June 2010

Weekly review: week ending May 30, 2010

June 1, 2010 - Categories: weekly

From last week’s plans:




Plans for next week




Monthly review: May 2010

June 2, 2010 - Categories: monthly

May was quite a learning experience. From an oh-no moment when I accidentally mail-flooded around 70 people to a new hobby (woodworking!) that led to lots of shared time with W-, to more hacking in Lotus Notes… It was a very fun month.

I have a new manager at IBM. I’ve talked to him a lot before, and I’m looking forward to working with my new team, which is really mostly my old team plus some people I’d worked with before, so it’s more like a logical reorganization of people I enjoy working with anyway. =) This probably means there’ll be plenty of coding in my future. I know this high-flying strategy/consulting/marketing stuff is more prestigious, but I do like code. Maybe it’s time to flip back.

One of my goals for May was to declutter, get better at keeping things tidy, and remember things. I’m happy to report that my dresser top has been clutter-free, my bedside table has remained simplified, and I haven’t forgotten my keys once. I still have a lot of work to do on the decluttering front, but I’m slowly getting there.

The garden is growing merrily now. The chicken-wire-and-wood cage we built is doing a great job at protecting our garden from the predations of squirrels. Lettuce and radish harvests regularly fill our salad bowls. The first green tomatoes dangle from stems. The pea shoots have stretched almost all the way to the top of the twine supports. There are even some bittermelon plans bravely giving Canadian summers a go.

Woodworking turns out to be an awesome hobby. It’s fun making things with your hands. I’ve built three boxes so far (including a bread box that’s now keeping our bread safe from Neko!), and I’m looking forward to building my fourth. The next box I build will have a floating bottom and a sliding top, I think. I’m not sure if my 1/4” stock is too thin to cut a groove into, so I might go up to 1/2” sides.

Woodworking + deck repair + shedding cats + warm weather = no baking and no tea parties. However, people have been hosting barbecues and things like that, so I’m happy to catch up with people at other people’s events instead of mine. =) Perhaps I might still have a fresh fruit party. How would we do it? We’d move the kitchen table outside and clear out the living room, I think. More decluttering…

I also realized that I’d like to get to know a whole bunch of people more. Taking a look at my interests (which were practically all home-based), I realized I needed something that involved some kind of regular social interaction, too. I wondered how people manage to make friends outside school, and how I might work that back into my schedule. Going to people’s get-togethers, though, I realized that I managed to make good friends somehow or another, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them and other people. Fortunately, the tech scene is absurdly well-connected through social networks and things like that, and good weather + daylight savings time gives people an itch to get out and meet up.

So, what does June look like? More adjustments at work, a flurry of wedding preparations for August, lots of woodworking while it’s fun to work outdoors, lots of writing, a bit of gardening and sewing, and some more conscious attention to people’s lives. It’ll be awesome.

Posts this month:
Travel kaizen and the meaning of life
Exercising the senses
Getting the hang of big companies
Exponential awesomeness
Getting the hang of gardening
Braindump: On face-to-face and online social networking (xpost)
The garden in May
Presented Remote Presentations That Rock v2 for the Best of TLE 2009 series
Thinking about the path ahead
I want to learn how to make drawings/videos like this
Custom fields in Lotus Notes / Domino? You may need to set the SUMMARY field flag
Picking hobbies that fit together
Even more awesome LotusScript mail merge for Lotus Notes + Microsoft Excel
Quick notes from a conversation about speaking and facilitation
Dear future Sacha,
Holy cow, that was a lot of mail – so sorry
Quick guide to domain names
Remote Presentations That Rock (revised)
May 2010: Remember and declutter
A letter to my 8-year-old self
Holy cow, that was a lot of mail. So sorry!
Squirrels, shop class and drafting: making my peace with high school
Bread of salt and taste of home
Braindump: What I learned from our virtual leadership conversation
Thinking about what people remember

Weekly reviews:
Week ending May 30, 2010
Week ending May 24, 2010 (Victoria Day long weekend)
Week ending May 16, 2010
Week ending May 9, 2010
Week ending May 2, 2010

Last month: April 2010

Influence map; introspection

June 3, 2010 - Categories: blogging, life, reflection, sketches, writing

My mom asked me to make an influence map. Here’s my first draft:

(click for a bigger version)

The map is an index for the stories I want to remember and share, and I hope to flesh them out in time.


Memory: When I was in grade school, my dad once asked me what I had done that afternoon. I tried to tell the story, but as I told it, I realized that I couldn’t remember the events clearly. I remembered things out of order, and there were pieces that didn’t make sense to me. When my parents tell this story, they often focus on how I used computer metaphors–”delete delete delete”. They might’ve thought that I was making things up. I didn’t think I was, but I couldn’t make sense of what I remembered. Were the parts that didn’t make sense figments from my imagination or were they were simply missing the in-between pieces that could connect them to the whole? What I remember from this story is the embarrassing unreliability of memory. Are other people’s memories clearer? I don’t know, but this early experience helped nudge me to write more things down, and to tell fewer stories verbally.

Story: Later on, I remember telling stories and being corrected by other people. I knew my memories were fuzzy, and I trusted it less after correction. It was only later that I realized that memory and perception and storytelling are all fuzzy, and maybe it wasn’t just me. Watching my dad and my sister exaggerate their stories for dramatic impact, watching my mom disagree with the occasional detail, I learned that storytelling could be flexible. I tried to keep true to what I remembered, though.

Books: I turned to writing whenever I needed to figure something out, drawing from the words and ideas I found in books. The books I read helped me recognize the situations I faced and think about alternatives. I found it to be easier to think on paper than in conversation. Face-to-face, my family’s strong personalities overwhelmed my thoughts. On paper, I could think more clearly.

Change: One time, for example, I felt upset when my dad ate food off my plate and drank from my glass in front of my friends. It didn’t seem like a big deal, but I felt uncomfortable regardless. If I were my sister, I’d probably have had a quick retort that jokingly asserted myself, and all would be resolved then and there without loss of face. I wasn’t like that. Instead, I shelved the feeling for later exploration. That evening, I explored it on paper, narrowing it down to being embarrassed by the way my dad took without asking. It would be better if he had asked, and best if he got himself another serving. Once I had understood the reasons why I felt bad, I could plan what might be changed and how to raise the topic. In this particular case, I didn’t have to start the conversation – my dad happened upon my notes, read them, and apologized. After that, he asked me before taking anything from my plate.

Kaizen: Perhaps this was how I learned that I need the space to think through things, that writing helps create that space, and that thinking through possible changes makes it easier for resolve a situation. I did a lot of this introspection when I was growing up. Looking back, I think it was my way to help people learn how to deal with me, just as I was learning how to deal with them. I listened to those odd quirks, those momentary reactions, and I followed them to find the roots. I enjoyed experimenting, trying different approaches and seeing if we could make life a little better.

For example, I realized that I came to dread being paged with, “Sacha, come to our room, we want to talk to you,” particularly when my dad sounded grumpy, as he often did. Although most of the time I wasn’t actually in trouble and my parents just wanted some family time, it was hard to deal with that instinctive oh-no. Having pinpointed this distress, I told my parents about it, and we agreed to announce it as ice cream time instead. (Naturally, with actual ice cream, to sweeten the deal.)

See? Pavlovian psychology can be useful in real life. Not only that, but ice cream – both the treat and the sound of the words – go along way towards diffusing tension. It cools and slows you down, and the words–well, try saying “ice cream”. It’s like “cheese” – it encourages you to smile.

Yes, I thought about these things growing up. I blame my mom’s books on communication and relationships. :) They showed me that there’s more than one way to connect, and consciously looking at how we connect can help us shift patterns.

Also, I remembered my mom’s story about the naming of “Kodak” – choosing the kuh sound, using it at the beginning and end… I learned that the subtleties of language and behaviour influence us a great deal.

I thought a lot about these kinds of things growing up. Relentless improvement, that was it. Little tweaks, experiments that could make life better.

My paper notes weren’t really private. I didn’t bother developing a code, although in retrospect, I wish I did — perhaps I would have written more, and I might’ve gotten good at mentally decoding something along the way. Perhaps this lack of trusted secrecy that’s what made the shift to public blogging easier for me.

Research notebooks: In high school, we learned about how inventors kept research notebooks to document their progress and defend their patterns. I thought that was interesting. I tried keeping continuous notes, but I never managed to keep everything in a single notebook. I used the idea when I got my first laptop, though. I started taking notes on that, and it worked out well.

Blogging: When I got into open source development with the Emacs Planner, I used the same tool to share my notes. I wrote about what I wanted to do. I wrote about why, then how, then so what. It was an unexpected thrill to get comments from strangers around the world.
I started writing about other things. Typing class notes was a way for me to keep myself awake and paying attention. Writing about ideas and thoughts helped me explore.

In my own space, I grew to trust paper again – loose sheets that could be slipped into the recycling bin or shredded, or thoughts interleaved with mundane notes in my sketchbook. I went digital, too, sharing more of these thoughts online in both words and drawings.

I asked more questions and shared more of what I learned. The more I learned, the more I could learn about life.

Conflict resolution: Introspection through writing and drawing has become an invaluable tool for puzzling through situations and figuring out how to move forward. When W- hinted at his interest, I mindmapped my thoughts and feelings on paper before responding to him on paper. When my family expressed their strong disapproval and there was a lot of strain, I wrote and drew to understand what I felt. Whenever I needed to consider my options or get a handle on what I could do, I turned to paper, my computer, or my drawing tablet.

