Sunday Selection 2012-04-28

Around the Web

Minecraft, Scrolls, 0x10c: The past, present and future of Mojang as seen through Notch’s eyes. I’m not much of a gamer, but I do like making cool stuff and I love reading about people who are making amazing, beautiful things. Notch is the creator of Minecraft and the anticipated 0x10c and this interview is full of interesting tidbits.

The Terrifying Reality of Long-term Employment As a recent college graduate who has chosen the temporary sanctuary of the ivory tower, the job market is something I can afford to avoid, but it’s still something at the back of my mind. The state of the current market makes me wonder if we need to rethink jobs and value structures in an age where long-term stability is increasingly rare.

The Boston Marathon Bombing: Keep Calm and Carry On. I usually don’t write about current events, partially because I’m never quite sure what to say, and partially because I’d rather not add to the noise if I don’t have something useful to say. That being said, I’m all too happy to point in the direction of people who I think are actually making level-headed and rational comments about the current state of affairs. Bruce Schneier is certainly one of those people and I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if people like him were in charge of our security.

Software

Capsule: The Developer’s Code Journal. I find that keeping a record of things I’ve done through the day is very useful. It’s a good estimator of where my time went through the day, and an empty log is a sign that things didn’t go quite right.  I normally have a text file on my phone that I just dump everything into. Capsule looks like an interesting solution for programmers (both teams and individuals) to keep a quick and dirty log of what they’ve been up to. I’m probably going to put it on my Linode for a week and give it a try.

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Tsuyoku Naritai

Happy New Year, dear readers (albeit somewhat belatedly). I’ve been spending most of the last month traveling and spending time with family and friends. And now I’m going to tackle the matter that is on everyone’s mind at this time of the year: New Year’s Resolutions! Aren’t you all excited?

I’ve never been a fan of making a long list of resolutions on January 1. There’s an arbitrariness to it that I’ve never found appealing. I understand the need for a New Year’s Day for practical purposes, but it is really just another day. It doesn’t even commemorate someone’s birthday or a memorable event. Furthermore, grand announcements of how we’re going to change our lives have always seemed unnatural. Most of the changes in my life (and I’ve changed a lot over the last few years) have been sequences of events, opportunities and small decisions building up over time, not sudden all-changing promises.

All that being said, I am a fan of the general notion of self-improvement. A few months ago I came across the Japanese phrase “Tsuyoku Naritai” which translates to “I want to become stronger”. The original article by Eliezer Yudkowsky is worth reading and I won’t bother repeating it here. It focuses on the idea of improvement (getting stronger) as opposed to the idea of simply apologizing for weakness (and not doing anything about it). But the concept of Tsuyoku Naritai presents an interesting contrast to the idea of New Year’s resolutions.

I have always felt that resolutions were mostly external motivations: they embodied things that we thought we should change, that we were constantly being told we should change. By contrast I feel Tsuyoku Naritai is more intrinsic. It’s not “I should” or “I will”, it is “I want”. It acknowledges that we may not have strength now, but it declares that we want to gain it.

“Tsuyoku Naritai” is more general than most resolutions. While I’m all for specificity of goals, the start of the year might be the wrong time for them. Making serious changes takes a lot of willpower – something that we have a finite supply of. Deciding to change our diet, our exercise routine, our work schedule and how we spend free time all at the same time is a fool’s errand. The need for willpower can be mitigated by making use of habit – putting things on autopilot. But setting a new habit takes about a month and in that time we’re burning precious willpower reserves. We may be able to completely change all the spheres of our life over a year, but we certainly can’t do it all at the same time. Instead of making lots of specific promises at the start of the year, maybe it’s better to pick an over-arching theme. We can pick a goal a month that to devote our willpower to and set into a habit.

This year I don’t have a set of resolutions. I do have a list of things I want to accomplish over the course of the year, but I’m taking them one at a time. But in addition to those specifics I have a more general theme of wanting to be stronger – physically, intellectually, maybe even mentally/emotionally (though I’m not entirely sure what that would entail). Tsuyoku Naritai is my theme for 2013 and something I hope to revisit as the year progresses.

I hope you all have a happy and productive new year. Live long and prosper. Become stronger.

Sunday Selection 2012-10-14

The past week has not been one of the most productive I’ve had, for a number of different reasons and some of them my fault. Partially in response to that today’s Selection has a time management and productivity focus, but hopefully one that’s different from staple fare in the area.

Around the Web

How to Create Time

The notion of creating time can be misleading: you can’t really get more than 24 hours in a day and youare biologically required to devote some part of those hours to rest and repair (probably). However you can make more time available to do the things that matter and this article gives some guidance on that.

Confessions of a Recovering Lifehacker

Talking about things that matter, the question it’s often surprisingly difficult to identify the things that do matter and then stick to them. Especially if you’re someone who’s a natural tinkerer there’s a tendency to invest a lot of time and energy into things that are actually pseudowork. I think this article than it strictly needs to be, but the four point recovery checklist at the end is worth remembering

Overworked, Overwhelmed, Overscheduled? Work More

Another controversial piece and probably not the best wording either. That being said, the point being made is worth paying attention: sometimes the best opportunities and most satisfaction comes from things that aren’t technically your day job. Even if you love what you do for a living, investing some time and energy into other areas might have interesting payoffs.

From the Bookshelf

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

First a disclaimer: I received an electronic copy of this book for free to review. But I can safely say that I would have been glad to pay for it. It’s not strictly about productivity but it attacks the higher level question of: What should I do with my life. The basic thesis is that instead of following some ill-defined notion of “passion” we should develop rare and valuable skills that allow us a choice of jobs and lifestyle. You can read my full review and buy the book on Amazon.

Book review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Follow your passion is dangerous advice.”

Cal Newport’s newest book opens with an interesting and controversial piece of advice. That’s perhaps not surprising given how interesting Cal Newport himself is. He’s a new professor at Georgetown University and a Computer Science PhD out of MIT. He’s also the author of a popular blog and a number of books on student life, acheivement and productivity. “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is his most recent creation and this book might just change the way you look at your career and your life in general.

But first, let me tell you a little about myself. If you follow this blog regularly (and I hope you do) you’ll know that I’m a second year graduate student at Cornell University’s Computer Science program. I’m no longer a “new” graduate student but I’m certainly not a veteran of the research trenches yet. I’m still pretty early in my career and I’ve been grappling with some of the issues that come with the territory. In particular I’ve been thinking about what sort of projects I should be pursuing, what to do about projects I’m interested in but not 100% excited about and how to balance getting published with working on fun stuff (the two don’t always overlap). Newport’s new book has given me some good perspective on these matters.

The central thesis of this book is that the common wisdom of “follow your passion” is dangerously flawed. We shouldn’t be waiting for our dream job or our life purpose to fall into our laps. Instead we should be building “career capital” – valuable skills and expertise that we can exchange for jobs that are fulfilling and interesting.

The book opens by digging into the idea that passion is a basis for a remarkable life and bringing forth evidence that passion is rarer and less useful than we are led to believe. Newport then goes on to show that the alternative to passion is to become so good that they can’t ignore you. Concretely this translates to cultivating skills that are rare and valuable and that will let you negotiate your work and working conditions on your own terms. Newport cites studies that show that the actual determinant of career satisfaction is not “passion” but a trio of competence, control and relationships. The jobs we like are the ones that require skills, give us control over our work and life and bring us into contact with good coworkers. Finally we are shown how we can go about generating the career capital that we need in order to get these things in our work lives. In particular the book talks about deliberate practice, making small but continuous improvements in your skills and doing work that will make others sit up and notice.

Throughout the book Newport shares stories of both people who have followed the “passion hypothesis” and his proposed “career craftsman philosophy”. The examples are carefully examined and include a large group of people including venture capitalists, developers, farmers and professors. Instead of simply providing them as proof, Newport walks us through how his experiences with these people changed his own views on the matter and brought him to his current ideas on what makes a remarkable career.

