Quickie Review of “The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge”

“The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge” by Matt Ridley is a very thought provoking book about how our world has been largely shaped by bottom-up trial and error evolution rather than top-down intelligent design. Along the way, the author challenges assumptions about everything from how religion created morality to the role and impact of government in education. In the end it is a bracingly optimistic look at how our civilization got here and what the future may hold.

Think of the incredible web of economic activity that makes the apparently simplest of products, the humble pencil, available as explained in the famous story, “I Pencil” (check it out on YouTube if you have not seen it before). Nobody designed the entire supply chain. No single person or small group of people direct it. No government requires it or builds it. Even so, tens of thousands of people somehow coordinate their activities to make it possible.

Think, too, of invention. Edison invented the light bulb, right? What do you think would have happened if he died the week before his discovery? Well, Humphrey Davy started the march towards an efficient electric light many years before and Edison was just the best funded of those pursuing the task. It is certain that if Edison had failed, someone else would have stepped forward likely mere months later. This pattern, the almost inevitability of invention, can be seen in just about every case. Steve Jobs did not direct the invention of the smart phone. Apple just got there a bit sooner and with a bit more innovation than countless others. If Steve had died a few years sooner, Android may have been first or someone else would have stepped up with an almost identical device. The Wrights flew one of the first powered aircraft but certainly not the best. If they had crashed on the beach before anyone noticed, Curtis or one of the dozens of others chasing the flight dream would have gotten the credit. In the end, the world would have had all these advancements around the same time no matter who died, failed or gave up because they were actually the result of many improvements and ideas contributed by thousands across many years of constant evolution.

New ideas, the author suggests, are almost always the result of natural selection between competing ideas. The pace of innovation and improvement continue to grow because human beings are more empowered than ever before to collaborate and breed new ideas. For example, a developer in Houston, TX can work on an open source project with contributors from all over the world. The other important ingredient, competition, is also much easier to achieve today. An entrepreneur in Africa can compete on equal footing with another in New York thanks to the Internet and easy access to rapid travel.

The optimism in the book comes from the fact that the improvements in our lives, the countless gadgets that have made communication easier, food cheaper, close cleaner, people healthier and leisure more accessible to billions, are evolving more quickly today than they have ever been able to in the past. Today’s poor have more access to knowledge, education and communications than the richest that lived in America at the beginning of the 20th century. A man that cannot attend the best university can pay pennies at an Internet cafe and get access to more books and more research than a tenured professor at Harvard could have hoped for 40 years ago. We are living in an age of accelerating progress and opportunity for all that will breed more of each.

Check out the book on Amazon.

Quickie Reviews of Two Books to Help With Mindfulness at Work (and Elsewhere)

When you are mindful…You become keenly aware of yourself and your surroundings, but you simply observe these things as they are. You are aware of your own thoughts and feelings, but you do not react to them in the way that you would if you were on “autopilot”…By not labeling or judging the events and circumstances taking place around you, you are freed from your normal tendency to react to them.

— A Guide to Practicing and Understanding Mindfulness

One of the things I regret most about my younger self is my extreme fear of failure and the way it drove many unhealthy behaviors. Sure, it had its uses. For example, I often used that fear to drive me to work harder, read more, learn more and generally stand out from the average. However, it also made me a very difficult boss in the early days of my company as I drove everyone as hard as I drove myself and rarely but too often yelled at my employees for simple mistakes. I’m ashamed to say that this made me a very poor leader at times. When the chips were down, when the going got rough, I worked harder than anyone and so did my team but they did so often in fear of the slightest stumble. My ugly behavior extended into my personal life too where my fear and doubt sometimes made me quick to anger and cost way too many personal relationships.

To this day, I can’t say for sure where my deep fears come from. Western therapy gave me some theories but never really helped much. Instead, I learned how to see my fears for what they were and took away their power to control me through lessons I learned from Buddhist practices and Eastern philosophies. The simple ability to recognize the blooming of an emotion, how it changes the way my body feels and being able to choose in that moment instead of reacting had a very powerful impact on my life. It helped me grow my business and build a far stronger team of happier employees. It lead me into a great marriage with an extradorinaiy woman. After I sold my company, it helped me find a home at Blinds.com along with a role I love. Although I still have a long way to go, I certainly feel like I’m better off today than I was those many years ago mainly because I better understand what’s going on inside my head and my heart at least most of the time.

