Life’s a tricky business

Nobody sets out on a strategy to fail. But they make many, many small decisions along the way for short-term gain that end up in overall failure. It’s true in business and in life. We’ve known this for generations, haven’t we? And yet we all succumb to it at one point or another.

Clayton Christensen struck a nerve with me in this BBC interview. The man behind the “innovator’s dilemma” — explaining why big companies like GM fail when disrupted by a newcomer or why newspapers struggle to survive in the digital age — makes the case for how people drastically underestimate the effect that day-to-day decisions have on a fulfilling life. His full argument is laid out in “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

It’s also an argument about integrity — sticking to your guns, avoiding compromises.

It also churns up thoughts about faith.

I suppose the argument is there that religion exists to reinforce a message of long-term thinking throughout our lives — saving your soul is as long-term as it gets. I’m not super religious, but I have to acknowledge its utility. What other institutions are compelling us to do this, to willingly sacrifice for potential reward later on? I suppose educational systems and fitness centers do this for different aspects of our health.

Anyway, the book is on my reading list, and it’s only $4 for the Kindle. Check out the interview; it’s worth pondering.

Poetry is code

WordPress’ tagline preaches, “Code is poetry.” Therefore, poetry is code.

Writers need to take written language as seriously as a programmer takes code. English (and any other language, written or otherwise) is a programming language. It encodes meaning. Language has rules of syntax, grammar and logic; then there are matters of style. All are features of programming as well.

A poorly formed expression won’t function, whether it’s PHP or English. An errant comma or misspelled word can destroy a well intentioned sentence. Trouble is, most readers already know how to debug on the fly: we can instantly turn “their” into “there” if the conditions are right. A proofreader must turn off this feature and compile meaning word by word, clause by clause.

Learning to code, and observing good code, has deepened my appreciation for writing well and reading good writing.

Write on.

What do you read? Perhaps more importantly, when?

A student asked me recently what I read when I want to read good writing. It occurred to me I really haven’t done much of that recently. I scan and skim a lot of blogs, mostly about journalism, the media, media tech or college media specifically. Almost like checking the weather rather than actually diving into thoughtfully written material. But I haven’t done even that much recently, finding most of the blogs to be noise written to draw traffic rather than actually engage a reader.

I finished reading “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains” over the break and started up “Outliers: The Story of Success.” I like the way these books explain actual things that happened or are happening. There’s something interesting about the authors’ attempts at making sense of things.

I would read a major newspaper every day, but it’s gotten to be more of a shell of its former self, like a fossil telling a story of a different age. My favorite form of journalism at the moment is NPR. No reading involved, but I do feel like I’m gaining a deeper appreciation for the form. And yes, I’ve actually donated.

What do you read? And when do you find time to do it?

Focus on the task at hand

Keeping a sharp mental focus is a difficult task in the connected world; but perhaps it always has been.

Right now I should be doing homework, but I must first strongly resist the urge to start coding up a fix to one of my web projects or dabbling in some new trick. I like that code can be like poetry. It gives expression to ideas; nothing deep or dramatic, but simple, clear ideas that help the communication process.

Weird that my principal distraction isn’t music, games or movies, but code.

Back to school

After four years since my undergrad career ended, quite satisfyingly, I am entering graduate studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia today.

This is the realization of a sort of dream I’ve had since high school, when my journalism teacher at the time described how wonderful the school was and how it cultivated great journalists.

I am nervous and woefully out of practice when it comes to academic work. The media management program is entirely online, which will be a new experience for me, even though I suppose I am part of that generation of those who grew up online. Perhaps the oldest edge of that generation. I grew up with dial-up, not broadband, after all.

Meanwhile, my students are coming back to school today as well, going to class and getting to work on running the University’s daily newspaper, keeping up an important, if misunderstood, tradition.

One thing I hope to come to understand in grad school is how to create the best student media program possible. Not many folks are into this sort of thing, and it doesn’t make for interesting dinner conversation. But I consider it vital to the future of journalism, both its study and practice. More thought should be put into college media. It seems silly that so much money goes into college football, which, I’ll admit, is awfully entertaining, but isn’t intended to develop and support one of the critical aspects of our republic.

To my students, and myself: good luck this year. Be kind and work hard.