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The Thing About Life Is…

Most people like to post on the Internet about their successes. I want to talk about failure. I can assure you, I am fully qualified to talk about failure. I’m an expert with thirty years of experience.

You see, the past few months I have been thinking pretty hard about where I am in my life, especially in relation to the dreams and aspirations I had as a teenager. I’m forty six years old now. Thirty years ago, I was sixteen, and I had big ambitions. I wanted to publish books. I wanted to make money in real estate. I wanted to find love.

So thirty years on, how am I doing? Two failed marriages, with a handful of failed relationships that never got that far. Finding love? FAIL. Two real estate purchases, one that ended in foreclosure, the other is worth less now than when I bought it, yet I owe more than I paid for it. Making money in real estate? FAIL. Number of books published: zero. Number of books written to completion: zero. Number of failed attempts: [I’ve lost count.] So, publishing books? FAIL.

You might be thinking, dude (or some equivalent form of casual address), you’ve been failing to achieve your childhood dreams for thirty years? Don’t you find that, you know, kind of depressing?

Frankly? Yes. Sometimes I do. Sometimes it crushes me under the weight of my failure so hard that I lie in bed and cry myself to sleep. But, just as frankly, that’s a fairly rare occurrence. You know what I do most days?

I keep trying.

You ever play Hacky Sack? It’s this game, or activity really, with this little bean bag, a little bigger than a golf ball. You’re supposed to kick the bag up in the air. When it comes down, you try to kick it again to keep it in the air. That’s basically it.

I figured out, a long time ago, that life is a game of hacky sack.

First off, playing it alone is really hard, and not much fun. Two people can do alright, but the game doesn’t get really fun until you have four or five people in a circle playing together.

The object is to keep the sack in the air, but you begin the game knowing that you are doomed to failure. You know, with compete certainty, that the little bag is going to hit the ground. When it does? You pick it up and start again.

“Success,” if there is any in the game, comes when every player in the circle gets in a kick before the sack hits the ground. But, there isn’t any score keeping. There’s no competition. There’s no way to win.

The object of the game is just to keep kicking.

So I still hit that keyboard every day, adding words (currently 47,547 of a target 80,000). Some days, all I can do is stare at the screen. Some days, I’m so swamped I can’t even look at the computer. Tomorrow, I will try to add 1,000 words.

I’m still hammering away at the house, in the literal sense as well as the figurative, working to turn it into something that people would pay money to live in. Most days it feels like the building is out to get me. More than once it has injured me physically. This weekend I’ll be repairing the overhead lights in the den. Again.

Love? I still believe in it. I still have hope of having a love all my own one day. Until then, I have a couple of very close friends, you know, not the type who will help you move, but the type who will help you move a dead body. And I have far more friends of the help you move type, with whom I share mutual respect and the occasional beverage, than I ever expected to. Tomorrow, I’m having drinks with a bunch of them. And who knows what happens next?

Maybe I never actually make money on that house. Maybe that book never quite makes it (but I think it will). Maybe that perfect someone will simply never be mine.

But I’m still here. And I’m just going to keep kicking. Because that is the point of life.

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The Tale of the Tail

For nearly twenty years, the most concise description of me was “the guy with the really long pony tail.” That’s no longer the case, and I am frequently asked why. I find it curious that there is such a widespread assumption that a person needs a reason to change their hairstyle, but as it happens, I do have one. This is the story of how it came to be, and why it is no more.

From 1989 to 1995 I was an active duty Marine, which meant that I wore my hair very short, and had it cut every single Friday. When I left the military, I found myself needing to make a decision about hair style for the first time in years. At the time, I had been reading a lot of Viking Sagas, and I was reminded of King Harald Finehair, who first united all the kingdoms of Norway. He received his epithet because he had sworn an oath not to cut his hair until he reigned over all of Norway, and he stuck by the oath for the ten long years it took him to achieve his goal. Being young and still somewhat foolish, I decided to make a similar romantic gesture. I would swear an oath not to cut my hair until….

In order to understand that oath, it might be helpful to understand my circumstances at the time. I was 25 years old, freshly discharged from the military after six years, two overseas deployments, and one war. My family was working class, with no assets to speak of, living from paycheck to paycheck, so there was really nothing for me to fall back on. The most important relationship of my life had just broken up. I was drifting, unsure where to go, or what job I should be looking for, or really just how to live in the world. I was working a dead-end job for well below the median income, and wondering if that was all I was worth. That high school I-can-do-anything confidence had now faded into the I-have-to-pay-the-rent real world, and the impedance mismatch was tearing at my soul. In short, I was miserable, lonely, lost, and broke.

And so I swore an oath. I would not cut my hair until I was satisfied with my life. And I would tell no one what the goal actually was until it was achieved. Because talking about it was my litmus test. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about how uncomfortable I was in my own skin, and in my own life. I knew as long as I felt that way, I would not have achieved my goal.

At the time I swore that oath, I had a very naive vision of what it meant to be satisfied with one’s life. I imagined myself independently wealthy, with washboard abs, thrilling women with my fabulous athletic body and intimidating men with my real estate portfolio and unshakeable self-confidence. I proceeded to work toward that vision with great vigor. And I became even more depressed.

I settled in to daily life, merely trying to get by, that oath and the hair it spawned always right behind me, at the back of my head. Slowly, over the years, I found opportunities to grasp the things I had told myself were the brass ring. I found a career that I loved. My income steadily increased. I bought property. I dated women far more attractive than I deserved. I fell in and then out of love. Every time one of these milestones passed, I would ask myself, is this it? Is this the magic line where I become satisfied with my life? Every time I found that, having crossed the goal line, I felt no different about my life than I had before. Eventually, I just resigned myself to the idea that I would never get there, ever. And I stopped talking about my oath.

Then came the crash. I lost my job. I lost my girlfriend. My favorite pet died tragically young. The world came crashing down around me, and I lost all hope. The despair of being unable to achieve, and of being unable to appreciate anything I did achieve, led to an emotional crisis. I even contemplated suicide. I broke in a spiritual and psychological sense.

And when I did, my eyes opened. I saw, somehow for the first time, that I was not alone. I had friends around me who actually cared. Not many (because frankly I had been an insufferable jerk in my self-involved despair), but enough to have someone to talk to, someone to lean on. With the help of these friends I learned to see life from other perspectives. I came to understand what my life looked like from their point of view, and how they looked at their own lives. I discovered that everyone was just as lost as I was.

One friend took me to church with her, and though I was not a Christian, I found solace and friendship there. Religion was not ultimately my path, but I gained immense insight by learning to see the world from their perspective. I learned to understand finally the concept of Faith, and the way God helps everyday people, not through miracles, but by helping to lift their emotional burdens.

I began to study the Buddha Dharma, because it promised relief from dukkha, which is often translated as “suffering” but really encompasses a fundamental dissatisfaction in all things, and I felt this was an apt description of my inner state. I learned that the inner core of soul one identifies as “self” is an illusion we create, and that is why, no matter how we try, we can never reconcile it with the reality of our lives. I learned that all things are impermanent, and that our illusory “self” becomes attached to impermanent things. When those things change, as they must, the self suffers from the attachment. That suffering is dukkha and it is a condition of life.

I also learned about Imposter Syndrome, and thereby discovered how very common it is for someone to achieve “success” yet be unable to feel successful. More and more I learned that my own experience was merely The Human Experience.

To turn a cheesy movie quote into deep philosophy, there is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path. Although I was learning these new concepts and using them to understand my past failures, it was difficult to understand how to apply them to my daily life. I continued going through the motions of life, trying to understand my failure, trying, as I phrased it, to learn to live in this world as a human being.

I took the advice of the Dalai Lama and began to practice compassion intentionally. Everyone in the world was suffering the way I was, and if I could not cure my own suffering, perhaps I could help alleviate theirs. The fact that I often found it surprisingly difficult to feel compassion for certain others convinced me that this was the right path. I still struggle with it. I’m sure I always will.

Most of you who know me today never met that early Vince. Only a handful of friends managed to hang with me through that time (and thank you all, I love you). Those who met me afterward might not even recognize that angry, depressed, and confused young man. The crisis and transition I describe above is now fifteen years in my past.

This is what led, fifteen years later, to the resolution of my oath, and the cutting of my hair. The intentional practice of compassion allowed me to internalize that life is not about things, it is about people, and compassion is what holds people together. I steadily worked to replace attachments with relationships, impermanent though they may be. As I aged into mid-life crisis territory, I increasingly appreciated the people in my life. And I began to examine the things in my life with great scrutiny. Do I really need this thing? Does it provide me any value, any satisfaction, any joy? Thing after thing went on the rubbish heap as the answers kept coming back negative.

And so finally, this year (2015), I found myself asking of my oath, and the hair that represented it, do I really need this thing? Does it provide me any value? Any satisfaction? Any joy? I was frankly astonished to find myself answering in the negative. I don’t need it anymore. I am comfortable with myself, satisfied with my life, and in fact I have been for a few years now. I don’t need that hair anymore. I don’t need that oath anymore. I am, finally, comfortable with being me, and comfortable talking about being me.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have goals, and too many failings to count. There are many things in my life and in my self that I want to change, and I will keep working at them. It is a very long journey, and I am only in the middle. But I have achieved that young man’s goal, in a most unexpected way. Neither wealth nor status nor outward appearance brings satisfaction with one’s life. Through the practice of compassion for others, I have discovered that being satisfied with one’s life means having compassion for oneself.

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Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Martin Luther King Jr.

As I write this, I sit in an apartment in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, just a few blocks from where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached to his congregation. I cannot express in words the gratitude I feel toward Dr. King and all the thousands of people who marched with him to demand equal rights for all Americans. Since its birth, America has been a nation that aspired to high ideals of equality, and since its birth, America has struggled and failed to live up to those ideals. People like Dr. King are the most important people in America, people who serve as a national conscience, who remind us of the ideals we aspire to, and insist that we try harder to live up to them. Dr. King made us better as a nation.

As the events of 2014 made painfully evident, although segregation and racism are no longer the law of the land, they often remain ingrained in the structure of our society. Too many people of color continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair opportunities. We have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do, before we can say we are living up to our American ideals.

But growing up, as I did, in the South during the 1970s, attending elementary school in the recently desegregated school system, I learned what a huge impact a few dedicated people can have on society and culture. The cultural difference between the older generation segregationists and the children who were educated in integrated schools was nothing short of stunning to me. While racial prejudice has not disappeared from our culture, that early experience gives me hope that it really can.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday was set aside to “serve as a time for Americans to reflect on the principles of racial equality and nonviolent social change espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr.”

More than a mere day of reflection, the King holiday has evolved into a national day of service toward the realization of his great dream. The video below explains the King legacy of service, and how you can honor his memory and your community through service.

Dr. King was a great orator, and although his written words are powerful, I don’t believe you can truly understand the power of those words unless you have heard them as he spoke them. It was not merely the words, but the passion of his presentation, that motivated everyday people to extraordinary action during the civil rights era. I believe everyone should take the time on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to listen to the man speak.

If you have children, you owe it to them to teach them about Dr. King, about the struggle for racial equality, and about the nonviolent methods he used to create such great change. If we are going to make this world a better place for all of us, we need Dr. King’s leadership and ideals to live on in future generations.

Here are some places to hear Dr. King speak.

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Systems vs Habits: Why GTD Often Fails

In my previous post, I wrote about David Allen’s Getting Things Done book and productivity system. If GTD has a weakness, it is that, although the book describes the system very well, it does a poor job of describing the change of daily habits you’ll have to perform if you really want to implement the system. The major reason people fail at implementing a GTD-style productivity system in their lives is that, no matter how simple the system may be, it’s a big change from what they are used to.

Leo Babauta is a self-made expert in changing and forming habits. His Zen Habits blog has changed the lives of many of its readers. So when I decided to try getting organized once again, there were two books on my reading list: David Allen’s (the System), and Leo Babauta’s Zen To Done, Leo’s personal take on productivity.

On Habits and Willpower

I like to think of habits as irrigation ditches. 

If you are a farmer who wants your fields watered, the obvious thing to do is to go get some water. But carrying buckets of water from the well to your field is inefficient and places a low upper limit on the amount of crop you can grow effectively. The effective farmer instead spends his effort digging irrigation ditches. It’s exhausting work, and at first it seems to generate no benefit at all. But once the ditch is complete, the water flows naturally into your fields on its own, without effort.

Good habits are a way to automate your behavior the way irrigation ditches automate watering. They allow you to accomplish work without effort. But if you don’t have them already, good habits can be hard to form.

As humans, we have a natural aversion to change. The world and activities that we are comfortable with got us this far, so they must be good, right? Change might make things worse. So if your bar for success is mere survival, aversion to change is probably a good thing. That’s why change makes us uncomfortable. It’s instinctive.

Each of us has a limited ability to tolerate change. Too much change makes us too uncomfortable, and we start to squirm, trying to avoid the change, to get back in our comfort zone. The uncomfortable feeling we get from too much change we call “stress”. When we’re trying to affect change, we call the ability to tolerate it “willpower”. But this is misleading, because willpower must also be expended to tolerate change that comes from the outside, change that we don’t want.

Remember Steve McCroskey from Airplane!, the guy who picked the wrong week to quit smoking? Too much change, he ran out of willpower.

Habits are a way to acclimate yourself to a new condition or activity, so that you stop seeing it as stressful change and start seeing it as normal.

Habits and Productivity

GTD asks you to master five classes of activity:

  • Collect (everything in an Inbox, as few as possible)
  • Process (Empty the Inbox, Make decisions about where items go)
  • Organize (File and Schedule items & tasks)
  • Review
  • DO

But the GTD system itself doesn’t tell you how to master these activities. For most people, mastering these activities means forming at least 4 new habits. For others it may require dozens of new habits to master them. But forming habits requires willpower, and we only have so much of that. The result is that many people trying to implement the system as a whole feel overwhelmed by the change, and stop.

Zen To Done is a short ebook (there’s also a paperback) that describes ten habits you can adopt to become fully productive. If even ten habits sounds daunting and unachievable to you, don’t worry, Babauta has you covered. He describes a minimalist system that will yield major improvements in productivity consisting of just four habits: Collect, Process, Plan, and Do.

Babauta’s approach to productivity is the same as his approach to self-improvement. Break down the desired change into a set of behaviors or habits, and tackle each habit one at a time before moving on to the next. He has some quick tips and tricks in the book to help you form these habits, but if you want to go deeper, you should probably read his other book, The Power of Less, or page through the great free content on his blog Zen Habits.

You should buy and read Zen To Done. It’s cheap, it’s an easy read, and it may help you to make the changes you want in your life. But if you don’t, here’s some friendly advice inspired by Babauta.

Give yourself permission to move slowly. Focus on just one habit, until that one habit is mastered. This means there are several other habits in your queue that are not “done” yet. You have to be okay with that. You have to accept that first things come first, and trust that those other things will get done. But for now, you must focus on the one thing you have chosen. Remember, you aren’t watering the fields quite yet. You are still digging ditches.

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Getting Things Done — Productivity System

GTD workflow diagram

David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is a phenomenon in the tech community. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already read the book, or at least know something about the productivity system that it defines. I read it years ago, but like many readers never put into practice more than a tiny portion of the system.

As 2012 drew to a close and I looked back on all the things I meant to accomplish, I decided that I should give this productivity bible another look, in the hopes of getting more things done in 2013. I won’t bother to summarize the system that David Allen defines. The book is very readable and does a much better job than I could. Instead, I’m just going to note how I decided to apply the principles of his system in my own life, especially given the changes in technology and lifestyle since the book was originally published a dozen years ago.

Some essential elements of the GTD system include:

  • one or more inboxes (as few as you can get away with),
  • a calendar,
  • a “tickler” file to remind yourself of tasks that can only start at some future date,
  • a place to organize your reference material, and
  • a tool for organizing lists of projects and tasks.

The original GTD system was developed in a paper-focused world, before cloud-based calendars and Internet-connected phones became the norm. I’ve worked really hard to eliminate the mountains of paper in my life, so I have no interest in buying filing cabinets and manila folders.

The vast majority of things I need to manage in my own life are actually digital. Email, digital music, more email, PDF downloads, email again, digital pictures, and did I mention the email? Digital references take up far less space, are easier to move, and are full-text searchable. I quickly resolved that my organization system would be digital, not physical.

As I had already begun to use it for scribbling notes I wanted to keep track of, I decided to do the simplest digital thing that could work for staying organized, and elected Evernote as my default tool.

Evernote gives me myriad advantages over a paper-based system.

  • It’s a great place to jot down random notes (replacing a physical notepad). It can even create notes from pictures or voice recordings, making it even easier to capture everything.
  • The option to use notebooks and/or tags to organize notes, and its full-text search capability, make it an excellent reference database (replacing the filing cabinet).
  • It runs on my phone, so it’s always with me (no need to carry a paper organizer or notepad).
  • It magically synchronizes with both my work computer and my home computer, so I never have to switch contexts to access it.

Setting up Evernote to work with my system was dead simple. I renamed the default notebook to “INBOX.” Any random notes I capture are there, waiting to be processed when next I process my inboxes. I created a Projects stack, containing a notebook for each large project, and a “Miscellaneous” notebook with a separate note for each smallish project. A Reference stack contains various notebooks organized by topic where I can file informational notes, PDF or Word documents, photos of the whiteboard scribbles from a brainstorming session, or any other assets I need to keep around.

With a physical inbox, Allen recommends dealing with things that won’t fit into it by writing a reminder of them on a piece of paper and placing the paper in the inbox. Since my inbox is digital, physical things won’t fit into it. So if I need a reminder of a physical thing, I snap a picture of it with my phone and add it to my Evernote inbox. I also file away papers by scanning them or taking a picture with my phone (and then trashing/recycling the physical paper).

Allen recommends keeping a list with all your “next actions” on it. I have become accustomed to visualizing work using a kanban system, so instead of a “next actions” list, I have a notebook called Backlog containing a note for each task, and another called WIP that contains notes for the tasks I am currently working on. When completed, I move them to the Done notebook. During my weekly review of open projects, I determine the next actions for each project and add a note for each one to the Backlog.

GTD recommends keeping an agenda list for every regular meeting you have, so that you never have to be embarrassed that you forgot to ask Bob about that one thing when you spoke with him this morning. I keep an Agenda notebook in Evernote, with a separate note for each person or group I speak to regularly. If I run into someone in the hallway, I can whip out my phone and access their agenda immediately. Any notes generated from the meeting go back into the inbox to be processed.

Since most of my reading is also digital, I use Pocket (formerly Read It Later) as my Reading list. I do a lot of my reading in the moment as a less-than-two-minute task, but when I need to queue something up, I toss it into Pocket. I am finding, however, that my appetite for reading later is a bit more ambitious than the amount of time “later” actually affords me. Perhaps I need to work on this.

GTD Patterns I Don’t Apply

GTD recommends keeping your Next Action list organized by Context: Things you can do at home, at work, at the phone, etc. I found organizing by context to be almost useless, because almost all my tasks can be performed in any context. My work is all digital, and my work computer is a laptop I bring home with me at night. In a pinch, most of my work could performed on my phone. I always have a phone in my pocket, so there’s no need for a “calls” context, I can make calls from anywhere. Most of my home activities are habits rather than tasks (take out trash, wash clothes, etc.) and therefore do not need to be tracked.

I don’t have a “Waiting For” notebook for tracking delegated tasks. Instead, I place a reminder on my calendar to follow up on a certain date if the awaited item has not arrived in my inbox by then. I also make “appointments” blocking out time to complete important tasks, otherwise there is a risk that my schedule will fill up and leave no time, or that I will get distracted by the in-the-moment work, leaving important things too late.

My calendar is already digital and synchronized across my devices. I use the Exchange calendar provided by my company, but I could just as easily use a synchronized iCloud or Google Calendar.

Finally, I decided that the tickler file was really an artifact of the paper world where a calendar is a sheet of paper with little boxes drawn on it. You can’t file papers in those little boxes, so you need those 43 folders to store date-specific items. In my all-digital world, if I need to be reminded of something on a certain date, I can just drop it onto my digital calendar and store it there, or at worst store a link to some other repository. So I don’t have a tickler notebook in Evernote, instead I use my calendar directly to fill that role.

I’m just getting started using and tweaking this system, and I’m sure it will evolve over time. Perhaps I will write a follow-up post in a few months to record how it has changed and how effective it has been.

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How to set up a new PC in 12 Steps, or How I spent my evening renewing my disgust with Windows

Step 1: Spend 30 minutes unpacking boxes, peeling plastic, and connecting cables.

Step 2: In breathless anticipation, press the power button.

Step 3: Spend another 30 minutes hunting for the Windows Product Key so you can access the computer you just bought. Find it, finally, on an indelible sticker on the far side of the computer’s case.

Step 4: Enlist an assistant to type the Windows Product Key while you hang upside down under the desk using a flashlight to read it out.

Step 5: Insert CD to install hardware drivers, because Windows does not know how to use the network card in your PC.  Try to convince Windows that you know what you are doing and yes, you really want to run that program from the CD.

Step 5b (optional): Wonder at how Windows has not only failed to improve, but has actually gotten worse in the 10 years since you last bought a PC.

Step 6: Using a clunky-looking “wizard” from the CD, attempt to connect to wireless network. Be unable to find your wireless access point in the list because you live in a crowded apartment building, and the list is sorted randomly rather than by signal strength or even alphabetically. Notice that the list has multiple pages, and advance to page two. There it is.

Step 7: Enter password for wireless access point. Curse in frustration when it fails to connect. Blush with embarrassment when you realize CAPSLOCK is on. Turn CAPSLOCK off and try again.

Step 7b (optional): Curse the inventor of the CAPSLOCK key.

Step 8: Start Internet Explorer. Type “google.com/chrome” into the location bar to download a real browser. Try to convince Windows that you know what you are doing and yes, you really want to run that program.

Step 9: Sign into Google Chrome. All extensions and bookmarks are automatically synced. Awesome.

Step 10: Using Google Chrome, visit www.ubuntu.com and download the Windows Installer to install a real operating system. Try to convince Windows that you know what you are doing and yes, you really want to run that program.

Step 11: Let the installer reboot into Linux. Be amazed at how all the hardware is recognized immediately, including the wireless card. Feel like Ubuntu just gave you a warm hug when the wireless network manager pops up on the screen and offers to connect you to your very own wireless access point if you will be so kind as to enter the password.
Check to ensure CAPSLOCK is off. Enter password.

Step 12: Click “Install Updates” when the update manager offers to do so. Wait.

Step 12a (optional): Write a blog post about your experience while waiting for updates to download. Feel sorry for people who have not yet discovered Linux.

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Systems and Mental Deficiencies

I was surprised when I read some of the things writer Terry Pratchett wrote or said about developing PCA, a form of dementia. I cannot now find the original source that I read, but there are several similar articles. He described some symptoms of the disease slowly robbing him of his own mind. The inability to see certain objects when they are right in front of you. Walking into a room but having no memory of why you went there in the first place. Difficulty comprehending written text despite recognizing every letter and word. Difficulty recognizing people’s faces.

I was surprised when I read this, because these “symptoms” have affected me, well, pretty much my whole life. I thought they were normal.

Since I was a child, I have had these problems. Until I have met people many times, I may have difficulty recognizing or remembering them. Sometimes I put something down, and then simply cannot find it again, despite the fact that neither I nor the object have moved at all. I stopped reading books on paper years ago because I just couldn’t manage to read one through; I would get distracted in the middle of a paragraph and forget what I was reading. And as for walking into a room and forgetting why you’re there? Hardly a day passes without such an event in my life. Sometimes I return to the room two or three times before I manage to complete the task I set out to do. Sometimes I never remember what I was planning to do.

Part of my obsession with systems is the result of this bizarre array of mental quirks that I have slowly realized are not entirely “normal” (whatever that means). Systems are a simple set of rules that I can keep in my head. Lapses in memory become less important when the system is in operation.

Ever lost your car keys? It’s bad enough when you can’t remember where you left them. It’s doubly bad when you can be staring right at them and not see them. (My family calls this quirk “object-blindness” and it drives them crazy. “Why did you put away every dish in the kitchen except that one?!” I didn’t see it!)

I no longer have to remember where I left my car keys; the rule says that keys are by the door. If I forget where I left them, I can remember the rule. If I notice them sitting somewhere else (which is rare), I move them into compliance with the rule. When I’m about to put them down, I remember the rule, and I put them by the door. One consistent rule to be applied in all situations. A rule that doesn’t even have to be remembered, because it can be derived again and again. (What’s the best place to leave the keys? What’s the first place I could put them down after entering the house?)

I live my life by rules like this. I have a system for everything I do. A system for packing my laptop bag to be sure I don’t forget anything. A system for loading the dishwasher. A system for making breakfast. It sounds ridiculous, but I have rules for all these things so that I don’t have to rely on my memory to get them right.

The most important element of my life systems is an attitude I learned only in the most recent quarter of my life, a skill Buddhists describe as mindfulness. Mindfulness means being fully present, in the moment. It releases you from remembering the past or worrying about the future and focuses your attention on the present, the here and the now. Mindfulness is what enables me to obey the rules now, as I perform the actions which later may confound me. It is what allows me to think when I put my keys down and observe the rule of where to place them.

By knowingly placing my keys by the door where they belong, I ensure that later I can find them again. By paying attention to my actions in the present, I ensure success in the future.

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Natural Laws

I figure any phrase that people deem to be a “law” and find important enough to attribute to a specific person (even if incorrectly) probably contains some real wisdom. Here’s a collection of Eponymous Laws from Wikipedia, all of which I have found to be true in my own experience.

Amara’s Law: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Conway’s Law: Any organization that designs a system will inevitably produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

Gall’s Law: A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

Parkinson’s law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Law of the Instrument or Maslow’s Golden Hammer: It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. (I’ve also heard this restated as “Every task takes longer and costs more than originally estimated.”)

Occam’s razor – “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.” Literally, entities are not to be multiplied without necessity. When two explanations are offered for a phenomenon, the simplest full explanation is preferable. (Or in modern terms: Keep It Simple, Stupid!)

Pareto principle – 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes.

Schneier’s law – Any person can invent a security system so clever that she or he can’t think of how to break it.

Sturgeon’s law – Ninety percent of everything is crap.

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Occam’s Moving Parts

As an architect of complex applications, I spend my day aggressively
applying Occam’s Razor, attempting to simplify large systems by
removing as much as possible. But the nature of the work is such that
the system can never be truly simple. No matter how much I try to
simplify, I am left with that feeling that there are too many moving
parts
.

As a geek, I apply a systems approach to almost everything in my life. I
have a system for preparing meals, a system for loading the dish washer,
a system for folding my underwear. I can’t perform an activity more than
once without thinking about optimizing and systematizing it somehow. I am
always looking for patterns, and I am always looking for that piece that
just doesn’t fit.

This blog is intended to be a collection of my observations and
ponderings on the systems of the world, particularly but not exclusively
those in the technology and business realms. What are the moving parts
and how do they fit together? How can we apply Occam’s Razor to them?
Which parts can be removed, and which parts are essential?

Like most of my writing, I expect to bore almost everyone, but hopefully
fascinate and engage a few people.

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How Newspapers Lost the Classifieds Business (and how to get it back)

Time was, newspapers owned the local classified ads business, and it was their cash cow. Many people bought the paper just for the classifieds, and it was by far the most valuable real estate of the paper. In recent years, free Internet- based alternatives like Craig’s List decimated their business and contributed greatly to the decline of newspapers.

In this November 2009 interview, Craig Donato, CEO of Oodle, an online classifieds startup, explains that “If You’re The Challenger, You Have To Play A Different Game”. He tells Andrew Warner how he was able to build a successful online classifieds business despite free competition, and become the classifieds provider for many local newspapers.

Donato shows that his company achieved success through innovation based on customer needs, whereas newspapers remained complacent and failed to compete. Clearly, there is room for both free and paid providers in this industry, but the key is innovation in providing customer value. Newspapers, so long enjoying monopoly privileges in their markets, didn’t have the innovation experience they needed to compete in the newly opened market.

Watch Mixergy’s interview with Craig Donato