Delete, Discard, and Trash

Zen Digest

  • Reduce your digital waste
  • Ask yourself “Am I adding value?”

The Whole Picture

I’ve written quite a bit in the past year.  But for every email I sent, or post I hit publish on, it’s likely there was one that got trashed.  In fact, before writing this, I started writing two other posts, only to discard the draft.  I used to write because I wanted people to be impressed by me.  I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity to come up with a smart solution to someone’s problem or talk about something I did hoping people would think better of me.  Ironically, my desire to talk got in the way of my ability to listen – the only real key to finding the best solution.

My new years resolution was to say less – but with higher quality.  Not everything we create is wonderful, and sometimes the only lessons to be learned from a piece of writing are for you alone, and it’s better left unpublished.

It’s also hard to put your foot in your mouth if you don’t open your mouth.  Not every problem needs a solution, and nearly all people would rather keep talking to full explain what’s on their mind than have you interrupt them with a solution.  Additionally, just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean it is informed or that it will further a discussion – it is completely okay to be an active listener while others discuss a topic.

At first it was hard.  I would spend 10 minutes writing an e-mail and I felt like I had wasted my time if I hit “discard.”  I would question “What if some value would be added by what I said?”  Then I realized this – how many people’s time will be wasted by stating something that doesn’t truly add value.  If I were a baker, would I ever want to sell a cookie that was a little burnt?  Even if the last 10 batches were perfect, would I rather sell a burnt cookie, or simply not sell a cookie.  Sometimes you have to toss the cookies.

Every interaction we have is like a cookie.  They come in different varieties, and different people have different preferences.  Also, if all you did was give away your cookies, you’d go hungry, and if you just ate, you’d be overweight.  The right amount of sweet, sour, and savory leaves people wanting more.  Too much bitter, or even sweet leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth.  There is no shame in tossing a batch of cookies.  No one is perfect, but what separates the true professionals from the amateurs is that the professionals know when to press delete.



The Value of an Idea

Zen Digest

  • Ideas alone are essential useless
  • The value lies in execution

The Whole Picture

When I was in college, I had an idea for the next big video game.  At the time, games like Everquest were huge and the game World of Warcraft (the highest grossing video game of all time) was in development and slated to be released.  The gaming world was ready to open their wallets and pay huge amounts to play games that would provide them with endless hours of game-play.  I had an idea for a game that could have been huge.  But this isn’t about that game, so I’ll spare you the details of how the game would have worked.

At the time I had this idea, I was running College Boredom and as a sub-site, I created a game called Boredom Ville.  Boredom Ville had massed a few thousand users, many of which were paying for additional perks within the game.  So, armed with my minor success with Boredom Ville and my great idea, I enlisted the help of a professor of mine to get a meeting with a major game developer to sell my idea.

I was lucky and was given the audience of a senior project manager.  I was allowed 1 hour to sell my idea to this person.  I spent days perfecting my presentation, and walked into the meeting with a great Powerpoint presentation as well as a batch of freshly baked cookies.  While I wasn’t quite as experienced as I am today, I can honestly say that I nailed the presentation.  All the cookies I brought got devoured, everyone watched with awe (one of my teachers, as well as my dean was also in attendance).  I even heard a few “wow” and “awesome” here and there.  45 minutes went by and I got to my final slide.  It had the words “Thank you for listening.  Questions?”

I got a question I was expecting, “Where’s the demo?”  My response was something eloquent, but in short I said that I only have the idea, but I was pitching the idea so that I could be hired on to produce or project manage this game and see it to completion.  I even showed a very reasonable budget for how much it would cost to build.  I’m not sure what I expected as a response.  I guess I hoped for a job offer, or maybe even an investment proposal.  What I got was shocking at the time.  The response was, “Build it, then we will produce it.”

I then learned that “produce” meant they would put the final product in a box, and put the box in stores and get it distributed and take 15-20%.  I would have to front the cost of development, and build all of it.  I was in awe.  At the time I was angry, and even challenged the person to say “If I have to fund and build this, why wouldn’t I just distribute it myself?”  Needless to say, I was never given the opportunity to build this video game, but, thanks to an NDA, this company is also unable to ever build my idea for themselves.

For years, I was always frustrated by this experience.  How could an idea be so worthless?  How could a company be so audacious to believe that they can take my finished product, slap their name on it, put it in a box, then take 20% (which is apparently a fairly reasonable, if not low, distribution/production fee).  Business school didn’t prepare me for that one – maybe an MBA would have, but not undergrad.

Since then, I’ve had lots of ideas.  Many of them crazy, unrealistic, or simply not commercially viable.  But a few of them were genuinely good ideas (in fact, others have also had these ideas, and successfully executed on them, many of which are thriving businesses).  I remember one time thinking to myself “They stole my idea.”  In fact, I’ve heard many people say that.  But, it took me a long time to realize that ideas are rarely unique.  In fact, good chance is that someone else has had your idea.  For every idea acted on, there are hundreds passed up.

Where value lies is in the ability to turn an idea into reality.  A great idea, executed poorly, will have poor results.  A good idea, executed excellently, will have excellent results.  It is actually better to execute very well on mediocre ideas than it is to execute poorly on amazing ideas.  Take Starbucks.  There is nothing terribly genius about a coffee house.  It was not a unique idea, it was far from the first coffee house, but Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker, and Zev Siegl executed their idea in an amazing way.

Working in the world of start ups, I’ve seen many failures.  Many of the companies that were fellow start ups a few years ago, are no longer in existence.  Some of them had amazing ideas, some of them had terrible ideas.  What is always shocking is when an idea that you think is terrible or crazy becomes a success, but more confusing is when an idea that you think will be huge simply flops.  Looking at the big picture, I realized that I was looking at things the wrong way.  I judged a business based off it’s founding idea, and not it’s implementation plan.  When I looked at things from that perspective, things made much more sense.  Those crazy ideas suddenly seemed more viable because their management team played to the PR strengths of the craziness, and capitalized well.  The companies with great ideas that flopped failed to listen to their market, or failed to create a strong team and product.

The same principles apply anywhere.  When writing a book, the ability to weave a good story that is consistent, and the ability to resolve the story in a reasonable fashion is actually more important than the idea itself.  As always, a bad premise or story will lead to a flop, but the ability to consistently weave an interesting story is what is key.  The best writers can do that book after book.

No matter what you’re doing – planting a garden, taking a road trip, cooking a meal, writing software, or even just being a good friend – the key is knowing what your goal is, and being able to get there.  The idea (or destination) is simply a point on the map, your ability to get to that destination creatively, and with as much excitement as possible is the key.


Memory Management

Zen Digest

  • Outsource the task of remembering lots of short-term tasks
  • Be mindful of how you’re using memory (both technical and human)
  • 7 is the magic number of things we can remember

The Whole Picture

According to Miller’s Law, the human brain can store between 5 and 9 (most commonly 7) objects in short-term active memory.  I’ve always tried my best to be a man of my word, and in doing so, I needed to ensure that I remembered to do everything I agreed to do.  In business meetings, I did this by always taking notes.  I even have a system for marking items that are follow-up questions, tasks, etc.  But, in my personal life, it’s not very convenient to carry around a notebook and take notes during conversations – so I use my phone.

In a previous post, I noted about how I use an app called, which is a very simple task-management (really it’s just a list maker app) and it has been great for me to offload short-term memory management.  For tasks that are time-sensitive – “switch over the laundry” for example – I create a calendar item with a reminder.  An hour or so later, I get a notification that I need to move the laundry.  I free my mind from having to remember about the laundry.

This sort of outsourcing is wonderful as it not only frees up processing and storage in your brain, it also reduces stress – as you never have to worry about remembering little things (or worse, forgetting things).

Now we get technical.  Computers are similar to your brain in that they have two different types of memory – RAM (similar to short term) and a hard drive, similar to your long-term memory.  RAM is extremely fast, but much more expensive than a hard drive (as of writing this, you can get a 1,000 GB hard drive for $50 or 4GB of RAM for $45.  While 4GB is quite a bit of storage, it can get used up very quickly, especially when writing inefficient or sloppy code.  While web programming doesn’t give you much control over how to do memory management, the rules by which the browser does manage memory is well defined.

Whether you are programming or simply trying to remember a grocery list, it’s important to determine the best way to store that information to keep yourself and your code efficient.