Jay Shirley

Striving to be a man of gallantry and taste

An Economic Life

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My knives need sharpening. This is a recurring thing with knives. We put it off, because we have to drive them across town, drop them off and hopefully get them back relatively soon. It also costs around $4/knife.

This is not efficient. I can improve this.

A while ago, we ended up with a Japanese Water Stone to sharpen the knives. We have not used it, though. Using it requires setup, training, practice and all those sorts of things that block one from being more economical in life.

It seems only fair that I advance my knowledge, and save some money while doing it. After watching a few videos on sharpening I felt prepared to get started.

First, I would need a brace. I don’t want it slipping, I don’t trust towels over cutting-boards. My fingers are very critical to my well-being. They need to be attached to me at all times.

Second, I needed to practice. We have a couple knives we don’t use very often. If I don’t do a good job sharpening, those are the ones to suffer. Also, if I really do botch it, they can be fixed.

Third, I simply need to do it. Most things in life are trivial, but we hype them up and fear them. That creates invisible roadblocks to us that seem very real. They are entirely imagined. I believe I will do a bad job, but each bad job brings me one step closer to a good job.

The only mistake in life that is permanent is not starting.

I ran to the hardware store, bought a $6 48” long pine board. I have a mitre box, which made the cutting a bit easier. Measurement, cutting and gluing took about 20 minutes. There was a hiatus in between cutting and gluing, as I lost my clamps years ago and just now realized it.

Next up is adding some food grade “Butcher Block” oil, to make the brace water-resistant. After some Linseed and waxes, several times over, it worked. My daughter even helped. Slathering on the oil was a quick job, but took quite a while to fully dry.

Now I have a brace and can sharpen. All told, including the new clamps and oil, I’ve spent $30 and about 45 minutes of time. This is the break event point in time and money, as well as now being able to reuse my work.

The time spent from this point forward is subtracted from any future sharpening. Take the hit the first time, benefit after that. This is the essence of constructive laziness.

Now I have 4 sharper knives, 2 with burrs removed and the confidence that each time the knives need to be sharpened I can do better. I’m improving myself, economically and without sacrifice.

Law of Right

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As a parent I have learned a lot about my kids. Most importantly, I’ve learned what certain cries really mean. When I heard the cry from the other room I knew exactly what happened. My kids were arguing over something, and I had a good idea as to what.

My son’s extreme desire to be right was up against my daughter’s extreme desire to be contrarian. She will argue that 2+2 is 5 just for the sake of the argument. This is a game she plays and it kills my son. He must be correct and cannot stand letting people be wrong.

The problem he has is his inability to argue someone into being right. When people have incorrect notions, arguing with them won’t help that. There is only one outcome in an argument: All participants get upset.

But wait, there’s more!

When people are upset they cannot learn. This even happens outside of arguments. Troubled schools with lagging student performance don’t start out bad (the students, though I guess the schools don’t either). New students tend to be on equal footing, regardless of school. The differences show up after the first few grades. Only after years of living in a fearful environment, rife with emotional trauma, do the differences really emerge.

For people to learn, they must be safe, secure and free from emotions. Yelling loudly at someone doesn’t create any of those circumstances. These are not suggestions, they are natural laws. Except they’re hard to understand and implement.

If I hold an egg out and let go, we can easily see that gravity takes over. The egg plummets to the ground, cracking and making a big mess. If I want to correct someone, and argue about their misguided view, I’m cracking that egg. I’m making a mess.

Don’t make scrambled eggs

Think outcome first. If the true objective is to help the other person understand that 2+2 is, in actuality, 4 you can’t yell the mistake out of them. Make them feel safe and happy. The easiest way to create this experience? Ask them why they have that belief, but genuinely participate in the discussion. Learn about their belief.

After all, you may be the one who is wrong.

Pillars of Motivation

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The sense of a higher purpose can be a great initiator, but I don’t believe this transforms into motivation. Lasting motivation connects with a sense of a higher self. A self above “ourself”, because tomorrow I will not be myself any more. I may not even be. Even if I am still alive in a year, I may be entirely unrecognizable to myself today.

A higher self doesn’t necessarily define a higher purpose? I have searched for purpose. But why? Why do I search for purpose?

