Arrive a Tourist but Leave an Explorer

The ocean stood before me like a glistening blue tidal wave at peace with not proceeding. The South Adriatic engulfed nearly a third of my vision as steep hills littered with trees and orange roofs met the sea somewhere below me.

It was like an ocean sandwich, the whitish blue sky motionless on top and the noisy, earthy crust covering the bottom.

For some reason I find myself constantly needing to remember where I am, to remind myself that I'm still on Earth. Sometimes I'll open Google Maps on my laptop just to find Montenegro, that tiny squarish country nestled between Croatia and Albania across the ocean from the backside of Italy's boot. "That's where I am," I'll tell myself, feeling as though I need convincing. "That part of the world is real and it looks like this."

A butterfly breezes past, and then a bird. The birds are everywhere, the slow noisy roof-loving ones chattering away while aerial masters of the sky swoop down and past you in an instant, dogfighting invisible enemies with their black boomerang-shaped wings and their tiny sleek bodies that bulge out underneath, an agile dive-bomber perfectly designed by nature.

Somewhere in the distance to the left, across the valley of orange-tiled roofs where a few tall apartments stand looking out of place, over the tall slender coniferous trees nearer to the ocean, a chained machine whirrs to its master. And then the echo of a hammer, and then a skill saw.

The tiny town of Ulcinj is getting ready, preparing for the onslaught of tourists who will soon be flooding in, people like me who might greet the glistening blue tidal wave and dodge the playful dive-bombers.

Or not.

We all come into this world a tourist. Sadly, most of us leave the same way.

Notes: The Strangeness of Everyday Things

Have you ever repeat­ed a word to your­self so many times that you begin to notice the strange­ness of the sound it makes? The rep­e­ti­tion begins to con­ceal the mean­ing of the word, so you notice what it actu­al­ly sounds like.

I’ve found the same thing hap­pens the more you learn about a sub­ject. As you bur­row in, the sur­face lay­ers of com­mon sense peel away until you’re left with some­thing stranger.

Strange­ness is a good thing. It means you’ve ven­tured into new ter­ri­to­ry, where oppor­tu­ni­ties can be found and false­hoods shed. I’d say my goal in learn­ing any­thing is to try to find this zone of strange­ness.

In a recent blog post, Scott Young writes about something that I've experienced for as long as I can remember, that point where a repeated word suddenly seems to change.

I've also noticed this happen when doing a repetitive task: I feel the task becoming so automatic that I can almost forget about it, but then something strange happens and I start screwing up, as if the task became more challenging right when I was getting used to it.

I found Scott's point about how we can use this sudden strangeness to guide our learning quite thought-provoking and the full blog post is definitely worth a read.

The Other Side of Discomfort

I spent this past weekend learning a new language. Not a spoken language, but a programming language called Python. It was incredibly rewarding and it’s hard to believe that I almost paid someone to take that opportunity away.

A few weeks ago I came across a traveling programmer who had written some software to show a map of his travels on an embedded Google Map. He included a drop-down that allowed the selection of different maps, each map representing a different period of travel in his life. 

After being thoroughly impressed—and perhaps a little bit jealous—by his extensive travels and the simplicity by which he displayed all this data, I began to envision how I could do something similar on my own website.

His software was fairly straightforward: It looked at the contents of several Google Earth KML files, parsed the map data inside them, and then displayed that data on an embeddable Google Map.

Straightforward? Perhaps. But I didn’t even know what KML files were, let alone how to use Google Earth. The last time I played around with Google Earth was years ago. I had no idea how to create maps with it.

But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. 

I foresee myself traveling for years to come and I’ve been looking for a good way to track and display my travels for awhile now. I’m currently using the TravelMap plugin on my map page, but it has limited features and doesn’t scale for my nomadic lifestyle. This Google Earth solution seemed elegant, practical, and scalable.

So I downloaded Google Earth and learned how to create lines and points. I watched tutorial videos on YouTube and read documentation. I exported one of the test maps to a KML file and opened it in a text editor to learn about its format. 

I discovered that KML files were simply XML files (very similar to HTML). The locations of the points that I added in Google Earth were identified using its GPS coordinates; the lines that I drew between two points were represented by a series of coordinates: start-coordinates, end-coordinates, start-coordinates, end-coordinates, and so on.

With my newly acquired knowledge I set out building several Google Earth maps, each representing all my travels for the past two years, starting with my trip to India in 2010 and ending with my present location in Australia in 2012. 

It was around this point where I began to think about what the process of updating my current location with this system would look like on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. 

I realized it would require opening Google Earth on my computer, editing the map with my new travels and adding new points and new lines, then exporting the file to KML and uploading it to the web server.

