How to Kick Ass This Christmas

Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gimmeahug/4209857179/sizes/m/in/photostream/There’s a scene in Jurassic Park (which is my all-time favorite movie btw, sooo awesome) where the owner of the park, John Hammond, gives a tour of the velociraptor pen to a bunch of visitors. You don’t actually get to see the raptors – they’re hidden by thick foliage – but you do see a poor cow, strapped to a harness, slowly being lowered into the pen.

And then you see the thick foliage shaking vigorously, and hear the distressed cries of the dying cow over the unearthly shrieks of the raptors and watch the horrified looks of the visitors, and then… silence. The harness is extracted from the pen and you realize that it’s reduced to tattered little pieces of cloth.

Jurassic Mall

That’s kind of like what the mall was like yesterday. I went down to Raffles City to meet a friend for dinner, and for a moment I thought I was in the wrong place because it literally looked like feeding time at Jurassic Park. First, the place looked like it got hit by a meteor. There was stuff everywhere, and hordes of panicked crowds running around. Ryan from MoneySmart tells us that this is actually a devious psychological tactic to get us to buy more. (“Messy” is usually associated with “cheap”, even though the actual price will probably be your first-born child)

Then there were all these macho dudes all wandering into jewelry and bag shops looking slightly dazed, trying to figure out what to get for their girlfriends. One by one, they were picked off by sly-looking salespeople circling them like sharks before convincing them to buy another overpriced bag/necklace/diamond ring.

And there were the ubiquitous Christmas carols like, everywhere. Now don’t get me wrong – I love carols – but it gets really trying when you hear a pseudo-jazz band butcher Jingle Bell Rock for the 273rd time. Nobody else seemed to mind because they were too busy climbing over each other to claw their way to the sale rack at Robinson’s. They made the Jurassic Park velociraptors look like a bunch of fluffy little bunnies.

Have Yourself a Merry Overconsumerist Christmas

Christmas used to be awesome, dude. It used to be so full of anticipation and magic and laughter and joy. But those damn malls crept into the place where they store the Christmas love and decided to destroy the crap out of it. They taught us that we don’t need love and joy during Christmas; what we need is an iPad so we can play Angry Birds on a wide screen at home instead of spending time with our families.

The problem, as blogger Johnny B Truant points out, is that Christmas has become about forced consumerism, where we kid each other into buying things that none of us would normally bother to get for ourselves. Like I shower all year round with a $10 bottle of shower gel, I don’t actually need that $70 Body Shop gift pack consisting of Shea Shower Cream, Body Scrub and Beautifying Oil, topped off with an Ultra Fine Lily (what the heck is an “Ultra Fine Lily” anyway?).

And then I’ve got to reciprocate and risk my life battling the Jungles of Orchard Road to get you an ugly tie that you will probably never wear, except maybe at your funeral.

The Best Things In Life Are Free

But dude, I hear you say, it’s the thought that counts.

But as Truant mentions in the same blogpost, if it’s the thought that’s so important, why do we have to spend a whole bunch of money to buy stuff? That isn’t thinking, it’s buying.

The stuff that I love most comes really cheap, or absolutely free. Like lunch with good company (we can split the bill). Or watching old movies in bed. Or playing Taboo while drinking cheap beer and eating Red Rock Deli chips. Or a chillaxed Saturday morning run. Or a $4 iPhone case. Or helping to repost or retweet my blogposts if you’ve found them useful. 🙂

Love from friends and family, comfort food, and the satisfaction of knowing I’ve helped you out in some tiny way. That’s really all I need, and it wouldn’t change even if I had a million bucks.

How to Celebrate Christmas, FaReals

1. Let’s forget the malls and the stores this year, and the obligatory Secret Santa game where everyone gets weird generic gifts. Instead, use the money and throw your family/friends an awesome dinner party, a potluck, or a games night (copious amounts of alcohol optional, but definitely recommended).

2. Do something that you’ve never done before. My girlfriend couldn’t think of anything she wanted this year, so I’m offering to cook her dinner (which is a helluva big deal to me because I never cook. Hey, stop judging, I gotta start somewhere.)

Okay that’s just the basic – I’m sure some of you are already awesome like that. But if you really want to step it up this year…

1. Talk to your friends and family, or send out an email or a Facebook post. Tell them not to give you any gifts, but instead donate they money they would have spent to a cause you support like Project: Flight. (Started by fellow Penn alum Albert Pak!)

2. Do something awesome and make it fun. Today, I heard about a kid who spent $600 bucks buying ice cream for foreign workers in Singapore who might be spending Christmas away from their families. And how awesome is it to be Ice Cream-Giving Santa Dude for a day?

Your awesome project doesn’t even have to involve moolah – you could do something entirely silly like Improv Everywhere’s High Five Escalator. It’s not going to change the world, but at least you’ll be giving people a little sliver of happiness, which is what Christmas is really all about. 🙂

Think about it, and go DO it. Merry Christmas everyone!

Collaboration – How to Do It Right

The New York Times had an excellent article entitled “The Rise of the New Groupthink” a couple of days ago, which pretty much slammed the idea of physical collaboration – or rather, an over-emphasis on it in our offices, our schools, our working spaces, and our friggin’ lives.

