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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#39)

New life continued: First week on the full time work train and overall I’m loving it, but it is an adjustment to be working from home all day every day. I’ve been doing daily walks but let’s just say I’m going to need to have a system for getting out more. Otherwise life now is moving quickly as the days are full of work and full of beauty. It’s hard to go anywhere and not run into a castle or a long winding trail inevitably leading past one. Hard to beat that!


Book excerpt that resonated last week:

“…people rarely succeed at anything unless they have fun doing it.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Loved this New Yorker article from Cal Newport, Was Email A Mistake?

Something to give us all pause:

Last year, the software company RescueTime gathered and aggregated anonymized computer-usage logs from tens of thousands of people. When its data scientists crunched the numbers, they found that, on average, users were checking e-mail or instant-messenger services like Slack once every six minutes. Not long before, a team led by Gloria Mark, the U.C. Irvine professor, had installed similar logging software on the computers of employees at a large corporation; the study found that the employees checked their in-boxes an average of seventy-seven times a day. Although we shifted toward asynchronous communication so that we could stop wasting time playing phone tag or arranging meetings, communicating in the workplace had become more onerous than it used to be. Work has become something we do in the small slivers of time that remain amid our Sisyphean skirmishes with our in-boxes.

Plenty have figured it out though, there is hope:

…the software-development firm Basecamp now allows employees to set professor-style office hours: if you need to talk to an expert on a given subject, you can sign up for her office hours instead of shooting her an e-mail. “You get that person’s full, undivided attention,” Jason Fried, the company’s co-founder and C.E.O., said, on the podcast Curious Minds. “It’s such a calmer way of doing this.” If something is urgent and the expert’s office hours aren’t for another few days, then, Fried explained, “that’s just how it goes.”


I was looking for some new books and referenced Derek Siver’s book list (who BTW has three new books coming out). I’m reading The Lessons of History and A Guide to the Good Life at the moment.


Speaking of new books, Ultralearning caught my attention


But who needs a book when there is a new Wait But Why series? If you haven’t read Wait But Why Year 1 you should.


Why Austin Kleon is a one issue voter and after reading that I think I am to.


Quote I have been thinking about:

“There is only one person who could ever make you happy, and that person is you.”

David Burns

Podcast I enjoyed that’s related to that quote: Jim Dethmer on the Knowledge Project. Some gems in here, for example:

“Be impeccable with your agreements.”

“Are you living in a victim mindset or a creator mindset?”

For example, when you get upset or annoyed because of someone’s actions are not what you wanted them to be, do you think “That is making me really angry…” or do you say “I am making myself angry over/because of…”. It’s a subtle shift, but has been helping me recently. Subject or object. Are you subject to something (like the weather) or is something object to you (it’s raining, who cares)?


Something that stuck out as strange but is normal in the UK/Scotland: Driving like a bat out of hell. I mean, I like driving fast, but there is no reason to be going 50 MPH on a twisty lane barely wide enough for two cars in the rain when it’s pitch black. People here love their cars (“motors”) and take driving more seriously than we do in the US (a plus for sure!) but it can be a little extreme at times. Oh, and if you are a pedestrian you are taking your life into your own hands by the roads here.

Wish me luck.

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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#37 & #38)

Week of Aug 12 – Aug 18 and Aug 19 – 25
Note: So much has been going on and I took too long to post so here is a special edition covering the last two weeks instead of the usual one.


I thought things were slowing down (obviously I am easy to fool): Big things happening over the past couple weeks: my daughter started school in Scotland, my son started peeing in Scotland (clarification: he is using the potty now and did his first pee in the woods, yes!), and I started a (trial) for a new job. Who said anything about “getting settled”? My reading and listening time have suffered a bit as I focus on building some career capital skills, but nonetheless there is no end of interesting things to share and learn about. Onward!


Book excerpts I enjoyed:

“The good news is that every mistake you make can teach you something, so there’s no end to learning. You’ll soon realize that excuses like “that’s not easy” or “it doesn’t seem fair” or even “I can’t do that” are of no value and that it pays to push through.” (Ray Dalio, Principles)

“The goal of personal growth should be to gain that deathbed clarity while your life is still happening so you can actually do something about it.” (Tim Urban, Wait but Why Year One)


The secret behind Major League Baseball’s mud: What? I had no idea that mud was such a big deal: Mud Maker: The Man Behind MLB’s Essential Secret Sauce


Some new “tools” I am exploring: MUD\WTR caught my attention and I’m giving it a try. Also need to get my Four Sigmatic mushrooms back in the cupboard again. I’m not interested in stopping my coffee habit, but always looking for other boosts.

Also, I started playing with TextExpander and it is is so helpful. I’m only scratching the surface.


There’s more to know about Frank Abagnale: Turns out the subject of ‘Catch Me If You Can’ is a pretty good speaker and his past has given him a unique, sharp perspective. This is worth a watch. His answer towards the end about not using debit cards and setting his kids up with credit was surprising but genius.


A great TED talk: The comedian behind the Nanette Netflix special did a great TED talk on why she made it.


On taking breaks and having downtime: Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too is a great longread and I found the stories really good. It’s also linked with my recent reading of Deep Work.


More new music, this time old but new: The music of Franz Liszt, specifically this album of his compositions, has been a great accompaniment to work sessions.


Quote I’ve been thinking about:

“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Ian Maclaren
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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#36)

Practical application for my recent focus on habits: We just started to tackle a big habit (/skill?) with Sam: using the toilet and getting used to no diapers anymore (yessss!). It started out horribly on Monday, and it seemed he was doing more pee and poos on one day than in the last month combined, all of them directly in his pants, on the floor, or on us. But that lasted only one day and then he has, incredibly, been on point for over a week now. We’ve also been tackling a big skill (/habit?) with Vivian as well: riding a bike by herself, no training wheels or hand-holding. She’s on point now to. How’d we do it? We didn’t, they did, we just provided plenty of space, encouragement and positivity. These kids learn fast!


Podcast that I enjoyed: Sticking to the habit theme, I listened to James Clear on 10% Happier where he was discussing his book, Atomic Habits. There was so much to like and here are a few notes that stuck with me (my paraphrasing and thoughts mostly):

  • Habits need to be formed before they can be optimized. Don’t try to make them perfect at the start. Keep the bar low, get a chain going, and then don’t break the chain.
  • We shouldn’t vilify addictions as we often do. The process of living a healthy lifestyle, one that’s right for you, is really the process of finding the healthiest addictions.
  • “The heaviest weight at the gym is the front door.”
  • “Every action you take is a vote for who you want to be.”
  • Pay attention to the story you are telling yourself and others, the words you use matter. Instead of saying “I have to pick up my kid from practice (so I can’t do X)” or “I have to go to work on Saturday (which I don’t want to do)”, swap “have to” with “get to” and suddenly the whole thing shifts from a focus on some set of expectations not being met to a focus on appreciating the reality of what you have.
  • Think about your life as a series of seasons. Be honest with yourself about what types of habits and focus are right for the current season you are in (i.e. you aren’t going to be meditating for 1-2 hours a day if you have young kids, but it doesn’t mean you never will).

Idea I am thinking about:

“You don’t need a rarefied job, you need a rarefied approach to your work.”

From Deep Work by Cal Newport

A few references from Deep Work: I’ve been really enjoying this one. Although the concepts are straightforward (and have been covered in many forms since this came out) they are still profound and the examples, arguments and resources are fascinating. Here are three things I am checking out from last week’s reading:

  1. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
  2. Art of Focus by David Brooks
  3. The Eudaimonia Machine by David Dewane

New music: The latest from Moodymann, Sinner, was on repeat during trips to Edinburgh and Glasgow this week, and is equally well suited to long car rides or work sessions. (Note: It’s almost exactly 45 minutes which makes it a decent timer listening front-to-back.)


New beer, this time from Estonia: Got my hands on a couple of bottles of imperial stout from Põhjala the week before last. The Vahtra, one from their cellar series, was one of my favorite BA stouts in recent memory. The inclusion of blueberries gave it a slightly tart finish and was a welcome compliment to the expected choc/coffee notes and addition of maple syrup.

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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#35)

Nope, we’ve not settled yet: Most of the last week was spent partially connected, having no internet service at home yet (along with somewhat spotty plumping service). That’s made for lots of reading and traveling around local spots, which is mostly great despite being spiked with the frequent unnerving feeling of not being able to do something that requires a connection. It’s been a good lesson in accepting and appreciating reality instead of worrying about expectations…hard to do consistently.

Other proof of our settling is the fact that I’ve amassed the following set of Allen keys as a full-time builder of basic home furnishings.

But a few of the tools I’ve amassed from furniture boxes.

Quote I am thinking about:

“Whatever you hold in your mind on a consistent basis is exactly what you will experience in your life.”

Tony Robbins

Book excerpt(s) that I loved:
Here are a couple from last week’s read, Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.

At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent.

I related to this to how I’ve been successful in certain areas of my life and career, which I think has been through sheer persistence in doing what I’m interested in rather than any given talent.

Consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.

The sheer amount of work (we talkin’ about practice) that Steve Martin did being a musician/magician/comedian prior to becoming known for it is both reassuring and intimidating. He spent years doing 2-3 shows a day when he was working, in every kind of condition imaginable. Talk about becoming bulletproof (an leaving a lot of lessons to learn from).

As I finished So Good They Can’t Ignore You and think more about my habits and attitudes towards what I do next in terms of work, the underlying ethos of consistent work, deliberate practice, and (as everyone from Seth Godin to Steven Pressfield writes about), being a professional and a craftsman are what I’m most reading and thinking about at the moment.


Purchase I’m most enjoying since moving: Having a place to write at in the morning, and having the Jarivs adjustable height desk, has had a big impact on my daily routine. Even though I have little structured time to work there (and no internet), having the space primed for standing and writing in quiet is something I didn’t have in our old home and am surprised how much I value it.


New music: The Circle Remains Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, picked up from a reference in Born Standing Up, is, I learned, a heralded country blues (triple!!) album from the seventies and superb with morning coffee, evening dinners, and setting up life in another country.


Thing I learned about Scotland: St Andrews is more than a golf course. My wife took us all for a day trip last week and it was spectacular. The cooperative weather certainly played it’s part by providing full sun, but the combination of the bustling restaurants and shops, the castle, the beaches, the university (founded in 1413!) and the golf courses made for one of the most memorable outings since we’ve arrived.

The view of St Andrews castle from one of the beaches.
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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#34)

The move is feeling real now: I’m writing this after just having spent a week in our new house (first few weeks we stayed with my mother-in-law), and I’m starting to feel like the first wave of change is over, something new is starting now or about to start. I now have the start of an office going and I also got my first haul of craft beer from The Wee Beer Shop, so that’s helping settle me down as well.


How Basecamp works: Basecamp recently published a complete guide to how they do software development. Although it is definitely dual-purposed to encourage people to try Basecamp (and for good reason, it looks and feels awesome), the guide is really cool if you are interested in process and planning and tools as I am. There is SO MUCH here, so here are a couple of things that stand out (at least from my experience at Microsoft):

Writing the pitch (this is a nice framework, although I still prefer the approach of writing the press release first, used at Automattic and Amazon, among others):

There are five ingredients that we always want to include in a pitch:
1. Problem — The raw idea, a use case, or something we’ve seen that motivates us to work on this
2. Appetite — How much time we want to spend and how that constrains the solution
3. Solution — The core elements we came up with, presented in a form that’s easy for people to immediately understand
4. Rabbit holes — Details about the solution worth calling out to avoid problems
5. No-gos — Anything specifically excluded from the concept: functionality or use cases we intentionally aren’t covering to fit the appetite or make the problem tractable

No backlogs:

Backlogs are a big weight we don’t need to carry. Dozens and eventually hundreds of tasks pile up that we all know we’ll never have time for. The growing pile gives us a feeling like we’re always behind even though we’re not. Just because somebody thought some idea was important a quarter ago doesn’t mean we need to keep looking at it again and again.

Backlogs are big time wasters too. The time spent constantly reviewing, grooming and organizing old ideas prevents everyone from moving forward on the timely projects that really matter right now.

Six week cycles:

Some companies use two-week cycles (aka “sprints”). We learned that two weeks is too short to get anything meaningful done. Worse than that, two-week cycles are extremely costly due to the planning overhead. The amount of work you get out of two weeks isn’t worth the collective hours around the table to “sprint plan” or the opportunity cost of breaking everyone’s momentum to re-group.

This led us to try longer cycles. We wanted a cycle that would be long enough to finish a whole project, start to end. At the same time, cycles need to be short enough to see the end from the beginning. People need to feel the deadline looming in order to make trade-offs. If the deadline is too distant and abstract at the start, teams will naturally wander and use time inefficiently until the deadline starts to get closer and feel real.

After years of experimentation we arrived at six weeks. Six weeks is long enough to finish something meaningful and still short enough to see the end from the beginning.


How the beef business was built: I’m a vegetarian that sometimes eats seafood and I do it for a few reasons, one of them is environmental. A Once and Future Beef was a really interesting read in that regard.

Half of the world’s habitable landmass is used for agriculture. Of this, just more than two-thirds is used for grazing. Of the remaining third, a third of that is used for animal feed, and a fifth for biofuels. In short, a downright incredible amount of the world’s land is used for animal agriculture.

In speaking about the myth that beef is a economic source of protein:

Then as now, there were always cheaper proteins available — you won’t be shocked to learn that the cost per calorie of almost all beans and nuts, as well as eggs and a lot of dairy products, is massively less than that of nearly all meats, including relatively cheap ground beef. Yet, the world over, the hunger for beef is growing.


Something I learned about Scotland: There is so much to see (and sketch)! We’re off to visit St. Andrews this weekend, but the famous bucket list on Isle of Skye is high on the list (where over 70% of all tourists are from the UK, less than 30% international, not what I would have thought). Also, in the castle-porn bucket goes Kilchurn Castle:


The origins of a loved and hated game: The History of Monopoly was a great little read. Almost every family member I’ve played Monopoly with has wanted to kill me after, despite my not winning very often. This especially includes my wife.


Favorite quote from last week:

He who doesn’t lose his wits over certain things has no wits to lose.
– Gotthold Ephraim Lessing