Sunday, November 03, 2013

Pursuing excellence (before passion!)

Nota bene: I wanted to bang out a quick note to myself related to two ideas, K. Anders Ericsson's seminal piece The Making of an Expert, as well as Steve Martin's injunction to "Be so good they can't ignore you."  Astute readers of Cal Newport's excellent Study Hacks blog will note that this rehashes of some of his ideas; because originality is less interesting to me than authenticity (Auden), I'm writing it anyway.

Rather than going into history (I haven't the time) or musing on the impact on his professional development (I haven't the interest) I'll just quote:

Be so good they can't ignore you. — Steve Martin

It's a topic I want to explore more as I mentally gnaw on it, but fundamentally I think that Steve Martin hit the nail on the head, and succinctly. An expanded version comes as the subtitle given to K. Anders Ericsson's feature in the Harvard Business Review: "New research shows that outstanding performance is the product of years of deliberate practice and coaching, not any innate talent or skill."  Of course HBR turns it into a mouthful.

Part of the reason I've been mulling on this is because, as I've come towards the end of my blistering eight-year bachelor track, I've wondered about where to go when it comes to a career and what to do once I'm an eligible bachelor on the prowl for employment. The standard line for years and decades has been to follow one's passion, but then the problem is that for 99 percent and change of today's workers, their work is so far removed from passion that if they weren't getting paid they wouldn't do it. Would you go perform your vocational role tomorrow if it were entirely decoupled from salary? If yes, congratulations.

The counter-argument to this would be the notion that all the best players in their perspective roles are those who are exceptionally passionate about what they do, from Yo-Yo Ma to Warren Buffett and Oprah Winfrey. Ignoring for the moment that Oprah "stood on the backs of little people!" to get where she is (thanks, Bill Burr!), I think saying that because they're passionate they're excellent performers could be putting the cart ahead of the horse a little bit.

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. — K. Anders Ericsson

Malcolm Gladwell is well known for his exegetic Outliers, which debunks the myth that performance is something with which a person is simply born. Terrifyingly and gratefully he puts the onus of excellence on the shoulders of the seeker and in so doing eliminates that particular "out" that people tend to cling to—by being absent of a particular talent, many then feel absolved of any responsibility to themselves or others to do what they can with what they've got. It's avoidance of the self-assessment that Ericsson says is so crucial.

Coming back to the cart and the horse, I think it's more likely that people at the tops of their professions—here Elon Musk or even Mark Cuban would be good examples—are passionate about what they do as almost a side-effect of their expertise, rather than the other way around. Instead of being passionate about a particular topic and therefore becoming excellent at it, it seems more likely that they developed proficiency and then passion followed. Indeed, Mr. Musk has said that his drive to perform is "disconnected from hope, enthusiasm, or anything else. … You just keep going, and get it done." Here you have likely the world's best applied engineer saying that he divorces his performance from his passion, which discipline is worthy of its own discussion at a future date. So I think it's more a question of getting really, really good at what you do (the best, if humanly possible), and then anticipating that that will translate into future passion.

The hanging-chad question for me is whether one becomes passionate about their specialty, or whether having a game-changing specialty simply lets you exercise it in a flexible direction. I'm teaching myself the programming language Python right now; were I to become the world's best through my 10,000 hours of dedication and devotion, does that mean that I'd become passionate about Python itself, or that I'd be able to simply leverage that skill into a place of interest? My gut says a mix of both, but that's open.

Either way, it's clear to me that the best path forward is one of patience, sacrifice and "honest, often painful self-assessment." I want what Mr. Martin said, to be so good that I can't be ignored. I'm working on it. It's slow. It's zig-zaggy. But it's fulfilling to look back and see progress.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I went out for a walk tonight, just up my street. It's curious: as terribly familiar as I am with the other side of Oberer Gaisbergweg—the German mouthful that is my lane—I had never walked more than two hundred feet uphill. Partially this is because it's quite steep and things tend to flow down; on top of that, I think I've never gone that way because it never seemed ripe for possibility the way going down into the city does. But tonight, I climbed.

Like I said recently, it's getting to be fall in Germany. The trees are magnificent shades of red and brown and orange, the air is crisp, and people are waking up as the cold creeps in. I love fall, and it's been a spectacular few days (I'll post photos soon, somewhere). But tonight it was utterly dark and windy as I meandered up the way, and to my surprise I discovered that at the end of my street there's a path into the forest of the Gaisberg. Having no flashlight on a moonless night and less than 10% battery left on my phone, it was naturally a perfect idea to wander into a forest where I couldn't see anything around me and was more or less ascending by feel. What could be wiser?

I don't think it's a surprise to anyone reading this blog when I say that faith has been very deeply on my mind for the last number of years as I've tried to mull over what I know and don't, and what I don't believe and do—and crucially, how apparent dichotomies between what I know and what I have been raised to believe should somehow be reconciled. It's a big part of why I came to Germany. It's a big part of why I haven't been active in the Mormon faith for the last year and change. It's a big part of who I am.

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. — Ren√© Descartes

It's not an easy place to be nor a light thing to say. When addressing it with ecclesiastical leaders at BYU there was always the quick and oft-repeated question of my personal behavior that turned me away from open dialogue. It felt so disingenuous, the notion that my questions must be because of moral failings, and not that I could simply be a person living correctly who was looking for answers to deeply personal questions of faith. Why would my being open about trying to believe instantly bring into question my character? If anything, I felt like it ought to solidify it. And to their credit, some treated it as a valid and necessary process towards faith that must happen if one is really seeking to find answers about the tricky parts of life. But ultimately, I felt like it was a tacitly forbidden topic when surrounded by so many people saying so confidently "I know."  How could they know? What did they really know? What am I missing?

As I wandered into the black forest (on the boundary of the Black Forest), I turned back to this topic and realized right away just how appropriate it was to be musing on doubt when walking through a place where I was sure to die, or worse, be killed. Ostensibly because of wind, but really because of serial killers hiding in trees, there were branches and things falling all around me and I had no way of knowing my path nor my destination as I trudged up that steep hill. That's not to say that it was bad, but it was an effort — and a curiously exhilarating effort at that (though I felt like I was letting Heisenberg down, knowing neither my position nor speed). At one point I thought I saw a light ahead, but it turned out that it was a distant helicopter I was walking towards, and fortunately I realized that before I fell to ruin where the path curved up the hill.

The great thing about musing on faith and doubt in the dark on a steep German hill with no lights nor cell service and no moon and a narrow path and crevasses and wind and trees looming and only the fear of being eaten by drop bears propelling you is that it gives very visceral physical form to the idea of seeking truth, in much the same way as Nephi's vision may have directed his way. By sheer luck (may one use that word when writing about faith?) I had remembered this quote from E. F. Schumacher only shortly before:

…through all our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites, which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled…we do it by bringing into the situation a force that belongs to a higher level where opposites are transcended — the power of love …Divergent problems, as it were, force us to strain ourselves to a level above ourselves; they demand, and thus provoke the supply of forces from a higher level, thus bringing love, beauty, goodness and truth into our lives. It is only with the help of these higher forces that the opposites can be reconciled in the living situation. — E. F. Schumacher

First of all, that quote is awesome. Secondly, I think it very really and deeply portrays why it's crucial in life to try to reconcile the opposites that bug us, or, as Descartes hinted at, to allow doubt to play its role. Indeed, Ambrose Bierce takes it further when he said "who never doubted, never half believed. Where doubt is, there truth is — it is her shadow." I hope and believe that there's tremendous value in accepting questions we may have. Coming from a Mormon background, I have questions about the history of the church and its leaders. I have questions about the existence of God. Some days I have questions about the existence of me (but then I think, and all is well). 

It was doubt I felt as I walked up the hill, both in the physical sense and in the meta-spiritual way that was all the more poignant in the darkness. Robert Service advises us in no uncertain terms to Carry On! when we're desolate in deserts of doubt, but is that the right action? Climbing, I could wonder if I was going anywhere at all, and I did have the very nagging feeling that if something went wrong it could be a while before someone discovered me. And taking the analogy further, the same could be said of my spiritual well-being if I persisted too long with these questions.

I'm so glad for the words of the Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Weston:

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief. Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.

Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief. The truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands. But those who fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on rock. They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure. 

Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the attendant of truth. — Robert Weston 

It's only recently in this journey that I've come to some sort of realization that doubt and faith may work together as "opposites, which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled." It seems to me now that there may or must be a third way between proclaimed knowledge and disbelief, where I can say that there are things that I don't understand—but that that is okay. That my asking questions is not only what makes me human, but is also what brings me closer to the divine, as I try my best to go forward each day with whatever faith I can muster. It gives me hope, and makes me glad. I may not know; instead, I can do as Lessing said and make sincere exertions to get to the truth. He said that it is by that pursuit that a man "extends his powers" and finds his "ever-growing perfectibility," which is such a glad thought. Maybe it's okay to strive and to seek and not to yield, even if this life isn't about finding. It's tension that makes us strong.

After walking for nearly six hours—or maybe twenty minutes—my dark and scary wood suddenly gave way to a beautiful view of the glimmering city below, perched on both sides of the peaceful Neckar river. And just as quickly all of this seemed to snap into place for me. It was peaceful up there, with the stars and quick clouds overhead and the faint sounds of people below. Life, with all its challenges, is most excellent, and it seems that the search for truth is one of the best fights there is. And while it's an uphill battle trying to reconcile faith and doubt, I feel like I'm on the right path.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Radical Simplicity.

This is a post on function.

I'm back in Germany, which means that I'm back—after a delightful wedding and a jaunt to Park City—to the daily grind of being a productive student. Ha. It's around 5AM, and thanks to the addling effects of jet lag I'm awake, and thinking about things that I want to change in my life in order to be better at studying, and generally just better at living. And for me, I think a key to that is radically simplifying what I do, when.

There are, I think, three principle steps I need to make to better change my focus from the banal to the effective:

  1. Taking care of myself
  2. Reducing distractions
  3. Underscheduling my time
Essentially, this post is supposed to be a guideline for specific steps that I want to take to be more focused—because the economics of behavior dictate that we'll sort of fall into a lowest-energy orbital in the decisions we make, the obvious goal of any system of improvements should be to reduce exposure to those lesser options. Remove them as choices and you can't choose them. 

It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom. - Aristotle

I read some time ago that it's very intentional that television ads at 6 AM are for BMW and Charles Schwab and that ads at 11 PM are for china dolls and Oxi Clean, in easy payments: whether someone considers themselves a night owl or not, virtually everyone is more effective in the morning. A similar spin on the same idea was this Chinese proverb quoted by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: "No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich." It's easy enough for me today, with jet lag; making it sustainable could be a little more challenging.  With early rising, I'm also going to aim for at least eight hours of sleep a night, with nine hours blocked away being preferred.

Because I'm usually pretty good at exercise, I'll address that less here. It's simple enough to say that everyone out to aim for at least two to three hours of exercise a week, whether that means brisk jogging or killing themselves in cyclocross.  It keeps you happy and healthy, helps manage weight, improves focus and mental acuity, and even promotes cool things like the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor—and besides, happy people just don't kill their husbands. 'Nough said.

Discipline is the training which makes punishment unnecessary. - Pat Conroy

Now it's time for honesty as I get to point two: how much time do I spent per day on Facebook, Reddit, Quora (how ironic), computer forums, shopping sites, and other online time-killers? And how many times a day to I glance at my phone to see what's new on any one of the myriad communications channels there? Between social networks, email, and messaging, there are currently 12 different ways for someone to contact me on my phone — and counting the fact that it's a phone puts me up to a baker's dozen. That's insane, and that with hours of cheap browsing are unsustainable activities in an effective life. So I need to think on how to reshape the way I incorporate them into my school time: perhaps simple elimination of phone usage, and limiting email checks to thrice a day could be an answer. And then I can hit up Reddit after 5, when everyone is awake again anyway.

I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex. - Fred Rogers

Getting to the heart of it, the most important part for me will simply be to reduce the number of items I focus on to ensure that I'm not overbooking myself and losing the thread of important activities. Double majors have become the new undergrad degree in terms of impressiveness, and we're encouraged to tack on as many extracurriculars as possible, but what does that really show? In some sense, it probably shows that we're spread pretty thin. For me, the things I really care about are pretty narrow: school, learning some programming (next up, Python and advanced Excel), cycling, and experiencing Germany. Everything else is noise, roughly speaking.

The nice thing about narrowing things down is that it largely eliminates the stress of time, it promotes focus on the things that ARE important, and it leaves time for creativity and wholesome leisure—important things that fall too quickly by the wayside, and things that make people happy and whole.

