Software engineering is my passion and profession. My focus is to improve at the craft and build great teams. But from time to time, I explore the skill of learning by leveraging engineering thinking. My goal is to find ways to improve at communication, mentorship and leadership. One way to discover techniques is through hobbies. What follows is my personal view on how hobbies lead to self improvement.
For me, it is a good moment to communicate a logical deduction since I have started a new hobby of amateur radio. The why is difficult to place in words, but what I can say is that it gives access to a certain and distinct communication style. It requires technical effort to reach people without multi-billion dollar infrastructure. And it, like many hobbies, contain rich vocabularies of understanding.
Amateur radio, or “ham radio”, is our attempt to communicate without pecuniary interest over the radio waves. The service is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States and overseen by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) worldwide. It licenses operators through an incentive examination system. Once licensed in one of the three levels, we are free to transmit with certain restrictions. When we transmit, we identify ourselves by call signs.
We select modulations like voice, continuous wave (International Morse Code), data packets or video. We transmit and receive for fun, contest to build contacts from as many as we can. But on occasion the hobby transforms into a serious function to support resolution of an emergency or a long running disaster. And the world has seen many natural and man-made disasters where “hams" have stepped up to help facilitate communication.
Amateur radio is very deep with history, electronics, applied theory, bizarre phenomenon, and some ridiculous maths when touching the edges of the hobby. Many technologies are invented out of it. From the latest on cloaking with fractal antennas, to that mobile phone in your pocket, they all are inventions of the hobby. All of this is handled through the magical physics of the electromagnetic waves in which we cannot see fully.
Now that we know what amateur radio is, I want to pose a short formula. The key is personal mastery through a deduction. How these axioms improve ourself and our mastery of things.
First, we start with personal mastery. Personal mastery is the attempt to execute a vision of yourself in the future. It has to start with discipline from within to see through your goal. It is a series of practices of principles laid out and applied through the journey of reaching those goals. That is personal mastery. It is a quest to seek the truth of a matter, like in a hobby.
Next, as we seek those truths, let’s examine what an axiom is. An axiom is short hand for a kernel of truth. A poster sign. It is a spoken reduction of events and their goals that are self evident. Personal mastery and their axioms feed on one another. And the axioms contain vocabularies which allow us to understand skill and culture.
But how do personal mastery and axioms interrelate to one another? This would be way by of successive approximation. This is the ability to course correct our personal mastery and zone back in on the axioms so that we check, apply, correct, and repeat. It is a relative comparison of what was done last and what we can do better next.
With personal mastery, their axioms, and successive approximation, one finds and attempts to achieve the goal. The goal requires the examination of successive approximation saddled around constraints. Constraints are simply challenges to our axioms, and limit validation on how we can achieve maximum personal mastery.
But this is where it gets even more interesting. No one actually achieves full mastery, because there is no such thing as independent personal mastery. Personal mastery ultimately is shared experience of interdependence through mentorship. And this is the point. Hobbies are repeating cycles of this formula.
Hobbies are explorations of personal mastery. They are the axioms divided by their constraints. They are amplified by successive approximation and accelerated by mentorship.
Now that we have a few of these concepts and the formula, let’s move forward with an example as we explore my thought process. Let us focus squarely on the hobby of amateur radio.
As I am learning and studying the techniques out in the wild, I am trying to find my first axiom. And as of a few weeks ago, I came to a conclusion.
Communicate to any other operator clear enough so that they understand and can respond (QSO).
Easy enough. From here, we have an axiom for our personal mastery. The axiom will reveal vocabulary as we go. But how does one communicate clear enough? This is where personal mastery comes into play. We must experiment. We must successively approximate to level up at our hobby relative to the last failure. After that exploration, here is a refined axiom of the hobby.
DX (Communicate a far distance) to another operator to QSO.
As we look at this axiom, we find that there are constraints. These type of constraints capture and challenge us to personal mastery. These constraints pull us into ways in-which make us uncomfortable. Time, money or mental effort are scales of being uncomfortable. Another tough examination, maybe. More time in research. More money to apply. Vulnerability in front of someone who knows an answer. But these challenges are there to make us better.
With as little power as you can (QRP), DX to another operator to QSO.
Here, one way to achieve this is by using International Morse Code. International Morse Code, also known as CW (continuous wave), is a technique of using little power to travel very long distances. It is also a challenge for most to understand and then respond in CW. It takes quite a bit of practice and discovery. And here is the final piece of the puzzle.
Hobbies are interdependent exercises of personal mastery and all require communication with others to improve. My father told me a story about this key in the picture above. Back in the early 1970’s he worked at the Mobil Building in New York City for Rand McNally as a trip planner. Like most days, my father was at the desk waiting for the next customer to come in for a road trip to be drawn. An older gentleman walks in. One thing leads to another and amateur radio is discussed. The gentleman is a high level license holder. My father explained that he was having difficulty overcoming a crude requirement of the then license exam. The exam required a CW portion at a minimum word per minute. The gentleman gave him old Coast Guard audio tapes to help him practice. Other unspoken advice was exchanged. He, through his help, succeeded.
With QRP power and with 13 wpm (words per minute), DX to another operator to QSO.
The man above in my father’s story is called an “Elmer” in the hobby. In short, a mentor. And hence the cycle of personal mastery continues until a limit is reached. The axioms continue to be tweaked and improved until there is a collective mastery.
Of course there are other axioms that are congruent to the main axiom. Many can be laid so that the clarity of exploration can be refined to a taste. In the example above, I’ve only highlighted the main driver of mastery. There are others to identify and explore.
Hobbies are paths to personal mastery. We use axioms to form vocabulary, use successive approximation to identify the constraints of which we can become personal masters. Finally we reach out for interdependence in becoming better.
Personal mastery clarifies what is most important to us. What is most important to me is how to improve at the result of communication because it is a fundamental weakness that has consequence. The radio communication metaphor was a right fit that I could not resist but to try at this essay. And I know I’ve failed beautifully at it.
But a hobby can be seen as a path to searching fundamentally a truth inside. Focusing and refocusing our attention on how to learn and improve ourselves, even if it is uncomfortable. We should look for the axioms, and improve on adjusting their constraints and find the Elmers. You will open a world of learning, which is a beautiful thing. Ponder about your hobbies and their axioms for just a moment. Are you on a path to personal mastery?