Here are the notes from my Warm Gun SF 2013 keynote, based on one of the stories from The Year Without Pants (An Amazon.com best book of 2013). Thanks to folks that were there for being a great crowd.
- The Data Paradox. No matter how much data you have, you will still depend on intuition to decide how to interpret, explain and use the data (See: Amygdala). Intuition is also used to pick samples, design queries, chose statistical models and define what outliers are. Underneath all of our rational intellect is intuition, which influences our “rational” behavior far more than we admit. Often data yields unavoidable tradeoffs where two or more options are equally viable and someone must make a judgement call beyond the data.
- No team or organization is Data-driven. Data is non conscious: it is merely a list of stupid, dead numbers. Data doesn’t not have a brain and therefore can’t drive or lead anything. At best you want to be data influenced, where (living) decision makers have good data available that they can use to help answer good questions about what they’re doing, how well it’s being done and what perhaps they should be doing in the future. All data has bias and blind-spots and a truly data-driven organization will drive itself into the ground chasing the illusion of purely objective truth.
- Data is a flashlight. Data gives you specific information about a singular vector of information. Data, like a flashlight, is only as useful as the person wielding it and the person interpreting what it shows. It has no magical powers. To get good information you want multiple sources so you can triangulate information and compensate for the inherent biases each kind of data has. For example A/B testing can tell you things customer interviews can’t and vice versa.
- Ban the phrase “The data says.” Data can’t say anything for the same reason it can’t drive anything: data is inert. People, including data experts or growth hackers, can never speak singularly for the data. At best they are interpreters, offering one interpretation of what the useful narrative story derived from the data is (if there is one at all). Better experts yield better interpretations but never is their interpretation the only one available. If every anyone utters “the data says” they are pretending data can have a singular interpretation which it never does, and this false faith prevents the asking of good questions, such as: is there an equally valid hypothesis based on this data that suggests a different conclusion than yours? (The answer is often yes).
- Cognitive Bias pollutes our view of data. We know our brains are kludges, vulnerable to optical illusions. We also have blind spots in our cognition called cognitive biases. The most common one regarding data is confirmation bias, where we seek only to validate our preconceptions and stop doing analysis as soon as we have a singular hypothesis that supports our assumptions. Another dangerous bias is narrative bias, which is our attraction to stories. We love stories that are easy to understand, easy to say and that make us feel good, and will project these stories into data compulsively.
- Cui Bono -”who benefits?” Who paid for this data? What was their reason for paying for it? What ambitions do they have? Certain outcomes of data benefit the people asking for the data and the people who capture the data, biasing the results. In political elections it’s common to see competing campaigns find very different data for who is in the lead, each finding their own candidate in front. Another example is how company founders will select data that makes them sound the best when pitching for funding (And VC firms will listen for the kinds of data they want to hear). Generally in life when you’re confused about why a strange decision was made, or there is grand incompetence, or nothing is happening at all, ask cui bono?
Also see: Data Death Spiral
I’ve previously written about how covers should be designed (See How To Design A Great Cover).
My fifth book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and The Future of Work, has the most polarizing cover of all my books. Many people love it and many hate it. Here’s the behind the scenes story of how it was designed.
The design of a book cover naturally follows the title of the book itself. The odds of a a strong cover rise when you have a strong title to work with (See The Truth About Book Titles for my approach to choosing book titles). Stronger titles are simple, clear, short and attract attention.
Most publishers, and not authors themselves, lead the the cover design process. It’s a surprise to most readers, but often authors have little say about the covers their books get. I’m always very involved and it’s something I’ve earned with four popular books and a design background: I always make sure the publisher knows, before I sign, that I’ll be centrally involved.
From How To Design A Great Cover, I reused the four principles in the cover design discussions:
- Bet big on one visual concept
- Title should be readable in online thumbnail / 10 feet away
- Simplicity wins
- Be bold: it’s better to have some people love it and some hate it than be bland and have no one care at all
Once the title was chosen I made four quick and deliberately rough mock-ups to get the design conversation started.
The first one has an image from No Pants Day, an annual event around the world. The last two use an amazing photo by Paul Zollo, who was kind enough to let me use it in chapter one of Confessions of a Public Speaker. I wanted a design that was playful and put nudity or the notion of being naked in a funny and social context, rather than in a sexual one.
Adrian Morgan was the lead designer from Jossey-Bass, and he generated most of these mockups and did the final version of the design. He did an excellent job of exploring widely different directions, which is the only way to arrive at something strong. The biggest mistake in the early rounds is only considering a narrow range of similar options.
One challenge the titled created was it was about the absence of something: The Year Without Pants. The challenge, as fun as it was, was to figure out how to show the absence of something. Here’s the first round of mockups with brief commentary from me.
This was good, until you notice where that left hand is.
We liked this, and eventually made many variations of it, but there was always something creepy about the figure. We tried to do something more like the cover of Naked Statistics, going for cute rather than creepy, but it never quite worked.
This was interesting, but had little to do with pants or any other concept really (why is this on the back of a shirt, other than it looks interesting?) It didn’t take enough advantage of the opportunities for fun or surprise that the title provided.
