Category Archives: learning

On this page:
  • Drawing update
  • Teaching myself to prefer what’s good for me
  • Developing opinions
  • I notice I have cyclic interests
  • Mental hacks for slower speech
  • Small talk tweaks

Drawing update

It’s funny how I drop interests and pick them up again. Based on my sketchbook, there was a roughly two-month period when I did hardly any drawing. Then I had some planning to do that lent itself naturally to being mapped out, and then I ended up drawing a whole bunch, and now I’m reeled back in and looking forward to playing around with this more.

2014-08-13 Learning more about drawing - #drawing

2014-08-13 Learning more about drawing – #drawing

Like so! I took a picture of Leia (who has grown out most of the lion cut we subjected her to), traced an outline in pencil, and experimented with inking and shading it in on my computer. I still have a long way to go before I can do this easily, but I like the way that tracing helps me deliberately practise seeing simple shapes. Likewise, penciling on paper or on my computer (without tracing an image) lets me play with the shape of something until it feels right. As I trace and draw, I’ll get a better sense of how things really look–and the forms beneath those lines.

2014-08-15 Luke, also traced from a picture

2014-08-15 Luke, also traced from a picture

2014-08-13 Leia traced from picture

2014-08-13 Leia traced from picture

2014-08-17 Neko, from picture

2014-08-17 Neko, from picture

Teaching myself to prefer what’s good for me

One of the ideas I’m mulling over from this study of ancient Greek philosophy is this: Instead of using willpower to get through things you don’t like, you can learn to appreciate the things that are good for you or gradually move up through activities that you enjoy and that are a little better for you than what you were doing before.

I’ve been trying this idea in terms of exercise. Having decided that I would be the type of person who exercises, I’ve been keeping up this habit for a little over a month. I usually run with W-. He treats those sessions as recovery runs (he’s much fitter than I am and can run circles around me), and I treat them as “extra time with W- and an occasion for smugness.” I’m not yet at the point of experiencing the runner’s high, but I do feel somewhat pleased by this ability to keep up with the heart rate thresholds that should help me build up endurance. I’ve even gone for runs on my own, propelled by growing custom and the knowledge that I’m going to be able to celebrate whatever progress I’m making. Gradual progress through the Hacker’s Diet exercise ladder is fun, too.

In terms of food, I’m finally beginning to appreciate the sourness of yogurt, the peppery taste of radishes, and other things I’m still not particularly fond of but can deal with.

As for substitution, keeping a range of nonfiction books in the house means I’m less inclined to spend time playing video games. Latin and Japanese flashcards on my phone mean less time reading fiction. A file full of writing ideas means less time spent browsing the Web.

We change a little at a time. It’s good to pay attention to your changing tastes, and to influence them towards what’s good for you. Sometimes you can kick it off with a little bribery or willpower, if you use that temporary space to look for more things to appreciate. Sometimes you can encourage yourself by making better activities more convenient. Good to keep growing!

Developing opinions

How do I develop opinions? What is good to develop opinions about? How can I improve this process?

I’ve been working on teaching myself design. Good designs and bad designs both take effort to implement, so I might as well focus on good designs. I can read all the usability guidelines I want, but I need an aesthetic sense in order to bring things together into a coherent whole. Hence the need for opinions.

Lots of other areas benefit from opinions, too. Opinions can speed up decisions, save time and money, and help me appreciate subtleties. I’d like to form useful opinions while still being open to changing my mind in the face of good arguments or new evidence.

I don’t have a lot of strong opinions. I tend to take things as they are, see the value in multiple viewpoints, and not get too attached to things. I can identify and let go of decisions that don’t matter that much to me. In university, I nearly flunked my classes in literature. Art and music are still pretty opaque for me, although I do have a fondness for representational art and self-referential or otherwise punny music. Even when watching movies, I rely on IMDB reviews and TVTropes pages to shape my appreciation of what I’m watching.

W-, on the other hand, has a surprising breadth of well-informed opinions about things like kitchen knives, bicycle frames, and other areas. He has had quite a head start, though, so I don’t feel too bad.

Anyway, I have a lot of catching up to do. I want to set some parameters on my opinion-forming, however.

  • I want to still be able to enjoy simple things. I don’t want to refine my palate to the point of feeling that I need luxury goods, particularly if this involves artificial distinctions instead of true value. So it’s permissible to develop an opinion about different kinds of lettuce that I can easily grow or get from the supermarket, but I’m not likely to spend several hundred dollars on a brand-name purse.
  • I want to be flexible in my opinions. I should be able to acknowledge situations where the opinion is inapplicable and consider alternatives.
  • I don’t necessarily have to have an original opinion. It’s totally all right to follow other people’s opinions. As much as possible, though, I’d like to be able to articulate the reasons for my opinions (even if I’m choosing someone else’s position). In the beginning, I’ll probably lack the words and self-awareness, but I’ll get there if I keep explaining things to myself.

Okay. It seems that there are four stages in my opinion development:

  1. Anything goes. No opinion on these things yet.
  2. Do some quick research and pick a recommendation.
  3. Go deeper. Compare several approaches. Critically think about them. Pick one approach or synthesize several.
  4. Go a little further from the crowd. Come up with my own hypotheses and test them.

1. Anything goes: There are a lot of things I don’t particularly care about. I’m willing to take other people’s recommendations on them or follow my general principles. For example, I don’t have a strong opinion about most of the ingredients we buy from the grocery store, so I usually pick the lowest unit price and then move up from there as needed. Decisions that have low costs (time, money, attention, risk, etc.) generally stay in this category, although I occasionally invest time in thinking about things based on the frequency of the decision.

2. Quick research: I read a lot, and I’m comfortable digging through whatever research I can find online. Many of my decisions are in this category. I do a quick search to see what other people are saying or bring up points from books I’ve read, and we use those ideas when choosing an approach. W- knows a lot about comparison shopping, and I tend to be the one with notes for communication, personal finance, and education. Sometimes I turn these into blog posts as well, especially if I can follow up with the results of applying that opinion.

3. Going deeper: Sometimes research doesn’t turn up a clear answer, or I have to do the work in putting things together myself. I often request several books on the same topic from the library, reading them all over a couple of weeks so that I can see their overlaps and disagreements. Since it’s easy to forget key points and it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’ve made sense of something, writing and drawing help me a lot.

4. On my own: Some things are so uncommon, I can’t easily find relevant research. For example, I’m not the only one who’s done some kind of a semi-retirement experiment at an early age, but I don’t think I’ll find any books or online communities that already have reflections on all the questions I have. For topics where I’m on my own, I have to break things down into smaller questions that I might be able to research or test. Then I can write about what I’m learning, come up with ways to experiment, and share my reflections.

In terms of process, I tend to form most of my opinions by reading, writing, and trying things out. I rarely talk to other people in order to get their opinions about something, aside from the occasional people-related question where I’m curious about the approaches they’ve used. I don’t debate my opinions since I’m hardly ever interested in arguing with people. There’s no changing other people’s minds, anyway; only presenting approaches and helping them change their mind if they want. Ditto for me – people might disagree with something I write about, but I’m more likely to acknowledge a difference in opinion than to change my mind unless I really want to.

So, what do I want to get better at forming opinions about?

I’ve already mentioned design as one of the areas I plan to focus on. Philosophy is another: forming opinions about how I want to live and what I will do. Developing opinions on exercise will involve trying things out and paying close attention to how I feel.

I could probably work on my opinions about business, too. Reflection might turn up more opportunities that are in line with my current interests.

In terms of tech, I can become more opinionated about good programming practices, patterns, and frameworks.

Some consumer things are probably worth developing more opinions about because of their cost or frequency in my life. It may be good to develop an opinion about bicycling.

Cooking is a good area for opinions, since it’s all a matter of taste anyway. I can learn more techniques, get better at those techniques, and try different recipes. It might be good to develop opinions about gardening (particular cultivars? gardening practices?), although I’d probably need to develop the skills and infrastructure to start plants from seed first. Maybe start with salad green types? That’ll have a faster growth cycle, and I can also test things by buying different kinds of greens from the market.

Do I want to continue with my current process? Are there ways I can improve it?

One easy step for improving my opinion-building process is to capture more of it as blog posts. If I write about opinions as I’m forming them, I benefit from the explanation and the review. Other people might be able to share tips, questions, or ideas. There are lots of little opinions and opinions-in-progress that I haven’t shared on my blog yet. It could just be a matter of making blogging even more a part of my thinking process.

I can experiment with talking to more people while I’m forming opinions. I should probably be careful with that, though, since advice is a funny thing.

It might be interesting to be more explicit about the assumptions and hypotheses related to my opinions.

Hmm… Is this something you’ve thought about? How have you improved your opinion-forming processes?

I notice I have cyclic interests

I learn about some topics in sprints, then let them go for a bit, and then come back to them. For example, my time logs for Emacs show:

  • June 2012
  • Mid-March to mid-April 2013
  • April-June 2014

2014-06-23 20_42_29-Emacs - quantified awesome

Oh. Actually, that’s an interestingly seasonal pattern. I hadn’t realized that the months lined up like that. (Although to be fair, I probably wasn’t tracking it as a category before May 2012, and it’s only very roughly lined up.) I wonder what it is…

Anyway, I feel myself shifting temporarily to other things. I know I’ll be back, but it’s just not at the forefront of my mind.

What am I thinking about instead? What am I learning more about? What am I spending more time on? Oh, the sparklines are surprisingly useful. I can just scroll down looking for patterns. Non-Emacs coding, apparently. Learning about other things. Playing video games, relaxing. Gardening. I’m spending nowhere near as much time biking as I used to, but I do spend more time walking.

Where would I like to direct my shifting interests and attention? I want to focus on building solid habits around health and fitness. That’s probably 15-30 minutes of exercise a day and preparing even better food (salads, variety). Once I’ve internalized those, I think I might circle back to Latin (I can mostly remember the declensions now, although I still make errors), and maybe either Japanese (so I can read and listen) or Cantonese (so that I can chat with W- and with the fellow gardener up the street). There’s drawing practice, too. Time to swing non-technical or non-computer-based for a bit? Hmm…

Fortunately, taking lots of notes along the way helps. I’m sure I’ll be back to this someday!

Mental hacks for slower speech

When I’m excited, I say about 200 words per minute. The recommended rate for persuasive speech is in the range of 140-160wpm, although studies differ on whether faster speech is more persuasive or if slower speech is. (Apparently, it depends on the context and whether people are inclined to agree with you…) It’s good to be flexible, though. I’m getting used to speaking slower. In the videos I’ve been making, I experiment with a lower voice, a slower pace, a more relaxed approach. When I record, I imagine the people I know who speak at the rate I want to use. I “hear” them say things, and then I mimic that.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people because of Google Helpouts and other online conversations. I help them with topics that they’re not familiar. Sometimes there are network or technical issues. I’ve been learning to slow down and to check often for understanding.

I think the biggest difference came from software feedback, though. I did the voiceovers for a series of videos. My natural rate was too fast, even when I tried reading at a slower rate. I adjusted the tempo in Audacity and found that I still sounded comfortable at 90% of my usual speed. The sound quality wasn’t amazing, but it was interesting to listen to myself at a slower rate and still recognize that as me.

It’s funny how there are all sorts of mental hacks that can help me play with this. I find it fascinating when a person’s normal pace is faster than the average pace I’ve been nudging myself towards. I’m not used to being the slower conversationalist, but it’s kinda cool.

I still like speed. I do some bandwidth-negotiation in conversations. I ramp up if other people look like they can take it. But it’s nice to know that I don’t have to rule out podcasting or things like that. I can slow down when it counts, so that what I’m saying sounds easier to try, seems less intimidating. It’s the auditory version of sketchnoting, I guess. Sketchnotes help me make complex topics, so it makes sense to do the same when speaking.

Hmm, maybe I can transcribe my recent videos and recalculate my words per minute…

Small talk tweaks

… though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.

Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

After three successive weekends (three!) with parties, I want to think about small talk and how I can tweak it. Small talk is unavoidable, but there are things you can do to nudge it one way or another. I like having conversations that move me or other people forward, even if it’s just by a little bit.

So, what do I want to do with small talk?

  • Help other people feel comfortable enough to open up about some memorable interest or quirk
  • Find topics of common interest for further conversation
  • Find a way to help or a reason to follow up

We could do the ritualistic weather/profession/how-do-you-know-the-host conversations, or we could change the level of the conversation so that it goes beyond the repetitive gestures that only skim the surface. I could chat as a way of passing time (possibly bumping into interesting thoughts along the way), or I can more deliberately check for things I’m interested in while staying open to the serendipity of random connections. What do I want to be able to frequently do through conversation?

  • Identify possible meetup or global community members – reassure them that this is a thing and that lots of people are interested in it; point people to resources (Emacs, QS, visual thinking)
  • Talk shop with other geeks to find out about tech and business things worth looking into
  • Other geeks (non-tech): learn more about different fields
  • Non-geeks: See if there’s anything I can help with easily (books? ideas?)

I could either dig into people’s interests or be memorable enough so that people look me up afterwards. Many people open up about their interests only when they feel comfortable. What makes people feel more comfortable? It helps to establish a sense of similarity and shared understanding.

People have different strategies for establishing similarity. I know a few people who use the “You look really familiar…” approach (even if the other person doesn’t) because rattling off schools, companies, associations, and interests tends to reveal something in common.

I like building on stuff I’ve overheard or asking questions about common context. That’s one of the reasons why I like events with presentations more than events that are focused only on networking – the presentation gives us something to start talking about.

In terms of helping people get to know me and find topics of shared interest, I use short disclosures with high information value.

Consulting: “I’m a consultant” has low information value: it’s vague and it wouldn’t establish much similarity even if the other person was also a consultant. I rarely use it unless I’m tired, I want to shift the focus back on the other person quickly, or I sense they’re also going through the motions. (Or I want to see at what point their eyes glaze over…)

Emacs: “I’m working on some Emacs projects” has high information value when talking to tech geeks, almost like a secret handshake that lets us shift the conversation. (I talk faster, go into more detail, and use more jargon when talking to fellow geeks, so it’s almost like the 56kbps modem handshake.) I’m female, I don’t wear geeky T-shirts, and I don’t work for a technical company or in a technical position, so it helps to verbally establish geek cred quickly without making a big deal out of it.

Data analysis: For geeks of other fields, Emacs is low-information, but Quantified Self and data analysis seems to be a good way to establish that similarity quickly. It works well with people who are interested in science, tech, engineering, math, or even continuous improvement. Litter box analysis is surprisingly engaging as a cocktail party topic, or at least it’s easy to for people to ask follow-up questions about if they want to.

Sketchnoting: People (including most of the ones who don’t identify as geeks) tend to be curious about my sketchnoting, since it’s visual, easy to understand, and uncommon. That said, I need to get better at handling the usual follow-ups. People tend to say things like “You draw so well” or “I could never do something like that.” I want to nip that in the bud and get people to realize that they can do this too. Pointing out that I draw stick figures like a 5-year-old doesn’t seem to do the trick (“Ah, but you know what to leave out” and “But you’re doing this while listening – that’s hard”). Maybe a little humour, poking fun at the idea of going to an art school that specializes in stick figures or learning how to not fall asleep in presentations? About one in fifty people I talk to recognizes this as something they do on their own or that they want to do, and it’s good to link them up with the global community. For most people, though, I feel slightly more comfortable focusing on ideas they want t olearn more about and sending them sketchnotes if there’s a fit.

Semi-retirement: This experiment with semi-retirement can be a good conversational hook for prompting curiosity. It usually follows this sequence: semi-retired -> “aren’t you a little young? what do you mean?” -> tracked, saved up, experimenting. It tends to be too detached from people’s lives, though – many people don’t think they can pull it off, even experienced freelancers who are doing most of it already.

Variety: If I don’t know how someone identifies, it’s fun to answer the “What do you do?” question (which tries to pigeonhole someone into a neatly understandable job title) with a sense of variety: “I do a lot of different things! This week, I …”

Going forward

For the next few events, I think I’ll experiment with doing the tech/non-tech/non-geek identification earlier, or going into that with an opening based on variety. I could name an example each for tech, non-tech, and non-geek, and see which one they dig into. As for digging into people’s interests, maybe an open-ended survey-type question would be an interesting way to help people open up while still collecting data in case people haven’t thought about how to make themselves easier to get to know. Hmm…

Small talk might be small, but if I have thousands of conversations over the years, I might as well keep learning from it. How have you tweaked how you do small talk?