Planning and Doing

A few days back, I left us on a bare stage. 

Part of my college experience, that was hugely formative, was taking a Broadway-scale musical comedy on tour over several Christmas holidays. Taking a show on tour is a set of daily lessons on the scripting and improvisation it takes to pull off a satisfying performance. Each one-night tour stop starts with a bare stage and a puzzle to solve; what mysteries are hiding that will threaten to disrupt tonight’s performance? 

On this tour, I was the production stage manager, responsible for cast and crew. Along with the Tech Director and Lighting designer, we were on the hook to make whatever stage we landed on work for that night’s performance. As part of our advance planning we asked each theater for details of their environment and facilities. The high school theater we were headed to in Chicago hadn’t responded to our queries; our plan was to skip that night’s cast party and fly ahead to scout the terrain. 

A perfectly reasonable plan. And one of my first lessons in the maxim “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Our plan did not provide for a snowstorm shutting down the Cincinnati airport that night. We spent the night sleeping on the floor by the gate where the first flight was scheduled the next morning. We eventually reached the theater in Chicago just as the bus with the well-rested cast and crew was pulling into the parking lot. The mystery theater turned out to be modern and well-equipped. Set up ran smoothly as did the final performance. 

Was our contingency planning wasted effort? The next city, the next client, the next project always contain an element of mystery. This is the lure that attracts certain people to careers in consulting, technology, and other domains that call for innovation. 

All places are mysterious when you first encounter them. What you do next depends on how you feel about mystery. 

One strategy is to crush it; to impose planned order on whatever you encounter. This is the world of industry and mass production; level the field and start cranking out Model Ts. Plans reign supreme and nothing is done outside the boundaries of the plan. 

It’s impossible to do creative or innovative work this way. You have to embrace and accept a level of mystery that gradually reveals itself. Plans can look only so far ahead and must be open to revision based on what is discovered in the doing. 

The industrial, mass production, large organization model sharply separates planning and doing. Executives and managers plan; workers do. This is effectively impossible in the realm of knowledge work. The agile software development movement accepts this impossibility; it is built on a much more interactive linkage between planning and doing. Plan a little bit, do a little bit, adjust the plan, do some more. This is foreign to those raised in an industrial context. It’s messy. It’s not orderly. 

Let go of the factory image. Return to a bare stage. Visualize planning and doing dancing with one another. 

Who’s in Charge Here?

We all carry around a fairly standard mental model of a classroom; podium and black/whiteboard in front, neat rows of desks facing the teacher. Progressive schools break the rows up into pods; college lecture halls put the seats on a slope. Drop us in a classroom and we know what to do. 

The main classrooms at the Harvard Business School are different in some subtle but very important ways. You can find a brief history of Aldrich Hall and its design process here. 

The room is designed as a U-shaped amphitheater. There is still a focal point at the front with a low table, not a podium. Student seats are on swivels so that students can interact with one another in the course of case discussion and analysis.

This image provides a good overview of the room’s features.

 

During my time as a case-writer and doctoral student I was able to observe faculty teach in these rooms without the burden of having to prepare for class (other occasions when I hadn’t prepared constituted a different sort of burden). A professor at the board or in the pit still occupied the position of power and authority. What was fascinating to watch was how professors roamed about the entire space and managed the power dynamics accordingly. 

They might stay at the board and make pronouncements ex cathedra. They might get close to a student to help them tease out a point. They might get right up in a student’s face to shut off a rambling comment. Or, they might wander up one of the aisles and gradually remove themselves from a discussion between students taking on a life of its own. And reassert themselves from the back by directing attention to a relevant point on the boards at the front. 

Teaching as performance art is scarcely a new thought. But teaching is also a kind of knowledge work intent on creating shared understandings. And that depends on more than the simple exchange of words. Shared understanding gets built in shared space. Thinking about the complexity of a teacher’s performance calls attention to how little thought we give to all the levers of performance we can draw on when doing knowledge work with collaborators. 

This is certainly aggravated by a pandemic forcing our interactions into flat video environments with poor lighting and erratic audio. On the other hand, the pandemic is also accelerating an existing trend for moving more knowledge work into virtual environments. The lesson here for me is that like teaching, knowledge work is performance art. The more elements of performance we incorporate, the more effective our results are likely to be.

A Place for Thinking

Anonymous meeting roomIt’s a Saturday morning. I’m in an anonymous meeting room at the Intercontinental Hotel in Chicago, hosting a morning workshop as part of our monthly All Hands Meeting of Diamond Technology Partners. It was 1994 and we could still fit in a single medium-sized conference room. A few years later we would fill the main ballroom. 

That morning’s workshop was a seminar on software architecture and design with Alan Kay. If you’re in the world of software, you likely know who Alan is and you’ve certainly benefited from his work regardless. Alan was on our Board courtesy of a long concatenation of events that I had helped launch seven years earlier. This was the first time we met face-to-face. 

The workshop far exceeded my expectations. I’ve turned into something of a fanboy of Alan, his work, and his thinking. A search for his name on my blog will hint at my obsession.

What strikes me today is the contrast between the anonymity of the physical space we met in and the impact of the thinking space we collectively created that morning. 

Work and place have been tightly coupled; factories, shops, auditoriums, studios, garrets. We tell students to set aside a special place for studying. We design spaces to better fit them to the work to be done. 

How well do we do that design when the work to be done is thinking? When all the tools and material an individual knowledge worker might need are available through the keyboard and screen on their lap? When a team of thinkers have no need to meet in the same physical space?

Virtual teams have become popular in many organizations. Students and teachers have been trying to cope with these questions over the last year. But our knowledge base is still pretty thin. We don’t know how to translate the power of place from the physical to the virtual in any reliable or systematic way. 

There’s work to be done.

Environment and Effective Knowledge Work

A long time ago when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade–memory fades–I had an unfortunate encounter with the nun who was principal of my parochial school. I was dispatched to her presence when my classroom teacher discovered that I hadn’t bothered to do the work expected of me. Both teacher and principal were adherents of educational philosophies anchored in conformance and obedience. I’ve written about this before, but you can safely assume that corporal punishment was a core element of the solution.

Several years later, another nun helped push me into a private boys school. In this environment, being smart and clever was something to be nurtured rather than feared. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I had stayed on the first path; boredom, drugs, running a gang to entertain myself. Fortunately, that dark path was avoided. 

Instead, I ended up on a path and in a series of environments built around a deeper and more positive theory of learning. Learning depends on taking risks and failing. A learning environment is effective to the extent that it allows you take those risks, fail, and not suffer horrible consequences. Think of flight simulators. Or watch new snowboarders on the bunny slopes. You have to learn how to fall first. Eventually, this path brought me to Roger Schank. Roger is an extreme advocate of the merits of learning by doing. Making that work depends as much on creating the right environment as it does on organizing the content; perhaps more so.

What differentiates knowledge work from turning out one more widget or Ford is that value depends on creating new things. New things implies that there is an essential learning component to all knowledge work. Which means there is also an essential element of risk. 

There are two levels to think about here. As a knowledge worker, you’d like to operate in an environment that offers some level of protection against failures and mistakes. If you can’t risk failure, there’s no chance of creating something new and valuable. As an individual knowledge worker, learning to fail takes practice in its own right. You need to find the bunny slopes in your environment.

There’s a second level here of how to develop an environment where this level of experimentation and failure can exist. If you’ve reached a level of influence and leadership within a knowledge intensive enterprise, how do you use that power to enable others to try those experiments?

Make Yourself at Home

I’ve always been fond of Robert Frost’s line “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” While not an Army Brat by any means, I did go through a series of moves in my early years that left me with a sense that there wasn’t a single place that counted as home. Feeling home became a psychological state that I could achieve in multiple ways.

Losing myself in a book was and still is a reliable way to feel at home anywhere from the couch in my living room to a train car en route from Princeton to Wilmington, Delaware. Over time, I found other couches. One was in the home of a girlfriend’s parents. I adopted them as a spare set of parents and treated them as casually as my own for the next forty years. Read my share of books there and had the full range of random and serious conversations any son might have with parents and siblings. Another is a former one-room school house in Vermont that belongs to my sister-in-law and serves as a Christmas retreat in non-pandemic years.

How do you make an arbitrary place feel like a home? Over time, you can attach memories to places, of course. Can you speed that process up or shape it intentionally? If you don’t have a couch handy, what can you do to make some otherwise sterile place less so?

Why would it matter to do so? Comfort is a reasonable payoff all on its own. If we shift our focus just a bit toward working effectively, however, there’s a bigger payoff. Feeling at home frees up emotional energy and lowers barriers to creative thinking. If your value to the enterprise lies in the arena of creating new insights and innovation, then we have motivation to become adept at making ourselves at home.

As an individual knowledge worker, you can focus on tinkering with and shaping your local environment. Choose the apps that appeal to your mode of working. Slap some stickers on your laptop. Rebel against the furniture and cubicle police just as you might push back against an over-controlling parent.

If you’re in a position of authority, push against the control regimes. The real promise of technology for knowledge work is to make it possible for everyone to have highly customized portals into shared work. Create safe spaces that allow for flexibility that enables greater creativity. It will most likely demand more work from those running the infrastructure, but the payoff in greater effectiveness should more than offset the additional complexity. It’s not a home if only authorized staff can go into the kitchen in search of a snack.

Lost in place: how knowledge work splits mental space from physical space

It once was only poets and storytellers who spent time occupying spaces that weren’t there in front of you. The rest of us were anchored to a plot of land, a cobbler’s bench, or a stall in the market. 

Over the past year, we’ve all been forced to split the mental space we work in from the physical space we inhabit. We’re struggling with the disconnects without quite knowing what’s causing the struggle. As someone who identifies as a knowledge worker, however, this split between mental and physical has been unfolding for a long time. All the pandemic has done, in that respect, is to make the split more visible and observable. As something we can see, we can now examine and explore it.

That’s what I intend to do over the next four weeks. How do the ways we talk and think about place interact with how we talk and think about how we work? 

I’ll be doing this with help from someone I’ve worked with over the last four years and have never met face-to-face. Megan Macedo

is an Irish writer and entrepreneur. She runs a marketing and storytelling consultancy in London where her work is about helping people be themselves in their professional lives. Megan writes and speaks about authenticity in marketing and taking an artistic approach to business (Megan Macedo — Be Yourself, Tell Your Story, Do Something That Matters)

Megan runs writing challenges about this time every year where she gathers an eclectic group of fellow explorers to investigate a theme. This year’s theme is place. 

While we’ve never met IRL, it turns out that Megan and I actually have a connection rooted in place. My paternal grandparents were both born on a tiny island off the North coast of Ireland in County Donegal, Inishbofin. We haven’t nailed down the exact relation yet, but we are connected via my grandmother, Grace Coll (1882-1951). About as clear an example of small world and place as you could wish for.  

Managing in a knowledge economy

There’s a rich field of corporate irony in the collision of mindsets between engineers and executives. It’s paid Scott Adams’s bills for decades. This humor wears thin, however, as more and more of the people creating value in organizations think like engineers. 

Regardless of their academic training or background, knowledge workers in organizations think like engineers. Alan Kay recounted a tale from the early years of Xerox PARC that neatly captures this tension. 

Xerox PARC was situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, a continent away from Xerox headquarters in Connecticut. A team of executives was on site to review the work going on in Palo Alto. Alan and one of his team of software engineers walked through one of the research projects underway. Alan carefully explained that this was ongoing research; experiments were as likely to fail as to succeed and the goal was to learn something interesting that might lead to the next experiment. 

The suit from Stamford nodded along in approval. His closing remark was “I understand, but you’re only running the experiments that succeed, right?” In his universe, “failure is not an option” was not a motivational challenge, it was a risk to be avoided at any cost.

This disconnect is mostly amusing when innovation and invention is a small part of organizational success. For organizations where success is defined by industrial measures of predictable execution of processes, it can be enough to let a small handful of rebels color outside the lines and sprinkle in new ideas in carefully controlled ways. 

When innovation and invention is at the heart of an organization’s strategic design, the rebels are the system. Making the trains run on time is of secondary importance, at best, when success depends on laying new tracks or eliminating the tracks altogether. 

If rebels, the innovators and inventors, are the engine of the system, how does that change the managerial task? “Hire smart people and leave them alone” is no longer a viable approach. 

Hiring smart people is always a good strategy in modern organizations (Frederick Taylor was less of a fan of smart), but leaving them alone becomes an abdication of managerial responsibility. What you now must do is enable, empower, and employ the organization’s smart people.

The fundamental shift here is away from superior/subordinate to collaborator. Giving orders becomes explaining command intent. Plans and deliverables are jointly negotiated and designed not dictated. Organic mess replaces illusionary precision. Management control morphs into servant leadership.

Struggling to Improve Knowledge Work Practices–From Idea to Finished Product

I closed a recent blog post with the following observation

I struggle with advice about how to work at the level of ideas that haven’t found a home yet. This distinction of making a note promises to be a path into making more sense, more systematically, of that middle space and time before I know what the destination might be. (From Taking Notes to Making Notes)

It’s the sort of idea  the often surfaces as I work on a piece of writing that I’m developing into a prospective blog post. I’m now viewing it as an example of what I’m trying to sort out as I learn how to “make” notes. 

