If I could show just one talk to every software engineer, it wouldn’t be a treatise on the elegance of algorithms, a lecture about accessibility in apps, or even the masterwork that is Englebart’s Mother of All Demos. Instead, I’d show them this frequently-referenced 1991 speech that John Cleese gave (transcript) to Video Arts, a company he co-founded. In it, he presents a blueprint for how to nurture creativity at work that’s based on his own experience in Monty Python and the work of experts like Donald MacKinnon, Johan Huizinga, and Edward de Bono. The talk’s thesis is that “creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating”. His method for creativity involves regularly setting aside time and space to be in the open mode, when most of our lives and occupations push us into the closed mode.
Let me explain a little. By the “closed mode” I mean the mode that we are in most of the time when we are at work. We have inside us a feeling that there’s lots to be done and we have to get on with it if we’re going to get through it all.
It’s an active (probably slightly anxious) mode, although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable. It’s a mode which we’re probably a little impatient, if only with ourselves. It has a little tension in it, not much humor. It’s a mode in which we’re very purposeful, and it’s a mode in which we can get very stressed and even a bit manic, but not creative.
If you’ve worked on a team making software, you’ve almost certainly heard the thought-terminating cliché, “That’s impossible” hastily uttered by a programmer. I know I’ve said it; I suspect we all have. Sometimes engineers blurt this out because a product manager is asking them to do something unsupported by system APIs; sometimes they really mean “It’s hard” or “It’s not worth it” or even just “I don’t want to.” And then other times they are afraid to admit that they just don’t know how to do what’s being asked of them, even if they have a nagging suspicion that it can be done.
Software engineers reject entire product ideas, categories of problems, and persistent bugs as completely impossible to tackle. What is it about the psychology of programmers that leads to this limitation of imagination? In Cleese’s model, it would seem that programmers are spending so much time in the “closed mode” that they get stuck there. So, what’s the alternative?
By contrast, the open mode, is a relaxed, expansive, less purposeful mode in which we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful.
It’s a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.*
Programmers are problem-solvers, spending most of their day building, a task that demands they be in the closed mode, “wired in”. Implementing features to spec, tracking down and fixing bugs, and thinking like a computer are exercises in putting one’s head down and blocking out distractions, and are therefore incompatible with the open mode. When we train ourselves to see the world this precisely, dividing things into neat boxes and clear abstractions, it can hurt our ability to accept ideas outside our mental model. It’s why many programmers I’ve worked with have stories about tracking an inscrutable bug down to an unhandled condition in their code with a comment that reads // This should never happen. And it’s for just the same reason that many brilliant engineers dismissed ideas like the internet, real time direction-routing, and digital currency as impossible for decades before they were implemented. For a coder, there’s inherent anxiety in impossibilty, anxiety that can push them toward surrender rather than creative problem-solving.
But during the earlier design and ideation stages of projects, before we start writing code, we need to remind ourselves and our teammates to remain open. Nothing’s decided, nothing’s set in stone, and therefore many things are possible that might not seem that way at first. The Waterfall model of development forces this openness to end when building begins, but newer software methodologies like agile development promote the idea that we should expect design iteration to continue during software construction and therefore allow for open mode thinking throughout a project.
Cleese also suggests ways to avoid choking off our creativity too early. He recommends collaborators establish as free an atmosphere as possible in the open mode. Improvisational comedians have a well-known shorthand for this kind of openness to whatever ideas are presented: “Yes, and”.
And never say anything to squash them either, never say “no” or “wrong” or “I don’t like that.” Always be positive, and build on what is being said:
“Would it be even better if…”
“I don’t quite understand that, can you just explain it again?”
Even if an idea that a coworker proposes is truly impossible, it can still have value. In Edward de Bono’s book Practical Thinking, he writes about the value of intermediate impossibles. Sometimes unrealistic ideas are just a step on the path toward something that will work brilliantly. For example, you might design an impossible sign-up screen that magically knows the user’s name and email, and then realize later in a brainstorm that you don’t need either piece of information at all and still end up with a great user experience. De Bono calls this lateral thinking. As opposed to logical thinking, which requires a linear progression of true statements (just like most computer programs), lateral thinking allows and even encourages impossible ideas as middle steps, as they often help us get to a better end result.
The use of an Intermediate Impossible is completely contrary to ordinary logical thinking in which you have to be right at each stage.
It doesn’t matter if the Intermediate Impossible is right or absurd, it can nevertheless be used as a stepping stone to another idea that is right.
As software makers, we could all stand to be more open to the impossible, especially given that the technology we create must help solve wicked problems outside of our screens, like climate change, transportation, and healthcare, problems that will require immense creativity and teamwork. To overcome what seem like impossible tasks, we first need to believe that there might be a way to do so.
The next time you’re playing around with new ideas and someone tells you that they’re impossible, remind them of what John Cleese said, ”When you’re playing, nothing is wrong.”
It’s scary how much email I get at work. Despite Slack’s best efforts, much of the business world still “runs on email.” In 2019, the inboxes in my life are brimming with messages from new leads, existing clients, potential vendors, folks trying to network or ask for advice, and lots of transactional bullshit: newsletters, password resets, and spam. I’m sure your inboxes feel just as overwhelming. So it’s no surprise that folks (me included) sometimes get behind on responding to their email.
But today, I’m writing about a particularly pernicious form of email non-response and how to stop it: professional ghosting . The mid-2000s millennialism “ghosting” refers to abruptly and intentionally cutting off contact with someone you’re dating without warning or justification. You stop responding to their flirty texts and date asks and don’t tell them why. In fact, you don’t tell them anything. You’re a ghost. The word gained popularity in 2015 along with the rise of Tinder and a bevy of other dating apps where “leaving people on read” has become commonplace. Professional ghosting is basically the same thing…except it’s at work, so there might be money involved.
Imagine this: you’re in an email back-and-forth with a client who has hired you to design a new website for them. After they’ve paid a deposit and you’ve started the project, you have a question about how big the logo should be. You dash off a quick email to the client to ask them. And you wait. Maybe you figure it will take them a business day or so to respond. But then you hear nothing for days. Days turn into weeks. Radio silence. You’ve been (un)professionally ghosted.
Why does this happen? It’s not always just that folks are busy. It’s often a more specific kind of anxiety and friction that causes this particular supernatural phenomenon. Maybe something in your email raised follow up questions, maybe more stakeholders behind the scenes need to be consulted, or maybe it felt like things were getting more expensive or more complicated, even if you didn’t directly say so. Professional ghosting happens when the ghoster can’t immediately respond because they’re missing something and scared to admit it for fear of looking unprepared or under-resourced. And then it’s too late, new emails are already pouring in and yours has lost priority.
While this trend of ghosting in work contexts isn’t new, it does seem like it’s on the rise. Both anecdotally in my work and industry-wide, more employees and companies are noticing ghosting behavior from their colleagues, bosses, and reports. How can we fix it? Let’s fire up our proton packs and figure it out. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
Advice for the Ghosted ☠️
Here are a few things I’ve done while being ghosted at work that have helped me bring back some dead threads.
Follow up. I know it might feel like you’re nagging someone to email twice in a row. But if you’re in a professional relationship, and you’ve been interacting with someone who’s vanished, they’d likely appreciate a friendly follow-up after a few days. I’ve resurrected more deals than I can count with one well-timed follow up. Use a CRM system or an app like Boomerang for Gmail to automate this.
Make responding easy. Bold the questions in your email and keep them as easy to respond to as possible. Discuss complex or sensitive matters by phone or video chat. Your goal should be that your email is the first one your recipient opens, because it’s got a great subject line and they know exactly what you want and how to give it to you. Use self-service calendaring tools like Calendly to avoid being ghosted in the midst of a long scheduling volley.
Track opens. This is controversial from a privacy perspective. But on crucial business communications like bills or contracts, I think it’s appropriate to have view tracking in place. If you know your client is seeing and opening your invoices, it can give you peace of mind that they’ll pay them on time. And if they don’t, you can let them know they don’t have a good excuse to be late, because you see that the invoice was opened the day after they received it. 👀
Advice for Ghosts 👻
If you ghost on the job, these tips might help you get a little better control of your inbox…and your humanity.
It’s never too late. Looking at your flagged emails you realize that your skin is turning a pearly, translucent shade of white. You see a list of nice people you’ve ghosted with accompanying timestamps, some of which are months ago at this point. Take a deep breath. It’s not too late to respond to these messages. You’ve got this. Wish them a happy new year and throw in a “sorry for the delayed response” like the professional, living, breathing adult human that you definitely still are.
Ignorance is bliss. It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” In fact, it’s liberating. If one of the reasons you’re ghosting a colleague or business partner right now is that you’re just not sure about something in their email, start there. “I’m not sure how to answer this. Do you mind if we schedule a 15-minute call on Monday and figure it out together? Here’s my availability.” Sometimes that admission of uncertainty all it takes to bring that thread back from the ether.
Set realistic expectations. If you know you’re prone to ghosting, don’t use an email client that lets you snooze emails; it makes it too easy to delay indefinitely. If your Fridays are always filled with meetings, don’t tell someone you’ll get them something by “end of week.” Your time and attention are valuable just like your correspondent’s, and as long as you let people know when you can realistically respond and (mostly) stick to it, it’ll be fine.
