Category Archives: life

Miscellaneous memories

Because these don’t quite fit in their own blog posts, but I want to stash them in my blog anyway.

2015-02-04 Yay, passport -- index card #canada #travel #paperwork

2015-02-04 Yay, passport – index card #canada #travel #paperwork

I got my Canadian passport, yay! I’m still not particularly keen on travel, but this will make it loads easier when I do. Fewer visas to apply for, fewer paperwork hassles… Hooray!

2015-01-30 Sunlight in a cafe -- index card #cafe #light

2015-01-30 Sunlight in a cafe – index card #cafe #light

Our kitchen is the room with the most sunlight in our house, so I spend most of my time in it. But it faces west, so it doesn’t get as much sun as a south-facing room would. (Life in the northern hemisphere: I’m still getting the hang of all the little details!)

The other week, I went to a cafe to help someone with Emacs. So much sunlight! Wonderful. I felt like a cat.

2015-01-27 Field's metal -- index card #hacklab

2015-01-27 Field’s metal – index card #hacklab

Eric brought some Field’s metal to Hacklab. It’s a metal that melts at a temperature below that of hot water. We cast tiny robots in a chocolate mold. =)

2015-01-31 Clearing my fabric stash -- index card #tidying #decluttering

2015-01-31 Clearing my fabric stash – index card #tidying #decluttering

Decluttering the basement, letting go of just-in-case fabric and planned projects I hadn’t touched in years. I might take up sewing again, but I’ll be more careful about fabric and pattern purchases.

Hmm, maybe I should include little memories in my weekly review. That makes sense. I’ll do that going forward!

Experimenting my way to an awesome life

“The question I really want to answer is: How can I live a fuller life, a happier life, a more productive life?” said someone in a recent e-mail about Quantified Self.

This made me think: The ideal life differs from person to person. What kind of awesome life am I moving towards? What motivates my choices and experiments, and how can I explore and learn more effectively?

I have role models for this, so I can imagine what it looks like. I can look at the differences between our lives to get a better understanding of the gaps and divergences.

My parents have full, happy, productive, and significant lives (although I think my mom thinks that what she’s doing isn’t as awesome or as significant as what my dad does). They make things happen. In particular, my dad touches lots of people’s lives. He has this really big scope.

W- lives a full, happy, productive life. I think he focuses on doing a good job at work, doing the right thing, knowing (and applying!) all sorts of good knowledge, and being a great husband and dad. We’re probably not going to get added to any tribal epics or history books, but that’s okay. I tend to think of his scope as smaller, more local, and he’s totally awesome within it. He sometimes reaches beyond that scope to support interesting things, like Kickstarters for well-designed products.

I think I live a decently full, happy, and productive life as well. Definitely yes to the happy bit; yay for high genetic set-points for happiness, good coping mechanisms, and a tremendous amount of luck. I keep some slack in my life, so I don’t feel like it’s super-full or super-productive. But people tell me that I do a lot, so maybe this is like the way my mom’s not as sure about her own contributions. I could probably do more, but this is as good a start as any.

My scope tends to be similar to W-‘s, focusing on our little world. But I also have these odd outgrowths for things like Emacs, visual thinking, social business, Hacklab… These aren’t as driven as my dad’s initiatives or my friends’ startups. They’re more… curiosity-based, maybe? I enjoy exploring those playgrounds and sharing what I’m learning. I think W- is like this too – he follows his curiosity into new areas.

So, if that helps me understand a little of who I am now, what does that tell me about the future Sacha I’m gradually inching towards, and what experiments can help me learn more?

I imagine Awesome Sacha to be this capable, curious person with lots of skills, including practical DIY stuff. Her equanimity and optimism lets her handle whatever life throws at her (and learn from it!). Maybe she’s more involved in the community now, helping her favourite causes, but probably more from a position of lifting people up rather than going on crusades. She takes plenty of notes and shares them, helping other people learn faster and see the connections among different ideas.

If that’s a potentially interesting Future Sacha I could become, what can I track to measure my progress along the way, and what kinds of experiments could stretch me a little bit more towards that?

  • I can pick up and practise more skills: Cooking, sewing, electronics, DIY repair, etc. I can track this through journal entries, blog posts, comfort level, and decisions to do things myself versus asking or paying someone else to do things. For example, I now feel comfortable cooking, and I remember feeling a lot more uncertain about it before. I feel moderately okay about repairing small appliances and doing simple woodworking, but could use more practice. I have hardly any experience with plumbing or tiling.
  • I can observe more, and write about more of what I’m learning: The little hiccups and challenges in my life feel so much smaller than the ones that other people go through, and I usually don’t write about them. Keeping a journal (even for the small stuff) might result in interesting reading later on, though. I already bounce back pretty quickly. It might be interesting to see how I respond to larger and larger changes, though, so deliberately taking on more commitments and more risks can help me develop this part of my life.
  • I can help out more. I think it’s okay even if I don’t try to maximize utility on this for now. I’ll start with the things that resonate with me. It’s easy enough to track hours and money for this; maybe later I can add stories too.
  • I can get better at taking, organizing, and sharing my notes. I can see the gap in my note-taking by noticing when I’m annoyed that I can’t find my old notes (either because I hadn’t written them up properly or I didn’t make them findable enough). As for organizing and sharing my notes, perhaps I can track the number of longer guides I put together, and whether I can get the hang of working with outlines and pipelines…

Most of my little experiments come from looking at ideas that are close by and saying, “Hmm, that’s interesting. Maybe I can explore that.” Sometimes it helps to look a little further ahead–to sketch out an ideal life, or even just a slightly-better-than-this life–and to plan little steps forward, going roughly in the right direction. Some ideals fit you better than others do, and some ideals just won’t resonate with you. For example, I currently don’t wish to be a highly-paid jetsetting public speaker. Thinking about this helps you figure out what kind of future you might want, and maybe figure out a few ways to try it on for size and track your progress as you grow into it.

What kind of person would Awesome You be like, and how can you inch a little closer?

Japanese curry at Hacklab, curry udon at home

We were planning to make roasted cauliflower for the Hacklab open house dinner, but the cauliflowers were CAD 4.50+ each. Instead, we made vegan Japanese curry (roux recipe), which has become one of my favourite recipes. It’s a great way to cook carrots, potatoes, green beans, daikon, bell peppers, broccoli, mushrooms, peas, and other vegetables you might have.

At home, I made another huge pot of Japanese curry, but with chicken instead of tofu, and with a non-vegan roux recipe. We tried it with udon instead of rice. Udon gives it a chewier texture and it works well too. I also made quickly-pickled cucumber-daikon-carrot salad, which balanced the taste nicely. Not counting the rice, I think the cost per portion worked out to be around $1. (Wow!)

2015-01-24 Curry udon -- index card #cooking

2015-01-24 Curry udon – index card #cooking

J- loves Japanese food, so it’s great to be able to make things at home. Next time, I think I’ll try making udon from flour, water, and salt. It doesn’t require a pasta roller, just patience. On the other hand, frozen udon is around CAD 4 for a pack of five and it takes one minute to cook, so there’s something to be said for that.

2015-01-25 Planning how to level up in cooking -- index card #cooking #learning #plans

2015-01-25 Planning how to level up in cooking – index card #cooking #learning #plans

While I occasionally play with the idea of going on a cooking vacation so that I can try local markets and learn from cooking classes, there’s so much that I haven’t yet explored here. There are all these ingredients I haven’t yet looked up and tried. (Thank goodness for such a diverse city!) Maybe someday I might even try out cooking lessons or private instruction.

For now, I’m focusing on cooking with more vegetables. I liked the balance of meat to vegetables in that curry we made – about three chicken thighs of meat in one of our biggest pots. It would be great to increase vegetable volume and variety. Looking forward to exploring the rest of the produce section.

I also want to remember to cook different things. I have an Org Mode file with recipes, but I haven’t set up scheduled reminders or Org habits for them yet. In the meantime, I’ve put these index cards on our fridge door to remind me when I’m planning groceries:

2015-01-10 Favourite meals -- index card #cooking

2015.01.10 Favourite meals – index card #cooking

2015-01-11 Snacks we can make -- index card #cooking

2015.01.11 Snacks we can make – index card #cooking

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.