Thinking from First Principles

An enduring topic of interest to me is the science of how we as humans learn and think. This concept, known as metacognition, has been a valuable aid to my personal development this year and earlier. Metacognition, broadly speaking, has three component parts – knowledge, regulation and experiences. Knowledge refers to what you know about thinking and learning processes. Regulation involves the strategies and activities used to control learning. Experiences are the thoughts and feelings experienced while learning.

The idea of bigger picture thinking – or thinking from ‘first principles’ has been among the most important principles of thinking I have come across this year. One of the most famous proponents of first principles thinking is entrepreneur Elon Musk. On first principles thinking, Musk says the following:

“I tend to approach things from a physics framework,” Musk said in an interview. “Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price”

First principles thinking, then, is reducing a problem or function to its fundamental parts, then working from there. It is a basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further. Thinking back to metacognition from earlier in the article, this is an example of metacognitive thinking – knowing about thinking and learning processes.

First principles thinking has been a powerful tool for my learning this year as I begin life within the field of IT. Initially, I was getting too caught up in the minutiae of the field, such as focusing on specific concepts within coding, instead of looking at a broader picture. Take, for instance, a large Business Intelligence assignment I recently completed. The assignment initially seemed too large to complete. It involved research, data entry, data analysis, visualization, machine learning and modelling. Having done none of these things previously, I was initially overwhelmed by the technical nature of many of these tasks.

However, by using first principles thinking, I was able to break down the assignment to its fundamental parts, which was to attain data related to flu cases in Australia and to create a report justifying its importance for analysis and study to a business manager. Digging deeper into the initial research stage and business context, the fundamental tasks of the assignment, and things I am already good at, made the more technical tasks which I was less proficient in later in the assignment more manageable. The steps in between suddenly became less daunting. Prioritising function (viable, relevant data communicated simply) over form (complex, fancy data science modelling algorithms and software) ensured a better final result as well as a simpler work process over time.

By nature, I’m a details-oriented person, as well as somewhat of a perfectionist. Being naturally inclined this way, it was difficult to move beyond these details. This is in stark contrast to how I approached problems I faced when studying during my teaching courses, or when I do freelance writing such as writing this article. By not being bogged down in smaller details, the writing flows easily, the solutions to problems appear more readily. Without knowing it, I was using first principles thinking – breaking down a problem or task into its most fundamental form, then completing it with a focus on function over form.

The Importance of Mentorship

Starting over this year in an entirely new program of study has been a daunting challenge. One of the reasons I have been able to make this unlikely move work so far has been the guidance I’ve received from a variety of mentors, particularly in a professional setting. The support and guidance I’ve received from subject tutors and lecturers have of course been important, as well as having a supportive group of peers to work alongside. The support I have received from professional mentors from a number of organisations as well as within UniSA has been one of the main reasons for my relative success in the transition so far.

Through these opportunities, I have had the chance to experience, however briefly, what life is like in a workplace within my chosen field. Going from freelance writing and tutoring, and before that working retail to these environments is a significant change. Having even a glimpse of these workplaces and being able to discuss with current employees there what is expected of them and how their workday goes has been an invaluable insight. Building a professional network, especially as a student who has no real connections within the IT industry is another important benefit that mentoring confers. Building the first few connections within an industry is very difficult as an outsider, and mentoring is an ideal way of beginning this process and makes building subsequent connections much easier.

In an ideal world, everyone who undertakes tertiary study would receive this level of mentorship. However, scaling this support to accommodate every single student would not be feasible — there are simply too many students and not enough potential mentors to go around. Still, the benefits of 1 on 1 guidance and instruction are invaluable and should be more widely available to students, should they want this.

Mentorship and apprenticeships, or any arrangements which can close the gap between students and the industries that they seek to work in are important. Even informal meetings can be greatly beneficial, as a way to orient a prospective graduate to their target industry and help them identify where their skills and experience stand to the reality of what they need to bring to a job. There are often calls from employers that recent graduates are not equipped with the skills needed to immediately make a positive contribution to their workplaces. Often, the skills taught in university course curricula do not quite match with the reality of what is needed by employers within a particular industry.

Even with the relatively brief period of contact time with industry mentors that I’ve had so far this year, I’ve already been able to identify skill gaps such as particular software programs and coding languages that I need to develop an understanding of before graduating at the end of next year. With plenty of time before then, I’m able to organize my time now and develop these skills well before applying for graduate jobs and potentially gain an advantage in a competitive field of graduates. Being able to do this has also put my mind at ease in terms of where I’m at and that I am on the right path in terms of being adequately prepared to enter full-time work when I graduate in just over a year.

Working Hard, or Working Smart?

In this blog series so far, I’ve talked a lot about transitioning from studying education to IT and some of the challenges and difficulties that have arisen. Much of what I’ve spoken about has been the hard work it has taken to learn new skills and acclimatize to a new way of doing things.
However, there was something I encountered recently on Twitter that gave me pause as to how I approach challenges in my life such as my studies.

Chenoe makes a valid and important point in her tweet. While hard work is important to achieving goals, it is not always the most important factor in achievement and getting ahead. In fact, it can be counter-productive after a point. At several points this year, I have worked to the point of feeling burnt out and being completely unproductive for days at a time as a result of ‘doubling down’ and trying to work beyond a reasonable point. As a person who derives a lot of my self-esteem from professional and intellectual success, coming to terms with this fact of life has been very tough and is an ongoing process.

Networking, especially in white-collar professions is increasingly critical to career success. We’ve all heard the adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. With tertiary degrees becoming more commonplace in the workforce, it takes something extra to stand out. This is particularly difficult for a shy and introverted person such as myself to come to terms with. In an ideal world, the hours and hours I put into my studies, my blogging, extra-curricular work on online courses such as DataCamp polishing my coding skills would be sufficient. However, while this is entirely necessary to do, it’s not quite enough.

On the other hand, it’s also a liberating thing to hear, in a way. With more emphasis being placed on networking and socializing, it’s not always necessary to know every little thing about a topic before applying for a job, an internship or other professional opportunities. Hearing stories of other peoples’ professional struggles and triumphs and realizing domain knowledge is not the be-all-end-all is relieving to know.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I’ve faced this year has been to put myself in uncomfortable situations related to professional networking and mentorship. Entering a room of strangers and striking up a conversation on topics related to information technology, as a newcomer surrounded by experienced professionals, has been a nerve-wracking experience on the occasions I’ve had to do so. However, it’s also been a massively beneficial exercise. Additionally, spending an evening here and there at these events have resulted in a huge gain in terms of experience, confidence and knowledge of the industry. Compared to the many nights spent on assignments, tests and exams of varying relevance and interest, these networking experiences in retrospect look far more favourable and enticing to attend.

All of this is not to dismiss the importance of study and of consistent, mindful and applied effort toward learning. Even the most charismatic and engaging person, without knowledge and ability to back themselves up, will quickly falter in a professional setting. What I am arguing, however, is that being smart and strategic with my time, not just spending every waking hour on IT-related work frantically trying to learn everything as quickly as possible has been the route to my successes thus far this year.

Why Don’t I Talk About Politics Anymore?

Among the questions I get asked most frequently these days is “Why don’t you write about/discuss/comment on politics anymore?”, or something along those lines. The question is a fair one. Until fairly recently, I was a very keen observer of politics and current events. The old iteration of my personal blog, as well as much of my early freelance writing for various online publications, focused a lot on political issues. Why have I steadily moved away from these topics, then?

Firstly, after a while of following politics as closely as I did, I started to notice very familiar patterns in terms of the discourse around political issues. The location, issue and people and parties involved may change, but the same fundamental stories popped up over and over. Once you notice the fundamental patterns, following the news cycle and day-to-day political issues becomes far less interesting and worthwhile.

Secondly, much of what happens in politics and current events, when you start to think about it, is largely inconsequential. Think back to this time last year, or the beginning of the year. What, if anything, do you remember about the big news stories and political issues of those times? Very little, if anything, I would imagine. I certainly can’t recall anything. Even thinking back just a month or a few weeks, I can only vaguely recall the major news stories from then. This is not to say that politics is inherently not worth discussing. However, the issues that garner the most attention are rarely what is most important. The truly important political issues are far more slow-burning and require a level of attention and expertise to understand than I can credibly claim to have or meaningfully discuss.

Stepping back from day-to-day thinking and taking a longer-term approach to examining these issues has helped me to put much of our contemporary political discussion in context. It helps to separate what is meaningful from what is largely frivolous and only of passing importance.

Increasingly, I find exploring the grander and more fundamental questions of society to be of greater interest. To do so, I prefer to write on topics within a particular disciplinary focus, such as history, economics, technology and so on. If there’s a meaningful political angle within these topics to discuss, I may mention it, but it’s usually of tangential importance to do so.

Thirdly, a sustained, intense focus on political issues has a negative effect on one’s mindset and attitude. I have known too many people who became exclusively focused on politics or a particular political cause and the effect it has on them. Talking about anything outside of their pet political issue can be a frustrating, if not impossible task. Having been guilty of this to a degree in the past, I wish to avoid acting in a similar way in the future. Chances are, you who are reading this post know someone who has similarly been caught up in politics in a very partisan and one-dimensional manner.

This is particularly noticeable for those of you who are Twitter users, particularly within the last couple of years. Politics has always been a fraught topic of discussion, but it has gotten to the point where any productive discussion is basically impossible. And if a meaningful discussion is impossible or prohibitively difficult, why engage in it in the first place? It’s not essential for me to do so, either in a professional or personal capacity, so I may as well forego it altogether.

It’s also not particularly productive. As I read more and more on topics such as psychology and self-development, the topics of the news cycle, politics and its effect on mood and productivity is a frequent issue for discussion and research. One thing that almost all of these writers have mentioned, in terms of productivity, is that consumption of daily news is among the worst things to do for productivity and motivation. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that the desire to keep up with an ever-quickening news cycle is a major reason for the erosion of many people’s ability to concentrate and engage in longer-term, productive and meaningful work.

To summarise, it makes little sense on any level for me to follow politics particularly closely or discuss it anymore, save the odd occasion. I’m no longer a freelance writer in any meaningful capacity, I don’t have much interest in it and following politics would only divert my time and attention away from more meaningful tasks and keener interests. As such, you’re unlikely to see me discuss political issues at any great length on this blog or on any site that I may write for in the future.

Learning How To Learn: Motivation, Discipline and Embracing Challenges

One of the most notable aspects of studying IT so far has been the stark contrast in how I’ve had to learn in contrast to my previous study experiences in education and Humanities subjects. Studying at a tertiary level is not a new experience for me. Having previously completed a Bachelors with Honors and made it partway through a Masters degree in Teaching, the ability to study and to learn new material is not a new experience for me. Or so I thought, going into the beginning of the year. Perhaps the biggest change from previous subjects I’ve studied has been moving from a relatively passive form of learning, which involved a lot of reading, listening to lectures and passively absorbing information to a much more hands-on form of learning.

By nature, learning IT skills is a hands-on exercise. It involves learning how to operate software, put together code, construct programs. These are not tasks that can be learned just by reading a book or taking notes. It involves diving in and becoming familiar with unfamiliar processes. With this comes a lot of trial and error, experimentation, and inevitably, moments of getting stuck and feeling frustrated. For a newcomer, it can be a rude awakening. Developing resilience to failure and setbacks (and there have been a lot of them!) is probably the most important thing I’ve taken away from my courses so far this year.

Part of the solution to this dilemma is to become immersed in the subject. My course subjects, rather than being the sum of my learning, is only a starting point. Much of my spare time has been devoted to covering knowledge gaps, as well as learning particular areas of IT that have been particularly interesting more in-depth. In my case, this has been anything related to data, analytics and business intelligence. Thinking less about the outcome (finishing the course, exams, and graduation) and more about the process and my output (acquiring new knowledge, coding and building things, producing content, developing new contacts) has been key to making this change.

Having a consistent, organized and disciplined approach to study is important. There’s been a lot to learn and taking even a day or two off has resulted in quickly falling behind. At the same time, taking it all too seriously has from time to time resulted in frustration, dejection and burnout. Treating my studies less like an ordeal to be overcome and more like a puzzle to solve or a game to master has made the process more enjoyable, successful and increased my motivation and desire significantly. There’s a lot of science to back this approach – the mental models or frameworks used to approach a problem are crucial to outcomes, as is using a gamified approach to learning.

I’ve recently become a lot more interested in the science of learning and have actively embraced self-development, in the form of reading blogs, reading books, participating in Twitter discussions and other online communities and so on. Blogs such as Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s  Ness Labs and Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street have been particularly inspirational in this regard. As much as individual effort and drive are important in learning, even the most talented and hardworking student can only get so far on their own. To truly realize potential, like-minded community and peers are necessary for support, motivation and accountability.

Why I’ve relaunched my personal website

After nearly two years, I have dredged out my old WordPress site to begin posting once again. Those who read my previous work may notice that all my old posts are gone. They’ve not disappeared completely — they can be accessed over on my Medium page.

The new look and format of this site reflect the new direction in my life, both professionally and personally since I last posted on here. I’m no longer doing anything related to teaching and I’ve more or less moved on from freelance writing and the form of commentary I used to do (the reasons for which I’ll likely expand on in a future post).

Ideally, I’ll post a minimum of once a week – the range of posts I have in mind range from, in-depth commentary and analysis on datasets and other technical tasks directly related to my studies on the one hand. Other posts will be a more informal commentary on either news and issues related to IT, or perhaps general musings on what’s happening in the world and in my life. Overall, it’ll have quite a different, hopefully, more accessible and lighthearted vibe than the previous iteration of my WordPress site did. Now I’m no longer obliged to write like a potential reporter or website columnist, I’ll be free to write more honestly and candidly.

The majority of 2019 for me has been intensely inwardly facing, focusing almost entirely on study and establishing myself within the field of IT at the expense of almost everything else. This has been necessary to a large degree — transitioning from an entirely different field in teaching, with a great deal of uncertainty about the future has required lots of hard work to figure out a clear direction and make up for lost time.

I’m fortunately now well on the way to accomplishing that goal, having identified a professional niche (data analysis and business intelligence), established some contacts in the field and steadily learning the essential technical skills needed moving forward. Partially, this blog, which will double as a portfolio of sorts, is another step toward that end. Maintaining a regular, public blog and the accountability that comes with it is among the most powerful motivators toward this goal.

Bringing back this blog in a new format represents a first step towards finding a better balance between study and my personal life and to become more outward-facing once again. As I wrote for Ordinary Times recently, writing is a core part of my identity and one of my favourite pastimes. This new site will hopefully help me rekindle that passion for writing and blogging I once had.

%d bloggers like this: