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The problem with advice on the Internet

May 6, 2018


The problem with advice on the internet — any kind of tip, or trick, or lifehack, or killer new strategy — is that in most cases it’s not actually that useful. Not because the advice is bad, but because you often don’t have a framework to put it in. Take the ubiquitous hot investment tip: even if it’s 100% true, what should you actually do? Buy a little? A lot? When do you sell? How do you know it’s not working?

The few cases where it’s useful is when it fills in a specific piece of a puzzle that you’re missing.

It’s a little like being handed a part to a machine — unless you know where it fits, and you know what piece you’re going to attach to one end and what part you’re going to attach to the other, it’s hard to really make use of it, even if someone else swears by it.

Don’t make that face

May 3, 2018



The violin is an unforgiving instrument — it ranks up there with clarinet for Most Painful Instrument to Hear A Beginner Play. Unlike piano or guitar, you have control over both pitch (finger position) and tone generation (bowing). In the hands of a master, it allows the instrument to sing like a human voice. In other hands? I have a theory that the first violin players must have been royalty, otherwise they would have been put to death by their neighbors while they tried to figure it out.

One skill you need to get really good at is intonation — playing in tune — and being able to adjust if not. This requires training your ears to become very, very sensitive to whether you’re even the slightest bit off. The same way supertasters are overly sensitive to bitter tastes, you become a superlistener, listening for any notes that are out of whack.

In high school, I had a pretty serious violin teacher — she would hold regular recitals where all her students would assemble at her house and perform whatever piece they were working on. Once a year she would rent out a theater and have everyone play on stage with an accompanist with all the families in the audience.

There was one very talented student in particular that had wonderful technique, tone — the only issue is that any time she felt she made a mistake, she would scrunch up her face and wince, like she twisted her ankle. She would do it all the time, even though it sounded great, even to a fairly discerning audience. It was really distracting, and unfortunately for her, it had become an unconscious reflex that undermined all the hard work she’d put in.

While it’s important to take note of what needs to be improved so you can continue getting better, during a performance is not the best time point this out. Your audience wants to enjoy your work. They’re not there (most of them, anyway) just to pick it apart, and even if they were, it’s unlikely they know the material inside and out, the way you do. Odds are they wouldn’t even know anything was wrong — so why go out of your way to point it out to them?

Finally — when you’re done, just because you’re unhappy with your performance doesn’t mean you have to tell other people how wrong they are when they tell you they enjoyed it. I didn’t understand until much later (towards the end of the HD years) that it’s actually more a form of arrogance than humility. So, remember: Do everyone a favor, don’t make that face.

Where work happens

April 24, 2018


Where work happens

David Allen, the creator of Getting Things Done, classifies all work into three types of work: 1) pre-defined work (the stuff on your to-do list, like drafting a document, buying diapers, finding an apartment, etc.), 2) ad-hoc work (unexpected stuff that shows up needs to be dealt with immediately, like finding a plumber after the bathroom floods, or dealing with a livesite issue), and 3) defining work (figuring out what needs to be done — which is where your pre-defined work comes from).

All three kinds of work require one thing, though: time. All work requires time. Specifically, free, uncommitted time — in the calendar above, the blank spaces are where the work happens, not the filled-in spaces. Time is the currency you spend to move an item from “to do” to “finished.” (Even if you delegate it, someone, somewhere, spends time to complete it). Move enough of those items to “finished,” and you find yourself crossing the finish line: the novel finished, the album released, the product launched, the degree earned.

If you find yourself wanting to get more done in a day, there are really only two options: 1) Reduce the time cost of each task (i.e. be more efficient), or 2) Increase the amount of time you have to spend (i.e. re-allocate it from somewhere else).

While it’s tempting to think that you can get efficiency gains from “lifehacks” and whatnot, if you’ve read this far, the effect of any additional trick is going to be pretty minor; on an absolute basis the amount of your gains might net you 3-5% at best since you’ve probably fixed all the obvious problems.

