Deliberate Practice and Cal Newport’s “Five Rules”

It’s clear that being more present while doing deep work is the precondition for accomplishing much of anything, particularly for much of anything good.

I’ve had this experience once or twice working with an editor.  While good editors are largely a thing of the past, every once in a while I’ve run across one who hasn’t heard the news yet, and it’s unforgettable: someone holds you accountable until you produce the best writing you can.

What I’m relearning as I work on my novel is how to serve as my own editor.  How to hold myself accountable.  How to get the best writing I can out of myself.

Not easy.  My unconscious believes that if I tell a story at a dinner party I’ve essentially written the story.  My unconscious is easily pleased with substandard or off-the-cuff work.  Fruits of years of lousy habit.

So holding myself accountable means going over and over the material until it’s right.

In this morning’s session I went over the same two sentences for an hour, and finally got them, not right, sadly, but better.  I’ll try to overcome the urge to move on tomorrow when I resume.

This is a kind of “deliberate practice”, in the sense that Wikipedia and Malcolm Gladwell and others mean it.

I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s book on gettiing work you love and he’s all about a systematic approach to getting better at what you do.

He has a five-step proposal for approaching getting better at knowledge work:

  1. Identify what kind of knowledge-work “market” you are working in: is it a “winner-take-all” market (only one way to be “best” in this market: e.g., writing novels) or an “auction” market (variety of ways to be “best”, e.g., tech maven).  Novel writing is a “winner-take-all” market.
  2. Figure out what kind of work you have to be good at to prevail in that market.  You have to be good at writing a novel to win in the novel-writing market.
  3. Define “good”.  For novel-writing, it’s story, plot, description, character, dialog, suspense
  4. Work it
  5. Keep Working it

Good advice.  But, like all good advice, the advice itself is pretty obvious once you think about it.  It’s holding yourself to it that’s hard.

PIM projects and PIM events: how to organize?

I’ve become a big fan of hierarchical todo-list managers.  It’s great to go down from “All of Life” through Roles to Goals to Projects to Tasks to Next Actions.  I don’t know if it helps me be more productive, but it certainly feels good to think that everything’s connected somehow.

Except some things are not just tree-connected.  They’re graph-connected.

What’s the difference?  A graph can have several “ancestors” (maybe better to call them “predecessors”) for each node.  So a task like “send article to Joe” can belong to “cultivate relationship with Joe” and “send article to tech visionary friends.”

An example of graph structure which most GTD-oriented software supports is “contexts” vs. “projects”.  My project might be to finish the sprinkler controller, but different parts of that project will take place in different contexts: Workshop, Internet, Computer, InMyHead.  Contexts are usually implemented as labels.

One graph-structured problem I’m wrestling with now is the distinction between a project and an event.

I might have a project, say, to improve my friendships with several friends.  And I may have an event where I get together for drinks with some or all of them.

With a hierarchical PIM and contexts, I have a couple of choices about how to implement this:

  1. The Event could own the Projects.  In this case, “Get together for drinks” owns all of the people I’m going to have drinks with.  Problem: it’s inelegant, and it’s transient.  Once the event is over, I have to stick the various friends someplace else.  One would think that the friendships were the more important or less transient or more durable thing and should therefore go above the event in the hierarchy, but there’s no easy way to get a number of parents in a hierarchy to own (or share ownership of) a child node.
  2. The Event could be a context, a label.  Probably a better solution, in that a context is sort of like an event — it’s a physical or logical place where certain tasks can be done — but I’ve already overloaded contexts in my PIM and it’s starting to break down.
  3. The PIM I use now, MLO, allows a node to own an unrelated node elsewhere in the hierarchy, but these relationships are kind of hidden in the software (maybe an afterthought for the developers) and hard to manage.  One wants the graph relationships to be first-class citizens within the software.

Any thoughts?

Certifying Adjuncts

On the face of it, certifying adjuncts makes all kinds of sense.

Adjuncts want a brand, something that will allow us to rise above the teeming masses of adjuncts, what Bob Seger called “a little something against the wind”.

Universities want to control wild-adjunct risk.  They want to be able to say the university equivalent of “all our adjuncts are bonded.”

Students want a good deal: great education at a bargain price.   Certifying adjuncts is a bit like tranche-ing subprime mortgages: it seems to miraculously produce slices of quality out of a sausage mix of mediocrity.

But there are some nagging details, like:

  • How are you going to do it?
  • Who will pay?

I guess there are two schools of thought about how you would do it:

  1. In the same way we train and certify teachers, we would certify adjuncts as possessing a body of knowledge about how to teach rather than expertise in a particular discipline.  With teachers, this has contributed to the saying that “those who can’t do, teach”, but it does have the virtue that defining the body of instructional art that adjuncts must have is a circumscribed process.
  2. You might, as we do with “Tenures” (if they’re going to call us “Adjuncts”, we should call them “Tenures”), certify based on expertise in a subject-area rather than instructional chops.  I have more sympathy that certifying adjuncts in this way would produce better adjuncts, but what a nightmare!  We would have essentially a Tier 2 tenure system.

And who would pay for it?

The only attempt I know of to certify adjuncts is the SoCAFE organization (“Society of Certified Adjunct Faculty Educators”)  (Are there others?  Let me know.)  From the looks of the website, it’s Approach #1:

Our student-centered approach
is divided into 10 modules.
Each module focuses on one of the 10 Core Competencies necessary to become an effective educator.

“10 Core Competencies” (particularly when the phrase is capitalized) sounds like instructional chops.

And SoCAFE wants adjuncts to pay for the certificate.  $395 for the initial cert; $75/year to say current.  See the Inside Higher Ed article here.

The SoCAFE site is kind of a zombie though: the last Press link is from August, 2009.

So, if it makes so much sense, why aren’t more people working on it?

Could Putin be the big winner?

The wave of Brexit/nationalism/white supremacy/anti-immigrant/isolationalism/jingoism  call-it-what-you-will seems to be very real.

I wonder many things about where President Trump will play in all this, but one persistent question I have is: will he actually be effective at stuff he does?

If not, the big winner internationally could be Putin.  He has nothing to lose, he seems light-years more capable of doing what he says he is going to do, and, unlike the Chinese, is not hostage to the rich West (they are tied to us as surely as we are tied to them).

This article in the Times today highlights how the world alt-right looks to Putin as a, if you’ll pardon the expression, “white knight.”

Creepy thing to wonder about, but just because it’s creepy doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

What Josh Waitzkin can teach us about lifehacking

As part of the “presence in deep work” theme I’m pursuing this month, I read “The Art of Learning”, by Josh Waitzkin.

Josh Waitzkin is a chess and Tai Chi champion whose views about learning (due to his accomplishments) are worthy of interest, but subject to the caveat that most successful people are no better than anyone else at accounting for their success.

I’ve reached this sad realization after years of reading self-improvements books, which I love and continue to mine as a source of wisdom.  I believe that self-help authors are trying to do something that intellectuals should do but don’t: help the rest of us get better.

(Intellectuals don’t do it, why?  Because it’s too much trouble and they get paid for doing research that the government and corporate sectors want.)

But the ore in self-help books is thin ore; it’s the tar sands of Athabasca: lot of junk to wade through to get to the nuggets of useful stuff.  And that is because our brain is a gland that secretes the impression that we’re always right.  So self-help accounts by successful people are larded with… self-congratulation.

I almost put down Waitzkin’s book several times for this reason.  The first part, although there are some hints of interesting thoughts on learning, are essentially a series of braggy vignettes about how touch a competitor he is, how vexed he has been by numerous tournaments and rivals and challenges, and how he has surmounted them all with a steely will and (and here’s the good part) a mindful approach to learning from his mistakes.

Which is what rescues the book.

He actually goes back when he has screwed up and tries to figure out:

  1. What went wrong
  2. How he contributed to it
  3. What he can do in the future to not make the same mistake again

These are extremely powerful steps.

I tried to put them to work on my rewriting of my novel, which is up to 2 hours/day now and gaining momentum.

What I have been doing with novel rewriting is sitting in front of the ms on the computer and sometimes paying attention to it, sometimes engaging in distractions, and never really working from a plan or an agenda.  The Muse rules, right?

Starting this Tuesday I began a different regime, based on what was going wrong with the existing process.

The night before I’m going to write, I address a question to my unconscious, something from the book.  Picking the right question is a problem, but I’ve been lucky  in the last 3 sessions.

Last night, for example, the question was “Why was Elspeth jealous?”  She’s a character in the part I’m working on now.

When I wake up, I freewrite for ten minutes about the question first thing in the morning.  It’s gold; the stuff that comes out is enormously helpful for figuring out the problem.

I saw at once this morning that Elspeth was not in fact jealous but was both envious and angry, envious because she wishes she were like the hero and angry because she also has disdain for the hero.  Good stuff that made the writing session much better.

It’s a variant of what I’ve always done: load up my mind with a problem and take a long walk.  But applying it to the current situation will be a big help to me.

