Archive for the ‘journal’ Category

The Paradox of Self-Discipline

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

I was listening to the Fresh Air interview with Jonah Lehrer, author of
How We Decide, and he mentioned an experiment that seems relevant to me right now.

Lehrer describes the experiment in a Wall Street Journal article about New Year’s Resolutions:

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

In other words, the brain is not capable of making good decisions when overtaxed. For instance, if one were working long hours at Google, one’s ability to come home and exert the self-discipline necessary to write a blog post instead of flipping on the TV would be impaired. Just as a theoretical example.

The unfortunate implication of this, and the basis for this post’s title, is that it is those times when one is stressed that one most needs the ability to make good decisions. When I get overloaded at work, I get tunnel vision and start focusing mechanically on the tasks assigned to me, rather than taking the time to figure out what’s actually important and working on that. I also make other bad decisions like drinking more soda, skipping the gym, eating chips and cookies at work, and watching TV instead of sleeping. And, of course, those behaviors make me even less efficient, which means work takes even longer, which means the behavior perpetuates itself.

As an aside, breaking the cycle required a full two weeks of doing nothing over the holidays plus a couple weeks of a “normal” work week for me to rebuild my reserves to where I felt capable of blogging again. Now that I’m keeping more reasonable hours at work, I go to the gym, I’m eating better, and I’m even excited about blogging in the evening.

So how do we avoid this paradox? It seems to me that the bad behaviors like TV and junk food are always lurking in temptation for me, and the good behaviors like hitting the gym and writing blog posts require self-discipline. Part of it is building desired behaviors into habits that I do without questioning: successful examples of that for me include biking to work and flossing while unsuccessful ones include daily situps and pushups, hitting the gym regularly and blogging. Others have success by using a game of sorts where badges are earned for performing the desired behaviors, but I have trouble taking such games seriously.

Another weapon I have is simply self-awareness. If I consciously remind myself that I’m making bad decisions when I’m overloaded, it will hopefully make me question those decisions as I’m making them e.g. putting back the Oreos from the snack area at work and grabbing an apple instead. It’s helpful for me to treat my mind and body as systems that I can learn to optimize and compensate for, like having a tool that one has learned to use despite its quirky tendencies.

An extension of that last tactic is the one the WSJ article suggests, which is building up the muscles of self-discipline. Rather than doing lots of things at once, it would be better to focus my energy on building one habit, and only start on a new behavior when the first has become automatic. Right now, I’m splitting that self-discipline energy between work, going to the gym a few times a week, and blogging more regularly, so if I find myself slipping, I’ll have to prioritize more effectively. I need to recognize that my self-discipline is limited and deploy it in the most effective way until it gets stronger, rather than exhausting it to the point where I don’t do anything.

Anyway, given my struggles with work-life balance, I wanted to mention this experiment and how I perceive it as being relevant to my life. What tactics do you use to develop new habits?

P.S. I’ll be in Boston from Feb. 6-10 and New York from Feb. 11-14, with the timing chosen so that I could attend Grant McCracken’s Chief Culture Officer Boot Camp, but that’s just the cover reason for me to catch up with friends on the East Coast. Let me know if you want to meet up.

Learning from jerks

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

As usual, it’s been a couple months since I posted, so I’m lowering the standards again, and posting a ramble through some topics that are on my mind this morning. I want to get back into the habit of posting, although that will depend on me actually taking a stand on work-life balance, which I have woefully failed to do for a year and a half, so no promises.

It’s interesting reading Clay Shirky’s rant about how women should “behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks” when I identify more with the women in his rant than the men.

My 2004 rant about self promotion describes that jerk behavior and how I don’t want to be a jerk like that, but in the several years since then, I continue to struggle with under-selling myself and the impact that has on my career.

It’s particularly funny at the moment since a couple people in my group at work have started a self-deprecation watch on me and call me out when I dismiss my work as I habitually do. I need to learn to value myself more, or at least correctly, rather than under-valuing what I do because it seems easy to me.

