Perfectionism, pragmatism, and progress

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2585 days ago

As I mentioned in the announcement, I have a temporary photo gallery set up with some early pictures of Benjamin in it. But I password protected that gallery, not because of any particular security or privacy concerns, but simply because the gallery is not in its final home, and I don’t want to publish the gallery to the wider internet until it has reached said destination. Recently, a friend asked about the delay in posting more pictures, and offered to help resolve any problems that might be impeding progress. I wrote a very long reply, which I have quoted (mostly) below.

It is, I think, and interesting way to both reveal why I haven’t opened up the gallery, and to allow my readership to understand more about me. Because in this email, it is clear how my perfectionism and my pragmatism do battle, and how I usually seek to resolve such conflicts.

And if you do take the time to read all the way to the end, please feel free to provide any suggestions!

Let me explain the root problem(s):

I plan to switch my pictures from gallery.rainskit.com (which uses Menalto Gallery) over to use SmugMug, and in fact have already paid SmugMug for a year of service which has already elapsed. (I signed up over a year ago.)

I don’t want to start dumping Benjamin pictures into Menalto; I have numerous other albums (like Thanksgiving from last year) that I haven’t uploaded to Menalto because I told myself that I was going to force a hard stop on using Menalto, to encourage me to finish my switch to SmugMug. So I don’t want to break that rule for Benjamin, and I also don’t want to publish one URL for Benjamin pictures and then change it to another URL later.

I don’t expect to be able to use gallery.rainskit.com for my SmugMug site, because I have other users of my Menalto gallery who won’t want to have the URL change out from under them. So I’ll have to leave Menalto at the old URL, and come up with a new URL for SmugMug.

When I tried to convert my gallery over to SmugMug, I discovered a (frustrating!) limitation of SmugMug wherein it doesn’t allow infinite nesting of albums. Specifically, it forces me to organize my pictures in a particular hierarchy, either:

Category -> Album -> Image
or
Category -> Subcategory -> Album -> Image

So some of my Menalto albums are nested 5 or 6 layers deep, which won’t fit into SmugMug’s paradigm. Also, some of my Menalto albums have both images and sub-albums, which won’t fit into SmugMug’s paradigm.

So a long time ago (April of ’09) I started work on Smuganizer, a tool to help me convert my Menalto gallery over to SmugMug. That tool has grown into a fairly awesome product, but it isn’t quite done yet – mostly because it has a few important missing features, and the documentation is out of date (and misleading!). Note, however, that SmugMug has given me a free Pro account for as long as I continue to maintain Smuganizer, so I don’t currently have to pay for my SmugMug account.

And I’ve been using my SmugMug site as the test database for Smuganizer, largely because I don’t have any other available SmugMug account. So my current SmugMug site (which is entirely password-protected) is filled with random test data, and in unsuitable for public consumption.

Concurrently with all of this, I discovered Windows Live Photo Gallery, a free app from Microsoft that (finally!) just works the way photo gallery apps always should have worked. Really. I have always hated photo management apps, up until this now. Now, I tell people that they should use it. (It does have some major flaws/gaps, but they are not sufficient to keep me from loving it anyway.)

One of the major features of WLPG is that you can tag people in pictures (like Facebook) and/or add arbitrary tags to images and/or give ratings (1-5 stars) to images, and then instantly browse your whole library by those elements (plus by date). They also make it really easy to publish selected photos to arbitrary photo sites, like SmugMug. So suddenly I have a really strong desktop app for managing my pictures, and I find myself caring much less about putting my entire photo library online.

So I modified my plan about converting from Menalto to SmugMug, such that I have decided instead to download all my Menalto pictures to my computer, tag and rate them all there, store them there primarily, and only upload the best ones to SmugMug. In other words, use SmugMug much like a normal human would use a photo gallery.

Problem is, that takes a lot of time. I’m only about half way through my existing pictures. And I’ve been working on it for 6 months or more.

Note that this also makes Smuganizer largely irrelevant to my current needs :) (Except that Smuganizer can also be used to upload pictures from my computer, and to manage the pictures once they are on SmugMug, so it does still have value to me.)

Note that this also means I won’t have an off-site backup for my entire gallery any more (like I had when you were hosting my gallery). To solve that problem, I signed up for Carbonite.

Net effect, I have a bunch of things that theoretically need to be resolved before I start posting more Benjamin pictures to SmugMug:

a) Finish tagging my existing photos
b) Finish and publish Smuganizer
c) Delete all the existing stuff out of SmugMug
d) Figure out how to organize my SmugMug gallery
e) Get SmugMug set up on its permanent URL
f) Upload my ‘featured’ pictures to SmugMug
g) Upload the new Benjamin pictures to wherever they fit in that structure

Of course, I recognize that this will take a year or more, and that Benjamin pictures can’t wait that long. So I figure I have a number of options:

1) Abandon Smuganizer, don’t worry about the other pictures, and just clear out SmugMug and upload Benjamin pictures for now. That would only require steps © (d) (e) and (g) and could probably be done in a few hours.

2) Try to split my SmugMug gallery into a few “Testing” categories and then “everything else” and just password protect the “Testing” categories. Go ahead and upload the Benjamin pictures into their final home, while concurrently working on everything else.

3) Some other option I haven’t thought of yet.

4) Follow the original plan and just wait until it is all done before publishing more Benjamin pictures.

5) Publish the Benjamin pictures on the Menalto gallery.

So I figure you can help in a few possible ways:

i) Talk me out of the tree and just convince me to do (5)
ii) Help me with (d) so I can do option (2)
iii) Come up with an idea for (3)
iv) Talk me into (1) (Note that this is probably impossible)

So you can see my dilemma :)

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The misunderstanding of IQ

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2699 days ago

Bloom's Taxonomy

There are many people in my industry who are “smart” but are often unable to actually be effective. I have numerous examples: developers who can’t balance perfection and progress, entrepreneurs who can’t see that their idea is useless, executives who can’t see the inevitable failure of their plan, and people who just can’t figure out how to turn their great idea into something real. I run into such people, in varying degrees, nearly every day.

In fact, I have struggled with this myself. When I first started my career as a developer, I had a hard time balancing the intellectual purity of an idea against the “messy” path to actually bringing that idea to implementation. It’s hard to accept that the perfect idea really isn’t feasible, and instead opt for something less-perfect in order to actually get something done. But I have learned this lesson (repeatedly!), and much of my success in business has come from learning to understand and accept that some progress toward a slightly better place is much better than no progress toward a perfect place. In fact, I’m now more often a proponent of the other side of the coin – I’d much rather just do something (useful) than try to engineer a perfect solution. So long as smart, capable people are involved in the doing, the end product is usually awesome.

So I am very intimately aware that “high IQ” is not the same as “highly effective.” I’ve known it for a long time, but I’ve never been able to clearly understand exactly why that is. Well, Keith Stanovich figured it out for me. He studied this issue, and learned something relatively obvious – that IQ is a measure of intellectual capacity, but capacity is not the same as ability to use it. (Size doesn’t matter, right?) He uses the term “rational thinking” to describe the ability to use intelligence to solve problems, and this article at New Scientist covers the topic very well.

Go read that article. It will hopefully help you understand that IQ is only somewhat related to success, and that rational thinking is more important. And rational thinking can be learned, and improved on, relatively easily. So there’s hope for all of us, to actually learn to be effective!

Having read that article, I am pleased to have sorted out an intellectual conundrum, but I’m also somewhat embarrassed – I’ve been teaching people this idea for years now, and I just didn’t realize it. See, when I teach people what to look for when interviewing, I refer them to Bloom’s Taxonomy, specifically to the six levels of cognitive skills:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Comprehension
  3. Application
  4. Analysis
  5. Synthesis
  6. Evaluation

To be successful in the roles I’m usually hiring for (Analyst, Project Manager, or similar), the person needs to be highly capable in the top three levels – analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. There are good ways to try to evaluate those things in an interview, and I have a very specific set of interview questions and activities that try to draw them out. (This idea has worked very well, by the way – I’ve been very successful at interviewing and hiring, using this approach.)

So it seems to me, now that I’ve thought through the idea of rational thinking, that Bloom’s Taxonomy isn’t really about intelligence at all. Instead, it is focused on the skills required to apply intelligence effectively. That is corroborated by the fact that the Taxonomy is often used in education as a way to judge how well a student is learning fundamental skills, and not as a way to judge their intelligence.

So the embarrassing part is that I’ve been using Bloom’s Taxonomy (and teaching it to others!) as a way to evaluate people’s effectiveness, all the while trying to understand why high-IQ people aren’t always effective. If I had just once put the two ideas next to each other, I probably would have figured out the answer for myself. Huh.

Maybe that’s just proof that I still need to work on both, myself ;)

P.S. – I also owe a big debt of gratitude to the late Mrs. Lilly, the teacher who taught me about Bloom’s Taxonomy in elementary school, and who I know was responsible for accelerating my early development in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Thank you, Mrs. Lilly!

The image of Bloom’s Taxonomy was reused (from Wikimedia Commons) under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license

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More about religion

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2740 days ago

Preface

My good friend Matt recently started a blog, and has been writing very regularly and often. Much more than I do, in fact :) And it’s been great for me, because he often posts things that make me think, or that I disagree with, and I become motivated to reply. That, in turn, forces me to think through my ideas, and to finally publish them online – which was really the original point of this blog, even though I mostly haven’t done that.

One of his recent posts was about humanity, arguing that “…left to its natural state, [it] will break a little bit each day…” and that “…we need to do something proactive each day to alter that trend.” I agree with the latter idea, but disagree with the former, and Matt and I are currently debating the topic in the comments on that post.

As I was drafting one of my replies, I finished making my point, and then just kept typing, because this topic is the perfect lead-in for another topic that I have always wanted to blog about: my views about the value, and the problem, with organized religion. But that topic doesn’t really have anything to do with Matt’s original topic, so I have chosen to post the second half of my comment here on my blog. My hope is that this post can stand on its own, but it will probably help if you go read through the thread on Matt’s blog first.

As always, I welcome comments, so please feel free to reply.

The actual topic

As mentioned in my first comment to Matt’s post, I often think about whether humanity is naturally positive (or not). Those thoughts arise because I regularly encounter situations where someone or something is implying that humans are inherently bad, and need to be fixed, or saved. I reject, and loathe, that idea.

Yes, we all have feelings that lead us to do things that are bad, or that we have been taught are bad. And those feelings must be controlled. I believe that. We are biological creatures, with a sloppy evolutionary history, and we have vestigial feelings and impulses that can be harmful.

But we aren’t going to change our biological natures (except maybe through physical or chemical or biological means) so we just need to learn the best way to live with them. And when a person is faced with a problem or weakness that can’t be changed, then their only (and best!) option is simply to accept the weakness and learn to mitigate it. And as a society, we have learned to mitigate many of our weaknesses: we teach our children good manners, and we have laws and punishments designed to deter crime, and we try to provide for all people so they don’t end up feeling like they have to do bad things, and so on. If you look at history, I think we have gotten much better at mitigating human weaknesses, both as individuals and as a society.

This idea ties directly to religion. I believe that most religions “get” this, and are actually structured to naturally help people do what I described – mitigate their weaknesses, and move on to better things. And in playing that role, I am in favor of religion. The part I don’t like are all the guilty feelings associated with the process. People shouldn’t feel guilty about the way they are; imagine telling a retarded child that they are bad (and should feel guilty) for not being smarter. And yet that is often what religion teaches us – that we are “bad” and that we have to use religion to “be saved.” I disagree. We have “impulses that can lead us to do bad things” and we have to “mitigate those impulses in order to not actually do bad things” – and we don’t have to have religion to do that. As humans, we just are what we are, and debating whether that is right or wrong is pointless.

It’s a subtle difference, but it is one that drives me crazy. I hate the notion that religion has absolute truths, and that people have to have religion in order to become better. It’s misleading. Religion has good advice about how to behave, and people should follow that advice in order to be the best they can be. But religion is a framework that helps us learn to do that, not an end in itself that we have to participate in if we want to be “good.” I really like the framework, and the lessons – I just hate that they are wrapped in dogma that makes it seem like each particular religion is the only one with the right answers, and that you have to join in if you want to be a good person.

It would be much better if we just learned that we have to accept our weaknesses and move on to do more important things like helping others, teaching, building new things, or raising a child. Again, those are things that religions typically teach us, but still shrouded in the notion that we need to be “fixed” either before, during, or after we do those things, and that just pulls us away from the truly valuable lessons.

And now, having thought through all that, I realize why I am so intrigued by Buddhism: because it doesn’t suggest that there is only one source of truth, or that we are naturally bad; it just says “people should always strive to get better, and here are some ways to do so.” That’s exactly what I think a religion should be.

On a related note: my notions of God also tie in fairly well with the Buddhist understanding of Karma, so maybe I really should take Matt’s advice and get up off my butt and learn more about Buddhism :)

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