field notes

21 pieces of unsolicited advice nobody else is willing to tell you

On New Year’s Day I happened to read this lovely blog post 100 Tips For A Better Life (which is not at all as generic as the title makes it sound) while having my first coffee of the year; and I thought—short pieces of advice without too much exposition, I could do that.. and I should do that, as an exercise in deviating from my default of extreme long-windedness.

By no means do I feel at all qualified to be handing out advice; but I don’t think that matters too much in the end. Good advice resonates with you in the moment when you most need it.

Hence: 21 pieces of advice to kick off 2021! Regarding the “nobody else is willing to tell you” part, I realized that’s the kind of advice I felt most compelled to include. So I’ve excluded things that everyone else would also tell you to do (exercise, get enough sleep, etc etc.); and I’ve focused on things I would love to tell the people I care about, but which may sound too harsh for me to feel comfortable telling them directly. So instead, I can just post them on my blog and feel like I’ve done my duty. It means I care about you, reader.

On living with yourself:

  1. You are not special. Until you’ve proven otherwise, assume you are not an exception to the rule or to the statistics. Your predictions about yourself will be more accurate this way.

  2. Nobody is paying any attention to you. When you realize that this is great news, the rest of your life can truly begin.

  3. When deciding what to do or not do, take into account the risk and the opportunity cost of doing nothing—of staying passive, of putting off the decision. It’s easy to unconsciously write off “doing nothing” as the safest option, when in some scenarios it is by far the riskiest and/or the costliest.

  4. If you’re agonizing over whether to get into a given activity or skill or field, just commit to actually trying it out for 20 hours first. If you don’t have 20 hours, commit to 2 hours. It’s going to answer a lot of questions for you that just imagining doing it, or reading about doing it, could never answer.

  5. If you feel stuck or like you’ve hit a plateau in getting better at something, consider the possibility that you haven’t tried enough times, you haven’t memorized enough things, or you haven’t practiced enough: in other words, that you’re avoiding “the grind” that is necessary for the basic motions of the skill (including mental motions) to become automatic for you. Are you a savant at this skill? If not, then: yes, it’s going to be a grind, and yes, it’s necessary if you want to get good at it. In light of this, it’s totally okay if you decide that it’s not worth it and that this isn’t the thing you want to spend your time getting good at.

  6. There is much to be said for what you can accomplish in the margins and the scraps of time in between the biggest priorities in your life—the little pebbles and grains of sand that fill the space around the big rocks in your jar, to use someone else’s analogy. But if you really want to get serious with something, there comes a point when that thing needs to become one of the big rocks: it needs to be one of the things that you place first, and shift other stuff around.

  7. Know your energy patterns, and take full advantage of them. Going straight into a headwind all day in the name of “willpower” isn’t commendable, it’s inefficient.

  8. Pay special attention to the specific things you fantasize about—in terms of work, environment, who you picture being around you, etc. It can reveal endless insights to you about what’s actually important to you and what’s making you unhappy. Don’t blindly suppress your unrealistic fantasies, and don’t blindly indulge them either—examine them for clues.

  9. The way your life goes will be disproportionately determined by your making certain moves at certain timings that are specific to you. Sometimes the window of opportunity is only open for an instant. (But often, things come back around in slightly different forms.) So you should spend the vast majority of your time getting prepared to go all in at the right moment. How do you know it’s the right moment to go all in? That’s what the preparation is for.

  10. Superior self-awareness wins every game there is. It’s a skill that can be cultivated. Cultivating more self-awareness is always a good use of time.

On living (and working) with other people:

  1. How to upgrade your friends: Every time you become friends with someone who’s more awesome than most or all of your current friends, think of the caliber of this awesome friend as the new minimum for what you expect from all your friends. Repeat until all your closest friends are maximum awesome (which is when you can’t even picture how they could be any more awesome). (This is my implementation related to an idea that Naval Ravikant calls the “five chimps theory”: the idea that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.)

  2. Every area of a project that’s important should have a single decision owner. This makes it safe for anyone else to disagree on things as strongly as they want to, without it ever becoming unclear who makes the final call. Consensus is overrated. (If you want to get stuff done.)

  3. Any given thing is probably going to happen the way it has consistently happened in the past. I’m not talking about Black Swan events or financial markets here, but for example, your next project is likely to play out in the way that your previous similar projects have, as well as in the way that previous similar projects by other people have played out. (See #1: You are not special. And neither is this project.)

  4. An immediately handy use of #13: To estimate a project timeline, just take your best estimate and double it. Your best estimate probably doesn’t include any surprises, so if there are any surprises, you’ll be late. I know it feels like giving yourself too much time, but you might find that it’s still barely enough. Just try it. (A sort of counter-suggestion: To simplify a project down to the essentials, think about what it would take to deliver it in half the time of your best estimate. Just maybe don’t promise that to your boss or client.)

  5. The counter to #3 about the risk/cost of doing nothing: It happens surprisingly often that you can do nothing and other people will solve their own problems (or their problems will solve themselves). There are even times when your stepping in to solve a problem can make it worse. (I know, it stings to admit it. But it’s true.) Sometimes the most heroic thing you can do is to refrain from jumping in to save the day.

  6. There comes a point in every career ladder where, if you have to ask someone to explain to you how to get to the next level up, that means you’re not ready yet. What’s required is for you to learn to see for yourself what needs to be done, and get it done. If you find yourself complaining that you don’t understand what a [title above yours] even does, and no one seems willing to explain it to you, consider that the answer may be: “Yes. Exactly.”

  7. It’s entirely possible that no one will ever thank you for the things you do that end up having the most positive impact (or preventing the most negative impact). People may even blame you for some side effect of what you’ve done. You’ll be happier if you choose to do those things because they’re consistent with your value system (in other words, because you consider them the right thing to do)—and because you want the results—not because you need the credit. (Not to say that you shouldn’t communicate what you’ve done, when it counts.)

  8. People love to be asked to help with things, if it makes them feel included in something good. Especially when it’s low-risk and low-cost, ask someone to help do something with you—then trust them with the thing that you asked. They may go to great lengths for you and may even thank you for the opportunity. This is a very underrated way to bond with people.

  9. Believe in someone’s best self and you’ll see a little more of it. Believe in them fully, genuinely, unfailingly—more than they believe in themselves, if needed. There is absolutely no need to be stingy about this. (But pair this with the next point, #20.)

  10. Every minute of every day, you are constantly teaching people how you’d like to be treated. Stop taking shit from people and they’ll stop giving it to you. Bullshit, like any gift, can’t be transferred unless it is accepted by the recipient, not just offered. (But pair this with the previous point, #19.)

  11. We are all mostly small, scared animals that don’t want to be left to die alone. Don’t attribute to intent or rationality what can be attributed to the limbic system or conditioned behavior—in yourself, or in other people.

Did any of those points make you think of someone you know? Now instead of confronting them directly, you can send them this post, hoping that they’ll get the hint! Of course, what’s most likely to happen is that instead of applying these to their own life, they’ll immediately think of someone they know, and pass it on…

Here’s to 2021!



Further reading: For my favorite collection of no-nonsense life advice that nobody else is willing to tell you—one that has influenced me greatly—read The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, which you can download for free at the link.

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field notes

Ghost vs. Substack vs. others for starting a paid newsletter: why I chose Ghost, why you might not

A few weeks ago I launched my letter series nothing to say, which is functionally a paid email newsletter (if much more than that, in spirit!). When I was first looking into which platform or service to use for it, I assumed, like many people probably, that Substack was almost the only option for such a thing. But then when I tried to google something about Substack, I stumbled on Ghost (which means they’ve already done a good job with their SEO game!), and after considering the differences between the two, I ended up going with Ghost. This post goes over all the factors I considered in my decision.

TL;DR: If you’re not going to charge readers for your newsletter, or you’re not sure whether you will, probably go with Substack. If you are going to charge, either one may work. If you just want to write, and don’t want to have to think about anything else, consider Substack. If you want more control and flexibility, and to make more decisions, consider Ghost. There are arguments for both platforms, depending on what’s important to you. Read on.

For context, you might like to know that Substack launched in early 2018 out of Y Combinator and, as far as I’m aware, has pretty much been what it is now (“paid email newsletters”) from the start. Ghost launched around 2013 out of a Kickstarter campaign, and has been primarily a blogging platform, which more seriously ventured into paid newsletters around a year ago in fall 2019 with its launch of Ghost 3.0. One of its founders, John O’Nolan, came from WordPress.

Note: Ghost is actually two different “products”: Ghost(Pro), the hosted version, and self-hosted Ghost, in which you use their software but install and host it on your own server. (WordPress has the same hosted vs. self-hosted distinction.) I’m using Ghost(Pro), so the rest of this post will be referring to Ghost(Pro), but for short I will just call it “Ghost.” For more on self-hosted Ghost, see the section on Other options that weren’t seriously considered at the end of the post.

The factors I’m going to talk about are:

  • Pricing
  • Custom domain
  • Customization of your site
  • Prettiness
  • Discoverability
  • Feature development process
  • Source of company funding
  • Documentation and support
  • Company transparency

These are roughly in order of importance to me: potential dealbreakers first; nice-to-haves later on.

Pricing: Ghost and Substack use completely different pricing models.

Substack takes 10% commission on your earnings, with no minimum or base fee. That means if you run a free newsletter, Substack takes nothing so it’s free for you. Ghost charges a flat fee of $29/month (billed annually) or $36/month (billed monthly), at the time of this writing, whether your newsletter is free for readers or not—but no commission. So if you’re running a free newsletter, it’s quite a steep hosting fee when you don’t have any revenue coming in. However, Ghost’s flat fee (which increases after 1,000 subscribers but is still flat) means that as you have more paying subscribers, it’s a better and better deal compared to Substack.

At the price point of my newsletter, it would take just a few subscribers for Ghost to pay for itself, and it would take around 90-100 paying subscribers to become cheaper than Substack. Which I feel is feasible enough for me to shoot for in my first 6-12 months. As the subscriber numbers increase beyond that, Substack quickly becomes multiples more expensive than Ghost; we’re talking 10x the cost and beyond. So I’ll go with Ghost and see what the costs look like in a year or two.

Both platforms use Stripe for payments, with the same Stripe transaction fees: 2.9% plus $0.30 per transaction, at the time of writing. I believe that with Ghost, you can technically set up a different payment processor than Stripe (via integrations)—which also means Ghost is usable in more countries, where Stripe isn’t available—but I haven’t looked into it. I just use Stripe.

Conclusion: Substack’s pricing is better for just starting out and experimenting, but you probably don’t want to scale with it. Do the math before you choose.

Custom domain: Both platforms let you connect a custom domain, which has implications for SEO.

Ghost lets you connect a custom domain, included in the plan. Substack didn’t use to let you connect a custom domain at all, but now does, for a one-time fee of $50 (at the time of writing).

If you want to really build something lasting (a brand, a community), then you want your own domain. Because having your own domain communicates that intention to visitors, but more practically: because when you have your own domain, any SEO “equity” (ie. from links that point to your site, signaling to search engines that your site merits attention and improving your ranking) accrues directly to your site. But if you’re on yourname.substack.com then any links that point to your site are boosting Substack’s SEO, not yours.

It’s good that Substack decided to allow custom domains, but their resistance/hesitation to the concept (they only just started offering this in October 2020) signals to me some ambivalence about whether they want to encourage authors to own their own homestead, in a sense (more like WordPress), or instead encourage authors to “sharecrop” (more like Medium), where the platform gives you all these free tools and (maybe) some publicity/discoverability, but your writing benefits the platform at least as much as it benefits your own brand.

Conclusion: Both platforms offer the option to connect a custom domain, and you should use it!

Customization of your site: Neither Ghost nor Substack allows you to customize hardly anything about your site’s layout or look and feel without touching code. However, Ghost still has three big advantages here.

  1. Ghost allows you to swap out the theme for another one. Themes can be developed by third parties, so there are lots of them around, both free and paid. If you don’t need to change anything within your desired theme, you still don’t need to touch any code.

  2. Ghost allows you to add custom pages and custom links to the nav bar, so for example you could add pages for a bio, “how it works,” a contact page, an external link, or whatever you want. (You can also do this without touching code.) Substack only lets you have a landing page, an archive page, and an “about” page, and you can only change the content of certain sections within them, not how they look.

  3. If you are willing to fiddle with the code, Ghost allows you to change and customize whatever you want. However, I’d only recommend this to people who feel comfortable with a technical workflow (read: using the terminal). It’s not like other platforms I’ve seen where you can just log in, tweak some code and preview the changes. You need to download the theme, tweak it on your computer, zip it up and upload it, which immediately updates the live site. The only way to avoid an arduous process that involves changing code blindly and then “previewing” it when it’s already live, is to run Ghost locally and preview changes locally—which involves cloning the repo and starting the server on your machine. If you don’t know what those words mean, it’s going to be more stuff you have to learn in order to customize your site.

I actually use all three of the above. I have a different base theme than the default; I have custom pages; and I have heavily modified my base theme in a number of ways.

Conclusion: Substack offers basically zero customization. Ghost has more options; and with Ghost, if you feel comfortable working with code, all possibilities are open to you.

Prettiness: Perhaps it’s subjective, but if you ask me, Ghost is just prettier.

On external-facing elements: Ghost’s default theme is maybe slightly nicer than Substack’s, but I don’t really like either of them, so I use a heavily customized version of a Ghost theme (which I can do because, see the above section). Neither Ghost nor Substack lets you customize the email template for the newsletter (aside from a few header/footer options), but Ghost’s email template is much prettier and cleaner in my opinion. It’s really important to me that the post page AND the email are as readable, free of clutter, and pleasing to the eye as possible, because I write long letters intended to be enjoyed slowly, and some of my readers literally print them out and read them over coffee. (And they take photos of this and send them to me.)

On internal-facing elements: Ghost’s admin interface has dark mode—a big plus for me. It’s also very pretty in general, with settings nicely organized into different pages and sections, unlike Substack which just has a pile of settings on one long page. Ghost’s post editor is gorgeous and really nice to use. Substack’s editor I would characterize as.. “meh.”

(Not strictly related to prettiness, but regarding editors: Substack’s post editor doesn’t support Markdown, which is an instant dealbreaker for me. Ghost’s does.)

Conclusion: Concerning prettiness, Substack is functional and uninspiring. Ghost sparks joy.

Discoverability: Ghost doesn’t do anything to make your newsletter discoverable. Substack nominally has some stuff, but it doesn’t seem that helpful as of yet.

When it comes to discoverability or reader community, Ghost is more of a pure host and doesn’t have any central place where you can find publications/newsletters to read. Substack has some browseable stuff: lists of top publications; some categories; and a search bar. I don’t know that it would really be that much help to a fledgling newsletter, unless it’s on a niche topic that someone can easily go and search. And I haven’t heard Substack users mention discoverability as something that Substack is good at right now. Some of the things I listed (categories, for example) they just launched in the past couple of weeks, so I gather they are interested in working on this area.

Conclusion: Neither is particularly great at this, at the moment.

Feature development process: Ghost is open-source (so, transparent) and clearly developing features very actively and quickly. Substack isn’t open-source, so.. who knows?

