Category Archives: reflection

The confidence of non-expertise

I stopped worrying about being an impostor when I started writing about what I was learning. Confession that gave me confidence.

It’s easy – or at least it has become easy – to write: Here is something I have learned a little more about. I didn’t know it before. I haven’t mastered it yet. You might know it already. Then again, you might also find this useful. Anyway, here it is. Would love to hear from you.

Writing like this throughout the years, I discovered that people didn’t mind if I didn’t know something. People were glad I wasn’t promoting myself as some kind of expert. Even without people’s validation, I liked myself as a learner, and I couldn’t care less about being an expert.

I still sometimes get the momentary “Do I really know enough about this to talk about it?” when planning a presentation or starting a project. But most of my presentations and projects grow out of my blog posts, so (a) whoever invited me knows how I think already, and (b) I don’t care about having all the answers, just about asking good questions. And writing things down, and sharing the ideas with others.

When you’re not The Expert, you’re not worried about being caught out or embarrassed by something you don’t know. You don’t get ossified into the few patterns you’d become good at. You can keep learning. You can make mistakes. Your ego isn’t on the line. Your self-confidence isn’t, either.

It’s easier this way, and it’s more fun too.

It’s okay to not know

“Congratulations! What’s your new business about?” “What will you be working on?” “So, what do you do?”

I don’t know yet.

One of the most challenging aspects of starting something on your own is this uncertainty. We expect people to have clear, compact descriptions for what they do, even if we don’t understand it ourselves. For example, I got away with describing my work as, “Oh, I’m a web developer,” or “I’m a consultant on emerging technologies and collaboration,” or sometimes even the catch-all, “I work with IBM”. This last introduction often needed little explanation, eliciting an “Ahhh, I see,” from glazed-over networking contacts who probably filed me in their mental category for “people who do stuff with computers.”

What do I do? What do I want to do? What challenge do I want to address? What problem do I want to solve? What vision do I want to realize?

I’m not sure.

I’m tempted to be prematurely certain. I’ve listened to my fair share of “Oh, I’m working on a startup” people who confidently declare that their audience is “Well, everyone, I guess…” and who deflect further questions with, “We’re keeping our plans secret for now.”

I’m tempted to flee into the familiar. Consulting, web development with Drupal or Ruby on Rails… People ask me for these services, and it would be easy to focus on that: well-defined, well-understood. I know I can deliver when it comes to that. I also know that those services won’t take me all the way to where I want to go.

It’s okay to be uncertain. It’s better to admit that I’m figuring things out than to fake this. It’s better to draw people into the experiment than to present a façade. It’s all right to say the words that terrify most people when they try to use those words themselves: I don’t know.

Besides, it’ll be fun to find out.

I might not see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I can figure out some of the steps along the way. Writing is my favourite tool for figuring out complex branches. I want to write about what I’m learning: entrepreneurship, the steps to setting up shop, ways to figure out what you want to do with your life (or at least the next year).

This is a good time, a useful time. I shouldn’t rush out of it. I deal with this scale of uncertainty rarely. I never agonized over what course to take in university. I’ve been into computers since childhood. I remember the ups and downs of searching for a research topic for my master’s thesis, but I had a supervisor’s help. Even marriage was the logical (and emotional =) ) follow-through on a relationship that was already clearly a good thing. IBM was the same. This entrepreneurship, this uncertainty – this is me stepping up to bigger risks and bigger opportunities for discovery, having done well with the training wheels of past circumstances.

It’s not actually that scary when I can call the uncertainty out of the fog and name it. I know it’s there. I know it’s normal. I know it will pass, too. Each step I take throws light on something, even though some steps add more questions. If I do this right, each step won’t be about getting closer to a definitive “I know this to be forever true”, but rather towards springboards for more experimentation.

Notes from the Ontario Science Centre field trip

W- and I volunteered for the school’s field trip to the Ontario Science Centre.

On the bus ride there, I saw this curious case of two kids wedged into one seat. There was an empty seat across the aisle.

One muttered, “I sat here first.”

“No, I got here first.”

“No, I was first.”

“No, I was here first.”

This fruitless exchange lasted three minutes with little variation. Both were aware of the empty seat, which stayed unoccupied even as the bus filled. Both argued over this one seat anyway, and about being right.

Eventually the girl stood. She dried her tears behind her papers and looked glum the rest of the ride.

Isn’t it odd how we get drawn into wanting to be right instead of wanting to be better?

—-

The special exhibition focused on models of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions. The teachers asked the students to sketch at least two of the models in the provided journals, and to complete questionnaires. The students had one hour to do their the assignment. There were four groups, one for each parent volunteer.

As the doors opened, the students spread throughout the area. Some sat before the scale models of various inventions: an air screw, a wire-controlled bird, a lion designed to dispense lilies from its mouth. Others were fascinated by the interactive displays on the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and other creations.

I quickly gave up on trying to keep track of the students in my group. Instead, I browsed the exhibits, occasionally nudging students who had gotten distracted and hadn’t started on their work. It was interesting to see the differences: the students who had come with pencils and sharpeners, the students who scrambled to borrow; the students who completed their work, the students who pursued other interests even outside the questionnaire.

—-

After the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition and a quick head-count, we gathered for lunch. W-, J-, and I tucked into the sandwiches we made with bread I baked this weekend. Mmm.

—-

The students had an hour to explore other exhibits after lunch. It was impossible to keep everyone together, but fortunately they were old enough to be responsible for reassembling near the lockers at 1:45 PM. There were a few primary school field trips on at the same time, and coordinating those must have been much more of a challenge.

The students moved through the exhibits in a loose crowd. People left and rejoined the groups. They chatted with their friends and played with exhibits, mostly ignoring their questionnaires. At the end of the day, many of them said they enjoyed the trip very much. By this time, even the girl who had lost out in the seat battle had cheered up.

—-

I was tired after a full day surrounded by the tumult of teenagers, and it looked like all three of us needed introvert recharging time. J- tried to work on her history assignment after coming home, and she was totally out of it. W- encouraged her to take a break, and she headed into the living room.

I took my own introvert break by working on my computer and enjoying some tea. After my cup, I poked my head into the living room and found W- sharing some tips so that J- can handle her energy better. He told J- that instead of playing with her Nintendo DS when she felt her brain was tired, she should try resting her eyes and brain instead: napping, perhaps, or doing something like tidying up. Games can be distracting and overstimulating. They often leave you more tired than when you started.

W- shared ideas from The Hacker Ethic on how people do things for survival, social connection, or entertainment. We’d like to help J- raise the level of the things she does: to not do them just for survival (good grades), but to motivate herself by tapping social connections or perhaps even to find entertainment and fulfillment in doing the work.

It made me think about play as escape and play as reward. W- and I don’t use games to escape. We occasionally play, but more as a reward for ourselves after chores and duties are done, and because we’re curious about the cleverness designed into the games. Our vacations go even further – not escapes from daily responsibilities, but investments into relationships and routines. This is something that would be interesting for J- to learn how to do.

This is a long post today, but there was much to think about, and more still to digest and understand.

Work, extracurriculars, and measuring time: an epiphany

I remember now why I had stopped tracking time before. Breaking things down at the project level made me feel weird about my extracurricular interests at IBM, like the community toolkit and now the IBM comics. On one hand, I wanted to support our utilization goals and claim time as accurately as possible. On the other hand, I didn’t want to give up personal time, especially as I could use it to build more functionality into Quantified Awesome. I felt conflicted. I found myself slipping from the feeling of an abundance of time to the feeling of a scarcity of it, to be carefully portioned out among too many demands.

Today, brainstorming how to address my worst-case scenario considerations, I realized something: I’d been thinking about it the wrong way. It’s not extra time I’m donating or a hobby I might outgrow. It’s a live opportunity to test ideas with a massive, built-in internal market.

Comics on the intranet homepage? A fledgling artist couldn’t buy that kind of space. A community analysis tool that other people have come to rely on? Good practice in supporting disparate users and scaling up value.

No money might change hands, but a steady stream of thank-you notes helps my manager argue for a top rating, which often translates into a bonus.

So now I’ve got a couple of ways to rethink how this fits into my life.

I can promote these extracurriculars from the category “Work – Other” to “Discretionary – Other” or something similar, and budget myself four or five hours a week. It’s not work, it’s learning.

Alternatively, I can keep it under “Work – Other” and add an effective 10% overhead to my billable work. Many people have told me that I’m a fast developer, anyway, so scaling my output down to that of a somewhat above average developer will still mean that we do good stuff. The cognitive surplus goes into process improvement, self-development, and happiness, which is definitely worthwhile. I get stressed when I feel like I’m letting my other priorities slip, so spending time on them is important too.

These extracurricular interests can create a lot of value. I should adjust my measurements accordingly so that my measurements don’t lead to conflicting feelings.

How you measure affects how you manage.

Moving time around

I want to free up time later this week to focus on Quantified Awesome and explore something new, so I spent part of the weekend working on the Drupal engagement. In addition to the feature requests, there’s a fair bit that I need to do to clean up the previous code and make the site more maintainable, so I’m chipping away at the task list.

Still, there’s time to spend with friends and family, and that’s important, although I woke up too late to talk to my mom.

It’s a little odd shifting time around like this. The crunch time is temporary and self-imposed, and the freed-up time later this week might come in very handy.

I would like to spend more time on building the things that people are asking for, but I can’t think of anywhere else I’d want to take that time from. Sleep, work, and socialization are all important, and I enjoy working on my personal projects too. Chores don’t take us a lot of time – not enough to justify the cost and time of outsourcing them.

So it’s a matter of patience, dealing with the fact that there is only so much time in the day. I’d still rather build this slowly than not do it at all. At work, I’ve been opening up my extracurriculars to other people so that I’m not the bottleneck. For Quantified Awesome and these other personal interests, I’m not quite at the point of paying other people to work on them.

One of the books I’m reading is “Money Can Buy Happiness”, by MP Dunleavey. The book quotes:

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only
you can determine how it will be spent.

  • Carl Sandburg (quoted on p63, Money Can Buy Happiness)

I am okay with how I spend my time. It would be interesting to have more of it, but the constraint of 24 hours is fair and equal. In a few years, I might experiment with different balances, but there are still many things I want to do and learn with this balance.

Investing in awesomeness

I’ve been thinking of what I want to learn more about when it comes to investing.

I’ve read stacks and stacks of personal finance books. I enjoy reading them, even though many books repeat the same uncontroversial advice. My ledger of income, expenses, and investments goes back to 2005, when I moved to Canada and started managing my own finances. We might never be absurdly wealthy, but if we continue to be frugal and hard-working, I think we’ll enjoy more flexibility and less stress than most people have.

2011 was a good year, despite the fluctuations in the stock market. Although it was occasionally discouraging to see my carefully-saved index funds dip below their book price, I kept plugging away. I figure that if businesses have managed to do fine despite past events like the Great Depression, things will be okay. If the rules of the game have changed and the stock markets no longer perform the way they used to, well, we’ll have bigger problems than the lack of a decent return on investment.

Investment-wise, we’re on a good path. I don’t have the time or interest to pick individual stocks, and I’m comfortable with a boring balanced portfolio made up of index funds and skewed towards equities. From here on, it’s more about time and persistence than sophistication.

What I’m curious about is this: what’s worth investing time and money in? What does investing in awesomeness look like?

I’m not the kind of person who chases bucket-list experiences in order to check off things I’d like to have done. I’ve tried it and it didn’t sit well with me. I like simple things and everyday activities. Fortunately, W- does too.

I thought about resuming my experiments with outsourcing. I don’t mind my chores that much, though. I’d rather save the time (money is time, after all) so that I can give myself a focused year instead of spending it on an hour here, an hour there that can be so easily absorbed into distractions of everyday life. I might pick up the experiment again someday, when I run into something that I don’t want to limit by my skills. We’ll see.

So here’s what I’m saving up for and investing in instead:

  • Experimenting and learning
    • Tools for working better
    • Trying a new community-supported agriculture program, because we can
  • Streamlining life
    • Multiple sets of socks that are all the same, to reduce the need for matching
    • Decluttering and the freedom to ignore sunk costs
    • Simplification and fewer frustrating things
  • A year-long sabbatical in 2014, during which I plan to focus on writing and development

It’s about striking a balance between long-term goals and shorter-term ones. I don’t want to postpone enjoyment until I’m 65 or 70. I want to test ideas earlier than later, so that I can tweak and adjust.

I’m a little envious of other people who are exploring the worlds of freelancing, entrepreneurship, or lifestyle design. Envy being mostly useless, I shift that energy into analyzing my decisions and testing some of my assumptions. It looks like IBM will still provide the best stability as I build up other experiments. I’ll continue with that for now, and I’ll trust that this preparation will give me more opportunities for interestingness over the next few years. In the meantime, I guard my evenings, weekends, and holidays more closely from the temptations of work. These are excellent times to test ideas for the next step, and they shouldn’t be wasted.

What do I want to learn about investing? I want to learn how to better test my assumptions about life. I want to learn about small and simple experiments that have good ROI for knowledge. I want to learn how to make better choices. I want to get even better at ignoring what the world tells me I should want in favour of figuring out what I truly need.

Today I read a book called I Moved Your Cheese. It reminded me of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, another book I enjoyed. In I Moved Your Cheese, the author pointed out that even if you’ve absorbed the lessons from Who Moved My Cheese? on not letting change frustrate you, you’re still chasing after cheese. I don’t want to chase after money, or time, or even happiness. (The odd thing about happiness is that once you pursue it, you can’t have it.) I want to create space for interestingness and discovery.

So we’re investing in wanting less and needing less, in enjoying life more, and in experimenting with making life better. I’d love to hear about your experiences along these lines!