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

My sleep journey, year 1

2012/05/24 Leave a comment

alarm clockI have a love-hate relationship with sleep. I acknowledge that there are likely benefits of an 8-hour night of sleep, but there are so many exciting things to do while I’m awake! I spent most of my K-12/college years sleeping just enough to stay awake during (most of) class, which turned out to be roughly 6 hours per night. A few years ago, I tried an experiment with polyphasic sleeping, but it proved to be a tough adjustment to fit into my unpredictable schedule. I might revisit polyphasic at some point (I like the everyman 3-nap), but for now what should I do? If sleep affects my overall health, as well as athletic performance and creative productivity, how can I optimize my sleep habits to maximize those outputs, while maintaining the smallest possible input?

About a year ago, I decided to start collecting some real data on my sleep habits. I found an app that provided some basic sleep data (for the curious, Zeo is a much better option). Once I started collecting data, I found out that my average night of sleep lasted about 6.5 hours. With this baseline, I set a new goal: 7 hours. As of yesterday, 373 days into the experiment, I achieved my goal of averaging 7 hours of sleep per night! You can see some of this presented on my personal dashboard, or check out the full source data.

So, how did this data collection help me increase my sleep average? For starters, “what gets measured gets done“. Simply keeping track, actively paying attention, helped me increase my amount of sleep. An even more effective tool (and you’ll see this if you look at my source data) was providing myself with timely feedback on fluctuations in my sleep time. I chose a basic analysis: a running weekly average for my sleep. I decided to alert myself whenever this weekly average fell below 7 hours. Typically, I have greater control over when I go to sleep than when I wake up, so my countermeasure was to “go to sleep before midnight”. Since I implemented this countermeasure, I’ve found it easier to maintain a consistent sleep pattern.

A missing piece of data in this process is a performance-related dependent variable. While I’m excited that I was able to increase my amount of sleep, I haven’t found a good means of measuring long-term health or professional performance improvements. Anecdotally, I do feel more alert throughout the day, I don’t fall asleep during meetings/lectures/etc, and I have been reasonably healthy over the past year. For the next phase of this process, I would like to find a means of correlating changes in my sleep to quantifiable life-performance data.

By the way, if you like this kind of stuff, you should check out the Quantified Self event happening during this Fall’s IdeaFestival in Louisville. I’ve been working with Chris Hall to bring together some of the leaders in quantified self from this region, as well as a few special guests, to share stories of personal experiments and insight on the latest tools.

User-friendly cities

2012/05/13 1 comment

What is a user-friendly city? We say that the iPhone is user-friendly, but what about Washington, D.C. or Madrid? The concept of designing from a user-centric perspective is common in the creation of web and mobile applications. There is a whole field of User Experience (UX) designers who take a holistic approach to optimizing the “system of systems” that make a product. A major focus of my company is helping people navigate unfamiliar indoor spaces, so I look at the world through this lens all the time. But who does user experience design for our cities? For whom are we designing? And even if an amazing design is created, how does it get implemented amidst the dynamic cultural, political, and economic flows of a city?

There are increasingly-many similarities between web and mobile applications and cities. Both often start as small endeavors, experiments cobbled together out of necessity or a dream of a better way. Sometimes they stick, attracting citizens and snowballing. Sometimes they die, fading into just another line in a history book (or Wikipedia entry). Sometimes, they turn into something entirely unintended by their founders:

  • SF: Spanish mission to gold rush boom town to silicon valley.
  • Shenzhen: fishing village to financial center.
  • Burbn: HTML5 location-based service becomes top photo-sharing app.
  • MS Excel: intended for financial calculations, actually (ab)used for: lightweight databases, recording OSHA notes, list of b-day party invites

So, why do we have cities? What are they intended to do? Most cities are concentrations of economic and social activity collected under some form of governance, and many provide “systems for sanitation, utilities, land usage, housing, and transportation“. From this, we can derive that the intended users for cities are people (Note: while this may seem obvious to us, Douglas Adams asserts that an outside observer may be mistaken). But even if we can agree that cities are designed for use by people, who are these particular people? Are they permanent residents or temporary visitors? Are they old or young? What languages do they speak? What type of education do they have? Do they like Bluegrass music?

A major challenge for both cities and software is making changes amidst a large-scale deployment. Like a large enterprise application, cities have a lot of legacy features that must be supported, and a very broad user-base. It’s not easy to rebuild from scratch, without incurring a major service interruption, or alienating a significant group of users. While the existence of software is relatively new, cities have been around for much of human history. For most places, it’s likely that the original city founders are now dead. Even if they were alive, society has changed so much that the founders wouldn’t understand today’s version of their city even if they found a way to exist in it. Even for current residents, making drastic changes is painful. Consider how young Facebook is, but how much its users complain when the service gets a new feature (or kills an old one). What if we re-routed a major highway around a city? What if taxes disappeared…or doubled? What if food trucks show up? What if we un-bury a river through downtown?

