What is your Superpower?

Courtesy of ap-photographie on Flickr
Courtesy of ap-photographie on Flickr

What is your Superpower?

Are you Super? Some programmers are 10x+ times better than their peers. And this distinction applies to team productivity in general. It makes it really important for you to know the thing you do better than anyone else. Doing more of that thing will make you happier at work and in general.

What is the one thing you do better than anyone else? If other people were to talk about how you interact in the world, what’s the “signature strength” they would talk about when they talk about you? Continue reading “What is your Superpower?”

Now, generate 100 ideas


When I was in drawing class in college, my professor asked us to make 100 drawings. “Why would we want to make throwaway drawings?” we asked. The answer he gave stuck with me: “because you don’t know which ones are the good ones until you look back.”

A similar problem affects idea generation – which ones are any good? If you start with a framework for generating the ideas, then develop a criteria for evaluating and filtering them, and finally create a measurement or objective outcome to see the results, you have a pretty interesting idea funnel. Don’t worry just yet whether the ideas are any good: just make more.

The first step is to make a lot of ideas. In e my experience, a throwaway method is best: whiteboard, post it note, or freehand list. Because I am very visual I need to see the idea rather than just type it out. So the first step is to fill a whiteboard 😉

After you generate the ideas, sorting them and filtering them is a lot easier with a tool. Some people like more post-it’s and a physical Agile board. I like using a spreadsheet for this purpose because it’s easy to sort and move the data around.

Finally when you stack rank the list of ideas, it’s time to figure out what you want to get our of them, how you will instrument that progress, and how you will measure your success.

Some of your ideas will be lousy, and some will be quite good – just remember to generate enough of them so that the process kicks into play. You won’t be able to get a great idea with five candidates, but there are probably five great ideas candidates in your list of 100.

Starting from the empty page.

A blank page is a prison and the ultimate freedom. When the paper is blank there are no constraints. Anything can happen and a masterpiece feels (tantalizingly) within reach. Yet making the first line is the most important line because without making a line, your drawing goes nowhere. But you have to act because if you don’t make a line there’s no drawing.

Mixed Media Drawing by Greg Meyer
Mixed Media Drawing by Greg Meyer

You hold your breath and put pencil to paper. And then immediately feel the feedback of a great beginning or one that isn’t so great. And then the creation gets easier. It becomes possible to make more lines in the company of the ones you put there first. And refining the existing lines get easier because you can define them in relation to other lines on the paper.

But all is not perfect. Because when you erase the lines or refashion them you can see the echoes of what went before. The drawing gets an inevitable style and it starts to feel like it has your signature. It might be your best work yet. Or maybe not – because you can’t look back at your progress and see it yet.

Working on a startup is like making that first drawing on an that empty page. Some days it feels effortless to draw a new thing into being and on other days it’s the hardest thing in the world to spend the time drawing on your business canvas the way you know you should. Yet you keep going. On the best days, the feeling is incredible.

The solution to balancing out more of the ups and downs of of startup life? Practicing simple, mindful things that make a difference is never a bad way to start a day. What were the most important lines that I drew yesterday that I need to connect to others today? What shapes are not on my canvas yet that need to be there? Who should I ask for feedback to know if the drawing I’m making is similar to the one that they are expecting.

Drawing and business are not dissimilar – they both draw from a creative resource that’s not there every day. But creativity is not a zero sum game. Place creative people in the same room and suddenly there is geometric or exponential growth, creating amazing things out of raw materials. And sharing those drawings with a small and ever-widening circle of people is a frightening, intense, incredible experience that forces you to accept the drawing for what it is: a drawing. And then you can go back to the canvas and try again to make the same drawing a little better by incorporating what you learned yesterday.

Just because it’s easy for you …

Otis Cafe, Otis, OR

“Just because it’s easy for you doesn’t mean it’s easy for everyone.” –Ed Epping, Williams College

It’s been a lot of years now since I heard these words during a drawing class — it was valuable advice then, and I believe it’s even more valuable now — and it’s a great framing device for understanding more about how you fit in the world, how others think, and what they do well that you haven’t yet noticed.

When something is easy, it feels like fun

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about the feeling of flow, calling it “a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill…”  I interpret this as the feeling of fun, of knowing that you can answer all questions about a given topic, that you are truly in the moment, and that it all just … feels easy.  The hardest thing about feeling that something is easy is that it’s not always easy to share that feeling — people have different learning styles that might not mesh with your own sharing or teaching style — and that other people might not find it, well, fun.

Conversely, when something is hard, it feels like drudgery

I don’t mean to suggest that people shouldn’t do hard work.  Rather, I mean to suggest that when something feels like drudgery, it just might not be fun.  People can see the effort in your face, in the way you react, and in the way that you talk and express yourself.  The easiest thing about something hard is that you feel that it might last forever (not true, most of the time) and that it’s easy to just give up.

Find the people who are having fun, and ask them why

So find the people around you who are having fun.  Ask them more about what they do and why it’s fun.  The answer might not be for you, but it will give you valuable insights as to that person’s place in the world, the way they view themselves, and how they contribute to your organization or team.  It will also give you excellent insight into how you can help them, how you can share your fun experiences with them (and in what style), and who knows?  You might learn something.

There are experts all around you — you may not have met them yet, but they are a wealth of experience, expertise, and insight.  Find a few of these people every day and you will find yourself experiencing flow more often — it will be the flow of finding out how your team fits together.  Also, even if they think what you do is hard, they’ve got something that’s easy for them to do that they might like to share more about with you.  (If you’re wondering, you can ask me about photography or drawing anytime.)

Finding “Flow” in an Always-Connected World

Wikipedia defines Flow as “the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” Mihály Csíkszentmihályi proposed this definition more than 30 years ago, and it’s a popular way to describe the way you feel when you’re really engaged in something. The age of always connectedness and multi-tasking is antithetical to Flow and may damage our brains. Paul Graham writes about the Maker’s Schedule as being fundamentally different than the Manager’s Schedule. Help, you say — this stuff all sounds great but I can’t seem to fit it into my everyday schedule and excuse me, my boss is calling and I have an email on my phone — how can I get closer to applying this concept in real life? The steps are annoyingly simple (and elusive): Take Care of Yourself, Find Focus and Ask for Prioritization, and Share and Learn.

The first rule of finding Flow in an always-connected world should be obvious: Take Care of Yourself. This varies from person to person, but the standard corollaries of Get Enough Sleep, Eat Well, and Exercise make a huge difference in your ability to function, let alone achieve a state of flow. Just ask yourself whether that plan of sleeping “when you can”, eating well “when you can”, and exercising “when you can” is working for you. Yes, just about as well as it’s worked for me in the past when I haven’t been at my best. Entrepreneurs are noticing that hard work is not always good work and I can speak personally for the improvements that simple diet changes and some exercise (no, you don’t have to be an Ironman, just get out and walk more everyday) makes for your ability to Focus and Get Stuff Done.

Finding focus and asking for prioritization are key concepts in finding the Flow state. I have a list by my desk of the 10 (or [n]) things I know I have to get done, so that whenever I don’t know what to do, I can look at that list and find something of value without having to think about what I should do next. If the item on that list keeps showing up, it must be important to someone. If I put my iPhone on silent and close my email, I can spend 30-60 minutes only doing the one task I need to get done at the moment. Headphones with classical music also help this focus. But focus alone doesn’t get me to the right things — if I’m focused on an irrelevant task, that can be wasted effort — I also ping my peers and my manager for prioritization so that I know that I’m spending my time on the right things for that moment.

I just got lost in another thought (lost my Flow), and that tells me I’m on to the third point — share and learn. For me that involves one of several activities: get up from your desk and walk around; visit and information “graze” on new information from blogs, Twitter, or other sources; and/or talk to friends through email, phone, text, or IM. Ignoring this impulse is like trying to stop water: if you try to turn it off, it will eventually leak out somewhere else. For information sharing and learning, the best way I’ve found to be effective is to spend a few blocks of time (beginning of the day, mid-day, end of day, and 1 hour at night) in intense email triage, Twitter management, having coffee/conversation with a friend, or just picking up the phone and saying hello. I can’t sit at a desk and code for 12 hours straight: I have varied interests and need to try some of those every day.

Finally, the bonus suggestion for achieving Flow is to Try Something Else Different. For me, that’s drawing, painting, or another artistic activity. On another day, it might be the temporary sensory deprivation I get from swimming. Engaging someone in conversation and helping to solve a different problem than the one you’re working on can also sometimes trigger a breakthrough. When all else fails, just go to bed. It will be better tomorrow and your brain will have had some time to recover from your latest episode of multi-tasking and trying to do something on a conference call when you should just be listening. If that conference call isn’t for you, try next time to politely decline and go back to focusing on the thing you really wanted to be doing at that moment. In the meanwhile, take some time for yourself, focus your attention on the things you need to get done, and make sure you get up once in a while to see what’s going on around you (figuratively or literally).

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