Tuesday, May 19, 2009

digress 10% and you too can become a verb

Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave a nice but predictable talk at Penn's commencement yesterday. I was on hand, having a soft spot for pomp and circumstance (more the latter than the former, but still...) At something like half the commencements I've attended, the College of Arts & Science students send up lusty boos upon hearing the business school students (Wharton) announced and touted. I thought I had a good barometer for this, and yesterday--given the apparently fallen status of the figure of the businessperson in America--I expected the boos. But they didn't come. Not a one. Is it that the Classics and Art History majors know that they are just as lost in the world of prospective employment as the 22-year-old now-former student of finance or management? Or that today's college student is too smart and nuanced and individualistic to draw generalizations about what people choose to study from the media's recent second thoughts about business?

Was Schmidt's talk going to be about better management? I doubted it. I thought it would be about innovation and the ethics of the workplace.

But Schmidt's messages were Google's oft-repeated twin messages: (1) don't be evil; and (2) "70-20-10." Spend 70% of your time on the basic expected activities of what you do; 20% on innovation (new projects); and 10% doing whatever digressive, miscellaneous thing you feel like doing ("side projects"). Most of the good new stuff comes from that final 10%. But all that depends on leisure, on other deadlines being met, and--for most businesses--a currently profitable or at least growing core (70%) business. So some of this fell into the "easy for you to say" bin of graduation-speaker platitudes. Perhaps what struck me as more remarkable than any of this (above) was his absolute assumption that technological change is always for the good. Where once we did this, now, lookee here!, we can do this (faster, better, sooner). It's all good. Just a few years ago such statements would always rhetorically require some acknowledgment of the doubts, the counterargument that technological innovation without ethics and good content was empty progress and indeed alienating. None of that yesterday on Franklin Field. To be sure, the Google CEO would ever truly have conceded the legitimacy of such doubts; no, but my point is he didn't feel the need even to acknowledge their existence. And I suppose most of the 10,000 of us there didn't feel that lack pass us by: we were (I too) playing with our phones, texting friends not there, checking the weather to see if it would rain before the end of the ceremony, sending pics to friends and family who didn't have the close-up view of the stage, live-Twittering condensations of the speaker's points, watching the new email pile up.

This is what I'm doing for my 10% today: I'm casting about for things I've achieved or made that might someday become a verb.