If You Can Make Money Doing What You Do Why Are You Teaching It?

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Wednesday, 8.28pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach. – Aristotle

Everything is a business these days. Even things like the business of health and the business of knowledge. And when there is money to be made you get things that look like what you need but are different – that somehow don’t deliver what you’re really looking for. Of course, this isn’t helped by the fact that often we don’t know what we’re looking for or need in the first place.

I feel like a cranky old person, someone who is complaining that the way other people do things is wrong. Is that because I’m envious that they’re doing it and I’m not? Is it because I think they’re wrong and I’m right? Or is it that there is something just not right about the way we make a business of everything?

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. When I first came across the idea of Pay What You Want – that seemed the kind of thing that really gave users a choice. If you felt something had value you felt the obligation to pay for it. And it probably didn’t make anyone a great deal of money but it did give them an income of some kind.

Now, of course, there are arguments that it takes money to make anything and if you don’t treat it like a business then it won’t have any value. But then again, what is a business? The bits that add value are marketing and operations, as I think Drucker said. Everything else is a cost. If you can create a customer then you’re on your way to having a business, or at least something that is value adding.

Here’s the thing. How do you tell a real “business” from something that is simply a transfer of wealth from one person to another? Warren Buffett seems to have the answer to these sorts of questions in his many letters. In one he reminds us that “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” In another you have a story of a family – the Gotrocks – who might more accurately be called the Hadrocks. This is because they get hooked into paying for advice on how to handle their money. It’s worth reading the full story but the key takeaway is that the more activity there is the less your return. What you want to do is make a return as efficiently as possible in whatever you do. That’s the goal.

What this means when it comes to a person trying to convince you to learn from them is that if they were so good at doing what they say they do – then why aren’t they making money doing it rather than teaching you how to do it? I remember going to one of those “free” seminars where someone talks to you about Forex trading and how they’ll teach you everything you need to know about trading and making money almost risk free. Well, if it were that easy, surely they should do it and not tell everyone else? Or is it the more likely case that they make more money from your teaching fees than they do making trades with their own money?

The reason I’m wondering about this is that I like the idea of teaching – especially because it helps me learn better. But I don’t like the idea of teaching a secret, proprietary or some made-up method that has no grounding in research or practice. I am irritated by a particular person who has started a line of courses priced in the thousands of dollars that tries to create a certification program to teach something that, from what I have read of the material, is not good. But… if I think I can do better, shouldn’t I be doing that, rather than complaining? Shouldn’t people just make up their own minds?

Anyway….

I suppose when it comes down to it, experience is the best teacher. And then when you understand what your experience has taught you, perhaps then you can actually teach others. Because I think that the best teaching happens when what’s important is what you’re teaching and what the student learns – and it stops being about the teacher at all.

In fact, that makes it very simple to decide what’s good and bad. If you go to something where the teacher is the centre of everything then you’re the product, someone who is just there to pay for a performance. If you go to something where you’re the centre of it and the teacher helps you discover and practice, then there’s a chance that you’ll learn something valuable. And that will only happen when your teacher is confident enough about what they do and have done to put away any ego and focus on helping you become better. If you find one of those kinds of teachers stick with them.

It’ll be worth it.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Should You Do Or Not Do?

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Monday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The most general law in nature is equity – the principle of balance and symmetry which guides the growth of forms along the lines of the greatest structural efficiency. – Herbert Read

Do you believe that if you work really hard at something you’ll be recognised and rewarded? That you’ll catch up with those in front of you? Overcome the benefits that people get because they’ve been born into wealthier families in the right parts of the world?

Maybe you will. The first choice you make, after all, is who your parents are and that sets an anchor – a point from where you begin and then you try and go as far as you must. Which for some people isn’t far at all. And for others it’s going to take a few lifetimes to get there.

I think the advice we get on what to do is too general, unrealistic even. Hard work is for suckers and let me explain why.

Work should be easy. If you want to build a house it makes no sense starting with your bare hands. There are tools out there that are better than your fingernails. Use them. In fact, you weren’t considering not using them. The last time you built a structure with your bare hands was probably a den, built from sticks stacked against a tree. But I’m willing to bet you aren’t living there now.

Work should be easy – if you’re spending too long on a spreadsheet, you’re probably doing it inefficiently. Ditto for putting up a stud wall or installing a washing machine or laying bricks. If you know what you’re doing then it’s easy. It takes time and sometimes you have to sweat a bit but if it’s really killing you then you should probably be getting some help.