Lately, I’ve noticed that mindfulness is making its way into the business mainstream.  Companies like Google are actively training employees in mindfulness practices because it improves the quality of communications, helps people get more done by enhancing their focus and generally improves the happiness and satisfaction of their employees. To that end, here are two books that can help get you and your company get started.

“Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning Into the Unknown” by Pema Chodron is nothing more than a commencement speech and an interview and nothing less than a brilliant and gentle lesson about the importance of facing up to your failures with compassion and understanding. It only runs about an hour and a half so I was able to listen to the Audible version while walking one afternoon. Something about the combination of walking 7 miles and the lessons in the book left me with tears my eyes. Often, it felt like the author was talking directly to me and my struggles.  Yes, I often took refuge in blaming others when I was involved in failures. Yes, even more often I judged myself unforgivably responsible for every failure. The secret, as she says, is to learn to sit quietly with the feeling instead of pushing it off quickly with blaming others or self. Use failure to become stronger, more compassionate and more able to make your way through life.  She tells a story of a man who walks through the surf to swim out to sea. A large wave comes and knock him down.  As he lays at the bottom with sand in his mouth and in his eyes he thinks of two choices: get up or, well, die. He gets up and walks further. He gets knocked down again, lays at the bottom and gets up again. Each time he gets knocked down, it becomes easier to get back up because of the habit. Easier said than done, of course, but there’s far more nuance to it and she does talk about it a bit more as the book goes along. The commencement address that opens the book is full of humor and good will even as it challenges the new graduates in the audience (and the reader) to go out into a world full of unknowns and many, many opportunities for failure.  Check it out at Amazon.

“Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace)” by Chade-Meng Tan is a straight-forward guide to the mindfulness course the author helped to assemble and now brings to people throughout Google. Tan is one of Google’s earliest engineers and brings an engineer’s mindset to mindfulness. He provides plenty of scientific evidence for the benefits of mindfulness training, which makes the seemingly squishy ideas behind things like meditation much more approachable for highly analytical types. His enthusiasm for the subject and his infectious joy come through page after page. There’s no doubt that the title on his business card is accurate: “For he’s a jolly-good fellow, which nobody can deny”. I would highly recommend getting this one in print or Kindle form so you can easily go back to the practical exercises.

Quickie Review of “Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual”

Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual” by John Sonmez of Simple Programmer fame started out very slow and way too obvious for my tastes. After the first chapter or two I wondered what possessed me to pick up a book that bills itself as “a guide to a well-rounded, satisfying life as a technology professional”. I started to think of the author as Captain Obvious. I imagined him with a foam bat in his hand that he would earnestly use to punctuate each of his points with a gentle whack to my head. “You need people skills”, whack! “Be picky about where you work”, whack! “Have a specialty”, whack! I stuck with it, though, and ended up glad that I did. Yes, some of the advice is obvious and facile. After all, the book is covering an awful lot of territory. Some of it is aimed at people with far less than the 30 years of experience I have in my career. However, the book offers solid advice and a good starting point for deeper exploration on most of the topics it covers.

The book consists of 70 short chapters broken into seven sections: career, marketing yourself, learning, productivity, financial, fitness and spirit. The short chapters create a nice rhythm when listening via Audible since you can always finish a chapter before getting out of your car or otherwise turning off the audio. Later in the book I learned the short chapters were both a motivational technique for the author and an intentional choice to let readers digest the material in bite-sized chunks.

Personally, I found the sections on productivity, fitness and spirit to be most interesting as I am starting to delve deeper into those areas myself. The productivity section was particularly well done. The author’s personal experience of how disciplined use of time changed his life clearly gives him a passion for the topic. He ties planning, pomodoro time management and training techniques together to form an interesting and very practical way to get more done than you ever thought possible. He also takes on notorious time wasters like TV and video games based on his personal experience. It is very compelling advice. His advice on fitness is similarly personal, impassioned and effective.

His advice on investing is equally passionate but edges out into very dangerous territory advocating things like option trading and highly-leverage real estate investing. Although he briefly notes the risks involved, he down plays them quite a bit. He also advocates “good debt”, like the million dollars or so in mortgages he says he currently holds on his rental properties. On the upside, he references “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” author Robert Kiyosaki and spends a little time clearly explaining the key differences between things that make you money, like stocks and bonds, and things that waste your money, like buying cars with “easy monthly payments”. All in all, his financial advice is a strong net positive though I would advise people to take on less risk than the author advocates, avoid debt of all kinds and generally follow more of Dave Ramsey’s advice on money.

I would recommend this book to almost any technology professional. It’s likely that almost every reader will find several ideas in the book they can use to improve their life and career. I would especially recommend the book for someone just starting out in their career. You can think of the book almost like a very inexpensive mentor. At the very least, it can put you on a path of continual self-improvement.

Review of “Coders at Work” by Peter Seibel

As young as programming is, it seems that most of the practitioners in the field have little sense of the history of it.  I’m not entirely sure why this is.  Perhaps it is caused by the twin realities of rapidly evolving technologies and the relative youth of the folks that write code.  No matter the reasons, it seems like nobody thinks very much about what happened in languages like Assembly, Lisp, Fortran and Smalltalk on platforms like early IBM mainframes, Altos and PDP-11s back in the dark ages before the dawn of the Internet age.  It seems to me that it pays to understand where your field has come from.   If you feel as I do about this, you should take the time to read “Coders at Work”, a collection of interviews  with some of the all-time greatest programmers that most of us have never heard of.

Well, hopefully you’ve heard of some of them.  Guys like Ken Thompson (co-creator of UNIX) and Donald Knuth (author of the masterwork “The Art of Computer Programming”) have set down bodies of work that demand attention.  Some of them, like Brendan Eich (CTO at the Mozilla Foundation) and Joshua Bloch (Chief Java Architect at Google), might be well-known because of their current positions more than their past work.  Others, like Fran Allen (2002 Turing Award winner), are probably unknown to 99% of the programmers on the planet.  No matter their fame, every single one of them has fascinating things to say about where we’ve been and where we’re going as a profession.

I think what struck me the most as I read through the first-hand accounts was just how little computer these guys had to work with back in the early days.  I thought I had it rough at the start of my career writing systems using HP3000 Basic and its two-character limit on variable names until I read about programming analog computers in the 50s and the early digital computers that supported as little as 200 words of memory.   It makes you wonder what people will think of our mildly multi-core servers thirty years from now.  It is also amazing how programming has remained just about as hard as it was back then.  Sure, we have better tools now, but our users expect much more too.

Although this book does not offer the sweeping, dispassionate view-point of a true history, it provides the invaluable personal perspective of the people who made history happen.  Reading this book is about the closest many of us will ever get to joggling punch cards and toggling switches to enter code.  It’s definitely worthwhile reading for every professional coder.

Check out “Coders at Work” at Amazon.

Review of “Founders at Work”

By the time I finished shutting down Objective Advantage in March, 2009, I was seriously burned out on the idea of entrepreneurship.  Starting a company is difficult.  Selling off the bits and shutting it down after 11+ years is tougher.  When I sat down and considered my future career path I really figured the only way forward was to go back and be an employee again – no more 70 hour work weeks, no more agonizing over the payroll and fewer sleepless nights.  Sure, I’d lose some freedom and some financial upside, but the tradeoffs seemed like a no-brainer.  I even turned down an opportunity to own a piece of a company that bought some of the IP from my former company and instead joined them as an employee.

Then I read “Founders at Work”, a collection of interviews with founders of famous technology companies.  As I read through the stories, the few embers left over from the fire that had kept me self-employed for almost 20 years started to glow hot again.   Each page felt like a personal conversation with one smart founder after another.  My old heroes with their garage-startup VC war stories were all there —  Steve Wozniak (Apple) and Dan Bricklin (Creator of VisiCalc) were two of my personal favorites.  There were also great stories from Web 2.0-style founders that self-funded their companies like Joel Spolsky of Fogcreek.  Every founder gave me a useful lesson.  Every founder reminded me of something I liked about startups.  By the end, the flame of entrepreneurship was burning hot in my gut once again.

How often do you find a book that inspires you?  If you have ever considered starting a company or even joining a startup, this book is a must read.  Just be careful; The inspiration, as Thomas Edison famously said, is only 1% of what it takes.

See this book at Amazon.com.