Creativity, Distractability and Structured vs. Unstructured Procrastination

I have been practicing structured procrastination while allowing a few blog posts to, uh, ferment a bit longer (not to mention other things I want to get done). As evidence, after reading Jonah Lehrer's recent post about unstructured procrastination - Are Distractable People More Creative? - I feel inclined to write about that, rather than finish the other partially composed posts ... not to mention other important items on my todo list. But I'll postpone writing about unstructured procrastination until I write a bit about structured procrastination.

Several years ago, I encountered Stanford Philosophy Professor John Perry's inspiring account of structured procrastination, which offers a more elaborate and erudite rationalization of a practice that I'd previously justified by way of British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell's famous quote:

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

image from Perry defines structured procrastination as a practice in which one chooses to postpone working on the most important thing(s) one needs to do by working on other, less important, things. He finds that he can be tremendously productive by this dynamic prioritization, getting all kinds of things done while avoiding the thing(s) he thinks he should really be doing.

I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time. All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

Drive-DanielPink Gtdcover Although Perry doesn't describe it this way, having read and written about Dan Pink's book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (in the same post - ironically in this context - that I also wrote about David Allen's book, Getting Things Done ... which I still haven't read), I believe that Perry's practice of structured procrastination may be an unconscious prioritization of intrinsically motivating tasks over extrinsically motivated tasks: choosing to do things he wants to do, such as writing the essay, while postponing other tasks that others want him to do, such as grading papers or ordering textbooks. And as Pink points out, through his review of several studies, intrinsic motivations typically win out over extrinsic motivations. [Note that I do not mean to imply that Pink promotes or even condones structured procrastination; I'm quite sure Allen would not.]

Returning to Lehrer's rumination on the costs and benefits of distraction, he defines latent inhibition - the capacity to ignore stimuli that seem irrelevant - and cites a 2003 study showing that decreased latent inhibition is associated with increased creative achievement in high-functioning individuals, i.e., people who are more distractable may also be more creative. However, he points out that the study includes the important caveat that "low latent inhibition only leads to increased creativity when it’s paired with a willingness to analyze our excess of thoughts, to constantly search for the signal amid the noise" [and I'll note that one of my fermenting posts is all about signal vs noise]. Having recently been inspired by Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College, I'm glad he is not promoting distractability ... or, at least, not promoting unrestricted or unstructured distracability.

I would define distractability as a form of unstructured procrastination. Whereas structured procrastination is working on - or attending to - things that are important, but not the most important things, unstructured procrastination may involve attending to things that are not important at all (i.e., completely irrevelevant). Indeed, this blog post itself may be more of an example of unstructured rather than structured procrastination ... but I'm going to postpone further consideration of that train of thought ... and having indulged my impulse to fire off a quick blog post, I will turn my attention back to other, potentially more important, tasks.

Questioning Questioning: The Performative and Informative Aspects of Public Inquiry

Joeatchi2007a Joeatchi2007b During the CHI 2007 conference last week, I asked a number of questions after a number of presentations during a number of sessions (two examples of which are shown in the photos on the left from Marc Davis' Flickr stream). I usually find it very challenging to muster the gumption to walk up to the microphone stand and ask questions. There are many sources of the resistance I feel: I'm afraid of revealing my ignorance, of potentially exposing a blind spot on the part of the presenters, of judging others, of being judged by others (as judging others) -- the fear of judgment is central to my hesitation. I get nervous each time I approach the microphone stand, and sometimes I think my voice betrays my unease.

Nonetheless, over the past few months, I've been moving out of my comfort zone at each of the conferences I've attended and asking more questions (earlier examples being UbiComp 2006 and CSCW 2006, and to a lesser extent -- due to my unfamiliarity with the conference -- ETech 2007). Part of my motivation is simply to practice more gumption (feel the fear and ask anyway) -- I nearly always have questions at the end of any talk, as I imagine most people do, yet I usually feel "too small" (or feel that my question is "too small" (or both)) to articulate the question publicly. In my last post, I noted that one of the gifts I received at CHI was people telling me they read my blog (and perhaps this helped embolden me to ask questions). Another gift was people telling me after some of the sessions that they, too, had been wondering about the same issues I raised questions about (and an additional gift was someone noting that I seemed to be unnecessarily apologetic in my phrasing of questions, as though I was unduly concerned with offending the questionee).

