An accomplishment!

I’ve written 11,116 words over the last month (not counting this post). That’s an average of 383 words per day! It’s no 50,000-word novel, but it feels like progress.

Two days ago my number of published posts exceeded my number of drafts. I’m glad this flipped – seeing drafts (63) vs. posts (22) discouraged me from publishing posts many, many times.

Solipsistic Q&A

Q. Am I contributing something by writing? Do I actually have things to say?

A. Writing for a month proves to me that I have some things to say, but I’m still in an absorbing phase of my life. I often envy those who are creative producers, i.e. people who appear to be bursting with interesting content all the time. I feel pressure to eventually get to the point of steadily outputting useful things, but perhaps no productive person is entirely idea outflows. In any case, I look forward to further idea incubation: reading and learning and thinking more. So… sort of.

Q. Has this been useful?

A. Two things have been useful – the interactions sparked with friends, and the forceful practice of daily ‘published’ writing. It’s easy to forget that being fluent with written words is important until forced to write something meaningful. So for the sake of writing important work emails, writing complaint letters to companies, writing online dating profiles, etc., it’s always good to be in practice. Yes!

Q. Do I have improved goals for writing?

A. Partially I wanted to practice writing just because I think it’s an important avenue of expression. I haven’t found any thematic topics that I strongly wish to cover, and for this reason, I feel like it would be difficult to develop an audience for my writing outside of my friends. I enjoy meaningful essays and perhaps I’d like to work on writing and publishing meaningful essays in the near future. This may require further exploring for topics that interest me or a more specific voice. So… not really?

Q. What will I do with my time, now that I’ve established I have at least 1-2 hours per day of free time?

A. I’m definitely going to take a break from writing for now. I’ll spend more time with Max to make up for neglecting him occasionally with a panicked excuse of “BUT I NEED TO WRITE A POST TODAY!!” I’ll skate, play the piano, sing Christmas music, and consider book recommendations.

Thanks for reading!

Really, I appreciate it. I love the feeling of connection when someone tells me they thought about something that I thought about. I wish we could swim around in our thoughts together all the time!

The Ladder of Abstraction

Earlier in this month of writing, Max read one of my posts and told me to “climb down the ladder of abstraction.” It’s true, I default to communicating in concepts, not examples. Better writers climb up and down the ladder – up (more abstract) to convey the importance of the topic, and down (more concrete) to offer realism and a better chance to relate.

Radio is my savior from elitism

I’ve accumulated many snobby preferences, but I am not a radio elitist. (This is related, I promise.)

First, when I’m driving, I love listening to radio call-in shows like “Second Date Update” or “Hump Day Dump Day.” A recent segment featured a man who stopped calling because his date decreed that he must attend her family’s Christmas gatherings if their relationship became serious. They got along splendidly otherwise, and he wanted to go on a second date, with one condition: that she agree to consider attending Christmas with his family just once. And she refused! Ahh! What a raw examination of the human condition!

Second, I appreciate country music, and I’m surprised how often it’s people’s “I’ll listen to anything but X” genre. Country music is uniquely accessible because the chords are pleasant, and the lyrics are vivid and relatable. So I’m willing to ignore the dumb songs featuring archaic gender roles (identity is overall weird in music) and relish the convincing portrayals of love – Taylor Swift’s “Our song is a slamming screen door / Sneaking out late tapping on your window” – or revenge – Carrie Underwood’s “I dug my key into the side / Of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive / Carved my name into his leather seats”. Wow, that’s graphic writing set to music.

Even beyond those top hits, it’s the norm of country music to tell stories and note that we often fall in love with people while wearing jeans. I love both wearing jeans and falling in love! Hopefully listening to country music can help me down the ladder of abstraction.

 

 

At my former workplace, we had a fortnightly engineering ‘retro,’ which is a meeting that reviews the previous period’s work and considers ways to improve (it’s an agile term). I loved retros because they were hairy and dramatic. Retros had struggled to grow along with the company, because to attempt a democratic process among more engineers, the meeting accumulated sophisticated rules. For example, we could bring up improvements in a matrix of categories – work-related things to start, work-related things to stop, cultural things to start, and cultural things to stop – and algorithmic voting rules governed what we would implement going forward.

These rules themselves were up for debate, so we spent many retros discussing the intentions of retro and arguing about rules and procedure (e.g. Open or anonymous vote? Bring up ideas before or during meeting? Time limits on idea explanations?). Today I had lunch with a former work colleague, and he reported that retros finally settled down with much simpler rules. Boooring!

This is all to say, I love meta discussions and work flux. And since I’m running out of writing topics, I wanted to review the past fortnight of daily blogging.

First, I’m amazed it’s been doable. I know I committed to writing a post every day, but I expected I would slip away, unnoticed, eventually. Having a daily habit removes the problematic decision-making of whether to write a post, and while continuing this habit isn’t easy, it’s attainable.

I complain that I’m running out of writing topics, but I actually have a lot of half-formed topics to discuss, I just fear incoherence. I wish I had more technical posts about skating or programming, but it’s challenging to feel authoritative enough to write these.

In the remaining days of the month, I’d like to write more about my family/relationships, ‘reviews’ of useful books I’ve read, and a comprehensive theory of the universe. Just kidding.

(Actually, Nanowrimo. But isn’t the idea of a nano rhino funny?)

Here’s a good exercise: Every time you’re tempted to say “I don’t have time to X,” consider changing it to “I haven’t prioritized X-ing in my life.” A friend mentioned it to me years ago, and it always evokes a string of strong responses for me – e.g. am I really so lazy that I haven’t prioritized X-ing? Would X-ing make me happy? Maybe it’s actually not so important to me, who’s to say I should be X-ing anyway?! Darned X-ers.

This exercise has freed me from many “shoulds” – like “I should be running” or “I should be playing music.” Occasionally I miss these things, but overall, I don’t, and that doesn’t make me terrible.

On the other hand, I often think about writing – I feel like I should be writing, and more importantly, I want to. So I’m going to prioritize it this coming month, which is fittingly Nanowrimo!

Instead of a novel, though (not my priority), I’m committing to a month-long blogging-directed practice with the following requirements:

  • I’ll spend 24 minutes writing unstructured drafts that could eventually be posts.
  • I’ll spend 24 minutes writing a short post that I’ll share publicly.

(24 minutes because I’ve been experimenting with 24 min pomodoros)

Hopefully this addresses my two main problems with writing:

  • I don’t set aside time to write, even though I claim to care about it.
  • My standard for what I’m willing to post publicly is too high and it inhibits my willingness to practice.

I plan to write about:

  • Programming, software, technology
  • Figure skating
  • Daily routines
  • Books I like

The answer is either almost never (if you want to hate yourself) or almost always (the more correct answer).

I used to believe in ‘ideal conditions’ – e.g. the ideal condition for practicing violin is when no one else is home and I don’t have to play in the creepy basement, or the ideal condition for studying physics is Saturday morning at a library carrel with a view of downtown Philadelphia. As an adult, I still catch myself superstitiously thinking about ideal conditions, but I’m starting to outgrow them.

Thinking about ideal conditions is essentially mysticism. The first instance I remember overcoming it was practicing running the first summer I lived in NYC. Prior to this, I was a timid runner, and so I usually exercised… at the gym (gasp! how embarrassing, right?). When preparing for a run, my thoughts would be a mix of practical concerns (“Have I hydrated enough today?”), organizational dilemmas (“Can I comfortably hold my wallet and my phone if I use my too-small pocket for my keys?”), and outright absurd fears (“What if I pass out in the middle of Central Park and can’t find the nearest subway?”). Before I dedicated myself to running that summer, it was rare I ever ran outside, because conditions were rarely ideal.

After running outside for many miles and not encountering any dire circumstances, I realized that conditions are almost always good enough to go running. Not to say there aren’t ideal days (my best run ever started in Riverside Park and ended with getting lost around the north end of Central Park during a light rain), but the threshold for “good enough” is so miserably low that only circumstances like major illness or injury should prevent one from going for a run.

Skating

I figured out how to do a lutz sometime around February. And then I forgot how to do it. Then I remembered. Then forgot.

I recently noticed that because of the variability, I’d started composing a list of conditions that seemed necessary for me to be able to manage it at any one practice session – whether I had a day off from skating the day before, how awake I felt, etc. Furthermore, I realized that this list kept me from practicing the lutz, because I’d assess how awake and well-rested I felt and decide in many instances that I wouldn’t bother.

But this is silly. The lutz is not easy, but I also know it’s within my capabilities. I know that even when I’m exhausted, I can jump up and make a full turn in the air, so I’m not without the energy to practice the lutz. Today I managed to land it eventually – not smoothly and naturally in a way that feels easy, but this ironically makes me feel a little better about it, because I’m recognizing it as a challenge of arranging my body correctly rather than a confluence of magical conditions.

Programming

I’ve resumed programming as a practice (instead of as a job) because I’m currently unemployed again (yay for free time! and eek for job-searching!). The co-founders of the company I was at decided to shrink back down to the two of them, so I’m actually facing technical interviews for the first time ever. I feel like I’m getting my comeuppance for sidling into my first programming job without interviewing at all.

It’s not superstitious of me to assert that I think best in the mornings; however, it is silly when I put off working on difficult algorithms for the sole reason that it’s after 6pm. I’ve noticed that when I properly commit to working on a difficult problem in the evenings, one of two outcomes arises – either I end up solving the problem and deciding it wasn’t that difficult after all, or I go to bed deciding it’s difficult but find it easier the next day.

In Conclusion

I find that it helps to hold two beliefs in my head to overcome the desire for ideal conditions:

  1. The outcome of practicing doesn’t matter. When I’m in a specific instance of practicing, it’s easy to start thinking that I’m on a path to something, and that the results in practice have consequences for how well I can eventually accomplish my goal. But that’s not really true, and I can only practice well when I believe that the results don’t matter. Try and fail at the lutz? Doesn’t matter, it’s just one attempt and the bruise will go away eventually.
  2. My goal is within my capabilities. Persevering through uncertainty is possible and can lead to good things, but it can also lead to wasted time and overlooking better things to do. Plus persevering through certainty is easier, so I try to believe in certainty whenever possible – i.e. “with practice, I’m 100% sure I can achieve X.” With skating challenges, I remind myself that as a healthy adult, I’m not nearing my physical limitations at all. With programming challenges, I remind myself that I’m a smart person with a stellar IQ and SAT scores (embarrassing to admit, but it really helps).

If you check the date of my previous blog post, you’ll notice that I’m also an ideal-conditions blogger – unwilling to post unless a wide range of conditions are met (I have to believe the writing is simultaneously high quality, fully considered, interesting, and non-offensive). I don’t know if I care enough about blogging to dedicate myself to a writing practice, but if I do, I’ll apologize in advance for the plethora of low-quality, half-formed, boring and offensive posts to come.

 

 

There are many [unnecessarily ordered] lists with legitimate reasons to blog. Most reasons on these lists answer “Why should people blog?” by suggesting wonderful potential outcomes from blogging, like becoming a better writer. I completely agree that blogging makes me a better writer (and most items on these lists), but the idea of becoming a better writer would never cause me to navigate to this site to type things. So the class of reasons I’m more interested in understanding are those that try to answer “Why do people blog?” and investigate what desires actually motivate blogging. We have limited willpower to make ourselves work on the list of things we should do, but we often have unlimited energy when it comes to channeling our innate desires through productive mediums. For me, the desires that result in blogging center around wanting to have conversations.

The desire to talk to myself

One reason I love the drizzly, overcast winter weather in Portland is because it reflects how much of my mind feels – a foggy ecosystem of facts, opinions and assumptions. Most of the time, this means that my frequent internal conversations are inconclusive ramblings. This is a perfectly acceptable/necessary means to explore the landscape (mindscape?), but sometimes I’m looking to have a well-reasoned conversation with myself instead.

Realizing that I have intense but confusing thoughts about something really nags at me, and starting a blog post whenever I feel this way is a relief – like weeding! As a result, there are many drafts here of topics I’m still working to understand – like why various medical technologies for conceiving biological children bother me (despite my interest in human egg-laying), or how I think the current men’s rights movement is necessary but contaminated with misdirected anger. Without this blog, these things would just fester uncomfortably in my head, and with this blog, I just feel slightly less uncomfortable thinking about how I “should” be writing more about important controversies rather than writing about writing.

The desire to talk to my friends

I now have a lot of friends who are far away and some who hate talking on the phone. Many people keep their friends updated through twitter, facebook, or instagram, but none of these mediums feels like enough expression for me. I’m reminded of this wonderful post on “being busy” where the author laments that we don’t talk enough about the state of our hearts. Posting photos and short factual updates is mostly trading in symbols, while I wish people shared more content – why they chose a particular vacation destination, how they’ve changed after adopting a dog, etc.

In the same way, I feel like posting brief updates to my friends is meaningless – I want my friends to know what’s happening to me, but only if it’s accompanied with how I feel about it and how it relates to things I’m thinking about. Writing a long form blog is the only “social” (i.e. mass-distributed) thing I can come up with to channel this desire to update my friends.

The desire to talk to strangers

Some of the energy that motivates me to blog is from the same pool that convinces me to talk to strangers, go on dates, or go to meetups. I’m moved to post things here rather than journal privately because there is a thrill in potentially reaching people who aren’t in my immediate circle. This reminds me of how much I love authors like David Mitchell who often write many-part stories about strangers and how they’re unpredictably connected – it suggests a universal human community rather than the pods we settle ourselves into. One of the best (or maybe worst if you’re an ancient philosopher) aspects of writing is the potential for interaction unbound by geography or time.

I’m historically a passive reader (I can’t stand marking physical books, even with removable post-its), but lately, I’ve started taking notes on books and articles I’m reading in a journal or evernote. I think this is due to an increasing desire to participate in the discussions happening in the world, rather than just absorbing them. As a [relatively] young person, I don’t feel the need to say too much, since it’s so important to observe before making judgments to avoid polluting public forums with senseless noise. However, as I’m growing older (turning 26 soon!), I increasingly feel that it’s a responsibly to form thoughtful convictions and find ways to effect necessary changes in my community – which for me starts with thinking and writing.

Open Questions

I started writing this post with selfish intentions – i.e. because I want more of my friends to keep blogs. But after thinking through my motivations, I’m wondering if other people just don’t have the same desires as I do or if they channel the desires I’ve mentioned towards talking to people at normal social gatherings rather than drafting blog posts. So I decided it’s a little narcissistic to dwell on my wish for the return of long form social media (no, I don’t mean medium) if my friends don’t want to take time away from their busy lives to document them for me. But for those who do feel some desire to blog, what would make it easier? If Xanga were to regain popularity, would you participate?

(My life isn’t really hard.)

Many people read and appreciated my last post on Dev Bootcamp, and I’m touched that friends and strangers judged something that I wrote to be useful. Just about everything I post here is almost not posted – when I click publish, I’m usually thinking “Ugh, this is not quite the high quality writing I want to present to the world… but I have other things to do, so I should get on with this clicking and the rest of my life.” I think it’s important to continuously express myself in published writing, but I constantly worry that my writing has typos, will offend someone, is boring, narcissistic, or otherwise adds to the useless noise of the internet. I expect many people feel this way, and I know the advice I would give to someone else with this problem would be that continuing to write and post despite the insecurities is the best way to become a more expressive, more relevant writer.

William Zinsser (the writer of “On Writing Well”) wrote a memorable essay on how he thought writing “wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun,” mentioning “it had never occurred to me that writing could be easy.” I’d highly recommend reading the essay – I first read it when I was 16, and it remains one of my favorites. As I gain more experience with working and learning, I’ve realized that most crafts are best approached as products of struggle rather than inspiration. To apply this going forward, I’m going to block out an hour each day to write something instead of blogging only when I think I have something good to say.

Next Steps/Leaps

Last week we attended career week at DBC, where we received solid advice on managing our online presence, researching companies, networking, and interviewing. Having an online presence is difficult! In some ways I miss the online presence I had in finance – basically as little as possible, lest someone might mistake my opinions for stock recommendations (by the way, nothing I write here is FINRA or SEC or whatever government organization-sanctioned stock advice!).

There are two major life decisions looming on the horizon.

  • When to get a job? I have savings and some project ideas, so I don’t feel financial pressure to get a job. There are two sides I’m trying to balance – on the one hand, I want freedom and time to complete my own projects, but on the other, I want assurance that what I’ve learned is economically relevant and that I’m in a supportive environment that provides external motivation to learn.
  • Where to go? Most of my [admittedly distracted and meager] job-finding/networking efforts have been directed at Portland. I’m pretty sure I want to move there, and I’m pretty sure I want to avoid the Chicago winter. But I also want to make sure it’s a good career move and that I’m not using the prospect of moving as an excuse to put off meeting people or applying for jobs here.

So if you have any advice on either of these decisions, let me know!

Writing Promises

There are two things I’d like to write about soon related to DBC and this programming industry. The first topic is networking and how it seems to be better/different in this industry, and the second is how to have the right type of confidence.

[Today’s writing was accomplished with the help of a timer and Iron and Wine’s “Around the Well.”]