Category Archives: reflection

It’s okay if you don’t do everything

People often tell me that they feel frustrated because they don’t have the time to explore their interests or build new skills. I understand where they’re coming from. I have many interests. I like digging into new topics and new skills, feeling the concepts start to click together. There are many, many more things I want to learn than I have the time to do in one lifetime. There’s everyday life to deal with, too.

One of the most useful things I’ve learned is how to not be discouraged by the limitations of time. We set ourselves these deadlines (“I want to be a millionaire by thirty!”) and we get frustrated because we aren’t getting there fast enough because of all the things in the way. An oft-repeated piece of advice is that your goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. While time-bound goals are useful in many situations, they’re not the best fit for everything. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the possibilities and frustrated by the fact that you can be in only one place at one time, paying attention to one thing and forgetting others. If you have too many goals, you don’t have any.

It’s good to know when to let that go. It’s good to give yourself permission to explore in a general direction but not necessarily force yourself to arrive at your destination by a specific time or date. Then any obstacles in your path just mean that you’ll take the scenic route, and sometimes you might discover interesting side-paths along the way.

I know that I may not get to do everything, but I can do the things that matter the most, and I can slowly explore other interests in the time and space that I have. It’s like the way that I think about savings. I may not be able to buy everything I want, but I can save up for the things that matter. If something is more expensive than others, that simply means that it will take me a little longer to save up for it. Likewise, I may be curious about what it’s like to have certain kinds of skills or experiences, but I can probably get there even if I go slowly.

It’s a different kind of ambition, perhaps. For many people, ambition is about getting somewhere. My goal is to have a good journey along the way, and to share that with others.

Letting go of deadlines makes it easier for me to scale back some things in order to make space for other interests. I keep a list of things that I say “no” to in order to make space for this I want to say “yes” to. My mother observed that I haven’t been writing about sewing lately. It’s on my “no” list, just as playing the piano is. Both are good hobbies and many people enjoy them, but I’ve moved the time and focus to other things at the moment, and that’s okay. Right now, I’m focusing on writing, drawing, and learning how to develop mobile applications.

Frugality helps a lot, too. If I don’t spend so much, then I don’t need to earn so much, and I can work less and use the extra time to experiment. The other approach is to earn more so that I can free up more time in the future, but that can be dangerous. Work can be addictive, and postponing exploration means missing out on some things that are better when they mature over time. A hybrid approach that’s working out well: work less and earn more, then use the extra time to learn how to make things even better…

There’s time enough for the things that matter, and a little more for exploring.

Quantified Awesome: Blogging, WPM, and the speed of reflection

The combination that I use to write most of my blog posts (Emacs, Org Mode, and org2blog) automatically keeps track of the time that it takes me to write a post, making it easy to calculate my actual words per minute rate. I created a table with data from 32 of my previous posts, discarding posts that didn’t have any time data.

It turns out that my median is actually around 16 wpm when writing blog posts, far lower than the 110wpm that I clock during typing tests and the 180wpm that I speak at when excited. This accounts for thinking, writing, research, and editing. For example, this post has 388 words and was written in 23 minutes – a rate of around 16wpm (hah!), including a little bit of research but excluding the tabulation of data (which I did before starting the blog post).

I talk slower in my head when I’m writing than when I speak, testing the words out and trying to figure out where I’m going to go. There are a number of ways I can write faster. I can experiment with outlining more of my posts, like the way a list of blog ideas helps me sit down and write a lot without idling between thoughts. I can try out dictation using Dragon NaturallySpeaking and my new headset, to see whether the shift from from writing to speaking also changes my baseline speed.

And then there’s accepting that I write a lot already, and decently quickly too, so I could focus on other improvements. Organizing or illustrating my notes, for example, or revising old posts.

This is good, though. I want to write and explore and share as much as I can. I think the bottleneck isn’t:

  • having enough writing time
  • being able to type fast enough
  • knowing the tools well enough
  • being able to express myself through words

The bottleneck is probably more about my own speed of understanding and learning. That’s an entirely different area of hacking – and it looks like there are ways to tweak that, too. The visualization and peg techniques from memory books will help me absorb and retain more. Experience will help me get better at making sense of what’s going on. I wonder how I can come up with comparable numbers.

Unstructured time update, now that I have my own business

I like making lists of things I can do to make the most of chunks of time. Lists make it easier for me to answer the question: “What do I want to do now?” That’s because it’s easier to pick something from a list than to come up with an idea from scratch. I’m still open to spontaneity, but I’m never at a loss for things to do, and I can match my discretionary activities more closely to my preferences and priorities. By starting with a long view and zooming all the way in to things I can do in a few minutes, I can align these snippets of time with my long-term goals.

I posted one such list three years ago, and periodically post updated lists as my circumstances change. Now that I have my own business and I’m focusing on other interests, how would I like to spend my unstructured, discretionary time? What do I care about and want to develop long-term, and how can I translate that into on-the-ground actions?

This list is long, so I’ll keep it out of the excerpt. If you don’t see the list, click on the link to read more.

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Visual book review: Enough, by Patrick Rhone


enough is a collection of essays by Patrick Rhone on the idea of having enough. He compares it to the dynamic process of balancing on a tightrope, where you have to find your own centre of balance and you’ll always need some kind of help – stretching your arms, using a bar or an umbrella, and so on. In addition to reflections on minimalism and limiting life to make it comprehensible, he includes thoughts on technology, tools, behavioural change, and other life tips.

There are many books in this field, from John C. Bogle’s book with the same main title (Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life, affiliate link), to Leo Babauta’s The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life, affiliate link). Patrick Rhone’s book isn’t particularly packed with mind-boggling or life-changing insights, but it might still be an enjoyable read for a quiet, reflective afternoon, particularly if you also have a technology-related background or find yourself occasionally tempted down the path of more apps! more tools! more gadgets! (Not that I know anyone like that, no….)

Patrick Rhone, 2012
Kindle e-book

See other visual book notes!

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.