TEDx – Behind the Schemes

My TEDx is done…

Perhaps short for ‘Tom’s Exhausting Diary’, or ‘Tom’s Extreme Dichotomy’, the latter encapsulating the hypocrisy felt giving a talk on simplicity whilst living an entirely complex life during the process.

Plus ca change.

Hopefully my outfit and, of course, the talk itself will help further explain how I feel and what I learned from the process…  this photo was taken a few buttock clenching seconds before going on stage. I look calm. I am not. That’s a pretty normal state of affairs for me. Many people have commented on how generally chilled out I appear to be…

Don’t be fooled. The last month or two have seen many sleepless nights. If I look younger than I am, my picture in the attic is heavily wrinkled.

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A wise person I met a few weeks ago told me he never really understands something properly until he’s written about it. Too true. There’s a catharsis and comprehension that comes from taking the time to reflect on significant events, hence this post.

This talk couldn’t have come at a worse time for me – I was forced to write my ‘talk proposal’ during the only holiday I’d found time for this year. Spending precious moments on Vancouver Island holed up in cafes on my laptop rather than enjoying the place and time with my traveling companion.

I accepted the opportunity to do a TEDx for a few reasons. Firstly, I knew that like writing, it would force me to consolidate my thoughts. I’ve now been blogging for years and yet still am unsure as to where I’ve got to. I knew the TEDx would force me to crystallise some of these down to 12 minutes or 1500 words… to focus. Secondly, I’m terrified of public speaking, so this was a huge personal challenge, one that had sat on my bucket list for a few years. Why we put ridiculous, uncomfortable challenges on our bucket lists is also something I deal with in the talk – but I can summarise neatly in 4.5 words here – because we’re dumb.

Then, just in case I wasn’t cramming more shiny goals in to my magpie like mouth, I offered to live in a tent in rural Somerset for a month prior to the talk, as well as doing another talk at Bristol University in preparation. Double, triple dumb.

Which all would have been fine if I was a insomniac retiree, but I’ve also knew going into this that I was about to start fundraising for my business. Something that requires singleminded focus. Quadruple dumb, squared.

A TEDx talk takes A LOT of time. It was an intense few months grappling with ideas, cutting, editing, asking wonderful friends to look at the proposal and making further changes and so on.

Couple all of this with pitches to investors in boardrooms, negotiations, intense meetings and then finish the day with a trudge across a boggy field into a tent and you’ve got a highly chaotic, not-simple life.

So… What did I learn? What have I understood?

I don’t want this to be a spoiler, but there are a few thoughts I want to capture whilst they’re still fresh, as well as some of the 13,500 words and some that didn’t make it into the final cut… In no particular order:

– Nature, the outside and real life is only a put down screen and a front door away. My previous post, I hope, captures some of that wonder (https://simpletom.co.uk/2015/11/05/wood-you/). Adventures are easy to have, even if you’re at work in your normal life. At any time you could camp out for a night, or walk a different route home. Climb a wall, tree or hill. Sounds simple, I hardly ever do them.

– The more I immersed myself in the process of watching others’ behaviour, particularly with smart phones, the madder and madder the world seemed. 90% of a train platforms and whole cities filled with people staring into and relying on their devices, without even realising they’re doing it. Leave someone 10s alone and the majority will pick up a device. The damage this is doing to our psyches must be terrible. Almost everyone recognises this, but very few people do anything about it.

– We chase unrealistic, unreachable and unhealthy goals all the time, at the expense of our own happiness. People don’t know what makes them happy. We have no idea where we’re headed or why we do many of the things we do.

– Most people care more about the rewards of their work than the content.

What next… for me, a bit less. Some focus.

Perhaps a camper van to enable me to access the countryside more regularly. More of the same, I hope without quite so many of the rough edges and hypocrisy…

It’s OK

Hmmm…

I am currently here, but I’m about to move back to San Francisco whilst wanting to settle here, where I’m trying to to buy a house.

Well done Simpletom… you’re managing, quite dedicatedly, to ignore all of your own advice.

Over the next few months I will immerse myself and my business in 500 Startups, a prestigious ‘accelerator’ programme for tech startups. So, I’m about to embark upon an extremely intense few months whilst also trying to remember this and this. It’s going to be a whirlwind where a certain amount of schizophrenia will inevitably occur. But as my wise sister often says, with perhaps one the simplest adages for repelling self-doubt:

“It’s OK”.

Edward De Bono in his book Simplicity suggests 10 rules for simplicity. The first is ‘you need to put a very high value on simplicity’. The second, ‘you must be determined to seek simplicity’. This is valuable advice for the simplicity-seeker. Simplicity is not easy, nor does life unfurl the way you want it to.