That seemed like a lot of work, especially when I was already recording my travels to some degree using geotagging on social networks like Twitter and Foursquare. 

I’m very suspicious of repetitive things when it comes to my time. (It all started when I calculated how much of my life each year was being spent simply looking at various notifications on my computer: 15 hours! I no longer use notifications for anything.) If I’m already recording my location online, why should I spend time recording it again in Google Earth?

How could I automatically update the Google Earth KML file with my latest location without spending any additional time?

After a bit of research, I discovered that Foursquare provides a KML feed for all my check-in data. So, I just needed to create a program that would automate copying the data from one KML file to the other and then updating the path line to show that I traveled from the old check-in to the new check-in.

With my limited knowledge of programming languages, I knew that Python was the best language for this job. The problem was, I knew practically nothing about Python. I was a PHP programmer and I knew that solving this problem with PHP would be both messy and time-consuming.

At this point I’d already spent a lot of time learning about KML files and creating maps in Google Earth. The thought of learning a whole new programming language just to get a travel map on my site was pushing the limits of what I expected to invest in this project in terms of time.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just hire someone else to do this final part? 

Never before had I hired someone to write a program for me, but for the first time I found myself taking the thought seriously. Was I getting lazy? Was this laziness the result of being able to afford to hire someone?

I posted the job on Elance with a maximum budget of $250— that’s what this program was worth to me. Within a few hours I began receiving bids, but with each bid I felt myself more and more disinterested with this idea.

Why was I paying someone to take away my opportunity to learn and grow? 

That’s when I realized something important: It wasn’t that I was being lazy. It’s that I wanted to pay someone to take away the discomfort of learning and growing. 

That one realization changed my whole thinking and instead of succumbing to the discomfort of learning something new, I decided to push into the discomfort and find out what’s on the other side. 

On Friday night I found a free Python tutorial online and began learning. I started with the very basics and ignored what I already knew about programming. I completed every exercise, from the very basic to the more advanced.

At first it was repetitive and boring, but as the hours passed I found myself muttering over and over, “that’s interesting”, every time I learned a new concept or understood how something worked.

This learning and exploration became so fun that I spent nearly the entire weekend indoors, peeling myself away from the computer only to eat, fulfill my running commitment, and watch the sunset.

By Sunday morning I began exploring beyond the Python tutorial and started searching the Internet for examples of using Python to handle XML files. There were very few examples specific to KML files and I couldn’t find anything that did what I wanted, but I continued experimenting.

By that evening I had finished a 248-line program in Python that did exactly what I wanted. It’s certainly not the prettiest code but the sense of empowerment and elation that I experienced upon finishing it was worth far more than $250.

The lesson? When it comes to spending time or spending money, always spend the time if you’ll learn something that will save you both money and time in the long-run. 

And more importantly, when it comes to learning new things, don’t pay someone to take away the discomfort for you: lean into that discomfort. 

On the other side of that discomfort exists a world where you live with more knowledge and understanding than the present version of yourself. It may be hard to imagine that world right now, but push through the discomfort and you’ll get there.

I haven’t finished integrating the new travel map into my site, but here’s a working sneak peak of the Journey Map.

Travel Notes: Left-side Driving in Australia

I could feel my brain resisting the change, like stirring molasses with a big spoon my brain pushed against the reality that I was forcing it to accept.

I drove in Australia for the first time today, a short 15-minute ride to the supermarket. But those few minutes felt like hours. When I stopped and got out of the car, my brain physically hurt, as if my brain had just run a marathon. I could feel the new synapses forming in what seemed like previously dead areas of my gray matter, like someone waking up from a coma and needing to relearn things that felt both vaguely familiar and all so wrong at the same time.

Everything that had become second nature from more than 14 years of right-side driving in the United States suddenly felt all wrong. The rearview mirror was on the wrong side, the gear shifter, the turn signal, the steering wheel -- all of it felt backwards. But not the gas and brake pedals: they were the same as in the States. Everything in the car was mirrored except those. Confusing! But there it was, all of it in front of me, awaiting my acceptance, asking me to embrace it.

And then when I started driving I knew there were others depending on my brain accepting these changes. Stay on the left side of the road!

It was tough. Left turns were right turns. Merges onto the freeway were made from left to right. The fast lane was now on the left instead of the right. Exits were always on the left. Rotaries — or roundabouts as they're more often called here — were particularly challenging to get correct. Cars went clockwise around them instead of counter-clockwise.

Everything felt wrong! It was the same weird feeling a right-handed person would feel when throwing a ball with their left hand.

But I pushed through this. I knew this was why I traveled, to feel my brain returning to its pre-adult state, to re-plasticize the hardened gray matter.

