Shawn Livermore – TALKS WITH PETRI
Shawn Livermore talks about the great myths surrounding tech founders, how to unleash your creativity, the secrets & magic of growth, and what is a nagging pull. He also shares his views on introverts and ladders.
Shawn Livermore is a tech startup founder, entrepreneur, and technology consultant for over 20 years. He’s written books on software development and writes software in many programming languages. After raising investment capital for his startups 6 times, Shawn began to look beyond the code to see the bigger picture: The systems, patterns, and models of thinking that most deserve our attention. Instead of hype and hustle, Shawn focuses on tangible, factual, and replicable bits and bytes that most people wouldn’t see or pay attention to. From small fragments, Shawn can assemble larger stories, to help people think, speak, and create like a tech genius.
(NOTE: The text may contain errors, misconceptions and even comical unintended contexts. Please use it only as a reference to the actual audio conversation from where it has been transcribed.)
Petri: Hello Shawn, how are you doing?
Shawn: Doing great, Petri. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Petri: Are there any geniuses?
Shawn: There are. They’re out there but you’ll probably never meet one. And if you do, I don’t really think it will change your life.
Petri: Why do you say so?
Shawn: Most geniuses are pursuing what they would believe is important. Not necessarily what the rest of the world will believe is important. There’s a great example, Michael Kearney, a great guy. If you’re listening, love you. You’re awesome. He’s one of the smartest men in the world and he’s working on improv comedy in a Tennessee comedy club.
He’s not working on nuclear fusion or solving a disease, panaceas or pandemics. Not to say he should. He should do what he feels is right. But the intelligence factor globally and in the tech industry has not been necessarily the hinge or the linchpin of our society and their growth and their maturity in tech is really factored into a variety of other aspects of their intellect and creative juices. And that’s kinda what the book’s about.
Petri: The name of the book is Average Joe and there’s a subtitle as well. But what actually made you write the book? I think there must be a story behind it. So it’s not like you just one day wake up and then you write a book about average Joes or actually the opposite of those. So what happened?
Shawn: I was consulting for a client, a good friend of mine. I was on the whiteboard trying to explain something and he looked over and, and just said, Shawn, you are a tech genius. And kind of stopped me in my tracks because you hear these phrases and a little bit cliche but I did not feel like a tech genius.
I have been in the tech industry for 20 years. I run a software company called Product Perfect here in Orange County, California. If you need any software, call me up. This client was looking at me from the lens of understanding a complex issue that a nontechnical folk would really struggle to grapple with.
They don’t quite understand how the Internet works, how software works, how hardware works. They install a mouse and they’re proud of themselves. This is not a simple thing for clients to deal with, the technology industry or anything tech. It scares them. In fact, there’s a commercial on the radio you’ll hear that say I can’t call the tech guy. That guy hates me. I forget which brand was advertising that but nontechnical people are amazed by technical people. And friends and family when you tell them you write code or you’re working at I industry, they just, their eyes get big and wow, that’s cool.
How do you do that? How did you learn that? It looks so complicated. He called me a tech genius and he was not referring to my intellect, my intelligence. He was referring to how I was explaining complexity in a technology aspect. And so that feeling that I had at that moment, resonated.
It caused me to then spin quite a bit more. I dug into the topic of perception. The other books I’ve written in the technical, programming language focus. They didn’t really cover a topic that anyone could read. I always wanted to write a book that hit the business shelves and I could walk into a bookstore and pull it off and say, there it is. Here’s all my ideas. This is kind of 20 years in the making of everything I’ve learned and it puts it into the very narrow and very focused line of thinking of intellectual capability, creative capability and the technology industry career. Those three lines of thinking and topics flow together. They interweave and they culminate to present a thesis. The thesis is that there is no tech genius. There is no superhuman magic wand, magic dust. Yes, you have Elon Musk and yes, you have Steve Jobs and you have your icons.
They are North Stars. They are not the universe. They are shining, wonderful heroes but it doesn’t mean that you can’t shine as well and put yourself in a position to be greatly successful in other parts of the tech industry or your own little microcosm. That’s where I’m coming from putting the book together.
Petri: You did some research and you went far back in history as well. The previous episode, we talked a lot about history. Today, we are not going that much in history but I think it’s fascinating. You have historical characters there. You’re talking about Mozart. You’re talking about Winston Churchill.
You’re talking about Abraham Lincoln. You’re talking about a lot of these, even Einstein, a lot of these geniuses. But you are not the first one in the quest. There were a few other people before you. Can you elaborate a bit and tell the audience who were the first ones to do what you’re doing now?
Shawn: There were a few people in the early 1900s who sought out the genius genetic code. In chapter two, we talk about genius and intelligence and the worship of intelligence and how the tech industry just worships intelligence, can’t get enough of it. They have PhDs at Google that are hiring more PhDs and certainly nothing against getting a PhD.
But when you elevate and venerate intelligence about all other categories of work and effort and experience, then you become off-balance. In the 1900s, you have a couple of pursuits. I won’t name them but chapter two goes into them and they came back with really empty-handed.
They said, well, let’s look at their genetic code, what their father did, their mother did. Let’s look at their diet, let’s look at their focus where they farm, hunt, gather. All the way back in history, as far as they, I could tell. Kings and princes and nobility and noble blood, did that have anything to do with it? There was a psychometric analysis that you’d throw into Excel if they had Excel back then and they really didn’t help anyone by all their effort to find this. They did find a few very interesting people and examples, and that personified abnormality in the brain.
There were some interesting use cases of people who had a spike driven through their skull and the brain was affected. And it led to some of the early neuroscience activity that turned into a whole category of medicine. But the genius element of it, the intelligence element of it you can’t eat a certain vegetable and become brilliant. It just doesn’t happen. And it really doesn’t matter. It is the end result of it because the pursuits are all about the layers, the standing on the shoulders of giants, as they say. You would never have the Internet unless you had cabling. You would never have cabling unless you had electricity.
It goes back all the way down through hundreds of years ago to mining elements out of the ground. It started as a book about the tech industry and programming and tech nerds and how they talk but it ended up digging back into history. We looked at Einstein and one of the best examples of very entertaining intellectual pursuit moments of Einstein is when he’s playing his violin to help him think clearer. That’s where we get into some in the book in chapter three about creativity and how we think and putting our creative juices onto paper and how the Slow Create Framework that myself and a neuroscience professor out of UCLA helped to fashion this framework for creative thinking. Creative work really is when you plug it into a system, all the organised thinking that you do on a regular basis, you plug it into an organized system and then you apply a process against that system.
You end up with achievable, measurable outcomes. If you’re a tech founder or a soccer mom or whoever you might be in or around the tech industry You’re able to really walk away with tangible results. But anyway, you have Einstein playing his violin to think more clearly and allow his brain to do what it does best but he would listen first to Mozart.
So, you have one declared genius, Mozart, playing in the background on the phonograph or whatever technology they had at the time. And you had Einstein listening to that and he would start playing and it was almost like through space-time this genius moment was taking place in the airwaves.
You can almost magically see it in the area around them. Then he would sit down and work on his theory of general relativity in the early 1900s. It’s a very amazing moment of magical wonder but it really wasn’t magical at all. It was a lot of procedure. Yes, he was brilliant and Einstein was fascinating to study. They even dissected his brain when he died. An amazing story, some guy came in, a doctor, and somehow convinced the family member to sign off on him being able to analyse Einstein. But you didn’t realise he was gonna cut his skull open and pull his brain out.
He literally took Einstein’s brain, put it in bottles in his home office, in a couple of industry bottles, and there it sat for decades. It’s insane. Nobody really knows that. People don’t talk about it. There was a couple of podcasts series on Einstein’s brain that you can look up and it’s just some fascinating stuff. But when he did all his analysis and, of course, over the decades, they reanalysed it. They only found that it was slightly different than a normal human brain. There was really nothing. It wasn’t grossly massive or dense, or you’d think that there’d be an extra set of neurons somewhere in there.
We know very little about all that still. Working with the neuroscientists, we began to dig into how the average Joe, hence the title, can really improve their intellectual capacities and the elasticity of the brain. And then applying that to the tech industry and tech careers and what are some of the best practices that you can do in order to be as optimized as humanly possible with all of your thinking. That carries through because I’ve been through Techstars, at business accelerators with my startups, I’ve raised venture capital funding. Even in small scales for seed funding, it’s still a valuable effort I pitched over 120 times.
So I know the industry and how it all works. And founders walk around like professors at the university with their head down and their brain is spinning. They’re thinking about all kinds of stuff and they’re innovating and they’re trying to move their startup forward. Or maybe if you’re trying to learn tech, you’re listening to this, you’re on the outside of tech and you’re trying to get on the inside.
You’re knocking on the doors you’re trying to learn PHP, Perl, Ruby, C-sharp, whatever it might be, and keep going. That’s what I tell you. But the mental cycles are astounding. The amount of work we’re all doing in our brains every single day is astounding. It’s alarming, keeps us up at night, right? I just kind of geeked out on the whole book and all the research. We had a research team helping me for 18 months and there’s an enormous amount of information in the book.
Petri: What I took from the book is that it’s not really about Silicon Valley. It’s not really about tech either. It’s actually about human history. It’s about humans. How we are creating myths. We are creating stories. How we are lying to ourselves that if you are lazy, you don’t want to do the work.
It is easier to believe in some superpowers, some super people who are having something exceptional. So you can just be on your sofa and eat chips and you don’t need to bother with working out and doing those things. That’s actually the story, isn’t it?
It’s basically taking off all those fancy things and it’s just brute work and some people have some secrets. It’s not the person it’s the secret they have. And another thing is that there’s a method to that madness. There’s this process or processes, techniques, and those people know them.
And it’s persistence as well. Nobody’s saying that they’re not intellectually clever and smart people and some of them are geniuses but still the average Joe can do a lot of things. And I think that’s really the big takeaway. You had six myths you were dissecting there. Do you still remember them by heart?
Shawn: Yeah, absolutely. That the tech genius myth is based on six claims. The claim number one is that genius is required that we all in order to be a tech genius, you have to be intellectually superior. You have to have something in you that is special intellectually, where you can do advanced calculus and nobody else can. You can write code.
I think that claim number one ties to the ability to write software. When you say, look, mom, look what I can do. And they look over your shoulder and say, that’s great, honey. You grow up with these golden boy or golden girl feelings of specialness. When you enter the tech industry you touch on and you tap into that nerve once again, because now you can write code that no one else understands and it makes software run on a computer.
How magic is that? How amazing is that? That’s what pulled me in to attack it. It kicked the dopamine neurotransmitter in my brain, and I just loved it. I got hooked. That’s claim number one. The claim number two is that creation, the act of creativity is this sudden and inspired moment. It’s what Darwin called the sudden bolt from the blue.
Shawn: Eureka. Yes, exactly. There are some Eureka moments. There’s certainly what we call big-C creative moments. But what we find is that most creativity and most innovation is a little-C creative moment. It’s that spark that is really more of an ember. It’s just flying around in the air and it just kind of lands on a piece of brush that was ready for it. But claim number two is that it’s sudden, inspired. Claim three is that…
Petri: Let’s pause here for a bit. What I take from the book as well, and otherwise, is that sort of that Eureka moment it’s just the culmination of the work, what you’ve been doing. Maybe you have the final puzzle piece clicked and then it comes and then you realise it but there’s been maybe decades of work before that. And it’s been gradual, grinding tiny bits and trials and errors, things which are not working pattern recognition, a lot of things going in there. It’s just the culmination of the final thing when it beautifully, everything comes together but it’s just not that moment.
It’s the one permille off to all the work you had done before. But that’s the only thing you see or other people say that, Hey, this guy just walks in and does that. Then it’s just like magic and you don’t see the rest of the story.
Shawn: Oh, totally. It’s the famous potter in the book. We talk about the flow state and there’re potters that have been on the wheel for decades and they say, well, the first 10 000 or 20 000 pots, those are really hard. It gets easier after that. That’s great news! So just wait 17 years until you get to that point and then it eases up. But the hands in the clay, getting your feet…There’s another golfer who we talk about who had his feet in the grass when he was like seven or eight years old. He was learning in the backwoods of Alabama and he would dig his toes into the grass. He would feel the wetness of the morning and he grabbed the club. As he would grow into his professional career, he got a chance when someone offered it and somehow he got connected and he got a caddy and they promoted him. He would dig his fingers back into that grass and his body would feel what it felt for decades. And the fingertips of the developer in tech those are some very interesting, powerful fingertips. They can do quite a bit. They’re already knowing not to click the certain key versus the other. There’s this muscle memory that you feel is professional, no matter what you’re doing tech or not, that you cannot fabricate in a quick code camp.
You can’t do a boot camp and feel, Oh my God, I’m gonna go out… there’s a level of rhythm and iteration that your body needs physiologically something in there has to be checked. A box has to be checked before you’ll pass a litmus test for most careers and much more than that for raising money with investors. There’s quite a bit of time involved. You’re absolutely right.
Petri: Neils Bohr, the famous Danish physicist and Nobel prize winner, he once said that “an expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” And that’s just hard work. Isn’t it? It’s like all the other options are already exhausted.
Shawn: Yeah, it’s hard work. And, the listener may say, Oh, that’s bad news. That means I’m screwed. No, the work that you’re doing and certainly there’s no magic pill. That’s obvious if you thought there was, I’m sorry to break it to you. But when you invest decades of your life into a career, technology or industry, and you know that industry, whatever industry might be, agriculture to space tech to horticulture, study of squirrel fingernails, your industry is your industry and you have the advantage, a narrow, very specific advantage that 99.9% of the rest of the world probably doesn’t have. You should leverage that. That is the fulcrum by which you can advance yourself. Upon accepting that challenge, your life becomes incredibly more interesting. With the tech industry, we’ve seen tech and software eat the world.
Everything’s getting eaten up by SaaS companies in every industry. Nothing’s going to be spared from it, it’s endless. Own it. Own it is what I would say. That’s yours. Nobody else can do what you can do.
Petri: And that’s the secret. You’re also telling, well, it’s not so much of a secret anymore but the story of Dropbox. Because it’s quite exceptional. There’s so many great things about Dropbox. It opened up the whole growth hacking, even the name and the concept of growth hacking came out of Dropbox and it’s quite a magical box, which they opened for referrals and a lot of things. Can you tell briefly the story and the development? Does it go back even almost 20 years in the personal history of the main characters in the Dropbox story?
Shawn: Well, it’s 2020 today. It goes back to 2008. So that’s about 12 years. And, it taps into claim number three of the tech genius myth, which is that secrets are elusive and that you really can’t achieve secrets. The story in a brief nutshell is that Sean Ellis, who I got to sit down with for a couple of hours here in Newport Beach, California, for a wonderful interview, he told the story of he himself and what he went through and achieved in helping Dropbox achieve their world-changing growth from a couple million in value to over 10 billion. I think they were around 14 billion at the writing of the book in value. And, it’s a wonderful story. I’ll let you get the deeper version of it in the book, but essentially he met with a buddy of his Jamie Siminoff who founded Ring, which was bought by Amazon for a billion dollars a few years back.
You might remember Siminoff was on Shark Tank and they, Hey, Jamie, how’s it going? Hey, no, we’re not going to invest. And then he comes back and now he’s an investor, he’s a Shark himself. So it’s kind of cool to see that. Siminoff and Ellis are buddies and they met for coffee or a bite to eat.
They were talking about some of their experiments in the marketing domain. Ellis is coming from a growth career. He had helped three or four other companies go public and done a fantastic job of developing an experimental culture, putting in place marketing experimentation as a science and developing the rhythms of growth in those companies.