I like hearing people’s stories and learning from even more people’s experiences through blogs and books. I still talk to people sometimes in order to sort things out, but thinking things through on my own helps me figure out what it is I need to understand, and how I feel about all the input I receive.

Some of my favourite quotes

June 4, 2010 - Categories: life

Between stimulus and response is the freedom to choose. – Victor E. Frankl
A great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up. – Albert Schweitzer
Useful for all sorts of things, including happiness.

Work is love made visible. – Kahlil Gibran
We can do no great things, only small things with great love. – Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Many people seem to think that work is a burden. It doesn’t have to be.

Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions. – Unknown
Everything can be a learning experience.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Good for teaching.

Grief is the price we pay for love. – Queen Elizabeth II
Loss sharpens joy.

I am a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy. – JD Salinger
If you find what you look for, you might as well look for good things.

Be yourself. Everyone else is taken. – Oscar Wilde
Always a good reminder.

Take the first circus. Make more pots. Build a cathedral. - random bits from my favourite teaching stories


June 5, 2010 - Categories: life, planning, reflection

I enjoy setting goals and planning how to reach them. I have a small notebook that includes sketches and descriptions of what I want to do. I like setting goals not because I’ll be happy when I achieve them (happiness isn’t a destination, it just is), but because they’re good experiments in how wonderful life can be.

I encourage my friends to set goals and track their progress, too. Before I left the Philippines for Canada, I asked all of my friends to write down their two-year plans.

Where did this begin?

Imbayah: My parents gave us plenty of examples of the power of setting great goals. For example, my mom and dad helped organize a festival of traditional games called the Imbayah. I wasn’t born yet, but I learned about it from stories they told when I was growing up. I learned that a good goal can move other people to action. I also learned that you need both vision and execution to make a difference, and my parents work together really well because of that. My parents also told me stories about how they wanted to start a business, how they wanted to build a studio, and so on. I don’t think they ever drifted aimlessly. They were always working on something cool.

Books:  I learned a lot about goal-setting from books, too. My mom had shelves of books on productivity, and she was always trying to help the employees in the company learn how to set and achieve goals.

Encyclopedias taught me an unexpected lesson about the power of setting goals and visualizing success, this by way of a story my mom told me about the time she sold encyclopedias door to door. She told me how she used to get through tough sales by imagining a check written to her for the amount of her commission, and mentally pasting this check on her prospect’s forehead.

 Travel: One of my mom’s goals was to create family experiences through travel. She planned for it, saved for it, and made it happen. I remember a story my parents told us about how my mom had been trying to get my dad to join us on the trip. He didn’t want to go because of work, but one day, he relented and told my mom to go ahead and make plans. A few hours later, he was about to change his mind—but my mom had already booked the tickets. From that and the stories my parents told me of planning, I learned that opportunities are part luck and part planning. It’s good to set goals and prepare, so that you can make the most of opportunities that come up.

Lightpainting: I also learned a lot from how my parents set learning goals for themselves, like the way my dad taught himself photography and techniques like lightpainting. I remember watching him experiment in a darkened studio, trying to figure out how to create the images he could see in his imagination. I learned that you need to set goals for your own growth and work on moving towards them, because people aren’t going to hand you a curriculum and all the course materials you need. My parents gave us plenty of great examples of goal-setting for growth, like the way my dad taught himself digital photography and my mom taught herself business and marketing.

Ultralights: There were big projects too, like the cross-country flight my dad completed in an ultralight airplane. I learned how sometimes awesome projects start as crazy ideas, and you have to be open to pursuing them. I saw how my dad’s vision and my mom’s support in execution came together in making something cool happen, and I saw how lots of people were inspired by it both during and after the flight and the exhibit.

R. Hidalgo: My dad’s always doing some kind of initiative or another. One time, he wanted to help clean up R. Hidalgo, a street that used to be famous for the photographic equipment stores that lined it. Vendors clogged the passage-ways and the sidewalks were grimy. My dad organized the local shopkeepers and photographers, got the street cleaned up and the vendors moved to a different place, and helped put together a street photography exhibit. It was great, and it restored a lot of pride in the place. But it drew bad feelings from the displaced vendors, and my dad even received death threats. The local community wanted my dad to stay involved, but he saw it as a project they needed to take over and own, because they had a stake in it and he was from the outside. This is where I learned that sometimes good goals run into real-life challenges, and that it’s all right if a great idea doesn’t get completely developed.

Alabang: Likewise, my mom had a goal of having a comfortable house that could serve as a nice retreat from work. She saved up for and found a house in Alabang, and we stayed there occasionally. It was wonderfully peaceful, but it was a long way from the studio, so my dad and sister often preferred to stay in Makati instead. Eventually my mom decided to rent out the house instead. I learned that sometimes you need other people in order to fully enjoy a goal.

(must add this to diagram – CookOrDie): I don’t remember explicitly setting a lot of big goals for myself when I was growing up. I remember once trying to read 100 books and realizing that the goal was distracting me from the joy of reading the book. I had smaller goals, like understanding a particular book, and my mom told me that I’d read something again and again in order to understand it. I participated in programming and chess competitions, but I don’t remember telling myself, “I want to win X competitions” or “I want to master Y techniques.” I do remember starting to experiment after I graduated from university: my CookOrDie project (eat at most one meal out a day), for example.

Master’s: Going for my master’s degree in Canada helped me do a lot of goal-setting. I needed to get all the paperwork together. I started managing my own finances more closely. I needed to do research and write my thesis. I needed to establish myself and make friends. There were some goals I abandoned along the way (the courtyard garden box, for example), but the rest of my goals gave me lots of satisfaction. I started setting more quantitative goals, too, like saving X in my opportunity fund.

Projects: Now that life has settled down a bit and we have a stable foundation to build on, I’ve been learning more about setting goals, planning, and persisting through hobby projects. Whether it’s gardening, sewing, or woodworking, there are plenty of things I can imagine and make happen. Work provides plenty of goals, too, and I enjoy making progress towards them.

What have I learned about goals?

Personal finance

June 6, 2010 - Categories: finance, life, reflection

So, about this influence map thing:
(click for a bigger version)

I’ve written about introspection and goals. Now to write about personal finance and planning!

I enjoy learning about personal finance. I love balancing my books, evaluating my spending, and even doing my taxes. I’ve set up my retirement investments and a good opportunity fund. I live a simple, frugal, and abundant life. 

What I like about personal finance isn’t just the dollars and cents of it, although I do enjoy working with numbers. I like the way decisions help me understand and clarify my values. Is that really worth spending on? What do I want to save up for? What would make my life better? How can I use money and/or time (they’re very closely related) to make other people’s lives better?

How did I get to this point?

Relatives: I learned a lot about personal finance from our relatives on both sides of the family. People had different kinds of luck. Sometimes they struggled with finances, and they turned to my mom for help and advice. Sometimes they did well, and I saw how perseverance helped them make the most of opportunities. Sometimes, they were blindsided by sickness or accidents, and I learned that I needed to prepare.

I learned from the stories my mom and dad told me about growing up in very different circumstances. For example, my mom told us how she used to walk back and forth in front of one family’s house hoping to be invited in for lunch, and how her mother used to make and mend her dresses until the fabric fell apart. My parents told us stories about starting their business with PHP 1,000 and a borrowed camera, and how they built it from the ground up. I liked how they saw money as a tool to create or pursue opportunities, not as an end in itself, and I learned a lot from that.

House: Another story my mom told me was about how she and my dad bought the house which eventually grew into the studio. It was the worst of times – martial law and the assassination of Ninoy Aquino—but my mom and dad realized that they still liked the Philippines more than anywhere else. So while real estate was at the bottom, my parents scraped together enough money to buy the property they had been renting. I remember my mom telling me how she avoided debt as much as possible, using savings and reinvested profits to grow.

This reminds me of another story my parents like to tell, and which my mom has shared on her blog:

There were two entrepreneurs, one Filipino and one Chinese. They both had a “sari-sari” store (a humble variety store that sells, in retail, only small low-priced everyday items).

After a year, the Filipino used the profits of his store to buy himself a TV set. The Chinese man reinvests his money into the store, and turned his “sari-sari” store into a mini-grocery.

After the second year, the Filipino bought himself a second-hand car while the Chinese continued to commute using public transportation. He expanded his store, while the Filipino still had the same “sari-sari” store.

After the third year, the Filipino bought himself a house in BF Homes (a medium-level suburban subdivision) while the Chinaman continued to live in a tiny room above his store, which was by then, close to looking like a department store.

At this point, my husband butted in and said, “You see, the Chinese way is better,” to which I replied, “Better for the business but look at the two and see who is smiling.” It was easy for the three of us to reach the conclusion that the Chinese knew how to do business, while the Filipino knew how to enjoy life.

“Let’s have a Chinese decision,” John said. “Let’s offer to buy this house. After all, the studio is here, we won’t need to transfer, we might lose clients if we transferred, we won’t have to change business forms and stationary, etc.”

“Okay”, I said, “for now, we will have a Chinese decision, but I hope someday, we can enjoy a Filipino decision.”

The Chinese Decision, Harvey Chua

This taught me about the power of reinvesting and the value of enjoying the rewards.