I think there’s another element in play that Shirky alludes to, which is the willingness to make mistakes. Carol Dweck’s research, as described by Po Bronson, describes two different viewpoints towards approaching the world: one is that our skills are innate, genetic gifts (the “fixed” view), and the other is that we can improve anything we do with focused effort (the “growth” view). The two viewpoints have very different reactions to failure; in the first, failure is a sign that our innate talents are insufficient so we should give up, whereas in the second, failure is a sign that we need to try harder or try a new approach. Dweck’s research indicates that children with the first viewpoint tend to take fewer risks, as each risk has the potential to be a failure, exposing their limits.

More broadly, I think there’s a spectrum of comfort with failure, and how willing I am to take on tasks based on what I know before I start:

  1. Tasks where I know I can deliver the desired results
  2. Tasks where I should be able to deliver the results, but there is some amount of uncertainty in the outcome
  3. Tasks where I don’t think I’ll be able to deliver the results, but hope that I can learn enough on the way to make it work – this is like Shirky’s brazen claim that he could do drafting well when he had no experience
  4. Tasks where I won’t be able to deliver (aka outright lying)

My tendency has been to focus only on category 1 – being unwilling to commit to doing anything where I wasn’t sure of the results so that I would be seen as absolutely reliable.

However, reliable isn’t good enough. People who are willing to aim high, even at the risk of failing, attain more than the people like me who only attempt what is already in their grasp. My Columbia mentor, Jon Williams, once told me that if I weren’t failing spectacularly at work at least once or twice a year, I was not pushing myself enough. That means taking on more of those tasks in category 3 where it’s a big risk, but it will push me to achieve more than I would have otherwise.

Of course, creating a work environment where people can make mistakes and learn from them is still not the norm, as Scott Berkun described in a recent blog post. It’s a challenge to design a flexible culture where taking risks is encouraged so long as learning is taking place, a challenge which is often ignored if not completely unacknowledged. But there are people out there thinking about this – I’m reading a book by Roger Martin called The Design of Business which describes companies like RIM, P&G, and Herman Miller to see how they have infused an iterative design approach into their cultures.

So it’s a two part problem to encourage more of this sort of risk-taking ambitious behavior.

  • Changing the people to be more like “jerks” in pushing them towards those category 3 tasks, as Shirky is hoping to encourage, and I’m starting to work towards in myself.
  • Changing the environment – creating companies and support structures where failure is seen as a badge of honor rather than, well, a failure. It means moving more towards a world based on Carol Dweck’s “growth” theory, where failure is seen as the path to improvement, rather than the “fixed” theory which says that we succeed or fail based on our innate abilities.

Figuring out concrete steps towards that second world is something I’d love to work on, if I could only figure out where to begin.

P.S. I’m amused to realize that the books I currently have out from the library are all in this theme of management and motivation: Daniel Pink’s Drive and Johnny Bunko Career Guide, Po Bronson’s NurtureShock, Mintzberg’s Managing, and the aforementioned Roger Martin’s The Design of Business. Now I just need to make the time to read them all.

AYE Conference Notes

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I wanted to jot down some passing observations about my experience at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference.

  • From the warm-up tutorial, it was interesting seeing how some of the personality preferences were demonstrated by Don Gray and Steve Smith.
    • I particularly liked the I vs. E demonstration – they asked the I’s and E’s to meet up and decide how many people constituted a “large” group. The consensus of the I’s was 8-10 people, the consensus of the E’s was 50. Although I tend to be an I, I had a slightly different take – the group feels large to me if there are more people I don’t know than people I know – so if I’m in a group with 5 strangers, it feels large, but a group of 40 people where I know 30 is fine. And one of the nice things is that as the conference has continued, I have grown more comfortable with the folks here so the groups feel smaller.
    • Another nice demonstration was asking people to situate themselves on a continuum between “Work before Play” and “Always Play Time”. The J’s tended towards the “Work Before Play” end and P’s on the other side. Sadly, despite identifying as a P, I had to place myself more towards “Work Before Play” given my total lack of work-life balance at the moment.
    • One interesting thing for me was that when I took the quick preference test, I identified as an INFP, instead of the INTP I used to. But when they described the F’s as making value-based judgments and thinking about people consequences, and the T’s making “objective” judgments, I had to admit that I’m leaning more towards the F side these days (as evidenced by the air quotes I put around “objective”).
    • The demonstration clinched it for me: they had T’s and F’s decide on how they would execute a layoff of 12% of a company’s workforce. The T’s said use a rating system, cut the bottom 12%, and done. The F’s talked about a number of different factors (key skill sets to keep, personal circumstances), and gave consideration to how to keep the remaining 88% of the company motivated in the face of this distressing news. Admittedly, the F’s had the advantage that several of us had been involved in layoffs either from the employee side like me, or the manager side.
    • The N vs. S demo was entertaining also, as Don separated us into groups and said “Write down uses for this object” while holding up a pair of scissors. The N’s started brainstorming and had an “anything goes” attitude, so ideas like “Rock paper scissors” and “Pacman” (think of opening and closing the scissors as it moves forward) were included. The F’s ended up with fewer and more quotidian uses on their list.
  • Both of Jerry Weinberg‘s sessions that I attended were outstanding.
    • One was on being able to say no when needed – lots of interesting fodder for me to consider, including the idea that one can avoid the yes/no question entirely by providing other alternatives (shades of avoiding positional negotiations as described in Getting to Yes).

    • The other session was on not letting a four-year-old run your life. The theory is that we learn certain behavior patterns as children and ingrain them so deeply in our psyches that we don’t even question them, even if they no longer make sense for us as adults. He worked with one woman in the class who had a “rule” of “I must never ask for help”. Through the session, he worked with her on transforming that into “I must always be self-sufficient” to “I can always be self-sufficient” to “I can sometimes be self-sufficient” to “I can sometimes be self-sufficient, such as when:” (listing out scenarios like “It does not cost me too much to do so” or “I have the resources available”). Really interesting for me as I have difficult asking for help as well, so I may have to do some hacking on my own ingrained rules.
  • I also attended Esther Derby’s session on implementing ideas, which was interesting. We talked through different characteristics of successful and unsuccessful implementations in small groups, put together a list of successful characteristics, and one thing that stood out was organizational support. So Esther had us map out influence networks within our own companies around some idea we were trying to implement – who were the different people involved, how did they influence each other, and what was their relation to our idea. The process of drawing it out was useful to me in making it clear where I was fuzzy on influences and relationships. And then when I explainied it to another participant, he asked me questions that revealed I was making certain assumptions that may not be justified. So I’ve got some things to check on my understanding of why I’m having trouble implementing this idea.
  • I did not get as much out of Johanna Rothman‘s session on project portfolios as I had hoped. I was looking for some techniques to balance conflicting priorities when they’re coming from all directions and are generally requests that appear to be small, whereas the class was more focused on larger scale project prioritization with iterations of two weeks or a month. But another attendee overheard me asking Johanna about this afterwards, and he offered me several potentially useful ideas over lunch, so it was still beneficial.
  • I also managed to volunteer at one of Don Gray’s sessions on how to get unstuck when problem solving to get free consulting on a couple issues I’m facing at work. So I sat in the center of the room, and several other attendees asked questions about the situation and offered potential solutions and it was really helpful to be able to do that sort of brainstorming.
  • Steve Smith’s session on selling ideas to management was also helpful – he posited that the three key elements of a pitch to management are “What does the manager need to do?”, “What are the benefits for the manager of doing that?” and “What are the costs of the manager doing nothing?”. Then we ran through some role-playing with four people trying to pitch ideas to somebody role playing their manager, which was particularly helpful because we could ask the “manager” afterwards what worked and what didn’t, a benefit we almost never get in real life.

Overall, I enjoyed the conference and learned a lot. I met several like-minded people, have some new perspectives and tools with which to approach problems at both work and in life, and am starting to remember to value myself again. Now if I can only manage to integrate these ideas into how I approach my everyday life…

Jerry Weinberg

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

As many of you know, I’m off at the AYE conference, and one of the major attractors for me personally was Jerry Weinberg. I’ve read books of his like Becoming a Technical Leader and The Secrets of Consulting, and his systems thinking approach is an inspiration to me (his second “law of consulting” is “No matter what they say, it’s always a people problem”).

I attended his first session yesterday afternoon, on being able to say “No” and mean it. It started off somewhat slowly, but things picked up when he requested a volunteer to talk about a situation where they should have said “No” but didn’t. The volunteer discussed a time when he had given an outsized raise to an employee in the early days of his company. Jerry had the conversation role played out in the middle of the room, and a few lines into it, he called freeze to discuss what he saw going on.

He’s a freaking people ninja. In this particular case, he explained how the volunteer was defending his position of not wanting to give a big raise, without ever testing how serious the raise request was. As somebody else pointed out, it’s okay for others to want whatever they want, including a big raise, but we have to recognize those wants as being requests, and treat them as such, rather than treating them as demands to be defended against, subjugating our own opinions in the process. As Jerry asked the volunteer, “Why don’t you value yourself?”

It reminded me of a passage from Speaker from the Dead, where Miro sees Ender clearly for the first time, and says something like “It was as if he knew people at such a deep level that he just brushed past the surface illusions” (the real quote is better but I don’t have it with me). That’s what it felt like watching Jerry parse these conversations. He just ignored the artifice, said what he thought was going on, and was totally present and congruent. Inspirational.

I then got the even greater bonus of going out to dinner with Jerry afterwards – in the session, he said he wanted to meet some of the new conference-goers and five of us immediately volunteered. We talked about a lot of different things, but I particularly liked it when he got into the war stories of old-time hacking. Fun fact of the day – Jerry said that six of the twelve programmers that originally wrote Fortran spent their time developing a single keyword, and he asked me what I thought that was. I took a couple guesses, and he enjoyed telling me the answer was FREQUENCY, and seeing the puzzled look on my face as I had never even heard of it (it was the first thing removed from the language after release). In some sense, he’s a generalist role model for me, as he’s done software, psychology, systems thinking, writing, etc. (he talked about his PhD in systems, where he had to satisfy professors in a number of different fields from linguistics to engineering, even though none of them could pass each others’ tests).

Unfortunately, Jerry announced via Twitter yesterday that he has been diagnosed with fatal thymic carcinoma and this will be his final public appearance for the foreseeable future.

I’m glad I decided to go this year to the conference. The rest of the conference has been good, but meeting Jerry has definitely been a highlight and I’m glad I got the opportunity.

Why am I doing this?

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Anybody that’s been following my Twitter feed knows I’ve been working long hours recently. I’m actually working harder now than I was last year when I was working full time while finishing my master’s degree at Columbia. This would come as a surprise to, well, pretty much anybody that’s ever worked with me, given my tendency to do just enough to get by and no more. So what’s different about working at Google for me? My current answer to that question requires a detour through some other things I’ve been thinking about.

I really liked Po Bronson’s book What Should I Do With My Life? when I first read it (his original Fast Company article is a nice introduction). Trying to find a place for myself in the professional world has been an ongoing struggle, as while I have the capability to do anything, I have often found myself in situations where I was stuck doing the “wrong things”. Bronson recently published an update article with his perspective since publishing the book, and a couple quotes from that resonated with me:

“All jobs have things you hate about them. But real people feel fulfilled by the overall purpose of their organization that the shitty parts are worth putting up with. It’s not what you do, it’s what you’re working towards. …you know the feeling you desire — fulfillment, connection, responsibility, and some excitement.”

I think these last four characteristics he describes are absolutely key for me. I don’t define myself by the specific work tasks that I have to do, as I have the flexibility to do any number of tasks. I aspire to define myself with the meta-work of being a generalist. I want to feel that I am getting to use my unique potential and abilities in the course of doing my job. I need to find some sort of meaning in what I’m doing, or at least be working towards both personal and company goals.

