Categories: life » passion

RSS - Atom - Subscribe via email

Scribe and tinker

| passion, purpose, reflection

I've been figuring out more about what tickles my brain and what I want to do with my life.

On one hand, I'm a scribe. I like extracting, organizing, and connecting ideas. I like getting stuff out of my head and into a form that I can work with or share with other people. I often like helping get stuff out of other people's heads too. This explains my fascination with blogging, sketchnoting, personal knowledge management, and processes. To get better at this, I can focus on skills like:

  • Asking questions
  • Finding resources
  • Making sense
  • Connecting and building on ideas
  • Organizing
  • Communicating
  • Archiving

On the other hand, I'm a tinker. I like tweaking things to make them better. It's not about big inventions, but small, continuous improvements. This explains my fascination with Emacs, Quantified Self, open source, and general geeking around. To get better at this, I can focus on skills like:

  • Seeing problems and possibilities
  • Estimating, prioritizing, and evaluating
  • Setting up experiments
  • Connecting ideas
  • Learning techniques
  • Coding
  • Tweaking physical things

If I look at the intersection of being a scribe and being a tinker, that explains my interest in:

  • Building/tweaking systems to help me capture, organize, connect, and share knowledge
  • Writing about experiments and lessons learned

What would it look like to be very, very good at these things? It's quite convenient that I'm into knowledge work, since I can learn from millennia of people passionate about that. Tinkering shows up in entrepreneurship and invention, so I have plenty of role models there, too. I could probably spend a lifetime learning as much as I can from Benjamin Franklin and similar people.

How does parenting influence this? What can I gain from being the primary caregiver of a young child?

I've taken advantage of my push towards externalizing memory to work out a daily/weekly/monthly/yearly journaling workflow that works for me, and a way to think about questions in the scattered moments I have for myself. It took a bit of figuring out and there are things I still want to improve about my process. Chances are that there are other similarly-inclined people who could benefit. I wonder what things could be like if we could get better at thinking, capturing, and sharing at this stage. I don't expect that I'll come up with some brilliant insights. Most of my notes are about everyday life or my own questions. Still, I notice that this process seems to be good for my mental health, and it's okay for me to explore ideas slowly especially if I get better at building on ideas instead of going around in circles. I can let the tough meaning-making be handled by people like Pulitzer-prize journalists (surely there must be quite a few who have also been or will become primary caregivers) and people who have different life arrangements (like part-time daycare), and I can focus on the questions I'm particularly curious about or the things that are uncommon about our experiments.

As for tinkering, there are tons of improvement opportunities exposed by the demands of parenting. If I keep track of the pain points/opportunities and work on improving my skills, I'll probably grow at just the right pace. It would be interesting to improve my quick-experiment rate. Reading and thinking give me lots of things to try in terms of parenting, and talking to other people might help a lot too. W- is a good mentor for quick DIY and household things. It's a little harder to do quick programming tweaks at the moment, but that can wait until I can concentrate more. I've set up my phone so that I can do some things through it, so I can consider the tradeoff between coding on my phone versus using the time to write.

I think I can make this work so that the time and energy I'll devote to A- over the next couple of years can count for other goals, too. The more clearly I understand myself, the more effectively I can use my time and attention. I'm looking forward to seeing where writing more can take me, since I can do that while A-‘s nursing. During the day, it could be good to explore improvements to our physical environment and our processes, since A- can appreciate those too. There'll be time for other things later, as A- becomes more capable and more independent. Onward!

On “Hell, yeah! or No” and other approaches

Posted: - Modified: | decision, passion

If you find yourself overcommitted, the “Either ‘Hell Yeah!' or ‘No'” approach suggested by Derek Sivers (among others) might be a good fit. The idea is that if you rate things on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being awesome), ditch the things that are less than 9 instead of wasting your time and energy.

2014-10-22 On Hell Yeah and other approaches

2014-10-22 On Hell Yeah and other approaches

I can see the merits of this approach. Reflecting on it, though, I noticed that I prefer to do things a little differently, and I wanted to dig into the reasons why.

When it comes to requests from other people, I'm pretty good at sticking to the “Heck, yeah!” range. After all, whatever I say no to might be a good fit for someone else, or it could be an opportunity to help someone pick up new skills. Besides, if I make few promises, I have more flexibility when it comes to choosing what to work on at the moment.

For myself, though, I'm okay with working on things that aren't an immediate “Heck, yeah!” I think it's because I see a lot of value in the range of things you would rate from 3 to 8 on that 10-point scale, so it can be good to deliberately carve out time to work in that range instead of spending most of your time at 9 or 10.

When I look at the skills and interests that have become big parts of my life, very few of them were instant passions. I've always liked reading. I think I fell in love with programming immediately, but I'm not sure because I don't remember enough about the beginning. On the micro-scale, though, there's often a little bit of awkwardness and mediocrity when I'm learning something new. I liked personal finance and analytics as soon as I learned about them, but statistics took me longer to wrap my mind around.

Most of the things that enrich my life grew slowly. It took me years and years and years to get to the point of enjoying writing, drawing, or cooking. I didn't look at W- across a crowded room and feel my world come into focus; I got to know him as a friend before growing to love him. Canada made me sad and homesick before it slowly became a second home. Biking was something limited and a little scary before it became freeing. I'm still working on enjoying exercise and picking up DIY skills.

Sometimes my goals for learning something burn brightly enough to keep me going, but sometimes I start something trusting that it's good for me and that I might eventually enjoy it more. It can be difficult getting through the plateau of mediocrity, but it might be worthwhile.

I might not often rate deliberate practice and improvement as a 9 or 10 on the excitement scale, either. Sometimes I get impatient or distracted. But it's good for me too, and it helps me do even better. So I'll spend time on that, even if I feel a little blah about getting started. Sometimes momentum creates its own energy.

Still, it might be interesting to get more of my activities to that “Heck, yeah!” level of energy, when you're jazzed up about things and you're in the flow. It's fun to have those happy-dance-“I rock! I rock! I rock!” moments. How can I amp up the things that I do, moving them up the scale, now that I understand my motives a little better?

2014-10-22 What kinds of activities do I want to fully enjoy

2014-10-22 What kinds of activities do I want to fully enjoy

  • Coding: If I'm coding on my own, I can encourage more “I rock!” moments by coming up with lots of little ideas for personal projects, investing time into improving my workflow, and practising in other ways.
  • Writing, drawing, packaging: This is tricky, since the “I rock!” moment isn't as clear as in coding. Maybe if I come up with questions and explore them all the way to the point of packaging a resource…
  • Sewing: If my main challenges are patience and skill, maybe I can start with tiny projects and gradually work my way up, learning how to enjoy the process.
  • Exercise: Even small exercises have their own “I rock!” moments, and I can track my progress to enjoy this more.
  • Learning: Maybe progress tracking, speed, and practical application? Hmm…
  • Talking to people: Can I build up a stronger interest in people's stories and lessons learned? Also, if I accept silences and the occasional awkward bit as normal, that reduces the downsides of conversations.
  • Committing to stuff: Actually, maybe I'll continue to minimize this for now. =)  

Making the day count

| life, passion

Objective: Explore this idea of summer vacation, learning, passion, success, working hard.

“What did you do today?” W- asked over dinner last week.

“Not much,” J- said. She’s on summer vacation.

We rattled off suggestions for things to do. Physical exercise like jogging or biking. Building practical skills like cooking. Learning about Linux or programming.

I pointed out that she had been reading, which counts as more than “not much”. Sometimes we forget to take credit for the things we do in a day. I suggested making a goal of doing at least one “good” thing a day.

One to three good things is enough. Part of it is learning to identify those good things: to value your own time and your own decisions, and to demonstrate that value to others. And then, once you’ve made the day worthwhile, it’s good to feel that you have the abundance of time for other things. Unstructured time is important: time to figure things out, time to learn what you want to do instead of having stuff assigned to you.

Semi-retirement is a little like a long summer vacation. I can choose what to do with my time. How do I spend it? How do I account for it? What do I decide to do, moment to moment? How do I make it count – the day, the week, the year, the experiment?

I don’t have a grand plan, not really. I take small steps. I feel like I’m making good progress on a variety of interests and skills. I haven’t hit a plateau yet in terms of sketchnoting. There’s always more to learn. There’s more to learn about coding, Emacs, writing, Japanese… My interests will swallow up whatever time I want to give them, and I’m still far away from the point of diminishing returns. This is why it’s easy to ignore video games, movies, malls, aimless browsing of the Internet. There’s so much more that promises long-term value. (Although I occasionally check out news sites and comics, because you never know what might be useful; and I can spend a day reading just for the heck of it.)

Time abundance; making room for small things and experiments. I’ve been curious about making better use of speech recognition in blogging. It might let me write more naturally, and the practice in forming thoughts might even help with my occasional stutter. I was training the Dragon NaturallySpeaking recognition engine, dictating one of its pre-programmed selections in order to improve its accuracy. While reading an excerpt from Success is a Journey (Jeffrey J. Mayer) out loud, I realized that I no longer quite identify with “success literature:” you know, that genre of books full of exhortations to work hard and follow your passion.

Practically all motivational speeches I’ve heard include some variant of “Work your tail off to make things happen.” Sometimes I wonder if I’m short-changing myself because I’m not working hard, like the way my dad works (up early, up late, always making something happen). Should I work long hours at a start-up, carefully tuned to be just shy of burning myself out? Should I be squirrelling away more savings for an unknown future?

I like this pace, though. More contemplative than chaotic, with the occasional sprint of enthusiasm. I’m drawn along by curiosity rather than driven by desire. It isn’t that I need, but that I wonder. Keeping my wants and commitments small gives me plenty of freedom to ask questions and experiment. I give myself space.

Despite this, people tell me that I get a lot of things done. I tell them it looks that way because I share what I do, while most people forget what they’ve done. What have you done today? Not much? I think you’ve done more than you remember. I don’t know how my day stacks up against other people. I feel that I do less, but I try to make it count. It’s only when I look at my task lists and weekly reviews that I see the distance covered by small steps.

Anti-advice: What if you don’t have to work hard? What if you can start small and grow out from there? What if you don’t have to cram the day full, as long as you’re happy with the way you made it matter?

Passion and uncertainty

Posted: - Modified: | life, passion


Sometimes people ask me for tips on finding their passion. I never really had a good answer for them. I stumbled across my first passions so early that I don’t remember falling in love with them. Reading and programming were just there, intertwined with my childhood. Those inevitably led to other interests that grew into passions such as writing. Now I have the beginnings of a passion for drawing, or at least I think it might be. It’s less comfortable than any of my previous transitions. It’s not as smooth. I feel more uncertain. But I’ve learned to trust that anything I learn will combine in interesting ways later on, so I keep moving forward.

When people wish for passion, I think what they’re really wishing for is certainty: the knowledge that this, here, is exactly what you are meant to do, that intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world values. The certainty that this is the best way to spend this moment in time, and the ease of not having to make yourself do something or fight distractions. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi described the experience of flow – losing yourself in a moment of immersion.

I used to tell people to ignore the myths of a sudden calling. Passion doesn’t strike out of the blue. You find a spark of interest and you nurture it. Hard work and experience gets you past the first few ruts. You hit the part of the learning curve where you start learning faster and faster… and then you hit the plateau of mediocrity. If you have the grit to keep pushing, you might find that there’s a new height that you can reach, a new joy to discover. Or you might find that you’ve reached the end of your interest. It’s okay. Give yourself permission to move on. But if you keep going, you’ll find yourself deeper and deeper. Simple tasks become easier and more fun. Difficult tasks become engaging. Passion requires commitment in order to grow. Work at it, and you might get to that aha! moment where you feel certain that this is something you were meant to do.

Here’s what my experiment has been leading me to ask: What happens if you let go of that need for certainty? What if you do this work not to arrive at the peak of success or skill, but because the path towards it might be interesting? What if it’s okay to live a life without a passion that other people will clearly recognize, appreciate, and validate? What if your passion is life itself and what you can learn along the way? What if you can accept never being an expert and embrace always being a beginner?

This is all very meta and not something particularly useful for people who are looking for career tips. I feel a little like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I think it will be fun.

It’s tough to give up the mythology of passion. I still cling to the need to feel confident and secure in something, to know (and be told!) that I’m good. But if I keep practising this kind of practice, I think that might lead me down interesting paths ten years down the line.

So yeah. Don’t worry about not knowing your passion. It’s not as important as people think it is. You don’t really need to package up your interests into a neat word or phrase that will make people go ooh and aah. You don’t need to be an expert in order to live a meaningful life. Live your life, work on getting better at living it step by step, and you might find that you’ll pick up all sorts of expertise along the way. (Although since I’m 29, I’m not sure if I can really say this from experience, so it would be interesting to see someone with more data either backing this up or refuting it. =) )

Passioneer survey (Submit your answers by Oct 18)

| passion

Many people struggle to name a single passion. Do you have several, or maybe too many to list? Kirsten (Good Ship Lifestyle) has put together a 19-question survey to explore demographics and interests for a potential Passioneer/Renaissance soul/polymath-type community. She’ll be tallying up results on October 18 (Wednesday), so if you want to participate, check it out here:

The Passioneer Survey

It looks like folks are trying to figure out what fields people work in, what interests might be good for a community / blog, other resources that might be useful, and some demographic information that might be useful for advertisers. Amusing oddity: the field selections are radio buttons, not checkboxes.

Questions that made me think before answering them:

  • What about your passions frustrates you on a regular basis?
  • If you could change anything about your life, what would it be?

Come to think of it, nothing about my passions really frustrates me, much less on a regular basis. Oh, there’s the usual quibble about the limitations of time and skill, but that’s okay. It’s okay to not have enough time for all the different things I want to do, because that forces me to identify the things that really matter to me. It’s okay to not have enough skill to do everything I want at the level I want, because learning is part of the experience. So there isn’t really anything I’d change about my life, except perhaps getting better at remembering, sharing, and delegating. I’m okay where I am, and it’ll get even better from here on.

What might grow out of this survey? I’m not really keen on joining Yet Another Social Network, but I wouldn’t mind some kind of directory where I can look up blogs or Twitter profiles by interest, and a blog aggregator might be convenient, too. I don’t want to hear a lot of pitches on how to convert my interests into income, although I’m sure other people would appreciate that. I get a lot of that through other channels already, as it’s one of those “how to make money on the Internet” staples. I’d like to read the personal blogs of people exploring deep interests and fascinating combinations. That would be worth some time and attention.

I’m curious about what you might share in terms of interesting resources and frustrations. Check out the survey, and stay tuned for results.

In addition to the survey, the blog post also has links to other blogs you might check out. Most of the blogs focus on personal development or coaching. Of the bunch, I like Strong Inside Out the most, because the personal touch lifts it above generic productivity advice.

Passioneer Survey

On finding a great job

Posted: - Modified: | career, life, passion, work

Cate Huston blogged:

I have put this huge stress on myself because I really want to have a job lined up for January by the end of September, preferably by the end of August. And I don’t want it to be just any job, I want it to be a greatjob. And this is a problem because my ideas of what I want to do are somewhat vagueI want to make things! I want them to be pretty! I want to make the world a better place! Programmers can do that, I know it!

Ah. Time for me to put my mentor hat on and braindump a few things I’ve stumbled across. =)

Great jobs

The second-best job description is the one that’s been written for you. It speaks to your strengths. It pushes the right buttons. It gets you excited about working on cool things and making a difference.

How do you get it? Well, you convince a manager to take a risk on you. A big risk, actually, because hiring is expensive and turnover is even more so.

What’s better than that, and easier to get into?

The best job description is the one you write for yourself. Even if you start with a generic job role, if you’ve resolved to be a star in that role, you probably will be one. If you’re good, people often want to help you make the most of your strengths.

Yes, there will be things that drive you a little crazy. I didn’t like dealing with finicky cross-browser CSS. But I did it, got things done, and demonstrated to the team that it would be even better if someone else did that part and I did, say, the fiddly system administration tasks that other people didn’t like. Flexibility. If you’ve got a good manager, he or she will tweak your role to take advantage of your strengths and trade your weaknesses.

Don’t worry about finding the best possible project or job description. Find a good manager and a good team.  That’s what your side of the interview is about: figuring out if it will be a good fit. Good managers and good teams can help you navigate the system and get things done.

Pick a job that doesn’t make you die inside. Throw yourself into it and figure out what you can love about it. Make things happen. Rewrite your role. Pack as much awesomeness into it as you can. Create your next role, or evolve it out of what you’re already doing.

You might be certain that you would totally rock if all the stars lined up, but it can be surprisingly fun—and a great deal more practical and confidence-building—to take almost anything and rock it.

Besides, awesome job posts are rare. Why? Because it’s nearly impossible to anticipate someone’s awesomeness without the risk of overly narrowing the applicant pool, and so it’s nearly impossible to anticipate what kind of role can make the most of their skills.

For example, a job description to find a exact replacement for me in my current role would involve: strong communication and facilitation skills; some graphic design skills; deep Lotus Connections experience; programming in LotusScript, Java, and Microsoft Excel VBA; wide personal networks; automation; speed-reading (seriously, this comes in quite handy); fast typing; a passion for both consulting and development…

Right. If we ever want me to be able to move on from this role, we need to settle for someone who’s a quick learner. =) Maybe they’ll be awesome in entirely different ways, and they’ll take the role in entirely new directions. (Which would be awesome!)

Also: what I’m passionate about might not be the same as what you’re passionate about. Which is cool. Some job descriptions will emphasize your role in making a difference and changing the world. Some job descriptions (implement and maintain widget X in dashboard Y) may sound boring. But it really all comes down to how good someone is at coming up with and communicating a vision, because even implementing a widget in a dashboard can be pretty awesome if you know why it matters.

Here’s the surprising thing: you can come up with that vision,  that reason why this work matters, even if your company doesn't tell you.

Business books love sharing those stories. The cleaner at a nursing home? Might hate the drudge work, or might be passionate about it because it makes residents happier to be in a neat place.

Meaning is something you can put into your own work.

It means, though, that job posts for awesome positions sometimes don’t look like they are. On the flip side, job posts that look awesome (a hodgepodge of “cool” technologies! hipster language!) sometimes aren’t.

Figure out if you can deal with the core responsibilities, if you like the team, and if you can grow. Take responsibility for finding meaning.

On not knowing

You don’t need to figure out everything in the beginning. Find something that looks something like what you might like. Use it to learn what you really like and what you really don’t like. Experiment. Improve. Let life teach and surprise you.

On passion and luck

Posted: - Modified: | career, life, passion

Cate Huston is an Extreme Blue intern who stumbled across her dream project at IBM. She asks:

What if you don’t get so lucky? What if you don’t happen upon someone working on something you’re that passionate about?

Two thoughts. The first: Luck is overrated.

I’m here because of a gazillion coincidences that just happened to turn out this way. I’m working on Innovation Discovery because they liked my work after bringing me in as a workshop speaker on collaboration and Gen Y, which happened because Nicoline Braat recommended them to me, which happened because she read my blog, which happened because she stumbled across me on the intranet (presentations? communities?), which happened because I joined IBM, which happened because I fell in love with the company while doing my research funded by the IBM Toronto Center for Advanced Studies, which happened because I did my master’s at the University of Toronto, which happened because U of T accepted me and offered me full funding, which happened because my future research supervisor met me and was convinced I’d be a good fit, which happened because I met him when we were both in Japan, which happened because I was checking out interesting research groups at U of T, which happened because of my interest in personal information management (and the recommendation of U of T from an old friend who had also been a scholar there), which happened because I got into Emacs and Planner, which happened because I got into open source in university, which happened because I wanted to do more than what we took up in computer science classes, which I took up because I loved programming, which I taught myself when I was in grade school because my sister was doing it and she refused to teach me, which I could do because I loved using the computer, which was because we had an Apple ][e clone in the house, which happened because my parents thought it would be educational… (And there are many other branching coincidences along the way!)

Am I lucky? Yes. Could it have turned out better or worse? Yes. Did I have something to do with that luck? Probably, by casting a wide and deep net: wide in terms of interests that could lead to new passions and in terms of people watching out for opportunities , and deep in terms of building skills that helped me make the most of new opportunities.

You will always walk on the edge of possibilities, an unimaginably complex path culminating in the present and branching off into innumerable opportunities in the future.

Luck. Prepare the soil, plant seeds, and share the ongoing harvest.

Second: Passion is overrated. ;)

By that, I mean that people often hope—or expect—to be swept away by some grand passion, to wake up one morning and find a flame burning in their heart and a job opening that neatly takes advantage of that new flame.

I don’t know much about that because I don’t remember falling in love with my first passion. I’ve been using computers and delighting in how I could use them since before memory.

But I do remember falling in love with writing, because I used to hate it in school. I hated writing book reports and critical analyses that no one else would really read, and that felt like I was just making things up.

Translated into a different context—the very geeky context of sharing code and tips—the love of writing snuck up on me gradually.

Trees start as little seeds and saplings. More often than people expect, passion builds from skill and intention. Sometimes you have to be good at something—or at least decent—before you can love it.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t find work that builds on their strengths and compensates for their weaknesses. Sometimes, though, you can learn a lot about your strengths and surprise yourself with your (non-)weaknesses by applying yourself to something.

No matter what you do, find something to be passionate about and build on it. Build that aspect up as much as you can. When you ride your passion to the limits of your role, you’ll have clues about the next role to take.