Tag Archive: solitude

What I’ve Been Doing

I spent February doing several things that are fun and also a first step toward fulfilling my Phase Two mission: Make useful things. (My Phase One mission was: Travel and learn.)

Programming in Plain English

I’m creating stand-alone software to let you program in plain English. I have a basic plugin version of the software working, which I’ll present at a SXSW TechBreakfast. If the fancier, fuzzier stand-alone software is also working well enough by then, I’ll demo that as well. It’s an iOS app and will also be a Mac app initially. Here’s a beta website for the project: Plain English Programming.

Short and Sweet Courses

I created a Udemy course called “Short and Sweet: Basic Programming Concepts in 2 Hours.” It was fun, frustrating and rewarding to create a two-hour course that presents the essential ideas of programming in real-world language, using pseudocode. The goal is to make it easier for students to learn any programming language after taking the course, and to understand good practices around program structure and refactoring. I’m happy with the end result (for now), I’m loving the ability to communicate instantly with my students and help them get past roadblocks and succeed, and I’ve made my first online revenue, which is exciting. The course is here, if you’re curious, and I’m including a coupon for blog readers: Short and Sweet: Basic Programming Concepts in 2 Hours

I’ve drafted an eBook to pair with the course and am planning my next courses in the Short and Sweet series. Initial feedback is that the concept is good: A Short and Sweet course will be the best, fastest, easiest intro to a topic — no oxymorons! I’ll be testing this premise some more and then launching my own course platform. Now that I have a course recording process down, it shouldn’t take me long to produce content.

Flashcard App Final Phase

I’ve hammered out many of the bugs in my flashcard app, which I plan to tailor as a study aid for each course I release. I’ll also release some stand-alone flashcard apps to help people study for various exams, starting with the NASM personal trainer exam, simply because it was the first test database I created for the app.

I have several other ideas swimming around in my head, mainly around how to help people learn and do more, better, faster. I’m really enjoying this phase of my sabbatical and will send updates. Apologies for the bat-cave moment on this blog, I know it was quiet here for a few weeks. I wasn’t sleeping :-)

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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.

One Brick at a Time – Peace

I had no Internet connectivity when I wrote this post and the prior one, so I’m posting them now. This one is from Sunday:

A peaceful Tuscan hillscape at the farmhouseI wake up in the quiet. I’m getting used to it.

I open the window and smell wood smoke, leaves and sharp, clear air. If clean has a smell, this is it.

I boot up the computer. Still no Internet. It annoys me but less than it did last week.

I open TextEdit and start to write. Yesterday I read a book I bought two years ago. With no Internet, I’m plowing through my accumulated Kindle books.

The mountain view through the bathroom window is hazy blue, with low clouds filling the valley.

I hear other people in the house stirring, in other apartments. In my apartment there is peace.

I make the bed, smoothing the duvet so it looks welcoming again.

I start water for tea, steaming hot in the cool air.

I leave my socks off so I feel the brick floor rough under my feet. I like feeling each step as I take it.

An Island in Tuscany – Solitude

Saturday:

Tuscany viewI feel like a girl on an island, except the island is a hill in Tuscany.

I go outside at night and listen to the leaves rustle. Wild boars grunt in the olive groves. A pile of wood next to the house stands fallow until winter. A cool breeze slips sharp through my sweater.

Listening to the world is an experience I welcome in life.

Sleeping in pitch dark, in the quiet of the old farmhouse, terrified me at first but now is welcoming.

I no longer leave the light on at night.

I dream of strange things that I can’t remember in the morning.

I watch the leaves turn from green to gold over the hills surrounding the farmhouse. I eat the fruit from the garden and find I can cook well after all. I learn because I have to learn.

I deal with slow Internet and procrastination and cabin fever and self-doubt. I try to move enough every day that I do not become totally sedentary.

I am stranded. I am frustrated. But I am also happy.