Now, in addition to this informative aspect of learning more about the work presented during the conference, I will admit that part of my motivation was performative. Each time I introduced myself before asking the question -- "Joe McCarthy, Nokia Research Center Palo Alto" -- it may have helped increase awareness among attendees that we (Nokia) have a new research lab in Silicon Valley. This was not a primary motivation (or at least not a conscious primary motivation), but it may have provided a tipping point for me. Toward the end, I was feeling somewhat self-conscious about the number of questions I was asking (fearing that some may have perceived me as grandstanding ... and remembering the judgments I had about Simon, an attendee at CHI 2000 who asked the first question after every single talk he attended), but I was genuinely more interested in the informative aspects than the performative aspects, and so decided to press on.

Asid_a_sm Asid_b_sm There was certainly a performative aspect to the behavior we witnessed when we deployed the AutoSpeakerID proactive display application at UbiComp 2003. This application showed the name, affiliation and thumbnail image of a person asking a question on a large screen at the front of the room, based on detecting a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag in the person's name badge that was linked to a simple online profile for that person. Our intention was simply to visually augment the common oral practice of introducing oneself before asking a question, and this was the primary effect of this sociotechnical intervention. However, a few people took some liberties with their profiles, including one questioner -- not shown above -- who adopted the digital persona of Ted Kaczynski when asking one question, and the digital persona of Bill Gates when asking another question (actually two different Bill Gates personae during two different questions, but who's counting?). Despite the obvious performative nature of these acts of questioning speakers, the questions -- and answers -- were quite informative ... so perhaps this questioner also believed he was primarily engaged in an informative vs. performative act.

On a separate but related topic, one of the things I've been ruminating on lately is whether bloggers are more likely to post comments on others' blogs than non-bloggers ... or whether people who have posted photos on photo-sharing sites are more likely to comment on photos (than non-photo-posters) ... or whether people who have generated online content in any format are more likely to add content to others' content. My hypothesis is that once someone has revealed or exposed something about his or herself on some kind of social media site, it becomes easier to to risk commenting, favoriting (?), reviewing or otherwise augmenting others' revelations and exposures. I have no quantitative data on this [yet], but I was wondering if this applies to the offline world as well, i.e., people who have presented papers at CHI are more likely to risk publicly asking questions of others who are presenting papers at CHI (for the record, I have never presented a paper at CHI, but have presented papers at UbiComp and CSCW ... but given that CHI 2008 is in Florence, Italy, I'm hoping to join the initiated!).

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivations: Doing the Right Things for the Right Reasons

I was recently talking with a friend about the contrast between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and offered to send him an email with some of the inspiring things I've been reading about this topic lately. Having just blogged about mutual inspiration, and how blogging provides a channel for telling the stories we make up about our selves (which may serve to inspire others to post comments or post their own blog entries -- perhaps with trackbacks -- in which they tell the stories they make up about themselves), I decided to post this annotated list here on my blog ... and I'll send him a link via email, because I know he doesn't read my blog (although he also isn't too attentive to email, either ... I may have to call him).

WealthOfNetworks Synchronistically, Yochai Benkler has some interesting insights to share on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations in his book, The Wealth of Networks (which was another major theme in my last post), in a section on Motivation in Chapter 3, The Economics of Social Production, including some definitions of these terms:

Extrinsic motivations are imposed on individuals from the outside.

They take the form of either offers of money for, or prices imposed on, behavior, or threats of punishment or reward from a manager or a judge for complying with, or failing to comply with, specifically prescribed behavior.

Intrinsic motivations are reasons for action that come from within the person, such as pleasure or personal satisfaction.

He then goes on to note the tension between these:

Extrinsic motivations are said to "crowd out" intrinsic motivations because they (a) impair self-determination - that is, people feel pressured by an external force, and therefore feel overjustified in maintaining their intrinsic motivation rather than complying with the will of the source of the extrinsic reward; or (b) impair self-esteem - they cause individuals to feel that their internal motivation is rejected, not valued, and as a result, their self-esteem is diminished, causing them to reduce effort.

The first aspect evokes an image of "circle the wagons": a defensive reaction to the perception of external threats, in which people cling all the more tightly to what they consider precious (in the physical, intellectual, emotional or spiritual realms) when they believe it may be taken away. I know that I have all kinds of attachments: being a packrat (not wanting to throw things away, just in case I may need them in the future), caring for and feeding all my pet theories, enjoying a good bout of righteous indignation from time to time, and believing that I have a purpose (or Goal) in life. I'm not sure how externally driven these attachments are, but I certainly agree that all of these attachments impair my ability to choose my thoughts, feelings and actions wisely.

The second aspect, impairment of self-esteem, is at or very close to the core of all of my defects of character. My desire to please others often overrides my desire to please my self, and the threat of rejection, or anything that may create an opportunity for me to feel un[der]valued, is, I'm embarrassed to say, one of my biggest fears. Fortunately, much of the time, I find that what others want and what I want are closely aligned ... but in typing this, I'm wondering whether this alignment is due to internal or external considerations (do I simply change what I want to align better with what others want ... or do others, who may also suffer impairments of self-esteem, adjust what they want to what [they think] I want?).

LivingWithoutAGoal-200x300 James Ogilvy also has insights to share about motivations, in a book I read and blogged about recently (Living Without A Goal: Finding the Freedom to Live a Creative and Innovative Life). He encourages us to indulge in extravagance, wild exuberance, luxurious squandering and profligate consumption as we artfully create our selves ... without much (or perhaps any?) regard for extrinsic factors. Just as art and beauty are ends in themselves, if my life is a work of art, then I ought to apply the same kind of aesthetic principles in its creation. As information, experiences and other intangible aspects of life become more prominent, he suggests that "the old possessiveness may be the greatest enemy of the new wealth". [Interestingly, Ogilvy raises a number of the same issues Benkler explores in his book (which was published 10 years later), e.g., noting that "information is inherently sacrificial" ... but I digress]

TheFourAgreements Don Miguel Ruiz, whose book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom has also been the subject of several previous blog posts, also addresses the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. In the process of domesticating our selves (and our children), "we keep doing what others want us to do in order to get the reward ... we start pretending to be what we are not, just to please others, just to be good enough for someone else ... Eventually we become someone we are not". [Thus], in describing his fourth agreement ("always do your best"), he says that "doing your best is taking the action because you love it, not because you're expecting a reward ... if you take action just for the sake of doing it, without expecting a reward, you will find that you enjoy every action you do".

TheDance In her book, The Dance: Moving to the Rhythms of Your True Self, Oriah Mountain Dreamer - another author whose work I've blogged about several times in the past - writes that "Money is always a stand-in for something else, often a convenient stand-in ... each of us has our own fears about our worthiness, our own fear that we will not be enough" and asks "What would you do if you knew you were enough just as you are today ... how would that trust affect your choices about how to take care of business, how to get and spend your money?"

FiniteAndInfiniteGames-original James Carse's book "Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility" (also a [sub]theme of several previous blog posts) is, essentially, all about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. As he notes early on, "finite games are externally defined, infinite games are internally defined" and goes on to reveal new perspectives (for me) on titles, names, power, property, society, culture and sexuality. When we are driven by extrinsic motivations -- or try to drive others through extrinsic motivations -- we (and/or they) become, in effect, machines ... and it doesn't matter who is driving, because "to use the machine for control is to be controlled by the machine ... we not only operate with each other like machines, we operate each other like machines" ... and war is the ultimate machine ... but I don't want to go down that path (here or now).

Lightening up [a bit] and returning to Benkler's book, he describes a number of theoretical and empirical studies exploring the economic, social and psychological dimensions of motivation, and the way these dimensions sometimes conflict.  My favorite example is his [presumably] hypothetical scenario of leaving a fifty-dollar check on the table after being invited to dinner at a friend's house, and how this injection of economics may have negative repercussions on the social and psychological aspects of the relationship. He then notes

[W]ell-adjusted, healthy individuals are rarely monolithic in their requirements. ... We spend some of our time making money, some of our time enjoying it hedonically; some of our time being with and helping family, friends, and neighbors; some of our time creatively expressing ourselves, exploring who we are and what we would like to become.

So, maybe it's OK, after all, to be extrinsically motivated some of the time ... er, which as I write this, I realize I've written about this notion before, twice ... perhaps more than twice ... another self-reminder that lessons are repeated as often as necessary ... and I'm still not sure I get it ... and so I'll probably keep blogging about it from time to time.

Self-Reflection vs. Self-Expression

How does technology’s facilitation of self-expression, instant communication and constant connectivity affect our inclination and ability to think for ourselves, assume personal responsibility and unite for social action? Sherry Turkle explores these and other questions in an interview with Liz Else published in a September 2006 New Scientist article entitled "Living Online: I'll Have to Ask My Friends" ([also] available online here), republished in the current issue of Utne Reader as “Our Blackberries, Ourselves” (where I read it), and not to be confused with, but very much in alignment with, "Our Cell Phones, Ourselves" by Christine Rosen, published in the Summer 2004 issue of The New Atlantis.

According to Turkle, the increasing prevalence of talk culture, wherein "people share the feeling to see if they have the feeling", comes at the expense of introspection and probing more deeply into complex thoughts and emotions. Questioning society's tendency toward breathless techno-enthusiasm, with the increasing means available to quickly communicate our state, she champions self-reflection: "having an emotion, experiencing it, taking one's time to think it through and understand it, but only sometimes electing to share it."

