Criticism and Candor

One of the many great revelations in my career so far has been learning the difference between criticism of work and criticism of an individual. Many developers I've worked with assume that to receive criticism for a piece of work is a comment on their ability, which I can relate to, considering that we tend to take so much personal responsibility for our work.

When an individual understands that criticism (when delivered in a respectful way) is a tool for greater collaboration, clarity and creativity, a team is able to focus solely on producing better work.

In Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull discusses the use of the word 'candor': to be forthright or frank, instead of 'honesty', which carries moral connotations. The Braintrust, an elite group of Pixar's best writers and directors is built on this principle. As Catmull writes,

"...without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible."

He goes on to say:

"This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation - you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person."

Interest and Purpose

I was surprised by how many of the lessons in Angela Duckworth's book "Grit" resonated with me, as though I'd come to loosely understand some of the ideas she writes about in the past, but never had the words to explain them. You may recall that I quoted a Duckworth in a recent blog post I wrote on Grit (having watched her TED Talk) and it's something I've been making a conscious effort to have more of. While her talk gives one a brief sense of the ideas discussed, her book is far more insightful. Years of failed side projects, failed attempts at learning instruments, hobbies I didn't pursue; It's the book I wish I'd been able to read ten years ago.

"Grit...", Duckworth writes, "is about working on something you care about so much that you're willing to stay loyal to it... It's doing what you love, but not just falling in love―staying in love." Fortunately, she reassures us that the tenets of grit (interest, practice, purpose and hope) aren't "You have it or you don't commodities. You can grow grit from the inside out", she writes.

The book's chapters on interest and purpose particularly struck a chord with me because it seems so rare in life that I encounter things I'm both interested in and that have purpose, which Duckworth describes as "the intention to contribute to the well-being of others".

Many of the side projects I've worked for example have had either, but so rarely both. It's interesting to look back and classify each of them: Reportship, an analytics tool I worked on had value to others but wasn't something I was particularly interested in; Squadwipe, a gaming video platform, was interesting to me but nobody else; Postkit, an API prototyping tool was interesting and had some purpose to others, but not to any great extent. It's impossible to understate the importance of building something people want.

In "How To Get Startup Ideas", Paul Graham discusses what he calls the "unsexy filter": choosing not to work on an idea because it doesn't seem interesting, in the face of the value it offers to others. He writes, "[The unsexy filter] keeps you from working on problems you despise rather than ones you fear. We overcame this one to work on Viaweb. There were interesting things about the architecture of our software, but we weren't interested in ecommerce per se. We could see the problem was one that needed to be solved though."

I'm sure there are times when an activity doesn't immediately have purpose to others but instead is acquired over time. Take for example the story of the Javascript library Vue.js of which a documentary was recently made. For its creator Evan You, its initial purpose was to scratch his own itch: to bind Javascript objects to the DOM. As its popularity (and importance to the Javascript community) grew, Evan realised the opportunity to bridge the gap left by established frameworks Angular and React and began to work on the project full-time. In his words, "It's like my gut's telling me, this is the thing you should do."

I think you can apply this idea to many other walks of life, like discovering new hobbies. Cooking is one of the few activities that meets this criteria for me (as I both enjoy doing it and I can cook for others) and I'd imagine that many creative hobbies have the same potential (anything that involves producing something to demonstrate or give to others.) As Duckworth writes however, "...you can't really predict with certainty what will capture your attention and what won't. You can't simply will yourself to like things". Inspired by this I've recently been investing my time in a range of different hobbies, initially focusing on creative ones. I recognise the importance of not trying to do too much at once but also that I may develop interests through several different interactions with a subject, perhaps over the course of months or years.

Subjects that have both our interest and purpose to others are the ones we're most likely to want to work on for a long period of time. In the context of work, this isn't necessarily an indicator for success, but still highly important.

"Nice" photographs

I often find myself drawn to the same themes in photography: introspection, identity and adolescence but, I particularly like photographers who consider colour and composition in the sequence of their images. The majority of the fine art books I buy are by American artists and include some kind of iconography in their work (Stephen Shore, Mitch Epstein) though this isn't something I intentionally look for, at least not at a conscious level. I often have to make a conscious effort to seek out projects that address 'uglier' issues, like for example Leia Abril's "The Epilogue" or James Nachtwey's series on the American opioid crisis.

As a society I think we have a tendency to give praise to nice-looking photographs, to the extent that we ignore other impactful but less aesthetically pleasing work. On Instagram we reward sunsets, pristine-looking landscapes and superficial snaps our friends took at famous landmarks with millions of likes, but the wildfires in Australia continue to rage on and photographs continue to be made there. It's probably indicative of the way we choose what to care about, filling our lives with only content that makes us happy instead of work that focuses on other more pressing issues, or even the media's influence on what we take an interest in.

Though I think it's important not to focus on the process by which photographs are made (as is often the case in the fine art world), it's important that we give credit to photographs that resonate with us emotionally, not merely focusing on their subject matter, but recognising technical or creative merit.

A network-less world

I've been thinking a lot about our relationship with technology and social media recently (predominantly Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and its effect on our brains. I suspect this has a lot to do with reading Jorg Colberg's post 'After Social Media', which I recommend you read. Personally, I've never felt more disconnected from society than I do now, despite having infinitely more ways to communicate with others online.

One shift in my own mindset in the last ~year is that I don't feel the blind optimism about big tech I did a few years ago. The privacy scandals and security leaks are no longer barriers to technological progress for me; they're very real issues for everyday folk, who likely don't realise the extent to which their data is being sold, distributed and hacked. It's scary to imagine how easy it is to impersonate someone online using a social media profile or an email address today. As an aside, my father was the victim of an email account hack last year and fortunately we were able to deal with the situation together, but the experience was frightening for someone who only uses the internet to read email and view a handful of websites.

Even moreso however, I reject the idea that social media is bringing us together. If anything, it's doing quite the opposite.

Our use of social media continues to replace daily human interactions with digital ones. Friends at parties glance at Instagram while conversations are taking place in the room. Commuters on the tube scroll through the Facebook statuses of friends they haven't spoken to in years. In waiting rooms, we turn to Twitter for moderate entertainment; heaven forbid that we might have to think about our lives for a few minutes. Ironically in the face of countless new messaging apps, our ability to communicate with each another is worse than ever.

A lack of face-to-face communication has eroded our ability to empathise or acknowledge others' opinions. In fact, research has even linked the presence of mobile phones to our inability to give help to or smile at others in public, or express emotion. Rare is it that one finds public discussion online that doesn't end in some kind of heated argument; Social networks goad us into sharing polarising opinions, propagating the idea that everyone in our network is aligned in their views and diminishing our ability to respectfully disagree for fear of being disliked.

As a society we've lost the sense of camraderie for our fellow humans we once had; As the boundaries between our real and digital selves merge, we're only obliged to treat strangers with the same level of respect as we do online. When was it no longer considered rude to not make enough room for other pedestrians to pass on the street? When did we stop thanking the bus driver? When did it become okay to barge past others in crowded places?

Often I try to picture the world my parents grew up in and imagine how our lives would be different without mobile phones, instant messaging and social media. How would I know which train to take? How would I let my friend know I was going to be late? What if my bookshop didn't stock the book I wanted? Of course for anyone over ~25, these are trivial problems. I'd ask the conductor which train to catch, meet my friend where we agreed on the phone and ask the bookshop to order in the book I wanted (albeit slower than if ordered online). The apparent problems technology's created are products of its own doing.

If the key to having better relationships is spending more time together, why have social networks at all?

Distractions

Distractions often have a negative connotation. We say "I want to spend less time watching TV because it distracts me from doing [insert other activity]", but realistically trying to do less of something is hard without self-control.

Instead, finding other hobbies and interests to distract oneself with is a better idea. Ideally this is something you're already at least partly familiar with; placing too much emphasis on something new is a surefire way to lose interest.

I find that if I don't find an activity engaging enough, like for example reading, I simply find books that interest me. If the project I'm working on isn't exciting enough, I find one that is.

Recently I've found my interest for programming waning and spending more time playing video games, but I recognise I could be doing something more meaningful. Where no obvious interest exists (I haven't been able to run as I'm carrying a knee injury) I'm exploring several other hobbies, though I think it's important to have a balance of things I can do at home and those with other people or in public. Failing that, I see what my friends are up to, whom I always have time for.