Category Archives: work

Sketched Book – So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love – Cal Newport

It seems almost given that you should follow your passion, but what if you don’t know what that is? Or what if following your passion prematurely can lead to failure?

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (2012), Cal Newport gives more practical advice: Instead of jumping into a completely unknown field to follow a passion which might turn out to be imaginary, look for ways to translate or grow your existing capabilities. Develop a craftsman’s mindset so that you can improve through deliberate practice. Often it’s not a lack of courage that holds you back, but a lack of skill. As you build career capital, you can develop your appreciation of a field, possibly leading to a clear passion or a mission. You also can make little bets that help you move closer to the cutting edge so that you can make something remarkable. This qualifies you to do greater work that involves creativity, positive impact, and good control.

I’ve sketched the key points of the book below to make it easier to remember and share. Click on the image for a larger version that you can print if you want.

2015-01-03 Sketched Book - So Good They Can't Ignore You - Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love - Cal Newport

I agree with many of the ideas in the book, although I’m not entirely sure about the dichotomy that Newport sets up between passion and craftsmanship. Many of the passion-oriented books I’ve read encourage you to try out your ideas before making major changes to your life – for example, by working on your own business on weekends or by taking a second job. Very few people advocate leaping into the unknown, and if they do, they recommend having plenty of savings and a network of mentors, potential clients, and supporters. So the book comes down a little harshly on a caricature of the other side rather than the strongest form of the opposing side’s argument.

Amusingly enough, although the book describes What Color is Your Parachute as “the birth of the passion hypothesis”, I remember coming across the idea of gradually transitioning to a new field by first exploring something more related to your current one in What Color is Your Parachute, which recommends it as a way of lowering risk and clarifying what you want. I also remember the What Color is Your Parachute book to be less about impulsively following your whims and more about identifying and exploring the skills that gave you feelings of accomplishment.

Anyway, I think you start with curiosity. Then you develop a little skill. This makes you more curious, which helps you learn more, and so on. That–combined with feedback and appreciation–helps fan a spark of interest into a flame. So it’s not really that you start with passion or that you spend many years developing your craft before you can enjoy it, but rather that you gradually figure out both. (I have a feeling this somewhat agrees with what the book would’ve been if it weren’t trying so hard to distinguish itself from advice about passion.)

We just don’t normally express ourselves that way, I guess. It’s almost as if people are expected to either have strong convictions about their life’s work, or to be lost at sea. If you say, “I’m still figuring things out,” it’s like you’re a drifter. If you say, “I’m not passionate about my work right now,” it’s like you’re just going through the motions. I don’t agree with this, which is why I like the book’s emphasis on forming hypotheses about what you want to do, and testing that with little bets that also develop your skills. (This is particularly apropos, since J- will be choosing a university or college course soon.)

Anyway, after reading this book, the specific take-away I’m looking forward to following up on is that of exploring adjacent possibilities more systematically. How can I move closer to the edge of discovery in myself and in the fields I’m interested in, and what new areas have been opened up? I’ve been thinking about designing more focused projects that result in things I can measure and share. That’s similar to the middle layer of the pyramid that Newport suggests:

  1. Tentative research mission – figuring out what you want
  2. One-month exploratory projects with concrete results
  3. Background results

On the whole, the book has a good message. You don’t have to love something to get good at it. Sometimes (often?) getting good at something will help you like it or even love it.

But the book feels a little… uneven, I guess? The anecdotes feel like they’re making too-similar points. The ones about failure feel unsympathetic and hand-picked for straw-man arguments. I imagine most businesses are not started out of the blue because of some grand passion. People prepare, they minimize risk, they work hard. Passion for something – either the work, the customers, or even just the life that’s afforded by the work – pulls them through the toughest parts and keeps them going. Sometimes they succeed for reasons unrelated to their skills; sometimes they fail for reasons unrelated to their passions. Sometimes things just happen. There are everyday businesses that don’t have the creativity, grand positive impact, or full control that are idealized in the book, but that still give people enjoyable lives. I think that the techniques and ingredients described by Newport in his book are good, but they are not essential to an awesome life.

