Need to wake up earlier

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I’ve always liked mornings. The dawn of a new day, endless possibilities, the blank slate. Stuff like that. And if you wake early you feel like you’re ahead of everybody else and the world is there just for you to enjoy. Pretty poetic.

Problem is, most mornings lately I haven’t been able to wake up at all. Not in a good way at least. I’ve been drained. It’s been a hellish winter by Malta standards and my previous 6:30 am gym routines has become a lunch-time gym routine (still a good routine obviously). When it’s as cold indoors as it is outdoors, which is the case in Malta in winters, (at least some winters), you’re not keen to get out of the three-to-five layers of fabric you’re sleeping under. It’s the humidity and the lack of indoor heating that’s making me tired and lazy.

But yesterday was the first day of spring and I’m keen to get back to early-riser routines. Which I hope will give me time to get me back into the writing that’s been sorely neglected the last five months.

If you’re a writer, being a early riser seems to be a decent recipe for success. That’s at least the point of this great post on Brain Pickings called “Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity Visualized“.

Suddenly I feel tired and need to go to bed. Good night.

The 1000 Hour Rule – by James Altucher

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Crazy or genius? Well, writer/thinker/speaker James Altucher has them both covered in an entertaining way. This is his take on Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10 000 hour rule. I like it so I quote it in part below and link to his full post here.

THE 1000 HOUR RULE (note: this is NOT the 10,000 hour rule. One less zero).

Everybody knows the 10,000 HOUR RULE. The one popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that basically says if you do dedicated practice for 10,000 hours you can master a field. You can reach your full potential or close to it.

He used the Beatles as an example. They spent 10,000 hours playing music 18 hours a day in German porn clubs for five years and became the best in the world.

It makes sense. If you practice painting water colors for 10,000 hours you will be among the best in the world at water color painting.

Here’s the problem: We don’t just have one passion or love in life. The universe wants us to have fun doing more than one thing in life. That’s how it learns. You don’t have one purpose in life. You have maybe 500 or so.

And 10,000 hours is a lot of time. It’s anywhere from 5-30 years of your life. And then you die. And what do you show for it? That you’re great at watercolor painting. Not everyone is going to be the Beatles. That involves some luck also.

So I prefer the 1000 hour rule.

If you practice ANYTHING for one thousand hours and make sure it’s dedicated practice then you will STILL be among the best in the world.

How come? Because with anything worth learning there is a steep learning curve. In the first 1000 hours your ability goes straight up. Then it starts to even out as you learn more of the subtleties required to be among the best.

Here’s the thing: NOBODY GIVES A SHIT.

Since only the best in the world can really appreciate the subtleties and 99.9999% of the world can’t tell the difference between somebody who has studied for 1000 hours versus someone who has studied for 10,000 hours then you can appear to be the best in the world and get much of the benefits of it by just putting in 1000 hours of dedicated practice.

In fact, if you get good at learning new things, then you can even take another zero off. The 100 hour rule. Or maybe 200 hours. This makes life a LOT better and more fun. You can take that zero off after you get really good at the first thing.

Because then you have learned how to learn. So that saves a lot of energy on the next thing you learn.

Phew! This one rule has saved me decades of time. I can’t be the world champion at chess but I can be a chess master. I can’t be a billionaire but I can perhaps learn enough about a field to make a real contribution to society.

And I can do it more than once. In fact, I can do it every year of my life and learn many things.

Thank god for the 1000 hour rule. (or the 100 hour rule).”

Atmosphere – Camera Thief

I’ve always enjoyed listening to good lyricists no matter what genre. Atmosphere is one. Just check out a his latest tune Camera Thief from the record (people still record “records” you know) Southsiders. I realize I already wrote a post on Atmosphere’s great lyrics – it’s here and about the song called Yesterday.

