When left meets right

Left Brain Right Brain (Mercedes-Benz Ad)

I went to university for Political Science, it’s no secret (it’s on my LinkedIn profile). I actually went to university to study Biology, until I took biology 101 (yawn), that changed and I wanted to study Architecture. It is very likely that I would have studied Architecture had I not stumbled upon Political Science along the way. Now I work full time as a computer programmer. Weird.

What does this all have to do with the left brain/right brain? Some people are clearly defined as left or right brained. You can tell nearly instantly after meeting them, sometimes before meeting them (depending on how crazy their dress attire is). There are the free spirit artsy types and then there are the mathematical types. I’ve never been tested, per say, but I am fairly confident that I fit right dab in the middle. I am completely comfortable spending hours sketching free form designs or coding systematic (sometimes complex) algorithms.

While studying Political Science I had this professor who loved to make his classes increasingly more difficult. As we got better, his marking got harder. I got to know how most of my professors marked papers and tests. It wasn’t hard to know what level of work was needed to get good grades. But this one professor was impossible to crack. It wasn’t until my last year in University that I was complaining to a friend about how my professor marks his papers. We had an in class essay coming up and I ended the conversation by saying, “This time I am going to prepare so that I get 100% on this paper, and if I don’t get 90% I will know that this professor is biased.” Turns out that my professor was standing behind me the entire conversation and my friend thought it was hilarious to sit back and watch. I felt like an idiot, “great”, I thought, “He’s gonna fail me.”

What does this have to do with left brain/right brain? I’m getting to it.

In my first year of University I had an awakening moment, spending most of my prior schooling days, listening to the teacher and doing nothing else I had formed a terrible study ethic. In high-school I hadn’t needed a better one to get good grades. University turns out to take more work than just listening. So much information was being thrown at us, that by the end of the semester I was finding it less than easy to recall specific details from the beginning, I hadn’t even opened any of my expensive text books yet. Tests on theory were still easy, but I was bombing anything that required detailed memorization. By the end of the second semester I started getting depressed. Unbeknownst to me at the time, a huge part of my identity lay in people telling me I was intelligent. (Probably not a good idea to have your identity in this). Getting bad grades was like having someone constantly yell at me, “You’re not who you think you are.”

By the end of the year I spent all my spare time drawing cartoons, playing guitar, and writing. Now that I think about it, all very right brain things. I was desperately trying to find happiness in a very unhappy time and trying to avoid the seemingly inevitable. Failure. Finally it happened, I took a Political Science 101 course and I failed. My professor failed me. I couldn’t believe what just happened.

Four years later. I am long over my bad study habits. I am working as hard as I possibly can at school and it is showing. But I am frustrated that there is one class that I can’t crack. (You guessed it, this is the one and the same professor who failed me four years prior). I am overstudying for every class. I am exhausted. By the time I actually get to reading the required material for the exam I realize that I have to cram 6 extremely technical papers on International Law in just one night. Not impossible. I go to my study group. Everyone is talking about the papers and I realize that I don’t know nearly enough. I just listen, give a few thoughts, mostly listen. Go home and read. Go to class in the morning. It’s 8am, I start writing.

2 weeks later we are in class and our professor hands back our papers. I am hoping to get a passing grade. As he is handing out the papers he says, “I would like everyone to hear how to write a proper in class essay. I would like Jonathan,” he turns and looks at me, “to please read his paper to the class, and then I would like Dan to read his.” Shocked is an understatement. I was actually terrified. I couldn’t remember what I wrote, I couldn’t remember how I wrote it, my grammar was probably terrible, now I have to read it aloud to everyone in the class. After I had read the paper my friend sitting beside me (the friend from before) turned to me and said, “Wow.”  Turns out I received 90%. Which in this guy’s class was a big deal. While some people thought I had written this masterpiece, I honestly didn’t think I had written a great paper at all.

