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Reflecting on risk aversion

I’m more careful about risks than I was at the beginning of this experiment. I see more negative consequences when projecting the results of decisions, and I perceive more volatility. I tend to overestimate the probability and impact of negative possibilities, and I’m conservative about taking advantage of opportunities.

This is interesting to me because I expected the opposite result when I started this experiment. A safety net should enable me to feel comfortable with taking more risks. In particular, I would probably have expected to take more risks in terms of:

  • Tools: get better at seeing the possible improvements or new capabilities opened up by tools
  • Education: learn faster with other people’s helps
  • Networking: connect with and help more people
  • Creation: make and ship more things
  • Delegation: working with other people to get even more done
  • Commitment, schedule: plan for larger things, and hustle in order to get more things done

Hmm. Come to think of it, even my perception about increased risk aversion is perhaps inaccurate. Over the past two years, I’ve learned a lot from taking risks in terms of business models, sales, delegation, and so on. Let me take a closer look at the categories I mentioned to see if I can come up with counterpoints:

  • Tools: Small hardware, software, and network upgrades have worked out well.
  • Education: I’ve learned that I can learn a lot from books, experimentation, and connecting online, which is why paid courses and conferences haven’t really been on my radar.
  • Networking: The Emacs Chat podcast is a new thing for me, and I’m slowly getting the hang of it. I’ve been moving to getting to know people online instead of focusing on in-person connecting, and I like connecting with peers or people I can help rather than trying to connect with high-flying celebrities. I think I like the direction I’m going, actually.
  • Creation: PDFs, guides, and e-mail courses are new for me. That’s working well. Free/PWYW helps me reduce risk and avoid being anxious about satisfaction.
  • Delegation: Not as good as I could be when it comes to assigning tasks, but still better than nothing.
  • Commitment, schedule: This is probably where the biggest difference is. I’m less inclined to schedule things, and I try to minimize my commitments in terms of time and energy. Every so often, I think about whether I should be hustling more, but I like my current pace.

Oh, that’s interesting. I think I’m surprised by the way I’m getting better at saying no, which is apparently a very useful skill. I’m getting better at not feeling guilty about it, too. I want to make sure I’m saying yes to some things, what I’m saying yes to is worth it for me, and that I’m not prematurely closing off things that do want.

How do I want to tweak this? I’d still probably minimize the number of commitments. I might take more notes on decisions. That would give me a better handle on risks that worked out well and risks that didn’t, because what I recall is biased by my mood. What I take notes on is biased by mood as well, but it’ll be easier to find contrary examples.

Also, when I find myself possibly overestimating the likelihood or impact of negative possibilities, I can sanity-check my perceptions with research and with other people. Hmm…

It’s kinda fun noticing when your brain is acting a little weird. =) We’ll see how I can work around things!

More gardening notes

The weather has been warm and sunny. The other week, we bought bags of compost from Home Depot and seedlings from the corner store. Bitter melon, basil, tomatoes, thyme, oregano, dill… The lettuce and bok choy we started from seeds have been doing okay too. I can tell them apart from the weeds. Yay!

I’ve been turning the compost heap every week, too. Things are breaking down slowly. Maybe we’ll get a chance to use it by next year. Perhaps we should’ve kept a few bags of leaves back, for a second round of compost this year.

2014-05-17 Gardening day

2014-05-17 Gardening day

Mrs. W2 (who has an amazingly productive vegetable garden up the street) gave us some of her surplus choy seedlings last weekend. So exciting! I planted them, and now the main box (4′x12′) is full.

I’m still figuring out watering. We’re regrowing the grass on the boulevard, so I’ve been watering that frequently. The internet recommends twice-daily for a few weeks. As for the other plants… I’m learning to test the soil. The soil for basil shouldn’t dry out, and blueberries are like that too. Too much water for tomatoes results in blossom-end rot and splits; the Internet recommends 2-3 times a week, checking that soil is moistened 6-8″ down. Lavender is drought-tolerant and doesn’t like soggy roots. For sorrel, I should check the first inch of soil for moisture, and water if it’s dry. So much to remember!

2014-05-23 Gardening - Things to learn more about or try

2014-05-23 Gardening – Things to learn more about or try

I’ll get the hang of this eventually… =)

Thinking about what I want to do with my time

Every so often, I spend time thinking about what I want to focus on. I’m interested in many things. I like following my interests. Guiding them to focus on two or three key areas helps me avoid feeling split apart or frazzled.

I balance this thinking with the time I spend actually doing things. It’s easy to spend so much time thinking about what you want to do that you don’t end up doing it. It’s easy to spend so much time doing things that you don’t end up asking if you’re doing the right things. I probably spend slightly more time on the thinking side than I could, but that will work itself out over time.

I balance thinking with moving forward. It doesn’t matter if I might be going in the wrong direction, because movement itself teaches you something. You discover your preferences: more of this, less of that. You get feedback from the world. For me, moving forward involves learning more about technology, trying experiments, making things, and so on. Taking small steps helps me avoid spending lots of time going in the wrong direction.

(And are there really wrong directions, or just vectors that don’t line up as well?)

What do I want to do with my time?

Fitness: The weather’s warming up, so: more biking, more raking, more compost-turning, more carrying water to the garden. It would be good to be fitter and to feel fitter. I like the focus on fitness rather than exercise – not exertion for its own sake, but practical application.

Coding: I like coding. Coding might be a perfectly acceptable answer to the question “What do I want to do with my life?”, at least currently. I’ve been doing a lot more Emacs coding, and I’m digging into other technologies as well. I like it because I can build stuff – and more importantly, learning helps me imagine useful stuff to build.

I think I want to get better at making web tools that are useful and that look good, but I’m not sure. Lots of other people can do this, and I haven’t come up with strong ideas that need this. (Back to the need for a well-trained imagination!) I can wait to develop this skill until I have a stronger idea, or I can learn these skills to lay the foundation for coming up with ideas. I’ve been thinking about getting better at working with APIs, but that’s even more like digital sharecropping than creating content on other people’s platform is. APIs, pricing models, and all sorts of other things change a lot. I’m wary of investing lots of time in things that I have very little control over.

What would a few possible futures look like? I could be a toolmaker, building lots of little tools for niche audiences. technomancy and johnw are great role models for this. I could be a contributor or maintainer, building up part of something like Org or Emacs, or perhaps one of the modern Web stacks. If I need to keep a path back into the workforce, maybe back-end development would be a good way to do that. I like talking to fellow geeks anyway, so it’s okay if I don’t focus on front end–that way I won’t have to deal with fiddly browser differences or client tweaks.

Writing: Writing helps me learn more and understand things better. It saves other people time and tickles their brains. It’s also a great use of my time, although sometimes I feel like coding has more straightforward value.

Lots of people write. I want to write about things things that are not already thoroughly covered elsewhere. I want to be myself, not some generic blogger – to write (and draw!) things that are geeky and approachable. I like writing about Emacs (goodness knows how we need more documentation!), self-tracking, experiments, technology, and learning.

What’s on the backburner for now, then?

  • Sketchnoting other people’s content: Useful and easy to appreciate, but potentially distracting from the other stuff I want to do. I may make an exception for books, since I like reading anyway.
  • Spreading sketchnoting: I can leave this in the capable hands of Mike Rohde, Sunni Brown, and Dan Roam. I’ll still use sketchnoting to think through things, though, and I’ll share them on my blog and on Flickr.
  • Spreading alternative lifestyles (semi-retirement, portfolio careers, etc.): Jeff Goins, Pamela Slim, and Mr. Money Mustache are doing fine with this. I tend to stay away from giving advice, and I don’t want to inadvertently feed wantrepreneurship as a substitute for actually taking action. I’ll still write about my experiments and decisions, though.
  • Spreading blogging in general: I’ll answer people’s questions and encourage people along, but I won’t dig into this as much as I could. I might make an exception for tech blogging, because I have a vested interest in getting more geeks to blog – more search results to come across and more posts to learn from! ;)
  • Drawing better: I draw well enough for my purposes, and I want to keep things approachable.

What does this reflection teach me about what drives me?

  • I like the feeling of figuring things out and of contributing to something that will build over time.
  • I like positive feedback, but I can move away from it if I want. For example, people always ask me about sketchnotes, but I like Emacs stuff more even though it’s hard to explain in regular conversation.
  • If I don’t have a particularly strong idea for something I want to build, I can spend the time learning more about the capabilities of the tools I use. Along the way, I’m sure to run into lots of small gaps. I can fill those in to demonstrate my learning.
  • I tend to build things for my own convenience. I open it up if I think a web interface will be handy, and if other people find it helpful, that’s icing on the cake.

For amusement, you can check out my list of back-burner things from October 2013. Back then, I wanted to focus more on drawing and writing. This time, I’m geeking out. Yay! =)

Planning ahead for the stories

Sometimes, when you take risks or make decisions, it helps to think about how your choices affect your story. We all tell stories. Stories are how we make sense of things. The same set of facts can support many different kinds of stories. The story you choose to tell–the perspective you pick–affects how other people see you or make sense of your life.

stories

When I was planning this experiment with semi-retirement, thinking about the stories that I could tell helped me make that jump. How would I explain that gap in my career if I decided to work someplace where that could matter? After all, most employers want commitment, not gaps.

