Lessons in exponential growth from Bold by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

In 1976, Kodak invented the digital camera.

You could be forgiven if you forgot all about Kodak. I had. Wikipedia says that, as of this writing, the company still has a bit over 6,000 employees. The company had to sell off a lot of its assets in 2012, and managed to make it out of Chapter 11 in September of 2013.

The company started way back in 1880, when George Eastman started manufacturing dry plates. It grew into film and then added cameras and eventually became a company that sold you a camera, the film and the developing.

And then they built the first digital camera. They owned the intellectual property on the technology.

They didn't care. They were early, and thought it was going to be a bust.

What happened? Peter Diamandis outlines it simply:

Kodak was married to the “paper and chemicals” (film development) business… their most profitable division, while the R&D on digital cameras was a cost center.

They saw the digital world coming on, but were convinced that digital cameras wouldn’t have traction outside of the professional market.

They certainly had the expertise to design and build consumer digital cameras -- Kodak actually built the Apple QuickTake (see photo), generally considered the world’s first consumer digital camera.

He would later write in Bold (co-written with Steven Kotler) that Kodak didn't take into account Moore's Law — which predicts the acceleration of processing speed — or the convalescence of other technology that would not only make digital photography viable, it would all but eliminate the film processing market.

In a city of 100,000 people (not big but definitely not nothing) and an art school, I know of one place to get film developed on-site. Anyone else who offers film developing sends it off for processing.

Probably to Kodak.

"Don’t be tied to your history," Diamandis goes on to write in his blog post, outlining a series of don'ts to help avoid your business being disrupted. More importantly, though, he offers tips for disrupting your own business, the way Kodak had the rare opportunity to do.

He suggests starting with adjacencies. If you make printers, look at ink. Look at what Apple did to the accessories market a couple of years ago, changing its charging sockets.

I won't rehash his post. You should go read it.

As you might imagine, if a blog post is full of great insight, a book that merely begins with the general premise of the insightful blog post must be something really worth reading, right?

Right.

Following are some of the more important takeaways, at least from my point of view.


As a business, grow exponentially. Use clear vision and big goals to motivate, and look toward major innovation. Here are some definitions and tips.

Exponential organizations spread exponentially through networks and are disproportionately large compared to the number of employees, while linear organizations have to add employees to add customers.

To think about this in action, consider, say, Facebook or Twitter. They can add a few hundred thousand customers and need to add a few people to technology support and security. If your local grocery store added a few hundred thousand customers, they'd need to add thousands of employees to help keep the shelves stocked and get people checked out.

Crowd-sourcing as much as possible can help an organization go exponential. Tim Ferriss talks about testing the title and subtitle of The Four-Hour Workweek on Google Ads, setting up unique URLs with "Under Construction" pages and seeing which title and subtitle combination drew the most visitors.

On the product side, Quirky calls for designers to submit products and the most popular ones wind up in their shop, with enough funding for fulfillment. It crowdsources product R&D while giving designers a place their stuff will get sold without having to deal with it themselves.

"Goal-setting is one of the easiest ways to increase motivation and enhance performance," he writes, noting that having goals increases performance and productivity 11-25 percent.

While having big goals is important to driving innovation — improving something 10 percent keeps you stuck with the same tools and limitations, he writes, while going for a 10 times improvement requires you to invent something — lining goals up with values can lead to some amazing work.

In 1943, the US Army charged Lockheed Martin with building something entirely new to help defeat the Germans, whose jet fleet was increasingly becoming a major threat in World War II.

Since improving existing technology only a little was not going to be a good strategy, Lockheed sent some engineers into isolation — where they would be uninfluenced both by the other work going on in the company and by distraction — and they created something brand new in a month.

They innovated and delivered a new jet months quicker than the Army even managed to get them a contract.

That project, the Skunk Works, still exists as an innovation team.


Other notes

Gartner hype cycle.

The Gartner hype cycle details the commercial success arc of new innovations. It peaks early and then crashes, but then works its way back up.

While the hype cycle research has been around for a while, we can see it clearly in recent technology, even in the internet age. Think about Friendster and MySpace. They peaked early, and while they're both still around, they didn't make it for the long haul, really.

It also puts me in mind of virtual reality. Remember the movie Hackers? Fisher Stevens' character stands on a VR platform with goggles and gloves. It's been around a long time, and is only just now — decades later — starting to get near to being in many homes.

The great Kevin Kelly thought virtual reality was coming in the 1990s. He tells Chase Jarvis he's not real sure it'll be in every household this time, but there's a reasonable chance he'll be wrong a second time.

