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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

    2×4: An Interview with David Sparks 2×4: An Interview with Myke Hurley 2×4: An Interview With CJ Chilvers 2X4 Interviews 2×4: An Interview With Gabe Weatherhead 2×4: An Interview With Brett Kelly

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    Last Updated on January 2, 2020

    How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

    How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

    Over time, we all gather a set of constricting habits around us—ones that trap us in a zone of supposed comfort, well below what our potential would allow us to attain. Pretty soon, such habits slip below the level of our consciousness, but they still determine what we think that we can and cannot do—and what we cannot even bring ourselves to try. As long as you let these habits rule you, you’ll be stuck in a rut.

    Like the tiny, soft bodied creatures that build coral reefs, habits start off small and flexible, and end up by building massive barriers of rock all around your mind. Inside the reefs, the water feels quiet and friendly. Outside, you think it’s going to be rough and stormy. There may be sharks. But if you’re to develop in any direction from where you are today, you must go outside that reef of habits that marks the boundaries of your comfort zone. There’s no other way. There’s even nothing specially wrong with those habits as such. They probably worked for you in the past.

    But now, it’s time to step over them and go into the wider world of your unused potential. Your fears don’t know what’s going to be out there, so they invent monsters and scary beasts to keep you inside.

    Nobody’s born with an instruction manual for life. Despite all the helpful advice from parents, teachers and elders, each of us must make our own way in the world, doing the best we can and quite often getting things wrong.

    Messing up a few times isn’t that big a deal. But if you get scared and try to avoid all mistakes by sticking with just a few “tried and true” behaviors, you’ll miss out on most opportunities as well.

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    Lots of people who suffer from boredom at work are doing it to themselves. They’re bored and frustrated because that’s what their choices have caused them to be. They’re stuck in ruts they’ve dug for themselves while trying to avoid making mistakes and taking risks. People who never make mistakes never make anything else either.

    It’s time to pin down the habits that have become unconscious and are running your life for you, and get rid of them. Here’s how to do it:

    1. Understand the Truth about Your Habits

    They always represent past successes. You have formed habitual, automatic behaviors because you once dealt with something successfully, tried the same response next time, and found it worked again. That’s how habits grow and why they feel so useful.

    To get away from what’s causing your unhappiness and workplace blues, you must give up on many of your most fondly held (and formerly successful) habits. and try new ways of thinking and acting. There truly isn’t any alternative. Those habits are going to block you from finding new and creative ideas. No new ideas, no learning. No learning, no access to successful change.

    2. Do Something—Almost Anything—Differently and See What Happens

    Even the most successful habits eventually lose their usefulness as events change the world and fresh responses are called for. Yet we cling on to them long after their benefit has gone.

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    Past strategies are bound to fail sometime. Letting them become automatic habits that take the controls is a sure road to self-inflicted harm.

    3. Take Some Time out and Have a Detailed Look at Yourself—With No Holds Barred

    Discovering your unconscious habits can be tough. For a start, they’re unconscious, right? Then they fight back.

    Ask anyone who has ever given up smoking if habits are tough to break. You’ve got used to them—and they’re at least as addictive as nicotine or crack cocaine.

    4. Be Who You Are

    It’s easy to assume that you always have to fit in to get on in the world; that you must conform to be liked and respected by others or face exclusion. Because most people want to please, they try to become what they believe others expect, even if it means forcing themselves to be the kind of person they aren’t, deep down.

    You need to start by putting yourself first. You’re unique. We’re all unique, so saying this doesn’t suggest that you’re better than others or deserve more than they do.

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    You need to put yourself first because no one else has as much interest in your life as you do; and because if you don’t, no one else will. Putting others second means giving them their due respect, not ignoring them totally.

    Keeping up a self-image can be a burden. Hanging on to an inflated, unrealistic one is a curse. Give yourself a break.

    5. Slow Down and Let Go

    Most of us want to think of ourselves as good, kind, intelligent and caring people. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it isn’t.

    Reality is complex. We can’t function at all without constant input and support from other people.

    Everything we have, everything we’ve learned, came to us through someone else’s hands. At our best, we pass on this borrowed existence to others, enhanced by our contribution. At our worst, we waste and squander it.

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    So recognize that you’re a rich mixture of thoughts and feelings that come and go, some useful, some not. There’s no need to keep up a façade; no need to pretend; no need to fear of what you know to be true.

    When you face your own truth, you’ll find it’s an enormous relief. If you’re maybe not as wonderful as you’d like to be, you aren’t nearly as bad as you fear either.

    The truth really does set you free; free to work on being better and to forgive yourself for being human; free to express your gratitude to others and recognize what you owe them; free to acknowledge your feelings without letting them dominate your life. Above all, you’ll be free to understand the truth of living: that much of what happens to you is no more than chance. It can’t be avoided and is not your fault. There’s no point in beating yourself up about it.

    Final Thoughts

    What is holding you in situations and actions that no longer work for you often isn’t inertia or procrastination. It’s the power of habitual ways of seeing the world and thinking about events. Until you can let go of those old, worn-out habits, they’ll continue to hold you prisoner.

    To stay in your comfort zone through mere habit, or—worse still—to stay there because of irrational fears of what may lie outside, will condemn you to a life of frustration and regret.

    If you can accept the truth about the world and yourself, change whatever is holding you back, and get on with a fresh view on life, you’ll find that single action lets you open the door of your self-imposed prison and walk free. There’s a marvelous world out there. You’ll see, if you try it!

    More About Stepping Out of Comfort Zone

    Featured photo credit: teigan rodger via unsplash.com

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