Over 15 years I’ve developed several rules for working on projects and deciding what’s likely to be successful or not. Below are those roles in no particular order.
Money is often a deciding factor in whether a rule should be broken or not.
When working on a site, ask yourself if the site offers some kind of “sticky” feature that makes you and it invaluable.
Does the client prefer a sale over a like? If there’s lot of talks of likes and followers, pass.
Make sure the client is a large enough and profitable enough enterprise already. Despite what people would like to think, no one can take a bad business into a good business simply by making a change on a website.
For every page you design, write, or develop, make it the best page on the internet for that subject.
Think very hard about working with friends or family. It usually ends in heartbreak for someone.
Always ask a client for an emergency contact. If they die, what should you do with their digital estate?
Make every effort to develop a personal relationship with every client and their staff.
Never ask what a client’s goals are. The goal is always the same: “Sell more stuff”.
Consider avoiding working with organizations that have in-house marketing staff. Their salaries and close access to internal politics usually supersedes efforts of outside agencies.
Likewise, think carefully about working with organizations that have in-house IT staff. The needs of IT are often wildly contradictory to yours and even their customers.
Most businesses need more than just a website. Remember that.
Remember that people respect good products. This works for the client’s business, too. You ultimately can’t get people to “engage” with a business if that business simply doesn’t make a good product or service.
Clients should never have to think about hosting, DNS, or domain name registration hassles. And make sure the client’s name appears on the domain name record as either the Owner or Admin in case you get hit by a bus.
Be empathetic about why a client may be behind or unable to afford a bill. But don’t allow it to become an ongoing problem.
The customer is not always right. Just because a customer can’t get a website to load on a 15-year old version of WebTV does not make them right. Set technology support limits in your contracts, and don’t be so unreasonable you say “This will only work in Chrome.”
After you plan out a website, ask yourself what you would change if you couldn’t see, use a mouse, a trackpad, or hear well. Imagine you have a temporary injury. Now imagine it’s permanent.
Email and social media is shallow work. Improving sites, analyzing data, writing new material, and producing valuable insights is work.
From time to time, ask clients how they’re doing and what their biggest problem is. Also, see #9.
Pay your taxes early.
Save at least $500 a month between a rainy day fund and retirement.
Ask yourself today if you can see yourself doing what you’re about to do in another thirty years. If the answer is “no”, ask yourself again.
Tim Hwang’s new book Subprime Attention Crisis makes the case digital advertising is a lot like America’s 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.
The gist being in the lead-up to the mortgage crisis, sellers bundled up lots of mortgages into good batches and bad batches. The good ones were likely to pay out and the bad ones to default.
The problem was the people buying these investment portfolios couldn’t tell and didn’t know whether they were buying a good batch or a bad batch. Once the bad ones started to default, buyers lost confidence in the whole market, making even the good ones look bad by association.
The attention crisis, Hwang argues, is a lot like 2008’s subprime mortgage crisis. But instead of big investment banks, Facebook and Google have bundled up attention and metrics like clicks and likes, but they do a very good job of hiding which ones are good and which ones are bad. The comparisons stop there, when you consider digital advertising has ad blockers and people who just plain ignore the ads.
About halfway through the book is a big meaty section I almost want to copy entirely. But because it’s somewhat long for a blog post, a few excerpts will have to do:
When they launched in 1994, the first banner ads generated a remarkable click-through rate of 44 percent. …Today, banner ads, command far less attention. One data set drawn from Google’s ad network suggests that the average click-through rate for a comparable display in 2018 was .46 percent. For some industries, that number is as low as .39 percent. That’s about one in every two hundred people. Recent attempts to measure click-through rates on Facebook ads reveal similar rates of less than 1 percent.
…Even the sub-1-percent click-through rates may overstate the effectiveness of ads on some platforms. On mobile devices, close to fifty percent of all click-throughs are…accidental “fat finger” clicks.
(I hear from people a lot, “But we do so much better on phones!” No, you don’t.)
In 2009, one study estimated that eight percent of internet users were responsible for 85 percent of all advertisement click-throughs online.
Another “large-scale experimental study of online search ads in 2014 concluded that, “brand-keyword ads have no measurable short-term benefits.” And, “Ironically, ads generated engagement mostly among ‘loyal customers otherwise already informed about the company’s product.’ The ads, in other words, were an expensive way of attracting users who would have purchased anyway, leading to ‘average returns that are negative.’.”
