Learning to Read

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Over the last few years I’ve read maybe 2-3 books per year and a good chunk of those were audiobooks so I’m not sure they even qualify as reading. Part of that is that reading hasn’t been a priority for me: given a choice between working on side projects, spending time with my family, watching Game of Thrones and other shows, or reading, I normally don’t choose to read. Another part of it is that I’ve found it harder and harder to sit and read for more than a few minutes; years of Facebook and Twitter have taken their toll on my attention span.

That all changed recently when I made a few modifications to my reading habits. Many of these changes were inspired by discussions on Seeking Wisdom, a fantastic new podcast by David Cancel and Dave Gerhardt about a wide variety of topics including building great products, marketing, personal growth, work-life balance, and more.

Here are the key changes I made:

  • Reading physical books, not ebooks. Many people love the convenience of ebooks, but I’ve always preferred physical books. Rather than try to force myself to read on a Kindle or a tablet, I’ve switched back to reading physical books. There’s just something about the texture and smell of physical books that I really enjoy. Also, by not reading on the Kindle app on my iPad I can avoid notifications and other distractions like checking my email, Facebook, etc.
  • Reading multiple books at once. In the past, I’ve always focused on reading one book at a time but by having multiple books to choose from I can select one depending on the mood I’m in which makes it more likely that I’ll actually do it. If I’m not in the mood to read a business book, for example, I have plenty of others to choose from. I no longer have to tell myself “I’ll read that book after I finish this one.” It does take longer to finish a book, but that’s fine; the goal of reading isn’t to finish books.
  • Allowing myself to stop reading books that don’t interest me. In the past I would try to force myself to get through any book I started. Problem is that I’d inevitably wind up starting a book that didn’t grab me, then I’d just quit reading all together because I hadn’t finished that book.
  • Skipping parts that don’t hold my attention. Years ago I started reading Poor Charlie’s Almanac, a treasure trove of wisdom from Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger. The first chapter is about Charlie’s life and for whatever reason I struggled to get through it so stopped reading the book completely. This time around, I skipped that chapter and dove straight into the later chapters which I’ve found a lot more engaging.
  • Making it a habit. Every night before I go to sleep, I try to read for 20 to 30 minutes. I do wind up watching less Netflix/HBO to make time for it, but that’s a tradeoff that I’m happy to make. As an added benefit, I’ve been finding it much easier to fall asleep after reading vs working on a side project or watching TV.

A lot of these seem obvious in retrospect, but it took a while for their importance to really click for me. I’d encourage anyone who wants to get back into reading to experiment and see what works for you.

If you have any other suggestions on how to read more effectively, don’t hesitate to drop me an email or leave a comment below.

Four types of good luck

Play a lot of poker and you’ll come to realize there are several different forms of good luck involved in both cards and in life:

1. Something positive happens due to chance

This what we tend to think of when we consider good luck: there’s a small chance of something positive happening and it does.

Poker: You get all in preflop with nines vs someone else’s kings, hit a nine on the river, and win the pot despite being a 4-1 dog when you got all in.

Life: You win the lottery for a few million dollars.

2. You avoid bad luck

I’ve written about how if you expose yourself to small probabilities repeatedly, the odds of that thing happening rise dramatically. For example, a rock climber who estimates his odds of dying on a climb are 1 in 1,000 has a 63% chance of dying after 1,000 climbs.

Poker: You win a tournament after getting all in with AK vs Ax (like A9, etc) multiple times. You’re roughly a 3-1 favorite each time you get all in, but were lucky that your opponents never hit one of their outs and knocked you out.

Life: You’ve never been rear-ended while waiting at a traffic light.

3. A random situation favors a positive outcome for you

Poker: It’s late in the tournament and it folds around to the small blind who raises with kings. You look down and find aces in the big blind, re-raise, get it all in, and your aces hold up. You were lucky because had the small blind gotten aces and you gotten kings, you would have also wound up all in, with you likely losing. There was no skill involved in the outcome.

Life: You’re born in America and not a third world country.

4. You get to experience lucky situations at all

Poker: When you first started playing, you ran well, which encouraged you to play more, which led you to improving and playing long term.

Life: Bill Bryson says it best in a one of my favorite books, A Short History of Nearly Everything:

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely-make that miraculously-fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result-eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly-in you.

 

I’ve found that knowing about these different forms of luck has made it easier for me to recognize and appreciate when chance is playing a role in a situation, good or bad, and not to overstate the role of my decisions in the outcomes.

Teach everything you know

When I was a lieutenant in the Air Force I had the privilege of serving as an Executive Officer to Major (now Colonel) Heather Blackwell while she commanded the 87th Communications Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.

One of my many takeaways from the experience stems from a conversation we had about her taking leave and who would take over her various responsibilities while she was away. She said “One of the measures of how effective I am as a leader is not how poorly the unit performs while I am away, but how well it performs.

It’s counterintuitive at first because you might think that if someone who plays an important role within an organization suddenly leaves, that the organization would suffer as a result. But her point was that if things fall apart, that means she hasn’t done an effective job teaching us about what she does and how to do it. That’s not only important if she goes on vacation, but also because by teaching us she’s helping us become more effective leaders and preparing us for commands of our own one day.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I realized that in my role at Automattic, there are several things that I work on where I’m basically the only one who knows how those things work. For example, I built a system for tracking visitors who click on our ads so that we can measure our return on ad spend, but haven’t done a good job making sure other developers on the team understand how it works. Similarly, I work a lot on building email marketing lists for WordPress.com users who meet certain criteria, but never took time to document how to do it until recently.

Teaching others has so many advantages:

  • It ensures you’re not a bottleneck for the work that you do
  • If you go on vacation, change roles, or leave the organization, it ensures your team will continue operating smoothly because someone else will be able to carry out the tasks that you previously performed
  • It helps you learn from others because they’ll likely have feedback that will help you improve the way you do things
  • It helps you clarify your own thinking and processes
  • It will help others develop their skills and grow professionally

Also, if you’re an entrepreneur, teaching everything you know also has huge advantages which Nathan Barry has written about at length (there’s even a t-shirt!).

If you find yourself in a position where you’re the only one who knows how certain things work, find ways to involve your coworkers or hold a learn-up or just write documentation – whatever you do, don’t let yourself continue being the only one who knows how to do those things. Good things will follow.

The WordPress.com Desktop Apps Will Make You Want to Blog More Often

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Just before Thanksgiving Automattic opened sourced Calypso and released the beautiful WordPress.com Mac App. The Mac app and the Calypso post editor within it are the main reasons why I’ve been able to keep up this blogging streak for as long as I have (this post will the last in the streak at day #30).

For me the editor makes all the difference in the world. If the UI is bloated or slow or contains frustrating bugs, it really distracts me from the writing experience. Fortunately the new Calypso editor is none of these things. It’s clean and fast and makes me want to write more often, not less.

We also released a Windows and Linux version this month giving you no excuse not to try one of them out for your WordPress.com or Jetpack-enabled site.

Thank you to everyone at Automattic who made them possible.

What we can learn from the math behind small probabilities

In high school stats class we had a homework assignment during our section on probabilities that went something like this:

A rock climber estimates his odds of dying on an individual climb are 1 in 1,000. What is the probability that he’ll die before his 1,000th climb?

Kind of morbid, but I’ve always remembered it because it has a non-intuitive answer for reasons that we can apply to a lot of real-world situations.

Many people will answer that the climber’s odds of dying after 1,000 climbs are 1 in 1,000, but that’s incorrect. It’s true that his odds of dying on an individual climb are 1 in 1,000, but we have to account for the fact that he’s doing those individual climbs 1,000 times.

The math works out like this:

His odds of dying on an individual climb are 1 in 1,000 (0.001) meaning his odds of surviving are 999 in 1,000 (0.999). His odds of surviving 2 climbs is 0.999 * 0.999, his odds of surviving 3 climbs is 0.999 * 0.999 * 0.999, his odds of surviving n climbs is 0.999^n. For 1,000 climbs, his probability of surviving is 0.999^1000 or 0.368, meaning he’ll die 63.2% of the time before he reaches his 1,000th climb. Ouch.

How can we us this to our advantage? Consider a more uplifting example:

You’re a junior developer and estimate there’s only a 1 in 50 chance of getting hired by a large Silicon Valley software company. What are your odds of getting hired after 10 interviews? 1 – 0.98^10 = 18%. After 25 interviews it’s 40%, after 50 interviews it’s 64%. For each individual interview there’s a 1 in 50 chance of getting hired, but because you keep interviewing, that 1 in 50 will likely eventually happen [1].

To sum it up:

Unlikely risks will likely eventually occur if you’re exposed to them often. Similarly, unlikely opportunities will also likely eventually occur if you’re exposed to them often.

Use the latter to your advantage by pursuing big opportunities even if you don’t think it’s likely they’ll ever happen because if you keep at it, chances are one eventually will.

[1] The reality in both situations is a little bit more complicated because the odds aren’t static. A rock climber that begins climbing with 1 in 1,000 odds of dying will improve his skills as he climbs which decreases his odds of dying. But he or she will also likely be increasing the difficulty of the climbs, possibly negating the decreased odds of dying due to the improved skill. Similarly, the junior developer will hopefully be improving his interviewing skills along the way, making his odds of getting hired better than 1 in 50 the more he interviews.

Tracking Blog Post Ideas

My friend Adam asked me how I’ve been keeping track of ideas for blog posts. For that and pretty much anything else that involves lists or notes, I use Workflowy:

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When I started this little daily blogging challenge I would have laughed at the idea that I could write every day for more than a few days. I just didn’t feel like I had that much to write about.

But when you force yourself to do a daily blogging challenge, you have to set the bar much lower in your mind for what’s worthy of writing about. If you restrict yourself to only one or two topics or only publish long, insightful posts then you probably won’t be able to blog daily for very long.

When I committed mentally to doing this, I suddenly had a lot of ideas for things that I could write about. They’re kind of scattered and some posts won’t be interesting to many people (and some to none at all), but that’s fine. It gives me enough to write about to keep it up and that’s what the challenge is all about.

On that note, I’ll hit a 30 day streak on Christmas Eve at which point I’ll take a break and start up again in January. I probably won’t try to do it daily again, but will try to keep posting once or twice a week going forward.

Thanks all for reading.

I’m going to write more often. For real this time.

One of my coworkers, Luca Sartoni, is trying an experiment this month: every day his goal is to publish a post on his blog but spend no more than 10 minutes writing it. He sets a timer when he begins and at the 10 minute mark he puts a quick final polish on it and hits publish.

I really like that approach because it forces you not to overthink things. The majority of recent posts on this blog took a long time to prepare (I’m looking at you, backpropagation tutorial) and while I enjoy writing longform technical posts like that, if I limit myself to those then it’s unlikely that I’ll post very often. This year, for example, I’ve only published 8 posts which is less than ideal considering I work for a blogging service :).

I’ve tried this before, but always wind up falling back into the trap of spending too much time on the posts which leads me to not write very often. So lets try this: Joel, Ryan, and Adam, oh great coworking buddies, if I go more than a week between posts or if I start only publishing long posts, I’ll buy you all coffee next time we meet up. Hold me to it!