Dec 24, 2015

Deliberate Practice Series - 2: My Own Deliberate Regimen

This morning, I worked out my initial draft of a Deliberate Practice (DP) framework to aid my development as a software developer. The schedule appears intimidatingly rigorous and demands discipline. Gradual attempts to ease into this routine will be more sustainable than embracing it cold-turkey, which is a recipe for burn out.

Here are the six traits of Deliberate Practice, as I discussed in my previous post.
1. It's designed to improve performance.
2. It's repeated a lot.
3. Feedback on results is continuously available.
4. It's highly demanding mentally.
5. It's hard.
6. It requires (good) goals.

Deliberate Practice for a Software Engineer

Working within the bounds set by the above six guidelines, a DP framework to expand my software expertise looks like this:
- Incorporate in your schedule large amounts of Creation (writing code) and an even larger amounts of Consumption (reading code and relevant literature).
- Keep a watchful eye on diminishing returns. You need to make sure your activities aren't turning out into mindless and passive drivels.
- Be able to provide a convincing explanation for the fundamental concepts in your domain. Do not build on top of a weak foundation.
- Be able to write simple, small, functional pieces of code that exercise a particular conceptual feature. The skill of writing dummy prototype code is valuable.
- Build a text document over time that you can use as a readily available reference booklet for quick lookups instead of resorting to searching through the Internet or Industry Standard Specifications.
- Try to recreate complex pieces of code. If available, read the documentation for a particular modular code snippet and then try implementing it yourself. Then compare with the actual snippet to get feedback on where you fell short.

A Deliberate Routine

1. Tapping into the Calm of the Morning
A software engineer's daily work routine is typically filled with distractions. There are meetings to run to, emails that constantly keep interrupting your focus, people that you need to interact with and similar such randomness spans a big part of your day. With these activities filling your workday, carving time for DP at workplace is very hard. That leaves us early mornings and late evenings. After a tiring day at work, you just wouldn't have the energy for cognitively demanding activities that require stretching your thinking. Besides, it is important to indulge in rest, recreation and have some fun too on your evenings to recharge for the next day.

Malcolm Gladwell advocates that to become world class in any field, you would need to invest 10,000 hours honing your craft. That is close to 20 hours a week for 10 years, which translates to about 4 hours a day Monday through Friday. This is in agreement with what Stephen King recommends in "On Writing" for aspiring writers - 4 to 6 hours of mindful effort everyday.

With evenings out of the equation for DP, we are left with mornings. With my work schedule, the best I can do is to schedule my DP 5 AM to 8 AM before the daily drivel begins. Having been a late riser, waking up at 5 AM will be a challenge, but a challenge that I am willing to take up.

2. Recharge with Easy Evenings
Scheduling cognitively demanding tasks for evenings after work will be punishing. I would like to reserve my evenings for other activities like Guitar, Running, reading non-work related books and many other fun things that help me rest and recharge, and have a life. However, it shouldn't be very hard to squeeze in one hour and maybe an additional half on top of it to do some study of literature related to my field. This will not be as mentally draining as my morning regimen. Again, this routine resembles what noted writers do - Scheduling your mornings for creation (writing) and reserving your evenings for consumption (reading) and relaxation.

3. Complement with Passive Tasks on Weekends
Toiling away under a rigorous routine in isolation, while undoubtedly rewarding in its own way, is not wholesome. It is important to get involved and become a part of a thriving community that is related to and engaged in your field of work. Adding a social element to your ventures will broaden your perspectives, establish relations and bring in opportunities that you wouldn't even have conceived of. If nothing else, putting your work out there for the world to see, whether anyone cares or not, is motivating and makes you more accountable.

Here are some ideas on throwing in some social spice into your cold and hard regimen.
- Explore online forums (like stackoverflow), ask questions, answer questions if you can, sign up for mailing lists, etc.
- Do a survey of open source projects in your field, read their documentation and see if you can get involved in any way.
- Find out about conferences, if any, that are held in fields relevant to you.
- You will surely know of people at work that are highly skilled and experienced. Leverage their expertise by regularly seeking them out with questions.
- Read books on loosely connected areas that interest you. For instance, although I'm a BIOS engineer, I enjoy reading up on the Linux kernel.
- Put your work out there. Update your blog with how you are doing with your DP endeavour.

It is important to realize that these social activities are only supplementary. It is very easy to trick yourself into believing that these arenas are where the maximum benefits lie. Most people get sucked into this rabbit hole where most of their valuable time is spent fooling around mail lists, forums and networking. This is akin to students forming study circles, where most of their supposed study sessions transform into mindless chatter.

I plan on spending not more than 2 hours or so on a weekend working on the social side of things.

Closing Notes

While the whole conception seems extraordinarily overwhelming when looked at as a whole, it will be more humanely manageable when I start incorporating little chunks of it into my daily life. For instance, I can begin with waking up at 6 AM instead of 5 for a month or even two, and then gradually build up the nerve to push the clock back to 5 AM. I could put aside only 40 minutes during my evenings for study during my first 3 months instead of 1.5 hours everyday.

From past experiences, I have now been convinced that building habits at a slow and easy pace always beats a sudden burst of adrenaline fuelled inspiration that dies out or burns out in a few days. This is the reason a person running a couple blocks for 10 minutes a day regularly will get ahead of someone who makes a new year resolution of running 5 miles everyday, and then gives up after a week. I will apply the same principles for my Deliberate Practice routine. It is inevitable that I will face days where I just won't have the motivation to do absolutely anything and just laze away, or days where I simply won't care about waking up at 5 AM. But as long as I keep chipping away at this beast one little blow a day and build the habit muscles over time, I should be able to fare decently well.

In my next post, I will break down my routine into a finer level of detail where I will lay out my plan on what exactly I would be doing on a given day.

(Photo by Hartwig HKD)

Dec 12, 2015

First Few Steps in the Wilderness

I recently took an introductory class for wilderness Backpacking. The outdoor adventure company REI offers an array of outdoors classes, and this was their weekend class that introduces one to the fundamental skills involved in going on backpacking trips.

Backpacking is a form of wilderness travel where you head out into the wild carrying everything you would need for the trip in your backpack. This is in contrast to car-camping, where you load your stuff into a car and drive to a campsite and pitch your tent, with your car being accessible all the while. As you can imagine, backpacking would require a lot more thought, planning and experience compared to car-camping, because if you are 50 miles away from civilization and you cannot light your fire to cook food, or if you are not well stocked up on drinking water with no water source around, then you are in trouble.

We were a group of 8 and our instructor was Jeremy, an experienced backwoods expert with years of wilderness travel behind him. We started off with a brief introduction to backpacking right outside REI in the parking lot where Jeremy talked in detail about clothing, the Ten Essentials, food management and efficient packing of a backpack. REI had provided us with basic equipment such as backpacks, tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, food and snacks.

We all packed our backpacks, got into a van and drove off out from the city into a nearby wilderness area called Portola Redwoods State Park. This is a beautiful, damp and ancient forest with giant Redwood trees just an hour away from my city. This state park is part of an interconnected state park system that runs west from the San Francisco Bay area all the way to the Pacific ocean coastline.

We got to our destination, unloaded our heavy cargo, had a quick lunch of sandwiches and strapped on our backpacks. And then we began our 4 mile journey toward our campsite. Jeremy continued imparting us his pearls of wisdom throughout the journey. We had frequent pit-stops to drop the backpacks down to the ground, catch a breath and rest our thighs, and of course, to pause and take in the lush-green, damp and mossy Redwood forests around us.

It takes bodily strength to carry a heavy backpack (10-15 kg for a weekend trip) and walk for miles under changing elevation. A dedicated backpacker needs to stay very fit for the physical challenges of backpacking. It is important to regularly keep going on practice hikes to nearby hills and mountains with a deliberately-made-heavy backpack.

After about 2 hours of hiking at a relaxed pace, we got to our campsite. It was just a small clearing with a picnic table nearby. Jeremy got started with showing us how to pitch our tents. It sure is amusing when you get to see how small a one-person tent is. You cannot do more than duck down and crawl into the tent and just call it a day. If you sit up, you would push against the fabric of the tent roof so there's no head room. There's not enough width that you can so much as even stretch your hands.

Jeremy explains setting up tent.

This is my fully assembled one-person tent.

Dusk was falling upon us by the time we got done setting our tents up. We then walked to a nearby stream to replenish our water supplies. Here we were shown how to use different hydration systems such as manual pump water filters and gravity assisted water filtering. After about close to an hour near the stream, we then walked back to our camp in the dark, with our headlamps lighting up our trail.

We wrapped up for the day by gathering near the picnic table (seen in the picture) where Jeremy walked us through the nuances of cooking stoves and camp cooking. There was a nice overhead tarp set up by our instructor to shield us from the rain that was beginning to fall. We all had our freeze-dried meal and retired for the day into our tents. I had quite a warm and comfortable night's rest in my little tent despite it being cold and raining all night.

We started our day early, had a quick breakfast, broke up our tents and hiked back out of the forest. On our hike back, Jeremy addressed an important topic - how to poop while out in the wild with minimal environmental impact! That was funny to listen to but definitely isn't fun to have to deal with, although there's no escaping this.

As we approached our trailhead, we were given some closing advice and tips on how to train physically to stay fit. We then got into the van and drove back to civilization. I was really glad I finally took this class and got the basics of backpacking under my belt. I now look forward to building on this foundation and start taking little trips by myself.

An excellent book to learn about backpacking that I'm reading right now:
Allen and Mikes Really Cool Backpackin' Book

Nov 22, 2015

Deliberate Practice Series - 1: How Do You Measure Real Progress

Here are some things I'd feel accomplished if I get really good at:
- Be an extremely competent Software Engineer and a Programmer.
- Play the Guitar really well.
- Learn the ropes of Investing and gain the experience and insights to make good, informed Investments.

To make well-defined, measurable progress in any of these areas is not as straightforward as just putting in the hard work and toiling away. For instance, to turn into a competent programmer, it doesn't suffice to read a few books and write practice programs. If I want to get good at playing the Guitar, then picking up the Guitar everyday for half an hour and hammering away won't help me make notable progress for years. Improvements will be very slow in coming. Be it cognitive or mechanical, any reasonably complex task requires more than working through a few books or putting in some unstructured practice time.

I've been contemplating this area for a while and am increasingly convinced that to make real progress in a given area, you need a well defined set of benchmarks that you can measure yourself against, and a solid plan that helps keep you focused and lets you realize whether you are on track or are steering away.

A significant amount of literature (books and blogs) exists out there that deals with the question - How does one get to elite levels in any cognitive field? I have in particular been attracted to the concept of 'Deliberate Practice'. As far as I know, the book that really made a name for itself in this topic is 'Talent is Overrated' by Geoff Colvin. I had read this book a few years ago and it was liberating to realize that no field is the proprietary playground of a few hand-picked lucky folks with natural god-gifted talents, except in physically demanding areas like Sports where people with certain physique have a natural advantage. The book makes a strong case of the fact that with consistent application of Deliberate practice, anyone can reach elite levels in their chosen cognitive fields. A blog (my favorite) that also deals with the concept of 'Deliberate Practice' at length is Study Hacks.

Below are the constituents of Deliberate Practice (copied guilt-free from here)
1. It's designed to improve performance.
2. It's repeated a lot.
3. Feedback on results is continuously available.
4. It's highly demanding mentally.
5. It's hard.
6. It requires (good) goals.

In the next few posts, I will be laying down a deliberate practice framework applied to my above areas of interest. If at all I wish not to be doomed to a life of mediocrity, it is vital that I do this.

Nov 1, 2015

My Books List - 2015

Here's a running post on the books I've read in 2015 and their brief summaries.

I am Malala - A biographical account of the brief but very eventful life of Malala Yousafzai, who's a Nobel peace prize recipient and a proponent for Women's education. The book also is an account of the times of turmoil in Pakistan during the the Taliban insurgency.

