What are the most startling differences between the US and Australia?

I lived in Australia for almost two years, so here’s my list on incongruities:
  • People drink ALL THE TIME. I often walked from the train station to the office and people were having a pint at 8 AM. Beer at lunch? No one bats an eye.
  • Fast Food is VERY GOOD there. Yes, even McDonald’s. The best fried chicken I ever ate was at a KFC in downtown Sydney. Of course, it’s also more expensive than the US, and uses fresher ingredients…
  • Most houses do not have central air-conditioning, so during the summer you either sweat or buy a window-unit.
  • Many roads are MUCH more narrow there, which makes driving on “the wrong side” of the road even more harrowing. And if you are driving through the high mountain roads, you know how we have guardrails in the US? Not in Australia… Which makes that drive even MORE nerve-wracking.
  • School buses to pick up your kids? HA! Either you drop them off or they are walking.
  • Want to have the postman pickup mail at your house? Won’t happen, you have to drop it in a mail box.
  • EVERYONE has smartphones.
  • Many grocery stores (like Woolworth or Coles) have their own mini-store that sells beer, wine and liquor. And they will also deliver said items to your home!
  • Houses are crazy expensive to buy or rent compared to much of America. If you want a nice three or four bedroom house, you’ll be looking at least $1200… a week.
  • There are “Newsagents” in every mall and near every street corner. They are as prevalent as gas stations are here. You can get magazines, newspapers, candy bars, cigarettes, wrapping paper, stationary equipment, and other (mostly paper) goods…
  • The giant department stores (K-Mart, ToysR Us, Target) are INSIDE the mall in most cities.
  • You have to leave any rented property SPOTLESS when you move out, otherwise you won’t get your deposit back. There’s a lot of businesses dedicated to cleaning out properties for people when they move out.
  • Everything is more expensive, save DVDs and CDs… probably because there is a rampant piracy problem there (Most Aussies I knew had no problem with downloading movies or albums illegally).
  • Everyone goes out to drink Friday after work. EVERYBODY. And everyone gets totally wasted on Australia Day (late January) – it’s their Fourth of July, so maybe that’s not really an incongruity.
  • “BBQ” in Australia = Grilling meat on a grill for family and friends. Obviously, BBQ has a different meaning here…
  • Kangaroo meat is plentiful (I personally like the kangaroo sausages, aka “Kanga Bangas’) – though it’s really hard to cook without overdoing it.
  • NO PENNIES. They round up or round down all purchases.
  • Plastic money. All the notes are made of plastic, not paper, so you could literally wash all your cash in the washing machine and it’ll still be fine.
  • Meat pies. Oh, yes… Meat pies. Meat pie shops are everywhere, and you can also get frozen meat pies in every grocery store. I miss them so much when I came back to the US I found a recipe to make them at home.
  • They put beet slices on their hamburgers.
  • NO PENNIES. They round up or round down all purchases.
  • Plastic money. All the notes are made of plastic, not paper, so you could literally wash all your cash in the washing machine and it’ll still be fine.
  • Meat pies. Oh, yes… Meat pies. Meat pie shops are everywhere, and you can also get frozen meat pies in every grocery store. I miss them so much when I came back to the US I found a recipe to make them at home.
  • They put beet slices on their hamburgers.

See question on Quora

Funnel Cakes

Health food.

Health food.

Went to a Braves baseball game at Turner Field last week, to take in America’s pastime: Eating overpriced junk food while drinking a lot of beer.

I’m not saying that in any judgmental way – I, too, partook in the glutinous tradition. I consumed two hot dogs, three cans of beer, one bag of peanuts, and… a funnel cake.

The funnel cake is my one weakness, the reason I avoid county fairs and renaissance festivals… It is my kryptonite, the food that if I were exposed to on a regular basis would absolutely do me in. “That’s how we found him, officer,” they would say, hovering over a bloated body surrounded by powdered sugar and funnel cake remnants.

When you look at it objectively, funnel cakes are nothing anyone should want to ever eat. The process alone is off-putting:

  • Take cooking oil (that is older than your youngest child) and bring it to a boil.
  • Bring out the same yummy dough that makes doughnuts, and drizzle it in the oil like it’s a clump of starchy silly string.
  • Let the oil cook the clotting mass to a golden brown. Flip it to ensure that every millimeter of the dough is soaked in oil.
  • Remove from oil, and strain slightly.
  • Put on a thin napkin on a plastic or paper plate (paper is better, because it absorbs all that extra oil).
  • Cover with one pound of confectionary sugar (plus or minus one/half pound).
  • Serve.

Only in America could this be a culinary invention. In other countries, they do strange things with intestines and insects… gross, but still an understandable reflection of the culture and available resources. We Americans have created pastries and baked goods that are, effectively, sugar and fat delivery systems. (The height of our invention? When someone looked at that same vat of oil we used for donuts and funnel cakes and decided “Hey, we could deep fry ANYTHING!”)

