Quarantorial Volume 2: 21st-century knowledge workers, motivational theory and working from wherever.

OK, so I know that I referenced this post in my “Volume 1: Musings on community, evolving market dynamics, the human spirit, and ingenuity” quarantorial; part of the reason I wanted to write about this was to take a look at the knowledge economy in the context of COVID-19, quarantine, social distancing, and stay-at-home. One of the key aspects that I think has come to light as a result of COVID-19 is the difference between being motivated and productive vs. “being there”, for years I have believed, evangelized and argued that success is derived from motivation, drive, mastery, passion, purpose, and autonomy, because “being there” is just a state of existence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve observed people sitting at their desks surfing social media and texting, with a seeming total inability to focus, what I would call “being there”. Those merely existing want us to exist alongside them, but those of us who have elevated, those of us who spend 24x7x365 preoccupied with problem-solving, those of us who can’t wait to get up to start tackling the idea that came to us at 3 AM feel incredibly confined and distracted in this rigid, monotonous and unfocused operating model. It’s not solitude that suffocates us, it’s conforming to a model that we know retards our progression. In the words of the great Gen Xer, Tony Hawk, “I am driven by progression”, and with finite time available I have no time or tolerance for distractions.

I can’t stand the debate of ‘do you live to work or work to live’, because this is a self-fulfilling prophecy; spending time looking for balance is time spent looking for mediocrity. If you live for (love) your work, it probably doesn’t feel like work and your life is probably much more fulfilled, Jeff Bezos calls this work-life ‘harmony’ rather than work-life ‘balance’. If you spend time thinking about working to live, chances are you probably don’t love what you do and are not fully immersed, thus you can never elevate to a place that fulfills one of my favorite quotes “Your profession is not what brings home your weekly paycheck, your profession is what you’re put here on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.” – Vincent Van Gogh

Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford commencement speech “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking, don’t settle.” There may be no better interview question than; do you believe this sentiment, and how will this job deliver satisfaction, how will it enable you to do great work?

Many of the ideas I will explore in this quarantorial are concepts I have been pondering and rooted in for years; so much of the content is content I have thought and written about for years put into the context of COVID-19 and a post-COVID world. I am intrigued by how so many people believe that muscle memory is 90% of the battle, how so many people need a catalyst like COVID-19 to wake them up, how fast they are willing to question and alter that which they were so “committed” to yesterday. Don’t get me wrong, muscle memory is important with many tasks, but when it comes to knowledge work it’s all about how you perform when muscle memory doesn’t exist; when there is no program for success; when there is no relative measure of success. Can you invent a way to do it, can you find new muscles and make them burn, can you stay motivated and driven, can you find satisfaction in your own progression?

Take a minute and think about the leaders in our modern knowledge economy. Do you think they rely on muscle memory, or on thinking differently? Do you think they rely on routine, or on a willingness to fail and a desire to blaze the trail, with no sacred cows and the ability to objectively and subjectively evaluate and pivot quickly? Do you think they think about work-life balance, or do you think they personify Van Gogh’s “Your profession is not what brings home your weekly paycheck, your profession is what you’re put here on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.”

Titans of the modern knowledge economy.

Hopefully, it’s obvious I think about these ideas nearly every day, but before I start to explore some of this in the context of COVID-19, I want to talk about what I will call a work-from-anywhere or knowledge economy fitness tips. First off, the most important fitness routine for any knowledge worker is to exercise consumption, learn how to consume and comprehend as much data and information as possible, exercise all the consumption senses, reading, listening, and watching; these are the senses that fuel original thought. Second, write, and write a lot, we only get good with practice and in solitude, writing is how we hone expression, it’s how we develop our thoughts, it’s how we develop our vocabulary and becoming a better writer makes us a better communicator. Practice storytelling; tell stories to the completely disinterested, learn to read the audience, keep trying, and work until you can hold their interest, you’ll know when you are making progress. Lastly, and arguably one of the most important life hacks that I learned after having children is how to interval work on complex tasks with near-zero loss. Let me explain; before I had children I required total immersion in a task, I had to work to completion, 8 hours, 15 hours, 48 hours it didn’t matter, start the task and work on it until completed. This was not a bad thing, but it’s not sustainable and I was also easily disrupted. When I lost focus, our just stopped for the day from pure exhaustion, restarting the activity took significant effort, there was an immense energy and time loss associated with stopping and starting. Children forced me to train my brain and my personal process to achieve minimal loss when stopping and starting complex tasks, this has by far been the hardest and most impactful productivity hack I have achieved over the last fifteen years.

Physical Fitness

Physical fitness is important, but the knowledge worker will never need to run a marathon, this like a running-back working out with the goal of kicking a 60-yard field goal, the time spent working out with the goal of kicking a 60-yard field goal is time that should be spent conditioning for the running back position. I am not saying be unhealthy, what I am saying is any goal takes focus, the more extreme the goal the more focus, and the question that is raised by training for a marathon is where does your passion lie. FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS, there are finite hours in the day, FOCUS is required. Balance breeds well-rounded mediocrity, and for the modern knowledge worker FOCUS is more critical than ever. So let’s talk about knowledge worker fitness.