The next day I had an epiphany, it’s all about perception. What we perceive to be intelligence is exactly that, based on our perception. When my professor had overheard my conversation I had singled myself out to him, accidentally, as this hard working student who was used to getting good grades. He forgave my comments about him being biased apparently. Suddenly his perception of me was different. When he singled me out to the class, they perceived me as intelligent. My paper could have been adequate at best, but the praise of my prof gave it credibility. It all came together. Getting good grades in junior and high school was easy, not because I was brilliant, but because each year the teachers had seen me rise to accept awards, they perceived me as intelligent and graded me accordingly. I came to a conclusion. If I could come back from near failing grades to being perceived as this high performing intelligent student, anyone could. However, it is difficult, it takes work. Why? Because we have to work twice as hard. We not only have to earn good marks, we also have to convince people along the way that we are intelligent, we have to convince them to change their perception of us.

I’ll end with this, I think that the left brain and right brain focus on what they are good at, logic and abstract thinking. But I also think that we focus too much on putting people into boxes, either left or right brained. We say genius lives here, or the aloof lives there. I think genius is merely the left meeting the right. The phenomenon when our left logical brain is confused by something and our right abstract brain kicks in and looks in wonder at the person who solves it, and we conclude, they must be a genius. It’s perception.

Building on a reputation of success

There is so much buzz in the startup community about the successes of some of the new titans; Facebook, Groupon and now Instagram. We are looking at these billion dollar valuations and hoping that our startups will achieve that type of success. It is more likely however, that these are the anomalies and that steady to fast growth is the norm for most startups. How do we focus on maximizing the success of our business without being distracted by the noise around us?

building a business on success

I recently heard a great talk on capitalizing opportunities. The main point of the talk was that we need to reverse our way of viewing opportunities. Instead of looking around the startup room and asking, “Hey, why did that guy get more, or bigger, opportunities than me?” Instead ask, “What am I doing with the opportunities that I have? Am I maximizing them?” After the talk, and as I reflected on the successes of our business, I had an epiphany. Perhaps the way of maximizing our success is by focusing on maximizing our clients’ success.

Our company is in a growth season and each month I can see that the single biggest reason for that is because our clients are either recommending our business to others or they are choosing to trust us because they can see what we are doing. When an individual or business decides to use your product or service, they are entrusting you with their time and money. They value your product or expertise and require it to perform their needed tasks.

It’s easy for that reality to be lost when looking at the success of the giants. We can lose sight of the privilege we’ve been given and may be tempted by shortcuts that appear to offer more, faster. For example, when the workload gets demanding we may choose to build a less than perfect product or service to accelerate deployment times. However, that is where success will end. In business, we are no more than our reputation. If we fail to produce amazing products, we will become known for just that, producing subpar products. Likewise, if we continue to produce amazing products, despite the work, we will become known for producing great products.

Steve Jobs knew this well. He was fanatical about building great products every time, often at the expense of release dates (Lean Startup is cringing at the thought). I too believe we need to be fanatical about the quality of the products and services that we produce in our companies. Figuratively speaking, at our business when I look back at our work I want to see straight rows and beautiful hedges, not half weeded flower beds and mostly planted gardens.

Overtime, the opportunities that we are given will grow, our bottom line will increase, and our customers will demand more because we were diligent with what we have now. This is the greatest marketing we can give ourselves. It will further help all our future marketing efforts because all marketing takes existing truths or promises and emphasizes them. By focusing on building a reputation of success your marketing efforts will bring that to light. And when potential customers ask existing ones, they will confirm it. At our company our success is counted now by the quality of work we provide to our clients. If we solved their problems to the very best of our ability, then we have done our job… well.

Business lessons from Steve Jobs

Recently I read the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. As I was reading I found myself taking notes, jotting down some of the thoughts, quotes and actions that really struck me as interesting. Other than his enormous ego and insensitivity, one of the things that stood out to me was how Steve Jobs really engaged with many so many different elements and levels of business and life and didn’t spend much time separating the two. For Steve design, ethics, self, peace, success and spirituality really needed to be understood together to be understood at all.

Steve JobsThere are few people who have ever achieved the dramatic successes Steve Jobs did. It’s probably a good idea then, if you are building a company, to studying some of the insights Steve understood naturally. Some of these were his own thoughts, others he garnered from his mentors.

Want to build a great company? Focus on the basics and do them really well. Great products, great marketing, great distribution.

Steve’s dream was to build a lasting company. Something he learned from Hewlett Packard was that lasting companies know how to reinvent themselves. To remain successful a company must be flexible and creative, not afraid of change.

When coming back to Apple he had a massive task ahead of him. Rebuild a failing behemoth. The chance of success was extremely narrow. Looking at all the products the different teams were building he saw their problem. There was no focus. He simplified the product line.

The way a company is organized is important. Both in structure and in the physical layout. At Pixar he created one large space with all the offices joining onto it. The space helped create community and collaboration. People from different departments who would otherwise never meet, bumped into another in the shared space. As Steve Jobs said, “The best innovation is sometimes the company, the way you organize a company

Steve understood that for an innovative company to succeed it had to communicate, connect, with customers. The iPod was successful because it could communicate an understandable message, “A thousand songs in your pocket.” Steve spent hours labouring over the message behind the product. Steve argued, “You can’t win on innovation unless you have a way to communicate to customers.”

Steve also understood that great design was essential for great marketing. From his early mentor Mike Markkula Jobs was taught that “people do judge a book by its cover. ” Apple created the packaging of their products to signal that there was a beautiful gem inside. By creating a ritual of unpacking the product feels special.

But for Steve Jobs, good design didn’t end with the packaging. Right from his earliest days with Apple he was incessant about the design of their products. Even the way the circuit boards were designed. They were building excellent products that were well crafted from the inside out. The engineering and design needed to be excellent. This contributed to Apple’s culture of excellence.

There was another reason that Steve laboured over product design as well. He understood something the majority of technology companies miss. Human nature. As Jony Ive said, “Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you.” As we simplify objects, especially technology, they become less intimidating to users and perceived to be more accessible, more conquerable.

Steve understood the basic principle that for his company to create the best, to be the best, it must be filled with the best. He was passionate about only hiring the best and brightest, “A players”. He believed that the best and brightest get annoyed working with anything less, so they in turn hire the best and the brightest. There is a natural quality control that takes place. However, B and C players have a feeling of inadequacy and therefore hire C and D employees to ensure that they look better. So Steve filled Apple with A players and frequently challenged his employees to ensure they remained A players.

Finally, Steve understood that for a company to be successful, its leaders must see the big picture, but be passionate about the details and products. He accounted this as his failure when hiring, John Sculley, as Apple’s CEO. John got the big picture but didn’t care much about the products the company was creating. However, Steve Jobs praised members of his team that did. “He get’s the big picture as well as the most infintesimal details about each product. And he understands that Apple is a product company.” Steve Jobs said about Jony Ive.

Steve was a brilliant man, and we will miss him. But fortunately because of books like Steve Jobs, by walter Isaacson, many of his thoughts live on.

If you are interested, an article I wrote about Steve Jobs’ view of Passion and Business is here. It continues to be the most read article on this blog.

Also, here are some great Steve Jobs quotes.

Using Adobe is like being in a bad relationship!

Welcome to the world of Adobe. Where everyone is an elitist, oh sorry, artist.

This image was edited on Adobe Photoshop

During the Digital Revolution Adobe rocketed into success. PhotoShop destroyed Coral Draw, DreamWeaver squashed its competitors, and Flash created an entirely new media platform. Yet, at the height of their success, something significant happened. Steve Jobs announced that the iPhone would not be supporting Flash. A flood of media attention followed. It was the distraction that Adobe competitors were praying for. As a daily user of Adobe products I pay for the fact that Adobe took their eye of the ball. As a result today there is growing support for free open source alternatives to many Adobe products. The hold on digital media that Adobe once had seems to be rapidly dissipating. And yet there remains demand for the new release of CS6. What happened, and what’s sustaining them now?

It’s love and war!

The good: As a brand Adobe has achieved something truly remarkable, they have repeatedly sold themselves as the best long enough that we believe them. Subconsciously Adobe products are perceived as better. As a result, there is a mix of jealously, pride and frustration among the Adobe haves and Adobe have-nots.

The bad: Adobe products have developed a fascinating love/hate relationship among many of their fiercest supports. Bluntly, over the last 4 years Adobe has released subpar products. Professionals are dropping 1-2k on Adobe products that do not perform like they are promised to. I first switched to Mac in 2005 because Adobe products were stable on the Apple. I assumed that it was Microsoft that was producing buggy applications. For the next few years it was bliss! My Mac never crashed even when I pushed Photoshop to the max, rendering large designs. But then I upgraded my Adobe suite and problems began to emerge. Today I will do the simplest action on Dreamweaver, like opening a file, and CRASH! Everything is down.

The ugly: Many Adobe users, myself included, love Adobe. But they hate how they have released buggy products. They hate how much money it costs to upgrade their product from a subpar CS5 purchase to a hopefully par CS6 purchase. Especially when there are so many good alternatives out there. They hate that Adobe has spent all their resources creating CS6 rather than spending some on upgrades to fix the problems underlying their existing products. So some users are switching and some are supporting open source alternatives.

What’s sustaining them now?

Like a bad relationship, users of Adobe products love the feeling they get when everything works. They forgive the bad, ignore the ugly and hope for the good. They love it when a colleague looks over at their screen and says, “you still using Adobe!” Knowing full well the colleague is jealous. Adobe is still around because Adobe has successfully sold themselves as the best. That’s their genius.

What do you think? Are Adobe going downhill/uphill? Do you think they are worth what they charge? Do you think they should spend more time supporting their previous releases?

Why products become classics.

Classic Raleigh Sprint

Why is it that some designs become classics while others do not? Some classics were loved right from the beginning while others were little loved and mostly ignored until much later. Yesterday I was greeted by my old polish neighbour, “do you want this bike? 10 bucks.” In our transaction that briefly followed I quickly realized that what he saw as an old, somewhat useful, bicycle while what I saw was an icon of British 70s culture and a classic.

This lead me to ask the aforementioned question, what is it that makes a product become a classic? I believe there are three elements that a product must have that will lead it to becoming a classic. I also believe that it is one of these elements that will answer why some classics are only recognized as such later.

The three elements are as follows:

1. Be beautifully designed.

2. Embody an ideal.

3. Visually represent the culture of its time.

What do these elements mean? Lets start with the first one, beauty. Beauty is rightfully relative to the beholder, yet some designs capture near universal appreciation. This is a core requirement for a design to become a classic. The design of a classic is appreciated by nearly everyone. Furthermore, the design of a classic stands the test of time. It doesn’t merely embody the design of a fad, but has universal principles of design, such as smooth contours or balanced color schemes.

Secondly, a classic usually embodies an ideal. Let’s think about the classic VW Beetle, “the car for the People”. Or the Porsche, “the car to show the world you made it”. Some ideals were respected, some hated and some were ignored. But usually later, as new products saturate the marketplace, the ideal of the classic stands out and becomes more attractive. The form of the classic becomes a visual representation of that ideal.

Lastly, a classic visually represents the culture of its time. Just as the ideal of a product becomes more obvious over time, so do the ideals of cultures. When those two ideals run in parallel a classic is formed. However, often a culture is not aware of the uniqueness of its time. Nor that the boring product that they take for granted will one day symbolize the ideals that they will become known for or believe in.

When an object, a product, captures all three of these elements it is known as a classic. We do not have to think of what makes a product a classic to recognize it as one. However, when you look at that 30+ year old bicycle sitting in the back of the yard, reminding you of a simpler time, a time before computers ruled the workplace and cellphones ruled the living rooms and buses, you realize it is more than a peace of art, its a symbol of hope and the simple life.

Copyright 101

The laws not the bandSo recently I have been put in a situation where I am forced to think about copyrights (the law not the band). Despite my personal resistance to the field it’s probably a good thing to have a good grasp of. Here is an overview of some general principles worth knowing.

Who owns the copyright?

Generally speaking, the person the work is attributed to owns the copyright. This applies to anybody who created the work (self-publishers, contractors etc) with exception to employees. In the case of an employee, the company they work for owns the copyright of any work done while working at the company.

What is shared copyright ownership?

Multiple people can own a copyright. Unless otherwise specified in writing any work contributed collaboratively is owned equally by all who contributed regardless of the amount they contributed. For example all the members of band collectively working on a song own equal shares to that song’s copyright. Generally speaking shared copyrights usually share equally in profits from any sales of the work. We see this all the time in the music industry.

What is copyleft?

Copyleft is a term originally coined by Richard Stallman and is used to describe copyright laws that ensure the right of individuals to modify, share and distribute copyrighted material, and to ensure that future versions of work be free to modify, share and distribute as well.

Are all copyright licenses compatible with each other?

No. There are many licenses that are incompatible with each other. It is a good idea to do some research before choosing a copyright license for any work you do. Some people prefer licenses that protect the work, and other people prefer licenses that protect the end users’ rights to access, modify and redistribute the work (aka copyleft licenses). Broadly speaking those two kinds of licenses are incompatible with one another.

There are also licenses like the GNU GPL that are copyleft licenses but are incompatible with many other copyleft licenses as it imposes the restriction that all resulting copies be bound by the GNU GPL license.

Final thoughts

There are many streams of philosophy and ideals surrounding copyright law that are good to take into consideration when choosing your copyright practices. If you are only just starting to learn copyright law it can seem a bit overwhelming. However, there are a lot of great resources that help to explain a lot of the different concepts. If you are an expert in the field and have something you want to add please post it in the comments.

For further reading.

Wikipedia article on copyright http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright

Wikipedia article on BSD License  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BSD_licenses

Creative Commons License choosing tool http://creativecommons.org/choose/

GNU free copyright philosophy http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/philosophy.html


Life lesson #2: Passion is not a luxury.

Steve Jobs quote

My first post for this blog was about inspiration and why I believed it was necessary for success in business. The other day I was watching some videos of Steve Jobs on You Tube talking about business success. In the interview he stated that passion was the ingredient that sustained successful people until they had success.

Achieving success is hard. Ask anyone who has played sport competitively, or tried to change the minds of people in a team or politics. It takes a lot of work and a lot of perseverance, and often times, in business it seems like it takes more perseverance simply because the goal is new and untried.

So passion is not a luxury anymore if you are an entrepreneur and you want to succeed. I’ve often believed that its good to love what you do, but haven’t really taken much time to think about the implications of loving what you do. It means that when the hurdles and challenges come, you have more than will-power motivating you to continue. It means that when your big sale fell through and you can’t pay yourself for a second time in two months you have more than will-power motivating you to continue. It means that when you can’t see the crest of the hill but believe in what you are doing you have more than will-power motivating you to continue.

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” Steve Jobs

I don’t know what challenges you might be facing in your business, but I hope that you will persevere. If anyone is reading this and has a story about perseverance please leave it in the comments below. I would love to hear it. 

If you are interested, here are some great Steve Jobs quotes.

Life lesson #1: What do you need to do to succeed in business? You need to be inspired.

I wrote this article a couple years ago and thought it was worth posting as my first post on this blog because I still find this very relevant to my success in business.

Not that long ago I learnt an important lesson: know what inspires you. With regards to business there are a lot of books on the topic of motivation, but not too many on inspiration. When starting a clothing company a few years back I began reading lots and lots on business. I read books on leadership, economics, small business, marketing etc. Being the keen student I was I began to follow the rules to success religiously (as they were outlined by the numerous books on the topic). Obediently I developed product workflow, marketed my products, studied my customer, found a niche, and developed the brand. As the sole designer for the clothing company its identity and ‘edge’ was hinged on my design ideas. And then one day, out of the blue, the ideas stopped. I worked harder to come up with new ideas, but it felt like I was squeezing water from a stone. WHAT HAPPENED? I had done everything right hadn’t I?

In short I had lost my inspiration. As I was personally funding the company I began to shop less, focused on redirecting any income I had back into building the company. Shopping less meant I wasn’t buying as many clothes for myself. For me buying clothes inspired me, I would look for a shirt and then start thinking, ‘Oh if only they made it this way, or with a different design’. Ironically the thing that I had stopped doing was the very life blood of the ideas that spurned on the company.

I began to refocus the direction for the company as my ideas for new designs had all but disappeared. During this process I took some time off and started shopping more. Then a lightbulb came on. Ideas began flowing quickly again and I realized what had happened. Fast forward to the present, I have since moved on from the clothing industry, and am working on a few internet related businesses. I have come to the conclusion that for myself inspiration is as important for every business endeavor I work on as is the motivation that keeps driving them. For this reason I am somewhat surprised that there isn’t more written on this topic.

In summary I have learnt that for me to remain successful and creative I must find what inspires me. And then using this knowledge, create situations where I am inspired. For some that might mean taking more time to walk in a forest and for others it could mean simply reading a book or a magazine, whatever it is, find what inspires you and make a point of doing it, it may mean the difference between success and burnout.