I think they’re on to something here. Do you remember the last time you stepped into one of those ridiculous “brainstorming” sessions where you’re stuck in a room with people throwing out unimaginative ideas, rehashing old ones, and managers criticizing every aspect of them? Or worse, one of those “collaborative” meetings that turn into 50 people deciding which words should go into a stupid document? It’s enough to make me wanna stand on the conference table, and pee on everyone’s notebooks. Most collaborative sessions at the workplace are total bullshit sessions, where no one takes ownership of the ideas brought up, and everyone’s perspectives get polarized towards the most vocal person’s (usually the manager) opinion. Need further proof? Name one game-changing invention/idea that was a result of a “brainstorming” session. That’s right.. there are none.

It’s clear that putting everyone into a room and forcing them to innovate is a terrible idea. People have different styles of working – what’s the off-chance that the 30 people in the room all decide to become creative at the same time? It’s just not gonna happen.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Yet… there is hope for true collaborative work. James Surowiecki wrote an awesome book titled The Wisdom of Crowds with the following hypothesis: That large, diverse groups of people are infinitely smarter than any singular person in the group. One example: In 1968, the US submarine Scorpion disappeared somewhere in the North Atlantic. No one knew what happened to it, or how far it had traveled since it last made radio contact. A particular naval officer assembled a team of men with a wide range of knowledge: mathematicians, submarine specialists, salvage men, etc. Instead of asking them to consult each other and “brainstorm”, he asked each one to offer his best guess about what had happened to the submarine. Using a formula called Bayes’s Theorem, the officer found a collective estimate of where the group thought the submarine was. Five months later, a navy ship found the Scorpion – 220 yards from where the group had said it would be.

The internet has brought the effectiveness of collaboration into new levels – there are now fake “stock exchanges” where you can bet on which Hollywood star will win an Academy Award. The market sentiment site Piqqem lets traders vote on which stocks are likely to rise, giving you the opinions of “the crowd” on thousands of stocks. These, and other “crowdsourcing” sites, have proven to be deadly accurate. Open-source software like Linux can rival, or sometimes beat, traditional operating systems. Collaboration works, but it’s got to fulfill two criteria: diversity and independence. The internet automatically fulfills these two criteria – a diverse group of people, shielded by their computer screens, independently volunteering their own ideas to the whole. Contrast this with the practice of putting a bunch of people who’ve been brainwashed by the same departmental mindsets in the same room. Or putting a bunch of passive executives with no opinions of their own together with an overbearing manager who’s going to control the decisions made.

Some people may be skeptical of my recommendation of doing one thing at a time, with no distractions, no sourcing for opinions, no asking for permission, nothing. My view is that this is actually the BEST way of getting your share of the work done. Sure, you could talk to people to get their ideas and criticisms, but in terms of doing actual, real work, and actually creating something, I believe that people perform their best when they’re left alone. Once you’ve done your part, if a collaborative decision is required to improve it, submit it using one of the many collaboration tools like BaseCamp to get feedback and buy-in. Or schedule a meeting with a definite, fixed agenda, no longer than an hour, to say: “Okay, this is the idea, tell me what’s awesome about it, and what sucks.” (so much better than “ummmm okay.. so we have this problem… what shall we do about it?) I think that if we actually operate this way, things would get done so much faster, and we’d be able to generate way better results.

Collaborative Ideas

Since we’re on this topic – excuse me for writing a particularly long post but I might as well slip this one in – do the companies you work for have one of those lame “submit an idea” schemes where anyone is allowed to submit an idea, any idea, and it goes through a series of facilitators and evaluators who decide if it’s a stupid idea or something that warrants a reward? Personally, I think it’s a terrible scheme. Let me tell you what most evaluators will think once they read the first sentence of the submitted idea: “OMG NOT ANOTHER ONE OF THESE MORONS. I’ve received 10,000 of these ideas this month already, and I have to clear my already full inbox. REJECT” No one looks at the idea, no one considers it, and no one has any incentive to give good quality ideas. And yet, companies reward the submission of these dumb ideas as “yay! People are submitting ideas! We’re an innovative company! Lovepeacehugzandkisses”

Instead of it being purely a numbers game, why not make it a stock market? Have people submit their ideas as “stocks”. Everyone then has a certain amount of “cash” that they can bet on a particular idea. Once an idea stock gets enough cash votes, it rises. And companies just have to pick the top 5 (or 10 or 20) ideas to implement every quarter. And then you reward the people who voted for the winning ideas. And I’ll bet that if you let people independently vote on these ideas, the top 5 are going to be of awesome quality. Having just 5 high-quality ideas per quarter is way better than having 1,000 dumb-ass ideas. Again, collaboration works, it’s just a matter of how we do it.

Okay, so unless you’re in charge of your company’s innovation policy, you’re unlikely to be able to do anything much here. Except maybe annoy your bosses with this idea, as I have. But you can choose to reject going to dumb brainstorming sessions. If a meeting ends up becoming one where you’re all crafting a document together, you can excuse yourself from it. Then disappear to somewhere quiet, get some real work done, and then come back and do collaboration right.

Here’s to creating innovation at our workplaces, and eliminating one useless brainstorming session at a time!