The Six Ds of emergent technologies and exponential growth

  1. Digitalization — Anything that can be digitized can be subject to Moore's Law
  2. Deception — The first steps appear small, but if we think the early steps at .01, .02 and .04 all look like zero, we miss that we're getting toward one, and once we hit one, we're 20 steps from over a million
  3. Disruption — New technology comes along deceptively slowly then blows up
  4. Demonetization — The shadow economy in plain sight. Think Google giving away office tools (like Docs and Sheets) in exchange for data instead of dollars, or Linux being entirely free
  5. Dematerialization — Goods disappear, so do services surrounding those goods (think about Apple getting rid of the headphone jack)
  6. Democratization — Costs drop so low that (almost) anyone can afford them

Google's 8 innovation principles

Here are the ways that Google looks to grow:

• User focus
• Share everything
• Look for ideas everywhere
• Thing big, start small (iterate)
• Never fail to fail
• Spark with imagination, fuel with data
• Be a platform
• Have a mission that matters

Think at scale

These are the things that Larry Page (Google), Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink), Richard Branson (Virgin) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon, Washington Post) consider when growing their businesses:

• Risk-taking and risk-mitigation
• Rapid iteration and ceaseless experimentation
• Passion and purpose
• Long-term thinking
• Customer-centric thinking
• Probabalistic thinking
• Rationally optimistic thinking
• Reliance on first principles (fundamental truths)

Make stone soup

You're probably familiar with this old tale of soldiers who get a village to chip in to make a good soup from nothing.

You can throw something out there, and if it has a good foundation, others will chip in to help build your product.

Other resources

A few places you can connect with Diamandis and his projects:

Abundance Hub
Singularity Hub
Singularity University

Crazy, coffee and conundrums: Lessons from Abundance by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

In the years that most informed my early adulthood — those from my mid-teens to my mid-20s, say — I frequented the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. I had many late nights and long, deep conversations at the now-closed Fire & Water Cafe (you can now see remnants, or indeed, a new iteration, at Cafe Evolution up the road in Florence).

I visited friends at Smith College, which has an all-female undergraduate student body.

And the city is also known for the Northampton State Hospital, a mental institution that grew so big in its first century so as to be serving nearly 2,500 patients by the mid-1950s.

Northampton State Hospital was also a terrible place — you can actually see some of it in the asylum scenes in the movie "In Dreams" — that in 1978 a judge ordered the institution to reduce its patient load to 50 by 1981.

While the Brewster Decree (or Northampton Decree, as it's sometimes called) didn't fully close the hospital until 1993, you don't go from serving over 2,000 patients down to 50 without largely just discharging your patients out into the streets of the city.

A number of those wandering, previously committed souls were still out wandering the city in the 1990s and early 2000s while I was also out wandering the city. So I learned some stuff from them, too.

"You need to be a little crazy to change the world," write Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler on page 233 of Abundance, "and you can't really fake it."


Coffee

I drink a lot of coffee. My wife will have a cup when she wakes up, and sometimes, on a day off, she might have a second. On my days off, I'll drink one cup when I wake up, and two or three more throughout the day. If I'm working, I'll have one when I wake up, one while I'm making dinner, and then it's a fairly steady stream of joe until midnight or 1 a.m., depending on when I'm scheduled.

Depending upon whom you ask, coffee might have been discovered as a beverage in the ninth century or the tenth century or perhaps a little bit later, at least for the modern version (thirteenth century).

It was probably more like the seventeenth century when we started mass producing coffee and slurping it like we do.

Something else I enjoy drinking is beer, which we've probably had since we figured out agriculture (leave some grain in a pot, head out for a hunt, it rains, you come back in a few days, drink the water out of the pot and get drunk).

Take an hour of your life to watch "How Beer Saved the World" — you'll probably learn more than you wanted to.

When water wasn't safe to drink because we had sewage and dead animals running into our water supplies and no treatment plants, we were drinking beer, because the fermentation process made it safe to drink.

So, for centuries, we were drinking beer, and then we figured out coffee. We didn't go from half-drunk to sober, Diamandis and Kotler point out, we went from half-drunk to wired.

In his essay Java Man, Malcolm Gladwell gives coffee (and tobacco) a lot of credit for really getting us going as a species.

It is worth noting, as well, that in the original coffeehouses nearly everyone smoked, and nicotine also has a distinctive physiological effect. It moderates mood and extends attention, and, more important, it doubles the rate of caffeine metabolism: it allows you to drink twice as much coffee as you could otherwise. In other words, the original coffeehouse was a place where men of all types could sit all day; the tobacco they smoked made it possible to drink coffee all day; and the coffee they drank inspired them to talk all day. Out of this came the Enlightenment. (The next time we so perfectly married pharmacology and place, we got Joan Baez.)

In time, caffeine moved from the café to the home. In America, coffee triumphed because of the country’s proximity to the new Caribbean and Latin American coffee plantations, and the fact that throughout the nineteenth century duties were negligible. Beginning in the eighteen-twenties, Courtwright tells us, Brazil “unleashed a flood of slave-produced coffee. American per capita consumption, three pounds per year in 1830, rose to eight pounds by 1859.”

