Week 2: Ann Arbor, Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans

Post your comments over on the original post on the Tempo blog.

I am in Ann Arbor, MI as I write this, preparing to head south tomorrow. The plan is to wander down to New Orleans over the week, and then start up along the Mississippi next week. For the coming week, I have Atlanta plans nailed down and Nashville and New Orleans plans almost nailed down. According to Google Maps, Dayton, Cincinnati, Lexington, Knoxville, Montgomery and Mobile are along the route. If you suspect you are within a reasonable band off this route, give me a holler.

Here are links to my the posts I liveblogged on the Tempo blog during the first week. Delay-blogged rather.

Some reflections on Week 1 follow, for those interested in the metatext.

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Memories of Namdapha

This piece was originally published in 1999, and is based on a 1996 camping trip. My thoughts have been drifting back to this experience lately, so I thought I’d share it. It’s a little overwrought, but it is significant for me personally because my writing voice first started emerging with this piece. Besides a few copy-editing and internationalization touches, I haven’t changed anything.

– One –

Namdapha, in an obscure corner of the subcontinent. Unobtrusive in a list of National Parks, among more famous names like Kaziranga and Corbett.

There is magic here.

I mean it. Many people know about it, and they carefully try to keep the place safe, by calling it a “National Park”. Not because there are tigers here, not because there are snow leopards, but because there is magic. There are other places that are wild — but nowhere else is there magic. You ride your bus through quaint places with names like Digboi and Miao, quaint but not magical; you pass through miles of lightly wooded country, green and natural, but again, not magical.

And then you enter.

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Waiting versus Idleness

We spend a lot of our lives doing nothing. Doing nothing is usually viewed as wasting time, and there are two ways it can be done. When you waste your own time, it’s called idleness. When others waste your time, it’s called waiting. I enjoy idleness.  I don’t like waiting.

Wasted time is not empty time. Empty time is meditation. You could argue that meditation is about subjective time standing still. Your productive potential, in theory, is either preserved or enhanced through empty do-nothing.  Wasted time is also not the same as recovery, relaxation or recharge time. That’s about using this minute to make another minute more potent.

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Update on Tempo

Okay, I’ve been stringing you guys along, promising a book, for nearly two years now. You could be forgiven for thinking that the project has fallen by the wayside. On the contrary, in spite of the insane pressures of leading a product launch at Xerox and writing this pretty demanding blog, by some miracle, I’ve actually been making steady progress on the book. I thought I’d share a few details. First, we’ve nearly locked down the cover. The ‘we’ includes my good friend and very talented designer/finance quant, Adam Hogan, who is doing the cover for me (while bumming around somewhere in the Czech republic). You’ll hear more about the talented Mr. Hogan on this blog soon.

As you can see, I’ve also nearly locked down a subtitle: timing, tactics and strategy in opportunistic, narrative-driven decision making. If that sounds like a bit of a mouthful, that’s because these are exciting days in book publishing. One of the things you have to do is Aim for Amazon, and strike a delicate balance between a great title/subtitle for humans and a search-friendly one for indexes and search engines. One of the proven strategies that has emerged is to optimize the subtitle for online discovery. The skill is not unlike the skill needed to think up great blog headlines, a game I enjoy a lot. I haven’t completely locked this down, but it’s getting close.

Let me share a few more details, including the final table of contents. And don’t forget to sign up for the announcement list, if you haven’t already.

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Socratic Fishing in Lake Quora

Allow me to introduce you to Seb Paquet, an expert Socratic fisherman on Lake Quora.  He is particularly adept at baiting the hook just right to catch fish of the species Wannabis Oracularis, to which I belong. He is entirely to blame for getting me addicted to Quora in the last month or so (you can follow me here). For those who haven’t yet heard of it, Quora is a booming Q&A site. It just might be the next big social media site to cross the chasm and go mainstream. It is certainly booming right now, and is the darling of tech watchers. But unlike other recent Valley favorites like FourSquare (narrow appeal) and Groupon (for shopaholics), Quora might well become as fundamental to the Web as Google, Facebook or Twitter. Everybody asks and answers questions after all.

If you think the Q&A market is a tired and played-out ancillary market (lazy schoolkids looking for help cheating on homework on Yahoo Answers, tedious transactional Q&A on LinkedIn, let-me-Google-that-for-you sites), you’d be wrong. Quora has demonstrated that Q&A is a viable fundamental market, not a bolt-on ancillary to other markets like social networking or asymmetric messaging. Hang Zhang first helped me appreciate the very subtle social design lurking underneath the apparently simple architecture of Quora, and Seb Paquet, through his baiting, has provided me, over the last month or so, with a crash course in the dynamics of Q&A. Initially, I thought Quora was a fad, that owed its initial meteoric growth to the pedigree of its founders and early backers. I even unfairly labeled it in my head as “Valley mutual admiration society,” but I have now become a convert.

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What Does it Mean to Work Hard?

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I tried, and failed, to relax. I am sure I am not alone, and that many of you had the same experience. But I failed in a very revealing way, that led me a very interesting definition of work.

What happened was this:

I was reading a book to relax (Robert D. Kaplan’s excellent Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the future of American power). It was pure relaxation in the sense that the subject has nothing to do with either my work or subjects I normally blog about (my other “job”). But a few chapters in, something very interesting happened: I suddenly decided I might want to blog about the book. And just as suddenly, a relaxing experience turned into “work,” and within a half-hour, I felt I needed a “relaxation break.”  So what happened?

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How Good Becomes the Enemy of Great

“Good is the enemy of great” is an insight that a lot of people have stumbled upon, though I can’t trace the origin of the phrase.  It might be Jim Collins’ Good to Great, but I am not sure. A hint about the dynamics are in that book (again, an insight I’ve heard elsewhere): good people with a bad process will always beat incompetent people working with a good process.

The clue is in the word process. Process is how good becomes the enemy of great. And I mean process in its most general form, not just the rigid bureaucratic stereotype. So a specific portfolio analysis technique for picking stocks to maximize some risk/returns function, or any sort of “methodology” is a process. A 12-step program is a process. A “Maximize Your Creativity” book that deals in colorful balls and right-brained art exercises is still a process. “Be agile and improvise” is also a process. If it can be defined and written down as a prescription, with any kind of promise attached, it is a process.

Here’s why this happens. Processes (and systems) of any sort first emerge when a spectacular and undisciplined success occurs. Like a startup — XYZ Corp. say, getting wildly successful. Or the PQR basketball team racking up a string of victories. Or an actor making it big in Hollywood. First, there’s a success that attracts imitative greed. Then something very predictable happens. A “great” story is retold in ways that only capture the “good” part.

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The Seven Dimensions of Positioning

I don’t like reinventing the wheel, so for months now, I’ve been trying to reconcile everything I know about traditional business (think Peter Drucker and the Harvard Business Review) with all the seductive ideas I’ve been learning from the Lean Startup movement (and I’ll admit I am simultaneously attracted to, and wary of, those ideas). Some instinct led me to focus on a single word: positioning.

It seemed to be the key word, and I think my instincts were correct. I’ve concluded that positioning, defined in a 7-dimensional way, is the single most important word in business. So what is positioning? It is a generalization of the idea of product-market fit. It is the controlled, but not deterministic, crossing of a threshold beyond which the business suddenly seems to come alive and “work.” The emotion changes from depressed to excited. The energy changes from languid to explosive. The rhythms change from weak and uncertain to harmonious, vigorous and steady. Positioning happens when a business has an “Aha!” moment, and discovers identity, profitability and sustainability.  The business has found its groove and tempo (the business word for tempo is clockspeed) Positioning involves throwing seven firing switches from “Off” to “On” position and all 7 cylinders firing steadily enough that anyone in the business can take a real vacation without everything going to hell. [Read more…]

Cricket as Metaphor

I am rather surprised that the game of cricket has never gained popularity as a comprehensive metaphor for work, life and business. I don’t mean localized figurative metaphors like “on a sticky wicket” (tricky situation) or “bowled over” (fell in love/was caught by surprise). I mean a broad, coherent conceptual metaphor. The way American football is sometimes seen as a metaphor for industrial organization, soccer as a metaphor for reactive and opportunistic “network” styles of decision-making, and basketball as a metaphor for an artistic, Zen-like approach to life.  I think I know why this has been the case, and why it might change in the near future.

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How to Take a Walk

It was cool and mildly breezy around 8 PM today. So I went for a walk, and I noticed something. Though I passed a couple of hundred people, nobody else was taking a walk. There were people returning from work, people going places with purpose-laden bags, people running, people going to the store, people sipping slurpies.  But nobody taking a walk. Young women working their phones, but not taking a walk. People walking their dogs, or pushing a stroller, with the virtuous air of one performing a chore for the benefit of another, but not themselves taking a walk. I was the only one taking a walk. The closest activity to “taking a walk” that I encountered was two people walking together and forgetting, for a moment, to talk to each other. The moment passed. One of them said something and they slipped back into talking rather than taking a walk.

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