Top 5 Books Read in 2018

As of writing, I have powered through 55 books this year.  I choose the word “powered” deliberately, and I’ll have more to say about that next week when I list all the books I read for the year.  But in the meantime, I’ve been doing some reflecting on the year that is about to close, and I thought about the books that stuck with me the most.

In no order, here are the top 5 books I read this year.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Shoe Dog details the early history of Nike’s founding and the struggle of getting the company off the ground.  While there are things that Knight did that had questionable ethics, you can’t deny that he and his team worked incredibly hard to secure their place in the world of shoes.  The story was compelling and hooked me in from the outset.

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Another founder’s story, Catmull relates the history of Pixar’s founding and eventual merge with Disney.  If I was going to use one book to teach me leadership (especially when leading creative teams), this would be the bible to follow.

The Daily Show: An Oral History by Chris Smith

I loved the Stewart years of the Daily show, but if I regret one thing, it was that I didn’t watch it sooner.  I didn’t have the understanding of politics and history to get the show’s message while I was in high school.  In fact, I only came to the Daily Show after getting into the Colbert Report midway through undergrad.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with the show under Trevor Noah’s leadership, but it hasn’t been the same for me.  This book helped me catch up on the early history of the show and gain some context of the show while I was a viewer.  Finally, it answered my burning question of why Stewart decided to step away from the desk.

The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester

This book was so good, I gave it to my grandfather as a Christmas gift.  Maybe I’m biased because I work in an office full of engineers, but the history of precision engineering was amazing.  Winchester tells a compelling story of the various leaps forward in precision engineering, from machining and designing systems in entirely new ways.  While you might not think a history lesson of machining would be interesting, I urge you to check this book out.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything by David N. Schwrtz

The biography of Enrico Fermi’s life was a thrilling ride.  I like reading about the education and early development of brilliant thinkers, and Fermi didn’t disappoint.  Fermi is known for his uncanny ability to derive equations from first principles, and to understand systems almost intuitively.  Combine that with his ability to “eyeball” problems and create stunningly accurate approximations, it’s no wonder that he’s considered the father of the atomic age.  While it’s a shame that his work did create such devastating destruction during the war, the man himself was charming and well-worth getting introduced to.

Next week, I’ll list all the books I’ve read in 2018.  In the meantime, have a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and I’ll see you in 2019.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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2018 Holiday Break

Hey there Readers!

I hope you are having a wonderful holiday season.  I’m certainly enjoying the downtime with my wife and family.  It’s nice to have a bit of breathing room.

There will be no post today.  I decided to give myself a much needed break.

I might have my books read in 2018 list ready for next week – December 31st.  We’ll see how many more books I can wrap up and whether my family time will let me get some writing done.  In the mean time, you can see my lists from 2017 and 2016.

If not, I’ll see you January 7th, 2019 for sure.

Take care and Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Institutional Systems and Game Theory

One of the hardest lessons I grapple with is treating systems (especially bureaucracies) as a series of “games.”  By games, I’m treating it in the academic sense as a series of interactions between parties that has rules, outcomes/payoffs, and strategies.  Being the meek person that I am, I tend to default to the assumption that the stated rules are all that there is, and you are expected to follow the prescribed process if you are seeking an outcome.  The truth is, in most cases there are multiple strategies that you can use to seek out advantageous outcomes for yourself.  Depending on how the rules are set up, you can avail yourself of several options, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.

For instance, in the case of students, you need to achieve a certain grade to pass a course (say, a 55%).  There are a number of strategies you can use depending on what outcome you are seeking:

  • If you are seeking the highest grade possible – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours, learn the rubric, do well on assessments, and challenge grades to bump your marks up.
  • If you are seeking mastery of the content – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours to resolve unclear topics, research the topic, create good study notes, take practice tests, and learn from mistakes.
  • If you are seeking a moderate pass – you prioritize the work and tackle the highest value graded units to achieve at least a minimal passing grade, and you disregard low-return work that requires lots of effort for little ROI, you attend only the lectures required to get information you need, and likely get notes from peers.
  • If you are seeking a pass regardless of content mastery – you can cheat and hope you are not discovered by your professor, then deny any wrong-doing if caught or present excuses to justify your behaviour.  If that doesn’t work, you appeal using the institutions mechanism.

Something to keep in mind is that cheating is still considered at “legitimate” strategy as long as you don’t get caught, because the goal is to secure your desired outcome.  If you aren’t caught, it’s because your strategy beat out your opponent, and you won your outcome.  It might be that cheating goes against the system or the intended processes put in place, but if an adequate system to police the rules isn’t in place, you can exploit that strategy to your advantage.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating for academic cheating.  I do my best to guard against cheating because I think it runs counter to my goals as a teacher.  I want my students to learn to play the game as I see it should  be played, because the skills and strategies used for my class are both useful and valuable outside of my class – the ability to read a variety of perspectives with an open-mind, the ability to articulate your position with evidence, the ability to connect ideas across different knowledge domains, etc.

I exploit the same rules when I help students navigate their way through the institution’s byzantine labyrinths and silo’d departments when they come to me with problems in their program.  I want them to get through their education with the least institutional friction and cost possible – school is hard enough and I don’t want them wasting time jumping through frivolous hoops because the systems aren’t set up optimally.

I sometimes feel irked or offended when I catch a student cheating, or catch someone lying to me.  I try to check myself in those instances because I know it’s not meant as a personal slight against me when these things happen; it’s because of the incentive structures in place.  A legitimate strategy is not available to the person, so they seek an alternative strategy to get what they want.  They are playing a game and their strategy is competing against mine when they submit plagiarized work, or hand me a fake ID at the bar I work at.  If my strategy is sufficiently robust, I can catch and counter their strategy.  But if I’m also using a sub-optimal strategy, then it’s more likely the case that their strategy will exploit my complacency.

It’s nothing personal.  It’s just how the institutional games work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Self-Education Resources

Post-secondary education has never been more accessible to the average person.  We may have a long ways to go in terms of making courses more accessible for learners and reducing the financial barriers that keep students from being successful in school, but it is nevertheless an undeniable fact that there are more people who have been to post-secondary schooling than the entire history of people attending higher learning.

One issue with the proliferation of access is that it’s getting harder to stand-out in the workforce.  With so many people carrying credentials, the golden ticket that a diploma or degree used to confer has lost some of its value.  Your choices are to either go to industries where they are starving for workers (if you are looking for a solid career with good prospects, you should become a welder NOW), or figure out a way to become a better problem-solver to stand out amongst the crowd.

Another issue that complicates matters is that industry and technology is changing at such a rapid rate that you can no longer rest on your laurels that your program of study will adequately prepare you for work in your industry.  The techniques, technologies, and skills you learn in your first year may be obsolete by the end of your final year.

Therefore, it’s important to develop your ability to self-educate.  Knowing where you can find free or cheap resources can be a huge advantage when developing yourself in your career.  Here are some of the resources I use to teach myself.

Top Spot: your Public Library

In my humble opinion, the public library is one of the greatest inventions of all time.  Whether you are taking classes they offer, using resources in their catalog, or availing yourself of the free access to materials like online journals and portals, there is almost no limit to  the access your library card can provide.  When my HVAC system went on the fritz, I was able to check out an HVAC manual to help me learn just what the heck an HVAC system does so that I could understand what repairs were needed, and how to better care for the system in the future.

YouTube

YouTube changed the game when it comes to sharing knowledge.  Don’t get me wrong, books are great (the necessary precursor to the greatest invention of all time; see: public library entry), but unless your book has incredibly detailed diagrams, the video format will always be the superior resource for teaching hands-on skills.  When I had to fix my roof, I turned to videos to learn how to remove individual shingles and replace them myself.

Coursera

Coursera is all the benefits of attending lectures without the associated costs.  Granted, if you want formal recognition of completing Coursera courses, you’ll need to pay for the access.  However, nearly every Coursera course has the option for you to audit the course for free, which gives you access to the lecture content and some of the supplementary material.

Reddit (and other specialty discussion forums)

I suppose I should have used “Google” as the category here since I often will search for solutions through Google’s indexed results.  However, dedicated online communities are some of the best resources to learn from.  They often post comprehensive resources and how-to manuals, and are usually great about providing solutions when you are stuck on specific problems.  If you can find a good community that isn’t locked behind a paywall, you can lose yourself for hours in it’s wealth of information.

Lynda.com

While not a free resource, this is something that my employer has provided to its employees at no cost.  You should check to see if your employer offers any services for employees to self-develop because you might be missing out on a ton of non-financial benefits.  Lynda is a great resource for comprehensive courses on a wide variety of tech and business topics.  It’s a bit restrictive if you are looking for non-business courses, but it’s worth checking out for learning the basics you’ll need to navigate your early career development.

Udemy

Another paid service, I find Udemy great for high tech courses where I want to develop specific skills, such as in Python or in using Adobe software.  I wait for courses to go on sale, and I snap up courses up to 90% off their full price.

Ask friends

My final suggestion is to tap your friends to see if anyone can help you learn new skills.  Obviously, you don’t want to exploit your friends – you should pay for their services where appropriate.  However, in some cases your friends can be great resources to tackle projects.  Not only do you get to leverage their unique skills or experience, but you also get quality time together.  My entire podcast and music run for Woot Suit Riot has been some of the most formative experiences I’ve had, all because I was making stuff with friends.

All of this is framed as advice to help you in your career, however the truth is that you should be seeking to educate yourself for any project your’re interested in, regardless of whether you can get paid for the skills or not.  I took painting classes earlier this year at my local art store because I wanted to learn how to paint.  This isn’t a skillset that directly will get me promoted, but it rounds me out and allows me to explore my creative side.

The point of self-education or self-development is for you to become more of the person you want to be.  It’s often hard work, but the experiences are well-worth the effort.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Tracking Ideas – A Technological System

Here’s a cool trick you might find useful.

I carry a physical notebook with me pretty much at all times so that I can jot down to-do lists, ideas, quotes, etc.  While my commonplace book system is great, I wanted a better system for tracking those spur of the moment ideas that I want to file away for later, such as blog posts, vlog ideas, career ideas, etc.  I could record it in my notebook, but then I would either need a way to collect them at the end of each month when I switch to a new notebook, or I would be forced to copy them over month to month.

The system needed two things.  First, it needed to be mobile.  My notebook is mobile, but for the reasons above, it was proving to be inadequate.  Tracking ideas in a document or spreadsheet from my computer solves the ease of use problem, but it limits the mobility.  Similarly, just having a digital file on something like Dropbox is cumbersome because, while I can access it from my smartphone, navigating the file directory on my phone is tedious and updating files on a small screen is frustrating for something that I wanted to be quick and painless.

The second need, alluded to in the problems above, is that it needs to be frictionless.  The more complex a system is, the less likely I am to use it over time.  Hacks, systems, tricks, and tips are great, but if it’s a chore to use and implement, I tend to abandon them relatively quickly because, let’s face it, I’m weak-willed and lazy (see any of my posts about failing to go to the gym…)

With those two considerations in mind, I stumbled on an option and found inspiration in a video my vlogging partner, Jim, posted on Youtube:

 

I set about to appropriate his system and adapted it for my own use.

I created an IFTTT (IF This Then That) action that when I made a note from a homescreen widget on my phone, it would automatically save it to a designated spreadsheet in my Google Drive.

IFTTT ingredient

 

I have it set up to just record the date and time of the note, and the notes content to the next empty row.

In Google Drive, I set up a new spreadsheet with multiple tabs.  This way, all the ideas come from my phone to the first tab of the spreadsheet.  From there, I can move the ideas to different tabs to better organize them by category.  In the green cells, I note where I moved the idea, then I hide the relevant row when the information is copied over.  This allows me to have all the ideas collected in one place (the front page), but completed actions are hidden to streamline the process.

IFTTT spreadsheet 2

 

All that was left to do was set up a widget on my phone and start recording ideas.  The widget for IFTTT was already available as an option, so I didn’t need to download any extra applications.

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From my homepage, I tap the round icon at the top-right of my screen.

 

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From there, I type in the idea, usually with a preface comment to help me sort things later.

 

Screenshot_2018-11-30-10-24-52
I then tap the blue circle at the bottom of the note and it sends it to the spreadsheet. 

 

IFTTT spreadsheet

 

It’s been a handy system so far.  I can access the sheet from my phone, but primarily I need it on my computer, so the cross-platform utility is great for me.  It also allows me to captures a wide variety of ideas without needing to put them to separate lists initially, whereas if I captured these in my notebook, it would be hard to sort, search, and categorize without dedicated lists.  I like the flexibility and the streamlined process.

Let me know if you have any systems that you find handy.  I’m always on the lookout for good ideas to test out.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Problem Solving – A Framework

In my first post on principles, I had an entry regarding problem solving – specifically, guidance on defining problems.  That entry is actually a condensed version of something I have hanging in my cubicle at work:

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I printed the post from a Lifehacker article, and have since annotated it with a few extra ideas.  On the left, I stole a line from Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors to supplement the step for generating possible solutions to your problem.  The simplicity of the question, “what would this look like if it were easy?” allows me to limit the choice pool by excluding unlikely scenarios while thinking about the positive outcomes.

When it comes to evaluation consequences and narrowing down the options, I have added three additional tools.  First, I borrow again from Tim Ferriss where he uses “Fear Setting” to determine the worst case scenarios possible, and then he goes through each outcome and asks himself whether the cost is something that he could live with.  By doing so, he reframes his concerns away from merely worrying about negative outcomes to only focus on the things that matter to him.

I also added a note to myself to ensure I’m capturing my assumptions.  A lot of the time I start with my conclusions and assume they are transparent in their reasoning.  However, if I ask a series of clarifying questions (usually the 5-why technique), I often end up drilling down to hidden assumptions or emotions that motivate the conclusion (rather than pure reason).

The final note I scribbled is in reference to Enrico Fermi who had an uncanny knack making stunningly accurate “guesses” off the top of his head.  Fermi used probabilities and statistics to make educated guesses to solve problems, which could then be further refined.  It’s a tool for quick and dirty estimates, and it helps to narrow down the choice pool.

My annotations aim at four tools I can use to supplement Kranz’s method: what is the best/easiest solution, what’s the absolute worst case, how easily can we figure this out, and what motivations are driving my decisions.  I try to keep those considerations in mind, though I’m not nearly as rational as I pretend to be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Principled Thinking (part two)

Since my last post on principles, I’ve jotted down a few more ideas in my notebook.  I’ve transcribed my thoughts under the photo below.

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6. Where appropriate, seek to reduce or limit choice pools.
a.) Too many choices is paralyzing.
b.) Extraneous choices impacts rank(ing) orders.
c.) Choice + paralysis  will cause decision friction –> procrastination, and inertia will  grind things to a halt.
d.) Time and resources get wasted in the decision process –> you trade off value.
e.) Most decisions can be whittled down by routine and quick preference (gut reaction) –> use 80/20.
f.) Invest time in deliberation for high stakes outcomes or decisions that interest you.
i.) Also invest when decision process is educative for you.

This entry largely captures what my behaviours are like when it comes to making decisions versus where I want them to be.  By nature, I’m a risk averse and indecisive person.  I tend to sit on decisions far too long, to the point where they can cause anxiety when it’s finally time for me to make the call.

I also tend to lack preferences in a lot of things.  For instance, I usually don’t have a strong preference when it comes to picking a place to eat, so I’m terrible at deciding where to go but I’m perfectly happy to go along with choices made by others.  There are many things I’m starkly black-and-white about (which is really annoying to my wife), but most of the time I sit in a middle state like Buridan’s ass.

Therefore, this set of principled notes captures where I want to be – to quickly narrow down extraneous choices (because too many options usually leads to diminished outcomes), and to automate where I can.  Then, I can focus on the really important decisions or use the deliberation process as a teaching tool for myself.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan