Archive for 2008

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The Tao of Cool, or Why Nerd Culture is a Myth

Posted on 27 December, 2008 at 12:14am with 4 comments


Homer: Maybe if you’re truly cool, you don’t need to be told you’re cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?

Do you remember the popular kids? You know, the people who sat at the best lunch table, wore the most fashionable clothes, and went to awesome parties? Objectively, there was nothing particularly special about this clique, but everyone understood that they were “cool.” Coolness was in fact their salient characteristic.

What I find interesting about being cool is that it’s simply not a label you can give yourself. In this context, cool means that everyone else thinks you’re cool. Think about what that does to the locus of control when it comes to coolness. The popular kids didn’t make themselves cool – it was the rest of the school who did.

(Once in a while, someone can define a new understanding of coolness, but only if they are not trying to be cool. It is one of the great paradoxes of human interaction.)

The thing is, this phenomenon does not just apply to cool. It applies to just about any feature or characteristic you can think of to define a group of people as different from others. You can be an emo, a goth, a slut, a jock, a dork, a hipster, or whatever else, without passing some objective test that shows you have the right set of qualities to earn the label. Those are labels other people give you based on their understanding of you and the world.

This is normal and I suspect mostly understood. We all do it; it helps us formulate our big-picture worldview without spending too much processing time on individuals that aren’t immediately relevant to us. The problem is when the label starts to mean something to you as an identity.

Let’s talk about the word “nerd.” Let’s just deal with that word for a second and think about what it means. I assume that most of the people reading this article are like me and probably think of themselves as nerds. I’m also going to assume they are reasonably internet-literate and have read their share of the incredibly common treatises on what it means to be a nerd and why we’re better than everyone else (especially if you read Reddit). Perhaps the most well-known of these is Rands’ Nerd Handbook. It’s actually quite well-written, and I personally have a lot of respect for the author. But I find this particular article condescending and counterproductive. It reads like a laundry list of excuses written for people who don’t “get” nerds.

Listen. Being a nerd is just like being cool. It’s an arbitrary label originally assigned to you or people like you because you act a certain way or have certain interests. If you encounter someone who doesn’t seem to “get” you, it’s not because they need a five-page article about what you’re about. It’s because they are interested enough in you to try to get past the label and interact with you on a level that’s deeper than just “nerd” or “not nerd.” Shoving them back over the line with a huff and a mumbled “it’s a nerd thing, you wouldn’t understand” is escapist or elitist, depending on your mood that day. Take your pick — the stereotypical nerd is both.

The cool kids aren’t fundamentally different than any other clique, and neither are nerds. Yet it seems as though we keeping trying to believe that we are. It’s stupid and just as bad as telling yourself that it’s okay to act the way you do because you’re “cool.”

Embrace what you are, but don’t use a label as an excuse to stop growing. Be a good person, whatever that means to you. There are enough walls and boundaries in this world without us trying to build them higher.


Confessions of a Gifted Ex-Child

Posted on 22 December, 2008 at 10:04pm with 22 comments

butterflyIf you grew up in the eighties or onward, you probably heard the term “gifted child” a lot. Maybe you even had it applied to you. Generally, all it meant was that you got to skip normal class once a week to go to a much more interesting and fun class. I was one of those kids. In Illinois, “gifted” simply means you scored in the top 8% on standardized tests (you know, the ones that test your ability to use a #2 pencil correctly), but I didn’t know that when I was a kid. The very word itself is misleading. I thought it meant I had a gift — something that was given to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I read Gladwell’s latest book Outliers. I won’t go into the details of what he says in the book, because it’s worth checking out on your own. But the basics of what he discovered when he studied exceptionalism can be summed up in two sentences. Experts practice a lot, and must have the opportunity to do so to become experts. And seemingly arbitrary factors such as when you were born or where you were raised can have a big impact on your success.

Suddenly the truth of the gifted program becomes clear. For some reason or another, some kids got a jump-start on their intellectual development. The top 8% were identified as efficiently as possible and accelerated. I guess that’s the best public school can do, and I’ll never fault them for that. They simply can’t help everyone. But it certainly does reveal a few things about the pattern I have observed as the lot of us age into gifted ex-children.

As you grow up, the special programs tend to disappear, and by the time you reach college it’s assumed that you are capable of finding something suitably challenging on your own. Additionally, your exceptional intellectual growth as a child has probably slowed down and the other students are catching up to you. You may even be starting to see them pass you. Just like that, the gifted label is gone. Children are gifted. Adults are ambitious, hard-working, and driven.

So what happens to you now? The understanding that you are somehow different from the people around you has already become a part of your subconscious. You might struggle to fill the void of the “gifted” label with something else. “Nerd” or “geek” maybe. You might feel pulled towards engineering and computer science, where the myth of exceptionalism still thrives. Or maybe you just let it go quietly, and mourn the death of your childhood potential. It was nice while it lasted.

But the fact is, you were never gifted. No one is. No one is deemed worthy of some special gift that makes them better than everyone else. And the myth that you were may – may – have prevented you from doing the things that you needed to do to become truly great. Like working hard. Seeking challenges. And not taking anything on faith.

I spent four years in college doing more or less nothing and wasted every good educational opportunity I had because I believed I was too good for it. Because it’s hard to hear that getting good takes work – no more, no less. I’m lucky in that I have a singular love for what I do that kept me plugging away at it, but I still struggle with the notion of hard work and practice. I get angry at myself when I don’t do something perfectly the first time. I have to coach myself to keep trying. It gets better slowly but only through extreme, sometimes painful awareness of the fact that I am not gifted.

But in a way it’s kind of nice. I always felt guilty, that I never deserved whatever “gift” I got. Now I know that it’s just a frame of mind — and that can be taught. And where there are people willing to teach, we are all gifted.


Quit bitching about how you don’t know CSS and read this article

Posted on 9 December, 2008 at 10:41pm with 5 comments

Hey. You there. Yes, I’m talking to you, Guy Who Hasn’t Written HTML Since 1998. And you, Software Engineer Who Can’t Be Bothered By UI. And even you, Stubborn But Secretly Insecure Old-School Web Designer. You know what CSS is. Chances are good you’ve heard a lot of people bragging talking about it. There’s a reason they do, and a reason you want to learn about it. Effective use of CSS greatly reduces code bulk and makes your design brilliantly maintainable, all without you ever having to think. Well, much.

I think the problem many people experience when trying to learn CSS is that they jump straight into the hard stuff (layouts, box model, browser compatibility) without learning the basic structure and behavior of the language. Here I’m just going to present you with a simple document and show you how to style the text on the page using CSS. You’ll learn about the different kinds of selectors and how inheritance behavior works, and it will hopefully provide you with a framework for learning the more advanced stuff.

It’s easier than you think. So leave your mental blocks at the door and come on in.
Read the rest of this post…


Ad Astra Per Aspera

Posted on 4 December, 2008 at 5:00am with 15 comments

For those readers who might not know me well, I am a webmaster at Google. Over the past six months I’ve been serving as the consumer web lead, which means I oversee a small group of webmasters who work on the consumer-facing products. We do design, production and maintenance of things like landing pages and help centers.

It was almost two years ago that I joined the company. In that two years I learned more than I ever could have thought possible, met some truly exceptional people, and discovered something exceptional within myself. I can’t do justice to the experiences that I had there in words, so I’m not going to try. It is a truly unique place.

And today I filed my notice.

You may think I’m crazy. I even think I’m crazy sometimes. But this is about a lot more than the work, the company or even whether or not I was happy there. One of the things they ask you to do when you become a manager is to define and write down your “core values” so they can inform the decisions you make. Six months ago I didn’t have any core values. I couldn’t have picked out a core value in a lineup.

It was in thinking about what’s important to me that I realized my situation at Google was unsustainable. I may have been comfortable there, but I’m idealistic and ambitious and I needed to move on. I often wonder how long I can hang on to this particular brand of naïveté, but it’s one of the things I treasure about myself and I will keep it as long as I can.

These are the things I stand for.

  1. Nothing is impossible. Even unbreakable rules can bend.
  2. It makes no difference if it’s magic or sleight-of-hand as long as you can still perform the trick.
  3. You owe it to yourself to believe in what you do.
  4. Aspire to be bigger than you are. You can’t do it without honesty and courage.
  5. Love the people, not the brand. Even large organizations have a soul, you just have to find it.

I want to have a reason to try something new. I want to work with people who might not have much more than heart and good ideas. I want to help independents and small businesses and open source projects. I want to follow what inspires me. These are just a few of the reasons I’ve decided to leave and strike out on my own.