On Writing - A memoir and a guidebook for aspiring writers by Stephen King. This book is a must read if you ever plan on pursuing creative writing. The book demystifies writing to be a natural talent and portrays it to be an art that can be acquired and honed by constant practice and know-hows. As a software engineer, I could easily relate the writing advice in the book to the field of software development, which I view to be as much a creative art as writing fiction is.

Here's what it takes to become a competent writer (or in my case, a programmer) - Read a lot, write a lot. Steve has claimed that he reads close to 80 books a year. And he recommends a schedule of 4-6 hours a day of reading and writing.

The Finish - An account of the operation by the US government and the Navy SEAL commandos that finally lead to the demise of Osama Bin Laden.

Born to Run - A gripping tale where the author Christopher McDougall, pursues the art of ultra running and goes to the copper canyons of Mexico to learn about the ultra running tribe called Tarahumara that lives in the Canyons. As the book dives deep into exploring the theory of running from an evolutionary perspective, the reader is also introduced to the heroes in the sport of ultra running. This book just makes you want to lace up your shoes and run till you drop.

A Brief History of Time - A book on Cosmology and Particle Physics by Stephen Hawking. This book introduces the lay reader to the world of the laws governing our Universe, Quantum Theory, Particle Physics and Astronomy. This book surely is not an easy read. Many of the concepts, especially Quantum Mechanics and the Theories of Relativity get very convoluted and overwhelming. I found myself skimming through the pages without spending time gaining an in-depth understanding of the underlying science. This is a book that you would want to 'study' and not just read.

Oct 11, 2015

Born to Run?

I just finished reading Christopher McDougall's book 'Born to Run'. The author, who himself is an accomplished marathoner, delves into the world of running and gives an inspiring and thrilling account of an ultra running tribe in Mexico, while also introducing the readers to the American ultra running super humans. The book also explores Running from a philosophical and evolutionary viewpoint that fascinated me the most.

The author argues that running played a huge role in our evolution to become the dominant species on planet Earth. We human beings are built to run long distances, the author says. Man perfected the art of Persistence Hunting - a hunting tactic where all you do is chase animals till they collapse from exhaustion and die - that enabled him to move from thick forests to the open grasslands of Africa and colonize newer territories. This gave us homo-sapiens an evolutionary advantage over other similar species of our family such as Neanderthals, that were supposedly bigger, stronger and intellectually superior.

The book gives an inspiring account of present day American ultra runners to whom, running a marathon (26.2 miles) is like a walk down the neighborhood. These are the runners that train for, and compete in 100-mile events! The lengths that these elite athletes run and the amount of suffering and pain that they endure borders craziness. It sure left me confused about whether to draw inspiration from them or to be glad that my sanity levels are far far away from theirs.

Could running be a way of life? I find it a little too much to swallow. While it sure could be all that I need to do to stay healthy and fit, it is hard for me to imagine running meeting my mental, intellectual and spiritual needs. Yet, the characters the author introduces to the readers are the kind for whom running is the means and running is the end. They find their bliss while running up a mountaintop in freezing cold, and their Nirvana as they drag their feet through desolate deserts under the boiling Sun. It would've been great if I could experience such rush of happiness/contentment just for once. If only I could get through the burning pain of lactic acid buildup in my legs after running a few miles. Maybe I just need better shoes :)

What running definitely is to me, is that it is a great stress buster and the time to think over and re prioritize things that are important to me. It has been during my lonely runs that I've decided to stop getting wasted on social media sites and spend more time reading books. During one of my recent runs, I pondered over the amount of time I spend reading the daily news and the value that it is adding to my life. That helped me decide on drastically cutting down my newspaper reading time, which is now down from 45-50 minutes to 5-10 minutes. Oh, and running is the perfect time for me to further strengthen my recall-speed of Blackjack basic strategy tables :)

An engaging book that I wanted to read for a long time now. Surely something I'll pick up again for a fresh round of perspectives if at all I someday get closer to my dream of running a marathon.