Ghost’s memberships/subscriptions functionality is still in beta, so it doesn’t claim to be done or perfect. In fact, I run into minor bugs somewhat often. Nothing catastrophic, but I’m in the habit of double-checking everything and that has definitely paid off. Refreshing the site tends to resolve some wonkiness (usually after I’ve had the tab open for a while). I haven’t used Substack seriously enough to know if it seems buggy or not.

But Ghost is open-source and you can find all the code in its GitHub repo. The two elements of the repo that I find most beneficial are:

  1. Issues: If you run into a bug, you can open an issue on the repo and report it, and they seem to generally respond before too long. (I just recently opened my own issue on a bug that has been the most serious one I’ve encountered, and am waiting for a response, so let’s see how that plays out.) These issues are public, so it holds them more accountable than filing a support ticket. It also means you can see if other people have run into the same issue.

  2. Releases: The releases page shows every little change to Ghost, every bug fix and improvement that’s rolling out, so you can always keep track of what the team is working on now and recently.

From watching the releases page, I can see that memberships (which is the piece I most care about, personally), is being very actively worked on and changing pretty fast. It has happened more than once already that I think to myself, “I wish there were [feature]” or “I wish they would fix this little thing,” and then within a week or two that very thing is addressed in the latest release, and the change is in effect in my account within a couple of days after that. Not bad. There are features I’ve been relying on that I realized were released just days or weeks before I got started—which was only a few weeks ago! So it’s really new stuff. (They also have a changelog which is more like a feature blog, less granular.)

As a side note: Ghost also has an explicit security policy, a security@ email address for reporting vulnerabilities, and a stated process for how they handle these reports, which is dear to my heart because I used to work in the cybersecurity industry, where such things are a signal that you care about security, basically. Substack doesn’t have any of the above (that I’m aware of).

Conclusion: Ghost’s memberships functionality is less built out (and potentially more buggy) than Substack’s at the moment, but Ghost’s feature development process is transparent, responsive to input, and may be moving faster than Substack’s (can’t prove that last point, it’s just an impression).

Source of company funding: Ghost is a nonprofit that gets its money from customers. Substack is venture-capital-funded.

Ghost is a nonprofit funded by customers—though I don’t know if they have big donors as well—and has been profitable from very early on. (The profits go back into the product. They are set up such that it’s not possible for anyone to “cash out” the profits.) Substack is VC-funded, with the latest round (Series A) led by Andreessen Horowitz.

Having worked for a number of startups myself, I just don’t believe that everything is better off VC-funded. In fact, I think there’s a whole lot of things that aren’t. VC money is great when building something potentially world-changing, where the company needs to spend a ton to hit a critical mass or tipping point, beyond which the benefits to the whole world become abundantly clear (or so the story goes). But I think it often disincentivizes a company from listening to its customers and users. This was the case at every startup I’ve ever worked at. Who needs to address little customer nitpicks, when you have a GRAND VISION to build out—which is what the investors really care about?!

That works great for social networks, AI, driverless cars, getting us to Mars, etc. But for taking some payments and sending an email newsletter? I’d rather have my service be clean, functional, and do the things that I want, correctly—more than I need it to be grand. I’d rather have the engineers listen to me when I have an issue—yes, little $29/month me—and not ignore me in favor of the people who just put in $15 million.

Maybe paid newsletter platforms are going to revolutionize (“disrupt”) the digital publishing industry. Do they need a massive expenditure of capital to do that? Unclear. Personally I feel that the “traditional” digital publishing industry is slowly bleeding itself out, and needs no help from the VC world to wither into oblivion, but that’s just my opinion. Time will tell.

Conclusion: As a customer, I feel better about going with the company that’s profitable and that relies on revenue from customers, which is Ghost.

Documentation and support: Ghost’s docs are far better and more thorough than Substack’s. Ghost has lots of places you can go to ask questions; Substack doesn’t.

Though at first glance they look somewhat similar (compare Ghost’s help page and Substack’s help page)—a section for each topic, with questions listed under each—I’ve found Ghost’s docs to be far more helpful in practice. Ghost’s help articles are more general, with each one serving as a guide to a certain section of the app and the things you can do in it. Substack’s are more like an unorganized pile of questions on every little feature, mixed in with troubleshooting of specific issues.

As a real use case: in deciding which service to go with, I was trying to find some sort of “how it works” page for paid subscriptions: how it works, what it would mean for my readers, how I would go about setting it up, what it all looks like. In other words: “Help me picture this thing that I’m thinking of doing. How would I use your thing to do my thing?” Ghost had an easy-to-find introduction to Members which answered all of the above questions for me, including lots of screenshots and links to more guides. Substack offered only platitudes (“build your audience,” “get paid to do what you love,” etc.), a button to sign up, and the pile of troubleshooting questions I mentioned above. I didn’t even know they used Stripe, because that fact is buried somewhere. That opaqueness and being totally unable to picture that process was a big turn-off for me. (And no, I don’t want to give you my email address before I learn how it works.)

Compare this Substack help article with this Ghost help article on the exact same topic: setting up paid subscriptions. Maybe they’ll be different by the time you read this, but as of today, there is no comparison: Ghost’s is thorough and super informative, with up-to-date screenshots. Substack’s is short and sad. This is all $15 million in VC money gets you, apparently.

(Ghost also has developer docs which are even more comprehensive—but unnecessary for Substack, because you can’t develop on it.)

On the support side, Ghost links to a bunch of different ways to ask for help from employees as well as from fellow users: a support@ email address, the GitHub repo (as mentioned above), an official forum, and a subreddit. Substack has none of those, that I could find. Where do you go with questions that aren’t covered in the Help section? No idea.

Conclusion: Ghost wins.

Company transparency: Ghost is more transparent, in business metrics as well as feature development. Substack is not transparent at all.

I’m kind of charmed by the fact that Ghost keeps a mini dashboard of some key business metrics on their About page. Admittedly it’s of little practical value to me—I don’t know enough to have any opinion on the company’s run rate or churn rate. And who can say if they’re fudging the numbers or if they have other, more telling metrics that they’re not sharing? Still, it’s a nice gesture. And, as I explained above under Feature development process, what they’re releasing, the entire history of what they’ve released, and bugs currently being reported by users, are publicly available for all to see.

Substack has none of that. In fact, you can’t even tell from browsing the site who works there or even who founded it.

(Speaking of founders, for what it’s worth, Ghost has a woman cofounder/CTO. Substack doesn’t.)

Conclusion: Ghost wins.

That’s a wrap for our Ghost vs. Substack comparison.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list of the differences between Ghost and Substack, just the ones that factored into my decision. There are plenty more things to look into that I’m not currently using for my newsletter (e.g., Substack’s analytics, podcasting, discussion threads; Ghost’s integrations), but hopefully this gives you a good start in terms of understanding some of the major differences between the two.

I know I said “Ghost wins” a bunch of times, but I don’t hate Substack. Do I think it might be overrated? Maybe. But I’m seeing it from the perspective of the aspects I happen to care about most, which may differ from yours.

Other than pricing, I would sum up the biggest difference between the two as follows: If you just want to write, and don’t want to have to think about anything else, consider Substack. If you want more control and flexibility, and to make more decisions, consider Ghost.

Finally, it’s time to go over a few of the…

Other options that weren’t seriously considered.

Ghost (self-hosted): Because Ghost is open-source, you can totally install and run it on your own server for free, and thereby skip the $29/month. You just have the costs of keeping your own server running, of course. It’s an option if you’d be comfortable e.g. running and maintaining a Node app on a DigitalOcean droplet, or the equivalent (or if you really want to learn). For me, that type of admin work isn’t really what I’m into. How much time do I want to spend configuring my SMTP server so that emails get sent properly? or upgrading Ghost so that it stays on the current version? Ideally none at all. I just want to write my newsletters. So the annual cost of Ghost(Pro) is well worth the time and frustration it would save me.

(On the other hand, there are definite benefits. Ghost is developing new stuff at a good clip, so some features are buggy or not fully developed, and there have been times where I’d love to be able to change the code myself, or at least go into the DB and fix some records directly.)

MailChimp: Being primarily an email marketing service, MailChimp is WAY overkill for a humble newsletter, plus it can’t manage paid subscriptions out of the box, so you’d still have to integrate it with something else. I find their UX convoluted and maddening (read: actually hell), and I feel it’d only be worth it if I needed segmenting, heavy analytics, or something else that MailChimp is optimized for. Since I don’t, it just has no strengths here.

TinyLetter (free newsletter only): I like TinyLetter (which btw is owned by MailChimp); my personal newsletter Poste Italiane Sunday Edition is still on TinyLetter because I feel no great need to migrate away. A few years ago TinyLetter had its brief moment in the limelight as potentially the next big thing, but it soon settled into what it still is now: a very simple little service for sending out free newsletters, not actively developed on for years now, with rumors every now and then that it will be sunsetted. That last bit is why you might not want to start a new thing on TinyLetter, as you may have to migrate to something else later anyway. But for now, it exists, it’s still there, being tiny.

WordPress: I consider WordPress among the best-in-class for running a blog, especially at low cost, which is why this blog is on WordPress. For some time now (I think), it’s been possible to set up paid memberships for a WordPress site by adding a relevant pluginbut only on one of the pricier WordPress-hosted plans ($25/month), or self-hosted. Now you can also set up paid memberships and gated content without a plugin, just by using their “Premium Content block” and connecting Stripe.

The thing is: I see Substack as a newsletter first and a blog second; Ghost, as a blog first and a newsletter second. But both are highly specific to, and optimized for, publications and authors. For WordPress, serving as a newsletter must be, I don’t know, 16th or something, way down on their very long list of priorities. The last time I saw a WordPress post-as-email (a few months ago), the email template was seriously ugly. I doubt it lets you customize anything at all about the email that goes out. I doubt it has any newsletter-ish features such as open rates or a dashboard to manage members and subscriptions. So, it can technically be done, but I don’t find it a compelling option in any way.

“Roll your own” by integrating a bunch of services: What we’re talking about, essentially, is a few components connected to each other: a website + something to send out emails + a payment processor + a subscription management service (something that keeps track of what goes out to whom, based on who has subscribed and who has paid). There are lots of smaller services that handle each of these, so you could skip Ghost/Substack which bundle them all up, and just integrate them yourself. But again, as with the Ghost self-hosted option, that’s way more setup and maintenance than I want to do.

This is the real end of the post.

Yep, we’ve finally arrived. Honestly, despite the heftiness of this post, it’s not the end of the world if you choose one service or another. It’s just that this is an emerging sector that I happen to be personally interested in and following closely. Try both/all of them, or start with one and migrate to another if you don’t like it. Happy newslettering!




Sources: Each platform’s own website; Wikipedia; Crunchbase; Hacker News; Stratechery; Newsletter Crew.

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Index of everything shared in Sunday Edition, 2019-2020

To wrap up 2020, here’s an index of just about everything I’ve shared in my personal newsletter, Poste Italiane Sunday Edition, since its inception in late 2019. (Link above in the site menu if you want to subscribe.) It doesn’t include every single link from the issues, but covers all of the stuff I mentioned that I was watching, listening to, reading, etc.

Looking back now, it’s not actually super representative of all the stuff that’s been in my life in that time period. But there are certain qualities that make me choose something to go in the newsletter: it should be a little bit off the wall, not something all my readers would have heard of, something that may surprise them, something that they may not all think they’d enjoy or get into. A little randomness, a little potential to make a discovery.

Things I did or participated in

National Novel Writing Month — Every November hundreds of thousands of people around the world attempt to write 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days. (I’ve done it many times before, but did a modified version in 2019.)

xuanjitu — My online, web-based implementation of Xuanji Tu (璇玑图), an ancient palindrome poem by Chinese poet Su Hui.

GitHub Arctic Code Vault — The time I found out that some code I’ve written will be preserved on film reels in a vault on Svalbard, right near the Global Seed Vault. For Humanity™, basically. The film reels are supposed to last around 500-1000 years, way way longer than computers or hard drives.

pidgin country — My micro-blog I started, for very-short-form posts: links, recs, shower thoughts, and other procrastination fodder.

nothing to say — My new letter series for artists, kindred spirits, and anyone involved in the mystery of trying to create things.

Documentaries and nonfiction TV series

Shangri-La — 4-part docu-series on Showtime about music producer Rick Rubin and his recording studio in Malibu.

Abstract: The Art of Design, Season 2 — But if you watch one episode of this show, let it be S1E7 “Platon: Photography.” If you watch two, let the other one be S1E1 on Christoph Niemann, which I’ve watched about 5 times.

Maidentrip — Documentary about Laura Dekker, the 14-year-old Dutch girl who in 2010-2011 became the youngest person to ever sail around the world, solo.

10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki — 4-part miniseries documenting the creative process of Hayao Miyazaki, known and beloved for Spirited AwayPrincess MononokeMy Neighbor Totoro, and many more.

Tidying Up with Marie Kondo — I’m a long-time fangirl of Marie Kondo, but this series really cheered me up as I was going through my own ordeal of getting rid of all my crap.

Miss Americana — Finally, a doc in which Taylor Swift doesn’t play down her actually-high degree of intelligence and self-awareness.

Kedi — A documentary about the cats of Istanbul, of which I met and loved many.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey — A docu-series in 15 x 1-hour episodes. More of a “revisionist” history, in that it goes against more Hollywood-centric narratives, and instead highlights tons of filmmakers and actors around the world who influenced the form.

The Artist is Present — Documentary about Marina Abramović, perhaps best known for the time she spent 2.5 months sitting in a chair at the MoMA and you could go sit in a chair facing her, and she would look you in the eyes.

True Sight: The International 2018 (Full movie) — A competition doc about what is effectively the Dota2 world championship in 2018. This doc made me a fan of Dota2 which changed my whole year.

Fiction movies and TV series

The Handmaid’s Tale — One day you’re laughing off the election, the next day they kill your family, take you away and force you to make babies.

Şahsiyet (Persona) — A man diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s realizes he can do… whatever he wants… and he won’t remember any of it. This series is/was super popular in Turkey and is also pretty good! (You can watch for free on puhutv, but you have to be VPN-ed into Turkey.)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire — and all of Céline Sciamma’s other movies: Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood.

(120) Beats per Minute — A gorgeous, gorgeous, sweet and heartbreaking movie about a group of activist friends in ACT UP Paris in the 90s, fighting for HIV/AIDS awareness.

Violette — Biopic about Violette Leduc, “France’s greatest unknown writer,” and Simone de Beauvoir. If only we could all have a [famous] friend who would tell us to quit our whining and get back to work, so that she can get our book published whenever we finish it.

Synecdoche, New York — The most unknown and underrated Charlie Kaufman movie.

ArrivalSo much more than just a movie about aliens and linguistics. Pair Arrival with the short story that the movie is based on, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (PDF). I watched the movie first, and I’m glad I did, but the story and the movie each have their own distinct strengths and they are both worth the time.

We Are Who We Are — It’s more about a feeling and an atmosphere than a story. You just sort of make yourself comfortable and soak it in.

