A Few Nuggets
Who doesn't like nuggets?
Happy 2021, friends! It’s been a minute since you last heard from me here, and I’ve definitely wondered in the interim if I too had fallen into that Silicon Valley cliché of starting a newsletter with great gusto, sending out a few posts, and then losing steam. There’s also the accompanying cliché of every subsequent, sporadic post starting with some awkward guilt-ridden acknowledgement of how long it’s been since the last post. So… here we are! Clichés aside, I do have a lot more to share, I’m so grateful that you're subscribing and reading this, and I hope you’ll enjoy our continuing explorations of all things human :)
I do have a pile of writing that’s been slowly accumulating as draft posts and I hope at some point to finish at least one of them eventually. But, in the spirit of reframing the problem whenever it becomes even slightly inconvenient (always a good trick to employ at work too), I’m experimenting with a different format for this post and structuring it as a few bite-sized nuggets, longer than a tweet, shorter than a full post, and hopefully still a satisfying snack for your minds—the email version of a 4-piece McNuggets® off the McDonald’s Dollar Menu. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!
That's it, that’s the job
Work has been challenging for me recently. I’m working on a project that spans multiple functions and organizations, juggling several thorny and ambiguous technical and product challenges, managing a new team, and all while still feeling awkward and new in almost every conversation I have. Some of these challenges I attribute to ramping up in a new role while everyone is remote—building new working relationships feels like it takes a lot more deliberate effort—while others are harder to pin down to a root cause.
On many days, I’ve noticed that my automatic reaction can lean toward “complain, blame, and shame”:
These reorgs are wreaking havoc with our decision-making processes.
Ugh, I don’t understand why <insert name> can’t just X, Y, Z.
This project is moving slowly because I’m not good enough.
Like getting stuck in the rain when you’re out on a hike, sometimes challenges feel like problems that are happening to you. Thanks to some perspective from my partner and some wonderful mentors and managers, I saw that while it’s natural to create these kinds of narratives around my struggles, they’re also not very helpful. In my frustration, I was repeatedly telling myself that all of these problems I was facing were keeping me from growing and keeping me from doing my real job.
The irony, I realized, was that I had taken this role in large part because I was looking for a growth opportunity and for a challenge. These problems I was complaining about, blaming others for, and internalizing as self-doubt? They aren’t keeping me from doing my job; they are the job. I had just failed to see them that way, in large part because I’m not used to thinking of them as the kind of problems I’m supposed to be able to deal with. But that’s the growth opportunity, right? Solving even some of these problems is still going to be hard—I did ask for a challenge, after all—but I’m finding it easier (and more fun) to feel in control, focus on finding solutions, and ask for help instead of feeling frustrated.
Ever since the pandemic took hold of our lives, I’ve felt like a part of my brain has been permanently occupied with analyzing COVID-19 risk of any personal interaction. Maybe it’s the part of my brain, right next to the one that’s supposed to remember whether or not I’m muted, that would otherwise be dedicated to choosing which pants to wear in the morning or determining a normal and personable amount of eye contact during a conversation. Regardless, it feels like a lot of thinking. How far away can I reasonably keep myself from that group of people? Are there situations where I can reasonably not wear a mask? How crowded is too crowded at the grocery store?
I’m a big believer in the value of a well-chosen mental model for quickly communicating otherwise complex topics, and I think we’ve struggled for lack of an intuitive model for thinking about COVID-19 spread. Yes, we have guidelines like staying at least 6 feet away, wearing a mask, and staying outdoors, but I find that I still often have to infer and extrapolate to the myriad nuanced situations that life generates. Adding more specific guidelines can sometimes help, but also comes with even more complexity and adherence challenges. A thoughtfully chosen mental model or metaphor could greatly simplify how we understand and implement safe COVID-19 behavior.
What about smoke? Imagine everyone's breath is smoke, and, in order to minimize your COVID-19 risk, you'd like to inhale as little as possible. With smoke as a metaphor, all of our primary COVID-19 precautions, like keeping 6 feet away from someone who is potentially infectious, make a lot of intuitive sense. And we start to reason much more effectively beyond the guidelines too—we immediately grasp that more distance beyond 6 feet is better, air filtration can help, and exposure over time is a critical factor.
The right mental model is even more important when you consider the idea that we all naturally construct our own mental models anyways, when there isn’t another one to adopt. I wonder how many people think of COVID-19 as a “risk bubble” that surrounds a person and magically stops at 6 feet away, or as an infectious mucus that coats every surface someone touches. Neither of these models is completely wrong, but I think they’re flawed enough to consider how we might thoughtfully and scientifically build better mental models to guide our behavior, and hopefully give all of our brains a little bit of a break.
A safer outlet
I find it extremely satisfying whenever I discover some small, inexpensive object that solves a very specific but important problem in my life. Often these are also things that don’t really have an obvious name either, so they’re hard to find. The Belkin Conserve Socket is one such object. It’s a single plug power outlet that starts power when you press a button and then automatically shuts off in 30 minutes, 3 hours, or 6 hours, depending on the setting. That’s it. It does a single thing well and neatly solves the problem of worrying about leaving on a curling iron or space heater. Anything that can actually reduce anxiety and meaningful increase safety gets high marks from me.
From a design perspective, I also love the unfussiness of the three time settings controlled by a physical switch, instead of some gaudy LCD display, complicated buttons, or providing only one interval. I find the choices of 30 minutes, 3 hours, and 6 hours to also be carefully designed: 30 minutes works well for a single short “task” like ironing clothes or straightening hair, 3 hours for a single “event” like cooking, and 6 hours for a long stretch of time. It’s just enough—nothing more, and nothing less.
Hope you enjoyed these nuggets, and as always, let me know your thoughts, questions, and feedback. Have a wonderful weekend!