Camera Thief
Atmosphere

[Verse 1]
Camera thief
Take pictures
Run like the parallel stitches
Attach my feet to the path I beat
Teach myself to keep the answers brief
Gnash my teeth like the last to feast
Imagine me on that abandoned beach
Sand and sea as if the jazz was free
I’m Ice cream mixed with gasoline
Direct attention to the craftsmanship
Neglect to mention that the past will stick
Like initials carved in the concrete
Like the tattoo that hides on your mommy
I still kick it with angels
The difference is instead of the bar, I’m at my kitchen table
The starlight shines through the glass
But you feel safe underneath that mask

[Verse 2]
Ferris Wheel, give rides
The scars healed in time to get high
Lock the doors and hide the keys
Let’s go describe how to climb a tree
Don’t sign the lease just cop a corner
For you to curl up and try to sleep
Those cheap police won’t find my wings
I keep my dreams inside my dreams
And If I had a time machine
I’d probably use it like a vacuum and try to clean
It kind a seems, quite more than a handful of these regrets have been circumstantial
Now give me all the cash out the drawer
Touch that mustache down on the floor
And I’ll be in court holding a pitchfork
‘Fore I let the contest outlast the sport

[Verse 3]
Pocket watch, impatient
Find a mate then make the migration
Break the rules, but first break the rulers
And keep it moving like a rumor
I don’t need to defend my defensiveness
I keep to myself, my family, and friendships
I’ve got enough people I could disappoint
If you disagree I think you missed the point
Now go ahead and grab a chair
Let me tell you about the last few years
Pulled out a sack full of Samson’s hair
And put it on the dash like a dancin’ bear
I wrote you a horoscope
It won’t fit on this post-it note
But if I had to sum it up into a shorter quote
It goes fuck it, you might as well row that boat

Reading Jess Walter

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I’ve landed into a period of heavy reading again and it feels like getting back to yourself after a period of confusion. I want to thank Jess Walter for bringing me back into the land of books through his novel Beautiful Ruins, but also through his other books The Financial Lives of Poets and the short-story We Live in Water (pictured above).

There is something about Jess Walter’s  writing style that appeals deeply to me. Brutally honest and with a wry sense of humour, it captures something I strive hard to accomplish in my own writing. In a self-deprecating way it frames the essence of life with all its blemishes and it makes us see that maybe life is beautiful because it’s far, far from perfect.

Beautiful Ruins (click the link for more about that book) led me to The Financial Lives of the Poets, which is darker and more blatantly funny.  Like his 2006 novel The Zero, it deals in part with USA post-September 11 and in part recession era America. The narrator and main character of the book is Matthew Prior, a 46-year-old ex business journalist who thanks to a ill-advised idea of starting a business poetry website has killed his career in journalism and is instead, through coincidence and a dire financial situation, planning to sell weed to his “peers” in the equally despondent middle-class.

Prior’s dire financial situation isn’t his only worry. His wife Lisa has late night conversations with an old boyfriend via Facebook (is she cheating?), she pursues an unhealthy shopping affair with eBay and to add to this, Prior’s alzheimer-plagued father is living with them and keeps repeating the same line over and over until his son’s head is going to explode. And…as most parents do, Prior is also constantly worried what kind of people his two sons will grow up to be.

You can say he has his plate rather full.

And Prior wants to solve all this by selling marijuana. (Not really all his troubles, but at least the financial ones).

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The first thought I had when I understood that Prior’s plan to solve his economic distress was to sell drugs, I thought of the TV series Weeds, which, if not entirely similar plot-wise, works with the same themes: How to cope in today’s fast-paced financial jungle? Why not do something taboo-ish like selling pot? Because doing so will obviously lead to some funny and unexpected situations (story-wise).

Yes, I first I thought: I’ve seen this idea before. But the way Walter pulls it off is clever and humorous and at times also a bit sad.

But he does one of the most important things in all writing – he makes you relate to the characters in his stories and he makes you laugh.

So with this very short review, I can really recommend The Financial Lives of the Poets.

The Financial Lives of the Poets in turn lead me to purchase We Live in Water, Walter’s short story collection.

