Sean on Personal Development

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Continual Education

I had a discussion with a coworker today about the use of new technologies in a department's development (this was mired in a larger discussion).

Her big point was that new, fresh-faced (read, "recently out of college") people in an organization fill an essential role by bringing new technologies to a group because they've had recent education on the latest-and-greatest. The older people get locked in their ways with old technologies, and a development team / department needs revitalization occaisionally with new people. She argued that older professionals didn't need to follow newer technologies because they had to support their previous work. It was almost as if the only way new technology gets introduced was through new people.

I don't agree.

I think it is the responsibility of each person to keep up to date on technologies, on art forms, on whatever your chosen industry is. I cannot fathom why someone would not want to do so, yet my coworker insisted that it was near impossible for experienced people to not get locked in their ways. The discussion was primarily targetting computer programmers, but I feel it applies almost universally to any technical skills or business organization as well.

I get the impression that many consider education to be somethat that happens in classrooms before you start your career. That, other than spice/job training later on, you get educated first, then go and get your job. When there, you should focus on producing whatever widget you've been assigned by doing what you already know, keep your nose to the grindstone, and don't look up.

I say that's just short-sighted and a misalignment of priorities. Why isn't continual education valued more? Why don't most people make it a high priority to keep up to date? Don't they want to stay competitive with the best tools available? Wouldn't they want to adopt better perspectives towards old ideas? And for those of us still stuck in day jobs, don't they think it is their responsibility to provide the highest quality they can? Doesn't that often rely on using the best one can? It seems to me that continual education only helps you keep an edge.

Admittedly, I've always been a "latest-and-greatest" guy. But there's an important part of that: "latest-and-greatest." In general, the main reason that new technologies, methods or perspectives get adopted is because they have a perceived (and often real) benefit over existing methods. If they don't add anything, they'll get tossed to the curb. And of course, if they do improve the industry, then you better keep up or you'll get tossed.


Thursday, December 15, 2005

"Don't Sweat It" Iterations

I've always been an advocate of the "Don't Sweat It" philosophy. If something is stressing you out, realize that, no matter the outcome, what will be, will be. This is not to say that you shouldn't let deadlines push you to work more efficiently, or emergencies to make you work harder. Rather, life is going to proceed whether you stress about something or not, and generally stressing only wastes time and makes you perform worse. Keep your head up, take a deep "shaw breath"* and pursue your goals with a clear head.

I think most people understand this on an intellectual level. However, complete application (to the point that the stress is no longer a concern) is a bit different. I still find sources of stress about which I'm bothering. But because I recognize this, it's easier to step back, realize it's pointless to worry, and then move on with life. It's probably one of my most useful abilities. Each time I come to recognize the stress, I iterate through these same steps to minimize or remove the stress.

Even today I found myself stressing over escaping my job. I was irritated that I was forced to continue in the position and how much of my time it consumed. But I realized that it was adding stress, and that I couldn't debate the fact that I needed the funds provided by the job.

So, since it was nigh-impossible for me to quit the job now and keep up my goal pursuit, why should I stress over it? And with that, I could remove one more stressor and more clearly focus on my path ahead.

So, think about it: How many things in your life do you worry about that you need to keep in your life, or have no control over them? Why are you still worrying about it?? Recognize the stressing is a silly waste of time, smile, and move on.


*A "shaw breath" is something I learned in my voice / acting coursework (I was a Theatre Arts minor in addition to my Computer Science degree). It involves a deep, full-lung breath, which is then let out on a heavy "Shhh" for at least a 10 count. It does wonders to calm the nerves and help focus. For extra focus, hold your arms horizontally out and the slowly lower them to your sides while completing the exhalation. Where'd the name come from? If I recall correctly, my voice teacher told us that "shaw" is a British term for "Shh" sound, but I can't find anything to verify this. Regardless, it's still a great tool for focusing.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Are We Allowed to Do Nothing?

I like chocolate. I'm a fan of both nice, rich European dark chocolates and American milk chocolates.

Today, I was eating some individually wrapped Dove chocolates. They have this thing where the wrappers actually have little inspirational messages contained on the inside of them (the Promises(R) messages)... and I got one that said "You're allowed to do nothing."

And I thought to myself, "No... no, I'm not allowed to do nothing. I've got goals and plans, and a whole heap of determination. If there's anything I'm not allowed to do, it's nothing."

Of course, this is with my current, determined mindset. I don't think I've ever been so determined in my life as I am to get out of the corporate lifestyle. I'm dedicating myself to this and my other goals nearly every waking hour.

But how many times have I agreed with that chocolate? How many times have I allowed myself to mindlessly surf the web, not consuming anything that I gain benefit from? On how many occaisions have I wasted time with poor management or just by being wasteful? Too many. And because of that, I settled to let myself and my career be just "good enough."

But I'm not doing that any longer. I'm not going to waste that time any more. And you shouldn't either.

Think about it: Have you let yourself do nothing? Don't you think it's time to cut back on the "nothing" time?

And besides, are you going to let a chocolate wrapper tell you what to do?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

"Why Not Me?" can become "Why Not Us?"

It's weird; the more I ruminate on my desk job and what's wrong with a corporate life, the more I come to some conclusions about how poeple work and how to keep your "eyes on the prize".

And the more I read Steve Pavlina's entries, the more I realize that I think we've come to similar conclusions on many topics. Except that I think I've been a little more optimistic about other people's approaches.

Today, he posted Why Not You?, an essay in his usual style where he challenges his readers to tackle the problems they see instead of just wishing it would go away. I've reached the same conclusion as he: that if one doesn't start working to fix a problem, then they're doing nothing but perpetuating it.

