Don’t dream big.

For months I’ve been walking around with this idea in my head. I was planning to turn it into a blog post titled “On not scaling”. It was going to be about deliberately choosing focus over bandwidth in one’s activities. One is often faced with the choice between scaling up (more work, more people, more things, more turnover, more for the sake of more) on the one hand, and simply not scaling on the other, instead holding on to one’s simple and linear way of doing a few things well. The former approach seems to be the one favoured and encouraged by modern society. The latter has become my preference.

I was still planning to write this post, when I ran into a TEDX talk by Jim Zemlin, whose claim to fame (at least for the purpose of his talk), is that he is technically Linus Torvalds’ boss. Linus Torvalds is the gentleman who created Linux. As you might or might not know, Linux is taking over the world at the moment: 1.3 million new telephones running Android (Linux) are switched on for the first time every day, 0.7 million new Linux-running TVs are sold every day, millions of machines at Google and Amazon run Linux, machines which run most of the web-based services that you know, almost the whole internet runs Linux, and many more embedded systems everywhere. Whether you like it or not, and as Jim Zemlin says, you probably interact with Linux multiple times per day in some way or another.

Through his World-changing creation Linux (and don’t forget the distributed version control system git), Linus arguably is one of the most concretely influential people alive today. With this in mind, skip to about 5:20 in the youtube clip (if you don’t have time, you don’t actually have to watch the clip, my summary of the relevant bit is right below):

When Linus first announced Linux 1991, he wrote I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. With hindsight, this is a fabulously humble quote. Linus was only interested in the awesome thingamabob he was working on; success and ambition were irrelevant. In the end, his creation changed the world.

From this, Zemlin draws a parallel with something the poet Robert Frost said:

Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.

I think this is a beautiful life lesson.

Let’s not dream too big.

Just One Thing. [weekly head voices #49]

(post summary: linkedin news, the week in bullets, backyard philosophy!)

Dearest readers,

Yesterday I made my 400th LinkedIn connection. Yes, I know there are people with zillions of LinkedIn connections, but mine are special. I’ve actually had contact, outside of LinkedIn, with each and everyone of them. In most cases the contact has been in person, in some cases even involving beer, and in the others the contact has been sufficiently significant, by my metrics of course, to warrant a real connection. Whatever the case may be (how many times have I used the word “case” so far?), reaching this milestone has made really happy, and this again warrants a great big thank you to each of you little coloured dots! The visualisation below shows my complete network, where I’ve labeled each cluster with the place or institute it’s most associated with:

My LinkedIn network, visualised today. If you're not in there yet, connect with me man!

You can also try out an interactive version of this map, or make your own.

The week in bullets

  • On Monday I had the privilege of attending the Yes!Delft Network Event 2011, secretly also the opening of their beautiful new building. Yes!Delft is an incubation centre where startups, once approved by the board, can find affordable office space and a number of other facilities, including for example advice and financing, that startups require. The show was really impressive, with multiple giant projection surfaces and super lighting, a number of VIPs (Maxime Verhagen amongst others) and a 3 or 4 of the involved starters doing their elevator pitches. It was great to see that through Yes!Delft, my little city is turning into such a startup innovation hub.
  • On Tuesday I attended a day-long course on drafting an ERC Starting Grant proposal. For those of you not in the know, this is a super-prestigious research grant of up to 1.5 million euros that can be requested from the EU. Logically the rejection rate is also sufficiently high, so wish me lots of luck. Better yet, explain to any family or network members that you might have in Brussels that they should give me the money and get it over with.
  • The rest of the week was spent in meetings. I’ve come to the conclusion that the number of contiguous meetings in my programme is just about the strongest determinant for me getting unhealthily bad-tempered. By the end of Thursday I was ready to start breaking things, by Friday I was in my denial stage. A meeting now and then is fine, especially the inspiring ones during which you come up with some awesome new idea, but having them all back-to-back is just dangerous.
  • Almost as if karma felt that it should compensate in some way for inflicting meeting hell on me, the weather on Saturday was absolutely perfect, and perfect weather means BBQing! The BBQ was even more perfect, filled with scorched meat, beer, wine, good friends and great conversation. Fortunately nobody was raptured.

Backyard philosopy

There are two issues I’d like to discuss with you.

The first is the following realisation I had this past week, a slightly different incarnation of another recurring thought: At any one time, you can do exactly one (1) thing only. This has at least two implications:

  1. Don’t panic. Life is just a long sequence of these single things strung together. Just keep on doing them.
  2. At any time, do make sure that you pick the best possible thing to do at that moment.

The second issue is not really an issue, but an inspiring quote I came across recently on the interwebs:

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

There you have it kids: Work hard, try new stuff, remember to fall on your feet, and live now.

Drown in the now. [Weekly Head Voices #42]

Carrying the portentous number 42, this edition of the Weekly Head Voices owes it to the sometimes nerdy expectations of its readers to offer at least a small part of the answer to life, the universe and everything. In other words, #42 is 100% backyard philosophy.

Water, and bridges, and paths, taken this morning especially for you. You should start feeling all pensive now.

