Archive for January, 2006

Presentations: Guy Kawasaki.

31 January 2006

Kawasaki is an author, speaker, Macintosh evangelist from back in the day, and now an outstanding blogger. He’s known for giving great presentations, and now he’s been addressing different aspects of presentations in a series of recent posts.

The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint
Lessons from Steve [Jobs]’s Keynote
How to Get a Standing Ovation
How to Be a Demo God

If you give presentations, all of these are worth reading and re-reading — and, for that matter, so is the rest of his blog, which is why I’ve put it in my permanent links on the right-hand side of this page.

Garr Reynolds has also ably summarized the ‘Kawasaki Method’ of presentation.

Commonplace: Kieschnick

31 January 2006

“Whatever you do, just make sure you throw every pitch with conviction.”
—Brooks Kieschnick

(Kieschnick was the star pitcher and slugger at the University of Texas when I was an undergraduate there. He wasn’t quite good enough as either a pitcher or a hitter to stick in a full-time role in the major leagues, but he has enjoyed some success in recent years as a combination reliever/pinch-hitter. Given this quotation above, which I took from a sports feature on him some time ago, I’d say he has his head on straight, too. How many of us fail to follow this advice in our day-to-day lives?)

Innovation: Screensavers.

31 January 2006

In my experience, interesting new ideas often spring from the juxtaposition of familiar ideas. One way that I present myself with these juxtapositions during my working day is by taking advantage of the screensaver on my dual-monitor computer setup at work. (If you’ve never tried two monitors — wow, it’s amazing how much more efficient it can make you.)

The free screensaver I use is called gPhotoShow. Once you install it, the program points to a folder of your choosing and rotates randomly through all the image files the folder contains. If you use two monitors, it rotates through the photos in different order on the two screens. You can change the settings to rotate through pictures faster or slower, have them appear with fancy wipes or dissolves, etc.

Whenver I come across interesting images in my Internet travels, I save them into my pictures folder. Then gPhotoShow takes care of the rest. If you end up with a nautical painting by Turner next to a nautical painting by Rembrandt, that might not fire up your innovation engine. But maybe a Lichtenstein next to a Velazquez will. I include not just paintings but photographs, commercial graphics, sports images, and anything else that I like.

Housekeeping: Comments turned on.

31 January 2006

After a bit of wrangling, gentle readers, I have convinced Blogger to turn on the comments function throughout this blog. Please do use it — I welcome your feedback.

Also, if anyone knows a simple way to install a page-hits counter here, your technology-challenged correspondent would appreciate the help.

Prolificity: Keep your chops up.

30 January 2006

“Keeping my chops up” has stuck in my head ever since I read this article in The New Yorker in 2004. Here’s the relevant quote:

“I try to keep my chops up,” Glover told Jane Goldberg, for Dance Magazine, “so I can just be.”

That’s Glover as in Savion Glover, the great tap virtuoso of our age. His point is that he works hard to keep his technique in line–then doesn’t have to think about it when it comes time to perform.

This matches my experience of writing. When I’m writing every day–writing to some endpoint, not just jotting down disconnected thoughts–the words flow more easily, and the prose itself ends up at a higher quality. I’m reminded of an interview with Janet Evans that I heard when she made her debut at the Seoul Olympics. Evans said that she tended to break her coach’s prohibition on swimming seven days a week, because she found that missing a day in the pool threw her off her (typhonic) rhythm when she got back in the water.

If you want to produce a lot, work to produce something all the time, not by spurts or by seasons.

Nulla dies sine linea.” — Pliny

Decision: Jeff Bewkes.

30 January 2006

I’m fascinated by Jeff Bewkes, the #2 guy at Time Warner who headed up the HBO hit factory in the 1990s/early 2000s. Fortune has a short feature on him near the bottom of this page.

Key excerpt relevant to the faculty of decision:

“I don’t want to make somebody uncomfortable by being frank,” he says. “But you’re trying to find as much transparency as you can. It’s an interesting combination to be as open as you can and as loose as you can, but you must make decisions as fast as possible. You keep the decisions transparent, and that allows you to correct them, because nobody figures this stuff out in one shot. My theory is iteration: You go, you talk, you act, and you check back on how did it work. You adjust course as you go, and it turns out that’s the fastest way to move. So you’re always moving and you’re always deciding and you’re always getting new information. You can actually provoke information by doing things that you can’t figure out if you just sit there thinking.”

Bewkes’s idea of constant decisions and constant feedback meshes well with the concept of O.O.D.A.

Levels of the Game.