The grey, yellow, white palette is strong, and surprising in a positive way for a business book. This was a strong candidate. It did hint at the smell of old gym shorts, but since the underwear was a background element, rather than in the foreground, it worked.
This one made me laugh the first time I saw it. And it still does. What kind of mad man wears bright red underwear? (I’d learn later you you can buy them here). It’s provocative, simple, bold, polarizing and raises questions, all things the book itself does.
Round 2 Voting
I often invite readers to vote on big decisions. It’s useful even if I don’t end up going with the most voted choice, as you folks always offer thoughtful comments and help me think about what I’m trying to do.
This time I picked 5 of the options with my editors at Jossey-Bass and let people vote. 367 people voted and the red briefs came in first by a small margin.
Round 3 (WordPress logo)
One direction we wanted to explore was incorporating the WordPress logo into the design. Since the book is about working at WordPress.com it was natural to try. We experimented with a few options, including swapping the red briefs, which I knew some people hated, for the safer option of blue boxers. I pitched it to Matt Mullenweg, but he made clear the logo was a trademark and basically impossible to use in a context like this.
Forgetting the book for a moment, I think WordPress boxers would be a big hit in the WordPress swag store, don’t you?
This last design was far too July 4th (red, white and blue) but it was a worthy experiment, and then very worthy of killing.
Round 4 (Refinement)
With the logo out of the running, we returned to the red briefs and refined the details.
We abandoned putting “WordPress.com” in the waistband as the design was cleaner and stronger without it: the white waistband almost underlines the title. We cleaned up various leading, kerning and spacing bits (Matt Thomas, Creative Director at Automattic at the time, gratefully lent me his eyes) and made the main title heavier, with tighter spacing.
I also mocked up different sizes which made clear a smaller object in the center worked better (We went with the middle version).
Round 5 – Final
And here is the final design.
Impact: The cover contributed to the movie
I’d planned to do a movie trailer for the book and the cover design gave us plenty to work with (watch to the end):
If you have a theory of what a good cover is, you’ll be disappointed at how little impact covers seem to have on the success of books. Go look at the top selling books on Amazon.com - you won’t find any consistent cover design theory at work here. Many books with bad covers sell well, and many books with great covers don’t. We love to argue about cover designs, but in reality we buy books because of our trust in who recommended it to us more than anything else.
But of course I do think design matters. These behind the scenes posts take time to put together, and more importantly they illustrate how much effort I put into thinking about the book covers themselves. It’s a singular image that will be reused thousands of times to represent the book.
By using the design four principles:
- Bet big on one visual concept
- Title should be readable in online thumbnail / 10 feet away
- Simplicity wins
- Be bold: it’s better to have some love it and some hate it than be bland and have everyone not care at all
It has been much easier to have fun with branding and promoting this book than any of my others. Even at the book launch party it was easy to invite friends and fans to have some fun, and reuse the briefs, the colors and the ideas from the book in all sorts of crazy and entertaining ways and I expect that to continue.
I’ve had people tell me they’re afraid to read the book at work, or give it to coworkers, because of the cover, which is fascinating. It’s just a pair of ridiculous underwear! We are all wearing underwear right now (one hopes) in all workplaces across the globe. If your organization can’t handle a bright red book, or is terrified of the existence of undergarments, I doubt the challenging stories and ideas about management, work culture and creativity in the book itself will go over well either, which perhaps suggests the cover is doing its job of representing what the book is and who it might be for. But it’s hard to know: what do you think?
I just returned from two weeks vacation in Japan. It was the first true vacation (no email, no lectures, no working) I’ve had in a long time. One highlight was the day trip we took from Kyoto to Hiroshima. We hadn’t originally planned to go to Hiroshima, or to be in Kyoto either actually, but when the opportunity arose I jumped at it. I love going to places that are well known in history, but that few people I know have ever been to (e.g. Little Big Horn).
The first surprise is Hiroshima is a large, pretty and healthy city. I didn’t have specific preconceptions, but I was somehow surprised to find a vibrant urban area of over 2 million people. The Peace Park is the historic area where many memorials and the Peace Memorial Museum, the name for the museum about the city’s WWII legacy, reside. It was easy to find the park as the Peace Boulevard leads from the train station straight to it.
As the history goes, on Monday, August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m The U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb used during wartime, and it exploded, by design, 600 meters above the ground at Hiroshima. 80,000 people were killed instantly. Another 100,000 or more died within a year. The reason the bomb was detonated above the ground was to maximize the impact of the explosion. It was aimed at a T-shaped bridge, a bridge that still exists and is part of the park (I crossed it to get there).
The location where the bomb exploded is called the hyper-center and you can find it a few blocks away from the Peace Park. On an otherwise ordinary side street of parking lots and office buildings, there’s a small monument describing the significance of where you’re standing.
One reason I wanted to go to Hiroshima was to stand in this spot. A thousand questions were on my mind as I stood there. It seemed so ordinary a place in the moment, but looking up and imagining that bomb falling and what it would do was inexpressibly complex. It was mostly horrible, but wonderful for intellectual curiosity reasons, to be able to stand there.
