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Breaking the Conference Enthusiasm-Cynicism Cycle

Conferences are a great place to reignite/rekindle the passion for one’s job.  Not only are the speakers passionate, inspirational, and engaging, but they also often have straightforward and concrete ideas for how to get real work done better and easier.  There is a positive knowledge and attitude transference that takes place and true feelings that “those are really good ideas,” “they did it and so can we,” and “let’s go home and implement that.”

But just as easy as it is to get fired up and excited to try new ideas, it can be just as easy to fall back into old patterns of behavior.  Those positive feelings diffuse, dissipate, and attenuate.  What is quickly learned can be just as quickly and easily forgotten when not put into active practice.

But is there some way to break this Enthusiasm-Cynicism cycle? Is there some way to move from learning toward changing? It is the classic problem of how do you go from learning anything toward really changing behavior.

Here is just one idea/suggestion where conferences are concerned. That real change as a result of attending a conference is possible, but it takes more effort than simply attending a conference. The people who were sent to the conference must be prepared to put in some effort when they get back. To repay their organizations that sent them, the attendees should be compelled to give their own presentations when they get back. In these they should provide a quick abstract of the most important things they learned (i.e. not just a raw dump of everything, but a few, most useful things to them). Then they should suggest at least three (3) things that their organizations should change as a result.  From this can flow a group consensus, a plan for change, concrete tasks, and some agreed-upon vision for getting the typical organization inertia moving and transforming.

Then maybe the next time that conference comes along next year, you’ll remember some of the positive changes and concrete by-products that resulted from last time and feel even better about the investment.


The Top 3 Most Influential Software Blogs

It truly amazes me that many of the sites that I use every day (I am thinking of sites like Stack Overflow and Github here) were inspired/influenced/created by a very surprisingly small number of people (and I suspect that this is also true of most other industries). 37 Signals taught the core concepts of the software business & project management (that entrepreneurs are really “starters,” that businesses need to be paid for/sustainable, and many other simple, common sense, yet truly inspiring concepts that they captured in their books ReWork and Remote), Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky taught the importance of software writing and of creating a community. There are probably many other inspirers to choose from, but these are probably the best inspirational/informational blogs to read if you were forced to pick a true top 3. Even though they may not always be actively maintained today (mainly because of the success of their founders) – if you have never read, then reading their “greatest hits” will still be truly illuminating, inspiring, & educational:

Rethinking College

I really like it when people actually stop to think about and question long-held assumptions. Certainly one of these assumptions is that “you should go to college / going to college is always good for you.”

To my knowledge, there are only 2 people in my memory who have challenged this widely-held belief. One was Woody Allen in the movie Annie Hall when he quips “Everything our parents said was good for you is bad: sun, milk, red meat…college.”

The second was Google’s head of “People Operations” Laszlo Bock who was profiled in a recent Thomas Friedman opinion article in the New York Times and several others that built upon this article. My favorite Bock quote was that too many colleges “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.”

We’ve long suspected that the inputs to college in terms of time, money, effort, and brain cells don’t often meet the outputs we seek in terms of knowledge, work ethic, creativity, and many other important character attributes. Now, companies seem to be realizing this as well.  As Friedman points out that Google “has so much talent it can afford to look beyond traditional metrics” but I suspect that Google is not the only company to come to this realization about college.

People who truly seek to develop themselves might do better to look somewhere else – the military or volunteer opportunities being just 2 examples. We need to change the goal and assumption that merely “going to college” is enough or even that it is always beneficial. Instead we need to restate and remember that the true objective and real end goal is to “become as smart, educated, and industrious as you can be.” Unfortunately college, as it is currently conceived and executed, is probably not where this is going to happen.

Guiding Principles and Questions You Should be Able to Answer

I really love brief lists of principles/questions that are able to succinctly capture the myriad life lessons of some really complex settings and scenarios. I have included 3 of my favorites below. They demonstrate some really important core principles as well as some questions you should be able to answer if what you are doing is at all worthwhile. They also show that there is no one-size-fits-all list. Senator Mikulski’s list is great for dealing with the pace and inefficiency of the Senate, 37Signal’s list is great for working on short term projects, and the “5 Questions” list is great for addressing some more abstract life goals.

“BAM(US Senator Barbara Ann Mikulski)’s Principles” 

1. We cannot always guarantee an outcome, but we can guarantee an effort.

2. Always be clear about: “What is the objective we seek?”

3. Goals should be specific, immediate, and realizable.

4. Just move it.

37Signals Rework (“Reasons to Quit” Chapter):

1. Why are you doing this?

What is it for? Who benefits? What is the motivation behind it?

2. What problem are you solving?

Was something not possible before that should be possible now?

3. Is this actually useful?

Are you making something useful or just making something?

4. Is there any easier way?

Well defined problems are usually pretty simple, don’t assume they require hard solutions.

5. Are you adding value?

Can someone get more out of this than they could before?

6. Will this change behavior?

Is what you are working on really going to change anything?

7. Is what you are doing really worth it?

Is the time, effort, cost, etc. worth what you hope to gain? Don’t go throwing good time after bad work.

5 Questions That Will Change Your Life (Life Coach Tim Brownson):

1. What Else Can This Mean?

2. Who Can Help Me?

3. What Am I Grateful For?

4. What’s My End Game (Goal)?

5. What Can I Learn From This?


And of course no “Life’s Lists” list is complete without H. Jackson Brown Jr. Life’s Little Instruction Book. Some of my favorites from this:

Life’s Little Instruction Book


93 : Choose your life’s mate carefully. From this one decision will come 90% of your happiness or misery.

213 : Don’t waste time grieving past mistakes, learn from them and move on.

328 : Seek opportunity, not security – a boat in a harbor is always safe, but its bottom will eventually rust out.

355 : Evaluate yourself by your own standards, not someone else’s


140 : When starting out, don’t worry about not having enough money. This is a blessing and not a curse, nothing else encourages creative thinking quite like this.

156 : Strive for excellence, not perfection.

168 : Resist telling people *how* to do something. Instead tell them *what* needs done. They will often surprise you with the solutions.

271 : When faced with a difficult task, act as if it is impossible to fail

274 : Leave everything a little better than you found it

324 : Don’t delay acting on a good idea, success comes to the one who acts first.

334 : Instead of the word problem, try substituting the word opportunity

379 : Forget committees. New, noble, world-changing ideas always come from one person working alone.

399 : Focus on making things better, not bigger

401 : Don’t ever watch hotdogs or sausage being made.

404 : When attending meetings(or conferences), sit in front.

428 : Do More than is expected

463 : Be open to new ideas

466 : Set Short Term and Long Term goals

481 : Watch for big problems, they disguise big opportunities

504 : Commit yourself to quality


Stay Hungry, Don’t Worry, Go Placidly, and Always Wear Sunscreen

The death of Steve Jobs yesterday was a chance for many to reflect on how the tech titan had directly impacted their everyday lives. Though I had not used an Apple product since my parents traded in our TI-99/4A for an Apple IIc in the mid-1980s, even an i-curmudgeon like myself felt a sense of loss.  For me the impact was from his famous inspirational speech to Stanford Graduates in 2005.

If you have not read it in its entirety, I highly recommend – read it here -. For me, among this particular category of inspiring, insightful, and downright useful advice, it is one of the best.

Certainly it fits in well with other inspiring messages including Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (“Do not worry”), Desiderata by MaxEhrmann (“Go Placidly among the noise and haste”), and the much more lighthearted, but no less useful, Wear Sunscreen by Mary Schmich.

Steve’s summation of his message to graduates? He admits in borrowing it from the Whole Earth Catalog: “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” but the speech is sprinkled with beauty and insightful nuggets throughout including one of my favorites:

Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.*

Which to me sounded similar to the last page of Shel Silverstein’s posthumous, recently-released poems in Everything On It:

When I am gone what will you do? / Who will write and who will draw for you? / Someone smarter, someone new, someone better? / Maybe you?

I do hope the world produces more Steve Jobs and Shel Silversteins, I miss them both.


* A great Steve Jobs quote that demonstrates this viewpoint is “When Apple first started out, people couldn’t type. We realized: Death would eventually take care of this.” (Walt Mossberg, All Things Digital, May 28, 2003)

On the Dangers of Unskeptical Googling

Fifteen years into this whole internet fad, I had gotten so accustomed to looking for (and readily believing) information I found on the internet that it unfortunately took a rather extreme example to reawaken a healthy skepticism and my perception of facts. 

I was curious about the ratings of the C-SPAN channels and how they compare to other cable channels so I Googled: “C-SPAN nielsen ratings”

The C-SPAN Dancers

And innocently clicked on the first promising result of “C-SPAN Ratings Up …”  I was halfway through an article on how C-SPAN’s addition of the “The House Of Representatives Dancers” had markedly increased their ratings before I eventually realized that I was on the parody site “The Onion (full article here).”

I then began to wonder how many other times I had read complete nonsense on the internet and just didn’t realize it because it wasn’t on an obvious comedy website.

Oh well, just a well-needed reminder to be incredulous of anything found on the internet.  Also a reminder that as information becomes more centralized, it becomes easier to distort – and not always to comedic effect as in the case of The Onion.   

Incidentally the ratings services do not rate C-SPAN (mentioned by Brian Lamb here in an interview in 1996).  Which is good, because what show would want to be beaten in the ratings by BookTV?

Say You Like Turkeys!

(Assume a haughty posture and say condescendingly) “Back when I went to school…”  the only piece of paper I remember ever getting sent back home to a parent was a report card. 

My, how times have changed.  The modern parent is subjected to a daily deluge of school papers that seems to imply a misguided belief that education can be achieved by mere dead tree sacrifice alone.  No Child Left Behind seemed to bring this educational fad to a fever pitch, but only exacerbated the existing problem.  My unscientific signal to noise ratio estimate of these papers would be about 1 marginally meaningful paper to 10 unuseful ones. 

But occasionally one does find a rare gem in the mineshaft.  As happened recently when I saw an assignment to make an “Acrostic (a related phrase for each letter)” out of the word “Thanksgiving.”  I should explain that “Thanksgiving” is a rather long word to a 2nd grader so some themes may get repeated.  For instance:  “I (heart) turkeys,” ” No vechtables,” and the rather authoritarian: “Say you like turkeys!”  But see for yourself:

Say You Like Turkeys

Say You Like Turkeys