As Bronson observes, there are annoying parts of every job – the question is whether the goal towards which one is working is worth the annoying parts. To put in a larger sense, it is important to know the answer to the question of “Why am I doing this?” In a similar vein, when I have friends considering grad school, I argue strenuously against it and try to dissuade them from going. This is not because I don’t value education – it’s because grad school is really hard, and the only way to get through it is to know exactly why you are going. My arguing against grad school is a way for me to get them to articulate their core reason for going to grad school.

To get back to my original question of what makes my job at Google different than other jobs I’ve had in the past is that I can see how I am contributing to making the company work better. I do genuinely believe that Google is making the world a better place, all things considered, as it provides us all with tools that are astonishing in their ability to put information at our fingertips. I can see a future for myself where I get to use all of my skills and talents in that goal. The only obstacle between me and that future is myself – I have the opportunity, the skills, the support to get there.

So while the long hours are irksome, they are not morale-destroying – we were joking this week about who in our group would be the first to snap, and I was surprised to realize that I wasn’t anywhere near snapping. I have hit my limits before and know what that feels like. But in this case, while I am tired and occasionally cranky, I feel like the work I am doing is recognized as meaningful, both to the company and to my future, and that’s far more sustainable for me than working even half the hours on dead-end tasks like technical support.

This has tremendous implications for managers. In a free agent world, getting the top people is no longer about paying them the most (beyond a certain point, I don’t think it makes a difference) or showering them with perks – it’s about giving them challenging, meaningful, interesting work. Managers need to find ways to engage their employees by framing the work that needs to be done in a narrative that propels the employee forward into a desired future. Getting back to Bronson, managers need to work with their employees to answer the question of “Why am I doing this?” And the answer doesn’t have to be existential – it can be as simple as earning the money to support one’s family. But there needs to be an answer, because without that answer in place, the annoying parts of the job will wear anybody down.

Anyway. We’ll see how I feel in another month if things don’t slow down, but for now, it was interesting to think about how this job has given me the belief that I can finally stretch myself in the directions I want to go with my career and life, in terms of building on my interests in interdisciplinary collaboration. It’s not a Great Cause ™, but the belief that I have found a good fit for my skills and talents is exciting enough to me to keep me going through the long hours. That being said, it sure is nice to take a weekend off and actually have time to write down some of my thoughts :)


Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Google has a program called Self-Powered Commuting, where they let employees track the days on which they get to work via self-powered methods (primarily biking or walking). At the end of the year, they tote up the number of days, and donate a proportionate amount to charity.

What’s amazing to me is how effective this program is at making me feel guilty when I don’t bike to work. I have the tracking page set up to open as one of my initial tabs, and every morning I don’t bike to work, I feel a slight twinge when I have to close the tab without clicking the button. And when I look back at the month, I can see which days I missed and wonder what my excuse was for not biking. The simple act of checking in once a day and tracking how I did is remarkably effective at reinforcing the habit of biking that I want to inculcate in myself.

Eric's Personal Score BadgeIn a similar vein, I recently found Joe’s Goals, which is a website based on the same concept. It allows you to set goals for yourself, assign them different point values, and track them on a daily basis. For instance, I give myself 1 point for flossing and eating 4 fruits a day, but 3 points for going to the gym or posting here. And now I can see tangible progress towards acquiring these habits – I’ve flossed every day for a week!

It’s silly that such a small thing as checking a box once a day can reinforce habits that I have been saying I should acquire for years. But it does. By reducing my goals down to a daily yes-or-no question, there’s no fudging, there’s no “I’ll get to it tomorrow” – there is only whether the box gets checked or not. I read recently that new behaviors take a month to set into place as habits (Google Answers has a couple references), so if I can keep up these habits for a month, then I can perhaps add a couple more next month. We’ll see.

