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Self-help Life Lessons on Getting Started I Learned From Roomba

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 02/25/2010

There’s two types of work–that where you need to be alert and creative–challenging enough where you’re unsure you will be successful. And then there is the type that can and should be automated away–the repetitive boring stuff–call it type-B. While type-b work may require a bit of thinking here and there, it’s nothing you couldn’t train a moderately smart monkey to do–or perhaps a little round robot.

The former type of thinking-work, which we shall call type-A, makes you happy and good to be alive. It’s full of surprises and opportunity to learn. It betters you as a person, and adds useful experience. But it’s also a little bit scary, because there is risk of failure.

Type-B, while is an insult to what it is to be human, also happens to be much easier, which gives it an undermining appeal. You don’t have to think much, and there’s not much risk of failure. It is what was once the servant-class professions, and later became factory line-workers of the industrial age. Yes, they still had to think, but not much. It is far more route and formulaic than the work of…

…the work of… I want to name professions like artist or engineer. But the truth is there are intellectually lazy, shortcut taking hacks in every profession–who while they pretend to be doing type-A work, are really doing type-B. And even those folks capable of doing class-A work, can slip into bad habits from low expectations of those around them. In fact, ALWAYS doing A-class work is an exhausting “always-on” game, that you sometimes have to hold in reserve for when it really matters. This is called bringing out your A-game.

The real subject-matter of this post is for people who have that A-game inside of them, and would really like to bring it out more often. This is me in a nutshell. I want to be doing that top-quality work all the time–and I don’t mean quality as in merely being a really good craftsman, carrying out what others have done a hundred times before, such as executing a perfect a musical number, or precisely balancing a computer network. No, these are common crafts. I mean A-quality work that does something for the very first time on the planet, or in a brand-new way. That’s where the real satisfaction resides and paths to greatness reside.

Inventors and Scientists often fit the A-game model. Of course, not always. They’ve got hacks too. And I could name the obvious geniuses like Stephen Hawking. But perhaps Burt Rutan is a better example, who you’ll be hearing a lot more about soon, as Virgin Galactic takes flight. I was a big fan of his long before Spaceship One and Two. Google him to see all his accomplishments. It’s astounding. That’s a guy who brings that alertness, creativity and risk-taking to his daily job. If there was a flying challenge, and you had to put your money on the entire Lockheed Martin corporation or the lone Burt Rutan, I’d carefully consider.

But how can one individual who is not an aeronautical engineer, and is perhaps in the field of information technology, eek that out in themselves? The reward incentive definitely has to be there. If you don’t think you’re going to benefit from your own brilliant work, than why try? Worse still, someone else might take credit for your work. Geeks and hackers sometimes do it out of the love of the challenge alone, but others have wised up and built empires out of it. Gates, Ellison, the Google Guys, they’re all geeks. Some people under the alleged banner “true altruism” are choosing to develop in open source. But I rather think there are a lot of sour-grapers taking potshots at the more successful geeks by trying to disrupt them–along with a bunch of student gaining experience. Once you can make serious money off your time, your tune often changes.

Okay, so say you have the reward-incentive in place. How can you overcome that initial inertial resistance to getting started? I think we all feel it. It’s like standing at the base of a mountain, looking up. Maybe you’re even recently funded, and have your big chance. That first step just feels so futile. The job feels so big when it is full of unknowns. It’s so much easier to procrastinate, and maybe do some class-B work while you bide your time–or more accurately, “let time slip by”.

Well I’m here to say that the best way to make the whole process less intimidating is to increase your familiarity with the work at-hand. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Figure out what you don’t know, which is keeping you from taking the next step, and then figure it out. Conduct a small, controlled test. Reduce the variables. Reduce the surface-area. Widdle away enough so that you would have to be an idiot to not see the next step in the journey, even if it’s another test.

And when you finally start getting into that creative groove, even in limited way, there are two kinds of smarts you might start employing. Choosing the wrong one can often knock you right back on your ass, disheartened. Specifically, there’s the smarts of “quality”, and the smarts of “quantity”. Quality is finesse and quantity is brute force.

And this is where those of us who are not quite Einsteins can start gain some ground on those who are. If you’ve ever seen an early-generation Roomba robot clean a floor, you are familiar with the brute force method. What Roomba doesn’t do well in understanding the room layout, it makes up for by backing up, turning a little, and trying again. This somewhat-random crisscrossing results in a very clean floor. It looks something like insect intelligence. The dirt it misses one day, it will get the next. While not quite as fast as real intelligence, it can give it a run for the money. Brute force with a few simple behaviour routines to ensure you’ve tried a lot of things is a solid method. Humans can do this when they’re dealing with a lot of unknowns, and I highly recommend it for getting over that startup Resistance.

In fact, the free-form type writing such as I do for these blog-posts is one example of the quantity-oriented brute force approach. You bump up against the edges of your un-articulated thoughts, fleshing them out more with each successive pass, until finally you know how you feel about things, and have brought clarity to your mind. And that leads quite nicely into the other quality-oriented thinking where your actions can have scalpel-like precision, due to your deep understanding of what lies under the skin. Surgeons wouldn’t use the Roomba method.

This other kinds of smarts (type-A) is more deliberate and insightful. It’s what we think we should be working off of from the outset, but that’s precisely where much resistance to getting started springs from. If you don’t know why, then why try? If you don’t know how, then why now? Everything feels vaguely intimidating, because you’re not an expert yet in those areas, and other people are. Take a lesson from Roomba. Start with brute force. But because you’re not a consumer-level robot from the turn of the century–YOU’LL get smarter.

Deliberately stay observant while you do. Deliberately try to explain things to yourself in a verbal fashion in your head. Strong images that have been inspected through several of the mind’s lenses have much more staying-power than quick realizations–no matter how important those realizations were. *WHOOPS* they’re gone. Instead, take joy in capturing and collecting and arranging those realizations. In time, the brute force method transitions into the finesse method. That’s called growing. That’s called being human. And perhaps because the process rekindles frustrating feelings of infant helplessness, we avoid it.

I constantly have to remind myself that pleasurable reward is ahead. I have to remind myself that I’M becomming the expert. I’m decreasing my dependencies on the breed of self-serving experts whose mission in life is to turn whatever ails you into the very thing that is their specialty to fix. Let me share a little secret. Experts who exhibit condescension are probably not examples of the better ones in their field, or they would be encouraging you to learn more about their field, due to their love for it. Those who hold their cards close to their chest don’t have many. Those who lay them all out on the table on the first meeting can make new ones.

Having recently transitioned off of Microsoft onto Linux, I am constantly going through this very process. There are tons of Unix and Linux experts of the uber-intimidating sysadmin variety. But Unix is also exactly the sort of subject-matter that comes easily by the brute-force method, coupled with a bit of research. Everything is documented. There are “man pages” (manual pages), there are enhanced man pages. There are O’Reilly books on iPhone that let you keep a whole tech-library offline in your pocket. You can experiment with it on just about any hardware you have sitting around, and if not, you can practice on virtual machines. Just choose a project, and put in your 10,000 hours.

This whole ramping-up process to have confidence and gain your legs on the more difficult stuff may take awhile, but you can revel in your small successes. Choose a project where the 80/20 rule applies. Make sure you get 80% of the benefit of doing the project by the time the first 20% is done. Stay away from projects with long chained-up dependencies that will deny you the thrill of success until a year out. Think in terms of having a success you would brag to people about, after about only one or two months of stealing time on the side for personal projects.

And each time you sit down to re-spark that motivation trying to get your ass in-gear, simply remind yourself of your last tiny success, and how that felt. Hopefully, you’re changing the world forever–at least for yourself–in some tiny but significant way with each project. It’s subject-matter for a future post, but if you’re programming, make sure you’re using a distributed revision control system like Mercurial or GIT, so you’re turning every action you take into a lifetime asset.