What is Airtable?

The cliche would be to call Airtable Google sheets on steroids. I think that sells Airtable short.

I’m a fan of Airtable because it’s flexible. I’ve used it for budgeting, keeping a database of clients, project management, and tracking applications. It’s also free and cloud-based which are positives in my book. Their templates, ranging from wedding planning to advertising campaigns, show Airtable’s versatility, though so far, I have only built mine from scratch.

Comparing @Airtable to Google Sheets sells Airtable short Click To Tweet

It’s true you can do a lot of what Airtable does in other apps and websites, but its big advantage is how everything integrates seemlessly. Airtable is what it looks like if Google decided to let you link cells in separate files, gave you different cell types (like barcodes, checkboxes, dates, and email addresses) as default options, and combined Google forms, calendar, and drive as one app. Being able to switch the view from spreadsheet to calendar to gallery cards, all while adding a public form is a huge plus.

Give Airtable a try for yourself




Why am I talking so glowingly about Airtable? Well, it’s a cool service. They’re not sponsoring me or anything but if you sign up through one of my links Airtable credits my account so I can upgrade to the next tier. Will I ever use these credits to upgrade my account? I don’t know – The free account is plenty useful but if you’re going to sign up why not give me a small benefit while you’re at it?

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

J.J. Abrams. Sir Richard Branson. Arianna Huffinton. Sheryl Sandberg. Peter Thiel. The blurbs on the back cover of Originals are impressive. The list of awards the book has won is impressive. Adam Grant’s research is impressive. But for a book on originality and creativity, Originals is shockingly formulaic and derivative. If you’re dying to get an overview of management psychology, read this book. Otherwise, the irony of the author constantly quoting other people’s work on how to be an original thinker will drive you crazy. The formulaic, academic structure compounds this bland writing style to create a book on originality that is lacking in creative inspiration.

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. (7)

The book covers a wide breadth of examples. Too wide. There’s something that didn’t quite sit well when Grant moved from Skype on one page to youth activists seeking to use nonviolence to overthrow a dictator on another. It’s jarring to jump from business case study to autobiography to psychological study to real world experience. And the way they’re all jumbled up makes it seem as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement are just another case study you read about in business school.

I want to debunk the myth that originality requires extreme risk taking and persuade you that originals are actually far more ordinary than we realize. In every domain, from business and politics to science and art, the people who move the world forward with original ideas are rarely paragons of conviction and commitment. As they question traditions and challenge the status quoe, they may appear bold and self-assured on the surface. But when you peel back the layers, the truth is that they, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence, and self-doubt. (16)

I know I’m being harsh, perhaps even overly harsh. The book isn’t bad. But it could have been so much better. The idea is stellar. The execution is average. There is solid advice in the book. Go to a bookstore read the “actions for impact” section. It’s an appendix that summarizes the main points in list format and it’ll tell you everything you need to know from the book. I was left with a bunch of interesting tidbits, but to dive into the fascinating stories I’ll need to look up the original research that this book only samples.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World


Next time: What Three Months of Reading Business Books Taught Me

Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind

When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly. (35)

There’s a pervasive myth of the genius creative person. Breakthrough inventions, great pieces of writings, and works of art seem to come out of thin air. Created by an inventor, writer, or artist that stumbled upon the right inspiration at the right time. Anyone who has done creative work for a long period of time, knows this isn’t the case. Manage Your Day-to-Day gathers a number of successful writers, thinkers, entrepreneurs, and others who make creative work into their career, to share the wisdom of becoming more productive, encouraging creativity, and making a living out of work they enjoy.

“The most successful creative minds consistently lay the ground work for ideas to germinate and evolve. They are always refining their personal approach to hijacking the brain’s neural pathways, developing a tool kit of tricks to spark the mind like flint on steel.” (184)

The book is written in easily digestible chunks of writing. Each author writes only a few pages, making this book great for people who like to read a little at a time. In fact, the book is likely more effective if read over a long period of time. Read in one straight shot, the advice starts to get a bit repetitive. Not as a mistake, but because managing time has a few very key points that most of the authors agree upon.

    Don’t wait for inspiration to start working
    Do lots of work regularly, everyday if possible
    Minimize email, social media, and other distractions
    Be mindful of your time and activities

The editors carefully crafted the design of the book, interspersing relevant quotes and summarizing the main points of each author before moving onto another section. Physically small with a durable plastic cover, the book is perfect for traveling as well as sitting on a work desk or nightstand for inspiration.

“Truly great creative achievements require hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work, and we have to make time every single day to put in those hours. Routines help us do this by setting expectations about availability, aligning our workflow with our energy levels, and getting our minds into a regular rhythm of creating.” (23)

“For a long time I wasn’t doing certain projects, but I thought I would love to do them if I had the time. Then, when I had the time, I avoided doing them because of all the other stuff that I still needed to do, like e-mail. And it’s just so much easier to do e-mail than to actually sit down and think.” (197)

The ultimate advantage of Manage Your Day-to-Day is the ease in which you can return to the advice. Feeling stuck? Read a few pages on jump-starting your work. Need inspiration? Browse a few of the quotes before getting down to work. An ease read that you can return to again and again, this book is well worth your time if you are working on any long term creative activities.

Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind


Next time: Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Baby Books

My brother Peter and his wife have an adorable 14 month-year-old and we’re constantly getting her books. Thankfully, they love reading to her. Peter wrote up the following introduction and compiled the lists below (while at Med School!). It gave me lots of ideas for the next holiday…

Building Your Baby’s Library
Story telling is one of the great cultural universals, a part of the human condition wherein ones role evolves within a lifetime. Perhaps the most important form of storytelling today is reading with children. Reading, particularly goodnight stories, to your young child is a bonding experience that creates a positive bedtime ritual, but more benefits are becoming clear. Starting with books the day they leave the womb is shown to improve language, literacy, and overall cognitive development, prompting pediatricians to prescribe a daily dose of books and initiatives such as Head Start and Reach Out and Read. If you are beginning this journey with your baby, read this resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics. For those lost on where to start building their baby’s library, or for those that don’t want to show up to the next baby shower with the third Where the Wild Things Are gift that day, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite baby books.

*Denotes a Caldecott recipient

Classics
The Snowy Day Ezra Jack Keats, 1962*
The Little Island Leonard Weisgard, 1947*
The Story of Ferdinand Munro Leaf, 1936
MadelineLudwig Bemelmans, 1939
“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” in The Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling, 1894
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel Virginia Lee Burton, 1939
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Bill Martin Jr., 1967
The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses Paul Globe, 1979*
The Berenstain Bears (series) Stan & Jan Berenstain, 1962
Just Me and My Dad (Little Critter Series) Mercer Mayer, 1977
A Fish Out of Water Helen Palmer, 1961

New Classics
“More More More,” Said the Baby Vera B. Williams, 1997*
Zen Shorts Jon Muth, 2005*
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom Bill Martin Jr., 1989
Barnyard Dance! Sandra Boynton, 1993
This Is Not My Hat Jon Klassen, 2012*
Prince Peter and the Teddy Bear, David McKee, 1997
Stone Soup Marcia Brown, 1997*

Bedtime Stories
Goodnight Moon Margaret Wise Brown, 1947
Sleep Like a Tiger Pamela Zagarenski, 2012*
Night-Night, Forest Friends Annie Bach, 2013
Good Night Lake Adam Gamble, 2008

Too Bizarre, Surreal For Parents (Perfect for Kids)
In the Night Kitchen Maurice Sendak, 1970*
Histoire de Babar Jean de Brunhoff, 1931
George and Martha James Marshall, 1974



Next time: Between the World and Me

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Revisionist History

From the Vietnam War to inequality in higher education to free throw shooting in the NBA, Malcolm Gladwell tells a compelling story in each podcast while teasing out the deeper meaning. Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History allows him to explore shorter story arcs that might not otherwise make it to a larger audience. Each podcast features a well told story entertaining enough to keep your attention, but simple enough to listen to while doing another activity – I found the podcast to be a good accompaniment to mowing the lawn and working out.

I think too often we make up our minds about something that happened and then we move on without pausing to ask, “Wait a minute – is that actually what happened? Do we really understand it?” The Lady Vanishes

Gladwell is at his best during his three-part examination of opportunity in America. Though he finds a dysfunctional system that prioritizes food over financial aid and growing endowments over raising opportunity, it’s a deeply important story.

There’s only one solution. If you’re looking at liberal arts colleges, don’t go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin. Don’t give money to Bowdoin or to any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall. Because every time you support a school that spends its money on amazing food, every time you cast a vote in favor of eggplant Parmesan pancakes and lobster bakes and venison during deer season. You’re making it harder and harder for someone like Catherine Hill [President of Vassar] to create opportunities for poor kids. Suck it up and go to Vassar. Send a message to the Bowdoins of the world about what really matters.

But Gladwell isn’t just moralizing. He’s examining the way the world works and the competing ways we view it. This theme of looking more closely at these stories allows him to move directly from this powerful arc on unequal access to opportunity to the nature of creative genius as examined through the song Hallelujah. Passionate and invested, Gladwell seems truly interested in his stories and the ideas they bring to life – making the podcast even more enjoyable listening.

Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History

Next time: Baby Books reviewed by a special guest!

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Jordan Ellenberg is one of the rare university professors who also publishes prodigiously for the public. Much of his writing comes together in his book, How Not to Be Wrong. A collection of mathematical history, practice, and theory, the book is engaging and provocative. Ellenberg’s writing style allows him to present a seemingly bland topic in an approachable manner. Even when the theory left me scratching my head, Ellenberg kept my attention. Seeking to redeem mathematics from its too often bland or negative reputation, the title’s promise is part of a larger goal: Demonstrate the hidden mathematical thinking we often assume as common sense.

We tend to teach mathematics as a long list of rules. You learn them in order and you have to obey them because if you don’t obey them you get a C-. This is not mathematics. (12)

You may not be aiming for a mathematically oriented career. That’s fine—most people aren’t. But you can still do math. You probably already are doing math, even if you don’t call it that. Math is woven into the way we reason. And math makes you better at things. (2)

Provocative premises drive his fascinating examples, like “Why South Dakota has more brain cancer than North Dakota.” Ellenberg covers basic principles like probability and statistics, while delving into the history and theory behind them. Though each chapter covers various mathematical concepts, the overarching argument that math empowers you to make better decisions (even if that includes saying “I’m not sure”) convincingly connects each section.

But real-world questions aren’t like word problems. A real-world problem is something like “Has the recession and its aftermath been especially bad for women in the workforce, and if so, to what extent is this the result of Obama administration policies?” Your calculator doesn’t have a button for this. Because in order to give a sensible answer, you need to know more than just numbers…Dividing one number by another is mere computation; figuring out what you should divide by what is mathematics. (85)

As a current academic and college professor, Ellenberg pulls back the curtain of contemporary mathematics. This behind-the-scenes view is a nice bonus for the reader. It also serves to humanize himself and other academics, another way to remove some of the intellectual intimidation that mathematics, particularly advanced math, brings.

One of the most painful parts of teaching mathematics is seeing students damaged by the cult of the genius. The genius cult tells students it’s not worth doing mathematics unless you’re the best at mathematics, because those special few are the only one whose contributions matter. We don’t treat any other subject that way! (412)

I wouldn’t call How Not to Be Wrong a light read, but it’s engaging and interesting for even the non-self-described math nerd. Ellenberg makes mathematical concepts understandable and is worth a read if you’re looking to learn something from your next read.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Next time: Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Part history, part memoir, part management guide, Creativity Inc. is an engrossing read filled with behind the scenes tours and sage advice. The authors (Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace) mix detailed examples of Ed Catmull’s management philosophy with background on Catmull’s path to Pixar, Pixar’s development, and their transition to working within Disney.

This book isn’t just for Pixar people, entertainment executives, or animators. It is for anyone who wants to work in an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving. My belief is that good leadership can help creative people stay on the path to excellence no matter what business they’re in. (xv)

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the theme of art and technology’s beneficial relationship spoke to me. I work at a technology-focused nonprofit while my background is in history, the humanities, and the liberal arts. The authors frame this theme by talking about Catmull’s childhood admiration of Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. While his academic career followed a more Einstein-ian path (working on cutting-edge computer science work at the University of Utah), his childhood love of Disney ultimately led his pursuits back to film-making and storytelling. As much as Pixar created and worked with state-of-the-art technology, most of the book’s anecdotes center on storytelling and the difficulty of (and importance of) getting the story right.

This was my first encounter with a phenomenon I would notice again and again, throughout my career: For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right. (37)

The Authors give great detail behind the creative process of taking a film from idea to theater, highlighting the importance of revision and the prevalence of failure in creative ventures. His emphasis on rigorously testing ideas and giving candid criticism is certainly something I loved about working in an academic environment and his insistence that all films suck in their early stages was a familiar sentiment about creating something good. However, the amount of revision that went into writing a film was still astounding. They completely rewrote Up several times. Nearly the entire content of the film’s story had changed. Even then, the emotion underlying the story not only remained, but was articulated in a much truer fashion.

The film itself — not the filmmaker — is under the microscope. This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation — you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person. (94)

Just as the importance of the story is central to Pixar’s success, the importance of organizational chemistry is behind Catmull’s success as a manager. It’s not just about assembling plenty of smart people, but having them work together in a way that is productive and supportive. After they were able to create the first computer animated feature film (Toy Story), Catmull made it his professional ambition (obsession?) to sustain Pixar’s creative culture. He quickly found that an organization’s need to communicate openly and candidly was vital to its success.

That they liked so much of what they were doing allowed them to put up with the parts of the job they came to resent. This was a revelation to me: The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff. I realized that this was something I needed to look out for: When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainer…Being on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems. (62)

The way the book connects so many important themes (art and technology, candid communication, the creative process – to name my favorites) while engrossing the reader in the world of Pixar and the life of Ed Catmull is a testament to the authors and their storytelling. A truly fascinating read, Creativity Inc. is difficult to summarize succinctly, but I can assure you, that it is well-worth your time to read it.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Next time: How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Blockchain Revolution

The big question facing technology following the huge changes brought by the expansion of the internet is what will be the “Next Big Thing”? The Blockchain Revolution seemed like a good juxtaposition to the open hardware revolution detailed in Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (My Review Here).

The Tapscotts make the problem the Blockchain Revolution will address clear: there are too many middle men collecting and exposing our personal data. Why expose all our data when only some is needed? Why have a middle man determine our credibility when we can work one-on-one with another person? Blockchains (Bitcoin being the most famous) are the solution.

So blockchains are anonymous but still public. They’re encrypted and … *begins mumbling* … math … Bitcoin … algorithm … *indistinct mumbling*

But Brian, how did you read an entire book on blockchains and still can’t explain it?

Well, dear reader, that is a good question. The short answer is I did not read the entire book. I read fifty-two pages (the first of three “Parts”) and learned that blockchains are like a ledger. But that’s about it. I skimmed the rest of the book – and boy was I vindicated.

Perhaps the Tapscotts make sense to someone who already knows about Bitcoins and blockchains, but to someone who isn’t already well-versed, their attempts at explanation are more confusing than informative.

…also expects to see bitcoin applications in the Metaverse (a virtual world) where you can convert bitcoin into Kongbucks and hire Hiro Protagonist to hack you some data. Or jack yourself into the OASIS (a world of multiple virtual utopias) where you actually do discover the Easter egg, win Halliday’s estate, license OASIS’s virtual positioning rights to Google, and buy a self-driving car to navigate Toronto. (38)

The book doesn’t rely on a narrative and is largely composed of independent sections, subsections, and lists. Several lists even get names: the seven design principles of the blockchain economy (27), the golden eight (61), the big seven (128), and ten implementation challenges (253).

So I read the jumbled explanation that is Part 1. Part 2 looked to be essentially “What if everything used blockchains?” Blockchain finance. Blockchain real estate. Blockchain voting. Blockchain justice. In this section, the Tapscotts wonder what if Airbnb used Blockchain (115-7)? What about Wikipedia (130-2)? Uber (164-5)? The music and art industries (chapter 9)? Part 3 looked to be: Will Blockchain succeed? Maybe!

I hate to be so negative because a good deal of my dislike of the book stems from mismatched expectations. I needed a book that would walk me through what blockchains are, how they are used, how they can be used, and why they will benefit people in the future. I needed to be converted to the gospel of blockchain. This book is for those already converted. Unfortunately for me, the Tapscotts are simply preaching to the choir.

Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World

Next time: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in just Five Days

I was excited to read Sprint. It promised “How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days.” It wasn’t a big problem, but we recently got a big slobbery dog who makes us change the water frequently. I wanted a better solution on how to save some of this water. It might not be a big problem but I thought I’d use this as a way to follow along.

My assumptions were wrong.

Really wrong.

However, the book still turned out to be good.

Really good.

The target isn’t a lone inventor (though anyone can learn from their principles). Jake Knapp and his co-authors run sprints for startups at Google Ventures and Sprint is their how-to manual, written after dozens and dozens of efforts to improve products and ideas. They work with companies to solve problems and test big-idea solutions with potential for big paydays, without devoting too much time or money. It’s never a flawless success, but partial successes and interesting failures move projects faster than general meetings and group brainstorms. The ideal sprint is run with a small group of people thinking how to make something better, rather than going from idea to invention.

The sprint is great for testing risky solutions that might have a huge payoff. (156)

Their experience shines through as they masterfully weave together real life examples (both good and bad), step-by-step instructions on how to run your own sprint, and explanations of the processes and theories behind why they do what they do. The writing and design is superb too. Handmade-looking graphics play into the fun atmosphere as well as provide clear insight into how the sprint process works. Similarly, they draw on popular culture to communicate key ideas (examples including Oceans 11, Lord of the Rings, and Apollo 13. Their playful tone mixes well with their expert advice.

In a sprint, time is precious, and we can’t afford distrations in the room. So we have a simple rule: No laptops, phones, or iPads allowed. No virtual-reality headsets. If you’re reading this book in the future, no holograms. If you’re reading it in the past, no Game Boys. (41)

Engaging writing aside, the book functions as a reference for anyone who is or may need to quickly decide the fate of a major project. They break the book down by each day you’re in the sprint (Monday-Friday) with tabs printed on the edge of each page according to the day. They also include facilitator notes (so that you can run your own sprint), supplies you’ll want to buy before running your own sprint, and checklists to keep you on track when you’re running a sprint.

The format of a sprint is deceptively simple:

    Monday: Map your process and target a problem
    Tuesday: Sketch ideas
    Wednesday: Decide on your solution
    Thursday: Build a realistic prototype
    Friday: Test the prototype with potential users

The five day format is part of a broader obsession on doing just enough to maximize return without devoting more time, money, or effort than necessary. Five days, not more or less. Five test users, not more or less. They discuss their “prototype mindset” when talking about how they build something real enough to keep the illusion of the product but no more (to prevent getting too attached to the product or wasting money/time/effort). But the “prototype mindset” underlies the entire sprint process—they need to test a solution in a way real enough to see if it’ll work, but fit it into a week so you don’t get bogged down in the process.

It’s what work should be about – not wasting time in endless meetings, then seeking camaraderie in a team-building event at a bowling alley – but working together to build something that matters to real people. This is the best use of your time. This is a sprint. (225)

Focused preparation, decisive decision-making, the best of individual and group work, fast feedback from people who represent your users (and not simply relying on your expertise). These are the ideas behind running a sprint and whether or not you’ll be running a sprint soon, their philosophies can certainly be adapted to your everyday situations.

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

Next time: Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Fish!

We were in line at Half-Priced Books and I couldn’t find the generically titled “Fish” on my phone at the library. We’ll call it an impulse buy. Only two dollars and it was Wall Street Journal Business Bestseller. A one-day read, Fish! was a cheesy but interesting read – worth the two dollars for a corporate mixture of mindfulness and customer service.

The book is a “parable” that demonstrates the authors’ training philosophy based on the Pike Place Fish Market. The fictional story is cheesy, but the format made the book quite digestible. It recounts the four principles behind the success of the “world famous” Seattle fish market.

  1. Choose Your Attitude
  2. Play
  3. Make Their Day
  4. Be Present

Mindfulness is all about being present and choosing how you act when faced with life, not simply reacting is a core skill. The authors use similar language in applying the idea of Choosing Your Attitude:

There is always a choice about the way you do your work, even if there is not a choice about the work itself (37)

I hadn’t directly considered the importance of the “Play” and “Make Their Day” principles before, but I have a predisposition to Dad Jokes so I’ve inadvertently utilized these ideas at work. My favorite was asking kids checking out a BB-8 robot if they would use it to help the Resistance or the First Order. It occasionally went over the kids head, but would produce a sly smile if they got it.

They engage people and welcome them to join in the fun. Customers like being a part of the show, and memories are created here which will bring smiles and make good stories for a long time afterward. Involving others and working to “make their day” directs attention toward the customer (66).

Fish! was an easy read, and a good reminder of both mindfulness and customer service principles. Best of all, it gives me free reign to use more Dad Jokes at work.

Fish: A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results


Next time: Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com