Lovesong — Watch it if you’re prepared to suffer. You may wake up with heartache that lingers into the next day, and yet feel compelled to watch it again after a little while.

Aimée & Jaguar — Lesbian love in Nazi Germany. What could possibly go wrong?!

Happiest Season — Just the wholesome, feel-good queer holiday rom-com I have always wished for. Almost two full hours of Kristen Stewart’s flawless hair and outfits. That’s all I ever wanted for Christmas.

Podcast episodes

Edward Norton on the Tim Ferriss Show -— If you’ve ever started a project that meant a lot to you, and put it aside because you got stuck, then became kind of afraid to pick it up again, but also couldn’t seem to let go of it… you’ll find a friend in Edward Norton.

Richard Turner on The Tim Ferriss Show -— One of the greatest card mechanics (the highest class of card magician).. maybe of all time.. who happens to be blind. Also subject of the documentary Dealt.

Ocean Vuong @ On Being [Unedited] — This much-beloved poet, novelist, all-around truth teller dropping the realness about violence and language in the American psyche, about poetry, about the immigrant experience, about the Vietnam War, about the failures of language, and more.

Music

Chrono Trigger OST, Final Fantasy VII OST — Classic video game music.

Cigarettes After Sex — Put their music on, slow dance with your loved one in the kitchen.

Akustik Türkçe (Turkish Acoustic), Türkçe Rap (Turkish Rap), Türkçe Trap (Turkish Trap).

Two (Live at Sydney Opera House) by Ryuichi Sakamoto & alva noto.

Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, the Four Seasons.

The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices — Bulgarian folk singing: Kaval sviri, Svatba, Duda E Bolna (mislabeled “Vito Horo”), Ergen Deda. Some of these songs are like a thousand years old and I feel like they reach down into something deeply elemental, beyond culture and even the passage of time, into something universal about being a human, and about being a woman. Listen on Spotify.

Video games

Spiritfarer — You’re responsible for ferrying spirits (people who have died, who are now in all kinds of animal/plant forms) to the afterlife. Along the way, you spend time with them, explore different towns, try to fulfill their requests, and generally help make their last days happy and meaningful ones.

Books

The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, by Amanda Palmer — The best book on how to think/feel about art and commerce, that I have read. (Here is her TED talk on the same topic.)

Apps

YouGlish — I’d originally used YouGlish to look up stuff in other languages, but now I actually use it mostly to see how people pronounce certain names when speaking English.

Zombies, Run! — I never realized until now that what was missing when I went for a run, was the “raaowruggghhh” sounds of zombies coming after me.

Ulysses — For working with big writing projects that span multiple files or even folders and may include things like notes and research material, or where you might want progress tracking or version history.

Articles

With Category Theory, Mathematics Escapes From Equality — Guess what, equals is so last year. What?

tnf 50–the farewell — My friend Pei ran her first 50-miler (that’s 80 km, folks), as a farewell to SF and the Marin Headlands, and was still somehow chipper enough at the end (after ~11 hours?!?) to jump across the finish line.

On the Making of “Illusory Borders”: Field Notes — My friend Heidi had two(!) books of poetry come out in November 2019. This is a 3-part series (parts 1 2 3), on one of those books, Illusory Borders.

You Should Be Getting Your Biographies in Children’s Picture Book Form — By my friend J.

The 20 Best Works of Nonfiction of the Decade — I like this one because it includes at least a few that I noticed going by through the decade and always meant to read.

James Baldwin spent a decade (on and off) in Istanbul — where he could more safely be black and gay. And wrote a number of his most well-known works there, too.

France’s #MeToo movement and the time Adèle Haenel walked out of the Césars — Self-explanatory.

30 Animals That Look Like They’re About To Drop The Hottest Albums Of The Year — Self-explanatory.

The Great Climate Migration — Ongoing series on trends in climate-change-induced migration happening now and over the next century, tying together science, economics, agriculture, and geopolitics. Here’s the first and second articles at NYTimes. (Try a fresh incognito tab to avoid the paywall. Otherwise, here’s the exact same first and second articles on ProPublica, which are free.) The first focuses on global changes with emphasis on Latin America, the second on the US.

A Translation Crisis at the Border — US immigration/border practices assume all migrants arriving from/through Mexico speak Spanish, when a significant (and growing) number of them speak primarily indigenous languages and might not know Spanish. The result is not great.

YouTube videos

Thanksgiving on the L train — The time some people threw a full Thanksgiving feast on a Brooklyn-bound L train in NYC, passing out plates of turkey and sides to fellow riders.

Slack Jaw – Emma Portner & Elliot Page — Cry a little, feel like there’s a place for you somewhere in the world again.

Italians singing together from their balconies — Early Covid days.

Fireplace 10 hours full HD — No music, just the soft crackle of the flames.

Charlie Kaufman’s BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture — One of the best talks I’ve ever heard, about anything. Full transcript here (contains more than the video).

“Singularity (after Stephen Hawking)” by Marie Howe — Watch this and feel like a human person again.

Ingredients of the week

pumpkin. Pumpkin soup, roasted/baked pumpkin, pumpkin pie…

red cabbage. Or alternatively try radicchio, technically not a cabbage but also delicious if you can find it.

oats! Overnight oats; homemade granola (it’s SUPER EASY); oat milk heated up over the stove (or in a latte if available at your cafe); oat cream for cooking with.

stale bread. Ways to transfigure stale bread tend to go in one of two directions: you can make it softer via eggs/milk/etc, which usually makes it into a sweet dish like bread pudding or French toast. Or you can make it crispy via toasting it in the oven, as in crostini or croutons.

ginger. I make ginger tea (ginger slices, hot water, honey) which is a comforting pre-bedtime ritual. Try it!

yogurt. (in a savory dish)

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field notes

How to create an unlisted (semi-private) podcast

So you’d like to share some audio with some people, preferably in podcast form so that those people can listen to it with the convenience of their favorite podcast apps. But you DON’T want it to be publicly listed in all the podcast directories (Apple/Spotify/etc) where it would be easily searchable and discoverable (and which comes with some annoying requirements that you might prefer to skip, for example Apple’s requirements about the style of the podcast’s cover image). You don’t mind if the audio is technically accessible to the public (meaning, without any password or authentication), as long as it’s not listed and thus not likely to be discovered by random people. This is the post for you.

I’m writing this post purely as a public service. I had this use case I just described, because I was looking to make my newsletter available in audio form. It’s not super private, but I’d prefer if only my subscribers actually saw it. I googled all around for how to do this, and couldn’t find anything helpful, and eventually only found out the answer through a friend who personally told me how. This is the post I wish I had found. So I’ll put this up and let the SEO gods determine whether anyone finds this.

This is the easiest thing ever, there are only 2 steps.

Step 1: Pick a service to host your podcast.

You need to put your audio on the internet somewhere. You can always put it up on Dropbox or Google Drive, but then it can’t be played in podcast apps. I’ll save you some more googling and say that, at least at the time of writing this, the two most commonly recommended podcast hosting services seem to be Podbean and Libsyn. They are practically the same (I actually ended up trying both, and ended up staying with Libsyn, mostly out of inertia). Libsyn started earlier, so it’s a bit older. Podbean has a free plan, while Libsyn’s most basic plan is $5/month (at the time of writing, etc). They have slightly different pricing structures, so check it out.

Sign up for the service and publish your first episode. But don’t submit your podcast to any directories, though your hosting service may be bugging you to do so. (See the end of this post for more on that.)

Step 2: Share your feed URL with your audience.

From your podcast hosting account, you should be able to find the URL of your feed somewhere in your settings or your podcast profile/info. (The URL usually has the word “rss” or “feed” somewhere in it.) That URL leads to a pile of metadata about your podcast and its episodes, which is what podcast apps use to display your podcast properly and to fetch the episodes. You can visit the URL if you want to see what it looks like.

Share that URL with your audience. Each listener will need to paste that URL into somewhere in their podcast-listening app. It varies by app, but most podcast apps do support manually adding a feed (though not all support it), and it’s usually not hard to find. Once the listener pastes in the URL, they will be subscribed to your podcast, just the same as if they subscribed to any other podcast, listed or unlisted.

You can try it for yourself in your own podcast-listening app. The reason I said to publish at least one episode first, is that some podcast apps won’t let you subscribe to a podcast that has no episodes.

Your podcast host should also have made the raw m4a file of each episode available online for download, and in your account you can get the URL for the m4a file of any episode. I share that as well, in case any of my listeners prefer to download it.

That’s it! You’re done.

Your listeners only have to add your feed URL once. From here, you can publish more episodes, and they will automatically show up for your listeners.

If you’re curious about what would make your podcast show up in public directories, it’s just that you have to go through an extra step of submitting your podcast info to the big directories: Apple, Google, Spotify, maybe a few more. Most other podcast apps pull from one of these directories, so just submitting to the biggest ones should be sufficient to make your podcast available in almost any app. If you want to do that, your podcast hosting service will walk you through the process, as it’s one of the main steps in starting a real podcast. And there is tons of info online about that part. No biggie. Skipping that step is what keeps your podcast semi-private.

Happy podcasting!

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field notes, languages

5 months with Turkish: a recap of my language-learning strategy

It’s time for an update on my language-learning project, a cup of tea! (Turkish edition: bir fincan çay.) In preparation for my trip to Istanbul (and continuing into the months I spent in lockdown there), I started to seriously invest some time into learning Turkish. And now that I’ve returned to the States, I’m winding down my Turkish studies and will go into maintenance mode, where I won’t expect to make any more progress for the time being. Instead, I’ll go back to shoring up some Romance languages, as well as dialects of Chinese. But for about 5 months, I was able to focus primarily on Turkish, and this post goes into the learning strategies I used during that time.

I. A bit about the Turkish language

Turkish is a pretty interesting language, especially in terms of where I’m coming from as a learner. It’s the first language I’ve seriously studied that is completely unrelated to either English or Cantonese (which I consider to be my native languages). It really makes me appreciate how extreme the boost is from related vocabulary when learning, say, French or German. Without that, almost every single word seems totally arbitrary. Examples: English information, French information, Italian informazione, German Information, Turkish bilgi. English justice, French justice, Italian giustizia, German Justiz, Turkish adalet. You’re going into this whole new world, where you have to learn everything from scratch, and almost nothing comes for free. (Though I was surprised to find a lot of loan words from French, which helps me. There is also a lot of vocabulary overlap with Arabic, which doesn’t help me at the moment, but maybe will someday!) But Turkish is a pretty regular language–it’s very pattern-based, follows its own rules and has few exceptions–which makes it “guessable” now that I’ve made some headway and built a base of vocabulary. But it wasn’t guessable from knowing words from English or any European language.

Turkish is a whole new world to me not only in vocabulary but also in syntax, where it has paradigms that are new to me, like agglutination–basically, you take a word root and pile on suffixes to add units of meaning which in English might be expressed via a long string of separate words. “I might be able to go” can be said as one word, via suffixes. In addition to that, almost everything that can be in reverse order from English, is. In Turkish, the verb is at or near the end of the sentence. Prepositions are actually postpositions–they come after the thing they refer to (which is actually the same in Chinese). And so it goes, inversions everywhere you look, at the sentence level and within parts of sentences. I love this tweet which diagrams the mind-bending inversion in Turkish sentences, as compared to French or German. (If you’ve seen the movie Arrival, this one is great too.) It can be kind of frustrating–for me, the feeling of parsing a long sentence was the feeling of waiting until the very end, to find out the core of the sentence from which to “hang” all the other bits of meaning encountered on the way there. It’s again a much more extreme divergence from English than you find with Romance languages or Germanic languages. It’s pretty taxing on my brain, and makes me extra impressed by Turkish people who are fluent in English.

II. Current state of my ability in Turkish

Whenever I study a language, my skills develop unevenly, where my reading ability way, way outpaces my ability in writing, listening, and speaking (in that order–speaking is always the least developed), and Turkish is no exception. At the level I’ve gotten to, I can read without too much difficulty on the easier side: signs and notices, magazine articles, news, probably young adult (YA) books; but nothing very literary or technical. It’s easier with the help of a dictionary, but I can get the gist of things without one. I can write understandable sentences, with some errors. I could probably write this post in Turkish, but it would take forever and have a fair number of errors and awkward usages. In listening, I can only fully understand short sentences/questions that I can hear very clearly. With anything more complex than that, I can often understand very vaguely what is going on and what people are talking about, and I can catch parts of sentences, but not enough to do a full translation. In speaking, where the opportunities were especially lacking due to months of lockdown in Istanbul, I can sometimes say tiny 1-4 word sentences as needed. (“Half kilo, please.” “I have a bag.” “Excuse me, is this yours?” As people with tiny children are aware, you can get amazingly far with micro-sentences.) Often I blank out in the moment, then think of the correct response to something after the moment has passed. It’s annoying. But at least I think of it eventually.

After checking some mock exams at different levels from TELC, which provides language certifications (but without actually doing the exams, because they looked boring), I’d put my level at around A2 or B1. Far from fluent, but I’m happy with that.

More importantly, I attained that experience of “breaking through” to where something like a bit of overheard conversation floating by as I walked down the street, which just months ago was a completely opaque, mysterious string of random sounds, is now full of meaning and expression, full of humor, caring, full of logistical details, pop culture references, political rants, sarcasm, and all the things you can say and understand. That’s the ultimate high that I’m always striving for, that’s what gets me through the many hours of tedium especially in the beginning, when it feels like a slog and totally impossible and pointless to imagine that I would ever understand what people are saying.

III. Summary of the strategy

As I briefly mention in my post Language learning advice I freely ignore, I always tend to heavily prioritize input over output (reading/listening over speaking/writing). There are good practical reasons for this, but it also boils down to the philosophy that there is no true expression without first understanding.

The specific strategy I tried for the first time here with Turkish involves first focusing intensively on grammar until I’d been exposed to all the rules needed up to an intermediate or advanced level; then switching over completely to only consuming real-life material (stuff for native Turkish speakers, not for language learners), including readings, podcasts, and TV. And compiling and reviewing vocabulary throughout.

IV. Components of the strategy

According to my logs, I spent about 250 hours on various forms of Turkish studies. I tended to put in about an hour or an hour and a half each day, with some periods when I wasn’t feeling it and spent much less time, and some periods where I studied more intensively. I studied DIY-style, without any class or teacher, just some occasional help from a friend when I was stuck on something. My studies can be broken down into the following activities. I also logged how many hours I spent on each activity, so I’ve included the percentage of time under each. (They only add up to 90% because a few hours went to miscellaneous other things.)

Grammar (20% of hours)

From the outset I started working through a textbook, The Delights of Learning Turkish. I always feel ambivalent about textbooks, but I’d say it was a decent textbook and probably about as good as any other. My routine was to go through each chapter in 3 steps: first, read through the chapter; next, input all new words into my Anki deck (more on that below); finally, do the exercises and check answers. The time investment for these steps divided pretty evenly (60-90 minutes for each), so I got into a rhythm of doing 1 step per day, so 1 chapter every 3 days.

I also started my own grammar cheat sheet, a doc where I would add new rules as I learned them. The benefits of making my own cheat sheet are that I can organize the rules in a way that makes sense to me (for example putting similar/complementary ones next to each other, not just in the order they show up in the textbook), and I can describe them in a way that helps me remember (for example rearranging charts/tables or using different examples than the textbook). And generally that describing stuff in your own way vastly helps retention, which is one thing teachers have always said that is actually true.

I also kept a list of just the verbs I learned, in infinitive form, alphabetized. This started out as just a helpful reference because lots of verbs sounded so similar to me, I could never remember whether I had already seen a verb or if it was new. It helped me answer my own questions like, “I feel like I’ve seen a verb that sounds a lot like this.. what was it??” and thus differentiate verbs that often only differed by 1-2 letters. Over time, it just became fun (and compulsive) to keep the list up to date. I think there are 500-600 verbs on the list now.

Vocabulary (40%)

For vocabulary retention, no strategy in the world has yet been found that can hold a candle to SRS (spaced-repetition software). (Google it.) (Btw, “can hold a candle to” means “can compare to.”) SRS is just a special form of flashcard review. As my SRS app, I use Anki; I add cards using the desktop app, and review them on the iPhone app. The time spent adding cards and the time spent reviewing cards are both reflected in the 40% of hours that I spent working on vocabulary.

For the first time, instead of using someone else’s pre-made deck, I started my own deck for Turkish words/phrases. But I hate adding cards–I find it a boring chore–so I keep them super simple, just the Turkish word(s) on one side and the English on the other. Sometimes I have the TV on while adding large batches of cards, just to keep me company through the slog. It’s not really recommended–classic high school / college student shenanigans–but hey, if it’s TV in the same language, maybe you could get two things done at once!

This is one of those areas where teachers are probably teaching all the wrong strategies. I’ve never heard a language teacher (or any teacher) mention SRS, but if you’re not using some form of SRS, it’s likely that you’re wasting a ton of effort and/or simply not retaining words.

(See my post 中文: the first 1000 characters for more on my thoughts around rote memorization, and how I used Anki to learn to read Chinese.)

I started my Turkish deck on Day 1 and started with words from my textbook, then later words from my readings. Every time I came across a word I didn’t know, I would add it to the deck. I was very strict about this; if I didn’t add it then I didn’t learn it. This was confirmed by how often I would totally forget a word just one day after “learning” it. So every single word has to go into the review cycle, or it is lost forever.

I found a great online dictionary, Tureng, whose autocomplete search was a lifesaver. So when I came across a new word, I would look it up in Tureng to get the root form and multiple definitions, and add the card in Anki.

For review, I went through the cards once a day, and tweaked the daily limits such that it took 20-30 minutes per day. (For me, after some tweaking this ended up meaning a max of 300 review and 30 new per day. It varies by language.) That’s my happy spot where it feels productive but not tiresome/overwhelming. I review them by having it present me with the English, then I guess the Turkish and check it. Because English to Turkish is harder for me than the other way around, and because it mimics the feeling of trying to come up with a word when I’m speaking.

My deck now has about 3700 cards, I’ve reviewed nearly all of them (I’ve stopped adding cards, so in a couple of days I will have seen all of them), and I’ve been maintaining about 80-90% retention. I’ll probably continue my 10-20 minutes a day of maintenance review for a few more weeks or months.

Audio input (listening) (12%)

Listening to podcasts. I also started this on Day 1, with real, full-speed Turkish podcasts, not the kind for language learners. In the beginning you can’t understand anything of course, but according to the passive-input theory/method, it still gets you used to the rhythms, intonation, and phonetics of the language, and this has been my experience. So in the beginning I just put them on in the background while doing whatever and didn’t try to pay attention; but later, as I started to be able to catch phrases here and there, I would listen carefully to try to parse as much of it as I could, which was also great practice and enormously improved my ability to understand real-life speech.

In my experience, it’s really hard to find real podcasts by googling. A really easy way to find them is through the iTunes store: change your iTunes region to the target country, then go to the iTunes store for Podcasts, and browse it for ones that seem interesting. Then you can subscribe to them via your favorite podcast app. (If you have a media library on iTunes, don’t forget to change your region back to the original, or else it may not let you access some of your own movies/music that have regional restrictions. Yay Apple.)

This iTunes-store trick completely changed my life. I started collecting podcasts by language and have found lots of cool ones. For Turkish, I listened to a few, but the one I eventually settled on, especially as I started to be able to understand a little, was one where each episode, the hosts interview a Turkish author. They read aloud the first page from one of the author’s books, then ask the author about their writing process, thoughts on the publishing industry, etc. The episodes are 30-50 minutes long, and I’d listen to 1 or 2 around lunchtime.

Textual input (reading) (8%)

I started reading real stuff only after I finished going through my textbook, so it was only for the last 6 weeks of the 5 months. I love dual-language materials (target language + English, side by side), because the English translation helps confirm/correct your understanding, and it can also introduce you to new meanings of words that you didn’t know or that aren’t given in the dictionary. As a makeshift dual-language reader, you can also get an easy-to-read book that is available in both languages, and read both copies together. Plenty of language learners swear by the Harry Potter series for this, as it’s one thing that’s available in pretty much every written language in the world. I’m relatively new to serious language learning, so my reading choices are pretty random; I just go with whatever I feel like reading.

Early on, on my flight to Istanbul, I discovered a dual-language reader in the form of the Turkish Airlines in-flight magazine, Skylife, which has Turkish and English side by side from cover to cover, and was also the perfect level to start reading at. So that was my primary reading material, once I was ready for it. Each session, I would read a couple of pages, comparing my understanding with the English translation, highlighting words I didn’t know, then later adding them to my Anki deck.

I’ve just finished all the articles in the magazine, and that marks my stopping point in the language. If I were to keep reading, I’d probably go for a YA novel next, and order two copies in Turkish and English.

Video input (10%)

Normally TV and movies are a large part of how I absorb a language. For Turkish I just happened to not have that many TV series or movies I was dying to watch, so it was a smaller part of my routine. Actually I watched live Turkish TV on YouTube for a while, but I stopped when it became close to 100% coronavirus news. Other than that, I only watched Şahsiyet, which is a great murder mystery miniseries (some would say, the best-produced series to ever come out of Turkey, to date). I do recommend it, and it has English subtitles, but you have to VPN into Turkey to stream it (or physically go there).

Typically I watch TV with audio in the target language and subtitles in English. (People say not to do this, but I ignore them.) I listen closely to the audio and read the subtitles at the same time, which helps solidify the meanings in my mind. Occasionally I will watch a movie in English with subtitles in the target language. I guess for me the main thing is to have the audio in its original language; I don’t like dubbed versions, I find them gross.

I haven’t found an easy or systematic way to discover TV series and movies in a given language and on a given streaming platform. I usually just google around and look for recommendations on Reddit or other sites, or attempt to browse Netflix, but they don’t make it easy to do this. Letterboxd lists can work for movies. If you have any tricks, I’d love to hear them.

A few other things I tried and abandoned

Just for completeness’ sake, a few things I tried but didn’t commit to:

  • Duolingo. Duolingo is nice for getting a taste of a language, and to have something to fiddle with on your phone, but I find it to be extremely inefficient for getting practical results of any kind. In general, “fun”-oriented language apps have a fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to learning: if they are going by the standard mobile-app playbook, then they want to give you lots of little rewards frequently and make you feel good about yourself, so that you’ll keep using the app. But the fastest way to learn and retain anything is to struggle to remember things, without hints, and fail all the time. Most apps don’t make you fail nearly enough (or ever). This is my personal opinion. For more on this topic, see the book Ultralearning by Scott Young.
  • Using a pre-made Anki deck from someone else. This can be helpful–I used it for Chinese–but for my purposes here, there was no shortcut or substitute for locking in my understanding by making my own deck of words as I encountered them. The pre-made deck had all kinds of minor annoyances that I disagreed with and that would end up confusing me, so I abandoned it.
  • A different Turkish textbook. I’d started with Elementary Turkish by Lewis V. Thomas, a decades-old book I randomly found at the used bookstore. It was fine, though a little on the persnickety side, like drilling you on details and edge cases and prioritizing 100% correctness, rather than a more holistic understanding. I didn’t really have a problem with it, but I decided to try a different textbook, and just never looked back.

V. Conclusion

Is there anything I would do differently? The kind of routine I’ve described actually took a few months to get settled into, so I’ve already gone through a few iterations towards practices that seem to work better. For the next language I start, I’ll be able to use this routine that I like right from Day 1, so it will already go differently.

For reasons I went into above, Turkish has been one of the most daunting languages I’ve encountered so far, and the first real blank-slate experiment in my language learning. It’s given me a lot of confidence that, with any language, there’s a recipe that works, and that you can start from zero and eventually break through. Whenever things felt hopeless, I would tell myself: before you complain that it’s not working, go through a full textbook, memorize at least 3000 words, listen to 50 hours of audio, read one book/magazine, and watch one full TV series. You can’t fail to understand something after that. Understanding just enough to feel excited to keep going, is much more important than whether you’re fluent or not. It worked this time and it will work again.

This wacky language has also been mind-expanding and changed my perceptions of what paradigms are possible in human languages. It’s made me appreciate how other “foreign” languages I’m familiar with are really not so foreign in comparison, but are practically close siblings of English. I’m super thankful to have been able to spend the past few months in the company of this language.

Standard
field notes, soapbox

Down with gated communities, long live RSS and the open web

I’m feeling newly hopeful for a way of being that was long ago pronounced dead, or at least dying.

As some readers will remember and some may not, before social media became the order of the day, there was RSS. It’s been around for a good 20-30 years. Today, even with social media in full dominance, RSS is still hanging around. And maybe, just maybe, at the twilight of civilization, post-decline of the social medias, there will still be trusty old RSS, which will have survived the nuclear age, like a stubborn irradiated cockroach. And this post is about why I hope it does survive and why I’ll do everything in my power to help it along.

RSS is a much more intimidating-sounding name than is necessary. It’s simply the name of a technology that allows you to subscribe to all the blogs you want to subscribe to–your friends’ blogs and huge famous companies’ blogs–in the same way, and aggregate the posts from those blogs in your own feeds that you organize, so that you can browse them together in an app of your choosing. You could just as well go and visit all those blogs/websites as often as you wanted to check for new posts. You could also subscribe to them by email (whichever ones allow for that). RSS reader apps just make for a nicer, more convenient and consistent reading experience where you can customize the font, color scheme, the way the posts are listed, and lots of other stuff. Plus you’re not forced to check your email as you check for new posts.

Calling this (eco)system “RSS” is kind of like if we called the internet “HTTP”–a holdover from the technology’s history that doesn’t really help express what it is–but until we come up with a killer name for the whole ecosystem, “RSS” is what we seem to be stuck with.

“What do you mean, subscribe to my friends’ blogs?” I hear you say. “None of my friends have their own blogs. Except for Rory, who’s a weirdo anyway.” Yes. That’s exactly the issue. When I was a teenager, I had a blog, and every one of my friends had a blog. What matters about that isn’t the stupid stuff we posted then, it was the questions of ownership, residence, and distribution: Who owns the stuff that you make and the words that you say? Where does it live? How does it get distributed? Everybody still writes stuff and shares stuff today. But we mostly do it in spaces where it benefits a powerful media/tech company more than it benefits ourselves. More on this in a minute.

What’s amazing about the RSS way of life is that it’s simply that: an open protocol, a communally-agreed-upon way of passing content around. No company owns it. No company owns the protocol, and no company owns the content. As a blogger, you can host your blog posts anywhere you want. You can sign up on any blogging platform and post there, for which there are many options–that’s the way most people have heard of and seen. But it’s also possible to just pay a website hosting service for a little spot on the internet and a little storage space, make a blog-website from scratch, and put it up. It’s even possible to not pay any service, but just to buy yourself a dedicated computer to keep at home, keep it always running and always connected to the internet, and put your handmade blog-website up on that computer. In that latter case, your website will be exactly as valid and accessible a website as any on the internet, but the ONLY entities with any say over your content or what you do with it would be the federal/state government, and your internet provider (Comcast/AT&T/etc) (and internet providers only really care that you’re not using them to do stuff that breaks federal/state law, anyway).

But no matter which of these methods you use, as long as you have a place where you package the content into the correct format for RSS, it can be read and subscribed to the exact same way that New York Times articles can be subscribed to. And as a reader, you can aggregate, browse, and read any/all blog posts using any reader app you want. You can even make your own app for this purpose, if you don’t like any of the existing ones! And no one is going to charge you for making use of RSS.

This is what’s known and referred to as the open internet, or the open web. Back in the day, it used to just be called the internet. We didn’t have to distinguish that it was “open,” because there was no such thing as a “closed” internet. But that’s what we effectively have now. What happened to RSS and the open web? Social media happened. In a process sometimes called platformization of the web, internet life came to be increasingly clustered and massed around just a handful of massive communities, each belonging to a huge company. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Medium. Plus whatever is searchable on Google–which, you’ve probably noticed, tends to be content from some ginormous, generic content site whose purpose in life is to get you to click on them from your Google searches, and is increasingly unlikely to be just an actual person who is interested in the topic. Social media took over to such an extent because it looked like utopia. It looked like getting everything we ever wanted, for free. But now we are starting to see the ways in which it has been costing us all along.

These social media platforms are gated communities. Even though you can view some stuff publicly, you usually have to sign up and/or download the company’s app in order to participate as a full member. The company holds all the content. They can wipe it at will; they can decide what to show each person and in what order and what it looks like; they can monetize it. They have your number. As somebody on the internet said: if you’re looking at one of these companies and you can’t tell what the product is, you are the product. We work for them. The days when a high-quality piece written by you or me–and hosted by you or me–had the same opportunity to get read as [whatever clickbait some billion-dollar company feels like promoting], seem to be in the past. And only now do we see the extent to which these companies’ optimizing for monetization and clicks also, as a side effect, happens to bring out the basest tendencies in us as a people.

Except: RSS never died. It just stopped taking off about a decade ago, because its momentum went over to the social media platforms. I had completely forgotten that RSS wasn’t actually dead, until recently a friend reminded me that it, in fact, still exists. A small, relatively quiet mass of people still use it; it’s actually quietly become ubiquitously supported by blogging platforms (pretty much every blog has a feed but doesn’t explicitly advertise it; you can see it if you try adding /feed or /rss to the domain name, e.g. https://rorysaur.blog/feed/ for mine); and really nice reader apps for every device are still being created, maintained, updated, and used.

Actually, podcast distribution also works via RSS; it’s just hidden under the hood, so that you never have to see the letters “RSS” or even “feed” to listen to podcasts. You go into your podcast-consuming app, search their directory for a podcast, subscribe to it, and then you get the new episodes as they arrive. But the podcasts don’t belong to the app that you consume them in; those apps have little control over them. The podcasts are hosted wherever the podcaster felt like hosting them. And you listen to them on whatever app you feel like listening on. It works the same way with blog posts, and blog-post-reading apps.

(100% skippable digression: Maybe one day we won’t need or want to segregate our media consumption into apps by whether it’s in audio or text or video format. That’s how they seem to see the future at a16z (Andreessen Horowitz, one of the most famous and future-oriented venture capital companies; see the “Further reading/listening” section at the end of this post), and I myself now deliver my newsletter and most of my blog posts by both text and audio to accommodate the varying needs and preferences in my reader/listener community. Hey (engineer friends and product-manager friends), if you like the idea enough, you can make it happen–consolidated audio and blog post feeds. Or text comments/questions attached to podcast episodes, even attached to timestamps within podcast episodes, that could be shared across any/all podcast apps. There are SO many things to be done to help facilitate our evolving into a thinking, considering, interacting, listening community, rather than just content consumers or counts of listens/downloads/impressions for use in calculating advertising rates.)

My friend who reminded me about RSS also said, “I don’t understand how people consume the internet without using RSS. Do people just, like, remember to check the websites they like? What if they miss something? How can people handle the FOMO?”

My response was that the current dominant mental model for consuming the internet seems to be an entirely different one from the model he’s using: in the dominant model, there’s simply no concept of “websites you like” (or authors you like) whose content you are missing out on by not subscribing to them. Rather, what’s linked to by someone via one of the Platforms (Facebook, Insta, Twitter, etc) is ALL that exists. What’s not linked to on social media might as well not exist. Therefore, the only FOMO would be around missing a popular link on social media; there is no fear of missing out on something that is on the internet yet NOT on social media. Such a piece of content is, by the dominant mental model, unimportant and not worth consuming by the very fact that no one else you know has mentioned it. Value, worth, quality, and importance are first filtered pass/fail by social proof and then sorted by degree of social proof, with help from an algorithm that prioritizes monetization (aka clickbaitiness, likeability).

In all the years since my preteen blogging days, I’ve never completely let go of having my own blog or my own domain, even when I forgot about RSS. There’s something about it that feels as solid and real and centering to me as owning a plot of land feels to some people. But on the reading-and-consuming side, my practices have been pretty haphazard and disappointing for many years. I think I’ve only now hit the point where it’s too irritating to go on the way I have been, so I was finally motivated to sit down, set up an RSS reader, and start putting together a feed of my favorite authors (bloggers, thinkers, cartoonists, etc). And I’ll tell you how to do the same.

I like social media. I use social media (selectively and minimally). I think social media should be a part of life. But I don’t think it should BE life. I lament the current platformized state of the internet, the state of our minds while we’re consuming the internet the way we currently do, and the state of our dialogue on the internet. But I hold out hope that the current state is neither inevitable nor permanent. We can do better. It would be a gift to ourselves and it would be a gift to each other.

Here’s how you can try out the RSS way of life, and see for yourself:

Note: Like I said, the open web is a highly flexible world, so there are tons of possible ways to consume and create on it. I’m aiming my advice at first-timers coming from the social media world and perhaps looking for some quick, non-intimidating recs to get started.

Also note: the term feed can be slightly confusing, because it refers to more than one thing. As a reader, your feed is your pile of new posts to read. But a blogger’s feed is their pile of posts they’ve written that is available for you to subscribe to. So if they have a feed then you can add it to your feed. Got it?

Step 1: Pick the service you’ll use to put together your feed of what you want to read. I’m using Feedly, which might be the most popular one. (I read that on the internet.) It’s free. Sign up with them, and add your first blog that you want to subscribe to. You can always give it the URL of the blog’s RSS feed if you know it, or sometimes even just the URL of the homepage and it will figure it out; for ones that are at least mildly famous, they are already known by Feedly, so you can just search by name and it should show up. (May I suggest https://rorysaur.blog/feed/ !)

Step 2: Pick the app you’ll use to read. This is optional, you can technically just do your reading on the Feedly website. But having a pretty app to read on is my favorite part. The simplest is the Feedly app, which they have for pretty much any device: iOS, Mac, Android, etc. There are nicer/different options for the different devices, so you can Google around. I’m using Unread on iOS, which has a limited free version but is fully unlocked for $20/year. So far I really like it.

Step 3: Customize your reading app to your liking. Font size, color scheme, what the list view looks like, whether it should automatically mark as read, and more! You can also note what kind of bookmarking, saving, or sharing your app supports.

Step 4: Add a few more blogs to your feed(s). With Feedly you can actually have up to 3(?) separate feeds on the free version, like if you want to organize them by different topics. If there are any bloggers you already manually check on, or subscribe to by email, you can start by adding them. Many contemporary [nonfiction] authors and many podcasters also blog, it’s all one little world. Whenever you read something that’s been shared with you and you really like it and the author has a blog, add them too. Personally I’m only adding individual bloggers for now, but pretty much every large media entity (news sites, magazines, lifestyle sites, etc) also has a feed, if not many. If you want to add those, there are a couple things to watch out for. First, you can expect a total firehose of posts which could be stressful. Some of these organizations separate their stuff into different feeds by topic, which would help, but it could still be too much. Secondly, if you subscribe to multiple news outlets, you could get a lot of duplicate articles. There are advanced strategies for smart-filtering that, but basically, I’d recommend starting slow and not overwhelming yourself. It’s supposed to be chill!

Step 5: Browse/read whenever you want to. Feel no pressure to read anything unless it stands out to you. That’s it!

BONUS STEP: Join the DARK SIDE and post your own stuff for others to subscribe to. The terms “blogger” or “author” or “content creator” are way too loaded. All we’re talking about is trying out the experience of posting some of the usual stuff–fragments, quotes, pictures, words, notes, reactions to a post you’ve read–somewhere outside of a gated community. We used to do this everywhere all the time, and have mostly forgotten how to. Poste Italiane runs on WordPress, but I don’t think I’d recommend it for a first-time blogger. I found it kind of intense to get started. At the moment I’m recommending Substack as the place to start a dead-simple, minimal, free, RSS-friendly blog, that can also automatically double as an email newsletter. I have no association with them other than that I made an account today to test it out. It only took like 10 minutes to sign up, have a first post up, and add the blog to my Feedly. (You can just use your main Substack URL, and Feedly will recognize it.)

One could argue for way too long over whether Substack counts as a “platform” or not (in the gated-community monetize-your-soul sense), but I’ve been following the company a bit, and they seem to have similar values to mine that I’ve expressed throughout this post, and to have the same beef as I have with the current state of media. Their business model is consistent with that as well. Ultimately what I judge based on is: as an author on the platform, to what degree do I have the feeling that I would be working for them? WordPress doesn’t give me the vibe that I’m just producing content that helps make WordPress look attractive, and Substack doesn’t give me that vibe either. I can’t say the same for other platforms (cough Medium cough). Things can always change with time, but that is my assessment for today.

If on the other hand I’ve converted you so effectively that you want to eschew anything resembling a platform, and to go all the way and just buy a domain and like FTP raw files to it, we can talk about that too, but I’m not going to explain that here. 🙂

In conclusion, the open web never died, neither in the back of my mind, nor in reality. It has always been there. We forgot about it and neglected it for a while, and we can un-forget it and we can use it, because we are finally starting to grasp the incredible costs of doing otherwise, of letting platforms mediate reality. Reclaiming the open web starts with resisting the next piece of clickbait. Don’t click on it, don’t stop to watch it, don’t like it, don’t share it. It starts with putting the work into reclaiming your attention, and deciding for yourself what you will feed your mind, and when, and how. It starts with posting one word, one sentence, in a place where it cannot be used to manipulate and capture the attention of your fellow humans for the purpose of the platform’s ad revenues. We sold ourselves, but we can buy ourselves back.


Further reading/listening:

WIRED: It’s Time for an RSS Revival — basic overview of the RSS landscape, with a tiny bit of background.

The Rise and Demise of RSS — a more technical history of the wars over the development of the RSS spec. If you don’t know what XML is, it could be a slightly frustrating read, but I think the overarching story is still potentially interesting if you don’t stress over the details.

a16z Podcast: Writers Writing, Readers Reading, Creators Creating — about new models for financing quality writing.

a16z Podcast: A Podcast About Podcasting — about the state of the podcasting industry.

a16z on Substack

Standard
field notes, personal history

Why I left the Real World, and how I’m doing 6 months later

Nearly eight months ago, I left my job in tech, and the world of 9-5 work as a whole (or 10-6 as was more often the case in tech!), to become a wandering writer (producer-of-things, bringer-of-delight, etc etc). On several occasions I have promised to explain the reasoning behind my decision to make that leap. As the 6-month mark passed, it also occurred to me that I should do a 6-month retrospective of what I’ve been up to, plus a snapshot of where I am now. Now I’m late so it’ll have to be a 7.5-month check-in, but I thought I’d include both the backstory and the current story in this here post.

I. ENTER THE REAL WORLD

But to properly tell the story of why I left the Real World, I need to tell the story of why I joined the Real World. Why did I become a software engineer in the first place?

Before I ever had anything to do with the tech world, I was in my mid-twenties, I was a part-time tutor helping kids of all ages with standardized tests, school homework, college admissions, and so on. I had time to write on the side. But I was living at my parents’ house, and couldn’t have afforded SF Bay Area rent.

In The downside of staying put, I explained some of the parameters of my decision to become a software engineer, on the more micro level. On the more macro level, which I don’t really go into in that post, some of the assumptions and steps in my thinking were as follows:

What I wanted:

  • Enough money to live on my own. So I could have a cat. (And because living with my parents could be kind of suffocating in some ways.) But I wanted to have a comfortable cushion rather than barely scrape by; I didn’t want to always be worrying about money, because that would make it hard to focus on creative work, too. Oh, and I didn’t want any roommates. No more roommates!

  • Enter the Real World. By and large, the tutors in my company stuck around for a few years, often while in school or some other transitional phase, and then left to join the Real World. Not only for the money, but because there was nowhere to “go” as a tutor, no advancement or growth. You pretty much did the same thing week after week, year after year. And I just had this feeling that the Real World was Out There, this whole other universe, and that was the stuff that the grownups were talking about all the time (“career track,” “thought leadership,” “ROI,” etc), and I wanted to dive in and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

  • Challenge/learning. I’m an ambitious person, and there was only so long that I could keep teaching teenagers the same stuff over and over. I wanted to go into an environment where I would be learning more than I taught, and where I’d be challenged every day.

What I assumed:

  • I should continue to live in the SF Bay Area. There was nowhere in particular that I wanted to live, and I’m from the Bay Area, so it was familiar and felt like home. Plus, I’d had zero luck getting the exact same type of tutoring job in two other major US cities (or any job at all), and in the Bay Area I walked in and got the job. So in my mind, that was the one place where people would give me a chance. And at that point in my life, I had no qualifications in anything; all I wanted/needed in any realm was for somebody to give me a chance. So I just figured I’d live in the Bay forever.

  • I would be able to write and do creative work on the side, alongside a full-time job. It wasn’t a hard and fast assumption, more like I was hopeful, which I had reason to be, as I’d seen other people do it, like my dad, and I’d read about it in books. I knew that creative work was important to me, and if I wouldn’t get to do any at all, then having a “career” in the Real World was probably not going to work out, but the only way to find out was to try it.

Major factor to consider:

  • I had some ability in programming. At this point I was an extremely novice-level self-taught amateur. Like I’d done one of those online courses that has millions of students, and I got through it. I could make things that were useful, even if it took 10x as long as it should have, and even if my code was garbage. But I felt like if somebody would give me a chance to really learn it, I could probably do it for a living. I had no idea what programmers actually did, but I was pretty sure I could do it.

Programming was fun, it was challenging, it was in high demand and short supply and thus lucrative, it was a Real World career, it was one of the easiest fields to break into without a formal background in the field, and it tends to have some of the most reasonable workloads and hours of all the high-paying professions. To live on my own in the Bay Area and not worry about money even at entry level, I pretty much had to work in tech, anyway. I decided to go all in on making it as a software engineer. I didn’t have any plan further out than that, but I’d just see if I could break in, and figure it out from there.

The rest of the decisions in that particular story (as well as the story behind several more decisions I made during my engineering career) are chronicled in The downside of staying put.

II. THE PLAN

Fast-forward 3 years. Suffice it to say, I did make it as an engineer, and more. (Sometimes people ask me if it was as easy as I make it sound. No. No it was not. During those 3 years, I hustled harder than I’ve ever hustled in my life.)

But, I’d learned at least one new thing with implications for my life strategy: I definitely didn’t want to work full-time in tech until conventional retirement age, in my 60s. Working in tech was fun, it was a great way to pay the bills, but it wasn’t fulfilling me enough to be the main thing to spend the prime decades of my life on. I didn’t know what my purpose in life was. But it wasn’t this.

What’s more, my assumption/hope that I would be able to do creative work on the side turned out to be wrong. Some people can do it. I don’t think I’m one of them. I explain why in my other post I’m not slow, I’m recharging: the EMP energy pattern. TL;DR, the amount of time I need for recovery and rest from work in order to stay sane is very high, and leaves almost no hours for creative thinking. When I tried to do more creative stuff and less recovery, my mental health suffered.

As I also explain in that post, if I’ve decided to do something, I’m ALL in. I can sometimes switch from one kind of thinking to another on a separate day, but I can’t really switch partway through the day. I can’t get home from work and switch to going all in on something else, nor can I do something else in the morning, and then be present at (or on time for) work. If you have my attention, then you have it for a solid 10-12 hours.

All other previous assumptions remained more or less the same. So around 2016 I made a plan: I would put in another 10-15 years full-time in the same line of work, and by the age of 40-45 I would “retire” from full-time work, and from tech, and not need to do stuff for the money ever again. As in, I might or might not work for money, but I wouldn’t need it, so I wouldn’t need to make decisions where money was a major factor. At the rate that I was earning, spending, and saving, the plan was feasible. I decided to run with it until further notice.

III. THE COUNT-UP — THE ASYMMETRIC BET

Fast-forward another 3 years. By 2019 I was an experienced manager of engineers. This is a very sought-after and even more highly paying position. Unfortunately, for an extremely introverted person such as myself, it also has an even higher energy cost than being an engineer. Plus, deferring deep creative work for years running was taking a heavy toll on me.

Even as THE PLAN was financially more feasible, it became psychologically and emotionally less feasible. I wasn’t sure I could make it another 10 years anymore. Not without becoming a negative person. And I didn’t want to be that person who’s in a job they clearly don’t want to be in, just counting down the years until they can get out. I’m not going to be that person. I won’t do it to myself, and I won’t do it to the people who work with me. Everybody deserves to work with people who want to be there.

The more time passed, the more I thought about shortening the timeline. Could I make something happen in 5 years? What about 3? I actually started a count-up of days in my daily planner. I would just keep counting each day that went by, and as an absolute upper limit, if I hit 3 years (1,096 days) and hadn’t made any plans or changes, I would have to quit my job on the spot and figure it out. I made that pact with myself. But really I was hoping I would figure it out within a year and a half, or 2 years. I set the hard deadline at 3 years to have some breathing room. (Software development trick: just take your best estimate for how long it will take to build something, and double it. It’s always been eerily accurate for me and my teams.)

The count went up for a few months as I continued to not do anything. Then multiple things happened. Friends of mine brought the fire and told me to quit wasting my abilities and get my shit together. (You know who you are. Thank you.) And I read, in Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, this question inspired by Peter Thiel:

So if you’re planning to do something with your life, if you have a 10-year-plan of how to get there, you should ask: Why can’t you do this in 6 months?

Well, good question. Its purpose is to question how long a thing really takes if you’re not bullshitting yourself. And for the first time, I thought: “Could I make a big change this year? How soon could I be doing what I want to be doing, if I started planning this out today?”

So I sat down and revisited all my previous assumptions. And realized that the other major assumption I’d started with was also now defunct: the assumption that I needed to live in the SF Bay Area (or other major city in the US), and thus had to earn enough to live comfortably there. I had already been living abroad, in the Netherlands, for nearly a year (again, see The downside of staying put for more on that decision), and much preferred it to the US. Why live in the US at all?

If I didn’t live in the US, then I could live on much less money. But if I didn’t work full-time in another country, I wouldn’t have residency in another country, and would have to keep moving around every few months according to visa restrictions. Immediately I knew that I was fine with this idea, more than fine.

By SF standards, the savings I had would not get me very far. But as a nomad, even in developed countries which is where I mostly want to be, I could last well over a year on my savings, maybe even two years. That’s a lot of time to figure out what’s next. And nothing beats the clarity of being able to go all in on this question, without worrying about going to work the next day. Every time I had 2 or 3 weeks off from work, I’d turned it into a personal retreat of sorts, and I could see the discrete leaps in clarity that happened with every one of those. What kind of clarity could I reach with a year-long retreat? What would I produce creatively?

That was the last piece I needed: the financial and logistical assurance that if I made a big change sooner rather than later, I’d have enough runway to get massive value out of it, to get something out of it that I wouldn’t otherwise see for at least 10 years–or maybe would never see, as I wouldn’t think the same thoughts or create the same stuff at 40 as I would at 30. What I didn’t want was to quit my job, worry about money the whole time, and then just come back a couple of months later without having learned anything I couldn’t have learned by staying.

The assurance of giving myself one year without worrying about money was this: No matter what happens, I’ll be a completely different person by the end of that year. And then it was a no-brainer. Give up one year’s salary, and–best case–possibly transform into a new person, understand what to do next, and thus save myself the next 10 years? And worst case, have 1 year off and just come back to tech, fully rested? Yes. Done and done. This is what’s known in investing as an asymmetric bet, heavily in my favor: it’s almost all upside, with very little risk. I’d take that deal every time.

There is nothing more important in life than living it. There’s nothing more worth your time. It sounds like kind of a pointless thing to say. But it’s a sign of our strange, upside-down society, that that statement has any meaning at all, that it also sounds like a kind of stake in the ground.

IV. REQUEST FOR COMMENTS

All of the above thoughts had been developing during a 2-week vacation. On my last full day before I returned home, I wrote out an RFC (Request for Comments) of my life strategy, a document that outlined all the points I’ve mentioned here: my previous assumptions and why my thinking had changed; my previous plan and why it wasn’t working; my new assumptions; my new plan; but also, what a successful change would look like, and what an unsuccessful change would look like (in other words, a change that would be basically no change, or which would leave me worse off than I was before).

The point of writing all this out was first of all to make all of it clear to myself, to my current self as well as my future self who might be at risk of forgetting my priorities or the purpose of what I was doing; and secondly so that I could share it with a few friends, and get some feedback.

If I take a look back at the list of things I wanted when I set out to become an engineer, almost none of them still held true:

  • Enough money to live on my own. This one still holds, but in a somewhat adjusted way. I still want to be able to live alone for the majority of the year, but I don’t mind spending parts of the year with my parents, because our dynamic has evolved over time, and because it’s different when it’s not the only option I have. The other change is that my conception of what it means to “live” has changed completely. It no longer automatically means holding a lease on an apartment, owning furniture and household things, or any of those markers of being a grownup. That’s not to say I’ll never return to those things. But for the foreseeable future I’m content to be a drifter, without a permanent residence, without my own household, and without Stuff.

  • Enter the Real World. Well, I finally got to spend time in the Real World. (“Real” loosely meaning “corporate,” by my definition. The world of legitimacy, which usually means money or at least prestige.) Not only did I learn about “career tracks,” “thought leadership,” “ROI,” and so much more, I ended up in positions where I influenced such things and taught other people about them. I made it to a level where I could see how it all worked, from the entry level to the executives. And once you see how it works, it’s always only going to be more of the same. Unless you can change it. But if you’re convinced you can’t change it (so I told myself), or that changing it isn’t what you want to do with your life, then it’s time to go. There’s nothing more for you to learn, and there’s nothing more for you to give.

  • Challenge/learning. See the point above. I didn’t see any further learning or challenge of the kind that I was interested in, in the world of tech. In any game, the first thing is you learn how to play the game, so that people will let you join them and play alongside them. Later, you learn the game as a construct: how the rules got to be what they are, how you might change them, change the game itself. And with that understanding, you can use it as an advantage to win at the game; or you can decide, this isn’t the game you want to play at all. For me, it was the latter.

The new plan was simple: leave my job within 4-6 months; leave the Netherlands 3 months after that and become nomadic; go at least 6-12 months without working for pay; after that, pick up paying work as needed (in compliance with the strategy doc, in which I specified which kinds of work I would and would not be willing to take, and how much I would take). Continue indefinitely. Live simply. Survive.

I sent the doc to a 3-4 friends, who challenged some of the statements, asked for clarification, suggested ideas they’d seen other people do before, and who were all supportive and agreed that the plan was feasible. With my new strategy set, I was ready to make it happen.

V. EXIT THE REAL WORLD

I’d written the plan in late spring of 2019, and I left my job within 4 months of that. (By the way, according to my count-up, my last day was on Day 255.)

My first order of business was just to complete the transition. There was a lot of stuff that had been accumulating in my mind for years that I needed to address, and a lot of stuff I needed to do to physically move out of the country and become a nomad. Basically the one-time things that needed to get done to let go of my previous life and my previous way of being.

Of course, right after I left my job, I wasn’t thinking of it that way. I was just tired. I slept 10 or 11 hours a day for at least a month or two–sleeping off years of accumulated exhaustion. (I normally need 8-9 hours a day. That’s my average now.)

Recovery involved not only sleeping, but also doing all the relaxing things I’d never had time to do while working. Spend a whole day reading; a whole day watching TV; a whole day writing for this blog; a whole day taking a train to another city and walking around. A month went by before I even started to feel rested. I hadn’t realized how burnt out I was.

While my body and part of my mind had been accumulating exhaustion, another part of my mind had been underutilized, accumulating ideas and the hunger to do something with them. I started to wake up that part of my mind again, and clear it out, by writing out everything I’d been meaning to write about for the past few years, until I ran out of stuff in the attic, so to speak. This took a couple of months.

In the meantime, I took on the large project of preparing to move. I gave away everything I owned, saw my friends as much as I could before I moved, and was out of the country by Christmas–tired all over again, but happy.

VI. A NEW SELF

Completing that transition took up probably the first 3-4 months of my time as a free person. After that, COVID-19 became increasingly a thing. It drastically changed my travel plans for the year, but for the better, really. Instead of wandering around on adventures, most of this current phase of 3-4+ months has been spent hunkered down in a small studio apartment in Istanbul, Turkey, doing some deep thinking and introspecting, getting inspired again, and laying the foundation of a new self: work I might’ve otherwise put off until much later.

The elements of this new self include:

  • Routine. After I left my job, I started out without a routine, just sleeping and generally being a full-time couch potato, and gradually adding structure from there. Now I’m using this quarantine time as a controlled lab for developing a structure for my days that’s going to keep me active and growing, in the absence of any employer or boss.

  • Rewriting the narrative. Gradually pinpointing beliefs and narratives that have affected my decisions in the past and disempowered or restricted me, and replacing them with ones that are empowering. I mostly do this through the morning pages (google it). One great and hugely consequential example of this is detailed in I’m not slow, I’m recharging. If writing out my creative ideas was like cleaning out the attic, this work is more like cleaning out the basement. It’s dark, it’s not pretty, and there’s some scary stuff in there that’s been there for who knows how long. But there are also some amazing discoveries to be had, of things I had all along but had forgotten about. In this sense, the rewritten narrative isn’t even “new.” It’s more like re-integrating my self with the person I was as a kid–the most important person to re-integrate with, because that’s the last time I was being truly honest.

  • Purpose. If I don’t have a job title, if I don’t have a career track, then who am I, exactly? What do I “do” (as the Americans say)? What have I been put on this earth to work on? How do I prioritize my work accordingly? With my mind starting to get clear (including the attic and the basement!), I have the first inklings of a working understanding of purpose.

  • Community. That’s you! It’s my subscribers, readers, friends, people I text/email and interact with on social media, people I catch up with on Zoom. It’s developing practices around who to keep in touch with, how to keep in touch, what’s important to communicate, and how to keep making new friends and growing my community. The newsletter is one of the best things I have ever done for myself. It gives me a built-in way to fold new friends into my community so that I don’t quickly lose touch with them, as well as a way to regularly remember that people care about me, and to regularly remind people that I care about them.

When I was contemplating the possibility of all this for the first time almost exactly one year ago, I told myself that within a year of getting started, I’d be a completely different person, unrecognizable to myself. And indeed I am already a different person.

Thanks to all of these elements of a new self taking root and beginning to grow, I feel more at peace than I’ve felt since I was a very small child, since I was basically pre-conscious. I know that plenty of people who know me have always thought of me as the calm one, which isn’t untrue, but all my life I’ve also been carrying around some form of depression, anger, frustration, impatience, self-loathing, and shame. Only realizing now that all along, it was just a heavy suit I was trying to walk around in; it wasn’t me. I can unzip it, step out of the suit, and leave it behind.

So that’s the snapshot of where I find myself, just over half a year post-exit from the so-called Real World: well-rested; undergoing a transformation; shedding layers of an earlier self to bring back an even earlier self; feeling lighter than ever before, and full of possibility. As for what I’m doing now and in the near future, perhaps the best way I can describe it is “being full-time curious.” The best job I’ve had so far.

Standard
field notes, personal history

I’m not slow, I’m recharging: the EMP energy pattern

I always thought I had a handicap, until I realized it was a superpower.

I. ONE-FOURTH OF A LIFE

At some point in my life I started to realize that I experience time differently than most people–and not in a way that I liked. It’s as if I have half the number of waking hours, and as if during those hours, I have half the energy that everybody else has. It’s not even about productivity or the effective use of that time, but literally how much of it is available to begin with, to waste or to put to good use.

If I leave the house for at least a couple of hours, for just about any reason–getting groceries, going to a cafe, seeing a friend, going to work–that’s about all I can do in the whole day. Sometimes I even need a nap afterwards. Everyone else seems to be able to get out and do more things than I can, spend more time with friends than I can, and even watch more TV, read more books, go through more social media, and do more chores than I can. All at the same time. All while working as much as I do and sleeping as much as I do. Some of them while also raising kids, which I don’t have.

It’s not that I feel competitive about it, it’s just frustrating feeling like I am only able to experience about 1/4 as much life as everybody else can. And wondering if I’m the only person who goes through life this way. All my life, I wanted to be normal.

My interest in planning out my days and tracking where my time goes probably grew out of a desire to try to figure out what the hell was going on with me and where the large disparity comes from, as well as to try not to waste the pathetic amounts of time it feels like I have. It’s perhaps a way to compensate, except that earlier on, I didn’t think of it as compensating; I assumed that everyone else was just way better at time management than I was, and so I’d better try to catch up. After several years of observing my own patterns, I’ve started to have some idea of where all my time is going.

II. TIME WARPS — DAYDREAMING — POST-INTERACTION PROCESSING

First: I just do everything really slowly. I can just observe myself and someone else in the same room doing the same task, and see how much longer it takes. I walk slowly, I eat slowly, I brush my teeth slowly. Friends have commented that it’s like I move in slow motion. Of course, to me it feels like I’m normal, and everyone else has access to some sort of time warp where they can just skip ahead at certain moments. I’m at a restaurant with friends, they bring everyone’s food at the same time, I take a bite or two–and then I see that everyone else’s plate is empty. When it’s time to go, we all stand up from the table at about the same time, and then everyone else already has their coats and scarves and backpacks on, ready to walk out the door, and I still have to do all of that. I still don’t understand how it happens. I have tried moving faster, but I gave up pursuing that as soon as I started. It stresses me out to try to move faster than my natural pace, and I suspect wouldn’t actually make that much of a difference, as I don’t think it accounts for a large proportion of the disparity.

Second–but this may be directly related to the first–I daydream a lot. After I wake up, it usually takes me 30-60 minutes to get out of bed, because I’m in that dreamy half-awake state. But then I might more or less stay in that state for several hours, until something forces me out of it. Often I’d stay in it while getting ready and having coffee, while taking a shower, and through my whole commute, and then snap out of it upon getting to work. But I may return to that state at various points throughout the day, sometimes just for a minute or two, sometimes for hours.

When I daydream, it’s almost as random as night-dreaming. It could involve memories, imagined interactions, imagined conversations, thinking through my reaction e.g. to something at work, or to a book or movie–or even composing blog posts, like this one, which was conceived of and partially composed while daydreaming. This definitely causes me to move more slowly at whatever I’m doing; it also causes those blips in time where minutes or hours seem to drop out of consciousness, and the clock seems to have just instantaneously advanced to a later point, as I’ve been lost in thought. Repeated throughout the day, these add up to a noticeable “loss” in the time available to do more tangible things.

Finally: I have to spend time decompressing or “processing” after interactions. If I do anything social or talk to anyone (which could be in person, video chat, or over the phone, or sometimes even chatting via text / instant message), I have to “process” it immediately afterwards. That’s the name I made up for it. This means either pacing around the house (especially if I’ve just gotten home), or sitting motionless in the exact same position I was sitting while talking (because it doesn’t even occur to me to get up until I’m done processing). It usually involves mentally replaying parts of what was said, in an uneven distribution: some parts of the conversation are already forgotten, while others I replay ten or twenty times. It doesn’t matter whether the conversation had anything emotional or significant, or if it was just a fun, light catch-up with a friend.

Right after the interaction, it feels like everything is too scattered for me to be able to do anything else. Imagine if every time you got home after having left the house, every single piece of furniture and possession in the house was in the wrong place, with some stuff floating in the air, etc–but you knew that if you paced around for a while replaying the conversations you just had, eventually everything in the house would be pretty much as you left it, and then you could go on with whatever you wanted to do. That’s like my brain after I talk to someone. And I process until it feels settled again.

If I interact for an hour, I have to process for about half an hour. Interact for two hours–process for one hour. The curve drops off after that: if I interact for like 10 hours straight, then I would probably process for a couple hours, fall asleep, and try to take it easy the next day. If I was “on” more than usual during the interaction, for example if I spoke in front of a group at any point, then it might take even longer. Sometimes I have to run on a deficit for a while, because I don’t have time to process everything as much as I want to for several days or more. And that seems to work the same way as running on a sleep deficit for days, weeks, or longer: at some point it’s not possible to make up all the hours; you just take a hit in overall health. While I had a full-time job, I was always running on a deficit of processing time. Always. This is why I don’t think I can sustainably do a traditional workweek, if it involves regular meetings. There aren’t enough hours in the week; I spent almost all my free time processing, and it still wasn’t enough.

While processing, I can’t really do anything else. The most that I can do is maybe google stuff that we talked about, reply to text messages, or like, if I was in the middle of some mindless computer task before the interaction, such as tagging blog posts or other forms of organizing, sometimes I can go back to that right after the interaction, and it actually helps me decompress. But I really don’t have a lot of brain space. If I had a tea or some food next to me, I usually forget to even eat or drink it.

While I’m processing, it’s like a flow state, where I lose track of time. It’s as if I was talking to you in a video chat, and we both said goodbye and signed off at the same time, but it actually took me a full hour to sign off. We say goodbye at 5pm, I laugh to myself about something you said, then I look at the clock and it’s 6pm, and I go, “Oh, it’s late, and I have to pee.”

As you can imagine, this is a massive time sink, with no actual advantages, as far as I can tell. I don’t know that I remember conversations particularly well, for having replayed them. I just came to think of it as a handicap that I would just have to live with and work around. You know, there are probably adults who need to sleep like 13 hours a day, and they might not get anything out of it. It’s like that. You just live with it. But it feels like only being able to live half of every day, because the other half is spent processing the half that was lived. It’s annoying.

(By the way, perhaps you’re wondering about the implications for being in a relationship? This is something I haven’t managed to get a good read on so far. Maybe the best I can say is that interacting with a partner doesn’t count the same way as interacting with other people–the “curve” is different–but it’s not zero, it’s at least slightly draining compared to being alone. Certainly being with an extrovert was a struggle for me in the past.)

(I wondered whether this might be some form of OCD. There is a form of OCD that involves replaying conversations. But it doesn’t seem to match my experience, as my processing is not an emotional or distressing experience for me, and it doesn’t have to do with fear, or regret. It’s a relaxing way of decompressing and settling back into myself, maybe similar to someone who feels the need to run or work out after a workday. Time-consuming, but not necessarily bad.)

I have never in my life heard of anybody else doing the same. But it does seem like something that might be more common in introverts than extroverts. But then again, I’ve never really mentioned it to other people, either. Maybe a lot of us do this, and we all think we’re the only ones.

The only thing I have heard of that comes close at all is that Sarah Manguso writes in her book Ongoingness about how she used to feel the need to record as much of life as possible in her diary. Though her reasons were different than mine–a way to make life’s happenings real, make them live on by preventing them from being forgotten, and not just a way to decompress–the feeling of always running on a deficit is much the same: “Today was very full, but the problem isn’t today. It’s tomorrow. I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.”

Actually, I used to journal every day for very similar reasons. (I’ve recently returned to journaling every day, but without feeling the same anxious need to get everything down, that used to drive me.) So, I guess that explains what happened to my early twenties. Between journaling, processing, and sleeping, it’s a wonder I managed to do anything else at all.

As for my experience of my own energy cycles, they are heavily affected by the post-interaction processing. Processing recenters me, but doesn’t give me my energy back. On the contrary, it’s tiring in itself, as if I did the social thing twice in a row. But aside from that, it’s hard to overstate how easily overstimulated I am by external stimuli. If I take public transit and walk around in a crowded city for a couple of hours, without talking to anyone, I still get drained after not too long and have to sit alone in a room for a while, preferably with the lights relatively dim. As I mentioned above, sometimes after a grocery run, I have to take a nap. Under the right conditions, like quiet and darkness, I have normal energy or better; if not for that, I’d wonder if I had an actual illness like anemia or something. As a somewhat ambitious person, it’s demoralizing to be constantly running out of energy after doing so little.

III. PSIONIC POWERS

More recently, I’ve begun to question whether it’s really true that I’m able to do a quarter of the stuff that anybody else is able to do, even though that’s exactly what it feels like on almost any given day. Is that always what it feels like? Or are there times when I feel like I can do equally as much as others can do, if not more?

Actually, there are occasions when I feel the exact opposite of what I’m used to: that I have much more energy than most other people, and that I have more time available to me. It’s whenever there’s something that requires a high degree of mental focus or attention, particularly if it’s constrainted to a relatively limited amount of time, though the time limit could be on different scales: it could be a few minutes, an hour or two, a week, three months–as long as the time allotted is a little bit constrained relative to the scope of the task. The task could be to take a test, write something, give a speech, build an app/website, find a better way to do something, or learn my way around any system, whether that’s a language or an economy or a process for doing something or the layout of a building or an academic policy. Or even just to listen to a friend talk, and to be fully present with them.

On such occasions, while I’m doing the task, it often feels like I literally have more cylinders available to me than are available to most other people I observe around me. Like I can visualize all the components of the problem or topic, hold them all in my head at the same time, rotate them, analyze them, put them back together, and then articulate what went through my head, in the form of words or math or code or a drawing. And then the time warp is in the reverse of what I’m used to, as I’ll realize that others working on the same thing haven’t even started yet.

It’s been this way since I was a child. I’ve always avoided talking about it, because there’s this intense stigma around saying that something was easy for you, like as if you’re bragging. But it’s a silly prejudice that has probably led to untold loneliness and suffering in the world, of people who experience this and have no way to share the experience with others. It may have also caused such topics to not be studied enough, though studying them could yield benefits for everyone. And: this is my blog so I get to talk about it.

This disparity is easiest to see clearly in timed test situations, but of course it’s not limited to those. If I think about it, in general, on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 meaning the highest engagement and energy usage, I’m usually either running at 1, or I’m running at 11–meaning, more engaged in the thing than almost anyone I’ve ever seen. Friends who receive emails from me either get a 1-line email, or an email that is 1000 or 2000+ words. If I’m in, then I’m all in. But it’s not an even distribution of time. It’s something like 5-10% of the time at 11, and all the rest of the time at 1. Also, it’s not like the results I see from working at level 11 are comparable to the results from working at 5.5 for twice the amount of time. Every level of engagement gives me access to certain ways of thinking which, when I’m at the lower levels, is simply not possible.

I also experience this “level 11 burst” not only cognitively or in problem-solving situations, but in social situations. Which explains my tendency to on occasion be the most social person at a large gathering–trying to talk to every single person I don’t know, learning everyone’s name, starting the dance circle, etc–after which I might not feel like leaving the house for a solid week. When I’m not feeling it, I can also be the biggest wallflower at a gathering. But if I show up at a gathering and decide, “I’m going to talk to every person here before I leave,” then I just do it. And I’ve never before had any explanation for the surge of social energy I get in those situations.

I have typically done well in jobs that allow for this kind of energy pattern. When I worked as a software engineer, for much of the day you’d see me going out for coffee, messing around on Slack, unable to concentrate on any one thing even when I tried. Then at some point in the afternoon I’d put my headphones on, switch on my brain, and I’d finish the entire day’s work in the last couple of hours. Whereas jobs that require a steady drip of half-attention all day are hell for me. My blogging days follow the same pattern. For most of the day I putter around, eat, drink tea, take walks, sit on the couch, process interactions, watch TV, all kinds of highly passive things. Then after dinner I’ll sit down and write a 3000-word post like this one.

It makes me think of the girl in Stranger Things (whose name is actually Eleven, but no pun was intended!). She is able to wield incredible psychokinetic power, but in short bursts–after which she faints and/or is super weak and has to gradually recover before being able to do it again.

In the world of StarCraft, a real-time strategy game series from the 1990s that is still played competitively today, there’s a type of unit called a Ghost–essentially a human that specializes in stealth, and has abilities that cost some of their energy to use. Such abilities include being cloaked, which makes them invisible to most other units, and EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which can remove energy from other units, like shields, and sometimes disable them. (According to Wikipedia, “The popular media often depict EMP effects incorrectly, causing misunderstandings among the public and even professionals. Official efforts have been made in the U.S. to disprove these misconceptions.” So I’ll reiterate that this version of EMP is fictional. Okay?)

The Ghost just slowly recharges energy over time, so if it’s out of energy, you just have to wait until it has enough before you can do another EMP round or call down a nuke. (Presumably we are talking about the energy of the suit that they wear, and not their actual personal energy, although Ghosts do have psionic powers, as that is how they qualify to go into Ghost training to begin with, so it could be both.) There are many types of units that use energy like this, but the Ghost is, in my opinion, the coolest one. (Another cool one is the Medic, which uses energy to heal other units.) This concept is very present everywhere in StarCraft, the concept of entities being able to wield a large amount of power in a single burst, and then having to slowly recharge before being able to do it again.

Thinking of it this way completely changes my narrative around my own abilities and disabilities, and how I fit into the world. What if the sluggishness and low energy I feel most of the time is inextricably tied to the short bursts, those EMP pulses, of mental power? What if I can’t have one without the other? By that model, I’m not slow, passive, weak, or inefficient–I’m recharging. I’m saving up energy for the next round. It’s not an overall energy deficit, but a different distribution of energy over time. And given the choice between this or the steady drip all day at a medium level of engagement, I’d choose the EMP pattern every time. The times when I’m at 11 are the times I feel most alive; and the recovery after an awesome burst of work is downright satisfying. When I change the story I’m telling myself, what I’ve always thought of as an inadequacy becomes a superpower.

IV. CODA

I haven’t seen any literature (scientific or otherwise) about this kind of energy pattern; I haven’t seen it explicitly associated with introverts, creative people, or any other group. I don’t know if it’s correlated with any group or not. The closest thing I’ve seen is artists occasionally saying that the majority of their time is spent doing nothing, or doing passive things. I feel like all self-help, productivity, time management (or “energy management” or “attention management” as they’re calling it nowadays), and other such “how-to” literature, including in the creative sector, falls within the paradigm of consistency, of mostly pushing yourself steadily throughout the day and year, though with breaks to recover. But this recovery time is sort of assumed to be the minority of the time (“quick walks”, “power naps”, etc). No more than a couple hours (or even mere minutes!) a day, a few days of the week, a few weeks out of the year.

Nowhere have I seen somebody say that it’s okay, maybe even totally normal, to flip the balance around entirely, and expend all your energy in a short burst, then take the rest of the day to recover. And to work like this every single day. Ironically, it’s the established default pattern for expending physical energy. But to think of it as the pattern for mental or social energy seems radical. I think it’s an oversight that impoverishes the conversation around energy management–one that StarCraft has nevertheless had a handle on for over twenty years–and I think it could be better for people of all energy-pattern types if we talked about it, studied it, put a language around it, and used that to support and encourage each other. People like me exist. There should be room for this.

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field notes

A personal device usage policy in the war for your attention

I. THE SIEGE ON ATTENTION — THE UPHILL BATTLE OF RESISTANCE

I think it’s fairly uncontroversial at this point to say that devices have quite a hold over us. The use of devices is one of those things where it’s very easy to get into an unhealthy state, but a lot of work to get back into a healthy state and maintain it. And that should be no surprise: the forces driving the unhealthy state are the very apps we rely on; they have endless money and behavioral scientists at their disposal; they can roll out one feature to millions of people and change everyone’s behavior at once. While the forces driving the healthy state are mostly individual users; to have any chance at success, a user needs to be well-informed in the science and best practices of habit formation and breaking, needs to be equipped with strategy, tactics, ingenuity, willpower, persistence.

My own pattern is that I am almost always working to either regain the healthy state, or to maintain it. Then every now and then, something will require me to make an exception to my usual habits (coronavirus and, before that, the US primaries, were the recent triggers), and of course I’ll fall into a pattern of usage that I don’t like, until I decide once again that it’s time to do something about it.

I realized that what I refer to as the “healthy state” is just a conglomeration of habits and practices around my device usage that I decided to live by, because they’ll make for a saner mental life. It’s a series of decisions–or, to break it down even further, a series of questions, and my own preferred answers to those questions. At my best, I’m probably only actively using 70-80% of the practices, and working just to keep it at that level. But I’m okay with that. The discipline of having a set of practices, and working to hold myself to them, is more important than being perfect. If we don’t answer these questions for ourselves, and actively make our own decisions, someone else will decide for us.

(Digression: I guess I go through life as a C kid, expecting around 70% performance against my own rubric. Which is pretty funny given my fairly typical middle-class Asian American upbringing. But then, even in high school and college I would tweak my effort level and priorities such that I could try to get exactly 90% (the minimum for an A) in each class–no more, and no less. I was that kid.)

Taken together, I suppose we could call this a personal device usage policy: a document, a set of agreements with myself, that lays out what I want my digital life to look like. But I’ve never actually sat down and written it all out. Since it would be helpful for me to do so, I’ll write it here, and at the same time, you can follow along and write your own. So we’ll both have one. To that end, I’ll break it down into the questions I ask myself, and the decisions I’ve made for how to answer each one.

II. WRITING A PERSONAL DEVICE USAGE POLICY: THE QUESTIONS

Note: for any of the questions below that mention a specific device, like a phone, you can repeat the questions with all your other devices for which you want to have a personal policy, like a laptop, tablet, watch, etc. For the most part, I don’t feel the need to regulate my use of devices other than my phone, so I won’t have answers for those.

First, just the questions. For each question, picture what you want to be able to answer, in your ideal (but still realistic) world:

  • How would you summarize the overarching stance (values, goal, approach, philosophy) of your policy? What’s important to you? What do you NOT want in your life, when it comes to device usage?
  • When is the first time in the day that you look at your phone?
  • At what points, throughout the day, do you look at your phone? At what points do you NOT look at your phone?
  • At various times or places in the day, where do you put your phone? If on a surface, is it face-up or face-down?
  • When do you have your phone set to silent? When not silent, what kind of sounds does it make, and when?
  • What do you get lock-screen notifications for? What DON’T you get lock-screen notifications for?
  • When you unlock your phone for whatever reason, which other apps do you check before and after doing what you intended to do?
  • Which apps do you have on which devices?
  • What’s your policy around using your phone/devices for work?
  • When is the last time in the day that you look at your phone?
  • What other decisions does your policy include?

II. WRITING A PERSONAL DEVICE USAGE POLICY: MY ANSWERS

How would you summarize the overarching stance (values, goal, approach, philosophy) of your policy? What’s important to you? What do you NOT want in your life, when it comes to device usage?

The idea is to be able to focus on who I’m with or what I’m currently trying to do, to minimize interruptions and compulsions, while staying reasonably responsive to the people I’m close to (generally responding within hours for messages, within days for emails).

My policy is pretty specific and detailed. This is because using my phone is a powerful addiction that detracts from my life in many ways, but it’s not practical for me to go without one, so I’ve had to come up with all kinds of tactics to manage my addiction.

When is the first time in the day that you look at your phone?

For me, it’s after my first coffee in the morning (same for all devices), and I want it to stay that way. When I “relapsed” into a bad state earlier this year, I was looking at my phone once when I woke up in the middle of the night (which I did every night, for a while), and once as soon as I woke up. Then one morning I thought, “What if today, I don’t touch my phone until after I get up and have coffee?” And I like that much better, so I decided to keep it as a practice.

At what points, throughout the day, do you look at your phone? At what points do you NOT look at your phone?

In other words, what triggers or anchors should and should not cause you to look at your phone?

It’s easier to start with some NOTs:

  • NOT while I’m in the middle of something where my phone is not necessary, like reading, journaling, watching a movie, talking to a friend, or walking.
  • NOT while waiting, e.g. in line, unless it’s to do something specific on my phone, like read something or text someone. I don’t want to compulsively check for new posts / messages / likes / etc.
  • NOT immediately after doing things where I was unable to look at my phone for just a few minutes, e.g. right after taking a shower or a nap, out of this compulsive desire to be reunited with my phone.
  • NOT to unnecessarily check the time (e.g. every 5 minutes??). I use a watch when possible.

And times when I am okay with looking at my phone:

  • Every few hours, when switching between activities.
  • While I am semi-actively having a texting conversation with someone, so I’m expecting their replies.
  • When I am using it for a specific purpose.
  • I think that’s about it.

At various times or places in the day, where do you put your phone? If on a surface, is it face-up or face-down?

  • When I go out, it’s in my pocket. If I’m sitting down and I’m afraid of it falling out or being stolen (or sometimes just for comfort), I may put it on the table, but face-down. (Which way it’s facing makes a huge difference for me in how distracting it is, so that’s why I ask myself this question.)
  • When I’m at home, it’s really best for it to be out of my line of sight and out of arm’s reach, otherwise I check it compulsively. I like to keep it at the charger if I can, which (currently) is across the room from anywhere I can sit.
  • If it must be near me for some reason (2-factor auth, getting pictures from the phone camera roll, etc), I try to keep it face-down.
  • It’s okay for it to be face-up if I need to look at it a lot for what I’m doing.

When do you have your phone set to silent? When not silent, what kind of sounds does it make, and when?

Always silent. Nothing is allowed to make any sound, except for music, videos, and the alarm. But I don’t use an alarm to wake up, except in very rare cases.

Also, maybe a year or two ago I even switched it to not vibrate for text messages, only phone calls. Not having it vibrate on receiving text messages has made such a huge difference. I can’t imagine going back. (In fact, I almost forgot to mention it, because I forgot that it was ever any different.)

What do you get lock-screen notifications for? What DON’T you get lock-screen notifications for?

Yes: Messages, WhatsApp, phone calls, Instagram, Google Maps directions.
No: Email, Slack, any other app.

When you unlock your phone for whatever reason, which other apps do you check before and after doing what you intended to do?

What I would like is to only go to the app I intended to go to, and maybe also afterwards to reply to messages I received, and then to put my phone down again; but this one is really hard for me. I’ve improved at not compulsively going to a different app (email, Instagram, etc) before I do what I’d actually intended to do, as I used to unlock my phone to type something in a note, but then wind up checking some other app first, and forget the thing I wanted to write down. Pretty sad. I still compulsively check other apps after I do the thing I intended to do. It’s a work in progress.

Which apps do you have on which devices?

For the most part, my computer and my phone share the same apps (for those that make sense as mobile and desktop apps). On my iPad, I don’t have any messaging or social media apps: because I’m not going to try to type on an iPad keyboard; because having messages sync properly between 2 devices is annoying enough; and so that I can read distraction-free (which is mostly what I use it for).

What’s your policy around using your phone/devices for work?

I’m working for myself currently, but when I worked in tech and had a full-time office job, my policy was as follows:

  • Don’t expect me to respond to anything outside of normal work hours.
  • My actual practice was that I would still see messages outside of work hours (because I used my work computer as my personal computer, so on the same Slack app I talked to friends but would also see work messages; same with Slack on my phone), but I usually wouldn’t reply to anything I saw. I’d make a note or otherwise mark it for later.
  • “Normal work hours” wasn’t the same as “when I’m at the office,” as we had the flexibility to be at the office or at home, as needed. So I might already be responding to messages from home in the morning, then physically go in a little later.
  • I’d try to respond to Slack messages within 1-3 hours, email within 1 day.
  • I’d try not to check Slack before getting out of bed.
  • No work email on my phone. I had work Slack on my phone, but with notifications only for DMs–but eventually, no notifications at all, on my phone or computer, as I checked Slack often enough myself. You could still override and force it to notify me. Hardly anybody ever did this.
  • No calls while walking; I’m either fully there or I’m not there.
  • To summarize: a manager at a startup these days usually doesn’t get to have a perfectly hard separation between work and personal life (to be 100% unreachable when outside of the office or outside of work hours), especially when collaborating across different time zones, but the point of my policy was to be fully present and responsive to the person or situation at hand. That meant minimizing interruptions and distractions, as well as trying to actually rest when not working.

Of course, it’s a negotiation between you and the expectations and culture of your workplace. And, even if you’re technically allowed to implement the policy you want, you have to get the people around you used to it by following your own policy consistently (and sometimes explaining it), so that they know what to expect.

When is the last time in the day that you look at your phone?

For me: right before I go to sleep, when I use my phone to put on some audio.

What other decisions does your policy include?

There are a number of other decisions you could make in a policy encompassing more of your digital life, like which social media apps you use, what you subscribe to and follow, decisions around security, privacy, and permissions, but we won’t get to that here.

IV. PUTTING YOUR POLICY INTO PLACE

Alas, we won’t go into tactics for implementation here, as one could write a whole book on it–and many people already have. Just look at the dozens/hundreds of books on habits, and on addiction.

But the first step to implementation is definitely to know where you currently stand in the answers to all these questions.

Once you know and you can see what needs to change, I wouldn’t recommend trying to follow everything in the policy at once, if it involves many changes, but I’m sure there are people who might do well with a sudden drastic change. Personally I developed my policy incrementally (and never wrote it down till now, as I said), and at any one time I’m only focused on one or two of the practices. It’s the grueling work of changing dopamine flows and rewiring whole chains of (sometimes unconscious) behavior.

It’s my belief that making these decisions up front–and writing them down!–will help you know what you want to do in the moment. Good luck!

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field notes

One day, 20,000 times: the evolution of a daily routine

I. THE CRISIS OF DAILY EXISTENCE — ONE DAY CAN STAND FOR AN ENTIRE LIFE

The most daunting thing about going jobless is working out some sort of answer to that question of how to fill the space of each day. (I also talked about this in The longest weekend). Of course, a day gets filled with something, whether you like it or not. You can’t stop it from happening. But that also means that questions arise, maybe not in the first few weeks, but after three weeks, a month, six months. Hard questions: What should I do today? What can I do today? Should I be doing something else right now? Am I going to run out of money? Should I be doing something about that? Is it better to worry now or later? These are questions about survival, meaning, purpose.

It seems especially impossible when you’re thinking that, once you’ve got this all figured out for today, now you have to figure it out all over again tomorrow: 365 times this year, and 365 again next year, and the year after that. A new existential crisis every day!

But what I propose here is that you only really have to figure out one day. One perfect day that encapsulates everything you most want to be present in your life. Once you have that, you just repeat it 20,000 more times. (20,000 days is about 54 years. Maybe I’ll have much less time, maybe much more, but I’ll just shoot for the middle here.)

By the way, this isn’t just for people who are jobless and have all day to fill. You have some control over what to do with some nonzero amount of time, at least one minute of your day or week. If you don’t have any control over any of your time, it’s unlikely you would be reading my blog, but even so, you can still control your experience of time, which is almost the whole thing.

Am I suggesting that the plan is to do the exact same things at the same times every single day? No. This idealized prototype day is a container you build that you can then rely on to encase the living soul of each day–which cannot and should not be predicted–and to protect it from dribbling out and being stolen away by distractions that you don’t want to give your days to. It’s also a default which you can stray from completely when being spontaneous, but, just as many people prefer to have a geographical home base available even if they’re usually not found there, your perfect day is a home base for a way of being, that you’ll know is bespoke-crafted for you, by you, and to which you can always return when you’re not sure what else to do. It eliminates decisions, and “fewer decisions” is one of the best gifts you can ever give yourself. Decisions drain willpower. Willpower is a finite, and rather limited, renewable resource. When we’re completely drained of willpower, we do crazy shit. Wondering “what should I do now?” every hour or two will severely complicate your life and hold you back.

As Annie Dillard put it in The Writing Life:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.

Crucial to this whole enterprise is the idea that how you spend any one day can and does represent how you go through your entire life. I find myself believing this more and more strongly. Of course the literal activities change across the days, years, and decades. But if I don’t spend my day today being thankful to be alive, how can I expect to ever do so? If I don’t make time and space in my day today for myself and for my friends, I won’t do so on any other day. If I don’t take a risk today, I won’t take a risk tomorrow. I’ve procrastinated enough in my life to know that if I put off living for long enough, pretty soon I’ll be dead. So, to live the life I want, I have to get today right.

This is the making of a routine.

II. VISION

First, it’s helpful to know what you’d actually like your day to look like, not right now but in your wildest dreams.

In 10 years from now I mention an exercise I did last year for envisioning what a typical day would look like, 10 years from the time of writing, in my perfect life. This exercise was passed from legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser to designer & podcaster Debbie Millman, then to me, and now I’m passing it on to you.

The exercise took me no more than an hour or two, and not only was it fun, it brought me massive and instantaneous clarity. It’s effective because it asks what your day would actually look like, from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed. Often future-envisioning exercises only ask what you’d want to have accomplished, or what you want to have. I think that if you wake up 10 years from today, and you have everything on your list, like a fancy house and the partner of your dreams, and an award for something, but you still don’t know what you would want to do with your day, so you let it all go to reactive things and responding to what people want from you.. it’s going to be hard to feel like life is meaningful, or that you’re exactly where you most want to be.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my answer to this exercise, and the fact of having done it, became part of the foundation for building my daily routine as it is now.

III. GROUNDHOG DAY

I was stumbling slowly towards something maybe resembling a working process for iterating on my current routine and making it better, when the current pandemic hit, and changed up daily routines for just about everyone. I was totally not expecting this, but quarantine life seriously powered up the development of my routine. It removed most potential variables from most of my days, which leaves only routine. No longer can I say, as I would say on most days, “But today is an exception because [reason].” And if I’m not able to say that, then every day is either a perfect day, or it’s a day that tells me something helpful about myself, tells me what I might need to adjust. And when I adjust my routine then the change can go into effect today, instantly, because today is not going to be an exception. Since I am one of the lucky ones whose lives are rendered less chaotic by the current situation, quarantine life has been, for me, basically a highly controlled lab that accelerates experiments in routine–and, therefore, accelerates learning.

At one point a friend of mine mentioned that every day was starting to feel like Groundhog Day (the movie where Bill Murray literally lives the same day over and over), as a way of saying it was starting to get old. But I didn’t see “Groundhog Day” as a negative thing. I have often fantasized that if only time would stop for everyone except me for a while, I could recover and “catch up” with the rest of the world (see my other post about how I experience time) and with myself: read all the things, watch all the TV, think and write as I’ve been meaning to do for years, actually make decisions about what I want to do. In some ways, our current situation has given me at least some of the same benefits as time literally freezing.

More importantly, the Groundhog Day effect has forced me to think about what actually matters to me in a day. Because nothing eventful is there to distract from that. As Austin Kleon writes in Keep Going (Phil is the Bill Murray character):

In a moment of despair, Phil turns to a couple drunks at a bowling alley bar and asks them: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

I think how you answer this question is your art.

Even when the world isn’t in quarantine anymore, I might still stick closely to the routine I’ve gotten into now, without feeling the vague expectation that my life “should” be more varied. It’s like the quarantine gave me permission to test out the Groundhog Day life. And in fact it’s been devastatingly effective for me.

So maybe Groundhog Day is underrated. You can think of it as drudgery–or you can think of it as the holy grail.

IV. EVOLUTION

Right after I quit my job, my routine was basically to sleep a lot, wake up at some point, have coffee, think about what I wanted to do, and go from there. Pretty lightly defined. In the 7 months since then, it’s grown incrementally to what it is now, in which roughly the first 5 hours of the waking day and the last 5 hours of the day are all in the routine, leaving about 5 hours in the middle to be decided more spontaneously.

In this current routine, each day includes: a full night of sleep without an alarm; personal hygiene and eating; timing of device usage and news-checking; timing of drinking coffee/tea; planning my day, prioritizing work, tracking what I spend time on, etc; journaling; language practice; stretching/mobility work; time for listening to music and podcasts.

What’s not determined by the routine and happens whenever I feel like it or whenever it happens, are things like: writing for this blog, and other projects; reading; watching movies; doing errands and chores; video chatting or seeing friends; going out for a walk or some event; daydreaming; and so on. It’s not that the stuff in the routine is more important than the stuff that’s not in the routine, or vice versa; just that some stuff I prefer to do as needed/wanted, rather than automatically on a daily basis. I used to try to read every day and journal only every now and then; now it’s reversed. Just my current preference.

This routine is set up so that both maintenance and progress are built in. Progress means that even if I ONLY do my morning routine and evening routine each day, and waste the entire rest of the day (e.g. on Reddit or watching bad movies), every year I will still advance quite a bit in skills I want to get better at and in the work I want to do. Maintenance means that I will be able to do that while getting plenty of sleep and staying physically and mentally healthy. When I had a full-time job, my routine only supported maintenance, and it wasn’t quite enough maintenance, at that. But it was better than not trying.

If you just look at my description of my routine without understanding me or the context behind it, you might think it sounds super rigid and authoritarian. But as with pretty much all things I do and believe in, organic growth and evolution are the right metaphors for how I think about the process, not the Industrial Revolution, efficiency, or modern management theory. I didn’t come up with it all at once and start imposing it on myself. Every practice that got added, got added because I tried it one day (or happened to do it accidentally one day) and decided that it makes my day better, and that I’m happier if I keep doing it regularly. One morning I woke up and thought, “What if I don’t look at my phone at all until after I have coffee?” So I did that, and it felt great. It became part of my routine, and I haven’t checked my phone before coffee for a couple of months. Whenever I feel tempted to, I just remember how awesome that first morning was. I try a lot of things, I double down on the ones that make me feel more alive.

So it’s not like I flog myself through the day, adhering to a schedule where I do specific things at strict times. I have tried that before and it never worked. (See above in section I: relying on willpower is bad.) Instead, I’m gradually building a routine that aligns with what I love to do. My measure of a great routine is that every time I switch to the next thing, I switch to it thinking, “Oh, yay! My favorite!” Lunch and an episode of On Being? Yay! Shower, then dim the lights and do some stretching? Yay! Even when I’m not feeling “Yay!”, what I’m saying to myself is not: “You HAVE to do it Rory, don’t fuck it up,” as if it’s some moral choice, but rather: “You’ll feel better when you’ve done it. Remember?”

I also break routine for good reasons, and I enjoy it when it happens. (I’ve been completely on a different routine for at least a week now, as I’ve been writing all these blog posts, which tends to result in me staying up late at night.) I also break routine for bad reasons, and sometimes regret that. But in the regret, I’m saying to myself: “Well, that explains why you don’t feel so well now. But let’s move on.” I only adhere to my own routine maybe 70% on average. It’s a tool, not a law.

It’s crazy how close my current day is to my “10 years from now” vision already. It probably jumped at least 50% of the way there, in less than a year, just from me getting intentional about it. Gentleness is the way for me to work with myself. Not authority, not judgment. Find the perfect day. Live it 20,000 more times.

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