The holiday break was broken up a large bit for me by a (still lingering) sickness, and I was not nearly as productive as intended. The word productive is important here, because while I did not produce, I did learn. Some Haskel and some Ruby (a fair bit) and some extra things about pretty pretty git and last off, three very cool things. I think they could be very important things. Let’s sum them up as
1. Work alone.
2. Take small bites.
3. Go deep.
Or in silly-sentence format, “Solitude, smallitude and depthitude — a great attitude to avoid ineptitude!”
First came this fantastic post at zenhabits, which I’ve pointed out to a few friends for the reasons of “isn’t this so well put and sensible” and also “I might be seeing you a bit less.” We won’t overlap content more than has already happened, but I feel like pointing out that as a section, “The Greats” is extremely compelling.
My own addendum to it would be to recall that at often, music and television are a ‘company supplement’. They can help you feel less alone; like a friend in the room that you don’t need to pay attention to. When you stop for a moment to think, it’s very easy to pay attention to them instead of producing or designing or deducing. I’ve already reaped large thought-benefits from turning off my music or the TV in the background and just having some peace and quiet.
I never beat The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. My Nintendo has been broken for two years, but before then I had it from launch day. I played it a fair bit, taking my sweet time, but played it less than I should have. This was because I only wanted to play it in gargantuan chunks. I wanted to sit down and play for 10 or 12 hours at once! This was unreasonable, and it only happened two or three times. With my dawdling, that put me just past the water temple. Over two years.
Over this just ended holiday break, every time I would sit down with a plan, with hours of time, and say “I will accomplish great things!” — I did not. After reading a single page of a book I’d get all yawn-y, and fall asleep. Or time would disappear into a foolish tangent full of “just a minute” things, and I’d find out for example that Frederick the Great may have been gay or he may have had his genitals kind of messed up, but regardless he played a mean flute concerto [thanks, wikipedia].
So how could to fix this?! One evening as I woke up, I realized that I was sitting in a mess. In a room that wasn’t my bedroom — it was the living room. A roommate popped his head around the corner to complain about all the pots and pans on the stove, and I had to embarrassingly (truthfully) claim them as mine. What had led here? I can tell you: the need to only do great things. To spend a whole hour thinking about ‘what to do’, and then to demand enough time to do it all in a sitting, and to expect that of myself. It is tiring to plan a long road out — sometimes that works, but it’s got to be rare.
So I thought to myself, laying on the couch, “I should just find some small things I can do to improve the situation. Just something that’ll take me a minute or two. Something concrete I can do to make a real impact.” At that moment I took my dishes into the kitchen, and then on a spur of energy I did the dishes. Surprisingly, all of them! And just enjoyed getting more done than I’d set out to do.
Small steps get done.
This is one I haven’t yet had the ability to test as well as the others, but it’s perhaps the most important. I read another excellent post featured at The Longnow Foundation. It’s always fun to read about Feynman (surely I must be joking) but what struck me here was the following,
For Richard, figuring out these problems was a kind of a game. He always started by asking very basic questions like, “What is the simplest example?” or “How can you tell if the answer is right?” He asked questions until he reduced the problem to some essential puzzle that he thought he would be able to solve. Then he would set to work, scribbling on a pad of paper and staring at the results. While he was in the middle of this kind of puzzle solving he was impossible to interrupt. “Don’t bug me. I’m busy,” he would say without even looking up. Eventually he would either decide the problem was too hard (in which case he lost interest), or he would find a solution (in which case he spent the next day or two explaining it to anyone who listened).
That man would sit down and work. He would get to the bottom of things that he didn’t understand yet, and he figured out very smart ways to think about very difficult things, cutting cruft and animating dense topics. One more snippet,
Concentrating on the algorithm for a basic arithmetic operation was typical of Richard’s approach. He loved the details. In studying the router, he paid attention to the action of each individual gate and in writing a program he insisted on understanding the implementation of every instruction. He distrusted abstractions that could not be directly related to the facts.
Feynman was indubitably a beast of accomplishment, and I think that his ability to go deep and to enjoy doing it – just for the sake of understanding crazy or hard things – was instrumental to that. Among so much else. But it led me to believing that more often, I need to go deep down into a topic. When I think I’ve grasped it, I shouldn’t move on because “I know how to solve it”, I should solve it.
All of this is part of a great attitude of course – it requires it and builds it. In combination, it helps me to see a bit more that it’s not so important what I study and practice, only that I study and practice, and things will work themselves out. Going forward, strive for constructive solitude, smallitude, and depthitude. Hopefully we can avoid ineptitude.