The Art of Questing

People have been engaging in grand challenges or “quests” since antiquity, in some cases defining their lives around these quests, such as pilgrims on a spiritual journey or explorers seeking new trade routes. With the digital age, you can easily discover more examples of various quests that people pursue, which vary radically in style and scope. Modern examples include Alastair Humphreys who bicycled around the world or Scott Young who completed the entire online MIT Computer Science curriculum for a four-year bachelor’s degree in a year.

Grand quests appeal to me; my first was the pursuit of my doctorate, which took six years to complete. Committing myself to getting a PhD provided direction amid a flood of potential life options; I was able to judge opportunities to pursue based on whether they helped me make progress in my quest. Though perhaps “provided direction” is an inaccurate description. Getting a PhD is akin to bicycling across the United States in the dark with a compass that only intermittently functions. It involves a lot of sustained effort and you end up going down false paths that require you to backtrack and recalibrate your direction while occasionally having to deal with a friendly thunderstorm.

While completing my doctorate I experienced tremendous personal and professional growth. I became more proficient and confident in software development, design, teaching, and the research process, among other things. The experience also left me with many work opportunities, such as designing future software products at Apple, continuing on as an educational researcher, and various entrepreneurial paths.

However, this new flood of opportunities was both a blessing and a curse. After finishing my quest I felt directionless, akin to someone is trying to decide where to go for a vacation but considering every place in the world as a potential destination. After having a clear goal for so long, the range of possibilities of what to do next was overwhelming.

Since completing my PhD, I have been in an exploratory mode with my newfound freedom, continuing to work as a researcher on the Zydeco project while exploring side projects and experiencing life in various cities. However, recently I have returned to the idea of pursuing another quest. I was pleased to discover that Chris Guillebeau, an author and entrepreneur I admire for his novel The $100 Startup, recently wrote a book about questing called The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life. Chris completed a quest to visit every country before he was 35 and in this book he analyzes himself and several others as case studies for embarking on a quest. Throughout the book he breaks down how to find and structure a quest and offers advice on how to handle the process during and after you finish.

Chris defined a quest as “A journey towards something specific, with a number of challenges throughout”. In the book he noted that quests take a number of different forms:

With any major decision, such as undertaking a grand quest, there are a number of advantages and disadvantages:

Pros

  1. Provides direction: your goal helps you orient yourself and can bring a sense of purpose to your life. This can reduce the time and emotional turmoil you may feel in trying to decide your next steps and help you to avoid wasting time on tasks that distract from your goal.
  2. Rallying force: you are able to craft a clear way to describe what you care about and what you are doing. If your quest benefits from community involvement, this makes it easier to attract like-minded individuals who can support your cause or learn from you. Having a clear message increases the positive impact that your quest has on the world, whether through inspiring others to follow in your footsteps or directly helping others.
  3. Accelerated growth: these grand challenges are tasks that will push you outside of your comfort zone repeatedly, leaving you no choice but to grow. Depending on the type of quest, you can increase your self-confidence, hone a new set of skills, and increase your ability to impact the world.

Cons

  1. Huge opportunity cost: pursuing a grand challenge requires you to choose against many other tasks. For example, you could pursue your career at home, be part of a recreational sports team, and take music lessons all at the same time. However, you could not continue doing all these things if you decided to bicycle across the world.
  2. Reduced flexibility: this follows on the upfront opportunity cost. Having a grand quest that you are pursuing can reduce your ability to pursue alternative paths that could be very rewarding. Of course you can always give up your current quest, but this leads to:
  3. Potential for misery: in the midst of pursuing your quest, you may find yourself hating the day to day life and desire to quit, but continue on because you feel the stakes are too high or you feel too committed to your goal. While there are always rough period in any task, being overly committed can lead to months or even years of misery. I have witnessed friends who are miserable for years while pursuing their doctorate yet they feel unable to quit for a multitude of reasons. While some claim it was all worth it in the end, others are quite adamant that it was a waste of time and they should have left earlier.

So while embarking on a quest can change your life, it is important to acknowledge the sacrifices it requires. Chris’s Guillebeau’s book, The Happiness of Pursuit, is a great overview of the topic and a wonderful read to learn more about questing. If you are considering pursuing your own quest, it would be helpful to find other questers who are further along a similar path and get a sense of their daily life and the challenges they have to face.

