Compound Interest on your curiosity

Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe published a list of questions occupying his mind when he’s not running a 40B+ payments startup. These are very specific, diverse areas of interest, where he noticed the world should be working better than it is.

Why do there seem to be more examples of rapidly-completed major projects in the past than the present?, Why are so many things so much nicer in Switzerland and Japan? Will end-user applications ever be truly programmable? If so, how? What does religion cause?

See the full list on Patrick’s site

People are born curious learning machines – just look at any child! They can find a rock fascinating and worthy of all sorts of experiments to the dismay of their parents trying to make it on time.

Grown-ups are quite curious too. What will happen in the next season of The Mandalorian? Did the politician really say THAT? I wonder what’s for dinner…

All in all, the child’s curiosity is more valuable – it serves them to build the model of the world to use later in life. Somehow the society has managed to direct this innate curiosity to the things that serve this or another media organization. Even in school, being a curious explorer is frowned upon, because it does not fit the curriculum.

There is good news: you can set a rough direction of your explorations! By being more explicit about what you are interested in, you can have a purposeful direction. By being consistent in your pursuits, you can build knowledge over time and focus your effort on what matters to you.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s to-do lists

In Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography by Walter Isaacson, we can learn the curiosity lists of the original polymath:

‘Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.’ (…) ‘Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?’ (…). ‘Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,’ he instructs himself.

We tend to think of curiosity as an unbridled, raw, and passionate act of pursuing immediate urges. But as both successful artists and long-married couples can tell you: raw and passionate acts of pursuing immediate urges do not constitute a great long-term strategy. By having a research plan, you benefit from compound interest on your curiosity.

Feynman’s 12 Favourite Problems

“Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

Gian-Carlo Rota, Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught

By having specific areas of interest, Feynman could integrate new learnings with his prior knowledge. More than that, he primed his attention to be alert to anything regarding those problems. He had only 12 of them – instead of doing frantic research „just in case,” he would have only 12 specific angles to consider. He could harness both the power of specificity and diversity because a dozen is not a tiny number.

My Bucketlist

List-making powers of guiding serendipity are not limited to intellectual pursuits. Years ago, I published a bucket list on my blog – partly to brag a little, but mainly to motivate myself to do stuff I knew I love, but somehow neglect to pursue.

When I land in a new country, and there’s no pandemic, the first thing I consult is my bucket list – it nudged me to attend The Grand Tea Ceremony in Tokyo or try a croissant-making class in Paris. Without it, I’d just Google „things to do in…” and just tick off the usual attractions with the crowds.

But the real power of intentional lists is their serendipity potential. When my wife and I were traveling through Thailand, the company we work for needed support for a conference in India. My friend Rahul spotted on my blog that I always wanted to drive a Royal Enfield – an Indian Harley-Davidson through the mountains.

When I landed in Udaipur, he handed me the keys with a big smile on his face. But… He did not expect that I’ve never driven a motorcycle before.

Well, now I have.

Having a long-running list of questions, goals, and dreams will nudge you during those idle moments towards the outcome of your choice. Instead of random browsing, you can become an expert on the topics that are relevant to you.

Tomorrow is my first Wind Surfing lesson, bucketlist Item #63. This is what Deliberate life is all about.

On the Origin of Podcasts

In this newsletter, I explain how to record your own podcast and what would Darwin say about it (although I didn’t ask him).

It seems like everywhere you turn, somebody is recommending their newsletter or a podcast. Did you know that in April, iTunes has crossed 1 million registered podcasts? During the pandemic, more people started their podcasting careers – this is a great shelter-in-place activity, and an excellent excuse to interview your best friend! And in case you want to invite an expert – it’s easier than ever before because they are not busy traveling all the time.

