Category Archives: experiment

From dreams to experiments

Since my childhood, my parents have always told me to follow my dreams. It wasn’t just the usual maxim passed on from books and the child-raising culture of the time. I had proof of the power of dreams in the adventures of my father.

I talked to my parents last weekend. They’re a little worried about me during this amorphous 5-year experiment with semi-retirement. Am I doing okay? Am I following my dreams?

At that moment, I realized that I’d found something that resonates with me even more than dreams do. I’m not following my dreams. I’m doing something stranger and more exciting to me. I’m experimenting.

2015-05-10e Plans, dreams, and experiments -- index card #experiment #mindset

2015-05-10e Plans, dreams, and experiments – index card #experiment #mindset

I’d reflected on the difference between plans and experiments, and dreams are like that too. A plan has a certain end. A dream is a plan with passion and maybe a long-term story: “I’ve always wanted to…”. There’s that sense of certainty when you’re following your dream. You know where you want to go, and you know what progress you’re making towards it. You can feel it in every fibre.

I want something else.

I want the experiment. Uncertainty. Learning. I seek out in myself where the vision is still uncertain, where there’s not enough data from other people’s lives.

It’s neat being able to trace my growth over time. In 2012, I became more comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” In 2013, I started letting go of the need for certainty, for clearly defined passions. In 2014, I found a metaphor that resonated with me: exploration. Now I know that I want this more than I want to check off boxes. I find myself the most curious about the things that are hardest to explain, going further away from common experience.

I could not have dreamed what I’m learning now. I’m well into territory that my younger self couldn’t have imagined. I didn’t know it was possible, then. Even now, I don’t know the full range of possibilities. I’m not entirely clear on what awesomeness would look like. But I’m curious, and exploring is its own adventure. Wherever I end up, I’m sure it will be somewhere my present self can’t picture.

I don’t dream of being happy, and it’s not something I pursue. That’s is because I am happy. I see happiness as a deliberate response to the world: a steadfast focus on what’s good about life.

If I strive for anything, it’s equanimity. But even that is in my grasp as soon as I want it. Equanimity isn’t a destination to arrive at. It’s something to practice. Only time and trial can tell.

Aside from equanimity, what else is there to want? I’m as comfortable as I could be: roof, food, resources, tools, community, access to knowledge. Even those things are not essential. People have lived greater lives with less.

I don’t dream of mansions or influence or fame. I don’t need to wait for these things. Knowing that makes me free to appreciate and make the most of my current life.

I want a mind that takes everything as fuel. I want to turn both victories and obstacles into springboards. A thought: How can I intensify this experiment? How can I get better at learning?

  • Reading and re-reading can help me identify role models, build on other people’s wisdom, find the words to describe what I’m thinking, and combine interesting ideas.
  • Developing practical skills increases my independence and enjoyment. Sewing, electronics, and woodworking might be good candidates to focus on.
  • Writing and drawing might help me find people who resonate with these ideas. If I’m lucky, we might even explore them together.
  • With self-care as a solid foundation, I can slowly grow outwards to encompass more within my circle of influence.
  • To do that, I’m learning more about playing with the world: negotiating changes, developing relationships, applying energy and enthusiasm. We’ll see how it turns out!

It’s odd – I’m still not a big fan of uncertainty when it comes to physical space. Spur-of-the-moment road trips? That would drive me up the wall. I like having autonomy and being able to manage my levels of stimulation. But there are some kinds of uncertainty in life that have a different flavour to them, and that’s what I want to explore.

Is this, then, my dream? It seems so different from the usual dreams that it’s understandably hard for other people to understand. It feels constantly novel and evolving, instead of being a fixed North Pole for my journey. It is what it is, I guess, and I’ll explore it while I have the space to do so.

Quiet afternoons and weeks

I work about one day a week, sometimes less: enough to keep interesting things on the go at my consulting client, and with plenty of space for other things in my life.

2015-04-23e Working once a week -- index card #consulting #pace #experiment

2015-04-23e Working once a week – index card #consulting #pace #experiment

It’s been a little tricky working once a week, since the communication gaps are much wider than they were with a twice-a-week schedule. I could probably not work, but I like the team and the work we do. My client would be happy to have me work more hours, but I like the rest of my week, too.

2015-04-14c Work vs Explore -- index card #self-direction #experiment

2015-04-14c Work vs Explore – index card #self-direction #experiment

Still, it’s not quite like the extra-long weekend that W- sometimes jokes about. At home, I’m not sure if I’m using my day the best I could, but I’m also not keen on cramming it just because I can. There’s something to be said about being patient and working through my mediocrity as I learn the skills for self-direction. Exploring is not as clear-cut as working, but I hope it will still be useful.

2015-05-03b Shifting visions of success -- index card #experiment #success

2015-05-03b Shifting visions of success – index card #experiment #success

It’s hard to want anything too different from what I have now. My quiet, flexible life is more tempting than, say, entrepreneurial success.

2015-05-03c Tracing evolution of wild success -- index card #experiment #success

2015-05-03c Tracing evolution of wild success – index card #experiment #success

I know that I hadn’t always wanted this, but I think that was mostly because I hadn’t even considered it a possibility. In university and grad school, I wanted to teach, catalyzing students’ enthusiasm and learning. As a consultant, I enjoyed working with great people on awesome things. Work-life balance and happiness was already on my radar, though. And now that this is here, and this is a possibility… I like it. I would like it to continue. I would like to figure out how to get really good at it, although I’m not quite sure what “good” and “it” and “really” are in this case.

2015-05-04a More than quiet afternoons -- index card #experiment #pace

2015-05-04a More than quiet afternoons – index card #experiment #pace

But there’s still a little bit of restlessness, especially when I feel fuzzy. There’s still that urge to check something off a list, the desire to feel momentum, that feeling of wanting validation, even after three years of trying to get used to self-direction. I think it would be good for me to keep getting used to this, relaxing into it. There might be something interesting there, in between ambition and a narrowly-circumscribed life…

Learning from a diversity of ways to live a significant life

I have plenty of role models in terms of people who’ve done wonderful things as part of regular careers and entrepreneurs who’ve created products or services. I even have a few role models who’ve explored alternative paths: simple living, writing, arts, crafts, trades… I love having such a diversity of life paths illuminated for me, with so many examples of people doing well.

I’ve been thinking about the path that I might take. The path of growing outwards – self, household, close relationships, and beyond – seems unusual, or at least harder to find information on. It feels a little feminine, I think, skewed towards domesticity. I think that’s part of the appeal for me. I want to take the skills I’ve learned in the mostly-male world of the technologies I’ve learned, and apply those skills in areas that might not be gender-balanced for a long time. This way I can maximize learning and difference-making.

2015-04-10b Reflecting on paths for living a meaningful life -- index card #experiment #evil-plans

2015-04-10b Reflecting on paths for living a meaningful life – index card #experiment #evil-plans

The impression I sometimes get from stories of startup founders is that they jump so quickly to imagining and building a service or product instead of developing deep understanding of needs, people, systems, opportunities… I know that doing things is a great way to learn things – fail fast and fail often – but I’m also curious about developing my understanding by other ways. I imagine that if I do this well, I’ll gradually develop the relationships and insights that would help me make a good difference. In the meantime, I can focus on improving myself, helping and connecting with people, and taking and sharing my notes.

2015-04-20e At peace with a small life -- index card #experiment

2015-04-20e At peace with a small life – index card #experiment

It’s getting easier and easier to not be tempted to shortcut this process. At a recent party, I was talking to a serial entrepreneur who was looking for a successor he could mentor. He seemed to derive a great deal of pride from having created a wonderful product, and it was well-deserved.

He asked me if I had created any products that could be identified with me, and if I wanted to. Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that no, I don’t particularly need to work toward that kind of significance right now. I’m happy to continue my experiment to at least the 5-year mark that I had initially set for myself, and possibly longer.

2015-04-19c 5-year plan vs 5-year experiment -- index card #experiment

2015-04-19c 5-year plan vs 5-year experiment – index card #experiment

The 5-year experiment thing boggled him too. I think he was thinking of it more as a 5-year plan: have a certain goal, get there with actions and the occasional workaround. I think of this 5-year experiment as creating a safe space for me to explore and learn, and the timeframe is there to prevent me from running back into my comfort zone too early.

I guess I could describe my aims this way: I work towards cultivating happiness/equanimity and producing understanding as my first two priorities. At this point, I’m not working towards wide impact, fame, influence, or money. I might get to that someday, but I’d like those first two things well-covered first.

2015-04-20f Experiment timeline -- index card #experiment

2015-04-20f Experiment timeline – index card #experiment

When might I move on from this phase? It’s not that I don’t think I’m ready, that I’m waiting for the stars to line up, or that I feel constrained to do this right now. I’m stacking the deck, and I’m collecting people and ideas.

2015-04-20h Conditions for considering a startup -- index card #experiment #startup

2015-04-20h Conditions for considering a startup – index card #experiment #startup

What will likely happen is that, after I figure out a little more about life, I’ll have these relationships with people I strongly want to help as a business partner or as a provider (preferably both). For example, if W- wants to start a business, or if I resonate strongly with a friend’s idea, I might dig into it more deeply. But I’d still want to see if we could build a company without making the personal health or relationship sacrifices that you often hear about in entrepreneurship circles. I’d want people to still get good sleep and spend time with other people who are important to them.

So that’s how my Evil Plans might unfold…

Being extra-kind to myself

I enjoy an awesome life in general, so it feels a little indulgent to focus on making it better. But for the next few weeks, I think I’ll experiment by being even kinder to myself. It’s not just a matter of spending the entire day reading or playing video games… (On the plus side, W- and J- are avid players of the Persona RPG series too, so we get to joke about the game and swap notes.)

2015-04-17b Being extra-kind to myself -- index card #self-care

2015-04-17b Being extra-kind to myself – index card #self-care

I think it’s about paying attention to the kinds of things that give me (and other people) joy, and finding a great balance. If I read too much without writing or trying things out, I feel disconnected. If I play too much, my brain feels buzzy. I enjoy other things too: cooking, taking care of things, cuddling the cats… I derive a lot of pleasure from creating a good life for myself and for the people closest to me. Oh, and there are little splurges that aren’t actually all that expensive: strawberries while they’re sweet, seeds and starters, 100% cotton fabric. (Maybe as an extra treat, I’ll buy a yard of a Liberty print and see what all the fuss is about).

Mm. Yes, I think I’ll cultivate these as my favourite ways of self-care:

  • paying attention to and appreciating life
  • making things, imagining them, tweaking them, improving my skills

in addition to the other ways I’ve been keeping my life relaxed and open.

2015-03-25a Learning about taking care of myself -- index card #self-care

2015-03-25a Learning about taking care of myself – index card #self-care

I changed my mind about the e-mail thing, by the way. I rather like this relaxed approach to e-mail. I want to see if I can continue doing it, maybe even quiet that occasionally guilty part of me that worries about messing up other people’s plans.

2015-04-17e Slowing down e-mail -- index card #email #slow #relax #experiment #semi-retirement

2015-04-17e Slowing down e-mail – index card #email #slow #relax #experiment #semi-retirement

I figure it’s as good a time as any to get even better at self-care. Dig your well before you’re thirsty, after all. Build your skills and habits before you need them.

2015-03-25b Why have I focused on self-care -- index card #self-care

2015-03-25b Why have I focused on self-care – index card #self-care

Considering tech and the home

I came across an interesting exercise in Barbara Sher’s I Could Do Anythng If I Only Knew What It Was: to pick a scenario and try fully committing to it, even just for a little while.

Let’s say that this current lifestyle is the thing that I’m going to fully explore. I’ve started thinking of it as blending technology and non-technology interests, building a little on the idea of exploring that future where tech is more integrated into the home. I’m not the only one exploring it (yay!), but there aren’t that many people with the opportunities to do so yet, so maybe I can bring some useful ideas and insights to it.

So: laser cutting and sewing, Emacs and cooking, days with the abundance of time that science fiction writers used to predict we’d enjoy.

What would this life look like, carried to its fullest extent? What steps can I take to move towards that? How would this life evolve as technology advances and my skills improve?

One direction people go with lives like this is that of homesteading: building up more independence by growing and making more things. I like being close to the library, subway, and supermarket, so maybe that lifestyle isn’t quite for me yet.

Another direction is to stay where you are, but improve the way you do things.

  • I want to make more customized things, like the way I like wearing the tops I’ve sewn. Who knows, I might even get good enough to sew things for other people. As I get better at imagining and constructing things, I might also be able to apply those skills to laser-cutting, 3D printing, and other manufacturing technologies.
  • I want to get better at repurposing things, getting more value out of stuff before we recycle or trash them.
  • I want to gradually swap out more of our consumables with reusables. For example, I can make produce bags out of mesh. Then we won’t need to use plastic bags for fruits and vegetables.
  • I want to cook a wider variety of recipes, and I want to prepare each recipe better. I also want to get better at transforming leftovers.

I feel a little odd about a life that seems so focused on such a small area (of interests, of geography, etc.). I feel some internal resistance around that. But hey, Emacs is a pretty niche thing too. Besides, it might be interesting to take notes and see where this goes.

Related sketches:

2015-03-27b Resistance to different dreams -- index card #resistance 2015-04-16a Imagining a week of taking it easy -- index card #relaxing #life 2015-04-16b What does my Resistance sound like -- index card #resistance 2015-04-16d What if I extrapolated this rest to awesomenss -- index card #life 2015-04-16e How can I cross-pollinate interests

Starting from a small life

The impression I get from people’s descriptions of their lives or careers is that many people (or at least the ones who talk about stuff like this) go for a big goal. They want to influence lots of people. They want to make a big difference. Sometimes it works out really well, but there are plenty of cautionary tales too: people who get what they strove for, but who’ve sacrificed their health, happiness, or relationships along the way.

It seems, based on the prevalence of these cautionary tales, that it’s quite rare to find healthy ambition. This is an assumption, though. Is it true or false? I think it might be false. There are probably lots of examples of people who dream big and have wonderful, happy lives, but they don’t get written about as much. (Something about news and schadenfreude, maybe?)

Anyway, an alternative might be to start small and build a solid foundation along the way. If I look around, I can see lots of good examples of this, although people some are more deliberate about it than others are. Instead of moving towards a specific, large goal that’s a big jump from your current positions, you develop capabilities and gradually expand in interesting directions.

2015-03-06c Growing slowly from a solid foundation -- index card #purpose #influence #success #growth

2015-03-06c Growing slowly from a solid foundation – index card #purpose #influence #success #growth

You start with a solid foundation of self-care. You cultivate a good community around you, and then you grow at a sustainable rate.

I used to have hang-ups about opportunity costs or wasted potential. Now I reason that if I don’t get around to figuring out XYZ because I’m growing too slowly, someone else is probably going to figure it out, or it wasn’t needed anyway.

Another danger, perhaps, is complacency. After all, if you’re growing outwards from a strength or a position of comfort, it’s easy to say: “Why not just stay here a little longer?”

I think it helps to think of some skills or areas you can improve at each stage, since you’ll be making progress on multiple stages all the time anyway. It’s not like you’ll master self-care and then move on to relationships. You learn a little of one, you try a little of another, and you build up different areas gradually.

2015-03-06d What does that progression look like -- index card #growth #success #purpose

2015-03-06d What does that progression look like – index card #growth #success #purpose

For example, I’m pretty happy with my self-care skills of understanding, being happy, learning, and reflecting. If I get better at health, everything gets better too. I’m getting the hang of enjoying vegetables, and I’m back to biking – yay! Similarly, I can practise getting better at thoughtfulness in close relationships, and at asking for help in terms of connecting with a small community. For expanding the communities I’m in, I can practise sharing tips and lessons learned.

Another thought about slow progress: it might be okay even if I’m taking things more slowly than I think other people do (or that a hypothetical Sacha might do). If I’m accelerating, I can do interesting things later on. So, that leads to these questions: Am I accelerating? If so, how?

2015-03-06e Am I accelerating - If so, how -- index card #growth #success #acceleration

2015-03-06e Am I accelerating – If so, how – index card #growth #success #acceleration

Compared to myself from five or ten years ago, I think I’m improving my self-care skills at a faster rate. Learning more about tools for thinking has helped, and I’m picking up life skills too. In terms of close relationships, I’m accelerating in terms of W- and local friends, but not in terms of family and friends in the Philippines. In terms of a tribe or small community, I think Hangouts accelerate things a little, and so does asking questions or thinking things through out loud. In terms of community, I accelerated more over the past few years (experiments with publishing and knowledge management) than I have in the past few months, but there might be ways I can play with that.

Back when I was a whiz kid (probably like most people who were into programming at an early age), I occasionally thought about those fast-growth success stories like 30 Under 30 (or 40 under 40, or Young Presidents’ Organization, or…). There’s something to be said about being on the fast track, demonstrating momentum. The narrative is clear. The goal burns bright. It’s easy to prioritize.

This other path of slow growth and neighbouring possibilities has its own challenges. It’s easy to get distracted and drift. I’m curious if I can do it well, and what I can learn from the process. I imagine that if it plays out beautifully, I’ll have a rich tapestry of a life while being able to trace the threads that connect the different sections. People are great at rationalization, so I can connect the dots going backwards.

In the meantime, looking forward, I imagine that I’ll grow steadily and solidly, with the occasional leap enabled by trust and safety nets, and with a community of people I admire, learn from, and help. I imagine that my impact will grow as I develop my capabilities, so I don’t accidentally end up screwing up thousands of people’s lives or wasting millions of people’s time. It might feel embarrassingly slow at moments (or even most of the time), as I take tiny steps or cover the same ground. But it’s a life, and it might be an interesting one.

If I’m curious about this path, how can I explore it more effectively? I’ve sketched a few areas to focus on, so I can work on those. And then there’s reminding myself that it’s okay to write about the small steps, the lessons learned, the reviews… Let’s see how it works out!

Related: