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Back to Basics: The Big Picture

Back to Basics: The Big Picture

The 50,000-Feet View

    It’s easy to get wrapped up in the details of any productivity system, all the fiddly little bits that fit together just so. But how does everything you do add up to a life? Or does it?

    Thinking about the big picture too much can get in the way of our day-to-day lives – you don’t want to be dreaming about your life 20 years from now while you’re trying to get across a busy intersection with a broken traffic light! – but don’t let your day-to-day life get in the way of thinking about the big picture. When your focus is always on the next action, you can easily next action yourself into a dead-end, with no idea how you got there and no room to turn around.

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    The goal of any productivity system, then, isn’t to keep you focused on the tasks in front of you, it’s to allow you to direct your focus to all the aspects of your life when they need focus. Both the telephoto focus of getting work done and the wide-angle focus of sorting out who your are, what you’re doing, and where you want to be headed are important if you’re going to make any sort of life for yourself.

    The View from On High

    David Allen uses the metaphor of a plane in flight to explain the need to shift our focus to the big picture from time to time. When the plane’s on the runway, the world is a-bustle with motion: the flight crew are running all their pre-flight checklists and securing everything for take-off, the ground crew is fueling the plane and loading the baggage, everyone’s milling about just trying to meet their schedules.

    Once the plane takes off, though, things calm down. As you look out the window, the jumble of buildings, trees, and roads resolves itself into a grid of streets and city blocks. Individual buildings fall away as the plane climbs higher and higher, until the city itself blurs into a part of the landscape. From cruising altitude, the hubbub on the ground is invisible, and you can relax, get comfortable, and watch the world roll along under the plane.

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    This is what Allen calls “the 50,000-feet view”, where next actions and contexts drop away and instead you can think about the meaning of it all – what gives your life purpose. Where are you headed, and what will your life look like when you get there? Is it too late to change your itinerary and take a different connecting flight, to destinations un-thought-of before now? And when are they coming around with the peanuts, anyway? (OK, maybe that’s taking the metaphor too far…)

    Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It

    The 50,000-feet view is where you focus on, in a word, your mission. It seems odd to most people to have a mission. Corporations have missions, usually some BS gobbledigook about “synergizing this” and “maximizing that”. Superheroes have missions, some naive nonsense about truth, justice, and the be-leotarded way. 28th level half-elf war mages have missions, usually something about rescuing the Night Queen from the clutches of the evil Tralfamadora and rebuilding the broken spires of the Moon Palace..

    But you? Do you have a mission?

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    It bears thinking about. It doesn’t have to be fancy or esoteric – this is your life we’re talking about! In plain language, what are you here for? What is it that, looking back from your rocking chair on the porch, in between hurling abuse at neighborhood kids whose danged ball keeps landing in your hedges, what is it that will make you feel you’ve lived a life worth living?

    A mission makes a useful mantra, a little ditty to look in the mirror Stuart Smalley-style and chant to yourself when things are looking bleak, but it’s also a test,a yardstick against which to measure your actions. Whenever you take on a project, ask yourself, “Is this going to bring me closer to accomplish my mission?” When things get bad and you start to think about quitting, remembering how whatever you’re working on advances your mission will help give you the determination you need to get the job done.

    What Matters to You?

    To figure out your mission, you need to know what really matters to you. Does your job matter? Your favorite TV show? Who matters most in your life? Whose expectations matter most? Could you live knowing that Uncle Frank thinks you’re a mess-up just like your dad, or that Granma Millie hates seeing you wasting your potential?

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    This seems like an easy question, but it’s not – not if you’re truly honest with yourself. It can be hard to come to grips with the fact that the thing you’ve done for the last X years of your life doing really doesn’t matter all that much to you after all – that it might have been the cats pajamas when you were 24 but at 34 seems like a dead-end. Or that the person you’re engaged to, married to, or living with isn’t really your One True Love. Or that you never really enjoyed reality shows, you just watched because there was nothing else on.

    People will do just about anything to avoid answering these questions and facing their lives head-on, because the answers often suggest that we need to make massive changes, and that means work. And not just “carry this box” work, but Sisyphean labor – rolling the huge stone of our lives uphill with nothing to do when it comes plummeting down from the summit except brush ourselves off and try again.  But as hard as it is, asking the tough questions is the key to a life well-lived.

    Prepare for Takeoff

    Like I said, you can’t spend every minute of every day with your head in the clouds, taking in the 50,000-feet view. Making an appointment to spend a few days with yourself isn’t a bad idea, though, and revisiting that appointment every year or two is a pretty good idea, too.

    You might not need a few days – maybe when you let go of all your day-to-day worries for a bit, you’ll discover that your unconscious mind has been mulling these issues over for quite a while. But usually you will need a good chunk of time, first to clear your mind (go hiking or something), then to really think things through. A weekend is probably appropriate, but don’t fret if you can’t find the time – take whatever time you can get, lock yourself up somewhere quiet, and do what you can – remember that you’re not writing anything in stone, you’re just trying to grab ahold of the things that give your life meaning. You have a whole lifetime to revise.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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