Posted On: Friday, 20 February 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Have you ever seen a young kid play around with a box of cardboard or some paint.


Kids have an innate tendency to explore; experiment and at times end up making a fool of themselves; an ability grown ups seem to lose during the 'growing up' process.

As I talk to more and more developers, even the really good ones, I'm starting to believe that Picasso's famous quote - 'All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up' - might in-fact be much more applicable to our lives much more than we think it is.

With every passing day, I find it increasingly difficult to come across young and budding developers willing to take some chances with their career and do something unconventional with their code, projects or their life. Most careers I seem to witness today usually seem to revolve around nine-to-five jobs, building CRUD screens and jumping from one job to another and one project to another.

In one of my earlier posts I talked about the fact that no sane walking, talking, human being on this planet gives a rat's ass about you; your product or your blog, unless you have something in it for them. This 'something' can be something as simple as a simple product that works a little differently, a message or a cause that takes people by surprise.

Margaret Mason for example, describes the noble cause of Heather Powazek Champ’s post; which hilariously; is to teach the world the right way to insert toilet papers in paper dispensers.  She describes this in her book 'No One Cares What You Had For Lunch' with the help of a diagram:


She adds:

When I am queen, I shall decree that all rolls of toilet paper be correctly inserted into the toilet paper dispensers. Correctly? You have all been improperly instructed to place your toilet paper with the “tongue” facing outward. This is incorrect. Why? It’s ugly. Please view the illustration above. Isn’t the arrangement in the right far more aesthetically pleasing than that on the left? But what about ease of use, you ask? I don’t give a rat’s ass about ease of use. I want the world to be a more beautiful place, and I’m going to start with your toilet paper. Thank you.   

Now, you can find the post hilarious, ridiculous or even funny; but it is; in it's own way; something that can be referred to as 'remarkable'.

Seth Godin in his 'remarkable' presentation at TED explains what 'remarkable' is:

The thing that's going to decide what gets talked about, what gets done, what gets changed, what gets purchased, what gets built, is, is-it-remarkable? And remarkable is a really cool word; because we 'think' it just means neat but it also means worth making a remark about.   

What you talk about, or what you work on, doesn't always have to be as grand as saving the world; but it has to end up being ‘remarkable’; much like the mission of teaching the world how to correctly insert toilet papers in the dispensers. Compare 'remarkableness' of that with posting your organizations balance sheet online or sending out marketing spam mail to customers and you'll be able to figure out why no-one is visiting your website, blog or buying your product.

Seth, has a  theory of being 'remarkable' where he defines 'remarkable' as the 'purple cow'. The idea is simple; After all when you are driving by the country side, no-one notices a white cow; but if the cow is purple; people pull over and take notice.

In the same remarkable presentation Seth proposes that the whole notion of being 'safe' and nails it heavily. According to Seth, safe is easy but in today's world that is the riskiest thing you can do to your life, your product or your blog:

The riskiest thing you can do now is be safe. Procter and gamble knows this. The whole model of Procter and gamble was always about average products for average people. That’s risky.

The safe thing to do to now; is to be on the fringes; be 'remarkable'; and being very good is one of the worst things that you can possibly do.

Very good is boring; very good is average. It doesn't matter if you are making a record album or you are an architect or you have a track in sociology. If it's very good, it's not going to work because no-one is going to notice it.   

Kids as it turns out, are born with the ability of taking these risks and creating perfectly 'remarkable' purple cows. I'm not sure if the tie-and-the-suit takes it away from managers and the need-to-get-a-guaranteed-safe-job takes it away from developers, but when I look around, I find only a minuscule number of developers taking sufficient amount of risks.

In a world where most programmers can't program; even most of the ones who can, are busy being just 'very good' at programming. Most of the time I see developers playing it safe; not just with their life; but with their profession and even their code.

I'm not talking about quitting your day time job and going for your own startup; I'm talking about simple risks of investing your career with one organization for a decent amount of time; taking up that course on literature or psychology even if it has no direct benefit on your career; or maybe just writing your code a little differently by building opinionated software.

When you can get an internet connection dirt cheap and a hosting account for less than a few dollars a month; there are no excuses for living the life of a paycheck programmer and not participating in making small but crazy dents in the universe. The bare minimum tools of change that you might need are not expensive and you have no excuses for being just 'good'.  As the world evolves, safe is riskier by the day and being just 'good' is bad. 

Aiming a 'safe' job that gets you a higher paycheck and keeps you busy with mundane CRUD applications through out the day for example, is the riskiest thing you can do to your career. Having ten posts on your hard disk and not posting them out on your blog because you think your readers may not like them is an equally risky thing you can do to your blog. Not releasing till your code is not perfect is the riskiest thing you can do to your product.

Don't worry about being 'good' or 'safe'; be 'remarkable'; take chances.

Show us the true color of your cow; and paint like a baby.

I dare you.

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