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Brain Reconfiguration

In my experience, the brain reconfigures its capabilities to adapt to the work you need it to do.

One thing that I notice when working hard in technology is that my short-term memory is shot. I can barely remember the morning, or what was on Forum in the commute in. I think the brain reconfigures itself so that short-term memory is sacrificed for the working stack. I can “load in” a whole bunch of things I’m trying to think about and mesh together and keep track of “in the moment” … good for analysis, but then I lose track of time and can not remember, like I said, the details of the day, so well.

There was a time when I was released from tech, depressed, and found work as a waiter. The initial transition was difficult. I crafted cheat sheets to remind myself of menu items, &c. and spent time trying to translate the algorithms as they had been trained to me into the art of doing the job. I recall a specific hierarchy of five priorities. Let me see if I can recall them all. Greet customers as they come in, bring out hot food, take orders, settle the bill. The rule was that each priority superseded the next … but you can not apply this 100% of the time. One day the restaurant was full, and I was the only waiter, and it was lunchtime on a weekday: people want to get back to the office. I did a good job of getting people settled and getting their food out, but it sucked for that guy who had to wait forever to get his bill. Over time I learned to optimize operations … basically, carpool trips: collect multiple orders on the floor, bring them to the computer, grab a bill, pick up food, deliver food, deliver bill, collect orders, &c.

After some months working in the Pizza Place, my short-term memory got really good. Never quite “don’t write down the orders” good but I think I could have pulled that off if it were an option. (The paper orders went to the kitchen and were later cross-referenced with the computer billing system.) But, when I went backpacking, I was very good at recalling what I spent from day to day, keeping track of those little details over the short to medium term.

In contrast, when I tried to do computer programming, I felt dumb. I remember trying to build an isometric grid system for game programming, and I felt like I just kept running out of brain. Translating grid coordinates to drawing them on a two-dimensional screen whose coordinate system runs from a different direction … I didn’t have it in me.

Then again, neither is that the sort of stuff I end up doing in tech work. Systems Administration is less about deeply abstract thought (well, sometimes it is..) and honestly somewhat like being a waiter, or a restaurant manager. Maybe more of an independent car mechanic. Lots of things going on, lots of ideas to keep track of, and a fair amount of short-term, deep problem solving: WTF is going on with this server, or this software, &c.

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