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The End Game

The following is an email I wrote to a friend speaking in some depth about what I describe as “the end game.” I will expand upon several aspects of this communication in future posts, but I think sharing the original message here is valuable in itself.

The question you posed – “what is the end-game?” – is one that I have considered for many years. Ironically, you are the second to ask this within a 2-month timeframe (a friend of mine, whose personality is somewhat similar) asked me the very same thing.

I think what I enjoy most in life is the ability to think critically.

The inner struggle that I have been in for as long as I can remember is to “get closer to” sources of complex subject-matter. I think that will pursuit will always be a source of discontent in my life, with varying degrees. At some level, I have learned that this underlying discomfort is normal.

To elaborate, I find myself concerned when things get too “easy” from an intellectual or creative standpoint. In the past, this would equate with abandoning the topic for another. Now, I’ve adjusted my approach in that I will try to stay engaged but do so in a different way. That could be something as simple as getting the work done more efficiently or approaching the topic in a completely different manner. But, at some level, and for certain topics, I feel I am simply pushing the same pieces around on the same board. My goal is to find “boards” that allow for expansion; I have found “design” to be one.

This belief was further reinforced by a quote from Garry Kasparov in his book “Deep Thinking:”

“It’s also a better of opportunity cost. If the focus is too heavily on optimizing, nothing new is created and stagnation can result. It can be too easy to concentrate only on making something better when we might be better served by making something new, something different.”

Two years ago, I went to the GPU Technology Conference in San Jose to explore topics that are beyond my (current?) reach. I went to a talk where the speaker was giving a talk about personal performance. The question I raised in the session was essentially:

“How are some people able to rise to such a level where they are giving talks about complex topics, as discussed in this conference, while others are merely spectators?”

Needless to say, not everyone can be a visionary, but it was a question that I have been thinking about for a very long time. The answer he offered was one in a book called “Deep Work” by Cal Newport.

At the heart of deep work is an intense ability to focus, particularly on challenging subject matter. The book goes into a fair amount of detail in terms of overall strategy and the underlying benefits of “deep work.” Over the past several years (even prior to this talk) I have been steadily working to improve my ability to concentrate and deliver work of increasing quality and depth.

To this point, I recently formulated a deep work “spectrum” to help me understand where I fit within this journey. I have included some early notes about this below.

[Author Note: The details of this spectrum will be discussed in a separate post.]

To bring this email to a close, I fundamentally believe that everyone has untapped potential. As an example, if I look back at my personal training (read: exercise) journey over the past decade, I have made material progress. Surprisingly, I am at a point where I am comfortable with where I am in this space. I could go further on this journey (and likely will), but I have reached a point where I feel I don’t have to.

The difference for me in the intellectual/creative space is that I have not reached a similar juncture. In fact, I feel like I am still far away. Fortunately, I fundamentally believe that the principle of “deep work” is a clear path towards reducing this gap. And while I have made material strides over the past several years, I am really only at the starting line in terms of how deep my concentration ability can go. The benefit of this ability is a greater likelihood of producing new and innovative “work” which is very important to me.

(To be sure, there are other many other (psychological) barriers to realizing “greatness” but I am trying to address those separately, although they play a critical role nevertheless.)

Attention I – The Risks

The young can get away with IM-ing while playing a computer game or the like, but there’s a risk: if you grow up assuming that you can pay attention to several things at once, you may not realize that the way in which you process such information is superficial at best. When you’re finally forced to confront intellectually demanding situations in high school or college, you may find that you’ve traded depth of knowledge for breadth and stunted your capacity for serious thought.

Along with the costs to strong learning and deep thinking, hours spent in the thrall of alluring machines exact a toll from your attention to human beings. At the very least, time online is subtracted from real-world interactions, such as conversation, sharing a meal, or even having sex.

Rapt, Attention and the Focused Life – Winifred Gallagher

And so it begins (again).

One of the core tenets in my life involves the belief that one can continuously improve, adapt and excel.  The concept of brain “plasticity” along with the belief that evolution is based not upon intellect or strength, but adaptability, provides motivation to keep moving forward.

One of the ways to achieve this is through writing.