What this flood of caffeine did, according to Weinberg and Bealer, was to abet the process of industrialization–to help “large numbers of people to coordinate their work schedules by giving them the energy to start work at a given time and continue it as long as necessary.”

I've certainly had at least (and probably more than) my fair share of focus and productivity thanks to caffeine. Just listen to Kelvin and I slurping away during our JKWD podcasts.


OK, so let's talk about the lessons we learn from Abundance. This was supposed to be a post about the book, remember?

First, let's look at how we move from thinking in a scarcity mindset to thinking in an abundance mindset.

Abundance is wrought of technology.

If I have an orange tree and I pick all the oranges on the lowest branches, I now have a scarcity of oranges. When someone invents the ladder, I now have an abundance of oranges, since I can reach all the fruit on the higher branches.

In the mid-19th century, aluminum was more valuable than gold. The top of the Washington Monument is capped in aluminum. It cost more per ounce than the average daily wage for someone working to build it. In the ensuing decades, researchers in America and France would figure out how to isolate the metal with an electrolytic process, and now it's so easy to get aluminum we wrap our cold pizza in it.

Some 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered with water, but 97.3 percent of that is salt water. Lots of people today die from lack of clean drinking water, but when we come up with a good desalination technology, the scarcity will go away.


The bottom of pyramid, the domino effect and reworking Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Right now, hundreds of millions or billions of people live in poverty, food scarcity, water scarcity, lack of health care, etc. These people represent the the bottomm of the pyramid — a swath of humanity large enough to boost up the rest of the world, except for the fact that they're suffering.

If we can take care of these people, they can contribute to society, solving more (world) problems.

Think, also, of a mother who spends her day toting water for cleaning and drinking and cooking. Giver her clean running water in her home, and now she can go to work, raising both the wealth of her family and her nation's GDP.

Give Bill Gates enough money to pay his bills, now he can go defeat malaria. Give a painkiller-addicted, depressed MMA fighter a new purpose, and he can go Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who, in the mid-20th century, developed a fundamental hierarchy of needs. It starts with basic human needs (food, water, air and such) at the bottom, and once you can get that taken care of, you can move on to the next level, with the top being self-actualization, or the ability to be personally fulfilled.

Diamandis and Kotler argue for reworking Maslow's pyramid into a three-tier pyramid starting in about the same place, but basically replacing the middle three tiers with a single tier that includes education, energy (as in power, be it solar, battery, etc.) and communication. At the top, you find liberty, freedom and other things that many of us take for granted, like health care.


Other Notes and Resources

Worry Brain

The amygdala is an almond-shaped sliver in the temporal love responsible for assessing danger and then looking to neutralize it. I talked about this in the our crazy brains spisode of the podcast. It's an anxious slice of your brain, and once stimulated, it almost never shuts up. It's responsible for fight or flight, and the biggest problem it has right now is there are very few real reasons to be naturally concerned, so it makes up worst-case scenarios to find a reason to panic.

Don't get caught up in what your amygdala's telling you, or you have problems, and probably not even real ones.

Four motivations for innovation

From the weakest to the strongest, there are the reasons people innovate:

• Curiosity
• Fear
• Wealth
• Significance

In other words, money is actually a stronger driver than many people might admit, but it's still not as strong a driver as the esteem in which you'll be held.

Other resources

A few places you can connect with Diamandis and his projects:

Abundance Hub
Singularity Hub
Singularity University

As the brain spins: It takes incremental growth to build toward monumental growth

I've gotten very into the brain recently. I'm not really sure why — it's just one of those things that popped up in my life and I decided to roll with it.

I was listening to Steven Kotler on Joe Rogan's podcast and decided to go to the library and take out Kotler's book The Rise of Superman.

The brief backstory on Kotler is that he got Lyme disease, it was misdiagnosed and he was in bed for three years. Eventually a friend convinced him to go surfing and his body started to heal. "Hmm," he thought. "Surfing is not a known cure for chronic autoimmune diseases."

So he did some research and discovered that action sports with a fair bit of risk get us into a state called flow, a state that not only helps with decision-making in high-pressure situations, it's that state that gets us writing, conversing, coding or whatever for hours with a high level of correctness and efficiency.

Kotler figured out for himself while writing a book that he could get himself into flow reliably with a specific bit of exercise he would use any time he was blocked and trying to solve a problem. If you've ever sat down with a friend and started talking and all of a sudden four hours have passed, you've been in flow.

Anyway, Kotler was so fascinated with flow he started a business around it.

In The Rise of Superman, Kotler outlines some of the neuroscience behind flow. Meanwhile, I was taking another one of my random walks through the library stacks and Kayt Sukel's The Art of Risk jumped out at me.