Day after day, I drove a little more each day. After one week of driving with a navigator in the passengers seat, I've now graduated to driving alone by myself. And then one day something strange happened: everything began to feel normal. It started to make sense. Left-side driving started to feel normal. And that was an incredibly freeing experience, so suddenly become mobily ambidextrous.

To remember which turns are yield turns, I've come up with an easy way to remember: whatever side of the car I'm sitting on, that's the side that is a yield turn. If I'm driving on the right side of the car, then right turns are yield turns. If I'm sitting on the left, left turns are yield turns.

But still I find myself occasionally mixing it up. When I’m told we’ll be making a right turn ahead, my brain identifies right turns with non-yield turns, which in Australia is actually a left turn. So I’ll hear right, but feel left.

But again, this is why I travel. To grow. To experience something new and unfamiliar. To push myself outside of comfort zones and over the edge into the unknown.

Notes: Your Blog is a Barometer

Thom Chambers writes about using your publishing platform to detect when your personal growth is stalling:

Your blog is something of a barometer. If you're overflowing with ideas, news, and observations, then the chances are good that you're doing interesting things beyond that blog. You're learning, you're doing exciting work, you're on an adventure.

Whenever you get stuck for a blog post, then, take it as a sign of a bigger malaise.

If you can't find anything interesting to say about what you’re doing, maybe it's because you need to do more interesting stuff.

Another way to get stuck is by fear. You could also think of fear of failure as a barometer for success. Sometimes we just need to get over ourselves and recognize that failure really isn't so bad. Let go of fear and just be.

I think it's also important to note on the flip side that if you can't find anything interesting to say, that's not always a bad thing. Sometimes it's okay to say less.

Notes: Solitude as a catalyst to innovation

A quote from The Rise of the New Groupthink, an article in the New York Times:

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone — and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts: William Wordsworth described him as “A mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”)

Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.

If we're constantly connecting, relating, communicating, and interacting with others, how can we really tap into the powerhouse of creativity and potential for innovation that exists within each of us? While I believe interaction and sharing is essential, I think we undervalue the necessity of disconnection and self-exploration for real growth.

Notes: Reject Defining Yourself According to Exterior Standards

Chris Guillebeau reflects on how he once chased a "proper education", striving for things simply because the path from here to there was clear and easily marked out by milestones that many others had followed.

It took me a long time to get away from validating my life according to something that didn't relate to my true hopes and goals. At the time, I really did want to devote years of my life doing things that no one would notice, in hopes of obtaining letters behind my name that no one would care about. As ridiculous as I knew it was, I still wanted it! It was hard to let go of... until I finally did.

Part of it was the attachment to something of questionable value (a degree, useless letters), but I was also attracted to the linear nature of academia. I wanted to do something interesting and meaningful, and I saw a clear, if not entirely sensible path. Never mind that the end was muddled; at least I had a certain next step. Pay this amount of money, write a certain number and type of essays, complete such-and-such requirements, meet with these advisors, and so on. All fairly straightforward.

But when you venture out on your own, the next step is often unclear. You don't necessarily know what to do at any given time, which is why having a specific direction is a superpower. There is also no degree or graduation waiting for you at the end, and you have to determine your own milestones.


Years later, I write these notes while sitting in a hotel lobby in Tajikistan, a place I had never heard of back then. I fly around the world and work on projects I find meaningful. I have no qualifications to do much of anything, yet for the most part I do whatever I want.

I realize now it wasn't so much the acceptance or rejection of academia, an institution that may very well serve other people's needs more than mine. It was the rejection of defining myself according to exterior standards, a system that was rigged to reward conformity by design.

How often do we give up the things that make sense in return for things that are less ambiguous? Clarity might make our day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month lives easier to plan and easier to predict, but are we really growing and learning and challenging ourselves if everything we do has been done a thousand times before?

Notes: Is this noteworthy?

In a response to The Dangerous Effects of Reading (an essay I highlighted in a previous note), nlawalker wrote the following comment on Hacker News.

His last point about noteworthiness is an incredibly useful way to avoid wasting time. I started curating and sharing notes on things that I read because I feel that doing so will not only help me retain and determine the usefulness of what I'm consuming, but also help others spend less time filtering through stuff.

I definitely agree about the "filtering crap from gold" bit. Once you reach a certain level of skill it can become a hindrance: you develop an extremely low tolerance for anything that doesn't catch you as interesting within a few seconds, and you start speed-reading absolutely everything. This is good in that you aren't wasting time consuming something that's not really useful, but it's bad in that you end up continuously subjecting yourself to input in this way. You can spend a whole day processing a million inputs, throwing them all away and learning nothing, when the alternatives are to spend your time doing something more fun or productive, or slowing down a bit and maybe actually getting a tidbit or two out of the first few hundred inputs and leaving the rest for another time.

A while ago, when I was reading for the purpose of focused learning (technical books, scouring blogs for information about some framework/API, etc.), I began the habit of taking copious notes. My notes are very wordy; it's almost like I'm having a conversation with myself and rephrasing ideas so I can understand them better. OneNote is my weapon of choice - for me it reduces the "barrier to entry" of starting notetaking because it's easy write now and organize later.

Over time, I realized that when I took notes this way, I had a much higher retention rate and a much greater understanding of what I was reading. So much so that when I find myself sitting at my desk or on the couch and "infosnacking," I try to stop and ask myself, "is what I am reading right now worth taking notes on?" If it is, then I start writing. If it's not, I make the effort to tear myself away and either do something that's more productive or something that I really enjoy.

Notes: The middle-man to your happiness

David Tate writes about the dangerous effects of reading, but more than that he explains why it's so vital that we stop being filters, that we stop developing a habit of judging what we're consuming in attempt to consume things that make us happier and instead focus on creating the things that actually make us happy.

I think we should all agree that getting faster at judging things is bad, but I think the real danger in having a super-efficient-filter is that your default mode is exclusion – you reject long enough and you lose the ability to create things that pass your own filter. You stagnate at work for fear of everything you do being judged like every news article or viral video that you view.

So how do you break the power of consumption? By creating your own things. All the things you consume - somewhere somebody is making all this stuff, right?

Adding anything (not just your opinion) to the world is creating – writing, drawing, dancing (not line-dancing which is not art but instead some sort of long-term psychological annoyance stress test). Normally when people think of 'creating' or 'innovation' they think of a naked hippie standing in the woods painting a tree, an alcoholic writer slaving away at a sad tale of a small town, or some tech geek coming up with some new way to annoy everyone by sharing every detail of their pointless life.

If the world overwhelms you with its constant production of useless crap which you filter more and more to things that only interest you can I calmly suggest that you just create things that you like and cut out the rest of the world as a middle-man to your happiness?

Notes: Going through imaginary walls

Manuel Loigeret writes about going through imaginary walls and why we need to stop putting people on a pedestal. He uses many examples from his own life -- learning computer programming, learning English, moving to Canada -- to demonstrate why we need to go through the walls we perceive:

There was some fear, that’s for sure, but I don’t think this is the core of the problem. The real constraint was other people. Those who made it and told me it was extremely difficult and nearly impossible. The coders who made me believe that their code was cryptic. Those who told me I could never stand the cold winters of Canada. The teachers who told me I would never be good at speaking/writing in English. Those who told me yoga was only for girls. Those who told me you can only evolve in your career by working from 9 to 5, etc... All these people building imaginary walls to cover their (lack of) knowledge so they could stay in their fortified ivory towers.

Notes: There is no reason a polymath cannot excel

This is an older comment written by Lynn Fang on a blog post that Mars Dorian wrote about needing to focus on one career. Her points are extremely well expressed:

There is no reason a polymath cannot excel at all her interests enough to create careers out of all of them.

Take Benjamin Franklin. He was a Founding Father who started our country, a political statesmen. And yet he was also a scientist, inventor, and writer who contributed numerous inventions to improve our understanding of weather patterns, electricity, and even invented bifocal glasses. Or Leonardo DaVinci. He was a successful painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, geologist, botanist, and writer. He excelled at all of them and is still well known for both his paintings and his mechanical inventions. There are many such people throughout our history. They may seem like gods, but so do Michael Jackson and Shepard Fairy.

I'm sure Michael Jackson made a great impact on the world and uplifted many millions of people. Is his work of lesser import than Ben Franklin's? You can't really compare them. They are equally important people, who hold significance to people in different ways. I think it is the systems thinking polymaths that will truly change the world, because they can see the big picture, how all the little interlocking pieces fit together to create the world. They can see what makes the world go round, and step in to make a difference.

I don't mean to brag, but I excel at both writing and science. I also have a knack for design that could be used professionally, should I choose. I am skilled at all three, but I can't do all of them at the same time. I feel, what makes me unique and powerful, is the combination of interests and skills that I let my heart embrace. I plan to see each of these fields bear fruit one day. On Scott Young's blog, he teaches something called Holistic Learning, which is making connections between seemingly unrelated fields. If you did not open yourself to other fields of inquiry, you could miss out on valuable connections.

It's true that if I focus on writing, my design will suffer. But at some point I will get bored, or tired, of focusing solely on writing, and that is when my design will bounce back. It's simply a matter of time, as my focus cycles through my various interests.

My legacy will be to have lived my life as fully and richly as possible, while contributing as much value as I can to the world. As Austin Kleon says, keep your side projects. "it’s the side projects that blow up."

You can also read my response to Mars' post here.