How to reduce time spent on tech. I think. Probably.

You already know that society as a whole…okay, maybe just a subset of sensitive people…is growing in concern about how the little gadgets we carry around in our pocketses might be adversely affecting the human experience. Some of these problems are:

  • Death and/or injury due to texting and driving or otherwise using your phone while operating a large piece of machinery moving at high speeds. (Bad. Very, very bad.)
  • Disengagement from real, in-person interactions in favor of engagement with a 5″ screen.
  • Increase in stress due to being “always connected”, or at least feeling pressure to be always connected. Like the Borg.

I’ve seen evidence of each and every one of these in my own life, and I kinda want to do something about it. And it’s not just about my phone, but all internet-connected attention hogs in my life. This year, I want to try to start following three basic rules that will help me control this modern phenomenon and maybe make life a little better. For me, anyway. And possibly for those around me.

  1. When I’m with someone, I’m with them.

    “Wherever you are, be all there.” is a quote by late missionary Jim Elliot, and it’s often used to inspire a person to embrace life and give his full energies to the task at hand. However, shouldn’t it apply even to leisure activities? How many sushi lunches have been ruined by me checking my email? How many convos with my wife have been interrupted by texting?

    If I’m engaged with a person in some way, I won’t use my phone. Period. At lunch. Sitting on the couch watching TV with my wife. Chatting it up with a coworker in the hall. Meetings. Phone calls. Lunches. Any time I’m with a person/people, the little iBugger is off-limits.

  2. No touching my phone while driving.

    Now, some people go the extra mile and put their phone in a bag or in the back seat, and if you’re even tempted to do this…please do it. The only reason why I’m not going that route is I use my phone to listen to music and run directions to places while in the car (as many of you probably do, too). How this is going to go down from now on is before I buckle in, before I put it in reverse, before I even move, I’ll start my music and start my playlist. Then the phone doesn’t get touched again till I stop.

    (Yes, I possess the willpower to do this. Duh. If you don’t, see the first part of the paragraph above.)

  3. My laptop stays on the desk at home.

    This is a big one for me. It’s rare that I’m not also on my laptop. As in, I’m watching TV…but I’m also on my laptop. I’m talking to the wife in the living room…but I’m also on my laptop.  I’m cooking a meal…but I’m also on my laptop. No more. At home, the laptop stays in the office, on my desk.

Maybe these rules will help you. Maybe you need something a little stronger. Or maybe you don’t need “rules” at all. Maybe you’ve mastered yourself and your phone is not your tiny overlord. I envy you, if that’s the case.

As for me, I need things like rules and rituals to help curb bad behavior and encourage good. I can’t just wish habits into or out of existence. Thus, these rules. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be a little less connected with technology this year, and a little more connected with people.

Yes, that last sentence was a little on the pithy side.

If I Owned Barnes & Noble…

I’m sure a quick web search will turn up lots and lots of articles to this effect. My other disclaimer is that I certainly don’t have much retail experience to lean on, and I haven’t really done much in terms of “homework”.

Yes, this article is about as armchair as they come. Enjoy.

Tonight I walked into a Barnes & Noble in Springfield, MO, and this is what I saw:

barnes and noble nook display

B&N is going to lose this battle.

This isn’t really a post about the Nook, as much as it’s a post about how I think B&N is going about this whole “selling books” thing all wrong. I’m making this assumption based on a few changes I’ve seen (and a few I haven’t seen) in the stores.

  1. They’ve been heavily focused on the Nook.
  2. They’ve been reducing reading areas inside the store.
  3. They haven’t been doing any of my ideas. Duh.

Now, I’m sure that B&N has invested millions into R&D and consultants, all of which/whom have lead them to the strategy they’re currently employing. Cool. Awesome. Good for them. Just one problem…

It didn’t work for Borders.

Sure, I know that B&N isn’t Borders, and they certainly aren’t doing everything exactly like Borders did. There is probably no shortage of analysts who would tell me that theirs are (were) “completely different strategies”, and that B&N is doing the only truly practical thing it can do, which appears to be “Go head to head with Amazon and try to beat them at their own game.”

Personally, I find this strategy to be ridiculous.

Again, these are assumptions based on what I’m seeing, and this article is about what I would do if I owned B&N, not about what experts say should be done. Instead, you’re going to get “Retail Book Seller Strategy: According to Dan”.

I should warn you that if you own a bookstore, this may bankrupt you.

Stop focussing so much on the Nook inside of the store.

B&N has something that Amazon doesn’t have: a physical space. And yet they’re utilizing that physical space to compete directly with Amazon. Huh? This doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I would heavily promote the Nook on the website, but minimize it in the store. (more on that later)

Instead, offer unique Nook experiences inside of the store.