  • Hack your life.
    • Stay fit, but remember unless your trying to be Tony Hawk the backside 720 is not something you should be investing hours and hours a day into perfecting, this is defocusing you. If you find yourself unable to stop, pivot your life to look more like Alex Honnold’s life, throw the computer out the window, get a van and focus.
    • Understand “The Buzz vs The Bulge” so you can stay reasonably fit and focus your time where you get the greatest yield.
    • Figure out where your mind goes and why; stop wandering. How can you achieve flow? No matter what guide you look at, “choose work you love” will always be at the top of the list.
      • “Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • Write down 100% of your ideas and thoughts, no matter what time they come to you, wake up and write them down. I have a Trello board just for ideas and thoughts; if I think it, I write it down. That time spent thinking about something you know you already thought about, but can’t recall is an immense waste of time and brainpower.
  • Get the proper knowledge-worker physical fitness equipment.
    • Finger and hand dexterity is very important for the knowledge worker, we will be turning a lot of pages, writing and typing hundreds of thousands of words, and stong and limber hands and fingers will serve us well. The rubber squeeze ball is ideal for maintaining hand and finger strength as well as releasing stress.
    • Grip and forearm strength are critical, that mouse isn’t going to move itself and the stronger our grip and forearm the less likely we are to develop carpel tunnel syndrome, a potentially limiting affliction for the modern knowledge worker.
    • As we age, wrist and forearm strength become harder to maintain. The weakening of these critical knowledge worker muscles can contribute to carpal tunnel, joint pain, and even arthritis. A good wrist strengthener can keep you operating at peak levels.

For finger, hand and grip health and training I recommend the Hand Grip Strength Trainer Kit with 2 Hand Therapy Ball and Non-Slip Gripper w/ Adjustable Resistance from 22 lbs to 88 lbs.

For wrist and forearm health and training, I recommend the Sportneer Wrist Strengthener Forearm Exerciser Hand Developer Strength Trainer for Athletes, Fitness Enthusiasts, Professionals.

Home workout equipment.

Mental Fitness

Just about every knowledge worker possesses the most powerful tool available, a smartphone. This is your key to mental fitness, stay off TMZ, and focus on working out at all available times. On the train, read while standing, get a good text-to-speech engine for PDFs and consume those long white papers while in the car (I use eReader Prestigio, but there are many options), get a good voice recorder app (I use Easy Voice, again there is no shortage of options), get a good speech-to-text app (I love Otter), get yourself a good academic mobile learning platform like Coursera, edX, or Udacity and continue educating yourself. Invest in a good professional training platform like Pluralsight. Get a good on the go coding learning platform to stay sharp, platforms like SoloLearn, Programming Hub, Encode, DataCamp, and Codeacademy are some of my favorites. I am an Android person and for years I have been using TubeMate to pull down keynotes, and other video content from YouTube for offline viewing, I am sure there are tools for the iPhone, get one and use it. Lastly, get yourself a good podcast tool, and commit to podcasts, remember a good podcast app moves with you, the experience between mobile, desktop, laptop, and tablet should be seamless and in-sync, so you can consume content efficiently from wherever. The podcast app that I have used for years is Pocket Casts.

OK, let’s explore some of the ways to improve our game beyond the mobile device because a mobile device approach only gets you so far.

