Monthly review: January 2015

2015-02-01 January 2015 -- index card #monthly #review
2015-02-01 January 2015 – index card #monthly #review

Last month, I wrote that in January, I planned to:

  • Set up a rhythm of monthly Emacs hangouts and Emacs chats: Scheduled a few more
  • Shift my finances around a bit so that I’m more relaxed: Refilled, yay!
  • Sort out some small snags with consulting: Smoothed out
  • Get the exercise ladder habit going again: Associating microwaving with exercising is a small start.
  • Make little improvements around the house, so it doesn’t end up waiting for vacations: W- has been doing most of this, so I’ve been focusing on cooking instead.

It was a good month for thinking about questions and goals. Eric’s update on his Quest of Awesome at the Quantified Self Toronto meetup inspired me to list accomplishments, goals, and questions, and I’m gradually making sense of those things.

I’ve been relaxing my self-imposed one-post-a-day limit, since there’s so much I want to write about and I’ve built up quite a backlog. I need to think about how to keep this manageable. Sometimes I really like having posts scheduled but not posted, since that allows me to update them when I find little bugs in the code or opportunities to improve. On the other hand, there’s something to be said about faster feedback cycles. Hmm.

At work, I’ve learned a lot about using Tableau for recursive queries, dashboard actions, and filters. Level up! Speaking of data and analytics, my self-tracking got mentioned in the Toronto Star.

Focusing on Emacs microhabits has been paying off nicely. I’m still not as fluent as I’d like to be in terms of abbreviations and window-switching, but I’m better at them than before. I’ll continue working on those habits in February, and maybe I’ll delve into Helm too. I’ve also been writing little Node and Emacs Lisp scripts to automate parts of my workflow, which makes me happy.

In February, I’m looking forward to:

  • Preparing for some projects
  • Hosting another Emacs Hangout
  • Learning more about Helm (in Emacs)

I’m experimenting with a combined outline that includes my blog posts and sketches so that things are logically grouped. Since I have lots of sketches, I’ve skipped the ones that have already been included in blog posts. Sketches are the ones that start with the date, and blog posts have regular titles. Might be useful, might be noisy, but I won’t know until I try. =) Here’s what I wrote and drew this month:

Learning from artists: making studies of ideas

When people are starting out with sketchnoting, it’s helpful to remember that sketchnoting’s about “ideas, not art” (as Mike Rohde says in The Sketchnote Handbook). It’s easy to get intimidated by the visually-impressive sketchnotes people post, so the reminder is useful.

I’ve been using sketchnotes to explore my own thoughts instead of recording other people’s content. I like flipping things around, so that got me thinking: What can I learn from the way artists work, and how can I apply that to learning and drawing?

Here are a few ideas:

2015-01-05 What can I learn from artists about learning -- index card
2015.01.05 What can I learn from artists about learning – index card

  • Collect: Artists collect inspiration. They fill sketchbooks, make moodboards, clip reference photos, and so on.
  • Emulate: Artists develop their skills by emulating masters.
  • Observe: Artists draw what’s there, not what they think is there. They also analyze the techniques other artists use and the effect of these techniques on the piece.
  • Imagine: Artists aren’t limited to what they see. They can draw what isn’t there. They can draw the essence of a thing.
  • Transform: Great art transforms the way people see.
  • Experiment: Artists try different techniques and styles to figure out what works for them.
  • Craft: Artists refine their work and improve their tools.
  • Sketch: Artists do quick studies to try several views or focus on different aspects before making the commitment of paint on canvas.

I was particularly curious about this idea of making studies or sketching things in order to experiment with different views or to focus on small parts before composing the whole, so I dug into that further.

2015-01-05 Why studies for drawing or writing thoughts -- index card
2015.01.05 Why studies for drawing or writing thoughts – index card

The limits I want to address are:

  • When I start with a large sheet, I sometimes peter out halfway through because I’ve dug to the bottom of that idea (at least for now, with the tools and time I have).
  • If I work with large sheets, it’s not as easy to keep all the relevant ones in view at the same time. I need to summarize more frequently.
  • I often zig-zag between topics, leaving sheets unfinished. Half-sheets are awkward to post.

2015-01-05 Quick idea studies -- index card
2015.01.05 Quick idea studies – index card

Using index cards for “studies” of an idea might be a useful technique. Each card is a small chunk, quick to capture, complete in itself, and yet linkable with others. The cards are easier to rearrange. If each card represents one idea or summary, I can keep more ideas in view.

There are trade-offs, naturally. Sometimes the desire to fill a large sheet makes me to sit with a question longer, letting me discover more. Large sheets gives me the ability to draw and describe relationships between ideas. If I have many small chunks, I need to invest more time in summarizing and filing in order to make the most of them.

2015-01-05 Managing my idea pipeline -- index card
2015.01.05 Managing my idea pipeline – index card

Artists might make studies in preparation for a specific work, or they might make studies just because. If I have a specific question in mind, it’s easy to sketch my way around the topic and then organize those thoughts into a whole. I’m not as good at managing fragments over an extended period of time, although I’m getting better at linking to and building on previous blog posts.

What can I learn from the way artists keep working on something? Artists might work on a piece for weeks or more, keeping it visible on an easel, taking a step back from time to time, looking at it in different light. They might have several such pieces on the go. I still prefer publishing early instead of waiting until something is a masterpiece. Feedback is great, and even small chunks can be surprisingly useful.

If I improve the way I manage my studies, though, I might get better at refining ideas. I think it’s like the way an artists might clip photos or sketch things that have caught their eyes, and then return to that inspiration years later when they think of something that needs it.

Speaking of archives: I’ve written about index cards before as a way to develop thoughts (2014; much like this post), plan my life (2007), and prevent boredom by writing (2005!). I haven’t quite mastered this yet, but I’m getting somewhere. What can I add to this based on this reflection on artists?

I don’t do enough zoomed-in focus or variations on a theme yet, I think. Studies aren’t just about capturing the gist of a thing so that you can reproduce it later in your studio. They let you minutely observe a specific aspect, and they let you experiment with different ways to portray something.

What would that look like, if I could do it really well? For observation, I might have index cards that focus on sub-topics, like the way I’ve built up this post from the sub-questions in the illustrations. For variety, I might experiment with visual vocabulary and metaphors, improving my creative expression.

There’s also something to be said about sheer practice in exploring thoughts, like the way artists might sketch for sketching’s sake. James Altucher recommends coming up with ten ideas a day (also related: his post from 2012). I’ve been experimenting with setting myself a minimum of five index cards a day. I write the dates for all of them before I start on the first one so that the desire to fill in the blanks pushes me to complete all of them. This usually leads to even more cards as the first set of ideas sparks more questions.

Actually, the challenge isn’t generating ideas. Artists never run out of things to sketch – they can look around and find more! I have an archive of ideas I haven’t exhausted and a cornucopia that generates more every day.

2015-01-05 Thinking about my archive -- index card
2015.01.05 Thinking about my archive – index card

This leads me back to skills that I think might be good to borrow from the art world and adapt to what I want:

  • Observing what’s in front of me – really seeing it, capturing it better, evoking its essence
  • Looking at something from different angles, and developing opinions about the alternatives I can pick – like the way artists learn about composition and light
  • Retrieving subsets of my archive – like the way artists might pull out the relevant studies or reference photos when they’re working on a piece
  • Comprehending the whole – the way people can step back and talk about impressionism, Picasso’s Blue Period, and other things that require zooming out

What would masters of this be like, and how can I emulate them? I think of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies, asking and observing. I think of writers who name and describe things, and in so doing, they help me see better – the way the light behind an object separates it from the background. I may never draw or write a thousandth as well as they do, but I can grow through emulating the way they slow down and pay attention, the way they turn things over and over instead of rushing on.

Weekly review: Week ending January 30, 2015

This week was the week of focusing on vegetables. I made Japanese curry with a pickled salad on the side (daikon, cucumber, carrot), shepherd’s pie, and pad thai. It was great to have so many vegetable-focused dishes in the fridge. Looking forward to exploring more recipes and building up this habit!

Blog posts

  1. Weekly review: Week ending January 23, 2015
  2. Filling in the occupational blanks
  3. Sketchnote Hangout: Playing with colour
  4. Emacs kaizen: helm-swoop and editing
  5. Writing: Open loops, closed loops, and working with forgetfulness
  6. Emacs microhabit: Switching windows with windmove, ace-window, and ace-jump
  7. Read business books more effectively through application, visualization, or reviews
  8. Learning to work on my own things
  9. Getting data from Org Mode tables
  10. Finding a model for my sharing

Sketches

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (33.3h – 19%)
    • Deposit cheque
    • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Earn (7.1h – 21% of Business)
    • Build (15.2h – 45% of Business)
      • Drawing (13.7h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.7h)
      • Look into recently uploaded images
    • Connect (10.9h – 32% of Business)
      • Talk to Srid
  • Relationships (5.9h – 3%)
  • Discretionary – Productive (15.3h – 9%)
    • Emacs (5.7h – 3% of all)
      • Improve my mail handling
      • Make graphviz easier with Emacs Lisp
      • Try out Tern
      • Help Sean
      • Make a montage of selected sketches based on their filenames
      • Change my set-descriptions.js to be able to use any blog URLs (archive page, future post, etc.)
    • Pick up cultural access pass from Front and Parliament
    • Reflect on asking questions
    • Apply for passport
    • Invest in bonds in TFSA
    • Process a 10lb bag of potatoes
    • Type in goals
    • Read Intermediate Japanese – chapter 1
    • Read chapter 2
    • Write about open loops
    • Collect words and examples from tweets about Emacs
    • Read chapter 3
    • Writing (5.3h)
  • Discretionary – Play (3.0h – 1%)
  • Personal routines (31.6h – 18%)
  • Unpaid work (20.3h – 12%)
  • Sleep (58.6h – 34% – average of 8.4 per day)

Finding a model for my sharing

Can a sharing model based on free/pay-what-you-want resources be sustainable over a long period of time?

I’ve been thinking about this for a number of reasons:

  • One of my assistants e-mailed me about my difficulties with delegation. He suggested thinking of my life as a business: What would my objectives be? When I reflected on that, I realized I had some discomfort around the ideas of customers and business models. Was my life more like science and exploration? Not quite, either. I left the thread of thought unresolved.
  • Problogger posted this mind map of different ways to monetize a blog. I realized that I’m not keen on advertising, physical products, selling/flipping blogs, premium content/communities/products, affiliate marketing (except for books I like, and even then those offer tiny commissions and it feels a little hypocritical to do that given that I hardly ever buy books myself), and other indirect methods. I might be okay with coaching, if I can come up with a good workaround for the impostor syndrome.
  • In an interview about Quantified Self and life experiments, a journalist asked me to describe my business. I felt that social business consulting wasn’t the real crux of my current life’s work, and that talking about writing and publishing e-books would be incomplete without exploring why free/pay-what-you-want pricing is important to me. Answering his question prompted me to think about my motivations a bit more.
  • Harold Jarche wrote about the exposure economy and his decision to limit his sharing. I understand where he’s coming from – by mom gives similar lectures to aspiring photographers who have yet to internalize that “exposure” won’t buy them new equipment. But there’s something else that drives me to share more, not less, and I want to understand that.
  • @ljconrad retweeted a link to The Gift of Being Uncommon, which included a segment on “gift reciprocity versus market economy.” It says that people “may have difficulty charging sufficiently for their work, especially if they view their own abilities, products or insights as gifts that need to be shared with others.” I’ve requested Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World from the library, and I’m looking forward to digging into it further.
  • The contrast of a gift culture versus a market economy reminded me of Eric S. Raymond’s “Homesteading the Noosphere” (2000). I revisited its sections on gift culture, art, and reward. It made me think: Is reputation a major driver for me? How does this work out if my ideal outcome does not involve parlaying that reputation into economic opportunities like jobs or gigs?
  • And that reminded me of Tom Morkes’ guide to pay what you want pricing, and the breadth of people using the PWYW strategy. I’m always delighted to get a note from Gumroad that someone has purchased one of my resources, but I’m still working on getting my anxious side to accept that this is okay.

So that’s my context.

Mulling all those things, I realized that the model I can use to understand my desire to share isn’t business (with its customers, markets, and exchanges of value) or modern science (with its funding from institutions and competition around publications).

It’s philosophy. Ancient philosophy, not professionalized modern philosophy.

What were the “business models” for ancient Greek and Roman philosophers? How did they sustain themselves?

2015-01-10 How did schools of philosophy work in ancient Greece and Rome -- index card #independence #philosophy

2015.01.10 How did schools of philosophy work in ancient Greece and Rome – index card #independence #philosophy

2015-01-10 More about philosophers -- index card #independence

2015.01.10 More about philosophers – index card #independence

  • The Cynics begged in the streets. (I’d rather avoid that option.)
  • People or schools received gifts (from students, from other people in the community, etc.).
  • People or schools had rich patrons.
  • People charged tuition, offered private tutoring, and so on.
  • People worked in unrelated occupations. For example, Cleanthes philosophized during the day and carried water at night.
  • People had private means: estates, investments, and so forth. Seneca had a fortune (acquired through less-palatable means). Atticus inherited wealth and grew it through real estate.

Some philosophers taught in closed schools: Pythagoras kept an exclusive brotherhood. Others taught in public, like Zeno did.

I don’t quite think of what I do as philosophy, but I can learn from how these schools worked. For example, using philosophy as a lens, it makes sense to me to share in public for the following reasons:

  • More people can learn.
  • Ideas stand a greater chance of being remembered and used. (By other people, and by me!)
  • I can grow from the conversation.

This last point is particularly important to me. I’m still figuring things out. I don’t feel that I’m quite at the stage where I can teach people well – when I have clear paths and well-tested lessons. I’m still at the stage where I try to live as well as I can, making and sharing useful things. People’s questions often help me realize something I didn’t know I knew. I’m nowhere close to sharing wisdom suitable for the ages (and might never be).

2015-01-11 Current state and future states -- index card #writing

2015.01.11 Current state and future states – index card #writing

With that learner’s perspective, it doesn’t make sense to me to limit the circle of people I can reach, or to charge people for the privilege of my being able to learn from them. But it does make sense to be open to gifts – of money, sure, but especially of time, skills, experience, and perspective.

2015-01-10 Lessons from ancient Rome -- index card #philosophy

2015.01.10 Lessons from ancient Rome – index card #philosophy

In fact, reflecting on how ancient philosophers managed their ups and downs helped me address more of my anxiety over whether a financial mistake might break this freedom. After all, life back then was way more volatile than life is now. What’s a downturn in the stock market like compared to the whims of emperors and the possibility of exile? I have fewer pressures on my life and more resources than people back then could imagine. (Searchable books! The Internet! Amazing text editors! Boggle.) If I want to learn about interesting things, potential changes in my situation shouldn’t stop me.

So here we are. I don’t know if Kevin Kelly is right about 1,000 True Fans (or John Scalzi about a larger, more modest base). “Fan” isn’t quite what I’m going for, anyway. I want co-adventurers, co-figure-out-ers – ideas bumping into each other in conversations, the back-and-forth of experiments. Maybe a teacher will appear and guide me. Maybe students will help me discover what I can teach. I’ve found some role models to help me understand sharing, and I’m looking forward to seeing if that can still work in the modern world – or better yet, what we can do with it.

Getting data from Org Mode tables

Org Mode is an amazingly powerful package for Emacs. I’ve been learning a lot about how to use its support for plain-text tables and spreadsheet calculations.

Using table data in Emacs Lisp with the :var argument

For example, I wanted to be able to define my abbreviations in an Org Mode table in my config. I remembered coming across this technique a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t find the webpage with the code. It turned out to be simple to write from scratch. Here’s the plain text I added to my config.

#+NAME: abbrev
| Base  | Expansion                             |
|-------+---------------------------------------|
| bc    | because                               |
| wo    | without                               |
| wi    | with                                  |
| ex    | For example,                          |
| qm    | [email protected]                   |
| qe    | http://sachachua.com/dotemacs         |
| qw    | http://sachachua.com/                 |
| qb    | http://sachachua.com/blog/            |
| qc    | http://sachachua.com/blog/emacs-chat/ |

#+begin_src emacs-lisp :exports code :var data=abbrev
(mapc (lambda (x) (define-global-abbrev (car x) (cadr x))) data)
#+end_src

The :var data=abbrev argument to the Emacs Lisp source block is where all the magic happens. Here, it takes the data from the table named “abbrev” (which I set using #+NAME: before the table) and makes it available to the code. Emacs evaluates that data when the code is tangled (or exported) to my configuration. The code that’s in my Sacha.el looks like this:

(let ((data (quote (("bc" "because")
                    ("wo" "without")
                    ("wi" "with")
                    ("ex" "For example,")
                    ("email" "[email protected]")
                    ("dote" "http://sachachua.com/dotemacs")
                    ("web" "http://sachachua.com/")
                    ("blog" "http://sachachua.com/blog/")
                    ("ec" "http://sachachua.com/blog/emacs-chat/")))))
  (mapc (lambda (x) (define-global-abbrev (car x) (cadr x))) data) )

Looking up data with org-lookup-first, org-lookup-last, and org-lookup-all

You can do more complex things with Org tables, too. Inspired by Eric Boyd’s talk on his Epic Quest of Awesome (which he based on Steve Kamb‘s), I started putting together my own. I made a list of little achievements, guessed at the years, and assigned arbitrary experience points.

The achievements table had rows like this:

Approximate date Category XP Description ID
2014 Life 50 Became a Canadian citizen – link L_CAN
2014 Programming 20 Used NodeJS and AngularJS for a client project – link P_NOD
2014 Programming 5 Pulled information out of Evernote

I wanted to summarize the points by year: points gained, total points, level (according to a lookup table based on D&D experience points), and description. The lookup table was structured like this:

#+TBLNAME: levels
| Total XP | Level | Adjective             |
|----------+-------+-----------------------|
|        0 |     1 | trained-initiate      |
|     1000 |     2 | experienced           |
|     2250 |     3 | savvy                 |
|     3750 |     4 | veteran               |
|     5500 |     5 | unusually experienced |

Now for the summary table. I created rows for different years, and then I used Org Mode to fill in the rest. (Org Mode! Wow.)

| Year | Points gained | Cumulative points | Level | Adjective        |
|------+---------------+-------------------+-------+------------------|
| 1997 |             0 |                 0 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 1998 |            10 |                10 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 1999 |            50 |                60 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2000 |            50 |               110 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2001 |           100 |               210 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2002 |            60 |               270 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2003 |           245 |               515 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2004 |           115 |               630 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2005 |           140 |               770 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2006 |            60 |               830 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2007 |           270 |              1100 |     2 | experienced      |
| 2008 |           290 |              1390 |     2 | experienced      |
| 2009 |           205 |              1595 |     2 | experienced      |
| 2010 |           215 |              1810 |     2 | experienced      |
| 2011 |           115 |              1925 |     2 | experienced      |
| 2012 |           355 |              2280 |     3 | savvy            |
| 2013 |           290 |              2570 |     3 | savvy            |
| 2014 |           350 |              2920 |     3 | savvy            |
| 2015 |            45 |              2965 |     3 | savvy            |
#+TBLFM: $2='(calc-eval (format "vsum(%s)" (vconcat (org-lookup-all $1 '(remote(accomplishments,@2$1..@>$1)) '(remote(accomplishments,@2$3..@>$3))))))::$3=vsum(@2$2..@+0$2)::$4='(org-lookup-last $3 '(remote(levels,@2$1..@>$1)) '(remote(levels,@2$2..@>$2)) '>=);N::$5='(org-lookup-last $3 '(remote(levels,@2$1..@>$1)) '(remote(levels,@2$3..@>$3)) '>=);L

The TBLFM (table formula) line is very long, so let me break it down.

Points gained:

(calc-eval
 (format "vsum(%s)"
         (vconcat
          (org-lookup-all
           $1
           '(remote(accomplishments,@2$1..@>$1))
           '(remote(accomplishments,@2$3..@>$3))))))

This uses org-lookup-all to look up the value of the first column ($1) in the accomplishments table, from the second row to the last row @2..@>, looking in the first column ($1). It returns the values from the third column of the matching rows ($3). This is then passed through calc’s vsum function to calculate the sum.

Cumulative points: vsum(@2$2..@+0$2) is the sum of the second column $2 from the second row @2 to the current row @+0.

Level: This uses org-lookup-last to find the last value where the operator function returns true. In this case, testing the level from column $3 against each of the values in the levels table’s column $1 while the given level is greater than or equal to the value from levels. When it finds the last matching row, it returns the $2 second column from it. ;N means treat everything as a number.

org-lookup-first is like org-lookup-last, but it returns the first matching row.

Adjective: This one works like Level does, but it returns the value from column $3 instead. I found that it converted the return values to 0 if I used ;N, so I used ;L instead.

Passing data to R or other external programs

Of course, you’re not limited to things that Emacs can do. I wanted to summarize the data in graphs, so here’s what I did.

#+RESULTS: category_analysis

#+name: category_analysis
#+begin_src R :var data=accomplishments :exports both :results graphics :file quest_category.png :height 300
library(plyr)
library(ggplot2)
categories <- ddply(data, c("Category"), summarize, Points=sum(XP))
cat_sorted <- transform(categories, Category=reorder(Category, Points))
plot <- ggplot(data = cat_sorted, aes(x = Category, y = Points))
plot <- plot + geom_bar(stat="identity")
plot <- plot + geom_text(aes(label = Points, x = Category, y = Points + 10, hjust=0))
plot <- plot + scale_y_continuous(expand=c(0,70))
plot <- plot + coord_flip()
print(plot)
#+end_src

I like including source code in published pages for fellow geeks, but having the results come first gives people more context for the source block. So I named the source block using the #+name: directive and defined a #+RESULTS: directive before it. The source block used the :var argument to bring the data in from the accomplishments table. With R blocks, the data becomes available as a data frame that you can then do interesting things with. I used the :file argument to save the output to quest_category.png.

Those are a few ways that you can get data out of Org Mode tables and into Emacs Lisp, other Org Mode tables, or external programs. As I learn more about Org Mode, I find myself using it for more of the things that I used to use Microsoft Excel for – tracking, analyzing, and even graphing. I found it a little difficult to piece together what I needed to do from the manuals and examples on the Web, so I hope this explanation will help you (and that it’ll help me when I forget the syntax, as I’m sure I will). If you come up with something really neat that uses Org Mode tables, tell me what you’ve figured out!

Learning to work on my own things

My annual review showed me that despite my resolution to reduce consulting and focus more on my own stuff in 2014, I actually increased the amount of time I spent working on client projects than I did in 2013 (12% vs 9%). Sure, I increased the amount of time I invested in my own productive projects (15% of 2014 compared to 14% in 2013) and the balance is still tilted towards my own projects, but I’d underestimated how much consulting pulls on my brain.

This is the fourth year of my 5-year experiment, and I’m slowly coming to understand the questions I want to ask. In the beginning, I wanted to know:

  • Do I have marketable skills?
  • Can I find clients?
  • Can I build a viable business?
  • Can I get the hang of accounting and paperwork?
  • Can I manage cash flow?
  • Can I work with other people?
  • Can I deal with uncertainty and other aspects of this lifestyle?
  • Can I manage my own time, energy, and opportunity pipeline?

After three years of this experiment, I’m reasonably certain that I can answer all these questions with “Yes.” I’ve reduced the anxiety I used to have around those topics. Now I’m curious about other questions I can explore during the remainder of this experiment (or in a new one).

In particular, this experiment gives me an rare opportunity to explore this question: Can I come up with good ideas and implement them?

I’m fascinated by this question because I can feel the weakening pull of other people’s requests. It’s almost like a space probe approaching escape velocity, and then out to where propulsion meets little resistance and there are many new things to discover.

The most worthwhile thing I’m learning from this experiment, I think, is to sit with myself until the urge to work on other people’s projects passes. Arbitrarily deciding that Tuesdays are no longer consulting days (leaving only Thursdays) seems to work well for me. I find that I can pick things up readily on Thursdays. The rest of the time, I think about my own projects. Mondays and Wednesdays are writing days, Tuesdays are coding days, and Fridays are for administration and wrapping up.

2015-01-05 Developing my imagination and initiative -- index card

Last year, I found it easy and satisfying to work on other people’s requests, and harder to figure out what I wanted to do. It’s like the way it’s easier to take a course than it is to figure things out on your own, but learning on your own helps you figure out things that people can’t teach you.

What’s difficult about figuring out what I want to do and doing it? I think it involves a set of skills I need to develop. As a beginner, I’m not very good, so I feel dissatisfied with my choices and more inclined towards existing projects or requests that appeal to me. This is not bad. It helps me develop other skills, like coding or testing. Choosing existing projects often results in quick rewards instead of an unclear opportunity cost. It’s logical to focus on other people’s work.

One possibility is to build skills on other people’s projects until I run into an idea that refuses to let go of me, which is a practical approach and the story of many people’s businesses. The danger is that I might get too used to working on other people’s projects and never try to come up with something on my own. In the grand scheme of things, this is no big loss for the world (it’ll probably be all the same given a few thousand years), but I’m still curious about the alternatives.

The other approach (which I’m taking with this experiment) is to make myself try things out, learning from the experience and the consequences. If I’m patient with my mediocrity, I might be able to climb up that learning curve. I can figure out how to imagine and make something new – perhaps even something that only I can do, or that might not occur to other people, or that might not have an immediate market. Instead of always following, I might sometimes be an artist or even a leader.

What would the ideal outcome be? I would get to the point where I can confidently combine listening to people and coming up with my own ideas to create things that people want (or maybe didn’t even know they wanted).

How can I tell if I’m succeeding? Well, if people are giving me lots of time and/or money, that’s a great sign. It’s not the only measure. There’s probably something along the lines of self-satisfaction. I might learn something from, say, artists who lived obscure lives. But making stuff that other people find remarkable and useful is probably an indicator that I’m doing all right.

What would getting this wrong be like? Well, it might turn out that the opportunity cost of these experiments is too high. For example, if something happened to W-, our savings are running low, and I haven’t gotten the hang of creating and earning value, then I would probably focus instead on being a really good follower. It’s easy to recognize this situation. I just need to keep an eye on our finances.

It might also turn out that I’m not particularly original, it would take me ages to figure out how to be original in a worthwhile way, and that it would be better for me to focus on contributing to other people’s projects. This is a little harder to distinguish from the situation where I’m still slowly working my way up the learning curve. This reminds me of Seth Godin’s book The Dip, only it’s less about dips and more about plateaus. It also reminds me of Scott H. Young’s post about different kinds of difficulty.

As a counterpoint to the scenario where I find out that I’m not usefully original and that I’m better off mostly working on other people’s things, I hold up:

  • my Emacs geekery, which people appreciate for both its weirdness and their ability to pick out useful ideas from it
  • the occasional mentions in books other people have written, where something I do is used to illustrate an interesting alternative

So I think it is likely that I can come up with good, useful ideas and I can make them happen. Knowing that it’s easy to get dissatisfied with my attempts if I compare them with other things I could be working on, I can simply ignore that discomfort and keep deliberately practising until either I’ve gotten the hang of it or I’ve put in enough effort and must conclude that other things are more worthwhile.

 

If you find yourself considering the same kind of experiment with freedom, deciding between other people’s work and your own projects, here’s what I’m learning:

It’s easy to say yes to other people’s requests, but it might be worthwhile to learn how to come up with your own.