Saturday, February 28, 2009

To Inspire, Be Inspired

How do you inspire someone? How do you get your employee, or your friend, or your child excited to put in the hours, sweat it out, and do what it takes to accomplish something memorable?

I think a lot of people have this question. A google search for 'how to inspire' turns up 18,100,000 results, with the top one being a Business Week post on 'How to Inspire People like Obama'. It talks about rhetorical devices, body language, and vocal delivery. What this and so many other management articles about inspiration seem to miss is that in order to be inspiring, you must be inspired.

Obama is not inspiring to people because he phrases things in a particular way, or says things with the right tone of voice. Sure, those can help, but the reason Obama is so inspiring is because his message rings with belief and honesty. He is inspired by his vision, and so by sharing it, we become inspired.

There are other effects as well. When you are inspired by the message you are trying to convey, you become more eloquent and passionate in how you talk about that message. I have never written better than during the late days of the 2008 primary campaign, trying to bring myself and others across the finish line to make Obama the Democratic nominee. I was inspired by Obama, and by the heroic efforts of all of the other volunteers who were trying to get him elected, and due to that inspiration I was able to inspire others.

So if you want to succeed in inspiring people, believe in your message! Find a vision of the future that inspires you, that makes you hopeful, and start telling the story of that vision. And if you're not doing something you believe in, perhaps its time to start doing something else.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Better, not More

I had a discussion the other day with a friend who was a little dubious about the value of economic growth. Her perfectly valid point was, "I don't need more stuff". I agree, I don't need or want more stuff either. But I do want better stuff.

This highlights why I prefer the expression 'Economic Progress' over 'Economic Growth'. Growth seems to imply more stuff, and as libertarian (and sometimes too bitter for my taste) econoblogger Mish has said many times, there are tons of things we don't need more of. Progress, on the other hand, can imply quality.

One of my favorite quotes about products is one I heard from Paul Buchheit (the inventor of Gmail & founder of FriendFeed) when I went to Ycombinator's Startup School a few years ago. He said something like:

To create something fundamentally different,
try adding the words 'that actually works' to things that already exist.

As in Google: Search, that actually works. Gmail: Email, that actually works.

If you think about the companies that are succeeding and growing right now, very few of them are offering more of something. Google doesn't offer more search or more ads than Yahoo, they offer better search and better ads. Facebook doesn't offer more than MySpace does, or Friendster did before it. It offers a better way to connect with the real life people you care about.

37 signals has even built an entire philosophy and an extremely successful business around doing less, rather than more, with a cult following among web software developers. Their products are simpler than the competition, and yet do incredibly well, by solving their core problems incredibly well.

So no, we don't need more things, we need better things. Faster access to the internet, better healthcare, a public transit system that gets you where you want to go when you want to get there. Energy that doesn't require us poisoning our land and air to create it. Economic progress, not just blind growth.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lighting the way

Sitting inside, listening to the rain and reading about the tragic losses in the lives of the four men comprising Abraham Lincoln's Team of Rivals, I am struck by the tragedy of the performance we are playing.

We struggle and struggle to improve our lot, whether our goals are as controversial as marriage equality, or as simple as food on the table. Years of hard work, of scraping away for advantage, and without warning the pernicious hand of nature strikes and we lose our loved ones, our homes, or our lives.

Lighting our way through hard times are the candle of hope we carry within us, and the soft glowing lamp of compassion held out to us by those around us, ready to relight our hope when it flickers and threatens to die. The knowledge that someone out there cares, that we are not alone, is what pulls many through the darkest night, and onward towards day.

For those who have never had their candles blown upon by the cold winds of misfortune, who are you to judge those who have? For those who are blessed with the support of many, leading them forward, let them reach out a hand to help those who walk alone. A simple gesture of aid, food on the table, may do more to rekindle the spark of hope then the most eloquent tirade against injustice. Give what you can.

One Dish at a Time

If you're like me, doing the dishes is not something that you look forward to. There's something about the stack of dirty dishes after a nice home-cooked meal that makes stupid internet games and blog reading sound ever so much more appealing.

However, by accident a couple of years ago I stumbled upon a technique for getting myself to do the dishes. I fully commit to doing exactly one dish, and no more. If, at the end of doing that dish, I feel like being done, I can be done. Somehow this limiting of the scope quiets my inner naysayer and makes it much easier to get started.

The funny thing is, once you've gotten started, its really easy to keep going. After each dish, you can commit to doing exactly one more dish, and it really doesn't seem so bad. Dish follows dish, and before you know it the bottom of the sink is visible.

This method works well enough that my fiance and I use it as a way to get ourselves to do all sorts of things we don't want to do. Need to write a paper thats due a little too far away to feel anxious about, or know you should be writing blog posts but can't get yourself to start? Try doing it one dish at a time. Just write the introduction. Just open the editor and write the title. Before you know it, you'll be most of the way done.

Now excuse me, I've got a dish to wash...

Monday, February 9, 2009

On Taking Notes

After reading Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, I've recently started keeping a notebook with me at all times, and writing down any interesting thoughts I have.

The underlying idea is that our mental processes have two distinct modes, one that is immediate and controllable, but limited and logical, and another that is asynchronous and unpredictable but extremely creative and good at nonlinear problem-solving and pattern recognition. Often these are referred to as left-brain and right-brain, though Pragmatic Thinking and Learning refers to them as L-mode (linear mode) and R-mode (rich mode). One of the biggest problems with R-mode though, is that the insights it generates can come at any time, and if you don't write them down you won't remember them, or be able to aggregate them.

At first, writing down interesting thoughts seemed like a bit of a stretch. I wasn't sure what qualified as 'interesting enough', and was a little hesitant to write things down. Once I got started, things started to improve.

First, writing a few things down about a thought seems to lead naturally into more details about that thought and more things to write about. I sort of knew this might happen; lots of activities have an activation energy where once you get started, they go a lot more smoothly.

The next effect was a complete surprise to me, though looking back, it was mentioned in the book. Once I started writing down the thoughts that the R-mode part of my brain was giving me, it started giving them to me a lot more! Its as if something has said, 'You're interested? Here you go!'. Thoughts about stuff for work, thoughts about philosophy, thoughts about thinking. They're all coming up more and more, and as patterns develop I learn both about myself and the world.

I had been feeling as though my general life learning curve had dropped off somewhat... but taking notes seems to have gotten me back in gear.

Hello World

I'm starting this blog because I felt too constricted by my self-imposed technology/coding straightjacket at Ruby Merriment and wanted to give myself a forum for more broad topics and explorations.

So of course, I'm opening with a coding joke. For those who don't know, the prototypical example that programmers use for any new system, language, etc is the 'Hello World' program.

The purpose of such a program is to verify that the system is at all functional, and demonstrate the (almost) minimum possible complete program. So as my minimum possible description of what this blog will be: Thoughts I want to explore that don't necessarily have a specific (e.g. technical) target audience in mind.