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2×4: An Interview With Gabe Weatherhead

2×4: An Interview With Gabe Weatherhead

2X4 Interviews

    2×4: One series that examines two topics, creativity and productivity, by asking those who make things on the web the same four questions on both subjects.

    Run an interview series long enough and you start to see trends emerge. In the case of these 2×4 interviews, a clear, recurring theme has emerged. Those who tell me that they “aren’t all that creative” when I request the interview end up offering some of the best perspective of the series. Today’s interviewee, Gabe Weatherhead of Macdrifter, is no exception.

    I first learned of Gabe’s work through fellow 2×4 participant David Sparks’ Mac Power Users podcast. He tends to focus in on an app and learns how to make the most out of it. It was his impressive efforts with Keyboard Maestro that caught David and his co-host Katie Floyd’s attention. When they wanted to do a full episode on Keyboard Maestro, they decided to bring him in to guide Mac users through the application. Gabe is not only knowledgable, but he excels at making things clear in a way that even the code-free amongst us can benefit.

    I’d go on, but frankly, I’m just keeping you from some excellent answers to some rather straightforward questions. So without further ado, here’s one of my favorite entries to date in this series courtesy of Gabe Weatherhead from Macdrifter.

    Creativity

    Have you always considered yourself a creative person?

    I think everyone is a creative person. It’s what defines us as human beings. We can’t escape it. Anyone that has found themselves stuck in a bathroom without tissue knows how creative they can be.

    In all seriousness, it’s my opinion that, as we become adults, we become more effective at pushing down creativity in exchange for efficiency. Occasionally those two aspects are mutually exclusive but some of us lack the ability to know when. I think when I am enjoying my work I am more creative because I’m not looking for a quick resolution. I’m looking for a better resolution. I have a good sense of my limits and no problem telling people “no.” The shorter my task list, the more freedom I have to be creative.

    What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate toward to realize your creative goals?

    I am a scientist by training and view problems through that lens. The natural world provides an essentially infinite supply of inspirational solutions to problems.

    When thinking about problems, I tend to anthropomorphize the inanimate. I’ve always done this. When I was a chemist, I related to chemical reactions as human interactions. For example, I think about how one molecular construct has a preference for another. Or how two molecules might be encouraged to react by the right catalyst. Now that I spend more time being a hack programmer, I think in the same way. I say things like “how would this application talk to this one?” or “who needs to talk to this method and what language are they speaking?” Personally, I think this is what enables me to deal with extremely abstract ideas.

    If you had to point to one thing, what specific posts or creations are you most proud of and why?

    My daughter is my single greatest achievement. But I have other things I like too. Oddly, I don’t really take pride in my posts at Macdrifter.com. I like writing there and try to do a good job, but I don’t think I’m particularly good at writing. What I do take pride in is making things people find useful. I really enjoy comments and emails where people share how they are using a small piece of something I’ve done. I do have a list of highlight posts but they are a list of things I had fun writing, rather than a list of what I think is good. I guess I just don’t respect my opinion much.

    Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative enough to unlock their inner artist?

    Get over it. There’s no such thing. Some people have a better perception of shapes and colors or a steadier hand. That’s just biology. There are very few humans that are truly and uniquely inspired and that quality usually comes at a high price. As far as I know, only a serious brain injury can suddenly change our innate skills. I’ll skip that option.

    I have three suggestions to have more fun doing better work.

    I try to take the time to really appreciate things around me. At one point in my life, I enjoyed painting and sketching. Through that experience, I learned to stop and think about the shape and colors of things. I would wonder how I could reproduce a particular color or shadow effect. Now I try to do the same. When I read a Gruber article or a Horace analysis, I try to think about what makes it so good. What makes a superior sentence or argument?

    It’s hard but I try to get to the nut first and then elaborate. Too often I will ramble (like now) before getting to my point. I’m more effective if I outline first and then go in and elaborate the thought or project. Afterward, I go back and cut unnecessary material.

    Relax and enjoy the work. Just as there are few people that are uniquely skilled, there are also few jobs or problems that are actually critical. We’ve been screwing things up throughout history. There are very few bad choices that really matter on a grand scale. If I’m not enjoying the work, then I’m thinking about it too much or I’ve chosen the wrong work.

    Productivity

    Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?

    I’m a dad and a husband first and I’m a “Lead Systems Engineer” second. I have no idea what that title is supposed to mean. My daily job is to plan, design and implement software solutions for research scientists at a pharmaceutical company. I focus on things like chemistry applications and electronic laboratory notebooks. My job is a hybrid between project manager, scientist and software engineer. My day consists of Gantt charts, chemical structures and code (mostly Python/SQL/JavaScript/VBScript).

    I have far too many hobbies to list but I brew and collect beer and enjoy Mac hacking. I prefer to teach myself something new before I will pay someone else to do it for me. That means I do a bit of everything. I cook, make cabinetry and wire networks. I’m not great at any of them, but it makes me appreciate a master at work.

    How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?

    I try not to over-think it too much but my family always comes first. I have organized my schedule so I can come home early (I’m up by 4:30am). After work I get about an hour to practice code or work on a personal project before I pick up my daughter from school. My wife is in law school so I carry a bit more load at home. That means making dinner, giving baths and lots of dancing with a 3-year-old.

    I forfeited what I would consider a successful career as a scientist to make sure my life was constructed around things that are important to me. That includes family, hobbies and principles. It’s liberating to know that I’ve already done some of the scariest things I will do in my life. Either that or I’m blissfully ignorant. I’ll take either.

    What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?

    Here comes the nerdery. I use Markdown. A lot. It keeps my work structured but without making it overly complex or fiddly. I write emails in Markdown and I take notes in Markdown. It’s Markdown all the way down.

    That leaves me plenty of time to fiddle with other applications though. I benefit from OmniFocus and the Reminders app with Siri. I’m forced to work in a locked Windows environment (read: NO DROPBOX) all day so I bridge that world with MS Exchange integration with iOS and Simplenote. So basically, I still rely on OS X and iOS even though 90% of my work is done on Windows.

    I also think tinkering has received a bad rap. It’s disparaged as being unproductive or procrastination in some circles. I think it leads to discovery. It has provided me with a comfort and familiarity with my tools. It’s ok to sit and sharpen an axe if you intend to use it. I spend plenty of time writing little scripts to use while I write. It’s made me more comfortable in my chosen tools. Learning some amount of scripting has been incredibly valuable to me. Anyone can learn to write Python or Ruby. Not Perl though. That’s for the criminally insane.

    I offload as much as I can to my iPad. Instead of keeping my mail open on my work computer, I use my iPad. It reduces the Pavlovian email response and keeps me focused on work. I occasionally take notes on paper but I always transcribe to my iPad. I also use my iPad for task management throughout the day. The iPad is the logical conclusion of the PalmPilot and OmniFocus is the pinnacle of task management on iOS.

    What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us, who are looking to get more organized?

    I’m no expert. I’m also not comfortable saying what other people should do. For me, I find the things I enjoy and incorporate those into my work. I get more done when I enjoy the work. Sure, a nice pen doesn’t write more, but it will make me hold that pen more which precipitates more writing or sketching. The same goes for a well-designed app or webpage.

    The single best thing I have done to help keep me organized was to get married. The second best thing was to get a ScanSnap scanner and go paperless as much as possible. I try to avoid any paper and I prefer to buy eBooks whenever I can.

    Finally, I don’t follow movements. I prefer to focus on what makes me happy. I don’t cut things out to achieve an ideal. I just spend more time with the things I like. I do the parts of GTD I like. I don’t clean my desk to be minimal. I don’t have inbox-zero. Movements and mantras are insidious and counterproductive to me.

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on November 14, 2019

    A Review of “The Art of Learning”

    A Review of “The Art of Learning”

    Review of Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  New York: Free Press, 2007.

      Josh Waitzkin has led a full life as a chess master and international martial arts champion, and as of this writing he isn’t yet 35.  The Art of Learning chronicles his journey from chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) to world championship Tai Chi Chuan with important lessons identified and explained along the way.  Marketing expert Seth Godin has written and said that one should resolve to change three things as a result of reading a business book; the reader will find many lessons in Waitzkin’s volume.  Waitzkin has a list of principles that appear throughout the book, but it isn’t always clear exactly what the principles are and how they tie together.  This doesn’t really hurt the book’s readability, though, and it is at best a minor inconvenience.  There are many lessons for the educator or leader, and as one who teaches college, was president of the chess club in middle school, and who started studying martial arts about two years ago, I found the book engaging, edifying, and instructive.

      Waitzkin’s chess career began among the hustlers of New York’s Washington Square, and he learned how to concentrate among the noise and distractions this brings. This experience taught him the ins and outs of aggressive chess-playing as well as the importance of endurance from the cagey players with whom he interacted.  He was discovered in Washington Square by chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who became his first coach and developed him from a prodigious talent into one of the best young players in the world.

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      The book presents Waitzkin’s life as a study in contrasts; perhaps this is intentional given Waitzkin’s admitted fascination with eastern philosophy.  Among the most useful lessons concern the aggression of the park chess players and young prodigies who brought their queens into the action early or who set elaborate traps and then pounced on opponents’ mistakes.  These are excellent ways to rapidly dispatch weaker players, but it does not build endurance or skill.  He contrasts these approaches with the attention to detail that leads to genuine mastery over the long run.

      According to Waitzkin, an unfortunate reality in chess and martial arts—and perhaps by extension in education—is that people learn many superficial and sometimes impressive tricks and techniques without developing a subtle, nuanced command of the fundamental principles.  Tricks and traps can impress (or vanquish) the credulous, but they are of limited usefulness against someone who really knows what he or she is doing. Strategies that rely on quick checkmates are likely to falter against players who can deflect attacks and get one into a long middle-game.  Smashing inferior players with four-move checkmates is superficially satisfying, but it does little to better one’s game.

      He offers one child as an anecdote who won many games against inferior opposition but who refused to embrace real challenges, settling for a long string of victories over clearly inferior players (pp. 36-37).  This reminds me of advice I got from a friend recently: always try to make sure you’re the dumbest person in the room so that you’re always learning.  Many of us, though, draw our self-worth from being big fish in small ponds.

      Waitzkin’s discussions cast chess as an intellectual boxing match, and they are particularly apt given his discussion of martial arts later in the book.  Those familiar with boxing will remember Muhammad Ali’s strategy against George Foreman in the 1970s: Foreman was a heavy hitter, but he had never been in a long bout before.  Ali won with his “rope-a-dope” strategy, patiently absorbing Foreman’s blows and waiting for Foreman to exhaust himself.  His lesson from chess is apt (p. 34-36) as he discusses promising young players who focused more intensely on winning fast rather than developing their games.

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      Waitzkin builds on these stories and contributes to our understanding of learning in chapter two by discussing the “entity” and “incremental” approaches to learning. Entity theorists believe things are innate; thus, one can play chess or do karate or be an economist because he or she was born to do so.  Therefore, failure is deeply personal.  By contrast, “incremental theorists” view losses as opportunities: “step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (p. 30).  They rise to the occasion when presented with difficult material because their approach is oriented toward mastering something over time.  Entity theorists collapse under pressure.  Waitzkin contrasts his approach, in which he spent a lot of time dealing with end-game strategies
      where both players had very few pieces.  By contrast, he said that many young students begin by learning a wide array of opening variations.  This damaged their games over the long run: “(m)any very talented kids expected to win without much resistance.  When the game was a struggle, they were emotionally unprepared.”  For some of us, pressure becomes a source of paralysis and mistakes are the beginning of a downward spiral (pp. 60, 62).  As Waitzkin argues, however, a different approach is necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

      A fatal flaw of the shock-and-awe, blitzkrieg approach to chess, martial arts, and ultimately anything that has to be learned is that everything can be learned by rote.  Waitzkin derides martial arts practitioners who become “form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value” (p. 117).  One might say the same thing about problem sets.  This is not to gainsay fundamentals—Waitzkin’s focus in Tai Chi was “to refine certain fundamental principles” (p. 117)—but there is a profound difference between technical proficiency and true understanding.  Knowing the moves is one thing, but knowing how to determine what to do next is quite another.  Waitzkin’s intense focus on refined fundamentals and processes meant that he remained strong in later round while his opponents withered.  His approach to martial arts is summarized in this passage (p. 123):

      “I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires.  The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest.  It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.  Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

      This is about much more than smelling blood in the water.  In chapter 14, he discusses “the illusion of the mystical,” whereby something is so clearly internalized that almost imperceptibly small movements are incredibly powerful as embodied in this quote from Wu Yu-hsiang, writing in the nineteenth century: “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.  At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”  A learning-centered view of intelligence means associating effort with success through a process of instruction and encouragement (p. 32).  In other words, genetics and raw talent can only get you so far before hard work has to pick up the slack (p. 37).

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      Another useful lesson concerns the use of adversity (cf. pp. 132-33).  Waitzkin suggests using a problem in one area to adapt and strengthen other areas.  I have a personal example to back this up.  I will always regret quitting basketball in high school.  I remember my sophomore year—my last year playing—I broke my thumb and, instead of focusing on cardiovascular conditioning and other aspects of my game (such as working with my left hand), I waited to recover before I got back to work.

      Waitzkin offers another useful chapter entitled “slowing down time” in which he discusses ways to sharpen and harness intuition.  He discusses the process of “chunking,” which is compartmentalizing problems into progressively larger problems until one does a complex set of calculations tacitly, without having to think about it.  His technical example from chess is particularly instructive in the footnote on page 143.  A chess grandmaster has internalized much about pieces and scenarios; the grandmaster can process a much greater amount of information with less effort than an expert.  Mastery is the process of turning the articulated into the intuitive.

      There is much that will be familiar to people who read books like this, such as the need to pace oneself, to set clearly defined goals, the need to relax, techniques for “getting in the zone,” and so forth.  The anecdotes illustrate his points beautifully.  Over the course of the book, he lays out his methodology for “getting in the zone,” another concept that people in performance-based occupations will find useful.  He calls it “the soft zone” (chapter three), and it consists of being flexible, malleable, and able to adapt to circumstances.  Martial artists and devotees of David Allen’s Getting Things Done might recognize this as having a “mind like water.”  He contrasts this to “the hard zone,” which “demands a cooperative world for you to function.  Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure” (p. 54).  “The Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds” (p. 54).

      Another illustration refers to “making sandals” if one is confronted with a journeyacross a field of thorns (p. 55).  Neither bases “success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience” (p. 55). Much here will be familiar to creative people:  you’re trying to think, but that one song by that one band keeps blasting away in your head.  Waitzkin’s “only option was to become at peace with the noise” (p. 56).  In the language of economics, the constraints are given; we don’t get to choose them.

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      This is explored in greater detail in chapter 16.  He discusses the top performers, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and others who do not obsess over the last failure and who know how to relax when they need to (p. 179).  The experience of NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh is also useful as “the more he could let things go” while the defense was on the field, “the sharper he was in the next drive” (p. 179).  Waitzkin discusses further things he learned while experimenting in human performance, particularly with respect to “cardiovascular interval training,” which “can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion” (p. 181).  It is that last concept—to “recover from mental exhaustion”—that is likely what most academics need help with.

      There is much here about pushing boundaries; however, one must earn the right to do so: as Waitzkin writes, “Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion”  (p. 85).  This is another good lesson for academics, managers, and educators.  Waitzken emphasizes close attention to detail when receiving instruction, particularly from his Tai Chi instructor William C.C. Chen.  Tai Chi is not about offering resistance or force, but about the ability “to blend with (an opponent’s) energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness” (p. 103).

      The book is littered with stories of people who didn’t reach their potential because they didn’t seize opportunities to improve or because they refused to adapt to conditions.  This lesson is emphasized in chapter 17, where he discusses “making sandals” when confronted with a thorny path, such as an underhanded competitor.  The book offers several principles by which we can become better educators, scholars, and managers.  Celebrating outcomes should be secondary to celebrating the processes that produced those outcomes (pp. 45-47).  There is also a study in contrasts beginning on page 185, and it is something I have struggled to learn.  Waitzkin points to himself at tournaments being able to relax between matches while some of his opponents were pressured to analyze their games in between.  This leads to extreme mental fatigue: “this tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive” (p. 186).

      The Art of Learning has much to teach us regardless of our field.  I found it particularly relevant given my chosen profession and my decision to start studying martial arts when I started teaching.  The insights are numerous and applicable, and the fact that Waitzkin has used the principles he now teaches to become a world-class competitor in two very demanding competitive enterprises makes it that much easier to read.  I recommend this book to anyone in a position of leadership or in a position that requires extensive learning and adaptation.  That is to say, I recommend this book to everyone.

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      Featured photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via unsplash.com

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