Category Archives: life

Scribe and tinker

I’ve been figuring out more about what tickles my brain and what I want to do with my life.

On one hand, I’m a scribe. I like extracting, organizing, and connecting ideas. I like getting stuff out of my head and into a form that I can work with or share with other people. I often like helping get stuff out of other people’s heads too. This explains my fascination with blogging, sketchnoting, personal knowledge management, and processes. To get better at this, I can focus on skills like:

  • Asking questions
  • Finding resources
  • Making sense
  • Connecting and building on ideas
  • Organizing
  • Communicating
  • Archiving

On the other hand, I’m a tinker. I like tweaking things to make them better. It’s not about big inventions, but small, continuous improvements. This explains my fascination with Emacs, Quantified Self, open source, and general geeking around. To get better at this, I can focus on skills like:

  • Seeing problems and possibilities
  • Estimating, prioritizing, and evaluating
  • Setting up experiments
  • Connecting ideas
  • Learning techniques
  • Coding
  • Tweaking physical things

If I look at the intersection of being a scribe and being a tinker, that explains my interest in:

  • Building/tweaking systems to help me capture, organize, connect, and share knowledge
  • Writing about experiments and lessons learned

What would it look like to be very, very good at these things? It’s quite convenient that I’m into knowledge work, since I can learn from millennia of people passionate about that. Tinkering shows up in entrepreneurship and invention, so I have plenty of role models there, too. I could probably spend a lifetime learning as much as I can from Benjamin Franklin and similar people.

How does parenting influence this? What can I gain from being the primary caregiver of a young child?

I’ve taken advantage of my push towards externalizing memory to work out a daily/weekly/monthly/yearly journaling workflow that works for me, and a way to think about questions in the scattered moments I have for myself. It took a bit of figuring out and there are things I still want to improve about my process. Chances are that there are other similarly-inclined people who could benefit. I wonder what things could be like if we could get better at thinking, capturing, and sharing at this stage. I don’t expect that I’ll come up with some brilliant insights. Most of my notes are about everyday life or my own questions. Still, I notice that this process seems to be good for my mental health, and it’s okay for me to explore ideas slowly especially if I get better at building on ideas instead of going around in circles. I can let the tough meaning-making be handled by people like Pulitzer-prize journalists (surely there must be quite a few who have also been or will become primary caregivers) and people who have different life arrangements (like part-time daycare), and I can focus on the questions I’m particularly curious about or the things that are uncommon about our experiments.

As for tinkering, there are tons of improvement opportunities exposed by the demands of parenting. If I keep track of the pain points/opportunities and work on improving my skills, I’ll probably grow at just the right pace. It would be interesting to improve my quick-experiment rate. Reading and thinking give me lots of things to try in terms of parenting, and talking to other people might help a lot too. W- is a good mentor for quick DIY and household things. It’s a little harder to do quick programming tweaks at the moment, but that can wait until I can concentrate more. I’ve set up my phone so that I can do some things through it, so I can consider the tradeoff between coding on my phone versus using the time to write.

I think I can make this work so that the time and energy I’ll devote to A- over the next couple of years can count for other goals, too. The more clearly I understand myself, the more effectively I can use my time and attention. I’m looking forward to seeing where writing more can take me, since I can do that while A-‘s nursing. During the day, it could be good to explore improvements to our physical environment and our processes, since A- can appreciate those too. There’ll be time for other things later, as A- becomes more capable and more independent. Onward!

Thinking about impact

In preparation for possibly making it to a conversation tomorrow about quantified impact, I’ve been thinking about the impact I want my experiments to have and how I might be able to observe and measure them.

I realized that I’m less interested in looking at my impact on the wider world and more interested in looking at the impact on myself. I’m also interested in the impact on my family. This is partly due to the influence of Stoicism’s focus on the things that I can control, partly the freedom of not having external performance reviews, and partly an experimental belief that if I take care of my own life and share what I’m learning with others, wider impact will follow. I don’t need to seek it prematurely. I can focus instead on having a solid foundation to build on.

If I evaluated impact based on the outcomes for A-, I would leave that too vulnerable to chance (what if A- died unexpectedly?) or conflict (what if A- wanted a different path?). It feels more right to focus on doing my part well, and to evaluate myself accordingly. If other things work out well, that’s a nice bonus, and keeping an eye on how those things are going can help me check if I’m on track or drifting.

With that in mind, what kind of impact do l want for my experiments, big and small?

Deeper appreciation of life, meaning: My biggest experiment at the moment is parenting. Based on research, parenting is likely to increase feelings of satisfaction and purpose, and will probably be worth the reduced autonomy and increased vulnerability. It’s not so much about pleasure as it is about eudaimonia.

