Deep Work

One of the great books I read last year was Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Focus‘.

If you’ve not yet read the book, there’s a useful article in the NYT that summarises his key arguments in an interview format. In essence, deep focus is simply about ensuring that you build in periods of focus into every day – without any distractions – electronic or otherwise – to put you off.

In a nutshell, the book suggests:

1. Actively schedule (and aggressively protect) this time carved out for deep work in your daily schedule.

2. Embrace boredom – don’t check your mobile out of habit when you have the chance. If you don’t, you’re simply training your brain to seek stimulii when challenged (which breaks your focus).

3. Quit social media – self-explanatory but I’d struggle with this myself. I’d suggest restricting it to scheduled times and batching time on it (with notifications turned off) may be a sensible compromise here.

4. ‘Drain the shallows’ – miminise the shallow (non-focused eg administrative) work you do and be very intentional about when you do it (and how you can become more efficient at it).

None of these are easy – or common – of course. But if you work consistently at it, as Newport says:

“Concentration is like a super power in most knowledge work pursuits. If you take the time to cultivate this power, you’ll never look back.”

Giving Advice Is Easier Than Following It

I came across this quote from Sam Harris in Tim Ferriss’ book ‘Tools of Titans‘:-

“On one level, wisdom is nothing more than the ability to take your own advice. It’s actually very easy to give people good advice. It’s very hard to follow the advice that you know is good….If someone came to me with a list of problems, I would be able to sort that person out very easily.”

How often have you had that experience? Solving other’s problems  usually seems much more possible. Is that because as a non-involved party, you can be objective? Or is it simply because you hold the get-out-of-jail-free card – that you never have to go through with the advice you dish out because, by definition, it doesn’t apply  to you,  in your life, in the same way?

Be More Hume

One of my goals for this year is to read the works of David Hume. Perhaps not all of them (all 6 volumes of ‘The History of England’ aren’t exactly beating a path to my door at this stage). But enough to really start to get my head around some of the key concepts that this giant of Western Philosophy who lived just up the road in the same city as me – albeit some 200-odd years ago – became world-renowned for.

I guess that probably means reading the entirety of at least one of my two copies of ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding‘…

But while I’m in what I like to think of as the preparatory stage (readily identified as being that stage between hearing repeatedly about the book and actually sitting down and working your way through it, when instead the guilt is building that I’ve gone through life without yet reading a book that seems to have shaped innumerable conversations around the globe for a very long time), my mind is tuned to every mention that I come across of his name.

All of which meandering instruction goes some way to explain why I found an article (‘How to generate ideas: Be more Hume, and stop doing what you’re f****ng told‘ by Clare Barry ) particularly interesting today.

I plan to revisit this post once I do – finally – get round to actually doing the reading. But in the meantime, here’s a couple of my takeaways.

Hume talks about the difference between impressions (the things we hear, see, feel, love, hate, desire or wish) and ideas (the entirely subjective responses we have to those impressions). So “ideas aren’t some divine intervention or a spasm of genius – they are entirely dependent on what you’ve experienced”.

Her conclusions are:

– Stop doing what you’re told: to come up with ideas, you have to reject the ‘usual’ way of doing things.

– Ideas are created by unique collisions of our experiences – so experience as much as you can whilst seeking new ideas. And specifically, don’t consume the same content everyone else looking to be creative is consuming.

– Never dilute a decent idea. Continue in the face of criticism, no half-measures. The path to mediocrity is littered with the accepted suggestions of others.

A few things to think about there. But there are obvious examples of where each of these approaches can be shown to have worked in the past.


Chinese Click Farms

If you want to understand better the madness of the current Web, a good starting point is to think about Click Farms:

Wikipedia defines a click farm as a commercial enterprise that employs a large number of people to repeatedly click on items of online content in order to artificially inflate statistics of traffic or engagement.

In short, every mobile has a unique ID that is required in order to generate advertising revenue. Its not something that can simply be done by firing up thousands of virtual machines on a server somewhere. The more mobiles, the more profitable it is.

From fake clicks to fake social media accounts, much of the Internet today is fake. And as one of the comments in that thread says, “It reminds me of The Matrix when Neo first wakes up“.

As Douglas Rushkoff points out, it’s somewhat ironic:

“Consider the irony: malware robots watch ads, monitored by automated tracking software that tailors each advertising message to suit the malbots automated habits, in a human-free feedback loop of ever-narrowing ‘peesonalization’. Nothing of value is created but Billions of dollars are made.”

There are far better alternatives out there than a system that survives in the shadows without bringing any real benefit for the advancement of our society and culture. Indeed, it undermines it.

When Your Lunch Also Commutes

In a world that is shaped by digital decisions upon platforms that we often don’t control, it’s always heartening to hear tales of traditions that persist. Whilst technology increasingly proves that more efficient solutions are within reach, sometimes that personal, human touch can still survive.

A great example of this is the tiffin lunchbox, predominantly found in Mumbai, India. With so many individuals travelling long distances into the city to work, there is still a demand for good old home cooked food when it comes to lunch. Whereas in this country, office workers may nip out for an overpriced and oversalted lunch at a heavily-branded sandwich joint, many workers there can rely on food lovingly cooked fresh for them at home that morning.

Dabbas are large circular tins with a number of tiers. The freshly cooked food is placed into them at home – and then the real magic begins.

The dabbas are passed across to a human delivery system – 5,000 people (known as dabbawalas), many on bicycles, who then transport some 200,000 dabbas to the trains (each one marked by hand with a system of symbols and colours) where they travel for often a couple of hours before being picked up by local dabbawalas and handed directly to their individual recipients every day.

Now for a couple of amazing facts.

First, the food is never late. Amazing when you take account of the fact that its delivered direct to each individual’s place of work.

Second: the dabbas, once empty then travel back and get returned to the houses from which they came. Incredibly, none of them carry a home address – and yet they all return to the sender at the end of the day. Only to repeat the journey once again the next day.

The secret is the intricate system that is used – a combination of local knowledge, train lines, and dabbawalas’ memories. And the dabbawalas are so trusted that often workers will place their wages into the dabbas for the return journey so that they don’t have to travel home from work carrying precious cash on their own person.

The system was started by a banker, Mahadeo Havaji Bacche, who wanted his home cooked lunch delivered all the way back in 1890. And it’s claimed that the dabbawalas now only make one mistake every six million deliveries – a success rate that shames any other physical logistics infrastructure out there in the business world today when you factor in just how many delivery locations they’re servicing. The system’s been studied by Harvard Business School and is always talked of as being the envy of FedEx.

Sometimes I guess you just can’t beat those home comforts after all.

Pink Flamingos and the American Dream

I’ll be heading over to America later in the year so it feels like as good a time as any to brush up on some American culture. And what could possibly be better then than – pink flamingos!

You may have thought infrequently (never…) about them before. So here’s some pointers:

1. Pink flamingos (the garden lawn type) were invented by Donald Featherstone in 1957. They soon became cultural icons of the US. As Featherstone stated, “We sold tropical elegance in a box for less than $10”.

2. The powerful assumptions that accompany the ubiquitous flamingos have been put to good use. On occasion, people have been subjected to ‘flocking’ – a form of bullying to encourage the target to ‘voluntatily’ donate to a charity when he or she wakes up to find flamingos all over their lawn. Although interestingly, such a tactic clearly only works when the target is someone who would be clearly embarrassed by an infestation of such visible tackiness on their homestead…

3. Bonus fact: Donald Featherstone and his wife Nancy wore exactly the same outfit/clothes design for over 35 years..

Friday Quotes

Five favourite Friday quotes – and today, all of them are from women:

Maya Angelou

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Anais Nin

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Helen Keller

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

Judy Garland

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

I think of this last quote frequently, perhaps twice a week. To me, it’s encapsulates that Stoic ideal perfectly.

Hiring Giants

Advice on hiring team members from the legendary advertising man and agency founder David Ogilvy:

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

A clear reminder that it’s sensible to park your ego at the door and hire people that are better than you are in all cases.

Silicon Valley Whistleblowers

My pile of books and articles tackling the dangers and challenges we collectively face from the tech industry seems to be growing far more quickly than I can ever consume it.

Whether the focus is ono the insidious growth of surveillance capitalism, the overreach of governments growing fat on the glut of data they can now gorge upon or simply the explosion in slick products that provide convenience with one hand whilst also stripping an individual’s privacy, the world is moving fast.

There’s no doubt that awareness is growing. The question is whether or not it will be both fast and good enough.

A group of activists have taken their thoughts to one of the key annual tech conference meccas – the SXSW Festival in Austen, Texas – this year to launch a campaign (‘You Are Not Alone’) to encourage whistleblowers who become aware of malfeasance within Big Tech companies, specifically in Silicon Valley, to step forward and take action.

They urge everyone to ask the following questions:-

– Is your company living up to its values?

– When you raise concerns about the things you’re building, are they addressed?

– Does this product have features that could put people in harm’s way?

– If anything unintended happened with a feature or if data were leaked, who could get hurt?

– Is building this tech the right thing to do or are we just doing it because other companies are doing it?

A campaign that, I hope, everyone can get behind.