Consuming a funnel cake is something you don’t do in public – you don’t want to frighten any children who happened to glance your way. So, after I received the plate full of my desired funnel cake from the surly Turner Field vendor, I skulked away to a secluded bench, and was able to watch the game as I dug in.

I remember my first funnel cake, which I had consumed as a child. I had tried to use a knife and fork – I was young, naïve. The proper way to eat a funnel cake was is and always shall be the way cro magnon man ate – tearing at the flesh of the cake, ripping chunks off and shoving it in your mouth.

This is, of course, messy. The cake, hot greasy and covered in confectionary sugar, is a mess. The challenge of the funnel cake is to eat it AND consume as much of the confectionary sugar as possible. If you have any sugar left, you have failed. Thus, you use the chunks of cooked dough to scoop up all the granules, resulting in a splay of white powder that makes you look like Al Pacino at the end of Scarface. The powder becomes a scarlet letter, marking your gluttony and displaying your shame to the world.

Halfway through I had a moment of self-awareness… what was I thinking? I really had to stop. But the moment passed, fading as I shoved the sugarcoated dough into my mouth. Bad thoughts, the funnel cake whispered to me as I chewed. Away with you!

 

So, in conclusion: Funnel cakes are awful for you, with no dietary value and filled with empty calories and artery-clogging starches and chemicals.

I do love them so.

Embrace the suck! Work at what you love to get better at it

I suck. And at a lot of different things.

I’m not a good basketball player, I can’t ride a bike, I can barely swim, I a “directionally challenged” and would get hopelessly lost without my phone’s GPS. I’m can carry a tune – barely – but I can’t stay on key. I’d continue, but doing so would reveal some shortcomings that I’d rather not make public (and before you make any assumptions, I’m just fine in the… ahem… “performance” department).

I share these several examples to make a point: We ALL suck. A lot. And the sooner we become aware of it the sooner we can start focusing on areas that we want to NOT suck at. Because you have to suck at something before you get good at it.

I’m a creative person… I’m a designer, an author, and an amateur photographer. And when I look back at my early writing, photography and design work, I shutter. How could I have thought that ANYTHING I was doing was any good? Because a most of it… wasn’t.

I have the same attitude that author Robert McCammon has: Several years ago, when he was asked why he didn’t allow the reissue of his first two novels, he declared simply and definitely “because they sucked.” But he – and I – kept going, kept honing our craft and getting better.

And that’s the key – I KEPT WORKING at it. Very very few of us (save the rare Mozart type), are born “gifted”. It takes work, as we refine our natural talents to sharpen them to a fine point. The Beatles were barely a band when they first got together, didn’t know how to play much more than a one-chord tune. But, as we all know, they played and practiced and played some more… until they became the world-class band that we all know. I could cite scores of other examples, but I don’t need to. The key is to keep doing what you love, keep getting better at it, and not giving up.

One more thing: you have to have to “distance” yourself from the work, to judge it with no emotional baggage and on its own merits. I can look back at my early work and judge it dispassionately because of the time that has passed, but I can now do the same type of evaluation on something I created less than an hour before. This skill came with experience, and is one of the keys to becoming good at anything.

So, embrace the suck! Start doing what you love, and don’t beat yourself up over your initial output. If you keep trying, and are passionate, you’ll get better.

Process or talent? Companies can’t focus on both…

“The Most Important Document to ever come out of Silicon Valley” was released last week… at least, that’s what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called it. This Most Important Document wasn’t a cutting-edge business plan, or a product roadmap… Far from it. It was Netflix’s “Corporate Culture” guidelines, a document that is usually quite dry and boring.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings authored much more than your typical “Respect your employees, treat your customers well” boilerplate: He created a manifesto about how companies should grow, how to trust and empower employees, and how a talent-based company should work in the twenty-first century.

Here’s the Netflix presentation:

One of the most key points in the presentation is a discussion of organizational growth, detailing how large organizations typically start out being talent-based and talent-driven. As these organizations grow and become more complex they shift, becoming process-driven and paralyzed with rules and regulations. This, Hastings states, drives the talented people out and thus when the marketplace changes the company loses its competitive edge (s process can’t respond to a paradigm shift in an industry, but talented people can). How Hastings staffs and grows Netflix is the opposite of that model – he continues to focus on acquiring and keeping the best talent he can possibly find, paying them more than the market rate to keep them engaged and motivated.

This key point is presented matter-of-factly, with no doubt or ambiguity. And when you read it, it’s obvious and exactly right: you can see how institutional processes have hampered and hamstrung major companies over the past few decades (Microsoft, I’m looking in your direction).

Not to say that I want to go to work for Netflix, but after reading this document they are precisely the type of company I want to align my fortunes with – an organization that values talent above process, that lets professionals be professionals.

This article also made me consider my approach to user experience design. In the past I have been very pro-process, but recently I’ve come around to a completely different opinion. UX design is a creative effort, and a good UX designer needs to be versed in a dozen different domains (technical, psychological, commercial, you name it). There’s plenty of people who put “UX” in front of their names, but many of them are developers or graphic designers in disguise. You can have the best design process in the world, but if you don’t have talented people in the right roles working at their best… well, the results will speak for themselves (again, I cast a glance towards Redmond).

Finally, I’ve been very frustrated in my present job of late, and this Netflix presentation gave me a clear perspective on why. The processes and org charts and silos at the company are completely hampering my ability to do my job. I can’t make an impact, can’t “make a dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs famously said. At this company, talent is not important; process is king…. even if the processes put in place make things worse.

I’ve outgrown it.

What happens next… well, who knows? I have some very ambitious goals, both professionally and personally, and I’m looking to go somewhere and work for people who appreciate and support such goals.

And as of this moment… it ain’t where I’m at now.

Savor.

I’ve decided my new favorite word is “savor.”

It’s something that I need to do more often, and that a huge chunk of people barely do at all. I know my dad didn’t.

It will soon be two years since Dad died. He didn’t like living, or anyone, towards the end. He shoved his closest family away and then died, alone. He didn’t appreciate what he had, everything he had… a feast of riches, right in front of him, because maybe… just maybe… he didn’t think he deserved it.

One of sayings I often repeat is that I like to learn from the mistakes of other people, instead of my own. One of the biggest mistakes that my dad made was he poisoned his palette and his brilliant mind with booze and cigarettes, killing off all the neurons and lobes that allowed him to appreciate moments… and the people who were part of them.

Don’t be like my Dad.

Savor.

Take pictures. Smile. Laugh. Pay attention.

There is a great zen concept called sati or “mindfulness.” It is about being in the moment, being aware of what you are doing and focusing your whole self on that one thing. It’s about being conscious, about being aware. And it’s about savoring.

The late, great musician Warren Zevon (whose work I greatly admire), was asked by David Letterman, just before he died, what advice he would give people about life. His answer was simple: “Enjoy every sandwich.”

Savor.

Because, maybe sooner than you know it, you won’t be able to anymore.

Lessons in efficiency: Schedule it, then do it

I’m big into the “personal productivity” stuff – not because I try to fill my days with “busy work” just to check things off lists, but because being more productive and efficient lets me get more done in less time, so I can focus on import things… like college football or Star Trek.

A new tactic I recently adopted is working really well for me, and it’s fairly simple: I schedule everything.

Time with my family, appointments, tasks, chores… even reading, research and relaxation time. It’s all on my calendar. If I don’t have an explicit time to do something, I add that “to do” to my Getting Things Done app Omnifocus and do them when an opportunity presents itself.

Reading this, you may think, “Wow, this guy has got OCD!” No, I’m not like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory or anything like that (though, unlike Sheldon, my Mom never had me tested). I don’t schedule bathroom breaks, or get all fidgety when meetings don’t end on time… I just use my calendar to set aside time to do things.

One of the primary benefits this process gives me is the freedom to focus. Because when you set aside the time to something, you can dedicate 100% of your time and “mindfulness” to that one thing. For example, when I had dinner scheduled with a friend last week I blocked off the entire evening, because it was important that I spent as much time with that person as possible (she lives out-of-town and I only see her occasionally). During that dinner I was absolutely focused on the meal and my friend, and it was a great night for both of us because of it. No distractions, just a great conversation and time.

The key to all this working for me is that I always remember that I AM IN CHARGE – not the calendar, and not the checklist I have each day. Life happens, and you can’t micromanage that. Unless something is absolutely necessary to do THAT DAY – a critical business meeting, or a design deadline, for example – I can always shift things around. And I never feel guilty about it, because I’m still determined to do what I scheduled or planned… just not when I originally intended to.

Finally, an added benefit I have found is that taking all the “clutter” out of my head and putting it in my daily to-dos and my calendar clears my head, because all that “stuff” is now “parked” in those two places. Jerry Seinfeld had a very famous joke where he recounted when a girlfriend asked him, “what are you thinking?” “Nothing.” was his reply, the joke being that guys just don’t think that much.

Well, when I know that everything I need “to-do” is out of my head I’m not preoccupied, and so I don’t think about much of anything… which leaves me open to learning and experiencing new things, and focusing my whole attention on what I am doing.

Like writing this, for example.

As always, what works for me may not work for you – and if it does, your “mileage” may vary. But give it a shot… and you may also find out that if you “audit” your life and fill your calendar with what you have to do you may a lot more free time that you thought.