Advice for me in ‘83

Today’s journal prompt asks, “What career advice would you give your 16-year-old self?”

I imagine that younger me has been selected for an experiment where he can talk to an older version of himself, but the topic is limited to career advice. Otherwise, sixteen-year-old me would want to know winning lottery numbers.

Sixteen-year-old me wanted to be a best-selling science fiction author, and he would be disappointed to know that I don’t have a single novel published yet. “Why not?” he would ask.

“Mostly, because I let self-doubt stop me,” I would say. “You might want to do something about that.”

Solvable

I have a deck of journal prompts my wife bought me. The card I drew today asked, “Think of a situation that’s currently got you stumped. How would one of your heroes resolve it?” And I thought, I’m not stumped by anything right now. It’s not that I know how to resolve every problem in my life; I don’t. But I believe that all my problems are solvable even if I can’t see the solution right now.

This outlook grows out of my career as a Scrum Master and an agile coach. The purpose of Scrum is to solve complex problems. The solution to a complex problem is unknowable in advance. You have to experiment your way to success, and success is not guaranteed, easy, or obvious. You fail a lot. You learn from the failures.

I’ve been using Scrum for my own life goals for over a year now. Every week is a Sprint, and every Sprint is an experiment. I experiment with writing techniques. I experiment with improving my health, both physical and mental. I experiment with different ways to improve my performance at work. I’ve come to believe that there are few personal problems that can’t be solved, if you refuse to stop looking for a solution.

When do you feel happiest?

Given my history of depression and anxiety, it would be understandable for the pandemic and the economic crash overwhelm me. But they haven’t. I’ve established a welcome sense of equilibrium in the face of catastrophe. I am understandably concerned for my health and the health of those I love, especially my parents and in-laws. But I’m doing what I can to be healthy. I recognize that thinking about what might happen is wasteful, pointless. Somehow, I can let those fears go when they arise. Likewise, I don’t linger on financial concerns beyond keeping an eye on what I can do to make sure I stay employed and spend my money wisely.

I told a colleague recently that I could write my ideal job description in three words: think, create, teach. I’m at my happiest when I have time to think and learn, headspace and time to write, and an outlet to teach others what I know. I am fortunate that my life does revolve around those three things. I spend a good portion of every day in a state of flow, where time doesn’t matter and I’m challenged to the edge of my abilities. I’m satisfied and happy as a result.

What about you? When do you feel happiest?

Breathe

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Photo by Fabian Møller on Unsplash
Last Thursday, I had a very stress-filled morning. I had more than twice as much work as I could do in the two hours I had before I left for the airport to fly home. I knew I couldn’t get it all done, but the size of my task list still overwhelmed me.
 
I have become pretty good at recognizing that paralyzing feeling and I know how to cope with it. I closed my eyes and did a couple of rounds of 4-7-8 breathing. Calmer, I took up the most important task on my list. After finishing it, I used the breathing technique again to maintain my balance. I repeated the cycle until it was time to go. On the way to the airport, I tweeted about it:

The technique is very simple. In case the embedded tweet isn’t visible, here are the steps:

  • Inhale deeply for four seconds
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds
  • Exhale for eight seconds.

Repeat as necessary.

On Friday, I had another stress-filled morning, and I even put a note at the top of my to-do list: “Breathe” is all it says. Every time I finished a task and looked for the next thing I need to do, I saw the reminder to take nineteen seconds for my mental health.
 
I don’t know why this technique works, but it does. It lowers blood pressure and helps manage stress. Try it when you feel stress. It makes a big difference.

 

 

Air Cruelty

I am writing this on my flight home from a business trip. The man who boarded ahead of me has a thick, hacking cough. He insisted, “I don’t have what everyone thinks I have. It’s just a cold.” I didn’t ask how he could be certain.

I sat in an exit row seat—the one with extra legroom. He sat a row ahead of me on the other side of the aisle. No one sat in his row, nor did anyone else sit in mine. No one needed to—it’s a Southwest flight, and it is only 2/3 full, so there is plenty of space.

As people filed by, many gave him dirty looks. Others mocked him, some criticized him. One man complained to the flight attendant, “Now my exit row seat is ruined.” I heard someone mutter, “Irresponsible.”

Maybe it is. I know I’ve flown while sick before. “I have to get home,” I thought, and considered it a necessity. I never really thought about whether that was a responsible thing to do. If I were sick right now, would I have declined to fly, or would I have decided that my need to be home outweighed the risk to others? I have to admit that I likely would have done the latter.

I do think it was irresponsible of him to take an exit row seat, no matter how willing he may be to assist in an emergency. But his choice doesn’t justify the way people treated him. Fear is understandable. Cruelty is indefensible.

On working sick

All the COVID-19 news has made me think about an incident from when I was a clerk at Waldenbooks in the early 1990s.

One morning, I woke up with a scratchy throat, severely congested sinuses, and a fever. I was scheduled to work an eight hour closing shift that day, but recognized that I needed to stay home and stay in bed. I called my manager and told her I was sick and wanted to use a sick day.

“If you don’t want the hours, find someone else to work them for you,” she said.

I tried to explain that it wasn’t a function of not wanting the hours. I was sick. The only time I stopped coughing was to sneeze. It was better for everyone if I didn’t come in. But she insisted that if I didn’t want my shift, I’d have to call around to our store’s part timers to see if any of them could fill in. Otherwise, she expected me to show up at one o’clock. And if she couldn’t rely on me, next week she would cut my hours and let someone else have them.

I couldn’t find anyone to take my shift, and I damned sure couldn’t afford to have my hours cut the next week. I was barely making ends meet in those days. So I went in. I worked a full shift and closed the store. The next day, still sick, I worked my scheduled opening shift. The next week, three of my coworkers were sick. And I can only imagine how many customers I infected.

