Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Transition periods, part II

This was my day today:

10:30am, receive an e-mail from my colleague John telling me to investigate further on some research I was doing and figure out the identity of an unnamed company described in a study. Start working on it.

12:15p.m.; text my friend Simon to make sure ultimate Frisbee is still on this evening. Yep, he replies. 7:00 at Berkeley, which means I’ll need to leave work at 6:00 to be safe and 6:15 at the latest. I’d brought a change of clothes and everything.

1:30, start to get frustrated because I’m not getting any definite results.

3:00, meeting with John. I’m very frustrated because I wish I had a silver bullet, but all I have to show is a hunch after four and a half hours of work. Feeling frustrated because I have nothing to show – though I don’t really admit it at myself at the time -- I keep surfing on the computer for more information until 3:06, making me ten minutes late.

4:30, after the meeting with John I come back and do some more work. At this time I finally find – if not a silver bullet, then a bronze bullet. My mood changes dramatically. I was moderately listless, annoyed, irked and frustrated; a grimace and pressed lips dominated my face. Now I’m excited.

My movements start to accelerate as my attention peaks. I get up, walk over to the kitchen area, and eat some almonds I keep in the cupboard. Then I go sit down. Then I get up and go to the kitchen to refill my water. Then I drink my water, and go sit down again. I work for two minutes, then I repeat the pattern. I do all this, if not in doubletime, then at one-and-a-half-time.

I start to realize what happened and sketch out the evidence I’ve accumulated so far on a piece of paper. As I start writing, I see the details that I’m missing and get more information on that.

5:30, By this time of sketching, I realize I have five slides worth of circumstantial evidence; and I’ve pretty much made my case solid. John’s going to heading off to New Orleans tomorrow afternoon, and I promised him I’d have drafts by noon so he could take a look before he took off. I frantically start putting together mock-up draft slides so I can go give them to the production assistants in the morning. I’m doing double-time now, rifling through my scrap paper pile looking for a blank sheet and the closet, looking for a roll of tape.

6:05, I lay out my five mock-up slides on my desk, and slap my desk, which probably makes my neighbour Kim wonder what I’m doing. I guess it’s some sense of excitement and a sense of accomplishment, not that it was a conscious decision.

6:12, I’m downstairs, having attempted to cut off another woman trying to leave the building twice without thinking about it, I’m in such a hurry to get to the BART station. I decide to call Haley, another friend, to confirm the Ultimate game is on. “I’m pretty sure it’s not,” she tells me. “The people who usually organize it sent out an e-mail that they won’t be organizing it today.”

6:20, I call Simon to get the organizer’s phone number, as I tap my fingers on a pole waiting at the BART/Muni station. The ride is 25 minutes minimum, plus waiting time, plus walking time to the church, maybe another 10 minutes. They will probably leave at 7:00, and they don’t know to wait for me.

I text Simon again when he doesn’t text me the number fast enough. I call the organizer; he doesn’t answer. I text him. I’m at a crossroads -- one way goes home, another way goes to church, where I could go for Institute class, another way goes to Berkeley for the game. Todd doesn’t text back. I wait. I wait for maybe five minutes. I decide I can’t wait, and walk downstairs to take the Muni home.
I start reading a book. I get through a few pages on the ride.

7:05; I get back, see my landlord at home, pay him the rent check

7:15: I try to read, can’t concentrate, go and warm up some dinner, and have half the plate eaten in a minute when……I stop.

What am I doing?

I’m still doing what I was doing an hour, hour and a half ago on the elevator down from my office or at the Muni station. I’m still in a hurry. I was reading one of those books that invites you to ponder and reflect, but I wasn’t. I was just reading pages. I saw my landlord so I immediately thought of something I could do related to him and I did it. I saw my food and started doing something related to it, namely eating it, as fast as I could.

But, wait, I don’t need to be doing that anymore. I don’t need to be in a hurry, but I still am. “Breathe,” I tell myself, recalling an experience from my childhood.
Before every chess tournament I played, before probably every game, my mom would squat next to me, pull my small body close to hers, look me in the eye, and tell me, “Think.” It was code for don’t-make-stupid-mistakes-because-you’re-in-an-artificial-hurry; take a breath, calm down, and evaluate the situation, and then respond.

This is really interesting, I wrote the post on Transition just a couple days ago, and (aided by using WhatchaDoing to track my moods ) already I am finding examples aplenty.

A side story, which I'll explore a bit later when I get some more data, is about the value of introspection. I'm good at introspection, but often am way too self-conscious and thus shier and less confident than optimal.

Solution: in addition to introspecting better when needed (like above, when eating dinner), learn to NOT introspect when that's needed.

Turn off my self-consciousness, worrying what other people think of me, and especially my tendency to mentally kick myself, when the situation demands. For example, when dancing.

Easier said than done, of course, but I'll be working on that. Feel free to ask me how it's going.

Special offer: if you ask me about this, in person, more than a week from now, I will buy you a bagel, donut, coffee, or half of a meal. (I value reminders.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Transition periods.

“For a period of time, almost all my chess errors came in a moment immediately following or preceding a big change. For example, if I was playing a positional chess game, with complex maneuvering, long-term strategic planning, and building tension, and suddenly the struggle exploded into concrete tactics, I would sometimes be slow to accommodate to the new scenario. Or, if I was playing a very tactical position that suddenly transformed into an abstract endgame, I would keep on calculating instead of taking a deep break and making long-term plans.

I was having trouble with the first major decision following the departure from prepared opening analysis and I was not keeping pace with sudden shifts in momentum. My whole chess psychology was about holding on to what was, because I was fundamentally homesick. When I finally noticed this connection, I tackled transitions both in chess and life. In chess games, I would take some deep breaths and clear my mind when the character of the struggle shifted. In life, I worked on embracing change instead of fighting it. With awareness and action, in both life and chess my weakness was transformed into a strength.”
– Josh Waitzkin, p. 75-76, The Art of Learning

I really like this quote and have been noticing this in the last couple of weeks. At one point we were just wrapping up a project – I had gone through information-gathering to assembling and distilling, made some slides, editing them, and was on some pretty minor copy edits, when a new avenue opened up that we hadn’t really seen before. My colleague asked me to explore that avenue; I did, of course, but it was sort of uncomfortable, being suddenly shunted from tying up loose ends to blazing a new trail.

How is it different?

I’m still figuring that out, but I often listen to music when I know what to do – when I’m looking at red-inked slides and deleting a comma or changing a couple of words; when I know what the data is supposed to look like and am formatting it; when I know the slide that I want to make and am implementing it.

On the other hand, if I need to think and introspect, to plot my next steps, I can sit back in my chair, sit there and stare at the computer, go walk up and down some flights of stairs, or whatever, but I need to be alone with a problem, and I can’t have threads flying around where my attention might grab onto and run away. Ie, I can’t listen to music.

The interesting thing is, I didn’t really realize this consciously until now. I’d just have music on, and suddenly I would think ‘Aah, I can’t concentrate’ and turn it off. Of course, I couldn’t concentrate before, but I didn’t need to.

There are lots of applications, of course, to my current life in which I've been living in a new city (I've been in SF for the last 2 months at my new job) and all the people I know well are in different places.

Another interesting thought: in chess, you are basically thinking all the time. There are a few occasions where you know exactly what you’re going to do, like in the opening few moves or a couple of brief sequences. But in these cases the opponent generally knows exactly what he’s going to do too. So you move fast, he moves fast, you move fast, and suddenly you both don’t know what to do anymore and have to think about it again.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of times I have to think in my work – but there’s lots of times I don’t really have to think very hard. ‘Okay, I need to make a list of all the different steps in manufacturing solar cells and all of the different companies involved.’ ‘Okay, so I’ll read all the Wikipedia articles, do lots of obvious Google searches and type the relevant part names and company names into Excel and merging cells accordingly.’ And that takes me like the next hour. During which I don’t actually need to think very hard – once I realize what I need to do, doing it is trivial – but unlike in chess, takes time.