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The phrase “thinking outside the box” has long been a source of consternation rather than inspiration for me. Why do we use a trope to describe thinking that is supposed to be unconventional? It just seems wrong. I get that clichés summarily, if unoriginally, convey complex ideas so when I hear them I generally grimace inwardly and look the other way. But this one seems strangely self-defeating.

I don’t remember being aware of “thinking outside the box” until the saying was suddenly everywhere. (Its use seems to have peaked, but clichés are notoriously tenacious.) Curious, I did a little research into its origins and discovered that “thinking outside the box” is worse than a mere example of the absence of the very creativity the phrase is ostensibly deployed to spark—or, incongruously, announce. The real crime is that it’s misleading: there is no box. We’re focused on thinking outside a box that doesn't even exist.


I am a pretty instant guy. In fact, I go quite batty when something that should be instant is not. Nowadays, thanks to the internet we have instant information and communication. Anything we want to know right now we can discover simply by visiting google.com. And we can tell our friends about it right away. But recently I have realized that there is a situation in my life where instant is not good. Where instant is a distraction and a detriment. And so, I turn instant off when reading books.

I used to read books on my iPad. Oftentimes while I was reading, an impulse would pop into my mind. Maybe the author sparked a thought and I wanted to look something up. Or instant message a friend about what I was reading. Or take a quick break to check my email. I always convinced myself it would take just a second, but of course it never did. It was just too easy to close the book and get caught up in something else because I could—instantly.


Summer is winding down. The light is shifting and a hint of autumn wafts on the breeze. If you haven’t taken a summer vacation yet, odds are you are a small business owner. Sure, you can work on your laptop outside in the dog days and cut back your hours, but those small concessions to the season do not yield the same benefits as same as taking a true break. One of the drawbacks of being your own boss is that the demarcation between work and the rest of your life becomes hazy: the dreaded schedule creep. Somehow the clear advantages of being able to match your work style to your natural circadian rhythms (I’m looking at you, night owls) and accommodate the inevitable tasks that need to be completed during standard business hours are offset by a tendency for work to expand to fill all of the nooks and crannies of available time. And with the intertwining of social media and enterprise it’s hard to tell what’s work and what’s not anymore.

Does it even matter? Common sense suggests that it does, and research confirms it. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for the small business owner to close up shop, hop in the roadster, and head for the hills. At least, not to any vacation destination that doesn’t have high-speed internet access. Part of the problem is that the demands of your business don’t stop just because you’re on vacation, and many entrepreneurs don’t have anyone to cover for them. But for many, those facts obscure a deeper, darker truth: they can’t get into vacation mode. Much ink has been spilled over our collective inability to unplug, and groups like Digital Detox, based in Oakland, California, have formed to lend support to the tech-tethered seeking to break the habit.


It turns out that if you do it right, just standing there can be pretty powerful. Think Wonder Woman: chest open but not puffed, legs apart, head level, one or both hands on the hips. Assume that stance and your body will release hormones that make you feel confident and calm. It’s sort of like putting the proverbial cart before the horse: instead of allowing your posture to merely reflect your emotions, you can use it to elevate your mood and generate the self-confidence you need to navigate stressful situations. Because even born leaders like yourself have off days.

Striking a super hero pose might sound silly now, but it can save your bacon the next time you have to pitch an idea to a difficult client, deliver negative feedback to a coworker, or plead your sorry case to a judge. Social science researchers at preeminent business schools (like Harvard) have identified the primary hormones associated with so-called expansive postures as testosterone, which correlates with dominance and a willingness to take risks, and cortisol, which is related to stress. When you gotta deliver, you want your testosterone high and your cortisol low.

The physiological effects of holding a commanding pose for just two minutes last about 20, but the benefits of fine tuning your posture in general are immeasurable. Your mother always said to stand up straight, and she was so right. Your carriage changes your self-perception and influences how favorably others perceive and respond to you. Adopt an expansive posture and you will seem more credible and attractive. But overdo it by going all stiff or alpha primate and you will have exactly the opposite effect.


If you follow my writing at all, you will notice there seems to be an ongoing theme of conversation around building great user-focused products. I typically dive deep into building software products, exploring how to build something that will truly ignite your users. Often you do this by putting your users’ needs above all else. So it hit me hard when recently, I was let down by a person/brand that I really admire – Taylor Swift – as she did not ignite me as a “user” of her products.

Yes, I am a Taylor Swift fan. I like her music, but I also really like her as a person. I think she is authentic. She has been pretty true to herself and her fans since she got her start. Comparing Taylor Swift to Lady Gaga is night and day. With Taylor, what you see is what you get. She has always brought a “keep it real” approach to her music and her brand. 

dead to me


This is especially true if you subscribe to the ridiculous Church of 80-character Lines.
-- David Heinemeier Hansson

Always remember: A program IS NOT communication between a human and the machine. It's a communication between a developer and the next developer.
-- Don Schenck

I have learned an important principle: simple things work, often to our dumbfounded surprise, for we tend to distrust the simple and strive for the complex.
-- Richard Cracroft, Our Trek Through the Wilderness

Normally, I would consider the act of simply summarizing and reposting someone else's blog post sort of wasteful. That is what twitter is for. I guess these three quotes really match the philosophes and believes we have at Cloudmanic. I could not help but share as we have already written about some of this stuff in the past. Check out Coding Should Be Like Writing A Book, Being An Elegant Business Programmer, and Software Design: The Come Back Later Problem.

Check out the two 37signals posts (and the comments) that I am referencing below.

Clarity over brevity in variable and method names

I Have Learned an Important Principle Simple


When someone reaches out to our company trying to get something from us, such as a job, or to sell us something, I always apply what I call the the “Joker Test”. All our products are free in at least a basic way, and it takes less the 30 seconds to sign up for an account. Our products are what define us. Every decision we make is going to be in terms of how we can make our products better for our customers. So why the heck would someone not take the time to learn a little about what we do before reaching out to us?

The “Joker Test” is simply a quick search to find out if the person reaching out has created an account and engaged with our product at least a bit. If the results are positive, the person passes my first screen.

It takes very little to time to understand us; with very little effort you can discover how we tick. Your proposal to us will be so much more valuable and our willingness to give you the time of day will be much higher if you just do some research before picking up the phone or sending us an email. Or you may choose to be a Joker.


water alternatives

Not too long ago, before it (thankfully) fell out of fashion, bottled water was all the rage. It was common knowledge that the more you paid, the better it was. A few years ago, you couldn’t go 5 minutes without catching a glimpse of someone with a brightly colored Nalgene bottle. These days, everyone has a BPA-free aluminum water bottle or four, perfect for filling at the tap, which is now trendy. Whatever the container, the thing that made all these accessories valuable was what went in them: Water.

To which I say, “not thirsty.”

I’m something of an anomaly, apparently: I don’t like water.

I mean, I love it when I’ve been exercising and my throat is dry and the water is cold. Times like that, it’s the only thing I want to drink. But keeping a bottle with me at all times? No. Grabbing a glass as I pass through the kitchen? Why, when there are tastier options – like soda or wine – at hand?
I may be weird, but I’m not unique. I stumbled into a conversation with a friend a year or so ago in which he was complaining about not liking water. It was exciting to find someone who shared my antipathy towards perhaps the most precious natural resource. Water’s just so… boring, we agreed.

For whatever reason, I just don’t like the taste (and yes, I see the irony of that statement). Water is healthy, of course, but I figured calorie-free diet soda was OK. So I was dismayed to see this article about a study that suggests diet soda might not be OK after all.

The study found a link between diet soda and a larger waist size. And by “larger,” we’re talking 70 percent greater than people who didn’t drink diet soda. It’s even worse news for people who had two or more diet sodas a day: Their waists were 500 percent bigger.
The research also delved into health consequences of artificial sweeteners, but I’m a vain person and the waist-size data grabbed my attention more – maybe 500 percent more – than the health stuff.  Yowza.

So I’m embarking on a quest to find alternatives to both water and diet soda. Most juice has a high amount of sugar; milk has lots of calories; and alcoholic beverages are clearly not suitable for on-the-job consumption (not my job, anyway). I was intrigued to read about the backstory of Hint, which was created by a woman who was addicted to Diet Coke but didn’t like water (perhaps we were separated at birth). It’s not available in my city yet, but I plan to track it down and test it out. I’m also planning to do some of my own flavored-water creations.

If you’ve got wet-your-whistle suggestions, fire away. I promise to give them a try, at least until someone says they’ll make my waist way bigger than my aqua-chugging friends.


Book ListBanned Books Week is not taking place right now.

It happens in the fall, and librarians everywhere welcome it with a twisted glee. They can be quite the rebels, those librarians. If you don’t believe me, read how how librarians kept “Stupid White Men” from becoming pulp (regardless of your feelings on Michael Moore, trust me, the story’s a good one). But back to Banned Books Week: Librarians celebrate it, making displays of all the books that have been banned or challenged. They relish in showing how some of the most popular books in history, even accepted masterpieces, have been deemed by some to be unfit for human consumption.

Not surprisingly, many of the books on the list were written for young audiences. Deciding at what age certain themes and language become appropriate is tricky enough on a case-by-case basis, never mind trying to apply standards to an entire generation.

I was lucky. As the offspring of one of those subversive librarians, I was not allowed to see R-rated movies until I was in high school—but I could read whatever I wanted. When I bothered to think about this parenting strategy, I realized it may have been lacking in logic. I could read Stephen King books at age 10, but not see the (typically underwhelming) movies based on those books until I was practically driving? Yeah.

But maybe there was some logic behind it. After all, I read voraciously then and still do today. Whenever I see “banned books” lists, I’m stunned by how many of my personal favorites are there. The very titles that infected my imagination and infiltrated my views of the world are repulsive to some. Perhaps it’s that the books that have the most ingenuity, the ones that can most radically change our perceptions, are just too frightening for some. For me, and scores of others (many of these books are award-winners), that’s what makes them magnificent.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my very favorite banned books, with brief commentary:

The Bridge to Terabithia

I remember wanting to inhabit this book. I remember crying at the end. Mostly, I remember reading it over and over again.


It’s not a love story. It is, however, an amazing accomplishment of character and language.

The Giver

Just after college, I worked in a school as part of a volunteer committee. One day the other volunteers—all mothers of high schoolers—were discussing “The Giver,” a required book in one of the English classes. “I love that book!” I gushed. The mothers looked at me like I’d just said I loved burning small children with a branding iron. Turns out, they didn’t share my adoration. One mother claimed her high school daughter had had nightmares for months after reading it (I read it in fifth grade, but okay). Another pursed her lips and shook her head. A few years later, the same school drew national media attention when a parent (not one of the mothers I knew) refused to return a book to the school library, deeming it so offensive it should be burned.


Yeah, yeah, I know. The writing isn’t great, and maybe they should be banned for overuse of the word “smoldering,” but Stephanie Meyer is a genius at plotting. To those who would ban it, I can only summon a South-Park like “come on.” The kids are actually entirely well-behaved: They don’t drink, swear,  do drugs or have sex before marriage. So they do lie—but only to save the lives of their loved ones and battle evil forces. People have a problem with that?

A Wrinkle in Time

The first time I tried to read this book, I found it boring and put it down. I guess I was naturally (albeit subconsciously) deciding what was too mature for me. A year or two later, I picked it up again and I don’t think I closed it until I was finished. I went on to read every Madeline L’Engle book I could find.