That whole “read any book for an hour” thing is genius. I’d sell Nooks that way, and get people inside of the store that way. Win/win. Then, I’d come up with more ideas for how to integrate the Nook with an in-person, brick and mortar experience, something that Amazon can never replicate.

Beef up the lounge and café areas considerably.

What do these areas do? Get people into the store. What else? They keep people in the store. And? They keep them coming back.

Anecdotally, I used to go to B&N about 50 times a year. Seriously. And 45 of those times, I purchased one thing, and one thing only: coffee and dessert. Okay, that’s two things, but you get the point.

The wifey and I would go there nearly every Friday night to relax, coffee shop-style, with a book and/or magazines. Then, when birthdays and Christmas rolled around, where do you think I shopped for books? Amazon? Nope. Trusty, faithful, familiar Barnes & Noble. Habits of any kind die hard, and instant gratification is hard to beat (another thing I can’t get from Amazon).

We’ve since stopped this tradition because B&N has stopped making it easy and convenient for us to go there and hang out. In 2012, we spent about $650 at B&N over the course of the year (at the café and on merchandise), and in 2013, we spent about $250. In 2014, we may spend $50.

Get people inside of the store. Keep them inside of the store. Keep them coming back. They’ll buy stuff.

Shrink my stores.

Yep. Sometimes you just have to admit that it’s time to change the game, and by changing the game in this case, I’d be admitting that I don’t need ginormous, warehouse-sized stores. Not everywhere, anyway. I’d probably do something more akin to REI’s strategy: a handful of “flagship” stores that are like, Book Lover Town, USA. Then, populate key markets with smaller, more intimate book loving experiences that cost fewer $$ to operate.

Use my considerable distribution power to publish indie authors.

Amazon makes it ridiculously easy to publish your work independently. In fact, it makes it too easy. Real readers find it difficult to wade through the crap to find really great independent books. So, often, the strategy for book lovers is wait and let early adopters weed out the junk before making a purchase decision.

B&N already has a publishing arm. I’d utilize that with some great editors/curators to start finding and featuring exclusive Barnes & Noble authors. Writers really don’t care to self-publish ebooks. Writers want to feel ink on page. They want to hear that sound the first time someone pries open their first hardcover edition. B&N could provide this to independent, talented authors. Exclusively, of course. Which brings me to…

Create an ecosystem for writers and readers who love books.

Will books one day go away completely? Who knows. But I’d bet every dollar in my pocket (or the millions I’d invest buying B&N) that they aren’t going away in our lifetimes. So, why shouldn’t some businesses be all about books? I’d make B&N be synonymous with “books”. How? Here are some mini-ideas:

  • Partner with local libraries to run book events.
  • Donate books to libraries and charities.
  • Beef up signing events and book readings.
  • Foster new creative talent by hosting writing meet ups.
  • Dedicate a portion of the store to first editions, rare books, and used books.

I’d make it so that anytime someone thinks “I want a book…” they don’t follow that with “…I should go to the library.” or “…I should check out Amazon.” They think instead, “I should head over to Barnes & Noble.”

Ensure that everyone on my staff is a book lover and expert.

What else can’t Amazon give me? A book expert. I mean, yes, there are crowd-sourced reviews, and they’re useful. Really, they are. But as awesome as the internet is, nothing beats walking up to a person who is passionate about books and saying, “You know, I really have found that I love poetry, but I don’t know anything about it. Can you help?” and having that real live person grin ear to ear and say something like, “Let me introduce you to my friend John Keats.”

Warm-blooded lovers of books. Amazon doesn’t have that. My B&N would.

Finally…

Drop Starbucks and instead partner with local coffee shops.

Everyone’s loving local, artisanal, craft wares these days. And for good reason. They’re better. They contribute to local economies. They’re cooler. And my B&N would already be sort of “the enemy” to local businesses, because it’d be competing with local bookstores, a la You’ve Got Mail. F.O.X.

So, I’d hook up with locals instead of Big Box SBX. I’d find the best local coffee shiller and bring them in to run my café. Give the locals a reason to come drink coffee at my bookstore.

Bottom line, I’d invest money in creating book-centric, reader-friendly experience centers. Get people coming back over and over and over again. And then, at every opportunity, I’d sell them things. Coffee. Dessert. Books. Notebooks. Meeting space. Pens. Magazines. I’d be the best at everything that Amazon simply cannot do well. I’d be the anti-Amazon.

Unfortunately, I don’t think B&N is doing that. Instead, they’re treating Amazon as their direct competition…and that’s a game they simply cannot win. I would assume that even though books won’t go away in our lifetimes, Barnes & Noble almost certainly will.

Intelligent vs. Intellectual

This one strikes a personal chord with me.