I find writing invaluable because the very process of doing so provides me with the means to focus my energies in areas I feel are important.  I have found the absence of this channel stalls this thought process and I’m left with feelings of reduced intellectual and creative “progress.”  In basic terms, I’m “spinning.”

Furthermore, the very process of documenting ideas embeds them into my memory.  Not surprisingly, this becomes self-fulfilling; random thoughts serve as a foundation for ideas and concepts that embody increasing complexity and structure.  It’s these very concepts that open up doors in entirely new areas of development.

While this isn’t too terribly surprising to me, what is surprising is just how challenging it is to start writing again.

Early Concept: “T2”

Dual Connection.

From the New York Times article by Larry Rohter:

“For two decades, the Columbia University professor Manning Marable focused on the task he considered his life’s work: redefining the legacy of Malcolm X. Last fall he completed “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” a 594-page biography described by the few scholars who have seen it as full of new and startling information and insights.

“The book is scheduled to be published on Monday, and Mr. Marable had been looking forward to leading a vigorous public discussion of his ideas. But on Friday Mr. Marable, 60, died in a hospital in New York as a result of medical problems he thought he had overcome. Officials at Viking, which is publishing the book, said he was able to look at it before he died. But as his health wavered, they were scrambling to delay interviews, including an appearance on the “Today” show in which his findings would have finally been aired.”

From the book description:

“Malcolm X will stand as the definitive work on one of the most singular forces for social change, capturing with revelatory clarity a man who constantly strove, in the great American tradition, to remake himself anew.

Strategy: Site Expansion.

I have been thinking of making a few modifications to my current Internet infrastructure to allow the platform to grow in the years to come.  Before going into detail, I think it’s important to share my perspective on the site as a whole:

What’s Working:

  1. Good foundational online presence.
  2. Excellent initial placement in search engine rankings.
  3. Microsite concept allows for easy expansion.
  4. Hosting infrastructure is top-notch.
  5. Majority of time is spent on content generation.

What’s Not:

  1. Not every microsite has SEO functionality.
  2. Presence of older content is not reflective of current skill-level.
  3. Some duplication of content across sites.
  4. No clear long-term strategy.
  5. Some technical gaps exist.

While there will always be opportunities to explore, I would like to focus my time on a select few.  The best way to prioritize is to first revisit my objectives for my online presence:

  • Growth Enabler – I want to continue this online journey as it has strengthened my ability to focus and explore new ideas.  To be more specific, I want the content to enable the continued creation of both online and offline projects.
  • Relevance – I want visitors (employers, collaborators, friends) to have access to information, ideas and content that is most relevant and is most reflective of my capabilities at that time – and not be distracted by older information. At the same time, I would like to keep older sites active as they collectively are a part of who I am.
  • Presentation Ability – I want to go a step further in improving my communication abilities by presenting new concepts in HD.
  • Ease of Use – I want to make it easy for visitors to learn about me and my capabilities.
  • Pervasiveness – I want to maintain and broaden my standing in search engines through additional content generation and an effective SEO strategy.

Ultimately, this online presence is to support my personal and professional goals in a way that is self-fulfilling; one idea leads to another, essentially cross-pollinating between sites and into new online and offline endeavors.

Going a step further, I hope I can help others see things in a different way and encourage them to push themselves into new territories.  In a best case scenario, the site can connect me with other individuals with similar goals and interests for potential collaboration.

In short, I want the site to be an extension of myself.

Given this context, what needs to be done now?  Actually, quite a bit!  Here’s the list:

  1. Make final modifications to existing sites that will remain and formally close out sites that are no longer needed.
  2. Upgrade to the latest version of BasicMaths to allow for video embedding.
  3. Upgrade to the latest version of WordPress for existing sites.
  4. Figure out the best backup strategy for existing WordPress sites.
  5. Revisit SEO strategy for existing and new sites.
  6. Redesign Pixeldust microsite to focus exclusively on digital photography.
  7. Document current infrastructure.
  8. Design new homepage that allows for greater content flexibility.
  9. Create sitemap to illustrate microsite connectivity and potential redundancy.
  10. Launch SoundCloud presence.
  11. Figure out how to share brainstorming notes in a way that shows clear traceability to real content (designs, illustrations, posts, etc.).
  12. Formulate a long-term strategy.
  13. Develop a workflow for HD content generation and presentation.

Fortunately, a fair number of these tasks have already begun.

Immersion: Operating Framework and “Post Digital” Concept

The concept of an operating framework is to organize your time and effort into specific areas of focus.  In theory, and with appropriate discipline, an operating framework can accelerate one’s development in one or multiple areas.  The very nature of writing down one’s goals (or visually representing them) can plant these ideas and objectives into one’s subconscious, and this becomes a very powerful motivator even if you aren’t explicitly thinking of the framework on a daily basis (you shouldn’t be).

For example, here is an example of a partial framework from 2007 (Plane 6 – “Foundation”):

(Click on the image to enlarge)

While I listed electronics and software development within this framework, I didn’t end up spending a lot of time in these specific areas.  And that’s where the evolution of an operating framework becomes relevant; where are you focusing your energy?  And if you aren’t spending your time in certain areas, is this necessarily a problem?

In the Immersion (Plane 10) framework shown below, there is now a clear separation of what I’ve focused on in the past and what I ultimately need to focus on in the future.  This is a radical shift given that I’ve typically had to justify and take on multiple, parallel tracks that had little relationship to one another – other than the fact that one path was for survival, and the other more aspirational.  By logically separating these skills from the “core”, they will eventually become dormant and by default, the skills that I want to develop will have developed due to this increased focus (i.e. a self-fulfilling prophecy).

(Click on the image to enlarge)

Layered above these “dormant” skills are multiple layers of activity – all leading to a radically advanced portfolio along with an increased level of interaction weighted more heavily in the real-world than in the digital realm. What’s truly important here is that this increased interaction ultimately stems from a broader range of experiences.  Not surprisingly, this has a dual purpose; the greater one’s experiences, the greater one’s ability to learn, identify challenges and design solutions to those challenges.  Experiences represent a designer’s playground.

Finally, one concept that perhaps serves as the basis for this framework is John Maeda’s concept of “post digital”:

[Post Digital] is a term that I created as a way to acknowledge a distinction between those that are passed their fascination with computers, and are now driven by the ideas instead of the technology.  […] the “post digital” generation refers to the growing few that have already been digital, and are now more interested in Being Human.

Ultimately, this is exactly what Immersion is all about – I’m less interested in the technology for technology’s sake.  Rather I am interested in using technology to increase idea generation to make people’s lives better.

Press Release.

The following is a press release that was recently sent to my personal and professional network.  It calls attention to the launch of my personal branding web site as well as a new business venture focusing on information / graphic design.  I’m including this information here as the majority of future posts will center around these two creative endeavors.

The first is the formation of my personal “brand” via the web site www.adriandaniels.com. This is a project that I have been thinking about for nearly a decade and it was only after much thought that I decided to finally push forward with its release.

While www.adriandaniels.com is my primary site, it’s ultimately intended to serve as a jump point for three other portals:

Incubator: (This site!)  A non-fiction / experiential blog that is primarily focused on the generation of new ideas. Incubator incorporates personal and professional experiences and transforms them into formal essays and narratives.

Microcosms: A blog that allows for unrestricted exploration of new concepts in a “fictional” setting.

Pixeldust: A visual portal that shows how my art, design and photography portfolios have evolved over the past six years – and how they will continue to evolve and ultimately improve.

As these sites ultimately encapsulate my creative strengths, this web portfolio is something I collectively call a “Supercharged Creative Exploration”.

The second development that I am very excited about is the launch of a new information (graphic) design firm called Big Generator (www.biggenerator.com). For those of you who have seen examples of my work, you already have an understanding of what information design is all about – visuals that make complex information easier to understand and to use.

I made the decision to launch this part-time endeavor after considerable reflection into my strengths, interests, and values and combined this reflection with more than a decade of experience in graphic design and related disciplines (e.g. computer graphics, illustration, industrial design).

Ultimately, I am interested in doing what I can for my clients whether that need is strict “information design” or is classified under a general “graphic design” classification. In essence, I want to provide quality and effective visual solutions for my clients that simplify understanding and enhance and strengthen the customer experience.

Twilight Struggle: Starting Off.

