Activity Roulette

Photo available as part of the Public Domain.

Now that I’m on sabbatical, people assume that I’m either working on some kind of top secret project or I am doing absolutely nothing. As with many things in life neither extreme is true. I do wonder sometimes what it says about me when someone guesses one or the other, and which one I think is more flattering.

So, what exactly am I doing with my time? In short, decompressing from the start up pressure cooker by relaxing and expanding my horizons.

It’s rare in life to get a chance to take a step back from the working world and recharge your batteries. It affords me the chance to learn new things, work on fun projects and think about new problems that would normally be so far down my to-do list that they would never get done. Many people wait until they are retired to take this kind of break and I feel lucky to do it now.

As a creative person, the number of things I would like to do is very, very long. So long, in fact, that in the first few weeks of my sabbatical I felt a lot of stress about finding the time to do them all. That defeats the purpose of being on sabbatical so I decided I needed a solution. The good news is that the solution I found is both fun and extremely effective. I call it activity roulette.

How I play Activity Roulette:

Step 1. I write down all of the things I want to do on index cards.

Step 2. Every night my wife shuffles the deck. My daughter then chooses a card at random and that is what I do the next day.

Step 3. Repeat

The great part about this game is that it keeps my days exciting as I never know what I’ll do tomorrow, but I also know that I will eventually get to everything on the list. By giving the responsibility of choosing how to spend my time to chance I am free to enjoy what I’m doing.

Some of the things I have done off my list since starting to play activity roulette:

That might seem like an eclectic list to you, but to me it feels very productive.

If you find yourself with a big chunk of free time and a list of things you’d like to get done, I highly recommend giving activity roulette a try.

Photo available as part of the Public Domain.

Fogstack Studios is live!

Fogstack Studios is now live! This will be the new home of all of my creative pursuits including graphic stories, short stories and whatever else I decide to create.

I’m excited to finally have the time to develop ideas I have had for many years and create some new concepts. I will be rusty so the writing and art will be spotty, but that’s the best reason to jump back in!

The first story is already live and is a short graphic story I wrote and illustrated two years ago. I finally finished the editing and you can download the PDF on the site, or read it on Scribd.

If you find the time to read anything I publish, please let me know what you think. The more honest the feedback the better, even if it is to tell me you don’t like it.

Let the games begin!

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Long Form Thinking

Nick Benjaminsz, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License
Dani Boone, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Free time is a strange thing. The less of it you have the more you want, but the more you have the less you know what to do with it. As a new dad I live this irony everyday – I work during the day, take care of Alexis at night and then have a few hours of free time before sleep. Every morning I have very ambitious plans for what I’ll do with those few hours, but when they come around I often find myself grasping for how best to spend them.

I blame technology in some part. New developments in social media, mobile applications and communications have begun aggressively mining our attention. Our attention can be converted into purchases, advertising or subscriptions so companies have divided our attention into smaller and smaller parts for easier distribution. We’ve moved from magazine articles to blogs to twitter posts and now even 140 characters can seem like a lot to fill. The average session length in a mobile application is a fraction of that spent on a website which again was a fraction of time you would spend playing a board game or reading the paper. Our attention has become a commodity and some brilliant people are working to mine that commodity as best they can. As our attention is divided, our attention spans contract.

Something similar is happening to journalism. As our attention is being divided up in smaller and smaller pieces, journalism has been forced to make sure their message fits into smaller and smaller bite sizes. What is defined as the “news” has evolved. You cannot fit a detailed account of the Syrian civil war into 140 characters, but you can describe the latest celebrity scandal. Sharing is the new distribution and you need to fit into a smaller attention unit to be shared.

The journalists’ reaction, which I applaud, is what they call “long form journalism“. Simply put, it involves longer and in-depth stories (4000+ word articles) that require a long while to read. These stories don’t fit well into social media or the 30 second sound bite, but they make you think and provide a complete view of a topic. This is nothing new, we have read magazines for decades. But this new movement as a reaction to the commoditization of news is a signal that we are not ready to contort ourselves fully into this new world of micro-attention. There is still room for a slow pace of life, a well thought out perspective and not just short parcels of information.

I think there is a similar opportunity for “long form thinking“. Take some of your free time and consider a question, problem or concept long enough to form your own opinion. When was the last time you sat down and really thought about your opinion about a topic, compared to reading someone else’s opinion and agreeing? Considering a question at length and forming an opinion is not about being right or wrong, it is about exercising your long thought muscles. If you want to be a thoughtful person, practicing thinking is a good way to get there.

In the end it isn’t completely the fault of technology that our attention is being commoditized. If, as consumers, we didn’t show a predisposition to shorter attention spans then technology wouldn’t adapt to fill that need. We have a symbiotic relationship with technology: it gives us what we want and we create more of it. Luckily, that same process can work in our favor – if we show a preference for longer attention periods then technology will adapt to that as well.

Long form thinking is nothing new but could be a movement worth pursuing.

