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I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

Currently Consuming
  • The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
    The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
    by Eric Ries
  • The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.
    The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.
    by Daniel Coyle
  • Alexander Hamilton
    Alexander Hamilton
    by Ron Chernow

Entries in books (38)


Engaging, Clear, and Concise

Kent Beck’s Test-Driven Development by Example is the next best thing to pair-programming with a master of his craft.

I’ve never met Kent, but I have to imagine the book is written how he speaks — because no one would write it that way if they didn’t. I’ve never encountered a more conversational book, replete with digressions, arguments with himself, tangents, and bad jokes. This doesn’t distract from the content, but instead creates authenticity. The first two sections of the book are extended examples, and written in that voice they built the sense in my head that Kent was less an author and more a person. That meant that when he switched from the descriptive to the prescriptive in part three, I took his rules as things he had learned from his experience, rather than as wisdom delivered from the mountaintop.

Speaking of part three, the question-answer form that he uses in laying out his patterns for TDD is one of the most effective ways of communicating these kinds of ideas I’ve seen. An example:

One Step Test
Which test should you pick next from the Test List? One that will teach you something and that you are confident you can implement.

This is followed by two or three paragraphs explaining the rationale for the guideline. I found this problem-solution-explanation format solves an issue that faces so many authors: How to design a text so that it can serve both as a tutorial and as a reference.

To do both of these things in a book so short is a masterstroke.


Pull, Don't Push

One of the things I struggle with is balancing the desire to get things done over the long haul with the need to respond to things in the moment. To my surprise, I’ve been applying tools for managing this balance at work but failing to do so at home. Over the holidays, I spent some time trying to work out how to fix this oversight.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: At the beginning of every month, I sit down and make plan of what I want to accomplish during the next several week, based on the data I have about what I’ve been able to do in the past and what I see coming down the pike. Where I get into trouble is that I get attached to the plan. When something comes up in the middle of the month, I try to stick to it — even if what comes up is something I want to do. A conversation with Gwen in early December woke me up to the fact that I’m not as flexible or spontaneous as I think I am or as I want to be. I’m missing out on opportunities because I’m too attached to my planned outcomes.

The irony is that as an improviser, I’m supposed to give up my attachment to outcome, to trust in the process and in my partners, to respond in the moment to what happens. At work I’ve been doing more and more of that. To realize that I’m not doing it in my personal life is… an opportunity for growth.

So with that in mind, I took a long, hard look at my personal planning process and discovered a few things. I’m essentially using a Scrum process, with month-long iterations. One option to increase my flexibility would be to reduce my iteration length. I could do my planning on a weekly basis rather than a monthly one. There’s some appeal there, but I found that I was more interested in another option: I could move to a Kanban-based approach.

So with that in mind, I sat down to read Personal Kanban, which had been recommended to me around Thanksgiving. The book is pretty simple; if you read this slide show, you’ll know 90% of what the book says. That’s slightly unfair, because the book also has a lot of stories about how the authors and people they know have used it, but the essence of it is this:

  1. Visualize your work
  2. Limit your work-in-progress

I completely agree with these two principles, though I’m conflicted in how I felt about the book. I wanted a little more “how” to go with all of the “why.” I get that you have to adapt this framework to your own situation, but I was hoping for more guidance about how people have adapted it so I could see potential fits for my situation. (Appendix A does this a little, but it’s much later in the book than I hoped it would be.) I also felt like the book took a long time to get to the point. When I was outlining it for my notes, I jumped over entire chapters that I was able to summarize with a single sentences. It did not have what I would term economy of expression.

These misgivings aside, I found the core ideas of Personal Kanban compelling, and I’m experimenting with it. The first change I’ve making is one I was toying with already: I’m only working on one “project” at a time. I don’t have a timetable for finishing that project; I work it on it as I have the bandwidth to do so, and when I’m done with it, I pull the next one. What I’m noticing so far is that while my overall productivity may be down slightly, my sense of well-being is up. I’m feeling better about what I’m doing. Most importantly, I’m responding to opportunities as they come up — like the chance to watch hockey with Gwen.


Born To Be Read

One of my Christmas gifts this year was Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, which I was familiar with as the book that brought the nascent underground “barefoot running” movement to the mainstream. After devouring it within the first twenty-four hours I owned it, I’m pleased to report it’s more than that.

In some ways, it’s similar to Daniel Pink’s Drive, in that it takes the conventional wisdom about a particular topic, points out how science has poked holes in that wisdom in the last several decades, and proposes an alternative hypothesis. In Drive’s case, the conventional wisdom is that sticks-and-carrots are the best way to motivate people; in Born To Run’s, it’s that running is bad for your legs (and feet, and knees, and other joints). We evolved to walk, says this bit of wisdom, so running long distances leads inevitably to injury. As the book goes on, we discover more and more that points to this conclusion (and its basis) being incorrect.

Where we start, though, is with a trip McDougall takes to Mexico, where he encounters the Tarahumara and a man called Caballo Blanco. The story of how this eccentric ended up in Mexico, his dream for holding the ultimate long-distance running race, and McDougall’s quest to make it happen, and his struggle to compete in it is the narrative around which all of the sports science is woven. And while that story starts off a bit overwritten (the first chapter makes the Tarahumara sound like a remnant of lost Atlantis), it gets good fast. It’s a tale of improbable feats and unlikely characters that sucked me in, which is why I finished it so quickly. For me, fun story + science = great read, even if I’m not that into the topic. When I am — like I am with running right now — it’s a recipe for a book I can’t put down until it’s done.


9 Things, Part 10

So that’s my reflections on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently. In some ways, the nine things could be boiled down to three:

  1. Figure out exactly what you want and how you will know when you’ve gotten it. (Get specific.)
  2. Actively do those things that will help you get there. (Use if-then plans, measure work remaining, be a realistic optimist, believe you can improve, and build your willpower muscle.)
  3. Actively avoid those things that will prevent you from getting there. (Focus on getting better instead of being good, don’t tempt fate, and focus on what you will do instead of what you won’t.)

And that makes sense.

I love the book because of how concentrated it is. It’s just enough theory balanced with the right amount of advice to be useful. At some point I’ll probably read Succeed, particularly because I’m interested in learning more about the research behind these ideas. (I’ve elided much of the research in 9 Things in these summaries, but it’s fascinating to me.) For now though, I’m happy with what I’ve gotten out of half an hour of reading.


9 Things, Part 9

This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.

Thing #9: Focus on What You Will Do, Not What You Won’t Do

It should come as no surprise that thought suppression doesn’t work. Just try not thinking about dancing wheels of cheese. Every time you encounter something that reminds you of the concept you’re trying not to think about — in this case, dairy products, round objects, or moving rhythmically to music — it’s going to come back. The harder you try not to think about it, the more you can’t escape it. And the more you think about something you’re not supposed to do, the more likely you are to succumb. (This is another good reason to plan your way around sources of temptation.)

So, given that willpower can be worn down over time, and you can’t always avoid problematic situations, what’s the best way to keep from giving in? Remember those “if-then” plans we talked about back in Thing #2? You use them, with one trick: You can’t suppress your thoughts, but you can replace them. Figure out whatever it is you’re supposed to avoid doing, and come up with something to do instead of it whenever you’re tempted to do it. Things like “If I get excited about a project at a convention, I will think about it for at least a week instead of committing to it right away” or “If I read an email that makes me angry, I will wait for five minutes instead of replying right away.”

My biggest success with eating healthier came by focusing on what I would eat, instead of what I wouldn’t. I’ve got a list of things I need to have every day: fruit, nuts, whole grains, leafy greens, brightly colored vegetables, and green tea. When I look at a menu, I’m trying to find things that will help me tick boxes off my checklist. I hardly notice the things I’m not supposed to have. Once I’ve gotten my daily quota of each of things I’m trying to eat, I’m generally full enough that I’m not really interested in anything else. There is a list of things that I’m supposed to avoid, but because I’ve been consciously replacing those things with healthier alternatives, I rarely crave them anymore. And I hardly ever think of dancing wheels of cheese.