But, if you want work to be easy you have to spend time learning, which can feel even harder. For a long time my only criteria for hiring analysts was if they could use the Excel function Vlookup – with the help of google and the rest of the Internet. If they could, then they could do pretty much anything. Or, more accurately, they could learn to do anything. The good jobs these days come down to being able to read, write, do arithmetic. Later on in your career it helps if you can speak to others as well.

If you want work to be easy you have to spend time reading and thinking. I learned today that what we call thinking is really just talking to yourself. That’s what I’m doing right now, except you can read that internal monologue as I talk to myself. We have a limited capacity for everything. Our capacity for speech processing, for example, is around two seconds of audio. We’re constantly swapping information in and out of the parts of our brain trying to make sense of things and the harder we make it the longer it takes to get done.

So you make it easy – by working harder on learning how to do that. If you learn your trade and learn it well then the work is easier to do. So maybe it should be learn hard, work easy?

Then again, you should work hard at certain things but not because they’re work. If you want to play an instrument then you need to practice. It’s the same if you want to write or paint or create something. I know a person who spends hours working on detailed art – and that’s because it’s a flow state where time ceases to have meaning and while it looks like hard work it’s something that doesn’t feel like it.

It’s not easy figuring out what to do. But maybe here’s the takeaway.

If you’re finding things hard, maybe you’re doing something wrong? And if that’s the case it’s probably something you can learn to do better.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Do You Think You’re Where You Should Be Right Now?

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Sunday, 9.20pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I mean, did you even wonder why I told you to do your own evaluation? … Clam up! I wanted you to think about yourself – and I mean really think. What are you good at? What do you suck at? And then I wanted you to put it down on paper. And not so I could see it, and not so anybody else could see it, but so that you could see it. Because, ultimately, you don’t have to answer to me, and you don’t have to answer to Kelso, you don’t even have to answer to your patients, for God’s sake! You only have to answer to one guy, Newbie, and that’s you! – Dr Cox in Scrubs, “My Fifteen Minutes”

I’ve been watching “Scrubs” again, for the fourth time or so in the last ten years. It’s a cleverly written program and those of us who have experienced the challenges of starting a role and growing in it will see a little bit of the story in the lives we’ve lived as well. And that’s all of us really.

I think it’s true that we need to answer to ourselves – but what does that really mean? Is it holding ourselves to a standard or trying to always get better? Is it doing what we’re happy doing, and it’s okay if that means finishing at five and going home to spend time with your family? Or is it being the best as measured as being better than everyone else you know – and measuring yourself by how you do against the competition?

What I think brain science tells us is that it’s very hard for us to imagine doing anything else than exactly what we’ve always done. For example, think back over your own life. Are there any decisions that would have made an absolutely critical difference to the way your life turned out? I have a few of those – my choice of school, the choice of country in which to study, the choice of what to do after that. Did anyone else make those choices for you – or are you responsible for them yourself? And do you think things would have turned out differently if you had made a different choice back then?

If you’re like most people your brain has accepted its reality – you are pretty happy with where you are now. Yes things could be better in some ways but the big things are ok, aren’t they? When things are really wrong it’s probably not because of the things you did or what you were able to control. But if you were able to make a choice you mostly did ok – it’s only in the movies where people make obviously bad decisions, isn’t it?

Then again I don’t know anything about you. Maybe you do make decisions differently. I was listening to the radio the other day and this was clearly the story of the day. Someone had called in with some kind of relationship problem – they messed around a lot and then liked a person and then messed things up and then got that person back but were not worried they were going to lose them because their ex was threatening to tell all – that sort of thing, the kind of thing the presenters described as the plot of every 90s romantic comedy. And one of the presenters suggested going for the deny everything approach and the other talked about bad decision after bad decision and why on earth you would do this – and there was no real consensus on the advice other than the person calling in had made their bed and should get on and lie in it.

Life’s hard enough without making it more complicated by making decisions that are going to end up causing you more misery. Then again, thinking about it now, I can remember people who went on and did just that – making choices that might be pleasant but that had a non-zero probability of turning out quite unpleasantly indeed.

So, what am I saying here?

If you don’t know how to make good decisions then your first decision should be to learn how to make better ones. Because what matters is not where you are and how you got there but what you’re going to do next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You Need To Make It Easier For People To Understand What You’re Saying

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Friday, 9.13pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it. – Alan Perlis

Have you ever had to work through your notes of a discussion and turn them into some kind of sense? It’s not that easy to do. You can, of course, just type up what was said but the thing you actually need to do is somewhat more complicated and it is, like so many things are, explained in “Yes Minister” by Sir Humphrey Appleby, as follows:

“The purpose of minutes is not to record events, it is to protect people. Minutes are there to reflect what people thought they should have said, with the benefit of hindsight.”

The challenge we have, much of the time, is not listening to what people say but working out what they mean and what that means in the context of everything else that’s going on. Once you’ve done all that you’ve then got to write it down in a way that gets across what matters.

The way the government do this is unsurprisingly set in a guide on how to take minutes and, on the whole, it makes a lot of sense. But it’s 25 pages long and you might lose the will to live before you get to the end of it. This issue with length is not a new problem. Churchill complained about it in 1940, asking his colleagues and staff to write briefer briefs.

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One way to think about whether what you’re doing is clear enough is to start measuring the cognitive cost of understanding what you’re trying to get across. And the simplest form of this is to check whether you have to do anything other than move your eyes to get the information you need.

For example, Churchill’s memo is a single sheet of paper. You can read that in one go, only moving your eyes. If you had to turn the page, however, that would incur a cost – and if you can avoid that you’ll make life easier for the reader.

The same thing goes for models and presentations and all the other things that we use all the time to explain concepts and ideas to people. If you use spreadsheets of any complexity I’m willing to bet you haven’t seen a single one that has all the information you need on one screen. Presentations will spill information from slide to slide instead of chunking what they want to say so that it’s one slide to one idea. And of course bloggers, this one included, use far more words to say something than they really need to.

The problem, of course, is that it’s far easier to make something complicated than it is to strip it down, pare it back and make it easier to understand. I’ve used too many words in this piece already and if I took the time to write it again I’d probably use far fewer words and make it a crisper piece. Even better, if I had to write it by hand I’d use even fewer, because of the cost of having to move a pen instead of pressing keys.

Then again, sometimes people weigh the value of information by looking at the size of the report rather than its content. You feel like real work has gone into producing a tome – even if there is far more work involved in condensing a tome to a few pages. It’s hard to see that just because something you see looks simple that it was easy to get it to that point. It’s often a labour of love – that sort of thing – than something you do for profit – because there’s always more profit in getting the job done fast, even if it’s not as good.

Then again it’s the people who don’t do that who we remember – the ones that create unique and interesting work that lasts for generations.

Or at the very least, is useful for someone else. Maybe that’s what we should be trying to do.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Do You Know When You Have A Solution For A Problem That Doesn’t Exist?

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Thursday, 9.57pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts. – Bertrand Russell

The first fortune I wanted to make didn’t happen – and at the time I didn’t understand why. I had done everything I needed to do, what needed to be built was built but what I expected would happen didn’t – and I didn’t know why.

So, I went back to university and learned some economics for the first time – and those sparse lines of supply and demand and the terse text that explained the difference between a monopsony and a competitive market suddenly helped me understand why that business I was in didn’t make money and never would unless things changed fundamentally.

The last fortune I will make will come if I live for long enough. That’s because it’s based on a very simple principle – investing in the world economy and letting the power of compounding do its bit.

What is it about us as human beings that we dash for the new and exciting, hoping to make a fast buck and ignore the tried and trusted ways that are almost certain to get us what we want – perhaps more slowly, but quite probably more surely? For example, you’re probably still wondering if you should have bought bitcoin. If I had done I’d have lost money, not made it but that still doesn’t stop one wondering “What if?” And if you’re looking for regret – in the last year you should have invested in clean tech. Some of those companies are up 5-10x. Of course, they made very little progress for the ten years before that.

But I digress – the thing I was wondering about is whether you can tell if something is going to work or not – will there be a market, will it be successful, what are the chances of making it?

I learned today why one particular technology – 3D visualisation – may have a hard time making it, especially in the world of business. And it has to do with the biology of vision.

It turns out that visual information goes through different pathways in the brain depending on what we’re trying to do. If we want to perceive things – make out shapes and sizes and objects and designs – we follow one route. And if we want to look at our hands and guide them to do precise motions the information goes through a different pathway. This second pathway is where having two eyes comes in handy. Stereoscopic vision helps us grasp things, thread needles and remove thorns and ticks.

