Damn Good Advice from Amber Case

by Karl Rohde — Get free updates of new posts here. Photo Credit: Karl Rohde

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Last month I got the opportunity to meet a remarkable person. It was quite unexpected. I was speaking at the itSMF LEADit technology conference and noted that one of the keynotes was from a renowned TED speaker, Amber Case. I was slightly intrigued as I had seen her TED talk, We Are All Cyborg’s Now. Building on the theme of her work on wearable technology Amber’s talk at LEADit was, in my mind, worthy of the “grand prix” of the conference. My mind was racing and my intrigue boiling.

I’m fascinated with people who have a unique voice on a topic, develop insight and put it out there.

Much like Calvin Harris’ music has the power to throw me onto a dance floor Amber's talk drove me to ask Amber for an interview.

Amber is a deeply interesting person. She speaks effortlessly on almost any topic. She has poise and confidence as an artist and a well established sense of self. She has a powerful, well researched, perspective of our world as it intersects with technology and humanity. In many respects she is considered a domain expert and clearly loves her work. I’ve ripped a list of wisdom from the interview that I think is highly relevant to the Social Age that we are now living and working in. Furthermore I’ve added a heap of excerpts from the interview. Enjoy and mega-thanks to Amber for her insights. You can download the full transcript at the end of this blogpost.

21 Tips from Amber Case on Doing Meaningful Work

  1. You have to be interesting as attention spans are short in today's connected world. Being able to excite people is critical for business.
  2. Everyone over-estimates what they can do in a year, yet underestimates what they can do in 5 years.
  3. Always think of your future self. Think of what you are doing now and what it will amount to in the long run. The power of long term thinking is immense.
  4. Focus your work on important things. Stop the busywork and procrastination.
  5. Don’t do things just for the money. The money will show up when you start solving problems.
  6. Being interested in the boring-ness of an implementation is a sign you’ll follow through. Starting is always exciting but the implementation often tedious and boring. If you can pioneer through that you're onto something.
  7. Work with people who compliment your work and whose work you compliment in return. Symbiosis at work is powerful. 
  8. Hire people better than you.
  9. Your staff should be on the pedestal, not you.
  10. Slow consistent progress is good. You want to be the tortoise, not the hare.
  11. Be horrible as fast as you can and make the most mistakes in the shortest time. It’s OK to be ineffective in the beginning. Make mistakes and learn from them quickly.
  12. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Start now and modify as you go.
  13. Just make something. Don’t obsess about success.
  14. Inspiration is everywhere. Observe, close your eyes and let it incite action.
  15. The entrepreneurial way is not for everyone and that’s OK.
  16. Don’t care what others think but mostly don’t care what you think. Stop the self-sabotage.
  17. The more you share the more you become a gravity point for other people.
  18. Use the safety of your job to develop ideas, drive results and be effective.
  19. Be OK with drafts. You have to be OK with being crappy in the beginning.
  20. Understand you can make your own reality. If you don’t someone will make it for you.
  21. Be humble, vulnerable and open. We are in this together.

Read on to see these wise words being expounded upon.

Excerpts from my Interview with Amber Case

On work...

“I do two things. First, I’m paid to run a part of a company called Esri. I run the Esri R&D Center in Portland, Oregon. I hire and maintain a team that’s building low power GPS technology for mobile phones. And secondly, in my free time I fly around the world and speak about the future of humans & technology and I also study wearable technology.”

I would definitely say I’m in the info-tainment business. And infotainment is important. Attention spans are short. My own attention span is short. I have to make the material exciting for myself before I can share it with others.”

On getting started in something meaningful...

“When we were a start-up at Esri I used to put in 100 hours a week. People were always asking me about how I got started on something and I recalled a good rule: everyone overestimates what one can do in a year, yet underestimates what you can do in 5 years. So I said I’ll focus on 5 years and the first 2 years I’m going to be as awkward as possible and just work.”

“I always think of my future self so that I don’t get worried about what I’m currently experiencing because my future self won’t remember much of the difficult stuff, it would just remember the successes.”

“So it doesn’t matter if you start from nothing as no one knows you; you’re free to be and do as many mistakes as you want. I would iterate, iterate, iterate, because there’s this brief period of time when you’re new to something, where you can make mistakes and everyone will tell you, but even after you have the slightest reputation people will say that’s great and they’ll just respect you and they won’t give you the honest feedback. And that point is dangerous.

On being focused and doing important work...

“So I find myself working by obsession.”

“I’ll get obsessed with something and I’ll learn every little thing about it. And then my work process is to save it. So I take a program called Skitch and take a picture of the page and then send it to Flickr, which operates as my external brain. I use archive.org quite a lot for research. I try to get an entire set of history around a subject, often trying to find the first person or group who came up with a specific concept on, say, wearable technology and then go all the way through the time span until today and find how it changed and what happened. I then try to build timelines.”