Deeper appreciation of W- and other people: Research is pessimistic on the effect of parenting on marital satisfaction and social connection, but I might be able to counter those effects by paying attention thoughtfully. I’ve certainly developed a deeper appreciation of W- over the past few years, and I feel like I’m getting to know Toronto better too. Parenting lets me see my family and my in-laws in a new light. I like being able to remember that everyone was a baby once, too, and I like being able to appreciate other people more.

Practice in equanimity: Parenting brings plenty of opportunities to apply philosophy to life. I like wasting less energy on frustration and directing more energy towards paying attention and moving forward. I’ve been able to keep my cool in varied situations, and now I’m working on being able to respond thoughtfully and creatively in the moment.

Push to learn and grow: I’m taking advantage of my desire to help A- by learning more about child development, early childhood education, health, science, and other things. I’m sure I’ll learn about lots of random topics along the way. I’m trading a bit of self-direction for motivation and pushes out of my comfort zone. I could start tracking this by writing down what I’m learning about.

Experiences, empathy: Not only with W- and A-, but with other people too.

Immersion into children’s worlds, playfulness, wonder, creativity: Good stuff.

Reduced friction, increased capabilities, increased effects: It’s good to deal with constraints like sleep disruption and limited attention, since I can find the rough spots and figure out ways to improve them.

Good boundaries, assertiveness, deliberation: I’m learning more about making decisions, asserting myself, and changing my mind as needed.

Shared notes, possible business ideas, credibility: Other people might benefit from what I’m learning or doing.

Increased Emacs community, learning from each other: I’m glad I can do Emacs News. Looking forward to having more brain space so that I can contribute tweaks too, since playing with Emacs improves my capabilities and tickles my brain.

The book All Joy and No Fun promises to be an interesting summary of the research into the effects of parenting on parents.

If I can be more thoughtful about the effects I want (or need to watch out for) from the various choices I can make, then I might be able to make better decisions or invest a little effort and get even better results. It’s fun thinking about these things!

Quick thoughts on leadership, impact, and finding my own path

I was talking to a friend about leadership, succession, and impact. In particular, my friend was curious about how to grow more leaders. I realized some things about how my parents made big differences and about how I want to grow.

Succession is hard. Big companies spend millions on leadership programs, have huge, motivated talent pools to draw on, and even turn to external recruitment, and it’s still uncommon to have a successful transition or a long-lived company. It’s even tougher in the nonprofit and volunteer worlds.

I wonder if going sideways can help work around the succession challenge. Instead of hoping for the right intersection of same time, same place, same Bat channel (an interested, capable, available potential leader turning up when you want to start grooming one and sticking around until the right time), what about the franchising approach instead?

I realized that this is one of the things my parents did, and that’s how they managed to do so much. They didn’t count on any one initiative staying around for the long term. My dad probably would have gotten impatient and bored anyway. Instead, they got the hang of quickly starting things up, and they inspired people to start similar efforts. After the first few projects, happy sponsors and relationships made the next ones easier and easier. My dad could just share a crazy idea on Facebook and people would sign up to help make it happen. Professionally, my parents cared about teaching both the art and the business of photography, and having workshops open even to active competitors.

This approach is probably out of scope from most leadership programs that focus on succession planning because they assume you need a specific thing to continue, but franchising is the closest business analogy, I think. It might be a good way to increase impact through a wider reach. It could be like:

  • Getting more out of the stuff you’re already doing: My dad was media-savvy. He could imagine the pictures and news articles that would come out of a project, and he was great at lining those up. Something similar (or partnering with someone who thinks about that sort of stuff) could increase the visibility and impact of things you’re already doing some making people feel good about the projects too.
  • Getting better at sharing the cool stuff you’re doing and the initiatives you’re involved in: pictures and stories on social media could let people find out about stuff, explore things you’re into, get updates, etc. Similar to the previous point, but more personal.
  • Accelerating your startup for ideas: people to talk to, channels for sharing ideas, ways to get people involved, templates, etc.
  • Getting better at sharing lessons learned, questions, and artifacts
  • Automating, simplifying and documenting processes so that people with less experience can do better work: Can be very useful for both your initiatives and other people’s, and it’s good for both direct succession and franchising. This is definitely my focus, and it’s awesome for expanding reach over space and time (even without active attention). My mom focuses on this too, although she often struggles with adoption. The E-Myth book might be relevant here.

Figuring out swarms might be an interesting challenge: how to quickly gather people around a particular project, and how to help other people with their own. There’s a lot that to practice even without a candidate successor, so that might be one way to keep growing.

At the moment, I’m focusing on:

  • automating/simplifying/documenting: Perfect timing! I need to make things simple enough so that a child can do it, and there happens to be one handy for testing. I also personally benefit from automating and simplifying things enough to fit into the snippets of discretionary time I have, and documenting things so that I can declutter my brain and make the most of scattered moments.
  • getting better at sharing lessons learned, questions, and artifacts: Hooray for blogging! I’m getting better at writing on my phone while A- sleeps on top of me (like right now), and I’ll figure out how to mix drawing back in, too. I’m probably never going to feel comfortable using the “expert” voice. I like the “Here’s what I’m figuring out, and here’s what I’m thinking about next” sort of approach. There are so many ways forward, and it’s fun to think of everything as a grand experiment.

We were talking about the 2×2 matrix of size of impact versus number of people affected. My friend said many people focus on the “big impact, lots of people” quadrant. I think I like the “small impact, few people” quadrant, which perfectly characterizes things like my Emacs stuff and my consulting. I like small fixes and improvements. I scale up by trying to help things stay fixed/improved and available even when I’m not actively thinking about them, which is why coding and writing fit me well. If I can get even better at making and sharing those little improvements, and making them findable when other people want them, that sounds like a good path for growing. I also like connecting the dots between ideas, which is another example of a small contribution that can have a larger effect.

The long-term impact could be mostly about the ripples from people I’ve helped (like the way I get to learn more about cool things to do with Emacs by people who tell me I helped them get curious about it a long time ago! :) ) and maybe maybe maybe someday, books worthy of being part of the Great Conversation / archive of human knowledge.

I probably won’t do anything as awesome as my dad’s advocacies, but I think this path of sharing little ideas, experiments, and lessons learned – this path could work for me. :) If it happens to resonate with you and you want to pass along lessons learned or share the things you’re figuring out, that would be great!

My story about my dad

My sister started collecting stories for my dad months before his death so that he could read them. I posted this on Facebook so that my family could easily include it in their collection (which they did), but I forgot to put it on my blog too. So here it is.

From September 21, 2017:

Our visit home is almost done. I’m not sure when we’ll be back and how long my parents have, especially with my dad’s current health challenges. I’ve been preparing for this moment for years. Maybe I’ll have years more, or maybe not.

It’s good to write now, choosing the memories I want to treasure and the lessons I want to keep. My sisters have great memories of wild adventures with my dad. I’ve always been the quieter sort, happier at home than on the road or in the air. It means, perhaps, that I get to remember a different side to him than most people focus on.

I’ve been thinking about how my dad manages to make such outsized differences in the world. Banaue, advertising photography, RC flying, ultralight flying, the zoo, Photography with a Difference… Even now, he’s planning a national exhibit and an enduring celebration of heritage in Ifugao schools. He can do more in a month than many people do in a lifetime.

The obvious factors: tremendous energy and resourcefulness; playfulness; generosity; persistence almost to the point of stubbornness; constant learning; the skills of photography, editing, and storytelling; the support of my mom and people around them; larger-than-life ideas that spark other people’s enthusiasm; a charismatic personality; a sense for theatre and how to set things up; building relationships through teaching; the savviest use of social media that I’ve seen. I’m not sure. I’m piecing this together from stories and from watching my parents behind the scenes.

And this factor, the one that shines through in the quiet moments my parents share: empathy. My dad lets himself be moved, and he moves others. Not all causes, and not always successfully, but there is a bigness of heart to him, and I think people respond to that as much as they respond to the cheerful audacity of his ideas.

“Will you remember me?” he asks my toddler. I think of all the stories I’ve heard, the videos and front-page news articles he’s been featured in, the people who tell their own tales of encounters with him and were inspired by his example. I’ll share those with her, of course.

More than that, I hope to share the lessons we can learn about making our own differences. We don’t have to follow in his footsteps. I’m not sure anyone can. But we can practice the resourcefulness and resilience that helped him find ways around so many challenges. We can practice the constant learning that helped him hone his skills and the constant teaching that helped him build communities. We can practice the empathy and generosity that helped him move mountains.

And besides, he gave my toddler her first camera and her first Swiss knife. Who knows where those will take us, if we can learn how to use those two tools and what they represent, all the way to their fullest potential?

As for what he gave me… If I can face uncertainties with clear eyes and steady hands, planning for different scenarios and doing what needs to be done, it’s because I learned that from my parents. If I can feel lucky and excited, even now, it’s because of them.

Here are the four things I want to say:

We’re okay. Thank you. I love you. Let’s see.

Post-mortem post-mortem

Random, incomplete list of lessons learned:

  • My dad lived such an incredible life. That made it so much easier to celebrate his awesomeness than to feel regret. We had time for all the things that mattered, and we had those serious conversations throughout life.
  • He was very clear on what he wanted regarding advance directives, cremation followed by viewing, what to do about the business, what he wanted to wear, and so on. That made tough decisions easier, because we could follow his wishes.
  • Cremation before viewing made it easier for people to focus on the stories and pictures people shared instead of remembering my dad lying so still. We should make sure the mortuary knows it’s a closed casket and post someone to enforce that, since people can be curious.
  • It was really helpful to have staff members taking care of organizing all sorts of details.
  • Drawing up a five-day meal plan could help increase variety. It’s good to offer meals that have a lot of choices: chicken, beef, vegetables, etc. Packaged meals are good for flexibility because you can order based on the numbers you see, and then order more as you run low. Catering the last night was a good idea, though, since it made it feel more like a party.
  • It would probably have been worth it to get proper coffee set up every morning. That would make people happier than instant coffee. Tea and chocolate would be good to offer too.
  • The pre-need memorial plan and the memorial plot that my parents purchased didn’t end up getting used because my parents decided to go with cremation issued, but they can be transferred.

  • We should have posted visiting hours in the initial announcement, since people who stayed overnight hardly slept.

  • It helps to think of significant pictures or moments that you want to have, and who should be in it.
  • Insurance companies want original forms.
  • Line up birth certificates and marriage contracts beforehand. One per insurance company, one for estate tax, plus extras for various paperwork requirements.

  • Official receipts for funeral expenses should be in the name of one of the heirs so that they can be claimed as part of the estate tax deduction.

  • The first paperwork deadline is the BIR notice of death, which can be handled by registering for a TIN for the estate. The deadline is two months after the date of death.

  • The Roman Catholic Church prefers burials over cremation, and forbids the division of ashes or keeping ashes at home. We should probably have looked up customs and updated rules before death, as that could have saved us a little money.

  • It was a great idea to collect stories even before death, and to collect and print more stories during the wake. Kathy did an amazing job collecting, formatting, and printing all those stories. It was good to have a printer there, a couple of Autopoles, clotheslines, and clothespins.

  • You can never have too many pens.

  • Light-coloured envelopes are easier to label than dark ones.

  • It’s hard to organize papers with a curious toddler, so it’s good to keep expectations low.

  • Uber drivers assume you’re already standing outside, and might cancel if they don’t see you.

  • Korean Air let me extend my trip without a change fee, since we found a seat in the same fare class and with no fare increase. Travel insurance cost a bit more to extend, but that’s okay.

  • It’s good to have a large picture, a digital copy, and a slideshow ready to go. It can also help to bring a laptop, or at least an OTG cable and a USB drive.

  • It’s good to plan the mementos to be placed inside the niche. That would avoid last-minute scrambling for prints or frames.

  • It would have been helpful to decide on the columbarium before arranging for cremation or the wake.

  • I should remember to ask about all payment methods. Sometimes Visa debit or MasterCard debit can be treated as cash.

  • I should remember to verify actual location, chair setup, and ventilation of a site before giving the okay. It would have also been good to always bring someone else along – more questions, and backup in case A- needs my attention.

  • I’m happy with how our priorities worked out: people before paperwork.

Our trip to the Philippines

Because my dad was in poor health and it was possibly the last Christmas that my sister and her kids would spend in the Philippines, we decided to all go despite the chaos and expense of flying over the Christmas holidays. It turned out to be an excellent decision. We got to spend lots of time with everyone, and we had lots of conversations that helped us prepare for what happened.

We initially planned to be away from Dec 17 to Jan 10. When my dad was scheduled for potential surgery on Jan 8, I extended my trip until Jan 26, while W- kept his original itinerary. It was a good thing I extended my stay. My dad died on January 6. We had a wonderful wake for him until Jan 11, and I had a couple of weeks to spend time with family and help with paperwork.

I’m feeling surprisingly okay with the whole thing. We prepared a lot for this scenario, and I know we can get through it. In fact, this trip has helped me develop an even deeper appreciation of my family.

A- had a marvelous time. She played with her cousins, who were both enamoured with her. She took to asking her Lola to read to her, which my mom did with delight. She learned many new words and names. She liked following the household staff around so that she could help with washing the dishes or sweeping the floor. She started experimenting with establishing her boundaries (“No grab. This mine!”) She stopped being anxious around dolls. She often sought out her cousins to play with them. At the wake, it was delightful to hear the kids bouncing around and being their usual cheerful selves.

There’s more paperwork to be done, of course. My next priorities are:

  • Take care of A- and figure out new routines considering the travel we’re planning for the year
  • Handle all the medical appointments and other things we planned for this phase in Canada
  • Keep track of work in progress and coordinate paperwork as we go in and out of the country
  • Help check on my mom as she deals with the transition
  • Invest in little improvements

We might experiment with a cycle of two months in Canada and one month in the Philippines, at least for this year’s transition period. It’s going to take a lot of money and effort, but I think it might be worth it in terms of relationships and paperwork. I’ll scale it back if we get too disrupted by the changes in environment and routine, but maybe we’ll be able to take it in stride. We’ll see!