Category Archives: experiment

Learning to live slowly

Sometimes I feel a little duller around the edges, not quite as alert. It’s a little harder to think, to reason. I feel slightly out of focus. I talk more slowly, move more slowly.

And yet, living more slowly, I feel like I live more gracefully as well. None of the sharp jitters when my mind works at its fastest, none of the zigzags and interruptions, none of the words tumbling over themselves in their haste. More meditative.

I know why this is so and I don’t seek to avoid it. The real question is: How can I embrace this state? How can I make the most of it? It is natural, and will only become more so over time.

Coding currently feels better with a sharp mind, but there are still a myriad tasks to do and things to learn even when I don’t feel at my peak. Over time, I’ll learn to code in a reflective state instead of the intense one I carried over from competitions and quick prototyping. I think this will be good for my growth as a developer. After all, speed is not as useful as insight and care.

Reflective writing feels better than rapid writing. I don’t feel brilliant, but I feel methodical: following threads slowly, watching my own thoughts.

Cooking has become something that gives me pleasure. It’s one of those activities that I can indulge in, knowing that I can reliably create value where sometimes writing or coding does not. There are no blocks when it comes to cooking, only the steady slicing of ingredients and the textures and tastes of alchemy.

This slowness is perfect for listening, for talking. When I was younger, I felt an almost physical itch to be elsewhere, to be away, to be within the world of a book or a computer instead of in conversation.

Tidying benefits from deliberate thought. I organized my closet and my drawers by colour, and suddenly the patterns are visible. It takes just as much effort to maintain this order as it would to mess it up, and so I keep it.

Most days, I get very little done. But somehow, looking back over the week, I find that I’ve covered more ground than I thought.

I have the perfect foundation for learning how to live slowly. Few commitments, few expectations. I’ve lived this first part at a speed that other people have found remarkable but also, perhaps, uncomfortable: speaking, reading, coding, enthusiasm. It might be interesting to experiment with the flip side of that: the kind of stillness that the nuns in my grade school carried with them, the calm of late-night relaxed conversations, the serenity of quiet. I think I can translate the things I’ve loved about my faster life. Enthusiasm and delight don’t need to be breathless. The world is frantic enough. Let me learn how to be contagiously restful. =)

Different dimensions of scaling up

When I was coming up with a three-word life philosophy, learn – share – scale felt like a natural fit for me (Nov 2012). Learning and sharing were pretty straightforward. I thought of scaling in terms of sharing with more people, sharing more effectively, building tools to help people save time, connecting the dots among people and ideas, and getting better at getting better.

A recent conversation got me thinking about scale and the different dimensions that you can choose to scale along. For example, startups often talk about scaling up to millions of users; that’s one kind of scale. There’s saving people five minutes and there’s launching people into space; that’s another kind of scale.

What kinds of scale I see myself exploring? Here’s a rough categorization. (With ASCII art!)

Category Left Where I am Right
Size “This might save someone five minutes” X--------- “I’m going to help people get into space.”
People “This might help 1,000 people.” -X-------- “I want to help 1 billion people.”
Time “This might help 1,000 people over ten years.” X--------- “I want to help 1,000 people tomorrow.”
Team “I’m going to gradually develop my skills.” -X-------- “I’m going to build a team of people.”
Performance “We’ll start by doing it manually.” -X-------- “I want to get to sub-second response.”
Focus “I’m going to explore and see what comes up.” X--------- “I’m going to focus on one idea and knock it out of the park.”
Variety “I’ll put lots of things out there and people can tell me what they value.” --X------- “I’ll choose what to put out there and connect with people who need that.”
Demand “I’ll come up with the idea and find the market.” ----X----- “I’ll find the market and then come up with an idea.”
Pace “If I grow slowly and steadily, I’ll build a solid foundation.” --X------- “If I grow quickly, I’ll have momentum.”
Time/money tradeoff “I’m going to make my time more valuable.” ---------X “I’m going to make something outside the time=money equation.”
Risk “If I mess up, things are still okay.” X--------- “If I mess up, people die.”
Empowerment “I’m going to do things myself.” -------X-- “I’m going to support other people.”
Teaching “I will build systems so that I can catch fish for more people.” --------X- “I’m going to teach more people how to catch their own fish.”