By far the easiest and most substantial gains to time come from freeing up more time, which basically means saying no — a lot. While it may feel comforting to see a schedule filled with meeting requests and other commitments, remember that all your real work happens in the blank spaces in your calendar.

The first time Bill Gates met Warren Buffett, he described seeing Buffett’s schedule as a revelation: There was almost nothing on it:

Buffett needs time to think, to read, to learn. So the more uncommitted time, the more he spends on learning, thinking etc. Practiced consistently over decades you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else who spent more hours thinking about investing. Is it really that surprising he’s remained so good for so long?

So we’re back to prioritization, which starts with being clear about your focus.

One tool I’ve found super useful for this comes from the Toyota Production System. For those that aren’t familiar with it, Toyota pioneered the “lean” manufacturing practices which were largely responsible for its emergence from obscurity in post-World War II Japan to the global giant it is today. It is as much a philosophy as it is a set of practices.

One of TPS’ foundational principles is that any effort that isn’t a direct transformation of raw material into a specific car being driven off the lot by a customer is considered muda, or waste. The goal of the system is simply to eliminate all waste.

In this view, there is always some waste (for instance, quality testing is waste, since it isn’t directly transforming the material) — a 100% waste-free state is impossible — but having a clear, specific definition of value (where everything else is waste) is very useful as a compass.

This lens works wonderfully across domains: for software, this means you would only build exactly the features your customers use. All associated work (meetings, bug reports, etc.) is waste and should be eliminated. Filed a bunch of bugs that don’t get fixed? Waste. Fixed a feature that nobody saw? Waste. Design spec for a feature that got cut? Waste. Tested on browser versions that users don’t use? Waste. Waste, waste, waste.

Classifying what is waste, though, requires understanding what you are trying to deliver. What’s your equivalent of a car being driven off the lot? If you don’t manufacture physical items, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s value and what’s waste.

Figure it out, though, and you have a tool to prune away all the non-essential in order to create more of the empty space you need to move your projects forward.


Three Commandments for Creative Failure*

April 16, 2018


“Invert, always invert.”
— Carl Jacobi

Another useful tool for thinking is inversion. The quote from Jacobi comes via Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway, who and has built a considerable following and reputation for independent thinking
(the volume of his collected wisdom is well worth the investment) — and is where I learned the concept.

Basically, it’s this: Even if you don’t know how to make something successful, you probably know how to make something fail. So, make a list of those things that you would do if your objective was to fail. Then check: How many of those things are you currently doing?

The answer, almost always, is at least a few. So: stop doing those things.

It’s a pretty quick exercise and works in every area of life.

For example, here’s ones for this newly resuscitated blog. What are three practices that I would advise if I were trying to make it fizzle out and fail? How about:

  • Rule 1: Only write when it flows easily: stop when it gets too difficult.
  • Rule 2: Write only when you have the time for it.
  • Rule 3: Only produce the absolute best quality work. Don’t work on anything that seems like it might be bad.

And there it is: A short checklist of practices to avoid. It might not make the project a success, but it’s a good guide around the most common sources of failure.

* Credit to “The Ten Commandments for Business Failure” for the title.

Three, four: Shut the door

April 13, 2018


One rule of thumb that’s worked well for me over the years is something I call “The rule of three*.” My version of the rule limits my commitments at any one time to three major projects. “Projects” in this case can either be major areas — things like health, family/relationships, a job — or specific major projects or hobbies: moving cities, doing a side business, writing an album, enrolling in a course, serious amateur athletics, etc.

So, for instance: health/rest, family, work. Or in the past it’s been health/rest, work, band/music.

It’s pretty simple math: Each day divides into three eight-hour chunks. For most people it breaks down like this:

  • 1 chunk for sleep/rest
  • 1 chunk for work
  • 1 chunk that’s really more like a half-chunk since often there’s commute/travel time, errands, etc.