Arrangements

I don’t believe you have to be better than everybody else. I believe you have to be better than you ever thought you could be. – Ken Venturi

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Nick Benjaminsz, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

One of the many things life teaches us is that there is always someone who is better (more talented, more productive, etc.) at the things we do. This is not surprising considering there are 7 Billion people on Earth and many of them spend much of their time honing their skills. Very few of us will ever know what it feels like to be certifiably the best person on Earth at doing anything in particular. Outside of winning the Olympics, Nobel Prize, etc. the opportunities for such validation are also few and far between.

Thinking about that can be very depressing so I avoid doing so as much as possible. However, inevitably I find myself in a situation where I try very hard at something, do my best, only to encounter someone else who is, frankly, better than me. At that point I can acknowledge my place, give up or try even harder. In the worst case I can decide that it wasn’t even worth trying to begin with.

Something that helps me quite a lot when facing those junctures is thinking about what I call Arrangements. An arrangement is just a combination of pieces to create a whole. A book is an arrangement of words, a computer program an arrangement of instructions, a painting an arrangement of colors. You can take this further since speeches are arrangements of statements, athletics are arrangements of movements and math is an arrangement of numbers. Almost any pursuit can be thought of as an arrangement of parts.

Using arrangements to think about pursuits reminds me that everyone is playing by the same rules. Everyone is possible of creating the same arrangement because everyone starts with the same pieces. You can write the greatest book since it is just an arrangement of words and you have access to the same words as anyone else. You can be a great painter since you have access to the same paints and brushes as everyone else. When thought of as arrangements you realize that the people who are better than you do not have superpowers and do not have access to secrets, they are just better at arranging the pieces.

That thought always reinvigorates me and I redouble my efforts to better arrange the pieces myself. You can easily imagine the world’s greatest writer sitting down to write using the same words you have and then imagine someone else picturing you doing the same. Everyone starts off with a blank piece of paper, so why would yours be any less than theirs?

Of course, this blog post is just an arrangement of words, one that you could easily have written yourself. I wonder if you would have done it better than I have. I hope so, it would motivate me to try harder next time.

Belief in the Face of Reality

“My product is great. My vision is sound. My team is amazing.” -Entrepreneur’s Creed

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Photo By Climbdali (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Reality is a harsh place. Almost everything that is worthwhile doing is very hard and, despite what  you might learn in school, there is no credit for hard work. There is very little recognition for your success and plenty of recognition for your failures. To be honest, the world is out to get you.

The good news is that there are no rules. You can do whatever it is you like, pursue whatever goals you desire and set your own definition of success. Other people will try to do this for you but there is nothing forcing you to listen to them. Well, other than your own insecurities which I suggest you politely tell to go to hell.

Starting a business is a great case study of these two characteristics of life. Anyone can start any kind of business whenever they want, setting whatever goal they desire. Unfortunately, most people who start a business run out of money, fail to acquire customers or simply not be able to get started in the first place. Reality kicks in and shows you that starting is easier than finishing and money does not come as easily as your dreams. Being an entrepreneur is a lonely pursuit because, in many ways, it is you against the world.

When you are starting a business you will inevitably talk to investors, all of whom will tell you that you will not succeed. Investors, of course, are paid skeptics and they are almost always correct because  it is very unlikely you will succeed. However, clearly someone succeeds because there are many businesses in existence today and I would wager you work for one right now. So the question is not if you can succeed, but will you succeed or will it be the next person. Everyone will tell you it’s the next person.

The best defense against the harshness of reality is perseverance. Since the world is telling you that you will not succeed, you have to believe in your heart that you will. This is not denial because that belief you have in your heart is based in facts. You don’t just believe, you know. You have done your homework and designed a great product. You have studied your market and have a clear vision for the future. You have surrounded yourself with a great team that works well together.

Does that guarantee success? Of course not, but it ensures that you play the game as best you can. Even the best baseball players will only get a hit at 1 out of every 3 at bats but they approach the plate every time convinced that they can get a hit. That inner strength, born from perseverance and knowledge, is what gives you a chance to succeed. That chance is the most life will offer, so take it and use it as best you can.

So every morning, with complete conviction, repeat after me:

My product is great. My vision is sound. My team is amazing. 

Frequency of Utility

300px-Standard-lock-keyIf you are a student of products, design or engineering you are very used to solving problems. Problems exist everywhere and one of the great truisms of life is that there is always a better solution waiting to be found. Unfortunately, most of these solutions are not sufficiently better than existing solutions and are ignored. BUT if you can improve enough on the state of the art you have a potentially successful product on your hands. This is what many people call Product Market Fit, or the end goal of the Customer Development process of Steve Blank.

As with any gamble, the size of the market that the product is pursuing is critically important. No one would play the lottery if the expected winnings were $10 and building products is too hard to have it used by 10 people. You want to reach as many people as possible to have them enjoy your hard work (and hopefully make you rich). However, even having a very large market might not be enough.

One thing that I’ve come to believe strongly is that the Frequency of Utility for a product can be just as critical to success as the Product Market Fit. I define the Frequency of Utility to be how often a consumer interacts with the product to solve their problems. To illustrate this I will use an example of two products that solve the same problem:

  1. KeyMe is a great new service that allows you to take a photo of your keys and store them as photos on your phone. Should you lose your key you can have a new one made from the photo either at a locksmith or self-service kiosk.
  2. Kevo is a new kind of door lock which allows you to open your door wirelessly using your phone. There is still a key hole for a standard key (should it lose power or you lose your phone) but in general you walk up to your door and it unlocks for you.

Both of these products are solving the same problem – handling physical keys to open my doors is a pain. Since almost everyone in the population has locks on their doors (although only half of them use them I would guess), the market is huge. Both of them have a great distribution model, although different business models.

The biggest difference between the two products is the Frequency of Utility. If you have a Kevo, you will use it every time you enter or exit your door which will be at least twice a day (on average). You might not notice it after a while, but you will definitely notice it the first time you unlock a door at the office or anywhere that doesn’t have a Kevo. KeyMe is only useful when you lose your keys which is very uncommon – maybe once a year to be aggressive. You can quite literally forget that you use KeyMe for months if not years until you use it.

The problem with the KeyMe approach is that, while it’s much cheaper and easier to use, the frequency of customer interaction is so low that its not possible to build customer affinity. Your customers can love your product but if they don’t use it on an ongoing basis it will fade into the background of daily noise. If you look across products that you use everyday, you will find you have a much higher affinity than those you use once in a blue moon. Those products that have the higher Frequency of Utility are more likely to be successful for that reason.

Note that it is not the case that forcing your customers to constantly use your product is the same thing. Bombarding them with alerts and alarms and notifications is not the same as being useful frequently and is bound to have an adverse affect on customer affinity. You want to design a product that your customers choose to use frequently.

Overall, if you’re going to build a product you are going to consider a wide variety of possible solutions to the problem you have identified. When faced with the choice between these solutions, Frequency of Utility can be a great tool to help maximize your chances of success.

Never Been Bored

baby-with-ipadOn my flight back from NYC this week, I was very jealous of the awesome 7 year old sitting next to me. He spent the entire flight enjoying his favorite shows, playing games and drawing  – all on his iPad. When I was his age I spent countless hours on planes and in cars just looking out the window. If I was really lucky I had a book to read.

It strikes me that one of the unintended consequences of the mobile revolution is that the next generation will never be bored. With a device in your pocket that can entertain you anywhere, anytime you will never know what it’s like to have no stimulation at all. Will that breed a generation who never fully develop their imagination? Will creativity give way to attention deficit disorder?

Probably not, in my opinion. The CDC publishes great literature on the prevalence of ADHD and similar attention disorders including an info-graphic on the changes over time. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, the rate of attention disorders has grown from 8% in 2004 to around 11% now. Is that due to the rise of mobile devices? Again probably not. It’s hard to draw conclusions since the definition of “attention disorder” has changed so frequently over the years.

The Atlantic published a great piece by Anna Rosin in March on the “Touch-Screen Generation” which looks at the effect of tablets on toddlers. She highlights that many parents are not worried about iPads causing ADHD, instead they fear that the iPads teach focus that is too intense and almost addictive. Since the iPad is so direct and intense in the stimulation, children learn to “zone out” and focus entirely on the application they are using. Especially in children who are younger than 3-4 years old, their cognitive development can be directly affected by these kinds of stimulation. The article quotes Sandra Calvert, the Director of the Children’s Media Center at Georgetown University:

“People say we are experimenting with our children,” she told me. “But from my perspective, it’s already happened, and there’s no way to turn it back. Children’s lives are filled with media at younger and younger ages, and we need to take advantage of what these technologies have to offer. I’m not a Pollyanna. I’m pretty much a realist. I look at what kids are doing and try to figure out how to make the best of it.”

It’s unlikely that we will really know the effects that the new world of mobile devices will have on children, society and human behavior until this generation grows up. Historically, all new forms of media have been subjected to criticism that they were destroying the youth including comic books,  television and the internet. In all those cases the media ended up changing society but not destroying it, just making it different.

Personally, I believe that these devices will help breed a generation who is more prepared to take over the information age. Better educated through self-driven learning programs available where ever they are will allow them to develop at their own rate instead of as part of a school-dictate curriculum. They will be better prepared to deal with the onslaught of information we see growing everyday by learning to process it at such a young age. They will think about information the way we think about construction, as building blocks that you assemble into new things.

Even so, I’ll lament the loss of boredom. It was one of those long car rides with nothing to do where I took a pen and a pad of paper and decided to teach myself how to draw. Now, 25 years later, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made as drawing is a large part of my life (decide for yourself if I’m any good). Would I have ever learned to draw if I had an iPad to entertain me? I wonder.