Category Archives: Miscellaneous

A great Quora question and answer

Resurrecting the habit of writing regularly on this blog by using it as a place to share and document some of the more interesting content I find.

There was a question on Quora recently: “What are some of the best life tips?” and this answer by Dean Yeong is excellent. It contains number of points and I would like to highlight some of my favorite ones below:

#4. Stop complaining – “it changes nothing at all” – so true. I think all of us go through a phase where our first instinct when things don’t go our way is to turn to complaining. Luckily some realize how wasteful such a habit is and get past it. You are better off spending your energy else where.

#7 Detach your emotions with external things – meaning don’t allow others to influence how you feel and how you go about your business. I think part of this includes surrounding yourself with people who are less concerned about controlling / influencing your feelings and instead are there to share their ideas and support you when necessary.

#12 Take tiny actions, celebrate small wins – this one is big for me personally. Often I witness how people are very dismissive of small steps thinking that they are simply too small to make an impact. When we see people accomplish big things we don’t see the paths that got them there and in truth it often starts with a tiny step. For instance, one Stanford professor seems to have dedicated his all career to this idea with of tiny habits as a way to bring a positive change to your life.

#21 Fail hard, fail often – in my world I translate this to “do not be afraid to deploy” 🙂 Honestly, I don’t do this enough in my life, but when I do, the benefits are very visible. Failing hard and often means trying often and if you combine that with learning from failures that means you are just getting better at what you are doing.

Here are some items on the list that I am reluctant to do, or haven’t done as often as I think I should (#21 is already mentioned above):

#11 Relationship is the place to give – only after having children did I start to learn to live life more selflessly and give to others. It’s still a work in progress and outside of my children I tend to be more reserved and not involved.

#14 Do something that scares you – this one is a tough one. I can count on my one hand how many times I did a scary thing in the last 5 years. That’s a troublesome realization. I need to keep this in mind the next time I get that “this is crazy, let’s not do it” or “I don’t know how to do this or if I should do it” feeling.

#18 Start selling – that’s an interesting one. Couple times in my life I actually did do some selling and was pretty good at it. First experience was selling candy in the market when I was 14-16 years old during summers. Made nice amount of money for cool school supplies and other knickknacks that my parents would not buy. Then later in my life selling my stuff on eBay until I sold all of the things I wanted to get rid off. My first job out of college was private software consulting and writing various programs for a patent lawyer. And then I kind of stopped but I do remember enjoying the process immensely. Just getting a kick out of somebody placing an order and me following through with it and giving back great service and great customer support.

Hope you enjoyed the quora post and my thoughts on it. I am very thankful for people who share their ideas and expertise that they have gathered in their lives. Hopefully all of us can find useful information and learn and share it with the rest of the world.

Quick tip on learning

In software engineering you are always learning. Technologies are young and ever-changing so staying on top on the latest trends is important. Yet it can also be time-consuming and often skipped. Recently I found a way to brush up on various tech topics in an afternoon or less.

Go to a site like stackoverflow.com and look at the most upvoted questions for your language or technology area of interest. I just did this for C# and was pleasantly surprised how useful it was to go over the posts. Even if posts themselves might not give you all the answers you need, you can use them as a starting point to branch out. Similarly by checking what is trending for a week or a month can give you some useful insights into common issues and conversations.

I used to ignore these top lists or “trending” lists, and I think that is still good idea to do in news sites or social media sites. Often these lists will be influenced by advertising and will waste your time. But now I realize that in some areas these lists are quite useful so I should use it where applicable.

Obviously that is only a one way to learn but I figured I will share along. Based on my observations at the very least it gives you broad topics that you can then narrow down on or gives you an idea what others are looking at and struggling with so that you can come in and help out or at least think about these problems as an exercise to keep your mind sharp.

Learning Spanish progress

Learning a new language is a popular goal to set. Now that the world is more connected than ever it can be quite useful to speak a few languages. In addition to physical travel, we are now exposed to each other much more closely over the internet and interacting with people in multiple languages is much more common than it was previously possible.

I started learning Spanish mostly for fun. Spanish is a good fit for me because of where my wife and I vacation most frequently. We have visited Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica just in the recent years. We love the culture, weather, and the people and will continue to visit Central American and eventually South American countries in our future. She speaks Spanish quite well but up until recently I only knew an occasional word or a saying. So I decided to change that so that the next time we visit I can interact with the locals more. Also I love learning. Acquiring knowledge is a fun process and I decided to go after it.

I have been working on Spanish on and off for two years now, with some mixed results. Just to give an idea of the progress, I started with zero knowledge and the best I have done so far is have a somewhat decent conversation with a Spanish tutor on Skype. In between, it has been a lot of ups and downs, progress and frustrations, and all part of the learning adventure.

Duolingo has been the most influential and wonderful tool. You don’t have to know the language at all when you begin. If you spend a month with Duolingo you will get enough of the vocabulary for the most rudimentary conversations. I like their manageable sizes of the learning sections. That helps to get a sense of making progress. And making progress helps tremendously with motivation to continue to learn. The user interface is fun and it even has point systems and other “gamification” aspects to it to keep the learner engaged.

One year in with Duolingo, I felt like I knew a lot of words but speaking was still tough. I would “freeze up” whenever I had to say a sentence spontaneously. After all, you can’t hide from the fact that in order to speak the language you have to practice speaking it. It sounds so obvious but the mind has its ways of hiding that truth from us. Besides, for the most of us it feels so intimidating to approach a Spanish speaking stranger when you have absolutely zero confidence in your speaking skills. So you try to avoid for as long as possible. But the truth is, if you want to speak it, you have to actually speak it. That was when I decided to start looking for Spanish speakers.

Internet can solve many ills and that includes finding the language partners. Italki is by far the leader in language learner community. It is a site where you can find tutors as well as other people learning languages and connect with them via Skype sessions. I have had 5 tutoring sessions so far. Two of them awesome, one so-so, and two absolutely terrible. My first time around I think I had the best session ever. To my surprise I could explain to the tutor where I lived, what I was doing, what was my family doing, etc all in Spanish and without much trouble! I had never done that before so I was feeling ecstatic. But then once the initial excitement worn off, it was getting difficult to get any good use out of the tutoring sessions. I am not sure what was I missing, but I felt like I wasn’t learning much and then eventually started to dread the sessions. Currently I am taking a break from them and see if I need to try something different.

I also tried connecting with just regular Spanish speaking people that were learning English. The results again were mixed. You get to talk to people and practice language skills while learning about the culture of others, which is wonderful. However there are also some issues with the approach. First, I think it is much harder for beginners to talk to strangers who are so much more advanced than you in their native tongue and also speak great English. They end up dominating the conversation and have no patience for your slow pace. Second, most of the people I ran into were young students that loved talking about music and movies at the level that does not interest me at all. So basically finding a common interest was tough. After about five sessions I stopped as I was getting bored and learning very little.

So what am I doing now? To keep the vocabulary fresh, I am still doing duolingo. Also just started a course on memrise. I need to solve the issue of finding the native speakers or finding the reasons to talk in Spanish. Perhaps volunteer for some organization that will bring me closer to the natives where language learning is not a goal but a way to communicate to accomplish an organizational goal. Let’s see where I end up with this. Safe to say I am not giving up and will continue to move forward.

Eso es todo por ahora, hasta luego!

Looking for perfection

Just ran across an article that had a golden quote in it and I had to share it:

Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.

If you showed me this quote as recently as a year ago, it probably would not have meant much. It all changed after reading The Confidence Gap. One of the exercises in the book asks to define a list of values before focusing on any specific goals. The approach felt so strange to me. Values had always seemed so vague and abstract and, quite honestly, useless. Now I realize I used to think of values in vacuum. You need to combine values and goals. A value without action is just a dream. A goal without a value is a temporary relief, a distraction. You will achieve your goal and seek for conclusion but there really is no end. However if you live with in your value system, as long as you take actions that fit the system you will feel satisfied. For if you succeed, you did something that makes you happy, that is important to you. And if you fail, you still worked on something that was important to you. And since it is truly important to you, you will adjust and start again.

It is worth reading the whole article. It has some great advice. It basically boils down to taking a personal responsibility for things that you lack in your life. If your job sucks, it is not your job’s fault, it is actually your fault. Find a way to change what “sucks” about it or change the job altogether. We tend to dream and create “ideal” scenarios in our minds that don’t actually exist. Get real, get out there, and take action.

How I stuck to using a calendar, finally

Using a calendar can be really hard to get used to but is so rewarding when you do. I know it was very difficult for me at first. I would begin with a lot of enthusiasm, schedule every single detail, follow it religiously for about a week or so. Then once initial enthusiasm passed, I would schedule things less frequently, start ignoring reminders, and eventually abandon the calendar altogether.

Luckily after each failed attempt I would start again, but with something tweaked to account for the previous failures. I won’t bore you with all the changes but the key factors that made me stick to using a calendar were the following.

  1. Daily calendar review. This particular point I cannot stress enough. Find a good time early in the evening to review what the tomorrow will look like. This way when a calendar reminder pops up the next day, it will not be a surprise. Second, this will make you think about the upcoming task and give you time to prepare for it. After implementing the daily review check list I suddenly felt so much more prepared the next day and almost never skipped tasks.

  2. Weekly calendar review. Find time at the end of the week, preferably Sunday if you start your week on Mondays, where you review the week ahead. Glance through your appointments, meetings, and plans. Think what you will need to do, if anything, to prepare for the upcoming events.

  3. One place to see all the events. Use something that is always available to you and use one tool only. Any software / web solution is ideal but if it is a paper notebook, make sure you carry it around with you every where. I used to view personal and work tasks on separate calendars. The moment I unified them into one view (you can import a calendar with most software solutions) it became much easier to glance at my day and know what is ahead. Switching between tools, even though might not seem like a big deal at first, will eventually get inconvenient.

If you do not use a calendar for daily activities, I highly recommend it. Just make sure to start slow and simple and don’t over schedule things. I remember I used to schedule sleep and breakfast, don’t do that. Start out small and schedule appointments, working sessions, events you will attend, and then take it from there and see where it takes you.

Staying on track

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I started setting up a yearly plan for myself. It has been a while, at least since 2006. The system that I use has changed over the years with the latest iteration looking something like this:

  1. Identify the value areas that are important to me or need work (e.g. finances, family, career)
  2. A set of goals are then created that fit one or more of these value areas
  3. A goal is broken up into actionable and measurable tasks (not an easy thing to do at times)
  4. The tasks are then scheduled in a calendar, with various reminder points set along the way
  5. And then I do weekly and monthly check-ins to see where I stand in relation of achieving my goals. I try to answer questions such as what are my active tasks, what is working well, what have I failed at recently, what needs to be corrected, and what is next.

And off it goes. I try to knock the tasks out while expecting setbacks and failures along the way. Most important though is to continue to make progress, experiment, and have fun.

Let me give you an example. This is a story of how I used this system to sell a small piece of property that I had been procrastinating about selling. I had re-located to a different city but still owned a garage space in the previous residence. I was very unmotivated in renting it out and wanted to get the spot sold. I procrastinated about it for roughly 6 months, kept on paying monthly dues while the spot was empty and not used by any one. The sale seemed a big and complicated step, you could say I was afraid to take it.

One day I sat down to plan the goals for the upcoming year and committed to getting that property sold. I asked myself, what value did the goal of selling the parking garage will serve? Two values clearly stood out:

  • Financial well being – I would eliminate a monthly maintenance fee and grow my bank account by at least $20k once the sale completed
  • Clutter free lifestyle – it would be one less thing I owned and had to manage, one less thing to think about

It is important to make the goal fit the value system. Doing so gives you that additional motivation and clarity into why you are doing a task. It comes in handy when going gets tough, when life gets in a way and you start to feel like abandoning the task.

Anyway, depending on where you live and what property you own, selling it is easier said than done. To make it more manageable, I broke it down into more concrete steps. I asked myself, based on my past experience, what do I need to do to get this sold? I need to list the place somewhere where the buyers can see it. How does one do that? Do I know anyone who needs it? No, so the obvious choice is to contact the real estate agent I had worked with in the past. And here we have our first task: get in touch with the real estate agent to list the parking spot. Then I remembered that I will also need a real estate lawyer. Another task: get in touch with the lawyer I had worked with in the past. I sent out the emails to both people, both replied and the ball was rolling. Couple more tasks, exchanges, and events  followed. All in all it took 5+ months to sell, but it did sell. Goal accomplished!

There was a point in my life where a goal like that would set me spinning. After all, what do I know about selling things? I would over-think and would tell myself that I will sell this “next year”, or “soon”. Next year would come and I would follow the same approach: over-think the process, over-complicate it really, delay, and procrastinate. Now, when I decide to do something, I try to find the first small actionable step that I can do to get the ball rolling. Take that step, schedule the next step, take it, schedule the next and repeat until the goal is complete.

Depending on how ambitious I want to be, I like to take on 5-8 different goals for a year. Sometimes there are less goals but the goals themselves are larger. That’s arguably a better approach as with fever goals you will be more focused. I still like to have couple things going on at a time as inevitable the progress might stall and I have something else to fall back to. At the end, as long as you are challenging yourself and work on things that are important to you, you will lead a meaningful life and grow as a person.

Through all of this it is important to do a weekly / monthly check-in to evaluate how you are doing with your goals. It is a critical step to make sure you stay on track. During the check-in, I look at the calendar and the recent actions and ask myself:

  •  do the steps I am taking now align with the goals / values?
  • are the steps getting me closer to accomplishing the goal?

This makes sure that you are not just being busy but actually doing meaningful work that gets you somewhere, that moves you along. Don’t be surprised to see that the action you are taking does not get you any closer. Sometimes you should simply drop it and change up the strategy. If you notice that you are not doing anything, don’t scold yourself nor tell yourself that you “will get better soon” and “get this done”. Those words are empty. Instead try to find the reasons why you are not working on the task. A lot of times I find that the goal or task is still too broad or vague making it hard to start. So I break it down again into something smaller, even more actionable.

I hope this helps someone that is starting to live a life with the plan in mind. I know a process of self-evaluation, dreaming, challenging, and planning helps me lead a richer life, with ups and downs along the way that makes things interesting and at the end of the day very enjoyable.