Category Archives: Essays

The Pump and the Generator

Productivity and wealth are both powerful aids in enabling flow.
But we need to keep these in their place, as a means to an end: Freedom.

If you must do a great deal of work that is unsatisfying and dreary, you are poor.
If you can do only what you love, you are rich.
There is no other definition that matters.

We can achieve this for every one of us, but we must first change our beliefs and our mental models…

Continue reading The Pump and the Generator

An Even Flow

There is a massive body of work on “getting rich”. Whether quickly or slowly, automatically or with great effort, alone or as a company, scientifically or mystically. Just take your pick.

There is also a lot written about “productivity”, most of which is actually about efficiency. Todo lists, sticky notes, ABCD priorities, Eisenhower matrices, Getting Things Done, Autofocus method, and on and on.

But what is the aim of all of this work?
I think both of them address a core human need:

To do more of what we love,
and less of what we don’t.

However, both the “getting rich” literature and the “productivity” literature place emphasis on the wrong things…

Continue reading An Even Flow

[Video] Node-based Thinking

I’m often a victim of the “Curse of Knowledge” when it comes to Gingko. I’ve been embedded in it for so long, I find it hard to see it as a beginner. This makes it hard to explain why it works so well.

But this TED talk by designer Tom Wujec goes part of the way to explaining how three elements come together to help us gain clarity:

  1. Node-based thinking.
  2. Freedom to move and to group nodes.
  3. Ability to work together, in parallel and in silence.

Gingko not only allows, but encourages, all three of these elements.

The Wealth of The Future

I have an odd relationship with money. Often I feel that I’m beyond it or above it. I focus on the pursuit of happiness over the pursuit of wealth. At other times though, I think maybe these are stories I tell myself because I have deep-seated fears or misconceptions regarding wealth.

The truth is, I’m not sure if my attitude towards wealth is incredibly wise, or incredibly stupid.

I know that I’m not making as much as I could if, for instance, I were to focus more on promoting Gingko as-is, and less on creating Gingko as it ought to be. On the other hand, I’m very happy most days, so I must be doing something right.

In any case, since I don’t fit into either the “Profit profit profit” camp, nor the “Money is evil” starving artist category, I do a lot of thinking on the subject. In particular, I try to argue both for and against wealth as a goal.

Here’s an argument that occurred to me, in favor of wealth:

Money is a way to travel into the future.

Continue reading The Wealth of The Future

Trust Thyself

Every morning, I wake at 5:30am, put on my jogging clothes, and run up and down the stairs of my building a few times (I admire those who jog in -25*C weather, but I’m not one of them). When I’m done, I freshen up, fill a glass of cool water, head towards the office (quietly, so as not to wake my wife and son), and sit down for a few minutes and just breathe.

My son Zeno reading "Self-Reliance". Starting him young!
Starting him young!

Then I perform my most important ritual. I open to where I left off in my copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”, and read.

A few minutes later, I mark my place, close the book, turn on my PC, pull the keyboard towards me, and get to work.

The recurring litany of Emerson’s words has a powerful effect on my mindset. In short, it’s brought me closer to my ultimate goal: a life of tranquility and creative flow.

What is it about this work that is so profound?

Unlike almost anything else you have ever read, “Self-Reliance” is wholly and completely about you. The essay is a battle-cry not for any one flag or banner, but for every person’s own inimitable self.
Continue reading Trust Thyself

A Failed Blog Post

I’ve been writing daily for 3 months, so you’d think I have a mass of content to output.
But I’ve had a week since the last post, a looming deadline in 35 minutes, yet I have no post.

I started twice, and failed twice, to produce a blog post that I was happy with.
I was about to go with my backup plan and just shove a TED talk or something up here, when I decided that instead I’d quickly share why I failed this week.

Mistake 1: The Corpse of Memory

Last week, I wrote a post on seeing productivity through the lens of software.
I’m not thrilled with it, but at least it’s original content. Towards the end, I realized I had bit off more than I could chew, and cut it short, “promising” to continue this week.

Well, a few days later when I started writing the sequel, I realized that my ideas had still not solidified. For many days I kept trying to write the followup post, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. As my Tuesday blog post deadline drew closer, I asked myself, “Why do I have to write about this?” and the only answer I could come up with was “I said I would.”

Ok, fair enough. Consistency is important. But the next question was “If I don’t feel it’s valuable yet, wouldn’t it be better for my readers as well if I write something else?”

Then I remembered the following line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance:

Why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?

Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.

So that was my first mistake: continuing a thread for the sake of a foolish consistency.

Mistake 2: Epic Scope

With a few days left, I started writing about something I do care about, and something I feel is important. (I won’t make Mistake 1 again and tell you what it is, or when I’ll publish it).

My wife and son were out of town this weekend, visiting in-laws, so I had a lot of quiet time to think and work and write. And what I was thinking about was itching to get out of me.

Ah, but as I typed frantically, the minutes counting down to when I have to pick them up at the train station, the post I was writing grew to epic scope. Literally.

I quote both Steve Jobs and Marcus Aurelius. I have images of the vastness of the cosmos, and of tomb stones. I considered recounting in detail the chilling experience I had when facing the sarcophagus of a Pharaoh who’s name is lost in memory. I talk about famous physicists and the vastness of time.

I found myself thrashing about, trying to make an epic subject fit into my less than epic skills, and rapidly diminishing time. In short, I forgot my own advice to focus on Quality and Frequency, and keep the Scope in check.

I need to learn to trust the only barometer for my work that matters to me: “Am I happy in creating it?” For those posts, the answer was “no”.

This post is short, not very deep, but I enjoyed writing it. I laughed out loud when I decided I would scrap the other two.

And as a bonus, I hope that an honest admission of failure is of more value than a half-hearted attempt at rehashing a previous idea, or an incoherent attempt at tackling something grand and cosmic.

Till next week!

Programming Your Productivity

Our world is increasingly shaped by software, and I want to prepare my son for this digital future.

In planning my homeschooling approach, I like to play with different ideas. Recently, I wondered “How could one teach the powerful technique of Monte Carlo simulation to a group of 8 year olds?”

I came up with a rough approach that would work with a small group of 9 or more kids, using dice, strips of paper to be passed around, and a (hopefully fun) sequence of actions. My hope would be that the group as a whole would be able to converge on an answer, without any individual discovering it.

The idea of personifying computation is an interesting way of teaching it. But it triggered another thought: what would it look like if we actually used computation as a model for our behavior?

It’s not as silly as it sounds. We all have systems in our lives, chaotic as they might seem. We do certain things and not others, we do some things in a given order. And everyone’s system could be improved in some way. So I wonder…

What if we designed productivity systems
the way we designed software?

Continue reading Programming Your Productivity

What if instead of projects, you used questions to guide you?

My PhD started with an intriguing question: “Why do DNA and other charged polymers attract each other in certain conditions?”

It’s not just counter-intuitive (like-charges should repel), it also goes against the results of simple calculations that you would make for the system.

At first, the question was exciting. A mysterious phenomenon, one that once unraveled might have wide-reaching implications, such as new possibilities for medical implants, or preventing cystic fibrosis patients from drowning in their body’s own fluids.

It was decided (note the passive tense), that “a good project” would be to extend some simulation results published in 1997, using the much greater computational resources available today.

Two years later, I had lost all enthusiasm. My project had stalled. None of the simulations I wrote produced any meaningful results. Nothing I read on the subject of “like-charged attraction” made any sense to me.

I had always assumed that I simply got bored with the drudgery of research. But I recently realized the truth:

My PhD died the minute it stopped being a question and became a “project”.

Continue reading What if instead of projects, you used questions to guide you?

Global Software

We see the internet as being a global network, a level playing field, a way to access all the information and tools we need.

If “we” refers to English speaking members of developed countries, then you’d be correct. But for the majority of the world, that is not true.

I believe that we as creators of software have a responsibility to change that, and I want to do my part.

A big company like Evernote can have its website and tools available in 24 languages, which is great. But what can tiny independent software vendors like me do to make software truly global?

The answer is simple: “Try.”

Continue reading Global Software

Use Perfectionism to Achieve Flow

If you struggle with perfectionism, I understand how you feel. For years, I’ve seen perfectionism as my biggest weakness.

But what if there was a way to work better with perfectionism?

What if perfectionism is not a weakness,
but instead a misused strength?

For me being a perfectionist means living in the constant strain of the gap between what I can envision, and what I can create. And my vision grows faster than my skills, so my choices are: finish imperfectly or not at all.

The common advice is to just “push through” and keep releasing imperfect work until you’re finally able to close that gap.

It seems like sound advice. But taking this approach, it will be years of strain until you get to feel the joy of finishing work and being proud of it.

I will not accept that for myself, and neither should you.
There must be a better way…

How Often are You Proud of Your Work?

Here’s something you may have forgotten:

Pride in your work has nothing to do with its external quality.

Imagine a painter who frequently takes a knife to her work, to the horror of those around her. “Stop! It’s great work!” they say, but she trashes it all the same.

Now imagine a first-time potter, who tries and fails repeatedly to make a small bowl. When he finally finishes, he beams with pride over his misshapen “bowl”.

So which is the perfectionist: the painter or the potter?

They both are.

Why the difference then? Why is one disappointed and strained, while the other is proud and content? Is it temperament? Naivete? Does the painter feel the weight of expectations, while the potter has none?


I spend a lot of time on the floor with my son Zeno, playing with Duplo blocks. I’ll build spaceships or helicopters at his request. He’ll be making random irregular towers, and declaring them to be a “bird”, “elephant”, or “dinosaur”.

He concentrates intently, and when he’s done he’ll clap his little hands and say “Yaay, [z]eeeno!” as he looks at me with a deep and genuine pride.

It seems  we are born knowing this, but somehow forget:

Quality is always relative.

He doesn’t care that my blocks are “better”. He doesn’t care that his aren’t as good as he will later be able to make them. All he cares about is that he did the best he could with what he had.

And in the process, he challenged himself just enough to experience flow while working. Naturally and without being taught to, he practiced deliberately on the skills that were just beyond his reach.

Perfect Flow: In Practice

Naive ambition tries to sacrifice frequency and focus on one big thing, despite being unpracticed. The "gap" requires putting out imperfect work often, regardless of quality. With perfect flow, you start small, and focus on consistent quality.
Naive ambition tries to sacrifice frequency and focus on one big thing, despite being unpracticed. The “gap” requires putting out imperfect work often, regardless of quality. With perfect flow, you start small, and focus on consistent quality.

So how can we work with pride and contentment throughout our lives, not just in some distant and imagined future? How can we quietly persist in getting better, when we feel the constant strain of the “gap”, and the expectations we have of our own great potential?

Start with something just beyond your current reach.
Work in flow as long as you need to till you feel proud of what you’ve done.
And only then, release your work into the world.

If you want to write great novels, start by writing flash fiction. Give yourself completely to the 250 word story you want to create. Want to blog? Focus on short blog posts, rather than long ambitious treatises. Do you want to develop a product? Make half a product, not a half-assed product. Do you want to paint? Paint small and often.

Don’t stop working until you feel the subtle warm glow of pride. The signal that, while it might not be “perfect”, it’s the best that you can do right now.

And know that it is more than enough.