What I learned last week (#20)

Learned last week: Thoughts on what drives us, the power of name-your-price, umpires are wrong a lot, and more.

Quote I’ve been pondering: “It’s not how well you play the game. It’s deciding what game you want to play.” – Kwame Appiah

Favorite book excerpt of the week: From Gabor Mate’s  section in Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss: “don’t confuse being driven with being authentically animated by an inner calling. One state leaves you depleted and unfulfilled; the other fuels your soul and makes your heart sing.”

A simple way to win customers and make a fair wage: We spent our Saturday morning out with the kids at Seattle Center, and grandma got the kids balloon animals after being lured by a particularly funny and gregarious vendor in one of the main public spaces. When she went to pay and asked how much, he said there is no set price, you can pay us what you feel like.

Shocked, she ended up paying 10 dollars for 3 minutes of this guy’s time, a pretty good hourly rate. I bet he gets more than that more often than he gets less. This made me think of other areas where I would pay more than the set price because the product is so enjoyable (just like the 3 minutes spent with this vendor). I would do this with more music and art if it was convenient (I guess this is what Patreon is for).

Umpires in baseball are wrong (a lot): This is a long-read but as a fan of baseball I found it super interesting. The video near the beginning showing the worst calls is golden

New music for focus time at work: Etudes for Piano Vol 1. No. 1 – 10 by Philip Glass has been great for focus time at work or writing. I’m going to check out more of his stuff. (Hat tip to Scott)

Being a beginner again and always

For my next role, I should be looking at a “lateral” move, or even better, a “higher level” role. What if I did the opposite? What if I started over?

A lot of people are asking about what I’m going to do when I get over to Scotland. Where am I going to work? Am I going to continue with Microsoft? Are there opportunities with other gaming companies? 

I don’t have anything lined up yet, I say. This is followed by some knowing nods and smiles. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding something is a common response. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t want to agree so easily. I feel comfortable with where I’m at professionally, and that’s my issue. The expectation of most is that I will go for the equivalent of a “lateral” move, or even better, get a “higher level” role for my next job. What if I did the opposite? What if I started over?

Menu sketch
Me writing out the code and design for an accordion menu I would implement on my university’s homepage using Actionscript in Flash back in 2000.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved art and design, and grew up learning about it through the lens of games. My interest in technology was born of game consoles, PC games, and remote control cars. How interfaces and images appeared and were arranged on a screen, and how input devices manipulated those images, was inextricably linked with how I created and what I wanted to create. I was also (and am still) a meticulously organized person, and I’ve always held tension between those often opposing forces: the creative who dives in not knowing where something will go on one side and the cartographer charting a detailed plan on the other.

The intersection of this making and organizing is where my career in tech began. Around the end of 1999, I started to notice how much visual creativity and storytelling were happening online, and I wanted to be a part of it. A friend of mine was making websites, so I joined him and suddenly I was building and (over) designing websites for academic departments at my university. I also set-up my own site (philnick.com), hosting it with a company called MediaTemple.net (solely because other web design artists were also using them). I was hooked by the combination of design and technology and freedom I had publishing on the web. Information taxonomy mixed with art! These were the days of figuring out how to bend table-based layouts to one’s will using single pixel spacers and CSS wizardry. The days of using FTP clients to publish a new version of WordPress and it’s MySQL back end. The days where Macromedia made Flash and the coolest sites had their menus and hero sections of homepages rendered with it. It was maddeningly hard to learn how to do it all and there was nothing else I wanted to do.

Scanned drawings for PhilNick.com
Some layout sketches for my original blog. I wanted a unique style so I hand drew the UI and then scanned them in and cut them into table layouts using Macromedia Fireworks.

I’ve previously written about this time as good hard work, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s the time in my life where I felt most creative, where I had full agency to learn, create and do. I knew there was no barrier other than time to making it happen. I was solving problems though experimentation, banging my head on the wall more often than not, and I was teaching and learning with others at the university technology department, and with like minded friends. My career at Microsoft owes itself to the momentum I gained during this time.

Early academic department website screenshots
Screenshots of some early departmental website designs I did. Bad by today’s standards but back then the web wasn’t as pretty as it is today.

I’ve never lost that love of creating and publishing work, and helping and supporting others use technology to create themselves. However, I’ve gotten further away from it as my career has progressed. Up until recently, It had been a long time since I was last making, designing and creating things with technology. My recent role (with Minecraft) has gotten me into making again, and non-coincidentally I’ve also jumped back into sharing my writing and illustrating online as a committed side-gig. It’s been amazing how it’s fueled all other aspects of my life and made me a better dad and a husband. The energy is flowing in the right direction, and I want it to stay that way.

“Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.”

Albert Einstein

So what do I want to do for work next? I’m not sure but I know what I don’t want to do. Instead of looking for a job that’s lateral or “higher level”, I’m looking for something that will allow me learn something new. I’d like to go back to the beginning, to actually being a beginner again and having to figure something out from scratch. I’d like to learn how to design and implement new user interfaces, bring stories to life using narrative, illustration, music and some code, or create a new way for creative collaboration and sharing. I’d like to do it both for income as well as incorporate it in projects with my kids and their education. I’d like to do it with others, in a way that’s not crazy.

I’m not sure that this will lead to in terms of my next role, salary, etc. It could certainly lead to less money. It will almost certainly lead to some raised eyebrows. I know it will lead to a lot of new learning, new connections and great experience.

Beginning again might not make sense to most, but it makes sense to me. I can only hope it’s one of many more.

What I learned last week (#17)

Learned last week: Lego keeps getting cooler, the backstory of The Matrix, the vulnerable world hypothesis, and music for creativity.

  • Lego keeps getting cooler: Just saw this full Lego build of a McLaren Senna. It’s drive-able!

    Like the Bugatti Chiron, this is noted as the first interactive McLaren LEGO model which you can drive since it boasts a working V8 engine. The impressive feat took nearly 5,000 hours to complete with the assistance of 42 workers, while the supercar is composed of 467,854 blocks and weighs 3,748 pounds.

    The video at the end of the designers talking about design is fascinating. (Hat tip to Scott for this)
  • I love considering mysteries of the unknown: I heard about the vulnerable world hypothesis by Nick Bostrom, which asks us to consider the “urn of invention”.

    One way of looking at human creativity is as a process of pulling balls out of a giant urn. The balls represent possible ideas, discoveries, technological inventions. Over the course of history, we have extracted a great many balls—mostly white (beneficial) but also various shades of grey(moderately harmful ones and mixed blessings). The cumulative effect on the human condition has so far been overwhelmingly positive, and may be much better still in the future. The global population has grown about three orders of magnitude over the last ten thousand years, and in the last two centuries per capita income, standards of living, and life expectancy have also risen. What we haven’t extracted, so far, is a black ball: a technology that invariably or by default destroys the civilization that invents it.  The reason is not that we have been particularly careful or wise in our technology policy. We have just been lucky.

    Here’s a video of Sam Harris’s discussion with Nick on the topic: Sam Harris and Nick Bostrom – Pulling a Black Ball from the Urn of Invention. Similar to the great barrier in the Fermi paradox.
  • Some new music for creative work: I recently discovered Makaya McKraven, and his (double) album Universal Beings is my jam right now for writing or working sessions. From his site:

    Makaya McCraven is a beat scientist. The bleeding edge drummer, producer, and sonic collagist is one of Chicago’s savviest cultural players and a multi-talented force whose inventive process & intuitive, cinematic style defy categorization.

    Check out Suite Haus for a taste of what I’m talking about (the transitions over the course of that track are mwwwaah!). Your mileage may vary but for me it does the trick.
  • One of the my favorite films turns 20: Like many, I was blown away by the Matrix when it came out. This is an interesting story about how it came to be: How the Matrix Built a Bullet-Proof Legacy.

    One of the great misunderstandings about Keanu is that people don’t think he’s smart,” says di Bonaventura. “Maybe it’s because of the Bill & Ted movies. But Keanu gives me books I cannot make heads nor tails of. And in Keanu, the Wachowskis found somebody who was an intellectual searcher.”

    The famous bullet time shot on the rooftop with agent smith:

    That single shot would take nearly two years to complete and run an estimated $750,000 in computer costs. It quickly proved to be a worthwhile investment. Libreri remembers one internal screening of Matrix footage during which Reeves—seated in the front row—began lying back in his chair, excitedly re-creating his rooftop bends. At that same session, the team previewed another key effects sequence, in which a camera swirls around Trinity as she leaps up and kicks a cop. According to Libreri,”Joel Silver got up and said, ‘That’s it! This is where everybody’s going to get up and scream!'”
  • A quote that captures what I’ve been trying to focus on: “What you get will never make you happy; who you become will make you very happy or very sad.” – Jim Rohn

What I Learned Last Week (#6)

This week: drawing tips, crazy 2018 facts, and good advice from smart people.

  • Everything that Anne Lamott has learned: I’ve been reading Bird by Bird recently (it’s great) and heard about this list she did of everything she had learned to date (apparently thinking about her grandson). I copied a bit below but the full post can be found here.

  • A new inspiration for drawing practice: I’m starting up a habit of drawing regularly (like writing) and my friend recommended Gris and Norm’s Tuesday Tips. Check out their tumblr and Instagram, very cool. I’m going to follow their weekly tips for a few months and see where it goes. I started on Saturday.

  • A good reminder about your responsibility and owning your story: This video from The Fresh Prince is great. “Fault and responsibility do not go together”.
    A good quote: “Whatever you are, be a good one.”– Abraham Lincoln
    There is great pride, quality and art to be found in all occupations.

What I Learned Last Week (#5)

This week: a new approach to resumes, the art of tidying up, some geography fun, and more.

  • A new way to approach resumes: I’m officially on the hunt for work now, either with a company located in Scotland (or, ideally, in a role where I can work from anywhere), so I’m brushing up my resume and noticed pics of this service making it’s way around LinkedIn. It looks awesome and I think I’ll be giving it a go: http://enhancv.com
  • Marie Kondo, the KonMari method, and the art of “tidying up”: I heard about this method of keeping only things that spark joy before, and as we prepare to downsize significantly and have to decide what to keep, I was trying to find out more. Looks like there is also a Netflix show on it now.
  • I’m liking and listening to Mick Jenkins more and more: I’ve been digging his album from last year, Pieces of a Man, recently and came across this interview. I especially like this portion:

I think that my sanity is the most important thing to my art, and I feel that my relationships are the most important thing to my sanity. My relationship with God, my relationship with my girlfriend, my relationships with the people that are close to me, you know? The people that keep me grounded. And if you focus on all of the many things that you could be focused on to advance your career, while you could be “successful”, I’ve watched people close to me suffer before I was successful, because of that, and that was something I was not going to do.

But like I say, it’s hard work. Because it’s such a self-centered thing, it’s easier to do the other shit, honestly… even though that shit’s hard too. But making sure that you foster, and cater to, and water those relationships, and keep them strong. I think that people are only able to keep you in check if they’re at a certain level with you. If that level starts to fade, then their ability to do that becomes less strong, and I need people to do that for me.

So like I say, you gotta water that, it’s a plant. You gotta keep it growing. It’s something to be spoken about, it’s definitely something that I do a lot of. It’s not an easy thing to break up the environment and put focus into growing your communication and your perspective with the people that are close to you. It takes a lot of work. 

  • Some wisdom I came across while looking back at my notes: I noted this passage from the interview with Soman Chainani in Tribe of Mentors, as it rang true for me:

Meditation has taught me that most of the ideas, opinions, rules, and fixed systems I have in my mind aren’t the real truth. They’re the residues of past experiences that I haven’t let go of. What I’ve learned is that my soul doesn’t speak in thoughts at all—it speaks in feelings, images, and clues.

I had about geography: This article, and particularly the story map, was

Soman Chainani
  • I had some misconceptions about geography: This article from National Geographic, in particular this story map, was eye-opening. Did you know Venice, Italy is as far north as Minneapellos, Minnesota? London is in parallel with Calgary? The map is worth checking out.

Thank Your Reader

In living your story you can easily lose sight of who makes it possible. This is a reminder that practicing gratitude can help you see more clearly.

“If you are paying attention you can find truth and inspiration everywhere.” – Brené Brown

Having two young kids means you read a lot of children’s books and I’m amazed at how good many of them are. They way they distill powerful life lessons and wrap them in memorable artwork accompanied by a few powerful words is truly special.

In The Thank You Book by Mo Willems, Pig realizes she has a lot to be thankful for and that she better get thanking! So, she goes on a quest to thank everyone that she is grateful for (a noble mission), and she thanks literally every character in sight in the hopes of not forgetting anyone. She thinks she has everyone covered but her friend, Gerald, reminds her that she is still forgetting someone. After racking her brain she finally realizes she never thanked us, the reader. Without the reader, they wouldn’t exist, after all.

This lesson about expressing gratitude and recognizing the people or things outside of your bubble is something everyone can benefit from. Pig doesn’t realize who she’s missing until she slows down, listens to her friends warning, and zooms out of her everyday life to look at the big picture.

We all tend to forget the readers in our lives: the people that aren’t visible everyday, that we take for granted, but who make us who we are and allow us to exist in our daily life.

Who are these people or things in your life? Your parents? Your children’s  teacher? The barista or the cleaning guys for your building at work? Experiment with sending a note, thanking them or simply smiling, making eye contact and saying hi.

You might realize, like Pig does, that you have a lot to be thankful for.

Related:

  • Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey
    “The idea was deceptively simple: New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe, transforms his life, and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.”

What I learned last week (#1)

  • I read Personal Kanban and started using Trello recently (thanks Marcus) and it’s really helped me to be more intentional and focused in my work and life. I have a Work Board and a Personal Board and also one for Project Red Lorry that my wife and I can both use. Is it working because it’s something new or because it’s a fundamental shift? Time will tell.
     
  • I need to try using Calm. Apparently it has a timer that will chime at certain intervals during unguided meditation sessions, which is my biggest gripe with unguided meditations on Headspace. Headspace is still my go-to (and apparently the reason Bill Gates is into meditation) but I’m curious to see how this works.
     
  • I finished The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawandeand thought it was an easy, engaging and thought-provoking read. Reflecting on it, one of the things that sticks with me is the chapter on The End of the Master Builder and the example of the “submittal schedule” in construction that serves as a checklist for communication tasks. This schedule checklist serves as framework for getting the experts together and figuring out problems together, agreeing on a path forward and documenting (“submitting”) what they decided. This got me thinking about similar frameworks in technology work and how important it is to be rigorously collaborative and decentralize decision making.
     
  • “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.” – Louis L’Amour. This one was timely. My Dad just retired a couple weeks ago (and my Mom a few months before that) and this comes close to expressing how I relate to the idea of retirement