Category Archives: decision

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On making big, scary decisions, and how I left an awesome job to do my own thing; or how to be a Builder Lemming

imageFollowing up on my Accelerated Learning chat with Timothy Kenny, where someone asked how I made the decision to go on this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement:

It might surprise you, but I consider myself pretty risk-averse. I don’t bungee jump. I don’t ski. I don’t even drive. I spend hours and days analyzing decisions. I make contingency plans. I take small steps.

So, how does someone like me end up taking a left turn away from a promising career (great ratings, wonderful opportunities) for a 5-year gap in employment as an experiment with semi-retirement?

I’d been thinking about something like that ever since I started working. I knew I wanted to learn about starting businesses someday. My parents built their own advertising photography studio, and although they worked long hours, they were happy. I grew up reading books about management and accounting—ever since I was tall enough to pull them off my mom’s bookshelf.

When I graduated with my master’s degree and started working, I consciously resisted the pull of lifestyle inflation. My expenses were much like the one I had as a student: I rarely ate out, and I bought my clothes on sale and second-hand. An excellent public library meant I could keep my book and entertainment budget under control.

I was excited by the idea of being able to finally apply the advice I’d read in personal finance books. I maxed out my Registered Retirement Savings Plan contributions and put a tidy amount away for other long-term investments. I knew my tendency was to scrimp and save, so I also made room in my budget for two things: a play fund, and an opportunity fund. The opportunity fund would be for learning how to make better decisions and take better risks.

Many of the decisions I made with the opportunity fund paid off, encouraging me to try more. I bought a tablet, and then a tablet PC. I bought books, went to events, tried out stuff, treated people to lunch so that I could pick their brain. As I gained confidence, I wondered: how can I make the opportunity fund even more liberating?

I redoubled my focus on saving, channeling more into the opportunity fund. I looked at my expenses, too. I’d been tracking my finances since 2005, so I had a good idea of how much I spent on average. I started learning more about businesses. I came across the statistic that ~80% of businesses fail within the first five years. If I could free myself from worrying about cashflow for five years, I’d probably do all right – and even if I messed up and had little to show for it, I’d still be doing about average. If I totally messed up? Well, I’d probably still be ahead of where I should be at my age.

Besides, I hadn’t read about a lot of other people giving this kind of experiment a try. If I could muster the time, space, and guts, I might as well learn what I could with the opportunity.

It was not an easy decision. I knew many people who were struggling to find work, or who were unhappy with the work that they had. Technology companies tend to discriminate against older people. Would I waste the prime years for building an amazing career? Would I find it difficult to re-enter the workforce if I wanted or needed to, such as if something happened to W- and we needed a steady income?

I talked to W- again and again, threshing out the possibilities and risks. W- supported the idea. It made sense to try this out, and this was as good a time as any to do so. We didn’t rely on my income for mortgage payments or other constraints. We have a decent public healthcare system, and he had extended health benefits through IBM. We didn’t have any young kids or sick family members who needed care. It was better to learn now than to wait until I had to.

The bigger risk would be to not learn how to create value on my own. If I could learn how to make stuff that other people found valuable, if I could learn how to use my time and energy even more effectively—to learn, share, and scale up—then I could help W- learn these things if his situation changed. And it would probably change someday, so it’s better to prepare for that.

What were the real risks, anyway? I have a lot of fun learning and tinkering. I figured I’d be able to keep my technical skills sharp, and maybe I might even pick up a few other marketable skills along the way.

Sure, the employment gap might turn off some employers. Some of my freelancing friends were going through rough patches, and they told me how employers looked at them askance (“Is this guy going to take off and start his own company again in a couple of years?”) I figured that if I really needed to re-enter the workforce, I could probably come up with a coherent story for these five years. I knew I’d take notes along the way, and I had a lot of practise using weekly reviews to remember what I learned or accomplished. The brain is excellent at rationalization, and I’m sure that in 2017, I’ll be able to explain my experiment in a way that makes sense.

