The Project Engagement Dilemma

Whenever I undertake a project, I ask myself two questions:

  1. Am I adding value?
  2. Am I growing or having fun?

My confidence in the answers depends on the stage of the project. I’m usually energized in early project stages, so the answer to question two is often a resounding “YES!”

Towards the project’s later stages, I often feel like I’ve learned what I was going to learn. What’s left to do feels rote, so the final stages can become a slog.

At that point, the answer to question two often becomes, “No, I’m not growing or having fun any more.” This is a dangerous state, as suggested by Peak End theory.

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Book Notes: “Mindset”

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
By Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.
Random House, 2006

I’d long heard about Dr. Dweck’s book, but hadn’t yet read it. Coming to it now, I found much of it familiar — but perhaps that’s because the book’s core distinction has been very influential.

What distinction? The difference between two types of mindsets that affect our outlooks on life:

  • Fixed mindset, which asserts that we are who we are, and whatever happens to us results from inherent characteristics we can’t influence. (E.g., intelligence, physical ability, etc.)
  • Growth mindset, which asserts that whatever happens, we can learn, change, and grow to get better. (“growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.”)

Wikipedia has a good explanation of the differences between the two:

individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence (fixed mindset). Others, who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence (growth mindset). Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior. It is especially evident in their reaction to failure. Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind or fear failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved and learning comes from failure.

Mindset makes a research-grounded argument for adopting a growth mindset.

The first three chapters explain the differences between the two mindsets in depth. The book then explains how they affect three key areas of our lives:

  • Athletic competition
  • Business
  • Relationships

The final two chapters offer advice for helping yourself and others shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. As Dr. Dweck points out, we all have a bit of both. (Which is good, since I don’t see how somebody who is all-fixed could contemplate switching mindsets.)

Again, the key distinction here is well-known today, a testament to this book’s impact. Still, it’s easy to lapse into blame and self-victimizing in daily life. As such, Mindset is worth your attention — for yourself, but especially if you’re an educator, mentor, or coach.

See Mindset in Google Books
See Mindset in WorldCat

Managing Tags When Integrating Obsidian and DEVONthink

This post is part of the series in which I share aspects of my personal information ecosystem. Read all the posts.

Most of my work centers around ideas. Whether it’s an article I’m writing or research for a design project, I’m always learning new stuff. I collect and nurture ideas in an information garden. (Other folks use the term digital garden, but I’m not keen on this usage, since my garden isn’t exclusively digital.)

My garden has two central components:

  • Places to store and process information. Includes links to web pages I’ve read (or need to read), PDFs from academic papers, books, audio/video files, etc.
  • Places to write. Includes notes to self, meeting minutes, outlines, blog posts, etc.
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An Idea from Computer Science That Can Change Your Life

Years ago, I learned about an idea from computer science that has helped me in other areas of my life. It’s called the robustness principle, or Postel’s law (after Jon Postel, who formulated it while working on TCP.) The principle states:

Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

In this case, “conservative” and” liberal” aren’t political positions. Instead, they refer to the laxity of an application’s communications with other applications.

An application sends and receives data. Its designers have some control over the format of the former, but not so much over the latter. Incoming messages may be malformed either through noise or lack of care.

The application’s outputs should be well-defined and consistent — but it can’t expect the same from other applications. As a result, the application should be disciplined in what it emits and flexible with what it takes as input.

If all applications follow this principle, the system should hum along with few misunderstandings. At least in theory — as I understand it.

One area where the robustness principle has helped me is in relationships with other people. I aspire to be conservative in what and how I share (i.e., avoid drama) while understanding that other people will say all sorts of unmindful things.

The other person may have even been unreasonable or rude. But you have no idea what they’re going through. Their kid may be sick. They may have lost their job or been in a car accident. You don’t know their context. You can’t know their context.

As a result, it’s best to be patient with people. Often, they’re not trying to offend you — they’re just having a bad day/month/year/life. Or maybe they didn’t benefit from an education as good as yours. Whatever the case, give them leeway.

This isn’t to say you should take anything that comes your way. Sometimes, you’ll deal with truly malicious actors who are trying to “hack” you or mount a DDoS attack on your attention. Alas, distinguishing the (temporarily?) unskillful from the sociopaths takes practice.

But practice you must, because most people aren’t malicious. They’re just suffering — humans living messy human lives who haven’t prioritized communicating effectively. But you can. Be conservative in what you do and liberal in what you accept.

The Informed Life with Karl Fast, part 2

Episode 70 of The Informed Life podcast features the second part of my conversation with Karl Fast about embodiment and interaction. (If you haven’t done so already, also check out part one.)

Both conversations focus on a key subject for interaction designers: the relationship between mind and body. As Karl put it,

the big idea with embodiment here is that the mind is not the same thing as the brain. Our bodies, our tools, the space around us — how we move and act in the world — this is all part of our cognitive system; that our brain might be in the head, but our mind is embodied. Our mind extends out into the world. So, the systems and the tools, the information we have… all the things that we design that are exterior to the body, those should also be understood as part of the mind. They’re not just out there.

These two episodes serve as a good primer on key issues about our understanding of how we make sense of (and interact with) the world, and the limits of our current framing as practitioners. As Karl summarized it,

we need to have a better conceptual toolkit when we’re designing, when we’re creating these different things. We need to think about how what we are making is not just out there, but is connected in a meaningful way to what our brains can do. So, we should think about certain definitions — certain words — and try to understand them and develop new concepts for how we talk about this.

I hope you get as much value from hearing from Karl about this subject as I did.

The Informed Life episode 70: Karl Fast on Interactionism, part 2

How to Find Older Files in Figma (and Other SaaS Apps)

Figma is great for collaboration. And one of the challenges when collaborating with others — especially when working with highly generative teams larger than two people — is that lots of stuff accrues quickly, making it difficult to find things later. Figma has gotten better about this, but I still have a hard time locating older files.

I posed this observation yesterday on Twitter and got several useful replies. Christian Bergstrom suggested using naming conventions for files and folders. In my experience, naming conventions do help, but they present challenges of their own.

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Can Twitter Communities Prevent Context Collapse?

Casey Newton, writing on The Verge:

One of the most useful concepts for understanding why social networks so often drive us to despair is context collapse: taking multiple audiences with different norms, standards, and levels of knowledge, and herding them all into a single digital space to coexist. Predictably, this regularly leads to conflict — and, at the scale of an entire country, may even make us more polarized.

[…]

But what if you could build a version of Twitter that kept out the Reply Guys and the sea lions, and included only people who had some shared context around a subject or interest? That’s the idea between the company’s launch of Communities, a way to create semi-public groups where only members can participate in conversations.

Twitter is my favorite social network. I learn more — and have more meaningful interactions — there than in Facebook or LinkedIn, the only other two networks I’m on.

But part of the reason I get value from Twitter is that I’ve learned not to take things there personally or too seriously. I’ve also learned to tune out people spewing toxicity — i.e., to lower the Sturm und Drang. This new Twitter feature sounds like a great way to increase the signal-to-noise ratio in the network.

That said, context collapse can also be an advantage. I like seeing thoughts from people I follow from different fields. For example, I follow lots of economists and designers, and enjoy seeing the contrast (and occasional overlap) between the two in my timeline.

So, I hope that Twitter implements this feature in a way that allows us to dip into focused topics but also enables the serendipitous collisions afforded by a mixed timeline. Much comes down to conceptual models (how Twitter’s designers structure this place to enable certain types of interactions) and how those models manifest as UI. The architecture of information!

How Twitter’s communities could bring context back – The Verge

Two Things to Keep in Mind When Evaluating Note-taking Apps

I sometimes read about folks struggling with choosing a note-taking app. They’ve probably heard about apps like Notion, Roam, Obsidian, Craft, etc. and want to know how they compare to Evernote, Apple Notes, OneNote, or whatever they’re currently using.

Adopting a new knowledge management system feels like a momentous decision. You won’t really know if the app is right for you until you’ve used it for a while — i.e., until it’s become a “trusted system” you can turn to knowing how to do and find things.

Getting to that state takes time. Migrating from other apps isn’t easy, and you won’t build a new repository overnight. So, you can waste a lot of time by picking the wrong app.

I’ve tried several such apps during my career. Some supported straightforward import/export processes. Those were easy to try, but I still couldn’t evaluate them properly until I’d integrated them into my workflows.

This requires not just learning a new app, but developing new mental models about many day-to-day tasks. The process can be disruptive and inefficient. It requires commitment and patience — not the normal mindset for a “trial.”

So, two things to keep in mind when evaluating a knowledge management app:

  1. Give it enough time to see whether it’ll work for you. But…
  2. Beware of sunk costs.

You want to give the app a fair shake, but don’t want to end up stuck with a suboptimal system through inertia.

How New Note-taking Apps Give You Information Management Superpowers

Master craftspeople don’t just work to make stuff; they also work on the work itself. A master carpenter will set up his shop for efficiency, develop deep relationships with his tools, and establish practices, habits, and mindsets that allow him to work in a state of flow.

Knowledge workers, too, must work on their work. As with craftspeople, this entails building empirical knowledge, developing generative mental models, and stewarding a toolset/environment that supports productive work.

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