Brian Turchyn

I write code and occasionally write about it here.

The Fall

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Trying something new is hard. You can feel vulnerable, and nobody likes feeling like an idiot. Those feelings are natural. What's also natural is that you'll inevitably make mistakes. You'll screw up.

You might look at this as failing. It's hard not to think that. "I tried this, but I failed."

You haven't failed. Not until you've given up. Making mistakes is how we learn and grow. When you were a child, what happened when you first started learning to walk? You fell down. A lot. What did you do every time you fell down? You got right back up and tried again, armed with a tidbit of extra knowledge about what worked and what didn't.

Short of the few extra years you've inevitably packed on since then and the added potential energy when you hit the floor, nothing has changed since then. You can still learn something when you make a mistake. And learning is what matters.

Don't give up. You got this.

Snowbanks

We're on the tail-end of a particularly snowy winter here. And a byproduct of our winters is that we have snowbanks over six feet high. They're so high that, as a driver, it's virtually impossible to see around them sometimes. Unless you're a kid looking to build a snow fort, they are almost universally hated.

Unless you're a squirrel, apparently.

I was walking my dog this past weekend, and a squirrel ran across the street in front of us. That squirrel darted from a tree on the left, across the street, and up another tree on the right.

In the summer, that squirrel would traverse the branches, run down the trunk of the tree, and do the reverse on the other side.

Instead, that squirrel took full advantage of the snowbanks that almost touched the bottom branches of the trees, and simply walked down and up the snowbanks. This squirrel saw opportunity when every human in its midst can't wait for them to melt.

Animals do this with plenty of human-created structures. Overhead power lines and fences provide a highway for easy movement throughout a neighbourhood.

Where others see an obstacle, look for an opportunity.

Vitamins

The last bottle of multivitamins I bought were gummies.

I didn't think much of it at the time. I just went to the grocery store, found a bottle that had what I wanted in it, and put it into my shopping cart.

And then just like that, I took my vitamins. I never missed a day for that whole bottle. Why? Because after I had my meal, I got a little bit of dessert in the form of a multivitamin gummy.

When I picked up my most recent bottle of vitamins, they didn't have the gummies in stock, so I grabbed a regular bottle.

I usually forget to take my vitamins now.


James Clear talks about habit forming in his book Atomic Habits, and two of the key tenets of habit forming is to make it attractive, and to make it satisfying. Gummy versions of multivitamins did both. They literally wrapped up something good for you into a piece of candy.

These two tenets can be applied elsewhere. How can you make your exercise habit more attractive? How's that flossing going?

All it took for me to never fail to have my vitamins every day was for some company to roll it all into a little piece of candy.

Whoever thought of that deserves a raise.

When is "enough"?

The best way to figure out if you enjoy something is to try it yourself.

If your friend suggests you listen to a new genre of music, listening to that genre of music is the only way you'd really be able to know for sure if you'll like it. The same thing goes for food, sports, books, games, and really any other experience.

Your career path is no exception. If you're wondering whether a career path is right for you, you can certainly weigh the pros and cons of what you know, but the only way to know for sure is to experience it yourself.

This poses an interesting question, though: how much do you need to experience something before you can know whether it's worth pursuing further? For food, the stakes are low, and usually within a few bites (and depending on the food, the morning after) you'll know if you like it or not. Music might take a while to really get a feel for it.

Long-term career decisions can require more time to figure out, especially if, for the first while, you're still in the honeymoon phase of the job. As you spend more time doing the job, you'll experience more of what it really means to be in that career. More experience enables you to make the ultimate decision: do I stay in this role, or do I move on to something else?

Where's the tipping point? At what point do you say "enough" and move on? What are the risks and rewards for staying with a decision, or moving on from it?

If it's food, the risk is low. The risk is you don't finish your meal today. You can always order the same dish next time.

Career decisions can have a longer impact. You need more data to make an informed decision.

The challenge is finding that tipping point.

I Don't Know A Damn Thing (And That's Why I've Learned So Much)

The best technique I've ever used to learn something is dead simple: I always assume I don't know anything about it.

It doesn't matter if it's brand new to me (like when I started to learn about the stock market) or I've been working with it for literal decades (like when I'm reading about a new software development framework). I go into every source of information assuming whoever wrote it is an expert, and I am their newest student.

I always learn something when I do this. It may not be the most mind-blowing thing I've ever learned, but it's something. I can walk away having created one new dot.

It may also reinforce something I previously learned. This is great too since it reinforces an idea I previously had and points out that, hey, I may have actually known what I was talking about beforehand.

There's always something for you to learn. What did you learn from the last thing you read?

Influence

Whenever you share information with somebody else, you are influencing them. Not in a negative way (hopefully), but in that they are learning and growing as a result.

Spending 1-on-1 time with someone is effective on a personal level, and sometimes this is the correct avenue. What you lack in quantity, you make up for in quality.

In other cases, however, quantity (read: amplitude) matters.

Imagine you've just purchased a new piece of IKEA furniture. It's flat-packed, and so it needs to be assembled. There are two options here: either someone provides you personalized instructions (either live or in an email straight to you), or an instruction booklet is provided.

(Aside: IKEA actually takes this one step further, since virtually all of their instructions are illustrations rather than written in a particular language)

Writing is a fantastic way to deliver your knowledge to the masses. The effort-to-value reward for a well-written bit of information is priceless. Invest the time once, and watch it pay dividends over time.

Habit Blockers

Sometimes, the smallest thing can stop a habit from being formed.

I started this year wanting to eat breakfast at my dining room table while reading a book, rather than in my living room in front of the TV. It's a simple change. Instead of walking to the left, walk to the right. Problem solved.

Except I slipped. I'm now in front of the TV again. What happened? Well, two things.

The first is that I had to break an old habit first. I've had the habit of sitting in front of the TV to eat for years. It's hard to break that.

The second was more impactful. I had been eating breakfast at the dining room table for over a month, and then stopped. I walked into my dining room yesterday and realized that I had used the space to fix some electronics and I hadn't cleaned up the space. Clutter had taken away my place to eat my meals. It introduced resistance. I cleaned up the mess, and the resistence is gone. I ate breakfast at my dining room table this morning.

Do you have a habit that you're having trouble making stick? Look for sources of resistence, and clear those out.

Perspective

When you were growing up, you likely had a favourite toy. You probably also had a favourite colour, food, person, and so on.

As we grow, the whole concept of favourites starts to become more nuanced. We experience more of the world around us, and realize that the concept of a favourite tends to not be consistently accurate. What is our favourite is not as black and white of an answer as it previously was. If someone asks us what our favourite item is, we are increasingly likely to answer with "it depends".

Aging grants us experience. Experience grants us perspective.

The Past and The Future

It's unlikely that we have any idea where we'll be in the next 10, 20, 50, and 100 years.

Look at what has changed in the past century.

  • In 2007, smartphones weren't a thing yet.
  • Forty years ago, the Internet as we know it was first invented.
  • In 1969, DNA was discovered and the USA landed humans on the moon.
  • A century ago, antibiotics were discovered.

Who knows where we'll be in another decade. Or century.

(Hat tip to Steph Smith for the inspiration and data behind this post)

We are always a student

Every day presents an opportunity for us to learn something new. It doesn't have to be anything groundbreaking or profound, but you can always learn something. Regardless of what you're currently doing or where you are in life, you can still get a little extra piece of knowledge each day.

When we are in school, the obvious option here is to learn something about what you are studying.

As we venture out into the "real world", those opportunities may not be always so clear. Anyone in a profession needs to keep their skills sharp as job requirements change over time. This is useful, tangible knowledge that benefits you professionally.

Self-reflection is another option here. Taking a moment to evaluate how you felt or acted in a situation (good or bad) can teach you something about yourself. Most of us are so unaware of our feelings and actions, and more importantly, why we felt or acted that way. Learning about what motivates you, what frustrates you, what brings you joy can help you live a happier, healthier life.

So, what did you learn today?

Staying Employed

  1. Never stop learning.
    Learning itself is a muscle that needs to be exercised. What you learn will keep your skills sharp and increase your value. The extra knowledge is useful. The ability to learn quickly is invaluable.
  2. Make yourself irreplaceable, without sacrificing your work/life balance.
    If you're gone for a week, nobody notices.
    If you're gone for two weeks, people will start wondering where you are.
    If you're gone for four weeks, the whole place burns to the ground.
  3. Find what you love to do, but others hate.
    The more they hate doing it, the more likely they'll keep you around to do the work.

Success

Success is not a zero-sum game. There's more than enough to go around.

Support your friends. Support your coworkers. Support the random internet stranger who asks for advice. Their success doesn't mean that you lose as a result. In all likelihood, they'll support you back.

Start Simple

John Gall, whether he intended to or not, coined Gall's Law, stating:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

When we start something new, we likely have grand aspirational plans for what it one day will be. Through rose-coloured glasses we see its potential.

Dreaming big is fine. Having big plans is fine. Starting off with the most complex system possible, however, is inviting failure to your doorstep.

What's the smallest piece you can work on today that will produce some value? Start with that. Then find the next smallest piece, and add that. Rinse. Repeat.

Starting simple doesn't guarantee that your project or objective will succeed. Note that Gall doesn't state that. What he does say is that starting complex will fail.

Communication Is Freakin' Hard

Communication is hard. Really hard.

It might not seem like it when we're talking to somebody. After all, we know what we're talking about, so the fault lies on the other person for misinterpreting, right? Well, sometimes. But usually it's our own fault.

Let's say you're talking with somebody else. Just think about all of the steps that a single thought goes through to get from you to them:

  1. You have a thought or feeling you want to convey.
  2. You have to encode that thought into words.
  3. You now have to transmit those words to the other person.
  4. The other person receives that transmission of words.
  5. They now need to decode those words into (hopefully) the same thought or feeling you attempted to convey.

So many sources of failure here. You could struggle to find the right words to convey the thought you had. Maybe you're having trouble projecting your voice. Perhaps it was a loud room or you're on a conference call and the other person couldn't quite hear what you said, or misheard one of the words. Maybe the other person interprets the words you used in a different way than intended.

This doesn't even begin to touch on language or cultural differences, assumptions you or they may have, or the other person not taking the time to confirm what they heard aligns with what you intended to say.

Frankly, it's a miracle that any of us manage to communicate with each other.

Routines Simplify Your Life

Your day is spent constantly bombarded with decisions, from the moment you wake up until when your head hits the pillow. What are you going to wear today? What's for breakfast? When will you take care of the big items on your to-do list?

Decisions take valuable brain power. It might not be much, but with enough decisions over the course of the day, decision fatigue builds up. By the end of your day, when you have time for yourself, all you can manage is to sit on the couch.

Many decisions are unavoidable, but others can be simply gotten rid of. Enter: the routine.

The routine isn't necessarily meant to establish a strict regimen to your life, but can be beneficial in several ways. First, reducing the number of decisions you make frees up brain capacity for other, higher demanding decisions. In other words, you can put your brain power towards decisions that carry more weight behind them.

You're also more likely to feel content. Having a routine means you are reaffirming a decision you already made, and sticking with that will make you feel better about your decision.

Perhaps most importantly, routines help you use your time effectively, meaning the gaps in your day don't go to waste.

"A lack of routine is just a breeding ground for perpetual procrastination."
– 101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think, Brianna Wiest

Create a morning and evening routine. They don't have to be fancy, but put some thought and substance into them and your life becomes simpler.

You're Committing To The Process, Not The Goal

Most of the time, we focus on the end result when defining what we want. We want to have six-pack abs, to have a successful business, to have 100,000 followers on Twitter. There are two main problems with this. These goals are:

  1. Ultimately not within your control, and
  2. Do nothing to address how to achieve that goal

A well-formed goal is a vector: there is both a magnitude and direction. The end result is the direction. The process by which you get there is the magnitude. With no process, it doesn't matter what direction you head; the end result is always zero movement.

Focus on how you will achieve that goal, and ensure that you are willing to put in the effort required. You may want six-pack abs, but are you willing to exercise every day and uphold the dietary regimen required, even on days you don't want to? You may want 100,000 followers on Twitter, but are you willing to put in the hours to create quality content on a regular basis, interact with your followers, and put up with the drama that inevitably comes from being a public figure on the internet?

The only guarantee with these goals is that you will need to invest time and effort (and possibly money) into the process. The goal isn't guaranteed. You need to be willing to commit to a process that may never result in your goal being fulfilled.

Wishing Doesn't Work

Everyone has said at one point in their lives "I wish I could...". There's something wrong in their lives (at least according to themselves) and there's a desire for that to not be the case.

I wish I was 10 pounds lighter.

I wish I could run a marathon.

I wish that I made more money.

Stating the wish on its own isn't going to get you there. Wishing, while it might be useful for figuring out where you might want to go in life, doesn't do anything to move you forward.

"I wish" is code for "I don't want to do anything differently".
Jay Shetty, "Think Like a Monk"

Change comes from building a plan, writing it down, and taking deliberate steps to make changes. You might not get the exact results you're hoping for, but you can at least say that you built a process to get you there (more on that later).

Discomfort Is Your Guide

Our natural tendency is to look at being uncomfortable as a universally bad thing. Media and marketing attempt to convince you that you can remove discomfort from your life.

Being uncomfortable in a situation isn't necessarily a bad experience. Sometimes, it can point you in the direction of something you should lean further into. For example, you may be uncomfortable speaking up in a group setting, but getting comfortable with this means that you will be able to contribute to your team in a more effective way. In this case, your discomfort was a positive – you were presented with a challenge that will help you grow.

This doesn't mean that all discomfort is a positive – after all, placing your hand on a hot stove is uncomfortable and should be avoided – but it helps to re-frame your perspective on discomfort.

Writing on this blog, as an example, makes me feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I don't feel like I have anything to say, or that what I write is wrong or irrelevant. My discomfort, however, tells me that this is a challenge I can rise to, that I do have something to say, and that if I'm wrong, then I take the opportunity to correct myself and move on.

Each time you feel uncomfortable, take a moment to evaluate if you're uncomfortable in a positive or a negative way. Lean into the former. Avoid the latter.

Checkups

Your doctor likely recommends getting a checkup once a year, even if nothing seems wrong. They're not recommending this for their own benefit, but instead to make sure you're not missing anything, and if something is going off the rails, corrections can be made before the problem gets much worse.

Our physical health is one area where this might get applied, but we can extend this further. What about other areas of your physical health, such as your eyesight or hearing? Have you gotten a mental health checkup recently? These past two years haven't exactly been easy. How about your car? Maybe that checkup is something more digital. Have you cleaned up your contact list recently? How's that email inbox looking? To-Do list getting a little long? Running a lot of out-of-date services that require some upgrades?

A year is a nice round number, but sometimes that's not enough. Checking in on your mental health probably warrants a smaller check-in on a much more frequent cadence. Even taking five minutes every weekend to ask yourself, "hey, how am I feeling right now?" is a great way to practice some self-awareness (which most of us lack).

We all juggle a lot in our lives. Schedule those check-ins, and commit to them. They don't have to be significant, but they should occur.

Your Role Is The Most Important Role (And So Is Everyone Else's)

Let's say you're working with a bunch of other people, each of them from different departments. Everyone has their own agenda. You might care about the level of tech debt in the code. Maybe your primary focus is ensuring the product stays functional. Maybe you want to reduce the number of calls into your Service department. Whatever it is, it's clearly the most important thing to consider, right?

Guess what? Everyone else thinks the same thing about their primary focus.

No matter how hard we try, it's hard not to be blind to the needs and key focuses of other teams and department teams. After all, you are most involved with your own department, so you know it better than the others you're working with.

Lean on the subject matter experts in other departments. Take the time to understand what their needs are and what keeps them up at night. Empathize with them. How can you account for these concerns as part of your plan? Every change and every plan will involve risk for somebody. By learning the needs of other groups, you can keep those risks to a minimum for everyone involved.

Let Your Accomplishments Speak For Themselves

In today's social media frenzy, we only see the carefully-curated facade that others want us to see. The fanciest vacation spots, the worst tragedies, social media is a heavy dose of superlatives.

In there, you're bound to see those that are showing off their latest endeavours. Ones that will revolutionize some part of your life or "disrupt" the market.

To them, I say: prove it.

The more something is marketed, the less convinced I am that a product or service is going to be as good as their marketing team makes it out to be. All of that marketing money could be spent on making a better product. Sure, every product needs a nudge to grow and become a viable business, but once that point is hit, your product should be able to stand on its own.

Release first. Promote second.

How Good Is Good Enough?

Nothing is ever perfect.

There's always one improvement you can make. That one method can be refactored. Extra comments can be added. There's one edge case that shouldn't logically occur, but hypothetically could.

Depending on what your target audience is for whatever you create, there are levels of imperfectness that are tolerated. It's important to understand where your creation lies. Detailed calculations to land a probe on Mars? There's no room for failure. A utility that will run once then will be thrown away? Cutting corners might not be such a big deal. Customer-facing application that will make their lives easier? Probably sits somewhere in the middle.

If you don't know what the finish line looks like, you'll never finish. Define your finish line.

Do A Little Each Day

Getting stuff done requires consistent output. Doing a bunch in one shot is driven by motivation. Doing a bit every day requires discipline. Discipline will get results. Motivation will come and go.

Write one line of code. Read for 5 minutes. Whatever you want to accomplish, commit to doing a little bit every day. No exceptions.