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.

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.

Corrections to My Annual Review

Dear Human Resources Representative:

I recently submitted my self-assessment portion of the college’s annual work review through the online Employee General Overview worksheet as required. However, upon further review, I have come to realize that there were some factual errors and misreported details included in the E.G.O. worksheet I submitted.

I request that you please append the following corrections:

  • When I estimated the amount of time I spend responding to emails, I was including the time spent on the many emotionally-charged responses I craft in my mind before an actual response is sent. The more accurate time should be 10 hours per week, not 50 hours.
  • Among my accomplishments for the year, I mentioned completing a major web content audit for our chemistry department in only one week. However, the actual work only took me about four days, and the rest of that time was spent watching videos of chemistry experiments and explosions on YouTube.
  • Under professional development, it should read “growing expertise in user experience” instead of usher experience. I’m already pretty confident in ability to usher, and almost none of it is useful in my current position at this college.
  • I was not honest when I said my “power animal” is a tiger—I was just trying to seem impressive. My actual “power animal” is a flying squirrel, and I’m not ashamed about it. Flying squirrels are awesome.
  • In my list of goals for the year ahead, it is accessibility that I hope to improve, not our excess ability. I fully support the improvement of any excess abilities if we have them, but feel strongly that accessibility is far more valuable for our community.
  • I don’t know what I was thinking when I included Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” on my desert island music list. Please replace it with Madonna’s “Borderline” instead. It’s a classic, and again, I am not ashamed.
  • I was wrong—it is *not* currently possible to patent or copyright a hashtag.
  • My correct Myers-Briggs profile type is “ENFP” not “R2D2” — I aplogize for the mixup.

Vacation Work

Apparently, I’m not good at taking enough time off throughout the year because it took me until last week to realize that I have ten days of vacation time banked that I have to use before this month is over or I lose it. But now that I’m being forced to use it, I intend to make the most of it.

For starters, I’m taking a full week off from work at the office to stay at home and do work instead. That is, I’m leaving behind my office email and calendar and meetings so I can retreat to bigger, deeper projects; pulling myself away from the demands of others to focus on the demands of my soul.

And I really do mean that. This is time off to feed my soul, my larger self, what makes me me. It is time indulge my creative hunger, dive deeper into the ideas I want to research and explore, and fill in the gaps of home projects that I’ve neglected for too long.

I will probably use some of this time to work on stuff related to my job as well, and that’s okay. We often think of that as a bad thing – we tell each other not to do “work stuff” while we’re away. But I’ve been in my job long enough now that so much of my “work stuff” is also “me stuff” that I care about. There things I want to learn and practice for myself during vactation time because I know they will make me better at my job when I return to the office. Why would we ever discourage that?

We understand the benefits of semi-annual offsite retreats for a leadership team or organization to focus on in-depth discussion and exploration of big ideas, long-term plans, and get to know their colleagues better. So why not use personal time away for the same purpose? Paid vacation time away from the office alone is a perfect opportunity to catch up on reading and research that has piled up; to explore my own creative ideas, make long-term plans, build skills, and find clarity.

I realize it is a priviliged situation to be in at all, to even have a job that offers paid time-off in the first place—I’ve had jobs in the past where this wasn’t the case. And to be able to have enough that I can spend this on my own, and still have real vacation time available later to spend with my wife traveling and not thinking about anything but the experience of being away.

It’s not like I don’t get alone time already. I’m usually up early enough to get an hour or two for daily reading and writing. And that morning focus is good, but it’s limited. It only allows for short writing sprints, iterating and editing blog posts like this, thinking out an idea as I go and redrafting, rewriting for a weekly goal.

A full week off for myself allows for something bigger, a chance to cast my net into much deeper waters and pull ideas and connections to the surface that for now I only sense are there, waiting to be found. But I am not setting any expectations, either. I have no specific goal of what I expect to find. The discovery process itself is the only goal I need.

At the end of this week I may not have much to physically show for it—no thick reports or manifestos, no charts or presentations—but I will have a more detailed map of the terrain than I had before. I will have a better sense of where I’m going, what the obstacles are, the challenges, and the opportunities, and I’ll be able to take my first steps on a path through it all.

I’m leaving the office for a week to work for myself from a fresh perspective. When I return to the office, I plan to bring some of that fresh perspective with me, wrapped in shiny foil swans like choice morsels from an indulgent feast of ideas.

The People I Trust

I’m sharing my process as I prepare the keynote talk I’ll be presenting at the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference on March 18. This is Part Seven; you can find an index of all previous posts in this series on my #ShareHuman page.

I work with a great bunch of people at Ithaca College, and I think I probably owe a lot of them apologies.

I’ve been more than a little cranky and irritable this week because so much of my attention and creative bandwidth has been taken up by the work we’re doing together in our teams—really big, exciting work, but in overwhelming quantities—and that makes the part of me that feels like I should be working more on my conference keynote really anxious that I won’t be able to pull it off.

I think I may have let that frustration slip through the cracks of my attitude in a meeting or two over the past few days. I’m sorry about that.

But it happens to everyone of us eventually. We are all humans with lives outside of work, with personal stuff we have to deal with. We’re adults and we figure out a way to get through it, and as our work lives become more closely knit, we also grow to understand how and when we can support each other through stressful times as well as joyous ones.

The people I work with are really good at this, and make me feel lucky to be a part of their team. They make me feel valuable, and at the same time I am in awe of all the special and effortless talents each of them possesses. That is exactly why my office colleagues are the first people I am turning to for feedback on my presentation.

Within a couple hours of this post being published, I will be presenting a dry-run of my keynote just for them in our conference room, and it will be the first time I have walked through my entire talk out loud in real time. In fact it will be my first time actually putting words to the slides, and trying to string together ideas and themes that have up until that point have really only lived in my head.

Honestly, I’m pretty nervous about this moment. I’m not even sure if the presentation I’ll have to share with them is complete enough to be coherent, let alone cohesive or valuable. But I’m also eager for this moment to happen, because I already know that my colleagues are there to help.

And I planned it all this way on purpose, knowing it would force me to get a full talk completed a week early so I could get the feedback I need from people I trust most. An audience who will be forgiving when I stumble, laugh when I need it, and give me notes that I can really use. People who know me and what I’m trying to achieve, and who want to see me succeed and represent them as best as I can.

Getting this presentation on its feet for the first time for people I trust might be the most important final step in this entire process, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I did this same thing the last time I was creating a new talk and it was a huge benefit for me and that presentation, because my colleagues helped me see clearly what needed to be cut, what needed to grow, and what was missing from the presentation I had, and cleared the path for me to make it into a presentation that succeeded beyond my greatest hope.

So thank you in advance to all my colleagues who will be there to help me this morning, listening and taking notes, being picky and being honest. Despite all the work we all have to do, you are taking time from your day to help me be better, and I can’t thank you enough. I only hope I make it worth your time.

And I’m sorry again if I’ve been cranky or anxious. I know you understand.

Farewell 2015

Today is the first day of a new year, but I feel I’m still saying goodbye to the year that just ended. There have been a lot of changes in my world over the past year, and along the way I’ve had to say goodbye to some people who had an influence on my life in one way or another. So before I get too far into a fresh new year, I want to be sure I put out some final words of thanks to those I’ll be missing.

Thankfully, there have been a few I was able to actually thank personally, like the boss who hired me. She was a major anchor in my work life and career. Losing her set me somewhat adrift, but also gives me new freedom to grow and build on my strengths in the year ahead.

Another anchor many of us lost this year was that of Jon Stewart when he left The Daily Show, which seems odd to say because he didn’t die or completely retire, and I didn’t even know him. But like many of his TV audience, I still felt I knew him and I didn’t realize how much I really appreciated him being there throughout my week. It’s going to be a very different election year without him around, but at least there is hope that his sharp, smart, comedic voice will return someday in the future.

Same goes for David Letterman, who officially did retire this past May. Late night TV is definitely different now without him, his voice, his point of view, his connection to the old-school tribe of broadcast TV pros. I’ll understand and be okay if he doesn’t reappear in some way — he’s earned the right to disappear from view just like Johnny before him. But there will always be a small part of me that will hold out hope to see him reemerge, well-rested, full-bearded, and with something worth saying.

Sadly, there are others we lost this year that we won’t be hearing from again, but the work they left behind in our culture will continue to be discovered and influence other humans just as they influenced me with their creativity, their skills, and their dedication to making art, music, films, and even advertising that used those forms in new ways that hadn’t been done before. Continue reading →

Aphorisms of Discipline

uncluttered desk with macbook computer

To be at the office and to be at work are not always the same thing.

As the prostitute once said, “It’s not the work, it’s the stairs.”

Discipline is the sum of habits multiplied by time. The stronger the habits, the less time one needs.

There are tasks and projects we do, and then there is our work. There is no harmony without all of these notes being sung together.

“You are the song you are learning to sing.”

A tool that makes work is no longer a tool.

Use your tools; don’t let your tools use you.

There will never be productivity tools or tactics that can actually put your ass in the chair and make you get something done.[*]

Self-discipline is the ultimate killer app.

Do not put off repetitive tasks; embrace the opportunity for mindful reflection.

Do it yourself, or delegate it. You can’t do both.

Sometimes the one you must delegate to is yourself in the future.

“Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Baby steps. One day at a time. Bird by bird.

Discipline is a life habit, not a life hack.

Freedom is completing the thing long avoided.

Good discipline requires practice; good practice requires discipline.

When the time comes, you should be there.

Discipline knows the color of the empty inbox.

Discipline is the sound of one hand clapping the laptop shut at the end of the day.


*(If there ever is, it probably means that humanity has lost the fight against the rise of the machines, and I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.)