I’ve always fancied myself a moderately intelligent guy. I test well, and I sound slightly smarter than a chimp when I speak to people. I love to read and love to write. Certainly I’m not the smartest guy in the world (I’m not even the smartest guy you know.), but sure, I’m okay with saying that I’m not a dumbo either.

Also, I’ve long classified myself as an “intellectual”, but it’s only been recently that I’ve given any thought to exactly what that means. What is it to be “intellectual”? Is it the same thing as being intelligent? Or are all intelligent people also intellectuals?

The answer to both of those things, dear reader, is “no”.

Intelligent: adj. Of high or especially quick cognitive capacity, bright.

Intellectual: adj. Belonging to, or performed by, the intellect; mental; as, intellectual powers, activities, etc.

(both definitions from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License)

Another definition of “intellectual”, as it applies to people is “n. An intelligent, learned person, especially one who discourses about learned matters.” (emphasis mine) And another definition of “intelligent” is “adj. Having the same level of brain power as mankind.”

So, it could be said that to be “intelligent”, you simply have to possess human intellect. By that definition, if you’re reading this, you’re an intelligent person. (And many intelligent people chose not to read it.)

What that means to me is this: Being an “intellectual” really just means that you like to blabber on about smartsy fartsy stuff. It doesn’t even really mean you grasp that stuff especially well. Just means you “discourse about learned matters”.

I have a very close friend who is extremely intelligent. Easily twice as smart as I am. One of the smartest, most intelligent people I’ve ever met. And yet, this person would never be classified as an intellectual. In fact, I would imagine the prospect of being classified that way would disgust her.

Another anecdotal example is a farmer friend of the family that I have back home. More intelligent than I am by any measure. Incredibly smart…and wise (another blog post for this one). But ask this guy what he feels about Descartes’ “Passions of the Soul”, and he would probably say “I’m sorry…what?”

Every intelligent person is not necessarily also an intellectual. And every intellectual is not necessarily all that intelligent.

Liking to read, write, and talk about things like theology, philosophy, and the humanities doesn’t make me more intelligent or smarter than the next guy who likes to read, write, and/or talk about things like guns, camping, and When Harry Met Sally. (I like those things too, for the record.) Quoting Joyce or knowing the underlying themes of Anna Karenina doesn’t make me better than someone who doesn’t care about inaccessible literature and would rather chat about Call of Duty.

The beauty of this? It’s actually quite liberating.

Because I don’t believe that the fact that I enjoy studying String Theory or get excited when science discovers the Higgs Boson makes me better than someone who doesn’t, I’m free to geek out on these things without coming off as an insufferable ass. Because I don’t believe that being an intellectual is anything to be proud of, I can say that I’m an intellectual without baggage…without agenda…and without suggestion that I’m better than you.

So the next time you’re talking to me, and I say something like “You know, that reminds me of something Walt Whitman said…”, just smile and shake your head. Chances are, you’re much more intelligent than I am. I just happen to like dudes with beards who write poetry.

The Problem With Creative Work

We’ve all seen it. Bad creative work.

We may not have known exactly what made it this way. Maybe we couldn’t put our finger on some bullseye that made it clear that this is why the design is bad. But we knew it. Instinctively.

I’ve made a living as a creative professional for nearly 20 years now (wow), and I’ve had some ups and downs. Sometimes I design awesome stuff, and sometimes, I look at the finished work and want to throw up. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Right now, I run two creative teams; one at my day job, and one at the company I own. Both teams are populated with incredibly talented individuals. Full of skill. Full of natural ability.

And yet there are still rare occasions when we still turn out poor creative work. It’s rare, and we deal with it, but it happens.

How is that possible? Is it my team’s fault? The client’s? Management’s?

Nope. It’s mine.

When bad creative work happens, it’s the Creative Director’s fault. Every. Single. Time.

“Why is that,” you say?

Well, here are some reasons, my dear reader:

  • It’s the Creative Director’s job to inspire great ideas from his team.
  • It’s the Creative Director’s job to constructively critique creative work and make it into something great.
  • It’s the Creative Director’s job to educate the client and sell the great ideas his team has birthed.
  • It’s the Creative Director’s job to fully comprehend the goals and parameters of a project.
  • It’s the Creative Director’s job to effectively communicate the goals and parameters of a project to his team.

Any time my team has turned out mediocre creative work, it’s been on me. I have on my team(s) world-class writers, designers, and coders. People capable of downright amazing creative work. And my clients? (Who include department heads and managers at my day job.) They come up with some truly unique ideas. Great ideas. Ideas that need equally great creative work.

So how is it that I can have an amazing team, attached to an amazing client, and still turn out less-than-amazing work?

Me.

So, Creative Directors of the world…you’re the problem. It’s your job to ensure that your client’s ideas are realized in the best way possible. It’s your job to ensure that your teams are empowered to be the best they can be.

If a creative project isn’t really “coming together”, look in the mirror and ask yourself, “What am I doing to impede this process…or not doing to make it really rock?”

Mindful Living…what…the…crap?

I don’t know. There was a time when I was really into the whole “life hacking” scene. This blog, even, was sort of an attempt at a life hacking blog at one point.

Since those days of yore, I’ve come to feel a sort of “meh” about the concept of life hacking altogether. I mean, I’m definitely still a proponent of living better, improving myself, and being not bad, but good. (heh) So it’s not that those things are bad; I guess I feel more like I and others like me got a little carried away with it. Maybe?

So rack that up to “something I haven’t quite figured out yet”.

Which brings me to “Mindful Living”.

Being “mindful” is a recent buzz-phrase in the life hacking community. It’s been around for a while, and the word “mindful” has been around for centuries in one form or another, so this isn’t a new idea. Recently though, it’s been all the rage. Especially on one of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits. Though a life hacking blog, Leo’s approach is different from everyone else’s. It’s akin to my own, which is “Hey, here’s some stuff I’m doing to make my life awesome. You might want to try it, too. Cool if you don’t, though.”

Of course there’s a huge difference in that Leo’s a world-class writer and I’m a hobbyist, but I digress.

Mindful: Bearing in mind; regardful; attentive; heedful; observant. (from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License)

Paying attention.

How much of our lives is on autopilot?

And I don’t mean to vilify the autopilot feature of our brains. Without it, we’d have to try to breathe. We’d be terrible at tennis. And driving a car would be a terrifying chore.

But even a great tool can be overused or used inappropriately. And I think we do that. I mean, I know that I do. I’ve put things on autopilot that really shouldn’t be on autopilot.

Or maybe a better way of saying it is I’ve stopped paying attention to some things that matter. Let’s just end the metaphor and call it what it is, right? I’ve actually become apathetic about some things that are important.

On the personal level, I think we all can admit to this readily. Ignoring our health, our sleep habits, our eating habits. Forgetting how important reading is. Forgetting to learn, grow, or just sit by a lake and breathe. We’ve put life on autopilot, and since this tool is like, super effective, it’s also helped us ignore things that are “inefficient” – and yet infinitely more important than the daily grind.

Everyone can relate to this, but I’m wanting to go deeper in 2014. (Nope, not a resolution. Just something I’d like to focus on next year.)

Mindful living. Paying attention. Caring about stuff.

My previous post talked briefly about how I’ve been thinking through the various industries that rely on animals (food, clothing, etc.), and how I think the human race has done a terrible job in stewarding this planet – in many cases brutalizing our neighbors (or, roommates, rather). As I stated in my note, I’m not necessarily against animal products, especially as food. I’m not against hunting (per se), and I’m not going vegan any time soon.

Being mindful, though, dictates that I care about the mass torture of animals we engage in so we can buy ground beef for three bucks a pound. And maybe next time I’m making a purchase of animal products, I should pay attention to where it comes from. How it was acquired.

Something else I’ve been thinking about is clothing, electronics, and other products I purchase regularly. I used to laugh at things like “fair trade”, thinking it was for hippies and liberals exclusively. Misguided people fretting over the “littlest things”.

Are sweat shops little things? What about the slave trade? How about a bunch of rich people not caring about the plight of the poor, as long as they can shop at Old Navy and buy a delicious Pumpkin Spice Latte for a few bucks?

I’m really not sure what the solution is. I’m part of the system; a system so prolific and intertwined with my own life that I don’t think there’s a way to escape it entirely.

But maybe, in little ways, being mindful will start to change things. Maybe even posting this little note will effect some change, even if it’s small. Maybe buying my beef from local farmers will help a little. Maybe if I refuse to buy electronics from my favorite company until they’re transparent about their production process.

It always starts with little ripples, I think. The civil rights battle is still being fought every day…but women can vote now. A white person can no longer own a black person (in most places, anyway). Maybe women still aren’t being paid fairly, and maybe black people still feel uncomfortable in job interviews…but the world has changed for the better in so many ways, and I have to believe that some day even these injustices will be things of the past.

(For the record, I don’t in any way mean to belittle the experience of marginalized people with whom I share no common frame of reference. Simply making the case for “It was worse once, and things have improved, so I want to be hopeful that they’ll keep improving.”)

Maybe, if we’re all a little more mindful, someday we’ll treat animals and fellow human beings better than we do today. Maybe we won’t need 10-year-old laborers working 16 hours a day to supply us with shirts. Maybe we won’t need birds to live tortured, unhealthy existences without ever tasting fresh air or seeing the sun, just so that we can have Chicken McNuggets.

Oh, and I don’t think the big companies are really the problem. I think we’re the problem. We’ve stopped caring about things that matter.

I’m the problem.

I want to be better next year.