  • Invest in some sort of casting device. Chromecast, AppleTV, Roku, etc… When you are on the sofa or spending time with the family you want to encourage yourself to watch a Coursera, edX, Udacity, etc. lesson. You would be surprised how you can align multiple aspects of your life if you create the proper environment. My entire family has watched some aspect of Justice and talked about the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by Professor Sandel and CS50; Professors Malan’s use of the PB&J to introduce logic and structured design is epic.
  • Commit to a cloud-first strategy. Make every experience portable and consistent.
  • Get yourself the right tools and make them available, remove access roadblocks, and lame excuses.
    • A cloud-first strategy lets you have N devices and keep them in sync no matter where you are.
    • Kindles and tablets are cheap, place them around the house strategically. Have one in your backpack, one in the family room, one on the nightstand, don’t move them. When you’re in bed and the Kindle or tablet is in your backpack, you’ll make excuses, don’t give yourself an out.
    • One computer is not enough. To maximize 100% of your available time you will need computer placement similar to Kindle and tablet placement. I say invest in a few Chromebooks because these are low-cost devices that force adoption of a cloud-first strategy, they have great battery life and they are full-featured, you can read, you can study, you can code, etc… There is no shortage of Chromebooks to choose from, my current daily drivers are an ASUS C302 and an ASUS Chromebook C523NA, which I bought from Amazon Warehouse for $189, the big screen helps my aging eyes. For those who want a good reasonably priced Chromebook that attacks various use cases, but won’t break the bank, I suggest looking at the Acer Chromebook R 11 Convertible.
      • You may be thinking I live in a small apartment, why do I need more than one computer. The answer is simple when you come home from work, that computer is in your bag, like anything in life, just that act of taking the computer out of your bag and powering it on can be the difference between an 10 or 15 minutes of time on the computer that is sitting on your nightstand and just going to bed. Add that time up over time and it’s a difference-maker.
  • Get hands-on experience and don’t spend time on trying to figure out how to stand-up infrastructure, this is like looking to become a surgeon, but learning how to be a plumber first so you can scrub in. Leverage platforms like Katacoda and Codeanywhere to get your hands on the keyboard and start using those physical muscles you worked so hard to condition. As you progress leverage the public cloud as you need more complex infrastructure and compute power. A word of advice, API first, meaning don’t build that which is sitting there waiting to be consumed via API.
    • For example:
      • Don’t build a GPU rig for machine learning when you can just use Google Colab, FloydHub or Paperspace.
      • Don’t build a Linux server at home when you can get a VPS instance from somewhere between $3 and $15 per month, depending on what you are looking to do. OVH VPS and AWS Lightsail are great options here.
      • Don’t build a logging server when you can leverage something like LogDNA for free or for $3 a month.
      • Follow the rule of staying focused on the objective. Most of us eat to live, but we don’t farm because there is an easier consumption model for us to meet our objective of sustaining ourselves, it’s called the grocery store. If the grocery store ceased to exist, we would all have to become farmers, but not having to farm allows us the time to focus elsewhere.
  • Get involved in the community. Slack, Gitter, Telegram, Twitter, Stack Overflow, reddit, DZone, FreeCodeCamp, Hacker News, DEV Community, etc…
    • Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, etc… are all time wasters, uninstalling something like Facebook probably not realistic, just stop using it unless your mom says did you see my post, just say no and then take a look.
  • You’re craving that hands-on hardware experience? You don’t need space, power or cooling. All you need are a few Raspberry Pi 4s. There are lots of ways to accomplish building your Raspberry Pi cluster. I suggest the following parts list (or comparable):
Raspberry Pi Cluster

While the cost of the above is not outrageous given what you will have in a small form-factor compute power, with low power requirements, you may be able to lower the cost even further using a single Raspberry Pi 4 and a Cluster Hat.

Cluster HAT v2.4 – Pimoroni Store
Raspberry Pi 4 with Cluster Hat and 4 x Raspberry Pi Zeros

Also, once you get your RPi cluster built, you will love K3s!

Focus and Yield

Invest in the proper tooling to track and metric how you spend your time, pay attention to the data and make changes to increase your productivity. Know your regiment, aka where muscle memory matters, for example, I read for one hour and write for one hour every morning, this time is off the grid, but it is part of the regiment that I am committed to because I know is subjectively additive to my time on the grid. Be Jerry Rice deliberate about being the best at your position; progression is not a relative measure.

Every day is different. When we don’t accomplish our goals, it becomes important to have the data that provides us with a retrospective. When we do accomplish our goals, the data can helps us understand why we were so productive. Setup may take some time, but to get a good view data collection needs to be passive and consistent on all platforms, mobile, tablet, laptop, and desktop.

Listen and observe, but make your own logical decisions, those relying on routine rather than passion and motivation like company.

COVID-19 as a catalyst for a biger change.

I am seeing people who I’ve known to have convicted opinions about the “what is required” change how they think. The pivot is happening quickly, #StayAtHome has forced a change that many individuals would not make on their own and operational changes that organizations would not have taken on their own because of perceived risk, but here we are, the bandaid has been ripped off and were making some astonishing discoveries, we realizing that the motivated perform and the unmotivated show up and take up space, doing harm and masking the long-term prognosis and impact.

I am sharing a video entitled “RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” because this whiteboard does a great job distilling the Daniel Pink’s book Drive. If you have not seen the video or read the book, I recommend taking the time to do so. While there is this age-old adage that salespeople (and plenty of other people) are “coin-operated,” I think it’s important to recognize that this motivation is not likely the motivator that underpins many of the cultures that make up the new knowledge economy. BTW, don’t let yourself off the hook with obvious motivators like family or a desire to win; we all want to take care of our families, and we all want to win.

Everyone has different motivators; I love motivational theory because, as a leader, I believe understanding motivation theory is my best chance to gain some understanding of the most complex and impactful variable I can comprehend, the human being.

I am a Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory person; for me, I am very interested in satisfaction vs dissatisfaction which is why I gravitate towards Herzberg. I have spent plenty of time discussing McClelland’s Need Theory and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with others who favor these theories. Some of the more interesting conversations I’ve had are about why people favor a specific motivational theory.

I hope everyone is staying safe, staying healthy, thinking deeply and stepping up their focus game.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *