Tag Archive: concentration

Endangered Species: Concentration and Solitude

Other than ridicule, great thinkers and discoverers of the past had something else in common: lots of time to themselves to think and experiment.

Our amplification-loop world is making solitude a rare commodity and concentration a rare ability. We’ve gained exponential connectivity with others but should be aware of what we’re losing.

We can get a lot more information a lot faster. But what are we doing with it? The next great breakthroughs are waiting while we browse Facebook.

Do you remember how it felt to sit and read for hours, uninterrupted?

Concentration Rehab

I’m not sure how to rediscover concentration amid the noise, but I’m trying. Here are some ideas I’m testing:

1.    Schedule at least one day a month for solitude.
2.    Just breathe and think for a little while each day — even 15 minutes helps.
3.    Take a walk outside, alone.
4.    Read for five hours straight in a paper book, where a “Go to Facebook” option doesn’t exist.

A Blue-Sky Dilemma

Solitude as a team also should be more highly valued when an idea is off-the-map and likely to be rejected by status-quo decision makers. In all sorts of environments, ranging from large companies to Startup Weekend, I’ve seen truly interesting ideas eliminated early in collaborative processes because they fell outside of normal bounds.

Those are often the most promising ideas.

Crowds rarely make breakthroughs. They’re good at enforcing the status quo, and (if organized well) at generating incremental improvements. They also eventually popularize breakthroughs, but only after a sufficient number of early adopters look sufficiently cool enough to make them jealous.

I’m not saying that early validation of high-level ideas with customers is bad. If you’re considering an idea that’s not truly novel, it’s a great thing to do. But vetting blue-sky ideas by committee or with customers is, I suspect, counterproductive in early days. The really great ideas are too impractical, too unlikely, too risky or anti-status quo to make it out of committee, unless you work at Google X.

Solitude Before Sharing?

For blue-sky ideas, a possible approach might be: Build solitude (or a small, trusted team that respects it), work hard, try new things, succeed  at a small scale, and then share.

It’s not as fun in the moment. Focusing intensely on a tough problem with no guarantee of a breakthrough often is not fun. It requires saying no to many things, giving up some trappings of respectability, and generally being perceived as odd. But it brings the possibility of doing something truly great, instead of just pretty good.

If people are telling you you’re crazy, you may have a truly terrible idea, or you may be on the right track. It’s difficult to parse that feedback, but it’s not always a stop-sign. The biggest stop-sign is feedback along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s okay. Go ahead.”


The Tyranny of Experts

We’re trapped in an expert-bound world.

If you’re not recognized as an expert by another team of experts, it’s difficult to reach an audience. This is true even if you really are an expert. If you spent thousands of hours pursuing mastery of economics but didn’t tell anyone about it, unless you get lucky a la Thomas Piketty, you’re shouting into a sea of noise.

This means trouble because throughout human history, many great discoveries came from lone thinkers and doers.

Leonardo da Vinci. Galileo. Mendel. Edward Jenner. Banting and Best. Einstein. Ignaz Semmelweis. Beethoven. Prometheus (mythologically speaking). Linus Torvalds (initially).

The TCP/IP Exception

There are exceptions, of course. TCP/IP. The Manhattan Project. Teamwork can work in a well-crafted atmosphere. But there’s a high failure rate in creating such an atmosphere.

And academia? It’s hard to say the modern academic environment, with profit-motivated grants and overwhelming politics, succeeds in creating a place where real breakthroughs are possible. More often, academics seem to be rewarded for incremental breakthroughs, not out-of-paradigm thinking.

High Volume, High Stakes

Granted, many of the great thinkers and discoverers listed above were ridiculed or persecuted.

But ridicule has a higher volume today, thanks to social media, the Internet, TV and worldwide communication. It’s hard to be just the village eccentric now.

Moreover, official experts often don’t dare look ridiculous by departing from the accepted quo. Even if they believe something different in private. Especially if believing something different could endanger their job.

That’s why innovation often comes from unexpected corners.

It’s a tough choice: Even if you’re right, you may be ridiculed and discredited; conversely, you could find acceptance and reward. If your discovery can make people money, chances are higher that your experience will be relatively good. If your discovery could cause people to lose a lot of money, you face a greater risk.

But even if what you have to say seems ridiculous, someone has to say it first.

Things Accomplished versus Distance Covered

I’m in week four of Hacker School.

It’s awesome. But I’m struggling with a dilemma: balancing the tough problem and the maximum ground.

I view Hacker School in terms of two metrics: Things Accomplished and Distance Covered.

Of course I want to accomplish some things. I have a whole list of things I want to accomplish, some while at Hacker School and some afterward.

But the whole point of doing Hacker School, for me, is to learn the maximum possible amount in the time given, so that I become a much better programmer for whatever comes next.

This means I also need to keep an eye on the Distance Covered.

It doesn’t mean I will abandon tough problems forever; but it does mean I don’t want to spend the entire 11 weeks on one problem without any guarantee that I’ll solve it in that timeframe.

Asking the Right Question

So I’m forced to balance things. The right question is not, “How long will I spend on a particular project?”

The right question for me is, “Given the rate of progress I am making, the amount of code I am writing, and the amount of learning going on, how long will I spend on a particular project at Hacker School?”

That’s why I’ve decided to set the voice recognition project aside for now and continue forward with my Hacker School plan by turning my attention to Swift for the next two weeks.

But I Love Tough Problems

I wasn’t too happy about this decision, because my experience has been that the projects and problems I delve into tenaciously and refuse to let go until I’ve figured them out always produce my greatest successes and joy. It was true with high-speed trading risk controls at my prior job. It was true with health issues that I defeated.

But those projects take years, not weeks.

I don’t have years at Hacker School. I have time to learn a lot about a lot, meet and enjoy working with great people, and build a base for tackling the really tough problems afterward.

The Nights-and-Weekends Compromise

I discovered that the voice recognition project is 100% doable — it just requires a lot of work. More work than I have time to dedicate to it at Hacker School.

So, my compromise is to make it a nights-and-weekends project, while spending my time in the Hacker School space completing my Hacker School plan.

That means Swift for the next two weeks and then a shift to JavaScript and node.js.

Meanwhile, I’ll be mulling the voice recognition project in my spare time, which is probably the best way to tackle tough problems that are at an impasse. I will figure it out. But I will also accomplish other things and cover the distance.

My Big Nerd Ranch Diary

I took vacation to attend the Big Nerd Ranch iOS Bootcamp last year. It was my favorite vacation ever. That’s when I knew I was on to something.

Today, I start Hacker School. I’m taking this moment to look back and share my Big Nerd Ranch diary. Every night in rural Georgia, I came back to my cabin in the woods and wrote my impressions of the day. Here’s what happened during that week:


I’m in my cabin after Arrival Day at Big Nerd Ranch — I’ve been anticipating this trip for about a year but wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m impressed so far.

First, the staff at Historic Banning Mills are heroic. Although I grew up camping as a Girl Scout and once could survive on Mountain Dew and Skittles, I am a city girl at this point in my life and had a health crisis that scared the Skittles right out of me. The thought of spending a week in the woods eating hush puppies from the lodge kitchen didn’t thrill me.

When I asked about food, Big Nerd Ranch staff said they would ask the kitchen at Banning Mills what they could do. The kitchen said if I could ship food direct from a provider to them, they would cook it for me. That scored about 1,000 points right there. I used Boxed Greens, which ships organic food nationwide overnight. The food arrived a few hours before I did.

THEN the kitchen staff kind of got into the idea. They said they wanted to buy more food to complement the contents of the box. They’ve considered offering an organic option for students, so I think they viewed this as an experiment. In return for their awesomeness, I gave them carte blanche to create whatever seemed interesting to them. My first meal, this evening, was delicious: a kale/peach/cucumber salad, followed by salmon over lentils with kale, tricolor peppers, and onions. (The regular food also looked tasty — salad and then herbed chicken over mashed potatoes with asparagus.)

Now I’m in the cabin, relaxing. Speaking of the cabin, it is huge and gorgeous.  More good things about today — the wonderful shuttle driver at the airport who did not leave anyone behind, and my fellow classmates, who are friendly. I’m looking forward to spending a week getting to know them better while my brain gets a workout in the class. It’s a challenging (grueling?) schedule, but I’m ready and plan to make the most of this opportunity.

Which means I’m going to sleep soon. More tomorrow.


Class today was surprisingly easy and doable — but I am so glad I worked my way through the BNR Guide to Objective-C Programming last year! Struggling with this book over four months helped me rush through half of it today. We cover the other half tomorrow. If I’d walked into this class with no programming experience at all, I’d be in trouble on Monday, when we dive into iOS apps.

I still may be in trouble on Monday. The reviews I’ve read say the pace picks up fast then, so the fact that I’m finishing challenges quickly puts me somewhat at ease, since I may be able to keep my head above water on Monday and Tuesday. After that it’s anyone’s guess, because at some point we will start covering material beyond the point I’ve reached in my BNR iOS Programming Guide self-study. Then I’ll be learning entirely new stuff. And that takes longer, but we’ll still be flying through the material. I’m hoping that by getting the basics down well in this weekend intro, I’ll be able to survive through the week with some understanding and real ability to get the most from the class.

Also, I learned that there is an advanced book for the advanced class! It is, sadly, not available on Amazon or in any bookstores. Another reason to possibly take the advanced class later this year or next. I’m hoping that between now and then, I can dive in and create some real apps for free on the app store, just to test the waters and see what happens.

Anyway, more tomorrow. I was surprised not to find myself tired or burned out by 9:30pm, when I came back to my cabin. Maybe it’s a good sign, but I’ll wait and see how tomorrow goes. Food was delicious, as it was yesterday, but I am afraid my statement that, “I eat fish,” was received as, “I eat fish at every lunch and dinner.” In truth, I eat fish a couple of times a week. If fish continues to appear at every meal, I may have to say something — but what can I really say, anyway? They are preparing custom organic meals for me! Today some little potatoes and wax beans appeared — I think they are shopping for me, to supplement the stuff I sent in the box. Amazing kitchen, amazing place so far.

More tomorrow.


My brain is starting to get tired. We rushed through many topics today, and while I understood most things, they are starting to jumble together in my mind. I’m hoping my mind can sort it out by the end of the week, and that I don’t end up dreaming all night about coding, because that would be about 20 hours of coding per day, which is a lot more than 12, which is what we are essentially already doing.

Today we finished the Objective-C book and I reviewed the documentation for NSArray, NSMutableArray, and NSDictionary. Tomorrow we dive into iOS Cocoa Touch programming.

I am loving the class, despite my brain-whir, and found myself wishing I could attend for two weeks or a month and really delve into more and more advanced topics. We’ll see how I feel on Thursday and Friday; if I still feel the same, this may be amazing for me.

The classroom is light, bright, and free of awful bugs. There were some small winged creatures on my desk this morning, but I let them be and they flew away (or my neighbor squashed them while I was in the bathroom).

More good conversations with other people who are here to learn; I love being in a room full of people who are mostly there by choice, since the attitude is amazingly good and therefore so is the experience overall.

Organic food from the kitchen continues to be good, although also salty; today I learned that this is not limited to my dishes. All of the food is very salty/spiced. I keep drinking water; can’t bring myself to complain about it. Lunch was shrimp escabeche — over red cabbage with a tomatillo sauce (I’m not sure what was in the tomatillo sauce, but it was awesome). Some delicious cauliflower with dinner, and nicely cooked yams, plus more fish. I don’t know if I will eat fish for a while after I get back.

It rained today so there was no nature walk. I did see zip-liners breezing past through the pouring rain.

More tomorrow.


Day 4 of my adventure, Day 3 of class. This is where the blogs I’ve read have dropped off, and now I see why. We covered a prodigious amount of stuff — nearly 200 pages of the iOS Programming Guide. I am getting a better understanding of some things that confused me the first time around, but I still wish I had an extra day to put it all together — the basics, the new techniques — but we just keep steamrolling forward. I don’t have time to do all of the Challenges in the book, and I really wish I did, because I’m learning a lot and I’d learn even more then!

I think I’m keeping pace reasonably well. A few people are behind me, some people are ahead of me who have a lot of coding experience, and some are about on pace with me. I think this is a marathon and not a sprint so I’m okay with it.

I do feel gratified doing something for my own self-improvement that is also productive and useful, potentially, for others who might use my apps someday. I hope I can build a lot of productive and useful apps upon returning home. I certainly feel like I’ll have a running start.

This is a good environment for learning. I have almost no time to myself, which is weird, but I’m getting a lot done and reminding myself that this is temporary and necessary. What I am getting is time to concentrate, even among others, which almost never happens. I forgot how much I enjoy super-focused days.

The food remains delicious — and today it was not salty, since when they asked me what I wanted to eat, I said I would eat anything they made for me but please to go light on the salt. It was a great food day.

It was a great learning day. I wasn’t tired at 10:15 and only left because I knew I had to get some sleep to keep up the pace for the remaining days here. I found a centipede in my bed when I came back, so I called to ask the front desk if it was poisonous. They said no and also sent a nice staff guy to pick it up and remove it from the cabin. It was a nice little creature, I guess, if I were used to creatures.

More tomorrow. Bedtime if I want to get a full 7 hours of sleep. (First night: 9. Second night: 8.5. Third night: 8. I see the pattern. It stops now.)


Unbelievable amount of learning happening today. I’m starting to connect the dots, and know why I need to make a change. Even when I make a mistake I understand what the mistake was after it’s pointed out to me. I still make mistakes nearly all the time; but I also do some really cool things, like find a method the instructor didn’t know about, and try to figure out how to make it work; or set up new functionality to make things more efficient — and it works!

I’m a little bit on overdrive and finding it hard to sleep, but it’s good — it reminds me that it’s still possible for me to feel alive when contemplating work tasks, and to concentrate hard on something for several days at a time. I spend most of my regular workdays so interrupted by multiple tasks that I feel like I never get anything done. This is a refreshing change. At 10pm tonight when I still wasn’t physically or mentally tired, I realized that this is something that’s been missing from my life for a while.

I’m going to sleep now so that I can function tomorrow morning. I want to hit the ground running — again.

I am in nerd heaven. I think I may have tapped into something really important for me — other nerds.


Today was the first day I felt tired, and I struggled to keep up. We were on a rushed pace to try to make up some time, since we’d fallen behind by about one lecture. By day’s end, we were caught up — but that meant about an extra 2 hours of time. Lectures ended at 8:15 and I wasn’t caught up until 10:30. Lots of other people were there too, and we were kicked out of the learning room around 10:40 (after a few well-deserved games of Typeracer).

There was one point in the afternoon when we were implementing an involved piece of code that only worked on a single image thumbnail and only on the iPad, and I just realized that if I spent time to understand what I was doing I would never get to the *really* cool stuff — Core Data and touch gestures — so I just started typing. Type type type. I implemented the thing, realized I might need to look back at this someday, and moved on.

At points during the day I could hear the instructor talking but couldn’t focus. Maybe it was just an off day for me; but I think my head is so chock full of new iPhone programming knowledge that it needed a bit of time to process it all.

I’m going to bed now to give myself the best chance of recovering and hitting the ground strong tomorrow. I’m still keeping up with the class, but I don’t feel the sense of mastery that I felt yesterday (and yes, I realize that mastery is a good way away — but I was putting all the pieces together yesterday).


Back on track today. We went at a slower pace, I absorbed nearly everything we covered, and I was able to implement some pretty cool apps, especially one that allows drawing. I now have the skeleton of something I actually want to implement when I get home. Exciting!

Class was fun but I can feel the pace winding down. I’ll miss my fellow classmates but have enjoyed the opportunity to spend a week with other nerds doing one of my favorite things on Earth — learning.

I’d love to be back for the advanced course in November, but we’ll see how the year goes. Will I use these skills in the next six months to build apps? Will I push through the frustration when I can’t make something work, and figure out how to persevere, work through the syntax and search the documentation (and Stack Overflow) to find solutions?

We’ll see. More tomorrow — and the next day, I hope.

I’m ready to go home but also not ready. I did better in this class than I expected when I walked in the door. I want to put my new skills to good use and produce apps that are productive for users and for me.

I’m a Big Nerd.


Back home. We had class until 12:30, then lunch and then quickly piled into the shuttle back to the airport. I spent a few hours waiting for my flight there and then got home around 9:30.

I expected to feel mentally drained and tired, but I feel mentally turned on instead. This is awesome. It says to me that I did the right thing, and I love feeling this way. I’m going to keep working on the programming at home, and see what I can struggle through and make in terms of apps. I feel like the BNR class gave me the tools I need to keep learning on my own, and to work out problems when I run into them, because I’m starting to understand the underlying patterns and logic of programming.

Starting to understand. That’s key. There’s a lot more work to do — but I think I’ve got a running start. Now I just need to keep going.

Day 22: Concentration and Its Discontents

I take work less seriously when staying with family.

This is an inconvenient truth, because I love spending time with my family and intend to do so again.

But this week, given all the time I needed, I accomplished fewer goals. I appeared to be working intensely for 12 hours a day, since I toted my computer around the house, hoping to be productive.

In reality? I worked for about 4 or 5 hours each day.

Here are the major goals I accomplished:

  • I read 275 (not 200) pages of the NASM textbook.
  • I worked on my flashcard app, making useful additions and cleaning up the user interface.

Here are the major goals I did not accomplish:

  • I did not do any work to build out my flashcard app’s back-end question database.
  • I did not read any of the Swift programming guide.

I made myself feel better about this by procrastinating productively:

I realized, somewhere between surfing Hacker News and watching House of Cards, that when I pay rent like I did last week, stakes are higher and my productivity is correspondingly higher. When I’m with relatives, not paying rent, stakes are lower and my productivity drops.

Like I said, I’ll keep spending time with family because I love them. But I need a plan to establish momentum for future visits. So here it is:

1.) Wake up. Open Xcode. Every day. (Virtual guarantee of a productive day.)
2.) Work in the office room, not on the couch.

It’s not a complicated plan. I start tomorrow.

Major goals for this coming week are:

1.) Build out my flashcard app’s back-end question database and finish the user interface.
2.) Finish last 75 pages of the NASM textbook.
3.) Read 200 pages of the Swift programming guide.

* I activated my Facebook account in March. I came late to social media and am trying to figure it out as I go.