A Happy Information Hygiene Moment (and a Great Explanation of the Backfire Effect)

Yesterday, my sister shared this Oatmeal comic that wonderfully explains the backfire effect, the phenomenon where seeing evidence that contradicts our beliefs hardens those beliefs rather than changes our minds.

I love The Oatmeal for its engaging and often humorous visual explanations of important concepts. (XKCD and Nicky Case are also brilliant at this.) My sister knows this, and asked me if I had seen it before. Even though I loved this one, it didn’t ring a bell.

So I did what I try to do in situations like this. Rather than just file it away in my Evernote (where I have thousands of clippings that I almost never see again), I went to record it on the human perception page under “Confirmation Bias” on the Faster Than 20 wiki. To my delight, I found that I not only had seen it before, but I had already captured it on my wiki!

It’s a practice I call good information hygiene (a term coined by my colleague, Chris Dent). When we do it well, we’re not just filing things away where we can find them, we are continually synthesizing what we’re consuming. The act of integrating it into a larger knowledge repository is not only good information hygiene, but is also a critical part of sensemaking. Doing it once is great, but doing it multiple times (as Case and my colleague, Catherine Madden, have also explained beautifully) makes it more likely to stick.

Here’s another, simpler example that doesn’t involve a wiki and may feel more accessible to folks tool-wise. In my late 20s, I met Tony Christopher through my mentor, Doug Engelbart. We had such a great conversation, when I got home, I wanted to make sure to enter his contact information immediately into my contact database. When I opened it, to my surprise, he was already in there! I had very briefly met him at an event a few years earlier, and I had recorded a note saying how much I had enjoyed that short interaction.

I love when moments like this happen, because it shows that my tools and processes are making me smarter, and it motivates me to stay disciplined. I wish that tool developers today focused more on supporting these kinds of behaviors rather than encouraging more fleeting engagement with information.

Etymology of “Conspire”

Gail Taylor is doing exciting new things with Tomorrow Makers and is seeking conspirators. Going through the new website today, I learned:

To conspire, in its literal sense, means “to breathe together.” It is an intimate joining.

Here’s what Google has to say about the etymology of “conspire”:

Here’s something I wrote on Faster Than 20 a few years ago about literally breathing together when collaborating.

On Blogging and Maintenance (and my Website Refresh)

I updated my website look-and-feel for the first time since 2010, which is when I migrated it from Blosxom (!) to WordPress. The overall architecture is the same. I just wanted to update the theme to something more modern — responsive on mobile, more photography-friendly, support for the latest WordPress features including the new Gutenberg editor, etc.

I built the new theme on top of CoBlocks, which saved me a ton of time, gave me a bunch of things for free, and will hopefully future-proof me a little bit better than last time. (My previous homegrown theme lasted over eight years, so it did well all things considered.)

Still, the update took a long time. I had to get clear about what I wanted and research the available themes. I had to experiment with different themes to see which ones worked best. I had to brush up on CSS and the wonders of responsive design so I could create a homepage that looked more or less how I wanted it. I had to go down many ratholes, because that’s just what I do.

My impetus for all of this was that I missed blogging, and I want to do more of it this year. Updating the site was akin to buying a new outfit — not strictly necessary, but feels pretty fresh.

What do I miss about blogging? Becoming less dumb by chewing on half-baked ideas and having others help bake them further.

When I first started in 2003, blogging was like exchanging letters out in the open. The act of writing things down (especially in public) forced me to slow down, reflect, and crystallize my thinking in whatever state it happened to be at the time. The act of curating links helped reinforce the lessons learned from others (and myself), while also giving me a chance to acknowledge them publicly. Doing this out in the open meant anyone could jump in, which helped me get out of my silo and discover wonderful new voices. All of this helped make the web a more useful, humane place.

I’ve done pretty well over the years, but the tenor of it all gradually changed. Social media has cannibalized a lot of people’s attention (including my own). Because it’s not a slow medium, the nature of how I engage with others (not just where I engage with them) has changed. It’s more frequent, but it’s also more shallow. That’s actually a nice complement when I have a face-to-face relationship with people, but it’s not generative otherwise.

Last year, I only wrote five posts on this blog, my fewest ever. It wasn’t for lack of material, and it wasn’t even because I didn’t have enough time. I did lots of journaling and drawing, I just did most of it in private.

Some of it was social media backlash. I was on social media a lot for my 365 photo project in 2015, and while the experience was overall positive, I think it burned me out on sharing so much of myself. I’ve been much less active on social media — and on the Internet generally — since.

Some of it was an unexpected professional side effect, one I’m actively trying to counter. Most of my current colleagues don’t blog, and when they do, it’s rarely half-baked. (I have lots more to say about this, which I’ll probably share on Faster Than 20 in the near future.) This had the effect of lowering the bar for me, which is not what I want. I want to raise the bar for others.

Because of how I blogged when I first got started, I have about eight years of archives of a lot of my early thinking about collaboration. It’s so valuable for me to be able both to mine and to share this with others. Unfortunately, that’s not true of a lot of what I’ve been working on and thinking about for the past eight years.

I want to re-adjust. I’m inspire by my friends, especially Alex Schroeder, who have kept it up consistently over the years. I want to think out loud a lot more, especially about my work, while also still sharing the occasional personal tidbits. I’ve worked hard to balance my life so that I have more reflection time, and I want to make better use of this time by sharing more. I’d also love to experiment more with mining and making what I’ve already written more visible.

I’m sure the experience won’t be the same as it was in the early days, but I’m going to keep at it. I’ll continue to share what I write on Twitter and maybe Facebook, but the better way to track is to subscribe to my feed via your favorite feed reader (I use Feedly) or via email below. As always, I welcome comments below (or on social media), but I’d especially encourage you to try commenting the old-fashioned blogger way — by responding in your own blog with a link to the original source. Either way, would love to hear from folks!

Relentlessly Doing Your Job

As painful as it is for me to write anything laudatory about the Boston Celtics, they are a very good, well-coached team. The common refrain, given that they’re missing their best two players, is that they have been performing above expectations. However, that may be unfair, as Zach Lowe’s article, “Brad Stevens and the Celtics have a special brand of toughness,” explains.

Brad Stevens, Boston’s brilliant coach, cited the following definition of “toughness”:

Toughness is being able to physically and emotionally perform your task through any condition.

and added (emphasis mine):

If things are going really well in a home game, do you get caught up in that, or do you keep playing the right way? If things are going like they were in the second quarter last night [when the Sixers went on a run], do you say, “I have a job to do and I’m going to do it, and I don’t care that everyone is going nuts over this [Joel] Embiid dunk?” That is toughness. It sounds cliché, but the hardest thing to do is stay in the moment and do your job.

Lowe remarks:

This is a fierce team. No one is afraid to shoot, or venture outside his proven skill set — something almost everyone has had to do since [Kyrie] Irving’s knee surgery. They give maximum effort every second. It is a focused effort; they rarely veer out of scheme.

Gather enough tough players and it can have an exponential effect on a team’s collective toughness. They inspire each other to more intense fury. They hold everyone accountable; even brief moments of lethargy and weakness are unacceptable. Wyc Grousbeck, the team’s owner, compares them to a crew team rowing together: They feel when one guy is giving only 90 percent, and either push him harder or eventually replace him. “This is my favorite Celtics team ever, in terms of energy, camaraderie and underdog spirit,” Grousbeck said.

[Danny] Ainge picks the players, but Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. The (deserved) fawning over his stoic demeanor and play-calling genius has obscured another fundamental truth: Stevens is something of an old-school hard-ass. “If guys aren’t doing their jobs,” [Al] Horford said, “they just won’t play.”

Kevin Durant makes a similar point in Baxter Holmes’s article about the Golden State Warriors, “When The Dubs Hit The Turbo Button”:

That’s what is tough about the NBA — to focus every possession. That’s hard as s— to do. It’s not the physical part. It’s not making 3s. It’s not how many sets can we run, how many dunks can we get. It’s about staying focused every play.

I’ve written before (in a non-sports context) about the importance of constant striving and execution (versus strategy) to high-performance. It’s a theme that seems to come up over and over and over again in sports as well.

Here are more gems from Lowe’s article on Brad Stevens’s leadership style and the culture he’s created in Boston.

On communication:

In Boston’s seventh game of the season, Shane Larkin failed to pursue a loose ball along the left sideline. Stevens removed Larkin at the next stoppage. He didn’t play again until garbage time. “I learned right away,” Larkin said. “If you don’t get a 50-50 ball, you are coming out.”

Stevens didn’t upbraid Larkin. He approached him calmly and told Larkin why he had been taken out. In evaluating players, both during games and in film sessions, Stevens is careful with language, according to coaches, players and team higher-ups. He focuses on actions: We didn’t get this rebound. You should have made this rotation earlier. The criticism is never about the player’s character. No one is labeled lazy or stupid or selfish. Stevens simply describes what did or did not happen, and what should happen next time.

That has gone a long way in securing buy-in, players say. They feel Stevens is with them, even as he holds them — and himself — to almost impossible standards. That is a hard balance to strike. It is not a show, either.

On accountability:

After losses, Stevens often approaches Ainge and apologizes for “blowing it,” Ainge said. “He is always saying that,” Ainge said. “Honestly, it’s kind of like listening to players blame themselves. He’s like a player. He never whines about the players, just himself.”

Even private kvetching about players among coaches and front-office staff can undo a team. Rumors start. Factions develop. That hasn’t happened in Boston.

On culture:

There are no bells and whistles to Boston’s culture. They don’t regularly host famous guest speakers or take field trips. They’ll organize occasional team dinners, but there are no ritualistic, hours-long nights of wine, food and storytelling. Stevens, Ainge and the veteran players have created an environment of serious, hard, consistent work.

Stevens essentially has banned rookie hazing. He wants rookies to take as much ownership of the team as the stars — and to voice their opinions. (This is the same reason Stevens declines to name captains.) Pranks waste time. He was not thrilled last season when culprits unknown filled Brown’s car with popcorn. “Oh, Brad was not happy,” Brown said. “He had my back.”

“I’m kinda glad,” Tatum said of the hazing restrictions. “I don’t want popcorn in my car. I would flip.”

“Collaboration” in the Public Consciousness

I was sorting through old books today, looking to get rid of a bunch, and I came across two ancient books of quotations, one from 1970, one from 1980. When I was younger, I used to use them a lot, but I hadn’t touched them in decades, and it was time for them to go.

I decided to find and record the quotes on collaboration, then give the books away. So I opened them up, and to my surprise, neither book had sections or indices on collaboration.

I realized this was an interesting way of tracking when collaboration as a concept entered more of the mainstream of public consciousness. When I get the chance, I’ll see if I can find when “collaboration” does start appearing in the index.

Google Books has a really cool feature called Ngram Viewer, which enables you to chart how often different words and phrases appear in Google’s considerable archive of scanned books, which date back to 1800. Several years ago, I searched for “collaboration,” which turned up this chart:

If I were to guess, the initial dip in 1943 is because the French word, “collaborateur,” became associated with those who were collaborating with the Nazis, and the term naturally lost favor. The term gradually returned into favor, and the most recent spike started in 1982. It will be interesting to see if the inquiry into quotation books lines up with this data.