Goal Setting

Sistine Chapel - Det sixtinske kapell

Copyright Lasse Christensen (Creative Commons)

The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.

Michaelangelo

Why would setting your goal too low be a danger?

Human beings love the idea of a challenge.  The whole “space race” was such a challenge – being the first country to land someone on the moon – and it was quite successful.  The competition, the challenge of doing something that was seemingly impossible, everything combined to create a sense of community amongst the various nations.  This community spirit allowed people to think and act differently, to expand the horizons that they thought were there and to peer into into areas that were previously protected by signs that warned “Beyond here there be dragons”.

The challenge and camaraderie that spawned as a result of the desire to aim high, literally, brought together people and nations.  Ideas and passion can do that.

NaNoWriMo is an example of setting a goal quite high.  An achievable goal to be sure, but still something that is a stretch to accomplish.  While it’s target of 50,000 words in a month is nothing that will bring a nation together, it is a goal that can ignite passion in a single individual and help motivate them to achieving the goal.  Setting a goal and working your way towards it in a very visible manner enforces accountability and helps to ensure that you “have some skin in the game”: your reputation and your self-esteem.

If you set a goal too low, however, if your goal is too simplistic and too easy to reach then you have a tendency of, not doing your best work.  You coast to the finish line, barely content with having achieved the goal.  There is no rush of adrenaline, no elation at having supposed your target, just a dull, roaring silence.  It is difficult to be motivated by doing something that comes easily.

John F. Kennedy emphasized this point at Rice University in 1962 when he said:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Igniting the human spirit is what a well-set target can do for you.


Learning from Writing

Day 29: Studies

Copyright Snugg LePup (Creative Commons)

There was an interesting article on Lifehacker the other day with regard to “Four Basic Writing Principles You Can Use in Everyday Life” that I wanted to bring to your attention.  The four principles mentioned were:

  1. Show, Don’t Tell
  2. Simplicity Is Better than Flowery
  3. Read a Lot, Learn from Everything
  4. Focus by Learning What Not to Do

I was immediately struck by how writing can be simplified down to a small set of rules.  Oh, sure, there are other rules like “Spell things correctly” that you need to follow, but creativity-wise these four are critical.  But they are so much more than just rules for writing as they apply to when you create a presentation or when you design an applications architecture.  They apply to almost anything that is creative in nature.

For example, I’m sure that you’ve seen PowerPoint slides where the font is a 10 point font and you are at the back of the room, or a complicated 3D diagram that combines 10 different elements into a single mass of colour and lines.  Oh, speaking of colour, adding lines on a graph that are so close in colour only a machine can tell the difference.  Instead of showing a graph of poverty levels to indicate that something has negative impact (telling people), show them a picture of a child waiting in line at a soup kitchen.  Instead of describing the beauty of a flower, show a picture of how that beauty is affecting people.

For application architectures the motto of K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) has been around for decades and yet we continue to ignore it.  We have an application on site that has so many different parts, so many different machines and so many different parts that need to be synchronized that I am constantly surprised that it is still working.  It does, however, take forever to make changes.  Changes to the application are planned months in advance and take half a year to test.

Throughout all of our application architectures, however, we fail to do one thing:  focus by learning what not to do.  We have plenty of examples of how not to build things and yet we continue to build it the same way.  We know that mobile applications, while perhaps not prevalent in our current environment, not only make sense for the future, but that their design patterns make our existing applications easier to build and implement.  We know this, so why haven’t we learned?

Four simple rules applicable in writing and other creative endeavours.

Vulnerability and the human connection

Brene Brown - The Power of Vulnerability

Brene Brown at TEDxHouston

I recently watched a TEDTalk with Brene Brown called “The Power of Vulnerability” and some of the things that she was talking about I could really empathize with.

