Layover = In the Bubble

I missed my 5PM flight from LAX to Portland, so I am sitting for a few hours in the airport. It has provided me some time to continue reading “In The Bubble” by John Thakara which is turning out to be very stimulating. I am not really sure where he is going with his discussions about the social and environmental impact of design (industrial design in particular) but it is fascinating.

Thakara rightly points out that we are all designers – that is the nature of being a human – trying to create our world. He describes the shortfalls of our speed focused society. In fact, he derisively uses the phrase “Further, Faster” which was actually the motto of one of the companies I used to work for. Each chapter takes on a different aspect of design and starts by pointing out the current challenges we face and then points to some designed solutions. I find the arguments regarding the challenges we face compelling, but the solutions less so – perhaps they will get better as I read further.

For example, in the second chapter, “Speed”, he describes our current infatuation with faster delivery and the un predicted side effects of this obsession. The ability to move people and goods over greater distances both faster and more cheaply has resulted in massive waste of resources. Thackara proposes that much of our focus on speed is related to our fixed notion of time – clock-based absolute time that determines our patterns and expectations. Although he mainly contrasts our situation with historical examples of time management (before the clock) the way he framed the issue got me to thinking about the nature of time in my life.

Like most people, I work according to a schedule. Even when I was not working, my day was divided by the clock (drop the kids off at 8:30 and 8:45, appointment at 10 AM, Lunch at 12, pickup at 12:45 etc…) and the world around me functioned in a similar manner. These times do not really account for the cycles of my life – what if I the kids are tired at 8:30, or I feel like taking a nap at 2:30PM during the middle of my workday? These things are just unacceptable and we learn from an early age to live by the clock rather than our natural rhythms. It is easy to say that our natural rhythms are just nostalgia for a bygone era, but our physiological patterns have not really changed that much in the last few hundred years (although the stress we put on those systems has).

So what is the solution? Could a company really function if it took into account the circadian rhythms of it’s employees by encouraging sleeping when you are tired, meeting when you feel social, focusing when you feel analytical and creating when you felt inspired? How would you design a workspace that encouraged this kind of natural flow? Maybe that is where Thackara is headed…

Took the Test…

In a recent post I mentioned how I was reading “Now Discover Your Strengths” but had not taken the test yet. Well, I went ahead an sprung for a new copy of the book, complete with an active test code. I had gone through the themes in the book and decided which ones applied to me but the test only agreed with two of those choices. Here is the complete list of my “themes” according to the exam:

Woo(As in “Winning Others Over” not “Woo-woo”)
Woo stands for winning others over. You enjoy the challenge of meeting new people and getting them to like you. Strangers are rarely intimidating to you. On the contrary, strangers can be energizing. You are drawn to them. You want to learn their names, ask them questions, and find some area of common interest so that you can strike up a conversation and build rapport. Some people shy away from starting up conversations because they worry about running out of things to say. You don’t. Not only are you rarely at a loss for words; you actually enjoy initiating with strangers because you derive satisfaction from breaking the ice and making a connection. Once that connection is made, you are quite happy to wrap it up and move on. There are new people to meet, new rooms to work, new crowds to mingle in. In your world there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet-lots of them.

Excellence, not average, is your measure. Taking something from below average to slightly above average takes a great deal of effort and in your opinion is not very rewarding. Transforming something strong into something superb takes just as much effort but is much more thrilling. Strengths, whether yours or someone else’s, fascinate you. Like a diver after pearls, you search them out, watching for the telltale signs of a strength. A glimpse of untutored excellence, rapid learning, a skill mastered without recourse to steps-all these are clues that a strength may be in play. And having found a strength, you feel compelled to nurture it, refine it, and stretch it toward excellence. You polish the pearl until it shines. This natural sorting of strengths means that others see you as discriminating. You choose to spend time with people who appreciate your particular strengths. Likewise, you are attracted to others who seem to have found and cultivated their own strengths. You tend to avoid those who want to fix you and make you well rounded. You don’t want to spend your life bemoaning what you lack. Rather, you want to capitalize on the gifts with which you are blessed. It’s more fun. It’s more productive. And, counter intuitively, it is more demanding.

You are generous with praise, quick to smile, and always on the lookout for the positive in the situation. Some call you lighthearted. Others just wish that their glass were as full as yours seems to be. But either way, people want to be around you. Their world looks better around you because your enthusiasm is contagious. Lacking your energy and optimism, some find their world drab with repetition or, worse, heavy with pressure. You seem to find a way to lighten their spirit. You inject drama into every project. You celebrate every achievement. You find ways to make everything more exciting and more vital. Some cynics may reject your energy, but you are rarely dragged down. Your Positivity won’t allow it. Somehow you can’t quite escape your conviction that it is good to be alive, that work can be fun, and that no matter what the setbacks, one must never lose one’s sense of humor.

The Strategic theme enables you to sort through the clutter and find the best route. It is not a skill that can be taught. It is a distinct way of thinking, a special perspective on the world at large. This perspective allows you to see patterns where others simply see complexity. Mindful of these patterns, you play out alternative scenarios, always asking, “What if this happened? Okay, well what if this happened?” This recurring question helps you see around the next corner. There you can evaluate accurately the potential obstacles. Guided by where you see each path leading, you start to make selections. You discard the paths that lead nowhere. You discard the paths that lead straight into resistance. You discard the paths that lead into a fog of confusion. You cull and make selections until you arrive at the chosen path-your strategy. Armed with your strategy, you strike forward. This is your Strategic theme at work: “What if?” Select. Strike.

You want to be very significant in the eyes of other people. In the truest sense of the word you want to be recognized. You want to be heard. You want to stand out. You want to be known. In particular, you want to be known and appreciated for the unique strengths you bring. You feel a need to be admired as credible, professional, and successful. Likewise, you want to associate with others who are credible, professional, and successful. And if they aren’t, you will push them to achieve until they are. Or you will move on. An independent spirit, you want your work to be a way of life rather than a job, and in that work you want to be given free rein, the leeway to do things your way. Your yearnings feel intense to you, and you honor those yearnings. And so your life is filled with goals, achievements, or qualifications that you crave. Whatever your focus-and each person is distinct-your Significance theme will keep pulling you upward, away from the mediocre toward the exceptional. It is the theme that keeps you reaching.

I had actually picked myself for both Woo and Significance, but I thought my other themes were Ideation (creating new ideas), Learner and Communication (although I realize that my writing may not reflect this attribute!). More on how I plan to use this information in a later post. For now, I can say it is a worthwhile exercise.

Great Movie – My Architect

I am not really a huge fan of the family documentary – for example, “Pop and Me” and “Tarnation” were not my favorite films. Even though both these films were lauded for their personal perspective and innovative direction, I just found them both disjointed (okay, so maybe that was the point with “Tarnation”). This is not the case with “My Architect” a son’s story of his father, the renowned architect Louis Kahn.

My Architect is easily the best documentary I have seen in many years. The story is woven with both emotion and a compelling narrative – I really felt I was being drawn in to the filmmaker’s world and gaining an appreciation for Kahn’s genius at the same time. The cinematography is amazing and the filmmaker clearly has both an eye for architecture and knows how to tell a story with the camera. It was both moving and inspiring – definitely give it a look next time you are at the video store.

I was also struck by the parallels between Kahn’s life and that of Buckminster Fuller (although Bucky was never mentioned in the film). Both men were full of creativity and contradictions between their family and professional life. Both created artifacts and ideas that have withstood the test of time. I am continuing to read “Buckminster Fuller’s Universe” and this film gives me a different perspective.


One of the things I discovered during my sabbatical was the concept of unlearning. Although I have not seen this name put on it specifically the concept is the challenge presented by learning a new task is really about UNLEARNING old patterns rather than learning new ones.

In his book, On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins (inventor of the PalmPilot and Treo) talks extensively about how our brain stores patterns. According to his model these patterns are stored at various levels in the neocortex. The lowest level in the hierarchy stores simple patterns while the higher levels have the capability to see the big picture. An example he gives in the book has to do with reading. When you are first learning to read you start to recognize individual letters. Eventually you can recognize whole words made of these letters (once you learn the word and you no longer need to actually read each letter, you just see the whole word). And once you are truly comfortable with reading you will start to see entire sentences. For example, you may notice that when you are reading a book to a child that you change or leave out certain words. Your brain is recognizing the meaning of the sentence and does not worry too much about each individual word (much less each letter).

These patterns are built up over time in the wiring of the brain. Each time you successfully use (or encounter) a pattern, the wiring for recognizing (or using) that pattern is further cemented in the brain. For the low level patterns that you encounter all the time (letters, words, faces, etc..) you have very strong wiring indeed. Marcus Buckingham in “Now, Discover Your Strengths” talks about how your brains build up these connections (wiring) until about the age of 16 and then we start to rapidly lose about half of those connections over the next few years. Buckingham uses this information to back up his theory that we need to focus on our strengths – the wiring that remains after we lose all that extraneous stuff.

It also follows that the highest levels of the neo-cortex are also the ones that most under conscious control. The lower levels in the hierarchy just happen they are firmly engrained habits that we don’t even notice much of the time. This is a good thing because many complex tasks would be nearly impossible if we were conscious of all underlying unconscious control required. If I consider how to move each of my fingers while I am typing this, I will have a heck of a time finishing another word.

That is the challenge presented when you try to unlearn a way of doing something. You are trying to change those patterns in the brain that you have relied on for many years. Changing the wiring for these patterns that your brain so efficiently ignores is very difficult – Buckingham would say it is not worth pursuing. I agree to a certain extent, but when you do need to learn a new pattern (which may mean unlearning an old one that has been “successful” so far) there is a strategy that I have found effective.

