From a note I just wrote. Pretty much sums it up:
I think that Silicon Valley is quickly becoming yesterday. The things I’ve seen in China this week, even having been here 54 times before, blew my mind.
The future of innovation is in the Harbins, Chongqings, Nanjings, and, still, Beijings of the world.
The Cloud is the new black.
The History of Startups
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”
The words of Allen Ginsberg, bemoaning the “lost battalion of platonic conversationalists,” those “who faded out in vast sordid movies, were shifted in dreams, woke on a sudden Manhattan, and picked themselves up out of basements hung- over with heartless Tokay and horrors of Third Avenue iron dreams & stumbled to unemployment offices.”
This was his lost generation and ours. We leapt into a millenium and sacrificed the millenials. We let the best minds perish on the vine of a superhighway to nowhere and we let the light of the future be eclipsed by an avarice-fuelled madness of truly epic breadth and depth. We lost the thread.
Then we cut a trail to somewhere without any sense of what it might look like, aside from a vague idea that we needed to create what could get us to the finite and tangible and wasn’t anchored in and to the past.
We re-imagined imagining and created re-creation.
We built and tore it apart and rebuilt again and rinsed, repeated.
We ran from something, to some thing, away from somethings.
The following is an unabridged history of beautiful and useful things that have been made by people unwilling or unable to deal with risk and start the start:
I’m writing this in the middle of the night. I’m up in the middle of the night because I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep because I’m living in the middle of a revolution. It’s a revolution of people thinking differently, interacting with the universe in unimaginable ways. It’s often a revolution that challenges the meaning and relevance of words because the stakes are so large.
This revolution lives at points of intersection. It plays, as I always describe it, in the in-between spaces. For me, it exists at the point of intersection between education and innovation, for those around me every day it exists at the point of intersection of their own choosing. We are free to invent a reality, to craft an existence for ourselves and others, that we couldn’t have imagined 15 years ago.
The world in which we live and work has never been like this, certainly not to this magnitude. As I have written and said so many times before, we are surrounded by makers, people who have evolved their craft against all odds. From one of the more turbulent and imprecise times in history, we are surrounded by people who have taken the responsibility to create a present and future. To reduce this to the practical, they have ideas, they build sustainable businesses, they create opportunities for others, they lead with vision and heart, they are in touch with something greater than themselves. They believe in the immediacy of possibility.
I’m upset with myself because there are moments I take it for granted as the emerging status quo of the day, of our day. And as I write this, I know that, as is so often the case, my own words will fall short.
When I’m in a hall of hundreds of people who work for themselves, it’s too easy to blend in, to allow one’s lens to become critical. The truth is that I’m in constant awe of the people around me, those who occupy the physical spaces where I have the privilege of working at home and away (though there really is no more away these days – a shared purpose and seamless communication makes everything home). Our virtual world has made interaction and real relationships not only possible through distance, but a powerful part or our daily lives and one more platform upon which to build this shared purpose. The fraction of a second it takes to log into my website and begin to memorialize my thoughts almost seems an unacceptable wait in an era where action is instant. There are no more excuses for us not to accept the responsibility of doing.
When we rehydrate this abstraction to our lives and work, we’re simply left with wonder. It’s 2013 and anything – truly any thing – is possible.
Here’s to the Makers
Here’s to the Makers
(rambling on warning: this post may end up even more stream-of-consciousness than my usual “work”)
You’ve got to love the makers. I do. The people who invent and build things in this new global economy.
When I’m asked what I’d do if I won a significant lottery jackpot (a question that’s posed more often than you’d think) my answer is invariably “Pretty much what I do now, with some slight modifications and additions.”
It’s the truth. I get to work with these brilliant makers seven days a week and I love doing it. What never comes up in my reply to Question PowerBall is “I’d definitely do another startup.”
My radar might be off. Very recently, two of my friendquaintances have raised very serious rounds. I didn’t see it coming. Totally seriously, no schadenfreude involved, I just didn’t see it. These companies are okay, in my mind. But I really don’t get it. The disappointment in myself is dulled by these startups being way outside of any area of expertise I have in my life but, still. I should have seen it. I want to see everything.
I’m not sure I trust myself to be a CEO of something I think is so amazing that I’d want to build it. I might get so lost in my vision of what I invented that I’d mess it up. I’ve been a CEO before. More than once. I was okay. I worked insanely hard, not always perfectly smart. Things worked in those situations either because I had someone I could perfectly trust or because I really didn’t need any help and I was too scared to mess it up. But I know that anything I’d want to build now would need a team. I’m part of teams like that right now, but as an advisor, or shareholder, or board member, or interested fan from the sideline. How would any of those dynamics change if the idea was mine or if I were the one ultimately calling all of the shots?
These are some of the questions that makers face. They’re super hard, circuitous, best addressed with a deep, rich bourbon. They’re not ones I feel inclined to face, like, today.
Some mornings I think it’s a cop-out. I thought that there could be no greater work satisfaction than when I began to hire people for my ventures. Paying your own mortgage is cool, paying someone else’s awesome. But when I advise a whole lot of people, each of whom are making things happen in and for a series of economies, that also feels amazing. Their success is amazing, their work, their making. Of things – often elegant, beautiful, useful, shiny, sharp, profound, light, round, and sometimes ephemeral.
“Swim downstream,” chirped a tweet in my stream. Do what you do best. I was eating salmon sashimi when I read it, in one of the week’s most savory (pun intended) ironies.
I often think back to the lottery question. I think how I’d structure my day, what percentage of my time would be in service of others versus indulgence of self. I don’t think it would change much, which may be a positive reflection upon something my mom instilled in me or an indictment of vanity current and forthcoming. I know that I’d be as committed to the success of something greater than myself as I have been for a good count of years. I imagine that I’d be even less committed to building something that might one day become a sustainable, many job-producing business only in my own imagination.
Or I’d once again find some folks I trust with my notions and we’d make a serious run at it.
And since lotteries are metaphorical in scope to the wise, maybe we’ve all already won.
How Do You Like to Work?
I’m reading this month’s Fast Company in a Philadelphia Starbucks. Wow – there’s so much in that sentence that I’d like to deconstruct but I’ll move on.
In this issue, Judd Apatow says “I hate looking at people when I chat. I never Skype.”
That statement (with which, for the record, I’m so totally on board – wait, was that seriously a German Shepherd that just walked by with electric blue Jack Spade socks on – sorry, but wow) led me down a dog-interrupted thought path about how I like to (and don’t like to) work. Let’s see how much we share on this:
I despise phone calls, in all of their shapes, sizes, smells. I dislike email just a bit less.
I actually don’t mind meetings these days when they happen out of necessity, are remarkably energetic and intense, and are blissfully brief. People always comment to me “Dude, we got more done in that half hour than I usually get done in a morning.” Thank you
Sometimes I like working around a lot of people and sometimes totally alone. I tend do badly in a space with one or two others. Alone, there is no space too small for me to work, a skill mastered on two million miles in a metal tube in the sky.
I get up early. Very early. It’s not that I’m Ben Franklin or anything, I just find the time between, say, 4 and 9 in the morning to be the most unspoiled. It’s the whitest snow of the day. I use it.
I can’t work on one thing for excessively long, which may mean a half day or fifteen minutes, depending upon a number of factors.
I need a lot of daily exercise. I’m a big dog. Without the exercise, I’m intellectually flat, soft, placid. When things get stale, I get up and move, sometimes for a while.
I like the notion of a standing desk. But in practice, I pretend I’m Deadmau3 and go “wiki-wiki” on an imaginary turntable. It’s not pretty. I am a sitter.
Those are the basics for me, or at least those that occur to me at the moment. So how do you work best?
Back to Class
I’ve been reflecting a lot on a talk I gave last week. I spoke to group of around 70 people – mostly educators and edupreneurs – about the history of my own experiences as both.
Throughout my entire career as an educator, at each moment that I pursued something entrepreneurial, I was basically told to shut up and go back to class. Sometimes the message was delivered gently, other times not so much.
Long before I knew what entrepreneurial small bets were I was making them. I was testing ideas and my own skills. I learned what I needed to learn. I built networks and asked for a lot of advice. I read things that pushed my comfort zone.
And nothing helped. I was still “just” a teacher in the eyes of many, even when I was on my second run of teaching, after I had gone to law school, become a lawyer, then returned to the world of schools.
I hear and see this way too much, even today. It is, to me, a larger issue: schools often do a lousy job of treating people well. It should be a no-brainer. Schools should treat their adults as they would hope these adults would treat each student. But it’s the exception much more so than the rule, though I have seen some very notable exceptions, including Toronto’s YMCA Academy, where my friend, Head of School, Dr. Don Adams, gives all of his teachers weekly Google Time to work on their initiatives.
I love the path I took and the obstacles were obviously there for a reason. But how many like me – but better and brighter – gave up along a road that was simply unnecessarily difficult to travel?
The Power of Words
Last week, while on a rare and much-needed vacation, I spent time with my very significant other at a resort in the southwest. While at a restaurant in a nearby city, I heard a father say this to his young daughter:
If you worked for me, I’d fire you.
Okay. WTF? Who says that to their kid?
We often ignore the power of words, allowing them to be lost in the totality of our own verbal maelstrom. We say a lot – everything – seemingly hoping that a fragment of what comes out comes out well. With grace.
Not. Like. That.
How do we understand what words really mean? In a world that becomes more complicated by the hour, how do we extract meaning for ourselves and translate that meaning to others?
How do we use and abuse the power of words?
If what most artfully separates humans from other animals is our power to communicate deeply and richly through language, how do epic failures like the one above set back our relationship with language? If we can’t trust ourselves and others to recognize how potent words can be, are words simply the stuff of palaver?
We have 358 days left in this year to do whatever it is we are individually and collectively setting out to do. I will argue today what I always argue: that one of the most important skills in this world is how we harness the power of words. Yes, it absolutely helps if we can do so in languages other than the one we first acquired. And, no, I still don’t count coding as a language. Sorry.
The meaning that we give to words is based upon our experience. The meaning that others will give to our words is literal and experiential, but also comes from intent. If you intend to humiliate with your words, you will do so, but primarily yourself.
I think that we should strive for an economy of use. Say what needs to be said, strive for better listening and less talking, write sharply and well, understand how meaning is translated and lost, and – please – be very careful when using words as weapons, as political tools, as carriers of mal-intent.