I am as much scared as exhilarated. I don’t know what’s waiting for me out there. But I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t try. Which brings me to my final “core value.”

6. You can’t fly if you don’t jump.


The Myth of the Design Portfolio

Posted on 17 November, 2008 at 12:09am with 6 comments

It’s that time again. I’ve been putting it off for months, but it doesn’t go away, and only gets more urgent with each passing day. It will probably be the most miserable thing I’ve had to do all year. No, I’m not talking about holiday shopping. I’m talking about updating my portfolio.

I hate design portfolios because they are a symptom of a myth that helps no one. The myth is that a designer’s portfolio somehow gives you insight into how well that person does their job. This is about as true for a portfolio as it is for a resumé. Neither tells you the important information about a person, and if you are thinking about hiring a designer you should be aware of what you’re not seeing.

Myth: The portfolio showcases the designer’s sense of style.

If the designer is at all experienced in their field, their portfolios will represent their clients’ tastes more than their own. Any creative professional who imposes their own style onto their clients isn’t doing their job very well. Every client needs something different, and portfolios do the injustice of removing the work from the context of the project or brand identity it was meant to be a part of. The designer used their judgment to create something that suited the needs of their client. They may not even like it very much, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do their job well.

Myth: Great designers will make a great portfolio for themselves.

The slicker the portfolio, the more time the designer has on their hands. Think about that for a moment. A talented designer in high demand is using their creative energies on their clients, not themselves. This is why you see spectacular portfolios on people coming right out of school. College gives you the time to fritter away tweaking your personal site, but the real world doesn’t. Most top designers don’t even maintain one (Jeff Veen, Amy Hoy, and Jesse James Garrett, among others).

Myth: An attractive portfolio indicates a good designer.

Have you ever worked hands-on with a designer? If so, you probably understand that the final work is a product of their ability to work with you and to extract the essence of what you need from your head. A portfolio is a bunch of static images on a page. It doesn’t tell you one whit about their ability to work with you. This is why people test drive a car before buying it. It’s not enough for the car to be beautiful; it has to work the way you want it to or you’re just going to be unhappy with it.

Myth: The portfolio shows you what a designer has worked on.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The portfolio shows you what a designer has worked on, and is allowed to post publicly, and has actually shipped, and is visual in nature. This is likely a small portion of what they have actually done in the course of their career. Sometimes a designer sells all rights to a work and can’t use it for self-promotion in any way. Sometimes (often) the project they worked on never saw the light of day. And let’s not forget the important fact that most of what a designer does is research. They talk to their clients, they analyze competitors, they draw diagrams and sketch and make flowcharts. None of this critical planning makes it to the portfolio, but could easily represent six months of work.

Okay, so how the hell do you hire a designer then, if the portfolio is so useless?

The same way you hire anyone. Treat their portfolio like you do a resumé. It’s a good start for screening, but it doesn’t give you enough information to decide between qualified candidates. Try conventional hiring approaches to get a better sense of who they are.

1. Have a quick interview with the designer. They should be willing to answer some questions over email or the phone. It almost doesn’t matter what you ask them; what matters is how well you can establish a comfortable conversation and mutual understanding.

2. Google their name and look for blog entries or articles they have written. You can learn a lot about a person this way, as well as gain a sense for how they approach their work. Are they active in communities related to their field?

3. If hiring for a long-term position, try a trial project or contract-to-hire situation. (Thanks Daniel Jalkut for this idea.) There’s no substitute for actual hands-on experience working with someone. But be aware that not everyone is willing and able to do this sort of thing, and it shouldn’t be a strike against them if they aren’t. It’s a more situational evaluation tool.

4. Ask for references, and actually contact them. You can afford a few minutes to fire off some emails, and this feedback can be critical to your decision.

A word to designers

Ya know, I hate to say it, but portfolios are still a necessary evil, at least until you are famous enough that your clients are willing to take it on faith that you’ll do a good job. But responsible clients will want to see more than that.

Don’t sink all your time into it. Don’t redesign it constantly. Start simple and keep it simple. Make sure you have a traditional resumé and keep it linked in plain sight. When you can, give a few words of context about the project. And then let it go. Focus on your work, not your image.

And on that note, I should get back to it. I promise I won’t work too hard on it. After all, I’ve got better things to do.


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