What about the weekend? The rule takes this into account (that’s why there’s an asterisk after the three). The full version of the rule allows me to have a fourth project, but it has to be one that can be suspended at any time, indefinitely. The fourth slot is essentially buffer space reserved for when the unanticipated happens: illnesses, family emergencies, surprise commitments (good and bad). While you never know what specific unanticipated thing is going to happen, they happen on such a regular basis (especially if you have kids) that it’s predictable.

But four is the hard limit (and if one of the three projects is especially intense, it almost always takes up that fourth slot.)

If you take on more than four major projects, you inevitably short-change the progress you make in any one area. Worse, if you’re maxed out with zero slack all the time, once the unexpected happens, everything gets thrown into chaos as you try to manage it all. It’s long stretches of these circumstances that increase the risks of serious life impairment — major health issues (e.g. heart attack, nervous breakdown), major relationship issues (e.g. divorce), major reputational crises, etc.

The rule’s usefulness comes when new ideas/opportunities/projects come up. It shifts the question from “Would this be a cool/useful/interesting to do” — the answer is always yes — to “What existing project would I drop for this?”

Because real progress on anything only comes from steady effort over a long period of time (years), it ensures that you will have sufficient resources (cognitive, emotional, time) available to make that investment. More importantly, it buffers you from exigencies that can not only stymie progress, but in a few cases can sideline you permanently.

Three questions One question to ask yourself

April 11, 2018


When it comes to any sort of creative endeavor, there are three really important factors that matter: there is what your idea/project/startup needs, there’s what you’re capable of, and there’s what you’re willing to do. Of these, only the last one is under your control. To make your idea come to fruition, your job is to get all three of those things to be equal.

When things stall, most people think the gap is between the first two items: between what’s needed and what you’re capable of: Couldn’t raise the round. Nobody wanted to sign you. Music business is dead. Your cofounder left and took half the team with him. Perfectly reasonable, and yet….

Almost without exception the actual gap is between what you’re willing to do and what you’re capable of — and we’re not talking about unethical/illegal things.

The thing you’re making, the company you’re building, the product you’re bringing into the world — it doesn’t matter if your reasons are acceptable, it dies if you can’t keep it alive, whether it’s because you can’t or you won’t.

Your reasons for throwing up your hands are completely valid; nobody gives up on something without giving it their “best” shot. You knew the path to the summit was going to be difficult, but you were prepared for that. Now you turn the bend — and you realize that an avalanche has completely eradicated the path you had planned to take, and a thick fog now completely envelops the mountain. What now?

Option 1: Turn back. Completely acceptable.

Option 2: Take a deep breath, and continue trying to pick out a path up the mountain, as best as you can tell, through the fog. It’s uncomfortable, it’s scary, and nobody is going to be able to reassure you that it’s going to work out.

But here’s where you have something that other people don’t. If you believe this thing needs to exist, and that you are tasked with bringing it into the world, then your obligation is to work to rise to the challenge of shepherding it into this world.

In other words, you’re going to need to figure out how to transform yourself into the person the task requires. Sorry, you can’t outsource it. Frodo alone must destroy the ring in the fires of Mt Doom; Samwise Gamgee cannot do it for him.

In mythology, the hero is always confronted with a challenge she must overcome; what makes the hero’s journey compelling is that failure is not only possible but likely. But in today’s world, the consequences of the failing the challenges we’re talking about aren’t fatal, not by a long shot.


Make Something People Want (and get it to them at a profit)

April 9, 2018


The most well-known startup accelerator in the world (perhaps of all time), Y Combinator, has a tagline which I’m sure they use as a reminder/exhortation for many people that pass through their halls: Make Something People Want.

For people starting out to create their first company, project, or creative endeavor it’s simple advice that’s hard to beat. Encoded in that phrase are the concepts of creating something and the perception of value by someone else. It’s also a good phrase to keep around as a way to check on priorities.

