kottke.org posts about working
The Misfit Economy looks intriguing; the subtitle is "Lessons in Creativity from Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters and Other Informal Entrepreneurs".
Who are the greatest innovators in the world? You're probably thinking Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford. The usual suspects.
This book isn't about them. It's about people you've never heard of. It's about people who are just as innovative, entrepreneurial, and visionary as the Jobses, Edisons, and Fords of the world, except they're not in Silicon Valley. They're in the street markets of Sao Paulo and Guangzhou, the rubbish dumps of Lagos, the flooded coastal towns of Thailand. They are pirates, slum dwellers, computer hackers, dissidents, and inner city gang members.
Across the globe, diverse innovators operating in the black, grey, and informal economies are developing solutions to a myriad of challenges. Far from being "deviant entrepreneurs" that pose threats to our social and economic stability, these innovators display remarkable ingenuity, pioneering original methods and practices that we can learn from and apply to move formal markets.
Alastair Humphreys writes about making his living as an adventurer. But really, this advice works for anyone who wants to turn their hobby into a job. For instance, this list of reasons he's an adventurer is pretty much why I did the same thing with kottke.org almost 10 years ago.
- I love almost every aspect of what I do.
- I love being self-employed: the freedom and the responsibility and the pressure.
- I think I'm probably now un-employable.
- I love being creative.
- I appreciate that building a profile helps generate exciting opportunities. (And I have come to accept -- though not enjoy -- the weird world of relentless self-promotion that being a career adventurer requires. I remain uncomfortable with people praising me more than I deserve, and I continue to get very angry and upset with the inevitable haters that your self-promotion will attract.)
Notice I don't mention "going on adventures", because there are loads of ways to do that in life. Don't become a career adventurer solely because you want to go off on fun trips. There's easier ways to do that.
That third point is a real double-edged sword. I can't imagine what other job I would be even remotely qualified for other than this one. Feels like walking a tightrope without a safety net sometimes. (via @polarben)
Three dancers from The Australian Ballet share their prep routines for their pointe shoes.
Take-aways: Ballerinas' feet are really not attractive, they soup up their shoes in all sorts of unusual ways, but the end result is beautiful. (thx, fiona)
The NY Times interviewed several people in their 80s who are still killing it in their careers and creative pursuits. Says Ruth Bader Ginsberg about surprises about turning 80:
Nothing surprised me. But I've learned two things. One is to seek ever more the joys of being alive, because who knows how much longer I will be living? At my age, one must take things day by day. I have been asked again and again, "How long are you going to stay there?" I make that decision year by year. The minute I sense I am beginning to slip, I will go. There's a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you're doing to the hilt. I appreciate that I have had as long as I have... It's a sense reminiscent of the poem "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." I had some trying times when my husband died. We'd been married for 56 years and knew each other for 60. Now, four years later, I'm doing what I think he would have wanted me to do.
The interviews are accompanied by an essay by Lewis Lapham, himself on the cusp of 80.
John D. Rockefeller in his 80s was known to his business associates as a crazy old man possessed by the stubborn and ferocious will to know why the world wags and what wags it, less interested in money than in the solving of a problem in geography or corporate combination. By sources reliably informed I'm told that Warren Buffett, 84, and Rupert Murdoch, 83, never quit asking questions.
I read a book several years ago which is relevant here called Old Masters and Young Geniuses, in which economist David Galenson divided creative people into two main camps: conceptual and experimental innovators:
1) The conceptual innovators who peak creatively early in life. They have firm ideas about what they want to accomplish and then do so, with certainty. Pablo Picasso is the archetype here; others include T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Wells. Picasso said, "I don't seek, I find."
2) The experimental innovators who peak later in life. They create through the painstaking process of doing, making incremental improvements to their art until they're capable of real masterpiece. Cezanne is Galenson's main example of an experimental innovator; others include Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, and Jackson Pollock. Cezanne remarked, "I seek in painting."
For the first episode of podcast called Working, David Plotz talks to Stephen Colbert about how he and his staff construct The Colbert Report. This is fascinating.
My show is a shadow of the news, so I have to know what shadow it's casting right now, so I can distort it in my own way.
At the 13 minute mark, he talks about how the team communicates with each other about how the show is shaping up, changes, concerns, etc. They do it all by what sounds like text messaging. Paging Stewart Butterfield, you should get those folks on Slack. (via digg)
The American Life's Ira Glass talks with Lifehacker about how he works. When asked what his best time-saving shortcut or life hack was, he responded:
I've got nothing. Reading other people's answers to this question on your website today made me realize I live my life like an ape. I eat the same breakfast and lunch everyday, both at my desk. I employ no time-saving tricks at all.
Though come to think of it, I guess my biggest life hack -- and this is the very first time I've attempted to use the phrase "life hack" in a sentence -- is that my wife and I decided to live just a few blocks from where I work. We did this because of our dog. Since I spend at least an hour every night walking the dog, I didn't want to spend another 60 or 90 minutes a day commuting. I don't have the time. Like lots of people, I work long hours.
When he was around 32 years old, Leonardo da Vinci applied to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, for a job. The duke was in need of military expertise and Leonardo's 10-point CV emphasized his military engineering skills:
3. Also, if one cannot, when besieging a terrain, proceed by bombardment either because of the height of the glacis or the strength of its situation and location, I have methods for destroying every fortress or other stranglehold unless it has been founded upon a rock or so forth.
4. I have also types of cannon, most convenient and easily portable, with which to hurl small stones almost like a hail-storm; and the smoke from the cannon will instil a great fear in the enemy on account of the grave damage and confusion.
And I love what is almost an aside at the end of the list:
Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.
Oh yeah, P.S., by the way, not that it matters, I am also the greatest living artist in the world, no big deal. Yr pal, Leo. (via farnam street and the letters of note book)
Video game producers utilize music to keep you engaged, increase your achievement, and give you the energy to make it to the next level. So maybe you just found your ideal work soundtrack.
Karltorp has found that music from games he used to play as a kid, such as StarCraft, Street Fighter, and Final Fantasy, work best. Because the music is designed to foster achievement and help players get to the next level, it activates a similar "in it to win it" mentality while working, argues Karltorp. At the same time, it's not too disruptive to your concentration. "It's there in the background," said Karltorp. "It doesn't get too intrusive, it keeps you going, and usually stays on a positive tone, too, which I found is important."
Another one from Quora's excellent weekly newsletter: What's something that is common knowledge at your work place, but will be mind blowing to the rest of us? On fast food in commercials:
Everyone thinks the burgers shown on TV commercials must be highly fabricated works of culinary art, but the fact of the matter is that food advertising is subject to many regulations. I am not sure whether these are company policies or laws, and they're probably a combination of both, but on a typical fast food shoot these rules apply.
The meal must be prepared from actual store stock (from the frozen patty to the bun to the seasonings). On a shoot, stylists would receive tons of product, which they would pore through to find the best-looking raw material.
Other interesting answers reveal the inner workings of political campaign events, the mining industry, investment banking, and orchestras.
Sabine Heinlein follows several people through a post-prison jobs program to see how ex-convicts prepare for re-entry into the workforce.
In prison Angel thought that it wouldn't be too hard to find a job once he got out. He believed he had come a long way. At eighteen he hadn't been able to read or write. He wet his bed and suffered from uncontrollable outbursts of anger. At forty-seven he had studied at the college level. He told me he had read several thousand books. He earned numerous certificates while incarcerated -- a Vocational Appliance Repair Certificate, a Certificate of Proficiency of Computer Operator, a Certificate in Library Training, an IPA (Inmate Program Assistant) II Training Certificate, and several welding certifications -- but in the outside world these credentials counted for little.
"Irrelevant," Angel said. "They might as well be toilet paper."
This piece is the seventh chapter from Heinlein's book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison.
Karen Cheng learned to dance in a year. Here's a video of her progress, from just a few days in to her final number:
Here's my secret: I practiced everywhere. At bus stops. In line at the grocery store. At work -- Using the mouse with my right hand and practicing drills with my left hand. You don't have to train hardcore for years to become a dancer. But you must be willing to practice and you better be hungry.
This isn't a story about dancing, though. It's about having a dream and not knowing how to get there -- but starting anyway. Maybe you're a musician dreaming of writing an original song. You're an entrepreneur dying to start your first venture. You're an athlete but you just haven't left the chair yet.
The interesting thing is, Cheng basically did the same thing in her professional life as well.
I decided to become a designer, but I had no design skills. I thought about going back to school for design, but the time and money commitment was too big a risk for a career choice I wasn't totally sure of.
