Lying about the future

“Lying about the future produces history” – Umberto Eco, describing his book Baudolino

Resumés and eulogies

David Brooks shares a nice, quick talk on the decisions to live for your resumé versus your eulogy:

The résumé virtues are the ones you put on your résumé, which are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that get mentioned in the eulogy, which are deeper: who are you, in your depth, what is the nature of your relationships, are you bold, loving, dependable, consistency? And most of us, including me, would say that the eulogy virtues are the more important of the virtues. But at least in my case, are they the ones that I think about the most? And the answer is no.

In another article, he writes about the 5 “ways to be deep”, and hits on a few that aren’t as celebrated as they might be:

2. Suffering

“When people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering…”

4. Obedience

“If you look at the people who are deep, often they don’t look inside themselves. Something calls to them from outside themselves,” he said. They obey a cause.

Why designers shouldn’t be smart

Recently Bruce Mau came to our office (I know, right?!). Bruce is known for his writing, including several “manifestos” over the years, and he asked everyone in the room to write their own manifesto in 3 minutes (he said he used to give people 6 minutes and they were all finished early).

The first line in my manifesto was “Be the dumbest person in the room”, which got a laugh from Bruce and prompted some followup questions from people around me. I’d written it as a bit of a lark, but the more I think about it, the more important I think it is. So why is it important for a designer to be the dumbest person in the room?

First, of course, it means that you’re always around people you can learn from. Great design is based on collecting insights from the world. If you are the expert in the room, where will you get your new insights? Always surround yourself with people whose experience and knowledge exceeds your own in important ways.

Being dumb also keeps you humble. Every designer knows how it feels to watch someone try and fail to use your design. The biggest temptation in that moment is to tell yourself “that’s just one person, and really this test isn’t representative,” and write off their experience as a fluke. After all, didn’t Steve Jobs ignore his customers? (Nope. But Henry Ford did, to poor results). Your confidence has to come not from your own opinions, but from the success real people have with your product.

Finally, when designers rely too much on their own experience and knowledge, they get lazy. When I’ve worked on a problem for a long time, and feel like I know it well, I’m less likely to do the research legwork needed for inspiration, less likely to ask other people their thoughts, and more likely to settle on the first idea that comes to mind. Conversely, a brand new problem forces me to start from scratch, with eyes and mind wide open to new possibilities (the next line in my 3-minute manifesto read: “When you get too good, start over”).

So really, the problem isn’t with being smart–it’s ok to get good grades, kids–but with acting smart. The best designers I know approach problems with the openness, humility, and excitement of a child seeing something for the first time. They acknowledge and work against their biases, and never let their intelligence get in the way of the right answer.

Training the mind and body

I’ve been a regular cyclist for 25 years. For the first decade, I was serious, riding every day and following schedules from books and coaches. But if I’m honest, my approach was always based more on “trying” than “training”–I would often skip days, then put out an extreme effort when I did ride to make up for my inconsistency. In the end, this meant I had less fitness than I could have, and races and training involved more pain than they needed to.

Since my son was born, the limits on my time have forced me to focus my riding. I now do most of my rides before dawn on the indoor trainer, and each ride has some structure to it, often interval training. Because of the consistency and efficiency of the indoor rides, I can get up to 5 1-hour workouts per week, and finish before he wakes up in the morning.

A typical interval session sees me spinning slowly at first, then shifting gears to increase the effort for a period of time before going back to spinning. This process repeats up to 30 times per workout. It feels mechanical at times; that I’m treating my body like an IKEA chair durability test. But it’s had a remarkable effect: in just a few hours a week, I’m now close to the fitness I had 15-20 years ago, when I had much more time to ride. And these efforts feel a lot easier than the workouts I did then.

Recently I also started using the Headspace service to practice mindfulness and guided meditation. It struck me today how similar the process is to my cycling training. The Headspace approach is based on short (10-minute) daily sessions. I do them before I ride in the morning–which means getting up just a little bit earlier, but gives more consistency than trying to fit it in later. A typical session spends a little bit of time relaxing and getting settled, then focuses on one or two physical sensations: sound, body tension, breathing, etc.

The part most similar to my cycling is near the end of each session, where the guide encourages you to let the mind go, to let it wander and think about whatever it likes. Since this comes after several minutes of focus, it feels like a rest, giving the mind a chance to catch up to the effort. But every time, after a minute of rest, the guide tells you to refocus, to pull the mind back to center and let go of the thoughts it had wandered to. This feels to me almost exactly like the point in a cycling workout where I shift up and start a new interval effort. The mindful focus is the effort, the wandering the rest interval.

You can’t expect to always be focused, just as you can’t expect to always push at the highest level on a bike. Both processes involve effort and rest. And also like cycling, you can’t make up for an inconsistent mental life by “trying” even harder. The mind requires regular training, just like the body, and the right type of training makes everything easier and more effective.

In a recent Sunset magazine article, a writer spent a day just like a Hollywood celebrity. It involved workouts, special meals, and a busy social schedule. He came away with the feeling that the celebrity life was more like athletic training than hedonistic indulgence. As a celebrity, your image is your livelihood, and it requires regular effort to maintain.

Training isn’t something just for athletes–it’s a process for the mind and the lifestyle as well. It’s been interesting to see how similar techniques can benefit each of those.

Utopia and its discontents

I’m a huge fan of Neal Stephenson, and also of his newest project Hieroglyph, which aims to inspire future scientific breakthroughs with optimistic near-future science fiction. But I found two critiques of the approach quite compelling this week.

First, Virginia Postrel (whose writing on design I’ve enjoyed in the past), writes that “Peter Thiel Is Wrong About the Future” (I’m reading his book as well), and mentions Hieroglyph as similarly misled:

The dystopian science fiction Stephenson’s Project Hieroglyph aims to counter isn’t the cause of our cultural malaise. It’s a symptom. The obstacle to more technological ambitions isn’t our idea of the future. It’s how we think about the present and the past…

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel…People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief.

It’s the same ambivalence toward today’s progress that Louis CK rails about, and that many science fiction writers and futurists recognize. We do live in amazing times, yet the dominant cultural reaction is frustration and dissatisfaction. We don’t often celebrate the incredible progress we’ve achieved. As David Brooks once wrote, “Americans have always been united less by a shared past than by the shared dream of a better future.”

The Guardian also confronts the Hieroglyph collection, calling the stories “built on willful ignorance”:

But there is also a deliberate naivety to Project Hieroglyph. Stories such as Cory Doctorow’s The Man Who Sold the Moon are a veritable hymn to the culture of Silicon Valley and tech start-ups, but deftly wave away the part these cultures play in today’s corporate capitalism and all the inequalities that come with it.

I agree with their assessment of the best stories:

The best contributions to Hieroglyph are the least optimistic, and the best attuned to the human reality that technology so often obscures. Entanglement by Vandana Singh and Madeline Ashby’s By the Time We Get to Arizona both look at the impact of new technologies in developing nations and among the world’s poorest people. They also tackle the obvious problem of technological innovation, the looming menace of climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion that go hand in hand with new technologies.

I still believe there is a role for optimistic science fiction in changing the world. However it’s always good to be mindful of the present and past when thinking about the future, and to include messy and uncomfortable situations in even the most polished vision. The real future will be both based in today’s world and include a lot of today’s problems, and people are wise enough to recognize when those aspects are missing from stories about the future.

Think small

A nice example of thinking small first, similar to Brandon Schauer’s Cake model.

Solving the right problems

Design is about solving problems that humans have, not problems that products have. – Mills Baker

I’ve referenced this quote several times since reading it; this is harder to do than you might think.

Breathing is enough

Several nice thoughts on mindfulness here, but I love this one:

Consume mindfully: Pause before buying and see if breathing is enough.

This works for me with snacks; let’s see if it does the trick for purchasing.

Thinking in Three Horizons

Three Horizons is an interesting foresight method that embraces the messy part of innovation and change:

The first horizon is the dominant present, which frames our current thinking about a domain…The third horizon is a possible future which may become dominant over time…

In between, there is the second horizon. This is a space in which the current horizon – where the power, the influence, and the money, along with connections, relationships and prestige are to be found – adapts to signals about the future: sometimes incrementally, sometimes disruptively, sometimes destructively.

Social change and technology change

When we think about long-term change with the benefit of hindsight, the things we think are unfathomable are usually the technology – planes, cars, computers. But it is at least as likely that the things that time travellers would most struggle with are the shifts in social values, which are almost invisible to us because we swim in them constantly and adapt ourselves to them as they change.