2014 in Review

2013 in Review

PERSONAL

This past year was an incredible year with the dominant experience being my nomadic lifestyle. I thoroughly enjoyed the varied new experiences and friendships that pushed me to grow a lot and provided a wealth of great memories.

Travel

In the last decade I had often dreamed of a lifestyle that enabled me to travel extensively and this year well surpassed what I had dared to hope for. I lived for almost three months in Berlin and Croatia, as well as traveled to various other countries in Europe. I also managed to dodge the polar vortex that hit most of the United States this winter by enjoying myself in New Orleans and San Francisco while staying with friends.

While living abroad I was able to become friends with many locals and get a sense of their culture and way of approaching life. After having spent several months in two foreign cities that I knew no one upon arrival (nor the language to any solid degree), I feel much more confident about my ability to move to new places and integrate with the lifestyle there. However, I desire to see how the experience changes as I live in new cities, particularly when I am outside of Europe.

I was able to experience watching Germany win the World Cup while in Berlin and also participated in Mardi Gras in New Orleans. While these were fantastic to be part of, I equally enjoyed the occasions to experience another lifestyle in a personal manner, such as spending a weekend with my friend’s family in Slavonski Brod and having them show me their hometown.

Language

My interest in languages and the act of language learning has continued to grow through my travels. I routinely talk with people I meet about the difficulties they face learning languages and how they approach the task, as well as compare strategies with language instructors. Additionally, I keep exploring the academic literature on the subject and the less formal tips that polyglots give for learning, trying out these various methods in my own language learning. I detailed my experiences with various methods in my post on learning German and continue to evolve my strategies as I learn new languages.

Through spending more time in Berlin this summer and speaking it regularly, my German is at a highly conversant level that I am quite satisfied with. I reached my goal with German, which was to be able to talk with someone I just met across a variety of conversation topics with only minor difficulties. Currently I am seeking to maintain and slowly improve my proficiency with the language while I am away from Germany, exploring various tactics in this regard.

During my stay in Croatia I made a point to spend the initial month intensely learning the language to see what strategies worked best for a fresh language. This was a frustrating experience to be starting from scratch in a language that is substantially different from anything I had learned before. The initial frustration paid off, as by the end of the month I was able hold basic conversations on a range of common topics that people discussed, as well as understand the general highlights of a conversation, though I was not properly conversant. Unfortunately since people had such a high proficiency in English it further disincentivized learning Croatia, but my knowledge enabled me to have a more enjoyable trip and helped out greatly in navigating daily life with ease.

In the recent months I have been refreshing and furthering my Spanish knowledge in preparation for an upcoming trip to Spain. I have been able to make terrific progress by listening to podcasts and other online materials, having lessons with online tutors, and attending local meetups where Spanish speakers gather in a cafe, all without being in a Spanish speaking country or taking any formal course.

Health and Habits

My personal systems and daily habits are an area that I continue to experiment with regularly. Throughout the year I have iterated on some existing habits, such as having nearly continuous daily journaling and also implementing a system of tracking how I spend my days using a physical calendar.

Health and fitness are an important part of my life and this year was a struggle to ensure I maintained positive habits while traveling. While some exceptions were made to my diet (particularly in the meat-heavy culture of Croatia), I overall was able to adjust to a healthy diet wherever I went and keep exercising regularly. Walking continues to be an important part of my life as both a stress reliever and a way to experience a city. This year I expanded how much I walked while abroad, averaging between 5 and 8 miles a day depending on where I lived.

It has also been a pleasure to continue having time to read for personal growth and enjoyment. This year I averaged over a book a week on a plethora of subjects, as well as follow a few podcasts on my walks. After spending most of my PhD years with little free time to read for pleasure, this continues to be a tremendous joy that I can experience wherever I am living.

PROFESSIONAL

While living and exploring different places around the world, I continued working as a researcher for the University of Michigan on the Zydeco project. This past year my work involved furthering the design and development of Zydeco, helping educators use the publicly available app, and applying for additional grant funding, while also exploring new directions and side projects.

Zydeco

While we did not receive the follow-up Zydeco grant we submitted in 2013, the reviewers provided helpful feedback and we revised and expanded our plans before submitting a new grant in October. Steven McGee is the primary investigator through The Learning Partnership and we expanded to work with three museums (the Field Museum in Chicago, the Nature Museum in Chicago, and the Michigan State Planetarium) and will be working with Chris Quintana at the University of Michigan and myself through Elastic Focus.

With the future research directions for Zydeco in mind, we redesigned Zydeco and also reimplemented most of the underlying code base to remove a lot of technical debt. The app should be ready for a re-release in early 2015, leaving us well positioned if we are able to receive additional funding. While we have been redesigning the software, we continue to have new teachers and researchers begin using the existing version of Zydeco in their own classes and projects. It is great to see people continuing to use the software that we all spent so much effort on and I hope we are able to make the project live on after the grant ends.

This past year we presented a demo of Zydeco at the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference working along with EvoRoom, an immersive, room-sized simulation of a rainforest that Michelle Lui designed. Michelle Lui presented a paper regarding a study we collaborated on that combined both of the systems. This was an interesting experience as we had to deal with the logistics of setting up the physical installation on site as well as attend it for most of the conference at certain intervals, akin to manning a conference booth. The presentations seemed to be well received and provided us with further helpful feedback to advance the research.

Side Ventures

I continued exploring several side projects and learning opportunities this year. Most notably was the release of Colibri, an iOS app designed to rapidly build vocabulary in German that I developed with Peter Lewis. Due to some legal holdups, we have not begun marketing the app and it remains relatively unnoticed in the App Store at this time. However, I was able to use the app myself during my stay in Berlin this summer and learned over a thousand new words with the app – a very satisfying feeling to get such great use out of my something I built.

During my travels I was also able to participate in the second LinguaCamp BarCamp for language learners in Hannover, Germany and the WebCamp conference in Zagreb, Croatia. At WebCamp I led a sold out workshop on an Introduction to Usability Testing that was well received. Leading this workshop and also giving a talk on Introduction to Visualization with D3.js has revived my interest to start teaching again and I will be seeking out further opportunities to do so in the future.

During my stay in Croatia I became friends with a senior supervisor at Toptal and was considering working for them as a lead technical editor to develop a whole range of technical resources for software developers. This was a bit of a lateral move that I had never considered before and while applying for the job I wrote an iOS Hiring Guide for Toptal, though in the process of doing so I decided the job was not a good fit for my interests at the time.

GOING FORWARD

I am looking forward to continue being a nomad and traveling further this next year. My immediate goal is to become conversant in Spanish while living in Spain, as well as finish implementing the Zydeco redesign and make that update available on the App Store.

Additionally, I want to try and write more in this coming year. I had hoped to get more blog posts finished this year, but due to various distractions many of my posts in progress became sidelined.

I am also excited to do some exploratory research with the remaining time on the current Zydeco grant. Though my path is not clear after my position ends this summer, I am looking forward to the various possibilities that the future holds.

Usability Testing Resources

I am conducting a workshop at the WebCamp Zagreb, giving an introduction to usability testing. In preparing for the workshop I compiled a list of books and articles that I felt could be helpful for anyone interested in learning more about user-centered design and usability testing. Hopefully these resources will help you out as you discover more about usability testing.

(Note: The books are affiliate links!)

Usability Testing

Articles

Books

Online Usability Testing

  • UserTesting.com – A website where you can hire users to do to remote usability testing on your website quickly. They record the user’s screen and the user answers some questions on what is happening. Can be a quick solution if you cannot recruit your own users.
  • loop11.com – Another website that provides remote usability testing.

General Design

Articles

Books

  • Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. Great book that details different usability issues found in common items in everyday life, as well as positive examples of how these items can be improved. Reading this can help you think about any sort of product design.
  • Don’t Make Me Think – A short book by Steve Krug that provides an introduction to usability principles.
  • Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction – This is a great textbook written by Shneiderman & Catherine Plaisant for getting an overview and introduction to the field of designing interfaces and human-computer interaction (HCI). This book is often required reading in many undergraduate and graduate HCI courses.