Destiny Has No Beeper

Something about the arrival of spring tends to bring out thoughts of renewal. Of fresh perspectives and new beginnings. Of making grand plans for change.

I picture myself leaping out of bed like some kind of cartoon, throwing open the curtains on a new spring morning to greet the rising sun. I’ll stand before the window, sipping from a mug of coffee with both hands as I contemplate the dewy buds on the trees and listen to the joyful chatter of birds, and I think to myself, Yes, this is it; this is the year everything’s going to be different, and I’m going to finally do all these things I’ve been wanting to do forever. This is the dawn of my new perfect life.

But then eventually I go to work, and things happen, the momentum disappears, and the reality of spring being more about endless days of cold rain and mud begins to take hold. Even the best intentions succumb to forces of nature.

Stuff happens. Sometimes that stuff is distraction, sometimes it means we suffer a loss. But just as often that stuff is opportunity, and sometimes it is all those things at the same time. The question is if we’ll be too busy trying to make something grand happen that we don’t notice the opportunity when it appears.

I recently finished re-reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and this bit stuck out to me:

“Almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.”

I think he’s on to something. Nobody goes looking for that trenchcoated figure in an alley, but we must be open to the interruption from certainty it provides.

Too much certainty is a dangerous thing. I’m going set goals, but I’m not going to overplan how I acheive them. My only plan is to work toward them, and let the path from here to there take its own shape.

New vs. Different

When do we decide to try something new? And how do we know if it really is new, and not just different?

It seems like everything’s been done already. But not everything that has been done was done well. Often things are done just good enough to be declared done. Good enough to meet the requirements by the deadline. Good enough to break even. Good enough to fill a gap until we think of something better.

Or, Sure, that’s been done before, but not by me. If it’s new to me, I’m going to do it differently, and the result will be different.

Why bother with the new, if different is enough?

Or maybe, let’s keep making what’s different different again. Let’s iterate our way to what matters. Let’s figure it out by trying something different.

Let’s keep working on something because we’re compelled to, because we can’t stop thinking about that idea, that detail, the way this interaction makes me feel, the way people get excited when they hear about it.

Sometimes we can set out to make something that is just different, only to see it become something brand new. A different kind of video camera spawns a whole new first-person video genre. A different actor plays Hamlet, or Batman, and somehow it changes our understanding of Hamlet or Batman because it is so different.

The key is to be sure that the reason to be different reflects an honesty at the core. It comes from a choice to express something genuine, not just what people want to hear or what they expect.

Let’s make what we’re making because we want to, because this is something we need in the world and we see no other way to have it unless we make it ourselves. Maybe others will like it too, maybe not. We’ll find out.

Or maybe we were lucky enough to have people come to us and ask us to be the ones who make this for them, and we agreed it was something the world needed. But we’re still making it for us, because we want the challenge. Because we have an honest need.

Maybe it’s a result of boredom, and we crave the stimulation of change. Perhaps it’s frustration with the current way of doing things. We’re not getting the results we hoped for, or the process is too slow.

Be honest about the goal. Start with different. Let the new happen on its own.

Green hills below a vast clear blue sky

How To Survive Whatever Comes Next

I am part of the popular majority who did not vote for the person who is officially becoming President of the United States today. And like many others in that majority, I have been cycling through feelings of disbelief, anger, sadness, and disappointment since November. Every announcement about the leadership appointments and policy changes expected from the incoming administration are disturbing. All the ongoing investigations around intelligence breaches and Russian influence only make things seem uglier.

I am not happy about any of this. But I am not going to live unhappy because of it, and neither should you.

Regardless of who you voted for, regardless of what you expect to happen next, there is one thing we can all do to make our lives and this country better: we all have to wake up each day and make good decisions about how we’re going to live and work and communicate and contribute to the world in a way that is meaningful to us.

And as I’ve been writing about since this blog began, making good choices means staying HUMAN: Honest, Unafraid, Mindful, Active, and Nice.

Be HONEST with yourself and with others about what really matters to you. Follow the subjective honesty of your heart and your gut to help you understand your values, but don’t ignore the objective honesty of facts and data, especially if they conflict with your instincts. Feel confident that you could explain why you feel the way you do about things, why you choose what you choose, and if you don’t know why, be honest enough to say that too. That’s how we learn and grow.

Be UNAFRAID of bullies and threats against your beliefs and values, and be unafraid to be different, to stand apart from the crowd and share your honest self. And equally important, don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong about something. Admitting you’re wrong is just admitting you’re human. Now that news and social media can influence us so subtly that we’re not even aware of it, it’s highly likely that what you’re sure you understand today may change tomorrow as new information becomes available. Don’t fear that change just because it’s different, but also don’t be afraid to ask questions when the answers aren’t clear.

Stay MINDFUL of how you apply your time and attention every day. Do your work with purpose, informed with the honesty and fearlessness you’ve already built. Don’t lose sight of your values, and don’t be steered astray of your goals by taking on too much at once. Set goals that are important to you, that you know you can achieve, and measure your progress. Don’t just witness your life happening—participate in every day, and let yourself be absorbed in what you’re doing. Breathe, and know that you are breathing.

Be ACTIVE about nurturing your values and seek opportunities to grow. Learn facts, learn history, learn science and culture. See a movie about people who look and talk differently from you. Travel to a place you’ve never been. Discover something inspiring, and then share it with someone. Write about it, photograph it, sing it aloud. If you think you can make change in the world, don’t just stand in place yelling about it—go out and make the change happen. Don’t keep your self to yourself.

Be NICE to your fellow humans. Listen, be patient, be engaged. Ask people about their lives, about their worries. Give time to help when you know help is needed. Share what you can, give support to individuals and organizations that you think are making a difference in the world, and not just to feel good. Yell and scream at problems, not at people. Don’t hate, don’t bully, don’t demean. Be patient, be reasonable, and act with dignity. Be a good citizen, willing to work with others for the benefit of all.


As John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

I choose to focus on the good today, and be grateful for the bad that never came to be. I choose not to waste whatever miracles lie ahead but help make them happen. I choose to be Honest, Unafraid, Mindful, Active, and Nice.

Stay human, share human, and live a good life. We’re all still here, we’ll still be here tomorrow, and the day after that. Let’s make a heav’n of hell together today and see what happens.

Work on Vacation

I am technically on vacation as I write this. I’m not supposed to be checking email, or doing anything related to work. I’m not supposed to be updating documents or spreadsheets or doing research. And yet I have done all of those things every day of my vacation within view of the ocean.

And you know what? It’s been an amazing vacation, and it truly has been restful and relaxing the whole time. So why am I “on vacation” but still doing “work” at the beach?

Because I’m only doing work I really want to do, and only for two or three hours in the morning. The rest of the day is devoted to being on vacation with my wife, playing epic games of miniature golf and skeeball, reading novels on the beach, and consuming copious amounts of fried and freshly shucked seafood and soft-serve ice cream. You know – vacation stuff.

Because the point of vacation isn’t simply about about “not doing work”—it’s about taking a break from the things you have to do and focusing instead on only doing things you want to do, and doing it all in as relaxed and leisurely a manner as possible. I asked myself, What is it I am taking a vacation from? and whatever the answer, those are the things I should not be doing.

Or to think of it another way: I choose to use my vacation time, “me” time, to finally indulge my energy and attention on all the things that I feel I’d rather be doing when I’m stuck doing work. What I’m taking a vacation from is the obligations to others, and focusing instead on just hanging out with my wife, being as leisurely as possible.

Did I bring a lot of material related to my work with me? Yes, because it’s stuff I really want to work on for myself. Lots books and notes to review for my upcoming conference presentations, but also my own beach reading material for kicking back on the sand under an umbrella.

Vacations for us mean leisurely mornings with few plans. Coincidentally, mornings are a peak time of energy and attention for me, a time when I’m most able to do productive work. By taking two or three hours every morning of leisure time doing some of the work I want to get done for myself, I am able to relax and use all my remaining energy and attention fully to enjoy the rest of the day free of distraction.

By allowing myself to indulge in doing the work I truly want to get done for myself, I am able to get rid of the nagging feelings of things left undone. It’s amazing how much even just a single productive hour can make on the rest of my day, all while still sleeping late and relaxing and enjoying the sights and sounds and cool breezes of Cape Cod in September.

So I won’t feel guilty about checking email or updating spreadsheets while I’m on vacation, as long as I’m honest with myself about doing it because it’s something I genuinely want to do, and will enjoy having done. The key is to keep it to a short, set amount of time, and then letting go of it for the rest of the day.

Scheduling a little time for productive work during vacation can be a wonderful thing as long as you’re smart and honest about it. Don’t work just to work, and don’t engage with anything you don’t feel drawn to. Vacation time is you time, and that’s what’s most important.

I’m happy I found this balance, and I’ve had a wonderful week because of it. In fact, thanks to fewer distractions on my mind during the day, I think my miniature golf game has improved – I’m almost making par for every course.

More importantly, I’m having a great time because I made time to work on vacation.

Doing Too Much

“You know, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this project right now…”

That’s not a phrase I hear often in meetings, and not a mentality I usually associate with myself or my hardworking colleagues. But until someone said it out loud, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that not continuing a project was ever an option. And it felt so good to realize it might be true.

We have been talking for months about a small upgrade project that could have a significant impact, focused on the benefits it could bring to our users and the new things it would help us learn about them. And technically we could get it done. Those of us involved would have just enough time that we could build it, test it, and launch what we need to have something running within a couple of weeks.

But it wouldn’t be a great user experience.

Back in May, it seemed doable. But things change. Other priorities appear, time and resources become scarce, and the requirements for implementing an upgrade that once seemed so doable suddenly have a lot of question marks next to them.

With so many other projects going on, and so many bigger things we need to focusing our time and energy toward, it’s clear that trying to do this well on top of everything else simply wouldn’t work. Or, at least, if we wanted to do this, it couldn’t be done the same ways we’ve done it in the past. Not with the same people, and not without training others.

So the questions had to be asked now, before we committed: Should we really be doing this right now if we’re not sure we can deliver a valuable experience? What do we lose if we wait a year? Maybe if we wait, the other big things we’re working on will teach us something about this project that can help us make it even better anyway?

I am so glad I work with a team who aren’t afraid to be human and imperfect. To question a plan in progress is a sign that someone is paying attention from a higher perspective and being willing to talk about that is a huge benefit.

So now we have a decision to make, and it will involve further discussion, but at least we’re talking honestly about our work and what it means for our audience, and we’re unafraid to speak up about it and admit there are things we can’t do. We’ve become unburdened, and feels like a weight has lifted.

We are admitting we are a human team, and figuring out together when to ask if we are really doing something valuable, or perhaps we are doing too much.

Time Passing

Sixteen years ago today, I married my wife here in the beautiful town of Ithaca, standing under cover of light fog and misty rain just up the hill from the college campus where our lives first entwined.

Just three years later we moved to Ithaca for good, and it was this week nine years ago that we bought our first home, our own little parcel of the city we love.

It’s the same home where I now sit beside my favorite other person in the world, typing out this little thank you to the universe for all of it.

Let me always be worthy of all of this.

 

The Feedback You Want

I’ve been holding on to this for a while, but I wanted to share a bit of feedback from my talk at HighEdWeb NE this past March. I received a lot of very kind and positive notes, which was flattering, but there was only one note among all of this anonymous feedback that truly resonated with me:

I’m not sure it really came together to form a coherent whole. Also, I’m not sure it quite managed to be as inspirational as it appears like it was meant to be. Sorry.

I have no way of knowing who shared that, but that might be the best piece of feedback  received all year. Why? Because it was honest.

Honest, thoughtful feedback is the best kind of feedback to give, and the best kind to receive. But sharing that level of feedback effectively sometimes feels like more effort, and that may be why we don’t see enough of it.

Take a look at that quote above again. Within the context of all the other notes of praise and thanks I recieved, one may be tempted to label this particular note as “negative” feedback but actually there’s nothing negative about it—it doesn’t say “that was bad” or “you’re not a good speaker” or “I didn’t like this.”  Instead, this person took just a few sentences to share two specific areas where they felt the talk was weak, and they kept the feedback focused on the content and substance of what I was sharing. It wasn’t about me, it was about my talk.

And that was exactly the kind of feedback I wanted. As soon as I read that, my thought was “Yes! Finally, someone who felt the same way I did about this!” This one person confirmed my inner discomfort with what I had presented, confirmed my own lingering feeling there were still a lot of ideas and connections within my keynote that were not fully formed; that it was a cake that needed more time to bake but I rushed it and cleverly disguised the flaws with extra frosting in the hopes that nobody would notice.

Well, at least one person did notice. This person was paying attention, and very directly and succinctly offered two notes on where I might be able to improve. Both of which I needed to hear, and both of which I agree with.

The only part I don’t agree with is the “Sorry” at the end. Whoever wrote this has no need to apologize for not enjoying something the way others seemed to enjoy it. And nobody should ever apologize for honest feedback. If I had been given this feedback directly at the time, I probably would have offered to buy this person a beer. But there is a natural tendency to feel like a downer if you don’t enjoy something the way others do, and we become reluctant to share and be “that person” in the crowd.

Don’t let fear of being unkind stand in the way of helping others improve. Honest feedback that comes from a place of genuine support is a greater kindness than simply saying something was nice or okay.

Most anyone who has worked hard on creating something and then sharing it with an audience will crave thoughtful notes that are specific about something the audience liked as well as what they didn’t. As far as I’m concerned, honest feedback is that supports improvement is the feedback I most want to hear, and that’s the only kind of feedback I intend to give in return.