What I Unlearned From Architecture

I got an interesting question via Twitter:

“What were some of the mindsets, habits of thinking you had to unlearn transitioning from [architecture] to [information architecture]?”

The answer that comes immediately to mind is: “not that many!” I consider architecture a perfect training ground for information architecture. There are many more architectural mindsets that apply to information architecture than mindsets that require unlearning. That said, as I’ve thought about it I’ve realized there is, in fact,​ a mindset I picked up from architecture that I’ve had to unlearn over time: the idea of the architect as the central element of the design process.

Architecture is rife with what are referred to as starchitects — practitioners whose work and style is known around the world, and whose fame influences the work. Clients seek out Frank Gehry because they want a Frank Gehry building. Gehry’s office is bound to produce buildings in the Gehry style regardless of what contextual conditions call for.

When I was a student, most of the works we looked at were produced by starchitects. The implication was that that’s what we ought to aspire to. The first few years of my career, I labored under the delusion that I was at the center of the work. Over time, I came to realize that effective designers (in any field!) primarily serve not themselves or their architectural ideologies, but the work. I came to suspect the idea of having a “house style” — something I longed for at first.

To put it bluntly, I left architecture school with an inflated ego. The main mindset I had to unlearn as I transitioned to information architecture was the centrality of my own ideas, desires, and “style” in the design process. Instead, the core of what I aspire to now is form-context fit. This calls for understanding through collaboration; it calls for research and open-mindedness. Experience is primarily in service to the process, not the other way around. Getting my ego out of the way — embracing beginner’s mind — took many years of practice.

What Did I Learn?

Like many other people, I have a morning routine. Journaling is an important part of this routine. Every morning, at the start of my day, I set aside a few minutes to reflect on the previous day and what today holds.

I’ve written before about the structure of this journal. Recently, I’ve added a new section: What did I learn? Specifically, what did I learn the day before? (And by implication: How do I need to change my behavior?) I sit with it for a little while, replaying the previous day. These are some other questions that help with this exploration:

  • What did I try that didn’t play out as I expected?
  • What expectations did I have that weren’t met?
  • What expectations were exceeded?
  • What information would help reduce the gap between these expectations and actual outcomes in the future?
  • How can I procure this information?
  • What patterns have I noticed?
  • What happened unexpectedly/serendipitously?
  • What resonances/synchronicities did I notice?

This last question may seem weird; it requires unpacking. Sometimes I’ll be thinking about something and the next day (or sometimes, the same day), I’ll come across the same idea in a podcast, book, article, etc. An echo of sorts. Sometimes these resonances are very peculiar ideas, to the point where I’m startled by the coincidence.

I don’t think there’s anything supernatural at work. The fact that the concept stood out merely suggests that I’m paying attention to it on some deep level. It’s like when you’re thinking of buying a particular model of car and suddenly you see the same model everywhere. Those cars were always out there, but now your mind is primed to pay attention. These could be important signals.

Note these are questions about things that are under my control: my attitudes, expectations, plans, etc. I don’t bother to document things I learned due to events happening in the outside world, out of my control. (E.g., stuff in the news.) Rather, I’m trying to establish a feedback loop that allows me to become more effective over time. Growth calls for introspection; What did I learn? is a useful trigger.

Striving for Simplicity

Over a decade and a half ago, I was at an office party. (This was during the brief part of my career when I was in-house at a large corporation.) Among other amenities, the party featured a cartoonist; the type of artist you see drawing quick, exaggerated portraits at fairs. The artist was hired to draw each team member, highlighting striking things about us: quirky hobbies, particular styles of dress or grooming, tics, etc. I don’t remember if it was at my suggestion or that of my co-workers, but my cartoon showed me surrounded by electronic gadgets: mobile phones, MP3 players (a new thing at the time), notebook computers, cameras, etc. That’s how I saw myself and how my colleagues thought of me; tech was a primary part of my identity.

I’ve long been representative of the “early adopter” demographic. Being alive (and privileged enough to have some discretionary income) during the Moore’s Law years has meant seeing (and benefiting from) tremendous advances in many areas of life. Consider the way we listen to music. In the span of a few years, my entire music collection went from heavy boxes filled with clunky cassette tapes to a few light(er) CD cases to a tiny device not much bigger than a single cassette tape. Portable MP3 players represented a tangible improvement to that part of my life. The same thing has happened with photography, movies, reading, etc. It’s been exciting for me to stay up-to-date with technology.

That said, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more aware of the costs of new things. I’m not just talking about the money needed to acquire them; every new thing that comes into my life adds some cognitive cost. For example, there’s the question of what to do with the thing(s) it replaces. (I still have cases full of plastic discs in my attic. I’m unsure what to do with them, considering the amount of money I’ve already sunk into them.)

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Mind Your Baobabs

Skillful information management requires continuous vigilance and effort. If you’re an active participant in today’s world, stuff is constantly coming in. If you don’t develop practices to keep information organized, you will soon find yourself hobbled.

I’m reminded of a powerful image from one of my favorite books, Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince. You’ve probably read it, but here’s a quick synopsis in case you haven’t: The book’s narrator, an aviator, crash-lands in the Sahara. Alone and running out of provisions, he desperately tries to repair his aircraft. A mysterious child appears. He keeps the aviator company, sometimes annoying him with naive/profound requests.

In the course of their conversation, the aviator realizes that the child — the titular little prince — has come from another planet. It’s a small planet, but it keeps him constantly busy:

“It’s a question of discipline,” the little prince told me later on. “When you’re finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend your planet. You must be sure you pull up the baobabs regularly, as soon as you can tell them apart from the rosebushes, which they closely resemble when they’re very young. It’s very tedious work, but very easy.”

Why baobabs? The little prince goes on to explain:

“Sometimes there’s no harm in postponing your work until later. But with baobabs, it’s always a catastrophe. I knew one planet that was inhabited by a lazy man. He had neglected three bushes…”

The baobabs

I think of this story every morning as I work through my email inbox. There are two types of people in the world: those who let email pile up in their inbox, and those who adhere to the “inbox zero” approach. I’m in the latter camp. There’s no middle ground.

Once a day, I “tend my planet” by going through every message in my inbox. Some get archived or deleted. Some I skim and save for later reference. Some I must act on immediately. I note the rest in my to-do application for future action.

Among other things, I’m looking out for baobabs. Most emails are one-time engagements. But some hint at bigger projects. These require special care​ because there’s only so much time available for such things. Too many of thes​e and things spiral out of control.

In some ways,​ we have it harder than the little prince. Most of us have more than one inbox to tend. I deal with email, Slack, a physical inbox, two physical mailboxes, Facebook messages, LinkedIn messages, Twitter messages, and more. All require constant attention.

I know people with thousands (in some cases, tens of thousands) of emails in their inbox. I shudder when I look at their phones or computers. I wonder, how many baobab seeds are lurking in there? One or two baobabs aren’t bad. In fact, they’re what keep the machinery running. The problem is when you have too many. Sorting them out calls for constant, proactive vigilance.

You can take a vacation once in a while; get a break from the onslaught of information. But watch out! When you come back you must attend to the backlog. Diligence is the price for effectiveness and peace of mind. The alternative is always a catastrophe.

Learning From Books

Andy Matuschak writing in his blog:

Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish Gene; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Guns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this-one you’d read-come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences?

The post offers an insightful overview of why books are a less-than-ideal means for learning new things. (It explicitly covers non-fiction and acknowledges there are other reasons to read besides learning.)

Reading this post reminded me of what has turned out to be one of the most powerful (and consequential) learning experiences of my life — and which was centered on a book. Two books, actually: Getting Started With Color BASIC and Getting Started With Extended Color BASIC, manuals that came bundled with Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Color Computer (1980). It is through these books that I acquired a superpower: programming computers.

Early personal computers couldn’t do much out of the box. When you turned one on, you were greeted by a blinking cursor. You were expected to load software to do anything useful with the device. You did this using cartridges (much like game consoles), cassette tape drives, floppy disks (which at the time were prohibitively expensive, and thus rare), or — most commonly — by typing it in yourself. (It was common at the time to see software code in computer magazines and books.)

As a result, “learning computers” meant learning to program them (mostly in BASIC, an early computer programming language.) Every popular personal computer of the time booted to a BASIC interpreter by default. Each manufacturer implemented their own dialect(s) of the language, so you needed to learn the language anew for each model.

The two Getting Started manuals taught the dialect used by the Color Computer; the first computer I ever owned. They assumed the reader was encountering BASIC for the first time — a safe assumption during the early 1980s — so they started from the very beginning, and eventually moved to the things that were specific to the CoCo platform.

This pair of books is one of the best examples I’ve encountered of how to teach a complex subject clearly, simply, and inexpensively​. Even a committed 10-year-old kid could develop some degree of mastery using only the texts (there was no internet at the time, of course); I emerged from their pages with the ability to write primitive video games.

How did they do this? Through a combination of sound structure, clear writing, and frequent and relevant interactive exercises (to the point of Mr. Matuschak’s post.) But the “committed” part is not to be underestimated: they also worked because the learner was excited by the subject and committed to learning. I devoured the Getting Started books, and revisited them often. I suspect the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of book-based learning has much to do with the degree of interest of the learner in the subject.

Why books don’t work | Andy Matuschak

How I Go Offline

In response to my earlier post about work-life balance, Daniel Souza asks:

This is an important question. I’ll answer it here rather than on Twitter, where my responses will get lost among all the other chatter.

It’s important for me to have “offline” time every day. There are certain practices that allow me to do so, and I will cover them below. That said, I don’t think of these practices as something exceptional I do to regain my sanity or anything like that. They’re just part of my day, like going through my email is part of my day.

I think one of the main reasons why people crave “offline” time is that they haven’t yet learned to manage their use of information environments effectively. For example, many people leave notifications on by default. Many of the digital systems we interact with are designed to capture our attention so it can be sold to the highest bidder. The constant stream of interruptions is exhausting and counter-productive. As important as it is to take time to be “offline,” it’s as important to develop healthy use patterns for online environments.

On to Daniel’s question. Here are some practices that allow me “offline” time:

  • Reading. I read a lot, mostly in physical books or in a Kindle device, neither of which can send notifications or allow me to open another app.
  • Meditating. I set aside time (usually 15-20 minutes per day) for mindfulness meditation. This does for my mind what flossing and brushing does for my mouth.
  • Naps. Not something I can do every day, but a practice I take advantage of as frequently as I can. 30-45 minutes is enough to reset my entire system and keep me going for several hours.
  • Hiking. One of the upsides of living in Northern California is nearby access to wonderful hiking trails. My family and I frequently take advantage of this privilege.
  • Long baths. This may be TMI territory, but I love taking long baths. We had a wet winter this year (after a long drought) so I can now indulge more frequently with less guilt. (I often read in the bath.)

There isn’t anything exceptional about these practices. They don’t take a long time. They’re not things I do because they take me offline; I enjoy doing them and being offline is a side benefit. Again, while being offline (daily!) matters, having a healthy relationship with online environments is as important. If you’re in a position to do so, take back control of your attention. At a minimum, turn off unnecessary notifications.

Work Anywhere

I’ve never liked the phrase “work-life balance.” It’s a bad distinction: work is a part of life, and being alive is a prerequisite to getting work done. To think of the two as separate is to impoverish both, so I’m inclined to blur the lines. This is easier to do today than ever before. Many people see this as a negative, but not me.

By “work,” I mean creating value for others in exchange for some remuneration. There’s no reason why this should be constrained to a particular time or place. We’ve inherited our current work patterns from a previous era when work required expensive, fixed infrastructure. (Think industrial factories.) People agreed to be at this infrastructure at particular times of day, in shifts. This maximized efficiency for industrial work.

But this is not necessarily efficient for information work. If a client emails me to ask a question, a faster reply is often more valuable than one that takes longer. Using my little glass rectangle, I can get back to them from anywhere. I’ve generated lots of value while sitting in public transport, waiting for the teller at the bank, after finishing lunch, etc. These impromptu dips into “work” aren’t an intrusion into “life” — I see both as a continuous stream.

Independent consulting gives me great control over when and where I work. When I don’t have meetings, I like to work from my local public library, which is always quiet and pleasant. Or maybe I’ll walk to a coffee shop for a cup of tea. Whatever the case, changing my physical environment helps me get things done. I cordon off particular activities to one place or the other; the change of venue is a palette cleanser that allows me to shift my focus from one task to another.

This way of working is very effective for me. There were times in my career when I forced myself to sit at the same desk for eight-hour work days. Even though I was “working” more, I was much less productive. Tethering myself to the same place and forcing myself to produce “on command” was often a recipe for frustration. That’s not how the mind works — at least not mine. I need to shift modes, change the zoom on the lens, get my body moving.

I can engage more fluidly because my work doesn’t happen in physical environments; it happens in information environments. With small, powerful electronic devices, I can access those information environments from anywhere. This calls for discipline — the work needs to be done, after all — and organization. But the payoff is a release from the tension many of us feel between “work” and “life.” A well-ordered information ecosystem can simultaneously make us more effective and more engaged with the world beyond our desks.

My Digital Memory

I was an early user of Gmail. I don’t remember exactly when I signed up for the service, but I do know I was using it by September of 2005. It became my primary mail system in a relatively short span of time. There were four features that drew me into Gmail:

  • Its amazing anti-spam filters. Hooboy has this saved my sanity!
  • Its lightweight web-based UI.
  • Its large (for the time) storage allocations.
  • Its search functionality, which is (still) one of the best I’ve experienced in any system.

It’s the last two of these features that I want to delve into here.

Gmail isn’t just an email system; it’s a digital memory of my life. Shortly after I started using it, I imported the previous four years of mail into my account. As a result, I have a searchable email archive of the last eighteen years or so. This is an incredibly powerful thing to have at your disposal.

Email isn’t just about communicating with other people: We also receive confirmations for doctors appointments, bank statements, flight boarding passes, contracts, etc. Over time, these things add up to an important repository of information about your life. Something that may seem trivial now can be quite important in the future. Because you have so much space in Gmail, you don’t have to throw it out. And because Gmail’s search is so good, you don’t have to worry about categorizing it upfront.

Last night I was making a list of trips I’ve been on over the past few years. Compiling this list was relatively easy using Gmails advanced search: I used the before and after operators to define time windows​ and included the three-letter​ airport codes where I frequently fly from (SFO and OAK.) I completed what could’ve been a long, tedious task in a matter of minutes.

I particularly feel the power of my digital memory in its converse. Once I was trying to recall the exact date of an event that occurred prior to 2001. This proved surprisingly challenging. I’ve been paperless for the past decade or so (meaning I scan every important paper-based document that comes my way,) but I have few documents in my system from before this time. For stuff between 2001-2008, I can fall back on my Gmail archive. But I have scant information in my system before 2001. Searches return nothing. I looked for a long time among old paper-based archives for the date I needed, only to come up empty-handed.

Some people are very disciplined about keeping archives. I’ve gotten more so over the years, but have little to show for earlier parts of my life. For stuff in between, I can rely on Gmail as a digital memory; it seldom lets me down.

Possible Future

An old Pink Floyd song includes the following lyric, which I love:

They flutter behind you your possible pasts,
Some bright-eyed and crazy, some frightened and lost.
A warning to anyone still in command
Of their possible future, to take care.

These lines provide a visual to an otherwise abstract — but important — idea: that the future holds many possibilities, but once set on a particular course of action, these possibilities close off.

Your ability to affect outcomes diminishes as you become invested in the decisions you’ve already made. The older you get, the harder it becomes to change course. Time runs out; “the future” shrinks; you’re left to contemplate what might have been.

Thus, as you age it becomes increasingly harder to change directions. Eventually, you run out of time to undertake major corrections. Where early in life the vector for your life was flexible, it embrittles as you grow older. You become set in your ways.

This is a challenge in a world in which change happens faster and more thoroughly than before — and in which people live longer. You must actively fight the urge to become fixed and brittle. It’s an ongoing struggle: The more you experience, the more invested you become in the things that have worked; things that feel comfortable.

Comfortable is for chumps. Your possible future needs ongoing care.