Category Archives: reflection

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!

On routines and depth

A few threads of thought coming together:

  • coming across the Atlantic article Why I Am Not a Maker again, and reflecting on the differences between creating a product and providing a service (particularly a service with results that are hard to measure, or that are repeated)
  • noticing the gradual shift in my 5-year experiment towards becoming more comfortable with routines and not just getting tangible stuff done
  • preparing my mindset for the next phase of the experiment

2016-01-27b Products, services, and routines -- index card #making #services #products

2016-01-27b Products, services, and routines – index card #making #services #products.png

2016-01-25f Do I devalue the other things I'm learning about -- index card #life #learning

2016-01-25f Do I devalue the other things I’m learning about – index card #life #learning.png

I wonder: do I unfairly devalue the other things I do, the other opportunities I learn, because they don’t resemble the things that I’m used to thinking of as opportunities for growth and learning?

2016-01-29b Routines and depth -- index card #learning #perspective #routines

2016-01-29b Routines and depth – index card #learning #perspective #routines

Routines such as vacuuming the house or cleaning the kitchen don’t yet tickle my brain the way coding or sewing do. There’s a sense of satisfaction in clearing the sink, sure, but it’s not something that feels like progress during my weekly reviews, and it doesn’t feel like growth in terms of capabilities.

But maybe that’s a perspective thing, and perspectives can be tweaked.

For example, let’s take vacuuming. It takes me about 30-40 minutes to do a quick vacuum of the house. It doesn’t seem like there’s much more to it. You don’t really have 10x vacuuming the way people talk about 10x programming. On the other hand, vacuuming can be an opportunity to practise concentrating on thoughts and questions despite background noise. It could also be an opportunity to look closely at my surroundings and come up with ideas for decluttering stuff or streamlining routines. I could generate questions for further research. If I do a bit of reading before hand, I could mull over those thoughts while vacuuming.

What about cleaning the kitchen? That’s fairly static. I do it in one place, instead of going through the rest of the house. Most items can go into the dishwasher, but there are a number of things that need to be washed by hand. I could use that time to pay close attention to sensation and anatomy, learning more about the muscles and bones in my hands. I can also learn more about and reflect on the manufacturing technologies and supply chains that made this kitchen possible. Then there’s thinking about the meal we’ve just enjoyed, practising the sense-memory of the tastes and thinking about what to tweak next.

I wonder what else I can do to stack the deck so that these maintenance tasks feel as valuable to me as my more discretionary tasks. I think there might be surprising depth in these activities, like the way monks turn sweeping or walking into moving meditations. It’ll get even awesomer as I get better at seeing the possibilities.

(In case you’re wondering, W- does household chores too. He often brings home groceries, cooks, cleans the kitchen, folds laundry, and works on projects. He handles all the heavy stuff, too. I feel good about our current household workload. Besides, chores took up less than 8% of my total time over the past year, anyway – less than two hours a day, compared to >= 23% discretionary time. =) Plenty of time for other things!)

Thoughts about time

A friend sent me a link to “Your Life in Weeks”, which got me thinking about my changing attitude towards time and ambition. Here were the key points I picked up from the blog post:

  • It’s good to be aware of the passage of time and how limited it is.
  • Measuring your life against famous people’s accomplishments or lifetimes can be eye-opening.
  • You should ideally spend your time doing things that improve your future or the lives of others and that you enjoy. Utility without pleasure or pleasure without utility is okay but not great. Don’t waste your time doing things that are neither useful nor pleasant.
  • Every week can be a fresh start.

I agree with some aspects of these points. I can remember being the sort of person who agreed more, and that’s interesting for me – tracking the changes in my attitude towards time.

2015-07-27a Thinking about time and role models -- index card #time

2015-07-27a Thinking about time and role models – index card #time

I can remember a time when I kept an eye out for the milestones by which other people had achieved a lot: the youngest people who did X/Y/Z, the lists of thirty under thirty, the stats in math and physics of early achievement and momentum.

I moved on from that in my late teens or so, when I realized people used stories like that to beat themselves up, give up, or push themselves to an unhealthy pace. I wanted to find something to tell people who told me, “Wow, you’re so young and you’re already good at computers! I could never do something like that.” For myself, I saw the kinds of lives people sketched out for people who had “high potential,” and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted them. Instead of those stories of young CEOs and world-changers, I resonated more with attention to those who continued achieving later in life, or even started late, like Grandma Moses taking up painting at 78. I liked the stories those lives could help me tell to people who felt they missed the boat. I liked the stories of deep interest, like Isaac Asimov’s decades of writing, and how those stories illuminated the possibilities. I liked examples of older people continuing to engage, like Benjamin Zander.

The books and magazines and newspapers I read were filled with stories of mainstream success, but I found myself more curious about people who had thoughtfully explored alternatives. I liked discussions of frugality and deliberate consumption more than luxury and excess. I liked communities around lifelong learning, experimentation, and early retirement.

2015-07-24a How do I want to feel about time -- index card #time #pace

2015-07-24a How do I want to feel about time – index card #time #pace

One of the things I picked up from looking at other people’s lives was the possibility that you could feel time as abundant instead of scarce – not so plentiful as to be wasted, but enough for the important things in life. Life didn’t have to be a rat race or a hurried rush from one thing or another. I didn’t have to do everything. I didn’t have to have it all. I could do what I can and enjoy where I was.

Still, I was curious about acceleration. I periodically experimented with the productivity techniques that other people liked: making lists of goals, plotting out timelines, looking for ways to accelerate. I found that committing to an artificial deadline or target date to a goal didn’t really resonate with me. I decided not to be my own taskmaster, trusting instead in my shifting evaluations and priorities. I’m nowhere near where my far-past self might have guessed I’d be, but I like where I am. I’m somewhere my far-past self couldn’t even have imagined.

I hadn’t come across Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life until a few years ago, but when I did, I found it in things that I had come to believe about my own life. “It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”

What does it mean to invest it well, though? I remember occasionally measuring my life against the estimate of my remaining days, tallying up what I had done and what I wanted to do. I felt the passing of time in the days and the months. I remember observing the differences in familiar people and in the world around me: my parents’ graying hair, my friends’ lifestages, the shifts in technologies. Back to the tick-tock. I think one of the reasons I’ve found it so easy to keep a weekly/monthly/yearly review (and now a daily journal) is that I don’t want to wake up one day and wonder where all those years went, as people often do.

Something has shifted in my perspective, though. I’m not sure what caused it. Maybe philosophy has helped me let go of the worry about making sure I live a life of great significance. I don’t need to be in history books. I can focus on living life well, and other people can decide how much they want to take from it. Maybe this equanimity had something to do with the day-to-day focus of my current phase. These days, I’m mostly focused on being when I am – not trying to fast-forward or rewind, but rather seeing and making the most of now.

I still want to make something of my life. I want to leave behind notes, tools, and ideas that will make it easier for other people to go a little farther or a little faster. I’ve felt that way for as long as I can remember. It feels a little different now, though. Instead of worrying that I’ll fail or that I’ll choose the wrong path, I know I can keep building and exploring, and that the benefits will grow and grow.

Pleasure and utility

A friend mentioned that the Venn diagram in “Your Life in Weeks” resonated with him. The diagram focused on the intersection of what you enjoy and what builds your future: try to spend your time on activities that do both; one or the other is okay, but if something doesn’t address either of those, you should probably stop doing it.

While reflecting on the diagram, I realized that I prefer an X-Y chart instead. It reminds me that there’s a mix of pleasure and subjective utility in everything I do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t choose to do it. Pleasure and utility vary by activity, and even for a particular activity, they may vary based on factors such as time or energy. There are no hard cut-offs or fixed measurements. I can adjust things up or down with attention, too.

2015-07-25a Pleasure and utility -- index card #choice #utility #pleasure #time

2015-07-25a Pleasure and utility – index card #choice #utility #pleasure #time

For example:

  • I can increase my actual utility by double-checking subjective utility against what actually happened (decision reviews, etc.).
  • I can increase my subjective utility by thinking about what I could get out of an activity. For example, co-op gaming turns out to be a fun way to spend time with W- and practise managing small stresses.
  • I can break an activity down into the things I enjoy or find useful about it, and find similar activities that might be more enjoyable or more useful.
  • I can increase the pleasure I get from a useful activity by focusing on different factors
  • I can decrease the pleasure I get from an activity by focusing on the opportunity cost or thinking about what I enjoy about other activities.

Here’s where a few of my current activities are on this chart:

2015-07-25b Utility and pleasure - activities -- index card #utility #pleasure #time

2015-07-25b Utility and pleasure – activities – index card #utility #pleasure #time

This reminds me a little of my reflection on leisure activities (noble, advantageous, or pleasant, following Aristotle’s distinctions). It might be useful to analyze utility (noble/advantageous) and pleasure with the extra dimension of energy/effort.

While the sweet spot of high utility and high pleasure (for me: prototyping and learning) is fun to be in, I also like spending time outside that intersection. It’s not all about “Hell, yeah! or No”. Experimenting with things that make me feel awkward or mediocre might lead to discovering an activity that I enjoy or find really useful.

Lately, I’ve been giving myself permission to focus on things I enjoy, even if they aren’t particularly useful – like playing video games in the middle of the day. At the same time, I’ve also let go of the desire to enjoy everything. Some activities are not pleasant, but they’re necessary. Even as I get through them, though, I’m happy about my growing ability to get through them. I might be annoyed for a few minutes, but I’m happy about the decisions of my past self and the results that I anticipate for my future self. I’m learning to enjoy adapting to my circumstances, even as I know those circumstances will change.

2015-07-27b Pleasure and satisfaction -- index card #pleasure #philosophy

2015-07-27b Pleasure and satisfaction – index card #pleasure #philosophy

I like being able to step back and think about what I do, why I do it, and how I feel about that. Because I can influence how I feel about something, I can change why I do it, and even what I do. Through little nudges here and there, I want to make things that are good for me both easy and fun. If I can’t, I want to make them extra-useful and satisfying.