Monthly-ish Personal Update (Feb 2021)
Hi, this is my monthly-ish personal update to my most valued friends and allies. More info here. Guilt-free unsubscribe link at the bottom.
Here are three updates:
Warning: This is a long one (1500 words, 10 min read). Consider scanning the three headlines and only reading what’s interesting to you.
First, I was so close to quitting my job.
I couldn’t figure out how to contribute.
By contribute, I don’t mean just-enough-to-not-get-fired. Call me idealistic, but I mean Linchpin contribution:
What the boss really wants is an artist, someone who changes everything, someone who makes dreams come true. What the boss really wants is someone who can see the reality of today and describe a better tomorrow. What the boss really wants is a linchpin. If he can’t have that, he’ll settle for a cheap drone.
I tried and tried, and I mostly failed. Because of this, and because a sweet opportunity fell on my lap, I almost quit Giant Swarm.
Seth Godin wrote a book on quitting called The Dip. In it, he differentiates between a Dip vs a Cul-de-Sac. Seth writes, “A Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery,” Going through a dip is painful and difficult, but worth it. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel (or at the top of the mountain). And it’s quite bright. On the other hand, a Cul-de-Sac is also painful and difficult. But at the end of a tunnel is just that, a dead end.
At the end of the book, Seth asks:
Is this a Dip, a Cliff, or a Cul-de-Sac?
If it’s a Cul-de-Sac, how can I change it into a Dip?
Surely, I was in a Cul-de-Sac. What else could 1 year of trying and failing be?
Things changed when I decided to speak with Anna Löw, our VP of People. After long hours of talking with her (it involved a lot of crying), I realized I had gotten into a state of learned helplessness. Just because I tried something 6 months ago doesn’t mean trying it again today wouldn’t work. The circumstances have changed. I’ve changed.
In the weeks following our first talk, I stopped spending time on low value things that made me feel like "I’m at least contributing.” I gave myself permission to spend time thinking. (I made the last two Tuesdays completely free of meetings.)
I found that because of the knowledge and experience I have acquired, I could now break down into smaller pieces what I initially found inextricable. I found that I was no longer stuck. In fact, I was never stuck. In addition, we’re hiring a product coach for me and the other product people in Giant Swarm. I expect it will help accelerate this development.
Because our team started doing 24/7 oncall, Joe (Platform Architect for the Observability and Ops Team) has been monitoring our happiness. Every day, he asks us to rate our happiness on a scale of 1-5. If he asked me previously, I would’ve given 1s and 2s.
For the first time in my Giant Swarm life, I’ve been saying “4.”
However, avoid quitting as a habit or impulse.
If you’re unhappy or frustrated, try to first understand why and initiate change yourself (nobody likes a complainer).
If you can’t figure out how to change it yourself, consider talking to and working it out with your manager. If you’re lucky enough to work in a place with an Anna Löw, you might just turn a Cul-de-Sac into a Dip.
Second, I’ve finally built the habit of building habits!
Confession: I am lazy.
The only reason I get anything done is because I have the courage (and stupidity) to blackmail myself into doing things.
Pay 225 EUR for a German language exam to force myself to study
Hire a personal coach to force myself to show up for wrestling training consistently
Schedule a call with coworkers, telling them I will present something to force myself to stop procrastinating on a thing
Key words: Force myself. It works, but it’s painful.
This is why I’m so happy I’ve finally learned to build habits. I’ve done daily fitness for 66 days, meditation for 34 days, and writing for 4 days.
Here’s a screenshot of my habit app (Strides, iOS only):
Here’s what worked for me.
Start tiny. Really tiny. It should feel like the habit is so easy it would be ridiculous not to do it. With fitness, I started with 10 pushups. With meditation, I started with 1 minute. Hard part: not letting ego and impatience get in the way.
