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Static friction and socializing

When it comes to socializing, I have a high coefficient of static friction. I tend to stay in place. If I let too long go between get-togethers, I fall out of the habit of hosting them, the identity of someone who brings people together. I rarely ever want to go out. I drag my feet. I look for excuses to stay at home. I resist when invited, and only manage to make myself go because of social expectations.

When I’m there, though, sometimes it’s all right. Sometimes it’s awkward. But sometimes it’s fun and almost frictionless, and the time speeds by.

I should remember those times so that it’s easier to push myself to go out. The risks are small, anyway.

What makes some get-togethers feel okay? I like board games and card games. They create new situations for us to interact in and result in new in-jokes. They give my hands something to fiddle with. At the same time, there’s still space for conversation between rounds and during breaks. I find background conversations too distracting when I’m trying to work on something, so I prefer to work at home. Pair-hacking might be interesting, though. I like talking through complex things much more than conversations just about catching up. I like having a sense of accomplishment or learning.

The weather’s warming up, so maybe I’ll have a get-together sometime. Gotta ramp up to it again. Maybe I’ll check out Gamfternoon at HackLab.to. Maybe I’ll try going to more HackLab open houses. Maybe I’ll invite people over for a casual get-together. Daylight Savings Time kicked in, so I guess introvert hibernation mode is winding down… We’ll see!

What you’re really there to learn in computer science

You know that feeling of struggling to learn something that everyone else seems to have an easy time with? The one that makes you think, “Maybe this isn’t a good fit for me.” Or worse, “Maybe I’m not smart enough.”

That one.

Embrace it. Learn how to deal with it. This is the real hard work in a degree in computer science or IT or whatever. The rest is just implementation.

You see, there will always be more to learn. There will always be challenges to pick apart and overcome. If you’re not running into them, you’re not pushing yourself enough. There will always be those moments when you think, “How on earth do I even begin to learn how to solve this?”

You aren’t learning a computer language or a platform or a system of abstract concepts. You are learning a way of thinking. You are learning how to break down a big challenge into smaller pieces. You are learning how to try different approaches to understand and solve each small part. You are learning to set aside your worries and fears so that you can focus. You are learning how to adapt, even as changes come quicker and quicker. You are learning how to organize your thoughts. It just so happens that you’re organizing them in a way a computer can understand.

What can help you build your confidence? Start by building a small base of things you know well. Celebrate that. Expand through practice and curiosity. Ask for the help you need. If you don’t get it, fight on anyway. All learning feels weird in the beginning. It only becomes natural through repetition.

If you’re taking a course, learn what you have to learn, but leave yourself room to learn what you want to learn at your own pace. You don’t have to learn everything the first time around. If you know it takes you several tries to understand something, start before you take something up in class. That way, you’ll have better questions. Continue afterwards, too. Computer science lessons build on each other, like the way mathematics lessons do. They assume you understand the previous material. Practice and questions pay off.

There will always be people who have learned what you want to learn, or who will pick up things faster than you can. Most of these people are awesome. They know that your questions can help them learn even more, and they’re happy to pay it forward because people helped them too. Pay them back by writing about what you’ve learned and sharing that with them and others. Other people who are also learning will find your questions and answers useful, too. This is true whether you’re learning in class or on the Internet, so go ahead and share your journey.

There will always be some people who haven’t quite figured out their own insecurities – people who want to establish their position by putting you down. You can learn how to recognize what they’re doing. That makes it easier to ignore them. Don’t mind them if they try to make you feel bad for asking stupid questions. It just means they’re missing out on opportunities to learn how to ask and learn how to learn. Don’t partner with them. Look for people who help others up, not tear them down.

It is not easy to wrap your mind around new topics or break down a complex unknown. If you can get good enough at it, you may come to enjoy that excitement when a problem looks like it’s solvable. You’ll learn how to tell if you’re going in roughly the right direction. You’ll be able to celebrate even the tiniest progress. If you can do that, you’ll do fine.

Besides, the real world is little like the classroom. Even if you never get the hang of the artificial projects you do for education, you may find that you like working with technology. Don’t count yourself out just yet!

Sometimes I hear from students who find computer science intimidating. I hope this makes the big picture a little easier to see.

From networking with people to networking around ideas: How I stopped worrying about keeping in touch

I used to think a lot about how to keep track of the people I know, writing down notes about their interests in Emacs’ aptly named Big Brother Database (BBDB). I wanted to be the kind of person who could remember people’s goals and dreams, who paid attention to trivia from long-ago conversations. A little configuration allowed me to see my notes when reading or replying to e-mail from people, and I even wrote some code to track when I last contacted someone and filter the list of people so that I could focus on people I hadn’t talked to in a while. It was amusing to see a record and realize I’d actually known someone for years (these things sneak up on you before you know it!), and it was occasionally gratifying to be able to look up someone based on an interest I vaguely remembered them having and to make the connection with a book I’d just read or someone else they should meet.

I kept tweaking this system. Maybe there was a contact relationship management tool out there that could help me remember what was important to people’s lives or discover small-talk topics from people’s social media updates. Maybe there was an application that could help me act thoughtfully, beyond the usual flood of Facebook wall messages on someone’s birthday. Maybe there was a way for me to learn how to keep in touch. I asked people who networked for a living (mostly salespeople and politicians) how they managed to remember all these little details and reach out. They told me about spreadsheets and index cards, phone calls and e-mails: “Hi, how are you doing? Was just thinking of you. What’s up?” I was inspired by examples of super-connectors who somehow managed to remember everyone’s faces and names, asking after kids and pets and hobbies, effortlessly breaking through the limits of Dunbar’s number. (Or at least it seemed effortless; many worked very hard at this.) I tried out systems like Nimble and Contactually as a way to see people’s activity across platforms and remember to keep in touch. I tried ConnectedHQ (no longer available?) and Sunrise for people-related notes in my calendar. I followed Facebook and LinkedIn’s suggestions to greet people on their birthdays or job changes.

Still, those practices never quite felt natural. Maybe I’m just not a people person, at least not that kind. I never became comfortable with calling someone out of the blue, and I preferred posting stories on my blog instead of telling them one-on-one through e-mail or conversation.

I decided to try a different approach: I stopped worrying about keeping in touch. If people came into my life, great. If people drifted out, that was fine too. Instead of working on keeping those relationships going, I focused instead on being open to the conversations as they came up. Instead of reaching out so that I can hear about what people are working on and stay on their radar, I decided to focus on what I was curious about and be open to the people I’d bump into along the way.

Sure, I might have missed a few serendipitous connections with people who were quietly working on interesting things–but the world is full of other people who make it easy to keep up with them, like the way my blog makes it easy to keep up with what I’m interested in. I subscribe to a number of people’s blogs and I follow people on social networks. But for the most part, I care about ideas and conversations first, and then getting to know and keep in touch with people happens along the way.

It’s a very different form of networking, I think, than what I’ve read about in countless books. I still recommend books like How to Talk to Anyone (Lowndes) and Never Eat Alone (Ferrazzi) to people who are curious about building relationships with specific people or making the most of networking events. Me, I’m learning about how to talk to everyone. Instead of building a relationship with a specific person, I look for opportunities to help people around an idea or contribute to a group. Instead of asking a specific person for help, I ask in general, and people step forward if they’re interested. I don’t have to fear rejection, and no one has to look for tactful ways to say no; and if a request doesn’t get any takers, well, I’m where I would’ve been anyway.

In order to make that work, I need to make sure I have good ideas that people want to be part of, the confidence to share them, a platform for sharing them with, specific requests and ways people can get involved, and a way to celebrate how people are helping. I like that. It turns networking into something more than “I think you’re cool and I want to stay in touch” or even “You’re working on cool stuff; How can I help?” – it becomes “We’re all part of something bigger. Let’s make things happen.”

2014-01-05 How can I learn to bring people together
2014-01-05 How can I learn to bring people together

I’d been trying this approach over the past few years. Watching my dad do it was a real eye-opener. My dad works Facebook like a pro, posting ideas and stories and the occasional request. He has probably never taken notes on someone’s interests. He probably doesn’t spend time cataloging people’s goals and passions. As it turns out, he does take a few notes, and he asks my mom if he needs help remembering. (At least my sister says so!) Still, I don’t even know if it’s possible to remember all these little details about the thousands of Facebook friends that he has. If he got the hang of working with fan pages, he’d probably have even more fans. He might ask one or two people who come to mind, but in general, he shares and asks generally. And stuff happens!

2014-01-02 Making things happen

2014-01-02 Making things happen

I’m working on sharing, learning from people, asking for help, and making it easy for people to build on what we have in common. I’ll get there someday. It’s not so much that I want to keep in touch with a specific person; it’s that we’re both actively thinking about a topic, so maybe we’ll set up a conversation so we can exchange notes and learn together. It’s not so much that I want to have a wide range of skills in my roster of contacts; it’s more that I want to provide value to a wide range of people, and maybe some of them will want to help me when the opportunity comes up.

I was thinking about the way people are related to topics so that I can nudge myself to reach out more for questions and conversations. I like the idea of confederates: people who are actively learning about similar things, and whom I’m comfortable asking if I want a different perspective or I’m curious about what they’re learning. I don’t have any set schedule for reaching out to these people. If I learn something they might be interested in, I’ll mention it to them, but I’ll also open up the conversation to everyone who might be interested. When I started drawing out the map, I realized how lucky I was to have so many people I can learn from and who might find stuff I’m learning useful too. This is how I keep in touch now – through the exchange of questions and ideas.

2014-01-30 Confederates

2014-01-30 Confederates

So I might not build as close a relationship as you might with someone who takes the time to send you birthday cards or calls you up every quarter, but then do you really feel all that close to insurance or real estate agents who send you cards like clockwork? I don’t send “Hi, what’s up?” e-mails and I tend to not be very good at responding to them, but I’ll dive deeply into topics of mutual curiosity. My network is shifting to people who share what they know and what they’re learning. While that means I’m probably missing out on a lot of stuff that never gets shared beyond the small circles most people are comfortable in, there are so many good people out there focused on bringing everyone up–not just the people they’ve bumped into. It might also mean that I’m not as close to the people for whom these little gestures mean a lot, but it means that I draw closer to people who don’t have that need. It’s like the difference between someone who puts you on the spot when you forget your name and someone who helpfully supplies it at a hint of hesitation; someone who makes you feel bad for forgetting their birthday or anniversary or whatever, and someone who’s more focused on what’s good instead of what’s missing.

You don’t have to wish me a happy birthday, and you never have to apologize for replying slowly or not being in touch. Better to share your questions and ideas, and better to share that not just with me but with the world.

Learning from people

If I want to learn about more than I can explore in my own life, I’ll need to learn from other people. The easiest way to learn is from people who are already teaching: books, courses, and so on. Although I could probably spend my entire life doing so, it might be interesting to go beyond what I can learn from books and classes. That’s because books and classes have to be written for a certain kind of audience, and learning is further restricted by the time it takes to create these resources and the kind of people who can do so.

I can learn from coaches and mentors as well. Coaches may have explicitly thought about what they want to teach and how they want to teach it, but they customize the approaches and tips for each person (at least good ones do). Mentors might not have thought about the topics as much, so if I want to make the most of mentorship, I should get better at asking questions as well.

An interesting challenge is to learn from people who might not step forward as coaches or mentors. Some people have thought a lot about what they do as they improve it, but they might not have realized that other people would find that useful, or they might not have gotten around to sharing. Finding them is probably the key challenge; once we make the connection, we can have a geek-to-geek conversation. Other people do good stuff without having thought about how they do it – unconscious competence. In addition to the challenge of finding them, there’s also the challenge of articulating how and why they do things, maybe through interviews and observation.

2014-01-24 A path toward learning from people

2014-01-24 A path toward learning from people

I’m pretty decent at learning from books. I’m working on getting better at tracking how I came across a book so that I can thank people, and so that I can see the book in the context of the great conversation. I’m also working on translating ideas into actions and experiments. Books are familiar and well-understood.

2014-01-27 How can I improve my book-reading workflow

2014-01-27 How can I improve my book-reading workflow

Coaching, on the other hand… I could probably make better use of coaching, if I find good matches. Essentially, I’d be investing in faster insights and more effective learning. Could be worthwhile. What would make me say, “Yes, that was totally worth it. I grew in ways I couldn’t have done alone. Let’s continue.”? Path-finding, I think – a quick way to sort through decades of experience and all these resources.

2014-01-28 Understanding coaching in my life

2014-01-28 Understanding coaching in my life

What am I generally curious about? Systems, paths, estimates of effort and reward, other people to learn from, blind spots…

2014-01-15 General questions for coaches, role models, and mentors

2014-01-15 General questions for coaches, role models, and mentors

So that’s for formal coaching relationships. For informal learning, like the conversations we have over years of blog posts and the serendipitous connections we make on Twitter, I’m curious about getting stuff out of people’s heads and helping them share that with other people. People are learning all sorts of cool stuff, but (a) few people slow down and write about them, and (b) sometimes you really do need someone else to ask questions, so if I share what I’m curious about, maybe I can connect with people who have spent some time thinking about these things too.

Mel Chua and I were talking about interview techniques, and she mentioned how instant replays are great for helping people break things down. You watch people do something, you do an instant replay as you try to explain what they’re doing, they say “No, no, no, I did it because ____”, and you iterate until both of you have a clearer understanding. Sounds interesting. I wonder how we can do that online… Timothy Kenny‘s approach is like that too, except not in real-time. He analyzes the behaviour, and then discusses the model with people to see if it can be corrected or clarified.

Anyway, that’s my plan for getting better at learning from people – more conversations, and then eventually regular conversations. I think that will help me get to a more awesome place than I can on my own. =)

2014-01-15 Where I am and where I want to be

2014-01-15 Where I am and where I want to be

Have you deliberately worked on learning from people?

Exploring the idea of advice

I’ve been giving a lot of people advice lately (Google Helpouts, lunches/coffee with people, and so on), which is weird for me because I hedge what I say when I’m writing on my own. My blog posts focus more on the “Here’s what I tried, and here’s how it’s working for me” rather than “You should do X, Y, Z.”  When someone asks me a question or describes a challenge they’re facing, though, I have no problems offering suggestions.

I thought about what advice is like and how I can give it more effectively. I realized that there are actually lots of different ways you can help people by talking to them, and it’s not all about saying “You should do X, Y, Z” with minimal understanding of the other person’s situation. Here’s what I came up with:

2013-11-20 Exploring the idea of advice

(Click on the image for a larger version)

I’ve read about and tried a lot of approaches, so I really like the “Have you thought about…” way of helping people. I do that after a few “Tell me about…” so I understand the person’s context and we can build on things they’ve already tried. Sometimes people ask me about how I make decisions too, so I’m happy to walk people through that. (Especially if I’ve already documented it!) On rare occasions, I can tell people the name of the thing they’re looking for (ex: spaced repetition! cloze deletion!) which unlocks all these resources for them. When I’m writing on my own, I like using “Don’t miss… / Watch out for…” to help people save time.

Giving advice still feels odd. I definitely don’t want to become an “I know better than you” sort of person. I like using questions more than declarations anyway. Maybe I’ll find an approach that works for me!

How do you share what you know? How do you help others learn?

Google Helpouts update: Helping people learn, thinking about business strategies

After a few weeks of occasional 15-minute Google Helpout sessions with people interested in improving their learning and note-taking skills, I’ve learned a little more about what I like and what I want to focus on. It’s mind-boggling, but it turns out that I can actually help people with stuff. Yay!

I started with free sessions, and quite a few of my early Helpouts were with university and graduate students looking for ways to get through lectures and prepare for exams. I picked up a lot of questions and put together additional resources, which I’ve been sharing through Flickr (see the Learning category). Since the Helpouts were free, I thought about what would make it worth my time and theirs.

2013-11-06 Helping students with study skills

I got a number of inquiries from parents who were interested in helping their kids study better. I felt less comfortable doing that, although I didn’t run into the scenario I was most worried about, since the parents I talked to were generally upbeat about their kids’ studies.

2013-11-18 How do I feel about parents asking me if I can help their kids study

I decided to put together some quick tips anyway, building on our experiences with helping J- and her friends study. Then I revised my listing to focus on self-directed learners.

2013-11-18 Helping your child study

So far, it seems to be going well. Getting reviews like this makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. =)

Sacha was cheerful and obviously passionate about ways to make learning fun. As she introduced me to the various approaches of visual note taking I was surprised at how much freedom it gave me to personalize my notes. Newly armed with the confirmation that doodling is OK I’m excited to see how it effects my attention & recall of topics I’m less interested in. Sacha covered all the basics I needed to get started & even listed some online sites where I can learn more. I definitely recommend this Helpout! - James Derieg

I’d like Google Helpouts to flourish as a platform, and I enjoy participating in the private Helpouts Discuss G+ community with the other providers. It’s great to see lots of people experiment with business strategies and approaches for Google Helpouts. For me, I’m not (yet) planning to build a business out of it. I see it mostly as a way to make it easier for people to schedule quick one-on-one chats with me, and if I happen to help other people with what I’ve learned (and collect lots of great questions to write/draw about!), all the better.

2013-11-21 Google Helpouts Business Strategies

Google Helpouts also has to make sense for Google in the long run, too. Otherwise this might go the way of Google Wave and Google Reader! So I put my tech evangelist/strategist hat on and thought about some of the possible futures for Google Helpouts.

2013-11-18 Imagining Helpouts futures

 

We’ll just have to see how it goes!

I’m not opening up any Helpouts slots in December because I don’t know what my schedule will be like, but you can check out the resources I’ve shared at http://sach.ac/learn and sign up for updates on upcoming Hangouts on Air and new Helpouts availability. Let’s keep experimenting!