Advice From the Fringes

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” – Steve Jobs

That may have been literal for Jobs, or it may have been metaphor. We’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. By many standards, he was an unimaginable success. But… It’s not difficult to find stories of people he terrorized on his way, or huge mistakes he swept under the carpet. He stepped on people, and he left this world earlier than was necessary. He made his own path. His way of thinking fit his specific type of genius. If you don’t have his type of genius, his advice likely won’t work for you, and if you do have genius, you’ll make your own path.

I don’t really think that people like Steve Jobs are the right ones to be taking advice from, personally or professionally. Most of us don’t have what it takes to be a Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Bill Gates, nor do we need to have it. That type of person isn’t in the norm. Most of us wouldn’t be happy in their shoes. Those in that select group are on the fringes of humanity. They are very rare, whatever the subject or vocation, and will have their own way of getting through life. Advice from others of their ilk isn’t what drives them, a voice inside their heads does.

If today were my last day on earth, would I be doing what I’m doing now. No. Of course not. Think carefully about your last 24 hours. Would you want to be at a job, any job? Would you care to save money? Would you put food in your refrigerator? Would you pay for the gas you just put into your car? My guess is that you’d find one person or a group of friends to be with, and one thing to do. It would be a day of very singular purpose.

What if you found that you have a week to live? Would the answer be different? With a week, you could get a lot more done and see a lot more people. You’d pay for the gas so you wouldn’t end up spending two days of that week in jail. You’d think about food a bit, and either wash or buy some clothes.

How about a month, a year, a decade, a lifetime? With three months, you might be able to live off of credit cards, but beyond that, you’d need income – a job. Each successively longer time period would allow for, and require, more long-term thinking. Some of the long-term activities would not be all that pleasant, but as a part of a whole, they enable the pleasant. Life is an accumulation, an averaging. It’s not a single event. It’s a lot of events that add up to a whole. We all have a lifetime. We just don’t know how long that lifetime will be.

Some pieces of advice, like “work hard”, or “don’t fear failure, learn from it” are more or less universal. That’s because advice doesn’t work in a vacuum. It works within a specific set of conditions. We are all surrounded by hard work and moments of failure (well, all normal people are), so “work hard” and “don’t fear failure…” work for most people. Beyond that, the real secret is in yourself.

To follow advice from Elon Musk, with the aspiration of becoming him, you’ll have to put in the massive amount of work time he does, you’ll have to get his education, take on his attitude – become him in entirety. That’s not realistic for someone that just wants a better salary, a more fulfilling job, and a more rewarding life.

If I look at the whole of my life today, and see something I don’t like, I need to change or adjust. Whether it’s big change, or a few small tweaks really depends on personality. If big change typically ends in failure, try small adjustments, and vice versa.

I don’t buy into the philosophy of live everyday as if it’s your last. To live everyday as if it’s your last is to say that you can never have a down day. It’s to say that you can never make a mistake, to never invest in the future, to never do something without short-term gain. I say live everyday as if it’s a small part of a great work of art. Today is a brush stroke – a pixel for those like like to think in digital terms. It is one part, working towards the whole.

Communicating Up and Sideways

A good leader should communicate in the language of his or her subordinates. A good leader should be the one to adjust dialect and language. This is well accepted wisdom. The problem is that “should” is a rather meaningless word. “Should” doesn’t require, nor does it instruct. “Should” implies obligation, but doesn’t imply action or consequence of not taking action.

Expecting a superior or colleague to speak in your language only ensures that you “should” be able to communicate, not that you will. Relying on “should” is a lot like relying on luck. You give up control when you rely on luck or “should.” It’s fine if you don’t care, but not if you do.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that effective communication is a vital part of surviving and advancing in the business world. Without it, no one knows what you do or what your worth is to them.

In this context, “shouldn’t” is an appropriate word. The usage here is that the argument is common enough knowledge that it’s reasonable to assume that a reasonable person would agree. It doesn’t imply, nor need to imply any action or consequence.

This isn’t an article about “managing your boss. I’ve seen enough of those, and have always thought them rather presumptuous. “Managing your boss” is really more manipulation and exploitation than it is about managing, and I’m not at all a fan of manipulation. What you can do, and will benefit from, though, is to manage the communications with your boss and co-workers.

It’s great if you have a boss that knows how to communicate well. Not everyone does, and even for those that do, it can be pretty helpful to share the job of effectively communicating.

One of the easiest illustrations is in the contrast between a visual person and a numbers person. The numbers person needs to see metrics in spreadsheet or table form. The visual person needs the same information in chart and graph format. Trying to get one to accept the other often results in little or no actual communication and lots of frustration.

If your boss is a visual person, and you hand in a table with all of the data, plus rows and columns of only distantly related numbers, they will have a hard time with it. Their brain wants to be able see structures at a glance. Instead, you’ve given them a jumbled mess of indistinguishable black and white hieroglyphs.

On the other side, if you give your numbers-person boss a nice bar chart, they will see a bunch of fluffy colors that do little more than obscure the details. They need to see not only the numbers they’re interested, but also the data behind the numbers.

But shouldn’t a good leader be the one adjusting language, you ask? Again, I’ll compare the word “shouldn’t” in this context to luck.

Good leaders do adjust their language, and listen carefully. They are putting in the effort, and what you are trying to say is (presumably) important. Why would you not do as much as you can to complement their effort. Good leaders have also hired you, in part, for your communications skills. Assuming the leader will do the majority of the work is doing them a disservice and is a failure to live up to your commitment as an employee.

The same holds when dealing with colleagues you don’t report to. It may seem like you’re partly doing their job if you adjust your communication to fit their style, but if your message is important enough to give, it’s important enough to justify the extra work toward clarity for your recipient. Ideally both parties are doing it so that misses by one will be more likely to be covered by the other.

A good example would be in the use of acronyms and jargon with (or as) a new coworker. Communications problems happen quite often when one person has a background from a large, tightly structured company, and the other is from a smaller, more cowboy like, company.

Jane joins a small start-up company from a large multi-national corporation. Her former company spent a lot of time studying lean manufacturing, the Toyota Production System, and other process improvement systems. Bob at the small company doesn’t have the same language.

Jane is aghast when she suggests “Poka-yoking” a process and Bob doesn’t understand her. She drops her jaw and wonders what kind of a mess she got herself into when she took the job. She’s surrounded by bozos that don’t know the most basic of business processes.

Poka-yoke is a term used in the Toyota Production System. (Wikipedia entry here) It sounds like a rather exotic process, but it just means to make a product or system mistake proof. If a plug would damage a piece of equipment when plugged in backwards, key the plug so it can’t be plugged in backwards. Just design in some mistake proofing. It’s as simple as that.

In this scenario, it turns out that Bob is a brilliant user experience designer and considers mistake proofing to be just about the most important aspect of a design. Jane and Bob are on the same page; they both strongly believe in mistake proofing products. However, since Jane didn’t take into consideration the possibility that Bob might not have been exposed to that one specific set of business terms, she feels he must be incompetent. Both Jane and Bob would be well served to accommodate the language of the other.

I’ve found, over my career, that there are an astounding number of terminology differences between different corporate cultures. There are terms that have different meaning altogether, and there are different terms used to describe the same thing. Even the basics like “margin” can be used differently in different organizations.

Jargon and acronyms are okay, as long as you never assume that the person you’re communicating with has the same jargon dictionary in their head as you do.

Cromemco, where are you?

Seattle Computer Products placed a quarter page black and white advertisement for RAM chips on page 224 of the September 1979 BYTE Magazine. The ad promoted type 4044 chips: 4K by 1 [bits], 18-pin, 5 Volt, 5% supply. 250 nanosecond chips sold for $7.50 in quantities of 1 to 31. You could buy the slower 450 nanosecond chips for a dollar less apiece. These were the same chips used in their “premium quality” RAM boards.

For every Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates, there is an Alvah Roebuck, a story of a miss of almost unimaginable proportions. Richard Sears and Mr. Roebuck started a small business selling, at first, surplus pocket watches and eventually virtually anything needed by the fast expanding nation of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Sears kept at it while Roebuck left to do more important things. Many years later, Mr. Sears’ former business partner finished his life nearly penniless and working in the mailroom of the company he co-founded. Sears went on to become Americana.

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Maggie

In 1975, the federal government passed the Magnuson-Moss Act. Ask the next 100 people you see, what this law is and why it made the explosive growth of the computer industry possible, and you will likely get somewhere between 98 and 100 blank stares.

WarrenGMagnusonBack in the 1960’s and 70’s, IBM sold mainframe computers, and sold a lot of them. IBM also sold service, accessories and upgrades for those systems. What IBM did not do was allow anyone else to poke around in those machines – even after the sale. IBM did not allow the machine purchasers to add in accessories from other manufacturers. IBM kept it all and kept it all as trade secret. Hence, when, in 1981, IBM introduced its take on the personal computer, the world marveled at its open architecture. The IBM PC was open. Anyone could, and did, build and sell accessories and replacement parts. IBM copied the Apple II in that respect. The infant industry had already learned from the success of Apple II, that open is best.

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What’s it like to be a real writer? And how do you become one?

What’s it like to be a real writer? By many definitions, I’d have to say “I don’t know.” I don’t have a published book. I’ve written a pair of screenplays, but no one has read them, nor are they particularly worth reading. I don’t write every day, like “real writers” say they do. I’m not disciplined in my approach, I’m not formally trained as a writer, and I don’t make my living solely (or even mostly) via the written word.

By who’s definition?

But, the reality is that I do know what it’s like to be a real writer; just not a theoretical “ideal” writer. I’ve been published, in print and online, for a decade. I’ve been paid for some it, and not for other parts. I’ve had my own paid column on three different occasions. I’ve written volumes of content for my day job. I think that gives me the justification to say that I’m a “real writer.” Continue reading “What’s it like to be a real writer? And how do you become one?”

Decisions, Decisions…

We all make decisions. It’s a part of life, and more specifically, a part of our jobs. We make so many, that you’d think we’d all be pretty good at decision making by now.

Unfortunately, that’s often not the case; even for confident people. Well, actually, most of us are pretty good at making those decisions, but we like to refuse to accept that we are good at it. Our brains play tricks and convince us that we might mess things up, get fired, not be accepted, be put down, be rebuked, or be presented any number of an endless string of negative reactions.

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How to succeed in marketing without really trying

If you’re old enough, you might remember the 1967 movie, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Well… you don’t really need to be old enough. The movie’s before my time and I’ve watched it.

vertical_marketsIn the movie, window washer J. Pierpont Finch, reads a book titled the same as the movie, and takes it to heart. Shortly after starting to read the book, he talks his way into a mailroom job. Within hours, he’s manipulated and bumbled his way upstairs and eventually lands a coveted corner office without, as the title suggests, really trying. At least, he didn’t really try working for his success. He did try a lot of manipulation, fast talking, and subversion.

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