From the Job Loop to the Knowledge Loop

Interesting article by Albert Wenger from USV in the context of US Labor Day: From the Job Loop to the Knowledge Loop

People do need a purpose in life and they do have the need to be recognized by others. But we have to stop trying to define and find purpose in labor and instead seek it in knowledge and in our relationship to other humans and to nature.

Tech Shabbat – Going offline for a day

Short disclaimer: I’m not a religious person and I’m not Jewish. So, I hope I don’t offend anybody with this post. But I think the concept is so good that I’d like to share it.

A couple of months ago, I listened to an OnBeing episode where Krista Tippet interviewed Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards. In that episode Tiffany mentioned something she calls Tech Shabbat. It applies the concept of Shabbat as the day of rest for technology. It’s pretty simple: on Friday at sunset you turn off all your devices and only turn them on at sunset on Saturday. For our purposes we defined devices as phones, computers, tablets and TV. We allowed  kindles without wifi and old-school iPods.

This arrangement creates some interesting constraints on your life:

  • You’re suddenly disconnected, i.e. if somebody wants to reach you, they have to come around to your house – no email, no phone, no Snapchat, no WhatsApp. You are only available to the people around you, which removes the feature of your brain that is constantly scanning whether somebody wants to reach you.
  • You don’t have access to an abundant world where everything is available at your fingertips. No more 30 million songs on Spotify, 40 million articles on Wikipedia or billions of interesting articles on the Internet.
  • You have to plan ahead and get creative. Since you are no longer able to coordinate with other people as you go, you have to arrange time in advance and then stick to the plan – no last minute changes.

We greatly enjoy tech Shabbat whenever we commit to it. Time suddenly expands. All those little moments that are sucked up by a quick check of email or Twitter, are suddenly empty. You mind slows down and takes a well-deserved rest. It’s like a day-long mindfulness meditation. A Jewish friend recently described Shabbat as a block at the of the week that allows you to slow down, take rest and reflect. It prevents life from becoming a constant blur, where everything flows and becomes indistinguishable. Tech Shabbat seems like the light version of it, as I noticed that I’m definitely more present during those 24 hours.

The other aspect I greatly enjoy are the constraints that tech Shabbat imposes. To listen to music, I had to dig up my old iPod and connect it to a pair of speakers. It was nice to rediscover old playlists and albums. When we met with friends, we had to print out the map in advance. Normally I’m totally reliant on Google Maps navigating me through the world. Reading a paper map was a nice challenge. Uber is no longer an option and I had to figure out the public bus system for certain trips. People often say that creativity thrives on constraints and I can say that I get a lot more ideas on Tech Shabbat.

Most people I’ve told about this experiment are intrigued, but also commented that they wouldn’t be able to do it. We don’t do it every week, but I can highly recommend it and encourage anybody to at least give it a try. It’s only 24 hours and  afterwards you get back into the connected world.

Tiffany produced a short video explaining Tech Shabbats in more detail. Have a look and find your courage to give it a try. It’s worth it.

Photo credit: Andrew Huff via / CC BY-NC

The Internet History Podcast

What an amazing treasure trove of goodness. The Internet History Podast is dedicated to telling the story of the Internet, organised in chapters like Netscape and the start of the Internet era, Microsoft gets the Internet, Online services, … The episodes are a mix of narrative (similar to audio books) and interviews with people of the era. 

I started somewhere in the middle with an interview with Jan Brandt, the lady who led AOL’s marketing. She came up with the idea to spread first floppy discs and later CDs to promote AOL. It’s an amazing interview giving insights into how difficult it was to convince non-tech people in the 90ies how amazing the Internet was. Little fun fact: At some point AOL used 50% of the global CD production capacity for their CDs. 

While I found it weird that I haven’t heard of this podcast before, I’m happy to be able to binge on more than 100+ episodes and I’m very much looking forward to it. 

AI, Apple and Google

Ben Evans writing a highly insightful piece on the current state of artificial intelligence, machine learning and how Google and Apple approach the topic. Evans offers a definition of the term  “technology”, that I find most helpful:

“That is, technology is in a sense anything that hasn’t been working for very long. We don’t call electricity technology, nor a washing machine a robot, and you could replace “is that AI or just computation?” with “is that technology or just engineering?””