The first thing that occurred to me upon reading this short, but inspiring, article, was "Wow, I can't wait to blog about this!" ... whereupon I realized that, in my haste to express myself (or what my self had read), I was not taking the time to reflect further upon these ideas.  So I decided to stop, look [within], and listen. And what came up? Well, mostly other stuff I've read.

Stuff like Kathy Sierra's blog post on The Dumbness of Crowds, where, in expressing her reflections on James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, she notes

Art isn't made by committee.

Great design isn't made by consensus.

True wisdom isn't captured from a crowd.

Referring to Surowiecki's talk at eTech 2005, she notes that

According to Surowiecki, even just sharing too much of your own specialized knowledge with others in the group is enough to taint the wisdom and dumb-down the group.

It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work, yet the trendy (and misinterpreted) vision of Web 2.0 is just the opposite--get us all collborating and communicating and conversing all together as one big happy collborating, communicating, conversing thing until our individual differences become superficial.

I suspect that it is, in part, due to the process of self-reflection that these individual differences arise ... although if this individual knowledge is never expressed (through actions, if not through words), then it doesn't do anyone much good.

Reflecting further, I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's distinctions between Mavens (people who know a lot), Connectors (people who know a lot of people), and Salesmen (people who can persuade a lot of people) in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. At first, I was thinking that Connectors and Salesmen tend to veer more toward expression than reflection, whereas Mavens may tend more toward reflection, but a quick review of the book reveals that Gladwell claims that "Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know", so that even they have a pronounced tendency toward self-expression.

I am still reflecting on (and expressing) elements of Living Without A Goal. James Ogilvy also has insights to share on the [precious] self:

The self is a process of reflection, one that lacks a substantial, originary core. ... Hegel put it this way: "Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that, it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or 'recognized'". More simply, there is a certain Tinkerbell effect for self-consciousness. You remember Peter Pan's little sidekick whose life and light threatened to flicker out unless the audience clapped. We're all a little like that.

... self-love must finally spread itself across the social pattern of reflections that constitute the self. When privacy goes public you see the self as a pattern of relations of mutual recognition. The celebration of self becomes a song for the ears of the other, not for the sake of self-aggrandizement but for the benefit of shared acts of artful self-creation.

So, perhaps self-reflection and self-expression are more closely related than Turkle makes them out to be.

For me, anything to do with self, reflection and expression immediately evokes Dan Oestreich, and his Unfolding Leadership Blog, in which every entry has elements of all three. In a recent comment on one of my blog entries (on Work, Liberty and the Pursuit of Pleasure), Dan observed that "the one who waits for you, the one you yearn for is none other than yourSelf", leading me to wonder who or what is this "self" that is reflecting or expressing or yearning? And who or what is the object of its reflection, or the audience for its expression? In his most recent blog entry, Going In, Dan expresses his reflections on "the 'beingless being' at the center of Self", inviting us to "Rest then, at the center, and learn to receive what insight may come."

Ah, receiving! That's what has been missing from all of this. I have often reflected upon (and sometimes expressed) the notion, or perhaps model, of input, processing and output, as applied to the self. If self-reflection is "processing" and self-expression is "output", the dimension of "input" needs to be accounted for. But what suffix can we affix to "self" to express this concept of accepting input? Self-reception? Self-acceptance?  Self-perception? Self-impression? In any case, the issue I raised in my earlier "IPO" model is still a quandary (for me): how does one allocate time and other resources among these three dimensions?

Returning to the interview with Turkle, I often wonder about claims regarding social or cultural trends. Has self-reflection really decreased? How would one measure this phenomenon? I do agree that the mechanisms for self-expression have become more widely available (and used), but it is not at all clear to me that this has come at the expense of self-reflection. Indeed, if Ogilvy is correct in his analysis, the proliferation of platforms for easy self-expression may well be essential for achieving greater levels of self-reflection. As time spent on the Internet overtakes time spent watching TV, and a greater proportion of Internet time is spent creating, not just consuming content, I think we are in a stronger position to achieve a greater sense of responsibility and community (two concerns that Turkle raises).

Perhaps I should think more and write less. But I think that blogging is different than the other socio-technical practices that Turkle is highlighting as mechanisms to "quickly communicate a state" (e.g., instant messaging, "check-in" cell calls and emoticon graphics) at the expense of "open[ing] a dialogue about complexity of feeling". Indeed, writing this blog entry has not been quick, and I'm not sure it communicates any particular state (save, perhaps, for a state of confusion). I find that the practice of blogging, by forcing me to be [more] explicit, helps me gain greater clarity about issues (self-reflection through self-expression?) ... and that through comments and trackbacks occasionally contributed by others, it opens up a dialogue that ultimately helps me achieve a deeper and/or broader understanding.

Continue reading "Self-Reflection vs. Self-Expression" »

Self-Disclosure to the Fifth Degree

Dan Oestreich, one of my favorite bloggers and best friends, has offered the mixed blessing of an invitation to reveal 5 things about myself that you may not know about me. This is challenging, not only because self-disclosure is risky, but I don't know exactly who "you" are (but one of "you" may be my teenage daughter, who commented on my last post, adding another dimension of risk). In any event, I will focus on 5 things I haven't blogged about before (and that I don't believe are widely known).

  1. I was (am?) a picky eater: When I was young (actually, up until the time I went to college), I was extremely particular and regimented about the food I would eat. For the first 18 years of my life, I think the sum total of foods I ate consisted of Cheerios (with sugar, but not milk -- too soggy), bread and butter (not margarine), pancakes, bacon, tunafish sandwiches, hamburgers (catchup only), teriyaki steak (only with Mrs. Laporte's recipe), barbecue chicken (only with my Aunt Kay's recipe), spaghetti with meatballs (only Grandma D's recipe). I suppose there were a few other meats and some vegetables I would occasionally eat -- but no fruit (or nuts). My diet was rather narrow, and my mother (and extended family and friends) were very indulgent. The cafeteria at college was not so indulgent, which helped open me up to new foods ... and there was another development in my junior year that opened me up even more (a topic I'll return to shortly). While I continue to be somewhat predictable in my cooking and eating habits at home (especially breakfast), I have, in my adult years, enjoyed more variety, at least when dining out.
  2. I am a confirmed non-Catholic: I was an altar boy in the Catholic Church for many years, played guitar in the folk mass each week, and my favorite role in make-believe as a young child was a priest (I remember distributing sliced cucumbers during play church ceremonies). My parents were very active in the church (my mother was a lector and extraordinary minister, my father was a lector and an usher, and one or both were on the parish council), and I attended 12 years of Catholic schools. Despite the rather narrow and regimented perspective I had in the domain of food, I was rather inquisitive in other domains, especially with respect to religion and spirituality. As I approached the rite of passage into adulthood in the Catholic Church known as confirmation in 8th grade, I was having more and more questions about Catholicism, and told my mom I wasn't sure I wanted to be confirmed. One of the most memorable moments of my life occurred when she responded "Well, you don't have to get confirmed, but you don't have to live in this house, either." Mom does not remember saying this, and I may have read more into this than she intended. I decided to proceed through all the motions of the confirmation process, but [ironically] from that moment on, no longer considered myself a Catholic ... in fact, I was anti-Catholic for a long time afterward, but am softening a bit over time.
  3. My only "A" in high school was in Personal Typing: 8th grade marked a tipping point for me in a number of respects. Not only did I reject Catholicism, I rejected a number of other elements of my upbringing, including good study habits and a nearly overwhelming desire to please my parents and other authority figures (though, this people-pleasing tendency never really went away, I simply shifted the focus to other people I wanted to please). The solid educational foundation I'd built up during my early years enabled me to still get "B"s  with almost no effort ... except in Religion classes, where my increasingly questioning attitude was not welcomed by most of my teachers, and I even received a "D-" in Religion from Mr. Herzog my sophomore year. The only class I received an "A" in was Personal Typing, a 1-credit course my senior year in which I recorded the highest words-per-minute (WPM) typing speed in the class (and, I think, in any class that year).
  4. My only non-"A" in graduate school was Theory of Computation: I had become a student again by the time I started graduate school (more on that transition in the next item -- it's all related). In college I'd majored in Philosophy, which prepared me for everything and nothing. I took a couple of computer classes my senior year, and found that programming was a straightforward application of the logic and analytical problem solving approach I'd learned in Philosophy. So, I decided to go to graduate school and learn everything I could about computers (and get a credential that might be more instrumental in getting a [better] job). While getting my master's degree at the Hartford campus of RPI, I met and enjoyed a friendly competition with my good friend, Len, where we both ended up with straight "A"s. After spending four years as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Hartford, I returned to school to get a Ph.D., getting "A"s in every class at the University of Massachusetts except one, a Theory of Computation class that I spent close to 40 hours a week working on -- using auxiliary texts, doing all the exercises (not just those assigned), trying to bend my thinking into a trajectory that seemed very foreign to me. In the end, I got an "A-" -- and more importantly, learned enough to get through the comprehensive exam in theory on my first try. I think I'm just not wired for theory -- in any field -- tending to favor practice and experimentation over abstractions.
  5. I met my wife over a [keg of] beer: Something happened in between the rebelliousness of my high school years and my renewed enthusiasm for scholarly pursuits during my graduate studies. The pattern of minimal effort and respectable grades continued through my first two years at Ripon College. Another pattern I haven't mentioned (in this post) is instigation and organization, which, at the beginning of my junior year, was applied to keg parties: I collected enough money and interest in the dorm to hold 5 quarter-barrel (keg) parties in 4 days. In between the 4th and 5th, I was walking across the quads with an empty quarter barrel, when Amy and her friend Sue walked by with Sue's dog Mocha. Amy called out "Every time I see you, you're carrying a quarter barrel!" [Aside: Amy doesn't remember me before this point, but I had admired her from various distances for two years, as our circles of friends had some intersections.]  I shouted back "This one's empty, but I'm going to get another one; why don't you come back and join us?". To my surprise (and delight), she did come back down that night, but soon grew bored with drinking beer and playing stupid bar dice games in a friend's dorm room, and wandered up the hall to look for something more interesting. She found an open room with a guitar, walked in and started playing "Wish You Were Here". I'd noticed she had left, and when she didn't come back for a while, went out to look for her ... and found her in my room, playing a Pink Floyd song on my guitar. She taught me that song and "Needle and the Damage Done" (by Neil Young), and then I played a few songs. She said she had a guitar, too, but the strings were broken. I told her I'd stop by the next day and go with her to get some new ones (she thought "yeah, right"), and she left soon afterward. True to my word, I showed up at her off-campus apartment the next day, and we went down to the local music store, bought some strings, and whipped (or strung) her guitar into shape again. For reasons I don't quite understand (but am forever grateful for), this follow-through somehow set me apart from other guys she'd known and dated, and formed the basis of a relationship that grew, in various ways, shapes and forms over the years. Amy was my first real girlfriend, and introduced me to many "firsts" ... including, for example, my first taste of Chinese food (there were many other dimensions of novelty, but I'll leave it at that for now). My whole perspective changed, and I found myself generally more willing and eager to engage (in activities other than keg parties). I was on the Dean's List for the remaining three semesters of my college career, but of course that's a minor result in the larger scope of things. We've been together now for 25 years, and she still regularly helps me adopt new perspectives (though, at times, I do so rather grudgingly).

All the foregoing seems rather self-indulgent, but, well, Dan's invitation offers a convenient excuse. When I compare my stories to those shared by Dan's other invitees, feelings of inadequacy arise. However, I am willing to let those go, and simply enjoy the opportunity to reflect back on some events in my life that are sometimes in shadow ... and to take the opportunity to invite others to enjoy similar reflections and revelations on their blogs. I'm going to pass the baton to five blogger friends who have been very influential in my own blogging practice, modeling the kind of openness in sharing insights and experiences that I want to adopt in my own blog (and life):

All of these bloggers are far more prolific than me, and so may have to reach a bit further to reveal things they haven't already mentioned on their blogs ... and, of course, they all have plenty to write about without any prompting from me, but I'll extend the invitation anyway.

[Addendum, Christmas Eve morning]

I posted the original entry at SFO while waiting for my weekly flight back home. As soon as I shut the lid on my laptop, I was struck with an immediate and deep pang of remorse and guilt: how could I have possibly omitted Anne Galloway from the list of blogging friends who I most admire (and thus, invited to participate in the spreading of this revelation meme)?  Anne was one of the key people who (largely unbeknownst to her) helped give me the gumption to start Gumption, and is a prominent member of my personal blogging pantheon. There are, of course, other bloggers who inspire me, and one has to draw the line somewhere for a viral meme like this to spread without getting too bogged down at any host site, but I just couldn't let this post sit in its current state.

The original meme guidelines specify revealing 5 new things and inviting 5 new bloggers to participate. I'm going to stretch these a bit, inviting a sixth blogger (Anne), and adding a sixth thing that people may not know about me ... one that is particularly poignant at this moment.

  1. I hate Christmas. Given my aforementioned rejection of Catholicism (and with it, Christianity), the birth of Jesus has no more meaning to me than the birth of other great figures throughout history. The teachings attributed to Jesus -- especially his messages of love, acceptance and non-violence -- are inspiring, and I believe the world would be a better place if more of the people who profess devotion to Christ exercised these attributes more regularly, but I don't see Jesus as somehow standing out so much from a number of other great prophets, to warrant all the hoopla the celebration of his birth brings about in the Christian world every year. Of course, Christmas is about much more than this founding event, but many of its associated non-religious practices -- or perhaps I should say the practices of the religion of capitalism and consumption -- often leave me even colder. Why should we focus so much gift-giving energy during this one time of year? Why not simply get gifts for people if / when we are so moved? Gift-giving seems to be very much a game, and people seem compelled to give gifts (especially if / when they have received them, or expect to receive them). Add to all this the stress of decking the halls and preparing the feasts, and it just leaves me with a feeling of much ado about nothing. I try not to express my grinchly attitude at home (or at others' homes), lest it spoil the fun for those (like my wife and kids) who enjoy this season, but it leaves me feeling more alienated than usual. So, I'll express it here on the blog, in a post devoted to openness, honesty and revelation ... and hope it doesn't spoil the fun for anyone else. Merry Christmas (if you're so inclined)!

Input, Processing, Output (IPO): A Multi-dimensional Balancing Act

I often view life through a computer metaphor, and think about my range of actions in the world as some blend of input, processing, and output.  This is due, no doubt, to previous career chapters in which I was a computer science student and then a computer science teacher ... and then a computer science student again.  A recent post by Kathy Sierra, "A Crash Course in Learning Theory", prompted me to revisit this metaphor on multiple dimensions.


But first a review.  When I was first learning -- and teaching -- introductory computer science (about 20 years ago), we started with a diagram (such as the one above, from, and explained the basic operations and functional units of the computer in terms of input (keyboards and cardreaders), processing (central processing unit, which includes storage) and output (a video display unit or printer).  This "IPO" framework was also useful in learning and teaching introductory programming, where problems can be specified in terms of their input and output, and the challenge is how to design processing steps to transform the former into the latter.

When I start mapping the IPO model onto [other] dimensions of my life, I see that many of my dilemmas come down to choices of how much time and energy to devote to each of these three modalities.  With respect to blogging, how much time do I spend reading other blogs and/or opening up to other sources of inspiration and ideas?  How much time do I spend processing these ideas, mapping them onto my own insights, experiences and goals, or otherwise transforming them in interesting or useful ways?  How much time do I spend composing posts on my own blog, or comments on others' blogs?  The fact that blogging is often a conversation, means that this cycle may repeat within any given thread.

In my business, I face similar challenges with respect to balancing my time and effort.  How much time do I spend seeking out new ideas or opportunities, e.g., new features, new products or services, new customers (in the broadest possible sense of "customer") or new ways of going to market?  How much time do I spend processing those ideas and opportunities, framing or transforming them in ways that make them applicable to my business?  And how much time do I spend expressing these ideas, through writing code, creating marketing literature, or more generally, adding value and/or articulating value propositions?

I don't believe I have any particularly useful insights into how best to allocate efforts in either of these dimensions (or any others), I just try to make good choices on a case-by-case basis, increasingly trusting my intuition to guide me.  This notion of good choices, and prioritizing time and effort, reminds of Stephen R. Covey's book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", wherein he talks about a variation of the IPO model, using the psychological terminology of "stimulus / response":

Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.
In these choices lie our growth and our happiness.

Steven Paglierani provides a nice visual diagram (and associated commentary) to capture this:


Here's to freedom, power, growth and happiness!

[Update, 2006-01-29: Dan Oestreich recently shared some whole-hearted reflections on the importance of providing enough time and space for input or stimulus: slowing down, and being more open to inspiration, before rushing to process and generate output.  Dan wrote that post before I wrote this one, and although I regularly read Dan's blog, I had not checked in for a while, and so I was not able to take advantage of processing Dan's input before generating my output ... providing yet another example of the delicate balance of input, processing and output in the blogosphere ... and of my ongoing willingness to wakefully make mistakes :-) ].

Practicing What I Preach, and Preaching What I Want to Practice

Inspired by Dan's recent comment involving paradox, teaching what we most need to learn, and mobius strips, I recognize that while I strive to practice what I preach, I believe that I more consistently preach what I want to practice.  I am increasingly aware that other people are mirrors for me -- when I react to things that others do or say (or don't do or don't say), it is because the actions or words have triggered something in my own history or psyche, and so anything I do or say in response is simply a mechanism for me to work out some of my own stuff surrounding the issue(s).  One of the many gifts of blogging is that by writing out what amount to sermons to myself, and making them public, it helps me to reinforce my intention to act in accordance with my espoused views.  And sometimes, as Dan and others have demonstrated through their comments, I receive additional gifts as well :-).

I decided to seize the inspiration from Dan's comment, transform it from thoughts to actions -- and from bits to atoms (via paper, marker, scissors and tape) -- and herewith translate the effects from atoms back to bits again:


Thanks, Dan!

Acceptance, Striving and [In[ter]]dependence

On New Year's Eve, I had an existential conversation of significant depth and breadth with a number of friends in our old 'hood in Libertyville on the tension between accepting ourselves as we are and striving to be better, and between pleasing ourselves vs. pleasing others.  I have been struggling with these dilemmas -- consciously, and probably unconsciously -- for as long as I can remember, and so I thought I'd engage in some blogotherapy -- composing my thoughts, making them public, and opening up to the collective wisdom of the blogosphere.

The conversation started out with a number of very attractive 40-something women discussing cosmetic surgery.  I interjected my negative judgments about cosmetic surgery, suggesting that the people contemplating various procedures simply accept themselves exactly as they are ... while acknowledging that this is something I rarely do myself.  A couple of the women expressed a desire to receive compliments from others on their appearance (e.g., "you look great for 43"), and often feeling inferior when they compare themselves to other women.  I then voiced my opinion that the root of much evil is people valuing others' opinions more than their own ... and acknowledged that I often fall into this trap myself.

One of the women asked me whether I strive to better myself in any way, and I said that I am continually striving for improvement in many dimensions of my life.  She then asked whether I set my goals and measure my improvement based solely on internal metrics and motivations, or whether I look externally for comparison points and inspiration.  I admitted that I often compare myself to others, but that I view this as a bug, not a feature ... but I do view the inspiration I receive from others as a Good Thing.  She then asked whether my motivation for improvement involved any consideration of others or whether it was entirely an internal matter, and I told her that I wanted to make the world a better place for my self and others.  So, she then asked what was wrong with a woman wanting to improve her physical appearance, especially if it served not only to look better for others but also to feel better about herself.  I did not have a good answer. 

The party started breaking up -- we had another New Year's party to go to -- but I kept ruminating on these issues.  I rarely pay much attention to my own physical appearance, but am always eager to learn more, so I started applying some of these questions to intelligence -- is there anything wrong with wanting to take steps to become more intelligent?  Is it OK to take intelligence-enhancing drugs?  Is it OK to undergo intelligence-enhancing surgery?  Is it OK to use intelligence-enhancing props?

I continued thinking along this vein, wondering whether anything I do is ever solely for myself (independent) or solely for others ([co]dependent?) or whether everything I do is motivated by some blending of consideration of my self and others (interdependent).  This reminds me of another thread in the earlier conversation (relating to dependence), on the topic of artists -- I argued that the greatest artists are those that defy convention, doing or making things that many may consider unacceptable.  The question arose of whether any artist can create something without reference to any other piece of art, and whether any artist can truly ignore the reviews of critics ... and whether a piece of art that is never accepted or valued by anyone is still, somehow, worthy. 

What if everyone truly marched to his or her own tune, without any regard for anyone else?  This seems almost as dangerous as everyone marching to the tune of a single drummer (totatlitarianism).  So I suspect, as is so often the case, that some sort of middle ground or balance offers the greatest good for the greatest number ... but is such compromise a Good Thing?

I'm left with a sharper realization of these paradoxes -- I want to accept myself exactly as I am and I want to continuously improve myself ... and I want to please myself and I want to please others -- but I am no closer to resolving the conflict I often feel between the respective horns of these dilemmas.

Anyhow, speaking of acceptance, striving and interdependence, I've made some changes to the design of this blog.  I decided to change the color of the banner to a bolder color, to better reflect the boldness (or gumption) I want to develop and embrace.  I added a bunch of new TypeLists, most notably a blogroll, to better acknowledge the sources of inspiration I have encountered in the blogosphere.  I considered many other changes, especially with respect to adding more entries to the blogroll, but I decided to stop, accept the current configuration, and hope that other bloggers I read or have read will not be displeased that I have not [yet] added them.

As this is my first post of the new year, I want to express my best wishes to any and all that you live well and prosper in 2006!

[Update, 12-Jan-2006: I just discovered a relevant quote by Michael Korda in a bio sketch for Kevin Hawkins: "To succeed it is necessary to accept the world as it is and rise above it."]

[Update, 28-Apr-2006: BoingBoing referenced a conference on Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights, which will address some of the issues mentioned in this post.]

[Update, 6-May-2006: Metamanda points to some fascinating and relevant commentary and photos, A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose, in which the authors highlight the differences between the ways men and women see and are seen, drawing heavily on John Berger's Ways of Seeing, in which he noted, "Men 'act' and women 'appear.' Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."]