When Steve resigned as CEO of Apple six weeks ago, people in the Apple community warned each other, “He has resigned, but he hasn’t died. If you talk about it, don’t sound like you’re writing a eulogy.” And yet, the night I heard of his resignation, I hesitantly tweeted “The thing I keep thinking about, no matter how hard I try not to, is the day I heard that Jim Henson had died.” Jim’s death affected me pretty strongly. I didn’t want to admit it when I heard of Steve’s resignation, but it was pretty clear that things with Steve’s health were quite serious if he was no longer able to be involved daily at Apple. But we weren’t going to talk about that. We would hope, instead. It seemed only right.
Steve Jobs died today. I got involved in technology because of him. I moved across the country thousands of miles from family to work for his company for six years. He changed my life. And tonight, it really makes me think.
I’m left contemplating the fact that two of the men I admire most are dead. Initially, I was confused about what to do about this. Despair? No. Apathy? Absolutely not. But it seems clearer now after some thought. What we’re witnessing is a changing of the guard. As the man said himself, death “clears out the old to make way for the new.” The older generation is passing away.
But what are they making way for?
Even without the answer to that question, here we are, walking forward. Those who went ahead of us are passing beyond the veil. And it should strike us now that we’re standing at the front of the line. Here we are. We’re standing right where they were only a little while ago. There’s no need to get scared. That’s pointless. We just got here, we’re not done.
And now the spotlight swings back from the veil and onto our faces. No one is in our way now.
It’s our turn to create. It’s our turn to inspire. It’s our turn to push the human race forward.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m passionate about creating things that are beautiful and useful. Things people love. In my time creating, one of the catalysts of creativity that I’ve seen over and over is the act of enjoying someone else’s creations. Artists look at lots of art. Musicians listen to a lot of music. Writers read a lot.
But why? It’s not just that everything is a remix (although that’s true). It’s that when a creator catches a glimpse of beauty, despair, passion, joy, it makes the labor of their next creation a little easier for them. We learn how to create by taking in the creations of others. We learn how to shape an experience for someone else by having experiences of our own. So, you want to know how to make someone weep for joy? Have someone make you weep for joy. Even if you can’t quite grasp the whole picture having wept for joy just once, you’re a little closer to understanding how it might work than you were before it became a personal experience.
To that end, I take in a lot of created things, and it’s my goal to try to be an appreciator. And not just an appreciator of created things, but also of the people who created them. When I think about my heroes, they’re all people who create things. Jim Henson, Steve Jobs, Jason Fried. These guys are some of my heroes. And they all know how to deeply study and appreciate the things they see. Things regular people routinely look past.
Take Jim, for instance. He once wrote this:
“I find that it’s very important for me to stop every now and then and get recharged and reinspired. The beauty of nature has been one of the great inspirations in my life. Growing up as an artist, I’ve always been in awe of the incredible beauty of every last bit of design in nature. The wonderful color schemes of nature, which always work harmoniously, are particularly dazzling to me… Working as I do with the movement of puppet creatures, I’m always struck by the feebleness of our efforts to achieve naturalistic movement. Just looking at the incredible movement of a lizard or bird, or even the smallest insect, can be a very humbling experience.”
There are several categories of things that often inspire me, and several companies that regularly create things I deeply appreciate. I’m lucky enough to have worked for Apple on the Mac OS X team for about six years, and Apple is easily at the top of my list. But in addition to Apple, I’m constantly inspired by the guys at Penny Arcade, by Valve Software, by Nintendo, and as cliché as it sounds, by Pixar.
This weekend, I was really struck by the ending of Portal 2 (a game made by the aforementioned Valve Software). It’s an amazing game, but something surprised me about the end because it contained an echo of all the other companies in my list. It was a hint, if you will, about one of the ingredients in a masterful creation.
In a nutshell, it’s this: love your creation.
