Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Work (page 1 of 35)

The key to productivity

It seems to me that one of the simplest rules to follow when doing knowledge work (or symbolic analyzing, or being creative) is this: don’t try to work only on little things when your mind is able to do big things; and don’t try to work on big things when your mind is only able to do little things.

This is a simple principle but it’s amazing how easy it is to not follow, and how much better you can use your time if you do.

My new writing desk

In my garage office I have a standing desk (actually a shelf in my Ikea bookcase). Most of the time it’s awesome, but sometimes I do like to sit down. To support this I’ve slowly added wireless devices that I can use while sitting– a repurposed keyboard from an iPad, and a trackball. Today, I discovered the perfect lap desk to put them on: a bamboo cutting board, liberated from the kitchen.

New lap desk: a bamboo cutting board from the kitchen.

It’s just the right size, and if I end up being both more productive and a little hungrier, I can live with that.

The myth of personal branding

An article in today’s Quartz discusses Indiana University anthropologist Ilana Gershon’s new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (Or Don’t Find) Work Today and its argument that Personal branding “is largely a boondoggle advanced by inspirational speakers and job trainers.” What Gershon finds is that

It doesn’t help people get jobs. But it does make us more accepting of an increasingly dehumanized job market that treats workers as products rather than people.

For one thing, the employers and hiring managers Gershon talked to didn’t look for, or even notice, personal branding. Gershon concluded that despite all the hype, finding your personal brand doesn’t help job-seekers. Its primary function is to make people feel like they have control over their working lives in an increasingly hostile job landscape.

According to Gershon, the concept of personal branding developed over the last 30 years as the concept of work itself became more precarious.

In essence, companies tend to treat employees in a more transactional manner now, and the personal brand is the employee’s attempt to define that relationship on their terms, and to “reconcile oneself to an economy that provides less and less security.”

From working ON a book, to working WITH a book: How thinking about REST changes as we move to publication and I move ahead

This week I reviewed the dust jacket for REST. I’ve always liked the book’s cover, with its sling chair, but the whole package just looks terrific.

Proof of REST dust jacket

We were lucky to get a cross-section of great blurbs, from a variety of contributors, each of whom saw slightly different things in the book. It’s satisfying when readers see value in a book that you didn’t, or can really relate to a particular piece of it. You want people to be able to take your work and make it their own.

Indeed, over the last couple weeks, I’ve noticed my relationship with the book changing subtly. It’s moved from being something that I work on, to something that I work with; from a theory, backed up by a set of arguments and evidence that I have to shape, to an intellectual toolkit that I can now apply.

Morning edits

This is an intellectual version of the shift toward thinking of the book as a commodity in the marketplace, of watching it moving closer to production, of getting feedback on it from other people, and of seeing other people contributing to its final shape (and, one hopes, success as a product). I can no longer do anything to the content itself; and as my mind accepts that, it shifts to the mode of thinking about what it can do with the content.

It’s also driven by my decision to leave SBI, to devote myself full-time to writing and consulting about deliberate rest.

I realized that if I want REST to be a success, and if the ideas in it are to have any kind of impact in the world, I would have to work on them full-time.

So I’m now ramping up a new consultancy that’ll support my ongoing research on deliberate rest, and work with industries and organizations to apply those ideas. Having spent fifteen years as a futurist, I’ve done a LOT of workshop organizing, and spent a lot of time developing expertise around creating workshop processes and working with clients. It’s time to put that to use in a new area.

Brainstorming session on the future of science

Besides, as I’ve discovered (somewhat to my surprise) this is a kind of work I really like. Helping people explore and think through the practical implications of abstract ideas is not a skill you spend a lot of time developing as an academic; indeed, it’s safe to say that for many Ph.D.s, the question “so what’s the application of this idea?” is one that they tend to meet with derision, rather than enthusiasm.


But over the years I’ve discovered that for my, thinking about what you can do with ideas is very rewarding. And deliberate rest is an idea I really believe in.

I didn’t realized any of this with THE DISTRACTION ADDICTION; I assumed that ideas get out in the world, and they succeed on their own. Wrong. So I don’t want to make the same mistake. I’ll make different ones, no doubt, but at least they’ll be different.

I’ll still be an occasional contractor at SBI, and contribute the odd piece or put an oar in the water for a couple unfinished projects with clients I like. And it’s a fine place; I’ve not left because I disliked it, or because I have ill feelings about it. But it’s time to focus on deliberate rest.

“You know what really needs attention? What working like crazy and taking no time off really gets us”

Washington Post contributor Brigid Schulte has a brief piece explaining why overwork is bad for you.

Forget Russian figure skater Julia Lipnitskaia spinning in a blur with her leg impossibly held straight up against her ear…. The image that stands out most in my mind during the broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics? The Cadillac commercial with a boxy, middle-aged white guy in a fancy house striding purposefully from his luxurious swimming pool to his $75,000 luxury Cadillac ELR parked out front while extolling the virtues of hard work, American style.

Like Schulte, I think the commercial is clever, and yet completely wrong-headed (though I've always liked Neal McDonough). As she puts it,

So yes, America, work hard. Hoo-ah American ingenuity, gumption and drive. But remember that inspiration comes in the shower, on a walk, in a moment of rest, not when your nose is to the grindstone. It’s just the way our brains are wired.

As a big fan of giant writeable spaces…

…I need this stuff in my next office.

Copy edits!

Just got these in the mail….

Copy edits!
via flickr

Very exciting, in the way that only a vanishingly small number of grinding, attention-demanding tasks can be.

How writing a book is like racing in the Tour de France, and not like self-marketing

I sent off the revised draft of my book last Friday, and celebrated this weekend by watching the end of the Tour de France.

the book is back, via flickr

It was great to see an Englishman win the tour (Britain’s investment in cycling is paying off, as John Kay notes), and it was also cool to see someone win who was so clear about how much his victory was a team achievement. Yes, Wiggins gets to wear the yellow jersey, but as he himself acknowledges, he stands on the shoulders of his teammates.

I was juxtaposing this to Penelope Trunk’s recent essay about self-publishing her book. The piece, a long post on her Brazen Careerist blog, is about how traditional publishers don’t know anything about their markets, they take too long to get stuff out, and you’re better off doing it yourself. The piece was really striking to me because both in scope and substance it’s so different from my recent (or current) experience.

home office, california style, via flickr

First of all, Trunk’s account of the publishing industry is all about production and distribution; the work of shaping and editing books is invisible. To me, though, this is about 90% of the value that the publishing industry offers. Fourteen months ago, give or take, I had a very very different idea for a book about contemplative computing. That book might have fit well with an academic press, but it wasn’t the book I really wanted to write. I was lucky to have an agent who pushed me to think more commercially without giving up my intellectual bona fides or the ambition of explaining to ordinary users how our deep entanglement with technology shapes us. I was also really lucky, once I’d produced a manuscript, to have an editor who could work with me to tune it up, and who insisted (in that totally self-effacing way most book editors have) on making it more accessible and useful.

Another important way in which our experiences contrast is that Trunk describes books as calling-cards, as a way of introducing to the public who you are and what services you have to offer. Now, this is totally in keeping with the Tom Peters “Brand of Me” way of seeing the world, and I had professors at Wharton who talked about how their books were really just ways of attracting clients, so clearly there are authors who either genuinely feel that a book can play this role, or see reasons to talk about it this way. For me, though, writing this book has been pretty transformative, and I have a hard time imagining starting something this hard with the assumption that there won’t be a big personal payout at the end.

it’s about ME! via flickr

I’m probably going to experiment with some digital self-publishing in the coming year, though I wouldn’t call what I’m going to create electronic books– more like electronic pamphleteering, or digital broadsheeting. A “book” feels like a different proposition than a highly illustrated, expanded version of a talk. Indeed, it’s not just a different proposition, but a promise to readers that the object they’re getting has been through a more rigorous kind of review and publishing process.

bytes, via flickr

Indeed, the only way I would self-publish a “book” would be if I could hire editorial talent as strong as Zoë and John, and I’m not sure I’d want to take on the risk of investing that much in a book. It’s possible that I could find equivalent talent in the freelance editorial market, but I quite like the idea that lots of other people at Little, Brown share the risk with me, and have an incentive to help the book be a success.

Just as important, I don’t want my relationship with an editor to become more transactional. As John Kay recently pointed out, the financial services industry worked best for investors and companies when it was more trust-based; in today’s world of super-fast transactions and massive bets, there’s less interest in building trust, because you tend to assume that you’ll be rich and retired within a couple years. I don’t need intellectual relationships that are more transactional. Indeed, I think those two things are polar opposites. Frictionless, transactional relationships are mindless (in Ellen Langer’s use of the term), and can just as easily succeed as win-lose games; meaningful relationships involve trust and struggle, and only succeed when both parties succeed.

stay, via flickr

I see tremendous benefit in having a team of people who are invested in your victory, like Team Sky was invested in Wiggins’ taking home the yellow jersey. If all you’re doing is a straight-on transaction, something you know how to do and really can do on your own, then maybe the self-publishing model works; but the way I write books requires a team.

Second reflections on writing

A while ago I wrote a piece about writing for the trades. As someone who’d written for academic audiences, and for corporate and government clients, it was interesting to take on the challenge of writing a book for a popular audience.

I just finished the first draft of the manuscript– as in, sent it off to my editor and agent a couple hours ago– and while it’s all still fresh, thought I’d spend a little more time on what I’ve learned about writing.

via flickr

The single most important thing is, be organized. The reason I was able to write this draft in a year was that I started the process with  a strong, well-organized outline– an outline that I took very seriously, because it was the basis of my book contract. So that short-circuited all that screwing around you do trying to find the perfect structure. I had one that the publisher liked, and so I was damn well going to stick with it.

Then on a daily basis, this means: organizing your goals for the week, listing out the sections you’re going to write, and generally spending as much time as you need to be clear about what you’re going to write– so long as you actually write it. There’s always the danger that this kind of prep becomes a substitute for actual word production. Watch out for that.

It also meant always setting up the coffee the night before, and organizing your workspace before bed so you could just sit down and be ready to go.

These are little things, but they make tangible your commitment to the project.

Baylands, Thanksgiving
via flickr

Another is to seek solitude. Turn on Freedom, or LeechBlock, or whatever. Put on the headphones. Before they exist on paper, good words live in a very quiet space, that you can only really reach in solitude. Of course you need to share your work in writing groups, with editors, and (you hope) a very big public. But in order to have ideas good enough to share, you need to seal yourself from everything but the words.

It’s like how monastics describe the role of silence in contemplation of the divine. A common theme in monastic practice is that you cannot hear the voice of God, or achieve Enlightenment or satori, or see the ultimate truth, until your soul is quiet and ready. God does not make himself heard over the din. You have to listen for Him.


Another thing that I found really helpful was to stop for the day in mid-thought, or with one more sentence in the paragraph. It had to be something I knew I wouldn’t forget, but having that as the first thing I did the next morning really helped me get started. The beginning is always the hardest part, and so if you can make the start of each writing day easier by actually knowing exactly what you’re going to say, you’ll make your life easier.

via flickr

I now think that after years of writing, there’s a more direct connection between whatever parts of my mind generate good ideas, and the part of my mind that controls my hands. There’s a relationship between the physical act of writing and the “mental” act of creating that is not merely linear: I don’t have ideas and then write them down. I have ideas because I am writing.

So it’s absolutely essential that I spend time at the keyboard.

Cafe dog
via flickr

And I needed something to make it easier, because I was getting up in the pre-dawn hours and writing for an hour or two before anyone else woke up. (Even the dog stayed asleep and didn’t follow me out to the living room.) I am absolutely NOT a morning person, but it made a big difference to have that time to myself, and to write in a state where I was actually to tired to distract myself. My semi-conscious brain was better able to stay on target, and whatever good ideas were bubbling up from my subconscious had an easier time reaching the calmer surface of my mind.

Getting Started
via flickr

This was a complete change from the way I normally write and live. I’m naturally a late sleeper, and so it took real will for me to get up early. But it really did work. I was actually taken by surprise. I figured that having some words under my belt before I took the kids to school would be a psychological boost. What I didn’t expect was that the very early morning would actually be a good time to write. But it turns out it was. Everyone should experiment with writing on a different schedule, or in a different way, to see if there are things that work better for them.

Thus endeth the lesson. For now.

“I’ll never, ever accept the idea that triviality, mediocrity, and futility are appropriate goals for any human being”

Umair Haque has been hanging out in hip New York hotels,

overhearing more than my fair share of Very Serious Conversations* from the movers and shakers of the world.

And boy, have they been tedious.

Haque uses this as a jumping-off point to talk about the “lethally serious” work of “doing stuff that actually matters.” He suggests three criteria:

Does it stand the test of time? Ponder this for a moment: the vast majority spend the vast majority of our lives sweating, suffering, and slogging mightily over stuff that’s forgotten by next quarter, let alone next year or next century. Call me crazy, but I’d suggest: mattering means building stuff that’s awesome enough to last…. Of course, all that really means is that since nearly everyone seems to suck at standing the test of time, you’ve got a tremendous opportunity not to.

Does it stand the test of excellence?… Mattering means recognizing that everyone’s opinion is not created equal — some count more than others, for the simple reason that some opinions are more nuanced, educated, sophisticated, historically grounded, and self-aware than others.

Does it stand the test of you?…. It’s one thing to work on stuff that seems sexy because it’s socially cool and financially rewarding. But fulfillment doesn’t come much from money or cool-power — all the money in the world can’t buy you a searing sense of accomplishment.

And I love this conclusion:

Being human is never easy. But that’s the point. Perhaps as an unintended consequence of our relentless quest for more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now, we’ve comfortably acceded to something akin to a minor-league contempt for the richness and grandeur of life unquenchably meaningfully well lived. Hence, call this post my tiny statement of rebellion. Hex me with all the bland management jargon in the world, zap me with all the perfect theories and models you like, but I’ll never, ever accept the idea that triviality, mediocrity, and futility are appropriate goals for any human being, much less our grand, splintering systems of human organization.

* I love how Very Serious Conversations, or “Very Serious [insert thing here]” is evolving into an insult. When those two words appear together in a Paul Krugman piece, you know the big guns are being trained on a new target.

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