Slow is smooth, smooth is fast

If you recognize this mantra, you may know it comes from marksmanship training. The idea is that it is better to move slowly and not have any hitches or unexpected bumps, rather than to hurry and have a less predictable outcome.

Another way to phrase this is

You don’t have time to do it right, but you have time to do it twice?

There are lots of obvious applications for this philosophy in technology, but I’ve been dealing with it in a much more tactile realm – handwriting. I’m one of the cusp generation that got taught cursive and typing in school. I obviously type much more quickly than I handwrite – most people do, or we wouldn’t have invented typewriters. My kids got some very minimal cursive education, but mostly so they could read it, not write it. No one is grading their penmanship and most of their assignments are turned in on Google Docs. When I was learning cursive, my teacher told me, and I believed, that it was because it was faster than printing.

In the last month or so, I fell down a hobby rabbithole and took up fountain pens. The DevOpsDays Vancouver people gave out a lovely writing set as a speaker gift – proper fountain pen, ink, high-quality notebook. I found out that what the nerds on the internet have been saying is true – writing with a fountain pen is a significantly different experience than a ballpoint or even a rollerball. Fountain pens finally made the point of cursive writing make sense to me.

It turns out that some methods of communication are tuned to specific tools.

Who knew, right? So I spent all of my grade school cursive time frustrated because cursive didn’t feel any faster to me, and I would get lost in the middle of a letter or a word, and aaaaargh. Which has made it really funny to take up learning not just “how does a fountain pen even work”, but also “Spencerian Penmanship” (which, the purists would like to inform you, is not calligraphy). It turns out that 10 year old me had a few compounding problems:

  1. Not enough time/practice to gain mastery. I’m a notoriously slow learner of physical skills. It took me 3 years to learn to ride a bike. So learning time that was probably enough for my peers was not enough for me.
  2. Attention problems meant that I would literally lose focus in the middle of a word, or forget how to form letters, or try to move faster than my muscles were prepared to go.
  3. I did not find it intrinsically rewarding.

Now that I’m an adult, and I can afford not only the proper tools (relatively cheap), but tools that I find exciting and fun (less cheap), I feel more rewarded. I am not trying to turn in a homework assignment, I’m just learning a skill, so the time and accuracy penalties don’t apply. Unsurprisingly, I have better handwriting when I slow down. And as hobbies go, this one is really easy to pick up and put down, even more than knitting.

I also have learned years of skills in how to teach myself things, how to self-correct and do mindful improvement. Because I spent so many years as a solo writer, I had to learn to look at my own work, iterate, and improve. That basic skill now serves me for all sorts of things in my life. As a result, I now understand the value of drill and practice. Even if it’s not fun.

Handwriting practice sheet

The first thing to do is draw lines

I used to feel bad about my hobbies – sometimes I’ll get really into something, and get all the equipment to do it, and take Craftsy classes and and and… and then a few months later, I’ll drop it. I would punish myself when the next passion came around. “Remember embroidery? You have all the equipment and you only ever finished 2.5 projects. No, you don’t get to do the fun thing!”. I’ve been easing up on that attitude. I mean, I do try to start with a minimum viable kit for what I want to do, but if I enjoy it, I’ll dive in. Why not? I have an allowance for frivolities, I’m not hurting anyone, and it makes me happy to learn things.

Practicing one letter over and over to refine what I want and learn the motion

All hobbies are fractal, when you start examining them. I’m not sure the same is true of work, or maybe it’s just that deep expertise is less easy to share. So for the top-level hobby fountain pens, the fractal might look like this:

  • Handwriting
    • Penmanship
    • Calligraphy
    • Hand-lettering
  • Ink
    • Purchased
    • Hand-created
    • Mixing
  • Pens/Hardware
    • Prestige collection
    • Hacking/fixing
    • Restoration
    • Design

Each of those could be pursued further and further into tiny corners of specialized interest. That’s amazing. Seriously, thank you, internet. Hobbies are fandoms, and we can all find a place that suits us somewhere. I figured out that I love road cycling, but I hate bike maintenance. I can pay a shop to do that. There are other people who love tinkering, tuning, and upgrading their bikes. I like piecing quilts, but consider hand-quilting tedious. That’s ok, I can be a machine-quilter.

Once I thought of hobbies as fractal, I realized that we could not only drill down into sub-hobbies, we can back out to get a bigger picture of why we want to do hobbies, and it gives us an insight into why we want to do anything.

I like learning things. It gives me a feeling of satisfaction and control in my life. I feel about new ideas like a magpie feels about shiny beads. This basic tendency really accounts for most of my career – I used to joke that technical writing is a lifetime of writing research papers, but it’s not far off. It’s more like journalism, but the reporter is still going to walk away knowing more about the story than ever makes it into the paper.

My hobbies are a way for me to nourish that passion in a way that is good for me, as well as an employer. Sometimes I want a tactile thing to do when I got back to a hotel room in another city, completely worn out from people. Sometimes I need to remind myself that the difference between art and craft, work and hobby, is about how much you get paid, not how valuable it is. Even magpies can only pick up so many shiny beads before they really just want a break and some tinfoil.

What does that have to do with marksmanship? Everything. Because slow is smooth, and sometimes we need to move slowly to appreciate and learn what we need. Because smooth is fast – it pays to think through what we want to say and write before we commit it to ink. Because everything we do to learn a hobby is itself a way to learn the skill of teaching ourself.

This job is undoing me

… in the best way possible.

My protective casing of hard-earned cynicism is being rubbed away by all this genuine kindness, cooperation, good culture, and all that jazz. It’s honestly kind of uncomfortable, like molting.

You need to understand – I have this hard-ass candy shell for a reason. My first job in technology was 1996. My first college boyfriend introduced me to BBSing through what we would now call a troll community. I have been “one of the guys”, and “that girl”, and “the writer, whats-her-name”. I have gotten my ass grabbed at work and gotten dirty texts and chats from co-workers and been propositioned in creepy ways at conferences. The technical writer is hired too late and fired early in the startup process, but I love startups. No company has ever previously make me feel like I have valuable things to contribute and they consider themselves lucky to have me.

I thought at first it was perhaps due to the change in my role, this exciting new job title that means I never have to write release notes, but today I realized that it wasn’t that. I was walking with the new person on my team, and trying to download to her what I’ve learned about the company and the things I asked about and can just tell her.

  1. You will not get fired because The Internet Hate Machine is angry about something. We know about the internet hate machine and don’t consider them valuable feedback.
  2. No one is going to yell at you if you mess up your expense accounting, especially at the beginning. We’re all working from a place of mutual respect and shared interested and assumed good intentions.
  3. You are not required to sacrifice quality of life to save company money. Be reasonable, stick to the budget outlines, but it is worth a hotel night to have you bright and functional instead of trying do do a conference after an early morning flight.
  4. You have time to learn your job. We’ll be happy as soon as you contribute, but you need time to ramp up and that’s expected and normal.
  5. It’s ok to ask questions. No one expects you to know everything, we hired you because we think you have the potential to learn. Very few of us knew about this technology or industry when we started. You don’t have to know it all when you start.
  6. Maintaining human relationships with your coworkers and other people in our ecosphere is important, and will be counted as work, not fluff.
  7. If something happens at home while you’re on a business trip and you need to leave, it’s ok to just leave. No single event is more important than your outside-of-work life.

How am I supposed to maintain a cheerful cynicism about people who genuinely like working together and also sometimes hanging out at tea parlors with a kid in tow? How is my cool detachment going to go when I get raises and positive feedback without even asking for it? What if it doesn’t feel like high-stakes gambling to be able to bring my whole self to work, even the wacky futurist parts and the parts that can’t code and the parts that are noisy feminist politics? What if “being me” is not high stakes, but table stakes, for everyone?

This job is breaking me because all of that shielding and cynicism were adaptive for other companies, but not actually very useful at this one, and in order to succeed here, I need to take all that armor off and be real, and vulnerable, and let people help me. It’s terrifying, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.