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but the ending of Portal 2 brings shocking clarity to Valve’s passion for the universe and characters they’ve created. Put another way, if the folks at Valve weren’t deeply in love with (dare we say obsessed with?) these characters, the bittersweet elements of the ending they created would never have occurred to them. Because something lesser would’ve been acceptable. Still, through the final sequences in the game, I could see the expression on their faces as they looked into mine: “We are so proud of this. We hope you love this deeply, because we love it so, so much that we can hardly bear to say goodbye to it.”
It was like watching a father walk his daughter down the aisle.
To say it was emotionally resonant would be an understatement. And that’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Portal 2 was a fantastic puzzle game, sure, but it was more than that. The thing you remember when you walk away is how it felt to be in that universe, to meet those characters and interact with them, and get to know them and love them within their reality. And that’s the thing that will make you come back next time, not the enticement of more surfaces onto which you can place portals. (Though that’s certainly attractive.)
Then I thought of Pixar. Toy Story 3. Could it have been any clearer how much Pixar loves Woody and Buzz than what we saw at the end of Toy Story 3? It’s not possible to take your characters any more seriously than that. To respect them any more deeply. They went out with unprecedented sweetness, and it was sad and perfectly beautiful.
Apple? Wow. They’re obsessed in a way the rest of their industry can barely tolerate, let alone understand. Exhibit A, the phrase “There’s not a straight piece of glass on this building.” They take what they do seriously and they love it deeply, down to a level of detail others can’t even fathom. In some ways, it almost works against them. People think of buying an Apple device like it’s tantamount to joining a cult. Why? Because the use of something Apple has made contains the emotion of those who made it, and you feel that when you use it. That is, unless you realize you’d prefer to resist it.
But back to creation.
Something interesting happens when you really love the thing you’re creating. When you love it deeply enough, it teaches you how to improve it and make it better. More useful, more beautiful, more resonant. And when you learn those lessons and apply them, you love the creation even more, which then leads you to even more lessons. It’s a spiral that continues upward, and I have no idea where it stops.
Listen, I know we don’t talk as often as we used to, and I regret that. I’m sorry. But I want to introduce you to the reason I’ve been so quiet. It’s something beautiful. Something graceful and seamless. Something with massive potential. Something that has taken most of my energy for the last two years of my life. Something I’ve been actively prepared for by much more than the last two years.
Tomorrow, it’s no longer a test. It becomes real. Tomorrow is a day so many have prayed for, maybe without even realizing it.
Have you ever wanted a place where you could be real? Where you could drop the mask, drop your personal brand for a second, stop talking about skin-deep topics and show the fractures in your skeleton? We’re in pain, right? Some days are bad, some are better. And yet we know we can’t get away with much more than hinting about our pain when we’re broadcasting to the world. So many people don’t get it. So many don’t want to.
I’ve always thought the place to do that stuff was at my church. These are the people who are there to walk with you through the slime, the fear, the hurt, the ugliness. These are the people who are humble enough to serve you when you’re down, and tough enough to not wimp out on you when you’re defiant and running for the cliff. And you don’t just receive that. You give it, too.
I want to be honest with you: if your church hasn’t done that for you, maybe you haven’t been to church.
Ask your church to sign up (don’t go alone) and start loving and serving each other in a way you may have never done.
What I’m going to say in this entry is very challenging for me to verbalize. Stick with me, here.
I have a deep desire to be a person who makes real things that are useful and delightful. I’ve been working really hard at The Table Project for many months, and I’ve been learning a lot about hard work and how to sustain it. I’ve also learned that the work affects me just as I affect the work. I’ve changed because of my work.
One of the main things that has changed within me is the heightened value I place on silence. Silence of many kinds.
When I’m making something, I’m deeply motivated by the anticipation of discovery on the part of the person that will receive my creation. Will it help them? Will it make them smile? Have I thought through all the ways they’ll use it and considered everything from their perspective? I can’t see their reaction if I don’t finish what I’m making. They won’t benefit unless I do a great job. I create with those thoughts in my mind. But it’s not as simple as that. You may not agree with what I’m about to say, but stick with me.
I’m learning about the demotivational power of talking.
There is a vast, gaping difference between talking about doing a thing and really doing it. I have been the crowned and reigning king of “talking about doing a thing” in the past, and this blog stands as a testament to that.
On the simplest level, talking is demotivational because great creation comes from a quiet, solitary place, not from meetings and committees. On a deeper level, talking about what you’re doing and giving people a preview of the future is demotivational because you may be receiving praise which you haven’t yet earned. That’s extremely dangerous. When you go back to your quiet, solitary place to finish that cool thing you just told your friend about, their praise is still ringing in your ears, reducing the reward that is still beyond your reach, and slowing you down. You can’t afford that tradeoff. It would’ve been better to not tell them what you had done until it was ready. And at that point, there’s less need to tell, because you can show.
This newfound belief affects me in a few ways. You’ll notice, for instance, that this is only the 6th blog entry I’ve posted this year, and the year is half over. Last year, I had written 15 entries in the same amount of time.
And it’s not due to Twitter. This graph of my tweets per month, particularly since last July, will tell you a strange little story as well.
I’m not doing this on purpose. It’s a habit that has naturally evolved. I’m no longer the guy who tweets 500+ times each month because I now realize I don’t have 500+ worthwhile things to say to that audience each month. It’s not censorship, it’s editorial and it’s filtering. It’s respect for the listener, I hope.
Speaking of listeners, they’re also at risk in this problem. I’m growing tired of bloggers and content producers of all kinds that don’t know when to shut up and reflect. My apologies if that seems rude, but if you’re publishing to meet a weekly quota, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t game the crowd; make something of quality. If you have a lot to say, that’s fine (look at the length of this entry), but please don’t assume you can take our attention 9 times a week because your analytics tell you that’s your ideal posting frequency to generate higher traffic and ad revenue.
But if you happen to make 9 quality things that week, by all means, share them all. Show me what you’ve done. My favorite blog, Daring Fireball, is quite noisy, and I’ve never regretted reading it. The content is good. It earns its place.
This all relates to the reason that I rarely if ever go to the Social Media Breakfasts anymore (although I really like many of the people), but I participated in the Overnight Website Challenge this year and found it very rewarding. I hope to do it again.
Less talk, more rock. Fewer conferences and meetings, more product and creativity.
There are downsides for me and others in this change, too. In the midst of focusing constantly on creating The Table, it’s become harder for me to carry on conversations in general, and it’s nearly impossible now for me to be in the moment completely. My mind has become so focused that I’ve caught myself thinking things like, “How can this conversation/situation benefit The Table?” even while spending time with family and friends. It’s pretty weird, and it’s something I’m trying to address. Focus shouldn’t have to lead to workaholism or personal narrowness.
Because of all these thoughts and some conversations I’ve seen on the web lately, I’ve decided it would make sense to disable comments on this blog for the foreseeable future. I want it to be really clear that I still deeply treasure all your past comments, and I haven’t removed the ones that have been made. They are a part of a permanent record and a precious heirloom to me. Many of you have corrected me and changed my mind on various topics, or made me laugh, or warmed my heart, and the evidence is right there in the thread.
I still want to hear from you in almost any way you’d like to have a conversation with me. If you want to contact me, you can do so in any number of ways, including directly from this blog. If you want to just say you liked what I wrote, there’s a little Facebook “Like” button at the bottom of each post, even in the RSS feed. I’d love a click. If you want to respond publicly to what I’ve said, making your own blog entry and linking back to this one would be the best way to do that for many reasons. Creating a blog has become so wonderfully, deliciously simple that there’s no reason anymore not to have one if you want one. Go for it! I might even write a public response if you’re making good stuff.
I hope that the lack of comments here allows you to focus a little more on your own work, say what you wanted to say a little more quickly (perhaps with a single button click) and even consider whether certain things need to be said at all.
Now, go to your quiet, solitary place and make something.
I recently used LastGraph to visually graph my music listening habits over the last year. The result is a visually stunning display that is fun to comb over and try to interpret. Click the image to see the full-size version.
I’m still trying to figure out what the pinch point between my love affair with The Cardigans and Anamanaguchi a month ago (yes, those are Amazon Affiliate links) and the explosion of a mostly new set of artists means. My theory: I’ve been extremely heavy on one particular (mostly unchanging) playlist in February 2010.
If you use last.fm to track your music listening habits, you can use LastGraph too.
Apple has introduced the iPad today, and it starts at only $499. I admit I thought Apple was going to go more in the direction of Inkling as I expressed earlier on this blog, but I suppose by releasing the iPad, Apple allowed it to happen, even if they didn’t do it all themselves. The iBooks application is most of what I had imagined as the deeper purpose behind the device, and the interface tweaks they made to email, web browsing, iTunes, iCal, and the rest of the software are really intelligent and beautiful. This gallery is worth a look.
There’s one reaction that has been repeated by countless friends that I’d like to write about and analyze more deeply. The reaction generally involves a mix of anger and dismissal of the product for multiple reasons. You’ll hear things like…
What’s the big deal? It’s just a big iPhone.
I can’t use something that doesn’t do multitasking / background processes.
It doesn’t support Flash? How can that be?
It doesn’t have a camera? It needs to have a camera! It’s useless without one.
My laptop is more flexible and powerful. Why do I need this?
The list is much longer than that, but you get the idea. The central theme in this school of thought is that the person wanted it to have X, and it doesn’t have X, and it must therefore be a low-quality, worthless product. These folks spend a lot of time explaining why they won’t be buying one, as if it’s interesting news. They often blame Steve’s Reality Distortion Field when others defend it as a good product.
You’ll recognize the thought pattern from the discussions they were having when the first iPhone was released. It had a low-quality camera, it didn’t have GPS, it needed to run 3rd-party applications, it needed more storage space, it was too expensive, blah, blah, blah. What these people mean to say is, “I have a checklist in my head! Design according to my checklist or your product isn’t worth praise!”
I’d like to tell you why they’re wrong, and why their checklists don’t matter. In a word: focus.
Let me introduce you to a user. We’ll call her Jane. She didn’t follow the Apple announcement today because she’s not a geek. In fact, she won’t hear about the iPad for another week or two. She has an Internet connection at home, and she just uses it with her old Windows machine. She’ll go home tonight, check her email and a couple of her favorite websites on it. She likes Facebook, too. Beyond that, she’ll use her PC to write her Christmas letter every December, or play Solitaire, but that’s really all the machine is for. Tonight, she’ll curse at it softly because it’s been slowing down a lot lately. She can’t figure out why, and she doesn’t want to pay someone to fix the problem. She doesn’t care. She doesn’t use the computer that much anyway. She has other hobbies, and other things to do, and she’s not really into technology.
Because of the kind of content on this blog, most of my readers are not Jane. But Jane is everywhere. Jane is the most common computer user in the world. And the fact is, Jane doesn’t need a computer. She needs something less than a computer. She needs something she can type on, and play a few games on. Is she going to be doing a lot of audio and video editing? No. Desktop publishing? No. Does she care that she can’t run such-and-such as a background process? No way. She needs something that can get online easily without a lot of weird configuration options and hullabaloo. She needs a device that knows how to focus. A device that knows how to be less.
But she doesn’t want to spend, like, $1000 and end up getting more than she needs. We’ve already seen she doesn’t need much. Should we give her a netbook, so she can have all the inherent complexities of Windows with a user interface originally designed for a screen twice that size and a finger-achingly miniaturized keyboard and mousing surface and a million options in a nested-folder file system? Should we?!
You hate Jane, don’t you. Just say it. Go ahead, give her that netbook and slap her in the face. You jerk.
Jane needs the iPad. Jane would fall in love with the iPad. You may not be Jane, and that’s OK. I’m not Jane either. But let’s not insult Jane’s iPad. It’s focused, and it’s beautiful, and it’s good at what Jane wants to do. Maybe some day they’ll come out with an iPad that meets the checklist in your head. Until then, let’s show some respect for Jane.