Passbook: I remember my mom opening a savings account for me and showing me the regular deposits in a small passbook. I didn’t do much with it, but I remember realizing that you can have money even if it’s not in your wallet, and it’s great when it grows without much work.

Potlatch: I remember reading (in Childcraft, of course – loved that series!) about a Native American custom called the potlatch, where people demonstrate their status by giving away or burning (!) expensive goods. I liked the part about providing for others and how it all balanced out, but I wasn’t sure how burning goods made sense. Some cultures value frugality, too, and they provide an interesting contrast.

Monopoly: Our childhood games of Monopoly shaped my drive towards financial independence.

My mom occasionally tells a story about how we played Monopoly when my sisters and I were growing up. In the game, my eldest sister often gave my parents investing advice, my middle sister kept giving her money away, and my parents would often end up giving me money. With a seven-year difference between me and my eldest sister, I suspect that the finer points of real estate value, probability, and negotation were lost on me, and my parents probably just wanted to help me stay in the game. (Saling pusa.)

My mom probably sees the story as a wonderful example that three children can have very different temperaments. For me, that story’s one of the reasons why I think about money a lot. I plan and save so that I can enjoy financial independence. I find it difficult to accept gifts that feel extravagant, because I don’t want to be the spoiled youngest child. I keep my life simple and live within my means.

It also showed me that although luck can change the situation a little bit, once there’s a bit of an advantage, it’s easier to succeed if you’re successful and harder if you aren’t.

Parents: I learned a lot from my parents’ decisions, and I also learned from their partnership. My dad’s more of an generous and impulsive spender, while my mom is the one who budgets, saves, invests, and keeps records. It works well for them, and they’ve figured out how to avoid the control conflicts that often challenge other couples with different spending styles. My dad has come to enjoy Suze Orman’s show (particularly the part about whether people can afford something or not), and he’s even made jokes about it, like whether he could afford to buy a La-Z-Boy recliner for my mom. (“Mr. Chua, go buy your wife a La-Z-Boy!”)

Books: I learned a ton about personal finance from books, of course. I devoured all the personal finance books my mom had, and even today, I enjoy reading things I pick up from the library. Most of the personal finance books cover the same basics and I’m happy to keep my finances boring (index funds, etc.), but sometimes I come across interesting insights. Blogs and forums are great for ideas, too. Books give you the “bones” of a good strategy, while blogs and forums are good for figuring out more about what you want and what’s worth spending on.

My favourite personal finance book is “Your Money or Your Life’”, which has a particularly clear explanation of how to evaluate your expenses and calculate how much of your life you’re swapping for the things you have.

I also remember reading Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of Your Own”. It talked about the freedom you can have by having your own money and a space where you won’t be disturbed. I remember thinking: I love what I do, but I’d still like to save up enough money so that I can freely do what I want to do.

I like what another personal finance book suggested: preparing a bare-bones plan, a comfortable plan, and a realistic plan. The bare-bones plan gives you confidence and a safety net, the comfortable or luxurious plan teaches you about what you value, and the realistic plan helps you enjoy some of that luxury without going overboard.

School: I liked math in grade school and high school, although calculus and I had a bit of a fight in university. Because math didn’t scare me, dealing with numbers in my personal life was okay, too.

I remember how my parents used to help us with math by translating exercises into real-life situations. That helped me learn, and it also showed me that math is useful.

Another story from school: my mom told me about how they were surprised by a bill from the school canteen. Apparently, my middle sister had negotiated her own line of credit with the canteen staff and had forgotten to tell my mom. She used it to not only buy extra snacks, but occasionally treat her classmates. I learned that negotiation skills are awesome, but surprises might not necessarily be so.

Credit card: My mom was always very firm on this. Credit cards are useful, but never carry a balance on them. I never have. She also taught me about keeping enough in my checking account to be safe from overdraft fees, and never buying anything unless I have the money to pay for it. I remember realizing that even though my parents signed for things, they didn’t get them for free, and they earned the money by working hard.

Travel: I learned a lot from how my parents saved up for and planned our big trips. We stayed in youth hostels instead of hotels, ate sandwiches instead of eating in restaurants, and walked or took public transit instead of taking cabs. This meant that we could enjoy more days on our vacation, and we had a more local experience, too. I learned that you don’t have to spend a lot in order to have a great time. I also learned a lot from the way my sister saved up for her trip to South Africa. Normally more of an impulsive spender, she became very careful with her spending. I remember how she shared with us that she was about to buy a hamburger, but then she realized that if she didn’t buy the hamburger, she could enjoy one more meal in South Africa. =) She also told us stories about how she backpacked and lived frugally while in South Africa, making the money last as long as she could. I learned that a clear and vivid goal can really help you examine your spending decisions, and that decisions have opportunity costs.

Immersion: In university, we all went on immersion programs, spending a few days living among the poor. Some of my classmates lived in the countryside. My group lived among the urban poor in one of the city slums. Many of my groupmates couldn’t take it, trying to soften the experience by bringing lots of canned goods or taking a breather by escaping to a nearby mall. Aside from being a little self-conscious about my accent and the attention we drew, I was fine with staying there and sharing people’s lives, eating rice and sardines with my hands, showering with a dipper, and learning how to prepare the food that they sold in mobile street carts.

I remember thinking about how my classmates were shocked (shocked!) once they stepped outside our lives of relative privilege. I remember listening to my host mother’s wry reflections that some families work hard to get out of the muck and some families drink and gamble themselves into oblivion or destruction. I remember the parish priest talking about how there were just so many children, and my host mother saying, ah, well, what can people do? I remember walking past shanties with shiny DVD players and karaoke machines, thinking about the story my parents told about the Chinese entrepreneur and the Filipino entrepreneur. I remember how some people were happy and some people were angry and some people were sad, and it was just like all the rest of the world.

Opportunity fund: When I was in second year, my team and I won a programming competition that had a top prize of PHP 1M, or roughly USD 20,000. Split five ways, it was still a decent sum and more money than I had ever had. I was on a scholarship and didn’t need the money, so my mom saved it for me.

In my final year of university, I wanted to explore wearable computing for my final-year project. The head-mounted display was pretty expensive for an experiment (USD 750 at the time, I think), and I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it. I realized it would be useful to think of my programming competition winnings as an opportunity fund for experiments. I ordered the head-mounted display, and I got tons of mileage out of that. Not only did I learn a lot about hacking, Emacs, wearable computing, and the interaction of society and technology, but I stumbled into the public imagination and I learned how to deal with television interviews, magazine features, and so on. Mass media had covered some of our programming contests in the past and one tabloid had featured me as a computer prodigy at the tender age of five or something like that, but the Borg-like contraption was something else entirely. Even as I protested that I’d shifted from head-mounted displays (too heavy, too obvious, too distracting for people) to speech synthesis (much more interesting, with applications for accessibility), people fixated on the cool stuff. I was made up (as in eyeshadow!), celebrated, misquoted, misspelled (often – my name is hard! ;) ), misrepresented (I hadn’t invented the thing, despite what Seventeen Philippines printed)… and yet, looking back, it was a good thing to do. It was good to be able to take some of that money, create that opportunity, learn something new, and nudge people’s imaginations. I learned that an opportunity fund and the freedom to experiment can lead to all sorts of good things, and that it takes very little to get something going.

I used this idea in Japan, too. Taking advantage of the decent stipend that the Association for Overseas Technical Scholarship gave us during our internships, I took weekend trips using cheap overnight buses to get to Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe. I took public transit to places like Hakone, and I went to onsens to enjoy the hot springs. I explored different places in Tokyo and surrounding areas, too, like Akihabara (of course!). I think that of all my classmates, I probably had the best time. Again, it helped to set aside some money in my budget so that I could explore without worry.

Canada: Moving to Canada made me grow up. I managed my money carefully as a student. My funding covered tuition and a decent stipend, which I stretched by cooking for myself and keeping my lifestyle simple. I tracked all of my expenses and reviewed my budget regularly. I finished my master’s with no student debt and decent savings.

Using an insight from one of the productivity books I’d read, I listed my goals and ideas, and I started figuring out the price tags for them. I realized, for example, that having a good set of plates and cups and bowls meant something to be, that Corelle was well within my budget, and that tea parties or dinner parties were definitely doable.

When I started working, I kept my student lifestyle, eating at home and borrowing books from the library. I took advantage of the registered retirement savings plan program to defer taxes on my investments. I started building up an even bigger opportunity fund and a decent emergency fund, too. I tried the free financial counseling at work, but the advisor and I figured out that it wouldn’t work out for us, as I had figured most of the stuff out and I liked my low-MER index funds more than actively managed high-MER funds.

W- is also pretty frugal, although I update my books more regularly than he does. We often talk ourselves out of watching movies or eating out because we enjoy the alternatives. We’re both good at saving up for major expenses and keeping a buffer for emergencies. We both enjoy the little things in life, but aren’t afraid to spend where it counts. I’m glad we both care about financial responsibility. That reduces the risk of money causing tension. If many couples fight over money and we can figure out how to keep money from putting us under pressure, we’ll be better prepared for great adventures.

What have I learned about personal finance and planning?

Weekly review: Week ending June 7, 2010

June 7, 2010 - Categories: weekly

What a week! W- and I spent the entire weekend woodworking. I’m tired, happy, and looking forward to the next week.