It’s a very good read with and I recommend it to anybody interested in the field. If you don’t want to invest the time, just skip to the last paragraph, which offers a good summary.

Keep calm and carry on

If you haven’t spent the last 24 hours under a rock, you know by now that the UK voted to leave the European Union. Living in Australia, it was easy to follow the vote count live. At the beginning it was a nail-biter, but early in the afternoon it was clear that ‘Leave’ got the majority.

Born and raised in Germany, the European Union was always a given for me. I can barely remember ever using my passport for inner-continental travel. My first full-time pay-check was in Euros. While I’ve never been in business, directly benefiting from EU trade reliefs, I always assumed and felt that it was a good thing. Working together across countries makes everybody better off. Even celebrations like the Eurovision Song Contest were part of bringing nations closer together creating solidarity.

Beyond free travel, I tremendously benefited from the EU. I was raised by two loving parents, my father a policeman, my mother a nurse. We’ve never been wealthy, but there was always more than enough. Given free education in Germany, I was able to go to university and by means of an Erasmus grant I was able to study free of charge for a year in London. It was an amazing year that allowed me to live in the middle of London and immerse myself not only in the British culture, but even more in the mixed company of other Erasmus students from France, Denmark, Spain, Italy and many other countries.

My parents were especially very grateful for this year. They’ve told me many times that in this one year I became more open to other people’s opinions and matured into a much more positive human being, more friendly and kinder.

So, while I saw the results coming in yesterday, I became sadder and sadder. I will probably be able to let my children spend time abroad and experience foreign cultures, but I’m worried that other people might no longer be able to afford the privileges I enjoyed.

It just seems paradoxical to me. Technology makes it easier to connect with people across borders and continents. Out of Australia I can call my parents in Germany using FaceTime virtually free of charge anytime I want to. I can send them messages and pictures and let them participate in my life. Distance and borders become less and less of an issue to stay in touch. However, at the same time in many countries, both East and West of the Atlantic, voices become louder to protect borders and national interests, to no longer work together, but rather use tactics of fear, uncertainty and doubt. I still don’t understand why.

Yesterday, the world grew a little smaller and at some point I just had to stop reading Twitter and news sites. I’m sad for the European Union and hope that the UK’s example will be a wake up call for the rest of the EU to not take the EU’s privileges for granted, but rather nurture the idea of collaboration, openness and understanding.

But for now, I’m going to follow the British motto to “keep calm and carry on”, still believing in the idea of the European Union that working together is better than working alone.

Photo credit: Free Grunge Textures – via DIYlovin / CC BY

Writing well, often

I very much believe in the power of good writing. As such I admire the good work of companies like Mailchimp and Slack to promote good writing that is more approachable. Hence I was delighted when Anna Pickard started publishing some of Slack’s content style guide and writing principles. They follow Mailchimp’s great work, who published their voice and tone style guide already last year.

At work me and my team started writing a monthly newsletter. It started out as a mailing just for the broader team to help us understand what everybody else is working on. However, people enjoyed reading it and started sharing. Now we have a group of family and friends throughout the organisation that loves reading this newsletter every month. Although it might seem insignificant, it is one of the highlights of my job. It is a chance to connect with people, find out what they are working on and spread the good news. The newsletter is very different from other corporate emails, as we aim to write it in very accessible language (thank you Mailchimp and Slack for setting such good examples). We spend a good amount of time to get it right, and people appreciate it.

When I saw Anna speak earlier this year at Webstock, it clicked with me, why it was so hard and how we can make our job easier: Each month we were trying to figure out how to write a good newsletter from scratch, based on our experience. And even worse, we all did it individually. As a result, writing the newsletter took a lot of time and effort to make it sound right with good content and a consistent voice. We needed to reflect on what people love about the newsletter, why they read it despite their own email overload and write it down. This helps February-Michael be as good as January-Michael, and James write with the same passion as Elizabeth and vice versa.

Continue reading “Writing well, often”

Webstock 2016 – Celebrating the web’s values

Webstock turned ten last week. It is a conference that celebrates the web and its makers – the creativity, the magic, the craft and everything in between. Although Webstock is hosted in Wellington, they have an excellent reputation and attract great speakers from all over the world. It has been on my radar for a couple of years and this year I finally managed to go to Wellington. It was an amazing experience, an emotionally exhausting ride on the rollercoaster – in a good way. Hands down, the best conference I’ve ever been to. 

Speakers typically have a tech background (web development, software engineering, UX design, long-time bloggers), but the presentations were mostly non-technical. While the Above All Human conference three weeks ago in Melbourne focused on startups and entrepreneurship, this conference focused on the web and its values and culture. You get a good idea of what Webstock is about from last year’s closing note by Natasha Lampard, where she talks about onsens, entrepreneurs and the long-game (also written up here).

A key asset of Webstock is the diversity of its speakers regarding gender, background, race and topics. None of the talks could or should be compared with each other. Therefore, by the end of the first day I stopped trying to figure out what my favourite talk was – they all were really good. Because of this diversity in topics, it took me some time to recognise the common thread: They all talked about a shared set of values, promoting and preserving values like openness, contributing, inclusiveness, simplicity and caring deeply about your work, not your ego. It is a conference that is undeniably, beautifully, human.

The team around Natasha Lampard, Mike Brown, Deb Sidelinger, and Ben Lampard organised a great event. Not only great speakers, but also a great venue, great food, great swag and great entertainment. If you organise events and want to get better, Webstock is an excellent reference point. Scott Berkun wrote about what makes Webstock so good some time ago.

Before I go into the depths of my notes, my main takeaway of the two days was:

Care about what you create and care about it deeply. Do not care about ego. In the end you want your work to be known, not yourself.

Dare to put yourself out there and contribute to the larger community. Stand for something. That makes you vulnerable, but the benefits of connection far outweigh the downsides of discomfort. To quote the wonderful Anna Pickard: “Show the world your biscuit face, because the world probably likes your biscuit face.”

Below is a write-up of my notes and some links. If you have any questions, please approach me – it was an amazing experience and I will talk about it with delight. By the way, Hollie Arnett has another good write-up of her Webstock notes, as well as Amy Potter, who posted her sketchnotes on Twitter.


Heather B. Armstrong opened the conference with “The Fraud of Authenticity”, suggesting that we are increasingly faced with posed and polished pictures and videos. Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook celebrate the perfect, the posed and stylised life. For a lot of pictures on those platforms you can hardly tell whether it is stock photography or “real”. Kids especially will have a hard time to distinguish. At some point you are no longer an audience, but solely a consumer. She encouraged the audience not to forget “the dirty side of the room”. Let’s make sure that our children don’t grow up thinking that life needs to be perfect. Talk about imperfection, struggles, experiences that are not fabricated or engineered. If we don’t do that, at some point nobody wants to see the dirty side of the room anymore. Until the videos are ready, have a look at the XOXO videos, where Heather gave a similar talk last year.

Steve Hillenius spoke about “Designing Interfaces for Astronaut Autonomy in Space”. Design and user experience are critical to enable long distance space missions in the future. Design can bridge the gap. Right now six astronauts (generalists) on the international space station are covered by ~100 controllers in mission control (specialists). As space exploration moves further away from earth, communication and coordination becomes increasingly difficult. For example a round trip communication to Mars take between eight and 45 minutes. This creates the need to create software that helps astronauts become more autonomous to be able to make decisions with limited or no input from mission control. NASA is now designing system that hide complexity and help astronauts take over specialist roles by coding them in software. For example, for mission planning, astronauts can move time slots by getting visual indicators what is allowed and what not (go- vs. no-go-zones).

Luke Wroblewski spoke about “Screen Time”, discussing the current challenges of designing screen interfaces. How to adjust interfaces for input (keyboard, mouse, finger, stylus, …), output (TV, phone, tablet, …) and posture (screen in 1ft distance (phone) vs. 10ft distance (TV)). On input, support as many means as possible and communicate what is possible, screen resolution and size are poor proxies to determine best input methods. On output, as screens become larger, you need to support both landscape and portrait mode vs. only supporting portrait mode for a phone app; use scalable pictures and web types. On posture, a good proxy for interaction is the distance to your screen (1ft vs. 10ft). He ended with an open question, what kind of interfaces come after glass (voice, wearables, VR, AR, …)? Vimeo has an earlier version of his talk.

