True Silence

I’m standing outside the farmhouse watching fireflies light up the field. The air hangs heavy as the last bit of a storm passes on. Except for the distant thunder, it’s quite and I love it.

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When I first started at Basecamp four years ago, I loved the cacophony of being online all day. Every few seconds, there’d be a new email to reply to, a Twitter notification to view, a Facebook message to answer, and then everything happening in both work and personal chat rooms. Throw an iPhone in to the mix and it was a symphony of noise filling the air around me. At the end of the work day (and hell, even on vacations), I’d want to be online in the midst of it all.

But I’ve noticed a distinct change in myself in the past year. I no longer want to be part of that symphony. I want quietness instead. I seek silence.

“True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

I remember reading this quote from William Penn. I forget the exact day that was the moment I knew I needed that kind of silence. I turned off all the notifications I could. Phone calls and text messages are the only apps that get to make any kind of noise on my iPhone or my computer. Everything else waits for me to open it before it can show me any new activity that I need to know about.

I’ve also set rules on when I check emails, tweets, etc. When my work day ends at 5pm, I stop opening those apps. On weekends, I allow myself to open those apps once each day. Outside of those times, the Internet can wait.

By doing this, I get the silence my mind and body craves.

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Our farm is nothing fancy. My grandfather’s worked this land since I was a child. As he got older, we all moved away from farming into city jobs - finance, teaching, and managing restaurants.

But lately, I’ve been drawn back to the farm. Back to the place where I can find true silence.


The Real Derby Magic

From The Bitter Southerner ↠

Come Saturday, it will be Derby Day, and Churchill Downs will teem with expensive haberdashery. But the real magicians of Kentucky’s racing country work in a place they call “the backside,” where splendor is beside the point. Here, it’s just a man or a woman and a horse.

A great story on the real Derby magic that happens behind the mint juleps and derby hats.


Today’s Goodness

The heavy wooden door creaks as I swing it open. As I start climbing the stairs to his office, I hear him call my name.

“Chase, is that you coming up those steps?”

I call out, “Yes sir.” I’m only halfway up the stairs but I went ahead and asked, “How’s this day treating you so far?”

He replies with the same answer he always gives me.

“Every day’s a good day because I get to do good things.”

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Ben Franklin had two questions he asked himself each day. He began the morning with “What Good shall I do this day?” and ended each evening with “What Good did I do today?”. By focusing on those two questions, Franklin set a simple goal for the day - to do good.

Compared to Franklin’s era, I’ve got more tools to do good than he could ever dream. With my computer in hand, I can start Kickstarter campaigns, raise money for water wells overseas, or volunteer for political candidates that promise change. With a tweet I’m raising awareness for a disease and with a like I show my support for a certain group.

That’s all doing good each day, right?

I’d ask myself that and instantly come back to that one phrase - “Every day’s a good day because I get to do good things.”. This one reply from a gentleman who’s never heard of Twitter or Kickstarter. He’s got a few computers in his office but I’m pretty sure the number of typewriters outnumber them at least two to one.

I remember seeing him once, hearing his normal reply, and asking, “If you don’t mind me asking, what good things have you done today?”

His answer wasn’t full of tweets or likes. It wasn’t raising awareness for this or campaigning for that. Just like that simple daily goal, it focused on one thing - kindness.

It’s the small acts of kindness that have big impacts.

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From the Art of Manliness:

“It’s great to have big, idealistic plans to build wells in Africa or change the whole political process. But oftentimes we only associate doing good with doing something big, and since we don’t know how to get started on a huge project, we end up doing….nothing at all.”

During my grandfather’s final days, I saw this firsthand with his nursing staff in the ICU. They made sure my grandmother had enough blankets to keep warm during the night. They placed a cart outside the door with drinks and food for our family. They showed us kindness in every way imaginable.

That’s what I strive for each day now. Nothing big or flashy but something more than a simple tweet or like.

One act of kindness, of goodness, for the day.


Better is the Enemy of Best

I’m a huge geek when it comes to the Apollo space program. I’ve got an autographed photo from the Apollo 11 crew hanging in my office alongside a piece of the parachute line from that mission. My grandmother worked with the NASA team in Huntsville, Alabama, in the 1960s so every time I see her I try to get another story of that era out of her.

Recently I’ve been reading “Chariots for Apollo” from Charles Pellegrino and Joashua Stoff. It’s one of my favorite books on the race to the moon.

One section tells the story of Tommy Attridge, a Grumman test pilot assigned to the lunar module (LM) program. The Grumman Corporation received the contract to build the craft that would carry astronauts down to the lunar surface. However, the LM team kept second guessing themselves with their designs and decisions. Their line of thinking was, “This craft would put a man on the moon so it had to be perfect!”

When he arrived at the Grumman plant in 1967, Attridge focused on one question – “Must we build it better?” And he learned very quickly that better is the enemy of best.

“We have the best radar in the world today. But tomorrow, I can make it better because just yesterday they invented this new transistor."

Enter LM-3 (lunar module-3). An engineer finished installing the landing radar on it only to tell Attridge, “We have the best radar in the world today. But tomorrow, I can make it better because just yesterday they invented this new transistor. And if I can put the new transistor in here and add this integrated circuit. You know, now we that we have integrated circuits, we can build it better.”

Tommy answered, “Sure. Why not? We can keep putting a better one in every day. Let’s see if we can’t stretch this thing out till 1990.”

Every new day brings new gadgets and gizmos. Whatever project or product you’re working on, there’s probably something that will make it just a tad bit better tomorrow. And a little bit better the day after that. And a smidge better the following day. But for every thing that makes it better, it means one more day of not shipping.

That engineer ended up going over Attridge’s head to get the landing radar replaced. With the “better” choice came new problems as it kept locking up on itself, which made the new tech worthless. That choice ended up delaying LM-3 so that Apollo 8 launched without it. The Apollo teams found themselves even farther behind in the space race.

This article was originally published on Signal v. Noise


The Plane Turn

I was sitting in the Nashville airport waiting on a delayed flight when I got the chance to watch a ground crew turn a plane. The “turn” consists of offloading the passengers, cleaning the plane, changing the luggage, loading the new planes, and all the actions that happen between landing and takeoff.

The best airlines, like my favorites Southwest and Delta, can turn a plane in 15 minutes. The faster the turn the better. Planes don’t make money while they’re sitting on the tarmac.

Watching the turn

Frankly, they sucked at turning the plane. The crew wandered around slowly performing tasks with no thought as to how fast they should be moving. The one guy unloading luggage had no help from the guy sitting in the truck they use to pull the luggage carts. The lady lazily throwing trash bags out the door didn’t care if it landed anywhere near much less in the trash bin. By the clock on the wall, this turn is at 28 minutes and counting. And that’s on a small plane, not the Boeing 737s that Southwest flies.

It’s all about urgency

For the crew, it comes down to a sense of urgency, not to be confused with rushing. A sense of urgency requires the person to always be moving quickly and efficiently with no wasted time or motion.

The Southwest ground crews look like a well rehearsed ballet compared to this mess unfolding before me. Each person performs their task while helping out each other when they can.

  • The guy refueling the plane is helping move luggage onto the carts.
  • The co-pilot is moving through the cabin picking up trash to help the flight attendant.
  • The captain is helping to load drinks and snacks.

It’s smooth, quick, and gives Southwest the ability to turn that plane faster than anyone else.

This one simple thing makes all the difference. From ground crews to tech teams to you in the office, if you don’t have a sense of urgency, it’s just going to be a mess.

Your sense of urgency

You’ve got to hone in on your personal sense of urgency to push you. Just like us waiting to board that plane, you’ve got customers waiting to hear from you.

Oh, and the crew just finished. Took them 35 minutes to turn that plane.

(This was originally published in June 2011. I’ve made some revisions and added a few more thoughts so wanted to publish the new version here.)