The strategy relies on what I have learned through my Alexander Technique lessons. Alexander Technique is about gaining “conscious control” of the self. But I have experienced it as a process of “unwiring” the habitual patterns developed over time. Alexander Technique undoes deeply ingrained patterns (such as our posture) by bringing conscious attention to it, releasing the old pattern and rebuilding a new one. It is an arduous process and takes dedication to see progress. When it comes to how you “use” yourself I think it is actually worthwhile to do this unlearning. But I also agree with Buckingham that putting in this kind of effort to see marginal improvement in an area where you never will truly excel.

Blue Ocean Strategy

Blue Ocean Strategy is proving to be an interesting book. I am only about 35 pages into it but it has already captured my attention with the case studies that it uses: Cirque de Soleil and Casella Winery are the first two (appealing to my background as a street performer and winemaker). The thesis of the book is that there are two main types of market strategies – Red Ocean and Blue Ocean. Red Oceans are the standard competitive strategy, a carefully calculated balance between price and value to beat the competition. Blue Oceans are entirely new markets created by throwing out old assumptions and resulting in the ability to drive both price and value together. Cirque de Soleil is given as one example of a Blue Ocean strategy – when Cirque started they did not even compete with Ringling Brothers or other circuses because they opened up a new market (meaning new customers) with a new experience (somewhere between circus and theater). They were able to drive both value for customers and increase price above that of a standard circus.

This is a particularly exciting idea for me at the moment as I am considering a new business venture – although very casually at the moment. This concept of creating a completely new market fits in with the business model that I have been devising with a few close friends. I am not very familiar with standard marketing strategy (other than having read a bunch about technology marketing) so Blue Ocean is both intriguing and challenging for me to read.

Latest Happenings

Since I just sent out a mass email that mentioned this blog, I figured I should post an update on goings on around our place.

After Oracle took over PeopleSoft (where I used to work) in January, I resigned my position and took 6 months off of work. You can see the ensuing hair colors below – being unemployed has that effect on me. I really enjoyed my sabbatical, but the money had to run out eventually and I found a great position with a much smaller company called Guidewire Software. I am doing a fairly similar job to my last one – helping sell software by explaining the benefits to customers. It is a very good role for me.

As for the family, you can see below that Caleb is learning the Unicycle (he is now in third grade) and Anna is in her second year of Kindergarten. They both still enjoy going to school (we will see how long that lasts) but they preferred when Dad just stayed home instead of traveling for work. Caleb has often said “Dad, why do you have to work?”. I have not come up with a compelling answer to that one yet. Meta (my wife) is pursuing an education in Eurythmy, which is a Waldorf inspired movement form. She is also keeping the household running smooth, especially when I’m on the road.

On a personal front I continue to practice yoga on a regular basis and I go to Alexander Technique lessons from time to time. Although the new job slowed down my reading a bit I still manage to get a good book in from time to time (see review below). Add to that learning to unicycle (I was inspired by Caleb) and life is very full for me at the moment.

Latest Reading: Now, Discover Your Strengths

I have been stuck in my reading for some time – working on the biography of Buckminster Fuller for some time now but it has been slow going. I decided to take on a lighter topic in the form of “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton. It is the sequel to “First, Break All the Rules“. It follows a pattern of my favorite business books (i.e. “Good to Great“) in that it is based on lots of research condensed down. In this case it is based on Gallup study of 2 million people regarding how they do their work.

I have found the book enlightening in several regards. The thesis is that every person has particular talents (strengths) that have little to do with knowledge or skills. They are base talents such as communication, positive attitude, analysis, command, responsibility etc… The authors put forward that most of our culture is focused on shoring up weaknesses rather than enhancing our strengths. They suggest that the attitude that anyone can learn anything is preposterous – individuals have talents in particular areas and can achieve near perfect performance consistently in these areas. To expect that anyone can learn the same level of excellence in an area where they have no innate talents does not make sense.

I am inclined to agree. I have particular strengths around communication and I have used this strength in my current career helping to sell software. I am also strong in creativity and learning new skill, and I have leaned on both of these talents in most of my working life. I do have many weaknesses, but as the authors suggest, I have spent more time figuring out how to minimize these rather than actually trying to develop mastery of them. For example I don’t like to spend lots of time on analysis – going through every minute details of a problem before coming to a decision. Rather than trying to learn this unique skill I have instead depended on others around me that do have talent in this area.

The most beneficial part of the book for me so far has less to do with understanding my own strengths and more to do with recognizing strengths in others. I have often wondered why people just can’t see the vision that I am trying to communicate or why they take such apparently “wrong-headed” approaches to a problem. But by understanding each person’s unique strengths I am better able to understand how they view the world.

The style of the book is a little annoying – it takes a decidely “self-help” approach to delivering information – constantly repeating the same idea in a dozen different ways. But there are still some great ideas through it’s chapters.

By the way, the book comes with a free “Strengths Test” administered through the web. I actually did not take the test because I bought the book used and the test associated with my copy had already been used. So if you want take the test, you will need to purchase a new copy.

Like son like father. Or so I wish. I have been inspired by Caleb’s progress on the unicycle and have decided to learn as well. As you can see in this video I still have a way to go. Posted by Picasa