Harness the power of being an idiot

Dunce
Photo by K Macice

One of my favorite moments at SciFoo was Carole Goble coming up to me after my talk. As we chatted, she mentioned she was at Manchester University and I suddenly recognized her – she'd taught me databases for a semester. After reminiscing, she mentioned she was no longer teaching undergrads and with my usual tact I replied "That's probably for the best"! I truly meant it was a lucky escape for her, not the students, but it brought back my own abysmal academic career.

I achieved an overall average of 18% in the exams at the end of my first year of university. Thankfully Manchester allowed me to come back at the end of the summer to have another try, and after studying I managed to scrape together enough improvement to continue into the final two years.

I was a terrible academic and came within whisker of dropping out. Why did I fail then, and how have those same traits helped me later in life?

Try it and see – a bias towards action

I hated sitting in a room writing down what somebody else was telling me, I wanted to test everything for myself. I learn by trying to build something, there's no other way I can discover the devils-in-the-details. Unfortunately that's an incredibly inefficient way to gain knowledge. I basically wander around stepping on every rake in the grass, while the A Students memorize someone else's route and carefully pick their way across the lawn without incident. My only saving graces are that every now and again I discover a better path, and faced with a completely new lawn I have an instinct for where the rakes are.

This obsession with learning-by-building must have been pretty frustrating for the managers of a clueless junior programmer, but my successes have all come when I've just gone ahead and just did something instead of studying it. It's the only way to discover something new and unexpected, and even the failures build judgment.

Wildly unrealistic romantic visions

I never knew any college students growing up, but watching TV gave me a pretty firm grasp of the way it worked. I'd spend a few years punting along a river, have the occasional witty exchange with my tutor and regularly reveal an astonishing discovery to rapturous applause. The grim reality of being lost among thousands of anonymous students was a shock. With that dream dead, I married at 19 with rose-tinted visions of connubial bliss, which led to five stormy years and a divorce.

I was a complete idiot. I saw the world as I wanted it to be, not as it actually was. In the technology world 'visionary' is a compliment, but in real life people who see non-existent things usually wind up in a mental ward.

The thing is, every project I'm proud of started off as a crazy dream, from using MIDI controllers for film editing software to mapping hundreds of millions of Facebook users. The difference now is that they're seasoned with a connection to reality. What's so valuable about Customer Development is that it gives me tools to take a wild idea, and get enough feedback to hone it into something realistic, without losing the heart of what makes it so interesting.

Spinning plates

At SciFoo Eva Amsen talked about her interviews with scientist/musicians, asking them why they didn't focus on just the science or the music. Their reply was "Oh, that would be boring". Linda Stone gave her own angle from her research on how Nobel laureates played when they were kids – their 'work' was an extension of their childhood play patterns. I'm in no danger of getting a Nobel Prize, but I've always had multiple plates spinning, because I'm interested in so many areas and can't bear to give any up.

In college this meant staying up all night playing MUDs, stacking shelves at Kwik-Save evenings and weekends to support myself, building a version of Pacman for X Windows, and spending my summer in a treehouse in Alaska avoiding the bears. This was not a recipe for academic achievement to say the least, but it was exactly that sort of goofing off that got me a job at Apple.

I was grinding away at a game industry job, doing well but very unchallenged, so I started spending nights and weekends projecting visuals for live music at clubs and concerts. I couldn't find software that implemented the effects I needed, so I wrote my own and released them as open-source. A lot of the VJs who used them had day jobs in the TV industry, and they kept bugging me to port them to a piece of software I'd never used, "After Effects". I gave in eventually, put the AE versions on my site, and suddenly had a deluge of email, with lots of people asking how to pay for them! Apparently they were used to spending thousands of dollars for effects collections like mine!

I left my game job, started my own company, but before I'd got more than a few weeks into it I was approached by Apple, who offered to buy out my technology, sponsor me for a green card, and set me to work building the same sort of thing for their products.

Every new direction I've taken has started out like that, one of a hundred things I'm curious about.

It's not a bug, it's a feature

I have a lot of demons driving me. What's different between now and my college years is that I've arranged my life to channel them productively. Everything I've talked about would doom me to failure if I hadn't fought my way to a niche where they're strengths not weaknesses.

Don't change your bad habits – turn them into assets instead.

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