Albino Alligators and Other Tales of a 4th Grade Classroom

Albino AlligatorWith sweaty foreheads dripping and scotch tape flying, 6 groups of terrified 4th graders presented their ideas for redesigning school with some ‘experts’ last week. Jello playgrounds and eco-classrooms, 007 super-villain-style albino alligator pens and survivalists training, their ideas were broad and exciting. A multivariant exercise for growth, they had to work together, write a persuasive arguments, draw in several different perspectives, standup in front of everyone and speak, and even do a little critical thinking.

I didn’t expect such high-quality work from young and inexperienced students.  Rehearsed speeches presented, schematics displayed on computers, and 3D models in tow, I loved the different ways they told their stories. However, I wish we had an opportunity to teach them a tiny little lesson before they started on their projects. These three basic a-ha’s hit home for me:

  1. Folks need clear framework or model to emulate to succeed
  2. Being unconstrained and truly going broad with ideas is hard, even for children
  3. People love positive feedback and it pushes them and their ideas further

1 – A clear model. Innovating is a lot like swimming. It is a completely natural thing that Swimming Babyeven babies do, but at some point we completely forget and have to be re-taught. When this first lesson happens, you just can’t just be thrown into the deep-end and expect be successful and ever want to do it again. There are the rare few who do great when that happens, but most of us turn into tight, nervous clams and have no idea what to do next. Then we drown. Pure and simple, if you want someone to start innovating and using design thinking without too much pain, you have to show them how it is done!  Our 4th graders did a marvelous job, however if I had a chance to bring them through a quick brainstorm, they would have cut their time in half.

Brainstorm with Post-It Notes2 – Unconstrained, going broad. When thinking of new ideas you must go unconstrained at first, even if it is for 10 minutes. I call this the ‘puke’ phase. The first few ideas are not your best and you need to get them out of your system to really start thinking of the good stuff. Often the biggest limit to enormous ideas are those imposed by our own minds before we even speak, write, or draw. We unknowingly restrict ourselves to what is acceptable to bosses, our environments, our families, and our peers. We need to throw those rules away for this brief time. There will be plenty of time later to think about narrowing down due to things like time, budgets, authorities, rules, and passions.

3 – Positive feedback pushes. There is a great framework that my co-conspirator, Laura Houghton suggested to use called I like/I wish. When using this you start off Wendy Spies and Laura Houghton at Juana Briones Teaching Design Thinkingyour feedback with “I like…” and then you name something that you like about the project, idea or presentation. Then you immediately say “I wish…” and you say something that could be improved or identify a problem that could be solved.  For example, a student said “Alligators are really expensive.” This caused the team to get defensive.  What would be a better way to say it is, “I like the idea of having Albino Alligators at school, it gives everyone an opportunity to observe such rare creatures up close. I wish the Alligators were not so rare and difficult to keep healthy.” This gives the students an opportunity to address a constraint as something they can fix, rather than a combative set of feedback that could be taken personally and derail the growth. It proved hugely freeing for both the students presenting and those in the audience tasked with giving help to their peers.

I look forward to returning to review their models and customer tests and to pushing the entire school out of their comfort zones and into their innovation zones.

What is some advice you would give to these 4th graders on their journey to re-design school?


Write Now, Edit Later. AKA – left brain shut up, right brain GO!

I am staring a blank piece of paper, a million ideas swimming in my mind, and none of them is good enough.  The pen is not moving, and I have no idea what to do next…

Right Brain Diverge, Left Brain Converge

Use the different parts of your brain at the right time!

That is how every writing exercise seems to begin for me. Then I get distracted by email or facebook and then never write a darned thing.  That was, until my favorite writer pointed out the brilliantly obvious point that writing is a lot like product design!  You can’t edit at the same time as you create.  You have to turn off that critic – that darned left brain!

Unicorn puking it out - write down everything you can think of

Puke it out!

Pick up the pen, the keyboard, or dictate into the microphone and just let it go.  There is no good or bad, no one will ever see this.  Whatever comes to mind, let it come out of you.  So that you can get to the good stuff.  In design, I call this the ‘puke’ phase.  After all, when was the last time that the first idea you wrote down was the best one?  Or even the third or fourth?  This puke time is dedicated to clearing out all the ideas so that we can move on to the good stuff.

So, what exactly do I do?  Just start writing, even if it is gibberish.  Write as long and quickly as you can.  Start anywhere, from breakfast that day to your childhood to the latest conversation with a co-worker.  Sure, maybe everything won’t hold together perfectly.  But you shouldn’t know that.  You will be too busy writing to see that everything is crap.  Besides, you won’t know exactly what you meant to write until well after you are done writing, you need at least a few hundred words on the page before the first decent sentence emerges.

Just accept it.  I am trying to. Stream of ConciousnessThis is just part of the way things work.  While we are all delicate, individual snowflakes, we are all still basically the same.  99% of what you write will be deleted or at least re-written.  Don’t be attached, don’t even really think about it, just get it out of your head.  If you can do that, then the good news is that you will be another 1000 words ahead of everyone else!

Mo Money, Mo Problems – Why being raised poor was kindof a good thing.

Mom and Dad in the 1970s

Mom and Dad in the 1970s

I grew up in Louisiana, born to a pair who lived in a 23 foot trailer.  Dad was a graduate student  in Wildlife Management and Mom was a clerk at the local grocery store to help put him through school.  They worked hard together to gather pennies, build ideas, and follow dreams.  It all worked out.

When you have no idea what real money is, you feel like you are always winning.  Every step is a step up.  I have always felt like I could choose the work that is right for me, not the work that makes money.

Thanks, Mom and Dad!

The Design Process (aka Simple Problem Solving)

My friend Bruce came to me the other day very excited about his idea and wanting to build it immediately.  The first thing I asked him is who is his customer and what problems does his product solve for them.  Like so many of us, he struggled.  You know in your heart, if you can’t explain your product simply, then you probably don’t have a good idea (yet!). The good news, is that there is a fantastic design process that most of us follow that help us develop ideas into products.  This process ensures that our ideas are actually great and that our products will be successful.

How do you know it is going to be successful?  You know an idea will be successful if it solves a big unmet need of your user.  How do you ensure that it solves big, unmet needs?  Yep, it is as simple as 8 steps, however, like all simple things they do take a lot of practice to master.

Who is the person you are trying to solve for? What are their hopes, dreams, problems?

Who is the person you are trying to solve for? What are their hopes, dreams, problems?

  1. Know your customer.  Who are they?  What do they do?  Why are they unique?
  2. Discover the problems they are currently unable to solve well.  Sure, they might have solutions, but those solutions might be inadequate.  Figure out why.
  3. Brainstorm ways to fix those  problems.  Keep an open mind, the greater the number of solutions, the better.
  4. Narrow the answers.  Now you can be ruthless – decide what you want to work on and what gives you the most energy.
  5. Prototype those ideas.  There is no time line the present.  Don’t be fancy, just be prolific!

    It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer. - Albert Einstein

    It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. – Albert Einstein

  6. Test solutions on users.  The rougher the ideas the better.  Users are more likely to give you useful feedback if they see that your ideas are not set in stone.
  7. Repeat 3-6 until you feel like the solution is correct.
  8. Bring the ideas to market.  So often folks get this wrong, you don’t bring an idea to market until you are sure it solves a big, unmet need!  Make sure you have steps 1-7 down before you even think about step 8.  :)

Notice it is more about building prototypes and testing them than it is about bringing something to market.  The best way not to waste a ton of time and money is to build out ideas in the best way possible to see if the customer will actually like them so much they will tell all of their friends.  If they don’t, you have saved yourself a lot of time and grief and have more information for the next iteration of your prototypes and ideas!

Questions about callouses and hand rips?

Healthy weightlifting hands have some callous, but not so much they get caught on the bar, bunch up, and then rip.

Healthy weightlifting hands have some callous, but not so much they get caught on the bar, bunch up, and then rip.

Inevitably, when you start out lifting your hands are nice and soft.  Through the session they start to hurt, but you don’t notice until the end that they are pretty beaten up.  Within a few weightlifting sessions, your hands become blistered, rough and begin to peel. You start get worried, what if they rip?  Well, you should be nervous and you should do something about that now. Don’t wait until you get a rip.  Take care of your hands now now.  It’s actually pretty simple.

This is a question from a friend new to weightlifting:

My hand callouses are getting kind of gnarly. They’re not ripping off (a la CrossFit), but they’re kind of peeling. Like dry skin. There’s still a decent amount of callous underneath, but I don’t know if I should try to sand that shit down or just not worry about it. Basically I just want to *avoid* having them rip off, and this whole “man hands” thing is a new phenomenon for me. Stop laughing, I’m (mostly) serious.

This is totally legit, no laughing. The solution is super easy, but not obvious.

  1. Two words – PUMICE STONES.  Get yourself some.  They are super cheap on amazon.
  2. Put one next to each sink and one in your shower.
  3. Grind down those callouses for ~30 seconds every time you wash your hands.

Done!  Your hands should be healthy.  However, if your callouses are too thick to pumice them (which can sometimes happen if you leave them too long), then you need to either shave them down with a razor or smother them in bag balm, put a plastic bag around you hand, cinch down the bag (so you don’t get it all over the place), and sleep with that on.  It is an emergency measure that is very effective.  Gymnasts do this all the time.

Hand rips can seriously damage your training if you don't take care of them. However, with the right care you can train through the healing process.

Hand rips can seriously damage your training if you don’t take care of them. However, with the right care you can train through the healing process.

However, perhaps something terrible happens and you accidentally get a rip (bad lift, new movement, poor hand care, etc.)

  1. Clean it, trim the hanging skin, and smother it in neosporin.
  2. Bandage it up with tape, band-aids, new skin, whatever you like.
  3. You can also bag it like above, if you are a crazy sleeper and you think the bandage might leak.
  4. Change your bandage after your lifting and/or at least once a day.  IMPORTANT: Keep it moist and covered (with neosporin or other ointment), it is scientifically proven that moist wounds heal faster.
  5. If you want to lift with the rip, use sports tape, an ace bandage or a strap over the bandage and you can (probably) still work through the healing process and lot lose too much ground.

Hope this helps!  Have any other tips for good hand care?

Russian Squat Cycle (6 weeks)

Palo Alto Barbell, how do you feel after a big squat personal record (PR)?

How do you feel after a big squat personal record (PR)?

A lot of folks have been asking me about the squat program I just finished. I thought I would share it here. If you get a chance to do it, please let me know how it goes!

Summary: I just finished a very short (6 week), intense Russian Squat Cycle.  My poor teammates did a 12 week program and had even bigger gains.  I began later than they did because I had to work around the American Open.  I wouldn’t recommend doing this during a build up to a competition. For us, this happened over the winter holidays and our huge PRs just happened a few weeks into the new year.  This made for great times eating and training (no cutting for competitions!).  The squats even woke me up in the middle of the night a few times and demanded calories.

How does one put 9 kgs (~20lbs) on a back squat in such a short time?

  1. PR your back squat right before you begin the new cycle so you know what your max is.
  2. Commit to squatting 3 days a week with at least one rest day between each squat day.
  3. Suck up as much sleep and protein into you body as you can stand.
  4. Stretch and do abs as much as you can.
  5. Believe in your coach and the program.  It works!

What exactly does a 6 week Russian Squat Program look like?

Week 1:

Day 1 (Monday) – 80% x 2 x 6

Day 2 (Wednesday) – 80% x 3 x 6

Day 3 (Saturday) – 80% x 2 x 6

Week 2:

Day 4 (Monday) – 80% x 4 x 6

Day 5 (Wednesday) – 80% x 2 x 6

Day 6 (Saturday) – 80% x 5 x 6

Week 3:

Day 7 (Monday) – 80% x 2 x 6

Day 8 (Wednesday) – 80% x 6 x 6

Day 9 (Saturday) – 80% x 2 x 6

Week 4:

Day 10 (Monday) – 85% x 5 x 5

Day 11 (Wednesday) – 80% x 2 x 6

Day 12 (Saturday) – 90% x 4 x 4

Week 5:

Day 13 (Monday) – 80% x 2 x 6

Day 14 (Wednesday) – 95% x 3 x 3

Day 15 (Saturday) – 80% x 2 x 6

Week 6:

Day 16 (Monday) – 100% x 2 x 2

Day 17 (Wednesday) – 80% x 2 x 6

Day 18 (Saturday) – 105% x 1 x 1  (make your PR and then go heavier!)

Note: The percentage listed is the percentage of your back squat. For example, if your best is 50kg, then 80% of 50kg is 40kg. On day one do 40kg back squats for six sets of two. As always, warmup well before doing your squats. Always start with an empty bar and build up to your working sets. For this cycle, our team always began with squats. The squats were a good way to warm up and tire us out so that our technique really needed to shine to get us through the workouts.

Let me know if you have any questions.  Enjoy your new, bigger back squat! And, if you like, do follow me on Instagram:

Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe Ever

Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

He is a very picky eater. I caught him with a triple-decker cookie. “You told me I could have one!”

Note: This chocolate chip cookie receipe is not gluten free, sugar free, low carb, or paleo.  These cookies are not good for you unless you need to gain weight (which some do!), but they taste amazing.

Blend until smooth

  • 3/4 c butter, softened
  • 1/2 c white sugar
  • 1 c brown sugar

Add and mix

  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 T vanilla extract
  • 1 t baking soda

Add gradually and mix

  • 2c white flour

Mix in by hand

  • 2.5 c semi sweet chocolate chips

Drop heaping spoonfuls onto an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at ~350 for 10-12 minutes depending on how crispy you like your cookies.  I usually make a double batch and keep them in the fridge for the family.

Throw Back Thursday

American Open Weightlifting Championships December 2013

American Open Weightlifting Championships December 2013

A new year is a good time to reflect on where you were 12 months ago.  Every time I do this it feels like it was so long ago that I am not even the same person.  I believe that is a good thing.

These are the top ten things that changed for me this year:

  1. I went from ‘working out’ to ‘training’.
  2. I went from ‘eating’ to ‘fueling my body’.
  3. I went from fighting my weaknesses to maximizing my strengths.
  4. I went from hiding my enormous legs to being proud of them.
  5. I went from dieting to ‘bulking and cutting’.
  6. I went from dabbling in olympic weightlifting to being a national competitor.
  7. I went from killing myself at work to a more efficient contractor role.
  8. I went from worrying about spending enough time with my children to worrying about setting a good example for them.
  9. I went from worrying about my legacy to being able to die today.
  10. I went from a lot of friends who don’t share my values to a very few who make me a better person.
Starting Strength

Wendy’s First Weightlifting Experience – Starting Strength with Mark Rippetoe!

How have you changed this last year?



What is a good online source for weightlifting?

Coach Burgener of Mike's Gym

Coach Burgener of Mike’s Gym

I received this text this morning.  Wow, where to start?  Of course with ‘needs analysis’.  What do you mean by weightlifting?  What exactly are you looking for? Turns out my friend Erin joined a straight-up crossfit gym (woohoo, you go girl) and is curious.  She has only done a few lifts and wants to know more.  You can tell she is getting the bug.  I asked who her coach was (they all have different styles) and what her experience was so far.

I pointed her to YouTube, the best thing for weightlifting since the barbell and two very trusted resources.  Given her affiliation with CrossFit (and not some independent barbell club), I pointed her to Coach B (Mike Bergener) and Chad Vaughn.  These are both good places to start and will stay in the style that her current coach is teaching.  I had the pleasure of training with both of these wonderful people and they are a very good place to start.

Chad Vaughn's Big Snatch Pull

Chad Vaughn’s Big Snatch Pull

As Erin progresses my suggestions will change.  If she had different goals, affiliations, or coaches, my recommendation would change as well.  I look forward to going on this journey with her!


It is how fast you go and who you bring with you along the way.

Rotary Telephone in an iPhone World

Rotary Telephone in an iPhone World

When I was at Intuit, there was a mantra, “It isn’t how fast you go, it is who you bring with you along the way.”  While I agree with the last half of that statement, that the who is very important, you also need to go quickly.  Very often the downfall of big companies is that they don’t move quickly enough.  Yes, you have a large user base you might upset, but then again, you have a large user base you might upset.  People’s needs are always changing, the way they use the product is changing, and the world around them is changing.  To quote my redneck uncle, “You don’t want a rotary telephone in an iphone world.”  Every day your customer is becoming more savvy, and if your product’s don’t keep up with their pace, they will leave you behind.

Start Your Strength Building Program

contest time!  each of you buys in for an amount that is painful.  lasts 6-8 weeks.  we start this sunday.  we will do %age improvement total for bench, press, backsquat, deadlift.  winner takes all?
alternate these two programs and lift 3 days a week:
  1. pavel:
max rack deadlift x 5 reps x 2 sets
max bench or overhead presssx 5 reps x 2 sets
  2. delorme:
50% of 10 rep max x 10 reps x 1 set
75% of 10 rep max x 5 reps x 1 set
100% of 10 rep max x 10 reps x 1 set
of each press/deadlift/squat
eat: protein, veggies, clear water
are you in?
Strong Girl

Leaning In to a CFO Position in New York (Happy April 1st!)

Mo Money Mo ProblemsAs you know, I have been all about money my whole life – manipulating markets, creating inefficiencies, and generally living a very green life by not building anything that would end-up in a landfill.  It is with great pleasure that I announce that I have been secretly pursuing my degree in Finance.  I am abandoning my nerd life in Silicon Valley to pursue something far more valued in the world – the reporting and regulation of money and finances for a major bank in New York.  The time was right, I decided to listen to my friends and coworkers and Lean In more.

Startup Talk at the Walmart Global User Excellence Summit

Wendy Spies and Elliot Loh at the 2013 Walmart User Excellence Summit

Wendy Spies and Elliot Loh at the 2013 Walmart User Excellence Summit

I had the pleasure of hob-nobbing with big-wigs at the Walmart User Excellence Summit last week in San Bruno. I used my 5 minute introduction time to speak about how I think about being in ‘The Zone’  at work. Fellow entrepreneur Elliot Loh and I talked about using our common denominators (Trilogy and creating our own consultancies) as a way explore the opportunities around us. We also both believed that ‘swimming up stream’ is the best way to influence and encourage great product and economic outcomes for our customers.

The framework I use to find the job that is right for me is T.O.P. – aligning Talent, Opportunity, and Passion. You can find more details here, on my corporate blog with the Great Bridge Group. Enjoy!

When was the last job you had where your Talent, Opportunity, and Passion perfectly aligned?



Express, Test, Cycle – Recycling a Building, Reviving an Idea

Terman Engineering Building by Ron Horii

Terman Engineering Building by Ron Horii

As a wee teenager I wandered into Terman Engineering Building for the first time. Little did I know, this was the first day in a life-long love affair. Terman was the fabled inside-out building at Stanford built by Hewlett and Packard to honor their professor. It was deliberately built to expose the structure of the building to the students housed inside it. It was a constant lesson about design and engineering that followed us wherever we went.

I spent hundreds of hours in this building over the years. I would often see tours or overhear

conversations about the building – ‘notice the laminated beams, how the windows on one side are shuttered, the small pond for cooling, etc.’ What you didn’t ever hear is someone talking about the ribbon-like pattern dancing across the glass doors. Lightly etched into the heavy glass doors was an ornate flourish that held the letters ‘ETC’ -the mantra of the design team. E represented ‘Express’ or simply, go try to build the thing.  T was for ‘Test’ or try it out and see if it works or how you can improve it. C was for ‘Cycle’ or repeat, go back to the beginning and express again. This minor detail is what lives on in everything that I do and walks with me wherever I go.

After nearly 20 years I have seen dozens of teams fail from forgetting or refusing to ETC. I

Terman being torn down

Terman being torn down

have yet to see one fail who has stuck to this mantra faithfully. These days, ETC goes by new names (Lean Startup, Design Process, etc.), but the principals at work are still the same. Fundamentally, you have to get out of the talking and thinking space into the doing space and you need to do it as efficiently as possible. And, most importantly, you need to do it again and again until you have something that truly solves the problem and meets the requirements.

This blog is devoted to exploring the success and failures of human endeavors as we look through the glass doors of Terman Engineering.

What are some of the ideas you still carry around with you from college?