Laying Down a New Rhythm

Many decades ago I was a pretty fair track and field athlete. Not world class, but competitive within my environment. Put a finish line in front of me and I would often be the first to cross it.

I was a sprinter. The promise of a finish off in the distance wasn’t good enough. I needed to see the finish line.

There was craft and technique to learn and to practice. I can still remember my father’s lessons in how to make sure my energy was focused and directed on moving forward rather than wasted in extraneous movement. And coaches helped break down the components of a race, from getting out of the blocks to running through not to the finish line. But the essence was to attack the goal in front of my eyes.

This simplicity took me a long way on the track and much of my professional life as well. As long as I could see a finish line, everything else was easy. As the world and my life got more complex, I was able to find suitable finish lines to focus on. And to seek out environments and coaches to help with craft and technique.

That simple strategy has run out of track. I’ve always hated the adage “it’s a marathon not a sprint.” I still long for sprints but it’s long past time to take a deeper and broader look at how to run the races that I now face. Starting with the recognition that race is the wrong metaphor to build on. It’s too thin a slice of all that is going on.

Rhythm and cadence are the words I’m thinking about now. What can or should I be doing to establish a cadence of doing the things that will more consistently lead to outputs and results that please me? Over the next several weeks, I’ll be placing myself in an environment to help me work through these questions.

The goal is not simply to cross the finish line of this particular race. It’s to engage in the first few iterations of what I hope will become a sustainable rhythm.

You never start with a clean sheet of paper

A clean sheet of paper is an oft-invoked image during design efforts of various stripes. Ignore what is happening now and imagine that there are no constraints on what you seek to create. Sometimes this strategy is explicit; often, however, it is hidden in the press to unveil the latest new, new thing.

If I’ve got a product or service that solves a real problem, I want to emphasize how good it’s going to be once you’ve put it into practice. If I spend any time at all on what you’re doing now, it’s only to highlight your pain and persuade you to get a move on to the promised land. If i’m fair to middling honest, I might acknowledge that you’ll have to put in some work to realize the benefits I’m promising.

For all that this is a default sales and marketing strategy, I think it is misleading, and possibly dangerous, in the realm of knowledge work. People with something to sell want you to start from a clean slate because it makes their job easier, not yours.

If you are turning out knowledge work on some consistent basis, then you already have some form of system or practice in place. You likely are all too well aware of your system’s warts and blemishes. The temptation to wipe everything clear and start over can be strong.

What is it, however, that you would be wiping clear? What you have now is a collection of practices and a body of work. Both contribute to your capacity for producing new work. Together they constitute a complex system that works.

This is a time to proceed with caution. Consider the following piece of advice that I encountered in Jerry Weinberg’s excellent Weinberg on Writing

It is always easier to destroy a complex system than to selectively alter it”
R. James

Both the practices and the body of work you have now evolved over time; they constitute a complex system. You are engaged in craft. Much of that craft may have been acquired by osmosis through multiple apprenticeships.

However acquired, you aren’t starting from a clean sheet of paper. However appealing new practices and techniques may sound, they have to be evaluated within the context of your existing practice and environment. Which means you need to invest in understanding your practices and your environment in some detail.

The question is never “am I doing X (building a second brain, linking my thinking, creating a Zettelkasten) the right way?”. The question has to be “how can I adapt this idea to my circumstances?”

You cannot function as a consumer here; you must accept your responsibility as a designer.

McGee’s Musings turns 22

This time last year, we were just getting settled in our apartment in Nazaré, Portugal. In ten days we head to Durham, NC for the next chapter in our adventure.

McGee’s Musings continues to be one thread of continuity. I’ve always viewed it as an experiment of sorts. Back then, having a blog was what the cool kids were doing and it fit with my teaching work. Then it became a habit. Like most of my habits, I practice it in fits and starts.

A deeper habit that grew out of this experiment was of “narrating my work,” which I picked up from watching Dave Winer (Scripting News). I now do that primarily with Obsidian. That morphs what ends up here. Most of what I write these days starts out in notes to myself. Getting from something that works well enough for my own purposes to something coherent enough to share with the world is a different problem than targeting a public audience from the outset.

So, I continue to learn. And, I will continue to share.

Case Research of Knowledge Work Practice

You can observe a lot by just watching.

Yogi Berra

I’ve long argued that invisibility constitutes a major impediment to improving the practice of knowledge work. What we need is to see more practice.

So, I’m setting out to collect and develop stories and case studies of knowledge workers doing their work. Right now, this is exploratory research to discover categories and concepts that might prove useful. My conjecture is there’s an underlying set of skills and practices common across multiple instances of knowledge work.

Further, I suspect these commonalities aren’t immediately evident or obvious. They are “hidden” within the craft elements of different knowledge work jobs (e.g. reporter, consultant, systems analyst, programmer, data scientist, media planner, teacher). The initial goal is to figure out productive questions.

A starting point is to examine accounts of knowledge workers who have shared their journeys in ways that we can extract insights about their methods and practices. For example, Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain presents his solution for a personal knowledge management environment. He does so by sharing a good bit of how he got to his answers. Regardless of whether you find his destination suitable to your needs, you can learn from his journey. Supplement the book with the materials he has shared elsewhere online and we can craft a useful case study.

There’s a decent collection of knowledge workers (authors, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc.) who have shared enough about their methods and practices to form an initial sample from which we can develop the outlines of a theory of knowledge work. Once that exists, we can reach out to other knowledge workers to explore their practices and elaborate a richer model.

Learning to do learning by doing better

I’m a believer in learning by doing – both as a learner and as a teacher. As a learner I’ve largely been content to hack away at things in the belief and lived experience that I do figure something out eventually. I’m a bit more disciplined and intentional when I put on my teaching hat. There, I make a more mindful effort to design doing with the intent of nudging learners to do things I expect will impart the lessons I intend.

If learning by doing is a powerful strategy, shouldn’t we make an effort to develop that skill? What might happen if I bring more of my teaching strategies to my own learning by doing?

Let’s start with one learning by doing strategy. “See one, do one, teach one” is a strategy that’s long been effective in medical education. While typically deployed in the context of a broader curriculum where you can make assumptions about prerequisite knowledge and coaches to keep the learners in bounds and out of trouble, can I adapt it to my individual needs?

My hunch is that that “seeing” is the trickiest part in this equation. I’ve asserted that one of the fundamental problems of knowledge work is that it is largely invisible. What can we do to make it easier to see our own work?

One prior element in making my work easier to see was to worry about the naming of things. Which helps at the later stages of knowledge work. How about earlier stages? I think this is the potential within the world of note-taking/note-making apps and environments.

Ideas are rarely so accommodating as to show up fully formed. Sometimes they arrive as a phrase or as a handful of words. Sometimes as a sentence or two. They’re often rude enough to intrude when I’m half asleep without a writing implement nearby. I’ve had to accept that many will escape before I can write them down. However, I have slowly gotten better at capturing a reasonable percentage before they disappear.

Way back when, I did much of this capturing by hand in notebooks. Now, I capture these evanescent items in Obsidian. I don’t generally know what I will do with an idea at that point. But, bits are cheap and better to have a record and decide to throw it away later than miss collecting a gem. (One of these days, I will have to do a piece on why I am suspicious of the notion of the collector’s fallacy).

Gradually, I’ve been building a collection of my ideas that I can “see” from something resembling a single vantage point. It includes everything I’ve posted to this blog since 2001, everything I’ve highlighted on my Kindle (via the excellent Readwise Reader), and my journals going back to 2019. It leaks. And, there are remaining pools of thinking and ideas worth integrating over time. For now, the view is still fuzzy and incomplete but it’s moving in a good direction.


Moving from Tools for Thought to Thinking as Craft

The notion of “tools for thought” is undergoing a resurgence from niche topic to something approaching a fad. Everyone’s got a new tool for making notes or a course on how to optimize their Zettelkasten. Too few of them seem familiar with the prior art fueling their work. You might want to start by adding Howard Rheingold’s Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology to your reading list.

