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.


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

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

Dalirockclimbing (2)
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.

Over the Hill

old-man-caricatureSilicon Valley is the modern day equivalent of the gold rush –  a place where young people with no real experience can search out fame and fortune and have a real chance of getting it. Not a very big chance, mind you, but a chance nonetheless. What other industry would give you a 0.1% chance of becoming a millionaire at 25?

That environment of opportunity is fed by a number of things including the rapid pace of technological evolution and the low cost of trying new ideas. Essentially, the market moves so quickly that experience from 5-10 years ago may not be relevant anymore, granting younger people  a level playing field with their more experienced competitors. Unfortunately, those same factors that provide such a great opportunity when you’re young  turn against you when you’re older. In a market where speed and change is accelerating, experience is a loose word since the world of knowledge is changing.

An article at the top of Hacker News today is entitled “Sucks to be an old engineer“. The comments are fairly interesting and play out the common struggle of technology workers as time passes: how do you stay relevant in a game whose rules change every 6 months? At some point the constant learning of new programming languages, new technologies, new processes becomes difficult. But, if you want to stay relevant it’s a treadmill you have to run. I don’t know about you but as I get older running on treadmills is getting harder and harder.

Mark Zuckerberg made one of the most idiotic statements I’ve ever heard when he declared “Young people are just smarter“. While his statement is inane, his point is true: young people have fewer distractions in life. They don’t have families and houses so they are happy to spend a weekend hacking away on a new prototype instead of going to the park with their kids. Focus is a critical part of staying relevant in technology, but it’s an elusive thing as your life matures.

In light of all of this, it’s not a coincidence that George Parker wrote in the New Yorker Magazine that Silicon Valley is obsessed with solving the problems of twenty-somethings because that’s who populates Silicon Valley. If the market is good for younger people they will flock and if it is bad for older people they will leave.

Luckily, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post comes to our rescue with a great send up of the George Parker piece. In the end, despite the focus on youth in Silicon Valley the problems that are worth solving are always the biggest problems. Those aren’t specific to twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings or anyone for that matter. When solving those problems the best advantage you can have is an understanding of the world, which only comes with experience.

Personally, I’m already 35 which puts me at the magical pivot point of Silicon Valley. I’m already considered “over the hill” when it comes to technology but pretty soon I’ll be 40 which starts to put me “over the hill” when it comes to general employment. Not that I really care, I prefer to spend my time solving hard problems and building new things. If that means that I become unemployable in Silicon Valley that’s fine with me, the world is a big place and there are plenty of big problems to solve.

Drawing courtesy of Igor Lukyanov and his fantastic illustrations blog.

Fatherhood Flow

66354One of the best self-management books I’ve ever read is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. To be honest it’s not really a self-management book but a summary of an area of psychological research on human happiness. However, it provides useful insight into what makes you happy and understanding that is the key to self-management in my opinion.

The fundamental learning of Csikszentmihalyi’s research is that happiness is directly proportional to how often you find yourself in a state of “optimal experience” that he calls Flow or what most of us call being “in the zone”. Flow is the feeling you get when you are very engaged in something you are very good at and you just feel it flow through you (hence the name). Authors describe this as the book writing itself, coders describe this as the zen of programming and athletes of course coined the phrase “in the zone”. The research showed that people that achieve this state more often are consistently happier and benefit from a number of emotional and cognitive byproducts. While it is true that you need emotional and social support systems to be happy, the research sheds a lot of light on how otherwise successful people fail to really be happy.

I have found this to be very true of myself, and tracing back through my life I’ve always found activities that allow me to achieve a state of flow as a path to better life balance. In high school it was drawing, college it was math and professionally it was coding or writing (or ceramics for a while).

Now that I’m a father I realize that the challenge of achieving flow as a parent is significant. Babies have irregular schedules as they learn to eat, sleep, poop and otherwise become people. This means that at any time you may be pulled from what you are doing to service the needs of the baby, even if you were in a state of flow. Such interruptions make it very hard to ever get into a state of flow in the first place and even if you get there it may be short lived.

So, it’s important to consider what that means for happiness in fatherhood. For me, it means setting aside time to draw, code or write while Alexis is napping – even if there is laundry to be done, dishes to be washed and errands to be run. Because in the end the laundry will still be there but if I can’t maintain my personal happiness then I don’t think I’ll make a great father.

I do wonder if you can achieve a flow state through the act of parenting which would be the best of all worlds. I’ll look forward to finding out.


Learning Curves

It’s really amazing how quickly you can learn new things. Just a week ago I had never changed a diaper, burped a baby or gotten one dressed. Now, I feel like I’ve been doing it for years.

People normally refer to the rate of learning as the “Learning Curve” but until recently I never really wondered what that curve really looked like. Intuitively you know that it gets harder and harder to get better at something the more you improve, but what does that curve really look like?

The term “Learning Curve” was first used by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist in the late 1800s. He formulated it at the same time as the “Forgetting Curve” which described how quickly a person forgets information.An idealized learning curve can be represented as an exponential or logarithmic function such as the following:


Figure 1. Idealized Learning Curve, courtesy of Wikipedia

When you are first learning a new skill, and have no experience, your rate of learning is very fast (as seen through the steep part of the curve). However, once you have achieved a certain level of expertise the same amount of experience results in less and less learning. In economic terms this is known as diminishing returns.

That inflection point in the curve, where it goes from steep to gradual, is what people normally refer to as “the wall”. That is the point where learning the new activity goes from being easy to difficult. This is often the point where people will give up the new activity and move on to another where the rate of learning is once again very fast. In other variations the learning curve is described as a sigmoid where the rate of learning at the beginning is slow and then speeds up.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims that anyone can become an expert in any topic if they invest 10,000 hours in practicing it. That particular theory is heavily debated but the concept is clear: because of the diminishing returns on additional experience you need a vast amount of it to achieve mastery.

Personally, I hope to not spend 10,000 hours changing diapers. If you assume Alexis will go through about 6,000 diapers in her lifetime and I can keep my diaper changing at 5 minutes or less then I’ll only have about 500 hours of experience.

Far short of mastery, but that’s okay with me.

A New Day

Alexis McNeill Byrnes was born on May 15th, 2013.

Seeing someone’s first day on Earth is an amazing experience. She took her first breadth, opened her eyes for the first time and grabbed with her hands – all in her first minute of life. I wish I was that productive.

Seeing her experience things for the first time got me thinking about how different the world she has known for the past 4 days is than the world I’ve come to know over my past 35 years. Consider the following:

  • She’s never had a white male President.
  • She’s never known a Europe that wasn’t in economic crisis.
  • All the phones she’s ever seen are wireless and have touch screens.
  • She’ll never have to schedule her life around when her favorite TV show starts.
  • She’s never seen the snow, rain or really any bad weather.

Granted, she doesn’t realize any of this right now. In fact, all she knows is that eating is great, pooping comes after eating and sleeping is a great thing to do after pooping. But someday she will and I look forward to having some conversations deep into the night.

By then, I’ll be the one focused on eating, pooping and sleeping I’m sure.


I just started reading Black Swan which has been highly recommended to me. While I don’t have high hopes I do like the initial focus on deflating the myth of the Bell Curve. This has been an area of interest for me for years as you’ll soon find out.

If you’ve studied statistics you’re familiar with the basic bell-shaped distribution which is known as a “Normal” distribution. Actually, it is technically a Gaussian distribution as it follows a pattern known as a Gaussian function (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaussian_function).

Anyway, almost all of popular statistical theory is based on Normal distributions. Don’t believe me? Ever used the word “average”? The average is also known as the arithmetic mean, which in a Normal distribution corresponds to the middle of the bell – meaning that it’s the most commonly occurring value. In modern parlance “average” is really just a synonym for “typical” or “common” which is a simple way of describing how the mean represents a Normal distribution.

The same is true if you’ve ever heard of a “standard deviation”, which is a way to determine how far away a given value is from the mean in a Normal distribution. These days “standard deviation” is used in passing to refer to how different something is from what you’d expect. “Six Sigma” processes actually refer to a process that covers six standard deviations from the mean (sigma is the Greek letter representing a standard deviation in mathematics).

All of that is a long way of saying that a lot of what comprises common knowledge about statistics is based on Normal distributions. There are a lot of distributions that fit the Normal pattern including the height of a given set of people or the size of raindrops in a rain storm. It’s widely used in all of the social sciences to simplify complex phenomena.

The problem is that we’re finding more and more distributions are not Normal. Social network connectivity and the size of world cities are two basic examples that follow something called a Power Law distribution (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_law) which looks nothing like a Bell curve. The entire concept of the “long tail”, which has started to pervade almost every aspect of business strategy,  is based on this kind of distribution.

Unfortunately, your average person does not have the tools to deal with this kind of distribution. Arithmetic Means (averages) are meaningless when used on a Power Law distribution. There is no standard deviation because the mean is so grossly misrepresenting the values. Nothing can help you take this kind of curve and fit it into the nice Bell curve that everyone knows so well.

It’s hard to represent how fundamental a shift this is in our understanding of statistics. Not as mathematicians (who have known about these for centuries) but as a society. Math is a tool in the macrocosm as well as the microcosm and we rely on a shared understanding to be able to make decisions as a society. Politicians know that you’ll understand it when they talk about the “average American”. Imagine if they started referring to the “long tail” of Americans – I wonder if anyone would understand.

Someday we’re going to have to encounter issues like the massive inequality of wealth in the world. Unfortunately, that follows a Power Law distribution so we’re not ready yet.