Tools and techniques for productivity, so you have more time to enjoy life!

Lifehacks

These articles are about hacking you mind, or hacking your habits, in order to get the most out of life. Organizational tips, tricks for dealing with others, nifty software, and the like.

PowerPoint Tips from South Park

PowerPoint is a necessary evil... everybody is expected to give presentations in it, but few people are good at it. They cram too much information into one slide, and pack them full of data that might better go in a report. Presentations work best when used to persuade, it's an awkward tool when you try to educate. There's a reason PowerPoint was banned by the Pentagon:

"PowerPoint is dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control" -- Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster

But alas... we're still stuck with PowerPoint... so we should probably make the best of it!

One of the ways to make PowerPoint presentations more compelling is to tell a story... unfortunately, most people are pretty bad at telling stories as well. There's an entire industry created around corporate storytelling that trains people how to engage your audience with a full-fledged story... but there's an even simpler approach. The creators of South Park stumbled on a formula that they still use to assemble stories:

These same rules can apply to making a PowerPoint presentation flow like a story.

You initially assemble your main points -- which is usually the hard part. Then, when assembling your points to tell a story, try to transition between your points with the word "therefore," or the word "but." Like so:

  • Slide 1
  • therefore...
  • Slide 2
  • but...
  • Slide 3
  • therefore...
  • Slide 4
  • but...

Simple, no? You'll be surprised how much better your presentations will "flow" from one point to the next with this method.

Naturally, not all presentations can fit into this pattern... for example, "Top 10" presentations flow numerically from one point to another... so if people doze off they can pick up the next chunk at the start. Also, there may be times where the dreaded "and then" transition is needed, such as when a point needs to be communicated over several slides.

Nevertheless, if you try hard to use better transitions, your story will be more compelling, and PowerPoint will be one notch less evil.

How To Make A Decision

I recently finished "How We Decide", which tries to answer the question how do people make decisions? Contrary to popular belief, human decisions are rarely -- if ever -- "rational." Almost all of the decision-making-process lies in our "emotional mind."

How can this be? Our minds are incredibly powerful when it comes to reasoning and logic... Why is it not engaged when it comes to making a decision?

In essence, the rational part of our brain is relatively new -- in the evolutionary sense. As such, it cannot compete with the emotional side, which has been making critical decisions for millions of years. The emotional side is capable of tremendously complex analysis of systems with hundreds of variables in a split second... for example, should I jump out of the path of a moving car? Yes! The rational mind can make these complex calculations as well... however its much more slow. This is because the rational mind can only juggle a few variables at a time, and it is lousy at "knowing" which variables are important and which aren't... Which direction should I jump? Should I plant my right foot first, or my left? When I land, should I roll to avoid injury? What if I get my shirt dirty?

Too much logic leads to a condition called "analysis paralysis." It is common when people try to make a decision with too much data. It is also common amongst people with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex -- which is critical in generating emotions. Far from having Vulcan-like decision making powers, these poor individuals can take hours just to decide what to eat!

The "emotional" part of our brain has served us well for millions of years... and it is great at helping us quickly make decisions about survival and self-preservation. It does so through a complex series of neural pathways and dopamine receptors that make us feel good when we make a "right" decision. The feeling is similar to what we feel when we exercise, have a healthy meal, or have sex. It is "good" in an evolutionary sense to not only do these things, but also to decide to do these things. When a person has lots of experience making certain kinds of decisions -- such as stock broker picking stocks, or a fireman putting out fires -- they engage the emotional mind to get a "feel" for what the "right" decision might be. In fact, its much faster to go with your gut, than to try to weigh all possible variables.

Your emotions are excellent at sifting through tons of information, noticing the important details, and ignoring the noise. These hard-wired pathways are lightning fast at making decisions, because they piggy-back on a system that had to be fast to ensure our survival. With the proper training, a person can "feel" the correct decision, even if they can't explain it.

However, this can also be a problem... using the emotional mind means you will be suppressing details that "feel" irrelevant. However, that is only because those details were irrelevant in the past. It is perfectly possible to "feel" right, even when you are 100% wrong.

The key is to know how to engage the rational mind, and how to engage the emotional mind. Only then will you consistently make good decisions.

"Simple" Problems Require Logic

The rational brain is easily overwhelmed... if you give it too many variables, then it won't be able to keep track of which variables are more important than others. Depending on the mind, you may be limited to as few as 4, or as many as 9 independent variables. This can increase with lots of training, but its a good rule of thumb.

So, we should not engage the left-brain in the decision-making process unless the problem is "simple." Buy this, we mean that the problem can be reduced to a mathematical formula with an obvious "right" and "wrong" answer. The term "simple" is misleading, because it includes problems like the NASA shuttle launch checklist, and mathematical problems so complex you'd need a PhD to solve them... nevertheless, since we can formalize the problem into a mathematical formula, it is "simple."

When a problem can be reduced to a formula, you should avoid instinct as much as possible... they can lead us astray on simple problems. Like, should I play the lottery, should I rebalance my stock portfolio, or is the shuttle ready for launch?

Once you do the math, the solution is clear... so keep feelings out of it!

"Complex" Problems Require Emotion

Now... choosing between different breakfast cereals? That's a hard one!!! How many factors will play into this kind of equation? Obviously, price, nutritional data, and the ingredients can be plugged into a formula... but there are other factors like flavor, brand, and novelty that can't be easily quantified. Also, if you dont' "feel" good about your decision, you'll wind up regretting it. So how should you choose?

The rule-of-thumb is that the rational mind is only good with four variables. Therefore, it is perfectly fine to engage logic when purchasing things that are all very similar. When buying a can opener or paper towels, it really comes down to quantifying "price" and "quality."

However, when making decisions about something with dozens of hard-to-quantify variables -- like strawberry jam or cold cereal -- you're better off trusting your "gut" instinct.

Numerous studies have shown that when people try to choose their favorite kind of jam, or their favorite work of art, or the best house in their price range, they usually agree with the "experts." If they are told to just go with their gut, they are frequently right on. However... if they are asked for their opinion plus an explanation, the whole thing falls apart!

The mere act of engaging the left brain clouds the issue, and they suddenly make bad decisions. In order to make good "complex" decisions, its important to distract the left brain so it doesn't try to hijack the process. Experts are usually capable of explaining their decision making process, but the untrained should stick with their gut.

New And Novel Problems Require Reason

The emotional mind is good at making quick decisions, but it is limited to past data. Only the logical mind can look into the future to plan; only the logical mind can properly put new information into the proper context.

Therefore, when faced with a new kind of problem, you will be tempted to "go with your gut". However, that can lead to problems, since your gut is only aware of instinct and your own history.

When you "feel" the right decision, you must remind yourself that this is a new kind of problem, which likely requires a new kind of solution. Use your rational brain to look for errors in judgement, and force yourself to explain your "gut" feelings. It is likely that you will uncover important data that you discounted as "irrelevant."

Certainty is the Surest Sign you Made an Error

The world is a big giant mess... and the brain is very, very uncomfortable with uncertainty. When your brain is face-to-face with new data that contradicts existing information patterns, it has a tough time feeling "certain" about it. In order to ensure proper right-brain functions, you need to work through this new data, and be ok with being "uncertain" for a while.

Unfortunately... your brain finds it a heck of a lot easier to just invent a "rational" reason why the new data can be ignored... so usually it does exactly that! It just feels soooooooooo good to be "certain", that our brains crave that feeling, even if we're dead wrong!

This problem is most notable when it comes to political partisans. Drew Westen scanned the brains of voters in the run-up to the 2004 US elections. He had three groups: hard-core Republicans, hard-core Democrats, and independents. He then showed them four clips: two when Bush obviously contradicted himself, and two when Kerry obviously contradicted himself. The independents noticed both sets of contradictions... however, the hard-core believers only saw the contradictions of their political enemy! They were dead-certain that their guy made perfect sense, and the "other guy" was illogical.

The brain scans of the subjects were more interesting still... The independents engaged the rational parts of their brains the whole time, which is why they spotted the logical contradictions. However, the hard-core believers did not. They used purely their emotions when asked about the contradictions. They only engaged the rational parts of their brains to help "reason away" the obvious contradictions made by their candidate. As Ben Franklin said:

"So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Philip Tetlock performed an even more interesting study about the predictions of political "experts." He would give them a question about the future, with three possible answers. Then, years later, he would see how often they were correct. It turns out, not very often! In fact, the "experts" were correct less than 33% of the time!

That's right, folks... a drunken dart-throwing monkey is a better predictor of world events than most professional "analysts." To make matters worse, the most popular pundits were wrong the most often!

Why? Because of "certainty." These people felt like experts... they felt they knew the right decision... and they are literally addicted to the rush of feeling "right." No way they will be giving that up any time soon.

Once you "feel" certain that you have made the right decision -- especially about a new problem -- then I guarantee that you have ignored important data.

The Best "Deciders" Analyze Their Decision-Making Process

The Tetlock study did highlight which experts were actually useful... almost uniformly, the best experts create "testable hypothesis." This means that they were quite aware of the limits of their own decision-making powers. They knew they had biases. They knew they had incomplete information. They knew that this was a new kind of problem with new kinds of solutions.

Therefore, they used their gut most of the time, but they used their rational minds when analyzing their own limitations.

When a good decision maker feels certain, he will stop and say, "wait a moment, I'm under-thinking this." That is the time to look at what is so certain, and try to poke holes in it. Good decision makers create testable hypothesis about what they "know", and then they re-evaluate their position at a later date.

Good decision makers are also aware of emotional traps that can prevent you from making the right decision. These include things like loss-aversion, which means that losses "feel" worse than wins. You'll never be a good stock broker or a good general unless you are aware of how loss-aversion can prevent you from making the right decision.

Conclusion

When making decisions about "simple" problems, you need to engage your rational mind. Be aware of emotional traps, and try to distill the problem down to a mathematical formula. Simple Pro / Con lists frequently help, when data is hard to quantify.

When making decisions about "complex" problems, you need to distract your logical mind. What house should I buy? What furniture should I buy? Which candidate should I vote for? Put the question in your head, and then engage the right brain. Go see a play, watch a movie, listen to music, or take a nap. Then, make a "snap" decision based on emotion. Odds are, you'll be much happier with the result.

If you want to be an expert, the most important things are experience, and humility. Certainty is the enemy: there are no 100% guarantees in this world, so stop thinking like there are. Go with your gut at first, but constantly engage logic to validate the decision making process. When you are satisfied that your decision making process is as good as it can be, then its time to engage the right brain again. Distract the left brain, and then make a "snap" decision.

If you do this, then odds are you'll be right more often than a drunken dart-throwing monkey... in which case you're doing better than most paid "experts."

Finishing Up Open World Presentations

Open World Starts Sunday! I've been putting my finishing touches on my presentations, so I haven't had much time to blog... I figured I should remind everybody of my presentation schedule:

  1. Monday 1pm-2pm: Enterprise 2.0, What it is and How You'll Fail, at Moscone West, 3rd Floor Overlooks #1
  2. Monday 4pm-5pm: A Pragmatic Approach to Oracle ECM, at Moscone South, Rm 301, session 299246.
  3. Wednesday 11am-12pm: Communication For Geeks -- How to influence your peers, your boss, and your clients, at Moscone West, 3rd Floor Overlooks #2
  4. Thursday 10:30am-11:30am: Top 10 Ways To Integrate With Oracle ECM, at the Marriott, Golden Gate room C1, session 300043.

The first and third talks are a part of the Open World Unconference. The second talk is one I'm giving with Andy MacMillan about our upcoming book... the last one is based mostly on the talk I gave at IOUG Collaborate 2008, but with a few twists...

I'll be Twittering my location throughout the conference, in case you'd like to meet up. I'll likely be attending mostly ECM talks, or hanging out at one of these places:

See you there!

Tell Ikea To Bring Back the Coolest Desk Ever!

About two years ago, Lifehacker did a piece on the coolest workspace ever contest. The winner was "Bryan" who bought the Galant desk set from Ikea... with one cool modification:

The desk legs were motorized, and you could raise or lower it to the optimal height!

The desk legs didn't have to be fixed. If you were short, or sat on a yoga ball instead of a chair, just bring it down a notch. If you were tall, or preferred to stand up while working, bring it up a notch.

Brilliant!

At the time, I was using a stand-up desk myself. I had back problems, and standing up while typing was the best thing ever... but on occasion I wanted to sit down, rest my feet, maybe lean back in a chair for a while. I thought, this desk would be perfect! But there was one problem:

Ikea discontinued the desk!

grrr....

Not the desk model, mind you. Ikea still sells the Galant Desk, and it's pretty slick... I have one myself. They simply stopped selling the optional motorized legs that allowed the desk to move up and down.

I contacted them, to ask if it would be possible to start selling the desk legs again... they gave me a standard line about margins, distributors, producers, etc. I didn't care, I just wanted my motorized desk! Hell, even if they sold the legs at $250 each, it would still be cheaper than most stand-up desks that you can buy.

If you think a motorized desk is a great idea, then please sign my petition! We have almost 200 signatures thus far... Even if we can't get Ikea to start selling it, we might be able to drum up enough interest so somebody else will.

UPDATE: It appears that somebody named GeekDesk on Bonanzle.com is selling something similar... They have pretty positive feedback on EBay, so they are probably worth a shot. They should be launching an official site for their adjustable height desk soon. Hooray for the internet!

UPDATE 2: In January 2010 I bought one of those Geek Desks, and I like it very much... it's a bit bigger than the Ikea desk here, but it's at about the same price-point. If you want a decent motorized stand up desk, they might be what you need. I'll be posting a more complete review with video when I have time.

Powerpoint Presentation Tips

This is a great, short video that will help you avoid some common PowerPoint mistakes... by comedian Don McMillan:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLpjrHzgSRM

Want something more useful? BusinessWeek has some more helpful advice...

The Game Is Rigged

So I'm out having dinner with some friends last week, discussing all manner of things, when the talk turns to economics. I gave my usual anti-economist rant... when one of the chaps asked a simple question:

HIM: If I flip a coin 99 times, and it lands heads each time, what are the odds it will land heads the 100th time?

ME: Well, the obvious answer is that it doesn't matter how the coin landed the previous 99 times... the odds are always 50/50 that it will land heads again. However, I have a problem... its extremely unlikely that a fair coin would land heads 99 times in a row... so I'd estimate 90/10 that it will land heads again.

HIM: ...you are the first person I ever met who answered like that...

This is one of the reasons that I don't like traditional economic theory... all games involving money will some day be rigged. Poker, major league baseball, the Olympics, sumo wrestling, sales predictions, the stock market, everything! The Freakonomics guys look into cheating, but not many others do... and if it weren't for their fame, they'd still be mocked as not being "real" economists.

It doesn't matter how grand your economic theories are... or how perfect the math looks. It doesn't matter how many metrics you have, or how grand your enterprise business intelligence system is. There's always something hidden from the model. Hidden assets, hidden liabilities, intentionally incorrect data, etc. Anyone with street smarts will be able to rig the system... and it will take another with street smarts to notice.

Unfortunately, people with street smarts are more likely to cash in on the rigged system, instead of fixing it... especially on Wall Street. The term there is IBGYBG: I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone. Find the scam, don't rock the boat, cash in, and leave... this gave us the tech boom, Enron, insurance broker scams, the Housing bubble, etc... at least we have short sellers who cash in by exposing rigged systems.

I hope and pray that these short sellers will rescue us from the latest tech bubble... Facebook is valued at $15 billion: almost as much as Ford! That smells like fraud... and Fake Steve Jobs illustrates how it works. All Captain Fleece has to do is spread around stock to the tech analysts, and they swoon over how Facebook will change the world. The IPO happens, dittoheads like Scoble get rich, and everybody else loses.

The game is rigged, my friends... and you're not in on it. Stay away from the latest tech boom, especially Facebook, unless you fully appreciate how rigged it is...

The Meaning Of Life

Now that I have your attention:

I asked my son Mark what he thought life was all about, and he said, “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” I think that says it best. You can do that as a comedian, a writer, a painter, a musician. He’s a pediatrician. There are all kinds of ways we can help each other get through today. There are some things that help. Musicians really do it for me. I wish I were one, because they help a lot. They help us get through a couple hours. -- Kurt Vonnegut

Carry on...

Email Free Fridays

Not a bad idea... apparently engineers at Intel instituted Email Free Fridays a few weeks ago...

about 150 engineers at chipmaker Intel (INTC) will kick off "Zero E-mail Fridays." E-mail isn't forbidden, but everyone is encouraged to phone or meet face-to-face. The goal is more direct, free-flowing communication and better exchange of ideas, Intel principal engineer Nathan Zeldes says in a company blog post.

