October 2009


Brass ring

In mid-August Jak and I drove down to visit family in Eugene. It’s a long drive — usually six hours or more, if you travel like we do, with a kiddo in the car and frequent eat-drink-and-pee stops — with stupid levels of traffic through Portland and for the entire 70 miles between North Seattle and Olympia.

Jak prefers to drive, and since it’s hard on my bad knee I’m happy to let him. The price of this, however, is that he wants me to stay awake and talk to him the entire time so he doesn’t fall asleep.

You can cover a lot of ground in six hours of nonstop conversation. We were constrained by the presence of the 10-year-old in the back seat, so the really juicy subjects were off the table, but … well, one of the best parts of this relationship is how after nine years, we still have plenty to say to each other.

Anyway, somewhere in the middle of the drive home, we’re riffing on random stuff vaguely related to my interest in personal finance, and Jak goes into idea mode. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if …?’ (Idea Rat chitters happily.)

My response, as usual — this was before my new perspective on Idea Rat — went like this: ‘No, that wouldn’t work, because …’ (Down comes the MamaCat Paw of Doom.)

And then I thought a few seconds, and added, ‘However … what might work is …’ This happens a lot when we’re talking about the novel(s), where he suggests something and I’m all ‘no no no … but maybe [variation].’ He sometimes sends my brain off in directions I wouldn’t go on my own, but (I think?) the adjusted idea is more solid than what he would get without me.

I’m not being coy with the ellipses, by the way; I genuinely don’t remember what the discarded ideas were, or my objections to them. Like I said, it’s my strategy for coping with too many ideas, to keep nothing in long-term memory that doesn’t pass the Practicality Test.

But that last idea … stuck. I kept thinking about it, hours at a time, for the next several days. I did some research. I went over the same questions again and again, trying to figure out what I was missing.

Because you see, this was a Big Idea. It was a completely-change-your-life kind of idea. And it was passing my filters. All of them.

That has never, ever happened before. I’m almost forty, and I’ve never looked at anything half so ambitious and thought it was not only marginally possible but in fact, reasonably likely to succeed. I’ve done a few Big Things before — like starting the small press with Jak, that was big, but it was based on naive optimism and idealistic enthusiasm, not a practical assessment of success.

See, I had a secondary motive for explaining about my rigorous idea filters: so that when I tell you I believe I’ve had a Really Good Idea, you get some sense of what that means.

I turned this thing around for several days — and if that seems like a short time, consider that I mean I was thinking about it intensely for at least fifteen hours a day — and I came to this conclusion: I could prove this concept with very little upfront financial risk, if I could find a developer to work on it with me. I have about two-thirds of the necessary skillsets, but without a good programmer to handle the backend and database side, the whole thing was a nonstarter.

I tossed off a tweet in passing. To my surprise, someone responded. Two days later, after a four-hour session pitching my idea in intricate detail, I had my starting programmer.

I am being deliberately coy about the nature of the Good Idea for now, because although I want to jump up and down and gush about it to the whole world, that would not be a smart business move at this juncture. We’re building a piece of software. The prototype is starting to come together, at least in the most basic sense; there are roughly a bajillion features in the ‘future’ category. I’m preparing for small group alpha testing in November. (Would like about two or three more people for that, by the way; read this if you’re interested.)

Alongside the ongoing intensive UX design, I am sucking up everything I can about how to create and run a successful startup, specifically the web-app-as-service variety. I’m reading between six and ten books a week. My bookmarks list has exploded. I’m looking up every friend and acquaintance who might know something that can help me and picking their brains.

Two months later, I’ve survived a couple of crises-of-confidence and come out stronger on the other side. I am if anything more excited and convinced that this is doable and we’re on the right track.

It’s all going really well except for the part where it’s going really slowly. Unfortunately (for me — it’s a good thing for him) my dev partner already has a full-time-and-then-some day job, and what with one thing and another can only manage 6-8 hours a week on this. We’d hoped for more, but you know … life. I’m starting to look for a second developer to help out, because indications are that we do not have the luxury of indefinite time-to-market.

But every so often I think about what this would mean in a couple of years if I’m right and we pull this off, and I just boggle. A real company, with employees and offices and profits and attention on a national scale. (Or, in the win-the-lottery scenario, no company but a very large bank account. I’d take that option too.)

For the first time ever, I can see the brass ring. And I’m reaching for it with more determination than I ever imagined I possessed.

Which given how intense I can be? Is saying rather a lot.


Idea rat

In our house, Jak is the “Idea Rat” — it’s a long-running joke, born of part affection and part exasperation. (Read the Dilbert strip at that link if you’re not familiar with the phrase.)

Every so often he’ll make some suggestion and I’ll just stare at him, trying to figure out how in the world he expects that to work, until finally I ask — and he admits that well, he hasn’t figured the implementation part out yet. Hence: Idea Rat.

For longer than I can remember, I’ve been working under the premise that impractical ideas are worthless. They’re distracting and a waste of time. I’m not sure where I picked up that belief, but it’s something I’ve never questioned.

See, I don’t think of myself as an idea person, but … secretly, I am. I just squelch them as soon as they bubble up. When I think of something, I immediately evaluate it for practicality, and if it fails (as it does, 99.9999% of the time) then I clear it from memory. I have hundreds of ideas every day that don’t make it past the first thirty seconds.

For example: it occurred to me yesterday that it would be possible to make some really cool salt-and-pepper shakers in the form of chess pieces. Carved wood (light and dark), or marble (black and white), king and queen, or maybe bishop as a grinder and rook for salt … or even an entire chess set to hold spices, big pieces for the common ones and pawns for the rare …

Then the automatic test kicks in: can I do this? Don’t know any wood or stone carvers. Production issues would be major. Don’t have any connections to — or more than a passing interest in — chess enthusiast communities or salt-and-pepper collectors. No insights into marketing. And poof — out she goes, as if the thought had never happened. (I only even remember this a day later because I was mulling over the subject of this post at the time, and I had a mental flag to hold on to the next idea I had, for example purposes.)

I think I developed this system in order to keep from being overwhelmed by the nine billion things I’d otherwise want to do. It’s that Renaissance thing, that fox thing … my interests are so diverse that I’m afraid if I don’t focus focus focus I’ll never get anywhere. And this is why I often find Jak’s ideas so exasperating: because his comparatively weak filters are adding more noise when I’m desperately seeking signal.

One of the books-for-foxes I’ve read this month takes the tack that even the most impractical ideas are little gems to be enjoyed, appreciated, and recorded da Vinci notebook-style for the future entertainment of others. (‘Wow, look at all this crazy stuff Grandma thought up.’) Not that one should go off trying to implement every passing thought, but at least take time to celebrate and even share the idea.

Which is exactly what I never let Jak do. I come down on him like the MamaCat Paw Of Doom if he so much as opens his mouth. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if—’ ‘Maybe I could—’ and my filter kicks into overdrive. ‘No, that would never work, because A, B, C, D, …’

Even with this newfound perspective, I don’t see myself keeping an idea journal or anything. (It conflicts with my perfectionist issues.) But I can already see the difference in how I react to Jak’s dreaming. I can short-circuit the judgment cycle now, and leave the idea alive for him instead of killing it the instant it sticks its nose out.

And if he wants the practical-filter response — because the voice of reason is occasionally useful — I can do that too.


Foxy lady

About three weeks ago I was chatting online with a friend. ‘Nevermind,’ he typed. ‘It’s probably just TMA.’

‘TMA?’ I queried, wondering if somehow this was a typo for TMI, even though that didn’t make sense in context.

‘Too many aptitudes,’ he explained. And sent me a link.

I flipped browser windows and began reading the article, skimming a bit because it was so long. Right away I could see why this would apply to him; he’s brilliant at a wide variety of things.

But certain phrases popped out at me: “TMAs often don’t fit in well with organizations or groups … They feel that they are anyone’s equal and want to be treated as such … cannot act as if the boss were always right … either domineering or overwhelming in relationships with others …”

“TMAs are usually hypercritical, a side effect of high reasoning aptitudes. They notice flaws and loopholes, errors and inconsistencies. … They are usually good arguers and can tear just about anything to shreds–including themselves.”

That last part? Ask any sweetheart I’ve ever had about my mad arguing skillz.

‘Wow’, I typed back after a few minutes.

‘Yeah. Sorry, I thought you knew.’

‘Not surprising that it describes you, but um, some of it sounds awfully familiar to me, too.’

‘It’s exactly you!’

‘You think so too?’

‘Certainly. “Like onions in a chocolate cake” sound like every job you’ve ever had?’

‘Hahaha. Oddly, I feel almost like crying. … I have a lot of reading to do now.’

•   •   •

“Having a lot of strong talents is a bit like dealing with high voltage. You can do a lot of things with high voltage. However, it can also fry you. … A lot of that voltage for TMAs is emotional. Few people know how to handle normal emotion, let alone powerful, ongoing emotion.”

Um, yeah.

So I started researching this ‘Too Many Aptitudes Problem’. There’s less out there about it than I had hoped. Two life/career coaches have made something like it their focus, and written books, both of which I ordered from the library and read.

First of all, the labels all suck. Making ‘TMA’ into a noun is wrong in so many ways I don’t even know where to begin. One author uses ‘Scanner’, which doesn’t make me think of anything so much as a really bad scifi movie. (Jak points out that it was a bad scifi movie, which mercifully I’ve never seen.) The other uses ‘Renaissance Soul’, which is both a bit too pretentious and vaguely woowoo. And too long for ordinary conversation.

I was so exasperated by the lack of usable label that when I found this blog post I was ready to hug the author.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Archilochus, 7th century BC

So there we are. I’m a Fox.

And this fox is having a bit of a personal paradigm shift. More on that note later.