I could chastise myself for putting myself in this, another situation where the simplicity I seek will be harder to maintain. I could wind myself up with concern, or frustration. But, actually, it’s OK.

Last time I was in San Francisco, I had dinner with an old friend who’s now raised close to $20m for his tech venture. He was philosophical (unsurprisingly, given he has an All Souls Fellowship in Philosophy – the ‘hardest exam in the world’) about running a tech venture and whether it will succeed or fail, reminding me what a privilege it is to be in this position. In fact, a couple of the most dogged, determined entrepreneurs I know seemed to have softened slightly and become more at one with the idea that, whatever the outcome, it’s OK. I don’t want to get too ‘Cynical Valley’, before I’ve even started.

So, here I come. It’ll be OK.

Though regular readers will be pleased to know that I’m not going completely native. There’s still a bit of a tree hugger/determined-simple-seeker/adventurer at heart, given I’ve just rented one of these, which will be my home until Christmas. Car parks of Silicon Valley watch out.

I’ll try to keep you updated on my progress as a technological entrepreneur vagabond.

Let’s hope, for the sake of my new colleagues, I can find somewhere to shower each morning… or I’ll have to rebrand myself SimplePong.  But I scents that it’s going to be OK too (sorry).

Real Apple

I am running, or at least starting, a technology business. Which means I’m trying to stay abreast of the technological ‘news’, if you can call it that.

These last weeks, highly respected tweeters have chastised Apple for their ‘terrible’ new maps. The iPhone 5 has received record orders/sales and shares have increased over $700 a bite. Samsung has lost a patent case.

What a load of useless, superfluous crap.

You’ve all already got a small device that sits in your pocket enables you hear the voice of someone on the other side of the globe. (The reception in my house in Kenya is better than it is in San Francisco). It can take photos, play thousands of hours of music and connect to the web. That’s absolutely AMAZING. I’m writing this on an iPad a mile in the sky, traveling at ~500 miles an hour. Hold the headlines.

Yet we’re so concerned with the next thing that we don’t for a second appreciate what we have.

Who gives a shit if the maps aren’t quite as good, or if it’s a bit thinner, or that it could, hypothetically, connect to 4G if they can be bothered to get that working too?

If anything we should all connect less.

I have, for my sins in the eyes of these commentators, an iPhone 1, still gong strong. With NO internet on it. That means unlike 90% of the population I am unable to fill every spare 10 seconds with an email or a tweet. I prefer it that way. It gives me rare moments to think, to look, to BE.

How many of these latest things… the apps, the games, the new features, actually make a shred of difference to our lives? Is much of it actually negative?

When do we say, “I’ve enough?”.

Dont get me wrong. Phones, connectivity and innovation DO good.

I’d argue that mobile phones have done more for sub-saharan African development than decades  of well-meaning aid.

At 3Desk, I’d like to help build (when we’ve cracked the UK/US market) technology that helps people in the massive informal labour economies of the developing world find work more quickly and easily. We’d like to make the global labour market more liquid.

That would be important, and fun.

Yet my good friend and old business partner Al Harris reminded people this week that whilst the largest Arctic melt EVER recorded was occurring the BBC, even, was far more concerned with a Princesses’s nipples. Nipples, for fuck sake… who cares, like smartphones, weve all got them. I’d suspect yours work just fine.

The news, technology news especially, seems only concerned with whats new (I guess the clue is in the name) and not what’s important. We desperately need to filter and ignore the pieces of information that use up our valuable attention.

Even the ‘important’ news. Syria. The Presedential Election. Japan and China. How much of it is actually useful to you and me in our daily lives? I’m not suggesting it’s not life-changing, critical, for those involved. But for the home-counties-kitchen-table-banging white male who’s never been to any of these countries – wouldn’t it be better to pay more attention to their wives, their children, their local community and their own lives?

The Internet is a wonderful thing, helping cultures understand each other and transparency. But where do we stop?

Let’s focus on technology that makes a positive difference. Ignore superfluous news, even if it has the lure of scandal or celebrity.

Try to ignore the marketeers pull. Don’t be a consumer, of news or goods without understanding the cost to your life and the drag on your time and your attention.

Spend less time online and more time doing amazing things with the people you love.

Be present. Switch off in order to tune in.

Remind yourself that for all the camping outside of technology stores, the products don’t even and probably will never ever come close to the wonder of the human eye, the brain, the nervous system, the rustle of the wind through the trees, or a real apple.

