Category Archives: thinking

Break down what people mean so that you can learn from the specifics

People are vague. You are vague. I am vague. We say things without digging into the details; we often use the first word that comes to mind. This makes sense — otherwise, we’d spend all our time clarifying.

You can learn a lot from digging into things and making them more specific. (… she writes, self-conscious about the use of the vaguest word of all: “things.”)

I’m fascinated by the challenge of understanding what people mean. I realized this while looking at it from two different directions:

  • When someone give an excuse like “It takes too much time,” what’s the excuse behind the excuse, and how can we address that?
  • When someone gives a compliment like “Thank you for sharing an inspiring post,” what kind of inspiring was it, and how can I get better at that?

Let me start with the example of inspiration, because it’s something I want to translate into concrete feedback and action. I thought about the different responses I have to things that inspire me.

2015-01-14 Understanding different types of inspiration -- index card #inspiration #breakdown

2015-01-14 Understanding different types of inspiration – index card #inspiration #breakdown

  • Idea: Inspiration might mean coming across something I didn’t even know I wanted. Now that I know it’s possible, I can work toward it. (This happens a lot with Emacs, which is why I like reading Planet Emacsen)
  • Clarity: Seeing other people who have reached my goals (or who’ve travelled further down the path) helps me understand those goals better. What do I really want? What are some ways I can get there? I can see that more clearly thanks to other people who have illuminated the path. (Talking to executives helped me realize I don’t want to be one.)
  • Alternatives: Inspiration can help me see different ways of doing something. For example, I looked at ways other people coloured their sketchnotes and picked several techniques to try.
  • Beginning: Inspiration can show me that something is less intimidating than I thought it was. It can help me figure out a good place to start and give me the courage to do it. Programming tutorials help me get through the initial challenges of a new framework.
  • Action: Inspiration can move me to act on something. I already know it’s a good idea and I’ve been meaning to do it, but sometimes I need that extra push. Comments with questions and suggestions help me a lot.
  • Perseverance: Sometimes I can feel lost or discouraged. Remembering that other people have dealt with bigger challenges helps me address my anxiety, focus on my goals or my progress, and keep going. Anecdotes are easy to find.
  • Hero worship: I often come across stuff that looks so awesome, I don’t think I could ever do anything like it. This is the type of “inspiration” we tend to get bombarded with. This is the least useful kind of inspiration, I think. It takes a little work to transform it into the kind of inspiration I can use: I need to reflect on what part of it resonates with and how I can incorporate a little of that into my life.

In what ways do I want to inspire others? How can I get better at that?

  • I like inspiring with ideas, playing with what’s possible. I can get better at that by sharing more of these little tweaks.
  • I think out loud in order to help people with clarity. I sketch out the reasons and consequences of my choices so that other people can learn without necessarily having to make all those choices themselves.
  • I explore and summarize alternatives so that people can use that to figure out what might fit them. I can get better at that by researching what other people have done, generating a few new ideas (possibly by combining other ideas), and testing things out so that I can share my experiences.
  • I break things down to help people with beginning. This is why I like addressing the “Yeah, but…”s, the excuses, the things that get in people’s way. This is also why I like sharing ideas, because that can help pull people forward.
  • I’d love to get better at moving people to action. I haven’t given this as much thought yet, but I think it’s the most important.
  • I don’t have much to share in terms of perseverance. I’ve been very lucky.
  • I definitely don’t want to be in the region of hero worship. It creates too much distance and can shut down action.

Breaking a general statement down into more specific statements helps me learn a lot. I ask myself: “What would I or someone say that captures a different aspect of this?” and I write that down. When I split off different aspects, I can understand those aspects better, and I can understand the whole thing better too.

This technique is good to use for excuses, too.

2015-01-14 Breaking down excuses -- index card #excuses #breakdown

2015-01-14 Breaking down excuses – index card #excuses #breakdown

I’m getting better at catching myself when I give an excuse, drilling down with “Why?” and splitting it out into different excuses. (I guess, thanks to my parents’ patience, my inner toddler never stopped asking questions.) Then I can check if those excuses match what’s getting in my way, or if they don’t resonate with me.

A technique I often use is to imagine other people giving those excuses, since sometimes my mind is perfectly willing to ascribe weakness to others even when it gets defensive about itself. ;)

I like sharing these excuses because that might help other people get over theirs. It’s often easier to recognize one of your excuses instead of trying to articulate it yourself. “That’s it! That’s what’s getting in my way!” you might say. Or even if you don’t find something that completely fits, you might find something close, and then you can ask yourself: “What’s missing here?”

For example, what does it mean when someone says something “takes too much time”? What’s really getting in their way? Here are some ideas I came up with:

2015-01-14 What does it mean when something takes too much time -- index card #excuses #breakdown

2015-01-14 What does it mean when something takes too much time – index card #excuses #breakdown

“Too much time” is too vague to address. On the other hand, if you think something takes too much time because you’re trying to do something complicated, you might be able to ask yourself: “What do I really need? Can I get away with doing something simpler?” and then reduce the task to something small enough for you to get started with.

Break things down. Find the statement behind the statement or the excuse behind the excuse, and you’ll have more to work with. Instead of getting frustrated because you can’t come up with one specific answer, come up with lots of them, and then see if you recognize yourself in any of them. Almost there, but not quite? Come up with more answers, maybe combining aspects of the ones you already have. This will not only help you understand yourself, but also understand others–and help others understand themselves and you.

If you find my posts inspiring, would you consider helping me understand more about what kind of inspiration you get and how I can get better at it? If you’re reading this because you recognize one of your excuses in it, would you mind figuring out what your more specific reasons are and what could address them? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Thanks!

Index cards

I’ve been drawing more on index cards than in sketchbooks lately. I keep a stack of index cards on my bedside table, and I have a few more in my belt bag. Index cards are great because they really can contain only one thought, so they’re not at all intimidating to start. I know I’ll finish the card. Index cards are also sturdier than the small notepad I carry around, and since I’m not tearing off pages, I don’t have to worry about fiddly little paper bits. Compared to index cards, a 8.5×11″ sheet feels like such a generous expanse. Although the extra space of a sketchbook lets me get deeper into a topic, it also sometimes results in half-drawn pages when I’m distracted by another thought or something that I need to do.

2014-09-10 Index cards

2014-09-10 Index cards

So maybe that suggests a new workflow for developing ideas. I can start by brainstorming topics on an index card. Then I can pick some ideas to flesh out into index cards of their own, and from there, to sketchbook pages. Blog posts can explain one sketch or collect several sketches, and they can link to previous posts as well.

2014-09-10 Possible workflow for developing ideas

2014-09-10 Possible workflow for developing ideas

This should help me think in bigger chunks

Update: Developing thoughts further

I’ve been drawing my thoughts for years, on and off. I found some sketchbooks with old mindmaps and explorations. Still, writing was the main way I thought through things, and I made good progress in learning how to outline so that I could think about progressively larger topics. In September, I re-started the habit of drawing through my thoughts – and posting them, thanks to a sheet-fed scanner that made sharing easy.

I tend to draw one thought per page and write about one thought per blog post. I also tend to draw way more than I publish each day. I wondered if I could combine the drawings and the words to “chunk” what I was thinking about into larger topics, so that a blog post could logically group together several sketches. With a mindmap to help me keep track of the sketches (acting basically like an outline, but with icons, easy folding, and quick navigation), I could keep an eye on topics that had accumulated several sketches. Once I’d fleshed out the topic a little, I could write it up as a blog post, include the images, and replace those notes with a link. Working well!

How to think in bigger chunks

2013-09-25 How to think in bigger chunks

I had tried collecting text snippets in the past, but I tended to lose them in my archive. Because the drawings were compact, easy to review, and easy to track in my map, I found it more fun to go over them compared to the text. Unlike the partial thoughts I’d saved in my text archives before, most of the drawings were enough on their own: an answer to a question, a reflection on an idea. It was easy to remember enough context to turn them into a blog post.

So that’s the bottom-up approach: think about several ideas, and then put them together. I was curious if this new approach would also help me with the top-down approach, which is to take an idea and then go into the details.

Developing thoughts further

2013-09-25 Developing thoughts further

I was reading a student-oriented book about writing that reminded me of the idea of developing thoughts. The author wrote that short essays usually meant that the thoughts weren’t developed enough – that the student could go into more detail or explore the implications of the topic. I made a list of some ways that I could develop a thought further. I had thought about this in a text-centric way, but now that I’ve been drawing a lot more, I can see how exploring the details in drawings has been helping me develop thoughts.

Fitting multiple thoughts on a page

2013-10-21 Fitting multiple thoughts on a page

Drawing one thought per page requires a lot of paper, and I have a steadily growing stack of sketchbook sheets piling up on my shelf. Although I’ve scanned the sketches using my ScanSnap, I keep the paper around for extra flipping-through fun. I briefly considered trying to fit more thoughts onto a page, but I think the one-thought-per-page system works well for me. It also makes the images easier to include in blog posts like this.

Wrap-up

I feel like I can think about topics that are 3-4 times as large as I could before, especially if I spread them out over time. I’m looking forward to getting even better at organizing these, sharing them, and planning the next steps. I like the way drawings help me quickly pick up the thread of my thoughts again, and how the map helps me plan where to go next. So far so good!

If you’ve been struggling with developing thoughts over a period of time, try drawing them. You might find that it’s easier to mentally chunk topics that way. Check out my one-page guide for getting started with visual notetaking, and go through these other resources for sketchnote beginners. Good luck!

Daily drawing update: So far, fantastic!

I’ve been pushing a lot of sketches through my evolving workflow. This is fantastic. In the past 20 days, I’ve done 100+ of these thinking-on-paper drawings, about 70+ of which are public. It’s fun to turn the sketches into blog posts afterwards. I find them more motivating to flesh out than headlines or outlines, so you’ll probably see a lot more sketches in this blog. (See, I’m learning more about illustrating my blog after all!)

This is my workflow now:

  1. I draw a thought on paper using black, blue, red, and green pens.
  2. I scan the sheets using ScanSnap and my phone, which can rotate and publish images to Flickr more conveniently than my computer can. (It’s funny how that works.)
  3. Photosync automatically downloads the images from Flickr to folders monitored by Evernote, so they’re imported into my !Inbox notebook.
  4. If I want to colour the image, I use Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and re-save the JPGs to the Evernote attachment folder as well as the Photosync folder, which updates the Flickr image.
  5. Before I move the Evernote item to my public notebook, I tag it, copy the note link, and add the entry to my Freeplane mindmap so that I have a hyperlinked overview (sneak preview of my map: Mapping what I’m learning).

My new sketching and thinking workflow, and mindmap comparisons

One of the nice things about a limited canvas (whether paper or digital) is that there’s a natural end to your drawing. You run out of thoughts or you run out of space. Either way, that’s a good time to stop and think about what you need to do next. In a text outline or a mindmap, I can just keep going and going and going.

image

I’ve been thinking about how I can do things even better. As it turns out, assigning Autodesk Sketchbook Pro as the default application for handling JPGs lets me easily edit images stored in Evernote. Freemind lets me add markers to map nodes, so that’s a halfway-decent flagging system (no electronic equivalent of Post-It flags on the image itself, though). I’m looking forward to turning this kind of focus on something that isn’t related to learning or drawing. It’ll be interesting to see if visual thinking does well for deep dives in other areas too, although I suspect it will.

How can I think on paper more effectively

Ooh, wouldn’t it be nice to have an easy way to resize, upload, and synchronize images so that I can save new versions and have previous blog posts updated? Someday…

Anyway, here we are! I should do a video about all the different pieces – the workflow’s pretty sweet, actually. As awesome as my digital sketchnoting workflow? I don’t know. They’re great for different reasons, and I’m glad I’m adding more tools to my toolbox. =)

Thinking about speaking topics

Holly Tse invited me to speak at Lotus Blossoming, an upcoming virtual summit for Asian women. We’re negotiating what my topic might be. I’ve challenged myself to speak mostly about things that pass the following criteria:

  • must be something I want to learn more about,
  • must be something I have experience in, and
  • must be something people will find useful (not just interesting, useful)

I’m picky because I’m not selling anyone stuff. No coaching services, no e-books, no here’s-the-secret-to-happiness. This means I’m not speaking to get exposure or to do marketing. It also means that speeches have to be worth the preparation time I’d take away from other things. Is the speech something I can’t wait to work on, or is it something I’m going to end up procrastinating until the last minute? Is it something that might result in a good blog post and a presentation  I can share? Is it something that can help me grow in terms of content or technique?

I invest time up front before committing to a topic so that I can enjoy the preparation and delivery more, and so that the talk will be more useful for people who invest their time in attending. I know I can be energetic and interesting even when I’m annoyed with the situation or when I have strong doubts about the topic, but I really don’t want to make that habitual.

The great thing is that negotiation teaches me a lot about what I want to write about and explore. For example:

  • I’d like to share more stories and tips for other immigrants, particularly people moving by themselves, but I need to do some more work in this area to clarify things that are still prickly for me.
  • I want to write about happiness in the corporate world. So many blogs and books treat corporations as desolate wastelands and portray self-employment or startups as The Way.
  • I’m less interested in social media for personal networking and community building, and more interested in writing your life as a way to practise continuous improvement. I think the ability to connect with more people more deeply is icing on the cake-pop – it’s not the reason I blog, but it does help me learn a lot more.

Hmm, there’s an interesting thing there. You see, people often ask me to do social media presentations. I prefer to focus on individual behaviours instead of trends because I want people to be able to do something. I dislike all this emphasis on personal branding and social networking, because it’s so much like scare-mongering. “You MUST be on Facebook/Twitter and your own blog or else you’ll be invisible and irrelevant.” Social networking is fine, but I want to be really clear that it’s not about getting friends/followers/readers/comments.

I’d rather encourage people to take these two approaches: develop their interest in other people and use social tools to make it easier to cultivate those relationships, and start that journey of self-discovery and find something they can share with other people.

The first one is a bit harder if the people you care about aren’t active on social networks, but you can also learn a lot by looking for people who inspire you. When you find people you resonate with, you can learn a lot about them, life, and yourself. For me, blogs tend to be better than Facebook or Twitter for being inspired by other people, because people put more of their thoughts and their personality into their blog. For example, I love the way my mom tells stories and what I learn about her and our family. The way Mel Chua shares her passion for open source and life (we’re not related, but I’d have loved to be) teaches me more about how to let my enthusiasm shine through. I enjoy reading Roger Ebert’s journal and learning about culture and growing old, and I like Penelope Trunk’s vivid stories. People tell me they enjoy reading my blog, too – the way I practise continuous improvement and optimism, the joy I take in life, the things I learn along the way.

As for finding something worth sharing with other people – that’s an excellent place to start, especially for introverts like me. Writing helps you learn a lot more effectively. It gets things out of your brain and into a form you can look at or share.

Come to think of it, I take more of a self-centered approach to social media compared to most of the other presentations or blog posts I’ve come across. It’s not the quick hit of here’s-how-to-make-the-most-of-Facebook-and-Twitter. It’s more about becoming yourself and helping others. Hmm… Will flesh this out some more.

Coaching people on how to give better remote presentations – Thinking out loud

We need better web presentations. There are so many opportunities out there. I think I can help more people learn how to speak, and I can help people learn how to speak better.

If I were to coach someone on how to give a better remote presentation, what could I help them with?

  • Finding something to talk about: testing your ideas through blogs, shared presentations, and webinars
  • Refining your message: figure out the next steps, the key message, and any supporting points
  • Supporting your story: planning how your slides will support your talk, and revising them to be more engaging
  • Pitching your talk: tweaking your title, abstract, bio, and picture; finding venues
  • Planning for interaction: how to make the most of webinar tools, how to engage the audience
  • Technical setup: familiarizing yourself with the system, getting your webcam going, cleaning up your background and lighting; testing everything beforehand
  • From presentations to conversations: getting used to the back-and-forth of backchannels, working with a host/moderator
  • Dealing with Murphy: What to do when things go wrong
  • Asking for feedback: Running surveys and learning from them
  • Reaping the rewards: Capturing assets, scaling up through sharing

In addition, I can help give feedback on their presentation content and delivery. Personally, I prefer focusing on content and organization rather than just ums and ahs, so you’ll get more substantive editing from me than surface editing.

Hmm. I think that might be interesting to explore. I’d learn a lot, other people would learn a lot, and I’d write up and share that with even more people. It might be some time away, or it might be an extracurricular thing if I can clear it with IBM, or plans might change. =) I’ll probably start with just one student first.

Would you like to hear from me if I do set up something like that? What would you like to see in it? Leave a comment or contact me and tell me what you think!