Control issues

I have control issues.

When I feel in control of things, it makes me feel like I can help drive the results I want. And even if I fail, being in control means I can learn and improve next time.

It’s different when I feel out of control. Being out of control makes me feel like I don’t know what results I can expect. If I succeed, it feels lucky. If I fail, it feels unlucky. (I hate gambling.)

This week in Ultraspeaking Fundamentals, we were playing with the idea of letting go of control.

Usually when I speak in public, I don’t follow a strict script, but I do have a plan. I have an outline of were I intend to start, I know the list of key points I want to cover, and I can see how I intend to tie everything together at the end.

It’s all quite controlled.

One of the guest workshops this week was on Alexander Technique with Michael Ashcroft.

One of the topics covered by this workshop was the distinction between attention (ie. a focus on a single thing) and awareness (ie. one’s capacity to notice noticeable things).

Previously, when I would speak in public, I would be focused on my plan.

Unfortunately, there are side effects to maintaining an intense focus on something. When you hold your attention strongly on something, it tends to generate muscle tension in the body and it can impact your breathing.

Speaking is a creative activity and can require a lot of brain activity. Perhaps this is how the discomfort resulting from the muscle tension and the decreased oxygen delivered to the brain due to the changes in breathing may impact one’s speaking; perhaps being in this state is more likely to lead us towards rambling, going on tangents, ranting, second guessing ourselves, etc.

So one of the things I was playing with this week in Ultraspeaking was letting go of my plan.

To do this, every so often I would let my attention go. I’d try to bring myself back to my field of awareness. I waited there until I had let go of the attachment to my plan, and instead had some spark of inspiration to speak.

It was a very different approach to speaking, but I got some good feedback on the results from my classmates. And I’m guessing it’s one of those things that will get even better with consistent practice.

Related to this, I stumbled upon this quote while reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way this week:

Art is not about thinking something up. It is about the opposite—getting something down. The directions are important here.

If we are trying to think something up, we are straining to reach for something that’s just beyond our grasp, “up there, in the stratosphere, where art lives on high. …”

When we get something down, there is no strain. We’re not doing; we’re getting. Someone or something else is doing the doing. Instead of reaching for inventions, we are engaged in listening.

Our brains give us access to both conscious wisdom and unconscious wisdom.

We understand our conscious wisdom, and that gives us a feeling of control.

Our unconscious wisdom offers no explanation. It feels mysterious and out of control.

But our subconscious mind is continuously processing way more information than our conscious mind can handle.

We have the potential to surprise ourselves when we let go of our need to control things and tap into our unconscious wisdom.


I’m currently taking the Ultraspeaking Fundamentals Course. The class is highly interactive and you get a lot of practice time in front of a coach and a couple of classmates.

I decided to take this course because I know I’m not great at speaking. I hate hearing my own voice, and I generally avoid speaking during recorded sessions out of the fear I’ll hear my voice permanently stored in the cloud one day. I have the tendency to speak really quietly, which may be related to why I sometimes mumble my words. Sometimes when I explain things, I look to see the confused looks of other people on the call, so I’m not great at clearly articulating my ideas. And my energy levels when I speak are a pretty consistent, flat, low energy. It’s interesting because back when I was in microbiology, I felt pretty confident when I spoke. I don’t know that I ever regained that confidence since switching over to writing code.

Anyhow, I was pretty excited for the first week of Ultraspeaking. I knew I wanted to get better at speaking, and I had some pretty great experiences with other cohort-based courses last year. After the first lecture, we went to our first break out room–a coach and three students. We were about to play our first game–Rapid Fire Analogies–in which we have to come up with an analogy comparing two random words in only a couple seconds while maintaining an air of confidence. The first two people went, and it was cool to see the connections they were able to draw as the random words were flying past.

And then it was my turn. I wasn’t able to read the words fast enough, let alone come up with an analogy for them. I had to skip a couple of them to regain my composure before I could continue on. I’d say the first thing that came to my mind, but then my mind would circle back and be like “What. That doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t work. You failed.” All of a sudden, it wasn’t exciting or fun anymore. I was embarrassed. I wasn’t the same level as the other people there.

And it got worse and worse as the week went on. The time between slides got smaller, and the number of slides increased. As the break out rooms got shuffled, I saw more and more people being able to do amazing jobs with their analogies. It wasn’t just a fluke, I was truly worse than everyone else. And it didn’t seem like I was able to execute the coaches’ suggestions either. I remember at one point, a coach asked me to play the game with super high energy. Afterwards, she asked me and the other students how we saw the energy level on a scale from 1 to 10. I thought it was about an 8. The others described it as maybe a 4 or a 5. I wasn’t only doing poorly–I was struggling to improve as well.

At the end of the day, I got an email from a coach to me and one of the co-founders recommending me for an assessment. sigh. It looked like I was so bad that I was going to be evaluated to see if I was a good fit for this course. So I signed up for a calendar spot a few days later. I was hoping that they’d let me keep access to the games so I could practice on my own time, and that I would hopefully improve enough for whenever my participation was deferred to (I was hoping I’d be able to make enough improvements on my own before the next cohort).

So a few days later, I hop onto the assessment call. Both co-founders are on it. I feel my nerves stirring again.

After brief introductions, we jump into various games. Something’s weird. They seem pretty positive. I mean, yes, they point out some of the things I expect to hear–lacking self-confidence, can add more variety, etc. But they also point out a bunch of unexpected stuff–I’ve got a lot of ideas to draw from, I’m good at finding meaning in things, etc. It’s not all bad. And there was no mention of me needing to defer my enrolment to a future cohort.

At the end of the assessment, they sent me a “report card” of sorts. It pointed out areas for growth, but also areas that are already strengths. This made me feel better–I no longer felt like a total lost cause.

Afterwards, I looked through my email and found one that I had deferred reading. It was an explanation of the assessment and how all the students would go through it and what the report card would look like. 🤣 It wasn’t anything like what I told myself it was going to be about.

When the classes for week 2 rolled around, we moved onto a new game–Conductor— in which we have to match the energy level of the slide showed on the screen. More surprises. I felt like I was keeping up with everyone else. I found out that high energies were actually more of a strength for me than low energies. Week 2 was a totally different experience.

Both externally and internally, it’s incredibly hard to see what’s really there. You only ever find those things that you’re looking for.

Thinking and Lasting Behaviour Change

Lasting behaviour change is difficult if you aren’t also being intentional about your thinking.

Let’s suppose you’re taking an online class on personal knowledge management. One of the ideas they might talk about is that one of the challenges of personal knowledge management is over-consumption–the hoarding of other people’s ideas you find in books, articles, podcasts, etc and the tendency to continue seeking other people’s ideas ideas instead of developing and using your own. And to address this, they might suggest reducing your collecting of other people’s ideas to only the handful of ideas that you personally find most valuable.

So let’s also suppose that you try this new behaviour. The next time you read a book, instead of highlighting every single passage that seems like it might be useful to someone someday, you instead decide to really question if this passage is of super high value to yourself.

You may try this new behaviour because it’s something you feel you should do. You may try it out so you can honestly say you gave it a shot, but you don’t really believe it’s going to work. As you’re reading the book, you may be worrying that the things you didn’t highlight this time but would have highlighted in that past might be important for a future project and by not highlighting them now, you may lose them or create more work for future you. You may try this new behaviour despite an experience of FOMO as you keep thinking about you’re not highlighting.

When your thinking looks like this, it’s going to be hard to maintain this behaviour change going forward. When you look through your notes, your mind is going to think of all the cool ideas you remember reading but aren’t present in your notes. You’re going to think you took a step backwards–you’ve now created more work for yourself because you have to now re-read the book to capture those highlights that you skipped last time. You’re going to think that you’re doing this new behaviour wrong–there’s some subtle nuance about the behaviour change that you’re not understanding, and that’s why it didn’t work for you this time. You’re going to feel anxious about what you didn’t capture. You’re going to feel bad that you weren’t able to implement this practice properly. And you’re not going to be able to develop your own thoughts or use your own thoughts to create anything–you’re always going to feel the need to keep capturing all the ideas out that that you don’t yet have in your notes.

You’re not going to want to try this new behaviour again.

Now instead, let’s suppose you may try this new behaviour because you want to develop your own thoughts and use your own thoughts to create new things. You decide to trust your intuition about what are the most valuable ideas while you’re reading, and you only highlight those select few phrases that really call out to your subconscious. When you finish reading the book, you create new notes to develop your own thoughts focusing on the highlights that you have already collected in your notes. And you’re able to create new things using the notes already in your possession.

When your thinking looks like this, it’s going to be easier to maintain this behaviour change going forward. You’re going to look at what you were able to do–both your thinking and your creating–with the reduced number of highlights you took. You’re going to start to see yourself as someone who is able to produce great insights and create new value in the world. You’re going to feel good about collecting only the most valuable ideas from other people and how that allows you to spend more time on the activities that are truly important to you.

You’re going to want to try this new behaviour again.

Getting the reps in is important when you’re trying to make lasting behaviour change. However, perspective is key to ensuring those reps are having the impact you truly desire.

Time Spent On Planning

Last week, I shared a bit about my annual review. One of my thoughts coming out of my annual review was that I felt like it took too long for me to complete.

If I recall correctly, my review took me about 4 days to complete. Doing the math, this works out to be approximately 1% of the year.

In a conversation with Shirley, I started reflecting on whether my judgement was fair–is it really that bad to have spent 4 days on my annual retro and planning?

Reflecting on projects at work, we seem to spend significantly more time on project planning and project retrospectives. From this perspective, it actually feels sort of absurd if I put a constraint on project planning and retrospectives to be less than 1% of the time. At that point, I’d really be questioning if we’d put in the valuable effort into:

  • learning what worked previously and how we can do more of that
  • learning what didn’t work previously and what we can do instead
  • understanding the problem we want to solve
  • understanding why that problem is important to solve
  • understanding what we want to do to solve the problem
  • understanding how we’re going to execute on that solution
  • reflecting on potential challenges we may face and what we could do in response
  • (et cetera)

At the same time, this estimation for how much time I’m spending on planning and retrospectives isn’t complete. I do spent time throughout the year on my monthly and quarterly reviews which allow me to refocus on my annual vision, and also (along with my weekly reviews) learn from the past.

I’m also experimenting with including a transcluded block of my monthly vision in my daily note template. Ideally, this means I’m re-reading and re-presenting my vision each day; in reality, I do skip this on those days I feel the most flustered (probably the most important days I remain aligned with my vision though 🤣).

And that alignment with the vision is what’s truly important.

Maybe that’s why it requires more planning and retrospective time for work projects–alignment is more difficult to achieve when there are multiple people involved. Having multiple people creates additional complexity through different perspectives, motivations, expectations, communication styles, values, etc.

And maybe that means I should focus less on judging whether I’m spending too much time planning, or judging where the line for spending too much time planning is. Maybe I should stop the judgements and just reflect on whether this amount of planning is still effective, useful, and serving me.

My 2021 review

To me, it feels like 2021 went by super fast. At the same time, I realized just how much had happened this year when I did my annual review last week.

My annual review took me many days to complete.

