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Reflecting on motives

I’ve been thinking about motives and bigger dreams lately. I have a good foundation for experiments, and I probably should be building something bigger on top of it. But I don’t resonate with the entrepreneurial stories of passion and focus. I don’t start with a vision of how the world should be and then work backwards from there in order to make it reality. I don’t dream of dollars or media mentions when starting an experiment. So if those aren’t the things that get me going, what does?

2014-10-21 Exploring my current motives

2014-10-21 Exploring my current motives

A couple of recent decisions are helping me learn more about my motives. Over dinner, one of the Hacklab board members asked me if I would consider helping with bookkeeping, since the current volunteer was struggling with some of the work. After some deliberation, I agreed to help out. I noticed that my reasons for doing so were primarily because I felt Hacklab board had good people in it, and that solid financial information could help us navigate this somewhat precarious period.

On another note, I’m wrapping up the consulting engagement I’ve been working on for the past two and a half years. I said yes to that primarily because the person who asked me had good karma. He had helped me get into and make the most of IBM, so I wanted to help him and his team as well.

These two decisions helped me realize how strongly I’m motivated by helping specific people, versus being motivated by a grand vision, the desire to help a general class of people, or other reasons. I hadn’t realized the extent before, but now that I look closely, I can see how it plays out. I like prototyping because I can quickly build things with lots of feedback from people who will actually be using the tools. I like automation because I can save specific people time and effort. I like helping people with Emacs because of the individual quirks of their workflows.

I do have other motives, too. Sometimes I do things out of curiosity and because they tickle my brain. Tracking data and tweaking Emacs for myself belong to this category. Sometimes I do things because I think they will be useful, like writing and drawing.

I feel like I have small-m motives rather than the big-M Motives you read about in the biographies of people who change the world. I like working on a small, personal scale. Does that mean I should just focus on small dreams, gradually growing them in size? Are these motives something I can tinker with, work around, or transform into even better strengths?

2014-10-22 People who follow similar motivations well

2014-10-22 People who follow similar motivations well

Fortunately, I can look around me for role models living good lives following similar motivations. My parents also seem highly motivated by helping specific people. For example, my dad wanted to help one boy with autism who was interested in photography. That grew into a large initiative called Photography with a Difference. He’s also motivated by curiosity and crazy ideas, like the way he decided to go on a cross-country ultralight flight. My mom was once asked about passion and work. She replied, “John’s passion is photography. My passion is John.” She focused on building an advertising photography business so that my dad could do amazing things behind the camera. W- seems motivated by helping specific people, too, and he also focuses on doing things well. Many of my friends who are into programming are into it because of curiosity and the joy of creation (it helps that it pays the bills, too!). On my best days, I do what I do because I get to help specific people, follow my curiosity, and build resources that might be useful.

So if you can live a good life even with “small-scale” motives like this (compared to, say, the desire to reshape the world), what does that mean for me? How can I make things a little bit better? And–just to play with the idea–what would it be like if I had different motives?

2014-10-21 Reflecting on my primary motives

2014-10-21 Reflecting on my primary motives

I’m not strongly influenced by everyone, but since I do have that desire to help specific people, I can be deliberate about the people I spend time with and include in this consideration. It works out well if helping people out also helps me build skills and resources. It also works out well if I can expand to a group of good people, so I’m not anchored by only one person. For example, having gotten to know the rest of the team during my consulting gig, I feel like they’re also good people I’m happy to help.

I want to balance the people motive, though. This is such a strong pull on my brain, and it’s so tempting to work on other people’s tasks instead of following my own curiosities or developing my own things. I can de-emphasize this by being selective about the tasks I take on, picking the things that are best-aligned to what I want to learn or do anyway. I can also carve off time for self-directed interests, since I’ll probably benefit from training myself to get even better at following curiosity and making things I can build on later.

It would probably be very difficult to swap out my motives, going from concrete to abstract, even if it would theoretically be interesting to do so. Ah well. I’ll start by working with what I have, but it might be interesting to see if I can experiment with being an Alternate Universe Sacha just in case I discover I actually like it.

Anyway, what kinds of things do I want to be able to do with slightly tweaked motives?

2014-10-22 What would I like to be able to do with sustained motivation

2014-10-22 What would I like to be able to do with sustained motivation

I think it would be interesting to play around with Emacs, open source, and other tools, getting the hang of building more resources. It would probably be good to be able to fully enjoy DIY skills (including sewing) and other things that are good for me, like exercise. If I can notice things about these activities that line up with the things that currently motivate me — or tweak my motivations so that I like more of the things that are good for me — maybe that will make this stuff easier to do and easier to stick with.

Hmm…

Leveling up in cooking

I made sweet potato and miso soup yesterday, with popped wild rice and Caesar salad on the side. W- made garlic bread with the baguette I bought. It was yummy. The other day, I helped make butternut squash and sweet potato soup at Hacklab, and that was well-received as well. Yay!

