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Paul Ford: Finding Inspiration in Procrastination

About this talk

Something funny happened on Paul Ford’s way to developing his dream project: he found about 1,000 reasons not to do it. “When you need to do a thing, everything you do is about the thing you’re not doing,” says entrepreneur and writer Ford in his 99U talk.

But his procrastination gave way to other fruitful projects, and even the inspiration to finish the very task he set out to do in the first place.

About Paul Ford

Paul Ford is the co-founder of Postlight, a digital product studio in New York City with clients that include Vice Media, Goldman Sachs, and Time Inc. He was previously a Director at the digital strategy firm Activate, where he created product strategies for global information and finance firms like Thomson Reuters, Credit Suisse, Condé Nast, and many others.

In addition to his consulting work, he is widely known as one of the world’s leading writers on technology and culture, and is the author of ‘What Is Code?’, an essay that took over an entire issue of Bloomberg Businessweek to explain the real world of programming to millions of people, and for which he received a National Magazine Award.




‘What Is Code?’ from Bloomberg Businessweek

Full Transcript

So I cofounded a company about a year and a half ago and I have it.

But before that I was a writer and I miss writing and I miss reading. So you’re all going to indulge me and I’m going to read something for two minutes.

It’s the first of two two-minute pieces called Point Releases. So I set out to ask myself: What are the three or four most important software applications I have ever used and how have they affected my life? Start with System 1 for the Macintosh. I was a 10 year old child.

I’d go to the library with my parents’ approval and politely request floppy disks and the librarian would dispense them.

I don’t know what they expected me to do with the computer. People have long believed that kids and computers go together but, whatever, they left me alone and I had the room to myself. Mostly, I poked things. I took joy in menu options and I loved the big control panel. I wondered who made it. It was a software miracle. Now look at that thing. Look at it carefully. It tells you everything you need to know about that tiny Mac;; that it had sound that it had a mouse; that the cursor would blink at the speed of your choosing; that you could adjust the pixels that made up the background. This was new to me. To have that kind of control over anything. I went back every week to use the Mac and then as I walked home I thought about those black and white pixels.

Application 2: WordPerfect 5. Eight years passed. This is the future from the Mac. And I went to college and I had no computer so I got an account on the college mainframe so that I could run WordPerfect. Visually, it’s a step backwards. No pixels, just letters and numbers. I used an orange and black screen and wrote research papers for my classes and fiction and stories and poems.

WordPerfect had this mode: reveal codes. It was the ‘view source’ of its time. You could look inside the file and see all the formatting and fix what was broken.

The mainframe computer that ran WordPerfect was connected to the Internet, which was still a newish thing and a couple of thousand students all used one big computer together. We had e-mail that could send messages anywhere in the world but it wasn’t always clear who to send it to. Mostly we sent it to each other. And there are still people out there dedicated to running WordPerfect and they share tips on old-fashioned websites. And as a writer I can tell you, writers are very particular about their tools.

Next up: Application 3: Photoshop 3. September 1994, I am in my final year of college and Photoshop 3, code named Tiger Mountain—it’s the actual Easter egg inside the app—was released. Hello Adobe, it’s nice to be here. It still came on floppy disks because everything came on floppy disk and I’m not 100 percent sure how I came by my copy so I will use this opportunity to request amnesty. This is the Photoshop that changed everything. How, you might ask, did it change everything? It had a feature called Layers. And you didn’t have to change a picture. You could layer something over it and that was amazing because now pictures were assembled without losing any information. It was a very logical and I spent many hours moving layers around.

Application 4: Netscape Navigator.

That’s the actual version of Netscape hitting the 99U webpage.

Things have changed.

So just one month, one month, after Photoshop 3 was released, Netscape Navigator, the web browser that made the Web into the Web was released to the world. Anyone could become a publisher on the Internet and anyone could come along and read web pages. That’s when all the pieces came together for me. Those little control panels on System 1, showing me how the computer saw itself and the source codes in WordPerfect show i ng you how you made a document out of pieces and the layers of Photoshop, which let you approach image editing strategically as a series of steps. And finally the Web which was itself made of pages and code and most importantly gave you an audience. And what did we do with this incredible new power? Well we added drop shadows to everything. For years, people went crazy for drop shadows because of Photoshop Layers. Look at that monstrosity. It took us a long time to figure out what to do with all of our power.

Conclusion. There was a book in 1984 called The Whole Earth Software Catalog, which just listed software because you could kind of list most of it and the editor Stewart Brand wrote this: “Software, when it is used at all intensely, comes to feel like an extension of your nervous system. Its habits become your habits. The reason the term personal got stuck to these machines [meaning personal computers] is they become part of your person. Buyer beware.” So I have to conclude at some level that these applications made me at least partly who I am. Buyer beware. Thank you.

Now, the reason I was asked to come here, they called me up and they said “Do something about inspiration”. So I went out and I was like I alright, inspiration. I can do this. This is what inspiration looks like when you Google it.

It’s a hell of a thing.

And there may be gems in there but I don’t know how to find them. So instead, I’m going to tell you a story about finding inspiration for myself, finding it in the last few months, deciding to think hard about inspiration, knowing that I was going to come talk, think about projects that I wanted to finish and get some things done. So there’s two things that you need to know about me. One is a fun one. I like timelines. Timelines a great. Two is, I’m three years late on a book. Little side note; it’s not the worst. I met a guy who wrote a book about productivity and time. His name is Alan Burdick and it was ten years late. Because he kept looking for productivity systems to help him write the book. So it happens. Anyway, let’s get off of that topic and back to timelines. I like timelines. Look at them. They’re beautiful.

You see time on an axis. That’s all of Western history. It’s so good. You see empires and things happening ending up in the—this is from the mid 1700s. There is one from two days ago. This is in the Washington Post about Comey testifying. Everybody loves timelines. There is one: this is called ChronoZoom and it lets you just zip in and out of 4 billion years of history. There are timelines all over the web. I’ve looked at all of them.

They’re great. It’s a fun hobby. Now, we’ll talk about the book.

I want to talk about the timelines more. I’m three years late on the book. So, I made a list of all the reasons—I was preparing for this—I made a list of a list of all the reasons that I’m late on the book. That I’ve come up with over the last three years. So a few of them: I created some experimental websites, rented an office, sat in the office, gave up the lease. Coffee. I also quit coffee. Bought a white board. I wrote software to manage my anxiety about writing the book. That was good. Lot of meaningful talks with my editor and my wife. Fancy notebooks are big. Going to a stationery store, because this time is going to be different. Lots of pens. And also some big things. I was so emotional at times, “Oh, my god look at this notebook. This paper is good. I will have to write it now.” I did some big things, like I wrote that issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. I started a company that went to 30 people and I got a podcast going. Alright, so there’s stuff going. But the issue is, when you’re not, when you need to do a thing, everything you do is about the thing you’re not doing. So the last three years of my life have just been sort of like, what the hell is wrong with me? Why have I been procrastinating? And a few months ago, this guy on Twitter, which is the one thing I didn’t put in that deck, in that slide.

Actually I noticed this as I was rehearsing—that’s total lie. Twitter should be, you should erase that entire slide and just put the word Twitter in huge letters. But this writer Alexander Chee, who I know a little bit, on Twitter he tweeted this quote out from the writer Joyce Carol Oates. This is the real deal man. And I looked at this and I was like “Oh whoa that’s not good.”

Because, it’s just reading this, it’s like the sense of like not fitting in your clothes on New Year’s Eve. Like you’re just like “Oh God what has happened?” “Writer’s block occurs when the writer believes the idea is fraudulent.” And that was me. I looked at that and I was like “Oh no”.

Because I’m trying to write this book. Now, the book is about the Web and how the Web changed culture which is something I’ve written about quite a bit over the years and I should feel pretty good about writing it. But as I did the research, it got bigger and bigger and I kept feeling more and more out of control. And I kept feeling that, if I started to write it, and I did I wrote like a 100,000 words on it, every time I sat down to write I felt more and more like a fraud. I wasn’t getting the whole story. But there’s one thing in there that was kind of interesting. I wrote then abandoned a book writing fact driven content management system. I wouldn’t advise is for everyone. Do not set out to write a book and then say ,  “I need to create a content management system in order to write my book.”

This is some deep stuff. But, I’m also not not saying don’t do ,  because well look, let me just show you.

Timelines. I love them.

That’s a nice empty month. Let’s put some things on that timeline. Some events from Wikipedia. That’s cool. OK. They’re automatically placed. They come from an API. By the way, I’m not a designer, so just relax. You can send me—my e-mail is at the end — you can send me the e-mail and tell me.

I understand. But it does all the things a timeline is supposed to do. It goes left and right and back and forth in time. It zooms out to the year and out to the decade and out to the century. Let’s go look at some other centuries. Let’s zoom in on 1800 something. Good. Nice. I have now added my timeline to the many, many timelines of the Web.

Good for me. But there is actually a secret thing going on under here, which is what I like about the timelines. See that thing on the right that again I’m not a designer but see that ugly thing on the right? That’s a list of essays that I’m writing. OK. And so what this thing does or what it lets me do and what I started building about six months ago is this tool. So remember that thing I read to you in the beginning? This tool that helps me write and stay factual. It helps me connect things to those events. So what I do is I’m looking at the timeline on the left and any one of those little events can be bookmarked and dropped into a little notebook on the right. And then I can write a note and attach it to the event. And you write enough notes they kind of glue together and suddenly they become an essay like the one that I read you. OK so that’s the WordPerfect 5 event in with a little bit of text below it. That’s what you’re looking at. So that’s how I wrote that piece. And it also lets you search. So I searched for ‘raccoons’ and I got a bunch of stuff about raccoons. I don’t know exactly why.

But I ended up writing a little piece about raccoons and it’s two minutes long and I’m going to read it to you. And this will be the second piece. The Raccoon History of New York City from the Perspective of a Disgruntled Immortal Raccoon.