It helps that I’ve been able to plan ahead. Having enough savings to cover five years of expenses lets me tell a different story compared to someone who quit a job without having anything else lined up. Leaving my job on a happy note is different from leaving because I was burned out. Structuring this break as a time-limited experiment helps me make sense of it. I incorporated right away, and eventually came up with a company name that was general enough to cover a lot of different things I was interested in exploring. If I tell the story in the right way, then the five years that I’ll spend outside the easily understandable structures of work will give me a different but possibly useful perspective. If I don’t have a story to tell, it will just look like drifting.

The human brain is really good at rationalization, so you can come up with multiple stories to fit your facts. You don’t even need to make things up. You can choose the parts you want to emphasize, the reasons you want to explain. Also quite handily, there are lots of stories you can pattern yours on. For example, I might be framing this as an experiment now, but I can also talk about it in terms of freelancing. People shift to freelancing, and some shift back. If we have kids, then my story could be as simple as those of many other parents who’ve taken breaks from traditional careers. The on ramp might be tricky, but it’s there. And even if I started my break a few years before having kids, people probably won’t dig into that.

Imagining one possible Sacha of five years after the experiment (with subtext or notes in parentheses), pitching a business:

Yeah! I was doing well at IBM (evidence: performance ratings, recommendation letters, testimonials), but I knew that I wanted to learn more about business, technology, and other topics. Besides, I’d saved up a lot, so I could take more risks. I gave my manager plenty of notice and transitioned all my projects neatly. (See, I’m responsible.) I experimented with different kinds of business models and found that I really enjoy helping people understand complex ideas through simple visuals, tutorials, videos, and consulting. I learned about what I can do on my own, and now I want to scale up by working with a good team. (So that’s why you don’t have to worry about me being all flighty.) With the skills I polished (NodeJS, more Ruby, even Emacs geekery) and the network I developed, I think I can help you make even awesomer things happen.

Another Sacha, talking about choosing alternative paths:

I had a great time in the corporate world, so I wanted to see what the other types of work were like. I have a lot of role models who have small businesses, and I was excited about learning how to build one myself. I experimented with different business models and was lucky to find immediate profitability with consulting, sketchnoting, and publishing. I re-invested those profits, and the investments grew enough to cover my needs. Since I have the time and space to explore things just because, I’ve decided to focus on the things I like to do: helping people learn more about Emacs or visual thinking. It’s pretty cool what you can do when you challenge your assumptions.

And yet another Sacha, blending in with the crowd (assuming we have kids):

I took some time off to raise a family. Since I knew I wanted to get back into technology afterwards, I kept my skills up to date by working on open source projects and building sites. You can see my portfolio at ____. Why don’t we set up a trial project so that we can find out if this is a good fit?

I think a lot about what’s going to be part of my story. I want to be able to put enough into that box, and I want it to make sense. Time moves so quickly. I’m already almost halfway through these five years. What I want to be able to say at the end of it? How am I different now compared to when I started, and how much more different do I want to become?

I’m more comfortable with business and paperwork than I used to be. I was pleasantly delighted to discover that I could create things that other people valued, and that people would buy things even if they could get them for free. I learned how to put together e-books and printed books. I got more comfortable at helping people online, and I learned that was something else that people valued. I learned how to interview people and turn that into additional resources. I got deeper into drawing, and I used that to explain ideas and explore my own reasoning.

I haven’t learned as much as I thought I would about some of the technologies I was curious about. I’m still not a super-leet developer of Emacs, Rails, Node, or Android. I spend more time on the beginner side of things, building resources and filling in gaps. That’s useful too, so I’m not too worried.

What do I want to add to this story? More coherent Emacs evangelism: guides, e-books, then maybe books – more help, more chunks that are part of a story (and that tickle my brain and that result in good karma; it’s icing on the cake that it’s part of a “worked on open source” story). Maybe Org or other Emacs contributions. More modern web development. Writing. Plenty of writing. Someday, more style and humour.

So far, my investment income covers what I need. It is always possible, however, that I’ll need to focus on more active work. Something might happen to W-, or our situation might otherwise change. I’m not entirely sure yet that I have a good plan for that, although I’ve set aside some buffer so that we can ease into it slowly. In those kinds of scenarios, I’d probably post here while I figure out my options, which will likely involve programming of some sort or another. (Then people can be part of the story too!)

Sometimes I think about alternate universe Sachas who travel in parallel along more conventional paths. It’s less about “what if” or “if only” and more about “Hmm…” I can relax a little, knowing that alternate universe Sachas are exploring those trails. I check in with myself from time to time: is the story worth the divergence? Can I scent other interesting story possibilities nearby?

While I give up a little of the power of the story by actually talking about my thought processes, I’m betting that it’ll help more than hinder. At the very least, this will probably help other people think about their stories.  =)

What are the different stories you can tell about the facts of your life, and how are you working towards the stories you would like to be able to tell? Here are some tips I’ve picked up:

  • Look for similar stories that you can pattern yours on–and that you can use to decide where you’ll diverge
  • Brainstorm different aspects you can emphasize about your story
  • Try out the stories you want to be able to tell

Reinvesting time and money into Emacs

I received a wonderful token of appreciation from someone who found my Emacs posts useful. It got me thinking: what would it be like if I made Emacs a large part of my life’s work, and how can I invest even more into it?

Emacs is already a big part of my life. I like the community. I get a lot of positive feedback indicating I might be doing useful things. It’s not like much would change, except perhaps that I’d give myself permission to focus on this, to put more eggs in this basket. I might write about Emacs more often, even if it makes other people boggle. I might tweak the design of my blog to simplify browsing through Emacs-related resources, and maybe come up with an easier-to-spell domain name for that part of my site. Focusing on Emacs is probably low-risk, since my savings give me a decent runway if I need to build up more marketable skills like WordPress or Rails. (Or I could be, like, one of the few Emacs coaches/consultants in the world. ;) )

To make the decision clearer to myself, here’s what would go on the backburner: specializing in a more popular platform (WordPress, Rails, etc.), Quantified Self, helping people with blogging, helping people with sketchnoting, helping people with freelancing/semi-retirement, delegation, and so on. I could probably build up a reputation in those communities later on, but I like Emacs the most right now.

I like focusing on helping people discover the joys of exploring and customizing Emacs: blog posts, tutorials, suggestions, screencasts, maps, and maybe someday those guides and books I’ve been talking about writing. I like helping make Emacs learning slightly more manageable – “if you know about this, you might want to check out that.” I enjoy coding, but I haven’t gotten deeply into the big improvements people are working on for Emacs 24 and later. I’ll probably continue to focus on filling in the gaps instead of pushing Emacs forward.

I’ve been thinking about how I can reinvest money into the Emacs community. There was a recent thread on the Orgmode mailing list about donations – trying to figure out how to put people’s donations to the best use. Sometimes I receive donations too. Since I keep my expenses low and there’s only so much safety you can save up for, how can I put small amounts of money to good use in open source?

Domain name, hosting, etc.: I use a Linode VPS – I switched from Rackspace in 2011. A virtual private server is more expensive than shared hosting providers. I like how I can ssh to it to try different things. I’ve thought about lowering my costs by using DigitalOcean, but I don’t know enough yet about server optimization to properly configure my web server setup so that I’m confident I’d fit into a smaller plan. (Hmm, this might be worth experimenting with someday, especially since I could set up a snapshot and save it…) I’ve budgeted for this and for domain naimes since this is such a big part of what I do, so I don’t mind covering this myself and using donations/unexpected income for other things.

Transcripts for Emacs Chats and other videos: I’ve been outsourcing this instead of doing it myself because transcription is a well-specified chunk of work that I can pass to other people (who can learn a little more along the way). It takes about $35-$60 for a transcript, and then I often edit it a little. The assistant who does my Emacs Chat transcripts is interested in programming, but hasn’t gotten into Emacs specifically. It might be interesting to find someone who’s interested in Emacs and who will get even more out of transcribing videos. (If this describes you, e-mail me!)

Emacs/Org conference? Meeting folks in person was super-awesome. If last year’s conference happened because someone found a venue willing to host us for free, it makes sense for me to pay for a venue. Even if it’s over a thousand dollars, that’s cheaper than a flight and visas and all sorts of other things.

Emacs meetups? Quantified Self Labs supports QS meetups by sponsoring Meetup.com fees ($144 per year), pitching in for video cameras, and paying someone to process videos. They also have people working on blog posts and other community-related projects. Would a similar model make a big difference? Maybe it makes sense to get a few of them off the ground. What’s in the way of my hosting an Emacs meetup here?

Editors / information organizers: I try to make my writing easy to understand, but it can be good to have other people review something to see if it makes sense and to spot the gaps. Volunteers and blog readers help a lot. Still, it might be a good idea to pay people to help me with this. I’m not looking for surface-level editing, but more developmental editing: helping me organize ideas so that they make sense and they’re in a logical order. I’m not sure if looking on the usual freelance writer sites will help me find someone who can do this, but maybe if I can offer a good enough incentive, then maybe a freelance developer/writer will be able to spend some time helping me with this. (Or I can just take longer and I can get better at asking for feedback…)

Bounties? https://www.bountysource.com does not seem very popular for Emacs or Org. I’m still not sure how bounties interact with intrinsic motivation and unequal valuing of work, or how to even value a fix.

There’s still so much beyond money that I haven’t yet fully delved into. Aside from re-investing money, I can invest time – and that’s probably more important, more useful.

How can I invest more time into the Emacs community? What do I want to work towards? How can I improve how I learn and share?

Continue what I’m doing, and do more of it: Tweak Emacs and write about it. Be that friendly co-worker or friend you chat with because you know she’s always coming up with the weirdest things to try, and sometimes that leads to surprisingly useful things. Post more screenshots and screencasts, since we could really use those.

Fill in more gaps: Answer newbie questions. Map topics to learn. Write tutorials. Link to resources. Make screencasts. Organize information. Read EmacsWiki and other resources, and organize/edit/fill in as I come across opportunities to improve things.

Guide more people towards Emacs Lisp: Help people make that jump to writing their first custom bit of Emacs Lisp. Learn more about Emacs Lisp style and functionality, and help people improve their packages.

Help inspire and connect people. Bring the community together: Interview people for Emacs Chats, so that other people can get a sense of people like them who are enthusiastic about Emacs and who use Emacs to do interesting things. Set up a regular Emacs show-and-tell series?

On a related note: what would it take to figure out how to do Emacs coaching properly? I’d want to keep track of people’s progress and set up recurring calls, so probably Org, maybe in Google Drive or Git… I have a little bit of an impostor syndrome around this because I don’t know enough about setting up Emacs as a modern IDE, but I can learn. Clojure, Rails are probably good starting points, and there’s Emacs Lisp itself. On the other hand, if I answer questions in newsgroups and mailing lists, I help more people, and it’s easier (and more reliable) to turn those into blog posts. Plus they’re searchable. But sometimes one-on-one real-time helping is what helps me map or understand things better, and it can really make a difference in someone’s confidence or comfort level. So yes, continue to do these, and continue to nudge people to share.

Do these decisions make sense even considering a scenario where, say, Emacs becomes irrelevant? I’ll have learned more about related programming tools and topics. I’ll be a better writer and teacher. I’ll probably know a whole bunch of people who are happy about what I’ve shared and who can help me make the transition to other things as needed, maybe by sharing information or by taking a chance on me. And then there are all the other skills I’ll build on the way: making sense of technical things, learning more about how things learn, and playing with all sorts of other things along the way.

Payoffs? Tickled brain, happy mastery. Besides, you meet the nicest people using Emacs. =)

Started gardening – April 2014

The weather finally warmed up last weekend. W- and I raked the back yard, and I started planting seeds that would likely survive just in case we get another frost. Spinach, peas, lettuce… I don’t know how well the seeds will do, but I want to get things growing again. I can’t grow anything indoors because the cats love nibbling on greens, so I’ll just have to buy my tomato and basil starts from the garden centres. In the meantime, though, I can experiment with seeds.

The soil feels better now than the sandy mix we started with, although there’s always room for improvement. We’ve added lots of compost to it over the years – mostly manure, but there was a year that our compost heap was active enough to steam. Toronto gives away leaf compost every Saturday, so we might check that out too. We’re thinking about ordering compost in bulk this year instead of getting bagged manure from the store. I’ll probably put in the compost around the time that we clear out the peas and get started with tomatoes, so I can get some sprouts going while waiting to sort all of that out.

What am I going to change this year? Here are my notes from October 2013:

Gardening notes

I changed my mind about irrigation. I think I’ll start by hand-watering the plants. It’s not that hard to do, and I’ve marked the rows a little more clearly now so I know what to expect. I probably won’t pay for a landscaping or gardening company. Maybe I can share more notes on our garden and ask folks for tips. I’m looking forward to growing more greens and herbs, and giving bitter melon yet another shot.

I planted the first batch of seeds this weekend, going through many of the leftover seeds from 1-2 years ago. After all, the seeds aren’t going to get any fresher, so I may as well plant them and see what sticks. Some of them germinate in a week, so let’s see if there’ll be any progress.

Yay growing things! (Well, eventually. =) )