“A lot of times you have to go talk to the people involved. It can take 5 or 6 years to get all the data you want. When you get all the data it’s a feeling of accomplishment that’s quite exciting.”

It may actually seem like I’m focused but I’m not. Since I fully joined the Internet in 1994 my ability to focus has been severely disrupted, it’s hard for me to keep on the same topic. It’s hard for me to sit on the computer and not multitask. When I got a laptop it became much worse. I realized that the angle of one’s head when you’re on laptop is down, but on a desktop it’s up. That very small difference in tilt affects focus and the ability to recall memories. So now I try to compute almost entirely a physical desktop computer.”

“Lastly, if I don’t have something important enough to do then I don’t do it because I found that as you go, over time, you start cyber loafing, you know, you end up in a state as if you haven’t had enough sleep the night before.”

On motivation, passion and being a domain expert....

“What drives me? One thing is my frustration as it relates to the default tendency to think one dimensionally vs. systemically. It’s often easy to get caught in the moment instead of seeing how something might look over time. For example someone will say they want to make a product and it’s going to have all these features and then I ask them, why do you want to make a product? Is there some sort of pain that you’re solving?”

“Why would you do something for just for the money? The money will show up when you do something because you’re solving a real pain.”

“So people keep mistaking the need for technology. I think that’s one of the things that frustrate me and that in turn drives me to speak my mind on a lot of stuff because I see people wasting a lot of people’s money and time. Time is all we have.”

“The other thing is when I was really little I was just obsessed with technology. I wanted to have a device in the palm of my hand that was larger on the inside than it was on the outside and I wanted to analyse statistics on just about everybody in my classroom.”

Looking at something overtime is super important, like, you know, you can practice on a tree. Don’t look at a tree for what it is, look at a tree from the beginning from seed to fully-grown and then think about what happens later. Look at sidewalks and see where the sidewalks are going to rupture based on how large the tree is going to grow. Look at time because all you’re dealing with is time.”

“The test that I always have is if somebody is interested in an idea after three days and they still want to work on it, especially if the implementation was boring. If they’re not interested in the boringness of the implementation then they’re not going to follow through and build a product.”

“If you want to actually build a company or develop a product then study a bunch of stories of people who built companies and built products. Get like 50 or 60 profiles in your brain of amazing people. That way you have the history of what they’ve done and you don’t have to stumble. So read about founders at work.”

On chaos and the challenges of data consumption...

I’m horribly chaotic. I used to be completely focused. After school I would sit down and I would write from 6pm to 10pm. If the writing was bad then I would go back and I revise and edit. Now, I’m lucky if I can get some notes on a notepad out and send to my contacts. I’ve gone back to a physical notebook. I’m having a lot of trouble focusing.”

“I carry around my smartphone with me! If I walk in the bathroom I could be there for 30 minutes because there’s no one around to stop me from just gorging on information.”

“I feel like I eat a lot of information-junk-food. If I eat junk food my stomach tells me when I’m full but my brain doesn’t tell me when I’m full of junk data, it doesn’t cut me off. Most of my day is trying to fight that. Sometimes if I wake up early in the morning I can write.

On collaboration and running a business...

“Sometimes you need to form a team and find a complementary person to work with you. As in the case of start-ups, like Ben & Jerry’s or Weiden+Kennedy, you have one founder who is very chaotic and visionary and then another founder who is very precise and tries to take all the pieces out of the system until it works. I’ve learned that I need to be symbiotic with other people to really get stuff done these days.”

Symbiosis is really important which is why I knew early on that I couldn’t do stuff alone. I need to find people and trust them and hire people way better than me because you want to be continuously shocked and in awe of the people that you hire. You don’t want to feel like some all-powerful thing! You are hiring them so that you can serve them and optimize how they work and make sure that they’re happy and self-actualized. If you can’t do that you shouldn’t be starting your own company.”

It’s not about you; it’s about people that you hire. They should be on the pedestal and it’s also about solving problems in a real world for real people. If you lose sight of that you then you lose sight of the story.”

I like the idea of slow consistent movement. You know a like glacier moving slowly. It’s just like The Tortoise and the Hare, you know. I have extreme impatience on the short term and an extremely good long-term patience where I think in terms of five years. I just did a five year chunk where the first three years were horrible. You have to allow yourself to be crappy. The secret to success is being horrible for as short a time as possible. Be horrible as fast as you can and make the most mistakes in the shortest period of time by making decisions.”

I was told the worst thing you do as a CEO is not to make a decision. That is failure. The best thing you do is to make a decision even if it’s wrong, just make it quickly and keep going. And that’s why people run out as a start-up away from a larger company because they take too long to make decisions.”

On writing...

“My book, The Illustrated Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology is a collection of terms on our modern world. The book is meant to be a fun object. Many people are taking it very seriously and asking questions like, “can I use this for my cyborg-anthropology class?” I warn them first that I am not a PhD, and that they’re welcome to supplement the work with another work like Chris Gray and Steve Mentor’s Cyborg Handbook. I want it to be considered a fun table-top-coffee book.”

I think the most important thing is to just make something. Even though thousands of people have ordered it already, I don't care if it's successful. I just think it’s fun and I think it's important to do fun stuff because books don't necessarily make money.”

On the future of work...

“I think if you want to learn more about the future work go to the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. It’s a bunch of people who are comfortable not having a fixed place to work. And the whole idea is not necessarily world domination; rather it’s about freeing yourself from the constraints of traditional work.

“The problem with the idea of work is that it’s traditionally unhealthy. You need to have recess, you need to have playground, people need to run around. You need to have people take out their stress instead of complaining in complaining groups. It's disgusting. It’s an unhealthy ritual.”

“Also, do you want to be doing this for the next five years of your life?”

“The whole thing is you shouldn’t necessarily get paid for the hours you work but for how efficient you are. I rate people highly on whether they are efficient or not.”

On inspiration...

I get inspired by everything. Unfortunately I get inspired by every single thing that I do; in a state of present shock. It’s just very hard because later, I’ll go back to a hotel room or go back home and I’ll forget that state of inspiration. So I keep trying to take notes to optimize the state inspiration and push it into something.”

“I don't have really have a filter between mundane or interesting discussions. Anytime I meet somebody new, I'm inspired by it.”

“It's a problem you know. I also think it's very hard for me to be in the moment all the time and actually look around it and understand where I am.”

On what separates those that do work they love over those that don’t...

“I think somewhere along the way in their childhood or in their adulthood they were put in a position where somebody just said this is how things are in terms of rules. And they said "Okay" and they got their mortgage got tied up in the busyness of life. Then they have to maintain their status quo all the time because it's comfortable and they want security and safety more than they want the risk. It's basically like being in a caged animal. That sounds bad but a caged animal gets fed at regular intervals and is safe from predators. And maybe they'll get a little bit fat and a little unhealthy but they’ll probably have a longer life. They’re in captivity, but they know the bounds of their captivity.”

“Not everybody should be expected to live a life of outside of that. We would have a complete state of anarchy. I think the most important thing is that you have a mix of those people. Later on if you want to start a company you’ll want to hire people that value safety and want a good place to work. You want to protect them and you want to give them a good life. You don't want everybody running around trying to start businesses. The entrepreneurial way is just not for everybody.”

On self-doubt...

“Constantly. I constantly have feelings of self-doubt.

“Here’s my advice: don't give a shit what other people think and especially don't give a shit what you think. Do the thing that you're drawn to. If you don’t, someone else is going to do it and then you're going to kick yourself in the face. Stop the self-sabotage.”

“You can't care what other people think and preserve your reputation. Do your best thing and be nice! Genuinely care about other people and try to fix problems. Have the faith in the end you’ll experience the joy of making a difference. It may even take 3-10 years to see the results of your work. Don't worry about taking credit. It doesn't matter if you take credit or not and the fastest way to do something early on is not taking any credit. Don’t be afraid to share your stuff.”

The more you share, the more you become a gravity point for other people who thought it but didn't write it down or those who care about it but are too afraid to say it. And then you've got a community around you, right? And so the best way to do it is to make your own gravity. And also do things safely. I don't mean safely like never try anything but I mean if you want to start a project, don’t leave your job and suffer. Do something that solves a problem for yourself in your free time. Use the safety of your job, but be efficient and drive results in and around that.”

“The more efficient you are and the more clever you are about spending less time and spending less money, that's how you survive and win. And then when something makes enough money you can quit your job and work on that meaningful thing.”

“You have to be OK with being crappy in the beginning. This is OK. You have to be OK with drafts. And you have to be able to see into the future and realise that the bad stuff never means much because the final product will be remembered. You have to look back in time, observe what’s been created. When you're walking in a museum, you'll never see the tumult that the artist went through in order to get to that point. You never see the history of a product; you never see how it got made. You just see the final product.”

On seeking solitude and quieting the mind...

“It's the most important thing; I don't get very much of it. I get on planes, where I am a lot, and it’s a place I can think. It's that there's a bunch of stuff in the world and all this sensory information is coming in and it’s not always good. We need space to find ourselves and what’s important and who we are.”

“Identity is critical. You have to have space to know who you are and figure out how to put that into your life.”

Understand you can make your own reality. If you don’t make your own reality someone will make it for you.

Where can we find Amber?

I’m Case Organic everywhere. www.CaseOrganic.com@caseorganic on Twitter. Flicker its caseorganic, Instagram it’s @caseorganic and www.cyborganthropology.com

==END of Interview Excerpts==

You can download the full transcript here.

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