Sitting around

There’s always something to do. Always a way to occupy your mind.

A screen is always within reach. A source of information. Something to start the thoughts.

But when was the last time you let them flow in on their own?

I went for a walk today and listened to an audiobook called Leap First by Seth Godin. It’s a short listen but worth it. It’s about showing up to work on the thing you know you should be working on. Seth mentions Neil Gaiman numerous times throughout the book. And one part especially stands out to me.

Gaiman has written many popular books. Some you may have read. Some you may have seen as a TV show or movie.

So what do you think his secret was when Seth asked him?

“I let myself get really bored, bored to a point where all I can do is write.”

That’s it. Gaiman’s secret is he spends a lot of time sitting round.

Why’s this valuable?

Because when you let your mind wander, the thoughts will start to come in. Many of them won’t be worth listening to. Listening to the right ones is a skill. All skills require practice.

“Yeah but I don’t have time to sit round.”

If you don’t have time, you’re probably someone who could benefit from doing nothing for a little. When was the last time you gave yourself a chance to think?

Of course, the work will never get done by sitting round. But stopping to reflect may change the what the work is.

The “2 Year Self Apprenticeship”

My friend sent me this post. 

The ‘2 Year Self Apprenticeship’ model by @lewismocker

The ‘2 Year Self Apprenticeship’ model by @lewismocker

Reading it was a form of confirmation bias. It was as if I was reading what I’d been subconsciously (or consciously? How do you tell?) doing the past 2-years.

I’m in between step 4 and 5. 

It started with creating my own AI Masters Degree. That turned into a job as a machine learning engineer. And the creating hasn’t stopped. Publishing work online has opened more doors for more me than any of my previous ventures.

I haven’t figured out 6 yet. But it’ll come. In the meantime, I’ll keep making.

Enough about me. What can you take away from this?

The post already says enough. I won’t repeat any of it. But I can add a lesson or two.

A) Choosing yourself is hard but worth it

It’s not for everyone. The traditional paths are there for a reason. They’ve stood the test of time. They work for some but not for others. 

When I was younger I thought I’d be a TV star one day. My mum took me to an audition for an advertisement company. I was nervous but I liked being the centre of attention. After the audition we never heard back. Dreams shattered.

Then one day my mum found out the company went broke. I was 10. 10-year-olds don’t understand companies going broke. Why wasn’t I going to be a TV star?

Everywhere I went I felt like a combination of special and the one who didn’t fit in. I liked that. Maybe everyone feels it? Probably.

Aghh. Enough about me. That’s a 2 count. 

When you pick your own path, you’ll have people questioning what you’re doing. You’ll get advice from all angles.

But there will be something inside of you telling you to push forward. You can’t explain it. When you try to tell someone else, they might get it, they might not. All the advice they give comes from a kind place but they’re not in your head. They don’t have to lay in bed at night with your thoughts. They don’t have to sit down at lunchtime and stare out the window with the feeling in your gut of the thing that’s pulling you. 

Then you do it. You make the decision you’ve had sitting in your brain your body your soul. And it happens. The whole universe starts getting behind you. But it doesn’t make it any easier. You’ll keep coming up against obstacles keep questioning.

Is this the right thing? 

Will things work out?

Where’s the answer? 

Yes, maybe, no, it doesn’t exist, all valid answers. 

Choosing yourself is a daily practice. You make the decision. Then you follow up with the effort.

Then tomorrow happens. And you repeat. 

B) Online is great but people are better

The internet is amazing. It has lowered the barrier to entry to education, to creating, to making, to sharing, to meeting, to finding. You know this. But it’s not perfect. You know this too. 

You can learn from the best in the world and then remix their ideas with yours and share them. Others can find your work and learn from it and do the same. The snowball gets bigger. 

The one thing the technology hasn’t replicated yet is the feeling of connection. Online communities are everywhere but they’re not the same as sitting down at a table with like-minded people.

Someone messaged me the other day. ‘Hello Daniel, I’m a self-made XYZ as well.’

The message meant well and I thanked the person for the kind words. But I’m not self-made. There’s no such thing as self-made. 

This one is an asterisk on the end of the ‘2 Year Self Apprenticeship*’.

*Take advantage of the online resources available to you. But don’t forget about your offline relationships.

An offline relationship can be completely online but it takes more than the odd like to convey it. Interact with those who are in your circle. Message the people whose work you enjoy, share it and say why you like it. These kind of acts are what keep the snowball growing. 

Keep learning. Keep making. 

 

 

 

The value of working on projects which might not work

‘Use a Molecular Biologist with programming experience to advertise for your Bioinformatics Specialization, not just a youtuber!!’

That’s the tail end of one of the comments on one of my recent YouTube videos.

It also mentioned the work I was doing wasn’t biologically or scientifically sound.

He was right. But it didn’t take the comment to make me aware. The video has a disclaimer at the start. The description has one too.

Maybe Reza didn’t see it. That’s okay, sometimes people miss disclaimers and no one ever reads the terms & conditions.

Not all projects you start are going to work.

But that doesn’t mean they’re a waste of time.

In my latest video, I use what I’ve been learning in the Coursera Bioinformatics Specialization plus the help of a genetic algorithm to mutate a DNA sequence until it changes into the right one. When it changes into the right sequence, a YouTube video loads of my best friend’s son hearing him speak for the first time.

The project works, the code runs. However, it’s not scientifically significant nor will it push the field of biology forward.

But I did learn a whole bunch about DNA, different genes, cell replication, computer science, algorithm design, hearing loss and how to research along the way. And now I know where I could improve, plus, I have a story. A story of how I built something.

When people reach out to me asking how they should learn machine learning (or anything else), I often recommend getting a foundation of knowledge and then starting to work on some projects of your own.

The next question is usually, ‘What project should I work on?’

To which my reply is usually, ‘Something which might not work.’

Why?

You’ve seen the reasons above from my personal project. But I’ve put together a few points on the benefits of working on things which might not work.

Getting comfortable with the unknown

Loss aversion is one of the main drivers of all decision making.

Losing something has six times the psychological effect as gaining something. Which means you'd have to win $600 to compensate losing $100.

This is hardwired into us. And it's a good thing. In the past, when we were hunter-gatherers and resources were scarce, losing something could mean the end.

But now, if you're reading this, you likely have more resources available to you than most people in history.

Yeah, you've heard this before. But what's the point?

Loss aversion keeps you in the known.

'I know this works so I'm going to keep doing it.'

Doing this over and over risks stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline.

All the best work comes from projects which might not work. The ones where the outcome isn't clear to begin with but instead is refined and found over time.

The next time you're avoiding the unknown, rather than think about what you're missing out on gaining, what are you afraid of losing?

The fear of loss is a far bigger driver of your decision making.

Get comfortable with the unknown.

Figuring out where you’re wrong

My bioinformatics project doesn't mean anything biologically.

The genetic algorithm I used wasn't as computationally efficient as it could be.

These are two areas I could improve on if I wanted to take it further.

Even if the project you're working on doesn't turn out to be as expected (they hardly do), at a bare minimum you'll figure out where you're wrong.

Now you know what doesn't work, you can use it as direction for what's next.

If everyone else is doing it, avoid

Projects don’t have to be what you see everywhere else.

Imagine you're in a job interview.

The other candidates have all worked on Project X.

The interviewer has heard the same story 6 times.

It's your turn. They ask you.

'What have you been working on?'

You reply.

'I've been working Project Y. It hasn't quite worked out yet but I think I know what I'm going to do next.'

'Oooo, Project Y, tell me more.'

This scenario is made up. But you get the point.

Having a project you've worked on is better than no project.

And having a project you've worked on that's different to what you easily find elsewhere is better than what everyone else has.

What can you do?

If someone has done it before, remix it with your own vibe. Combine one project with another and see what comes out.

The worst case?

You'll have a story about how you tried to mix X with Y. And it didn't work out. So you tried to add Z into the mix and then W was born. I ran out of letters.

Do the thing you've always done and you'll get the same results you've always got.

A chance to share your work

It's the story. The process. The thought process. The why behind each step.

Even if what you're working on doesn't turn out to be great. You'll still have this.

The process is as important as the outcome. The process is what will follow you to the next project.

Being able to describe your process to someone is teaching them to fish rather than giving them a fish.

The benefit of sharing your work, even if it doesn't work?

Someone else might be working on the same thing. They might want to come along and join forces.

‘Hey, I’m working on this too.’

The internet allows this kind of interaction.

Plus, people online are really quick to tell you where you're wrong.

‘Yeah, but where’s the practicality?’

If you're thinking about this, you're on the right path.

It's well and good to not be afraid of working on things which might not work.

But when does it turn into something really useful?

It's an iterative process. Ask, test, reflect, refine, repeat. There's no one answer.

It starts with making. Making something you're proud of. And then sharing it with others.

This post is an excerpt of the newsletter I send out once a month or so. If you’re interested in reading more posts like this, you can sign up for updates.

Make good art

Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech should be compulsory watching for all.

Whenever I'm stuck on something. Whenever I'm feeling unmotivated. Whenever I'm down.

It's because I've forgot to look at the world through the eyes of an artist.

Gaiman’s answer?

Make good art.

Make more good art.

"But I'm not good at art."

Says who?

Your art is your art.

If I'm trying to figure something out, I write about it. 500 words in and the thoughts start to come together.

Writing is easy because of how accessible it is for everyone. If you're reading this, you can write something like this. It doesn't have to be public but putting your thoughts on paper will help connect the dots.

And if writing isn't your thing, art comes in many forms.

You can draw.

You can dance.

You can move.

You can cook.

You can code.

Anything which involves making something.

Ignoring your inner artist is going to war with yourself.

Keep making.

0 views

We got closer. Josh was on the skateboard and I was riding. You could see him walking along with no shoes. There was a little-LED light coming out from under his armpit. It was a speaker. There was sound coming out of it. He had it tucked under there whilst holding a guitar with his hands.

It was him and us. He was walking along playing to himself. If we weren't there, he would've been alone. Playing to an audience of zero.

Everywhere you go online you can find a metric about how many times something has been viewed or how many people have liked it.

