Do something that’s difficult and important

Get out of your comfort zone!

It’s a phrase that’s so trite, it’s been applied as a form of self-help advice to every single aspect of human life, from education, to career, to interpersonal relationships, to personal finance, and so on and so forth. The rationale is pretty straightforward: whatever you’re doing now, you’re doing because you’re comfortable and used to it. Yet, you somehow feel bored and discontent with the current situation. Therefore, you need to change your routines and attitudes and reach out for things that are beyond your reach.

I’ve always found that there’s something off about this advice. It’s not exactly bad advice per se, but it’s not really all that useful. I hope to illustrate with a couple of (admittedly contrived) examples:

  1. If I list the bottom 2% of the funniest people that I know, the list would include myself. If I go into a comedy club on open mic night and try to do a stand-up comedy routine, that would definitely qualify as “going out of my comfort zone.”
  2. I’m a very (notoriously) frugal person. Another way I can “go out of my comfort zone” is to bet a significant portion of my savings at the casino playing high-stakes poker.

Would having those “out-of-comfort-zone” experiences help me, as a person? Perhaps, being the extremely serious and uptight person that I am, it could loosen me up a little. Or, they could simply make me morbidly embarrassed and anxious and vow “never again” to do anything like that. It’s not all that clear what the impact of having those experiences are.

The problem with “Get out of your comfort zone!” is that it does not define any criteria for what, how, or why you’re going to do something, other than that it’s uncomfortable. As individuals, we have a pretty narrow range of experiences that we find comfortable. Given the vastness of the overall human experience, there is a near-infinite number of ways we could go out of the fabled comfort zone, and not enough lifetime trying things out. It’s also a bit harsh on folks who have a more conservative temperament, the stable and reliable people who may be “too comfortable” and are exactly the ones who might see more benefit in making some small changes in their lives.

I propose that we toss “Get out of your comfort zone!” and replace it with:

Do something that’s difficult and important!

That said, it isn’t so much a replacement of “Get out of your comfort zone!” than it is a refinement. It takes the raw motivation and adds some meaningful direction. Let me take that apart to its constituent elements:

  • Difficult: Something that is just barely outside of your skills and experience. In other words, it needs to be feasible, but not completely certain, given your own skills and circumstances. The struggle keeps you engaged, allows you to be “in the zone”, and provides a sense of personal growth upon achieving success.
  • Important: Something consequential, with true impact. That means that failing will lead to tangible negative effects. Of course, that also means that succeeding will lead to tangible positive effects. The importance of the task provides the sense of purpose of meaning in carrying it out.

Those two dimensions of difficulty and importance come together. Again, some examples (real ones this time) to illustrate the point:

  • During the past weekends, I spent a good few hours playing Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy, which is a remake of the original PlayStation video games from the late 90’s. They are just as hard as I remember them, and I’ve already progressed towards (but not yet defeated) the final boss, Dr. Neo Cortex, in Crash 3, which is the furthest I’ve progressed in either the remakes or the original games. Difficult? You don’t say! But if I spent my leisure time doing something different, it would not have mattered, so it’s absolutely nothing important.*
  • Every day, I get up in the morning, shower, eat, brush my teeth, go to work, etc. These have become such an integral part of my daily routine that I barely spend any energy thinking about or executing them, they are not difficult to do at all. That does not mean that they are not important – if I dont go up and go to work, Bad Stuff will totally happen! That said, just repeating the same routines does not add to my effectiveness. There is even a risk that I might slip back due to too much complacency, and I need to take on more important things in order to grow.

“Difficult and important” means different things to different people. To start with some obvious examples: to an infant, learning how to roll over would be such. For a toddler, it would be to learn to walk and to talk. These would be trivial for older children, who need to move up to higher-level tasks.

Are you a university student? Skip the “easy uno” courses and find something interesting, taught by a professor that you find inspiring and challenging. Are you nearing or past graduation? Go and find yourself a job!

Are you in a long-term romantic relationship? Maybe it’s time to marry and start a family, or maybe you should break up with your partner and stop wasting time with each other.

Bored at your job? Perhaps you need to talk to your boss about getting on that risky new project. Or maybe you need to go back to school and get that graduate degree. Maybe even start polishing your resume and find a new one, or quit your job and start your own business.

Are there small annoyances at home/school/work that are perennial, or may lead to bigger problems? Muster up the courage to talk to the right people and take the initiative to solve them instead of just complaining to your mom and friends about it.

It doesn’t have to be big, life-altering things either. Is your home messy, provoking your mom’s other’s disgust and hindering your daily activities as a consequence? Start by cleaning your room! It’s more important, not to mention more difficult, than you think. After all, there’s a reason why it’s been a mess for a while!

All of us can find a list of 10, or 50, or 100 difficult-and-important things because there’s never enough time nor energy to do them. If we start addressing one or two of them each day, and do it regularly and systematically, who knows what that will lead in two or three years? We will find that as the list starts to shrink, we start to grow.

*Perhaps it would be important if I was a professional gamer or streamer, but as it is it would have the same impact on me as your typical person’s karaoke performance has on their record album sales, i.e. not at all, besides maybe a little fun and social cred.

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The New Day’s Resolution

New Year’s Resolutions. You list down ten things you want to change about yourself, so that by the time the calendar rolls over once more, you’re gonna be Totally Awesome. By the 3rd of January, you’ve already broken half of them. By the 10th, you’ve broken seven, and have made zero progress on the 10th. At the end of the month – at best – you’ve already gone back to being the way you were last year.

