Author Archive

Jimmy’s Gems

January 12, 2009

A Pirate Looks At FiftyI was given Jimmy Buffet’s “A Pirate Looks at Fifty” book and had a chance to read it, and many others, over the holidays.  Most would know Jimmy Buffet the song writer/performer but this was more about the man and his journey in life up to his fiftieth birthday (in 1997).  He is a very accomplished sailor and pilot and a great example of living a snowflake life IMHO.  A good read as well.

It was quite a trip for me reading this book actually.  My Sirius/XM satellite radio still works down here in Costa Rica and with the merger of XM and Sirius satellite radio I was able to tune in Jimmy Buffet’s music channel while reading his book. 

And so there I am, blissfully reading it in the early morning last week, anchored in Bahia Ballena Costa Rica with my daughter Lia, fiancé Brian, and our respective dogs, Piglet and Ruby all sleeping below with Jimmy’s music and words channeling their way to my awakening brain.  I flip the page and guess I’m reading?  Jimmy’s explanation of landing his plane (quite the pilot, surfer and fly fisher is he) on the airstrip in Tambor which is 1km from where I’m floating in Ballena.  And directly ahead of me as I look up from the book, in comes a plane to land! I don’t think Jimmy was on it but you never know!   Serendipity and synchronicity still amaze me after all these years of using them daily to lead my life.

Anyway, here are a couple of the eclectic mix of quotes and sources that stood out to me, and apparently Jimmy too, as he used them in the book:

 “Only if we understand …. can we conceive of the seemingly paradoxical phenomenon that people who are afraid of living are also especially frightened of death” 

                                               Medard Boss from “The Meaning and Content of Sexual Perversions”

Really resonates with me.  For me, I don’t fear death, I fear not living while alive.

And then this one from Lord Richard Buckley:

“Humor is the absence of terror, and terror is the absence of humor.”

And finally, this one from George Herbert, English clergyman & metaphysical poet (1593 – 1633)

“Living well is the best revenge”

Not big on revenge but I AM big on living well and doing my best to do just that every day.  Hope you are too!? 

Happy 2009 everyone.


Snowflaking the Sounds of Silence

January 9, 2009

silence One of the things I have learned this year is how much I value silence.  Actually that’s not quite true, what I’ve learned the value of is the ability to control the sound that surrounds me.  I often wants lots of it in the form of things like music, one of my great loves and which I usually choose to be surrounded by.  But I also like to choose to be surrounded by natural sounds such as the a following sea rolling down the hull of my sailboat, waking up as I recently did near the volcano of Mt. Arunel to the sounds of all the birds in the rain forest outside my window.  And sometimes I love the sound of the throbbing turbocharged six cylinder Cummings diesel engine as it powers Learnativity and I out of troubled seas. 

What I don’t like and have less and less tolerance for is sound sound pollution and the lack of my ability to control the sounds around me.  How about all those people who still seem to think you get a better cell phone signal by shouting into their mobile phones and seem to think we all want to know the deepest details of their latest business transaction or personal activities?  And while I love the general cacophony of the open street markets where I buy most of my food here in Central America, the food stalls are now interspersed between stalls of the ubiquitous pirated music and movie CD sellers who’s sales and marketing strategy seems to be to have a bigger speaker and amplifier system than their neighboring competitor and they are only outdone by the cars and vans driving around the streets with an even louder set of hailer speakers mounted on their rooftops blaring out advertisements and political messages. Up to a point it is ambiance and part of the culture and I love it.  And maybe it is just me but I find that I just can’t take too much of this for too long.

Some solve this problem by pushing their MP3 player or iPod ear buds deeper into their ears to keep out the external sounds and supply their own.  But for me that is too isolating when I’m walking around and is only something I enjoy when I’m on a plane or other stationary situation.

What I’m looking forward to in the future is the promise of some of the research being done various ways that we can gain the ability to control the sound around us.  One that I’ve been following for some time is the ability to create invisible and virtual vertical columns that can surround one or more people and within this column the only sound that exists is that which is allowed to pass through or is supplied.  Imagine for instance if this was provided in restaurants around each table, so you could have a different set of music that was just right for you and your dinner companion(s) and the only conversations you heard, or were heard by others was that at your table.  Or a similar setup in conferences that would enable very effective impromptu “un conference” sessions to happen within a large group space.  Start thinking about this and I think you’ll soon start coming up with more and more of your own scenarios where this would be an amazing help and improvement.