My hope for improving the user experience of cities lies on making small changes, rather than big ones. The pilot projects that Janette Sadik-Khan and Mayor Blumberg run in NYC seem very similar to the iteration and experiments advocated by Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement. I’m also curious to observe a few technologists try their hands at designing cities, as the new Apple campus comes to fruition, designed in part by the late Steve Jobs. Online shoe mogul Tony Hsieh is knee-deep in recreating downtown Las Vegas, taking a gamble that he can transform a part of Sin City into a self-contained oasis for Zappos and its creative class friends.

I’m excited to be part of OpenLexington, a group of volunteers who work on open-data projects in Lexington, KY. Right now, I wouldn’t rate our city as very user-friendly. The roads are organized in an uncommon way, to get things done you often have to “know someone“, and our tight-knit social circles make it difficult for outsiders (eg UK graduate students) to integrate. With OpenLexington, we have the opportunity to greatly improve the UX of the relatively new digital infrastructure that co-exists with our city’s much older physical infrastructure. We’re starting with some small projects, like making it easier to find bicycle parking around town, and creating a web-accessible version of local restaurant health ratings. But someday, as our small actions accumulate, perhaps we can have a big impact, like making it easier for relocating families to feel at home in Lexington, or breaking down the artificial borders among our diverse population. Groups like us around the world are always looking for help, so if you grok this stuff, join in!

The Myth of Bike Lanes

2012/04/08 7 comments
bike lane

Bike Lane in downtown Lexington

Bike lanes are not for cyclists. Bike lanes are for motorists.*

I realized this following a discussion about shared-use roadways (ie the majority of non-Interstate highways and roads in America). I have quite a few friends who don’t understand my choice to ride a bike on the road, partly because the see it as a choice. Where I live, it’s often not a choice, it’s the law. With the exception of bicycle police, cyclists are not allowed to ride on sidewalks. That’s why they’re called sideWALKs, they’re meant for pedestrians. Thus, when I ride my bike on the road, I’m riding it where I’m supposed to be riding it. And, by law, I have the same privilege (yes, “privilege”, not “right”) to operate my human-powered vehicle on the road as those who choose to operate motorized vehicles.

When I’m riding my bike, I view myself as a person who happens to be on a bike. When I’m driving my car, I view myself as a person, who happens to be in a car. Between those two states, I view my life, my sense of urgency, and the importance of my travel to be equal. And I view the lives, deadlines, and importance of everyone around me, in cars, on busses, on bikes, and on foot to be equal.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the currently prevailing viewpoint.

When talking with friends who are motorists, but not cyclists, they consider their trips in cars to be more important than the simultaneous trips taken by cyclists. One argument is that cycling is multi-functional: while some cyclists are in the act of commuting, others are on their bikes for the purpose of exercise. And in this argument, commuting is considered to be more important than exercising.** While I disagree with that particular assertion, a more relevant disagreement is that the associated assumption that all trips in cars are for the singly important purpose of getting to work. Do these motorists hold the same disdain for fellow motorists transporting themselves in search of entertainment? Likely, yes. It wouldn’t surprise me if they also became upset when their potentially fluid rides are stalled by farm implements, and then show up to the ever-important work and eat a few corn chips, never making the connection.

I would assert that there are 3 reasons for which the journey of a particular vehicle on the road would be more important that that of other vehicles. First, emergency vehicles. There’s a reason they get flashing lights, and permission to blow through stop signs: they are operating in potentially life-or-death situations. Second, commercial vehicles (particularly, tractor-trailers). Think of something that you use in your daily life. Vacuum cleaner. iPhone. Banana. Socks. To quote a friend, “Almost everything you use in a day was on a truck at some point.” Often, those trucks are not just carrying Timmy’s stuff, or Susie’s stuff, but hundreds of people’s stuff. That’s important. Finally, buses. Sorry dude-in-a-Porshe, those 20 people on the city bus may not seem as stylish as you, but I’d like for you to convince me that their twenty lives have less collective influence on their world than your one. As you may have noticed, the importance I assigned here was not due not to some personified needs of the vehicle, but to the needs of the people that the vehicle was serving.

But maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe their frustration is misdirected at non-conforming cyclists, when in fact the true source of their frustration is an incorrect assumption about the predictability of our transportation system. I am guilty of this as well. When I am trying to drive from my house to a destination that is 30 miles away (separated mostly by rural highways), I mistakenly expect that this journey will take me only 30 minutes. But I am wrong. There are all sorts of factors, like stoplights, detours, accidents, and…traffic that can make my trip unpredictable. In fact, this unpredictability is the norm, although I tend to fool myself into thinking that it is the exception.

Which brings me to traffic. Traffic moves according to what I like to call the slowest common denominator (SCD). In my definition, this means that the slowest vehicles in a traffic flow determine the average speed of the traffic flow. This defies the assumption that aggressive, fast drivers are in control of the road. I have yet to see one of these vehicles successfully push traffic forward, bulldozer-style. Yet, I’ve been caught behind many an meandering, elderly motorist who has taken complete control of the rate of traffic on a two-lane road.

And this is where Bike Lanes come in. Bike Lanes are not for the benefit of cyclists. Bike Lanes are for the benefit of motorists. If sharing the road with cars were not a factor, a cyclist presented with the choice of riding in the normal lane or in the bike lane would be unlikely to choose the inferior, shoulder-esque mini-pathway. They would choose the main lane! The reason that bike lanes matter is because of cars. Bike lanes make it so that automotive traffic can continue with minimal impediment from cyclists. That’s right, bike lanes are a means of making it more fair for motorists, who wish to travel at a rate faster than the SCD of a bicycle. So, from someone who, whether I’m hypermiling or riding a bike, is often the SCD, you’re welcome 😉

* To avoid any unnecessary personal banter, I’d like to clarify that I distinguish the difference between a cyclist and motorist as the present (thus, temporary) selection of mode of transportation. Personally, there are different occasions on which I choose to be a cyclist, motorist, pedestrian, and transit rider. Regardless of this choice, I retain my own unique identity, not one assigned to me by my mode of transport. Sure, there are differentiating personality characteristics that people choose to associate with their preferred form of transportation, but we’re all just a flat tire away from being united as pedestrians 🙂

** I understand the economically-minded intent of the argument that commuting (to work) is more valuable to society than exercising. Yet, with the disproportionately high costs of healthcare, especially the reactive medicine needed to compensate for generally sedentary lives in America, I think I could make a case that the economically logical choice is that we all exercise for 30 minutes in the morning, and show up late for work.

What it means to be a fan

2012/03/26 1 comment

What does it mean to be a fan? I’m asking because I’m not sure that I’ve ever truly been a fan of anything. By virtue of living in Kentucky in March, I’ve had the opportunity to observe large communities of people who consider themselves to be college basketball fans. I have friends who avidly follow TV series, rock bands, comic book series, politicians, and even startup companies. They know every statistic, the histories of every character/player/musician, and they commit themselves to staying up with the latest news.

The closest I’ve ever come is being a fan is for science fiction author Michael Crichton. I read half a dozen of his (rather lengthy) books while in middle school, and continued through high school and college. However, I doubt that a true fan would fail to notice when the object of his fan-ness faded into the past-tense, as I did by failing to discover Crichton’s early death until six months after his passing.

Being a fan, a true fan, is indeed a commitment, one that often requires a good deal of time and money. One reason that I’m not a “fan” of being a fan is that I’d rather commit my time and money to activities in which I can actually make a difference. Since I was young, rather than watching sports, I preferred to be playing. Sure, it was cool watching the College World Series when I was growing up in Omaha, but every clink of the aluminum bat just made me want to leave the game and spend the rest of the afternoon in a batting cage, honing my own skills. That’s where I see myself now: rather than exerting my time and effort keeping up with someone else’s story, I’d rather be writing my own. Maybe this is a core difference between producers (ie makers) and consumers.

But we need fans. Kevin Kelly discusses how artists often sustain themselves by attracting 1000 True Fans. And art, music, theatre, and sports. These have been hallmarks of our society for millennia, and hopefully won’t disappear soon. And these institutions haven’t found a business model that allows them to survive without fans.

So, what does it mean to be a fan? If you are one, why?

How I know that Kentucky is going to win

2012/03/22 Leave a comment

Sorry to disappoint, but this post isn’t about basketball. It’s about something bigger: life.

My perspective is that of an entrepreneur, so my bellwether is the startup scene. But I’d argue that it’s a pretty good bellwether. At our core, we entrepreneurs are people who want to make the world a better place. We recognize problems, and instead of idle bantering, we create solutions. And we’ll risk everything to turn our vision of a better world into a reality. When you put enough of these people in a community, these powerful forces for artistic/musical/philanthropic/commercial good, life in that community gets better.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending two discussions on the relationship between entrepreneurs and investors in Kentucky. The first event was run by the Lexington Venture Club, who hosted a group of women entrepreneurs and investors from Lexington and Louisville. The second was through the Louisville Digital Association, who hosted a group of entrepreneurs and investors from Louisville and Lexington. That’s right, people from Louisville and Lexington, traveling to each other’s cities, on a random weekday in the middle of March, and passionately discussing something that isn’t basketball. What they discussed is much more important. Very few people are directly affected by the outcome of a basketball game. Nearly everyone is affected by technology. Nearly everyone is affected by the economy. And startups have a massive effect on both.

How do I know that Kentucky is going to win? Because we want it. Because we’re working together to do it. And we won’t stop until we get it.

PS: Check out the commentary from others – Nick Huhn, Forge (Adam Fish), Venture Connectors (Greg Gorman)

A new mental map for Lexington

2012/03/18 4 comments

I grew up in Omaha, NE which is geographically organized in a familiar Cartesian coordinate system (ie a grid). There are 8 major roads running East-West, and a series of numbered streets increase in value as you move from East to West. Once you understand this model of the city of Omaha, you can rather easily visualize where “156th and Dodge St.” is located*. I’ve struggled to do the same with my new home of Lexington, KY. It is neither arranged on a N-S axis, nor follows a common grid pattern outside of downtown. As I am involved in a company that provides indoor navigation services, I wanted to try my hand at designing for the outdoor world. Additionally,  improving the communication of the design of transportation systems seems to be a popular thing these days. So, I offer you the following as a potential alternative mental model of Lexington’s geographic layout:

Map of Lexington, KY

This map shows a quick overlay highlighting the major roads in Lexington. You’ll notice that there are roughly two rings around the city (New Circle Road is the inner ring, and  Man-O-War Boulevard/I-75** form the outer ring). There are also 4 major paths that cut through the city (I say paths because there are actually 8 named roads, more like spokes). If we assume that downtown is a finite point (which it is not), then these 4 paths intersect each other near the center of the concentric circles (there is a slight North shift in actuality).

Lexington's major roads in a simplified diagram

This happens to form the basis for a polar coordinate system, wherein we can describe any location in Lexington based on an angle from North, and a radius from the center point (or, as it works out in this case, CentrePointe). For instance, the University of Kentucky is located between 135° and 180° (ie South-Southeast) at a radius of 0.5 (somewhere between the origin point and New Circle Road, which I assigned the radius value of “1”). It is important to note that this is not a geographically accurate map. It might be better described as a diagram, similar to the famous London Tube Map.

Lexington in polar coordinate slices

Realizing that many people are less familiar with the Polar Coordinate system than they are with the Cardinal Directions, I decided to offer the city of Lexington chopped into 24 slices. These slices are formed from the directions on a 16-point Compass Rose, and a radius of 0 (inside New Circle), 1 (between New Circle and Man-O-War/I-75), and 2 (outside Man-O-War/I-75). Here, the University of Kentucky is located in SSE0. The amorphous green outer band is meant to symbolize the ring of horse farms that surround Lexington. The other colors were selected more arbitrarily (because I like RGB). If you have a keener eye for design, feel free to share something that uses color more purposefully, or at least aesthetically.

So, do I expect this nomenclature to catch on? Heck no! But armed with this oversimplified mental model, perhaps more people can start using a more colloquially-relevant Polar coordinate system to more concisely communicate locations in Lexington. For instance, I would describe the location of University of Kentucky as, “between Nicholasville Road and Tates Creek Road***, inside New Circle.” The Hamburg Pavilion shopping center is located, “between Richmond Road and Winchester Road, just inside Man-O-War Blvd.” I favor this method because of its precision. Based on my casual anecdotal observations, my proposed system must overcome the incumbent coordinate system, which is primarily landmark-based. Most people I have observed make references relative to UK, Hamburg, Fayette Mall, Lexmark, Keeneland/Bluegrass Airport. “Check out this new restaurant, it’s by the Mall.” While this is useful for conversations among locals, with sufficient local knowledge of these landmarks, I don’t think this helps as much for new visitors. However, it’s possible that I am wrong and that these major landmarks are easier to quickly commit to memory than the 9 major spokes (Newtown, Broadway, Winchester, Richmond, Tates Creek, Nicholasville, Harrodsburg, Versailles, Leestown) and two loops. As long as the landmarks maintain stability (I don’t think UK or Keeneland will be relocated any time soon), then these could serve as a reference mechanism as reliable as the named roads.

If you have any improvements to this model, please share them in the comments!

* A more widely familiar model than Omaha may be New York City. For example, Radio City Music Hall is located on W. 54th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue.

** In particular, I’m referring to the section of interstate where I-64 and I-75 are merged, as this helps complete the Man-O-War loop. For this model, I ignore I-75 once it splits back off and heads South, as this could be confused as an additional radius demarcation.

*** Tates Creek Road was not one of the the main thoroughfares listed in my model, but is certainly a major spoke in Lexington’s road system.

Creativity, and other buzzwords demystified

2012/02/17 Leave a comment
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.
Categories: Uncategorized

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.

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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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