He goes on to cite how internet users age 20-40 experience “little or no effect from the advertising”. And despite being just 5% of all Internet users, people age 65+ are responsible for 40 percent of the total effects observed.
All this is to say most online advertising is “vaporous”. The sort of confusing, opaque, problems we had in the mortgage failures but now in the “attention advertising market”.
Much of this is driven by poor ad placement (looking at you, Google Ad Network), putting the wrong things in the wrong places (like advertising for bananas or whatever on Facebook. Who cares?), and ad blocking that is highly prevalent in the United States and Europe and expanding fast in Asia.
And we haven’t even mentioned all that Hwang says about fraud, click-farms, bots, and other junk. He estimates enough money is wasted to fraud in all online advertising each year to equal the entire current value of Facebook. It’s as much as 20% of all online ad clicks.
I have said this a zillion times:
Online advertising is full of fraud.
If you are paying for ads on Google or Facebook, it had better be the right kind. For Facebook, that’s “awareness campaigns” (which are impossible to calculate value and lead to this vapors nature of things) and digital goods that can be handled on-device, like downloading an app. For Google, that’s narrowly defined buyer-intent searches like hiring a handyman.
Older people can’t discern the difference between an ad and something not an ad. On the upside for some advertisers, seniors hold just about all the world’s wealth, so it can be lucrative. If you have to advertise to teens, you’re better off with a billboard by the high school.
And now that I’ve read this book I think another thing is likely to happen: a complete collapse.
Hwang thinks we should do a “controlled demolition” so the bottom doesn’t fall out. But I think the bottom will fall out eventually as small businesses (which account for 80% of all of Facebook’s advertising revenue) wise up to the realization this doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because most of the ads are dull, boring, and just plain bad with lousy copywriting and cheesy stock photos.
Already I tell clients they need ever-more money to have any chance. $300 a month doesn’t cut it anymore. To have any hope, you need $1500 a month for AdWords or Facebook, depending on your market. Godspeed if you’re advertising insurance, financial services, or attorneys. Or to anyone under the age of 35.
If advertising online completely fails, Hwang says (and I agree) that we’ll see a lot of publications completely vanish. Ad sales won’t be enough anymore because no one will trust any of the ads, despite static ads being no more or less more effective than programmatic, text-based, or targeted ones. Paywalls will abound. No more free Google Maps or Gmail, which rely entirely on Hoovering up data for advertisers. There could be pay-to-play placement in search results (as in, to be included at all, not just as the top in the ads).
Increasingly I think publications like The NY Times, Wall Street Journal, and others that have paywalls are playing it right. And companies like Apple and Amazon will be in a good position to continue delivering maps and other “free but not free” services to their customers who pay for physical things.
One obvious downside to this pay-to-play approach is low-income people are going to be left out of a lot. Right now, the web is largely equitable. Everyone can get at the same Google or Facebook or Maps or YouTube or Wikipedia or whatever. But not if everything requires a subscription first.
At best, this could result in a lot more creativity in advertising, something that’s desperately needed.
If you must advertise, anywhere, you need to inject some creativity in the ads that make people even remotely want to look at it. Which may be impossible given most people’s aversion to being anything but bland or corporate or boring.
Same goes for the junk most people throw at their Facebook walls every day. An appalling amount of attention is paid by marketing people and social media managers about the importance of posting at least 3x a day and other wasteful nonsense. If one more organization asks me what my hashtag goals are, I’m going to poke my eyes with rusty spoons.
Regardless, people are already so allergic to ads and this boring junk even the interesting ones are getting thrown out. Hwang notes studies of Snapchat users that the average view-time of a video ad is 1 second. It’s no better on YouTube, where it’s “whatever the minimum time required is to watch an ad”.
In the meantime, buy a subscription directly to a journalist or publication. And expect the Internet to look a lot different in the next five years.
Unlike many people, I don’t share in the same kind of gloom or elation about the current or future White House occupant. I get why a lot of people do, but I don’t get worked up over it because the United States has fought for its life, undergone one of the world’s worst civil wars, slavery, and has had all manner of Presidents. I find comfort in that, even when things seem grim. It’s worth remembering we’ve gone through harder things.
And we’ve had all manner of personalities in the White House.
Calvin Coolidge barely did anything at all, on purpose. Some people like that, some people don’t. James Buchanan is arguably the worst President in US history on account when he was still in office states began to secede from the Union. Say what you will about Trump and how divided this country feels, at least we’re still holding on to Charleston.
Lincoln and Kennedy both benefit from having died at, for lack of a better word, what was the “right time” for the benefit of their legacy.
Harry Truman was a far better President than people thought for nearly fifty years after his time ended. Eisenhower’s status was always great, and grew even higher.
John Adams has the distinction of being the only Founder-turned-President to not own slaves, likely because his wife Abbigail was vehemently opposed. (Ben Franklin also never owned slaves, one of the few among Founders.)
Theodore Roosevelt was so charismatic he established the modern template for being a progressive (he ran under the Republican label, a tag modern Republicans like to claim, a la Lincoln.). T.R. almost narrowly became America’s only third-party President under the Bull Moose banner, but lost and threw the election to Woodrow Wilson, who would be less-than-ready for the job. A job that included dealing with a pandemic and a World War.
Thomas Jefferson thought the ideal America would be everyone owning and farming their own land. James Monroe was the right man at the time, but was derided for being old-fashioned. He was the last of the Founders to become President.
Andrew Jackson was a real figure. Andrew Johnson was saved from impeachment by 1 vote. Nixon, of course, resigned in disgrace. James A. Garfield only served as President for 90 days, most of the time spent dying a slow death from an assassin’s bullet. It’s arguably the best thing he did. A native of Ohio, he was respected and liked by northerners and southerners and his death galvanized a nation still healing from the Civil War.
We’ve had conservatives and progressives, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Many were and are racist and sexist (looking at you, Harding), many were and are not. Some were just the product of their time.
People’s beliefs and the country’s policies toward social issues have vacillated all over the place for a long time even when public opinion seemingly hasn’t.
Corruption used to be far worse, at a greater scale, and more rampant. Theodore Roosevelt only became President after McKinkey was shot, and he was VP only because party bosses in New York didn’t like his honesty and wanted him to go away.
Vote-stealing and campaign trickery is as old as the country on all sides and parties, like with Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Warren Harding. Many have committed things that are arguably impeachable offenses, like Trump, Obama, Bush, Regan, Cleveland, Johnson, Buchanan, and Jackson.
I don’t think tonight’s going to be a real drawn-out affair. We may not know who the President is by tonight, but I bet we do within 24 hours. And I believe that’ll be Joe Biden.
Nationally, Republicans will retain control of Governorships. I doubt there’s many switches in the House and Democrats will retain a narrow margin. The Senate is likely to be an even narrower margin of Republican control, by about a seat or two.
In Indiana, Holcomb will win comfortably, as will most Republicans in the State House’s top seats.
President Kamala Harris
A few years ago I read Write it When I’m Gone, a book Gerald Ford sat down for with Newsweek reporter Thomas DeFrank. Ford allowed DeFrank open access to him multiple times with the caveat he couldn’t publish anything until after Ford’s death.
In it, Ford revealed as early as Bill Clinton’s Governorship that Hillary was “going to run for President someday, probably in 2004.” He was very close. And he said she’d lose “because America won’t be ready for a woman president” even though he thought she’d be a good one.
Likewise, he mused that America’s path to a female presidency would be through the Vice President’s office. Ford was very sure that a woman would become VP, the President would die, and then she’d be ushered into the Oval Office. “And then the gates will be open,” he said.
Joe Biden and Donald Trump are both old at 77 and 74 respectively. No matter which one of them wins, they’ll be the oldest Presidents in office ever. Trump was already the oldest in 2016 at 70.
If and when Joe Biden wins, he’ll be the oldest still. And while I wish no ill on anyone, Ford’s eerily good predictions stick out to me and make me think we’ll be seeing President Harris soon.
A year or two ago I started reading some of Ethan Marcotte’s calls for better web accessibility. Taking steps to make websites behave more predictably, play nice with screen readers, and follow some code standards all seemed like easy enough things to do. I thought they’d be especially easy to do if we thought about it before developing a new website. Like wiring a house before putting up the drywall.
As one example, I knew that screen readers just read down the screen. Unlike humans with visual acuity who quickly learn to ignore the right column of ads or the navigation menu on each page, screen readers can’t discern what’s junk and what’s not. So they repeat everything on every page. Putting in a quick “skiplink” code allows the screen reader to skip narrating the navigation menu of a site every time a page loads.
Easy peasy! Throw in some ALT tags for images to describe what they are and we’re all set.
Problem is, none of this works like I expected.
On Friday I went to a client’s home to help them setup anything I could think of to supplement their vision. After a sudden surgery for macular degeneration, the temporary side effect left them unable to see well.
They had three devices: A Windows 7 desktop PC, an iPhone 8 with a home button, and a Windows 10 HP laptop.
iPhone Accessibility with VoiceOver and Zoom
We started with the iPhone first. I went into the accessibility settings thinking if we just made the text larger it’d be easier to read.
For them, the text size wasn’t of issue. The issue with their vision is a large dark area that blocks light. Imagine trying to read a piece of paper late at night. By shining a flashlight at an angle on a screen, they could make out the words and elements on the screen. But it wasn’t sustainable. Using the device with one hand and holding a flashlight with another was difficult for an octogenarian.
For kicks, we tried using the phone with Zoom on. The phone was more difficult to use because it required three fingers to move around the screen. Instead of just enlarging items on the screen, it turned the device into the world’s lousiest magnifying glass. By using three fingers to scroll through a “window” in all directions, and using three-finger taps to toggle it on and off, you couldn’t see the small screen to read with any ease because your fingers are constantly in the way.
You should try it yourself. Go to Settings > Accessibility > Zoom and toggle it on.
Next I tried VoiceOver. VoiceOver reads what’s on the screen so you can listen to it instead. For all the attention Apple spends promoting their accessibility work, I had high hopes and expectations for this.
Turning VoiceOver on immediately displays a warning that enabling it will change the paradigm of how you use your device. It’s not kidding. It’s like using an entirely different operating system for the first time.
VoiceOver uses the pre-Siri robotic voice you remember from the early 2000’s on the Mac. Harsh, clipped, and fast. iOS 14 has new options for download that might sound better, but on an old iPhone 8 with limited storage, it was a big ask.
Enabling VoiceOver means each tap selects an object, like a link or app icon. VoiceOver then reads what you tapped on and if you don’t quickly do something else it keeps reading “Double tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.” This phrase became insufferable. Imagine after clicking and dragging something with your mouse your computer always said “Let go of the mouse to drop. Or press CMD for more options.” You’d probably unplug your speakers.
Couple this with mobility and dexterity problems
If you’ve ever watched an older or beginner use a touch screen before, you’ve probably noticed they don’t hover their finger over the glass. If you pick up your phone right now and launch Messages, notice how closely you probably keep your thumb or index finger over the keyboard and glass. You’re likely within centimeters of the surface ready to tap and type. Older people don’t do that because they either don’t think to, are afraid to touch it, or have shaky hands that trigger superfluous actions.
When my client tries to open an app, they’re used to holding the phone in their left hand and then striking with their index finger from 4-5 inches away. I’ve noticed this in a lot of beginner screen users. It’s an almost violent interaction method as if the glass is made of lava. This large gap between finger and screen is like dropping a missile from low earth orbit. The chances for missing are high, and the time it takes to reach the surface is longer.
With VoiceOver enabled, the interaction to open Messages went like this. Items in brackets are the robotic device voice. Keep in mind the first icon the home screen is FaceTime:
Push home button to enable screen.
[FaceTime. Double-tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.]
“I don’t want FaceTime.”
“Select Messages with one tap,” I say.
Taps Messages after looking for it.
[Messages. Double-tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.]
Taps Messages again
[Messages. Double-tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.]
“You need to double-tap that now to activate,” I say.
Taps once and then lifts finger for a second tap. [Messages. Double-tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.]
Second tap lands. [Messages. Double-tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.]
This went on for a frustrating amount of time. The time between his first tap and second was long enough the device didn’t register it as anything but two single taps, not a single double-tap.
