Thursday, November 16, 2017

Good Ideas are Spawned From Bad Or Failed Ideas

My elder daughter and I have been working on a number of small projects together over the past few months and every once in awhile, I will get a comment from her where she says "wow, how did you know what to do in that situation? We hadn't faced it before, and you quickly figured out a way to deal with it. How is it so easy for you? Why can't I do that?"

I chuckled a little and then I've told her a maxim that I've used a bunch (and I'm sure I've said it here at some point, too)... "Good ideas/solutions come from good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad ideas/solutions/judgment." In short, she sees that I can come in and consider an idea and implement it (in some things, I do have my limits, and they are legion). What she doesn't hasn't seen is the countless times I've tried similar things, failed at them, regrouped, reconsidered, remeasured, tried again, and repeated this process until I happened upon something that worked.

As a Scout leader, I've had the benefit of decades of teaching a few generations of kids how to do some basic stuff (note, I said basic, not easy or simple). We teach how to tie a handful of knots. We teach some basic cooking techniques. We teach how to handle items like an ax, a knife, and a saw. We teach how to safely use fire. We teach some basic wilderness survival tips. Each time through this process there is always a similar "wave" that I witness. At first, there's an excitement level, but that quickly gives way to a mild boredom. Seriously? This is such a big deal? Snooze! Still, I push on and demonstrate what I can and encourage them to practice what I am showing them. A hallmark of our Scouting year typically takes place three months in for a typical scout. That's the "silent campout". Not silent in the sense that there's no talking or interaction, but silent in that the leaders (i.e. me and the other adults) make it a point to not discuss any of the campout particulars with the troop. They have their campsite, we have ours. they are within eyesight of each other, and we reserve the right/authority to intervene if a situation is deemed unsafe. Outside of that, we let them pick the camp area, bring in all needed items, and then we leave them to it. They construct the camp, they cook their meals, they clean, they tend fires, and do all of the other things that we have taught them over a few months.

Each time, the outcome has been similar. The bored expressions often give way to genuine concern or in some cases panic. Wait, what was I supposed to do at this point? Did I pack what we needed? Did I cook that long enough? Am I going to be able to properly contain the fire? You get the idea. They make mistakes, they get frustrated, and then they approach the problem(s) from different angles. They confer. They discuss options. They experiment. Some of those experiments fail, but some succeed. They note the ones that were successful. The next morning, fewer mistakes, less frustration, and almost no panic. The process, while ragged, gets smoother and more refined. Almost to a person, this experience makes for a change of attitude, and then when we talk about "the basics", they are not so jaded and bored. they realize that basic stuff often is harder to physically do in a regular and smooth manner. Like everything, it takes actual practice and it takes some working through frustration. Do it enough, and you start to actually get good at those basics and then you forget that there was a learning curve at all.

My point with this today is that, too often, I think we approach aspects of what we do (testing, coding, administration, learning new stuff, getting out of our comfort zone) with the same mindset. We start out enthusiastic, we get bored and jaded and then we panic when what was supposed to be so simple doesn't work out to be. It's OK to feel these things. In fact, it's necessary. Over time, as we stumble, learn, practice and perfect, we too might forget exactly what it takes to do basic things and make them look easy. May I encourage you not to? You never know who may be watching and feeling discouraged because they can't seem to "get it". We've been there, we know how that feels. Let's make sure we remind others that basic doesn't necessarily mean easy, and that good ideas/solutions often come from bad ideas/attempts.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Frustration of "Too Much Choice"

Hello, Internet world. My name is Michael. I'm a serial collector of informational tidbits.

"Hi, Michael!"

Seriously, I recently went through and realized something both frustrating and enlightening. I am a huge fan of Bookmarking and Favoriting (Liking on Twitter now, but I still think of it as Favoriting). In my world, "Favoriting" serves a specific purpose. It's not so much to say "hey, I want to show you I like what you've posted" (though I do that from time to time) but to say "this is something I don't have the time to look at right now, but I really want to look at it later". I subscribe to lots of services that send me emails with cool tips and tricks to test, code, and administer stuff. I have a digital library that has hundreds of titles on all sorts of topics. I have categorized listings of websites, forums and other services that are there to help me learn and do things better and easier.

The thing is, when I get up in the morning and I scan my Inbox, most of the time I just delete the notifications, unless there's something that really piques my interest.

Those links? Rarely visited.
That list of Favorites (Likes) on Twitter? Rarely reviewed.
That massive list of books? It's so big that most titles hide in plain sight.

I remember Cem Kaner saying at one point that having the information doesn't necessarily mean that it will be useful to you at that moment, but being able to reference it and know about it or where to find it is of value. Thus, for many of us, resources are just that, they are raw lumps that are there when and if we need them, but we have to understand what we have access to and when that access is relevant.

For me, I struggle with too much choice. If there are too many options, I simply get overwhelmed and never make a decision. It's all clutter. It's a challenge to organize it. I have a couple hundred CDs and whenever I go on a road trip, I spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to pick something to listen to. Often, I give up and listen to the podcast I downloaded on my phone. Oh, that's another thing, which podcast to listen to and when? So many choices, so many options, but do I really have time for a deep dive? Have I truly let that one podcast build up to ten unlistened episodes? Yikes! When am I going to find the time to listen to that? Since my phone has a limited amount of storage, I tend to be a little more deliberate with what goes on it and I cycle what I download, so I have fewer choices. The net result is that I actually listen to what I put on the phone.

As I've stated in this blog before, I don't write about these things because I'm particularly good at them. I write about them because I'm particularly terrible at many things but want to do better. Thus, I'm trying my best to constrain those things that overwhelm me. Yes, I belong to a service that lets me download a free ebook every day. Many (perhaps most) of those books are "someday maybe" propositions that tend to crowd out the books that are actually immediately relevant. Therefore, I'm trying something different. Each week, I'm going through a particular category of expertise and/or criteria I need to understand or become more proficient with. I'm looking at this from a Marie Kondo approach. I'm looking at the resources I've collected, taking some time to categorize them into "immediately relevant", "relevant later", and "someday maybe". My goal is to locate the items that are immediately relevant and then focus on those for a short period of time.

In other words, I'm putting a physical constraint on the information I have an use, not to block out all of the resources I have, but to meaningfully work on the ones that can be most effective here and now. It's great that I have books that will help me master a particular technology, but if I'm just learning about it or trying to get beyond the Advanced Beginner stage, do I really need to deal with topics that relate to mastery at this stage? No. Yet just by their being there in my line of sight, I lose focus and my attention wanders. I also do something similar regarding other endeavors in my office. I have a lot of interests and it's tempting to have a variety of things out and ready to use. The net result, though, is that I dabble in lots of things and don't put any appreciable time into the areas that are most important. Frequently I end up dealing with what's urgent or pressing, and that's great for the moment, but it can leave me lacking in areas that are indeed important but aren't urgent.

I'm not sure if this is going to be helpful to anyone else, but it's currently helping me. Take some time to block out items you want to work on, that you need to work on and then think of the things that will directly help you meet those goals in the very near-term future. If they don't, don't delete them but perhaps put them in a place where you know they will come in handy later, and try to set a hard time for when "later" might be. If you can't do that, put them in the "someday maybe" container. The ability to pick and choose is wonderful, but sometimes, it helps a lot to limit what can be picked so that you actually make a choice and move forward with it :).