The problem is that we mostly get trapped talking about tools in isolation. The folks marketing and selling tools focus on what sets their tool apart from others. People looking at a new tool are seduced into comparisons between individual tools. Discussion threads revolve around narrow questions of “how do I force this tool to behave like the tool I already have” or “how can I import my collection of left-handed, Gregorian chant, meditations”. We don’t appear to have a principled way to talk or think about how a new tool might fit into a collection of tools and how tools (plural) enable and support the craft of thinking. We slide past the phrase “tools for thought” without giving much thought to where that might take us.

There’s more to quality work than any individual tool. 4.0. My wife is a photographer. If you want to irritate her, suggest that she must use a very expensive camera. She takes better photos with her iPhone than I can with $10,000 worth of equipment.

The eye behind the lens matters more than the camera. Or the mind at the keyboard.

Talking about tools is easy. Thinking about craft is hard.

Working out how tools enable better craft is the nub. George R.R. Martin still writes with Wordstar. Anne Lamott was pushing yellow legal pads in a recent workshop. John McPhee was rearranging index cards on the floor. I don’t take any of this as recommendations to adopt their tools. But it does make me wonder how I ought to think about how tools and craft intertwine.

A starting point is to turn Sturgeon’s Law into a working strategy. Sturgeon’s Law asserts that “90% of everything is crap.” Churn out a lot of output and learn to distinguish the 10% from the 90%. Becoming a better photographer consists of throwing away most of your shots. Same for writing. Step one in getting better is producing something to critique. Over time, you can begin to wonder about producing things worthy of critique. To start, focus on pure production.

Two things become possible once we’re producing something. One, we can begin to compare our outputs with one another and with similar outputs out in the world. Two, we can pay attention to how we’re going about our production. Both of these can work as individual practices. With a bit of confidence, you can expand your comparisons to others.

I’m an average photographer at best. I haven’t put in the reps that my wife has. She’ll take a dozen shots of a scene and throw eleven away to get an image worth keeping. Most of what she throws away put my efforts to shame. Slowly, I’ve learned there’s a body of knowledge about what separates a good shot from a mediocre one.

I’ve put in more reps at writing than I have at photography. This blog post is about 600 words at this point. There’s another thousand words of notes in the window next to this one and I’ve probably thrown away another 1500-2000 so far. There’s an extensive body of knowledge about blogging in particular and writing in general. I’m familiar enough with both to know the rules and to be comfortable breaking them when it suits my purposes.

I’ve got plenty of output that I can assess and evaluate. The second development path to explore is the production process. The tools I employ are pretty easy to identify. Teasing out the process is trickier. Discerning where improvement opportunities lie is harder still. It is most definitely a work in progress.

I’m on record that knowledge work should be treated as a craft. Lately, I’ve been lamenting that there aren’t enough case studies of knowledge work in action for us to learn from. Let’s see if we can start to generate and collect some to see what we might learn from one another.

Efficiency ignores obsession

Came across an interesting piece from Smithsonian Magazine from 2012 (Teller Reveals His Secrets). In it Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, writes about magic and psychology. Teller writes, of course, because Teller is the silent half of Penn & Teller. (I first saw them perform when they were the hot ticket Off-Broadway in 1985.) Teller’s argument is that

Magicians have done controlled testing in human perception for thousands of years….Neuroscientists—well intentioned as they are—are gathering soil samples from the foot of a mountain that magicians have mapped and mined for centuries.

One element of that understanding sheds light on contrasting efficiency and effectiveness. It’s a safe bet to assume that our cognitive and perceptual systems are fundamentally lazy. Our senses and our brains work efficiently by taking shortcuts whenever they can. The field of behavioral economics grew out of the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky exploring what those shortcuts were and why they worked.

Magic works by understanding and exploiting that laziness. Often, by investing a degree of effort well beyond any efficiency calculus.

Teller is an artist, not a scientist. He, and Penn, are prepared to obsess if that’s what it takes to achieve an effect. This is an element of effectiveness I hadn’t considered until now.