Five years ago, before we discovered bulk cooking and bought a chest freezer, W- used to cook every 1-2 days. I didn’t know a lot of dishes that I could confidently cook and he was so much better at cooking than I was, so I was the sous chef. I helped prepare ingredients, make rice, and cook simple recipes. He’d come home early to make dinner, and we packed leftovers for lunch the next day.

Now I cook most of our experimental meals, trying new recipes in the search for future favourites. I also enjoy refilling the chest freezer with time-tested meals like chicken curry and shake-and-bake chicken. Our next goal is to work out a good rotation of known favourites, sprinkling in new recipes here and there.

It feels great to be able to cook–and to take charge of the kitchen, which is an interesting experience. I’m usually trying recipes for the first time, or experimenting with a new variant of a recipe that we’ve had before. I’m never quite sure how it will work out, but since we have backups (hooray for leftovers and low expectations!), it’s okay to stretch and learn. Besides, with all these years ahead of me (probably), the more exploration I do now, the more it will pay off in terms of skills and knowledge.

So probably every Tuesday or so, I’ll be learning a new recipe (helping out at Hacklab). Two or three times a week, I’ll also try a new recipe at home – maybe Wednesday and Sunday, or something like that. I’m also working on rediscovering old favourites and writing them down in the shared Evernote notebook I’ve set up with W-, and maybe transitioning to a grocery/recipe system I’m building for the two of us.

Nice to have a kitchen and the time to cook! =)

Level up! Making IKEA-compatible shelves

2014-10-05 Routing shelves

We’ve been decluttering, moving things around and getting rid of things that no longer fit our life. W- decided to reorganize the downstairs cabinets, shuffling the supplies around so that the paper was closer to the printer. It made sense to add another shelf there. The cabinets had been discontinued, and W- couldn’t find shelves matching the dimensions we needed. Time to make our own!

W- picked up a long piece of pine from the hardware store and he cut it into three pieces. We went to IKEA to ask for more shelf pins, which they rustled up after lots of digging. Then we used the router (the woodworking one, not the networking one =) ) to carve out small indentations that would accommodate the pins. While I lined up the existing shelf as a guide, W- adjusted the piece of scrap wood that we were using as a fence and then clamped it into place. He rehearsed the cut, then routed the three boards. We repeated the process for the other indentations. Then we tested the boards – and they fit nicely. Now we’re varnishing them. We probably don’t need to varnish them, but we might as well. =) If we do another set — which we probably will — I’m looking forward to practising routing again.

Making shelves and varnishing them might be pretty small things, but it’s great to be able to do this. I like how W- is helping me learn all these practical skills. I’d love to learn more about building small and medium-sized things around the house: an open box for my cubby at Hacklab, some support for the kitchen shelf, a headboard, maybe even a study table. Someday!

Reducing my consulting

I’ve been gradually scaling down my consulting. I started with a plan for consulting 3-4 days a week. Then I shifted to 2-3 days. Now I’m planning to target a regular schedule of one day per week, with extra for when there are important projects. I’ve been helping other team members pick up my skills, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with that. I think consulting one day a week will be a good next step in terms of giving me a deeper experience of self-directed time while still building on excellent client relationships.

What would be different if I work one day a week? I think this might be a new tipping point, since I’ll have a larger block of focused time – up to four days, compared to the bursts of single discretionary days of a Tue/Thu schedule. I’ll find out whether I can keep enough context in my head to make the most of spread-apart days, and if the mental leakage is worth it. Alternatively, I might experiment with working two afternoons a week, which still breaks up the week but allows for more responsiveness and momentum.

At the moment, I find it easier and more fun to work on specific people’s ideas and challenges rather than come up with my own solutions for the gaps I see. That said, I’m starting to branch out and make things that I think people will like, and these have turned out to be surprisingly helpful. Still, I’ve got a fair bit more to learn before I can be one of those idea-slinging entrepreneurs.

What do I gain from consulting?

  • The impetus to solve specific problems (learning a lot along the way)
  • The fulfillment of working on larger achievements
  • Taking advantage of other people’s skills without having to do the coordination myself
  • Feedback and ideas from other people
  • Interaction with a good team
  • A bigger safety net (financial and professional)

What other experiment modes do I want to try?

  • Active leisure: learning, writing, drawing, cooking, exercising, etc.
  • Product development: using writing, drawing, and coding to practise creating things outside the time=money equation
  • Open source contribution/maintainership: learning boost from commitments?

I suppose I could toss myself in the deep end and try a 0% schedule earlier rather than later. I’m planning to take a few months to look into this add-on development thing, and that should give me some more information on what I need to learn and whether I can get the hang of it. =)

Much to try…

Avoiding spoilage with bulk cooking

We’d been letting some vegetables and cooked food go to waste, so I’ve been tinkering with how we prepare our meals in order to reduce spoilage. Here’s how we now cook in bulk.

During the weekend, we review the past week’s leftovers and freeze them as individual meals. We packaging food in individual lunch-sized containers (~500g, including rice) until the freezer is full or the fridge leftovers are done. I label the containers using painter’s tape and a marker, writing down the initials of the recipe and a number for the month. For example, chicken curry prepared in July is labeled CC7.

I prepare one or two types of dinners. I usually pick bulk recipes based on what’s on sale at the supermarket. If there are unused groceries from the previous week (sometimes I end up not cooking things), I prepare a recipe that can use those up: curry, soup, etc. I start a large pot of rice, too, since I’m likely to use that up when packing individual meals and we go through a lot of rice during the week. We’re more likely to enjoy the variety if it’s spread out over the coming weeks. Freezing the leftovers means we can avoid spoiling food out of procrastination.

After the food is cooked, I put portions into our large glass containers. That way, we have a little room to cook fresh dinners during the week (which W- likes to do), but we also have some backups in case things get busy. We alternate the prepared dinners for variety. For some meals that are inefficient to portion out, I just keep the entire pot in the fridge. If there’s more, I’ll freeze the rest as individual portions. If the freezer is full, I’ll keep the extras in the fridge.

When it comes to the freezer, individual portions are much more convenient than larger portions. You can take one to work and microwave it for lunch. Sometimes I pack larger portions (ex: pizza, pasta sauce), so we need to plan for that when defrosting them. If a dinner portion is thawed in the fridge, it has to get eaten since it can’t be refrozen (unless we re-cook it, which we rarely do).

Our costs tend to be between $1.50 and $3 per portion. For example, the Thai curry I made last time resulted in 20 portions out of $22.39 of groceries. Even if you account for the spices and rice in our pantry, it still comes to a pretty frugal (and yummy!) meal. Sure, there’s labour and electricity, but I enjoy cooking and we schedule it for the lower electricity rates of the weekend. Well worth it for us, and we’re working on getting even better at it.

Aside from reducing spoilage, I’m also working on increasing variety, maybe cooking smaller batches and cooking more often during the week. I’d still like to use the freezer to spread out meals over an even longer period of time so that we can enjoy different tastes. Getting the hang of spices, ingredient combinations, and cooking techniques will help me with variety, too. So much to learn! =)

Thinking about rewards and recognition since I’m on my own

One of the things a good manager does is to recognize and reward people’s achievements, especially if people exceeded expectations. A large corporation might have some standard ways to reward good work: a team lunch, movie tickets, gift certificates, days off, reward points, events, and so on. Startups and small businesses might be able to come up with even more creative ways of celebrating success.

In tech, I think good managers take extra care to recognize when people have gone beyond the normal call of duty. It makes sense. Many people earn salaries without overtime pay, might not get a bonus even if they’ve sacrificed time with family or other discretionary activities, and might not be able to take vacation time easily.

It got me thinking: Now that I’m on my own, how do I want to celebrate achievements–especially when they are a result of tilting the balance towards work?

When I’m freelancing, extra time is paid for, so some reward is there already. I like carving out part of those earnings for my opportunity fund, rewarding my decision-making by giving myself more room to explore.

During a sprint, the extra focus time sometimes comes from reducing my housework. When things relax, then, I like celebrating by cooking good meals, investing in our workflows at home, and picking up the slack.

I also like taking notes so that I can build on those successes. I might not be able to include a lot of details, but having a few memory-hooks is better than not having any.

Sometimes people are really happy with the team’s performance, so there’s extra good karma. Of the different non-monetary ways that people can show their appreciation within a corporate framework, which ones would I lean towards?

I definitely appreciate slowing down the pace after big deliverables. Sustained concentration is difficult, so it helps to be able to push back if there are too many things on the go.

At work, I like taking time to document lessons learned in more detail. I’d get even more of a kick out of it if other people picked up those notes and did something even cooler with the ideas. That ranks high on my warm-and-fuzzy feeling scale. It can take time for people to have the opportunity to do something similar, but that’s okay. Sometimes I hear from people years later, and that’s even awesomer.

A testimonial could come in handy, especially if it’s on an attributed site like LinkedIn.

But really, it’s more about long-term relationships and helping out good people, good teams, and good causes. Since I can choose how much to work and I know that my non-work activities are also valuable, the main reasons I would choose to work more instead of exploring those other interests are:

  • I like the people I work with and what they’re working on, and I want to support them,
  • I’ll learn interesting things along the way, and
  • It’s good to honour commitments and not disrupt plans unnecessarily.

So, theoretically, if we plunged right back into the thick of another project, I didn’t get the time to write about stuff, I didn’t feel right keeping personal notes (and thus I’ll end up forgetting the important parts of the previous project), and no one’s allowed to write testimonials, I’d still be okay with good karma – not the quid-pro-quo of transactional favour-swapping, but a general good feeling that might come in handy thirty years from now.

Hmm, this is somewhat related to my reflection on Fit for You – which I thought I’d updated within the last three years, but I guess I hadn’t posted that to my blog. Should reflect on that again sometime… Anyway, it’s good to put together a “care and feeding” guide for yourself! =)