NICU nurses are not angels

NICU nurses aren’t angels. I told them that they were, of course. I told them as if my life depended on it, even though it was my boy who really needed them. But even then, even when all I could do was to repeat how grateful I was, how I thought they were incredible, as if somehow if I were the politest person on the planet then that would make everything different and better, I noticed their reaction, the slightly awkward shuffle and deeply sincere “thank you” as they glanced among each other and tried not to roll their eyes. They weren’t being unkind, of course, more just slightly jaded, waiting for this next set of dazed and bemused parents to catch up and settle in.

As I spent more time there, I saw the same scene unfurl over and again. The terrified parents, the shuffling, pain-racked, hormone-crazed mothers and the gray-faced, stooped but still slightly defiant dads, blinking into a new reality that hadn’t been possible only days before. A new, neon-lit terrordome, filled with tiny bodies and enormous equipment, where the line between life and death wasn’t even the breadth of a hair.

We had the sickest baby in the NICU. I’m all for awards, but this was one accolade I could have done without. And it seemed impossible when we saw the other tiny creatures lying, catatonic in their hot boxes. Ours wasn’t so tiny. He was twice the size of most of them. Yet there we were, learning a whole new language and meeting new people for whom this little life was an excellent challenge. And that’s when you realize that NICU nurses and doctors aren’t angels. They’re just people. Highly trained, incredibly skilled, often wonderful, infinitely patient people. Yet science is an art, and only some doctors are da Vinci.

And how funny and curious that this alien environment turns out to be more familiar than we laypeople could ever have imagined. Group dynamics still apply, and some professionals play better than others. The NICU’s a stage like any other, and not everyone remembers that they’re on parent cam at all times. Those who ran, giddy, when a code was sounded, a siren call beckoning them to come revive a poor baby who’d forgotten how to breathe, didn’t know that this terrified parent was watching them laugh as they sprinted down the corridor. But I was. The resident chewing gum during rounds didn’t know that I wanted to cause her bodily harm to make her shut her goddamned mouth. But I did. The nurse who scrounged a rocking chair when I could finally hold my tiny son didn’t do it for gratitude but because she thought it would be more comfortable. And it was. The doctor who spent hours answering the same questions again and again, never faltering as I continued to fail to understand how the answer could be “we just don’t know” herself didn’t know how helpful this repetition treatment was.

And none of them had any idea that the best thing of all was when they stopped showing up. When the crowds who’d throng during rounds to pore over X-rays or argue about medicines slowly thinned out as the boy got better and less interesting, leaving only the residents who had to be there and the nurses who were always there. That was the best of all. I love those nurses for being there then, and while they might not be angels, they’ll always be my heroes.

[[Note: I just found this file on my desktop. It’s dated November 7th, 2014, when we were happily home from the NICU and my son was nearly three months old. I have absolutely no recollection of writing it, but it feels right so I thought I’d put it up here.]]


Find me at TED …

Someone pointed out that it’s super ominous to have the last post on a website be “Design-related musings on a hospital stay” … dated back some years ago. Design-related or not, this apparently leads people to think you might not have made it to the here and now … So I’m happy to report that I am very much live and absolutely fine, thanks for worrying. Find me over at, where I’m working with wonderful writers and generally focusing on them — and, tbh, my beautiful baby son. Updates here few and far between but please do reach out to say hi etc. xoxo

A love note to Twitter

I have an essay in Matt May‘s upcoming book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules For Winning In The Age Of Excess Everything, which will be published by McGraw-Hill in October. I’m looking forward to seeing the final book; for now, MM gave me permission to feature my short essay, a love note of sorts to Twitter.

The first time I saw Twitter being used in the wild was a strange experience. It was 2007. I sat next to a guy I knew in the auditorium of a conference and watched, confused, as he tapped into his laptop: “Sitting with Helen Walters from BusinessWeek.” Why is that interesting? I asked him. “It’s not, really,” he answered, shrugging. So I gave him what I hoped was my most withering look and then turned my attention to the stage to focus on writing and reporting in the traditional way I had long understood.

Since then I’ve come to appreciate the 140-character medium. Twitter seems to embody the essence of subtraction. The brevity forces you to focus on what’s truly important and to harness the restrictions as a challenge. The exercise of paring down meaning and insight into its purest form, formerly the purview of headline writers and the copy desk, is an invaluable one for anyone looking to communicate in the modern world. Such focused, clear thinking feeds back into the writing and thinking of a longer article, too.

In the years since I signed up for the service (in 2008, still reluctant, still grumpy, quickly addicted) I have marveled at the way in which this simple service has aided my writing, my thinking, my network, and my life. Many people seem to have constructed complex theories about the best ways to use it. My own philosophy aims to ape the simplicity of the service itself: don’t overthink things. I tune in when I can; I write what I think; I engage with those I feel are real; I don’t sweat the number of people following me; and I don’t talk about what I had for lunch unless it was genuinely remarkable.

As the years have passed, the service has created new relationships, strengthened old ones, given me space to think aloud and to ask for feedback or critique. (And boy, do people deliver.) I have watched breaking news stories unfold; I have cried over updates from people I’ve never met; I’ve been guided to stories I would never have seen; and I’ve been introduced to incredible people I’d never have known were it not for this powerful yet brilliantly simple form of expression. 

I know that many people still don’t get Twitter and there’s certainly still time for the company to take a wrong turn, to pollute its purity with some bad business decisions. But for me, as a writer, I’m hugely grateful for the focus and clarity it has afforded my life. #Thanks.

Thought You Should See This, August 10th, 2012



The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed there hasn’t been a Thought You Should See This update for a while. That’s because I’m working on a book at the moment and wrangling with how to manage a fierce deadline alongside writing the blog. Safe to say, this is an imperfect science, so updates will likely be a little more haphazard over the next month or so. For now, a bumper crop of stories here for your delectation:

Amazon will pay up to 95% of the tuition, textbook and associated fees for its employees’ continuing education, in the e-tail giant’s new push to invest in vocational training.

This is wonderful: an interactive book review written in Javascript. Beautifully done by Robin Sloan. (Screenshot above.)

Chip Kidd’s proposed ad designs for New York’s subway cards. Charming.

My friend, the designer Brian Collins goes postal on a New York restaurant for its terrible service. Social media mayhem ensues.

Hello Health founder Dr Jay Parkinson has a new venture in the works. Watch a CBS News interview with him talking about Sherpaa, a startup looking to disrupt the bloated, creaking, existing healthcare system in the United States. (Well, New York for starters.) 

Irreverent swag commemorating the Olympic Games in London. Example slogan: “They’re all on steroids.” (Also, yes I am available for comment on the Opening Ceremony. TL;DR Yay British weirdness!)

Designer Stephen Doyle conducts a paper chair into existence in this adorable video.

The Joy of Missing Out, a beautiful piece of writing from blogging entrepreneur, Anil Dash. 

Less whimsical but arguably more important (sorry, Anil): Bill McKibben’s fiery polemic about climate change: Three Simple Numbers That Add Up To Global Catastrophe.

More doom and gloom, as scientist David Eagleman describes Four Ways the Internet Might Let Us Down, including space weather and cyberwarfare.

The New Yorker’s Beijing-based staff writer Evan Osnos interviews designer Jonathan Mak Long on the basis of an image Long made in tribute to Steve Jobs. Some fascinating and unexpected insights into how design actually works in China

Zynga employees are unhappy. A terribly sad account of life and culture at the once hot games shop, stock price of which has plummeted since the company’s IPO. 

Track flu via Twitter? Not sure I buy it, but a natty little video makes the case of what *will* at some point be a space that enjoys sophisticated developments.

NYT paywall: The reality

“I’m all for NYT making gobs ‘o moola off its content. I just don’t think pay wall will accomplish this. I think it’ll do more harm than good,” wrote the journalist and author Adam L Penenberg on Twitter yesterday. At which I breathed a sigh of relief and stopped feeling quite so treacherous about my own doubts and concerns.

Once again, critics have been boxed into taking the “either/or”, “you’re either with or against us” position so beloved by cable TV news. The reality is, of course, rather more nuanced. Of course good journalism is expensive. Much reporting is dangerous and expensive. Of course journalists deserve to be paid for their labor. That doesn’t prevent the NYT proposal from being a superficial solution that doesn’t solve the problem, which is a broken business model that doesn’t work in the digital age. When the powers-that-be finally accept that the basis of their business has dissolved, and that poorly thought-through half-measures don’t come close to forging a new path of sustainable profit, well, then things might actually get interesting. Might. Instead it seems we’re in for another round of tail-chasing.

One of the interesting pieces of fallout from AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post was the hoohah from bloggers who’d contributed for free and who now wanted a piece of the $315 million pie. Nice try. For many publications, actual writing is an afterthought. When I was an editor at BusinessWeek, all the online columnists on innovation were unpaid—and none of them were journalists. They were consultants or executives who could write off their efforts as a marketing expense. I tried very hard to ensure that their pieces weren’t obscenely self-promotional, but I can vouch for the fact that the editor/writer relationship is a lot trickier when the editor is essentially beholden to the writer’s largesse.

Now the Times is one paper that can point to its original reporting and make the case that it’s attempting not to indulge in such questionable practices. And heaven only knows we need to support smart, on-the-ground reporting and analysis of events such as, this week, Fukushima in Japan or the bombings in Libya. And sure, readers probably should be prepared to pay for this. But as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen commented on Twitter, “ever worry about that word “should?”.” You can’t make a business on should.

Instead, executives are floundering around with rules for Twitter, rules for links in from Google (now from all search engines) and doing a good impression of people who’ve never been online before. Journalists deserve supportive protectors. Readers deserve quality content. This all seems a little tragic.

For a crazy long but totally hilarious insight into the Times’ decisions over the years, read this wonderful post by former newspaper reporter and Search Engine Land editor-in-chief, Danny Sullivan. As he writes of the leaders of the Times, “Begin weeping for them at any time.” My concern is we’ll be weeping for us all before too long.

