In the Middle of Difficulty

Three rules of work:
Out of clutter, find simplicity.
From discord, find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
—Albert Einstein

Back in June, The New Yorker published Malcolm Gladwell’s review of “Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman” (Princeton) by Jeremy Adelman. I’ve reread the piece a number of times and have found so many references of interest in it that my first recommendation is to simply click over and read it.

Worldly Philosopher

One of the characteristics of failing fast that I find compelling is that it provides direction in the face of ambiguity or uncertainty, particularly in those early stages of a project or effort during which we lack the information or context to make effective decisions, and I believe this is why the fail fast model has been adopted with such apparent uniformity (perhaps, at this point, even dogmatically) in the entrepreneurial world, as evidenced by the pivot becoming the favored strategy when feedback on your original concept informs a change in direction. However, what I found enlightening about the Gladwell piece, and the stories, that Hirschman used in his own work—such as the Hoosac Mountain tunnel and the Karnaphuli Paper Mills—is that these were not situations in which there was any perceived ambiguity in the way we readily acknowledge it in other contexts. The experts felt that blasting through the Hoosac was a tractable and relatively inexpensive problem, and Karnaphuli Paper Mills operators specifically built in an optimal location, near existing bamboo forests. However, in the middle of the projects, at that flexing tipping point that breeds a pivot, it turned out that their plans were built on assumptions that didn’t hold or expectations that didn’t match with reality. The creativity required to build out of that situation is what Hirschman highlights in his essay, “The Principle of the Hiding Hand:”

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

That last sentence is thrilling. Misjudge the nature of the task in order to bring out our full creativity. That feels right.

Later in the essay, Hirschman writes:

The Hiding Hand is essentially a way of inducing action through error, the error being an underestimate of the project’s costs or difficulties.

I’ve never conceived of deliberately underestimating a project’s difficulties as a way of inducing action, and I can’t say it is clear that Hirschman is suggesting that either. But, in the same frame of mind as “having a bias for action” or “getting fast feedback,” this does suggest that when you find yourself in a situation in which your back is against the wall and success seems less clear than when you set out, taking this new information and either failing and moving on or pivoting into a new future is the right approach.

Hirschman published these ideas in 1967. And he was an economist. An amazing guy who lived to be 97 and was, in Gladwell’s words, satisfied to “circle the globe and be content to conclude that he couldn’t reach a conclusion—for a long time, if ever. He was a planner who really didn’t believe in planning.”

In my mind, this echoes Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth:

Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.

Don’t assume you know where you’re going. Get in the middle of difficulty and invent a way out. Fail fast and prosper.

A Leviathan Breathing

Here in Michigan, we are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.” (Google confirms this conversational convention with unsettling analytical accuracy.) But we are not the only citizens who’ve noted the lack of weather predictability, and this paragraph from Annie Dillard’s astounding Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I’m currently re-reading — as I have every few years since Mrs. Granger introduced us to the work in high school; I absolutely love it — reminded me how seasons aren’t as self-contained as our invented calendar implies.

[T]here’s always unseasonable weather. What we think of the weather and behavior of life on the planet at any given season is really all a matter of statistical probabilities; at any given point, anything might happen. There is a bit of every season in each season. Green plants—deciduous green leaves—grow everywhere, all winter long, and small shoots come up pale and new in every season. Leaves die on the tree in May, turn brown, and fall into the creek. The calendar, the weather, and the behavior of wild creatures have the slimmest of connections. Everything overlaps smoothly for only a few weeks each season, and then it all tangles up again. The temperature, of course, lags far behind the calendar seasons, since the earth absorbs and releases heat slowly, like a leviathan breathing. Migrating birds head south in what appears to be dire panic, leaving mild weather and fields full of insects and seeds; they reappear as if in all eagerness in January, and poke about morosely in the snow. Several years ago our October woods would have made a dismal colored photograph for a sadist’s calendar: a killing frost came before the leaves had even begun to brown; they drooped from every tree like crepe, blackened and limp. It’s all a chancy, jumbled affair at best, as things seem to be below the stars.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

And, while drawing a line between Dillard and Proust, with his own ravishing natural descriptions, might be a more romantic concept than a literal one, nonetheless it is appealing to see a similar description in Swann’s Way:

For often we find a day, in one, that has strayed from another season, and makes us live in that other, summons at once into our presence and makes us long for its peculiar pleasures, and interrupts the dreams that we were in process of weaving, by inserting, out of its turn, too early or too late, this leaf, torn from another chapter, in the interpolated calendar of Happiness.


The Benefits of Accidental Reading

There was a time when I would only read one book or magazine at a time. Straight through, cover to cover — including the covers, the notes, the advertisements — and I would do so even if I wasn’t enjoying whatever it was because I presumed that all writing had the potential to reveal something, even if only a random fact I wasn’t pursuing or a model of thought that I would be well-advised to avoid adopting.

At some point, perhaps because this approach resulted in a slower pace of overall reading or because it delayed by days or weeks the enjoyment of the exciting piece I had just discovered, I started reading many things all at once and letting my interest direct which of them I would continue to read. If I tired of a book three chapters in, I would pick up something else to see if it I found it more enticing, and only circle back when that first book seemed intriguing again. Eventually I might even decide that a book was not worth finishing, which my more youthful self would have considered heretical, milquetoasty anti-intellectualism, but which I rationalized by deciding that what I was more naturally drawn to read might be a greater use of my always-diminishing biological span.

One accidental outcome of reading many things at once is the surprising number of confluences and parallels you uncover. A book written four centuries ago and one written this year might share a turn of phrase, a plot twist, or a psychological insight, and having both moving through your thoughts within hours or days of each other makes these similarities — or even contrasting differences — discernible in a way they likely would not have been otherwise.


I was reminded of this benefit just this week when I picked up two books at the library and started reading them on the same day. Here is the first paragraph of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life:

There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness. Had we been placed on earth by a malign creator for the exclusive purpose of suffering, we would have good reason to congratulate ourselves on our enthusiastic response to the task. Reasons to be inconsolable abound: the fraility of our bodies, the fickleness of love, the insincerity of social life, the compromises of friendship, the deadening effects of habit. In the face of such persistent ills, we might naturally expect that no event would be awaited with greater anticipation than the moment of our own extinction.

I read a few chapters and then turned to the other book the library had surrendered, Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, which I am rereading because a third book I just finished made me want to go back to it.


Camus begins:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.

Here is de Botton writing in the late 1990s (in a book structured around one of the greatest authors of that century) and Camus in the early 1950s. De Botton is playful; Camus, just a bit more intense. But the question is the same: Is happiness possible? Is life worth living? Certainly, these are timeless questions and there is no surprise that a topic that has been treated by many would be present in two different works you just happened to be reading more or less simultaneously. However, this lack of singularity does not lessen the impact on the reader, and both the connectedness of the passages and the relief they throw each other into yield a more interesting vantage point from which to consider either, and both.

I once thought of writing a piece that included instructions to the reader on a preparatory experience to have before reading the next section. For example: “Have a very late dinner at The Feast of Chilmark before reading Chapter 4.” Or: “Stand at the corner of State Street and East Liberty looking west on a September evening before reading Chapter 7.” Or, even more fun: “Peacefully break up with someone after a yearlong relationship for a reason neither of you can distinctly remember before proceeding to Chapter 12.” The idea of the reader having had an experience directly tied to the writing offered to enable a greater level of connectivity between the reader and writer; a more refined collaboration.

Of course, the dull edge of practicality cuts through such a concept with little resistance. Since eating the same foods, meeting the same people, and reading all the same books in the same order at the same pace won’t make us the same person with the same perspective, it is fruitless (if still enticing) to inconvenience a reader with such demanding homework. Far better to find that something you wrote appeals regardless of the specific experiences of the reader, regardless of what they have recently, or ever, read. And, as a reader, far better to find that something you are reading connects you to the work of another, either in its echo or its denial, in its expansion of detail or its shift of perspective, in the way it, completely accidentally, makes you consider something you have felt before with either greater certainty or, instead, with a wistful glance behind you, makes you realize that where you’ve been before isn’t where you thought it was, and is, apparently, nothing like where you are going.

