Opportunity, Responsibility, and Visibility

I'm reading the book "The Soul of a New Machine", and as part of inteviewing one of the hardware engineers about what he wanted in a job, and why he joined up with the company, Data General, he said:

"I wanted opportunity, responsibility, and visibility."

That really struck a chord with me. Later that day I got to thinking that those are the same things I love in work.

The thing is, none of those things are ever given. They have to be earned. The flip side of those three desireable traits in a job are behaviors that you can take on as an individual.

  • To get opportunity you must have tenacity, the willingness to fight a problem until it is solved. Only when you push hard will you both conquer hard problems, and then be asked to solve hard problems in the future.
  • To get responsibility you must demonstrate accountability, the willingness to be accountable for your mistakes and estimates for when you think work will be completed. Only after demonstrating that you can, and want to be held accountable for your quality of work will you earn the trust necessary to grow in responsibility.
  • To get visibility you must volunteer to take on challenging projects, and to step outside your comfort zone. No organization wants to put someone in charge of a project that they don't want to be in charge of. When you can find willing volunteers for work, you almost always get higher quality output.

Oppotunity/tenacity, responsibility/accountability, and visibility/volunteering fit well with my work, passion, choice mantra, as they are key elements that will help you progress from just working, to working on things you're passionate about, to achieving a sense of freedom and choice in your work and life.

GTD card

I like the general idea of GTD. I've adapted my two favorite processes into a simple card: how to start my day and how to handle email with inbox zero. I also like that having a simple, effective process will generally lead to:

  • Getting more done as an individual
  • Being asked to do more and more interesting things at work
  • Less decision fatigue
  • Better, more consistent follow up on tasks

When you do this over a period of months and years the outcome is that your employer tends to see you as effective. This is good. If your employer doesn't see it then at least you're less stressed and you're more effective at your job.

Having been involved in managing, hiring, mentoring co-workers I have always preferred when the goals were clear, the process well-communicated, and the process simple. That's not to say that I'm a rigid thinker, or need a set of instructions to know how to do my job. I've simply boiled down my work experience into a set of portable, non-job specific practices that have served me well no matter what I'm doing.

Credits for icons

I found the icons for the card via The Noun Project, an awesome place to get high quality, infinitely scalable graphics.

My new gtd card, taped to my monitor

The gtd card printed on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper, at 30% scale

The two hand-drawn paper cards that the new card is replacing

Workplace.SE stats - users and visits

Recently changed blogging platforms, so I can no longer, for some reason, update the embedded charts from the previous platform. So, here's a new post with the updated numbers.

UPDATE Apr. 8th 2013: Updated the chards for the beta day 360. Similar growth patterns as before in terms of total users. Bit of a drop off in visits per day, but the overall trend is holding.

UPDATE Mar. 8th 2013: Updated the charts for the beta day 330. We continue to grow steadily, predictably.

UPDATE Feb. 7th 2013: Updated the charts for the beta day 300. Continued linear growth. There are some peaks and valleys, but overall you can see a steady, sustainable trend.

Workplace.SE stats - users and visits

UPDATE Jan. 6th 2013: Updated the charts for the beta day 270. Continued linear growth for users, but a drop off in visits per day. Could be a fluke - we'll see.

UPDATE Dec. 7th 2012: Updated the charts for beta day 240. Continued linear growth for the most part. I noticed that we're "all green" in every category on Area51, except for "Questions per Day). Nice little spike in "Visits per day" (and what's the point of line charts if you can't get excited about spikes?)

UPDATE Nov. 7th 2012: Updated the charts for beta day 210. Continued linear growth. Daily visits seems to be leveling off a bit, but user growth continues to move in a positive, regular direction.

UPDATE Sep. 8th 2012: Updated the charts for beta day 150.

UPDATE Aug. 9th 2012: Today workplace.stackexchange.com has been in beta for 120 days. I've changed the charts to show one data point for each 30 days of the beta (so, only four data points right now). Now that workplace has been in beta for some good amount of time, it's good to step away from the day-to-day numbers and look at overall trends.

UPDATE July 10th 2012: Today workplace.stackexchange.com has been in beta for 90 days. Now that we're here, a few observations:

  • We had a couple of spikes in traffic and new user signups. This is primarily the result of (a) good content and (b) promotion/sharing links to the community around the web. Keep doing this!
  • The predictive model turned out to be fairly accurate, especially for predicting the number of users with 200+ reputation at the 90 day mark. This stat in particular seemed to remain fairly constant.
  • We've been slowly, but steadily increasing the number of "avid" users on the site - people who keep coming back on a regular basis, to a current total of 160 users. That's our base! That's fantastic! Later this week we should have more avid users than 200+ reputation users.

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Now, I know the success of a site isn't just about the numbers. Community absolutely comes first.

But for those interested, I've tracked the stats trend from the Area51 page for Workplace.SE since the 35th day of the public beta.

A new workplace Q/A site needs you!

I'm a big fan of the StackExchange network - it's QA done intelligently, and applied to an ever-growing range of topics.

A few days ago a new StackExchange site entered public beta called "The Workplace." It's all about work, jobs, workplace issues (from HR, to client relations, to productivity, to politics and more).

Come join the community; if you've got a question that hasn't already been answered, ask it! You're likely to get a fairly quick response (in fact, you'll probably get multiple responses, and most within 24 hours) with numerous perspectives, cultures, workplace types, and nationalities represented.

What we're missing is you! We need more representation in a broader range of professions. The site has started out with a heavy contingent of IT and software folks, and I would love to see people from all sorts of professions join up so that the tech folk (like me) aren't hogging the conversations. I would also love to see more questions asked and answered from the perspective of upper management, executives, and folks in HR roles - perspectives that are often not shared beyond the bounds of their own membership.

Task flow

One of the most valuable lessons I learned when working in IT was the idea of task flow. It's what you do to manage long lists of unrelated tasks, while not losing track of where you are. At ProNet we called it "managing your queue," and it's a skill I've taken with me to all assignments ever since.

The list

It doesn't matter what form the list is in - even paper will technically work - but you need a list ot keep track of what's on your plate. Once you've got the list, you need to make it habit to add things to the list that are important. I tend to have a relatively low threshold for the meaning of "important." I just put everything on the list that I need to remember, and if later it turns out not to be important, I just cross it off and move along.

Estimating, scheduling, and prioritizing

Do you have a list of 30+ items, each of which is for a different client, and you're not sure which should be done first? Been there. If you don't schedule and prioritize these things, the inevitable outcome is that you'll have conflicts, and things start to fall through the cracks. Sometimes you'd have nothing pressing to do for the next hour, but after that you had seven things to do all at once. Scheduling and prioritizing will help even out the waves of work into something closer to a steady flow.

So how do I schedule and prioritize? There's more about this below, but with a task list, I keep it simple. I take all the things that need to be done today (which may include prep for something tomorrow, or next week - but perhaps the prep needs to be done today), along with everything I need to get done "now", and I just choose the most important thing and get to work. I don't create a complicated calendar of events, I don't scheduled everything two weeks out - I just work on the most important/valuable thing in front of me and get going. When you work with a constantly shifting list of tasks, and especially if your delivery dates are short (an hour, a day), complex scheduling just doesn't make sense and results in unnecessary overhead.

Save the complex scheduling for "big" things, like multi-week projects with milestones.

Estimating is a matter of experience

What you want is basically this: after you've been in a job for six months or so, the ability to pretty accurately estimate how long something is going to take to accomplish. When you know that, you can put it on your calendar, set a reminder, and get back to crossing things off the list. Depending on how fragmented your typical day is (some people can schedule entire half days toward something, while others can barely schedule 15 minutes reliaby), you need to scope your items to match your level of fragmentation. If the thing you're trying to schedule is more than 2x the amount of time you can reliably schedule, then you should try to break it into sub-tasks that do fit on your schedule. When you can get items on the list pared down to easily digestable chunks, conflicts in scheduling become much less of a problem.

If your main issue is that your day is highly fragmented, and it's very difficult to schedule anything (many people in a customer service role feel this way), then much of this will still help you. This process is about taking control of the amount of crazy in your work, making  it easier to manage and plan, and getting more things done.

Scheduling is a matter of habit

So, when you're adding something new to your list, whenever possible, you should schedule it right then and there. When I worked in IT and managed a service ticket queue, my habit was to create a new ticket for incoming requests immediately. Not writing it down inevitably leads to forgetting things.

In addition to always making the note, the ideal scheduling scheme is portable. If you go to a meeting, it would be preferable that you bring your calendar with you, so when you're asked to take on that new volunteer project, and you estimate it will take two weeks, you have some idea when you can start, how it will fit in with everything else, and most importantly, when it will be finished. If it's not possible to have your schedule with you at all times, say in a meeting, then make 15 minutes immediately after the meeting to figure where new items fit in, follow up on pending commitments you put off for the meeting, and then get back to working on the list.

Prioritizing

The world is a place constantly asking for your attention. If you say yes to everything, you're going to over commit yourself. If you think volunteering for every project under the sun will make you look like a go-getter, you're not thinking about what happens when you have more to do than you can possibly manage, you start failing, and then everything in the schedule starts to slip by hours, days, or weeks. At that point your willingness to jump in winds up looking like naivety, and the result is people won't trust that you can get something done when you say you will. Being able to make a commitment, and sticking to it >95% of the time, will earn you boat loads of trust in any role, regardless of whether or not you're slower than the next person. In the 5% of cases where something might slip, immediately letting the client know that there's been an issue, and given them an updated timeline, helps you maintain that trust. 

Crossing things off the list

I've mentioned it a couple of times already, but this is about getting into a flow, and knocking things off the list. If you spend too much time simply managing the list (and not getting things off the list) it will simply get longer. You should absolutely be spending the majority of your time getting things done. Many people are willing to jump head-long into something and work hard, but if there's one thing I see the holds people back over and over, it is this:

Don't wait on other people - always being thinking about what's next, and what you can do to get something closer to finished

One of the most important things that people don't realize about lists, especially if it's a list of things you're doing for a client, is that you're putting it on your list so it doesn't have to be on their list - your taking ownership over getting that thing done.

Take charge, and set the pace.