Hopefully I can continue to make continuous improvements using the three questions that Waitzkin uses.

Your thoughts?


Adjuncts and the Future of the Academy

(Warning: in what follows I reach certain economics-inspired conclusions.  I am not an economist and (sadly) have never taken an economics course.  I wish I had; it’s a fascinating worldview, and probably indispensable, it’s on my bucket list, etc. etc.)

I’ve heard that the university tenure system evolved in order to protect the freedom of scholars to pursue scholarly inquiry.  Like the monks and monasteries from which the Academy is descended, the scholar would take essentially a vow of “poverty” (or relative poverty) in exchange for purity of pursuing knowledge.

Well, it’s had some unintended consequences.  Like any rationed market, rationing the labor market for teachers and scholars has produced a black market  (well, probably really a gray market), which, for teaching at least, is us adjuncts.

Gray markets have lots of problems.  One of them is that you really can’t have much in the way of brands in a gray market: they are not transparent.  You might think you’re getting Pompous University’s brand, but if you’re taking the course from Adjunct Dan, is he a good guy or a shmo?  Is your course going to be worth your while or is it going to be a waste of time?  Knowing that Pompous hired Dan as an adjunct really doesn’t tell you much.

Yes, there are evaluations, but they don’t work very well.

  1. They’re self-selecting.  Students are inspired to give an evaluation if they thought the teacher was terrific, and if they thought the teacher was subhuman.  There’s no middle ground.  And therefore there’s no statistical reliability to evaluations.
  2. They’re inflated or deflated.  For the same reason as above.

When my friends try to figure out how to interpret Yelp evaluations, they go for a combination of:

  1. Large numbers of reviews
  2. Many credible positive reviews
  3. Few credible negative reviews.

You can’t easily get data like that for course evaluations.  You can’t easily figure out what you’re getting when you sign up with Adjunct Dan.

Another problem with gray markets is that, even if you’re lucky, you only get exactly what you wanted.

Years ago I bought electronics components from a Lumber Liquidator-type outfit called Poly Paks.  I couldn’t afford to set up an account with “real” electronics distributors, and I had way more time than money.

Poly Paks had a slogan: “buy ’em by the bag”.  And you could buy a bag, say, of diodes.  You could get 500 diodes or the like for $2.00.

Poly Paks didn’t BS you: they said that not all the diodes in the bag were good (they in fact said that they pulled the diodes off old circuit boards, which meant they, too, probably had more time than money, but we digress…)

And they gave you exactly what you ordered: a bag of diodes maybe 10-15% of which were good.

You still came out ahead, but it was a slog.

Same with adjuncts.  You are (hopefully!) getting someone with familiarity with the material and experience in teaching it.  But are you getting someone who is a world-class scholar in the discipline, someone who can tell you the best way these questions or problems have been posed and the best way they’ve answered over the millenia?  Not likely.

Some of us adjuncts have great practical experience.  And the Academy is sluggishly moving to promote a new kind of scholarship based on practical experience, which is sometimes called a “Clinical Professorship”.  But there’s no systematic way to know about a teacher’s background and to tap it for your education.

If you’re lucky, you’re getting a good teacher.  But you’re not getting the “more” that the Academy should offer.

Your thoughts?

The World of the Adjunct

I do a lot of adjunct teaching now, and so does my daughter’s friend.  There the similarity ends.

However many years I may have left, adjunct teaching for me comes at the end of my working life, and has more in common with snacking or hors d’oeuvres.  It can be pretty stressful at times, but it’s all extra.  It doesn’t come at the expense of my life.  I do one class at a time; maybe, once in a while, two.  It’s lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans.

For my daughter’s friend Sean — not his real name — adjunct teaching is more like not getting enough to eat.  He depends on his teaching gigs to keep bread on the table.  He chases six (I think!) adjunct jobs at once.  The enjoyment of the students is there, too, for him, , but the ratio of good-stuff-to-tsuris is way out of whack.  He’s caught in Adjunct Hell and he wants to get out.

What we have in common is that we have intellectual wares to sell and the official market for intellectual wares, deformed by the tenure system, is too small to manage what we’ve got.  There are still students who want to “buy” what we’re “selling”, but they can only do so in the black-market-for-labor I call the “World of the Adjunct.”

What interests me about this topic is two things:

  1. The academy is tipping from “mostly tenured professors” to “mostly adjunct professors”, for a variety of reasons, which matters if, as I do, you think the academy matters
  2. There are lots of working situations that are tipping from honorable careers to “markets for Mechanical Turk labor packs”

Second one first.

I assume many readers of this blog are familiar with Mechanical Turk.  Briefly, it’s an Amazon service where workers can sign up and employers can sign up.  The employers give the workers whatever tasks they want — a typical one might be “sort through images and name the brand products found in the image” — and the workers take on whichever tasks they want.

I signed up for Mechanical Turk both as an employer and a worker, and have tried being a worker on some tasks.

It’s horrible.  Factory work — which I’ve also done — had the same dreadful but mind-numbing stress to it, but there at least there were fellow workers to commune with, and solidarity.  In Mechanical Turk world, you’re alone in front of your computer, struggling to get enough images recognized to at least make a pittance that day.

A lot of work is becoming Mechanical-Turk-ized, whether it’s the TPS reports of “Office Space” fame or modern medicine, which is a series of 15-minute encounters with patients optimized for misery on both sides.

Adjunct teaching in Sean’s world is a lot like Mechanical Turk.

There’s another pole to work emerging as well, which I call “Do-Good-ism”.  This is work with meaning for the worker, often work that helps somebody else in the outside world, work that counts.

For me, because I don’t have to do it at Sean’s pace, because I don’t have to support myself from it, adjunct teaching is Do-Good-ism.  I relish the interactions with the students (at least the good ones, the ardent learners; the troublemakers and whiners and grade-grubbers are awful for both Sean and me, although we do commune over how awful they can be when we talk adjunct teaching).

It’s all because my need to work and my self-esteem don’t come from the teaching; it’s extra.

More on the second point — what adjunct teaching is doing to the Academy — in another post perhaps.

Your thoughts?

“Themes” for December

I’m trying to be a bit more deliberate about what I read and what I write about and why.  Most of my life I’ve just wallowed in learning with the result that I think I know a “little” about a “lot”.  While that’s probably better than knowing a “lot” about a “little” (the stance of the typical academic scholar, who seems poorly-served by his or her narrowness IMHO), it might be better to focus on things that were useful, difficult, mind-stretching, or all three.

So for December, I want to work on three things:

  1. Presence and Deep Work.  Josh Waitzkin says, in his book on learning: “We cannot expect to touch excellence if ‘going through the motions’ is the norm of our lives.”  It smote me, that sentence.  It really did.
  2. Ways to reach entrepreneurs with information that may be of use to them but they may not be aware of.  I’m working on a project to turn academic research on entrepreneurship into useful information products for real sweating bleeding entrepreneurs out in what Teddy Roosevelt called “the arena.”
  3. The World of the Adjunct.  I’m doing a fair amount of adjunct teaching these days, and it raises many questions: the Mechanical Turk-ization of work, the death of the academy, the problem of normalizing adjunct talents and strengths, etc.  I want to read and talk and write about these topics.

That’s it.  Hope you’re interested.  Always welcome your thoughts.

“Paper Prototyping” and UI/UX brainstorming

I’m beginning to think about how to think about the UI/UX for a couple of projects.

First of all, I’m pretty rusty at this sort of thing, since I haven’t designed an interface for anything in maybe 5 years, and that was an API.  A “real” interface which non-techie humans are supposed to interact with: I haven’t done one of those in… 25 years??  (Can it be?)

So I’m browsing about for techniques to make my maunderings a little more systematic.  And I ran across “Paper Prototyping”.

The ref came from an older book, “Micro ISV”, an instruction manual for building a small one- or single-digit-person software shop (apparently the Micro-ISV movement is already dead, so maybe this reading is moot in any case.)

But the book recommended a technique called “paper prototyping” as a scheme for gen-ing up a UI.  Needless to say, I bought the book.

…And found out it’s an interesting low-cost way to specify a UI, but it’s not a one-person tool.  It’s a tool for interacting with users.

You sit down with the users and use hand-drawn screens instead of a simulation.  You can “operate” the UI by having multiple screens, “highlighting” things when a user pushes a button, etc.

I’m not sure if it’s interesting for a techie who could wireframe the UI with almost less work (and maybe, given some of our paltry drawing powers, with more of a sense of how it would look), but it’s something I would like to try at some point.

But it’s not an answer for how to guide one’s own thinking about the UI.

I hate use cases, because they’re usually too low-level.  You get sucked into the details of the case before you even get started on the coverage of the case.

So maybe my “tool” is to scribble ideas and show them to people whose opinion on the app at hand I trust.  In other words, a very low-fidelity form of paper prototyping.

Your thoughts?


Benefit from my 35 years of tech industry experience