Her research was originally focused around the human connection – what is it that allows us to empathize with each other?  What is it that allows us to feel that we belong?  After a lot of research she came up with four items:  courage, compassion, connection and vulnerability.  After much internal struggle she came up with the conclusion that:

“… vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness but it appears that it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, and love…”

What is it about vulnerability that makes it the core of so many things?  Vulnerability is part of authenticity, giving up what you think people are expecting of you and just being who you are.  People keep describing people/companies that they look up to as being “authentic” or “genuine”.  People are describing other people who are being vulnerable, people who are willing to show the world their true selves, warts and all, and accept what other people think.

One of the problems of vulnerability is that it can hurt.  When you expose your true self and you are rejected, it is a deep wound that it leaves in our psyche.  Many people can’t handle that sort of psychological pain so what they do is try to numb that emotion.  They numb it through alcohol, food and drugs.  It just so happens that we are also the most addicted, overweight generation on the planet.  Is there a connection?  We also convert uncertainty (fear) into certainty by moving to extremes – I’m right and you’re wrong – with no possibility of change.

For parents who want to bring up children who are more compassionate, more courageous and have a deeper connection with others emphasizing and embracing vulnerability is key.

Our job is to look and say “you know what”?  You’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle but you are worthy of love and belonging.

Whether or not you believe her representation of vulnerability as key to the success of the human race, you do have to agree that, as parents, our job is love our children.  And, in many respects, simply loving them for who they are gives them the opportunity to experience the human connection in all it’s glory.  Show your children that vulnerability is a good thing.

Creativity in little pieces

Solving jigsaw puzzle

Copyright Yoel Ben-Avraham (Creative Commons)

There is the false assumption that creativity occurs in big waves.  One minute everything is normal and the next minute there is a tsunami of creativity and life changes so fast that the pants you put on in the morning go out of style by noon.

Things don’t happen that way.

Granted, there are sometimes huge changes that overtake us, but they are usually the result of tens, hundreds, thousands of other changes that, combined together, create that tsunami.  I was reading an article from an author recently who talked about how it had taken him “eight years to become an overnight success”.

You’ve seen those buckets that when filled with a certain amount of water tip over and unleash their contents?  Like this one?  Change, as a result of creative influences, is kind of like that.  Each change adds some water to the bucket, but somewhere, sometime, there is a change that makes the bucket tip over and flood everyone.

Creativity does not need to be a big event for it to have a big impact.  Small events can lead up to a big change.  For instance, on a personal note I thought that I would create “A Writing Prompt A Day” for the entire year.  Essentially the first paragraph of a short story / flash fiction / novel.  The writing prompt needed to provide enough information that someone could take it and create a complete story around that introduction.

Approximately 100 – 120 words of creativity for 365 days.  It’s not a lot, but it is forcing me to be creative.  It is forcing me to come up with different things on a day to day basis.  It is allowing me to grow a little bit each day.  Just like adding water to the bucket.  And when that bucket overflows?  Either movie deals or a wet head, not sure which.

Challenge yourself to be creative.  Challenge yourself to do something that stretches your mind for just a couple of minutes, but do it often.  Do it for a long period of time and see what changes occur for you.

Technology complexity and you

My girlfriend just IM'ed me from home: "I can see you on the TV monitor - would you please take off that stupid hat?"

Copyright Ed Yourdon (Creative Commons)

Many people claim that they are “geeks” or “nerds” or that they “understand technology”.  They buy the latest technology and love to show it off to their friends.

But how many of them actually know what the heck they are doing?

This really hit home the other day when a “gentleman” in front of me decided to park his car in the narrowest part of 108th street, right on top of a crosswalk.  He got out of his car, iPhone in hand, and talked to the first person on the street that came by.  Based on the fact that he had a slip of paper in his hand and that the person he was talking to was pointing down the street, my assumption is that he was getting directions.  He got back in his car, ignoring my stares and proceeded to follow the directions that the person gave him.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  I will mention again that he parked right on top of a crosswalk but that part isn’t germane to this conversation.  What is germane is the fact that he had an iPhone (distinct home screen) in his hand and was asking for directions.  Now I admit that Apple Maps may not be the most precise tool, but what about Google Maps?  Bing Maps?  Or half a hundred other mapping applications?  He had “directions” in the palm of his hand and failed to use it.