Nobody ever keeps their New Year’s resolutions. Nobody. Except for those smart (read: cynical) enough to make the resolution never to make any resolutions. That’s cheating though so it doesn’t count, and quite frankly rather sad. Why would you ever give up on trying to better yourself?

Honestly, New Year’s Resolutions suck. And nobody should ever make them, because they don’t work.

Wait, why am I talking about New Year’s Resolutions on the completely random day of 7th of November? And did I just contradict myself there? How can someone be better without resolving to be better?

Ah yes. Well here’s the thing. I didn’t say don’t ever make resolutions, just don’t make New Year’s ones. Instead, make New Day’s Resolutions.

Before we go further into that, I’ll first go into some of the problems associated with New Year’s resolutions.

First of all, New Year’s resolutions are either too vague…

  • I’ll do better at work!
  • I’ll take care of my health!
  • I’ll be rich!
  • I’ll be a nice person!
  • I’ll learn a new language!

…or too big

  • I’ll become Chief Executive Ninja Vice President Guru!
  • I’ll run a triathlon and bench press 200 kg!
  • I’ll earn 5 million!
  • I’ll be Mother Teresa and Gandhi rolled into one!
  • I’ll be a polyglot like Jose Rizal and be fluent in Russian, German, Mandarin, Esperanto, Arabic, and C++!

The problem with vague resolutions is that their their definition is so nebulous that it’s impossible to know whether you’ve succeeded or failed. Big resolutions on the other hand, are so daunting that the first obstacles you’re going to face easily turn into massive signs of discouragement and despair.

So here comes New Day’s Resolution. A New Day’s Resolution is a resolution that you make each day (duh). As in, spend two or three minutes each morning contemplating about what you want to do better – not this year, this month, or this week, but today.

Why today? Because, generally speaking:

  • Today is right in front of you. While you’re not exactly sure what you’re going to be doing next year, or even a week from now, on most days you have a good idea of what’s going to happen for the next 24 hours. This makes your resolutions concrete, avoiding the trap of being vague.
  • Today is small. Our culture is obsessed with doing big spectacular things, but in this case, smallness is a virtue. The bite-sized (or fun-sized, as American snack food marketers are fond of calling it) servings of Today forces you to think small, allowing you to focus on things that are doable.

Having made your New Day’s resolutions, you now have goals that are both measurable and manageable. Let’s see what examples we can come up with for today:

  • I’ll complete Sections 3.1 and 3.2 of the design document assigned to me by lunch
  • I will skip the big ice cream dessert after lunch
  • I will save 80 pesos by skipping the Starbucks and get a McDonalds Coffee instead before I get back to office
  • I will greet the annoying girl in the office when she comes in for her late afternoon shift
  • I will complete the German Dative Pronouns lesson on Duolingo this evening

See? Now that’s clear and at the same time not so daunting. Another nice thing about that list is that when (not if) you fail – I’d say complete my New Day’s resolutions about 50% of the time on a good day – you can try again tomorrow, not next year.

At the end of the day, take another 2-3 minutes to contemplate your day with respect to your resolutions. Ask three questions:

  • Where have I succeeded? (I turned in my entire assignment before lunch! And I also learned the Genitive pronouns!)
  • Where did I fail? (I didn’t ice cream but had a big chocolate cake instead, and I actually bought a Frappe which cost me more money than usual!)
  • What could I have done better? (I did greet my officemate today, but only half-heartedly and I ignored her for the rest of the afternoon)

This whole thing is not a new idea, by the way. In Catholic spirituality, the exercise is called the Examination of Conscience. I’m sure other religions have their own variation. In any case, the key is taking baby steps. Who knows – they might turn into good habits in the long run!

Now go start becoming a better person, one day at a time!

The Mythical Friendzone

Recently, friends (both male and female) have come to me for relationship advice, for only God knows why, and this has become one hot topic. I have to say I hate the word “friendzone” and I think it shouldn’t exist, which is why I put the word in scare quotes throughout the whole post. Considering that it’s been a recurring topic and I’ve had to explain this many times, to multiple people, I thought I’d finally write about it.  So anyway, let’s begin with the typical recipe for being in the “friendzone”:

  1. Boy likes girl.
  2. Girl doesn’t like boy, but doesn’t get repelled by him enough to avoid him altogether.
  3. Boy does favors and other nice stuff for girl “as a friend” in the (false) hopes of eventually winning her affections.
  4. Girl is completely oblivious to what’s happening, or worse, is aware of it and taking advantage.

I understand why the term “friendzone” arose in the first place. In a “friendzone”, two people see each other a lot, which is usually a sign that there’s a friendship between them. Then, there’s the infamous line used by girls to turn down guys that they’re not romantically interested in: “Let’s just be friends.” However, the term is problematic; the above scenario, upon deeper inspection, cannot be called a friendship.

To begin with, do you think the guy there will continue being “friends” with the girl if he had a crystal ball which will definitively tell him that they’ll never be romantically involved? Nuh-uh, you say? Well there’s the problem! True friendships are unconditional, arising out of mutual interest, self-giving, and genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. A friendship that’s only contingent upon future romantic prospects is not a friendship.

It’s a toxic relationship, perhaps even an addiction, where the guy uses the girl and her company to engage in some fantasy he think will fulfill a romantic vacuum in his heart; though whatever it is, you can’t call it a friendship. This is why I object to the term “friendzone”; Ang magkaibigan, hindi nagga-gamitan!

Aren’t friendships meant for joyful company? Then why are guys who are supposedly in it embittered and lonely? Maybe we should call it “bitterzone” or “martyrzone” instead.

That all sounds pretty straightforward, but as with all matters of the heart, it ain’t so easy to deal with in practice. In this regard getting out of the “friendzone” is just like losing weight – everyone knows what’s causing it, but everyone finds it hard to deal with. Except that I don’t hear too many songs about diet and exercise.

Doo-doo-doo doo-doo-doo doo-doo-doo doo-doo doo… andiyan ka nanaman, tinutukso-tukso ang aking puuusoooo…. Ilang ulit na bang iniiwasan ka, di na natuuutoooo?

If you’re a guy, and you think you’ve been “friendzoned”, then you have to step back and ask yourself some hard questions. Is the friendship genuine? Do you really enjoy her company for real and not just because you’ll stick around because perhaps she’ll be yours? You mean, it’s perfectly fine if she entertains other guys or even has her own boyfriend? Do you treat her the same as your other female friends, not putting her on a pedestal? Are you content of your singleness and open to being romantically involved with someone else?

If you answer “no” to any one of the questions above, it’s time to stop the pretensions and shed your false sense of martyrdom. Just stop it. Stop seeing the girl. You’re not friends, you’re just using her. Does that sound extreme? Well, if you’re fond of chocolate cake and are currently dieting, do you think it’s a good idea to visit a pastry shop, buy a chocolate cake and store it in your fridge? But you’ll never eat it you say? Bwahahahaha. Really, dude, for your own sake, stop; the sooner you stop, the sooner you move on.

If you’re a girl and you’re reading this, all I can say is, please be careful with saying “let’s just be friends”. I know why you say it, you don’t want to hurt his feelings. But it doesn’t work – we’re guys, and we’re very literal and interpret things straight into verbal loopholes and way past them. If you know a guy who’s pursuing you romantically and you’re not interested, you need to be absolutely clear that there are no such prospects now or in the future. Maybe you’ll never see him again, or maybe you’ll become very good friends, either way it’s okay; mismatched expectations on the other hand are never okay and this is what you’re trying to avoid with this.

And finally, let’s stop using the term. The “friendzone” is a myth; there’s no friendship for people in that zone.

 “Muling bumabalik…”

Hold on… oh fudge! Now the song’s stuck in my head…!

“nandiyan ka nanaman… tinutukso-tukso… di ‘nako natuutooo…”

Brains Work, Gray Hair Work

Does the work that you do exercise your brain or are you selling yourself based on gray hair?

The metaphor was originally coined by David Maister, but I first saw it in Alan Cooper’s book, “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity”. He uses the imagery as a way to illustrate how companies spiral to death through the transition from selling expertise to selling experience.

Imagine you’ve started a consultancy business. At first, you have no experience with the required task, so you have to sell to clients on brains, or how clever you are at solving original problems. This is hard, because it represents a risk to the client by trusting you with something they’ve not yet see you accomplish. Selling gray hair is much easier, since you are attracting new clients based on things that you could demonstrate to have done. As you gain more experience, you find it much easier to gain more clients and thus make more money easier than ever before. However, this will ultimately lead to the demise of your business. As Cooper puts it:

As your business gradually shifts from a brains business to a gray-hair business, the very qualities that make you valuable as a consultant begin to wane. You fall off the cutting edge. The service you offer is not one of brilliant problem solving, but one of pedestrian task execution. Your desirability as a consultant shrinks, and your own clients begin assigning you ever-more-demeaning, low-level tasks. They begin to court other consultants who are farther out on the cutting edge—those who use their brains more.

I managed to observe the brains – gray hair transition at the smallest level through an open-source side project. My client assigns small tasks with a typical budget of 30 minutes. The overall pay for each completed ticket, of course, is my hourly rate multiplied by the task budget. Overall, most of the tasks are minimal and scope and the 30 minute budget to be mostly fair. Time is not tracked for this project, meaning, regardless of the time it actually took to work on the task, the budget that will be paid for is exactly the posted budget (with a small leeway for negotiation).

I got on board this project by answering a programming-related question that was posted by the client. He said he liked my answers and would like to try and begin working with me, which I’d like to think is an indication that he thought I was smart. When I first started out with this project, I was unfamiliar with their tools and processes and it took me more than three hours to complete my first ticket, which had a 30 minute budget. I did get paid for it, which was a delight, but it seemed like a bad deal at first given the amount of time I spent working. Even then, I persevered, and after turning in a couple more tickets I found that the time I worked on the task started getting close to the task’s actual budget until I actually started completing them faster than the allotted time.

In the beginning, my client hired me because of my brains, and although I was capable of doing the assigned tasks, the time that it required me to think through them meant that I was slow. Being slow also meant that the money wasn’t too easy, time-wise. As I got familiar with the work and was assigned more, largely similar tasks, I applied less raw thinking (brains) and more previous experience (gray hair). I blew through the gray hair tasks rather quickly, which meant that I can get money from them quickly, too.

Soon after I was accepted on their team, my client contacted me to ask whether I’d like to work on a different project, which started the brains-gray hair cycle all over again. I’m fortunate to work with their team, since their work is diverse enough that I get a brains task every now and then in between completing gray hair work.

The easy-money allure of gray hair projects is not at all hard to understand. Quick cash is a whole lot of fun, at least in the beginning. However, there is a dark side to these projects, at least if you work at them to the exclusion of brains projects. The long-term effects on your clients have been described by Cooper, but it begins on a personal level, when it starts to get boring. And when you’re bored, you have no incentive to improve. You take shortcuts – anyway, you’ve done this a zillion times and what’s the difference now? When you take shortcuts, sooner or later, you make mistakes. And your customers may notice. Next thing you know, a new “brain” comes around, with cheaper rates and more up-to-date technology and practices, drawing projects away from you and towards themselves. You become a dinosaur.