From last week’s plans:




Plans for next week:





June 8, 2010 - Categories: life, passion, reflection

(click for a bigger version)

My dad: As far as I can remember, I’ve always been surrounded by examples of passion. My father’s passion for making things happen drove him to become a legend in the Philippines (no, seriously, there’s a mountain tribe that’s woven him into their tribal stories), and his passion for advertising photography helped both our family and the business grow.

My dad works long hours and invests a lot of time and energy in learning, but it’s almost like play for him. From his example, I learned that passion is an amazing thing that can infect other people and make big things happen. I also learned that it can be difficult to find other people who are as passionate as you are, and you need to be strong so that you can weather the ups and downs of passion. I learned from how my mom supported and enabled my dad’s passions, and how they drew people together to help create opportunities.

I learned how passion can lead to success and prosperity, although the road may be long and difficult. But in the grips of your passion, you can’t help but follow it.

One of my dad’s favourite pieces of advice for beginning photographers is this:

Passion and Profit – nice to hear, di ba? Pero sa totoo lang – passion muna bago profit, and then hopefully later, they go together. Sometimes, matagal ka munang magpapasyon bago ka magka-profit.


Papa’s Talk, as recorded by Harvey Chua

Passion and profit – nice to hear, isn’t it? But the truth is, passion comes before profit, and then hopefully later, they go together. Sometimes, you have to suffer a long time before you can profit.

My mom: Compared with the clarity of my dad’s drive, my mom sometimes struggles to define her passions. She played a supporting role in building the family business, managing it and keeping it on an even keel. But I remember how she had shelves and shelves of books on parenting, education, advertising, and marketing, and how she was always learning. She told us a story of how she taught herself calculus so that she could help us prepare for exams. If that’s not passion for us, what is?

Grade school: My sisters and I went to St. Scholastica’s College for grade school, and there were many great role models for passion there as well. I have fond memories of many of my teachers, who showed their everyday dedication in the classroom. Mrs. Castillo (the principal) was clearly passionate about education, and she shared her enthusiasm with us in weekly speeches and newsletters. She was passionate about the role of drama in education, too, and we put on school plays with the help of Tita Naty Crame-Rogers—another powerhouse of passion.

I discovered the first of my great passions when I was in grade school, too. My eldest sister was learning Turbo Pascal in high school. I loved imitating whatever she did, and she hated it when I did that, so I wanted to learn how to program and she refused to teach me. I taught myself by reading the manual when she wasn’t around, and I found that I really enjoyed being able to get the computer to do what I wanted it to do. (Perhaps being the youngest had something to do with that too – I had no one to order around but the computer! ;) )

I loved working on the computer so much that my mom had to set up a much-contested schedule for computer time. The more I learned, the more I enjoyed learning. By the time I was in grade 6, I was helping my teachers learn how to use the new applications they had at school.

High school: Studying at Philippine Science High School meant being surrounded by geeks of all persuasions. I met people who were passionate about physics or chemistry or mathematics or biology. I saw how people could be incredibly talented at arts or drama or sports. My niche was computer programming, and I was very good at it. Being around so many people who were passionate about something or another was fantastic, and I learned a lot from our multiplicity of talents.

The only downside of this, I suppose, was that I let the abundance of talent convince me to focus on only a few things. In grade school, for example, everyone acted in the plays and everyone was involved in production. Everyone drew and everyone danced. In high school – especially in a high school that drew the best students from all over the Philippines – the differences in talent and experience meant that it became easy to think of writing or drawing or acting as things that other, more talented people did.

I had gotten to know my first year computer teacher through bulletin-board systems even before high school, and he knew that I was very interested in computers. While the rest of my classmates learned how to use MS-DOS Edit and Microsoft Windows, he challenged me by giving me administrator access to a Linux machine, telling me how to find the documentation, and asking me to set up a Linux-based BBS. I loved the way there was so much to learn about this unfamiliar operating system.

Programming contests: My first-year high school teacher also encouraged me to try out for programming competitions. I solved five of the problems they set for us, and I made it into the team. We trained during summers and the school year, and we participated in international competitions.

It was incredible being among so many computer geeks! I loved figuring out algorithms and discussing data structures with other people who enjoyed programming as much as I did. I learned how to work under time pressure and how to take advantage of other people’s strengths in our team.

I also learned about mismanagement. The international programming competitions we participated in high school were part of a regional computing conference. One year, the organization raised enough funds to make sure that the Philippines could send a team the next year. When the next year came around, the funds were missing, and we had to raise funds again. It taught me that passion is good, but you still need to keep an eye out for people who might take advantage of it.

University: I continued participating in programming competitions throughout university. I took computer science and had tons of fun learning. Because my entrance exam results had placed me in advanced classes and I took extra classes during summer, I had room to either do a double-major in math or take a lighter load in my fourth year of university. I took a few extra courses in math before deciding that path wasn’t for me, so I scaled down to 12 units a semester – about four classes – in my final year. This was also around the time that I got into open source development and wearable computing, and I put the extra time to great use. I discovered the joys of working on software that other people would actually use, and I had tons of fun experimenting with new technology.

I learned that time—particularly long blocks of unstructured time—can be really useful for pursuing passion, and that I loved working on things that made people’s lives easier. Working with about 200 passionate users of Planner (a Emacs-based personal information manager), I learned how I could help people work better by building tools that fit the way they work.

Blogging: Working on that personal information manager also got me into blogging. When I started working on the project, it already had a way to store quick notes and publish web pages. I figured out how to produce a feed based on those notes, and I tested it by publishing my own website. I used the site to share my class notes and programming ideas. I was surprised to find that people were reading it, and even more surprised to find that people thought it was valuable. So I got into the habit of writing about what I was learning, and that helped me learn so much more along the way.

Reading people’s blogs also taught me a lot about passion. When I learned about the skill/joy learning curve, I realized that passion doesn’t come immediately. As you learn more, you develop your ability to enjoy what you’re doing, and you learn even more, and you enjoy even more.

Work – must add to diagram: In fact, blogging helped me find an opportunity to follow my passion at work, too. While doing my thesis on social computing, I posted my thoughts, questions, and results on my internal blog. I got to know so many amazing people who were also passionate about what they were doing, and I wanted to continue working with them. After lots of exciting interest interviews with people all over the world, I chose a job role that had been created for me – Web 2.0 consulting and application development with IBM’s Global Business Services. Since I joined IBM in 2007, not a week has gone by without a wow! moment related to following my passion.

Hobbies – must add to diagram: I’ve also finally shaken off that hang-up I had from high school about other people being more talented than I was at particular things. I’m happily exploring writing and drawing. I’m even making my peace with subjects I’d disliked in school, like sewing and woodworking. It’s a lot of fun, and who knows which of these interests might develop into passions in the future?

What have I learned about passion?

The work of self-understanding

June 9, 2010 - Categories: drawing, learning, life, reflection, writing

I’ve been taking advantage of the company’s free e-counseling service to pick a counselor’s brain about marriage. When I told the counselor (Sue) about how I thought my way through tough situations by mindmapping, writing, and drawing, she asked me how I learned how to do that.

I don’t know. I remember reading books about mindmapping and note-taking when I was a grade-schooler raiding my mom’s books on productivity and learning. I found it to be a useful way of getting ideas out without having to put them in order first. Writing became my way of thinking through things I wanted to understand more, like my options for university or how I felt about a crush. Although this occasionally led to some embarrassment (like when my mom stumbled across my notes for the latter), it was a useful practice, and I’m glad I got into it.

I looked for interesting techniques, and I experimented with them. One of the classes in my mechanical and industrial engineering master’s degree turned out to have great insights into the limitations of the human brain and some tools for making better decisions, like decision tables. In Built to Last, I learned about the genius of the “and” – that even when it seems to be a choice between A or B, you may be able to find an option that combines the best of both. Books like Problem Solving 101 reinforced the value of making decision trees, examining your assumptions, and exploring your alternatives.

Diagrams, journal entries, drawings, and blog posts helped me think whenever I needed to understand something. When W- hinted that he liked me, I was so nervous, I prattled. It was only when I stayed up late to mindmap my thoughts and figure out what I felt that I could write my response in a letter. When my parents raged and wept with disapproval, I filled pages with mindmaps and lists of possible outcomes and ways to move forward. I use these tools for good stuff, too, drawing what an even better life might be like and writing about how I can help make it happen.

It’s not about driving emotion out of the picture. In fact, the logical structures of decision-making diagrams and tools can help you understand and harness emotions. By themselves, emotions can be overwhelming – a jumble of inchoate thoughts and inarticulate sensations. When you slow down and focus on a single thread, it becomes easier to untangle your thoughts. Even the seemingly logic-oriented process of listing pros and cons reveals your preferences and emotions, if you listen carefully to yourself. It’s not about the numbers of advantages or disadvantages you can list, or the objective factors you consider – in fact, you get even more valuable information when your instinctive reaction goes against what you think you should feel.

This is the work of self-understanding – of identifying and examining your assumptions, developing and articulating your intuition, and broadening your alternatives. Diagrams, journal entries, blog posts, and drawings are tools that you can use to externalize your thoughts, getting them out of your head and into a form that you can review and understand. They’re also useful when you need help remembering your reasons and sticking to a decision, or re-evaluating a decision when the situation changes.

Investing time and energy into learning how to make better decisions pays off, because you will make so many decisions in your lifetime. Reflection helps you separate external influences from what you really think and feel. If you ignore your intuition or bury your emotions under the pressure of external influences, it will be harder and harder to use those tools to make decisions in the future, and then you’ll wake up one day and wonder where your life went. On the other hand, the more you trust yourself, the easier it becomes to know yourself. Although making your own decisions means making mistakes along the way, those mistakes are invaluable because they help you learn more about your path.

Here’s where I like taking that one step further: I sometimes post these in-between thoughts and reflections (and mistakes!) to get more insights and to share what I’ve learned. This is scary. We don’t want to be vulnerable, and we don’t want to bore people with the details of our lives. But as it turns out, thinking out loud helps inspire other people. Like the way I learned to recognize assumptions, situations, and alternatives by reading books and blog posts about other people’s lives, people peeking into my life can use whatever insights they pick up to make their own lives better. It also helps other people see the value of reflection and self-understanding, and who knows what I’ll be able to learn from them if they build on that?

Good stuff. Try it out.

LotusScript: Checking another database for categories that do not contain a document of a particular type

June 10, 2010 - Categories: geek, lotus, work

We want to scale up Innovation Discovery and share the insights/workshop methods with more people, so one of my tasks is to remove sensitive information from our workshop output documents, post the scrubbed output documents in our community, and update the relevant sector page in our wiki.

This would be easier if people notified me after engagements, but at least we’ve gotten people into the habit of adding files to the Teamroom. I decided that instead of asking people to remember one more step in our post-engagement process, I would just regularly get into the habit of checking the Teamroom for updated documents. The Teamroom date view is useful, but there are other documents mixed into this, and I don’t think I can get my team members to adopt a consistent naming scheme or document type. However, if I wrote an agent to tell me which client categories didn’t have a final output document entry yet, I could use that to find new entries and follow up on old ones. So I did.

I didn’t have access to create new agents in the Teamroom database. I worked around this by creating this agent in my own database and then connecting to the other database from there.

Sub Initialize
	'This script looks for all the client categories that do not have a final documents entry
	'Display the current document's Categories field
	Dim dbID As New NotesDatabase("","dbom1\global18.nsf")
	Dim doc As NotesDocument
	Dim catView As NotesView
	Set catView = dbID.getView("CategoryLookup")
	'Determine list of clients
	Set doc = catView.Getfirstdocument()
	Dim clients List As String
	Dim finished List As String
	Do Until(doc Is Nothing)
		Dim category As String
		category = doc.Getitemvalue("Categories")(0)
		If (InStr(category, "Clients") <> 0) Then
			'This belongs in the client category. Has it been found? Add it to the list
			category = Mid(category, 9)
			clients(category) = category 
			If (doc.GetItemValue("DocType")(0) = "Final output") Then
				finished(category) = category 	
			End If 
		End if
		Set doc = catView.Getnextdocument(doc)
	'Remove completed items
	Dim s As String
	s = ""
	ForAll client In clients
		If (Not IsElement(finished(client))) then
			s = s + client + " "
		End if
	End ForAll
End Sub

I change entries to the “Final output” document type after I’ve processed them. So far, so good!

Thinking out loud: happiness

June 11, 2010 - Categories: braindump, happy, passion

Is it true that most people don’t know what they’re good at? That’s interesting. Maybe I can help.

I may not be the world’s best expert, but I’m good enough to enjoy writing, programming, drawing, and speaking. I’m good at being happy. I’m getting the hang of drawing and gardening. I’m starting on carpentry. I’m good at picking up new ideas and making connections.

It reminds me of how in improv comedy, my classmates struggled to fill two minutes with a list of things they loved. Me, I hardly paused for breath.

I might have figured out something here that I can help other people learn.

My mom tells this story about when she came across me reading a book far beyond my age. She asked me if I understood it. I said that I didn’t understand it the first time around, but I knew that if I kept reading it again and again, I would eventually understand it.

Maybe I’m good at figuring out what I’m good at because I give myself permission to be bad at things.

Maybe my life is filled with experiences, people, and things I love because I not only work on shaping my life, but adapting to it. (It took a while to get the hang of seasons, for example.)

I wonder what I’m doing right and how I can share it with others.

Braindump: Automating repetitive tasks using AutoHotkey

June 12, 2010 - Categories: braindump

Note for myself (because I’m going to need this again someday!), and for others who drop by:

I needed to copy information from 45 slides and put them into an Excel spreadsheet so that I could reorganize the content and put them into a wiki. Fortunately, the author of the Powerpoint deck used a fairly consistent slide format. I used AutoHotkey to copy most of the information over by simulating mouse clicks and button presses. I started with this macro, which copies the text, switches to my spreadsheet, moves a cell to the right, and pastes it:

WinWait, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
IfWinNotActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, , WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint


I wanted to save even more keystrokes and mouseclicks, so I ended up automating the copying of each slide using the following script. It wasn’t perfect, but it saved me time and it was fun to make.

WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left, 1037,  327, 1500, 327
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left,  1037,  366, 1500, 366
Sleep, 100
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left,  457,  344, 1500, 1000
Sleep, 100
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left,  454,  454, 1500, 1000
Sleep, 100
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left,  564,  535, 1500, 1000
Sleep, 100
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
MouseClickDrag, left,  490,  637, 1500, 1000
Sleep, 100
WinActivate, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft Excel - facilitation.xls, 
WinActivate, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
WinWaitActive, Microsoft PowerPoint - [ID Methods.ppt], 
Send, {PGDN}

Automation is worth the time investment. If you’re on Windows, check out AutoHotkey. =)

On libraries at school

June 13, 2010 - Categories: library

Some of my fondest memories at school are of libraries, of devouring whatever caught my eye from the stacks. It was a quiet haven from the rush of the outside.

Are libraries still relevant in the age of Google and Wikipedia?

For me, yes. I borrow dozens of books from the Toronto Public Library each week, browsing their online catalogue for books to request for delivery. There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than curled up with a stack of books.

It’s an amazing thing, to be able to borrow more books than you can buy, to take home more books than you can carry. I haven’t really taken advantage of reference librarians’ services, but that’s because I enjoy diving into books.

Libraries are the first taste many people have of freely learning from neatly structured knowledge, more interest-driven than textbooks, more comprehensive and more reliable than the chaos of the Web. In places without public libraries or where not everyone has broadband, school libraries are even more important.

It takes work and space and money to make a library. I have the greatest respect for librarians, who have to decide which books will be the best use of a limited budget, how to arrange the space in order to invite people in and encourage them to read, and all sorts of other things I take for granted when I read a book.

Librarians are awesome in other ways, too. They care a lot about privacy and freedom. They’ve thought about how to organize digital information and keep things accessible. Many of the Web 2.0 tools I’m excited about benefited from the thoughts and insights of librarians.

What would I like to see in libraries of the future? Social recommendations, like the way Amazon does it. I use libraries heavily, and I’d love to see recommendations of books based on things I’ve checked out in the past. Even someone who’s just starting out might get lured in by all the great books out there.

Other people have thought a lot about how libraries can stay relevant and show the value they provide. Me, I’m just a fan. =)

Thanks to dmcordell for the nudge to think about this!

I want to learn how to draw better

June 14, 2010 - Categories: learning, sketches

Someday I want to make things as pretty and communicative as Mike Rohde’s sketchnotes, Erica Glasier’s blog posts, Franke James’ visual essays. I want to capture scenes like those in urban sketches.

I want to be able to see more clearly, imagine more vividly, and create more expressively.  Looking forward to making a habit of drawing. It’ll be fun!

Weekly review: Week ending June 13, 2010

June 15, 2010 - Categories: gardening, weekly
From Starred Photos

This weekend, I finished my finger joint jig (my very first!), bought my own workbench (a Black & Decker WorkMate 425), and made my finger-jointed box sides. Whee! It was a lot of fun working on the deck with W- and J-, routing my box while W- sawed the pieces for his chair and J- collected sawdust. Progress! I think we might be getting the hang of this.

I did a lot of gardening, too. I turned the compost twice, and it’s getting close to the right texture. Next weekend, I think I’ll build a sifter and shake out the twigs so that I can use the compost to feed the strawberries, tomatoes, and peas, all of which are doing quite well. I revamped the back planter box and planted some more lettuce, and I planted jalapeno peppers along the path. Gardening is a great way to get more greens into our diet, and I’m looking forward to more harvests. Next time, I’ll be more consistent with succession planting. Just because you’re swimming in lettuce one week doesn’t mean you can skip planting the lettuce you’ll harvest in a few weeks’ time. =)

From last week’s plans:




Plans for next week:





June 16, 2010 - Categories: family, happy, life, reflection

(click for a bigger version)

I must be the happiest girl in the world. =)


I remember learning that you can’t help the face you’re born with, but you earn the face you have when you die.

I saw so many people with neutral or frowning expressions, and how their habitual grimaces had been carved into their wrinkles. I saw people whose crow’s feet and laugh lines spoke of lots of smiles instead.

Some people frowned a lot but were generally happy, like my dad. Some people smiled a lot but were generally happy, like my mom. And then there were people who were very good at talking themselves into sadness or anger or frustration, even though life was great, and there were people who were good at talking themselves into happiness, even though life occasionally took a curve.

I remember reading a story in Reader’s Digest about the difference between a pessimist and an optimist. Here is that story retold by Peter Robinson, excerpted from How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life:

Over lunch today I asked Ed Meese about one of Reagan’s favorite jokes. “The pony joke?” Meese replied. “Sure I remember it. If I heard him tell it once, I heard him tell it a thousand times.”

The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities — one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist — their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I’d only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, Peter Robinson

I read books about happiness, too. Some books talked about set points and circumstances, showing how both lottery winners and accident victims tend to return to their previous level of happiness even after significant events. Watching people, I learned that happiness is more about what’s in your head than what’s outside it.

Hugs: Growing up, I remember giving and receiving more hugs than either of my sisters did. My eldest sister was a little aloof. My middle sister was unpredictably angry or sweet. I was mostly affectionate. Even today, I still give my parents spontaneous hugs whenever I see them, and I hug people a lot.

In high school, I came across a book on neurochemistry that suggested that hugs were associated with higher oxytocin levels and lower cortisol: more bonding, happiness, and trust, and less stress. Over time, hugs and other forms of affection could increase the number of your cortisol receptors, helping you bounce back from stress faster. It tickled me to think that there could be geeky explanations for not just happiness, but the ability to be happy and resilient.

Splash Mountain: Perhaps that was why I was generally easy-going as a child. If we changed our mind about something, I might be temporarily disappointed (if at all), but I recovered quickly. I remember my dad and I once lined up for the Splash Mountain attraction at Disneyworld Orlando. We spent what felt like two hours in line while my sisters and my mom wandered around outside. When we got near the front of the line, they announced that the ride was closed due to mechanical troubles, and they couldn’t say when it would reopen. My dad was concerned about the rest of the family, who had been waiting for us, and he suggested that we leave. I was fine with that, so we went. Shortly after we left the line, the ride started back up again. I shrugged and laughed. We eventually lined up again because my dad said that if he didn’t do that, he knew he’d hear about it for years and years. I remember it well because of that – realizing that I wouldn’t have blamed him for being impatient or carried it along like a grudge, and that perhaps this was an odd thing…

This is not to say that my childhood was entirely amiable. I found that I was generally happier when I had more choice and more solitude, and got stressed out when I had neither. For example, when a drive south to attend a wedding turned into an extended road trip with no clear end, I felt trapped and upset. But in general, I was good at letting stress go.

I remember watching how my mom’s menopausal stress combined with my sister’s teenage angst to result in fireworks in the house. Stuck in the patterns of anger and frustration, they dredged up past grievances. They survived, and have since then become closer. I remember realizing that it did no good to hang on to old hurts. Much better to let go, to be like a pond of water rippling back to serenity after disruption.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull: My mom had a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull on her bookshelf. I remember not quite understanding it, but reading it and rereading it nonetheless. Looking back, I think I understand it better now. I remember thinking about the deliberate experiments of flight, the joy of learning, and the challenge and delight of sharing that with others. Then I thought about journeys, and perfect speed, and how most people think of happiness as something to be pursued—but what if it just is, if someone could just be happy? And I did.

More to come…

Notes about business communication

June 17, 2010 - Categories: blogging, business, communication, ibm, speaking, work

Don Cameron is working on a book about business communication, and I’ll be talking to him on Friday to share what I’m learning. In his initial e-mail, he said that he wants to learn more about my educational and career background, and my business communication insights. I figured I’d write about it here so that we can save time, use the interview for follow-up questions and interesting thoughts, and demonstrate the value of sharing. We can also translate this into printable quotes, just like I used my blog to draft informally-written sections of my thesis before I translated them into academese. <laugh>

Business communication insights

Share while you learn. This is probably the key thing that differentiates the way I work. Many people think they need to be experts before they can blog or share what they know. I think that being a beginner is fantastic for sharing, because you don’t take things for granted. Writing and drawing and giving presentations helps you think through complex topics more effectively. Along the way, you create these resources you can save for yourself and share with other people. If you can make it easier for other people to learn, they can build on what you’ve shared with them to learn even more, and you can learn from what they can do.

It’s like the difference between climbing a rope and building a staircase. Rope-climbing is hard. Not everyone can do it, and it can be difficult to get yourself up. But if you build a staircase, not only can you go up more easily and more safely, but you help other people go up too.

Share while you work. Here’s another big difference. Many people think about knowledge-sharing as something you do after you work, and they wonder where I find the time to blog and do all sorts of other things. The trick is to make sharing part of the way you work. Why?

Scale up. I think about scale a lot – getting more value for the time and energy I put into something. That’s why I share things as widely as I can. Presentations and blog posts reach more people than e-mail, which is more reusable than phone calls. Taking an extra couple of minutes to share something in a wider medium can mean reaching many more people and creating much more impact. For example, I almost never give a presentation without posting the presentation online, either on the Intranet or on our company intranet. One time, I prepared a presentation on Web 2.0 and education for about 90 people. That presentation has been viewed more than 26,000 times online.

Archiving your work is a great way to scale up. If someone likes one of my presentations, they often check out my other presentations, and that helps me get even more value without more effort. I have blog posts going back to 2002, and people often come across my old posts by searching or browsing – again, more value without more effort. I might have a great five-minute conversation with a new acquaintance, but if they check out my blog, they can learn so much more about me and our common ground than we can find out in hours of interaction. Social networking tools help me get to know and keep in touch with many more people than I might be able to meet or talk to, and they scale up the effort that I put into them. 

Be human. Sharing and archiving scares a lot of people. They’re afraid of making mistakes or changing their minds, and having the infinite memory of the Internet used against them. I think learning is one of the best parts of life, and you can’t learn unless you take risks. Sometimes my blog posts have typos or factual errors. Sometimes my code has bugs. Sometimes I change my mind. This is good. If I didn’t share things, I might have remained quietly ignorant. Life is too short to rely on just my ability to figure things out, or to let other people struggle through everything on their own.

Being human also means making that connection. Don’t hide behind jargon, passive sentences, and text-heavy bullet-points. Tell stories. Surprise people. Provoke them. Help them grow. Connect. If you need to make and communicate tough decisions, take responsibility and show empathy.

Work really changes when you bring your whole self to it. I bring my happiness and passion and enthusiasm to work. It’s amazing to hear from people around the world who get inspired by that – and who then inspire other people around them. There’s tremendous joy in doing great work, and you can have a lot of fun doing so. I started hand-drawing my slides because it was fun for me, and I continued doing it because other people found it fun and engaging, too. I learn and share because it’s fun and it builds on my strengths. I build tools because I love building tools and helping people save time. Find your strengths and share them with others.

So, how did I figure these things out? What’s my story?

Educational and career background

Blogging changed everything, I think. I wasn’t particularly interested in writing until I realized that I could do more than write essays for school.

In my third year of university, while taking computer science, I decided to challenge myself by contributing to open source. One of the projects I worked on was a personal information manager that had a good note-taking feature. I added the ability to publish a blog, and I used that to share my class notes and my notes on open source. I discovered that not only did people read my blog posts, they found them useful, and they gave me suggestions on how to do things better.

My passion for building tools and helping people improve the way they work also drove me to start giving presentations. Here’s what I shared in The Shy Presenter: Why conventional advice on learning public speaking sucks, and how to really get started:

True story. The only reason I got started in public speaking was because some friends of mine were organizing a conference. By the third call for speakers, they sounded pretty desperate. I said, hey, I’m just a student, but I can talk about this if you really can’t find anyone, and I’m playing with that as a hobby. They booked me for two talks. I learned that even as a beginner, you can help other people learn.

I discovered that public speaking was a fantastic way to start conversations with hundreds of people at a time. It was the perfect networking method for an introvert like me. I could write about what I was learning, refine those thoughts into a presentation, prepare and practice my talk, and rely on my passion for the topic to get me through the nervousness I felt about talking to hundreds of people. Afterwards, I didn’t have to awkwardly stand around trying to figure out how to start a conversation – people would just walk up to me and start talking! (This was so cool, I made it one of my key tips in The Shy Connector: How to get strangers to talk to you).

I continued to blog and give presentations as a teacher at the Ateneo de Manila University and as a graduate student at the University of Toronto. Blogging about my IBM-sponsored research into using Web 2.0 to find expertise helped me meet a lot of people who were interested in social networking tools, and I learned about so many resources and tools that I would probably never have found on my own. When I decided that I wanted to continue working with such amazing people, I asked for their help in finding just the right position for me. I joined IBM in October 2007 in a role that was customized for me. Here’s how I got that awesome job.

Writing, presenting, and connecting have helped me learn from, and help lots of people. I still struggle with the idea of starting conversations in hallways or elevators, but I’ve figured out some things that work really well for me, and I look forward to trying more.

Planning ahead

June 18, 2010 - Categories: life, planning

I like planning ahead. Thinking through best-case scenarios and wild successes helps me clarify the decisions I need to make now. Planning for worst-case scenarios gives me confidence that things will work out. I have only one life to live, but with imagination and planning, I can test my ideas before committing to them.

For example, while working on the paperwork for marrying W-, I considered death, disability, divorce, relocation, family needs, and distance, at varying ages and in varying situations (kids? no kids?). I think we can make things work out – and that frees me up to focus on the best-case scenarios.

I’m considering the next steps in my career. My managers and mentors have been very supportive, and they’re helping me figure out what’s next. I’m thinking about the next three years, sure, but I’m also thinking about the next sixty. Who do I want to be? How do I want to change the world?

