Learning is a Superpower

(Finally) Open Sourcing My Automated Reading List Digest

I wrote the first version of my reading list digest in 2019.

I’d transitioned from a role in Operations to a role in Analytics. There were so many things I didn’t know, and so many I wanted to learn.

In the course of searching for the answer to a problem, I’d find something cool or interesting. When this happens, I want to stop solving, pull over, and learn something new.

This is not a good way to get things done at work.

I started saving articles to a spreadsheet creatively titled Reading List. I like to track things, so I added some columns for when I added the article, when I read it, and what I thought about it.

This evolved into a personalized, automated daily digest of articles to read. If you want to skip reading about how it came to be, you can check it out and create one of your own here.

Make It Easy, Not Hard

Anything you want to happen goes better when you create a system that makes it harder to mess it up.

I learned this lesson first in my career in operations. Processes shouldn’t expect people to be perfect. Simple over complex. Automated over requiring judgement.

In one case, we traced a problem back to a 14 point checklist which we expected operators to execute, perfectly, at 4 in the morning, in a noisy environment wearing PPE, after 9 hours of a 12 hour shift. We changed the process. It never happened again.

I can think of dozens of examples like that from my time in operations. Internal company software is rarely as intuitive as it should be1. Don’t expect perfection from yourself or from people using the things you build.

Make systems that make it hard or impossible to mess ‘it’ up.

Dan John2, one of my favorite coaches, calls habits that make things easier Shark Habits - One Bite and Done.

Shark habits save time. Shark habits save mental overload.

An important point: Shark habits don’t judge whether or not something is important, unimportant, trivial, or the key to life, living and the universe.

Automating my reading list is a shark habit that enables me to learn.

Automate the Decision of What to Read

At first, the spreadsheet worked great.

I had so little on there that I could remember from the URL which article was which and what I wanted to read most.

Then the backlog grew.

Then it grew some more.

Suddenly reading was a chore instead of fun. I’d save articles up for a big batch when I had downtime and was in the mood to read. I’d also go days or weeks without reading anything at all.

I realized part of the problem was that I had a hard time deciding what to read.

So I automated the choice away from myself. The email comes, I read what’s in it. One bite and done.

How It Works

Google Apps Script is a javascript based language that allows you to perform automation from a spreadsheet. I use a spreadsheet of articles with statuses as the base.

  1. The script I wrote looks for all of the unread articles

  2. It alternates between sending the oldest article and one of the newest 20 articles which keeps the digest fresh

  3. It will send between 1 and n additional unread articles per day, where n is a maximum you can set

Where I Find My Favorite Reads

Late spring in 2019, I had a mentoring meeting with a senior leader at Shaw. I didn’t see myself leaving Shaw, but I worried I would stop learning or get too used to how we do things. The leader advised me to go to conferences to get external perspectives.

I’d just left an operations role with 30-50% travel and I was burned out on being away from home. And I’m an introvert. And conferences are expensive, and (at the time) required travel. So I got on twitter instead.

I started by looking for interesting people writing about analytics. I’d be looking up something, like ‘what’s an index?’ find a cool article, and go track down the author and follow them.

Twitter created another problem. I’d find cool articles messing around on my phone when I was nowhere near my computer.

So I started emailing them to myself, so I wouldn’t lose track of them.

Eventually I added more automation, to scrape emails out of my inbox and add them to the reading list.

On Learning and Being Uncomfortable

It took me a long time to finish generalizing the code and publish this writeup.

Part of that was just life — but when I sat down to write this post, I realized part of it was fear.

Fear that the code wasn’t good enough — I taught myself javascript and it’s not my best language.

Fear that people would think this whole thing is dumb.

Fear of not having the “right” list of articles to put out there.

Fear that other people might judge what I consider list-worthy.

Fear is the biggest blocker of my learning, and probably yours too.

You can follow all the tutorials, watch all the talks, and read all the books.

In the last year and a half, I’ve read 306 articles. I read articles I agreed with, and articles I disagreed with. I read about technologies I may never get to use myself. I read writing by wildly successful leaders and thinkers.

There’s no substitute for the learning you gain by moving through discomfort and doing the thing anyway.

My reading list informs my thought process and approach. However, the biggest lessons I learned haven’t come directly from it.

They’ve come from taking risks, getting uncomfortable, from mentors, from my team, from making mistakes, from reflection on what didn’t work. If you’re not uncomfortable or unsure from time to time, you’re probably not learning.

1

Citibank got an expensive lesson on the importance of UI design recently. This writeup includes a screenshot of the actual screen where the mistake was made.

2

Other favorite Dan John isms are “Keep the Goal the Goal” and pirate maps. I first heard Dan on the Power Company Climbing podcast in 2017.