Two weeks ago was the low point of my two months of entrepreneurship at the helm of Wahanegi, and thus my seven years of noodling about the ideas behind the company, and to some extent almost forty-two years of learning about what’s inside my head. That head was confused, and my gut was twisted. I was simultaneously certain that recent neuroscientific discoveries and technological advancements could make people happier in amazing new sustainable ways, and certain that the data from my market tests and many of the scientific studies I had read were wrong, and certain that it would take decades to get to an answer by just running experiments and tinkering as I’d planned.
And I couldn’t articulate why any of that was true beyond that my gut told me so.
That slight sickening feeling was made even worse by my deep belief in the value of persistence and meaningful goals and my competing deep desire to grow a business that takes less than a lifetime of effort to succeed. In the end, I am an engineer and entrepreneur who likes to solve problems and build things and a bit of a poet who lives on the thrill of the insight and flow, not a scientist who lives to discover problems and explain things repeatedly for the rest of my life…I have fun with that part but only when necessary and in direct service of some other goal.
It also didn’t help that on a beautiful blue Friday I was sitting in a roomful of people at Fort Mason listening to a brilliant talk about the study of happiness by Berkeley scientist Dacher Keltner and thinking he looked like a surfer and the people around me seemed happy but none of them seemed dramatically more happy than anyone else. Yet they were all happiness experts. I had an interesting conversation with Megan Tulac, Managing Director at the National Institute for Play (seriously, San Francisco is awesome), and she of course was talking enthusiastically about play and prototypes and the D School and I was thinking about apps and ambiguous market research data and feeling like some sort of been-there-done-that middle-aged MBA. Then it got worse when world-famous 78-year-old Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi stood up to talk about his life’s work, the study of the feeling of flow, and all I could think was that there is no way to incorporate flow into Wahanegi because his idea of flow was all about losing yourself to find yourself, not finding yourself by observing yourself.
Then, to cap it off, Dacher asked Mihaly what advice he would give to people about how to be happy based on his lifetime of research: “First, be aware of what feels right for you. Then, devote more time and attention to the things that make you feel good, and weasel out of the those that don’t.” His exact words according to my notes.
That struck me as exactly right, and exactly wrong, at the same time. Great.
I turned to the people next to me. I was sitting in the very front row because I wanted to clearly see the expressions on the speakers’ faces as they talked, and to do a little stage diving. Because I was sitting in the front row, the people sitting next to me were Lee Hwang, executive director of the Quality of Life Foundation, and Ann Shulman, executive director of the Greater Good Science Center. This was their event, and I had enjoyed it. I was thankful for their efforts, and so I focused on the positive. “His last statement was exactly right, and it was worth the whole day just to hear it.”
I told them the truth and I think helped make them happy, but unfortunately, I had no idea why I felt that way. I’d even been playing the game of ‘hot and cold’ with myself trying to figure out what direction to take to figure it out, but the signals were crossed, there were too many hot zones, and when every direction is hot, the game isn’t much fun for anyone.
To keep going, I tried to remember that my confused state indicated I was on the verge of a breakthrough, and given the intensity, it was a big one, and given the multiple unrelated hot zones, maybe more than one. I had to get away and let the answer come.
I thought maybe I should start looking for a job. Employment is hot around here these days.
Luckily, my awesome wife Natalie McCullough gave me an awesome Christmas present this year – tickets to the perfectly timed Coldplay concert last Saturday in San Jose together with four friends of ours. So we raced through the warm Bay Area evening to the concert with the top down to bathe in eighty thousand watts of musical bliss and spectacular lights with eighteen thousand fellow fans, plenty of tequila and beer, and one drop of Chris Martin’s sweat on my forearm…kinda icky, but whatever, not that there’s anything wrong with that, he seems like a good guy, gave a great show, and he apologized for the sweat in advance. I wiped off my arm on my pants.
I woke up at our friends’ house in Los Gatos Sunday morning feeling empty and hung over but calm. Very calm.
Something was up.
Then that night around ten while snuggling and dozing with Natalie on the front deck watching the stars come out over Marin, it hit me. The first time.
In a flash I knew at least one thing Wahanegi should build – it is a game, its design came to me nearly fully formed and all at once, and it is similar to many games and similar to many psychology experiments in just the right ways, but different from them all in just the right ways as well. At least that’s the way it still feels a week and a few days later. My wife went to bed, I went to the computer to write it down, and the hours from 10PM to 3AM flowed by…zip. It was a page out of every book about creative insight, and it was awesome.
The second eureka moment was a sort of strong aftershock, and it came on Monday morning in a coffee shop in the Lower Haight as I talked with Mimi “Mimzilla” Rosenheim, a creative, bright, silly and no-nonsense marketing mommy friend of mine. Instead of telling her what the game was, I started telling her about how I think the mind works and why I was having such a hard time finding a solution before the game idea hit me. In a sense, while talking with her I was extemporaneously working backwards from how the game works to figure out how the mind must work, especially related to willpower, decisions, habits and emotions, stitching together many small epiphanies from the past forty-two years, give or take. I felt it coming so I got out some paper and started drawing as I talked. The picture felt more meaningful when I wrote it than it appears now. My next several blog posts might be about those ideas so I can get them out of my head before I get back to Wahanegi.
The third eureka moment was a weaker aftershock, it happened at the corner of Haight and Ashbury at Magnolia’s Bar while meeting with Art Clarke, a newly-befriended wise and entrepreneurial CalTech computer scientist…yes, it was probably not the first epiphany to happen on that corner, and definitely not the biggest, but probably one of few involving a CalTech guy and an MIT guy talking about online market testing methodologies. Even though it was a relatively weak epiphany, because it came last that day, it was the most distracting. In short, I realized why the data from our Facebook advertising marketing tests was wrong – after a couple of days of research I learned that almost all the likes and probably some of the clicks are from profiles I think of as “booklicants” in honor of Blade Runner. They are a minor irritant in the scheme of things, especially since I think I know how to avoid them in the future. I’ll wait to see what Facebook says about it, and then write a how-to and explanation for fellow lean startup entrepreneurs so they can avoid the problem. I’ll probably call it “Don’t Believe the Likes – Avoiding Bad Data from Facebook Advertising,” but I’m tempted to use “Do Booklicants Dream of Electric Sheep? How to be a Blade Runner on Facebook,” which is a triple-homage to the movie, the book upon which the movie is based and the fact that the book is set in
roughly the same location as Facebook’s headquarters. The main problem is that I didn’t
really like the movie or the book that much, other than the title…they both made me feel uncomfortable, and that’s not why I watch movies or read books.
The fourth epiphany was a shared one a couple days later, and it happened during a fun and mind-bending verging on mind-numbing stream of consciousness conversation about a range of topics with Rob Pinkerton, my former partner in crime on the Customer Experience Management strategy at Adobe and a lawyer and former staffer for Strom Thurmond (you can only hold one of those facts against him, so take your pick and move on). As always, he had pithy and memorable things to say, but the best thing he said was “This could make a great book, or maybe a movie.” Game on, brother, at least as long as its fun and interesting and not that big a deal…if we can get Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Gary Oldman and Michael Cera all interested, I might be willing to do a little work. But they have to beg.
The last eureka moment came like a tsunami after talking with my fraternity brother Mike O’Connor. We hadn’t talked in years, but as part of my noodling around about my thoughts on how the mind works I called him up to ask about principles of automatic control, linear algebra, and modeling and measuring dynamic systems. You see, Mike and I went through Unified Engineering together back at the end of the ’80s while he was studying avionics and I was studying astronautics. He went on to get an Masters and PhD from Stanford while founding a company that builds robo-tractors that can drive themselves around a field, while I went to the Air Force to be a civil engineer tasked with figuring out how to keep shit flowing down hill. Yep, you got it, he’s forgotten more about principles of automatic control than most people ever knew, and he learned it all on farms, from whence all wisdom flows, at least in my experience. He answered my first question, then I told him why I’d asked, it was because I thought that scientists had a hard time interpreting the data from their experiments because our brains probably worked a lot like missiles and robo-tractors and the first thing out of his mouth was:
“I don’t know if this is relevant, but something interesting about dynamic control systems is that you can’t really measure the dynamics of the underlying system you are trying to control while the control system is turned on. So when something wasn’t going as we expected, we’d first have to turn off the control system and try to figure out some new subtlety about the tractor, which we then used to update the model to determine the control variables or change the control system design.”
And I said, yeah, that’s not what I meant, I meant that first and second derivatives are hard enough to measure and think about let alone third derivatives or even higher orders, but you are right, that also seems really important, but I don’t know why. Again. I was used to that feeling by now, and I was waiting for it when a couple of days later it hit me (hence the tsunami analogy) and I knew why we sleep, why we dream, and why meditation causes the left prefrontal cortex to light up, among other things. Yes, to create a game I first had to learn about simple brain anatomy and things called the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia and thalamus in addition to the notorious amygdala…or rather, if you read scientific papers about happiness, you have to keep reading about brain anatomy, and eventually you pick some of it up…and that turned out to be useful information when I then wanted to test my theory and typed these phrases into Google:
- does the basal ganglia light up during dreams - lots of goosebumps there
- what does basal ganglia damage cause - more goosebumps
- how long does lack of sleep take to kill you – we’ll see
- prefrontal cortex during sleep – goosebumps again
- what does meditation feel like – yeah, I know, I could have just tried it
- how much REM kids versus adults – nod
- longer REM as night progresses – nod
- sleep deprivation and immune system – nod
The summary of sleep from the National Institutes of Health was particularly easy to read compared to some of the results. Connect Mike’s tractors with those dots, then you see where I’m headed…but that is a topic for another day.
I think that’s it for now. At least it feels like I’m tapped out and energized in a forward-leaning way, and I’ve sketched out at least six months of work for myself and a direction for Wahanegi that is worth not just my time and money but also time and money from as many other people as required. That is a very good feeling, definitely worth the months or years or decades of work that went into it, no matter how you look at it.
I’ll leave you with this. If you need any more evidence that creative insight comes from being open to every input, even junk input, just look to the booklicants. I suspect that without the crap Facebook data generated by the booklicants I might not have been so frustrated and later let go so completely at Coldplay, and maybe I’d be comparing job offers now instead of writing interminable blog postings like this. That would have sucked.