keep making all the stops.
That strength and fierce determination in difficult circumstances is inspiring. But we should also allow ourselves and our neighbors to step out of the routine and acknowledge the weight of grief, fear, anger, and at times, helplessness.
It’s okay to let some of the balls we’re juggling drop now and then. These seasons draw us to what matters to us most. Take a deep breath and pour yourself into who and what that is for you—a community or cause, your friends and loved ones, or something that simply brings you joy. Maybe we give ourselves permission to disconnect from social media for a bit, linger on the water's edge a little longer, volunteer, or take a spontaneous road trip. Maybe it’s just finding the people and space to talk honestly about our questions and emotions.
It will be different for each of us, but when we give ourselves permission, we do the same for our friends and neighbors. We can strengthen one another and slowly find a way forward, together.
My company recently relocated to a neighborhood just south of downtown Austin. Our appropriately quirky office is surrounded by a mix of homes and food trailers, wildflowers and cacti. I’ve always enjoyed exploring new neighborhoods, especially on foot, and this one gets more interesting with each step.
New eco-friendly homes border older ones with overflowing accumulations of tools and treasures. There are wandering chickens and a house that hosts its own farmer’s market on the weekends. Cats appear at every turn and the porches are oft-used by creatures and humans alike. It’s a short walk to restaurants, coffee shops, doughnut places, smoothie shops, and a stunning number of taco options. Both a school and a library are nearby. I’ve had entertaining conversations with the friendly elderly man behind the Keep Out signs, baristas, the happy people at the cupcake shop, and parents out for walks, kids and dogs in tow.
Neighborhoods have a story. They evolve as the years pass. The bar turns into a coffee shop, then a deli, then a coffeehouse/bar. An apartment is home to a young family for years, then a mysterious person who keeps to themselves, followed by an older couple who invites every new resident to dinner. The bike paths are worn over many summers and the basketball court is used late into the evening. The small church hosts the weddings and funerals that mark so many endings and beginnings.
Within a neighborhood, we cross paths with people we might not otherwise. When a couple moves in next door, a person opens an art gallery down the street, or someone passes by every day with their dog, there are unexpected introductions, discoveries, and, now and then, disputes. These interactions take place within a shared context, though. There’s a foundation of acceptance and cooperation when people share a place. “We’re all going to be here tomorrow, and the day after that, and probably next week, too.”
When you’re part of neighborhood, you’re not only part of its story, you help write it. How do people who live here treat each other? Are new people welcomed with open arms? What’s the acceptable volume of music? What do we do when someone has a baby or has a serious illness? When a pet goes missing or a tree falls in a storm, who pulls everyone together to help? We lend a hand because we know we’ll need a hand one day, too.
Not all neighborhoods are welcoming, supportive places, of course, but every neighborhood’s story is unfinished. Characters are introduced and a new chapter begins. What happens next is up to us.
Our Honda Element came with removable seats, a flat, plastic floor perfect for cleaning with a hose, and expectations. The marketing campaign presented a very specific lifestyle. The Element was shown in beautiful locales—a beach with surfboards spilling out of the back, a mountain base camp surrounded by trees, its attractive occupants staring at the stars through the moonroof.
Though not an enthusiastic backcountry explorer myself, it had a certain aspirational appeal (I consider myself more of an indoorsman.) Once we acquired our Element, wilderness adventures felt like a requirement of ownership.
So, my young son and I set out for a lake and campground to test the waters. It was a low-key undertaking. We had fun exploring for a few hours, then reconfigured the seats for car camping and a late night of reading and joking around. I wrote a post about it entitled, In and Out of Our Element.
The experience did not turn us into camping enthusiasts. We did take the Element on numerous trips and up a few mountains, but there was always a room waiting for us.
But I was grateful for the experience, and fascinated that we did it at all. Before we had that car, I really hadn’t given camping much of a thought. Just that tiny mind shift—When you own an Element, this is the sort of thing you do—made it reasonable and doable.
We see this with families all the time. When you grow up in a house of teachers, musicians, doctors, athletes, or jugglers, each of these things seem much more natural than if you didn’t. It’s easy to imagine, even if you decide it’s not right for you.
What’s out of one person’s comfort zone is the most common thing in the world for someone else. I’ve had friends take improv classes, which for me, is very difficult to imagine. For some, taking the class served that exact purpose; they wanted something that would make them uncomfortable and push them into new ways of thinking and interacting. For others, though, the class was just an extension of the performer and adventurer they are.
When we’re surrounded by supportive people who take chances, we’re much more likely to push our own boundaries of comfort. It helps to know that they’ll celebrate your experiments, regardless of the outcome.
Uncommon was proof of this. Time after time, people stepped out of their comfort zone. We told personal stories with honesty and vulnerability. We poured nights and weekends to bring the community to life. People walked into gatherings where they didn't know a soul and talked on the phone with strangers for an hour for that we called Table for Six.
What’s funny is most of that wasn't in my comfort zone either! Within a supportive community, it felt comfortable, even expected. I trusted that people would tolerate the unfinished, and find joy in the odd or unexpected.
That's why communities are so magical—they help us imagine new possibilities and storylines.
I alternate between enjoying following sports and being baffled by how much of life revoles around them. I understand the appeal, but empathize with those who don't. One of my favorite scenes from The Office is when Michael, desperate to fit in, asks Jim, "Did you see the game last night?"
"Any of them."
Why do we pour our time, money, and energy into teams? Why do we buy the shirts, travel to games, order the television packages, and celebrate victories as if they were are own? Why do we wake up at strange hours to watch an event happening in another part of the world?
Sports feed our desire for belonging and for stories.
Becoming a fan is like joining a tribe of sorts. You now have something in common with thousands, even millions of strangers. A co-worker introduced me to English football years ago and in particular, his team of choice, Arsenal. Soon after, I began to share his obsession and now, I find myself having conversations with people in airports and new cities simply on the basis of wearing an Arsenal shirt.
We seek out community wherever we can find it and sports are one of the most accessible and widespread ways to have a communal experience.
We also crave stories. When you follow a team, you're invited into an ongoing story that stretches for decades or centuries. It's a story that's woven into the fabric of a city and shared with generations of friends and families.
Each team's history is full of great feats and endless disappointment, surpassed expectations and accepted mediocrity.
The season, though, is what's magical about sports. Each one brings with it that indispensable emotion: hope. A new season begins with optimism, no matter the history, no matter the likely disappointment. That sense of possibility is addictive.
There are young players that could be future stars and regulars that may finally reach their potential. This just might be the year that everything falls into place. Whether the goals are ambitious or more modest, the pursuit is captivating.
Funny enough, the season rarely has a happy ending, but in a blink of an eye, it's time for the next one to begin and there, for no logical reason, is that feeling once again: hope.
P.S. Without story and a sense of belonging, sports have a touch of absurdity to them. This scene from The IT Crowd captures that perfectly.
"How long does a match last?"
"A billion hours apparently."
The box had been next to my desk for a few weeks, still sealed with copious amounts of packing tape. Glancing down, I decided it was time to see exactly what was inside.
My sister shipped the box to me after asking a deceptively simple question. "Do you want Dad's journals?" It seemed unkind to say no, but I don't think anyone really knows what to do with someone else's journals. Are you honoring their memory or violating their privacy? How will it change the way you remember them?
Inside was a large stack of spiral notebooks in a variety of colors. He had numbered them and added a date range to each cover. I sorted them into piles until I found number one.
The very first entry, written when I was a year old, began with this: "Diaries are work."
How true. I've made many attempts at keeping a journal over the years and none has lasted longer than a few weeks. I've sought the perfect Moleskine and pen and experimented with innumerable apps. In recent years, I stopped trying. We document our lives so thoroughly—every thought, photo, location, steps total, and restaurant review—that it feels like there isn't much left.
A personal journal is something else entirely, of course. It's a chance for more honesty and reflection than we allow ourselves elsewhere. When Jack wrote about his experience, I was newly inspired. The revelation for me was the five-year journal.
In a five-year diary each day (i.e. November 29) has its own page. The page is divided into fifths—one for each year—and when you write in it at the end of the day, you can see what you wrote the previous years.
There's always the question in my mind about whether the effort is worth it. What will I do with this? Will I ever read it again? It's unlikely that I will stop and revisit a journal in the future and the idea of someone else reading it years from now isn't particularly motivating at midnight.
The five-year journal helps enormously with that. I know I'll read what I wrote today a year from now. I'll be able to see patterns. I'll be reminded of disappointments that appear smaller in retrospect, wishes that were granted, and kindnesses I might have forgotten.
There's much to be gained through writing day after day, too. There's something about setting aside devices, taking a deep breath, and thinking through the day. The limited space surfaces the things that truly matter. I've already had the experience of thinking a day was unpleasant and then, after recapping it in a few sentences, realizing how much there was to be grateful for amidst the rather insignificant frustrations.
My dad's first entry continued (inspired by his love of Mark Twain, I suspect):
Bob and I go to talking at lunch one day about how interesting it would be to see our own diaries of 10 or 20 years ago or to read a diary kept by our dads or their dads, so then he says how's your diary coming and I say hrumpth, it ain't. His was and I'm better than him so I got in the '69 Chevy pick-up and stopped at Patterson's Drugs and got 2 notebooks. [One was for my 8-year old sister.] What if what if what if I had kept up from age 8 to 33.
He might have missed 8 to 33, but he kept a diary for the rest of his life. He went so far as to try paying me and my siblings for each entry we did in our own journals when we were kids. Even that, sadly, did not overcome my indifference, though my sisters embraced the habit.
Intimidated by the pile of journals spread across the floor, I started skipping around, quickly flipping through one and skimming another. One opened to a page that had something stapled to it. When I realized what it was, I was dumbfounded.
I've written about the time I accidentally dropped baseball tickets in the mailbox on the night of the game. We eventually called the box office, who agreed to let us in after I provided the section, row, and seat details, which I had memorized in anticipation.
Stapled to that page in this random journal was the envelope that was waiting for us at the stadium. Written on the outside was the following:
The boy dropped his tix in mail by mistake — let them in side gate. 114 6 17,18
Diaries are work, but it's deeply rewarding work. I understand that now.
Last month, I bought two five-year journals. I gave the second one to my son.
I emailed a friend last month asking for a favor. We hadn't been in touch for some time and I felt guilty sending a request wrapped in a hello. The reply came back a few hours later.
“I’d do anything to help you. Yes, of course.”
I couldn't stop thinking about it for the next few days. I didn't even reply right away as I tried to put those words into context: I'd do anything to help you.
We met through a web startup and have since shared a few calls and met for drinks and conversation. I wouldn't hesitate to call them a friend.
But there are different types of friend. There's grab a drink friends and email friends and ask for help in the middle of the night friends. Social networks have made a certain type of friendship easier than ever, but also blurred the meaning of the word.
Friendships of every sort matter, but the reply made me realize that this was a different sort of friendship available if I put more of myself into it.
When a new year is on the horizon, I usually have things I'd like to do (or do differently). I might set a goal to read a certain number of books or learn something new.
But what matters more than deep, meaningful friendships? If I could fast forward to the end of the year and find myself with a single new friend of that sort—an ask anything, share life, challenge my assumptions, trusted, and treasured friend—I would consider that an amazing year. In fact, I can't think of a goal or resolution I would place above it. Those friendships change the course of your life.
They also take a lot of work, especially as you get older. There's a time when they seem to happen naturally. Being at work or in school certainly helps, placing you in close proximity to potential friends and providing common ground to build on. But the more we change jobs and cities, and work from our homes and coffee shops, the harder it is to make those connections.
I realize now, though, that any friendship of one sort has within it the potential of friendship of another sort. It's not that it must; a wide range of friendships is a good thing. But what an incredibly special thing it is when it happens.
So, I want to stop thinking of close friendships as something magical and random (and out of my control) and instead, something to be pursued. What it takes isn't a secret—lending a hand and asking for help; inviting often and saying yes when asked; being there and fully present; reading the book they recommend and try the show they won't stop talking about; commiserating over relational valleys; and celebrating the smallest triumphs.
There are people I would love to be more deeply connected to and for that to happen, it takes risk. Not every friendship is meant to be and the moment when you realize that isn't fun.
Now and then, though, something new and profoundly meaningful takes root.
Take a chance on a casual friend becoming a close friend. Send an invite, write a note, lend a hand, stop by unannounced, or send the perfect, heartfelt emoji communiqué. Plant a seed.
I embrace the year-end list tradition. I chase down the best books, sample as many of the Albums of the Year as possible, and fill my streaming queues with the shows and films that are the consensus favorites. Put a guide to the best gifts in front of me and I’ll click it without hesitation. I find the mix of curation and expertise in these lists irresistable.
Each year, my family creates our own list of favorites. We started the year my son was born and have done it annually since. It’s now an essential part of each December 31st.
The list consists of everything from favorite albums and restaurants to apps and places to go. Each of us answers for ourselves. The debates and surprises are fun, but the best part is looking back at previous years and seeing how things change.
Watching your child’s tastes evolve from Little Bear to The Wire is fascinating, of course, but my own favorites are much more malleable than I would guess. I’m often amazed that I once loved a certain movie or dessert. Other times, I’m reminded to revisit a past favorite I’d forgotten about.
Then there are the restaurants, websites, even hobbies that have since gone away. As some things fade, new topics are added, like favorite apps.
The final questions are the ones I enjoy revisiting the most. The first asks about the least favorite parts of the year. These range widely in significance, from mowing the lawn to stressful jobs or a family member’s diagnosis. It’s good to name things for what they are and be reminded of those difficult seasons later. It can be a wistful experience, certainly, but there's value in reflecting.
The second asks about favorite experiences of the year. I love capturing those singular moments that stood out above all others. It could be a concert or trip, job offer or act of kindness. I always enjoy ending the year with those moments, and those that brought joy to my family, on my mind.
If you have yet to do something similar, I highly recommend starting the tradition. It’s fun solo, with a partner or friends, and definitely with kids. You'll find yourself eagerly awaiting the next opportunity when December arrives again.
For me, it was Boba Fett.
Growing up with Star Wars, my collection of action figures and assorted toys contained many of the usual suspects (including a die cast Millennium Falcon that I treasured). My friends and I each felt the need to claim a character as our own and somehow, I landed on Boba Fett. I suppose I was drawn toward less common options even then. Or it may have just been that outstanding name.
Christmas arrived at the peak of my fandom and I was consumed with one wish: Boba Fett’s ship. I marveled at the box in the store and marked the page in the catalog to make it easy on my parents. I had learned to cast a wide net in hopes of finding the right presents under the tree, but that year I limited my list to one big thing and a few small things to reduce the chance for disappointment.
Lacking faith and patience, I had to find out whether the gray, plastic object of desire would be waiting for me on Christmas morning. With a week to go, I scoured our cold, dark basement where shopping bags were known to be concealed amongst miscellaneous boxes, rushing up the wooden stairs when I heard stirring from above. When I finally found what I was looking for, I was briefly relieved and then fully miserable, having ruined the Christmas morning surprise for myself and my parents.
Wishes are wrapped in hope, anticipation, and surprise, but I had reduced it to a transaction. Unwrapping the box that morning lacked mystery, but not guilt. The ship was great, though not quite as amazing as I had expected. I always wondered whether I would’ve been happier with it if it had been a surprise. I never told my parents, though my performance was not very convincing.
No one has to teach us to wish for things. We are curious, hopeful even, about what’s to come (though circumstances, resources, and experiences often alter that perspective). It’s during this season in particular, as the year draws to a close and gifts are exchanged, that we are drawn to reflect on where we are and where we’d like to be.
As we grow up, so do our wishes. We find ourselves wishing for less rather than more. Instead of tangible things, we may wish for something to happen and for other things to stop. We think about loved ones in need and treasured friends who are struggling. Our focus turns outward, toward our neighborhoods and communities.
When I think about wishes, the first thing image that comes to mind is my son when he was young, racing down the hallway on Christmas morning, overflowing with wide-eyed wonder. Absent lists or expectations, he was bursting with pure, simple hope. Happiness was just around the corner. He trusted in the surprise.
That's my wish for the year ahead: to believe, even when it feels foolish, that there is joy, beauty, peace, kindness, and empathy at the end of the hallway.
And to chase after it with wide-eyed wonder.
The door to my favorite coffee shop had a note on it the other day about unusual hours during the upcoming holiday. It was playfully written with markers and even included a few doodles.
Once I stepped inside, I had a funny thought. What if the sign on the door had been: “Welcome! Please sign up for our newsletter for information about lattes, scones, and special deals.”? Before you could enter, before you could see a menu or smell the coffee beans, you had to either sign up or press a small x on the corner of the sign.
What if when you opened the door, a person stepped in front of you and asked, “Would you like to install our mobile app?”
A friendly store that loves its customers (and wants more), is unlikely to do that in real life. How strange is that we encounter similar things on the web over and over again? Would anyone do that in real life?
In a different realm, imagine if we walked around carrying scorecards showing how many friends we have and how many enjoyed our last comment?
We who build things online are disconnected from how people experience what we create. That a technique is sometimes successful and makes the funnel look better justifies its use.
Brad calls Uncommon “a human place for internet people.” I’ve always loved that phrase and the emphasis on human.
Uncommon memberships have been available for more than a year, so it’s time for our first group of subscription renewals. This raised a few questions.
There are well-established ways to handle recurring memberships, particularly cases where the charge fails (credit cards are fickle things). Warnings are slowly escalated and then access is blocked. The color red and an exclamation point is usually involved.
None of that felt right, though. We kept asking ourselves, “How would you handle this in person? Would you stop someone at the door?” Of course not. Members would be welcome anytime and when there was a friendly opportunity, reminded to renew. We decided that it was much better to welcome people back and remind them at an opportune time until they specifically asked to cancel their membership.
It’s also important to know something will renew before it happens, so we should send a reminder in advance. At a small scale, things that would normally be automated can be done by hand. In other words, I’ve been sending these messages one by one. It’s an eye-opening experience.
Uncommon is a community, not a website, app, or product, so I have the priviledge of knowing many of the members. I have some idea who started a job recently or welcomed a new addition to the family. And sometimes, a member has talked about a difficult season or uncertainties they are facing.
So, when I start to send a “Your membership is about to renew” email, there’s quite a bit of ambient knowledge. An email that makes perfect sense when it’s automated is strange when sent to someone personally. Despite our best intentions, we do things differently when we’re indirectly involved instead of sitting across the table from someone.
It’s hard to prattle on about successes, milestones, and features when you know the receiver is going through significant events.
That knowledge changed my perspective on the reminders. If an email is too long for how busy this person is, it’s probably too long for a lot of other people. If I hesitate because a friend might take something wrong, what type of situations am I not thinking about?
I struggle with these choices like everyone. In my work life, I’ve had a hand in some of the very things that seem so incongruous within Uncommon.
It’s worth figuring out, though. How do we treat people with empathy, respect, and kindness in a wide variety of situations and circumstances? How do we behave as if we're sitting across from someone even though we're separated by bits and pixels? How do we create things at human scale?
Laura Savino's talk is about how we think about ourselves, specifically the adjectives we use and sometimes hear from others. She explores why we often feel like we don't measure up and how we can change that perspective. It's terrific and I highly recommend watching it.
There is an early moment that resonated with me so strongly that I immediately stopped so I could write it down. I’ve thought about it regularly since.
When we think that something is indefinite and inevitable, we’re a whole lot less likely to expend effort to change that thing.
I’m pretty sure a book could be written on that single sentence. I would like to read that book, actually.
In the context of the talk, she was referring to the big, broad adjectives we use to describe difficult situations, like "stressed" or "scared", and how those words can weigh on us. Eventually, they come to define how we see ourselves and then what was a season starts to feel permanent. How many of us have experienced that shift from “I can get through this” to “This hurt or fear isn’t going away and there is nothing I can do about it”? Why try to change something that is indefinite and inevitable?
Laura’s perspective spoke to me personally, but slowly, I began to see how it plays out at a much larger scale. Something similar happens when we try to process the problems we face together, whether in our neighborhoods, cities, or as humans sharing this planet. The challenges and suffering are difficult to come to terms with without being overwhelmed. They seem, in a word, insurmountable. If that's the case, what is there to be done?
Over and over, though, problems that were once seen as permanent have, in fact, been overcome. First, a group of people believed a better future was possible when no one else did. Then, they took a big, broad, overwhelming problem and found a way to make slow, imperfect, incremental progress toward a solution. They asked themselves, "What can we do in this place, at this time, to make things better?"
It’s the difference between accepting that it will always be this way and insisting that it won’t.
Cooperstown, New York was where I first fell in love with museums.
Obsessed with baseball growing up, I convinced my sports-adverse dad to take us to the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is located in a small, quaint town in upstate New York. Seeing so much history and memorabilia that I had previously only read about was pretty much the greatest thing ever. Playing catch on the baseball field next door and drinking glass after glass of limeade on the porch of the house we were staying in helped, too.
Since then, I’ve developed a museum habit. My wife’s love of art has taken us to a growing collection of art museums. A family trip to Washington D.C. provided an abundance of amazing museums of nearly every kind, many of them free. The Newseum, dedicated to media and journalism, was easily the best modern museum I have visited.
In the U.S., most 20th Century presidents have a library and museum dedicated to their time in office, which sounds peculiarly American, now that I think of it. I’ve found my way to five of them so far.
More recently, we stopped at two very different museums in the span of a few days: Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame followed by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. They were both great experiences that clarified what draws me to museums in the first place.
I love to learn about people and their work. Which people and events shaped them? How did they master their craft? I’m fascinated by the contrast between early efforts and later masterpieces, hits and misses, victories and defeats.
The Hall of Fame was an incredible collection of music memorabilia, but I really wanted to learn more about what it’s like to be a musician—to write a song, spend a year in the studio, tour, and go in a new direction even when people just want more of the same.
The Museum of Fine Arts, on the other hand, featured an exhibit on the sculptor Auguste Rodin. It captured the methods, influences, and ideas behind his work better than any exhibit I’ve seen.
Ultimately, museums state unequivocally that people matter, history matters, and the work we do matters. Everyone builds on what came before. At museums, we celebrate and marvel, mourn and reflect, and question and learn. Then, inspired by possibility, we return to continue crafting our own part in this story.
Though neither a teacher or high school student, my typical day involves a lot of stories and tests.
I make software with designers and engineers and a large portion of my time is spent trying to define how that software should work. That means deciding what things to work on next (amazing new feature or super-annoying bug) and then figuring out what the end result will be.
First, we write a story. These take a number of different forms, but generally, it’s a short summary of the use case: When a customer updates a form, they want changes to be saved automatically so they don’t lose any information.
Or this slightly more fun example: When a customer visits the store on their birthday, they want to leave with a free cupcake so they know they are appreciated.
Then, we define the end result. This involves two different, but related questions: How do we know the work is done? And how do we know the feature is a success?
Whether or not the work is complete is where the tests come into play: Is the form saved automatically? What about in different browsers or when some of the information is invalid?
With the birthday story, this is pleasantly easy to determine: does the person have a free cupcake with them when they leave? Hopefully, yes!
Success, though is more complicated. Defining success means answering the question, What do we hope to accomplish by giving away cupcakes on birthdays?
Is the goal a happy customer that feels valued? If they don’t return in the next month, is it still a success? Do we hope to spark interest in cupcakes so people will buy more in the future?
What I’ve begun to realize is that our lives revolve around the same questions: What does success mean? What outcome am I hoping for? It’s what determines how we view our work, conversations, writing, learning, cooking, volunteering, and even relationships.
What is success for this job? Is it rent, relationships, advancement, notoriety? If success is serving the organization and furthering its mission, then it’s that much easier to have a lower profile and paycheck for a season.
What does success mean in college? Perhaps it's a degree from a prestigious school or a well-paying career. It might be exposure to new ideas and perspectives or exploring the boundaries of who you are.
What is success for this creative project? Maybe it’s attention or potential riches. Or maybe it’s sharing something with others or getting better at a certain skill. Or it might simply be starting and finishing something that means the world to you.
There are a lot of voices telling us what success is in our careers, relationships, education, and most everything else. So often, the source of our struggles and frustrations is when we let others define success for us.
National Novel Writing Month cleverly changes the goals of writing a novel from Become a best-selling author loved by millions to Write 50,000 words in a month. The former stops many books before they’re started. The latter is eminently achievable. It doesn’t have to be good, no one has to buy it, and you can even keep it to yourself. Just finish it.
The result is thousands of novels that never would have been written otherwise. The only difference is a shift in perspective.
Define what success means to you and pursue it with great joy.
I often called Uncommon a front porch for internet. Why a front porch?
When I picture a porch, I see friends and neighbors talking and laughing together. People sit on the steps, lean against the wall, and relax in one of the misfit chairs. A lucky pair temporarily commandeers the porch swing.
There’s a cool breeze as the bright afternoon turns to dusk. A few people drift off to other adventures and others take their place. Each person brings something to share, from a special bottle or dish to an unforgettable story.
Most arrive with someone, but minutes later, they're drawn into conversations with new friends. Their curiosity is piqued by books, movies, albums, exhibits, and restaurants they are eager to explore. As darkness settles, the talk grows quieter and more reflective. Unusual candor and intimate conversation spark shifts in perspective. The thread that brought everyone together is strengthened.
That explains what we mean by porch, but why a front porch and not a back porch?
Normally when you find yourself on someone’s back porch, you were invited. In many cases, you’re already friends.
A front porch, though, welcomes the passersby; the stranger who just moved in across the street and the neighbor who you’ve only shared polite waves with. The gathering is in the open and the sound of music and smells of delicious food waft down the sidewalk. It's as easy to stop by for a few as it is to stay for hours.
The best porches are places where all are welcome.
In the end, Evel Knievel and Arthur Fonzarelli are partially responsible, though perhaps not in the legal sense.
These daredevils were a fixture of my youth. It seemed every few months, Evel was performing another hold-your-breath stunt. There was a strange fascination with driving over things. Motorcycles and cars were airborne with surprising frequency, jumping over cars, people, and, when that grew routine, canyons.
Another fixture of my youth was Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. My friends and I each had our own curated collections. When combined, we could craft a narrative worthy of a great bank heist flick, complete with getaway cars, police in hot pursuit, firetrucks to tame the inevitable fiery crash, and ambulances to take care of the wounded.
Deeply in tune with the zeitgeist, Happy Days had the perfect daredevil in Fonzi and long before the incident with the shark, he was seen wreaking havoc in demolition derbies (it was an odd time) and jumping over barrels on his motorcycle.
With stunts, real and fictional, continuously escalating, our boyhood storylines were missing a certain something. We needed some flair.
What we needed was fire.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to catapult our cars through actual flames? Yes, it most certainly would!
So, we began preparing for the big event. We picked the cars that would work well in the scene, but wouldn’t be ruined by a little damage. We found a suitable shoebox. (At the time, 90% of all childhood play involved shoeboxes. I’m pretty sure our Death Star was a shoebox.) We gathered newspaper and matches, made a tunnel out of the shoebox, and set out.
Knowing my mother wouldn’t approve, we decided to set the scene inside my large garage, which was really more like a barn. We sat looking nervously at each other, the materials spread out in front of us, our bare knees on the cold concrete. That was the peak, actually. It was an idea best left unrealized.
The shoebox was much harder to light than expected and when it did begin to burn, it was more subtle than flames should be. There was a lot of smoke, certainly, but the cartoon inferno was nowhere to be seen. I went first and flung my car through the smokey tunnel. Instead of bursting through the other side, flames nipping at its plastic wheels, it hit the wall half-way through the shoebox with a dull, cardboard thud.
The next car, of course, just hit the first car.
We stared at the slow-burning fiasco, unsure of whether to put it out or fan the flames, until we heard pounding on the garage door.
The doors had a row of glass you could look through. Pressed up against the glass was the furious, mustached, vaguely familiar face of a shouting man. The word "burning" was mentioned multiple times.
Like the Cunningham family before us, our garage also had an outside staircase that led to a second floor. That’s where there was a small one-bedroom apartment that we rented out now and then, most recently, to the shouting man.
It seems the smoke from our Hush Puppie’s bonfire had begun to fill the apartment above us.
He left to find my mother while we poured water on our little piece of performance art. When she entered, we were staring motionless at a pile of soggy cardboard, newspaper ashes, blackened cars, and puddles of water that had nowhere to go.
It was the angriest I had seen my mom, spurred by the potential danger (did I mention the gas furnace and water heater located a few feet away?) more than anything else I suspect. I tried to shift her allegiances by revealing the shocking news that the man had sworn during his tirade, something I’d never heard my mom do.
“I’d swear, too, if I found a bunch of kids burning things underneath my apartment.”
It wasn’t too long before our Matchbox cars and Star Wars figures were replaced by basketballs and baseball gloves. We were ready for new storylines.
Art alters perspective, allowing us to see things anew. It also opens our eyes to people and ideas that were missing from our field of vision. These shifts might be sparked by an encounter with a song, play, sculpture, poem, performance, or in this case, a brief, 96-page book.
“Have you read the wabi-sabi book?” is a question I’ve been asked a surprising number of times.
The book by Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, explores the age-old Japanese aesthetic commonly associated with tea ceremonies. Wabi-sabi embraces, and finds beauty in, the “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”
Reading Koren’s book is a wonderful experience; the brevity and directness provide space for reflection and meditation.
Wabi-sabi is interpreted and expressed in innumerable ways, and my grasp is limited. Nevertheless, I understand why people have recommended it, and why studying and embracing wabi-sabi would mean something altogether different for online community. What follows are short reflections on wabi-sabi themes accompanied by passages from the book.
“Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes.
Consequently to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow way down, be patient, and look very closely.
Slow, patient, subtle, and inconspicuous are not typically associated with our time on the web. Why not provide space for whispers instead of shouts? Expending more effort to listen and see makes our encounters that much more meaningful.
Focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy. Once inside [the tea room], the atmosphere is egalitarian. Hierarchical thinking-“this is higher/better, that is lower/worse”-is not acceptable.
In the age of social networks, our online presence and contributions are scored, compared, and magnified if it pleases the algorithm. Instead, each person should be treated the same and every voice should be heard. Front porches, online and down the street, are for community and conversation, not competition.
Things wabi-sabi are unstudied and inevitable looking. They do not blare out “I am important” or demand to be the center of attention. They are understated and unassuming, yet not without presence or quiet authority. Things wabi-sabi easily coexist with the rest of their environment.
In a sea of things competing for our attention, each asking for more time, clicks, views, and taps, what if we did the opposite? Imagine if we designed experiences that enrich our life precisely by not demanding more and more of it.
I love what a member once said: “Uncommon is my most easy-going relationship! What a treat, as it gives me so much and asks so little.”
Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.
The dream is to provide context for those extraordinary moments to occur.
Things wabi-sabi are usually small and compact, quiet and inward-oriented. They beckon: get close, touch, relate. They inspire a reduction of the psychic distance between one thing and another thing; between people and things.
Wabi-sabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom from things.
Uncommon is a place to share and celebrate our favorite things. This is a reminder to seek ways to draw us together through these stories. It's the connections and conversations that form around our favorite things that matter most.
All things are impermanent. All things are imperfect. All things are incomplete.
Often we arbitrarily designate moments, points along the way, as “finished” or “complete.” But when does something’s destiny finally come to fruition? Is the plant complete when it flowers? When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout? When everything turns into compost? The notion of completion has no basis in wabi-sabi.
This was the most profound passage of the book for me, one I’ve returned to again and again.
As I chase achievement, milestones, and the pleasure of checking things off of lists, the finish line is always just beyond the horizon. It’s an unsatisfying pursuit. Unfinished isn’t failure or weakness, but the essence of life.
The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean an unencumbered, but don’t sterilize. (Things wabi-sabi are emotionally warm, never cold.) Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn’t mean in any way diminishing something’s “interestingness,” the quality that compels us to look at the something over, and over, and over again.
Achieving the balance Koren describes is a daunting task. We've all encountered minimalism that was cold and lacked poetry or soul. And sometimes a limited palette leads to an unsatisfying result.
But now and then, we encounter things in perfect balance and experience firsthand the meaningful whole. Those are often quiet, serene, and treasured moments.
We'll continue to cultivate these ideas as we try to strengthen the invisible connective tissue that binds us together.
Kathy Sierra’s book, Badass: Making Users Awesome, is a mind-altering look at creating things that serve and empower the people who use them. It might be an app, talk, book, design, tangible product, API, class, or most anything else. Success isn't people basking in the glow of what we make, it's what we make basking in the glow of what people experience and achieve with it.
Along the way, the book explores what motivates us to learn and why sometimes we’re successful and other times we’re not. In the context of the book, these questions concern how to help people using a product (from cameras to snowboards) overcome hurdles big and small to become badass. Not badass at using the settings on the camera, but a badass photographer.
Thanks to the book, I look at my day-to-day work differently. The more I read, though, the more fascinated I'm with her insights into learning.
I love to learn, but that doesn’t mean it always goes well. Most of my learning happens while working on something and involves solving the problem directly in front of me. These incremental bits of research and problem solving are satisfying, but there are big things I want to learn and progress in those cases can be unsteady and intermittent. A good example is my ongoing quest to learn to program.
Learn to program is a large, nebulous task, which is one reason that progress is difficult. There certainly isn’t a shortage of help available, though, from books and bootcamps to courses promising various combinations of badges and certificates. I’m lucky to know helpful people who are remarkably good at it, too.
Why are we able to master some things and other times, we struggle? Kathy’s book explains what makes success more likely.
First, intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation. Rewards and recognition are a nice boost, but pursuing a true passion wholeheartedly helps us get past the inevitable struggles.
Second, our brains are wired to care about just-in-time knowledge, not just-in-case. I immediately thought of the number of times I’ve read a chapter about a programming problem I’m unlikely to face for months. Unsurprisingly, I lose interest not longer after. Learning shouldn’t get too far ahead of practice.
Which leads to the most important point: how we practice matters. It’s not just putting in hours, even 10,000 of them. “Practice makes permanent,” both good and bad. The difference is deliberate practice: find the next achievable goal and become reliably good at it in a small number of practice sessions. If that’s not possible, break the problem down further and try again. When you’re successful, move up to the next challenge and repeat.
These ideas have changed how I approach learning. It's not easier, but it's more rewarding, enjoyable, and addictive. Goals are smaller and more specific and progress more consistent. Each step forward carries with it an invaluable sense of momentum. I'm beginning to understand how the pieces fit together.
Does the perfect job exist?
I’ve had a number of wonderful jobs and spent a lot of time thinking about that question. I’ve come to the conclusion that perfect jobs do exist, for a season.
I’m sure we each have a different take on what makes a job perfect. I find myself using the word “love” a lot. When I love the work I’m doing, the people I’m working with, and the product or problem I’m working on, it really is magical. There is a certain energy when you walk through the door and an addictive sense of satisfaction when you walk out. Each day, it seems, you do something you didn’t know you were capable of. You are surrounded by friends. The work is meaningful and the momentum palpable.
I consider myself blessed to have had that experience. Even in the perfect job, though, things inevitably change. Cherished coworkers move on to something new, managers shift, momentum falters as new problems and competitors surface. Or maybe everything stays the same except you. A relationship or new addition shifts your priorities or your curiosity begins pulling you in a different direction.
Having tasted that, though, it’s hard not to chase it again and again. And if we happen to lose sight of it, we’re regularly reminded it’s out there, waiting for us, if we only follow our bliss and do what we love. New jobs are announced with great fanfare and quickly followed by celebratory posts about “My first month at _________.” It’s the honeymoon photos of our professional lives.
More often than not, the honeymoon comes to an end and about a year later, the cycle is repeated. When I’ve talked to friends who’ve actually had one of my dream jobs or worked at one of my dream companies, the stories never match the highlight reel. People are human, work is complicated, poor decisions are made, and success leads to bureaucracy.
I admire people who embrace that. They enjoy the challenge in front of them, regardless of notoriety. They pour everything they have into the work and those they work with. They understand there's reward in diligence, longevity, and solving hard problems.
They’ve shown me that the people who aren’t chasing the perfect job are the ones most likely to find it.
Most of what I know about communities, I learned from the Grateful Dead.
A friend introduced me to the band in high school. Over the next few years, I fell in the love with the music and then, the community around it. The pull of the community was so strong that I didn’t even need to see a show to be consumed by it.
I stumbled upon a store in college that was a sort of hippie haven, selling frisbees, tie dyes, hacky sacks, and incense. What I cared about, though, was that they played Grateful Dead concerts constantly. And like the record store clerks in High Fidelity, the employees scrutinized every nuance. They loaned out tapes of shows with nothing more than a promise to return it. And, they told me about something called rec.music.gdead.
As some of you may recall, this was the age of usenet groups. In a surprising twist given the band’s 60’s roots and the still nascent Internet, thousands of Deadheads from around the world were online, obsessively discussing and debating anything related to the band - favorite shows, rumored tours, lyric interpretations, and tie dye tips. It was here that I learned the lore from people who had attended hundreds of shows. They told stories, gamely answered questions, and welcomed me in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
By the time I attended my first show, I was one of them. I knew which songs were rarities and what to expect in the parking lot. I had mastered the Dead dialect and obscure references. I couldn’t wait to finally experience what I had been reading about and listening to for so long.
It was truly magical, unlike anything I had been part of before or since. Everyone I encountered was friendly and helpful. They'd found something that meant a lot to them and were eager to share it. Anyone who was drawn to the music and the community was welcome.
