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This week in stoic design thinking:

Refer virtuously

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Read and re-read the masters of your craft

January 14, 2019

Whether a post, tweet, newsletter, podcast, or program makes you better should be your metric for giving it your attention. If you can't convincingly answer why such information makes you better, then chances are it won't. -- from "Are you better for consuming a lot of design or development content?"

Rather than just improve the signal-to-noise ratio we are better to reduce the amount of signal entirely. If we assume consuming this content about our craft make us better at that craft, how should we go about consuming it? If we improve our ability to refine the signal by determining whether that signal should be received in the first place, then the follow-up question is to ask: what we do with that signal?

TL;DR: Seneca's answer is to consistently return and reread/rewatch/relisten to the works that make it through our buffer until we know that work back to front - along with something about the person who created it to boot.

In his letter "On Discurveness in Reading," Seneca wrote that
Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends  all  his  time  in  foreign  travel,  he  ends  by  having  many  acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner.

-- and, anticipating a rebuttal I think we might all make

“But,” you reply, “I wish to dip first into one book and then into another.” I tell you that it is the sign of an overnice appetite to toy with many dishes; for when they are manifold and varied, they cloy but do not nourish.

We should read posts, tutorials, books that pass muster - meaning we deem it to be work that will make us better - until we can write about it or teach it ourselves. Then, periodically, we should bookmark and revisit them.

Do you have anything like this that you routinely come back to? Let me know: I'm interested in compiling a list.

To be honest with you, I am not sure exactly how best to adapt this to the design and development world that surfaces good content through curation (newsletters, etc.) and whose most popular authors -- "rockstars of the web" -- are circumstantially popular rather than the kinds of masters Seneca had in mind.

I think this implies tomorrow's subject: how do we find mentors and masters-of-our-craft?

Routine is about control

January 17, 2019

For a number of reasons this has been a routineless week. Deadlines - which, rationally, I know are largely artificial and, what's more, are more in my control than not given my position on the team - have made for late nights pushing code. When finished, I have that feeling that - yo, I didn't have any free time to myself, so I binge-watch Friends before suddenly snapping awake to the kid's alarm. I start the morning feeling curried by the wave of other people's schedules: I take the kid to school, catch-up on email that piled-up because I was deadlining and ignoring it, then suddenly it's morning standup.

The fact that each day is rigorously scheduled in my calendar (I use an a.i. for that, by the way, remind me to talk about it sometime) is beside the point. I scheduled or agreed to these meetings weeks in advance. My kids' morning school schedules are a fact of life that I have been accustomed to for years. Rephrased, I have chosen these tasks. However, being their author did not prevent me from being controlled by them.

If my calendar is predictable and largely unchanging over time, what was different about this week compared to last? I didn't start the day; I let the day start without me.

This is why for the stoics, stoicism was a deliberate, daily practice, often taking the form of journaling. The reason I started this newsletter in part was to develop the habit of daily practice, to benchmark the day so that I could approach my work on my own terms. It's routine not because routine happened to me because I'm suddenly in my thirties and I'm old and un-fun but because I choose a series of tasks that put me in control, and I try hard to stick to them. They're vitamins: they're gross, but good for me.

Routine isn't about giving-up spontaneity or filling-up your schedule for any purpose other than having a deliberate, inviolate to-do list that puts the breaks on external momentum and starts the day on your terms.

Marie Kondo tells you to make your bed every morning because it's a small win.

The stoics tell you to journal every morning to remind yourself what really matters and what's really in your control.

Others recommend exercising every morning to get the blood pumping (and start your day with a big win).

I know developers who start their mornings with code katas.

These are accelerators. However, I'd note that none of the advice you'll find is to start your day off reading your email or your news. Routine is a way to delay the unkempt blorp that is all the shit that doesn't really matter in the information age until you're in the right space to open the pen.

Use routine as a tool to prioritize yourself over signals, to make the deliberate choice to receive signals, and to prime yourself against the noise.

Are you busy or are you procrastinating?

January 18, 2019

What pride do you take in having a full calendar? My calendar looks like the wall of a conspiracy theorist, and I admit that I get some sense of fullness from having somewhere to be, something to do, to be depended on.

How many times have you humble-brag apologized for not being able to attend a meetup or get to a task because you're busy?

How often do we use busyness as an excuse? Given the neuroticism endemic in design work, it's often more forgivable to skip a meeting, be late to a call, or bow-out of a project because you're busy, as opposed to other excuses.

I am too busy to make time for this side-project I dropped the ball on, and I use my schedule as sugar on my apology for not making the progress others expect. I use busyness to avoid the difficult truth: I procrastinated, dropped the ball, folks are losing faith, and I am ashamed.

I am not busy insofar as I am procrastinating still.

"Why then don't you complete the work ... ? The work is quite feasible, and is the only thing in our power. ... Let go of the past. We must only begin." - Epictetus

Procrastination is a neurotic weapon. You avoid a moment's discomfort by accruing anxiety-debt. You're worried about the discomfort - in my case, how I am to be perceived - and you dwell on the past (me: how I dropped the ball).

Epictetus would have us remember that's what's done is done and the future isn't within our control, so there's no value in giving what-ifs attention. What you have, what's in your control, is the work. Just start the work.

"If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress, but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary.

"From now on, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and making whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer ...."
- Epictetus

Busyness for its own sake is a tool of avoidance. Consider the contradiction in feeling good for advertising your busyness but feeling resentment for being given busy-work from your boss? What is busy-work if not the tool of insecure leaders? How often is busyness a crutch for the insecure?

"This is what you deserve. You could be good today, but instead you choose tomorrow." - Marcus Aurelius
Copyright © 2019 Michael Schofield, All rights reserved.


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