One of the lessons I learned as a teenager was not to get paralyzed by the thought of my “potential”. Sure, if I leaned in with all I had, I might reach the corporate or entrepreneurial stratosphere. But really, I don’t need that much. I just need enough, and enough can be incredibly liberating.

My opportunity fund approached my 5-year target, and I firmed up my plans. I considered ratcheting down work: maybe 75% part time, then 50% part time, then 25% part time, then fully “retired”. With IBM’s intellectual property agreements, it was easier to just make a clean cut. (I ended up doing the ratcheting-down with consulting anyway… funny how life works!)

At the one-one-one meeting with my manager where he shared the results of my annual performance review (yay, top ratings!), I told him I was planning to leave the company and experiment with other things I wanted to learn. Since I gave a few months’ notice, we had plenty of time to cleanly wrap up projects. And then I was off on my own.

This experiment gets less and less scary the more I get into it. Sometimes I look at my numbers and wonder whether I can actually take bigger risks than I currently feel comfortable with. I’m getting better at thinking my way through decisions with greater uncertainty or impact, turning to research, role models, and reflection to get myself through it.

If you’re thinking about making a similar decision yourself, these tips might help:

Think about the real risks you’re worrying about. How can you mitigate them? What are the worst-case scenarios, and how can you work around them?

How can you create a safety net for yourself? What can you do to build your confidence and rescue you from some of those worst-case scenarios?

What are some small steps you can try? I didn’t jump straight into semi-retirement. I started by taking smaller risks and learning from them.

Even now, I take very few risks: I overpay my taxes in order to minimize the impact of calculation errors, I don’t claim tax credits I’m not sure about, I’m conservative about my business commitments and contracts.

If it looks like I’ve come far, it’s only because I go one small step at a time. It’s… kinda like the builders in Lemmings, building steps until you get to where you want to go? =) And then other people can go up those steps and reach their goals more easily, or be inspired and build steps of their own.

2013-07-29 16_27_02-Lemmings! 

(screenshot from http://tomato17.tripod.com/gameroom/fun07.html)

Related posts I think you might like:

Good luck!

(Hah, my current hack for coming up with blog post titles is to just squish many potential titles together. Sorry. Maybe you can give me feedback on which sub-title you liked most! Winking smile )

Thinking about business cards

imageI’m nearly out of business cards, which means it’s time to evaluate my business card experiment and plan my next one. Past performance is a good indicator of future results, so let me think about how I’ve been using my business cards and how I want to use them in the future. For comparison, here’s last year’s business card plan.

People usually ask me for cards:

  • after seeing me sketchnote an event, because they’re curious about having me sketchnote one of theirs
  • after chatting with me at events because they want to check out my blog
  • as a reminder to follow up with me about something

I haven’t gotten any business leads from cards yet, but I’ve had a lot of good conversations. I think they’re worth carrying. I try to not rely on them, though. Whenever possible, I get the other person’s contact information, because I’m often good at following up.

Mostly, I want my cards to make people to think, “Oh, I’m also interested in that! Let me go check out her site and get in touch.”

I designed the current set of cards in November, a month before I came up with the “Experivis” name and logo. For fun, I drew the front of the card. I took advantage of Moo’s ability to print individual designs on the backs of the cards, using scaled-down images of my sketchnotes.

Lessons learned

20121109 Business Card

So far, people tend to react to:

  • the “geek” keyword on my card (“You’re a geek too!”),
  • the sketchnoter keyword/diagram (which could be bigger), and
  • the “pick a card, any card” process because of the individual drawings on the back, even though they can’t be read (I should draw new ones that are sized to fit)
  • the picture, which they find helpful

No one complained about rounded corners or the inability to write on the back (I guess I didn’t run into corner-folders). I liked how the rounded corners felt, but could do with a matte background so that I can write (or draw!) memory hooks for people.

I’m definitely changing fonts to something where the “a”s don’t look so much like “o”s – maybe to the Open Sans that I use on my blog.

Brainstorming approaches

When coming up with design ideas, it’s good to try several very different approaches. Here are some I might consider:

  • Making it more you-focused with a question
  • Using Experivis as a graphic element and making this more of a company card
  • Focusing on my 5-year experiment, making it more of a social card
  • Listing various interests like the way I have them on the LivingAnAwesomeLife.com welcome page; maybe even bringing a highlighter?
  • Adding tips to the back (ex: emotions, stick figures, banners, hair styles, facial hair, clothes, how to draw ____, complete this picture, draw yourself) to inspire people to draw/doodle while still providing some note space (print this in gray?). Maybe I can even encourage people to show me their “filled-in” cards by e-mailing me a picture…

Ooh. I like that last approach.

Cost-benefit analysis

The Moo cards are USD 0.54 per card (per pack of 50, after shipping). Small runs are more expensive, but I can learn more from them. The Vistaprint cards (per pack of 250, plain back, after shipping and promos) are CAD 0.09 a card. With a colour back, it would be about CAD 0.13.

Other ways to achieve similar effects:

  • Print the tips on card stock, print my details as stickers, and stick them manually. Involves work and positioning.
  • Use some kind of custom stamp – that can be a hassle to set up, so pre-printed cards would be a good way to test the approach.

I think printing a small run of business cards will be the best way to test this idea of sharing mini-drawing tips.

I’d still like to know whether it actually engages people, though. What would be my threshold of awesomeness to make it worth the premium over an ordinary card? Possible benefits:

  • I learn in the process of drawing all of those card backs
  • I have more fun giving cards out, and we have built-in conversation hooks
  • I might get slightly better follow-up from people who are interested in learning more about drawing, which will work out well if I create pay-what-you-can resources to help people feel more comfortable with drawing

Next steps

I’m going to work on making business-card-sized drawing exercises/tips and some pay-what-you-can resources, and then I’m going to make Moo business cards that take advantage of them, probably with the front of the card mentioning a variety of interests instead of focusing on Experivis’ branding.

In the meantime, I’ll experiment with a month or two of not giving business cards to test how uncomfortable that might make me and whether I’ll remember to follow up. We’ll see!

Choosing openness and scale

image

Summary: Until June 2014, I’m focusing on work that’s either public or that reaches an audience of 10,000+. 

I’m celebrating my 30th birthday next month. To get a sense of where I’ve come from and where I want to go, I’ve been reviewing more than ten years of blog posts. If I didn’t have my archive, the years would be a blur. The posts help me remember the significant events that happened, and then I can remember other details around those.

Here is something I’m starting to realize: Whatever isn’t written down—whatever isn’t published—gets forgotten. Private notes? Lost in computer migrations and disorganized files. E-mail? Too many to go through.  Photos? Few and far between. Things I’ve shared with other people? That comes back, even when I’ve completely forgotten about sharing it in the first place.

There’s this amazing thing that happens when you have an external brain: people make the connections for you. People comment on blog posts years after I post them, which is great at bringing things back to mind. Longest gap between blog post and comment: 3,410 days (a little over 9 years!) on this post on literate programming, which I wrote long before Org Mode made it super-easy to publish websites with code. Google Analytics shows me that a post from 2010 still gets more than a thousand views a month, and quite a few older posts get hundreds of views a month. My oldest source code available on the Web? This fractal-drawing program I wrote in 1997, when I was in high school. People help me remember and inspire me to learn more.

Good things probably also happened with the confidential workshops and projects that I worked on, but it’s harder to point to them and say, “Oh, that’s where those years went.” The things I’ve shared help me feel that I put the time to good use, especially as they keep providing value.

Open = good.

Putting my time where my philosophy is

Now that I’m on my own, I can choose what to spend my time on. One of the decisions I’ve been working my way through is whether I should work (almost) exclusively on open things: ideas, code, and resources that I can share with other people.

What if I stop accepting requests for confidential work, and focus instead on what can be opened up? I have the space to do that, and it makes decisions so much easier.

I can make an exception for work that meets my desire for scale – perhaps directly affecting more than 10,000 people (even with a small effect) in a searchable, semi-public way. For example, I still hear from IBMers who come across the blog posts I shared on the intranet, and that makes me happy. As for small-scale confidential work… other people can handle that, and they can handle that happily.

Considering the opportunity cost

What would I give up by focusing on only open projects?

  • I might not get a behind-the-scenes look at interesting industries or topics. Sketchnoting is great because it’s a good reason to get into events that I would probably never get to attend or present at on my own. Many events have a closed audience (no public recordings/notes, etc.) to maintain the value of event attendance or provide participants with a more open forum. By focusing only on public events, I’ll skip those closed events… but chances are that I wouldn’t get as much personal value from them anyway, and I can always read or talk to people outside my usual fields.
  • I’ll reduce my income potential. More money helps me increase my buffer, which reduces risk and improves my ability to take advantage of opportunities. Still, I can keep my expenses low, and I can invest in getting even better at creating value through pay-what-you-can resources. I don’t need the money from these other engagements, so I can experiment more.

What are the benefits of focusing on openness?

  • I like the people I work with. People who understand the awesomeness of sharing tend to be awesome themselves, and I also benefit from great conversations with lots of other people.
  • We get tons of value from the things I create. The value isn’t just limited to the particular event or solution, but goes on and on.
  • I have more long-term growth potential. I don’t have to worry about what I’m allowed to share or not allowed to share, and I can build on the things I’ve created.

Okay. I think we can do this. From this time until my 31st birthday next year, I’m going to apply the following decision criteria to the professional work that I accept:

  • Can we share the results publicly, or with an audience of more than 10,000 people? Consider for “yes”.
  • If not, politely decline and refer to someone else.

If exceptional circumstances come up (say, something happens to W- and I need to return to work), I can change my mind about this, but let’s give it a try.

Other notes

SQL query for finding longest time between post and comment in WordPress:

SELECT TO_DAYS(c.comment_date) – TO_DAYS(p.post_date) AS days, comment_post_ID FROM wp_comments c INNER JOIN wp_posts p ON c.comment_post_id=p.ID WHERE comment_type NOT IN (“pingback”, “trackback”) AND comment_approved != “spam” ORDER BY days DESC limit 5;

 

Thinking about movies

It’s getting harder to spend on leisure, because I’m getting so much better at talking myself out of it. There are just so many other good alternatives.

For example: Iron Man 3 has started showing in Canada. I’ve skipped watching most movies in the theatres, but I do like superhero movies, and theatres are great for superhero movies because they make the movies larger than life. I like the outsized situations that the writers put the superheroes in and how they have to get them out. I like the way the movies push visual effects forward without taking themselves too seriously. So I’m going to watch it at some point. I just have to decide…

  • Do I watch it in the movie theatre during opening weekend, as a vote for more movies like that, maybe with W-?
  • $26 for two tickets
  • Can lead to rich in-joke material
  • Good sound and perfect playback (no worries about scratches)
  • Larger than life / immersive
  • Immediate gratification
  • Focused attention
  • Do I watch it in the movie theatre as a social event, which probably means a weekend get-together with friends?
    • $25-35, depending on dinner
    • Bonding time with friends – find out what’s going on in their lives
    • Buying tickets and organizing seating can be difficult
    • Good sound and perfect playback (no worries about scratches)
    • Larger than life / immersive
    • Short-term gratification
    • Focused attention
  • Do I watch it in the movie theatre off-peak, which probably means mid-day sometime during the week?
    • $13 by myself, or possibly with other friends who also have flexible schedules
    • Better seats
    • Good sound and perfect playback (no worries about scratches)
    • Larger than life / immersive
    • Short-term gratification
    • Focused attention
  • Do I wait for it to be available in the library, so that I can watch it with W- at home?
    • Free
    • Can lead to rich in-joke material
    • Writing time or cat time
    • Can watch with subtitles
    • Can pause and rewind
    • Can watch extended material, commentary
    • Can talk to W- while hanging out (extra in-jokes and movie references!)
    • Comfy seats, clean floor (no spilled popcorn or drinks)
    • I can read IMDB trivia and tvtropes entries or research interesting ideas

    And you know, that library option is looking pretty darn tempting. The biggest downsides are a less immersive experience and a longer wait. I don’t need big sound or big images to get into a story (I can imagine things from books). Watching musicals from closer to the stage was much better in terms of being able to see facial expressions, so there’s something for that.

    It takes a while for movies to be released on DVD, and some more time for the library to obtain copies. The DVDs are available on a catch-as-catch-can basis at various branches, and then they’re available for general holds after a year. New items are released on the 15th of every month. W- and I check the new listings on the 15th or 16th, by which time there are sometimes hundreds of holds for popular movies. For example, The Avengers (2012) has 992 holds for 107 copies. Movies can be checked out or renewed a week at a time, and transit between branches takes another day or two. That means that requesting a popular movie like the Avengers would mean a wait of maybe a year and a half from when the movie was released, which is actually not that big a deal because we’ve got a ton of other things to watch. Besides, sometimes we luck out. In this particular case, the Annette Street branch is the home branch for one of the Avengers DVD copies, so we spotted it during our regular library walk and we checked it out even before it was available for general holds. =)

    Popular movies tend to be well-stocked, and I have three branches in easy reach: Annette, Runnymede, and Jane. The Hobbit was another movie that I decided to wait for as a library release, and writing this blog post reminded me that I should go look for it. It’s not available for general release yet, but one copy is due at Runnymede tomorrow and another is due at Annette on Monday. I might bump into it one of these days. If not, I can wait for it to become available for holds on October 15. (Hmm, time to set a reminder…)

    Besides, there’s so much else to do, and so many other movies, shows, books, and games out there. We can keep ourselves endlessly entertained if we want to with just the things we have. So it really comes down to the question: what do I want?

    • I want to be delighted by and learn from storytelling.
    • I like the way that shared movies turn into great in-jokes between W- and me, layers of references building on other references.
    • It would be nice to spend time with friends, but there are other things I can do to spend time with friends.

    So probably library, then, for this and most other movies. W- says, “That’s a lot of thinking about $26.” But it’s this gradual shaping of wants and desires that creates the space for even more possibilities later.

    The less I want, the more I can enjoy.

    Deliberate performance

    In “Deliberate performance: accelerating expertise in natural settings”, Peter J. Fadde and Gary A. Klein suggest the following conditions for improving performance even during regular work:

    • Repetition through practice and observation of other people: Watching other people and learning from them can help learners not only practise more, but also evaluate more different situations.
    • Timely feedback: not just performance reviews by supervisors, but also self-feedback and unambiguous measures
    • Task variety: that way, you don’t end up memorizing the same things. Helped by observing other people.
    • Progressive difficulty

    and the following types of exercises:

    • Estimation: Time or resources needed. You can do this even for activities that are not directly estimated. The authors give the example of estimating how long agenda items will take and how much they’ll be resolved.
    • Experimentation: Types of experimentation (Schön):
      • Exploratory – getting the hang of things
      • Move-testing – trying something out in order to see the effect
      • Hypothesis testing – comparing hypotheses
    • Extrapolation: Learning from prior incidents in order to improve your mental models
    • Explanation

    They give a great example of how to deliberately practise public speaking, which is well worth reading. It reminds me of how I get a lot of value out of the presentations I sit in, even if they cover familiar content; I look at the style, I reorganize the content, I doodle new visuals. There are so many opportunities to practise.

    What else do I want to get better at, and how am I working on it?

    Decision-making is one of those super-useful skills. I write many decisions down, and I occasionally post my decision analyses. From time to time, I revisit the decisions to see if my assumptions were correct. I experiment with different alternatives and with different methods for making decisions. I’m learning a little from my past decisions. I’d really love to learn from other people’s decisions, which is why I enjoy reading blogs like Lean Decisions.

    Learning is another useful meta-skill. I can estimate how much time I need in order to learn something, and how much I can retain from different study methods. I can experiment with different ways to learn and review information. I can extrapolate based on past “tests”. I can explain how I’m doing.

    Drawing is one of the skills that might be good to practise, too. I can estimate how much space and time I need to represent various topics clearly. I can experiment with different ways to draw and organize information. I can extrapolate based on other people’s drawings and my own. I can explain what makes something work and what makes something less understandable.

    Development is fun and useful. I’m used to estimating how much time I need to code something, and I’m reasonably good at doing so. I could estimate how many lines it would take or what the logical structure would be like. I can experiment with different platforms and programs. I can increase my repetition by reading other people’s code and talking to other people about their projects, so that I can extrapolate from those experiences. I can explain what I’m doing, how I’m trying to debug something, or what caused a bug.

    I’ve mentioned friendship, too. I can estimate the time and resources for different activities, the effect on me, and the perceived effects on others. I can experiment. I might be able to extrapolate from past experiences and from stories (maybe time to read more fiction). I can try to explain what works and what’s felt a bit weird.

    With Emacs Org, it’s easy to verify my time estimates for tasks, and I can build in reminders to review my decisions too.

    To round off this post, I want to share this quote from the article: “The purpose of deliberate performance experimentation, then, is to generate more surprises and more opportunities for reflection-in-action.” Sometimes when people find out how much I think about things, they wonder if that gets rid of the surprise. I find that thinking leads to more surprises, not fewer. I want to build more surprises and more reflection into my life. =)

    Links:

    Decision update: HackLab.TO

    Based on my analysis, I decided to sign up for hacklab.to, a coworking space tucked into Kensington Market here in Toronto. I dropped by on Wednesday and Friday last week.

    Let me check how I’m doing against my success criteria. In nine months, what do I want to happen, and how am I making progress?

    • I know more about other geeks in Toronto thanks to ambient conversations and helping each other out.
      • I chatted with Chim about his job interviews, with Justin about biking and electronics, with Eric about friendship, and with Nick and Adam about duct tape
      • Working on getting better by remembering people’s faces, names, and interests
    • I’m better at asking people for help when I get stuck, and at setting myself tougher challenges knowing that people can help
      • Haven’t tried this yet
      • Maybe business questions and referrals to accountants?
    • I’ve dug into some of the more difficult things that are easier to learn with other people who can help me. For example: web development, mobile development, electronics
      • Haven’t tried this yet, just settling in and getting some writing done
      • Maybe Arduino?
    • I’ve gotten better at sketching ideas, asking other people for feedback, and fleshing out the ones that get people interested
      • Haven’t tried it yet
      • Hmm, what can I build that people here might find useful?
    • I’ve improved serendipity (test different laptop cues to talk? talk to people about what they’re working on?)
      • Started making conversation about people’s projects
      • Laptop drawing is useful; maybe swap in a new one next week
    • I go to HackLab 1-2 times a week, and sometimes more often if the weather is great.
      • Did so!
      • Easier if I commit to the idea of being here and I use Justin’s heuristic of buying transit passes during the winter months
    • I’m good at managing my focus (do not disturb / yes, talk to me)
      • Pretty good so far, but I haven’t tested it by working on anything that required a lot of concentration.
      • Server hum is slightly distracting, but I can use my headphones or play music.
    • I’m good at talking to new people and hanging out with the regulars
      • Progress!
      • Flashcards and memory will probably help.

    I also survived my initial run-in with the alarm, so that’s another milestone passed – I now know how to properly let myself in. It’s probably a good idea to practice arming the alarm and letting myself out, which would be another milestone.