Effectiveness depends on community

My sister-in-law and her husband owned a retail business for 45 years in the town where they, and my wife, grew up. Conversations at their dinner table often revolved around people they went to elementary school with and still interact with.

This mystified me for years. When I married into that family, I had lived in over twenty different places. Outside of my immediate family, I had no connections to the people I had grown up with. I’m not sure I had the concept of having grown up with someone who wasn’t family.

I’ve heard it said that the vast majority of humankind is born, lives, and dies within 25 miles of their birthplace. I understood this as an intellectual datapoint. Not so much as an emotional anchor.

Charlotte and I have been married for coming up on 39 years. We’ve had multiple addresses over that span. Most recently, we’ve been living in Nazaré, Portugal.

The cliche here would be that we have each other as anchors. While there’s certainly truth to that, the more interesting observation is that we’ve been part of two church communities. Ten years in Boston, Twenty seven in Chicago. Mainline Protestant (despite, or perhaps because of, my Roman Catholic upbringing). Neither the theology or the liturgy are central. What is central is a commitment to making community work.

I’m pretty sure you can’t be effective without community. You need something that resembles the history and connections that my sister and brother-in-law take for granted. You have to be able to predict how others will react to the unexpected. It takes time and effort to build and maintain community. Organizations are reluctant to invest in the long slow work of building community and resilience.

Organizations prefer to deal with the unexpected by eliminating it. This is the false appeal of efficiency. Lock everything down and define every response. The universe, however, insists on being unpredictable.

Making Art Happen

In high school I started to do some work in theater. It was a way to meet girls. At an all boys school, there wasn’t any way to do that in the halls between classes. There were, however, joint productions with a sister school. I was much too shy to attempt any performing roles but there’s always a need for people willing to work backstage.

I got to Princeton in the early days of coeducation there. Perhaps three quarters of the students then were guys. During Freshman Week I was enticed into a performance of the Princeton Triangle Club by a cute blonde passing out flyers outside McCarter Theater. Knowing one end of a hammer from another made me more than qualified to join the tech crew.

Four years later, I had done pretty much any backstage job that went into putting on a live performance. From stagehand to electrician to production stage manager I learned what went into making art happen on stage. And what supported that art offstage.

There’s very little about staging a play that’s efficient. I’ve stood behind a set piece on stage to keep it from falling during a performance. Don’t be seen and fix it later. Gaffer’s tape is your friend.

“The show must go on” is a real thing. Internalizing that sets you up to keep your wits about you in the midst of chaos. Turns out that’s a pretty important set of life lessons and skills.

Looking outward

Our family moved to St. Louis in the Fall of 1964. I was 11. Mostly this was hugely disruptive for a bookish, introverted pre-teen. A year later, I was switched from the parochial school just up the hill to a private all-boys school, a 40-minute drive away.

One of the saving graces in all of this turmoil was my dad’s new job. He had moved to St. Louis to become one of the lead test engineers for the Gemini spacecraft built by McDonnell Aircraft.

How could it get any better for someone absorbing every science fiction title he could lay his hands on at the local public library? Everyone was following the space program. My dad was part of it. I had pictures of him working with the Mercury and Gemini astronauts. I was a nerd before there was a word for it.

All of this directed my gaze outward. Not terribly unusual for a young boy in that time and place. What I also had was a glimpse at the complexity behind the scenes. Everyone saw the show on TV. I saw the testing and rehearsal and adapting that happened before or on the side. I didn’t have the words or the concepts for it at the time, but these were the seeds that grew into my fascination with innovation and creation.

Efficiency is boring. It’s interesting only to those who like piling things (money) up. Efficiency is isolating and inward looking. It stops at the edge of the system. You can’t even begin to think about it until you’ve worked out all the hard (and, therefore, interesting) problems.

The first few times you try anything new, you have to settle for effectiveness. Did it work?

That means looking at the bigger picture. How does this new thing fit in with and interact with the larger system? Effectiveness is about constantly running experiments in the real world. Can you make some predictions about what might happen next? What potential catastrophes do you have to guard against?

To me, I’ve always been mystified by those people who settle for efficiency. Who are content to do the same thing once again. Where’s the fun in that?