Saturday, May 01, 2021

Why I'm Excited About Book Covers on Kindle


Amazon released a new update for Kindle that I've wanted for a while: to show the cover of the book you're reading on the lock screen. The Internet and I sighed a collective FINALLY when it happened.


I needed to restart my Kindle Paperwhite (without ads) to see it in All Settings -> Device Options -> Display Cover.


The reason for my excitement is simple. The benefit of the Kindle is that it can hold thousands of books. And when you turn it on, it takes you right to the page you're reading, along with a percentage indicator of where you are in the book and how much longer you need to read to finish the chapter (or book). I also like highlighting, writing notes, and searching for passages. It's great!


But, I started to notice something concerning: I would sometimes forget the author's name and sometimes even the book's title!


Here's my hypothesis: with a physical book, you look at the cover - with the title and author's name - every time you pick it up. I read in 10-15 minute sessions, which means I see it 25-50 times per book over a couple of months. I couldn't help but memorize the author and title from the repetition. It's the slowest method of memorization, but it works.


But with the Kindle, I never got the repetition because the device opens directly to my current page. If the name didn't stick right away, I never looked at it again.


It's the same for me with Apple Music. I don't remember the album, the artist, and sometimes not even the song's title. Maybe that's a big reason why searching for music now includes song lyrics? That's the only information I remember to find a song. I often keep the Apple Music mini-player open so I can see the cover art and song title.


This is, in my opinion, one of the surprising (to me) consequences of aggregators. Is it any wonder that all of the largest tech companies are aggregators? Google aggregated website content, including news (which used to be a major aggregator of writers and ads) & video. Facebook, your friends. Amazon, your shopping. Apple's iPhone, your phone + email + music + calculator + flashlight + laptop + etc + etc. Airbnb (and other hotel & flight aggregators). Uber & Lyft. Netflix. Zillow. Craigslist & eBay.


You get the idea.


Each of these services separated the content/product from the creator, making it seamless to look at multiple options, compare, and make choices based on the merit of the content/product itself. It saves so much time and allows for better discovery. I think it's a net benefit to society. (I suppose Walmart is the best physical example of an aggregator.)


The big problem is that the aggregator leads to same-ness, making everything a commodity. Do you remember the name of the last movie you watched on Netflix? I don't. It had Paul Rudd. It was funny, but not funny enough to recommend, which is probably a good thing since I don't remember the name!


There are undoubtedly significant economic and social consequences of aggregators. It's a tension that will constantly need managing. Megahits, like Taylor Swift and J.K. Rowling, will be fine. And the long-tail of discovery will allow newcomers a chance to succeed. But it's the middle of the tail, like that movie or decent smartphone apps, that can get stunted by aggregators if the tension isn't well managed.


But for me, the surprising impact is the personal one: forgetting the creator, even in situations like Kindle where I intentionally bought the individual book.


With this Kindle update, I'll get to see my book covers again. I'm delighted to start remembering authors and titles better.

Monday, March 29, 2021

"Reading While Black" Book Review and Reflections



After listening to Esau McCaulley on the Bible Project Podcast, I listened to his audiobook called "Reading While Black."


As a white Christian growing up in a Lutheran church, and today a member of a Baptist-based church, I enjoyed listening to McCaulley's interpretation of Biblical truths and learned a lot about the Black Christian church.


His book is about the Bible written by a Christian for Christians.

"I want to make a case that [an] unapologetically Black and orthodox reading of the Bible can speak a relevant word to Black Christians today. I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition–its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith–can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition. This is a work against the cynicism of some who doubt that the Bible has something to say; it is a work contending for hope." (page 6)


Here are a few themes that stuck out to me: the influence of our backgrounds on interpreting the Bible, the balance of seeking justice and God's timing, the political drama found in the Bible, and the Bible's stance on slavery. Below I'll share my notes on each of these. There are many more and I recommend reading/listening to Reading While Black if these sound interesting.


For many of these points, the Bible doesn't state its stance as plainly as some would like. Instead, each theme is interwoven into a grand narrative that requires study.

"I propose instead that we adopt the posture of Jacob and refuse to let go of the text until it blesses us. Stated differently, we adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly, it will bring a blessing and not a curse. This means that we do the hard work of reading the text closely, attending to historical context, grammar, and structure." (page 21)

Given that McCaulley's book is written to Christians, my reflections will also be written to someone who spent at least some time reading the Bible. If you read something here you don't get, reach out. I'd love to chat with you.


Our culture, background, education, and experiences influence what we emphasize

For example, I never thought much about the race of the 12 sons of Jacob (the start of the 12 tribes of Israel). Specifically, Jacob adopted and extended God's blessing to Joseph's two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. Both men were born of an Egyptian mother. They're half African. Therefore, Africa is rooted deeply as part of God's promise. This is a detail I never caught before.

"…there was never a biologically "pure" Israel. Israel was always multiethnic and multinational. As a Black man, when I look to the biblical story, I do not see a story of someone else in which I find my place only by some feat of imagination. Instead God's purposes include me as an irreplaceable feature along with my African ancestors. We are the first of those joined to Abraham's family in anticipation of the rest of the nations of the earth." (page 102)


I tend to pay particular attention when the name "James" comes up in the Bible since I share that name. I also key in on warnings around money and time given where I am in life. And Jessi remembers more events around women than I do.


It's not that anyone's interpretation is better or wrong. The only "wrong" way of thinking is to conclude that your interpretation is the best/only option. So, as much as you can, spend time outside your personal echo chamber. Read, listen, and talk to people from different backgrounds about the Bible. This book is a great example.



It is right to call out injustice, but we also need to submit to God's timing and plan.

McCaulley focuses on Moses for this part. Moses rightly identifies that slavery of his people is wrong. But, Moses takes matters into his own hands, murders a guard, and then needs to run away. Moses learns - 40 years later - that God agrees, but that wasn't the right timing or way to free God's people from slavery. God's way was much more comprehensive and glorious!


So, there's an interesting tension here. It is good to call out injustice, to call for change, to try to fix injustices. And at the same time, we can't hold too tightly to the outcome. We should yield to God's timing and way. Again, this is a tension because you also don't want to give up too early! You can seek clarity the way Moses did: talk to God (via prayer) and find out what he wants.


I'd also like to add that injustice comes in all different types of severity. You don't need to find "the biggest cause" to champion. God may put on your heart something that the world thinks "isn't a big deal." Don't be discouraged if someone questions, "why are you focused on X when Y - which is a bigger deal - is still happening?" God can multi-task and focus on all injustice at all times.



The Bible contains politics, so we shouldn't be afraid to think politically.

know that politics interweaves into every fabric of our lives: Values create policies that directly change how we live, and over time, change values leading to new policies... But, for me, it also seems inconsequential to my life. How much does the President really impact my day-to-day life? It felt like zero percent this morning. I know there's an indirect influence (perhaps more so from the cumulative effects from past Presidents), but, at least for me, my daily impacts come from my immediate surroundings: my family, friends, neighbors, customers, and employees.


Said another way: I know that "politics is important," but politics feels more like watching a sporting event than as something that has a bearing on my life.


I'll even go as far as to admit that when I read the Bible I "leave politics out of it." I solely focus on what it means for my personal life and don't recognize the political drama within an event. If there is any political drama (which, I've recently realized, is a lot!) I gloss over that part, often missing out on some of the broader implications.


McCaulley gives an example from the book of 2 Samuel. King David committed adultery and later murdered the husband to cover up his crime. And when Nathan the prophet confronted him, he repented but still had to live with the consequences of his actions.


There's a lot of wonderful personal applications from this event, which we should study, but McCaulley also shows the political side:


David is a king, a great warrior, ordained by God, and known for his heart for God (implying he's given the benefit of the doubt almost all the time). David is a big deal, whereas Nathan is a court prophet. There's a wide power gap! It's like a pastor in Washington D.C. calling out the President for a crime he committed that wasn't publicly known. Even if the two had previously chatted, it wasn't like they were close friends. This is dripping with political drama with real risks! Think about it, David has already proven he's willing to murder to cover up his crime. And is it really a crime for the most powerful person in the nation? Who's going to stop him? What courage and trust Nathan displays as he stepped up to confront David! Can you also imagine the reports going throughout the nation? This is a scandal of massive proportions.


McCaulley continues by showing how much of Jesus's life includes direct political action. First, Herod the Great kills innocent children in an attempt to kill Jesus (whose family flees to Egypt, an African nation, for sanctuary). I can't even imagine how horrific it would be to be one of the families whose son was killed because of a power move.


As an adult, Jesus publically calls another political leader, Herod Antipas, a fox. This isn't just about his moral code; it's also about his political activities of causing the people's suffering.


"Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus. "(page 57)


Side note: Jesus is calling out injustice but still submitted to God's authority and the authority of the rulers. He submitted to the point of dying on a cross. This aligns with Romans 13:1-2, which says:

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment."

By the way, the following sentence assumes the rulers are just, which is why we submit. But Jesus takes it that next step: Even if they are not just, still submit. Call them out! Don't be passive! But follow the rules unless it directly contradicts God's law.


As I continue to read the Bible, I will pay closer attention to the narrative's political side and seek to let it shape my political opinions and activities.



Paul, an apostle of Jesus, does NOT condone slavery.

It's with some fear and trepidation I reflect on this next theme. I'm white, male, financially stable, a landlord, living in the U.S., happily married with amazing kids, college-educated, right-handed, etc. I'm pretty sure I check most "privileged" boxes. Who am I to comment on slavery? Furthermore, it's highly likely that I benefit today - right now - from systematic injustice and I'm not even aware of it.


So be it. May God use my privilege to bless others. May God put the words of people like McCaulley in front of me to help me better understand other's experiences and stir my heart to want to bless and help others even more. In this case, it starts with learning what the Bible says about slavery. Let's jump in to see what McCaulley and the Bible say on the subject.


McCaulley shared that his grandmother heard this passage preached to her multiple times by their slave masters:

"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him." - Ephesians 6:5-9 (NIV)


Out of context, it indeed seems like Paul is saying slavery is acceptable as long as the masters aren't mean about it. McCaulley:

"On the first read, the Bible does not appear to say all that we want it to say in the way that we want the Bible to say it. And yet this is the crucial part: the Bible says more than enough. The story of Christianity does not on every page legislate slavery out of existence. Nonetheless, the Christian narrative, our core theological principles, and our ethical imperatives create a world in which slavery becomes unimaginable." (page 139)


McCaulley will explain why the Bible doesn't condone slavery, yet addresses it as a reality because of our sin and patiently shepherds people away from it. But first, I want to take a detour towards a bigger question.


If God is all-powerful, why does injustice exist, and why does God allow it?

Let's go back to Moses and the Exodus. There, God demonstrates his hatred of slavery, yet he doesn't instantly wipe it out. Why not? Why allow sin at all? Why put a tree in the garden of Eden that Adam and Eve shouldn't eat? Why not simply create perfect people living in Heaven on day 1? And to pile on a little more, as Christians, we profess four essential truths:

  1. God is fully and continually all-powerful.
  2. God is good, loving, and there is no evil in him.
  3. Evil and sin exist.
  4. Sinners are fully responsible for their sin.


So, if God is all-powerful and loving, why does injustice exist, and why does God allow it?


For a complete answer, I HIGHLY recommend chapter 5 of the book Doctrine by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Brashears. Here's my summary:


God is indeed all-powerful, and in exercising that power, he gave us the freedom to make our own choices. It started with Satan, who chose to fight God. Then Adam (and Eve) chose to trust Satan instead of God, despite God's clear warnings of the consequences. Now, God could have killed Adam on the spot. He had every right! But instead, because of God's love, he only separated himself from Adam (a type of death, but not completely blotted out). God let him physically live and find a way back to God. You and I inherited that separation and often make it worse.


