Taking care of each other along the way
Kathy Sierra’s new book, Badass: Making Users Awesome, is a mind-altering look at creating things that serve and empower the people who use them. It might be an app, talk, book, design, tangible product, API, class, or most anything else. Success isn't people basking in the glow of what we make, it's what we make basking in the glow of what people experience and achieve with it.
Along the way, the book explores what motivates us to learn and why sometimes we’re successful and other times we’re not. In the context of the book, these questions concern how to help people using a product (from cameras to snowboards) overcome hurdles big and small to become badass. Not badass at using the settings on the camera, but a badass photographer.
Thanks to the book, I look at my day-to-day work, and even something like this dispatch, differently. The more I read, though, the more fascinated I am with her insights into learning.
I love to learn, but that doesn’t mean it always goes well. Most of my learning happens while working on something and involves solving the problem directly in front of me. These incremental bits of research and problem solving are satisfying, but there are big things I want to learn and progress in those cases can be unsteady and intermittent. A good example is my ongoing quest to learn to program.
“Learn to program” is a large, nebulous task, which is one reason that progress is difficult. There certainly isn’t a shortage of help available, though, from books and bootcamps to courses promising various combinations of badges and certificates. I’m lucky to know helpful people who are remarkably good at it, too.
Why are we able to master some things and other times, we struggle? Kathy’s book explains what makes success more likely.
First, intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation. Rewards and recognition are a nice boost, but pursuing a true passion wholeheartedly helps us get past the inevitable struggles.
Second, our brains are wired to care about just-in-time knowledge, not just-in-case. I immediately thought of the number of times I’ve read a chapter about a programming problem I’m unlikely to face for months. Unsurprisingly, I lose interest not longer after. Learning shouldn’t get too far ahead of practice.
Which leads to the most important point: how we practice matters. It’s not just putting in hours, even 10,000 of them. “Practice makes permanent,” both good and bad. The difference is <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Practice_(learning_method)#Deliberate_practice">deliberate practice</a>: find the next achievable goal and become reliably good at it in a small number of practice sessions. If that’s not possible, break the problem down further and try again. When you’re successful, move up to the next challenge and repeat.
These ideas have changed how I approach learning. It's not easier, but it's more rewarding, enjoyable, and addictive. Goals are smaller and more specific and progress more consistent. Each step forward carries with it an invaluable sense of momentum. I'm beginning to understand how the pieces fit together.
In the early days of Uncommon, Kathy wrote an essay for the community: The API of You. It's a treasured chapter in our story.
The last dispatch asked, What do you love about what you do?
I love zooming way in to details that almost nobody will consciously notice. Then zooming way out to life-scale concerns that nobody would expect us to consider. And back and forth, over and over.
I also think a lot about work and my relationship to work. Considering the proportion of time most of us spend working, it is only obvious that huge difference is made when we feel "at home" whilst at work. What I love about my work is the "family" spirit that develops throughout the course of a project - when the right mix of people come together.
A multidisciplinary team formed by individuals from different continents, all strangers at first but through goodwill and dedication, they work relentlessly towards a common goal, taking care of each other along the way. Simple gestures like bringing the occasional breakfast or getting a birthday cake are great.
Dream teams like this are uncommon. When it does happen it's awesome - it adds lots of meaning to the work and creates long lasting friendship because of the common experience.
I love to travel. I'm never in one place for more than a few days. My job requirements are very vague, and I get to come on-site and have to put together the pieces as soon as possible. I travel the United States as a Senior National Leadership Consultant. I get to teach and learn from new people daily, which allows me to interact with new cultures very often.
I love the team of software developers I get to work with everyday. The joy and the anguish of 'shipping' lines of code that hopefully make an unknowing stranger's life just that little bit easier.
The team and the struggle. We work for a large company, on a small team that leads the charge on digital innovation. The title of our team spurs much idealistic joy in any digerati -- Digital Innovation Team. But the reality is much more pragmatic, as innovation means change and change is hard for a large behemoth company to actually implement.
So, our frustration fuels innovation, and the team's passion makes the muddles in the middle worth the fight.
The thing I love most about what I do is how much I get to learn. Working as a consultant I get to see many types of organizations, management styles, cultures, and problems they are solving. Each new project is a step into a completely new world and I get to listen and learn. And then I get to help the people that hired me to start listening to their employees and customers and learn how to use the information they get. I love learning!
Right now, I don’t love my job very much. Politics, manpower, and an inability to take on more challenging projects contribute to an overall dissatisfaction with work. But I do like a few things about my current job as an IT Technician at a small social-services company: the flexible hours, the great boss/coworker/friend who makes time for nerdery and fun, and the comfort of working at the same desk, next to the same colleague, in the same office, for several years in a row. We often fail to factor the intangible, “non-work” parts of work into our attitudes toward our jobs, which I think is a mistake. Even though I’m not very happy with my job at the moment, I’m grateful for these non-monetary benefits that keep me sane.
People. I am a software engineering manager and I love that I get to work with teams of interesting and motivated people who are all trying to produce some part of a greater technological whole. The technology itself is fun, and the problems are intellectually stimulating, but I love employing empathy to try and better understand each person, then help unite them into a team that is able to both create great technology and improve the lives of the people creating.
While technical skills and experience are necessary, I believe that the most crucial factors determining the success of a manager and a team are empathy, communication and trust. Working alongside skilled people who lack these qualities, or who don't care to develop them, can be a demoralizing and frustrating experience. For this reason, I strive to establish these qualities first on my teams and amongst all those with whom I work.
Jack Cheng writes about what's happening:
What’s happening is I’m thinking about how I can write the leaf-weather thing into today’s letter. What it has to do with this aimless week, the usual one after deadline, occupied by Getting Things Back In Order. The same impulse that wishes I had more time now doesn't know what to do with it can't stand the idea of being alone for 24 hours without a book or phone or tool and what if when we ask for more time what we want really is to receive less time to feel for not as long the fullness of being a human being is that what's happening!
Trying to Capture a Moment, Many Lose Track of Time by Cameron McWhirter:
The loose-knit society fields questions every week from people looking to build, or find, a time capsule. It posts a to-do list on Oglethorpe’s website for time capsule makers: make sure it is securely sealed, be sure to document when and where you seal it, and be careful what’s in it (books and clothes, yes; food that can spoil, no). On its list of don’ts: No burying.
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What would you love the chance to learn?