You Have More Options Than You Think

A few weeks ago, around the time of the Reddit sale to Conde Nast, I read Aaron’s Swartz’s summary of his life to date, including a description of his brief high school experience: dissatisfied with high school, he quit. He was then officially “home schooled”, but he actually wandered off to teach himself and take some college classes.

This reminded me of my own (less interesting) experience, which I don’t think I’ve ever told online.

Although I had great fun along the way (and like Aaron I was not inclined to punt on education), and met some fantastic peers and a handful of wonderful teachers, overall I was quite dissatisfied with high school and in retrospect it was rather worse than it appeared at the time. The homeschooling ruse didn’t occur to me, but I found another generous loophole in the rules: by signing up for college classes, I was excused from sufficient high school hours to allow time to attend the college classes. The excusal was coarse-grained and ample, omitting as many hours of high school (every day) as needed to attend and travel to/from college classes (that met only 2 or 3 days per week). High school credit was given to make up for the time missed, so it was possible to take far fewer high school classes than usual and still graduate.

I signed up for classes at a local community college – over several semesters I took Calculus 1, 2, and 3, Differential Equations, Engineering Physics 1 and 2. I chose days and times to maximize how much high school I’d need to miss; then attended the college courses haphazardly. My expectations were low, but was I delighted to find the instruction was actually quite good. Moreover, the textbooks, while pricey, were of excellent quality: as a general rule the instructors who write textbooks are the cream of the crop – they explain the material with far more clarity then the median instructor standing in front of me.

This strategy earned me:

  • Excusal from >50% of the high school day in my senior year – many hours of free time every morning.
  • Freedom to arrive and leave the school campus at will.
  • 30+ hours college credit, all “A” grades, in traditionally challenging courses; this was a nice head start in college.
  • Classes worthy of the time spent attending them.

There was a cost, though, due to the unusual grading system at the high school. Many of the high-level classes were “honors” classes in which it was possible to earn an H grade, worth 5 points on the usual scale of A=4 B=3 etc. By taking fewer high school classes, I had fewer H’s , leading to a lower GPA. I ended up graduating 8th in my class of ~325, at least a few ranks lower than otherwise.

In retrospect, it was a great move; it turns out that after arriving at college, no one for the rest of your life will care about high school classes or scores… Of course this seems obvious now, but no one around me appeared to know this at the time.

I wish I had taken this approach much farther; perhaps I’d have been a 20-something dot-com millionaire like Aaron. Still, there is a general principle: you have more options than you think. You don’t need to walk down the same path as everyone else. Find something different and game-changing, and do it.

The World is My Warehouse

My Old Way of Thinking

Until recently, my strategy for deciding what possessions to keep has been simple: to a first approximation, “keep everything forever”. There is family history in this direction, so I come by this honestly. I have kept many pieces of equipment, cables, books, magazines, tools, office supplies, and much more. There are 200 square feet of shelving in my basement (including my data center), that’s 19 square meters for those of you in the rest of the world. Applied to books, this strategy means that I keep every book forever, in case I ever want to read it. I’ve been building up a library.

I have seen the light, though.

My New Way of Thinking

If it is something unique in the world, or too expensive to replace, or I use at least every couple of years, keep it. Otherwise, give it away, sell it, or discard it. The world is my warehouse. If I need it back I can buy it again; statistically I will buy back only a tiny fraction of what I get rid of, and at low cost. Again, a book example: most older books (including dozens I have gotten rid of recently) are readily available at a fraction of the cover price, if by chance I need them again.

Life (and business) must be about the future. By tossing residues of the past out of the way, more capacity (physical and mental) is available to pursue what matters now.

Update: I thought back to this post when I read Paul Graham’s Stuff essay in July 2007.

A Few Days Away, a Fresh Look at Email

On my office PC, I have a complex, tuned mechanism for processing email: many filters, many folders, etc. I check email at least a couple times per hour (sometimes every few minutes) and tend to send many short replies to message threads.

When I travel, my email processing is much simpler: check email a few times per day (or much less, depend on whether it’s business or pleasure travel). All incoming messages land in the Inbox. I read, I delete anything I won’t need, then file each remaining messages in to one of two folders: “Stuff to file when I get home”, “Stuff to act on when I get home”. (The idea of filing everything in one folder has a lot of merit, which I’ll explore someday when I find a local email client which handles that model as well as Gmail.)

During my trip last week, following the process above, an important aspects of my “email life” became much more obvious: I receive an enormous number of messages that only peripherally relate to me – mailing lists, automatic notifications, etc.; and dealing with those messages takes too much time. This fact, so obvious when it all lands in the Inbox a few times per day, had been hidden by my filing system and rules, and by spending a few minutes time all through the day and evening on email.

So I trimmed, radically: I unsubscribed from lists, I turned off automatic email notification systems, etc. I now aim to let several messages build up about a topic, them write one well-considered reply instead of multiple fast replies, seeking quality over quantity.

On a related note, I also let the many RSS feeds in my reader (FeedDemon – a great product) build up while away, so that when I return, I have N days worth, rather than reading every day. In the past I’ve slowly caught up over several days. This time, I used the large buildup as an opportunity to more clearly see which feeds have the most value to me… and unsubscribed from many others.

I wrote the above in the first person, but I think it is good advice in general: guard your inputs, periodically take stock of overall incoming quality and quantity in to your inboxes. What enormous time sinks are hiding in your email rules/filters/folder system?

Disconnecting to Keep Distraction Away

I’m back from AYE. The last session I attended was Dwayne Phillips‘s on “Distraction”. Distraction is a recurring enemy here, always ready to strike, to divert me from the task at hand. I’ve recently been using “disconnection” to fight distraction and focus on an intense task for a few hours, and noticed the same notion on the 37 Signals’ blog, a post by Matt entitled “Get Off”.

There is an ongoing flow of incoming data in our online lives. Hundreds of emails per day. Hundreds of RSS feed items. Dozens of IM contacts. Phone calls. Voice mail. The “water cooler”, physical or virtual. The disconnection idea is simple: Go offline, physically and network-wise. Leave your office and go somewhere away from your normal environment, away from email, RSS, instant messaging, the web, etc. Reduce your inputs, to make room for more output.

My implementation is to go to restaurant or cafe, in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon (out of politeness, to avoid disrupting their business by using up a table during peak times); preferable one without “WiFi” to remove that temptation. Then I sit, sip, and Just Work on something important. I write code; I write text; I review documents; I brainstorm. I use my notebook PC with a 12” screen, a stark contrast to my 2560×1024 resolution desktop configuration. The latter is wonderful for many kinds of work; but it is also more distraction-prone.

If you find yourself struggling to task on large important tasks, instead distracted by a thousand smaller things, give disconnection a try.