In the end, the shared encounter with the music was what mattered. People weren’t there to see the band (there was very little to see) and there wasn‘t an audience in the normal sense. On stage or off, everyone had an essential part to play.
On that night, I joined a story that had begun many years before. I attended four more shows before the chapter came to a close. This weekend, I’ll watch as the Dead celebrate 50 years as a band with three final concerts.
Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.
Rare and inevitably odd, encounters with notable people are always entertaining.
The accidental encounters are often the most fun, just because they are so random and usually free of much pressure or awkwardness. My inauspicious start was realizing I was standing next to Sinbad, the standup comedian, in a college bookstore. Years later, I heard a voice that sounded familiar near a resort pool and turned to see Kelsey Grammer in shorts talking to his kids. Another time, I sat across from Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer as they held hands and whispered to each other at an Austin cocktail bar.
The first time I went out of my way to meet someone was a book signing with P. J. O’Rourke. Envious of his life as a full-time writer, and eager to demonstrate my familiarity, I handed him a book and said, “So, do you and your wife still have the farmhouse in New Hampshire?” He stopped writing, looked up, and replied, “Well, the wife is gone, but I still have the house.”
Which is why it’s probably best that I didn’t actually meet President Obama when he visited my co-working space. During a trip promoting entrepreneurship, he stopped by to see a few demos and give a short talk. I sat in a room with about 100 people and spent a grand total of 10 minutes not far from the President.
Since I have a thing for how politics works, I had a lot of fun watching the Secret Service, both during and in the days leading up to the visit, the press secretary, and the reporters and photographers. It was the closest I'd been to that world.
The President’s remarks were quick and unremarkable, but there was something very different about the experience. Later that night, I realized what it was.
We always see and hear celebrities, politicians, musicians, athletes, and assorted newsmakers through a screen. Even if we attend a speech or event, everything we hear is through a microphone and speakers.
When the President spoke that day, though, he wasn’t wearing a mic. It was just his voice bouncing around the silent room. In fact, I remember how strange it was to have to work to hear every word.
There's nothing quite like the unfiltered, unamplified voice of a person.
Everyone has a show, that one show you love completely. Quotes from it find their way into your bio and punctuate your conversations and advice. When the question of favorite television show comes up around people who know you well, they get up to get a drink before you've finished the first sentence of your answer. "This is going to take awhile. Anyone else need something?"
For me, that show is Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing.
I recommend it at every turn. I've studied scripts and may have briefly used the theme song as a ringtone. I find profound insight in its dated, sometimes cornball, dialogue. When I learned that someone created a website dedicated to a single episode, I felt like a kid waking up on a snow day.
I have a weakness for presidential storylines and a predilection for optimism. It's fair to say that little of The West Wing is realistic, and some of disappoints now, but it's a hopeful place and I enjoy being inspired now and then.
Since the show features speechwriters in lead roles, it spends an unusual amount of time on the writing craft and the power of well-chosen words. So when I write about Uncommon being a place for wonder and whimsy, all I can hear in my head is this gentle critique of a speech:
You're alliteration happy: "guardians of gridlock," "protectors of privilege." I needed an avalanche of Advil.
As you might have guessed, I've watched the show a few times now. As when you revisit anything, there are new things to appreciate and previously undetected flaws revealed. Recently, one line of dialogue has been replaying in my head.
I'm just saying that there's a way to be a person.
I hear that whenever I'm debating between two options and resisting the one I know is right. For some reason, it resonates with me now, but I hardly noticed it before.
Unlike movies and books, we spend week after week with a show. Over the years, they become part of our own story—the people we share them with, the binge watching, and theme parties. There are shows that end far too soon, characters that thrill and infuriate us, and finales that we debate with gusto.
The best shows give us one of life's great pleasures: turning to one of your favorite people late at night with mischievous grin and saying, "C'mon, let's watch one more."
As soon as we started to climb the hill, I knew I had made a mistake.
Hours into my second visit to Cedar Point, I decided it was time for me to ride my first roller coaster. Living in nearby Michigan, trips to Sandusky, Ohio and its well-known amusement park were a summer ritual. My family embraced the various thrills the park offered, while I spent my time revisiting the House of Mirrors. Though my parents and sisters didn’t seem to think less of me for my steadfast desire to remain on solid ground, I had a nagging sense that I was missing out on a right of passage. Books and movies tell reliable tales of a kid protagonist summoning the courage to overcome fear. I was convinced that my own story was working toward this particular act of bravery.
So, I wandered the park intensely observing the possibilities, eventually choosing Gemini. The decision made no sense; Gemini was then known as the tallest and fastest roller coaster anywhere. From a distance, though, I convinced myself that it was a smooth, even tranquil ride compared to the twisting alternatives. Plus, by starting at the top, I would avoid a series of escalating challenges.
I convinced my dad of my sound mind and the attendant of my just-tall-enough body and we settled into our seats. I was nervous, but optimistic, as was my dad. That lasted as long as it took the coaster to turn and began its slow ascent to the 125-foot peak.
With each click of the tracks I became more terrified. I turned to my dad and said, “I don’t want to do this.” I meant it with my entire being. “I don’t want to do this! I want to get off!”
I’ll never forget the look on his face. My nightmare was his nightmare. I was trapped, but so was he. As a parent now, I feel his anguish nearly as much as mine. What's harder that having someone you love plead for your help and not be able to do anything for them?
“Make it stop!” I don’t remember if he said anything. Stunned by this unexpected turn, he was both exceedingly sympathetic and helpless.
In an interview, author Jenny Offill spoke about the struggle to develop a trajectory in a story about someone or something coming apart.
I remember with my first book, I was talking to a friend of mine, and I said, “The problem is, I don’t think it has any plot at all.” And he said, “Well, descent is a plot.”
In my case, the descent was 118 feet at 60mph. I remember gripping the bar in front me, consumed by the plummeting sensation. I kept my eyes closed through the second hill and the many turns. Resigned to my fate, I didn’t scream in fear or protest. This wasn't the hero's journey I had imagined; I felt defeated.
Then, 2:20 minutes later, the ride was over. I opened my eyes. My dad’s were full of relief. “You made it!”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, unconvinced.
“You had me scared back there. I thought you were going to try to climb out.”
I laughed. He smiled, but he wasn’t joking.
We walked away, slowly feeling better about our accomplishment. That was the only time we road a roller coaster together, though. Some things need only be experienced once.
I’ve thought about those 140 seconds often. I'm grateful he was there, next to me in that moment, even if there was nothing to be done. I only realized later that it was a small expression of love in its most selfless form.
I would do anything in the world to fix this, but I can’t.
So, I’m going to stay right here next to you, and we’ll ride this out together.
Nightwrite is a made-up word about making things up.
It’s a tiny dose of creativity
The idea is to take a brief moment
as the day draws to a close
to let your mind wander
and make room for the smallest expression
of something that doesn’t yet exist.
Maybe it’s a rhythmic line of poetry
an incomplete lyric
or snippet of dialogue.
Write a few sentences. Maybe doodle or sketch.
No need to polish. No need to title the future novel.
Each night, that moment belongs to you.
And what you do next does, too.
You might take these small creations and
post them for the world to see
or throw them out
or tuck them in a safe place.
Maybe you’ll fill the front of your fridge or text them to that friend who so enjoys this part of you.
It's tempting to see creativity as a means to an end, a way to check a box or accomplish a goal.
“What are you working on?”
“What's it for?”
But, sometimes the purpose isn't a product. It's to find a way to say what you couldn’t say any other way.
Sometimes, it’s just for you.
It came without ribbons.
It came without tags.
It came without packages, boxes or bags.
Creativity remixes people and ideas and moments with our truest selves. The result is something unique and valuable, regardless of whether others see it as mundane or magical.
For me, nightwrite is a small reminder to embrace the made up and frivolous, unpolished and poetic. Maybe it will be for you, too.
I want to read more fiction. When I look back at the books I’ve read, the preponderance of non-fiction titles always surprises me, partly because many of the people I know and respect read a lot of fiction and partly because I once did, too.
I grew up reading fiction of all sorts and absolutely loved it. Late in high school, I fell in with the wrong crowd and experimented with non-fiction, but college is where things shifted. Other than an English Lit class, I don’t recall reading fiction during those years and I failed to cultivate the habit after graduation.
Having a child changed that. Reading with my son meant fiction was part of every day of the week. This went on for years and it was glorious. When we eventually reached the nebulous young-adult fiction category, we were swimming in wonderful options (our favorites were Rascal and everything by Walter Moers.) I treasured sharing the experience, but I also loved the books.
When that season passed (honestly, I’m still in denial), I fell off the fiction wagon and returned to the non-fiction fold. It’s not just books, either. Amidst the stream of online articles and essays, few (intentionally) fictitious words are found. I even choose documentaries more often than not.
I wonder if non-fiction feeds a subconscious desire to accomplish something while reading. Does part of me view fiction as somehow insubstantial or best reserved for vacations?
Sensing something amiss and determined to reverse the trend, I thought I'd ease my reentry with a few short novels. This led me to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a little book that made me fall in love with fiction all over again.
It’s not an obscure find; it was on many lists of best books last year. Some of you may have read it (if so, we should find a coffee shop with a big enough table and talk about it.) One review called it “infinitely quotable.” I wholeheartedly agree.
I never liked to hear the doorbell ring. None of the people I liked ever turned up that way.
She does not ever want to live away from me, she explains. “Promise?” I say. She curls up in my arms, all elbows and knees. “Promise.”
There are trees everywhere you look at this place. Someone, long ago, must have believed that trees could solve anything.
The book was so good I often stopped to try to savor and absorb it all. The sentences are masterfully direct and at the same time, the brevity leaves room for the unsaid and unknown. I've never read a book like it before, and haven't stopped thinking about it since.
Novels have the ability to shift our perspective and cultivate empathy. The stories take us to unfamiliar places and in the end, leave us changed. They help us see the previously overlooked and rethink what's possible. A book I read recently included the beautiful phrase, enlarging the circle of we. It was non-fiction, of course.
I loved to shoot baskets when I was growing up. Since basketball season overlaps with winter, and winter in the mitten state is the real thing, two things were required each time I played: a basketball and a shovel.
My basketball obsession began in our next-door neighbor’s driveway. He was a kind man who patiently permitted me and often my friends to play for hours. So kind, in fact, that I didn’t hesitate to ring his doorbell and ask him to move his car if it was accidentally parked in the middle of our court. He’d spring out the door, move the car, then grab the basketball on the way inside and attempt one crazy shot from the front steps.
The endless days of shooting baskets and interrupting dinners led to a friendly offer: What if we dig up the pole (which was secured in concrete) and move it to your driveway? After the ground thawed sufficiently, we did just that. Now, I had a hoop of my own.
When the next season arrived, my obsession grew and I decided that neither snow, ice, or a single-digit wind chill factor would prevent me from playing.
Most afternoons after school, I’d grab my coat, hat, and gloves and start shoveling the snow off the driveway. As anyone who has experienced the depths of winter knows, under all that snow is, more often than not, a solid sheet of ice. I risked playing ever-so-carefully on the ice a few times until I fell so hard I couldn’t breathe.
So, step two was to remove the ice. This involved breaking through the ice with the edge of the shovel until a small island of pavement was revealed. Then, I could get underneath the ice and start clearing a large enough area to use. In desperation, I once tried spreading table salt. Thankfully, there weren't any witnesses.
It was satisfying and exhausting work, and after about 30 minutes, I could finally play. At this point, my mom would turn on the porch light so I could see just enough. Nevertheless, I usually didn’t stop until I had no other choice.
There’s nothing quite like that single-minded purpose when you’re young. I wanted to shoot baskets and would do whatever it took. In conditions I would now have trouble tolerating on the way to my car, I was lost in every bounce and shot—oblivious, happy, warm. Obstacles were irrelevant.
The all-consuming love of someone or something is what fills and sustains us. It may last a lifetime or a few winters. It’s painful and glorious and looks utterly foolish to anyone walking by. It may leave you breathless. It may never leave you. It is, above all else, a gift.
I’ve always loved questions. I suppose it began with friendly debates about everything from baseball players to guitarists. In college, I learned that curiosity about people and a desire to not be the center of attention could both be achieved by asking questions. When my son was young, we noticed that family dinners were often dominated by conversations about work, bills, and the like. So, we created a box of about 75 questions all of us would have fun answering. Hilarious conversations ensued. We called it Table Talk.
Questions are woven throughout our days. We read interviews with notable people and answer interview questions in search of the perfect job. First dates are filled with them, and if we’re lucky, every date thereafter. There are perfunctory questions (“What movie do you want to see?”, “Did you clean up your room?”) and life-altering ones (“What did the admissions office say?”).
Naturally, all of this raises another question: What are the ingredients of a great question?
First, great questions are specific. “What’s your favorite book that you received as a gift?“ might spark more ideas than “What’s your favorite book?”. With broad questions, it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin. This is true with offers of help, too. “Would it be okay if I dropped off a meal this weekend?” is easier to answer than “Is there anything I can do?”.
Second, great questions are unusual. A predictable question almost always leads to a predictable response. Great questions beg to be answered: “What phrase would you like to print on a t-shirt?”, “What's your favorite amusement park ride?”, “What's the bravest thing you’ve ever done?”.
Third, great questions don’t make a point. There are questions that are not exactly questions: “What were you thinking?”, “Is that the best you can do?”, or the iconic film question, “How can you be so obtuse?” The best questions have more than one right answer.
Finally, great questions show that we were listening last time. We’re distracted in so many ways that undivided attention is an act of kindness and willpower. We’ve all been asked a question and thought, as the person stares at the screen in front of them, “You don’t care about my answer and won’t remember it later.” What a difference it makes when the question reveals the opposite. “Has your job gotten better?”, “Did you ever figure out who that text was from?”, “How was the concert?” rather than “What’s new with you?”
The heart of any great question is genuine, eager interest in the answer. It’s the attention every person deserves.
In a sea of headlines, many promising far more than they deliver, Mars Rover Finds Stronger Potential for Life stands out for its understated directness. The headline writer was clearly confident that the story had no need for hype or embellishment. And they were right. The story reads like science fiction and boggles the mind with possibilities.
The author's clear and economical writing style is the perfect counterbalance to the out-of-this-world subject matter. One sentence in particular mesmerized me.
Curiosity does not carry life-detection instruments, in large part because there is no consensus on what such an instrument might be.
There are many twists and turns in those few words. First, a respected writer in a respected publication is chronicling the potential discovery of life on other planets. Second, there are the wonderful rewards of naming the rover "Curiosity", which toys with your understanding when you read the sentence quickly.
But the highlight is the discovery that there is a debate amongst scientists about how to detect life. As written, it reads less like a scientific question than a philosophical one.
How do we detect life? What are the signs? There are cells and breaths and heartbeats, of course, but when I search for life, I search for love.
It's found around every corner, in strange and obvious places. It shines through spontaneous conversations and shared playlists. It appears in huge, unexplainable smiles and huge, unexplainable dreams. We chase it when it's missing and share it when it's found.
The steadfast, unquestioning love of a friend or partner is the comforting safety to be who you are and a well-timed push to embrace the best version of yourself. It's a potent mix of security and adventure, freedom and grace.
This nourishing love is expressed in a myriad of ways, from a favorite song turned up with the windows down to sitting side by side in warm silence; hilariously ill-conceived texts exchanged at late hours and as many hours in waiting rooms as it takes. It's threaded through our unforgettable and entirely forgettable moments.
Above all else, it is not finite. Love lies undetected all around us. Our most profound friendships are often with the most surprising people, sparked by small acts of unexpected kindness.
There's another sentence that's become a favorite. It's found in a print by the artist Hugh MacLeod that hangs on our wall.
A story without love is not worth telling.
We didn't spend much time counting friends before the rise of social networks. Now, that number is part of our public identity. Profile boxscores quantify our performance and make it easy to compare.
Every photo and thought we share online, from the perfect brunch to a deeply personal essay, has a number attached to it. We're told that what matters is how many people see it, like it, share it, and comment on it.
Higher numbers serve as a proxy for popularity and sometimes, value.
When shown a set of numbers, we can be counted on to find ways to make them go up. These services thrive on our efforts to attract more friends and followers and increase the number of people who see and share our contributions.
My son recently completed his first semester of college. He attends a small liberal arts school where students receive narrative evaluations from professors instead of grades.
I didn’t know what to think about that until he shared his first evaluations. Each page summarized the course and traced his work and development from the first class to the last. The notes included thoughtful reflections on strengths and weaknesses, followed by recommendations for future study. Absent a value and scale, these evaluations strip away the ability to compare with others. Only after reading these personal, helpful essays did I realize how much a grade fails to capture, like a Wikipedia plot summary that leaves out the story.
There's a place for counting and competition, but not within the bonds of community and friendship.
It’s a good time to be a pet.
We spend substantial sums to feed, care for, entertain, and yes, infrequently and awkwardly, clothe them. Some are pampered at spas while others find themselves at pet hotels for a few days, perhaps working on a long-delayed novel.
Befitting their place at center stage, our pets are stars of social media. What proportion of engagement dashboards are due to furry creatures? How many views, clicks, likes, and faves are due to their ridiculous cuteness and adorable antics? With emoji, we can converse via tiny animals.
Our own treasured pet is an orange tabby named Mango who is approaching her 15th birthday. When my wife's phone recently complained of low space, a confession followed: "Well, I do have a lot of pictures of Mango on here." I’m convinced that my son makes room in his schedule for FaceTime conversations primarily to see Mango obliviously meow at the screen.
They're cute and entertaining, defenders of our homesteads and generally lovable, but why do pets consume so much of our attention?
Pets remind us of priorities that are easy to lose sight of in our harried lives. The things they care about are simple and essential: food, sleep, play, companionship, shelter, sunshine. And day after day, they find joy in these. As funny as it sounds, they are present in moment. I like to imagine animals discussing the concept of multitasking. "But why wouldn't you just do the single most important thing at the moment until another most important thing comes along?"
They don't care what others think of them, except for the few people that truly matter. They're not endlessly chasing the unattainable (usually).
Finally, they're steadfast. Your status doesn't fluctuate by the hour. They are free of judgment and unconditional in their love (stop laughing, cat owners).
Pets are wonderful in endless ways, including the way they wordlessly remind us to take deep breaths and enjoy where we are and who we're with. And to take more naps.
It's a new year. Anything is possible.
In the year ahead, may your freezer always contain your favorite ice cream and your pets grow even more adorable. May your passwords remain tucked inside their warm, encrypted blankets and the “Check Engine” light stay dim. May your favorite restaurant remain open and your grocery continue carrying that thing you can't find anywhere else.
May your work be challenging and captivating and if not, may the door open to a delightful alternative. May the year be full of good health and absent of loss. May you experience unexplainable calm before you step onto a stage, and may there be an eager, appreciative audience awaiting you. May your dentist praise your attentive care and your landlord install a new shower head just because.
May you be surprised at every turn by the kindness of strangers and acceptance of friends and family. May your favorite show be renewed and each novel you read come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. May you stumble onto new paths and find joy in the familiar. May you have enough money to pay the bills and may you be surrounded by generous friends. May you enjoy art you don’t understand and start things you don’t finish.
May your neighborhood grow closer and may new voices be heard above the din. May you laugh uncontrollably and never run out of hot water. May you be free to take risks and able to help those who aren’t. May you discover a band before your friends and attend a concert that leaves you breathless. May old hurts begin to heal and recipes turn out better than expected. May there be room for new friends and time for meandering conversations. May the sun warm you when you’re cold and the moon guide you during late-night adventures. And above all else, may you experience love in its innumerable forms, each and every day.
Anything is possible. It's a new year.
“The plan was to open the garage door and film it right there.”
He points at the door behind him. The air is thick with cigarette smoke. The walls have absorbed so much that it oozes from the wood, even after the cigarette is put out.
“Jack White and Jimmy Page were going to be in Austin at the same time. Everything was lined up, but it fell through at the last minute.”
I’m listening to Tom Oatley describe the scene from It Might Get Loud that was almost filmed in his backyard workshop. He’s matter-of-fact about it; there’s no ego in the tale or regret in its conclusion. Actually, everything about Tom and his workshop is matter-of-fact.
My son’s electric guitar needed its action adjusted and a new set of strings. When you start playing the guitar, the action is generally set on the low side, with the string tension somewhat relaxed. After you put in a lot of time, you’re ready for more demanding action. It’s like keys becoming harder to press the more you type.
Tom doesn’t have a website. He doesn’t have hours, so it’s best to call his cell before you show up. I heard about him the same way everyone does, by asking a local musician if he knew a good guitar tech. In Austin, the answer is usually Tom.
My first visit was a series of This can’t be right moments. When my phone reported that my destination was on the left, I laughed. All I saw was a nondescript one-story house. I walked toward it carrying the guitar case, each step more unsure than the last until I saw a gate on the side with a sign: Oatley’s Guitar Garage.
I swung it opened, hoping I wouldn't be held responsible for the cat that escaped by me into the front yard. There was a path that led to a building in the back. I started down it, curious if I was getting closer to the shop or closer to being charged with trespassing. The tiny shed had windows along the side and a screen door that looked incapable of closing completely. I tapped on it. “Tom?”
I stepped inside. He was sitting at a workbench covered with tools, strings, and parts. The walls were lined with guitars and cases.
It was during that first visit that I realized it’s always worthwhile to ask Tom a question. The man has stories. He’s worked with a string of notable musicians, some for multiple decades. He’s gone on tour and, I found out on my latest visit, nearly hosted two amazing guitar players for a documentary.
I love listening to Tom and his work is second-to-none, but that’s not what makes Oatley’s Guitar Garage an unforgettable place for me. It’s how Tom treats me and my son. When we first stepped into the shed, we were as far from his typical customer as we could be; a father and son with an entry-level guitar and little idea what we were doing, and not a van or tattoo in sight.
What became clear in those first few moments, though, is that every customer is equal in Tom’s eyes, every guitar a worthy challenge. He patiently answered our questions. He talked up the sound of this beginner guitar, telling us it was good enough to play on any of Austin’s stages. More importantly, he spoke to my son like an equal, someone who was now part of a never-ending line of people under the spell of the instrument. There was no shame in starting out, just an emphatic sense of how much fun there was to come.
He couldn't charge us enough.
"You know what you should play next? That 'so sorry' song."
My son and I have spent a lot of time in the car together over the past few years and as long as his phone has sufficient battery, there is music playing. In the early days, my favorites were well represented, but then his musical curiosity took over and now it's a steady stream of new bands and albums.
He pauses, puzzled. "Which song?"
The pause made me nervous. It's not that he's particularly judgmental, but I wasn't eager to play the part of clueless parent. A widely off-the-mark guess at a song's lyrics was not going to help.
I ran the song through my head again and reaffirmed my confidence.
"You know.." Now, I'm humming the guitar riff. "I'm so... so so sorry".
He actually loves these pursuits, so he stops the song we're listening to and starts playing his best guesses.
"What about this?"
"No, it's more upbeat than that." I try to hum the riff again. In my defense, I never get to see the album covers or read the song names. It's just a never-ending playlist. I call it Bendora.
"Wait a second." He's shaking his head, which makes me think this doesn't end well for me.
"Is it this song?"
I recognize it immediately. "Yes, that's it!"
"Yeah, that's Stoned and Starving."
"That's the name of the song?"
"Yeah, but that's also what they're saying: I was so stoned and starving." Now, he's laughing. "Not, so, so so sorry."
It made for a good story when we got home, but the rest of the day passed without mention and I was grateful for its short lifespan. This faux pas wouldn't be a regular source of entertainment. I was safe.
A few years ago, we watched Seinfeld together and my son often mentions that one of his favorite moments is when they find out that George's fiancé has died. Elaine's reaction is so perfectly awkward, unexpected, and hilariously awful. "I'm... so sorry, George."
We rejoin our story the next day. The three of us are in the car together and Ben plugs his iPhone in as usual. We wait for the first song to start, which seems to be taking awhile. Then, the riff for Stoned and Starving starts playing.
My wife bursts out laughing. I start shaking my head. Then, from the back seat, a perfectly timed denouement.
"I'm... so sorry, Dad."
What's the recipe for inspiration? As with the quest for the perfect apple pie, it seems everyone has a unique answer. Maybe it’s a time of day with a certain beverage, or a location plus the right companion. Perhaps it’s a combination of your favorite pen and notebook, with the right album on repeat. Or maybe, your inspiration is found in a long walk or shower.
Inspiration, move me brightly
- Grateful Dead, “Terrapin Station”
I'm grateful when inspiration strikes, but wouldn't be opposed to it arriving at more predictable intervals. There are a few music artists that work well for me, namely Sigur Rós and Warpaint. I find coffee shops can be a nice boost, but I never know where that line is between energizing bustle and distraction. Walks actually don't spark new thoughts for some reason. I wish they did.
My trustworthy solution is the evening shower. It's amazing how often I'm stumped by something, sometimes for hours, and then within minutes of stepping into the shower, worried I'll forget the glut of ideas in my head.
Drifting to sleep, though, is the time I enjoy the most. The mind wanders unrestrained and dots are connected, sometimes brilliantly, other times absurdly. Soon I'm reaching for paper to drowsily sketch or write down an idea. Those are always entertaining in the light of day.
Sometimes the perfect tool at the perfect location at the perfect time of day results in... nothing. Those frustrating experiences do serve a purpose, though. They remind us to look for new recipes and fresh ingredients, and they help us appreciate moments of creativity and revelation even more.
Of course, deadlines are another source of inspiration, which is one of the reasons you're reading this right now :)
Be certain of this: When honest love speaks, when true admiration begins, when excitement rises, when hate curls like smoke, you need never doubt that creativity will stay with you for a lifetime.
- Ray Bradbury, "How to Keep and Feed a Muse"
An interesting name is irresistible to me. It might capture someone perfectly, make me want to know more about them, or just be entertaining. My grandmother’s maiden name was Grace Funk, which is possibly my favorite name ever. That it belonged to an unassuming midwestern woman born just after the turn of the (previous) century adds to its appeal. Our town included a family with the last name of Booze. The parents actually named their two daughters Brandi and Sheri.
I once read a travel piece by a writer named Freda Moon, a name so good I gave it to a character in a short story. I met a Margot once and have been determined to find a use for that name ever since. My favorite professor’s first name was Folke and he was Folke to his core.
Many of the best names are from fiction, film, music, and television. I’m partial to Wes Anderson and Aaron Sorkin, so it’s no surprise that some of my favorites belong to their characters: Rosemary Cross, Steve Zissou, Ash and Kristofferson, Toby Ziegler, and Isaac Jaffe. And how can I not love names like Amelia Pond, Ramona Flowers, and Althea?
Our own names have layers of stories within them; the story of how they came to be and who we came to be. We’re given names, but sometimes we grow into someone else. We decide that what we’ve been called is no longer who we are. Names are intimately wrapped up in our identity and vice versa.
Which is sort of a strange thought in my case, because at different times in my life, I have been referred to by my first, middle, and last name. In the right setting, I have be attuned to respond to all three. Funny enough, they really do feel like slightly different versions of myself. They mark the years like rings on a tree.
Room is a word whose diminutive stature and common presence mask its central place in so many of our stories. We're told we have room for improvement and we ask for a room with a view. Not leaving your room for a week generates giggles in one context and concern in another. Attaching a tiny word like dorm to the beginning brings to mind faces and stories and clever uses of space. Placing mate at the end recalls treasured friends, dalliances regretted or fondly remembered, and arguments over missing leftovers. Boardrooms, bedrooms, living rooms — all conjure up memories, plot lines, and arguments.
I'm writing this from my new room, an office filled with small treasures—treasured gifts, Cuisenaire rods, prints and album covers, and a kaleidoscope.
There's something different about a room of your own, where inspirations and little bursts of happiness are everywhere you turn. Then again, whenever I find myself marveling at this haven, I look over at the empty couch and think of people I wish were sitting on it. Every room should leave room for others.
It was a grand adventure, even before the truck broke down.
With our first anniversary approaching, my wife and I drove 984 miles from Chicago to Dallas, her in our car, me in a moving truck. The truck was mostly empty—just some hand-me-down furniture and wedding gifts—having had neither the time or money to accumulate much. We grew up in the midwest and nine months into our newlywed life, found ourselves exasperated by a particularly relentless Chicago winter. We decided there wasn't much reason to delay our desire for warmer weather, chose Dallas from a short list of options, and moved. That we had little money, no jobs waiting for us, and didn't know a single person in the state (and it's a really big state) didn't deter us in the slightest.
The moving truck succumbed somewhere in Missouri. We struggled to track down the rental company or a mechanic without cell phones or any guidance beyond Rand McNally. For a few hours, being a thousand miles away from friendly faces seemed like a poor idea.
The truck could not be repaired quickly, so the company was forced to send a replacement and then haphazardly switch our carefully packed possessions. We got a free night in a cheap hotel and crossed the border into our new state the next day, smiling at the sun-drenched horizon.
My wife found a job immediately, me a few weeks later. We enjoyed the apartment pool during the hot evenings and met the people who would surprise us a few years later by assembling a room full of baby furniture when our son surprised us by arriving three weeks early.
I suppose we were looking for independence when we moved so far from friends and family, the chance to alter a predictable storyline. I'm not sure I could do that again, but I'm grateful we had the chance and the gumption to take it.
Sometimes I try to imagine what our families thought when we told them. We must've seemed equally brave and out of our minds. How kind they were, though, despite the distance we were putting between us and them.
I laughed when I remembered that trip this week. Our son heads to college in a few days. He says he's had enough of the heat and wants to be where it's cool. The college is 1,926 miles away.
The movie Boyhood is unlike anything I've seen. It was filmed over 12 years with the same actors, so you watch an entire family age. That alone makes it a magical experience, but after it was over, I couldn't stop thinking about the life that was portrayed on the screen.
The film is a frank, uncompromising portrait of growing up. Each scene captures a moment in time, but the moments tell a story we're not used to seeing on the screen.
The story skips the typical milestones and instead focuses on the funny, awkward, often painful moments that come before and after them.
Boyhood lingers on the messy, mundane, and unresolved; the moments of fear and regret behind the framed photos.
Watching the movie was uncomfortable at times, in the way that online interactions are when someone is honest about struggles and hurts. There is a sort of minimum level of cheerfulness required—You must be this happy to ride this ride. The polite thing is to step away for awhile if you're currently falling short. We celebrate together and suffer alone.
It shouldn't be that way. If you're going through a miserable time, please know that you don't have to pretend you're not. If the last thing you need is one more email, don't hesitate to unsubscribe. And if it would ever help in some small way to just write it down, send it my way.
Boyhood is a loving reminder of the commonality found in the moments we don't talk about.
Storms were on my mind a lot growing up in the midwest. Spring and summer brought regular thunderstorms. One Saturday every month, the tornado warning siren was tested. Then, winter arrived with heavy snowfalls, strong winds, and the annual ice storm that would knock out power for days.
Since then, I've had three memorable encounters with the power of storms.
First, on a trip to Colorado, we were returning from a hike. A storm gathered nearby, close enough that we were walking quickly toward our cabin, but with only a light rain to show for it so far.
Then, there was a lightning strike so close I still get chills remembering the sound and site of electricity buzzing through the air. It sounded like a cartoon. Immediately after the strike was the loudest crack of thunder I've ever heard. I had no idea how distant my previous encounters with thunder and lightning had been.
Second, we were preparing to spend the final night in our house in Dallas before moving to Austin. A storm began to brew, then the tornado siren sounded, the power went out, and we found ourselves sitting in my son's empty closet as the worst storm of the thirteen years we had lived there blew through. (Yes, worse than when we saw a neighbor's kiddy pool hovering near their 2nd story window hoping to escape). We woke to trees snapped in half on our street and shaky video of a tornado that had passed about four miles away. We were able to confirm our house hadn't been damaged just an hour before we went to sign the closing papers.
Finally, on a vacation in Maine, we stayed in an old farmhouse in a small town. On our last night, a huge summer storm arrived. The unfamiliar sounds of the house heightened our sense of uncertainty as we sat in a tiny, wooden staircase, curious how much the walls and roof could withstand.
We found a story online about the storm the next morning. It described how a tornado had passed through the town, knocking out power and trees, and blocking roads. The story mentioned a specific intersection that sounded familiar. Indeed, it was where we turned each day to reach the house, exactly one mile away. Apparently we experienced 50% of Maine's tornadoes that year. The state averages just two.
I think one reason storms are so captivating is that we're very good at controlling our environment. We make our workspaces, autos, living rooms, and phones exactly how we want them. Then suddenly, a force steps into the picture with enormous, unpredictable power, completely outside of our control. The people I know who love storms embrace that unpredictability in other areas, too. I'm still learning.
A friend recently introduced me to a new coffee shop. It had only opened a week earlier and the evidence was everywhere. A contractor measured for a canvas to shield people in the beer garden from the relentless summer sun. People at a table nearby were asked to relocate for a few minutes so a large print could be hung. A steady rhythm of loud hammering followed. The chairs were a mismatch of styles and comforts, though it's hard to know if that's temporary or not.
At the counter, lessons were handed out to new employees amidst brief moments of confusion. "Make sure to keep that area clean and organized. It's the first thing people see what they walk in." "Actually, we only have one size for iced drinks. I'll let him know." "How do you cancel an order and start over?"
The best part was watching people arrive for the first time. The tentative looks when they first step inside, followed by a distant browsing of the menu, without the benefit of past experience or reviews. Looking left and right at the people filling the tables, searching for that indefinable sense of belonging.
The scene fascinated me because so much of it applies whenever you welcome people to something new—a community, event, or project, online or off. When it comes time to open the doors, we naturally seek perfection. We want the first experience to be flawless and every contingency accounted for.
Watching the unfolding scene before me, though, I realized that what most people care about is who they find inside. They are looking for friendly faces, kind words, and above all else, hospitality. The menu may be limited at first and the rituals in flux, but it's the tenor and essence of the place—the warm welcome and intoxicating mix of laughter, conversation, and playlist—that are worth returning for.
Reading a music magazine years ago, I came across a stray sentence that set me on an obsessive quest. An article casually mentioned that David Lee Roth had recorded a Spanish-language version of his album, Eat 'Em and Smile.
The name was Sonrisa Salvaje.
I'm not entirely sure what captivated me about this obscure piece of information, but I knew immediately that I had to find this album. Something about the idea of Van Halen's lead singer recording an entire album in Spanish fascinated me. How could it be anything other than brilliant?
My search lasted multiple years. The album was sold for a limited amount of time on LP and cassette and was now, unsurprisingly, out-of-print. I scoured used record stores near and far (it was worth it just for the reactions of the staff when I explained what I was looking for), searched the far corners of the Internet (there were fewer corners then), and perused eBay regularly. I never came close.
One day, I mentioned my unrealized dream to a friend who hung out in Internet neighborhoods I was afraid to frequent. A few weeks passed and then one day, he handed me a flash drive with a huge smile on his face.
To this day, I still can't believe that such a thing exists, that I have a copy, and that it's just so deliriously good; over-the-top guitar matched by over-the-top David Lee Roth, singing songs like ¡Loco Del Calor! with unabashed gusto. The album has since been released on CD and MP3, which means my epic quest can be replicated in the time it takes to say Así Es La Vida.
There's nothing grand about Sonrisa Salvaje, but I have never heard anything like it. I find pleasure in its breathtaking absurdity.
We need more joy. Sometimes high standards and accepted definitions of quality keep us from enjoying a goofy summer movie, kitschy restaurant, or life-altering story written for a different age group.
Wherever you find joy, however out of favor the source, drink up every last ounce. Enjoy it for what it is. And by all means, share it with the rest of us.
Hanabi is a cooperative card game with the objective of creating the perfect fireworks show (hanabi is the Japanese word for fireworks). The game is similar to many others, but it has a unique twist. When you're dealt your cards, you don't look at them. Instead, you hold them in your hand facing the other players. You can see everyone else's hand, but not your own.
On your turn, you either play a card or tell another player one thing about their cards (for instance, you can point to a card and say "You have one 5"). With such limited information, the game requires intense focus; you have to keep track of your own cards, as well as what each person knows about their hands. It's great fun.
There are thousands of card games and yet with this simple twist, you have something unique and interesting. When creating something new, anything from a book of poems to a meal to an app, we often think that originality is the most important part. We want to do something that hasn't been done before in every way possible. When we see other projects with similarities to what we're doing, we wonder if ours is worth the effort.
But most groundbreaking work is intimately tied to what came before. Hanabi is still a card game with rules, points, and pieces. The album that sounds so unusual is still made up of songs, familiar instruments, and lyrics about love. The mind-bending novel still has chapters, a conflict, and a Library of Congress number. The core elements are the same; the innovation happens at the edges.
We talk about pushing the boundaries because those boundaries and edges are useful. They give us something to build on.
Across the restaurant table for the first time or maybe at a large gathering of unfamiliar people, the questions are heard again and again.
Where do you work? What do you do?
Our work defines us in many ways. When we pour ourselves into work that we love, there are few things more rewarding. When we're frustrated, overworked, or unmotivated, the rest of the hours in our day are often more of the same.
When I think about different times in my life, the job I had is one of the first things to come to mind. In high school, I worked at a tiny company that built, sold, and repaired computers under its own name. I became an expert at installing hard drives (and dual-floppies for fast copying), operating systems, and the first software I ever mastered, WordPerfect. A friend and I advertised a summer computer camp for kids and only realized what we had gotten ourselves into when an actual 9-year old boy was dropped off on the first day.
One summer during college, I worked at a country club attempting to hold on to its former grandeur. It was my only experience in food service—a burgers, snacks, and ice cream shack located just off of the 18th hole. The pool was right next door, so my main memory of the summer is watching endless hours of practice for a Little Mermaid performance by a large group of children and admirably patient lifeguards. Poor Unfortunate Souls will long be with me. Keep singing!
The job I truly loved during those years was working in the library and computer lab at a residential college within Michigan State. Both were located in my dorm, so I didn't even have to step outside during the bitter winter days. With my key, I could access both anytime I needed, and play the hero when others were similarly desperate. The biggest perks were unlimited printing and first access to the Sunday New York Times. And I enjoyed the actual work, too, answering questions and solving the problems of stressed, tired students with deadlines rapidly approaching. It was wonderful.
I used to think it was odd that introductions begin with questions about work, but we're just looking for easy ways to contextualize each other. Our work, along with where we're from and where we live, just happens to be the fastest route.
We know that there's more to our stories, and the stories of the people we meet, though. We are shaped by our work, but we are defined by our friends and loved ones, and the moments we share together. Those treasured relationships often start with "What do you do?", but they begin to flourish in the questions and conversations that come next.
I love getting lost in a Wes Anderson movie. After I feasted on his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, I met a friend for lunch to discuss. We share a great enthusiasm for his films, so as often happens, the conversation ended up covering the entire catalog. We talked about favorite lines and scenes, how we would rank the movies, and the intricacies of the soundtracks.
Forced to choose a single Wes Anderson moment, I always arrive at one from Moonrise Kingdom. Young Sam and Suzy have run away and are alone for the first time in the woods. Suzy reveals that she is sometimes depressed and that her parents think of her as a troubled child. Sam, awkward and new at all of this, bursts out laughing. Suzy, hurt and crying, walks away.
The only thing harder than being honest and vulnerable with another person is wondering if you made a mistake during the interminable silence that follows.
Sam realizes that he's done something awful. He catches up with her, gives her his neckerchief, and apologies. Then, he says:
"I'm on your side."
Since I first saw the scene, I've been mesmerized by the clarity and simplicity of that statement. It succinctly captures the very essence of friendship, love, and loyalty.
When I think of what friends mean to me, and the sort of friend I hope to be, that's what I think about: I'm on your side. There is strength and freedom in those four words.
The Moonrise Kingdom script, with scenes from the film, is available online.
My sister, Laura, passed way one year ago. Such a sad time that was, so much hurt and heartache at the loss of a uniquely wonderful person.
Trying to process it all that weekend, I wrote Saying Goodbye to a Sister. I included a link to a memorial fund, as her medical expenses had grown quite large.
And that's when the Internet gave me one of life's great gifts, the gift of slowly coloring the edges of a dark and painful experience with goodness and warmth. More and more, when I look back, I think of those things, good deeds in a weary world.
I'm grateful for people like Om and Semil, so genuine in their concern and offers of help. Someone posted a link to the post on Hacker News of all places, and next thing I knew, strangers were donating to the memorial fund. Friends gave beyond their means.
Daniel wrote "I'm placing Laura under People I'm Sad I Never Got The Pleasure of Knowing," and others sent similar thoughts. She would've enjoyed their company and stories greatly. I wish I had shared her more in the present tense.
Then there is Anna and Clare, who in inexplicable ways, played the part of comforting sisters from great distance, with their care and thoughtful, encouraging words delivered at just the right moments.
I was reminded that week of the immense power of the Internet to knit people together from far off locations and divergent perspectives. It's easy to forget that; I don't think I will again. That potential is always there, but sometimes hard to find amidst the noise.
I delivered a eulogy at Laura's memorial service. It was largely based on the essay, but I added a coda that I've been thinking about as the anniversary approached.
We can learn from those that leave us early. I feel like we have to. Laura's life was a constant reminder that there is another way to be.
The first reminder is this: Be present
Laura loved to spend time with people. She was never in a hurry to leave the table. She didn't want moments with friends and loved ones to end.
The second is: Be kind
Laura loved everyone. She saw and respected each person's value. She never judged others and couldn't understand people who did. It broke her heart when people weren't respectful of those who saw things differently.
The third is: Be who you are
In a world that tells us that nothing is enough, that we should never be satisfied with ourselves or our life, Laura found peace and happiness in who she was. Laura had dreams and she had regrets, but she also knew that she was, at that moment, who and where she should be.
And the final reminder is this: Be willing
When I think of my sister, she was, above all else, willing. Willing to try anything and go anywhere. Willing to love and willing to hurt. She was willing to change all of her plans at a moment's notice and willing to be there for you no matter what. She was willing to be lost and willing to be found.
In the end, I'm thankful for friends. Thanks to everyone, so many I haven't mentioned here, for your kindness. I only hope to live up to your example.
Laughing with people you love is greate fun, so we've been watching a lot of Whose Line Is It Anyway? lately. I'm enamored by the on-the-spot creativity, wordplay, and unpredictability.
My favorite routine is called two-line vocabulary. It works like this:
A scene is provided, such as an operating room or submarine. The first person is the central character and can say anything she likes. Two other people, though, can only say one of two lines they are given for the entire scene.
Each one is hilarious. My favorites are "That can't be good!", "What was that?", and "Run that by me again."
They joke on the show that it's a great game to play with your partner, parents, or kids without telling them. Scroll through reactions and commentary online and it's clear that the web is like a worldwide game of two-line vocabulary.
You see it in the reaction to big news and political events, acquisitions, scandals, redesigns and changed logos, new products, books, etc. Judgement arrives swiftly, free of nuance; awesome or awful. "That app still exists?", "I didn't even know they were still alive?", "What were they thinking?" Most of the fevered opinion is predictable. It's as if there are only two lines at our disposal.
The missing piece is empathy. It's difficult and doesn't provide much social validation, but it's worth it.
My friend Mattt Thompson wrote about empathy recently:
We naturally want to help one another, to explain ideas, to be generous and patient. However, on the Internet, human nature seems to drop a few packets. Practicing empathy online becomes a feat of moral athleticism.
Before engaging with someone, take a moment to visualize how that encounter would play out in real life. Would you be proud of how you conducted yourself?
Let's add empathy whenever we can, and a few more lines to our vocabulary.
If you're building an app or website, you're likely using a tool to manage the process, such as Trello, Jira, GitHub Issues, or Pivotal Tracker. Some teams use a combination of these (one for big picture planning, one for specific tasks, for instance) and also incorporate more specific apps for design feedback.
Each tool has its own approach to tracking tasks and progress, sharing images and documents, and enabling discussion. Once you choose the best tool for your team and establish a workflow, you can turn your focus to building great products.
A few months later, it's common to encounter increasing frustration with your choice and start to wonder if you made a mistake. Conversations start happening in other tools, a Google Doc becomes the de facto backlog, and people start adding work to the project tool after they finished it. I've had this experience many times over the years.
Changing tools is rarely the right decision. I've seen teams fall into a cycle of evaluating, choosing, and discarding tools. We blame the tool for what are really team issues, poor processes, or simply a failure to be consistent. The better solution is often changing how features are designed, decisions are made, or progress is communicated. The tool has only surfaced the issue.
Tools could be better, though. They provide a centralized place for project tracking and discussion, but they do little to help with decisions.
What needs my attention?
In a large project, conversations are spread across many tasks. One person may be responsible for a task, but the discussion is where decisions are being made: from defining the feature initially and finalizing copy to debating design and implementation details. Inboxes overflow with notifications about these conversations, but unless you respond in realtime, it's very difficult to know where your attention is needed. Which update was just to keep me the loop, which is asking for my opinion, and which is waiting on my decision? Every comment is treated the same as every other comment.
What was the decision?
The result is that the only way to find the actual decision within a discussion is to read the discussion. Making it possible to catch up on the reasoning behind a decision is great; requiring that someone read through the conversation to find the moment when a decision was made is silly. Making it possible to close a discussion or mark it resolved isn't much help if the resolution isn't documented.
Plus, conversations often include more than one question and answers. Sorting through this is time-consuming. Are we waiting for someone else to vote? Which decisions have been made and which are still being debated?
The result is:
- Time wasted going through discussions to see if you need to comment
- Many people chiming in, but little clarity on decisions
- Notification noise that makes it easy to miss things
- The true status of a task is hard to discern, as the complexity and unknowns are found within the dicussion
There are manual processes that help with each of these things. You might make sure that a story or task is small enough that lengthy discussion and multiple questions are unlikely. Anytime a decision is made in a thread, you could add special formatting and update the beginning of the topic, the story description, and/or the original spec.
But tools should be smarter, too. A few ideas:
- Add different comment types, such as Question, Answer, and Vote
- Provide the ability to assign a question to someone within a discussion, while still including others as observers or contributors
- Require a summary when a question is marked closed or resolved, which is displayed next to the question, with the discussion hidden by default
- Provide a dashboard view of discussions that are in progress, prioritizing those that are awaiting a decision, as well as ones that require a response from you
This is just a start. There is much that could be done to better support product management generally, from improving the feature shaping process to shepherding an idea from definition, writing, design, development, and testing to releasing and iterating. I'm excited to see what's next!
One my favorite apps, Editorially, is closing down. Editorially was a beautiful tool that made it possible to write and edit documents, compare versions, add comments, and best of all, work with others easily. Unfortunately, the Editorially team wasn't able to build a sustainable business model in a world where Google Docs is an entrenched, often free, alternative.
It's always sad when something you love and rely on closes shop. It can also be discouraging. "If a talented team like that can build a helpful product that people love and still fail, what chance does my app, game, service, product, book or project have?
We need a broader definition of success. Brian Eno once said that the first Velvet Underground album only sold 30,000 copies when it was released, but "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." Inspiration is invaluable and immeasurable.
The work that the Editorially team poured into the product was not wasted. Not only did the tool enable better writing, but the tool and the team served as an example of craft and quality. That example will fuel future companies and thoughtful apps that respect the people who use them. We need more examples like that, and more people willing to go out on a limb.
What you're working on may not last or be embraced by millions. There's always the chance it will flicker and fade. That doesn't mean it's not worth the effort, creativity, and heart you're investing in it. You're uniquely equipped to push the boundaries of your craft.
People are watching, too. Friends, neighbors, and even children are observing, often quietly, and learning from your example. Because of you, creating something new is no longer intimidating, strange or out of the question. It's simply another perfectly reasonable option.
The lesson of possibility is long remembered.
I received a two-word message recently from a friend: "Coffee soon?"
We get together every few weeks and catch up. Our conversations wander through work and life, music and movies, trips and pets, wishes for the future and lessons learned. I love every one of them.
It doesn't just happen, though, and without our best efforts, it would soon be a distant memory. We don't work together, live in the same neighborhood, or share a college campus. We're not going to bump into each other.
Years ago, I thought friendships were about taking turns. I invite someone over, call, text, or send an email. Then, I wait for them to return the favor. In my mind, was a form of scoreboard and if things became too one-sided, it was a sign that I should take a break.
I remember wondering what would happen if I stopped reaching out to someone. Would I ever hear from them again? If not, is it really a friendship?
Then one day, I realized how much that was costing me, how many conversations and laughs I was missing. I realized that friendships are worth being intentional about and if that's the part I'm good at, then I will happily play it.
Now, I actually have reminders set to check in with friends near and far, as funny as that sounds. Otherwise it's easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day and allow the distance to grow.
Social networks have sometimes been a crutch for me, providing a sense that I was connected to people when I really wasn't. The less I use them, the more I have to deliberately seek out those conversations. I'm grateful for each one, and always eager for the next.
Message someone you haven't talked to for awhile and see if they'd like to grab coffee or talk, if they're far away. Simply letting them know you're thinking about them is worth it.
Let's reclaim the friend request.
Light snow is falling on the other side of the window as I write this in Colorado, trees and grass dusted white. I've had a few memorable trips here, first and foremost my family's visit to Rocky Mountain National Park one summer. We spent a few relaxing days with only intermittent connections to our normal life. Each day included a hike, one much longer than we planned.
We left our cabin in the morning and expected to be back before lunch. Previous hikes had well-marked trails, but this didn't and also had few distinguishing landmarks. As we continued, unsettled at just how long this was taking, we saw a clearing and eagerly stepped through it, only to find ourselves on a road so far afield it didn't even appear on our map.
With no clear idea where we were or signs of other hikers, we decided to try to retrace our mistaken footsteps. After an hour, things were beginning to look less familiar, not more. We were lost.
Before that moment, I always thought that lost was a matter of degree, but this was the binary, unambiguous version.
We put in a lot of effort into not losing our place, from ubiquitous GPS to picking up right where we left off in our books and streams, podcasts and playlists. For me, it's a source of comfort.
I didn't enjoy being lost. We found our way back hours later, tired and sore. The extra miles were mostly stressful and frustrating.
I made sure we wouldn't get lost next time—higher quality maps, GPS, thoroughly planning the route in advance.
Looking back, though, I wish I'd also spent more time being okay with being lost.
I'm trying an experiment. I'm curious what it would be like to spend each week listening to a single album, starting a new one after the week is up.
I miss that feeling of knowing something completely, returning to it again and again, intimately aware of its flaws and strengths. I played a vinyl album so many times growing up that I'm a little disappointed with the digital version when that one song doesn't skip.
I hear music all the time, but not in that way that it becomes part of me, when a melody triggers a memory and I anticipate the next song as another ends.
The book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty is a mediation on a single painting by the same name. The author writes beautifully about being consumed by one thing.
I have felt the energy and life of the painting's will; I have been held there, instructed. And the overall effect, the result of looking and looking into its brimming surface as long as I could look, is love, by which I mean a sense of tenderness toward experience, of being held within an intimacy with the things of the world.
There is great joy in abundance, possibility wrapped in a buffet of sounds, tastes, and experiences. There's also joy to be found in starting again at chapter one, clicking repeat, getting lost in the familiar, and looking and looking into its brimming surface as long as you can look.
If a company's most valuable asset is the time and talent of its employees, why is it easy to schedule lengthy meetings with multiple participants? Increasing the cost and effort involved in arranging meetings would make them rarer and more valuable.
Though meetings are often necessary and productive, they can become the default response to uncertainty. If there are questions or unknowns and the next step isn't clear, a meeting is organized with everyone who has a stake in the decision or might contribute to the conversation.
The problems with meetings are well known. They are typically longer and include more people than needed. The decision making process is sometimes made more difficult, not less. Also, meetings interrupt work and focus, meaning the time before and after what's blocked out on the calendar is negatively affected as well.
What if there was a cost associated with each meeting? Imagine if a 30-minute meeting with three people cost $50, and each additional person was $10. Adding 30 minutes doubles the cost. So, an hour meeting with four people would be $120.
The amount itself doesn't matter. The currency doesn't even have to be dollars. The key is that each team (or possibly individual) in the company has a quarterly balance to pull from, a balance that covers a minimal number of meetings.
If sending out a meeting invitation reduced a finite resource (and it does, this just makes it explicit), people would naturally wonder whether this specific meeting was worth it. Maybe the meeting could be limited to 30 minutes if the topics were sent out beforehand. Perhaps only four people are required, not six. Maybe the question could be summed up in a succinct email instead.
There could be a cost for attending instead. "Sorry I only have two left for the month, so I'm going to have to skip this one."
With company-wide visibility into meetings (a good thing in its own right) and incentive to not go over budget, the result would be fewer, better meetings and more discussion about which ones are truly worth it.
My email address is simple and common enough that I regularly get email meant for someone else. I usually ignore it, but sometimes the content seems important enough that I let the sender know. My favorite reply was when I wrote, "You have the wrong address." and the person responded, "Sorry, what address do you want me to use?"
A new wrinkle has appeared. There's a Reverend Brian Bailey in England and I've started receiving email addressed to him. There's nothing typical or unimportant about these messages. They're emails from family members of someone recently deceased. The person (usually a son or daughter) was offering stories and tidbits for the Reverend to use in the upcoming funeral.
The stories were beautiful and sad, touching and funny, as you would expect. I remember one lovely line, "May her soul continue to dance."
It felt enormously awkward to receive such personal messages or to interject myself, a stranger in another country, into such a significant moment. I had to let them know they'd sent the message to the wrong person, though. Imagine if the funeral proceeded without their perspective included. So, I started replying as kindly as possible.
I quickly realized that replying without a solution just made the situation worse. No one wants to track down a problem with an email address in the middle of that. So, I connected a few dots and located Rev. Brian Bailey of Scunthorpe along with his email address.
Now, when the emails arrive, my reply is more helpful. I tell them I'm sorry for their loss and include the correct email address. They're often reply with gratitude.
These brief, accidental exchanges with people I will never meet mean a lot to me. What a shift in perspective a single misdirected email can provide. Suddenly, whatever I'm currently obsessing over looks quite different. Also, any encounter with such heartfelt honesty is worthwhile. I'm grateful for each mistake.
One of favorite mistakes happened on Twitter. Radhika accidentally replied to me, which happens all the time, but she was the first person who sent a follow-up reply.
That simple kindness led me to listen to her wonderful music and she started reading about Uncommon. She became a friend and integral part of this community, and eventually performed at one of our events, all from a random mistake.
Here's to mistakes and surprising moments of serendipity.
Interesting email closings catch my eye, this one from Medium, the publishing service, in particular: "Thanks for your attention."
We are in the age of attention. Companies compete for it and business models depend on it. We chase attention for ourselves and give it to the people and things we love.
With so many things clamoring for our attention, each distraction more accessible than the one before, comes a steady stream of books and articles about how our lives and minds are changing. Where some see empowerment and great potential, others see loss of intimacy, thoughtfulness, and presence in the moment.
However you see it, and I suspect most of us are somewhere in-between, what matters is that the choices are our own. We each have an opinion on what is worthy of time and attention, but when I experience regret about that investment, it's not because it didn't meet a standard of quality. The regret is letting the crowd choose for me.
It might be getting wrapped up the outrage of the moment or trying desperately to get access to the new app that everyone is talking about today and no one will remember in a month. It might be a show, a meme, or a must-read book.
Unfortunately, there are no refunds on wasted attention.
Our attention is highly valuable and personal. It plays a huge part in our happiness and outlook. When I notice my perspective has become skewed, inevitably I've stopped choosing my own direction and started coasting on the path of least resistance.
Be intentional about how and where you invest yours. Wherever and whatever you choose, what matters is that it matters to you.
If you have a side project, you have limited time you dedicate to it. Evenings and weekend are always shorter than you'd like, and that time is often filled with errands, excursions, and ideally, rest.
The small and inconsistent amount of time isn't the primary challenge, though. It's how that breaks your flow and momentum. Whatever the side project is—a novel, piece of furniture, open source project, app, garden, or painting—when you have a free moment to work on it, it's easy to get stuck on the first question, "Now, where was I?"
Day jobs provide that context hour after hour, week after week. Everything is familiar and the thread between what you worked on yesterday and what you should work on next is strong.