Whereas I support the reduction of email clutter, this doesn't solve the actual problem: manufactured emergencies. If people have to switch to the phone, then you're just clogged with voice mail. If they switch to meetings, then Friday becomes "meeting day." People will still be swamped with work and communications, its just offline.

I think it might be better to have an auto-responder that replies with how many unread messages you have in your inbox... plus a time estimate on how long (on average) it will take to get a response. Sort of like when you call up the customer service reps:

There are 1,673 emails ahead of you. Average time to a response is eight days, and that's if you're lucky. So ask yourself: do you feel lucky?

You could also set up a "tip jar" system... where if senders tip you $10 in the email, their email gets a special priority. Or perhaps an autoresponder that says:

I'm currently swamped with projects X, Y, and Z at the moment. If I answer your email, one of them will suffer. Please let me know which one should suffer, let me inform the project manager that it will suffer because of you, and then I'll be happy to answer your question.

Naturally, this all needs to be automated... otherwise people will think you're a big mean jerk ;-)

Five Ways To Move Beyond Conventional Wisdom

Independent thought is pretty rare these days, partly because those who think differently are ridiculed. Personally, I take immense pride in being a serial contrarian... It helps me muster up the courage to stand my ground when conventional wisdom is totally wrong.

Anyway, I came a cross a very lame article on Pick The Brain about Five Ways To Develop Independent Thought. You can read the article if you'd like to waste precious minutes of your life... in the words of Eric Cartman: Lame! Weak! Totally lame! Was this clown writing for a fourth grade audience??? Why the heck was that thing Dugg, anyway? I sense a fundamental lack of independent thought on behalf of the writer...

Lifehacker came up with some slightly better advice, but I still felt that it was off the mark. Not enough practical information on how to "rewire" your brain for independent thought... just the same old rehashed advice.

After reading them, I decided to put together some less than horrible advice on the subject. Now, I cannot promise that this will help you "Develop Independent Thought," like some lame-o's claims... Rather, this is simply a collection of five steps I take to stimulate new ideas when conventional wisdom and common sense have let me down...

It might not work for you, but it has enabled me to build a reputation for getting things done, despite my preference for doing things very differently:

  1. Become Fearless About Failure
  2. Force Yourself To Believe The Impossible
  3. Stimulate Your Mind With Scary, New Ideas
  4. Lecture To Yourself
  5. Finally, Uncover The Flaws In Conventional Wisdom

Winners Quit

Many of us recall the pithy words of the scary Vince Lombardi:

Winners never quit, quitters never win.

I couldn't disagree more.

In a world where you will work 10 different jobs in your life, for the average person the key to winning is to know when to quit. If you give up too quickly you'll never win anything, but if you never give up you'll be bankrupt. It's hard to give up when you're passionate about the success of a pet project, but you must always be realistic about the market, and cut your losses when prudent.

How do you know when to quit? Well,Forbes magazine has a good article this month for entrepreneurs on When To Dump That Great Idea. Its only OK, but I agree with the top red flags:

  1. Paying Customers Never Show Up
  2. You Can't Sustain a Competitive Advantage
  3. You're Not Ready To Quit Your Day Job

Decent advice for startups...

UPDATE: Money Magazine added this concept to their Myth #3 of What it Takes To Be Rich. Sure, Southwest Airlines and FedEx stuck to their guns... that's because they were right. But FedEx ditched their high-profile Zap-Mail service once fax machines became popular...

How Much Is Your Life Worth?

If you had to put a dollar value on your life, what would it be?

How much are you worth?

Before doing that, you also need to take the Am I Dumb? test as well:

How smart are you?

Completely arbitrary cross-promotional nonsense... but still a fun way to waste a few minutes. ;-)

The Meaning Of Life: TED Style...

I love innovation and ideas, and thus always wanted to attend the TED Conference in the flesh... But until such a day, I'll take heart in the fact that the organizers put all the previous presentations online.

They are all fascinating and thought-provoking. The Ze Frank talk about creativity is a popular favorite, as are the ones from Hans Rosling about statistics and global poverty. But one that is an absolute must-see is the one by Dan Dennett on ants, terrorists, and the mighty power of memes:

Highly recommended... although I disagree a little with the parallels to Guns, Germs, and Steel. I particularly liked how he summed up the meaning of life and the secret of happiness in one sentence:

Find something more important than you are, and dedicate your life to it. -- Dan Dennett

Compelling... but I prefer my personal philosophy three times better, because it has three times as many sentences (inspired by Dawkins):

Whether you're an atheist or a believer, the meaning of life is the never-ending quest for purpose. We are the only mortals who see the world not as it is, but as it could be, and then create it. Thus, we're here to ask that ultimate question "Why am I here?" and never be long satisfied with our answers. -- Bex

Coming to terms with that has helped me sleep soundly at night... and occasionally in the afternoon. ;-)

Hack Your Brain

Derrick sent me a link to a great site, Lumosity.com, which helps improve your brain by playing specially designed games. These aren't the typical brain exercises you usually find on the net; they make you brain do several things at the same time, so you can improve overall brain health... and they were designed by a team of crack neuroscientists from Stanford and UCSF.

It took me a while to get the hang of the first bird watching game... because its a fusion of memorizing letters, remembering spacial positions, duck hunt, and wheel of fortune. Also, the instructions were pretty poorly worded. So don't freak if you are bad the first time you play.

I agree with their main message, the pop science theory that you irrevocably lose brain cells after 18 is total crap. You can learn new skills, new languages, new anything at any age. Neuroplasticity is one of the most amazing things about humans... sure, children create neuronal connections faster, but they also destroy them faster!

If you are getting older, and find yourself upset about forgetting something, remember this: your brain is a survival engine, not a Xerox! It will trim away useless details, like what you had for breakfast this morning, as soon as its no longer important for survival. Otherwise, storing too much information will slow down your ability to process new information. Simple as that...

How To Get Fired

I came across Freelance Switch recently, thanks to the del.icio.us randomizer... Its a pretty good site for people who are interested in making the jump to independent consulting. It has tons of great tips, and a bit of humor as well... such as fourteen surefire ways to get fired. I liked these ones:

The Auctioneer: Sell office items on ebay. “Hey Mr. Jones, I need your chair. Some guy in Boston bought it for 85 bucks… You believe that? Don’t worry; I’ll cut you in. How’s 80/20 sound? It’s only fair since I did the all work.”

The Pirate King: Give yourself a comic name like ‘the Pirate King’ then begin referring to yourself in the third person in all conversations: “The Pirate King does not understand what you’re asking him”, “The Pirate King does not fill out time sheets”...

They also have a comment contest for people to come up with better ideas. Unfortunately, the prize is The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris... which I bought yesterday. So no incentive there...

What Do You Want To Do Before You Die?

Its an interesting question... and the people at The Buried Life want to know.

Last summer, four friends decided to put together a list of 100 things to do before they die.... then they went on a Winnebago trip across Canada trying to do them. Along the way, they tried to help other people do the same. Kind of like a fusion between My Name Is Earl and MTV's Road Trip.

At present, they've crossed off 30 of their items. After checking, I noticed that I had already accomplished 22 of these bad boys, including:

  • skydiving,
  • hot air ballooning,
  • learning a musical instrument,
  • swimming with sharks,
  • catching something and eating it (not a shark),
  • and (my favorite) destroying a computer!

Not bad, considering I'm competing with four kids with corporate sponsorship... of the remaining items in that list I suppose I'd most want to sleep in a haunted house, tour with a major band, and party with some rock stars.

How many of these things have you done? Which one would you really like to do too?

Profile Your Brain: Are You A Lefty Or A Righty?

I love personality tests... one piece of advice I'd give before starting your own business is to take several of them, especially the Meyers Briggs evaluation. These aren't good at telling you who you are, but they can give you a good idea of your strengths and weaknesses. That helps you know what you will need to outsource in your new business...

Anyway, my buddy CV Rick posted a personality test at MindMedia that tests right/left brain dominance. The site gave me the creeps, but I couldn't resist. So here's my results:

  • Auditory : 52%
  • Visual : 47%
  • Left : 52%
  • Right : 47%

Weird... a near 50/50 split in both categories. According to them, I have no brain dominance! Jeez, I've never failed a personality test before...

Bex, you are one of those rare individuals who are perfectly "balanced" in both your hemispheric tendencies and your sensory learning preferences.

Erm, ok... Case in point, part of me looks at this and says 52/47 is neither perfectly balanced, nor does it add up to 100. The other part of me says close enough for jazz. I was always told that a balance between left- and right-brain thinking would be pretty dang cool... but there's a downside:

A problem with hemispheric balance is that you will tend to feel more conflict than someone who has a clearly established dominance. At times the conflict will be between what you feel and what you think but will also involve how you attack problems and how you perceive information. Details which will seem important to the right hemisphere will be discounted by the left and vice versa, which can present a hindrance to learning efficiently.

In the same vein, you may have a problem with organization. You might organize your time and/or space only to feel the need to reorganize five to ten weeks later.

True... I am occasionally conflicted, but I doubt it effects my learning efficiency... I have too many college degrees to accept that premise. However, they totally nailed me on the organization one. I am a frequent reader of Lifehacker, always looking for better ways to organize my stuff and boost productivity... but I keep changing systems every few months. The only system I've stuck with is writing in my Moleskine notebook... probably because its so free-form.

I was pretty flattered by this next part tho:

On the positive side, you bring resources to problem-solving that others may not have. You can perceive the "big picture" and the essential details simultaneously and maintain the cognitive perspective required. You possess sufficient verbal skills to translate your intuition into a form which can be understood by others while still being able to access ideas and concepts which do not lend themselves to language.

Probably correct... I always found it irritating when detail-oriented people couldn't immediately switch gears and see how their specific implementation was detrimental to the big picture... in retrospect, I guess I was the freak!

Your balanced nature might lead you to second-guess yourself in artistic endeavors, losing some of the fluidity, spontaneity and creativity that otherwise would be yours.

With your balanced sensory styles, you process data alternately, at times visually and other times auditorially. This usage of separate memories may cause you to require more time to integrate information or re-access it. When presented with situations which force purely visual or purely auditory learning, increased anxiety is likely and your learning efficiency will decrease.

Your greatest benefit is that you can succeed in multiple fields due to the great plasticity and flexibility you possess.

Booooooo! Okay, so despite my balance, it takes me longer to access pure logic or pure creative parts of my brain. No big deal, since very little of the real world falls into one of those two categories. Of course, that means I'd have no real success at being an artist or theoretical physicist... I've tried both careers, and I'm forced to agree.

Oh well. I guess I'm stuck with dealing with the messy, messy real world.

No problem... I'm flexible. ;-)

How To Learn Something New Every Day

There are several sites out there that give you tips and tricks for just about everything... such as Lifehacker, or Tricks of the Trade.

One of my favorite sites is WikiHow. This site contains over 10,000 wiki-based how-to instructions for just about everything.

Since that site uses the MediaWiki software, you can use the same Special: tags that you use on Wikipedia. For example, to browse a random how-to page, use this URL:

http://www.wikihow.com/Special:Random

That will take you to a random how-to page, which probably contains something very, very interesting... like how to run a poker tournament, or common phrases in Esperanto, or how to ride a horse.

To learn something new every day, just make a bookmark of that URL. You could even set it as the home page for your browser.

To see what new tips they have added in the past few days, try one of these links:

http://www.wikihow.com/Special:Recentchanges
http://www.wikihow.com/Special:Newpages

I'm not sure why WikiHow does not expose those links... but thankfully other sites can.

How To Ask For Help

I get asked a lot of technical questions during the day... sometimes because I know the answer, other times because I'm one of the few developers who wont immediately rip the head off of somebody for violating procedures or netiquette. For example, you would not believe how furious some of our developers get at consultants who cross post their questions.

It can get ugly... trust me. Don't cross post.

Anyway, being the nice guy who loves to help certainly has its down side. People ask me a lot of questions... and not all of them are well thought out.

For example, I was recently interrupted at my desk by somebody who had a few questions for me. I prefer email, but it seemed to be an important project, so I obliged. Well, he didn't bring the list of questions. Nor did he have a note pad for the answers. Nor could he even remember the questions.

Grrrrr...

After wasting some time, I suggested that since he had the list at his desk, he should go back there and send an email with the questions. Obviously that would be the optimal use of everybody's time. So, he went back to his desk, and never even sent me the questions.

Lovely...

This isn't an isolated incident... I also get plenty of emails essentially saying "Something's broken. How do I fix it?" No info on what is broken, or where... not exactly making it easy for me to help.

Apparently, I'm not alone. I recently came across a good article at Lifehacker on the article art of asking good questions.

I'm placing a summary here on my blog... so in the future if I encounter somebody in need of a refresher course on how to motivate people to help, I will send them a link here. The basic rules are:

Be Specific

You should give the helper enough background information on your problem. Make it easy for the person to help you. This does not mean forwarding them a hundred item long email thread with the question "what do you think?" It means putting some effort into summarizing the problem, and placing any actionable requests as close to the top as possible.

Do Your Research

You should spend at least ten minutes on Google, searching the manuals, running some tests, or searching your local content management system before asking a technical question.

Be up front about what you already did to find the answer on your own. If you do not feel comfortable explaining what you already did, then you probably did not do enough research.

Explaining what you did is vital, because lots of busy people simply snap back a glib "try Google" answer... especially when they feel that they are doing your job for you.

Ask the Right Person

You should try to avoid asking people questions not relevant to their expertise. Don't ask a developer about HR policies and procedures... how the heck should they know? They wear shorts to work. They obviously don't have a clue about dress code, and other HR policies. So please don't ask.

Make it Worth the Person's Time

This point is more relevant towards asking for help outside of your department, who have no specific responsibility to help you.

Do not tell somebody how desperate you are for their help... such pleas typically fall on deaf ears, because they make you look totally incompetent. And what do incompetent people do? Beg for help, then take all the credit to mask their incompetence.

Again, not a winning strategy.

Instead, you need to make the helper feel an important role in the success of the project. Make sure everybody know how vital the helper is. Give them credit, send genuine praise to their manager. We all love compliments, so this will make them even more eager to help in the future.

If you do not intend to give the helper credit where its due, then you had better be prepared to compensate them very very well. You are essentially asking them to be a ghost writer for your project. Skilled people with that kind of temperament are hard to find.

How Failure Breeds Success

I recently came across an interesting article in Business Week about the importance of failure. Not the importance of success, but failure.

Failure and innovation go hand in hand. If your business goal is innovation, then you must also prepare for a good deal of failure.

I'm sure this article caused a major case of cognitive dissonance on behalf of their readers... but it is nevertheless correct.

To truly innovate, you must not be afraid of failure. If you are trying to do something that nobody else has done before, mistakes are inevitable. You must learn to ignore the idea that failure is bad -- the only thing that is bad is the failure to learn from mistakes.

My primary training is as a Physicist, so I'm not in the least surprised that failure is important for success. In Physics, you are always pushing the envelope on not only what is known, but what is knowable. Mistakes are inevitable. Sometimes some of the best breakthroughs occurred because somebody made a huge mistake.

In business, it is naturally different. Lets face it: innovation is the exception, not the norm. You don't make money by taking huge risks. Just like Will Hamilton warned Adam Trask in East Of Eden, "I'm the only one in my family who never had ideas, and I'm the only one who ever made a dime."

To make money, you need discipline. Buy low, sell high. Go for the sure thing, and execute better than the next guy. Well, that's certainly how Warren Buffet made his billions, but its not how Steve Jobs made his billions.

No wonder most of the innovative ideas come out of small companies...

The problem is that with the internet, business needs are changing much faster than in the past. Big companies need to shed their fear of failure. They need to measure how much failure they can tolerate, and encourage special teams to push the envelope. To fully accomplish this, however, they need to remove the political stigma of failure from their corporate culture.

My favorite example of people not afraid of failure? Turnaround CEOs.

These guys appear to be inspired and energized by failure; how else could they do what they do? They are not afraid to buck the system and try new things. Even when failure is all around them, they remind their team that failure is fine; as long as you can learn from your mistakes.

The result? The political stigma of failure is eased, and people are more willing to admit previous errors. This allows people to feel comfortable enough to admit when their team did wrong, without fear of finger-pointing and blame costing them their job. If you cannot lose this fear, the company is doomed. Middle managers are far too preoccupied with saving their skins to do what is best for the company.

Kudos to Business Week for pointing out this important fact... I'm curious if anybody will pay attention.

Recent comments