People Watching

People watching used to be a favourite hobby of mine. Sitting at a café, observing without judging.

Then technology came along. And I don’t observe people so much anymore.

I mean, you can’t observe both the screen and the people around you, can you?

A real pity, really.

Technology has filled all those little spaces that “just being” used to fill. The spaces between the things that needed to be done and the places that needed to be visited.

And unfortunately the spaces where ideas used to roam free and germinate.

Trashing the first draft

He looked at my screen, saw the first draft of an e-mail I’d been penning, and shook his head.

It wasn’t pretty. It didn’t read well. The message that should have been communicated within the first line was placed below another eight lines of filler. And to think I’d been working on this for the last fifteen minutes.

“My god,” his expression told me, “that’s a bad piece of e-mail.”

I sighed.

“It’s only the first draft,” I told him. I knew it was bad, as my first drafts almost always are, almost on purpose. You don’t look at a skeleton and think now there’s a good-looking guy/girl, do you?

I know what I’m doing, was my implied message.

As it turned out, the first draft was soon discarded — it’d served its purpose — and the polished second (and final) one crafted. In less than five minutes, I might add.

The first draft is, for me, always a piece of sh*t. It’s not meant to be read. It’s meant to get the ideas floating in my head down in one place, where I can physically see and play around with them.

See my final draft and make a judgement if you want. But until then, just let me work my magic — the magic of iteration.


Sitting on the swing, relaxing after a heavy dinner,
Looking at stars I used to know more intimately,
I reminisced about times that seemed so recent but
Were (five, six, seven… no) fourteen years ago –
Half a lifetime away.

I used to watch the stars as they crawled across
The sky on restless nights before I slept, and awaken
To find their journey  only halfway through. I’d nudge them
With my finger for a bit, pushing them on, before
Getting ready for school.

I remember imagining that I was on one of those
Stars, looking into the sky and spotting Earth.
It was my way of meeting peace — from this perspective
Pain didn’t hurt. A knife through the heart would’ve made
A dent as deep as a whisper.

Going beyond economics

“So,” he asked, “what should he do?”

Straightforward as the question may seem, it was anything but. There were two tracks I could take: (1) the economic, rational track; or (2) the moral, slightly irrational track.

I can’t quite share with you what the exact nature of the discussion was, but the question would be somewhat analogous to the following:

Imagine that you and another person are participants of a social experiment, which pays both of you $5 each for participating. As part of the experiment, the experimenter passes you $10 and says that it’s to be shared with the other participant but with a catch: you decide how much you want to share. If you don’t want to share any of it, you don’t have to.

And, the other participant won’t know anything about this additional $10 that has been handed over to you. What do you do?

The economic track (that’s option 1) says that you keep the full amount. The other participant, not knowing that you have received this $10, will not be in any way worse off if he or she wasn’t offered anything.

The moral track (that’s option 2) says that you should split it 50/50: both of you did pretty much the same thing (turning up for the experiment), and there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be split equally.

Now, that was pretty much the question that was asked of me: “What should he do?”

Take the full amount, or share it?

I chose to answer option 1, and was agreed with an attaboy smile. It was, after all, in the business’ best interest.

But I couldn’t help but feel a little peeved that there wasn’t so much as a hint that option 2 was just as viable an answer. I’d answered option 1 for the sake of argument, half-thinking that it was the wrong answer, hoping to be refuted and then having a good laugh about it. That I was so heartily agreed with… that was unexpected.

It is during times likes these, because of times like these, that I seek out disciplines beyond cold economics. It’s times like these that I’m reminded of the importance of having different perspectives, perspectives gained from activities like reading poetry, studying philosophy, and running.

Running especially. Because of the pure irrationality of it. It’s a constant reminder that it’s OK to be irrational. That it’s OK to be nice.

How to be Brilliant

The meeting droned on. Something about something was being said. Someone mentioned someone. Suddenly, the spotlight turned my way.

“What do you think, Donn?”

I was there, yes. But I wasn’t. My mind was on dinner, due an hour ago. My mind was on my wife, waiting patiently for me, an hour now, for dinner. My mind was everywhere, but here.

I slowly nodded my head in contemplation. “I think,” I said, “we have to look at the numbers in greater detail.”

It wasn’t a lie. We did have to look at the numbers in greater detail. Despite my mind wandering, I knew damn well what needed to be done: study the numbers. And think.

But I hadn’t done that. It was the usual suspects: I was busy with other tasks; I was unclear about what the objectives were (no explicit agenda); and frankly, I didn’t really give a shit.

No brilliance from me today.

And then next target was picked. This time, the answer was so brilliant I wished it was me saying all that. The thing is, the answer was so polished I knew damn well it didn’t happen based on pure brilliance. This was a man who knew his stuff.

This time though, the target answered so well I could’ve sworn he’d prepared for it. It was almost as if he’d studied.

That’s when the epiphany hit me: he probably did.

I don’t know why it took so long for me to realise it, but whenever someone sounds like he or she knows something at a meeting, chances are: he or she probably does. And it didn’t “just happen” — quite a bit of work and thinking probably went into “knowing something” well.

I’ve had my fair share of “brilliant” moments. Being more technically-minded than many, I’ve solved unsolvable computer problems that stumped the smartest but technophobic people.

It’s not that I’m smart or brilliant, it’s just that technology is my thing. I read technology books for fun. I’ve built websites for the sake of building websites. I’ve long refused to give in to “printer not found” issues. Always having had such an interest in technology, I’ve never shied from it.

As a result I’ve had lots of experience in it. “Uncommon” computer problems are common problems for me, by virtue of my just having had more experience. “New” problems are often just old problems in disguise.

So, I’m brilliant because I’m prepared. The achievement of the magic of brilliance lies in preparation. In having a store of brilliant ideas and thinking, just waiting for the right question to be released.

Brilliance at work is similar, the only thing being that problems are a little more less structured and domain-specific. This means that preparation comes less from “objective” and universal-knowledge sources like books and websites, and more from actual thinking behind issues specific to your organisation or cause.

It pays to anticipate these issues. To spend time thinking about them before they’re brought up (“building up experience”), because if you don’t, you won’t have had the luxury of time to think about your answers when the issues are finally brought up.

Between an answer that’s been thought about for days, and an answer that’s given less than five second’s thought, the latter is highly unlikely to be more brilliant.

Brilliance can be achieved if an effort is made to identify key issues, and time made to think about solutions and insights to these issues.


The place for the polymath. Because there's too many good things in life to be great at just one thing.