I’ve been working – or at the very least, sitting at various desks, typing – for about 18 years. Before I had a career, I thought what I would do was write literature, or at the very least, serviceable novels. Then I spent a few years as a technology journalist, and another few as an editor. By the time I was 30 that had plateaued. I’ve worked in Product Management for nearly a decade since then, and I’ve actually been fairly successful. I lead a great team, and the product we work on reaches hundreds of millions of people.
But I’m not sure “Product Management” is really the thing I am good at. For starters, it’s not a specific, single thing, and for seconds, it’s such an early 21st century role that it may well disappear or certainly change radically over the next 20 years, to the point that it won’t make any sense to look back and say “I was good at that,” because that will not be there any more.
So what have I become good at over the course of working for nearly two decades? What skills have I developed?
“This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”
Michael Lewis’ speech at Princeton has some great one liners wrapped around a really interesting point, and one that’s come up in a few things I’ve been reading recently: the importance -unfashionable and anti-individualistic though it is – of luck. Or positioning, or being on the right side of big shifts. I think about it a lot when it comes to my work (digital product design), and the decline of print. I think about it when it comes to success and attention, and politics too, given the UK’s current government, and their desire to reduce the reach of the welfare state. And I like Lewis’ speech especially because it’s not just about recognising the role of luck and saying, “yes, luck helped me”; it’s where he takes that message:
“Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”
“If you think you’ve got writers’ block after 45 seconds of not writing, you don’t need an app, you need someone gently to tell you that you should consider the possibility that writing is not just about writing, it’s also (and maybe mainly) about the space in between the writing, when nothing seems to be happening, or random stuff is having an incoherent party inside your head.”
– Jenny Diski
Sometimes I am amazed about how much Apple’s approach has infiltrated so many areas of life. Thinking more carefully about objects, about tools, and about their design is great. It leads to improvements, to little epiphanies and moments of pleasure. But the problem with obsessive focus is when the focus is in the wrong place. A tool, after all, doesn’t have any life itself. That’s what you need to bring to it.
[via Noah Brier]
“You’ve gotta go out there and improvise and you’ve gotta be completely unafraid to die. You’ve got to be able to take a chance to die. And you have to die lots. You have to die all the time. You’re goin’ out there with just a whisper of an idea.”
Half decent Bill Murray interview in Esquire; I’d say he’s earned the right to give the kind of advice you’d imagine Hemingway would.
The people who can’t stop at red lights aren’t happy – they don’t have the psychological resources to be themselves, so they’re infected with this anxiety, this, “I’ve got to get going.”
– Patrick Field, in Bella Bathurst’s The Bicycle Book
What about Joseph Conrad?
His story “Youth” has this beautiful passage about your first landfall in Asia and how it haunts you for the rest of your life—everything is downhill afterward. There’s something of that in the end of Thousand Autumns. We all romanticize our youth, but when East Asia is intertwined with youth, the wistfulness and the sense of loss are amplified—for reasons which Edward Said might have scorned, and who knows, maybe justifiably. But Conrad wasn’t lying about what he felt, and neither am I, so perhaps we just have to take the flak.
Paris Review interview with David Mitchell. Well worth exploring the interview archive and adding a few to Instapaper.
I went to New York last week, mostly for work, but I had two free days at the end to explore the city. I took, as always, a Lonely Planet guidebook, but most of the time I built a list of places to go from going online. It strikes me now how easy the world has become, and simultaneously, how difficult.
It’s easy to find places in a new city now. I wrote ‘in New York’ on Facebook and people sent me bits and pieces of information. I looked at I suppose what you would call conventional review sites, places like Tripadvisor and Chowhound. I had places bookmarked and saved in a list on Simplenote, restaurants and shops and bars that had been mentioned in RSS feeds the few months previous to the trip. There were some saved bookmarks (Pinboard now Delicious is dying), and I went for a coffee at La Colombe Torrefaction in Soho because Joanne McNeil posted a photo of a beautiful coffee on Instagram just the week before I was due to go, and of course, everything on Instagram is neatly geo-tagged.
It’s hard to work all this out. It’s hard if you’re someone who doesn’t live on the internet; conventional search is just so bad at getting to it. I’ve built this delicate web of connections and conduits over years. Ways of filing information, having it there and ready. Ways of trusting people, too – I’ve never actually met Joanne McNeil, just swapped a few tweets and read her blog for a long time and yet that picture was all I needed to know that La Colombe Torrefaction would be selling one fine cup of coffee. Typing “best places in NYC for x” into Google is weak compared to all this, but it’s all most people have.
And it’s hard to work out if you’re talking about advertising. One of the chimeras on the web is stats: you get some numbers and you think they describe the world perfectly, completely. Entry pages, exit pages. Conversion rates. Numbers leave no room for the messiness and the softness, the permeability of the real world. Advertising played a role in where I went: it was on the sites I visited, and to take the coffee place as an example, the look and feel of its own site was important to me. But accounting for that? When, as a commercial person, you’re doing your reports for the money you spent? That would be hard. So much of the research for that trip wasn’t caught in the numbers – or to give the Google argument maybe it was, it’s just buried very deeply.
Brian Eno, giving his prediction for 2009/the future in general, focusses not on a scientific, technological, political or economic breakthrough, but essentially, the end of optimism as being the default of the west. Unlike Bono’s blethering mass of words in the New York Times, it’s eloquently put, if briskly bleak:
“Human development thus far has been fueled and guided by the feeling that things could be, and are probably going to be, better. The world was rich compared to its human population; there were new lands to conquer, new thoughts to nurture, and new resources to fuel it all. The great migrations of human history grew from the feeling that there was a better place, and the institutions of civilisation grew out of the feeling that checks on pure individual selfishness would produce a better world for everyone involved in the long term.
What if this feeling changes? What if it comes to feel like there isn’t a long term—or not one to look forward to? What if, instead of feeling that we are standing at the edge of a wild new continent full of promise and hazard, we start to feel that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water? Many of us grew up among the reverberations of the 1960’s. At that time there was a feeling that the world could be a better place, and that our responsibility was to make it real by living it. But suppose the feeling changes: that people start to anticipate the future world… as something more closely resembling [a] nightmare of desperation, fear and suspicion. What happens then?
The following: Humans fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on longer time-scales and require structures of social trust, don’t cohere. There isn’t time for them. Long term projects are abandoned—their payoffs are too remote… Survivalism rules. Might will be right.”
The Guardian is running a competition asking for six word memoirs to promote a new book, called ‘One Life, Six Words, What’s Yours?‘. This is my entry and you can see a selection on their site.
I was with an American friend last night, and even at 11pm she didn’t dare believe it was going to happen.
It did though, it really did.
Writers with a firmer grasp on the issues, the times and the rhetoric you need for them have delivered the goods. And of course Obama himself did. His speech wasn’t as exuberant as it could have been, and it didn’t luxuriate in the achievement itself as an isolated moment of incredible success. Instead it was thoughtful and powerful. Touchingly, the language emphasises that this is bigger than one man. Bigger that one campaign, more important than one election and one choice. It echoes with repetition, it’s rich with patterns and has a solid structure which gives a sense that a chain of voices made this happen; that this moment is linked to many more and that what you do now matters to the future and that everything is connected:
“This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing – Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.
She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.
And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.
America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves – if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?
This is our chance to answer that call.”
And then there’s what George W. Bush had to say to Obama:
“What an awesome night for you, your family and your supporters. You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life. Congratulations and go enjoy yourself.”
Sounds more like what a parent says to someone who’s finished their A-Levels and is about to go on a gap year.
Picture via Waxy.