I have recently published „How to start your own podcast” on WordPress.com blog. In the guide, I outline the steps needed to get your show off the ground. Here is a quick summary:

  • You don’t need new gear or a studio. A good video-call headset is enough and you can record via Zoom. Stop browsing those fancy microphones! 
  • You don’t need to do any fancy audio editing. In the article, I explain how to do what you need in iTunes and Garageband.
  • You can publish your podcasts via your blog, or a dedicated service. What matters is the RSS feed  (explained in the article). You submit this RSS feed to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all the others. New episodes appear automatically once you publish it at the source (your blog or the podcasting service you use )

Doesn’t it mean more competition?

Attention is indeed a finite resource. You can listen to only as many podcasts during the day, and your cognitive load is further limiting that number. If more podcasts are fighting for the same listenership, doesn’t it mean there is no point in producing a new one?

There are more weird niches on the Internet than you realize, even if you account for the fact that there are more niches on the Internet then you realize (see David Perrell’s version). People are roughly the same but have infinite idiosyncrasies, tastes, and life experiences. They want to hear about different topics and may become enamored with a topic that others find mundane.

And for some people – you’re the expert! While the unimaginative „current events” podcast format is saturated, try finding a niche – the more quirky and unusual, the better:

When the obvious ideas are taken, it makes us explore a more unusual and interesting approach. By trial-and-error, you may discover a hungry audience that didn’t know what they craved. Everything on the Internet evolved until it “started working”, and we have a long way to go still.

This concept was novel on November 24, 1859, when Charles Darwin published „On the origin of species”:

“One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

Civilization and the social support system we created removed life-or-death struggle as a daily occurrence. I’m sure everybody reading this newsletter will not have to worry about starvation. Instead, civilization has created a framework for the development of ideas. When more creators can release their’s into the world, they can compete, cross-pollinate, and evolve until all that’s left are the most beautiful and valuable ones. 

Painters like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael didn’t produce the most famous art pieces in history despite the competition of 16th century Florence – they did so, because of healthy competition nudging them to create something better.

You can, too.

The price of free time: programmer’s guide to helping a Non-profit

Congratulations! You have decided to help out a Non-Profit. Full of energy, and good intentions, you have embarked on a journey to use your professional skills to help a cause.

It’s a win-win: Surely, with a better website / CRM / tech, they will be able to help a few more people. You, on the other hand, will meet interesting folk, do something purposeful (as opposed to optimizing button colors at your day job), and learn a few things.

Here is what you need to know to not go insane:

The benefits of helping a Non-profit

You probably have personal reasons to help a Non-profit. Working on hard problems with friends is one of the most fulfilling things you can do with your life. If you are not working on a world-changing startup and you need a respite from the drudgery of corporate existence, a Non-Profit may be your best next bet – the purpose and mission are plentiful.

Non-profits are also a great place to meet interesting, like-minded people. Working side-by-side you can make real friends and create deeper connections, than you would build by exchanging the latest plots of TV shows over coffee at work.

But there also are powerful benefits directly translating to your career.

My entire programming journey started from helping a Non-profit – a scout team I was a part of. I made my first website in 1998, graduated to building one for dad’s business, and later launched a WordPress web agency. Now I work at WordPress.com, periodically reporting to the creator of WordPress himself. During that journey, I helped my high school, a local TEDx chapter, and a non-profit supporting remote work.

Working on projects is the best way to learn – you get to experiment with real-world problems and you get to try out different approaches and fail; building that tacit knowledge that makes one an expert.

Since you are not paid for your contributions, there is a shared understanding of what can be expected of you in a Non-Profit. You have a mandate to play a little, try out things your way, and goof off. To further boost learning, it feels more like play than work, encoding the knowledge much more effectively.

The traps

As with everything in life, the downsides are directly correlated to the upsides. Yes, in a Non-Profit, you can be a bit unpredictable and inexperienced. It does not feel like work and you get a breather from a corporate feel of a professional workplace.

But guess what – other people get to do that too. If you have just reserved a weekend to finish that signup page, and the people preparing the copy (texts) decided to be unprofessional – it suddenly becomes a problem.