Fail Fast on Facebook

I’m not sure if blogs are waning as a medium or not, but I find that I often want to share a quick link or point that doesn’t feel worthy of an entire post but isn’t going to fit into 140, either. So, probably a bit late, I’ve finally created a Fail Fast Facebook page. Please come over and connect; I’ll be sharing posts from the blog but there will also be some exclusive content as well. See you there.

Failure Is Our Only Option

A nice article by DJ Patil, a data scientist who used to work at LinkedIn, in

Now it’s easy to say go forth and fail! What’s most important is how you fail. The best method is to fail fast. LinkedIn wasn’t the first social network in a very competitive space nor did we know exactly where we were going. It was an extremely tough fight. What allowed us to succeed was our mantra of failing fast in order to survive. We would build products quickly, test them out, many of them failing, then learn about went wrong and try again.

Oink Fails Fast

From Oink Closure Raises Questions about ‘Fail Fast’ Development:

Oink’s brief three-month stint seems to instead be a case of an extreme version of Google’s ‘fail fast’ mentality, which led to the shuttering of Google Wave and Google Buzz. Those services were provided with quite a bit more time to catch on; Oink’s rapid exit might leave a bad taste in the mouth of some regarding its future products.

Well, I believe the “rapid exit” might be the fast part of “fail fast,” folks….

A Three-Point Scale for Ranking Resumes

I’ve had the good fortune, both back when we had an economy and, less often but more recently, now that we don’t, to be responsible for hiring a fair number of people over my career. I’ve had the even better fortune of hiring some fantastic talent along the way, people who took my expectations and then climbed far past them, who learned from me and — more often — taught me, who I have had an enormous amount of fun with and shared some sadnesses, too, and who I have developed lasting friendships with even long after we’ve parted ways. Hiring is everything. It builds great teams, makes good teams stronger, and provides the personality and drive that sets the table for success. A bad hire slows everyone down, ruins morale, and creates a management problem you don’t need or want.

I’m currently responsible for or a part of two different search committees (thankfully) and was reminded how much my hiring has been influenced by a three-point resume-ranking model I developed about a decade ago. At the time, I needed a simple process primarily because we were hiring so many people and looking at so many resumes. Today, we hire far fewer people but have exponentially more candidates to cull through. In either case, a scale is very useful, and I thought I would share mine in case you find it helpful — or have a better idea to share back.

The Three-Point Scale

The applicant scores one point for achieving each of the following criterion:

  1. She has worked somewhere I have wanted to work. This assessment favors candidates who have worked at desirable employers: Google, Apple, IDEO, Starbucks, Fast Company, a university press, a boutique consulting firm, a successful nonprofit, a small design shop. Places that are desirable to work hire great, interesting people and inspire others to want to work there, which means they can be selective. I like to hire those people, too.
  2. She has worked on a project that sounds interesting or yielded a critical result. You may have worked somewhere that I have never thought of wanting to work or somewhere I may have never heard of, particularly if you are an out-of-town applicant, but maybe you have worked on a cool project: an agile transformation, building software for helicopters, a corporate turn-around, a healthcare research effort, an open-source project. People who work on cool projects either are cool or can become so by working on those projects. I think it was Tom Peters who characterized a career as a series of interesting projects. I want to hire people who have started beading such a string.
  3. She has done something that makes me want to have a real conversation with her. Maybe she went to an interesting school, studied astrophysics, taught poetry to prisoners, played on a collegiate team, won a national rock-paper-scissors contest, wrote a thesis comparing music composition to software development, lived somewhere eccentric or remote, wrote an evocative cover letter. Ideally this point is awarded outside of the first two (just because you’ve worked at Apple doesn’t mean I want to have a conversation with you, though it is likely) and could be considered an extra credit point. At the end of the day, or over lunch, or at the coffee pot, you need to actually be interested in having a conversation with your colleagues, and those with interesting experiences typically have something intriguing to say.

I try not to give half or quarter points and use a simple “0 or 1″ assessment for each standard, though I am not a complete stickler and might give a half-point for someone who worked somewhere mildly interesting or on a semi-cool project, especially if we have a large number of resumes to get through and distinguishing among them requires greater precision.