In the IT field, it does not take very long to become a dinosaur. When I first started working, I met people who just turned in their resignations after two or three years of tenure. When I asked why they were moving on, some of them mentioned that they were bored. At the time, I didn’t understand what that could have meant, but now, I do. It meant to them that they’ve been working on gray hair projects for a while and have gotten weary of it. Brains projects are hard, but completing such work elicits that “Woohoo, I totally rock!!!” feeling when you finally deliver; the one that you get as if you’ve delivered first-ever project. Of course, your first project was quite necessarily a brains project.

I am not disparaging gray hair projects or working to earn money in any way. Unless you’re part of some off-the-grid community (and if you’re reading this, that means you aren’t), you’re going need some money. Boring, gray-hair projects are just a fact-of-life, since most of our real-world problems just aren’t that original. Statistically, 90% of IT work involves maintenance.  However, there has to be a crucial balance where you’d take the opportunity to work on that critical 10% to broaden your knowledge and sharpen your thinking.

If you’re a manager of an IT organization, you have to think about the projects that your people are working on, too. Are you assigning all your most difficult and urgent tasks just to one or two people? Maybe it would help if the more junior guys can work on them once in a while. Yes, it’s a big risk, but how else will they learn your systems? Your superstars might be getting weary of those tasks too; they used to welcome such tasks as “new challenges that I’m very ready to solve” and now consider them as “old frustrations that we’ll have to fix again three months from now.” And who’ll do the work when (not if) your stars finally quit?

It’s alarming how many organizations unthinkingly but blatantly advertise that they work on nothing but gray hair projects. A common way to phrase a qualification is as follows: “5 years of experience in Spring Framework”. Say what? Spring has gone through two major releases in the previous five years, and they’re one of the more mature products out there. New technologies come in a span of months or even weeks; five years is a very long time in IT. In my own observation, the best brains in the business can get up to speed with a new tool in a couple of weeks, and be very competent (if not exactly expert) within six months.

For the most part, the IT industry proudly proclaims success through brains – the overuse of that buzzword “innovation” a particularly egregious symptom – but finds itself to be truly obsessed with gray hair when nobody’s looking. We should start walking the walk. Although the book speaks about IT organizations, I believe we can apply the same principles at the individual level. If you’re an IT professional – whatever you’re role – you, or rather we, should take some time to stop and think: are we, through our individual contributions, moving the industry forward, or are we in it just because it’s lucrative?

Is our work merely a means to make money, or are we seeing it as an opportunity to flourish?

On Time Management

One evening, a couple of friends asked me: “Carlos, you have a full-time job, a part-time job, and on top of that, are enrolled in graduate school part-time. And you’ve revived your blog! What’s your secret to managing your time?” I replied by saying, “I just took on more things and everything fell into place.” They responded by looking at me funny and saying “What witchcraft is this?!!”

Parkinson’s Law, in brief, states that work expands to fill the available time, so the idea is that the more work you take on, the better the utilization of your time becomes. Obviously though, this only works up to a point, since there are only 24 hours in a day. You can’t keep on piling on more work and expect everything to fall into place, as any IT professional who’s ever worked on a “death march” project (i.e. all of them) can attest to!

There isn’t actually any secret formula for any of this. Now that I think about it, my initial answer stems mainly from that fact that I mostly didn’t notice many of the time management habits that I’ve picked up over a long period of time. After all, I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I’ll pick up two jobs and attend grad school all at the same time, that is a shift took three years.

One thing is for sure, Parkinson’s Law is certainly true to some extent. When you have a huge surplus of time, you feel like someone who just won the time lottery and can choose to spend whatever time you have frivolously with little consequence. Which is not true, of course; lottery winners are infamous for quickly burning through their savings and taking on debt that they end up bankrupt. Good time management, like good money management, is not something that you just switch on and off, but a skill that you slowly acquire through practice over a long period of time.

We often say that time is money, and in a way, time management is really much like money management. The crucial difference is that everyone has 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, and so on and so forth. You cannot “save” time except insofar as you make your utilization of time more efficient. You certainly cannot borrow time, much to the detriment of the novice IT manager who attempts to get into “schedule debt” in responding to a schedule slippage by rushing downstream activities.

One crucial area where time and money come together is with the principle “save and invest, early and often”.  In the case of time management in general, do everything that you have to do as early as you can do it. Advance work pays huge dividends. As the old cliché goes, putting something off for tomorrow is the same as not doing it at all. Do the work of today for today, so that you’ll have time to do the work of tomorrow. I’ve often regretted procrastinating, but I’ve almost never regretted doing something in advance, even those things that I didn’t enjoy or didn’t pay off. At least for the latter, I knew in advance what activities weren’t enjoyable or worthwhile, which saves me time later on knowing not to do them again.

When I think about time management, I look back to my undergraduate days and realize just how much of a surplus of time I had back then, even though every single deadline felt near and urgent. So what did I fill my hours with during the time? I can identify a few: video games, computer tweaking, TV series marathons. These are activities that I spent much of my time, usually with friends, sometimes alone. I found that as time went by and I spent more time doing “more important” work, these activities were reduced, up to the point where I dropped them altogether. Nowadays, the TV I watch is restricted to just one program and one sport series. I’ve been playing the same videogame for the past two years, and even that I haven’t touched in months due to grad school! As for my computer hobby, I used to obsessively read tech sites, but at the moment I only research about the latest tech when something breaks and forces me to upgrade.

I’m not saying that any of those things are in and of themselves, bad things. But I’ve consciously pushed back on them to make way for what I perceive are now the more important things. Time management, like money management, is personal, and one person’s frivolous activity is a “can’t-live-without” for a completely different person. What’s important is that one’s utilizing time in a conscious manner, and not lazily falling into random activities by default. In personal finance, the latter is called “impulse buying” and is how one can easily spend money on stuff that one does not need.

I’m not about to turn this blog into a huge repository of time management tips. Specific advice works differently for different types of people, and there are enough books, blogs and seminars on this topic that I do not feel like reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

However, I’d like to end with one piece of concrete advice: take things in baby steps. Don’t try to change your whole schedule in one go. Find one activity to cut back on while finding another to increase, and try it out for a period of time. The idea is that habits are formed over a period of time, and humans are creatures of habit. Ever seen a crash dieter fast for a week, after which he suddenly binges, undoing all his gains? It’s the same deal if you try to do it all at once. Like all things worthwhile, time management takes time and effort to do right – there are no shortcuts.

Practice Your Writing! (An open letter to my 14-year-old self)

This post is dedicated to my mother, for whom writing is a favorite hobby.

Dear Carlos of 2002,

You know those GameFAQs articles that you spend many hours writing and editing? Keep it up, yeah, seriously. Video game guides? I know it seems like some juvenile waste of time; honestly I haven’t even played video games in over a year. I know for a fact that you’re wasting huge amounts of time on different things right now, but working on those articles and reviews are not one of them. This stuff you’re doing is providing you with some very needed advance practice in a skill that’s going to become very crucial to you in a few years: writing.

Now that’s probably gotten you thinking a little. “What’s this guy talking about? Am I gonna be a journalist?” Nope, I know you’re not fond of that. “I’m gonna be a novelist or a poet then?” Get real; you are the least artistic person that I know. Actually, you’re going to be making software for a living, which isn’t so surprising given your penchant for tweaking the computer.

I know that you find this newfangled thing called the Internet is just amazing. People from across the world read your guides and they can communicate to you – also by writing. You know what? While you’re writing strategy guides for random gamers across the world, corporations are also taking notice of this Internet thing and are starting to give people across the world a lot of real work for real money. Software development is one kind of work that they’ll be expanding with this Internet thing. Like I said, you’re going get into that, and you’ll need to write well or your customers and colleagues will simply not understand you. You’ll be exchanging a lot of written communication with people across the world. Better get used to it.

There is another excellent benefit of practicing writing. You know how you have a lot of ideas in your head, and then you try to put it on paper, when suddenly you’re stuck? You’re unable to start off, or maybe you could but after a sentence or two you have no idea how to continue? I know you very well, because… well you’re me, duh. And you constantly have a lot of thoughts going in your head. You fancy yourself as an intelligent guy, but all those smarts are for naught if those ideas just stay in your head. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts in a cohesive manner so that other people can understand you. Also, writing makes you realize that some of your ideas are just downright silly, though they seemed brilliant when you were thinking about them.

This funny side effect of writing being a way to organize your thoughts is more important than you imagine. Software development involves a lot of programming. It’s like writing, in a way, except you’re trying to talk the computer into doing something. Now technical people aren’t known for their mad writing skills, but that’s no excuse for you to get rusty. You see, I noticed that the better a person writes in his emails, the better his code tends to look like as well. Writing practice is preparing you to become a better professional in more ways than you imagine.

One more thing. Ten years from now you’d be entering grad school. There you’re going to write, write, write, write some more, and write even more for good measure. Right now in high school, when you’re given a writing assignment, you tend to be struggling to put in anything at all and you’d do anything to lengthen your essays. In grad school, you’d have the opposite problem. Your professors will assign 30-page research papers for you to synthesize and summarize, and they’ll give you 1000 words to do it. And when you get to the point where you’ll actually be doing the research, space will continue to be a premium. This is another instance where the thought-organizing practice involved in writing becomes very important.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize how valuable a skill writing really is. I had the idea of writing to you as I stumbled upon that old GameFAQs profile page. Frankly, some of that stuff over there isn’t very good. But hey, you gotta start somewhere, and if not for that, my writing would still be terrible now. Thanks for all the writing practice, you don’t realize it but you’re doing me a huge favor. Your mother would be proud about it, too.

-Carlos of 2013

On Frugality

If there is an adjective to describe me that most of my friends can agree upon, it’s “frugal”. I’m frugal to the point of notoriety in fact; it’s almost unthinkable that I could mindlessly spend money on a regular basis. I wasn’t born with it, however, and frugality is in fact one of thing that I started to appreciate in my late teens and early 20’s.

Back in high school, online games started becoming mainstream and I found myself addicted to Ragnarok Online. At that time, you could buy a 100 peso reload to play for a week, or 350 pesos to play for a month – not a trivial amount for a high school kid living on an allowance. At some point, I managed to accumulate a stack of used prepaid cards (mostly 100 peso reloads) that reached about an inch thick, indicating that over time I’ve spent a large amount of money to feed my online gaming addiction.

Then one fateful moment came when my game credits expired, which meant I had to go out and buy more of them. The internet cafe nearby was closed, since it was Christmas vacation and there were no classes. It was closed for the next day, and again the day after. It started to become frustrating, but then I saw the lone, crisp 500 peso bill in my wallet, completely untouched. It then dawned on me that I really didn’t miss Ragnarok Online that much, and I particularly liked the idea of having 350 pesos more to spend on other things that I would have otherwise spent for a month’s worth of play time.

At that moment I decided to quit Ragnarok Online cold turkey, a milestone that marked my adoption of a more frugal lifestyle.

Frugality is not widely perceived to be a particularly cool thing, but rather an old fashioned, boring, or even miserable practice. The culture at large sends us messages that having more, bigger, newer Stuff means More Fun. I therefore recognize that even as I write this apologia for frugality, it is something that’s inherently hard to “sell”, as selling something almost necessarily entails an upgrade of some sort for the one you’re trying to sell to.

Let us make a much-needed distinction between frugality, and its evil cousin, stinginess. Being frugal is almost universally associated with being stingy but they are not the same thing. Merriam-Webster defines frugal as “careful about spending money or using things when you do not need to”, “using money or supplies in a very careful way”, and “simple and plain”. Stingy is defined “as not liking or wanting to give or spend money” and “not generous”. Frugality, in essence, is about being mindful of how you allocate your resources. It is definitely not about obsessively worrying over spending that 25 centavo coin in your wallet.

Frugality is not merely a money-saving tactic, nor is it something that’s reserved for poor people. The Millionaire Next Door, a book written by Thomas Stanley and William Danko, describes the typical American millionaire. The popular perception is that millionaires live extremely luxurious lifestyles. However, this book destroys that myth by showing concrete data indicating that most millionaires live relatively modest middle-class lifestyles. The average millionaire drives a Toyota, not a Mercedes, and they have rather ordinary jobs as small business owners or even teachers. The Millionaires’ BMW-driving, designer-brand wearing, McMansion-owning neighbors, in fact, tended to have lower net worth and had a lot of debt; they were one job loss, accident, or major illness away from bankruptcy taking their luxurious lifestyles taken away from them.

The average “Millionaire Next Door” actually became a millionaire due to his frugality, and remains a millionaire due to the same. For myself, I consider wealth accumulation as only a side effect of frugality. The real reward of frugality is peace of mind. Living simply not only allows you to save for the future, but also gives you much more flexibility in making major life decisions. Want to quit your job because of your mean, overbearing boss? Start a new business? Retire early? Make a career shift? If you’ve been living frugally, these decisions would be much easier, as not only will you probably have a large amount of savings, the necessary sacrifices involved in cutting back would be much less painful.

Being frugal does not exclude the occasional splurge. In fact, frugality simply entails a mindfulness of how one’s resources are spent. For example, I’m not an audiophile, so my car’s sound system remains stock, but I do care about its performance and longevity, which is why I use more expensive synthetic oil. A frugal person recognizes that money is simply a tool to achieve other things, and that the end goal isn’t just to accumulate more of it. A frugal person minimizes the things that one does not particularly care about, while at the same time maximizing those that one does. You can still be frugal even while spending (e.g. investing in a solar water heater), just as you can still be wasteful even while “saving” (e.g. buying stuff you don’t need just because it’s on sale).

Frugality is in fact a way of life. A frugal person seeks to avoid waste, even in instances where he is not paying for it. Do you take an indiscriminate amount of napkins at a restaurant, just because it’s free, or do you just take what you can use? Frugality, like all other virtues, is something that you do even if it does not benefit you and no one is looking.

Having said all of that, frugality does not really rank high in the list of virtues. I would put two virtues in particular before frugality: prudence, the practice of good, disciplined reason, and temperance, moderation in thought, action, and feeling. It is these latter two virtues that we need to cultivate; frugality will naturally follow.

The Quarter-Life Crisis

To mark my (nearly) 25 years of existence, I’ve resurrected this blog with a post about one of the things I’m grateful to have learned in my 20’s. I’m hoping to add more posts and turn “Things I’ve Learned in my 20’s” into an entire series of articles. Enjoy!

Ah, the quarter-life crisis. That stage where a young adult, somewhere in his mid-20’s, suddenly feels the urgency to achieve something and feels somewhat guilty for at least not currently working towards that something, and yet still doesn’t quite know that something that he wants to achieve.

The following is the most surprising set of words that has been addressed to me in recent memory:

“I envy you. You have definite goals. You know what you want.”

It’s surprising because I’m about to turn 25, exactly that age where the quarter-life crisis tends to set in or even peak among people. It’s surprising because yes, I do know what I want, and I have an idea of where I’m headed towards.

Well, sort of.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that I’ve found the question “What will you be doing five years from now?” rather annoying and difficult to answer ever since it’s been first asked in high school. “I totally haven’t got a clue” is the answer. Heck, 23-year-old me will be hugely shocked if 24-turning-25-year-old me told him that he’d eventually be in grad school trying to get into a research program while teaching technical courses on the side!

Going by my own history so far, predicting my own future would be even less accurate than predicting the weather or the performance of the stock market. I couldn’t even figure out what I’ll be doing a year and a bit from now, much less five years!

I’m not saying that I’ve been wandering the previous 24 years completely directionless. The view of the road, however, is not a straight path that’s clear for miles around, but a winding, foggy mountain road. Life is in fact very chaotic. The mind constantly tries to tidy up our life stories as if it were a linear progression of events which I’ve had much control over when in fact I’ve acted mostly according to the surrounding circumstances.

For instance, I didn’t originally envision myself being in the IT industry. Back in 2005, I’ve imagined myself as being a crack hardware designer for a worldwide electronics company like Intel. The 2008 economic crunch came and saw Intel close shop locally and other companies scale down their operations. By the time I graduated in 2010, I was given an opportunity to enter the IT industry as a software developer. I knew how to program and knew I could do it competently, but I never imagined that I’d enjoy software as much as I do now.

Truth be told, I don’t have a grand plan for my own life. What I have learned is that one should always have a Plan A at all times. Life will not always go according to Plan A, and when the inevitable happens that Plan A becomes nonviable or some alternate path becomes more enticing, it should be promoted to Plan A.

On the one hand, having a Grand Plan and attempting to stick to it is a likely path to disappointment. You can’t really plan to be CEO of a multi-billion dollar company or a top world athlete – the statistics are simply against you there. All worldly measures of achievement, all corporate ladders and sports rankings are artificial; you must find a goal that is meaningful to you and not someone else.

On the other hand, one should never settle for a Plan B. All Plan Bs exist as potential Plan As. No matter what you are doing – even if it was not something that you originally planned to be doing – deserves your best effort. One should always pursue the good. Good work is something that must be pursued for its own sake, not merely because it gets you fame, money, power or women. Don’t pursue something for the wrong reasons.

When one pursues what is good, all else will follow. A lot of the time, saving the world entails cleaning the dishes. Much of “good work” is tedious and boring, but necessary for excellence. One cannot tackle the big things if one cannot tackle the little things. Effort is necessary.

What is a quarter-life crisis if not the question “are we there yet?” nagging a young adult’s mind? Long journeys are difficult and uncertain. You do not set out unprepared, and often one needs certain help along the way. There will be detours, there will be roadblocks, and there will be times where you’ll doubt yourself as to whether the journey should have been made in the first place. As you carry on, you’ll feel tired as the days go by with you doing the same exhausting routine. Patience is necessary.

Along the way, one will also meet new people and enjoy new experiences. Certainly, there are times where one simply enjoys the passing views. Soon enough – or it may be a long time – continuation means that the destination becomes closer, day by day. One day you’ll find that it all has paid off, and that you’ve made it. And then the last necessary thing will be gratitude.

There really is no cure for the so-called “quarter-life crisis”. You can choose to avoid it, or you can choose to address it. I prefer the latter; it can be quite daunting, but it makes you a better person in the end.

Work, Money, and Luck

“Don’t work for money, make money work for you.”

The phrase is now a cliché, being touted by many business and investment authors nowadays. I don’t think it’s a very useful phrase. I say that because I believe it’s a politician’s type of phrase– it sounds convincing, yet doesn’t actually mean much.

The fact that money does appear to make more money is perhaps the reason why the phrase keeps getting repeated. An investor uses his millions in order to start up or buy out a profitable business venture. We see Warren Buffet and Henry Sy build and buy things left and right, and profit from their investments hugely. I don’t even need to be a businessman to “make money work.” If I had, say, ten million pesos, I can deposit it in a savings account that makes a plausible 3% p.a. and retire while being able to comfortably sustain my current lifestyle!

“What’s the fuss, then, Carlos? You just contradicted yourself by demonstrating that you can make your money work for you!” Well let me explain, starting off by defining what money is using some senior-year high school economics.

Imagine the following situation: The tailor needs a computer program to automate the inventory tracking of his rapidly expanding business. The baker needs a new suit to replace his old, worn out one. I’m a hungry computer programmer and I need some bread to eat. Now, while my work is of no good and no use to the baker, it’s very good and useful to the tailor. The tailor pays me a fair amount for my work. I can now go to the baker and pay him for the bread he bakes. Likewise the baker can now go to the tailor and pay for the suits that the tailor makes.

Money, according to my high school economics, is a medium of exchange. In the above exchange, the three persons “rate” the usefulness of another’s work by giving an amount proportionate to how good and useful the work was (i.e. a fair price). Money, in other words, is nothing but a measurement of good and useful work done. In short, money equals work.

Applying this equation to that clichéd phrase above yields us the following: “Don’t work for work, make work work for you.” It’s nonsense circular logic, a politician’s phrase indeed.

“Well hang on a minute there, Carlos! Those rich guys still use money to make lots more money!” You bet they do. It still isn’t because money works, but because work works. What I mean to say that good work builds upon previous good work.

Does a successful pianist begin his life’s work by playing Mozart when he first sat at a piano? Does a genius programmer start off by writing an operating system from scratch? Does a brilliant racing driver kick off by doing Scandinavian flicks in the family van? No, no, and no. Pianists begin their careers with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, programmers by displaying “Hello world!” on the screen, and drivers by moving the van up and down the driveway.

Behind every success story of any sort is someone beginning from scratch and going through the long process of acquiring the fundamentals. The middle of the road is filled with many false starts and failed attempts. During their careers, the pianist will have missed many notes, the programmer will have made many bugs, and the driver will have missed many gearchanges. For every successful business venture, nine fail. Getting to the top necessitates the courage to take risks and persevering in hard work. There is that word again, work.

Given that everybody must start from scratch and that good work builds upon previous good work, it means that everyone needs outside help to begin. This is what most people will call luck. The pianist might have had the best teacher in the world. The programmer’s parents may have given him a computer when he was four years old. The racing driver might have had a generous sponsor during his beginning days. However, it’s still up to them to work to make the best of what they had. Success is the individual’s responsibility.

Nobody else demonstrates the myths of both “money working for you” and “lucky breaks” than those people who have both lots of money and lots of luck: lottery winners and inheritors of large estates. They have enough luck to have lots of money such that it can “work for them”. Despite this fact, these people are actually more likely to go bankrupt than the population at large!

Why?!

It’s simple, really. Often lottery winners and inheritors of large estates never had the foundation of hard work and lacked the required knowledge and skill to handle their money. If I was given Michael Schumacher’s championship winning car, would I start winning Formula One championships? Probably not, there’s a better chance that I’d just crash out.

There’s no easy way to get to the top. All legitimate paths to success require work, even if you’ve had luck on your side. According to Louis Pasteur, luck favours the prepared, preparation which requires work.

Mind you, I said there’s no easy legitimate path to success.

There is one way I could get to the top without having to work myself. If I want a television, and I don’t want to code my arse off in order to earn money to buy one, I can break into someone’s house and steal his television.  That’s the only way to be successful without working – by lying, cheating, and stealing your way out of the work and success of others. That’s how Bernie Madoff became successful, after all. And yet, even the journey through the non-legitimate path reflects one fundamental truth:  Success builds upon previous good work! (I’m starting to sound like a broken record here)

So where do we start if we wish to be successful? We keep making sure we do good work, and any good work we do, we try to do better. Bad work is worse than no work, for you have to undo bad work and redo it in the correct manner (an effort twice wasted). Good work is learned through work. You learn from successes (what you know to be good work, and need to repeat), and from failures (what you know to be bad work, and need to avoid). You can learn both from your own personal experience, and from the experiences of others (books and other sources).

“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” –Benjamin Franklin

In summary:

  • Money is (ideally) a representation of good, honest, and helpful work-nothing more and nothing less. You don’t really work for money and neither does your money work for you. You just work.
  • Good work must build upon the fruit of previous good work, just like a good tree can only grow as a result of the fruit of a previous good tree. Man can create something out of anything, but only God can create something out of nothing.
  • Everyone starts from scratch, which means one has to receive external assistance (e.g. from parents, mentors, investors, etc.) in order to begin. This is commonly called luck. It’s the only significant role that luck plays in the success equation.
  • The only way for you to have something without working for it is to lie, cheat, or steal from someone else. There are no legitimate shortcuts to success.

Fixing a wall clock

Just when I had some downtime in the office that allowed me to take a few days of leave, everything around the house decided to break. It’s as if inanimate objects knew that I was going to take a short vacation and decided to break down all at the same time. At least I was around the house to do or oversee repairs.

One of the items that went on strike during my vacation was the wall clock. It’s a simple battery operated quartz clock that my mom bought just before we moved into our current home. While we could always replace the fourteen year old clock with one trip to the department store, we happened to like the way it looks. Add the fact that yours truly is a tinkerer at heart, I decided to try to bring it back to life.

The job is made easy by that marvel of the industrial age called mass production. You see, while there are many different kinds of clocks out there, the quartz movements that make them tick (literally) are standard commodity parts. That means it’s as easy as taking out the broken quartz movement and replacing it with a working one.

Here is a step-by-step procedure on how it’s done. It’ll take around 15-20 minutes:

  1. Find a suitable movement.

    I know I just said that clock movements are standardized, but they aren’t all the same. There are, for example, different spindle lenghts for different applications. Also, a desk clock movement may not have enough torque to turn a wall clock’s hands. Make sure you get the correct one for your clock.

    Possible sources include hobby and specialty shops, or ordering online. You can also take the movement from another clock. Ideal donors would be those free corporate and political campaign giveaway clocks. Another potential donor would be that crappy novelty clock your friend gave you for Christmas.

    Since I didn’t have any working unwanted clocks at hand, and no nearby shops are selling any standalone quartz movements, I decided to avail myself of an el-cheapo Fabrique en Chine plastic wall clock. Total cost was PhP150, or around US$3.50. Not bad, I think. Thanks, Globalization!

    Donor clock, left; recipient clock, right

  2. Take your clock apart:
    • Undo any screws or clips in order to get access to the clock’s face

      Take out these screws

      Remove the frame and the glass cover

    • Pull the hands off the spindle. You can use needlenose pliers for this procedure. Take care not to get them bent.

      Remove the hands from the clock face

    • Undo the nut and washer that holds the movement against the face.

      Unscrew this nut

    • Take the old movement out. It may be held in place by something in the back in addition to the nut we just removed. Our wall clock had clips, the el-cheapo donor clock had it glued to the back.

      Pry the old movement out

  3. If you’re using a movement from another clock, obviously you have to take that apart as well in order and get its working movement.
  4. (Optional) Make some instant noodles. Consume entirely before continuing.

    Mmmmmm...!

  5. Reassemble the clock with the new, working quartz movement. Perform the disassembly steps in reverse. This will be a good time to clean the inside of the clock face.

    Front: New movement (left) vs. old movement (right)

    Back: New movement (left) vs. old movement (right)

    Perfect match!

    TIP: Install the hour and minute hands on the 12 o’clock position to ensure that they are aligned correctly. Try moving the hands by turning the wheel at the back of the movement used to set the time to make sure that the hour and minute hands don’t collde when they go on top of each other.

  6. Replace the battery and check if your clock works post-transplant.
  7. Set the time.
  8. Arrive to work on time after your (short) vacation is over!

My clock has been ticking away with its new heart for a couple of hours now, and so far it’s kept good track of the time. Of course, given that I got an entirely new wall clock for very little, you might decide to simply replace your broken one altogether. Should you want to keep your clock for any reason, this procedure is an easy way of extending its life.

Hey, hang on a minute… remember back in kindergarten where you drew clock faces on paper plates using crayons? You can install a quartz movement on that, too! With some reinforcement on the cardboard so it wouldn’t fall apart when you hang it or prop it up with a stand, you can turn it into an actual working clock. Now that would be brilliant!

P.S. As I have said, I’m a tinkerer as well as a thinker. Expect more DIY to-do posts! 🙂