Adjusting the tap time, again in Settings, helped a little. But their poor vision and unsteady hand meant high errors in where taps landed. A double-tap aimed at Messages meant one tap for Messages and another, mistaken second, tap for Phone.
Even when I tried using the iPhone with VoiceOver enabled it proved frustrating and annoying. Going into Messages meant the reader kept saying things that really weren’t helpful most of the time. It sounded like this:
Tap Messages [Messages. [Double-tap to act—]
Double-tap Messages [Messages.]
[Message from: John Doe…]
You’ve probably never noticed, but if you go into Messages you see the “Edit” button in the top left. The heading “Messages” in the middle, and the “New Message” icon in the top right.
VoiceOver reads these each time you go into the app because they’re the order they appear. It’s worth noting, too, that if you have unread messages, VoiceOver will say [Messages. 1 new unread message.] when you tap on the icon from the home screen. And again when you’re in the app before it starts reading.
This behavior was the same on their phone, which contained 1,257 unread items. They, like me, never deletes their voicemails because I just wait for the text message transcription to pop in.
The transcriptions were a nightmare. VoiceOver not only tries to read the transcription, but it does so while playing the voicemail. A significant bug that rendered it completely useless. Listening to a robotic voice read a broken transcript where every third or fourth word is wrong and the actual audio of the voicemail at the same time made my client shake their head in frustration. “I can’t use this.”
“No, this isn’t useful or helpful at all.”
We turned it off. Literally all they wanted their phone to do was read voicemails and text messages. Text messages, which, by the way, were overflowing with political campaign spam.
Windows 7 and 10 Narrator equally frustrating
On their desktop PC running Windows 7, my client wanted to get similar help with email. Specifically in AOL, which they’ve used since the Clinton administration.
This proved equally frustrating. But was surprisingly better in some ways. Narrator performed the same on Windows 7 as it did Windows 10. It doesn’t seem like there were any improvements there. But it at least sounded more human out-of-the-box.
And like VoiceOver on iOS, Narrator read down the list of what it saw on the screen. But it wouldn’t read email. It can read the “chrome” around the window. Things like the File menu, Edit, etc. But not the actual text of the email.
For that, we tried a service that promised to speak email, but it was not designed for anyone who gets actual emails.
The first email was junk from a car dealer. My client, like me, does not own a car and does not want a car. But there we were, staring at an ad for a new Audi while they beamed a desk lamp on to the screen to try and read it.
As difficult as tapping was on their phone, clicking with a mouse was nearly impossible. They just didn’t know it. I sat and watched as they clicked helplessly on what was expected to be a close “X” in the top right. Instead, clicks were registered on all manner of banner ads, spam, links, and useless menu items.
Apple nerds have long complained about Apple shoving menu items into “drawers”, or otherwise requiring you to click a hamburger menu icon to show them. Microsoft goes the other direction and shoves every icon imaginable into ribbons and menus. I now believe Microsoft’s method puts too many accidental clicks in reach. For users with dexterity or visual impairment, all those icons and menus are landmines ready to blow.
Within seconds my client had opened several tabs and windows. They were on the way to unsubscribing, buying a new Audi, sending a new message, and organizing Contacts when they really just wanted to Exit the window. With each frustrating click, more random stuff just bounced around the screen.
On the laptop, it took me ten minutes to figure out why a checkbox was enabled that meant the speakers were listening to the microphone. This should never happen because all it did was result in a feedback loop of noise. There’s no reason for that option to exist, but it was on, and made the HP laptop’s microphone and speakers useless.
Windows 10 does have a Dictation app, but requires you to trigger it with Windows + H, and works like Siri on your phone: sporadically and with clipped commands. Knowing when it speaks, when you should speak, when to let go of the keys, and listening for its feedback were challenging. Significantly, like your phone, if you don’t know what you’re going to say immediately as it begins listening, you get superfluous input or nothing at all.
Better tech is possibly better, but the failures were not theirs
Nerds might say an ad-blocker, using Alt+F4 to close windows, buying a bigger screen or better device, using Gmail or Outlook or some other software would help. This probably would help. And for millions of people who have prolonged visual, mobility, dexterity, or audio impairment this is probably what they do. On-device screen readers can work in their native apps like Edge or Safari respectively, which is something, but they’re also an impossibly limiting and frustrating experience because of what we throw at them to read.
My client wants to work on their book, read text messages, and send emails. And wants to do so, hopefully, for a couple of months with a little help until his vision returns. My client’s not trying to build a house with custom power tools. They just want to send emails.
Waking up one morning and telling yourself we need $300 in Dragon Dictation software, (which only works with Outlook and Gmail), switching email to somewhere else, learning a whole new paradigm, buying a new microphone, or just getting better at holding the device are all wrong answers.
In my research, I learned Medicare allows people to request a Mobility Coach that can help train patients on this stuff at the request of a physician. Thing is, you have to get the referral, go through an intake process, and then someone will get to you in 8-10 weeks. At 84, time’s ticking, and 8-10 weeks is a long time.
This is not their fault and it’s not the fault of any user. This tech is lousy and hostile. It’s unfriendly and annoying. Web, app, and software developers have made equally unfriendly products. Everything from web pages to emails and software. And Medicare is surely overloaded on being able to quickly send some therapist to every house that needs it on demand.
I’m sure things are getting better, all things considered. Certainly the software on an iPhone today is better than it was ten years ago. But a lot of things are working against all of us.
For my part, I think about the emails we design for clients and the webpages we make. I think about the constraints I have in making those.
There isn’t a week that goes by that someone doesn’t want me to dump a scanned PDF document from an office copier on to the web. For screen readers, this is a non-starter.
Almost no day goes by without someone asking me to put together some infographic or cute thing to stick somewhere. Hand-drawn fonts and other unique typographic features might look attractive, but they’re a waking nightmare for many people.
People constantly ask to “Put these photos in our next email”. Those dozen photos not only bloat email bandwidth requirements, but they’re also seldom worth much even to fully-sighted people.
Shoving ads “up top” or in bigger spaces so people “will be sure to see them” seems easy enough to ignore with eyes. But for my client, this not only made the web tougher to use, it also wasted a lot of time. The myriad spam texts and emails would have easily taken an hour to work through by listening. You or I would just swipe, swipe, swipe. Or, select “Edit” and selected many items at once. This option is largely disabled in VoiceOver.
Clients always want some visual distinction. Having a unique design, made popular by the throngs of visually attractive but largely empty templates from theme stores are what people pay for. It’s not what you or anyone wants, however. All those webpages that have cute counters that say how many cups of coffee your team consumes a day add nothing. Giant banners and sliders add nothing.
I’m constantly fighting a battle where clients want to add links to external websites, PDFs, and images directly in their menus. This is bad even for sighted users.
All of these things are battles designers and developers are fighting every day. And sometimes, myself included, I just don’t have the ability to fight all of them. A teammate will ask me, “Are we really doing this?” and all I can utter is “This just isn’t a hill I’m willing to die on.”
This is frustrating because why on earth am I fighting? And then I realize what is we’re saying:
Remove distractions and “tricks”, like banner ads at the top of a page
Invest in web and language accessibility
Recreate material to be accessible when it otherwise isn’t
YouTube videos need a transcript for those who can’t hear
Websites need compelling and useful audits of all images, links, and behavior
There’s no easy way to make a website better or more accessible. And that costs time, money, and for a lot of clients doesn’t pay the bills. Like adding an elevator to your house. Most clients would rather us invent a “make money” button and just press that time and time again.
But there is overlap. We took a look at a website of ours and measured how many clicks it took to buy something versus competitors. We took half as many clicks. From an accessibility standpoint, that’s good for all users because everyone gets done faster.
But we do it in fewer clicks by not asking for things like phone numbers and “how did you hear about us?” at checkout. That’s a battle we have to fight but really shouldn’t have to.
There are no plugins for this that you can just install and walk away from. There is no service. It’s like going to the gym: it’s hard work that requires time, deliberate thought, and dedication.
Developers need to start bundling the costs of this kind of work into their service. And if clients don’t want to pay, then I say having nothing is better. We have to stop pumping garbage on to the web.
Developers also need to learn about what it takes to make sites accessible and test for them just as rigorously as we test mobile layouts vs. desktop ones.
I’m sure I’m not the only person that has random, unimportant memories of long-ago events. I keep remembering a time in high school where my high school principal yelled at me for borrowing a library book.
I’m sure I’m not the only person that has random, unimportant memories of long-ago events. I keep remembering a time in high school where my high school principal yelled at me for borrowing a library book.
It was his idea that on Wednesdays we’d read a book for 22-minutes during homeroom. Or as the contemporaries called it, “Activity Period”. What a dumb, soul-sucking name.
Wednesday’s “activity” was silent, sustained reading, which begat the soul-sucking SSR acronym straight from some equally wretched “workgroup”.
I had finished whatever book I had been reading about ten minutes into the allotted time. Not being a psychopath, I wasn’t keen on just starting right back on page 1. So I asked to go to the library, was granted permission, and walked downstairs. After a few minutes I picked up another and walked back upstairs.
Just as I exited the library, the principal turned to me and yelled, “Where is your book young man?” It was in my hand. In fact, it was the only thing I had on me. In retrospect, I probably should have asked if he had just been staring at the sun and couldn’t see it. Maybe he thought I had come downstairs for tea.
“Just finished one and came to get another,” I said, holding up the book. I didn’t stop walking.
Then I remember turning around and standing there watching him yell and stomp around because I wasn’t actively reading. No one else was around. It was just him and me in the hallway. My only hope is that the expression on my face was clear I thought he was insane.
He told me I needed to be reading “right now”. Short of sitting down in the hallway, I didn’t know what else he expected me to do. I’m sure I just said “Okay” and walked on.
I also remember the feeling of losing all respect for the man at that moment. Now, all these years later, the fact I even remember this at all irritates me. Literally every time I finish a book or pick up another I think, “Should I call him and ask if it’s okay that I finished a book today?” What a terrible thing to think.
Today I look back on this and think three things:
We know task-switching leaves “residue” on our brains. You can’t go from, say, cooking a new recipe to replying to emails without your brain thinking about the last thing you just did for a while. Most estimates are about 15 minutes to fully switch tasks. So in a 22-minute reading slot, about 7 minutes are actually useful. What a waste.
I’m sure the whole exercise was designed to check a box at the end of the school year to say, “The kids read a combined 9 hours of sustained independent reading.” And really, isn’t that sad for any activity? “Over six months, we spent 9 hours reading!” I’m sure it’s also the only way they could guarantee some people even read anything at all.
The most damning legacy of our schools is that they are centers for knowledge transfer, not a place for instilling a love of learning. Events like this are why fully a third of Americans admit to not reading a single book in a year.
We say that phrase “love of learning” and a lot of people roll their eyes. It is a wimpy phrase. But we should really think about it as “Teaching people how to do hard things with our minds”. Everyone has to do this to get ahead. You want to learn how to write a new programming language, drive or operate a new piece of machinery, install something, offer a compelling report, manage your health, learn new exercises, or design a new tool? You’re going to need to have sustained and focused effort at that task. It’s during processes like these to improve ourselves or our work that we have displayed an ability to grok new things. To learn!
Reading just happens to be the most common activity people do that requires a little thought. Watching TV, for instance, is passive. Reading requires comprehension of the words and, in most cases, imagining the events and people involved in your head. Like how driving to the store down the street is passive, but walking there is active. Neither is likely hard, but one is certainly more active.
For most adults who don’t enjoy reading today, we’d do well to ask ourselves why. I now recognize I struggled to find books I actually enjoyed reading. It took me over 10 years to realize I liked biographies and memoirs. I read one in 10th grade — a book I picked up from a Walden Books, but didn’t make the connection that I liked it because it was a memoir. I started reading more from time to time, but it took me another ten years to figure that out and learn that fiction just isn’t my jam. In retrospect, I don’t recall there being a lot of historical biographies on the shelves of my school library. Maybe there were, but I just hadn’t figured that out.
But militant yelling and drilling don’t help a 15-year-old, either. Maybe my principal was having a bad day. I’m sure he thought it was my responsibility to make sure I had a book to get through all 22 minutes of reading. But there he is, in the back of my head spitting fire every time I need a new book. I’ve recorded 380 read finished books since I started tracking them on Goodreads. That’s 380 times that memory has hijacked my thoughts.
We talk a lot about the educators who shape our lives and make a long-lasting impact on us and our kids. But we should also talk about the educators who did the opposite. If we do, it might remind educators that as hard as their job is, every interaction can be mind-altering.