I’ve had a really brilliant week. When it started, one of the slightly more zen voices in my head proposed a little experiment: What would happen if, at the start of every episode or moment that I found myself in, I would consciously and explicitly remind myself to be fully and exclusively in that moment, to focus on the now. I could only agree that this was an intriguing question, and one worth attempting to answer.

The hardest part was remembering to do this every time. However, once I managed to get past that hurdle, the seemingly simple and low-level act of sub-vocally reminding myself to dedicate my undivided attention to the moment currently at hand resulted in more and more sustained periods of focus, which gave each situation, even the seemingly straightforward ones and especially those involving social contact, significantly more depth. It was almost like flipping a big bass boost button on my daily experiences, with all primary and secondary senses arriving in glorious multi-dimensional technicolour.

If your brain is like mine, constantly shooting off in five different tangents at the smallest instigation, I can only recommend this self-reminder trick. There are other times when such tangents are useful and should be stimulated, for example during planning or creative sessions, but more often being fully in the now is what you should go for. This goes diametrically against the grain of our evolved information foraging compulsion and the associated multi-tasking (that we turn out to be really bad at), but is worth the mental effort many times over.

I’ll end this short post with a musical conclusion:

Drown in the now… A beautiful and apt title for a song with some of the most spacy lyrics you’ll come across, at least until the next time you do some Crystal Method.

Kids, have an awesome week, filled with pure Now.

p.s. Jorik, in an uncontrollable attack of the WABs, just pointed out a spelling mistake in this post. It’s portentous, and not portentious. :)

I like nano-sabbaticals. [Weekly Head Voices #39]

This past week I was away from work, doing a nano-sabbatical in my secret lair.

Example of some random evil lair. Mine is exactly the same, except that it's not in a hollowed-out volcano, doesn't have my face on the outside and is not near the sea.

I thought I was being original by dubbing my week-long self-imposed working isolation a nano-sabbatical, but google knows better. It turns out other people call their week-long sabbaticals nano too.  Durn. In any case, as you will recall I also went away on a month-long micro-sabbatical in 2009, but this time I wanted to experiment with spending almost a whole work-week focusing on a single task, trying to finish a survey article I’ve been working on for almost two years. The week is now over and the article is not ready for submission yet, but it has become a completely different and much improved animal during the past week. I’m a happier person too!

I would like to share with you some of the high-level conclusions I’ve drawn from this experiment:

  • Over the past years, I’ve had to get used to multi-tasking. Switching to focus mode was quite a challenge, as my reflex is to switch, switch and switch. Judicious application of pomodori, killing of browser windows and general self talkings-to mostly helped. I have it mostly under control, but I’m sure I could push up my effectivity further with more practice.
  • I did manage to work quite efficiently from day one, but only by the end of the second day did I find myself in the right frame of mind for writing this kind of paper. It’s one of those cases where you can work really hard, but if you’re not in the right frame of mind, you’re not being effective.
  • At the beginning of the week, I had configured a vacation email auto-reply, keeping the exact reason for my absence vague. The idea is that I would act as if I were on vacation, that is not responding to email and not taking care of any other work-related issues. Still, I couldn’t help taking care of the bare minimum of important matters, which acted as an extra distraction. I think for any sabbatical, nano to mega, it’s important where exactly you draw the line. During my 2009 sabbatical, I had the strict rule that I could only do normal work-related things during the evenings, which worked quite well.
  • By the end of the week I was completely embroiled in interesting article-related issues, with very little else interrupting my concentration. It was refreshing having almost all thought-processes dealing with one topic, instead of bouncing between too many concurrent projects.
  • I truly love the process of writing, even if it is scientific writing, which requires a different attitude regarding the structuring of one’s text and the willingness to rewrite a piece of text as many times as it’s required to get it exactly right. There’s nothing like looking at a single short sentence that concisely communicates the thought just so.

On the nerd front (skip to the next paragraph if you’re feeling non-nerdy): eclipse, texlipse, mercurial, jabref and dropbox make for a beautiful LaTeX editing workflow, on Linux and Windows machines. There’s nothing like continuous LaTeX builds for the gainful utilisation of the idle and overpowered CPUs in your workstation or laptop.

There will definitely be more weeks like this one just past, and perhaps even a real sabbatical in the not-too-distant future. It is unfortunate that multi-tasking has become so de rigueur in modern life. There is a whole lot to be said for the zen of pouring oneself into just that one important thing.

Focus. [Weekly Head Voices #34]

On Monday, I took a stroll in the autumn with genetic offspring #2.

A mysterious path in the autumn. mysterious path + autumn = double the pensive power.

It was a stroll of somewhat above average duration. As one tends to do during this sort of stroll, I was thinking. Not the modern kind of internet thinking during which one’s line of thought gets interrupted at least three times per minute, but the old-fashioned kind, with stately, fully-formed thoughts of some complexity.

In a meta-thought moment, I had a taste of focus. The kind of focus that enables one to be fully in the moment. All thoughts of other things that need to be done, or have been done, or of other moments that one might prefer being in, are displaced by complete acceptance of the now, and one’s undivided attention.

The following bit of D.H. Lawrence seems to be a suitable conclusion to this post:

Thought, I love thought.
But not the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas.
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of consciousness,
Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.

P.S. I’ve just registered for the Dolphins & Teleportation Symposium in Hawaii. I hope to see you there.