Sunday, December 09, 2007

Expert Dabbler

Since I started my own business close to a year ago, I have wanted to play to my strengths, and I've been doing a lot of thinking about what my strengths are. I recently finished reading Sir Ken Robinson's book, "Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative." One of the things that stood out for me in the book is that he said great artists aren't great by birth. In addition to their considerable talents, they have achieved technical mastery of their medium, after a considerable amount of blood, sweat, and tears. I have always been afraid to commit myself completely to any endeavor, from a fear of learning what my limitations are. I can see of course that this has to change in order for me to grow into the best me I can be. So I've been trying to figure out what my medium is. Some people are exceptionally lucky to find their medium at an early age and to never look back. Robinson tells an anecdote about Leonard Bernstein touching a piano for the first time when he was about 8 years old and just being immediately transformed by it. Some people slog through an entire lifetime doing what they think they ought to be doing, while their medium is waiting for them, just hanging out off to one side. So what is it that I do better than anything else? I have concluded that what I do best is dabble. Here is an almost complete list in no particular order of what I have "shown promise" doing:
  • Writing
  • Stage Acting
  • Foreign Language (acquisition and imitation)
  • Teaching
  • Competitive Horseback Riding
  • Storytelling
  • Building (birdhouses, PCs, etc.)
  • Drawing
  • Sculpting
  • Computer Programming
  • Dreaming (literally, dreams while I sleep)
  • Juggling
  • Dancing
  • Performing Music
  • Driving
  • Video Editing
  • Money Management
  • Cooking
  • Parenting
I feel truly blessed with these aptitudes, but at the same time, I am paralyzed with indecision about what to do with myself. I am growing up to the point of realizing that my lack of focus has held me back. Now that I want to be focused, it's harder than it's ever been because my responsibilities keep growing. I don't mind the responsibility, but oh what I would give to play the piano ten hours a day for a year in a country where nobody speaks English! The serious question for me right now is if somehow dabbling itself is my medium. If I can figure out how to take advantage of this, the sky is the limit.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Lessons from India

I took a trip to India this Spring on a lark. I was resolved to find out what India has to teach me about life.

There were so many sights and sounds and experiences that it has been hard to distill it down to one pearl of wisdom, but I think I’ve finally got it, in all its pithy glory:

“When you are shitting blood, you just have to laugh.”

There is a corollary to this that goes something like, “When you are shitting blood, you are probably better off seeking medical attention.”

I’m sure India has much much more to teach me, and I hope to be a receptive student for the rest of my life. But for now at least, this will do.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Graham Time

I’m heading out to go pick up Graham from my mother-in-law’s in San Antonio and head over to Kerrville to visit my parents. I really miss him! It turns out solitude is lonely.

I have gotten a fair amount of work done, but I wasn’t the ironman of productivity I imagined. I made significant headway on two out of three projects. It’s not bad. I’ve got a ton of ideas kicking around in my head for what to do with this itty bitty company I seem to have started. I’m being suffocated by options!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Thinking About a Night On the Town

I’ve gotten a good amount of work done today, and I’m starting to think I will go to Austin to see HP5 at the Alamo Drafthouse. Food and beer and cinema! Dare I get an iPhone while I’m in town?


Did I really stay up until 5am watching the 2002 remake of Carrie on USA? Yeah, I did.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Awful Quiet Around Here

I don’t think I’ve ever been alone in this house for more than a couple of hours before. The marathon continues. I’ll be working on three separate projects, and I have just switched contexts. I also took a break to eat dinner, feed the dogs, and watch a few minutes of “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”

48 hour "Rock Star"

Elizabeth and Dean are in Chicago for a conference, and Graham is with my mother-in-law for the next 48 hours, which means I have a short chance to see what it’s like to work like Ralph Nader, or a surgical intern.

I’ll update here every couple of hours to let you know how it’s going.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Letter to Myself 20 Years Ago

Letter to myself 20 years ago

Dear Zach, You’re probably curious about what happens to you when you grow up. I don’t want to go through a history; It’s probably not a good idea to know everything that’s going to happen to you over the next 20 years. I’ll just give you some pointers, and if it doesn’t help you it’s probably your own damn fault.


The most important thing I’ve learned in the last 20 years is that it’s ok to try something even if you’re afraid it won’t work out or you’ll fuck it up or something. In fact, every time you go out on a limb that makes you uncomfortable, you’re going to grow as a person. Here’s an example: you’re going to co-found a very good rock band. What’s the best preparation for playing live music on a stage in front of thousands of people? You think practice? Wrong. It’s playing on a stage in front of people. That’s right, even when you’re quite sure you don’t know what you’re doing and it scares the shit out of you, just doing the damn thing is the surest way to get any good at it.

Failure is normal. Natural selection works by trying a million variations until one succeeds. No one remembers or cares about the failures: they are part of the process. The key point here is that you are trying to do something. Caveat: not all failures are created equal. Dropping out of school and sitting on your ass is not ok.

Women (Sex)

I wish someone had given me this advice: obsessing about women and sex is the biggest waste of time in your life. It doesn’t sound romantic, but this is true: one of the best things about marriage is that you can divert all the energy you spent worrying about sex toward something useful.

Ok, this is not going to be easy for you to hear: your philosophy of exalting women does not work. Women are not exalted or sacred. They are people, same as anyone. Some are smart, some are stupid. Some are kind, some are mean. They will not love you more because you worship them. In fact, the opposite is true. If you look at it, you will see that it’s actually insulting to a woman to treat her like she needs some kind of special protection. You are not going to be rewarded for being the most reverent and deferential person in your class. You are not worthy of praise because you try to come off as selfless. Your fixation on being morally superior to your peers makes you an asshole. If you want to be a good person, forget about having the appearance of goodness, and instead do some nice things for some people for a change.

Anyway, back to the girls. My advice to you is to find a young lady with a loose reputation and convince her to do you in her canopy bed while her parents are out of the house. You can pretend to be studying! You don’t have to be in love. At this early stage, it’s better if you aren’t. You are going to be tempted not to believe me, but I’m you for chrissakes, I should know. As long as I’m giving you such startling advice, I may as well say the responsible thing as well: don’t have any unprotected sex. You might think you’re so smart you would never have unprotected sex, but actually you would, dumbass.

In a larger sense, your issues with women are actually self-confidence problems. And I know that you can’t just hear someone say, “Be more confident,” and you will be. I hate to tell you this, but even 20 years later, you don’t have the self-confidence problem licked, but you’re making a lot of progress. Maybe it would help you to just acknowledge that your first impulse about how people think of you may not be correct. Example: when you’re a junior in high school and Deana Townes invites you spend the weekend with her on Cape Cod, it’s because she likes you and not some kind of scam calculated to humiliate you. Jesus, snap out of it.


I want to say a few words about college because if you don’t make some changes, you’re going to have a miserable time. You are accustomed to succeeding in school without much effort. This will not continue to be the case. I suspect that when you run up against your limitations you actually don’t want to try because it will mean that you know what your limitations are. Please try to accept that you aren’t smart enough to ace everything, and that you will need discipline to do a halfway decent job. Please do at least this: drum up the discipline to attend all your classes. The rest is not that hard, but you will go a long way just by showing up over and over like clockwork.

Here is something that really surprised me: the subjects you study are not remotely as important as the quality of the instructors you get. Use the instructor surveys and choose the best professors, no matter what they’re teaching!

College is not a place to learn a trade, even though they try to make you think it is. College is a chance to learn how to think. In order to get the most out of it, you should take exciting classes in as many disciplines as you can. And just as importantly, get as many social experiences as you can. This is how you grow. And it can be a lot of fun. When you enter the working world, you’re not going to have nearly as many chances to make friends, so take advantage of it.


Those are the biggies, but I should tell you a handful of other things. I apologize if I’m coming across as a prick. Don’t worry, you don’t become some kind of monster. I’m being harsher on you that I would be with anyone else, because you’re me. I feel like I shouldn’t have to candy coat anything with you, you know?

Your taste in music isn’t any good. Here’s something you can take to the fucking bank: the top 40 is awful. Stay away. Try listening to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles about two dozen times. Try the Zombies, Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, the Cure, Joy Division, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Nina Simone, the Pixies, “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys, in no particular order. Country music is turning to shit, but you can take comfort in Johnny Cash, the Stanley Brothers, and Bob Wills, among others, but I’m not really in that world these days.

Trust your instincts. You’re not too young to do something no one’s ever done before. Go find out what the Internet is; It’s gonna be huge!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Life Hack #159

My office building restroom has the world's cheapest paper towels. So cheap that if you try to pull one out with wet hands, your fingers pass through it like so much cotton candy.

It took me a while to train myself, but the solution is to grab one or two paper towels while my hands are still dry and set them on the counter, ready for action!

My degree in engineering had to come in handy at some point!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Thawing Out

I've been incommunicado for a while. I'm slowing coming back into public life. More soon. P.S. Props to MarsEdit!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Why I Am an Un-Reformed Apple Fanboy

Everyone loves a winner. Did you ever notice that your local football team gets a lot more popular the closer they get to the championship? So what makes someone love a company? It seems like it should be the one that makes the most money, but that doesn’t appear to be it. What explains the passion that surrounds Apple, Inc.?

I think it has a lot to do with how personal these products are. MacBooks and iPods inspire such devotion because they get inside our lives and change us. Apple is famous for blowing right past the status quo. Where another company would think they have a winner if their product is 20% smaller or 10% cheaper, Apple has a habit of saying, “Forget about the state of the art. It just isn’t nearly good enough.” The underlying message is that we, their customers, deserve something we haven’t even dared to dream of yet. The new iPhone is a prime example of this. For better or for worse, this product puts a groundswell of emotion in me. What’s the emotion? It’s gratitude. I am grateful that someone stood up and said “Adequate isn’t.”

There is a contagious pride in a category-smashing Apple product. It’s the same pride you feel in your football team. When Apple is at their best, they are not producing just any old thing, they are producing the best that has ever been made. People love to see someone take a million-to-one shot and just nail it. Again, I’m getting back to emotions. As social creatures, we have a deep desire to be part of something greater than ourselves.

The vast majority of companies or organizations of any kind are only seeking to produce something of value. But when your standard is much higher than that, when your standard is the best that has ever been, you enter into the realm of passion, into something deep inside of every human being that usually lies dormant. The difference between passion-off and passion-on is not just a difference of degree; it is a difference of kind. Passionate people aren’t just more productive (though they are that). Passion reconfigures what is even possible.

I have only worked for one organization where passion was normal, a small company called Human Code in Austin, Texas, that was acquired and dismantled during the dotcom boom and bust. Now, I’m starting my own company, and I don’t even know what we’re going to build yet. But I know that whatever it is, whether it’s a product or a service, our vision will be to build the best that has ever been made. It sounds like the height of hubris to even say that, but it is ok with me to strive and fail, if there is passion in the striving.

So yes, I am an Apple fanboy, and I make no apologies. I may have to buy two iPhones: one to use and one to eat.