Hmm. This is similar to those visions of wild success I occasionally sketch out for myself as a way to test my ideas and plans. Wild success at scaling up for me (at least along my current interests and trajectory) probably looks like:

  • Learning about a wide variety of interesting things
  • Writing, drawing, and publishing useful notes
  • Getting better at organizing them into logical chunks like books and courses so that I can help more people (including people who don’t have the patience to wade through fifty blog posts)
  • Reaching more people over time through good search and discovery in my archives
  • Getting updates to more people through subscriptions and interest-based filters

What would an Alternate Universe Sacha be like? I’d probably keep a closer eye out for problems I run into or that people I care about run into, and practise building small websites, tools, systems, and businesses to solve those problems. I might start with trying to solve a problem for ten people, then a hundred, then a thousand, then ten thousand and more. I might look for medium-sized annoyances so that it’s worth the change. I might build tools instead of or in addition to sharing my notes. (After all, The $100 Startup points out that most people don’t want to learn how to fish, they just want to eat fish for dinner and get on with the rest of their lives.)

Hmm. Alternate Universe Sacha makes sense too. Since I’m doing fine in terms of Normal Universe Sacha and scaling up here is mostly a matter of gradual accumulation, it might be interesting to experiment with Alternate Universe Sacha sometime. Maybe during the next two years of this 5-year experiment, or in a new experiment after that?

It’s good to break down a word like “scale” and figure out the different dimensions along which you can make decisions. Are you working on scaling up? If so, what kind of scale are you working towards?

The 5-year experiment: A conversation with my anxious side, and how sharing time might be better than giving money

(If you want, you can skip past the reflection on anxiety and safety and jump straight to the part on how you can help. =) )

Having resolved to learn how to work on my own things, I’m experimenting with reducing my consulting to one day a week (from last year’s routine of two days a week). I spend most of the week reading, drawing, writing, experimenting, and coding.

2015-01-09 What do I do on my non-consulting days -- index card

2015.01.09 What do I do on my non-consulting days – index card

It’s not a big change in terms of hours. I already have plenty of time for personal projects. But I feel the shift in the balance. I can hear that inner self-doubt saying, “Is this real work? Is it worthwhile? Is it sustainable? Are you undermining your safety by goofing off?”

2015-01-07 Real Work -- index card

2015.01.07 Real Work – index card

It’s okay. I expected this resistance, this anxiety. It’s just one of those mental barriers I have to break. Fortunately, all those Stoic philosophers are there to remind me that it’s just a negative impression, not reality, and the truth is that I have nothing to fear.

I’m getting better at telling that anxious part of my mind: “Look. Even though I offer all those resources for free, people willingly pay for it. And other people write wonderful comments and send me e-mail telling me that I’ve inspired them to learn more and that they want to help, so that counts too. Yeah, there’s a chance I might need to go back to Regular Work if the stock market crashes or a catastrophe happens, but in the meantime, just give this a chance. And really, that scenario isn’t the end of the world. Other people do okay. I can too. Besides, that’s why we have safety nets, right?”

2015-01-06 Planning my safety nets -- index card

2015.01.06 Planning my safety nets – index card

2015-01-06 Safe, a little better, comfortable -- index card

2015.01.06 Safe, a little better, comfortable – index card

And then my anxious side goes, “Okay, you’ve probably got the basics covered. But what if your expenses grow, or W- gets tired of living frugally and wants to upgrade lifestyles a little bit? Is this really enough?”

2015-01-06 Is this enough for me -- index card

2015.01.06 Is this enough for me – index card

And then I say, “We’ll probably have some time to adjust our plans for that, and I can always go back to doing Real Work that satisfies you. Besides, if we want to upgrade our life experiences, learning the skills to make stuff for ourselves often works out better than buying things. Like cooking!”