In another way of opening new “mental horizons”, I purchased a boardgame called “Twilight Struggle”.  Here’s the description from the rulebook:

Twilight Struggle is a two-player game simulating the forty-five-year dance of intrigue, prestige, and occasional flares of warfare between the Soviet Union and the United States.  The entire world is the stage on which these two titans fight to make the world safe for their own ideologies and ways of life.  The game begins amidst the ruins of Europe as the two new ‘superpowers’ struggle over the wreckage of the Second World War, and ends in 1989, when only the United States remained standing.

Here’s the official website for the game: http://www.gmtgames.com/nnts/main.html

The game is comprised of a fairly large board (referenced from here on as the “game map”), 103 cards, 228 cardboard markers, the core rulebook and two “aid” cards (one for each player).

You can see what the board looks like here: http://www.gmtgames.com/nnts/TSsamplemap.jpg

As I have some familiarity with games such as this, I know from experience that it’s helpful if you can identify three main things:

  1. What is the objective of the game? (this helps set your destination)
  2. Are there any optional rules? (this helps you “eliminate” rules from the core set)
  3. What is the sequence of play? (this helps you gain context and increase your focus)

Having some very basic experience with more complex games, such as Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader (more on the latter in future posts), I have learned how not to be overwhelmed with the amount of content (rules, pieces, etc.) and instead focus on the core elements to get a “basis” from which to operate (play).

Let’s start by answering the questions posed above.

What’s the objective? According to the rules:

The object of the game is to score Victory Points (VPs).  Regional Victory Points are scored through geographic Influence over the six Regions.  VPs can also be received through the play of certain Events.  Each region has its own ‘scoring card’.  Playing a scoring card causes Victory Points to be scored, based on how much influence each superpower has in that region at the time the card is played.

Let’s stop here and analyze this paragraph.

The answer to the original question is summed up in the first sentence: “score Victory Points (VPs)”.  That sounds straightforward enough.  What else?  Well, we know that Victory Points can be attained in two ways – 1) through geographic Influence over the six Regions, and 2) through the play of certain Events.  The capitalization of the words ‘Influence’ and ‘Events’ is not random – these represent concepts that we’ll need to understand as we get further into the rulebook.

Are there any optional rules? It turns out that there are some optional rules – these are found in section 11.0 of the rulebook – entitled “Tournament Play” – and at the very end of the manual which are entitled “Designer Optional Rules”.  Since we’re just learning how to play, we can ignore these sections.

Going a step further into the rulebook, we can also identify other sections that we may be able to (temporarily) ignore.  (Again, our goal at this stage is to learn how to play in a short period of time.)

The manual is 28 pages in length and is comprised of the following six sections:

  1. Core Rules (pgs. 1-9)
  2. Extended Example of Play (pgs. 10-15)
  3. Card Histories (pgs. 16-25
  4. Designer Notes (pgs. 26)
  5. Counter Inventory (pg. 27)
  6. Miscellaneous (pg. 28)

In scanning through these sections, we only need to pay attention to sections 1 and 2.  And if we are brave enough to ignore the “example of play” section, we’ve narrowed our focus to a third of the manual!

What is the sequence of play? Our last step is to find out how the game is structured.  We first need to know how many turns there are in a typical game.  Sometimes games can go indefinitely and are not restricted to a specific turn count – Twilight Struggle is not one of them.

According to the rules, Twilight Struggle has ten turns and each turn has the following structure:

  1. Improve DEFCON Status
  2. Deal Cards
  3. Headline Phase
  4. Action Rounds
  5. Check Military Operations Status
  6. Reveal Held Card (Tournament Only)
  7. Flip ‘The China Card’
  8. Advance Turn Marker
  9. Final Scoring (after Turn 10 only)

Given this, a standard game of Twilight Struggle will contain 80 discrete steps.  If you spend two minutes on each turn (as an example), the game will take a little less than two hours.  While you are not bound to any specific deadline, it’s important to have a high-level assessment of how long the game will likely take.  It’s a good barometer to help you improve as you gain more play experience (more on this later).

At this stage, we now have a better understanding of what we’re dealing with!  This small time investment will start to make things significantly easier for us as we take a closer look at the rules.

