Fail fast.

This is a common phrase at start-ups.  The idea has been around for a while, but the jist is that it’s better to get some data and feed it back into your plan, rather than working out the plan in full before taking the first step.  At a company, that means getting the customer involved to define their needs before you have your product ready to sell them – they are more likely to buy the product if it actually does what they want.  In science (or at a company), that can mean making a hypothesis and testing it quickly, rather than spending time refining the hypothesis before taking data.  If the data disproves the hypothesis quickly, you’re better off since you can already move on to the second hypothesis.

But, there is always a balance.  The old adage ‘measure twice, cut once’ reminds us of the value of planning ahead before diving into an idea.  And, if you dove into your idea above too quickly, you’re often left with a pile of uninterpretable data and the necessity of repeating the experiment (but hopefully you failed so fast that the experiment can be repeated in less time than it would’ve taken to plan it perfectly anyway!).

My natural tendency is to fail fast.  I’ll even measure once and cut twice – I know someone will read that and shudder.  The good news is that after 22 years of school and even more years of life, I’m well-practiced at learning from mistakes.  I constant looking out for ways that something can be done more efficiently or just faster.  (And the corollary is that I suspect my own judgement on my initial pass is pretty harsh after the fact.)

So, if you’re reading about my home improvement experiences, you’ll find a lot of tips from me on the mistakes which I made and how you can avoid them (and how I recover from them).  My first-time projects at home often don’t go according to plan because I’ve learned along the way and can improve the plan – or I’ve just learn along the way that the plan was bad and I need to stop and regroup.  Our kitchen was unique since I’m pleased with most of the major decisions, but even then my hindsight was clearer than my plan…I did not consider that it’s tough to open a pull out garbage that has a knob (not a handle) with your pinky finger if you happen to be in the midst of onion chopping.  Our bathroom countertop is one great example of a fast failure turning into a nice final result. I’ll likely be one of the few bloggers who can tell you that you can erase tiling mistakes with a rubber mallet and a small chisel.  And I appreciate most store’s return policies since I almost never like the first incarnation of any of my decorating plans.

Here’s to hoping that fast failures can help us all move toward high quality results more quickly and efficiently.  My mistakes are most valuable if even one person out there on the internet can skip directly to plan B because I’ve demonstrated that plan A is insufficient.

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Risk: friend or foe?

The most engrossing books/tv/movies have characters that take risks.  From Harry Potter to the Gilmore Girls to Mission Impossible to Atlas Shrugged to Laurel and Hardy to almost any biography (and beyond), characters don’t play it safe when they have choices*.  Their risk analyses are rarely intelligent, they aren’t always well-thought out, they don’t always end well and the situations are often happenstance. It is the uncertainty and consequences of these risks that make their stories so enticing.

We spend our free time engrossed in the stories of people who take risks and make bad decisions, often idolizing their off-kilter lives.  But, at our day jobs, we are taught to perform risk analyses and mitigate risk, to calculate the answer before actually acting.  This is the generally-accepted, most efficient way to do anything, and without it, investors won’t fund companies and, it seems, we won’t have products to sell.  We won’t sell Starbucks cappuccinos if they aren’t made according to the plan and rocket ships won’t launch without careful measurement.  Reading a story about someone who can’t hold a steady relationship or job is entertaining, but in our real lives, not being able to hold onto partners or build a career is a ‘flaw’.  Even the very origin of the word ‘risk’ is negative: mid 17th cent.: from French risque (noun), risquer (verb), from Italian risco ‘danger’ andrischiare ‘run into danger.’ (thanks, Google).

There is an apparent disconnect between our romanticism and fascination with the extraordinary and everyday life when we are told that we must minimize the risk.  Our fascination seems independent of the characters’ ability to weigh their options reasonably and forge the outcomes they desire.  Do we admire those who are willing to take risks because they are few and far between?  Or is it our nature to take risks but we choose not to because we evaluate situations and keep the odds of failure low?

Interestingly, it seems that Peter Drucker says, alternatively, that the origin of the word risk in arabic means “eating one’s daily bread” and are required in life and business.  He is also a proponent of logically facing risks.  It’s cliche that the greater the risk, the greater the opportunity for success.  Is the converse always true: the lower the risk, the less meaningful the success?  Low risk, high reward situations are as elusive as El Dorado.  It is key to avoid the particularly-dangerous high risk, low reward situations, I question whether there is ever a time to choose low risk, low reward over high risk, high reward.

I believe we don’t want to truly mitigate the risks we take on, but rather logically evaluate risky options, then focus our risk acceptance on the highest reward outcome (letting the low reward situations lay by the wayside).  After writing this, I found out that Mr. Drucker seems to support this  – and Mr. Drucker definitely knows what he’s talking about.

Perhaps an inability to set a goal could be re-phrased: I set up to take risks only when the outcome is great enough to be worth the investment – and often my recognition of ‘great enough’ may be too harsh, too slow, too on-the-spot or just plain old ineffective.  But, without intentional risks I don’t push myself to grow, and I’m a terribly boring movie character.

———————-

*One exception to this rule is the books where the characters cannot bring themselves to take risks and the author points out the devastation of playing it safe (ie, RevolutionaryRoad).

Tile tie-up

Our kitchen tile backsplash moved in the day after the countertop install.  Selecting the backsplash proved to be one of the most difficult parts of the process for me/us, which I’ll explain below, including the results of my extensive searching for made-in-the-USA and sustainably-resourced tile.  To back up a step, we went from here:

photo 1

to here:

photo 4

Here is a close-up of the backsplash underneath the pass-through:

photo 5

The 3×6 white tile is Frost by Fireclay and the blue accent is an AlysEdwards tile called Gigi’s Groovy Glass in Nocturnal Sea.  While I now find myself just staring at the pretty backsplash, it was definitely not a pretty process to get here.  [And in case you don’t make it to the end of this post, please note that design was not exactly my creation.]

Lesson #1: I was not passionate about tile.  Bryan was not passionate about tile either.

Lesson #2: I am happiest with decisions where I can consider a number of options that meet certain criteria and lock quickly onto one as my clear preferred option.  This is what happened for the countertop, for example.  It is also how we got our dog and our house and how I chose my job and picked my undergraduate school and graduate school, but I digress….  The problem is that since I had no passion in this area (Lesson #1), it was very difficult for me (since Bryan checked out of this decision..see Lesson #1) to apply my usual (if not un-restrained) criteria.

Lesson #3: There is a HUGE selection of tile out there.  It is like choosing bratwurst in Bavaria or snowflakes at the north pole or pizza in Chicago.

For lack of other options, we started trying to narrow things down with our two themes: made in the U.S.A. and environmentally sound.  Our white cabinets + black counter can go with almost anything, so since we weren’t passionate about anything, there was no obvious choice for design right off.

Below are the brands of tile made in the U.S.A. I found that are (or are partly) made in the states (Lesson #4).  There are surely more companies out there, but I just didn’t find them via internet or phone.

tile-pat

  1. Fireclay Tile (which is actually locally handmade in San Jose, just a couple miles from my office.  You can order everything online, by phone, in person or at some distributors.)
  2. Florida Tile (guess where…this is a large company that works through distributors)
  3. Crossville Tile (Tennessee; ditto as far as size)
  4. Sonoma Tile (handcrafted in California, many distributors.)
  5. Dal Tile (actually a huge company that has products everywhere, but has a nice list here of which lines are made in the U.S.A.)
  6. Stonepeak Ceramics (didn’t feel quite right for our humble kitchen)
  7. Heath Ceramics (Also in CA, kind of the same idea as Fireclay, but I think it costs more so I didn’t explore – plus Fireclay already proved to be very helpful)
  8. Check this list, which has a couple brands that I didn’t explore,
  9. Modwalls sells a US made line that is actually made by Clayhaus in Oregon.  You can buy directly from Clayhaus (Modwall’s recycled materials are made in China apparently.)

I also explored how to get tile that is heavily recycled.  Ceramics and porcelain are extremely durable, which is great while they are in your house.  But, once tiles, toilets, tubs and trivets get thrown out, they do not decompose in landfills.  Once I thought about this, I realized that using recycled tile is an easy way to make a big impact.  It turns out that many brands have lines that are made of some fraction of recycled material and some companies actively try to have sustainable manufacturing processes (like recycling plant water for example).

green tile2*

Lesson #5: Recycled tiles can be from “pre-consumer” or “post-consumer” waste material.  “Pre-consumer” waste is easier for manufacturers to use and is typically scrap from within their own factories.  “Post-consumer” waste is much preferred, since this is stuff that is getting directly diverted from land fills.  However, it is much less common to find any and especially large amounts of this material in tiles.  And, the catch for the consumer is, of course, that harder to make + less common = more expensive.  In the end, more recycled content of any kind is better than no recycled content.

Lesson #6: Tile stores/showrooms/distributors have no idea if their tile is recycled or not.  Even in Northern CA, I kept feeling like I was the first person who had ever asked that question.  Here’s what I found out via phone & internet.

  1. Fireclay Tile – their Debris Series used over 70% recycled content, with over 50% from post-consumer materials.  This is far and away the best I found on the internet (although, if you find something better, let me know). I will continue to praise them below.  They also have a recycled glass tile line that uses 100% locally-sourced recycled glass.
  2. Florida Tile has at least 40% recycled content, but it seems to be pre-consumer.  They also monitor their resource usage in manufacturing.
  3. Crossville Tile has a variety of 5-50% pre-consumer content lines, but some lines have no recycled content.
  4. Dal Tile has a drop down menu where you can look up which lines have what type of and how much recycled content.  Note that when you do this (at least in Firefox), none of the links that pop up work, but if you open a separate tab you can search for the line and get function links.
  5. There are a few interesting links on this website, although the only one not listed here is 5-15% Ultraglas and the all-recycled, hand-made glass tiles from Bedrock in Seattle.
  6. Oceanside Glass Tile is made from up to 80% recycled glass content – it looks like this is post-consumer materials.  An informed source let me know that they manufacture in Mexico.
  7. Clayhaus‘s modern ceramic tiles are handcrafted in Oregon by a husband wife team (second generation ceramists).

This is all I have been able to find, although my suspicion is that many manufacturers do have recycled lines, but do not post the information prominently.

Lesson #7: The most sustainable tile was also handmade.  Are small companies more environmentally conscious?  Is it just easier for them to change materials?  Is it too expensive to recycle for mass production?  I just don’t know why bigger companies aren’t pushing the envelope for post-consumer ceramic recycling.

The good news for me was that the first list and the second list do overlap.  Most of the recycled tile that I list is made in the U.S.A., with the exception of some lines from Dal.  There are likely European tile companies with recycled content, but I haven’t had success in finding them.

Lesson #8: Fireclay Tile is far and away the most sustainable option and is made locally (or at least in the USA if you don’t happen to live in the bay area).  They were also very easy to work with and used to being accommodating since most of their customers do not live 5 miles away.  They offered to customize glazes for me.  If you aren’t local, they will send 5 free samples direct to your home!  Finally, while it is not the cheapest tile on the market, their prices for their high-quality, handmade field tile starts lower than some low-end (not to mention high-end) unsustainable mosaic tiles.  I found that, while I didn’t start out aesthetically-motivated, I actually can be pretty excited about tile.  (And no, they don’t have any idea that I’m writing this.)

Once I realized that we would still have to specify tile style from one of these lines, I started looked at tile in other people’s kitchens.  Both in person and on Houzz.com, I kept finding examples where it looked like a beautiful countertop was selected totally independently of a beautiful backsplash and the two rights make a wrong.  I won’t post examples here because that is insulting, but to each our own, the result of an over-zealous backsplash+counter is distracting and sloppy.

I found that the backsplash/granite combinations that I liked were simple like Centsational Girl’s white on white or House Beautiful’s accent colors or, better yet, the backsplash tied different parts of the kitchen together like Kelly’s slate.  My choices of white cabinets and black countertops made any creams or earthtones pretty much a no go.  It was looking like the only timeless backsplash left to me would be some form of white.

A little more Houzz surfing and, after all of my tile-sourcing research, the design decision was, once again, made in a split second.  Epiphany Kitchens had cleverly tied the blue accents in a blue-in-the-night granite countertop in with the backsplash while preserving timelessness of a white kitchen and adding a little interest to the wall.  So, Epiphany Kitchens, because you are far away in Michigan, I hope you don’t mind that I reused your design out here in California.

Lesson #9: Typically, tiles with high quantities of recycled content are not made in white since recycled materials are not necessarily white.  Fireclay has solved this problem.  Their recycled tile bodies are actually brown but they change the colors of their tiles by using different glazes –  the white tile in the photos is actually a brown ceramic!  I can’t even tell up close.  [And to pick that particular shade of white, I polled my office of engineers – a very discerning crowd of gentlemen it turns out.]

The decision was final: our kitchen backsplash would be made with Fireclay.  I won’t lie that I first had to come to terms with paying good money for the backsplash knowing all the while that cheap, porcelain-tree-killing, unpatriotic tile would have been less.  The blue mosaic accent in the picture cost 1.5 times the amount as the white tile, and if you stare at it too long, looks cheaper and less elegant than the 3×6 Fireclay tile.  (Plus, AlysEdwards tile is made un-sustainably in China.)

Each Fireclay Frost tile has just a little bit of it’s own character (see my goofy cartoons above for a close-up).  Although I never thought I would say this about white tile, the Fireclay tiles are beautiful, even more elegant and exciting in their simplicity than many far more expensive backsplashes I have seen.  My phone photos do not do it justice.

photo 5

(And this is from the girl who started out not caring about tiles…)

By the way, you’ll also have to pick grout type and color.  If you install it yourself, you will also have to pick a brand, which I can’t speak to as of yet.  But if you make it that far in the tile selection process, I don’t expect that decision to be an issue.

Update: a special thank you to the Fireclay team for reading my post and helping out with research on locally-grown, sustainable tile.  While the research was entirely my own before they saw it, they were able to contribute additional facts which I added.  The views presented here are entirely my own.

*Kermit the Frog and the Muppets were, of course, behind this observation

Gooooooooo(a)l

(There’s gotta be a rule in blogging about starting with parentheticals, but anybody else ever see soccer on the Spanish station?)

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted.  I was just using this blog as a place to capture notes and learnings, but the problem is that I don’t really have a goal for it so it wasn’t clear what to record here & I gave up.  In fact, the bigger issue in life seems to be that I don’t really have a goal at all.  And without a goal, I don’t have much direction.  Lack of direction leads to perusing the internet in free time, which is probably one of the biggest wastes of time yet.  It was my realization of the fact that I gravitate toward the internet, not the new year that tipped this off.

I’ve come remarkably far in life without actually being able to set goals, but the truth is that I’m just not a natural goal setter.  It was pretty easy in school – the goal was always graduate (and with honors if possible).  Sub-goals were to pass each individual class, complete homework, not fail exam, etc.  But, I’m more convinced than ever that really happy, successful people not only set goals, but work hard and creatively to achieve them.  And, the few times I’ve succeeded at this I’ve been happy:

  1. I ran a half-marathon (2 actually), which for the kid whose GPA was punished by gym class was huge.
  2. I took singing lessons to learn to sing on key (but promptly stopped keeping up with music after 1.5 years).

So, now I’m out of school.  I’m married to a very special guy, have a house (which is fun to decorate), have a loving and brilliant (although emotional) dog, have a job at a silicon valley company trying to save the world, I’m fortunate to be a significant player in my company role and I have a pretty comfortable living situation.  Really, I’m very fortunate that I have fulfilled needs of life that many people seek their whole lives and I certainly don’t clamor for hardships.  I’d like to take advantage of my situation and give something back by achieving more.  In fact, according to our friend Maslow, I actually NEED to do this.

Next question: do I want this goal to apply to my career?  Or do I want it to apply to only my personal life?  I can make multiple goals, or one broad goal to cover both.

Let’s look at types of goals.  First, the worst kind of goals are vague goals (like get more involved in management) that tend to be totally unfulfilling, so none of these.  There are negative goals (don’t log into facebook ever again), but these are totally unachievable without deadline so no celebration either.  Better goals are SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.  Since I think I’m fundamentally a little lazy, I think relevancy will be my most important aspect to define – without it my motivation will languish and I’m guaranteed failure.  This is why the third half marathon I signed up for didn’t happen – I no longer cared.

A goal that has a specific ‘outcome’ (like becoming an opera singer before I’m forty) has more value and weigh than a goal to ‘do’ something regularly (like to update this blog everyday with one thing I’ve learned).  I tend to subscribe more to the ends justifying the means rather than the other way around.  But, the ‘do’ goals lead to more clear action so you don’t end up surfing the web while pretending to make sub-goals.  Both of these categories can be SMART.  There are long term goals that don’t need a deadline, there are short-term goals that become irrelevant if not complete in a specific period of time and the ‘do’ goals must just have a time period defined.  There are ‘become’ goals (like become a professional dog trainer) and there are ‘achievement’ goals (like bike the coast of California).

So, here are some goal topics, although all of these need some refinement before being SMART.  I want to spend some time evaluating how relevant each topic is to me.

  1. Find a good goal by the end of January (seems like cheating to make choosing a goal actually a goal – what would be the steps to making this goal attainable?)
  2. Update this blog daily with something new I’ve learned
  3. Work on singing or guitar everyday
  4. Walk my dog everyday to improve personal fitness
  5. Get up twice (or even once) per week and go to yoga
  6. Make our house our own home through remodeling, decorating and improving
  7. Climb an 5.11d climb by some date
  8. Accept help graciously (again, how do I attain this one?)
  9. Get promoted within a year (still tough to attain, but I feel like career goals are the toughest to define)
  10. Refinish kitchen table by March (weather-dependent)
  11. Plant and harvest a garden