Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Self-Reinforcing Loop of Success

When I was a student in school, I mostly got good grades, sometimes even winning prizes. And yet, partly due to difficult circumstances at home and my subsequent low self-esteem, and partly due to discouraging teachers, I was never confident of my ability to study for and pass an exam. I studied yes, but always with a feeling of imminent fear, that the exam would require abilities I didn’t possess. And this was barely fifth or sixth grade, where we weren’t exactly attempting very difficult topics.

In ninth grade, I found myself in a similar, but far worse predicament. I started to get near-failing grades in certain subjects. I remember vividly, taking a physics exam, where I didn’t even understand most of the questions, let alone have any clue about the answers, and I remember frantically putting down anything at all that I remembered from the textbook, hoping I would get one mark for trying. My exam sheets were basically large chunks of empty space, that I left hoping inspiration would strike at the last minute (which of course it didn’t. It was one of those subjects where you either knew what you were doing or didn’t, you couldn’t exactly make stuff up!)
I hated that feeling - of not knowing what I was doing. But it was an inevitable consequence of not taking the time to master the material.
I did eventually do that, and the next year, I scored the highest in my year at the end-of-year board exams, India’s equivalent of the O-levels. That included scoring the highest in science as well.
I'm not saying it was easy, it wasn’t. I had to take a few lessons in Physics from a tutor, and maths lessons, and the rest of the time, study my tail off. But that experience - going from almost failing, to getting top scores - changed me. Experiencing that level of success gave me confidence in my ability to tackle subjects that I initially found hard. I started thinking of myself as someone who was intelligent, and could handle advanced schoolwork. (Yes, before that I didn’t think of myself as particularly intelligent, for whatever reason.)
My academic success didn’t only change how I saw myself. My parents suddenly had different hopes for me - even thinking I should study abroad - something that had never before been discussed. My teachers in school, some of whom didn’t even acknowledge my presence before, started to notice me much more, and as a result sent me to various competitions to represent the school. Even the ‘cool kids’ were more inclined to include me in conversations, and I received invitations to their ‘coveted’ parties.
The repercussions didn’t stop there. When I was applying to colleges, I didn’t have my final board exam results. My 10th grade results however, were enough to get me conditional offers from top UK universities.
Why am I telling this story? Because although we know this subconsciously, success often creates a self-reinforcing loop, leading to more opportunities, more belief in yourself, and surprise, surprise, even more success.
I was reminded of this recently. The past few years I have been trying to turn my writing into a career, and part of was that thinking of myself as a writer, complete more projects, and improve my skills. Initially, overwhelmed by the distance I thought I still had to go, and how little I had actually accomplished, I was unable to actually tell anyone that I was a writer, or that I even wrote. And sometimes to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t even writing all that much.
Sure, I thought about my writing, and made lists of what I would and should write, and read tons of books on writing. But the piles of half-written stuff didn’t magically transform into completed manuscripts. Mainly because every time I sat down to write I had a hundred doubts - about my ability to complete that manuscript, and my ability in general to write. I didn’t think I was good enough.
Then late last year I discovered self-publishing - i.e. the recent revolution in the self-pub world. I had self-published a book a few years ago - one which I had written in my late teens, and shopped around to publishers in India. The book was rejected, (well summarily ignored is closer to the truth), but one publisher commissioned me to write something else that they published. I thought self-publishing was better than leaving it to languish in my hard drive, but not only did I not sell a single copy, the whole process made me even more depressed about my career as a writer.

Enter 2013 and my discovery of Smashwords. I decided I had nothing to lose by publishing my book with them - and managed, just barely, to navigate the technical landmines, and upload my book. I also came across a few blogs about self-publishing - and discovered the world of indies (authors who publish independently) out there, who were doing amazing stuff. I started to feel slightly excited about writing again, and thought that maybe I could realistically publish a few more books. Even if no one ended up buying them, I would have gotten further than where I was now.
Then I discovered Amazon KDP (yes I have been living under a rock so far). And I actually managed to not only sell a few books with zero marketing, my book hit the top 10 in its genre in a few countries (UK, Canada, Japan). This already exceeded my expectations, and I was over the moon.
This encouraged me to polish up an old manuscript and publish that too. More than that, it gave me the push I needed to start writing my projects, instead of making half-hearted excuses. I still find it difficult to tell people I write, but it’s getting easier, especially when I actually write regularly.
In this case, the success of finding a platform for publishing my work and making a few sales, set off a self-reinforcing effect of writing more, which will hopefully lead to more published work.
You might be thinking - that’s all very well, but you need an initial success to spark the self-reinforcing loop. Well, yes that’s true. But ‘success’ can be defined loosely. In the first example, the success was more mainstream - doing well in an exam. But in the second case, success is defined simply by my finding a platform to showcase my work. You can define success for yourself - sometimes even the smallest positive strides can make all the difference.

If you make videos, you can upload them on Youtube. If you create apps, you can make a prototype and sell it on the Apple store. If you take photographs, you could join a site like Shutterstock to sell your images. The point is there are many more options now than before to showcase our work - and sometimes just a little positive encouragement can be the spark that sets your creativity alight.
So ask yourself this question: how can you set off this self-reinforcing loop for yourself?  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Publishing a Side Project

I recently published a short book examining the life of Albert Speer, one of Hitler's cabinet members during WWII, and a prominent architect of the Reich. It is available on Amazon as a Kindle download.

I am very excited about publishing this book, as I did it as a break between larger projects that I have been working on for a while now.

Part of the reason I started writing this blog was to figure out ways to shake up my creative process, and find ways to get more done, take risks in my work and increase my productivity, while at the same time, having more fun. I have been reading a lot about writing and creativity over the past few years, and thought it would be useful to document some of what I have been learning, once I have a chance to digest it and find ways to apply it in my work.

Inspired by many others whose work I admire and who are surprisingly productive, I decided to find small ways to be more productive. I am not sure how much of it I imbibed, but something surely sank in, and I found time to put this short book together. I hope ultimately that people read my book and like it but for now the joy of putting something out there, complete, or as complete as I can make it, is all I really wanted. This itself is inspiring me to get back to my bigger projects and push them towards completion as well.

So what is inspiring you to get back to work on your creative projects? 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

When To Judge Your Work

When you’re doing creative work, whether it is writing a novel or writing code that sings, it’s easy to fall into the trap of judging your work and yourself too harshly. After all, we decide to work in an area that we ourselves love as consumers - you design an app inspired by a beautiful app experience, or write books because you love the work of others. You know what is good, and when you fail to see it in your own work it can be heart-breaking. You criticise your work, holding it up the high standards you know you like in the work of others and want to see in your own work.

However, judging your work while working on it can be brutal to the creative process. You try to make whimsical connections and let your imagination run free, while the critic on your shoulder sternly commands that you get back to the straight and narrow path, don’t run after stupid ideas that haven’t been tried before and might possibly lead you to fail epically. This critic always fails to mention that your whimsical ideas might lead you to do something so different that it takes people’s breath away, that you could succeed beyond your wildest dreams. That any art that stamps out the possibility of jumping off a cliff also stamps out the possibility of taking off soaring over the edge.
On the other hand, you don’t want to be so in love with your work that you can't see any flaws, which means you don’t grow and improve at your craft.
Scott Young’s recent article on this topic provides a good balance between maintaining humility and having the will to keep working. His theory is that we should judge our past work with the same sense of critique that we might bring to someone else’s work - taking note of missteps to correct in the future. When we are composing our current work however, we should avoid critiquing it harshly, especially as that might prevent us from having the will to complete it.
As a writer I can see the flaw in this - that if I don’t critique my work while I'm doing it, won't I end up putting out work that isn’t good enough, thereby affecting my own reputation? On the other hand, with each project I go through phases where I'm convinced that the work is terrible and there’s no point in continuing. Usually the looming deadline and the spectre of angry colleagues forces me to push through these feelings and complete the project - and the end product is much better than I thought it would be.
When I don’t have an external deadline, and the only person who will be disappointed if I didn’t finish is me, it’s harder to silence the voice that states that the work is really terrible and you should abandon it pronto. Often, if I can ignore it, I will end up with work that really is quite good, even though it can invariably be improved further. It won't get that chance though, if I get demotivated enough by my self-criticism to give up at that point. Not only that, I believe that every project that I have completed, even the ones on which I can look back and cringe that I had the temerity to write such drivel, have taught me much more than anything else.
Thus, whatever reservations I may have about sacking my inner Judge Judy for the duration of my project, its tempered by the thought that it will be that much easier to get to the finish line. Besides, didn’t your grandma always tell you that you can catch more flies with a drop of honey than a gallon of gall? Well, shouldn’t the same advice apply to nurturing our creative instincts? After all, a little honey may go a long way.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Working Enough Hours and The Pursuit of Mastery

We have all heard about the 10,000 hours phenomenon - work 10,000 hours at your craft and you will become great at it. This spurred people into scurrying to rack up the hours - although sometimes identifying what exactly your craft is, in itself is hard.

Recently, I have been reading about mastery, and a growing consensus is that not only is 10,000 hours of practice alone not a guarantee of success, sometimes its not even required. The Click Moment gives examples of successes like Stephanie Meyer, who hit paydirt with her first novel / series Twilight. She wasn't a novelist with 10,000 or even 2,000 hours of writing under her belt before she penned the series that inspired a cultural phenomenon.

The author of the book, Johannson,  steps away from the focus on expertise and instead recommends placing small bets, doing many projects, to increase the likelihood of any one taking off.

The problem with both these perspectives is that to me they seem to be on two ends of the spectrum - whereas I do think there can be more common ground. As Laura Vanderkam pointed out in her book 168 Hours, we need to work enough hours at our "core competencies", or the area that you are trying to achieve mastery in, to take advantage of the economies of scale. As you put in more time, till a certain point, it continues to give you marginal benefit. The added time put in, hones your skills, so that you can get better at what you are doing currently.

You also need to hedge your bets - do many projects rather than put all your eggs in one basket. What this looks like in practice can mean different things for different people - if you're writing a historical novel that takes a year just to research, clearly I am not advocating giving that up in favour of short articles. However, during that time, if you also write a blog about the era you are researching, or short videos on the interesting aspects of your research, you are placing another bet, and allowing the universe to help you make connections for your work in unexpected ways. For someone else, this might mean creating a few short films rather than focusing their energy on one magnum opus.

The point is that by opening yourself to the possibility of doing more projects, hopefully ones that leverage the skills you put in long hours to achieve, you are harnessing the best of both aspects of success - ability and serendipity.

In my case, thinking about this made me realise that I need to focus on the law of diminishing returns - spending untold months that do not necessarily vastly improve a project is probably a clear waste of time - time that could be better spent on working on another interesting project.

What do you think - how should we allocate our time available to the creative pursuits we are attempting to master?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Problem Aspects of Projects: What To Do When It's All A Muddle

I recently read Rachel Aaron’s book on increasing her writing speed from 2,000 words to 10,000 words a day. The most interesting part of the book for me was her editing process, from which I learnt a lot. Not to say the part explaining how she quintupled her writing progress wasn’t interesting, its just that I had read it before on her blog.

Anyway, one of the big takeaways I had from her editing process was how she makes a list of all the problems with the current draft, and goes through them systematically. I guess I must have had that subconsciously in my mind, because I adapted that process for the research report I'm currently editing for the final submission.

I have actually been flailing around with this edit a bit, which is equal parts usual and unusual for me. I don’t usually have a terribly hard time editing, but this is a topic with which I am completely unfamiliar, and I was asked to add a component quite late in the process, which threw me a bit. Consequently, some parts of the report have gone through more drafts than other parts. I was also facing a bit of a crisis of confidence when sitting down to work on it, thinking that the amount of work needed was quantitatively and qualitatively beyond my grasp. I keep procrastinating and spinning my wheels sitting in front of my laptop, mentally wringing my hands. I did make some progress, but in my mind it wasn’t clear how much I had done and how much I had left to do.

Till I made a simple list - by going through the draft from the beginning, I made a list of everything I needed to fix, section-wise. And then I started to tick off what I had already done. Now the work was organised simply, and chronologically. I could if I wanted to, go through it from the beginning till the end, fixing each problem at a time.  I won't do that however.

As I stated in a post a few days ago, I have learned from experience that progress goes quicker if I first identify which parts are the easiest to complete, the low-hanging fruit as it were, and do those first. With a few easy wins under my belt, I feel more confidence to tackle the rest.  So while I am off to complete my editing with much less trepidation and a tiny bit of anticipation, how do you tackle editing / large, complex projects that you are tempted to put off?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Creativity Myth

I have always wanted to be a writer, just assumed that eventually as I grew up, along with everything else I did, I would write. Regularly. And get published.

And yet, I didn’t realize, as I grew older, I absorbed some myths about writing. I believed that I had to wait, for some mythic inspiration to strike. I thought I was waiting for when the words would come, not knowing that simply sitting at the computer typing would make at least some of the words come. And that would make more progress than aimlessly waiting for inspiration to knock on the door. Or in my case break down the door with a sledgehammer, because even when inspiration regularly knocked, I neglected to write down the snippets that I got. I have no clue what I was waiting for. I sometimes got entire paragraphs of text, and ignored them, let them go.