30 January 2006

Roger Federer’s crushing win in the Australian Open reminds me of the best tennis book I’ve ever read, Levels of the Game. That 1969 book profiles tennis pros Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner using the lens of a big match between them at the U.S. Open. The point of the title is that tennis is a game of levels, such that duffers can’t beat good club players, good club players can’t beat their own club pro, that club pro can’t beat a low-ranked touring player, and so on. While Marcos Baghdatis showed how an inspired player can perform over his head for a week—or, who knows, even make a real shift to a new level of performance—he also showed that, as of today in the world of men’s tennis, there is the level on which Federer plays and then there are other, lower levels where everyone else plays.

I am in the business of making judgments and giving advice. As a teaching assistant, I do this in a formal way, by grading undergraduates’ papers and answering questions during office hours. With my friends and coworkers, I carry out the same function informally. Whether my advice is much good, I can’t say, but I do seem to be wired to (try to) help. So if some of my posts here sound like advice columns, I come by it honestly.

In my other roles, however, I’m often the one in need of advice. As a doctoral student, I’m on the lower rungs of the academic profession; the same is true in my business career. People compliment my writing, but I’m still in the category of Those Who Haven’t Written a Book; people say I could make a great professor someday, but I’m still in the category of Those Who Don’t Have a Ph.D. Writing a book or earning a Ph.D. aren’t the be-all and end-all of anything, but until I do them, I playing at a lower level of the game than those who have done them.

Weak undergraduates can take guidance from better undergraduates. The better undergraduates can take advice from even novice graduate students. Some novice grad students in my department take advice from me, because I want to help and because I’ve been around the block. I seek out advice from advanced graduate students and from any faculty member, no matter how junior. Junior faculty look to senior faculty for guidance. Senior faculty, even if they don’t ask for advice, still have to look up to the stars of their field. Understanding my place in this chain keeps me humble. Sometimes I have to scold an undergrad who won’t hand in work on time, or who didn’t study for the midterm; at other times, I’m the one who deserves scolding from my betters.

It is also humbling to watch someone as good as Federer perform in his own sphere. We can predict that his tennis career will be over a lot sooner than my writing career, but for now, even though he’s a decade younger than I am, he’s better at tennis than I’ve ever been at anything. The point isn’t to berate myself for being “behind,” but rather to use high performers like Federer or the stars in my own fields as inspiration to do better today and tomorrow than I did yesterday and the day before. (See, now I’m giving myself advice. I spread it around liberally.) If I can mimic Federer’s “uncanny ability to block out distractions,” so much the better.

Any competitive field will have levels to its game. If we have our heads on straight, we can regard these levels not as barriers to upward progress, but as goals to be pursued. Even with all his success, Federer is only halfway to the total of Grand Slams won by Pete Sampras, and beyond that there are still other levels to be attained. Upon reaching the top of the field, there is the challenge of staying there — and then there is the greater challenge of competing with the legacy of the best of all time.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I’m a long way from being called the Rod Laver of anything. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to go work on my game.

Presentations: At all costs, never be dull.

29 January 2006

There is no excuse for a dull presentation. This is true despite the prevalent use of PowerPoint in corporate and academic settings, and despite the inherent flaws in the cognitive style of PowerPoint. Here are some examples of what a good PowerPoint presentation can be.

Lawrence Lessig on copyright. (Augmented by this interview with Cliff Atkinson.)
Dick Hardt on secure identity software.
–A summary on Masayoshi Takahashi’s compelling presentation method.
–A summary of Tom Peters on “Presentation Excellence”.

As the last two references will suggest, Garr Reynolds’s blog is excellent for those in the business of making presentations. Cliff Atkinson also has a helpful Web site on presentations, and his accompanying book is useful.

When in doubt: Read more Tufte.

Commonplace: Chesterfield

29 January 2006

“I recommend you to take care of the minutes: for hours will take care of themselves.”

Categories of One

29 January 2006

Several of the people I’ve mentioned here belong in what I call “categories of one”: there is only one Richard Branson for example, and only one David Bowie—to pick two Englishmen of the same generation. It’s not merely that these men have not been successfully copied; they can not be copied. John Creasey, John Darnielle, Mike Leach, and John Boyd—each of them is, in some key way, uncopyable.

Actually, you could say that this commonality does puts them into one collective category. The point is that each of these people have the same basis for being amazing: differentation. It is a fundamental principle of entrepreneurship, and it leads to the most interesting careers.

Everyone talks about being “unique,” and surely each of us is unique in terms of our fingerprints, our ineffable experience of life, and so on. But the truth is that most people are not functionally unique. In fact, they’re quite easy to categorize: “salesman who’s into sports and his family”; “sad sack who can’t get a date despite his obvious attractive qualities”; “status-conscious SuperMom”; “silverback executive who insists on deference from others”; “mopy grad student”; “good-time girl”; or what have you. It’s not that these people lack the basis for doing some unique and individual, but that they do not, in practice, seize upon (or make) their opportunities to do so. The roots of this are probably various, but for many people it comes down to fear and discomfort when setting out on their own; it remains, for most people, much more comfortable to pursue the tried-and-true.

Most people pursue their careers this way, which helps to explain why so many people find their work boring and the progression of their careers so unsatisfying. The category-of-one folks, though, are pulled too strongly by their own unique vision, or their thirst to work out their internal tensions, to settle for less than an idiosyncratic path through their life and work. Mike Leach warmed the bench on his high school football team and took a highly unusual path to being a collegiate head coach. His greatest qualification for holding his job is an obsessive internal genius for the workings of football offense. Likewise, fighter pilots typically don’t promulgate important theories of military doctrine with profound applications for business strategies; that’s why John Boyd was John Boyd.

Lately I’ve seen a couple of interesting quotations in this vein. The first one, which I cannot find verbatim, is from Shaquille, who said, in essence, that you don’t want to work merely to be the best at what you do; rather, you want to carve out a spot for yourself so that you’re the only one who does what you do. He was, in other words, essentially paraphrasing Jerry Garcia, who said, “You do not merely want to be the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.” A good description of the Grateful Dead, to be sure.

This concept—being the only one who does what you do—has featured prominently in the systematic research done by Jim Collins. In his book Good to Great (which really does deserve its hype and monster sales), he puts forward what he calls the Hedgehog Concept. It is named after the distinction drawn by Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” In this extended metaphor, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. As he explains on his Web site, Collins believes that each company must identify that thing which it and it alone can do better than any other company in the world. All of the companies that made the transition from good to great in Collins’s study shared this trait, despite coming from a range of industries.

Shaquille and Jerry and Jim are all saying the same thing, which makes sense because what is true for great companies is also true for great rock bands and for outstanding individual performers, in sports or elsewhere. But again, we’re not taught to think of our lives this way. We are taught, by and large, to minimize our risks—the risk of bankruptcy, the risk of being unemployable, the risk of being too different for the audience to grasp. At some level, this is pragmatic as a lowest-common-denominator strategy, since many people do lack the talent or the mindset to pursue this course—they actually are better off sticking with the tried-and-true.

But does this apply to most people? And more to the point, does it apply to you? I doubt it. Most people, if they will try, can carve out a niche for themselves, even if they only ever become “famous” within the confines of their own company, their own department, their own church, or whatever. Moreover, I believe that most people want this; they want to be known for some little thing, at least, that sets them apart from the mainstream, even if only in the safest of psychological contexts.

One of my favorite category-of-one types, someone I have taken as an inspiration, is Keith Ferrazzi. The short version of Ferrazzi’s career is that he’s the son of a working-class family who used his chutzpah, smarts, and hard work to become one of the greatest connectors in the business world. I could tell you more about him, but I would only be cribbing from this terrific Tahl Raz article in Inc. magazine. Raz went on to collaborate with Ferrazzi on a book, Never Eat Alone. The book is well worth your time if you want to mark the business world with your own imprint—an imprint arising from your own personality and unique qualities. (If you want to read more, Ferrazzi also keeps a blog and writes columns.)

Ferrazzi understands that people get ahead in business not by being like everybody else, but by being themselves, by channeling their own uncopyable attributes into creating value for others. In my experiences, this applies just as well in academics as in private enterprise. We see it in the meteoric rise of one-of-a-kind scholars like Niall Ferguson, who use their talents, hard work, and uncopyable perspectives to win success at the same time that so many would-be scholars meander through graduate school, do all of their work in the vein of others who have gone before them, and then face the brutal academic job market with little more than bewilderment.

Your career is like a business—in fact, it is the business you carry out in the world—so why would the same rules that apply to Jim Collins’s great companies not apply to you? And why wouldn’t the same commitment to uniqueness that animated the Grateful Dead apply to you? It comes back to differentation: you do have a unique set of attributes, for better (if you’re smart about using them) or for worse (if you let your weaknesses hold you back). Do what I try every day to do: Find your own personal Hedgehog Concept. Commit yourself to following it, then reap the rewards from being yourself. If nothing else, your life will stand the chance of being as interesting as Shaquille O’Neal’s, Keith Ferrazzi’s, or Jerry Garcia’s. It’s a chance well worth taking.