(It’s true! It’s even called the IKEA effect.)

Then my anxious side goes, “Fine. Maybe you have enough space to experiment right now. You want to learn things and help people. But look at your blog! It’s so self-centred. You talk about your questions and reflections, and you rarely give people tips they can directly apply to their lives.”

Then I say, “I’ll get better at writing for other people. In the meantime, this seems to be working okay so far. People translate my reflections into stuff that they can use.”

Here’s how I think my blog helps other people at the moment. Maybe you come across my blog because of a search. You find something that saves you a little time. You browse around a little and learn about things you didn’t even think about searching for. Maybe you come back once in a while for more of those ideas. You bump into other topics you’re curious about, and you explore. You might subscribe, even though you know I post practically every day. You skim the headlines for things that interest you, and you dive into stuff you like. Sometimes you might even feel moved to comment, e-mail, invest time, or even send some money.

2015-01-04 What kind of difference do I want to make, and for whom - index card

2015.01.04 What kind of difference do I want to make, and for whom – index card

How people can help

My anxious side grumbles, “Okay. I’m not sure your blog counts as Real Work, but I’ll grant that people seem to find some value in it. I’d feel better if you were more serious about building a business around it – if you could cover more of your expenses with this instead of consulting income or dividends.”

To which I say, “You know, I’m not sure any amount of money would get you to the point of not worrying. Besides, it’s good that you worry, because that helps keep us safe. This stream will grow as I figure out how to make things that are truly valuable to people. I bet you I can pull it off while still keeping the free/pay-what-you-want aspect, because that’s important to me. Given that you tend to squirrel away additional money to build up safety instead of getting better at investing it to build up capabilities, what we really should be thinking about is if we can make better exchanges of time instead of money. That will probably make a bigger difference anyway.”

My anxious side is sufficiently boggled by that idea and can’t come up with a good rejoinder. This is promising. Let me dig into it further, then.

One of the concepts I picked up from Your Money or Your Life (Dominguez and Robin, 1999) is that you can think of money in terms of the time it took you to earn it, a sobering thought when you apply it to your expenses.

I can apply that idea to other people, too; if other people pay money for something I made, it represents the chunk of their life that they spent earning it (and the opportunity cost of anything else they could’ve bought or invested in, including saving up for their own freedom).

I’m frugal (bordering on being a cheapskate), having gotten very good at making the most of inexpensive resources. Because of the typical mind fallacy, I tend to think that other people should be frugal as well so that they can save up for their own freedom. I suspect that people might get marginally more value from saving that money than I would get from them giving it to me, since their stress reduction or freedom expansion will likely outweigh my slightly increased feeling of safety. On the other hand, people do get value from feeling generous and from patronizing something that they would like to see flourish, so I can agree with that.

If we translate it back to time, though, I’m more comfortable with the exchange.

I already have enough time for the priorities in my life, while many people feel that they don’t have enough time for the priorities in theirs. Adding more money to my life doesn’t easily translate into additional or more effective time (aside from transcripts and tools, which I already budget for), while translating that money back into time might make more of a difference in other people’s lives. So a direct swap doesn’t make sense.

However, if we can exchange time in an apples-and-oranges sort of way, that might make sense. That is, if someone gives me 15 minutes of their time that translates to much more than 15 minutes of my time or might even be something I could not do on my own, that would be fantastic. This could be something that takes advantage of someone’s:

  • experience or particular mix of interests
  • ideas, knowledge
  • perspective (writing, coding, and all sorts of things can be improved with the perspective of someone who is not me)
  • questions
  • connections

Technically, delegation is supposed to help me translate money into time that is qualitatively different from my time, but my anxious side has not been very good at evaluating, trusting, or making the most of learning from people who know different things than I do.

Figuring out a way to effectively receive other people’s gifts of time might be what I need to break through this barrier.

2015-01-04 Thinking in terms of an exchange of time - index card

2015.01.04 Thinking in terms of an exchange of time – index card

In fact, receiving time might be more effective than receiving money. Not only could that get around my difficulty with finding and paying other people for the qualitatively different time that I want, but if we structure it right, people will gain from the time that they give. If someone asks me a good question that prompts me to learn, reflect on, or share something, we both gain. If they invest more time into experimenting with the ideas, we gain even more. I can’t actually buy that on any of the freelancing or outsourcing marketplaces. There’s no way for me to convert money into that kind of experience.

So, how can people can give me 15 minutes of time in a way that helps them and helps me? Let me think about different things I’m learning about:

2015-01-09 Time is greater than money -- index card

2015.01.09 Time is greater than money – index card

2015-01-09 What am I learning more about, and how can people help -- index card

2015.01.09 What am I learning more about, and how can people help – index card

It makes sense to organize this by interest instead of by action.

  • Emacs: Ask a question, pass along a tip, share a workflow. Also, I really appreciate people showing up at Emacs Hangouts or being on Emacs Chats, because my anxious side is always firmly convinced that this will be the day when no one else shows up to a party or that conversation will be super-awkward.
  • Coding in general: There are so many ways I want to improve in order to become a better programmer. I should set up continuous integration, write more tests, refactor my code, learn more frameworks and learn them more deeply, write more idiomatic code, improve performance and security, get better at designing… I find it difficult to pay someone to give me feedback and coach me through setting things up well (hard to evaluate people, anxious side balks at the price and argues we can figure things out on our own, good programmers have high rates), but this might be something we can swap. Or I could work on overriding my anxious side and just Go For It, because good habits and infrastructure pay off.
  • Writing: Comments, questions, and links help a lot. A few of my posts have really benefited from people’s feedback on the content and the structure of ideas, and I’d love to learn from more conversations like that. I don’t worry a lot about typos or minor tweaks, so the kind of editing feedback I can easily get from freelancers doesn’t satisfy me. I want to get better at writing for other people and organizing more complex thoughts into resources, so I could benefit a lot from feedback, questions, as well as advice on what to learn and in what order.
  • Drawing: I’m not focused on drawing better (I can probably get away with stick figures for what I want to do!), but rather on being able to think more interesting thoughts. What would help with this? Hearing from people about which thoughts spark ideas in them, which ones I should flesh out further. Book recommendations and shared experiences would help too.

So: Paying for free/pay-what-you-want-resources is great at helping me tell my anxious side, “Look, people find this valuable,” and that’s much appreciated. But giving me time works too. If we can figure out how to do this well, that might be able to help me grow more (at least until I sort out a way to talk my anxious side into letting me invest more in capabilities). Shifting the balance towards time is probably going to make my anxious side more anxious, but I might be able to tell it to give me a year or two to experiment, which is coincidentally the rest of this 5-year span.

Wild success might look like:

  • Thanks to people’s gifts of time and attention, I’m learning and doing stuff that I couldn’t do on my own or with the resources I could get in marketplaces
  • Thanks to people’s gifts of money (and maybe teaching), I’ve addressed more of my anxious side’s concerns and am getting better at experimenting with the resources I can get in marketplaces
  • I can incorporate people’s feedback and revealed preferences in my prioritization so that I work on things that other people find valuable

I could use your help with this. =) Shall we figure it out together?

Finding a model for my sharing

Can a sharing model based on free/pay-what-you-want resources be sustainable over a long period of time?

I’ve been thinking about this for a number of reasons:

  • One of my assistants e-mailed me about my difficulties with delegation. He suggested thinking of my life as a business: What would my objectives be? When I reflected on that, I realized I had some discomfort around the ideas of customers and business models. Was my life more like science and exploration? Not quite, either. I left the thread of thought unresolved.
  • Problogger posted this mind map of different ways to monetize a blog. I realized that I’m not keen on advertising, physical products, selling/flipping blogs, premium content/communities/products, affiliate marketing (except for books I like, and even then those offer tiny commissions and it feels a little hypocritical to do that given that I hardly ever buy books myself), and other indirect methods. I might be okay with coaching, if I can come up with a good workaround for the impostor syndrome.
  • In an interview about Quantified Self and life experiments, a journalist asked me to describe my business. I felt that social business consulting wasn’t the real crux of my current life’s work, and that talking about writing and publishing e-books would be incomplete without exploring why free/pay-what-you-want pricing is important to me. Answering his question prompted me to think about my motivations a bit more.
  • Harold Jarche wrote about the exposure economy and his decision to limit his sharing. I understand where he’s coming from – by mom gives similar lectures to aspiring photographers who have yet to internalize that “exposure” won’t buy them new equipment. But there’s something else that drives me to share more, not less, and I want to understand that.
  • @ljconrad retweeted a link to The Gift of Being Uncommon, which included a segment on “gift reciprocity versus market economy.” It says that people “may have difficulty charging sufficiently for their work, especially if they view their own abilities, products or insights as gifts that need to be shared with others.” I’ve requested Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World from the library, and I’m looking forward to digging into it further.
  • The contrast of a gift culture versus a market economy reminded me of Eric S. Raymond’s “Homesteading the Noosphere” (2000). I revisited its sections on gift culture, art, and reward. It made me think: Is reputation a major driver for me? How does this work out if my ideal outcome does not involve parlaying that reputation into economic opportunities like jobs or gigs?
  • And that reminded me of Tom Morkes’ guide to pay what you want pricing, and the breadth of people using the PWYW strategy. I’m always delighted to get a note from Gumroad that someone has purchased one of my resources, but I’m still working on getting my anxious side to accept that this is okay.

So that’s my context.

Mulling all those things, I realized that the model I can use to understand my desire to share isn’t business (with its customers, markets, and exchanges of value) or modern science (with its funding from institutions and competition around publications).

It’s philosophy. Ancient philosophy, not professionalized modern philosophy.

What were the “business models” for ancient Greek and Roman philosophers? How did they sustain themselves?

2015-01-10 How did schools of philosophy work in ancient Greece and Rome -- index card #independence #philosophy

2015.01.10 How did schools of philosophy work in ancient Greece and Rome – index card #independence #philosophy

2015-01-10 More about philosophers -- index card #independence

2015.01.10 More about philosophers – index card #independence

  • The Cynics begged in the streets. (I’d rather avoid that option.)
  • People or schools received gifts (from students, from other people in the community, etc.).
  • People or schools had rich patrons.
  • People charged tuition, offered private tutoring, and so on.
  • People worked in unrelated occupations. For example, Cleanthes philosophized during the day and carried water at night.
  • People had private means: estates, investments, and so forth. Seneca had a fortune (acquired through less-palatable means). Atticus inherited wealth and grew it through real estate.

Some philosophers taught in closed schools: Pythagoras kept an exclusive brotherhood. Others taught in public, like Zeno did.

I don’t quite think of what I do as philosophy, but I can learn from how these schools worked. For example, using philosophy as a lens, it makes sense to me to share in public for the following reasons:

  • More people can learn.
  • Ideas stand a greater chance of being remembered and used. (By other people, and by me!)
  • I can grow from the conversation.

This last point is particularly important to me. I’m still figuring things out. I don’t feel that I’m quite at the stage where I can teach people well – when I have clear paths and well-tested lessons. I’m still at the stage where I try to live as well as I can, making and sharing useful things. People’s questions often help me realize something I didn’t know I knew. I’m nowhere close to sharing wisdom suitable for the ages (and might never be).

2015-01-11 Current state and future states -- index card #writing

2015.01.11 Current state and future states – index card #writing

With that learner’s perspective, it doesn’t make sense to me to limit the circle of people I can reach, or to charge people for the privilege of my being able to learn from them. But it does make sense to be open to gifts – of money, sure, but especially of time, skills, experience, and perspective.

2015-01-10 Lessons from ancient Rome -- index card #philosophy

2015.01.10 Lessons from ancient Rome – index card #philosophy

In fact, reflecting on how ancient philosophers managed their ups and downs helped me address more of my anxiety over whether a financial mistake might break this freedom. After all, life back then was way more volatile than life is now. What’s a downturn in the stock market like compared to the whims of emperors and the possibility of exile? I have fewer pressures on my life and more resources than people back then could imagine. (Searchable books! The Internet! Amazing text editors! Boggle.) If I want to learn about interesting things, potential changes in my situation shouldn’t stop me.

So here we are. I don’t know if Kevin Kelly is right about 1,000 True Fans (or John Scalzi about a larger, more modest base). “Fan” isn’t quite what I’m going for, anyway. I want co-adventurers, co-figure-out-ers – ideas bumping into each other in conversations, the back-and-forth of experiments. Maybe a teacher will appear and guide me. Maybe students will help me discover what I can teach. I’ve found some role models to help me understand sharing, and I’m looking forward to seeing if that can still work in the modern world – or better yet, what we can do with it.

Learning to work on my own things

My annual review showed me that despite my resolution to reduce consulting and focus more on my own stuff in 2014, I actually increased the amount of time I spent working on client projects than I did in 2013 (12% vs 9%). Sure, I increased the amount of time I invested in my own productive projects (15% of 2014 compared to 14% in 2013) and the balance is still tilted towards my own projects, but I’d underestimated how much consulting pulls on my brain.

This is the fourth year of my 5-year experiment, and I’m slowly coming to understand the questions I want to ask. In the beginning, I wanted to know:

  • Do I have marketable skills?
  • Can I find clients?
  • Can I build a viable business?
  • Can I get the hang of accounting and paperwork?
  • Can I manage cash flow?
  • Can I work with other people?
  • Can I deal with uncertainty and other aspects of this lifestyle?
  • Can I manage my own time, energy, and opportunity pipeline?

After three years of this experiment, I’m reasonably certain that I can answer all these questions with “Yes.” I’ve reduced the anxiety I used to have around those topics. Now I’m curious about other questions I can explore during the remainder of this experiment (or in a new one).

In particular, this experiment gives me an rare opportunity to explore this question: Can I come up with good ideas and implement them?

I’m fascinated by this question because I can feel the weakening pull of other people’s requests. It’s almost like a space probe approaching escape velocity, and then out to where propulsion meets little resistance and there are many new things to discover.

The most worthwhile thing I’m learning from this experiment, I think, is to sit with myself until the urge to work on other people’s projects passes. Arbitrarily deciding that Tuesdays are no longer consulting days (leaving only Thursdays) seems to work well for me. I find that I can pick things up readily on Thursdays. The rest of the time, I think about my own projects. Mondays and Wednesdays are writing days, Tuesdays are coding days, and Fridays are for administration and wrapping up.

2015-01-05 Developing my imagination and initiative -- index card

Last year, I found it easy and satisfying to work on other people’s requests, and harder to figure out what I wanted to do. It’s like the way it’s easier to take a course than it is to figure things out on your own, but learning on your own helps you figure out things that people can’t teach you.

What’s difficult about figuring out what I want to do and doing it? I think it involves a set of skills I need to develop. As a beginner, I’m not very good, so I feel dissatisfied with my choices and more inclined towards existing projects or requests that appeal to me. This is not bad. It helps me develop other skills, like coding or testing. Choosing existing projects often results in quick rewards instead of an unclear opportunity cost. It’s logical to focus on other people’s work.

One possibility is to build skills on other people’s projects until I run into an idea that refuses to let go of me, which is a practical approach and the story of many people’s businesses. The danger is that I might get too used to working on other people’s projects and never try to come up with something on my own. In the grand scheme of things, this is no big loss for the world (it’ll probably be all the same given a few thousand years), but I’m still curious about the alternatives.

The other approach (which I’m taking with this experiment) is to make myself try things out, learning from the experience and the consequences. If I’m patient with my mediocrity, I might be able to climb up that learning curve. I can figure out how to imagine and make something new – perhaps even something that only I can do, or that might not occur to other people, or that might not have an immediate market. Instead of always following, I might sometimes be an artist or even a leader.

What would the ideal outcome be? I would get to the point where I can confidently combine listening to people and coming up with my own ideas to create things that people want (or maybe didn’t even know they wanted).

How can I tell if I’m succeeding? Well, if people are giving me lots of time and/or money, that’s a great sign. It’s not the only measure. There’s probably something along the lines of self-satisfaction. I might learn something from, say, artists who lived obscure lives. But making stuff that other people find remarkable and useful is probably an indicator that I’m doing all right.

What would getting this wrong be like? Well, it might turn out that the opportunity cost of these experiments is too high. For example, if something happened to W-, our savings are running low, and I haven’t gotten the hang of creating and earning value, then I would probably focus instead on being a really good follower. It’s easy to recognize this situation. I just need to keep an eye on our finances.

It might also turn out that I’m not particularly original, it would take me ages to figure out how to be original in a worthwhile way, and that it would be better for me to focus on contributing to other people’s projects. This is a little harder to distinguish from the situation where I’m still slowly working my way up the learning curve. This reminds me of Seth Godin’s book The Dip, only it’s less about dips and more about plateaus. It also reminds me of Scott H. Young’s post about different kinds of difficulty.

As a counterpoint to the scenario where I find out that I’m not usefully original and that I’m better off mostly working on other people’s things, I hold up:

  • my Emacs geekery, which people appreciate for both its weirdness and their ability to pick out useful ideas from it
  • the occasional mentions in books other people have written, where something I do is used to illustrate an interesting alternative

So I think it is likely that I can come up with good, useful ideas and I can make them happen. Knowing that it’s easy to get dissatisfied with my attempts if I compare them with other things I could be working on, I can simply ignore that discomfort and keep deliberately practising until either I’ve gotten the hang of it or I’ve put in enough effort and must conclude that other things are more worthwhile.

 

If you find yourself considering the same kind of experiment with freedom, deciding between other people’s work and your own projects, here’s what I’m learning:

It’s easy to say yes to other people’s requests, but it might be worthwhile to learn how to come up with your own.

Filling in the occupational blanks

Following up on an interview, a journalist asked:

If I were to say that you freelance as [blank] consultant, what would be the word that fills that blank?

2015-01-14 Filling in the occupational blanks -- index card #experiment #occupation

2015-01-14 Filling in the occupational blanks – index card #experiment #occupation

Tricky question. “Freelance” is definitely the wrong word for it, since I doubt I’ll be taking on any more clients and the word obscures my current fascination with a self-directed life. It might make sense to use the word “independent” if we really need to contrast this with stable employment.

Technically, I spend a fraction of my time consulting, and I can define the kind of consulting that I do in a compact phrase. But based on my 2014 numbers, that’s only 12% of my time. This is much less than the 37% of the time I spend sleeping, or even the 18% of the time I spend on discretionary projects or the 15% of the time I spend taking care of myself (not including the 7% of the time I spend on chores, errands, and other things).

Since no one gets introduced as a sleeper even though that’s what we mostly do with our lives, maybe my discretionary projects will yield a neat occupational description for people who need to have that introductory phrase.

  • Am I a writer (3%)? (“Author” is a smidge more self-directed and respectable, maybe, but I still don’t feel like I’ve written Real Books since all my resources are compilations of blog posts). A blogger? This is a category so large, it could mean anything.
  • A sketchnoter (3%)? Alternatively: a sketchnote artist or a doodler, depending on whether I’m making it sound more respectable or more approachable. But the popular understanding of sketchnotes (if there is one) is that of recording other people’s thoughts, and I’m focusing on exploring my own questions.
  • An Emacs geek (2%)? Too obscure; it doesn’t provide useful information for most people. Maybe an open source developer, which also includes the 1% of the time I spend coding – but I do more writing about software than writing actual software or contributing to projects. An open source advocate? But I don’t push it on people or try to change people’s minds.

In the rare meetups I go to, I usually mention a bunch of my interests (drawing, writing, coding, experimenting), and people pick whatever they’re curious about. But most times, I try to preempt the “What do you do?” question with something more interesting for me, like what people are learning about or interested in. It’s so much easier when someone recognizes me from my blog, because then we can jump straight to the interests we have in common.

From time to time, I come across people who persistently ask, “But what do you do? What’s your day job?” I confess it’s a bit fun to tweak the box they want to put me in. One approach I’ve heard other people use is to playfully acknowledge the difficulty of categorization. “On Mondays, I _. On Tuesdays, I _. On Wednesdays, I___. …” Others gleefully embrace descriptions like “I’m unemployed.”

But I’m missing the purpose of that introductory phrase or that short bio here. It’s not about shaking up the other person’s worldview. At its best, that occupational association helps the listener or reader quickly grasp an idea of the other person’s life and where the other person is coming from. An accountant probably has a different way of looking at things than a primary school teacher does. One’s occupation provides the other person with the ability to contextualize what one says (“Oh, of course she thinks of things as systems and processes; she works with code all day.”). During small talk, it gives people easy things to talk about while they’re waiting for a more interesting topic of conversation to appear: “What kinds of things do you write?”

Let’s say, then, that my goals for this phrase would be:

  • to help people understand my context quickly, and how that might differ from their perspective
  • to make the other person more comfortable by:
    • being able to associate me with a stereotype that adds information, possibly fleshing out this mental profile with differences later on
    • in conversation, letting them easily think of questions to ask, addressing the phatic nature of small talk (we’re not actually talking, we’re making polite noises)
  • to branch off into more interesting conversations, avoiding the dead-end that often comes up after the ritualistic exchange of “What do you do?”

Of these goals, I like the third (interesting conversations) the most.

Here are a few of my options:

  • I can accept convention and pick one aspect of what I do, especially if I tailor it to their interests. For example, at a business event, I might introduce myself as a social business consultant who helps really large companies improve internal collaboration through analytics and custom development for enterprise social network platforms (well, isn’t that a mouthful). At visual thinking events, I might introduce myself as a sketchnoter focusing on exploring my own ideas.
  • I can waffle by introducing several aspects, still within the vocabulary of regular occupations: a consultant and a writer, for example.
  • I can say, “It’s complicated!” and explain my 5-year experiment, self-directed living, and learning/coding/writing/drawing/sharing.

Anyway, circling back to this writer and his likely use of some kind of occupation as a way to introduce and contextualize me:

  • It might be interesting to play with no occupational categorization. Some context may be provided by age (31) – it’s common enough in newspapers and books. The editor might send it back with a question, “Yes, but what does she do?”, but there it is.
  • It might also be interesting to play with my difficulty of categorization. “Sacha Chua, who couldn’t come up with a single phrase to describe her occupation, …”
  • Or, since it’s no skin off my back if this is not fully representative, I could just let him write whatever he wants to write. Freelance consultant. Blogger. Sketchnoter. Amateur experimenter. Independent developer. “Consultant” is a very small part of my identity, actually, so developer or blogger might be interesting. A possible missed opportunity here is that the wrong frame might result in people not being able to identify with and learn from stuff (“Of course she can deal with this, she’s a coder”; “Bah, another blogger, is that all she does?”; “Why should I listen to her? Freelance is just a fancy word for unemployed.”). But it’ll do under time pressure. =)

I’m writing this on January 14 and posting this in the future (because I limit posts to one a day), so the article will likely be out by now. If I remember, I’ll update this with what he actually used. =) But I needed to think about it out loud, and I’m sure the situation will come up again in the future. Perhaps by then I’ll have a more compact way to describe myself.

Since other people have figured this out before, I can learn from them. (And possibly from you!) After all, I’m nowhere near as interesting as Benjamin Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci, and somehow they managed to settle down into a sequence of nouns. Here’s the one from Wikipedia’s entry for Leonardo da Vinci:

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519) was an Italian painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer.

Three or four nouns should be a good thing for me to strive for, eh? Even one or two nouns, if I can get to some level of distinction.

As for introductions – people can pick whatever aspect they want. I am multi-faceted and growing. =)