I like Motivation

Motivation is ambiguous and hard to chase. Fortunately, there is a lot of research on what motivates us. The best overview I’ve found is from the work of Dan Pink, animated by the RSA:

While Autonomy, Master and Purpose are presented as prerequisites to motivation, they are hard (or to me, impossible) to develop in unison. I’ve found it much better to work on each pillar individually.


My first approach is autonomy, which was the most frightening. At first, I thought that this meant choosing my own path and deciding what I do. This misunderstanding got in my way for a while, but I made progress.

I learned that autonomy can exist within substantive partnerships. This made autonomy much easier, but it still is a challenge to balance carving out a section to work within while collaborating with others.

Autonomy gave me pride in my work, allowing me to feel good about what I was working on.


Mastery always felt easier, or more natural. This is not exactly the way it reflected in my work, though. Often times the quality didn’t increase, but I would get more efficient. I’m not sure if this is true mastery, but it doesn’t feel like it.

True mastery, to me, is increasing quality and efficiency. It’s very difficult to do this without autonomy. If someone is pressuring you to get something completed within constraints you do not choose, efficiency is more important.

Mastery is the how, which requires Autonomy, the what, to support it.


The hardest and perhaps most ambiguous pillar of internal motivation is the idea of Purpose. Especially if you struggle with the notion of a higher purpose, something bigger than me. Autonomy can be bought, Mastery can be trained.

Purpose must be earned.

Purpose is struggling to find an answer to keep going, and realizing the answer is the question. It’s existing within a question about making something new, or something better. There is no answer.

Purpose is asking Why but not caring about the answer.

True Acknowledgement

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In my recent writing about partnerships I’ve become more attuned to the importance of acknowledgement. There is a depth in acknowledging someone, and more specifically, their feelings. This is something I wasn’t considering.

Even while actively listening, I will most likely miss the real reason and the underlying motivations they have when talking to me. It’s a very interesting experience, and it feels completely awkward. When this happens, even when I’m devoting all my attention to listening and trying to give space, the other person (usually my wife) simply doesn’t feel it. It’s awkward for them, too.

Recently I realized it’s because I was acknowledging words but not feelings. Usually by this point, it’s too late to switch gears. The logical side of me wants to blame her for this, because she’s talking about something different than what she feels! How dare she get upset with me for responding to what she says! Words represent feelings the best they can, but often times not good enough.

Then I learned to be quiet

More accurately, I’m learning to be quiet. I’m struggle to not jump to a conclusion, to spit out an answer. I struggle to just be still. If someone is talking to me, especially with heightened emotions, and I don’t know why I just need to wait. Eventually it will make sense and I’ll understand what they’re really feeling.

Often times, they will also figure out their own answer. They just needed someone to help them get there, maybe with questions and maybe just sitting next to them listening. I’m not sure which is more effective, but I have learned what isn’t effective. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

In life, showing your work matters.

If I give an answer, correct or not, it has no value. The only value is in the recipient understanding the answer and then accepting it. Sometimes the answer can help in the journey, solving the maze backwards. More often than not, I’ve found it alienates myself.

The smartest people in the room aren’t the ones with all the answers, they’re the ones with the gentle guidance that enlighten other people. In this endless pursuit to convince ourselves we’re smart, or prove that we’re smart, whatever, we make these mistakes. We show how many answers we have, and that’s not what anybody else wants, it’s giving a drowning man a glass of water.

Reminding myself, over and over again.

I love to solve problems. I love puzzles. Very few people have ever come to me seeking advice wanted me to solve a puzzle for them, yet that’s how I treated the situation. I know this now, but simply knowing isn’t enough to change. I have to remind myself and work on it, breaking the habit that I’ve built up.

The problem is that I don’t know how to be more effective. Good thing that is a puzzle, and one I can investigate and solve for myself.

A Choice a Day

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In my very first sociology course, the instructor asked the class how many actions we deliberately did. A lively discussion ensued. We protested against the idea they were not much more than a stimulus-response machine. Since then, Daniel Wegner and others have pushed the idea that consciousness is, many times, a trick.

If our mind tells us we chose an action, does that make it true? Our responses to stimuluses rarely are really deliberate, but our brain tells us we decided. We believe our brain without question!

Chade-Meng Tan, a Googler, teaches a mindfulness course called Search Inside Yourself. There is a very good first step in his program to start on the path of mindfulness:

Take one mindful breath a day.

Even better is what he proposes next on how to respond to an itch. Don’t scratch the itch. Wait a moment, take a breath, feel the itch and decide exactly how you will scratch it.

Now think of the itch as a metaphor. What actions in life would we do anyway, but can stop and take a moment to make them mindful? When we make them mindful, we make them meaningful.

But what’s the point?

The point of living is to live. Maximize the time, find meaning in each moment. Don’t just sleepwalk through life, but don’t trust that you aren’t. More and more evidence seems to point to the fact that our brain lies and cheats.

Time and time again I’m fooled by my brain. I think I exercise more than I do, listen better, and I’m getting more handsome. It’s hard to think otherwise, my brain says I choose all this stuff when I really don’t. And more damaging, my brain may be holding out on me and not thinking about all the good things I do.

A Harvard Psychologist coached hotel maids on knowing about exercise, showing that the movements they already do was exercise. Guess what? They got healthier, looked healthier and had a 10% drop in blood pressure.

Without changing anything, just being mindful they changed their lives.

Be aware, be mindful, be healthier.

Maximize Maker Time

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A while ago, Paul Graham wrote about Maker Time. Since then, I’ve tried multiple experiments to see how I can either maximize my Maker Time, or better, to convert time into Maker Time.

I’ve found several ways that have maximized that time, but have been almost completely blocked in the idea of converting other time to Maker Time.

The best thing that I’ve done to maximize my time seemed counter-intuitive at first. Before starting any work, I had to specifically not work. Not even in my thoughts.

This was easier by exercising, which really helped clear my mind. I started with doing meditation, but moved into combining meditation and exercise. I’m able to get into a mostly meditative state while going through some basic yoga poses (Yoga can be daunting to start “alone”, I think trying to find a good Ashtanga teacher will get you there fastest.)

After morning exercise, I then prepare my day. I make coffee, setup my desk for the work that I know needs to be done, maybe will even peruse the news. What I’ve found is that this will ramp up my excitement for the coming Maker Time. My eagerness increases with each delay, until finally I release my intellectual hounds.

And those hounds sprint ahead, until about lunch time. Then they fall asleep and will not wake. My motivation to create has died entirely and permanently for the day. I’ve been incredibly unsuccessful at breathing life back into my day. This then turns into my Manager Time. During this time I’m really quite good at managing the other parts of life, even writing. But I still prefer to create more in terms of programming and development.

Recently, and quite accidentally, I developed a technique that helped me increase my performance both as a Maker and Manager.

The Hacking Hour

After lunch, I invite everybody I work with to join me on a Google Hangout. It’s like Pair Programming, except they’re either not programmers, or programming (yet). They are giving me feedback, I implement rough drafts of the features or changes, and usually come out with some very solid work.

I look at the ticket list prior, as part of my Manager Time, which yields a ticket or two ideal for the Hacking Hour. This helps constrain the topics, also setting the tone against bigger changes.

Essentially, the Hacking Hour is feeder for the next day as well. It sets the priorities of what I should be working on and gets me more excited. Talking with non-developers about a product and getting them involved gets everybody more excited, too.

More excited people are also more engaged. Excited and engaged people help push me along. It’s hard to lose!

It’s very easy to get burned out when you’re working on a product that nobody else cares about, even if the customers like it. Often times it isn’t that other, non-tech, colleagues aren’t excited it’s just that they’ve forgotten. The Hacking Hour reminds them, rekindles their fire or keeps it burning bright.

I’m happy I stumbled upon this method. I feel the effects each day and see the excitement build in the team. It makes my afternoons more productive and feels like a better usage of time.

Supporters vs. Partners

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I just returned from a trip to Boulder, CO. My wife and I spent over 24 hours in the car together. This was time spent engaged in (captive) conversation. Surprisingly, after 10 years of marriage we can still talk for that many hours. Even more surprising is that I’m still caught off guard by how different our ideas and perceptions are.

This trip enlightened both of us in a way that will have long-standing improvements to our relationship. It was all about supporting each other and being a partner, which are entirely separate concepts. But it seems so simple, except we realized we missed the mark and never thought about it.

Supporters vs. Partners

At the crux of our conversation, and our different perspectives, were about being a supporter or a partner. I desperately wanted to be a Partner in an activity she was undertaking, but she was only allowing me to be a supporter. I felt this and the barrier, but I didn’t know why. She didn’t know either.

Without clearly defining, and articulating, the differences between these it can be frustrating on both sides. It’s a transparent wall that separates us, creating different emotions than what would otherwise exist. It’s confusing, and in times of confusion we speculate and are almost always incorrect.

This finally gave us the time, space and an example to discuss and inspect.

The obstacles between supporters and partners.

What prevents people from elevating a supporter to a partner? There are a lot of reasons for my wife and I. There is the shame of simply having bad habits. The desire to not feel vulnerable, and then dealing with the emotions while working through a weakness.

But to be honest, in this case, I was a supporter because I am not a good partner. I’m a very Answer First type of person. Have a question? I’ll give you an answer. You don’t need to show your work! You have me! This, I have learned is the easiest way of getting people to never ask you anything.

Working with bad partners

Once I can openly and honestly acknowledge I was a bad partner in her efforts, my wife became my partner as I seek improvement. Before this she was, in the best moments, barely a supporter. She would politely tell me I wasn’t effective, but move on.

But as a partner, she is deeply involved and emotionally attached in the progress I (hopefully) make. She is holding me accountable, but not judging me. This makes it easy to express how difficult it is for me to move away from my destructive habits towards constructive relationship building. What’s more, as a partner to me she hears how I think, and learns more about me.

With her working to make me a better partner, I get more opportunities to be a partner for her and her projects. Now I’m not just a supporter, which is more tiring and less energizing. She tells me I am a wonderful supporter and a terrible partner. I do not disagree, and it’s hard to accept your weaknesses.

Embracing Vulnerability

It’s very easy to become defensive, but with a true partner it serves no purpose. When I think of the times I’ve been a true partner to someone, I’ve never judged them or faulted them for mistakes. In fact, I’ve been impressed by their courage to persevere in times of uncertainty and doubt.

Some of the best moments have been when they admitted they didn’t know what to do, or were scared or simply frustrated. It let me leap into action, embracing the moment and feeling more effective. The worst moments are when they, or myself, feign invincibility. I’m not deluding anybody, even myself.

So here I am, improving myself with the encouragement of an amazing partner. And in exchange, I can be a better partner to her and everybody else I work with in some capacity.

Who Am I?

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the sense of self. The questions about Who am I? persist through centuries, feeding and clothing philosophers for generations. There is a good reason for this, the sense of self is elusive.

I think I’ve solved this mystery. For myself, anyway.

There is no answer. Not until I’m dead, anyway. The answer to Who am I? cannot exist as long as I exist. I am changing. As long as I am, I am changing and growing.

The sense of permanence that question demands is misguided. We all fear loss, with varying degrees of intensity, because we cannot accurately predict how life will go on. Humans are remarkably adaptable, but amazingly incapable of understanding their own adaptability.

Studies have shown that people who undergo negative transformative experiences, such as accidents causing paralysis, very quickly return to a base level of happiness that is not far off from their pre-accident levels. Studies have also shown we are not capable of believing this about ourselves.

We think of ourselves now. How we are, with the knowledge, relationships and possessions now. This is not us, any more than a river is defined by the rocks in the bed, or the trees along the bank. More accurately, the river is not defined by the water it contains at any given moment.

We are containers for experiences, feelings, relationships and hopes. They pass through us, some we cling on to and others we wish we could release. None of things define who we are, no more than individual water drops stay in the river.

There is no answer until we stop, and then we are left with what we’ve held on to. I must hold on to the right things, and learn what that is. That’s who I am, rather, that’s who I will be.

I Want to Write Your Eulogy

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Life is so short, but I fear your life may be shorter than mine. Not because you die but because I don’t know how long you’ll exist in my world. I can’t tell how long we’ll have before our paths diverge, when our meeting ends.