She was a badass when she was younger. A climber who, after getting divorced, took her one-year-old son and backpacked around Europe. She got in an MRI machine and had an orgasm for a book and went around the country talking about it.

But she found herself taking fewer risks as she got older and wondered why, so she set out to figure out what goes on in a risk-taker's brain.

And fuck if she wasn't writing about the same bits of the brain that Kotler wrote about.

Somewhere in there — and I have absolutely no idea how I came across this — I stumbled upon a study of gamma brain activity and Parkinson's.

We'll come back to this later, but gamma activity is a signifier of flow.

Crazy. It was a sure sign that I needed to know a little more.


Here are some things we know about the brain. While I've been reading a lot here and there, the most succinct source for the historical stuff in this section is The Great Brain Book by HP Newquist.

Several thousand years ago, the Egyptians, in the mummification of the dead, were the first people to cut open bodies in an effort to preserve them.

They thought the brain was trash.

In the mummification process, the organs were removed so that the body could dry. The heart was returned to the chest. This is the organ the Egyptians believed handled thought, emotion and everything else, and that it would be useful in the afterlife to have it inside the body.

The lungs, kidneys and other stuff that sits in the torso were placed in jars and left nearby the body in the tomb (the Egyptians also left toys and tools and other things they thought the body could use in the afterlife).

Then they shoved a chisel in the nasal cavity, stuck a hook up there and yanked out what they could of the brain. They would later scoop out whatever was left.

They didn't leave the brain in the body. They didn't even put it in a jar. It just went out with the garbage.

Things go that way for about 1,400 years, until Herophilus, the "father of anatomy," cuts open cadavers and finds that the brain does connect to the rest of the body. This is around 300 BCE.

Four to five hundred years later, Galen posits that the brain actually handles a lot of functions, including moods. He gets the mechanism so wrong it's not worth discussing, but there's at least the understanding that the brain controls a good bit of what makes us people.

We're at about 1,900 years ago now.

Over the next, oh, 1,750 years, we get detailed drawings, but no real new science.

Then, in 1848, a railroad worker named Phineas Gage is clearing some space to lay track. He puts dynamite in a hole, tamps it down, and BLAM! — the explosive blows before he can get out of the way and his tamping rod goes up through his jaw, behind his left eye and out the top of his head.

As he's laying on the ground, the rod still stuck in him, workers come over and collect what they assume is the body of their late colleague. Instead, they help Gage up, and he's walking around and talking just like normal.

Well, as normal as you can be with a tamping rod sticking out of two holes in your head.

Gage lives another 12 years, with the only real noticeable side effect being that he turns into a really grumpy dude.

Doctors, of course, started examining him right away, and they studied his brain long after he died.

The biggest discovery early on from Gage's examinations was that different parts of the brain handle different things.

In 1861, a French physician named Pierre Paul Broca meets a patient named Louis Victor Leborgne. Leborgne could only say the syllable, "Tan." He seemed perfectly normal otherwise. His body language suggested that he understood everything that people said to him or asked him, but he couldn't say anything but "Tan."

Broca postulated that Leborgne had damage in the part of his brain that handled language, and, sure enough, when they opened his head upon his death, one part of his brain was badly decayed.

In the 1870s, a pair of doctors figured out that the right side of the brain handles the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls the right — in other words, the two sides of the brain work independently.

Over the ensuing half-century, we learn that the brain sends out electrical signals, and in 1924, we get the EEG, which worked then pretty much the same way it works now (we of course now also have the MRI as a more comprehensive way to look at brain activity).

In the 1950s, Wilder Penfield discovers he can get physical reactions by stimulating different parts of the brain.

And that's it, until very recently. Quick review:
1700 - 300 BCE: We go from throwing out the brain to learning that it's connected to the rest of our inside.
Around 100 CE: We start thinking the brain controls our feelings
Around 1500 CE: Anatomists start drawing things
1848-1950s CE: We learn basically everything you and I learned in science class about the brain.

More on innovation timelines: Rambling thoughts on innovation »


We That covers about 3,650 years.

In the 60 or so years that have passed since then — and we all know people who are way older than that — we've learned so much more. We've developed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines that can read what's going on in the brain. We know what each part of the brain does, at least to some extent. We know about neurotransmitters. We know about brain waves.

And we've been manipulating pieces here and there, with more and more accuracy. With the development of earlier drugs like fluoxetine and sertraline (Prozac and Zoloft, respectively), we figured out how to do things like block some neurotransmitter receptors. More and more specific drugs have been developed as well, and a current fad is over-the-counter nootropics like Alpha Brain and lion's mane-and-chaga mushroom "coffee" (both of which I'll recommend, but the Alpha Brain much moreso than the mushroom coffee).

As much as Alpha Brain help you with your focus and thinking abilities, there are other supplements for other things, for example, I have been using ligandrol for almost 2 months now and I absolutely love it ligandrol testosterone booster.

Kotler also recommends a recipe for getting into flow predictably, though I won't post it here as (a) he put the work in, (b) I haven't tried it to be able to recommend it and (c) it might not be legal everywhere.

We're only going to get better at manipulating our brains, too, and the speed of information gathering is going to continue to increase.

Exciting stuff, huh? And what amazing creatures we are!

Lessons in leadership from Jocko Willink: Extreme Ownership and beyond

"Don't count on motivation. Count on discipline," Jocko Willink says on an audience Q&A episode of Tim Ferriss' podcast.

Willink is a retired Navy Seal and co-author with retired Seal Leif Babin of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. The two are partners in a corporate leadership consulting firm called Echelon Front (NOTE: auto-play audio, safe for work).

I first came to know of Willink on an interview-style podcast he did with Ferriss; Joe Rogan learned so much from that episode that he had Willink on his show soon after.

I know that lately with my non-fiction book reviews, I've been primarily listing the notes I took. But I took six pages of notes on this one. I'd be doing both you and Extreme Ownership a disservice if that's how I approached this.

What I'm going to do first is recommend the book. It's a quick read (I read it in three sittings, despite taking six pages of notes), it's really interesting and it's immensely practical.

In each chapter, Babin or Willink (they each wrote half the chapters) begins with a combat story. They set the stage, discuss the mission, how it was designed and executed, what went right and wrong, and discuss the principles at play. Then, in a short section, they more clearly define the principle. Finally, the chapter concludes with the principle at play in a business setting — using an example from a business their company has actually worked with.

The combat stories are interesting to me as someone who has never been in combat; I imagine they'd be interesting to someone who has served, as well. The principles are clearly defined. I've seen many of the business examples at play in companies I've worked for.

I tend to take bodies of work as a whole in my brain. These items were certainly in the book, but they also bleed into the podcasts and other writings. These are my four favorite takeaways (but again, read the book and listen for yourself). You can also scroll down to the bottom of this post for photos of my notes if you want more.

When the team understands the mission, they can better carry it out. This isn't a new idea, but it is something that leadership has long been resistant to. Jump to around 50 minutes in this Richard Feynman lecture — when the military conscripted a bunch of engineering students to punch holes in cards at Los Alamos, it was slow going. But when Feynman got clearance to tell them what they were doing and why, they went from solving three problems in nine months to solving nine problems in three months, inventing new processes and programs along the way.

Too often, the people doing the work are asked to just do the work, without any insight into the larger goal. In other words, they don't have a look at the big picture and are just checking off something on their to-do lists.

Be willing to tell your frontline workers why you want them to do something. At the very least, you give them a sense of purpose within the larger context of what you're trying to accomplish. You might get a lot more, though: you might get better ways to do things. You might get insight into other ways to accomplish your goals. You might get insight into other things you're also accomplishing without realizing it.

The more people you have invested in the goal, the more likely you are to be successful.

I think enough time has passed that I can talk a little about the time earlier this year when I thought I was going to be unemployed. I had received a month's notice that my department was to be eliminated. A little less than two weeks later, an asshole with a gun shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando, and instead of waiting until 9 a.m. to post to our news sites, when I was scheduled to work, I delayed my run by half an hour to post it before 7 a.m. A few days later I got a call that the company had decided not to eliminate my department.

I'm sure that the one action I took did not save the department. I'm sure, however, that it helped. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't understood our mission as a company and what my role in accomplishing that mission was. I don't post news to check "post news" off my to-do list, I do it because it helps us achieve our goals. If I didn't understand that, I might have just waited until it was time for me to clock in.

Departments within the same company need to find a way to work together without blaming each other for shortcomings. I've encountered this problem in every company I've ever worked for. Some of those companies have been hugely successful. Some have failed.

In every case, the problem has been communication. Specifically, a failure to communicate a reminder that different departments are not competing, trying to keep each other down. We are working toward the same goal. It seems sometimes like Department A is trying to sabotage Department B. In all likelihood, it really is that Department B has never told Department A what the problem is how Department A could better help Department B — and conversely, ask if there's a way for Department B to help solve the problem, with different communication or other practices.

Leadership works in two directions within the chain of command: Down and up. Leadership is a personality trait more often than it is a function of title. If you have a leader among the rank-and-file, you'll want to make sure you listen, even if you're a great leader. A higher rank is not always an indicator of the best idea for every situation.

In about 4 of every 5 shifts I work, I have rank. I'm good at a lot of things. Sadly, delegation is not one of them, but I'm working on that. One of the things I have definitely gotten better at, though, is recognizing strengths in others and either leaning on them for the things they're strong at, or asking them to teach me those things.

