Personal

Suffering for joy

I’ve long subscribed to Russell Davies’ assertion that “[to be interesting, be interested](http://russelldavies.typepad.com/planning/2006/11/how_to_be_inter.html)”. It only follows that to be more than interesting, you need to be more than “interested”; you need to be truly passionate. The most interesting people I know are those who are completely sold out for their beliefs, their work, or their hobbies.

Today I discovered that the root word of “passion” is the Latin passio, which means “suffering”. So it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that following your true passion often involves a fair bit of suffering. The areas in my life I’ve been most passionate about–activities, relationships, work–have all contained huge amounts of effort and “suffering”–though working hard to climb a mountain on my bike, or working late on a project I believe in, rarely feels like a bad thing.

Of course, the other kick I’ve been on recently is mindfulness, which aims to keep you in the moment, not off on cognitive flights of fancy. And the main benefit I’ve found there is avoiding negative thoughts, which lead to suffering (as Master Yoda teaches). The very excitement and responsibility I feel in the activities I’m passionate about could be considered “attachment” that opens me up to disappointment and pain.

So is there a unification between these approaches? Can you be truly passionate, and yet not suffer from the pain of (inevitable) disappointment?

I think so. To me, the practice of mindfulness is about freeing myself from negative thoughts and attachments. There are certainly people who take this far enough to achieve some kind of “nirvana”, but I’m far from that. Simply reducing the pain of worldly attachment is plenty. That frees me up to pursue things that bring me joy.

On the other side, pursuing passions is about enjoying the activities that keep me in a flow state. Again, it’s not a complicated intellectual achievement–I’m merely doing things that come naturally. The “attachment” that can cause suffering with other things I love, doesn’t seem as present when I’m working on things I’m passionate about. As a small example, when I get stopped by a red light in my car I’m often frustrated; when it happens on a bike ride I’m hardly bothered, even though it will take more effort for me to start up again. And the “suffering” required by true passions rarely feels as bad as that caused by external factors.

In both my passions and my mindfulness I find a reduction in conscious thoughts; an increased reliance on my senses and instincts; and feelings of satisfaction, lightness, and freedom. So despite the seemingly large difference between following passions and living mindfully in the moment, I think both practices can coexist nicely, and even reinforce each other.

The sweet spot of innovation

> Q: How many designers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

> A: Does it really have to be a light bulb?

Designers are (in)famous for always trying to come up with the unexpected; the “next big thing”. Early in my career I even described my goal as delivering “not what was asked for, but something new and better”. It’s a dangerous trait that often puts us at odds with our teammates, who are typically more focused on tangible metrics and engineering milestones.

When I worked on Glass, there was disagreement among team members about whether we were building a research prototype or a mass-market consumer product. A research project would focus on pushing the boundaries and learning as much as possible. A consumer product would need to fit existing use cases and appeal to a wide audience. Unsurprisingly, people on each side of the argument proposed wildly different approaches to product design, engineering, marketing, and sales.

In the end, we built a research prototype and marketed it as a consumer product, which didn’t work out very well. We didn’t achieve success in the market, and because we were distracted by selling, we didn’t learn as much as we should have. Glass was the classic example of a product that was ahead of its time…but of course being too early is the same as being wrong.

This talk by Jon Friedman, a designer who worked on the Kin, the Courier, SPOT watches and other Microsoft hardware misadventures, tells some of the same stories. I admire Jon’s work (and I loved the Kin!), but watching the talk I became increasingly uncomfortable with the repeated similar failures. After all, the point of “failing fast” is not the failing–it’s the learning. Designers of these highly innovative products aren’t learning the lessons of past failures.

Glass and the failed Microsoft products share at least one trait: they all tried to change entire systems, all at once. Glass innovated on form factor, hardware technology, interface design, software architecture, marketing, sales, and support. The Microsoft Kin had new industrial design, stored your phone in the cloud, and changed the way you pay for the phone.

One of the most interesting lessons I learned from working for Tony Fadell (who took over the Glass project) was the idea that a new product should be 90% familiar and 10% wildly innovative. A product that’s too far out, that doesn’t feel connected to anything people recognize, will be too uncomfortable to succeed. But of course if you’re not innovative enough, no one will need what you’ve built. So now I set up an “innovation budget” to track how much change my designs are forcing on people, and I’m careful to keep that amount in check. The goal is to find the “sweet spot” of innovation where a design is both desirable and acceptable.

Friedman goes on to describe his own career shift from working on early-stage speculative new products to making smaller improvements to the Exchange platform, a mature system with lots of customers. He found that it was not only an interesting design challenge, but also fulfulling to make an immediate difference at scale.

He also describes a strategy of combining “something new and something old”–taking new technology into existing markets, or existing technology into new markets. In either case, you only have to invent half of the solution, as the other half has already been figured out.

Paul Rand said “Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.” Innovation is plentiful in design today…it’s important to stay focused on making the “basics” great as well. To evolve my younger self’s goal: the sweet spot of innovation is the place where you fulfill what was asked for, and provide something better.

Investment and love

[Dan Ariely on why we love our kids so much](http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2013/03/interview-nyt-bestselling-author-dan-ariely-talks/) (and more than others):

> Kids really come with no instructions. Very tough to deal with, difficult, complex, but incredibly involving and time consuming and I think the love that comes out of it is an example of the effect of a tremendous investment.

Big man power

[Conor Dunne](https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conor_Dunne), patron saint of tall cyclists, [shows what it would take for me to ride in the WorldTour](https://www.aquabluesport.com/blog/conor-dunne-tdy-power.html):

> “The average rider would do well to be able to hold 390w for five minutes,” he adds. “For Conor to be able to sustain that for over four and a half hours in this bike race shows you how much you have to have in the tank to compete at this level.”

Micro-activities

Since becoming a father I’ve had trouble fitting in all the things I’d like to do, so I’m always on the lookout for ways to combine two activities together, or to squeeze one in between two others. A few examples of these “micro-activities” that have worked out well:

* Meditate while falling asleep
* Pushups as I roll out of bed
* Bodyweight exercise on playground equipment while the kids play
* Mindful breathing while waiting for them to finish things (brushing teeth, putting away toys, etc)
* Squat stretch while brushing teeth
* Naps during lunch break (and related, lunch during meetings)
* Squats and stretches while riding the elevator (alone =)

The way these work best is when the activities are in two separate cognitive or physical categories. I haven’t been able, for instance, to listen to a podcast while working (which both require cognitive attention), or to intersperse pushups with cooking (both require your hands). But a physical activity while doing a mental one can work (e.g. pullups while watching the kids).

Mindfulness in particular is well suited for this. Besides the fact that a single 20-minute session is hard to stay focused for anyway, spreading bits of meditation throughout the day has a nice regulating effect on my mood and attention. Chade Meng Tan encourages people to practice just a single breath at a time, finding that produces a large benefit; I agree.

Notes from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

[This book](https://smile.amazon.com/Life-Changing-Magic-Tidying-Decluttering-Organizing/dp/1607747308?sa-no-redirect=1) surprised me by actually living up to its title. I expected a collection of “life hacks” and instead found a crisp new philosophy of focus and priority.

### The Big Idea

> The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.

Decide which things in your life bring you true joy, and get rid of the rest. If something used to bring you joy, or you think it could bring you joy in the future, thats not good enough. Joyless items not only fail in their core duty of improving your life, but also block and distract from the things that do bring you joy.

This of course applies to physical items, but can be extended to relationships, jobs, and activities. Ruthlessly discard joyless things!

### 5 Favorite Quotes

> * When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.

> * When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.

> * The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.

> * The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.

> * Human beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time.

### Next Steps

I’m going to “tidy up” next week!

Like human-powered flight

[My sentiments exactly](https://cyclingtips.com/2017/06/jra-angry-asian-beauty-cycling/):

> Riding bikes is the closest any of us can come to human-powered flight, and the fact that we just happen to still be connected to the ground doesn’t diminish from the sensation.

Teach courage, not caution

> As far as the education of children is concerned, I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but a love of one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.

Natalia Ginzburg

Anything and everything

Carson tonight, from under a towel:

> Dad, I can’t see anything! I can only see everything.

He must have been reading William Blake and Wallace Stevens.

Six steps to sorry

Love [this framework from Charley Scandlyn on how to apologize](https://alldayeverywhere.com/2015/01/21/six-steps-to-sorry):

> 1. I did this (Acknowledgement)
2. It was wrong (Understanding)
3. I’m sorry (Remorse)
4. Please forgive me (Request)
5. I commit to new behavior (Repentance)
6. I will do the work I need to do to repair the damage I have caused (Restoration)