So all the advice from people saying that if you feel even the littlest bit sick, stay home? That’s great in theory. But for too many low-wage workers, it isn’t an option. If you’re barely making ends meet, you work sick. You need the money. You need the job.

 

The Incident of the Man on the Bike

A couple Saturdays ago, while Carolyn and I one of our morning walks, we encountered a man on a bicycle. He was coasting toward us on the wrong side of the road, not quite a block ahead of us. White, late forties, weathered face. He was wearing a baseball cap, an unbuttoned long-sleeve shirt over a T-shirt, and jeans. I thought that was odd because it was too warm for long pants.

When he noticed us, he did a circle in the intersection. Then, as we drew closer, he did it again.

Something about those two little loops triggered my sense of danger. He was deliberately allowing us to close the gap. At first, I thought he was going to ask us for money, but I didn’t get a panhandler vibe from him. The way he looked at us felt more like a wolf regarding potential prey.

We were approaching a pile of sticks and twigs that had blown down from an oak tree in a storm. I picked one up. It was about fifteen inches long, reasonably straight, green enough to be flexible, and thick enough to be sturdy. Well-balanced, too. I began tossing it to myself, end-over-end.

When he noticed what I was doing, he steered away at an angle. But he still stared at us. He turned his head as he drifted past, tracking us. When we looked back, he had stopped at the cross street behind us and turned to face us.

We walked a few steps more, turned again. He hadn’t moved. He watched us until we passed an obstruction that blocked our view of each other. I took one last look over my shoulder a few moments later, but I couldn’t see him.

I have no way of being certain that he meant us harm. For all I know, he was afraid of us. Wondering what we two might do to him, circling to assess the situation, deciding whether to flee. But Carolyn sensed something amiss about the situation, too.

I carried the stick the rest of the way home.

Revision under way

Just after the new year, I finished the first draft of my last novel, as yet untitled. (It had a title, but the story that emerged made the title obsolete, so I’m still in search of a new one.) I deliberately set it aside for a few weeks to get some distance. Yesterday, I decided it was time to start.

I made some changes late in the novel that will require me to re-arrange the beginning. Some scenes need to be rewritten. Some will be replaced with new ones; others will be cut entirely. I wanted to make the structure visible so it would be easier to understand how changing one scene would affect others.

I first thought I would use the blank wall in my home office to map the structure. Color-coded sticky notes and swim lanes would do the trick. Trouble was, I ran out of wall 1/3 of the way in. Today I transferred the physical notes into a spreadsheet. Manipulating cells isn’t as enjoyable as having something I can touch and feel, but at least this is portable, which will be good when I travel on business.

Tomorrow, I’ll print the entire draft and start reading it and marking it up. For the first time, I’m eager to revise. Usually, I’m so sick of a story by the time I finish the first draft that revision is a torment. I don’t know why this feels different.

Pick a card

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When I was a child, I was really into magic. Birthday cash always went to new magic books, gimmicks, and card decks. I performed for friends and family. For the sixth grade talent show, I did a ten minute set of card tricks, coin magic, and vanishing objects. I capped it with an escape from a set of chains that drew gasps and a standing ovation.

And then I just… stopped.

I stopped learning new tricks. I stopped performing. I gradually got rid of all my magical paraphernalia or sold it off at garage sales.

Fast forward four decades.

About a month ago, I decided that I wanted to learn one good card trick. YouTube has tons of them. I found one I liked that didn’t require advanced sleight-of-hand and practiced it every night while I was traveling on business. When I thought I had it down, I performed it for a coworker. It drew exactly the reaction I’d hoped for. Wide-eyes, a gasp. “How did you do that?”

There’s no reaction more gratifying.

I learned a few more and performed them at a party. Fun for everyone. I asked myself, Why did I ever stop doing this? A few nights later, I got my answer.

I was watching another instructional video on YouTube. The trick requires a technique I’d never done. As I watched it for the third or fourth time at reduced speed, a thought surfaced:

I’ll never be able to do this.

And just like that, I was twelve years old, and I was hearing someone tell me all the flaws in my routine. I never really thought about why I stopped, but this gets to the heart of it.

Success hadn’t mattered, applause hadn’t mattered. What mattered was an adult, who should have known better, telling me, You’ll never be good at magic. That stuck. That wedged itself into my mind, and I quit doing something I loved.

That happened a lot. Regardless of the endeavor–guitar, singing, acting, even mathematics–I easily became convinced that I wasn’t any good at it, and that I never would be. I’d get only so far before I’d become discouraged and quit.

I’ve had enough of that.

I purchased videos on a few fundamental techniques of card tricks: false cuts and shuffles, palming methods. I’m watching them, practicing, and learning. Most of all, I’m paying attention to what happens in my mind. Not only am I renewing my love of magic, I’m using it to reprogram those old mental tapes.

Next time you see me, don’t be surprised if I ask you to pick a card.

Photo by Alfred Twj on Unsplash

Off Twitter

Last week, I attended the Agile 2019 conference. In the opening keynote speech, the speaker told a story about noticing that using Instagram made his wife sad. Although I’ve never used Instagram, I recognized something about myself in that story. About eighteen months ago, I deleted my Facebook account because it was depressing me. Lately, I’ve been feeling the same way about Twitter.

I rarely come away from a Twitter session energized or uplifted or inspired. The best I can hope for is that a video of cute animals doing cute things gives me a temporary smile. Mostly, though, Twitter is a stream of toxic sludge. Having realized that it wasn’t adding anything to my life, I logged out on every device I own.

Maybe this will be just another short social media sabbatical. Maybe I’ll find a way to make Twitter useful to me. But I already don’t miss it and I don’t see myself signing back in.