But I think tracking has applicability beyond personal improvement, specifically in management. One of my favorite management anecdotes is the story of how Andrew Carnegie (I think?) was asked to figure out how to make an underperforming factory more productive. He said all he needed was a piece of chalk. He arrived at the shift change between the night crew and the day crew, asked the outgoing crew how many widgets they had produced, wrote that number on the wall with the chalk, and waited. The incoming crew asked what that number was. He told them. At the end of their shift, the number was erased and replaced with a higher number. The night crew put up a higher number, and soon the factory was outperforming other factories. The story may be apocryphal, but I find it indicative of the power of tracking (and also competition in this case).

Many management texts recommend SMART goals – that’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. And those are good, although the method biases action towards easily measurable goals, which may not be aligned with overall organization goals. But the Self-Powered Commuting and Joe’s Goals pages show me that having regular checkpoints is really important as well, so that one can’t be procrastinating on those goals. I suspect that some of the benefit of Agile methods is having a daily stand-up meeting, so everybody knows they have to make progress each day. My best manager checked in with me once a week, to find out what I’d done the previous week, and what I planned to do the next week.

What are the behaviors you want to inculcate in yourself and others? Would tracking those behaviors, either privately or publicly, help? It’s a theory, and we’ll see how the Skinner-ian self-management experiment goes for me. If I’m still sticking with it in a week, I’ll move the Joe’s Goals tracker to my sidebar :).

Buying pants

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

[Ed: We take a detour from our normal posts about cognition and management to talk about pants. Feel free to skip this post. Really. Just go on your way. It’s a waste of your time anyway. I’m just working out some clothing issues in public.]

I recently posted on Twitter, which then posted as my Facebook status message, about my attempt to convince myself that I should spent ~$200 on these bike/dress pants. Something like 10 people commented on these pants, which is kind of bizarre in and of itself, and most of the comments were something like “Duh, of course you should get the pants – they’re nice, you can afford them, what’s the problem?” So this got me thinking about my reticent attitude towards clothing.

Part of it is that, yes, I’m an adult, and I could buy the pants, but at the same time, as an adult, I have to balance my wants with other longer-term wants and run an implicit cost-benefit analysis between dropping $200 on pants today and saving up for a down payment on a house. Admittedly, I think I weight myself too heavily towards the long-term, and almost never buy anything for myself (except books) (and I’m trying to cut back there by using this remarkable place called the library that brings me books for FREE!). So it’s hard to say.

I also have a hard time convincing myself to spend money on clothes in general. I’ve never been particularly interested in looking good, although I make abortive attempts occasionally. Mostly I make one trip a year to Macy’s, or in the last couple years, make one order on L.L. Bean, buy a couple pairs of slacks and shirts, and I’m good. So the idea of spending $200 on a single pair of pants is kind of horrifying to me as that’s typically what I spend on clothes in a year.

Interestingly, I’m willing to spend that kind of money on shoes. I wear shoes every day, and finding comfortable, durable shoes is worth it to me. I love my Ecco boots – I bought them two years ago and they’re holding up just fine despite daily wear and tear (my previous pair of boots lasted four years). I bought a new pair of Ecco dress shoes this summer that I expect to last me ten years.

But clothes aren’t the same way. Part of the reason is that clothes wear out. I at least have finally gotten in the habit of throwing out clothes with holes in them – I had a conversation a few years ago with a friend who asked me whether I owned any t-shirts without holes in them, so this is a bigger step than you might think. I actually paid for new t-shirts (*gasp*) which horrified the thrifty anti-appearance troll within me.

Part of the reason is I’m just bad at buying clothes. I’ve occasionally bought myself shirts and slacks that just don’t work on me for one reason or another, and that money just went to waste. Those just sit on my hangers making me feel stupid – moving back from New York was my excuse to give a bunch of those to Goodwill.

The couple times I’ve gone shopping with friends definitely helped, as they forced me to try on lots of outfits to find out what worked for me. That helped me realize that a significant portion of getting clothes that look good is finding clothes that actually fit. It wasn’t a magical process, there was no secret – it was simply spending several hours trying on things, and seeing what looked good. I still don’t like the process, and am mostly standard sized enough that I can order things over the web, but I at least understand that I could look nicer if I put in the time.

Which raises another underlying tension – I’m uncomfortable with trying to improve my physical appearance. I’ve always identified myself as “smart”, and to some extent, it feels like trying to also look good would dilute my focus. In other words, I present it to myself as a bi-valued choice, and feel like I can only pick one – looking good is explicitly not part of my identity, so I choose not to pursue it. Which is stupid, I know, but there you go.

Anyway, it’s interesting to me that I started thinking about all these topics as the result of an innocent twitter about pants, so I thought I would share. I’m most of the way towards convincing myself these pants would be durable and look good and I could wear them regularly for years, which would be enough to get me to buy them next week some time. Of course, they’ve added more pants choices since I first looked, which is just making the choice harder as I can’t decide which color or which material to get. Damn you, paradox of choice!

Recording Mahler’s 8th Symphony

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

In case you were wondering why I didn’t update my blog much in November, it wasn’t just my new job responsibilities at Google. I had also chosen to sing in the San Francisco Symphony’s recording of Mahler’s 8th Symphony, which was recorded last weekend. So the rehearsals used a lot of my extra time and energy this month, but it was totally worth it. Read my account on my chorus page for further details if you’re interested.


Monday, November 17th, 2008

Over the weekend, I attended the Convergence08 unconference, which focused on future technologies like biotech, nanotech, artificial intelligence, etc. I had to miss the Saturday morning sessions, as I had a chorus rehearsal for this week’s Mahler concerts, but I was there on Saturday afternoon and most of the day Sunday.

The first session I attended was on “Building a better search engine”, which I chose because I work at Google (although on nothing related to search). The attendees speculated about the next big jump in information finding technology, including:

  • Personalized agents that know you and just find the right information – I brought up privacy, and the general response was that privacy was overrated and should be ignored for the sake of this discussion as better results would trump privacy.
  • Semantic technologies with natural language understanding – somebody from Powerset was there pushing this idea, and somebody else recommended Semantifind. I’m extremely skeptical of such technologies, as I’ve spent most of the past ten years figuring out how to translate between different disciplines as a generalist, and I already understand language. I think it’s going to be a long time before computers can figure out the implicit frames that influence comprehension.
  • Social search – leverage our social networks to find more relevant results. If a trusted associate noted something, it’s probably more relevant than a random stranger noting the same thing. The issues I raised is the modelling of the social network – I would trust certain friends to make recommendations about stereo equipment but definitely not about clothes and vice versa. And unless the software can gather enough data to model those subject- and pairwise-specific interactions, it’s not going to get the desired results.

As an aside, it was interesting to me that I’ve gone from being a technological positivist where technology will solve our problems, to being skeptical of most technical solutions, partially because I now think the hardest and most interesting problems are not solvable by technology per se, but instead require the design of new social technologies to coordinate people in new ways.

The next panel I attended was called something like AI and Sense making. I’m fascinated by the question of how we make sense of the world as my continuing obsession with stories makes clear. This was a session where people discussed the idea of sense making (Gary Klein’s work with firefighters was a big influence), how it could be embedded into technology and possible business ideas built on such technology. The discussion was interesting but because sense making is a fuzzy cognitive concept, one attendee afterwards commented that it was difficult to separate sense making from general AI. Two recommendations for further reading I want to record for myself: Perspectives on Sensemaking, an article by Gary Klein, and Sensemaking in Organizations, a book by Karl Weick.

One useful construct from the session was the idea that we create a frame, view everything coming in through that frame, but keep track of whether things are corroborating with reality. Once the discrepancy with reality grows too large, we have to consider junking the existing frame and finding a new one that fits the data better, which I see as yet another form of Bruno Latour’s process.

Then it was time for the keynote speech by Paul Saffo, which I had been eagerly anticipating after having seen him speak several years ago. I was not disappointed – even though it covered many of the same topics as that previous talk, it was entertaining and informative. Tidbits that I wrote down:

  • “If you don’t change direction, you’ll end up where you are heading.” (in other words, inaction is a choice with consequences)
  • The future will still have a lot of dull parts (riffing on Hitchcock’s claim that “Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it”). We look forward to all the excitement of the future but forget that amid all that excitement will stlil be dull parts.
  • “Change is never linear” (s-curve, s-curve)
  • “Cherish failure, especially someone else’s” – this was a theme from the other talk I attended, where he pointed out that the consequences of the s-curve is that the time when everybody decides that a technology is a failure and that it will never work is the time when it might be just about to take off. Which actually made me wonder about my dismissal of semantic technologies in the session earlier, as part of the reason I dismissed it is that it’s been “just around the corner” for 20 years now, which, in Saffo’s world, means it may be just about to finally succeed.
  • “Look for indicators” – form a quick opinion, but then look for proof that you’re wrong, which he elaborates in his strong opinions, weakly held blog post.
  • “Use forecast techniques until reality gets too complex” – this was an interesting riff where he said that even our forecasting techniques continually get outmoded and need to be updated. He believes that we’re in such a phase transition now, where the old qualitative models are breaking down, but new quantitative models haven’t arrived yet. The four factors that he thinks will drive the next generation of forecasting models are Moore’s law, better forecasting algorithms, more and better data, and more of our lives being stored in digital form thanks to Facebook. My eyes lit up, as that’s a perfect explanation of why I joined a forecasting group at Google.
  • Three book recommendations: the novel Daemon, by Daniel Suarez, “A general theory of bureaucracy” by Elliot Jaques, and the “creative destruction” work of Joseph Schumpeter.

Sunday morning started with a panel on synthetic biology. There were a variety of panelists, with backgrounds in physics, software, and biology, but my favorite was Denise Caruso of the Hybrid Vigor institute, as she questioned the assumptions that the optimistic scientists were making. Her focus area has been on risk analysis, especially in new fields where the risks are difficult to quantify, but her point is that the benefits are equally difficult to quantify, so we shouldn’t be going in with the assumption that innovation is automatically good. Her belief is that we need to come up with better processes and methods for assessing risk with interdisciplinary input. You can see why a generalist like me would be a fan (I actually asked a question during Q&A supporting her viewpoint). I chatted with her a bit afterwards, and also attended the breakout session after lunch with her on innovation and risk, which brought together interesting conversations and different perspectives (the work that Etan Ayalon is doing at GlobalTech Research looks particularly interesting to me). I also liked Caruso’s concept of Bayesian regulation, where it’s not black and white, but involves conditional probabilities.

I missed the next session as I ended up chatting with folks from that first after lunch session for about half the next session, and then had to prepare for my session, “How do organizations think?” I threw it open as a discussion forum expanding on the ideas in my post on organizational cognition, and had a good discussion with the eight people who attended. We talked about different people’s experiences with different organizational structures and what might work to improve those. One key concept that was identified was that designing an organizational culture and structure has to first start with the purpose for which the organization is built. Different structures will serve different purposes, and incongruities between the structure and purpose will cause friction. People expressed interest in possibly having a follow up session after the conference was over, but I didn’t get everybody’s contact information, so I hope they get in contact with me.

I ended up bailing out on the end of the conference during the longevity panel, as I had other plans for the evening, but all in all, it was a good experience – I met a couple new interesting people, had some good discussions, and found new food for thought, which were pretty much my goals for the weekend. But now it’s time to get back to my normal life.

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Age of Conversation 2 is now out

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

A few months ago, I volunteered to contribute an essay to a compendium called “The Age of Conversation 2″. The first “Age of Conversation” book resulted after two editors collected submissions on the topic of conversation from one hundred bloggers and self-published the result at The second book, in which my essay appears, is now available at lulu for purchase. It may just be a collective vanity self-publishing project, but it will still be kind of neat for me to see something I wrote bound into a book.

Despite the help of my readership in brainstorming ideas for the essay, one of the requirements for publication was that I refrain from posting my essay here for six months. So if you just want to see my essay, ping me then.

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MT @chrisheuer: "It’s Time for a Forward Thinking Conversation. It’s time for a #ReOrg"… #futureofwork #socialmedia

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