Ethan Marcotte spoke about “The Map and The Territory”, that we need to work on re-inventing the web in a way that will allow us to onboard the next billion users who will be a very different audience. This “new normal” will exclusively access the web via mobile devices that are less powerful. They have restricted access to electricity and bandwidth. This will be the new normal going forward. We therefore need to start a conversation about sustainable web design that is defined by reach and accessibility. Starting points include “reducing” (set weight budgets for websites, how big, how fast load times) and “revisiting” (start with a basic responsive design and expand only based on ROI). Vimeo has an earlier version of his talk and Luke Wroblewski’s notes of Ethan’s talk.

Harry Roberts was next. His specialty is CSS and was a bit surprised when he realised two weeks ago that he had to give a non-technical talk. As a result, he crowd-sourced his topics via Twitter and came up with work-life balance (it’s hard, do your best – you don’t need to separate them dogmatically, if you have fun), hobbies (super important to remove yourself from work – give a shit about something that doesn’t pay you, find something that is the opposite of your work, ideally something that you can do anywhere), openness (what sets the web industry apart, don’t take it for granted), the web (it’s more than just zeroes and ones, it’s about the people), cocktails (shake only drinks with dairy or juice, stir everything else) and advice (even the best advice goes out of date, know when to use new information – the web is too young for traditionalists). He also published his slides online.

Nick Gray declared that “Museums Are F***ing Awesome”. He discovered museums a couple of years ago and started doing tours for his friends under the title “Ten things I love in this museum and three that I want to steal for my home”. This quickly grew, up to the point where he now operates a company around this concept. It’s best to just watch him in action. Main takeaways for me were that good museum tours are all about the guides (be engaging and create a connection with their audience), the games (make it fun, do cheers, take pictures – everybody looks awesome in a museum) and gossip (don’t just deliver the facts, find the raunchy bits and tell them).


Last, but not least on day one came Debbie Millman who was a true highlight of the day. She talked about “On Rejection, or how the worst moments of your life can turn out to be the best”. She gave a very honest talk about all the rejections in her life, how painful they were, but also how helpful they became to get her where she is now. If you have these moments when it possibly couldn’t get worst, rejoice, because it probably can’t. She appealed to be wary especially of those successes that never become a purpose, i.e. where you are never fully engaged. She closed her talk with two quotes. (1) “If You Aren’t Getting Rejected On A Daily Basis, Your Goals Aren’t Ambitious Enough” – Chris Dixon and (2) “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” – Dita Von Teese.

Day two started with Karen McGrane talking about “Adaptive Content, Context, and Controversy” laying out the differences between responsive design (same content, displayed differently based on device) vs. adaptive design (serving different content or design based on predefined criteria like device, context or person) vs. m-dot (separate website for mobile). The main difference between responsive and adaptive is that responsive design has the intelligence on the client side, while adaptive has it on the server side. Try to cover as much as possible through responsive design and resort to adaptive only for the cases where it makes sense. She also appealed to not use heuristics too much, when deciding what kind of content or functionality to offer to users, e.g. when you’re in the car driving you will receive a different view of maps than when you are walking. In 95% of the cases users are better served by getting shown the same information and choosing how to adapt to it themselves.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino talked about “The End of Ignorance”, suggesting that through the ubiquity of sensors, we are in a position to make more informed decisions, such as how to adjust asthma doses based on air pollution or making smarter use of water. As a result our kids will approach life’s challenges very differently and we should encourage them to do so by. through teaching them about sensors through Arduinos or learning how to code rules. She appealed to put APIs in front of all public services so that people can connect sensors to publicly available information sources and build and share their own solutions. I especially liked her closing statement: “We already know what this change will look like. Now we should embrace it and make it happen.” Her slides are available online on slideshare.


Next was Slack’s Head of Editorial Anna Pickard, who talked about “Bug Fixes & Minor Improvements, Write Large (aka Humorous Self-Flagellation and the Multiple Benefits of Being Old On The Internet)”, or how Slack approaches writing and coincidentally established release notes in the app store as a literary genre. She talked about the value of using the written word to connect to users as humans. They aim to be understandable, friendly, empathetic, honest, with courtesy and inclusive in everything they publish – be it their Twitter feed, their blogs, the copy in their app or even release notes (a good approximation of their voice and tone is in the Mailchimp content style guide). They try to create elements of surprise and delight. An example is error messages that are understandable but also relatable, playful but not whimsy, real but not marketing real. She appealed to achieve a healthy balance with this kind of writing (“the difference between a little bit of salt and a platter of salt”; “A guitar solo is fine, but a concert shouldn’t be all guitar solos.”). To quote one of her slides: “Colour all the way to the edges. Colour the parts no one can see, too. Say nice things in places no one is expecting, and some won’t even notice. Do not be afraid of putting yourself into everything you do, but don’t make it all you do. Fill all crevices with wadded-up joy. Make people happy.” In that context, a good presentation to watch is from last year’s Webstock: Kate Kiefer Lee – Writing in the Real World.

Annie Machon followed Anna. She is a former MI5 intelligence officer who left the Service to blow the whistle about alleged criminality within the intelligence agencies in the mid 90ies. Her talk “The Panopticon: Resistance is Not Futile” was an appeal to appreciate the value of privacy as a fundamental human right that is the basis for most other human right as well as democracy. She argued that once you feel watched at all times, you start self-censoring yourself. You can no longer be a fully engaged citizen, which creates a situation where democracy starts to wither and die. It was an amazing talk, reminding me of Jason Bourne. You can find a version of the talk on YouTube.

Last in the succession of British speakers was Tom Coates with “The Shape of Things”, a talk about consumer IoT and how whilst the hardware is getting there, the software layer is still underwhelming. “The network should amplify a tool’s core purpose, not just put another web browser or Twitter client on a device.” Consumer IoT has the potential to achieve a vision, where we interact with objects directly (“enchanted objects”) instead of relying on abstractions in the form of screens and icons. The value of consumer IoT will depend on how easily users can interact with the service layer, but make no mistake: 95% of the value will be in the connected service layer, not the user interface. He promoted general-purpose user interfaces and interaction patterns that can be applied onto multiple use cases rather than having to re-learn for every new use case. A good services layer (1) gives control, (2) supports you from the initial set up to the day you recycle it, (3) understands that it will be used by multiple people, (4) is able to work easily together with other things you have, (5) does not expect you be a programmer and (6) communicates clearly and politely in ways that are timely and familiar. To make IoT work we need to find better patterns how the world works. Luke Wroblewski has again a good write-up of the talk.

The most emotional talk of the conference was Keavy McMinn’s “How to mend a broken identity”. She works as an engineer at GitHub and I was totally unprepared for this talk as I expected something about online identities. However, she started talking about how her strong sense of identity as a wife was ripped away from her. Her divorce came unexpected and she was not prepared for it. She built herself up from that loss and became involved in tri-sports, redefining herself as an athlete finishing several ironman distance races. This again came to an abrupt halt when she was hit by a car and had to undergo several surgeries and a long recovery that she’s still working on. I had two main takeaways: (1) don’t be too dogmatic about your identity, but have something what she called “an elastic identity”. As an example she said that despite her injuries, she still regards herself as an athlete, as someone who pushes her body to be the best it can be. (2) You don’t need to be tough to get through a tough situation. Instead be honest and don’t default to the “I’m fine response”, accept help when somebody offers it and proactively ask for help. In the end it takes a community to get through those tough situations. This was probably my favourite talk of the two days. There is an old version of her talk “What is your Why” on YouTube

The last block of speakers started with Michael Lopp, Pinterest’s Head of Engineering, with “Fear is a Liar” about writing more and better, rather than just consuming and creating little moments through photos and 140 character messages. Instead engage with a topic and write about it, because (1) it teaches you how to structure your thoughts, (2) teaches you how to build an informed and defensible opinion (an opportunity to deeply care about something) and (3) calms and slows you down. The nemesis of writing is fear, which creeps in in various forms like doubt and procrastination. Accept that there is no right way to write, start writing and put yourself out there. We all have something to say, therefore explain in clear terms what you know, build an opinion and rant. This talk gave me quite a bit to think about. In the end I came to the conclusion, that fear is not a liar, but rather a sad potato that uses very unfortunate means to provide constructive criticism. I wrote it up a few days ago under On writing – Where Creativity, Fear and Action go on a road trip.


Next up was Cindy Gallop who spoke about “Why The Next Big Thing In Tech Is Disrupting Sex”. She pitched her website MakeLoveNotPorn and the idea behind it (educate the world that porn is not the norm). I saw her last year in Melbourne and she is impressive to watch. She combines the skills of a seasoned marketing executive with the passion of somebody who deeply cares about a greater cause. If you’re not afraid of strong language, go watch her TED Talk about Make Love, Not Porn. I loved two quotes from her in particular: “You will never own the future if you care what other people think” and “Women challenge the status quo because we are never it”.

The last session of the day was Casey Gerald’sThe Gospel of Doubt”, telling his story from growing up poor in Texas, getting into Yale and Harvard and founding MBA’s Across America. He encouraged the audience to not necessarily seek the shelter of certainty, but have more doubt instead, challenging common beliefs and building your own opinion. I will leave it at that and wait patiently for the Webstock video footage to re-watch his talk.

Natasha Lampard delivered the closing note. She is one of the co-founders and organisers of Webstock, and pointed out that it is never too late to start something new. She told the story of an Italian astronaut who had a late calling at the end of his twenties as well as a quote from a lady who was well into her nineties: “If I knew that I would get that old, I would have started playing the violin at the age of 60. By now I would have nearly 40 years of experience.” While we celebrate young entrepreneurs and their drive, we should not mistake that for discouraging an older generation from starting something new. If you have something to contribute, a calling or a purpose that you want to pursue, don’t let age be a factor that holds you back.


On writing – Where Creativity, Fear and Action go on a road trip

Any creative endeavour is an adventure. It takes us from here to somewhere new, hopefully somewhere exciting. That sounds simple and exciting in itself, but the devil is in the detail and once we embark on our adventure, we notice that things turn out to be trickier than previously imagined.

Let’s take writing as an example.  Everyone knows the situation: we’ve got a wonderful idea, something to say and we want to share that idea. So we sit down and start with a blank sheet or screen. We write our first words, realise that they don’t really work so we start over again, start differently, it still doesn’t work. We get frustrated, doubt creeps in. Maybe we aimed too high and the idea was not as good as we thought it was. We really want to put ourselves out there, but worry that we are not good enough. We start checking our email, then Facebook, then Twitter, post the picture of our lunch on Instagram, then go back to email. At some point we declare defeat and leave the idea altogether.

That’s how many writing efforts end – the adventure stops before it even really begins. And that’s sad, because the world likes adventures and needs more of them. Let’s find out why it is so challenging by borrowing from two concepts:

  1. Using the road trip analogy that Elizabeth Gilbert used in her TED talk about success, failure and the drive to keep creating.
  2. Visualising our inner dialogue as different personalities that interact with each other. They all mean well, but they all value different things. They are our fellow passengers, the forces at play in our road trip. Yes, this is blatantly stolen from Inside Out, or before that Herman’s Head.

Once we understand who’s with us and why they are coming along, it is possible to appreciate them for what they are and how they want to help us succeed. There are three passengers in our car:

#1 – Inspiration

Inspiration is the star of the show, the headliner that gets a lot of glory and credit. Everybody loves her and she comes in alternative flavours like creativity and genius. Inspiration is the first spark of the process, the match that lights the fire of revelation. She suggested the road trip and called shotgun. She sits there with the map and snacks in her hand, navigating us to the best spots.

However, Inspiration is kind of a pushover. While she lights up bright for a short moment, she burns out quickly if her flame doesn’t catch on quickly. She forgets at times that she needs two important side kicks to come through and deliver on her promises. Which brings us to the second, probably most underappreciated passenger:

#2 – Fear

Fear is the grump, the cynic that shouts “that’s not a good idea”, “are you kidding me, leave that to other people” and “that’s never going to work”. Fear often disguises himself in the more approachable form of procrastination. Ironically, while writing this post, I starting browsing through the old program of Webstock, looked up how to write better, what Elizabeth Gilbert says about fear, browsed Twitter, Twitter on Webstock and the recent tech news. All very important and definitely urgent topics that need my undivided attention. At some point I finally got the joke and got back to writing.

Fear sits in the back, constantly mumbling and asking why we’re not there yet but Fear is there for a reason. Fear means well, but is horrible at articulating his constructive feedback in a way that is actually constructive. Fear wants to make sure that we have enough gas in the tank, that the tires don’t fall off in the middle of the freeway and that everybody has slept enough. While Inspiration brings snacks and a mix tape, Fear makes sure that we don’t die. He asks us to be our best and protects us from burning ourselves with Inspiration’s match. Fear is the reason why we edit our work. He tries to protect us. Sadly, he chooses very unfortunate means to communicate. As such we should meet Fear with compassion and accept him for what he is. Sometimes he goes as far as screaming at us to step on the brake and cancel the road trip altogether, especially before embarking on the first stretch. That’s why we need a third character on this journey:

#3 – Action

Action is the doer of the group. Action is the one who takes over the steering wheel in the middle of the night when everybody is tired. But she needs encouragement. She needs faith in her ability to deliver, a belief that once she comes into play, things will turn around and the fun will start. Action puts wood behind Inspiration’s flame and turns it into a fire.

Even better, she is self-perpetuating. Once she gets going, Fear pipes down, Inspiration starts firing on more cylinders and things move forward. Action cures Fear and encourages Inspiration. However, every once in a while, Action should check in with Inspiration to connect with the bigger picture of why we are on the road trip. Otherwise we might miss important sights on the way. Even Fear should feel heard to know the worst case scenarios. But don’t ever let Fear take over, don’t even let him play with the radio or adjust the air conditioning.

Make no mistakes. There will be setbacks. We will take the wrong exit, get into a traffic jam or run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. As with any road trip, those bad experiences will be great stories to tell later, they are just not very much fun in the moment. We have to push through them.

Diversity makes for a better team

If we get the sudden idea to embark on a spontaneous road trip, it is important to understand who is sitting in the car and why they came on the trip: Inspiration gets us going, Fear wants us to be the best we can be and Action moves us forward and keeps Fear in check. All three are critical for a great road trip that is exciting, safe and happening.

As in any diverse team, the relationship within the group is complicated. There are fights over who is driving. But diversity is good, because all three want us to succeed. Embrace them for what they are and appreciate what they contribute, but don’t let anyone take over fully.

This applies to blog posts as much as to that tricky email where we ask for a favour, the cover letter for the job that we really want to land, the love letter you’re sending on Valentine’s Day. We’ve all been there. The trick is to get into Action as soon as possible and connect it to Inspiration. This might be the one time, when advertising is right: just do it! Start writing and keep at it. Have a little faith in your ability to come up with something good, maybe even great. Who doesn’t like a great adventure?

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs via / CC BY-NC-SA

Six great ideas from Above All Human

There are some very special conferences, where the actual conference-track is embedded into a much broader community experience with very deliberate choices of venue, speakers, code of conduct and support like day-care for children. It’s a celebration of the organisers’ superb sense of taste as if they imagined a great day that happens to be a conference. With Above All Human, Susan Wu, Bronwen Clune and Scott Handsaker created such a wonderfully curated event in Melbourne:

“Above All Human is a conference for startup founders, makers, designers and innovators who want to do great things, build innovative products, and be the most effective entrepreneurs they can be.”

I had heard very good things about last year’s first instalment and it single-handedly surpassed those high expectations.

Things that I really, really liked about the conference:

  • The quality and variety of speakers — a lot of people whom I’ve never heard of or whom I would not have actively sought out, but they shared such a great variety of topics and backgrounds. Who knew I’d be fascinated by the philosophical aspects of astrophysics?
  • The diversity of speakers — apparently is was no big deal to pull off 50% female speakers, but I think it was and think it should be highlighted as an example for other conferences to follow.
  • The tone of the conference — there was very little brouhaha and a lot of sincerity. As pointed out in the opening remarks, it was a heartfelt, inclusive and honest conference. Presenters talked openly about their struggles to share their hard-won learnings and present food for thought rather than half-baked solutions.
  • The venue — it easily hosted 1,000 people and never did I feel constrained, packed or uncomfortable, which is not a given for an introvert at conferences.
  • The food — plenty, good and easily available. Such a great idea to place food all over the place instead of having one central trough where everybody crams around.

So, what did I learn on Friday?

  1. JOMO — The Joy of Missing Out. Being so immersed in the moment and disconnected from everything else that you very deliberately avoid any distractions. That was not part of the conference itself, but it came up in a conversation with a stranger in-between sessions.
  2. There is still room for growth in the Australian venture capital (VC) ecosystem. $500m was invested amongst the Australian VC community in 2015 vs. $800m that were gambled just on the Melbourne Cup in one day alone. I found that an exceptional way to illustrate that the Australian VC community is way below saturation and Australia has a significantly higher tolerance towards risk that it currently admits to startups. In that same session, I liked Annie Parker’s version of know your customer intimately: “The best ideas at our refugee hackathon came from non-technical caseworkers and refugees themselves. Those ideas had little tech involved and a lot of impact.”
  3. A culture-first company (i) knows what it is willing to suffer for, (ii) builds on a promise (a brand is a promise to a customer and its culture is how it is going to deliver on that promise) and (iii) sees a world that others don’t. Didier Elzinga gave a great presentation about why culture matters and why it is not that soft and fluffy thing, but a hard-hitting tool to drive company performance. As Didier put it “moral makes the difference between whether you get on your dollar a return of 25 cents or $3.” I wish that talk had been longer with time for Q&A.
  4. Persistence come from purpose — if you have a strong purpose and can communicate it with passion, you will inevitably end up with traction with employees, customers and investors. Kate Morris of Adore Beauty told the unglamorous story of her startup and how she got to be as successful as she is now. Long story short: a lot of suffering and conviction — it’s not pretty (ironic for an online beauty business). It reminded me of the Parker’s law: “Running a startup is like eating glass. You just start to like the taste of your own blood.”
  5. The total amount of kids taught coding by Code Club Australia could now fill the entire Googleplex in Mountain View. Being one of their volunteers that visual made me very proud, especially given that we target a very specific niche of kids between 9 and 11. Just imagine the potential of a whole generation being able to understand how code works, its potential and its limitations. I’m looking forward to seeing us fill another Googleplex in the next year or two.
  6. Software is the ultimate infinite game. Ali Rayl of Slack gave a good reminder that in hardware businesses like construction it is very difficult to continuously improve your creations, whereas software can improve infinitely. It’s a way more optimistic view of the world where bugs are constantly fixed, features implemented and new functionality invented.

There were two other sessions by internet royalty at the conference, that were just too rich to put into a simple bullet of insight (fortunately, you can find their talks here and there). The first was by Mike Monteiro talking about the apprentice model and why it might be a good idea as a designer toget some experience before joining a startup (very applicable to other professions as well — you can see a version of the talk over at Vimeo). He’s a force on stage, very insightful and highly entertaining. If you haven’t seen him, I highly recommend checking out some of his presentations online.

The closing session was by Anil Dash talking about why we should get rid of the cynical notion of “don’t read the comments on the internet” and rather start transferring our learnings from 10,000 years of building a society into the online world. In his Q&A he gave one of my favourite quotes of the day: “These companies [Google, Facebook] have all the money in the world. They shoot rockets into space, design self-driving cars and work on pro-longing life. But once you ask them to make sure that the jerks on their platforms behave for five minutes, they throw their hands in the air and declare that it’s too hard.” Anil posted earlier this week his talk Against “Don’t Read the Comments”.

It was a great conference with very insightful talks and great people on stage. Thank you, Susan, Bronwen and Scott. You’ve done a fantastic job. I am very grateful for this conference and hope to have the chance to attend again next year.

Image by Scott Handsaker at Vimeo.