I’ve found it useful to augment the phrase to “Make Something People Want (and get it to them at a profit)” in order to add a couple other essential factors (distribution, economic model, costs) in a similarly simple way.

Too often people make something and think the work ends after the object/thing is done. Seth Godin advises checking to make sure your internal case for success doesn’t include the phrase “and then a miracle happens.”

If you’re a product/creative person, this second part is often no fun, but it’s essential — if only to have reasonable expectations. Sometimes miracles do happen, but it’s good to figure out what you’re going to do when they don’t.

Med school or musician?

March 12, 2013


booksA friend recently emailed me with a question: His little cousin was being pressured to go to medical school, but the cousin wanted to be a musician — did I have any advice for him? I get questions like this not infrequently, probably because I started off in the same position but wound up in a much different place: I headed off to undergrad intended for medical school (via computer engineering); years later, when I should have been in my second year of residency, I was in a rock band with a hit song on the radio. But then, after that, when I would’ve had a stable practice and career, I was back at school getting a second degree. The consequences are still playing out in my life.

I’ve reprinted the correspondence below, with identifying details taken out. If you want, substitute law school / engineering career / business degree / etc. for medical school, and writer / painter / entrepreneur / playwright / potter for musician. Children of immigrants, or any of you being pushed hard to choose “stable” careers early, this is for you.

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Ang Lee and the uncertainty of success

February 23, 2013


Recently I was going through some old things I had put away for safekeeping, and I found these:

Business card and interview tape, circa 1993.

Business card and interview tape, circa 1993.

In 1993 I interviewed film director Ang Lee before the US premiere of his second movie, “The Wedding Banquet,” at the Seattle International Film Festival (at the time I was editor of the International Examiner and we were one of their media sponsors). At the time, Lee was an unknown in the U.S., an anomaly as a Taiwan-born immigrant director in the United States, mostly notable for having been the NYU classmate of the more famous director Spike Lee.

Nearly two decades later, it’s Ang Lee who’s up at Sunday’s Academy Awards for Best Picture (his fourth nomination) and Best Director (his third), for “Life of Pi.” And in terms of overall tally, “Life of Pi” (11 nominations) trails only Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (12 nominations).

It’s hard not to root for Lee — an unassuming, down-to-earth guy that sends his kids to public schools, does the cooking and shuttles his sons to cello lessons when he comes home. I have always had a personal affinity for him, partly because he was super-nice to my parents (they were seated next to him at the premiere of “The Wedding Banquet”); partly because he was gracious both times I interviewed him; partly because he’s from Taiwan (he has the same accent as my parents) and is kicking ass but not in semiconductors, manufacturing or medicine. Those are all factors.

But the thing that I perhaps relate to most (and the part that you hopefully find as inspiring) is the part of his story that’s between the lines, specifically these lines:

1984: Graduates NYU, signed by William Morris agency after winning the Wasserman prize with “Fine Line”
1990: Wins prize for two scripts in a contest sponsored by the Taiwanese government. Gets backing to direct his first feature, “Pushing Hands”

From age 30 to 36, he’s living in an apartment in White Plains, NY trying to get something — anything — going, while his wife Jane supports the family of four (they also had two young children) on her modest salary as a microbiologist. He spends every day at home, working on scripts, raising the kids, doing the cooking. That’s a six-year span — six years! — filled with dashed hopes and disappointments. “There was nothing,” he told The New York Times. “I sent in script after script. Most were turned down. Then there would be interest, I’d rewrite, hurry up, turn it in and wait weeks and weeks, just waiting. That was the toughest time for Jane and me. She didn’t know what a film career was like and neither did I.” It got so discouraging that Lee reportedly contemplated learning computer science so he could find a job during this time, but was scolded by his wife when she found out, telling him to keep his focus.

Put yourself in his shoes. Imagine starting something now, this year, that you felt you were pretty good at, having won some student awards, devoting yourself to it full time…and then getting rejected over and over until 2019. That’s the middle of the term of the next President of the United States. Can you imagine working that long, not knowing if anything would come of it? Facing the inevitable “So how’s that film thing going?” question for the fifth consecutive Thanksgiving dinner; explaining for the umpteeth time this time it’s different to parents that had hoped that film study meant you wanted to be a professor of film at a university.

It wasn’t until 1991 that Lee finally got a chance to helm his first movie, “Pushing Hands,” which wasn’t even released in the U.S. But after “Pushing Hands” came “The Wedding Banquet,” the film that would be his U.S. breakout and net him a Best Foreign Picture nomination; two years later, “Sense and Sensibility” would bring him into worldwide prominence; then a string of hits: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and now “Life of Pi” that have made him a common figure in the Oscar proceedings and the box-office charts ($576 million and 11 nominations for “Life of Pi” alone).

Of course, looking at the Ang Lee story now, who wouldn’t want to trade places: what’s six, seven, ten, even more years if you knew it would result in massive worldwide commercial and critical success? It’s common to hear “follow your bliss” or “do what you love and success follows.” Sounds great, right? Except here’s one small detail: You never get to know if it’s ever going to happen. You don’t get to choose if and in what form the success manifests; you don’t get to choose when it arrives.

It’s not as if you say, “Okay, universe, I’m ready for my turn! Any day now!” For some people it happens immediately; for others they get steady bits of success over time; and for others, they have long, long stretches of nothing over years. Another detail that I’ve always wondered about: during this long period at home, his NYU classmate Spike Lee releases three films, including the commercially successful and universally acclaimed “Do The Right Thing” in 1989. Having been in similar situations I can only imagine it stirred a very complex set of emotions.

If you’re an aspiring author, director, musician, startup founder, these long stretches of nothing are a huge reason why it’s important to pick something personally meaningful, something that you actually love to do. When external rewards and validation are nonexistent; when you suffer through bouts of jealousy, wondering “How come so-and-so got signed/is successful/got a deal/etc?”; when every new development seems like a kick in the stomach, the love of what you are doing gives you something to hang onto.

Much is made of genius and talent, but the foundation of any life where you get to realize your ambitions is simply being able to out-last everyone through the tough, crappy times — whether through sheer determination, a strong support network, or simply a lack of options.

On Sunday, as they announce “Life of Pi” as a contender in its 11 categories, make a note to remember it the next time you hit another rough patch — a series of rejections, a long stretch of nothing. Your achievements of tomorrow may be very well be planted with the seeds of today’s disappointments.

P.S. “Life of Pi” is an adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name. It recently surpassed sales of 3.1 million volumes. Of course, first it was rejected by five London publishing houses before being picked up by Knopf Canada.

(Re) Introduction

February 21, 2013


A long time ago, I attempted to write a weekly column for The Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Washington. It was a terrible experience. I had a difficult time finding anything I felt was worth saying with any regularity, and it was a rarer occasion when something was published than when it wasn’t. Frankly I’m not sure I had much to say at 21 (or if I did, it wasn’t apparent).

That was a while ago — another attempt at a blog years later fizzled out after a couple posts. So why try it again? A couple reasons.

Time passes, and as it does, you accrue the lessons that come with age (usually through making mistakes — a lot of mistakes). Life has led me through a very winding road of seemingly random experiences — from running a small newspaper to starting a band that would have a radio hit and gold record to, most recently, co-founding a technology startup. Along the way I’ve collected quite a few stories and formulated a few theories/observations about how things work — rooted from my own experiences. I have a fairly wide range of interests so I’ll also probably use this place to indulge some of those as well as try to share some experiments/ideas that have been knocking about in my brain for a while.

And as my friend Paul once observed, having to keep up a blog is another reason to try and live a more interesting life, to do a few more things, if only just to have some new material.

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