The Hero’s (that’s you) Journey

Let’s assume you volunteered to create a website for your favorite Non-profit. Don’t be surprised, if the whole process goes like this:

  1. You start full of energy and ideas.
  2. The non-profit is eager to launch a new website because they have project X coming up.
    Project X is the most important thing, and the website (meaning you) is a blocker.
  3. You jump straight into work! You cannot be a blocker, right? You ramp up and are ready to implement the most important piece.
  4. The texts and promotional materials are not ready, despite previous promises.
  5. You try to work around these requirements – project X is most important, right?
  6. You get a call. It seems that the “About the Team” page is most important now.
  7. Let’s do a photoshoot for the Team!
  8. You still don’t have materials for project X, but you got 10 pages of UI corrections, including a bigger logo, different button colors, and some creative ideas about the slider.
  9. You start implementing those changes, still have no materials about project X.
  10. Wait, there are changes to the changes now. Can you revert to the old button color?
  11. Sometime, after a few weeks, we finally got the Project X page to work.
    The placeholder photos you chose are still there.
    “About the Team” page that got 3 meetings, photoshoot, and 12 hours of your time has gotten a total of 100 visitors this month.

Things to watch out in a Non-profit

The price of free time

Professional environments have learned a long time ago, that time is money. If everybody is salaried, the easiest way to turn a profit is to stop wasting people’s time. The correlation is clear and obvious.

I do realize that corporate environments waste mindblowing eons of their employees’ time. This is due to the scale. Big organisms being less nimble is a law of physics called inertia.

Non-profits, however, have a peculiar relationship with money. They are called Non-Profits. Duh! They get funded through donations, grants, and sometimes sales – but they are incentivized not to run a tight operation. Volunteers’ time is treated as free, so wastefulness is not controlled. It’s up to you to say no, which is hard because non-profits attract precisely the people least likely to defend their time.

It’s everybody else’s side-gig, too

As I mentioned – you can learn, and experiment with new techniques and approaches. But other people do too. If your work depends on graphic design, don’t be surprised when the designer comes up with something out-of-the-box, which naturally will be harder for you to implement, than the run-of-the-mill website.

Other people, like you, will cut corners. The designer has a family to feed, probably a day job and the thing called life. She can’t check every resolution, think about dimensions of headlines when you cram 100 characters in a title and give the proper attention to everything.

Last, but not least – without salary, recognition becomes the currency. Don’t be surprised, that “about the team” is treated as the most important page on the entire website (even if the visitors don’t care) – this is the equity paid to volunteers. Being paid with recognition also drives some folk to seek more of that compensation – they will contribute to discussions, where they have not much expertise nor understanding. These are perfect bikeshedding conditions. Beware.

Non-profits are passion-driven

Most non-profits have a mission to fix a particular problem in the world. Hunger, poor education, lack of equality, climate change – these are all areas society is failing at and non-profits are stepping in to help.

Many people are driven to work on these problems because they feel strongly about putting up with the collective screwups of society. Non-profits tend to attract people who approach most of the problems with passion and purpose, with no patience for tedious reasoning.

This leads to: 

Passion-driven-project-management

  • Urgency is the sole method of prioritization. Things are made urgent to ensure their completion, not because they actually are time-sensitive.
  • Since urgency=priority, the priorities are fluid over time.
  • Yesterday’s priority is forgotten today because somebody who feels more strongly comes in with more passion.
  • Flashy things are more important than fulfilling the initial purpose. If you are working on a website, prepare for multiple CTAs.

Non-profit survival techniques

These techniques helped me stay sane while working within a few organizations.

  1. Find a senior member of the organization to “report to”. Ideally somebody with corporate experience, and some tenure inside the Non-Profit. You don’t want to report to a committee.
  2. Never agree to do anything ASAP. Chances are, that before you get to it – the original request will change or be forgotten. Save yourself the revert.
    Bonus points for batching change requests into sprints.
  3. They will promise you texts, materials, and whatever else you’ll need. You WILL NOT get them on time. Plan accordingly.
  4. Record yourself changing stuff in the interface – this will be a good v1 for documentation so that everyone else can implement tiny changes themselves
  5. If you are creating a website – for goodness sake, use WordPress. It will save you from reinventing the wheel.
    1. With WP, you have ready tutorials to send people to, so you don’t have to fix every typo yourself. Chances are, that other folks have WP experience too.
    2. The next person dealing with the system will know what to do with it.
  6. Use a ready template, don’t work with an empty canvas.
    Yes, it will be less original than a custom-made design, but you will be able to get off the ground and focus on what’s important – content and functionality. You have no idea how many tiny details come together to make a template work.
    Implementing custom design without an hourly rate will lead to an endless back-and-forth on every detail. It costs them nothing to throw in another change.
    The constraints of an existing template work in your favor.
  7. Every statement you hear will be over-hyped – it’s a function of passion-driven project management. You have to do the mental math of halving the emotional charge of all statements.
  8. Remember to have fun. Despite unreasonable requests, the people you are working with are probably quite awesome. Don’t forget that, and schedule some time to meet them as people – not vendors of website updates.

Working in a Non-Profit is a process of realizing that the corporate environment has its advantages and lessons to teach you as well.

Coming to work on Monday to a well-oiled machine, where every cog (including you) is humming nicely, where the work flows seamlessly through the paths of well-established processes, where everything has its place is a refreshing experience. Of course, sometime around Wednesday you are sick of it all, yearning for the freedom and creativity you get to enjoy in your organization.

Bring Your Own Friends – Dealing with loneliness when working from home

Remote Work is awesome. It is no doubt, the future of employment and for a good reason:

  • It can solve environmental problems
  • It opens up the access to suitable jobs for the people outside of a bigger city
  • It’s just better for the human soul to avoid the trenches of office buildings all day, every day.

But it has downsides as well.

Ryan Hoover from Product Hunt has recently asked about Remote work problems and loneliness came up #1

It gets… lonely.

In my previous corporate life, I was working in an Open Space at Samsung Poland. The company was voted 3rd best employer five years in a row, and the office had everything that a millennial fresh-out-of-college developer could want. We had fresh fruit, great coffee, slick building with state of the art technology, beautiful view from the window…

And friends.

In some ways, the modern office is a bit of an extension of college life. The scenery changes a bit, but you hop on from the student life to corporate existence without skipping a beat.

Most tasks in the corporate world are not that urgent or even necessary to perform, so we defer to our primal instincts: keeping up the relationships.

In our past, this served us exceptionally well. In case of a cheetah attack, people helped you if they liked you, so making them like you was vital.

The chance of a surprise cheetah attack in a Samsung office is very slim. There are Cheetos aplenty though. But our biology did not adapt. Keeping thriving relationships is not only the default, but it is also proven to be healthy both emotionally AND physically.

The gains people derived from face-to-face socializing endured even years later. The findings were published online in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Source

But in this brave new world of Remote work, there is no office and no colleagues to socialize with.

There is no daily chit-chat by the coffee machine, no banter on the Open Space and no scooter race in the hallway. That may be the best for productivity, but the silence is deafening at times. Sure, we have Slack and memes and calls and all sorts of social glue that lets us keep sane, but we are a human and we need other humans.

While working from home, YOU are responsible for your socializing. Your employer will not supply you with a kindergarten full of bored peers to play with.

You have to bring your own friends.

How to deal with loneliness in remote work

Me and my fiancee have developed a set of tactics to deal with the loneliness of remote work. These improved our lives considerably, but we are still on the lookout for new ones.

Party time

Photo by Delaney Dawson on Unsplash

I have a confession to make. I have a rolling calendar reminder to organize a party for my friends every two months. There is no birthday or another occasion, just a party. I would say, I have a 50% success rate, so in reality, the said bacchanalia gets thrown every four months, but it’s still a great way to remind your acquaintances of your existence.

Committing to a cycle has several benefits:

1 – Lower emotional stakes

Have you experienced a little bit of shame before reaching out to a friend you did not talk to for a while? Do you sometimes worry they will laugh at you when you finally DO reach out? I have this nagging feeling sometimes. But guess what. They probably feel the same, and you are just two proud dummies not talking to each other.

Reach out. It’s not a big deal. Only one party out of 10s you are going to organize.

2 – More significant chance you finally get to see some people

We’re all adults. Well you are, I’m just pretending. We have lots of responsibilities, and not everyone will be able to make it to your party. By the 4th time you invite someone, they may be able to make it. Go ahead, keep asking this childhood friend. Maybe she will come.

3 – You will get comfortable with this

You will not stress about having enough chairs (people can stand for 4 hours, nothing will happen to them). Your place will not have to be squeaky clean. The situation will be normal for you. You will develop a party-prep routine. I can throw the party in 2 hours, provided there are no dead bodies to hide lying in my living room.

Here is my tried and tested, patented Artpi Party Prep Scenario ™️.

  • Dried tomato hummus
  • Sweet Potato chili-sprinkled fries with garlic sauce
  • Barbecue pulled-pork style Egglant
  • Salmon-horseradish party wraps
  • Home-made Coleslaw
  • Greek-Style salad (arugula, feta, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, olives, honey-coated walnuts, vinaigrette sauce)

I can do this on autopilot. I do something else if I have energy, but having default makes it easier to commit.

More reminders

Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

Yes, I am a robot. I have three lists of people I should reach out to weekly / every month / every quarter.

I have a bot that will select a person from one of these lists every day. This is a custom solution, but you can achieve the same result by following fantastic Derek Sivers advice.

Reminder ensures I will remember about everyone. I do ignore them some of the time, but I still see value in refreshing the fact of someone’s existence. It’s nice to stop and remember that I have the person X in my life.

Being a part of the community

This societal problem is widespread and touches not only remote workers. You probably don’t feel this in an Open Space, but humans have a deep longing for long-lasting connections with people around them. We evolved in tribes and later settled into villages. Everything was communal.

Getting benefits of community without going insane require some planning. Currently, we are

And I think that one of the most amazing things that anyone can go through and can do in their lives is a variation on the theme of going on a journey, doing hard things surrounded by friends

Tobi Lutke, Shopify CEO

Organizing a wedding

Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash

Now, I’m only half joking. My fiancee and I are in the process of a fabulous adventure that is organizing a wedding. And we are inviting A LOT of family members. Some of which I have never heard of before. I don’t even think it’s possible to be related to so many people, but so be it.

The surprising part is that I enjoy getting to know them, giving them invites and nurturing those relationships. I can see myself in the son of a distant relative, and it’s very fulfilling and gives me a sense of belonging. If you told me five years ago that inviting 150+ people for an ultra expensive party would be in my future, I would laugh in your face.

But here I am, you can laugh at me.

The point is that these tested rituals served some purpose in the past. Weddings, Funerals, Equinox parties, Easters and Christmases – all of them were kind of a glue that holds people together in the face of loneliness.

Remote work is changing this balance, and we need to find new rituals and again take extra care to nurture a connection to people around us. New technology can help but let’s not forget about the tried-and-tested approach.

Call your mom once in a while. Yes, ON THE PHONE LIKE A CAVEMAN (cavewomen have probably already figured that out).

You have to be deliberate about reaching out to your friends and making time for them. They are busy too and nobody will organize this for you.

Bring them with you.

The opportunity to move for work is a privilege. Remote Work unlocks the potential of those who can’t

With Remote Work, you don’t have to choose between your career and behaving like a human being. You don’t have to uproot yourself and embark on an uncertain journey to seek a better life. The days of Wild West are gone.

The opportunity to move for work is a privilege, and the immense potential of those of us who are not willing to leave our lives behind is only beginning to be explored.

As I write this, my grandfather is not doing so well. I very much enjoy the opportunity to visit him and listen to his crazy war stories. About the time he was running a public house as a 14-year old to feed his family. Or how he stole german weapons and sold them to the resistance.

My Wife appreciates these stories too, and she “adopted” him as her own.