His reputation proceeds him and he’s walking into Dropbox as a value-added, heavy hitter hired gun and looking at some of their ads and some of their marketing techniques and Siminoff shares with him a very specific secret. Something that he tried, that he realised, and he coined and codified into a phrase and into a concept. Ellis bookmarked that in his brain. He just kind of stared at the wall for a second and nodded his head like, okay, got it.
Came back and waited six months to use it until just the right moment. He dropped it into one of their marketing experiments and it just blew up. I mean, it went from like, Oh, there’s a 20% increase on that one. Oh, that’s good. Bobby, keep going. All of a sudden there’s a 300% increase and everyone kind of turns heads and looks over and sure enough, the secret worked, it worked.
They took that one experiment and they A/B-tested it to death and they came up with a hundred different versions of it and then they blew it up. Dropbox took off from there. And that secret though is a great quintessential example of isolating yourself. If Ellis would have been isolated, if he would say, I know everything, I know what I’m doing. I don’t need anybody else. You all should listen to me. There’s danger there. That’s the surest path to failure. But he continued to collaborate and he invoked his network and that worked and the information was proximal. The proximity of information is very key for founders and for tech professionals, marketing professionals, innovators, you really want to be proximal. If you’re pulling yourself away from the conversation, I know introverts I’m one. We love to sit in a corner and read a book and everyone be quiet, but you really do have to carve out your calendar to have that back and forth, whether over Zoom or in person. It’s a wonderful story.
Petri: While you were talking with Sean, did you get the impression that it was kind of an accident or a happy coincidence that he got the secret? He was not looking for that thing. It was dropped into his lap by Siminoff sharing his knowledge and experience. Because you said he sort of bookmarked it, but there was no placeholder to put it immediately. It was like, okay, nice thing. I just keep that in my mind. He was not like, Hey, I need to do this, can you figure out, what could we do in order for this thing to happen?
Shawn: I think it was raw material. It reminds me of another story in the book about Groupon. But to answer your question first is was it by accident? Partially, I think it could have very well failed and the experiment might’ve led to just yet another failed experiment and they just hit the dismiss button and start a new one, new campaign, Okay, whatever and not even think about it.
Petri: The other thing is that if he would have not gotten the secret from Siminoff you have more knowledge of the case but because there was something particular, what he had figured out. If I remember correctly, it was like both of the parties needed to gain something.
If you are referring, and that’s what Dropbox did, you also gain a bit of more disk space. It was not just the friend you’re giving. Both of you are getting it, and that was the secret sauce. And then you needed to tweak and find the exact right propositions for both parties that it has the optimal value for everyone.
But that wasn’t common knowledge at the time. I’m not sure that it would have happened the same way if that piece of knowledge, that this is the thing, this is how you should be doing, because one way, giving referrals to the regular way, you give someone something, but you’re not getting anything. What I understood by reading the case was that that didn’t work. It was this magic sauce, which made the difference.
Shawn: Yeah, it was. They called it the principle of mutual benefit. The idea that party A has benefited party B has benefited and the platform by which they are both on has benefited. So it’s truly a three-part triangle. And that is spinning in the air and Siminoff was able to grab it out of the ether and put it into words. And I think that’s the trick when you can observe and you can codify and pull it out of the ether, stick it into a phrase and then share it with other people and then have evidence to back it up.
You have now found a secret. You have taken information that you digested that you have observed your data becomes transient if it can be communicated, but the principle of mutual benefit would have been discovered by anybody at some point. Someone would have figured this out and we would have, instead of Dropbox would have been some other brand that we would have been using maybe, a newcomer or an established brand who knows.
But yeah, that was the principle, but it ties into Groupon and what Andrew Mason discovered even predating Dropbox by several years is the village mindset. The principle that he discovered that made Groupon the fastest-growing Internet company in history at the time or the fastest growing company in history of all companies was the village mindset. And the village mindset is the idea and the willingness of other people to participate in my transactions. It led to the sharing economy where we’re allowing other strangers to sleep in our bed.
Investors said that’ll never happen. No one’s coming to my house and sleeping in my bed. Oh yeah, they are. And it’s going to be the biggest hotel in the world now, Airbnb.
These principles, these beliefs, they are thesis, they are theories that are easily destroyable. You can discount them very easily. Your mind discredits it because you yourself wouldn’t be willing to do something.
Mason took that principle and he was running one company and he pivoted it to save the company because the investors were unhappy with whatever they were doing at the time was some sort of journalistic endeavour.
He pivoted and rarely do pivots ever work scientifically and statistically, but this one worked and boy did it. Now, Groupon has since languished in the never-ending trough of despair, but we hope the best for them and we’ll see what happens.
But, these principles they’re out there and can you figure them out? Can you codify them? Can you put them into a phrase that can be communicated? That’s the challenge. That’s a part of this claim number three, and the book teaches you how to do that to the best of my ability and from the evidence and stories that we were able to find. It ties into claim number four, about growth, and that’s the Dropbox story, but the growth is magic that there is this magic dust.
Some people seem to feel like there’s magic dust out there. And if I don’t have the magic dust, and I shouldn’t be doing tech startups, or I shouldn’t even try. I find that to be fascinating because people like Elon Musk launching stuff into space, you see them on YouTube with SpaceX.
I love Elan. Well, no, not really, but, he’s an interesting character to study at least. I guess some of his employees say he is not very nice and I think one day he fired like 700 people and there’s a lot of articles. You can Google it and take a look and see what the journalistic press has to say about him.
But the magic dust that he carries is widely held as some of the best dust out there. Bezos and Musk and some of these guys, they just look in one direction and the stock prices move around.
Petri: Yeah, that’s what we see now. The number one billionaire in the world, Jeff Bezos. But if you think about it in the early nineties, or even in the late nineties, that was not the case. It was just a completely different story. If you also look at Elon Musk, he went through hard times. There was a time when Christmas was coming and both of his companies were bust. Well, they’re technically almost, I guess, almost like going under during the financial crisis, Tesla and SpaceX, and he’s putting everything in. In many cases, there’s this other side of the story as well. It’s how much you’re willing to sacrifice. Nothing comes easy usually. And it’s a lot of dedication.
I think that’s one of the things which sets apart those who are really dedicated. They just have sort of like a compulsion to get this thing done. They really want to see something happen and they are so driven by whatever the objective is that they just don’t give up.
Shawn: Absolutely. I think the determination is kind of everyone’s secret weapon. If you can tap into it. There’re so many stories of that. I won’t go into all of that. There’re these dreamers out there that are fanatical about their industry or their ideas. And if you’ve ever met someone with an idea, they’re like, well, I won’t tell you, because I’d have to have you sign an NDA, and investors just kind of roll their eyes.
In the first day of Techstars, when I went to this tech startup accelerator out there, many are familiar with, the first thing that we heard was your idea is worthless.
Petri: That’s not the nicest thing to hear!
Shawn: If you’re an idea person, that’s the last thing you want to hear. What are you talking about? My ideas are amazing if you only knew my brilliance.
I took that and I was like, Oh man, that hurt. And then he said, but you, you’re interesting to us. It kinda lit a little bit of okay, well that helps. It’s like a kick in the butt and a pat on the back, and then a warm hug. It reset your thinking because execution truly is everything.
How do you execute? How do you build? How do you formulate and create? What is the process by which you go to create value for customers? If you can define and improve and are you flexible and moldable and willing to stretch, bend, and evolve as a founder, as an innovator, you can position yourself in the right room with the right people and proximity again to overcome whatever it might’ve been like a financial deficit or any sort of team deficit or knowledge gap, or proximity or awareness deficit, they can fill in gaps with you and move you beyond the layers of the plateaus that you’re stuck at. I really do believe that the determination within me at least has brought me when I raised six rounds of funding in a row for my startup, a failing startup each time. I was somehow most proud of that because how do you convince investors to invest their boat money, their retirement money, their vacation money. The seed stage is very difficult to raise money for it.
In fact, many would believe that round A funding, round B of funding and the tens of millions, much easier to raise that money. Because you already have some sort of traction you’re already moving forward, but seed money. Oh my God. Good luck. That’s very difficult. It’s almost formulaic too. You have to have the recipe just right to get their attention.
But I do think that the long-term staking it out, climbing a mountain, tackling Everest in little bits and bytes, biting the elephant off one bite at a time. It does take years of your life to soak into something.
Petri: Are there any stories left out? Something you’d think was fascinating, but for some reason, didn’t go to the book. Anything you can tell, which is not between covers?
Shawn: I think the idea of the great crossover. The nerds telling stories and chapter nine, we talk about showmanship and how to communicate. Most of the time, all the folks that I’ve met that are amazing software developers, they are horrible communicators. In fact, I myself am a recovering software developer.
So even to be able to string together 10 words, that makes sense, it’s taken me a lifetime and communication is truly the number one reason that anyone gets hired. Your soft skills are truly more important 10:1 than your hard skills. I don’t care how great of a programmer you are if you don’t know how to speak to anybody. They don’t want to work with you.
The development versus communicative capabilities, I call it the great crossover because you’re crossing a chasm. You’re saying no to what traditional science tells us. There’re left and right side of the brain. And that’s been hotly debated, some neuroscientists say I ignore all that. It’s really all over the place.
Let’s just take, for example, the idea of a left-brainer, this logical thinker. And then the right-brainer or the creative mind, the artsy folks. So, developers, if you ask them to build a website, what do they say? Well, I can build a backend. I like to focus on the backend. I’m not much of a design person. Yeah. The design guys are creative weirdos. They’re over there, and they point to the other side of the company and the design people, they say, well, I don’t know how it all works, but I’m really good in Photoshop. And I can master the colour palette. That’s not really all true, is it?
The technical folks, they are some of the most creative people you’ll ever meet. They can get into the code and invert paradigms like no one else can. Programming is the ultimate extensible model. You can do literally anything with code. And to be able to learn that and develop that and morph that into something that can somehow produce value for a customer is amazing.
And then become more efficient. But communicating and taking all the signs of that and turning into palatable words that can be digested by another human being, which has no idea how code works, that’s truly an art form. And so the ability of Demosthenes back in 300-400 BC, this Athenian Senator who could not speak. He would stutter.
He had multiple different problems, speech impediments and so forth, but he put rocks in his mouth and the story is widely retold. He began to figure out how to self-correct. He dug a cave and took his light down there and he shaved his beard and his head halfway off so he couldn’t come out until he forced himself to learn how to speak.
And once he learned how to speak, he reinvented himself. Went back on the stage, created masterful, prepared works. In fact, he only spoke from a prepared set of documents. He would never speak on the cuff. In fact, a great example is they would shout his name, a thousand grown adults shouting your name to come to the platform and defend yourself or to speak on a topic.
And he refused. Only if it was written. Only in his way, in his little weird world, would he produce the perfect jewel of spoken ideas. And I love the story with Demosthenes and it gets even deeper than that, but…
Petri: Pick your battles!
Shawn: Yeah. Pick them very carefully, but his limitations were inverted. And so now, instead of him being at the behest of the crowd, he kind of controlled it. He flipped it on its head.
I really believe that. And that’s why I created the Sustainable Mystique Concept. This triad of communication that if you follow the Sustainable Mystique Triad, anyone, I don’t care how left-brainer you are classically speaking. Anyone can learn how to communicate.
They can learn how to put their words into a very narrow and very focused groove and push the inflextions and push the belief systems, the patterns of details of secrets, all the subject matter of their craft through that paradigm and out the other side comes fascination. The audience looks at you and says, wow, this guy, this gal, how did she do that? How did they do that? I am intrigued by what you have to say. And I’d like to schedule a follow-up meeting with you. So check out chapter ten. Chapter nine talks about how to speak and how to reposition your thinking toward the notion of generating fascination. But that’s probably the most valuable take away other than chapter three, the Slow Create Framework. There’s a lot there.
Petri: It sounded like for a moment that you were telling or explaining this is how you become a tech genius.
Shawn: Yeah, it kind of is. And that’s the way the book kind of felt when I started the book and there was this desire to disprove it. To say, Oh, I’ll show them. And halfway through, I realized, no, no, no, that’s not right. It’s really, I’ll show them. It’s inverted into that. And I’m twisting my hand in the air right now if you could see me. This idea that you start off by saying Elon Musk is not special, I can be Elon Musk. And then you just disprove that and say, no, Elon Musk is special. He’s done some great things. Jeff Bezos is very special. They do have something more what Thomas Carlyle in 1840, the Scottish philosopher that we opened the book and chapter one with, he talks about this Great Man Theory.
This great man was something more. Who are these people? These noblemen, these princes? Why do we try to crown kings? Why do we adore and worship humanity? Why does that happen? It is because everyone wants the great man with something more. Everyone wants to worship another human. And that’s just kinda how we’re hard-wired.
But the reality is you can be the tech genius. You can twist the paradigm and you can “become the myth.” It’s all over the website. I use that phrase “become the myth” because it’s the truth that you can… I know that I speak with ignorance of your scenario of whoever’s listening is, you don’t know me and what I’ve been through or what I’m dealing with in my adversity levels.
And, certainly, if you’re in a dirt floor and you don’t have Internet access, you don’t have access to education. Well, that is different. And there’s some pyramid of needs that we need to address there first and get you help. But as you develop in your career, across the world. Just found out this morning, the book is going to be translated to Chinese and someone picked up the rights. So excited about that. Hopefully India.
Petri: Wow, congrats!
Shawn: Yeah. Thanks. We hit the best sellers list on Amazon for the first weekend and hope to hit that again soon. But, I think people resonate with this idea of becoming that myth of being that tech genius of twisting that paradigm. And if there are any formulaic answers then what are they?
Let’s dig into that and practice those rhythms and up our game. That applies to anyone in or around the tech industry. Meaning if you’re already developing for 20 years, great! If you haven’t written one line of code, great! Both categories of people can up their game, they can improve.
Petri: You also mentioned there the theory of someone who said that there’s Big-C and Little-C creativity. We already spoke about that one great moment where everything becomes clear, but in reality, creativity is something with it’s really mundane. It’s what happens every day and it’s these tiny things and everybody’s creative.
It’s so normal. It’s so average that we should not even talk about it.
Shawn: Well, it’s additive, right? The building of thesis and theories and hypothesis in the creative process itself was something that Graham Wallace in 1949 and prior had developed this replicable pattern of creativity and his four steps come together. Those turned into something else called thought fluidity.
Another gentleman called it the nagging pull. This nagging pull, this pebble in your shoe. What is it? What am I trying to figure out? What am I doing? What’s left? What’s the unsolved? That is a small-C moment. Those firing neurons they’re additive. They continue to compile and build up until the composition of the idea is more readily available to your precious thought process.
It starts subconsciously and then it builds. Working with our neuroscientist out of UCLA, we put together this model that then helps to foster pulling out of your subconscious the small moments. Putting them out into paper or onto digital PDF and being able to very rapidly, very quickly recall to memory where it was, where you were stuck on last, what you needed to change.
What the other element was in the formula and then fashion it up and put a bow on it. And make it something that can be spoken out of a mouth and that others can truly understand. But the Eureka moments are few and far between, and I wouldn’t go looking for them. It’s like the search for secrets. They are additive and they compile and they build up over time. But in the subject matter, you’ve gotta have your hands deep in that subject matter, continuing to crunch through your patterns, details, and secrets.
And be organised. One of the things I had noticed, this is actually a huge tragedy in our industry. Everyone is so freaking disorganised. They’re so darn smart. But you ask them, Hey, where did that one idea that you had go? Oh, Oh yeah. I forgot about that. Or, Hey, did you develop that? Did you put a business plan together? No. Well, whatever. The business model canvas that’s out there where you can plot out a business model. Most people can’t even get themselves to take the time to organise their thoughts for the day and calendars and so forth. So that’s why that’s so great framework, I think it really has legs because it truly organises all of your ideas into canvases. And then those canvases stack up into a pipeline and then you crunch through that pipeline and you never forget anything.
Petri: And in the middle of the canvas, it’s not exactly in the middle, but I think somehow I put it into the centre, is the ladder. The mindless part, it’s the work, isn’t it?
Shawn: Yeah, we call it the Mindless Work LADDER. And so that LADDER is an acronym. You let go of the details of the subject matter of the problem domain for the L.
Petri: Playing the violin? That’s what Einstein did. Wasn’t that actually his method of going into mindless?
Shawn: Playing the violin? Yep. It’s stepping down that ladder and his violin work activated what’s called the default mode network in your brain. Most of the time when we’re walking around making decisions on a daily basis, we use what’s called the ECN, the executive control network. We’re saying, Hey, should I pay this bill or that bill? Should I eat a burrito or a hamburger or a salad?
These decisions are trading off the future versus the present. There’s a lot of factors that are going on, but the ECN is firing and scientists used to think, well, that must be where all the energy is being used by your brain. And that must be where all the activities are happening. Well, actually, when that shuts off and you start daydreaming, the default mode network fires on and it’s this binary switch on/off.
When one is off the other is one, and so forth. They keep handing it off, passing the baton back to each other. The default mode network consumed 60-80% of all the brain’s energy of that detectable pattern, at least. We know that that’s happening. We know that when we daydream, we figure it out. We’re staring off into space.
There are plenty of innovators and even professors, as I described earlier, walking around with their head down, what are they doing? They’re crunching data, man, they’re a server farm. They’re just crunching through algorithms, figuring out, why should I do this or that, or the other thing, and how do I solve the math problem or how to restructure the business or whatever the subject matter is. The clay is still being pushed.
A thumb is going in, fingers going and there’s all this morphing and modelling in their mind that then eventually gets brought over to the other side as the baton is passed. That’s the L as let go. A as antenna, you become an antenna. D is the drift and daydream. E is to emerge. And R is to recharacterise the problem.
As you remerge back from that mindless work moment, you then have a better purview, a better perspective of the problem domain, and you can recharacterise and address the unsolved. This ladder becomes especially helpful when you’re in the shower. You just kind of daydream.
You’re thinking about stuff. When you’re taking a walk, a quiet walk, perhaps or doing the dishes or sorting numbers, sorting laundry, anything where you start drifting, that’s mindless work. The advantage you have is to take a moment to bait the hook as they say when fishermen before they throw the hook into the water and this fishing hook, I didn’t invent that analogy that’s been around, but you put something on the hook, you throw it in and you just kind of sit around and wait, what’s happening while your mind is kind of feeding off that then. It’s nibbling.
Its fishing ideas are kind of just swirling around the system, kind of this beautiful analogy of the subconscious activity. And sometimes you get a nibble. Sometimes you feel that tug and that’s where that Mindless Work LADDER comes in handy and you plot it onto the canvas, the Slow Create Framework.
And you’re able to document, Oh, you know what? I think I got a nibble, let me write it down. And you have that at your cubicle or at your desk at home. And you work through your creative juices in a systematic way.
Petri: Probably one of the reasons why people are like you said so disorganised, or they don’t put these things down or develop them further, is that because that switch is always on. You don’t idle. You put on Spotify or you are always in active mode and you need to be bored, completely distracted in the sense that you don’t get any stimuli because that’s what is needed when you’re folding the laundry or you just paying bills. You don’t really put your mental power in there. Those moments don’t happen that often.
It’s the same thing when you’re the CEO of a company, how much time do you have for thinking? Those walks and those moments where you can go down the LADDER. That’s what it takes.
Shawn: I think it’s so important. Yeah. So important. So critical. A lot of CEOs have carved off their whole mornings to think and they don’t answer email until the afternoon, or they don’t do the heavy lifting. They wanna use their mornings where their brain is at its optimal state, arguably with all the toxins drained from the night’s sleep and you wake up, you get your fresh coffee.
If you’re a coffee fanatic and you feel good about life again, and the serotonin levels, I’ve read some scientific journals that talk about serotonin levels, being more balanced in the morning. And they degrade as the evening progresses. So, no offence to late-night workers. I mean, Hey, if it works for you that’s wonderful. But scientifically speaking the mornings are where a lot of really wonderful brain activity can happen. And I do think it’s critical to take that mental health walk. And we all say that phrase, especially in the era of COVID, we’re all working from homes. It’s so critical to keep that mental health balance, of course, obviously, but in creative aspects and from the perspective of innovation, if you’re not allowing your mind to reset, recharge, level off, you’re missing out. You’re missing out on the great capacity that you carry with you. I think Thomas Edison said it best that the chief function of the body is to carry the brain around. Our brains are just so powerful.
I sometimes walk around as a programmer interacting with the physical realms as if it’s some sort of friction environment. I have to wash my hands. I have to get up. Oh geez. My body needs attention. I need to take a shower or whatnot, feed food and so forth. What a lame paradigm that is. If it only worked like software where you just kind of click a button and then a billion things can happen.
And code just runs silently like magic, right? Like our bodies are the ultimate opposite. They need so much. And yet if we take care of our brains chiefly, we can run like software. We can be as optimized as possible. I cannot understate the power of that as an innovator, as a startup founder, or anyone in tech. You’re responsible to care for your brain. If you’re not doing it, you’re missing out on hitting that plateau of optimal capacity.
Petri: There’s so much neuroscience, history and other stuff in the book. So what’s next?
Shawn: What’s next for me? What’s next for the book? What’s next for humanity?
Petri: Did it invoke some other curiosities, interests and questions, new rabbit holes to go into?
Shawn: I’m getting a lot of interest in the Slow Create Framework. I’ll probably do a book on that. The publisher says they might have some interest there and put it into another round of effort on it and formalising that, creating a course on that. You can check out slowcreate.com and by the time you hear this it might just redirect you somewhere, but something will happen there, I think.
I really believe that there’s a few startups still in me, and I’m probably gonna be looking into some of the curiosities that I’ve been toying with over the years and see if I can develop that and continue my craft personally. But writing is a wonderful outlet and it’s a great use of my mind. I’m looking to continue that pursuit, but not sure. We’ll see.
Petri: So you have some secrets! Come on, you just said that it’s so important for introverts to talk to other people. Now is your chance, tell us your secrets!
Shawn: I wish they were that amazing.
Petri: We don’t care. Just spill them out!
Shawn: How to get my two-year-old to go to sleep on time. There’s a rhythm there. There’s a pattern. I’ll share that in my next book.
Petri: What is your favourite word?
Shawn: I think story. If it comes to intellectual pursuits, I think the word story, because it changes everything. When we learn how to tell stories and cross the chasm, I think that ties into leadership conversations, management, leadership but story is powerful.
Petri: What is your least favourite word?
Shawn: I don’t really think I have one. I don’t know.
Petri: What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
Shawn: I think the introduction of new paradigms that I have not heard before. Intellectual stimulation where someone says, they discovered that gravitational waves may be more detectable than previously thought. I’m like, Oh really, going down a YouTube rabbit hole with that. But whenever scientists are saying something new has entered the scientific domain, I want to know about that and why that matters and what that’s gonna mean for the world.
I think that ties into inflextions and what a venture capitalist, Mike Maples, describes as four types of inflextions that we talked about in the book. But the ability to see the future, that’s really fascinating. And how do you see the future? If you could look at who raised money in the last ten years and what they were able to do, a lot of the folks that did it and that grew into unicorns, they were usually able to get out of their time machine at just the right moment and tell the investor what the future’s like. Mike Maples calls those guys see’ers. They can see, and getting a hold of one of those, putting them in your portfolio. That’s their number one priority as an investor. And so how do I become a see’er?
You have to really know what you’re doing in a specific category. You can’t master all things. Although, some would argue the generalist specialist kind of paradigm right back and forth there but I really err on the side of caution of specialism in knowing my subject matter better than anybody else. That’s what really fascinates me is when that new information hits the market.
Petri: What turns you off?
Shawn: Traditional business that is ignorant of change and working with some of my clients as a consultant, as a software innovator I try to suppress any sort of gag reflex when they start talking about their legacy software because that’s why I exist to convert those legacy systems into brand new web-based systems.
So again, if you’re out there, Google me, look us up. Product Perfect is the name of our firm but I think the touchpoint of a business in its technology footprint is very critical and it drives the overall success of the organisation. Having an openness to innovation and moving the company forward is really critical. When they don’t, it’s unfortunate for them.
Petri: What is your favourite curse word?
Shawn: I don’t really curse.
Petri: Yeah, I noticed we share a secret as well.
Shawn: Yeah. I’m a Christian and I would just try to live a little bit squeaky, clean life as much as I can as a follower of Jesus but I certainly am not judging anyone who does. And I’ll say, oops, or I’ll say damn once in a while. Is that, is that naughty?
Petri: What sound or noise do you love?
Shawn: The sound of my children.
Petri: What sound or noise do you hate?
Shawn: Sound of my child… I’m just kidding. Other people’s babies when they’re not well-disciplined. My own kids, oh, that’s fine. I know what they’re upset about but when somebody else’s kid in the supermarket screaming I just assume the worst about their kids, right. So I know I’m not alone out there.
Petri: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Shawn: I think writing. Software development and software architecture is my go-to but writing is probably second.
Petri: What profession would you not like to do?
Petri: If you could be a co-founder of any startup in any era, which one would you choose?
Shawn: Hm, tough one. There’s so many good ones. There’s a lot of great companies out there. I hesitate to say Google but I was getting started in tech 1999-2000 right when Google was being formed and I got letters from Stanford, I could have gone. I could have been rubbing shoulders with Larry and Sergey, who knows but.
Probably wouldn’t be ready for them but I think transforming Google from a PhD academia focused organisation, being a part of the DNA of that and turning it into more of a very laser focus culture that serves the enterprise a little more directly, just my two cents.
Petri: Any final words for the audience?
Shawn: Check out the book, averagejoetechgenius.com. Appreciate your support. And thanks for reading it. I think you’ll hopefully learn something. There’s a hundred thousand words about this topic. I’m hoping someone out there learned something and hit me up online, Twitter: shawnypants and averagejoetechgenius.com. Thank you!
Petri: Thank you, average Shawn!
Shawn: Average Shawn, I take that! Average is not bad. We’re all on a journey from average to genius. That’s the way I frame it. We’re all on that journey.