Here's where we differed (but I think my opinion has been swaying recently): I always thought that this was the way things worked.

I always thought that people, corporate-type professionals especially, when presented with a problem, would find some way to fix it. I figured that they wouldn't just work around a problem for days, months, even years at a time without at least plunking at it a little. I thought that, when problems came up, people worked to fix the problem.

How naive of me, I guess.

Most people don't fix problems. They hide from them. They don't look at problems as opportunities, but instead let their animal instincts cut in (you know, "run!") and take over. It's hard not to do so, when 3-some odd billion years of evolution have taught us to do this (we've not always been on top of the food chain, you know).

But we're smart, and we can move beyond living with just our instincts. We all know this on some level, and it's exciting during those times that we really wake up and achieve more than fight-or-flight. Even more exciting? Waking up others.

This is why I really like this particular essay. Whether Steve realizes it or not, if you're in a situation where you start visibly tackling a problem, others start waking up and working on it, too. Chances are, you're not the only one who's run into it. The others were just too busy listening to their adrenal gland to do anything about it. But with you being a pioneer, people are going to follow.

This is great because not only are you elevating the consciousness level of others, you're also creating your very own support network with you in the center. Since you blazed the way, people will look up to you. This can mean a whole lot. When people look up to you, they invest something in you. They have a stake in your success. They'll work to make sure that you also can succeed. Then, if you fail, as is possible if you're really challenging yourself, at least there'll be others around you that can get you moving again faster. And who knows? Maybe they follow you onto your next project, tool.

Of course, having a few more hands tackling a problem doesn't hurt, either. Taking the first few steps to fixing a problem may be hard, but you can almost count on it paying off when you're leader of the group pulling it off.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Do What You Gotta Do

I deeply value my focused creative time. When I get into "the Zone", I don't want to give it up for anything. And I'll go to some lengths to hold onto that focus.

For me, a lot of getting into the zone has to do with what I've been calling "the Muse" (which simply put, is just an anthropomorphization of an inspired, focused state). When I'm with the Muse, words/code/music/etc come quickly and naturally. I easily get two to three times as much creative work done during these times. I know that most people have experienced that same euphoric enthusiasm and focus.

Even with the added hours of polyphasic sleep, I still need to work to accomplish my personal desk job escape velocity. Additionally, if I want to maintain my social, spiritual, and emotional growth while doing this, I'll have to work efficiently. I need to maximize my time with the Muse. This is also true of anyone that wants to make the most efficient use of their time.

Steve Pavlina has some excellent suggestions on maximizing Muse-time in his essay Do It Now. The entire essay is an excellent read, but the uninterrupted time info is found under "Guard Thy Time".

But Steve suggests that in order to get into the zone, one must just work for at least 15 minutes. I find that this is not true if one is inspired. If you can work up some inspiration, you'll be focused in no time. Here's some tips that I find help me to get into the proper mindset:

Jump on inspiration. When the inspiration hits you, jump on it! Start work with it as fast as possible. Since you're starting with that basic, Muse-based rush, you'll probably be able to sustain it once you get into it. If you can't get right on it, consider getting a journal so that you can bottle up some of that creativity for a little while.

Read or listen to something along your goals that moves you. Find some positive, moving material and consume it. I enjoy reading Steve Pavlina's very popular personal development blog. I'm recently getting into more self-motivation material, as I think it may help me move myself along my goals. They're quite helpful to get into the zone because they're positive, encouraging, and many times have solid foundations of good ideas on which one can build. Other things that may help are texts on technical skills in your chosen goal, or industry related blogs or podcasts.

Dive headfirst into it. Sometimes, you just don't know where to begin. You can't decide where to start tackling a problem, or you're stuck with writer's block. To fix this, I just go for it. For example, for a computer programming problem where I can't see where to start, I just pick a task that will need done, sometimes randomly, and start coding away. Even if it doesn't work well, I've almost always gained a better understanding and appreciation for the problem, so can tackle it another way. For writing, if I'm really stuck without a topic, I'll start just catalogueing my thoughts. Eventually, a topic comes up that inspires me (usually quickly), and I can spin it off into its own entity to write about. Sometimes, the undirected musing becomes a topic unto itself.

Psyche yourself up. It feels weird at first, but if all else fails, tell yourself that you'll succeed. That you're the best at what you're doing. That you're just totally sweet. If you're really worried about your spouse or friends wondering what you're doing muttering "Dude, you rock. No, really. You're awesome. " then write yourself a letter. Go into detail about how and why you'll succeed. A great example I found was cornrow's motivational letter to himself when we was starting an attempt at polyphasic sleep. It seems a little funny at first, but I found it awe-inspiring the level to which he went to assure himself that he could do this. Never underestimate what a little ego stroking can do, even if you wrote it yourself. Sometimes that little boost is all you need to get cranking effectively.

Review your goals. Many places suggest putting your goals in precise, specific language, and writing them down in highly visible places. When I take a look at my goals, my determination resurfaces. All of the non-goal related things floating in my head evaporate, and I'm left with only thoughts that relate to the goal. Because goal review can help you slim down what you're thinking about, you'll also waste less time in non-goal oriented areas on your way to the Muse.

Take whatever means you need to keep that inspiration going. Find what works for you and do it. That excitement can become like a runners' high and can keep you going; it's like an addiction, and once you're hooked, you've gotta keep feeding it.

It's nice to be able to stand and say, "Hi, my name is Sean, and I'm a productivity junky." :)