Take a week off from your day job, though, and you find yourself adrift. People returning from vacation often talk about spending a few hours or more catching up or getting back in the groove.
With a side project, though, it might be a week or more since the last time you worked on it, every single time you work on it. Plus, you usually only have a few hours; time spent getting back into the flow is time not making progress.
What can you do to sustain momentum with side projects and get into the flow quickly? Here are a few ideas that might help.
Find the right place to stop
Some authors stop writing in the middle of a page or paragraph, no matter how well it's going, so they have a place to start the next time. Maybe they reached the day's word count goal or maybe they're in the middle of a particularly great section. When they sit down the nect day, they're eager to return to the story and can jump in easily. It's the perfect answer to the question, "Now, where was I?"
Be intentional about where you stop for the day. If you're designing a web page or screen for an app, for instance, try stepping away from the laptop after you've made significant progress, but before it's complete. The next time you dive in, it will be much easier to start.
You still might need direction, though.
Leave a trail
When you're in a state of flow, it feels like it will be effortless to pick up where you left off, no matter how many days pass. That's rarely the case.
After be surprised at how hard it is, time after time, I started taking a preemptive step. When I wrap up for the day, I make notes for my future self. What are the next three things I was going to do if I wasn't out of time? What problems still need to be solved? What steps do I need to reproduce to get my local testing environment in this state again?
Notes like these are a big help when you have an hour or two to spare and don't want to spend half of the time retracing your steps.
Choose the smallest way forward
Some progress is better than none. Keep a list of small tasks that are perfect for when time is short or things just aren't clicking. A little progress is better than growing frustration with a blank page, canvas, or screen.
Your side project, and the time you invest in it, are both so valuable. I hope this helps you get the most out of every hour you invest in your craft.
My son and I left today for our annual father/son trip. What started with zoos, hotel pools, and baseball games, has morphed into concerts and college visits. One of our favorite trips was to West Texas a few years ago. We hiked in Big Bend National Park, marveled at the starry sky, walked along train tracks, watched Abbott & Costello movies, and forgot about the rest of the world for a little while.
Hugh MacLeod, the cartoonist and author known as Gaping Void, was based in Alpine, TX at the time. We hadn't met, but had enjoyed a few online conversations. When he saw that we were making the trip west, he invited us to join him for a drink. So one night, my son and I drove to a tiny bar, found Hugh amongst the other regulars, and spent an hour at a picnic table talking about life, art, books, and truth. Swatting flies and trading lies, as my father used to say.
We couldn't have been more out of place or felt more at home.
While we drove the 35 miles back to our hotel in the spare darkness, I couldn't stop thinking about the beauty of hospitality. An invite and introduction; pulling up a chair and buying a drink; welcoming someone to your world and being curious about theirs.
A ran into Hugh nearly two years later in Austin. The first thing he said was, "How's that boy of yours?"
Does missing school for a court appearance counted as an excused absence? I would've been there regardless, but that was the sort of thing going through my head as we waited for our turn before the judge.
My friend, Dean, was defending himself in a minor car accident case with me, his passenger, serving as a corroborating witness. Weeks of preparation and a long history of bad television had convinced us that we would make a persuasive case, filled with research, diagrams, and head-turning eloquence. The reality was we had no defense whatsoever, which took the judge about five minutes to determine. My star turn consisted of answering one question and being reprimanded for overreacting to the judge's statements. We left thoroughly humbled.
My high school years can be neatly divided into pre-Dean and post-Dean. He was a year older than me and that's where the similarities ended. My pre-Dean life wasn't exactly conventional, but I was living comfortably within the boundaries of what I knew and liked.
Soon, nothing was familiar. High-speed driving was a skill worth practicing. The Who and The Clash were the only bands that mattered and any music worth listening to was worth listening to at maximum volume. Friday and Saturday nights drifted into the early morning as Hockey Night in Canada led to a card game followed by a midnight movie. Of course, this life was just high school for most, but it was new to me.
Every day there was a new album to listen to and movie that I should've seen years ago. First times became the new normal, including first car accident and court appearance.
I loved it all. It was a glimpse of what existed just beyond the familiar. Some of what I found remains part of my life even today; other things I left behind soon after. I hope the curiosity about what lies on the other side, though, is always with me.
I watch a lot of concerts. It can't match experiencing a concert in person, but those opportunities are few compared to the endless catalog of shows that you can stream. It's great to revisit favorite bands and try new ones.
Plus, it's fun to compare stage techniques; how artists react to a subdued crowd or ride the momentum of a lively audience. There's the sing-along and the call-and-response; the exhortations from the stage — "Is there anybody out there?", "Make some noise!", and the reliable, "Let me hear you, (city name)!". I remember Elvis Costello introducing a song with "Seats are made for standing on!".
My favorite rock 'n' roll question is Bruce Springsteen's, "Is there anybody alive out there?"
When the moment arrives, the concert is already at a peak. The crowd is on top of the world, the noise louder than in the dreams of an average band. All of which makes the question even better. It's an exhortation to the audience and the band; there's something beyond this feeling, higher ground is within our reach. He repeats it again and again, as the response becomes deafening.
Is there anybody alive out there?
Is there anybody alive out there?
Is there anybody alive out there?
I hear that question in my head often, especially when I see mundane routine where I once saw magic, and nitpicking negativity has replaced wide-eyed wonder. It's easy to narrow our focus to the point where we can no longer see what drew us to something or someone in the first place.
For the ones who had a notion,
a notion deep inside,
that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.
I want to find one face
that ain't looking through me
Anytime I'm reminded of life's pure joy, the beauty of shared experience, I'm grateful.
My house is swimming in college brochures as we search for the perfect school for my son. I'm intrigued by the ways colleges distinguish themselves. There are a handful of schools that operate on a block plan, like Colorado College). I had never heard of this approach and think it's clever. Not just as a way to run a school, though, but potentially as a way to run a business.
The block plan works like this. Students take a single course at a time and the entire campus operates on the same schedule. The classes meet Monday-Friday and last for 3.5 weeks. They end at noon on Wednesday of the fourth week. Students have the afternoon off, plus Thursday and Friday, then start a new class on Monday (a few classes are "double-blocked" and continue for another 3.5 weeks).
With the block plan, students focus on one class and subject for the month. Professors have greater flexibility in when and where a class takes place since it can't conflict with another class (some are held off-campus or in the case of an astronomy class, meet in the evenings).
What would a block plan at work look like?
The block plan reminds me of development sprints which typically last for one or two weeks. I wonder what would happen if that concept was expanded to include the whole company (a small company, to be sure) and lasted for a longer period of time.
- On the first Monday of the month, the company gathers together over breakfast.
- Each person or team briefly describes their goals and commitments for the month (they have previously shared an in-depth version to get feedback). Everyone is encouraged to narrow the focus as much as possible to a single thing. Instead of making small progress on many different tasks, they seek out a larger goal that can be reached (or shipped) this month; a significant, measurable success for the company and its customers. This could include things as diverse as a new feature, customer satisfaction goals, marketing and press efforts, improvements to internal tools and processes, and hiring.
- On subsequent Mondays, everyone comes together to provide a quick update on their progress. Priorities are commitments, not temporary plans, so new ideas are saved for the next month.
- Projects are finished and shipped by Tuesday of the fourth week.
- The final Monday morning update is moved to Wednesday. Each person or team recaps the month and what they accomplished. Finished work is shown off and successes cheered.
- The rest of Wednesday is set aside for planning the next month with leadership input, individually and within small teams.
- The fourth Wednesday also includes a special event to celebrate the month, such as a lunch or outing.
- Finally, everyone has Thursday and Friday off, a four-day weekend once a month.
The time off provides a breather after a month of focused work dedicated to a large goal. It allows for short getaways, but also the scheduling of weekday tasks that are hard to fit into a work week. The entire company being off at once (when possible) removes the sense of missing out and the need to keep an eye on things. Plus, having just finished a project, minds are less occupied and have room for new ideas to percolate.
I think it could work in the right sort of company, but it would be rare.
What does the block plan accomplish?
- It brings the rhythm of the calendar and seasons into our work. What was accomplished in July? What are the goals for September? Sometimes work can become disconnected from the world around us, like cubicles in windowless offices.
- Assures that a marker is reached and celebrated once a month.
- Makes the whole company a team and puts everyone and the work they do on the same level.
- Provides a healthy mix of support and accountability.
- Creates a cadence to work. A new month is always a new beginning and often a new project. The end of the month is a time for celebrating and getting away.
People are trusted and valued. Each plays a significant part is setting the priorities for the month and is given the freedom to accomplish the goals as they like. A few days a month are set aside to focus on friends and family, exploration and relaxation. It's so important, in fact, that everyone is going to do it.
With the block plan, I believe more would be accomplished of more significance, people would be more invested in one another, there would be less of a sense of work being a treadmill of to-dos, and people would thrive.
Years after this post, my company started doing 6-week product development cycles followed by a 1-2 week breaks. It turns out, it works really well!
I find interviews irresistable. The best capture honest reflections that provide a peek behind the unblemished facade people present. It's the same reason I enjoy one-on-one conversations.
I particularly enjoy musician interviews because the craft is such a mystery to me and the artists tend to be more unguarded than most.
In this interview, Radiohead's Thom Yorke alked about the need to take a break from touring and recording in order to recapture the energy and excitement of it all. It's the way he described it, though, that stuck with me:
It's like anything. You start to go in small circles, so you've got to stop when that happens.
We start with broad brushes and infinite variety, but as time goes on, our horizons narrow and we begin to mine familiar territory. Our filtered feeds transform the diverse web into an efficient delivery system for who and what we know and like.
When I find myself going in small circles, I try to remember to take a break, reach out to someone new, be willing to be bad at something, read and listen to the unfamiliar, and otherwise push the boundaries of my circle until I can breathe again.
The extra room provides space for new ideas and new friends. Make room for the unexpected.
When I was young, I lived for baseball. Since I was in Michigan, that meant I was preocuppied by the Detroit Tigers.
I was the only fan in the house. We lived far from Tiger Stadium, but I was able to talk my dad into a game or two each year. Seeking to maximize the experience, I sometimes chose double-headers, which he gamely attended by my side.
Early one spring, I analyzed the schedule of 81 home games until I found the one I wanted to attend; a summer matchup against the Red Sox. We called and purchased the tickets, which arrived a few weeks later. Every couple of days, I pulled the tickets out of the envelope just to look at them, counting the days until July.
The night of the game, I walked down to my dad's music store, tickets in hand and Tigers cap on my head. He was closing up for the day and I was bouncing off the walls with excitement. He asked if I would help out and drop a utility check in the mailbox at the end of the street. Happy to have something to do, I grabbed it and ran out the door.
The second the mailbox door swung closed, I knew something was wrong. I looked in my hand and saw the envelope I was supposed to mail. What I didn't see was the envelope with two tickets in it.
I opened the mailbox and stretched my skinny arm as far as I could through the opening, hoping to feel the top of a large pile of mail. According to the pickup times on the box, the day's last pickup had happened about an hour earlier.
I ran back to the store where my dad was on the phone. He had never seen me look so desperate. He hung up quickly and I blurted out, "I mailed the tickets!" The first pitch was two hours away.
Phone calls were next—the nearby post offices and even our mailman friend—each one starting with the same, brutal summary, "Well, my son just mailed our tickets to tonight's Tigers game." Each one was unsuccessful. We concocted various schemes, such as utilizing gum and a coat hanger to empty the mailbox of its contents, but none were plausible enough to try.
Finally, my dad called the box office at the stadium. A few transfers and retellings followed until he found someone who offered a glimmer of hope. My said into the phone, "Let me check, just a second."
He put his hand over the phone and looked at me. "Do you know what seats they were? They're saying that if we know the seats, they'll let us in and as long as nobody else shows up with the same seats, we'll be okay."
No one could've been better prepared to answer this question. I had stared at those tickets for months. The section, row and seat numbers were clearer to me than my sisters' birthdays.
We drove to the stadium and found the Will Call window. My dad did the talking, but the man at the booth looked at me and smiled. "So, you're the kid who mailed your tickets, huh? Here you go."
The seats were great, as was the game. I had fun telling the story when we got home and many times after that, but my dad never did. He winced at the memory of my face when I returned carrying the wrong envelope.
To this day, every single time I drop something in a mailbox, I look at it twice to make sure it's the right thing. You never forget the feeling when something that matters dearly slips through your fingers.
There's a common thread in essays and conversations about ideas. When the topic turns to creating something new, the ideas are treated like commodities of little value.
"Ideas are easy," we're told. "Anyone can come up with ideas. Execution is what matters." The inference is that an idea that doesn't result in something tangible is a failure. There is a right way and a wrong way to create, and only one is worthwhile.
We sometimes forget about the wonder that comes from false starts and messy mistakes; the joy found in an absurd idea and the gumption of those willing to try regardless. My father's house and yard were filled with testaments to successful experiments and ideas gone wrong. A visitor was never quite sure which were which. He loved that.
Ideas are becoming another form of productivity, something to be implemented and measured. Instead of celebrating the madcap and unattainable, or the stack of first chapters and partial canvases, they are seen as a waste of time. We belittle unfinished ideas, as if we're not all unfinished ideas.
Ideas should never be limited to what's possible.
Does what we create have value if no one else ever sees it? What if it is never finished?
Bringing something new into the world is one of life's great joys, of course. That should always be encouraged and celebrated. The extra push to stop chasing perfection, let go, and share it, is a good thing.
Yes, real artists ship. They also have ideas that are never realized and work that lies unfinished. They have dreams they can't describe and plans that don't make sense.
We're all trying in our imperfect way to express the inexpressible. We're all real artists.
A friend sent me a video this weekend of his daughter taking her first steps. It was as adorable as you would expect; the wobbly, chubby legs propelling her forward, arms raised for balance, a burst of momentum carrying her through the last, fumbling step and into her father's arms. A symphony of squeals, cheers, and laughter filled the room and the person next to me at the coffee shop wondered what could be making me smile so big.
Our young lives are filled with firsts. Better, our young lives are fueled by them, as each discovery and accomplishment powers the next adventure. First steps and words, first day of school and soccer match, first new tooth and lost tooth. My wife created an "I Can Do It!" book for our son and filled it with artistic reproductions of achievements small and large. We stopped adding to it about the time he started school, but sometimes I want to track it down and add a new section of firsts like driving and concerts, job interviews and college applications, replete with construction paper collages and colorful crayon descriptions.
Seen through this lens, firsts are at the core of a well-lived life. As we step into adulthood, firsts can be buried beneath to-do lists, queues, and notifications about small things we've missed. Staying on top of all the day-to-day, hour-by-hour things provides a satisfying sense of accomplishment, but not the confidence and perspective that comes from a first art class, first time volunteering for a campaign, or first visit to another continent.
The energy and rush of excitement that is reflected in those moments is irresistible, even if you're watching from hard chairs in the auditorium or waiting at the finish line. Firsts breathe life into us, whether it's you or someone you love experiencing it.
I want to chase more firsts in my life, and stand beside my friends as they run a marathon, start a business, adopt a child, or step on stage for the first time.
Firsts push the boundaries of who we are.
There is a good chance you’re working on something new right now: a story, game, song, or open-source library. You’re enjoying the challenge and the creative process. The final result, you tell yourself, might resonate with a group of people. Then, a well-meaning friend mentions something she recently stumbled across. “Isn’t this pretty similar to what you’re working on?” You put on a brave face, but your heart sinks.
Back home, you critically examine your idea’s doppelgänger and confirm that someone is indeed doing something quite similar to what you’re doing. In fact, they seem further along and have already solved a few problems that had you stumped. You take a deep breath as a wave passes over you: ‘I’ve poured so much time and effort into this.’ The belief in the originality of your idea fed your confidence, but now it’s just another version of something that already exists.
I recently spent a day with an inspiring book on modern architecture. What struck me was the incredible variety. Just as writers strive to do with words, and artists with paint, architects work to push the boundaries of what’s possible within the shared boundaries of materials and physical laws. Cooking, photography, poetry, and websites are all similar in that regard. In artistic pursuits, original expression sprouts from the same ingredients and constraints.
We humans tend to be shortsighted, though. When a new project is announced, it's often met with, “Do we really need another one of those?”
The answer is yes. Always yes. There's room for endless varieties of similar ideas to take root and co-exist, each with a unique twist. There are people why email can't be better. There are people waiting for the to-do list app that finally clicks for them. Others are searching for a conference that speaks to who they are and what they stand for.
A few years ago, some friends and I started an online community called Uncommon in Common. A social network: how original! With hundreds of such things, some with billions of users, you might say it's a solved problem. But there wasn’t one that suited us. We wanted a welcoming, peaceful front porch filled with thoughtful conversation. We wanted a place that encourages a healthy relationship with our screens, a community free of ads and addictive feedback loops. Free of FOMO. We called it the next small thing on the internet.
Uncommon wasn’t an idea that appealed to a billion people. But for those who found it, there was the joy of discovering a place just for them.
Imagine a band recording its first album. Months of practice and sparsely attended shows have led to this moment. On their way to the recording studio, the car radio plays a new guitar-driven, uptempo song about relationships, eerily similar to theirs. Would they turn their car around in defeat? ‘We thought we were on to something, but it turns out someone else had the same idea.’
Here’s the thing: originality isn’t what sets your idea apart. You are.
Whatever you are working on, you have your own motivations, skills, beliefs, and priorities. You have past experiences that shape your work, and hopes and values that shape its future. Even though something else solves a similar problem or fills a similar gap, the end result will never be the same.
There is room in this world for you and your idea. There is room for another band, another book, another conference, app, game, or community – because only yours is uniquely yours. You don’t compete against someone else’s project. The competition is between you and unfinished. Believe in it, see it through, and share it with the rest of us.
The film An Evening with Kevin Smith includes a story about Ben Affleck, who Smith directed in multiple films. The casting director for the movie Daredevil asked him who should play the lead.
I said, "Affleck" because that's my answer for everything. I'm a big fan, so I think he can play anything. If people are like, "Jaws?" I'm like, "Affleck. Affleck plays the shark."
I told Affleck, "There's a dude checking if you wanna play Daredevil." He's like, "I love Daredevil." I said, "That's what I told him."
He said, "What'd you say?" I said, "You should play it." He said, "Why?" I was like, "I think you should play everything."
"Like, even the shark from Jaws?"
"Yes, the shark from Jaws."
I love this so much. Wrapped in the hilarious dialogue and delivery is one of the most powerful forces on the planet: one person's complete, unwavering confidence in another.
Everywhere I turn, I see people doing big, hard things: beginning a new life in a new country, writing a book, learning programming, mentoring students, starting a business, caring for a sick loved one, teaching, speaking in front of strangers, leading a team, being a good neighbor under difficult circumstances, and more.
Sometime we forget and need to be reminded, though. We don't always see what others see. I'm thankful for friends who stepped in at the right moment and provided the perspective I'd lost. I try to do the same. There are few better gifts to give or receive.
I'm a big fan. I think you should play everything.
Like, even the shark from Jaws?
Yes, even the shark from Jaws.
I have a weakness for air hockey.
When I notice a table, I have to find a way to play. Every time I'm in a conversation about whether a startup office should be outfitted with ping pong tables, pool tables, dartboards, or Xboxes, I campaign for the oft-ignored air hockey table. I'm not sure what the specific attraction is, but I seem to get a lot of joy out of the speeding puck, satisfying sounds, and odd angles.
The discovery of an air hockey table in the basement during a recent trip to Michigan was just such an opportunity. My young nephews jumped at the chance to defeat their surprisingly competitive uncle. They didn't. Only right before I won did I realize that VICTORY AT ANY COST may not have been the fairest approach. They did have the benefit of youthful reflexes and home ice peculiarities, though (such as which replacement puck to choose when the previous one lands behind a bookcase).
On the last night of the trip, we found ourselves in a living room full of family and friends between the ages of 10 and 54. Someone suggested we play Catch Phrase and moments later, teams were formed, last minute beverages were procured, and the game began. The next hour was belly laughs and adrenaline. The performers seized the moment as expected, but the quieter ones shined in the spotlight, too. There was a different kind of closeness as we reluctantly parted.
There's something magical about games. Somewhere within the dice and pieces, scoreboards and disputes, awkward moments prove revealing. We show a different part of ourselves.
When we returned home to our normal routines this week, there was a sense that something was missing. On Sunday night, we rummaged through the closet and found the worn Scrabble box from many years ago. There was music on the stereo, playful teasing, and room for more people at the table.
An update from the Founder and CEO of World Wide Web, Inc.
October 1, 1998
I know this blog has been quiet lately. It's been a crazy few months of meetings and negotiation here at WWW HQ, but we're finally ready to share our big news: World Wide Web is joining the America Online team next month! We couldn't be more excited.
When we first launched the World WIde Web in 1991, we never expected it to catch on or turn into a business. The last few years have proven us wrong. The New York Times has a website, Vice President Gore mentions us in speeches, and some people buy books through their web browser.
We've always admired the guys at America Online, so when they approached us this summer, we jumped at the chance. By combining forces with their amazing team, we can leverage the technology and scale of their platform and focus on what matters. Our small team has been lucky just to keep up with your questions and bug reports.
The World Wide Web has been great, but to be honest, it's also been a lot harder than it needs to be. I know some of you love creating new web pages and participating in online discussions, but the last thing most people want when they get home is one more thing that makes them work. That's why television is so much more popular.
We know how frustrating it can be to click a link that turns out to be broken, or visit a page that you thought was about one thing, but turns out to be about something different. Many pages are filled with typos and inaccuracies. We would never put up with that in our newspapers and magazines. Why should we online?
Our team will be working with first-class partners to bring you the content you deserve, from the best magazines in the checkout isle to in-depth reporting from your favorite network news programs. We want your new World Wide Web to be a place you can trust.
Some of you have put many hours into adding pages and sites of your own to the World Wide Web. Your passion and enthusiasm for quirky topics and off-the-wall ideas were great.
Don't worry, all of that hard work won't be wasted. The World Wide Web will remain accessible for 90 days, which will give you plenty of time to update your readers and customers. Each of you will also receive a 30-day free trial for AOL. Look for your CD in the mail soon.
Even better, we've created an import tool to make it easy to migrate everything you've put on the web to American Online! The address will change, of course, but now it will be available to every AOL member. You may find that you don't need to bother, though. America Online already has groups and pages about almost every topic you can imagine. Take a look around first and you might save yourself a lot of time. There are only so many different ways to say that Citizen Kane was a good movie!
We understand that not all of you will become AOL subscribers and not all web sites will move to the new platform. Just to be safe, be sure to print out all of your favorite pages before the end of the month.
It's been a wild ride, but we're just getting started. I look forward to seeing you online, America.
A recent talk by Cory Doctorow reminded me once again how lucky we are that no one owns the Internet. Thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, Cory, EFF, and so many others for steadfastly defending the World Wide Web against those who would co-opt it. As Dave Winer says, “Ask not what the Internet can do for you, ask what you can do for the Internet.”
My priority this weekend was putting together a site to raise money for my sister's increasing medical bills. Then, I received a phone call that her condition was rapidly worsening. An hour later, my phone rang again from the same number. No part of me wanted to answer it. She was gone.
Laura was the middle child in our family and I was the baby. I would often tell people that being three years apart, we were constantly mad at each other growing up, but as I look through photos from those days, there we are, side by side in picture after picture, smiling.
We played innumerable board games together, wrestled over the remote control, fought until there was physical evidence. I kept score at her high school volleyball games and marveled as she went on multi-day bike trips with my dad. In the days before the Internet, DVRs or even VCRs, I would watch her favorite soap opera to let her know what happened when she got home late from school. I teased her about her first boyfriends and sat on the bed and listened to her when they broke her heart.
Laura was so great about my first girlfriend, of course, that she was a bridesmaid when Lori and I got married. Laura knew food and cooking better than most anyone and she and Lori shared many irreplaceable hours in the kitchen together, most recently at Thanksgiving.
She lived with us for a few months while our son was a toddler. He used to push the door open and tiptoe into her room to get a peek at this exciting new presence. She would sneak up to meet him with a surprise, "Boo!" and he would squeal and laugh and run while she chased him. For years she was known in our house as Aunt Boo.
What a sweet, beautiful woman she was. Everyone who met her loved her. She agonized over the smallest decisions, but jumped at sudden opportunities to get on a plane. She sought out beaches constantly and found peace at the ocean's edge.
There were always interesting tales from her travels. For some reason, her story about getting pulled over for speeding while driving across New Mexico was one of my favorites. She started by expressing surprise, but the cop would have none of it. "We've been following you for 10 miles. The only time you slowed down was when someone didn't get out of your way fast enough!" She told it with the biggest smile. I doubt she actually got a ticket.
Laura was a unique soul. She helped endless new families and babies as a doula. She played guitar and had a wonderful voice, became fluent in sign language, was a vegetarian before most knew such a thing existed, and danced to reggae in Jamaica. She seemed unsure of her opinions, but left you wondering why you were so sure of yours.
When we watched movies and shows together, she would groan at unrealistic scenes. "That would never happen." I'd chide her, "It's a story! Who wants to watch real life?"
Not me, not today.
Many years ago, she and a girlfriend traveled the globe for six months, from Thailand to New Zealand to Malawi and more. They brought with them nothing more than massive backpacks and a fierce belief that there is no time like the present. She knew better than anyone I know that all that matters in life is people and moments.
God, I miss her.
I was listening to my son play guitar the other night and found myself marveling at his skills. I always tell him how much I love his playing and then follow up with an enthusiastic, slightly humorous, suggestion that he join a band, perform at school talent shows, or write a song of his own. It's like those will mark his transition from learning to play guitar to being a guitar player. The reason you learn something is to do something with it. I'm searching for ways he can use this skill.
But he's not on his way to something else, he's already exactly where he wants to be. In his mind, he's playing the guitar, not learning to play. Of course, he's constantly improving, but for me, learning implies a task to be completed, something to get you from one place to another. He loves playing favorite riffs and reverse engineering songs. It's changed the way he listens to music and given us hours of things to talk about. I want to wrap all of that in progress that can be measured - where is this going?
My son, on the other hand, has a wonderful time exploring songs for a half-hour, then puts the guitar back in the corner, and turns off the amp. He might play again the next day or in two weeks.
I tend to forget that the things we do, even things we love to do, don't need a purpose, goal, or outcome. They don't need to lead us from one place to another. Sometimes, it's just about going nowhere and loving exactly where you are.
Writing for experienced users and first-time visitors is a key content challenge. A company tells an ongoing story to a consistent audience. If the company is doing interesting things and people are talking about its products, though, new people are regularly stopping by. These visitors are starting with little context, most likely just a link from an article or a friend.
Think about content like hospitality. If you're having people over to your house, there is a familiarity with those who've visited before. "Grab something from the fridge and relax on the porch. We have that drink you liked so much last time." Much goes unsaid.
For people who are stopping by for this first time, though, you go out of your way. "Let me show you around. The restroom is down the hall and to your left. Oh, that's Pixel. Don't worry, she doesn't bite."
Try to read your content, especially announcements, from the perspective of someone who hasn't heard of your company or product (or better, find someone like that to provide feedback before its published). The people who are already part of your story don't mind a short paragraph that bring visitors up to speed. Go out of your way to make everyone feel at home.
I grew up in Michigan where the card game of choice was euchre. My high school friends and I would play whenever we could, especially during lunch.
As we got better, the games got shorter. We learned the patterns and could often see how a hand would play out based on what cards had already been played. Instead of finishing the hand, someone would point out the inevitable outcome and we’d stop where we were, count the points, and start a new hand.
The ability to see how something plays out is enormously valuable. In technology, though, it's often assumed that the past doesn't have much to offer. The old rules don’t apply.
So the difficult questions about how a new feature, business model, or strategic decision is going to play out are avoided.
It many cases, it's clear how it's going to play out, though, because hundreds of companies have gone down the same path. The technology industry doesn’t lack prior art about what has worked and what hasn’t.
The temptation is to care more about momentum than progress. Just keep moving forward instead of pausing to think through where a decision will lead. Optimize for speed.
Make decisions informed by what’s come before. Seek out advice from people who’ve been in similar situations. Take a moment to look at the cards that have been played, think about which ones remain, and play out the rest of the hand in your head.
There's an emotional allure to live performances. The best concerts are not note-for-note reproductions of favorite songs. The artist feeds off of the crowd and they combine to create something unique to that moment. When I think back on concerts I've experienced (whether in person or not), the moments I remember are the mistakes and surprises: Chris Martin forgetting the next verse at a Coldplay Austin City Limits taping, Gary Clark Jr. breaking a guitar string, the Trey Anastasio Band playing a song they learned on the tour bus a few hours earlier, and Radiohead stopping a song to get someone help, then continuing right where they left off. There was the time when Arcade Fire grabbed a branch from the ACL set and used it to beat a drum, and this great moment from Madison Square Garden.
And you're going to be like, "Remember when I saw Arcade Fire and they played the first minute of their song and they started over? That was the best moment of my life."
The energy of the audience and band change after that. Now, they've shared something memorable.
A live concert is one of the few chances to experience such imperfections and unexpected moments.
The Sigur Rós song, Ára Bátur, gives me chills whenever I listen to it. There is a note that the lead singer, Jónsi, has to strain to reach as it lies just beyond his enormous range. You can hear his effort to reach the note, which makes for an emotional performance.
The song was actually recorded live at Abbey Road Studios and the performance filmed (the specific moments I'm referring to begin at 5:50.)
Technology encourages us to chase perfection, but often it's at the expense of unexpected moments and emotional connection. Like Auto-Tune, we try to calibrate our products and experiences to remove any imperfections or surprises. (Of course, apps like health and banking are best free of surprises.)
A fun example of surprise was Glitch, the online game which lived a brief life. It started with months of beta testing that happened in short bursts. The game would be available for just a day or a weekend and you never knew when the next opportunity to play would be. You had to drop everything and jump in or miss out.
I want to seek out small moments of surprise and delight, great moments instead of perfection.
I want to reach for notes that are just out of my range.
In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
In two straight lines, they broke their bread,
and brushed their teeth, and went to bed.
They smiled at the good, and frowned at the bad,
and sometimes they were very sad.
Last week's horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut have been swirling in my mind and heart. I don't think any of us know how to process such a tragedy. Everything seems trivial in the face of such overwhelming sorrow.
For some reason, my mind keeps drifting to Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, one of my favorite children's books. It's the wonderful tale of a school for young girls, including the plucky Madeline and her teacher and protector, Miss Clavel. It's Miss Clavel's keen ability to sense trouble that I return to again and again.
In the middle of the night, Miss Clavel turned on her light. And she said, "Something is not right.”
Something is not right. We know that now. We likely knew it before, but we were able to lose ourselves in the day-to-day, rushing to the next place and next thing, and not face it.
There are so many stories of Miss Clavel in Newtown, Connecticut; protectors who fought and shielded, comforted and quieted. This New York Times story is unbelievably gripping. There's a line in that piece about the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School that I will never forget: "...it was hard to run with their eyes closed."
We know, little ones. We know because we've been doing it for a long time.
I can't offer a solution. I only know that things will get better through thousands of small decisions by every one of us, and maybe a few big ones, too. For the children in our midst, and their protectors, let's stop running, and open our eyes.
The calendar has flipped to December and with it, the bustle of the holidays and approaching new year officially begins. There just doesn't seem to be enough time, does there? The to-do lists grow and you find yourself writing down "Start thinking about gift ideas" just so you have something to cross off.
Over the years, I've begun to realize that what matters is not so much what we do during the holidays, it's that we choose what we do. There's nothing more miserable than rushing from party to party and store to store because that's what everyone else is doing. This season is a very personal one and too often, we allow the expectations of others to determine our choices.
One of my favorite things about starting a family was the chance to define our own traditions, to decide for ourselves what this season means. One year, we decided to start a book as a family on Thanksgiving Day and read it together each night, finishing on Christmas Eve. This meant that every night, no matter how many things there were left to do or how stressed we felt, we found 20 minutes to sit on the couch together. No television, phones, or laptops; just a book and a voice. We did it for many years and they are some of my favorite memories.
When you're bringing something new to life, can you separate the means from the end?
If you're building a travel app, but you've never left the country, will that show in the end result? Can you paint a serene scene in the midst of a chaotic life? Will a political campaign dedicated to changing the status quo be successful if it's run no differently than the campaigns that came before?
For individuals and artists, there can be a certain amount of disconnect and the result still be what was intended. An engineer can help create a groundbreaking new game without being a gamer. An artist can draw a fantastic logo for a product they have never used.
For a team, though, I think the answer is different. The passions and values that you want expressed in the product (whether a site, service, app or anything else) should be aligned with the passions and values of the team making it. When the two are not aligned, the product will fall short of what it was meant to be. A company without a love of games in its DNA is unlikely to create something people will love.
While working on Uncommon, this question came up regularly. The dream of Uncommon was a slow web community that celebrates favorite things, curates the best parts of our week, embraces limits and rhythm, and encourages time away from our screens.
But I wanted that right away. Though Uncommon was a labor of love and we were free from VC expectations and payroll obligations, my instinct was to do things the way it's always done. To seek the attention of influencers, promote and over-promise, and work late into the night. There is a way that new things for the web are typically built and promoted, from Sign in with Facebook buttons to gamifying username reservations.
But can a site determined to support people in finding a healthy balance online be birthed out of imbalance? Can a community embrace patience if the people working on it are anything but? Shortcuts and temptations abound.
Thankfully, the team and community understood what was at the heart of it. They reminded me often that we can't create something uncommon by doing things like everyone else.
What are the values at the core of what you're building? Let them guide what you do and how you do it. In the end, those values are your product.
Late last month, The New York Times Magazine published a long piece by Dan Buettner with the intriguing title, The Island Where People Forget to Die. Buettner tells the story of Ikaria, a tiny Greek island that is home to 10,000 people. The island has become famous for the unusual health and longevity of its residents. A recent study discovered that its reputation is deserved; people on Ikaria are "reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do." They're also happier and more active, both mentally and physically.
The article explores the possible reasons why and each instinctively rings true. First, a diet consisting of fresh food from the garden, fish, olive oil, beans, coffee, and wine. Second, endless, slow days filled with friends and gossip, walking and dancing, church and neighbors, naps and sex. The insights into a well-lived life are fascinating.
As the piece draws to a close, it takes a surprising turn. Buettner points out that people in a town just eight miles away live similarly, "but people on Samos tend to live no longer than average Greeks." Why is that?
The two paragraphs that followed had a profound impact on me. They explain so much about the enormous power of neighborhoods and communities. They also speak to the very heart of Uncommon in Common.
If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon nap time. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’re not likely to ever feel the existential pain of not belonging or even the simple stress of arriving late. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but peer pressure will get you to contribute something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone at once is a busybody and feels as if he’s being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll attend church, and you’ll fast before Orthodox feast days. Even if you’re antisocial, you’ll never be entirely alone...
Every one of these factors can be tied to longevity. That’s what the $70 billion diet industry and $20 billion health-club industry do in their efforts to persuade us that if we eat the right food or do the right workout, we’ll be healthier, lose weight and live longer. But these strategies rarely work. Not because they’re wrong-minded: it’s a good idea for people to do any of these healthful activities. The problem is, it’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same. In the United States, you can’t go to a movie, walk through the airport or buy cough medicine without being routed through a gantlet of candy bars, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages. The processed-food industry spends more than $4 billion a year tempting us to eat. How do you combat that? Discipline is a good thing, but discipline is a muscle that fatigues. Sooner or later, most people cave in to relentless temptation.
If you've ever wondered what Uncommon is or why it already means a lot to many people, the answer lies inside those two paragraphs.
First, Buettner paints a picture of what I hope Uncommon will be; a quiet place on the web dedicated to timeless things, the best of ourselves and our world. Each of us sharing ownership of the neighborhood and helping to shape its future.
Second, Buettner describes why Uncommon has the potential to be very different from so much of today's web. What if the site itself wasn't a neutral platform, but actively encouraged and celebrated the best in all of us? Many of us want to change how we use and experience technology, but we're standing alone against a tidal wave of harmful incentives. We're trying to live healthy lives surrounded by aisles of junk. Everywhere we turn, the excessive and obsessive is celebrated and encouraged. The problem is, it’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same.
What if instead, Uncommon was on our side? What if there was a place online that actually pushed us away at times, encouraged our offline lives, and was built from the start to be a trampoline, not a rabbit hole?
My wish is that one day there will be 10,000 of us on this island, and we'll all live to be 100.
If someone uses your site, app, or service for a year, reward them, celebrate them, thank them. It's one of the simplest ways to improve your relationship with your customers and few companies do it.
I actually can't think of any company I frequent that acknowledges ongoing loyalty, outside of displaying "Member since" on an account page. These are likely your most valuable customers. Why not do everything you can to reward and keep them?
The bar is so low that just a short, thoughtful email from the CEO each year (which could be written, designed, and automated in a day or two) would launch a company into the top 5%.
Thank you for being a customer! You made your first purchase with us one year ago today. We hope we exceeded your expectations then and every time since. If we haven't, please let us know so we can improve. We look forward to working with you for many years to come.
That's it, really. Acknowledge the milestone, show appreciation, and provide an easy way to respond with questions or concerns. Another option is a note inside the site itself. The more personal you can be, the better.
Rewards are an option, too, such as a discount on the next order, free shipping, or maybe early access to a new feature.
Subscriptions are a little different. We often use pricing to encourage loyalty through the early-bird approach; be one of the first to sign up at the temporary, lower rate, then keep that rate as long as you remain a customer. That works well for your very first customers, but what about the many more who sign up later? What if the subscription price actually decreased each year someone renewed, or the benefits increased?
Most companies recognize employees by celebrating anniversaries and rewarding loyalty through increases in salary, perks, and vacation days. We could value our long-time customers, too.
We have all of these fields in our databases for a reason. Find your loyal customers and let they know how much they're appreciated.
One Shed Fits All is a story about an architect and the minimalist house he designed. At its heart, is about believing completely in what you make, regardless of what others think.
The architect, Stephen Atkinson, designed his perfect house. Thousands of people admired his design and some sought the plans to build it themselves. He knew, though, that as much as they said they loved the design, they would want a few small changes.
What people failed to understand was that the perfection of his design came from the totality of the design. No change was minor or without consequence. Attempts at improving the design were, in effect, ruining it.
We should trust creators and their vision and resist reacting to work with "It's perfect, but..." It's good to separate our experience of something from the thing itself.
I enjoy debating whether a cover song can be better than the original. My take is that the original is the true expression of the artist's vision. Even if we like the cover version more, it doesn't make it better.
The architect came up with a solution. He would give the plans for free to the eager couple who wanted them if they would pay for every change, every deviation from his vision.
Put another way, the more closely the house hewed to his vision, the less it would cost them. Mr. Atkinson, for whom this house has become something of an obsession, was making sure that the third incarnation of the structure he called the Zachary House would be close to perfect.
It's a simple solution that shows his commitment to what he created.
When creators are asked to work on a project or cause, they naturally hesitate knowing that the freedom and trust at the beginning can be replaced by revisions and second-guessing later.
Clarifying from the start that the will be charges for changes is an elegant way to build respect and boundaries into the work.
Stand up for what you create. Let helpful feedback inform your next project. This thing you've created, though, it is finished and it is everything it was meant to be.
Momentum is key to creative endeavors and side projects, especially solo ones. How do you build and maintain momentum when the deadline is your own and your paycheck is elsewhere?
Most likely, this isn't even a question at the beginning. If you've embarked on creating something new during the hours of the day when your time is your own, when you could be doing anything you like with whoever you like, you're probably filled with ideas and eager to bring them to life. The only thing holding you back is the number of hours in the day.
That doesn't always last, though.
After the rush of brainstorming names for your app, book, or company and early progress, things can grow very still. The first wave of encouragement and congratulations wears off and you realize it will be a few months before anybody will wonder why you haven't shown off the progress you've made.
So, you take a little break. It's important to pace yourself, after all. Then maybe you take a couple of days to look for inspiration.
At this point, your confidence might drop and your motivation shift from the thrill of creating something new to guilt about your lack of progress. Some people produce great work under those circumstances, but I find it demoralizing. Days of little progress turn into weeks and eventually I need a fresh dose of inspiration and determination to dive in again.
I've learned to find the smallest way forward each day and do it.
This may sound obvious, but it goes against the emphasis on prioritization that's a big part of our lives. Normally the goal is to determine what is the next most important thing on your to do list and then work on it.
In the case of a creative project like a novel, the most important thing to do is to write another page. It will be that way every day until it is finished. To be successful, though, you have to allow for other ways to make progress. Pauses are healthy, but it's important to pause a specific task like writing the next chapter or implementing payment processing, without pausing the project itself.
It's not the most important thing each day; it's anything that moves you forward, that brings this new thing a little closer to being a real thing.
While working on Uncommon, there is plenty of real work to be done and the next priority is usually very clear.
If that next priority was my only way forward, though, progress would've have stalled many times. The next priority may be time intensive or require skills I'm only just learning. It might demand a level of focus I'm not capable of on a short night after a long day.
Instead, I look for the smallest way forward. What else could push it closer to reality? Maybe a quick email to get feedback. A feature might need to be planned out, print shops contacted, or some DNS records updated. It might be as simple as sending a thank you note to one of the kind people who have invested their time.
No matter how small the way forward is, the progress and momentum are invaluable. The next day, I do it again.
If you're trying to bring something new into the world, thank you. Your time and frustration, your talent and hopes, are enormously valuable. We need new things, whatever they are, to learn and improve and tell our story in unique ways.
What's the smallest way forward for you and your project today?
Before you join your first startup, think carefully about what you want to get out of the experience.
If you're looking for a lottery ticket, you'll likely be disappointed. If you're looking for an education, you'll get that and more. It's up to you to take advantage of it.
At most startups, you'll have opportunities to push your skills as far as you can. With ambitious plans and small teams, you'll have the opportunity to jump into new problems and often the freedom to decide the approach.
The best startups are transparent with the team. Watch carefully and you'll learn lessons about what to do and what not to do. You'll be part of conversations about the future of the company and have a voice in decisions outside of your expertise. You might meet potential investors and help with hiring.
Don't miss these chances by narrowly focusing on your core skill set. If you want to do one thing and do it well, and have little interest in the other pieces of the puzzle, you're probably better off at a larger company.
Startups are also fluid. The product might change platform or focus. Quick growth could introduce scaling problems that can't wait for a systems engineer to be hired. Support requests might pile up, along with ideas for blog posts and newsletters. If you step into these gaps, you can quickly expand your skills and experience. You'll increase your value and possibly discover a new path for your career.
Your time at a startup can be a fun ride. In almost every case, the relationships you build and the knowledge you gain will be much more valuable than any options you receive.
Why do apps count things so much?
Friends, followers, photos, likes, favorites, retweets, pins, repins, reblogs, checkins, watched repos, followed users, badges, views, comments, notes, shares, visits, and more.
These counts are often given unusual prominence on a person's profile. Visit your favorite social sites and notice how often numbers are central to the experience.
We know the numbers matter to the people behind the apps. They're traditionally how success is measured. They don't, however, define my success as a user of the product.
Skimming the surface
The scoreboard approach to profiles provides UI elements that change often (since anything that doesn't change is assumed to cause people to lose interest) and perhaps make the product's value obvious.
It's also a way to avoid the hard work of determining what that value really is, beyond counting things in database tables. Answering that question is difficult and time-consuming. Some products and companies are never able to answer it, but we shouldn't give up and choose the path of least resistance.
Emphasizing numbers also demeans the people who use the app. Each person has value beyond the sum of their totals, yet the design suggests otherwise. When I see a scoreboard in a social or content-driven app, I hear the company whispering to me: Please increment these numbers regularly, thanks!
The wrong incentives
Finally, the scoreboard encourages unhealthy behavior. When you expose a metric, some will be highly motivated to increase it. The balance of the ecosystem is thrown off and eventually you're trying to figure out how to limit or de-incentivize that behavior.
Let's rethink what value means for our products and the people who use them, then design experiences that reflect and encourage that value.
If you have to jump through hoops to accomplish something, you're less likely to do it. Hoops are a kind of friction that slows you down. This doesn't mean that hoops are bad; some things should be hard. If a company is struggling, though, the balance might be off; things that should be easy are hard, and things that should be hard are easy.
For example, sscheduling meetings and hiring should be hard. Unnecessary meetings are a quick way to slow, yet scheduling a meeting with as many people as you like is largely frictionless. When hiring doesn't have enough friction, it's easy to start hiring for roles that aren't essential and let standards drop.
On the other hand, sharing information and asking questions should be easy. When co-workers or users bring up things that aren't working, they are often hear a littany of questions: Did you check the known issues list? Can you share it again, but in a different tool or format? The takeaway is "Don't bother us." The next time they notice something that doesn't seem right, they'll be less likely to bother sharing.
There are good counter arguments to these sxamples. The point is to take a fresh look at your company. What are your company's essential values and priorities? What do the people who use your product care about? Are you encouraging those things and making them as easy as possible? Are there hoops that are getting in the way?
Are the right things easy and the right things hard?
If you need help, ask. If you want to meet someone, introduce yourself.
This year has been full of asks and introductions for me, two things I'm not naturally inclined to do. It has been an amazing experience.
I've had wonderful conversations with interesting people and, as these things tend to go, those interesting people have introduced me to others.
The answer hasn't always been yes; far from it. Every person has been kind and generous, though, and I have learned something each time.
It's an uncomfortable experience to ask a favor or reach out to someone you don't know well. Here are three things that make it easier.
First, get to know the person long before the ask. Follow them on Twitter, read their blog, comment or reply now and then. In other words, engage with them and what they're sharing with the world. Reference some of those things when you contact them. Show you've been paying attention.
Second, be very patient. I've received great weeks after I sent an email. People are busy and most likely your email falls outside their typical queue. One of the kindest responses I've received said about the delay, "I wanted to give this the attention it deserved." It made my day.
Don't assume anything and in most cases, don't follow-up. Once you put something out there, it's no longer in your hands. Let it go and trust the result.
Third, and most importantly, remember that the favor is the listening, not the outcome. If someone takes the time to listen to what you have to say, consider it, and respond, you have received a real gift, regardless of the result. Thank them, offer to return the favor, buy them coffee or a drink if you have the chance, and wish them the best.
Stop hesitating. Say what you want to say, ask for help, introduce yourself.
Then hit send.
I love to think about words and lately one has been playing over and over in my mind.
The more I think about it, the more so much of life seems to flow through that short, simple word. Again is in many ways how we define what we love.
I listen to an album for the first time and as I do, I wonder, "Do I want to listen to this again?"
After I try a new restaurant, the first question is, "Would I go there again?"
A friend goes to a concert. "How was it? Would you see them again?"
That wine was delicious. Next time I'm here, I'll order it again.
It was an incredible book. I definitely want to read it again.
It was such a fun vacation. I already want to go back again.
The movie was amazing. I can't wait to see it again.
That game is great! Let's play again.
Again doesn't just define the things and experiences we love, though. It's part of the decisions that define who we are.
Do you want to go out with her again?
Would you marry him again?
If you could start over,
would you do it all
It's an article of faith that culture fit is nearly as important as skills when hiring at a startup. I agree that's it's a critical part of a team's success, but it can also inadvertently lead to a homogenized culture that hurts rather than helps.
When I first heard culture fit used in regards to hiring, it referred to how people view their work and the company or product. For me, these two are absolutely essential. Every person on the team should share a similar passion for the work they do and what they're building. Especially when the team is small, a lack of work ethic or belief in the product has the potential to kill your momentum and create resentment and conflict. I don't mean that work should be someone's life or that every job should be a cause, just that each person should believe in what they do and do it to the best of their ability.
Today, culture fit has started to mean something different. It's become more common for startups to seek people who are like the people who started them and build a team around shared interests: from movies, television shows, games, music and other pop culture ephemera to how someone likes to spend their evenings and weekends. Do you like karaoke? Do you love to hike? Are your favorite drinks our favorite drinks?
It makes sense. If you have the choice between two candidates with similar skills, you're naturally going to lean toward the one who you have the most in common with. The interview probably went better and they seem like someone you'd enjoy following on Twitter. Plus, they'll get along with the rest of the team really well.
If I was starting a company, I would do the same thing. In fact, I'd probably see it as one of the benefits of having my own company. Imagine, going to work every day with a group of people who are like me! We'll provide free chai and the company playlist will be filled with my favorites. We'll make lots of West Wing references and everyone will receive a book allowance.
It's not healthy, though, and produces a stagnant culture. When everyone at the company shares similar interests and sees the world in the same way, your perspective becomes extremely narrow. It can be difficult to see potential challenges or take them seriously. Criticism from users, advisors, and the press fails to resonate because no one we know sees things that way. More importantly, the ideas and creativity that come from unexpected combinations of different perspectives and personalities are nowhere to be found.
Look for similarity in vision, work ethic, kindness, and openness. Look for diversity in everything else.
Sometimes its difficult to think through all aspects of an app or feature. An approach I've found that works well is to write the FAQ while still early in the idea stage. It seems counterintuitive since the FAQ is often saved for the end of the project or better, until after there have actually been frequent questions.
Writing an FAQ while you're still formulating the idea is a great way to see what you're building through a user's eyes, think through how features should work, and reveal what's missing.
Here's a quick example. Imagine you have an idea for an app that will allow you to enter your favorite bands and then show you upcoming concerts near you by bands that are similar. The hypothetical FAQ surfaces the decisions you'll have to make. Writing the answers reveals when a solution is cumbersome, convoluted, or not even needed.
- Can I signup without Facebook or Twitter?
- How do I add a new band?
- How do I remove a band?
- How many bands can I add?
- I can import bands from my streaming app?
- I added a bunch of bands, but I don't see any matches yet?
- How do I save a concert I want to see?
- Can I purchase tickets in the app?
- How do I share a concert with a friend?
- How do I turn off notifications for new concerts?
- How do I delete my account?
If you're a developer, you know this is somewhat similar to user stories. I think the FAQ-driven approach works great earlier in the process, when you're still formulating the idea. It's also a gentle way to introduce user stories to people on your team aren't familiar.
Starting with the FAQ before the product is fully formed also reminds me a little of test-driven development, where you write the tests that your code will need to pass before you write the code.
The tests in this case are the expectations of the people who will use your app or site. The earlier you starting seeing your product through their eyes, the better.
Is your passion planting and tending a garden of different products or a single tree that will grow for years? Think about where your heart is and build your company so that its success doesn't turn it into something you're not.
One or many?
Most teams set out to develop one successful product, either by building the entire company around it or creating a series of products until they find the one with the most traction and potential. Once they find the one, the focus shifts to the breakout hit and the other experiments are usually abandoned.
Others build a portfolio of related products; different plants that grow in the same garden.
The most unique approach is the one taken by Jim Coudal and Coudal Partners. As he explains in this great CreativeMornings talk, they've kept the agency model, but eliminated the clients. The diversity of products and projects (from Field Notes to Layer Tennis) is absolutely intentional. From the Twitter bio: "Unable to focus. OK with that."
They don't want a single hit to define who they are; success is exactly what they're doing. Coudal's example of how much you can accomplish if you don't set your mind to it is a continual inspiration.
The best start of the Coudal story is that years later, Field Notes did, in fact, became the hit that defined them. They switched from the garden to the tree and that's just fine! It's worked out great for them and their customers.
Which is it for you?
When you thrive in the garden and end up dedicated to a single tree, it's easy to become frustrated and less productive. Adding one more feature to an established product, solving issues of scale, and refactoring code is different from beginning work on a new product.
I've talked with designers and developers who can't imagine working on the same product year after year. When they end up in that situation, they typically develop outlets for their pent up initiative and creativity. Tree products will sometimes go through cycles of redesigns and rewrites because starting from scratch is a hard habit to break.
Similarly, if someone wants to put everything they have into a tree project that will still be around years later and instead is working on their fourth new app this year, they'll also be frustrated. Those projects will feel incomplete and unsatisfying, their inadequate, unfinished bits an unpleasant reminder.
The company can suffer in that situation, too. Projects that should be released quickly to gauge interest can take months more than needed as design and engineering decisions are made and re-made as if a tree that will outlive us all is being planted, instead of a small garden experiment.
Know yourself, your team, and what success is for you, and build a place that honors and embraces that.
I've spent a lot of time with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno over the past month. The two are some of my favorite people in music, producers of some of the best albums I've heard and fine musicians themselves (I love the debut album by Black Dub, Lanois' new band). Their insights into the pain and wonder of creating art are particularly fascinating. I started with Lanois' film Here Is What Is, a very unique documentary about music and the creative process that includes multiple conversations between Eno and him. The two have worked together on many of U2's best albums. Then came Soul Mining, Lanois' autobiography. I highly recommend them both, especially if you have a deep interest in music and the many artists Lanois has worked with.
I gained a great deal from Lanois' insights, but I want to focus on Eno for the moment. Early in the film, Lanois asks Eno to talk about what he has learned about creativity over the years. His answer was profound.
What would be really interesting for people to see is how beautiful things grow out of shit, because no one ever believes that. Everyone thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head, they somehow appeared there and formed in his head, and all he had to do was write them down and they would be manifest to the world. But what I think is so interesting and would really be a lesson that everybody should learn is that things come out of nothing. Things evolve out of nothing. The tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest and then the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing. I think this would be important for people to understand because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that's how things work.
If you walk around with the idea that there are some people who are so gifted, they have these wonderful things in their head, and you're not one of them, you're just sort of a normal person, you could never do anything like that, then you live a different kind of life. You could have another kind of life where you could say, I know that things come from nothing very much, start from unpromising beginnings, and I'm an unpromising beginning, and I could start something. Brian Eno, Here Is What Is
What a beautiful line: "I'm an unpromising beginning, and I could start something."
More recently, Eno did an interview with the delightful Believer Magazine. It's worth reading in full, covering art, music, and creativity. At the end, he's asked what he would tell his 20-year-old self.
I think I’d say, “Put out as much as you can. It doesn’t do anything sitting on a shelf.” My feeling is that a work has little value until you “release” it, until you liberate it from yourself and your excuses for it — “It’s not quite finished yet,” ”The mix will make all the difference,” etc. Until you see it out there in the world along with everything else, you don’t really know what it is or what to think of it, so it’s of no use to you. Brian Eno, In Conversation with David Mitchell
Post it, publish it, release it, share it. Whatever it is.
Eulogy delivered for John Andrew Bailey in Mattoon, Illinois.
I wrote most of this on the long drive here, the pen cap in my mouth, reaching for a scrap of paper with one hand while steering with the other. For those of you who have ever taken a trip with my father, and I expect that includes nearly every one of you, could anything be more appropriate?
Speaking of appropriate, what could be better on an occasion such as this then to open with humor. How many guru's does it take to screw in a lightbulb? The answer? We don't know. We're still waiting for one to admit they're in the dark.
As guru's go, my father was unique in that he had no trouble admitting all that he didn't know. And he was unique in so many other ways.
From bowling balls to Tom T. Hall
Mark Twain and freight trains
Hall of Fame and baseball games
Far Side and bicycle rides
making a scene at a Dairy Queen
from soda jerk to social work
Music Mill and Uncle Bill's
running camp and collecting lamps
Sitting on the back porch of his mind with
Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie
swatting flies and trading lies
listening to the sweet sound of the hobo's lullaby
When I was young, he and I would play a game. While I was on the floor, he would grab my legs, lift them high in the air in the shape of a wishbone and say, "Make a wish." And each time, I would show my sense of humor by saying, "I wish you wouldn't do that."
When I was talking to him last Monday, I thought of that. And as I sensed that it might be my last conversation with him, I thought, "I wish you wouldn't do that. I wish you wouldn't go away."
But in my heart of hearts, I know there is a time for everything. And there is a peace that surpasses all understanding.
I believe my father is in that place of peace right now, sitting at a restaurant in Heaven, working on a new collection of psalms and proverbs on the back of a napkin.
Whenever my Dad would introduce me to someone, they would inevitably say, "You look just like your father." And he would lean over and say, "This is when you say, 'Why, thank you!'"
So I say, "Why, thank you."