I think I want to have run my own business for at least ten years by the time I’m 65. Corporate life gets a bit fuzzy around then, but I like how my parents can keep doing what they love doing because they have their own business. That still gives me plenty of time to do what I want to do with IBM: illuminate work with happiness and passion, build tools and teach people to build tools, connect people and make it easier for people to do their best work from anywhere, and help shape the future of organizations.

I don’t need a plan that assumes neat, linear steps to get me from A to B. Life will happen. I’ll change my mind. But planning ahead helps me think. Considering the best, the worst, and the more realistic outcomes lets me exaggerate the tiny differences in today’s decisions so that I can get a better sense of what I really feel.

Thanks to Cate Huston for the nudge to write about this!

Say the steps out loud

June 19, 2010 - Categories: career, ibm, work

A couple of years ago, I learned something from J-’s hip hop class:saying the steps out loud helps not only you, but also people around you.

Here are my steps.

I’m on the threshold of a career transition. It’s the right time. I don’t know where this will lead yet – a formalization of my work, areturn to Drupal and open source, a new business unit, or even my own business – but it will be a great experiment, I’m sure.

One: set up transition plan. Two: coordinate with managers and coworkers. Three: apply for position, perhaps, or move to another project? Four: Rock on, no matter where I am. =)

The fruits and chairs of our labour

June 20, 2010 - Categories: gardening

W- and I have graduated to making furniture. =)
From Starred Photos

He finished his chair this weekend. It’s awesome! I’m working on a chair of my own (below):
From Starred Photos

In other news, gardening rocks.

From Starred Photos

Weekly review: Week ending June 20, 2010

June 21, 2010 - Categories: weekly

From last week’s plans:




Plans for next week:




Seven Tips for Short Talks

June 22, 2010 - Categories: presentation, speaking

Regina Zaliznyak asked me to put together a presentation to help IBM’s Extreme Blue interns give better 4-minute pitches to project sponsors, managers, and other interested people. After thinking about the topic a bit, I realized that I wanted to figure out and share tips on how to make really short presentations.

Short presentations scare people. “One hour? No problem. Five minutes? Oh no! What should I put in? What should I leave out? What if I make a mistake?”

Seven Tips for Short Talks

1. Start at the end. Don’t start with slides, or even an outline. Ask yourself: what do I want people to do, feel, or remember? Work backwards from there. What do you need to show people so that they can take the next step? What do you need to share in order to get them to that point?

Let’s talk about Extreme Blue. What are your goals for the project pitch presentation? You want to convince a manager to use your project, maybe even invest in it. You might want to show people that you’d be a great hire. What are your goals?

Figure out your conclusion. Then put it up front. Don’t build suspense. Say what you want to say in the first thirty seconds, use the rest of your talk to support your point, and emphasize it at the end.

2. Simplify. Be ruthless. Get rid of whatever doesn’t support your point. Save the details for handouts, posters, backup slides, web pages, or Q&A. Four minutes is not enough time for a lecture, but plenty of time for a commercial. Your job is to make people curious so that they want to find out more.

Keep your message simple, too. Translate numbers and jargon into things people can understand. Too much text on the slides means that people will be reading instead of listening to you. Try a few words, images, or no slides at all. That way, people can focus on you.

3. Share a story if you can. One of the best ways to make things human-scale is to tell a story. Yes, your project might change the software industry and create billions of dollars in profit. But your presentation will be more powerful if you can show—really show—how you can make one person’s life better. You could talk about inefficiencies in the food distribution industry, or you could talk about how one apple goes from the farm to your plate. Use a story to make things real, then help people imagine how things could be even better.

4. Start from scratch.

We have interesting quirks, like the anchoring bias. Let’s say I wanted to sell you this <item>. If I told you it’s worth about $90, we’d probably end up at a higher price than if I told you I got it for about $30. That initial information shapes our decision.

So don’t start from a boring presentation. Start from scratch, and add things only if they fit. In fact, don’t start with slides at all. Figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it before you make the slides to support your points. That way, you’re not limited by the software.

Don’t be afraid of starting from scratch multiple times. Put your drafts away and start again. Try a fresh perspective. Change things up.

(Thanks to Cate Huston for sharing this tip!)

5. Schedule. Planning a short presentation is harder than planning a long one.

You have to decide: what goes in? what stays out?

Give yourself plenty of time to work on it. Don’t wait until a week before your presentation.

Always ask yourself: Why is this worth it? Who can benefit from this? How can I show them?

The good thing is that there are plenty of opportunities to learn and practice, if you look around.

6. Seek inspiration. Next time you watch an ad, think: How does it grab your attention and make you want to do something? Next time you watch a movie or a TV show, learn from how it tells a story. Next time you have a conversation, think about words and flow.

Practising isn’t just about running through your slides and your scripts. Try parts of your talk in your next conversation with your six-year-old niece. Talk to your friends. Sketch your slides during breaks. Dream about your talk, even.

Don’t reveal anything confidential, of course. Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to learn, and you’ll find plenty.

7. Stay flexible. Four minutes flies by. You’ll be nervous. You’ll be anxious. You’ll forget things. That’s okay. I’ve given dozens of presentations. I still get nervous. I still get anxious. I still forget some of the things I want to share.

Stay flexible. If your slides don’t show, if your animation flops, if your demo fails, don’t panic. You don’t even need to apologize. Certainly don’t apologize for your apology. Keep calm and carry on. If you focused on a simple message (perhaps in a memorable story), you can share that no matter what.

This is also where keeping your talk simple helps. If you have very little text or you have simple diagrams on your slides, you can talk for as long or as short as you want. On the other hand, if you have lots of text or complicated diagrams, people feel short-changed if you flip through them too quickly. Keep things simple and flexible.

And have fun!


Watch short presentations to get a sense of how much you can fit into one. Pay attention to what you like and don’t like. Bad presentations can be just as informative as good ones.

Here are some sites worth checking out:

Using supervisord for Nginx+FastCGI+PHP

June 23, 2010 - Categories: geek, linux

I was having problems with spawn-fcgi-standalone occasionally resulting in dead PHP processes, which caused 502 Bad Gateway errors on my site. Crontabbing an /etc/init.d/init-fastcgi start didn’t help much, so I looked for other ways to do it. Supervisord looked promising.

Here’s how to get Supervisord:

apt-get install python-setuptools
easy_install supervisor


Here’s what to add to /etc/supervisord.conf:


So far, so good. When I kill the php process, supervisord starts it back up. Progress!

supervisord doesn’t come with an init.d script, but you can get one for Ubuntu.

Thank you, David Singer

June 24, 2010 - Categories: ibm, mentoring

I remember reading a discussion topic about what it means to be an IBMer, and how people feel an emotional connection with the company even if they’re no longer employees.

David Singer retired from IBM a few months ago. We kept right on going with our mentoring chats anyway, and I’ve been learning a lot from both our adventures. A few days ago, a friend of ours—another IBMer in the UK—expressed appreciation for David’s thoughtfulness. David had reached out to him when he was down, and  encouraged him at just the right time.

It’s wonderful that even after leaving the company, David Singer still cares. He jokes about it being an investment in IBM’s stock value, and maybe it is – maybe these human connections are part of what makes a company thrive.

Thank you again.

Editing audio and embedding it into a MS Powerpoint file

June 25, 2010 - Categories: geek, ibm

Jade asked me for help in converting a CEO interview from 51 MB (it was an AVI!) to something more manageable, condensing it from 00:02:09 to around 00:01:30, and embedding it into a Microsoft Powerpoint file in time for her dry-run presentation.

Fortunately, I’m a geek.

I used AoA Audio Extractor to extract the audio track and convert it into an MP3, which slimmed the 51 MB file down to 1.5 MB. Then I used Audacity to edit the MP3. First, I removed all the ums, ahs, repeated words, filler words, and long pauses. That got me to about 00:01:50. After that, I removed as many of the questions as I could, and trimmed other unnecessary words from the answers. Result? Clocked in at 00:01:26, four seconds under target. Woohoo!

I’m starting to enjoy editing audio. I used to think editing was a bit tedious, but now I see it as a way to help people sound like much better speakers.

As it turns out, you can’t embed an MP3 into a Microsoft Powerpoint file – at least, not directly. Microsoft Powerpoint can embed WAVs, but WAVs can be quite big. (16 MB vs 1.1 MB for our condensed file.) But you can use CDex to add a RIFF wav header to your MP3, change your Tools > Options > General > Link sounds with file size greater than option to something like 50000 (to embed anything smaller than 50MB), and then insert your new WAV-which-is-really-an-MP3-in-disguise.

I put it together and sent her the file using instant messaging. (Yay Sametime!). We confirmed that it worked at 9:59 AM, just in time for her 10 AM dry run.

Thank you, Internet!

Growing up

June 26, 2010 - Categories: family

One of the best things about growing up must be examining your childhood assumptions and realizing that you’ve outgrown them.

When we were growing up, my eldest sister and I were more academically inclined than my middle sister Kathy was. Kathy hated math.

Fast-forward to now. Kathy’s acing her MBA classes, tackling finance courses head-on. She also saved up and bought her first appliance: the best refrigerator she could fit in her budget. (And she got it at a discount, too.) She’ll put it to great use – she’s got an instinctive flair for cooking.

Can’t wait to see how we all grow. It’s amazing!

Keeping my name

June 27, 2010 - Categories: Uncategorized

Sacha Chua. It’s hard to pronounce, hard to spell, and frequently changed into Sacha Chau, Sacha Chu, or Sasha, or Sascha, or even the occasional Sachua.

But it’s my name, and I’m keeping it when I get married in two months.

I’ve published a lot as Sacha Chua: articles, papers, blog posts, open source code… If I change my name, it will be harder for people to make that connection. It helps that I’m the only Sacha Chua on the Net (at least, according to Google). There’s already a Sacha Y-.

It’s a lot of paperwork to change my name and update all my records. I don’t see why the woman should be the only one who traditionally goes through all that fuss. ;) I don’t want to always carry marriage documents to justify my name change. For example, the entry form for Singapore asks if you’ve ever entered the country under a different name, and to provide supporting documents if you have. It’s easier if I keep my name.

I like my name. It’s a small reminder of the diversity of this world. If anything, it would be cooler if it was even more Filipino. (For example, Kidlat Tahimik has a really cool name.)

Keeping my name means taking one small step towards greater equity. =) Isn’t it fantastic that I can consider this choice? Likewise, I’ll probably keep Ms. instead of Mrs. if people insist on courtesy titles. (Why isn’t there a male equivalent of that?)

There are worst-case scenarios to think about, too. If we split up, I’d rather not have to go through the fuss of changing my name again.

Will people be confused? Maybe. But my friends Joey de Villa and Wendy Koslow are doing fine, as are Michael McGuffin and Alice Servera.

Will I get addressed as Mrs. Y-? Maybe. But it’s a good opportunity to say, “It’s Sacha Chua, actually. Ms., if you insist.”

Will W- get addressed as Mr. Chua? Maybe. That’ll probably be amusing. <laugh>

Many people change their name, and it works out for them. That’s great. =) Me, I’m keeping mine.

Weekly review: Week ending June 27, 2010

June 28, 2010 - Categories: weekly

Happy summer! I finished building my Adirondack chair today. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever sat in a chair that was just the right size for me. It took only two weekends, thanks to the templates that W- made. I also spent some time tweaking my box joint jig. I can turn out reasonably-well-jointed boxes now, yay!

Our garden is paying off. This afternoon, we grazed on sugar peas, snow peas, tomatoes, and strawberries, picking and eating things straight off the stem. The nasturtiums I planted out front because of their edible flowers turned out to be quite peppery, reminding me of radishes. I planted four kinds of basil in the back garden box in preparation for pesto season. Life is good.

From last week’s plans:




Plans for next week:




Book: Making Peace with Your Office Life

June 29, 2010 - Categories: book, career

This is the first time I’ve read a comprehensive guide for debugging your work environment. “Making Peace with Your Office Life” by Linda Glovinsky (ISBN 978-0-312-57602-8) has a great way to track and analyze your work envirnoment. It’s packed with concrete advice for each situation. Not only is a book to keep, it, it’s a book to give to friends who need the help.

The table of contents is too high-level, so I’ve written down the situations described in pages 175 to 304 to help you decide.

Peace with the Place

  • I feel like I’m in jail: Confinement
  • All I do is sit: Inactivity
  • I’m sick of beige, white, and gray: Sensory Deprivation
  • I’m working in Grand Central Station: Sensory Overload
  • My ____ hurts: Ergonomic Issues
  • The &^%@#! _______ is broken again!: Equipment Issues

Peace with the Chaos

  • I can’t find that report: Paper Management
  • I have 400 unread e-mails: E-mail Overload
  • Oops! I lost that file: Hard Drive File Problems
  • I don’t have the information I need to do my job: Information Access Issues

Peace with the Overwhelm

  • I never get caught up: Unrealistic Workload
  • I’m not allowed to make a mistake: Unrealistic Quality Standards
  • I’m getting it from all directions: Conflicting Demands
  • I’m constantly hitting roadblocks: Obstacles
  • People keep barging in on me: Interruptions

Peace with the Tasks

  • I hardly ever do the same thing twice: Excessive Task Variety
  • I’m afraid I’ll get fired if I don’t look busy: Task Insufficiency
  • I do the same things day after day: Repetitiveness
  • I’m working on an assembly line: Task Fragmentation
  • Why did I go to college?: Intellectual Deprivation
  • I just can’t do this: Daunting Tasks
  • I have no control over how I do my job: Autonomy Issues
  • I can’t tell if I’m doing a good job: Lack of Measurable Outcomes

Peace with the Disconnect

  • I miss the people I love: Separation Issues
  • I don’t really know the people I work with: Isolation
  • I’m nobody, who are you?: Status and Identity Issues
  • I just had a huge fight with so-and-so: Conflict
  • So-and-so and I got our wires crossed: Communication Problems
  • I hate serving on committees: Meeting Issues

Peace with the Boss

  • My boss expects me to be a mind reader: Unclear Instructions
  • My boss watches every move I make: Micromanagement
  • My boss is an idiot: Incompetence
  • My boss doesn’t know what I look like: Avoidance
  • My boss is a crook: Ethical Issues
  • My boss is a wuss: Lack of Authority
  • My boss is the boss from hell: Bullying

Peace with the Coworkers

  • If my coworker does that one more time…: Annoying Little Habits
  • I can’t get my coworker to do anything until the last minute!: Procrastination
  • My coworker always has to win: Competitiveness
  • My coworker always does things by the book: Rigidity
  • My coworker doesn’t toe the line: Laziness
  • My coworker is an idiot: Incompetence
  • My coworker is a slob: Messiness
  • My coworker is a whiner: Griping

Peace with the Culture

  • I have to wear a mask: Anonymity
  • Why do even the smart people talk like idiots?: Office-speak
  • I hate having to wear a tie: Clothing Issues
  • I don’t know what the rules are: Romance and Sex
  • It’s just because I’m…: Discrimination

Peace with the Game

  • They don’t pay me enough for what I do: Financial Issues
  • I only hear about it when I’ve screwed up: Lack of Encouragement
  • The performance appraisals aren’t fair: Unjust Evaluations
  • I’m just a secretary: Low Prestige and Rankism
  • I don’t believe in what this organization is doing: Meaninglessness

“Making Peace with Your Office Life”, Linda Glovinsky (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010; ISBN 978-0-312-57602-8)

Risks, personal brands, and findability

June 30, 2010 - Categories: connecting, social, web2.0

I started the day with an interview for a course on social media education. The team sent me a list of follow-up questions an hour and a half before the call. They were surprised when I quickly posted an entry answering their questions. I figured that if I jotted a few thoughts down, they could use that to dig deeper during the follow-up call and it could be raw material for a future blog post. From experience, I know that it can take a while to think of great follow-up questions. The more cycles we can have in an interview, the better.

I was particularly interested in the discussions around risks, personal brands, and findability. The interviewers asked me what I thought the biggest risk was given our social media guidelines. Instead of naming, say, information leakage or corporate embarrassment—although there are plenty of stories like the ill-conceived prank at Domino’s that went viral—I told them that the biggest risk I see is that people might not participate enough. I think it’s a huge risk. First, lots of people are intimidated by the idea of sharing publicly, and they don’t want to risk embarrassment. This might lead to a widening gap between the people who can take that first step to share (and who grow more comfortable and more connected by doing so), and people who don’t take that step (and who get less connected in the process).

That intimidation and fear is often because of all the emphasis we put on personal brands. People think that they need to package themselves and present a perfect face. I’d rather focus on content: exploring new experiences, deepening my understanding, and figuring out how I can help other people learn. I pay a little attention to “branding” in the sense of consciously choosing parts of my online identity – a good picture that I can reuse no matter what hairstyle I have, and no Comic Sans MS anywhere ;) – but I don’t worry about being perfect. I have typos. I’m learning. I change my mind. It’s okay. It’s much more effective to focus on learning more and helping people more than it is to focus on how I want people to remember me. My parents always say, “Do what you love, and the money will follow.”* For personal branding, it’s also like that: do good stuff, and your reputation will follow.” (* Of course, you still need common sense and good habits, like frugality.)

Besides, a brand is about a consistent, enduring experience, and you don’t have that at the beginning. You get there eventually. It’s like startups: you can come up with your positioning on day 1, but all the posturing about being the best in the world won’t do you any good until you deliver on that promise enough for people to trust you. You have to have history, and you can’t have history unless you start.

Which brings me to findability. One of the questions the team asked me was how people should tag themselves so that they’re more findable. It’s like search-engine optimization for people, I guess. It’s useful in a crowded marketplace, but you’re better off focusing on other things when you’re starting out. If you focus on doing good stuff and helping people find out how you can help them, that leads to you becoming the go-to person for all sorts of things. It’s not about you tagging yourself “web2.0 social awesome”, it’s about other people and how you help them. Don’t worry about being findable. Focus on being worth finding.

If you do want to get more networking value for your time, think about the connectors in your network. You probably have at least one. You know, the people who are always introducing people to other people? Help them get to know you and how you can help other people. This is good because connectors frequently answer requests for introductions, and if they can connect someone with you so that you can solve that someone’s problem, everyone wins.

Anyway. Social media education. Your biggest challenges are fear, apathy, and inertia. Focus on encouraging people with role models, stories, coaching. Tell people and show them by example that it’s okay to learn, to experiment, to try things out.