Ryan McGinness: Black Holes

Last night, I went to celebrate artist Ryan McGinness’ latest installation, at Philips de Pury in Manhattan. Black Holes is an exhibition of work McGinness created from 2004-2010. The large round canvases are deceptive. On first glance they look like fairly simple spirograph-style images. But stand in front of them for any length of time, and get drawn in inexorably by the delicate, hypnotic shapes. Black holes, indeed.


For this exhibition, McGinness added a neon flourish, adding delicate wisps of vinyl around some of the canvases and lighting them with fluorescent light. One long stretch of these can be seen from the High Line walkway, sure to confuse and delight late-night tourists. Somehow the effect transcends the usual gaudiness of neon and is bewitching, poignant, and glorious. As are the newest, black-on-black canvases, which are subtle but somehow defiantly perfect. Gorgeous.

Taking Control of Life: My Commitment to Entrepreneurship in 2011

Obviously I’m not the only person who had a shitty year in 2010. But I must say that in terms of it being both a personal and a professional humdinger, I found it pretty spectacular.

I must also confess that much of the turmoil was entirely my own fault. So perhaps I should call 2010 my Year of the Square Melon (mainly because of the photo above, shot in a Tokyo supermarket).

In July of this year, I quit Bloomberg Businessweek. I’d made it through the buyout, the layoffs, the turmoil. I think the new leadership has created a truly impressive editorial proposition. Hell, they let me write a long feature piece about design at Google. But I was also the last person left standing from a well-established team that had built an important franchise covering innovation and design. As far as I was concerned, it was only a matter of time before they realized I couldn’t do it alone.

After all, I’m not interested in design coverage that’s simply about the shiny product. For me, innovation is much more than one-dimensional. I understand a magazine’s need to have beat reporters cover everything from a company’s quarterly reports to its innovation developments. I just don’t agree that they can necessarily do both that well. Bloomberg’s priorities, reasonably, lie on the former.

And so I decided it was time for me to go, and I trotted into the sunset, wishing my former colleagues all the best as I did so. Now, I am observing innovation from a whole new angle, watching those trying to teach it to those trying to execute it. It’s hard. It’s fascinating.

Then a friend in London, Steve Price, asked me to write a short piece for an irregular magazine he produces. “So this is Christmas. What have you done?” was the theme, he said. “Well,” I replied. “If ever there were a year for me to answer that question in a vaguely interesting way, it’d be this one.”

And so I sat down to write. I imagined I’d be flippant, glib, etc. Instead, I was alarmingly super-genuine. And here’s what I wrote; my homage to 2010 and my commitment to entrepreneurship in 2011:

It was, let’s be honest, quite a year. Recession roiled, unemployment rose, currencies stuttered and the west continued its steep, inexorable decline into a mire of its own making. In the U.S., politicians bickered, turned a blind eye to the ravages of a warming world and continued to wage unwinnable war in distant lands even as the nation’s own infrastructure crumbled.

On a personal level, I found myself ensnared in a beleaguered industry filled with bewildered professionals who’d lost their passion and understanding of what they were doing, how they should do it or even why they should try. Journalists struggled, the mainstream media stumbled. Shoulders slumped, brows furrowed and all too often yet more would pack their things and go.

And yet, thank god for 2010.

It is said that there are three common responses to fear. There’s fight or flight, of course. And then there’s freeze. And that was me. For too long, I’d been in a state of suspended animation. Perhaps by keeping perfectly still I would avoid the gaze of the hatchet man making the rounds with the P45s. If I didn’t move a muscle then surely that would guarantee that I’d escape the indignity of screwing up in the worst business environment of a generation.

And yet the situation got so ludicrously intense in 2010 that the ice began to crack. That such deliberate inaction was leading directly to atrophy of the mind finally became undeniable. My fervent unwillingness to do something, anything about a working condition that was clearly untenable finally became a problem I had to deal with. And as we all know, acknowledging you’ve got a problem means you’re on the way to solving it. Accepting that this situation wasn’t going to get any better any time soon finally became an opportunity rather than a terrifying challenge of monumental proportions.

So I quit. I decided enough was enough. Enough of the nonsense. Enough of the pretense. Enough of the madness. It was time to become an active participant in my own life once more. And in July I handed in my notice, packed up my stuff and left the building with my head held high.

So that’s why I now get to tell stories of traveling around Japan, where I headed to clear my mind and where I failed to understand even a fraction of that nation’s bewitching, confusing culture. That’s why I now get to tell stories of being daubed in clown makeup in order to take on a bit part in a Badly Drawn Boy music video. That’s why I now find myself working on books, making my own deadlines and forging my own path. And that, I’m sure, is why I find myself feeling closer than ever before to those who really matter to me.

And that’s why 2010 gets to be thanked. It marked an important moment of no return. No more floundering. No more waiting for someone else to show the way. No more imagining that surely everything will be alright eventually. It will be, of course, but because I will make it so. I fear it sounds like I swallowed a self-help book, but I’m grateful for being able to recognize that we have one life, so best start living it sharpish. Yes, bills need to be paid and responsibilities have to be faced. But no more of the hamster wheel. The viable economy of all our futures will be built on the passion and talent of individuals. Time to put up and shut up. Bring it, 2011.