On a somewhat related note, in the past few years, I’ve been learning to let go of the desire for either passion or mastery, Instead, I’m embracing uncertainty and beginner-ness, setting aside time for things I don’t quite love yet. It’s a challenging path, but it tickles my brain. =)

Anyway, if you’re looking for a counterpoint to the usual “Follow your passion!” advice and you want to check out So Good They Can’t Ignore You, you can get it from Amazon (affiliate link) or your favourite source for books. Like this sketch? Check out sketchedbooks.com for more. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog.

Enjoy!

Sketched Book: Take Charge of Your Talent: Three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization, and Life – Don Maruska, Jay Perry (2013)

Don Maruska and Jay Perry’s Take Charge of Your Talent: Three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization, and Life (2013) has plenty of tips for developing your skills and taking charge of your career. I’ve sketched the key points of the book below to make it easier to remember and share. Click on the image for a larger version that you can print if you want.

2014-12-25 Sketched Book - Take Charge of Your Talent - Three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization, and Life - Don Maruska and Jay Perry

I liked the chapter on reflecting on your talents through a structured conversation with someone who can reflect back not only your words but also your feelings and hopes. Sometimes we don’t see the patterns in our thoughts until someone points it out to us. The questions are also good for personal reflection, and I’m looking forward to using them in my planning.

Sometimes people ask me to help them figure out what they want to do. Other books I’ve read about coaching tend to be pretty high-level, but this one gives concrete advice, including some notes anticipating potential responses or difficulties.

I also liked the chapters on creating tangible assets and sharing them with other people. That’s been a great learning- and career-booster for me, and I hope other people will try it out as well.

Among other things, the book also suggests listing at least one hundred resources (people, places, things, skills, …). Forced-length lists are great for creativity because you dig deeper than your surface answers, often coming across surprises. When you review your list, think about ways that you could make even better use of those resources. The book also suggests taking a look at your top 10 resources and working towards 100% use of them, which will be an interesting challenge. The third related exercise is to combine different resources so that you can break through obstacles or come up with interesting mash-ups – forced association, another great creativity technique. I like this reminder to apply creativity so that you can recognize and make the most of your resources, which allows you to MacGyver your way to growth.

Want the book? You can buy it from Amazon (affiliate link) or check out their website at .

Like this sketch? Check out sketchedbooks.com for more. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog.

Enjoy!

More lessons learned from the recent sprints

Now that we’re (mostly) done with the conference and the major system upgrade, I could relax and go back to my old schedule of working a few days a week. But this consulting contract is winding down soon, so it also makes sense for me to spend the extra time helping team members learn, polishing up prototypes, and braindumping as many notes as I can into the internal social network. The more of my brain I can externalize, the more other people can build on, and the easier it will be to pick it up again even after some delay.

The next week or two won’t have as much of a workload as we had during the conference. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being super-intense (cutting into sleep), I’d say that the conference was probably around 8: I managed to do lots of work and get enough sleep, but I didn’t do much else. These next few weeks will probably be around 5-7. I can still help out with things at home and with Hacklab and I’m totally okay with spending a little time playing video games (W- and I are currently playing Persona 3), but I’m holding off on personal projects until I have more brainspace.

Anyway, for the next time that I need to prepare for intense days (something like 8-10 on that scale), here’s something I drew in mid-September. I’ve updated it with notes on how things actually worked out.

2014-09-15 Preparing for intense days

2014-09-15 Preparing for intense days

  • Avoid long stretches of work. Coding is better when well-rested.
    • This worked out okay. I coded a lot, but I switched between coding different types of things.
  • Go to bed early. Get 8.5-9 hours of sleep; more if you anticipate anxiety.
    • Yup! Managed to get plenty of sleep.
  • Pick one thing. Focus on it.
    • Mostly managed this.
  • Minimal computer or phone use in the evening. Draw instead, as a way of braindumping/thinking. Index cards can be useful for jotting down thoughts.
    • As you can see, I’m still processing the notes from then. =)
  • Minimal socializing – use the time to recharge and prepare the foundation. Spend time with W- taking care of things. Guiltlessly reschedule other things.
    • Worked out well. Substituted money for time when it came to Hacklab.
  • It’s okay to take the subway instead of biking to work – minimize risk
    • I even took a few cabs! Boggle.
  • Still go jogging with W- when weather and schedule permit; if not, do exercise ladder at home.
    • I want to reestablish this habit. Not ingrained yet.
  • Eat freezer meals; get takeout if necessary. (Or frozen lunches from stores as stopgaps? They’re not as nice, though.) Bulk-cook easy recipes (rice & lentils, congee, curry).
    • We ended up ordering pizza a few times. At work, people had food delivered too. It was nice to return to home-cooked meals, though!
  • Keep the end in mind (reason and number of days).
    • That was helpful. =)

I don’t often go on work sprints like that, but it’s nice to know our lifestyle can handle it!

Reflecting on my growth as a programmer

One of the things I realized from dealing with that programming issue is that I don’t have a mature development workflow for front-end work yet. On previous projects, I focused mostly on back-end development. I had somewhat gotten the hang of test-driven development and code coverage when using Rails before, and I set up an issue tracker for my previous teams. For my main consulting engagement, I shifted to working on mostly HTML, Javascript, and CSS. I’d handled a bit of that before, but we usually worked with designers who did most of the heavy lifting (and the cross-browser fiddliness). Over the past two years,  I picked up more JQuery and Angular, fought with Internet Explorer 7 and then 8, and explored Chrome’s developer tools a bit more.

I didn’t have things quite set up the way I think other people have. I felt mildly guilty about installing programs that were not available from the client’s internal software site, although Emacs was definitely worth the twinge of unease. Even the version control I used was ad-hoc, using Git on my computer to manage snippets for copying and pasting. I still haven’t mastered the Javascript debugger in Google Chrome, much less the tools available for other browsers. (Hence all the grief Internet Explorer gave me.) I didn’t have a test framework set up, so I often committed regression errors and other mistakes. I haven’t yet internalized all the cool development tools in Emacs, like Smartparens and Magit. (I’m slowly getting the hang of multiple-cursors-mode, though!) In terms of workflow maturity, I felt more like someone a few years out of university (or maybe even someone in their final year of classes!), and definitely like someone cobbling things together instead of picking up practices from a well-running team.

My main consulting engagement is coming to a close, but I’m looking forward to learning more about the craft of software development. I have a few personal projects to practise on, and it might be easier to Do The Right Thing when you’re less worried about potentially wasting the client’s time. I’m looking forward to familiarizing myself with more of the nifty features in Emacs. I’m also looking forward to immersing myself in the right ways to do things with popular frameworks, including testing and deployment.

I’d like to become a good programmer someday. What would that be like? For the particular way that I work–a generalist pulling together different things quickly–a good programmer might be one who has a neatly organized library of snippets, and who writes modular code with simple tests that exercise different functionality. Using a debugger, the good programmer would be able to dig into other people’s code, figuring out even things that aren’t documented. That programmer would also be able to quickly prototype and build well-designed interfaces. Things don’t have to win awards, but the interface shouldn’t get in the way. An even better programmer would have the ability to coordinate other programmers, improving people’s results by helping them work on both a tactical and strategic level.

Someday!

2014-09-15 Reflecting on my growth as a programmer

2014-09-15 Reflecting on my growth as a programmer

Thinking about rewards and recognition since I’m on my own

One of the things a good manager does is to recognize and reward people’s achievements, especially if people exceeded expectations. A large corporation might have some standard ways to reward good work: a team lunch, movie tickets, gift certificates, days off, reward points, events, and so on. Startups and small businesses might be able to come up with even more creative ways of celebrating success.

In tech, I think good managers take extra care to recognize when people have gone beyond the normal call of duty. It makes sense. Many people earn salaries without overtime pay, might not get a bonus even if they’ve sacrificed time with family or other discretionary activities, and might not be able to take vacation time easily.

It got me thinking: Now that I’m on my own, how do I want to celebrate achievements–especially when they are a result of tilting the balance towards work?

When I’m freelancing, extra time is paid for, so some reward is there already. I like carving out part of those earnings for my opportunity fund, rewarding my decision-making by giving myself more room to explore.

During a sprint, the extra focus time sometimes comes from reducing my housework. When things relax, then, I like celebrating by cooking good meals, investing in our workflows at home, and picking up the slack.

I also like taking notes so that I can build on those successes. I might not be able to include a lot of details, but having a few memory-hooks is better than not having any.

Sometimes people are really happy with the team’s performance, so there’s extra good karma. Of the different non-monetary ways that people can show their appreciation within a corporate framework, which ones would I lean towards?

I definitely appreciate slowing down the pace after big deliverables. Sustained concentration is difficult, so it helps to be able to push back if there are too many things on the go.

At work, I like taking time to document lessons learned in more detail. I’d get even more of a kick out of it if other people picked up those notes and did something even cooler with the ideas. That ranks high on my warm-and-fuzzy feeling scale. It can take time for people to have the opportunity to do something similar, but that’s okay. Sometimes I hear from people years later, and that’s even awesomer.

A testimonial could come in handy, especially if it’s on an attributed site like LinkedIn.

But really, it’s more about long-term relationships and helping out good people, good teams, and good causes. Since I can choose how much to work and I know that my non-work activities are also valuable, the main reasons I would choose to work more instead of exploring those other interests are:

  • I like the people I work with and what they’re working on, and I want to support them,
  • I’ll learn interesting things along the way, and
  • It’s good to honour commitments and not disrupt plans unnecessarily.

So, theoretically, if we plunged right back into the thick of another project, I didn’t get the time to write about stuff, I didn’t feel right keeping personal notes (and thus I’ll end up forgetting the important parts of the previous project), and no one’s allowed to write testimonials, I’d still be okay with good karma – not the quid-pro-quo of transactional favour-swapping, but a general good feeling that might come in handy thirty years from now.

Hmm, this is somewhat related to my reflection on Fit for You – which I thought I’d updated within the last three years, but I guess I hadn’t posted that to my blog. Should reflect on that again sometime… Anyway, it’s good to put together a “care and feeding” guide for yourself! =)

The power of no: being completely* unhireable until 2017 (and possibly longer)

When I started this 5-year experiment, I didn’t know if I could stick with it. My track record for sticking with interests is not that good. I’m delighted to report that (semi-)retirement gets easier and easier. I am learning to say no.

image

By coincidence, two of my mentors (who had moved on to separate companies after IBM) got in touch with me one after the other to find out if I was interested in some upcoming job opportunities. Good stuff. Right up my alley. Wonderful people.

I said no. Actually, I said something along the lines of: “Thank you for reaching out! That sounds fantastic. However, I am semi-retired and completely* unhireable until 2017 (or possibly later), so I’ll just have to wish you good luck on your search. I’m sure you’ll find someone awesome out there. If I think of returning to work, I will be sure to reach out to you right away. Thanks again!”

*If a significant financial need comes up, I have no qualms about suspending this experiment and returning to the wonderful world of work. I enjoyed working with excellent teams. I’d love to do it again. While I have the opportunity and privilege to work on things entirely of my choosing, though, I should do that. Not everyone can do so, and I shouldn’t waste the chance.

Learning how to say no is amazing. I used to feel guilty about this. I wanted to be in more than one place at a time. Then I realized that I am not a special snowflake and there are other awesome people out there who can make things happen. Sure, they might not bring my particular configuration of skills, but they’ll bring other useful combinations. This makes it easier for me to say no, because it leaves room for someone else to say yes.

Pre-making decisions helps a lot. When I was preparing for my experiment, I thought about the conditions in which I would stop or reconsider. If something happened to W-, I might go back to work. If our expenses didn’t stay in line with my projections, I might go back to work. If, if, if. If everything was going fine, though, then any qualms or anxieties would just be the product of my irrational lizard-brain trying to run back to the safety of the known, familiar, and explainable-at-cocktail-parties. (Not that I go to cocktail parties, and not that “I’m in consulting” was really an explanation. But it checked the right conversational boxes, while “I’m semi-retired” throws people for a loop.) Knowing my lizard-brain helps me work around it.

I often sketch out basic decisions in advance. It’s the programmer way. If this, then that. Check for warnings and errors. Handle exceptions. It means not having to worry as much, which is great. It means knowing when I might need to reconsider so that I’m not blindly following the same plan when circumstances change. In a way, I live through many possible lives.

It’s been a year and a half since I started my experiment with semi-retirement. My living expenses are almost exactly on track. My aspirations are definitely off track. I hadn’t expected to be this comfortable with writing and learning, and I’m excited about where this is going. This is good.

The road isn’t lonely at all. W- has been absolutely wonderful and supportive, and I’m running into more and more people on some kind of sabbatical or early retirement. The path is surprisingly well-travelled, the kind of secret trail that you might not hear about in your guidebook but which gets passed on from person to person in whispers and geocaches. I say no so that I can say yes.

Image credits: Crossroads (Mopic, Shutterstock)