While I’m generally skeptical of self-help books and books that claim to help you “follow your path”, this one is different. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Newport’s examples (and their discussion) are “scientific” but they are thorough and well researched. Furthermore, he acknowledges that the exact path will be different from person to person and that he is still figuring things out.

Personally, I found this book very helpful. It put to rest any worries I had about working on the “wrong” project. I’m still very much in the stage of my career where I’m earning career capital and most projects will be full of chances to learn and prove myself. But that doesn’t mean I should sign up for any project that walks in the door. The best projects are the ones that force me to learn something new and don’t require huge up front investments of time and energy (with little chance of results). As this book shows, excellent careers aren’t just by-products of luck, nor is it enough to just follow your interests. The best careers are crafted and take large investments of energy and effort over long periods of time. It helps that I love my job, but I don’t need to worry about picking the perfect project and being passionate about it, as long as I’m learning and gaining capital, I’m good (and getting better).

If you’re just starting out in a career, looking to switch or just want to give your career a jumpstart this is definitely a book worth reading. It’s never too late (or too early) to start improving. You don’t need to have a life mission set in stone before you get started either. Long story short, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is better life advice than “follow your passion”. Thanks to this book it’s probably easier to implement too.

Process and Product

Yesterday I came across a post entitled “default behavior” by Ben Augarten about how important it is to put your products out in the world. It starts with him talking about how the code he’s writing is for an internal tool and hence will never see the light of day. Few people will use it and he’ll lose ownership of it once his internship ends. He implores programmers to release their code as products into the world and seems more than a little disdainful of programmers who don’t release their own products. He seems to be under the impression that if you’re not working on your very product that you’re dead inside.

He’s wrong.

It’s great to love to your product. It’s great to build something, to show it to the world, to have people use it, get feedback and make it better. If that’s what motivates you and makes you happy then by all means go ahead and release products. Life is too short to be unhappy (though people are working on that). What it doesn’t mean is that not releasing products makes you unhappy.

There’s a distinction to be made between process and product. Product is the fruit of your labor, process is the labor itself. In the rush to create startups, launch products, have dozens of repos on your Github account, we tend to lose sight of the process itself.

While I certainly understand (and have felt) the allure of releasing a product, there’s a lot of joy to be gained in the process itself. While many of us got into computers and programming because of the things we could create, many of us (including myself) got into it because of the joy of coding itself. I love learning new technologies, working through problems, crafting solutions. I love the mental strain of thinking my way to answer, I love the physical feel of my fingers on a keyboard and the seeing the characters of the screen. I love the process of seeing something being created as much I like the feeling of having created something. The same goes for writing or drawing or cooking – how you make something is just as important as what you make.

I suspect that this joy for the process itself is why so many incredibly talented and hardworking people are happy working for closed source companies (financial and material renumeration aside). If you are fulfilled by the labor itself then you care less about the fruits of your labor. This isn’t particularly new thinking – it predates open source, computers, software, even modern science and technology. As far as I know, the earliest well-known expression of such a notion is from the Bhagavad Gita where the god Krishna tells Prince Arjun:

“To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction”

I don’t entirely agree with this: I do believe in property rights and I think that as a creator you deserve some say in how your creation is used. However I do agree with the underlying idea that you can find motivation in the actions themselves and not just their results. Getting too invested in the result can detract from joy you recieve from the process (and vice-versa). I’m not going to claim that process is better or more meaningful than product. Humans and their motivations and emotions are far more complex than such simple comparisons. But I am going to claim that finding fulfillment in the process itself is a perfectly valid way of living your life.

It’s great that Ben and so many other programmers and entrepreneurs want to create products and see them in action. We need that. They don’t have to become process-oriented. But they do have to understand that not all people will value products as much as they do and they have to respect that. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.