The system works for helping great creations get seen by others but it's daunting for those who are starting out.

If you're sharing something online for the first time, it's unlikely you'll get 1,000,000 views. And unless it's a great piece of work, it's unlikely you'll even get 100 views. The same for any other metric you can think of.

A certain number can be a goal eventually but it's wise to avoid it when starting out. Make something with the goal of 0 views instead.

Like the guitarist in the story above, focus on making art for the fun of making art. You can’t get better at guitar if you don’t play. And sometimes you have to play for no one.

In the beginning, your only goal is to ship. This you can control, the metrics you can't.

Quality: the only universal criteria

The teacher would hand out the sheet with the boxes on it. Each box had words in it which were supposed to specify how you got a certain mark. The words were all the same with one or two changed in each box.

‘The student shows sound understanding of the topic.’ That was worth a C. Sound was the mid-tier. Not good. Sound.

‘The student shows great understanding of the topic.’ B.

‘The student shows exceptional understanding of the topic.’ This was the money. Enough of these boxes and you got an A.

I never got why exceptional was the word for an A. I thought it meant something like accepted. ‘Your work is accepted, here’s an A.’

When doing assignments I never paid attention to the criteria sheet. It was always overflowing with words. So many it lost its meaning.

All I wanted to know was what I had to do. What I had to hand in to not get in trouble so I could get back to gaming.

All my assignments looked great. I made sure of that. I had a thing for good looking documents. I’d finish a physics assignment and hand it in. A+ for aesthetics, B for content.

University was the same. More criteria sheets. More lack of reading. More reading the task sheet 6 times and asking myself, ‘What do I actually need to do?’

Then came creating online. No criteria sheets. Anything goes.

My first blog post was crap [TK — link]. Crap but honest. I tried to get my girlfriend to read it. She was good with words. Since then, I’ve probably had 6 great, 277 sound and 3 exceptional posts.

There are no criteria sheets on the internet. So it can hard to start making anything. ‘What do I actually need/want to do?’ Notice the addition of want.

There may be plenty of things you want to do. Too many. So it’s unlikely you’re stuck with a lack of ideas. Instead, a lack of direction.

The cure?

The universal criteria.

You already know this one.

People like things which are of high quality.

Things that teach them something. Things that entertain them. Things which suit the story they repeatedly tell themselves every day. Things that work.

If you’re a maker and looking for a guide or some criteria to adhere to, make it quality.

Everything else is up for debate.

Being specific is brave

Specific: ‘I’m going to lose 10kg by March 15.’

Or

General: ‘I’m going to lose weight.’

Which is easier to make excuses about?

Being specific means you’re outlining the criteria for you to fail in advance.

Being general encourages you to aim for the middle.

General is fine if you want to be near the middle.

But if not, you better have the courage to be specific.

When you’re specific about what it is you want to do, you’ll meet two kinds of people: those who get it and those who don’t.

Don’t worry about those who don’t. Your work isn’t for them.

The art is in the edit

I write 750 words every day to get 100 good words.

A statue starts out as a hunky piece of rock.

A director shoots the same scene 6 times because there’s nothing worse than getting to the studio and not having enough footage.

My videos start out with 4-hours of raw footage before it’s cut down to 10-minutes.

It’s better to have too much footage than not enough. 

Your data science pipeline starts out as 1000 lines of code before you realise you can do the same thing in 200.

But those 200 beautifully refactored lines of code wouldn’t have come without the other 800.

Nor would the 90-minute Oscar winning film come without 100-hours of set time.

You have to do bad work (things which might not work) for the good to emerge.

Don't break the chain

Don't try writing a book in one go. Write every day instead. Become a writer.

Don't expect to be the best data scientist after one course. Learn a little bit each day. And become a consistent scholar instead.

Don't exercise for one day and expect to have a strong physique. Move your body up and down, side to side, back and forward. And do it often. Become a movement practitioner.

The best results don't come on the first try. Or the 47th. Or even the 147th.

There's no right number. Consistency doesn't have a number.

If you want to improve your consistency, take a calendar and place it on your wall. Every day you do the thing you want to improve upon, place an X on the date.

If you miss a day, it doesn't get an X.

In the beginning, there will be a few gaps. You'll do one day. Then miss the next.

Then you'll get 2 days in a row but miss the third.

If you miss a day, start again.

If you miss a day, start again.

That's okay. Start it back up. And once you get a streak going, don't break the chain.

I started blogging every day since September 1, 2018. Today is day 105. 105 X's.

All I have to do is to not break the chain.

 

PS. To help me, I put this on my wall. You can get your own version here.

dontbreakthechain.png


Make something every day

Every man should make something every day.

It can be as small as making his bed or as large as making the hall of fame for his chosen craft.

Creation is freedom. Making things is freedom. The freedom of the ideas in your head.

It won’t all happen at once. You have to start it off. And the easiest way to start is with something small.

Make a small change today.

And make another tomorrow.

Eventually, they'll add up and you'll look back at where you started and wonder why you didn't begin sooner.

Still not sure where to start?

Make someones day. That's always a good place to start.