Figuring out who you are

You have to watch this video first. It’ll be one of the most thought-provoking 40 minutes of your life:

Makebelieve Help, Old Butchers, and Figuring Out Who You Are (For Now) from Merlin Mann on Vimeo.

I’m scared. I’m deathly afraid actually. Remember the ebook I’m writing, “Discipline and Deflection”?

Well, I started off thinking, “I want to help people. I seem to have a knack for handling many small tasks, answering emails, replying to user queries, generating ad-hoc reports from databases. Stuff like that. And I still manage to write code, roll the applications out to production, and maintain legacy code. I should totally write something about handling interruptions!”

That went off to an immense spurt of creative energy. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Maybe I could write that, what reference could I use to illustrate my point and so on. I would be jotting down notes on my paper pad. I would be typing in tidbits of inspiration on my iPhone if I’m travelling.

As I thought and planned and wrote and thought some more, I had this increasing feeling of “This is so lame! How could anyone possibly benefit from this? This doesn’t make sense!”

And I got scared. What the heck was I doing? How could I possibly think I’m good enough to teach anyone about handling interruptions?

So I changed course. I thought about it real hard, and hit upon the idea that I’m not really writing about handling interruptions per se, but about controlling one’s self. It’s about self-control. It’s about controlling the emotions you’re feeling, thoughts you’re having and actions you’re taking. It’s not about suppressing those emotions, nor feel guilty about having flighty fantasies, nor getting depressed over the things you’ve done. It’s about not reacting to your emotions, which govern your thoughts, which compel your actions.

It’s about self-control, about self-awareness, and about how to use that knowledge to better yourself, in math, in programming, in whatever you set your mind to do.

And I got really scared after that. Because I felt like I was becoming one of those fake self-help people Merlin was talking about in his video. Because that piece of work I have in my computer right now, that ebook I’m going to publish, has little to do with math. Or programming. The concepts’ relation to each other seem as weak as molecular bonds.

But I used them. I figured them out myself. And they worked for me. But that doesn’t make me an expert in any way. And so I’m afraid. Of sounding like I know what I’m doing. I don’t.

Mostly, I just intuit things to their conclusion. This seems to run counter to the logical processes that are math and programming. I use intuition and logical thinking in tandem and in equal parts to solve problems.

I was so scared that while writing this article, I had to get away from the keyboard, and since I was also hungry, I mixed up a protein shake to drink (it was about 11pm and I didn’t want to eat anything heavy). The act of mixing, drinking the shake, and washing up calmed me a little. Which is important.


Most of all, I’m scared because I have no idea how that piece of work is going to help you. I know you’re a smart person. Which adds to my fear. What can I possibly teach an intelligent person on how to stay calm, how to maintain discipline, how to follow through on the task at hand even with interruptions and distractions? Will that even help you in your work?

In any case, I’m still going to finish that ebook. Even if it doesn’t help you. Even if you think it’s lame. Even if you think that makes me a fake self-help guru.

Because I have a compulsion to finish it. I have to write it. It’s driving me insane.

I’m going to stop here. I know you probably have some really useful work you need to get done. Still, a comment or an email with your thoughts on the matter is very much appreciated. Thank you.

Discipline and Deflection

Meditating by the sea

“Discipline and Deflection”. That’s the title of the ebook I’m working on. I started with the idea that perhaps, just maybe, I could write about how I dealt with (coding and non-coding) interruptions while still completing projects (I wrote a bit on that here). That I could help you, in case you happen to want to know more about that.

As I thought and consolidated my points, every single point seem to revolve around the idea of self-control. Without self-control, any life-hacking, GTD-esque, productivity tool you have is useless. Because without self-control, you won’t have the discipline to use those tools and actually do what you wanted in the first place.

When you have something important to do, you need to focus. This actually has 2 parts. You need to concentrate on that one task, and ignore any interruptions (including other tasks). It turns out that there’s lots of advice on this, and that it’s hard.

So I don’t have like “47 tips on making your browser work better”, or “12 essential tools you must have on your computer” or whatever number that’s popular right now. I only have 1 (which is fine. I mean it’s the number one!), or 2 (it’s the only even prime number!) things to tell you.

It’s just self-control. And there are 2 parts: discipline and deflection. Hard and soft. Yang and Yin. Balance.

Sound like one of those New Age concepts? Perhaps.

Let me tell you 2 stories first…

Distractions and Newton’s 3rd Law

Garion was learning to control his power. Before this, it had always been spontaneous. He just thought it, and it’s manifested in reality. But there had always been some impetus, some urgency, to which he was forced to perform those acts of manifestation.

Now, he’s mindfully controlling what could be done. And his task at hand? To overturn a large piece of rock.

The first thing he noticed was, while he can concentrate on visualising the overturning of the rock, small peripheral happenings around him kept distracting him. A bird’s song. The buzz of a bee. The smell of the flowers. The coolness of the breeze. The light from the sun.

Finally he managed to ignore all the distractions, and was thinking about how to overturn the rock. Maybe he could lift it at one end? That made sense.

So he bent his will to lifting the rock at one end. Sweat beaded his brow. His hands were shaking, as though he had been physically lifting the rock.

Finally, Garion collapsed onto the soft grass in exhaustion. The rock simply would not move! After resting for some time, he got up and tried again. This time, he had a plan. Instead of slowly lifting, he would mentally grab hold of one end of the rock and flip it with one mental heave.

He visualised holding the end closest to him, and then he heaved. The rock flew off into the distance. Garion smiled in satisfaction.

Garion also realised he’s waist deep in the ground.

He didn’t brace himself against the impact. “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Flipping the rock upwards meant he was pushed downwards.

[this short story is paraphrased from the Belgariad by David Eddings]

The One Finger Punch

Chen Min was intrigued. How had that frail studious man defeated that ferocious brute of a man with just a touch of his finger? Chen Min had to find out.

“The essence of the skill,” the academic explained, “is balance.”

Suppose the total force was 10. If the attacker used 7 points of force, one just needed to use 3 points of force. If the attacker went all out, one merely needed a touch of a finger.

Matching the attacker’s force of 7 with another 7 would upset the balance. Sure one might still come out the better. But one had used an excess of energy to do it.

The academic, even though he’s not trained in kung fu, had agreed to teach Chen Min the skill. He took Chen Min to a spot beside a waterfall. It was noisy. The water splashed into the deep end of the pool. The leaves were rustling in the mildly strong wind.

And he told Chen Min to listen for birds. “What birds?” And 3 birds flew from a nearby tree.

Then he brought out a bird from the cage he carried and handed it to Chen Min. His instructions? Without holding onto the bird, with his palm open and the bird standing on his open palm, stop the bird from flying away.

Needless to say, the bird flew off without giving Chen Min any time to react.

Then the academic took another bird out from the cage. He held it in his hands. Chen Min could practically see the bird bending just a fraction of an inch downwards, in preparation for taking off.

And just as the bird was pushing off with its feet, the academic lowered his hands slightly, just enough to counter the force from the bird’s downward movement. Without the force needed to push off, the bird couldn’t fly off, and it stayed. The academic smiled, and lifted his hand and the bird flew away. Chen Min’s jaw dropped.

Chen Min stayed at the waterfall place, sat down, and concentrated. He focussed all his senses. He was watching intently at the trees. He was listening intently at the trees, desperately trying to ignore the rush of the wind and rustling of the leaves. He still couldn’t make out the chirps of the birds.

He thought maybe there weren’t any to begin with. And a few birds promptly took off from the trees into the sky. “I can’t do this!” and he slumped onto the ground.

Chen Min was enjoying the breeze, and was drifting into day dreaming mode, when he heard a chirp. He jerked back up, and tried to listen again. The chirping was gone.

He tried to understand what was going on. He was lying down, enjoying the breeze, not thinking about anything… and he was totally relaxed!

He sat back up with his legs crossed in meditative position, and slowed his breathing. And relaxed. And the faint chirping could be heard.

The key to maintaining balance in the One Finger Punch wasn’t to focus intently with one’s senses. It was to let go.

[that’s Chen Min, a kung fu master depicted in a comic book. Yes I get inspirations from comic books.]

Final words

Those 2 stories are part of what shaped my thoughts about self-control. Now, clench your fist. Then relax your fist. Now imagine your hand being in a clenched state and in a relaxed open state at the same time.

That’s what my ebook is about. To be disciplined enough to do the task you set out, and be relaxed enough to gently deflect interruptions. Hard and soft. Yang and Yin. Balance. Self-control.

I am also compiling a list of tips on handling interruptions of the I-want-to-focus-right-now-without-interruptions kind. This will complement the ebook, which will talk about deeper concepts (and so takes more time and effort to execute. Nobody said this was easy…). The compiled list will be freely available as a download for everyone.

If you want to contribute a tip on how you handle interruptions during your work, your studies, when you’re coding, anything, just put in a comment or contact me. I will include your tip in the list with attributions to you. Or you can tell me which awesome programmer I should be totally talking to, and asking that person for tips.

And finally, buy my ebook when it’s out. *smile*

Disclaimer: I’m not versed in New Age, Zen, Buddhism, and so on. I am not a health professional. I have some interest in those topics, only insofar as curiosity puts me. I’m just a simple man who happens to read a lot on a variety of topics.

[image by Neustock]