Find a trigger. Two obstacles cause me to drop habits: willpower and forgetfulness. Once you've decided on a tiny habit, the willpower required should also be equally tiny. The biggest obstacle will now be forgetfulness. Look for a trigger, something you already do everyday, and attach your new habit to that. My starting habits with accompanying triggers are: (1) After I prepare my coffee (while the coffee is brewing), I will do 10 pushups. (2) After I brush my teeth in the evening, I will meditate for 1 minute.
Build slowly. Very slowly. Were you able to execute the tiny habit for 1 week? If not, then it wasn't tiny enough. Or you need a better trigger. If yes, then you may now increase the intensity a tiny bit. Then do it again after 1-2 weeks. For me the build up looked like this.
Believe me, for someone who used to do Crossfit, wrestle competitively, and lift weights 4x/week, merely doing 10 pushups for fitness felt very silly.
However, life has changed and these options are not available to me today. I was aware of the ego trap and didn't let it and impatience get in the way.
After 8 weeks, I'm now doing 40 pushups and 20 Kettlebell Swings each hand every day. And it’s felt like almost zero effort. Not bad. If I wanted, I could increase by 10 pushups every two weeks and be doing 100 daily pushups within 12 weeks. Effortlessly. Without forcing myself.
Writing is a newer habit. I’m on a 4-day streak of “After I pour my first cup of coffee, I write for 5 mins.” Even when I wake up late, say at 8:30am, I can still tell myself, it’s just 5 mins. I will usually do it. (Most days, I don’t write for just 5 mins. I get into flow and write for 30-40 mins, but have to stop because I have to start working.)
If I write for only 5 mins everyday, it will take many days to publish something. And it has. I’ve been chipping away at this Monthly Personal Update for 4 days, writing for 5 to 30 mins everyday.
Under my usual “non-habit” mode, I would force myself to write. Or I would delay it for weeks and months (which I’ve done, considering it’s already February and my last “monthly” update was in October 😀). Then, I get it done in one energetic weekend. In both cases, I finish something in one day. Also in both cases, I force and fight myself. Quicker in the short run, unreliable in the long run.
Still, not all my attempts at new habits have been successful. I’d like to get to bed at 10pm, but so far that’s failed. I tried to attack it indirectly with “prep brushing teeth by 9:30pm” (brushing my teeth is a trigger to go to bed). It hasn’t worked, because I would usually be in the middle of a game of Go and I find it hard to stop. I’m still working on it 😅
To summarize, here are the habits that’s worked for me:
After I push the button in the coffee machine, I do 10 pushups.
After I brush my teeth at night, I meditate for 1 minute.
After I pour my first cup of coffee, I write for 5 minutes.
Build the habit of building habits. It’s worth it. For inspiration, the book Essential Zen Habits has been helpful for me.
Third, German B1 exam.
In my October 2020 update, I wrote that I signed up to take the Goethe-Zertifikat B1 exam in order to have more accountability and speed up learning German.
While I’m proud I'm now "officially" B2, I still don’t have the communication skills I would expect from someone in this level.
Every test requires at least two skills: (1) "actual skills," the content being tested for and (2) test-taking skills. Because I couldn’t yet talk to anyone about any topic in German (actual skills), I relied heavily on my test-taking skills. For example, I practiced giving presentations on different topics using a structure I had memorized.
Here’s a table to illustrate the difference.
In the German B1 exam, as in life, I’ve been deliberate about building not only actual skills, but also test-taking skills.
I used to find test-taking skills icky and pooh-pooh them. I found this resulted in unproductive thinking such as, "It's unfair that that guy got the job. It's only because he’s such a smooth talker (i.e. job interviewing skills). I can't believe it, because clearly, I could do the job (i.e. actual skills) better!!!”
I might write a post to expand on this idea. Let me know if you are interested.
That’s it! If you read this far, hit reply. What’s exciting you these days? I’d love to hear from you. 😀
P.S. I’ve written 14 blog posts since my last update in October 2020: Two posts on crying. Moving to Germany. Zettelkasten in Craft Docs. Not wasting your youth while you are young. When does one learn ethics in technology and business? Recognize Cognitive Distortions to manage negative thoughts. Browse the Archive.