If you want to change the way things are done, pick your battles and earn the right to be heard. This is hugely important in every organization, not just companies. Every organization has its faults, and many of them are operational. "That's the way we've always done it" is a common answer for why things are done the way they are. That doesn't mean it's a good answer.

When you see something that could be done better, it makes sense to speak up. But first, you must show you understand the mission: why you're doing the thing you're doing and why it's been done that way for so long. You must be a voracious worker — someone who has earned the trust of those who have the power to change things before you'll really be heard up the chain of command.

And if you make noise on one thing, you might not get heard on something else, so pick your battles. You don't want to be seen as a complainer, someone who just hates all the processes. At some point, you'll just be the boy who cried wolf.

***

Willink also has his own podcast. I personally don't enjoy it: his delivery is very dry even if the information is interesting; it's not for me. I know other people who enjoy it.

Photos of my notes: Pages 1-2 | Pages 3-4 | Pages 5-6

Political disclaimer: Willink and Babin are both veterans. They served their country with honor. They support the missions given them. They also follow Department of Defense guidelines n the way they write about war, soldiers and the U.S. mission. You do not need to agree with them to get a lot of their work. You do, however, need to be willing to look past your own prejudices, whether you agree with them or not. Either way, I don't believe either of them is guilty of blind boosterism.

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White space for your brain: About a book: The Chaos Imperative by Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack

When Ori Brafman was asked to help the army figure out how to invite some innovation into its thinking, he thought about the plague. Bubonic plague. Black Death. That period in European history when lots of people died.

imagesWhy? Because lots of priests administered lots of last rites and caught the plague and subsequently died. A new group of people took over the Church — a group of people who unlocked the vaults and allowed people to read books on science and history and other subjects that the previous regime had banned.

With that, the Enlightenment came about, giving us art, science, math — Michelangelo and da Vinci and the printing press and all that came after it.

All because a single flea-bitten rat got onto a ship and then got off of it, spreading disease and wiping out a large population.

How random.

It's not entirely random, though. Rats sneak onto boats all the time. They sneak off boats all the time, too. Boats carry food that rats eat and rats carry fleas that sometimes bite people and some of those fleas carried plague. The ship allowed for serendipitous chaos — not always a good thing, but, especially for organizations stuck in their ways, certainly not always a bad thing.

Brafman and his co-author Judah Pollack write in The Chaos Imperative: How chance and disruption increase innovation, effectiveness and success about ways to bring serendipitous chaos into organizations. They also write about allowing opportunities for "white space" in our lives.

Most organizations have a structure and/or hierarchy that won't allow for departmental intermingling or for people of vastly different ranks to share input. So, the authors write, smart leaders will set up places for "controlled chaos" to happen.

They make note of a hospital where all the nurses were complaining about there being no hot water on one of the floors — something that was news to the higher-ups when the organization implemented meetings of people of various departments and ranks regularly. The hospital was undergoing some repair work, but rescheduling everything to address that problem first would have cost lots of money. Fortunately, a janitor was in on one of the meetings, and he asked if the valve was open. Everyone just assumed it was and wouldn't have known where to look anyway. It turns out it wasn't, and through an organizational structure that allowed for some serendipitous chaos to occur, the problem was solved quickly and cheaply.

The other concept Brafman and Pollack discuss at length is "white space": making room in your brain to innovate. They hold up as an example Albert Einstein, who was the only member of his graduating class not to get a job in physics after college. Instead, he would have long discussions with friends of various backgrounds about art, music, government and whatever else came to mind. He worked at a patent office. Without having to concentrate on physics all day, he was able to develop his theory of relativity.

It turns out that downtime — the time for "white space" — has some basis in science. MRIs show that when someone is focused on a task, one part of their brain is active. When the person moves off that task, however, the "focused" part of the brain goes inactive, but the rest of the brain goes active, processing and synthesizing the information from the task.

If you're stuck creatively or on a project, or if you run an organization that seems to be stuck in its ways and not moving forward, this book is for you. It might not give you the breakthrough you need, but it'll tell you how to get to that breakthrough.

About a book: momentum by Shama Hyder

Six years ago, when I reviewed her previous book The Zen of Social Media Marketing, I wrote about how smart Shama Hyder is. So, when her team asked if I'd review her new book, momentum, I said absolutely.

SH-Book-momentum_03momentum landed at my doorstep at a tumultuous time in my life, and I'm embarrassed to say I sat on it for a few months until I could find the focus.

I'm glad I found that focus, though. The book is absolutely worth a read if you're starting a business, in business, or need to rethink your social marketing strategy.

It's most important if you're not integrating your online and real-world marketing strategies.

Hyder details five principles: Agility, customer focus, integration, curation and cross-pollination. She also includes a bunch of tools and takeaways, and I'm not going to spoil those, or you won't need to read the book, which means you won't need to buy the book, which means she would have sent me a book to read for free and then I gave away the good stuff. Instead, I'll clue you in to my notes.

I will say, first, that the book is astoundingly simple to follow. Hyder includes real-world examples, and runs a narrative of a fictionalized sports drink company throughout the book, so you'll be able to see what the strategies she outlines look like in action, rather than having to figure out how the strategies apply to you.

I have two different note-taking strategies for books. One is to use a single notebook, which has the drawback that if I'm taking notes on multiple things concurrently, they get mixed. The other is to use Post-It Notes upside-down (so that the sticky bit is at the bottom), so that when the note is full I stick it to the last page I took a note on and the notes are right-side up. That has the drawback of a bunch of little pieces of paper, but more continuity.

I used the latter method for momentum. Here are some of the highlights from my notes. Bold items are my favorites.

• Targeting very specific individuals is now very easy.
• Marketing used to be an outward push; now it's an inward pull.
• It's easier than ever to analyze effectiveness and change strategy mid-campaign
• There's a ton of data now; use it to be agile. Track and adapt.
• "Agility in marketing leads directly to marketing momentum" (p. 20) — when the lights went out in the Super Bowl in 2013, Oreo took to Twitter for an unplanned campaign
Nothing is sacred
• Identify your goals, make them clear and understand who is in charge of them
Be specific about your targets
• Create overall strategies, then drill down to individual campaigns, and be willing to change those individual campaigns
• Be patient, track, change and automate
• All your online activities should be integrated
• People use social media to show themselves off, not to connect; that makes it easy to figure out how your target customers present themselves and you can then make that happen with your product
• Sometimes going viral is luck, but by making a campaign personal, you can get there predictably
• Use existing data to answer specific questions about your customers
• Create a customer persona with a detailed background — it will help you understand the customer better
• Survey, analyze, listen and test
Conversations are better than monologues
• Connect with influencers among your customer groups
• Your customers should have a consistent brand experience whether they find you on Instagram, Twitter, a radio ad or a billboard
Stop separating your digital and traditional marketing groups
• Find ways to integrate your digital and traditional marketing, such as posting radio and TV ads on YouTube and asking someone to like a Facebook page on your company's business cards
"Information is not a substitute for knowledge." (p. 99)
• Outside content is important — don't only push your own content.
• Partner with your partners — if a store that sells your product is having a sale on other items, promote that sale and maybe people will pick up your product, too.
Close the loop: Introduce your partners to each other
• Return on investment (ROI) is no longer about money coming in, it's about relationships being built

I hope you go pick up a copy of momentum, wherever you are in your business. Take the advice personally, and take it seriously. It's meant for everybody.

Disclosure: Book provided for the purpose of review.

About a book: The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh

I love me some Irvine Welsh. You probably know him as the author of Trainspotting. A foul-mouthed, sex-drugs-and-fucking Brit who sometimes allows his characters to get away with murder.

Which he does in The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins.

The book is something a bit different for Welsh. Set in Miami and focused on hard-ass personal trainer Lucy Brennan and her Pygmalion, Lena Sorenson.

The novel opens with Brennan angrily leaving the home of her annoying boyfriend in the wee hours. She stops a shooting, and Sorenson gets cell phone video of the event.

Things balloon from there.

We see the building of celebrity, and the tearing down of it. We see emotional abusive relationships. Kidnappings. Art. Exercise. Murder.

Meanwhile, the nation is absorbed in the story of a pair of 16-year-old conjoined twins from Arkansas. One wants to have sex with her boyfriend; the other hates him.

Do they get the surgery to separate them, even though the odds of survival for one of them is slim?

Find out. Really, read this. Lots of fun, and a great summer read.

About a book: The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan

Zoltan Istvan is running for president this year, as a member of the Transhumanist Party.

He has some reasonable ideas amidst the stuff that you know will keep him out of serious running. On the one hand, he wants good education for everyone, a flat tax and a has a Libertarian stance on recreational drugs. On the other hand, the party platform has stuff like phasing out jobs for humans, creating rights for cyborgs and stressing secular values.

If his novel, The Transhumanist Wager, however, is more of the platform manifesto it seems to be, he'd be a bit on the dangerous side for the world.

The novel itself paints a picture of a futuristic, science-based capitalist near-Utopia that really is not all that far off. People will live forever in good health thanks to medical procedures that renew our systems and a change in telomerase rates (that's something SENS is actually working on in real life — I've written about them here before) and the introduction of mechanical implants.

The nation that develops this technology, Transhumania, exists because some of the world's great scientists, under the direction of American movement leader Jethro Knights, are forced out of their own countries for their views on transhumanism, the idea that humans can evolve into something greater.

The anti-transhuman movement is driven in large part by religious groups in the U.S., and in particular by Reverend Belinas, a megachurch leader with deep political connections. He advises the president and many members of Congress, as well as some of the country's wealthiest individuals.

The world's top powers get together and decide to put an ultimatum on Transhumania, but Knights goes before their leaders and demands their surrender. The powers eventually kidnap Knights, but he escapes thanks to some of Transhumania's inventions and a chip implanted in his neck. When the top nations attack Transhumania, it turns out the defense systems are so complex there are barely any injuries on Transhumania's side; meanwhile, redirected rockets are responsible for the allies hitting each other's ships, killing thousands.

At this point, Transhumania puts its military might to work, letting all the countries know which symbolically powerful landmarks will be wiped out so that people can be cleared away. Knights' forces then destroy religious and political landmarks, from the Vatican, Mecca and the Western Wall to Parliament, Buckingham Palace and the White House.

Once the centers of superstition and power are wiped out, the reasoning goes, science can take over.

After this attack, Knights launches into a speech that feels as long and overwrought as John Galt's 98-page monster in Atlas Shrugged (it's not nearly that long, but sometimes it feels like it). Join us and live forever, Knights says, or we're just going to leave you behind. You're to be well-educated and productive, or we might as well just kill you and have you stop using our resources. There are too many people; decide which side you'd like to be on.

The book ends with some medical science at work; medical science that we're headed toward in real life. Morgan Spurlock saw some of it in Season 2, Episode 2 of "Inside Man" (see him talking about it a little bit here).

There's certainly some validity to transhumanism. We're not ready for it in our current generation, I don't think; it requires allowing everyone to rise on their own merit, turning ego only to improving oneself without allowing for competition. The kind of empathy transhumanism allows is evolutionary, not individual — we're not out to save all lives, just the lives that will help advance humans.

But read the book. Get educated. For as alarming as the anti-religion, anti-nation bits are, there's a new perspective that a growing population is finding worthwhile.

What we’re reading

I decided to get back to some fiction early in the year. My reading had been slowing down, and I'd been a little overwhelmed by life in general. Fiction always provides a nice respite, which in turn lets me relax in other aspects of my life, and now I'm all relaxed and ready as spring hits here in coastal Georgia.

Some recent reads:

Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk. Madison Spencer, who beat Satan at his own game in Damned, returns to the world of the living for her annual Halloween candy collection (candy bars are currency in Hell), but through some trickery on Satan's part, gets stuck for the year (if you're not back in Hell by midnight, see ya next year).

She had previously communicated to her Hollywood do-gooder parents that the way to Heaven was through general rudeness: cussing and flatulating cheerfully. She was kidding, of course, and now she faces an Earth full of joyfully disgusting humans, all doomed to Hell for their behavior, thanks to her. And she's back to fix it.

Palahniuk is the author of Fight Club and a pile of other books I love, and while this isn't among my favorites of his, it's definitely good for a few hours of escapism.

Not a Star by Nick Hornby. What happens when you're a middle class English mum and you come home to a DVD slipped through your mail slot, and the guy on the cover looks a lot like your son? What happens when you discover it is your son? What happens when the film on the DVD is pornographic?

Hornby is another one of my favorites (High Fidelity, A Long Way Down, others), and this novella from the Open Door series is great for a rainy day with a cup of coffee.

Bad Monkeys by Mike Ruff. I'm not sure how I've never heard of Ruff before (I mean, there's a quote on the book's cover from Christopher Moore), but this book is a twisted, paranoid look at the world. I don't even want to give much away, but if you think you're being watched, you probably are — but not by the government or your ex.

I've said too much.

4 lessons from Sherlock Holmes

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I used to love mystery novels as a child. I tore through Hardy Boys books, through Agatha Christie novels, and basically whatever I could get my hands on.

I spent much of this year reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Complete, as in Arthur Conan Doyle's novels and serials about the detective over a course of 60 years — he wrote about Holmes, mostly from the point of view of the narrator, Watson, a young doctor back from military service in Afghanistan, from 1867 to 1927.

Here are a few lessons, good and bad.

1. Be observant. Holmes gets most of his information from just paying attention to little details — the scuff on a sleeve, the mud on a boot, the ash from a cigar, the shape of a toe on a footprint. We'd all do well to be that observant, though maybe without bragging about it.

2. Do what you love. Holmes rarely takes money, other than expenses, for handling a private case, and typically lets police take credit for crimes solved. He does the work for the love of a challenge.

3. Be better to your friends. Holmes abuses the hell out of Watson. He once let the doctor think he was dead for several years. Other times, he tricked him into playing a part in solving the crime, putting the work above his friend. I can only guess Watson sticks by Holmes because Doyle needs him, and this is fiction, after all.

4. Be better to your readers. One thing I remember loving about mysteries as a child is the whodunit aspect — I got to play along and see if I could solve it. But Holmes often has some crucial piece of information the reader only finds out at the reveal. We never really get to play along; we just get to wait and see how it ends.

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