Posts Tagged ‘ inspiration ’

How do you deal with an uncertain future and still move forward?

In other words — how do you embrace the questions while still providing answers?

Designers have a a fairly accurate stigma surrounding them. People who work with designers often have the same complaint: “designers always think they’re right.” Sometimes, they are right — but in the event that almost infinite solutions could be found for the same problem (which I believe is always the case), their inability to form a new opinion can be crippling.

That said, the opposite — designing with uncertainty — is also not advisable. As Bob Johansen, of Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future, observes, “weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them.”

In Bob Sutton’s words, the solution is to have ‘Strong Opinions, Weakly Held,” going on to say that you should “fight like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.”

Andy Grove put it another way when he said he wanted all his people to have “strong beliefs, loosely held.”

And John Lilly carried the concept into a design-specific bit of advise when he made the case that a designer should “design like you’re right, read the data like you’re wrong.”

Ultimately they’re all conveying the same important idea: that a designer (or any problem solver) should be driven by strong, well-formed opinions that they’re willing to defend — and ready to upturn at any moment.

Bob Sutton approaches this concept from the angle of someone trying to define the difference between intelligence and wisdom. In his book, Hard Facts, he makes the observation that the wise are “those who have the courage to act on their knowledge, but the humility to doubt what they know.”

I think many people jump between the two — from great confidence in their knowledge and ability to great doubt in their conviction and acceptance of the unknown. It’s the ability to operate as both people at once — the authoritative opinion, and the humble student — that proves mastery.

And that may be a process of recreation. One of my favorite quotes is  by Henry Sidwick:

“One has to kill a few of one’s natural selves to let the rest grow—a very painful slaughter of innocents.”

As Andy Grove put it, you need to “act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.”

At the end of the day, moving forward can be accomplished only one way: by moving forward. Tom Petty has the best advice of all: “Don’t dither; you can always change your mind later.” In his words, I aspire to be “confident… but not really sure.”


Richard Feynman: Actively Irresponsible

This Christmas my mother bought my brother a graphic novel called ‘Feynman’ in an effort to nudge him along on his interest in science. In the days following Christmas my brother very actively ignored the book, but I devoured it — I love graphic novels, and this one was particularly awesome.

Richard Feynman was predominantly a physicist, who lived until 1988, and managed, in his lifetime, to be both a world-renowned scientist and a teacher, raconteur,  musician, goofball and overall creative. He made huge leaps in quantum electrodynamics, was a part of the Manhattan project, and was on the team that solved the Challenger disaster.

What’s most fascinating, however, is the way the guy thinks. The graphic novel was so interesting because Feynman was no ordinary man — I always wish I could see the world through his eyes, and I aspire to do so. I had no idea when I started researching him that he had long ago breached the gap between science and the creative world as a great inspiration to many designers, marketers and artists.

Feynman graphic novel

Feynman, a graphic novel biography by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Which is why I was so excited to see that Tim Ferris, on his blog on Lifestyle Design Experiments, posted this great video about Feynman titled “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

The introduction captures well the lesson of the video: that the more you know, the more you can imagine. Feynman describes a moment when an artist friend held up a flower and said ‘look how beautiful this is.’ Feynman agrees, but his friend goes on to say ‘I can appreciate it, as an artist, but you as a scientist – you just take it apart, analyze it, make it dull.’ Feynman disagrees. Feynman sees much more about the flower than the artist sees – as he says “there’s beauty at a much smaller dimension,” things the artist doesn’t know to imagine. Feynman asks why, how, what’s happening in the flower — the science only adds to the beauty of it.

At 6:12 Feynman tells a great story about his father telling him how to look at a bird. His father taught him that you could know the name of a specific kind of bird in 18 different languages and still know nothing about the bird — you then only know about humanity, about cultures and places. Feynman, throughout his life, always said his father taught him to look at things. Feynman was much more intelligent than his father, but he owes much of his creative intelligence to his father’s ability to question everything.

After 40:00, Feynman starts talking about his philosophy on learning and teaching. He is an avid practitioner of ‘active irresponsibility.’ He’s selfish, he says — he rejects roles in leadership and responsibility because if he’s on a committee, or in a position, he can’t run around and learn. He can’t run around and experiment then, and that’s not productive for him. I enjoy leadership positions, but his mentality is an amazing way to stay young, creative and inventive.

Feynman is as attentive and particular as he is chaotic and irresponsible; it’s an incredible mix of child’s play and brilliant attention to detail, but in the right order: he questions everything, opens his imagination to the whole world, experiments wildly, then pursues a theory until he’s come at it from every angle humanly possible and made it so fool proof that only he could question it. The best part is that Feynman is always prepared to be wrong, and at the end of the day, he has only one true passion: to just find out about the world.

Isn’t that a great energy to drive you every day?

He’s dissuaded from many of life’s mysteries because people have already clouded his mind with theories. Of those great mysteries, he says, “those are mysteries I want to investigate without knowing the answer to them.”

I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because they seem to be too simple, too connected, too local, too provincial! …Look at what’s out there, it isn’t in proportion!

Once you start doubting, just like you’re supposed to doubt… when you doubt and ask, it gets a little harder to believe. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing, but to have some answers which might be wrong. I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things of which I don’t know anything about.

He says not knowing doesn’t frighten him — but it must be a little lonely, to know just how much you’ll never know, and to be consumed every day by massive questions that you’re smart enough to know you’ll never answer. What do you question in the world around you?

An argument for destroying the 8-hour work day

Money in both the public and private sectors is pouring into inactivity. We are paying employees to occupy a desk 8 hours a day to complete 2 tasks that could have been completed in 2 hours and 15 minutes. These tasks may be very important, and may require a lot of energy, hard work and ingenuity, but they were completed from 10:30am-12:45pm, then the employee went to lunch, and now they’re sitting at their computer hitting the refresh button on Facebook. Or even better, they were started at 10:30am, dragged out until 4:30pm, and then finally thrown together poorly at 4:55pm.

In the creative industry – actually, in ANY industry – productivity is the result of a good mood, inspiration, and the energy needed to complete the task. But if there are 3 tasks to be completed for the day, why not let employees leave once they are completed? In our hyper-connected world, being on call 24/7 is hardly asking too much – you’re turned on 24/7 anyway. So if another task does come up once the employee has left for the day, feeling the need to slot it into the 9-5 availability period almost seems archaic.

If I could come into work when I wanted to come into work, but was paid for the timeliness and quality of the tasks I was held responsible for completing, I would do everything faster, better, and could easily do MORE. If I could sleep in when necessary, travel to gain inspiration when I felt it was needed, but was happy to do a 14-hour work day if I had a lot to accomplish, my life, and the life of my employer, would be improved.

Jason Fried, cofounder of 37signals, agrees. He insists that productivity comes in waves, and pushing through period of low-productivity is a waste of time for everyone. To solve the issue, he offers employees 30 days paid sabbatical (on top of vacation time) if they’ve put in 3-weeks work and feel that they need to recharge.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, only about 2% of U.S. employers offer a “results-only” work environment.  The Wall Street Journal, however, recently highlighted the growing trend in unlimited vacation time – many white-collar companies, like Netflix, have stopped tracking vacation time in order to focus on what really matters: the quality of their work.

What employees do with such endless possibilities varies – many end up working more and vacationing less, simply because they don’t feel like they can ask for time off. That fact goes to show that ultimately, office policies aren’t as important as the office mentalities that become policy in practice. America is the only country I’ve ever been in that works as hard as it does, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that taking time off shouldn’t be taboo – it should be encouraged.

Need further evidence? Check out this GOOD infographic on The Overworked American