Once again the characteristics of the Snowflake Effect are exerting themselves here where we can have all those conditions and environments that are just right.  In this case, just the right sounds, or lack thereof, at just the right time for just the right people at just the right volume and fidelity.

Failing Forward Faster!

January 8, 2009

Erik and I have been working on trying to get more study and benefit from failure and we have both been struck by how hard this has been to do.  Not failing, I’m very good that, but rather to foster a culture wherein there is an implicit understanding that failure is the essence of learning and forward progress. 

Over the holidays I was reminded in some Twitter traffic about this quote, most often attributed to Thomas J. Watson Sr. of IBM (thanks JohnH):

“If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

It’s simple, if you’re not failing regularly you aren’t pushing yourself, not learning, not advancing.  . It’s not that failure is the goal, just that failure is a function of trying new things and should be expected and learned from.  Yet it seems that for most people and most organizations, failure is something to be ashamed of, deny, hide from and cover up. 

One of the best things I think we could all do, individually and collectively is to get into a habit of doing “post mortem” reviews at the end of every project and not regard any project as complete until such review is done.  Imagine the benefits that would be accrued from a regular understanding why something didn’t work, how to do things better next time, how to avoid repeating mistakes, etc.  Imagine if you could start data mining these post reviews for the gold nuggets of wisdom within, patterns to avoid or to follow for greater success.

Several years ago, we had an internal motto at Autodesk of “Fail Forward Faster” that we used to foster this kind of culture.  As the start of a new calendar year often prompts us to reflect upon the year that just ended and plan for the year to come, perhaps this is an opportune time to do more of this synopsis of what we’ve learned from our “failures” over the past year and use these to help plan to make 2009 the best year yet. 

So here is to all of us Failing Forward Faster and making the amount of learning and progress in 2009 an all time high!

Bankruptcy of Purse of Bankruptcy of Life?

January 7, 2009


SterlingHayden-Wanderer During some of my reading over the holiday I ran across the following quote of actor, author and fellow sailor, Sterling Hayden from his autobiography Wanderer.  It really resonated and stuck with me.  Partly because I am a “wanderer of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in” myself, and partly because it matched many of my sentiments as I reflected upon 2008.  I was struck by how especially relevant these observations are right now so I wanted to share them with you.


To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen, who play with their boats at sea-"cruising," it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about.

"I’ve always wanted to sail the South Seas, but I can’t afford it." What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of "security." And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the routine of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone.

What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense. And we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade.

The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.

Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?

                                              Sterling Hayden  1916-1986

One of the many benefits of being a snowflake is that if you truly practice being a unique individual I think you will get closer and closer to finding out what you really need and much more clearly seeing the “idiocy of the charade” that comes from conforming, fitting in, being “average” and like the rest. All very unsnowflake like!

So as we wander into 2009 it is my fondest hope that we all work harder and succeed at bringing out the unique snowflake in all of us and by so doing, make the world a much richer world for all of us to live in.

Carlos is a Great Snowflake

December 12, 2008

Been meaning to post this since I first heard it a few months ago on an XM (satellite radio) “Artist Confidential” interview with Carlos Santana.  I’ve long been an admirer of the man, not just the musician, and two things he said stood out to me in the interview:

“Rather than going for the light at the end of the tunnel, BE the light in the tunnel”

and when asked about being a famous personality he responded:

“Its more fun to be a person than a personality”

Now THAT is my kind of snowflake!

Journeys are Tough to Copy

December 10, 2008

One more suggestion on the topic of being copied and how to avoid it by being unique, like a snowflake.  Think of yourself, your work, your life as a journey rather than a destination.  A bit cliché perhaps but quite relevant here in that it is pretty difficult to copy something that is constantly changing and moving.

In the case of individuals such as ourselves, or for organizations, businesses, etc. what I think this means is that you are constantly finding new ways of pursuing you passion, your fundamental value proposition.  We certainly do this by developing solutions to problems we are working on, which are the “destinations” in this case.  These are good things, accomplishments and valuable.  However they will almost certainly want to have a finite time limit to them simply because the conditions and context that make these solutions “just right” will be changing and therefore so too do the solutions need to change. 

Furthermore it is these solutions or destinations which are the easiest to copy and so if they are constantly changing or going away, the concern for copying goes away as well.  Similarly, while these solutions are the elements of value at any given time, the true value proposition we have to offer is the steady supply of such solutions, which is the “journey” in this case.

Because it is largely people we are discussing being “copied” here, the only things others could really copy are the specific outputs  or “content” from you; captured versions of your writings, illustrations, audio, video, photos, etc.  Whereas your value is that you are constantly coming up with more of this unique output, that is increasingly relevant, increasingly new, different and valuable.  Hence it is YOU and the journey you are on which is the real value to others and this is impossible to copy.

I’ve always been a “journey person” so perhaps I’m overly biased or only see things this way?  What are your experiences?

Custom Chocolate Anyone?

December 9, 2008

Not quite at the level of individually personalized but on the road to getting there, read more in the BoingBoing article “TCHO chocolate is just outta beta!” about this company what has been using customer feedback to design and create new flavors of their chocolate.

They’ve written previously about this interesting company as well if you’d like more:

BBtv – TCHO, part 1: chocolate origins. – Boing Boing

Food is a GREAT area for the Snowflake Effect and getting things “just right” for each of us.  What other examples are YOU seeing and tasting?

Good Luck Trying to Copy a Snowflake!

December 5, 2008

In a previous posting I had mentioned a favorite quote from Jerry Garcia that;

“You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”

I brought this up in a recent conversation with a business colleague in a discussion about his concerns that others were trying to compete or eliminate him by copying what he was doing.  This lead to a long conversation about how to not only be competitive but also to be true to yourself and a great frustration to those who may want to copy your work.  He said he found it to be extremely valuable and clarifying for him and so I thought I’d share the basic idea with you here.

The great thing about using the Snowflake Effect to guide your work is that you focus on being just what Jerry was referring to, the only one who does what you do.  This is NOT about being different for the sake of being different, this is about being true to yourself, your calling, your passion.  If you do that, you’ll be unique by design and essentially impossible to copy because your pursuit of your passion and getting to “just right” is a constantly evolving and changing process.

Something I’ve learned in practicing this for most of my life is that to you it all seems like a continuum and in that context it seems “the same” and there is not much change in that you are still following the same dreams, visions and values you always have.  However to everyone else, you will often be seen as constantly changing because you are trying many different things and different paths towards that end state you have in mind. 

In my past work on what I called “perfecting the irrelevant” I noted how it seems to be very common for people, organizations and business to confuse their actions, that which they do, with their value proposition, the true and lasting value of your actions.  I often cite examples such the case of ice delivery companies, none of which made it into the refrigeration business because they thought they were in the ice delivery business (what they actually did, their actions) when in fact they were in the “keeping things cold” or food preservation business. (their value proposition)  The trick is to have clarity and understanding of what your true value proposition is, as a person, and organization, or business and then be as innovative and creative as possible in ways to deliver on that value proposition.  Done successfully you are simultaneously very focused yet to most others you seem to be constantly changing and thus very difficult to copy.

Most recently Erik Duval, my favorite snowflake of all, has experienced an intriguing new form of “flattery” where someone has been copying his blog postings by literally cut and pasting them with no reference to their original source and thus appearing to be the content of this other blogger.  Unfortunately not a rare occurrence these days and very easy to do.  However I think we are now in an era where there is an inverse correlation of ease of copying with value.  In Erik’s case, ALL this other blogger is able to do is copy some of Erik’s content.  He certainly can’t copy Erik!  Erik is a snowflake and just about everything he does is similarly unique and different, yet very focused on a consistent vision and value proposition of (my interpretation only) assisting the world to be a better place through faster, better, deeper, learning. 

Good luck trying to copy that!  You might just as well try to copy an actual snowflake.

Mashups in Miami Beach

December 2, 2008

I’m in Miami today finishing up my most recent set of business trips around the planet and catching my flight back to El Salvador.  I had the great fortune of spending last night and this morning with a business colleague who lives on the waterfront of the always interesting Miami Beach area.  Thanks Eric!

For me Miami is one of those grand cities of the world that exemplify uniqueness in that there is little connection to the country they are in as they are a truly unique set of cultures, architecture, experiences and people.  As with cities such as Istanbul, NYC, Paris I find that you need to forget what country they are in and rather enjoy and try to learn from them as a unique world in themselves.  As so we did just that as we walked around the South Beach area, enjoyed some local food, people watching, architecture and the pulse of life. 

