Category Archives: reflection

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.

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.