Some of the most beautiful technology has been around for a while. Try finding someone who can build this today.

A PhD in Twitter

I did this interview Bill Lampos for 3Desk. It wasn’t really meant for Simpletom, but I loved the way Bill was honest and modest and seemed to embody simplicity, so I thought I’d share (shortened to be more applicable here) 

http://www.lampos.net/ 

Tom (@brightgreen): you were very clever/lucky (delete as appropriate) to choose Twitter, back before it was wildly popular on which to base your thesis. What made/makes it so interesting?

Bill (@lampos) Social Media offers another way of looking at our society. My research investigated methods for mining information about events in the real world, based on Twitter data – shedding new perspective on important trends. Of course, I also use Twitter or Facebook as tools for various aspects of my personal online entertainment and socialising, in general but I’m not sure that’s as new, or interesting.

Social media enables a unique new form of analysis – allowing us to watch and learn from the spread of information in real-time. To me, that’s way more exciting than seeing photos of my friends’ holidays, love them as I do.

@brightgreenWhat can we do now as a society that we couldn’t without Twitter?

@lampos This is an interesting question because – in my opinion – there are two answers.

The first one encapsulates the great impact that Twitter has in timely information spread, not only events related to entertainment (such as sport or artistic occurrences), but more importantly the sudden social political bursts such as the Arab Spring, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, or for me the situation unfurling in Greece. By sharing information quickly among such a diverse set of nations, Twitter has brought people closer, creating a togetherness or sense of unity. For example, before the Twitter era, it would have been hard for me to find trusted information about troubled regions around the globe, such as Syria, Bahrain or Egypt. Perhaps more importantly I didn’t care so much. I can now follow and better understand things on an international level as well as helping create greater bonds on a national level.

On the flip side, we should not ignore the silent issue – that society is also being ‘restricted’ by the existence of Social Media such as Twitter, especially in terms of social expression and psychical interaction, as well as the increasing concerns about the possible violations on user privacy.

@brightgreen You’ve probably spent more time analyzing Twitter than anyone outside of Twitter towers. Tell us a couple of things you’ve learnt that most users won’t have realized.

@lampos At the moment, there are many research groups working to analyze Social Media in various ways; several interdisciplinary projects are funded by the European Union. This not only proves the importance of the content published on the Social Web, but also reveals that there are many people who have been analyzing it for research purposes; I am just one of them.

Twitter is not about ‘you’ or the individual, despite the way many people interact with it. Twitter harnesses the interests of a variety of people – it is about that interaction, the communication between people rather than the people themselves.

Tweets should be well timed – usually this reflects an event happening in real time – and to be well articulated (which comes with practice and talent) and address the right audience.

Usually, Twitter users construct a persona, a character through their messages. This character should be well defined and stable as it quite often is the main reason that attracted followers on the first place.

Those are just some general hints; if you ask me, I’d rather be more spontaneous than imposing strategies and rules on my tweets. I have observed that my Twitter messages are well accepted when I am emotional.

@brightgreen What next for you?

@lampos I will further my research on Social Media by doing a post-doc as part of an EU funded project. Our aim in this project is to use Twitter as well as other web sources to investigate trends related to socio-political opinion or financial indicators.

@brightgreen What do people continue to get wrong when using Twitter?

@lampos Twitter is not Facebook; many users get confused about this. As a rule of thumb, their messages – which by default are visible to everyone – should not be about their ‘common’ everyday activities, unless the latter fit in a more general purpose or are amusing.

Twitter is not a platform for lengthy conversations or chatting. It is also quite straightforward to unfollow somebody; un-friending in Facebook might be taken as a personal insult. That gives the Tweeter the power to refine what and who they follow – not enough people use that power.

@brightgreen What matters more: who follows you or how many followers you have?

@lampos It depends on the purpose of each Twitter account. If one desires to disseminate information to a big set of recipients, then increased values on both those features will help. Alternatively, if you want to be seen as a potentially interesting account to follow, then proof for this may be provided by having ‘prestigious’ followers as well as having a small followers to followees ratio (say lower than .5). Note that it is easy to increase the number of followers by exploiting the ‘follow-back’ behavior of Twitter users. Consequently, an increased amount of followers alone does not say much about a person’s Twitter account.

@brightgreen You studied the spread of flu using Twitter, can you sum up your thesis in a few sentences?

@lampos ‘Nowcasting’ flu rates was just one case study (http://geopatterns.enm.bris.ac.uk/epidemics/). In a sentence, one finding of my Ph.D. states that we can use content from the Social Media to track the occurrence and magnitude of several types of events emerging in the real world. It is also interesting that, based on Twitter content, we are in the position to investigate socio-political patterns. Here’s something I put together which measures ‘the mood of the nation’ (http://geopatterns.enm.bris.ac.uk/mood/).

@brightgreen It’s also proving useful for understanding what’s going on back in your home country, Greece – how do you follow movements there?

@lampos During the past year, I have found a set of people, who are mainly based in Greece, with similar beliefs to mine. Most of them have an active participation in all socio-political events and usually tweet about it. There is also a famous independent citizen journalism effort initiated by radiobubble.gr; people, who support this initiative, tweet real-time news using the hashtag #rbnews. Established news outlets such as The Guardian or Al Jazeera have quite often referred to it.

@brightgreen What’s the best thing Twitter has achieved?

@lampos I think that Twitter ‘addicts’ or specialists will come up with various answers to this question; ‘best’ is always a matter of perspective.

One great achievement of Twitter is, as I mentioned, creating a foundation of a togetherness among people on an international level. After using Twitter for some time now, I feel closer to people in the US, Australia, Egypt and so on, as I get to see, in practice, that we approach the world in a very similar manner. It helps to narrow social, ethnic and cultural divides.

Twitter assists the timely and uncensored dissemination of significant events; this platform promotes citizen journalism. To an extent, Twitter also forces citizen journalists to undertake their ‘hobby’ with more professionalism and in a much more thoughtful manner.

Professional media has also benefited from information sharing on Twitter since their employees cannot physically be everywhere. I was surprised when a journalist from BBC contacted me on Twitter to ask about the current situation in Greece (during one of the riots) because I was translating into English messages from people on location.

In terms of research, Twitter content enables a diverge set of experiments for various scientific disciplines (such as Artificial Intelligence, Sociology or even Psychiatry) to be conducted on large-scale amounts of data, something that was impossible in the past.

@brightgreen What’s your perfect job? Where’s your favourite (or third) desk?

@lampos There is no such thing as a perfect job. Having said that, I enjoy to work on something not because it may be supported by a good salary, but because I really like and find it interesting. Obsession usually defines perfection for me; I know this is unhealthy. However, as I grow older, I try to reduce this egoistic perspective to the extent possible; I am trying to pursue activities that in the future might benefit others as well. I think that 3Desk is a timely idea, helping people connect with work that doesn’t tie them to a permanent role – especially as the workforce is becoming more fluid through the utilisation of smart technology.

My favourite desk could be anything located anywhere; the only constraint is having ‘beautiful’ people around it and a decent amount of desk space.

The New Scheme – 3Desk

I’ve been working on a new business for a while now – it’s just birthing as I write this (www.3desk.com). Here’s the first blog post, which explains why and hopefully ties back to simplicity:

It’s rather strange that in the interconnected, multicultural, permeable world in which we live, most companies have permanent employees and most people a job with a single company.

Employees tend to work full-time – often in a single location, with a set team usually chosen by others and salary that mostly changes yearly and incrementally. The corporate ‘culture’ is often dictated, projects pre-determined, set holiday allowances given and rules and regulations created to enable the managers to manage.

Those lucky enough to be able to choose their employers tend to make their decisions on the basis of a combination of factors that make certain organisations more attractive than others.

Yet employees still work for ‘a’ company with all of its quirks and features. People can spend years in atmospheres which, left to their own devices, they would never have designed themselves. There is often a disconnection between someone’s desires and what they are forced to accept and yet many of us spend most of our waking hours within this system.

Savvy investors would never invest all their savings into one stock and yet the norm is to work for one company.

Try to get a mortgage as a successful freelancer with multiple sources of revenue and it’s highly likely that you’ll find the bank less willing to lend you money than if you’re employed by one company. Which, given you’ve got more sources of income, surely is less risky?

People are either in, or they’re out. Employed or unemployed.

At least that’s how it’s been and is… mostly.

Given the recession, technological advances and mobility, things are changing. A recent article stated that as many as 35% of the US workforce will be freelancing in the next 10 years.

I’ve just picked up a book by Linkedin founder Reid Hoffman, called ‘The Start Up of You‘. It’s a manifesto to self-reliance and becoming more entrepreneurial about work as more and more of us turn to ‘portfolio’ careers.

In the ‘further reading’ section of the book, ‘Free Agent Nation‘ is the first book mentioned – a book ahead of its time, which promotes being a ‘free agent’, another way of describing a freelancer, or contractor.

The employment landscape is shifting. With online freelance marketplaces, like Elance and Odesk, more and more people are able to work remotely, choosing their projects.

