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Don’t worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization

“What tools should I buy?” “What platform do I start with?” “What’s the best option out there?” Geeks have a special case of analysis paralysis at the beginning of things. We try to optimize that first step, and instead end up never getting started.

Here’s what I’m learning: In the beginning, you’re unlikely to be able to appreciate the sophisticated differences between tools. Don’t bother spending hours or days or weeks picking the perfect tool for you. Sure, you can do a little bit of research, but then pick one and learn with that first. If you run into the limits, that’s when you can think about upgrading.

Start with something simple and inexpensive (or even free). If you wear it out or if you run into things you just can’t do with it and that are worth the additional expense, then decide if you want to get something better. I do this with:

  • Food: We start with inexpensive ingredients and work our way up as necessary.
  • Shoes: Upgraded from cheap to medium.
  • Bicycles: Still on the first bicycle I bought in Canada, since it was enough for me.
  • Ukeleles: Glad I just bought the basic one, since it turns out it’s not quite my thing.
  • Knives: Okay, we splurged on this one and started with good knives, since I piggybacked off W-’s experience and recommendations.
  • Drawing: I tried the Nintendo DS before upgrading to a tablet and then to a tablet PC. For paper, I tried ordinary sketchbooks that cost $4.99 on sale, and have been happy with them so far – although I might downgrade to just having a binder of loose sheets.

Don’t worry about what the “best” is until you figure out what your actual needs are.

There are situations in which the cheapest or the simplest might not be the best place to start. You can easily get frustrated if something is not well-designed, and some inferior tools like dull kitchen knives are dangerous. That’s a sign that you’ve run into your choice’s limits and can therefore upgrade without worry. Yes, it might waste a little money and time, but you’ll probably waste even more time if you procrastinate choosing (more research! more!) and waste more money if you always buy things that have more capacity than you ultimately need. You can tweak how you make that initial decision–maybe always consider the second-from-the-bottom or something like that–but the important part is getting out there and learning.

Becoming the sort of person I want to be

There are three major shifts that I’m struggling with:

  • becoming a person who can tolerate more pain in order to achieve certain goals, such as fitness
  • becoming a person who can easily enjoy people’s company and appreciate what’s interesting about them
  • becoming a person who can make longer-term commitments, trusting that things will work out

Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth making these changes. Maybe I should just go with how I bend, building on strengths instead of fiddling with weaknesses. If I follow that principle, I might instead:

  • look for ways to make the most of the things that come easily to me
  • explore the shifting connections around ideas and conversations instead of focusing on specific people
  • maximize freedom, flexibility, and agility

The first set of paths seems harder than the second, but will it work out for me better? Taking the easy way still leads to lots of interesting possibilities and less wasted energy. On the other hand, trying difficult things can expand my confidence and help me challenge artificial limits. Also, I tend to over-estimate how difficult things are, and I tend to be more adaptable than I expect. So if the first set of changes is better for me (based on the reasons given by philosophers and learned from other people’s lives), it might make sense to give those a good try–at least for a number of years.

Let me take a closer look at each of those shifts to see if I can puzzle out what I’m struggling with and how to transform that.

Becoming a person who can tolerate more pain in order to achieve certain goals, such as fitness

I still feel anxious at the prospect of combined pain and stress, like the way I seized up after spraining my ankle in a krav maga class. On the other hand, I feel okay with the slight discomfort of the gentle running program that W- is helping me with and the Hacker’s Diet exercise ladder I’m doing. I’ve dealt with some pain along the way to working on other things. Most things are not supposed to hurt a lot (otherwise you’re doing it wrong), but a little wobbliness is understandable.

Taking the long view helps. I remind myself that pain has so far been temporary and that memory is thankfully fuzzy about stuff like that. Gradually, as my strength and tolerance improves, I should be able to take on more and more.

Becoming a person who can easily enjoy people’s company and appreciate what’s interesting about them

I’m okay with people. I like them as an abstract idea, and I get along with people online and in real life. I probably just have to get out more, ask more questions, share a little more of myself in conversation, and become more comfortable with having people over.

Becoming a person who can make longer-term commitments, trusting that things will work out

Seeing the difficulty that people have in transferring leadership roles and knowing my own inconstancy of interests, I hesitate to take on longer-term commitments or bigger roles. Maybe this is something I can learn, though. I’m surrounded by opportunities and role models, so it’s as good a time as any to pick this up. For some of the bigger decisions, I find it helpful to learn from other people who have dealt with similar things before.

What would be some triggers for switching strategy and following what’s more natural for me? If I’m not making any progress or if I notice myself being consistently unhappy, that might be a good sign that I need to reconsider my plans. In the meantime, I’m making very slow progress, but it does seem to get easier and less scary each time I try this.

Learning from things I like: Books about applying advice to your life

I’m fascinated by books about applying advice to your life. “Stunt memoir” seems to be the phrase for it – or gimmick book, or schtick lit. (This post lists lots of examples.) Part self-help book and part memoir, these are usually broken up into one chapter per principle, applying research or time-tested ideas to everyday life. Book titles are often long multi-parters where the second part refers to the adventure or lists an incongruous combination of techniques. The authors illustrate principles with struggles, successes, and epiphanies, and then eventually make their peace with the advice. Oddly enough, chapters tend to fit rather neatly into the usual three-act story structure – the storyteller’s craft at work.

A year seems to be a common size for these experiments, often divided into one principle per month: long enough to test ideas and write a decent-sized book for print. I think that one principle a month looks manageable for readers, too: not so short that you won’t see changes, and not so long that you’d get bored or discouraged.

Here are some examples:

I imagine that writing such a book is good for self-improvement even if no one else ever buys or reads it, so any sales are a bonus. I wonder what the process of writing that kind of a book is like: how to organize notes into a narrative, how to push yourself beyond what’s easy.

There are lots of experiments I could run along those lines:

  • Self-tracking: focusing on quantifying different things per month, bringing in research as well. Time, finance, productivity, mood, habits, fitness, food, learning, thinking, relationships, others
  • Practical philosophy: paying close attention to ancient wisdom and applying that to daily life
  • Behavioural economics and psychology in daily life: rationality, decision-making, etc.

Still, I want to be careful about the kinds of things that have rubbed me and other people the wrong way A month is not that long, and sometimes these books feel a little… shallow? Like someone’s going through the Cliff Notes for a deep idea, trying out a few things, and then calling it a day. As if someone’s just going through a checklist, crossing off different techniques. There’s also that consciousness of privilege, and the self-absorption of memoirs. That said, I write about my reflections a lot on this blog, so… maybe? I tend to think of it more as “Ack, there’s so much I still have to figure out; if I post my notes, maybe someone will take pity on me and share their insights (or possibly recognize something that they might find useful in theirs)” rather than “Here, learn from my life.”

So… I don’t know. On one hand, I like the “I’m figuring this out too” approach compared to the didactic awesomer-than-thou feel of many self-help books. On the other hand, I’m not keen on the “My life is incomplete and unhappy; I must search outside for ways to make it better.”

What’s at the core of the things I like about these kinds of books?

  • Translates research or principles into everyday actions: There’s a lot of good stuff buried in scientific language, abstract concepts, or even self-help books. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine applying those ideas to real life, and seeing someone go through the process (recovering from mistakes and all!) can help.
  • Pays attention to things we often take for granted: We do many things repeatedly and with little attention. If we look closely at them, we can get better. For example, if we think about a principle and relate it to how we want to communicate, make decisions, or use our time, we’ll often find things that we can tweak and turn into new habits.
  • Shares the struggles and the little celebrations: Self-help books can feel a little too pat with all their success stories. I relate a little better to stories along the lines of “Yeah, this was hard to learn, but here’s how I picked myself up and tried again. Here are some things that made it a little easier for me until I got the hang of it. This is what encouraged me to keep going, and now here I am. Maybe this can help you too.”
  • Connects with people who are even more dedicated to the topic: Some books sprinkle in quotes from researchers and authors. Some books include conversations with specialists. Some books delve into subcultures of people who are even more passionate about the principles and have lots of insights to share. I like the last type most of all; it’s like having an excuse to meet and learn from geeks of other persuasions.

Maybe less stunt-ish, then? I’m not thinking of these as radical changes to my life (“Oh, I only have to do this a month at a time, for a year”), but more like gradual improvement. I can always try things informally, and then stitch the essays together into a book. It might not be as impressive as spending one contiguous year focused on something, packaging this up for other people’s entertainment and perhaps inspiration, but we’ll see where it goes. =)

Planning my next little business

I’ve been holding back from experimenting with new businesses. I’m not sure how the next few months are going to be like, and I don’t want to make commitments like sketchnote event bookings or additional freelance contracts. Besides, focusing on my own stuff has been an interesting experiment so far, and I want to continue it.

Still, from time to time, I get the itch to build systems and processes for creating value for other people. For example, when I talk to people who are struggling to find jobs or having a hard time building freelance businesses, I want to support and encourage them by helping them see opportunities. Talking about stuff can feel a bit empty, but actually doing stuff–and showing how to do it–is more helpful, especially since I seem to be more comfortable with sales, marketing, and business experimentation than many people are.

So, depending on how these next few months turn out, what are the kinds of businesses that I’d like to build?

  • E-books and other resources: I like the way free/pay-what-you-want information makes it easy for people to learn without friction and still be able to show their appreciation through payment, conversation, links, or other good things. I also like the scale of it: I can spend some time working on a resource, and then people can come across it when they need it. No schedule commitments, either.
  • Software, maybe?: Someday. The upsides of working on stuff that other people use: feature suggestions, warm-and-fuzzies. The downside: dealing with bugs. I think the first step would be to build tools for myself.
  • Visual book reviews?: People seem to like these, and I enjoy reading.

Let me take a step back here and break that out into the specific characteristics I like. If I identify those characteristics, I might be able to recognize or imagine other businesses along those lines. What attracts me?

  • Scale: Build once, help many. I don’t mind lower sales at the beginning if I’m working on the kinds of things that people will find useful over a long period of time.
  • Accumulation: I like collecting building blocks in terms of content and skills because I can combine those in interesting ways.
  • Generosity: I like free/pay-what-you-want because it allows me to reach the most people and feel great about the relationships.
  • Flexibility: I like minimizing schedule or topic commitments because that reduces stress and lets me adapt to what’s going on. Self-directed work fits me well.
  • Distinction: I like doing things that involve uncommon perspectives or combinations of skills. I feel like I can bring more to the table.
  • Value: I like things that help people learn more, understand things better, save time or money, share what they know, or be more excited about life.
  • Other things I care about: I care about making good ideas more accessible, which is why I like transcripts, sketchnotes, writing, and websites. I also care about helping good people do well, which is why I help friends with their businesses.

Writing fits these characteristics pretty well. If I can help friends through process coaching and things like that, I can learn more about things that other people might find useful too. It’s entirely possible to build good stuff around just this learn-share-scale cycle. Anything else (spin-off businesses? software? services) would be a bonus.

I have a little more uncertainty to deal with. I can see the timeline for it, so I’m okay with giving myself permission to take it easy for the next couple of months. After that, I’ll probably have a clearer idea of what the rest of this experiment with semi-retirement (and other follow-up experiments! =) ) could be like.

What would more focused writing or content creation look like? I might:

  • Pick a subject people are curious about and write a series of blog posts that I can turn into e-books
  • Revisit that outline of things to write about and flesh it in
  • Organize blog posts and other content into downloadable resources
  • Create courses so that people can go through things at a recommended pace and with multimedia content
    • Ooh, more animations

I think that would be an interesting life. =)

I still want to do something to help all these awesome people I come across who are having a hard time finding jobs or building businesses for themselves, though. It’s odd hearing about their struggles while at the same time watching the stock market keep going up – businesses seem to be doing okay, but it’s not trickling down? Maybe I’ll spend more time listening to people and asking what could help. Maybe I can spend some time connecting with business owners and seeing if I can understand their needs, too. Knowledge, ideas, and encouragement are easy, but there are probably even better ways to help. Hmm… That gives me a focus for networking at events. Looking forward to helping!

Weekly review: Week ending July 18, 2014

Lots and lots and lots of reading last week. Yay! Also, more talking to people. This week: meetings, another Emacs Chat episode, and more.

Blog posts

Link round-up

  • HeartMath Considered Incoherent: Fascinating analysis.
  • Using Themed Work Weeks instead of Themed Work Days: Sprints tend to work well for me too, although I generally don’t decide the theme far in advance.
  • Is it Ok to Be Happily Retired?: Sometimes I feel self-conscious about this experiment while other people around me work hard or struggle to find work. I’m getting better at giving myself permission to learn stuff, though, and I enjoy using some of my time to help out.
  • The Problem with Asking for Advice: I like the test of thinking about whether you’re going to change your behaviour based on the input. This also reminds me of why I push back on a lot of poll/survey questions with the meta-question: “What are we going to do about the answers?”

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (23.8h – 14%)
    • Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
    • Earn (17.4h – 73% of Business)
    • Build (0.5h – 2% of Business)
      • Drawing (0.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.5h)
    • Connect (5.8h – 24% of Business)
  • Relationships (5.0h – 2%)
    • Have coffee with Nadia
    • Host party
    • Discuss F
    • Have coffee with Andrew
  • Discretionary – Productive (24.8h – 14%)
    • Fix website
    • Emacs (1.2h – 0% of all)
      • Record chat with Harry Schwartz
    • Writing (4.5h)
      • What are people looking for when they talk about challenges?
      • Quiet days
      • Don’t worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization
      • Books about applying advice to your life
  • Discretionary – Play (7.7h – 4%)
  • Personal routines (31.1h – 18%)
  • Unpaid work (9.3h – 5%)
  • Sleep (66.4h – 39% – average of 9.5 per day)

Hacklab open houses and connecting through cooking

I joined Hacklab (a small makerspace here in Toronto) early in 2013. I thought of it mostly as a way to meet people who are working on interesting projects, hang out, and learn together. It’s been working out well, and I’m gradually getting into helping the community more.

Hacklab hosts an open house every Tuesday evening. It’s a good opportunity for prospective members to check out the place and chat with people about their projects. We usually put together a vegan dinner donated by the person cooking it so that it’s free for the members and guests (although sometimes people pitch in for groceries). There’s no fixed schedule; people just volunteer to cook whenever they want. When I’m there, I often volunteer. I treat it as a vegan cooking lesson / soup kitchen / party. Sure, I’m teaching myself, but it’s still an excuse to try new recipes. I think the people there are worth supporting, and cooking is a much more efficient use of money than having people go out to dinner. Besides, other people often help with preparing the ingredients, and we can chat while doing so.

Here are some easy dishes that we can make with ingredients from nearby grocery stories:

  • Gazpacho: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, garlic; serve with bread
  • Pasta salad: peas, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers
  • Curry: potatoes, carrots, green beans, tofu, onions; there are plenty of spices in the cabinet
  • Ratatouille: potatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic; serve with bread
  • Lentil dal: tomatoes, lentils, ginger, garlic, onions

I think I’ll make recipe cards with serving numbers and cost estimates. That will probably make it easier to come up with dinners on the fly, and it might encourage other people to cook too.

We’ve been slowly improving the Hacklab kitchen. The addition of pots, a rice cooker, and lots of cutlery helped a lot. (It was difficult to cook and serve before those things!) Last week, I replaced the rather ineffective and hadn’t-been-washed-in-ages kitchen towels with two sets I’d made from some fabric we had at home. I’ll add the towels to our weekly laundry cycle, so things actually get washed. Storage is still an issue. The fridge is used mostly for drinks, so we try to not have any left-over ingredients or servings.

I’m not currently working on super-geeky projects that involve other members or the equipment that’s there. (It would be interesting to do more with the laser cutter, 3D printers, or the new mill!) But cooking gives me a way to help other people, so that’s something.

I think I like this approach of taking responsibility for making Hacklab a little bit better for people. You get as much out of a community as you put in, and these little domestic touches can help make a place feel more like home. (I’m going to keep nudging people to put their dishes in the dishwasher, though! ;) )

So why does this feel easy compared to, say, having people over for a party or potluck at home? The kitchen at home is better-equipped, and both groceries and left-overs are easier to deal with. Maybe it’s because I can decide whether or not to go to Hacklab on the day itself. I can leave whenever I want, too. There are usually lots of people at Hacklab and they’re good at keeping themselves occupied or talking to each other, so I don’t have to worry about any awkward moments or entertaining just one person. There are lots of things going on in the area, so people can always step out for a different meal or take a breather in case there aren’t any seats or in case things are overwhelming. Hmm, maybe if I invite people to catch up at these open houses instead of waiting until I work up to having parties at home… Not everyone all at once, maybe one or two invitations at a time. Hacklab’s a bit loud, but we could always go for a walk if needed. That might work. Who knows? They might meet interesting people there too.