Part of the enjoyment for me is to learn the mechanics of the game, but real enjoyment ultimately comes when you can get beyond the sheer mechanics and really start to think about strategy and winning the game.  That’s our ultimate destination in this journey.

“True” and “False” Advancement Experience

Ten years ago (yes, I think all the time), I wrote the following article about two concepts that I labeled “true” and “false” advancement (learning) experience:

True advancement experience (TAE) is experience that is pro-active and “real”.  Information is obtained on the way to a clear goal.  The more information and experience that is turned up along the way strengthens the overall advancement experience.  A goal must exist in order for true advancement to occur.

False advancement experience (FAE) is experience that is wasteful and potentially meaningless.  FAE occurs when there is no key goal in place.  Information that enters the system becomes quickly assimilated, but due to the increased flow, the retrieval and retention rate is decreases dramatically.  Information overload will always occur in this type of learning environment.  An example of a FAE is spending an increased amount of time configuring a windowing system when the command-line interface is already sufficient.  Experience gained from system-specific configuration is mostly FAE since most of the time spent is due to lack of planning and documentation more than anything else.

Knowing the differences between TAE and FAE is very important to overall advancement.  Time is always a commodity; therefore it must be used wisely.  Know exactly what you are attempting to learn and what you need to accomplish, and your advancement and success rate will increase.

Ten years later, has my perspective changed about TAE and FAE?  Yes and no.  Let me explain.

Let’s say that you are interested in computer graphics, and you have an interest in animation.  One potential starting point is to acquire a 3D animation program and start learning the basics.  After installing and launching the application, you are overwhelmed with the number of features.  This is where things become interesting.

If you start investigating other aspects of the program that have nothing (or little) to do with animation, you could label this “false” advancement experience since what you are learning is not essential to your end goal.  In contrast, if you stay true to your goal of becoming an animator (or at least learning how) and just focus on aspects of the program that involve “animation”, you will gain the experience that you were originally interested in and thus have gained “true” advancement experience.

One possibility of course is that you could choose to learn about other aspects of the program first and then eventually get back to the core “animation” functionality.  In this way, you are just taking a slight “detour” from your destination to gain broader context.  Is this really “false” advancement experience?

Another possibility is that you choose the second path – i.e. “true” advancement experience – and find out that you have to learn other aspects of the program to be able to start animating.  More specifically, you may need to learn how to create a 3D model that you can eventually animate!  Is this really “true” advancement experience?

As you can see here, labeling one’s learning (or advancement) experience as “true” or “false is perhaps too restrictive.

Given my pursuits of numerous goals, I think learning effectively comes down to awareness (“what do I want to learn?”) and focus (“how do I want to learn the material?”).

For example, in order to gain the most from your learning experience, you need to know what you want to accomplish.  The answer could very well be “I don’t know”.  This is a perfectly acceptable answer as it provides you with a lot of freedom to explore different areas.  In contrast, if you know that you want to be an animator (using the example above), this at least gives you a “learning beacon” towards which you can navigate.

Once you have awareness, you now need to focus.  Assuming you know you want to learn animation, you can still explore other areas of the software application without feeling that you are veering off-course.  The trick here is that the degree of your focus will determine how much time and effort you spend in a different area, and whether you ultimately return to your original “path”.

For example, let’s say that you need a 3D model to animate.  Instead of taking a separate path to learn how to model, you could instead focus your efforts on using an existing 3D model.  This would save you time and get you back on track.  But here again, there is some risk in being “too” focused on your end goal.  At some point you will eventually need to learn how to model new objects to further broaden your experience.  Should you do that now or later?

At this point, you can start to understand some of the challenges I’ve personally faced in learning new things.  My personality is one that loves to learn and build connections between unrelated topics.  Because I understand the benefits, I allow myself considerable freedom to explore new areas and concepts to formulate new ones.  However, as I learn new material, I take time to continuously refine where I am going (i.e. “awareness”).

In summary, when taking on a new challenge, take the time to gain awareness of what you want to learn and try to map out a strategy on how to accomplish your goal.  Once you get into the learning process, you will find new “pathways” that you need to consider taking.  Don’t be afraid to take these paths but keep your destination in mind, and don’t be afraid to change the destination.