However, there are many more freelancers who work face-to-face across the globe, from contractors on building sites to those working for the UN in refugee camps, to designers of high-end technology.

At 3Desk, we believe that the future of work will be freer, more flexible. People will be ‘agents’ rather than employees. We’d love for people to be able to have more choice.

Imagine a liquid market for talent, in which someone knows their value. A market in which people choose who they work for, when they work and for how much.

Our dream is that in 20 years, the Harvard MBA graduation class will predominantly choose to freelance because of the advantages that this brings – like taking time off when they want to, work with people they liked, setting their terms or choosing a 3-day week to spend time with their kids because they can earn enough that way.

Sure, there are advantages to the safety net that a company provides and the hassle that is removed through collecting people to together for a singular goal. We’re not extolling the removal of organizations, but instead making them more porous.

Imagine employers being able to choose the talent they need as and when they need it. Instead of bringing in a big consulting firm to work on a project, what if they were able to select the best 12 people in the market, who’ve worked together before on other projects and have chosen one another. Imagine hiring them directly for their skills, without having to pay for the centre-of-town offices, marble receptions and other costs associated with creating a ‘consulting brand’, which really is a way of trying to collect the greatest talent ‘within’ a business, because that’s ‘how it’s done’.

Imagine if the unemployed could find pieces of work in their neighbourhoods, to help bring in small pieces of income and reduce the feeling that a full-time job is the only way.

Although a long way off, that’s why we started 3Desk – because we believe that both employers and employees want more security AND more flexibility – and it is only through creating a liquid marketplace, where people understand their true value, that they are able to work the way they want to.

It’s early days, but in time we’d love to try to help people feel that being an independent agent had all of the benefits of a full-time job, with less of the negatives – as well as reducing the loneliness, or problems that being an independent currently causes – from pensions and benefits, to ensuring people feel part of something bigger than themselves.

Tech Startups and Simplicity

Over the last few months, I’ve immersed myself in the world of the internet startup, funny little world that it is (to many within, it is there whole universe – please remind me of this as I delve deeper into the labyrinth).

Never has so much money and time been spent on so many lines of code that to most of us, make absolutely no sense at all.

Those that win, win big and fast – creating young billionaires/millionaires. But like every ‘hot’ market, the higher-profile-characters are a lucky few – many, many more toil unhealthy hours in the pursuit of e-recognition and riches.

There are obvious challenges to the simplicity-seeker here, for example:

– The reduction of in-person interaction, relying instead on the virtual

– An unhealthy desire for riches which, when obtained quickly, result in a lottery-win style appreciation and mass envy even though there is evidence of little contribution to overall happiness and some rather outrageous spending habits

– Building technology to solve problems that before we built all this technology weren’t problems – solutions layered on problems, layered on solutions

– Waste – mind-boggling amounts of people working on algorithms and sites that serve no purpose initially or eventually – the Mary Celestes of the web, of which there are many millions more than there are Facebooks. Although in fairness, the same can be said of many other areas of life

– The work ethic, which seems to promote the ‘every-waking-hour-in-front-of-a-screen-is-the-only-way’ approach

Yet there are also some fascinating lessons for simplicity:

Today, simplicity rules when it comes to web startups – in design, user-experience, products and even methodology.

The advice of the moment is to build only what you need to – be lean, create only a minimum-viable product (MVP) before you launch. My favourite simplicity quote, ‘perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but nothing left to take away’ (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) is never more relevant than in the tech scene at the moment, where people are being encouraged to kill features, rather than add them and to make startups as simple as possible in order to test assumptions.

Entrepreneurs are being advised to run their businesses like a meditative mind – removing all unnecessary noise and focusing instead on the present moment.

Consumers too, are demanding simplicity in terms of user experience (UX) and some of the greatest successes are those that have enabled us to simplify.

Google – their home-page design is one of the simplest of the web (and the most popular)

Dropbox – as simple a file-sharing service as possible

Apple – a UX which works, is intuitive and has a simple elegance

This article, which I mentioned long ago in a similar post, talks about simplicity as a source of competitive advantage:

Technology is good. But my sense is that many people are developing it for all the wrong reasons in ways that are unhealthy and make little sense.

Over the coming months, perhaps years – if things go according to plan – I will be further immersing myself in this somewhat bizarre, much-feted world and, I hope, retaining an iota of my simplicity ideology and a balanced life.

Technology enables me to work almost without interruption from my house (although I write this from London) – the question is whether or not I’ll get there as often, whether I can build something that makes the world a little simpler and whether or not I can achieve a balance in my own life as I go.

Beautiful Technology