The way my annual review is currently structured, I do:

  • A qualitative review of the projects I completed this year. I do this by reviewing an annual project note in Obsidian, and also my completed tasks in OmniFocus
  • A quantitative review of my finances
  • A quantitative review of how I spent my time
  • A quantitative review of select health metrics (eg. weight and body fat, heart rate variability, sleep, consistency in workouts/running)
  • A qualitative review of the core areas of my life
  • A visioning exercise for the upcoming year based on the giving yourself an A exercise from The Art of Possibility

I’d like my annual review to go faster next year. Also, I want to be review things closer to when they happened so I have more of the context fresh in my mind. To these ends, I’m planning on doing a smaller version of my annual review each month so that next year, my annual review should most involve drawing from the insights I had from all my monthly reviews that year.

One thing that surprised me this year–pretty much every single interaction I had with friends and family this year (eg. phone calls, meeting for food or projects, playing board games, going camping or hiking) got highlighted in my annual review. I think the reduced face time that comes with the COVID-19 pandemic has me really appreciating the time I do get to spend with other people.

I took a lot of new risks this year. I’ve put off getting my driver’s license for about 15 years now due to various excuses and anxieties, but this year I managed to pass my driving exam and get my novice license. I have a lot of anxiety around sports-related things and I tend to stick to things I’m familiar with, but this year I visited a bunch of new places to play volleyball which has given me new options to play in the future. And after years of thinking about it, I’ve finally stepped into the practice of coaching.

And I also stumbled upon some unexpected money. I thought that I had used up my mental health benefits earlier this year. However, I learned that this wasn’t the case when I did my annual review. I was able to submit claims for some additional therapy sessions and I got reimbursed almost $1000. It was definitely a nice Easter egg in my annual review 😻

#tweet365 Challenge

I’ve decided I’m going to participate in the #tweet365 challenge this year. This challenge involves posting at least one tweet on Twitter every day using the #tweet100 hashtag.

I’ve decided to take on this challenge because I want to try establishing a bigger online presence this year.

One of the people who I’ve been following this year is Kevon Cheung. I’ve been pretty inspired by two of his initiatives I stumbled upon this year: Build in Public Mastery and Making Twitter Friends. To be clear, I haven’t participated in the former and I’m still in the process of going through all the emails from the latter. However, I’ve really enjoyed seeing how Kevon connects and engages with various communities on Twitter.

Last year I participated in Building a Second Brain and Linking Your Thinking. One of my takeaways from these courses was that it’s valuable to share your thinking and work with others early on. This can help improve your thinking and work as you can get early feedback from others. And connecting with people with similar interests can help improve your learning and thinking. By having multiple people sharing what they’re individually learning in similar areas, you can accelerate your discovery of resonating thoughts. In this way, it reminds me in a way of parallelizing your thinking, or dividing and conquering a problem. (And then after writing this, I realized the the term I was looking for is crowdsourcing).

Because I’m also diving into coaching this year, having a bigger online presence may also help me discover new clients. Some of the people I connect with may be interested in exploring coaching, and I may be able to help them explore in our areas of mutual interest.

When I publish something on my blog or newsletter, most of the people who see my writing are existing readers. I am extremely grateful that I have these readers, and I have great conversations with many of them on a regular basis. However, Twitter has some social functions (eg. retweets, likes) that help to quickly increase the visibility of online writing. Additionally, for many people it’s a lower bar to follow someone on Twitter than it is to sign-up for email updates from a blog or newsletter. Because of this, I’m hoping that I can increase the number and diversity of conversations I have with other people this year about the things I’m interested in.

My consistency with using social media is not great. Below is a visualization of the number of tweets I made each month in 2021. The spike in May/June was from when I was participating in Building a Second Brain, and I had many great conversations with people from my cohort (in fact, I’m still in regular contact with many of them still today). That being said, I’d like to be more consistent with my engagement online. I’m hoping by participating in #tweet365 I can eliminate having these months of no/decreased engagement going forward.

Graph of Tweets vs Month

Also, one of the themes I’ve picked up on from seeing posts from the Ship 30 For 30 course (I haven’t taken the course myself) is the idea of data-driven writing. Because tweets are so small, they can help isolate variables. You can get rapid feedback on the effectiveness of your writing. And tweets are free. So I’m curious about experimenting this year with this idea of data-driven writing.

As part of this, at least for a while, I’m planning on sharing the main body of my weekly newsletter in my blog. I still plan to produce my weekly long(er) form of writing, but I’d like to try focusing on this new experiment for now to get things started.

Diving into coaching

Over the years, I’ve experienced various forms of coaching (and coaching-like experiences) at work and in life. I’ve enjoyed talking through problems and exploring different perspectives with friends. I’ve done a bunch of learning about coaching through books and podcasts over the years.

It’s something I’ve wanted to try for years. It feels very meaningful to me to help other people realize their own potential.

I am not certified as a coach, nor do I have any formal training. However, the field of coaching is currently unregulated.

So I’ve decided to dive in.

My current plan is to start off offering coaching sessions for free. My goal here will be to gain experience, get feedback, and learn how to improve my practice.

As I gain experience and grow a track record of actually helping people, I will gradually increase my rates over time. But before I increase my rates, I want to make sure I’m actually providing value to my coachees/clients.

I do plan on eventually getting formal training and certifications in coaching–likely through multiple schools, as there’s already several I really respect and have been admiring for years.

The reason I’ve decided to dive in before that is because I know I have a bias towards learning over action. It would be easy for me to keep putting off my coaching practice because there’s always more to learn about coaching. By starting first, I can help ensure my learning is targeted and being put to good use.

It’s one of a few big experiments I’m planning on trying out in 2022 🙂 I’ll share the others in the near future.

If you’re interested in learning more about my coaching practice, or are interested in signing up for a session, please check out my coaching page here.

The Queen’s Gambit and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Disclaimer: This post has spoilers regarding The Queen’s Gambit. It also touches on topics including substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide.

I found The Queen’s Gambit to be a pretty touching series. I think part of the reason I found it to be so touching is because the series follows main character Beth Harmon as she slowly finds her needs fulfilled.

To illustrate this, I will use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s (original) hierarchy of needs is an idea in developmental psychology which describes how certain needs must be met before other needs can be met. (Though, more modern versions of this idea have changed the categories and acknowledge overlap between these categories as needs are met.) First are physiological needs such as food, water, shelter, and sleep. Second are safety needs. Then belonging needs, esteem from others, self-esteem, and then a state called self-actualizing (ie. a state where a person is realizing their full potential).

Early in Beth’s life, to me it’s unclear whether her physiological needs are met. Beth lives with her mother, Alice Harmon, in a trailer. At one point, Alice visits her ex-husband Paul and pleads for help, worried that she’s unable to support Beth. I don’t know that they ever reveal enough in the series as to whether Beth always had adequate food, water, etc.

In either case, her safety needs aren’t met in her early childhood either. Beth’s parents get divorced, Alice struggled with her own mental health and coping strategies, and in a scene where Alice goes diving in a lake, it is revealed that Beth is aware and fearful of her mother’s history with self-harm and/or suicide attempts.

I think Beth starts to realize her safety needs being met when her adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley, admits that “Though I’m no longer a wife, except by a legal fiction, I believe I can learn to be a mother.” Here, Alma acknowledges that she hasn’t been a great mother, but that she’s willing to try to improve. Until this point in time, I’m under the impression that Beth didn’t feel very secure in the household–neither Alma nor her husband, Allston, seemed particularly interested in Beth, and Alma credited the desire for Beth’s adoption to be rooted in Allston (and Allston said the same thing about Alma). I imagine this could have left Beth feeling like there was a decent chance that she would be sent back to Methuen Home (an orphanage for girls).

It is around this same time where Beth starts to realize her belonging needs being met as she develops friendships with Alma, as well as Matt and Mike–twin college students she meets at her first chess tournament. Although she arguably has earlier friends in Jolene and William Shaibel at Methuen Home, I don’t know that she regarded them as friends until later on in her development. (I suspect that earlier on, she may have seen them as something like tools for survival.)

