J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Category: Problem Solving (Page 1 of 3)

New 6-Week Experiment: Living With a Disability


On the evening of Dec. 9th I stepped off my skateboard the wrong way and broke my foot (three fractured metatarsals — see above). Thinking it was just a bad sprain, I took a Lyft home and rested on the couch, watching my foot swell up to alarming proportions. Come Monday: doctor’s office, x-ray, a compression splint, the threat of screws and surgery. But after many scans and tests, I managed to dodge a bullet. No surgery required, just six easy weeks in a cast.

So, it’s my turn to learn. What’s life like with reduced mobility?

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How I Turned My Obsolete Early 2011 MacBook Pro Into a Screaming Fast Machine

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Back in 2011 my 15″ Macbook Pro was stolen while on vacation in Kauai. Though I never recovered that machine, Statefarm homeowner’s insurance covered the theft, and I was able to get a new 13″ MacBook Pro for the coverage amount less the deductible. I had a recent full backup, and only ended up losing a few days of email.

I’ve had the 13″ MacBook Pro ever since, and it’s one of my favorite computers ever. I use it for writing stories, making beats, writing this blog, some of my consulting work, all kinds of stuff. But over the last year it got really slow. Starting it up became a “walk away and get a cup of coffee” type of thing, and opening even lightweight apps triggered the spinning beachball.

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Why I Support Campaign Zero and #BlackLivesMatter

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In the wake of the recent killings of black U.S. citizens Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by their own police (and the dozens of other similar cases we’ve seen in recent years), I’ve been struggling with what to say in this space. Saying nothing isn’t an option — the injustice is too great.

I’m going to keep it simple and endorse Campaign Zero, a systematic approach to improving policing. The platform doesn’t make villains out of the men and women who risk their lives to protect us (most of them good people, with the public interest at heart), but it does make concrete recommendations that can save lives (of all races, both civilians and public servants), reduce strife, and reduce civil injustice.

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How to Expand Your Cognitive Toolkit

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In this video Stephen Fry calls himself an empiricist. I’m often entertained by Stephen Fry, and empiricism is probably the most useful system of thought invented by human beings to date, but calling yourself an empiricist is akin to calling yourself a wrench.

What do you do when you need to drive a nail through some wood? You could use a wrench, but it’s not the best tool for the job.

Systems of thought are tools. Depending on the problem you want to solve or the goal you want to achieve, you’ll need to use multiple tools in your cognitive toolkit.

This is an idea I keep coming back to. In this 2010 post I looked at empiricism, rationalism, and subjectivism. In this follow up post I wrote about intuition and network analysis as thinking modes, and the third post in the series looks at evolutionary algorithms for problem solving. A more recent post summarizes a number of thinking modes in the context of flexible, persistent problem solving.

Cognitive flexibility is important because it allows us to approach problems and goals in different ways, and pick the best tool  for the job (or use multiple tools, the right one for each part of the job).

But how do you switch modes? Sometimes it’s straightforward, sometimes less so. The list below includes tactics (questions, actions, etc.) for cognitive mode switching (in no particular order). I’ve noted what I think is the core mode in brackets, but many of these tactics could apply to multiple modes. If this list gives you more ideas, please add them in the comments.

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What Makes a Good Coach?

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Photo by Carl R. Jr.

I became interested in the topic of coaching after reading this excellent article in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande, published in 2011. Gawande, a skilled and well-respected surgeon, noticed that he had more or less stopped improving at surgery. Instead of coasting, he chose the path of self-improvement and hired a coach (a retired surgeon and mentor). Though his decision raised some eyebrows in the O.R. (it’s unusual for a practicing surgeon to use a coach), Gawande found numerous areas for small, incremental improvements (how he positioned his elbows, how his lights were placed). This was true even for operations he had successfully performed hundreds of times.

Since then I’ve offered pro-bono coaching services in various areas to a few friends. I was curious … would I enjoy it? Would I be good at it? I did enjoy it, and I think in each case my coaching services were helpful (though not enormously helpful).

Recently I met with a professional business coach, Ellen Ercolini, to learn more about coaching, both as a craft and as a profession. Ellen specializes in helping entrepreneurs and lifestyle businesses* make more money. Unexpectedly, the second half of our meeting turned into an impromptu coaching session for me (my career goals, strategy, how I present myself online, etc.). A short session with a highly-skilled professional coach made me realize just how powerful an insightful coach can be. I left the meeting inspired, and within 48 hours took action on several major projects I’d been putting off (including transitioning this blog from wordpress.com to a self-hosted wordpress.org plugin).

Meeting with Ellen also helped me understand just how deep coaching can go. Not only does Ellen have detailed comprehensive systems in place (both for her own coaching process, and for her clients to implement within their own businesses), but she has a method for categorizing the personality types of her clients, and a corresponding set of motivational/behavioral modification techniques for each type.

Reflecting on what I’ve learned about coaching to date, here’s my current list of what it takes to a be a good coach in a particular area:

  1. A deep understanding of the technical aspects of the craft/sport/business/activity, usually acquired through many years of experience.
  2. A well-tested, constantly-refined teaching system or program (exercises and lessons that result in incremental skill improvement).
  3. The desire and ability to observe closely and provide helpful feedback.
  4. The desire and ability to understand different personality types and what methods and communication style motivates each type.

My “A-ha!” moment was realizing that I personally lack the desire to try and understand what approaches best motivate different types of people. I’m interested in motivation in the abstract (especially for my fictional characters), but the nitty-gritty of applying various psychological techniques to motivate other people just isn’t my thing. It doesn’t fascinate me. It does fascinate people like Ellen Ercolini (for her, I think, clients are like puzzles waiting to be solved), and that’s a big part of what makes her an effective coach.

Hiring a Coach

I’m definitely open to the idea of hiring a writing coach, but first I want to experience what it’s like to work with a professional editor. Editing and coaching have some overlapping areas (another thing that Gawande discusses in the New Yorker article), and a good editor may function something like a coach. I’ll report back once I have more to share.

Would I hire a coach in another area? If I get more serious about racquetball, I would consider it, but at the moment I’m learning in leaps and bounds from watching youtube videos and getting tips from more experienced players. Same with chess. But if/when I hit a plateau, hiring a coach will be my first move if I wanted to break through to the next skill level.

Have you hired a personal coach? For what? Was it helpful? I would really like to know.

*  What does lifestyle business mean? It’s a controversial term, sometimes used derogatorily to refer to businesses that aren’t startups (businesses that aren’t trying to massively scale and maximize revenue at any cost). I use the term with a positive connotation — a profitable business that doesn’t entirely take over your life. As 37 Signals co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson points out, the direct correlation between hours worked and income is an antiquated notion. In the modern economy you can work very little and makes gobs of money, or vice versa. There is no virtue (or even necessarily profit) in overwork. I consider my own freelance database consulting to be a lifestyle business; I work <20 hours a week and have time to write fiction, write this blog, spend as much time as I want in the music studio, spend time with my family and friends, and play tabletop RPG games. I’ve been asked why I haven’t jumped into the startup game (I have technical skills, I know people in the startup world, I live in the Bay Area). Because I like my life, and I don’t need more money.

You Can’t Get There From Here (Get Better by Temporarily Getting Worse)

Into the valley.

Into the valley.

There is a cost to trying to maintain maximum fitness at all times.

When navigating a fitness landscape, you often need to go down (into a valley) to reach a higher peak.

Upgrading your life systems (in every life area) has costs. If you’re never willing to pay those costs (emotional, financial, time, energy, learning curve), you limit yourself.

Example 1 (Social):

Sometimes your friends hold you back. I had a tough time in 7th grade — my friends were frenemies. Before things got better, they had to get worse. I endured a period of loneliness until I found new friends, who really acted like friends.

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