I wrote this blog post for myself as much as for anyone else. If you’re ever waiting for a message from me, feel free to link to this piece in your polite follow up. I swear I won’t mind. None of us are perfect at this stuff. We’re all human, even if we sometimes ghost our coworkers. ✌️
This weekend, I spoke to the audience of the Difficult to Name reading series at Study Hall in Brooklyn. My talk was about the internet, my fears about building and sustaining culture there, and what we might be able to do about it. Watch the talk or read my prepared remarks below. And let me know what you think on
Twitter. I’m @mb there. Thanks to Michael Liberatore for shooting the video and to everyone who helped edit early drafts of the talk.
I want to tell you about a number that scares me: 404. That infamous code you see when that internet thing you meant to visit is gone or it moved and no one bothered to add a redirect or maybe it never existed at all.
I’m curious though: how many of you have ever made something you’re proud of on the Web?
So many of us have written, recorded, photographed, or created important works in our personal and professional worlds that live online. Maybe they’re your bylines at that fancy publication about tiny houses, or your YouTube seltzer reviews, or your graduate thesis about the history of pizza ovens. It’s not really important what they are, just that they exist and they’re online.
Well, until…they don’t. 404: Page Not found. 410: Gone. 500: Internal Server Error. These numbers, or status codes, tell us what went wrong but not really why. This problem, the problem of the disappearing internet, of “link rot”, is no joke. Researchers have found that over 50% of URLs cited in Supreme Court opinions no longer point to the intended content. Roughly 70% of links in academic legal journals are broken, and 20% of all science, technology and medicine articles suffer from link rot. The average life of a webpage hovers right around 100 days.
People often patly state that “the internet never forgets,” that once something is online, it will be forever. In a certain light that’s true. It’s nearly impossible to permanently remove something from the internet, on purpose. But, by the same token, the web also disappears at an alarming rate. 5% of the entire internet is lost every year, and we barely notice.
Making something on the web is not a one-time investment. Someone has to spend money every year on the domain, hosting, and maintenance. But what happens when the financial incentives to do that change? Right now the massive data centers that house all this information use 3% of all the electricity in the United States. What happens when that power gets too expensive? Or when we’ve been online for centuries and we start deleting dead people’s pages? Unlike a film, or a play, or a book, the costs of keeping art and science on the web are never-ending. We’re building one of our most important shared cultural resources on land that we rent rather than own, on borrowed time from a parking meter that’s all but guaranteed to run out.
We have heroic efforts like the Internet Archive to preserve stuff, but that's like burning down houses and then cheering on the fire department when it comes to save what's left inside. It's no way to run a culture. We take better care of scrap paper than we do of the early internet, because at least we look at scrap paper before we throw it away.
He’s right. It is no way to run a culture. We’re experiencing quantitative losses of data on par with the burning of Alexandria every year, and we’re barely blinking an eye as the stuff we’re making vanishes in a puff of smoke.
The truth is: there is no easy fix. But as writers and makers and inhabitants of the internet, we need to demand better of the platforms and services and publications we entrust with our work. It might seem safer to trust the big guys (Facebook, Twitter, Medium) with this content because they have the funding and incentives to maintain it. That’s true today, but large platforms like them have failed before, taking terabytes of data with them. Remember Friendster, TwitPic, Geocities?
There are academic efforts like Perma.cc out of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that will solve this problem for the most important legal and scholarly works. But we can and must to do better than that.
Starting in 2014, a small group of programmers became obsessed with building what is called “content addressable” version of the internet called IPFS. IPFS stands for “InterPlanetary File System”. And “content addressable” means that files are stored and located by their content instead of an arbitrary and therefore brittle address. As I’m sure some of you have guessed by now, it’s built on top the blockchain. Insert eye roll emoji 🙄. But before you write them off, I think these nerds might be on to something. Their system, which is entirely peer to peer, and inherently resistant to the rot I’m talking about is already being used to build a mirrored version of Wikipedia that will be accessible from countries with oppressive regimes, and was used by those in Catalan seeking independence when the government blocked their pages from being accessible on the web. The IPFS team is building a system by which the websites and apps of tomorrow might be able to defend against this failing foundation, but who knows if it’ll get adopted.
The next time you make something and put it online: think about where it’s going to live, how long it’ll be around, and what you can do to preserve it, even if that means making an extra local backup, or printing it out on a dead tree. The culture we’re building together is increasingly digital, hyperlinked, and accessible from anywhere. But it’s not accessible from any when. We’re losing more and more of it every day. If we’re going to continue making things online, we need to deal with this problem systematically and soon. How? I’m not sure. Maybe IPFS, or something like it that hasn’t been invented yet. Until then, I’ll keep my printer.