So I taught myself -- everyday I would do my day job in record time and rush home to learn design. Super talented people go to RISD for 4 years and learn design properly. I hacked together my piecemeal design education in 6 months -- there was no way I was ready to become a designer. But I was so ready to leave Microsoft. So I started the job search and got rejected a few times. Then I got the job at Exec.
The first few weeks were rough. Everyday I sat in front of my computer trying my damnedest and thinking it wasn't good enough. But everyday I got a little bit better.
(via hacker news)
James Somers, writer and web developer, ponders the value of the work that he does.
I have a friend who's a mechanical engineer. He used to build airplane engines for General Electric, and now he's trying to develop a smarter pill bottle to improve compliance for AIDS and cancer patients. He works out of a start-up 'incubator', in an office space shared with dozens of web companies. He doesn't have a lot of patience for them. 'I'm fucking sick of it,' he told me, 'all they talk about is colours.'
Web start-up companies are like play-companies. They stand in relation to real companies the way those cute little make-believe baking stations stand in relation to kitchens.
Take Doormates, a failed start-up founded in 2011 by two recent graduates from Columbia University whose mission was to allow users 'to join or create private networks for buildings with access restricted to only building residents'. For that they, too, raised $350,000. You wonder whether anyone asked: 'Do strangers living in the same building actually want to commune? Might this problem not be better solved by a plate of sandwiches?' (The founders have since moved on to 'Mommy Nearest', an iPhone app that points out mom-friendly locations around New York.)
A lot of the stuff going on just isn't very ambitious. 'The thing about the advertising model is that it gets people thinking small, lean,' wrote Alexis Madrigal in an essay about start-ups in The Atlantic last year. 'Get four college kids in a room, fuel them with pizza, and see what thing they can crank out that their friends might like. Yay! Great! But you know what? They keep tossing out products that look pretty much like what you'd get if you took a homogenous group of young guys in any other endeavour: Cheap, fun, and about as worldchanging as creating a new variation on beer pong.'
From 20101, a talk by Pixar's Ed Catmull on how Pixar does what it does.
Part of the behavior is I don't know the answers. And at first that seems a little bit glib. But after awhile people get that I really don't know the answer to a lot of these things. So we set it up so that the management really doesn't tell people what to do. We discuss, we debate, [but] people start to refer to 'the management', and I say come on guys, there's three of us, we're all in this together, and then we're very open and honest about the problems.
Lasseter and Jobs get all the press, but Catmull deserves more credit than he gets for Pixar's success. (via df)
 I don't know why I put it like this. If something is good or interesting, who the hell cares when it's from? [Shouldn't you just delete it then? -ed] ↩
Because of "the evolving experience in the stores" (aka live music is too expensive), after 27 years of playing the piano at Nordstrom in the Tacoma Mall, Juan Perez was let go in January.
Perez remembers his audition at Nordstrom, one morning in January 1986.
"There were five of us. Four beautiful young ladies, and me. They were carrying music books."
They were dressed, he said, as if they had shopped at Nordstrom. He was not. They were carrying sheet music. Perez did not, and does not, read notes. He plays by ear.
"I was the first one to play," he said. "I wasn't expecting they would hire me, and I was dressed in a regular shirt. I started playing and playing as the store opened up. I didn't even have an application."
After playing, he drove home.
"My wife said, 'They called. They want you to start tomorrow.' I almost cried."
Perez arrived in the US with $300 to his name and through hard work at the piano, has put seven of his children through college, with two more currently in college and one more attending private high school. (via brooks review)
Rod McLaren collects links on Rodcorp and on Pinboard about how people work. He recently recapped some of the work techniques from those links. Here are a few of my favorites:
Ray Bradbury wrote an early version on Fahrenheit 451 in nine days on a rented typewriter in the UCLA library basement.
Gay Talese would pin pages of his writing to a wall and examine them from the other side of the room with binoculars.
Jonathan Safran Foer has a collection of blank sheets of paper.
Truman Capote wrote lying down, as did Marcel Proust, Mark Twain and Woody Allen.
Note: Illustration by Chris Piascik...prints & more are available.
The internet is going through a bit of a thing with standing desks right now, fueled by yesterday's The Wirecutter article about them. One of the most famous standing desk enthusiasts was Ernest Hemingway.
The introduction of this 1958 Paris Review interview with Hemingway briefly describes Papa's upright working setup:
A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu -- the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.
Most articles I've seen on standing desks recommend anti-fatigue mats to help with foot pain, but of course Hemingway would go with the hide of an African antelope that he likely killed himself.
Other famous users of standing desks included Winston Churchill, Lewis Carroll, Donald Rumsfeld, Charles Dickens, Otto von Bismarck, Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson, John Dos Passos, and Virginia Woolf. (thx, megnut)
The fantastically obsessive Mark Lukach just spent an outlandish amount of time researching stand-up desks and shared his findings at The Wirecutter. Even if you have no interest in standing on the job, The Wirecutter is worth a visit for their concise and excellent guides on what to buy from headphones to juicers. (via nextdraft)
Note: This post is from Dave Pell's NextDraft email newsletter, hopefully the first of many. Dave and I are going to be trading content back and forth on a more-or-less weekly basis, so keep a lookout for that. If you like what you see, subscribe to NextDraft whydontcha?
Writing for New York magazine, Henry Blodget explains how a young startup founder and college dropout became the CEO of a soon-to-be $100 billion company.
When talking about Zuckerberg's most valuable personality trait, a colleague jokingly invokes the famous Stanford marshmallow tests, in which researchers found a correlation between a young child's ability to delay gratification -- devour one treat right away, or wait and be rewarded with two -- with high achievement later in life. If Zuckerberg had been one of the Stanford scientists' subjects, the colleague jokes, Facebook would never have been created: He'd still be sitting in a room somewhere, not eating marshmallows.
Trevor Pryce played in the NFL for 14 years and upon retiring learned that fame and money is not much if you're not doing what you love.
"Early retirement" sounds wonderful. It certainly did that cold night in Pittsburgh. I was going to use my time to conquer the world.
Boy, was I wrong. Now I find myself in music chat rooms arguing the validity of Frank Zappa versus the Mars Volta. (If the others only knew Walkingpnumonia was the screen name for a former All-Pro football player and not some Oberlin College student trying to find his place in the world.) I wrote a book. I set sail on the picturesque and calming waters of Bodymore, Murdaland. And when I'm in dire straits, I do what any 8-year-old does; I kick a soccer ball against the garage hoping somebody feels sorry and says, "Hey, want to play?"
With millions of Americans out of work or doing work for which they are overqualified, I consider myself lucky. But starting from scratch can be unsettling. If you're not prepared for it, retirement can become a form of self-imposed exile from the fulfillment and the exhilaration of knowing you did a good job.
Very interesting talk by Bret Victor on the power and effectiveness of organizing your work around a guiding principle. Victor's principle is "creators need an immediate connection to what they create" and he shows some really cool ways he's exploring that idea.
At the end of this month Jeff Atwood is leaving Stack Exchange, a company he cofounded with Joel Spolsky. In a post on his blog, he explains why:
Startup life is hard on families. We just welcomed two new members into our family, and running as fast as you can isn't sustainible for parents of multiple small children. The death of Steve Jobs, and his subsequent posthumous biography, highlighted the risks for a lot of folks. [...] Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange have been wildly successful, but I finally realized that success at the cost of my children is not success. It is failure.
In his post, Jeff points to a similar post by another entrepreneur, Brad Wardell.
In the last several years, the company has been successful enough to generate a substantial amount of capital. And with it, I have been fortunate to bring in people with great talent. And so I started thinking of all the amazing things we would do. I would put in crazy hours to do it, of course, but we would go and do amazing things.
Then Steve Jobs died.
And suddenly I realized something. What is the objective here? My oldest child just turned 15. My other two are no longer little either. And I have been missing out on them.
And another from Eric Karjaluoto:
For a long time, work was my only thing. I worked evenings, weekends, and Christmas. At those rare times when I wasn't at work in body, I was there in spirit, unable to speak or think of much else. I wanted so badly to climb the mountain that I stopped asking why I was doing it.
I admire [Jobs] for the mountains he climbed. At the same time, I wonder if he missed the whole point, becoming the John Henry of our time. He won the race, but at what cost?
Me? I may turn out to be a failure in business, but I refuse to fail my kids.
This mirrors my main reaction to Jobs' death and Isaacson's book as well. I wasn't working 80 hours a week or leading a growing company or even spending very little time with my kids but I was pushing pretty hard on Stellar, pushing it towards a potential future of insane working hours, intense stress, and a whole lot less time with my family (and selfishly, less time for myself). Since Jobs died, I've been pushing a little less hard in that direction.
Four is hardly a trend but it is interesting that the death and biography of the greatest businessman of our generation -- someone who was responsible for so many world-changing products and ideas, who shaped our world through sheer force of will & imagination, etc. etc. -- is inspiring some people to turn away from the lifestyle & choices that made Jobs so successful & inspiring in the public sphere and to attempt the path that Jobs did not.
What jobs did people do in medieval Europe? Here's a list, broken down by category. Criminals had jobs too:
silk-snatcher - one who steals bonnets
stewsman - probably a brothel keeper - "since the words stew and stewholder both mean a bawd, I'm guessing that a stewsman would be a brothel-keeper as well. Whether bawdry counts as a criminal activity varies at different times and places."
thimblerigger - a professional sharper who runs a thimblerig (a game in which a pea is ostensibly hidden under a thimble and players guess which thimble it is under)
Susan Cain argues that the lack of privacy and freedom from interruption in modern offices might not be the best way for those office employees to be creative...particularly for introverts.
The New Groupthink has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions. Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I'm talking about. Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open plan offices, in which no one has "a room of one's own." During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.
The new offices of Foursquare and Buzzfeed (where I work from) are a perfect example of the New Groupthink Cain refers to....rows and rows of people sitting next to each other in open spaces. Much of this is because of NYC's insane rental market, but Fog Creek's offices are a nice counterexample:
Every developer, tester, and program manager is in a private office; all except two have direct windows to the outside (the two that don't get plenty of daylight through two glass walls).
The Atlantic asked their readers to tell them what other people don't get or appreciate about their jobs. Here's what they said, from Army Soldier to Zookeeper.
What people don't understand about my job [as an IRS employee] is that chances are you are not the person I'm examining. I examine doctors who expense three Cadillacs, insurance brokers who claim jet skis for business use only, and real estate agents who haven't paid taxes in eight years. The public doesn't realize that tax auditors are the only people between a balanced effective tax rate among all social classes and the bourgeoisie stealing what isn't bolted down. Don't kid yourself; these people are stealing from you. This money helps pay for schools, roads and with any luck can keep mortgage interest deduction alive for a few more years. I read a report on NPR that Italy has 40% of its population evading taxes. Imagine our debt crisis if we had the same problem. (Our tax evasion rate is estimated between 8-18%).
So if you're one of those "Joe the Plumber" people who take time out of work to throw teabags at me on my way into the office in the morning: You are the middle class! I'm helping you!
Allison Arieff argues that companies and their workers should worry less about office design and focus more on how people want to work.
Two other factors often undervalued (and often ignored) in the workplace? Family and time. Architect Iris Regn and artist Rebecca Niederlander have been working to bring these into the conversation by exploring the intersection between creativity and family life in an ongoing collaborative effort they call Broodwork.
Don't be put off by the awkward name. Broodwork suggests that, far from being the hindrance it's often presented as, incorporating family into work can have overwhelmingly positive effects. Regn is trained as an architect but is open enough in her thinking to understand that in the scheme of things, the adjustability of her desk isn't going to have an impact on her creative process nearly as much as what her daughter might say tonight at the dinner table.
"The first impetus [of Broodwork] was to get people to acknowledge interweaving of creative practice and family life," she told me. "Not to have to hide [your family] when you have to go pick up your kid while at a meeting, for example. That raised eyebrow is going away. Yes, you're juggling. That's just part of the deal. When you talk to other parents, everyone knows the deal so why is it that in a professional setting that can't be brought to the table?
I feel like I've heard this before, but in the early days of Google, Sergey Brin ended his job interviews in an unusual manner.
Finally, he leaned forward and fired his best shot, what he came to call "the hard question."
"I'm going to give you five minutes," he told me. "When I come back, I want you to explain to me something complicated that I don't already know." He then rolled out of the room toward the snack area. I looked at Cindy. "He's very curious about everything," she told me. "You can talk about a hobby, something technical, whatever you want. Just make sure it's something you really understand well."
I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg asks similar sorts of questions on his walks in the woods.
CBS MoneyWatch recently posted a list of unusual questions asked in job interview at companies like Google, Facebook, and Pottery Barn. Over at The Morning News, Giles Turnbull decided to answer them all.
UBS: If we were playing Russian roulette and had one bullet, I randomly spun the chamber and fired but nothing was fired. Would you rather fire the gun again or respin the chamber and then fire on your turn?
I'd rather get the fuck out of your office and run away very fast. What the hell are you people on? Haven't you heard of email? Or official dispute procedures? Jesus.
Based on his answer to P&G's "sell me an invisible pen", I'd hire Turnbull in a second if I were selling invisible pens.
Here's a Playboy Bunny employee manual from 1969.
Bunnies must allow enough time before going to their assigned rooms to report to the Bunny Mother for appearance inspection. The Bunnies' hair, nails, shoes, makeup and costume must be "Bunny-perfect" and no Bunny is permitted to begin working unless appearance specifications are met. Demerits may be issued for carelessness in this regard. When the Bunny reports to her scheduled room, the Room Director, too, will note her appearance and suggest improvements if necessary.
NSFW if having "PLAYBOY BUNNY" on your screen in huge pink letters is not safe in your workplace.
In his recent commencement address at Harvard Medical School, Atul Gawande argued that medical practitioners need to shift from thinking of themselves as cowboys to thinking of themselves as pit crews.
Two million patients pick up infections in American hospitals, most because someone didn't follow basic antiseptic precautions. Forty per cent of coronary-disease patients and sixty per cent of asthma patients receive incomplete or inappropriate care. And half of major surgical complications are avoidable with existing knowledge. It's like no one's in charge-because no one is. The public's experience is that we have amazing clinicians and technologies but little consistent sense that they come together to provide an actual system of care, from start to finish, for people. We train, hire, and pay doctors to be cowboys. But it's pit crews people need.
Ben Pieratt is the CEO of Svpply, a social shopping startup. He recently wrote a great post subtitled "I have no idea what I'm doing" that reveals the rarely seen flipside to the macho show-no-weakness tech startup scene.
My situation is blessed and I rarely let a day go by that I don't say a silent prayer in thanks for the position in which I've found myself, but good gracious is this hard.
The most frustrating part is that it is difficult to get into a rhythm in your work when you have no real understanding of the next steps you need to take. There's no opportunity for flow if both outcome and process are foreign experiences. There's just a lot of poking around and mystery and inadvertent negligence.
Svpply has been open to the public for six months now. Our progress has been slow for a variety of reasons. We have not launched as many new features as I would expect, or even drastically improved the ones we launched with. I own these problems, they can be traced directly back to my inabilities and inexperience, sometimes directly, other times in the form of my not having anticipated or recognized situations for what they were as soon as I could have.
From Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (found here), an anecdote about how Charles Schwab wordlessly motivated the workers in one of his steel mills.
Charles Schwab had a mill manager whose people weren't producing their quota of work.
"How is it," Schwab asked him, "that a manager as capable as you can't make this mill turn out what it should?"
"I don't know," the manager replied. "I've coaxed the men, I've pushed them, I've sworn and cussed, I've threatened them with damnation and being fired. But nothing works. They just won't produce."
This conversation took place at the end of the day, just before the night shift came on. Schwab asked the manager for a piece of chalk, then, turning to the nearest man, asked: "How many heats did your shift make today?"
Without another word, Schwab chalked a big figure six on the floor, and walked away.
When the night shift came in, they saw the "6" and asked what it meant.
"The big boss was in here today," the day people said.
"He asked us how many heats we made, and we told him six. He chalked it down on the floor."
The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again. The night shift had rubbed out "6" and replaced it with a big "7."
When the day shift reported for work the next morning, they saw a big "7" chalked on the floor. So the night shift thought they were better than the day shift did they? Well, they would show the night shift a thing or two. The crew pitched in with enthusiasm, and when they quit that night, they left behind them an enormous, swaggering "10." Things were stepping up.
Shortly this mill, which had been lagging way behind in production, was turning out more work than any other mill in the plant.
Let Charles Schwab say it in his own words: "The way to get things done," says Schwab, "is to stimulate competition. I do not mean in a sordid, money-getting way, but in the desire to excel."
The desire to excel! The challenge! Throwing down the gauntlet! An infallible way of appealing to people of spirit.
James Somers noticed that his equity derivative-trading roommate was the only one of his young professional friends who comes home from work "buoyant and satisfied", so he accompanied him to work one day to see what his job entailed. Turns out he basically plays video games all day.
A trader's job is to be smarter than the market. He converts a mess of analysis and intuition into simple bets. He makes moves. If his predictions are better than everyone else's, he wins money; if not, he loses it. At every moment he has a crystalline picture of his bottom line, the "P and L" (profit and loss) that determines how much of a bonus he'll get and, more importantly, where he stands among his peers. As my friend put it, traders are "very, very, very competitive." At the end of the day they ask each other "how did you do today?" Trading is one of the few jobs with an actual leaderboard, which, if you've ever been on one, or strived to get there, you'll recognize as being perhaps the single most powerful driver of a gamer's engagement.
That seems to be the core of it, but no doubt there are other game-like features in play here: the importance of timing and tactile dexterity; the clear presence of two abstract levels of attention and activity, one long-term and strategic, the other fiercely tactical, localized in bursts a minute or two long; the need for teams and ceaseless chatter; and so on.
Athleticism and competitiveness are often downplayed when we talk about white collar careers but are essential in many disciplines. Doctors (surgeons in particular) have both those traits, founding a startup company is definitely competitive and can be as physically demanding as running, teachers are standing or walking all day long, and even something like programming requires manual dexterity with the mouse & keyboard and the stamina to sit in a chair paying single-minded attention to a task for 10-12 hours a day. (via @tcarmody)
From Imaginary Forces, a short documentary about the desks of creative people.
We talked to experts Alice Twemlow, Eric Abrahamson, Massimo Vignelli, David Miller, Kurt Andersen, Soren Kjaer, Alfred Stadler, Jennifer Lai, and Ben Bajorek and creates an historical and relevant film about the relationship between the worker and the desk and how this reflects on personality and habits.
I too love Massimo Vignelli's desk.
From Ben Pieratt's blog, In praise of quitting your job.
I think it comes down to the fact that, for some people, work is personal. Personal in the same way that singing or playing the piano or painting is personal.
As a creative person, you've been given the ability to build things from nothing by way of hard work over long periods of time. Creation is a deeply personal and rewarding activity, which means that your Work should also be deeply personal and rewarding. If it's not, then something is amiss.
Creation is entirely dependent on ownership.
Ownership not as a percentage of equity, but as a measure of your ability to change things for the better. To build and grow and fail and learn. This is no small thing. Creativity is the manifestation of lateral thinking, and without tangible results, it becomes stunted. We have to see the fruits of our labors, good or bad, or there's no motivation to proceed, nothing to learn from to inform the next decision. States of approval and decisions-by-committee and constant compromises are third-party interruptions of an internal dialog that needs to come to its own conclusions.
In 1958, Hunter S. Thompson sent a job request to the editor of the Vancouver Sun. Like much of Thompson's writing, it was unconventional.
By the time you get this letter, I'll have gotten hold of some of the recent issues of The Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I'll let my offer stand. And don't think that my arrogance is unintentional: it's just that I'd rather offend you now than after I started working for you.
I didn't make myself clear to the last man I worked for until after I took the job. It was as if the Marquis de Sade had suddenly found himself working for Billy Graham. The man despised me, of course, and I had nothing but contempt for him and everything he stood for. If you asked him, he'd tell you that I'm "not very likable, (that I) hate people, (that I) just want to be left alone, and (that I) feel too superior to mingle with the average person." (That's a direct quote from a memo he sent to the publisher.)
Nothing beats having good references.
This is exactly why I bought an iPad:
In this profession, it's critical to have a break-out area where you can think without the computer looking over your shoulder; where you can do your most valuable work without the siren song of an IDE. For the same reason that getting up and even walking to the bathroom can provide new perspective on a heretofore intractable problem, it's in your own best professional interests to do as much of your work as possible before you handcuff yourself to your desk each day.
The potential of iPad is to decouple as many tasks as possible from my work environment -- and to keep me away from that environment when I'm doing things that don't actually require me to be there other than to use a computer.
I do a lot of reading and light writing for this site and I'm hoping that the iPad will allow me to do that somewhere that's not my desk. At least for a few hours a week. (via jb)
Kevin Fanning has worked in HR for the past 9 years so he's dispensed a lot of job search advice to friends over the years. Now he's collected all that knowledge into a new book called Let's All Find Awesome Jobs.
Whenever someone I knew was engaged in a job search, I would do whatever I could to be helpful. Tell them about the mistakes I'd seen, tell them what common pitfalls to avoid. They said my feedback was helpful, so I started writing it down. I collected it into a PDF that circulated amongst my friends for a few years. I kept adding to it, and eventually it became this book.
Eight bucks via Paypal. See also Job Interview Questions I Hope They Don't Ask Tomorrow and A Great Job Opportunity.
Dan Pink argues that businesses should engage their employees' third drive, our "inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore and to learn".
Management is the ideal technology if you're seeking compliance -- getting people to do what you want them to do, the way you want them to do it. But in today's workforce, which demands much more in the way of creative and conceptual capabilities, we don't want compliance. We want engagement. And self-direction is a far better technology for engagement.
From Jan Banning's series entitled Bureaucratics.
Career advice from Charlie Hoehn:
Therein lies the best career advice I could possibly dispense: just DO things. Chase after the things that interest you and make you happy. Stop acting like you have a set path, because you don't. No one does. You shouldn't be trying to check off the boxes of life; they aren't real and they were created by other people, not you. There is no explicit path I'm following, and I'm not walking in anyone else's footsteps. I'm making it up as I go.
People throw away thousands of losing tickets at off-track betting parlors every day. Except that some of those losing tickets are actually winners. This is where the stoopers come in.
For the past 10 years, Jesus Leonardo has been cleaning up at an OTB parlor in Midtown Manhattan, cashing in, by his own count, nearly half a million dollars' worth of winning tickets from wagers on thoroughbred races across the country. "It is literally found money," he said on a recent night from his private winner's circle. He spends more than 10 hours a day there, feeding thousands of discarded betting slips through a ticket scanner in a never-ending search for someone else's lost treasure.
How Aaron Swartz hires programmers.
To find out whether someone's smart, I just have a casual conversation with them. I do everything I can to take off any pressure off: I meet at a cafe, I make it clear it's not an interview, I do my best to be casual and friendly. Under no circumstances do I ask them any standard "interview questions" -- I just chat with them like I would with someone I met at a party. (If you ask people at parties to name their greatest strengths and weaknesses or to estimate the number of piano tuners in Chicago, you've got bigger problems.) I think it's pretty easy to tell whether someone's smart in casual conversation. I constantly make judgments about whether people I meet are smart, just like I constantly make judgments about whether people I see are attractive.
In The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to "The Office" and the followup The Gervais Principle II: Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk, Venkatesh Rao dissects and analyzes the American version of The Office to a degree I hadn't thought was possible.
After four years, I've finally figured the show out. The Office is not a random series of cynical gags aimed at momentarily alleviating the existential despair of low-level grunts. It is a fully-realized theory of management that falsifies 83.8% of the business section of the bookstore.
Even if you're only an occasional viewer of the show, this is worth reading through, especially if you work in an office environment. (thx, zach)
Some folks from the web magazine Double X wondered what it would be like to drink as much in the workplace as the characters do on Mad Men. So they spent the day getting hammered and tried to do some work. The results are somewhat different than on the show.
Every seven years, Stefan Sagmeister closes his design studio for a year of focused R&D.
Every seven years, designer Stefan Sagmeister closes his New York studio for a yearlong sabbatical to rejuvenate and refresh their creative outlook. He explains the often overlooked value of time off and shows the innovative projects inspired by his time in Bali.
So says Caterina Fake:
We agreed that a lot of what we then considered "working hard" was actually "freaking out". Freaking out included panicking, working on things just to be working on something, not knowing what we were doing, fearing failure, worrying about things we needn't have worried about, thinking about fund raising rather than product building, building too many features, getting distracted by competitors, being at the office since just being there seemed productive even if it wasn't -- and other time-consuming activities. This time around we have eliminated a lot of freaking out time. We seem to be working less hard this time, even making it home in time for dinner.
I would likely give the same advice, but I wonder if it's actually true. Perhaps working hard/freaking out was exactly what was needed at the time, whether or not it seems efficient or correct in retrospect. You need to travel that road so you can find a better way the second time around.
That was the question asked over on Clusterflock, with the following anecdote offered as a starter:
I increased [my boss's] sugar intake by one spoon at a time and generally left a couple of days in between changes. I kept going until I was bored. I guess part of me wanted her to notice, but she never did. Not even the amount of sugar we were getting through. Anyway, I eventually got her up to 23 spoons of sugar in a cup of tea -- yeah, 23! She never said a word and always finished the cup.
Reminds me of some of the stuff that Jim does to Dwight on The Office. At my first job out of college, some coworkers of mine and I found a Mac OS extension that decreased the size of the screen by a pixel or two each time the computer booted. I don't think we ever installed it on anyone's computer; just imagining the reaction was good enough.
Paul Graham on the difference between the "maker's schedule" and the "manager's schedule".
When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule. There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.
Graham is right on about this.
Update: Gina Trapani adds:
As a freelancer, I get lots of requests to "grab coffee" (as Graham describes) with folks who are just interested in seeing if working together is a possibility. Whenever that happens, my heart sinks. If I'm on deadline or deep in a programming project, grabbing coffee midday with someone I don't know and might not have any good business reason to talk to changes the tenor of the entire day. When I can, I usually I turn down these types of speculative meetings because the costs are too high-but I always feel bad about it, and never know how to word my response. (Generally I say, "Sorry I'm just too busy.")
A common misconception about freelancers is that they can do whatever they want whenever they want, but that's not actually true if you want to get anything done. Large chunks of uninterrupted time is the only thing that works.
CNNMoney tells us about seven great companies to work for. For instance, a Colorado brewing company gives their employees free beer and company ownership.
After one year of work, each employee receives an ownership stake in the company and a free custom bicycle. After five years every employee enjoys an all-expenses-paid trip to Belgium -- the country whose centuries-old beer tradition serves as a model for the Fort Collins, Colo., brewery. Oh yeah, and employees get two free six-packs of beer a week.
Tyler Cowen on how to keep your job. Click through to see which of the following is most effective:
1. Make your boss aware of all your recent accomplishments at work.
2. Butter up your boss with compliments.
3. Tell your boss you'd be willing to accept a pay cut to keep your job.
Cliff Kuang traces the evolution of office designs from the open factory-like floors of Frederick Taylor to the present era of semi-private pods.
Scott Berkun shares how great managers get that way.
8. Self aware, including weaknesses. This is the kicker. Great leaders know what they suck at, and either work on those skills or hire people they know make up for their own weaknesses, and empower them to do so. This tiny little bit of self-awareness makes them open to feedback and criticism to new areas they need to work on, and creates an example for movement in how people should be growing and learning about new things.
(via world airmail links)
Peter Merholz asks: is your company designed for humans or fleshy automatons?
We're placed in hierarchical org charts, remnant of railroad and factory operations of the 19th century, and find ourselves in silos that prevent us from collaborating with our colleagues.
We're given job titles with an explicit set of responsibilities, and discouraged to perform outside that boundary.
Time has a list of ten ideas that are changing the world right now. This is not a typical mindless list (e.g. green energy! um...more green energy)...there's some good stuff here. Jobs Are The New Assets asserts now that making money with money (i.e. stocks and property) while you sit on your ass all days doesn't fly, your job is your main source of income and financial stability.
All the while, we blissfully ignored a little concept economists like to call human capital. The cognition you've got up there in your head -- your education and training -- it's worth something. We can extract value not just from our homes and our portfolios but from ourselves as well. The mechanism for extracting that value? A job. "The income you earn from working is like the stream of interest income you might get from owning a bond," says Johns Hopkins University economist Christopher Carroll. "Think of it as a dividend on your human wealth."
Michael Lewis recently said something similar in an interview for Big Think.
When you think of making money, think of what you do for a living, not the financial markets.
Amortality is my favorite entry on the list. It's a more general version of the Grups theory put forth in New York magazine three years ago. An amortal person is someone who lives a similar lifestyle all throughout their life, from their teens to their 80s.
For all the optimism about how science may prolong life, mice and humans keep turning up their toes. No matter how much the government bullies and cajoles, amortals rarely make adequate provision for their final years. Yet even as faltering amortals strain the public purse, so their determination to wring every drop out of life brings benefits to the private sector. They prop up the tottering music industry, are lifelong consumers of gadgets and gizmos, keep gyms busy and colorists in demand. From their youth, when they behave as badly as adults, to their dotage, when they behave as badly as youngsters, amortals hate to be pigeonholed by age.
Liz Danzico turned a malapropism into a useful word. Mentornship, n.
Internship for the bright or advanced individual under guidance of a more senior practitioner. No making copies or coffee.
I love this idea, although I've never been a believer in interns fetching coffee or doing the shopping at Staples. The bright-but-junior person sees obvious educational benefits from the arrangement but so does the senior practitioner; they get high quality work and access to a sharp beginner's mind. With the right people, the mentornship would likely morph into a collaboration before too long.
Update: Mentornship technically isn't a malapropism, it's a portmanteau word. (thx, dave)
Michael Lewis talks a little about his writing process.
I've written in awful enough situations that I know that the quality of the prose doesn't depend on the circumstance in which it is composed. I don't believe the muse visits you. I believe that you visit the muse. If you wait for that "perfect moment" you're not going to be very productive.
The Big Picture collected a bunch of photos of people at work, spinning silk yarn, on a shoe assembly line, sanding and buffing an Oscar statue, checking flour-making equipment, inspecting cigars, assembling model trains, and making toilet bowls.
Aaron Swartz has some interesting thoughts on non-hierarchical management in the workplace.
A better way to think of a manager is as a servant, like an editor or a personal assistant. Everyone wants to be effective; a manager's job is to do everything they can to make that happen. The ideal manager is someone everyone would want to have.
Instead of the standard "org chart" with a CEO at the top and employees growing down like roots, turn the whole thing upside down. Employees are at the top -- they're the ones who actually get stuff done -- and managers are underneath them, helping them to be more effective. (The CEO, who really does nothing, is of course at the bottom.)
Swartz also quotes a friend who believes that people who act like jerks in the workplace are not worth the trouble.
I have a "no asshole rule" which is really simple: I really don't want to work with assholes. So if you're an asshole and you work on my team, I'm going to fire you.
I have worked with (and near) several assholes in my time and I'm convinced that firing one unpleasant person, even if they perform a vital function, is equivalent to hiring two great employees. The boost in morale alone is worth it.
Update: A recent episode of This American Life called Ruining It for the Rest of Us covered the asshole in the workplace thing.
A bad apple, at least at work, can spoil the whole barrel. And there's research to prove it. Host Ira Glass talks to Will Felps, a professor at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, who designed an experiment to see what happens when a bad worker joins a team. Felps divided people into small groups and gave them a task. One member of the group would be an actor, acting either like a jerk, a slacker or a depressive. And within 45 minutes, the rest of the group started behaving like the bad apple.
(thx, scott & david)
In a 10-minute video, Randy Nelson, the Dean of Pixar University, talks about how Pixar hires. One thing they look for is people who are interested rather than interesting.
As a general rule, meetings make individuals perform below their capacity and skill levels. This doesn't mean we should always avoid face-to-face meetings - but it is certain that every organization has too many meetings, and far too many poorly designed ones.
-- Reid Hastie, behavioral scientist
The Daily Routines blog collects stories about interesting people organize their days. For instance, Thomas Friedman "can't wait to get [his] pants on in the morning". Neither can we! Reminds me of rodcorp's How we work. (via snarkmarket)
More on the Saigon Grill saga: the owners were arrested yesterday on over 400 counts of "violating minimum-wage laws, falsifying business records and defrauding the state's unemployment insurance system".
"Like so many restaurants across New York City, Saigon Grill was run on the backs of its workers," Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. "These workers allowed the business to thrive, and in exchange they were allegedly cheated out of wages, fined for ridiculous reasons" and, he said, "pulled into a painstaking ploy to cover it all up."
A federal judge has awarded $4.6 million in back pay and damages to 36 delivery workers at two Saigon Grill restaurants in Manhattan, finding blatant and systematic violations of minimum-wage and overtime laws.
We live right around the corner from one of the SGs and have avoided eating there despite the decent and close Vietnamese food. The fired workers were out in front of the place protesting for months and months...it's great to see hard work pay off like that, particularly when the protestors probably couldn't actually afford to be out there.
Some people now work at walking desks, standing-height desks outfitted with treadmills.
To the uninitiated, work-walking sounds like a recipe for distraction. But devotees say the treadmill desks increase not only their activity but also their concentration. "I thought it was ridiculous until I tried it," said Ms. Krivosha, 49, a partner in the law firm of Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand. Ms. Krivosha said it is tempting to become distracted during conference calls, but when she is exercising, she listens more intently. "Walking just takes care of the A.D.D. part," she said.
One work-walker lost 16 pounds doing two hours of work-walking over a two-month period.
Update: Walking desk + addictiveness of World of Warcraft = 100 pound weight loss. Of course, he estimates that he gained 60-70 pounds playing Warcraft and eating Hot Tamales. (thx, johan)
Update: Walking desk footage on YouTube. (via get fit slowly)
If you live and work in Los Angeles and have an average commute, you spend 72 hours a year in traffic. That's enough time to read War and Peace once, get through Wagner's The Ring Cycle almost five times, or watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy almost eight times. The page includes stats for other cities too.
Update: A closer read, a bit of arithmetic, and several emails have convinced me that the 72 hours is not the overall commute time but the time spent sitting motionless in traffic. (thx, everyone)
How to be a good intern. This list works equally well for advice on how to be a good employee, manager, or CEO. "There are no stupid questions" is good advice no matter what. (via swissmiss)
Picking a subject from his upcoming book, Malcolm Gladwell talked about the difficulty in hiring people in the increasingly complex thought-based contemporary workplace. Specifically that we're using a collection of antiquated tools to evaluate potential employees, creating what he calls "mismatch problems" in the workplace, when the critera for evaluating job candidates is out of step with the demands of the job.
To illustrate his point, Gladwell talked about sports combines, events that professional sports leagues hold for scouts to evaluate potential draftees based on a battery of physical, psychological, and intelligence tests. What he found, a result that echoes what Michael Lewis talks about in Moneyball, is that sports combines are a poor way to determine how well an athlete will eventually perform as a member of their eventual team. One striking example he gave is the intelligence test they give to NFL quarterbacks. Two of the test's all-time worst performers were Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw, Hall of Famers both.
A more material example is teachers. Gladwell says that while we evaluate teachers on the basis of high standardized test scores and whether they have degrees and credentialed training, that makes little difference in how well people actually teach.
Four chefs talk about how their kitchens are laid out in this month's Metropolis. Here's Dan Barber talking about his role at Blue Hill at Stone Barns:
At the same time, I don't think the cooks look at me as a real community member. I'm not that cozy paternal figure. I'm always doing different things, and it creates this atmosphere where the cooks are on the balls of their feet. They're thinking, Where's he going next, what's happening next? There's a little bit of confusion. I think that's good. It's hard to articulate, because you think of the kitchen as very organized; and, like I said, the more control you have, the better. But a little bit of chaos creates tension. And that creates energy and passion, and it tends to make you season something the right way or reach for something that would add this, that, or the other thing.
The other chefs are Alice Waters, Grant Achatz, and Wylie Dufresne. The one thing they all talked about is the importance of open sight lines, both between the dining room and kitchen and among the chefs in the kitchen.
Clothing libraries loan clothes out for free (or a small fee) to unemployed people for job interviews or to expecting mothers so they don't have to buy a whole bunch of maternity clothes. Great idea. (via magnetbox)
A thoughtful memorandum from the archives of the RAND Corporation as they contemplated designing a new building for the optimal accomplishment of work in 1950.
This implies that it should be easy and painless to get from one point to another in the building; it should even promote chance meetings of people. A formal call by Mr. X on Mr. Y is the only way X and Y can develop such a tender thing as an idea -- the social scientists have taught me to use X and Y in that bawdy manner. If the interoffice distances are to be kept reasonable, the building must be compact. It need not be circular; a square is often a good substitute for a circle, and even a rectangle is not bad, if the aspect ratio does not get out of hand.
The memo's author even gets into lattice theory in attempting to keep inter-office travel times down. As a contemporary example, Pixar's office in Emeryville was designed to bring the company's employees randomly together during the day:
I was the first person from the group of journalists to arrive, giving me plenty of time to look around the lobby, which is actually a gigantic football-field length atrium, the centerpiece of the entire building.
As it was explained to me later, Steve Jobs originally proposed a building with one bathroom, something that would drive foot traffic to a central area all day long. Obviously, they've got more than one bathroom in the building, but just standing there and watching as everyone arrived to start their day, it was obvious that Jobs had managed the feat.
The mailboxes, the employee cafe, and the common room where all the games are all open into that atrium, and people lingered, talking, exchanging ideas and discussing the various projects they're working on. It seemed like a fertile, creative environment, and I felt like Charlie Bucket holding a golden ticket as I examined the larger-than-life Incredibles statues in the center of the atrium and the concept paintings hung on the walls.
The programmers profiled in the 1986 book, Programmers at Work...where are they now?
Bill Gates. Then: founder of Microsoft, popularizer of the word "super". Now: richest guy in the world. After a stint in the 90s as pure evil, semi-retired to focus on philanthropic work.
The deliverymen at Saigon Grill won their lawsuit against the restaurant's owners. The employees claimed that they were underpaid ($120 for 75 hours per week!), were fired, and then picketed the restaurant for months.
Twenty-eight of the deliverymen were fired during the next two days, in violation of a federal law prohibiting employers from "retaliating against workers for engaging in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection." As the lawsuit dragged on, diners arriving at the Saigon Grill locations were forced to cross picket lines of angry, unemployed workers.
We live near the Greenwich Village location (the enthusiastic chants of the picketing deliverymen could be heard from our living room) and didn't order from them or visit the restaurant during the strike. Assuming the workers are hired back and the restaurant reinstates delivery, we're looking forward to ordering from them again and doling out some big tips.
Job opening: the Charles Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford will be vacant in September 2008. If you apply and get it, you will be succeeding Richard Dawkins, who has reached the university's mandatory retirement age.
On the eve of shooting his eighth film, Zach and Miri Make a Porno, Kevin Smith recounts his experiences with the actors and rehearsals on his seven previous films.
It's weird to work one way for so long, and slowly realize it's not necessary anymore; that it was just something you did when you didn't know any better. I hired pros; aside from on-set tweaking and an extra take or two, they don't need to be broken like wild horses or worked like puppets. Those days are behind me now. Now I spend more time thinking about/working on what the flick's gonna look like -- which, I guess, should be the primary job of the director.
I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.
Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness.
From Rodcorp's series on how people work, here's author Philip Pullman's workspace and process.
I write three pages every day (one side of the paper only). That's about 1100 words. Then I stop, having made sure to write the first sentence on the next page, so I never have a blank page facing me in the morning.
Pullman used to work in a writing shed but gave it to a friend when he moved on the condition that the friend would pass it along to another writer when he'd finished with it. Pullman's shed reminds me of George Bernard Shaw's rotating writing room.
A few days ago, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell noted that he's almost finished with his third book. I've learned that the subject of this book is the future of the workplace with subtopics of education and genius. (That topic dovetails nicely with business consulting/speaking, no?) As with his previous books, hints of what the book will cover appear in his recent stories and interviews. Most relevant is an October interview with Gladwell in The Globe and Mail on "our working future".
We will require, from a larger and larger percentage of our work force, the ability to engage in relatively complicated analytical and cognitive tasks. So it's not that we're going to need more geniuses, but the 50th percentile is going to have to be better educated than they are now. We're going to have to graduate more people from high school who've done advanced math, is a very simple way of putting it.
Other recent and not-so-recent writings and talks by Gladwell on working, education, and genius include:
- his talk on genius from the 2007 New Yorker Conference
- The Risk Pool - What's behind Ireland's economic miracle and G.M.'s financial crisis? (more, more)
- The Myth of Prodigy and Why It Matters
- Getting In - The social logic of Ivy League admissions
- Brain Candy - Is pop culture dumbing us down or smartening us up?
- Gladwell's personal work space
- Making the Grade
- The Talent Myth - Are smart people overrated?
- The Social Life of Paper - Looking for method in the mess
- The Bakeoff - Project Delta aims to create the perfect cookie
- Designs For Working - Why your bosses want to turn your new office into Greenwich Village
- The New-Boy Network - What do job interviews really tell us?
How to increase your tips as a stripper: dance while ovulating and stop taking your birth control pill.
Dancers made about $70 an hour during their peak period of fertility, versus about $35 while menstruating and $50 in between.
The last we heard from Malcolm Gladwell, he wrote about Enron and information overload, got hammered by his blog audience about it, and then stopped blogging and wrote nothing more for the New Yorker for the next 10 months. Rumor is that he's busy working on a new book, not shellshocked from the feedback. Anyway, the Globe and Mail interviewed Gladwell the other day about the "working future".
