The fable of the millipede and the songbird is a story about the difference between instinct and knowledge. It goes like this:
High above the forest floor, a millipede strolled along the branch of a tree, her thousand pairs of legs swinging in an easy gait. From the tree top, song birds looked down, fascinated by the synchronization of the millipede’s stride. “That’s an amazing talent,” chirped the songbirds. “You have more limbs than we can count. How do you do it?” And for the first time in her life the millipede thought about this. “Yes,” she wondered, “how do I do what I do?” As she turned to look back, her bristling legs suddenly ran into one another and tangled like vines of ivy. The songbirds laughed as the millipede, in a panic of confusion, twisted herself in a knot and fell to earth below.
On the forest floor, the millipede, realizing that only her pride was hurt, slowly, carefully, limb by limb, unraveled herself. With patience and hard work, she studied and flexed and tested her appendages, until she was able to stand and walk. What was once instinct became knowledge. She realized she didn’t have to move at her old, slow, rote pace. She could amble, strut, prance, even run and jump. Then, as never before, she listened to the symphony of the songbirds and let music touch her heart. Now in perfect command of thousands of talented legs, she gathered courage, and, with a style of her own, danced and danced a dazzling dance that astonished all the creatures of her world. 
The lesson here is that conscious reflection of an unconscious action will impair your ability to do that action. But after you introspect and really study how you do what you do, it will transform into knowledge and you will have greater command of that skill.
That, in a nutshell, is why I blog. The act of introspection — of turning abstract thoughts into concrete words — strengthens my knowledge of that subject and enables me to dance a dazzling dance.
I completely agree with this view on mastery from American fashion designer, writer, television personality, entrepreneur, and occasional cabaret star Isaac Mizrahi:
I’m a person who’s interested in doing a bunch of things. It’s just what I like. I like it better than doing one thing over and over. This idea of mastery—of being the very best at just one thing—is not in my future. I don’t really care that much. I care about doing things that are interesting to me and that I don’t lose interest in.
Mastery – “being the very best at just one thing” – doesn’t hold much appeal for me. I’m a very curious person. I like jumping between various creative endeavors that “are interesting to me and that I don’t lose interest in.” Guitar, web design, coding, writing, hand lettering – these are just some of the creative paths I’ve gone down so far, and I know that list will continue to grow.
I’ve found that my understanding of one discipline fosters a deeper understanding of other disciplines. New skills don’t take away from each other – they only add.
So no, mastery isn’t for me. The more creative paths I go down, the better. Keep ‘em coming.
When writing music, ambient music composer Brian Eno makes music that’s pleasurable to listen to by switching between “maker” mode and “listener” mode. He says:
I just start something simple [in the studio]—like a couple of tones that overlay each other—and then I come back in here and do emails or write or whatever I have to do. So as I’m listening, I’ll think, It would be nice if I had more harmonics in there. So I take a few minutes to go and fix that up, and I leave it playing. Sometimes that’s all that happens, and I do my emails and then go home. But other times, it starts to sound like a piece of music. So then I start working on it.
I always try to keep this balance with ambient pieces between making them and listening to them. If you’re only in maker mode all the time, you put too much in. […] As a maker, you tend to do too much, because you’re there with all the tools and you keep putting things in. As a listener, you’re happy with quite a lot less.
In other words, Eno makes great music by experiencing it the way his listeners do: by listening to it.
This is also a great lesson for product development teams: to make a great product, regularly use your product.
By switching between “maker” and “listener” modes, you put yourself in your user’s shoes and seeing your work through their eyes, which helps prevent you from “put[ting] too much in.”
This isn’t a replacement for user testing, of course. We are not our users. But in my experience, it’s all too common for product development teams to rarely, if ever, use what they’re building. No shade – I’ve been there. We get caught on the treadmill of building new features, always moving on to the next without stopping to catch our breath and use what we’ve built. This is how products devolve into an incomprehensible pile of features.
Eno’s process is an important reminder to keep your focus on the user by regularly switching between “maker” mode and “listener” mode.
This year I read 14 books, which is 8 fewer than the 22 I read last year (view last year’s list here). Lower than I was hoping, but it at least averages out to more than 1 per month. I’m not too surprised, though, since I traveled a lot and was busier socially this year. Once again, I was heavy on the non-fiction — I only read 2 fiction books this year. Just 2! I need to up that number in 2018.
This book really opened my eyes to the world of service design and thinking about a person’s experience beyond just the confines of the screen. Using the product is just one part of a person’s overall experience accomplishing their goal. This book is a great primer on the subject.
by Charles Haxthausen, Christianna Bonin, and Erica Dibenedetto
I’ve been quite taken by Sol LeWitt’s work after seeing his art at various museums, such as the SF MOMA. I finally bought a book to learn more about his work and approach to art. This inspired me to re-create his work programmatically.
This is the first Franzen book I’ve read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve been interested in him for a long time because David Foster Wallace is a fan of his. A well-written, engaging tale of a family’s troubles, anxieties, and the “corrections” they need to make to keep their lives intact.
Great book on managing people. Highly recommended for anyone who manages or is interested in managing. Even if you’re an individual contributor it’s worth reading because it will help you be a better employee and have a better relationship with your boss.
This companion to Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things is just as good as its better-known sibling. In this book he focuses on the emotional and aesthetic side of design, and why those elements are an important part of designing a successful product. He goes beyond fluffy, surface-level explanations, though, and explains the why behind these phenomenon using science, psychology, and biology. This makes for a convincing argument behind the importance of this aspect of design, which can often be written off as “nice-to-have” or self-indulgent.
I spoke about Optimizely’s software development process, and how we’ve used ideas from Lean Kanban and ESP (Enterprise Service Planning) to help us ship faster, with higher quality, to better meet customer needs. Overall it went well, but I had too much content and rushed at the end. If I do this talk again, I would cut some slides and make the presentation more focused and concise. Watch the talk below.
One of the cool things this conference does is give the audience green, yellow, and red index cards they can use to give feedback to the speakers. Green indicates you liked the talk, red means you didn’t like it, and yellow is neutral.
I got just one red card, with the comment, “topic title not accurate (this is not ESP?!).” In retrospect, I realized this person is correct — my talk really doesn’t talk about ESP much. I touch on it, but that was what Keith covered. Since he dropped out, I mostly cut those sections of the presentation since I can’t speak as confidently about them. If I did this talk solo again, I would probably change the title. So thank you, anonymous commenter 🙏
I also got two positive comments on green cards:
Thanks for sharing. Some useful insights + good to see it used in industry. - Thanks.
Thank you! Great examples, (maybe less slides next time?) but this was inspiring