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Learning from things I like: Books about applying advice to your life

I’m fascinated by books about applying advice to your life. “Stunt memoir” seems to be the phrase for it – or gimmick book, or schtick lit. (This post lists lots of examples.) Part self-help book and part memoir, these are usually broken up into one chapter per principle, applying research or time-tested ideas to everyday life. Book titles are often long multi-parters where the second part refers to the adventure or lists an incongruous combination of techniques. The authors illustrate principles with struggles, successes, and epiphanies, and then eventually make their peace with the advice. Oddly enough, chapters tend to fit rather neatly into the usual three-act story structure – the storyteller’s craft at work.

A year seems to be a common size for these experiments, often divided into one principle per month: long enough to test ideas and write a decent-sized book for print. I think that one principle a month looks manageable for readers, too: not so short that you won’t see changes, and not so long that you’d get bored or discouraged.

Here are some examples:

I imagine that writing such a book is good for self-improvement even if no one else ever buys or reads it, so any sales are a bonus. I wonder what the process of writing that kind of a book is like: how to organize notes into a narrative, how to push yourself beyond what’s easy.

There are lots of experiments I could run along those lines:

  • Self-tracking: focusing on quantifying different things per month, bringing in research as well. Time, finance, productivity, mood, habits, fitness, food, learning, thinking, relationships, others
  • Practical philosophy: paying close attention to ancient wisdom and applying that to daily life
  • Behavioural economics and psychology in daily life: rationality, decision-making, etc.

Still, I want to be careful about the kinds of things that have rubbed me and other people the wrong way A month is not that long, and sometimes these books feel a little… shallow? Like someone’s going through the Cliff Notes for a deep idea, trying out a few things, and then calling it a day. As if someone’s just going through a checklist, crossing off different techniques. There’s also that consciousness of privilege, and the self-absorption of memoirs. That said, I write about my reflections a lot on this blog, so… maybe? I tend to think of it more as “Ack, there’s so much I still have to figure out; if I post my notes, maybe someone will take pity on me and share their insights (or possibly recognize something that they might find useful in theirs)” rather than “Here, learn from my life.”

So… I don’t know. On one hand, I like the “I’m figuring this out too” approach compared to the didactic awesomer-than-thou feel of many self-help books. On the other hand, I’m not keen on the “My life is incomplete and unhappy; I must search outside for ways to make it better.”

What’s at the core of the things I like about these kinds of books?

  • Translates research or principles into everyday actions: There’s a lot of good stuff buried in scientific language, abstract concepts, or even self-help books. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine applying those ideas to real life, and seeing someone go through the process (recovering from mistakes and all!) can help.
  • Pays attention to things we often take for granted: We do many things repeatedly and with little attention. If we look closely at them, we can get better. For example, if we think about a principle and relate it to how we want to communicate, make decisions, or use our time, we’ll often find things that we can tweak and turn into new habits.
  • Shares the struggles and the little celebrations: Self-help books can feel a little too pat with all their success stories. I relate a little better to stories along the lines of “Yeah, this was hard to learn, but here’s how I picked myself up and tried again. Here are some things that made it a little easier for me until I got the hang of it. This is what encouraged me to keep going, and now here I am. Maybe this can help you too.”
  • Connects with people who are even more dedicated to the topic: Some books sprinkle in quotes from researchers and authors. Some books include conversations with specialists. Some books delve into subcultures of people who are even more passionate about the principles and have lots of insights to share. I like the last type most of all; it’s like having an excuse to meet and learn from geeks of other persuasions.

Maybe less stunt-ish, then? I’m not thinking of these as radical changes to my life (“Oh, I only have to do this a month at a time, for a year”), but more like gradual improvement. I can always try things informally, and then stitch the essays together into a book. It might not be as impressive as spending one contiguous year focused on something, packaging this up for other people’s entertainment and perhaps inspiration, but we’ll see where it goes. =)

Planning my next little business

I’ve been holding back from experimenting with new businesses. I’m not sure how the next few months are going to be like, and I don’t want to make commitments like sketchnote event bookings or additional freelance contracts. Besides, focusing on my own stuff has been an interesting experiment so far, and I want to continue it.

Still, from time to time, I get the itch to build systems and processes for creating value for other people. For example, when I talk to people who are struggling to find jobs or having a hard time building freelance businesses, I want to support and encourage them by helping them see opportunities. Talking about stuff can feel a bit empty, but actually doing stuff–and showing how to do it–is more helpful, especially since I seem to be more comfortable with sales, marketing, and business experimentation than many people are.

So, depending on how these next few months turn out, what are the kinds of businesses that I’d like to build?

  • E-books and other resources: I like the way free/pay-what-you-want information makes it easy for people to learn without friction and still be able to show their appreciation through payment, conversation, links, or other good things. I also like the scale of it: I can spend some time working on a resource, and then people can come across it when they need it. No schedule commitments, either.
  • Software, maybe?: Someday. The upsides of working on stuff that other people use: feature suggestions, warm-and-fuzzies. The downside: dealing with bugs. I think the first step would be to build tools for myself.
  • Visual book reviews?: People seem to like these, and I enjoy reading.

Let me take a step back here and break that out into the specific characteristics I like. If I identify those characteristics, I might be able to recognize or imagine other businesses along those lines. What attracts me?

  • Scale: Build once, help many. I don’t mind lower sales at the beginning if I’m working on the kinds of things that people will find useful over a long period of time.
  • Accumulation: I like collecting building blocks in terms of content and skills because I can combine those in interesting ways.
  • Generosity: I like free/pay-what-you-want because it allows me to reach the most people and feel great about the relationships.
  • Flexibility: I like minimizing schedule or topic commitments because that reduces stress and lets me adapt to what’s going on. Self-directed work fits me well.
  • Distinction: I like doing things that involve uncommon perspectives or combinations of skills. I feel like I can bring more to the table.
  • Value: I like things that help people learn more, understand things better, save time or money, share what they know, or be more excited about life.
  • Other things I care about: I care about making good ideas more accessible, which is why I like transcripts, sketchnotes, writing, and websites. I also care about helping good people do well, which is why I help friends with their businesses.

Writing fits these characteristics pretty well. If I can help friends through process coaching and things like that, I can learn more about things that other people might find useful too. It’s entirely possible to build good stuff around just this learn-share-scale cycle. Anything else (spin-off businesses? software? services) would be a bonus.

I have a little more uncertainty to deal with. I can see the timeline for it, so I’m okay with giving myself permission to take it easy for the next couple of months. After that, I’ll probably have a clearer idea of what the rest of this experiment with semi-retirement (and other follow-up experiments! =) ) could be like.

What would more focused writing or content creation look like? I might:

  • Pick a subject people are curious about and write a series of blog posts that I can turn into e-books
  • Revisit that outline of things to write about and flesh it in
  • Organize blog posts and other content into downloadable resources
  • Create courses so that people can go through things at a recommended pace and with multimedia content
    • Ooh, more animations

I think that would be an interesting life. =)

I still want to do something to help all these awesome people I come across who are having a hard time finding jobs or building businesses for themselves, though. It’s odd hearing about their struggles while at the same time watching the stock market keep going up – businesses seem to be doing okay, but it’s not trickling down? Maybe I’ll spend more time listening to people and asking what could help. Maybe I can spend some time connecting with business owners and seeing if I can understand their needs, too. Knowledge, ideas, and encouragement are easy, but there are probably even better ways to help. Hmm… That gives me a focus for networking at events. Looking forward to helping!

Weekly review: Week ending July 18, 2014

Lots and lots and lots of reading last week. Yay! Also, more talking to people. This week: meetings, another Emacs Chat episode, and more.

Blog posts

Link round-up

  • HeartMath Considered Incoherent: Fascinating analysis.
  • Using Themed Work Weeks instead of Themed Work Days: Sprints tend to work well for me too, although I generally don’t decide the theme far in advance.
  • Is it Ok to Be Happily Retired?: Sometimes I feel self-conscious about this experiment while other people around me work hard or struggle to find work. I’m getting better at giving myself permission to learn stuff, though, and I enjoy using some of my time to help out.
  • The Problem with Asking for Advice: I like the test of thinking about whether you’re going to change your behaviour based on the input. This also reminds me of why I push back on a lot of poll/survey questions with the meta-question: “What are we going to do about the answers?”

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (23.8h – 14%)
    • Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
    • Earn (17.4h – 73% of Business)
    • Build (0.5h – 2% of Business)
      • Drawing (0.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.5h)
    • Connect (5.8h – 24% of Business)
  • Relationships (5.0h – 2%)
    • Have coffee with Nadia
    • Host party
    • Discuss F
    • Have coffee with Andrew
  • Discretionary – Productive (24.8h – 14%)
    • Fix website
    • Emacs (1.2h – 0% of all)
      • Record chat with Harry Schwartz
    • Writing (4.5h)
      • What are people looking for when they talk about challenges?
      • Quiet days
      • Don’t worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization
      • Books about applying advice to your life
  • Discretionary – Play (7.7h – 4%)
  • Personal routines (31.1h – 18%)
  • Unpaid work (9.3h – 5%)
  • Sleep (66.4h – 39% – average of 9.5 per day)

Hacklab open houses and connecting through cooking

I joined Hacklab (a small makerspace here in Toronto) early in 2013. I thought of it mostly as a way to meet people who are working on interesting projects, hang out, and learn together. It’s been working out well, and I’m gradually getting into helping the community more.

Hacklab hosts an open house every Tuesday evening. It’s a good opportunity for prospective members to check out the place and chat with people about their projects. We usually put together a vegan dinner donated by the person cooking it so that it’s free for the members and guests (although sometimes people pitch in for groceries). There’s no fixed schedule; people just volunteer to cook whenever they want. When I’m there, I often volunteer. I treat it as a vegan cooking lesson / soup kitchen / party. Sure, I’m teaching myself, but it’s still an excuse to try new recipes. I think the people there are worth supporting, and cooking is a much more efficient use of money than having people go out to dinner. Besides, other people often help with preparing the ingredients, and we can chat while doing so.

Here are some easy dishes that we can make with ingredients from nearby grocery stories:

  • Gazpacho: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, garlic; serve with bread
  • Pasta salad: peas, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers
  • Curry: potatoes, carrots, green beans, tofu, onions; there are plenty of spices in the cabinet
  • Ratatouille: potatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic; serve with bread
  • Lentil dal: tomatoes, lentils, ginger, garlic, onions

I think I’ll make recipe cards with serving numbers and cost estimates. That will probably make it easier to come up with dinners on the fly, and it might encourage other people to cook too.

We’ve been slowly improving the Hacklab kitchen. The addition of pots, a rice cooker, and lots of cutlery helped a lot. (It was difficult to cook and serve before those things!) Last week, I replaced the rather ineffective and hadn’t-been-washed-in-ages kitchen towels with two sets I’d made from some fabric we had at home. I’ll add the towels to our weekly laundry cycle, so things actually get washed. Storage is still an issue. The fridge is used mostly for drinks, so we try to not have any left-over ingredients or servings.

I’m not currently working on super-geeky projects that involve other members or the equipment that’s there. (It would be interesting to do more with the laser cutter, 3D printers, or the new mill!) But cooking gives me a way to help other people, so that’s something.

I think I like this approach of taking responsibility for making Hacklab a little bit better for people. You get as much out of a community as you put in, and these little domestic touches can help make a place feel more like home. (I’m going to keep nudging people to put their dishes in the dishwasher, though! ;) )

So why does this feel easy compared to, say, having people over for a party or potluck at home? The kitchen at home is better-equipped, and both groceries and left-overs are easier to deal with. Maybe it’s because I can decide whether or not to go to Hacklab on the day itself. I can leave whenever I want, too. There are usually lots of people at Hacklab and they’re good at keeping themselves occupied or talking to each other, so I don’t have to worry about any awkward moments or entertaining just one person. There are lots of things going on in the area, so people can always step out for a different meal or take a breather in case there aren’t any seats or in case things are overwhelming. Hmm, maybe if I invite people to catch up at these open houses instead of waiting until I work up to having parties at home… Not everyone all at once, maybe one or two invitations at a time. Hacklab’s a bit loud, but we could always go for a walk if needed. That might work. Who knows? They might meet interesting people there too.

Quiet days

I set aside Tuesdays and Thursdays for consulting. Fridays are for meetings and getting together with people. Saturdays are for spending time with my husband or having the rare party, and Sundays are for cooking and chores.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are discretionary time. I could spend those days working. My consulting clients would love to have more time, and there are all sorts of other things I could work on as well.

I’ve been making myself find good uses of that time on my own, though. Depending on the projects I’m focusing on, I might spend those days coding, drawing, reading, or writing. Lately, I’ve been working my way through a stack of philosophy books from the library. Histories give me overviews and show me the relationships between thinkers, while treatises give me the context for all these quotes that have been floating around.

Hmm. Maybe that’s what fascinates me about philosophy at the moment. I’ve picked up bits and pieces of wisdom through quotes and summaries. Now I want to learn more about the context of those sound bites and the thought processes behind them. I want to reflect on the maxims, choose the ones I want to apply to life, and learn how to observe and improve. At some point, I’ll probably feel that I can learn more from experience than from books, and then I’ll jump back into the fray. In the meantime, it’s amazing to be able to condense centuries of thought into afternoons of reading. Not that I fully understand everything, but there’s enough to spark awareness and recognition.

I’m not particularly interested in the big questions of metaphysics, epistemology, or logic. Ethics, maybe–small “e” ethics, not as much the Ethics of What Everyone Ought To Do. I want to get better at choosing what’s good for me and doing it. The ancient Greeks have a lot to say about that, and some of the later philosophers also do.

I’m not an entrepreneur, or at least not yet. I’m using this space and capital to improve myself (or at least theoretically improve myself) instead of building a business. I’m not even focused on learning a marketable skill that I can list on my résumé, although I’m sure my interests will turn towards that at some point. In the meantime, it feels good to lay the groundwork for more clarity and better decisions.

What’s the next step? Well, since I’m interested in applied philosophy, that probably means testing these ideas out in everyday life. On the personal side, there’s living simply and thoughtfully. On the social side, maybe practising more loving-kindness. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a pure philosopher, so I’ll likely use my time to learn, code, write, and draw. I wonder what I’ll be curious about after I build a good foundation in this area. Useful skills, perhaps? Design and aesthetics? Business? We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll give my mind enough space to unfold questions and learn from the notes that people have left for us.

Designing Help and Support: Skype

I’ve looked at Adobe and Apple, both of whom run their support communities on Jive. Here’s a look at Skype.

2014-07-02 14_35_54-English - Skype Community

Skype uses a typical forum layout (categories, forums, # of topics, # of replies, latest post) with extra widgets to highlight announcements, contributors, solutions, and blog posts.

2014-07-02 14_39_50-Windows (desktop client) - Skype Community

Forum pages list threads, number of views,  replies, and kudos. Sticky threads are labeled as “floated”. As with Apple, I’d probably link to relevant knowledgebase categories from here, to save people the navigation and to encourage them to explore.

2014-07-02 14_40_58-Welcome to the Skype Community - Skype Community

 

The forums include a link to this welcome post. It includes brief instructions and quick links.

2014-07-02 14_42_55-News and Announcements - Skype Community

The News and Announcements section is a list of blog posts with excerpts. The light blue line that separates each post practically disappears into the page background. I would probably make the author photos consistent-width, post titles more prominent (probably darker, larger, and flush left with the margin) so that they’re easier to scan, include a slightly longer excerpt, and maybe make the kudos icon less prominent. The bright green makes the kudos icon the most salient thing on the page.

By golly, I’m actually starting to develop opinions! =)