You're going to have to create internal structures that will help people grow into positions; that's really where the real opportunity is going to be. That's what we're going to have to do. That means being more patient with people, being willing to experiment with people, and being willing to nurture people. Those are three things we're reluctant to do at the moment.
A list of 15 of the top small workplaces of 2007. If you run a small company, there are lot of good examples to follow here.
Michael Bierut dug his 1979 design portfolio out of the closet, which portfolio he used only once to get the last job he ever had to look for.
Line items under "Skills" in my future resume: refreshing all feeds, making things unbold, tab management, pressing cmd-z, scrolling, and posting to the future.
Julian Dibbell on Chinese who farm gold (and perform other for-pay duties) in online games like World of Warcraft. "Nick Yee, an M.M.O. scholar based at Stanford, has noted the unsettling parallels (the recurrence of words like 'vermin,' 'rats' and 'extermination') between contemporary anti-gold-farmer rhetoric and 19th-century U.S. literature on immigrant Chinese laundry workers." Dibbell's Play Money was a great read and deserves wider readership than it originally received.
For the past few years, the workforce at Best Buy has been transitioning from a "how much you work" model to a "how much work you get done" model, with promising initial results. "Hence workers pulling into the company's amenity-packed headquarters at 2 p.m. aren't considered late. Nor are those pulling out at 2 p.m. seen as leaving early. There are no schedules. No mandatory meetings. No impression-management hustles. Work is no longer a place where you go, but something you do. It's O.K. to take conference calls while you hunt, collaborate from your lakeside cabin, or log on after dinner so you can spend the afternoon with your kid."
Marc Andreessen on how to hire good people. Don't just hire smart people or people with degrees...look for drive, curiosity, and ethics. "Pick a topic you know intimately and ask the candidate increasingly esoteric questions until they don't know the answer. They'll either say they don't know, or they'll try to bullshit you. Guess what. If they bullshit you during the hiring process, they'll bullshit you once they're onboard."
Here are some updates on some of the topics, links, ideas, posts, people, etc. that have appeared on kottke.org recently (previous installment is here):
The Celluloid Skyline exhibition at Grand Central is well worth checking out...I was up there this past weekend. Pentagram collaborated with Saunders on the exhibit and wrote up a brief piece on how it came together.
My short post on Nina Planck's reaction to the recent "death by veganism", as she calls it, of a baby boy is a good reminder that I don't always agree with the things I link to. My only criteria for posting a link is that it's interesting, whether I think it's right or wrong or am still trying to form an opinion about it. Anyway, I got lots of mail about this one, much of it that said that the parents' veganism was beside the point -- which the prosecutors and jury in the subsequent criminal case agreed with (thx, matt) -- and that a headline like "Death By Stupidity" was probably more appropriate. After all, you don't see "Death by Omnivorism" headlines every time a baby with a more traditional diet dies of starvation.
Debra from Culiblog pointed out that contrary to Planck's assertion that "there are no vegan societies", the Jainists practice vegetarianism and veganism. On the other side of the aisle, meat fan Michael Ruhlman chastised Planck for going too easy on vegans, saying that "Veganism is a colossal arrogance, a refusal to admit to our own nature, a denial of our humanity. Sometimes it kills people. And it's not very much fun, besides." You can imagine the discussion that generated...although it was nothing like the 300+ comment thread on MetaFilter.
My opinion of Cars improved with a second viewing.
Discover's chat bot conversation reminded a reader of this old interview with the Ask Jeeves search engine (thx david). Back in 2002, I interviewed ELLEGirl magazine's AIMbot:
jkottke: Do you do anything to celebrate or recognize the changing of seasons?
ELLEgirlBuddy: do you do anything to celebrate or recognize the changing of seasons? that's a tough choice.
jkottke: yes, to celebrate or merely recognize. that is a toughie.
ELLEgirlBuddy: yes to celebrate or merely recognize that is a toughie? i dunno.
jkottke: you seem like an actual 13 year old girl.
ELLEgirlBuddy: i haven't really made a decision 'bout that.
jkottke: growing up is tough, isn't it?
ELLEgirlBuddy: i dunno.
And whoever posted the chat bot story to Digg (5696 Diggs and counting!) used the exact wording from my original post. You're welcome!
Prime, David Burke's quarter-million-dollar Black Angus bull, has his own web site. (thx, brian)
Regarding Alex Reisner's excellent baseball statistics web site and, in particular, the pennant race graphs, here's another interesting visualization of the pennant races...you can see the teams race to the end of the year like horses. (thx, scott)
Re: my post on better living through self-deception, I've heard that pregnant women tend to forget the pain of childbirth, perhaps because "endorphins reduce the amount of information trauma victims can store". Also related tangetially is this article on research into lying and laughing, which includes this simple test to see if you're a good liar:
Are you a good liar? Most people think that they are, but in reality there are big differences in how well we can pull the wool over the eyes of others. There is a very simple test that can help determine your ability to lie. Using the first finger of your dominant hand, draw a capital letter Q on your forehead.
Some people draw the letter Q in such a way that they themselves can read it. That is, they place the tail of the Q on the right-hand side of their forehead. Other people draw the letter in a way that can be read by someone facing them, with the tail of the Q on the left side of their forehead. This quick test provides a rough measure of a concept known as "self-monitoring". High self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be seen by someone facing them. Low self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be read by themselves.
High self-monitors tend to be concerned with how other people see them. They are happy being the centre of attention, can easily adapt their behaviour to suit the situation in which they find themselves, and are skilled at manipulating the way in which others see them. As a result, they tend to be good at lying. In contrast, low self-monitors come across as being the "same person" in different situations. Their behaviour is guided more by their inner feelings and values, and they are less aware of their impact on those around them. They also tend to lie less in life, and so not be so skilled at deceit.
The skyscraper with one floor isn't exactly a new idea. Rem Koolhaas won a competition to build two libraries in France with one spiraling floor in 1992 (thx, mike). Of course, there's the Guggenheim in NYC and many parking garages.
After posting a brief piece on Baltimore last week, I discovered that several of my readers are current or former residents of Charm City...or at least have an interest in it. Armin sent along the Renaming Baltimore project...possible names are Domino, Maryland and Lessismore. A Baltimore Sun article on the Baltimore Youth Lacrosse League published shortly after my post also referenced the idea of "Two Baltimores. Two cities in one." The Wire's many juxtapositions of the "old" and "new" Baltimore are evident to viewers of the series. Meanwhile, Mobtown Shank took a look at the crime statistics for Baltimore and noted that crime has actually decreased more than 40% from 1999 to 2005. (thx, fred)
Cognitive Daily took an informal poll and found that fewer than half the respondants worked a standard 8-5 Mon-Fri schedule. Maybe that's why the streets and coffeeshops aren't empty during the workday.
Why was the Sandman a villain in Spiderman 3? "I do think the Sandman didn't open his mind to lot of options that became available to him when he got particle-ized. I understand that you do what you know, and he had conceptualized himself as a thief and a fugitive. Maybe those were his most lucrative options when he was a man, but as Sandman, I don't think he had to be an outlaw to make a ton of money. Considering his strength and versatility, I bet any construction firm would have hired him in a flash." (via mr)
When you're out and about in the city during the day, who are all these other people who seemingly have nothing to do all day but putter about town? "Many people I encountered reported variations on the 'in-between jobs' line, and it's not just a euphemism. Among the employed are those who will soon be without work, thanks to frictional unemployment, the inevitable periods of joblessness structured into even perfect economies."
Update: An episode of This American Life from 2000 tackled the same subject, with a focus on Manhattan. "All those people you see in the middle of the workday, in coffee shops and bookstores? Who are they? Why aren't they at work? Reporter George Gurley tackled these tough questions. On four separate days, he interviewed these loafers in New York." (thx, michael)
Heather Armstrong, on meeting her new neighbors and having to explain what she does for a living:
Over the last few weeks several neighbors have stopped by to introduce themselves, and invariably they are older than we are, more established, and have careers in medicine or law. And when they ask what we do, both Jon and I sort of flinch and exchange a quick look that says IT'S YOUR TURN TO LIE. We're web developers, we say, and that is never enough, they just can't leave it alone, and one of us will try to explain that I have a website. This thing. That I do. And because we're being all coy about it I just know, from the very worried expressions on their faces, that these neighbors think that we run a porn site.
This is the exact interaction I have with most people that I've met in the past couple of years, right down to the "we're web developers, we say, and that is never enough, they just can't leave it alone" part. I imagine professional mimes, phone sex operators, and people who make a living selling other people's stuff on eBay have the same sorts of awkward conversations with their new neighbors.