Right now I don’t know whether the struggles I am wrestling with are a function of fighting against the years of doing things a different way, a marker of individual flaws in the way my brain works, or some challenge inherent in the process. I study the advice and recommendations of others whose thinking feels compelling. And then I fight with it as I try to apply the advice as I understand it. 

My habits and practices are the accretion of years of doing what works for me. Most of that experience hasn’t been examined or explored in any systematic way. I encounter, read about, and seek out advice and suggestions from all sorts of sources. Some of it is intriguing enough to try out and experiment with. I run the experiments based on whatever partial understanding I’ve managed to take away from the advice. Some stuff sticks in some distorted version filtered through my assessments of those experiments. 

Let me try an example to make this more concrete. Many years ago, I came across Peter Elbow’s work. I don’t recall whether I stumbled across Writing Without Teachers or Writing With Power first. Doesn’t really matter. I had a new technique to play with–“freewriting.” Get stuff out of your head and onto paper (or a screen) where you can see it. Don’t strive for the perfect sentence or turn of phrase in your head. 

But there were elements of Elbow’s recommended practice that didn’t work for me. Elbow assumes you are doing freewriting by hand. Word processors were not household items when he formulated his process. He advises writers to push on at all costs; keep making marks on paper, don’t stop to review, write nonsense if you find yourself getting stuck. Elbow’s goal is to help you find a state of flow, to suppress your inner critic. 

Elbow never saw my handwriting. Achieving flow doesn’t help if you can’t decipher what you wrote a few hours earlier. Sometime before the arrival of word processing, I got the advice to learn to create at the keyboard. I wrote drafts of consulting reports at a typewriter well before I had access to word processing. My poor handwriting was the impetus, but the more important benefit for me was that I can type faster than I can write. Which meant it was easier to capture thoughts before I lost them.

At a typewriter, going backwards doesn’t make sense so you’re not faced with the opportunity to correct on the fly. With a word processor, you can go back as easily as forward, so now you have a choice about whether to do so. More often than not, I will correct typos if I see them in the moment. I don’t hold to a hard and fast rule; rather I do whatever feels least disruptive to my flow. So, now I’ve violated another “rule” in the method I am trying to adopt.

I also discovered Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and she granted me permission to write shitty first drafts. They had been shitty anyway, but now I had someone explain that that was okay and merely a step along the path. 

That path is well worn but not paved. There’s a discernible evolution from 

  • random notes to 
  • something that feels like an idea worth exploring to 
  • the emergence of a potential outline or roadmap to 
  • snippets of a draft to 
  • something that might qualify as a shitty first draft to 
  • rounds of editing and polishing to
  • finished product

This is a rough snapshot of the process that has worked for me through decades of writing. Laying it out like this makes it look more systematic than it actually is and I don’t feel that it looks all that systematic. 

What surfaces for me here is how much of my practice is driven from a deliverable of some sort; there’s a consulting report, a speech, a class session, a column, a blog post looming somewhere in the distance. I am working toward an endpoint, however dimly perceived.

Until I can see an endpoint, I struggle with what to do next. Once I do see an endpoint, or have one imposed by external forces, I start shaping material to fit that endpoint. Generally, I think that is a good thing, but it does mean I have to be willing to scrap things that won’t fit. That becomes easier with practice.

As you learn to care about your craft, you are always on the prowl for potential improvements. For the past 22+ months that has led to a focus on how notes might play a more central role. Most recently, that has been working to understand the distinction between note-taking and note-making, which was the trigger for this post. 

Having that distinction is only a baby step; the challenge is to work out what it means to incorporate the distinction into day-to-day practice. There’s new terminology, of course; ephemeral notes, permanent notes, atomic notes, evergreen notes. Still only another baby step; working out how to create these artifacts has been a bigger, still unfinished, step. These new artifacts don’t obviously map to what I produce in my current workflows.

The challenge that I am attacking now is that it’s hard to find worked examples of these techniques. You can find advice and recommendations on what various proponents and experts believe works for them. But these ideas are new enough that there aren’t well established practices to emulate. You’re left with trying to reverse engineer and interpolate practices from what you can observe. 

Most recently that has had me following the work of Andy Matuschak. He’s a software developer in this space who has been sharing what he describes as his working notes. He’s also attempting to offer a window into his practices. His observations on Evergreen note\-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work and on Executable strategy for writing have both proven valuable as I work to improve my own knowledge work practice. 

Two asides here. One, I’d be thrilled if more of my finished products were as well thought out as his working notes. I’m telling myself that this is one key reason to investigate his work. Two, Matuschak is experimenting with Patreon as a means of supporting his research. I judge it an excellent return for a modest investment. 

There are also several online communities working these vineyards. Fellow travelers can make a difference. I’ve been monitoring;

If getting better at knowledge work is one of your objectives, look for your own companions and watering holes.

From Taking Notes to Making Notes

I’ve recently been spending time in the online community at Ness Labs, launched by Anne-Laure Le Cunff. She’s been writing about topics that sync up with my interests in knowledge work effectiveness and has collected a really interesting collection of fellow travelers. Recently, she piloted a short online course called “Collector to Creator.” Way above the average online course both in terms of content and community. You should keep an eye out for future iterations. 

This was part of my ongoing efforts to reexamine and retool my knowledge work practices. Much of that has focused on what happens between a germ of an idea and a worthy finished product. And rethinking the role of notes has been both a central focus and a central struggle as I work at designing and then grooving in new habits and practices. Some wayposts in that journey include:

During one of the sessions Anne-Laure introduced a one-letter distinction that has opened up a new line of thinking and development. She differentiated “note-making” from “note-taking.”

The most obvious aspect is a shift from a passive to an active perspective. I hadn’t actually thought much about the passive nature of “taking” until I had “making” as a contrast.With it, I can see how much of my note-taking habits and practices were intellectually passive; I was taking notes to capture someone else’s words or thoughts. This was certainly the case in most of the settings where I was in a student role. 

Now that I have the distinction, I can revisit and reinterpret some of my practices. I never acquired the habit of working with index cards, so I never got the sense of ideas as discrete chunks of text to be manipulated. I did use hand-drawn mindmaps (that being the only option at the time) to work out structural connections and relationships. But my focus was generally on the big picture of whatever deliverable I was working on. Even when I was immersed in the literature of a field, I tended to think of ideas as being embedded in and tightly integrated with the journal articles and books I was reading. I thought of ideas from others as something to be transferred (taken) more than as something to be transformed (made). That’s to the extent that I thought about this level of thinking explicitly at all. 

The transformation, connecting, and reconnecting of ideas into a new deliverable was something that took place either in my head or in the multiple iterations of creating a specific deliverable. I struggle with advice about how to work at the level of ideas that haven’t found a home yet. This distinction of making a note promises to be a path into making more sense, more systematically, of that middle space and time before I know what the destination might be. 

This one-letter distinction may not be a full 80-IQ point change in perspective, but it’s clearly worth enough to be a keeper.

If you do knowledge work, you need to become a ‘pracademic’

Loyola’s Quinlan School has just launched a new Next Generation MBA. Project Management is a required course in the curriculum and I was asked to take the lead in designing that course. We’re now halfway through the first iteration of the course. I had an opportunity this past weekend to speak at PMI Chicagoland’s Career Development Conference and opted to use the course design and rollout effort to reflect on what larger, emerging, lessons I saw.

During the course design process, I learned a new label to describe me. It turns out that I am a “pracademic”; someone who brings a practitioner’s perspective to an academic environment. While it turns out that the label isn’t terribly new, I just stumbled across it.

I assert that if you are a knowledge worker, you need to become a pracademic as well.

What is a pracademic?

A quick glance at Google’s ngram viewer suggests that the term, “Pracademic” traces back to the mid-1970s and saw a significant uptick in the early 2000s. There’s a seminal 2009 academic paper on the term by Paul Posner, “The Pracademic: An Agenda for Re‐Engaging Practitioners and Academics that’s a good entry point.

The primary focus seems to have been on the notion of bringing relevant practitioner experience back into the academic environment. Like all good portmanteaus, however, pracademic elicits a constellation of reactions.

Among those is the more general notion of blending practical and theoretical knowledge. An admirable and long sought goal but one that, probably unsurprisingly, is more difficult to put into practice than it is to describe in theory.

It’s hard enough to be competent on either side of the divide. Working both sides effectively is harder still. With the continuing and accelerating explosion of knowledge, the need to do precisely that has become simultaneously more challenging and more necessary. This is a topic that has drawn my attention before:

Living in exponential times means this explosion has always been underway. It’s important to accept that this is an explosion that doesn’t end; there is no point at which the curve is likely to level off. Waiting for things to settle down is a fool’s errand.

If you opt for the role of a pracademic it is a matter of accepting that this is a path you will be walking for as long as you wish or are able. Whatever credentials or experience you might collect, there is no marker for being done.

Why does this matter for knowledge work?

Knowledge work is perhaps the purest expression of this notion. Your capacity to deliver effective results is a function of how well you can assess the practical situations you face and then apply the most pertinent and relevant aspects of your cumulative knowledge base.

While the origins of the term pracademic are anchored in carrying practitioner knowledge back into the academy, knowledge work in the environment we’ve been talking about works the other direction. What does it mean to take theory back into practice?

Knowledge work demands leveraging theory. As a knowledge worker, you are rarely granted the luxury of time off to fully study and integrate the latest and greatest developments in your field of expertise. At the same time, if you don’t continue to add to your expertise, your ability to contribute and make a difference diminishes.

How does this change the shape of practice?

The late Donald Schön of MIT addressed this line of thought with his notion of “reflective practice“. Fundamental to the notion of reflective practice is building and testing a robust theory of action.

My particular interests are in action that occurs in organizational environments; action that calls for coordinating the efforts of multiple actors. Practice takes place within those social and organizational environments. Applying theory within this practice environment benefits from understanding key aspects of how thinking connects to action there.

There is a persistent mythology about organizations that rationality should prevail and that anything other than rational decision making represents some level of pathology. This is an area where academic research and theory is especially illuminating.

There are two aspects of thinking relevant to navigating this environment. The first relates to a distinction between oral and literate thinking. This distinction was mapped out by Walter Ong, a Jesuit historian and philosopher. Ong examined the impact of the invention of writing on culture and institutions. At root, his argument is that literacy enables us to get thinking outside of our heads and that this transition is an essential, prerequisite, step in enabling the rise of rational thought.

While complex rational thought is rooted in literate modes of thinking, organizations are environments that predate literacy. They blend oral and literate modes of thought. Most particularly, organizational power dynamics are rooted in oral modes of thought. Arguments do not carry the day simply by being the most logical and rational. This is puzzling and confusing to those who’ve made the effort to become adept at literate thought.

One rule of literate thought, fortunately, is that you do not simply accept someone else’s word, you go and see for yourself. This leads to the second aspect of accepting the assumption that organizations behave rationally; the discoveries of those who went and looked. There is a growing evidence base about the limits of rationality in organizations.

Herb Simon advanced organizational understanding significantly when he pointed out that our desire for rationality was bounded by innate limitations in our ability. “Bounded rationality” meant that however much we might strive to make rational decisions, there were always limits of time and capacity. Real decision makers in real organizations “satisfice;” they settle for “good enough” answers.

Simon’s observation that theoretical rationality was bounded sparked a stream of research starting with Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman that gradually articulated the extent of the various failure modes of rational thought and established the field of behavioral economics. Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, provides an excellent entry point into this realm.

Where do you start?

Suppose I’ve made a good enough case. You’d like to begin operating in a more intentional “pracademic” mode. What do you do next? Based on my own travels along this path I can suggest a 2-part reading list and some new practices to adopt.

The reading list contains some core theory and introductions to a starter set of practices.

Core Theory Readings

Starter Practices

There are three foundational practices that should be part of your repertoire.

The first is one you likely already possess; a systematic reading habit. Actually, any reading addiction is a good starting point (cereal boxes were my gateway drug). Over time, you’ll likely find it worthwhile to put some support systems around your habits. There’s a reason your professors wanted you to produce bibliographies to accompany your work. Unfortunately, they sometimes forget to explain the why behind the what. Why and how to keep track of what you read is a subject of its own. We’ll save that for another day. For now, if you don’t have a tool to manage this practice, I suggest you take a look at Zotero | Your personal research assistant.

Reading is the fuel for your own thinking. The second core practice you want to invest in here is better note-taking. That’s covered excellently in Sönke Ahrens How to Take Smart Notes in the core reading list. I’ve got a review of his book here – Unexpected Aha Moments – Review – How to Take Smart Notes. I would also suggest taking a look at Getting Outside Your Head.

Over time your note-taking will evolve into note-making as you become more practiced in using your reading to engage in asynchronous conversations with writers. You’re going to want to start engaging in conversations with yourself, which is the third core practice. There are multiple approaches to developing a journaling habit. While journaling is often associated with doing emotional reflection and work, it’s also a tool for doing intellectual reflection and work.

What comes next?

You are now on a lifelong learning path. Perhaps you were already on it and now have some new tools to work with. You will discover that you’re walking this path with others on similar journeys. Strike up a conversation and share your discoveries.