As Beth continues to dominate at various chess tournaments, she starts to realize esteem from others. She gains a reputation amongst other players and she’s featured in newspaper and magazine articles. When she plays in the Moscow Invitational, she also starts to see some of her fan base, as cheering fans surround her each day she finishes her games.

I think Beth starts to realize her self-esteem when she’s preparing for her game with Vasily Borgov in the Moscow Invitational. Although she struggles with it at times, she realizes that she doesn’t need pills, alcohol, or her other coping mechanisms to win against Borgov. She starts to see her ability to win using her own abilities and the relationships she has developed over the years.

Finally, I think Beth starts to reach moments of self-actualizing around the time of the Moscow Invitational. I think she definitely feels this when Luchenko acknowledges her mastery of the game, when Benny Watts, Harry Beltik, et al. support her over the phone with her game against Borgov, and when she is acknowledged by the Russian chess players who play outdoors in the closing scene of the series. Although there are also earlier opportunities to see her impact on others (eg. Jolene following her success through chess tournaments across the years, Annette Packer recognizing her representation of women in the game), I didn’t get the sense that Beth was able to really grasp her impact at those times.

All-in-all, The Queen’s Gambit shows the evolution of Beth Harmon from feeling stuck and powerless to being successful and having a positive impact on many people around her. I suspect I found the series to be touching because I also aspire to having more of my needs met.

Thinking beyond words

I use a tool called Obsidian to facilitate my thinking.

For the most part so far, this has largely taken the form of writing. I write my blog posts and newsletter issues in Obsidian. I also keep track of my notes from books, articles, movies, etc (and my associated thoughts) in Obsidian.

However, words aren’t always the most effective way to convey certain thoughts.

For example, I spend quite a bit of time playing volleyball each week. It only makes sense I’d also be doing some thinking about that.

So earlier this week, I made a couple notes on volleyball court positioning. This sort of thinking is best represented/aided with the use of diagrams.

I could use a program to create an image to represent this, but those files tend to be relatively large and can be difficult to correct or iterate over time.

So instead, I incorporated SVGs into my notes.

In editor mode, this looks something like this:

<svg width="300" height="300" style="background: white">
    <line x1="0" x2="300" y1="100" y2="100" style="stroke: red" aria-label="attack line" />
    <circle cx="50" cy="20" r="10" aria-label="OH" />
    <circle cx="150" cy="20" r="10" aria-label="MB" />
    <circle cx="250" cy="20" r="10" aria-label="S" />
    <circle cx="50" cy="175" r="10" aria-label="OH" />
    <circle cx="150" cy="275" r="10" aria-label="MB" />
    <circle cx="250" cy="175" r="10" aria-label="O" />

But in preview mode, this gets rendered as:

I thought this was a neat addition to my notes.

I’m curious what else I will incorporate into my notes for other types of thinking in the future.

For instance, I anticipate that I will eventually have some notes on various board game strategies. I know that other people already use Obsidian for things such as tabletop role playing games, so I may have the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of some giants.

Distinguishing Newsletter Content – Part II

Back in September, I was coming up to publishing the first issue of my newsletter. I published a blog post about how I was going to distinguish my newsletter content from my blog content.

One of the things that has shifted since my last blog post is that my newsletter is now weekly instead of monthly.

I was publishing my monthly newsletter as a survey of everything I had encountered over the past month. It was broad, but very long–the second issue was almost 4,000 words long.

I felt like this was too much for most people. The length was intimidating and it was hard to pick out the relevant parts for people’s unique interests.

With the shift to weekly newsletters, I’m going to be sending out shorter, atomic pieces. The plan is to have each newsletter reflect the results from a question I’d been investigating recently.

So where does this leave my blog?

I’m unsure.

There will probably be some combination of longer, developed pieces. There will probably be some personal updates. And there will probably be others posts that fall in between, or somewhere completely different.

The experimenting continues.