We’ve been here longer than you have.

We dipped our paws in the spring on Spring Street. We climb the trees in the forest of Lower Manhattan. We laughed in the moonlight and ate beautiful dinners of blackberries and ladybugs. And then you came and you stayed and you built houses. Fine, we’re small. We’ll make room. You made muffins. We ate the crumbs. Everyone was happy but not for long because you wanted coats. We went into exile upstate for hundreds of years. We kept to ourselves, sneaking garbage at night; the occasional bit of lettuce or baked beans or on a good night muffins. Our fur was always in style. It was a hard life but we lived on our love and our wits. And then in the 1970s there was a fur boom.

I was sure that was the end of us. But thank God, finally we went out of fashion and people began to realize that we had a right to be here. They stood up for us. In 1982, a meeting was held in Scarsdale, New York. “Have we no decency in this town?” asked a lady named Rita Grant. “Raccoons are bright, lovable creatures. Do we want our children to walk by their carcasses. “

No Rita. We don’t.

You see what was happening? We weren’t just getting in the garbage, we were getting into your hearts.

Now listen, I’m the first to admit that rabies is a problem in our community.

But let me tell you a story and make up your own mind. It was in 1998 in Woodstock, New York. Lots of places sell muffins there. Great town. Very open minded and we thought we could trust the humans. So one raccoon, a little guy had a good thing going with a woman named Barbara. She gave him treats. Purely a backyard thing. You know how that goes. But it wasn’t enough for Barbara. One day she trapped him and took him—i t’s tough to talk about this — and took him to the local daycare, where she introduced this little raccoon to all the children and the raccoon cuddled with everyone 14 toddlers ,  10 adults. Beautiful right? But when it turned out that all 24 humans had been exposed to rabies, who was blamed? Not Barbara. Who was shot in cold blood and buried by Barbara’s husband? Not Barbara. Who had his body dug up by the Department of Health? Not Barbara. And let me tell you the name they gave that raccoon are you ready? That little backyard raccoon.

The name the humans gave him was Spartacus, the Roman slave who revolted and was murdered. That’s the truth. You can read it in the article. Who’s to blame here? The raccoon doing its best? Or the society that only wants cuteness? So look, we’ve always wanted to come back to the city. This is our home. By 2002, we were in the Bronx. And over the last 15 years we found our way south. Today you’ll find us everywhere and we’ve taken over Brooklyn. We’ve returned. You call us trash pandas.

Trash pandas. It’s doubly insulting.

Second word first, pandas: overrated. Their ecological niche is five inches wide and if you don’t serve them fresh bamboo prepared just so they fall over and die. Imagine a panda finding its way down the FDR to midtown. But also, the first word ‘trash’.

Let me ask, is it so wrong that we want what you throw away your spare shishitos, risotto dollops, your Blue Sky Bakery muffin chunks. I live from your artisanal leavings. Your trash is my gold. Why not, I ask, why not call me treasure panda? And remember, we are not your guests. You are guests of the raccoons.

So I made a list of all the things. Writer’s block sucks. I made a list of all the things that kind of are inspirational. Many of them are bad. Curiosity, obsession, procrastination. These are the things that inspired me to get work done over the last 6 months. Desire, self-absorption, denial, wonder, generosity, greed, million other things. I should also point out I built my writing tool twice. I built it once two and a half years ago trying to create a business talking to people how to do it right. I used all modern cutting edge tools. Everything was great. I had lots of people telling me exactly how I should do it. I got it to a prototype point and I just completely froze up, which kind of sucked because I blocked on the book and then I was blocked on my thing, on my software. So I was like in this hole of writer’s and programming blocks. However, something happened.

And I’ll tell you the results.

So, first of all around the holidays everybody is talking about fake news. And I thought to myself, well I kind of have an opinion on that which is that you could build a tool that would make it easier to write more factual accurate stuff. And obviously nobody writing fake news is going to care. But at least you could point and say, “Well here is a way to do it that keeps the events tied to the narrative.” And so I sat down I use the most boring technologies I could, stuff I’ve been using for 10 years just JavaScript libraries nobody cares about that are uncool and it all kind of came together. It wasn’t very complicated and the only user I cared about was me and could I get my writing done with it? And so the real result is that that first piece I read you, I realized I wrote it for this. I was like oh software software history Adobe so on and so forth. Let’s do a little, let’s see what I can get.

See what I can do. What can I write? What sort of 2 minute piece could I do?

I was rehearsing this literally as I was rehearsing this I realized that’s my book. I’ve gotten back to it without even knowing it. I’ve gotten through the block. And it was a little intense to figure that out. So, I wouldn’t advise this as a method to get out of a block or out of a procrastinatory mode because you’re looking at five years of anxiety and three years of book anxiety and thinking about timelines and all sorts of stuff.

But, it did work. I feel good. I like writing it.

Those pieces came together very nicely and I’m really happy to have a chance to present them to you and share with you. So you’ve been a gracious audience and thank you.

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