I guess I thought writing stories was very very different from writing research papers. With the latter, you did research, typed up some tentative stuff, moved paragraphs around, did some more research, and cobbled together a piece. With art on the other hand, you sat at the pad or computer, and someone whispered in your ear, and you simply wrote swathes of beautiful prose, tidied up the grammar a bit, and voila, you had a manuscript. And since that never happened to me, I never completed anything. I started many things, but since it didn’t flow completely in one session, I never bothered to complete them. I guess I thought talent was something divine, not something you can hone.

Even last year when I read The Talent Code, which discussed deliberate practise and the ability to develop mastery, not just chance upon it, it didn’t make me rush to the computer. I instead spent time trying to come up with the perfect deep practise drills, like there was some magic exercise out there that would turn me into a great writer.

Over the past year however, it has been dawning on me very slowly that it’s this, this willingness to write down everything that occurs to you, and trying different combinations, putting yourself out there. Putting blood sweat and tears onto paper or screen. This is what turns you into a writer. Experience. Patience. A bit of luck. That comes after spending hours trying to find the right words. This is very similar to what I do with research papers – I put down all the words I can think of, in all the combinations I can think of. And then I delete what sounds the worst, move things around, revise as much as I can.

In my current WIP (work-in-progress), I just couldn’t find a way to put down the words. I wanted to circle back to the same scenes, the same emotional truths over and over. Seeing that as a fatal flaw in my writing process, I simply stopped working, hoping that magically one day I would know exactly what to write, how to fill in the gaps. Perhaps what I needed instead was to write the same scene over and over in various ways. I have since read about writers, both contemporary and classical, who have experienced this same feeling of going around and around in circles, like a dog chasing its tail. Maybe I should have gone with it, and it would have helped me to settle down into my work; which is really what the dog is doing as well, evolutionarily programmed to make its grassy bed.

I read a blog post by Jamie Todd Rubin, in which he mentioned his writing method - he first writes one draft telling the story to himself, and a second draft where he tells the story to his readers. It’s such a simple and yet powerful way of breaking down the writing process. Reading this made me feel that my myth of the writer effortlessly breezing through the story from beginning to end in chronological order, with all plot twists and turns neatly worked out in one fell swoop was, just that, a myth. Writers get the kernel of an idea, and then they must work hard at it, to turn that kernel into a crackling good tale.

This probably applies to endeavours beyond just writing, or even broader than art. I imagine that students might believe that successful students sail through the examination in chronological order, when in reality many, myself included, jump back and forth between easy and difficult questions, answering as much as possible. A finished presentation may look seamless, but from experience I know, execution is often patchy and chaotic, everything falling into place at the last minute. As I mentioned in a previous post, making whatever little progress you can, can set up a cumulative effect, building on itself.

Maybe creativity isn’t a flashy designer, with bolts of silk, fashioning a garment from large pieces of cloth. Maybe creativity more closely resembles a weaver, weaving a complex tapestry from small pieces of thread, intertwined over time into something that absorbs the individual fibres, which is munificent enough to accept any and all bits into its fold.

Update: I apologize, the previous version of this post omitted the links.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What To Do When You Are Stuck On Your Project With A Looming Deadline

There’s a trick I have learnt when working on projects of varying sizes, that is so simple, I always feel ashamed to use it. And I keep forgetting about it, until I am halfway through planning and agonising over a project, petrified I will miss the deadline and kicking myself for not getting my act together earlier. This trick always works, and yet each time I have to remind myself of it.

What is the trick? Low-hanging fruit (LHF). Doing the easy stuff first.
Let me explain.

If you are one of those people who get assigned a task - a report, a presentation, planning for an event - and immediately start working on it, and get it done efficiently, without stress, ahead of time, well then I am not sure I like you very much (just kidding!), and you are definitely within the minority. Most of us, being human, get a project, feel slightly overwhelmed either by the fact that its new and outside our comfort zone, or that the deadline is an impossible one, or both. We then panic, get a cup of coffee, panic a bit more, and then set aside time for doing the work, and maybe if we are feeling optimistic, maybe even dash off a quick plan or outline or to-do list for what needs to be done. Then, either reverting to earlier-mentioned panic mode looking at what needs to be done, or feeling overly optimistic looking at your neatly written-out plan, you put off actually starting on the project.
Does this sound familiar?

Well this is definitely the process I go through for every project, even ones that I take on voluntarily. I then keep putting off working on it, until my stress level is through the roof, and then when I finally sit down to work, I find that some part of that wasn’t so bad. The easy parts. Not all of it, but some. And I ask myself - why didn’t I do this portion earlier? It would have reduced how much I needed to cram into a late night session, or complete between 5-6pm on Friday because its due at the end of the week, and I hadn’t gotten around to it earlier.
I am sure everyone has heard of the concept of low-hanging fruit - in fact, you’re probably telling yourself right now, duh. Heard that one before. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s not effective.

Case Study 1
I was going with a colleague to attend a seminar in Hong Kong, and I only found out two days before my trip that we were both supposed to present. My topic was one I had no experience or knowledge of, and understandably I was freaking out. Together with my boss, we came up with an outline for the presentation, and I was supposed to work on it that afternoon / evening, and send it to him for review. He would make any needed changes the next morning, hours before our flight.

I had an outline, but I was still panicky, as I had to do research and learn enough about a brand new topic to make a coherent presentation. I sat down on my desk and looked realistically at how much time I had, and knew that it would be a long night. I decided to tackle the outline in order from easy to hard, and not chronologically. For the slides I knew needed more research and thinking, I simply created placeholders.
Simply deciding to first create a structure (with placeholders), and tackling the easy slides first, gave me a burst of momentum that carried me through to the medium-level ones. Before I knew it, I was done with about 70% of the presentation. Granted the remaining 30% was difficult, and I needed some input from another colleague - and thus the last 2-3 slides took me almost as long as the first 10. But, because I had decided to jump past the tough stuff in the beginning, I was able to save myself at least an hour or so of fretting and procrastinating, which usually accompanies any difficult project. Well, depending on the length of the project, that could be several hours.

Result: I was done with the presentation ahead of the deadline, and I received effusive praise from my boss. I also positioned myself as an expert in an entirely new subject, which helped me with subsequent projects.
What made the difference: saving one or more hours diving straight in and completing the easy parts, saved me from staying up half the night, which would have ensured lower quality work and missing my deadline.

Case Study 2
In 2012, I worked on a research project that stretched to many months, in which my role expanded and shifted over time. Due to various factors, I was roped in at the last minute to write a report that would be part of the project, and given 3 weeks to do the research and write a draft, when the other reports for the project had been written over a period of many months. The overall project deadline was looming, and I had to do the research and write at least a first draft pretty quickly.

Although when I was first assigned the task I was optimistic, as I analysed truly how much there was to do, I reverted to my usual scenario of panic and procrastination.
Luckily, the report followed a standard format, and I had to plug in my work in a pre-existing outline. Again given the lack of time, I decided to apply the LHF strategy. The report required answering 11 questions, some of which were short, and some of which had multiple parts. Moreover, not all the information was readily available, and due to the time-crunch, I didn’t have the time to send enquiries for information.

I decided to go over the questions and mentally note which ones were the easiest to answer - i.e. with existing information, or which needed only short answers. I also noted which ones would be difficult due to complexity or lack of information, and decided to table those for now.
I made a simple table - listing the questions and my level of progress - partial, done, or not done. Using my LHF tactic, I managed to get a lot of partials and some dones within a few days. At each stage, I re-applied the tactic - as I was done with one section, I would ask myself, what’s the next easiest one? And work on that one.

Sure, ‘easy’ here is relative, since none of them were truly easy, but by giving myself permission to skip around and just add snippets here and there to the report, I ended up with a 60-page report. That turned out to be only a first draft, as I was given more time to add more information, but using the LHF tactic I accomplished far more than if I had plodded through one section at a time, getting increasingly frustrated with my lack of progress and wanting to give up.

As both these case studies reveal, the LHF tactic doesn’t reduce the workload or make it happen magically. But it does do a few crucial things:

1.     A place to start - since sometimes starting is the most difficult part, the part we put off, this is crucial. Telling yourself you will only write the title page and create placeholders for the other slides helps to start - and before you know it, you have finished writing half the presentation.

2.     Provides progress - even if all you have done is the easy stuff, by making significant progress, your stress level goes down just looking at how much you have done, and makes it that much easier to accomplish the rest.

3.     Changes your attitude - knowing that you only have to do the ‘easy stuff’, you can feel the tension dissipating, and can sit down at your desk without trepidation, maybe even feeling optimistic and looking forward to it.
I hope you can apply this strategy to all your tasks and projects, and let me know how it goes in the comments.
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