But we don’t need stereoscopic vision to make sense of the world around us. We can do that through other cues – objects that are further away are smaller, shadows give you hints about shape and perspective gives you an idea of an object’s relationship with you. Just looking at things from different angles, like you would through a camera gives you a sense of what’s going on. If it didn’t you wouldn’t watch a movie without feeling like something was missing. But have you ever really felt that way – like a film experience was missing some kind of three-dimensionality? The reason you don’t really think about it is that you don’t need the third dimension to be able to “get” what’s going on.

Now, in the mundane world of business – I saw a visual – a graphic representation – shown in a 3D form and my first reaction was “Cool, can I do that?” Just so you know, this was a mountain and there was a path curving around it with labels and little stick figures and so on. But now, having read this material, I’m starting to wonder whether that is really going to take off – if anything, the three dimensionality makes it more complex to see the information because you have to move around to see what’s on the other side. Which you wouldn’t have to do if the whole thing was on a flat sheet of paper. If you decided to start a business in 3D data visualisation – what are the chances that there is a market where this stuff is actually useful? Well, the biological argument would say that you need to find a place where it’s important to pick things up and use that ability to control where your hands go.

And it just so happens that there’s one business where that’s something people want – and it’s the video game industry where every game has more and more realistic immersive environments where your job mostly to shoot people and do active stuff with your imaginary limbs and stereoscopic vision and 3D seem perfectly suited for the job.

But, you don’t need two eyes to drive. I checked.

I started this post wondering if there was a way to avoid spending a huge amount of time and money working on something that doesn’t have a future. I think, unfortunately, biology has something else to tell us about this. The natural world is not perfectly efficient. It’s actually pretty much the opposite. We see huge waste everywhere. Why do fish have to lay millions of eggs if only a few make it, for example? It may just be that it’s quite hard to find that idea that’s guaranteed to succeed. What happens is that people have ideas and then the fittest survive – there’s a social and intellectual process of evolution that means some works are passed on from brain to brain and other works simple fade away and are forgotten.

Perhaps the wisest thing to do is not to try and carve a new path in the wilderness but to extend the path you’ve travelled on a little more, so that the person coming after you can travel a little further than you did – taking the hopes of humanity with them.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Ingredients For Getting Better At Something

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Wednesday, 7.15pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Acting is something different to everybody. I just know that if you watch an actor or actress getting better and better, I think that’s them just understanding themselves better and better. – Cameron Diaz

Many reasons for why we do things the way we do come down to biology – but most of us don’t know enough about biology to figure out the relationships between our wiring and the things we want to do. We have theories and ideas and examples and they might work some of the time and not work other times and a lot of the time we throw up our hands in the air and say, “Do what works for you…” but there are other times when we should build on that biological understanding, if we can.

One of these areas has to do with visual processing – the way in which our brain deals with images. This is a topic that is pretty fundamental to the whole idea of this blog – the concept that drawings helps us think better – and a book I’ve been reading called Visual Thinking: for Design by Colin Ware is really quite a good introduction to the ideas here.

So, the visual cortex is the part of the brain that deals with visual areas and they have riveting names like V1, V2, V3, V4 and so on. When we’re using our vision for perception – to see and understand what’s in an image as opposed to seeing so we can move our hands or a tool – the information coming into our eyes travels along the path V1, V2 and then to V4. V1 and V2 deal with simple, universal information like colours and shapes while V4 and the inferior temporal cortex (IT) deal with more complex or specialist understanding.

What this means is that if you want to lay information out so that it’s easily comprehensible there are simple, general approaches you can take – and that’s really the foundation of good graphic design. It’s not magic or something only some people know how to do. They might have figured it out over time but in essence what good designers do is tap into the way our biological machinery has evolved to deal with visual information.

One of those things it’s had to do is lose some functionality. It turns out that chimpanzees have a form of photographic or eidetic memory that we’ve had to get rid of to make place for something more useful. A chimpanzee can be trained to see numbers and remember where they appear on a screen – something we find very hard to do as humans. What we’ve done instead is invent symbolism and representation, so we don’t have to remember as much. We’ve replaced that memory with the ability to do more complex reasoning supported by language.

Practically, I think what this means is that we can think quite complex things but we can’t hold too many things in memory at the same time – so we need external tools to help with that part of any activity. I think this happens a lot with diagrams. If you seen an overly complex diagram it’s very hard to understand it if you haven’t been taken through it or experienced the creation process. For example, when I first started writing this blog I created images like this one, which does take a little working through to understand.

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Compare that with the image that starts this post – it’s pretty obvious what the message is. It doesn’t need a huge amount of explanation other than perhaps pointing out that it seems that sleep is when we process what we’ve been doing during the day – and so it’s better to do a little work, take a day, and then do a bit more than work solidly for hours at a time. From a biological point of view it seems like having around three things is the amount of information we can instantly make sense of at a time.

As you increase the number of elements, once you get to the seven plus or minus two point you start to reach the limits of human cognition – precisely because of that part of the brain we decided to get rid of and that chimps still have. So there is a biological basis for the way in which you should design information so that it makes sense – once you have more than 7-9 items then start looking for ways you can group them and reduce the complexity – not because that’s more accurate but because it’s easier for others to process. And what we need is something we can understand, not something really clever that we find it hard to wrap our heads around.

The unsurprising takeaway then.

Keep it simple.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Deal With The Piles Of Things In Your Life

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Tuesday, 7.55pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The web and physical world is plagued with abundance – people need help sorting through all the good and bad stuff out there. The tyranny of choice is causing major psychic pain and frustration for people. – Jason Calacanis

I hesitate to say things like “one of the good things about this pandemic” given the horrendous experiences many people have had with it – but one of the good things about this pandemic is that it’s given us reasons to engage once more with the world around us, taking time to appreciate the one walk a day we’re allowed or rediscovering the analog world in an over-digitised one that we have to use every day.

And one of the things that you come across all the time is piles – piles of things to do, piles of paperwork to sort out, piles of ideas to work through, piles of notes to file. And these piles accumulate until they stop us being able to do anything or we throw it all away and start again. Is there another way – what can we do about this?

I’ve mentioned the book Algorithms to live by a few times and will probably refer to it again in the next few days – and it has an answer to this problem. Say you have a pile of books and you want to order them alphabetically – you pick up two books and compare them – putting them in order. Then you pick up the third book and compare that with the first two and put it in where it belongs. If you have five or ten books then you can get done pretty quickly. If you have a hundred or a thousand – it gets pretty difficult.

The reason for this is that the effort of sorting often increases with the number of things you have to deal with – often quadratically or exponentially. The larger the pile the harder it is to do the work of comparison and ordering.

Think about notes, for example. Let’s say you take notes in a notebook – you end up with a collection of notes scattered around. The more notebooks you have the harder it is to find common information about a particular topic that you’ve worked on over time. If you take notes on looseleaf paper and carefully file them by topic then you’re going to find stuff much faster. Of course, you then have the time it takes to file as well as write but the more stuff you have the happier you’ll be that you decided to have a system when you first started.

An alternative approach is to start with a pile of notes on slips of paper – perhaps covering all the ideas you’ve had for a paper or a project. Now, if you try and order all fifty notes or so at one go it will take you a long time. A much more efficient approach is to first sort them into the ones that go in the beginning, middle or end, and then sort each of the piles individually to get the concepts in the right order. By reducing the pile you reduce the number of comparisons dramatically using a two stage process.

Now, if you put these two together the best way to perhaps live is to put stuff in piles and then sort it only when you have to. You don’t always need perfectly sorted information but if you know what pile something you need is probably in then you’ll often find it quickly. What this means is that that professor’s messy desk piled with papers might be actually as close to optimal as you can get. Or you can get close to it with file folders as buckets.

What I do – or rather what I’ve rediscovered in the analog world of the pandemic is file folders and plastic inserts as a way to hold information in buckets that can be sorted when I need to go through them. And it makes life easier.

Which is good.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You Need To Take Time To Do Before You Can See

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Monday, 9.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort. – Jesse Owens

Have you ever wondered how some people got so good at doing what they do? Why it is that one box set on TV draws you in while another you abandon in minutes – just knowing that it isn’t worth your time. Do people just wake up knowing what to do – perfect at their art?

Well, you know the answer to that is no – but it’s not an easy lesson to learn or one that we’re particularly open to learning. It would be so much easier if we could just do things well without all that messy practice and repetition and trial and error.

When it comes to writing, for example, an essential first step is research. You can’t just will something into existence without first doing some of the background work. With non-fiction that’s the research, the study of existing material with lots of note-taking and sense-making. With fiction it’s the creation of your world and characters and then seeing what they do there and if it works as a story. All this is the hard grind, the labour, the work which then results in something that stands on its own, we hope.

So, after a year of frenetic writing I think this year is going to have to be about reading and note-taking in addition to working on the drawing skills I talked about earlier in the year. And that means perhaps reflecting on the things that I’m reading and learning about.

There are three things that are occupying me at the moment.

The first has to do with treating content as a construction task. so, for example, rather than writing something in Microsoft Word as one long document, you write things in markdown chunks and then stitch them together, like you would a computer program. That’s interesting and it works pretty well. You can even include images and scale them to the right size using a width attribute.

The second is continuing chatter in the Systems Thinking community and it’s throwing up a few useful concepts. This is an interesting, if complicated look at the complex systems world with an intricate map of Complexity science. I’m hoping someone isn’t maintaining that by hand because that would be hard…

I also came across the book The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most which talks about the importance of maintenance and the right to repair rather than buying new all the time. That resonates with me – I’m keeping several computers going and have nursed a printer along for ten years rather than get a new one. The really important point here is that what we don’t need in our lives is new and innovative stuff. We need stuff we can rely on and that we can maintain easily.

The last one is a book called Visual Thinking: for Design by Colin Ware that takes a biologically based view of design which makes it very easy to see what kind of approaches help to make visual information easier to process. Just reading the first few chapters helped me improve my note-taking process, giving me ideas on how to structure information so it’s easier to comprehend. That fits in nicely with the book I’ve just finished called Algorithms to live by which ends with an ask to be computationally kind – make it easier for others to process what you’re asking them to do.

So, that’s that then.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Do You Make Sure You’re Doing Something Worth Doing?

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Sunday, 6.30pm

Sheffield, U.K.

One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning. – James Russell Lowell

I gave myself a break from writing of around ten days – school was done for the term, the kids were on holiday and was the end of a rather tough set of weeks. It’s been useful to have some time off if only to reflect on how things have gone so far and the differences between the way last year turned out and how this one is going. It doesn’t make it any easier, however, to figure out if anything you’re doing is right or not or what.

But, I’ve been reading and remembered a few things and observed others – and they might be worth considering as the rest of the year relentlessly moves on.

The first thing has to do with filing. Stuff just accumulates and if you like writing or drawing or using paper – the amount of material you have tends to grow over time and eventually the pile takes over and stops you from doing anything. What sort of approach should you take with material – what’s important to keep and not keep?

There’s a lesson here that children teach you. When children draw something they’re fully engaged in the process – standing there and drawing for as long as it takes. Once it’s done, however, they take off without a backwards glance. The work they do is practice work and you don’t need to keep practice work. Yes you could look at it and reminisce about all the work you’ve done but the real value is in your fingers and your brain – the muscle memory and learning you’ve taken with you. Practice work can be tossed once you’ve learned what you need to learn from doing it.

Then there’s work as an end in itself – finished work. That’s work you want to keep, work that goes in a file or is framed and stored and kept because you’re going to want to sell it or show it off later or do something with it. Finished work has value to you and preferably to someone else who’s willing to pay for it.

Then there’s a whole lot of work in progress – the stuff that you do while you’re trying to get from the practice stage to the finished stage. These you keep as long as they’re useful and then you get rid of them. Maybe you keep them for some time – old drafts, structures, things that helped you work through the problems you faced at the time. But in many cases you can get rid of them.

But sometimes you shouldn’t. And that’s usually when there’s value in being able to study the process you went through in getting from one stage to the next. The biggest problem we face is that people tell us to do and what has worked in the past for people who have created things are not always the same. There’s lot of advice and hot air out there but it isn’t always grounded in real-life experience. It’s a theory that hasn’t been tested – and sometimes you can’t test it but you can look at how it was tried out and what happened as a result. For example, agile methodologies are well known and popular but there are critics of the process who suggest that most implementations of the method have failed. How do you check something like that without studying what happened – while remembering that you can’t prove anything when it comes to the way people do things? You just have to make up your own mind.

This brings me to a challenge that I am going to have to face up to in the research and writing I do in the next few years. It would be nice to have general, magical solutions to general, all-consuming problems. But most situations are specific and what you need in the situation you are in right now will need a specific approach that balances being grounded in your reality with making sure you’re open to changes that may be necessary. So how do you think your way through all this?

Thinking.

That’s the project I’m going to be working on next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

So Why Is This Blog Called Handcrafted Insight?

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Thursday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

That’s the thing with handmade items. They still have the person’s mark on them, and when you hold them, you feel less alone. – Aimee Bender, The Color Master: Stories

I was watching a lesson on the Bikablo technique of drawing by Dr Jill Greenbaum – and she mentioned a few words that got me thinking about the theoretical basis of thinking – a sort of recursive journey. She talked about Alan Paivo’s dual coding theory – the idea that visual and verbal information can help you remember more than either on its own.

The important bit of that statement for me, however, has to do with coding. You hear that term a lot in research, “coding”, and I think it has a quite a lot more depth than might appear at first glance.

The reason we use words is that they are extremely efficient containers of meaning. It would be next to impossible to recreate the ideas I have written down so far using just drawings or interpretive dance techniques. Words are perfect vehicles to help you say what you’re thinking or what you mean most of the time. And that creates an issue for us. Because they’re perfect so much of the time we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking they are perfect all the time. This is a similar problem faced by people who are fans of the scientific method. Reductionism, the cornerstone of the scientific method, has helped shape the world around us – and its success makes some people think that the answer to everything can be found in science.

When we elect to work predominantly with words what we’re doing is choosing a coding mechanism. This idea of coding is quite fundamental to communication. Whatever you and others are thinking can only be shared by first taking the thoughts in your head and coding them using a system that works for you. The coded message is passed to someone else who then decodes it and interprets what they find to try and understand what you meant. In the case of this paragraph the thoughts I’m trying to express are coded using the English language. And perhaps you get what I mean – some of it anyway.

Now, if words are good but they aren’t everything then the reason this blog exists is because of a belief that you can enrich your coding system by using images as well as words, preferably hand-drawn ones. What I’m not saying is that images are better than words. That argument was settled when we stopped using hieroglyphics and phonemes and opted for graphemes – as I’ve learned while redoing primary school with my children.

The reason you might want to consider an enriched coding system is the same reason why you might want to learn how to use your native language well. The better you are the more you can say – and the more complex ideas you can hold in your head. It’s possible that your ability to think is directly related to your ability to use language. And if you can use words and images to explore ideas and concepts it follows that you can think about them more clearly and come up with better approaches and results.

I was going to focus on something called Grounded Theory in this post but I got a little distracted with the whole coding thing – but here’s a little of what I was thinking about.

Grounded Theory is a way of finding patterns in data – and was developed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss in the 1960s. And from this point things get a little complicated. Grounded Theory is a form of inductive reasoning – you collect data and then you create theory – a generalization – from what you see in the data. The opposite is deductive reasoning, where you start with a hypothesis and then see if the data you collect confirms or disproves your hypothesis. With grounded theory your theory emerges as you interact with your data and is coded using Theoretical codes. See – coding has some relevance to this discussion. Theoretical codes try and hold the theory that emerges from the research you carry out.

So, what does this mean in practice? Say I want to study something – a TED talk, carry out an interview, review some qualitative data – all of that is simply data at the start. If I write and draw what I’m studying, trying to identify concepts and relationships between concepts I’ll start to find patterns emerging from that data. Those patterns are ones that I’ve seen – someone else might find different ones but as long as I stay with the data and create patterns based on them I’m staying grounded in that data. If I bring other ideas that were expressed elsewhere – then I’m straying from what I see to what I expect or hope to see.

And this is an important distinction. Imagine you’re a salesperson. If you go into a session with a presentation – all ready to pitch your product – then you’re going in with a preconceived idea – a hypothesis of how things will work and the reaction of the people during the meeting will give you data on whether you’re right or not. And if you do enough of these meetings the law of averages will mean you win some and lose some and get your commission or not. If, on the other hand, you go in without preconceptions, ready to listen and collect data, which you then try and structure into some kind of pattern – and then showing how you can help now that you understand what they need – well that’s going to give you an entirely different kind of reaction. And that’s because instead of looking for what you’re expecting to see, you see what is actually in front of you.

And I think the more coding tools you have, including visual and verbal ones, that help you see with that unbiased view the better you will be able to wrestle with the increasingly complex lives and work that we all have to do.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh