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Pirates, Parrots, and Info Snacking

Written By: Brian Wang 29 September 2010 Other Posts By: Brian Wang

Sometimes I yearn for the days of 28.8k modems.  I imagine it was easier to get things done back then.  Let me explain.

Something that has troubled me recently is the ease with which I end up procrastinating from productive work with low value activities.   Distractions such as an inbox that demands attention, chatting over IM, and checking Facebook all conspire to steal time away from real priorities. Yet these things are at least easy to identify as inefficient uses of time. What disturbs me most is my predilection for what Jeff Bezos calls “info snacking.”  I have it down to a fine art.

Many of you may be familiar with the some of the following behavior:

  • Constantly checking Twitter/RSS/news aggregators for interesting links
  • Bookmarking any site that even marginally interests you
  • Reading the latest articles to stay up to date

Two observations frighten me the most about the above:

They indicate a severe lack of attention span and overall generate shallow understanding

As a child in the days where Internet access wasn’t yet prevalent, I was quite a voracious reader. I had no trouble finishing several hundred pages of a book in a couple of days nor did I ever have trouble focusing on reading long form writing. Yet these days I feel almost as though there is so much information being fed to me so quickly, from so many sources, and in such small bits (the “firehose problem”), that my behavior has been reprogrammed to read a mile wide and an inch deep.  Long form reading has little place in my life these days (this saddens me greatly, by the way).  And this doesn’t seem to be an uncommon phenomenon; Wired magazine published a piece on this very topic just a few months ago.  The bullet points of the article (see what I did there?) include:

  • Our long-term memory is great at retaining information but in order to effectively retain and synthesize information, our working, short-term memory should be focused on one thing at a time
  • Our web-connected generation is faced with multiple information faucets going on full blast, constantly interrupting our flow
  • Constant interruption have high switching costs and result in poor retention of information

And I shudder at the thought of anybody seeing my bookmarks folder. It is a clinical case of digital content packrat behavior if there is such a thing. I think I spend more time hitting “Ctrl + D” than I actually spend reading content once I get beyond the headline. Somehow I convince myself that saving something to read for later equates with actually getting some use out of it.  This results is nothing but a handful of headlines and half-remembered talking points that pose little net value.

They create the illusion of progress

Let’s assume that while you do spend time consuming information online, manic tab browsing and “the firehose” are not issues for you.  You focus on one thing at a time.  Even in this scenario, it is easy to pretend that this info consumption is a net positive for a startup (or whatever goal you’re trying to work toward). Sure, you might think that you’re building up some imaginary, intellectual piggy bank but at the end of the day, those two hours you spent reading the latest discussions on Hacker News and then tweeting about some TechCrunch headlines would probably have been put to better use actually working on your product.

I have been meaning to start cutting my teeth on basic web development for some time now, but thus far that’s amounted to going through a couple of books and video tutorials.  Oh, and I also happen to have something like 100 links to various articles, how-tos, tips, best practices, etc.  The best explanation I can come up with for this sort of nonsense is that reading resources that I deem useful gives me a little bit of a dopamine kick.  It’s as if I’m fooling myself into thinking that my skills are actively increasing.  What’s really happening is it’s far simpler to pretend work is being done with this sort of behavior than it is to go through the pain of trying to move toward tangible output.  Yes, I agree – it’s ridiculous.

Pirates and Parrots

Broadly speaking within the startup world, there are pirates and parrots.  (Note: bear with me here, the analogy here is intentionally silly)

Pirates get shit done because they have to; nobody else is going to do their job for them.  As Marc Andreesen would remind us, “…in a startup, absolutely nothing happens unless you make it happen.”Remember that nothing happens unless you make it happen.  You think some bad-ass pirate dominated the seas because he spent all his time chasing wenches and drinking rum?  Hell no – he’d otherwise get swallowed up by the thousand threats beating at his door (ship?).  It’s do or die.

Conversely, you have the parrots of the startup world.  They love to hang around the pirates, info snack as much as they can, and then spit it back out to the nearest poor soul who stopped caring to listen after the first 5 minutes.  The parrots love feeling like they’re part of the startup community – after all, they have hundreds of Twitter followers, post insightful comments on Quora, and can talk at length about the latest Silicon Valley gossip.  The allure is pretty clear: they surround themselves with the sexiness of tech startups but never bother to take any risks themselves.  And yes, I admit it: I’ve been a parrot for the better part of the year.  The good news is that I recognize this and have committed to going on an info diet and transitioning to life as a pirate.  The full time job is ending this week, my co-founder and I are moving in together in a week, shit is getting real.  YAARRR!

All else being equal, do something

One of Marc Andreesen’s commonly cited pieces of wisdom, one that has become a mantra for many entrepreneurs today, is “The only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit.” In keeping with these two statements, the most important thing for startups, and indeed most anything in life, is a bias toward action. Hustle, grind, plug, dig, do whatever you have to do, just so long as you produce.  This is in stark contrast to the behavior I describe above.  Not only does a bias for action actually end up producing something, but building anything at all is infinitely superior to going through instructional materials or participating in the deluge of information that is the modern interwebs.  The experience of cranking something out provides lessons far beyond a simple 10 step tutorial that somebody wrote over a weekend.  If you’re in a startup where you’ll have to wear multiple hats and will be tasked with doing things with which you have no experience, just fucking do it because all the online resources in the world will never make you prepared enough.  You don’t become a good driver by reading a book, right?

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  • http://twitter.com/ABhumbla Ash Bhumbla

    Great post, Brian — you should check out “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr if you want to learn more about our dwindling attention span. Granted, that lack of attention makes it pretty difficult to actually get through the very interesting book :-) .

    Can't wait to see your transition from parrot to pirate — good luck!

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/DrSteveWright Dr. Steve Wright

    One way to focus and achieve more “flow” (see link in article above – http://www.meaningandhappiness.com/zone-enjoyment-creativity-elements-flow/26/) is “time-blocking”: block out specific periods of time where you DON'T look at any email, twitter, facebook, Quora, news, interesting articles (even if work-related), etc. but just focus completely on a productive task.

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