Category Archives: decision

Choosing openness and scale

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Summary: Until June 2014, I’m focusing on work that’s either public or that reaches an audience of 10,000+. 

I’m celebrating my 30th birthday next month. To get a sense of where I’ve come from and where I want to go, I’ve been reviewing more than ten years of blog posts. If I didn’t have my archive, the years would be a blur. The posts help me remember the significant events that happened, and then I can remember other details around those.

Here is something I’m starting to realize: Whatever isn’t written down—whatever isn’t published—gets forgotten. Private notes? Lost in computer migrations and disorganized files. E-mail? Too many to go through.  Photos? Few and far between. Things I’ve shared with other people? That comes back, even when I’ve completely forgotten about sharing it in the first place.

There’s this amazing thing that happens when you have an external brain: people make the connections for you. People comment on blog posts years after I post them, which is great at bringing things back to mind. Longest gap between blog post and comment: 3,410 days (a little over 9 years!) on this post on literate programming, which I wrote long before Org Mode made it super-easy to publish websites with code. Google Analytics shows me that a post from 2010 still gets more than a thousand views a month, and quite a few older posts get hundreds of views a month. My oldest source code available on the Web? This fractal-drawing program I wrote in 1997, when I was in high school. People help me remember and inspire me to learn more.

Good things probably also happened with the confidential workshops and projects that I worked on, but it’s harder to point to them and say, “Oh, that’s where those years went.” The things I’ve shared help me feel that I put the time to good use, especially as they keep providing value.

Open = good.

Putting my time where my philosophy is

Now that I’m on my own, I can choose what to spend my time on. One of the decisions I’ve been working my way through is whether I should work (almost) exclusively on open things: ideas, code, and resources that I can share with other people.

What if I stop accepting requests for confidential work, and focus instead on what can be opened up? I have the space to do that, and it makes decisions so much easier.

I can make an exception for work that meets my desire for scale – perhaps directly affecting more than 10,000 people (even with a small effect) in a searchable, semi-public way. For example, I still hear from IBMers who come across the blog posts I shared on the intranet, and that makes me happy. As for small-scale confidential work… other people can handle that, and they can handle that happily.

Considering the opportunity cost

What would I give up by focusing on only open projects?

  • I might not get a behind-the-scenes look at interesting industries or topics. Sketchnoting is great because it’s a good reason to get into events that I would probably never get to attend or present at on my own. Many events have a closed audience (no public recordings/notes, etc.) to maintain the value of event attendance or provide participants with a more open forum. By focusing only on public events, I’ll skip those closed events… but chances are that I wouldn’t get as much personal value from them anyway, and I can always read or talk to people outside my usual fields.
  • I’ll reduce my income potential. More money helps me increase my buffer, which reduces risk and improves my ability to take advantage of opportunities. Still, I can keep my expenses low, and I can invest in getting even better at creating value through pay-what-you-can resources. I don’t need the money from these other engagements, so I can experiment more.

What are the benefits of focusing on openness?

  • I like the people I work with. People who understand the awesomeness of sharing tend to be awesome themselves, and I also benefit from great conversations with lots of other people.
  • We get tons of value from the things I create. The value isn’t just limited to the particular event or solution, but goes on and on.
  • I have more long-term growth potential. I don’t have to worry about what I’m allowed to share or not allowed to share, and I can build on the things I’ve created.

Okay. I think we can do this. From this time until my 31st birthday next year, I’m going to apply the following decision criteria to the professional work that I accept:

  • Can we share the results publicly, or with an audience of more than 10,000 people? Consider for “yes”.
  • If not, politely decline and refer to someone else.

If exceptional circumstances come up (say, something happens to W- and I need to return to work), I can change my mind about this, but let’s give it a try.

Other notes

SQL query for finding longest time between post and comment in WordPress:

SELECT TO_DAYS(c.comment_date) – TO_DAYS(p.post_date) AS days, comment_post_ID FROM wp_comments c INNER JOIN wp_posts p ON c.comment_post_id=p.ID WHERE comment_type NOT IN (“pingback”, “trackback”) AND comment_approved != “spam” ORDER BY days DESC limit 5;

 

Thinking about movies

It’s getting harder to spend on leisure, because I’m getting so much better at talking myself out of it. There are just so many other good alternatives.

For example: Iron Man 3 has started showing in Canada. I’ve skipped watching most movies in the theatres, but I do like superhero movies, and theatres are great for superhero movies because they make the movies larger than life. I like the outsized situations that the writers put the superheroes in and how they have to get them out. I like the way the movies push visual effects forward without taking themselves too seriously. So I’m going to watch it at some point. I just have to decide…

  • Do I watch it in the movie theatre during opening weekend, as a vote for more movies like that, maybe with W-?
  • $26 for two tickets
  • Can lead to rich in-joke material
  • Good sound and perfect playback (no worries about scratches)
  • Larger than life / immersive
  • Immediate gratification
  • Focused attention
  • Do I watch it in the movie theatre as a social event, which probably means a weekend get-together with friends?
    • $25-35, depending on dinner
    • Bonding time with friends – find out what’s going on in their lives
    • Buying tickets and organizing seating can be difficult
    • Good sound and perfect playback (no worries about scratches)
    • Larger than life / immersive
    • Short-term gratification
    • Focused attention
  • Do I watch it in the movie theatre off-peak, which probably means mid-day sometime during the week?
    • $13 by myself, or possibly with other friends who also have flexible schedules
    • Better seats
    • Good sound and perfect playback (no worries about scratches)
    • Larger than life / immersive
    • Short-term gratification
    • Focused attention
  • Do I wait for it to be available in the library, so that I can watch it with W- at home?
    • Free
    • Can lead to rich in-joke material
    • Writing time or cat time
    • Can watch with subtitles
    • Can pause and rewind
    • Can watch extended material, commentary
    • Can talk to W- while hanging out (extra in-jokes and movie references!)
    • Comfy seats, clean floor (no spilled popcorn or drinks)
    • I can read IMDB trivia and tvtropes entries or research interesting ideas

    And you know, that library option is looking pretty darn tempting. The biggest downsides are a less immersive experience and a longer wait. I don’t need big sound or big images to get into a story (I can imagine things from books). Watching musicals from closer to the stage was much better in terms of being able to see facial expressions, so there’s something for that.

    It takes a while for movies to be released on DVD, and some more time for the library to obtain copies. The DVDs are available on a catch-as-catch-can basis at various branches, and then they’re available for general holds after a year. New items are released on the 15th of every month. W- and I check the new listings on the 15th or 16th, by which time there are sometimes hundreds of holds for popular movies. For example, The Avengers (2012) has 992 holds for 107 copies. Movies can be checked out or renewed a week at a time, and transit between branches takes another day or two. That means that requesting a popular movie like the Avengers would mean a wait of maybe a year and a half from when the movie was released, which is actually not that big a deal because we’ve got a ton of other things to watch. Besides, sometimes we luck out. In this particular case, the Annette Street branch is the home branch for one of the Avengers DVD copies, so we spotted it during our regular library walk and we checked it out even before it was available for general holds. =)

    Popular movies tend to be well-stocked, and I have three branches in easy reach: Annette, Runnymede, and Jane. The Hobbit was another movie that I decided to wait for as a library release, and writing this blog post reminded me that I should go look for it. It’s not available for general release yet, but one copy is due at Runnymede tomorrow and another is due at Annette on Monday. I might bump into it one of these days. If not, I can wait for it to become available for holds on October 15. (Hmm, time to set a reminder…)

    Besides, there’s so much else to do, and so many other movies, shows, books, and games out there. We can keep ourselves endlessly entertained if we want to with just the things we have. So it really comes down to the question: what do I want?

    • I want to be delighted by and learn from storytelling.
    • I like the way that shared movies turn into great in-jokes between W- and me, layers of references building on other references.
    • It would be nice to spend time with friends, but there are other things I can do to spend time with friends.

    So probably library, then, for this and most other movies. W- says, “That’s a lot of thinking about $26.” But it’s this gradual shaping of wants and desires that creates the space for even more possibilities later.

    The less I want, the more I can enjoy.

    Deliberate performance

    In “Deliberate performance: accelerating expertise in natural settings”, Peter J. Fadde and Gary A. Klein suggest the following conditions for improving performance even during regular work:

    • Repetition through practice and observation of other people: Watching other people and learning from them can help learners not only practise more, but also evaluate more different situations.
    • Timely feedback: not just performance reviews by supervisors, but also self-feedback and unambiguous measures
    • Task variety: that way, you don’t end up memorizing the same things. Helped by observing other people.
    • Progressive difficulty

    and the following types of exercises:

    • Estimation: Time or resources needed. You can do this even for activities that are not directly estimated. The authors give the example of estimating how long agenda items will take and how much they’ll be resolved.
    • Experimentation: Types of experimentation (Schön):
      • Exploratory – getting the hang of things
      • Move-testing – trying something out in order to see the effect
      • Hypothesis testing – comparing hypotheses
    • Extrapolation: Learning from prior incidents in order to improve your mental models
    • Explanation

    They give a great example of how to deliberately practise public speaking, which is well worth reading. It reminds me of how I get a lot of value out of the presentations I sit in, even if they cover familiar content; I look at the style, I reorganize the content, I doodle new visuals. There are so many opportunities to practise.

    What else do I want to get better at, and how am I working on it?

    Decision-making is one of those super-useful skills. I write many decisions down, and I occasionally post my decision analyses. From time to time, I revisit the decisions to see if my assumptions were correct. I experiment with different alternatives and with different methods for making decisions. I’m learning a little from my past decisions. I’d really love to learn from other people’s decisions, which is why I enjoy reading blogs like Lean Decisions.

    Learning is another useful meta-skill. I can estimate how much time I need in order to learn something, and how much I can retain from different study methods. I can experiment with different ways to learn and review information. I can extrapolate based on past “tests”. I can explain how I’m doing.

    Drawing is one of the skills that might be good to practise, too. I can estimate how much space and time I need to represent various topics clearly. I can experiment with different ways to draw and organize information. I can extrapolate based on other people’s drawings and my own. I can explain what makes something work and what makes something less understandable.

    Development is fun and useful. I’m used to estimating how much time I need to code something, and I’m reasonably good at doing so. I could estimate how many lines it would take or what the logical structure would be like. I can experiment with different platforms and programs. I can increase my repetition by reading other people’s code and talking to other people about their projects, so that I can extrapolate from those experiences. I can explain what I’m doing, how I’m trying to debug something, or what caused a bug.

    I’ve mentioned friendship, too. I can estimate the time and resources for different activities, the effect on me, and the perceived effects on others. I can experiment. I might be able to extrapolate from past experiences and from stories (maybe time to read more fiction). I can try to explain what works and what’s felt a bit weird.

    With Emacs Org, it’s easy to verify my time estimates for tasks, and I can build in reminders to review my decisions too.

    To round off this post, I want to share this quote from the article: “The purpose of deliberate performance experimentation, then, is to generate more surprises and more opportunities for reflection-in-action.” Sometimes when people find out how much I think about things, they wonder if that gets rid of the surprise. I find that thinking leads to more surprises, not fewer. I want to build more surprises and more reflection into my life. =)

    Links:

    Decision update: HackLab.TO

    Based on my analysis, I decided to sign up for hacklab.to, a coworking space tucked into Kensington Market here in Toronto. I dropped by on Wednesday and Friday last week.

    Let me check how I’m doing against my success criteria. In nine months, what do I want to happen, and how am I making progress?

    • I know more about other geeks in Toronto thanks to ambient conversations and helping each other out.
      • I chatted with Chim about his job interviews, with Justin about biking and electronics, with Eric about friendship, and with Nick and Adam about duct tape
      • Working on getting better by remembering people’s faces, names, and interests
    • I’m better at asking people for help when I get stuck, and at setting myself tougher challenges knowing that people can help
      • Haven’t tried this yet
      • Maybe business questions and referrals to accountants?
    • I’ve dug into some of the more difficult things that are easier to learn with other people who can help me. For example: web development, mobile development, electronics
      • Haven’t tried this yet, just settling in and getting some writing done
      • Maybe Arduino?
    • I’ve gotten better at sketching ideas, asking other people for feedback, and fleshing out the ones that get people interested
      • Haven’t tried it yet
      • Hmm, what can I build that people here might find useful?
    • I’ve improved serendipity (test different laptop cues to talk? talk to people about what they’re working on?)
      • Started making conversation about people’s projects
      • Laptop drawing is useful; maybe swap in a new one next week
    • I go to HackLab 1-2 times a week, and sometimes more often if the weather is great.
      • Did so!
      • Easier if I commit to the idea of being here and I use Justin’s heuristic of buying transit passes during the winter months
    • I’m good at managing my focus (do not disturb / yes, talk to me)
      • Pretty good so far, but I haven’t tested it by working on anything that required a lot of concentration.
      • Server hum is slightly distracting, but I can use my headphones or play music.
    • I’m good at talking to new people and hanging out with the regulars
      • Progress!
      • Flashcards and memory will probably help.

    I also survived my initial run-in with the alarm, so that’s another milestone passed – I now know how to properly let myself in. It’s probably a good idea to practice arming the alarm and letting myself out, which would be another milestone.

    Thinking about joining HackLab.to

    I’ve been taking month-long sprints of focusing on other interests, but now I’m getting ready to scale consulting back even further – enough to consider signing up for a coworking space like HackLab or ING Direct.

    Here are some options:

    • A. Work on the kitchen table. Convenient, and I’ve survived the quiet before. It’s nice to be able to nap or go for a walk. W- occasionally works from home, so I can spend time with him. I can “bump into” ideas and people online, and build up more of a visible reputation.
    • B. Work in the basement or in the spare room. I can set up things the way I want them. I can practise drawing on large sheets of paper.
    • C. Work out of cafes. I can meet people without inviting them to the house or cleaning up. May be crowded, noisy, and expensive. Difficult to leave things or set up.
    • D. Work at a no-commitment co-working space once in a while. (Probably Network Orange, with their meeting rooms and lovely colour printer.) Flexible, although a bit further away.
    • E. Work at a co-working space with a monthly fee, and use the sunk costs to encourage me to go more often.
      • E1: HackLab ($50/month, no meeting room): hardware and software geeks, 3D printers, wearable computing
      • E2: Network Orange ($20 pass, $100 40 hours)
      • E3: MaRS ($25 day pass; $75/mo 1 day a week + 3 hours meeting room): Technology/entrepreneurship incubated companies
      • E4: Centre for Social Innovation ($125 for 20 hours + 3 hours meeting room) + $125 setup fee: social organizations
      • E5: Foundery ($25 pass; $190 10 day access, 90 minutes Boardroom): ?
      • E6: Co:Work ($20 pass; $175 part-time, 8-person meeting room): ?

    Other things to consider:

    • I don’t plan to be at the coworking space most evenings. If I don’t have an event, I prefer to spend evenings at home. I’ll probably be there mid-morning to late afternoon or early evening.
    • I prefer to go when I can bike there. Free exercise is a plus, and I don’t have to buy TTC tokens. It takes me 30-45 minutes to get downtown.
    • Hacklab has a kitchen, not just a kitchenette, and people like cooking/sharing.
    • I know many people at Hacklab, so talking to people might be easier. I can learn more about co-working there, such as getting used to asking questions and being asked questions. (Also, dealing with the distractions of other people working on cool stuff.)
    • MaRS and CSI are a little more spread-out than Hacklab is because of the space, so it’s less distracting. I don’t know what the Hacklab dynamics will be when Hacklab moves to the new building in June, but it will probably be all right.
    • There’s a bit of a hum from the servers in Hacklab, but I can probably work around that with off-one-ear headphones, and the new building might fix it too.

    So let’s say I’m going to go to Hacklab for at least 9 months if my membership application is approved. How would I want to grow in order for me to consider it a successful investment? Who would that future Sacha be like?

    • I know more about other geeks in Toronto thanks to ambient conversations and helping each other out.
    • I’m better at asking people for help when I get stuck, and at setting myself tougher challenges knowing that people can help
    • I’ve dug into some of the more difficult things that are easier to learn with other people who can help me. For example: web development, mobile development, electronics
    • I’ve gotten better at sketching ideas, asking other people for feedback, and fleshing out the ones that get people interested
    • I’ve improved serendipity (test different laptop cues to talk? talk to people about what they’re working on?)
    • I go to HackLab 1-2 times a week, and sometimes more often if the weather is great.
    • I’m good at managing my focus (do not disturb / yes, talk to me)
    • I’m good at talking to new people and hanging out with the regulars

    Initial investment $~500 before I re-evaluate. I think I can make it work wonderfully. I’ll probably learn much more than I can anticipate now. The upside potential of connections and learning is better than the upside potential of staying home. The downside potential (time and opportunity cost; distractability) doesn’t look like a big deal.

    I wonder how I can track the benefits and potential disadvantages. If I track my focus tasks each day that I go and I record serendipitous conversations and the giving/receiving of help, I think that might give me an interesting picture. I can use the same focus tasks idea to track my productivity at home, and I can track if I’m proactively “bumping” into other people online (either asking for or giving help) or how I’m interacting with people.

    Okay then! Experiment on.

    An embarrassing failure is the result of a series of unfortunate decisions, and that’s a good thing

    Failures can be caused by all sorts of factors, but an embarrassing failure exposes the unfortunate decisions along the way. This is a wonderful thing. While it’s easy to shrug off other kinds of failures as bad luck or bad timing, embarrassment is a clue that there are many things you can improve. It is that ever so human emotion when you know you haven’t been your best – and it points to what better looks like.

    For example, last Thursday, I’d scheduled a 3pm call to talk about sketchnotes. I had noticed some power problems with my phone and had drained my battery several days in a row. I usually managed to squeak by with my backup battery, but I had misplaced it on Wednesday night, so I didn’t get to charge it. I tucked a USB cable into my backpack so that I could charge my phone off my computer – or at least I thought I did, as I couldn’t find that when I searched my bag right after settling in. I switched to low-power mode and that seemed to slow things down, so I figured that 70% charge would probably be enough to get me to the afternoon. After a meeting, I checked on my phone… and found it practically dead. I bought an overpriced USB cable from a nearby electronics store and plugged it into the computer. The cellphone was discharging faster than it could charge, though, even though I wasn’t using it. And then it was time for the call.

    After a few attempts, I had to admit defeat and reschedule. Fortunately, the person I was going to talk to was very understanding, and we managed to sort things out over Twitter. Even with that resolution and my subsequent return to regular work, I was stressed. I could still feel that rush of adrenalin after trying to scramble some kind of a solution. Although I knew I could still do well, I also knew that stress messed with my brain and made me more likely to overlook other important things.

    I also knew that this lingering stress was unnecessary. We’d rescheduled. The worst-case scenario would probably have been being perceived as a flaky unprofessional person, but that was temporary, bounded, and not part of who I was. I could do something to make it better. (Locus of control – useful thing to know about!)

    So I made a list of many things I could have done to make it better, and that helped me clear my mind a little. I got back to work, focusing on some analytics that I knew would give me the pleasure of a few small wins. I was tired enough to leave my scarf behind and then to not be sure about whether I locked my cabinet (needing two extra trips up the elevator to retrieve one and confirm the other) – but at least I remembered before going on the subway. Glass half full.

    I still went to fitness class, where W- met me with a bag of clothes and my shoes. It was a struggle to get through that class as well – oh no, more moments of suckiness! – but I got through it anyway. It’s important to learn how to do things even though you don’t feel like it.

    Anyway, back to the good things about embarrassing failures: there are lots of things that I can fix, and I can prioritize them based on effort and benefit. Phone-wise, I found out how to use Titanium Backup to uninstall a large number of applications at once. My battery life has improved. I’ve ordered an extended battery, which should allow my backup battery to be a backup again. Routine-wise, I’ve created checklists in Evernote. Checklists are wonderful. Life-wise, I think it’s time to make myself a little more space – sometimes these are symptoms of trying to pack in a little too much.

    20130118 phone

    This is good. I’m learning to not beat myself up, and to celebrate the ways I can improve things and move forward.

    Another step forward, perhaps, would be to be able to do this before embarrassing failure highlights the need – like the way defensive drivers (and cyclists, and walkers…) constantly scan for opportunities to go wrong and plan what to do. To balance that building of a strong safety net (several safety nets, in fact) with the ability to let go and fly – that will be a wonderful thing to learn.