If The Financial Lives of the Poets was dark and funny, this is more sharp and poignant. The stories in the book deals with loss, abuse, addiction and although many of them are heavy in storyline, they’re always a breeze to read, the reason being Walter’s skilful handling of the American language. In some way his writing he reminds me of another author favourite, Richard Ford.

Among all the destruction and broken people, there is, and here’s the trick, love. And real love, not Valentine’s Day love, not postcard love, not romantic love, but deep and heartfelt love. Between father and son (several of the stories deal with this), but also relationship love and what We Live in Water shows is how much we all hurt  because of it.

Writing that’s “real” is, to me, the best kind of writing and We Live in Water has it in spades.

I also like the contrast between this dark short story collection and the more romantic Beautiful Ruins. It shows that a talented writer doesn’t have to step inside a box and put a label on it. Write whatever you feel like, treat writing as an experiment, don’t think about sales, and publish something that’s you all over it. No matter what topic you write about, the voice will be there, the you will be there.

But I digress.

What I wanted to say with this post is that I’m thankful for books, for reading and for writing and I hope you are too. And if you are, why not check out Jess Walter, a talented writer with some very powerful work.

PS. Here’s a good interview with Jess Walter. DS.

Beautiful Ruins

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Stephen King wrote that you need to read a lot to get the right tools to write. He’s a hundred percent right. I’ve been working on my third novel for 8-9 months now and my productivity and focus is weak. I worry that I won’t finish it. Since I changed position at work, it’s been difficult to find pockets of time to really dive down into the story. Five minutes here and there won’t cut it.

It’s been the same with my reading. I’ve had trouble focusing on one book and keep skipping between a few different ones. These are the (main) two I’m reading at the moment with descriptions in italics (from Amazon):

A Thousand Pardons

Once a privileged and loving couple, the Armsteads have now reached a breaking point. Ben, a partner in a prestigious law firm, has become unpredictable at work and withdrawn at home—a change that weighs heavily on his wife, Helen, and their preteen daughter, Sara. Then, in one afternoon, Ben’s recklessness takes an alarming turn, and everything the Armsteads have built together unravels, swiftly and spectacularly.
 
Thrust back into the working world, Helen finds a job in public relations and relocates with Sara from their home in upstate New York to an apartment in Manhattan. There, Helen discovers she has a rare gift, indispensable in the world of image control: She can convince arrogant men to admit their mistakes, spinning crises into second chances. Yet redemption is more easily granted in her professional life than in her personal one.
 
As she is confronted with the biggest case of her career, the fallout from her marriage, and Sara’s increasingly distant behavior, Helen must face the limits of accountability and her own capacity for forgiveness.

Beautiful Ruins

The acclaimed, award-winning author of the national bestseller The Financial Lives of the Poets returns with his  funniest, most romantic, and most purely enjoyable novel yet: the story of an almost-love affair that begins on the Italian coast in 1962 . . . and is rekindled in Hollywood fifty years later. 

I haven’t finished either one of them yet (my Kindle tells me I’m around halfway through), but they’re both good in their own way. I think Beautiful Ruins is definitely a more accomplished/complicated story with lots of layers and very interesting characters. It skips constantly between time and perspective, but despite the intricate storytelling it isn’t hard to follow. It’s definitely one of those books that intimidates you as a fellow writer. There’s a thin line between intimidating and inspiring obviously, a lot of it has to do with your own confidence and mindset, which for a writer goes up and down like an elevator in a Keanu Reeves movie.

But right now it’s kind of intimidating.

There’s a sentence I read today in Beautiful Ruins that is really good and you all know I’m a sucker for a clever line:

“This is what happens when you live in dreams, he thought; you dream this and you dream that and you sleep right through your life.”

Beautiful Ruins sure has some beautiful writing in it – recommended! And I will finish it! Promise.

The same hopefully goes for Six Strings, the story about young guitarist with a amnesia that I’m working on. It’s slow progress, but I’ll do my best to get at least 500 words done a day. Won’t be easy, but who said writing is?

 

Blue Jasmine

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We just saw Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen‘s latest movie. It’s fantastic. Just wanted to tell you that.

However, I should make it clear I like most Allen movies, especially the later ones. He tells stories the way not enough people do, without special effects, without exaggerations and without gloom.

He tells stories using beautiful photography and scenery (To Rome with Love and Midnight in Paris are recent excellent examples) and fine acting. He tells stories that feels eerily real but still kind of nice.

And he knows how to direct actors. Just look at Cate Blanchett’s amazing performance in Blue Jasmine and you know what I mean.

So if you want to watch something inspiring of real quality – watch a Woody Allen movie. And why not Blue Jasmine?

Why Fighting Guilt Is Good Business

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Today I read an interesting article about GFC – Guilt Free Consumption which talks about why “guilt-free is the new luxury for consumers and the Holy Grail for businesses”. It’s a positive sign in the world I think, we are more aware about our impact and more connected to the state of things around us.

As a consumer it’s about making smart choices and as a business, being aware of all your processes and taking responsibility for ensuring a transparent and “clean” approach to your sales – making it truly good business. This is really just a way of fighting your customers’ concerns proactively. And it works!

There are many good examples in the article, but I will borrow a few (I find the formatting of the article a bit hard on the eyes, so hopefully this will be a nice, easy-on-the-eyes summary):

Peddler’s Creamery ice-cream shop in Los Angeles powers its churner by asking customers to peddle an in-store bicycle. GUILT-FREE indulgence indeed!

Burger King launched Satisfries – French fries with 40% less fat and 30% fewer calories than the McDonald’s equivalent.

Miya’s Sushi in Connecticut, US, goes beyond simply not including endangered fish such as yellow tail tuna on its menu: it offers dishes made with non-native, invasive species that are damaging the local habitat, and thus eating (and enjoying) them makes customers part of the solution.

The Wish Lit app allows the user to enter the cost of a desired object and then calculates how much energy they need to save in order to purchase it.

This is great inspiration for any business in any industry. The next step is of course to look at consumption that goes beyond guilt-free and becomes actively positive in impact across every domain.

How can you make your business guilt-free?

Pessimistic Perfectionist Turned Entrepreneur

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADaniel Jacobsson is one of the two founders of Bannerflow, an online banner production tool used mainly in the affiliate and bought media market. He comes from a background of design and web development and has the rare knack of being able to do both. What once started as an idea to remove a production bottleneck has now in a short span of time become a company of 14 employees with offices in Stockholm and New York.

Daniel calls himself the opposite of an entrepreneur, a pessimistic perfectionist who’s built on logic and loves problem-solving. We talked about his start-up journey and what advice he can give to other aspiring entrepreneurs who might have an idea worth the time, but not sure whether they have what it takes to realize it.

Know when to bury your pride and dare to hit that release button. – Daniel Jacobsson

What did you feel when you quit your day job and decided to go freelance? Did you have the seed of Bannerflow in the back of your mind or did it come later?
I was slightly frightened and thought: “What have I done? I had a perfectly decent job”, yet it was exciting to become my own boss with all the freedom and responsibility that comes with that. Would I be able to pay the rent? Would I get any clients? Some pressure for sure.

The idea of BannerFlow, or AdFlow as it was called initially, was already in mind at that stage. But I didn’t give it any serious thought until a year later when I realised I was still being a creative slave to others.

How did you come up with the idea?
Working as a web designer for an online marketing intensive brand left me continuously reminded about the tedious process of producing large volumes of ads. Yes, producing is the right verb – not creating. Campaign material often had to be produced in ten different sizes/formats combined with localized messages in up to twenty different languages. On top of that, each banner had to be provided in Flash and GIF format. In total, one of these campaigns could result in more than 500 banner files being managed and weeks of work. That could have been a pleasant task if it weren’t for the fact that the creative process was non-existent. At this point I figured that most of my production tasks could potentially be automated. If one only had the time to build it…

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How long did it take from idea to realisation? Did you experience any problems/learnings in the beginning?
It took roughly a year from idea to hitting a planning phase. Once entering that, I was lucky to have my programmer friend on board focusing on the backend design of BannerFlow. We incoherently started putting the pieces together on the side of regular income-bringing freelance work.

In less than a year, we had a beta version ready to be commercialized. Unfortunately both me and my partner were little interested in selling the product. We were a lot keener on  improving and adding on features than standing in conference rooms showcasing our application. Meanwhile, friends and former colleagues pushed me into meeting up with potential clients they knew of – especially my former employer. Luckily, despite my lack of sales finesse, we were able to get our first client.

In retrospect, the biggest challenge has been learning to compromise on perfection. My previous mindset was that nothing could be presented or released until it’s perfect. That’s indefensible in the long run – sometimes you have to be ignorant to move forward.

What were your fears when you started working on BannerFlow?
As more and more time was put into the project, the more committed we got but also the stakes got higher. How much time has been wasted if this wouldn’t fly? Will our product be technically obsolete once it is ready since it’s taking so long? Even if BannerFlow is accepted by designers and other users, will third-party affiliate and ad servers accept our banners? There were many questions, but we chose to ignore them initially.

Did you ever think it would become what it is today?
Not at all. Of course we were aiming at making it a successful project – one wouldn’t start if that wasn’t the goal and ambition. But we didn’t have any idea of what it might become. Mostly because we are both quite pessimistic of nature and didn’t want to put that extra pressure to our work by having unrealistic dreams. No thoughts or attention was given to how to potentially sell the product at this point – our only comfort was the knowledge of knowing the need for the product was/is obvious.

Do you have any advice to give to aspiring entrepreneurs? What to do/What not to do?
I can only speak to those who are like me: cautious, pessimistic and perfectionist. When stating those characteristics, I’m happy to learn I’m more the opposite of an entrepreneur – more of a logical, problem-solver than anything else. Still, I’ve definitely picked up on a couple of things:

  • Know when to bury your pride. Dare to hit the release button – your product will never be perfect anyway, but it’s hopefully good enough to start.
  • If you’re not into sales, partner up with someone that is – things will move quicker and give you the opportunity of doing what you love.
  • Draw a line for how far to foresee and outline possible user-scenarios and functionality. At some point it’s better to keep things simple and add on functionality as you see the demand.
  • To keep the momentum during the start-up phase, if you’re feeling bored or tired juggling an important project, don’t hesitate jumping into that “unessential” but fun task that normally wouldn’t be worth spending time on. This injects the energy and boost needed to continue fumbling in the ever-dark tunnel of a start-up.

Tell me about some recent developments. What are you working on right now?
Currently we’re working day and night on developing our new platform for BannerFlow, B2. It will be an open, self-service version, opposed to our current, private enterprise platform. We will introduce a SaaS (Software as a Service) subscription price model in line with other existing cloud applications such as Salesforce. But we will still keep the tailored Enterprise models for our premium clients.

The new, wide range of potential users will be the key. We also prepare our platform to be accessible via API to open up for white-labelling, third-party usage and other partnerships. With this new strategy we’re facing entirely new technical challenges such as implementing support for payment methods, overlooking support channels and nonetheless: usability. We need any user – may it be a senior designer, marketing manager at Nike or a part-time bakery assistant – to be able to design and publish banners easily, regardless of their needs and knowledge.

What are your future plans for BannerFlow? Do you do 5-year plans or take it year by year?
We have just come out of the phase where we plan one or two months ahead. Our current aim is next year’s release of the self-service version of BannerFlow. 2014 will also be the year when BannerFlow is taking a further step into becoming not only a production tool but also an ad-server in a sense. Long term strategy is to set BannerFlow as the standard tool for HTML5 banner creation, much as Adobe Flash has been in the past. Very bold, but not impossible given the lack of user-friendly tools for HTML5 ad creation. The goal is that our sales head-quarters in NYC is fulfilling and surpassing our expectations to conquer the North American market which is the, by far, biggest spender in online marketing.

Do you have a mission or vision for the company?
Our key mission is to create products that are powerful enough to satisfy enterprise clients’ needs, yet with a usability awareness that enables your grandparents to use it as well.

How is your company structured and do you have a plan for further growth?
Would like to define our company structure as the classic, dull Swedish type; fairly flat without an obvious hierarchy in which freedom and responsibility are essential elements. Everyone is expected to contribute and participate to the same degree regardless of position or role. Currently our team has the rough ratio of 70% developers and 30% sales. With our scaleable, upcoming platform we’ll be able to push sales harder. All revenue is allocated for continuous growth. Filling the gaps as they turn up. Right now for instance, we’re looking into SEO and social media – two areas we haven’t even bothered digging into earlier.

How is it to work at BannerFlow? What could you expect as an employee?
We strive to have a inspiring, fun but still focused and goal-oriented environment. We always try to reward ourselves when business is going well. Next week for instance, the entire team is flying over to our colleagues in NYC for a one weeks’ conference. Really looking forward to that!

Things have become more organized the last few months. We have weekly all hands meetings, daily technical morning meetings and soon we might experience the first rage email by a colleague who has had his/hers coffee cup kidnapped. The down-side is that things get more impersonal and common. It’s important to address and maintain the atmosphere of an energetic start-up despite the growth and not let it turn into what you once left yourself in your previous employments.

Read more about Bannerflow at www.bannerflow.com

We Live in Boxes – Let’s Look Outside

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I hate using cliches, but the headline was too apt not to use it. Also it makes me think of the theme song to the hit TV-series Weeds. The song, written by Malvina Reynolds, is a political satire about the development of suburbia in the sixties and the “ticky-tacky” material used to build them.

But when I write that we live in boxes – I don’t mean cheap houses,  I mean our world view and our lives. Because many of us, and I’m definitely one of them, live on a pretty safe and narrow path. We have it pretty good, but still we complain and are desperate for more.

We only see the edges of the box. This is the way most lives are set up and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that it wouldn’t hurt to look outside the box once in a while.

It can sometimes be a major eye-opener.

One guy who’s a master of making us look outside the box and see the world differently, is Hans Rosling.

Are you complaining about your salary, your job or something else? (I do this at times and sound like a baby). Look at his Ted Talk:

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

And we need to think to more. Think more outside our little boxes.

Manager, Leader, or Coach?

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Are you a Manager, Leader or Coach?

Or all three? Then you’re most likely a good one.

Too many managers are just being a manager. They organise and tell people what to do. They manage and set expectations and goals, but rarely inspire and coach their team members into exceeding them.

Or! And this is important: feeling good about reaching those goals.

On their business card it says “manager”. So they manage. But what many of them manage best are to set up their own career stepping stones.

But it’s not enough to manage, you need to lead and coach too if you want to maximise results.

And…this one is tied to the first one: to have fun!

Most managers forget about having fun. They forget that life and work doesn’t have to be a grey and a black zone. They see work as the place where you make enough money to have fun in your spare time.

Just writing that makes me kind of depressed.

We spend eight hours a day or more doing work. Shouldn’t it at least be a little bit fun? And shouldn’t you at least feel a little bit good about yourself from time to time?

We want the money, yes, because we need to pay the bills and buy a better car. But we need more than that. We need recognition and purpose.

We need to feel a part of something bigger.

This is what drives and inspires us. Not money. Not KPIs. Something bigger.

We want to make a difference in people’s lives.

You don’t need to work for the Red Cross or build schools in Africa to do that. It might be handing out the mail, cleaning someone’s car or providing some other valuable service to your customers. But you need to feel it. You need to feel your purpose.

This is what creates inspiration and drive – powerful energies that can change you. And that can help you change the world. And have fun while doing it.

Your manager, coach and leader is the guy or girl that should make you feel like anything is possible. That you can be a part of that equation.

And if you are a manager: strive to be that person your past employees talk about for years. (And not in a bad way.)

Lead, coach, manage. In that order. Then you will inspire.