Learning to embrace the ambiguity and chaos of experiments

documenting the process, learnings and gifts till date

When I imagined unadulterated time to work on my own ideas, I imagined myself to be bursting with creative energy, working on forty-nine manifestations of the same idea and having forty-nine variations splinter off each manifestation.

I didn’t realize that it would actually be paralyzing. This is the first time I gave myself permission to do whatever I wanted without any checks or balances — so used to meeting other people’s deadlines and needs — I had no idea how to navigate this new territory.

In the spirit of openness and posterity, this is what I have learned and experienced so far:

Being okay with dust

I was thinking to myself in the middle of it all, that all my work right now looks and feels like dust. All of them. Because I am starting from nothing. They have no form, I cringe when I look at them, I have no idea how long it is going to take and it is really hard to keep on looking at dust and really believing they will one day be shaped into a form that will move me. It is this weird form of endurance — to endure all the self-doubt, self-judgment, ambiguity and the persistent feeling like I have no idea what I am doing.

Trying to cultivate non-judgmental discipline and trust the process

I have been neglecting one of my experiments, partially because it was a difficult problem, making me feel blocked and intimidated. So I decided to deliberately allocate some time just working on it and learning to be non-judgmental in letting it evolve or devolve, even if it feels wrong.

Never ever, ever, judge a fledgling piece of work too quickly. Be willing to paint or write badly while your ego yelps resistance. Your bad writing may be the syntactical breakdown necessary for a shift in your style. Your lousy painting may be pointing you in a new direction. Art needs time to incubate, to sprawl a little, to be ungainly and misshapen and finally emerge as itself. 
 — Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Developing creative courage

I felt vulnerable and judgmental about my own work, and that was preventing me from being in a space where I could just freely explore ideas, so to circumvent that I started sharing in-progress work with a Slack community. Just the act of that, to know I was willing to step out of my comfort zone and show work that I wasn’t proud of and yet I was, because I was trying; gradually built up the courage I needed to publish these onto tumblr:

I felt like if I could publish these publicly, I was freeing myself. And I did. I started feeling a sense of liberty I never really had, because I was too busy judging myself and my work.

I’m opening up my notebook and I’m saying everything in there out loud. A lot of people are very sacred with their ideas, and there is something to protecting yourself in that way, but there’s also something to idea sharing, or being the person who makes the mistake in public so people can study that.
Kanye West

This sense of liberty trickled into the other areas of my life, and I started to feel an overall sense of well-being.

The frustrating satisfaction of learning and doing at the same time

One of my other experiments is an interactive life story, so I had to figure out how to get my data and manipulate them to create an interactive display. I had no prior experience of working with APIs, and my prior javascript skills were limited to hacking up questionably working prototypes.

It was intriguing to consciously observe myself trying to do something I have not done before. I felt like I was trying to build a house without understanding the laws of physics explicitly — how dare I — it was mostly frustrating, but it was fun.

You add randomness, early on in the process, you make crazy moves, you try stupid things that shouldn’t work, and that will tend to make the problem-solving work better. And the reason for that is the trouble with the step-by-step process, the marginal gains, is they can walk you gradually down a dead end. And if you start with the randomness, that becomes less likely, and your problem-solving becomes more robust. 
 — Tim Harford, How frustration can make us more creative

This is how I learn, through being guided by my intuition and through experimentation. Hypothetically I would have saved more time if I have just done things logically and linearly, but I would have less fun, get bored, and what I’ve learned would not have stuck in my mind.

There is such a thing as having too much fun

I was so deep into trying to make something work, that I couldn’t stop working or thinking about it. I would be eating and all I wanted was to get back to that unsolved problem. I worked for ten hours a day, sometimes spending a long stretch trying to examine why a small chunk of code I have written wasn’t working.

That week, I ended up with a migraine, and I couldn’t work for the next three days or so. I have learned the hard way again, on when to stop, in order to do more, do better.

The incandescent joy when something starts taking shape

One week in, I got this working:

It takes a lot out of me as a former designer to share a screenshot of almost unformatted html. But the sum of this screenshot felt like one of the best things I have ever done. In order to get to this point, with no prior experience, I had to learn how to:

Get data from the various APIs

I had to browse the different API documentation, learn their respective limitations and ways of authentication, in order to get the data and parse it into something I can manipulate and display.

Then, I had to normalize all the different data into the same consistent set of variables I will use to display them. For example, some APIs use timestamps, some don’t, some store urls to the source explicitly, some has to be inferred.

Some APIs have undocumented ways to make certain things work, so StackOverflow was like my best friend.

Store them

It took me quite a while to understand how to create an array of objects with nested dimensions, so I can:

Display them in the way I want

Just by directly parsing the data and displaying them, I get a feed with a lot of repetition, so I had to spend copious amounts of time experimenting with terribly-written loops and conditionals, in order for this:

It wasn’t great to feel like I really suck at something, but it is just incredible to see something come together, especially because that I had no idea how to. I feel like I am adding something to my soul each time I add a bit of life to an idea, no matter how raw the form it takes.

When things do not work, make it work another way

There were some things I just couldn’t get it to work, like learning promises. Without promises, the data couldn’t be properly manipulated because it didn’t know when all the various sources of data were loaded. For non-programmers, it is like trying to organize a store display without knowing when the goods will arrive. So I had one page that would get the data, render them in html, formatted like a javascript object. Then, I would manually paste that object into another script so they can be sorted and manipulated. It is terribly hack-y, but I had to get my priorities right at that point, which is to learn enough at that stage so I can figure out what I wanted to do next. The point was not to manipulate real-time data, the point was to figure out the data I actually need and eventually work out how to display them.

Getting comfortable with rawness and remembering what matters

It was very tempting to style that unformatted life-stream. But it would have been too soon, and it would limit the possibilities of what I could do with raw data.

There were more important priorities ahead of me:

  • figuring out how I can scrape all my data from the beginning of time, especially with the limitations of APIs.
  • decide where and how I want to store it. SQL? Firebase?
  • decide how I want to input manual data.
  • think about the longevity of this project, if I want to use something like RoR or django instead of relying on a javascript framework with an online database (sigh, Parse) that may dissipate into thin air at somebody else’s whims.

Experiments have unexpected gifts

That Slack group we started to share work-in-progress, even that I saw as an experiment. What I didn’t expect was how much I derived from just having a virtual community with me. That is integral when one works in mostly isolation. I now look forward to having an update to share, or when people share theirs. It feels like a good practice to nurture, just like watering the garden everyday even though we can’t see the plants growing.

Remembering I only have to be accountable to myself

After years of being conditioned to solve other people’s problems, it is difficult to remember that I am doing these because I simply want to. I am not attempting to solve anybody’s else’s problem, or save the world. I am also not attempting to approach any of these in any structured, logical manner. I want to do this because I want to, in a manner that I thrive on, even if it doesn’t make sense to anybody else.

What I want to do better at

  • structuring the time better, I still haven’t figured out how much structure I need without treating myself like a robot, and how much space I need before the lack of structure becomes unproductive.
  • be better at recognizing when I need to stop before my brain gets over-stimulated and I fall sick.
  • distributing my attention across all the experiments I have. This is not just because I want to do everything because I like doing everything, this is because each time I remember to diversify, they always seem to have a multiplying effect upon each other. One idea’s progress seem to evolve the rest.
  • be better at trying different routes to the same idea even if they seem tedious, hard or ridiculous at first

Till date,

what has been surprising but yet not, is how much learning to work on my own work is making me learn so much about myself, because now I have am pushing the boundaries I never had the chance to push before, including the ones that exist within.

This is part of making anything I want for a year. Follow “The experimental year” for updates and additional context. Join makersmake.space to share work-in-progress updates, and embrace the messiness of making with us.