Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Getting Around to It, Eventually

As I sit here watching my son fall asleep in his homework, I'm thinking about one thing: procrastination.  Ah, the sweet smell of responsibility deferred! Procrastination is inverted instant gratification, replacing the deeper satisfaction of a job well done with a shallow taste of, well, anything else.  It's doing the dishes when you should be doing the taxes, cleaning the litter box when you should call your mother, rearranging your music library when you should be writing that next chapter of your book.  It's playing video games with your friends when you have homework to do (meaningful look across the room).

People have written scads of articles about procrastination, offering all sorts of ideas about why we do it, why we shouldn't to it, and how we can trick (or force) ourselves out of it.  About once a year, some cutting-edge technology/psychology/business magazine will come out with an article hailing the virtues of procrastination, usually with the idea that a panic-induced bout of creativity is better than none at all.  But in the prevailing opinion, as Calvin Coolidge said when his wife asked him what the preacher had to say about sin, "He was against it."

I think that we all agree that there are important things that we should be doing right now, certain tasks our bosses or spouses (or bossy spouses) wish us to complete, certain dreams we want to pursue.  We know we'll feel better when we finish the task or pursue the dream, but we just can't seem to muster the energy and focus.

So why do we do this?  Why do we replace something meaningful and worthwhile with a momentary distraction?  Why not just do the work now and play later?

I got nothin'.

I think I'm supposed to have an opinion on this, but I'm as bad as everyone else.  Let's face it: there are times when we just don't want to do anything that we're supposed to do.  Sometimes for years.  And I can't argue with that.  Well, I could, but I don't feel like it right now.


OK now I'm ready.

A little procrastination is probably a good thing.  It allows us to release the tension, to let our minds and bodies relax, to do something that's just for us for just a little while.  A life without this kind of relaxation is dangerous.  All work, dull boy, axe through door, etc.  Procrastination is like candy for the soul, a taste of something sweet in the midst of our vegetable-flavored duties.  But like candy, too much can ruin you: when the responsibility deferred becomes the opportunity missed, when the bills you were meaning to pay go to collection, when the secret dream becomes that thing you never tried, when "later" becomes "too late."  We can put things off for a little while, but eventually we have to get off our butts and get some stuff done.

Last Wednesday kicked off the season of Lent, the 40 (-ish) days leading up to Easter.  For the past ten years or so, my decidedly non-Catholic family and I have participated in our own version of this season, called "The 40 days of Faith."  It's something we picked up at the Greater Boston Vineyard church, and I've found it to be a very useful process for refreshing my faith, my spirit, and my outlook on life.  As part of this annual experiment, we choose something to give up, a modern variation on fasting.  In prior years, I've given up sweets, wine and beer, and video games.  This year, I decided to try something different.  Rather than giving something up, I'm committing to write something every day.  It might be a blog post, it might be working on a new book (I've been playing with an idea that could be fun), it might even be a play.  But I'm going to write something every day that isn't another work email.

Writing is more than simply a creative process for me.  It's work.  When I finish a writing session, I'm usually equal parts exhausted and wound up.  My brain seems to be running at ten times it's normal speed, but at the same time it often seems to lock up.  I've never understood people who say that they "have to write."  I always assumed that meant they didn't have another paying job.

At the same time, I rarely feel so exhilarated as when I've written something and shared it.  I can't wait to hear what people think, because writing distills my thoughts to a purer essence.  I spend my days thinking on my feet, talking through problems, and basically running a 9- or 10-hour improv scene that's always set in an office.  When I write, I finally have time to think.  I can vent my frustrations in a constructive fashion, explore deep feelings and concepts that require time to coalesce, or find the perfect punchline for a joke (just read to the end).  Writing is my meditation.

So this year for Lent, I'll be writing.  Or giving up not writing, I guess.  I'd say I'm giving up procrastination, but I'm already almost a week late.  Let's see how it goes.

By the way feel free to harass me on Facebook (if we're friends) or Twitter (even if we've never met) if you don't see anything coming out.  I'll take all the inspiration I can get.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Reed Group's new digs

We moved into our new headquarters today, and the new building is awesome!  Check out these pics:

The reception wall is lined with Colorado river stones.

Break room with fancy coffee and free soda.

Collaboration!  Every project team has their own scrum area with a flat screen for demos, videoconferencing, and displaying the scrum board

Everyone was trying out their new sit/stand desks

Our offices are in there.

Nice view, Doug!

Erik pretends to work, but he was really just playing with his desk:

"Down!  Whee, this is fun!"

One of our conference rooms, which are named after Colorado 14ers

Did I mention that we have free gym memberships?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Feelin' the Feelings

A while back, I decided to get in touch with my feelings.  Unfortunately, I'm an introverted white male with strong logical tendencies, so my feelings are not only hard to find, they may be actively hiding from me.  Plus, I'm not sure that everyone really wants me waving my feelings around all the time.   They have better things to do than deal with my schtick.

This is a problem that we introverts, or "quiet people," as we prefer to be called, have had for years.  We aren't loud and showy to begin with, so people aren't sure what to make of us when we start making them notice us.  Extroverts are already out there, talking to everyone, interrupting meetings to see what's going on, walking up to strangers and offering their opinions on Asian fusion cuisine (or as they like to call it, "Fasian!").  We already know everything about them, so all those feelings are just icing on the chatty cake.   When an introvert starts to share their feelings, on the other hand, it makes people nervous.  They say things like:

"What's up with Chuck?  He's kind of all over the place today."

"Why is Andy so angry lately?  Do you think we need to talk to Security?"

"Aaah!  You startled me!  How long have you been sitting there?"

Extroverts with feelings are "dynamic."  Introverts with feelings are "moody."

Despite this bias, I was determined to try.  My inner child was in there somewhere, and I was sure he had something to say.  I wanted to be more mindful, more "in the moment."  I wanted to listen to that little voice and benefit from its guidance.

When I was a young man, I pretty much had two feelings: "hungry" and "sleepy."  Sometimes, usually before or after lunch, I would combine them into "hungrily sleepy" or "was hungry, now sleepy."  But now I'm a grown man -- with children and everything -- so my emotional range has widened and deepened.  I've added "irritated."

No, I jest.  I haven't really delved into the richness of my psyche yet, so it's too early to categorize these new feelings.  Let's not be all about the labels, people.  Let it develop.

The first step to getting in touch with your feelings is to recognize when you're having them.  I learned that what my younger self mistook for hunger was actually a wide range of emotions.  They all just happened to affect my stomach, so I naturally assumed that I needed a Quarter Pounder.  It turns out that what I really needed was love.  Or to punch something.  Or a good laugh.  Or, sometimes, a Quarter Pounder.  As I stopped and took stock of these sensations, I realized that I was having feelings.  The second thing I realized was that most of these feelings involved wanting to pound someone.

There's a problem with asking men to get in touch with our emotions: we're men.  We have testosterone, a chemical that God (or evolution if you prefer, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster if you're a smug Internet smartass) put in our bodies to make sure that we didn't ever join together and unify the world under a single benevolent government.  As long as there's testosterone, we'll never get along. We'll be too busy pummeling each other, lifting weights, and making up stupid competitions to see who's the lifetime office champion in Office Chair Rugby or fantasy football.  The true story of the Tower of Babel isn't that God created hundreds of different languages to stop the people from building the giant ziggurat.  He just introduced the idea of the keeper league with a snake draft and all the men went home to start working on their cheat sheets.

As a man, I spend a large part of my day annoyed at almost everyone else within my line of sight, smell, hearing, or memory.  I start my day in the car, surrounded by morons and maniacs, to drive to an office where everyone is either too slow, stubborn, or misguided to recognize that I'm right, and the sooner they all get with the program, the happier we'll all be.  Let me point out that this has nothing to do with my current job, which I actually enjoy.  I have felt this way since I worked at the Dairy Queen in high school.  I am the center of a small, irritating universe, and my testosterone tells me that I'll feel much better if I just kick a little ass, consequences be damned.  Of course, I'm also a civilized man, raised by a good mother who taught me that hitting people just because they were annoying or wrong was a poor long-term strategy, so I do not  kick anybody's ass.  Instead, I tell the testosterone to go away and it returns to chewing on my stomach lining.  This is what we call "stress."

I had found my inner child, and he was yelling for everyone to keep it down and get back to work.

I decided to dig past the superficial levels, beyond "annoyance" and "irritation," past the rocky section of "what did I ever do to you?" and the sedimentary layers of "Oh, right, that's what.  Sorry about that."  I'm a complex man, damn it, and I have levels.  I discovered another feeling: insecurity.

We all want to feel good enough, as though we measure up to whatever standards are being applied to us.  We all want to be told that we're doing a good job.  Behind the anger, the frustration, the "why won't you listen to me?" we secretly wonder if it's because we aren't worth listening to in the first place.  This is the motivation behind every jingoistic politician, every legalistic preacher, and every hedonistic Paleovegan: we all want a measuring stick, and we want to make sure that we score higher than everyone else.  When we can't find one, we pick the things that we were already good at and we make them the standard.  Ta-daa!  Instant winner!

My insecurities were pretty pedestrian: was I a good enough father, husband, and boss?  Was I ever going to fulfill my dream of becoming a professional writer, actor, or playwright (possibly, probably not at this point, and maybe)?  Was I funny enough or not taking things as seriously as I should?  Was I putting people at ease or scaring them?  Was I making every place better because I was there or was I just taking up space?  In other words, was I enough?

Now my inner child was in the corner, sucking his thumb even though he knew he wasn't supposed to.

I dug deeper, past the worry, past the blame, past the noisy voices of "should," "ought," and "too late."  And suddenly it got quiet.  I looked around, but it was dark.  I called out, "Hellooo!  Is anyone here?"

A deep voice said, "Shh!  I'm thinking!"

I followed the voice through the dark, the quiet deepening around me.  I found a statue.  Head in hand, it sat, quietly pondering.

"What are you thinking about?" I asked.

The voice spoke again.  "Really?!?  What part of 'Shh' was hard to understand?"  I proudly realized that I could recognize that emotion now: that was annoyance!

"Sorry.  It's just that I've come a long way.  I don't know if you realize it, but it's a mess out there!"

The voice sighed, "Of course I realize it.  Why do you think I'm in here?"

I looked around.  "Where is here, exactly?"

"This is your core.  Your heart.  Your soul.  This is where it all starts."

"Funny, I thought there'd be more here.  A few posters, at least.  Some pictures, maybe?"

"Pssht.  Distractions.  I need quiet if I'm going to do any good."

I hesitated.  "And... who are you, exactly?"

"I'm your mind.  Duh."

"My mind?  And did you just say, 'Duh?'  That seems sort of counter-productive, coming from my mind."

"Be quicker on the uptake, then."

"Now you're just being mean."

The voice laughed.  "Look, you want filters?  Go back outside.  Here we deal in truths.  And cravings sometimes.  I could really go for some pizza right now.  But mostly truths.  This is where we see clearly, listen openly, and speak truly.  It's here, in the silence, that we can hear The Still, Small Voice.  And if we can get through all the noise out there, we give you insight."

I looked around.  "Um... who's 'we'?"

"Never mind that," the voice replied hurriedly.  "Do you need anything else?  You laid some heavy problems on me today, and I have to get back to your subconscious with some answers before midnight."

"Just one more question: have you seen my inner child anywhere around here?"

I got a sense of a hand waving vaguely.  "He's around somewhere, probably coloring on the walls or eating paste.  You never really developed there, did you?  Now go!"

I went.

I don't know what this all means, but I guess I learned a few things from my emotional experiment.  First, women are much better equipped to deal with all of these feelings and things.  I don't know why, but I suspect it has something to do with shoes.  Second, not all feelings are bad.  Scary and powerful, but not bad.

Third, I like it when it's quiet.  But I guess you already knew that.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Glancing back, charging ahead

If you know me (or read this blog), then you know that I'm not much for new year's resolutions.  My feeling is, if you want to make a positive change in your life, then just do it.  Don't wait for a particular date, a specific birthday, or a traumatic life event.  Lost your groove?  Stop whining about it and go get it back, or else accept that you now live a grooveless existence and find the peace in that.  Feeling bad about your thighs?  Go for a walk, hit the gym, or go buy some sweatpants.  Want more adventure in your life?  Ask a Bostonian for directions from Cambridge to Roxbury.  Let's not pretend that there's something magical about the middle of winter that makes us all more likely to stop, start, quit, join, lose, or gain.  There's no Fountain of Self-Improvement that only gushes at midnight, January 1.

That said, there is something about this time of year that makes me stop and take stock of my life.  Maybe it's wrapping up budget season that makes me want to think about three-year goals.  Maybe it's my late-December birthday that adds a double whammy to the turning of the year, making me listen more carefully to the clock ticking away my hours on earth.  Maybe it's just that it's too cold to go outside and the last week of the football season is really lame.  Whatever the reason, I like to take a few minutes to stop and think about the year that has passed and the year to come.

This year had some amazing moments:
  • Visiting a high school friend whom I hadn't seen for 25 years and having him show me and my family around the thousand-year-old French village where he lived while his 4-year-old schooled me in French.
  • Going for a jog around Buckingham palace, then drinking a pint of English bitter in a local pub.
  • Looking out at Paris from the top of Notre Dame.
  • Skiing the back bowls of Vail with my son and reveling in the beauty of God's creation on every run (God loves the pow)
  • Exploring Bend, OR, with my dad and brother and learning that the best beer comes from the back of a gas station convenience store.
  • Seeing my daughter prepare to speak at Denver Comic-Con about the short movie she made.
  • Listening to my wife play her newest songs for me, before anyone else gets to hear them on her new CD.
  • Publishing my book after ten years of writing, editing, and sharing it with friends and family, then actually selling 40 or 50 copies.
  • Joining my family in blessing and bringing joy to friends and strangers alike, wherever the Spirit led us.  There are moments throughout the year when I got to watch my wife do her magical blessing/gift-giving thing, but the most precious memories are when we all did it together, whether it was packing backpacks full of school supplies for kids in our community or stripping every remaining tag off of the local Giving Tree this Christmas. 
There were some challenging moments as well:
  • The trip to the emergency room after I shredded my elbow on my first mountain bike ride of the year ("Woo-hoo!!!  Ow, ow, ow...")
  • Working through mysterious and not-so-mysterious health issues and wondering why I chose this year to try out that new high deductible plan
  • Raising teenagers.  Remembering what it was like to be a teenager, and then realizing that my dad actually was right most of the time. Then sending my son outside to run laps around the house until he could get his body under control.
  • Trying to figure out how to keep a team together, motivated, and away from each other's throats while helping a company grow faster than it's every grown before.
Looking at this list, there are a few things that I notice that I want to carry into 2015, as well as a few things that I want to leave behind.

1. It's all about the stories we tell.
Life isn't about things.  It's about stories.  I will never tell a story about my car or a suit that I bought (except about how much I look like a trained bear when I wear it).  I'll never regale my friends with a scintillating tale of how big my house is.  I will tell them about walking the twisty streets of Ile de la Cite and having my first full conversation in French with a crepe vendor, or about the family in Nemours whose 4-hour garage dinner outstripped the 3-hour extravaganza that we experienced with my friend John.  My son and I will wax philosophical about Shangri-La in Vail's China Bowl, not because we want you to be impressed that we've skied Vail, but because it is so magical to lose yourself in the trees, with nothing but the quiet shushing of your skis and the joyful shouts of your companions to keep you company.  These are the moments that we remember, that we share with others, that we want to relive over and over.  

I received some great advice from a pastor years ago.  He said, "Don't spend your money on things.  Spend it on people and on experiences.  This will make you rich."  He was right.  Whenever I make a major purchase, I ask myself, "Am I buying a thing or am I buying an experience?  What stories will we tell about this?"  My season ski pass isn't just a pass for outdoor activity: it's an investment in my relationship with my son.  The long drives to the mountains, the rides up on the lift, and the runs back down are creating memories we'll cherish for years.  The conversations we have as we sit in traffic would never happen any other time, because we'd never have that much time with nothing else to do. I'm receiving an enormous dividend on that investment, with a return that's measure in decades.

2. I need to care more about people and less about what they think.
Last week, I had a sublime moment on Facebook.  I was looking at pictures posted by my family and saw one from my dad's family, labeled, "The Hammer family, in their Christmas hats."  Sure enough, there were my aunt, uncle, cousins, and significant others, all wearing floppy sun hats.  It was a sweet, silly picture, and the caption made it perfect.  Sure enough, there they were, in hats.  I don't know if my aunt was going for the laugh with her perfectly factual caption, but knowing her dry sense of humor, I suspect that she was.  Whether she meant it or not, she made me laugh.  She also made me proud.  That picture said, "We're wearing our silly, practical hats, we're together, and we're happy about it.  And we wanted to share it with you."  They didn't care if you thought their hats were silly, they liked them.

When you spend most of your energy worrying about what others think, you become one of two things: a neurotic mess or a control freak.  In response to what you think others are thinking, you spend all of your energy either worrying about what's coming next and trying to change your behavior or trying to control your environment so that you can always put on the best face. The neurotic ones make themselves miserable, but I think that the control freaks are worse, because they make everyone miserable.  In both cases, you're trying to control something that's uncontrollable, because it doesn't belong to you.  You're trying to control other people's brains.

I need to be more like the Hammer family.  To be clear, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what impression I'm making.  In fact, my boss would say that I should probably be a bit more concerned about it, since I have a tendency to say what I think -- politely, mind you -- whether it's what people want to hear or not.  I've always been a big believer in truth.  But while I'm not concerned with falsely impressing people or putting on a show to make people like me, I do spend a lot of time letting people stress me out.  I worry about what they'll do tomorrow, or how someone is going to make my life difficult, and then I try to decide what I'll do about it.  In other words, I try to control them by anticipating them, then countering their moves with my own to try to get the best outcome.  It's well-intentioned: I'm not maneuvering for my own advantage, but for what I perceive to be the best outcome for my team, organization, and company, but it's exhausting.  I spend hours holding meetings in my head, arguing with people who aren't there, and rehearsing 20 different scenarios, most of which are unpleasant in some way, just to make sure I'm ready.  When the real conversation comes along, my first response is an annoyed, "This again?  Haven't we already talked about this 10 times?" before I realize that all of those other conversations only took place in my imagination.

The problem with this is that, after a while, these people stop being people to me: they've become positions in an argument, and annoying ones at that.  I'm less concerned about how they feel and how I can show them that I value them and more concerned about removing them as obstacles.  I hate being treated that way myself, but in some cases I've fallen into a trap and taken them down with me.  

This year, I need stop seeing people as problems to be solved.  This won't magically make the problems go away, but I need to separate the person from the problem.  One can be solved, the other needs to be loved.  Chances are, if I can get back to that, then the problems will get smaller, too, or at least we'll outnumber them when we work together to solve them.

3. I need to find more ways to have fun.
Having fun has always been a primary value in my life.  We only have so many seconds on this earth, and I want to hate as few of them as possible.  Unfortunately, an honest look at last year's memories points out one glaring truth: I didn't have much fun at work last year.  I worked hard, and my team and I accomplished things that I'm proud of, but not one of my fun memories came from the place where I spend the vast majority of my waking hours.  Some people are fine with that: work is what they do to pay for the things that they'd rather be doing.  I can't live like that, for one simple reason: that math doesn't work.  If more that half of my waking hours are spent at work, then there's no way I can pack enough fun into the remaining hours in a year to make the majority of the year fun if my work life isn't.  I need to inject some fun into every day or I'm falling behind.  

So what does that mean for 2015?  Should I start hopping jobs until I find a place that's fun all the time?  That way lies insanity, my friends.  Every job has good and bad elements, and from what I've seen, the places that value fun and excitement over making money only last as long as they can find investors to pour money into their "vision."  But that doesn't mean that work has to be miserable, either.  You have to find the balance between doing what needs to be done, finding satisfaction in the challenges, and making time to just be silly on occasion.  Looking back at last year, there were some properly silly moments -- the time that I dressed in a Flashdance outfit to present the quarter's accomplishments through interpretive dance stands as a high point -- but probably not enough.  Last year, I lost my balance; this year, I'll get it back.  

What were your moments from last year?  What stories will you tell, and to whom?  When you look back at this time next year, what new stories will be waiting?

I can't wait to hear them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Sacred Outcome

It's the end of the year, which means that, at work, we've already spent the last month or two talking about what we want to do next year.  We have big plans: bringing on a batch of jumbo clients, moving into a new building, advancing our products, and making our organization faster and more nimble than it's ever been (we're going to have to, if we want to bring on all those clients).  As we've talked about all of these big ideas, we've also talked about what might keep us from achieving those goals.  Over and over, we come to the same conclusion: we can't keep doing what we've done before, or we won't make it.  My company's been in business for over 25 years, and our software division has been around for 6 years.  In technology time, that's like 30 years when you look at how much has changed, and how some decisions we made 5 years ago look like the crazed ramblings of a drunken lunatic when we look at them now.  More than once, I've heard one of my engineers say, "What idiot wrote this feature? Oh, wait, that was me."

Change is continuous in our business, but this year the need is greater than usual.  We need to get serious about this if we're going to succeed.  So we came up with a phrase to guide us:

Nothing is sacred except the outcome.

If we're going to change, really change, the way we do business, we have to let go of everything that got us here.  We can't hold onto that great idea that solved a big problem last summer, nor the "best practices" that took years to develop, nor even the new process that we finally finished polishing last month.  If any of these things stand in the way of our goals, they have to go.  If they still make sense in the new world, then they can stay.  If they have no bearing on the new solution but still have value of their own, then they don't need to be touched; we have bigger fish to fry.  But if these things become and obstacle, then they'll be demolished.  Even the best idea grows old and tired over time.

This is a hard concept to embrace.  We talk about building a culture of continuous improvement, and we even practice it in small ways, but we still become attached to our ideas, our way of doing things, over time.  I'm fine with tweaking your development process every few weeks, but keep your hands off of my code branching strategy!  Do you know how many whiteboards I had to fill before everyone agreed to that?  And what about your support ticket management?  Maybe we should look at that before we get all handsy with another person's source code archive.

Too often, I've had conversations like this:

Me: So why do we do it that way?

Engineer: Well, three years ago, there was this problem, and after we worked really hard we came up with this solution.  We've been doing it that way ever since.

Me: Has anything changed since then?

Engineer: As far as I know, we're all still living in a uni-directional time flow, so yes, some things have changed.

Me: Then why are you thinking like it's still three years ago?

A lot of my engineers are smart-asses.  But they're smart smart-asses, which is why I like them.

When I solve a problem, I want it to stay solved.  That's why I put so much energy into coming up with the best answer in the first place.  That tendency to push beyond an answer to the best answer has annoyed a lot of people in my life, from my parents and teachers on to my colleagues and bosses, but it's also gotten me to where I am.  I don't settle for kicking the problem down the road.  I want that problem dead.  I want its family dead, I want its house burned to the ground, I never want to hear about it or its little problematic friends again.  That takes a lot of work.  This is great when I first come up with a solution, but what about when circumstances change?  When the context of the problem no longer applies, what then?  That solution took a lot of work, but now it no longer fits.  What was a great answer to a problem is now nothing more than baggage.  As difficult as it is, I have to let it go.  We have to let it go.  We have to leave the past effort behind, grateful for the value it provided, but not clinging to it past its useful life.

We all have sacred things in our lives, whether at work or otherwise, that were purchased at a great price, whether measured in dollars or hours.  These things might have brought us great success in the past, or they might have just been so difficult to attain that we can't imagine letting them go now.  But too often, the sacred object becomes the one thing that holds us back from success, from moving on to the next goal.  When we say, "I'll change anything except for that," we wall off entire areas of our lives, forcing us to take lengthy detours to achieve our goals, if in fact we can attain them at all.  The great prize becomes a weight around our neck, dragging us down even as we seek to climb higher.

What do you want to achieve in your life?  What "sacred things" are keeping you from doing it?  Maybe it's time to shift the focus from what has come before to what is yet to come.  Let's leave behind those entangling threads, recognizing that last year's efforts are sunk cost, not to be counted in our future plans, and let's reach for new things.  Let's feel free to change, to strike out anew, and to achieve that sacred goal.

Nothing is sacred except the outcome.