Maybe we only have 15 minutes, a quick talk in the subway. Sometimes we get several hours together, flying between homes and conferences. Our meetings are all fleeting. I never learned your value, and the way I talk at you won’t change this. You are more than smalltalk, and I trivialize you with each mention of the weather.

Even worse, I’m distracted by the Rolex watch and I try to extract your knowledge without learning about you. I cook the Golden Goose.

When we’re done talking, you will stop existing in my world. It makes you dead to me, to my mind as I forget everything I didn’t learn. But maybe you don’t have to die when we say goodbye. Maybe I can really learn about you.

Maybe I am the last one standing to write your eulogy. Maybe that will help us, and build a relationship in ways it couldn’t exist before. Maybe it will help me really listen, to be present.

I want to write your eulogy.

I want to know what haunts you and what motivates you. What are your ambitions and your fears that fuel your drive to succeed. What have you lost and what do you wish you could get rid of? I want to hear your voice raise from excitement, or crack from anguish. Even if I never hear your voice again, I want to experience this.

I want to learn not about the techniques that made you successful, but the unquenchable thirst that drove you there. But maybe you aren’t successful, tell me the dreams you had and why they didn’t work out.

I don’t just want to know this, I need to know. I need to know your story to know you. I need to know you because our time is short, and I have to write your eulogy. Maybe you don’t feel important but you’re important to me, right now.

I’m listening, and I’m learning. It’s all from you and it’s for you, and I’m practicing.

I won’t be good at this for a while. I’ll forget. I’ll want to tell you my story. I probably will tell you my story. I’m excitable, and I’m sorry. Don’t give up on me.

I want to listen. I want to learn. Everybody else shares the knowledge I don’t have, and I need to hear it.

I Hate Technology

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There is a fear I have. It’s a silly fear, but I’m pretty sure most people have it. I’m really scared of going to the bathroom without my phone, Kindle, or iPad. I don’t want to be scared of this. In fact, I want to enjoy this moment of solitude.

But I don’t! I can’t! Not yet, anyway. I’m practicing, every time I need to go. I even have to practice the other moments. Those moments that don’t constantly stimulate me with information, especially unimportant information.

I’ll be lounging around with my wife (my favorite conversation partner) and absent-mindedly flip on my phone. Oh! A Notification! 30 seconds later I realize it’s quiet. She isn’t talking any more. Oh! What an asshole I am!.

What’s worse is I’m a hypocrite, too. A while back in the middle of a conversation, my wife’s phone rang. She answered it! I was taken aback, insulted and she heard about it. Since then we’ve tried to simply ask permission from those we are with before answering the phone (or a text).

This has helped, but I still constantly feel compelled to grab my phone. I’m not talking to anybody on it or reading a text. I’m reading the news! Or Twitter. It’s an addiction, and I’m stopping it. Trying to, anyway. Here’s my method:

5 Tips to break the chains

  1. Tell your life partners (family, close friends) you want to be more in the moment, less time on apps.
  2. Stop carrying your phone around. Put it down. It won’t break. It also won’t run off and find a new owner. It will love you the same amount.
  3. Only check it at set times (I do on the hour, but started out every 30 minutes). If you miss that time by more 5 minutes, wait until the next set time.
  4. Failing once doesn’t mean failing for the day. I checked my phone at 6:30, I shouldn’t have. I caught myself, put it down and said, “I’ll finish this at 7!” Get back on the bandwagon as soon as you fall off.
  5. When you reach for your phone (which means I clutch at an empty pocket) instead take a moment to absorb what’s going on around you. Who is with me? Are they smiling? Is there music playing? What color are the walls? Be there, physically and mentally. Use the phone to cue this behavior. You can’t be there and be on the phone.

How did it go?

The final tip is more long-term. Revisit this and acknowledge what you are doing. Talk about the difficulties. Habits are hard to break and this one is even harder than most. Set a calendar reminder at 2 weeks, 4 weeks and 3 months. Talk about it with someone (preferably those who you told, see item 1).

Acknowledging the work and planning for a future review will increase the probability of success. Schedule those future reviews, though, otherwise they won’t happen.

We miss so much of the world around us because we’re trapped looking at a tiny electronic device. The people we share our lives with are amazing and we deserve to experience all of them.