Every day, when I look at my list of things to do, I think, "Which of these can I work on or follow up on right now in order to push it closer to being done?" Tasks often spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for something to be done. Second only to getting things done, your job should be to minimize the time that things spend waiting for action.

For example (I see this all the time), let's say you're waiting on a client to make a decision on something before you can proceed. You absolutely need to make sure you know what the next step is, when it's supposed to happen, and what to do if it doesn't happen when you expect it to. If you leave a client meeting, and the client says, "I'll let you know when we decide what to do, and get back to you," but they don't say when they will get back to you, then suggest a time. What time you should suggest really depends on what the task at hand is, but if you say something as simple as, "Sounds good. Should I check in with you next week just to see how things are going?" you'll often find that they will say that you should, and having a definite date/time to follow up is how you keep things from sitting around. If, no matter how many ways you suggest a follow up, the client doesn't say when you should check in, then you're just going to have to pick a time and do it anyway. Trust me on this - it's critical.

Clients pretty much never feel bothered by you checking in. If they don't have a schedule in mind, suggest one, and make sure you follow up when you say you will. Just keep pushing forward, and don't ever leave a task sitting out there with no action plan. Tasks that fall into this category will never get done, and at some point the client will follow up with you. If it's been months since you've done anything on that task you will inevitably convey the message that you don't care, regardless of the circumstances. Even if it's 100% the client's doing, you're going to be the one looking like you didn't take appropriate steps.

As my last point on the "don't wait on other people" topic, sometimes you work with a client that is just indecisive. Be brave, and suggest solutions to questions and problems. Don't wait on the client to make all the decisions; help them make those decisions. They've hired you because you're an expert in your field, and they are looking to you not just to provide a service, but to be a leader and keep the project or task moving. The fewer things the client needs to balance, and the fewer decisions they have to make, the more quickly work will proceed.

Troubleshooting

Sometimes things don't always go as planned. Here are a few ways to avoid some of the most common issues that come along with these techniques:

Dealing with commitment conflicts

Often you won't have a choice what to commit to, and conflicts in your schedule will inevtiably arise. You need a simple way to decide, among the various things you have on your plate, which ones should take priority. Stephen Covey's Four Quandrants is one of the simplest, and most effective ways to do it. It basically comes down to giving everything a "priority" so that when scheduling conflicts occur, it's clear (and already decided) which task "wins" the conflict. You shouldn't have to spend a lot of time thinking about what to do next. Your schedule, and the priorities assigned to the items, should make it clear at a glance what to do.

When estimation goes wrong

The vast majority of people don't estimate tasks 100% accurately - well really no one does. Most of use are either overly pessimistic, or overly optimistic. I tend to be on the optimistic side, always thinking something will take less time than it actually will. As part of your estimating practice what you'll need to do is track not only how long your original estimate was, but an approximation of how long it took you in reality. What you'll usually find is that you're off by roughly the same amount every time (you might always underestimate by about one-third, for example). Knowing this about yourself can help you take your gut feeling on how long something will take, and then add or remove a certain amount of buffer time depending on past experience.

What you wind up with after you make this estimate is a time frame you give others that is pretty reliable, which builds trust.

Task flow

When you've mastered this, you've got task flow. You know what you're doing, when it's happening, and you're always pushing tasks forward toward completion without waiting on other people to move things forward.

Sharpening and skill building

From Mark Twain's "A Tramp Abroad". This illustration shows a man who was so good at sharpening swords, a person could use them to shave. That's a good analogy for what I try to acheive in my own work.I work hard to be as good at what I do as I can. Recently I decided to explicitly build some new habits in order to increase my acquisition of new skills. The primary one comes down to what I'm calling sharpening.

In the past I would gain skill primarily through painful mistakes (the kind of mistakes that you never repeat), and over time I became very proficient. However, I found that this pain-driven approach was lacking for a number of reasons. First of all, it makes you look like you don't know what you're doing. If you're in a fast-paced, high-stress environment, you're probably having information thrown at you more quickly than you could reasonably absorb it. The natural reaction is to simply go home after work, relieve some stress, and not think about it again until the following day. After being in just that sort of environment and after multiple painful mistakes, I just got tired of letting the pain be the motivator for change.

Now I take a more proactive approach. Anytime I learn something new or see a piece of information I know I'll want to remember later, rather than just hoping I'll remember it I write it down. Then, every morning I review the list of things I've written down, reading each of them again, carefully. When I've reviewed a particular item enough times (when I can basically recite it from memory), then I know I can safely take it off the list. This has been especially great for me, because it gives me a practice environment where I can make mistakes or remind myself that I need to clarify my understanding on something before there are any consequences for getting it wrong. That means I make many fewer mistakes for an actual client, resulting in much happer clients, and ultimately less stress for me. The list I keep and review each day isn't very long either, maybe a dozen items. I don't review large swaths of text or go through an entire practice of something long and complex. I only write down and practice the things that I need to improve on. On a typical day, this practice takes only 10-15 minutes at the most.

In my line of work, this is especially helpful when it comes to writing code and remembering obscure and helpful syntax tricks, or the steps for something I only do once a month. It's also very helpful as I've recently changed industries from banking to medicine, and I'm awash in new terminology and people. In my new job I review not just new coding tricks, but also all the new vocabulary I'm exposed to so I can come up to speed as quickly as possible. If I still worked in IT, I would be using these tricks to more quickly learn the names of new clients, the structure of rarely-used infrastructure in a network, or anything that was important but not necessarily obvious or easy to recall due to how seldomly it comes up. In some ways, you could say that this is something we all did in school: it's basically running yourself through drills, except the test you need to pass isn't on paper, it's the test of proving whether you're competant at your job.

They call it "pivoting"

In the startup world, there's this concept known as a "pivot." Depending on who you ask, you'll get various definitions, but basically it means this: you're hitting a wall that you either can't, or shouldn't try to climb, it's time to make a change, and you've decided to take a new direction in order to keep your venture going, and to hopefully be successful.

I'm in the middle of a big pivot in my life right now, at nearly every level: personal, professionally, and privately. Chalk it up to me being in my 30's if you wish (I hear things start to happen for you in your 30's), but whatever the reaons, I'm pivoting.

 

The big pivot

The pivot in the professional end of my life took about two years from concept to reality, and much of the payoff has come in the last six months. About a month ago, after getting my first paying job as a developer, I chose to move on to take another opportunity, also in software development. What follows is an overview of just what's happened in the last six months, and what I hope will happen in the next six.

Six months ago I was prepping to leave my position at a hard-core IT consultancy company based in the Phoenix area. During my time there I went from the entry-level position, to being a leader, manager (and counselor at times), and finally to building a new support team in Chicago. Joined by some existing engineering staff in the Chicago area, I set out with a bold goal: to make a career of this, to leave software behind, and to make a life in IT operations and magement. The long and short of it is that it didn't work out for a number of reasons. While I was reasonably successful at some aspects of the job, and while I garnered enough respect to be a voice in the Midwest region, I reached a point where I knew that my grand plans to make a life out here with that company weren't going to pan out. A lot of the reasons it wasn't going to work had a lot to do with me. As much as I poured my energy and life into it, I was never truly satisfied, and though I believed I had left my software days behind me, I continued to try to accomplish many of the larger projects with software solutions. On a deep level I was still trying to follow software, but in a role where that's just not what people needed from me. It took me a few years to understand just how fundamentally flawed this approach was, and in the mean time I picked up a lot of business knowledge, and networking skills (things that would serve me well regardless of what happened next).

Finally deciding to put my money where my mouth was: I started a small company called KarmaNebula where I would build my own software solutions to the world's problems, not needing to wait for buy-in, and not needing to ask permission. For 18 months I worked on a project called FeelGoodTrader.com, and used it as a springboard to launch my software career. From the beginning I saw three possible outcomes. (1) it's a fabulous success, I make lots of money, and it becomes by full-time job (highly unlikely), (2) it's a reasonable success, and I sell it off to someone for a nominal fee, using the money to seed my next project, or (3) I use it to prove that I have the programming chops to be a pro, and I land myself a job.

Well, #3 turned out to be what happened. I still own KarmaNebula, and while the first project (FeelGoodTrader) wasn't a success, I continue to work on side projects under the KarmaNebula name.

To get back to the story, about six months ago was when I saw that FeelGoodTrader wan't going to take off enough to be a full time job, so I applied to work in a software group connected with a local university. I wanted the job, badly, but things didn't pan out right away. When it appeared that nothing was going to happen at any predictable point in the future, I continued my search. I quickly landed a job with a great bunch of people, on a small software team where I could make real impact, where the work schedule was flexible, and the only thing that mattered was you delivering on your promises. This was an arrangement that worked well for me, being a self-starter, and burned out from more structured corporate environments.

The freedom in this new job was amazing. It was a tele-work position where I wrote software from my home office, full-time, meeting with my supervisor via a VOIP call a couple times a day, and I was given the trust to interact with customers directly whenever necessary. The ten years I'd spent in IT, and customer facing roles, would pay dividends in trust and responsibility awarded to me right out of the gate. On top of all of that, my supervisor was a great mentor, and treated me more like a peer, as we argued over points of code style, the best way to do something, and what mattered to us personally about working in an environment that trusted us, first and foremost, to be professionals.. Though it turned out that working relationship would end in just a few months, I maintain contact with my now previous supervisor, and continue to enjoy meeting up for a beer occasionally, and talking shop.

So what happened at the end of that first development gig? Well, it turned out that the other job I'd applied for back in March at the university, the job that I wanted even more, called me back in July and asked if I was still interested. The story of what happened between March and July is an interesting one, but one I'll save for another time. Suffice to say, the job at the university was one that had the right combination of just about everything I was looking for in environment, culture, and long-term alignment with my own goals. In other words, it was one of those opportunities that I couldn't turn down. So, I began the process of notifying my then current supervisor that I would be departing, and working out all the details around that shift.

I've now been working for the university for about a month, and so far I've been loving every second of it. Looking back at the previous six months and the road to get here, I feel that it's a direct result of the effort I put in to get here (granted, my belief here is biased by the success - if I hadn't successfully made the switch it's hard to say how I would feel instead). With little-to-no previous pro programming experience (though I've been writing code since I was 13), I was tough, tenacious, and more than anything I didn't stop believing that I was good enough to pull it off. As I look forward, the next six months show a lot of promise. I hope they're as exciting and filled with success as the previous six months.

 

A final word, and a reality check

People say that getting the right opportunity only happens if you are ready for it when it arrives. Work hard, and make the sacrifices to put yourself in the right place: in my case, it was creating KarmaNebula and FeelGoodTrader.com. Follow you passion: you're guaranteed to fail when you give up. Eventually, maybe even after 15-20 years, you just might get what you want. When it comes, you'll finally get a greater degree of choice in life, and for me, that's what it's all about.

When hearing about my new, new job at the university, a friend of mine joked, "You know there's a recession going on, right? It's really not fair for you to take two jobs in three months when so many people have none." It was his humorous way congratulate me, but I was humbled by his message regardless. In response, I could only feel deeply appreciative of what's happened to me in these last six months, for the journey, and for everything I've learned along the way. My friend is right after all: the world is falling down around a lot of people, and here I am writing a blog post about how I landed two great gigs in quick succession. I'm in awe, and to whatever series of events conspired to bring this to me, I extend my deepest gratitude.

Motivation through shame

We've probably all worked at places where shame was used as a tactic to theoretically elicit higher quality. This kind of tactic has always struck me as childish, but don't take my word for it.

The link below is to a Q/A site for professional programmers, but you don't have to be a programmer to understand the tactic. The #1 voted answer takes into account the various concerns around someone making a mistake, including quality control, team morale, and the fact that the person making the most mistakes is often the person doing the most work. I love the method proposed for dealing with it in the top-voted question, especially because it addresses all of these concerns without needless shaming. For those intersted, in programming terms "breaking the build" is what happens when a programmer writes in new changes that introduce bugs into the system - a somewhat minor incident that, when correctly quickly, is simply another small, rather insignificant daily event. But just replace "breaking the build" with whatever common mistake happens at your workplace, and see if you don't feel the same way.

Appropriate punishment for breaking the build

Having worked for more than one place that tries to "motivate" through shame, I simply won't work at another place like it. If you read through several of the other answers, you'll see that the various punishments suggested run the range from silly, to funny, to reasoned, to down right ridiculous and counter productive.

Do you work at a place that employs shame, either publicly or privately, in a supposed effort to created higher quality and fewer mistakes? If so, I'd love to hear your story. Write to me: jeff@karmanebula.com

Daily commute: today's office

Plan A: Work from Kafein  - closed, they probably don't have power after the storms
Plan B: Work from public library - not yet open
Plan C: Work from Barnes & Noble - not yet open
Plan D: Panera - yes Panera is that far down my list
Plan E: Library open - head back that direction

Started at the Panera across from the Barnes & Noble

3rd floor, Evanston Public Library - not too shabby

 

Daily commute: today's office

Telework has its advantages. One of which being that I can work anywhere that I can get an open WiFi spot, or a data connection through my tethered phone.

After last night's huge storms in the Chicago area, our power is out at home, so I worked at The Brothers K this morning, and this afternoon I'm working from a friend's office in Roger's Park.

Random guy at Brothers K that I swear is an Abe Lincoln look-alike in his spare time

3rd floor office in Rogers Park, Chicago

An environment for great work

The last month has seen some major changes to my work environment. For one thing, I now work from home as part of a remote team. Not a lot of people know what that really means, so I'll layout the basics for you.

  • I receive a list of tasks that I am responsible for completing, usually without direct supervision
  • I work from home, or from coffee shops, or from the park near Lake Michigan. I can work from anywhere that I can get an internet connection.
  • My workspace is completely customizable, because I don't work in an office. Therefore I can set it up to work and feel any way that I want.

"I just qualified for a medical billing job, where I'll be doing hours of mindless data entry!"When I say that I work from home, I don't mean that I'm making money by doing sixteen hours of Mechanical Turk tasks, nor am I filling out medical billing forms, or other menial tasks. I write software, specifically web applications for a number of customers, mostly in and around Illinois.

I'm a self-starter who is  capable of holding myself accountable. That's important, because that means when I receive a list of tasks, I don't need someone watching over my shoulder to make sure I get them done on time, with the right level quality, or in the right order. However, that doesn't mean I work solo. I work collaboratively with team members, I check with my supervisor via a quick phone call or IM when I have questions, and those same people come to me when they need things from me. It works, it's simpler than most people realize, and most importantly it allows each of the team members the time and space necessary to concentrate on their work without a lot of office distractions.

I am also gainfully employeed and only have to work 40 hours a week, and no, I don't pay a penalty in salary for this privilege. It's just one of the many things that more modern working environments are realizing is a good idea. If you want ot hear more about that, check out the excellent book, Rework.

Shortly before I made this transition a lot of people asked me if I was concerned whether I would miss the office interaction, and whether or not I thought I would be productive. Neither of these things concerned me. Over the last 18 months, while I was developing FeelGoodTrader.com, I regularly met with people face-to-face to bounce ideas around when necessary, and since I didn't answer to anyone but myself, that meant I was my own task master. I could bore you with the list of over 500+ features that I implemented as the only developer on the project (working only part time on actualy programming tasks), but suffice to say if you're disciplined about it, getting a ton of stuff done is actually pretty easy.

From the Top 40 Demotivational PostersBeyond that, and perhaps closer to my heart, is the fact that my workspace is completely customizable. That means I don't have to walk to the bathroom and look at a bunch of those annoying motivational posters, mission statements, or other stamps of the corporate environment; I simply stay focused, and work hard, so such things just aren't necessary to remind me that I am "at work." It also means that I can soak up my love for music all day as I work and listen to tunes without worrying that I might be disturbing my coworkers. Along with the choice of working venue for the day, this is a great little bonus.

Why decisivceness matters

 

Are you trying to make a choice about something that has multiple possible answers, all of which are, more or less, equal to one another? Maybe you need to give it a little bit of time, learn a little more to see if one choice becomes clearly better than the others. A little time is the operative phrase here. I can almost guarantee you that you don't need a lot of time.

 

If you've already used that small amount of time to consider your options and there's still no clear leader, then just pick one already. Ignore the complexity, ignore the inclination to pick the "perfect" one, and just pick one. As Gary Veynerchuck put it, "Get off the bitch train", stop finding reasons to sit still doing nothing, and get started.

There are plenty of ways to do this. Here are a few of them:

  • Write down all your choices on a piece of paper, then throw a dart at it, and do the one it lands on
  • If there are only two choices involved, flip a coin (if you're an anti-conformist, then do the opposite of what the coin says, if it makes you feel better)
  • If you've already consulted with experts, learned what you can learn by asking questions, and you still aren't any closer to making a decision, then you just need to pick on and start doing something.

Stop thinking that choosing the perfect thing is actually what matters, because it doesn't.

decisions = experience

Often times you'll see someone who seems to make quick, rash decisions. If this person is reckless by nature, then this may be a problem, but I find that in the vast majority of situations not choosing something is nearly the same as just wasting time. So what if you're wrong? So what if you waste some time doing the wrong thing? Sitting around doing nothing, hoping that the experience you need to make better choices is going to magically fall from the sky is ridiculous. The sooner you do something, the sooner you'll gain the experince necessary to know whether or not you made the best choice.

And if it turns out you made the wrong choice. Just stop and do the other thing. It's that simple.

The illusion of risk

I have a very simple rule when it comes to risk: if it feels less risky than getting in my car, and driving on the roads with a bunch of other maniacs (which can actually be pretty risky), then I don't consider it risky at all. In decisions that involve risk, if I believe the risk to be below this threshold, I don't spend another second worrying about it.

On the things that I did that many people around me thought was seriously risky, I didn't consider risky at all. In the 2-3 month period leading up to me moving to Chicago I was flooded with a number of comments and questions from people I knew. Most of them fell into one of a few categories:

  • Q. Aren't you going to miss everyone?
    A. Not really. I certainly have some dear friends, but 90% of my communications with those people were already online. Sure, I couldn't go have dinner with them on a whim, but I can still call them, write them, etc. Do I miss having dinner and face-to-face conversations with the people I love and miss from Phoenix? Of course I do, but I'm not the kind of person that needs that social network as a cornerstone to my life. Some people in Phoenix were concerned that, once I got to Chicago, that I would simply "replace" them with new friends, and that we'd never speak again. This just didn't turn out to be true at all. I travel back to Phoenix a couple of times a year, and when I do, I still take time to see the people I love, and they are every bit as important to me as they always were. Most times I'm not able to see everyone I care about in a single trip, but so far that's been the most noticeable downside.
  • Q. When you get to Chicago you won't know anyone. How will you cope?
    A. Something I already knew about myself before moving to Chicago is that I didn't like living alone (and that was in a city like Phoenix where I knew lots of people). I prefer to have roommates. So, before moving I set out on a fairly thorough search for a place to live, and a good roommate. Now, I'll admit that the roommate I found was unusually awesome, and there was certainly some luck there, but I didn't worry too much about this in the weeks leading up to the move. So long as I wasn't living alone, I figured I'd be fine, and I was right.

    Also, the fear of not knowing anyone, for the most part, came down to a few really practical concerns that you face anytime you move, even if it's only a few miles away. Those concerns are things such as, where you will go to buy groceries, and if I want to use public transit, how do I get from my new place to where I want to go? These things are all very easily answered via the web, so really not a big deal.

  • Q. Chicago will be so different. Aren't you worried that you'll feel disoriented, or worse, completely alone and lost?
    A. This one never bothered me for a second. In my case I was keeping the same job, doing the same work, and spending most of my day speaking to the same people. In other words, work itself was going to change in only very small, mostly insignificant ways. Before moving to Chicago I already knew what my daily life was going to be like: I would wake up, go to work, then go home, and repeat that process 5 days a week. The rest of the time would be spent hanging out with my roommate, and exploring a new, and exciting city. Honestly, the size and expanse of a city like Chicago didn't intimidate me at all. It simply felt like I was a tourist on an awesome vacation everyday after work for at least the first year.
Things might have be a lot different if I was changing cities and jobs, because the majority of my social network would have changed along with it, but that simply wasn't the situation. I found work to be an anchor to people and processes that I knew. It provided enough consistencies between my life in Phoenix and Chicago that it was as if my previous life was simply upgraded to be set in a city that I loved even more than Phoenix.

I suppose that begs the question, would I have moved if I was changing both the city I lived in, and the job I worked at? The answer to that is, of course, I would. I would have more concerns in terms of meeting people, and it would have probably been lonelier for a while. On the other hand, I'm pretty good at meeting people, and there are plenty of ways to get out there such as Meetup.com for meeting people with similar interests, and Meetin.org for meeting random people that live in your area. So, I already had a plan for dealing with loneliness factor. Thus, it was not a concern.

The 5-year experiment

Almost five years ago, I began a 5-year experiment to advance my career. The premise was simple: I would give myself up to the "corporate machine" in exchange for career growth and more money. It was a conscious decision that meant I would probably have to do a lot of things I didn't want to do, including selfishly competing and stepping on the backs of people I worked with, fighting my way to the top, working some ridiculous hours, and maybe kissing some ass.

The way it actually played out was completely different from what I expected.

First of all, the company I went to work for wasn't a corporate machine at all. The company I worked for had a very strong culture, they knew exactly what they wanted and what it expected, and I grew to respect the fact that, whatever disagreements I may have had, at least they were consistent in their handling of things. I saw a lot of my co-workers move up, get promoted, and work on interesting projects. I saw myself get promoted 3 times, and even accomplished the goal of relocating from Phoenix, AZ to much larger city, Chicago, IL.

Now, almost 5 years later, I'm looking back at what I had to do. While at times I might have been tempted to be that corporate jerk who is back stabbing and playing political games, I actually found that (a) I just couldn't do that - that's not who I am, and (b) people who did play those games inevitably got shot down, or moved out of the company simply because they didn't have any friends to defend them when the chips were down. Some within the company would claim that the only people that moved up were the ones that played these games. I can only speak to my experience, however, and I found that when I ran into these kinds of people, that I could pretty much get rid of them by exposing the games. Basically if you were an ethical person, and you stood up against something you thought was unethical, it would come to light.

Today, however, it's time for me to move on regardless. My 5-year experiment is at an end. I achieved most of my goals, and I am just a few days away from embarking on a new adventure with a new company. In my search for a new home, I was looking for a better fit, a place to feel even more comfortable, and a place where my talents could be better applied to the work at hand. Though I haven't officially started, I feel like I've found that place. Only time will prove me right or wrong, I suppose.

More than anything, though, I don't blame anyone else for the things that either went wrong, or that I didn't like in at any previous company for which I worked. I've been a leader, a mentor, a manager, and just a guy getting stuff done. I've seen the people that get things done, and I've seen the people that give every reason under the sun why they can't get anything done. In my mind there are several very clear choices that lead someone to being a doer, or a blamer, and I've simply chosen to be a doer.

As part of that, I'm re-launching this blog to talk about my fundamental working philosophy:

  • Work: First you have to do the hard work, and you can't avoid that. Trying to avoid the hard word so only slows your progress, and limits the choices you're going to have down the line. I also believe that simply being willing to do the hard work puts you so far ahead of the people that don't, it's really in your best interest to buckle down and do it. People the actually produce results will always trump those that talk a big game.
  • Passion: Do what you're passionate about. If you're not doing what you love, get the hell out, and find something that at least pays the bills that you personally care about. For someone like me, working every day on something I'm not passionate about is the equivalent of creative death. I just can't do it and be happy.
  • Choice: The whole goal of putting the work and the passion into years and years of your life is ultimately to have choice. Experience will come. Paychecks will come. But if you stay in a profession that isn't your true love, then the experience you're gaining only really helps you go further in that profession. The longer you stay, the further you lock yourself in. The longer you take to break out, the less time you'll spend doing what you really want to do. So, unless you're in it purely for the money, and you can honestly ignore the hundreds of political and ethical choices you'll have to make along the path to that paycheck (I haven't yet met anyone that can truly do this, and actually succeeds long term), then more power to you. I simply prefer to do the things I love, and to inch closer to an ideal where my life and my work are intertwined.
Corny? Sure, but I've put my money where my mouth is. I'm breaking out of the industry I've been a part of for 10 years, taking a hefty pay cut, and following my passion. Honestly, I have no fears. I've found that when I trust myself, do what I deeply feel is right, and ignore all the reasons not to do it, I basically succeed at whatever I set out to do.

Really, what do I have to lose?

#88 Visit every state bordering Illinois

Holy crap, am I glad to have crossed Indiana off my list.


Paula and I took a day trip from Chicago to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN. Now, the Notre Dame campus was great. Quiet on a Sunday, beautiful, and absolutely spotless. I even got a few photos of the inside of the basilica.

On the way back, however, we stopped in Munster, IN to have a pint at the Three Floyds Brewing Co., and brewpub. I should say that I've had this idea for well over a year, that I wanted to drive out to Notre Dame, because a friend of mine told me it was a beautiful drive in the fall. On the other hand, every time I've brought it up, Paula's never missed a chance to tell me that Indiana is the "armpit of the Midwest." After my stop in Munster, and yes it may be unfair to judge an entire state by one town, I am inclined to believe her.

Never again.

Goals update

It's been months, yes it has. There are many here to cross off, and here they are:


#6 Go GeoCaching

Fun - more fun that I thought it would be, actually. Paula and I went GeoCaching a number of times around our fair city of Evanston, solved many a riddle, and even found a few caches. I'd recommend it as a fair-weather past time activity for anyone.


#17 Do 3 technology projects

I'm going to say that I can count one of the three as complete - building a new web service is a technology project all its own. FeelGoodTrader.com, baby!


#21 Spend at least 1 day a month in the city

I'm happy to report that, by nature of my schedule and activities, I've easily fulfilled this one. Some of the highlights include a great seafood dinner at Fulton's on the River in Chicago, and the boat cruis benefit for PACTT with Paula at my side..


23 Start and finish Fallout 3

A fun, post-apocalyptic game. I didn't enjoy it as much as, say, Oblivion, but good times overall. I only really played through the main story line before decided I'd had enough. It was traded in for Fable II, which wasn't nearly as interesting to me, but Paula loved it, and played it beginning to end.


24 Complete 10 Stave Puzzles

There have been 5 more Stave puzzles finished since my last post. Those things are devious! Good progress on this one!


33 Buy a pedometer

This one was easy, since it's just an app on my phone. Unfortunately I haven't been out walking in a long time - need to get back on that weight-loss plan, eh?


35 See 6 concerts a year

Doing some good ones here. I've seen Josh Ritter, Joe Pug, Crystal Castles, SHAPERS, and Asobi Seksu. In a a little over a month I can add Dar Williams to the list too, a particular favorite of Paula's, that I also enjoy.


36 Discover 10 new musical artists

Here's the new ones that I like, and that seem to matter to me (also got a subscription to Rd.io, which helps a ton):

SHAPERS - absolutely freakin' incredible - my favorite find so far.

Gorillaz - yup, I'm way late to this game, but their new album, "Plastic Beach" is killer.

Parenthetical Girls - a recommendation from by good friend, Dan, my resident musical genius.

The Antlers - another fine recommendation from Dan.


Hey that's four! Not bad at all.


41 Start, or be a part of at least 2 two new web services

KarmaNebula.com & FeelGoodTrader.com. This one has been an awesome, fun ride so far. Can't wait to lauch the FeelGoodTrader beta in three weeks!


59 Have software design be part of my role at work

My current job isn't going to have an opening for this. But, since I've started my own business and I'm the designer, developer, PR guy, and everything, I feel I can safely cross this one off my list.


61 Make 5 new friends in Chicago

I'll count 1 here - a new friend, Andrea, from a local professional networking group. I've met quite a few people here, but so far she's the only one I'd say that I've connected with.


62 Mentor someone in learning a skill

Paula is not the master of (1) all things SquareSpace, and (2) all things Google Docs. She's using it to make her role at PACTT much more efficient, and helping the staff at her school at the same time. Killer!


65 Get involved in my city council

Been there, crossed it off!


72 Watch 101 movies I've never seen before

Hm, seen tons since February, and I lost track. I'll be conservative and say it's been 20 (it's probably been more like 30), but since I stopped keeping tight track, I'll dock myself a few and call it even.


73 See "Wait, wait, don't tell me!" live

Done! Thanks, Paula! I think I might have blogged about this one earlier, but I'm officially crossing it off now.


I even got my photo taken with Mo Rocca!


80 Take a trip on a train

Done! Took a beautiful train ride from Portland, OR to Seattle, WA during the summer. Truth be told I was in the food car drinking beer half the time, and not actually noticing the surroundings that much, but it was good times.


81 Experience 20 new Chicago area restaurants

This one's been done for a while. What an amazing place to experience food, Chicago. Crossing this one off with a big, happy belly!


89 Write a GameFAQ

This one didn't get accepted, unfortunately, but I spent some time writing an FAQ about the RISK dice probabilities and such for RISK: Factions for the 360...

... and then my 360 died. :(


91 Place photography in 10 public spaces

Okay, so 4 of these are done! I ordered my photo prints some time ago, but a couple months back Paula and I went up and down the El Red Line here in Chicago, and placed photos in four public bus stops, so as to brighten the days of some of the passengers. :)


Six more to go!


92 Go miniature golfing with Paula

Done - it was a tie, can you believe that! Paula pulled off this unbelievable shot from inside a miniature Eiffel Tower that will be the stuff of legend for years to come.


98 Buy an HDTV

I caved on this one sometime around late February, I believe. It's been gaming and movie goodness ever since.


_____________________________


That's all for now! Chart and goals list updated!

Slight bump in the night

You'd think I'd gone away and died, leaving this blog to float away and die the death of many, many others.


I'm way behind my progress - about 25 weeks behind where I should be. But that's largely due to my changing role at work, and my launching of KarmaNebula, and FeelGoodTrader.com - a new company, and a new web service I've been working on since January.

But, that won't stop me - after all - it's just a number. I can make that up pretty quickly.