Because of God's perfect justice and unwillingness to be associated with anything sinful, the only way to make it back to God is by paying the debt of our sin. Now, here's what's cool to me. Romans 5:12-21 explains that we can inherit justification through a righteous act of one person (Jesus) because we all inherited separation from one person (Adam). So, it might seem unfair that we're all called sinners and separated because of what Adam did ("it wasn't me who ate the fruit!"), but it set the precedence that we can also become righteous through one person: Jesus.


Jesus paid our debt of sins through his death on the cross. Thus, restoring our close relationship with God. It's precisely the same way as someone else paying off your mortgage for you. You're now free from that debt! All you need to do is accept the payment.


This begs the question: What's special about Jesus? How come he can pay our debt of sin?


How come Jesus can pay our debt?

If God killed us, we would deserve it, and it would pay off our debt from sin. But that's a sad ending for God and us (remember: God loves us). So, how do you satisfy the demand for justice while making it possible to still have a life with God after it's paid?


I like the mortgage analogy (shocker): how do you pay off a mortgage when you don't have enough money because you keep wasting it with bad choices? One option is to foreclose on the house, but that's no fun for the bank or you.


What if someone else, who didn't have a mortgage, was willing to let the bank foreclose on their house instead? Thus, the debt is satisfied, and you get to keep the house. Now, what if the value from that foreclosure was enough to cover the debts of all mortgages? And all people needed to do was sign a document that says, please include my house in the debt payment.


This is what Jesus did.


Jesus was born of the spirit, not a man. Therefore, he didn't have the same inherited sin and was given a chance to "not eat the proverbial fruit on the tree." Satan tempted Jesus in the same way Satan tempted Adam (and tempts us). It was round two of an epic battle!


And Jesus never gave into temptation, and therefore had no debt to pay for himself. And since he was also God (remember: born of the spirit), he had infinite grace to pay off all existing debt. So, when Jesus died on the cross (the foreclosure), Jesus paid the righteous payment for all sin (debt). But since he didn't have any debt, the payment went towards your and my debt. Thus, God can have a relationship with us again because, through Jesus, we're no longer associated with sin. This isn't just a wiping of the slate; this is entering into a Garden-of-Eden-level of relationship where God's Spirit dwells within us and gives us all the same rights and privileges of Jesus. It's amazingly good news!


And, to draw as many people to himself as possible, God continues to patiently wait for people who don't trust him yet. History is ongoing; we're still in the middle of this grand journey. In the meantime, people chose to put their trust in people/things/ideas other than God. And despite how well-intentioned it might be, it inevitably leads to corruption and injustice. One example is slavery.



Back to McCaulley's thoughts.


The Bible was written in the middle of our history, where sin still exists. Slavery is a part of that sin that Paul addresses. Paul follows God's example of patience: He doesn't say, "End slavery right now because God says so." Instead, it's part of a more extensive logical reasoning that leads people to the conclusion on their own that slavery is wrong.

"I want to contend that the Old Testament and later the New Testament create an imaginative world in which slavery becomes more and more untenable. Stated differently, God created a people who could theologically deconstruct slavery. … The widespread move to abolish slavery is a Christian innovation." (page 142)


For example, it starts with the Exodus narrative and God's saving his people, including people from Africa, out of slavery. Jesus's ethics focuses on what God intended instead of what the Torah allows (the Torah, in this context, could also be seen as U.S. law). One example is divorce. The law allows for divorce, but Jesus states in Matthew 19:3-8 that it wasn't originally intended: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning."


And here we see that tension again: God has perfect justice and wants us to live a life of love for him and everyone around us (Matthew 22:34-40). Yet, the reality is that we're not there yet. And so, God patiently allows for temporary less-than-ideal scenarios, such as slavery.


And at the same time, he nudges us in the direction of righteousness. It's not just allowing slavery; it has conditions: slaves serve honorably to point their masters towards Christ, and masters treat them with respect. To truly do this makes it harder to justify slavery. If you're interested, here's another article on the topic of slavery and the New Testament.


That was the context and intention of Paul's writing.


Ideally, over time, things change. People move in the direction of righteousness, and the bar rises again as they continue to assess how they're doing vs the intention of loving God and everyone around them. Or, they move away from righteousness, and God meets them where they're at and calls them to live a little better. It's a loving, generous act of patience. It's one that God does with you and me.


I fear that today, society has little patience for this type of patient progress. We don't exercise tolerance or extend grace to people who made choices based on a different context. Instead, we look at historical decisions people made and condemn them with the harshest punishments using today's standards. Thanks be to God that he doesn't do that with us.


Instead, through examples like Paul, God shows us how to gently move people towards righteousness and celebrate the progress we're making.


And, here's the best part: God is a God of liberation, not just nudges-in-the-right-direction. In the same way that he freed the enslaved Israelites from Egypt, he frees us. Our freedom isn't based on living perfectly in this generation - or, hopefully, a more righteous future generation - but our freedom is rooted in Jesus dying for us on the cross. All we need to do is accept that we're not perfect, that Christ is God, and that he died on our behalf.


McCaulley finishes his thoughts on slavery with this:

"Black pain and anger rising from [slavery] is not going away. Therefore, the long tradition of Black reflection on our pain will continue. The slave question will be with us until the eschaton [the end of the world]. Therefore we must continue to read, write, interpret, and hope until the advent of the one who will answer all our questions, or render them redundant." (page 167)

But we can say this conclusively:

"This focus on God as liberator stood in stark contrast to the focus of the slave masters who emphasized God’s desire for a social order with white masters at the top and enslaved Black people at the bottom. But the story doesn’t stop there. Alongside the story of the God of the exodus is the God of Leviticus, who calls his people to a holiness of life. The formerly enslaved managed to celebrate both their physical liberation and their spiritual transformation, which came as a result of their encounter with the God of the Old and New Testaments." (page 17)


I know nothing of what it meant to be a slave, or even growing up Black in the U.S.. But I was once a slave to sin and today enjoy spiritual liberation and transformation. McCaulley's book helps me put the amazingness of God's accomplishment in perspective by showing what it means to people who know what it means to be physically enslaved and hated.



Final Thoughts

There's a lot more in Reading While Black. I only scratched the surface. If you're interested in a Biblically-based perspective on justice, politics, slavery, and being a Black Christian in American, I highly recommend it.


Finally, my thanks go to Vialogue for taking excellent notes for me to reference here since I listened to the audiobook version.


Monday, January 18, 2021

"The Minimalist: Less Is Now" Movie Review and How It Relates To Christianity

Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash


We watched a new documentary on Netflix called "The minimalist: Less Is Now"

It's a sequel to Minimalism, a documentary also on Netflix.

Like so many things in life, I agree with 90% of the film. Yet, that last 10% - often the why behind the action - is different, and it tends to make all the difference.

The basic premise is that stuff won't make you happy. Yet, tragically, we keep buying more and more stuff in a vain attempt to find happiness.

It's like drinking honey when you're thirsty. There might be a temporary satisfaction from having something wet in your mouth, but it fundamentally won't quench your thirst. In fact, it'll make you more thirsty! And so you try drinking more honey...

And part of the problem comes from advertising and social media. Advertising, especially online targeted ads, are sophisticated enough to meet you where you're at and nudge you ever so slightly closer to wanting their product.

There's also the sheer volume of advertisement exposure. If you're told you need something enough times, you start to believe it. I remember learning that people need 7-12 exposures of a product/brand to move them along the 5-stage buying cycle. It sure feels like companies are aiming for at least 12 exposures.

And then social media makes it impossible to "keep up with the Jones" because it tends to only highlight the best part of people's lives - setting an impossibly high bar. And instead of just comparing to your physical neighbor, we now compare to 500+ "friends" regardless of their income, living expenses, or priorities.

Not pictured: the complete breakdown when we told them it was time for bed

It's not that advertising and social media are inherently bad, it's that they've unintentionally amplified consumerism - the desire to find happiness in stuff.

So far, I agree 100% with the problem. So what's the solution?


Minimalism

Here's what minimalism is, in the words of the two main guys from the documentary:

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life's path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

And here's how it's used:

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we've built our lives around. Real freedom.

That doesn't mean there's anything inherently wrong with owning material possessions. Today's problem seems to be the meaning we assign to our stuff: we tend to give too much meaning to our things, often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth, and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves. Want to own a car or a house? Great, have at it! Want to raise a family and have a career? If these things are important to you, then that's wonderful. Minimalism simply allows you to make these decisions more consciously, more deliberately.

If I summarized their summary, it would be: minimalism is consciously owning/doing things that are important to you and ruthlessly cutting everything else. This frees you up to pour even more into those things that are important to you.

Again, I 100% agree with this sentiment.


What's Important to You?

The documentary shared stories of people discovering that stuff can't provide lasting happiness. And then ruthlessly cutting things out. Marie Kondo would be proud. I know I was inspired!

[Story telling side note: It would have been fun to watch someone go through the transformation instead of watching people talk about it after the fact and showing generic b-roll. Maybe that's the plan for part three? Call it "Minimal Makeover"! ha!]

Where was I? Oh yeah! You're not happy. You realize more stuff isn't helping. So you remove everything that isn't important to you (or, doesn't bring you joy, as Marie would say).

But then the film skips a step and goes straight to "having real freedom."

The step that was skipped is determining what's important to you. What does bring lasting joy? Lasting happiness? Again, what's important to you? This is critical. The cornerstone. The key element.

I think they skipped that step because they fundamentally believe one of two things:

One: The act of removing things brings inherent happiness. But this too seems fleeting. 
 
Two: What's important is unique to each individual, so it's better to not comment on it, lest some false limitations are added to minimalism. (Ex: living in a tiny house is not a requirement).

There is a notion that important things revolve around people, and giving to the greater good, but that's about as far as they take it.

This creates the danger of people trying to find lasting happiness, not in stuff, but in equally disappointing endeavors. You're no longer drinking honey, which is good, but you might have switched to Pepsi, which has a whole new set of unintended consequences.


Living Water and Lasting Happiness

There's a fantastic event recorded in the Bible where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman and he asks her for a drink of water. But then he pivots the conversation to offer her true satisfaction and lasting happiness. Here's the event (highlights are mine):

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock." Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." - John 4:7-14

There is only one thing that provides lasting happiness. It's not honey. It's not Pepsi. It's water. Specifically, it's water that Jesus provides with the promise that once you drink it, you will never be thirsty again.

How you drink it might be unique, but unless you seek joy in Jesus, joy and freedom will always be fleeting - even if you minimize the amount of stuff in your life.


Minimalism Fits Perfectly with Christ

Christ answers the why behind what's important in minimalism:

You can only find lasting happiness in Jesus and his gracious gift to live with God after we die. We need to recognize we can't earn our way into Heaven. We can't do enough good deeds to offset our bad ones.

All we can do is trust what Jesus told us - that he is God, that he overcame death so we can have a joy-filled relationship with God today, and continue in eternity in Heaven. Regardless of our good vs bad deeds, all we need to do is humbly accept Jesus' gift.

If you think about it, it's the ultimate form of minimalism. There's nothing you can buy to make you perfect (or happy). So stop trying. Instead, look to Jesus, who said two things are important: love God and love your neighbors.

How you express that love is unique to you. Just like minimalism.

Let's modify the quote about minimalism above to show how perfectly it fits with Christ:

"Want to own a car or a house? Great, have at it! Want to raise a family and have a career? If these things are important to you, then that's wonderful. Minimalism [is a mechanism that] simply allows you to make these decisions [of how Jesus would like you to live your unique life] more consciously, more deliberately."

