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Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice

2013/07/08 Leave a comment

Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice

Barry Schwartz recounts a trip to the department store to buy a new pair of jeans, something he had not done in about a decade. The situation he encounters is different from what he recalls from his past: “All this choice made it possible for me to do better, but I felt worse. Why? I wrote a whole book to try to explain this to myself.”

He later concludes that an increase in choices meant an increase in expectations. When combined with his assertion that the best way to increase happiness is to decrease expectations, the abundance of choice paradoxically yielded a decrease in happiness.

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New Unit of Measure: the FayetteMall (FM)

2012/06/02 Leave a comment
Image of FayetteMall measurement

The FayetteMall, approximately 2000 ft or a 7.3 minute walk.

The FayetteMall (abbreviated FM) is a unit of measure roughly equivalent to 2000 feet. It is based on the distance from one end (Dick’s Sporting Goods) to the other (Macy’s) of the Fayette Mall in Lexington, KY.

A common usage for this unit of measure is when relating otherwise difficult to fathom distances in terms of the more familiar unit of FayetteMalls. For instance, the distance from Triangle Park to Thoroughbred Park in downtown Lexington is approximately 2 FayetteMalls. The distance from the Davis Marksbury Building on UK’s campus to Awesome Inc is just over 1 FayetteMall. Strongly associated with the unit is the average walking time to traverse 1 FayetteMall, which is 7 minutes, 20 seconds.

The creation of the FayetteMall as a unit of measure is intended to inspire more people (particularly those in Lexington, KY) to enjoy walking throughout their city as much as they do inside the mall. Most of the geographic area of Lexington currently suffers from a low WalkScore, however the downtown core has a score of 85, which is on-par with New York City and San Francisco. With increased awareness of the ease of walking in Lexington, as well as the association with a familiar, often-walked unit of measure, perhaps we can make Lexington an even better place to live.

If you’re into this kind of stuff, you should also check out WalkRaleigh (and the WalkYourCity Kickstarter project), SecondSunday, and OpenLexington.

Categories: Uncategorized

Creativity, and other buzzwords demystified

2012/02/17 Leave a comment
Technology_creativity
It has become common parlance to throw around words without truly thinking about their meaning. The worst offenders in this scenario are words known as “buzzwords”. It just so happens that three of these words, “technology”, “creativity”, and “startups” emblazon the front windows at Awesome Inc. As a co-founder, I owe it to you to break these buzzwords down into a clearer lexicon, explaining our intent in using them, as well as how they mesh with Awesome Inc’s Core Values (Be Good, Be Excellent, Be a Friend, Be You). While my role as Director of Labs at Awesome Inc may lead you to believe that I’m only qualified to discuss technology and startups, I assure you that is only a matter of the common misconception of these words. In fact, if I do my job well in this explanation, you will come to realize that you (the reader) are equally qualified to discuss the true meaning of creativity.
My favorite discussion of Creativity comes from Tom Kelley, co-founder of design consulting firm IDEO. Tom, whose portrait hangs on our wall at Awesome Inc, is known to refer to a longitudinal study of creativity in primary school students. In this study, a class of students is polled each year as it progresses through school. They are asked the question, “Do you consider yourself to be an artist?” From the outset, nearly all 30 students in the class respond with a resounding “yes”. It seems that Kindergarteners are inherently creative, and even have the finger-painted artwork to prove it! By the time this same group of students reaches 6th grade, there are but one or two individuals who are connected with their creative spirit enough to claim to be artists. What happened?
For me, creativity is the natural manifestation of one of our Core Values: Be You. Everyone is born with an inherent desire to be unique. Over time, societal forces (such as teenagers’ strong desire to “fit in”) can make us apprehensive to outwardly share our uniqueness. To conceal our unique selves, human beings often turn to consumption, seeking to create a definition of self through a series of consumption choices. We wear different clothes, listen to different music, drive a different car (or ride a bike!). While this is a start, I think this is a cop-out. Creativity is not produced through consumption. It comes from creating.
Longer than mono-term buzzwords, “adages” are frequently overutilized and under-understood phrases. One of such is, “It’s better to give than to receive”. When I was a kid, I used to think this solely in terms of gifts, which led me to mostly disagree with the statement. Any kid knows that it’s awesome to receive presents! But now that I’ve been on this planet for a quarter century, I realize that this is not just some assertion to justify redistribution of wealth. It is a path to happiness, paved by our two Core Values: Be Good, and Be a Friend. To create means to give of one’s self to improve the lives of others. And this will bring you a deeper, more lasting type of happiness than anything that you could possibly receive.
Artistic expressions are often recognized as the most pure form of creativity, synthesizing something tangible from what was once merely an idea. I agree with the lesson of Tom Kelley’s story, that everyone is capable of creating art (while too few believe in their own abilities). Yet, I also believe that creativity transcends traditional artwork. Let’s take food as an example.
For starters, food is a necessary requirement for sustaining human life. I live under the assumption that every human life is intrinsically valuable, and thus worth sustaining. Therefore, eating is a morally good thing to do (Core Value: Be Good). Eating tasty food also brings me pleasure, but this pleasure is limited, and fleeting. It’s brainless consumption. There must be something more satisfying.
The next stage of enjoyment for me comes from creating a dish. The spectrum here has a wide range. It starts with simply combining or heating pre-packaged ingredients. I get measurably more satisfaction out of baking frozen pizza than from a delivery pie. Even better is creating something from a recipe. Like playing a cover song with your instrument of choice, or reproducing a famous artwork, baking from a recipe is a way to share in the original creator’s creative experience. It involves the challenge of achieving mastery by properly performing the requisite steps. There is an awkward period when you’re but a novice, and your reproductions are subpar. But if you persist through this struggle, you emerge on the other side with a few scarred tastebuds from a worthwhile creative battle. This is the moment when you embody another of our Core Values, Be Excellent.
As good as excellence feels, it’s just not fully satisfying in solitude. Eating food with others, however, lifts me up onto another plateau of satisfaction. When sharing food (CV reference: Be a Friend), that assemblage of calories becomes something more. It becomes a meal. And the event of a meal is your creation (even if someone else cooked the dish).
The next echelon (but not the ultimate) is creating food from scratch. This involves making use of the lessons you earned through your unique voyage of imitation, and combining them into your own creation. This is where you share your personal essence and, uniquely, Be You (recognize that CV reference?).
The final stage of creativity (and you’ll notice that I planned our arrival here), is to combine all four Core Values (Good, Excellent, Friend, You). This final plateau is best explained in reverse order of how our CV’s are presented. Imagine this situation: you create an excellent, unique meal to share with other people. It sounds simple, but this example of an ultimate creative act captures the whole gamut of what we stand for at Awesome Inc. In creating a unique meal of your choice, you are Being You. By executing on your plans and producing a high-quality dish, you are Being Excellent. By sharing the event of this meal with others, you are Being a Friend. Finally, by ensuring that yourself and others are nourishing your bodies, you are Being Good.
With food as our specific example, let’s go back to the general case of creativity. Creativity is the process of using some combination of our four Core Values to produce something that didn’t exist before. This can be artwork, it can be food, it can be music, it can be events, it can be software. Creativity is Good (serves a purpose), Excellent (your goal necessitates a creative struggle), with/for a Friend (human connections yield meaning), and You (an expression of your uniqueness). But, while inherently intertwined, Consumption is not Creativity. In the same way that you cannot exhale by inhaling, you cannot create by consuming (Rule #2 – Luke Murray). With plenty of resources in the world to help you be a consumer, Awesome Inc stands as a beacon to help you unleash your creativity. While creativity was once a luxury, minority activity, it no longer has to be. Through technology (we’ll talk more about that relationship in a future blog post), anyone, including you, can create. And you should.
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Authentic Happiness, the Maker Movement, and The Future

2012/02/01 5 comments
A few years ago (back when I used an AOL email account over a dial-up connection) I stumbled across a mailing list called "Authentic Happiness Coaching". I don't remember exactly how I got involved, but it turns out that it was the early emergence of Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. His work, which has provided a foundation for a new branch of psychology called Positive Psychology, is a look at the optimization of human performance. Different from the predominant approach of psychology (and medicine, for that matter), Positive Psychology doesn't aim to fix problems by applying solutions. It instead provides a scientific insight into the ways that people achieve lasting happiness. While still young, this research already provides a useful framework: move beyond transient Pleasantness, and focus on achieving a Good and Meaningful life.

I thought that this theme deserved some additional attention after it has come up repeatedly in my recent reading and my present travels, as well as the basis for several new startups. I am currently visiting San Francisco for a month-long trip with my team from BuildingLayer. In addition to the excellent advantages for work (we've been able to meet with two of the biggest players in indoor maps while out here), I have been pressed further to answer a question posed by Kevin Kelly: what should the future look like?

One of the great insights of Kevin Kelly's book "What Technology Wants" is that the Amish, a people known for their abstention from many forms of modern technology, seem to have achieved a type of happiness that exceeds that of their tech-adopting peers in society. Why, with all the latest gadgets to make our lives easier and more fun, are we less happy? While this comfort may be pleasant, it is not happiness.

My friends at StartupDigest shared an article last week in which the author discusses the top three life lessons for entrepreneurs. His third lesson: "Don't fake happiness – it's impossible". The same sentiment is a core theme of Donald Miller's book, "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years". In it, Miller points out the difference between comfort and happiness. Those who achieve comfort have found Fool's Gold in the search for happiness.

To demonstrate this, Miller proposed a thought experiment in which there is a machine that allows us to experience the positive emotions of scoring the winning run at the World Series, heroically saving someone from a burning building, or actually going on a date with that attractive woman you saw at the supermarket. The limitation of this machine is that you would retain the knowledge that all your actions are not real. The realism is like in the movie Inception, but the dreams are not shared. They are lonely escapes where it's just you and your emotions. It turns out, happiness is not an emotion, but something more.

Miller's mythical machine, it appears, is more than just a figment of his imagination. Today's smartphones, filled with social features and game mechanics can induce feelings of comfort and pleasure in the brain. Good stories, as told by books, movies, music, and art have been doing this for centuries. They allow us to escape into a generated reality. But what they cannot do is generate happiness for the consumer. Miller refers to Viktor Frankl's perspective in "Man's Search for Meaning", which says that true happiness comes from having a purpose. And often purpose comes from overcoming something difficult. Sitting and watching a 2-hour film is not difficult. Miller also cites marriages where couples seek to maintain an eternal honeymoon period, only to realize that what they're seeking is a sure way to achieve emptiness. Real conflict and struggle should not be avoided, but enjoyed. While they make life less comfortable, they also make it more meaningful.

With these lessons of positive psychology, what if we embrace the theory that true happiness does not stem from comfort or pleasure, but can only be realized through a valiant struggle? If we seek to build a future in which more people can achieve happiness, shouldn't we aim to ensure that more people can engage in a worthwhile struggle? Past generations have found meaning through war, frontier exploration, and moving up the social ladder. I don't think we have much runway left on these struggles, at least not in the Western world. Our wars are heading into an era where they're fought entirely through information and by robotic proxy. I doubt that when a Predator drone gets shot down that fellow soldiers are united in grief. As for discovering Earth, we have mapped and colonized the entire globe. While there are opportunities to go deeper into the oceans or to build colonies in space, I think they will remain niche activities (while it took many millions of people to settle continents, only thousands worked on space missions, and only 12 humans have walked on the moon). As for upward economic mobility, it appears that our middle class has hit its peak, at least from a salary standpoint. Members of Generation X are earning less than their parents did. To this, I contest that it's time we start optimizing for a better metric: happiness.

My hope for the future is in unleashing creativity. The act of making stuff is the closest feeling to being one with God that I've ever experienced. That's why I'm an engineer and entrepreneur: this is the daily work that I get to enjoy. Taking an idea and turning it into a reality, whether it's art, music, food, or software, then living with the consequences and responsibilities of that idea incarnate: that's my best guess at the purpose of life. Even friendships, marriages, businesses, and countries are human creations. The most basic of our creations are simple: fleeting moments that become enduring memories. This is how we show love. By creating things that take the unique essence of each one of us and allow it to be shared unselfishly with others. And that's what I think the future is all about, in part because we have spent our past squelching creativity. Tom Kelley of Ideo recounts a series of interviews with school children. The children are asked, "Do you consider yourself an artist?" Starting in Kindergarten, nearly every kid considers him or herself to be an artist. Retesting each year, the results slowly dwindle until less than a handful of "artists" remain by the time 6th grade arrives. Our education and social systems are brutally effective at killing creativity, and instilling conformity. Our biggest opportunity for the future lies not in expanding outward, but inward. 

So, where does this tie back into startups and technology, the conclusion for which you've been looking? The future lies in enabling people to create. By enabling anyone to "create" a hotel out of their spare bedroom, AirBnB did this. Makerbots enable anyone to start their own manufacturing line. Codecademy enables anyone to experience the joy of creating software. My prediction for the future is that companies in these veins (facilitating commerce for creators, selling innovative tools (pickaxes) for creators, and educating creators) will find lasting success and disruptively carry us into the future. I am not as bullish for companies that enable us to better consume. While we are currently addicted to the media firehouse enabled by continuous connectivity, better uses of our time are not far off. To achieve a happier future, we must all become creators.

Categories: Uncategorized

A few book reviews

2012/01/21 Leave a comment
I like to read books. Here are a few I read recently. All but "What Technology Wants" were "read" in audiobook format, which I highly recommend as a book consumption method.

A mentor of mine, Sean Moss-Pultz, recently reflected on how Ayn Rand's magnum opus influenced him, a digital junkie, to reconnect with the offline world. For me, this book was both an accomplishment (longest book I've ever read?), and a foray into a lasting literary work. As for the political ideals, not sure that I agree with all, but as an engineer, I definitely side with builders over non-builders.

Kevin Kelly is awesome. He loves experiments, including using Google Hangouts to promote his book, and try out international videoconferences with his readers. Simultaneous invention theory stands in nice opposition to "hey, he stole my idea" bantering. I think typical Western society could learn a few lessons in curation from the Amish. I'm currently testing that out as I craft my own type of minimalism (most of my stuff fits in one suitcase, plus my backpack). The most important take-away was Kelly's challenge the mission to provide positive visions of the future.

First half of the book: Steve Jobs smells insanely bad. Second half of the book: Steve Jobs is successful, but too crazy and immature to stay with his company. Third half of the book (it was long): Steve does not become much more likable, but does turn his vision and hard-earned maturity into a set of products that people crave, eventually creating the world's most valuable company. The main lesson I learned is not how much I wanted to imitate Steve Jobs' personality traits, but how much I admired Steve's ability to not try to imitate anyone else. He was truly great at being consistently himself, and that is an admirable thing, especially in an age when fashion is dead.

Jim Collins does it again. Actually, this is the first one of his books that I have read, but I've heard good things about the others. Most of the book is summed up by this personality triangle: fanatic discipline, productive paranoia, empirical creativity (with Level 5 Ambition at the core). The concept of a "20 mile march" uses Amundsen's South Pole Expedition as an example to illustrate the classic tortoise vs hare adage. Yet, clarifies that the tortoise's victory was earned through discipline and consistency, not the dumb luck of being slower. Collins also advocates firing "Bullets, then cannonballs." Jim would agree with Eric Ries on this one. Bullets are low-risk, rapid feedback experiments. Cannonballs are the pivots based on the learning garnered from the bullet experiments.

Ok, I'll admit that I was skeptical of Eric Ries. While the advice he dispensed on his blog seemed solid, I've had this perception of him as a snake oil salesman, starting a movement only to profit from it by selling his books and pulling down speaker & consulting fees. And while that may all be true (and as an entrepreneur I may see through it, but still commend him for it), the fact is this: his book is good stuff. I studied Lean Manufacturing in college. The University of Kentucky has a strong Lean program due to its association with Toyota. Oh yeah, and I worked for Toyota for a while. Yet, somehow I thought that all that work only applied to manufacturing tasks in the automotive industry, and had no relation to my current work. Wrong. The Lean Startup is a brilliant look at how to apply the scientific method to help a startup company experiment its way toward product-market fit. Ries' stated goal is to improve the likelihood of success for startups. That's an audacious goal if I ever saw one, as startups are known for their overwhelming likelihood of failure. But if startup founders actually adopt the core philosophies that the book proposes, that goal might be realized.

Following these, I've had enough of business books for a while. I'm going to stick to the practices in Great by Choice and Lean Startup (which not-so-coincidentally advise against the premature scaling that kills most startups), and enjoy reading about anthropology, the elements of story, and the science of happiness.

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Mom directing Dad & the St. Bernadette men’s choir at Christmas Eve Mass

2011/12/24 Leave a comment
Photo_122411_001

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There is no such thing as a free lunch. Not even on the internet.

2011/12/17 Leave a comment
A large chunk of the internet is allowed to exist because it is supported by an advertising business model. Instead of users paying directly for services, brands pay for the opportunity to market their goods and services to users. Yet, even with a third-party in the value chain, users still pay a price for their free content and digital services: we pay with time and attention. And while neither of these is properly valued, time and attention are two of our most valuable, non-renewable resources, and we should be more careful with how we spend them.

Advertising is not inherently unproductive. In fact, the "Patron Saint of Advertising" is none other than Benjamin Franklin, one of the more productive figures in history. I personally benefit each day from ad-supported productivity tools (Gmail, Google Maps, LinkedIn) that I am able to access because they are supported by this business model. But a few of my smarter friends are staunch advocates of Adblocking tools, and I'm starting to wonder if they're on to something.

Time is something that interests me greatly. My business exists for the sake of saving people time. As an entrepreneur, I have come to respect the fact that while money, talent, equipment, customers, and real estate can all be replaced or swapped out, time has finite, unchangeable limits. Advertising consumes a measurable quantity of my life. How many years worth of TV commercials have I sat through? For what percentage of my daily commute am I listening to the radio (yes, I still listen to terrestrial radio) and hearing ads, not music? Even interstitial ads on major news sites or popular YouTube videos bite into my time.

Attention is a bit less tangible, and more difficult to measure. Back in June, I realized that I had developed a good control over my time, my control over my attention was subpar. One factor that was affecting this: sleep. About 6 months ago, I was notoriously opposed to sleeping. This summer, I decided to start tracking my sleep, with the goal of moving my nightly average from 6 hours to 8 hours (I'm averaging over 7 for December). The result: I've felt more focused throughout the day, I have been more productive (currently quantified by percentage of daily goals set, then achieved). Because of the way that time and attention work in concert, I am actually producing more during fewer hours of work. So while I haven't quantified attention yet, I know that it has an affect on my productive output similar to time.

All of this goes to say that we should not take for granted the things (like advertising) that can sap away our attention, and thus cost us the human energy we need to be a productive society.

Three productivity articles from this week that helped inspire this post:
7 Things Highly Productive People Do (hint: they don't get distracted)

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