I will admit that sometimes the information is freaking hidden and is difficult to find.  For instance, did you know that in order to take a snapshot of the screen on the Samsung Galaxy S tablet you move the side of your palm in a left to right motion on the screen?  I do.  Now that is.  But trying to figure that out on the tablet itself?  Can’t be done.  Well, maybe it can be done, but it was so much easier to Google it.

Yes, I used Google as a verb as most people do.  (Microsoft employees are supposed to “Bing it”, but that sounds almost dirty.)  Googling something is really easy to do and quite often gets you the correct results.  (Instructions.)

But if you’re dealing with a smartphone do you even know what your smartphone is capable of doing?  Or, if we bring things a little closer to home, many of you use Outlook.  Do you really know how to take full advantage of Outlook?  I don’t.  I know that there are dozens of things that Outlook probably does for me, if I ask it to, but since I don’t know that it does it, I never ask.  What about your database server of choice?  Do you know what it can do or do you treat it like a just dumping ground of information?

Our lives are so complicated, our technology so complicated, that we invariably already have the necessary tool at our disposal to do a task, but we don’t know that we do.  Finding the information, the right information, is critical, but before that we need to know what questions to ask and there I’m stuck.

A Suspension of Disbelief

Copyright Jess Ruby (Creative Commons)

So, what makes a good story?

At it’s root is a “suspension of disbelief”. The person reading the story must be able to believe that the story is real. At least for the duration of the story. This is true regardless of whether or not it is a five minute parable about helping those less fortunate or a five hour novel about elves and vampires. Having the reader believe that it is true gives not just authenticity to the story but allows the story to have emotional power over the reader.

Although, to be honest, this is not just a writer / reader phenomenon.   Stories are part of how we communicate with each other. The stories that we embed in our presentations lend credence to the result. (You do put stories in your presentations, don’t you?) The stories that we tell of our childhood, regardless of their veracity, help others empathize with a particular point of view.

How we communicate, how we tell our stories, gives us the power to influence people and their thoughts.

I read a lot. I write a lot. But I have discovered that in much of my writing I am lacking an emotional viewpoint, I am lacking the piece that connects you and I together. The fiction that I try to write is somewhat cold and emotionless, not allowing the reader to suspend their disbelief. And there in lies my problem, for without that suspension of disbelief, even I don’t buy it and I wrote it.

So, what am I doing about it? To be honest, I’m reading a lot. I’m trying to see how “good” authors differ from the “average” authors. I’m trying to figure out what it is that gets me emotionally attached to a character and why I don’t care about others. I’m reading good books and I’m reading bad books.

But most of all, I’m listening to the inner me as I scream with joy or yawn with boredom. And I’m taking notes.

I Never Wanted to be a Manager

Innovating  Innovation

Copyright Steve Jurvetson (Creative Commons)

I remember when I was younger, sitting around the campfire with friends, roasting marshmallows for smores, and exclaiming loudly: “When I grow up I want to be a Manager.”  They all looked at me with wonder in their eyes: a Manager.  I had the audacity to want to become a Manager.

Ah, I can tell that you scoff at me.  You are ridiculing me for my desire to become a Manager.  To have my name extolled with the likes of Fred Seabrim, Joachim Soleonus and Archibald Jacobson.  Managers that have stood tall against the test of time and have never wavered in their undying commitment to manage things.

Not wishing to push people away because of my grandiose dreams I scaled back and instead dreamt of becoming a programmer, a developer, someone who would shape applications to become the tools for future growth.  I never saw the writing on the wall until the chalk board hit me in the head.  Developers don’t create applications, managers build them with developers just writing the code that creates the management vision.  A developer is a tool whereas the manager is the brain behind the tool.

Management is where all the cool things happen.  Where meetings are held to determine the course of the project, the company, indeed, the world.  Who gets invited to meetings?  Managers.  Who makes the decisions in meetings?  Managers.  Who is able to grasp the idea of client disengagement due to poor client experience and instantly come up with the idea that what we need is an app?

What better way to understand the organic processes happening within an organization than to become part of those processes themselves?  Imagine how much more a microbiologist could learn if they could make themselves as small as a microbe and follow it around, asking questions and generally learning about the microbe from the perspective of the microbe.

Managers.  Is there anything better?

Digital Detox

int/ext

Copyright Andrew Catellier (Creative Commons)

There has been a lot said of our reliance and fascination with electronic gadgets.  And while there is much to be said for the concept of a “digital addiction” this isn’t any different from other forms of addiction.  I think that what is missing, however, is an understanding of the content of the digital addiction.

For instance, it could be said that I have a digital addiction, as I am on my computer a lot.  While I would concur that I do spend a lot of time on the computer, I would contend that my use of the computer is quite different than that of other individuals.  For instance, I use the computer for writing.  I could use a notepad and pen for writing but I find that I can type faster than I can write.  Am I addicted to the computer, to the digital data stream, if I am using it to create things?

A true digital addiction, in my opinion, is when the user is continually consuming digital information with the corresponding creation of content.  And for content I’m not talking about the silly exchanges that occur between people:

  • Person One: Hi
  • Person Two: Hi
  • Person One: What’s up?
  • Person Two: Nothing.  You?
  • Person One: Same
  • Person Two: L8TR?
  • Person One: K

That is not “content”.  By content I am talking about blog posts (WordPress, Tumblr, etc.), digital media creation (YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, etc.) and other forms of content that require thought.  For lack of a better word:  art. A simple stream of consciousness does not, in my opinion, qualify as content.

So, are people addicted to the Internet, to digital media?  Oh, yeah.  I was having dinner with the family and friends a while back and there was a table near us that had six people at it.  Five of those people were on their smartphones looking up something, checking email, doing something other than interacting with those around them.  I’m sure that you’ve seen it too, maybe even been that group of people.

There is the idea that people need to go through a digital “detox” program, that they need to disconnect themselves from the digital world and reconnect with the people around them.  And while there seems to be a preponderance of emphasis on this digital connection, I’m not sure that the digital connection is actually the problem.  I think the underlying problem is a deeper desire to be part of something.

When I was younger I had few friends.  My dad moved every 12 to 18 months as part of his job with the railway and I was always uprooted and moved to different houses, cities or even provinces.  I never established relationships with people as I never knew how long I would be around.  As a result I took up writing stories.  Stories that I was in complete control over.  Stories in which I was involved in it’s creation and completion.  I was part of something.

Many people do not have this outlet and as a result in order to be part of something they attach themselves to what they can find.  Fifty years ago they would have joined things like the Rotary club or various church groups.  The digital age has given them an alternative:  digital clubs and groups.  These digital connections provide people with the feeling that they are part of a group.  Heck, I think that is why Facebook is so popular, people feel like they are part of different social groups and that satisfies their inner requirement for belonging.

A digital detox isn’t what is required.  What is required is an understanding of why we are so obsessed with being connected and what is missing.  Finding and connecting with what is missing will eliminate the requirement to be digitally connected.

Who’s in charge? You or your brain?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/125992663@N02/14601014695/in/photolist-48g4xm-5U2AQc-aqGTZT-49iWHe-6xb9Ws-8FTRy-6RwrC-6Fe8sm-5wxWqy-off1YF-92HT9A-8QdsRC-dgDcuK-2H2dKd-8dnMuZ-of4Z3W-niwG-of4Z2o-4Epycp-G9PtQ-61eaPC-jb66eP-5nzQc-5kpAF6-nLhP2E-oeXdZK-5jBQiu-epqjXb-nLhj1p-6JcP-5To6Cd-5XW3z-ioaos3-dmktpf-7qPG4L-6SCgsW-645D1o-AT9vd-9qioh7-eaUFP-3MZj-kdiB-88vUCB-j4tu5f-8TawLT-7kFnkd-dTDfAz-MrnE-h99Qu-cQV2DJ/

