Be nice

By crispinheneise / On / In Engineering Daybook

Be nice.

I’ve had to stop myself from saying this to my kids. What does it even mean? “Nice” is one of those general-purpose words like “love” that can mean a hundred different things based on context.

Yeah we can be nice to each other. Baby bunnies are nice. A back rub can be nice. A cold beer would be nice. What does it mean to be nice to someone?

Kindness, on the other hand, is unambiguous. Where niceness is relative, kindness is absolute. Where niceness is inward focused—what would be nice for me, kindness is focused on someone else—being kind always involves someone other than yourself.

When we are nice to someone, it usually implies that we want something in return. Be nice to the other kids on the playground so that they will play with you. Be nice to your coworkers so that your boss will consider you for a promotion. Be nice to your clients so they will call you back.

But kindness is done for a different reason: simply because the other person has value.

Kindness is a good thing in the same way that politeness is a good thing. We are kind to people because they are people. Because they are worthy of respect. We can be kind to someone we don’t even know, someone who we don’t ever expect to meet again, someone from whom we stand nothing to gain. Simply because they are a person, and deserving of kindness and respect.

What’s in your mind?

By crispinheneise / On / In Engineering Daybook

More specifically, where does your mind go when it’s idling?

Lately my mind has been wandering over to politics—issues over which I have absolutely zero control (yes I know my vote counts).

What I really want to think about is my business, my family, and my own mental and spiritual wellbeing.

But the information that I’ve been consuming lately has skewed toward the political. Maybe it’s out of curiosity, the same way you can’t tear your eyes away from a car crash.

The information that we consume has a direct impact on what our minds think about when it’s idling. So read politics, if you’re a pundit. Read about business, if you’re a manager. Read about design, if you’re a designer.

Just realize that your mind will process all these things that you put into it.

Sharpen the blade

By crispinheneise / On / In Engineering Daybook

I’m a bit of a Luddite.

My least favorite tool in my tool shed is the weed whacker. I hate the smell of it, the mess it makes, the way it splatters bits of grass and weeds all over my legs. But most of all I hate the noise. There’s nothing worse than ruining a fine, sunny mid-morning with the noise, smell, and mess of the whacker.

That’s why I prefer to cut weeds with a scythe and a sickle. Scything and sickling are just as effective, and they let me enjoy the sunshine, the smell of the air, and the company of my children while I work in the garden without disturbing the peace.

A sickle is a short blade with an extreme curve. The handle is held in the right hand, and the grass or weeds that you’re cutting are grasped in the left. You slide the curve of the blade across the clump of grass, and it slices through the grass at the base.

Of course, with a sickle you have to be very careful not to cut your left hand; a leather glove is highly recommended. It might seem backwards, but the sharper the blade, the safer it is. A dull blade requires more force to cut through the grass, which increases the chance and severity of a cut to the hand. A sharp blade will cut through even the toughest grass like a hot knife through butter.

The scythe is a longer blade mounted on the end of a specially-shaped wooden shaft called a “snath”. It’s basically a sword on a stick. (Picture the Grim Reaper: that’s a scythe.) The scythe is less curved than the sickle, and longer. To cut grass or weeds with the scythe, the handle on the end of snath is held with the left hand, and middle handle with the right hand. The blade is propelled horizontally an inch or two above the ground level by twisting the body from right to left.

A sharp scythe blade slices through even the toughest grass like a razor. A dull blade will just fold the grass over, leaving it uncut.

It’s tempting, when the grass starts folding over, to just work harder. Swing harder. Put more muscle into it. But this will just make the problem worse, and will further dull the blade. It’ll use more energy, and it won’t work as well in the long run.

The answer is to pause and sharpen the blade.

Part of every scythe outfit is a whetstone. This smooth stone goes wherever the scythe goes, and is used to put a keen edge on the bade while out in the field. Every now and then, when the cut becomes harder, you pause and spend a few moments to sharpen the blade.

Do you ever find yourself working too hard on something? When the going gets tough, the tough… what? Try harder?

The tough might try harder, but the smart will pause and sharpen the blade. What are some ways you can sharpen your blade today?

Do it BECAUSE it’s hard

By crispinheneise / On / In Engineering Daybook

There are some things we do even though they are hard. We do them because we desire the reward that they promise. Work hard at your job to get that pay raise or promotion. Study hard to get a good grade on that test. With hard work and determination, the saying goes, you’ll reap the reward.

But there is a whole other set of things that you do because they are hard.

The very act of doing these things strengthens you in a way that’s desirable, or makes you stronger, or smarter, or raises your mood, or improves you in some way. Hard work makes you a better person.

I used to hate running. Running is hard. It hurts while you’re running, and then it hurts after you run because your muscles are sore. But I wanted to get in better shape, and I wanted to stay in good shape as I get older. Running isn’t a once-and-done thing. You don’t run for a while, reach some goal, and then sit back and reap the reward of your hard work. No, you keep running. And as you get stronger, running gets easier, and so you run longer, or faster to keep it hard.

Building habits is hard. To build a new habit (or break an old one) you have to discipline yourself to do (or not do) something every day until it becomes automatic. It can take weeks, or months, or years to indelibly print the new habit on your “forma de ser”—your way of being. The ability to form or break habits is itself a skill, and you don’t get it by giving up. You get the habit skill by doing it, and it works because it is hard.

Remembering things is hard. It’s hard because our brains form memories by creating new connections between neurons. These connections form pathways that light up when we remember something that we’ve learned. But our brains are very efficient: they don’t try to remember things that we don’t need, and so memories that aren’t used degrade and are thrown away by our brain’s built-in garbage collector. The way to remember something, to really remember it, is to struggle to recall it. Every time you struggle to recall someone’s name, or the height of Mount Everest, or the chemical formula for acetic acid, your brain works hard to find that pathway between those neurons. When that memory lights up it sends a signal to your brain that “this is important”. The harder you work to remember it, and the more frequently, the stronger the “this is important” signal becomes. The most important neural connections actually become physically covered with a coating of myelin, which acts like insulation on an electrical wire to protect that memory from being collected by the garbage collectors. Myelinated neural pathways actually increase the speed at which electrical signals are transmitted. So when you work to remember something the memory not only becomes stronger, you also get faster at remembering it. It’s the work itself that you put into remembering something that makes you remember it.

Sometimes the work is the reward.

Feed yourself first

By crispinheneise / On / In Engineering Daybook

A good day has two essential ingredients: a good night’s sleep, and a healthy breakfast.

As a father of five, it’s not always possible to guarantee a good night’s sleep. Sometimes, despite my best intentions and best laid plans, a full 8 hours of sleep just doesn’t come together.

But I can almost always engineer a healthy breakfast.

A breakfast loaded with carbohydrates and sugar is sure to bring an energy crash mid-morning, as the body burns off that rich, fast-burning sugar fuel. But a breakfast balanced with protein and fat, not long after waking, will fuel the body and mind for hours.

Think big, act small

By crispinheneise / On / In Engineering Daybook

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the goals we set for ourselves.

If you’re like most people, you have ambition but lack sufficient organization skills and willpower to realize that ambition. This is why most new-year’s resolutions fizzle; why most small businesses fail, and why most people are stuck in dead-end jobs.

The worst thing you can do is to stuff your ambition. Adjust it, maybe. Maybe decide you’re happy with your station in life.

Or maybe not. But how do you get from here to there? How do you get across that chasm between what is now, and what could be later?

The answer is to break it down. Think big, but act small. Instead of being paralyzed by the question: how am I going to grow my company to $1.2m in revenue by 2020, ask: what small thing can I do today that is a step in the right direction? Can the big goal be broken down into quarterly, monthly, or even weekly goals? What milestones can we set so that we recognize that we’re on the right track? What habits can be built that will conduct us more swiftly to the big goal?

Think big, but act small.

What was that app called?

By crispinheneise / On / In Product development

How many times have you signed up for a shiny new app, only to forget a couple of days later what the app was called?

It seemed useful at the moment, but darned if you can remember its name.

Maybe not everyone is as susceptible to shiny-object syndrome as you and I are. But it probably wouldn’t hurt to act like they are. Take a look at your onboarding sequence: are you reminding new users often enough of your existence? Would it hurt to include a few additional (non-annoying) helpful nudges?

Remember, the goal of product onboarding is to help people be successful at using your product. Take full advantage of the first few days to reinforce your product’s usefulness in their minds and make it a habit, rather than allowing it to waste away in their browser history.