Remove everything in your life that isn't about Christ. What you'll find is lasting freedom and joy. You'll also find that the remaining items have to do with other people, and giving to the greater good. And this isn't conjecture, Jesus promised it while talking to the Samaritan woman.

Minimalism is a wonderful mechanism for achieving that simplicity and focus of your desire - your important thing - is to find joy in Jesus.


Jacob's Well in 1934, the same one use by Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

2021 Annual Letter: Experiencing Time Freedom

Enjoying my Father's Day gift

For many years, I've set and shared annual goals. I enjoy them, but also feel it's time to evolve for four reasons:

  1. I like the idea of finding problems to solve.
  2. Studies show that a year is too long and tends to let us set goals too low. Instead, we should focus on 12-week increments.
  3. I've started reading annual letters from CEOs I look up to and really like the format.
  4. I hit my big goal, which often drove my annual goals.

So, with that, here's my first annual letter, which will look back on 2020 and forward to 2021. There will still be goals, but they'll be framed as problems to solve, not SMARTER goals.

I started the year by saying goodbye to HP and setting a 2020 goal to relax. I primarily focused on three areas:

  1. Managing our rentals and filling our recently acquired storage facility.
  2. Building Majordomo
  3. Spending time with family

Let's get into it!



2020: Financial Freedom = Time Freedom

Leaving HP after 12 years was a radical change for our family. For one, I lost all track of time ("What day is it?") for three months, and now set my own schedule. It also meant I worked a lot fewer nights and weekends.

My schedule is a big deal for me. I run my life by my calendar. If it's not on the calendar, it doesn't exist. I could get all philosophical and say, "time is our most precious resource and therefore should be carefully managed." But I'm not. I merely like order and completeness - with everything! - which includes my calendar (and laundry, dishes, cars, files, table settings, music, passwords, spreadsheets, etc.).

Last year I made two relatively large changes to my schedule.

First, I overestimate how long it'll take to complete a meeting or task. If someone says, let's meet for an hour, I suggest 90 minutes (or at least schedule it that way in my calendar). I used to regularly have 30-minute meetings that went 45 minutes, and it drove me crazy. No more. 

This is important for two reasons: One, I no longer feel rushed and think better. Two, I do less. But here's the thing: it becomes apparent that I'm doing less while setting my schedule. So, instead of deciding what to cut when I run out of time (because something took longer than planned) - where urgent items always win - I now determine what's important ahead of time and schedule it in.

Not only can I make sure I've devoted time to my most important things, but I can also make sure I've scheduled in breaks. And, sometimes, I get surprised by finishing 15 minutes early instead of 15 minutes late.

It's not perfect, and sometimes I do over-schedule myself, but now it's the exception instead of a daily occurrence. Here's an example week:

Blue = me & Furlo Family Homes events

Green = shared Jessi / family events

Orange = Majordomo meetings

Brown = time-blocked tasks (more on this next)


Second (back to the main list of changes I made to my schedule), I incorporated time-blocking into my calendar. Since high school, I've kept simple to-do lists: X needs to happen by Y date. It worked well when everything was required. However, as an adult, most of the items on my to-do list are self-imposed/optional and without a specific due date. Most importantly, my list is long: way more things are on my list than I can possibly accomplish.

And so, the heat-of-the-moment decisions of what to do next often defaulted to the most urgent items, to something easy, or to the task that's top of mind. Leaving a list of incomplete, potentially important/complex tasks undone, and the feeling of being busy, yet unproductive.

So now, ahead of time, I block out time to work on things. And I try to block out more time than I think I need. I do less, but the items are of higher impact.

This was not an easy transition. I struggled with intentionally not doing things. I struggled to identify, and commit to, important things. In March, I really felt the anxiety of leaving so many little things undone. Wasn't I supposed to have copious amounts of time to get it all done?!

I've now come to terms with it. I view my to-do list as suggestions of things I could do, not things I need to do. If I need to do it - it's in my calendar as a time-blocked event. Everything gets at least 30 minutes. If it's a creative project, it might be 2-3 hours, repeated over 4 days. If I finish early, great! I get to schedule something else.

And some days I blow it all off because Samson invited me to play Super Mario on the trampoline.

When people talk about "Financial Freedom," what they're really talking about is the desire to work on things important to them. They dream of saying to their boss, "No, this isn't worth my time anymore. I'm out." But, and I can't stress this enough, the goal shouldn't be an empty schedule. The goal should be a schedule full of things you want to work on, with plenty of breaks, and the option to change it when something more interesting comes along.



Losing Money on Storage Units

Not everything was perfect this year.

We bought a 70-unit storage facility (J&J Mini-Storage), with one single-family home, at the end of 2019. Going into 2020, it was 50% vacant, and the goal was simple: get vacancy over 90%. We experimented with advertising and found two consistent sources: Google Adwords and Sparefoot. We ended up spending 10% of our revenue on advertising - about 10% more than I expected!

Since I live 30 minutes away from the facility, we set up a virtual office. People call a phone number, then fill out the paperwork and sign the rental agreement online. Once they do it, we send them a lock combo to get into their unit. In 2021, we're working on automating even more of the process so people can get into their units faster. And so my assistant doesn't need to answer every phone call within 15 minutes and have them set-up within an hour.

We also learned that we needed to do some minimal screening. When we started, we didn't verify anything. Now, we require a recent paystub or a deposit equal to one month's rent. You would be shocked at how many people back out when we ask for proof of income.

As of right now, we have 2 units available.

Sounds great, right?

Well... we also lost $9,000 throughout the year.

Here's a chart of our income and expenses, with the cumulative profit (well... loss in this case) going across the bottom:

The black line across the bottom is the cumulative loss of $9,000.

The loss is primarily for four reasons, two of which are directly COVID related.


Reason #1 (non-COVID)

It costs a lot more to find someone to rent a storage unit than a residential unit. Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace work great for residents. But what would you do if you need a storage unit? You'd go to Google and search for "self-storage in XYZ" and then start calling the top hits.

We paid for ads on those searches and Sparefoot. I didn't include an advertising line item in my original analysis (yikes!) but ended up spending over $5,000 ($150-$200 per unit)! Given that most of the units are now full, I expect future advertising expenses to be much lower since the vacancy rate is now lower.


Reason #2 (non-COVID)

I installed a $2,000 security system myself and paid $3,000 to clear out many, many, many(!) truckloads of blackberry bushes. These are expenses I don't anticipate happening again. Though there will always be some sort of capital improvement expense, such as new roofs, repainting, and parking lot repairs.


Reason #3 (COVID)

When the lockdown started, we went for five weeks(!) with zero phone calls. That's good from a health perspective, but it put me behind on filling units.


Reason #4 (COVID)

11 customers stopped making payments at some point, and the pandemic created a massive gray area around collections/auctions. The residential moratorium is clear, but how it applies to storage is less clear. I decided to be as conservative on the rules as possible. But that put us in the hole around $5,300.

We have a plan to get back on track in 2021, which I consider incredibly fair (1. start paying something and worry about catching up later, if ever. 2. Remove your stuff and we'll call it even. 3. Ignore me and we'll auction it for you.)


2021 Outlook

Given those reasons, I don't expect to lose money in 2021. Still, it definitely made 2020 a tighter year financially than I would like.



Majordomo

Majordomo had a big year. At the end of 2019, we launched the Domoreport: repair estimates based on a home inspection within 24 hours, specific to your zip code.

In 2020, we launched four improvements:

  1. Customers can download the Domoreport as a CSV. This is helpful, as an example, for larger property investors who have their own database already.
  2. We also made it super easy to archive Domoreports, which is a big deal for agents and inspectors with many orders. Now they can de-clutter their list to only active deals while still finding old orders when needed.
  3. We made an app called the Domoscore, which lets people quickly assess a home's condition. It doesn't replace a home inspection, but it can help surface issues sooner.
  4. Finally, at the end of the year, we launched our most significant improvement: the Request List. This lets agents seamlessly take the next step with the Domoreport's repair costs: create a request list that goes with a repair addendum during inspection negotiations.
  5. Plus a whole bunch of bug fixes, naturally.


We also created a video that shows how the Domoreport works:




Relaxing During 2020

My goal in 2020 was to consciously, purposefully, find time to relax. And I did!... Mostly.

The pandemic offered an opportunity to stop doing many things, and I did, which helped.

We also started a family tradition of eating dinner by candlelight on Saturday nights, similar to the formal practice of Sabbath. Our kids are young enough that it only lasts through dinner, and as they get older, we want it to last the entire evening. For it to be a tech-free time to read, play board games, and hangout.

I tried not setting a morning alarm but ultimately didn't like it. Not because I missed things, but because I like the regular morning routine of reading my Bible, praying, journaling, planning, and exercising. Doing it in the afternoon was OK - better than nothing! - but I really like quietly starting off the day focusing on my relationship with God.


Books

I managed to read some books. I highly recommend each of them and hope this list sparks some interest for you.


Colorado Road Trip

Travel was light this year. When the lockdown started, I took a last-minute round trip flight to Colorado from Seattle and back on the same day(!) to help out with a family emergency. The round trip was $60 in total. Given how cheap the tickets were, and our family's low health risk, we contemplated taking a trip somewhere else but ultimately decided to submit to the lockdown request.

But in the summer, we took a road trip to Colorado. The kids traveled amazingly well, and it was great seeing family. It was delightful seeing Jessi's grandmother one last time. And chances are pretty high that'll be the last road trip to Colorado since Jessi's parents are moving to Washington sometime this year.


How To Solve Sudoku Puzzles

I know I'm late to the party, but this year I learned how to solve Sudoku puzzles. To be clear, I knew the basic rules, but never learned any strategy. Last year, I decided to learn. The app I play is called Good Sudoku and I like it because it teaches you different strategies for handling progressively complicated puzzles. I'm currently working on identifying Y Wings and am enjoying the challenge. Side note: I also foresee a future where I tackle the Rubik's Cube. Anyways, if you've ever wanted to get better at Sudoku, I recommend trying this app.

Speaking of apps...


New Phone; No Social Media or Videos

While upgrading my phone, an unusual thing happened: I couldn't copy over all of my existing apps and settings to my new phone. Instead, I needed to do a fresh install from scratch. So, I decided to NOT install any social apps or video apps. While I was at it, I uninstalled all video apps from my iPad. So far, the only one I miss is Youtube.

Don't worry, I'm not a minimalist. There are 64 additional apps in my app library.


I still have access on my computer, so I'm not part of the #deletefacebook crowd, but more in the #visit-occasionally group. And I regularly watch Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, and Youtube on my TV.

It all comes back to wrangling my schedule. I found that I could "unintentionally" spend an hour (or two!) watching videos and reading tweets. By removing the easy access on my phone, I naturally spent more time on more important/planned activities.

As a general rule, if I question keeping something in my life, I start by removing it and then adding it back if I genuinely miss it. Not only do I do that with apps, but also email newsletters: I unsubscribe and then re-subscribe later if I want. And the stuff in my house: I put it in the garage, and then only bring it inside if I want it, and after a year, I can choose to give it away knowing I didn't use it for a year.

If you feel like you might be spending too much mindless time on any app. Try deleting it for a month as an experiment. Just see how it goes. If you genuinely miss it, you can re-download it.



Remote Learning

Kindergarten

Elinor started dual emersion (Spanish & English) kindergarten this fall via Zoom. It consisted of three 30-45 minute sessions five days a week. At first, I didn't think it would be very effective because of the limited teaching time. But now, after observing it, I think it was fantastic, and potentially better than in-person learning for us. There are a few reasons it worked so well for us, and wouldn't for other families.

  1. Jessi used to be a kindergarten teacher in the dual emersion program. Elinor had a 1:1 experience with someone trained in her exact program. So, Jessi would observe the class, and then support what Elinor learned with additional exercises, all in Spanish.
  2. Jessi also runs an in-home pre-school and Elinor was able to participate when not on Zoom calls.
  3. Elinor didn't know any better.  As far as she knows, Zoom is school. Funny story: for a long time, she thought the other students were actors, just like on a TV show. It wasn't until she saw a classmate in real life that she realized they were "real people."
  4. Elinor is extremely comfortable with video apps because our whole family lives far away and it's the primary way we communicate with them.
  5. Elinor was able to slowly ramp into school: she's been able to figure out the language and school work aspect, without having to also deal with new social situations or leaving the comfort/safety of her home for an all-day classroom. As a result, I think she'll have a much better transition into all-day school than what typically happens (based on Jessi's observations as a teacher in this exact program).
I fully recognize that our experience is a-typical. We are truly blessed to be in this position.


MBA For Life

Willamette University offers an MBA for Life program. Basically, as an alumnus, I can take classes for free. I always wanted to, but didn't have the time to drive to the Salem or Portland campus. But, thanks to the pandemic, all classes became remote, and so I took a class... Friday nights from 6pm to 10pm (I know).

And it was great!

We spent our time discussing cases and holding small group discussions in breakout rooms. I really felt like my teacher did a great job managing the remote environment. Talking to other students (via Slack and IM), it sounds like this class was a better experience than others. One key is to require people to put their video on. Also, the Socratic method of asking lots of questions also worked well for engagement. Having an interesting topic also helps. :)



2021 Problems to Solve

J&J Mini-Storage

Our move-in process is too cumbersome. Someone calls, and we talk on the phone to determine the move-in date, ask if they want a lock, and if they're going to pay an extra deposit or provide proof of income. They then send us a picture of their driver's license and a recent paystub. They also watch a video that explains how we do things. We create a rental agreement via Docusign and set up payments within Cozy.

When that's all done, we text them the code along with a map of the facility. (Plus, we add their information to our systems.) Here's our internal checklist on ClickUp:



It's honestly not a lot, but it can feel that way to someone who simply called looking for storage. If we had an office, you'd just present them with each piece one at a time. So, that leads to two questions to solve:

  1. How do we present our setup in a comprehensive, yet non-overwhelming, way?
  2. How do we make it so we don't need to continually monitor each step? Right now we need to manually send the next thing, and it's not very efficient.



Majordomo

We're focused on two areas: sales and scalability.

Sales

In Great By Choice by Jim Collins, there's a concept called "Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs":

First, you fire bullets (low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments) to figure out what will work—calibrating your line of sight by taking small shots. Then, once you have empirical validation, you fire a cannonball (concentrating resources into a big bet) on the calibrated line of sight. Calibrated cannonballs correlate with outsized results; uncalibrated cannonballs correlate with disaster. The ability to turn small proven ideas (bullets) into huge hits (cannonballs) counts more than the sheer amount of pure innovation.

2020 was all about firing remote/virtual bullets. We're still working on calibration and empirical validation. We have a couple of potential hits, but we're not sure yet. Our problem to solve this year is to prove a small bet so we can concentrate our resources on a big bet.


Scalability

We're at a precarious spot with the number of orders we can handle. It's precarious because we human-analyze each report, and those people require training. If we received 1,000 orders tomorrow, we'd have a problem because we don't have enough people to handle that volume.

In 2020 we cut our processing time by two-thirds, which is excellent! We did it by streamlining our backend system, but it's still fundamentally people-driven.

In addition to finding and training more people, we want to figure out how to transition to a primarily machine-driven process, with people performing quality control. It's a fascinating problem that involves machine learning, and could reduce our processing time to 1/12 of the time it is today - capable of handling spikes of 1,000 orders in a day.



Writing

This is less of a problem and more of a desire: I want to write more. Last year, I created an online class for people interested in investing in real estate called Sign Here. I really enjoyed making it - organizing all that I've learned - and the feedback has been great. I'd like to continue writing blog posts (and video scripts since Youtube is a thing). I like the idea of continuing book reviews since that, selfishly, helps me retain what I learned. And I'd like to write some topical posts: How I schedule and prioritize my time, how I budget and manage repair projects for the rentals, and my morning routine.

I'd also like to write a book someday. I have many tactical questions for publishing a book, but I'm still at the "Is this topic interesting?" stage. Other questions are: how do I organize my ideas? How do I build writing into my life? I'm going to start with The Practice by Seth Godin to help me figure it out. I might also take Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass on writing since I really like his style.



Closing Thoughts

Does it feel strange not having SMARTER goals this year?

Yeah, but focusing on these larger problems makes sense for where I am today. And in a lot of ways, it feels like a continuation of last year: Keep on managing the rentals and stabilizing the storage business. Keep growing Majordomo. Keep playing with the kids and resting during nights & weekends.

I'm not anticipating any significant changes, but if God has other plans for us, we'll try to be ready and willing to make those changes.




Thursday, October 08, 2020

Obviously Awesome Book Review


I typically read 6-12 books a year but tend to add 12-24 books to my reading list a year.

As a result, my reading list contains 172 books... And another list of 34 books that are "no longer on my reading list, but I don't want to forget about permanently." To make it worse, almost 100% of my list is non-fiction, making listening to audiobooks difficult because I like to highlight and take notes, and then reference what I read later.

As you could imagine, it can be a little overwhelming to chose ONE book to read when there are so many great options. That's why I'm grateful for recommendations from others, like this one on Twitter:



Today the Kindle version of "Obviously Awesome" by April Dunford is $7 and still a massive bargain if you have any interest in product positioning.

It's similar to Sprint in that it focuses on practical, applicable, immediate action steps. It's probably closer to a playbook than a traditional book. For example, Dunford doesn't touch on the research or psychology of why this process works. Instead, she focuses on her 10-step plan to create a product's positioning statement.


What Is Positioning?

"Positioning is the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about." (p. 4) It's a way of setting the context for your product so people can quickly figure out what you're talking about. The trick is to do it from your customer's perspective.

As the creators of the product, we know a lot more about competing options and become proud of our hard work ("adding this feature took significant work! We need to feature it!"), but customers may not know or care about either of those.

Another common problem is that inventors started with an initial idea, but over time changed the product based on customer feedback. That's a good thing! But, the inventor still views and talks about the product through the initial lens, not the new product it's become.

This creates at least two problems:

  1. It confuses new customers because there's a disconnect between what they see and how you're describing it. And if it's not clear, they'll walk away.
  2. Or worse: "Customers who misunderstood your value chose you for the wrong reasons, and now they're trying to recover sunk costs by turning your product into what they thought they were getting. In a worst-case scenario, your development team may spend time building features for these disappointed customers, trying to appease a group that is likely to quit eventually, while overlooking your happiest customers." (p. 12)


The book goes into two more signs of poor positioning: slogging through long sales cycles and customers complaining that prices are too high.

But if you shift your positioning with your customer's perception, all sorts of great things can happen. Here's my favorite story from the book:

"There are lots of examples of products that have historically been sold for one purpose, but as markets shifted, they became better known in a completely different market. Take, for example, Arm & Hammer baking soda. Invented in 1846, baking soda, as the name suggests, was used for baking. The inventors created it in their kitchen and sold it in paper bags. It was wildly popular and the creators slowly grew the business, selling more and more baking soda until Arm & Hammer was truly a household name.

Then, in the 1970s, markets began to shift. As packaged food was on the rise and baking on the decline, sales of baking soda began to flatline. The inventors knew that another feature of baking soda was its ability to absorb odors; indeed, some consumers were already putting open boxes of Arm & Hammer in the fridge to help control bad smells. The company could have decided that odor control was not a market they wanted to be in. After all, would anyone really want to bake with a deodorant? But Arm & Hammer decided to let go of the past and focus on markets where they could be successful in the future. They started advertising their current product as a deodorizer for refrigerators and later launched packaging specifically designed for use in a fridge. Converted consumers were now buying a new box every thirty days. The repositioning drove product sales from $16 million in 1969 to over $318 million by 1987.

The repositioning led to other innovations as well—as Arm & Hammer became known as a deodorizer, the brand naturally extended to products for deodorizing everything from cat litter to underarms.

The starting point of this growth was Arm & Hammer's willingness to let go of their old way of thinking about the product.

Freeing your mind from patterns of the past isn't always easy. Thoughts about the evolution of a product, from its conception to launch, are often baked into the initial positioning. Customers don't have the same baggage—they know nothing about the history of the product when they first encounter it.

Market confusion starts with our disconnect between understanding the product as product creators, and understanding the product as customers first perceive it." (pp. 85-86)


Apple's iOS Positioning Problem

In current events, this is the problem Apple is having with developers and iOS. Apple views the iPhone as a closed ecosystem, much like game consoles: the maker (Apple) gets to approve all apps/games, use their market place (the App Store) to sell and distribute apps, and set all the rules for what can and can't be done.

However, developers are starting to view iOS as an open ecosystem, much like traditional computers: there is no approval process, and users can download apps from anywhere on the web, the app maker gets to determine the pricing model (free, 1-time, subscription, donation) and how payments are accepted (credit card, ACH, bitcoin, check in the mail, etc.).

Developers still view game consoles as closed systems (that's not to say they're perfectly happy with the setup). It's only with iOS that the backlash has started.

The issue is that the iPhone and iOS have slowly shifted over time - based on customer feedback - to allow for more customization, more options, and more features. That makes it feel more and more like an open ecosystem. Yet, Apple talks about and sets rules for a closed ecosystem. And because of the openness attributes the iPhone and iOS are adopting, the App Store rules themselves are becoming increasingly muddy as Apple tries to have it both ways. It also doesn't help that Android - a very similar alternative - has positioned itself as an open ecosystem. This is causing confusion, frustration, and at least one lawsuit from developers.

Apple should clarify their position in the market (closed or open) and then create features, App Store rules, and marketing materials that align with that position.

""You cannot be everything to everyone. If you decide to go north, you cannot go south at the same time." - Jeroen De Flander" (p. 47)


What Position Do You Choose?

That's the rest of the book.

She first starts with the five (plus one) components of effective positioning:

  1. Competitive alternatives
  2. Unique attributes
  3. Value (and proof)
  4. Target market characteristics
  5. Market category
  6. (Bonus) Relevant trends


The book does a great job of describing each component and how they all fit together. At this point, anyone who's taken a marketing class is nodding their head in agreement. Of course, these are the components.

But, how do you identify the right ones? How do you not get lost in the weeds? How do you see it from your customer's perspective? What if, like Apple, you have two distinct sets of customers (iPhone buyers and developers)? Actually creating a persuasive position statement is difficult! Remember, a company worth over 1 trillion dollars, making the most successful product of all time, is struggling with this right now.

To help, Dunford details the ten steps to create a position statement. Here are the steps:

  1. Understand the customers who love your product
  2. Forming a position team
  3. Align your positioning vocabulary and let go of your positioning baggage
  4. List your true competitive alternatives (this chapter was great!)
  5. Isolate your unique attributes or features
  6. Map the attributes to value "themes" (also super helpful!)
  7. Determine who cares a lot
  8. Find a market frame of reference that puts your strength in the center and determine how to position it
  9. Layer on a trend (but be careful)
  10. Capture your positioning so it can be shared


It's a relatively short book, so I won't summarize each step. You should read it. I'm working through these steps for Majordomo and am already seeing fruit from using this framework.

As the tweet suggested, if you're creating products or work in marketing, this is a fantastic book to read. I highly recommend it.