Copyright Allan Ajifo (Creative Commons)

Deepak Chopra has a SlideShare presentation on Taking Charge of Your Brain.  In it he states that there are a number of items that you can use to change the way that your brain interacts with the outside world:

  • Feed your brain positive input
  • Eliminate negative input
  • Practice good mental habits
  • Remain open to input as much as possible
  • Examine other points of view
  • Be self-sufficient
  • Harbor no secrets
  • Don’t judge yourself or others
  • One thing at a time (Avoid distractions and multitasking)
  • Don’t regret the past or fear the future
  • Redefine yourself every day

The one thing that I want to concentrate on is the “One thing at a time” item.  Most of us, at least those in relatively “modern” cultures, have a tendency of trying to multitask.  While we think we can multitask our brains are not genetically engineered to be good at multi-tasking.  Heck, computers don’t really do a good job of multitasking.

Have you walked down the street and had to step to one side to avoid running into someone who is trying to text and walk at the same time?  Have you ever been waiting in line for something and most of the line moves forward except for the person in front of you who is not paying attention to what they are doing?

Have you ever tried to read and hold a conversation at the same time?  If we’re so good at multitasking why is this an almost impossible task?  Sure, you can say that you read the article, but can you even remember the title?  And what was it that you just agreed to do for your kids?  And why is everybody talking about Chuck E. Cheese?

We don’t multitask well and that shows in the quality of our work.  We have two tasks, each one takes one week to do.  If we work on them sequentially we will get them done in two weeks and they will each be of a consistent level of quality.  If we work on both at the same time (it’s almost nice to say to someone “oh, I’m working on it”, rather than telling them that you’ll look at it next week) it usually takes us longer to finish both tasks and the quality is not the same.

We seem to think that working on multiple things at the same time, making us seem “busy”, is actually a good thing.  Really?  When is lowering your quality and increasing your stress level a good thing?  When is lying to yourself about what you can or cannot do a good thing?

We need to step back, understand what our limitations are and work within those limitations to the best of our ability.  Trying to step outside those limitations, while a good thing to try occasionally to see if your limitations have changed, does a disservice to both your clients and you.

Stand up to your brain and tell it that multi-tasking just doesn’t work.

Redefining Success

Buddha

Copyright Christopher Marks (Creative Commons)

One of the most important things to many people is being “successful”.  The problem is, however, that many people aren’t quite sure what success really means.

For many, success means having a fancy title.  Changing a title from Technical Architect to Technology Evangelist can go a long way towards making someone feel successful even in a job that they have had for many years.  Or it may be changing the title to more accurately represent the role that they play.  Instead of a Quality Assurance Tester they are a Customer Experience Representative.

Perhaps success means having enough excess money to go on numerous vacations or buy all the toys that they want.  This seemed to be the number one success factor for the Baby Boomer generation.

Success could mean being happy with the work that is being done.  Not just happy, but satisfied that you have done not just what you were asked to do, but you’ve gone beyond and done what you felt you needed to do as well.  I’ve done projects in the past where I did what I was asked to do, but I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the work that was done.  It was “good enough” to pass, but not good enough for me.

Perhaps success isn’t actually related to your job.  For some people they feel that they are successful if they have left the world a better place than when they found it, regardless of the job that they find themselves doing.  For example, there are people who decide that they feel more successful helping people, but in order to do so they need the time and money.  To get this time/money they have one job, but they only feel happy when they are doing another job, probably donating their time.  Many years ago I used to work with a guy who spent his days writing programs and his nights and weekends donating his time to various charitable groups.  His success was measured by the lives of the people he helped and not his own.

According to Ariana Huffington, in her book Thrive:

We think, mistakenly, that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in.

She also goes on to state:

The difference between what such success looks like and what truly makes us thrive isn’t always clear as we’re living our lives.

Her contention is that “money” and “power” aren’t the items that truly define success.  Success really comes from another factor that motivates us and helps us elevate our performance.  Another factor that helps us thrive in the world outside ourselves.

I kind of like that idea.