0348 – clearly define your done-criteria

A huge part of my procrastination comes from bad project management. I notice it’s easier to commit to a run when there’s a fixed limit– I’m going to run one lap, maybe two, maybe three. I’m going to run 2.4km. It’s easier to commit to a writing session when there’s a fixed limit. I’m going to do 1,000 words.

It’s much harder to do something that doesn’t have clear requirements, because then I spend an endless time coming up with new, broad requirements. I try to make my something do everything, which is a losing game. And the longer I hold that in my mind, the more exhausted I get, and the more it seems like an impossible task. I think Austin Kleon had a great comic about it– I wrote a post about it on the ReferralCandy blog called reducing creative anxiety. I wonder if I’ve substantially reduced my own creative anxiety since writing it. I think I’ve made a little dent, but it’s not like the problem magically goes away just because I’ve described it.

Well, why not? Describing a problem is the first part to solving it, right? Yup. So what’s missing? I guess I haven’t embodied the solution. What’s the solution? To write very clear requirements about what a piece of work is supposed to achieve. What’s the desired end-state? Who is it for? What is the problem it’s helping them solve? Who were they before, who are they afterwards, and how does the piece help them?

Once you’re clear about those those things, it should become a lot easier. You don’t need a massive production budget, you don’t need tonnes of time. You can find the simplest, shortest path that gets you to where you want to go. I suppose here the Pixar rules of storytelling come into play.

So why haven’t I internalized these things yet, fully? A bit of habit, a bit of hubris. A part of me thinks that this time will be different, that this time I’ll be able to improvise my way out of the problem. This is learnt mis-behavior, a systematic mistake that I make over and over again. This is something I need to be Less Wrong about.

I’m wrong to think that I can simply write something substantial without any requirements- that only works in JC GP papers, where the subject matter is typically so simple that I can get a lot of mileage out of pointing out why the question is limited and flawed. And in GP you’re trying to impress the marker with your critical thinking skills, so you can just criticize everything, quote a bunch of people and examples, and boom, look how well-read and worldly you are.

That doesn’t always translate perfectly into the “real world”. Or to be more precise– sure, there are some circumstances where that works, but they’re almost always “ludic” scenarios. Where you’re trying to impress people. You can just bombard the other person into submission with how much details and context you have. And they’ll submit.

But getting people to submit to your brilliance is actually a rather… suboptimal outcome. You feel good about yourself and you score some points, and maybe you even win a few fans for your wit and creativity. But the only thing people get from all of that is, “Well, that guy is really articulate and smart and well-read and I shouldn’t argue with him.” That’s actually a really limited life. You attract a very specific kind of person into your life, you deter a whole bunch of others, and you end up with a rather narrow view of things. I’ve been there.

So… what do I want, actually, then? I’d be lying if I say that I don’t want people to think I’m smart. I do. But I don’t want it to be because I dominate conversations, because I intimidate people. I find a couple of phrases coming to me from one of my older vomits– thoughtfulness and compassion. That’s the challenge. The challenge is to ask the right questions. The challenge is to be genuinely curious about the perspective of others. The challenge is to be genuinely loving and welcoming and accommodating, as much as possible.

I’m reminded now of an exchange on Hacker News– I can’t remember the details, but somebody said something, and somebody else accused him of being an idiot, and then there was an exchange of sophisticated name-calling and insults. And I said, was there really a need to be mean to this guy here? And somebody else replied, we shouldn’t have to be so politically correct all the time. That’s boring. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Don’t be so sensitive.

And I responded– look, I wouldn’t have a problem if you guys were continuing to discuss the matter at hand. But you’re not. You dissolved into name calling. We could have had an interesting conversation about <subject matter>, but since you insulted the guy, and the guy took offense, now we’re playing who’s-the-bigger-moron and look-at-how-sensitive-you-losers-are.

And my problem with that isn’t that people’s feelings are hurt, my problem is that we’re NOT having the interesting conversation about <subject matter>. Once you start calling people names, it becomes impossible to have a civil conversation about <subject matter>. And you say you pride yourself on <subject matter>, but you’re never going to have a decent conversation about it because you keep attacking your conversation partners.

And frankly I’m not sure if there was much point in trying to salvage that conversation. I’m not sure if I made a difference to anybody there. Hopefully I did. But the conversation was polluted by then, and it wasn’t going to go back. I’m not sure if people are adversarial because we’re trained and encouraged to be, or because we’re naturally like that and we haven’t developed the skills of being non-adversarial.

Venkatesh Rao wrote about this really well in a Facebook status called Portals and Flags, the corresponding blogpost is here.

I’ve gotten quite far from my original intent, which was to talk about “what is done”. I guess done is when you’ve successfully persuaded somebody to lay down their arms and explore something with you, and to go through a portal with you and see things in a different light, a new way, a more fertile way of thinking.

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