Jan 17 2012

Ducks – Meet your new problem solving team

Each morning, you wake up, not with the Sun or in time to hit your 9am punchcard, but at the exact moment that your body becomes perfectly rested, whether that means 7am or 11am (or 2pm on Mondays).  You roll out of bed, do a few yoga stretches, maybe a pushup or two for good measure, then stroll down the hall to put on a pot of your favorite coffee (or tea if you’re so inclined).  You head to your office, the corner of the bedroom that hasn’t yet been usurped by the dirty laundry, and clear back the jungle of chinese takeout boxes, utility bills, and post-it notes to reveal a desk.  On that desk sits a purring little machine – you give it a little pat, open it up, and instantly become plugged into the rest of the world.

Congratulations, you are one of the chosen ones – the tele-worker.  You have somehow managed to turn plaid pajamas into professional attire.  You can blare your Michael Buble Christmas album as loud as you want without fear of persecution by your coworkers.  At this very moment, there are millions of commuters all over the world cursing your good fortune.  Yet, you have a problem.  It may not be apparent in the early days of freedom, but once past the honeymoon phase of tele-working, it will slowly start creeping in, not unlike the accompanying arc of disinterest in your personal hygiene.

The problem is that beyond the general process of slipping into cabin fever (solved in part by mid-day runs, lunches with friends, time spent at coffee shops, etc.), you slowly realize that problem solving tasks have become more time-consuming and arduous than in your pre-tele-worker days.

It’s not that the retreat into our homes has somehow diminished our inherent problem solving abilities, but rather that we tend to forget or undervalue the ability to quickly bounce an idea off of someone else in a shared working space.  For the tele-worker, a typical problem solving process goes like this:

  1. Search the internet for the kindred soul who’s stumbled across your same problem
  2. Spend an hour banging head against table
  3. Take advil for resulting headache
  4. IM a co-worker – spend 20 minutes explaining the context, before agreeing to:
  5. Get on the phone and talk it through
Simply jumping to step 5 is much more expedient, but depends on having a coworker, and being comfortable with disrupting said coworker, especially if due diligence hasn’t been fully completed yet.  As a replacement for, or a precursor to, talking on the phone with your coworker, I suggest:

Talking to a rubber duck

Yes, talking out loud to a plastic toy.  Put the rubber duck next to your monitor, walk it through the problem you’re solving, and be amazed when the solution comes to you almost immediately.  I’m sure we’ve all had this phenomenon occur when explaining a problem to a fellow human – well, a duck does the job just as well, without any of the judgement that can often accompany human responses.

This technique is used sometimes in the programming world and called “rubber duck debugging“, however, I’ve found it to be useful in all sorts of problem solving and brainstorming tasks.  It also seems to be more useful than simply talking out loud about the problem because the duck forces you to actually explain the situation step by step.

Without further ado, meet my problem solving team (put together my HR Director/lovely wife Liz):

Name: Bob
Occupation: Builder
Role: My go-to man – helps architect and build new solutions, as well as dig me out of ditches
Name: Sam
Occupation: Survivalist
Role: Helps me find a way out of a situation when I’m absolutely lost
Name: Nancy
Occupation: Nurse
Role: Calms me down when my blood starts to boil – also keeps my cursing in check

Name: Dan
Occupation: Lieutenant
Role: Berates me and my work when I’m not on top of my game and need to step it up

Name: Frank
Occupation: Fireman
Role: Puts out fires

Name: Jack
Occupation: Captain
Role: Indulges my desires to talk like a pirate

Name: Liz
Occupation: Princess
Role: Reminds me of who I get to see after work

**WARNING** – While working late at night and/or after a few bottles of beer, your good natured ducks may turn on you.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Jan 9 2012

Say it with me: 2012 is the year

Happy New Year! I’ve been traveling since the start of the year. It’s been exciting that, everywhere I have been, there has been a palpable feeling that this is going to be a great year. I admit there is some selection bias going on, but it’s really energizing nevertheless.

Whatever industry you are in, if you’re working on changing “business as usual,” you probably feel it too. In everything from farming, to transportation, housing, finance, or education- from the East Coast to the West Coast and in between- in cities and in small towns- very many “alternative” ways of doing things seem poised to go mainstream in 2012. We’re at the convergence of many exciting tipping points all at once.

Why 2012? I think the Millenials just woke up to our shared values, collective buying power, and creativity. Strap yourself in.

The “Co” Generation

There is a common thread to these tipping points: the disarmingly-innocent, power-packed prefix “co.” Co-working, co-ops, co-ownership, co-learning, and co-living, oh my!

Those two tellingly circular little letters carry a wealth of meaning for our generation. They mean we understand we’re all in this together. They mean we like strong communities more than amassing personal wealth. They mean we like sharing good times and successes and failures. From my vantage point, those two little letters are the reason behind the sea changes all of these industries are experiencing.

Maybe up until this point we were helping out on an urban farm on the side, or choosing to ditch our cars, or getting into dangerous ideas like sustainability or social entrepreneurship. But whatever we did, if you were like me, you probably felt that these experiments were on the fringe of the mainstream, not the norm. And they were.

Then, overnight- as we reached the point in our lives where we are buying property, creating new companies, and investing in each other’s- we somehow became aware of each other’s little experiments. We took stock of our values and priorities and realized there are many things we share.

We had all been thinking these thoughts on our own- whispering our crazy ideas quietly to each other on the playground, passing notes discretely to our friends under our desks- but now that we have discovered we are not alone, we are putting our capital where our hearts are. Realizing our unity, we picked up a megaphone and shouted to whoever would listen:

The age of the Rugged Individualist is dead. He is not Us. That’s not our style. We like each other too much. We’re in this together!

If you are working in any of these industries, have you felt it? If you have been slogging away at bringing about these changes for the last 40 years and paving the way to make these changes possible now, thanks! We owe you and appreciate your foresight.


Out with the single family home in the ‘burbs. In with the community house, the shared backyard, the grange, and… the yurt?

The Doghouse in Brooklyn

There’s a reason college was one of the best times of our lives; we had community all around us, all the time. We remember that. We also remember suburbia; we experienced it at its height. We have weighed them both and made our decision: we have found the one acre and two-car garage in the ‘burbs wanting. We like to live together.

The McMansions baby boomers built with their accumulated wealth, and then didn’t need or couldn’t afford, are going for a steal. If you haven’t noticed yet, we’re buying them and turning them into networks of intentional communities we can live in through all stages of our lives so that, even though we are more mobile than past generations, wherever we go we will be living in stronger communities, sharing the burden of chores, sharing the responsibility for parenting, and getting more living space for our money.

Several married couples I know are living together in group houses. Three separate groups of friends are buying land and starting farming cooperatives together. New Leaf at Penn State is buying an old frat house and turning it into a community for students and professionals working on sustainability projects together. The Embassy Network is buying properties in major cities that will be converted into houses with co-working on the first floor, a short-term stay floor (the “hostel”) above that, and a floor for long-term residents at the top, with reciprocal membership between each “node” of the Network.


It’s amazing to watch the speed of change in this industry. Do you remember the world before Omnivore’s Dilemma? Do you remember when you hadn’t heard of a food co-op, before all of your neighbors were in one? Do you remember easy mac, frozen dinners, and our fast food diets?

If you work in industrial farming, start looking for another job. We don’t want your turkeys that are bred to never stand up. We don’t want the syrup of your mono-culture corn fields. We want to be get fresh veggies from the local co-ops our friends are starting. We want to get our meat from one of the hundreds of small, crop-rotating farms Joel Salatin has inspired, or from the restaurants like Chipotle that do. Farmers markets are exploding. Buying artisan food from your neighbor is back. Trading the extra tomatoes from my little garden for your extra squash is in.

In the short space of time since we left school, these things have gone from alternative to mainstream. In some places I visit, the old mainstream has become outright taboo. Try serving up McDonalds at the next birthday party in Charlottesville and see if the other moms ever accept an invitation for another play date.


Cubicle? Career for life? Maximize shareholder value? No thanks. We tried that. We like to work on lots of interesting projects that stretch us and challenge us and allow us to make a contribution to the world. We don’t care if we’re going to get the opportunity to do that from a corporation, a startup, or ourselves.

Many of us are showing up “at work” now at the many buzzing co-working spaces that are proliferating wherever we are, like Hub DC, the General Assembly, and Bull City Forward.

Spud Marshall @ New Leaf Initiative, hard at work

We shop at REI. We or our friends studied abroad and have seen the way other countries value family, vacation and balance. We realize that there are other options for how companies can work, and we don’t want to work for those that don’t get it. When we start our own companies, we’re not just forming corporations. We’re forming co-ops and B Corps. If you don’t know what those are, you’re late to the party. And the party’s not waiting for you.

We want to share leadership. We want workers to be co-owners of their own companies, fates, and daily decisions. I don’t know a company starting this year that isn’t working that deeply into their organizational structure.


You’re dreaming if you think we’re going to pay $160k to send our kids to listen to fours years of lectures by droning professors in giant auditoriums. We can’t get all of the knowledge we need to solve the world’s problems from the past and from experts. Realizing that, we’re getting better at practicing the art of co-creating our own educational experiences together, just like we’ll be expected to do in our work. This year, Khan Academy, Skillshare and Free Schools, MITx and a free Stanford Artificial Intelligence course with 130,000 students captured our imagination.

There’s no turning back now. Thanks to the growing acceptance of these types of peer education practices, both on and off campuses, our kids are going to have a lot more options than we ever did for getting an awesome education for less money. Lecture halls are already being converted. If you visit the new UVA Med School building, you will find, instead of lecture halls, a big circular room filled with teams of students working together on problem sets, with a coach instead of a lecturer in the middle, quizzing, and asking groups to share and explain their answers.


Collaborative consumption, co-ownership, and services are inOwning is out.

We’re getting our books on Kindle, our music from Pandora, and our mobility from Metros, Megabus, Bikeshare and Zipcars. We’re the first generation to think that texting is cooler than owning a car. (Is there any greater evidence that we love our communities?). Friends are selling shares of their cars to their friends and putting several names on their driver’s insurance.

“The recovery” is not going to be coming from Detroit or from the RIAA.


Private Banks are outNonprofit, community banking is in.

I’ll let Kyle Theirmann explain:

What Next?

The list above is only scratching the surface. There is so much more happening.

Mom, dad. You gave us good values. You gave us good skills. You taught us that winning isn’t everything. You taught us to share and to put things back like we found them. You taught us that we were capable of changing the world and, more importantly, endowed us with a sometimes arrogant belief that we could.

We also learned from you how to build our dreams into businesses, how to get things done. We’re going to start putting all of those things to work.