Category Archives: self-directed

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.

Test-driven learning

Mel Chua wrote a blog post about test-driven learning. When you’re learning on your own, you don’t have final exams to study for or a project that you need to submit, but it can be useful to think about objective criteria to show that you’ve learned something. Before you begin, figure out what success looks like. Define it so that it’s precise and objective. It has to be clear to you and other people when you’ve passed the test you’ve set for yourself. That way, you have a specific goal to reach for, and you know when you’ve accomplished it.

If you’re looking for ideas for tests, you might want to check out Bloom’s taxonomy, which gives you different verbs that demonstrate different levels of understanding. For example, you might start off by checking if you simply remember the concepts by being able to list them. The next level above that is demonstrating understanding, and after that, applying it to your own life. With more experience, you can analyze concepts, evaluate approaches, or create new things.

2014-02-12 Test-driven learning

2014-02-12 Test-driven learning

Inspired by Mel’s example, I’ve been thinking about how I can apply test-driven learning to the things that I’m currently focusing on.

For delegation, I can see the progress I’m making towards fully delegating my podcast production process. I’m looking forward to integrating delegation into how I create content, and how I work on tech. I think it’ll be interesting to get the point where I’m coaching other people on delegation, or when I’ve packaged guides and courses on how to do it more effectively. So, objective criteria might be:

  • I’ve successfully delegated “Post show notes” three times.
  • I’ve successfully delegated research, rewriting, and harvesting, each at least three times.
  • I’ve created courses on delegation for self-directed learners, bloggers, podcasters, sketchnoters, or other content creators. (Ideally, other people will have tried this!)

In terms of asking people and learning from them, I think a key step would be being able to list the current areas of focus that I have and the questions that I’m exploring. I’m getting pretty good at reaching out to people based on their Twitter updates or other incidental connections, and a step beyond that would be to make sure that these conversations are followed up with blog posts that explore the ideas in more detail. This is also related to my focus on learning how to connect with people. One thing that can help me connect with people more effectively is to organize people by topic. That way, I can focus on specific groups of people instead of letting my stream be overwhelmed by people who use social media for promotion. In particular, I’m curious about the idea of building relationships with confederates, learning more about what they are actively learning about and sharing whatever resources and ideas that I come across.

  • I’ve organized my Twitter into lists by subject. I regularly review each list for focused updates (one list per day), and I add people based on searches.
  • I’ve posted a question to my mailing list segment of people who are interested in the questions I’m learning about. (Start small!)
  • I have a dashboard showing me my conversations and ideas to follow up on, and I have turned several of those ideas into blog posts.

Packaging is straightforward to measure. I’ve published two free or pay-what-you-want resources in the past two weeks, and it will be interesting to see if I can sustain that rate until I get to 12 of them published. I’m also curious about creating courses that will allow people to track their progress, because I think will make that a lot more manageable for people to learn. Although these things are intrinsically useful and interesting, I also want to invest time in building an audience and reaching out to more people who can find these resources helpful.

  • I’ve created 12 free or pay-what-you-want resources, and I have a resources page that lets people find stuff they’re interested in.
  • I’ve tried out a course or membership plugin on my site, and I’ve converted at least one of the resources to a course.
  • I have a plan for outreach, and I work on it regularly.

Animation is similarly easy to measure. I created a number of short videos explaining things before, so all I have to do is make that a regular practice. Again, a target of 12 short videos seems like a good number.

  • I’ve illustrated a course with short animations.

In terms of business, it’ll be exciting to see where my third fiscal year takes me. It looks like I’ll continue consulting for the next year, so my assessment for myself might include maintaining profitability even with my increased delegation and re-investment, and developing systems around creating and sharing content.

  • I file my next corporate tax return with all my is dotted and all my ts crossed.
  • I’ve posted my analysis and lessons learned about delegation and reinvestment, and my plans for next year.

I’ve written about this before, and every time I do, I learn something new. Other things I’ve learned about testing what you’re learning: sharing is an excellent way to test what you know, projects help you review what you’re learning, and breaking new topics down into small steps makes spiral learning more manageable.

How are you going to test what you’re learning?