Archive for April, 2006

A new long-term blog home.

22 April 2006

Dear readers — I have moved my blog to my new Web site, which is intended to be permanent. Please be so kind as to follow this link

to find it. The new setup should make my life easier, and allow me to do more interesting things with other parts of the site, including the woefully underdone front page.


Limit your exposure to anger and unhappiness.

21 April 2006

As she so often does, Kathy Sierra opens up all kinds of interesting avenues of thought with this great post:

Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain

It makes sense that, if you're around musicians all the time, you'll talk more about music, possibly play more music, meet even more musicians, and so on. Between themselves, doctors talk way more than the average person about medicine, therapies, issues of medical policy, and so on. Angry or unhappy people talk about what makes them angry; they express their dissatisfaction with everything; they attempt to share their frustrations; they want you to join them in anger or unhappiness — or they just try to inflict their anger and unhappiness on you.

Sometimes these people are unavoidable — when we're related to them, for example. But in most cases we have the ability to avoid people like this, and I argue that we should. Personally, I have too many important, positive things to contribute to the world to give my limited resources to other people's anger, especially when it may cultivate anger in me as well.

I would go a step further to say that we owe it to ourselves to avoid angry or unhappy situations or places when we can. If you work in an unhappy workplace, get out as soon as you can. They don't deserve you. Or, if you're in charge, see to it that you make it a less unhappy place, starting now. There's no sense in propagating anger; the world has enough problems without you and me adding to the load.

Get Talmudic.

15 April 2006

I’ve read plenty of advice over the years that suggests specialization as a key way to get ahead in one’s career. Since I’m an intellectual magpie with an attention span approaching nil, I have resisted this advice; while I still preach the virtue of broad learning and broad exposure to many parts of human experience, more and more I grasp the advantage of diving deep.

The issue isn’t whether you can handle more than one subject — many smart people can, and indeed you see gifted folks who excel in more than one area. The example that springs to mind is David Halberstam, who would be known primarily as one of our most intelligent commentators on sports if he weren’t already known as one of our most intelligent explainers of recent history and policy. And then you’ve got the multi-talents like Bill Buckley or Bill Bradley, who may simply not be the best models to follow. Not everybody gets to be Willie Mays.

But even the men I’ve mentioned have allowed themselves to get “Talmudic” in something. Halberstam is a reporter deluxe — endlessly interviewing and drafting in support of his books. Buckley is a controversialist deluxe, and he immerses himself in public policy and the like to make his points. Bradley spent many years obsessively (happily) immersing himself in basketball, and then many more doing the same for things like tax policy.

The point is that each of them found his own piece of ground and proceeded to explore it, scout it, stake it out, sleep on it, dig around in it, climb the trees on it, wallow in it. Warren Buffett does the same when he follows his obsession — finding value in companies. Oprah Winfrey does the same when she explains the world to her audience. Richard Feynman did the same when he cracked some of the great secrets of the physical world. Joseph DeRisi does the same thing cracking open viruses at his UCSF lab. Mozart, music. Et cetera.

In my own lifetime I have been Talmudic about baseball scores, comic books, and a few other things. Mostly I let myself do this when I was a kid, or say up through the college level (that’s when my baseball obsession was at its peak). It makes your mind better, I think, to wallow in a subject like that. But despite my constant engagement with interesting ideas from business, history, and policy, I haven’t yet wallowed in a field during my professional career.

Bear with me here, because I’m figuring this out as I go. As I think through it, I realize that it’s been years since I’ve let myself dive that deep into anything. I write a lot, but not with that level of obsession. I read a lot, but not with that kind of intent.

This led me to dig up a quote about Bill Belicheck, the subject of a recent Halberstam book and by any measure the best coach in the NFL right now.

“Perhaps his most unheralded virtue, but one that explains plenty to me, is his innate curiosity,” Ingraham wrote in an e-mail message. “Bill wants to know what makes things tick, and when applied to his passion for football, this extends to every facet of the game: ‘What makes this blitz work? How do you counter this blitz? How can you disguise this blitz? How can we vary this blitz? Who can I call tonight to talk blitzes with?’

“You get the picture,” Ingraham added. “No stone goes unturned because his curiosity drives him to learn everything he can, which he then absorbs, thinks about, mixes into the boiling pot with the other ingredients and ultimately prepares to dish out on some poor unsuspecting sap. It’s been said that he’s not Mr. X’s and O’s, but rather Mr. A to Z, the complete package. I believe that his curiosity has been the catalyst in bringing all this together. Not unlike some other accomplished gents throughout history!” (NYTimes, George Vecsey, January 30, 2005)

(Thanks to NOSE.)

That’s the kind of “Talmudic” immersion I’m talking about.

End-of-life goals.

13 April 2006

I heard something on KUT today about Doug's House, a hospice for people with AIDS. The folks who run the hospice help the residents with various things, whether it's bathing, cooking meals, or what have you. They also help residents to achieve "end-of-life goals" — the things these AIDS patients want to do before they check out.

By no means would I compare my everyday — ridiculously healthy — existence with that of a late-stage AIDS patient. But the truth is that we are all terminal patients. The radio piece got me thinking about what my own end-of-life goals are.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine that you are diagnosed with an incurable disease that will have no ill effects on you until 30 months from today — but that on that day it will kill you. You have a zero percent chance of survival on 901st day from today, but you'll enjoy rude health until then.

What would you do with yourself?

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
—Mary Oliver

Warren Buffett sits and thinks.

13 April 2006

Ponder this interview from

Why can't you pay attention anymore?

Read the whole thing (and this post from 43 Folders that pointed me to it), but here's the quote that inspired the heading for this post:

Organizations are sacrificing their most valuable asset, namely the imagination and creativity of the brains they employ, by allowing ADT [attention deficit trait] to infest the organization. It's not that hard to deal with, once you identify it. You need to set limits and preserve time to think. Warren Buffett sits in a little office in the middle of nowhere and spends a lot of his time just thinking. And we are not giving ourselves that opportunity.

Warren Buffett sits in a room and thinks. John Tukey sat and thought. Isaac Newton sat and thought.

Even someone as scatterbrained and distracted as me can notice a trend here.

Join me, won't you, in committing to more sitting and thinking, and less of the ADT behavior that plagues so many knowledge workers today. Knowledge loses value when we do not spare the time to digest it.

Good book: Taming American Power

12 April 2006

Stephen Walt of Harvard offers an eminently clear-headed view of U.S. foreign policy, where it's going wrong, and what would work better. In non-polemical language, he shows how the Bush administration's policy of hegemony cannot work, and how in the long run (and often in the short run, too) making friends works better than flexing muscles. How the current administration could ever embrace his ideas, I don't know, but the book is sober, extraordinarily clear, and well worth reading.

Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy

Fail earlier and more often.

10 April 2006

As he so often does, Seth Godin nails it with this post: Trial and Error.

People mistakenly believe that one way to successfully avoid error is to avoid trial.

We need more trial.

Here's two more good items on failing more and sooner to achieve greater success:

And a favorite quotation from Winston Churchill:

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

When in doubt, fail more. 

Commonplace: Said

9 April 2006

“Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or another approved enemy.”

—Edward Said

What’s your default setting?

5 April 2006

People I work with sometimes shake their heads when they figure out the number of different things I do: salaried business writer, full-time Ph.D. student in history, teaching assistant for my department, sometime freelancer, and, help us all, blogger. Seems like a lot, and on days when I feel like I'm being crushed under a pile of rubble, I'm prone to agree with them.

But I'm much less impressed with my output than others are, simply because I see all of my laziness and all the missed opportunities lying around me like wrapping paper on Christmas morning. I guess I do a lot, but not in comparison to my wishes or hopes — and not in comparison to all I would need to do to really kick butt in each of the activities I pursue. My performance, in other words, underwhelms me.

But at a superficial level, yeah it's a lot of things, a lot of activity. (Too many things, truth be told.) I think it seems like more than it is because so many people shuffle through their work, and then maybe they have one hobby or creative outlet — they write stories, or they build cabinets, or they play in a band, or whatever. Living in Austin, I know a lot of creative types who have something going on the side. Plenty of these people, though, also watch t.v. and otherwise spend part of their time passively. For better or worse, I replace most of this passive time with more activity. I'm not sure why I do it, and sometimes the non-stop-ness of it drives me crazy, but my default setting seems to be "go". I have a hard time watching a television program.

Sometimes — way too often — the actions I take aren't particularly fruitful in terms of fulfilling my career dreams.  I spend too much time jotting notes for projects that never come to pass, or researching things that just aren't that important.  Sometimes I fool myself with superficial action that doesn't get at my deeper plans.  But I'm always moving.

What's your default setting?