A few words on Steve Jobs

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I found myself strangely affected by the news that Steve Jobs was taking a leave of absence. I don’t know the guy. I just buy his stuff. We never found time for a personal chat during my brief stint as an Apple Store employee.

So why did the news make me so melancholy, even to this minute?

It might have something to do with the fact that it was his commencement speech at Stanford that planted the seed in my mind that life is beautifully and tragically ephemeral. I didn’t know what to do with that information at the time, but over the past few years, this mindset has really shifted me to strive to live a life of purpose.

It only occurs to me now that, just as he saw a vision of the future at Xerox PARC in the 1970s, he saw another 8 years ago with touch/gesture-based computing, and he’s been absolutely driven to see it take hold. It’s happening now, and it’s irreversibly changing the way people interact with computers. The iPad isn’t some gadget, it’s a puzzle piece in Jobs’s vision of literally altering the future of humanity.

Is it egotistical for him to believe that if he didn’t bring about these visions of computing, from personal, to graphical, to touch, that they would never have existed (or would have been horribly mangled)? Yes, definitely. Is it true? Almost assuredly.

When Jobs and Gates were asked about legacy a few years back, Steve brushed off the question. I thought it was odd, but I get it now.

The term “legacy” tends to be associated with the question, “How will I be remembered?” Alfred Nobel didn’t want to be known as a merchant of death, and he did indeed radically change his legacy. Bill Gates turned his focus 180 degrees, from taking money from rich Westerners to raising the standard of living for the world’s poorest 10%.

Steve Jobs has no time for that. For him, the idea of legacy is probably a distraction, because he goes into work every day with the intention of changing the world, not the way he’ll be talked about after he’s gone.

Jobs says that he once had to choose between an “important” business meeting and a date with the woman that would someday become his wife. His thought was that if it were his last day on earth, he’d choose seeing her. So he did.

What would I do if today were my last? Would I be doing the same things with my family? Is there enough of my own mission in my work that I’d still be there? If not, why? What am I going to do about it?

It’s important to note that Jobs doesn’t say “live each day like it’s your last.” He just poses the question and says that when he has too many consecutive days where he doesn’t like the answer, it’s time to change something.

If you haven’t watched his speech, please do. He implored those students (and by extension, me, and you) to not spend your days living someone else’s life, because there’s so precious little of our own.

I’m grateful for the lesson, and hopeful that Steve will recover fully and to continue to embody it.

Grabbing a shovel

“You’re obviously talented and sharp. But I have no idea how to use you”.

About the third time I heard this from different bosses, I felt like an utter failure. Why would someone as capable as I felt be so woefully misunderstood and underutilized?

As it turns out, it was 100% my fault, and the fix isn’t all that hard.

As I outlined in another post, a coworker shared the secret of his relatively stress-free work environment (the same environment that stressed me to the point of physical illness). He was a free agent. He was only there because he wanted to be. He woke up every day and made the decision to come to work because it was what he wanted to do, not what he had to do.

But I couldn’t just be a free agent. I didn’t know where to start to develop that sense.

As it turns out, a different piece of advice he gave me later was the missing piece, the building block that earns you that free agency. I was going around in circles worrying about how I, a brand-new programmer of less than 6 months, could contribute to our large and intimidating project. He told me this: “I’m looking for people who will just grab a shovel and get to work. If you can do that, great.”

On the marketing side, I’d spent so much time trying to convince people that I had good ideas that I never bothered to just get things done. It didn’t help that the department didn’t have any clue of what we should be getting done. We just knew we needed big ideas that could recoup our ever-expanding millions in losses.

But in my interactions with the development team, they weren’t interested in ideas. They were interested in execution.

This flipped my whole world upside down. Actually, it had been upside down my whole life, and this flipped it right side up. I realized that I could simply “grab a shovel” and start helping the customers by adding small improvements to the code. I would just dig in and add copy changes in one place, fix small things in another, or add features.

I had needed decent e-mail support as a member of the Marketing team for years. So I set about adding it in myself, and had it done in a matter of a couple of weeks. I asked our lead developer, “This was so easy. Why didn’t we have this sooner?”

His reply was a bit coy: “Because we didn’t have you to build it.”

That was the most liberating feeling in the world, because I was proving value to myself and to anyone who cared to pay attention.

The same fear that kept me from achieving at work now holds me back from contributing to open-source projects: I spend so much time being intimidated or hoping someone will tell me what to do that I would rather wait than start trying to contribute any way I can. I still let this happen too often, but from here, I plan to just dig in, find something to fix, and get it done.

In my new day job, I come in every day and try to grab a shovel and get to work. No one has expressed a lack of knowledge of what to “use me for”. Rather, they know that I am going to be digging, so now the only concern is to make sure that I’m doing so in the right place.

The process isn’t complex: I keep a list of the things I want to get done. I check in with my coworkers and tell them what I want to do for the day. At the end of every day, I know how I feel about what I accomplished. There’s no technique, I just know whether I feel good or bad about a day’s efforts, and so I strive to push a little harder so I can feel good at the end of every day.

I also keep my eyes peeled for places I can get things done and just go for it. I spent so much of my life waiting for permission that it’s a bit jarring to just start doing. But here’s what I learned: if you require permission for everything, I can guarantee you’re going to waste your talents and your life waiting.

So now, I try to take a risk, go out on a limb, and do something good without permission once in a while. It gets my heart racing to know there could be some negative reaction, but it seems like those are the times where I get real traction on the most important things.

If I’m hiring someone, I’d rather pick up someone holding a shovel than someone with a sign that says “I have some great ideas about digging if someone will just give me a chance.”

Stop talking about it. Grab a shovel and get to work. I promise you’ll be happier.

Popsicle sticks

After working through dinner and quite late into the night, I realized that I should have eaten many hours earlier. When I put myself in that situation, my food judgement tends to revert to that of a six-year-old.

So as soon as I walked into the house, I threw my bag into a chair and cracked open the freezer and fridge simultaneously, for maximum food visibility. And lo, there were crunch-covered ice cream bars, a rare (maybe first ever) sight in our home.

I pulled one out, anticipating a garden of creamy delight, and went to work. It struck me–even in my famished state–that this was not good. Sugary ice-milk with a waxy cocoa shell: pretty typical store-brand fare.

But though I could have walked away after one bite without remorse, I was bound and determined to treat myself, so I continued eating. My mind wandered, possibly from the boredom of this so-so snack, and I started reading the wrapper. Hey, it’s something to do.

On the back, written in an airy font, I found one last hope for this snack to get interesting. I imagined it would say “Midnight is a great time for an ice cream bar–just unwrap quietly,” or some other whimsical musing about the nature of indulgence. I looked closer.

“Units not labeled for individual sale.”

I longed for a popsicle stick with a knock-knock joke, anything to enhance my enjoyment of this ice cream bar.

Is a revelatory, escapist fantasy too much to ask for from a store-brand bulk food item? OK, maybe. But with a few carefully-placed words, I would have had a different story to tell, about how a 67-cent, wax-covered ice-milk bar was my day’s most hedonistic, decadent moment.

Don’t forget to be whimsical! It only takes a small amount of effort to look for places you can add brushstrokes that will turn your customer’s experience from generic to memorable.

Yeah, Sure, Blame the Economy.

First off, I am so glad to be blogging again. My last post was the day before my first child was born, and babies, as it turns out, are a “disruptive technology”. 

I’ve collected a lot of thoughts and decided on a more personal direction for the blog (at least for now). Rather than regurgitate and link out to things on the Web I find interesting, I’ll post more thoughts about what inspires me in the world of writing, marketing, and life in general.

This evening I went to the local grocery store and was shocked. It looked as if a hurricane were bearing down on us: empty shelves, disheveled aisles, wide open spaces where goods were once jockeying for my attention.

There’s no other sensation quite like depression, and that’s precisely the feeling that bore down on me as I traversed the aisles, looking (in vain) for Size 2 Huggies. Each empty shelf added to the melancholy, until I could only imagine a new version of that littering commercial, with Alan Greenspan shedding a single tear as consumers drive past an empty store.

What happened? Flyers near the exit told no more of the story than “Goodbye as of February 23.” I think I can fill in the blanks.

Albertson’s was the closest supermarket to our home. It’s right on a main road in a residential area, and one block from a new I-15 onramp/offramp that’s being built. This is prime real estate for a grocery store.

It wasn’t particularly dated, either; clean, late-90’s decor, and good upkeep lent a trustworthiness to the meat and produce that other, decades-older stores in the area seemed to lack.

But the explanation for this store’s demise (and I forsee more) is simple: Albertson’s gambled against the customer and lost. In a robust economy, they noticed that with “Preferred Savings” cards and yellow “look at the price” labels everywhere, customers didn’t notice when they nudged prices on staple goods ever higher.

Plus, every week I’d go in and a specialty brand or variety I used to purchase had been eliminated, losing a battle for shelf space with the generic Kroger brand. So instead of 24 varieties of soup, there are 12. It wasn’t just soup, it was any item that seemed to sell well. Selection tanked while prices rose to an insane degree. In a robust economy, people aren’t watching as closely, and Albertson’s took advantage of the situation in a move to boost quarterly profits at the literal expense of the customer.

I use a simple indicator for a store’s general sense of value: What’s the everyday price on a 12-pack of Coke, Dr. Pepper, or Pepsi? At Smith’s, it’s typically $3.50. At Harmon’s, it’s $4. At Albertson’s, they had, over the course of 5 years, jacked it up to near $8. You could walk out to the vending machine and buy individual cans of soda for less!

The saddest part is that this and other future closures will be blamed on the economy, no lessons will be learned, and the executive staff at Albertson’s/Kroger will continue to insulate themselves from the needs and feelings of their customers, until they are out on their collective asses, wondering what went wrong.

I’m not saying there are no real victims of this economic downturn, but I’ll bet that out of 4 businesses that shut down and blame it, 3 are victims of mismanagement, bad business models, or sheer hubris.

What’s the lesson? For starters, stop screwing your customers over. You know who you are. Your prices are too high. Your service isn’t good enough. I can promise that the customer doesn’t share the sense of value you think you’re offering with your product.

Old justifications of value don’t work, because suddenly, we’re all on a fixed income. Everyone’s looking for a NET COST SAVINGS: How can I pay less next month than I paid last month?

Second, if you’re selling a commodity, you’d better be darn sure you’re priced in accordance with other avenues the customer will take. Because right now, customers will take those avenues, loyalty or convenience be damned.

I’m confident that we as a nation will weather the storm. My hope for myself and for you is that we have the wisdom to quickly learn the lessons necessary to prosper during the downturn and to retain them when it’s over.

Listening for your Cassandra

I had a coworker remind me recently, when confronted with some negative talk, to not be too dismissive of our “Cassandras”. I am not intimately familiar with Greek mythology, so I had to look up the reference.

Cassandra is the story, in Greek myth, of the woman who received the ability to see the future, only to be cursed that no one would believe her. This would be an exquisite form of torture that all of us, at some point, have the unfortunate ability to relate to (particularly those of us that have attempted to advise teenagers of the rocky shoals ahead).

In today’s society, as in those before us, we tend to be dismissive of those that approach us with such negativity. We’re conditioned never to bring up problems without pointing out a silver lining, for fear of being perceived as naysayers.

As I was perusing The Consumerist today, I was reminded that some of us just didn’t get that message:

Jim Cramer 1 year ago

And a year later, unlike Cassandra, he can recall his prescience to those that called him crazy 1 year ago.

Now the Consumerist calls this “gloating”, but if you watch the follow-up, you’ll see more of a general feeling of frustration that people ignored and still aren’t fixing the underlying problems that caused our current economic meltdown.

It was a sobering reminder that all too often, when we hear the voices yelling for us to stop the line because we’re walking into disaster, we dismiss them as “tactless”, “negative”, or “crazy”, and push forward with our admirable exuberance.

I understand that if we spent all day pondering the doomsday prophecies coming from society’s fringes, we’d never sleep or get anything done. But we’d do well to at least consider these viewpoints from time to time.

How do you listen to find your Cassandra? The nice thing is that you don’t have to look too hard, as they’re usually vocal enough to attract attention to themselves. If you’re working on a project and someone predicts impending disaster, it tends to stick out a bit.

Rather than dismiss, correct, fire, or ignore them, it might be in your best interests to indulge them for a moment and let them explain their reasoning. You can teach them tact later.

Welcome back, blogger

It’s been many years since I’ve maintained a weblog for anything other than professional reasons. I’d like to keep this semi-casual, since it’s just you and me here.

Watch this space. I’m going to highlight, as only one who is this prematurely ornery can, the truly great and truly awful marketing tactics that are designed to trick you into parting with your hard-earned cash.

I set up WordPress just infrequently enough to forget what a pain it is to get set up, so I will have to reserve my vitriolic rant/award for The Worst Blog On Earth for tomorrow.