A short remembrance of what it was like to work for Bill Gates at Microsoft in the early 90s. "Even in conversation, btw, people at Microsoft were known by their email names. I didn't report directly to billg; but, during much of the time I was there, I worked for mikemap (Mike Maples), who reported to billg, had responsibility for all the products, and was part of the boop. Boop stood for billg plus the office of the president (real presidents didn't last very long there). The oop consisted of steveb (Steve Ballmer) and mikemap. Major decisions were sometimes made by the boop." Boop. Boop!
Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (aka the Freakonomics guys) on the first-world phenomenon of doing menial labor as a hobby. Examples: knitting, cooking, gardening, lawn care. More on the Freakonomics site.
Diacetyl, a chemical used in artificial butter flavor, has been linked to "popcorn workers lung" after several instances of lung disease at microwave popcorn factories. "Even less is known about the health effects of eating diacetyl in butter-flavored popcorn, or breathing the fumes after the bag is microwaved."
Graphs of the US minimum wage from 1938 to the present. If you take inflation into account, it's been falling pretty steadily since 1968. But also note that number of people directly affected by the minimum wage has declined as well to just over 2% of workers. (via rb)
Matt Haughey recently launched a new blog about "doing business online" called fortuitous. In his introductory post, Matt describes his job as "professionally screwing around on the web", which is an accurate description of my current vocation as well.
Following up on my post about gender diversity at web conferences, Jeffrey Zeldman of An Event Apart commissioned a study by hiring "researchers at The New York Public Library to find out everything that is actually known about the percentage of women in our field, and their positions relative to their male colleagues". "There is no data on web design and web designers. Web design is twelve years old, employs hundreds of thousands (if not millions), and generates billions, so you'd think there would be some basic research data available on it, but there ain't." I found the same thing when poking around for a bit back in February. They do have stats for IT workers in general...men outnumber women by over 3-to-1 and that gap is growing.
Update: NY Times: "Yet even as [undergraduate women] approach or exceed enrollment parity in mathematics, biology and other fields, there is one area in which their presence relative to men is static or even shrinking: computer science." (thx, meg)
This article on commuting is from last week's New Yorker, but I read it while commuting -- my commute is a relatively short 15 minutes door-to-door -- so it took until today to finish it. Anyway, well worth the read...in some ways, the long commute is one of the USA's defining characteristics. People like Judy Rossi, who commutes 6.5 hours a day, are increasing in number. "[Rossi's] alarm goes off at 4:30 A.M. She's out of the house by six-fifteen and at her desk at nine-thirty. She gets home each evening at around eight-forty-five. The first thing Rossi said to me, when we met during her lunch break one day, was 'I am not insane.'"
Photos of the offices of prominent New Yorkers. You can tell which of these people actually use their offices to get work done...Martha Stewart's computer monitor is stashed neatly away in a drawer. For a less rarefied look at people's workspaces, try the Desk Space, My Desk, and My Cluttered Desk photo pools on Flickr.
Update: I read Martha's item incorrectly...her keyboard is in a drawer, not her monitor. Still, I contend that she doesn't do any real work in that office. (thx, haran and eric)
An HR department looking for someone with internet experience dumped emails from candidates with Hotmail email addresses because "you can't pretend being an internet expert and use a Hotmail account at the same time". (via bb)
Netflix has a "take as much as you want" vacation policy. "The worst thing is for a manager to come in and tell me: 'Let's give Susie a huge raise because she's always in the office.' What do I care? I want managers to come to me and say: 'Let's give a really big raise to Sally because she's getting a lot done' -- not because she's chained to her desk."
Interesting article about the myth of American women opting out of the workforce to stay home to raise families. Most of the stories focus on white, married, upper-class women with high-earning husbands, maternity leaves are getting shorter, and bias and inflexibility in the workplace forces many women to "choose" to stay at home with the family. "The American idea of mothering is left over from the 1950s, that odd moment in history when America's unrivaled economic power enabled a single breadwinner to support an entire family. Fifty years later we still have the idea that a mother, and not a father, should be available to her child at every moment."
A thoughtful article on how to make it as an actor by Jenna Fischer, the actress who plays Pam on The Office. "I have a great acting coach who says that success in Hollywood is based on one thing: opportunity meets readiness. You cannot always control the opportunities, but you can control the readiness. So study your craft, take it seriously. Do every play, every showcase, every short film, every student film you can get. Swallow your pride. Be willing to work for nothing in things you think are stupid. Make work for yourself. Make your own luck. Don't complain. Hopefully, the work will find you if you are ready." Worth reading even if you're not an actor. (thx, dunstan)
Since people are "poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future" (the term of art is miswanting), perhaps careful career planning is a waste of time. "The best strategy for career planning is this: make your best guess, try it out and don't be surprised if you don't like it." I've done 0 minutes of career planning and I'm happy with the results. See also The Chaos Theory of Career Development.
Unusual job opportunity of the day: Chief Librarian of the Detainee Library at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Perhaps the person who gets the job can add the text of the detainee treatment bill to the stacks. (thx, stefan)
Alan Fletcher: "I'd sooner do the same on Monday or Wednesday as I do on a Saturday or Sunday. I don't divide my life between labour and pleasure."
David Roth got a job at Topps writing for the backs of baseball cards and finds that it's pretty much like any other job for a large, soulless corporation. "Baseball cards, it turned out, are not made in a card-cluttered candy land. Rather, they are created by ordinary men and women who are generally unawed by their proximity to a central part of American boyhood." (thx, patricio)
Fifty ways a manager can get his good employees to quit. "Talk more than you listen" and "Mandate a new policy without consulting a single person that will have to live with it" are good tips. (via wider angle)
Will people need to know how to read and write in the near future? Emails and texts are already not exactly literature and in 10 years, text-to-speech will be good enough that you can listen to anything you want. On the flipside, text holds a lot of advantages over "icons and audio prompts". A quick survey of the modern workplace reveals slow progress on the paperless office, so I'm skeptical that this no-text future is soon to arrive. (via 3qd)
Every week, I get 3 or 4 inquiries from people looking for jobs in the web design/technology area or for employees (happily, it's more the latter than the former these days). When I hear about someone who needs some work done and I have a friend or friend of a friend who's available, I'm glad to make the connection. For the past couple of years, I've wanted to build a job board for kottke.org to make more of these connections possible, but I never got around to it. So when Jason Fried asked me if I wanted to put a link to the simple, focused 37signals Job Board on kottke.org (you'll find it on every page of the site, below The Deck ad), that seemed to be the next best thing to building my own. I've been referring people there anyway, so a stronger connection makes sense.
What happens to a blog when its editor goes on vacation? Glenn Reynolds: "I need a vacation more than I care about the traffic."
Michael Bierut on his design process, written in plain language that the client never gets to hear (but maybe they should):
When I do a design project, I begin by listening carefully to you as you talk about your problem and read whatever background material I can find that relates to the issues you face. If you're lucky, I have also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can't really explain that part; it's like magic. Sometimes it even happens before you have a chance to tell me that much about your problem! Now, if it's a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have. Along the way, I may add some other ideas, either because you made me agree to do so at the outset, or because I'm not sure of the first idea. At any rate, in the earlier phases hopefully I will have gained your trust so that by this point you're inclined to take my advice. I don't have any clue how you'd go about proving that my advice is any good except that other people - at least the ones I've told you about - have taken my advice in the past and prospered. In other words, could you just sort of, you know...trust me?
It is like magic. Reminds me of something Jeff Veen wrote last year on his process:
And I sort of realized that I do design that way. I build up a tremendous amount of background data, let it synthesize, then "blink" it out as a fully-formed solution. It typically works like this:
- Talk to everybody I possibly can about the problem.
- Read everything that would even be remotely related to what I'm doing. Hang charts, graphs, diagrams, and screenshots all over my office.
- Observe user research; recall past research.
- Stew in it all, panic as deadline approaches, stop sleeping, stop eating.
- Be struck with an epiphany. Instantly see the solution. Curse my tools for being too slow as I frantically get it all down in a document.
- Sleep for three days.
Like I said when I first read Jeff's piece, in my experience, a designer gets the job done in any way she can and then figures out how to sell it to the client, typically by coming up with an effective (and hopefully at least partially truthful) backstory that's crammed into a 5-step iterative process, charts of which are ubiquitous in design firm pitches.
Research shows that the lifetime earnings of graduates who enter the job market during recessions are lower than their boom-time colleagues. "Even a decade or more later, the class of 1988 was still earning significantly less. They missed the plum jobs right out of the gate and never recovered."