I guess none of this is really news, and maybe none of this is even relevant for anyone else, but it's important for me: I waste too much time, and I could take better care of myself. I need to reduce the number of things I'm involved in, and focus on core competencies where I can improve. Radical simplicity is the key. Less is more.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hello again.

It's been a few years.

Life is good, but somehow writing—or at least, blogging—has fallen by the wayside. (To add to that, this blog badly needed pruning; from now on I'll let the chips fall.) But tonight seems to be the night for it, because I'm feeling pensive: slow rain is falling on my windows as I look out at the valley, and the breeze smells like fall. It's a Robert Frost sort of night.

A quick and arbitrary list of changes since my last post: I'm living in Germany now, having gone back and forth two and a half times in as many years; I'm a student at Washington State University, showing Information Systems who's boss; I just finished an internship with the software giant SAP and enjoyed it there; I'm on the right track for good employment and great life adventures.

Salty and wind-swept, but warm and glittering. Keeping in step with the measure under the fixed stars of the task. How many personal failures are due to a lack of faith in this harmony between human beings, at once strict and gentle. - Dag Hammarskjöld

An interesting side effect of wandering is a sort of wistful loneliness, which seems to be hanging around this evening. It's not a bad thing, necessarily: Charles Bukowski called isolation a gift when talking about the important of going all the way for your dreams. With any luck, that's where I am now. But the world is cool and quiet and it makes the thousands of miles to friends and family that much more poignant in my thoughts. What does it mean, that I choose to be here?

Yesterday I went to the Frankfurt International Auto Show, which was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Just to give an idea, the first hall we went into was Lamborghini, Bentley, Porsche, and Bugatti — and I don't think I stopped salivating for the ensuing eight hours. I sat in all sorts of cars, including the new Bentley Flying Spur, and decided that the BMW S1000RR is definitely the winner as far as sport bikes are concerned. But more interesting to me now was walking into the Frankfurt Flughafen Fernbahnhof (the railway station at the airport) to come back to Heidelberg and realizing that, to some degree or another, I've assimilated into the culture here — and then feeling that it's assimilated into me.

I've said over and over again that I'd love to live here; now it's happening, and it's at once right and terribly bewildering. As a person with two passports, I sometimes get the eery feeling that I'm a man without a country, straddling the Atlantic without a sure notion of where I really belong. When I was in an Apple Store on Friday, I talked to another dual citizen who's lived here for the last 30 years, and he said exactly the same. The way he explained it is that he didn't know where he would want to be buried, adding quickly that he hoped he had some time to think on it. It seems like that's the perfect way to describe it.

A friend of mine once wrote a sentence that's stuck in my memory: "When August comes, I will truly be alone in the city." I thanked her, then, for what she had to say on a Christmas Eve in the dark hours of night, but then that one sentence stuck around because it so clearly expressed to me what it's like to suddenly be expected to be an adult — suddenly expected to move up to the big leagues and pretend to know what life means and what to make of it. I'm certainly not there, and with the thoughts that I have as the person that I am, it remains the great intractable question that stays with me. But she kept dancing, and it's the most hopeful thing that could come from such a sentence.

For some, I think answers come in some form of religion or spirituality, or in a clearly defined purpose that drives them to the work. Some, having the laborious luxury of knowing their life's calling, have no choice but to push on in doing it. I don't know that I have any of those things. As Mr. Frost, I have walked out in rain and back in rain, and always at those moments that I'm acquainted with the night because I'm struggling to stay acquainted with myself, looking for answers or for a path or even just a breath of fresh air that gives me the quiet slumber that sometimes seeks to flee.

Men yearn for poetry though they may not confess it; they desire that joy shall be graceful and sorrow august and infinity have form... - E.M. Forster

I suppose this is all a roundabout way of asking where I ought to be and what I ought to do. My gut says that I should be here and that I really am on the right track, but that doesn't eliminate the ifs, the whats, and the whys of living. Does anyone figure those out? Question mark.

In the meantime, fall is coming. The rain has stopped and now I can hear the sound of the A5 Autobahn (Basel-Frankfurt) and raindrops slipping from the trees. Somehow it's a perfect season for me, as the weather cools and the nights grow longer, trees change and the stars lend themselves to chilly observation on the hoods of cars or blankets that soak through too quickly. Fall is coming, and it is good.