In the process I ran into what struck me as an interesting example of how to combine customization with standardization.  In this case it came in the form of a Publix supermarket which is part of a chain of supermarkets, mostly food, that is very popular in the Southeastern USA.  As best as I can tell, Publix is popular with those who shop there because the reputation they have built up for consistent quality, large selection of mid to high end food items and the overall design and ambience of their stores.  What I’ve picked up on in my visits to several of these stores in the past few years and talking with friends and others who shop there is that they have built up a very loyal following of customers who love to shop there and seek out these stores wherever they are.  That’s the “standards” part of the equation, delivering on the expectation that you will have a consistently good experience in any one of their stores.  However this particular store is located in a very affluent and “stylish” residential marina area on the waterfront of Miami Beach and so there were significant concerns by those living in the neighborhood and those looking to move there, that this store would be very out of place architecturally and at odds with the feel of the neighborhood which is filed with condos, waterfront walkways, parks, etc. 

The solution that Keene Construction came up with was to take a very standard building and Publix layout store and wrap it in a very unique exterior that fit well into the neighborhood.  As you can perhaps make out in the photo above the exterior is very striking, based on a nautical theme with the suggestive shapes of boat hulls, sails and decks.  Yet when I passed through the exterior doors I walked into a very familiar and standard Publix supermarket.  When that’s what you are looking for I thought it was a great mashup of the best of both customization and standardization.  From the outside the store is a delightful part or the ambience of the area and both fits in and stands out at the same time adding value rather than subtracting.

It was also interesting to read some of the comments on this store on Yelp, the community review site, by those who shop at this store.  Interestingly some of the comments were from people living nearby and others were from those visiting the area from far and wide.

This is just the latest example of the growing importance of design I’ve run into and am learning from, on how to mix opposite ends of spectrums such as old/new, standard/custom, consistent/unique.  It has left asking my usual question of “What is this trying to teach me?” and so I’m pondering how we could abstract from the lessons here and apply this type of mashup to things beyond architecture, stores, etc.? How could we apply this to human interactions, to software development, to content development?

The goal as I see it is how we can use the concept of mashups to create solutions that are not a compromise trending towards mediocrity but rather the creation of unique combinations of the best aspects of otherwise opposing ends of these spectrums that are truly greater than the sum of their parts which trends towards the Snowflake Effect of getting it all “just right”. *

*  Just the right things, for just the right people, at just the right time, in just the right place, in just the right context, etc.

Exponential Change to the Same End

November 27, 2008

As I write, speak and think more about the Snowflake Effect and the use of mashups as an overarching conceptual model, the more I’m struck by how this is all a new acceleration along a very long standing continuum of human expression, communication, collaboration and learning.

What we now commonly refer to as mashups, which I’ll simply describe as taking small existing bits and pieces and putting them together to create a whole new whole, is a model we’ve been using for almost all time.  Consider for example how this can be a description of creating music, where everyone uses the same existing relatively small set of existing musical notes, chooses some number of these and assembles them in some new way to create a new song.  And how this could similarly describe the act of writing prose or poems by selecting words from a relatively small and finite set of words in the dictionary and assembling these to create new stories, poems and lyrics. 

It is worth noting that in all these cases the “magic”, the creativity, the brilliance is all in a combination of the selection of the pre-existing bits and pieces and the way in which these are assembled to create something new and different.  Maybe it is just me, but I find the simplicity of this to be profound and beautiful.  Best of all perhaps there is still no end in sigh as this model would appear to be  infinitely expandable, sustainable and scalable.

As I’ve been writing and speaking about more and more, the true power of mashups will be realized as we come to understand it as an overarching conceptual model which can be applied to almost anything and not “just” a technology or data application. For example the mashup model can and is being applied to as diverse a set of areas as maps, software, manufactured goods, music, video, people and organizations. 

I’ll be posting and exploring more details on mashups and their role in enabling the Snowflake Effect in future postings here and on Off Course – On Target.  In the interim I’d encourage you to consider how our pursuit of this continuum of human expression is now accelerating with the transition from a text dominated age to an age of rich media that includes visualization, audio, graphics, simulations, models and video. 

To help stimulate some of your thinking and creative juices I can strongly recommend that you read some of Kevin Kelly’s recent perspectives on all this such as his Nov. 21st article in the New York Times “Becoming Screen Literate” and his summary thoughts in his “book in progress” site called The Technium on “Screen Fluency”.  Kevin continues to be an unending source of inspirational and thought provoking ideas and perspectives for me and I think you will find his writing to be VERY much worth your while.