I only use this scale as an initial screening to determine who we want to phone interview. We’re trying to find the five or six folks we want to schedule for a phone call and after that conversation we hope to get down to two or three for in-person interviews. I haven’t kept track of how many perfect threes I’ve actually hired, but I know I’ve rarely hired someone who didn’t score at least a two. Maybe never. And I’ve certainly been disappointed in the interview process by people who were fantastic on paper; not everyone who worked at Apple, ported a major app from C++ to Java in a month singlehandedly, or spends weekends trying to communicate with whales is actually someone who interviews well or will fit the culture of the team. But you need a process, because “[p]rocess is more important than outcome.”

When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.

Introducing “Another American Childhood.”

I haven’t done a very good job keeping up with the constant stream of fail fast references and my terse commentary regarding them this year because my blogging time has been spent on another writing endeavor that will probably sound very nineteenth-century: poetry. I spent a lot of time writing in high school, studied literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan, and my first career was as a writer and editor in the Penobscot Building in Detroit. I’ve been writing ever since, but my technical career and family life have certainly taken center stage the last 15 years or so.

Back in January when my dad was in the hospital, I instinctively turned to poetry as an outlet, and the idea for organizing some of these random pieces I had collected over the years as a gift for his upcoming 60th birthday came to me as I walked the bright, miserable hospital hallways. I realized I wanted to do something for him that I had never been able to do for my mom, who died in 1997 at the age of 44 after a 20-year struggle with Multiple Sclerosis.

As I started to write and edit in earnest, I realized that, in today’s multimedia world, it would be more interesting to pair the words with images. Given that I happen to know two talented photographers, Dave Limer and Andy Schmitt, I introduced them to the project and was relieved when they agreed to help. We began pairing images with words and, to be honest, I was very surprised how quickly a basic structure came together. We shared some lunches together — seven to be exact — and a lot of emails — about 146 — over the next months, and made many, many revisions. As we neared our deadline, I thought it would be helpful to have someone with an English background review everything, and was lucky to have another literary and creative friend to call on, Michael Slawnik. Dave, Andy, Michael, and I, who work together on a daily basis as technologists, pulled everything together in time to print one copy of the book for my dad’s birthday in mid-August. It was a great day.

Early on in the process, I thought of expanding this project as a charitable effort to benefit MS, which has impacted my family in a way that is still unraveling itself. I had originally chosen Blurb as the publishing solution we would use because they print beautiful books, but the idea was concretized when I learned of their Blurb for Good program, which donates a portion of their own fees to your fundraising effort. Their technology and philanthropic model are fantastic.

I’m very happy to finally and publicly introduce Another American Childhood to you. Navigate the poems and photos on the website. Check out the page-by-page preview of the book. Buy a copy or donate directly to the MS Society if you can. And join the conversation on Facebook, where, over the next 16 weeks, we’ll be discussing the poems and photographs in order to give you a little of their background and the behind-the-scenes fun we had pulling this all together.

Any support you can give will mean more than you can imagine.

Fail Fast with Agile

A nice article yesterday from Aaron Erickson about the relationship — I would go as far as to say the symbiotic relationship — of agile software development and failure. He provides an overview of methods to identify a failing project and metrics that can help discern failure as quickly as possible. To quote:

Failing fast doesn’t just save us money. The cold reality is that people don’t like working on failing projects. When a project is failing, people generally can smell it in the air. Employee engagement goes down, turnover goes up, and things just generally get worse. The best thing to do — for your people, for your company — is to learn to fail, and create a culture that learns from failure.

I heartily agree, though I would emphasize that failure doesn’t have to relate to the entire project, and ideally it doesn’t. You could fail fast on an architectural approach, a feature, a graphic design, or an idea. As Alan Cooper recently wrote:

Generally, ideas are cheap and plentiful, therefore so are good ideas. Unfortunately, bad ideas are the most plentiful of all. While success depends on developing good ideas, consistently successful companies and individuals are skilled at both identifying and discarding bad ideas to devote resources to the good ones…. You have to be tough enough to nurture your idea to the point where its fatal flaws become visible, then ruthlessly put it out of your misery. The author William Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings.”

Good night, darling.