The first building hit by the bomb was this one, called the A-Bomb dome (formerly called the Hiroshima Commercial Exhibition Hall). They debated whether to restore it or not, but chose to leave it as a monument to what happened. It has been preserved to look like how it looked right after the bombing.
At the peace museum are detailed diagrams and models of the city, before and after. Here’s what it looked like before the bombing. Notice the t-shaped bridge at the top. To it’s right is the A-Bomb dome.
And here’s what it looked like after.
The biggest and most pleasant surprise from my visit was how the Japanese have converted a horrible episode from human history into something positive, without skipping past the difficult parts. The peace museum tells a balanced story of WWII and the bombing itself, leading visitors through rooms about the current nuclear weapons treaties and the effects of nuclear radiation on citizens.
But the park is called the Peace Park and Memorial for a clear reason: they want to use their example to prevent similar horrors from ever happening again and they did an excellent job of making that the clear theme in the experience of visiting the place. They did a far better job at this ambition than any other historic war site I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many.
It seems mandatory that young students visit the center, as they were there in busloads. The primary frustration I had with the Peace Memorial Museum was having to navigate around gangs of Japanese kids. Even outside the museum we met many groups of children in the park and they were curious about foreigners, which was great to see. I’d say hello as they passed by in groups, and they always laughed and waved back at me.
Many of the younger students had assignments to talk to foreigners and practice their English. They asked me where I was from, what my name was, and what thoughts I had about the museum and world peace. It was a highlight of the entire trip to meet these children and talk with them for awhile.
One section of the park is dedicated to the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young survivor of the blast who was hospitalized as a young girl with radiation related health issues. She believed in the legend of 1000 cranes, that if she folded 1000 paper cranes, she could have any wish granted. Her story became a legend after her death and thousands of children have made paper cranes to honor and remember her. There are display cases with some of them in the park near a statue dedicated to her and other children who were victims that day.
There’s an online petition, sponsored by the museum, that calls for the reduction of nuclear weapons in the world. You can sign it here.
Selling books is hard. It’s a surprise for most writers, even experienced ones, how much harder finding people interested in your work is than writing books themselves.
So last month while I was on book tour, feeling down on my luck as I walked from a lecture at the Foursquare office to another one at NYU, I was surprised to notice a man on the corner selling poems. I’d certainly heard of street poets before, but I couldn’t recall ever having seen one in person. Born in NYC, I know the rules of the street. You don’t stop for anything. To stop means you are from somewhere else and are easier prey.
But stop I did. How could I not stop? What could be harder than selling writing on the street? And poetry no less? This must be a superior writing creature I thought, and I had to talk to him.
I stood and watched for awhile, and soon he came over to me, asking me not to block one of his signs. He said, with a smile “it’s hard for me to sell poems if people can’t see the signs, you know?” And I understood exactly what he meant as I was in town putting up signs of my own. I told him I was a writer myself, and we talked for awhile.
We talked about our favorite writers, our favorite poems, and all the while I couldn’t believe that there, in the middle of my tour, I’d meet someone that was having a harder time with this writing thing than I was, but yet who was more committed to his work than I was too: I didn’t have the courage to sit on a naked corner and pitch strangers on my writings.
I’d learn later his name was Donald Green. He’d been written about in the New York TImes years ago, and was a rising star, doing readings of his work on the radio and TV. He’s fallen on harder times, and his life on the street has been documented in various articles about him. He told me his family has always helped him pay for a place to stay, and he is living this life by choice. I wasn’t sure how much I believed him, but it didn’t matter.
I offered to buy his books of poems, and he offered in return to write me one on the spot. He asked for a topic and I told him: Serendipity.
A Positive Sign, By Donald Green
So A fellow writer,
I feel, a poet as I.
Though I hear from this writer, one of prose,
and of non-fiction, and of “how-to” this and that,
but just as I began the writing to him I felt the poet,
Wallace Stephens comes to mind,
The unusual in art,
as my sister’s textbook said,
or some thing of the kind,
a successful businessman, a successful poet,
perhaps Scott, the same with you?
Oh, stay alive, time can reveal?
But our meeting serendipitous?
God above or destiny, or life’s way, deemed meeting?
Flow like much of life Scott, serendipitous?
Just chance? Just accident?
Show how much is meant?
Is everything SET?
The force or life, or God has it all planned?
How much even is in ones own thinking? feeling? whether bad or good?
I hope Scott, sincerely, I,
as a poet, and of a true poet,
A bearing of truth about life,
A giver of the beautiful language,
a most often challenging language,
so I hope I am as a poet,
A POSITIVE SIGN
of the truth you see and can gather.
And the success as a writer,
and the peace life can bless someone with,
and the protection from God, or life’s good side,
in a wild world with its danger.
You can download it here (1.2 MB PDF). It’s a great handout for event organizers to give to their speakers. Pass it on.
The third leg of The Year Without Pants book tour will be in the San Francisco bay area the week of December 9th.
If you’re interested in hosting me to speak about the book at your company, organization or meetup, drop me a line.
- I try to do 3 or 4 lectures a day, with slots at 10am, 12pm, 3pm, 7pm each day.
- I want to speak to the biggest crowds I can – I fit well into company speaker series
Currently booked for:
- Tuesday Dec 10th, 12pm-1pm, Autodesk, Inc.
- Tuesday Dec 10th, 7pm @ BayChi (doubleheader!)
- Wednesday Dec 11th, 12pm-1pm TBA
- Thursdasy Dec 12th, 12pm, TBA
- Thursday Dec 12th, 6pm, Tech Xploration @ PayPal
You can get in touch here.
Tim Krieder, author of the excellent We Learn Nothing, wrote in the NYTimes recently on why it’s a mistake to work for free, in an article called Slaves of the Internet Unite. I don’t agree with him and here’s my response:
- There are kinds of compensation other than cash. Exposure and experience are valuable forms of compensation. Sometimes these rewards are more valuable than cash. If you were a guitarist and could play a gig with U2, without pay, would you do it? I’m sure you would. No amount of money could equal the exposure you’d gain. How much exposure is worth working for free is up to you to decide, but any wise person has some amount where it’d be worth it as the only form of compensation.
- Any offer should be considered for its total value. Like Krieder, I get offers to work for free. I reject many of them but some I take. I base my decision on the total value of the offer and I recommend everyone do the same. To reject all non-cash offers limits your opportunities. Many non-cash offers will be lame, but some will be worthwhile.
- There are many paid jobs that are unfair. Being paid does not guarantee fairness. You can be paid far too little, or even be paid fairly but asked to give up most of your rights to the work you made. Negotiations for writing, music and film contracts are largely about control over different kinds of rights, and not just revenue.
- If I could work with someone I admired, on a fun and challenging project, I’d certainly consider doing it for free. Or if the idea I’d get to work on was interesting to me and the opportunity was the only way I’d likely ever do the project.
All the posts on this blog are free. Many videos of my lectures are free to watch. My Twitter and Facebook accounts let fans read things I write for free. Every guest you hear or see on radio and TV shows are never paid anything and when I’ve appeared on these shows I was working for free. These are all creative works I am not paid for, but I believe the total tradeoffs of these actions are worthwhile, even if I don’t make a dime from them directly.
Would you ever work for free?
[This post is a revised version of this post]
I’m sitting in Kevin Hoffman‘s session at UI18 on Running Better Meetings. He makes good arguments about facilitation and visual thinking and how they impact the quality of what happens during meetings.
But after my experience at WordPress.com, where meetings were rare, I now struggle to comprehend how many meetings most workplaces have. What evidence is there that we need these things? Many people complain about how much time they spend in meetings, yet the meetings go on.
Even back at Microsoft I had this rule about recurring meetings: at meeting birth, it should be planned that they will die. They will stop being useful at some point. But many of us suffer through zombie meetings, that live on in an undead state forever. Often there is one person who feels powerful in the meeting, and they will keep feeding the zombie with the coworker’s brains just to preserve that feeling.
The frequency and nature of meetings is an artifact of culture. An organization with long, or frequent, status meetings expresses the micromanagement in the culture. I once worked on a team that had 2 hour status meetings every friday. You could hear souls dying, or killing themselves, every fifteen minutes.
Creative meetings with 10 or 15 people in the room expresses a lack of trust of creatives. Too many cooks, rather than a lack of talent, expresses why so many organizations produce mediocre work. You can’t find or deliver on a vision if a dozen people all have equal say on defining it.
All leaders bring with them a culture of practice around meetings. In every bad meeting there is usually only one person with the power to end it, or redesign it. Often only that manager needs the meeting, even if just to stroke their own ego, and as long as they desire it the meeting will continue, whether it’s needed or not. Someone has to stand up and say: can we try working without this meeting for a week, and see what happens? Even if the meeting returns, everyone will see more clearly what the true value it has for getting real work done.
Also See: The 22 minute meeting
I’m here in NYC all week on book tour for The Year Without Pants (full schedule here). There is nothing fancy about book tours: it’s all hustle, from organizing them, to living through them. I’m not Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, who maybe have everything arranged for them. For me I take charge or organizing and planning, using my network to find places interested in having me speak about the book. I work out a schedule, and then it’s all just showing up and trying to pack in as much as I can: often I give 3 lectures a day plus interviews and some lunches and dinners with old friends (or reporters interested in the book).
Tonight I’m at NYU’s Stern school of business and I hope to have more stories for you tomorrow.
Vivek Haldar wrote this thoughtful review of The Year Without Pants. His primary critique is there wasn’t enough focus on tactics and methods. In his review he asked a few good questions which I’m answering here.
Regarding his primary critique, I offered this:
Many people wanted me to write a pure “how to run a distributed company” book, centered on advice and techniques. I was certain this was a mistake, or at least a squandering of the opportunity I had. WordPress and Automattic are so interesting, and such an important example, in so many ways (a leading web platform, open source, no email, distributed work, etc.) that I knew as a writer I had to focus on their story, and the story of my experience as an outsider trying to become a leader in their culture.
I was given no restrictions about what I could write about or how to write it. A general manual for leadership, or distributed work, seemed horribly underwhelming given that this will likely be the only book ever written about WordPress.com. Honest insider accounts are rare, certainly written by workers involved in a project, rather than a journalist who had to trade honesty for access. Naming the book “The Year Without Pants” was meant to suggest it was about a year, rather than a manifesto for a particular kind of work, but perhaps that wasn’t clear enough.
The book is out, of course, so what I think it of it doesn’t matter much anymore. Each reader, like Vivek, will decided for themselves if they got what they wanted, or expected, from the book or not.
Q. how can an existing company either accommodate or make the transition to being distributed?
For general advice see How To Change A Company.
Chapter 15 of the book, titled The Future of Work Part 2, offers advice on the general way it happens: one person at a time. A worker has to say to their boss “hey, I can be just as, or more, productive if you let me work remotely. Let’s try it and see.” And then the boss has to say, “Yes”. If that experiment goes well, it will be repeated by others. This is the primary way change happens anywhere: two smart people agreeing to try something and then, when it works, agreeing to do it more. There’s no magic: just two open minded people.
It will usually be the youngest managers, on the youngest teams, at the youngest companies, that are willing to try new things first. They have fewer preconceptions and fewer things to fear. It’s no surprise most of the 100% distributed companies I’ve found are young software companies. But do consider that most remote workers on the planet are at large corporations (Aetna, American Express, IBM, etc.) where the financial payoffs of remote work have outweighed their fears. Someone at each of those companies had to be first to pitch the argument for experimenting with remote workers.
Of course a team leader, or an executive, can accelerate change if they have control over policies. But typically people with control over policies are conservative: they’ll wait for the existence of a highly productive and vocal minority with enough influence before even considering changing policy. If YOU, reading this, want to work remotely, it starts with you pitching your boss to give it a try. If they see it as a win for you to win by working remotely, they’ll naturally promote the idea.
Q. how can distributed work scale?
Automattic is currently about 200 people. I could easily see the company reach 1000 people, with 5 product units each with about 200 people in them. Everything within those units would be much the same as it is now. Continuous deployment is part of how Automattic works and it helps with scale: since new ideas launch regularly you rarely have large dependencies between teams. The challenge with scale is for leaders of each unit, assuming they existed (and the units were not self-organizing collectives as some people theorize as ideal), to avoid the traps of middle-management, and maintain the same employee driven autonomy the company has now, while keeping the company lined up well on strategy.
The history of work is useful here too. Read about the U.S. civil war or WWII or the Peloponnesian War. Armed forces in the grand wars of the past were intensely distributed, with thousands of soldiers working on what was supposed to be a singular strategy, separated by enormous distances. Messages were sent by runners and horses: ridiculously slow compared to Skype or SMS. My point is that there are plenty of examples of large scale distributed work if you look for them. My success and failures described in The Year Without Pants rarely hinged on my team being distributed or not.
Of course most companies fail. Most projects fail. We give a disproportionate amount of attention to absurdly successful things. If WordPress or Automattic fails in some significant way my first thought would not be to question the fact that they’re distributed, and the book does critique other elements of the company and the culture appropriately.
Learn from the Linux kernel. To me, the most successful large distributed team ever is the one that builds the Linux kernel.
Linux, and open source project management in general, is well documented. Karl Fogel’s Producing Open Source Software is excellent and examines many of the common challenges, with good advice for solving them. Although he doesn’t explicitly take on distributed work, most open source projects are highly distributed. WordPress and Linux share many parallels, with one strong founder as leader, a small number of lieutenants, and hundreds of individual contributors. The gate keeper role played by the founder and lieutenants is the key part of the story: it’s not as if any random contributor can make critical decisions on their own. It’s a hierarchy in the classic sense of the word, just with soft and open community based rules for how to become part of it.
I read Torvold’s book Just for Fun, and found it fascinatingly humble. He didn’t set out with the plan to create a phenomenon, an irony lost on all of the people who seek to merely copy what he has done with the hopes of replicating the outcome. I attribute much of his, and Mullenweg’s, success to CULTURE, which is why all of chapter 3 in The Year Without Pants is an examination of how the WordPress culture was created. Few technical founders pay sufficient respect to culture and it shows in how their organizations fall apart.
This week: Should we marry and have kids? From wifeof1momof2.
A fun one indeed. Either one is tricky, but together: FUN.
As many ‘should’ questions are, asking this suggests you are affluent. Historically, marrying and reproducing were necessary for survival, or improving your quality of life. In some cultures it still is: the only way to move away from parents is finding a partner, and the only way to maintain a household is to reproduce. If you have a real choice that’s a good thing. Be happy to have that choice as in the history of our species this is rare.
My take is simple: if it will improve you and your partner’s quality of life, than marriage is a good thing. If it makes you sad, or miserable, or mean to those around you, then it’s a bad thing.
It’s seems there are three kinds of people (these are sloppy but bear with me):
- People who are good at relationships and being married
- People who are happily independent their entire lives
- People who are miserable no matter what they do
The problem is we are slow to sort out which we are, if we do at all. This fact, combined with how Americans (and some other cultures) romanticize marriage, is a dangerous mix. We place enormous pressure on a marriage to solve all of our problems and deny how much we have to grow individually to approximate the imagined superhuman bond waiting for us on the other side of a honeymoon.
Having children is a taboo subject for many. We have deep built in urges to reproduce, as the only reason you exist is you come from a long line of intensely pro-reproduction genes (Your ancestors who thought reproduction was dumb didn’t pass on that opinion). It’s culturally assumed, for that reason, that you will. Your parents and grandparents will default to wanting you to reproduce. Some people who have kids don’t inherently want to do it: they just never stop to think carefully, or spend enough time observing how miserable (some) other parents are, or how poorly a job some otherwise fine people do at raising kids. We don’t think clearly about it or feel comfortable asking all the honest questions. That’s the danger of taboos.
One dumb thing is those who don’t live together before getting married. I bet trial runs at co-habitation lead to lower divorce rates, as either people sort out their real intimacy differences before marriage, and grow through them together, or they don’t and they don’t get married ((This data suggests the opposite, however). For nearly any other major choice we make, we do trial runs when we can. I don’t see why marriage, as a concept, should be different. Same for pre-marital sex. If you hope to have post-marital sex, you should probably have a go before you put on the ring.
Children, as a concept, is an inherently good idea of course. We need them. But that’s not really the question. At an individual level, most reasons I hear for having children are selfish. There is status and ego wrapped up in having children, as your annoying parent friends on Facebook prove.
Logically we have plenty of children around already who don’t get enough positive attention: Nieces, nephews, cousins, and neighbors. Helping out existing kids makes great sense – they’re already here and need help. Adoption seems sensible (recycling for people!), and so does mentoring (like Big Brother / Big Sister), or volunteering in any kid-centric community type thing. Helping children in need that already exist seems far wiser for the greater good than creating more of them.
And of course, we all know plenty of people around us who are lousy parents, and many of us had lousy parents ourselves. But somehow all these factors go out the window when we hit that magical 25-35 age when all our friends start reproducing. Biology takes over and we get busy.
It’s interesting to look at what I call revenge parenting - adults who want children so they can do something for their kids that their parents didn’t do for them. It’s a reproductive version of fighting the last war. If pops was never around for you, your insistence on being around all the time for junior might make you overprotective enough (e.g. helicopter parent) from junior’s perspective that he’ll wish mostly to undue what you did to him, and give his kids more independence, which is pretty much what you had in the first place. Children do not inherent our context – they have their own. Parents who forget this forget it because they make parenting about them, rather than paying attention to the particular needs of the child they actually have in front of them.
Like most major decisions, self-knowledge is the primary tool. People who know themselves well enough to get on well with a spouse, and understand their rational and irrational motivations (for wanting to reproduce), are best suited for successfully pulling off a family. Those willing to study other families to get the context needed to see the flaws in the one they came from likely do much better too. The best parents understand their own biases and urges well enough to indulge them without confusing them for a child’s interests or needs. And they have the means (time, patience and love likely more important than money) to provide a child with the tools and opportunities to decide for themselves what place they want in the world.
But to achieve the points of the last paragraph requires forethought and consideration few people apply to anything in their lives, much less the pleasures of procreation. If you’re seriously asking if you should, you’re well on your way to exercising the kind of forethought required to be a good Mom or Dad.
BusinessWeek asked me to use my experience at WordPress.com to offer advice to the future CEO of Microsoft:
Recently, I spoke with 300 smart and passionate Microsoft (MSFT) employees. Are you as open to change as they are? If yes, read on. I was invited to your company because of my book, The Year Without Pants, which tells my story as a former Microsoft manager who worked for a year at the eighth most popular website in the U.S.: WordPress.com, which is more popular than any Microsoft website, including Bing. These two companies are very different, yet one is on the rise and one is not. As a unique traveler between both cultures, here’s my advice:
It was a hard article to write, given how much history I have with the company. They asked me to take an angle that focused on WordPress.com, which forced me to leave out many stories and insights that came simply from working there for a decade and seeing what’s happened since I left. If anyone’s interested, happy to share more thoughts, just ask.
Like always, early on I invited you blog readers to suggest and vote on the book title. The working title for the project all along was The Automattic Year, (Automattic is the company that runs WordPress.com) but as the project moved closer to publication I didn’t think that title would work (you can read my general theory for choosing book titles). I asked my former coworkers for suggestions too.
Chapter 15 of the book offers one explanation for why the book is called The Year Without Pants: the title is an inside joke, referencing how WordPress.com lets all employees work remotely. The internal blog for my team often said at the top “Do you know where your pants are?” reflecting the irreverent humor that ran through my team and runs through the book.
But there are many serious reasons I chose the title. The book is a direct challenge of our biggest assumptions about work:
- Can an organization be productive without email? WordPress.com claimed to be.
- What work traditions no longer serve us? Do we need dress codes? 9 to 5 working hours? Are hour long commutes worth it?
- Are teams and managers necessary? Why? Until I arrived, WordPress.com had neither.
- Can I, as a “management expert”, successfully manage a team again?
- What new fangled things are younger companies doing and do they matter?
- How much of my own advice from my books and this blog do I actually practice?
I think the business world takes itself far too seriously and it’s a problem. It’s only when we strip away some of our assumptions that we can figure out what works and why.
Being naked means you have nothing to hide. I did this project to challenge our biggest assumptions about work, management and what the future will be like.
The title has fulfilled that ambition, as it has ruffled feathers and raised questions about everything on the list above and more. And I hope you’ll check out the book if you haven’t yet: it’s the most honest insider account and perspectives you’re likely to ever find in a business book.
My latest post for Harvard Business is about why consultants should return to traditional full-time work now and then:
I challenge all consultants to spend some time — at least a year — back in a “real” job, working shoulder to shoulder with the same kinds of people who pay for their advice. So few authors and experts are willing to do this, because they’re afraid. They know it’s much harder to be accountable for a real team, in a real company, for a real project, than it is to critique and advise from the safety of the sidelines.
In 2010, I decided I was guilty of this shortcoming myself. Though I had written three books, a decade had gone by since I’d managed a team or built a product. I had reached the point where no matter how many companies I visited or books I wrote, I couldn’t be sure how much of my advice was good anymore.
Side story: as I kid I remember the joy of stumbling on a movie on TV where I had no idea what it was and loving it in part because I had no idea what was going to happen. That almost never happens anymore. We are such proficient consumers now that we know far too much about films before we see them, and most reviews and previews are effectively Cliff’s notes versions of the stories. I need more film serendipity so I can have more film pleasure. Gratefully I didn’t know much about Gravity other than the trailer.
My theory of movie reviews is to share why people should see, or not see, a film without ruining it. Never tell the plot. Never give away anything. Good critics can do this.
Review: Gravity is good. The film Gravity is very good too (ha ha). You should see it. You probably saw a preview or a post and know it’s about space. This is true. I recommend the film for three reasons:
- It is a patient film. Any time a filmmaker doesn’t feel the need to jam every second with action, explosion or wisecracks it shows they have respect for the audience’s intelligence, and confidence in what images they’ve put on the screen. Gravity is beautiful and has many amazingly good looking scenes that will wow you in between moments when you are holding on to your seat, or sometimes while you are holding on to your seat.
- It is about space. I like space. I bet you do too. Most space films are very noisy even though, as we learned from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, space is very quiet. Gravity gets some of that realism about space right and uses a movie theater to transport you into what space probably feels like. There are some sequences that will make your jaw drop. This is what movies, in the grand sense, should do.
- Sandra Bullock. She is given a chance to give an authentic performance unlike most films you associate her with.
As with all movies about space I’m sure there are entire newsgroups dedicated to comparing the space physics in Gravity with real physics but I assume you go to see films with your suspension of disbelief filter set to on.
Definitely see Gravity it in the theater. I saw in in 2D since 3D is stupid (you know it is).
Beyond this blog, I’ve written for, or have been written about by, many places. Here’s the most comprehensive list I have: a combination of my by-lines and mentions by others.
- Fast Company: Life After Email?
- CopyBlogger: WordPress.com & Future of Work
- PandoDaily: WordPress.com & Future of Work
- The Examiner
- Brazen Careerist: Break The Email Chains
- Washington Post: Failure or Success
- USA Today: Kill buzzwords
- USA Today: What I read
- CNN/Money: Beat Stage Fright
- PandoDaily: All Hail The Archive
- The Guardian: This Column Will Change Your Life
- The Guardian: Master of The Obvious
- The Guardian: Social Media
- Wired Magazine: Books of the year
- The Wall Street Journal: Book Review
- The Wall Street Journal: Speaking at Saturn event
- The Wall Street Journal: You Call That Innovation?
- The Wall Street Journal: On Stage, Terrified
- The New York Times: Why We Get Ideas In The Shower
- The New York Times: Eureka It Really Takes Years of Work
- Busineesweek: Stop Trying To Reinvent The Wheel
- Businessweek: Good Beats Innovative Nearly Every Time
- Businessweek: How To Inovate in Investment Banking
- Lifehacker: The Three Piles of Life
- Lifehacker: How To Learn From Your Mistakes
- Lifehacker: Why You Suck At Inteviews
- Lifehacker: Confessions of a Public Speaker
- Lifehacker: How to Pick a President
- Lifehacker: How Priorities Make Things Happen
- Lifehacker: Debunking The Myths of Innovation
- Lifehacker: How to Kill Ideas
- Lifehacker: Strengthen Your BS Detector
- Harvard Business Review: The Greatest Product Demo
- Harvard Business Review: Should Obama create an Innovation Department
- Harvard Business Review: Interview with John Seeley Brown
- Harvard Business Review: A revolution for students
- Harvard Business Review: The Startup Story
- Harvard Business Review: How Recessions Drive New Ideas
- Harvard Business Review: The Necessity of Failure (CDOs)
- Harvard Business Review: Panic and What To Do About It
- Harvard Business Review: Idea Magic with Napkins
- Harvard Business Review: How Amazon and Apple manage Product Reviews
- Harvard Business Review: How To Learn From A Nuclear Missle
- Harvard Business Review: An Interview With Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani
- Harvard Business Review: Pandora and the End of Free Radio
- Harvard Business Review: How to Win By Studying Culture
- Harvard Business Review: Apple, Microsoft and the Limits of Leaked Memos
- Harvard Business Review: Should Top Workers Work Alone
- Harvard Business Review: Do You Experiment At Work
- Harvard Business Review: Was Your MBA Worth It
- Harvard Business Review: The Sub-Prime Crisis and Innovation
- Harvard Business Review: Why Innovation Is Overrated
- The Economist: Stop Saying Innovation [backup]
- The Economist: Ideas Forum / Myths of Innovation (speech)
- Forbes: The End of Boring Presentations
- Forbes: How To Be A Genius
- Forbes: The Importance of What You Say
- Forbes: How to Give a Great Presentation
- Forbes: Assumptions about Innovation
- Forbes: Rick Wartzman, Has Innovation Become Corporate Speak?
- Scholarly Kitchen: Stop Saying Innovation
- Joel On Software
- Slashdot: Confessions of a Public Speaker
- Slashdot: Smart People Bad Ideas
- Slashdot: How To Build A Better Browser
- Slashdot: Innovation in a flash
- Boxes & Arrows: Designing on Both Sides of Your Brain
- Boxes & Arrows: Prognostication Digitalis
- Boxes & Arrows: Demolition Derby
- AIGA Interview - Art of Discovering
You talk about having the right amount of “friction” – and that “few managers get it right.” Yet one person’s friction is another person’s fight. How can a managers engineer “healthy” friction ?
The book details how I managed one team in search of the right balance. Most management books are all theory – it’s rare to read a real manager, of a real team, actually trying to make it all work. More so than any theory, reading well written accounts of how real managers manage does more than piles of theory books in helping managers see what’s possible and how it’s supposed to work.
Think of the best teacher you ever had. Now think of the worst. Both gave homework, both gave grades, yet the feeling you had about those same activities was different with each of them. That’s the way a good manager needs to think. Trust is huge: you trust a good manager to have good reasons for pushing you, just as you would for a great teacher. And much like teachers, there is no quick tip that separates good managers from bad: it takes time, experience and patience to learn.
You say in this book “the bottleneck is never code or creativity; its clarity” Is this the biggest issue in the way for companies trying to move forward?
Any moderate sized corporation is a wasteland of indecisiveness: it’s all committees, review meetings and endless email chains. We all know too many people have veto powers. If you simply clarified who was the equivalent of a film director for a product, or a division, who was empowered to break ties, everyone would be freed to do better work: they’d spend more time actually working and less time fighting over turf. The Year Without Pants explores this in many ways, as the autonomy of the culture created bottlenecks of a kind all on their own.
What was the hardest aspect of working at WordPress.com for you personally?
I’m exposed in many ways in The Year Without Pants (ha ha). Underwear is one of the meanings of the title, but the best meaning is about stripping away all the BS we get distracted by, and looking at things, like work and management, as they actually are.
This book is honest and real: writing about coworkers and your boss is dangerous. It was by far the hardest book I’ve written. As an expert, my career is at stake in how well readers think I did at practicing what I’ve preached for a decade. And my coworkers who were there can challenge anything I wrote or said. I don’t know of any book that’s as revealing in so many ways about how work in the real wold is actually done.
Results vs. Process seems to be a theme…and yet process helps to keep politics at bay …and power distributed …are they really either/or ?
Only good processes keep politics at bay. Mediocre processes amplify politics by creating more turf and more restrictions. Any process should include a clause that defines when the process is no longer necessary. This never happens and the result is rules live on forever even after if their usefulness died years ago. Process should be a slave to results, but it rarely is. It’s often the other way around.
This is a really interesting observation : “Every manager is kind of a new experiment, and any experiment that goes wrong should change.” Do companies promoting someone to manager need to change what and how they evaluate success?
70% of all American employees are unengaged at work (Gallup 2013). All of those workers work for managers who are failing them. Management, as a discipline, is a failure: we are not, on average, good at it as a nation. We should be experimenting with the very notion of management itself: why not elect managers? Or promote them only on a trial basis? Or give the people who work for them the power to reverse a promotion? As wild as these ideas might sound I bet any of them would provide better results than that 70% number. The bar for management is that low.
As Americans it’s absurd how we never consider democratic principles for management. Instead we have a system modeled on what: monarchy? Oligarchy? I’m no radical, but I am open to other influences in structuring how the powerful are chosen at corporations.
It seems that storytelling, relationships, humor – ie the humanity of WordPress.com – is so consciously intented – and with great results. But didn’t they launch it with this in mind? How would a 200 year old company, say, with layers of tradition even begin to try to change its culture to get at a more meaningful workplace?
My story at Automattic is all about culture change: It was a suicide mission for me to introduce traditional management ideas into a company born of open source, independence and autonomy. I was an outsider with a radically different set of beliefs and experiences, which makes the core story of the book one about culture change: or at least my insane attempts to make culture change happen.
Any 200 year old company didn’t start that way. It was grown and you change a company the same way: you plant seeds and nurture them. One bright manager plants a small seed in their own team with some different rules. When they show better results than other teams, other managers follow. Soon there is a high performing minority and if the CEO has a clue they’ll invest in how to make that minority the majority. One way to read the The Year Without pants is “the year of attempting culture change.” How can an expert on management be useful in a place that doesn’t believe in management at all? That’s my story and that’s what the book is about.
Have a question? Leave a comment. Or read 10 Great Reasons to Buy The Year Without Pants.